Slate Star Codex

Less [adjective] than Zeus

Friendship Is Countersignaling

Yesterday I talked about countersignaling in the context of some controversial and complicated ideas. Maybe I should have started with some examples where I’m more certain countersignaling is at work, just to drive the concept home.

How about slagging?

I don’t know if the word exists in American English. I mostly heard it in Ireland. But the concept seems to be everywhere. It’s kind of like a high-powered version of teasing, when friends are verbally cruel to each other as a form of bonding.

Every day when I go into the residents’ lounge at work, I have lovely conversations with another doctor I’ll call Becca because it’s the name I used for him last time he showed up on my blog. They tend to sound something like this:

Becca: What are you doing here? I figured they’d have locked you away in the psych ward for good by now.
Scott: Nope. And what are you doing here? You haven’t killed off all your patients yet?
Becca: Only person in this hospital I might kill is standing right in front of me.
Scott: Be careful, I’m armed and dangerous *picks up a central line placement practice set menacingly*

The entire thing is done in good cheer and with good results. And this sort of thing is probably familiar enough to most people that no one mistook the dialogue for a genuine threat or even genuine enmity.

I only recently realized this is classic countersignaling.

Remember that countersignaling is doing something that is the opposite of a certain status to show that you are so clearly that status that you don’t even need to signal it. The classic advantage is how the aristocratic rich don’t buy gaudy expensive things, in order to show that they are so obviously rich they don’t need to convince people of their wealth the way the nouveau riche do. As the last post put it, you can mistake someone at level n for level n-1, but never for level n-2 – so pretending to be level n-2 and getting away with it is a sure sign that you are in fact level n and not level n-1.

If a person I didn’t know or trust said he hated me, or thought I should be locked up, or wanted to kill me, I would take it seriously and freak out. When Becca says he hates me and wants to kill me, it’s a way of saying “I am so obviously your friend that I can even signal hostility really strongly and you won’t believe me.”

Compare this to a similar incident I had recently with another doctor whose pseudonym will be…let’s say Pat:

Scott: Thanks for covering for me yesterday. The pharmacy called and said they were a little confused by your discharge instructions, so could you call them back and sort that out?
Pat: Oh, all right, but you owe me big time for taking care of all this for you.
Scott: Hey, if you hadn’t screwed up the discharge yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Pat: What? How dare you! *storms out of the room*

I felt really bad after this and sought out Pat to apologize. When I did, Pat was surprised I had taken the whole “storming out” thing seriously, since it was supposed to be theatrical and overdramatic, and felt guilty about worrying me.

Pat’s first comment, about “you owe me big time”, had been done in a spirit of obvious teasing. My comment, about screwing up the the discharge, had I thought been done in a spirit of obvious teasing, but I guess I could have been wrong. Pat’s last comment, “How dare you?!” had been done with a very straight face and convincing storm-out, and even though I guess it was intended as obvious teasing, I didn’t take it that way.

So it looks like we were trying to use the “teasing as signal of mutual friendship” tactic and overplayed our hand, leading to a genuinely awkward situation. Apparently our friendship was not as strong as we thought. And the fact that it breaks down into social catastrophe if your friendship isn’t that strong is exactly what makes the signal credible to begin with.

There’s one more aspect to this business I haven’t mentioned, which is summed up by, of all sources, the Night Vale twitter account:

Whisper a dangerous secret to someone you care about. Now they have the power to destroy you, but they won’t. This is what love is.

I think saying things like “I’m going to kill you” or otherwise being a jerk is a signal of friendship precisely because it gives the other person ammunition with which to destroy you if they so desire. If I really wanted to get Becca fired, I could go to the Chief of Medicine and say “Becca threatened physical violence against me”. Pat could say “Scott was verbally abusive when I wouldn’t do one of his discharges for him.” And then there would be an investigation, and we would say “But I was just teasing!” – which is, of course, what all bullies say when confronted. To give someone this kind of potential ammunition against you shows a lot of trust that they’re your real friend and will never use it.

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Right Is The New Left

[Content warning: some ideas that might make you feel anxious about your political beliefs. Epistemic status: very speculative and not necessarily endorsed. This post is less something I will defend to the death and more a form of self-therapy.]


Let’s explain fashion using cellular automata. This isn’t going to be cringe-inducingly nerdy at all!

We’ll start with a one-dimensional vertical “world” a single cell thick and however many cells we want tall. Cells can be in one of two states, “black” or “white”. We start with the top cell “black” and all the other cells white, and the world changes with granular time (“ticks”) according to the following rules:

1. On each tick, a cell tries to be the same color that the cell above it was last tick.
2. On each tick, a cell tries NOT to be the same color that the cell below it was last tick.
3. If they ever conflict, Rule 1 takes precedence over Rule 2.
4. If none of these rules apply, a cell stays as it is.

Here’s what we get with a world four cells tall.

And here’s what we get with a world ten cells tall.

It looks like what we’re getting is a “setup period” as the column fills, followed by a “sandwich effect” of two-cell-tall black rectangles separated by two-cell-tall white rectangles gradually moving down the column. Although this isn’t really what happens, it also looks like rectangles that fall off the bottom reappear on the top. The overall effect is sort of like a barber pole.

Okay, now let’s get to the fashion.

Consider a group of people separated by some ranked attribute. Let’s call it “class”. There are four classes: the upper class, the middle class, the lower class, and, uh, the underclass.

Everyone wants to look like they are a member of a higher class than they actually are. But everyone also wants to avoid getting mistaken for a member of a poorer class. So for example, the middle-class wants to look upper-class, but also wants to make sure no one accidentally mistakes them for lower-class.

But there is a limit both to people’s ambition and to their fear. No one has any hopes of getting mistaken for a class two levels higher than their own: a lower-class person may hope to appear middle-class, but their mannerisms, accent, appearance, peer group, and whatever make it permanently impossible for them to appear upper-class. Likewise, a member of the upper-class may worry about being mistaken for middle-class, but there is no way they will ever get mistaken for lower-class, let alone underclass.

So suppose we start off with a country in which everyone wears identical white togas. One day the upper-class is at one of their fancy upper-class parties, and one of them suggests that they all wear black togas instead, so everyone can recognize them and know that they’re better than everyone else. This idea goes over well, and the upper class starts wearing black.

After a year, the middle class notices what’s going on. They want to pass for upper-class, and they expect to be able to pull it off, so they start wearing black too. The lower- and underclasses have no hope of passing for upper-class, so they don’t bother.

After two years, the lower-class notices the middle-class is mostly wearing black now, and they start wearing black to pass as middle-class. But the upper-class is very upset, because their gambit of wearing black to differentiate themselves from the middle-class has failed – both uppers and middles now wear identical black togas. So they conceive an ingenious plan to switch back to white togas. They don’t worry about being confused with the white-togaed underclass – no one could ever confuse an upper with a lower or under – but they will successfully differentiate themselves from the middles. Now the upper-class and underclass wear white, and the middle and lower classes wear black.

It’s easy to see that this is the n = 4 version of the cellular automaton we just discussed.

Before I go on, an obvious objection – in a real world that doesn’t work on “ticks”, how do classes coordinate like this? Like, even if someone in the upper-class sent a super-secret message by butler to every single other member of the upper class saying “Tomorrow we all start wearing black, don’t tell anyone else”, within a day the rest of the world would notice, and the upper-class’ advantage would be lost. And surely in our real world, where the upper-class has no way of distributing secret messages to every single cool person, this would be even harder. They’d have to announce their plan publicly, which would make the signal worthless.

There are some technical solutions to the problem. Upper class people are richer, and so can afford to about-face very quickly and buy an entirely new wardrobe. Upper class people have upper class friends, so it’s easier for them to notice that black is ‘in’ and switch accordingly.

But I think the major solution is that there aren’t only four classes, and no one is entirely sure what classes they can or can’t pass for. The richest, trendiest person around wears something new, and either she is so hip that her friends immediately embrace it as a new trend, or she gets laughed at for going out in black when everyone knows all the cool people wear white. Her friends are either sufficiently hip that they then adopt the new trend and help it grow, or so unsure of themselves that they decide to stick with something safe, or so un-hip that when they adopt the new trend everyone laughs at them for being so clueless they think they can pull off being one of the cool people.

