codex Slate Star Codex

Dispatches from Weird Platonic Spherical Cow Perfect Rationality Outside View World

Swifties 3: The Race Is Not To The Swifty

[see: Wikipedia: Tom Swifties, Tom Swifties Written By An Author Willing To Go To Any Lengths To Make A Tom Swifty Thus Resulting In Constructions That Often Require More Work For Readers Than For The Author, Fifty Swifties, and Fifty More Swifties. Previously on Twitter here. Some of these are from the comments to the last post.]

1. “She eventually absorbed so much radiation that her bottom half mutated into a fish’s tail,” Tom said mercurially.

2. “Stay away from nuns,” Tom said conventionally.

3. “Back during Late Antiquity, everyone lived in fear of Attila and his hordes,” Tom said a hundred times.

4. “It said he was eaten by a bare, so either that’s a typo or he was devoured by the act of exposing something,” Tom said verbatim.

5. “You’ll have to stand,” Tom said deceitfully.

6. “Little plays are such a useful way to teach children good behavior,” Tom said schizoaffectively.

7. “…” Tom said immutably.

8. “I’m an only child,” Tom said in unison.

9. “Look, a Confederate general!” Tom said icily.

10. “Why yes ma’am, I AM the Tom from those Twitter one-liners you’ve heard,” Tom said pungently.

11. “I’m not going to make a deathbed conversion,” Tom said diagnostically.

12. “I’m using behavioral conditioning to train lions to keep quiet,” Tom said to Rorschach.

13. “I used to be a priest, but I was defrocked for an improper relationship on the job,” Tom said inundated at work.

14. “I’m here helping people displaced by the earthquake,” Tom said with intensity.

15. “We’ve been pinned underneath fallen logs,” Tom said treasonously.

16. “I went rock-climbing with my girlfriend,” Tom updated.

17. “The defibrillator worked!” Tom said, repulsed.

18. “My karate instructor died,” Tom said, desensitized.

19. “Godzilla, I can’t believe you devoured part of South Africa,” Tom transvaluated

20. “I was running late today, so I had lunch in my cubicle,” Tom incubated.

21. “But they dug too greedily, and too deep,” Tom undermined.

22. “The new environmental regulations will make mineral extraction less profitable,” Tom said, determined.

23. “He’s sleeping six feet under now,” Tom said depressed.

24. “I guess I lost the genetic lottery,” Tom said, drawing a portrait.

25. “SKULLS FOR THE SKULL THRONE!” Tom said, skulkingly.

26. “I’ve gotten 0.028 countries to join together in a political and economic union,” Tom said in his milieu.

27. “For here I am, sitting in a tin can, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere,” Major Tom said incandescently.

28. “The mailman just left my mail on the dirty ground?! Really?!” Tom said postindustrially.

29. “I’m writing a book based on ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, except instead of a horror story it’s a comedy,” Tom said politely.

30. “Is the guy in that coffin Dracula, or just an ordinary corpse?” Tom countermanded.

31. “I think China has enough foreign exchange reserves,” Tom said for example.

32. “Every time the server goes down, I have a Norse god zap it with lightning to get it back up,” Tom said with authority.

33. “Help, I’ve been buried alive!” Tom engraved.

34. “I’ll never be an A-list celebrity” Tom berated. (source)

35. “If you were any good you’d have the Ambassador’s job,” Tom said disconsolately. (source)

36. “Germany should exit the Eurozone” Tom remarked. (source)

37. “Maybe he was knighted for his contributions to Austrian economics,” Tom surmises.

38. “We should give the Western US back to the Native Americans,” Tom said unsettlingly.

39. “I’m not going to give that jerk Procrustes the satisfaction,” Tom said self-defeatingly. (source)

40. “This new-ideas conference has sure gotten effeminately quaint.” Tom tweeted. (source)

41. “Everyone’s date of birth is in 2007,” Tom said alternatively. (source)

42. “Weasley for president!” Tom said electronically. (source)

43. “Let the other guy take the paddle,” Tom said heroically. (source)

44. “Let’s make a deal – I’ll stop doing sit-ups if you do,” Tom said abstrusely. (source)

45. “My former wife mentioned me in her newest paper,” Tom said excitedly. (source)

46. “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real?”, Tom asked unreliably. (source)

47. “Your hair looks terrible,” Tom saod distressingly. (source)

48. “I’ve stolen the treasures of the Shrine of the Bab,” Tom said, high-falutin’

49. “We should go to the petting zoo, I hear they have cattle now,” Tom said, compatible with me.

50. “After Kant’s death, he left his old machine gun to forces plotting a military coup,” Tom said, willing that his maxim could make a general rule.

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Links 9/15: Linkua Franca

From the Department of Omens: Why is everyone having weird dreams about Jeremy Corbyn?

Myths and facts about medieval fighting, mostly good for ruining your enjoyment of things: “Spears were the medieval and ancient weapon. Swords are always a secondary or tertiary weapon for warriors, meaning that you would only use your sword if your main weapon was lost/broken/inappropriate. If you are not wearing armour or have no shield, once they commence sword fights end in about 1 second.”

The time Bill Clinton’s haircut caused a national scandal. The time a dispute over hairstyles killed hundreds of thousands of people.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender had a Game of Thrones-style introduction.

Most of the Japanese Parliament, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are members of Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist organization dedicated to reviving the Japanese Empire, “breaking away from the post-war regime”, and restoring the status of the Emperor as a living god. (h/t Noah Smith)

Chomsky would have a field day with this headline: Jewish Man Dies As Rocks Pelt His Car In East Jerusalem. I think this is one case where the passive voice would actually be less weaselly.

To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. Creating a sandwich from scratch, on the other hand, only takes 6 months and $1500.

Emmanuel Nwude was a Union Bank of Nigeria director who made $242 million by pulling the greatest Nigerian scam of all time.

Chinese firm invents large-scale 3D printer that can create ten houses a day for $5000 each. Just what China needs – more housing! Also, printing houses from mud?

Carly Fiorina demands to know what Hillary has done during her 20 years in politics. Democrats step up to the challenge and list a bunch of her greatest accomplishments.

200 proofs that the Earth is flat, in case you need to prove whatever philosophical point might be proven by somebody making a site with 200 proofs that the Earth is flat.

A few weeks ago I mentioned some problems with Chomsky’s Cambodian genocide scholarship. Jim has a whole well-cited list.

Popehat scoops me on something I’ve always thought was a good idea: given that some people want “safe” colleges with trigger warnings on everything, and other people want “free speech” colleges where they are confronted with disquieting new ideas, why aren’t different colleges drifting to one side or the other and letting the market decide?

Otto von Bismarck’s grandson Gottfried von Bismarck also made history books – by dying with “the highest [blood] level of cocaine that [his doctors] had ever seen.”

Troll Research Station in Antarctica.

Did US news deregulation cause the recent increase in political polarization?

Last links post I linked to a rap version of the Iliad. I neglected to mention that the author is trying to rap-ify the whole thing (!!) and has a Patreon account set up to fund the project.

Latest campus free speech problem: threats to expel students who criticize Israel, courtesy of Dianne Feinstein.

Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix the Newark school system. It mostly failed. Some speculation about why. One example where donations without systemic change didn’t do any good.

Gwern asks any modafinil users reading this to take a survey about their response to the medication for his research. Participants will be entered into a drawing to win extremely predictable prize. Related: is President Obama using modafinil?

Shaven chimps look kind of like a really buff Gollum.

Is Milo Yiannopoulos The Only Responsible Tech Journalist Left On The Planet?, asks Milo Yiannopoulos.

The full chemical name of the protein titin is the longest word in the English language at 189,819 letters. If you want, learn it at home with Mavis Beacon Teaches Titin

Why is China, which has a billion people and lots of money, so terrible at soccer? One interesting theory – the government bans all small gatherings that aren’t pre-approved, putting a big regulatory hassle in the way of people who might otherwise start random back-alley soccer games, and maybe this sort of grassroots-level introduction to the sport is important enough that even throwing money at big gleaming stadiums can’t make up for it. Somebody should study countries that over/under-perform their fundamentals in sports versus countries that over/under-perform their fundamentals in academia/science and see what the correlations are.

1960s: “You can’t fight here, this is the war room!”. 2010s: Brawl breaks out in Japanese Parliament during debate over pacifism

“Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence. You will serve as our official ambassador to his court. You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom. While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers. This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.” Somebody linked me to Ex Urbe a few weeks back, and now I am passing on the favor. Read the one about the Borgias first, but the whole Machiavelli series is superb.

Does the season in which you were born affect your skill at chess? Also, “a similar pattern has been found with schizophrenia, and the possible link between these two phenomena is discussed.”

Between-populations factors explain 24% genetic differences in height and 8% of genetic differences in BMI across Europe. Now that the only two massively polygenic traits that might vary among national populations have been successfully studied, I look forward to never having to read any further research of this sort ever again.

“Contrary to popular perceptions, today both property and violent crimes (with the exception of homicides) are more widespread in Europe than in the United States”. What caused the ‘Reversal Of Misfortunes’?

There are probably lots of Barack Obama lookalikes making some money as impersonators, but only one who is a Han Chinese man in Guangzhou. Also, holy @#$%, that Chinese guy looks exactly like Barack Obama.

Computational linguistics: where king – man + woman = queen

This creepy Bay Area kidnapping case was so bizarre that the police said it was a hoax until the kidnapper wrote in to complain that this was unfair to the victim. Also: gangs of gentlemen-thieves flying crime-drones.

What did the Chinese think of the most recent Republican primary debate? Apparently “Jeb” sounds like “penis” in Chinese.

People were pretty nasty to Vox when they rejected that article on negative utilitarianism for political/PR reasons. But they have redeemed themselves by publishing The Case Against Equality Of Opportunity and it’s pretty good. I broadly agree with it although I think it requires a much broader rejection of philosophical paradigms and reorganization about how we think of things than could be included even in an article of this length. Also: Vox reinvents the concept of anarcho-tyranny without noticing. Also also: don’t miss Eight times politicians fired actual guns at abstract concepts.

Dutch study shows rampant sexism in scientific community. Dutch establishment promises reforms, says they will push “gender awareness” on everyone involved. Outside observers point out basic statistical error, actual results show no gender bias at all. Original authors say it doesn’t matter and the Dutch scientific community is still sexist because grant review forms use “gendered language” like the word “excellent” which is apparently “male-coded”. Dutch establishment says reform and gender awareness programs are “still a good idea, regardless of the paper’s quality”, and vow to push ahead. Why are we even bothering to do science anymore? Why don’t we just write the only acceptable conclusion on a piece of paper beforehand and save however much it cost to do the study?

Florida Man has finally found a worthy opponent: Puppy Shoots Florida Man. In case that article is too depressing, here is a man with a tiny train full of dogs.

Maybe the most Chinese paragraph ever: “Khorgos, on the border with Kazakhstan, serves as a cautionary example: two years after the go-ahead China has built a city consisting of a number of multi-story shopping centers in the desert. In one of those buildings, for example, there are roughly one hundred shops, each one of them selling exactly the same product: fur coats. By way of contrast, on the Kazak side stands only a yurt and a couple of plastic camels”

If there were some kind of EA bingo card, I think I could win the game just with this sentence: Chris Blattman says that an African program to encourage entrepreneurship with direct cash grants might be the most effective development program in history.

Corporate prediction markets tested at Ford and Google found to be 25% more accurate than traditional expert forecasts.

Tumblr user kontextmachine on the First Servile War.

Noahpinion on Whig history vs. Malthusian history vs. Haan history. Whig history is “We’re doing better because progress is the natural state of the world”. Malthusian history is “We’re doing better because we’re in the boom part of an endless inescapable boom-bust cycle.” Haan history is “We’re doing better but who cares, everything is fundamentally flawed in a way no material progress can fix.

Robin Hanson’s book The Age of Em is available for pre-order, by which I mean “available for gaping at the neat spherical city picture on the cover”.

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The Problems With Generic Medications Go Deeper Than One Company


Like many people, I recently read about Turing Pharmaceuticals’ purchase of anti-toxoplasma drug Daraprim and subsequent price increase of 5000%. Vox and Marginal Revolution have already done some good work addressing this particular case, but have only touched upon the broader issue: that everything about generic medications is approximately this terrible.

As far as I’m concerned, the interesting aspect of this case isn’t just that the CEO of Turing is an asshole who is lining his own pockets with zillions of dollars by gouging AIDS patients. I assume most pharmaceutical company CEOs are assholes who would line their own pockets with zillions of dollars by gouging AIDS patients if the opportunity presented itself. The interesting aspect of this case is that the CEO of Turing got the opportunity. How?

In the United States, pharmaceutical companies that discover a new drug are granted a 20-year term of exclusivity to reward them for the public service of drug research. During this time, they can and do price-gouge as much as they want. After twenty years, the drug becomes public domain and anybody who wants can compete to produce it, usually leading to a precipitous fall in costs. But Daraprim is fifty years old; its patent is long-since expired. So Sarah Kliff from Vox asks the obvious question: why doesn’t someone just produce a competitor?:

Daraprim isn’t a frequently used drug. The New York Times estimates that between 8,000 and 12,000 prescriptions get filled annually. You could only fill about a quarter of a baseball stadium with the number of people who take the drug in a given year.

So think about a generic drug manufacturer looking at the Daraprim situation. There are fixed costs associated with building a new plant (or possible lost revenue on other drugs, if they switch production at an existing plant), getting samples of the drug, and figuring out how to make the generic product…with Daraprim, there simply isn’t a big enough patient population for a competitor to sell a “good amount” to. And this is, more generally, a problem with the markets for drugs that only a small number of patients use. They often aren’t big enough to support two competitors.

