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Dispatches from Weird Platonic Spherical Cow Perfect Rationality Outside View World

Links 11/15: Linksgiving

Owl species of the week: the Powerful Owl.

You may have heard the theory that the famous God-reaching-toward-Adam picture in the Sistine Chapel actually encodes an anatomically correct image of the human brain. But did you know that another Sistine Chapel image, The Separation of Light from Darkness, might contain a detailed diagram of the medulla? Apparently the whole Sistine Chapel ceiling was just one big disguised anatomy textbook, or something.

A random guy who put up a website of fake facts about James Buchanan and then followed it to see who cited them and how far they went.

The statistics behind why Antigua & Barbuda (population 90,000) can have a better soccer team than China (population 1.3 billion), and how this applies to other measures of national differences and success.

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz acting out a scene from The Princess Bride and actually being pretty good at it.

I previously said some nice things about ASAN and the neurodiversity movement, but Slate has published a couple of exposes on them that might force me to take that back. A big part of their argument is that we don’t need cures because autistic people, even supposedly nonverbal autistic people, prove to be intelligent and self-reliant when given proper accomodations. But by “proper accomodations” they usually mean Facilitated Communication, and this is actually pseudoscience that works on about the same principles as the Ouija Board. Related: ASAN New York doubles down on supporting Facilitated Communication.

From the Department of Living In The Future: Dubai Firefighters To Get Jetpacks For Fighting Skyscraper Fires.

A while back I pointed out some polls suggesting that white people’s opinion of police improved after the Ferguson shooting, apparently as a kind of backlash-to-the-backlash effect. Possibly related: favorability ratings of Muslims rise after every big Islamic terrorist attack.

In the 1980s Democrats and Republicans both supported Israel about the same amount. Over the next thirty years, Republican support for Israel shot way, way up. Why did that happen, and will it politicize Israel enough to start making the Democrats dislike it?

Chutzpah: Wired writes an article on a $100,000 nano-sapphire razor mocking its ridiculous cost and saying that “It’s all so depressing…if Zafirro sells a single one of these, the world will be a worse place.” Zafirro’s now got it on Kickstarter, with an “as seen on Wired” advertisement.

Lots of continuing discussion about Garrett Jones’ new IQ-of-nations book Hive Mind. Open borders supporter Robin Hanson says that “I must admit to now being more nervous about allowing more impatient and stupid immigrants, though as Bryan Caplan points out, that still allows for taking on billions of smart immigrants. But even if I’m now mildly more reluctant to take on certain kinds of immigrants, I’ll blame that mainly on our poor governance institutions, which give too much weight to the stupid and the impatient.” Bryan Caplan says that given some common assumptions about discount rate, open borders is still an obviously good policy. Jones answers that given Bryan’s assumptions about discount rates, open borders would still be an obviously good idea even if it set off a thousand-year dark age. You can see the full debate between them here (warning: video).

David Friedman on legal systems very different from ours.

Did you know: according to the Star Wars Extended Universe, Jar Jar Binks’ father is named George R. Binks, and he attempted suicide because of how annoying his son was.

The Ku Klux Klan had little measurable impact on society in terms of any variables being different in areas with high vs. low Klan participation. What it did have was – seriously – a really sweet business selling overpriced robes, such that it might best be viewed as “rather than a terrorist organization, a social organization built through a wildly successful pyramid scheme fueled by an army of highly-incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand.”

Giving one party or the other unified control of a US state government has surprisingly little effect – for example, increasing (or decreasing) welfare payments about $2 per month per recipient, and switching the political climate of a state an amount only “one-twentieth the size of the typical difference between states”

Uber for flu shots is actually just regular Uber.

The H-1B visa lottery seems to be gamed by a few big companies that spam the government with applications. A new company is trying to counter-game the system by helping current H-1B holders transfer to new companies, leaving the big companies that got them their visas wailing and gnashing their teeth.

Psilocybin makes brain regions more connected. To some degree this is cool. To another, I’m starting to worry that every time neuroscientists are asked to explain something they flip a coin, and if it lands heads they say “this increases connections between brain regions” and if it lands tails they say “this decreases connections between brain regions”.

The time a legion of 40,000 Czechoslovakians went to fight in Russia, then were blocked by World War I and the Russian Revolution from crossing back into Czechoslovakia. One of them remembered that the world was round, and so began a three year, 20,000 mile journey to bring the entire legion around the world.

People are much more likely to identify as nonwhite when given affirmative action incentives to do so. Also: theory of a correlation between campus affirmative action and the latest round of campus protests (not just “affirmative action means more minorities and so more protests by minorities”, more interesting than that)

From the Department Of Things That Are Obvious In Retrospect: nutrition study finds that different people have widely varying metabolic responses to the same foods.

12th century Bologna looks like some kind of vision of a 22nd century supermetropolis thanks to its up-to-180 really tall towers.

Despite their growing demographic disadvantage, Republicans are likely to maintain Congressional and state-level power in the US for the next few decades.

Police civil asset forfeitures exceed all burglaries in 2014.

People talk a lot about restoring monarchy these days, but nobody ever mentions what rule of succession we should use. The genetics community comes through and proves that optimal royal succession moves from parent to opposite-sex child.

Why are scientists finding fungi in the brains of Alzheimers patients (but not healthy controls)? The Economist also comments. I don’t know much about this, but I would think if it were straight-out caused by fungus, someone would have noticed that people treated with antifungals had their Alzheimers go away / stop progressing. Other possibility – Alzheimers is a disruption to the brain’s immune system (it is) and this makes it harder for it to get rid of fungi.

French organization demands a law that imams must obtain a license certifying them to be liberal and tolerant before preaching. So far, so racist – except that the organization involved is actually France’s largest Muslim group, and this seems less about Islamophobia than about regulatory capture and attempts at monopolizing a religious ‘market’ – guess who they hope would be giving out the licenses.

Pokemon or Big Data?

H/T Stephen Guyenet: this chart is a pretty damning one-image rebuttal to people who think sugar is responsible for the obesity epidemic.

Vox: Wait a second, why are we all so sure that constant front-runner Donald Trump will suddenly crash and burn just before the election for no apparent reason?

Sam Harris really doesn’t like Salon, and as per his story Salon lied about editing one of his interviews.

Another good example of how reporters have lots of degrees in freedom when deciding how to report studies: recent research finds that women with lots of tattoos have higher self-esteem – and four times as many suicide attempts.

Time to take the 2015 Effective Altruism Survey – your participation is welcome even if you do not identify as an effective altruist.

Scott Sumner has a new book out, The Midas Paradox, which despite having a perfect title for an airport thriller in fact is about how issues with the gold market help explain the Great Depression. Tyler Cowen reviews and calls it “a very good book, one of the best on the economics of the Great Depression ever written.”

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OT35: Boston Comment

This is my attempt to get away without writing posts because I’m still on vacation the weekly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. The subreddit is still around and will host parallel open threads. Those of you who don’t like the commenting system here can go there and either post on the open thread or start a new topic.