Or – you can’t just copy someone else’s outfit. That would be crass. So you have to understand the spirit of the fashion. But this is hard to get right if you’re not familiar with it. The less exposure you have to the values and individuals who generated it, the more likely you’ll get it wrong and end up looking like an idiot.

In other words, new trends carry social risk, and only people sufficiently clued-in and trendy can be sure the benefits outweigh the risks. But as the trend catches on, it becomes less risky, until eventually you see your Aunt Gladys wearing it because she saw something about it in a supermarket tabloid, and then all the hip people have to find a new trend.

There’s another solution to this problem too: the upper class copies trends from the underclass. We saw this happen naturally on the 5th tick of the four-cell world, but it might be a more stable configuration than that model suggests. If the rich deliberately dress like the poor, then the middle-class have nowhere to go – if they try to ape the rich, they will probably just end up looking poor instead. It is only the rich, who are at no risk of ever being mistaken for the poor, who can pull this off.

Why do I like this model? It explains a lot of otherwise mysterious things about fashion.

Why does fashion change so darned often? Why can’t people just figure out what’s pretty, then stick to that?

Why is wearing last year’s fashion such a faux pas? Shouldn’t the response be “That person is wearing the second most fashionable outfit ever discovered; that’s still pretty good”?

Why does fashion so often copy the outfits of the lower class (eg “ghetto chic”?) Why, if you are shopping for men’s shirts, are there so many that literally say “GHETTO” on them in graffiti-like lettering?

And I don’t think I’m a random nerd coming in here and telling fashion people that I understand them better than they understand themselves. This seems to be how fashion people really think. Just look at the word “poser” (or possibly “poseur”). The thrust seems to be: “A person who is not of the group that is cool enough to wear this fashion is trying to wear this fashion! Get ‘em!”

The big complication is that there is not one ladder of coolness going from “upper class” down to “underclass”. There are businesspeople, intellectuals, punks, Goths – all of whom are trying to signal something different. And there’s more than just white or black – hundreds of different colors, styles, and whatever.

But I think this is the fundamental generator that makes it all tick. In fact, I think this principle – counter-signaling hierarchies – is the fundamental generator that makes a lot of things tick.


In the past two months I have inexplicably and very very suddenly become much more conservative.

This isn’t the type of conservativism where I agree with any conservative policies, mind you. Those still seem totally wrong-headed to me. It’s the sort of conservativism where, even though conservatives seem to be wrong about everything, often in horrible or hateful ways, they seem like probably mostly decent people deep down, whereas I have to physically restrain myself from going on Glenn Beck style rants about how much I hate leftists and how much they are ruining everything. Even though I mostly agree with the leftists whenever they say something.

(In fact, it seems like an important observation that there is a state of mind in which, no matter what your intelligence or rationality level, Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh-style rants against The Left seem justifiable and fun to listen to. I cannot communicate this state of mind and don’t know why it occurs.)

At first I didn’t notice this, because way back when I was a teenager and very leftist, I made a conscious decision that in order to counter my natural biases I should try to be as understanding and friendly to conservatives as possible. I gradually got better and better at this and didn’t notice that I was getting too good at it until it suddenly started to explode.

And now I am trying to figure out why that is.

Like all of you, my first thought was of course the pathogen stress theory of values. If conservative values are fueled by fear of contamination based on an inbuilt evolutionary reaction to the observed level of pathogen exposure, then my current work on an internal medicine hospital team – which is pretty heavy on the death and disease even for a doctor – would turn me super-conservative very quickly. But this hypothesis should mean that all doctors should be very conservative, which doesn’t seem to be true. So scratch that.

Perhaps it’s a natural effect of settling down, having a stable job, living in my own house, and being in a long-term relationship. But again, a lot of people seem to do all those things without becoming conservative. And none of that has changed in the past few months.

I do admit that, although I try to base my reasoned opinions on The Greater Good, a lot of my political emotions are based on fear, especially fear for my personal safety. I don’t feel remotely threatened from the right – even when I meet anti-Semites who think all Jews should die, my feelings are mostly benevolent bemusement. I know if it ever came to any conflict between me and them, then short of them killing me instantly I would have everyone in the world on my side, and the possibility of it ending in any way other than with them in jail and me a hero who gets praised for his bravery in confronting them is practically zero. On the other hand, I feel massively threatened from the left, since the few times I got in a fight with them ended with me getting death threats and harrassment and feeling like everyone was on their side and I was totally alone. But nothing new of this sort has happened in the past two months. That was probably a risk factor, but it can’t have been the trigger.

I’ve been under a lot of stress lately – nothing serious, just very busy days at work with pretty much no free time (writing blog entries doesn’t require free time. They just appear.) It wouldn’t really surprise me if stress were related to conservativism. But I’ve been much more stressed in the past without this effect. Maybe work-related stress has some special ability to cause this effect? That would explain why so many working-class people with crappy jobs end up conservative.

The Left has been doing an unusual number of bad things in the past two months. I remember especially noticing the Eich incident and invasion of the Dartmouth administration building and related threats and demands. And then there was that thing with the national debate championships that is so horrible I still refuse to believe it and hold out hope against hope it turns out to be some absurdly irresponsible reporting or maybe a very very late April Fools’ joke. But I feel like these sorts of things probably go on all the time, and my increased conservativism is the cause, and not the effect, of me noticing them. And I notice I don’t feel the same level of cosmic horror when conservatives do something equally outrageous.

The explanation I like least is that it comes from reading too much neoreaction. I originally rejected this hypothesis because I don’t believe most what I read. But I’m starting to worry that there are memes that, like Bohr’s horseshoe, affect you whether you believe them or not: memes that crystallize the wrong pattern, or close the wrong feedback loop. I have long suspected social justice contains some of these. Now I worry neoreaction contains others.

In particular I worry about the neoreactionary assumption that leftism always increases with time, and that today’s leftism confined to a few fringe idiots whom nobody really supports today becomes tomorrow’s mainstream left and the day after tomorrow’s “you will be fired if you disagree with them”. Without me ever really evaluating its truth-value it has wormed its way into my brain and started haunting my nightmares.

Certain versions of it are certainly plausible. In 1960, only a handful of low status people were arguing that “sodomy laws” should be repealed, and they were all insisting that c’mon, obviously it would never go as far as gay marriage, we’re just saying you shouldn’t be put in jail for it. Meanwhile, fifty years later people are enforcing a rule that if you’re not on board with gay marriage, you shouldn’t be allowed to hold a high-status job.

Of course, many leftist views, even leftist social views, don’t spiral out of control like this. Support for abortion and gun control have stayed pretty stable for decades, radical feminism seems to have leveled off, and aside from global warming environmentalism has kind of faded into the background. But it’s impossible to predict which ones are going to spiral – to a 1960s conservative homosexuality would have seemed just about the least likely thing to catch on.

So now every time I read an article about horrible conservatives – like that South Carolina mayor – I can dismiss it as a couple of people doing dumb things and probably the system will take care of it. If it doesn’t take care of it by punishing him personally, it’ll take care of it by making people like him obsolete and judged poorly by posterity.

But every time I read an article about horrible leftists – like the one with the debate club – part of me freaks out and thinks – in twenty years, those are the people who are going to be getting me fired for disagreeing with them.

And every time I want to talk about it, I freak out and worry that soon they’ll start firing people for disagreeing with the idea that you should be able to fire people for disagreeing with ideas. Like, this could go uncomfortably far.

And so there is a dark and unpleasant Orwellian part of my brain that tells me: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a hack misjudging a college debate – forever.”


But like I said, that’s the explanation I like least. My favorite involves those cellular automata from before.

A friend recently pointed out that conservatives aren’t, on average, very smart. He illustrated this with a graph of IQ vs. political belief which confirms that the left has a significant advantage.

But I look at my Facebook feed, and here is what I observe.

I see my high school classmates – a mostly unselected group of the general suburban California population – posting angry left stuff like “Ohmigod I just heard about that mayor in South Carolina WHAT A FUCKING BIGGOT!!!”

I see the people I think of as my intellectual equals posting things that are conspicuously nuanced – “Oh, I heard about that guy in South Carolina. Instead of knee-jerk condemnation, let’s try to form some general principles out of it and see what it teaches us about civil society.”

