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The Battle Hymn

There is an important law of the universe that American patriotic songs have more verses than you think.

The Star-Spangled Banner? Four verses (the second is the one that begins with “On the shore dimly seen…”). America the Beautiful? Also four verses. Yankee Doodle? Three verses. John Brown’s body you just kind of improvise more verses until everyone is too embarrassed to continue.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when somebody told me recently that there was a rarely-sung sixth verse to Battle Hymn of the Republic.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

It’s not the most sense-making thing (what is the glory of the morning on the wave?) But I have loved the song for so long that it still affects me. It almost seems deliberately written to be excluded, to be learned later, as if it’s some secret confidence or final warning. If I ever become Christian, it’ll probably be because of this song.

But the wiki page for the Battle Hymn is a trove of all kinds of treasures:

– The original John Brown’s Body song was an attempt to tease a soldier named John Brown in the regiment who invented it.

– Julia Ward Howe says she woke up one night, wrote it while half-asleep, went back to bed, and couldn’t remember any of it the next morning till she checked her notes.

– Mark Twain gave it a gritty reboot for the Philippine-American War. Other parodies and adaptations include ones by workers, consumers, the First Arkansas Colored Regiment, extremely uncreative college footballers, awesome old-timey would-be school arsonists, and me.

But for me the most interesting part is the evolution – and I use that phrase deliberately, taking a memetic perspective is hardly ever more interesting than just doing things the old fashioned way, but in this case I think it is. The song started off as a kind of boring standard spiritual that only sort of got the tune right, progressed into “John Brown’s Body” which fixed the tune a little bit by trial and error but had embarrassingly stupid lyrics, and then a lot of people recognized there was some value in the tune and tried to dignify it up and finally it was Howe’s effort that worked. You can almost see it gaining adaptive fitness at each stage until it suddenly explodes and takes over the world.

I know this is a weird post without much content. My computer is broken and although I have an emergency backup I’m without any drafts or my list of things I wanted to write about. Now I’m just winging it.

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I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

[Content warning: Politics, religion, social justice, spoilers for "The Secret of Father Brown". This isn't especially original to me and I don't claim anything more than to be explaining and rewording things I have heard from a bunch of other people. Unapologetically America-centric because I'm not informed enough to make it otherwise. Try to keep this off Reddit and other similar sorts of things.]


In Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown, a beloved nobleman who murdered his good-for-nothing brother in a duel thirty years ago returns to his hometown wracked by guilt. All the townspeople want to forgive him immediately, and they mock the titular priest for only being willing to give a measured forgiveness conditional on penance and self-reflection. They lecture the priest on the virtues of charity and compassion.

Later, it comes out that the beloved nobleman did not in fact kill his good-for-nothing brother. The good-for-nothing brother killed the beloved nobleman (and stole his identity). Now the townspeople want to see him lynched or burned alive, and it is only the priest who – consistently – offers a measured forgiveness conditional on penance and self-reflection.

The priest tells them:

It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.

He further notes that this is why the townspeople can self-righteously consider themselves more compassionate and forgiving than he is. Actual forgiveness, the kind the priest needs to cultivate to forgive evildoers, is really really hard. The fake forgiveness the townspeople use to forgive the people they like is really easy, so they get to boast not only of their forgiving nature, but of how much nicer they are than those mean old priests who find forgiveness difficult and want penance along with it.

After some thought I agree with Chesterton’s point. There are a lot of people who say “I forgive you” when they mean “No harm done”, and a lot of people who say “That was unforgiveable” when they mean “That was genuinely really bad”. Whether or not forgiveness is right is a complicated topic I do not want to get in here. But since forgiveness is generally considered a virtue, and one that many want credit for having, I think it’s fair to say you only earn the right to call yourself ‘forgiving’ if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you.

To borrow Chesterton’s example, if you think divorce is a-ok, then you don’t get to “forgive” people their divorces, you merely ignore them. Someone who thinks divorce is abhorrent can “forgive” divorce. You can forgive theft, or murder, or tax evasion, or something you find abhorrent.

I mean, from a utilitarian point of view, you are still doing the correct action of not giving people grief because they’re a divorcee. You can have all the Utility Points you want. All I’m saying is that if you “forgive” something you don’t care about, you don’t earn any Virtue Points.

(by way of illustration: a billionaire who gives $100 to charity gets as many Utility Points as an impoverished pensioner who donates the same amount, but the latter gets a lot more Virtue Points)

Tolerance is definitely considered a virtue, but it suffers the same sort of dimished expectations forgiveness does.

The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Tolerance Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.

The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why not.

Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”

The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”


If I had to define “tolerance” it would be something like “respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup”.

And today we have an almost unprecedented situation.

We have a lot of people – like the Emperor – boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.

And we have those same people absolutely ripping into their in-groups – straight, white, male, hetero, cis, American, whatever – talking day in and day out to anyone who will listen about how terrible their in-group is, how it is responsible for all evils, how something needs to be done about it, how they’re ashamed to be associated with it at all.

This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuous love their outgroups, the outer the better, and gain status by talking about how terrible their own groups are.

What is going on here?


Let’s start by asking what exactly an outgroup is.

There’s a very boring sense in which, assuming the Emperor’s straight, gays are part of his “outgroup” ie a group that he is not a member of. But if the Emperor has curly hair, are straight-haired people part of his outgroup? If the Emperor’s name starts with the letter ‘A’, are people whose names start with the letter ‘B’ part of his outgroup?

Nah. I would differentiate between multiple different meanings of outgroup, where one is “a group you are not a part of” and the other is…something stronger.

I want to avoid a very easy trap, which is saying that outgroups are about how different you are, or how hostile you are. I don’t think that’s quite right.

Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But although one could imagine certain situations in which the Nazis treated the Japanese as an outgroup, in practice they got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately friendly with the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.

And this isn’t a weird exception. Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

What makes an unexpected in-group? The answer with Germans and Japanese is obvious – a strategic alliance. In fact, the World Wars forged a lot of unexpected temporary pseudo-friendships. A recent article from War Nerd points out that the British, after spending centuries subjugating and despising the Irish and Sikhs, suddenly needed Irish and Sikh soldiers for World Wars I and II respectively. “Crush them beneath our boots” quickly changed to fawning songs about how “there never was a coward where the shamrock grows” and endless paeans to Sikh military prowess.

Sure, scratch the paeans even a little bit and you find condescension as strong as ever. But eight hundred years of the British committing genocide against the Irish and considering them literally subhuman turned into smiles and songs about shamrocks once the Irish started looking like useful cannon fodder for a larger fight. And the Sikhs, dark-skinned people with turbans and beards who pretty much exemplify the European stereotype of “scary foreigner”, were lauded by everyone from the news media all the way up to Winston Churchill.

In other words, outgroups may be the people who look exactly like you, and scary foreigner types can become the in-group on a moment’s notice when it seems convenient.


There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.

This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.

I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.

About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere one to one hundred quintillion against.

People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems really appropriate is the bizarre dark matter world.

I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them.

To be fair, I spend a lot of my time inside on my computer. I’m browsing sites like Reddit.

Recently, there was a thread on Reddit asking – Redditors Against Gay Marriage, What Is Your Best Supporting Argument? A Reddit user who didn’t understand how anybody could be against gay marriage honestly wanted to know how other people who were against it justified their position. He figured he might as well ask one of the largest sites on the Internet, with an estimated user base in the tens of millions.

It soon became clear that nobody there was actually against gay marriage.

There were a bunch of posts saying “I of course support gay marriage but here are some reasons some other people might be against it,” a bunch of others saying “my argument against gay marriage is the government shouldn’t be involved in the marriage business at all”, and several more saying “why would you even ask this question, there’s no possible good argument and you’re wasting your time”. About halfway through the thread someone started saying homosexuality was unnatural and I thought they were going to be the first one to actually answer the question, but at the end they added “But it’s not my place to decide what is or isn’t natural, I’m still pro-gay marriage.”

In a thread with 10,401 comments, a thread specifically asking for people against gay marriage, I was eventually able to find two people who came out and opposed it, way near the bottom. Their posts started with “I know I’m going to be downvoted to hell for this…”

But I’m not only on Reddit. I also hang out on LW.

On last year’s survey, I found that of American LWers who identify with one of the two major political parties, 80% are Democrat and 20% Republican, which actually sounds pretty balanced compared to some of these other examples.

But it doesn’t last. Pretty much all of those “Republicans” are libertarians who consider the GOP the lesser of two evils. When allowed to choose “libertarian” as an alternative, only 4% of visitors continued to identify as conservative. But that’s still…some. Right?

When I broke the numbers down further, 3 percentage points of those are neoreactionaries, a bizarre local sect that wants to be ruled by a king. Only one percent of LWers were normal everyday God-‘n-guns-but-not-George-III conservatives of the type that seem to make up about half of the United States.

It gets worse. My formative years were spent at a university which, if it was similar to other elite universities, had a faculty and a student body that skewed about 90-10 liberal to conservative – and we can bet that, like LW, even those few token conservatives are Mitt Romney types rather than God-n’-guns types. I get my news from, an Official Liberal Approved Site. Even when I go out to eat, it turns out my favorite restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen, is the most liberal restaurant in the United States.

I inhabit the same geographical area as scores and scores of conservatives. But without meaning to, I have created an outrageously strong bubble, a 10^45 bubble. Conservatives are all around me, yet I am about as likely to have a serious encounter with one as I am a Tibetan lama.

(Less likely, actually. One time a Tibetan lama came to my college and gave a really nice presentation, but if a conservative tried that, people would protest and it would be canceled.)


One day I realized that entirely by accident I was fulfilling all the Jewish stereotypes.

I’m nerdy, over-educated, good with words, good with money, weird sense of humor, don’t get outside much, I like deli sandwiches. And I’m a psychiatrist, which is about the most stereotypically Jewish profession short of maybe stand-up comedian or rabbi.

I’m not very religious. And I don’t go to synagogue. But that’s stereotypically Jewish too!

I bring this up because it would be a mistake to think “Well, a Jewish person is by definition someone who is born of a Jewish mother. Or I guess it sort of also means someone who follows the Mosaic Law and goes to synagogue. But I don’t care about Scott’s mother, and I know he doesn’t go to synagogue, so I can’t gain any useful information from knowing Scott is Jewish.”

The defining factors of Judaism – Torah-reading, synagogue-following, mother-having – are the tip of a giant iceberg. Jews sometimes identify as a “tribe”, and even if you don’t attend synagogue, you’re still a member of that tribe and people can still (in a statistical way) infer things about you by knowing your Jewish identity – like how likely they are to be psychiatrists.

The last section raised a question – if people rarely select their friends and associates and customers explicitly for politics, how do we end up with such intense political segregation?

Well, in the same way “going to synagogue” is merely the iceberg-tip of a Jewish tribe with many distinguishing characteristics, so “voting Republican” or “identifying as conservative” or “believing in creationism” is the iceberg-tip of a conservative tribe with many distinguishing characteristics.