Moreover, there’s risk associated with starting a drug price war. Let’s say I decide to launch Sarah’s Generic Drug Company, and I’m pretty sure I can break even by slightly undercutting Turing and charging $700. What happens if Turing responds by dropping its price down to $500, or even back to $13.50? It will keep all its patients — and my nascent drug company is likely going bankrupt.

This is definitely part of the story. On the other hand, what about Longecity group buys? Someone on a drugs forum hears about a cool experimental chemical that sounds fun to try. They get a couple dozen friends in on it and pay a lab in China a few hundred dollars to synthesize a big batch. Then the Chinese ship it over, they distribute it to their friends, and they all get a decent supply of a totally novel drug for a few dollars a pill – compared to the $750 per pill that Turing is charging for Daraprim. I am not a chemist, but the Daraprim molecule does not look very intimidating. I bet if a group from Longecity got a couple of toxoplasma patients together for a group buy, they could all get treatments for maybe a few hundred dollars each instead of the $63,000 Turing is now charging. In fact, I encourage somebody to do exactly that as an act of civil disobedience/political activism and win themselves some free publicity.

So how come Longecity can do this, but real generic pharmaceutical manufacturers can’t? I’m not totally sure, but my best guess is that it involves bioequivalence studies (different from purity studies). Generic drugs don’t need the excruciatingly drawn-out safety and efficacy studies required of new brand-name medications, but they do need to pass a bioequivalency study proving that their drug is absorbed the same way as the original. According to Wikipedia, the most common type of bioequivalence study is to “measure the time it takes the generic drug to reach the bloodstream in 24 to 36 healthy volunteers; this gives them the rate of absorption, or bioavailability, of the generic drug, which they can then compare to that of the innovator drug”.

This might not seem so bad, but it must be harder than it sounds. This site, whose style is overly bombastic but whose information seems mostly correct, says that:

The cost and time involved in the ANDA [generic application] process varies depending on the drug, its safety, how long it has been on the market, etc. To have an ANDA approved, it typically requires an investment of about $2 million, and it takes a total of two to three years to get the drug to market…in addition to these costs, a company should budget 15% for legal fees, because wherever there is a big manufacturer with a sizable market share involved, they will sue, just to try to eliminate more competition from the market.

This adds an important extra dimension to Vox’s theory that it’s just too hard to start making a generic medication. If all you want to do is synthesize an active ingredient in powder form, and you’re not too concerned about staying on the right side of the law, it costs pennies and takes however long you need to FedEx something from China. If you also want FDA approval, it costs $2 million and takes two years.

Remember, Daraprim is used by about 10,000 people per year, and before the recent Turing price markup, it cost $13.50 per pill x eighty pills per treatment. 10,000 * 80 * $13.50 = about $10 million per year, of which maybe $5 million was profit. That means you have to capture a big chunk of the Daraprim market before it’s worth trying to get yourself approved to make Daraprim; the FDA is essentially telling pharma companies to “go big or go home”. Nobody wanted to go big, so they all went home.

In the absence of this barrier, it would be easy for small boutique companies with a couple of chemical engineers on hand to spend a few weeks manufacturing a few thousand doses of the drug whenever it was necessary to meet demand. This is how the supplement and nootropic industries work right now, and nootropics are dirt cheap, even though a lot of “nootropics” are the same chemicals as regular expensive medications except with a “not intended for human consumption” label slapped on the bottle that everyone knows to ignore.

I think this might be what’s going on with generic modafinil. Last week I prescribed some modafinil to one of my patients and got a call back from their insurance company saying it was denied because it cost too much.

I told the insurance company that was silly because modafinil only cost about $60 a month.

The insurance company said no, it cost way more than that.

This surprised me, because half the rationalist community uses modafinil, and even some of the doctors I work with use modafinil on long night shifts, and they all get it for $60 a month from places like ModafinilCat.

But according to Nootriment, a month’s supply of modafinil at real bricks-and-mortar pharmacies costs anywhere from $469.23 (Costco) to $850.84 (RiteAid). I’m not totally sure what’s going on, but my guess is that ModafinilCat (illegally) buys it from people who haven’t gone through the FDA’s bioequivalence testing, and RiteAid buys it from people who have. As far as I can tell, both are made by Indian pharmaceutical companies unrelated to the original American company who discovered the drug, but RiteAid’s Indian pharmaceutical company has put more work into staying on the right side of the US government.

If any of my patients are reading this and are upset because I prescribed them a drug which they couldn’t afford, I unreservedly apologize. I was laboring under the misapprehension that the pharmaceutical market made sense.


No tour of terrible generic medications policies would be complete without a stop for Kesselheim and Solomon’s analyis of the Unapproved Drugs Initiative of 2006.

The FDA wanted to encourage people to study drugs that were already in the public domain and get them up to FDA standards. This is potentially a very noble plan. I’ve written before on how it’s basically impossible to get melatonin to interface with the health care system because it got into the public domain without the relevant FDA standards being met. Likewise, there’s no interest in using minocycline to treat schizophrenia because it’s a public-domain drug and nobody profits off of doing the FDA compliance work. So the FDA was definitely responding to a real problem.

Their solution, though, was to say that if anybody did a good enough study on a public domain drug, they could grab it out of the public domain and have it be their exclusive drug for the next while. This was a terrible terrible terrible idea.

Colchicine is a very popular and very effective gout treatment extracted from the Colchicum plant. It’s been used for so long that its first recorded mention in medical literature is on an ancient Egyptian papyrus. The medievals called it “hermodactyl”; Arabic physician Avicenna recommended it; notable gout sufferer Ben Franklin brought the first Colchicum specimens to North America.

But the ancient Egyptians, being a primitive and barbaric people, had no FDA. And although many different groups had done studies proving colchicine effective, none of them had done so on the official FDA forms. In 2007 a company called URL Pharmaceuticals did an official FDA safety study, showed that yup, it was safe all right, and for this service were granted exclusive right to produce colchicine. After suing all other colchicine producers out of business and establishing a monopoly, they raised the price of colchicine by 5000%, costing gout patients thousands of dollars a year.

According to FiercePharma, something similar happened with hydroxyprogesterone caproate, although the FDA later changed its mind. I can’t find any other examples, but the legal framework is still there if someone else wants to try.


Other times generic manufacturing proceeds smoothly. A drug is popular and many different pharmaceutical companies pass the bioequivalency tests, get in on the action, and compete with one another. Nobody snatches it out of the public domain at the last second and receives a new monopoly on it. The companies are able to sell it to the pharmacies for a reasonable cost.

Now you get to have a completely different set of things go wrong.

Michigan Drug Prices is my state’s official drug price register. You can type in any Michigan ZIP code and any drug and find out how much it costs at all your local pharmacies. It’s pretty neat.

Celexa has been generic for more than a decade, it’s got a reputation for being inexpensive, and I prescribe it a lot. Let’s see how much my patients have to pay.

The closest RiteAid to my office charges $4 for a 30-day supply of Celexa 20 mg. The local CVS sells the same amount for $19.79. The local Walgreens sells it for $24.99. And the local KMart will sell it to my patients for the low, low cost of $88.15. That’s an…interesting…range of prices.

If I try to buy it off, a site that offers pharmacy price comparisons, I can get it for $3.60 from a mail-order pharmacy. But I can also get it for $6.64 from K-Mart, special offer for GoodRx customers only. $10.00 from Walgreens. $11.99 from CVS. All the same stores that were trying to gouge me before. As soon as you take the basic step of saying “by the way, I’m also comparing costs with other pharmacies” their prices drop 90%.

I am far from the only person to notice this. PBS did a segment on one of the reporter’s mothers looking for a breast cancer drug. She originally paid $400 a month for it, which is steep but perhaps worth the cost as a high-tech treatment for a potentially fatal illness. Then she went to Costco and found the same medication cost $10.

Why does this sort of thing happen? I’m not sure. I expect it has something to do with insurance co-pays; if an insurance looks at some kind of average cost of Celexa and decides that the Celexa co-pay will be $5, then it doesn’t much matter to the customer whether they buy it from a pharmacy charging $10 or $10,000. But why doesn’t the insurance company do one the thing everyone in health care agrees insurance companies do best: send whiny faxes complaining that they’re not going to pay you? I don’t know.

But for now you might want to try using something like if you’re buying expensive medications. And stay away from cats, because there’s never been a worse time to get toxoplasma.

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Vegetarianism for Meat-Eaters

[Content warning: discussion of animal suffering. If you don’t care about animal suffering, this post is probably not for you. There is no reason to read it anyway and loudly complain in the comments.]

Brian Kateman on writes that We Need More Meat-Eating Animal Rights Activists. Finally, the mainstream media gives me ex cathedra permisson to say things that are kind of hypocritical!

I believe animals probably have moral value. I also eat meat. There is obvious tension between these positions; animals suffer and (obviously) die during meat production. I can only say in my defense that I tried being a vegetarian for several years and it was horrible and I ended up subsisting almost entirely on bread and Quorn and I don’t want to go back there.

But over the past few years I’ve read about two ideas that have changed the way I look at meat-eating and significantly reduced my moral footprint with minimal inconvenience. These are not original to me and I don’t take credit for them, but I hope that the people involved won’t mind me taking this advantage to publicize them more widely.

1. Eat Beef, Not Chicken

This argument is so simple I feel dumb for not thinking of it myself; instead, I take it from Julia Galef and Brian Tomasik. Suppose I get about a third of my daily calorie requirement from meat; that adds up to 250,000 calories of meat a year. Further suppose that it’s split evenly between 125,000 calories of beef and 125,000 calories of chicken.

The average cow is very big and makes 405,000 calories of beef; the average chicken is very small and makes 3000 calories worth of chicken. So each year, I kill about 0.3 cows and about 42 chickens, for a total of 42.3 animals killed. [1] [2]

Suppose that I stop eating chicken and switch entirely to beef. Now I am killing about 0.6 cows and 0 chickens, for a total of 0.6 animals killed. By this step alone, I have decreased the number of animals I am killing from 42.3/year to 0.6/year, a 98% improvement.

The difference becomes even bigger once you compare levels of suffering. Chickens are probably the most miserable farm animals; they are mutilated, packed into tiny cages to the point of immobility, left to fester in their own waste, and bred so intensively for size that their bodies cannot support them and they likely experience severe musculoskeletal pain. Although cows’ lives are also pretty terrible too, Brian Tomasik estimates that chickens’ suffering is about twice as bad. Taking this into account, switching from 50-50 to all-beef reduces your contribution to animal suffering as much as 99%. [3] [4] [5]

I find that I’m indifferent between beef and chicken as far as taste, so this is a no-brainer for me. The few times I’m making a recipe that really, truly, can only be done with something sort of chicken-like, Beyond Meat vegetarian fake chicken strips are an almost-tolerable substitute.

2. Use Ethics Offsets By Donating to Animal Charities

I talked about this before in Ethics Offsets, but I think the original argument comes from Katja Grace.

Animal-related charities are very effective. Animal Charity Evaluators, a sort of animal version of GiveWell, lists really really impressive impacts for small donations:

Animal Equality: 11 animal lives saved per dollar
Mercy For Animals: 9 animal lives saved per dollar
Humane League: 3 animal lives saved per dollar

These numbers are high, but not impossibly so. For example, the Humane League spent about $50,000 convincing school districts to switch to cage-free eggs and have “Meatless Mondays” at their cafeterias; this resulted in about 3.2 million fewer meat-containing lunches, meaning several hundreds of thousands of chickens saved.

Okay. If you followed the advice in Part 1 and switched to beef, you’re currently killing 0.6 animals per year. If you donate six cents per year to animal-related charities, you’re animal-neutral. Donating $0.06 sounds…a lot easier than being vegetarian for a year? [6]

Or donate $60, and save more animals than an entire village full of vegetarians. At this point it’s starting to look like maybe personal vegetarianism is more of a symbolic/non-consequentialist decision in comparison, and a meat-eater with a little pocket change to spare can bask in near-unlimited moral superiority even to their most scrupulously vegan friends. Is this too good to be true?

One reason it might be too good to be true is that Animal Charity Evaluators is overly optimistic. But it would be really hard for their optimism to change this strategy substantially. Suppose that they were off by an order of magnitude, and you only save one animal per dollar. You can still offset an entire year’s beef-eating for $0.60. Even if they’re off by three orders of magnitude and it takes $60 to offset a year of eating beef, most people would probably still rather pay sixty bucks than become vegetarian.

A more serious complaint is that this strategy is hypocritical or self-defeating. After all, it looks like most of the gain from these charities comes from convincing other people to be vegetarians. From a Kantian point of view, “try to get other people to become vegetarian without being one yourself” isn’t universalizable; if everyone did it, there would be nobody to actually be the vegetarians! Is it ethical for non-vegetarians to try to spread vegetarianism among other people? Here are four arguments that it is:

First, consequentialism. From a consequentialist point of view, “is it okay to cause a good thing to happen even if…” always gets answered yes. Do you save the animals? Yes? Then what’s the problem? The true consequentialist doesn’t even understand the question.

Second, these charities don’t necessarily demand people become full vegetarians. They may recommend that people cut down on the amount of meat they eat, or switch from chicken to beef as in Part 1, or support laws enforcing more humane living conditions for farm animals. Some evidence supports asking meat-eaters to cut down on meat as the most effective form of animal outreach. A non-vegetarian who has taken some of these steps themselves can support these without worrying about hypocrisy.