And I see the people I think of as the level above me posting extremely bizarre libertarian-conservative screeds making use of advanced mathematics that I can barely understand: “The left keeps saying that marriage as an institution isn’t important. But actually, if we look at this from a game theoretic perspective, marriage and social trust and forager values are all in this complicated six-dimensional antifragile network, and it emergently coheres into a beneficial equilibrium if and only if the government doesn’t try to shift the position of any of the nodes. Just as three eighteenth-century Frenchmen and a renegade Brazilian Marxist philosopher predicted. SO HOW COME THE IDIOTS ON THE LEFT KEEPS TRYING TO MAKE GOVERNMENT SHIFT THE POSITION OF THE NODES ALL THE TIME???!”

(I will proceed to describe this level extensionally: Jonathan Haidt, Bowling Alone, time discounting, public choice theory, the Hajnal line, contract law, Ross Douthat, incentives, polycentric anything, unschooling, exit rights)

And, I mean, I know the reason I get so many people trying to come up with bizarre mathematizations of politics is because those are the sorts of people I select as my friends. The part I don’t get is why so many of them end up weird libertarian-conservative. Certainly not because I selected them for that. I don’t even think they were weird libertarian-conservatives a few years ago when I met a lot of them. It just seems to have caught on.

And my theory is that in a world where the upper class wears black and the lower class wears white, they’re the people who have noticed that the middle class is wearing black as well, and have decided to wear white to differentiate themselves.

It’s the reverse of the 1950s. Assume you’re a hip young intellectual in the 1950s. You see all these stodgy conservatives around you – I don’t even know what “stodgy” means, I just know I’m legally obligated to use it to describe 1950s conservatives. You see Mrs. Grundy, chattering to her grundy friends about how scandalous it is that some people read books about sex, lecturing to the school board on how they had better enforce her values on the children or she will have some very harsh words to say to them.

And you think “Whatever else I am, I’m not going to be a mediocrity like Mrs. Grundy. I’m not going to conform.” Which, in the 1950s, meant you became a leftist, and talked about how stodgy society was fundamentally oppressive, and how you were going to value different things, and screw what Mrs. Grundy thought.

And gradually this became sufficiently hip that even the slightly less hip intellectuals caught on and started making fun of Mrs. Grundy, and then people even less hip than that, until it became a big pileup on poor Mrs. Grundy and anyone who wanted even the slightest claim to intellectual independence or personal integrity has to prove themselves by giving long dissertations on how terrible Mrs. Grundy is.

But when Mrs. Grundy herself joins the party, what then?

I mean, take that article on Dartmouth. A group of angry people, stopping just short of violence, invade a school building and make threats against the president unless he meets their demands. Every student must be forced to attend moral instruction classes inculcating their (the protesters’) values. Offensive terms must be removed from the library. And the school must take care to admit people of the right race. When was the last time you could hear a story like that and have it be even slightly probably that the mob was rightist?

It’s hard to argue that Mrs. Grundy is not a proud leftist by now, still chattering about how scandalous it is that people read books with the wrong values, still giving her terminally uncool speeches to the school board about how they had better enforce her values on the children (and if she can get the debate society on board as well, so much the better).

There must be overwhelming temptation among hip intellectuals to differentiate themselves from Mrs. Grundy by shifting rightward.

And perhaps so far this has been kept in check by the second rule of our cellular automaton – you can’t take a position that would get you plausibly confused for a person of lower class than you.

I was tickled by a conversation between two doctors I recently heard in a hospital hallway:

Doctor 1: My daughter just got a full scholarship into a really good university in Georgia.
Doctor 2: Congratulations!
Doctor 1: Thanks! But I’m hoping she’ll choose somewhere closer to home.
Doctor 2: Why? Because you want to be able to visit her more?
Doctor 1: There’s that. But the other problem is that the South is full of those people.
Doctor 2: So? Colleges are like their own world. Your daughter probably won’t even encounter many of them.
Doctor 1: I know. But I keep worrying that just by being there, she’ll make friends with them, and then end up bringing one home as a boyfriend.

“Those people” is my replacement, not the original term used by the doctor involved. The doctor involved said a much less polite word.

She said “fundies”.

Fundies – in all of their Bible-beating gun-owning cousin-marrying stereotypicalness – have so far served as the Lower Class With Which One Must Not Allow One’s Self To Be Confused. But I think that’s changing. Sorting mechanisms are starting to work so well that, at the top, the fundies just aren’t plausible. In our model, people from class N can be confused with class N-1, but never with class N-2. But as the barber-pole movement of fashion creeps downward, fundies are starting to become two classes below certain people at the top, and those people no longer risk misidentification.

I notice that, no matter how many long rants against feminism I write, everyone continues to assume I am a feminist. It’s like, “He doesn’t make too many spelling errors, his writing isn’t peppered with racial slurs – he’s got to be a feminist. He probably just forgot the word ‘not’ in each of his last 228 sentences.”

And I wonder if maybe the reason why I am outraged by the debate team but not by the South Carolina mayor isn’t that I feel a greater threat from the debate team, but because I feel like there is a greater threat of me being mistaken for the debate team. If impotent expressions of outrage divorced from any effort to change things are ways of saying “I’m not like this! I promise!” And I get less outraged than some other people about South Carolina because I feel confident enough in my intelligence that I don’t worry anyone will mistake me for a fundie. But I feel less confident no one could mistake me for the sort of person who judged those debate championships, so I need to shout at them to show I’m Not Like That. This would actually explain a lot.

If some intellectuals no longer need to worry about being mistaken for fundies, that frees them to finally breath a sigh of relief and start making fun of Mrs. Grundy again. And that means they’ve got to become conservatives, or libertarians, or anything, anything at all, except for leftists.

So far it is just a few early adopters – the intellectual equivalent of the very trendy people who start wearing some outrageous fashion and no one knows if it is going to catch on or whether they will be soundly mocked for it.

And they are having a really difficult time, because a lot of conservative ideas aren’t that great. Like, reality leaves you a lot of degrees of freedom when you’re deciding your political self-presentation, but it doesn’t leave you an infinite number of degrees of freedom, and the project of creating something that is both anti-leftist enough to serve as a fashion statement but reality-based enough not to be dumb is still going on. The reactionaries are doing an excellent job maximizing the “anti-leftist” criterion. The “reality-based” criterion is a harder egg to crack, but it makes me think of Drew Summitt, Athrelon, and some of SarahC’s more political moments.

As the Commissioner puts it, “Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.”

When I put it like this, I realize I’m not becoming more conservative at all. I’m becoming anti-leftist. Actually, put that way a lot of people seem to be anti-leftist. I can’t think of a single specific policy proposal supported by Glenn Beck. Can you?

And I think the best explanation is that all my hip friends who I want to be like are starting to be conservative or weird-libertarian or some variety of non-leftist, and Mrs. Grundy is starting to become very obviously leftist and getting grundier by the day, and so the fashion-conscious part of my brain, the much-abused and rarely-heeded part that tells me “No, you can’t go to work in sweatpants, even though it would be much more comfortable”, is telling me “QUICK, DISENGAGE FROM UNCOOL PEOPLE AND START ACTING LIKE COOL PEOPLE RIGHT NOW.”

And I said this is my favorite of all the explanations. Why?

Because if it’s true, and it spreads beyond a couple of little subcultures, it means my worst fears are misplaced. The future isn’t a foot stamping on the face of a a college debate team forever. It’s people – or at least some people – rolling their eyes at those people and making fake vomiting noises. And then going too far, until other people have to roll their eyes at those people. And so on. Instead of a death spiral we get a pendulum, swinging back and forth.

But I would hope for something even better than that. Like, at each swing of the pendulum, people learn a little. I was really impressed with how many smart and decent people thought that the Eich thing was wrong (…and wore kilts, and played bagpipes…shut up). Fashion does not accrete, but maybe reality does. And I would like to think that the rationalist movement is a part of that. And if that’s true, that’s a way in which reality will eventually come to overpower fashion and the arc of the universe might tend toward justice after all.