A disproportionate number of my friends are Jewish, because I meet them at psychiatry conferences or something – we self-segregate not based on explicit religion but on implicit tribal characteristics. So in the same way, political tribes self-segregate to an impressive extent – a 1/10^45 extent, I will never tire of hammering in – based on their implicit tribal characteristics.

The people who are actually into this sort of thing sketch out a bunch of speculative tribes and subtribes, but to make it easier, let me stick with two and a half.

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

I think these “tribes” will turn out to be even stronger categories than politics. Harvard might skew 80-20 in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, 90-10 in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, but maybe 99-1 in terms of Blues vs. Reds.

It’s the many, many differences between these tribes that explain the strength of the filter bubble – which have I mentioned segregates people at a strength of 1/10^45? Even in something as seemingly politically uncharged as going to California Pizza Kitchen or Sushi House for dinner, I’m restricting myself to the set of people who like cute artisanal pizzas or sophsticated foreign foods, which are classically Blue Tribe characteristics.

Are these tribes based on geography? Are they based on race, ethnic origin, religion, IQ, what TV channels you watched as a kid? I don’t know.

Some of it is certainly genetic – estimates of the genetic contribution to political association range from 0.4 to 0.6. Heritability of one’s attitudes toward gay rights range from 0.3 to 0.5, which hilariously is a little more heritable than homosexuality itself.

(for an interesting attempt to break these down into more rigorous concepts like “traditionalism”, “authoritarianism”, and “in-group favoritism” and find the genetic loading for each see here. For an attempt to trace the specific genes involved, which mostly turn out to be NMDA receptors, see here)

But I don’t think it’s just genetics. There’s something else going on too. The word “class” seems like the closest analogue, but only if you use it in the sophisticated Paul Fussell Guide Through the American Status System way instead of the boring “another word for how much money you make” way.

For now we can just accept them as a brute fact – as multiple coexisting societies that might as well be made of dark matter for all of the interaction they have with one another – and move on.


The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.

I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:

I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the “intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.

This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.

And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.

Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

And that was when something clicked for me.

You can talk all you want about Islamophobia, but my friend’s “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful people” – her name for the Blue Tribe – can’t get together enough energy to really hate Osama, let alone Muslims in general. We understand that what he did was bad, but it didn’t anger us personally. When he died, we were able to very rationally apply our better nature and our Far Mode beliefs about how it’s never right to be happy about anyone else’s death.

On the other hand, that same group absolutely loathed Thatcher. Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.

I started this essay by pointing out that, despite what geographical and cultural distance would suggest, the Nazis’ outgroup was not the vastly different Japanese, but the almost-identical German Jews.

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.


“But racism and sexism and cissexism and anti-Semitism are these giant all-encompassing social factors that verge upon being human universals! Surely you’re not arguing that mere political differences could ever come close to them!”

One of the ways we know that racism is a giant all-encompassing social factor is the Implicit Association Test. Psychologists ask subjects to quickly identify whether words or photos are members of certain gerrymandered categories, like “either a white person’s face or a positive emotion” or “either a black person’s face and a negative emotion”. Then they compare to a different set of gerrymandered categories, like “either a black person’s face or a positive emotion” or “either a white person’s face or a negative emotion.” If subjects have more trouble (as measured in latency time) connecting white people to negative things than they do white people to positive things, then they probably have subconscious positive associations with white people. You can try it yourself here.

Of course, what the test famously found was that even white people who claimed to have no racist attitudes at all usually had positive associations with white people and negative associations with black people on the test. There are very many claims and counterclaims about the precise meaning of this, but it ended up being a big part of the evidence in favor of the current consensus that all white people are at least a little racist.

Anyway, three months ago, someone finally had the bright idea of doing an Implicit Association Test with political parties, and they found that people’s unconscious partisan biases were half again as strong as their unconscious racial biases (h/t Bloomberg. For example, if you are a white Democrat, your unconscious bias against blacks (as measured by something called a d-score) is 0.16, but your unconscious bias against Republicans will be 0.23. The Cohen’s d for racial bias was 0.61, by the book a “moderate” effect size; for party it was 0.95, a “large” effect size.

Okay, fine, but we know race has real world consequences. Like, there have been several studies where people sent out a bunch of identical resumes except sometimes with a black person’s photo and other times with a white person’s photo, and it was noticed that employers were much more likely to invite the fictional white candidates for interviews. So just some stupid Implicit Association Test results can’t compare to that, right?

Iyengar and Westwood also decided to do the resume test for parties. They asked subjects to decide which of several candidates should get a scholarship (subjects were told this was a genuine decision for the university the researchers were affiliated with). Some resumes had photos of black people, others of white people. And some students listed their experience in Young Democrats of America, others in Young Republicans of America.

Once again, discrimination on the basis of party was much stronger than discrimination on the basis of race. The size of the race effect for white people was only 56-44 (and in the reverse of the expected direction); the size of the party effect was about 80-20 for Democrats and 69-31 for Republicans.

If you want to see their third experiment, which applied yet another classic methodology used to detect racism and once again found partyism to be much stronger, you can read the paper.

I & W did an unusually thorough job, but this sort of thing isn’t new or ground-breaking. People have been studying “belief congruence theory” – the idea that differences in beliefs are more important than demographic factors in forming in-groups and outgroups – for decades. As early as 1967, Smith et al were doing surveys all over the country and finding that people were more likely to accept friendships across racial lines than across beliefs; in the forty years since then, the observation has been replicated scores of times. Insko, Moe, and Nacoste’s 2006 review Belief Congruence And Racial Discrimination concludes that:

. The literature was judged supportive of a weak version of belief congruence theory which states that in those contexts in which social pressure is nonexistent or ineffective, belief is more important than race as a determinant of racial or ethnic discrimination. Evidence for a strong version of belief congruence theory (which states that in those contexts in which social pressure is nonexistent, or ineffective, belief is the only determinant of racial or ethnic discrimination) and was judged much more problematic.

One of the best-known examples of racism is the “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” scenario where parents are scandalized about their child marrying someone of a different race. Pew has done some good work on this and found that only 23% of conservatives and 1% (!) of liberals admit they would be upset in this situation. But Pew also asked how parents would feel about their child marrying someone of a different political party. Now 30% of conservatives and 23% of liberals would get upset. Average them out, and you go from 12% upsetness rate for race to 27% upsetness rate for party – more than double. Yeah, people do lie to pollsters, but a picture is starting to come together here.

(Harvard, by the way, is a tossup. There are more black students – 11.5% – than conservative students – 10% – but there are more conservative faculty than black faculty.)

Since people will delight in misinterpreting me here, let me overemphasize what I am not saying. I’m not saying people of either party have it “worse” than black people, or that partyism is more of a problem than racism, or any of a number of stupid things along those lines which I am sure I will nevertheless be accused of believing. Racism is worse than partyism because the two parties are at least kind of balanced in numbers and in resources, whereas the brunt of an entire country’s racism falls on a few underprivileged people. I am saying that the underlying attitudes that produce partyism are stronger than the underlying attitudes that produce racism, with no necessary implications on their social effects.

But if we want to look at people’s psychology and motivations, partyism and the particular variant of tribalism that it represents are going to be fertile ground.


Every election cycle like clockwork, conservatives accuse liberals of not being sufficiently pro-America. And every election cycle like clockwork, liberals give extremely unconvincing denials of this.

“It’s not that we’re, like, against America per se. It’s just that…well, did you know Europe has much better health care than we do? And much lower crime rates? I mean, come on, how did they get so awesome? And we’re just sitting here, can’t even get the gay marriage thing sorted out, seriously, what’s wrong with a country that can’t…sorry, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, America. They’re okay. Cesar Chavez was really neat. So were some other people outside the mainstream who became famous precisely by criticizing majority society. That’s sort of like America being great, in that I think the parts of it that point out how bad the rest of it are often make excellent points. Vote for me!”

(sorry, I make fun of you because I love you)

There was a big brouhaha a couple of years ago when, as it first became apparent Obama had a good shot at the Presidency, Michelle Obama said that “for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.”

Republicans pounced on the comment, asking why she hadn’t felt proud before, and she backtracked saying of course she was proud all the time and she loves America with the burning fury of a million suns and she was just saying that the Obama campaign was particularly inspiring.

As unconvincing denials go, this one was pretty far up there. But no one really held it against her. Probably most Obama voters felt vaguely the same way. I was an Obama voter, and I have proud memories of spending my Fourth of Julys as a kid debunking people’s heartfelt emotions of patriotism. Aaron Sorkin:

[What makes America the greatest country in the world?] It’s not the greatest country in the world! We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about.

(Another good retort is “We’re number one? Sure – number one in incarceration rates, drone strikes, and making new parents go back to work!”)

All of this is true, of course. But it’s weird that it’s such a classic interest of members of the Blue Tribe, and members of the Red Tribe never seem to bring it up.

(“We’re number one? Sure – number one in levels of sexual degeneracy! Well, I guess probably number two, after the Netherlands, but they’re really small and shouldn’t count.”)

My hunch – both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.

That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.

Here is a popular piece published on a major media site called America: A Big, Fat, Stupid Nation. Another: America: A Bunch Of Spoiled, Whiny Brats. Americans are ignorant, scientifically illiterate religious fanatics whose “patriotism” is actually just narcissism. You Will Be Shocked At How Ignorant Americans Are, and we should Blame The Childish, Ignorant American People.

Needless to say, every single one of these articles was written by an American and read almost entirely by Americans. Those Americans very likely enjoyed the articles very much and did not feel the least bit insulted.

And look at the sources. HuffPo, Salon, Slate. Might those have anything in common?

On both sides, “American” can be either a normal demonym, or a code word for a member of the Red Tribe.


The other day, I logged into OKCupid and found someone who looked cool. I was reading over her profile and found the following sentence:

Don’t message me if you’re a sexist white guy

And my first thought was “Wait, so a sexist black person would be okay? Why?”

(The girl in question was white as snow)

Around the time the Ferguson riots were first starting, there were a host of articles with titles like Why White People Don’t Seem To Understand Ferguson, Why It’s So Hard For Whites To Understand Ferguson, and White Folks Listen Up And Let Me Tell You What Ferguson Is All About, this last of which says:

Social media is full of people on both sides making presumptions, and believing what they want to believe. But it’s the white folks that don’t understand what this is all about. Let me put it as simply as I can for you [...]

No matter how wrong you think Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown were, I think we can all agree they didn’t deserve to die over it. I want you white folks to understand that this is where the anger is coming from. You focused on the looting….”

And on a hunch I checked the author photos, and every single one of these articles was written by a white person.

White People Are Ruining America? White. White People Are Still A Disgrace? White. White Guys: We Suck And We’re Sorry? White. Bye Bye, Whiny White Dudes? White. Dear Entitled Straight White Dudes, I’m Evicting You From My Life? White. White Dudes Need To Stop Whitesplaining? White. Reasons Why Americans Suck #1: White People? White.

We’ve all seen articles and comments and articles like this. Some unsavory people try to use them to prove that white people are the real victims or the media is biased against white people or something. Other people who are very nice and optimistic use them to show that some white people have developed some self-awareness and are willing to engage in self-criticism.