2. Comment of the week is Sarah explaining the gift horse thing better than I could. I may have to ban myself from giving Sarah comment-of-the-week status too often because that’s too easy.

3. Thanks to everyone who attended the Boston meetup and my talks in the Northeast. Everyone was super nice and I’m really happy with how it all went and with all the great people I met. Some kind of video or transcript of talk possibly to become available later, maybe.

4. MealSquares (the Soylent-esque food substitute company that advertises in the sidebar here, as seen in Business Insider magazine) is looking for a formally trained nutrition expert who’s good at parsing and understanding studies in the field to serve as an advisor in exchange for equity in their company. If that sounds like you, you can contact them here.

5. Nathan Robinson, whose blog Navel Observatory is on the other sidebar here and whose work I’ve previously linked to, is starting a “new print magazine of political analysis, satire, and entertainment” and seeking donations/subscriptions on Kickstarter. Take a look.

6. Please use the “Report” button responsibly. If you don’t like someone, finding and reporting every single one of their posts doesn’t get them banned. It just means every single one of my posts appears on my reported comments list, and I have to manually clear all of them after I see they’re not bad. It doesn’t punish them, it just punishes me.

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Reporter Degrees Of Freedom


A sample of Thursday’s talk at Yale:

These are four headlines describing the same study, Milkie, Nomaguchi and Denny (2015). The study found that of twenty or so outcomes, only three of them – all measuring delinquent behavior among teenagers – show significant effect from time spent with parents (and this result remains after Bonferroni correction). So Vox has a great argument for their headline. The National Post has an okay argument for their headline even though it’s kind of cherry-picked. The Washington Post just sort of reads between the lines and figures that if it’s not quantity of time that helps kids, it must be quality. And FOX also reads between the lines and figures that if moms spending time with their kids has no effect, the argument from opportunity costs suggests mothers are spending too much time with their kids.

None of them are completely outright lying. And indeed, most of the articles eventually explain what I just said, halfway down the article, in one or two short sentences that most readers will skim over. But the rest of the article uses the study to support whatever the news source involved wants it to support, and so people will come up with four diametrically opposed conclusions from this one study depending on which source they read.


Here’s a study that I wasn’t able to include in the presentation because it just came out recently. As per the Rice University press release: Overweight Men Just As Likely As Overweight Women To Face Discrimination.

The paper included two studies. In the first, men went into stores either with or without fat suits and try to do some things – ask if there were job openings, ask for a job application, ask an employee for help, try to buy some things, et cetera. Then they measured the men’s success across both conditions to see if they had more trouble when they appeared overweight.

In the second, subjects were asked to rate videos of an employee giving a marketing spiel for a new product; once again, the employee was either wearing or not wearing a fat suit. They measured the subjects’ ratings across conditions to see if they ranked the overweight employees lower.

The first study only included men, and so could not possibly have determined whether men were more or less likely than overweight women to face discrimination. The second study actually did have both male and female employees involved, and although it really wasn’t their main interest, the researchers did a post hoc evaluation to find the effect in each sex. In all three of the outcomes where discrimination was found, women faced more discrimination than men. They didn’t significance-test the comparison, but just from eyeballing it, it was probably significant.

So a paper in which one study does not compare men to women, and the other study finds women facing more discrimination than men, the press release somehow gets phrased as “Overweight men just as likely as overweight women to face discrimination in retail settings”. Huh.

You might wonder, “Does it really matter what a press release says? Does anyone read the exact wording?” Yes. Many other news sources copied the phrasing, for example Medical Daily’s Fat Discrimination Is The Same Regardless Of Gender. One such copycat, copied the press release nearly word for word, including the title. Then it got posted on Reddit and now has 5189 upvotes and 1572 comments. So there’s that.


“But at least it correctly raised awareness of how weight discrimination is a big problem in the retail setting, right?”

The paper measured a ton of different outcomes. Let’s focus on Study 1. The actor in the fat suit was supposed to ask if there were job openings (there were) and see if the company told him. Then he was supposed to ask for an application form and see if they gave it to him. Then he was supposed to walk in as a customer and see if employees greeted him. Then he was supposed to ask the employees to recommend him an item and see if they did. Then he was supposed to ask them to recommend him a second item and see if they did.

No difference was found between overweight and normal-weight actors in any of those five experiments. Two of them had ceiling effects that probably made the attempt futile, but the other three didn’t, and there wasn’t even a trend toward discriminating against the overweight guy.

So what did they find discrimination on? They say that detected “interpersonal discrimination”, ie discrimination based not on any quantifiable outcome but based on how friendly/warm the person interacting with the actor seemed toward him. They determined this by self-rating and other-rating; that is, the actor wrote down how friendly he thought the store clerks were toward him, and a spy surreptitious observer who had placed herself near the interaction also rated this for corroboration. Their rating scales included twelve items including “how many times did the clerk nod”, “how friendly did the clerk seem?”, “how much eye contact was the clerk making?” and “how much comfort level did the clerk seem to have?”. The experiment found a statistically significant difference between the fat-suit-wearing and non-fat-suit-wearing trials and concluded that there was interpersonal discrimination.

But hold on a second! The study says nothing about anyone being blinded. In fact, it’s really hard to blind an actor to the fact that he is going into some stores while wearing a fat suit and other stores while not wearing a fat suit. As far as I can tell, everybody involved was in on the study from the beginning. If your boss tells you “I want you to rate how much comfort level clerks have with you for this study on fat discrimination”, it seems really possible to me that there might be a slight tendency to overrate the clerks who interacted with thin-you, and to underrate the clerks who interacted with fat-you.

How slight a tendency? Clerks dealing with fat people got an average rating of 2.3 (seven point scale, lower is better), and those dealing with thin people of 2.0.

So after finding no discrimination on five objectively measurable outcomes, they find very subtle discrimination on an unblinded subjective outcome practically designed to produce placebo effects.

We move on to the second study, where participants (as usual, psychology students) are rating video presentations given by fat vs. thin people. This is supposedly tying into the “retail industry” theme of the paper, but honestly it seems kind of forced to me.

Anyway, the participants are asked to rate their presenters on seven measures: overall quality of presentation, overall attitude toward product being presented, overall attitude toward the store that would employ a person such as this, intention to support the store, employee’s appearance, employee’s carelessness, and employee’s professionalism. The results:

There was no difference between how participants rated overweight vs. normal-weight presentations overall.

There was no difference between how participants rated products presented by overweight vs. normal-weight people.

There was no difference between how participants rated stores staffed by overweight vs. normal-weight people.

There was no difference between how likely participants were to support stores staffed by overweight vs. normal-weight people.

There was a difference in how participants ranked the appearance, carelessness, and professionalism of overweight vs. normal-weight people.

The first four results are encouraging. What about the last three?

