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3. The Social Sciences Replication Project is hosting a prediction market on which social sciences experiments will replicate. Due date to join is October 31. Note that they’re kind of missing the point of this whole prediction market thing and so you have to be an official social scientist with (or getting) a PhD or something to join.
Psychoanalysts argue that sons are attracted to women who look like their mothers, because they imprint on their mothers and use them as a schema for their ideal woman.
(and probably something similar for daughters and their fathers, though the psychoanalysts don’t usually get around to talking about that)
I’ve counterargued that sons get half their genes from their fathers, who apparently were attracted to women who looked like the sons’ mothers. Since study after study shows genes having unexpectedly big effects on behavior, and early childhood experiences with parents having unexpectedly small effects, maybe this would be a better explanation for the effect (if it even exists).
But the research doesn’t really bear me out.
Goose-ologist Konrad Lorenz raised goslings from birth. When the goslings grew up, he found they tried to mate with humans, especially “Caucasian men with white beards”. He concluded that they imprinted on their adoptive parent (him) and learned to prefer mates who looked like that parent.
More formally, Bischof et al got some male zebra finches and arrange to have them raised by a closely-related species, Bengalese finches. Then they put them in cages with both female zebra finches and female Bengalese finches and observed which females the birds tried to court. The results were pretty striking; they overwhelmingly went for the Bengalese finches who looked like their mothers, not the zebra finches who were genetically more suitable. Spence & Smith replicated this finding with zebra fish raised by differently-colored zebra fish.
So the research shows conclusively that sexual selection is based on learned imprinting, at least in animals whose names start with the string “zebra fi*”. What about humans?
I can’t find the study itself, but multiple reviews cite Jedlicka 1984, who looked at children of mixed-race couples (white and native Hawaiian). They found that both men and women were more likely to marry someone of the race of their opposite-sex parent than of their same-sex parent (eg if you’re a woman with a Hawaiian mother and white father, you’re more likely to marry a white person). This is consistent with some kind of social imprinting where your opposite-sex parent serves as a template for future romantic interest. It’s not consistent with a simple genetic theory where you just get both parents’ genes. It might be consistent with a more complicated genetic theory where mate preferences are on a sex-appropriate chromosome or get chromosomally imprinted such that you only care about your father’s preferences for women and your mother’s preferences for men, but this is hard and I haven’t seen any analysis of whether it’s evolutionarily worth it.
Enquist, Aronsson, Ghirlanda, Jansson, and Jannini (2010) starts its Methods section with “We obtained data through newsgroups alt.sex.fetish and alt.sex.fetish.breastmilk”, so you know it’s gonna be interesting. They test another feature of men sexually imprinting on their mothers: suppose you’re a man with a sibling a few years younger than yourself. That means your mother was pregnant or lactating during the supposed critical sexual imprinting window. So if men with younger siblings are more likely to have pregnancy and lactation fetishes, that suggests that sexual imprinting on mothers is really a thing. This is indeed what they found: when a person with a pregnancy or lactation fetish only had one sibling, there was a 66% chance (compared to expected 50%) that their sibling would be younger than they, p < 0.0001 in their sample of 560 such people. This was true if and only if they were between age 1.5 and 5 during their sibling's birth, hinting at the span of the imprinting window. Of course, this is still a really poor predictor: 33% of such people got the fetish without any younger siblings, and of course most people with younger siblings don't end up with the fetish at all. But it does look like something is going on.
(I wonder what’s up with adult baby fetishes; if you could find a similar pattern among them that would suggest they’re imprinting on the baby sibling instead of the mother, which would be fascinating. Maybe I should try to survey the appropriate subreddit.)
Hefferman and Fraley did a very similar study. They find that people born to older parents, when compared against people born to younger parents, find older faces more attractive. This was true even after controlling for the age of the participants themselves. The effect size was small but pretty consistent across different groups and measurements. I am not quite as happy about the quality this study as in the ones above, but nothing raises huge red flags.
So there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting some kind of imprinting process is going on. But what about the original question – do people choose mates who look like their opposite-sex parent? And how genetic versus environmental is it?
Bereczkei, Gyuris, and Weisfeld addresses this question directly. They get a sample of grown-up adopted daughters and their adoptive fathers. They show subjects pictures of the adoptive fathers taken when their daughters were 2-8 years old, and then photos of four similar-aged men, one of whom is the daughter’s current husband. The subjects’ task is to guess which of the photos is the husband based on which of them looks most like the adoptive father. And subjects are in fact able to do this better than chance; they pick the correct husband 37% of the time compared to 21% of the time for (each of the three) incorrect husbands, which in their sample of 242 subjects is a p-less-than 0.001 result.
Somebody else check if I’m wrong here, but I’m a little concerned about the way they calculated p-values in this study. Suppose that their 242 subjects are always accurate in identifying the husband who looks most like the father; no randomness or noise here. But now the chance for randomness and noise comes in how many of the women might have picked husbands who look like their fathers by pure coincidence. It looks like there were only 26 women used in the study, so there’s a lot more opportunity for those twenty-six people to coincidentally choose husbands who happened to look like Dad than for the 242 subjects to coincidentally choose the correct husband even if they all looked alike. Yet as far as I can tell, the p-value calculation was only done on the latter possibility.
(an analogy: suppose that I want to prove I have ESP. I predict that a coin will land heads, then flip the coin. It does indeed land heads. Then I survey one thousand observers to ask them to judge whether the coin landed in accordance with my psychic prediction. All 1,000 of them say yes, a p = 0.000001 result that could not possibly be by coincidence. This does not prove at the p = 0.000001 level that I have ESP!)
Rantala and Marcinkowska do a really excellent review of this field that found a lot of the same papers I did. They acknowledge the Bereczkei/Gyuris/Weisfeld study as very interesting, but note that the first author “replicated” these results in a 2009 study using more scientific facial measurements. That study was found to be extremely flawed (found by Rantala himself, in fact) and was retracted under a cloud of accusations of misconduct and/or inexcusable error. It’s still not clear exactly what happened there, and nobody has formally accused the original father/adopted-daughter study of anything, but it’s kind of awkward to hang your theory on a study by somebody accused of scientific misconduct for faking a very similar study that supported the same hypothesis.
(side note: I wish that people would explain retractions better. Right now I don’t feel like I have a good understanding of exactly how the 2009 study got retracted, so I haven’t learned anything that will help me spot similar problems in the future)
So in summary: there’s a lot of good evidence that animals learn mate preferences by imprinting on their parents. There’s some circumstantial evidence that humans might do this too, across traits as diverse as race, age, and lactation status. There is, however, as yet no smoking gun.
Wait, what about twin studies? Those are usually pretty great! Can we just do a twin study and sort this out once and for all?
Zietsch et al look at “a large community-based sample of twins and their partners and parents (N > 20,000 individuals) to test for genetic and family environmental influences on mate choice”. They find:
…near-zero genetic influences on male and female mate choice over all traits and no significant genetic influences on mate choice for any specific trait (!!!!!). A significant family environmental influence was found for the age and income of females’ mate choices, possibly reflecting parental influence over mating decisions.
This might be the first twin study I’ve ever seen which unambiguously breaks Turkheimer’s First Law Of Behavioral Genetics (every trait is somewhat heritable). Such a striking finding should increase our confidence in all of the above experiments a lot. So okay, I guess this issue is solved, it’s definitely just sexual imprinting on the opposite-sex parent, thank goodness, for once we have a perfectly clear noncontradictory result and we can all just go home and –
We also tested for evidence of sexual imprinting, where individuals acquire mate-choice criteria during development by using their opposite-sex parent as the template of a desirable mate; there was no such effect for any trait.
Okay, fine, let’s look at this a little more closely. They were analyzing a bunch of data from a big Australian survey of twins. This included the twins, the twins’ family, and the twins’ mates “height, BMI, age, education, income, personality, social attitudes, and religiosity”, which were the dimensions along which they tried to predict mate choice. They figured out whether imprinting was involved by checking whether twins’ mates were more like their opposite-sex parent than like other members of their family (their same-sex parent, their other twin). There was no sign of this being true, not even a nonsignificant trend.
If we want to play the dangerous game of trying to explain differences between contradictory studies instead of just dismissing everything as noise, I might argue that this looked at some pretty different variables compared to the last set. Instead of looking at facial similarities, it’s looking at things like social attitudes and religiosity; young children trying to imprint on their mother’s image can maybe be forgiven for not knowing her opinion about Asian immigrants (one of the “social attitudes” questions they asked).
The authors took a different tactic and pointed out that most of us don’t marry the first person we have a crush on, or even the second or third. Sometimes we marry the tenth person we really like, sometimes we settle for people we only like a little, and sometimes we get drunk, have sex in a cheap motel, and have the person’s parent threaten us with a shotgun unless we go to the chapel right now. So maybe the person we end up marrying isn’t a good proxy for our mate preferences per se.
