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Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness

[Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff]


Commenters on this blog have sometimes tried to shame or attack other commenters for perceived misdeeds like sexual promiscuity. They tell people to their faces that they’re bad people and try to humiliate them.

When this happens, I ban the commenters involved.

And I get protests – what about free speech? What about the marketplace of ideas? Isn’t shaming sometimes a useful social mechanism? There are some norms we can’t or shouldn’t codify into law; shouldn’t violation of those norms be punished by shaming? Shaming can be very effective – for example, last week we learned the Puritans had a premarital pregnancy rate near zero because they publicly shamed anyone who departed from their moral standards. Might it not be useful to have something like that nowadays, either for premarital sex, or for other evils like homophobia and racism that we want to discourage? And even if I think we shouldn’t, is it really okay to ban the people trying, seeing as they were probably well-intentioned?

I think my answer is: be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness.


A friend (I can’t remember who) once argued that “be nice” provides a nigh-infallible ethical decision procedure. For example, enslaving people isn’t very nice, so we know slavery is wrong. Kicking down people’s doors and throwing them in prison for having a joint of marijuana isn’t very nice, so we know the drug war is wrong. Not letting gays marry isn’t very nice, so we know homophobia is wrong.

I counterargue that even if we ignore the ways our notion of “nice” itself packs up pre-existing moral beliefs, this heuristic fails in several important cases:

1. Refusing the guy who is begging you to give his drivers’ license back, saying that without a car he won’t be able to visit his friends and family or have any fun, and who is promising that he won’t drive drunk an eleventh time.
2. Forcibly restraining a screaming baby while you jam a needle into them to vaccinate them against a deadly disease.
3. Sending the police to arrest a libertarian rancher in Montana who refuses to pay taxes for reasons of conscience
4. Revoking the credential (and thus destroying the future job prospects of) a teacher who has sex with one of her underage students

Sure, you could say that each of these “leads toward a greater niceness”, like that you’re only refusing the alcoholic his license in order to be nice to potential drunk driving victims. But then you’ve lost all meaningful distinction between the word “nice” and the word “good” and reinvented utilitarianism. And reinventing utilitarianism is pretty cool, but after you do that you no longer have such an easy time arguing against the drug war – somebody’s going to argue that it leads to the greater good of there being fewer drugs.

We usually want to avoid meanness. In some rare cases, meanness is necessary. I think one check for whether a certain type of meanness might be excusable is – it’s less likely to be excusable if it’s not coordinated.

Consider: society demands taxes to pay for communal goods and services. This does sometimes involve not-niceness, as in the example of the rancher in (3). But what makes it tolerable is that it’s done consistently and through a coordinated process. If the rule was “anybody who has a social program they want can take money from somebody else to pay for it,” this would be anarchy. Some libertarians say “taxation is theft”, but where arbitrary theft is unfair, unpredictable, and encourage perverse incentives like living in fear or investing in attack dogs, taxation has none of these disadvantages.

By the rule “be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness”, we should not permit individuals to rob each other at gunpoint in order to pay for social programs they want, but we might permit them to advocate for a coordinated national taxation policy.

Or: society punishes people for crimes, including the crime of libel. Punishment is naturally not-nice, but this seems fair; we can’t just have people libeling each other all the time with no consequences. But what makes this tolerable is that it’s coordinated – done through the court system according to carefully codified libel law that explains to everybody what is and isn’t okay. Remove the coordination aspect, and you’ve got the old system where if you say something that offends my honor then I get some friends and try to beat you up in a dark alley. The impulse is the same: deploy not-niceness in the worthy goal of preventing libel. But one method is coordinated and the other isn’t.

This is very, very far from saying that coordinated meanness is a sure test that means something’s okay – that would be the insane position that anything legal must be ethical, something most countries spent the past few centuries disproving spectacularly. This is the much weaker claim that legality sets a minimum bar for people attempting mean policies.

As far as I can tell there are two things we want in a legal system. First, it should have good laws that produce a just society. But second, it should at least have clear and predictable laws that produce a safe and stable society.

For example, the first goal of libel law is to balance people’s desire to protect their reputation with other people’s desire for free speech. But the second goal of libel law should be that everybody understands what is and isn’t libel. If a system achieves the second goal, nobody will end up jailed or dead because they said something they thought was totally innocent but somebody else thought was libel. And nobody will spent years and thousands of dollars entangled in an endless court case hiring a bunch of lawyers to debate whether some form of speech was acceptable or not.

So coordinated meanness is better than uncoordinated meanness not because it necessarily achieves the first goal of justice, but because it achieves the second goal of safety and stability. Everyone knows exactly when to expect it and what they can do to avoid it. I may not know what speech will or won’t offend a violent person with enough friends to organize a goon squad, but I can always read the libel law and try to stay on the right side of it.

Likewise, in the Puritan community, I know exactly what things I have to do to avoid being shamed. Better still, I can only be shamed for violating one set of moral standards – the shared moral standards of the whole community. This isn’t true of random people shaming promiscuous people, or people with the wrong opinion on race/gender issues, or whatever, on a private blog. Not only do most people reasonably expect to be able to do those things (and/or talk about those things here) without being shamed, but there are too many conflicting standards to meet – plausibly somebody could be shamed by traditionalists for being promiscuous, and by free-love people for not being promiscuous enough. Since shaming is unpleasant and supposed to act as a punishment, this is the equivalent of letting anybody beat up anybody else if they think they’ve broken an unwritten rule. It probably results in a lot of people being beaten up for not very much social change.


The second reason that coordinated meanness is better than uncoordinated meanness is that it is less common. Uncoordinated meanness happens whenever one person wants to be mean; coordinated meanness happens when everyone (or 51% of the population, or an entire church worth of Puritans, or whatever) wants to be mean. If we accept theories like the wisdom of crowds or the marketplace of ideas – and we better, if we’re small-d democrats, small-r republicans, small-l liberals, or basically any word beginning with a lowercase letter at all – then a big group of people all debating with each other will be harder to rile up than a single lunatic.

As a Jew, if I heard that skinheads were beating up Jews in dark alleys, I would be pretty freaked out; for all I know I could be the next victim. But if I heard that skinheads were circulating a petition to get Congress to expel all the Jews, I wouldn’t be freaked out at all. I would expect almost nobody to sign the petition

(and in the sort of world where most people were signing the petition, I hope I would have moved to Israel long before anyone got any chance to expel me anyway)

Trying to coordinate meanness is not in itself a mean act – or at least, not as mean as actual meanness. If Westboro Baptist Church just published lots of pamphlets saying we should pass laws against homosexuality, maybe it would have made some gay people feel less wanted, but it would have been a lot less intense than picketing funerals. If people who are against promiscuity want to write books about why we should all worry about promiscuity, it might get promiscuous people a little creeped out, but a lot less so than going up to promiscuous people and throwing water on them and shouting “YOU STRUMPET!”

This is my answer to people who say that certain forms of speech make them feel unsafe, versus certain other people who demand the freedom to express their ideas. We should all feel unsafe around anybody who relishes uncoordinated meanness – beating people in dark alleys, picketing their funerals, shaming them, harassing them, doxxing them, getting them fired from their jobs. I have no tolerance for these people – I am sometimes forced to accept their existence because of the First Amendment, but I won’t do anything more.

On the other hand, we should feel mostly safe around people who agree that meanness, in the unfortunate cases where it’s necessary, must be coordinated. There is no threat at all from pro-coordination skinheads except in the vanishingly unlikely possibility they legally win control of the government and take over.

I admit that this safety is still only relative. It hinges on the skinheads’ inability to convert 51% of the population. But until the Messiah comes to enforce the moral law directly, safety has to hinge on something. The question is whether it should hinge on the ability of the truth to triumph in the marketplace of ideas in the long-term across an entire society, or whether it should hinge on the fact that you can beat me up with a baseball bat right now.

(if you want pre-Messianic absolute safety, there are some super-democratic mechanisms that might help. America’s Bill of Rights seems pretty close to this; anyone wanting to coordinate meanness against a certain religion has to clear not only the 50% bar, but the much higher level required of Constitutional amendments. Visions of more complete protection remain utopian but alluring. For example, in an Archipelago you might well have absolute safety. The skinheads can’t say “Let’s beat up Jews right now”, they can’t even say “Let’s start an anti-Jew political party and gradually win power”. They can, at best, say, “Let’s go found our own society somewhere else without any Jews”, in which case you need say nothing but “don’t let the door hit you on your way out”. In this case their coordination of meanness cannot possibly hurt anyone.)


I’ve said many times I find the idea of “safe spaces” very attractive. I think they can be understood not just as spaces that are guaranteed safe for one group, but as spaces that have coordinated meanness against anything that threatens that group – ie they’ve agreed to shame, shun, and expel people who violate group norms. Everybody knows the local norms, and if somebody gets kicked out they can’t say they weren’t warned.

This is the principle with which I deal with the blog comments I started off by talking about. Right now people come to this blog with a default expectation that people aren’t going to be mean to them or try to shame them for things, other than the things universally agreed to be shameful in these general circles (like trolling, spamming, and misusing one-tailed t-tests). I want to explicitly reinforce that expectation here.

If you support being meaner in certain ways for the greater good, either as a subculture or as a society, you’re welcome to try to use this blog to advocate for that policy (within reason), but you’re not welcome to enact that policy unilaterally.

So here are two previously implicit SSC rules, made explicit for your edification:

First, you’re allowed to make (polite) arguments for why we should try shaming certain groups, but you are not allowed to directly shame any commenters here.

Second, you’re allowed to (politely) express your philosophical disagreements with the idea of transgender, but you are not allowed to actually misgender transgender commenters here.

Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?

[Epistemic status: very speculative, asserted with only ~30% confidence. On the other hand, even though psychiatrists don’t really talk about this it’s possible other groups know this all already]

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation on the history of early psychedelic research. Since I had a tough crowd, I focused on the fascinating biographies of some of the early psychedelicists.

Timothy Leary was a Harvard professor and former NIMH researcher who made well-regarded contributions to psychotherapy and psychometrics. He started the Harvard Psilocybin Project and several other Harvard-based experiments to test the effects of psychedelics on normal and mentally ill subjects. He was later fired from Harvard and arrested; later he accomplished a spectacular break out of prison and fled to Algeria. During his later life, he wrote books about how the human brain had hidden circuits of consciousness that would allow us to live in space, including a quantum overmind which could control reality and break the speed of light. He eventually fell so deep into madness that he started hanging out with Robert Anton Wilson and participating in Ron Paul fundraisers.

Richard Alpert was Leary’s co-investigator at the Harvard Psilocybin Project. He, too, had all the signs of a promising career, including a psychology PhD from Stanford, a visiting professorship at Berkeley, and a combination academic/clinical position at Stanford. After his work with Leary, he moved to India, changed his name to Baba Ram Dass, and became one of the world’s most prominent advocates for bhakti yoga.

John Lilly was a doctor, a neuroanatomy researcher, and an inventor who helped develop the principle behind many modern neuroprosthetics. He was always very strange, and did a lot of work in human-dolphin communication and SETI even before starting his work with LSD. But in the 1960s, he ran across Richard Alpert, joined in his LSD experiments, and became even stranger. He started writing books with names like “Programming And Metaprogramming The Human Biocomputer”, and arguing that benevolent and malevolent aliens were locked in a battle to manipulate Earth’s coincidences and with them the future of the human species. He became an expert yogi and claimed to have achieved samadhi, the highest state of union with God.

Kary Mullis is kind of cheating since he was not technically a psychedelicist. He was a biochemist in the completely unrelated field of bacterial iron transport molecules. But he did try LSD in 1966 back when it was still a legal research chemical. In fact he tried 1000 micrograms of it, one of the biggest doses I’ve ever heard of someone taking. Like the others, Mullis was a brilliant scientist – he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for inventing the polymerase chain reaction. Like the others, Mullis got really weird fast. He is a global warming denialist, HIV/AIDS denialist, and ozone hole denialist; on the other hand, he does believe in the efficacy of astrology. He also believes he has contacted extraterrestrials in the form of a fluorescent green raccoon, and “founded a business with the intent to sell pieces of jewelry containing the amplified DNA of deceased famous people like Elvis Presley”.

I wondered if there might be a selection bias in which psychedelicists I heard about, or that I might be cherry-picking the most unusual examples, so I looked for leading early psychedelics researchers I’d never heard of before and checked how weird they were. My sources told me that the two most important early psychedelicists were Humphry Osmond (who invented the word ‘psychedelic’ and may have been the first person to experiment with LSD rigorously) and his colleague John Smythies.

Osmond has an impressive early resume: started off as a surgeon, became a psychiatrist, did some well-regarded research into the structure of the human metabolite adrenochrome. And although he did not become fluorescent-alien-raccoon level weird, he can’t quite be called normal either. He became one of the founders of orthomolecular psychiatry, a discipline arguing that schizophrenia and other psychiatric diseases can be cured by massive amounts of vitamins – this is currently considered pseudoscience. His publications include the article “Selection of twins for ESP experimentation” in International Journal of Parapsychology, and a history of psychedelics records that “after his mescaline experiment in 1951, Dr. Osmond claimed to have successfully transmitted telepathic information to a fellow researcher, Duncan Blewett, who was also under the influence of mescaline, leading an independent observer to panic at the uncanny event.” He seems to have maintained a lifetime interest in parapsychology, Jungian typological analysis, and a field of his own invention called “socio-architecture”.

Smythies was a neuropsychiatrist, neuroanatomist, biochemist, EEG researcher, editor of the International Review of Neurobiology, etc, etc, etc (also, a cousin of Richard Dawkins). He is 94 but apparently still alive and going strong and making new neuroanatomical discoveries. He was one of the first people to investigate the pharmacology of psychedelics and helped with Osmond’s experiments in the early 1950s. He has also written The Walls Of Plato’s Cave, a book presenting a new theory of consciousness which “extends our concepts of consciousness and analyses possible geometrical and topological relations between phenomenal space and physical space linked to brane theory in physics” (I kind of wish I was a fly on the wall at his and Dawkins’ family reunions).

My point is that the field of early psychedelic research seemed to pretty consistently absorb brilliant scientists, then spit out people who, while still brilliant scientists, also had styles of thought that could be described as extremely original at best and downright crazy at worst.

I think it’s important to try to understand why.

First possibility: you had to be kind of weird to begin with in order to be interested in researching psychedelics. On the one hand, this is a strong possibility that makes a lot of sense; on the other, the early psychedelicists ended up really weird. At least in the early days I’m not sure psychedelics had the reputation for weirdness they now enjoy, and I’m also not sure that we’re living in a world where a high enough percent of psychiatrists go off to become gurus in India believers, that we can just dismiss LSD research as happening to attract that type of person.

Second possibility: I know that almost all of these researchers (I’m not sure about Smythies) used psychedelics themselves. Psychedelic use is a sufficiently interesting experience that I can see why it might expand one’s interest in the study of consciousness and the universe. Perhaps this is especially true if you’re one of the first people to use it, and you don’t have the social setting of “Oh, yeah, this is that drug that makes you have really weird experiences about consciousness for a while”. If you’re not aware that psychedelic hallucinations are a thing that happens, you might have to interpret your experience in more traditional terms like divine revelation. Under this theory, these pioneers had to become kind of weird to learn enough for the rest of us to use these substances safely. But why would that make John Lilly obsessed with aliens? Why would it turn Timothy Leary into a space colonization advocate and Ron Paul supporter?