Well, I feel like if you ask people to rank someone based on “their appearance”, and your subjects answer based on how they look, you kind of walked into that one. Oh no, people rank conventionally attractive people as having better appearances than less conventionally attractive people! Someone call John Ioannidis to double-check this astonishing result!

“Carelessness” and “professionalism” are perhaps less excusable, but c’mon, you had them watch a two-minute video. When you give someone zero information on a thing, and you force them to make a judgment on the thing, then yes, stereotypes are their best source of information. If you showed me a picture of an average-looking man and an average-looking woman and say “Quick! Which of these people is more likely to like baking cupcakes?!” I’ll pick the woman, not because I think all women are obsessed with cupcakes or because I go around looking at every woman I see as a cupcake factory, but because you asked me a stupid question and ensured stereotypes were the only thing I had to go on.

Then the authors find that this was mediated by explicitly-expressed stereotypes against fat people, which is kind of interesting, but doesn’t make the nonsignificant things any more significant.

So to sum up: there was no discrimination against the overweight on any objective measure of the actual retail experience, including positions advertised, applications given, greetings offered, or customers served. There was also no discrimination against the overweight on presentation evaluations in terms of overall evaluation, evaluation of employee, evaluation of product, or evaluation of company.

There was a tiny amount of discrimination on a subjective measure rated by unblinded observers aware of the purpose of the study. There was also some evidence on three subtler ratings of the presentation that seemed designed to ask participants impossible questions in order to force them to stereotype. However, these meaningless scales did not effect the raters’ overall impressions as measured any of four different ways.


Here is the reporting from the news outlets that passed their first test and didn’t frame it as men and women facing equal amounts of weight discrimination.

Business Insider: Researchers Had Men Pretend To Be Obese – And The Results Are Disturbing, which says that “this research highlights the importance of including men in discussions about weight stigmatization,” and “the authors also advocate organizational efforts to combat negativity against heavy customers and potential employees…the first step may be for individuals to become aware of how strong weight biases are.”

AskMen: Young Men Who Appear Overweight Suffer Interpersonal Discrimination. “Researchers disguised six thin young men as obese customers or job applications and found that they were victims of microaggressions. Basically people were a little bit more jerky towards them.”

Oximity: Overweight Men Often Snubbed At The Mall. “Shopping malls can be hostile places for overweight men, regardless of whether they’re customers or simply looking for a job.”

The Health Site: Men, Here’s One More Reason For You To Lose Weight. “Ruggs said that these findings were another reminder that there was still more work to be done in terms of creating equitable workplaces for all employees, potential employees and consumers. She concluded that this was something organisations could take an active role in, and said that companies could do better job training on customer relations as part of the employees’ new-hire process. ”

Now I’m almost missing the kind of random scattershot media bias we found on the time-spent-with-children study. Here every media outlet reports the results the same way that the study’s author and the press release reports the results.

This is not a totally wrong interpretation, any more than “six hours a week will tame your teen” is a totally wrong interpretation of the childhood study. But if I myself were writing an article on this study, it would be SURPRISINGLY LITTLE DISCRIMINATION FOUND AGAINST OVERWEIGHT MEN, and mention somewhere in the middle that some discrimination was found on a few sketchy variables. Instead, we get DAILY DISCRIMINATION AGAINST OVERWEIGHT MEN and WE NEED TO INSTITUTE SENSITIVITY TRAINING PROGRAMS IN RETAIL ENVIRONMENT, and they mention somewhere in the middle that a lot of important variables came out negative.

A lot of studies work like this. You test ten or twenty complicated variables, you get positive results on some, negative results on others, some of those results seem plausible, other results seem like maybe you made a mistake somewhere or didn’t have enough power or whatever, and then you make an interpretation based on your personal bias. Then it goes from the researcher’s personal bias to the abstract to the press release to the headlines to the mind of the average reader, dropping subtlety at each step, until “No discrimination against overweight men, except where the study was practically designed to ensure false positives” becomes “Rampant discrimination against overweight men everywhere” becomes “Overweight men are discriminated against just as much as overweight women.”

Don’t get me wrong. I expect there probably is lots of discrimination against overweight men. And I think this study’s project of trying to find it and convince people of its existence was worthwhile. But I don’t think you should get to convince everyone that science has proven X, unless science has actually proven X. The process that produced these headlines is strong enough to produce any headline you want, with the part where you actually do the study becoming more and more of a ritual or a formality. There are just too many degrees of freedom between the study and the reporting.

Stalin once said that “those who vote decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.” It’s starting to look like those who do the studies decide nothing and those who report the studies decide everything. The only solution is to actually read the study and not just the headlines. Sometimes we might even have to – God help us – read beyond the abstract.

SSC New England Meetup And Presentations Schedule

1. Tonight (11/19) I’ll be speaking at Yale on the subject of “How To Ruin A Perfectly Good Randomized Controlled Trial” and other aspects of interpreting scientific evidence. Probably. I’m currently stuck in New Jersey due to airplane mishaps, but 90% confidence I’m going to be able to make it on time. Event is at LC101, Linsly-Chittenden Hall, 63 High St, New Haven, at 7 PM. You’re invited.

2. Monday (11/23) I’ll be speaking at Harvard at Sever Hall 203 at 5 PM on the same subject. You’re invited to this one too.

3. Sunday (11/22) we’ll be having a Boston meetup (thanks to the Boston rationalist and EA communities for setting this up) at MIT, room 5-134 at 6 PM. There is a Facebook event page here. You are invited to all of these things but you are extra definitely invited to this one. Every time I try to have a meetup I specify that everyone is invited even if you are only a lurker and even if you don’t understand everything you see on SSC and even if you are not very interesting and so on and so forth, and every time people still say “I wanted to go but I didn’t because I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been welcome there because I’m not enough like the typical SSC reader,” and so now I have to repeat in bold that you are definitely welcome.

I won’t be around much for the next week or two while I do this stuff and see my family for Thanksgiving, so apologies for not responding to emails/comments, etc.

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Hardball Questions For The Next Debate

Dr. Carson:

One of your most important achievements as a neurosurgeon was inventing the functional hemispherectomy, a treatment for epilepsy in which the epileptic hemisphere of the brain is severed from the healthy hemisphere and the body, allowing the healthy hemisphere to have full control of the body free from any epileptic interference. Children who get a functional hemispherectomy sufficiently early will be partly paralyzed on one side, but they will mostly be seizure-free.

Standard hemispherectomies remove the epileptic hemisphere from the body, but that tended to cause hydrocephalus, so your technique instead just severed all of its sensory and motor connections, leaving it present but inert.

But an anonymous neuroscientist on Reddit expressed some concern that just as the functional hemisphere seems to develop full independent personhood after the split, so the epileptic hemisphere may do so as well. Obviously it remains impaired by the epilepsy, but it’s not seizing all the time, so there will still be comparatively lucid intervals.