(this is starting to get kind of depressing)
They investigate this hypothesis in a followup study where they directly ask twins about their preferences for an ideal mate. Here they’re able to get some more immediately visual data – preferences like tall/short, long-hair/short-hair, beards/clean-shaven, even big-breasts/small-breasts. They find…well, some things come out heritable, but the confidence intervals are really wide. There are a lot of suspicious things like hair-length preferences being impressively and significantly heritable for women but not heritable at all for men, and on one hand the two findings’ 95% confidence intervals do overlap, but on the other hand that’s because all of the confidence intervals are super-wide anyway. Overall I guess it’s nice that this study doesn’t blatantly break Turkheimer’s First Law, but I’m not going to draw any sweeping conclusions off of it.
I have one more twin study here, Lykken and Tellegen (which coincidentally opens with the same Pascal quote as this post). This experiment has an interesting design – they ask dizygotic and monozygotic twins to rate how attracted they are to their co-twin’s spouse! (I hope these researchers went above and beyond in keeping all their data confidential!) Despite those human interest stories where two identical twins separated at birth rediscover each other and find that they have both married blonde Corgi-owning optometrists named Theo, in this study there was very little resemblance between the spouses of either identical or fraternal twins. On average identical twins correlated with each other at r = 0.57 on some long list of variables, but their spouses correlated with each other only at r = 0.14 (identical) and r = 0.11 (fraternal), and most of this was just similar religious and educational backgrounds that don’t surprise us (we already know people tend to marry others of the same religion and social class, and twins are no exception).
This is interesting because it suggests a minimal role of either genetics or shared environment in mate choice, even in the most extreme circumstance (identical twins raised together). And in fact, the authors remind us that people who have had multiple long-term relationships often choose people who don’t resemble each other in more than the most superficial ways (if the authors had exposure to polyamory, they might note that most people’s simultaneous partners aren’t very similar either).
Maybe this just supports Zietsch et al’s hypothesis that mate preferences, whether imprinted or genetic, don’t really matter because we don’t have a whole shopping aisle of mates lined up to choose from and we’ve got to take whatever we can get. Yet even so there’s room for surprise. Even if only 5% of the opposite sex is interested in you, that still leaves the average person hundreds of different choices over their lifetime. Surely there should be some degrees of freedom for people to pick who they end up with. So what’s going on? If not by genes or shared environment, how do we choose our significant others?
The authors’ guess: true love, a mysterious and magical thing totally beyond scientific understanding.
If we provisionally accept our interpretation of these data, we are left with a curious and disquieting conclusion: Although most human choice behavior lawfully reflects the characteristics of the chooser and of the choice, the most important choice of all, that of a mate, seems to be an exception…we outline a theory that is compatible with these interpretations, namely that human pair bonding is relatively adventitious, based on romantic infatuation which, as Stendhal observed, “is like a fever that comes and goes quite independently of the will.”
Sure. Sounds plausible. Let’s just consider this whole matter closed.
[content warning: puns. This is mostly self-plagiarism from my Tumblr and Twitter]
Once upon a time there was a small desert village with a single well outside town. One day a young woman went to the well to fetch water, and the well heard her crying, and asked “What’s wrong?”
She stopped her sobbing and asked the well “You can talk?”
“Yes,” said the well. “Long ago, the witch who lives in this town gave me life so I could serve as a guardian to the townspeople.”
“Alas,” said the young woman. “I am the daughter of that witch. She lived in peace with the townsfolk for many years. But the new mayor, who is a violent and hateful man, riled the people up against her, and they burned her at the stake. I am young and still do not know very much magic. I tried to curse them, but my curses fizzled. Now I worry I will never avenge my mother’s death.”
“Do not be afraid,” said the well. “I will take care of this.”
The next morning, when the Mayor came to fetch water from the well, he heard an odd noise coming from the bottom. He peered over as far as he could to see what was happening. Then an impossibly long arm shot up from the bottom of the well, grabbed the mayor, and pulled him into the well shaft. There was a horrible crunching sound, and nobody ever saw the Mayor again. The townsfolk apologized to the witch’s daughter, and they all lived happily ever after.
Moral of the story: Living well is the best revenge.
Pixar’s movie Up won the Academy Award for “Best Picture” and was widely hailed as one of the best children’s films of the decade. In fact, some people argued it was too good, and that kids were ignoring school, chores, and other responsibilities to watch it again and again. They said that along with the cute plot, the short, catchy name gave it an almost drug-like addictive quality. This made a lot of people very angry, and Pixar agreed to give its addictive must-watch movies longer names in the future.
Moral of the story: Do not call Up what you cannot put down.
There’s a new report out of CERN that a team of scientists has unraveled the structure of the photon. Apparently this started years ago when some equations showed that photons acted like tiny “hands” – structures with a “palm” and radiating “fingers” – which “crawl” across time/space and “grab” the solid particles they interact with. This explained most of the properties of light but wasn’t an exact match for the data. The latest result is that single photons are actually made up of hundreds of these shapes, all joined together into a single particle, and this is how they’re able to travel so quickly.
Moral of the story: Many hands make light work.
Once upon a time there was an ugly duckling. All of the other ducklings had grown their beautiful white soft downy feathers, but this duckling had no down feathers at all and was bald and ugly and all the other ducklings teased him.
He went to the mysterious crow who lived in the woods and asked for help. The crow said to repeat the magic words “HOCUS POCUS” at midnight with a full moon, and then he would grow his down feathers. The duckling tried that, but the moon just laughed at him and said the magic had no power here.
So he went to the creepy raven who lived in the swamp and asked for help. The raven said to repeat the magic words “ABRA CADABRA” at high noon on a sunny day, and then he would grow his down feathers. The duckling tried that, but the sun just laughed at him and said he wasn’t bound by the magic.
So he went to the wise old owl who lived in the tallest tree and asked for help. The owl explained that the duckling should just ignore the mockery of the other birds and accept that he was okay just the way he was, because there were no magic spells to make ducklings grow feathers.
Moral of the story: You are beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can’t bring you down.
Once upon a time a young lady died and went to Hell. At the check-in desk, Satan asked her age. She was in her twenties, but looked much younger; she thought quick and realized that even in Hell, they probably wouldn’t be mean to children. So she told Satan that she was twelve, and sure enough he said she wasn’t old enough to be held accountable for her sins, and ushered her off to a more peaceful part of Hell reserved for ages eleven through thirteen. She met the other sinners there and realized that many of them, like her, were older people who had lied to get out of their punishment.
Satan began to suspect something like this was going on, so he set up hidden cameras in the 11-13 wing of Hell, trying to catch people acting like adults or admitting to one another that they had lied about their age. But there were hundreds of millions of sinners and Satan couldn’t monitor all the cameras himself. So he went up to the mortal world and asked for the best supercomputer they had. The mortals recommended a newer model of Deep Blue, the supercomputer that had first beaten a human world champion at chess. Satan picked one up from IBM and went back to Hell, where he programmed the Deep Blue to monitor all of the hidden camera feeds at once and report any suspicious activity.
Sure enough, after a few days, he got thousands of reports of people acting older than thirteen. He hunted them down and removed them to Hell proper, where there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And it all could have been avoided if they had just stuck to their charade and acted as young as they said they were.
Moral of the story: Don’t get caught, be tween – the Devil and the Deep Blue see.
By 2050, screens have shrunk and become more flexible until the dream of “programmable paper” becomes a reality. Citizens of the future read newspapers like the ones in Harry Potter that include moving images and even videos of important events. This new technology even makes it as far as the US Post Office, where they decide to include programmable stamps. Instead of a static picture of eg George Washington’s head, it will have a moving image of Washington speaking and giving his famous Farewell Address.
Unfortunately, the technology isn’t ready for the kind of abuse that envelopes undergo on their travel throughout the country and the world. Most of the computerized stamps become corrupted and “crash”; in a particularly common bug, they try to reload but just end up displaying “GENERATING IMAGE…” permanently. The government has no money to fix the problem, so people just get used to stamps on their letters that say “GENERATING IMAGE…” instead of having interesting pictures on them.
Moral of the story: If you want a vision of the future, imagine a human face booting on a stamp forever.
You’re a former doctor and researcher who first got involved in politics because of your interest in public health. One of your first forays into activism was the 2000 publication of In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, a magisterial report on the effect of pollution on children’s physical and mental health. You described your focus as being on “developmental disabilities, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, and related neurodevelopmental diseases”. You describe “accumulating evidence of neurotoxic damage to children by environmental agents, such as lead and PCBs”.