The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.

(related: 1972 study finds LSD may cause permanent increase in hypnotic susceptibility, which other sources have linked to being “fantasy prone” and “creative”)

And that’s one dose. These researchers were taking psychedelics pretty constantly for years, and probably experimented with the sort of doses you couldn’t get away with giving research subjects. What would you expect to happen to their Openness To Experience? How many standard deviations do you think it went up?

It seems possible to me that psychedelics have a direct pharmacological effect on personality that causes people to be more open to unusual ideas. I know this is going against most of the latest research, which says psychedelics have no long-term negative mental health effects and do not cause psychosis. But there’s a difference between being schizophrenic, and being the sort of guy who is still a leading neuroanatomist but also writes books about the geometric relationships between consciousness and the space-time continuum.

I’m not sure anyone has ever done studies to rule out the theory that psychedelics just plain make people weird. Indeed, such studies would be very difficult, given that weird people with very high Openness To Experience are more likely to use psychedelics. This problem would even prevent common sense detection of the phenomenon – even if we noticed that frequent psychedelic users were really weird, we would attribute it to selection effects and forget about it.

In this situation, the early psychedelicists could be a natural experiment giving us data we can’t get any other way. Here are relatively sober scientists who took psychedelics for reasons other than being weird hippies already. Their fate provides signal through the noise which is the general psychedelic-using population.

I think this is only medium-risk; the explanation that weird people gravitate toward psychedelics, even in the sciences, is a strong one. But it’s sufficient that I am hesitant to repeat the common view that psychedelics are not at all dangerous, or that they have no permanent side effects. There seems to me at least a moderate chance that they will make you more interesting without your consent – whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on exactly how interesting you want to be.

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Book Review: Albion’s Seed


Albion’s Seed by David Fischer is a history professor’s nine-hundred-page treatise on patterns of early immigration to the Eastern United States. It’s not light reading and not the sort of thing I would normally pick up. I read it anyway on the advice of people who kept telling me it explains everything about America. And it sort of does.

In school, we tend to think of the original American colonists as “Englishmen”, a maximally non-diverse group who form the background for all of the diversity and ethnic conflict to come later. Fischer’s thesis is the opposite. Different parts of the country were settled by very different groups of Englishmen with different regional backgrounds, religions, social classes, and philosophies. The colonization process essentially extracted a single stratum of English society, isolated it from all the others, and then plunked it down on its own somewhere in the Eastern US.

I used to play Alpha Centauri, a computer game about the colonization of its namesake star system. One of the dynamics that made it so interesting was its backstory, where a Puerto Rican survivalist, an African plutocrat, and other colorful characters organized their own colonial expeditions and competed to seize territory and resources. You got to explore not only the settlement of a new world, but the settlement of a new world by societies dominated by extreme founder effects. What kind of weird pathologies and wonderful innovations do you get when a group of overly romantic Scottish environmentalists is allowed to develop on its own trajectory free of all non-overly-romantic-Scottish-environmentalist influences? Albion’s Seed argues that this is basically the process that formed several early US states.

Fischer describes four of these migrations: the Puritans to New England in the 1620s, the Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s, the Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s, and the Borderers to Appalachia in the 1700s.


A: The Puritans

I hear about these people every Thanksgiving, then never think about them again for the next 364 days. They were a Calvinist sect that dissented against the Church of England and followed their own brand of dour, industrious, fun-hating Christianity. Most of them were from East Anglia, the part of England just northeast of London. They came to America partly because they felt persecuted, but mostly because they thought England was full of sin and they were at risk of absorbing the sin by osmosis if they didn’t get away quick and build something better. They really liked “city on a hill” metaphors.

I knew about the Mayflower, I knew about the black hats and silly shoes, I even knew about the time Squanto threatened to release a bioweapon buried under Plymouth Rock that would bring about the apocalypse. But I didn’t know that the Puritan migration to America was basically a eugenicist’s wet dream.

Much like eg Unitarians today, the Puritans were a religious group that drew disproportionately from the most educated and education-obsessed parts of the English populace. Literacy among immigrants to Massachusetts was twice as high as the English average, and in an age when the vast majority of Europeans were farmers most immigrants to Massachusetts were skilled craftsmen or scholars. And the Puritan “homeland” of East Anglia was a an unusually intellectual place, with strong influences from Dutch and Continental trade; historian Havelock Ellis finds that it “accounts for a much larger proportion of literary, scientific, and intellectual achievement than any other part of England.”

Furthermore, only the best Puritans were allowed to go to Massachusetts; Fischer writes that “it may have been the only English colony that required some of its immigrants to submit letters of recommendation” and that “those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies and sent back to England”. Puritan “headhunters” went back to England to recruit “godly men” and “honest men” who “must not be of the poorer sort”.

1. Sir Harry Vane, who was “briefly governor of Massachusetts at the age of 24”, “was so rigorous in his Puritanism that he believed only the thrice-born to be truly saved”.
2. The great seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company “featured an Indian with arms beckoning, and five English words flowing from his mouth: ‘Come over and help us'”
3. Northern New Jersey was settled by Puritans who named their town after the “New Ark Of The Covenant” – modern Newark.
4. Massachusetts clergy were very powerful; Fischer records the story of a traveller asking a man “Are you the parson who serves here?” only to be corrected “I am, sir, the parson who rules here.”
5. The Puritans tried to import African slaves, but they all died of the cold.
6. In 1639, Massachusetts declared a “Day Of Humiliation” to condemn “novelties, oppression, atheism, excesse, superfluity, idleness, contempt of authority, and trouble in other parts to be remembered”
7. The average family size in Waltham, Massachusetts in the 1730s was 9.7 children.
8. Everyone was compelled by law to live in families. Town officials would search the town for single people and, if found, order them to join a family; if they refused, they were sent to jail.
9. 98% of adult Puritan men were married, compared to only 73% of adult Englishmen in general. Women were under special pressure to marry, and a Puritan proverb said that “women dying maids lead apes in Hell”.
10. 90% of Puritan names were taken from the Bible. Some Puritans took pride in their learning by giving their children obscure Biblical names they would expect nobody else to have heard of, like Mahershalalhasbaz. Others chose random Biblical terms that might not have technically been intended as names; “the son of Bostonian Samuel Pond was named Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin Pond”. Still others chose Biblical words completely at random and named their children things like Maybe or Notwithstanding.
11. Puritan parents traditionally would send children away to be raised with other families, and raise those families’ children in turn, in the hopes that the lack of familiarity would make the child behave better.
12. In 1692, 25% of women over age 45 in Essex County were accused of witchcraft.
13. Massachusetts passed the first law mandating universal public education, which was called The Old Deluder Law in honor of its preamble, which began “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures…”
14. Massachusetts cuisine was based around “meat and vegetables submerged in plain water and boiled relentlessly without seasonings of any kind”.
15. Along with the famous scarlet A for adultery, Puritans could be forced to wear a B for blasphemy, C for counterfeiting, D for drunkenness, and so on.
16. Wasting time in Massachusetts was literally a criminal offense, listed in the law code, and several people were in fact prosecuted for it.
17. This wasn’t even the nadir of weird hard-to-enforce Massachusetts laws. Another law just said “If any man shall exceed the bounds of moderation, we shall punish him severely”.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of Massachusetts Puritanism: “The underlying foundation of life in New England was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered mehalncholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune.” And indeed, everything was dour, strict, oppressive, and very religious. A typical Massachusetts week would begin in the church, which doubled as the town meeting hall. There were no decorations except a giant staring eye on the pulpit to remind churchgoers that God was watching them. Townspeople would stand up before their and declare their shame and misdeeds, sometimes being forced to literally crawl before the other worshippers begging for forgiveness. THen the minister would give two two-hour sermons back to back. The entire affair would take up to six hours, and the church was unheated (for some reason they stored all their gunpowder there, so no one was allowed to light a fire), and this was Massachusetts, and it was colder in those days than it is now, so that during winter some people would literally lose fingers to frostbite (Fischer: “It was a point of honor for the minister never to shorten a sermon merely because his audience was frozen”). Everyone would stand there with their guns (they were legally required to bring guns, in case Indians attacked during the sermon) and hear about how they were going to Hell, all while the giant staring eye looked at them.

So life as a Puritan was pretty terrible. On the other hand, their society was impressively well-ordered. Teenage pregnancy rates were the lowest in the Western world and in some areas literally zero. Murder rates were half those in other American colonies. There was remarkably low income inequality – “the top 10% of wealthholders held only 20%-30% of taxable property”, compared to 75% today and similar numbers in other 17th-century civilizations. The poor (at least the poor native to a given town) were treated with charity and respect – “in Salem, one man was ordered to be set by the heels in the stocks for being uncharitable to a poor man in distress”. Government was conducted through town meetings in which everyone had a say. Women had more equality than in most parts of the world, and domestic abuse was punished brutally. The educational system was top-notch – “by most empirical tests of intellectual eminence, New England led all other parts of British America from the 17th to the early 20th century”.

In some ways the Puritans seem to have taken the classic dystopian bargain – give up all freedom and individuality and art, and you can have a perfect society without crime or violence or inequality. Fischer ends each of his chapters with a discussion of how the society thought of liberty, and the Puritans unsurprisingly thought of liberty as “ordered liberty” – the freedom of everything to tend to its correct place and stay there. They thought of it as a freedom from disruption – apparently FDR stole some of his “freedom from fear” stuff from early Puritan documents. They were extremely not in favor of the sort of liberty that meant that, for example, there wouldn’t be laws against wasting time. That was going too far.

B: The Cavaliers

The Massachusetts Puritans fled England in the 1620s partly because the king and nobles were oppressing them. In the 1640s, English Puritans under Oliver Cromwell rebelled, took over the government, and killed the king. The nobles not unreasonably started looking to get the heck out.

Virginia had been kind of a wreck ever since most of the original Jamestown settlers had mostly died of disease. Governor William Berkeley, a noble himself, decided the colony could reinvent itself as a destination for refugee nobles, and told them it would do everything possible to help them maintain the position of oppressive supremacy to which they were accustomed. The British nobility was sold. The Cavaliers – the nobles who had fought and lost the English Civil War – fled to Virginia. Historians who cross-checking Virginian immigrant lists against English records find that of Virginians whose opinions on the War were known, 98% were royalists. They were overwhelming Anglican, mostly from agrarian southern England, and all related to each other in the incestuous way of nobility everywhere: “it is difficult to think of any ruling elite that has been more closely interrelated since the Ptolemies”. There were twelve members of Virginia’s royal council; in 1724 “all without exception were related to one another by blood or marriage…as late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660”.

These aristocrats didn’t want to do their own work, so they brought with them tens of thousands of indentured servants; more than 75% of all Virginian immigrants arrived in this position. Some of these people came willingly on a system where their master paid their passage over and they would be free after a certain number of years; others were sent by the courts as punishments; still others were just plain kidnapped. The gender ratio was 4:1 in favor of men, and there were entire English gangs dedicated to kidnapping women and sending them to Virginia, where they fetched a high price. Needless to say, these people came from a very different stratum than their masters or the Puritans.

People who came to Virginia mostly died. They died of malaria, typhoid fever, amoebiasis, and dysentery. Unlike in New England, where Europeans were better adapted to the cold climate than Africans, in Virginia it was Europeans who had the higher disease-related mortality rate. The whites who survived tended to become “sluggish and indolent”, according to the universal report of travellers and chroniclers, although I might be sluggish and indolent too if I had been kidnapped to go work on some rich person’s farm and sluggishness/indolence was an option.

The Virginians tried their best to oppress white people. Really, they did. The depths to which they sank in trying to oppress white people almost boggle the imagination. There was a rule that if a female indentured servant became pregnant, a few extra years were added on to their indenture, supposedly because they would be working less hard during their pregnancy and child-rearing so it wasn’t fair to the master. Virginian aristocrats would rape their own female servants, then add a penalty term on to their indenture for becoming pregnant. That is an impressive level of chutzpah. But despite these efforts, eventually all the white people either died, or became too sluggish to be useful, or worst of all just finished up their indentures and became legally free. The aristocrats started importing black slaves as per the model that had sprung up in the Caribbean, and so the stage was set for the antebellum South we read about in history classes.

1. Virginian cavalier speech patterns sound a lot like modern African-American dialects. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why, but it’s strange to think of a 17th century British lord speaking what a modern ear would clearly recognize as Ebonics.
2. Three-quarters of 17th-century Virginian children lost at least one parent before turning 18.
3. Cousin marriage was an important custom that helped cement bonds among the Virginian elite, “and many an Anglican lady changed her condition but not her name”.
4. In Virginia, women were sometimes unironically called “breeders”; English women were sometimes referred to as “She-Britons”.
5. Virginia didn’t really have towns; the Chesapeake Bay was such a giant maze of rivers and estuaries and waterways that there wasn’t much need for land transport hubs. Instead, the unit of settlement was the plantation, which consisted of an aristocratic planter, his wife and family, his servants, his slaves, and a bunch of guests who hung around and mooched off him in accordance with the ancient custom of hospitality.
6. Virginian society considered everyone who lived in a plantation home to be a kind of “family”, with the aristocrat both as the literal father and as a sort of abstracted patriarch with complete control over his domain.
7. Virginia governor William Berkeley probably would not be described by moderns as ‘strong on education’. He said in a speech that “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing [in Virginia], and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divuldged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”
8. Virginian recreation mostly revolved around hunting and bloodsports. Great lords hunted deer, lesser gentry hunted foxes, indentured servants had a weird game in which they essentially draw-and-quartered geese, young children “killed and tortured songbirds”, and “at the bottom of this hierarchy of bloody games were male infants who prepared themselves for the larger pleasures of maturity by torturing snakes, maiming frogs, and pulling the wings off butterflies. Thus, every red-blooded male in Virginia was permitted to slaughter some animal or other, and the size of his victim was proportioned to his social rank.”
9. “In 1747, an Anglican minister named William Kay infuriated the great planter Landon Carter by preaching a sermon against pride. The planter took it personally and sent his [relations] and ordered them to nail up the doors and windows of all the churches in which Kay preached.”
10. Our word “condescension” comes from a ritual attitude that leading Virginians were supposed to display to their inferiors. Originally condescension was supposed to be a polite way of showing respect those who were socially inferior to you; our modern use of the term probably says a lot about what Virginians actually did with it.

In a lot of ways, Virginia was the opposite of Massachusetts. Their homicide rate was sky-high, and people were actively encouraged to respond to slights against their honor with duels (for the rich) and violence (for the poor). They were obsessed with gambling, and “made bets not merely on horses, cards, cockfights, and backgammon, but also on crops, prices, women, and the weather”. Their cuisine focused on gigantic sumptuous feasts of animals killed in horrible ways. There were no witchcraft trials, but there were people who were fined for disrupting the peace by accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. Their church sermons were twenty minutes long on the dot.

The Puritans naturally thought of the Virginians as completely lawless reprobate sinners, but this is not entirely true. Virginian church sermons might have been twenty minutes long, but Virginian ballroom dance lessons could last nine hours. It wasn’t that the Virginians weren’t bound by codes, just that those codes were social rather than moral.

