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Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

Previously reviewed: effects of marijuana legalization, health effects of wheat, effectiveness of SSRIs, effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous

Does the criminal justice system treat African-Americans fairly?

I always assumed it obviously didn’t. Then a while ago I read this harshly polemical but research-filled article claiming to prove it did. Then I found a huge review paper on the subject, written by a Harvard professor of sociology, which concluded after analyzing sixty pages of exquisitely-researched studies that:

Recognizing that research on criminal justice processing in the United States is complex and fraught with methodological problems, the weight of the evidence reviewed suggests the following. When restricted to index crimes, dozens of individual-level studies have shown that a simple direct influence of race on pretrial release, plea bargaining, conviction, sentence length, and the death penalty among adults is small to nonexistent once legally relevant variables (e.g. prior record) are controlled. For these crimes, racial differentials in sanctioning appear to match the large racial differences in criminal offending. Findings on the processing of adult index crimes therefore generally support the non-discrimination thesis.

Clearly this was more complicated than I thought. I decided to waste my precious free time reading seven zillion contradictory studies to figure out what was going on. Some people on Tumblr have demanded I report back, so here goes:

A. Encounter Rate

There are a lot of tiers to the criminal justice system, each of which will have to be analyzed individual. The first tier is – who does or doesn’t get stopped by the police?

One common point of discussion is traffic stops, leading to the popular joke that you can be stopped for a “DWB” (driving while black). Engel and Calnon (2006) seem to have done the definitive review in this area. Based on a national survey of citizens’ interactions with police, they find that 5% of whites and 11% of blacks have had their cars searched by police, with relatively similar results for other kinds of officer interactions. Therefore, blacks are about twice as likely to be searched as whites. Once you do a multiple regression controlling for other factors, like previous record, income, area stopped, et cetera, half of that difference goes away, leaving an unexplained relative risk of 1.5x.

These data admit to multiple possible interpretations. First, racist police officers could be unfairly targeting blacks. Second, blacks could be acting more suspiciously and police officers correctly picking up on this fact. Third, police officers could be racially profiling based on their past experience of more successful searches of black drivers.

One common method of disentangling these possibilities is search “success rate”. That is, if searching whites usually turns up more real crimes than searching blacks, then innocent blacks are being searched disproportionately often and the police are not just correctly responding to indicators of suspiciousness or past experiences.

Engel and Calnon review sixteen studies investigating this question. If we limit claims of dissimilarity to studies where one race is at least five percentage points higher than the other, there are eight studies with racial parity, six studies with higher white hit rates, and two studies with higher black hit rates.

In other words, in 62% of studies, police are not searching blacks disproportionately to the amount of crimes committed or presumed “indicators of suspiciousness”. In 38% of studies, they are. The differences may reflect either methodological differences (some studies finding effects others missed) or jurisdictionial differences (some studies done in areas where the police were racially biased, others done in areas where they weren’t)

The authors did their own analysis based on a national survey about citizens’ contact with the police, and found that 16% of whites searched and 8% of minorities searched reported that police had discovered contraband, a statistically significant difference. This contradicts the studies above, most of which found no difference and the others of which found much smaller differences.

One possible explanation the authors bring up is that previous research has shown black drivers who have received traffic violations are less likely than whites who have received traffic violations to admit to having received them on anonymous research surveys. For example, among North Carolina drivers known to have received tickets, 75% of whites admitted it on a survey compared to 66% of blacks (Pfaff-Wright, Tomaskovic-Devey, 2000). Comparisons of several different surveys of drug use find that “nonreporting of drug use is twice as common among blacks and Hispanics as among whites” (Mensch and Kandel). Since much of the “contraband” these surveys were asking about was, in fact, drugs, this seems pretty relevant. Overall different studies find different black-white reporting gaps (from the very small one in the traffic ticket study to the very large one on the drug use surveys). Plausibly this is related to severity of offense. Also plausibly, it relates to differential levels of trust in the system and worry about being found out – for poor black people, the possibility of (probably white) researchers being stooges who are going to send their supposedly confidential surveys to the local police station and get them locked up might be much more salient.

There are of course many other forms of police stop. These tend to follow the same pattern as traffic stops – strong data that police more often stop black people, police making the claim that black people do more things that trigger their suspicion instinct (including live in higher-crime neighborhoods), and difficulty figuring out whether this is true or false.

Sampson and Lauritsen review several studies on police stops of pedestrians. I’ll be coming back to and citing sources from this Sampson and Lauritsen article many times during this discussion as it is one of the most rigorous and trustworthy analyses around – Sampson is Professor of Sociology at Harvard and winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology and his review is the most cited one on this topic I could find, so I assume he represents something like a mainstream position. After reviewing a few studies, most notably Smith (1986), they conclude these sorts of police stops demonstrate no direct effect of race – in any given neighborhood, black people and white people are treated equally – but that there is an indirect effect from neighborhood – that is, the police are nastier to everybody in black neighborhoods. Although they don’t say so, the most logical explanation to me would be that black neighborhoods are poorer and therefore higher crime, and so the police are more watchful and/or paranoid.

Summary: There is good data that police stop blacks more often, both on the road and in neighborhoods. Studies conflict over whether the extra stops are justifiable; likely this varies by jurisdiction. Extra neighborhood stops are most likely neighborhood-related effects rather than race-related per se, but the neighborhood effects do disproportionately target black people.

B. Arrest Rates For Violent Crimes

Police records consistently show that black people are arrested at disproportionally high rates (compared to their presence in the population) for violent crimes. For example, blacks are arrested eight times more often for homicide and fourteen times more often for robbery. Even less flashy crimes show the same pattern: forgery, fraud, and embezzlement all hover around a relative risk of four.

(White people are arrested at disproportionally high rates for things like driving drunk, and Asians are arrested at disproportionally high rates for things like illegal gambling, but these carry lower sentences and are less likely to lead to incarceration.)

Once again, there are two possible hypotheses here: either police are biased, or black people actually commit these crimes at higher rates than other groups.

The second hypothesis has been strongly supported by crime victimization surveys, which show that the percent of arrestees who are black matches very closely matches the percent of victims who say their assailant was black. This has been constant throughout across thirty years of crime victmization surveys.

While everybody is totally on board with attributing this to structural factors like black people being poorer and living in worse neighborhoods, anyone who tries to analyze higher black arrest and incarceration rates without taking this into account is going to end up extremely confused.

There were some attempts to cross-check police data and victim data against self-reports of criminality among different races, with various weird and wonderful results. Once again, after a while someone had the bright idea to check whether people who said they hadn’t committed any crimes actually hadn’t committed any crimes, and found that a lot of them had well-verified criminal records longer than War And Peace.

Sociologists learned an important lesson that day, which is that criminals sometimes lie about being criminals.

No one has had any better ideas for how to corroborate the crime victimization survey data, so it looks like probably that’s the best we will do.

Summary: Arrests for violent crimes are probably not racially biased.

C. Arrest Rates For Minor Crimes

Usually when people talk about racial disparities in arrest rates for minor crimes, they’re talking about drugs. The basic argument is that black people and white people use drugs at “similar rates”, but black people are four times more likely to get arrested for drug crime. You can find this argument on pretty much every major media outlet: NYT, Slate, Vox, HuffPo, USA Today, et cetera.

The Bureau of Justice has done their own analysis of this issue and finds it’s more complicated. For example, all of these “equally likely to have used drugs” claims turn out to be that blacks and whites are equally likely to have “used drugs in the past year”, but blacks are far more likely to have used drugs in the past week – that is, more whites are only occasional users. That gives blacks many more opportunities to be caught by the cops. Likewise, whites are more likely to use low-penalty drugs like hallucinogens, and blacks are more likely to use high-penalty drugs like crack cocaine. Further, blacks are more likely to live in the cities, where there is a heavy police shadow, and whites in the suburbs or country, where there is a lower one.

When you do the math and control for all those things, you halve the size of the gap to “twice as likely”.

The Bureau of Justice and another source I found in the Washington Post aren’t too sure about the remaining half, either. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests white people typically do their drug deals in the dealer’s private home, and black people typically do them on street corners. My personal discussions with black and white drug users have turned up pretty much the same thing. One of those localities is much more likely to be watched by police than the other.

Finally, all of this is based on self-reported data about drug use. Remember from a couple paragraphs ago how studies showed that black people were twice as likely to fail to self-report their drug use? And you notice here that black people are twice as likely to be arrested for drug use as their self-reports suggest? That’s certainly an interesting coincidence.

The Bureau of Justice takes this possibility very seriously and adds:

Although arrested whites and arrested blacks were about equally likely to be drug use deniers, these results nevertheless have implications for the SAMHSA survey. A larger fraction of the black population than the white population consists of criminally active persons and, therefore, a larger fraction of the black population than the white population would consist of criminally active persons who use drugs but deny it. Consequently, the SAMHSA survey would probably understate the difference between whites and blacks in terms of drug use. Whether the effect of such drug use denial among criminally active persons is large enough to account for the unexplained 13% is not known, but research on the topic should pursue this possibility.

It should be noted that a study investigating this methodology gave random urine drug tests to some of the people who had filled out this survey, and found that half of the actual drug users had reported on the survey that they were squeaky clean. There were no racial data associated with this investigation, which is too bad.

Summary: Blacks appear to be arrested for drug use at a rate four times that of whites. Adjusting for known confounds reduces their rate to twice that of whites. However, other theorized confounders could mean that the real relative risk is anywhere between two and parity. Never trust the media to give you any number more complicated than today’s date..

D. Police Shootings

A topical issue these days. Once again, the same dynamic at play. We know black people are affected disproportionately to their representation in the population, but is a result of police racism or disproportionate criminality?

Mother Jones magazine has an unexpectedly beautiful presentation of the data for us:

The fourth bar seems like what we’re looking for. You could go with the fifth bar, but then you’re just adding noise of who did or didn’t duck out of the way fast enough.

As you can see, a person shot at by a police officer is more than twice as likely to be black as the average member of the general population. But, crucially, they are less likely to be black than the average violent shooter or the average person who shoots at the police.