In Chapter 7, you discuss the high burden of pesticides eaten by developing children, saying that:
Twenty million American children five and under eat an average of eight pesticides every day through food consumption. Thirty-seven pesticides registered for use on foods are neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides, chemically related to more toxic nerve warfare agents developed earlier this century…a national health exposure study detected chlorpyrifos residues (as the metabolite TCP) in the urine of 82% of a representative sample of American adults. A more recent study in Minnesota revealed that an even higher 92% of children had detectable levels of this metabolite in their urine.
You connect this increasing pesticide exposure to what you believe to be increasing levels of developmental disorders in American children:
The Cailfornia Department of Developmental Services released [a study] in March 1999 [that] looked at pervasive developmental disorders from 1987 through 1998 and showed a 210 percent increase in cases entered into the autism registry during those years. If the incidence of autism is increasing, and/or clusters of autism are being discovered, an environmental influence is likely.
Maybe as a result, you’ve become a big advocate of eating organic food. Your party platform says you want to “support organic and regenerative agriculture” and “put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe”. You presented a pro-organics case on Bill Moyers’ show back in 2012, and you’re even known for preparing your own organic meals on the campaign trail.
But there’s a lot of pushback from mainstream scientists and the mainstream media. For example, news webzine Vox has an interesting article Is Organic Food Any Healthier? Most Scientists Are Still Skeptical publicizing a meta-analysis of 237 studies which showed that “organic foods didn’t appear to be any healthier or safer to eat than their conventionally grown counterparts” and that “typical exposure to pesticide residues is at levels 10,000 to 10,000,000 times lower than doses that cause no observable effect in laboratory animals that are fed pesticides daily throughout their entire lifetimes”. Vox has also written Local And Organic Food Has Extra Safety Risks. Just Ask Chipotle. Vox’s spinoff webzine Eater even makes fun of customers looking for “natural” foods without having any idea what that means.
If they’re right, then you’re promoting an unscientific fad that has millions of people needlessly stressed out about everything they eat. On the other hand, if you’re right, then these media outlets’ pooh-poohing of a vital public health message makes them complicit in and maybe even responsible for what you call the “epidemic” of childhood neurodevelopmental disorders.
So my question for you is: do you believe Vox ‘zines cause autism?
During your first debate with Donald Trump, the moderator asked you about racial bias in police shootings; you responded that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police”. You argued that you would “put money into that budget to help us deal with implicit bias by police officers” and that we’ve “got to do everything possible to improve policing, to go right at implicit bias”. Your running mate Tim Kaine continued on the theme, saying that people shouldn’t be afraid to bring up police officers’ implicit biases.
This talk of implicit bias references a whole psychological field centered around the Implicit Association Test. It works like this: a subject sitting in front of a keyboard is shown rapid-fire pictures representing various categories – classically black people, white people, positive adjectives, and negative adjectives. They’re given various instructions about which keys to press in response to which categories, and their responses are timed. Many people will find that it’s easier to press the same key for white people and positive adjectives (and an opposite key for black people and negative adjectives) than to press the same key for whites+negatives and blacks+positives. This has been widely considered to show implicit racism – that is, even people who say they are not racist unconsciously associate black people with bad qualities. This research has become wildly popular, profiled in every major media outlet, and catapulted its inventors to scientific stardom. It’s even been featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, maybe a first for a social psych paper.
A few early small studies suggested the IAT predicted prejudiced behavior. But later attempts to replicate this result failed. Blanton, Jaccard, Klick, Mellers, Mitchell, Tetlock (2009) reanalyzed some of the original studies, found no effect, and complained that the IAT was being popularized despite an almost-complete lack of evidence for its validity. Oswald et al (2013) did a meta-analysis of 275 implicit association test results from 46 different studies and found that “IATs were poor predictors of every criterion category other than brain activity, and the IATs performed no better than simple explicit measures”. Carlsson and Agerstrom did another meta-analysis earlier this year, and found “the overall effect was close to zero and highly inconsistent across studies” and “there is…little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination, and we thus strongly caution against any practical applications of the IAT that rest on this assumption”.
You particularly mention the IAT as relevant to policing, but Dolan Group, a consulting firm which advises police forces how to avoid racial discrimination, did an internal analysis of results surrounding the IAT and reports to its clients that:
Persons who do not hold overt racist attitudes do not have to worry about some deeply-hidden, unknown, unconscious attitudes influencing their work decisions. These findings reveal the need to aggressively weed out officers who hold conscious racial stereotypes and biases in order to avoid biased-based policing. These findings also raise questions about whether the money and time spent on law enforcement training and testing regarding implicit bias could be put to better use on something else.
When you and your running mate suggest a focus on implicit bias as relevant to policing, this can really only be justified by taking the preliminary findings of a few small early studies and ignoring both more rigorous reanalysis of their results and the consensus finding of all studies and meta-analyses conducted since that time.
On the other hand, there still is something to be explained here: if the IAT isn’t analyzing implicit racial prejudice, why do people so consistently have an easier time associating black people with negative adjectives? I actually have a theory of my own about that. Consider claims like the following:
1. Black people were brutally enslaved for hundreds of years.
2. Black people are almost three times more likely than whites to live below the poverty line.
3. Black people are systematically being murdered by the criminal justice system.
4. Black people are frequent victims of racism and hate crimes.
5. Our society is set up to structurally discriminate against black people.
None of these claims are racist per se; in fact, many of them are anti-racist in intent. But all of them connect black people to negative affect! If your local newspaper says that white people usually have friendly and positive interactions with the police but black people are victimized and killed by police, that is some heavy association of whites with positive feelings and blacks with negative feelings. If you usually see photos of white people in the news under the headline “LOCAL BUSINESS BOUGHT BY GOOGLE”, and photos of blacks in the news under the headline “LEARN HOW OUR RACIST SOCIETY KEPT THIS POOR WOMAN FROM SUCCEEDING” then once again, you’re learning to associate whites with positive feelings and blacks with negative feelings.
This would explain very nicely why people taking the IAT generally associate whites with positive feelings and blacks with negative feelings in a way apparently unrelated to whether they are explicitly prejudiced/racist. It would also explain very nicely why about 50% of blacks associate whites with positive feelings and blacks with negative feelings, which is definitely a thing that happens and which previous explanations of have always sounded unconvincing and ad hoc.
But from your debate statements, it sounds like you are absolutely opposed to this reinterpretation. That you are committed to defending the position that implicit bias is a real predictor of racism, and that Implicit Association Tests don’t just report contingent associations drilled in by the media, but genuinely reveal profound unconscious beliefs about how the world works.
So my question for you is: would you be willing to take an Implicit Association Test measuring how easily you associate your own name vs. your opponents’ names with the adjective “crooked”?
If you were elected, what would you do about the ongoing crisis in Updog?
You’re well-known for your boast that you “hire the best people”. And one of those best people is Steve Bannon, the CEO of your campaign. When Bannon took over on August 17th, 538 had you at only a 12% chance of winning; after he was running your campaign for a month, you were up to 40%. Although you’ve since crashed back down, a lot of political observers attribute what successes you’ve had to Bannon and what problems you’ve had to your own big mouth. You seem to recognize his utility, calling him one of “the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November”.
Before he joined your campaign, Bannon was best known for his role leading far-right news website Breitbart. But he was actually involved in some pretty interesting stuff when he was younger. In particular, in 1993 Bannon was the acting director of the famous environmental science experiment Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2 was an attempt to create a self-sustaining closed ecosystem capable of supporting human life, possibly with applications for future space travel. It was actually the first such attempt – it was called “Biosphere 2” because the first such self-sustaining biosphere was the Earth itself. Eight “crew members” entered the facility along with various plants and animals, the airlocks were sealed, and for a year everyone tried to do what they could to keep the various species and environmental parameters in balance.
It didn’t work; CO2 levels started fluctuating wildly, soil microbes surged out of control, ants and cockroaches overran the facility, oxygen dropped to worrying levels, and the experiment was stopped early out of concern for crew health. They decided to try a second mission, and that was when they had a change in management and brought on Mr. Bannon as director.
Unfortunately, a lot of the crew members really didn’t like Bannon and his team. Possibly some of it had to do with an incident where a crew member submitted a list of safety complaints and Bannon threatened to “shove it down her f**king throat”. It got so bad that some of the crew deliberately vandalized the Biosphere, causing gas exchange between the inside and the outside and ruining the scientific value of the experiment. Although they probably could have tried again, by that time lawsuits and financial mismanagement had sapped their funding, and they finally sold the whole thing off to Columbia University as a research campus.
So my question for you is: in all of history, there have only been two self-sufficient ecosystems capable of maintaining human life. Your team has already destroyed one of them. The other is Earth. How scared should we be?