But I think the situation with “white” is much the same as the situation with “American” – it can either mean what it says, or be a code word for the Red Tribe.

(except on the blog Stuff White People Like, where it obviously serves as a code word for the Blue tribe. I don’t know, guys. I didn’t do it.)

I realize that’s making a strong claim, but it would hardly be without precedent. When people say things like “gamers are misogynist”, do they mean the 52% of gamers who are women? Do they mean every one of the 59% of Americans from every walk of life who are known to play video or computer games occasionally? No. “Gamer” is a coded reference to the Gray Tribe, the half-branched-off collection of libertarianish tech-savvy nerds, and everyone knows it. As well expect that when people talk about “fedoras”, they mean Indiana Jones. Or when they talk about “urban youth”, they mean freshmen at NYU. Everyone knows exactly who we mean when we say “urban youth”, and them being young people who live in a city has only the most tenuous of relations to the actual concept.

And I’m saying words like “American” and “white” work the same way. Bill Clinton was the “first black President”, but if Herman Cain had won in 2012 he’d have been the 43rd white president. And when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates “white dudes”, he is not being humble and self-critical.


Imagine hearing that a liberal talk show host and comedian was so enraged by the actions of ISIS that he’d recorded and posted a video in which he shouts at them for ten minutes, cursing the “fanatical terrorists” and calling them “utter savages” with “savage values”.

If I heard that, I’d be kind of surprised. It doesn’t fit my model of what liberal talk show hosts do.

But the story I’m actually referring to is liberal talk show host / comedian Russell Brand making that same rant against Fox News for supporting war against the Islamic State, adding at the end that “Fox is worse than ISIS”.

That fits my model perfectly. You wouldn’t celebrate Osama’s death, only Thatcher’s. And you wouldn’t call ISIS savages, only Fox News. Fox is the outgroup, ISIS is just some random people off in a desert. You hate the outgroup, you don’t hate random desert people.

I would go further. Not only does Brand not feel much like hating ISIS, he has a strong incentive not to. That incentive is: the Red Tribe is known to hate ISIS loudly and conspicuously. Hating ISIS would signal Red Tribe membership, would be the equivalent of going into Crips territory with a big Bloods gang sign tattooed on your shoulder.

But this might be unfair. What would Russell Brand answer, if we asked him to justify his decision to be much angrier at Fox than ISIS?

He might say something like “Obviously Fox News is not literally worse than ISIS. But here I am, talking to my audience, who are mostly white British people and Americans. These people already know that ISIS is bad; they don’t need to be told that any further. In fact, at this point being angry about how bad ISIS is, is less likely to genuinely change someone’s mind about ISIS, and more likely to promote Islamophobia. The sort of people in my audience are at zero risk of becoming ISIS supporters, but at a very real risk of Islamophobia. So ranting against ISIS would be counterproductive and dangerous.

On the other hand, my audience of white British people and Americans is very likely to contain many Fox News viewers and supporters. And Fox, while not quite as evil as ISIS, is still pretty bad. So here’s somewhere I have a genuine chance to reach people at risk and change minds. Therefore, I think my decision to rant against Fox News, and maybe hyperbolically say they were ‘worse than ISIS’ is justified under the circumstances.”

I have a lot of sympathy to hypothetical-Brand, especially to the part about Islamophobia. It does seem really possible to denounce ISIS’ atrocities to a population that already hates them in order to weak-man a couple of already-marginalized Muslims. We need to fight terrorism and atrocities – therefore it’s okay to shout at a poor girl ten thousand miles from home for wearing a headscarf in public. Christians are being executed for their faith in Sudan, therefore let’s picket the people trying to build a mosque next door.

But my sympathy with Brand ends when he acts like his audience is likely to be fans of Fox News.

In a world where a negligible number of Redditors oppose gay marriage and 1% of Less Wrongers identify conservative and I know 0/150 creationists, how many of the people who visit the YouTube channel of a well-known liberal activist with a Che-inspired banner, a channel whose episode names are things like “War: What Is It Good For?” and “Sarah Silverman Talks Feminism” – how many of them do you think are big Fox News fans?

In a way, Russell Brand would have been braver taking a stand against ISIS than against Fox. If he attacked ISIS, his viewers would just be a little confused and uncomfortable. Whereas every moment he’s attacking Fox his viewers are like “HA HA! YEAH! GET ‘EM! SHOW THOSE IGNORANT BIGOTS IN THE outgroup WHO’S BOSS!”

Brand acts as if there are just these countries called “Britain” and “America” who are receiving his material. Wrong. There are two parallel universes, and he’s only broadcasting to one of them.

The result is exactly what we predicted would happen in the case of Islam. Bombard people with images of a far-off land they already hate and tell them to hate it more, and the result is ramping up the intolerance on the couple of dazed and marginalized representatives of that culture who have ended up stuck on your half of the divide. Sure enough, if industry or culture or community gets Blue enough, Red Tribe members start getting harassed, fired from their jobs (Brendan Eich being the obvious example) or otherwise shown the door.

Think of Brendan Eich as a member of a tiny religious minority surrounded by people who hate that minority. Suddenly firing him doesn’t seem very noble.

If you mix together Podunk, Texas and Mosul, Iraq, you can prove that Muslims are scary and very powerful people who are executing Christians all the time and have a great excuse for kicking the one remaining Muslim family, random people who never hurt anyone, out of town.

And if you mix together the open-source tech industry and the parallel universe where you can’t wear a FreeBSD t-shirt without risking someone trying to exorcise you, you can prove that Christians are scary and very powerful people who are persecuting everyone else all the time, and you have a great excuse for kicking one of the few people willing to affiliate with the Red Tribe, a guy who never hurt anyone, out of town.

When a friend of mine heard Eich got fired, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. “I can tolerate anything except intolerance,” she said.

“Intolerance” is starting to look like another one of those words like “white” and “American”.

“I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.” Doesn’t sound quite so noble now, does it?


We started by asking: millions of people are conspicuously praising every outgroup they can think of, while conspicuously condemning their own in-group. This seems contrary to what we know about social psychology. What’s up?

We noted that outgroups are rarely literally “the group most different from you”, and in fact far more likely to be groups very similar to you sharing almost all your characteristics and living in the same area.

We then noted that although liberals and conservatives live in the same area, they might as well be two totally different countries or universe as far as level of interaction were concerned.

Contra the usual idea of them being marked only by voting behavior, we described them as very different tribes with totally different cultures. You can speak of “American culture” only in the same way you can speak of “Asian culture” – that is, with a lot of interior boundaries being pushed under the rug.

The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.

The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.

This is not surprising. Ethnic differences have proven quite tractable in the face of shared strategic aims. Even the Nazis, not known for their ethnic tolerance, were able to get all buddy-buddy with the Japanese when they had a common cause.

Research suggests Blue Tribe / Red Tribe prejudice to be much stronger than better-known types of prejudice like racism. Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue. “There never was a coward where the shamrock grows.”

Spending your entire life insulting the other tribe and talking about how terrible they are makes you look, well, tribalistic. It is definitely not high class. So when members of the Blue Tribe decide to dedicate their entire life to yelling about how terrible the Red Tribe is, they make sure that instead of saying “the Red Tribe”, they say “America”, or “white people”, or “straight white men”. That way it’s humble self-criticism. They are so interested in justice that they are willing to critique their own beloved side, much as it pains them to do so. We know they are not exaggerating, because one might exaggerate the flaws of an enemy, but that anyone would exaggerate their own flaws fails the criterion of embarrassment.

The Blue Tribe always has an excuse at hand to persecute and crush any Red Tribers unfortunate enough to fall into its light-matter-universe by defining them as all-powerful domineering oppressors. They appeal to the fact that this is definitely the way it works in the Red Tribe’s dark-matter-universe, and that’s in the same country so it has to be the same community for all intents and purposes. As a result, every Blue Tribe institution is permanently licensed to take whatever emergency measures are necessary against the Red Tribe, however disturbing they might otherwise seem.

And so how virtuous, how noble the Blue Tribe! Perfectly tolerant of all of the different groups that just so happen to be allied with them, never intolerant unless it happen to be against intolerance itself. Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that awful Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing their own culture and striving to make it better!

Sorry. But I hope this is at least a little convincing. The weird dynamic of outgroup-philia and ingroup-phobia isn’t anything of the sort. It’s just good old-fashioned in-group-favoritism and outgroup bashing, a little more sophisticated and a little more sneaky.


This essay is bad and I should feel bad.

I should feel bad because I made exactly the mistake I am trying to warn everyone else about, and it wasn’t until I was almost done that I noticed.

How virtuous, how noble I must be! Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that silly Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing my own tribe and striving to make it better.

Yeah. Once I’ve written a ten thousand word essay savagely attacking the Blue Tribe, either I’m a very special person or they’re my outgroup. And I’m not that special.

Just as you can pull a fast one and look humbly self-critical if you make your audience assume there’s just one American culture, so maybe you can trick people by assuming there’s only one Blue Tribe.

I’m pretty sure I’m not Red, but I did talk about the Grey Tribe above, and I show all the risk factors for being one of them. That means that, although my critique of the Blue Tribe may be right or wrong, in terms of motivation it comes from the same place as a Red Tribe member talking about how much they hate al-Qaeda or a Blue Tribe member talking about how much they hate ignorant bigots. And when I boast of being able to tolerate Christians and Southerners whom the Blue Tribe is mean to, I’m not being tolerant at all, just noticing people so far away from me they wouldn’t make a good outgroup anyway.

My arguments might be correct feces, but they’re still feces.

I had fun writing this article. People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.

You can bet some white guy on Gawker who week after week churns out “Why White People Are So Terrible” and “Here’s What Dumb White People Don’t Understand” is having fun and not sweating any blood at all. He’s not criticizing his in-group, he’s never even considered criticizing his in-group. I can’t blame him. Criticizing the in-group is a really difficult project I’ve barely begun to build the mental skills necessary to even consider.

I can think of criticisms of my own tribe. Important criticisms, true ones. But the thought of writing them makes my blood boil.

I imagine might I feel like some liberal US Muslim leader, when he goes on the O’Reilly Show, and O’Reilly ambushes him and demands to know why he and other American Muslims haven’t condemned beheadings by ISIS more, demands that he criticize them right there on live TV. And you can see the wheels in the Muslim leader’s head turning, thinking something like “Okay, obviously beheadings are terrible and I hate them as much as anyone. But you don’t care even the slightest bit about the victims of beheadings. You’re just looking for a way to score points against me so you can embarass all Muslims. And I would rather personally behead every single person in the world than give a smug bigot like you a single microgram more stupid self-satisfaction than you’ve already got.”

That is how I feel when asked to criticize my own tribe, even for correct reasons. If you think you’re criticizing your own tribe, and your blood is not at that temperature, consider the possibility that you aren’t.

But if I want Self-Criticism Virtue Points, criticizing the Grey Tribe is the only honest way to get them. And if I want Tolerance Points, my own personal cross to bear right now is tolerating the Blue Tribe. I need to remind myself that when they are bad people, they are merely Osama-level bad people instead of Thatcher-level bad people. And when they are good people, they are powerful and necessary crusaders against the evils of the world.

