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OT11: Openezer Scrooge

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

1. I’m heading to New York for the Winter Solstice celebration and surrounding rationalist community megameetup. If you’re attending, I’ll see you there. If you’re not attending and you want to, here’s the information. Solstice concert requires tickets, everything else is free. I may or may not be around Saturday afternoon, but I’ll definitely make it for the concert and Sunday activities.

2. It was remiss of me to suggest people donate more without mentioning GiveWell’s list of most effective charities. And if you’re still not up to speed on this whole “effective altruism” thing, here’s an essay I wrote on it a while back.

3. Hey look Deiseach, they wrote an article about you!

4. Blatant plug: in case some of you are doing very last minute holiday shopping, this might be another good time to note that this blog is sort of kind of in a spiritual sense supported by your Amazon affiliate clicks, and if you buy your stuff through my affiliate link I get 5-10% at no extra cost to you. You can also just switch your Amazon bookmark to my affiliate link and that way I get 5-10% of everything.

5. Comments of the week are Citizensearth on sociology, Cassander on the direction of the space program, Glen Raphael on the trouble with minimum wage research and on the case of the Mariana Islands (but counterpoint!). I don’t know if it’s kosher to use a comment on Ozy’s blog as a comment of the week, but anyway, here’s JRM’s political quiz.

As usual, no race and gender on the Open Thread. Ozy will probably open up a race and gender open thread at their place once they see this, and you can take it there.

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Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable


Here is a response I got on Facebook to yesterday’s essay. I will admit I do not, exactly, know what to do. But I do have a call to action I’ve been meaning to make for a while that might tie in more than a little with recent discussions.

But first we’re going to have to go back to two of the examples of Tumblr meme-spreading I mentioned yesterday:

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?”

“Can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others?”

Wipe away the spittle and there’s an important point here worth steelmanning. Something like “Yes, the feeling of constantly being outraged and mired in the latest controversy is unpleasant. And yes, it would be nice to get to avoid it and spend time with your family and look at kitten pics or something. But when the controversy is about people being murdered in cold blood, or living in fear, or something like that – then it’s your duty as a decent human being to care. In the best case scenario you’ll discharge that duty by organizing widespread protests or something – but the absolute least you can do is reblog a couple of slogans.”

I think Cliff Pervocracy is trying to say something similar in this post. Key excerpt:

When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [conservative] fantasy of rugged individualism starts looking pretty damn good.

Intellectually, I think my current political milieu of feminism/progressivism/social justice is more correct, far better for the world in general, and more helpful to me since I don’t actually live in a perfectly isolated cabin.

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it.

And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

Once again, to be clear, I don’t think this is wrong. I just think it’s a bummer.

I don’t know of a solution to this. (Bummer again.) I don’t think progressivism can ever compete with the cozy self-satisfaction of the cabin fantasy. I don’t think it should. Change is necessary in the world, people don’t change if they’re totally happy and comfortable, therefore discomfort is necessary.

I would like to make what I hope is a friendly amendment to Cliff’s post. He thinks he’s talking about progressivism versus conservativism, but he isn’t. A conservative happy with his little cabin and occasional hunting excursions, and a progressive happy with her little SoHo flat and occasional poetry slams are psychologically pretty similar. So are a liberal who abandons a cushy life to work as a community organizer in the inner city and fight poverty, and a conservative who abandons a cushy life to serve as an infantryman in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. The distinction Cliff is trying to get at here isn’t left-right. It’s activist versus passivist.

As part of a movement recently deemed postpolitical, I have to admit I fall more on the passivist side of the spectrum – at least this particular conception of it. I talk about politics when they interest me or when I enjoy doing so, and I feel an obligation not to actively make things worse. But I don’t feel like I need to talk nonstop about whatever the designated Issue is until it distresses me and my readers both.

Possibly I just wasn’t designed for politics. I’m actively repulsed by most protests, regardless of cause or alignment, simply because the idea of thousands of enraged people joining together to scream at something – without even considering whether the other side has a point – terrifies and disgusts me. Even hashtag campaigns and other social media protest-substitutes evoke the same feeling of panic. Maybe I was the victim of mob violence in a past life or something, I don’t know.

Other people I know are too sensitive to be political – hearing about all the evils of the world makes them want to curl into a ball and cry for hours. Still others feel deep personal guilt about anything they hear – an almost psychotic belief that if people are being hurt anywhere in the world, it’s their fault for not preventing it. A few are chronically uncertain about which side to take and worried that anything they do will cause more harm than good. A couple have traumatic experiences that make them leery of affiliating with a particular side – did you know the prosecutor in the Ferguson case was the son of a police officer who was killed by a black suspect? And still others are perfectly innocent and just want to reblog kitten pictures.

Pervocracy admits this, and puts it better than I do:

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it. And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

That seems about right. Pervocracy ends up with discomfort, and I’m in about the same place. But other, less stable people end up with self-loathing. Still other people go further than that, into Calvinist-style “perhaps I am a despicable worm unworthy of existence”. moteinthedark’s reply to Pervocracy gives me the impression that she struggles with this sometime. For these people, abstaining from politics is the only coping tool they have.

But the counterargument is still that you’ve got a lot of chutzpah playing that card when people in Peshawar or Ferguson or Iraq don’t have access to this coping tool. You can’t just bring in a doctor’s note and say “As per my psychiatrist, I have a mental health issue and am excused from experiencing concern for the less fortunate.”

One option is to deny the obligation. I am super sympathetic to this one. The marginal cost of my existence on the poor and suffering of the world is zero. In fact, it’s probably positive. My economic activity consists mostly of treating patients, buying products, and paying taxes. The first treats the poor’s illnesses, the second creates jobs, and the third pays for government assistance programs. Exactly what am I supposed to be apologizing for here? I may benefit from the genocide of the Indians in that I live on land that was formerly Indian-occupied. But I also benefit from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, in that I live on land that was formerly dinosaur-occupied. I don’t feel like I’m complicit in the asteroid strike; why should I feel complicit in the genocide?

I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough. The old saying goes “you can’t reason yourself out of something you didn’t reason yourself into to begin with”, and the idea that secure and prosperous people need to “give something back” is a lot older than accusations of “being complicit in structures of oppression”. It’s probably older than the Bible. People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

So what do we do with the argument that we are morally obligated to be political activists, possibly by reblogging everything about Pakistan that crosses our news feed?


We ask: why the heck are we privileging that particular subsection of the category “improving the world”?

Pervocracy says that “short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” But he is overly optimistic. Has your total revolution of everything eliminated ischaemic heart disease? Cured malaria? Kept elderly people out of nursing homes? No? Then you haven’t discharged your infinite debt yet!

Being a perfect person doesn’t just mean participating in every hashtag campaign you hear about. It means spending all your time at soup kitchens, becoming vegan, donating everything you have to charity, calling your grandmother up every week, and marrying Third World refugees who need visas rather than your one true love.

And not all of these things are equally important.

Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take. Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.

There is no reason that politics would even come to the attention of an unbiased person trying to “break out of their bubble of privilege” or “help people who are afraid of going outside of their house”. Anybody saying that people who want to do good need to spread their political cause is about as credible as a televangelist saying that people who want to do good need to give them money to buy a new headquarters. It’s possible that televangelists having beautiful headquarters might be slightly better than them having hideous headquarters, but it’s not the first thing a reasonable person trying to improve the world would think of.

Nobody cares about charity. Everybody cares about politics, especially race and gender. Just as televangelists who are obsessed with moving to a sweeter pad may come to think that donating to their building fund is the one true test of a decent human being, so our universal obsession with politics, race, and gender incites people to make convincing arguments that taking and spreading the right position on those issues is the one true test of a decent human being.

So now we have an angle of attack against our original question. “Am I a bad person for not caring more about politics?” Well, every other way of doing good, especially charity, is more important than politics. So this question is strictly superseded by “Am I a bad person for not engaging in every other way of doing good, especially charity?” And then once we answer that, we can ask “Also, however much sin I have for not engaging in charity, should we add another mass of sin, about 1% as large, for my additional failure to engage in politics?”

And Cliff Pervocracy’s concern of “Even if I do a lot of politics, amn’t I still a bad person for not doing all the politics?” is superseded by “Even if I give a lot of charity, am I a bad person for not doing all the charity? And then a bad person in an additional way, about 1% as large, for not doing all the politics as well?”

There’s no good answer to this question. If you want to feel anxiety and self-loathing for not giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to call that “not being perfect”. I would prefer to say that if you feel like you will live in anxiety and self-loathing until you have given a certain amount of money to charity, you should make that certain amount ten percent.

Why ten percent?

It’s ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in precisely that way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

Finally, it’s ten percent because if you believe in something like universalizability as a foundation for morality, a world in which everybody gives ten percent of their income to charity is a world where about seven trillion dollars go to charity a year. Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project. That’s about two percent of the money that would suddenly become available. If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permamently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2.

(by contrast, if everybody in the world retweeted the latest hashtag campaign, Twitter would break.)

Everyone giving this level of charity would kill Moloch dead. Moloch is the spirit of things responding to perverse incentives. But charity is in some sense the perfect unincentivized action. If you think the most important thing to do is to cure malaria, then a charitable donation is deliberately throwing the power of your brain and muscle behind the cause of curing malaria. If, as I’ve postulated, the reason we can’t solve world poverty and disease and so on is Moloch, the capture of our financial resources by the undirected dance of incentives, then what better way to fight back than by saying “Thanks but no thanks, I’m taking this abstract representation of my resources and using it exactly how I think it should most be used”?

If you give 10% per year, you have absolutely done your part in making that world a reality. You can honestly say “Well, it’s not my fault that everyone else is still dragging their feet.”


Once the level is fixed at ten percent, we get a better idea how to answer the original question: “If I want to be a good person who gives back to the community, but I am triggered by politics, what do I do?” You do good in a way that doesn’t trigger you. Another good thing about having less than 100% obligation is that it gives you the opportunity to budget and trade-off. If you make $30,000 and you accept 10% as a good standard you want to live up to, you can either donate $3000 to charity, or participate in several thousand political protests until your number of lives or dollars or DALYs saved is equivalent to that. I hope you have a lot of free time.

Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent.

Everything is commensurable. This gives us license to determine exactly how we fulfill that ten percent goal. Some people are triggered and terrified by politics. Other people are too sick to volunteer. Still others are poor and cannot give very much money. But money is a constant reminder that everything goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obligations in multiple equivalent ways. Some people will not be able to give ten percent of their income without excessive misery, but I bet thinking about their contribution in terms of a fungible good will help them decide how much volunteering or activism they need to reach the equivalent.

Cliff Pervocracy says “Your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” This seems like a recipe for – at best – undirected misery, stewing in self-loathing, and total defenselessness against the first toxoplasma parasite to come along and tell them they need to engage in the latest conflict or else they’re trash. At worst, it autocatalyzes an opposition of egoists who laugh at the idea of helping others.

On the other hand, Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This seems like a recipe for getting people to say “Okay, I’ll take your yoke upon me! Thanks for the offer!”

Persian poet Omar Khayyam, considering the conflict between the strict laws of Islam and his own desire to enjoy life, settles upon the following rule:

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law divine;
If to the poor their portion you assign,
And never injure one, nor yet abuse,
I guarantee you heaven, as well as wine!

I’m not saying that donating 10% of your money to charity makes you a great person who is therefore freed of every other moral obligation. I’m not saying that anyone who chooses not to do it is therefore a bad person. I’m just saying that if you feel a need to discharge some feeling of a moral demand upon you to help others, and you want to do it intelligently, it beats most of the alternatives.

This month is the membership drive for Giving What We Can, the organization of people who have promised to give 10% of their earnings to charity. I am a member. Ozy is an aspiring member who plans to join once they are making a salary. Many of the commenters here are members – I recognize for example Taymon Beal’s name on their list. Some well-known moral philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are members. Seven hundred other people are also members.

I wish I had a Bitcoin address handy to solve all the world’s problems, but until I do I would recommend giving them a look.

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The Toxoplasma Of Rage

“Nobody makes an IRC channel for no reason. Who are we doing this versus?”
— topic of #slatestarcodex


Some old news I only just heard about: PETA is offering to pay the water bills for needy Detroit families if (and only if) those families agree to stop eating meat.