[Epistemic status: Not sure if I’m arguing against a straw man here and my conclusion is what the researchers meant all along.]
Benitez-Burraco and Lattanzi theorize that autism and schizophrenia are anomalies in the human self-domestication process. I’ll try to explain, but for a much better explanation than I can give read Dr. Chris Badcock here.
Still here? Fine. BBL’s theory goes like this. When Russian scientist Dmitry Belyaev tried to domesticate foxes by breeding them for tame behavior, he found that changes in a lot of other traits went along for the ride. In short, the foxes started looking kind of dog-like: smaller heads, shorter snouts, spotted fur, floppy ears, more youthful characteristics. Some further experiments confirmed that similar changes happen in any species bred for tameness. Probably this has to do with changes in the neural crest, an embryonic structure which goes on to form a bunch of things including the adrenal medulla. Since the adrenal medulla produces some of the hormones involved in fear and stress, animals with hypoactive medullae will probably be tamer. But since the neural crest also goes on to form lots of other stuff, or produce hormones that influence the formation of lots of other stuff, these tamer animals will be different in other ways too.
BBL continues: we went from being wild apes to tame humans, a process that could be analogized to “self-domestication”. Some of the same changes the Russians saw in the transition from wild to domesticated foxes can be seen in the transition from early hominid skulls to modern human skulls.
Autistic people, say BBL, are “undomesticated humans” – people in whom for some reason the neural crest changes that result in domesticated features have reversed. They find that some of the changes of domestication syndrome are the reverse of some of the symptoms of autism:
Smaller heads = autistic people have larger heads
More trusting and social = autistic people are less trusting and social
Spotted fur = the depigmenting disease “hypomelanosis of Ito” is sometimes associated with autistic symptoms
Floppy ears = studies find autistic people are more likely to have abnormally shaped ears (really!)
Change in adrenal response = autistic people have abnormal function in the HPA axis, the system including the adrenal gland
Or in the form of their cutesy picture:
Schizophrenics, say BBL, are “hyperdomesticated humans”. Once again, they match up the symptoms:
I originally thought this theory was dumb. After looking into it more, I think it has some serious issues, but that there might be a core of truth.
I’ll get to that core, but first, the argument against: all of this is coincidences, pareidolia, and finessing things to fit into a system where they don’t really belong.
Going down the list:
Smaller heads = autistic people have larger heads
Some studies find this is true. Othersfind that it isn’t. In any case, note a discrepancy between this claim and the schizophrenia version. BBL note smaller brains in schizophrenics (true) and shorter skull (true), but not smaller heads, which we would expect if autism were the “reverse” of schizophrenia. In fact, schizophrenics may have largerheads than healthy people. This sort of moving the goal-posts, where autistics are judged on their larger heads but schizophrenics on their smaller brains, is a red flag for fake pattern-matching.
More trusting and social = autistic people are less trusting and social
True! But schizophrenics are way less trusting and social! Paranoia – pathological inability to trust – is a classic symptom of schizophrenia; indeed, if you made people choose between schizophrenia and autism and asked which one was associated with lack of trust, I think most people would choose schizophrenia. This brings an important point into relief: the whole point of domestication is that the domesticated animal is supposed to be friendlier and less aggressive. But nobody would describe schizophrenics as friendlier and less aggressive.
Spotted fur = the depigmenting disease “hypomelanosis of Ito” is sometimes associated with autistic symptoms
True! But hypomelanosis of Ito is a really rare disease (1/10,000 births) that has nothing to do with most autism. Also, it causes eye problems, kidney cysts, weirdly-shaped chests, short stature, seizures, mental retardation, etc. To me this looks more like “a super-rare disease that can cause pretty much anything can sometimes also cause autistic symptoms”, which is not very interesting. Also, domestication causing “pigmentation changes” (usually spotted fur) versus autism being (very rarely) associated with a depigmenting disease and schizophrenia being (very rarely) associated with albinism is more goalpost-shifting.
Floppy ears = studies find autistic people are more likely to have abnormally shaped ears (really!)
I looked at this study – Manouilenko et al – and what it actually finds is that autistic people are more likely to have asymmetrical ears. In fact, nonsignificantly more likely to have asymmetrical ears; their significant finding is that autistic people have more “minor physical abnormalities”, and the asymmetrical ears were one of many pieces of evidence combined to get the significant finding. But asymmetrical features are common in lots of genetic/embryological diseases and seem like a general sign of high mutational load. It seems sketchy to combine autists’ asymmetrical ears and wild foxes’ pointy ears and say “Look, they both have ear abnormalities, this is the same thing!” Some other studies suggest that autistic people have low-set ears, which sounds more promising, but schizophrenic people alsohave low-set ears, so whatever. The other schizophrenia ear findings are exactly as unconvincing as the autistic ones.
Change in adrenal response = autistic people have abnormal function in the HPA axis, the system including the adrenal gland
Wikipedia’s page on the HPA axis has a section on its possible role in disease, which states that dysfunction of the axis is involved in various conditions “including anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, insomnia, posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, major depressive disorder, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and alcoholism”. In other words, in a list of the HPA axis’ twelve greatest hits, neither autism nor schizophrenia qualify for inclusion.
I’m not saying that there isn’t an HPA axis component to these diseases. I’m just saying HPA axis is a nonspecific finding. I’m agnostic whether the HPA axis causes everything or our HPA axis study methods are so bad that they invariably turn up false positives. The point is that we shouldn’t get too excited when we see the HPA axis involved in both domestication and autism. This is like saying “Cancer causes you to feel bad, and AIDS causes you to feel bad, therefore cancer causes AIDS.” No, it’s just that everything makes you feel bad.
When we look beyond the general claim of “abnormal function”, things get less clear. BBL say that domesticated animals have “reduced levels of stress hormones including adrenocorticoids, adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol, and corticosterone”. So their theory should predict that autistic people have increased stress hormones, and schizophrenics decreased, relative to typical people. Actually, it’s a mess; autistic people seem to have higher ACTH but lower cortisol; schizophrenia studies are conflicting but tend towards higher levels of both. Once again, they can support a general claim of “these conditions affect the same system”, but they can’t predict the direction of the effect. Also, every condition affects this system.
(if you’re wondering why we’re talking about cortisol levels in a theory about the adrenal medulla, well, so am I. Whatever.)
Finally, if by “undomesticated human” we mean something like an ape or Neanderthal, well, neither apes nor Neanderthals (as far as we know) display the symptoms of autism. They seem to be pretty social. They seem to be able to eat all kinds of stuff without trouble. They don’t seem bothered by sensory processing problems. For that matter, dogs and cattle and nth generation silver foxes, the most domesticated animals we’ve got, don’t seem very schizophrenic. I guess cows could just be hallucinating all the time and how would we know, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they are.
So this is why I originally was not too big on this theory.
Benitez-Burraco and Lattanzi don’t mention Williams Syndrome (also called Williams-Beuren Syndrome) at all, which is crazy, because it sounds a thousand times more like a syndrome of hyperdomestication than either of the two conditions they examine (h/t Nicholas Wade and a random Reddit comment). Williams Syndrome is a rare condition (1/10,000 births) caused by the deletion of some genes on chromosome 7. There are three very interesting things about people with Williams Syndrome. Number one, they are really nice. Like if you meet someone with Williams Syndrome, you will think “This person clearly has a rare genetic disease that causes pathological levels of niceness as a symptom.” Number two, they are really trusting. An Atlantic article profiling the condition, What Happens When You Trust Too Much? describes special therapy for Williams Syndrome children where the therapist has to teach them, painfully and laboriously, how to distrust people. NPR calls it “essentially biologically impossible for kids [with Williams Syndrome] to distrust [people].” Number three, they talk all the time; the informal name for the condition is “cocktail personality syndrome”.
People with Williams Syndromes actually legitimately have short noses (compare to the short snout on domesticated foxes), smaller teeth (compare to smaller teeth in dogs vs. wolves), smaller brains, and “unusually shaped ears” (I can’t find anything more specific; I guess it’s too much to hope for that researchers actually describe the ears as “floppy”).
Also, somebody checked which gene was most different in dogs versus wolves, and they found it was WBSCR17. The WBS in the name stands for “Williams-Beuren Syndrome” because it’s been linked to the disorder. So there’s that.
So as far as I can tell there’s an amazingly good case for Williams Syndrome being linked to domestication. Williams Syndrome tends to cause severe mental retardation and death at an early age, but that’s probably because there are twenty-five totally different genes missing. Maybe a version that only deleted WBSCR17 would keep the behavioral and physiologic changes but not much else.