The worst thing that could happen to this post is to have it be used as convenient feces to fling at the Blue Tribe whenever feces are necessary. Which, given what has happened to my last couple of posts along these lines and the obvious biases of my own subconscious, I already expect it will be.

But the best thing that could happen to this post is that it makes a lot of people, especially myself, figure out how to be more tolerant. Not in the “of course I’m tolerant, why shouldn’t I be?” sense of the Emperor in Part I. But in the sense of “being tolerant makes me see red, makes me sweat blood, but darn it I am going to be tolerant anyway.”

Even More Links For September 2014

Data science divides the music world into 1264 genres, and the Guardian wants to show us all of them. Okay, ten of them. Including “charred death”, “deep filthstep”, and “skweee”.

This is a joke: Five Ways ISIS Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint. This is not a joke: Parents Defecting To ISIS Because Of Its Family-Friendly Environment.

I always figured the “rebel yell”, the supposedly bone-chilling battle cry of the Confederates during the Civil War, was one of those sensations lost to history, like the face of Helen of Troy or the taste of fresh mammoth. But turns out some Confederate veterans lived long enough to be recorded on video and there are clips of them doing the rebel yell on YouTube. It sounds like a crazy person making silly noises, and history is now ruined for me forever.

If we ever go into some alternate dimension where everyone is perfectly selfish game theoretic agents, I want this guy on my team: Chinese restaurant owner secretly drugged his food with addictive poppies to keep customers coming back.

Possibly the first – and one of the most impressive – effective altruist projects in history – The Balmis Expedition. A fleet of ships armed with a complicated cowpox incubation system in the form of 22 orphaned children travels to the New World to vaccinate the Indians against smallpox.

Something that looks a lot like real progress from the various climate summits going on now: Cargill Promises To Stop Chopping Down Rainforests – This Is Huge.

Your daily reminder that everything in psychology changes about as frequently as the wind – Human Preferences For Sexually Dimorphic Faces May Be Evolutionarily Novel – by which they mean they’re only found in industrialized countries. More diverse populations don’t seem to prefer feminine women or masculine men at all. I look forward to seeing whether this is replicated.

More fallout from that Victorian IQ study – are we sure that the effect isn’t confounded by luminance of stimulus?

About half a meta-level above normal discussions of politics, but half a meta-level below meta discussion of politics: Vox: New Zealand Has The Best Designed Government In The World. Makes sense, although it kind of conflates “makes every vote count” and “promotes good policy”. Still, I agree with its general thrust that this kind of thing would be worth pushing over here.

Megan McArdle’s guide to appearing on the Daily Show: Don’t. Having spent a few years watching it, I’m not really surprised to learn they twist and edit everything people say in order to support the political position they’re pushing.

Indian businessman Anil Agarwal has decided to donate 75% of his $3.3 billion fortune after talking to Bill Gates.

Kim Jong-un has not been seen for about a month, sparking rumors of some kind of problem. Now North Korean media have announced he is suffering from “discomfort”, which sounds like a totally legit medical diagnosis. Speculation is that he might have gout. I am surprised they can’t control that given the level of medical care he probably has access to.

Last links post I mentioned some interesting Google Maps Street Views, but those pale compared to whatever is going on in the Skerry Isles. I think they might have had the Singularity without telling us or something.

If you read Tumblr, you’re probably familiar with realsocialskills, the overly heavy and opinionated advice blog. Now there is realersocialskills, the parody/hate account that criticizes everything it says. But the weird part is that it’s really civil about it and I actually find their conversation to be productive and interesting.

China Removes 100,000 Government Officials Who Were Paid But Had No Work. I would make fun of them, except that apparently they have less than half the bureaucrats per capita we do.

Did you know: the ruins of the southernmost Russian colony in the New World are within a couple hours’ drive of San Francisco? Or that some fringe Russian politicians want to sue to get it back?

Another study finds a link between Tylenol use during pregnancy and ADHD. Still far from proven, but evidence starting to build up. Do remember that most alternatives to Tylenol are worse.

Wikipedia’s page on evolutionary aesthetics contains a bunch of links to weird fields you never knew existed, like “evolutionary musicology” and “Darwinian literary studies”. Also: “When young human children from different nations are asked to select which landscape they prefer, from a selection of standardized landscape photographs, there is a strong preference for savannas with trees.”

I know I’m not supposed to judge books by their covers, but if I did, my favorite would be Naive Set Theory.

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Bottomless Pits Of Suffering


A friend on Facebook recently posted the following dilemma, which of course I cannot find right now so I have to vaguely quote my recollection of it:

Would you rather the medieval Church had spent all of its money helping the poor, rather than supporting the arts. So that maybe there were fewer poor people back in medieval times, but we wouldn’t have any cathedrals or triptychs or the Sistine Chapel?

I was surprised to see so many people choosing the cathedrals. I mean, I guess this question is kind of unfair, in that it’s really hard to figure out what it means, moral value wise, for there to have been less suffering in the past. This is especially true if you choose to believe Robin Hanson – as always a decision that starts a mini-civil-war between the rational and intuitive parts of my brain – when he says we should give much more weight the preferences of past individuals.

I think maybe choosing the cathedrals is so appealing because they’re right there, you can touch them, but the starving peasants are hidden all the way in the past where you can’t see them. So it feels like you’re being asked to sacrifice something you really like for something that you would otherwise not have to think about.

This is one of the biggest and scariest problems with utilitarianism. Utiltarianism is at least kind of easy when it’s asking you to trade off some things in your normal world for other things in your normal world. But when it asks you to make everything you consider your normal world unambiguously worse to help some other domain you would otherwise never have to think about, then it starts to become unintuitive and scary.

Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.

Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of the town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The pit gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.

Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.

So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.


The developing world is sort of a bottomless pit of suffering if some First Worlder didn’t expect it to be there. But I think most people do expect it to be there, most people are happy to help (a little), and it doesn’t really confuse or alarm us too much when we are reminded they still exist and still need help.

But what about nursing homes? Most of the doctors I have talked to agree most nursing homes are terrible. I get a steady trickle of psychiatric patients who are perfectly happy to be in the psychiatric hospital but who freak out when I tell them that they seem all better now and it’s time to send them back to their nursing home, saying it’s terrible and they’re abused and neglected and they refuse to go. I very occasionally get elderly patients who have attempted suicide solely because they know doing so will get them out of their nursing home. I don’t have a strong feeling for exactly how bad nursing homes are, but everything I have seen is consistent with at least some of them being very bad.

Solving this would be really expensive – I am perpetually surprised at how quietly and effortlessly we seem to soak up nursing home costs that already can run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year. Solving this would also produce no visible gain, in that bedridden old people are very very bad at complaining in ways anyone else can notice, and if we don’t want to think about them we don’t have to. If we as a country decided to concentrate on decreasing abuse in nursing homes, we might have to take that money away from important causes in our everyday visible world, like welfare and infrastructure and education funding. We would have to take limited Public Attention And Outrage Resources from causes like human rights and gay marriage and what beverages the President is holding while he salutes people. I think everyone agrees it’s a lot easier not to think about it, and nobody can make us.

Prisons are an even uglier case. Not only is prison inherently pretty miserable, but there seems to be rampant abuse and violence going on, including at least 5% of prisoners being raped per year. Every couple of weeks there’s a new story about how, for example, prisoners are gouged on phone bills because someone can do it and nobody is stopping them, or how they’re kept in cells without air conditioning in 110 degree weather in Arizona because no one has any incentive to change that.

Now the reason this is so ugly is…well, a lot of this is due to prison overcrowding. And a lot of people have very reasonably suggested imprisoning fewer people – ending the drug war would be a good start, but the past thirty years have also seen a momentous lowering of the threshhold for imprisoning people in general and a ballooning of America’s prison population. Which is awkward, because the last thirty years have also seen an unprecedented drop in violent crime.

It would be absolutely lovely if this were confirmed to be the result of some very clever policy like reducing lead exposure, or even if Levitt’s theory about abortion were proven true. But the least convenient possible world is that the recent drop in crime is mostly due to the recent rise in imprisonment and the recent lengthening of prison sentences – everybody with even the slightest bit of criminal tendency is already safely locked up [EDIT: strong argument against this]

Think about what a moral nightmare that would be. Sure, you can do something about the bottomless pit of suffering where people are packed together into 110 degree cells and raped for ten or twenty years – but it’s going to raise crime back to the horrible 1990s levels we’re all pretty relieved to have escaped. Or you can just whistle, pretend not to notice, and continue to enjoy nice low-crime 21st century society.

And then there’s a broader worry.

Conservatives like to talk about how much better we all had it back in the 1950s with traditional this and traditional that, and how you can just tell from listening to stories from people of that time. or reading media from that time, that things were a lot calmer and more pleasant.

And the left likes to talk about how we are widening the circle of empathy and bringing in new and finally starting to pay attention to the concerns of downtrodden groups.

What if they’re both right? What if progress since the 1950s has been about opening one bottomless pit of suffering after another, trading off the well-being of the nice prosperous town for getting people out of the pits, and then moving on to another pit somewhere else?

I mean, this is kind of the standard view of history. Except that in the standard view, conservatives tack on “But really, the bottomless pit wasn’t so bad, and the sulfurous flames gave you a nice, warm feeling inside.” And leftists tack on “but in the end, everyone including the people in the nice town benefitted from the increased understanding and diversity this created, so really history was just this series of obvious win-win propositions that everyone was just too stupid to figure out, until now.”

Although there has been a lot of interesting argument against the conservative proposition that things in the nice town have gotten worse since the 50s – some of which I have participated in, it seems important to note that even if the proposition is 100% correct, progress might still have been morally correct.


A lot of the paradoxes of utilitarianism, the things that make it scary and hard to work with, involve philosophers who compulsively seek out bottomless pits and shout at you until you pay attention to them.

Utility monsters are basically one-man bottomless pits.

Pascal’s Wager (or Pascal’s Mugging, if you prefer) splits the universe into a billion Everett branches, then points out that one of these Everett branches is a bottomless pit and asks the others to make sacrifices to help it.

A lot of the addition paradoxes treat a pool of “potential people” as a bottomless pit.

This seems to be the easiest way to break utilitarianism – point to a bottomless pit, real or imagined, and make everyone in the world lose utility to solve it, forever. It’s not always easy to come up with solutions that successfully rule out these problems, while preserving our intuition that we should continue to worry about people in nursing homes or jails.

Contractualism scares me a little because it offers too easy an out from bottomless-pit type dilemmas. It seems really easy to say “All of us people not in jail, we’ll agree to look out for one another, and as for those guys, screw them”. You would need to have something like a veil of ignorance, or at least a good simulation of one, to even begin to care.

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Cuddle Culture

[Content warning: TMI, polyamory.]


Another one of those times three very different people writing three very different things all remind me of each other.

Ozy got very excited recently because Heartiste wrote a post attacking polyamory (Ozy reminds me that the appropriate trigger warning for Heartiste is “trigger warning: literally the worst person alive, I am so serious about this, you think I am joking but I am not”).