So my question for you is – what do you think happens to that person who is in an empty hemisphere, locked out of all sensory input and motor control? Do you think they’re conscious? Do you think they’re wondering what happened? Do you think they’re happy that the other half of them is living a happy normal life? Do they sit rapt in unconditioned contemplation of their own consciousness like an Aristotelian god? Or do they go mad with boredom, constantly desiring their own death but unable to effect it?

Also, a follow-up question. You solve paediatric epilepsy by severing all connections between right and left, consigning one to the outer darkness and turning complete control over to the other. Given that you’re trying to become President, that has obvious kabbalistic implications. Do you stand behind those kabbalistic implications or not?

Ms. Fiorina:

One of the issues that’s played a central role in your campaign is your belief that the Ottoman Empire was the greatest civilization in the world. Certainly their five-hundred-plus year reign was marked by impressive military, political, and artistic achievements. But I want to bring up a particular aspect of Ottoman governance today.

One of the really unique Ottoman innovations was its so-called “millet system”, where every ethnicity and religion was almost its own little empire-within-an-empire. For example, although the Ottoman Empire was itself Muslim, Christians within it got their own millet, led by the Patriarch of Constantinople. They made their own laws, which applied only to Christians, settled disputes between two Christian claimants, levied taxes from Christians to pay for Christian-related projects, and generally kept their own people in line. When the Ottoman Empire as a whole wanted something from its Christian population, the Sultan would meet with the Patriarch and they would hammer it out. There were similar structures in place for Jews, Armenians, et cetera.

The past few years have seen an almost unprecedented rise in identity politics in America, usually marked by the claim that the society is using its weight to kick around people of some identity or another. Society is kicking around blacks. Society is kicking around conservative Christians. Society is kicking around bisexuals. They all feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick, but a lot of their preferences are mutually exclusive, and it’s hard to imagine some kind of centralized government policy that could satisfy any of them.

As an admirer of the Ottoman Empire, you’d be in a uniquely good position to import some of the advantages of the millet system into the modern Western world. Obviously this would be complicated given all the conflicting identity claims and the close quarters in which everyone is intermingled, but there are already some visions of what it could look like – including my own Archipelago – and if it were raised to the level of a national discussion, people could no doubt come up with many more.

So my question for you is – weren’t you a pretty crappy CEO?

Mr. Bush:

Assume that fitness-to-be-President is a normally distributed trait with known heritability. Suppose also that past elections have 100% efficiency; that is, they always choose the most qualified candidate. We can then use some of the standard regression-to-the-mean equations to determine the chances that the highest fitness-to-be-President individual in generation G will be the offspring of the highest fitness-to-be-President individual in generation G-1.

The single most fit-to-be president man in a population of 300 million would be about six standard deviations above the norm. If that man breeds with the single most fit-to-be-president woman, and if in keeping with findings for other complex traits heritability is about 60%, we would expect their offspring to be about 3.6 standard deviations above the mean in fitness-to-be-president. One in every 2500 or so people is 3.6 standard deviations above average, meaning there would be at least 120,000 equally good or better presidential candidates than they in the United States.

How high would the heritability of presidential fitness have to be before there was at least a 10% chance that the offspring of the two most presidential Americans was himself presidential material? My calculations suggest about 90%, which is very high compared to what we know about similar traits – but actually not entirely outside the realm of plausibility.

But if a maximally-presidential man breeds with a woman who is less than maximally presidential, the odds fall precipitiously. Suppose that a maximally-presidential man breeds with a woman who is merely in the 99th percentile for presidential ability. Now given a heritability of 60% there will be three million Americans more presidential than their average offspring. Even given a 100% heritability, there is only a 1/73 chance that their offspring will themselves be worthy of the presidency.

So my question for you is: do you think Barbara Bush is an unrecognized political super-genius, or are there probably hundreds of thousands of Americans who would make a better president than you would?

Senator Cruz:

You were on your college debate team, and you were good at it. Really good. You won the national championships and you were pretty widely believed to be the best debater in the country. Quite an achievement. But my worry is – which is more likely? That the best debater in the country would also be the best choice for President? Or that he would be really really really good at making us think that he would be?

Don’t respond yet. Before you answer that question – well, before you answer any question – we’ve got to think about this on the meta-level. There’s a classic problem in epistemology. Suppose that we have a superintelligence with near-infinite rhetorical brilliance. The superintelligence plays a game with interested humans. First, it takes the hundred or so most controversial topics, chooses two opposing positions on each, writes the positions down on pieces of paper, and then puts them in a jar. Then it chooses one position at random and tries to convince the human of that position. We observe that in a hundred such games, every human player has left 100% convinced of the position the superintelligence drew from the jar. Now it’s your turn to play the game. The superintelligence picks a position from the jar. It argues for the position. The argument is supremely convincing. After hearing it, you are more sure that the position is true than you have ever been of anything in your life; there’s so much evidence in favor that it is absolutely knock-down obvious. Should you believe the position?

The inside view tells you yes; upon evaluating the argument, you find is clearly true. The outside view tells you no; judging from the superintelligence’s past successes, it could have convinced you equally well of the opposite position. If you are smart, you will precommit to never changing your mind at all based on anything the superintelligence says. You will just shut it out of the community of entities capable of persuading you through argument.

Senator Cruz, you may not quite be at the superintelligence level, but given that you’ve been recognized as the most convincing person out of all three hundred million Americans, shouldn’t we institute similar precautions with you? Shouldn’t your supporters, even if they agree with everything you are saying, precommit to ignore you as a matter of principle?

Senator Rubio:

When you became Florida’s Speaker of the House, one of the other men on stage here tonight, Jeb Bush, presented you with a golden sword, which he said was the “Sword of Chang”. He told you that “Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.” You looked pretty excited about it.

Now, some might say that this all came from a giant misunderstanding. Back in the late 1940s, Mao Zedong’s victorious Chinese communists forced Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese nationalists to retreat to the island of Taiwan. The United States kept the peace in the the Taiwan Strait, mostly to prevent Mao from invading and finishing the job, but a common refrain in 1950s conservativism went that we should “unleash Chiang”; that is, advise Chiang Kai-Shek to go back across the strait and reconquer China. George H. W. Bush served as envoy to China, had to listen to this sort of stuff, and got annoyed enough at the “unleash Chiang” rhetoric that he would quote it ironically at bizarre times, like his documented habit of threatening that his serve would “unleash Chiang” on his tennis opponents. It’s unclear how we got from George H. W. Bush’s constant threats to “unleash Chiang” on people, to his son’s belief that Chang was a mystical conservative warrior. Maybe it was a joke, either Bush Sr. pranking Jeb or Jeb pranking you.

In any case, you hung the sword in “a place of honor in your office”. From that point forward, Jeb’s fortunes declined. He left the Florida governorship, failed to get any further high positions, and then ran a very lackluster Presidential campaign. But from that same point your own fortunes decidedly rose. You started a law firm, were appointed a professor, got elected to the Senate, and are currently running a spectacular Presidential campaign with most pundits betting on your eventual victory after Trump and Carson lose their shine. The connection between the transfer of the sword and the sudden switch in both your fortunes is so striking that even the Huffington Post, not normally a source for magic-sword-related journalism, wrote about it: Jeb’s Last Hope – Reclaim the Sword of Chang.