And Virginian nobles weren’t just random jerks, they were carefully cultivated jerks. Planters spared no expense to train their sons to be strong, forceful, and not take nothin’ from nobody. They would encourage and reward children for being loud and temperamental, on the grounds that this indicated a strong personality and having a strong personality was fitting of a noble. When this worked, it worked really well – witness natural leaders and self-driven polymaths like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. More often it failed catastrophically – the rate of sex predation and rape in Virginia was at least as high as anywhere else in North America.

The Virginian Cavaliers had an obsession with liberty, but needless to say it was not exactly a sort of liberty of which the ACLU would approve. I once heard someone argue against libertarians like so: even if the government did not infringe on liberties, we would still be unfree for other reasons. If we had to work, we would be subject to the whim of bosses. If we were poor, we would not be “free” to purchase most of the things we want. In any case, we are “oppressed” by disease, famine, and many other things besides government that prevent us from implementing our ideal existence.

The Virginians took this idea and ran with it – in the wrong direction. No, they said, we wouldn’t be free if we had to work, therefore we insist upon not working. No, we wouldn’t be free if we were limited by poverty, therefore we insist upon being extremely rich. Needless to say, this conception of freedom required first indentured servitude and later slavery to make it work, but the Virginians never claimed that the servants or slaves were free. That wasn’t the point. Freedom, like wealth, was properly distributed according to rank; nobles had as much as they wanted, the middle-class enough to get by on, and everyone else none at all. And a Virginian noble would have gone to his grave insisting that a civilization without slavery could never have citizens who were truly free.

C: The Quakers

Fischer warns against the temptation to think of the Quakers as normal modern people, but he has to warn us precisely because it’s so tempting. Where the Puritans seem like a dystopian caricature of virtue and the Cavaliers like a dystopian caricature of vice, the Quakers just seem ordinary. Yes, they’re kind of a religious cult, but they’re the kind of religious cult any of us might found if we were thrown back to the seventeenth century.

Instead they were founded by a weaver’s son named George Fox. He believed people were basically good and had an Inner Light that connected them directly to God without a need for priesthood, ritual, Bible study, or self-denial; mostly people just needed to listen to their consciences and be nice. Since everyone was equal before God, there was no point in holding up distinctions between lords and commoners: Quakers would just address everybody as “Friend”. And since the Quakers were among the most persecuted sects at the time, they developed an insistence on tolerance and freedom of religion which (unlike the Puritans) they stuck to even when shifting fortunes put them on top. They believed in pacificism, equality of the sexes, racial harmony, and a bunch of other things which seem pretty hippy-ish even today let alone in 1650.

England’s top Quaker in the late 1600s was William Penn. Penn is universally known to Americans as “that guy Pennsylvania is named after” but actually was a larger-than-life 17th century superman. Born to the nobility, Penn distinguished himself early on as a military officer; he was known for beating legendary duelists in single combat and then sparing their lives with sermons about how murder was wrong. He gradually started having mystical visions, quit the military, and converted to Quakerism. Like many Quakers he was arrested for blasphemy; unlike many Quakers, they couldn’t make the conviction stick; in his trial he “conducted his defense so brilliantly that the jurors refused to convict him even when threatened with prison themselves, [and] the case became a landmark in the history of trial by jury.” When the state finally found a pretext on which to throw him in prison, he spent his incarceration composing “one of the noblest defenses of religious liberty ever written”, conducting a successful mail-based courtship with England’s most eligible noblewoman, and somehow gaining the personal friendship and admiration of King Charles II. Upon his release the King liked him so much that he gave him a large chunk of the Eastern United States on a flimsy pretext of repaying a family debt. Penn didn’t want to name his new territory Pennsylvania – he recommended just “Sylvania” – but everybody else overruled him and Pennyslvania it was. The grant wasn’t quite the same as the modern state, but a chunk of land around the Delaware River Valley – what today we would call eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, southern New Jersey, and bits of Maryland – centered on the obviously-named-by-Quakers city of Philadelphia.

Penn decided his new territory would be a Quaker refuge – his exact wording was “a colony of Heaven [for] the children of the Light”. He mandated universal religious toleration, a total ban on military activity, and a government based on checks and balances that would “leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country”.

His recruits – about 20,000 people in total – were Quakers from the north of England, many of them minor merchants and traders. They disproportionately included the Britons of Norse descent common in that region, who formed a separate stratum and had never really gotten along with the rest of the British population. They were joined by several German sects close enough to Quakers that they felt at home there; these became the ancestors of (among other groups) the Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish, and Mennonites.

1. In 1690 a gang of pirates stole a ship in Philadelphia and went up and down the Delaware River stealing and plundering. The Quakers got in a heated (but brotherly) debate about whether it was morally permissible to use violence to stop them. When the government finally decided to take action, contrarian minister George Keith dissented and caused a major schism in the faith.
2. Fischer argues that the Quaker ban on military activity within their territory would have doomed them in most other American regions, but by extreme good luck the Indians in the Delaware Valley were almost as peaceful as the Quakers. As usual, at least some credit goes to William Penn, who taught himself Algonquin so he could negotiate with the Indians in their own language.
3. The Quakers’ marriage customs combined a surprisingly modern ideas of romance, with extreme bureaucracy. The wedding process itself had sixteen stages, including “ask parents”, “ask community women”, “ask community men”, “community women ask parents”, and “obtain a certificate of cleanliness”. William Penn’s marriage apparently had forty-six witnesses to testify to the good conduct and non-relatedness of both parties.
4. Possibly related: 16% of Quaker women were unmarried by age 50, compared to only about 2% of Puritans.
5. Quakers promoted gender equality, including the (at the time scandalous) custom of allowing women to preach (condemned by the Puritans as the crime of “she-preaching”).
6. But they were such prudes about sex that even the Puritans thought they went too far. Pennsylvania doctors had problems treating Quakers because they would “delicately describe everything from neck to waist as their ‘stomachs’, and anything from waist to feet as their ‘ankles'”.
7. Quaker parents Richard and Abigail Lippincott named their eight children, in order, “Remember”, “John”, “Restore”, “Freedom”, “Increase”, “Jacob”, “Preserve”, and “Israel”, so that their names combined formed a simple prayer.
8. Quakers had surprisingly modern ideas about parenting, basically sheltering and spoiling their children at a time when everyone else was trying whip the Devil out of them.
9. “A Quaker preacher, traveling in the more complaisant colony of Maryland, came upon a party of young people who were dancing merrily together. He broke in upon them like an avenging angel, stopped the dance, anddemanded to know if they considered Martin Luther to be a good man. The astonished youngsters answered in the affirmative. The Quaker evangelist then quoted Luther on the subject of dancing: ‘as many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes toward Hell. This, the Quaker missionary gloated with a gleam of sadistic satisfaction, ‘spoiled their sport’.”
10. William Penn wrote about thirty books defending liberty of conscience throughout his life. The Quaker obsession with the individual conscience as the work of God helped invent the modern idea of conscientious objection.
11. Quakers were heavily (and uniquely for their period) opposed to animal cruelty. When foreigners introduced bullbaiting into Philadelphia during the 1700s, the mayor bought a ticket supposedly as a spectator. When the event was about to begin, he leapt into the ring, personally set the bull free, and threatened to arrest anybody who stopped him.
12. On the other hand, they were also opposed to other sports for what seem like kind of random reasons. The town of Morley declared an anathema against foot races, saying that they were “unfruitful works of darkness”.
13. The Pennsylvania Quakers became very prosperous merchants and traders. They also had a policy of loaning money at low- or zero- interest to other Quakers, which let them outcompete other, less religious businesspeople.
14. They were among the first to replace the set of bows, grovels, nods, meaningful looks, and other British customs of acknowledging rank upon greeting with a single rank-neutral equivalent – the handshake.
15. Pennsylvania was one of the first polities in the western world to abolish the death penalty.
16. The Quakers were lukewarm on education, believing that too much schooling obscured the natural Inner Light. Fischer declares it “typical of William Penn” that he wrote a book arguing against reading too much.
17. The Quakers not only instituted religious freedom, but made laws against mocking another person’s religion.
18. In the late 1600s as many as 70% of upper-class Quakers owned slaves, but Pennsylvania essentially invented modern abolitionism. Although their colonial masters in England forbade them from banning slavery outright, they applied immense social pressure and by the mid 1700s less than 10% of the wealthy had African slaves. As soon as the American Revolution started, forbidding slavery was one of independent Pennsylvania’s first actions.

Pennsylvania was very successful for a while; it had some of the richest farmland in the colonies, and the Quakers were exceptional merchants and traders; so much so that they were forgiven their military non-intervention during the Revolution because of their role keeping the American economy afloat in the face of British sanctions.

But by 1750, the Quakers were kind of on their way out; by 1750, they were a demographic minority in Pennsylvania, and by 1773 they were a minority in its legislature as well. In 1750 Quakerism was the third-largest religion in the US; by 1820 it was the ninth-largest, and by 1981 it was the sixty-sixth largest. What happened? The Quakers basically tolerated themselves out of existence. They were so welcoming to religious minorities and immigrants that all these groups took up shop in Pennsylvania and ended its status as a uniquely Quaker society. At the same time, the Quakers themselves became more “fanatical” and many dropped out of politics believing it to be too worldly a concern for them; this was obviously fatal to their political domination. The most famous Pennsylvanian statesman of the Revolutionary era, Benjamin Franklin, was not a Quaker at all but a first-generation immigrant from New England. Finally, Quakerism was naturally extra-susceptible to that thing where Christian denominations become indistinguishable from liberal modernity and fade into the secular background.

But Fischer argues that Quakerism continued to shape Pennsylvania long after it had stopped being officially in charge, in much the same way that Englishmen themselves have contributed disproportionately to American institutions even though they are now a numerical minority. The Pennsylvanian leadership on abolitionism, penal reform, the death penalty, and so on all happened after the colony was officially no longer Quaker-dominated.

And it’s hard not to see Quaker influence on the ideas of the modern US – which was after all founded in Philadelphia. In the middle of the Puritans demanding strict obedience to their dystopian hive society and the Cavaliers demanding everybody bow down to a transplanted nobility, the Pennsylvanians – who became the thought leaders of the Mid-Atlantic region including to a limited degree New York City – were pretty normal and had a good opportunity to serve as power-brokers and middlemen between the North and South. Although there are seeds of traditionally American ideas in every region, the Quakers really stand out in terms of freedom of religion, freedom of thought, checks and balances, and the idea of universal equality.

It occurs to me that William Penn might be literally the single most successful person in history. He started out as a minor noble following a religious sect that everybody despised and managed to export its principles to Pennsylvania where they flourished and multiplied. Pennsylvania then managed to export its principles to the United States, and the United States exported them to the world. I’m not sure how much of the suspiciously Quaker character of modern society is a direct result of William Penn, but he was in one heck of a right place at one heck of a right time

D: The Borderers

The Borderers are usually called “the Scots-Irish”, but Fischer dislikes the term because they are neither Scots (as we usually think of Scots) nor Irish (as we usually think of Irish). Instead, they’re a bunch of people who lived on (both sides of) the Scottish-English border in the late 1600s.

None of this makes sense without realizing that the Scottish-English border was terrible. Every couple of years the King of England would invade Scotland or vice versa; “from the year 1040 to 1745, every English monarch but three suffered a Scottish invasion, or became an invader in his turn”. These “invasions” generally involved burning down all the border towns and killing a bunch of people there. Eventually the two sides started getting pissed with each other and would also torture-murder all of the enemy’s citizens they could get their hands on, ie any who were close enough to the border to reach before the enemy could send in their armies. As if this weren’t bad enough, outlaws quickly learned they could plunder one side of the border, then escape to the other before anyone brought them to justice, so the whole area basically became one giant cesspool of robbery and murder.

In response to these pressures, the border people militarized and stayed feudal long past the point where the rest of the island had started modernizing. Life consisted of farming the lands of whichever brutal warlord had the top hand today, followed by being called to fight for him on short notice, followed by a grisly death. The border people dealt with it as best they could, and developed a culture marked by extreme levels of clannishness, xenophobia, drunkenness, stubbornness, and violence.

By the end of the 1600s, the Scottish and English royal bloodlines had intermingled and the two countries were drifting closer and closer to Union. The English kings finally got some breathing room and noticed – holy frick, everything about the border is terrible. They decided to make the region economically productive, which meant “squeeze every cent out of the poor Borderers, in the hopes of either getting lots of money from them or else forcing them to go elsewhere and become somebody else’s problem”. Sometimes absentee landlords would just evict everyone who lived in an entire region, en masse, replacing them with people they expected to be easier to control.

Many of the Borderers fled to Ulster in Ireland, which England was working on colonizing as a Protestant bulwark against the Irish Catholics, and where the Crown welcomed violent warlike people as a useful addition to their Irish-Catholic-fighting project. But Ulster had some of the same problems as the Border, and also the Ulsterites started worrying that the Borderer cure was worse than the Irish Catholic disease. So the Borderers started getting kicked out of Ulster too, one thing led to another, and eventually 250,000 of these people ended up in America.

250,000 people is a lot of Borderers. By contrast, the great Puritan emigration wave was only 20,000 or so people; even the mighty colony of Virginia only had about 50,000 original settlers. So these people showed up on the door of the American colonies, and the American colonies collectively took one look at them and said “nope”.

Except, of course, the Quakers. The Quakers talked among themselves and decided that these people were also Children Of God, and so they should demonstrate Brotherly Love by taking them in. They tried that for a couple of years, and then they questioned their life choices and also said “nope”, and they told the Borderers that Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley were actually kind of full right now but there was lots of unoccupied land in Western Pennsylvania, and the Appalachian Mountains were very pretty at this time of year, so why didn’t they head out that way as fast as it was physically possible to go?

At the time, the Appalachians were kind of the booby prize of American colonization: hard to farm, hard to travel through, and exposed to hostile Indians. The Borderers fell in love with them. They came from a pretty marginal and unproductive territory themselves, and the Appalachians were far away from everybody and full of fun Indians to fight. Soon the Appalachian strategy became the accepted response to Borderer immigration and was taken up from Pennsylvania in the north to the Carolinas in the South (a few New Englanders hit on a similar idea and sent their own Borderers to colonize the mountains of New Hampshire).

So the Borderers all went to Appalachia and established their own little rural clans there and nothing at all went wrong except for the entire rest of American history.