Third, your situation is not necessarily the same as other people’s situations. One reason I’m not a vegetarian is that I really really hate vegetables. Other people might love vegetables and just need a little push to have more of them. I can endorse that people become vegetarian if it is easy for them without necessarily endorsing vegetarianism for myself.

Fourth, and I think most important, the economics check out. Instead of universalizing the principle “become vegetarian”, suppose we tried to universalize the principle “find some way to be animal-neutral,” that is, live your life in such a way that on net you are not killing animals. And suppose everyone knew there were two strategies for doing this: either become vegetarian yourself, or offset your lifestyle by donating to advocacy organizations that convert other people to do so.

And suppose that, upon hearing that it only takes a $60 donation to offset their lifestyles, 90% of people choose the donation rather than the personal conversion. This makes the cost of outreach go up. That is, when I donate my $60, the advocacy organization uses it to convert Alice, who decides to donate $60 herself, which the advocacy organization uses to convert Bob, who decides to donate $60 himself, which the organization uses to convert Carol…and so on to the tenth person, who finally decides to become vegetarian themselves. If this happened, our premise that it takes the charity $60 to convert one new vegetarian would be false. In fact it takes them 10 donations of $60, or $600.

As long as people know that they have the option of offsetting via donation, the possibility that people would rather donate than become vegetarian themselves is priced into the cost of the offset. That means that if the cost of an offset is currently $60, it’s because we’re hitting people for whom $60 is genuinely their reserve price; they prefer becoming vegetarian to paying a $60 offset (probably for moral/symbolic reasons). These people are low-hanging fruit; once they’re exhausted, the offset price will rise, and people for whom vegetarianism is only a mild inconvenience will find themselves preferring to become vegetarian themselves rather than paying. Once even the middle-hanging fruit is exhausted, the price of the offset will be prohibitive and only the people for whom vegetarianism is an extraordinary inconvenience will continue to take that route. Once there are no more potential vegetarians left to convert, the offset cost will become the cost of saving animals via political action, improved technology (eg cultured meat), or changes to farming conditions.

This dynamic becomes even more interesting if you add the (unjustifiable but interesting) assumption that anyone not becoming vegetarian themselves is required to offset their choice by converting two other people to vegetarianism. Then you get a sort of virtuous Ponzi scheme which ends with a lot of vegetarians (albeit not necessarily in a reasonable amount of time).

I try to donate some money to an effective animal charity each year, above and beyond what I’ve pledged to donate for other reasons, in order to compensate for the remaining meat I refuse to cut out of my diet.


1. I use the term “kill” because it’s a simple way of looking at things, but most of the moral cost of eating meat is causing the animals to spend years living in terrible suffering on factory farms. The actual killing is probably a mercy in comparison. When I say that something “prevents forty animals from being killed”, the longer and more accurate version might be “prevents forty animals from coming into existence, suffering intensely, and then being killed”. This does raise some more philosophical questions like whether it’s better to live a life of terrible suffering than to never be born at all, but I’m really comfortable answering that one with “no”.

2. This same argument comes out against eating other small animals like fish. Although in theory wild-caught fish ought to live okay lives and potentially be more ethically acceptable than farm-raised animals, given limited wild-catching ability each wild-caught fish eaten may deplete a fixed number of them and push other people to eat farm-raised fish instead.

3. Eggs raise some of the same issues as chickens, and Julia Galef suggests eggs are one of the worst things you can eat. I think her assessment is pessimistic; eggs are terrible on a calorie-for-calorie basis, but if we’re talking about which animal products to urge people to give up, this is counterbalanced by nobody except Gaston getting too many calories from eggs. Someone who eats one egg with breakfast every day kills about one chicken a year; somebody who has a chicken dinner every other night kills about forty chickens a year. Although egg chickens probably lead worse lives than meat chickens, the difference isn’t overwhelming. Avoiding incidental egg consumption like the eggs in baked goods is hard and probably not the highest-value pro-animal intervention given the low number of eggs involved.

4. This analysis neglects consideration of whether cows, being bigger-brained and more “evolutionarily advanced” than chickens or fish, might have greater moral value. I don’t know how to deal with that question, except that it would surprise me if they had more than forty times the moral value.

5. The existence of supposed humane animal products (“Free range eggs!” “Pasture-fed cows!”) complicates this a little bit. The unanimous opinion of people who know about this sort of thing is that free range eggs are kind of a scam; regulations only specify that these chickens must have “access” to the outdoors, but farmers exploit the letter of the law to cram thousands of chickens into industrial barns with a single tiny door to a couple-square-foot cement yard that the overwhelming majority of the chickens never even see. “Cage-free” chickens or eggs seem probably better than the alternative but still pretty horrible. “Pasture-fed beef” usually does involve a pasture in some way and is not a total scam but is probably not as nice as you would think. I try to buy pasture-raised free-range cows, and I think that the slightly higher standards of humane beef over humane chicken make another good argument in favor of beef consumption, but I try not to fool myself into thinking that this decision alone goes especially far.

6. If you also eat chicken, the offset cost rises to $4.

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Beware Systemic Change

[Epistemic status/edit: After reading comments, no longer sure I agree with Part I. Part II still seems right but possibly a cost that can be outweighed by other factors. I continued to be worried about this without necessarily thinking it is a knock-down argument. I’m still not sure how to balance my support for some systemic change causes against my concern about others. Buck’s comment on morality seems important.]


One of the most common critiques of effective altruism is that it focuses too much on specific monetary interventions rather than fighting for “systemic change”, usually billed as fighting inequitable laws or capitalism in general. For example, Amia Srinivasan, in her review of Doing Good Better,

What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary? To answer that you’d need to put a value and probability measure on achieving an unrecognisably different world – even, perhaps, on our becoming unrecognisably different sorts of people. It’s hard enough to quantify the value of a philanthropic intervention: how would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganising society? […]

Effective altruism, so far at least, has been a conservative movement, calling us back to where we already are: the world as it is, our institutions as they are. MacAskill does not address the deep sources of global misery – international trade and finance, debt, nationalism, imperialism, racial and gender-based subordination, war, environmental degradation, corruption, exploitation of labour – or the forces that ensure its reproduction. Effective altruism doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it. In this sense it leaves everything just as it is.

This same point has been made again and again and again. In response, many effective altruist leaders have gone on to say that they love systemic change and that the movement is entirely in favor of it.

I am not affiliated with the organized effective altruist movement and my opinion has no relation to theirs. They have spent a lot of work trying to convince everyone that they are entirely in favor of pursuing systemic change, I believe them, and nothing I say here reflects on that.

But I, personally, worry a lot about pursuing systemic change.

“Worry about” is not the same as “totally oppose”. This post’s Hansonian title is “Beware Systemic Change” rather than “Against Systemic Change.” But I’m pretty serious about bewaring of it.

First, what do I mean by “systemic change”? Traditional charity, like healing the sick, is almost universally viewed as good or at least neutral. Everyone agrees the sick should be healed; if there are unhealed sick people, it’s because we don’t have the resources to pursue our universally held goal. The same is true of feeding hungry children. It’s true of weird causes like AI risk – some people think it’s silly, but they’re happy to let other people work on them if those people want. It’s even true of things like cutting carbon emissions, sort of. When the Koch brothers say they oppose cutting carbon emissions, they mean they oppose laws mandating such cuts, or budgets that spend communal resources to enforce them. If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.

Some political issues are kind of like this. People from all over the political spectrum agree that corporate welfare is a bad idea; if we still have corporate welfare, it’s because there’s not enough attention and organization to force politicians to abandon it. In other cases, we all agree something is good but disagree on whether it is an optimal use of resources: for example, most people agree that aid agencies like UNICEF that help children abroad are doing good work, but not everyone agrees with funding them from the federal budget.

Other political issues are not like this. Some people believe that increasing the minimum wage is a laudable goal; other people believe it will hurt the economy or that it violates important moral rights. The reason we don’t have a higher minimum wage isn’t because passing laws costs a lot of money that no one has raised yet, or because no one is paying attention to the issue. It’s because a lot of people oppose it and so far those people are winning, or at least holding their own.

In terms of Freshman English Plot Devices, traditional charity like healing the sick is “man versus nature.” Political issues like the minimum wage are “man versus man”.

When I think of systemic change, I think of man versus man. Even if effective altruists helped governments increase their foreign aid budget, I don’t think Amia Srinivasan and Jacobin Magazine and the rest would think we were participating in “systemic change”. I think at the very least they’d want altruists out in the street demonstrating for higher minimum wages, and at most trying to eliminate global capitalism.

Which is a problem, because a lot of people like global capitalism. A dialogue:

Bob: Man vs. man conflicts raise some thorny issues which man vs. nature conflicts manage to avoid. I think we should be very wary about opening the door to political discussions.

Alice: What? Come on, Bob, you talk about politics all the time!

Bob: I watch porn all the time too; that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it, or think it’s the most good I could do with my resources. Suppose effective altruists get involved in the 2016 US presidential election – which isn’t prima facie a bad idea; think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had. Lots of people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Democrats. Lots of other people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Republicans. Now the Democrats and Republicans are at exactly the same position vis-a-vis each other as they were before the effective altruists got involved, but we have wasted $20 million that could have gone to healing the sick or feeding the hungry. And I’m using money to make things obvious, but the same goes for donating time or advocacy or other resources. If this sort of thing started happening, we would want to promote a general cultural norm of “never spend resources on man vs. man conflicts”. If both sides were equally likely to follow the norm, then the conflicts would remain unaffected but everyone would have more resources to spend on the sick and hungry.

Alice: But effective altruists are very unlikely to donate to both sides of a political issues equally and cancel out. Political views are heavily shaped by demographics, and EAs are likely to skew left just like most other highly-educated groups. Even aside from this, their similar moral assumptions and thinking styles will lead them to converge onto the same side of an issue. Half of Americans are creationist, and almost as many oppose gay marriage, but I would expect fewer than 5% of EAs to hold either position. The idea of donations cancelling out is totally unrealistic. Instead, we should predict that on most issues, most EA donations will go to the same side. We end up not with a wasteful neutrality, but with a large sum of money going to one side, detracted from only slightly by a much smaller sum going to the other. If the cause is important enough, it might still be the most good we could do – the net benefit of (good from giving large amount of money to one side) minus (harm from giving small amount of money to the other side) would still be higher than the benefit of giving all the money to a traditional charity.

Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.

Alice: That’s a ridiculous way of looking at it. We don’t just flip a coin to determine which side to back. We exhaustively study the argument for both sides, the evidence base, et cetera. Then we focus only on those issues where we can be most certain we’re in the right. The odds there are a heck of a lot better than fifty percent!

Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Alice: What you’re saying makes a certain kind of sense in Weird Platonic Spherical Cow Perfect Rationality Outside View World. But think about this from the Inside View perspective. Once again, half the country is creationist. Almost half oppose gay marriage. It’s like a stock market where half of the investors are throwing everything they have into the perpetual motion industry. Surely you can admit that even a little bit of intelligence, education, and rationality can actually take you a long way in politics?

Bob: Half the country is creationist, but there’s almost no easy gains from fighting them; any curriculum that federal politics can conceivably affect is evolutionary by this point, and it’s unclear we get any real benefits by going after the last few Alabama middle school students. As for opposing gay marriage, I think you’re going beyond your supposed reliance on evidence here. The strongest conservative case against gay marriage is that it reinforces a centuries-long redefinition of marriage from a strategic partnership focused on child-rearing to a ceremonial acknowledgment of romantic infatuation, potentially leading to a deep shift in the way people think about issues like who to marry, when to have kids, when to get divorced, and how to treat their family. That argument hasn’t been rigorously evaluated by statisticians and found wanting. It’s been found annoying and left untouched. Your differences are foundational assumptions and methodological disagreements about what sorts of issues to focus on, not simple “he made an arithmetic error when calculating the effects” style obvious superiority.

Alice: Really, Bob? You really want to go there?

Bob: Yes. In fact, I worry that this plays into exactly the potential flaws of the effective altruist movement. I can count up all the harms of banning gay marriage: exactly 1.13 million gay people regret not being able to marry, they rate their distress at 3.2/5 on the Likert Scale, that comes out to X QALYs lost per annum, but you have no way of easily quantifying the potential harms of gay marriage, therefore your argument is invalid. A lot of these issues involve trading off easily quantifiable harms on one side versus less quantifiable harms on the other: social trust, cultural cohesion, moral credibility, “freedom” broadly defined, ability to innovate. Highly educated people used to studying science might just be more likely to fall for the streetlight effect and go with the side that promises more quantifiability, rather than the side more likely to be right.

Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!

Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.

Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…

Bob: And eugenics.

Alice: Actually…

Bob: ಠ_ಠ

Alice: Fine then. For the sake of argument, the smart people were wrong twice. That still doesn’t…

Bob: It does! A quick run through the history books shows that smart people trying to effect systemic change have an imperfect track record. I won’t say that they’re unusually bad compared to other demographics, but certainly nothing as stellar as the “let’s just not be morons” theory might lead one to expect. You like quantifiable things and specific examples, so let me give you one. I’ve sometimes thought that Friedrich Engels can be considered one of the fathers of effective altruism – at least of the earning-to-give variety. Wikipedia says:

Once Engels made it to Britain, he decided to re-enter the Manchester company in which his father held shares, in order to be able to support Marx financially, so that Marx could work on his masterpiece Das Kapital. Engels didn’t like the work but did it for the good of the cause.

And in one sense, Engels-as-altruist was utterly brilliant. He effectively zeroed in on the most influential thinker of his era, funded an otherwise-impossible level of output from him, and his work directly led to revolutions in a dozen countries with radical change in the lives of billions of people. But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative. That should make us really concerned. Not “nod sagely and promise to think about it” level of concern, but more “run away screaming” level of concern. That’s why I’m so reluctant to accept your otherwise-reasonable points about the seemingly obvious issues.