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The Economics Of Art And The Art Of Economics

Here in Detroit, there is debate and concern over the possibility that the city’s bankruptcy might obligate it to sell off masterpieces in the local art museum. Is solving a temporary financial problem really worth the cultural impoverishment of the city?

Yes. From Marginal Revolution:

Consider “The Wedding Dance,” a 16th-century work by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detroit museum visitors have enjoyed this painting since 1930. How much would it cost to preserve that privilege for future generations?

A tidy sum, as it turns out. According to Christie’s, this canvas alone could fetch up to $200 million. Once interest rates return to normal levels — say, 6 percent — the forgone interest on that amount would be approximately $12 million a year.

If we assume that the museum would be open 2,000 hours a year, and ignore the cost of gallery space and other indirect expenses, the cost of keeping the painting on display would be more than $6,000 an hour. Assuming that an average of five people would view it per hour, all year long, it would still cost more than $1,200 an hour to provide the experience for each visitor.

So the question of “should Detroit keep this painting?” reduces to “does the average visitor to the art museum derive $1200 in value from seeing this particular painting?” which is very close to “would you pay $1200 for a ticket to an art museum that only had this painting in it?”

(other people may be more cultured than I am, but I find when I’m in an art museum I spend about ten seconds looking at each painting before moving on to the next one. So for me, at least, the cost is $120 per second of viewing time)

In If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing With Made Up Statistics, I endorse trying to think quantitatively – not because we are always very good at quantifying things, but because sometimes just the attempt to quantify things makes the right answer so drop-dead obvious that whatever errors you make won’t change things one way or the other.

In the comments on MR people object that maybe some of the numbers in the calculation are a bit off, and that’s probably true. But just by trying the first numbers we think of, we realize we’re three orders of magnitude away from the spot where this would be a hard problem. And our numbers aren’t that off.

And this is why I continue to identify as consequentialist even though consequentialism is very hard and we can never do it exactly right. You don’t need a complete theory of ballistics in order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot.

Since I’m already being all soulless and analytical, let me just come out and say it – sell every piece of art in Detroit, but hire skilled forgers to make exact copies of them for a couple of hundred dollars each. You’ll have made billions of dollars, and the Detroit Art Museum will look exactly the same to anyone who’s not examining it through an electron microscope.

Sure, it’ll make it a little harder to signal snooty cultural superiority. But if you’re living in Detroit and trying to signal snooty cultural superiority, man, I don’t know what to tell you.

Plutocracy Isn’t About Money

Two political science articles I read recently have surprisingly dissonant conclusions.

Gilens and Page’s study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” is very interesting. You may have spotted it in the news media under any of a host of diverse titles:

The New Yorker: Is America An Oligarchy?

BBC: Study: US Is An Oligarchy, Not A Democracy.

RT: Oligarchy, Not Democracy.

Business Insider: Major Study Finds That The US Is An Oligarchy.

And my favorite, Daily Kos: Too Important For Clever Titles: Scientific Study Says We Are An Oligarchy

(the word “oligarchy” appears in the study only once, at the bottom of page six, as a reference to an alternative theory the authors do not endorse)

But RAMPANT MEDIA PLAGIARISM aside, it’s not a bad summary. The study tries to determine what factors predict whether or not a policy gets implemented in the United States. They compare popular support to elite support, where “elites” are the wealthiest ten percent, and find that elite support is a stronger predictor. I believe the way they put it is that once you know whether elites support a policy, learning whether or not the general public supports it improves your model’s ability to predict whether or not it gets passed only an tiny amount, even though elite opinion and popular opinion are often quite different.

Also recently, Rationalist Conspiracy had a good post on Money Doesn’t Matter In Politics. A lot of anecdotes, but also links to some convincing studies, like the one that shows how “in Congressional races where candidates spent about $250K (1990 dollars), every $100K spent got another 0.3% of the vote, a tiny amount.”

To Alyssa’s list I would add Ansolabehere, Figueiredo and Snyder’s: Why Is There So Little Money In Politics?, recently spotted on Marginal Revolution. The summary (which does not include the word “oligarchy”):

“We show that only one in four studies from the previous literature support the popular notion that contributions buy legislators’ votes. We illustrate that when one controls for unobserved constituent and legislator effects, there is little relationship between money and legislator votes. Thus, the question is not why there is so little money in politics, but rather why organized interests give at all.”

I call these “dissonant” because the simplest explanation for the Gilens and Page finding is that the economic elite are buying elections. But the Ansolabehere et al result says they couldn’t even if they tried. If we take both of these studies at face value, how can we reconcile them?

I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. Legislators vote based on their personal opinions. Most legislators are elite, therefore their opinions correlate with the opinions of other elites.

2. Elites control the media, the universities, et cetera. They affect legislators indirectly, by affecting the entire culture (but how would they do this without influencing commoners? Maybe this is a subset of [1], in that elites consume elite-produced media?)

3. Legislators would like to think they are elite, and so they vote with elite opinion in the hopes of looking cool and getting elites to like them.

4. Money does not buy elections, but legislators think it does, so they try to satisfy the people with the money in order to win elections.

5. Money does not buy elections, but money can fund think tanks and lobbyists who can persuade legislators through non-election-buying means. This doesn’t take the form of promising financial support or during elections, it just comes from talking and befriending and advising and convincing them. The studies showing money doesn’t affect campaigns miss this effect. Ansolabehere seems to like this one, pointing out that interest groups spend ten times as much as lobbying as on direct campaign contributions. But even here there are economic arguments against. They estimate that one hour of a legislator’s time costs $10,000. This is a high number, but if talking to legislators seriously affected legislation it would be an amazing steal.

6. Elites vote more and are more politically active in terms of volunteering, letter-writing, etc. Legislators try to cultivate their affection to win elections, but it has nothing to do with money. But this effect doesn’t seem strong enough to make up for the small number of elites.

7. The connection between elites and successful policies is a coincidence – not in the sense that the study found a nonsignificant finding, but in the sense that elite opinion and legislative success are both biased in the same direction for different reasons. For example, maybe elites tend to lean conservative, and the conservative party in government is much better organized and able to push more legislation through. Gallup finds there is not a big difference between elites and commoners in terms of basic party labeling. But this study (which does define “elite” somewhat differently) shows that elites are predictably less supportive of welfare and redistribution programs than commoners are (I am enraged that this study doesn’t give good comparative data on social issues). If those programs tend to fail for some reason, that could help produce some of these effects.

Confounder Of The Day: How Sexy Your Parents Were

One of the more interesting mental health results is the differing prevalence of psychiatric disorders depending on the age of the patient’s parents. This month’s JAMA Psychiatry includes a study from Denmark that conducts one of of the largest and most rigorous analyses of this effect and finds that a whole host of psychiatric diseases are more common in people born of young mothers and old fathers.

The young mother effect should be pretty straightforward. Poor women are more likely to have children at a younger age and some psychiatric diseases are more common among the poor. Women with psychiatric disorders can be more impulsive, which results in more unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy and hence children at a younger age; the children then inherit these genes and get psychiatric disorders of their own. No surprises here.

The old father effect has a potentially more interesting explanation. The male reproductive system, unlike the female reproductive system, produces gametes throughout the reproductive lifetime. Presumably older people have more time for mutations to accumulate. Some of these mutations are random, the result of passing cosmic rays or environmental toxins. Others are theorized to be a result of sex cells undergoing “selfish spermatogonal selection”, a hypothesized sorta-cancer-like process in which some sperm progenitor cells develop “selfish” mutations that increase their relative prevalence in the testes at the cost of the quality of sperm they produce – greater paternal age provides more time for this process to happen. The children of older fathers therefore end up with a higher mutational load and more likelihood of mental disorders – not to mention a host of other issues like lower IQ, less physical ability, decreased health, et cetera. It’s very plausible and according to the Danish study the child of a 45 year old father is 1.5x more likely to develop schizophrenia and 1.8x more likely to develop autism compared to the child of a 25 year old father – not a subtle effect!

But the JAMA Psychiatry study references another study, this one really clever, that casts doubt upon this finding. Petersen et al, also from Denmark (which keeps really good track of its mental health and so hosts a disproportionate number of epidemiological psych studies) proposes a much more prosaic explanation.