1. Colonial opinion on the Borderers differed within a very narrow range: one Pennsylvanian writer called them “the scum of two nations”, another Anglican clergyman called them “the scum of the universe”.
2. Some Borderers tried to come to America as indentured servants, but after Virginian planters got some experience with Borderers they refused to accept any more.
3. The Borderers were mostly Presbyterians, and their arrival en masse started a race among the established American denominations to convert them. This was mostly unsuccessful; Anglican preacher Charles Woodmason, an important source for information about the early Borderers, said that during his missionary activity the Borderers “disrupted his service, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation before a service of communion”.
4. Borderer town-naming policy was very different from the Biblical names of the Puritans or the Ye Olde English names of the Virginians. Early Borderer settlements include – just to stick to the creek-related ones – Lousy Creek, Naked Creek, Shitbritches Creek, Cuckold’s Creek, Bloodrun Creek, Pinchgut Creek, Whipping Creek, and Hangover Creek. There were also Whiskey Springs, Hell’s Half Acre, Scream Ridge, Scuffletown, and Grabtown. The overall aesthetic honestly sounds a bit Orcish.
5. One of the first Borderer leaders was John Houston. On the ship over to America, the crew tried to steal some of his possessions; Houston retaliated by leading a mutiny of the passengers, stealing the ship, and sailing it to America himself. He settled in West Virginia; one of his descendants was famous Texan Sam Houston.
6. Traditional Borderer prayer: “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.”
7. “The backcountry folk bragged that one interior county of North Carolina had so little ‘larnin’ that the only literate inhabitant was elected ‘county reader'”
8. The Borderer accent contained English, Scottish, and Irish elements, and is (uncoincidentally) very similar to the typical “country western singer” accent of today.
9. The Borderers were famous for family feuds in England, including the Johnson clan’s habit of “adorning their houses with the flayed skins of their enemies the Maxwells in a blood feud that continued for many generations”. The great family feuds of the United States, like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, are a direct descendent of this tradition.
10. Within-clan marriage was a popular Borderer tradition both in England and Appalachia; “in the Cumbrian parish of Hawkshead, for example, both the bride and the groom bore the same last names in 25 percent of all marriages from 1568 to 1704”. This led to the modern stereotype of Appalachians as inbred and incestuous.
11. The Borderers were extremely patriarchal and anti-women’s-rights to a degree that appalled even the people of the 1700s.
12. “In the year 1767, [Anglican priest] Charles Woodmason calculated that 94 percent of backcountry brides whom he had married in the past year were pregnant on their wedding day”
13. Although the Borderers started off Presbyterian, they were in constant religious churn and their territories were full of revivals, camp meetings, born-again evangelicalism, and itinerant preachers. Eventually most of them ended up as what we now call Southern Baptist.
14. Borderer folk beliefs: “If an old woman has only one tooth, she is a witch”, “If you are awake at eleven, you will see witches”, “The howling of dogs shows the presence of witches”, “If your shoestring comes untied, witches are after you”, “If a warm current of air is felt, witches are passing”. Also, “wet a rag in your enemy’s blood, put it behind a rock in the chimney, and when it rots your enemy will die”; apparently it was not a coincidence they were thinking about witches so much.
15. Borderer medical beliefs: “A cure for homesickness is to sew a good charge of gunpowder on the inside of ths shirt near the neck”. That’ll cure homesickness, all right.
16. More Borderer medical beliefs: “For fever, cut a black chicken open while alive and bind it to the bottom of your foot”, “Eating the brain of a screech owl is the only dependable remedy for headache”, “For rheumatism, apply split frogs to the feet”, “To reduce a swollen leg, split a live cat and apply while still warm”, “Bite the head off the first butterfly you see and you will get a new dress”, “Open the cow’s mouth and throw a live toad-frog down her throat. This will cure her of hollow-horn”. Also, blacksmiths protected themselves from witches by occasionally throwing live puppies into their furnaces.
17. Rates of public schooling in the backcountry settled by the Borderers were “the lowest in British North America” and sometimes involved rituals like “barring out”, where the children would physically keep the teacher out of the school until he gave in and granted the students the day off.
18. “Appalachia’s idea of a moderate drinker was the mountain man who limited himself to a single quart [of whiskey] at a sitting, explaining that more ‘might fly to my head’. Other beverages were regarded with contempt.”
19. A traditional backcountry sport was “rough and tumble”, a no-holds-barred form of wrestling where gouging out your opponent’s eyes was considered perfectly acceptable and in fact sound strategy. In 1772 Virginia had to pass a law against “gouging, plucking, or putting out an eye”, but this was the Cavalier-dominated legislature all the way on the east coast and nobody in the backcountry paid them any attention. Other traditional backcountry sports were sharpshooting and hunting.
20. The American custom of shooting guns into the air to celebrate holidays is 100% Borderer in origin.
21. The justice system of the backcountry was heavy on lynching, originally a race-neutral practice and named after western Virginian settler William Lynch.
22. Scottish Presbyterians used to wear red cloth around their neck to symbolize their religion; other Englishmen nicknamed them “rednecks”. This may be the origin of the popular slur against Americans of Borderer descent, although many other etiologies have been proposed. “Cracker” as a slur is attested as early as 1766 by a colonist who says the term describes backcountry men who are great boasters; other proposed etymologies like slaves talking about “whip-crackers” seem to be spurious.

This is not to paint the Borderers as universally poor and dumb – like every group, they had an elite, and some of their elite went on to become some of America’s most important historical figures. Andrew Jackson became the first Borderer president, behaving exactly as you would expect the first Borderer president to behave, and he was followed by almost a dozen others. Borderers have also been overrepresented in America’s great military leaders, from Ulysses Grant through Teddy Roosevelt (3/4 Borderer despite his Dutch surname) to George Patton to John McCain.

The Borderers really liked America – unsurprising given where they came from – and started identifying as American earlier and more fiercely than any of the other settlers who had come before. Unsurprisingly, they strongly supported the Revolution – Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) was a Borderer. They also also played a disproportionate role in westward expansion. After the Revolution, America made an almost literal 180 degree turn and the “backcountry” became the “frontier”. It was the Borderers who were happiest going off into the wilderness and fighting Indians, and most of the famous frontiersmen like Davy Crockett were of their number. This was a big part of the reason the Wild West was so wild compared to, say, Minnesota (also a frontier inhabited by lots of Indians, but settled by Northerners and Germans) and why it inherited seemingly Gaelic traditions like cattle rustling.

Their conception of liberty has also survived and shaped modern American politics: it seems essentially to be the modern libertarian/Republican version of freedom from government interference, especially if phrased as “get the hell off my land”, and especially especially if phrased that way through clenched teeth while pointing a shotgun at the offending party.


This is all interesting as history and doubly interesting as anthropology, but what relevance does it have for later American history and the present day?

One of my reasons reading this book was to see whether the link between Americans’ political opinions and a bunch of their other cultural/religious/social traits (a “Blue Tribe” and “Red Tribe”) was related to the immigration patterns it describes. I’m leaning towards “probably”, but there’s a lot of work to be done in explaining how the split among these four cultures led to a split among two cultures in the modern day, and with little help from the book itself I am going to have to resort to total unfounded speculation. But the simplest explanation – that the Puritans and Quakers merged into one group (“progressives”, “Blue Tribe”, “educated coastal elites”) and the Virginians and Borderers into another (“conservatives”, “Red Tribe”, “rednecks”) – has a lot going for it.

Many conservatives I read like to push the theory that modern progressivism is descended from the utopian Protestant experiments of early America – Puritanism and Quakerism – and that the civil war represents “Massachusetts’ conquest of America”. I always found this lacking in rigor: Puritanism and Quakerism are sufficiently different that positing a combination of them probably needs more intellectual work than just gesturing at “you know, that Puritan/Quaker thing”. But the idea of a Puritan New England and a Quaker-(ish) Pennsylvania gradually blending together into a generic “North” seems plausible, especially given the high levels of interbreeding between the two (some of our more progressive Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, were literally half-Puritan and half-Quaker). Such a merge would combine the Puritan emphasis on moral reform, education, and a well-ordered society with the Quaker doctrine of niceness, tolerance, religious pluralism, individual conscience, and the Inner Light. It seems kind of unfair to just mix-and-match the most modern elements of each and declare that this proves they caused modernity, but there’s no reason that couldn’t have happened.

The idea of Cavaliers and Borderers combining to form modern conservativism is buoyed by modern conservativism’s obvious Border influences, but complicated by its lack of much that is recognizably Cavalier – the Republican Party is hardly marked by its support for a hereditary aristocracy of gentlemen. Here I have to admit that I don’t know as much about Southern history as I’d like. In particular, how were places like Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera settled? Most sources I can find suggest they were set up along the Virginia model of plantation-owning aristocrats, but if that’s true how did the modern populations come to so embody Fischer’s description of Borderers? In particular, why are they so Southern Baptist and not very Anglican? And what happened to all of those indentured servants the Cavaliers brought over after slavery put them out of business? What happened to that whole culture after the Civil War destroyed the plantation system? My guess is going to be that the indentured servants and the Borderer population mixed pretty thoroughly, and that this stratum was hanging around providing a majority of the white bodies in the South while the plantation owners were hogging the limelight – but I just don’t know.

A quick argument that I’m not totally making all of this up:

This is a map of voting patterns by county in the 2012 Presidential election. The blue areas in the South carefully track the so-called “black belt” of majority African-American areas. The ones in the Midwest are mostly big cities. Aside from those, the only people who vote Democrat are New England (very solidly!) and the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania. In fact, you can easily see the distinction between the Delaware Valley settled by Quakers in the east, and the backcountry area settled by Borderers in the west. Even the book’s footnote about how a few Borderers settled in the mountains of New Hampshire is associated with a few spots of red in the mountains of New Hampshire ruining an otherwise near-perfect Democratic sweep of the north.

One anomaly in this story is a kind of linear distribution of blue across southern Michigan, too big to be explained solely by the blacks of Detroit. But a quick look at Wikipedia’s History of Michigan finds:

In the 1820s and 1830s migrants from New England began moving to what is now Michigan in large numbers (though there was a trickle of New England settlers who arrived before this date). These were “Yankee” settlers, that is to say they were descended from the English Puritans who settled New England during the colonial era….Due to the prevalence of New Englanders and New England transplants from upstate New York, Michigan was very culturally contiguous with early New England culture for much of its early history…The amount with which the New England Yankee population predominated made Michigan unique among frontier states in the antebellum period. Due to this heritage Michigan was on the forefront of the antislavery crusade and reforms during the 1840s and 1850s.

Alhough I can’t find proof of this specifically, I know that Michigan was settled from the south up, and I suspect that these New England settlers concentrated in the southern regions and that the north was settled by a more diverse group of whites who lacked the New England connection.

Here’s something else cool. We can’t track Borderers directly because there’s no “Borderer” or “Scots-Irish” option on the US census. But Albion’s Seed points out that the Borderers were uniquely likely to identify as just “American” and deliberately forgot their past ancestry as fast as they could. Meanwhile, when the census asks an ethnicity question about where your ancestors came from, every year some people will stubbornly ignore the point of the question and put down “America” (no, this does not track the distribution of Native American population). Here’s a map of so-called “unhyphenated Americans”, taken from this site:

We see a strong focus on the Appalachian Mountains, especially West Virginia, Tennesee, and Kentucky, bleeding into the rest of the South. Aside from west Pennsylvania, this is very close to where we would expect to find the Borderers. Could these be the same groups?

Meanwhile, here is a map of where Obama underperformed the usual Democratic vote worst in 2008:

These maps are small and lossy, and surely unhyphenatedness is not an exact proxy for Border ancestry – but they are nevertheless intriguing. You may also be interested in the Washington Post’s correlation between distribution of unhyphenated Americans and Trump voters, or the Atlantic’s article on Trump and Borderers.

If I’m going to map these cultural affiliations to ancestry, do I have to walk back on my previous theory that they are related to class? Maybe I should. But I also think we can posit complicated interactions between these ideas. Consider for example the interaction between race and class; a black person with a white-sounding name, who speaks with a white-sounding accent, and who adopts white culture (eg listens to classical music, wears business suits) is far more likely to seem upper-class than a black person with a black-sounding name, a black accent, and black cultural preferences; a white person who seems black in some way (listens to hip-hop, wears baggy clothes) is more likely to seem lower-class. This doesn’t mean race and class are exactly the same thing, but it does mean that some races get stereotyped as upper-class and others as lower-class, and that people’s racial identifiers may change based on where they are in the class structure.

I think something similar is probably going on with these forms of ancestry. The education system is probably dominated by descendents of New Englanders and Pennsylvanians; they had an opportunity to influence the culture of academia and the educated classes more generally, they took it, and now anybody of any background who makes it into that world is going to be socialized according to their rules. Likewise, people in poorer and more rural environments will be surrounded by people of Borderer ancestry and acculturated by Borderer cultural products and end up a little more like that group. As a result, ethnic markers have turned into and merged with class markers in complicated ways.

Indeed, some kind of acculturation process has to have been going on, since most of the people in these areas today are not the descendents of the original settlers. But such a process seems very likely. Just to take an example, most of the Jews I know (including my own family) came into the country via New York, live somewhere on the coast, and have very Blue Tribe values. But Southern Jews believed in the Confederacy as strongly as any Virginian – see for example Judah Benjamin. And Barry Goldwater, a half-Jew raised in Arizona, invented the modern version of conservativism that seems closest to some Borderer beliefs.

All of this is very speculative, with some obvious flaws. What do we make of other countries like Britain or Germany with superficially similar splits but very different histories? Why should Puritans lose their religion and sexual prudery, but keep their interest in moralistic reform? There are whole heaps of questions like these. But look. Before I had any idea about any of this, I wrote that American society seems divided into two strata, one of which is marked by emphasis on education, interest in moral reforms, racial tolerance, low teenage pregnancy, academic/financial jobs, and Democratic party affiliation, and furthermore that this group was centered in the North. Meanwhile, now I learn that the North was settled by two groups that when combined have emphasis on education, interest in moral reforms, racial tolerance, low teenage pregnancy, an academic and mercantile history, and were the heartland of the historical Whigs and Republicans who preceded the modern Democratic Party.

And I wrote about another stratum centered in the South marked by poor education, gun culture, culture of violence, xenophobia, high teenage pregnancy, militarism, patriotism, country western music, and support for the Republican Party. And now I learn that the South was settled by a group noted even in the 1700s for its poor education, gun culture, culture of violence, xenophobia, high premarital pregnancy, militarism, patriotism, accent exactly like the modern country western accent, and support for the Democratic-Republicans who preceded the modern Republican Party.

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained. We grudgingly acknowledge these features when we admit that maybe making the Middle East exactly like America in every way is more of a long-term project than something that will happen as soon as we kick out the latest dictator and get treated as liberators. Part of us may still want to believe that pure reason is the universal solvent, that those Afghans will come around once they realize that being a secular liberal democracy is obviously great. But we keep having deep culture shoved in our face again and again, and we don’t know how to get rid of it. This has led to reasonable speculation that some aspects of it might even be genetic – something which would explain a lot, though not its ability to acculturate recent arrivals.

This is a hard pill to swallow even when we’re talking about Afghanistan. But it becomes doubly unpleasant when we think about it in the sense of our neighbors and fellow citizens in a modern democracy. What, after all, is the point? A democracy made up of 49% extremely liberal Americans and 51% fundamentalist Taliban Afghans would be something very different from the democratic ideal; even if occasionally a super-charismatic American candidate could win over enough marginal Afghans to take power, there’s none of the give-and-take, none of the competition within the marketplace of ideas, that makes democracy so attractive. Just two groups competing to dominate one another, with the fact that the competition is peaceful being at best a consolation prize.

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

I don’t know. But I highly recommend Albion’s Seed as an entertaining and enlightening work of historical scholarship which will be absolutely delightful if you don’t fret too much over all of the existential questions it raises.

OT48: Open Your Heart

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

1. Thanks to everyone who attended the SSC meetups in California. A few people have asked about doing something like that more regularly even when I’m not visiting; if anyone wants to arrange something like that I’ll do my part to popularize it. Otherwise, there are always rationalist meetups in Berkeley and EA meetups in Stanford; I don’t know the exact times and locations but they should be pretty easy to find out if you ask.