A lot of people suggest Williams’ Syndrome is “the opposite of autism”. I can only find three pieces of evidence for this. Number one, the obvious contrast with the love of social situations and high verbal skills. Number two, Williams Syndrome kids seem to be really good at face recognition, whereas autistic people are often worse at this. Number three, Williams’ Syndrome kids seem to be unusually bad at the puzzles and interlocking-mechanical-part type problems on which autistic people excel.
On the other hand, there are some reasons to think these conditions are not exact opposites. For one thing, autism is caused by a hideously complex interplay of thousands of genes and various environmental factors, but Williams Syndrome is a drop-dead simple “oops, we forgot part of this chromosome over here”. Williams Syndrome kids seem to have some of the same sensory sensitivities as autistic kids. And both groups usually suffer from mental retardation.
I think that Williams Syndrome establishes the possibility of a physiological social/trust system linked to domestication, the neural crest, and various other parts of embroygenesis. Once you admit the existence of such a system, it seems like autism probably involves some kind of damage to it – probably along with damage to a lot of other systems too. Schizophrenia is more of a stretch, but the overwhelming presence of distrust as a symptom makes the existence of a physiological social/trust system at least kind of interesting and relevant.
So maybe instead of saying that “autistic people are undomesticated humans” and “schizophrenics are hyperdomesticated humans”, we should say something like “there is a very subtle and hard-to-notice biological system that determines level of trust and sociability and which seems weirdly linked to ear and nose shape; autism, schizophrenia, and Williams Syndrome all affect that system in different ways.” Note that this doesn’t mean they’re “the same disease” or “opposite diseases”; the connection might be no deeper than the “connection” where heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, and getting stabbed in the chest all affect the heart. But they all hit the same system.
My take-home message from looking into all of this is that I was very silly for trying to learn about autism and schizophrenia without thinking about embryology. These are highly genetically-loaded diseases that present early in life and seem linked to teratogens and prenatal infections; of course they’re embryological! I had to take some embryology classes in medical school, and like everyone else I tuned them out because they seemed totally irrelevant to real clinical practice and mostly involved memorizing pointless trivia like “on day thirty-six and a half, the developing shmendroblast has transformed into a blexomere”. But if you want to know what causes secret connections between ear shape and level of social trust, embryology seems like the way to go. Autism and schizophrenia are hard to study because they seem to affect everything, yet nothing specifically enough to localize the condition. Maybe going back and thinking more embryologically could help pinpoint the particular systems involved.
This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. There are hidden threads every few days here. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:
1. I went through some of the reported comments and banned the appropriate people. If you can’t post, check the Register of Bans to see if you’re on it. Note that I was also kind of a jerk in a few places and in order to avoid accusations of bias I have banned myself for one week (commenting only; I can still post). TheWorst, you are not yet banned but are on your final warning. Jill, you are not yet banned, but you are forbidden to reference Ayn Rand, accuse other people of worshipping Ayn Rand, attribute everything you dislike to a conspiracy centered around Ayn Rand, or use Ayn Rand as a metonymy for any view you disagree with. I will lift this restriction if you read and post a book report on Atlas Shrugged.
Brookings Institution: “There is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts…This research shows that charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes. The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores.”
One interesting methodology to examine whether school degrees are useful in and of themselves or for signaling value: look at teenage mothers. Someone who delivers a child a month after graduating high school is probably the same sort of person as someone who delivers a child a month before graduating high school, but the former will probably get a degree and the latter probably won’t. Based on this methodology, a paper finds that a high school degree has real value and not signaling value. Possible confounds: maybe the availability of a GED makes this situation different than for college; maybe there’s a ceiling effect for how well people with teenage pregnancies do?
“Related”, by which I mean completely contradicting the above: Danish data (of course it’s Danish data) showing that school effects are mostly just signaling. Maybe a US/Danish difference?
Marginal Revolution asks why bowling has declined in America. Did you know in the 1960s, top bowlers made twice as much as top football stars, and a bowler was the first athlete ever to get a $1 million endorsement contract?
Federal government tells Berkeley they may not offer free online video courses, because they are discriminatory against deaf people who cannot hear the audio. Willing to reconsider if they translate them into sign language as well or add closed captioning, but the college says it can’t afford that and will probably just take the courses down. This is a metaphor for how everything works all the time.
Hey, remember those five different times when thousands of Irish-Americans formed impromptu armies and invaded Canada in order to pressure Britain to free Ireland?
The Daily Show had a whole segment making fun of Donald Trump’s claim that his microphone wasn’t working properly during the last debate. Now the Commission on Presidential Debates has confirmed that his microphone was indeed defective. On the other hand, still no sign that it was part of a giant Clinton campaign conspiracy, and not clear exactly how a microphone malfunction makes you say that not paying taxes makes you “smart”. Come to think of it, every part of this story is also a metaphor for how everything works all the time.
Herman Mashaba started out as the son of an impoverished widowed domestic worker in apartheid South Africa and rose to become a multimillionaire businessman. Now he was just elected as the first Libertarian mayor of Johannesburg, and has vowed to end poverty in the city by encouraging construction and investment. The best thing to happen to African capitalism since Nwabudike Morgan?
Adam Smith Institute argues for the claim that markets will punish discrimination by pointing out many examples of exactly that happening. This is in honor of a recent study which follows up on one of those resume experiments by finding that companies which discriminated against minorities in the hiring process were twice as likely to go out of business as those that didn’t. As welcome as this result would be I’m not sure I buy it – discriminatory vs. non-discriminatory companies likely only differ in a few employees, and that’s not enough to double the company’s chance of surviving. The paper itself points out that this could just be an artifact of more organized companies having a better hiring process that relies less on personal judgment, or the sort of company leaders who aren’t racist also having other good qualities. Related: did you know that the segregation-era South had to pass laws prohibiting companies from preferentially hiring (cheaper) black labor?
American television: Let’s see which celebrity can answer trivia questions the fastest. Japanese television: We’re going to tie a piece of meat to a celebrity’s body, take her to the island of Komodo, and film her getting chased by Komodo dragons.
In Denmark, neighborhood of origin does not influence earnings after age 30. In Sweden, neighborhoods also don’t matter for earnings, education, etc. Still not sure why Moving To Opportunity had such a strong effect in the US, unless it’s the whole “US socioeconomic status differs a lot more than Scandinavian socioeconomic status”. I feel bad for being excited that Scandinavia will probably develop its own segregated underclass in the next few decades and we’ll finally start getting good studies about how that affects things.
Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft come together to form Partnership on Artificial Intelligence To Benefit People. Probably more about privacy and cybersecurity at this point, but still useful to have as a framework if larger issues come up in the future. I would link to the organization’s website itself, but I’m boycotting all those sites that are one page full of giant images and two or three sentences of text which don’t explain anything useful.
Argument: Maybe the surplus of men in mathematical fields is for some biological reason. Counterargument: as the culture has become more accepting toward women, more women have entered these fields, so wouldn’t attributing the remaining difference to biological factors be a very silly god-of-the-gaps argument, arbitrarily saying that all of the already-resolved differences were cultural but all of the not-yet-resolved differences must be biological? A study adds a new perspective to this debate by determining that the percent women in the extreme right tail of mathematical ability was increasing rapidly up until twenty years ago, after which point it has mysteriously remained exactly the same. Women continue to do better at verbal tasks.
Remember how you had to learn cursive in elementary school even though it was clearly useless and inferior to other forms of communication? An Atlantic article argues that there was sort of a rational explanation – cursive was the most convenient form of writing for the obsolete pens of yesteryear, and it took a while for people to realize that better pens made it unnecessary.
The BMJ published an article a while ago pushing a extreme Taubesian view of nutrition. Now it’s facing calls to retract as scientists point out various errors.
The newest front in the replication crisis: basic math errors. A bot finds that 13% of papers may have a math error large enough to potentially change the paper’s conclusion.
Leading environmental scientist James Lovelock was previously famous for his belief that global warming would be much worse than anyone thought. Now he says he’s changed his mind, that global warming will probably be so slow we don’t need to worry much, and that he’s actually concerned about AI risk.
Some of the best pushback I got on my election post yesterday was from people who thought Trump was a safer choice than Clinton because of the former’s isolationism and the latter’s interventionism. Since I glossed over that point yesterday, I want to explain why I don’t agree.
Trump has earned a reputation as an isolationist by criticizing the Iraq War. I don’t think that reputation is deserved. He’s said a lot of things which suggest he would go to war at the drop of a hat.
— He says he will “bomb the s#!t out of ISIS” and calls for sending 30,000 troops to destroy them. His campaign website says he will “pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS”.