Reversed stupidity is not intelligence, but it’s still nice to know that somebody known to be generally evil takes time out of his busy day to dislike my way of life specifically. It’s like a weird sort of reverse validation.

But since the Devil sometimes speaks true, what exactly does he have to say?

Genuine, egalitarian, open polyamory for all practical purposes doesn’t exist among white Westerners. There’s always one or another party out in the asexual or anhedonic cold, nursing feelings of rejection and traumatic self-doubt. And if that party is a willing participant to his or her sexual/romantic exclusion, it’s a good bet he/she is psychologically broken, mentally unstable, physically repulsive, or suffering from clinically low sex drive. In other words, human trash.

Applying enough charity to fully fund the Red Cross for the next fifty years, Heartiste seems to be saying something along the lines of “Polyamory is especially well-suited for asexual people”. And I agree!

Many of the people I know in successful polyamorous relationships are sexual, sometimes even highly sexual. But I also know a disproportionate number of asexual polyamorous people – including myself – and the combination seems to work really, really well. Part of it is the ability for asexual people to date sexual people without having to worry about the partner having no way of satisfying their higher sex drive. Part of it is the free layer of protection against sexual jealousy. And part of it is the neat ability to sidestep most of the risks of polyamory, including infection, unintended pregnancy, and the sense of disgust that some sexual people – especially Heartiste – seem to feel at the thought of having sex with less-than-virginal partners.

For me polyamory doesn’t get into any of that. It just means lots and lots of free cuddles.


Which brings me to the second thing I read recently. There is a new app out, Cuddlr, which is “like Grindr, but for cuddling”. Unequally Yoked has come out against it, saying that cuddling people without knowing them first is “objectifying”.

You already know what I think of objectification, but the criticism is unusually jarring in this instance. For me, cuddling is the opposite of objectifying. I go into social encounters viewing most people as a combination of scary and boring. I can sometimes overcome that most of the way by spending months getting to know them and appreciate their unique perspective. Or I can cuddle with them for ten minutes. Either one works.

There’s a Graham Greene quote which, being a philistine, I only know because it was included in Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal:

He took another drink of brandy. As the liquid touched his tongue he remembered his child, coming in out of the glare: the sullen unhappy knowledgeable face. He said, “Oh God, help her. Damn me, I deserve it, but let her live for ever.” This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear and the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child. He began to weep; it was as if he had to watch her from the shore drown slowly because he had forgotten how to swim. He thought: This is what I should feel all the time for everyone…

Wright’s point was that, there is this pure universal love that we wish we could feel for everyone all the time, but in practice we’re only able to feel it for our children, presumably because of evolutionary imperatives. As for me, I have no children, but the pure universal love I wish I could feel for everyone all the time, I’m only actually able to feel for cute girls I am cuddling with. It is definitely a good, correct kind of love – Leah would be more likely to call it agape or philia than eros. And this is important to me, because that kind of love is definitely an important psychological nutrient and my brain is very bad at feeling it any other way without, like, knowing somebody for ten years.

So this is the second reason why I think polyamory and (my particular variant of) asexuality go well together. It allows me to cuddle whoever I want and fall in love with whoever I want and have absurdly fond and protective feelings toward everybody if I so choose.


The third thing that made me think of this was actually something I wrote in my post yesterday and realized I should expand upon:

Testosterone is said to affect sexual libido but not desire for “sensual touch”, and a lot of people have mentioned how anomalously some of the nerd communities I’m in tend to value cuddling compared to sex relative to the general population.

In the general population – let alone for people like Heartiste – men are supposed to consider cuddling to be that extremely annoying thing that women sometimes want to do instead of sex, and which they must be very careful to avoid lest women get the impression that this is acceptable.

On the other hand, in the nerdy, polyamorous communities I’ve been in, it’s been generally understood that people of all sorts, man or woman or Ozy, can like cuddling and there is no shame in it.

This has been really liberating. Like, if you ask someone if they want to have sex, they might say no, they might slap you, but at least they will understand the context: that is definitely a known thing people ask. If you ask someone to cuddle, they will usually just be very confused, which in a way makes it even creepier.

The formation of communities where it’s not creepy and you can just ask is, at least to this asexual, one of the more important pieces of social technology to come out of the weird incubator that is the Bay Area. It creates so many positive feelings and so much of the good kind of groupishness that it seems like a comical Publishers’ Clearing House-style $100 bill left on the ground in the relatively high-stakes Forming Cohesive Communities Game.

I am left speculating that it only works after you get a certain percent asexual, or a certain percent polyamorous, or a certain percent low testosterone, or a certain percent low jealousy. Or maybe that you have to have a certain amount of community cohesion before you try. Or maybe you need people with a certain amount of willingness to experiment and not take themselves seriously. I don’t know. I can certainly imagine most attempts to initiate it would implode horribly. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one who tries to import cuddle culture to some other group where social cohesion is important, like the US Senate.

It just seems to be one of those really nice equilibria that form spontaneously in certain places for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint, just like the rest of civilization.

I Am Being Framed

Someone has been impersonating me to post racist or otherwise terrible comments on various blogs. They are using my real name, linking to my old website, and then saying really nasty things.

I don’t want to link to them to raise their Google visibility, but you can reverse-engineer the following (yes, I know these reveal my real name, there’s no help for it at this point):

brainsize dot wordpress dot c-o-m /2014/09/23/ masculine-guys-more-likely-to-be-republican-the-genetics-of-being-gay/comment-page-1/#comment-1590

unz dot c-o-m /gnxp/dissenting-from-american-liberalism-and-conservatism/#comment-710363

I feel like it’s most likely someone from neoreaction since they seem to know a lot of the reactionary lingo, but I’m not sure. Some SJ people were making vaguely threatening noises on Twitter recently, but I feel like they’d be more likely to stab me in the front.

This is a big problem for me. Patients will search my name to figure out what kind of a doctor they’re getting, and they’re going to come across this kind of thing. When I start trying to get jobs presumably my employers will also search my name and find this.

If the person doing this is reading this, please stop.

If anyone reading this knows the person doing this, please make them stop.

I’ve already contacted the people in charge of the associated blogs privately, but if they’re reading this, I would appreciate them deleting the offending comments and maybe getting some IPs.

I’d also appreciate any help anyone else has to offer. Has anyone else been in this position? Is there a known solution?

The best idea I can think of is to just post something here under my real name titled “If you are Googling [NAME], you will find a lot of false results” in the hope that I can make it the first result for my name and anyone searching me will notice – but that would require permanently breaking anonymity for this blog, which would sacrifice some ability to talk about controversial things. Does that sound like a good idea? A bad idea? Possibly if someone with a highly-Google-ranked blog wants to do me a favor, I can post it there instead of here? I would feel weird doing it on LW, which was the other suggestion.

The second best idea I can think of is just to switch to my real name permanently, in the hopes that SSC-related uses of my real name overwhelm other ones beyond a potential stalker’s ability to click through Google.

And while I’m on the subject – I’ve been thinking of setting up a parallel psychiatry blog, in the sense of “all of my psychiatry posts, and only my psychiatry posts, get automatically displayed on some other site along with the comments, in a way that’s hard to trace back here.” Then it would look like I have a popular psychiatry blog and I could show it to patients and employers and be like “Look! I have a psychiatry blog!” I could also put that one under my real name, which might push fake uses of my real name down the search results a little. I could pay someone a small amount of money ($100? $200?) for help making this happen.

PS: I know the formatting here has gotten a little weird recently; I’m working on it.

ADDED: Someone gave me the bright idea of retooling for this purpose. It is done! (As an added bonus, if I ever feel the need to actually go on profanity-laden racist rants, I have a perfect cover.)

Why No Science Of Nerds?

Different groups navel-gaze in different ways. Broadway musical writers write a bunch of musicals about what it’s like to be on Broadway. Poets write a bunch of poems about writing poetry. Philosophers speculate on how philosophy may be the most truly virtuous activity. Psychoanalysts analyze the heck out of the inner mental experience of psychoanalyzing someone.

All this leaves me a little surprised that there isn’t more scientific study of nerds.

And yet there is not. Typing “nerd” into Google Scholar brings up only a series of papers on desert plants by one Dr. A. Nerd, who must have had a very unpleasant childhood. The field remains strangely unexplored.

“Nerds” seem to share a bunch of seemingly uncorrelated characteristics. They’re generally smart. They’re interested in things like math and science, especially the hard sciences like physics. They’re shy and awkward. They’re some combination of bad at getting social status and not interested in getting social status. They’re especially bad at getting other people to show romantic interest in them. They’re physically unimposing and bad at sports. They don’t get in physical fights and are very unlikely to solve problems with violence. They’re straightedge and less likely to drink or smoke to excess (according to legend, “nerd” derives from “knurd”, ie “drunk” spelled backwards). Sometimes even very specific physical characteristics make the list, like a silly-sounding high-pitched voice.

A scientific study of nerds might begin by asking: why do all of these things go together in the popular imagination, form a single category?

Of these nine classic characteristics, we can imagine people scoring either “nerdy” or “anti-nerdy” on each. If that were true, there’s only a 1/2^9 = 1/512 chance that any given person has all of these characteristics. Our null hypothesis might be that “nerd” is just a made-up category used to describe this totally coincidental group of 1/512th of the population, or those people who are sufficiently close (maybe 6 or 7 out of 9?). Could be.

The other possibility is that in fact these traits are all correlated for some reason, and people who are bad at sports really are more likely to enjoy math, less likely to drink or use violence, et cetera. “Nerd” would then be a natural category, in the same way that, for example, “bird” is a natural category pointing out that animals with feathers are more likely to have wings, beaks, et cetera rather than a totally random distribution of traits. Why would that be?

Have there been nerds across different times and cultures? The term was only coined in the mid-20th century. But Isaac Newton seems to have been a nerd. Whatever else he was, Henry Cavendish was at the very least a nerd. On the other hand, some of the Europeans I’ve talked to say that the experience of nerdiness on their side of the Atlantic is very different from the American experience, so much that it’s hard to interpret them as having a “nerd” concept at all. From my time in Japan, the experience there is different as well.

One can sort of imagine how certain of the correlated characteristics might cause others. Young people who are small and weak and bad at sports might lose social status as a result. People who are good at math might be so transfixed by the mysteries of the universe that things like sports and socializing and dating pale in comparison. People who are very smart might, for the usual neurological reasons, also have high impulse control, explaining the lack of drug use and aggression. People who are bad at social skills might not get invited to sports games and so have no opportunity to improve; they might take up unpopular but solitary pursuits like math as a result.

Or we could take the fun route and go full biodeterminist. The connection to autism and Asperger syndrome is so commonly cited (despite a lack of any real scholarly investigation) as to be cliched. Anyone familiar with the full-fledged syndrome understands it’s something very different from everyday nerdiness, but the possibility that nerdiness is some very mild form or related condition probably shouldn’t be ruled out.

Or we could go a different route. Consider:

In men (but not women) low testosterone is related to increased mathematical intelligence and increased likelihood of being gifted.

Testosterone is associated with extraversion, alone of Big Five characteristics.