(this story makes more sense if you know Detroit is in a crisis where the bankrupt city government is trying to increase revenues by cracking down on poor people who can’t pay for the water they use.)

Predictably, the move has caused a backlash. The International Business Times, in what I can only assume is an attempted pun, describes them as “drowning in backlash”. Groundswell thinks it’s a “big blunder”. Daily Banter says it’s “exactly why everyone hates PETA”. Jezebel calls them “assholes”, and we can all agree Jezebel knows a thing or two about assholery.

Of course, this is par for the course for PETA, who have previously engaged in campaigns like throwing red paint on fashion models who wear fur, juxtaposing pictures of animals with Holocaust victims, juxtaposing pictures of animals with African-American slaves, and ads featuring naked people that cross the line into pornography.

People call these things “blunders”, but consider the alternative. Vegan Outreach is an extremely responsible charity doing excellent and unimpeachable work in the same area PETA is. Nobody has heard of them. Everybody has heard of PETA, precisely because of the interminable stupid debates about “did this publicity stunt cross the line?”

While not everyone is a vegan, pretty much everybody who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it. There is pretty much zero room for PETA to convert people from pro-factory-farming to anti-factory-farming, because there aren’t any radical grassroot pro-factory-farming activists to be found. Their problem isn’t lack of agreement. It’s lack of publicity.

PETA creates publicity, but at a cost. Everybody’s talking about PETA, which is sort of like everybody talking about ethical treatment of animals, which is sort of a victory. But most of the talk is “I hate them and they make me really angry.” Some of the talk is even “I am going to eat a lot more animals just to make PETA mad.”

So there’s a tradeoff here, with Vegan Outreach on one side and PETA on the other.

Vegan Outreach can get everyone to agree in principle that factory-farming is bad, but no one will pay any attention to it.

And PETA can get everyone to pay attention to factory farming, but a lot of people who would otherwise oppose it will switch to supporting it just because they’re so mad at the way it’s being publicized.

But at least they’re paying attention!

PETA doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot because they’re stupid. They shoot themselves in the foot because they’re traveling up an incentive gradient that rewards them for doing so, even if it destroys their credibility.


The University of Virginia rape case profiled in Rolling Stone has fallen apart. In doing so, it joins a long and distinguished line of highly-publicized rape cases that have fallen apart. Studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Yet the rate for allegations that go ultra-viral in the media must be an order of magnitude higher than this. As the old saying goes, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The enigma is complicated by the observation that it’s usually feminist activists who are most instrumental in taking these stories viral. It’s not some conspiracy of pro-rape journalists choosing the most dubious accusations in order to discredit public trust. It’s people specifically selecting these incidents as flagship cases for their campaign that rape victims need to be believed and trusted. So why are the most publicized cases so much more likely to be false than the almost-always-true average case?

Several people have remarked that false accusers have more leeway to make their stories as outrageous and spectacular as possible. But I want to focus on two less frequently mentioned concerns.

The Consequentialism FAQ explains signaling in moral decisions like so:

When signaling, the more expensive and useless the item is, the more effective it is as a signal. Although eyeglasses are expensive, they’re a poor way to signal wealth because they’re very useful; a person might get them not because ey is very rich but because ey really needs glasses. On the other hand, a large diamond is an excellent signal; no one needs a large diamond, so anybody who gets one anyway must have money to burn.

Certain answers to moral dilemmas can also send signals. For example, a Catholic man who opposes the use of condoms demonstrates to others (and to himself!) how faithful and pious a Catholic he is, thus gaining social credibility. Like the diamond example, this signaling is more effective if it centers upon something otherwise useless. If the Catholic had merely chosen not to murder, then even though this is in accord with Catholic doctrine, it would make a poor signal because he might be doing it for other good reasons besides being Catholic – just as he might buy eyeglasses for reasons beside being rich. It is precisely because opposing condoms is such a horrendous decision that it makes such a good signal.

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

In the same way, publicizing how strongly you believe an accusation that is obviously true signals nothing. Even hard-core anti-feminists would believe a rape accusation that was caught on video. A moral action that can be taken just as well by an outgroup member as an ingroup member is crappy signaling and crappy identity politics. If you want to signal how strongly you believe in taking victims seriously, you talk about it in the context of the least credible case you can find.

But aside from that, there’s the PETA Principle (not to be confused with the Peter Principle). The more controversial something is, the more it gets talked about.

A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, just as they’ll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you’re going to need something like that to draw people out of their shells.

On the other hand, the controversy over dubious rape allegations is exactly that – a controversy. People start screaming at each other about how they’re misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and Facebook feeds get filled up with hundreds of comments in all capital letters about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup. At each step, more and more people get triggered and upset. Some of those triggered people do emergency ego defense by reblogging articles about how the group that triggered them are terrible, triggering further people in a snowball effect that spreads the issue further with every iteration.


Only controversial things get spread. A rape allegation will only be spread if it’s dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics. An obviously true rape allegation will only be spread if the response is controversial enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics – which is why so much coverage focuses on the proposal that all accused rapists should be treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Everybody hates rape just like everybody hates factory farming. “Rape culture” doesn’t mean most people like rape, it means most people ignore it. That means feminists face the same double-bind that PETA does.

First, they can respond to rape in a restrained and responsible way, in which case everyone will be against it and nobody will talk about it.

Second, they can respond to rape in an outrageous and highly controversial way, in which case everybody will talk about it but it will autocatalyze an opposition of people who hate feminists and obsessively try to prove that as many rape allegations as possible are false.

The other day I saw this on Twitter:

My first thought was that it was witty and hilarious. My second thought was “But when people are competing to see who can come up with the wittiest and most hilarious quip about why we should disbelieve rape victims, something has gone horribly wrong.” My third thought was the same as my second thought, but in ALL CAPS, because at that point I had read the replies at the bottom.

I have yet to see anyone holding a cardboard sign talking about how they are going to rape people just to make feminists mad, but it’s only a matter of time. Like PETA, their incentive gradient dooms them to shoot themselves in the foot again and again.


Slate recently published an article about white people’s contrasting reactions to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson versus the Eric Garner choking in NYC. And man, it is some contrast.

A Pew poll found that of white people who expressed an opinion about the Ferguson case, 73% sided with the officer. Of white people who expressed an opinion about the Eric Garner case, 63% sided with the black victim.

Media opinion follows much the same pattern. Arch-conservative Bill O’Reilly said he was “absolutely furious” about the way “the liberal media” and “race hustlers” had “twisted the story” about Ferguson in the service of “lynch mob justice” and “insulting the American police community, men and women risking their lives to protect us”. But when it came to Garner, O’Reilly said he was “extremely troubled” and that “there was a police overreaction that should have been adjudicated in a court of law.” His guest on FOX News, conservative commentator and fellow Ferguson-detractor Charles Krauthammer added that “From looking at the video, the grand jury’s decision [not to indict] is totally incomprehensible.” Saturday Night Live did a skit about Al Sharpton talking about the Garner case and getting increasingly upset because “For the first time in my life, everyone agrees with me.”

This follows about three months of most of America being at one another’s throats pretty much full-time about Ferguson. We got treated to a daily diet of articles like Ferguson Protester On White People: “Y’all The Devil” or Black People Had The Power To Fix The Problems In Ferguson Before The Brown Shooting – They Failed or Most White People In America Are Completely Oblivious and a whole bunch of people sending angry racist editorials and counter-editorials to each other for months. The damage done to race relations is difficult to overestimate – CBS reports that they dropped ten percentage points to the lowest point in twenty years, with over half of blacks now describing race relations as “bad”.

And people say it was all worth it, because it raised awareness of police brutality against black people, and if that rustles some people’s jimmies, well, all the worse for them.

But the Eric Garner case also would have raised awareness of police brutality against black people, and everybody would have agreed about it. It has become increasingly clear that, given sufficiently indisputable evidence of police being brutal to a black person, pretty much everyone in the world condemns it equally strongly.

And it’s not just that the Eric Garner case came around too late so we had to make do with the Mike Brown case. Garner was choked a month before Brown was shot, but the story was ignored, then dug back up later as a tie-in to the ballooning Ferguson narrative.

More important, unarmed black people are killed by police or other security officers about twice a week according to official statistics, and probably much more often than that. You’re saying none of these shootings, hundreds each year, made as good a flagship case as Michael Brown? In all this gigantic pile of bodies, you couldn’t find one of them who hadn’t just robbed a convenience store? Not a single one who didn’t have ten eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence all saying he started it?

I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral – rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others – because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defense as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.

The Ferguson protesters say they have a concrete policy proposal – they want cameras on police officers. There’s only spotty polling on public views of police body cameras before the Ferguson story took off, but what there is seems pretty unaninimous. A UK poll showed that 90% of the population of that country wanted police to have body cameras in February. US polls are more of the form “crappy poll widget on a news site” (1, 2, 3) but they all hovered around 80% approval for the past few years. I also found a poll by Police Magazine in which a plurality of the police officers they surveyed wanted to wear body cameras, probably because of evidence that they cut down on false accusations. Even before Ferguson happened, you would have a really hard time finding anybody in or out of uniform who thought police cameras were a bad idea.

And now, after all is said and done, ninety percent of people are still in favor – given methodology issues, the extra ten percent may or may not represent a real increase. The difference between whites and blacks is a rounding error. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is barely worth talking about- 79% of Republicans are still in support. The people who think Officer Darren Wilson is completely innocent and the grand jury was right to release him, the people muttering under their breath about race hustlers and looters – eighty percent of those people still want cameras on their cops.

If the Ferguson protests didn’t do much to the public’s views on police body cameras, they sure changed its views on some other things. I wrote before about how preliminary polls say that hearing about Ferguson increased white people’s confidence in the way the police treat race. Now the less preliminary polls are out, and they show the effect was larger than even I expected.


White people’s confidence in the police being racially unbiased increased from 35% before the story took off to 52% today. Could even a deliberate PR campaign by the nation’s police forces have done better? I doubt it.

It’s possible that this is an artifact of the question’s wording – after all, it asks people about their local department, and maybe after seeing what happened in Ferguson, people’s local police forces look pretty good by comparison. But then why do black people show the opposite trend?

I think this is exactly what it looks like. Just as PETA’s outrageous controversial campaign to spread veganism make people want to eat more animals in order to spite them, so the controversial nature of this particular campaign against police brutality and racism made white people like their local police department even more to spite the people talking about how all whites were racist.

Once again, the tradeoff.

If campaigners against police brutality and racism were extremely responsible, and stuck to perfectly settled cases like Eric Garner, everybody would agree with them but nobody would talk about it.

If instead they bring up a very controversial case like Michael Brown, everybody will talk about it, but they will catalyze their own opposition and make people start supporting the police more just to spite them. More foot-shooting.


Here is a graph of some of the tags I commonly use for my posts, with the average number of hits per post in each tag. It’s old, but I don’t want to go through the trouble of making a new one, and the trends have stayed the same since then.

I blog about charity only rarely, but it must be the most important thing I can write about here. Convincing even a few more people to donate to charity, or to redirect their existing donations to a more effective program, can literally save dozens or even hundreds of lives even with the limited reach that a private blog has. It probably does more good for the world than all of the other categories on here combined. But it’s completely uncontroversial – everyone agrees it’s a good thing – and it is the least viewed type of post.

Compare this to the three most viewed category of post. Politics is self-explanatory. Race and gender are a type of politics even more controversial and outrage-inducing than regular politics. And that “regret” all the way on the right is my “things i will regret writing” tag, for posts that I know are going to start huge fights and probably get me in lots of trouble. They’re usually race and gender as well, but digging deep into the really really controversial race and gender related issues.

The less useful, and more controversial, a post here is, the more likely it is to get me lots of page views.

For people who agree with me, my angry rants on identity politics are a form of ego defense, saying “You’re okay, your in-group was in the right the whole time.” Linking to it both raises their status as an in-group members, and acts as a potential assault on out-group members who are now faced with strong arguments telling them they’re wrong.