Alice: On an emotional level, I get your point. But on a rational level, wouldn’t it be astounding if smart people trying to figure out the safest ways to do the most good consistently made things worse?

Bob: There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.

Alice: So don’t go poking around super-complex systems with lots of variables as complicated as “capitalism” versus “communism”. Stick to well-understood things with fairly predictable effects. If we have a little bit more humility than Engels, maybe we won’t fall into the same trap he did.

Bob: All nice and well, except that I do not see even the tiniest sign of supra-Engels levels of humility in the effective altruist movement as it exists today. Recently I have had to deal with lots of our Facebook friends joining and sharing images from a group called “Muh Borders!” which exists to post memes making fun of anyone who opposes Open Borders as a stupid bigot who is not worth talking to:

In terms of “political causes that we can be totally sure won’t backfire and devastate entire countries for generations”, I would place open borders…well, let’s say somewhere in the bottom quartile. A thorough analysis by one of its strongest and most intelligent advocates concludes with “doubt that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders” but has been mostly ignored in favor of constantly retreading the same old streetlight-illuminated ground of whether immigrants do or don’t affect native wages. And this is the community that is supposed to have solved the hard problem of getting mind-killed by politics, and can now be sure it’s genuinely pursuing the side of Good rather than the side that looks like Good but actually kills tens of millions of people?

Alice: That’s not fair. Yes, there are some people who reflect poorly on the open borders movement, but they’re not all effective altruists, and even humble people who try their best to think about things rationally are allowed to let off steam on Facebook once in a while. The open borders movement has also done a lot of really impressive analysis, and even though there are risks, given the potential benefits it really can be thought of as a no-brainer.

Bob: I am a coward and will stick to buying bed nets, thank you.


There’s another problem with man vs. man: the people we want to recruit are men, and the people we want to make our movement out of are men.

(That came out sounding more sexist than I intended. You know what I mean.)

Several people have recently argued that the effective altruist movement should distance itself from AI risk and other far-future causes lest it make them seem weird and turn off potential recruits. Even proponents of AI risk charities like myself agree that we should be kind of quiet about it in public-facing spaces.

As someone whose own views on open borders are mixed (I should probably write a post), I am really turned off by memes like the one above. And since only seven percent of Americans fully support open borders, that’s a lot of potentially turned-off people. They’re going to go on effective altruist sites, see that a big part of the movement is arguing for a policy that they abhor, and notice their potential colleagues talking about how people like them who oppose that policy are stupid and parochial and hate foreigners. “We think you’re wrong and stupid, come join our movement” makes a really crappy recruiting pitch. But it is the pitch we are sending to anyone who isn’t a Silicon Valley libertarian, George Mason University economics professor, or journalist – the only three groups from which I have seen a level of open borders support much beyond the lizardman level.

If effective altruists are split on an issue, then they’re working at cross-purposes, like the people above who donated $20 million to both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. But if effective altruists are not split on an issue, then they’re projecting a unified Effective Altruist Consensus on it which is going to look pretty intimidating to anybody who disagrees. And if there are enough of these issues, then a randomly selected person is almost certain to disagree with at least one of them. The more different from the EA stereotypical demographic they are, the more likely such a disagreement will be. Politics is the mind-killer and quickly takes over from everything else; I do not think political disagreements can stay quiet and harmless for long. If two people are both committed to healing the sick and feeding the hungry but one believes in open borders and the other in a more Bernie Sanders style approach to immigration – not even conservative, just a Bernie Sanders style approach! – they can peacefully coexist in an effective altruist movement focusing on traditional charity, but one focusing on systemic change is likely to get pretty heated.

If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the most recent EA Summit, which advertised fully vegetarian meals but added non-vegetarian options at the last second. This became a big enough scandal that I, who was two thousand miles away from the conference, got inundated with arguments about it on Facebook, Tumblr, and this blog. Several people threatened to quit effective altruism entirely, though I don’t know if any of them followed through.

This is a community that can literally almost tear itself apart over the question of what to have for lunch. I think there might be too much dynamite around to risk shooting off sparks.

And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement in favor of the same thing that everybody else is doing.

If effective altruism became more political, it would likely fade seamlessly into something like the Brookings Institution (a top-tier think tank whose $100 million yearly budget is by my calculations well above what the entire world combined spends on deworming) or the Cato Institute (another top think tank whose $30 million budget is likely more than all AI risk charities and all effective animal rights charities combined). Probably the staff of the Brookings Institution go into work each day thinking “How can I best improve the world by giving it better policies?”, and I admire that, but they don’t have the same sort of moral mission as effective altruism and it would be disappointing to see the latter collapse into an annex of the former.

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OT28: Where In The World Is Comment Sandiego?

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

1. After reading one of my past posts, probably The Right To Waive Your Rights, someone mentioned that they’re no longer willing to see a psychiatrist for their suicidal thoughts because they interpreted me as saying psychiatrists always (usually?) involuntarily commit people with suicidal thoughts. So just to clear this up for anyone else with the same misapprehension: THAT IS NOT WHAT I SAID. I said that it sometimes works that way in hospital emergency rooms, where there are special incentives to be risk-averse and where the patients are usually very ill. This is NOT THE CASE if you just make an appointment in your average outpatient psychiatrist’s office. Most outpatient psychiatrists are comfortable with people who have occasional suicidal thoughts as long as they say they don’t immediately plan to act on them. Please do not let fear of being involuntarily committed prevent you from talking about your problems with an outpatient psychiatrist.

2. Comment of the week is Gwern’s reanaylsis of the cost-benefit ratio of some of the low-specificity suicide biomarkers I talked about last month. But also, Steve Sailer talks about who supported Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.

3. Some corrections from the last links post: the Japanese may not be moving quite as fast to cut down on humanities education as previously reported; Vox may be prematurely hasty in dismissing police shootings/subsequent riots as related to recent urban crime upticks.

4. There’s been some discussion of x-risk charity recently, and a lot of people have mentioned that preventing pandemics is a pretty important underserved area. I agree. Are there any good organizations working on the problem that accept donations?

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Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers


It takes a special sort of person to be a cardiologist. This is not always a good thing.

You may have read about one or another of the “cardiologist caught falsifying test results and performing dangerous unnecessary surgeries to make more money” stories, but you might not have realized just how common it really is. Maryland cardiologist performs over 500 dangerous unnecessary surgeries to make money. Unrelated Maryland cardiologist performs another 25 in a separate incident. California cardiologist does “several hundred” dangerous unnecessary surgeries and gets raided by the FBI. Philadelphia cardiologist, same. North Carolina cardiologist, same. 11 Kentucky cardiologists, same. Actually just a couple of miles from my own hospital, a Michigan cardiologist was found to have done $4 million worth of the same. Etc, etc, etc.

My point is not just about the number of cardiologists who perform dangerous unnecessary surgeries for a quick buck. It’s not even just about the cardiology insurance fraud, cardiology kickback schemes, or cardiology research data falsification conspiracies. That could all just be attributed to some distorted incentives in cardiology as a field. My point is that it takes a special sort of person to be a cardiologist.

Consider the sexual harassment. Head of Yale cardiology department fired for sexual harassment with “rampant bullying”. Stanford cardiologist charged with sexually harassing students. Baltimore cardiologist found guilty of sexual harassment. LA cardiologist fined $200,000 for groping med tech. Three different Pennsylvania cardiologists sexually harassing the same woman. Arizona cardiologist suspended on 19 (!) different counts of sexual abuse. One of the “world’s leading cardiologists” fired for sending pictures of his genitals to a female friend. New York cardiologist in trouble for refusing to pay his $135,000 bill at a strip club. Manhattan cardiologist taking naked pictures of patients, then using them to sexually abuse employees. New York cardiologist secretly installs spycam in office bathroom. Just to shake things up, a Florida cardiologist was falsely accused of sexual harassment as part of feud with another cardiologist.

And yeah, you can argue that if you put high-status men in an office with a lot of subordinates, sexual harassment will be depressingly common just as a result of the environment. But there’s also the Texas cardiologist who pled guilty to child molestation. The California cardiologist who killed a two-year-old kid. The author of one of the world’s top cardiology textbooks arrested on charges Wikipedia describes only as “related to child pornography and cocaine”.

Then it gets weird. Did you about the Australian cardiologist who is fighting against extradition to Uganda, where he is accused of “terrorism, aggravated robbery and murdering seven people”? What about the Long Island cardiologist who hired a hitman to kill a rival cardiologist, ahd who was also for some reason looking for “enough explosives to blow up a building”?

Like I said, it takes a special sort of person.


Given the recent discussion of media bias here, I wanted to bring up Alyssa Vance’s “Chinese robber fallacy”, which she describes as:

..where you use a generic problem to attack a specific person or group, even though other groups have the problem just as much (or even more so).

For example, if you don’t like Chinese people, you can find some story of a Chinese person robbing someone, and claim that means there’s a big social problem with Chinese people being robbers.

I originally didn’t find this too interesting. It sounds like the same idea as plain old stereotyping, something we think about often and are carefully warned to avoid.

But after re-reading the post, I think the argument is more complex. There are over a billion Chinese people. If even one in a thousand is a robber, you can provide one million examples of Chinese robbers to appease the doubters. Most people think of stereotyping as “Here’s one example I heard of where the out-group does something bad,” and then you correct it with “But we can’t generalize about an entire group just from one example!” It’s less obvious that you may be able to provide literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese – and still have absolutely no point.

If we’re really concerned about media bias, we need to think about Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media’s strongest weapons. There are lots of people – 300 million in America alone. No matter what point the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never have to stop covering it if they don’t want to.

This has briefly gotten some coverage in the form of “the war on police”. As per AEI:

Is there a “war on police” in America today? Most Americans think so, and that’s understandable given all of the media coverage of that topic. A Google news search finds 32,000 results for the phrase “war on cops” and another 12,100 results for “war on police,” with sensational headlines like “America’s War on Cops Intensifies” and “Bratton Warns of Tough Times Ahead Due to ‘War on Cops’.” A recent Rasmussen poll found that 58% of likely US voters answered “Yes” to the question “Is there a war on police in America today?” and only 27% disagreed. But data on police shootings in America that were reported last week by The Guardian tell a much different story of increasing police safety.

According to data available from the “Officer Down Memorial Page” on the annual number of non-accidental, firearm-related police fatalities, 2015 is on track to be the safest year for law enforcement in the US since 1887 (except for a slightly safer year in 2013), more than 125 years ago. And adjusted for the country’s growing population, the years 2013 and 2015 will be the two safest years for police in US history, measured by the annual number of firearm-related police fatalities per 1 million people.

When politically convenient, it is easy to make Americans believe in a war on police simply by better coverage of existing murders of police officers. Given that America is a big country with very many police, even a low base rate will provide many lurid police-officer-murder stories – by my calculation, two murders a week even if officers are killed only at the same rate as everyone else. While covering these is a legitimate decision, it can be deceptive unless it’s framed in terms of things like whether the rate has gone up or down, whether the rate is higher or lower for the group involved than the base rate in the population, and it still seems scary when you explicitly calculate the rate.

But a Chomskian analysis would ask whether the talk of a “war on cops” is really a uniquely bad example of journalistic malpractice, or whether it is bog-standard journalistic malpractice which is unique only in being called out this time instead of allowed to pass.

Let’s stick with coverage of police for consistency’s sake. I’ve made a very similar argument before regarding claims of racist police shootings (see Part D here), but let’s avoid that particular rabbit hole and consider a broader and more unsettling point. We all hear anecdotes about terrible police brutality. Suppose, in fact, that we’ve heard exactly X stories. Given that there are about 100,000 police officers in the US, is X consistent with the problem being systemic and dire, or with the problem being relatively limited?

I mean, it’s hard to say. Quick Fermi calculation: if I can think of about one horrible story of police brutality a week, and assume there are fifty that aren’t covered for every one that is, then per year that makes…

But wait – what if I told you that number was a lie, and there were actually 500,000 police officers in the US? Suddenly the rate of police brutality has decreased five times from what it was a second ago. If you previously believed that there were 100,000 police officers, and that the police brutality rate was shameful but that decreasing the rate to only one-fifth its previous level would count as a victory, well, now you can declare victory.

What if I told you the 500,000 number is also a lie, and it’s actually way more cops than that? Do you have any idea at all how many police there are? Shouldn’t you at least have an order-of-magnitude estimate of what the police brutality rate is before deciding if it’s too high or not? What if I told you the real number was a million cops? Five million cops? Ten million? That’s a hundred times the original estimate of 100,000 – shouldn’t learning that the police brutality rate is only 1% of what you originally estimated (or, going the other direction, 10,000% of that) change your opinion in some way?

(No, I won’t tell you how many cops there actually are. Look it up.)

I feel this way about a lot of things. The media is always giving us stories of how tech nerds are sexist in some way or another. But we may suspect they want to push that line regardless of whether it’s true. How many tech nerds are there? A million? Ten million? How many lurid stories about harassment in Silicon Valley have you heard? Do we know if this is higher or lower than the base rate for similar industries? Whether it’s going up or down? What it would look like if we actually had access to the per person rates?

By now you’ve probably figured out the gimmick, but just to come totally clean – cardiologists are wonderful people who as far as I know are no less ethical than any other profession. I chose to pick on them at random – well, not quite random, one of them yelled at me the other day because apparently contacting the cardiologist on call late at night just because your patient is having a serious heart-related emergency is some kind of huge medical faux pas. I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that there’s any general issue with cardiologists, and as far as I know there’s no evidence for such.