Higher testosterone men have higher social status, and the cognitive role of testosterone has been described as “best understood in terms of the search for and maintenance of social status”

As anyone who has watched the controversy over steroid use in professional sports knows, testosterone improves muscle mass and athletic performance.

Men with lower testosterone have lower mating success.

High testosterone is correlated with increased drinking behavior with p < .001.

Especially in prison populations, high testosterone is closely linked to violence and aggressive behavior

Men with lower testosterone have higher-pitched voices (the media bills this as Deep Voiced Men Make Bad Mates: Study)

So at least in men, low testosterone seems to cause most of the characteristics associated with nerdhood.

But I’m being unfair. There’s a lot of counterevidence as well.

There are so many conflicting studies on testosterone and intelligence that I despair of getting anything coherent. Many studies show increased testosterone increases intelligence, especially in tasks where men generally outperform women, like spatial rotation (which tends to correlate with math) – for example, see here. I respect this research, but I would naively expect, let’s say, brilliant mathematicians to have lower testosterone than the general population, just based on my stereotypes that testosterone is associated with aggressiveness, popularity, athleticism, etc. I’m not sure how this squares with the data.

Testosterone doesn’t actually make male faces more attractive, according to Testosterone increases perceived dominance but not attractiveness in human males.

Nerds are traditionally viewed as having high libido – think watching pornography. But of course high testosterone is associated with higher libido. I don’t know if there’s a cultural thing going on where nerds have normal-to-low libido but are stereotyped as having high libido to make fun of their lack of romantic success – or even whether the pornography connection is just that nerds are better with computers. I also note with interest that testosterone is said to affect sexual libido but not desire for “sensual touch”, and a lot of people have mentioned how anomalously some of the nerd communities I’m in tend to value cuddling compared to sex relative to the general population.

I could probably find other traditionally nerdy characteristics that correlated negatively with testosterone. For example, acne is associated with higher testosterone levels.

So I don’t think this is the whole picture.

But I still feel like it should be some of the picture. Sex hormones are really complicated – for example, there seem to be different effects from in utero sex hormone exposure compared to pre-pubertal sex hormone exposure compared to pubertal sex hormone exposure, and these aren’t necessarily correlated with each other in the same people. Estrogens can have effects ranging from very similar to testosterone to exactly the opposite. Testosterone is hard to get a good measurement from, especially with the no-fuss salivary measurements I bet most of these studies used, and its effects or lack thereof would depend on lots of stuff like how much of it gets converted to dihydrotestosterone. Also, some hormones have totally different effects if they come in short spikes versus constant gradual release. So there’s a lot of room to improve our understanding of sex hormones and start distinguishing between unlike constructs.

I am reminded of an observation common among transsexuals – and brought up in Ozy’s last post – that there is a distinct cluster of transwomen who have certain very traditionally-considered-male-gendered characteristics and are very nerdy. This seems like another example of some strongly male and strongly female characteristics anomalously going hand in hand.

And what about female nerds? If we’re trying to make this about testosterone, it sounds like they need a separate explanation. Is female nerd a distinct cluster in the same way male nerd is? I don’t know. I don’t, for example, have strong feelings about whether female nerds are more or less attractive/athletic/whatever compared to non-nerdy females.

Mostly I just feel like this field is strangely under-explored. Especially when you consider what the sorts of people who explore fields are like.

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Streetlight Psychology

Recent article on Vox: Do Violent Video Games Actually Make People More Violent? It’s a good and even-handed article which concludes:

The short answer [is] we don’t really know. Some studies have indeed found that, in lab settings, people can become more aggressive after playing violent games. Some have also found that people who play violent games are more likely to commit violent acts in real life. But it’d be just as easy to conclude that inherently violent people are simply drawn to violent games — and indeed, several studies have come to that conclusion. Moreover, not all observational studies have found any correlation between gaming and violence. Perhaps most importantly, there’s been no surge in violence among youth over the past few decades in gaming countries to accompany the rising popularity of violent games. On the whole, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

I would, however, like to make one important point I think they left out, which also happens to be a very broad criticism of entire subfields of psychology.

They say that “lab experiments have shown violent games can increase aggression”, citing a meta-analysis of ninety-eight studies but using as their specific example a recent Italian study. In this experiment, a bunch of high-schoolers were randomly assigned to play Grand Theft Auto or some less violent game. Then they were asked to participate in an experiment where they got to blast loud noises at a partner, which seems like a pretty violent thing to do. The kids who had played Grand Theft Auto were more likely to give their partner louder, more violent blasts. A nice, elegant result very typical of results in this field.

Vox’s analysis:

There are a few caveats to keep in mind when considering these studies. One is that they use aggression and self-control as proxies for real-world violence, because researchers can’t actually allow violence to occur in a lab. The idea is that, in increasing aggressiveness, these games make it more likely that someone considering violence will be pushed over the edge and actually commit it. But there’s a huge difference between blasting someone with a loud noise, or scoring higher on a questionnaire intended to measure aggressiveness, and actually resorting to violence in the real world.

I think this is insufficiently skeptical.

Suppose I have a different hypothesis. I hypothesize that sad video games cause depression. It seems prima facie plausible. We’re having a lot of trouble with child and adolescent depression nowadays. And do you remember that thing that happened in Final Fantasy VII, with that one character (no spoilers)? Really sad. Maybe there are lots of video games like that, where you see your favorite characters or people you really like die or suffer terrible travails. In the past, maybe only a couple of people would lose people close to them, but through the vicarious experience of video games we’ve all experienced seeing our friends “die” dozens of times by the time we graduate high school. Hence, adolescent depression. Right?

We propose an experiment to test this. Fifty Italian teenagers play the appropriate scene in Final Fantasy VII; a control group of another fifty play something neutral like Tetris or whatever. Afterwards, we measure sadness in some way. For example, maybe we make them watch a comedy program and record how many times they laugh; if they don’t laugh much, we assume they’re sad. Or maybe we just give them a self-rating questionnaire. Whatever.

I predict that this study will easily find that the intervention group is sadder than the control group. I also predict that the original hypothesis, that sad video games cause depression, remains stupid.

The difference seems to be that between a temporary state of sad mood, and a long-term alteration of personality that amplifies a sadness “trait” (or more specifically depression, which sometimes presents similar to sadness but may have totally different causes). While it’s easy to imagine that sad video games affect the first, it’s much harder to believe they can do the second, and act in an additive way to make you a very sad person ten years down the line.

But the same should apply to the violence studies! Yeah, okay, you’re priming violence, you’ve got people in a high-arousal, aggressive state, they’ll probably be more violent until the effect wears off. But there’s a long way between that and saying that their personality becomes more and more violent until they shoot up a school. Especially since, as far as I know, no mass murderer is known to have played video games immediately before their crime, the period in which these kinds of effects might be relevant.

There is an old story about a drunk who loses his keys:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”

This has since been dubbed the “streetlight effect”, and these studies seem to be an example.

The policeman asks the psychologists what they’re doing. The psychologists say “Studying propensity to violence in the few minutes after someone plays a video game.” The policeman asks “And this is going to reveal important principles about why people are violent in real life?” The psychologists say “No, but it’s really easy to study.”

I want to stop for a second and say that this is not an argument that the field of videogamology is hopelessly flawed or that videogames cannot cause violence. Most of the videogamologists I have read freely acknowledge this problem. That they continue to do these kinds of studies time after time doesn’t surprise me – I’m working on a study right now for work which I don’t think will be hugely contributory to the Sum Of Human Knowledge, because I’m supposed to do something and this was a moderately interesting and do-able thing that came up. A society that rewards researchers per study, like one that rewards factories per kilogram of machinery, will get what it pays for. The videogamologists have taken this in stride and along with these sorts of laboratory studies are doing their best to do longitudinal studies adjusted for various confounders some of which reveal the same pattern. I haven’t studied the field and I have no opinion on it beyond what’s in the Vox article. I just want to make sure people don’t pay too much attention to the streetlight studies.

Which, by the way, are a problem far beyond videogamology.

Here’s an article called Arabs as terrorists: Effects of stereotypes within violent contexts on attitudes, perceptions, and affect. Participants consume some media with depictions of terrorist Arabs in it. Then they are asked what they think of Arabs. They are more likely than the control group to say they think of Arabs as terrorists. Therefore, media with stereotypical portrayals causes people to stereotype groups in various ways.

Okay. How long did the researchers give between the media in question and the survey? Five minutes? Ten? And we’re supposed to believe that this gives us important information about whether, if one of these people throws a brick at a mosque in ten years, it’s going to be because of all of the anti-Arabic media he’s been gradually consuming up until that time?

In fact, let me make a stronger claim. The “success” of this experiment actually disproves its hypothesis. Assume that everyone in both the experimental and control groups have probably seen hundreds of depictions of Arabs as terrorists throughout their lives. What the experiment finds is that one recent depiction of terrorists is enough to overwhelm all of those hundreds of past depictions, such that a clear and obvious difference shows up between the control group (who have seen hundreds of media depictions of terrorist Arabs throughout their entire lives) and the experimental group (who have seen hundreds of media depictions of terrorist Arabs throughout their entire lives, plus one extra one five minutes ago). What we’re actually finding is that any media depiction effect decays really really rapidly, so much so that people who have been told their entire lives that Arabs are terrorists can be used as the control group in an Arabs/terrorism experiment without anyone batting an eye.

Of course, it’s possible that there are two different effects – a very weak long-term effect that builds up with many exposures over time and existed in all of the study participants, and a very strong short-term effect you get when you just saw a documentary on Osama five minutes before someone asked your opinion. But in that case, you shouldn’t go proving the existence of the second effect and then pretending you’ve learned anything at all about the first.

A big chunk of the science in the area of prejudice and racism is exactly like these Arab studies, unfortunately.

Let me bring up one more area in which I think this effect distorts research.

Judith Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption makes the bold claim that most differences in how parents bring up their children don’t really change the children’s long-term outcomes that much. This obviously contradicts a wide body of research, and she goes at length into why she thinks the wide body of research is wrong.

I don’t have the book here, so I’m working from memory and it’s going to be more a general form than a specific example, but – suppose that some scientists find mothers who yell at their kids, and mothers who don’t yell at their kids, and find that the children of the yellers act out more and cause more trouble. You can conclude – and a lot of psychologists did – that yelling changes kids’ personalities and makes them more aggressive or rebellious or have some other trait desire to act out.

But other studies show that when the kids are in school, or after they’re taken away by social services, or twenty years later when they’re grown up, there’s no difference between the two groups. Why? Harris suggests that what we’re actually seeing is children responding to a dynamic. The presence of yelly parents makes kids act out, in the same way that the presence of cold makes kids put on a sweater. Cold doesn’t permanently change children’s thermoregulation and cause them to be more likely to wear a sweater twenty years later, it just causes an immediate reaction. Likewise, yelling doesn’t change children’s traits and characteristics and cause them to be more rebellious twenty years later, it just causes an immediate reaction. Remove stimulus, remove response. And this is all my vague half-remembered analogy to something I think was in the book, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Situations can cause immediate responses to those situations, or long-term changes in the way people think. You can’t just demonstrate the former and assume you’ve proven the latter.