As for the people who disagree with me, they’ll sometimes write angry rebuttals on their own blogs, and those rebuttals will link to my own post as often as not. Or they’ll talk about it with their disagreeing friends, and their friends will get mad and want to tell me I’m wrong, and come over here to read the post to get more ammunition for their counterarguments. I have a feature that allows me to see who links to all of my posts, so I can see this all happening in real-time.

I don’t make enough money off the ads on this blog to matter very much. But if I did, and this was my only means of subsistence, which do you think I’d write more of? Posts about charity which only get me 2,000 paying customers? Or posts that turn all of you against one another like a pack of rabid dogs, and get me 16,000?

I don’t have a fancy bar graph for them, but I bet this same hierarchy of interestingness applies to the great information currents and media outlets that shape society as a whole.

It’s in activists’ interests to destroy their own causes by focusing on the most controversial cases and principles, the ones that muddy the waters and make people oppose them out of spite. And it’s in the media’s interest to help them and egg them on.


And now, for something completely different.

Before “meme” meant doge and all your base, it was a semi-serious attempt to ground cultural evolution in parasitology. The idea was to replace a model of humans choosing whichever ideas they liked with a model of ideas as parasites that evolved in ways that favored their own transmission. This never really caught on, because most people’s response was “That’s neat. So what?”

But let’s talk about toxoplasma.

Toxoplasma is a neat little parasite that is implicated in a couple of human diseases including schizophrenia. Its life cycle goes like this: it starts in a cat. The cat poops it out. The poop and the toxoplasma get in the water supply, where they are consumed by some other animal, often a rat. The toxoplasma morphs into a rat-compatible form and starts reproducing. Once it has strength in numbers, it hijacks the rat’s brain, convincing the rat to hang out conspicuously in areas where cats can eat it. After a cat eats the rat, the toxoplasma morphs back into its cat compatible form and reproduces some more. Finally, it gets pooped back out by the cat, completing the cycle.

It’s the ciiiiiircle of life!

What would it mean for a meme to have a life cycle as complicated as toxoplasma?

Consider the war on terror. It’s a truism that each time the United States bombs Pakistan or Afghanistan or somewhere, all we’re doing is radicalizing the young people there and making more terrorists. Those terrorists then go on to kill Americans, which makes Americans get very angry and call for more bombing of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Taken as a meme, it is a single parasite with two hosts and two forms. In an Afghan host, it appears in a form called ‘jihad’, and hijacks its host into killing himself in order to spread it to its second, American host. In the American host it morphs in a form called ‘the war on terror’, and it hijacks the Americans into giving their own lives (and several bajillion of their tax dollars) to spread it back to its Afghan host in the form of bombs.

From the human point of view, jihad and the War on Terror are opposing forces. From the memetic point of view, they’re as complementary as caterpillars and butterflies. Instead of judging, we just note that somehow we accidentally created a replicator, and replicators are going to replicate until something makes them stop.

Replicators are also going to evolve. Some Afghan who thinks up a particularly effective terrorist strategy helps the meme spread to more Americans as the resulting outrage fuels the War on Terror. When the American bombing heats up, all of the Afghan villagers radicalized in by the attack will remember the really effective new tactic that Khalid thought up and do that one instead of the boring old tactic that barely killed any Americans at all. Some American TV commentator who comes up with a particularly stirring call to retaliation will find her words adopted into party platforms and repeated by pro-war newspapers. While pacifists on both sides work to defuse the tension, the meme is engaging in a counter-effort to become as virulent as possible, until people start suggesting putting pork fat in American bombs just to make Muslims even madder.

So let’s talk about Tumblr.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well.

What happens is – someone makes a statement which is controversial by Tumblr standards, like “Protect Doctor Who fans from kitten pic sharers at all costs.” A kitten pic sharer sees the statement, sees red, and reblogs it to her followers with a series of invectives against Doctor Who fans. Since kitten pic sharers cluster together in the social network, soon every kitten pic sharer has seen the insult against kitten pic sharer – as they all feel the need to add their defensive commentary to it, soon all of them are seeing it from ten different directions. The angry invectives get back to the Doctor Who fans, and now they feel deeply offended, so they reblog it among themselves with even more condemnations of the kitten pic sharers, who now not only did whatever inspired the enmity in the first place, but have inspired extra hostility because their hateful invectives are right there on the post for everyone to see. So about half the stuff on your dashboard is something you actually want to see, and the other half is towers of alternate insults that look like this:

Actually, pretty much this happened to the PETA story I started off with

And then you sigh and scroll down to the next one. Unless of course you are a Doctor Who fan, in which case you sigh and then immediately reblog with the comment “It’s obvious you guys started ganging up against us first, don’t try to accuse **US** now” because you can’t just let that accusation stand.

I make fun of Tumblr social justice sometimes, but the problem isn’t with Tumblr social justice, it’s structural. Every community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent critics, I am not talking about you). It’s like one of those rainforest ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them. If Tumblr social justice is worse than anything else, it’s mostly because everyone has a race and a gender so it’s easier to fire broad cannonades and just hit everybody.

Tumblr’s reblog policy makes it a hothouse for toxoplasma-style memes that spread via outrage. Following the ancient imperative of evolution, if memes spread by outrage they adapt to become as outrage-inducing as possible.

Or rather, that is just one of their many adaptations. I realize this toxoplasma metaphor sort of strains credibility, so I want to anchor this idea of outrage-memes in pretty much the only piece of memetics everyone can agree upon.

The textbook example of a meme – indeed, almost the only example ever discussed – is the chain letter. “Send this letter to ten people and you will prosper. Fail to pass it on, and you will die tomorrow.” And so the letter replicates.

It might be useful evidence that we were on the right track here, with our toxoplasma memes and everything, if we could find evidence that they reproduced in the same way.

If you’re not on Tumblr, you might have missed the “everyone who does not reblog the issue du jour is trash” wars. For a few weeks around the height of the Ferguson discussion, people constantly called out one another for not reblogging enough Ferguson-related material, or (Heavens forbid) saying they were sick of the amount of Ferguson material they were seeing. It got so bad that various art blogs that just posted pretty paintings, or kitten picture blogs that just reblogged pictures of kittens were feeling the heat (you thought I was joking about the hate for kitten picture bloggers. I never joke.) Now the issue du jour seems to be Pakistan. Just to give a few examples:

“friends if you are reblogging things that are not about ferguson right now please queue them instead. please pay attention to things that are more important. it’s not the time to talk about fandoms or jokes it’s time to talk about injustices.” [source]

“can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others” [source]

“If you’re uneducated, do not use that as an excuse. Do not say, “I’m not picking sides because I don’t know the full story,” because not picking a side is supporting Wilson. And by supporting him, you are on a racist side…Ignoring this situation will put you in deep shit, and it makes you racist. If you’re not racist, do not just say “but I’m not racist!!” just get educated and reblog anything you can.” [source]

“why are you so disappointing? I used to really like you. you’ve kept totally silent about peshawar, not acknowledging anything but fucking zutara or bellarke or whatever. there are other posts you’ve reblogged too that I wouldn’t expect you to- but those are another topic. I get that you’re 19 but maybe consider becoming a better fucking person?” [source]

“if you’re white, before you reblog one of those posts that’s like “just because i’m not blogging about ferguson doesn’t mean i don’t care!!!” take a few seconds to: consider the privilege you have that allows you not to pay attention if you don’t want to. consider those who do not have the privilege to focus on other things. ask yourself why you think it’s more important that people know you “care” than it is to spread information and show support. then consider that you are a fucking shitbaby.” [source]

“For everyone reblogging Ferguson, Ayotzinapa, North Korea etc and not reblogging Peshawar, you should seriously be ashamed of yourselves.” [source]

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?? I could give two fucks about internet shitlings.” [source]

You may also want to check the Tumblr tag “the trash is taking itself out”, in which hundreds of people make the same joke (“I think some people have stopped reading my blog because I’m talking too much about [the issue du jour]. I guess the trash is taking itself out now.”)

This is pretty impressive. It’s the first time outside of a chain letter that I have seen our memetic overlords throw off all pretense and just go around shouting “SPREAD ME OR YOU ARE GARBAGE AND EVERYONE WILL HATE YOU.”

But it only works because it’s tapped into the most delicious food source an ecology of epistemic parasites could possibly want – controversy,

I would like to be able to write about charity more often. Feminists would probably like to start supercharging the true rape accusations for a change. Protesters against police brutality would probably like to be able to focus on clear-cut cases that won’t make white people support the police even harder. Even PETA would probably prefer being the good guys for once. But the odds aren’t good. Not because the people involved are bad people who want to fail. Not even because the media-viewing public are stupid. Just because information ecologies are not your friend.

This blog tries to remember the Litany of Jai: “Almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken”. We pretty much never wrestle with flesh and blood; it’s powers and principalities all the way down.


…but one of them tends to come up suspiciously often.

A while ago I wrote a post called Meditations on Moloch where I pointed out that in any complex multi-person system, the system acts according to its own chaotic incentives that don’t necessarily correspond to what any individual within the system wants. The classic example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which usually ends at defect-defect even though both of the two prisoners involved prefer cooperate-cooperate. I compare this malignant discoordination to Ginsberg’s portrayal of Moloch, the demon-spirit of capitalism gone wrong.

Steven in his wisdom reminds us that there is no National Conversation Topic Czar. The rise of some topics to national prominence and the relegation of others to tiny print on the eighth page of the newspapers occurs by an emergent uncoordinated process. When we say “the media decided to cover Ferguson instead of Eric Garner”, we reify and anthropomorphize an entity incapable of making goal-directed decisions.

A while back there was a minor scandal over JournoList, a private group where left-leaning journalists met and exchanged ideas. I think the conservative spin was “the secret conspiracy running the liberal media – revealed!” I wish they had been right. If there were a secret conspiracy running the liberal media, they could all decide they wanted to raise awareness of racist police brutality, pick the most clear-cut and sympathetic case, and make it non-stop news headlines for the next two months. Then everyone would agree it was indeed very brutal and racist, and something would get done.

But as it is, even if many journalists are interested in raising awareness of police brutality, given their total lack of coordination there’s not much they can do. An editor can publish a story on Eric Garner, but in the absence of a divisive hook, the only reason people will care about it is that caring about it is the right thing and helps people. But that’s “charity”, and we already know from my blog tags that charity doesn’t sell. A few people mumble something something deeply distressed, but neither black people nor white people get interested, in the “keep tuning to their local news channel to get the latest developments on the case” sense.

The idea of liberal strategists sitting down and choosing “a flagship case for the campaign against police brutality” is poppycock. Moloch – the abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives – will publicize whatever he feels like publicizing. And if they want viewers and ad money, the media will go along with him.

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.

Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Under Moloch, everyone is irresistably incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.

People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else. An engine that creates money by burning the few remaining shreds of cooperation, bipartisanship and social trust.

Imagine Moloch, in his Carthaginian-demon personification, looking out over the expanse of the world, eagle-eyed for anything that can turn brother against brother and husband against wife. Finally he decides “YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? BIRD-WATCHING. LET ME FIND SOME STORY THAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE HATE EACH OTHER OVER BIRD-WATCHING”. And the next day half the world’s newspaper headlines are “Has The Political Correctness Police Taken Over Bird-Watching?” and the other half are “Is Bird-Watching Racist?”. And then bird-watchers and non-bird-watchers and different sub-groups of bird-watchers hold vitriolic attacks on each other that feed back on each other in a vicious cycle for the next six months, and the whole thing ends in mutual death threats and another previously innocent activity turning into World War I style trench warfare.


Debunked And Well-Refuted


As usual, I was insufficiently pessimistic.

I infer this from The Federalist‘s article on campus rape:

A new report on sexual assault released today by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officially puts to bed the bogus statistic that one in five women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault. In fact, non-students are 25 percent more likely to be victims of sexual assault than students, according to the data. And the real number of assault victims is several orders of magnitude lower than one-in-five.

The article compares the older Campus Sexual Assault Survey (which found 14-20% of women were raped since entering college) to the just-released National Crime Victmization Survey (which found that 0.6% of female college students are raped per year). They write “Instead of 1 in 5, the real number is 0.03 in 5.”