If you read Part I of this post and found yourself nodding along, thinking “Wow, cardiologists are real creeps, there must be serious structural problems in the cardiology profession, something must be done about them,” consider it evidence that a sufficiently motivated individual – especially a journalist! – can make you feel that way about any group.

Links 9/15: Linker Tailor Soldier Spy

Little-known footnote to the Scramble For Africa: Russian Somalia lasted one month before being conquered.

Latest big meta-analysis finds “little evidence” for Roy Baumeister’s ego depletion hypothesis, describes itself as “strongly challenging” the idea of willpower as a limited resource.

Why have murder rates suddenly shot up in St. Louis and Baltimore? The obvious thread linking those two cities doesn’t seem to be it; the rise appears to have started before the recent round of shootings and riots. Hopefully this doesn’t represent a halt or reversal of the secular trend towards decreasing crime – but if it does, then it could be another clue to what’s going on.

This week in neat methodologies: evidence in bias at Olympic games. Winners from last year gain a greater premium in subjective contests (eg figure skating with judges) than objective contests (eg the hundred meter dash), suggesting that judges are biased upward by an athlete’s previous reputation.

Headline of the week: The Weather Channel Reports Firenado On Kentucky Lake Brimming With Bourbon. I hope Sharknado 5 is about a fire-bourbon-shark-nado.

Also this week in neat methodologies: we don’t fully understand the genetics of intelligence, but we do know a couple of genes with small effect. Our model for natural selection on intelligence suggests that selection pressure should affect the various intelligence genes equally. That means the few genes we know offer what could be a representative sample of the entire structure that we could use to detect or refute such selection. And that in turn means that we can test for a genetic basis of intelligence differences between populations by checking how they differ on the few genes we know. Davide Piffer tries this and finds a correlation of 0.9 between genetically-predicted intelligence and actual IQ on the population level. But he gets correlations almost as high between randomly selected genes and actual IQ, which could either mean those randomly selected genes are linked to intelligence-related genes (his theory) or his methodology sucks (eternal default theory). Also, I am suspicious because you never get a real correlation of 0.9 with anything; even measurement error should be worse than that! Also, the author doesn’t do so well with my usual test of “does viewing his Twitter account increase my confidence in him as a person?”

This is probably a metaphor for something: Chimp Wielding Stick Takes Down Drone. Next time they should hold out for a craft with more experience dodging sudden giant animal attacks

The Marines recently did a study showing that women performed less well than men in combat, but as best I can tell it was fatally flawed; since the military has only recently started accepting women, all the women were new but many of the men were experienced. That just means experienced people do better than new people, which is unsurprising. Come back when you’ve got equivalent groups.

Bisexual women are more likely than straight or lesbian women to have an eating disorder, confusing everybody regardless of their theoretical perspective.

David Friedman’s Law’s Order starts off by explaining why there should be a higher penalty for armed robbery + murder than for armed robbery alone, or else armed robbers will have no incentive not to kill their victim and eliminate a potential witness. A recent Global Post article argues that the Chinese have screwed this one up by making a law that if you run over someone and they live, you have to pay for their medical care; but if you run over someone and they die, you have to pay a flat fine which is often much less. Therefore, Chinese drivers who accidentally hit someone will try to run them over again to finish the job. Snopes isn’t buying this and can’t find any sources, but I vaguely remember reading articles before in the Chinese-English media that were sort of like this.

A person who is not Ozy nevertheless analyzes the evidence on the results of gender transitioning, finds best studies show it can improve mental health.

The original Sokal hoax – critically acclaimed avante-garde artist Pierre Brassau turned out to be a chimpanzee.

Harold Lee is always thought-provoking and worthwhile. The current thing of Harold Lee’s that is thought-provoking and worthwhile is on the Manchus’ self-conscious attempts to avoid decadence in Imperial China and how it relates to modern immigration.

Clever in a Rube Goldberg sort of way: cows keep eating metal, which damages their digestive tract. The solution: feed them a big magnet that stays in their stomach and prevents metal objects from going further.

Doing your arithmetic in base phi (ie 1.618…) is less crazy than you’d think.

In 1968, Britain was skimping on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the RAF for political reasons. An RAF pilot decided to take matters into his own hands and fly a fighter jet around the city of London without permission, including passing through the Tower Bridge. Everyone had a big laugh about it and he was allowed to leave the RAF on “medical grounds” without penalty. Simpler times.

The street dogs of Moscow have adapted to their urban environment, including learning how to use the subway train system to get where they need to go. Also some speculation that the packs enforce on their members a policy of not defecating in highly-trafficked areas in order to avoid conflict with humans, and that they are gradually switching from a pattern of strongest dog as pack leader to one favoring the most intelligent dog. Also, they seem to all be well-fed and to avoid competing with each other for food so that everyone can get their share. Actually, is there any way we can put Moscow street dogs in charge of the government?

Study on the effect of investing in schools finds “very precise zero estimates” of achievement effects.

People complain that mining the Alberta oil sands is environmentally damaging. But the original plan didn’t involve the sort of inefficient mining techniques being employed today. The original plan was to detonate a hundred nuclear bombs over the oil sands, in order to boil the oil to the top. This is maybe the most 1950s idea I have ever seen.

Very nice small study with neat methodology finds that more intelligent people are more honest.

78% of the variance in national income today is predicted by the variance in national income in 1500 AD. Much of the effect remains even as far back as 1000 BC, insofar as we can measure that sort of thing.

I Have One Of The Best Jobs In Academia; Here’s Why I’m Walking Away. The first half kind of makes me want to punch the guy, but the second is a really good analysis of how we ended up in the higher education bubble and what we can do to stop it.

In case you hadn’t heard, Jeremy Corbyn did in fact win the Labour Party leadership. Some discussion of his policies on Reddit, which range from “actually sounds pretty good, not sure why everyone’s so worked up over this” to “legitimately terrible idea, but not obviously moreso than everyone else’s terrible ideas”.

In 1956, Mao Zedong declared a policy switch toward greater freedom of speech, and invited party officials and intellectuals to criticize him and his leadership so he could learn from their advice. In 1957, Mao declared that it had all been a trap, and killed everyone who had spoken up.

“I don’t think any currently published translations capture the original [spirit of the Iliad]. The Iliad we know today is the written form of an entire oral tradition unto itself, which ancient epic poets whose names and numbers we’ll never know invented on their feet, their genius and imagination driven forth by musical accompaniment that kept the dactylic-hexameter beat. The modern listener should find the subject matter familiar as well: drink, booty, fly ladies, stacks of treasure, macho violence, and ostentatious modes of transportation.” Lula writes the Iliad as a rap and IT IS AMAZING.

Ben Henry going over some problems with Vox’s article claiming that Donald Trump made no extra money over what he’d have earned by putting his inheritance in an index fund. Quick summary: it ignores consumption (!), doesn’t really account for taxes, and in one case suggests that he should have magically picked the best moment to invest beforehand.

On the other hand, Vox’s test for political bias is actually really clever and really good. It asks you a bunch of factual questions about politics, like “Do studies show capital punishment decreases crime?” and then sees whether your errors form a consistent pattern that flatters your preconceptions. Both authors are part of the broader rationalist/EA community.

A social worker with more experience doing actual therapy than me reiterates that not-having-trigger-warnings is not the same thing as exposure therapy and shouldn’t be billed as a mental health good.

I’m not sure I’m understanding this article right, but if true, it’s…different. Half of all Japanese universities will close or scale back their humanities and social sciences departments after the government orders them to “serve areas that better meet society’s needs.”

Homeopathy Conference Ends In Chaos After Delegates Take Hallucinogenic Drug. Didn’t something like this happen in a Robert Anton Wilson book?

Last week I wrote an article on politics where I claimed that the left was moving leftward and the right rightward. I got a bunch of angry comments, half of which thought I was crazy because both parties were obviously moving rightward, and half of which thought I was crazy because both parties were obviously moving leftward. Over at his own blog, Free Northerner makes the case for a general leftward shift. Suggest you take your comments there instead of inflicting them on me again.

Harvard University declares it “can’t afford” closed access journals and asks its researchers to support the open access system. Despite the fact that their reasoning is obviously a lie (Harvard could afford journals printed upon platinum leaf in ink made from the blood of endangered white tigers) this will hopefully be a big boon to the open-access research movement.

The 2016 presidential polling has some notable anomalies. And not just the fact that people are still supporting Trump.

The amount of First World inequality attributable to education is very low, and education-related policies are unlikely to impact inequality very much.

Inside the Chinese city where the average man has three girlfriends.

More really neat methodology: when it’s dark, it’s hard for police to see what race a driver is, making them less likely to racially profile. By comparing ratios of black drivers to white drivers pulled over, and how the ratio varies during different lighting conditions (summer, winter, daylights savings time, areas with more streetlights), researchers find the odds of a black driver being stopped relative to a white driver increase 15% when police are better able to distinguish their race.

US companies are less likely to be publicly-traded than in the past.

I FINALLY FOUND THE STUDY I HAVE BEEN WANTING SOMEONE TO DO FOR AGES. The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis suggests that although men and women have similar average IQ, men will end up overrepresented in high-IQ occupations like “physicist” because men have higher variability (and therefore more men will be at both the high and low extremes). Some studies have shown preliminary support for this idea, but of course IQ is really hard to study and frequently confounded by cultural stuff. But the hypothesis says this variability should exist for every biological trait (it’s because men have only one X chromosome, so all their recessive mutations are expressed). So the best way to study it would be to study a bunch of easy-to-study obviously biological traits and see if men have more variability among most of them. And they mostly do, in categories from blood bilirubin levels to 60-meter-dash-running times (women are more variable along other parameters, including BMI and thyroid hormone levels, but there are fewer in this column). Overall the paper seems to provide significant albeit inconsistent support for greater male variability.

If you’ve ever wanted a really perfect way to intuitively compare the size of two countries/states/continents without worrying about things like Mercator projection distortion, is what’s been missing from your life until now.

Mitochondria have always been creepy. But now it’s starting to look like they talk to each other. Let’s hope they’re not chatting about how eukaryotes suck and it’s time to take over.

In these times of Syrian refugees, did you know that most of Haiti’s wealthiest families are Syrian immigrants?

Good (?) job opportunity for American women – make $100,000 + as a surrogate mother for a Chinese couple.

Speaking of which: in The Gambia, babies born in September have seven times the mortality rate throughout their life as babies born in June. Probably because in the first case Gambian mothers eat way more vegetables at the appropriate seasons. Unclear whether this is just folate or something more important; very unclear what lessons first-worlders can learn from this.

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Book Review: Manufacturing Consent



It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serve and propagandize on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control…them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well-positioned to shape and constrain media policy. This is normally not accomplished by crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.

[This includes] the ability to complain about the media’s treatment of news (that is, produce “flak”), to provide “experts” to confirm the official slant on the news, and to fix the basic principles and ideologies that are taken for granted by media personnel and the elite, but are often resisted by the general population. In our view, the same underlying power sources that own the media…that serve as primary definers of the news, and that produce flak and proper-thinking experts, also play a key role in fixing basic principles and dominant ideologies.

If I saw this quote on Facebook without attribution, I would assume it was from the latest far-right blog complaining about the liberal media. In fact, it is from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, which claims that the media acts as lapdog of the dominant neoliberal ideology against leftists of all stripes.

I decided to read Manufacturing Consent because of this basic puzzle: how can both the Left and Right be so certain that the media is biased against them?

Now, in one sense this is not surprising. Everyone believes everything is biased against them. I’ve previously talked about bravery debates, the sort of argument where both sides believe that we’re brave non-conformist speaking truth to power, and they’re toadies of the elite repeating the dominant consensus like sheep. The hostile media effect is a well-known bias where both sides of an issue believe the media is biased against them, even going so far as to both give low fairness ratings to sample documentaries in controlled studies for opposite reasons. So a more general tendency of both sides to accuse the media as a whole of having a hostile agenda is pretty much what we would predict.

The part that surprises me is: I thought that, even objectively, apart from the bias to be expected on both sides, the Right’s case for a hostile media was pretty good. Democrats outnumber Republicans among journalists four to one, and CrowdPAC’s donation analysis rates journalism as among the most liberal professions. There’s an ongoing joke (and some informal analysis) about how disgraced Republicans’ party affiliation is lampshaded and disgraced Democrats’ party affiliation is covered up. And in my own area of interest, it often seems like scientific studies that support liberal beliefs tend to get front-page billing no matter how terrible they are, but scientific studies that cast doubt upon such beliefs them are very rarely mentioned.

And this perception seems to be mirrored by the popular wisdom, where conservatives complain of media bias full stop, and liberals mostly just gripe about Fox in particular.

So Chomsky and Herman’s claim that the media is in fact biased towards conservatives is startling and interesting and deserves a further look.

How exactly do Chomsky and Herman think this media bias works? In Chapter 1, they propose five major mechanisms:

1. The mass media is mostly controlled by large corporations, who therefore support the sorts of things large corporations would be likely to support, like unrestrained capitalism and privileges for the wealthy.

2. The mass media is dependent on advertising, which also involves large corporations who support the sorts of things large corporations are likely to support. Further, these advertisers may have specific interests. For example, Texaco might be less willing to advertise in a source that frequently critiques Big Oil or raises concerns about pollution.