We assume that the reason an officer shoots a suspect is because that officer believes the suspect is about to shoot or attack the officer. So if the officer were perfectly unbiased, then the racial distribution of people shot by officers would look exactly like the distribution of dangerous attackers. If it’s blacker than the distribution of dangerous attackers, the police are misidentifying blacks as dangerous attackers.

But In fact, the people shot by police are less black than the people shooting police or the violent shooters police are presumably worried about. This provides very strong evidence that, at least in New York, the police are not disproportionately shooting black people and appear to be making a special effort to avoid it.

For some reason most of the studies I could get here were pretty old, but with that caveat, this is also the conclusion of Milton (1977) looking at police departments in general, and Fyfe (1978), who analyzes older New York City data and comes to the same conclusion. However, the same researcher analyzes police shootings in Memphis and finds that these do show clear evidence of anti-minority bias, sometimes up to a 6x greater risk for blacks even after adjusting for likely confounders. The big difference seems to be that NYC officers are trained to fire only to protect their own lives from armed and dangerous suspects, but Memphis officers are (were? the study looks at data from 1970) allowed to shoot property crime suspects attempting to flee. The latter seems a lot more problematic and probably allows more room for officer bias to get through.

[EDIT: A commenter pointed out to me that Tennessee vs. Garner banned this practice in the late 1980s, meaning Memphis’ shooting rate should be lower and possibly less biased now]

The same guy looks at the race of officers involved and finds that “the data do not clearly support the contention that white [officers] had little regard for the lives of minorities”. In fact, most studies find white officers are disproportionately more likely to shoot white suspects, and black officers disproportionately more likely to shoot black suspects. This makes sense since officers are often assigned to race-congruent neighborhoods, but sure screws up the relevant narrative.

Summary: New York City data suggests no bias of officers towards shooting black suspects compared with their representation among dangerous police encounters, and if anything the reverse effect. Data from Memphis in 1970 suggests a strong bias towards shooting black suspects, probably because they shoot fleeing suspects in addition to potentially dangerous suspects, but this practice has since stopped. Older national data skews more toward the New York City side with little evidence of racial bias, but I don’t know of any recent studies which have compared the race of shooting victims to the race of dangerous attackers on a national level. There is no support for the contention that white officers are more likely than officers of other races to shoot black suspects.

E. Prosecution And Conviction Rates

Conviction rates of blacks have generally found to be less than than conviction rates of whites (Burke and Turk 1975, Petersilia 1983, Wilbanks 1987). I don’t know why so many of these studies are from the 70s and 80s, but a more recent Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 66% of accused blacks get prosecuted compared to 69% of accused whites; 75% of prosecuted blacks get convicted compared to 78% of prosecuted whites.

The 1975 study suggested this was confounded by type of crime – for example, maybe blacks are charged more often with serious crimes for which the burden of proof is higher. The 1993 study isn’t so sure; it breaks crimes down by category and finds that if anything the pro-black bias becomes stronger. For example, 51% of blacks charged with rape are acquitted, compared to only 25% of whites. 24% of blacks charged with drug dealing are acquitted, compared to only 14% of whites. Of fourteen major crime categories, blacks have higher acquittal rates in twelve of them (whites win only in “felony traffic offenses” and “other”).

The optimistic interpretation is that there definitely isn’t any sign of bias against black people here. The pessimistic interpretation is that this would be consistent with more frivolous cases involving black people coming to the courts (ie police arrest blacks at the drop of a hat, and prosecutors and juries end up with a bunch of stupid cases without any evidence that they throw out).

There was a much talked-about study recently that found that “juries were equally likely to convict black and white offenders when there was at least one black in the jury pool, but more likely to convict blacks when there wasn’t.” This is consistent with previous studies. Jury pools contain twenty-seven members; the probability that there will be at least one black jury pool member in the trial of a black subject (who of course is most likely to live in a predominantly black area) is high. The study’s “equally likely to convict black and white offenders” was actually “2% more likely to convict white offenders than black offenders”, which was probably not statistically significant with its small sample size but is consistent with the small pro-black effects found elsewhere.

Summary: Prosecution and conviction rates favor blacks over whites, significance unclear.

F. Sentencing

Older studies of sentencing tend to find no or almost no discrepancies between blacks and whites. This was the conclusion of most of the papers reviewed in Sampson and Lauritsen. The gist here seems to be that there were “four waves” of studies in this area. The first wave, in the 1960s, was naive and poorly controlled and found that there was a lot of racial bias. The second wave, in the 1980s, controlled for more things (especially prior convictions) and found there wasn’t. The third wave was really complicated, and the writers sum it up as saying it represented:

…a shift away from the non-discrimination thesis to the idea that there is some discrimination, some of the time, in some places. These contingencies undermine the broad reach of the thesis, but the damage is not fatal to the basic argument that race discrimination is not pervasive or systemic in criminal justice processing.

The fourth wave expands on this and finds discrimination in some areas that hadn’t been studied before, such as plea bargaining. However, it continues to find that on the whole, and especially in the largest and best-designed studies there is very little evidence of discrimination. The article concludes:

Langan’s interpretation matches those of other scholars such as Petersilia (1985) and Wilbanks (1987) in suggesting that systemic discrimination does not exist. Zatz (1987) is more sympathetic to the thesis of discrimination in the form of indirect effects and subtle racism. But the proponents of this line of reasoning face a considerable burden. If the effects of race are so contingent, interactive, and indirect in a way that to date has not proved replicable, how can one allege that the “system” is discriminatory?

A more recent (fifth wave?) review adds some problems to this generally rosy picture, saying that “Of the [thirty-two studies containing ninety-five different] estimates of the direct effect of race on sentencing at the state level, 43.2% indicated harsher sentences for blacks…at the federal level 68.2% of the [eight studies containing twenty-two different] estimates of the direct effect of race on sentencing indicated harsher sentences for blacks”. The majority of estimates that did not find this were race-neutral, although six did show some bias against whites. They conclude:

Racial discrimination in sentencing in the United States today is neither invariable nor universal, nor is it as overt as it was even thirty years ago. As will be described below, while the situation has improved in some ways, racially discriminatory sentencing today is far more insidious than in the past, and treating a racial or ethnic group as a unitary body can mask the presence of discrimination.

I really like how you can make a large decrease in the level of a bad thing sound like a problem by saying it is becoming “more insidious”.

Even more recent studies have found even larger gaps. A study by the US Sentencing Commission investigating the effect of new guidelines found that blacks’ sentences were 20% longer than those of similar whites; a later methodological update reduced the gap to a still-large 14.5% and a a different recent study says just under 10%. Although the particular effect of these new guidelines is a matter of HORRIBLE SUPER-COMPLICATED DEBATE, neither side seems to deny the disparities themselves – only whether they are getting larger.

It’s not clear to me why there’s such a difference between the earlier studies (which found little evidence of disparity), the middle studies (which were about half-and-half), and these later studies (which show strong evidence of disparity). I guess one side of a HORRIBLE SUPER-COMPLICATED DEBATE would say it has to do with changes in sentencing during that time which replace mandatory sentences with “judicial discretion”. If you’re mandated to give a particular sentence for a particular crime, there’s a lot less opportunity to let bias slip in then if you can do whatever you want. There is some evidence that different judges treat different races differently, although the study has no way of proving whether this is anti-black bias, anti-white bias, or an equal mix of both in different people. Unfortunately, there is also concern that mandatory minimum sentencing is itself racist.

Capital punishment is in its own category, and pretty much all studies, old, new, anything agree it is racist as heck (Sampson and Lauritsen cite Bowers & Pierce 1980; Radelet 1981; Paternoster 1984; Keil and Vito 1989; Aguirre and Baker 1990; Baldus Woodward & Pulaski 1990 – there’s no way I’m reading through all of them so I will trust they say what the review says they say). This seems to consist not only in black suspects being more at risk, but in white victims’ deaths being more likely to get their offenders a death sentence.

Summary: Most recent studies suggest a racial sentencing disparity of about 15%, contradicting previous studies that showed lower or no disparity. Changes in sentencing guidelines are one possible explanation; poorly understood methodological differences are a second. Capital punishment still sucks.


There seems to be a strong racial bias in capital punishment and a moderate racial bias in sentence length and decision to jail.

There is ambiguity over the level of racial bias, depending on whose studies you want to believe and how strictly you define “racial bias”, in police stops, police shootings in certain jurisdictions, and arrests for minor drug offenses.

There seems to be little or no racial bias in arrests for serious violent crime, police shootings in most jurisdictions, prosecutions, or convictions.

Overall I disagree with the City Journal claim that there is no evidence of racial bias in the justice system.

But I also disagree with the people who say things like “Every part of America’s criminal justice is systemically racist by design” or “White people can get away with murder but black people are constantly persecuted for any minor infraction,” or “Every black person has to live in fear of the police all the time in a way no white person can possibly understand”. The actual level of bias is limited and detectable only through statistical aggregation of hundreds or thousands of cases, is only unambiguously present in sentencing, and there only at a level of 10-20%, and that only if you believe the most damning studies.

(except that you should probably stay out of Memphis)

It would be nice to say that this shows the criminal justice system is not disproportionately harming blacks, but unfortunately it doesn’t come anywhere close to showing anything of the sort. There are still many ways it can indirectly harm blacks without being explicitly racist. Anatole France famously said that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor people from begging for bread and sleeping under bridges”, and in the same way that the laws France cites, be they enforced ever so fairly, would still disproportionately target poor people, so other laws can, even when fairly enforced, target black people. The classic example of this is crack cocaine – a predominantly black drug – carrying a higher sentence than other whiter drugs. Even if the police are scrupulously fair in giving the same sentence to black and white cokeheads, the law will still have a disproportionate effect.

There are also entire classes of laws that are much easier on rich people than poor people – for example, any you can get out of by having a good lawyer – and entire classes of police work that are harsher on poor neighborhoods than rich neighborhoods. If the average black is poorer than the average white, then these laws would have disproportionate racial effects.

For more information on this, I would recommend Tonry and Melewski’s Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. They begin by saying everything above is true – the system mostly avoids direct racist bias against black people – and go on to say argue quite consistently that we still have a system where (their words) “recent punishment policies have replaced the urban ghetto, Jim Crow laws, and slavery as a mechanism for maintaining white dominance over blacks in the United States”. If you want something that makes the strongest case for the justice system harming blacks, written by real criminologists who know what they’re talking about, there’s your best bet.