But here we have a conundrum: if there was never a mythical Chinese warrior named Chang, by what magic does this sword grant worldly success to its possessor and ignomious ruin to any who lose it? There is a legend that fits almost exactly: the tale of the Holy Lance, aka the Spear of Destiny, aka several other portentious sounding names. According to the story, this relic from Christ’s crucifixion grants victory to all who own it and swift ruin to all who lose it. Charlemagne was reputedly the first to make use of its power; he was unstoppable while he wielded it but died moments after dropping it during battle. The same pattern repeated with Frederick Barbarossa, then a host of other military leaders, until finally it passed to the Austrian Habsburgs. They realized its power, locked it away, and ended up winning the greatest empire in European history. Supposedly Hitler was obsessed with it, so much so that his fascination with the object inspired the depiction of Nazi archaeologists in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he took it for himself after the Anschluss. As the war wound down, the relic caught the special attention of General George Patton, who brought it back safely to Vienna afterwards. But ever since that time there have been various rumors that it was a fake, and that Nazi sympathizers took the real Lance in preparation for the time when the Reich would rise again.

The book Secrets of the Holy Lance describes one possible route by which the artifact might have been smuggled out of Europe:

Reporters John Buchanan and Stacey Michael cite recently declassified documents from the US National Archives that indicate that Prescott Bush “failed to divest himself of more than a dozen enemy national relationships that continued until as late as 1951. Bush conducted business following the end of World War II with moving assets into the Nazi refuges of Argentina, Panama, and Brazil.

So Prescott Bush was involved in moving Nazi “assets” from conquered Europe to South American refuges, presumably including the true Lance. Far be it from me to impugn his business ethics, but I don’t remember Nazi refugees in Argentina becoming an unstoppable force aided by a weapon of legendary mystical power. On the other hand, I do remember Prescott Bush being elected to the United States Senate just a few years later. Then his son and the presumed heir of his property was elected US President. Then his son was also elected US President. I need not add that according to the the laws of genetics, the chance of this happening by coincidence is hundreds-of-thousands to one even assuming implausibly high heritability of the fitness-to-be-president trait. Then his other son starts rocketing up through the ranks right up until the moment he gave you the sword of Chang, a sword named after a weird Bush family in-joke about a Chinese mystical warrior who doesn’t exist.

I think we can start to sketch out a plausible explanation here. Hitler didn’t want the Holy Lance falling into the hands of his enemies, so he replaced it with a fake and hired Nazi-artifact-smuggler Prescott Bush to transport the real one to safety in South America. Bush realized what he had, handed the South Americans a second fake, and kept the real one for himself, reforging it from a lance into a sword to cover his tracks – an action entirely in character for Prescott Bush, whose other relic-stealing adventures include the theft of Geronimo’s skull. He died unexpectedly without getting the chance to explain the significance of the artifact to his son George H. W. Bush. But since it seemed like a sentimentally important heirloom, George took care of his father’s weird golden sword anyway. When his sons asked him about it he didn’t have a real answer, so he just made his favorite in-joke about “unleashing Chiang”, and they believed him. Then eventually it passed to George W, later on to Jeb, and then Jeb thought it would be a funny present to give you to honor your election as Florida speaker.

Obviously the Lance is a significant strategic asset for America, and I imagine if you were President then its aura of victory would apply to the country as well, much as the Habsburgs’ possession of the lance enlarged Austria-Hungary. However, its powers are generally held to come from the Antichrist.

So my question for you is, do you think it’s ethical to use your magic sword to channel the power of the Antichrist if that would ensure America’s military success?

Mr. Trump:

You are famous both for your vast corporate empire and for your tendency to name the pieces of that corporate empire after yourself. By my count there are six buildings named “Trump Tower”, ten named some variation on “Trump Hotel”, a Trump Building, a Trump Palace, and a Trump Estate. You founded a financial services group called Trump Mortgage, a modeling agency called Trump Model Management, a bottled water brand called Trump Ice, and a magazine called Trump Magazine. You also started an airline called Trump Airlines, a TV company called Trump Productions, a book series called Trump Books, and your own radio talk show called Trumped!. There are also several Trump-themed games, like Donald Trump’s Real Estate Tycoon and Trump: The Game.

Mother Jones wrote a great article on this last one. Trump: The Game seems to be a tacky Monopoly clone. Players move around a board and bid on properties, and when one of them gets locked out of bidding for a property the other player gets to say “YOU’RE FIRED” the same way you do on your show. The only way to get back in to a property once you’ve been fired is to use the game’s most powerful card, which has a picture of your face on it and is called “The Donald”.

My question for you is: WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL IT THE TRUMP CARD?!?!!!!111111111asdfdf

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OT34: Subthreaddit

This is not the weekly open thread. There have been a lot of complaints about open threads becoming unwieldy and a lot of requests for a more continuous and fluid system that could handle them. That system is the subreddit, it just needs more people using it. To that end, I am banning comments on this open thread and encouraging you to take them to the subreddit open thread here. You will have to register for a Reddit account if you don’t have one already, but that takes literally a few seconds and you don’t even need a real email.

This will not be permanent, and I’ll continue having normal open threads here after this. It’s just to advertise the existence of the subreddit and force people over the trivial inconvenience of getting an account.

Oh, and a new SSC rule – there is a three-day wait time before politicizing any tragedy. If you want to discuss the political implications of a tragedy, please wait at least three days. I’ll try to keep this rule too.

Click here for the subreddit open thread

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Links 11/15: Alinkxander Hamilton

Probably demonstrates something about psychology: I had no idea until this week that I had two very different mental images stored of the White House: they turn out to be its north vs. south facades. Did everyone else already realize this?

CRISPR may be tested on humans to cure rare form of blindness in 2017. I didn’t realize that it could potentially be put in a virus and used on adults. That’s…something.

This month in credentialism: Alabama’s Teacher of the Year resigns after being told she does not have the proper qualifications to teach.

That time all of the whales in the world sued George Bush.

Mark Zuckerberg accidentally signs wrong document, leading to lawsuit and trip down corporate governance rabbit hole. I continue to think corporate governance is probably one of the most important issues in the modern world, which is completely ignored by everyone (including me) because it’s super boring.

Lottery ticket sellers win the lottery much more often than chance. But how exactly do they cheat? (read comments)

Many interesting reviews of Houellebecq’s Submission, with some of the best concentrating on how it’s using Islam to critique the West’s lack of principles rather than critiquing Islam itself. Ross Douthat’s is a good first stop. Somewhat related: “Meet the intellectuals leading France to the right, les nouveaux reactionnaires“.