So the first thing I will mock The Federalist for doing is directly comparing per year sexual assault rates to per college career sexual assault rates, whereas obviously these are very different things. You can’t quite just divide the latter by four to get the former, but that’s going to work a heck of a lot better than not doing it, so let’s estimate the real discrepancy as more like 0.5% per year versus 5% per year.

But I can’t get too mad at them yet, because that’s still a pretty big discrepancy.

However, faced with this discrepancy a reasonable person might say “Hmm, we have two different studies that say two different things. I wonder what’s going on here and which study we should believe?”

The Federalist staff said “Ha! There’s an old study with findings we didn’t like, but now there’s a new study with different findings we do like. So the old study is debunked!”


My last essay, Beware The Man Of One Study, noted that one thing partisans do to justify their bias is selectively acknowledge studies from only one side of a complicated literature.

The reason it was insufficiently pessimistic is that there are also people like the Federalist staff, who acknowledge the existence of opposing studies, but only with the adjective “debunked” in front of them. By “debunked” they usually mean one of two things:

1. Someone on my side published a study later that found something else
2. Someone on my side accused it of having methodological flaws

Since the Federalist has so amply demonstrated the first failure mode, let me say a little more about the second. Did you know that anyone with a keyboard can just type up any of the following things?

– “That study is a piece of garbage that’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
– “People in the know dismissed that study years ago.”
– “Nobody in the field takes that study seriously.”
– “That study uses methods that are laughable to anybody who knows statistics.”
– “All the other research that has come out since discredits that study.”

They can say these things whether they are true or not. I’m kind of harping on this point, but it’s because it’s something I didn’t realize until much later than I should have.

There are many “questions” that are pretty much settled – evolution, global warming, homeopathy. But taking these as representative closes your mind and gives you a skewed picture of academia. On many issues, academics are just as divided as anyone else, and their arguments can be just as acrimonious as anyone else’s. The arguments usually take the form of one side publishing a study, the other side ripping the study apart and publishing their own study which they say is better, and the first side ripping the second study apart and arguing that their study was better all along.

Every study has flaws. No study has perfect methodology. If you like a study, you can say that it did the best it could on a difficult research area and has improved upon even-worse predecessor studies. If you don’t like a study, you can say “LOOK AT THESE FLAWS THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS THE CONCLUSION IS COMPLETELY INVALID”. All you need to do is make enough isolated demands for rigor against anything you disagree with.

And so if the first level of confirmation bias is believing every study that supports your views, the second layer of confirmation bias is believing every supposed refutation that supports your views.

See for example this recent Xenosystems post about a Twitterer claiming The Bell Curve has been “well-refuted”. There are definitely a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers arguing that The Bell Curve is wrong, often in very strong terms. There are also a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers saying that the first set of books, articles, and papers are wrong and The Bell Curve is right, also in very strong terms. To say that the first set is a “refutation” or “debunking” is as basic a mistake as saying that the new rape study is a “refutation” or “debunking” of the earlier rape study.

(albeit a mistake likely to be made by exactly the opposite people)

There are certainly things that have been “well-refuted” and “debunked”. Andrew Wakefield’s study purporting to prove that vaccines cause autism is a pretty good example. But you will notice that it had multiple failed replications, journals published reports showing he falsified data, the study’s co-authors retracted their support, the journal it was published in retracted it and issued an apology, the General Medical Council convicted Wakefield of sixteen counts of misconduct, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license and barred from practicing medicine ever again in the UK. The British Medical Journal, one of the best-respected medical journals in the world, published an editorial concluding:

Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare … Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No.

Meanwhile, The Bell Curve was lambasted in the popular press and by many academics. But it also got fifty of the top researchers in its field to sign a consensus statement saying it was pretty much right about everything and the people attacking it were biased and confused. Three years later, they re-issued their statement saying nothing had changed and more recent findings had only confirmed their opinion. The American Psychological Association launched a task force to settle the issue which stopped short of complete agreement but which given the circumstances was pretty darned supportive. There are certainly a lot of smart people with very strong negative opinions, but each one is still usually met by an equally ardent and credentialed proponent.

One of these two things has been “well-refuted”. The other has been “argued against”.


I saw this same dynamic at work the other day, looking through the minimum wage literature.

The primordial titanomachy of the minimum wage literature goes like this. In 1994, two guys named Card and Krueger published a study showing the minimum wage had if anything positive effects on New Jersey restaurants, convincing many people that minimum wages were good. In 1996, two guys named Neumark and Wascher reanalyzed the New Jersey data using a different source and found that it showed the minimum wage had very bad effects on New Jersey restaurants. In 2000, Card and Krueger responded, saying that their analysis was better than Neumark and Wascher’s re-analysis, and also they had done a re-analysis of their own which confirmed their original position.

Let’s see how conservative sites present this picture:

“The support for this assertion is the oft-cited 1994 study by Card and Krueger showing a positive correlation between an increased minimum wage and employment in New Jersey. Many others have thoroughly debunked this study.” (source)

“I was under the impression that the original study done by Card and Krueger had been thoroughly debunked by Michigan State University economist David Neumark and William Wascher” (source)

“The study … by Card and Krueger has been debunked by several different people several different times. When other researchers re-evaluated the study, they found that data collected using those records ‘lead to the opposite conclusion from that reached by’ Card and Krueger.” (source)

“It was only a short time before the fantastic Card-Krueger findings were challenged and debunked by several subsequent studies…in 1995, economists David Neumark and David Wascher used actual payroll records (instead of survey data used by Card and Krueger) and published their results in an NBER paper with an amazing finding: Demand curves for unskilled labor really do slope downward, confirming 200 years of economic theory and mountains of empirical evidence (source)

And now let’s look at how lefty sites present this picture:

“…a long-debunked paper [by Neumark and Wascher]” (source)

“Note that your Mises heroes, Neumark and Wascher are roundly debunked.” (source)

“Neumark’s living wage and minimum wage research have been found to be seriously flawed…based on faulty methods which when corrected refute his conclusion.” – (source)

“…Neumark and Wascher, a study which Elizabeth Warren debunked in a Senate hearing” (source)

So if you’re conservative, Neumark and Wascher debunked Card and Krueger. But if you’re liberal, Card and Krueger debunked Neumark and Wascher.

Both sides are no doubt very pleased with themselves. They’re not men of one study. They look at all of the research – except of course the studies that have been “debunked” or “well-refuted”. Why would you waste your time with those?


Once again, I’m not preaching radical skepticism.

First of all, some studies are super-debunked. Wakefield is a good example.

Second of all, some studies that don’t quite meet Wakefield-level of awfulness are indeed really bad and need refuting. I don’t think this is beyond the intellectual capacities of most people. I think in many cases it’s easy to understand why a study is wrong, you should try to do that, and once you do it you can safely discount the results of the study.

I’m not against pointing out when you disagree with studies or think they’re flawed. I’d be a giant hypocrite if I was.

But “debunked” and “refuted” aren’t saying you disagree with a study. They’re making arguments from authority. They’re saying “the authority of the scientific community has come together and said this is a piece of crap that doesn’t count”.

And that’s fine if that’s actually happened. But you had better make sure that you’re calling upon an ex cathedra statement by the community itself, and not a single guy with an axe to grind. Or one side of a complicated an interminable debate where both sides have about equal credentials and sway.

If you can’t do that, you say “I think that my side of the academic debate is in the right, and here’s why,” not “your side has been debunked”.

Otherwise you’re going to end up like the minimum wage debaters, where both sides claim to have debunked the other. Or like that woman on Twitter, who calls a common position backed by leading researchers “well-refuted”. Or like the Federalist article that says a study has been “put to bed” as “bogus” just because another study said something different.

I think this is part of my reply to the claim that empiricism is so great that no one needs rationality.

A naive empiricist who swears off critical thinking because they can just “follow the evidence” has no contingency plan for when the evidence gets confusing. Their only recourse is to deny that the evidence is confusing, to assert that one side or the other has been “debunked”. Since they’ve already made a principled decision not to study confirmation bias, chances are it’s going to be whichever side they don’t like that’s “already been debunked”. And by “debunked” they mean “a scientist on my side said it was wrong, so now I am relieved from the burden of thinking about it.”

On the original post, I wrote:

Life is made up of limited, confusing, contradictory, and maliciously doctored facts. Anyone who says otherwise is either sticking to such incredibly easy solved problems that they never encounter anything outside their comfort level, or so closed-minded that they shut out any evidence that challenges their beliefs.

In the absence of any actual debunking more damning than a counterargument, “that’s been debunked” is the way “shuts out any evidence that challenges their beliefs” feels from the inside.


Somebody’s going to want to know what’s up with the original rape studies. The answer is that a small part of the discrepancy is response bias on the CSAS, but most of it is that the two surveys encourage respondents to define “sexual assault” in very different ways. Vox has an excellent article on this which for once I 100% endorse.

In other words, both are valid, both come together to form a more nuanced picture of campus violence, and neither one “debunks” the other. How about that?

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Beware The Man Of One Study

Aquinas famously said: beware the man of one book. I would add: beware the man of one study.

For example, take medical research. Suppose a certain drug is weakly effective against a certain disease. After a few years, a bunch of different research groups have gotten their hands on it and done all sorts of different studies. In the best case scenario the average study will find the true result – that it’s weakly effective.

But there will also be random noise caused by inevitable variation and by some of the experiments being better quality than others. In the end, we might expect something looking kind of like a bell curve. The peak will be at “weakly effective”, but there will be a few studies to either side. Something like this:

We see that the peak of the curve is somewhere to the right of neutral – ie weakly effective – and that there are about 15 studies that find this correct result.

But there are also about 5 studies that find that the drug is very good, and 5 studies missing the sign entirely and finding that the drug is actively bad. There’s even 1 study finding that the drug is very bad, maybe seriously dangerous.

This is before we get into fraud or statistical malpractice. I’m saying this is what’s going to happen just by normal variation in experimental design. As we increase experimental rigor, the bell curve might get squashed horizontally, but there will still be a bell curve.

In practice it’s worse than this, because this is assuming everyone is investigating exactly the same question.

Suppose that the graph is titled “Effectiveness Of This Drug In Treating Bipolar Disorder”.

But maybe the drug is more effective in bipolar i than in bipolar ii (Depakote, for example)

Or maybe the drug is very effective against bipolar mania, but much less effective against bipolar depression (Depakote again).

Or maybe the drug is a good acute antimanic agent, but very poor at maintenance treatment (let’s stick with Depakote).

If you have a graph titled “Effectiveness Of Depakote In Treating Bipolar Disorder” plotting studies from “Very Bad” to “Very Good” – and you stick all the studies – maintenence, manic, depressive, bipolar i, bipolar ii – on the graph, then you’re going to end running the gamut from “very bad” to “very good” even before you factor in noise and even before even before you factor in bias and poor experimental design.

So here’s why you should beware the man of one study.

If you go to your better class of alternative medicine websites, they don’t tell you “Studies are a logocentric phallocentric tool of Western medicine and the Big Pharma conspiracy.”

They tell you “medical science has proved that this drug is terrible, but ignorant doctors are pushing it on you anyway. Look, here’s a study by a reputable institution proving that the drug is not only ineffective, but harmful.”

And the study will exist, and the authors will be prestigious scientists, and it will probably be about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

And then a lot of people raised on the idea that some things have Evidence and other things have No Evidence think holy s**t, they’re right!

On the other hand, your doctor isn’t going to a sketchy alternative medicine website. She’s examining the entire literature and extracting careful and well-informed conclusions from…

Haha, just kidding. She’s going to a luncheon at a really nice restaurant sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, which assures her that they would never take advantage of such an opportunity to shill their drug, they just want to raise awareness of the latest study. And the latest study shows that their drug is great! Super great! And your doctor nods along, because the authors of the study are prestigious scientists, and it’s about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

But obviously the pharmaceutical company has selected one of the studies from the “very good” end of the bell curve.

And I called this “Beware The Man of One Study”, but it’s easy to see that in the little diagram there are like three or four studies showing that the drug is “very good”, so if your doctor is a little skeptical, the pharmaceutical company can say “You are right to be skeptical, one study doesn’t prove anything, but look – here’s another group that finds the same thing, here’s yet another group that finds the same thing, and here’s a replication that confirms both of them.”