(warning: I haven’t read the book. I did read a review article by the same people, which the book is partially based on)

Some police officers say the reason they are harsher in poor urban neighborhoods is that the expectation of high levels of unruly behavior necessitates unusually strong countermeasures. For the same reason, I am screening all comments for the next few days. If you post one, expect it to show up eventually or perhaps disappear into the aether.

Links 11/14: I Link, Therefore I Am

The American chestnut was once a contender for the most common tree in the country, by some accounts making up 25% of all trees in the Appalachian area and having a population of up to 3 billion. It was a vital mainstay of both the early US ecosystem and, through its wood and nuts, the early US economy. In the 1900s, a chestnutpocalypse caused by an invasive Asian fungus killed off 99.99% of them and left the species so close to extinct that the discovery of surviving single specimens can still make the news. Now a group claims they’ve genetically engineered a blight-resistant version and are holding a Kickstarter-style fundraiser to replant thousands of specimens all over the United States. Spend $100 and you can have your own American chestnut tree. Almost as cool as a pet passenger pigeon!

Almost Everything In Doctor Strangelove Was True, including the poor security around nuclear bombs, the ability of rogue commanders to initiate first strikes, and the Soviet auto-nuke doomsday device. Interesting less for the information (which is not novel) but for the description of the establishment’s mockery of the movie and condemnation of it as irresponsible, while at the same time sitting on the information that it was pretty accurate.

I respected the Innocence Project, which is why I was pretty horrified to hear that they framed an innocent person for a crime in order to get another (probably guilty) guy off death row for the same crime. Possible ray of hope in that it seems like maybe the “Innocence Project” that did that was an independent effort not linked to the main Innocence Project?

From the front lines of the malaria eradication effort: “When Bill Gates announced a commitment to elimination on the part of the Gate Foundation in 2007, it was roundly understood as an aspirational but unrealistic goal. No one thinks that any more – it’s an inevitability. The only question is how quickly can we do it – and every bit of speed we can muster is another child that doesn’t have to die.”

Vox can predict your politics pretty accurately just by knowing some basic demographic information about you. Fun to play with their widget and see how it responds to different characteristics.

A new study finds that African conflicts are correlated with the temperature, adding to past research showing that heat is associated with crime. Obviously does not bode well for global warming.

I have some commenters here who like to praise ‘traditional patriarchy’ to get back at feminists, but it’s worth remembering how god-awful traditional patriarchy can be. A Reddit thread on cults recently included the experience of one person who grew up in an honest-to-goodness patriarchal family, and it’s not pretty.

SpaceX’s ability to send things into space at low prices means they can finally implement a plan to provide cheap high-quality satellite Internet to the entire world. Good competitor to existing similar efforts like Project Loon. I’m all in favor of getting Internet to poor Africans and rural farmers, but I wonder if an underappreciated benefit of these kinds of projects will be giving anyone who wants it an alternative to Comcast and its ilk. Once there are five or six Internet providers competing for every household, things like threats to Net Neutrality suddenly become a lot less scary.

ISIS militants answer wannabe terrorists’ questions on, like “can I fight jihad if I have braces?” and “is there central heating in Syria”?

Reddit: What are some professions where the salary is much higher than people think?. People looking for jobs without college degrees, take note!

Vox discusses studies that show that one reason rich kids do better is growing up in rich neighborhoods. But remember Sariaslan’s research finding that a lot of supposed neighborhood effects aren’t causal and are probably confounded by genetics. Honestly every time I read a paper that says the neighborhood you grow up in matters, I get confused and try to figure out why you can’t lock yourself in your room and read books in a bad neighborhood. Then I remind myself that probably other kids went out of the house as a child and encountered, like, character-building trees and rocks and houses and people or something.

Coordination problems being solved hooray: US, China, agree on climate deal

This week in nominative determinism: did you know the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in the US was called Loving vs. Virginia?

Woman with heart attack is taken to out-of-network hospital, ends up with $300,000 bill. But what really grabbed me about this article was that there was a near-costless in-network hospital only a few blocks away, but the ambulance drivers were required by law to take their patients to the nearest hospital, regardless of cost. Obviously meant for patient protection, but maybe a situation where the patient would have appreciated a right to waive her rights.

Study confirms the obvious: some people can start exercise programs, stick to them pretty well, but still not lose weight.

I’m trying to avoid discussion of reproductively mature female ants, but since some people I know have gotten involved I might as well give them a shoutout. SSC reader Mytheos Holt talks about the high level of bullying and cruelty in Internet feminism, and Internet feminists respond by making fun of his appearance a lot. I would love to know what is going on inside these people’s heads: “Somebody called us bullies! How can we disprove this? I know! Let’s call him ugly and make fun of his face!”.

Related: Ozy discusses the Zoe post

My old micronational colleague and my successor as Shireroth’s Minister of the Exterior Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote an article for the Diplomat suggesting that Pakistan should become another Iran. I swear he didn’t get the neoreaction by way of me.

The Philae mission was of course a great success, but it could have been a greater success if not that its batteries died after sixty hours. Someone asks the obvious question: why didn’t it use nuclear batteries, like American missions that have successfully lasted years without recharging? An insider on Twitter answers “political resistance to use in Europe”. Sigh. This is why we can’t have nice things can only have nice things for sixty hours.

Did you know: congenitally blind people are never schizophrenic. Schizophrenic people are never congenitally blind. Why not? It’s a mystery.

Supreme irony via Alyssa Vance: Johann Gutenberg, inventer of the printing press, was the man who turned books from rare, precious, and carefully controlled items to diverse, common, and mass-produceable goods. The leading biography of him is rare, out of print, and costs $210 on Amazon

Uber’s recent revelation that its employees benefit from Obamacare highlights the act’s ability to help entrepreneurs and nontraditional workers. If the GOP manages to sink it, I hope they stick to their own principles and make sure their replacement maintains that advantage.

A free gift to Michael Anissimov: Areas previously in the Hapsburg Empire still retain increased trust in social institutions.

Utah has the highest suicide rate in the US, something I’ve frequently heard blamed on the repressive nature of Mormonism. Now one scientist presents extremely persuasive evidence that actually high altitude increases suicide rate through oxygen depletion and it’s only Utah’s high-altitude regions where the rate is so increased. Remember, large chunks of what you think are society will always turn out to be biology you haven’t discovered yet.

A bunch of people I respect on Edge get AI embarassingly wrong. Luke corrects some of their misconceptions, but it’s kind of disappointing to see a discussion about Bostrom’s book by people who obviously haven’t read any of it and don’t think they need to.

Another study finds e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation aid.

There’s been a recent spate of attacks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in which terrorists ram their cars into civilians. In what can only be considered a completely proportionate response, Hamas-affiliated media has released a new hit song called “Run Away Zionist, You Are About To Be Hit By A Car”

High schadenfreude: Kickended, the site that shows you Kickstarter projects that absolutely nobody donated to. About a 50-50 mix of depressing broken dreams vs. pretentious would-be artists getting mugged by reality as they learn an adoring public isn’t going pay them $5000 to hear their freeform poetry about being a barista.

Study: Feeling disgusted makes people lie and cheat more; cleanliness promotes ethical behavior. This always seemed intuitively obvious to me, but I think I have a hypersensitive disgust reaction so I wasn’t sure if it happened to other people as well. I wonder if this confounds the broken window effect, since broken windows and grafitti and stuff both suggest toleration of crime and produce a disgusting environment.

A man waves the ISIS flag and shouts pro-ISIS slogans on the Berkeley campus, then switches gears and waves an Israel flag while shouting pro-Israeli slogans. Which got more negative attention? The results may surprise you, unless of course you’ve read my I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup in which case they’ll probably be pretty obvious. H/T a reader who sent this to me but I can’t remember who. And possible confounder: the Israeli flag is a whole lot more recognizable than ISIS’.

She who dies with the most noble titles wins.

Skulls Unlimited is one of those websites that’s exactly what it says on the tin. Get cher genuine rabbit skulls, dog skulls, springbok skulls and hippopotamus skills (not cheap). They emphasize that most of their “highest quality” human skulls are reserved for “research purposes”, but there’s no indicationi you can’t pull a Japanese Whaler Gambit and “research” how awesome it would look on your desk. And if you’re not willing to go through even that little bit of hassle, you might be really surprised with what you can get away with selling on Amazon.

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OT9: The Thread Pirate Roberts

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. You remember that time I tried to explain fashion using cellular automata, referencing hipsters in particular? A recent Washington Post article highlights the work of a prestigious French mathematician who is trying to explain fashion using cellular automata referencing hipsters in particular. And from the Post article, even our specific automata look very similar in being vertical four-cell-tall columns that display alternating loop behavior – although his runs on kinda different rules than mine does. Probably a coincidence, unless any of you want to fess up to being prestigious French mathematicians. But it’s nice to have some independent confirmation.

2. Comments of the month: JayMan disagrees with me on the genetics of divorce (1, 2), a terrible pun on divorce, F&C discusses a really interesting idea for a NaNoWriMo novel, and Nate Gabriel one-ups my discussion of whales, gender, and the Bible with a story about Biblical whale gender that I would not have believed if it weren’t all there on Wikipedia.

As usual, no race and gender on the Open Thread. As usual, Ozy is hosting a concurrent Race and Gender Open Thread over at their place for all of your horrible race and gender related comments I don’t want to have to think about. Someone asked last time if neoreaction was also banned, and I said I’d think about it, and having thought about it the answer is “No, because then people looking for neoreactionaries to ask weird questions to will do it on LW, and then RationalWiki will get one more data point for their ‘EVERYONE ON LW IS SECRETLY NEOREACTIONARY’ hypothesis”. So react away. Unless it has to do with race and gender, in which case go bother Ozy.

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The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories


“Silliest internet atheist argument” is a hotly contested title, but I have a special place in my heart for the people who occasionally try to prove Biblical fallibility by pointing out whales are not a type of fish.

(this is going to end up being a metaphor for something. Yup, we’re back to Whale Metaphor Blogging.)