2. Some people have asked about a forum to replace the overloaded Open Thread system. Right now I feel like there’s already a subreddit, it’s underused, and I don’t see why people would use a forum if they’re not using the subreddit, but if anyone strenuously disagrees I’m happy to listen to counterarguments.

3. I’ve been posting a lot less recently because I’ve been on vacation, but now I’m back and should return to a more normal schedule.

4. Comment of the week is TD on the role of 4Chan vs. SomethingAwful in internet culture wars, plus the ensuing thread.

5. Book 1 of Unsong is finished. If you’ve been waiting to read it until there was a big chunk you could read all at once, now’s your chance.

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Links 4/16: They Can’t Link Our Dick

[Disclaimer: None of these immediately set off alarms, but I have not double-checked all of them to make sure they are accurate. Please correct me if any are false or misleading]

Zerão is a Brazilian football stadium with the dividing line exactly on the Equator, so that each goal is on a different hemisphere.

Maybe the most important article I’ve read this year: When Confounding Variables Are Out Of Control. A new PLoS paper argues that “controlling for confounders” doesn’t work as well as we’d like. Confounders are always imperfectly measured, so when you control for your measure of a confounder, you’re only getting a portion of the real confounder, and the portion you didn’t get might be more than enough to sustain a significant effect. So many studies that claim to have gotten a result after “controlling for confounders” but which haven’t used complicated statistical techniques that nobody uses are now potentially suspect. I’ve always noticed that correlational studies that control for confounders get confirmed by experiments much less often than I would expect, and now I finally understand (some of) why.

Related: Andrew Gelman: “Let’s just put a bright line down right now. 2016 is year 1. Everything published before 2016 is provisional. Don’t take publication as meaning much of anything, and just cos a paper’s been cited approvingly, that’s not enough either. You have to read each paper on its own. Anything published in 2015 or earlier is part of the “too big to fail” era, it’s potentially a junk bond supported by toxic loans and you shouldn’t rely on it.”

Related: Internal Conceptual Relations Do Not Increase Independent Replication Success. That wouldn’t make sense if the problem was just the normal vagaries of replication, and suggests that “the influence of questionable research practices is at the heart of failures to replicate psychological findings, especially in social psychology”.

Related: A long time ago I blogged about the name preference effect – ie that people are more positively disposed towards things that sound like their name – so I might like science more because Scott and science start with the same two letters. A bunch of very careful studies confirmed this effect even after apparently controlling for everything. Now Uri Simonsohn says – too bad, it’s all spurious. This really bothers me because I remember specifically combing over these studies and finding them believable at the time. Yet another reminder that things are worse than I thought.

Wikipedia: List Of Games That Buddha Would Not Play

The lost medieval City of Benin in Nigeria had streetlights, great art, and was larger than many European capitals. It also boasted “the longest walls in the world”, beating the Great Wall of China. I’m confused why I never heard about this before – not in a “neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa” sense, but in a “even the people complaining about how neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa only ever talk about Zimbabwe and Kilwa which are both way less impressive” sense. Also, how did one small British expedition destroy earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China?

Some very complicated and potentially questionable attempts to ferret out all the different personality traits involved in religiosity tentatively conclude that it is directly related to moral concern and inversely related to analytic thinking, which are inversely related to one another.

Vox: You Can Finally Stop Feeling Guilty For Eating Quinoa. Apparently some people felt guilty because they thought that quinoa-eating Westerners were taking all the quinoa and then Peruvians were starving. But a new study suggests that the increased Western demand for quinoa has increased welfare throughout Peruvian quinoa-farming regions both for farmers and for non-farmers, presumably because the farmers’ increased wealth is trickling down to non-farmers.

Vox: The Most Important Foreign News Story This Week Was About Russian Tax Policy.

Did you know: when the British Empire abolished slavery, it paid 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure as compensation to slaveowners.

The prison phone system is a national disgrace. Predatory companies make deals with the government to get a monopoly on calls to and from specific prisons, then charge inmates trying to call their families rates that are orders of magnitude higher than normal. I have some patients with incarcerated family and they confirm that this is a big problem for them. The FCC has been trying to cap rates, but was recently thwarted by the courts. This seems to me like one of the clearest and most black-and-white political issues around.

Business scientists run a trial to compare promotion-by-merit with promotion-by-seniority and include random promotion as a control group. Now the results are in and random promotion does the best. Even weirder, the result seems to have been replicated. This kind of reminds me the old saying that “anyone who can be elected President shouldn’t be allowed to do the job”. [EDIT: Study uses potentially faulty computer model]

New study in Nature by leading climatologists says that the consensus is now that the global warming hiatus is real. And here are some blog posts (1, 2) explaining the result in more accessible language. Both emphasize this doesn’t mean that global warming has stopped or was never real, only that it seems to be slower now than it was before. Leading theory – complicated ocean cycles working in our favor now may work against us in the next few decades, and we should still be careful.

Thirty-five overweight people were asked to do the same amount of extra exercise. They differed wildly in how much weight they lost. Authors theorize a distinction between “compensators” and “noncompensators” with different metabolic reactions to exercise.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gallup poll finds Clinton supporters are more likely to describe themselves as enthusiastic about their candidate than Sanders supporters. [EDIT: Maybe some extra complications. See here]

The largest area of dry land under sea level, by volume, is the Qattara Depression in Egypt. If it were ever connected to the Mediterranean, it would produce loads of hydroelectric power and form a giant lake in the middle of the Sahara. By my calculations it would also reverse one year worth of global-warming induced sea-level rise.

Ideal Conceal is a handgun which can be folded up to look exactly like an ordinary cell phone. Nothing can possibly go wrong. [But these guys think it’s a hoax]

Old studies: Australia’s experience in the 1990s proves gun control worked. New study: Australia’s experience in the 1990s proves gun control didn’t work. I am so past the point of trying to figure this out now.

Did you know: the computer game “Ecco the Dolphin” was partially based off the work of LSD-abusing delphinologist John Lilly, who thought reality was controlled by an alien conspiracy called E.C.C.O.

After a study a few months ago showing that toxoplasma didn’t produce behavioral changes in humans, a new study suggests toxoplasma is no more common in cat owners than anyone else. All of the cool toxoplasma theories are going out the window. [Edit: This is confusing]

Yasmin Nair: Suey Park and the Afterlife of Twitter. Firebrand Twitter activist Suey Park has reinvented herself as a speaker warning about the dangers of firebrand Twitter activism, now says that social justice is a “cult” and that “the violence I have experienced in SJW circles has been greater than that of ‘racist trolls'”. Nair questions the convenience of a pipeline between fame as a Twitter activist and fame as a person speaking out against Twitter activism. But part of me worries that the entire chain – Park engaging in activism, Park speaking out against activism, Nair writing about Park, and now me linking Nair – is part of the problem, in that it promotes paying attention to Twitter activism at all.

Higher amounts of dairy fat markers in the blood associated with less diabetes. Very reminiscent of past studies showing that whole milk drinkers are healthier than nonfat/lowfat drinkers. Unclear if this says something profound or just that milk is a healthier source of calories than a lot of the alternatives. Related: TIME: The Case Against Low-Fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever.

Reason #6894019 not to mess with Finland.

Previously: a short conversation with someone can decrease prejudice. Later: no, sorry, that study turned out to be fraudulent. Now: okay, the study was fraudulent, but the conclusion was actually true.

Successful charter schools seem to do much better than public schools in educating the most disadvantaged minority children, but critics have scoffed that they must either be selectively admitting the best students or just “teaching to the test”. But one new study finds charter school success cannot be explained by selective admission, and a second finds commensurate success on non-test-related outcomes, including lower teenage pregnancy and lower incarceration rates for charter school students. Educational establishment vows to respond to findings by improving their own performance calling charter schooling racist a lot.

When Queen Elizabeth I wanted to claim the New World, she asked court mathematician/astronomer/historian/angel-summoner John Dee for scholarship relevant to the expansion. Dee hit the books and conveniently discovered that King Arthur had led a vast army to conquer America, Greenland, and the North Pole

Some changes in Italian penal law help us more accurately determine the time discount functions of criminals.

Police, emergency responders, and other professionals try to trace Internet users’ IP addresses to find out where they live. Untraceable IP addresses – a big chunk of the total – all show up as coming from the geographic middle of the United States, which happens to be on a random farm in Kansas. Here’s a look into the life of a random Kansas farmer who has no idea why everyone is after him.

Everything we knew about classical Chinese civilization came from attempts to reconstruct it after the Qin Emperor burnt all the books around 200 BC. Now for the first time archaeologists have found original texts from Confucius’ time, and they’re a lot less orderly than expected.

Study finds violent video games do not increase misogyny, as usual everyone ignores this, seizes on a single doubtful sub-subfinding out of context and reports that the study proves violent video games do increase misogyny. The only thing at all surprising about the whole process is that Science Of Us notices and complains about it.

New study finds Haidtian moral foundations aren’t stable, heritable, or predictive; Haidt says that’s because the study did a terrible job measuring them.

A team including Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, American billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, and scientist Stephen Hawking have announced a plan to build a fleet of interstellar (!!!!) probes. The idea is very clever and has at least partially overcome the obvious skepticism such a plan should warrant. But I can’t help thinking it’s another dead end like the moon landing – something that will make it into the history books but have no broader impact on human activity or the colonization of space. Billionaires are obviously allowed to spend their money on whatever cool stuff they want, and goodness knows this is better than another yacht, but my sympathies are still with the less glamorous projects of Musk, Bezos, and Branson.

The latest step in the sportification of the political process is the release of Decision 2016 Trading Cards.

Women With More Feminine Digit Ratio Have Higher Reproductive Success (p = 0.002) – mediated at least in part by longer reproductive lifespan. The effect is sufficiently strong that we should be really curious why evolution preserved the contrary set of genes – maybe they’re better for men?

The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations collects apparently complimentary phrases to use in recommendation letters for people you secretly loathe. For example, “you would be lucky to get him to work for you”, “I recommend this man without qualifications”, “You won’t find many people like her”, “I cannot recommend this person too highly”, and “Nobody would be better than her”. The obvious review for this book is Moses Hadas’ “I have read this book and much like it”.

What happens when people from primitive tribes without mirrors who live in areas without clear water see their reflections for the first time? They freak out. [warning: includes scary picture]

A beautiful theory killed by an inelegant fact: sex offenders have no more testosterone than anyone else. Not in this study, but IIRC violent offenders do have more testosterone than others.

Vox: Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They were wrong.

GiveDirectly will be starting large-scale tests of a universal basic income in Kenya.

RIP The 10,000 Year Explosion co-author and anthropology/evolution blogger Henry Harpending.

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SSC Bay Area Meetups 2016

The following Slate Star Codex meetups are planned for the next week or so:

Berkeley, Sunday 4/17 at 2:00 PM at CFAR office, 2030 Addison, 7th floor, Berkeley

San Jose, Monday 4/18 at 7:00 PM at a private house, 3806 Williams Rd, San Jose

Googleplex, Tuesday 4/19 at 12:30 PM at Bigtable cafe in building 1900. Googlers can get more information at the internal slatestarcodex-discuss mailing list.

Stanford, Tuesday 4/19 at 5:30 PM at Tressider Food Court

Everyone is welcome to Berkeley, San Jose, and Stanford. Googleplex is limited to Google employees. Please feel free to come even if you don’t read this much, don’t comment, don’t understand everything, don’t agree with me about things, or don’t feel like you fit in with the normal demographic. During past meetups we’ve always appreciated having more diversity of different types of people attending.

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OT47: OpenAI

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

1. There’s a new ad on the sidebar for Signal Data Science. This is a rare ad I can (sort of) testify for – I’ve known co-founder Jonah (user JonahSinick on LW) for a couple of years and he definitely knows his stuff, both in terms of mathematics and how to teach effectively. If you’re interested in data science, check it out.

2. I’ve been reading Current Affairs magazine and really enjoying it. It’s edited by Nathan Robinson of Navel Observatory and discusses issues from what for ignorance of a better name I think of as “the Freddie deBoer perspective” – ie pretty far leftist/socialist, but especially interested in criticizing other leftists – especially those who prefer wet dreams about gulags and guillotines, or analyzing how Rihanna lyrics can teach us about mansplaining, to actually fighting for justice. Although the articles are pretty good, what I really love is the sense of humor: for example, instead of real ads, they have beautifully designed fake ads for “companies” and “products” like Tony Blair’s Dictatorship Counseling (“no human rights violation too egregious to euphemize”) and Big Pharma-style socialism pills (“occasional side effects include…accidentally becoming the very embodiment of the thing you are attempting to eliminate”). There are also interviews “conducted nonconsensually and transcribed entirely from the results of public Twitter harassment” and fun childrens’ activities like Color The Flint Water Supply. They say that they’re going to need a lot of subscriptions to stay afloat effectively, so if this sounds interesting, consider sampling some of their work on their website, read their pitch, purchasing a single sample issue pretty cheaply, or subscribing here. Warning: they are not very nice or charitable and you might find them a bit abrasive if you do not 100% agree with them about everything.

3. Thanks to the very many people who made exceptionally generous donations the last time I linked a GoFundMe campaign on here. To the people who were critical of it, I ask that you remember that the people involved may read this blog, that they are down on their luck and in an emotionally fragile state, and that having strangers publicly debating your life choices can be pretty traumatic. If you don’t think a campaign involving such a person is a worthy use of your money, I would prefer you just quietly not donate to it (exceptions if you have constructive criticism about why it is not effective, or want to share novel information about why it might be a scam, or something like that). Thank you for your cooperation.

4. Speaking of which – a few months ago, I linked to a GoFundMe for Esther (Multiheaded in the comments here), who is a trans woman trying to emigrate from Russia. You were very helpful and donated quite a bit of money; unfortunately, the plan failed as Canada rejected the immigration visa. Now Multi is trying again with the help of Promethea (socialjusticemunchkin on Tumblr) who has a plan to get Multi into Europe, details currently secret. I don’t know Promethea well and can’t vouch directly, but other people I can vouch for do vouch for them; you will have to decide whether three degrees of social proof is sufficient. There’s a new GoFundMe up if you’re interested in helping (some clarifications here)

5. And a very different kind of campaign – computer science conference LambdaConf uses a blind review process to select topics for presentation. This year one of their selections was a talk on weird-namespace-software Urbit by Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug). A group of Twitter activists demanded that he be excluded from the conference for his political views. When the conference refused to capitulate, the activists started pressuring sponsors to pull out of the conference in the hopes of making the conference financially unviable. After some preliminary success, anti-censorship blog Status 451 launched a counter-campaign to get people concerned about freedom of opinion in tech to donate to LambdaConf and help make up the difference. This is usually where I’d ask you to donate, except that they reached their $15,000 goal within the first day of their campaign, they’re now 146% funded, and the only reason to give any more at this point is to give an even louder FUCK YOU to the people involved. Since that actually sounds pretty good, you can take a look at the campaign here. See also ESR’s take.

6. Some free CFAR summer programs in Oxford and the SF Bay Area, mostly for math people interested in AI risk. Some travel assistance available if you qualify.