Speaking of the far-right, some people suggest “new imperialism” as a solution for poverty: instead of having lots of Third World people immigrate to the West to benefit from its institutions, put Western institutions in charge of the Third World. This makes some sense, but I’ve never heard these people carry it to its logical conclusion: since the Third Worlders don’t seem to be up for it, why not at least put Switzerland or Denmark in charge of America?

A homepage for lowering Bay Area rents.

Noah Smith: isn’t it kind of a coincidence that China’s services sector is taking off right when their industrial sector is collapsing? And to exactly the degree necessary to maintain near-7% growth? Maybe it’s all just crooked accounting.

Some people from rationalist-adjacent group Clearer Thinking are working on fact-checking 2.0.

Rejecting the gender binary: a vector space operation

Relevant to some recent SSC posts: The myth that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are overwhelmingly male is not borne out by the numbers. Lots of demographic claims seem to be better interpreted as weird pseudo-moralistic fables than as factual assertions.

The people who vote decide nothing. The people who count the votes also decide nothing. The people who decide in what year the election gets held decide quite a lot.

Last month I linked a piece about “the only way” to respond to a teacher’s demand to show your work on a math test. It turns out there is a second acceptable way.

The Golden Giraffes are apparently some kind of Internet blogging award and contain a couple good pieces from rationalist and rationalist-adjacent blogs including David Chapman, Aceso Under Glass, and Jaibot, plus me, plus some otherwise cool people like Venkatesh Rao, David Benatar, David Deutsch, and Scott Adams. Take a look and vote if you find one you like.

Greg Cochran is always a mind trip. This time he uses math and evolutionary biology to show why a lot of seemingly non-infectious diseases “have to” be caused by pathogens. Would love to hear some other biologists’ opinions.

Paying repeat criminals to stop committing crimes: it seems to work, but what about the message it’s sending?

People who perform insane self-experiments with weird drugs are my tribe, so here’s a guy who says he reversed aging with This One Weird Peptide. You know you can trust him because he publishes his results as a poorly formatted .txt file.

GiveWell: The Lack Of Controversy Over Well-Targeted Aid. A lot of people worry that aid makes things worse or supports murderous despots, but most people agree that the sort of aid GiveWell and other effective altruist organizations promote does not have those problems.

Hitler 2: This Time It’s A Clothing Store.

More on Hanson’s Hypothesis for health care: the Amish consume very little of it yet are just as healthy as everyone else. Obvious confounders include everything else the Amish do.

Sierra Leone is officially Ebola-free, meaning the big Ebola outbreak from last year has been contained to a handful of cases in Guinea.

The new startup trying to sell celebrity meat may or may not be serious, but now that they mention it it’s an obvious corollary of vat-grown meat technology and it’s sure to happen eventually. Weird.

A lot of the people I went to high school with are doing interesting things now. Michael Bernstein, whom I can vouch for as super-bright in the tenth grade, is now a Stanford professor working on social computing and has published The Handbook of Collective Intelligence on how groups make decisions.

Path Dependence In European Development is the seemingly innocuous title of a paper purporting to show that European countries whose royal families had a higher percent male children during the age of monarchy are more prosperous today, supposedly because they had more heirs and so suffered fewer economically destructive wars of succession. It’s very carefully done and even includes an answer to my immediate objection (ie don’t richer people have more sons?). But it contradicts so much else, like the study showing American bombing of Vietnam has already been economically-adjusted away that it’s hard for me to credit too much.

The history of Nazi board games: “Jews Out! was not an official Nazi propaganda effort but an unsuccessful commercial product; the game was criticized by an SS journal that felt it trivialized anti-Semitic policies.” Does it count as horseshoe theory when the Nazis are worried about trivializing anti-Semitism?

I think I somehow made it this far without linking to David Severa’s really thorough dialogue presenting different arguments for and against increased immigration/open borders, so I hereby correct that omission and highly recommend it.

Study finds gender bias in how people interpret claims that studies find gender bias. Also, holy frick, how did I not already know about that second graph?

Speaking of things that are something, Polygenic Risk For Alcohol Dependence Associates With Alcohol Consumption, Cognitive Function, And Social Deprivation. The main point being mentioned here is that the reason people in poor areas are more alcoholic might not be because poverty is depressing and makes one turn to drink, it might be entirely genetic. But I’m not sure I get the posited mechanism; is alcohol such a big deal that it in itself makes people live in poor areas? Or is it all the correlations with other traits? Are these because of mutational load, coincidence, or something else? Anyway, my big take-home lesson from this study is that people now understand some polygenic traits well enough that we can start doing genetically-informed social science with them. That’s big.

Related: The Genetics Of High Intelligence. Short version: it’s additive and polygenic all the way down, and there’s no “special sauce” to unusually high intelligence aside from doing very well in the lottery of genes that determine the normal intelligence range. I’m not sure how this relates to claims about substantial IQ boosts from genes like torsion dystonia. Some discussion of this over at Gwern’s G+, but I don’t understand some of his conclusions – for example, why does this suggest against Cochran’s mutational load theory?

@CultureShipName on Twitter.

Yeah, we’re used to priming experiments failing to replicate these days, but Neuroskeptic shows an especially beautiful example with all of the data points graphed out so clearly that you can see exactly what happened. Also, romantic priming is probably not a thing.

Payday loans clearly screw over the poor, but every attempt to do something about them has been stymied by the reasonable question “how exactly does it help to take an option away from poor people while giving them nothing in return?” But the New York Times has a great article up on how the problem is overregulation of lending that makes it impossible for normal banks to give payday-sized loans at normal-bank-prices.

A while ago I linked to a piece about artificial lights indistinguishable from real windows and how they might revolutionize design/architecture. I was curious how those are doing these days so I looked into a bit more: they now exist, are available to consumers, but cost about $60,000 per light; among the customers willing to pay those prices are operating theaters and airports. Hopefully the cost will go down Moore’s-Law-style soon.

New York Times wrote an editorial panning Chris Christie. I love Christie’s response: didn’t read it, too much trouble getting past the paywall.

Police body cameras – good for victims, good for officers: Texas officer’s bodycam proves that professor fabricated her racial profiling claim against police.

A new study not only quantifies political bias in economics, but even kind of suggests a sort of toy method of ‘adjusting’ for it. “The average optimal tax rate reported by economists in our data is 41 percent. Using our model, we can also estimate that these economists as a group are slightly left of center. We can then figure out what optimal top tax rate a hypothetical centrist economist would report: 33 percent.”

Iran goes all soft and inoffensive: “‘Death to America’ does not mean death to the American nation, it means death to the US’ policies and death to arrogance.”

Reaching peak rationalist: prediction markets can help determine which psych studies will replicate, with bonus quote from Robin Hanson.

GMU economist professor and occasional SSC fan Garrett Jones has a new book out: Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters More Than Your Own. I haven’t read it yet, but I hope it will fill the important niche of “less terrible version of Richard Lynn”.