— He is ambiguous about whether Obama should have intervened in Syria to depose dictator Bashar Assad. He complained “there is something missing from our president. Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad – if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world. ”
— Back during the rebellion in Libya, Trump seems to have been in favor of even more dramatic intervention than Obama eventually allowed. He said on his video blog “I can’t believe what our country is doing. Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around we have soldiers all have the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage and that’s what it is: It’s a carnage. You talk about things that have happened in history; this could be one of the worst. Now we should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives. This is absolutely nuts. We don’t want to get involved and you’re gonna end up with something like you’ve never seen before. But we have go in to save these lives; these people are being slaughtered like animals. It’s horrible what’s going on; it has to be stopped. We should do on a humanitarian basis, immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives.”
— He thinks we should have “kept” Iraq’s oil. When pressed on how exactly one keeps billions of barrels of petroleum buried underneath a foreign country, he said he would get US troops to circle and defend the areas with the oil. The “areas with the oil” are about half of the country. This sounds a lot like he wants US troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely.
— He also wants to to keep Libya’s oil. As per National Review: “I would go in and take the oil — I would just go in and take the oil. We don’t know who the rebels are, we hear they come from Iran, we hear they’re influenced by Iran or al-Qaeda, and, frankly I would go in, I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff.”
— He suggests declaring war on Iran as a response to them harassing US ships. During the debate, he said he would “shoot their ships out of the water.”
— In 2007, he he suggested “knocking the hell out of [Iran] and keeping their oil”, though in his (sort of) defense he might have been confusing them with ISIS at the time.
— In his 2000 book The America We Deserve he suggested a preemptive strike on North Korea: “[If I were President], North Korea would suddenly discover that its worthless promises of civilized behavior would cut no ice. I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Ghadhafi in 1986. [Reagan bombed Libya]. I don’t think anybody is going to accuse me of tiptoeing through the issues or tap-dancing around them either. Who else in public life has called for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea?”
— During a town hall meeting, when host Chris Matthews asked Trump when he would use nuclear weapons, he answered “Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn`t fight back with a nuke?” When Matthews reminded him that most people try to avoid ever using nuclear weapons, he answered “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?”
Some writers have called the period since World War II the “Pax Americana”. Although there have been some deadly local wars, there’s been relative peace between great powers. A big part of this is America’s promise to defend its allies. This both prevents other countries from attacking America’s allies and prevents America’s allies from building big militaries and launching attacks of their own. The whole system is cemented by America-centric trade organizations which make war unprofitable and incentivize countries to stay in America’s orbit.
Trump wants to destroy this system because it costs money, even though it doesn’t really cost that much money compared to anything else we do and Trump intends to increase the defense budget anyway. It’s possible a post-Trump world might find some other way to maintain peace. It’s also possible that it wouldn’t, or that the process of finding that alternative way would be really bloody.
— In March, Trump said “I think NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago — many, many years ago when things were different. Things are different now. We were a rich nation then. We had nothing but money. We had nothing but power. And you know, far more than we have today, in a true sense. And I think NATO — you have to really examine NATO. And it doesn’t really help us, it’s helping other countries. And I don’t think those other countries appreciate what we’re doing.” Although this isn’t the worst opinion, most foreign policy scholars think that our policy of defending our allies is necessary to prevent global arms races and random regional wars.
— In July, he publicly admitted he wasn’t sure he would protect the Baltic states if Russia attacked, something we’re currently obligated to do. The Atlantic calls this “a marked departure from the security policy of every presidential nominee from either of the two major parties since NATO’s founding in 1949”. It’s especially worrying because even if you’re not going to protect the Baltic states from Russia, you shouldn’t openly say so where Russians can hear you!
— And throughout the race, Trump has campaigned on a platform that would effectively end American participation in the World Trade Organization. Trump understands that this would probably start a global trade war, but asks “who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” I care for two reasons. First, because free trade has produced decades of sustained economic growth and the most successful poverty alleviation in human history. Second, this would probably crash the world economy, creating exactly the sort of depression that tends to produce instability (most famously Hitler’s rise during Germany’s interwar stagnation) or which drives countries toward regional hegemons willing to trade with them or just plain bribe them.
Hillary’s foreign policy isn’t great either, but it doesn’t seem as bad as some people are making it out to be.
— Hillary will probably continue US intervention in Syria; here she is more interventionist than Obama. But her intervention would probably be smaller-scale than Trump’s. She wants to arm “friendly” rebel groups and enforce a no-fly zone, but she has ruled out sending ground troops into Iraq or Syria, something Trump has promised to do. Likely she would focus on keeping enough of Syria safe to protect some civilians and prevent more refugees, then use indirect methods to make life miserable for Assad. This seems like as good a plan as any other.
— The main concern I’ve heard is that the no-fly zone might lead to conflict (war?) with Russia. Declaring a no-fly zone would mean a commitment to shoot down any plane that flies through the zone. Russia is currently flying planes through Syria, and if they tried to call Hillary’s bluff she would have to shoot down Russian planes or lose credibility; shooting down a foreign plane could obviously lead to war. Many different news sources make this point (1, 2, 3, etc). But the clearest description she’s given of what she wants suggests a no-fly zone with Russian cooperation and support. Last October, she said of her no-fly zone proposal that “I think it’s complicated and the Russians would have to be part of it, or it wouldn’t work.” There’s some good discussion of this on Reddit (see especially this comment) where most people end up agreeing that this is the heart of her plan – something like the US agreeing it won’t bomb Russian allies if Russia doesn’t bomb our allies.
— Hillary has said she will “treat cyberattacks just like any other attack”, which could mean that if Russia launches a cyberattack on the US (for example hacking the DNC’s emails) Hillary would treat it as an act of war. I think this requires a stretch. She did mention the possibility of a military response, but only in the context of possible “serious political, economic, and military responses”. My guess is we should interpret this in a non-crazy way – if Russia hacks our emails, we condemn them and maybe hack some of their stuff. If Iran hacks a dam and causes it to fail, then maybe we start thinking airstrikes. Shooting down an airliner is an act of war, but countries have shot down other countries’ airliners a bunch of times and usually people posture a bit and then let it slide. I don’t think it makes sense to think Hillary will treat cyber-attacks more seriously than that.
A lot of this has a lot of room for interpretation. I’m totally ready to believe that when Trump said he would shoot any Iranian ship that annoyed US vessels, he just meant generic macho posturing and expected everyone to hear it that way. He might even be cunningly pursuing a North Korean – style “mad dog” strategy where he tries to sound so dangerous and unpredictable that nobody dares call his bluff, and so his enemies never mess with him in any way.
Or he might mean everything he says. After all, a lot of it has been pretty consistent since long before he was running for president. There’s no point in saying things to send a game theoretic signal to Iran if you’re a random New York real estate developer and Iran isn’t listening. If he understood the theory behind sounding trigger-happy to intimidate our enemies, he probably wouldn’t have openly admitted he wouldn’t respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. And he does seem kind of 100% like a loose cannon in every way, to the point where trying to explain away loose-cannon-like statements as part of a deeper plan seems overly complex.
(Actually, I have a theory which I think explains a lot about Trump’s foreign policy positions: he doesn’t like losers. He supported the Iraq War and the Libya intervention when it looked like we would probably win. Then we lost, and he said they were stupid and bungled. He supports counterfactual invasions of Iraq and Libya where we “kept the oil” because that would have counted as winning. He supports invading ISIS because he expects to be in charge of the invasion and he expects to win. Under this theory, Trump’s retrospective non-support for failed wars doesn’t predict that he won’t start new ones.)
In the end it all comes back to the argument from variance. Maybe Trump is secretly a principled isolationist, and he’s only saying he’ll shoot at Iran and invade Libya and first-strike North Korea and steal oil from Iraq and send troops against ISIS and remove Assad in order to scare people into cooperating with him. Or maybe he’ll actually shoot at Iran and invade Libya and first-strike North Korea and steal oil from Iraq and send troops against ISIS and try to remove Assad. Who knows? He’s said a thousand times now that he’s totally different from the usual politicians, and I believe him. He could do pretty much anything.
(I’d like to think his advisors would rein him in before that point, but when asked which advisors he would consult before a major foreign policy decision, Trump could only think of one person, and he does not exactly inspire confidence.)
I am not qualified to judge Hillary’s work as Secretary of State, but I expect her to play by the book. I’m not sure if Hillary will be more aggressive or more peaceful than the last few presidents, but I don’t expect her to be a wild outlier totally beyond comparison to any previous president. I expect her to consult the foreign policy community on anything important she does, and take some advice relatively within their Overton Window. If she comes to the brink of nuclear war with Russia, I expect her to de-escalate for the same reason I expect Putin to de-escalate; they’re both rationally self-interested people who want to continue being alive and ruling their respective countries, and they value that more than any particular principle or any opportunity to prove their machismo.