The argument goes like this. Jonah got swallowed by a whale. But the Bible says Jonah got swallowed by a big fish. So the Bible seems to think whales are just big fish. Therefore the Bible is fallible. Therefore, the Bible was not written by God.

The first problem here is that “whale” is just our own modern interpretation of the Bible. For all we know, Jonah was swallowed by a really really really big herring.

The second problem is that if the ancient Hebrews want to call whales a kind of fish, let them call whales a kind of fish.

I’m not making the weak and boring claim that since they’d never discovered genetics they don’t know better. I am making the much stronger claim that, even if the ancient Hebrews had taken enough of a break from murdering Philistines and building tabernacles to sequence the genomes of all knownspecies of aquatic animals, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong, false, or incorrect with them calling a whale a fish.

Now, there’s something wrong with saying “whales are phylogenetically just as closely related to bass, herring, and salmon as these three are related to each other.” What’s wrong with the statement is that it’s false. But saying “whales are a kind of fish” isn’t.

Suppose you travel back in time to ancient Israel and try to explain to King Solomon that whales are a kind of mammal and not a kind of fish.

Your translator isn’t very good, so you pause to explain “fish” and “mammal” to Solomon. You tell him that fish is “the sort of thing herring, bass, and salmon are” and mammal is “the sort of thing cows, sheep, and pigs are”. Solomon tells you that your word “fish” is Hebrew dag and your word “mammal” is Hebrew behemah.

So you try again and say that a whale is a behemah, not a dag. Solomon laughs at you and says you’re an idiot.

You explain that you’re not an idiot, that in fact all kinds of animals have things called genes, and the genes of a whale are much closer to those of the other behemah than those of the dag.

Solomon says he’s never heard of these gene things before, and that maybe genetics is involved in your weird foreign words “fish” and “mammal”, but dag are just finned creatures that swim in the sea, and behemah are just legged creatures that walk on the Earth.

(like the kelev and the parah and the gavagai)

You try to explain that no, Solomon is wrong, dag are actually defined not by their swimming-in-sea-with-fins-ness, but by their genes.

Solomon says you didn’t even know the word dag ten minutes ago, and now suddenly you think you know what it means better than he does, who has been using it his entire life? Who died and made you an expert on Biblical Hebrew?

You try to explain that whales actually have tiny little hairs, too small to even see, just as cows and sheep and pigs have hair.

Solomon says oh God, you are so annoying, who the hell cares whether whales have tiny little hairs or not. In fact, the only thing Solomon cares about is whether responsibilities for his kingdom’s production of blubber and whale oil should go under his Ministry of Dag or Ministry of Behemah. The Ministry of Dag is based on the coast and has a lot of people who work on ships. The Ministry of Behemah has a strong presence inland and lots of of people who hunt on horseback. So please (he continues) keep going about how whales have little tiny hairs.

It’s easy to see that Solomon has a point, and that if he wants to define behemah as four-legged-land-dwellers that’s his right, and no better or worse than your definition of “creatures in a certain part of the phylogenetic tree”. Indeed, it might even be that if you spent ten years teaching Solomon all about the theory of genetics and evolution (which would be hilarious – think how annoyed the creationists would get) he might still say “That’s very interesting, and I can see why we need a word to describe creatures closely related along the phylogenetic tree, but make up your own word, because behemah already means ‘four-legged-land-dweller’.”

Now imagine that instead of talking to King Solomon, you’re talking to that guy from Duck Dynasty with the really crazy beard (I realize that may describe more than one person), who stands in for all uneducated rednecks in the same way King Solomon stands in for all Biblical Hebrews.

“Ah course a whale is a feesh, ya moron” he says in his heavy Southern accent.

“No it isn’t,” you say. “A fish is a creature phylogenetically related to various other fish, and with certain defining anatomical features. It says so right here in this biology textbook.”

“Well,” Crazy Beard Guy tells you, “Ah reckon that might be what a fish is, but a feesh is some’in that swims in the orshun.”

With a sinking feeling in your stomach, you spend ten years turning Crazy Beard Guy into a world expert on phylogenetics and evolutionary theory. Although the Duck Dynasty show becomes much more interesting, you fail to budge him a bit on the meaning of “feesh”.

It’s easy to see here that “fish” and “feesh” can be different just as “fish” and “dag” can be different.

You can point out how many important professors of icthyology in fancy suits use your definition, and how only a couple of people with really weird facial hair use his. But now you’re making a status argument, not a factual argument. Your argument is “conform to the way all the cool people use the word ‘fish'”, not “a whale is really and truly not a fish”.

There are facts of the matter on each individual point – whether a whale has fins, whether a whale lives in the ocean, whether a whale has tiny hairs, et cetera. But there is no fact of the matter on whether a whale is a fish. The argument is entirely semantic.

So this is the second reason why this particular objection to the Bible is silly. If God wants to call a whale a big fish, stop telling God what to do.

(also, bats)


When terms are not defined directly by God, we need our own methods of dividing them into categories.

The essay “How An Algorithm Feels From The Inside” is a gift that keeps on giving. You can get a reputation as a daring and original thinker just by copy-pasting it at different arguments with a couple of appropriate words substituted for one another, mad-libs like. It is the solution to something like 25% of extent philosophical problems.

It starts with a discussion of whether or not Pluto is a planet. Planets tend to share many characteristics in common. For example, they are large, round, have normal shaped orbits lined up with the plane of the ecliptic, have cleared out a certain area of space, and are at least kind of close to the Sun as opposed to way out in the Oort Cloud.

One could imagine a brain that thought about these characteristics like this:

One could imagine this model telling you everything you need to know. If an object is larger, it’s more likely to be round and in cis-Neptunian space. If an object has failed to clear its orbit of debris, it’s more likely to have a skewed orbit relative to the plane of the ecliptic. We could give each of these relationships Bayesian weights and say things like large objects have a 32% chance of being in cis-Neptunian space and small objects an 86% chance. Or whatever.

But this model has some big problems. For one thing, if you inscribe it in blood, you accidentally summon the Devil. But second, it’s computationally very complicated. Each attribute affects each other attribute which affects it in turn and so on in an infinite cycle, so that its behavior tends to be chaotic and unpredictable.

What the human brain actually seems to do is to sweep all common correlations into one big category in the middle, thus dividing possibility-space into large round normal-orbit solitary inner objects, and small irregular skewed-orbit crowded outer objects. It calls the first category “planets” and the second category “planetoids”.

Obligatory Less Wrong picture

You can then sweep minor irregularities under the rug. Neptune is pretty far from the sun, but since it’s large, round, normal-orbit, and solitary, we know which way the evidence is leaning.

When an object satisfies about half the criteria for planet and half the criteria for planetoid, then it’s awkward. Pluto is the classic example. It’s relatively large, round, skewed orbit, solitary…ish? and outer-ish. What do you do?

The practical answer is you convene some very expensive meeting of prestigious astronomers and come to some official decision which everyone agrees to follow so they’re all on the same page.

But the ideal answer is you say “Huh, the assumption encoded in the word ‘planet’ that the five red criteria always went together and the five blue criteria always went together doesn’t hold. Whatever.”

Then you divide the solar system into three types of objects: planets, planetoids, and dammit-our-categorization-scheme-wasn’t-as-good-as-we-thought.

(psychiatry, whose philosophy of categorization is light years ahead of a lot of the rest of the world, conveniently abbreviates this latter category as “NOS”)

The situation with whales and fish is properly understood in the same context. Fish and mammals differ on a lot of axes. Fish generally live in the water, breathe through gills, have tails and fins, possess a certain hydrodynamic shape, lay eggs, and are in a certain part of the phylogenetic tree. Mammals generally live on land, breathe through lungs, have legs, give live birth, and are in another part of the phylogenetic tree. Most fish conform to all of the fish desiderata, and most mammals conform to all of the mammal desiderata, so there’s no question of how to categorize them. Occasionally you get something weird (a platypus, a lungfish, or a whale) and it’s a judgment call which you have to decide by fiat. In our case, that fiat is “use genetics and ignore all other characteristics” but some other language, culture, or scientific community might make a different fiat, and then the borders between their categories would look a little bit different.


Since I shifted to a borders metaphor, let’s follow that and see where it goes.

Imagine that Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state solution with the final boundary to be drawn by the United Nations. You’re the head of the United Nations committee involved, so you get out a map and a pencil. Both sides have sworn by their respective gods to follow whatever you determine.

Your job is not to draw “the correct border”. There is no one correct border between Israel and Palestine. There are a couple of very strong candidates (for example, the pre-1967 line of control), but both countries have suggested deviations from that (most people think an actual solution would involve Palestine giving up some territory that has since been thoroughly settled by Israel in exchange for some territory within Israel proper, or perhaps for a continuous “land bridge” between the West Bank and Gaza). Even if you wanted to use the pre-1967 line as a starting point, there would still be a lot of work to do deciding what land swaps should and shouldn’t be made.

Instead you’d be making a series of trade-offs. Giving all of Jerusalem to the Israelis would make them very happy but anger Palestine. Creating a contiguous corridor between Gaza and the West Bank makes some sense, but then you’d be cutting off Eilat from the rest of Israel. Giving all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Palestine would satisfy a certain conception of property rights, but also leave a lot of Jews homeless.

There are also much stupider decisions you could make. You could give Tel Aviv to Palestine. You could make the Palestinian state a perfect circle five miles in radius centered on Rishon LeZion. You could just split the territory in half with a straight line, and give Israel the north and Palestine the south. All of these things would be really dumb.

But, crucially, they would not be false. They would not be factually incorrect. They would just be failing to achieve pretty much any of the goals that we would expect a person solving land disputes in the Middle East to have. You can think of alternative arrangements in which these wouldn’t be dumb. For example, if you’re a despot, and you want to make it very clear to both the Israelis and Palestinians that their opinions don’t matter and they should stop bothering you with annoying requests for arbitration, maybe splitting the country in half north-south is the way to go.

This is now unexpectedly a geography blog again.