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2D:4D Ratio And Psychological Traits: Results From The LW/SSC Survey Sample


2D:4D ratio is the length of someone’s index finger divided by the length of their ring finger on the same hand. It seems to correlate with some kind of prenatal hormone exposure, which makes it a unique way to explore the effects of purely-biological factors on various traits without having to do hormone assays or go through an ethics board.

Past research suggests that men generally have lower 2D:4D ratios than women, and that within each sex people with various stereotypically-male characteristics have lower 2D:4D ratios than people with various stereotypically female characteristics. For example, aggressiveness, penis length in men, and lesbianism in women have all been correlated with more masculine 2D:4D ratio. But there have also been other studies that challenge some of these results, and the whole field is maddeningly inconsistent.

Maybe the weirdest paper along these lines is Madison et al’s 2014 paper showing that feminist activist women have more masculinized 2D:4D ratios than other women, which suggests something about how “neurological gender” influences the way people respond to social gender roles. Or something.

I wanted to look at this more, so I included questions about digit ratio in the 2014 Less Wrong Survey and in the 2014 Slate Star Codex Survey. Both surveys also included demographics questions, questions about sex and gender identification, and questions about political beliefs.

Methods and Results

407 people on the Less Wrong Survey and 122 people on the Slate Star Codex Survey gave plausible digit ratio measurements (I rejected measurements outside the range of 0.8 – 1.3 as implausible), for a total of 529 people. Of these, 454 were biologically male and 75 biologically female. Although participants gave digit ratios from both their right and left hands, the differences were not significant and I averaged them together to create a less noisy measure.

The average male digit ratio was 0.972; the average female digit ratio was 0.975. The difference was not significant, didn’t trend toward significance and actually was the opposite direction on right vs. left hands.

Average Bem Femininity was 42.2 for men and 45.8 for women. Average Bem Masculinity was 42.3 for men and 40.5 for women. The sex difference in femininity was significant (p = 0.01) but masculinity wasn’t (p = 0.19) though it trended in the expected direction.

On a scale from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree), the average male opinion of feminism was 3.4; the average female opinion was 4.1; the difference was significant at a p < 0.001 level. Other political opinions also had gender differences, always with women more liberal, but the gender difference in feminism was the strongest.

In a subsample limited to men, digit ratio did not correlate with Bem sex roles at all, but did correlate with positive opinion of feminism (p = 0.001). Bem sex role did corelate with feminism; more masculine men had lower opinions of feminism (r = -0.277, p < 0.001) and more feminine men had higher opinions of feminism (r = +0.277, p < 0.001).

In the opposite subsample limited to women, digit ratio correlated strongly with Bem masculinity (r = -0.381, p = 0.005) but not with Bem femininity (r = +0.123, p = 0.38). Opinion of feminism did not correlate with either sex role or digit ratio and there wasn’t even a real trend.

I looked at eight other political issues not clearly related to gender. None of these had a clear connection with digit ratio the same way feminism did. One issue, immigration, had a single correlation significant at the p = 0.05 level, but was likely a false positive.

There was a limited sample of transgender people in the study; because most participants were biologically male I compared cismen to transwomen. Difference in digit ratio was not significant and showed no clear trend. Bem sex role inventory found transwomen to be much less masculine and much more feminine than cismen (and in fact less masculine and more feminine than ciswomen), but because of the low sample size the trend didn’t quite reach significance. Transwomen were more positive towards feminism than cismen (p = .047) but not quite as positive as ciswomen. I tried something similar with straight men versus non-straight men and the trends were arguably in the expected direction but didn’t come close to significance. There weren’t enough biologically female people to be worth running the analyses with that sample.

A binary autism variable (does vs. does not identify as autistic) had little correlation with sex roles or opinion of feminism, but approached significance for digit ratio in men (p = 0.051) and achieved significance once men and women were combined (p = 0.047). Autistic people had slightly lower (more masculine) digit ratios. I am wary of this result since it was so weak and not replicated on the left hand.


This was weird.

The whole point of digit ratio work is that men are supposed to have lower digit ratio than women, and then you use that to determine whether other characteristics are associated with more male-typical or female-typical hormone balances. But we couldn’t even get the basic finding of men being more male-typical than women.

In fact, our entire sample was heavily feminized compared to those of every other study; our men had more feminine digit ratios than other studies’ women. This is really weird because it’s a sample selected for very high mathematical ability – average IQ of 139, many math and physics PhDs, computer-related jobs as the most common occupations – but mathematical ability is usually linked to more masculinized digit ratio. Likewise, presumably this sample’s much more autistic than normal, but that’s also supposed to be more masculinized. I think maybe the measurement technique on the survey predisposed towards overreporting the ratio. Or maybe I screwed up somewhere and divided when I was supposed to multiply. Really that’s all I can think of.

Despite our failure to pick up what should have been the most drop-dead obvious finding, we still got strong signals on psychological traits that should have been much more subtle. The two clear results were a correlation between digit ratio and opinion-of-feminism in men, and between digit ratio and masculinity in women. P-values for both were very low and unlikely to be coincidences despite the multiple tests performed. But the pattern is hard to explain.

I don’t understand the biology of digit ratio very well, but it’s certainly only one part of sexual differentiation; after all, nearly all studies show wide overlaps between men and women in digit ratio, but except for a few intersex people the sexes still clearly differentiate anyway. So maybe women’s level of masculinity is determined mostly by the thing behind digit ratio, and men’s level of masculinity is determined by that plus various other male-specific masculinizing processes?

More annoying is the apparent partial-disconnect between digit ratios, sex roles, and feminism. In men, digit ratio affected feminism but not sex roles. In women, digit ratio affected sex roles but not feminism. The results weren’t ambiguous either. But why would digit ratio make men less feminist if not by making them less gender-conforming themselves? And is it really plausible that digit ratio makes women much more masculine without shifting their opinions toward feminism at all? And remember, this whole area was started by someone who found a connection between digit ratio and feminist activism in women. While it’s possible that the original study was really finding that masculine-digit-ratio women were more activist rather than more feminist per se, that seems like kind of a stretch. I’m going to blame this one on low sample size and high measurement error until somebody forces me otherwise.

In conclusion, this study was a mess, but somehow managed to find clear signals in weird places anyway. I don’t know.

If you want to see for yourself, you can find the public Less Wrong survey data here and the public SSC survey data here. You could also get my haphazard combination of the two here but I would warn against that if you’re really trying to double-check the results as the combination process was one of the most potentially error-prone steps and I’d rather see it independently replicated.

Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

I started criticizing social justice back in 2010, which doesn’t sound so impressive until you realize that’s two centuries ago in Internet Years. At the time, you rarely heard such criticism outside of wingnutty lesbianism-causes-witchcraft circles. It felt bizarre, transgressive, and novel.

But over the past few years I’ve been privileged (sic) to meet many other people with the same concerns. Some were kindred spirits. A few at least had interesting ideas. Many others were horrible people next to whom the lesbian-causes-witchcraft types looked like Voltairesque voices of reason.