And even though it looks like in our example the sketchy alternative medicine website only has one “very bad” study to go off of, they could easily supplement it with a bunch of merely “bad” studies. Or they could add all of those studies about slightly different things. Depakote is ineffective at treating bipolar depression. Depakote is ineffective at maintenance bipolar therapy. Depakote is ineffective at bipolar ii.

So just sum it up as “Smith et al 1987 found the drug ineffective, yet doctors continue to prescribe it anyway”. Even if you hunt down the original study (which no one does), Smith et al won’t say specifically “Do remember that this study is only looking at bipolar maintenance, which is a different topic from bipolar acute antimanic treatment, and we’re not saying anything about that.” It will just be titled something like “Depakote fails to separate from placebo in six month trial of 91 patients” and trust that the responsible professionals reading it are well aware of the difference between acute and maintenance treatments (hahahahaha).

So it’s not so much “beware the man of one study” as “beware the man of any number of studies less than a relatively complete and not-cherry-picked survey of the research”.


I think medical science is still pretty healthy, and that the consensus of doctors and researchers is more-or-less right on most controversial medical issues.

(it’s the uncontroversial ones you have to worry about)

Politics doesn’t have this protection.

Like, take the minimum wage question (please). We all know about the Krueger and Card study in New Jersey that found no evidence that high minimum wages hurt the economy. We probably also know the counterclaims that it was completely debunked as despicable dishonest statistical malpractice. Maybe some of us know Card and Krueger wrote a pretty convincing rebuttal of those claims. Or that a bunch of large and methodologically advanced studies have come out since then, some finding no effect like Dube, others finding strong effects like Rubinstein and Wither. These are just examples; there are at least dozens and probably hundreds of studies on both sides.

But we can solve this with meta-analyses and systemtic reviews, right?

Depends which one you want. Do you go with this meta-analysis of fourteen studies that shows that any presumed negative effect of high minimum wages is likely publication bias? With this meta-analysis of sixty-four studies that finds the same thing and discovers no effect of minimum wage after correcting for the problem? Or how about this meta-analysis of fifty-five countries that does find effects in most of them? Maybe you prefer this systematic review of a hundred or so studies that finds strong and consistent effects?

Can we trust news sources, think tanks, econblogs, and other institutions to sum up the state of the evidence?

CNN claims that 85% of credible studies have shown the minimum wage causes job loss. But declares that “two decades of rigorous economic research have found that raising the minimum wage does not result in job loss…researchers and businesses alike agree today that the weight of the evidence shows no reduction in employment resulting from minimum wage increases.” Modeled Behavior says “the majority of the new minimum wage research supports the hypothesis that the minimum wage increases unemployment.” The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says “The common claim that raising the minimum wage reduces employment for low-wage workers is one of the most extensively studied issues in empirical economics. The weight of the evidence is that such impacts are small to none.”

Okay, fine. What about economists? They seem like experts. What do they think?

Well, five hundred economists signed a letter to policy makers saying that the science of economics shows increasing the minimum wage would be a bad idea. That sounds like a promising consensus…

..except that six hundred economists signed a letter to policy makers saying that the science of economics shows increasing the minimum wage would be a good idea. (h/t Greg Mankiw)

Fine then. Let’s do a formal survey of economists. Now what?, an unbiased source if ever there was one, confidently tells us that “indicative is a 2013 survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in which leading economists agreed by a nearly 4 to 1 margin that the benefits of raising and indexing the minimum wage outweigh the costs.”

But the Employment Policies Institute, which sounds like it’s trying way too hard to sound like an unbiased source, tells us that “Over 73 percent of AEA labor economists believe that a significant increase will lead to employment losses and 68 percent think these employment losses fall disproportionately on the least skilled. Only 6 percent feel that minimum wage hikes are an efficient way to alleviate poverty.”

So the whole thing is fiendishly complicated. But unless you look very very hard, you will never know that.

If you are a conservative, what you will find on the sites you trust will be something like this:

Economic theory has always shown that minimum wage increases decrease employment, but the Left has never been willing to accept this basic fact. In 1992, they trumpeted a single study by Card and Krueger that purported to show no negative effects from a minimum wage increase. This study was immediately debunked and found to be based on statistical malpractice and “massaging the numbers”. Since then, dozens of studies have come out confirming what we knew all along – that a high minimum wage is economic suicide. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses (Neumark 2006, Boockman 2010) consistently show that an overwhelming majority of the research agrees on this fact – as do 73% of economists. That’s why five hundred top economists recently signed a letter urging policy makers not to buy into discredited liberal minimum wage theories. Instead of listening to starry-eyed liberal woo, listen to the empirical evidence and an overwhelming majority of economists and oppose a raise in the minimum wage.

And if you are a leftist, what you will find on the sites you trust will be something like this:

People used to believe that the minimum wage decreased unemployment. But Card and Krueger’s famous 1992 study exploded that conventional wisdom. Since then, the results have been replicated over fifty times, and further meta-analyses (Card and Krueger 1995, Dube 2010) have found no evidence of any effect. Leading economists agree by a 4 to 1 margin that the benefits of raising the minimum wage outweigh the costs, and that’s why more than 600 of them have signed a petition telling the government to do exactly that. Instead of listening to conservative scare tactics based on long-debunked theories, listen to the empirical evidence and the overwhelming majority of economists and support a raise in the minimum wage.

Go ahead. Google the issue and see what stuff comes up. If it doesn’t quite match what I said above, it’s usually because they can’t even muster that level of scholarship. Half the sites just cite Card and Krueger and call it a day!

These sites with their long lists of studies and experts are super convincing. And half of them are wrong.

At some point in their education, most smart people usually learn not to credit arguments from authority. If someone says “Believe me about the minimum wage because I seem like a trustworthy guy,” most of them will have at least one neuron in their head that says “I should ask for some evidence”. If they’re really smart, they’ll use the magic words “peer-reviewed experimental studies.”

But I worry that most smart people have not learned that a list of dozens of studies, several meta-analyses, hundreds of experts, and expert surveys showing almost all academics support your thesis – can still be bullshit.

Which is too bad, because that’s exactly what people who want to bamboozle an educated audience are going to use.


I do not want to preach radical skepticism.

For example, on the minimum wage issue, I notice only one side has presented a funnel plot. A funnel plot is usually used to investigate publication bias, but it has another use as well – it’s pretty much an exact presentation of the “bell curve” we talked about above.

This is more of a needle curve than a bell curve, but the point still stands. We see it’s centered around 0, which means there’s some evidence that’s the real signal among all this noise. The bell skews more to left than to the right, which means more studies have found negative effects of the minimum wage than positive effects of the minimum wage. But since the bell curve is asymmetrical, we intepret that as probably publication bias. So all in all, I think there’s at least some evidence that the liberals are right on this one.

Unless, of course, someone has realized that I’ve wised up to the studies and meta-analyses and and expert surveys, and figured out a way to hack funnel plots, which I am totally not ruling out.

(okay, I kind of want to preach radical skepticism)

Also, I should probably mention that it’s much more complicated than one side being right, and that the minimum wage probably works differently depending on what industry you’re talking about, whether it’s state wage or federal wage, whether it’s a recession or a boom, whether we’re talking about increasing from $5 to $6 or from $20 to $30, etc, etc, etc. There are eleven studies on that plot showing an effect even worse than -5, and very possibly they are all accurate for whatever subproblem they have chosen to study – much like the example with Depakote where it might an effective antimanic but a terrible antidepressant.

(radical skepticism actually sounds a lot better than figuring this all out).


But the question remains: what happens when (like in most cases) you don’t have a funnel plot?

I don’t have a good positive answer. I do have several good negative answers.

Decrease your confidence about most things if you’re not sure that you’ve investigated every piece of evidence.

Do not trust websites which are obviously biased (eg Free Republic, Daily Kos, Dr. Oz) when they tell you they’re going to give you “the state of the evidence” on a certain issue, even if the evidence seems very stately indeed. This goes double for any site that contains a list of “myths and facts about X”, quadruple for any site that uses phrases like “ingroup member uses actual FACTS to DEMOLISH the outgroup’s lies about Y”, and octuple for RationalWiki.

Most important, even if someone gives you what seems like overwhelming evidence in favor of a certain point of view, don’t trust it until you’ve done a simple Google search to see if the opposite side has equally overwhelming evidence.

Links 12/14: Come Ye To Bethlinkhem

To the list of people who met their spouses online, add ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who met his wife Sujidah al-Dulaimi on the Internet. Possibly related: ISIS runs a jihadi dating site. I’m going to say it – niche dating sites have gone too far.

Well, that turned sinister quickly. Menthol, which I had always just assumed was added to cigarettes to make them taste better, tweaks the brain to potentiate nicotine addiction.

You probably heard about the successful Orion launch last week. On Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five”: Was The Space Shuttle Really So Bad We Had To De-Evolve Back To Capsules?. A lot of great discussion, but the answer is pretty much “yes” – the space shuttle started off unambitious, turned into a monstrosity loaded down with compromises to tick off every stupid constraint Congress and the Pentagon put on it, and probably set space exploration back for a generation because it looked so cool that no one was willing to admit it was useless. Capsules are cheaper, safer, and more likely to go somewhere. That having been said, Orion has an uphill battle – its main proposed mission, going to an asteroid, requires a conjunction of lots of things that probably won’t pan out, and so nobody really knows what it’s for except saying we’ve got one.

Lest you get too depressed, remember you live in an age where a private company with thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue and a proven record of success is at this very moment working on a spaceship called the Mars Colonial Transporter, intended to carry at least a hundred colonists and several tons of freight to the Red Planet by 2030.

I have had it with Omega-3 fats. As bad as the field of nutrition in general is, the study of Omega-3 fats is the worst. One day they show amazing results, the next day a similar study comes out showing no results at all. Depending on what research you believe they are either the cure for all psychiatric illness, or they’ll do nothing except make your burps smell like fish (exception: the research showing they decrease aggression in institutionalized settings is pretty strong). Now the latest such study shows that Omega-3 fats have a ginormous effect in preventing the development of psychosis.

New accusations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “‘Every night they release wild pigs against us,’ the president was quoted as saying. ‘Why are they doing this?'”

Carcinization somehow gets stuck defending that cultural evolution is real, because apparently some people doubt this.

After wars that kill off a lot of (primarily male) soldiers, a greater proportion of the babies born are boys, almost as if Nature is trying to make up the deficit. A new review tries to piece together why.

China bans puns on the grounds that they may mislead children and defile cultural heritage. Language Log is on the story, and discusses the (extremely plausible) theory that this is part of a crackdown on people who use puns to get around censorship. Obligatory link to the Ten Mythical Creatures here. There’s no censor sensibility to the law, and it seems likely to cause Confucian and dis-Orientation among punks and pundits alike in its wonton disregard for personal freedom and attempts to bamboo-zle the public. It’s safe Tibet that dissidents who just Taipei single pun online will end up panda price and facing time in the punitentiary or even capital punishment – but those Hu support the government can Maoth off as much as they want and still wok free. I Canton derstand how people wouldn’t realize that this homophonbic bigotry raises a bunch of red flags. In the end, one Deng is clear: when puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns.

I’m having trouble finding a non-horrible link to this that doesn’t participate in the behavior it’s discussing, but let’s go with this one by bizpacreview. The New York Times publishes the name of the street where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson lives despite about a zillion death threats against him, then refuses to take it down. Conservative activists respond by publicizing the home addresses of the reporters who published the story. Reporters demand the police protect them, thus completing the circle of irony. How about a compromise solution of STOP DOXXING PEOPLE.

People with schizophrenia have a wide range of impairment, from “totally unable to function independently” to “actually pretty functional”. Here’s a profile of a schizophrenic programmer working on creating God’s temple in the form of a really weird operating system. Gives a good feel for what the condition must feel like from the inside.

So apparently if you inject human glial cells into mouse brains, you end up with a much smarter mouse. This raises at least two questions: first, what does this tell us about the oft-neglected role of glial cells in intelligence? Second, if you inject the glial cells of a supergenius into the brain of a moderately intelligent person, does the moderately intelligent person become smarter? I’m asking for, uh, a friend. Yeah. A friend.