The border between Turkey and Syria follows a mostly straight-ish line near-ish the 36th parallel, except that about twenty miles south of the border Turkey controls a couple of square meters in the middle of a Syrian village. This is the tomb of the ancestor of the Ottoman Turks, and Turkey’s border agreement with Syria stipulates that it will remain part of Turkey forever. And the Turks take this very seriously; they maintain a platoon of special forces there and have recently been threatening war against Syria if their “territory” gets “invaded” in the current conflict.

Pictured: Turkey (inside fence), Syria (outside)

The border between Bangladesh and India is complicated at the best of times, but it becomes absolutely ridiculous in a place called Cooch-Behar, which I guess is as good a name as any for a place full of ridiculous things. In at least one spot there is an ‘island’ of Indian territory within a larger island of Bangladeshi territory within a larger island of Indian territory within Bangladesh. According to

So why’d the border get drawn like that? It can all be traced back to power struggles between local kings hundreds of years ago, who would try to claim pockets of land inside each other’s territories as a way to leverage political power. When Bangladesh became independent from India in 1947 (as East Pakistan until 1971), all those separate pockets of land were divvied up. Hence the polka-dotted mess.

Namibia is a very weird-looking country with a very thin three-hundred-mile-long panhandle (eg about twice as long as Oklahoma’s). Apparently during the Scramble For Africa, the Germans who colonized Namibia really wanted access to the Zambezi River so they could reach the Indian Ocean and trade their colonial resources. They kept pestering the British who colonized Botswana until the Brits finally agreed to give up a tiny but very long strip of territory ending at the riverbank. This turned out to be not so useful, as just after Namibia’s Zambezi access sits Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world – meaning that any Germans who tried to traverse the Zambezi to reach the Indian Ocean would last a matter of minutes before suddenly encountering a four hundred foot drop and falling to pretty much certain death. The moral of the story is not to pester the British Empire too much, especially if they’ve explored Africa and you haven’t.

But the other moral of the story is that borders are weird. Although we think of borders as nice straight lines that separate people of different cultures, they can form giant panhandles, distant islands, and enclaves-within-enclaves-within-enclaves. They can depart from their usual course to pay honor to national founders, to preserve records of ancient conquests, or to connect to trade routes.

Hume’s ethics restrict “bad” to an instrumental criticism – you can condemn something as a bad way to achieve a certain goal, but not as morally bad independent of what the goal is. In the same way, borders can be bad at fulfilling your goals in drawing them, but not bad in an absolute sense or factually incorrect. Namibia’s border is bad from the perspective of Germans who want access to the Indian Ocean. But it’s excellent from the perspective of Englishmen who want to watch Germans plummet into the Lower Zambezi and get eaten by hippos.

Breaking out of the metaphor, the same is true of conceptual boundaries. You may draw the boundaries of the category “fish” any way you want. A category “fish” containing herring, dragonflies, and asteroids is going to be stupid, but only in the same sense that a Palestinian state centered around Tel Aviv would be stupid – it fails to fulfill any conceivable goals of the person designing it. Categories “fish” that do or don’t include whales may be appropriate for different people’s purposes, the same way Palestinians might argue about whether the borders of their state should be optimized for military defensibility or for religious/cultural significance.

Statements like “the Zambezi River is full of angry hippos” are brute facts. Statements like “the Zambezi River is the territory of Namibia” are negotiable.

In the same way, statements like “whales have little hairs” are brute facts. Statements like “whales are not a kind of fish” are negotiable.

So it’s important to keep these two sorts of statements separate, and remember that in no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect.


I usually avoid arguing LGBT issues on here, not because I don’t have strong opinions about them but because I assume so many of my readers already agree with me that it would be a waste of time. I’m pretty sure I’m right about this – on the recent survey, readers of this blog who were asked to rate their opinion of gay marriage from 1 (strongly against) to 5 (strongly in favor) gave an average rating of 4.32.

Nevertheless, I’ve seen enough anti-transgender comments recently that the issue might be worth a look.

In particular, I’ve seen one anti-transgender argument around that I take very seriously. The argument goes: we are rationalists. Our entire shtick is trying to believe what’s actually true, not on what we wish were true, or what our culture tells us is true, or what it’s popular to say is true. If a man thinks he’s a woman, then we might (empathetically) wish he were a woman, other people might demand we call him a woman, and we might be much more popular if we say he’s a woman. But if we’re going to be rationalists who focus on believing what’s actually true, then we’ve got to call him a man and take the consequences.

Thus Abraham Lincoln’s famous riddle: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” And the answer: “Four – because a tail isn’t a leg regardless of what you call it.”

(if John Wilkes Booth had to suffer through that riddle, then I don’t blame him)

I take this argument very seriously, because sticking to the truth really is important. But having taken it seriously, I think it’s seriously wrong.

An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.

Just as we can come up with criteria for a definition of “planet”, we can come up with a definition of “man”. Absolutely typical men have Y chromosomes, have male genitalia, appreciate manly things like sports and lumberjackery, are romantically attracted to women, personally identify as male, wear male clothing like blue jeans, sing baritone in the opera, et cetera.

Some people satisfy some criteria of manhood and not others, in much the same way that Pluto satisfies only some criteria of planethood and whales satisfy only some criteria of mammalhood. For example, gay men might date other men and behave in effeminate ways. People with congenital androgen insensitivity syndrome might have female bodies, female external genitalia, and have been raised female their entire life, but when you look into their cells they have Y chromosomes.

Biologists defined by fiat that in cases of ambiguous animal grouping like whales, phylogenetics will be the tiebreaker. This was useful to resolve ambiguity, and it’s worth sticking to as a Schelling point so everyone’s using their words the same way, but it’s kind of arbitrary and mostly based on biologists caring a lot about phylogenetics. If we let King Solomon make the decision, he might decide by fiat that whether animals lived in land or water would be the tiebreaker, since he’s most interested in whether the animal is hunted on horseback or by boat.

Likewise, astronomers decided by fiat that something would be a planet if and only if meets the three criteria of orbiting, round, and orbit-clearing. But here we have a pretty neat window into how these kinds of decisions take place – you can read the history of the International Astronomical Union meeting where they settled on the definition and learn about all the alternative proposals that were floated and rejected and which particular politics resulted in the present criteria being selected among all the different possibilities. Here it is obvious that the decision was by fiat.

Without the input of any prestigious astronomers at all, most people seem to assume that the ultimate tiebreaker in man vs. woman questions is presence of a Y chromosome. I’m not sure this is a very principled decision, because I expect most people would classify congenital androgen insensitivity patients (XY people whose bodies are insensitive to the hormone that makes them look male, and so end up looking 100% female their entire lives and often not even knowing they have the condition) as women.

The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

(This isn’t actually the whole story – some of the more sophisticated people want to split “sex” and “gender”, so that people who want to talk about what chromosomes they’ve got have a categorization system to do that with, and a few people even want to split “chromosomal sex” and “anatomical sex” and “gender” and goodness knows what else – and I support all of these as very important examples of the virtue of precision – but to a first approximation, they want to define gender as self-identification)

This is not something that can be “true” or “false”. It’s a boundary-redrawing project. It can make for some boundaries that look a little bit weird – like a small percent of men being able to get pregnant – but as far as weird boundaries go that’s probably not as bad as having a tiny exclave of Turkish territory in the middle of a Syrian village.

(Ozy tells me this is sort of what queer theory is getting at, but in a horrible unreadable postmodernist way. They assure me you’re better off just reading the darned Sequences.)

You draw category boundaries in specific ways to capture tradeoffs you care about. If you care about the sanctity of the tomb of your country’s founder, sometimes it’s worth having a slightly weird-looking boundary in order to protect and honor it. And if you care about…

I’ve lived with a transgender person for six months, so I probably should have written this earlier. But I’m writing it now because I just finished accepting a transgender man to the mental hospital. He alternates between trying to kill himself and trying to cut off various parts of his body because he’s so distressed that he is biologically female. We’ve connected him with some endocrinologists who can hopefully get him started on male hormones, after which maybe he’ll stop doing that and hopefully be able to lead a normal life.

If I’m willing to accept an unexpected chunk of Turkey deep inside Syrian territory to honor some random dead guy – and I better, or else a platoon of Turkish special forces will want to have a word with me – then I ought to accept an unexpected man or two deep inside the conceptual boundaries of what would normally be considered female if it’ll save someone’s life. There’s no rule of rationality saying that I shouldn’t, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that I should.


I’ve made this argument before and gotten a reply something like this:

“Transgender is a psychiatric disorder. When people have psychiatric disorders, certainly it’s right to sympathize and feel sorry for them and want to help them. But the way we try to help them is by treating their disorder, not by indulging them in their delusion.”

I think these people expect me to argue that transgender “isn’t really a psychiatric disorder” or something. But “psychiatric disorder” is just another category boundary dispute, and one that I’ve already written enough about elsewhere. At this point, I don’t care enough to say much more than “If it’s a psychiatric disorder, then attempts to help transgender people get covered by health insurance, and most of the ones I know seem to want that, so sure, gender dysphoria is a psychiatric disorder.”

And then I think of the Hair Dryer Incident.

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

I, on the other hand, thought it was the best fricking story I had ever heard and the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

Miyamoto Musashi is quoted as saying:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

Likewise, the primary thing in psychiatry is to help the patient, whatever the means. Someone can concern-troll that the hair dryer technique leaves something to be desired in that it might have prevented the patient from seeking a more thorough cure that would prevent her from having to bring the hair dryer with her. But compared to the alternative of “nothing else works” it seems clearly superior.

And that’s the position from which I think a psychiatrist should approach gender dysphoria, too.

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?


Some people can’t leave well enough alone, and continue to push the mental disorder angle. For example:

There are a lot of things I could say here.

I could point out that trans-Napoleonism seem to be mysteriously less common than transgender.

I could relate this mysterious difference to the various heavily researched apparent biological correlates of transgender, including unusual variants of the androgen receptor, birth-sex-discordant sizes of various brain regions, birth-sex-discordant responses to various pheromones, high rates of something seemingly like body integrity identity disorder, and of course our old friend altered digit ratios. If our hypothetical trans-Napoleon came out of the womb wearing a French military uniform and clutching a list of 19th century Grand Armee positions in his cute little baby hands, I think I’d take him more seriously.