But they all had something in common: they were nobodies, and nobody cared what they thought. The lesbian-causes-witchcraft types had their talk shows, but among moderate liberals social justice criticism stayed mostly confined to a bunch of small blogs.

Now that’s over – during the past year big national media have unleashed a flood of social-justice-critical stories. The Atlantic published The Coddling Of The American Mind. Salon (Salon!) published Campus PC Panic Is Getting Ridiculous and How Coddled Young Radicals Got Discomfort All Wrong. The New Republic published Trigger Happy. Even President Obama has condemned what he called “coddled” college students, saying “that’s not the way we learn”. The UK political class is up in arms about Germaine Greer being denied platform, and the US political class is up in arms about the Halloween costume argument at Silliman College (nominative determinism!) in Yale. Complaining about social justice seems to be getting, dare I say, almost trendy.

As the old saying goes, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. But as the other old saying goes, “I know some Trojans who would be a lot happier if they had.” So let me explain why this sudden outpouring of support for my position makes me uncomfortable.

When I or some other random blogger complains about the social justice movement, we tend to worry about points like the following (I won’t prove/defend these claims here, just clarify what I’m worried about):

  • The level of social-justice-inspired bullying online and offline that can drive people to suicide for even slightly disagreeing with social justice orthodoxy.
  • The chilling effect on research when science is subordinated to political ideology, and how researchers whose results contradict social justice orthodoxy can expect to be ignored at best and subject to death threats and harassment campaigns at worst.
  • The trivialization of and hostile response to anybody who claims to be suffering in a way that doesn’t fit the social-justice narrative, and opposition to attempts to alleviate such suffering.
  • The use of social justice as a bludgeon by which sophisticated elites from top colleges can condemn all subcultures except their sophisticated elite subculture as being problematic, and credibly demand that they subordinate themselves to the sophisticated elites as penance.
  • The conflation of the vitally important will toward political reform with the most trivial pop culture clickbait, so that instead of worrying about inequality and technological stagnation our brightest minds are discussing whether the latest Game of Thrones episode reinforces structural oppression, or if people’s Halloween costumes are okay or not.

Meanwhile, when important public figures and nationally circulating magazines complain about the social justice movement, I usually see language and arguments more like the following:

  • College students are big babies!
  • Waaaaaaaaah! Waaaaaaaaah!
  • They’re so coddled! And weak! And they want everything to be safe all the time!
  • Life isn’t a “safe space” and doesn’t have “trigger warnings”! Grow up!
  • Baby! Baby! Baby! Waaaaaah! Waaaaaah! Waaaaaaaah!

These seem like different agendas. In particular, the nobody-blogger angle focuses on ways in which social justice is used to justify aggression, and the mass-media angle focuses on ways in which social justice is used to coddle weakness. Thus the national magazines’ focus on trigger warnings, which happen to be one of the pieces of social justice I really like and have defended at length precisely because they do sometimes help weak people.

But there’s another common thread to the mass-media criticism: they’re all about things that happen on colleges and inconvenience college professors. Compare the recent bullying of a fan-artist to the point of suicide because she drew a cartoon character too thin and so was “erasing fat people” – to the recent students at Yale getting angry at an administrator who said she wasn’t going to enforce cultural sensitivity on Halloween costumes and so yelling and throwing stuff at her and her family.

I feel for anybody who gets yelled at and has stuff thrown at them, but the first of these two stories seems by far the most important; lots of teenagers commit suicide every year because of bullying, the idea that somebody deserves to die because they picture a cartoon character differently is abominable, and anyone who’s been on the relevant parts of the Internet knows this kind of thing is common as dirt. If I were a news editor, I’d consider the first study a much bigger deal. Instead, the second has gone viral in the national media, and the first remains stuck among the same few second-tier sites and SJ-critical nobody bloggers whom these kinds of things are always stuck among. Why?

I worry that the media, especially the online thinkpiece media, overrepresents an insular demographic of Ivy League academics and their friends who spend most of their time on college campuses and don’t notice things that don’t affect them personally. When people on Tumblr are being bullied to suicide or told that they’re garbage or outed or getting death threats, that’s the commoners. When a Contemporary Perspectives On American Literature professor is inconvenienced, AAAAAAAAH SOCIAL JUSTICE HAS GONE TOO FAR! SOMEBODY WARN SALON.COM!

Or to be even more cynical: social justice was supposed to be Yale’s weapon against Caltech and Podunk. But now Yale students are using it against Yale professors and administrators, and now it’s a problem. It’s like the police beating up city council members with the truncheons they usually reserve for poor ghetto-dwellers; you can bet there will be a newfound concern about police brutality at city council meetings.

And on the one hand, anything that inspires discussion of police brutality at city council meetings is good. Certainly the SJ-critical movement has been stuck on the same side as people a whole lot creepier than self-serving humanities professors, so what’s the problem?

I think that is the problem. When creepy white supremacists criticize social justice, they’re at no risk of taking over the wider SJ-critical movement. As the old saying goes, white supremacists are the best argument against white supremacy, and most of them couldn’t take over a blanket fort with a flamethrower. But rhetorically-gifted Yale professors who get thinkpieces published in The Atlantic are exactly the sort of people who would take over the wider SJ-critical movement, become its most important voice, and define what it means both to the rest of the world and to its own members.

That would be a disaster. Any general knows that you want to hold the high ground, and it really really shouldn’t be hard to hold the high ground against the sorts of people who continue to defend bullying someone to suicide because they drew a cartoon character differently than other people. But the mass media seems determined to find a way to yield the high ground and insist against all evidence that it’s punching down. Yale administrators might be the only group more sheltered than Yale students, yet they’re the only group the media seems to have the energy to defend. Worse, media seems to be defending them in a way that attacks activists for being weak and defenseless instead of pointing out when they’re strong and abusing their power.

I’m not saying that there aren’t important arguments to be had about trigger warnings and safe spaces. There are. But they’re only one of many problems, and far from the worst. And if people must focus on trigger warnings and safe spaces, I wish they would use one of about a zillion good arguments that don’t involve the pseudo-Nietzschean “You’re all babies! Stop crying, little babies!” tone. All this is doing is granting social justice activists their most dubious claim: that they are trying to use their ideology as a shield for themselves rather than a sword against others (as Popehat brilliantly puts it).

Finally, I think this might be a wake-up call to worry about the role of academia in media more generally. A friend on Tumblr pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s official list of campaign priorities include “ending sexual assault on campus”? Why not just “ending sexual assault”? Studies find that women are less likely to be assaulted on college campuses than off them. Isn’t “ending sexual assault on campus” the same kind of priority as “ending murder in gated communities?” Every murder is a tragedy, and murders in gated communities are no exception. But wouldn’t it reveal a lot about who mattered in a society if “end murder in gated communities” was how they framed their anti-murder initiatives?

I worry recent criticism of social justice is revealing the same thing.

OT33: Opeth Thread

This is the weekly open thread. That may be a little too frequent for an open thread, I’m not sure yet. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever.

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