They find that the mental health of a child depends less on how old her father was when she was born than on how old her father was when he had his first child. In fact, after adjusting for the former effect, the latter completely disappears! For example, if Bob had Child 1 at age 20 and Child 2 at age 40, and Dan had Child 1 at age 39 and Child 2 at age 40, Dan’s second child is at higher risk for mental disorders than Bob’s, even though they both have fathers of the same age – and Bob’s younger child is at no higher risk of disorders than his eldest.

Petersen et al don’t do a great job of coming out and saying it, but I think they hypothesize that the impairments associated with mental disorders – or just the poorly functioning genes that put someone at risk for mental disorders – make it harder for a man to find a partner and start having kids. To be crass about it, if a man has dysfunctional tendencies his value on the marriage market goes down and he’s got to wait longer before he finds people willing to have children with him.

This is sad on a general level. It suggests that guys suffering from mental disorders are unlucky in love in the same way they’re probably unlucky in a lot of other things. And it means society loses what could have been a useful piece of advice for cutting psychiatric disease.

But it’s nice and liberating on a personal level. Here I am at thirty years old, unmarried, childless, and there is no way I am going to try to have kids for the next four years while I’m doing my residency. There are a couple of people in my class right now having babies – women, in fact! – and the idea of doing two of the most stressful and time-consuming things you can go through simultaneously makes my head spin. Now I get to feel a little less guilty about waiting.

Someone Writes An Anti-Racist FAQ

The Anti-Racialist Q&A – inspired by my own Anti-Reactionary FAQ and written by blogger The Prussian on SkepticInk – is an astounding essay.

It’s astounding because it is a piece of writing about race that is so good that I actually have specific criticisms of it. I didn’t even realize how strange this was until about my tenth nitpick, when I noticed that I was nitpicking individual arguments instead of shouting at my computer “WHY ARE YOU SO STUPID?! WHY?! WHY?!”

It’s astounding because I have no idea what the author’s political leanings are even though he seems to go through great trouble to explain them. One minute he will seem like a raging leftist, the next he will be talking about how racism is just as stupid as global warming alarmism. Or talking about how racism keeps people of all skin colors from uniting in brotherhood against the real enemy, Muslims.

It’s astounding because I think it was meant to actually convince people. It’s written in a style of “I can see where you’re coming from, but have you considered X?” I thought I was the only person who had figured out that this worked better than “YOU ARE DUMB AND I HATE YOU. NOW PLEASE AGREE WITH ME.”

But I think the most astounding part is that it might be one of the first things I’ve ever read to argue against racism (NO GOULD AND LEWONTIN DON’T COUNT).

I mean, I’ve read a lot of articles condemning racism, and accusing people of racism, and being very upset about the racism inherent in society. But this might be the first one I’ve ever read to argue against it.

That is worthy of note. It is the exact opposite of the attitude in Cowpox of Doubt, like someone who says “Homeopathy? I guess the responsible thing to do is to read dozens of studies before I form an opinion on it”. This may not be a very practical philosophy or a good way to win friends, but it’s an impressive signal of epistemic virtue if nothing else.

I won’t say the FAQ gets everything right – just for one example, if I’d written it I would have dropped the whole “race doesn’t exist” thing as too complicated a question to be worth debating without a longer diversion into philosophy than most people would be willing to entertain.

But it’s pretty good for a first attempt at the genre.

Prussian deserves more traffic for having written something so ambitious, and I don’t have the energy to enforce the censorship I would need for a good comments thread about race, so please take your comments on his Q&A there, not here.

Do You Believe Me, Doc?

[Content warning: psychiatrists having ethically complicated conversations with patients]

I recently attended the Michigan Psychiatric Society conference. It was all downhill after I heard the name of the first poster presentation. The study – investigating the tendency of anti-Parkinsons medication Requip® to cause nightmares as a side effect – was titled “Requip For A Dream”. I didn’t stay long enough to see whether that won the poster contest, but if it didn’t there is no God.

But I also attended a couple of forums and Q&A sessions, and in one of them a doctor asked the question:

“What do I say when one of my psychotic patients – who is telling me how he is Jesus, or is being pursued by the FBI, or something like that – glares at me and asks ‘You don’t believe me, do you?’”

The lecturer, who was a very prestigious psychiatrist of some sort, said that his standard response was “I believe that what you are seeing and experiencing is real to you.”

This is the sort of nice, pat answer I would expect from a clever and prestigious psychiatrist. It ticks all the boxes. It is kind and compassionate. It doesn’t technically lie. It doesn’t validate the patient’s delusions. And it acknowledges the patient’s emotions without being dismissive or confrontational.

On the other hand, if I was that patient it would enrage me.

Let me distinguish this from a very very similar concept where I think this answer is exactly correct. Suppose someone is having hallucinations, like believing there are spiders crawling all over him. He asks “You don’t believe me, do you?” I think the exactly correct answer is to say “I one hundred percent believe that you are experiencing spiders crawling all over you, that their appearance and features are extremely convincing, and that you’re not making this up. But there are not real spiders on you.”

And if you responded to the guy who thought he was Jesus with “I one hundred percent believe you are feeling a strong, almost irresistible urge to believe you are Jesus. But I don’t think you are actually him,” that would remove most of the creepiness for me (I also don’t think it would be very popular with patients).

But somehow this guy’s phrasing pressed my buttons. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t answering the question. It was that he was denying that the question was the sort of thing that needed to be answered, denying that there was a real fact-of-the-matter about Jesus at all, or denying that it was worth worrying about.

But if you’re worried you’re psychotic, that’s probably the most important question to you. The reason this came up at a big conference is that it’s a really common question. Psychotic people ask it a lot. If you’re psychotic, then the fact that you believe these strange things no one else believes has become one of the central things in your life. And to you it’s less important that the person be Validating And Accepting than that you settle this problem that is tearing your life apart.

And this answer isn’t even subtle about what it’s doing. It’s like “Obviously I don’t believe you, but I’m going to avoid saying so in so many words, and I bet you won’t even notice or care. You’ll just be grateful I’m acknowledging you at all”. It’s condescending, is what it is.

I’m not psychotic (I think). And I’m probably more concerned with there being a Real-World-With-Truth-Values than the average person. So maybe the prestigious expert is, as is often the case with prestigious experts, right. But I really don’t want to follow his advice. It would leave too bad a taste in my mouth.

I haven’t decided what I am going to say in its place. But in a perfect world, where I get exactly the right patient, the response I would really like to give is: “If you were me, would you believe it?”

I think, in this fantasy, if I picked the right patient they would laugh and say “Nope!”. Because psychotic people are smarter than they are usually given credit for, and also usually have good senses of humor, and at least we would both establish where we stood in a non-confrontational way.

And it’s always interesting how often deluded people know in the back of their head that their delusions are wrong, or at least questionable. Like I can just ask people “I’m here to do a psychiatric evaluation of you. Do you have any strange beliefs I should know about?” and they’ll say “Well, I believe I’m being pursued by the FBI.” I ask “Are you being pursued by the FBI?” They say “Yeah.” I asked once, because I was very curious and making things up as I went along, “Then why did you bring it up so quickly when I said I was a psychiatrist looking for symptoms of mental disease?”

My patient didn’t have a good answer for that. I didn’t get the impression it was some very logical “Well, I realize statistically most people who think they’re pursued by the FBI are psychotic, so I’ll just mention it, even though I personally am not.” It seemed more like another example of people, whether psychotic or not, being kind of garage-dragon-y.

This brings me to the other question I get from people a lot, which is “Do you think I’m crazy?” I think the Officially Correct Answer here is to say “Of course not”, which isn’t very convincing precisely because it’s obviously the Officially Correct Answer psychiatrists give to everyone. Even worse (but surprisingly common) is “Crazy isn’t a technical term”. Thanks. I’m sure that must be very reassuring.

Again, a fantasy answer I would like to give if I have exactly the right patient is “If you’re asking that question, don’t worry.” Which I think is sort of true. If you’re in a psychiatric hospital, and your conclusion is that maybe this means you might be crazy, you have some pretty good reality-based thinking going on. If you’re in a psychiatric hospital, and your conclusion is that maybe this means the FBI has found out you’re Jesus and is trying to stop you, that’s the guy who’s in trouble.