7. I’m in California right now – I’ll be taking the next few days to visit my family down south, but I’ll be back in the Bay Area on Thursday and I’d like to get some SSC meetups in. The current plans are:

— 2 PM on Sunday April 17 at the CFAR office, 2030 Addison, 7th floor, Berkeley
— 7 PM on Monday April 18 at 3806 Williams Rd, San Jose
— Afternoon of Tuesday April 19 at the Googleplex, time and exact location tbd
— 5:30 PM April 19 with Stanford EA at Tressider Food Court, Stanford

I’ll make a separate post confirming this information and giving more specifics sometime later this week. Remember the usual advice: if you’re debating whether or not you should come, especially if you’re worried because you don’t fit the usual SSC demographic or you don’t think you have anything to contribute or you’re not sure you’ll fit in or whatever – just come and it will probably be fine.

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A Theory About Religion

Related to Monday’s post but spun off for length reasons: my crazy theory about where religion comes from.

(this is not the day we start heeding warnings to beware amateur sociology)

The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising. Many people have speculated on what makes tribes around the world so fixated on believing in gods and propitiating them and so on. More recently people like Dawkins and Dennett have added their own contributions about parasitic memes and hyperactive agent-detection.

But I think a lot of these explanations are too focused on a modern idea of religion. I find ancient religion much more enlightening. I’m no historian, but from the little I know ancient religion seems to bleed seamlessly into every other aspect of the ancient way of life. For example, the Roman religion was a combination of mythology, larger-than-life history, patriotism, holidays, customs, superstitions, rules about the government, beliefs about virtue, and attempts to read the future off the livers of pigs. And aside from the pig livers, this seems entirely typical.

American culture (“American civil religion“) has a lot of these features too. It has mythology and larger-than-life history: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the wise and glorious Founding Fathers, Honest Abe single-handedly freeing the slaves with his trusty hatchet. It has patriotic symbols and art: the flag, the anthem, Uncle Sam. It has holidays: the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s birthday. It has customs: eat turkey on Thanksgiving, have a barbecue on Memorial Day, watch the Super Bowl. It has superstitions – the number 13, black cats – and ritual taboos – even “obvious” things like don’t go outside naked needs to be thought of as taboo considering some cultures do so without thinking. It has rules about the government – both the official laws you’ll find in the federal law code, but also deep-seated beliefs about the goodness of democracy or about how all men are created equal, and even customs that affect day-to-day governance like the President giving a State of the Union in January before both houses of Congress. There are beliefs about virtue: everyone should be free, we should try to be independent, we should work hard and pursue the American Dream.

People call the Jewish dietary code unusually strict, but it’s important to realize the strictness of modern American kashrut. Absolutely no eating insects – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows locusts! Precious few birds outside of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows pigeons! No dogs, cats, rodents, or horses. No reptiles or amphibians, no matter how much the French try to convince us that frog legs are great. No eating clearly obvious animal heads with eyes and stuff (even though dozens of advanced cultures do so happily). No blood products (eg black pudding). Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting. Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure. And this isn’t even including all of the more modern health-oriented taboos like gluten, MSG, trans-fats, GM foods, et cetera.

If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.

People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.

Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.

So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.

Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.

But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus. Instead of centaurs and satyrs and lamia we would have jackalopes and chupacabras and grey aliens. All those people who say with a nod and a wink that Paul Bunyan dug the Great Lakes as a drinking trough for his giant ox would say the same thing nodless and winkless. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney, helping the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Some American Hesiod would put succumb to the systematizing impulse, put it all together and explain how George Washington was the son of Superman and ordered Paul Bunyan to dig Chesapeake Bay to entrap the British fleet, and nobody would be able to say they were wrong. I mean, we already have Superman vs. Batman as canon, why not go the extra distance?

So in one sense our best analogy for ancient religion is American civil religion coupled to the sort of national mythology we might have gotten if we’d been a little bit more historically confused. But in another sense ancient religion was actually much stronger than this. America has its own individual culture, but it also partakes of the entire Western liberal industrial secular worldview. An American might not feel culture shock if she moved to Britain; she probably would if she moved to New Guinea.

The ancient world had far less trade and transportation than our own and was far less homogenized. If you want to get into the shoes of an ancient contemplating his religion, imagine you’re an American in a world where even your closest neighboring countries are as different from you as New Guinea hill tribes, or Afghan chiefdoms, or Chinese party cadres. In a world like this, your identity as an American would be very salient – and the essence of being an American is impossible to separate from this whole set of national beliefs about celebrating the Fourth of July, not eating insects, wanting freedom and democracy, and believing that Superman lives atop Mt. Whitney. Outside the community of people who 100% believe all these things, there’s just unreachable foreigners whose language you do not speak and whose customs seem somewhere between inscrutable and barbaric.

That was ancient religion – culture in a world where culture meant something. It was nothing like modern religion – which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword. But ancients nevertheless felt a connection to their culture and community that combined modern patriotism, religious piety, and belief in science – and they expressed it by continuing to perform their rites and even dying for them.

The question of the origin of religion comes down to how these cultures evolved into the clearly-defined religions of the modern day.

I think a big part of this is ossification and separation from context. The Jewish law perfectly preserves what any right-thinking Israelite in 1000 BC would have considered obvious, natural, and not-even-needing-justification (much as any right-thinking American today considers not eating insects obvious). By the time the Bible was being written this was no longer true – foreign customs and inevitable social change were making the old law seem less and less relevant, and I think modern scholarship thinks the Bible was written by a conservative faction of priests making their case for adherence to the old ways. The act of writing it down in a book, declaring this book the sort of thing that people might doubt but shouldn’t, and then passing that book to their children – that made it a modern religion, in the sense of something potentially separable from culture that required justification. I think that emphasizing the role of God and the gods provided that justification.

The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods. God proves his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians when the serpent he sends Moses eats the serpents the Egyptian gods send Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The Israelites are constantly warned against worshipping other gods, not because those gods don’t exist but because God is better and also jealous. This is not the worldview of somebody who has very strong ideas about the nature of reality and how supernatural beings fit into that nature. It’s the worldview of people who want to say “Our culture is better than your culture”. The Bible uses “worshipping foreign gods” as synonymous with “turning to foreign ways”. But God has a covenant with Israel, therefore both are forbidden.

This seems to match religion in the classical world – I’m especially thinking of Augustus’ conception here, but he wasn’t drawing it out of a vacuum. Performing the proper rites to the Roman gods was how you showed you were on board with Roman culture was how you showed you were loyal to Rome. The Roman view of religion seems pretty ridiculous to us – constant influx of new gods and mystery cults that were believed kind of indiscriminately, plus occasional deification of leading political figures followed by their undeification once they fell from power. But throughout it all, this idea that following the rites as Romulus prescribed them showed loyalty, but doing otherwise would result in decadence and defeat, stuck around.

More modern religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are a bit different. Obviously their respective founders play a huge role, but I still think part of what makes them religions rather than just philosophies or spiritual teachings is that they underwent this ossification process. Just as modern Judaism preserves many features of 10th-century-BC Israel that got encoded into holy writ, so modern Christianity preserves many features of 1st century Judeo-Hellenist syncretism. In fact, it preserves a lot of features of 13th-century scholasticism, since that was when they really became serious about formalizing and officializing their theology. At the time scholasticism wasn’t particularly religious; it was just the best understanding the 13th century academic community had about the world around them. Since the Church officialized it, everyone else drifted away and they didn’t.

I think it’s also possible that the first few followers of these religions ended up as a subculture, with as much arbitrary subcultural development as any other tribe. My personal experience with subcultures tells me they can get very different customs from the surrounding society very fast, with or without any connection to real feature of their rallying flag. Those unusual subcultural values then became the values of the religion that developed later.

Hopefully the connection to Monday’s post is pretty clear. The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world. Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

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The Ideology Is Not The Movement


Why is there such a strong Sunni/Shia divide?

I know the Comparative Religion 101 answer. The early Muslims were debating who was the rightful caliph. Some of them said Abu Bakr, others said Ali, and the dispute has been going on ever since. On the other hand, that was fourteen hundred years ago, both candidates are long dead, and there’s no more caliphate. You’d think maybe they’d let the matter rest.

Sure, the two groups have slightly different hadith and schools of jurisprudence, but how many Muslims even know which school of jurisprudence they’re supposed to be following? It seems like a pretty minor thing to have centuries of animus over.

And so we return again to Robbers’ Cave:

The experimental subjects — excuse me, “campers” — were 22 boys between 5th and 6th grade, selected from 22 different schools in Oklahoma City, of stable middle-class Protestant families, doing well in school, median IQ 112. They were as well-adjusted and as similar to each other as the researchers could manage.

The experiment, conducted in the bewildered aftermath of World War II, was meant to investigate the causes—and possible remedies—of intergroup conflict. How would they spark an intergroup conflict to investigate? Well, the 22 boys were divided into two groups of 11 campers, and —

— and that turned out to be quite sufficient.

The researchers’ original plans called for the experiment to be conducted in three stages. In Stage 1, each group of campers would settle in, unaware of the other group’s existence. Toward the end of Stage 1, the groups would gradually be made aware of each other. In Stage 2, a set of contests and prize competitions would set the two groups at odds.

They needn’t have bothered with Stage 2. There was hostility almost from the moment each group became aware of the other group’s existence: They were using our campground, our baseball diamond. On their first meeting, the two groups began hurling insults. They named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles (they hadn’t needed names when they were the only group on the campground).

When the contests and prizes were announced, in accordance with pre-established experimental procedure, the intergroup rivalry rose to a fever pitch. Good sportsmanship in the contests was evident for the first two days but rapidly disintegrated.

The Eagles stole the Rattlers’ flag and burned it. Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader, which they painted orange and carried as a flag the next day, inscribed with the legend “The Last of the Eagles”. The Eagles launched a retaliatory raid on the Rattlers, turning over beds, scattering dirt. Then they returned to their cabin where they entrenched and prepared weapons (socks filled with rocks) in case of a return raid. After the Eagles won the last contest planned for Stage 2, the Rattlers raided their cabin and stole the prizes. This developed into a fistfight that the staff had to shut down for fear of injury. The Eagles, retelling the tale among themselves, turned the whole affair into a magnificent victory—they’d chased the Rattlers “over halfway back to their cabin” (they hadn’t).

Each group developed a negative stereotype of Them and a contrasting positive stereotype of Us. The Rattlers swore heavily. The Eagles, after winning one game, concluded that the Eagles had won because of their prayers and the Rattlers had lost because they used cuss-words all the time. The Eagles decided to stop using cuss-words themselves. They also concluded that since the Rattlers swore all the time, it would be wiser not to talk to them. The Eagles developed an image of themselves as proper-and-moral; the Rattlers developed an image of themselves as rough-and-tough.

If the researchers had decided that the real difference between the two groups was that the Eagles were adherents of Eagleism, which held cussing as absolutely taboo, and the Rattlers adherents of Rattlerism, which held it a holy duty to cuss five times a day – well, that strikes me as the best equivalent to saying that Sunni and Shia differ over the rightful caliph.


Nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements – these are all really different, but they also have some deep similarities. They’re all groups of people. They all combine comradery within the group with a tendency to dislike other groups of the same type. They all tend to have a stated purpose, like electing a candidate or worshipping a deity, but also serve a very important role as impromptu social clubs whose members mostly interact with one another instead of outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports, and have the same philosophical beliefs as other members of the group – even when there are only tenuous links or no links at all to the stated purpose. They all tend to develop sort of legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of the groups’ founders and past champions. And they all tend to inspire something like patriotism, where people are proud of their group membership and express that pride through conspicuous use of group symbols, group songs, et cetera. For better or worse, the standard way to refer to this category of thing is “tribe”.

Tribalism is potentially present in all groups, but levels differ a lot even in groups of nominally the same type. Modern Belgium seems like an unusually non-tribal nation; Imperial Japan in World War II seems like an unusually tribal one. Neoliberalism and market socialism seem like unusually non-tribal political philosophies; communism and libertarianism seem like unusually tribal ones. Corporations with names like Amalgamated Products Co probably aren’t very tribal; charismatic corporations like Apple that become identities for their employees and customers are more so. Cults are maybe the most tribal groups that exist in the modern world, and those Cult Screening Tools make good measures for tribalism as well.

The dangers of tribalism are obvious; for example, fascism is based around dialing a country’s tribalism up to eleven, and it ends poorly. If I had written this essay five years ago, it would be be titled “Why Tribalism Is Stupid And Needs To Be Destroyed”. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that I enjoy being in tribes as much as anyone else.

Part of this was resolving a major social fallacy I’d had throughout high school and college, which was that the correct way to make friends was to pick the five most interesting people I knew and try to befriend them. This almost never worked and I thought it meant I had terrible social skills. Then I looked at what everyone else was doing, and I found that instead of isolated surgical strikes of friendship, they were forming groups. The band people. The mock trial people. The football team people. The Three Popular Girls Who Went Everywhere Together. Once I tried “falling in with” a group, friendship became much easier and self-sustaining precisely because of all of the tribal development that happens when a group of similar people all know each other and have a shared interest. Since then I’ve had good luck finding tribes I like and that accept me – the rationalists being the most obvious example, but even interacting with my coworkers on the same hospital unit at work is better than trying to find and cultivate random people.

Some benefits of tribalism are easy to explain. Tribalism intensifies all positive and prosocial feelings within the tribe. It increases trust within the tribe and allows otherwise-impossible forms of cooperation – remember Haidt on the Jewish diamond merchants outcompeting their rivals because their mutual Judaism gave them a series of high-trust connections that saved them costly verification procedures? It gives people a support network they can rely on when their luck is bad and they need help. It lets you “be yourself” without worrying that this will be incomprehensible or offensive to somebody who thinks totally differently from you. It creates an instant densely-connected social network of people who mostly get along with one another. It makes people feel like part of something larger than themselves, which makes them happy and can (provably) improves their physical and mental health.

Others are more complicated. I can just make motions at a feeling that “what I do matters”, in the sense that I will probably never be a Beethoven or a Napoleon who is very important to the history of the world as a whole, but I can do things that are important within the context of a certain group of people. All of this is really good for my happiness and mental health. When people talk about how modern society is “atomized” or “lacks community” or “doesn’t have meaning”, I think they’re talking about a lack of tribalism, which leaves people all alone in the face of a society much too big to understand or affect. The evolutionary psychology angle here is too obvious to even be worth stating.

And others are entirely philosophical. I think some people would say that wanting to have a tribe is like wanting to have a family – part of what it means to be human – and demands to justify either are equally wrong-headed.

Eliezer thinks every cause wants to be a cult. I would phrase this more neutrally as “every cause wants to be a tribe”. I’ve seen a lot of activities go through the following cycle:

1. Let’s get together to do X
2. Let’s get together to do X, and have drinks afterwards
3. Let’s get together to discuss things from an X-informed perspective
4. Let’s get together to discuss the sorts of things that interest people who do X
5. Let’s get together to discuss how the sort of people who do X are much better than the sort of people who do Y.
6. Dating site for the sort of people who do X
7. Oh god, it was so annoying, she spent the whole date talking about X.
8. X? What X?

This can happen over anything or nothing at all. Despite the artificial nature of the Robbers’ Cove experiment, its groups are easily recognized as tribes. Indeed, the reason this experiment is so interesting is that it shows tribes in their purest form; no veneer of really being about pushing a social change or supporting a caliph, just tribes for tribalism’s sake.


Scholars call the process of creating a new tribe “ethnogenesis” – Robbers’ Cave was artificially inducing ethnogenesis to see what would happen. My model of ethnogenesis involves four stages: pre-existing differences, a rallying flag, development, and dissolution.