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Book Review: Red Plenty


I decided to read Red Plenty because my biggest gripe after reading Singer’s book on Marx was that Marx refused to plan how communism would actually work, instead preferring to leave the entire matter for the World-Spirit to sort out. But almost everything that interests me about Communism falls under the category of “how communism would actually work”. Red Plenty, a semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning, seemed like a natural follow-up.

But I’d had it on my List Of Things To Read for even longer than that, ever after stumbling across a quote from it on some blog or other:

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.

Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.

And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

Needless to say, this is Relevant To My Interests, which include among them poetic allegories for coordination problems. And I was not disappointed.


The book begins:

Strange as it may seem, the gray, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called “the planned economy,” which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending.

And this was the first interesting thing I learned.

There’s a very settled modern explanation of the conflict between capitalism and communism. Capitalism is good at growing the economy and making countries rich. Communism is good at caring for the poor and promoting equality. So your choice between capitalism and communism is a trade-off between those two things.

But for at least the first fifty years of the Cold War, the Soviets would not have come close to granting you that these are the premises on which the battle must be fought. They were officially quite certain that any day now Communism was going to prove itself better at economic growth, better at making people rich quickly, than capitalism. Even unofficially, most of their leaders and economists were pretty certain of it. And for a little while, even their capitalist enemies secretly worried they were right.

The arguments are easy to understand. Under capitalism, plutocrats use the profits of industry to buy giant yachts for themselves. Under communism, the profits can be reinvested back into the industry to build more factories or to make production more efficient, increasing growth rate.

Under capitalism, everyone is competing with each other, and much of your budget is spent on zero-sum games like advertising and marketing and sales to give you a leg up over your competition. Under communism, there is no need to play these zero-sum games and that part of the budget can be reinvested to grow the industry more quickly.

Under capitalism, everyone is working against everyone else. If Ford discovers a clever new car-manufacturing technique, their first impulse is to patent it so GM can’t use it, and GM’s first impulse is to hire thousands of lawyers to try to thwart that attempt. Under communism, everyone is working together, so if one car-manufacturing collective discovers a new technique they send their blueprints to all the other car-manufacturing collectives in order to help them out. So in capitalism, each companies will possess a few individual advances, but under communism every collective will have every advance, and so be more productive.

These arguments make a lot of sense to me, and they definitely made sense to the Communists of the first half of the 20th century. As a result, they were confident of overtaking capitalism. They realized that they’d started with a handicap – czarist Russia had been dirt poor and almost without an industrial base – and that they’d faced a further handicap in having the Nazis burn half their country during World War II – but they figured as soon as they overcame these handicaps their natural advantages would let them leap ahead of the West in only a couple of decades. The great Russian advances of the 50s – Sputnik, Gagarin, etc – were seen as evidence that this was already starting to come true in certain fields.

And then it all went wrong.


Grant that communism really does have the above advantages over capitalism. What advantage does capitalism have?

The classic answer is that during communism no one wants to work hard. They do as little as they can get away with, then slack off because they don’t reap the rewards of their own labor.

Red Plenty doesn’t really have theses. In fact, it’s not really a non-fiction work at all. It’s a dramatized series of episodes in the lives of Russian workers, politicians, and academics, intended to come together to paint a picture of how the Soviet economy worked.

But if I can impose a thesis upon the text, I don’t think it agreed with this. In certain cases, Russians were very well-incentivized by things like “We will kill you unless you meet the production target”. Later, when the state became less murder-happy, the threat of death faded to threats of demotions, ruined careers, and transfer to backwater provinces. And there were equal incentives, in the form of promotion or transfer to a desirable location such as Moscow, for overperformance. There were even monetary bonuses, although money bought a lot less than it did in capitalist countries and was universally considered inferior to status in terms of purchasing power. Yes, there were Goodhart’s Law type issues going on – if you’re being judged per product, better produce ten million defective products than 9,999,999 excellent products – but that wasn’t the crux of the problem.

Red Plenty presented the problem with the Soviet economy primarily as one of allocation. You could have a perfectly good factory that could be producing lots of useful things if only you had one extra eensy-weensy part, but unless the higher-ups had allocated you that part, you were out of luck. If that part happened to break, getting a new one would depend on how much clout you (and your superiors) pulled versus how much clout other people who wanted parts (and their superiors) held.

The book illustrated this reality with a series of stories (I’m not sure how many of these were true, versus useful dramatizations). In one, a pig farmer in Siberia needed wood in order to build sties for his pigs so they wouldn’t freeze – if they froze, he would fail to meet his production target and his career would be ruined. The government, which mostly dealt with pig farming in more temperate areas, hadn’t accounted for this and so hadn’t allocated him any wood, and he didn’t have enough clout with officials to request some. A factory nearby had extra wood they weren’t using and were going to burn because it was too much trouble to figure out how to get it back to the government for re-allocation. The farmer bought the wood from the factory in an under-the-table deal. He was caught, which usually wouldn’t have been a problem because everybody did this sort of thing and it was kind of the “smoking marijuana while white” of Soviet offenses. But at that particular moment the Party higher-ups in the area wanted to make an example of someone in order to look like they were on top of their game to their higher-ups. The pig farmer was sentenced to years of hard labor.

A tire factory had been assigned a tire-making machine that could make 100,000 tires a year, but the government had gotten confused and assigned them a production quota of 150,000 tires a year. The factory leaders were stuck, because if they tried to correct the government they would look like they were challenging their superiors and get in trouble, but if they failed to meet the impossible quota, they would all get demoted and their careers would come to an end. They learned that the tire-making-machine-making company had recently invented a new model that really could make 150,000 tires a year. In the spirit of Chen Sheng, they decided that since the penalty for missing their quota was something terrible and the penalty for sabotage was also something terrible, they might as well take their chances and destroy their own machinery in the hopes the government sent them the new improved machine as a replacement. To their delight, the government believed their story about an “accident” and allotted them a new tire-making machine. However, the tire-making-machine-making company had decided to cancel production of their new model. You see, the new model, although more powerful, weighed less than the old machine, and the government was measuring their production by kilogram of machine. So it was easier for them to just continue making the old less powerful machine. The tire factory was allocated another machine that could only make 100,000 tires a year and was back in the same quandary they’d started with.

It’s easy to see how all of these problems could have been solved (or would never have come up) in a capitalist economy, with its use of prices set by supply and demand as an allocation mechanism. And it’s easy to see how thoroughly the Soviet economy was sabotaging itself by avoiding such prices.


The “hero” of Red Plenty – although most of the vignettes didn’t involve him directly – was Leonid Kantorovich, a Soviet mathematician who thought he could solve the problem. He invented the technique of linear programming, a method of solving optimization problems perfectly suited to allocating resources throughout an economy. He immediately realized its potential and wrote a nice letter to Stalin politely suggesting his current method of doing economics was wrong and he could do better – this during a time when everyone else in Russia was desperately trying to avoid having Stalin notice them because he tended to kill anyone he noticed. Luckily the letter was intercepted by a kindly mid-level official, who kept it away from Stalin and warehoused Kantorovich in a university somewhere.

During the “Khruschev thaw”, Kantorovich started getting some more politically adept followers, the higher-ups started taking note, and there was a real movement to get his ideas implemented. A few industries were run on Kantorovichian principles as a test case and seemed to do pretty well. There was an inevitable backlash. Opponents accused the linear programmers of being capitalists-in-disguise, which wasn’t helped by their use of something called “shadow prices”. But the combination of their own political adeptness and some high-level support from Khruschev – who alone of all the Soviet leaders seemed to really believe in his own cause and be a pretty okay guy – put them within arm’s reach of getting their plans implemented.

But when elements of linear programming were adopted, they were adopted piecemeal and toothless. The book places the blame on Alexei Kosygen, who implemented a bunch of economic reforms that failed, in a chapter that makes it clear exactly how constrained the Soviet leadership really was. You hear about Stalin, you imagine these guys having total power, but in reality they walked a narrow line, and all these “shadow prices” required more political capital than they were willing to mobilize, even when they thought Kantorovich might have a point.


In the end, I was left with two contradictory impressions from the book.

First, amazement that the Soviet economy got as far as it did, given how incredibly screwed up it was. You hear about how many stupid things were going on at every level, and you think: This was the country that built Sputnik and Mir? This was the country that almost buried us beneath the tide of history? It is a credit to the Russian people that they were able to build so much as a screwdriver in such conditions, let alone a space station.

But second, a sense of what could have been. What if Stalin hadn’t murdered most of the competent people? What if entire fields of science hadn’t been banned for silly reasons? What if Kantorovich had been able to make the Soviet leadership base its economic planning around linear programming? How might history have turned out differently?

One of the book’s most frequently-hammered-in points was that there was was a brief moment, back during the 1950s, when everything seemed to be going right for Russia. Its year-on-year GDP growth (as estimated by impartial outside observers) was somewhere between 7 to 10%. Starvation was going down. Luxuries were going up. Kantorovich was fixing entire industries with his linear programming methods. Then Khruschev made a serious of crazy loose cannon decisions, he was ousted by Brezhnev, Kantorovich was pushed aside and ignored, the “Khruschev thaw” was reversed and tightened up again, and everything stagnated for the next twenty years.

If Khruschev had stuck around, if Kantorovich had succeeded, might the common knowledge that Communism is terrible at producing material prosperity look a little different?

The book very briefly mentioned a competing theory of resource allocation promoted by Victor Glushkov, a cyberneticist in Ukraine. He thought he could use computers – then a very new technology – to calculate optimal allocation for everyone. He failed to navigate the political seas as adroitly as Kantorovich’s faction, and the killing blow was a paper that pointed out that for him to do everything really correctly would take a hundred million years of computing time.

That was in 1960. If computing power doubles every two years, we’ve undergone about 25 doubling times since then, suggesting that we ought to be able to perform Glushkov’s calculations in three years – or three days, if we give him a lab of three hundred sixty five computers to work with. There could have been this entire field of centralized economic planning. Maybe it would have continued to underperform prices. Or maybe after decades of trial and error across the entire Soviet Union, it could have caught up. We’ll never know. Glushkov and Kantorovich were marginalized and left to play around with toy problems until their deaths in the 80s, and as far as I know their ideas were never developed further in the context of a national planned economy.


One of the ways people like insulting smart people, or rational people, or scientists, is by telling them they’re the type of people who are attracted to Communism. “Oh, you think you can control and understand everything, just like the Communists did.”

And I had always thought this was a pretty awful insult. The people I know who most identify as rationalists, or scientifically/technically minded, are also most likely to be libertarian. So there, case dismissed, everybody go home.

This book was the first time that I, as a person who considers himself rationally/technically minded, realized that I was super attracted to Communism.

Here were people who had a clear view of the problems of human civilization – all the greed, all the waste, all the zero-sum games. Who had the entire population united around a vision of a better future, whose backers could direct the entire state to better serve the goal. All they needed was to solve the engineering challenges, to solve the equations, and there they were, at the golden future. And they were smart enough to be worthy of the problem – Glushkov invented cybernetics, Kantorovich won a Nobel Prize in Economics.