3. Journalists are dependent on sources. The most convenient sources are large well-organized entities in the midst of newsworthy events who issue press releases. For example, by far the easiest source for the latest news about a foreign war is the Pentagon. Furthermore, the Pentagon, while not always in fact trustworthy, enjoys a presumption of trustworthiness; if you interview some random foreigner, you would want to fact-check her very carefully, but if you parrot the Pentagon press release, you are assumed to have done due diligence merely because the source is so official. Other such convenient and official sources of news include the White House, the Department of State, local police forces, and local chambers of commerce. But all of these are members of the establishment and so have a pro-establishment bias. Further, the news relies on “experts” to confirm and comment upon news, and because of incestuous relationships between government, corporations, think tanks, and academia, the most credentialed and salient experts will almost always be pro-establishment.

4. Conservative groups fund “flak machines”, organizations and individuals whose job it is to complain that the media is “biased” whenever they are insufficiently conservative. In these cases, relentless nitpickers will shriek about every slight inaccuracy and condemn the journalists involved as liars and unpatriotic to boot. If the media parrots the official line, then journalists can be almost arbitrarily sloppy and nobody will call them on it. Therefore, journalists who get ground down by the constant harassment will unconsciously shift towards more pro-establishment narratives.

5. Anti-communism is “the dominant religion” of “our cultural milieu” so any journalist who disagrees with the establishment can be smeared with the label “communist” and forced “on the defensive”. Most “have fully internalized the religion anyway, but they are all under great pressure to demonstrate their anti-communist credentials.”

These are interesting ideas, and if supported and developed further they would go a long way towards explaining how the media might have a strong conservative bias despite the liberal leanings of most journalists.

But just after proposing them, the book makes a sudden ninety degree turn to focus on a series of in-depth case studies of US military interference in Third World countries.

The case studies are there for a reason: after Chomsky and Herman establish what they consider to be the true story, they provide examples of the US media consistently misrepresenting even the simplest of facts in ways that flatter the United States government and unfairly malign its foreign enemies. These result in the US getting away with what can only be described as genocide with almost no criticism, even though the facts are plain for anyone to see.

So the idea of media bias hasn’t been exactly dropped. But these studies have disappointingly little relevance to the more general claims that I and presumably most people who bought this book were interested in. Military interference in Third World countries is a very specific subject, and one whose dynamics differ from stories closer to home.

Was I disappointed that the authors didn’t develop their original point about the media more? I was at first. Then I realized this was the book about obscure brutal Third World military conflicts that I’d never known I needed.


Chomsky and Herman are both academics, and they’re both relentless. When they try to prove something, by golly, it stays proved. This is a good thing, in that the book deals with very controversial topics and anything less would be unconvincing. It’s also a bad thing, in that by the ninth or tenth long transcript taken from the same war crimes trial, all of the genocides and village-burnings and nun-rapes start to blend together into a big blob of atrocity, and you can’t remember whether Kouprasith Abhay was the evil generalissimo who launched the pro-US coup and killed thousands, or the good generalissimo who launched the anti-US counter-coup and killed thousands, or the morally ambiguous generalissimo who launched the non-aligned counter-counter-coup and killed thousands.

(his Wikipedia page clarifies that “[his] counter-coup within the counter-coup was ended by the paratroopers responsible for the ongoing coup.”)

But these details are less interesting than the big picture, a sketch of a political system that C&H jokingly term “death squad democracy”.

The general picture is of a third world country that was previously in a fragile social equilibrium. Something disrupts the equilibrium – usually the United States toppling the government because Communists were starting to do well in elections. It is replaced by a weak central government insecure in its power which decides to go after mass movements it perceives as a threat.

The mass movements form guerilla groups to resist government brutality. Supporters of the government form death squads in order to kill suspected guerillas more unethically than the international community would allow the government to do directly. Eventually there is so much violence that anyone who can form a guerilla army and kill their enemies before their enemies kill them does so.

The dictator solemnly declares that what’s going on is a rebellion by communist extremists with associated counter-violence by some grassroots rightist extremists, while he, the dictator, is doing his best to keep the peace. He send in the army, who are secretly or not-so-secretly are also the death squads, and so just make things worse. The United States declares the dictator is a great man who does his best to maintain peace in a troubled nation, and sends him tons of weapons and money. All of these weapons and money mysteriously end up in the hands of the death squads, which of course means the United States has to send in more weapons and money to help the dictator deal with the new threat of these richer, better-armed enemies.

If the dictator is feeling really nice, he will hold an election. The mass movements, communists, and anyone with actual popular support will be banned from participating since they are violent extremists, and the death squads will kill anybody who campaigns against the dictator. The dictator will win the vote handily, and the Free World will declare that since he won the elections, it’s clear that the communists are just violent extremists trying to deny the will of the people and take over for their own nefarious purposes.

This pattern, with slight variation, seems to have happened across the entire Third World at one point or another. Perhaps there will be another coup, and the dictator will be replaced by another dictator, perhaps some foreign country will get directly involved on one side or the other, but the basic logic will not change. For a space of years to decades, tens of thousands of people will be tortured and killed – a few here and there by the communists, but most by the government. Whole villages will be destroyed, freedom of thought will be nonexistent, and everyone except the dictator and a few cronies will be constantly living in fear.

And in a sense, I already knew all of this. We all kind of understand what goes on in banana republics. But for some reason, Manufacturing Consent painted an unusually clear picture that knocked it into relief for me and changed my understanding of a lot of things.

Take, for instance, the second Iraq War. The hawkish position is “we were right to want to remove Saddam, a bad man. We were right to believe that we would win the shooting war quickly and easily. We just couldn’t have predicted the explosion of Sunni-Shiite violence that would erupt afterwards, and that’s not our fault.”

And yet now that I have read Manufacturing Consent, it seems obvious that removing Saddam would cause Iraq to descend into blood-soaked death squads. It is like a law of the universe that Third World countries will descend into blood-soaked death squads at the drop of a pin. Every time the United States has tried to change the government of a Third World nation, the end result has been blood-soaked death squads. Expecting to remove a regime from power without thinking about the blood-soaked death squads seems less like an excusable error and more like missing the very heart of the issue, like expecting to use a nuke without thinking about radiation damage.

But the dove position is almost as bad! It’s “Ha! The hawks thought we would be greeted as liberators! What morons!” This totally misses the point! It’s assuming that if the Iraqis liked us, they would have politely lined up to form a centralized democratic government with a monopoly on the use of force. The problem wasn’t that the Iraqis didn’t like us enough, it was that we did something in a Third World country and expected it not to descend into blood-soaked death squads. That never works.

I am left with a greatly increased respect for the view that it was Western colonialism, broadly defined, that has caused Third World countries all their grief. The problem wasn’t just British people coming in and telling them to work on banana plantations for a while, the problem was the total destruction of the country’s usual rule of law, hierarchies, civic traditions, and social fabric by successive attempts by western-backed dictators to retain power. A couple of decades assassinating anyone who looks out of place and doesn’t do exactly what they’re told, of tearing apart any organization or community that looks strong enough to serve as an alternative to the State or offer resistance – the question is less why Third World countries are so screwed up, and more that they’re not screwed up even worse.


Throughout all of this, the US media could always be counted on to condemn the victims, excuse the aggressors, and totally fail to mention our role in anything.

As per Chomsky, this was rarely done by direct lies, in the form of front page “EVERYTHING FINE IN GUATEMALA, SAY SOURCES”. It was done by a campaign of highlighting certain things, downplaying others, and creating false controversies to cover up the real ones. Their five case studies showcase five different common media biases.

The first study is titled “Worthy And Unworthy Victims”, and compares news coverage of the “worthy victims” killed by America’s enemies to that of the “unworthy victims” killed by America’s allies. The death of worthy victims is treated with outrage, lurid descriptions of every detail of their brutal deaths, intense coverage of every new development in the hunt to bring the killers to justice, focus on the protests their death engenders, and insistence that their death proves a deep and important generalizable lesson about the society in which it occurred. The death of unworthy victims, if covered at all, is treated with “Well, violence sometimes happens, and it’s very sad, but what can we do about it?” Their case study of a “worthy victim” is Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest killed by the Communists; since the Communists were our enemy, we were outraged by the crime. Their examples of “unworthy victims” are the thousands killed in El Salvador and Guatemala, most notably Archbishop Oscar Romero; both countries’ governments were US allies fighting against Communist guerrillas at the time, so their atrocities had to be covered up “for the good of the cause”. As a result, the American populace mostly ended up believing that our enemies were brutal murderers, and our allies were, at best, peace-loving people who were not very good at controlling the violence that always seemed to be breaking out around them.

The second study is “Legitimizing Versus Meaningless Elections”. Most Third World elections are a little sketchy. If the election is in a US ally, it will be covered as a “step towards suffrage in this fledgling democracy”, but if the election is in a US enemy, it will be covered as “a sham” that people are only voting in “for fear of retribution”. The book discusses the elections in Communist Nicaragua versus US-backed El Salvador, showing that by any objective standards the former had fairer, freer elections yet were attacked as a sham by the US media; the latter basically was a sham intended to legitimize a dictatorship, but were praised as a good first step by US media. After reading this chapter it will be very hard for me to take reports of Third World elections seriously again.

The third study is the odd man out, farce in the midst of tragedy. It describes how gullibly the US media accepted the idea of a connection between would-be-Pope-assassin Mehmet Ali Agca and the KGB in the absence of any credible evidence. Yes, C&H admit, Agca did confess to working for the Communists – but only after Italian secret police demanded he do so. Plus he also confessed to lots of other things, including being Jesus Christ, and it was kind of clear that he was a little crazy. In terms of non-psychotic, non-Pope-murdering people who had evidence that the Communists were involved, there was pretty much zilch. But because the Soviets were The Enemy, the media was willing to uncritically pass along anything that discredited them.

The fourth study deals with the Vietnam War, usually considered a case of the media breaking with the establishment and taking a more pacifist, leftist position. C&H argue that this was true only within a very narrow Overton window, where the two acceptable positions were “the US is right to fight for the freedom of South Vietnam” versus “the US is right to fight for the freedom of South Vietnam, but the costs are too high”. C&H argue that nearly everyone in South Vietnam supported Ho Chi Minh except for the dictator and his cronies. The US intervened to save the dictator from his own people, but cast this as saving South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression, even though North Vietnam’s involvement was modest. A more honest account of the US role was that they were coming from thousands of miles away to save South Vietnam from “aggression” by the South Vietnamese people. Absent any real enemy except the populace itself, they were backed into a strategy of burning down villages and killing indiscriminately, hoping to keep everyone in such a state of constant terror that they couldn’t do any political organizing. The US media never came close to expressing this position, and therefore at best they could be described as “pro-establishment” and “pro-establishment but sick of losing.”

The fifth study was much like the fourth study, except with Laos and Cambodia. The United States killed about 50,000 people in Laos directly through bombing, and probably more through its consistent support for whichever colonel was launching a coup that day. The US media was completely silent, even though there was ample evidence that it was going on and the foreign media was all over it. Also, when the US media finally got around to talking about it, it was in the context of the supposed “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, whereas most of the bombing was just bombing poor villages in order to deprive the Laotian communists of their natural rural base.

Overall, C&H did a good job of showing ways that the US media could systematically distort foreign wars to cover up the atrocities of US allies, highlight the atrocities of US enemies, and make US actions seem much more noble than the generally chilling evidence would suggest.


So, do I believe any of it?

C&H are, as mentioned before, really thorough, and they cite everything back and forth twenty ways to Tuesday. But there are ways to be rigorous and dishonest at the same time. C&H had complete control of what incidents to include in their book, and that gives them a lot of power to choose genuinely troubling incidents while not acknowledging any that don’t fit their narrative.

For example, I mentioned before the case of Jerzy Popieluzsko, Polish priest murdered by the Communists. C&H make a big deal on how the US media was saturated with coverage and calls for justice; while they ignored the Salvadorean genocide victims around the same time.

But I notice that the Communists killed about a hundred million people over the course of the twentieth century. Most of these victims did not get the same coverage as Popieluzsko; in fact, we’ve discussed before here how in most cases the media erred on the side of covering these up. Instead of “the media over-covers Communist murders”, it might be “there is wide variance in the media’s coverage of Communist murders, and C&H focused on the most overdone one in order to support their thesis.”

I see this in a lot of places. C&H give a table of various genocides and the news coverage allotted to each. They find that, for example, the news coverage allotted the Kurdish genocide by Iraq (US enemy) was four times greater than the coverage allotted the East Timor genocide by Indonesia (US ally). On the other hand, if they had included Israel in the table, the lesson would have reversed; we hear far more about what Israel (US ally) is doing to the Palestinians than about the Kurds or East Timorese, even though the latter two cases involved far more deaths. Or what if they had included Iran (US enemy)? How many people know about the Iran-PJAK conflict that has claimed almost a thousand lives in the past few years? It’s easy for C&H to cherry-pick examples of well-covered-US-enemies and poorly-covered-US-allies, but it’s not clear that reflects reality very well.

Finally, I’m not sure how much to trust their history. I know very little about the mid-20th century; C&H might be presenting a very one-sided view. The few things I double-checked seem to support this analysis. For example, here’s how they describe Laos in the early 1950s:

A coalition government was established in 1958 after the only elections worthy of the name in the history of Laos. Despite extensive US efforts, they were won handily by the left. Nine of the thirteen candidates of the [communist] Pathet Lao guerrillas won seats in the national assembly, along with four candidates of the left-leaning neutralists (“fellow traveler,” as they were called by Ambassador Parsons). Thus “Communists or fellow travelers” won thirteen of the twenty-one seats contested. The largest vote went to the leader of the Pathet Lao, Prince Souphanouvong, who was elected chairman of the national assembly.