I could argue that questions about gender are questions about category boundaries, whereas questions about Napoleon – absent some kind of philosophical legwork that I would very much like to read – are questions of fact.

I could point out that if the extent of somebody’s trans-Napoleonness was wanting to wear a bicorne hat, and he was going to be suicidal his entire life if he couldn’t but pretty happy if I could, let him wear the damn hat.

I could just link people to other sites’ pretty good objections to the same argument.

But I think what I actually want to say is that there was once a time somebody tried pretty much exactly this, silly hat and all. Society shrugged and played along, he led a rich and fulfilling life, his grateful Imperial subjects came to love him, and it’s one of the most heartwarming episodes in the history of one of my favorite places in the world.

Sometimes when you make a little effort to be nice to people, even people you might think are weird, really good things happen.

Prisons Are Built With Bricks Of Law And Brothels With Bricks Of Religion, But That Doesn’t Prove A Causal Relationship

Research Suggests Psychiatric Interventions Like Admission To A Mental Hospital Could Increase Suicide Risk says an Alternet article about a study that specifically mentions that it should not be used to conclude that psychiatric interventions like admission to a mental hospital could increase suicide risk.

But I wouldn’t be so worried if it wasn’t based on a very similar editorial written by field experts and published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

The study involved is Rygaard-Hjorthøj, Madsen, Agerbo, and Nordentoft (2013), hereafter just “Hjorthøj” because I like saying that word. Hjorthøj finds that people who receive psychiatric treatment are much more likely to commit suicide than people who don’t. For example, someone who gets psychiatric medication is six times more likely to commit suicide than someone who doesn’t; someone who gets admitted to a psychiatric hospital is a whopping 44 times more likely to commit suicide than someone who doesn’t. The authors observe a “dose-response relationship”, which means that the more psychiatric treatment you get, the more likely you are to kill yourself.

Now, you’re probably asking yourself at this point “Wait, were they just using perfectly healthy people with no psychiatric problems as a control group?” and the answer is yes. Yes they were. So this study is basically finding that people who get committed to psychiatric hospitals are more likely to be the sort of people who are going to commit suicide than people who do not get committed to psychiatric hospitals. I for one find this result rather reassuring.

The authors of the study are absolutely on board with this, saying that “observational studies such as the present one cannot establish causality, but merely associations”, and their conclusion is that “not only people with a history of of psychiatric hospitalization, but also those receiving only psychiatric medication, outpatient treatment, or emergency room treatment should be monitored more closely”. Sure. If you absolutely must have a snappier conclusion than “psych patients often mentally ill, more at eleven,” I guess that fits the bill.

But according to an editorial published in the same journal by two people who are not the original authors, it says something much more sinister:

The results of a study in this issue of the Journal…raise the disturbing possibility that psychiatric care might, at least in part, cause suicide.

A…bold hypothesis. Why should we privilege this hypothesis over the alternative possibility that suicidal people are more likely to seek (or get forced into) psychiatric treatment?

The authors understandably caution that ‘the association is likely one of selection rather than causation, in that people with increasing levels of psychiatric contract are also more severely at risk of dying from suicide.’ This is undoubtedly part of the reason for the association, but it is not possible to be sure that an element of causation may not also be contributing. Associations that are strong, demonstrate a dose-effect relationship, and have a plausible mechanism are more likely to indicate a causal relationship than associations that lack these characteristics.

And then the Alternet article picks this up and adds a different argument:

The Danish researchers argued that we were seeing the results of something like a cancer treatment study. Sicker people were appropriately getting into more intensive treatments, but unfortunately the sicker they were the more likely it was that they would still die, despite even the best of medicines. They also suggested that we may have therefore discovered the most accurate predictor of suicide we’ve ever found: The more someone seeks or is forced into psychiatric care, the closer they probably are on the trajectory towards suicide.

The only problem with this line of reasoning is that there’s no evidence to support it. Suicide is not a progressive illness like cancer; that is, there’s no evidence that people with suicidal feelings travel on a trajectory of ever-intensifying, ever-more-constant suicidal feelings while getting into ever more intensive psychiatric care until they die at steadily increasing rates along the way. If suicidality was in fact progressive in that way, we’d be much better at identifying where people are along that path and intervening at the right time to prevent suicides. Instead, completed suicides tend to be impulsive, related to a myriad of cascading, confounding, unpredictable factors, not much more common overall in people diagnosed with mental disorders than in the general population, and most often surprising to even those closest to the victims.

Okay, let’s stop talking about psychiatric disease and shift to murder.

Probably the best risk factor for murder that you will ever find, better than being abused as a child or doing drugs or having the MAOA warrior gene or whatever, is “previous contact with the police”.

Murder is not “progressive” (shut up, neoreactionaries). Much like suicide, there’s no evidence that murderers “travel on a trajectory of ever-intensifying, ever-more-constant murderous feelings while getting into more intensive police custody until they kill at steadily increasing rates along the way.” Instead it seems to be “impulsive, related to a myriad of cascading, confounding, unpredictable factors, and surprising even to those closest to the perpetrators.”

The link between murder and previous contact with the police will be strong. For example, previous murderers released from prison have a 1.2% chance of getting arrested for another murder within three years, compared to about a 0.0001% murder rate per three years among the general population. That’s a relative risk of 10,000x, which blows Hjorthøj’s relative risk of 44x out of the water.

The link will be dose-dependent. People who have previously only gotten warnings from the police will be less likely to murder than people who have gotten small fines, who are less likely to murder than people who have gotten probation, who are less likely to murder than people who have gotten short jail sentences, who are less likely to murder than people who have gotten long jail sentences.

The link even has a plausible causal mechanism. Contact with the police can seriously disrupt people’s lives, making them stressed and anxious and angry and hopeless, all of which are the sort of emotions that predispose someone towards violence.

Therefore, the police cause murder?

Here are some other links that are non-progressive, strong, dose-dependent, and have plausible causal mechanisms.

The link between getting detention and dropping out of school. Therefore, detentions cause students to become demoralized and drop out from school.

The link between ice cream sales in a city and heatstroke cases in that city. Therefore, ice cream contains toxic chemicals that cause heatstroke.

The link between having lots of bruises and being in an abusive relationship. Therefore, abusers only abuse their victims because they’re angry about how many bruises they have.

The editorial authors seem to have gotten the “strong, dose-dependent, plausible” criteria from an article on epidemiology (God only knows where the journalist got the non-progressive criterion from). I would bet that the epidemiology article either did not intend for it to be used in this way, or that it meant that these criteria provide only the most tenuous of possible links.

This is why the saying is “correlation doesn’t imply causation” and not “correlation does not imply causation, unless it’s really strong correlation, in which case knock yourself out.”

And this is why the article finds that even going to a psychiatric emergency room and being turned down for treatment increases your risk of suicide almost twenty times. I mean, in my ER patients only even see a psychiatrist for like half an hour. You’re saying a half an hour with a psychiatrist leads to a vigintupling of suicide rates months down the road? We might be bad. But we’re not that bad.

The sad thing is, I think there might be a point buried underneath all this.

You can’t conclude from an increased murder rate among people with criminal histories that the police cause murder. But the justice system does contribute to murder in its way by sticking hardened criminals together, traumatizing them, and failing to give them enough resources to rebuild their lives. The contribution of the criminal justice system to crime isn’t exactly a secret, it’s just not accessible with that methodology.

Likewise, I don’t disagree that contact with the psychiatric system can sometimes be harmful. Forced commitment can sometimes make people lose their jobs, or cause them stigma, or stick them in an unpleasant psychiatric hospital where they don’t want to be. While there are no doubt potential benefits as well, the weighing of the costs and benefits is something that hasn’t been investigated nearly as much as it deserves. I think forced committment is an overused tool and would be glad to get some evidence backing me up.

But this paper contributes nothing to the discussion. All we know is there’s an association between psychiatric care and suicide, which was entirely obvious already. We don’t know how much of that association is causal, how much of it is selection, and how much of it is “it would be even worse without psychiatric care but psychiatric care can’t do everything.

The exact effect of psychiatric care on suicide is a topic worthy of further high-quality research and discussion. But this isn’t it.

Republicans Are Douchebags

Or, more technically, douchebags are disproportionately Republican. But I figure with this title I’m guaranteed front-page links from Salon and Daily Kos.

A while back, I argued – not especially originally – that “conservative” and “liberal”, far from being mere descriptions of political views, pointed to two very different tribes of people who might as well be considered totally different ethnicities.

One marker of ethnicity is different name preferences – we all know what groups people named Juan, Tyrone, or Mei are likely to belong to – and a recent article in Vox confirms that names differ between Democrats and Republicans at very impressive rates. For example, of the 200,000 registered US voters named “Willie”, 81.8% are Democrats. Of the 40,000 registered voters named “Rex”, 59.4% are Republicans (and I assume the others are Rottweilers or tyrannosaurs). You can find some impressively complete statistics at this site, including what percent of people with your name have a gun, go to church, attend college, et cetera.

But looking through Vox’s list of most Republican names, I was struck (or possibly stricken) by a resemblance to a different list I had seen a couple years ago.

Reddit: I fear my first name is the biggest douche bag name an American male can have. In your opinion, what is the cliche douchebag character name?.

This seems like a relatively popular internet question, and maintains a Most Douchebag Names list as well. This provides two independent lists of douchiest names (my Reddit list is the first name proposed in the ten most upvoted first-level comments there). They both turn out to be pretty similar.

1. Chad
2. Trent
3. Guy
4. Brad
5. Paul
6. Blake
7. Brody
8. Chaz
9. Tad
10. Keith

1. Chad
2. Chase
3. Tyler
4. Brody
5. Brad
6. Trey
7. Hunter
8. Scott (@#$% YOU TOO, REDDIT)
9. Biff
10. Preston

Clarity Campaigns can tell us what percentile each of these names are on the political spectrum. When I plugged all of them in, the median douchebag name was in the 98.5th percentile for Republicanness. In other words, with a little bit of noise the top ten douchiest names are pretty much the top ten most Republican names.

(The big exception is “Chaz”, which leans Democrat. But I refuse to believe that “Chaz” is a real name anyway.)