I’ve written a couple of times about the promise of minocycline for treating schizophrenia. @TheTenthTendril links me to a new meta-analysis of 330 people confirming efficacy of minocycline.

Recent study: Summer jobs decrease violent crime among disadvantaged youth almost by half, effect remains after one-year followup. Cost-effectiveness still difficult to determine.

I’ve never written anything about poker before, but two very interesting things happened at this year’s Poker World Series. First, two winners, including the grand champion, were members of Raising For Effective Giving, a group of poker players linked with the effective altruism movement who have promised to donate 2-3% of their winnings to effective charity. Given the $10 million prize, that’s $200,000 right there. Second, the winner credited part of his success to the nootropic CILTEP. I’m a bit surprised, because I’ve tried CILTEP and found it totally useless; it also got very mediocre ratings on my nootropics survey. Maybe it’s a matter of personal variation. But nootropics now officially pass the xkcd test.

This, on the other hand, is exactly my aesthetic: new computer system uses game theory to remove social barriers to reporting sexual assault

The smoldering rebellion thing in Ukraine is killing a lot of Russian troops, but how many exactly? With the Russian government pretending the whole thing doesn’t exist it’s hard to say, but some estimates already place the number higher than Soviet losses in Afghanistan or US losses in Iraq.

Excess Success For Psychology Articles In The Journal Science. If I understand this right, they’re saying that psychology articles in Science get positive results so often that even if their hypotheses were always true, they still should get fewer positive results simply because of the expected rate of false negatives. This suggests that something fishy is going on, which at this point should be pretty unsurprising for published psychology articles.

How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant. I don’t know enough about sociology to have a strong opinion on the article, but I found interesting the descriptions of government programs. Moving To Opportunity, the program that moved poor families with children to nice neighborhoods? No effect on the kids’ futures (compare to the non-experimental neighborhood study in the last links roundup.) Building Strong Families, the program that gave parents counseling on how to keep their marriages together? Marriages fell apart exactly as quickly as everyone else’s. At some point we really need to get ourselves some better government programs. Which I guess is what the article is trying to tell us how to do.

Several readers sent me this article by Maradydd on the place of nerds in society, which I would have a lot more to say about if I had room left in my head for thoughts other than how frustrating I found the giant blocks of pictures inserted at random points throughout the web page. But other than that I think I approve.

The Conservative Case For Reforming The Police. Although I’m not sure how the conservative case for anything ended up on Slate. I hope the three conservatives who read it get inspired.

A while ago I praised the article/short story Libertarian Police Department as one of the funniest things I had ever read. I possibly have to take that back. I never would have imagined it possible, but this counter-story story in the Atlantic, Non-Libertarian Police Department, beats it by a mile and is even more worthy of your interest.

When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About The Future: “It’s no accident that the most ubiquitous, overwhelming sci-fi sub-genre around is the one that has the least to do with the future: superheroes. Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that [we can experience technological marvels] without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all. Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world’s technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.”

You know how evidence showed that the minimum wage increased unemployment? And then evidence showed that it didn’t? Now evidence shows that it does again. If anyone ever studies the effects of the minimum wage on omega-3 fats, I don’t even want to know.

Another one of those timeless narrative motifs that recur across all ages and cultures: A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay. The first review is my favorite.

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A Story With Zombies

(inspired by Zombies: Seriously, Enough, Zombies Are So Overdone, and Scifi/Fantasy Stories Editors Are Tired Of Seeing: Zombies)

He walked into my office and threw the manuscript on my desk with a thud.

“It’s called Thankful For Zombies. A zombie story where…”

“Nope,” I said.

His face deflated like a balloon. “But I didn’t even…”

“Zombies are overdone,” I said.

“But this is a zombie story with a twist!”

“Zombie stories with twists are super overdone.”

“But this is a story about an extended family who get together for Thanksgiving dinner, only to be interrupted by a zombie apocalypse. It’s a Thanksgiving story about zombies. You have to admit that the combination of zombies and Thanksgiving has never…”

“Done,” I said.

“Wait, really? The family starts out estranged and suspicious of each other, but then when they all have to work together to…”

“Done,” I said.

“How could that have been done?”

“Listen. I know you won’t believe me, but for the past ten years or so, the best literary minds of our generation have been working on creating zombie stories just different enough from every other zombie story around to get published. First the clever and interesting twists got explored. Then the mediocre and boring twists. Then the absurd and idiotic twists. Finally the genre got entirely mined out. There is now a New York Times bestselling book about zombies invading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If your idea isn’t weirder than that, it’s been done. And that’s the logical ‘if’. If your idea is weirder than that, it has also been done.”

“I will get Thankful for Zombies published,” he said.

“You won’t,” I advised him.

“I just have to think of an original angle.”

“You really won’t,” I told him.

“The zombies are the good guys,” he proposed.


“The zombies are smarter than humans.”


“In the end, we ourselves are the zombies.”


“A human girl falls in love with a zombie.”


“Okay, fine. Toss the Thanksgiving angle. There’s got to be some zombie plot that will be fresh and new.”

“I promise you, there’s not.”

“Zombies in space.”


“Zombies from space.”


“Zombies are space.”


“Zombies in Victorian England.”


“Zombies in Edwardian England.”


“Zombies in Shakespearean England.”


“Shakespeare was a zombie, and all of his plays are just the word BRAAAAAAIIINS repeated over and over again.”

“Done, for some reason.”

“A young zombie comes of age.”


“A middle-aged zombie wonders if her single-minded focus on career success has prevented her from becoming the kind of zombie she wanted to be when she was younger.”


“An elderly zombie contemplates death.”

“Zombies are already dead.”

“Then I can…”

“…and yet it’s still been done.”

“A zombie in the Vietnam War.”


“A hippie zombie at Woodstock.”


“Strong female zombies.”


“Jewish zombies.”


“Black zombies.”


“A gay zombie struggling to fit into a homophobic zombie society.”

“Come on, this is the 21st century. Done like ten times. One of them won the Booker.”

“Gender-questioning zombies.”


“An immigrant zombie comes to America, with nothing but the decaying shirt on his back, knowing only a single word of English.”

All zombies only know a single word of English. Also, done.”

“Nazi zombies.”


“Vampire zombies.”


“Pirate zombies.”


“Obstetrician/gynaecologist zombies.”


“Zombie Hitler.”


“Zombie Henry VIII.”


“But what if it was told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn?”


“Zombie Leonardo da Vinci.”


“Zombie Jesus.”

“Done. By three guys named Matt, Luke, and John.”

“Zombie Buddha.”


“Zombie Mohammed.”

“Done. As is the author, if you get my drift.”

“Zombie Zoroaster.”


“A parody subverting zombie stories.”

“Super done.”

“A parody subverting zombie stories lampshading how overdone they are.”

“Super duper done.”

“Hmmmm.” He thinks for a second. “Hold on, I’m remembering something from my college math class that might work here. You take all the zombie novels ever written, and you put them in some well-ordering, for example from first to last published. Then you make a new novel, consisting of the first page of the first novel, the second page of the second novel, and so on. But you change each page just a little bit. Since we know the first page of the new novel is different from the first page of the first novel, and the second page of the new novel is different from the second page of the second novel, by extension we know that there is at least one page on which the new novel is different from each zombie novel currently in existence. That means that the new story is provably original.”


“I don’t think you understand; it’s mathematically impossible for…”

“No, I mean there’s a story about a zombie doing that.”

“Oh.” He furrowed his brow. “A zombie superhero.”


“Steampunk zombies.”

“Done. I think now you’re just trolling me.”

“Motorcycle gangs of zombies.”


“A zombie story that’s a metaphor for how…”


“I didn’t finish!”

“You didn’t have to.”

“A zombie gets cancer.”


“A zombie gets depression.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction about a zombie trying to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to…”

“It’s done all the way down.”

“Young free-spirited zombies trying to see America.”


“A story that starts off as being about a fantasy society of knights and damsels, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being about a young woman’s struggle to succeed in 1980s Wall Street, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being a paleontology textbook about the fauna of the Lower Cretaceous, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”

“Twist zombie endings are done.”

“A zombie…a zombie riding a giant purple emu through 17th century Ireland teams up with the pre-ghost of Thomas Jefferson to investigate a crime in which time-traveling flamboyantly gay sapient hippos have murdered the Secret Protestant Pope in order to initiate the Jain apocalypse, with liberal quotations from and allusions to the works of Edgar Allen Poe Thomas Pynchon and the medieval Rolandic cycle, and also the whole thing is a metaphor for Republican resistance to climate change legislation.”

I thought for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “That particular plot has not, technically, been done. But no one would read it.”

“They will,” he said.

“You’d be wasting your time to write it.”

“I’m writing it,” he said.

“Suit yourself. Put it on my desk when you’re finished, and I’ll take a look at it. But your chances aren’t good.”

“I don’t care,” he said, and left.

I sighed, finished up my last couple of pieces of paperwork, and shambled home from the office. On the way out, I ate my secretary’s brain.

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OT10: We Thread Kings

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

1. Drethelin has made a #slatestarcodex IRC channel on Freenode. If you use IRC, you already know what to do – if not, there’s an easy in-browser login at I haven’t really been there much and don’t know if it’s any good. Also I don’t understand why people don’t just go to #lesswrong which has a lot of the same people. Whatever.

2. Good recent comments: on framing, here’s Rowan, Youzicha, and AR+ bringing up a few aspects of the issue I hadn’t thought about. On Kerouac, a lot of people told me I should be better able to appreciate books about imperfect people – Mai speaks for me with a pithy description of why he prefers Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to On the Road. Murphy expands upon the change in how jobs are viewed. Deiseach and Jaskologist continue the SSC comments tradition of being able to relate everything to gender, sometimes in enlightening ways. And as always Sarah is worth reading.

3. My hosting provider is giving me grief over a recent spike in traffic. Apparently science and politics are out, reviews of terrible ’50s books are in. Weird. Anyway, expect occasional outages while I deal with this and possibly move to a different hosting provider. Thanks for people who have offered me help, but I think I’ve got this one covered at this point.

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.

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Framing For Light Instead Of Heat


Ezra Klein uses my analysis of race and justice as a starting point to offer a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of what exactly it means to control for something in a study.

I’m not really going to call it a critique of my piece, because it only applies to two of the six areas I looked at, and in those two areas Klein’s thoughts were already carefully integrated into my conclusion – I described both as showing “ambiguity over the level of racial bias, depending on…how strictly you define racial bias.” The Vox article repeated and expanded on that conclusion rather than contradicting it.

But it’s still an important issue and I’m glad it’s come up since I didn’t have time to deal with at enough length in the original post.

The argument is: any study worth its salt is going to control for things like income level. Therefore, a study that concludes “blacks and whites get arrested at about the same rates” may only mean “blacks and whites of the same income level get arrested at about the same rates”. If blacks on average have lower incomes, then in the real world blacks might still be arrested much more. Blacks being poor and therefore getting uniquely poor treatment from the criminal justice system (Klein says) sounds like exactly the sort of thing we would call “racial discrimination” or “racial bias” or “racism”, but it would be totally missed by the standard methodology of controlling for income.

The solution is terminological rigor, which I foolishly forgot to have. What I should have said at the beginning of my post was “I want to know whether there is any direct bias against black people caused by racist attitudes among police and other officials.” By this definition, all of my conclusions stand.

Klein wants to know whether there is any factor at all that causes disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on any race. By this definition, my conclusions are only a tiny part of the picture, although at the end I recommend the book Malign Neglect which provides much of the rest.

As long as we keep these two meanings of “racial bias” or “racism” or whatever separate, there’s no problem. Once we start conflating them, we’re going to become very confused in one direction or another.

Ezra Klein and I don’t disagree about any point of statistics. What I think we do disagree about is the terminology.

If we find that much of the overrepresentation of blacks in the criminal justice system is because black people are often poor and poor people often get sucked into the system, should we describe this as “the problem isn’t racism in the criminal justice system, it’s poverty” or as “the problem is racism in the criminal justice system, as manifested through poverty”?