And again I worry that I might be getting too clever. Probably some of these patients aren’t very smart, or aren’t very cynical, and a simple “No, of course not” would be reassuring in a way a weird self-referential answer wouldn’t. So far I have just given some version of the simple answer. But when there’s someone I know well, and who’s especially jaded, and I doubt the simple answer would go over well, I really want to try something less cliched and more honest.

But even that’s not the answer I fantasize about giving later on, when I have my own practice and patients whom I’ve known for years and I can pick out the ones who are a lot like I was when I was younger and seeing a psychiatrist. For them the answer will be “Yes, of course. So am I. So is everyone. The interesting question isn’t whether you’re crazy, it’s whether you function anyway. Let’s try to work on that.”

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The Cowpox of Doubt

I remember hearing someone I know try to explain rationality to his friends.

He started with “It’s important to have correct beliefs. You might think this is obvious, but think about creationists and homeopaths and people who think the moon landing was a hoax.” And then further on in this vein.

And I thought: “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!”

I will make a confession. Every time someone talks about the stupidity of creationists, moon-hoaxers, and homeopaths, I cringe.

It’s not that moon-hoaxers, homeopaths et al aren’t dumb. They are. It’s not even that these people don’t do real harm. They do.

(although probably less than people think; people rarely stop conventional treatment in favor of homeopathy, and both a popular website and a review article have a really hard time finding more than a handful of people genuinely harmed by it. Moon hoaxes seem even less dangerous, unless of course you are standing near Buzz Aldrin when you talk about them.)

What annoys me about the people who harp on moon-hoaxing and homeopathy – without any interest in the rest of medicine or space history – is that it seems like an attempt to Other irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “other” as a verb. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Continental types too much lately.)

It’s saying “Look, over here! It’s irrational people, believing things that we can instantly dismiss as dumb. Things we feel no temptation, not one bit, to believe. It must be that they are defective and we are rational.”

But to me, the rationality movement is about Self-ing irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “self” as a verb. I don’t even have the excuse of it being part of a philosophical tradition)

It is about realizing that you, yes you, might be wrong about the things that you’re most certain of, and nothing can save you except maybe extreme epistemic paranoia.

Talking about moon-hoaxers and homeopaths too much, at least the way we do it, is counterproductive to this goal. Throw examples of obviously stupid false beliefs at someone, and they start thinking all false beliefs are obvious. Give too many examples of false beliefs that aren’t tempting to them, and they start believing they’re immune to temptation.

And it raises sloppiness to a virtue.

Take homeopathy. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people say: “Homeopaths don’t realize beliefs require evidence. No study anywhere has ever found homeopathy to be effective!”

But of course dozens of studies have found homeopathy to be effective.

“Well, sure, but they weren’t double-blind! What you don’t realize is that there can be placebo effects from…”

But of course many of these studies have been large double-blinded randomized controlled trials, or even meta-analyses of such.

“Okay, but not published in reputable journals.”

Is The Lancet reputable enough for you?

“But homeopaths don’t even realize that many of their concoctions don’t contain even a single molecule of active substance!”

But of course almost all homeopaths realize this and their proposed mechanism for homeopathic effects not only survives this criticism but relies upon it.

“But all doctors and biologists agree that homeopathy doesn’t work!”

Have you ever spent the five seconds it would take to look up a survey of what percent of doctors and biologists believe homeopathy doesn’t work? Or are you just assuming that’s true because someone on your side told you so and it seems right?

I am of course being mean here. Being open-minded to homeopaths – reading all the research carefully, seeking out their own writings so you don’t accidentally straw-man them, double-checking all of your seemingly “obvious” assumptions – would be a waste of your time.

And someone who demands that you be open-minded about homeopathy would not be your friend. They would probably be a shill for homeopathy and best ignored.

But this is exactly the problem!

The more we concentrate on homeopathy, and moon hoaxes, and creationism – the more people who have never felt any temptation towards these beliefs go through the motions of “debunk”-ing them a hundred times to one another for fun – the more we are driving home the message that these are a representative sample of the kinds of problems we face.

And the more we do that, the more we are training people to make the correct approach to homeopathy – ignoring poor research and straw men on your own side while being very suspicious of anyone who tells us to be careful – their standard approach to any controversy.

And then we get people believing all sorts of shoddy research – because after all, the world is divided between things like homeopathy that Have Never Been Supported By Any Evidence Ever, and things like conventional medicine that Have Studies In Real Journals And Are Pushed By Real Scientists.

Or losing all subtlety and moderation in their political beliefs, never questioning their own side’s claims, because the world is divided between People Like Me Who Know The Right Answer, and Shills For The Other Side Who Tell Me To Be Open-Minded As Part Of A Trap.

This post was partly inspired by Gruntled and Hinged’s You Probably Don’t Want Peer-Reviewed Evidence For God (actually, I started writing it before that was published – but since Bem has published evidence showing psi exists, I must have just been precognitively inspired by it). But there’s another G&H post that retrocausally got me thinking even more.

Inoculation is when you use a weak pathogen like cowpox to build immunity against a stronger pathogen like smallpox. The inoculation effect in psychology is when a person, upon being presented with several weak arguments against a proposition, becomes immune to stronger arguments against the same position.

Tell a religious person that Christianity is false because Jesus is just a blatant ripoff of the warrior-god Mithras and they’ll open up a Near Eastern history book, notice that’s not true at all, and then be that much more skeptical of the next argument against their faith. “Oh, atheists. Those are those people who think stupid things like Jesus = Mithras. I already figured out they’re not worth taking seriously.” Except on a deeper level that precedes and is immune to conscious thought.

So we take the intelligent Internet-reading public, and we throw a bunch of incredibly dumb theories at them – moon-hoaxism, homeopathy, creationism, anti-vaxxing, lizard people, that one guy who thought the rapture would come a couple years ago, whatever. And they are easily debunked, and the stuff you and all your friends believed was obviously true is, in fact, obviously true, and any time you spent investigating whether you were wrong is time you wasted.

And I worry that we are vaccinating people against reading the research for themselves instead of trusting smarmy bloggers who talk about how stupid the other side is.

That we are vaccinating people against thinking there might be important truths on both sides of an issue.

That we are vaccinating people against understanding how “scientific evidence” is a really complicated concept, and that many things that are in peer-reviewed journals will later turn out to be wrong.

That we are vaccinating people against the idea that many theories they find absurd or repugnant at first will later turn out to be true, because nature doesn’t respect our feelings.

That we are vaccinating people against doubt.

And maybe this is partly good. It’s probably a good idea to trust your doctor and also a good idea to trust your climatologist, and rare is the field where I would feel comfortable challenging expert consensus completely.

But there’s also this problem of hundreds of different religions and political ideologies, and most people are born into ones that are at least somewhat wrong. That makes this capacity for real doubt – doubting something even though all your family and friends is telling you it’s obviously true and you must be an idiot to question it at all – a tremendously important skill. It’s especially important for the couple of rare individuals who will be in a position to cause a paradigm shift in a science by doubting one of its fundamental assumptions.

I don’t think that reading about lizard people or creationism will affect people’s ability to distinguish between, let’s say, cyclic universe theory versus multiverse theory, or other equally dispassionate debates.

But if ever you ever need to have a true crisis of faith, then any time you spend thinking about homeopathy and moon hoaxes beyond the negligible effect they have on your life will be time spent learning exactly the wrong mental habits.

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Links For April 2014

Why did a secretive and moderately unethical giant Korean corporation purchase a big tract of land on the Canadian tundra, declare it was for an unspecified agricultural project, and then never grow any crops there? Hint: they recently bought a very well preserved mammoth specimen and sent it to one of their cloning labs.

The weird story of how a UFO cult built a clinic to surgically reverse female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso, and how they accuse the Catholic Church of thwarting them. Bonus: the head UFO cultist at the clinic was my college genetics professor.

Tips For Surviving If You Find Yourself In An English Folk Ballad (h/t Peter Scott)

There’s a lot of talk about Bitcoin use in Kenya. While it’s a little bit of an exaggeration to say that one third of Kenyans have Bitcoin wallets, the country’s combination of reliance on a mobile-phone based money-transfer service and high level of cross-border remissions makes it very fertile ground for cryptocurrency use. Also, how come Kenya can have a mobile-phone based money-transfer service and we can’t?