I tried to test alternate hypotheses that Clarity just over-Republicanned all names, or that it was a function of these being male names, or white names, or names of a certain generation. I tested the top ten most popular male baby names of 1990 (that being the generation probably in its peak douchebag years right now) and combined their full name and nickname versions (since I didn’t want to confound by whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to go by a nickname). The median popular 1990 male name was in the 73rd percentile for Republicanness. This isn’t surprising – men tend to be more conservative than women, and this effect probably swamps any within-gender name effects, so if all male names are more conservative than all female names we would expect the average male name to be about the 75th percentile for Republicanness. Our popular 1990 control group comes very close.

But the average douchebag name is in the 98.5th percentile for Republicanness.

I can think of two three hypotheses.

First, douchebags are disproportionately Republican.

Second, the parents who name kids douchebag names are disproportionately Republican, and Republicanism is partly hereditary (I almost missed this one, but JayMan reads this blog and I know he would call me on it if I forgot).

Third, “douchebag” is a tribally-coded slur. If someone asks “Have you ever noticed that all assholes are named things like ‘Moishe’ or ‘Avram’ or ‘Menachem’?” – then they’re telling you a lot more about the way they use the word ‘asshole’ than about the Moishes and Menachems of the world.

I expect there are many more fun things I will think of to do with this name list.

Ley Lines Of The Midwest

This is now unexpectedly a geography blog.

That’s Ohio and Indiana as seen from space.

And that’s Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota as seen from space.

Each small grey dot is a town. Are there straight horizontal or vertical lines that connect more than a chance number of towns? And are the towns arranged in a consistent coordinate grid pattern?

As best I can tell there are a few short straight lines probably representing more-used local roads, but few that persist across entire states. I don’t think there’s any consistent grid pattern. This is the opposite of my initial impression, which was that there was a clear and striking coordinate grid. But when I try to measure the native unit of the coordinate grid, I find that my mind is confusing a whole bunch of vaguely square-ish patterns into one illusory system.

There is a square pattern to the Midwest, deriving from the Public Land Survey System, but its scale is 6 mile x 6 mile squares, which is smaller than any of the distances on either of these maps. There is supposedly a higher level of grid, the 24 mile x 24 mile quadrangle, but it doesn’t seem to be as important and I don’t see that on this map either.

I titled this post “Ley Lines” as a joke, but we might as well see if there are any actual ley lines. The best candidates seem to be the cities between the yellow dots – which are Waterloo, Davenport, Peoria, Bloomington, and Champaign – and the cities between the red dots – which are Springfield, Champaign, Lafayette, Fort Wayne, and Toledo. If you want to stretch it, you could also imagine a horizontal line between the blue dots – Madison, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Flint, Sarnia, London, and continuing to Buffalo just off the map.

As far as I know there’s no explanation for any of these – no highways, no rivers, nothing – and they’re all just coincidences.

We had some interesting discussions about Midwestern geography during our last Michigan Rationalist Meetup. My favorite part was learning that the town of Zilwaukee, Michigan was named by two brothers hoping that would-be settlers on their way to Milwaukee would get confused and settle there instead. It sounds like a dumb urban legend, but it was previously admitted to on the Zilwaukee city website. I notice their new website doesn’t mention this, which means either that it’s been disproven or they decided to stop advertising to the world that they’re descended from morons.

[EDIT: And here’s a church website that uses Zilwaukee as a metaphor for the Devil]

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The Dark Side Of Divorce

A while ago I read The Nurture Assumption and found myself convinced by its basic thesis that genetics completely trumped parenting.

The argument was that there are lots of studies showing that parenting has important effects – for example, if parents yell at their kids, their kids will turn out angry and violent, or something. But these studies neglect possible genetic contributions – angry violent parents are more likely to yell at their kids, so maybe the kids are just inheriting genes for anger and violence. A lot of parenting studies are subject to these kinds of confounds. And one of the best tools we have for disentangling them – behavioral genetics twin studies – very consistently show that most important outcomes are 50% genetically determined, 50% determined by “non-shared environment”, and almost completely unrelated to the “shared environment” of parenting. Therefore, we should conclude that pretty much all of the effect supposedly due to parenting is in fact due to genetics, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of “parenting style” you use unless it can somehow change your child’s DNA.

One of the stories I most remember from the book – and I’m sorry, I don’t have a copy with me, so I’m going from memory – was about the large literature of studies showing that children of divorce raised by single mothers have worse outcomes than children of intact two-parent families. This seems like a convincing argument that children need both parents to develop properly, which if true would be a shared environmental effect and an example of why good stable parenting is necessary.

But other studies found that children who lost a father in (for example) a car accident had outcomes that looked more like those of children from stable two-parent families than like those of children of divorce. So maybe the divorce effect doesn’t reflect the stabilizing influence of two parents in a kid’s life. Maybe it reflects that the sort of genes that make parents unable to hold a marriage together have some bad effects on their kids as well.

(damn you, Rs7632287! This is all your fault!)

It’s compelling, it’s believable, and I believed it. Unfortunately, I recently had the time to double-check, and it doesn’t seem to be true at all.

The best introduction to divorce research I could find was Amato & Keith’s meta-analysis Parental Divorce And The Well-Being Of Children. It looks through 92 studies that compare children of divorced and non-divorced families and finds that “children of divorce scored lower than children in intact families across a variety of outcomes, with the median effect size being 0.14 of a standard deviation,” this last clause of which is almost New Cuyaman in its agglomerativeness.

This is a small effect size, and indeed most of the studies they’re looking at aren’t even significant. But once agglomerated together they become very significant, and the analysis tries to determine the cause. The most popular proposed causes are “children in divorced families lose the benefits of having two parents”, “children in divorced families are in economic trouble”, and “children in divorced families have to deal with stressful family conflict.”

Although there’s a little bit of evidence for all three, in general the evidence lines up for the last one of these – the family conflict hypothesis.

If the problem is not enough parents or not enough money, then having the custodial parent (usually a single mom) remarry ought to help a lot, especially if she marries somebody wealthy. But usually this doesn’t help very much at all.

If the problem is not enough money, then children of divorce should do no worse than children of poor two-parent families. But in fact they do, and children of divorce still do worse when controlled for income.

If the problem is not enough parents or not enough money, then these ought to persist over time if the custodial parent doesn’t remarry or get richer. But if the problem is stressful conflict, then it ought to get better over time, since the stress and conflict of the divorce gradually becomes more and more remote. Although there are some dueling studies here, the best studies seem to find the latter pattern – bad outcomes of divorce gradually decrease over time.

If the problem is stressful conflict, then children of divorce ought to do no worse than children in families full of stressful conflict who are nevertheless staying together. Indeed, controlling for the amount of stressful conflict within a family gets rid of most of the negative effect of divorce.

Therefore, although there was some evidence for all three hypotheses, the stressful conflict hypothesis was best-supported. But the stressful conflict hypothesis could also explain the pattern where kids whose fathers died in car accidents don’t show the same pattern of problems as children of divorce. Having a parent die in an accident is no doubt traumatic, but it’s a very different kind of trauma from constant familial yelling and bickering.

More to the point, the genetic explanation of divorce has been investigated specifically in at least four studies that I know of, using different methodology each time.

Brodzinsky, Hitt, and Smith studied the effect of divorce on biological versus adopted children. They were unable to find any differences in the level of disruption and poor outcomes.

O’Connor, Caspi, DeFries, and Plomin (yes, that Plomin) also studied biological versus adopted children. They found that biological children showed a stronger effect on academic achievement and social adjustment (consistent with genetic explanations), but adopted children showed an equal effect on behavioral problems and substance use (consistent with environmental explanations).

Burt, Barnes, McGue, and Iacono use a different methodology and compare children whose parents divorced when they were alive with children whose parents divorced before they were born. Presumably, only the former group get any environmental stress from the divorce, but both groups suffer from any genetic issues that caused their parents to split. They find that the negative effects of divorce are mostly limited to the group whose parents got divorced when they were alive, consistent with an environmental explanation.

Finally, a bunch of people including Eric Turkheimer get the requisite twin study in and compare the children of pairs of identical twins where one of them got divorced and the other didn’t (where do they find these people?) Somehow they scraped together a sample size of 2,554 people, and they found that even among children of identical twins, the children of the divorced twin did worse than the children of the non-divorced twin to a degree consistent with the negative effects not being genetic. They tried to adjust for characteristics of the twins’ spouses, but that’s the obvious confound here. I look forward to seeing if future researchers can get a sample of pairs of identical male twins who married pairs of identical female twins, one couple among whom got divorced.

So I owe mainstream psychology an apology here. I was pretty sure they had just completely dropped the ball on this one and were foolishly assuming everything had to be social and nothing could be genetic. In fact, they were only doing that up until about ten or twenty years ago, after which point they figured it out and performed a lot of studies, all of which supported their idea of the stress of divorce having significant (though small!) non-gene-related effects.

And although I haven’t had time to look through them properly yet, here’s a study claiming that the association between fathers’ and childrens’ emotional and behavioral problems is “largely shared environmental in origin”. And here’s a study claiming that “analyses revealed that [shared environment] accounted for 10%-19% of the variance within conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, depression, and broad internalizing and externalizing disorders, regardless of their operationalization. When age, informant, and sex effects were considered, [shared environment] generally ranged from 10%-30% of the variance.”

So the shared environment folks haven’t completely dropped the ball, some of them seem to be fighting back, and it will be interesting to see where this goes and whether anybody is able to reconcile the different evidence.

One likely talking point: shared environment and childhood situation obviously impacts things during childhood. For example, if you have parents who are mean and abusive, this can make you stressed and you don’t get enough sleep and then maybe you do really badly at school. But once you get out of that environment, your academic abilities will revert to whatever your genes say they should be. The Nurture Assumption never denies this and is absolutely willing to admit that shared environment can affect outcomes during childhood, although even there less than one might expect. This also seems to be the tack Plomin is taking when he discusses the Burt study.

But studies have found that the negative effects of divorce can last well into adulthood. On the other hand, none of those studies have been the ones that compare genetic and environmental effects, and I get the feeling their quality is kind of weak. So it’s not completely ruled out by the data that the short-term effects of divorce are robust and environmental, but the long-term effects of divorce are spurious and/or genetic. But this seems kind of like fighting a rearguard action against the evidence.