I think she remains the low-variance choice for president.
If you are American, SSC endorses voting in this presidential election.
Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin calculate the chance that a single vote will determine the election (ie break a tie in a state that breaks an Electoral College tie). It ranges from about one in ten million (if you live in a swing state) to one in a billion (if you live in a very safe state). The average American has a one in sixty million chance of determining the election results. The paper was from the 2008 election, which was a pro-Obama landslide; since this election is closer the chance of determining it may be even higher.
The size of the US budget is about $4 trillion, but Presidents can only affect a tiny bit of that – most of the money funds the same programs no matter who’s in charge. But Presidents do shift budgetary priorities a lot. GW Bush started a war in Iraq which probably cost $2 trillion; the CBO estimates Obamacare may cost about $1.2 trillion. Neither of these are pure costs – Obamacare buys us more health care, and military presence in Iraq buys us [mumble] – but if you think these are less (or more) efficient ways to spend money than other possible uses, then they represent ways that having one President might be better than another. If we suppose a good president would use these trillions of dollars at least 33% more efficiently than a bad president, then this is still $300 billion in value.
So order of magnitude, having a good President rather than a bad one can be worth $300 billion. A 1/60 million chance to create $300 billion in value is worth $5,000; even the 1/1 billion chance afforded someone in a safe state is worth $300.
We don’t know for sure that we’re right about politics. In order to add signal rather than noise to the election results, we have to be better than the average voter. The Inside View is useless here; probably every voter thinks they’re better than average. I recommend the Outside View – looking for measurable indicators correlated with ability to make good choices. Education’s probably a good one. IQ might be another. But overall, my suggestion is that if you’re seriously uncertain about whether or not you think more clearly than the average voter, by that fact alone you almost certainly do.
Suppose you live in a swing state. If you think (in a well-calibrated way) that it’s 10% more likely that your candidate will use $1 trillion well than that the other candidate will, your vote is worth $500. If you live in a safe state, it’s more like $30. If you value the amount of time it takes to vote at less than that, voting is conceivably a good use of your time.
SSC endorses voting for Hillary Clinton if you live in a swing state. If you live in a safe state, I endorse voting for Clinton, Johnson, or (if you insist) Stein. If you want, you can use a vote-swappingsite to make this easier or more impactful.
You might notice who’s missing from this endorsement. I think Donald Trump would be a bad president.
Partly this is because of his policies, insofar as he has them. I’m not going to talk much about these because I don’t think I can change anyone’s mind here – either you agree with me (and disagree with Trump) on things like abortion, global warming, free trade, et cetera, or you don’t. A two sentence argument in a blog post won’t change your mind either way.
In fact, I’m not sure any of this ever changes anyone’s mind, and I didn’t really want to write this post. But the latest news says:
And I don’t know if I’d go so far as Scott Aaronson, who worries that he will one day live in a nuclear hellscape where his children ask him “Daddy, why didn’t you blog about Trump?”. But if some of my blogging on conservative issues has given me any political capital with potential Trump voters, then I this is where I want to spend it.
So here are some reasons why I would be afraid to have Trump as president even if I agreed with him about the issues.
Many conservatives make the argument against utopianism. The millenarian longing for a world where all systems are destroyed, all problems are solved, and everything is permissible – that’s dangerous whether it comes from Puritans or Communists. These same conservatives have traced this longing through leftist history from Lenin through social justice.
Which of the candidates in this election are millennarian? If Sanders were still in, I’d say fine, he qualifies. If Stein were in, same, no contest. But Hillary? The left and right both critique Hillary the same way. She’s too in bed with the system. Corporations love her. Politicians love her. All she wants to do is make little tweaks – a better tax policy here, a new foreign policy doctrine there. The critiques are right. Hillary represents complete safety from millennialism.
Trump’s policy ideas are mostly silly, but no one cares, because he’s not really running on policy. He’s running on making America great again, fighting the special interests, and defying the mainstream media. Nobody cares what policies he’ll implement after he does this, because his campaign is more an expression of rage at these things than anything else.
I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap. I figured…he’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.
But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.
Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.
Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?
I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”
And since then, one of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.
Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.
A commenter on here the other day quoted an Atlantic article complaining that “The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”. Well, count me in that second group. I don’t think he’s literal. I think when he talks about building a wall and keeping out Muslims, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. When he talks about tariffs and trade deals, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. Fine. But neither of those two things are a plan. The problem with getting every American a job isn’t that nobody has been fighting for them, the problem with getting every American a job is that getting 100% employment in a modern economy is a really hard problem.
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem, he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty. If we haven’t solved all of our problems yet, it’s because the Department of Problem-Solving was insufficiently loyal, and didn’t try hard enough. His only promise is to fill that department with loyal people who really want the problem solved.
I’ve never been fully comfortable with the Left because I feel like they often make the same error – the only reason there’s still poverty is because the corporate-run government is full of traitors who refuse to make the completely great, no-downsides policy of raising the minimum wage. One of the right’s great redeeming feature has been an awareness of these kinds of tradeoffs. But this election, it’s Hillary who sounds restrained and realistic, and Trump who wants the moon on a silver platter (“It will be the best moon you’ve ever seen. And the silver platter is going to be yuuuuuge!”)
But I guess you’ve got to balance someone’s ability to pursue goals effectively with whether you like the goals they’ll be pursuing. I can imagine someone admitting that Clinton will probably be better at governing than Trump, but preferring Trump’s position on the issues so much that it still gives him an edge. In that case, I beg you to consider not only the mean but the variance.
I think even people who expect Trump to be a better President on average will admit he’s a high-variance choice. Hillary is an overwhelmingly known quantity at this point. A Hillary presidency will probably be a lot like Obama’s presidency. There might be a Libya-style military action; probably not an Iraq-style one. If something terrible happens like China tries to invade Taiwan, she will probably make some sort of vaguely reasonable decision after consulting her advisors. She might do a bad job, but it’s hard to imagine a course where a Hillary presidency leads directly to the apocalypse, the fall of American democracy, et cetera.
Trump isn’t a known quantity. Maybe he’ll kind of dodder around and be kind of funny while not changing much. Or maybe there will be some crisis and Trump will take what could have been a quickly-defused diplomatic incident and turn it into World War III. Remember also that it’s more likely the House and Senate both stay Republican than that they both switch to being Democrat. So if Hillary is elected, she’ll probably spend four years smashing her head against Congress; if Trump is elected, he will probably get a lot of what he wants.
Some people like high variance. I don’t. The world has seen history’s greatest alleviation of poverty over the past few decades, and this shows every sign of continuing as long as we don’t do something incredibly stupid that blows up the current world order. I’m less sanguine about the state of America in particular but I think that its generally First World problems probably can’t be solved by politics. They will probably require either genetic engineering or artificial intelligence; the job of our generation is keep the world functional enough to do the research that will create those technologies, and to alleviate as much suffering as we can in the meantime. I don’t see a Clinton presidency as making the world non-functional, whatever that means. I don’t know what I see a Trump presidency doing because, Trump is inherently unpredictable, but some major blow to world functionality is definitely on the list of possibilities.
The one place where Clinton is higher-variance than Trump is immigration. Clinton does not explicitly support open borders, but given her election on a pro-immigration platform and the massive anti-Trump immigration backlash that seems to be materializing, it’s easy to see her moving in that direction. If you believe that immigrants can import the less-effective institutions of their home countries, lower the intelligence of the national hive mind, or cause ethnic fractionalization that replaces sustainable democratic politics with ethnic coalition-building (unlike the totally-not-ethnic-coalition-based politics of today, apparently?), that could potentially make the world less functional and prevent useful technologies from being deployed.
I consider this one of the strongest pro-Trump arguments, but I think it exaggerates the scale of the problem. Hillary will have a Republican Congress to contend with; she probably won’t be able to increase immigration very much. Immigration rates are currently too low to cause massive demographic change before the point at which useful technologies can be deployed, and most immigrants are Asian and come from countries with pretty good institutions themselves. More important, Trump’s anti-immigration policies would prevent foreign researchers from attending top American universities, and probably slow the deployment of future technologies directly, far more than any indirect effect from Hillary would.
There’s another argument here – how exactly are we visualizing a world where immigrants damage American institutions? I envision it as America becoming more like Third World countries – constant ethnic tension, government by strongmen, rampant corruption, lack of respect for checks and balances, and overregulation of industry. But Trump is promising us all of that already, without even admitting any immigrants! If we’re going to become a Third World country, let’s at least help some people while we’re doing it!
US conservatism is in crisis, and I think that crisis might end better if Trump loses than if he wins.