US pressures- including, crucially, the withdrawal of aid – quickly led to the overthrow of the government in a coup by a “pro-Western neutralist” who pledged his allegiance to “the free world” and declared his intention to disband the political party of the Pathet Lao (Neo Lao Hak Sat), scrapping the agreements that had successfully established the coalition. He was overthrown in turn by the CIA favorite, the ultra-right-wing General Phoumi Nosavan. After US clients won the 1960 elections, rigged so crudely that even the most pro-US observers were appalled, civil war broke out, with the USSR and China backing a coalition extending over virtually the entire political spectrum apart from the extreme right, which was backed by the United States.

This seemed so over-the-top cartoonishly evil that I had to check Wikipedia to see if it was an accurate summary. Here’s how they put the same events (editing very liberally for conciseness):

In April, 1953, the Viet Minh’s People’s Army of Vietnam invaded the northeastern part of what was still the French Protectorate of Laos with 40,000 troops commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap; including 2,000 Pathet Lao soldiers led by Souphanouvong. The objective of the two-pronged invasion was the capture of the royal capital of Luang Prabang and of the Plain of Jars. In November 9 the Pathet Lao began its conflict with the Kingdom of Laos thus beginning the civil war and technically the Second Indochina War while the First Indochina War was still going.

The North Vietnamese invaders succeeded in conquering the border provinces of Phong Saly and Xam Neua, which were adjacent to northern Vietnam and on the northeastern verge of the Plain of Jars. They then moved aside to allow the Pathet Lao force with its mismatched scrounged equipment to occupy the captured ground, and Souphanouvong moved the Pathet Lao headquarters into Xam Neua on 19 April.

On 21 March 1956, Souvanna Phouma began his second term as prime minister. He opened a dialogue with his brother, Souphanouvong. In August, they announced the intention of declaring a ceasefire and reintegrating the Pathet Lao and their occupied territory into the government. However, the Pathet Lao claimed the right to administer the provinces they occupied.

At the same time, they and their North Vietnamese backers ran a massive recruitment campaign, with the aim of forming nine battalions of troops. Many of the new recruits were sent into North Vietnam for schooling and training. This led to United States concern that the Royal Lao Army would be inadequately equipped and trained.

In November, 1957, a coalition government incorporating the Pathet Lao was finally established. Using the slogan, “one vote to the right, one vote to the left to prevent civil war,” pro-communist parties received one-third of the popular vote and won 13 of 21 contested seats in the elections of 4 May 1958. With these additional seats, the left controlled a total of 16 seats in the 59 member National Assembly. Combined with independents, this was enough to deny Souvanna’s center right, neutralist coalition the two-thirds majority it needed to form a government. With parliament deadlocked, the U.S. suspended aid in June to force a devaluation of the overpriced currency, which was leading to the abuse of U.S. aid. The National Assembly responded by confirming a right-wing government led by Phuy Xananikôn in August. This government included four members of the U.S.-backed Committee for the Defence of the National Interest (none of them National Assembly members). Three more unelected CDNI members were added in December, when Phuy received emergency powers to govern without the National Assembly.

Under orders from Souphanouvong, the Pathet Lao battalions refused to be integrated into the Royal Lao Army. Souphanouvong was then arrested and imprisoned, along with his aides. The two Pathet Lao battalions, one after the other, escaped during the night with no shots fired, taking their equipment, families, and domestic animals with them. On 23 May, Souphanouvong and his companions also escaped unscathed.

On 28 July, Communist Vietnamese units attacked all along the North Vietnamese-Lao border. As they took ground from the Royal Lao Army, they moved in Pathet Lao as occupation troops. Poor battle performance by the RLA seemed to verify the need for further training; the RLA outnumbered the attackers, but still gave ground.

On 9 August 1960, Captain Kong Le and his Special Forces-trained Neutralist paratroop battalion were able to seize control of the administrative capital of Vientiane in a virtually bloodless coup, while Prime Minister Tiao Samsanith, government officials, and military leaders met in the royal capital, Luang Prabang. His stated aim for the coup was an end to fighting in Laos, the end of foreign interference in his country, an end to the consequent corruption caused by foreign aid, and better treatment for his soldiers. However, Kong Le’s coup did not end opposition to him, and there was a scramble among unit commanders to choose up sides. If one was not pro-coup, then he had the further decision to make as to whom he would back to counter the coup. The front runner was General Phoumi Nosavan, first cousins with the prime minister of Thailand, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. With the Central Intelligence Agency’s support, Sarit set up a covert Thai military advisory group, called Kaw Taw. Kaw Taw, which would support the counter-coup that was mounted; it supplied artillery, artillerymen, and advisers to Phoumi’s forces. It also committed the CIA-sponsored Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit to operations within Laos.

So, things that C&H conveniently forgot to mention: North Vietnam invaded Laos (!), and the Communists gained their power as lackeys for these foreign invaders (!). Although the Communists did well in the 1958 elections, they absolutely did not have a majority in government at the time, and in fact stonewalled the legitimate government. Xananikôn was elected constitutionally by the National Assembly, including the Communists. The Communists refused to stand down their armies and join the national government, and when the government tried to make them, North Vietnam invaded again, with the Communists supporting the foreign invaders. It was in this context that the Neutralists launched their coup, and Phoumi’s CIA-backed countercoup was actually in opposition to it. This is a really different story than C&H’s version. C&H never lie per se, but they leave out things as significant as a giant foreign invasion happening during the middle of the events they’re describing.

Here’s something else I found on Wikipedia: both Chomsky and Herman are considered prominent Cambodian genocide denialists:

Beginning with “Distortions at Fourth Hand”, an article published in the American left-wing periodical The Nation in June 1977, they wrote that while they did not “pretend to know […] the truth” about what was going on in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, while reviewing material on the topic then available, “[w]hat filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available”. Referring to “the extreme unreliability of refugee reports,” they noted: “Refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear. While these reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary. Specifically, refugees questioned by Westerners or Thais have a vested interest in reporting atrocities on the part of Cambodian revolutionaries, an obvious fact that no serious reporter will fail to take into account.” They concluded by stating that Khmer Rouge Cambodia might be more closely comparable to “France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months” than to Nazi Germany.

Their book After the Cataclysm (1979), which appeared after the regime had been deposed, has been described by area specialist Sophal Ear as “one of the most supportive books of the Khmer revolution” in which they “perform what amounts to a defense of the Khmer Rouge cloaked in an attack on the media”.[9] In the book, Chomsky and Herman acknowledged that “The record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome,” but questioned their scale, which may have been inflated “by a factor of 100”. They further asserted that the evacuation of Phnom Penh “may actually have saved many lives,” Khmer Rouge agricultural policies reportedly produced “spectacular” results, and there might have been “a significant degree of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge”: “How can it be that a population so oppressed by a handful of fanatics does not rise up and overthrow them?”

Herman replied to critics in 2001: “Chomsky and I found that the very asking of questions about the numerous fabrications, ideological role, and absence of any beneficial effects for the victims in the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda campaign of 1975–1979 was unacceptable, and was treated almost without exception as ‘apologetics for Pol Pot’.”

Many other scholars denying or doubting the character of the Khmer Rouge recanted their earlier opinions as the evidence of massive KR crimes against humanity mounted.

They touch on this issue in the book, but I have trouble figuring out what to make of it. Certainly they are outraged that anyone accuses them of denying the Cambodian genocide, and they say this is evil right-wing character assassination propaganda. They then go on to say, kind of flailingly, that also the Cambodian genocide wasn’t that bad, that all the media reports about it were lies, that it was the US’ fault anyway, that the US did worse things anyway, that Cambodia before the genocide was even worse, that America secretly loved Pol Pot and was his best friend, and also shut up shut up shut up. As far as I can get any kind of coherent thesis at all out of this, they seem to be saying they were Gettier cased; every media report of the genocide was a vile right-wing propaganda lie, but coincidentally, a genocide exactly like the one reported in the media occurred.

Herman is additionally criticized for denying the Rwandan and Srebrenica genocides, although Chomsky does not seem to be involved.

And usually I hate terms like “genocide apologist”, because very few people are actually genocide apologists so it’s usually a call to outrage aimed at riling up an angry mob against someone based on one comment they may or may not have said a long time ago.

But in the case where the entire point at issue is a book about genocide scholarship, where the thesis is “everybody else got these genocides wrong, and we are going to tell you the truth about them”, it becomes pretty important if they have a long history of getting genocides wrong.

So I take this book with a grain of salt. I think it treats the topics it covers very rigorously, but (ironically given the subject) the authors’ ability to set the agenda and choose which topics to focus on and which to omit gives them way too much power to shape the readers’ understanding of complex issues.

Do I blame C&H for this? Not exactly. As someone who’s occasionally engaged in some consensus-challenging myself, let me tell you, it’s really hard. Try being perfectly balanced, going out of your way to explain all the facts that disagree with your thesis and pointing out all the grey areas – and no one will listen to you at all. Because if people have heard all their life that A is pure good and B is total evil, and you hand them some dense list of facts suggesting that in some complicated way their picture might be off, they’ll round it off to “A is nearly pure good and B is nearly pure evil, but our wise leaders probably got carried away by their enthusiasm and exaggerated a bit, so it’s good that we have some eggheads to worry about all these technical issues.” The only way to convey a real feeling for how thoroughly they’ve been duped is to present the opposite narrative – the one saying that A is total evil and B is pure good – then let the two narratives collide and see what happens.

And this is really hard, because the same institutions who swallow the utterly bankrupt mainstream narrative whole will suddenly rediscover their skepticism and pick apart every little exaggeration and omission in the contrary narrative. This is the domain of isolated demands for rigor; suddenly no objection is too vague or philosophical, and any amount of emotion or editorializing represents a “bias” that discredits the entire work. So countercultural elements are caught between a rock and a hard place: if they stick to a minimalist stating of the most agreed-upon facts, then it’s not enough to shock people out of their prejudices; any attempt to spin a convincing narrative in the way their mainstream opponents do all the time, and they get attacked for going beyond what can be 100% incontrovertibly defended.

I think C&H handle this impossible balancing act better than most. I think Manufacturing Consent has serious issues with bias, sometimes inexcusably so, but I think its thesis survives these biases. I went into this book with more or less the attitude mentioned above: the classic story of America being great was a bit exaggerated and overenthusiastic, and in fact we did a lot of morally ambiguous things.

I came out of it with more of a primal horror that we spent a lot of the 20th century being moral monsters, and feeling like we have the same sort of indelible black mark on our name as Germany or Russia or Belgium. Whatever factors C&H may have exaggerated, and whatever exculpatory evidence they may have omitted, I doubt that any of it would fully reverse that unpleasant conclusion.


Okay, but what about media bias? Wasn’t that the whole reason we got into this mess?

C&H’s case studies of foreign wars aren’t great tests for their hypothesized mechanisms of bias. Their first two mechanisms are big media corporations pushing a pro-corporate worldview, and big corporate advertisers insisting on programming that reflects well on them and their corporate activities.

And I can see why a mass media dominated by corporate giants might be expected to agitate against labor unions, but it’s harder to see why it is so insistent on covering up a campaign of genocide by pro-American forces in El Salvador. It’s easy to see why they might avoid condemning oil companies in order to preserve ad revenue from Texaco, but harder to see why they would systematically underestimate casualties from US bombing missions on the Plain of Jars in Laos.

Their third mechanism, big Pentagon-style sources with press bureaus, certainly applies very well to these cases. But it doesn’t seem like it should necessarily generalize to every other type of story. When the media is covering an election, or a protest, where is the Pentagon-style source? Although C&H’s point that the police department, etc, can also be sources in this way is well-taken, this seems less pressing for a protest in Seattle than for, say, a bombing campaign in Laos, where a news source might have trouble getting Lao-speaking journalists into the midst of the carnage. Besides, what about cases where this produces the opposite bias? Might newspapers be overly friendly to regulations because they rely upon the regulatory body? What if there is a protest by a large, well-organized group that has cultivated links with the press?

Their fourth mechanism, flak machines, raise a similar issue. C&H view this as a rightist phenomenon almost by definition. They never consider the possibility that, for example, their writing an entire book saying the media is dishonest and biased might count as “flak” on their part. Any conservative criticizing the media is part of a “flak machine” intended to “keep it under control” and “destroy its independence”, but any leftist criticizing the media is bravely trying to expose its biases and bring the truth to light. This seems so obvious to them that they never even have to justify it. This is perhaps understandable in the conflict of foreign wars, where it’s more likely that would-be patriots will condemn reporting that reflects poorly on American troops, but in the context of domestic policy it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That leaves their fifth mechanism, “anti-communism as the dominant religion of our culture”, a claim which hasn’t aged well since Manufacturing Consent came out in the ’80s. Worse, C&H’s argument for this position is almost word-for-word the same argument that conservatives use to claim that “anti-racism is the dominant religion of our culture”. I’ve even heard them use the specific phrase “dominant religion”.

In their section on “worthy victims” versus “unworthy victims”, C&H describe a certain form of coverage the media reserves for the victims of Communism (section edited for length and clarity):

A. Fullness and reiteration of the details of the murder and the damage inflicted on the victim. The coverage of the Popieluszko murder was notable for the fullness of the details regarding his treatment by the police and the condition of the recovered body. What is more, these details were repeated at every opportunity. The condition of the body was described at its recovery, at the trial when the medical evidence was presented, and during the testimony of the perpetrators of the crime. At the trial, the emotional strain and guilt manifested by the police officers were described time and again, interspersed with the description of how Popieluszko pleaded for his life, and evidence of the brutality of the act…Popieluszko himself was humanized, with descriptions of his physical characteristics and personality that made him into something more than a distant victim.” In sum, the act of violence and its effects on Popieluszko were presented in such a way as to generate the maximum
emotional impact on readers. The act was vicious and deserved the
presentation it received. The acts against the unworthy victims [of US anti-Communist client states] were also vicious, but they were treated very differently.