Consider a town with 1000 black people and 1000 white people. 750 black people are poor, and 250 are rich. 750 white people are rich, and 250 are poor. Everyone commits crimes at the same rate – let’s say 10% per year. Rich people have lots of connections and can bribe their way out of trouble in a pinch, so only 50% of rich criminals get arrested. Poor people don’t have any strings they can pull, so 100% of poor criminals get arrested.

We can do the calculations and determine that the black arrest rate will be 8.75% and the white arrest rate 6.25%, a pretty significant difference. The people in the town can do the calculations as well. They correctly observe that in their town, everyone commits crimes at the same rate, so there must be some bias in their system. Using Klein’s definition, they determine that since the system in their town disproportionately affects blacks, their criminal justice system is racist.

The problem is, upon learning that your criminal justice system is racist, what solutions come to mind? The ones I think of include things like increasing the diversity of the officer pool, sending police to diversity training, ferreting out racist attitudes and comments among members of the force, urging officers to consume media that is more positive towards black people, et cetera.

But all of these are unrelated to the problem and will accomplish nothing. We specified the decision algorithm these officers use, and we know it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with class. The townspeople should be attacking the culture of bribery, nepotism, and corruption, not throwing away resources on curing racist attitudes that don’t affect police behavior in the slightest.

Note that this is true even if the poverty is caused by racism. Suppose the town college unfairly admits whites and turns down blacks, which is why the white people in this town are so much richer. I have no problem with saying “the town college is racist”. This suggests the appropriate solutions – educating and/or punishing the people at the college. I have a lot of problems with saying “the town police are racist” as a shortcut for “the town police take bribes, and due to racism somewhere else the people with the cash are all white” because this obfuscates the correct solution.

You can’t just cut links out of a causal chain and preserve meaning. “Blacks are arrested disproportionately often because of gravity” is true, insofar as without the formation of the Earth from the gravitational coalescence of a primordial gas cloud humans and therefore racism wouldn’t exist. But if the natural reaction to hearing the phrase is to solve the problem by attaching hundreds of helium balloons to black people, then say something less misleading.


Klein goes on to say:

An example is research around the gender wage gap, which tries to control for so many things that it ends up controlling for the thing it’s trying to measure. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote, the commonly cited statistic that American women suffer from a 23 percent wage gap through which they make just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns is much too simplistic. On the other hand, the frequently heard conservative counterargument that we should subject this raw wage gap to a massive list of statistical controls until it nearly vanishes is an enormous oversimplification in the opposite direction. After all, for many purposes gender is itself a standard demographic control to add to studies — and when you control for gender the wage gap disappears entirely!

The question to ask about the various statistical controls that can be applied to shrink the gender gap is what are they actually telling us,” he continued. “The answer, I think, is that it’s telling how the wage gap works.

Take hours worked, which is a standard control in some of the more sophisticated wage gap studies. Women tend to work fewer hours than men. If you control for hours worked, then some of the gender wage gap vanishes. As Yglesias wrote, it’s “silly to act like this is just some crazy coincidence. Women work shorter hours because as a society we hold women to a higher standard of housekeeping, and because they tend to be assigned the bulk of childcare responsibilities.”

Controlling for hours worked, in other words, is at least partly controlling for how gender works in our society. It’s controlling for the thing that you’re trying to isolate.

Once again, when someone says “women make seventy seven cents for each dollar a man earns”, the response is almost always “That’s outrageous!” and demands that companies stop being so sexist. I don’t even have to speculate here. Google “gender wage gap”, and just on the first page of results you find statements like:

“While some CEOs have been vocal in their commitment to paying workers fairly, American women can’t wait for trickle-down change. The American Association of University Women urges companies to conduct salary audits to proactively monitor and address gender-based pay differences.”

“Our project on sex and race discrimination in the workplace shows that outright discrimination in pay, hiring, or promotions continues to be a significant feature of working life…the Institute for Women’s Policy Research examined organizational remedies such as sexual harassment training, the introduction of new grievance procedures, supervisory training or revised performance management, and reward schemes.”

“Today marks Equal Pay Day, the date that symbolizes how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year. With a new executive order issued today, President Obama and Democrats are hoping to peg the gender wage gap as a major issue ahead of the 2014 elections. This week, Senate Democrats also plan to again bring forward the proposed “Paycheck Fairness Act,” a bill that aims to eliminate the pay gap between female and male employees. Both men and women see a need for moves such as this – 72% of women and 61% of men said “this country needs to continue making changes to give men and women equality in the workplace”

Given that the supposed gender pay gap is being used at this very moment to argue for salary audits, sexual harassment training, grievance procedures, and paycheck fairness acts, isn’t it really important to know that a lot of it is due to upstream factors like how men and women are socialized as children to have different values, which wouldn’t be affected by these things at all?

(Given that the entire issue is probably being used to load the term “feminism” with positive affect, isn’t it important to know that it’s mostly unrelated to what we expect feminists to do with their extra trust and power?)

It might be worthwhile to come at this from an ideologically opposite angle. Suppose I state “Professors who identify as feminist give twice as many As to female students as they do to male students.”

(This is true, by the way.)

It sounds like a big problem. So you dig through mountains of data, and you figure out that most feminist professors tend to be in subjects like the humanities, where twice as many students are female as male, and so naturally twice as many of the As go to women as men. If I just give you my best trollface and say “Yes, that’s certainly the mechanism by which the extra female As occur”, you have every reason to believe I’m deliberately causing trouble. Especially if colleges have already vowed to stop hiring feminist professors in response to the subsequent outrage. Especially especially if you know I am a cultural conservative activist whose goal has always been to make colleges stop hiring feminist professors, by hook or by crook.

If twice as many women as men take English literature classes, that’s compatible with something about gender socialization unfairly making men feel less able to study or less enthusiastic about studying literature. That could be considered biased or discriminatory, I guess. But phrasing it as “feminist professors give twice as many As to women” is calculated to produce maximal damage. It’s the sort of thing you would only do if you wanted to throw a match on a gunpowder keg for s**ts and giggles.


So I guess I’ve moved on from “poor choice of terminology” to “active misrepresentation”. Let’s stick with that.

This issue makes for the ultimate motte-and-bailey doctrine.

You go around saying “Gender gap! Women making less than men! Discrimination! Sexism!” Everyone puts on their Gricean implicature caps and concludes that they mean what these words mean in everyday speech. The appropriate remedies are trotted out – companies need to raise their female employees’ pay, companies need to hire more discrimination officers, feminists need to talk more about all the ways men talk over women in the workplace and mansplain to them, etc. This is the bailey.

Then someone says “Wait, according to our study, a lot of this is just that women prefer working shorter hours to have time with their families” – and so they retreat to their motte: “Yeah, that’s the mechanism for the gender gap. You mad, bro?”

But the thing about mottes is that nobody actually cares about them when there’s this awesome bailey they can fight over instead. By turning differential socialization into the motte for sexual harassment or something, we’re doing a disservice not only to sexual harassment, but to the principled study of differential socialization.

Anyway, the situation is actually even worse than this. If you hear “The problem with the criminal justice system is disproportionate impact on the poor,” then you’ll probably start coming up with ideas for how to deal with that, and other people will probably start listening. If you hear “the problem with the criminal justice system is racism,” then you will start sharpening your knives.

Racism is a uniquely divisive issue. Minorities hear it and think of Klansmen trying to kill them. White people hear it and think of witch-hunters trying to get them fired. A single death in a random Midwestern town has turned half the country into experts on ballistics because it involved race. Bring up race, and people will change their opinion in the opposite direction suggested by the evidence just to spite you for having a different opinion about it than they do.

Once you’ve said words like “racism” or “racial bias”, this dynamic is already in play and you have lost control of the conversation from then on. If you mention the word and then suggest that we should do something about the police bribery or whatever, then ten percent are going to yell “HOW DARE YOU IMPUGN OUR OFFICERS’ HONOR, YOU POLITICALLY CORRECT FASCIST”, another ten percent are going to yell “HOW DARE YOU DERAIL THE CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE, YOU WHITE SUPREMACIST ASSHOLE”, and the other eighty percent are going to be yelling so loud at each other they can’t even hear you. By the time all the fires have been put out and all the rubble cleared, it’s a pretty good bet that nobody is in the mood to hear about policy ideas for reducing the impact of police on lower-income individuals anymore.

Klein ends his piece by interviewing a professor who states that “Liberals sometimes overstate the extent of overt racism as a direct explanation of justice system disparities.” He acts like this is some sort of inexplicable quirk of the liberal mind. I wonder whether it might have more to do with liberals reading things like the recent Vox article, “America’s Criminal Justice System Is Racist”, which declares the thesis “There is no reason to be subtle on this point: the American criminal justice system is racist”, then goes on to repeat the phrase “America’s criminal justice system is racist” five times in the next five paragraphs. It never mentions that possibility that any of this racism is anything but overt.

If, like Robin Hanson, you believe in the metaphor of tugging policy ropes sideways, then I can’t think of any worse way to ensure that everyone will be tugging against you in every direction than trying to focus the discussion about race.

That’s why I limited my review to direct bias within the justice system itself, and why I think other ways of framing the issue are less productive.

(Comment screening is on again, I guess. Comments that will start flame wars or derail the conversation will vanish into the aether. Unrelated: the book review yesterday got popular and this blog might go down every so often because of too much traffic. It’ll be up again shortly.)

Book Review: On The Road


There’s a story about a TV guide that summarized The Wizard of Oz as “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

It’s funny because it mistakes a tale of wonder and adventure for a crime spree. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the opposite; a crime spree that gets mistaken for a tale of wonder and adventure.

On The Road is a terrible book about terrible people. Kerouac and his terrible friends drive across the US about seven zillion times for no particular reason, getting in car accidents and stealing stuff and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t.

But it’s okay, because they are visionaries. Their vision is to use the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic” at least three times to describe every object between Toledo and Bakersfield. They don’t pass a barn, they pass a holy vision of a barn, a barn such as there must have been when the world was young, a barn whose angelic red and beatific white send them into mad ecstasies. They don’t almost hit a cow, they almost hit a holy primordial cow, the cow of all the earth, the cow whose dreamlike ecstatic mooing brings them to the brink of a rebirth such as no one has ever known.

Jack Kerouac and his terrible friends are brought to the brinks of a lot of things, actually. Aside from stealing things and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t, being brought to the brink of things is one of their main pastimes. Enlightenment, revelation, truth, the real meaning of America, the ultimate, the sacred – if it has a brink, they will come to it. Crucially, they never cross that brink or gain any lasting knowledge or satisfaction from the experience. Theirs is a religion whose object of worship is the burst of intense emotion, the sudden drenching of their brain in happy chemicals that come and go without any lasting effect except pages full of the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic”.

The high priest of this religion is Kerouac’s friend Dean Moriarty. Kerouac cannot frickin shut up about Dean Moriarty. Obviously he is “holy” and “ecstatic” and “angelic” and “mad” and “visionary”, but for Dean, Kerouac pulls out all the stops. He is “a new kind of American saint”, “a burning shuddering frightful Angel”, with intelligence “formal and shining and complete”.

Who is this superman, this hero?

His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town.

Okay, but you have overwrought religious adjectives to describe all of this, right?

[Dean’s] “criminality” was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming.

I feel like once you steal like a dozen cars in the space of a single book, you lose the right to have the word “criminality” in scare quotes.

But please, tell us more:

[Ed and Dean] had just been laid off from the railroad. Ed had met a girl called Galatea who was living in San Francisco on her savings. These two mindless cads decided to bring the girl along [on one of their seven zillion pointless cross-country trips] and have her foot the bill. Ed cajoled and pleaded; she wouldn’t go unless he married her. In a whirlwind few days Ed Dunkel married Galatea, with Dean rushing around to get the necessary papers, and a few days before Christmas they rolled out of San Francisco at seventy miles per, headed for LA and the snowless southern road. In LA they picked up a sailor in a travel bureau and took him along for fifteen dollars’ worth of gas…All along the way Galatea Dunkel, Ed’s new wife, kept complaining that she was tired and wanted to sleep in a motel. If this kept up they’d spend all her money long before Virginia. Two nights she forced a stop and blew tens on motels. By the time they got to Tucson she was broke. Dean and Ed gave her the slip in a hotel lobby and resumed the voyage alone, with the sailor, and without a qualm.