Since a country with thriving conservative and liberal parties is lower-variance than one with lots of liberals but no effective conservatism, I would like conservatism to get out of crisis as soon as possible and reach the point where it could form an effective opposition. It would also be neat if whatever form conservatism ended out taking had some slight contact with reality and what would help the country (this is not meant as a dig at conservatives – I’m not sure the Democrats have much contact with reality or helps the country either; I’m wishing for the moon and stars here).
Nobody expects Republicans to win blacks and Hispanics. The interesting thing about this election is that college-educated whites are also moving into the Democratic column. If the latest polls are to be believed, the demographic – which favored Romney by 14 points last election – favors Clinton by 8 points now. The nightmare scenario is that Trump wins, his style of anti-intellectual populism is cemented as Official New Republican Ideology, and every educated person switches to the Democrats.
I’m not 100% this would be bad – maybe educated people who are temperamentally conservative would pull the Democratic Party a little to the right, turning them into a broad moderate coalition which has no problem winning elections and combines the smartest elements of liberal and conservative thought. But more likely, there’s a vicious cycle where the lack of intelligent conservatives guts the system of think tanks that produce the sort of studies and analyses which convince smart people to become conservative, which in turn makes there even fewer intelligent conservatives, and so on. In the end, intellectuals won’t just vote Democrat; they’ll shift their personal views further to the left to fit in. We already have a problem with a glut of leftist researchers and journalists producing evidence why leftists are right about everything, and a shortage of conservative researchers and journalists to fact-check them and present the opposite case. As intelligent people desert the Republican Party, this situation gets worse and we lose access to any knowledge that Vox doesn’t want to write an explainer on. In the worst case scenario, everybody develops a hard-coded association between “conservative” and “stupid people”, even more than they have already, the academies purge the hell out of everyone even slightly to the right of the loudest activist, and the only alternative is The Donald Trump Institute Of Research That Is Going To Be Absolutely Yuuuuuuge, which busies itself putting out white papers to a coalition of illiterates.
If Trump fails, then the situation is – much the same, really, but conservatives can at least get started right now picking up the pieces instead of having to wait four years. There’s a fundamental problem, which is that about 30% of the US population is religious poor southern whites who are generally not very educated, mostly not involved in US intellectual life, but form the biggest and most solid voting bloc in the country. If you try to form two parties with 50% of the vote each, then whichever party gets the religious poor southern whites is going to be dominated by them and end up vulnerable to populism. Since the religious poor southern whites are conservative, that’s always going to be the conservative party’s cross to bear and conservatism is always going to be less intellectual than liberalism in this country. I don’t know how to solve this. But there have been previous incarnations of American conservatism that have been better at dealing with the problem than this one, and maybe if Trumpism gets decisively defeated it will encourage people to work on the problem.
Most hot-button issues are less President-influenced than most people think. No Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade at this point, so the president’s impact on abortion is limited to whatever edge cases come before the justices they appoint. I have no idea whether there was more or less capital punishment during Obama’s administration than Bush’s, but I doubt that the president’s opinion of the issue had much impact one way or the other. But it looks like the Obama administration made really impressive progress on global warming; needless to say Donald Trump feels differently.
I don’t want to argue climate science here. I want to say that, as usual, I support the low-variance position that’s not going to make the world vastly less functional before we can invent genetic engineering or AI. Even if you doubt modern climate science, are you so sure it’s wrong that it’s worth the risk? What chance of global warming being a real problem would it take before you agreed that we should probably reduce CO2 emissions just in case? How could that chance possibly be lower than the chance of something that 90-something percent of the relevant scientists believe to be true is true? Yes, we know here that science is not alwaysas authoritativeas it would liketo be, but it’s not completely anticorrelated with truth either!
(also, if the research about high CO2 levels decreasing cognitive ability is true – and my guess is no, but I’m far from sure – that could be even more disastrous than the traditional global warming effects – remember that even tiny IQ decreases have horrible consequences on a society-wide scale.)
Okay, but what about the real reason Trump is so popular?
When I talk to Trump supporters, it’s not usually about doubting climate change, or thinking Trump will take the conservative movement in the right direction, or even immigration. It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.
This is definitely true. Please vote Hillary anyway.
Aside from the fact that getting back at annoying people isn’t worth eroding the foundations of civil society – do you really think a Trump election is going to hurt these people at all? Make them question anything? “Oh, 51% of the American people disagree with me, I guess that means I’ve got a lot of self-reflecting to do.” Of course not. A Trump election would just confirm for them exactly what they already believe – that the average American is a stupid racist who needs to be kept as far away from public life as possible. If Trump gets elected, sure, the editorial pages will be full of howls of despair the next day, but underneath the howls will be quiet satisfaction that the world is exactly the way they believed it to be.
The right sometimes argues that modern leftism is analogous to early millenarian Christianity. They argue this, and then they say “You know what would stop these people in their tracks? A strong imperial figure who persecutes them. That’s definitely going to make them fade away quietly. There is no way this can possibly go wrong.”
Leftism has never been about controlling the government, and really the government is one of the areas it controls least effectively – even now both houses of Congress, most state legislatures, most governors, etc, are Republican. When people say that the Left is in control, they’re talking about academia, the media, the arts, and national culture writ large. But all of these things have a tendency to define themselves in opposition to the government. When the left controls the government, this is awkward and tends to involve a lot of infighting. When the right controls the government, it gets easy. If Trump controls the government, it gets ridiculously easy.
This has real-world effects. Millennials are more conservative than previous generations. Andrew Gelman, who is usually right about everything, says:
If you look at the cohort of young voters who came of age during George W. Bush’s presidency, they’re mostly Democrats, which makes sense as Bush was a highly unpopular Republican. The young voters who came of age during Obama’s presidency are more split, which makes sense because Obama is neither popular nor unpopular; he has an approval of about 50%
I would prefer the next generation end up leaning more to the right, because that will cancel out younger people’s natural tendency to lean left and make them pretty moderate and so low-variance. I definitely don’t want an unpopular far-right presidency, because then they’re going to lean left, which will combined with the natural leftiness of the young and make them super left. And this is the sort of thing that affects the culture!
One more warning for conservatives who still aren’t convinced. If the next generation is radicalized by Trump being a bad president, they’re not just going to lean left. They’re going to lean regressive, totalitarian, super-social-justice left.
Everyone has already constructed the narrative: Trump is the anti-PC, anti-social-justice candidate. If he wins, he’s going to be the anti-PC, anti-social-justice President. And he will fail. First of all, because he doesn’t really show much sign of knowing what he’s doing. Second of all, because all presidents fail in a sense – 80% of Americans consistently believe the country is headed the wrong direction and the president is the natural fall guy for this trend. And third of all, because even if by some miracle Trump avoids the first two failure modes, the media will say he failed and people will believe them. And when the anti-PC, anti-social-justice President fails, the reaction will be a giant “we told you so” from the social justice movement, and a giant shift of all the disillusioned young people right into their fold.
Trump is all set to be the biggest gift to the social justice movement in history. They thrive on claims of persecution, claims that they’re the ones fighting a stupid hateful regressive culture that controls everything. And people think that bringing their straw man to life and putting him in the Oval Office is going to help?
If you’re a Jew fighting anti-Semitism, the absolute minimum you can do is not actually kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzah. Likewise, if you are a principled classical liberal fighting the social justice movement’s attempt to smear anyone who disagrees with them as an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal, the absolute minimum you can do is not actually be an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal. Opinions on Trump range all the way from “he is definitely an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal” to “he is remarkably and uniquely bad at not appearing to be an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal”. In any case, having him as the public face of anti-social-justice for the next four years would be a godsend for them and a disaster for everyone else.
There’s one more thought I wanted to mention which is vaguely in this space.
The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice.
When the Left errs, it’s through using shouting and shaming to cut through the long and painful process of having to justify its beliefs. It’s through confusing disagreement with evil, a dissenter who needs convincing with a thought-criminal who needs neutralizing.
Sometimes it might be strategically necessary to whack particular ideologies to make examples of them. But in the longer-term, replacing left with right just puts a new group of people in position to shame their opponents and silence dissent. The long range plan has to combine a short-term need to neutralize immediate would-be tyrants with a long-term need to slowly encourage epistemic virtue so that we don’t have to keep putting out fires.
Now, watch this video:
Trump’s not in that crowd. But does anyone think he disagrees with it? Can anyone honestly say that Trump or his movement promote epistemic virtue? That in the long-term, we’ll be glad that we encouraged this sort of thing, that we gave it power and attention and all the nutrients it needed to grow? That the road to whatever vision of a just and rational society we imagine, something quiet and austere with a lot of old-growth trees and Greek-looking columns, runs through LOCK HER UP?
I don’t like having to vote for the lesser of two evils. But at least I feel like I know who it is.
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