Awareness Weeks where speakers and artists earnestly tell people not to stigmatize certain groups may result in increased stigma of those groups, especially self-stigma. This does not surprise me. (h/t Kate Donovan)

Norway’s army, like America’s, has a problem with sexual harassment. Their solution was to encourage “a common mode where gender stereotypes had disappeared, or at least are less obvious” by making men and women share rooms and encouraging similar hairstyles. Norwegian women report a major decrease in sexual harassment.

This seems very implausible, but I include it because the study seems sufficiently meticulous: people have more positive emotions towards words typed primarily with the right hand. This must explain why everyone hates stewardesses but loves lollipops.

Article finds that 90% of academic papers are never cited, suggests up to 50% are never read by anyone except their authors and the peer reviewers. [EDIT: Likely exaggerated]

Study finds that 100% of children don’t like clowns, think they are scary. If this is true, how did clowns even come to exist? Was there this period when everyone thought clowns were happy and funny, and then some people put them in horror movies and made jokes about how scary they were and ruined them for the rest of us? Or were clowns always scary, but for some reason the circus industry was so bad at responding to market incentives that they adopted them anyway?

No, the government can’t save $400 million by changing its font.

Legalization of medical marijuana does not seem to increase, may decrease crime. I look forward to seeing a similar study of recreational marijuana in a couple of years, but in the meantime there’s always poorly controlled reports.

13th century philosopher Robert Grosseteste theorized physical mechanisms by which the ten nested crystal spheres of the universe might form. Scientists put his theories to the (mathematically simulated) test and find that small variations in the initial parameters can produce anything from ten crystal spheres to unstable spheres to infinite spheres to spheres that interlock through each other. Getting the ten nested spheres of our own (medieval vision of the) universe requires very careful fine-tuning. Then again, so do our own physical theories.

Laws are changing soon to permit Kickstarter style crowdfunded investment in new companies for as little as $100. I feel like this should be bigger news and in the long run might be one of the most important economic events of the decade.

Article: Science Compared Every Diet, And The Winner Is Real Food. So it is a combination of obvious – “real food” is better than “processed food” – and useless – what is “real food”? Is pasta real food? A turkey and cheese sandwich? A home-made cookie? For those of us who can’t eat apples straight off the tree three times a day, give us a little more guidance, please.

A Redditor wants advice on how to meet new people. But instead of posting on r/socialskills, he accidentally posts on r/socialism. The results are exactly what you would expect.

The Thirty Most Unnecessary Uses Of Quotation Marks In History.

Costs of sequencing a genome have been dropping even faster than Moore’s Law for computer chips. Not sure how worried we should be about the pace seeming to level off in recent years.

Garden path sentences are one that momentarily mislead your language parser, for example “The girl told the story cried”. When you get to “cried”, you realize something must have gone wrong somewhere and have to double back and try alternate interpretations of the structure until you realize it meant “The girl [who was] told the story”. They’re a cool way to observe the hidden mechanisms of your brain at work. Here are twenty-one of them.

There’s a big debate in medical education between the people who think residents need strict limitations on the number of hours they can work to protect them from exploitation and to protect their patients from sleep deprivation-related mistakes – and the people who think dammit, I worked hundred hour weeks and that’s the only way to turn someone into a real doctor. The former group is in the ascendant now, but they’ve been dealt a big blow with a recent study finding limited duty hours do not improve patient safety. Meanwhile, even under the “strictly limited duty hour” rules, I worked seventy-five hours last week.

Scientists discover brain area that causes Catholicism.

RAINN, the most important anti-rape charity, comes out against the concept of rape culture. In some sense, I agree. On the other hand, I think their position that it is all due to individual rapists being jerks is, while technically correct, denying the idea that people are influenced by a culture at all. I think my position would be that, while there is not a deliberate nationwide culture of excusing or promoting rape the way some people would have it, cultural factors affect the incidence of that crime the same as of every other type of crime and need to be considered. Also, in the process of investigating this I discovered that the largest organization for fighting false rape accusations really likes RAINN and urges all its members to donate to them. This is heartwarming in the same way as those pictures of cats and dogs snuggling with each other.

Oxytocin, previously lauded as the “cuddle hormone” and the “trust hormone”, reveals its dark side as a study finds it makes people more likely to lie to help a group. This comes a few years after a study finding that it can make people more racist. Overall this isn’t as big a conflict as people seem to think. It seems to active a sort of innate moral system, but the innate moral system just wants you to protect your in-group no matter what, which comes at the cost of broad principles (like honesty) and the out-group (like different races). Not especially paradoxical. But it does mean that my biggest nightmare has come true – someone has figured out a way to condemn cuddling as racist.

If we are to believe charts, the incidence of autism has more than doubled – not since 1900, or 1970, but in the last fourteen years, so that now 1/68 kids gets born with autism. But are we to believe the charts? The CDC finds that half the children born with autism now have normal or above-average intelligence, compared with only a third ten years ago and probably an infinitesmal fraction fifty years ago, which means probably people are more willing to diagnose it even absent severe limitations. I continue to get extremely annoyed that we use the same condition name to cover everything from such profound mental retardation that many of those who have it never learn language or are able to live without constant supervision to people who are slightly geekier than average and can find a few sensations they don’t like on a checklist. This seems possibly medically correct but socially prone to exactly the pathological and interminable debates we actually find ourselves in.

I’ve long suspected that obesity is partly genetic, and now we have probably found one of the genes involved. Seems to be involved in carbohydrate digestion, and and can change your odds of being obese by up to eight times. And it’s a copy-number variant, which is interesting because I’ve seen studies suggesting a lot of interesting things (eg aggression) are copy-number variants, and most modern genetic testing attempts don’t pick that up (they are limited to SNPs). If copy-number variants turn out to be really important, that could rescue some of them “none of our genetic testing ever finds genes that have a large effect on interesting psychosocial things even though we know they’re there” problem.

I’ve talked about how many promising medical ideas just sort of sit there, either unresearched or unadopted. Here’s an article in ACP Internist where an Idaho doctor suggests we add bacteriophage therapy to that list.

It’s generally assumed that lifting women out of poverty will also save them from violence because they will have more options. But in at least some cases, women who are wealthier or better-educated than their husbands are at greater risk of violence than poorer and less educated women. Ozy adds: “This is true in the US too, but might be reporting bias.”

Article confirms the obvious – children identified as “gifted” early on then grow up to become successful people who discover inventions, run businesses, or make amazing works of art. One might argue that the vast majority of value coming from an education system comes from what it does for gifted kids – giving them that tiny extra push they might need to cure cancer, invent nuclear fusion, or become the next Shakespeare will have more positive impact than a million construction workers becoming slightly smarter construction workers. And there’s a lot of evidence that even small interventions to help these children have spectacular effects – gifted children who are allowed to skip grades are 60% more likely to get doctorates and patents, and more than twice as likely to get STEM Ph.Ds, than a control group of equally gifted children who weren’t. And so in response to this state of affairs, schools: don’t let gifted children skip grades, refuse to stratify children by ability because it might offend someone, and allocate less than 1/2000th the funding for gifted education as it does to special education for low performers. China cannot take us over quickly enough.

Poooossibly related: according to the survey of student boredom 98% of kids are bored in school and 66% bored every day, including 33% bored because the work is too easy and 25% bored because the work is too hard.

Anagrammatron somehow finds tweets that are anagrams of each other.

Boycotting people and organizations who are intolerant of homosexuals may be illiberal, it may have chilling effects, and it may alienate exactly the people you are trying to convince – but at least it works, right?

Libertarian Police Department. This might be the closest I have ever come to literally ROTFL.

One of my old articles, Who By Very Slow Decay, ended up on Reddit recently. And some of the comments by other medical people managed to horrify even me, who wrote the original.

You know the paper’s going to be good because it’s called Biomarkers and Long-Term Labor Market Outcomes. And sure enough, they find that higher levels of creatine do better in the labor market, even when controlling for everything else. And I just heard from some of my psychiatrist friends that there are a couple of preliminary studies finding creatine to be pretty effective against depression (warning: everything is effective against depression in preliminary studies).