All right, Jack, how are you gonna justify this one?

Dean was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him.

I too enjoy life. Yet somehow this has never led me to get my friend to marry a woman in order to take her life savings, then leave her stranded in a strange city five hundred miles from home after the money runs out.

Jack Kerouac’s relationship with Dean can best be described as “enabler”. He rarely commits any great misdeeds himself. He’s just along for the ride [usually literally, generally in flagrant contravention of all applicable traffic laws] with Dean, watching him destroy people’s lives, doing nothing about it, and then going into rhapsodies about how free-spirited and unencumbered and holy and mad and visionary it all is.

There’s a weird tension here, because Jack is determined to totally ignore the moral issues. He brings this kind of stuff up only incidentally, as Exhibits A and B to support his case that Dean Moriarty is the freest and most perfect and most wonderful human being on Earth, and sort of moves past it before it becomes awkward. An enthusiastic reader, caught up in the spirit of the book, might easily miss it. The only place it is ever made explicit is page 185, when Galatea (who has since found her way back to San Francisco) confronts Dean about the trail of broken lives he’s left behind him, saying:

You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that, but you’re silly about it. It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.”

This, 185 pages in, is the first and last time anyone seriously tries to criticize Dean. Dean has stolen about a dozen cars. He has married one woman, had an affair with another, played the two of them off against each other, divorced the first, married the second, deserted the second with a young child whom she has no money to support, gone back to the first, dumped the first again so suddenly she has to become a prostitute to make ends meet. Later he will go back to the second, beat the first so hard that he injures his thumb and has to get it amputed, break into the second’s house with a gun to kill her but change his mind, desert the second again also with a child whom she has no money to support, start dating a third, desert the third also with a child whom she has no money to support, and go back to the second, all while having like twenty or thirty lesser affairs on the side. As quoted above, he dumped poor Galatea in Tucson, and later he will dump Jack in Mexico because Jack has gotten deathly ill and this is cramping his style.

So Galatea’s complaint is not exactly coming out of thin air.

Jack, someone has just accused your man-crush of being selfish and goofing off all the time. Care to defend him with overwrought religious adjectives?

That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF…he was BEAT, the root, the soul of beatific. What was he knowing? He tried all in his power to tell me what he was knowing, and they envied that about me, my position at his side, defending him and drinking him in as they once tried to do

Right. That’s the problem. People are just jealous, because holy ecstatic angelic Dean Moriarty likes you more than he likes them. Get a life.


But of course getting a life – in the sense of a home, a stable relationship, a steady job, et cetera – is exactly what all the characters in On The Road are desperately trying to avoid.

“Beat” has many meanings, but one of them is supposed to be “beaten down”. The characters consider themselves oppressed, on the receiving end of a system that grinds them up and spits them out. This is productively compared with their total lack of any actual oppression whatsoever.

I don’t know if it’s the time period or merely their personal charm, but Kerouac et al’s ability to do anything (and anyone) and get away with it is astounding. Several of their titular cross-country trips are performed entirely by hitch-hiking, with their drivers often willing to buy them food along the way. Another is performed in some sort of incredibly ritzy Cadillac limo, because a rich man wants his Cadillac transported from Denver to Chicago, Dean volunteers, and the rich man moronically accepts. Dean of course starts driving at 110 mph, gets in an accident, and ends up with the car half destroyed. Once in the city, Dean decides this is a good way to pick up girls, and:

In his mad frenzy Dean backed up smack on hydrants and tittered maniacally. By nine o’ clock the the car was an utter wreck: the brakes weren’t working any more; the fenders were stove in; the rods were rattling. Dean couldn’t stop it at red lights; it kept kicking convulsively over the roadway. It had paid the price of the night. It was a muddy boot and no longer a shiny limousine…’Whee!’ It was now time to return the Cadillac to the owner, who lived out on Lake Shore Drive in a swank apartment with an enormous garage underneath managed by oil-scarred Negroes. The mechanic did not recognize the Cadillac. We handed the papers over. He scratched his head at the sight of it. We had to get out fast. We did. We took a bus back to downtown Chicago and that was that. And we never heard a word from our Chicago baron about the conditio of his car, in spite of the fact that he had our addresses and could have complained.

Even more interesting than their ease of transportation to me was their ease at getting jobs. This is so obvious to them it is left unspoken. Whenever their money runs out, be they in Truckee or Texas or Toledo, they just hop over to the nearest farm or factory or whatever, say “Job, please!” and are earning back their depleted savings in no time. This is really the crux of their way of life. They don’t feel bound to any one place, because traveling isn’t really a risk. Be it for a week or six months, there’s always going to be work waiting for them when they need it. It doesn’t matter that Dean has no college degree, or a criminal history a mile long, or is only going to be in town a couple of weeks. This just seems to be a background assumption. It is most obvious when it is violated; the times it takes an entire week to find a job, and they are complaining bitterly. Or the time the only jobs available are backbreaking farm labor, and so Jack moves on (of course abandoning the girl he is with at the time) to greener pastures that he knows are waiting.

Even more interesting than their ease of employment is their ease with women. This is unintentionally a feminist novel, in that once you read it (at least from a modern perspective) you end up realizing the vast cultural shift that had to (has to?) take place in order to protect women from people like the authors. Poor Galatea Dunkel seems to have been more of the rule than the exception – go find a pretty girl, tell her you love her, deflower her, then steal a car and drive off to do it to someone else, leaving her unmarriageable and maybe with a kid to support. Then the next time you’re back in town, look her up, give her a fake apology in order to calm her down enough for her to be willing to have sex with you again, and repeat the entire process. Here is a typical encounter with a pretty girl:

Not five nights later we went to a party in New York and I saw a girl called Inez and told her I had a friend with me that she ought to meet sometime. I was drunk and told her he was a cowboy. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to meet a cowboy.”

“Dean?” I yelled across the party. “Come over here, man!” Dean came bashfully over. An hour later, in the drunkenness and chiciness of the party, he was kneeling on the floor with his chin on her belly and telling her and promising her everything ad sweating. She was a big, sexy brunette – as Garcia said, something straight out of Degas, and generally like a beautiful Parisian coquette. In a matter of days they were dickering with Camille in San Francisco by long-distance telephone for the necessary divorce papers so they could get married. Not only that, but a few months later Camille gave birth to Dean’s secnd baby, the result of a few nights’ rapport early in the year. And another matter of months and Inez had a baby. With one illegitimate child on the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones, and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed as ever.

In case you’re wondering, Dean then runs off to Mexico, leaves Inez behind, screws a bunch of Mexican women, and eventually gets back with Camille, who is happy to have him. Seriously, if I had read this book when I was writing Radicalizing The Romanceless, Dean (and his friends) would have been right up there with Henry as Exhibit B. The only punishment he ever gets for his misadventures is hitting one girlfriend in the face so hard that he breaks his own thumb, which gets infected and has to be amputated. Human justice has failed so miserably, one feels, that God has to personally step in.

As bad as the gender stuff is, the race stuff is worse. This is 1950-something, so I’m prepared for a lot of awful stuff regarding race. But this is totally different awful stuff regarding race than I expected. I have never been able to get upset over “exoticization” and “Orientalism” before, but this book reached new lows for me:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” diillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley…a gang of colored women came by, and one of the young ones detached herself from otherlike elders and came to me fast – “Hello Joe!” and suddenly saw it wasn’t Joe, and ran back blushing. I wished I were Joe. I was only myself, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.

Negroes are holy and ecstatic. But only in the same way barns and cows are holy and ecstatic. One gets the suspicion that Jack Kerouac is not exactly interacting with any of this stuff, so much as using it as something he can have his overwrought religious feelings about.

The “heroes” of On The Road consider themselves ill-done by and beaten-down. But they are people who can go anywhere they want for free, get a job any time they want, hook up with any girl in the country, and be so clueless about the world that they’re pretty sure being a 1950s black person is a laugh a minute.

On The Road seems to be a picture of a high-trust society. Drivers assume hitchhikers are trustworthy and will take them anywhere. Women assume men are trustworthy and will accept any promise. Employers assume workers are trustworthy and don’t bother with background checks. It’s pretty neat.

But On The Road is, most importantly, a picture of a high-trust society collapsing. And it’s collapsing precisely because the book’s protagonists are going around defecting against everyone they meet at a hundred ten miles an hour.


The viewpoint of a character in a book is not necessarily the viewpoint of its author. One can write about terrible people doing terrible things and not necessarily endorse it. That having been said, it’s very hard to read Jack Kerouac-the-author as differing very much from Jack-Kerouac-the-character in his opinions. He still has a raging man-crush on Dean and thinks that he is some kind of holy madman who can do no wrong.

The nicest thing I can say about On The Road is that perhaps it should be read backwards. It is a paean to a life made without compromise, a life of enjoying the hidden beauty of the world, spent in pursuit of holiness and the exotic. Despite how I probably sound, I really respect the Beat aesthetic of searching for transcendence and finding it everywhere. There’s something to be said for living your life to maximize that kind of thing, especially if everyone else is some kind of boring disspirited factory worker or something. Kerouac wrote around the same time as Sartre; it’s not difficult to imagine him as one of the first people saying you needed to try to find your True Self.

Read backwards, there was a time when to spend your twenties traveling the world and sleeping with strange women and having faux mystical experiences was something new and exciting and dangerous and for all anybody knew maybe it held the secret to immense spiritual growth. But from a modern perspective, if Jack and Dean tried the same thing today, they’d be one of about a billion college students and aimless twenty-somethings with exactly the same idea, posting their photos to Instagram tagged “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic”. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it doesn’t seem like a good stopping-point for a philosophy. It doesn’t even seem like good escapism. I’d be willing to tolerate all the pointless criminality if it spoke to the secret things that I’ve always wanted to do in my hidden heart of hearts, but I’d like to think there’s more there than driving back and forth and going to what seem like kind of lackluster parties.

When I read Marx, I thought that his key mistake was a negative view of utopia. That is, utopia is what happens automatically once you overthrow all of the people and structures who are preventing there from being utopia. Just get rid of the capitalists, and the World-Spirit will take care of the rest. The thought that ordinary, fallible, non-World-Spirit humans will have to build the post-revolution world brick by brick, and there’s no guarantee they will do any better than the pre-revolutionary humans who did the same, never seems to have occurred to him.

Kerouac was a staunch anti-Communist, but his beat philosophy seems to share the same wellspring. Once you get rid of all the shackles of society in your personal life – once you stop caring about all those squares who want you to have families and homes and careers and non-terrible friends – once you become a holy criminal who isn’t bound by the law or other people’s needs – then you’ll end up with some ecstatic visionary true self. Kerouac claimed he was Catholic, that he was in search of the Catholic God, and that he found Him – but all of his descriptions of such tend to be a couple of minutes of rapture upon seeing some especially pretty woman in a nightclub or some especially dingy San Francisco alley, followed by continuing to be a jerk who feels driven to travel across the country approximately seven zillion times for no reason.

Like the early Communists, who were always playing up every new factory that opened as the herald of the new age of plenty, in the beginning it’s easy to tell yourself your revolution is succeeding, that you are right on the brink of the new age. But at last come the Andropovs and Brezhnevs of the soul, the stagnation and despair and the going through the motions.

Kerouac apparently got married and divorced a couple of times, became an alcoholic, had a bit of a breakdown, and drank himself to death at age 49. Moriarty spent a while in prison on sort-of-trumped-up drug charges, went through a nasty divorce with whichever wife hadn’t divorced him already, and died of a likely drug overdose at age 47.

Overall I did not like this book.

If you’re writing about a crime spree you were a part of, you ought to show at least a little self-awareness.

Mysticism continues to be a perfectly valid life choice, but I continue to believe if you want to pursue it you should do it carefully and methodically, for example meditating for an hour a day and then going to regular retreats run by spiritual authorities, rather than the counterculture route of taking lots of drugs and having lots of sex and reading some books on Gnosticism and hoping some kind of enlightenment smashes into you.

Professional writing should be limited to about four overwrought religious adjectives per sentence, possibly by law.

And travel and girls are both fun, but [doctor voice] should be enjoyed responsibly and in moderation.

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