Finally, a sanity check. Suppose your parents get divorced when you’re 16. Your high school grades drop and your behavior gets worse. Maybe you fail a couple of classes and start using drugs. The couple of classes failed mean you’re going to a second-tier instead of a first-tier college, and the drug use means you’re addicted. How does that not affect your life outcomes, even if five years later you’ve forgotten all about whatever psychological stresses you once had?

Overall I am less confident than before that shared environment is harmless.

And while I’m bashing Nurture Assumption, I don’t remember the exact arguments used against birth order effects, but we found such impressive numbers on the last Less Wrong survey that I’m not very impressed with the claims that they don’t exist.

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How To Use 23andMe Irresponsibly

As you might remember, the FDA stomped on 23andMe for using too many irresponsible genetic tests that purported to tell you things about yourself and your health with limited support. They eventually worked out a deal where the FDA allowed 23andMe to continue to operate, but they couldn’t claim to be able to predict personal outcomes from your genes.

That means if we want to use 23andMe irresponsibly, we’ve got to do it ourselves. Luckily I recently figured out how to do this and it is exactly as much fun as you would think.

If you’ve got a 23andMe account, log in, go to your name and picture on the bar on the top, and click on the little inverted triangle to get the drop-down menu. Go to the “Browse Raw Data” option, which will give you the option to go to a gene or an SNP. Now all you have to do is find an SNP you’re interested in (an SNP will look like the letters “rs” followed by a string of numbers) plug it in, and interpret the results.

Your best bet here is SNPedia, a wiki collection of different SNPs. If you want to know, for example, something interesting about your risk of heart disease, you can search “heart disease” and get a list of the most relevant SNPs (in this case, rs2383206, rs10757278, rs2383207, and rs10757274). If you click on the first, you can find on the top right in little colored boxes that someone with (A;A) at this site has normal risk of heart disease, someone with (A;G) 1.4x increased risk, and someone with (G;G) 1.7x increased risk.

In this case my 23andMe results are pretty straightforward – it tells me I am (G;G), which is common enough in white people (see the little colored bars on the left of SNPedia; the CEU bar is Caucasian Europeans). Other times the results require an extra step. For example, SNPedia’s page on rs1801133 offers three choices – (C;C), (C;T), and (T;T), but 23andMe tells me that I have (A;A), which didn’t appear to be an option. The problem here is that 23andMe is giving me the minus strand – if you click to expand your result, it will tell you that (“dbSNP Orientation: minus”). When it gives you the minus strand, you have to manually reverse it to get the plus strand. Remember, A is the reverse of T, and C is the reverse of G. So my (A;A) is their (T;T), and I have 1.5x risk of various cancers.

This doesn’t necessarily bear any relationship to reality, because genetics studies often fail to replicate, and even when they’re right they might only apply to certain populations, and even when they apply to people usually people misinterpret what they mean. That’s part of why the FDA banned 23andMe from doing this, and part of why the word “irresponsible” is right in the title. Even if these SNPs survive the tests of time and replication, they will explain at most a few percent of the variance in complex traits, and any claims otherwise are exaggeration at best and pure hype at worst.

But with that fair warning, here are some of the genes I think are most fun to look up. I cannot disclaimer enough that this is for your own amusement only and unlikely to resemble reality in more than the most tenuous way and if I imply otherwise it is a silly joke.

Rs909525 is linked to the so-called “warrior gene” which I blogged about in the last links roundup. People with the normal four or five repeat version of these gene are less violent than people with the three-repeat version, and people with the two-repeat version are massively overrepresented among violent criminals. See for example this article. Although this SNP isn’t the warrior gene itself, it’s linked to it closely enough to be a good predictor. This is on the X chromosome, so men will only have one copy (I wonder how much of the increased propensity to violence in men this explains). It’s also one of the minus strand ones, so it’ll be the reverse of what SNPedia is telling you. If you’ve got T, you’re normal. If you’ve got C, you’re a “warrior”. I’ve got C, which gives a pretty good upper limit on how much you should trust these SNPs, since I’m about the least violent person you’ll ever meet. But who knows? Maybe I’m just waiting to snap. Post something dumb about race or gender in the open thread one more time, I dare you…

Rs53576 in the OXTR gene is related to the oxytocin receptor, which frequently gets good press as “the cuddle hormone” and “the trust hormone”. Unsurprisingly, the polymorphism is related to emotional warmth, gregariousness versus loneliness, and (intriguingly) ability to pick out conversations in noisy areas. 23andMe reads this one off the plus strand, so your results should directly correspond to SNPedia’s – (G;G) means more empathy and sociability and is present in 50% of the population, anything else means less. I’m (A;G), which I guess explains my generally hateful and misanthropic outlook on life, plus why I can never hear anyone in crowded bars.

Rs4680 is in the COMT gene, which codes for catechol-o-methyltransferase, an enzyme that degrades various chemicals including dopamine. Riffing on the more famous “warrior gene”, somebody with a terrible sense of humor named this one the “worrier gene”. One version seems to produce more anxiety but slightly better memory and attention; the other version seems to produce calm and resiliency but with a little bit worse memory and attention. (A;A) is smart and anxious, (G;G) is dumb and calm, (A;G) is in between. if you check the SNPedia page, you can also find ten zillion studies on which drugs you are slightly more likely to become addicted to. And here’s the 23andMe blog on this polymorphism.

Rs7632287, also in the oxytocin receptor, has been completely proportionally and without any hype declared by the media to be “the divorce gene”. To be fair, this is based on some pretty good Swedish studies finding that women with a certain allele were more often to have reported “marital crisis with the threat of divorce” in the past year (p = 0.003, but the absolute numbers were only 11% of women with one allele vs. 16% of women with the other). This actually sort of checks out, since oxytocin is related to pair bonding. If I’m reading the article right (G;G) is lower divorce risk, (A;A) and (A;G) are higher – but this may only apply to women.

Rs11174811 is in the AVPR1A gene, part of a receptor for a chemical called vasopressin which is very similar to oxytocin. In case you expected men to get away without a divorce gene, this site has been associated with spousal satisfaction in men. Although the paper is extremely cryptic, I think (A;A) or (A;C) means higher spousal satisfaction than (C;C). But if I’m wrong, no problem – another study got the opposite results.

Rs25531 is on the serotonin transporter. Its Overhyped Media Name is “the orchid gene”, on the basis of a theory that children with one allele have higher variance – that is, if they have nice, happy childhoods with plenty of care and support they will bloom to become beautiful orchids, but if they have bad childhoods they will be completely screwed up. The other allele will do moderately well regardless. (T;T) is orchid, (C;C) is moderately fine no matter what. There are rumors going around that 23andMe screwed this one up and nearly everybody is listed as (C;C).

Rs1800955 is in DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene. Its overhyped media name is The Adventure Gene, and supposedly one allele means you’re much more attracted to novelty and adventure. And by “novelty and adventure”, they mean lots and lots of recreational drugs. This one has survived a meta-analytic review. (T;T) is normal, (C;C) is slightly more novelty seeking and prone to drug addiction.

Rs2760118, in a gene producing an obscure enzyme called succinate semialdehyde dehydrogenase, is a nice polymorphism to have. According to this article, it makes you smarter and can be associated with up to fifteen years longer life (warning: impressive result means almost certain failure to replicate). (C;C) or (C;T) means you’re smarter and can expect to live longer; (T;T) better start looking at coffins sooner rather than later.

Rs6311 is not going to let me blame the media for its particular form of hype. The official published scientific paper on it is called “The Secret Ingredient for Social Success of Young Males: A Functional Polymorphism in the 5HT2A Serotonin Receptor Gene”. Boys with (A;A) are less popular than those with (G;G), with (A;G) in between – the effect seems to be partly mediated by rule-breaking behavior, aggression, and number of female friends. Now it kind of looks to me like they’re just taking proxies for popularity here, but maybe that’s just what an (A;A) nerd like me would say. Anyway, at least I have some compensation – the popular (G;G) guys are 3.6x more likely to experience sexual side effects when taking SSRI antidepressants.

Rs6265, known as Val66Met to its friends, is part of the important depression-linked BDNF system. It’s a bit depressing itself, in that it is linked to an ability not to become depressed when subjected to “persistent social defeat”. The majority of whites have (G;G) – the minority with (A;A) or (A;G) are harder to depress, but more introverted and worse at motor skills.

rs41310927 is so cutting-edge it’s not even in SNPedia yet. But these people noticed that a certain version was heavily selected for in certain ethnic groups, especially Chinese, and tried to figure out what those ethnic groups had in common. The answer they came up with was “tonal languages”, so they tested to see if the gene improved ability to detect tones, and sure enough they claimed that in experiments people with a certain allele were better able to distinguish and understand them. Usual caveats apply, but if you want to believe, (G;G) is highest ability to differentiate tones, (A;A) is lowest ability to differentiate tones. (A;G) is in between. Sure enough, I’m (A;A). All you people who tried to teach me Chinese tonology, I FRICKIN’ TOLD YOU ALL OF THE WORDS YOU WERE TELLING ME SOUNDED ALIKE.

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OT8: Love Is An Open Thread

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. In case you missed the belated announcement last Open Thread, Ozy has a blog again. Since I ban discussion of race and gender in these open threads, each semimonth Ozy runs a concurrent Race And Gender Open Thread, complete with concurrent race-and-gender-related puns. And here one is now.

2. Thanks to everyone who comments with “Why would you bother writing about this? It’s so obvious!”. You have helped me see the light, and in the future I will make sure to only post things that I am certain zero of my several thousand readers already know.

3. The Less Wrong survey might close this weekend if Ozy and I feel up to starting the statistics on it then, so if you haven’t taken it yet now might be a good time to go over there and get started.

4. If you’ve taken the LW survey, you’ve already marked down whether you read this blog or not so I have information about you. If you haven’t, I would like to get some information about you to see what kind of people are here, who I have and haven’t scared off, and increase my sample size for some correlations I’m going to try to get off of the LW survey. So here is a Slate Star Codex Survey [EDIT: Now closed! Do not take!] for you. Remember, if you’ve already taken the LW survey, do not take this one too!

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