Researchers who discovered Ecstasy causes Parkinson’s disease retract their finding after realizing they accidentally used meth in the study instead of Ecstasy. I have a lot of respect for them for admitting it. Also, apparently meth causes Parkinson’s.

Slate Star Codex reader Thomas Eliot has a Kickstarter up for a Cthulhu-themed board game which you may check out and donate to if it suits your fancy.

You know how they found that caloric restriction increased lifespan, and then they found that it didn’t, and then they found that actually it did, and then they found that actually no it really didn’t? Well, now it does.

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Going Loopy

[content warning: mild ideohazards about rumination that might make people who have anxiety disorders have anxiety disorders more effectively, in the bad sense of "effectively"]

[epistemic status: more crackpottish than usual for this blog. Wild speculation.]


If the brain had been designed by an amateur, it would enter a runaway feedback loop the first time it felt an emotion.

Think about it. You see a butterfly. This makes you happy. Being happy is an unexpected pleasant surprise. Now you’re happy that you’re happy. This makes you extra happy. Being extra happy is awesome! This makes you extra extra happy. And so on to as much bliss as your neurons are capable of representing.

Or you stub your toe. This makes you sad. Being sad sucks and makes you less productive and less fun to be around. This means being sad is an unexpected negative event, which sounds like a good reason to be sadder. Being even sadder is going to ruin your night even more, so you get sadder still, and so on until you become suicidally depressed over a single lousy toe.

In the real world, either those feedback loops usually don’t happen, or they converge and stop at some finite point. I would not be surprised to learn that a lot of evolutionary innovation and biochemical complexity goes into creating a STRONG BARRIER against conditioning on your own internal experience. Sometimes it fails.

A guy named Wegner conducted a famous psych experiment where he asked a bunch of participants to sit in a room alone and try not to think about a bear with sunglasses. Of course, that was pretty much all they could think of. They seem to have gotten into a feedback loop where “desire not to think of a bear with sunglasses” -> “thought of a bear with sunglasses” -> “frustration” -> “stronger desire not to think of…” -> “more thoughts of…” and so on.

One of my professor’s work – and my college thesis – expanded the field of bear-with-sunglasses-ology to note that people with obsessive compulsive disorder are found to be much worse at this task than the general population. This is not surprising. OCD seems to be pretty much exactly this scenario, except instead of trying not to think of a bear with sunglasses, you’re trying not to think about how you’re dirty-contaminated, or how maybe you left the stove on, or how what if your car just hit somebody then where would you be? OCDers get stuck in feedback loops where their worry about their obsessive thought is itself a form of the obsessive thought and so both justifies and intensifies their worry.

I also remember a study where a guy with a sleep lab offered participants a cash reward if they could go to sleep more quickly than usual; the end result was that all of them took much longer to go to sleep than usual. Strong desire to go to sleep -> actually a strong anti-sedating emotion -> worry that you won’t get the prize -> stronger desire to go to sleep -> even less sedated -> so on.

There seems to be an element of this in most anxiety disorders. Someone goes outside, something bad happens. Next time they go outside, they feel anxious. The usual STRONG BARRIER against conditioning upon internal experience is AWOL for some reason. The patient finds the experience of becoming anxiety very negative; therefore their belief that “going outside leads to bad things” is justified. Eventually they are so anxious about possibly becoming anxious that they just stay in their house all the time.

(hey, this is kind of Lob’s theorem! If you know that, if you’re anxious about being anxious you would be anxious, then you’re anxious. Maybe.)

But the most clear-cut example is panic disorder. Someone gets anxious for some reason. They get the standard somatic correlates of anxiety – racing heartbeat, sweating, etc. This is a scary situation to be in, not least because it mimics all sorts of terrible medical conditions like heart attacks. This makes the person more anxious, which increases the somatic correlates, and so on.


A lot of CBT seems to be about manually breaking these feedback loops. But I’m just as interested in what we accidentally do to manually increase them. I worry that making mental self-reference slightly easier and more mentally accessible can lead to a big increase in feedback loop size.

I am misophonic – it means I can’t tolerate certain noises. Ten years ago, I would not have used the word “misophonic”, and I would not even have said I have low noise tolerance. I would have said “Hey, that TV is bothering me, can you turn it off?”

I didn’t start thinking about it on a meta-level until one of my roommates told me “Wow, Scott, you seem to be really super sensitive to noise.” And then gave me a little bit of grief over it, which made it stick in my brain. Ever after that I modeled myself as a person who was super sensitive to noise.

And that made my noise sensitivity much, much worse. I hypothesize that maybe, instead of just noise -> distraction, this created a longer feedback loop. Something like noise -> anxiety that I, as a person sensitive to noise, am going to be distracted -> this anxiety is itself distracting -> noticing that I am distracted and being anxious that this distraction will continue as long as the noise continues -> further distraction -> and so on.

(it’s worth noting here that I have obsessive compulsive disorder and that noise sensitivity is a classic feature of the condition)

I had precisely the same experience on this post when I said I was triggered by certain kinds of feminist and social justice rhetoric. I didn’t really think of it that way until I wrote that sentence. I mean, it was true that I heard the rhetoric and then I felt upset and scared, it was just that I had never thought of it as a part of my identity before, or connected it to the word “trigger”. Well, as soon as I did that, the problem got about three times worse, and continues to get worse. I think this nice little crystallized concept of “trigger” might allow my brain to feed back its anxiety more effectively, like “Yup, this thing triggers you, better start feeling anxious about feeling anxious about feeling anxious about…” and that made it go from “a thing that bothers me but which I can cope with” to “giant psychological disaster”.

(now I wonder about typical mind stuff. Do people without OCD have this same experience of anxiety about anxiety about anxiety…? For example, when I was young I was afraid of the dark, not because I believed in ghosts, but because I expected to hear a sound or see something blown around by the wind which I would mistake for a ghost and then have to deal with waves of terror rushing through my body until I figured out what it was, and this was sufficiently bad that I slept with the lights on as a child. Is this the sort of thing other people could imagine feeling, or is it really unusual?)

But this sort of thing is comparatively small fish. I’m more worried about the effect of our entire rich emotional vocabulary. Like, we just sort of invented the concept of being “stressed out” sometime in the last century. Did that make people more stressed out about being stressed out? Did the movement for people to become more introspective and talk about their feelings more (that was a thing, right? That’s why old people are so stoic and young people are so touchy-feely?) make people more likely to fall into feedback loops?

What happens when you give people a psychological diagnosis like “depression”? I’ve always heard that it makes people feel better, because now they know there’s an explanation for what they’re experiencing and it’s not their own fault. But I don’t know if I’ve seen any studies proving this, and even if there were I’d expect them to suffer from the general bias to confirm things that everyone knows are true. What if it just makes people be depressed about how depressed they are, and then go “There’s that depression again, guess this means I’m not getting any better” and become depressed about that?


This whole essay is a little crackpottish, but now I’m moving from things that merely can’t yet be supported by evidence to things that actively contradict it. But I think about this a lot, and it’s my blog, so shut up and listen anyway.

I notice that the class of mental disorders that seem to involve feedback loops – depression, OCD, anxiety – are also the class of mental disorders effectively treated with serotonergic drugs.

One of the most powerful serotonergic drugs in existence is LSD. And as I have learned from – let’s say long boring journal articles – the main effect of LSD is to make you literally loopy. Your thoughts loop in and become about themselves, your sense of time becomes cyclic, everything you see becomes a fractal or a spiral or both. And you end up in an extreme emotional feedback loop to infinity – either a “good trip” or a “bad trip”.

This just-so story is not quite as convincing as I would like because SSRIs and LSDs both increase serotonin but have opposite effects on loopiness. But “serotonin” is a wide and complicated category, and like I said above, I bet the brain has a lot of different mechanisms to finely adjust how self-referential your thoughts are allowed to get.

I will get crackpottier still: maybe the parameter being adjusted is some kind of “allowed size of loop”, so that usually you can finish an entire train of thought and then maybe reflect back on items in the train. Small amounts of LSD decrease the loop size, so that individual thoughts can refer to themselves. And large amounts of LSD (the journal articles I read were very comprehensive) decrease the loop size to zero, and the perfect pure consciousness people claim to experience is just a loop looping in on itself forever, empty of content.

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