And in the end, they never got the chance. There’s an interpretation of Communism as a refutation of social science, here were these people who probably knew some social science, but did it help them run a state, no it didn’t. But from the little I learned about Soviet history from this book, this seems diametrically wrong. The Soviets had practically no social science. They hated social science. You would think they would at least have some good Marxists, but apparently Stalin killed all of them just in case they might come up with versions of Marxism he didn’t like, and in terms of a vibrant scholarly field it never recovered. Economics was tainted with its association with capitalism from the very beginning, and when it happened at all it was done by non-professionals. Kantorovich was a mathematician by training; Glushkov a computer scientist.

Soviet Communism isn’t what happens when you let nerds run a country, it’s what happens when you kill all the nerds who are experts in country-running, bring in nerds from unrelated fields to replace them, then make nice noises at those nerds in principle while completely ignoring them in practice. Also, you ban all Jews from positions of importance, because fuck you.

Baggy two-piece suits are not the obvious costume for philosopher kings: but that, in theory, was what the apparatchiks who rule the Soviet Union in the 1960s were supposed to be. Lenin’s state made the same bet that Plato had twenty-five centuries earlier, when he proposed that enlightened intelligence gives absolute powers would serve the public good better than the grubby politicking of republics.

On paper, the USSR was a republic, a grand multi-ethnic federation of republics indeed and its constitutions (there were several) guaranteed its citizens all manner of civil rights. But in truth the Soviet system was utterly unsympathetic to the idea of rights, if you meant by them any suggestion that the two hundred million men, women and children who inhabited the Soviet Union should be autonomously fixing on two hundred million separate directions in which to pursue happiness. This was a society with just one programme for happiness, which had been declared to be scientific and therefore was as factual as gravity.

But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue—or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than wisdom. Lenin’s core of Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors – the vydvizhentsy who refilled the CEntral Committee in the thirties – were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic: people whose adherence to Bolshevik ideas was inseparable from the power that came with them. Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands…

Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist. Khruschev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be governed by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.

And in the end it all failed miserably:

The Soviet economy did not move on from coal and steel and cement to plastics and microelectronics and software design, except in a very few military applications. It continued to compete with what capitalism had been doing in the 1930s, not with what it was doing now. It continued to suck resources and human labour in vast quantities into a heavy-industrial sector which had once been intended to exist as a springboard for something else, but which by now had become its own justification. Soviet industry in its last decades existed because it existed, an empire of inertia expanding ever more slowly, yet attaining the wretched distinction of absorbing more of the total effort of the economy that hosted it than heavy industry has ever done anywhere else in human history, before or since. Every year it produced goods that less and less corresponded to human needs, and whatever it once started producing, it tended to go on producing ad infinitum, since it possessed no effective stop signals except ruthless commands from above, and the people at the top no longer did ruthless, in the economic sphere. The control system for industry grew more and more erratic, the information flowing back to the planners grew more and more corrupt. And the activity of industry , all that human time and machine time it used up, added less and less value to the raw materials it sucked in. Maybe no value. Maybe less than none. One economist has argued that, by the end, it was actively destroying value; it had become a system for spoiling perfectly good materials by turning them into objects no one wanted.

I don’t know if this paragraph was intentionally written to contrast with the paragraph at the top, the one about the zombie dance of capitalism. But it is certainly instructive to make such a contrast. The Soviets had originally been inspired by this fear of economics going out of control, abandoning the human beings whose lives it was supposed to improve. In capitalist countries, people existed for the sake of the economy, but under Soviet communism, the economy was going to exist only for the sake of the people.

(accidental Russian reversal: the best kind of Russian reversal!)

And instead, they ended up taking “people existing for the sake of the economy” to entirely new and tragic extremes, people being sent to the gulags or killed because they didn’t meet the targets for some product nobody wanted that was listed on a Five-Year Plan. Spoiling good raw materials for the sake of being able to tell Party bosses and the world “Look at us! We are doing Industry!” Moloch had done some weird judo move on the Soviets’ attempt to destroy him, and he had ended up stronger than ever.

The book’s greatest flaw is that it never did get into the details of the math – or even more than a few-sentence summary of the math – and so I was left confused as to whether anything else had been possible, whether Kantorovich and Glushkov really could have saved the vision of prosperity if they’d been allowed to do so. Nevertheless, the Soviets earned my sympathy and respect in a way Marx so far has not, merely by acknowledging that the problem existed and through the existence of a few good people who tried their best to solve it.

SSC Gives A Wedding Speech

[I gave a speech at Mike Blume and Hannah "Alicorn" Blume's wedding on Sunday. Some of the guests suggested I post it here for more general consumption. Content warning: polyamory.]

I’ve been asked to give an impromptu speech. Specifically, I was asked six months ago, when Hannah messaged me and said “You need to give an impromptu speech at my wedding. You’ve got six months to get it sounding impromptu enough.”

But I’ve been thinking about this day for even longer than that. The first time Hannah and I talked about her wedding was…maybe three or four years ago. She was staying at my house in Southern California on her way to Anna and Carl’s wedding. And this was actually an Important Historic Occasion, because the next night when she stayed in San Diego, in order to save money she shared a hotel room with a certain Michael Blume and the rest is history. But at the time they weren’t together, and Hannah and I were – kind of half-dating, I don’t think we had actually started dating at the time, but we were flirting. And Hannah asked if I was going to go to the wedding the next day, and I said no, I couldn’t stand weddings, I hated weddings, I would do whatever I could to avoid them.

And she looked at me with big eyes and said “But…you’ll come to my wedding? Right?”

I said: “Mumble mumble maybe mumble try.”

Hannah wouldn’t take that as an answer and demanded to know my probability that I would come to her wedding.

I remember what I answered. It was something like “Fifty percent. Rising to ninety percent, if I’m the groom.”

And that didn’t work out, but I still find that now that the time is here I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Hannah is still one of my favorite people. When I was out of a job and had no idea what I was going to do with my life, Hannah kind of saved me and gave me a place to live in Berkeley and threw me at her friend group so hard I have never been able to extract myself since. I have known her for five years now, I dated her for about three, I lived with her for one. And in the end, my only regret about attending her wedding was that it means I am visiting Berkeley on the ONE weekend that she’s not throwing a dinner party with her home cooking.

I’ve known Mike for a lot shorter, only about two years. Which is too bad, because it means that there were all these years of my life when I could have known Mike, but didn’t, which is a tragic waste. Mike is kind of like the Platonic ideal of the Good – to know him is to love him. I remember one Facebook thread where someone posted “Mike Blume is so nice and helpful and dreamy” to their wall, and it ended up ballooning to like a hundred likes and comments from people agreeing with the sentiment.

I was looking for that thread the other day so I could quote it, and I couldn’t find it. Part of the reason I couldn’t find it was that I kept asking people – “Do you remember who posted that Facebook thread praising Mike for being really nice and attractive and helpful?” – and they would say “Yeah, I think I was the one who posted that, it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.” And then they look and can’t find it, so I go to the next person, and they’re like “You know, I bet I was the one who posted that, it sounds like the sort of thing I would say…” annnnnnd I never did find the thread.

That is Mike.

So instead I hunted down something I once said about Mike once on my blog, which I would like to share with you today: “Hannah says Mike is her ‘happiness battery’, a source of emotional strength she can rely on to get her through difficult times. After living with him, I felt the same way, and he is at the center of so many social circles he might better be described as a giant happiness hydroelectric plant powering half of Northern California. The fact that flowers do not spring up everywhere he walks only proves that flowers are wrong.”

In fact, I took unfair advantage of this when I lived with Mike and Hannah to meet a steady stream of Mike groupies. That was how I met my current girlfriend Ozy – they dated Mike first. That was how I met my ex-girlfriend Kenzi, who officiated today – she dated Mike first. In fact, Mike and Kenzi were really good together. I used to wonder whether Hannah would marry Mike or Kenzi would marry Mike. I’m glad to see that they both married Mike, in different senses.

I’m trying to avoid using the phrase “emergent property” in a wedding speech, but I’ll say it – there is an emergent property to their relationship that makes them even better together than either one is alone. Their interactions with each other show such amazing mutual respect and love and complementarity that it adds new plausibility to the idea of soulmates. They are my model of how a good relationship ought to work. And one day, I hope some ambitious linguist will study their ability to communicate with each other entirely in adorable high-pitched noises (“eeeeeeeeeee!” “EEEEEEEEEEE!”)

I like Mike, and I like Hannah. But beyond either of them, I have a huge, huge crush on their relationship.

I want to marry their marriage.

I know my conservative friends tell me that we’re on a slippery slope, and soon people will be marrying animals, and trees, and rocks. And I can only hope that, somewhere at the bottom of that slope, someone legalizes man-relationship unions.

And when that happens, the rest of you, stay away! I called it first!

My friends got MARRIED!

But I’m sorry to get into politics at a time like this. Let’s talk about something more relevant. Let’s talk about population genetics.

A Dr. Joseph Chang of Yale University, using sophisticated statistical techniques, determined that ancestry mixes surprisingly quickly across populations. I promise this will become relevant. He found that beyond a certain horizon anybody who’s the ancestor of anybody in a population is the ancestor of everybody. The exact length changes depending on some assumptions, but for a relatively mixed population like descendants of Eurasians, it’s probably around fifteen hundred years. Some tribes on remote islands way out in the Pacific might be longer. Anyone from Papua New Guinea here today? No?

Then everyone here today is a descendent of Socrates. Everyone here today is a descendent of Confucius. Everyone here today is a descendent of Mohammed. Even if you don’t look much like him. Queen Elizabeth’s official genealogy confirms a descent from Mohammed, and she doesn’t look Middle Eastern either.

We’re all descendants of Nefertiti. The patriarch Abraham. The Japanese imperial line. Charlemagne. Qin Shih Huang Di. And not just genetically. We learned values from our parents that they learned from their parents that they learned from their parents and so on to Socrates or Mohammed or Charlemagne sitting their kids down at the dinner table and trying to teach them right from wrong.

Mike and Hannah met through the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, through the Visiting Fellows program at Benton-that-was. A lot of people here today are involved with MIRI, or other organizations trying to ensure the survival of humanity a thousand or two thousand years from now. And there’s a lot of discussion, within those circles, about what such a future would be like.

And I was reading about this population genetics stuff six months ago, at the same time Hannah asked me to write an impromptu speech, and it made me think.

Whatever else we’re celebrating with the ritual of marriage, we’re also celebrating this. We’re marking this incredibly audacious act of taking a genetic and memetic payload and shooting it into the far future, where it will spread further and further with every generation and eventually rewrite humankind.

And if we make it another fifteen hundred years as a biological species, someday we will have a world where everybody alive is a descendent of Mike and Hannah. And where everyone has received their values from someone who received their values who received their values…from Mike and Hannah.

And that’s pretty high up there for me as a reason to be incredibly excited about the whole project.

So, a toast. To Hannah. To Mike. To their relationship. And to the future.

Congratulations, guys.

(No pressure.)

ADDED: Here is the text of the wedding ceremony itself, written by Hannah.