B. Stress on indignation, shock, and demands for justice. In a large proportion of the articles on the Popieluszko murder there are quotations or assertions of outrage, indignation, profound shock, and mourning, and demands that justice be done. Steady and wholly sympathetic attention is given to demonstrators, mourners, weeping people, work stoppages, masses held in honor of the victim, and expressions of outrage, mainly by nonofficial sources. The population “continues to mourn,” “public outrage mounted,” the pope is deeply shaken, and even Jaruzelski condemns the action. The net effect of this day-in-day-out repetition of outrage and indignation was to call very forcible attention to a terrible injustice, to put the Polish government on the defensive, and, probably, to contribute to remedial action.

C. The search for responsibility at the top. In article after article, the U.S. media raised the question: how high up was the act known and approved? By our count, eighteen articles in the New York Times stressed the question of higher responsibility, often with aggressive headlines addressed to that point…

D. Conclusions and follow-up. The New York Times had three editorials on the Popieluszko case. In each it focused on the responsibility of the higher authorities and the fact that “A police state is especially responsible for the actions of its police” (“Murderous Poland:’ Oct. 30, 1984). It freely applied words like “thuggery,” “shameless,” and “crude” to the Polish state. The fact that police officers were quickly identified, tried, and convicted it attributed to the agitation at
home and abroad that put a limit on villainy. This is a good point, and one that we stress throughout this book: villainy may be constrained by intense publicity. But we also stress the corresponding importance of a refusal to publicize and the leeway this gives murderous clients under the protection of the United States and its media, where the impact of publicity would be far greater.

But of course, that describes to a “t” the media’s coverage of the Ferguson shooting. C&H include a table showing the disproportionate attention given victims of Communism compared to all other types of victims, but the amount of attention given to Ferguson blows all of the Communist murders off the chart.

Does that mean that white policemen fill the same role today that the Soviet Union did back in the 80s? I don’t know. Sure, it’s relevant white policeman killed hundreds of people before Mike Brown with nary a peep from the media. But then, it’s also relevant that Communists killed millions of people before Jerzy Popieluzsko with equally minimal response.

My point is that “anti-Communism” is probably not a uniquely religious belief, and that these “religions” can serve the left as well as the right.

So none of C&H’s five pillars of conservative media domination really seem to stand up very well, which is fine because in their conclusions section C&H switch to a different theory.

They say that the media is a profit-seeking free market, and the best way to get profits is to appeal to advertisers. And the best way to appeal to advertisers is to appeal to the population. And the population wants to hear things that tell them they are good, and their country is good, and don’t challenge or dismay them overly much. Hearing that your government just killed 50,000 Lao civilians is a real downer; hearing that the war on those nasty Commies is going well will keep viewers coming back for more.

But this represents a retreat from the book’s thesis. The media is not exactly a propaganda organ that manipulates the people to serve powerful interests. It’s a tool of the people, giving them what they want to hear – which turns out to be terrible.

And then comes the obvious question – “But, like, fifty percent of the population are liberal, right? Don’t they also get told what they want to hear?”

C&H answer this with the one story that really hammered home the book’s thesis for me: what about Watergate? The media did a great job exposing the lies and corruption of those in power; in fact, of a Republican in power. Does that disprove C&H’s thesis?


The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure. The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community. Nixon’s actions were therefore a scandal. The Socialist Workers party, a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore, there was no scandal when it was revealed, just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities by illegal break-ins and other measures for a decade, a violation of democratic principle far more extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings.

History has been kind enough to contrive for us a “controlled experiment” to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether.) This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged.

So for C&H, the media’s rightward bias isn’t “pro-Republican, anti-Democrat”. It’s pro- a conservative establishment in which both Republicans and Democrats collude, and anti- the real left, which it treats as a lunatic fringe too powerless to even be worth mentioning.

This is a new theory, quite different from the five points about corporatism that started the book, and it seems to resolve the paradox of both right and left seeing media bias. The media enforces conformity with the Overton window against both the right and left flanks. Both the rightward and leftward fringes notice the same set of dirty tricks in the media, and describe them in almost exactly the same terms. Thus both sides complain about the other being a “dominant religion”, both sides complain that both major parties are part of the same con, both sides complain that the media restricts debate to a narrow range of acceptable opinion, etc.

And both sides are shouted down in the same terms, too. When the far right complains about the media, academia, and bureaucracy being ranged against them, they get called conspiracy theorists. I myself somewhat hastily made this claim in section 3.2 of my Anti-Reactionary FAQ. More recently, Topher Hallquist makes a similar claim, classily adding that any communities that even dare to associate with people who believe this ought to suffer guilt by association.

Chomsky and Herman are aware of this attack, and begin by saying:

Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as “conspiracy theories”, but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in media arise form the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power.

And later:

As we have stressed throughout this book, the U.S. media do not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit-indeed, encourage-spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness.

I find many smart people, both on the right and the left, say something similar about this same self-organizing consensus enforcement system. Their disagreements about its position seem to be entirely matters of perspective; to a Mexican, America is a northern nation; to a Canadian, it’s a southern one. But despite this substantial agreement and the rivers of ink spilled on the matter, they always describe it in the vaguest of terms, in a style ranging somewhere between “non-technical” and “paranoid”.

If we want to understand politics, I feel like one of the most important subgoals is to figure out the precise ways in which these sorts of alignments arise – in other words, how class warfare solves its coordination problems without most of the people involved being aware of what they’re doing or holding any explicitly sinister thoughts.

I don’t think Manufacturing Consent does much to solve this problem and explain the real nature of the system. But it certainly illuminates one otherwise-easily-neglected corner of it, and offers a window on some of its tricks and on some of the sins it has to answer for.

If You Can’t Make Predictions, You’re Still In A Crisis

A New York Times article by Northeastern University professor Lisa Feldman Barrett claims that Psychology Is Not In Crisis:

Is psychology in the midst of a research crisis?

An initiative called the Reproducibility Project at the University of Virginia recently reran 100 psychology experiments and found that over 60 percent of them failed to replicate — that is, their findings did not hold up the second time around. The results, published last week in Science, have generated alarm (and in some cases, confirmed suspicions) that the field of psychology is in poor shape.

But the failure to replicate is not a cause for alarm; in fact, it is a normal part of how science works.

Suppose you have two well-designed, carefully run studies, A and B, that investigate the same phenomenon. They perform what appear to be identical experiments, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. Study A produces the predicted phenomenon, whereas Study B does not. We have a failure to replicate.

Does this mean that the phenomenon in question is necessarily illusory? Absolutely not. If the studies were well designed and executed, it is more likely that the phenomenon from Study A is true only under certain conditions. The scientist’s job now is to figure out what those conditions are, in order to form new and better hypotheses to test […]

When physicists discovered that subatomic particles didn’t obey Newton’s laws of motion, they didn’t cry out that Newton’s laws had “failed to replicate.” Instead, they realized that Newton’s laws were valid only in certain contexts, rather than being universal, and thus the science of quantum mechanics was born […]

Science is not a body of facts that emerge, like an orderly string of light bulbs, to illuminate a linear path to universal truth. Rather, science (to paraphrase Henry Gee, an editor at Nature) is a method to quantify doubt about a hypothesis, and to find the contexts in which a phenomenon is likely. Failure to replicate is not a bug; it is a feature. It is what leads us along the path — the wonderfully twisty path — of scientific discovery.

Needless to say, I disagree with this rosy assessment.

The first concern is that it ignores publication bias. One out of every twenty studies will be positive by pure chance – more if you’re willing to play fast and loose with your methods. Probably quite a lot of the research we see is that 1/20. Then when it gets replicated in a preregistered trial, it fails. This is not because the two studies were applying the same principle to different domains. It’s because the first study posited something that simply wasn’t true, in any domain. This may be the outright majority of replication failures, and you can’t just sweep this under the rug with paeans to the complexity of science.

The second concern is experimenter effects. Why do experimenters who believe in and support a phenomenon usually find it occurs, and experimenters who doubt the phenomenon usually find that it doesn’t? That’s easy to explain through publication bias and other forms of bias, but if we’re just positing that there are some conditions where it does work and others where it doesn’t, the ability of experimenters to so often end out in the conditions that flatter their preconceptions is a remarkable coincidence.

The third and biggest concern is the phrase “it is more likely”. Read that sentence again: “If the studies were well designed and executed, it is more likely that the phenomenon from Study A is true only under certain conditions [than that it is illusory]”. Really? Why? This is exactly the thing that John Ioannidis has spent so long arguing against! Suppose that I throw a dart at the Big Chart O’ Human Metabolic Pathways and when it hits a chemical I say “This! This is the chemical that is the key to curing cancer!”. Then I do a study to check. There’s a 5% chance my study comes back positive by coincidence, an even higher chance that a biased experimenter can hack it into submission, but a much smaller chance that out of the thousands of chemicals I just so happened to pick the one that really does cause cancer. So if my study comes back positive, but another team’s study comes back negative, it’s not “more likely” that my chemical does cure cancer but only under certain circumstances. Given the base rate – that most hypotheses are false – it’s more likely that I accidentally proved a false hypothesis, a very easy thing to do, and now somebody else is correcting me.

Given that many of the most famous psychology results are either extremely counterintuitive or highly politically motivated, there is no reason at all to choose a prior probability of correctness such that we should try to reconcile our prior belief in them with a study showing they don’t work. It would be like James Randi finding Uri Geller can’t bend spoons, and saying “Well, he bent spoons other times, but not around Randi, let’s try to figure out what feature of Randi’s shows interferes with the magic spoon-bending rays”. I am not saying that we shouldn’t try to reconcile results and failed replications of those results, but we should do so in an informed Bayesian way instead of automatically assuming it’s “more likely” that they deserve reconciliation.

Yet even ignoring the publication bias, and the low base rates, and the statistical malpractice, and the couple of cases of outright falsification, and concentrating on the ones that really are differences in replication conditions, this is still a crisis.

A while ago, Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg published a famous priming study showing that people who spend a few minutes before an exam thinking about brilliant professors will get better grades; conversely, people who spend a few minutes thinking about moronic soccer hooligans will get worse ones. They did four related experiments, and all strongly confirmed their thesis. A few years later, Shanks et al tried to replicate the effect and couldn’t. They did the same four experiments, and none of them replicated at all. What are we to make of this?

We could blame differences in the two experiments’ conditions. But the second experiment made every attempt to match the conditions of the first experiment as closely as possible. Certainly they didn’t do anything idiotic, like switch from an all-female sample to an all-male sample. So if we want to explain the difference in results, we have to think on the level of tiny things that the replication team wouldn’t have thought about. The color of the wallpaper in the room where the experiments were taking place. The accents of the scientists involved. The barometric pressure on the day the study was conducted.

We could laboriously test the effect of wallpaper color, scientist accent, and barometric pressure on priming effects, but it would be extraordinarily difficult. Remember, we’ve already shown that two well-conducted studies can get diametrically opposite results. Who is to say that if we studied the effect of wallpaper color, the first study wouldn’t find that it made a big difference and the second study find that it made no difference at all? What we’d probably end out with is a big conflicting morass of studies that’s even more confusing than the original smaller conflicting morass.

But as far as I know, nobody is doing this. There is not enough psychology to devote time to teasing out the wallpaper-effect from the barometric-pressure effect on social priming. Especially given that maybe at the end of all of these dozens of teasing-apart studies we would learn nothing. And that quite possibly the original study was simply wrong, full stop.

Since we have not yet done this, and don’t even know if it would work, we can expect even strong and well-accepted results not to apply in even very slightly different conditions. But that makes claims of scientific understanding very weak. When a study shows that Rote Memorization works better than New Math, we hope this means we’ve discovered something about human learning and we can change school curricula to reflect the new finding and help children learn better. But if we fully expect that the next replication attempt will show New Math is better than Rote Memorization, then that plan goes down the toilet and we shouldn’t ask schools to change their curricula at all, let alone claim to have figured out deep truths about the human mind.

Barrett states that psychology is not in crisis, because it’s in a position similar to physics, where gravity applies at the macroscopic level but not the microscopic level. But if you ask a physicist to predict whether an apple will fall up or down, she will say “Down, obviously, because we’re talking about the macroscopic level.” If you ask a psychologist to predict whether priming a student with the thought of a brilliant professor will make them do better on an exam or not, the psychologist will have no idea, because she won’t know what factors cause the prime to work sometimes and fail other times, or even whether it really ever works at all. She will be at the level of a physicist who says “Apples sometimes fall down, but equally often they fall up, and we can’t predict which any given apple will do at any given time, and we don’t know why – but our field is not in crisis, because in theory some reason should exist. Maybe.”

If by physics you mean “the practice of doing physics experiments”, then perhaps that is justified. If by physics you mean “a collection of results that purport to describe physical reality”, then it’s clear you don’t actually have any.

So the Times article is not an argument that psychology is not in crisis. It is, at best, an IOU, saying that we should keep doing psychology because maybe if we work really hard we will reach a point where the crisis is no longer so critical.

On the other hand, there’s one part of this I agree with entirely. I don’t think we can do a full post-mortem on every failed replication. But we ought to do them on some failed replications. Right now, failed replications are deeply mysterious. Is it really things like the wallpaper color or barometric pressure? Or is it more sinister things, like failure to double-blind, or massive fraud? How come this keeps happening to us? I don’t know. If we could solve one or two of these, we might at least know what we’re up against.