Pre-existing differences are the raw materials out of which tribes are made. A good tribe combines people who have similar interests and styles of interaction even before the ethnogenesis event. Any description of these differences will necessarily involve stereotypes, but a lot of them should be hard to argue. For example, atheists are often pretty similar to one another even before they deconvert from their religion and officially become atheists. They’re usually nerdy, skeptical, rational, not very big on community or togetherness, sarcastic, well-educated. At the risk of going into touchier territory, they’re pretty often white and male. You take a sample of a hundred equally religious churchgoers and pick out the ones who are most like the sort of people who are atheists even if all of them are 100% believers. But there’s also something more than that. There are subtle habits of thought, not yet described by any word or sentence, which atheists are more likely to have than other people. It’s part of the reason why atheists need atheism as a rallying flag instead of just starting the Skeptical Nerdy Male Club.

The rallying flag is the explicit purpose of the tribe. It’s usually a belief, event, or activity that get people with that specific pre-existing difference together and excited. Often it brings previously latent differences into sharp relief. People meet around the rallying flag, encounter each other, and say “You seem like a kindred soul!” or “I thought I was the only one!” Usually it suggests some course of action, which provides the tribe with a purpose. For atheists, the rallying flag is not believing in God. Somebody says “Hey, I don’t believe in God, if you also don’t believe in God come over here and we’ll hang out together and talk about how much religious people suck.” All the atheists go over by the rallying flag and get very excited about meeting each other. It starts with “Wow, you hate church too?”, moves on to “Really, you also like science fiction?”, and ends up at “Wow, you have the same undefinable habits of thought that I do!”

Development is all of the processes by which the fledgling tribe gains its own culture and history. It’s a turning-inward and strengthening-of-walls, which transforms it from ‘A Group Of People Who Do Not Believe In God And Happen To Be In The Same Place’ to ‘The Atheist Tribe’. For example, atheists have symbols like that ‘A’ inside an atom. They have jokes and mascots like Russell’s Teapot and the Invisible Pink Unicorn. They have their own set of heroes, both mythologized past heroes like Galileo and controversial-but-undeniably-important modern heroes like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They have celebrities like P.Z. Myers and Hemant Mehta. They have universally-agreed-upon villains to be booed and hated, like televangelists or the Westboro Baptist Church. They have grievances, like all the times that atheists have been fired or picked on by religious people, and all the laws about pledging allegiance to one nation under God and so on. They have stereotypes about themselves – intelligent, helpful, passionate – and stereotypes about their outgroups – deluded, ignorant, bigoted.

Dissolution is optional. The point of the previous three steps is to build a “wall” between the tribe and the outside, a series of systematic differences that let everybody know which side they’re on. If a tribe was never really that different from the surrounding population, stops caring that much about its rallying flag, and doesn’t develop enough culture, then the wall fails and the members disperse into the surrounding population. The classic example is the assimilation of immigrant groups like Irish-Americans, but history is littered with failed communes, cults, and political movements. Atheism hasn’t quite dissolved yet, but occasionally you see hints of the process. A lot of the comments around “Atheism Plus” centered around this idea of “Okay, talking about how there’s no God all the time has gotten boring, plus nobody interesting believes in God anymore anyway, so let’s become about social justice instead”. The parts of atheism who went along with that message mostly dissolved into the broader social justice community – there are a host of nominally atheist blogs that haven’t talked about anything except social justice in months. Other fragments of the atheist community dissolved into transhumanism, or libertarianism, or any of a number of other things. Although there’s still an atheist community, it no longer seems quite as vibrant and cohesive as it used to be.

We can check this four-stage model by applying it to the Sunni and Shia and seeing if it sticks.

I know very little about early Islam and am relying on sources that might be biased, so don’t declare a fatwa against me if I turn out to be wrong, but it looks like from the beginning there were big pre-existing differences between proto-Shia and proto-Sunni. A lot of Ali’s earliest supporters were original Muslims who had known Mohammed personally, and a lot of Abu Bakr’s earliest supporters were later Muslims high up in the Meccan/Medinan political establishment who’d converted only after it became convenient to do so. It’s really easy to imagine cultural, social, and personality differences between these two groups. Probably members in each group already knew one another pretty well, and already had ill feelings towards members of the other, without necessarily being able to draw the group borders clearly or put their exact differences into words. Maybe it was “those goody-goodies who are always going on about how close to Mohammed they were but have no practical governing ability” versus “those sellouts who don’t really believe in Islam and just want to keep playing their political games”.

Then came the rallying flag: a political disagreement over the succession. One group called themselves “the party of Ali”, whose Arabic translation “Shiatu Ali” eventually ended up as just “Shia”. The other group won and called itself “the traditional orthodox group”, in Arabic “Sunni”. Instead of a vague sense of “I wonder whether that guy there is one of those goody-goodies always talking about Mohammed, or whether he’s a practical type interested in good governance”, people could just ask “Are you for Abu Bakr or Ali?” and later “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Also at some point, I’m not exactly sure how, most of the Sunni ended up in Arabia and most of the Shia ended up in Iraq and Iran, after which I think some pre-existing Iraqi/Iranian vs. Arab cultural differences got absorbed into the Sunni/Shia mix too.

Then came development. Both groups developed elaborate mythologies lionizing their founders. The Sunni got the history of the “rightly-guided caliphs”, the Shia exaggerated the first few imams to legendary proportions. They developed grievances against each other; according to Shia history, the Sunnis killed eleven of their twelve leaders, with the twelfth escaping only when God directly plucked him out of the world to serve as a future Messiah. They developed different schools of hadith interpretation and jurisprudence and debated the differences ad nauseum with each other for hundreds of years. A lot of Shia theology is in Farsi; Sunni theology is entirely in Arabic. Sunni clergy usually dress in white; Shia clergy usually dress in black and green. Not all of these were deliberately done in opposition to one another; most were just a consequence of the two camps being walled off from one another and so allowed to develop cultures independently.

Obviously the split hasn’t dissolved yet, but it’s worth looking at similar splits that have. Catholicism vs. Protestantism is still a going concern in a few places like Ireland, but it’s nowhere near the total wars of the 17th century or even the Know-Nothing-Parties of the 19th. Consider that Marco Rubio is Catholic, but nobody except Salon particularly worries about that or says that it will make him unsuitable to lead a party representing the interests of very evangelical Protestants. Heck, the same party was happy to nominate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and praise him for his “Christian faith”. Part of it is the subsumption of those differences into a larger conflict – most Christians acknowledge Christianity vs. atheism to be a bigger deal than interdenominational disputes these days – and part of it is that everyone of every religion is so influenced by secular American culture that the religions have been reduced to their rallying flags alone rather than being fully developed tribes at this point. American Sunni and Shia seem to be well on their way to dissolving into each other too.


I want to discuss a couple of issues that I think make more sense once you understand the concept of tribes and rallying flags:

1. Disability: I used to be very confused by disabled people who insist on not wanting a “cure” for their condition. Deaf people and autistic people are the two classic examples, and sure enough we find articles like Not All Deaf People Want To Be Cured and They Don’t Want An Autism Cure. Autistic people can at least argue their minds work differently rather than worse, but being deaf seems to be a straight-out disadvantage: the hearing can do anything the deaf can, and can hear also. A hearing person can become deaf at any time just by wearing earplugs, but a deaf person can’t become hearing, at least not without very complicated high-tech surgeries.

When I asked some deaf friends about this, they explained that they had a really close-knit and supportive deaf culture, and that most of their friends, social events, and ways of relating to other people and the world were through this culture. This made sense, but I always wondered: if you were able to hear, couldn’t you form some other culture? If worst came to worst and nobody else wanted to talk to you, couldn’t you at least have the Ex-Deaf People’s Club?

I don’t think so. Deafness acts as a rallying flag that connects people, gives them a shared foundation to build culture off of, and walls the group off from other people. If all deaf people magically became able to hear, their culture would eventually drift apart, and they’d be stuck without an ingroup to call their own.

Part of this is reasonable cost-benefit calculation – our society is so vast and atomized, and forming real cohesive tribes is so hard, that they might reasonably expect it would be a lot of trouble to find another group they liked as much as the deaf community. But another part of this seems to be about an urge to cultural self-preservation.

2. Genocide: This term is kind of overused these days. I always thought of it as meaning literally killing every member of a certain group – the Holocaust, for example – but the new usage includes “cultural genocide”. For example, autism rights advocates sometimes say that anybody who cured autism would be committing genocide – this is of course soundly mocked, but it makes sense if you think of autistic people as a tribe that would be dissolved absent its rallying flag. The tribe would be eliminated – thus “cultural genocide” is a reasonable albeit polemical description.

It seems to me that people have an urge toward cultural self-preservation which is as strong or stronger as the urge to individual self-preservation. Part of this is rational cost-benefit calculation – if someone loses their only tribe and ends up alone in the vast and atomized sea of modern society, it might take years before they can find another tribe and really be at home there. But a lot of it seems to be beyond that, an emotional certainty that losing one’s culture and having it replaced with another is not okay, any more than being killed at the same time someone else has a baby is okay. Nor do I think this is necessarily irrational; locating the thing whose survival you care about in the self rather than the community is an assumption, and people can make different assumptions without being obviously wrong.

3. Rationalists: The rationalist community is a group of people (of which I’m a part) who met reading the site Less Wrong and who tend to hang out together online, sometimes hang out together in real life, and tend to befriend each other, work with each other, date each other, and generally move in the same social circles. Some people call it a cult, but that’s more a sign of some people having lost vocabulary for anything between “totally atomized individuals” and “outright cult” than any particular cultishness.

But people keep asking me what exactly the rationalist community is. Like, what is the thing they believe that makes them rationalists? It can’t just be about being rational, because loads of people are interested in that and most of them aren’t part of the community. And it can’t just be about transhumanism because there are a lot of transhumanists who aren’t rationalists, and lots of rationalists who aren’t transhumanists. And it can’t just be about Bayesianism, because pretty much everyone, rationalist or otherwise, agrees that is a kind of statistics that is useful for some things but not others. So what, exactly, is it?

This question has always bothered me, but now after thinking about it a lot I finally have a clear answer: rationalism is the belief that Eliezer Yudkowsky is the rightful caliph.

No! Sorry! I think “the rationalist community” is a tribe much like the Sunni or Shia that started off with some pre-existing differences, found a rallying flag, and then developed a culture.

The pre-existing differences range from the obvious to the subtle. A lot of rationalists are mathematicians, programmers, or computer scientists. The average IQ is in the 130s. White men are overrepresented, but so are LGBT and especially transgender people. But there’s more. Nobody likes the Myers-Briggs test, but I continue to find it really interesting that rationalists have some Myers-Briggs types (INTJ/INTP) at ten times the ordinary rate, and other types (ISFJ/ESFP) at only one one-hundredth the ordinary rate. Myers-Briggs doesn’t cleave reality at its joints, but if it measures anything at all about otherwise hard-to-explain differences in thinking styles, the rationalist community heavily selects for those same differences. Sure enough, I am constantly running into people who say “This is the only place where I’ve ever found people who think like me” or “I finally feel understood”.

The rallying flag was the Less Wrong Sequences. Eliezer Yudkowsky started a blog (actually, borrowed Robin Hanson’s) about cognitive biases and how to think through them. Whether or not you agreed with him or found him enlightening loaded heavily on those pre-existing differences, so the people who showed up in the comment section got along and started meeting up with each other. “Do you like Eliezer Yudkowsky’s blog?” became a useful proxy for all sorts of things, eventually somebody coined the word “rationalist” to refer to people who did, and then you had a group with nice clear boundaries.

The development is everything else. Obviously a lot of jargon sprung up in the form of terms from the blog itself. The community got heroes like Gwern and Anna Salamon who were notable for being able to approach difficult questions insightfully. It doesn’t have much of an outgroup yet – maybe just bioethicists and evil robots. It has its own foods – MealSquares, that one kind of chocolate everyone in Berkeley started eating around the same time – and its own games. It definitely has its own inside jokes. I think its most important aspect, though, is a set of shared mores – everything from “understand the difference between ask and guess culture and don’t get caught up in it” to “cuddling is okay” to “don’t misgender trans people” – and a set of shared philosophical assumptions like utilitarianism and reductionism.

I’m stressing this because I keep hearing people ask “What is the rationalist community?” or “It’s really weird that I seem to be involved in the rationalist community even though I don’t share belief X” as if there’s some sort of necessary-and-sufficient featherless-biped-style ideological criterion for membership. This is why people are saying “Lots of you aren’t even singularitarians, and everyone agrees Bayesian methods are useful in some places and not so useful in others, so what is your community even about?” But once again, it’s about Eliezer Yudkowsky being the rightful caliph it’s not necessarily about anything.

If you take only one thing from this essay, it’s that communities are best understood not logically but historically. If you want to understand the Shia, don’t reflect upon the true meaning of Ali being the rightful caliph, understand that a dispute involving Ali initiated ethnogenesis, the resulting culture picked up a bunch of features and became useful to various people, and now here we are. If you want to understand the rationalist community, don’t ask exactly how near you have to think the singularity has to be before you qualify for membership, focus on the fact that some stuff Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote led to certain people identifying themselves as “rationalists” and for various reasons I enjoy dinner parties with those people about 10000% more interesting than dinner parties with randomly selected individuals.

nostalgebraist actually summed this up really well: “Maybe the real rationalism was the friends we made along the way.” Maybe that’s the real Shia Islam too, and the real Democratic Party, and so on.

4. Evangelical And Progressive Religion: There seems to be a generational process, sort of like Harold Lee’s theory of immigrant assimilation, by which religions dissolve. The first generation believes everything literally. The second generation believes that the religion might not be literally true, but it’s an important expression of universal values and they still want to follow the old ways and participate in the church/temple/mosque/mandir community. The third generation is completely secularized.

This was certainly my family’s relationship with Judaism. My great-great-grandfather was so Jewish that he left America and returned to Eastern Europe because he was upset at American Jews for not being religious enough. My great-grandfather stayed behind in America but remained a very religious Jew. My grandparents attend synagogue when they can remember, speak a little Yiddish, and identify with the traditions. My parents went to a really liberal synagogue where the rabbi didn’t believe in God and everyone just agreed they were going through the motions. I got Bar Mitzvahed when I was a kid but haven’t been to synagogue in years. My children probably won’t even have that much.

So imagine you’re an evangelical Christian. All the people you like are also evangelical Christians. Most of your social life happens at church. Most of your good memories involve things like Sunday school and Easter celebrations, and even your bittersweet memories are things like your pastor speaking at your parents’ funeral. Most of your hopes and dreams involve marrying someone and having kids and then sharing similarly good times with them. When you try to hang out with people who aren’t evangelical Christians, they seem to think really differently than you do, and not at all in a good way. A lot of your happiest intellectual experiences involve geeking out over different Bible verses and the minutiae of different Christian denominations.

Then somebody points out to you that God probably doesn’t exist. And even if He does, it’s probably in some vague and complicated way, and not the way that means that the Thrice-Reformed Meta-Baptist Church and only the Thrice-Reformed Meta-Baptist Church has the correct interpretation of the Bible and everyone else is wrong.

On the one hand, their argument might be convincing. On the other, you are pretty sure that if everyone agreed on this, your culture would be destroyed. Sure, your kids could be Christmas-and-Easter-Christians who still enjoy the cultural aspects and derive personal meaning from the Bible. But you’re pretty sure that within a couple of generations your descendents would be exactly as secular as anyone else. Absent the belief that serves as your culture’s wall against the outside world, it would dissolve without a trace into the greater homogeneity of Western liberal society. So, do you keep believing a false thing? Or do you give up on everything you love and enjoy and dissolve into a culture that mostly hates and mocks people like you? There’s no good choice. This is why it sucks that things like religion and politics are both rallying flags for tribes, and actual things that there may be a correct position on.

5. Religious Literalism: One comment complaint I heard during the height of the Atheist-Theist Online Wars was that atheists were a lot like fundamentalists. Both wanted to interpret the religious texts in the most literal possible way.

Being on the atheist side of these wars, I always wanted to know: well, why wouldn’t you? Given that the New Testament clearly says you have to give all your money to the poor, and the Old Testament doesn’t say anything about mixing meat and milk, maybe religious Christians should start giving everything to the poor and religious Jews should stop worrying so much about which dishes to use when?

But I think this is the same mistake as treating the Sunni as an organization dedicated to promoting an Abu Bakr caliphate. The holy book is the rallying flag for a religion, but the religion is not itself about the holy book. The rallying flag created a walled-off space where people could undergo the development process and create an independent culture. That independent culture may diverge significantly from the holy book.

I think that very neurotypical people naturally think in terms of tribes, and the idea that they have to retool their perfectly functional tribe to conform to the exact written text of its holy book or constitution or stated political ideology or something seems silly to them. I think that less neurotypical people – a group including many atheists – think less naturally in terms of tribes and so tend to take claims like “Christianity is about following the Bible” at face value. But Christianity is about being part of the Christian tribe, and although that tribe started around the Bible, maintains its coherence because of the Bible, and is of course naturally influenced by it, if it happens to contradict the Bible in some cases that’s not necessarily surprising or catastrophic.

This is also why I’m not really a fan of debates over whether Islam is really “a religion of peace” or “a religion of violence”, especially if those debates involve mining the Quran for passages that support one’s preferred viewpoint. It’s not just because the Quran is a mess of contradictions with enough interpretive degrees of freedom to prove anything at all. It’s not even because Islam is a host of separate cultures as different from one another as Unitarianism is from the Knights Templar. It’s because the Quran just created the space in which the Islamic culture could evolve, but had only limited impact on that evolution. As well try to predict the warlike or peaceful nature of the United Kingdom by looking at a topographical map of Great Britain.

6. Cultural Appropriation: Thanks to some people who finally explained this to me in a way that made sense. When an item or artform becomes the rallying flag for a tribe, it can threaten the tribe if other people just want to use it as a normal item or artform.

Suppose that rappers start with pre-existing differences from everyone else. Poor, male, non-white minority, lots of experience living in violent places, maybe a certain philosophical outlook towards their condition. Then they get a rallying flag: rap music. They meet one another, like one another. The culture undergoes further development: the lionization of famous rappers, the development of a vocabulary of shared references. They get all of the benefits of being in a tribe like increased trust, social networking, and a sense of pride and identity.

Now suppose some rich white people get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for innocuous reasons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-existing differences, and they can’t be easily assimilated into the tribe. Maybe they develop different conventions, and start saying that instead of being about the struggles of living in severe poverty, rap should be about Founding Fathers. Maybe they start saying the original rappers are bad, and they should stop talking about violence and bitches because that ruins rap’s reputation. Since rich white people tend to be be good at gaining power and influence, maybe their opinions are overrepresented at the Annual Rap Awards, and all of a sudden you can’t win a rap award unless your rap is about the Founding Fathers and doesn’t mention violence (except Founding-Father-related duels). All of a sudden if you try to start some kind of impromptu street rap-off, you’re no longer going to find a lot of people like you whom you instantly get along with and can form a high-trust community. You’re going to find half people like that, and half rich white people who strike you as annoying and are always complaining that your raps don’t feature any Founding Fathers at all. The rallying flag fails and the tribe is lost as a cohesive entity.

7. Fake Gamer Girls: A more controversial example of the same. Video gaming isn’t just a fun way to pass the time. It also brings together a group of people with some pre-existing common characteristics: male, nerdy, often abrasive, not very successful, interested in speculation, high-systematizing. It gives them a rallying flag and creates a culture which then develops its own norms, shared reference points, internet memes, webcomics, heroes, shared gripes, even some unique literature. Then other people with very different characteristics and no particular knowledge of the culture start enjoying video games just because video games are fun. Since the Gamer Tribe has no designated cultural spaces except video games forums and magazines, they view this as an incursion into their cultural spaces and a threat to their existence as a tribe.

Stereotypically this is expressed as them getting angry when girls start playing video games. One can argue that it’s unfair to infer tribe membership based on superficial characteristics like gender – in the same way it might be unfair for the Native Americans to assume someone with blonde hair and blue eyes probably doesn’t follow the Old Ways – but from the tribe’s perspective it’s a reasonable first guess.

I’ve found gamers to get along pretty well with women who share their culture, and poorly with men who don’t – but admit that the one often starts from an assumption of foreignness and the other from an assumption of membership. More important, I’ve found the idea of the rejection of the ‘fake gamer girl’, real or not, raised more as a libel by people who genuinely do want to destroy gamer culture, in the sense of cleansing video-game-related spaces of a certain type of person/culture and making them entirely controlled by a different type of person/culture, in much the same way that a rich white person who says any rapper who uses violent lyrics needs to be blacklisted from the rap world has a clear culture-change project going on.

These cultural change projects tend to be framed in terms of which culture has the better values, which I think is a limited perspective. I think America has better values than Pakistan does, but that doesn’t mean I want us invading them, let alone razing their culture to the ground and replacing it with our own.

8. Subcultures And Posers: Obligatory David Chapman link. A poser is somebody who uses the rallying flag but doesn’t have the pre-existing differences that create tribal membership and so never really fits into the tribe.

9. Nationalism, Patriotism, and Racism: Nationalism and patriotism use national identity as the rallying flag for a strong tribe. In many cases, nationalism becomes ethno-nationalism, which builds tribal identity off of a combination of heritage, language, religion, and culture. It has to be admitted that this can make for some incredibly strong tribes. The rallying flag is built into ancestry, and so the walls are near impossible to obliterate. The symbolism and jargon and cultural identity can be instilled from birth onward. Probably the best example of this is the Jews, who combine ethnicity, religion, and language into a bundle deal and have resisted assimilation for millennia.

Sometimes this can devolve into racism. I’m not sure exactly what the difference between ethno-nationalism and racism is, or whether there even is a difference, except that “race” is a much more complicated concept than ethnicity and it’s probably not a coincidence that it has become most popular in a country like America whose ethnicities are hopelessly confused. The Nazis certainly needed a lot of work to transform concern about the German nation into concern about the Aryan race. But it’s fair to say all of this is somewhat related or at least potentially related.

On the other hand, in countries that have non-ethnic notions of heritage, patriotism has an opportunity to substite for racism. Think about the power of the civil rights message that, whether black or white, we are all Americans.

This is maybe most obvious in sub-national groups. Despite people paying a lot of attention to the supposed racism of Republicans, the rare black Republicans do shockingly well within their party. Both Ben Carson and Herman Cain briefly topped the Republican presidential primary polls during their respective election seasons, and their failures seem to have had much more to do with their own personal qualities than with some sort of generic Republican racism. I see the same with Thomas Sowell, with Hispanic Republicans like Ted Cruz, and Asian Republicans like Bobby Jindal.

Maybe an even stronger example is the human biodiversity movement, which many people understandably accuse of being entirely about racism. Nevertheless, some of its most leading figures are black – JayMan and Chanda Chisala (who is adjacent to the movement but gets lots of respect within it) – and they seem to get equal treatment and respect to their white counterparts. Their membership in a strong and close-knit tribe screens off everything else about them.

I worry that attempts to undermine nationalism/patriotism in order to fight racism risk backfiring. The weaker the “American” tribe becomes, the more people emphasize their other tribes – which can be either overtly racial or else heavily divided along racial lines (eg political parties). It continues to worry me that people who would never display an American flag on their lawn because “nations are just a club for hating foreigners” now have a campaign sign on their lawn, five bumper stickers on their car, and are identifying more and more strongly with political positions – ie clubs for hating their fellow citizens.

Is there such a thing as conservation of tribalism? Get rid of one tribal identity and people just end up seizing on another? I’m not sure. And anyway, nobody can agree on exactly what the American identity or American tribe is anyway, so any conceivable such identity would probably risk alienating a bunch of people. I guess that makes it a moot point. But I still think that deliberately trying to eradicate patriotism is not as good an idea as is generally believed.


I think tribes are interesting and underdiscussed. And in a lot of cases when they are discussed, it’s within preexisting frameworks that tilt the playing field towards recognizing some tribes as fundamentally good, others as fundamentally bad, and ignoring the commonalities between all of them.

But in order to talk about tribes coherently, we need to talk about rallying flags. And that involves admitting that a lot of rallying flags are based on ideologies (which are sometimes wrong), holy books (which are always wrong), nationality (which we can’t define), race (which is racist), and works of art (which some people inconveniently want to enjoy just as normal art without any connotations).

My title for this post is also my preferred summary: the ideology is not the movement. Or, more jargonishly – the rallying flag is not the tribe. People are just trying to find a tribe for themselves and keep it intact. This often involves defending an ideology they might not be tempted to defend for any other reason. This doesn’t make them bad, and it may not even necessarily mean their tribe deserves to go extinct. I’m reluctant to say for sure whether I think it’s okay to maintain a tribe based on a faulty ideology, but I think it’s at least important to understand that these people are in a crappy situation with no good choices, and they deserve some pity.

Some vital aspects of modern society – freedom of speech, freedom of criticism, access to multiple viewpoints, the existence of entryist tribes with explicit goals of invading and destroying competing tribes as problematic, and the overwhelming pressure to dissolve into the Generic Identity Of Modern Secular Consumerism – make maintaining tribal identities really hard these days. I think some of the most interesting sociological questions revolve around whether there are any ways around the practical and moral difficulties with tribalism, what social phenomena are explicable as the struggle of tribes to maintain themselves in the face of pressure, and whether tribalism continues to be a worthwhile or even a possible project at all.

EDIT: I’ve been informed of a very similar Melting Asphalt post, Religion Is Not About Beliefs. Everyone has pre-stolen my best ideas 🙁

Beware Regional Scatterplots

[Epistemic status: Not original, but worth mentioning]

I’ve been using scatterplots of different states and countries a lot here lately. For example, this one in the discussion about guns:

And this one in the discussion about national happiness:

Hopefully we already know that we should worry about confounders like income and race and those kinds of things when we’re looking at a graph like this. But recently I learned it’s even worse than that. Consider for example this:

This is the average yearly rainfall in the lower 48 US states vs. their gender balance (measured in number of men per 100 women). The correlation is about r = 0.84 (p ≤ 0.0001), much higher than anyone’s ever found between guns and crime, or income and happiness, or most other things people make regional scatterplots about. So what’s going on? Do women cause rainfall? Does rain drive men away? Or is there some confounder that causes both rain and womanhood?

I don’t think it’s any of these things. I think it’s a coincidence.

“But you said p ≤ 0.0001! There are forty-eight data points and the fit is almost perfect! How could it be a coincidence?”

But I don’t think there are forty-eight data points. I think there are three data points. For 48 data points to all lie the same line is very impressive. For three data points to all lie on the same line is much less so.

I think that Southern states have more women (probably because they have a higher male incarceration rate, and incarcerated men aren’t counted) and more rainfall. Mountainous western states have more men (probably because the jobs there tend to be in manly mining/forestry type industries) and are pretty dry. And other states are somewhere between those two extremes.

Within these regional categories the rainfall/gender relationship is random – on the scatterplot it would look like a circle. But between these three regional categories the rainfall/gender relationship is very strong, making the whole chart consist of three circles in a line. Crucially, because these are kind of amorphous circles and they blend into each other, you can’t tell that that’s what’s going on. Here’s my graphic depiction of this:

In the first box, the gray points show what looks like a very significant correlation – the further right you go on the horizontal axis, the further down you go on the vertical axis. The gray trend line confirms the strong relationship. In our US state example, this was a correlation between many women and high rainfall.

In the second box, the gray points are revealed to be grouped into three regions: blue, green, and red. In our US state example, blue is the female-skewed and rainy Southern states, red is the male-skewed and dry Western states, and green are all the other states with pretty average rainfalls and gender balances. Within each region, there’s no relationship between rainfall and gender, as shown by the horizontal red, green, and blue trend lines.

In the third box, we see what I’d argue is the correct interpretation of the data. There are three big data points – the South, the West, and the Rest – and they do sort of form a line but nobody cares about a line between three data points.

If I go back to my statistics packet and repeat the rainfall/gender correlation with only three points – the Southern average, the Western average, and the Other average – I still get r = -0.84, but now p = 0.3. The statistics have no reason to think it’s anything other than pure coincidence – and indeed, with that small a sample size, why would they?

I think most real studies are smart enough to control for this – although it’s really hard to determine how exactly you should be doing that and leaves a lot of wiggle room for people who want to fudge their way to a preferred result. But basic scatterplots do not control for it, and so almost every regional scatterplot is suspect.

This is why I was happy to see the income/happiness correlation broken down further:

This makes it clear that the income/happiness relationship is primarily cluster-driven, with clusters of ex-Communist countries, Latin American countries, and Euro/Anglosphere countries (if you’re willing to do some more work, you can sort of make out clusters of African and Asian countries). None of these clusters show a strong income/happiness relationship except for the ex-Communist one, which suggests this might be the same kind of confounding as the rainfall/gender example above.

…unless I’m biased and reading too much into this. It’s really easy to change your conclusion just by changing your clusters. For example, if Puerto Rico counts as Latin American, then that creates a pretty impressive happiness/income relationship within that cluster. If it counts as Euro/Anglosphere – it’s part of the US, after all – then there is no income/happiness relationship within either cluster. So which is it?

Or what about this? I claim that the apparent income/happiness relationship within the ex-Communist countries is actually an artifact of Europeanness. The richest ex-Communist countries, like East Germany and the Czech Republic – are also the happiest only because they are closest to Western Europe, which is both happier and richer than the rest of the world. Likewise, the poorest ex-Communist countries, like Armenia and Georgia, are also the unhappiest only because they are the furthest and least Western European of the bunch.

Once we start going there, we can pretty much prove or disprove anything we want based on our own intuitions about how to group things. I am suspicious of this, but I’m also equally suspicious of not doing that – do you really just want to let it pass that Puerto Rico, the closest Latin American country to the Euro/Anglosphere cluster, is also politically Euro/Anglosphere?

Overall there is no good answer and I would recommend against drawing any strong causal conclusions from a scatterplot unless someone has very carefully addressed these concern.

EDIT: Inty gives a great (ie horrifying) example in the comments, and Theo Jones discusses more formal tests of spatial autocorrelation. Some people bring up the possibility that some of the rainfall/gender relationship is causal after all, since drier states will have less farming and be forced to turn to mining/forestry to support themselves; this is possible but probably doesn’t explain the whole relationship, and even if I’m wrong about this one the point is still important.

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