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Republicans Are Douchebags

Or, more technically, douchebags are disproportionately Republican. But I figure with this title I’m guaranteed front-page links from Salon and Daily Kos.

A while back, I argued – not especially originally – that “conservative” and “liberal”, far from being mere descriptions of political views, pointed to two very different tribes of people who might as well be considered totally different ethnicities.

One marker of ethnicity is different name preferences – we all know what groups people named Juan, Tyrone, or Mei are likely to belong to – and a recent article in Vox confirms that names differ between Democrats and Republicans at very impressive rates. For example, of the 200,000 registered US voters named “Willie”, 81.8% are Democrats. Of the 40,000 registered voters named “Rex”, 59.4% are Republicans (and I assume the others are Rottweilers or tyrannosaurs). You can find some impressively complete statistics at this site, including what percent of people with your name have a gun, go to church, attend college, et cetera.

But looking through Vox’s list of most Republican names, I was struck (or possibly stricken) by a resemblance to a different list I had seen a couple years ago.

Reddit: I fear my first name is the biggest douche bag name an American male can have. In your opinion, what is the cliche douchebag character name?.

This seems like a relatively popular internet question, and maintains a Most Douchebag Names list as well. This provides two independent lists of douchiest names (my Reddit list is the first name proposed in the ten most upvoted first-level comments there). They both turn out to be pretty similar.

1. Chad
2. Trent
3. Guy
4. Brad
5. Paul
6. Blake
7. Brody
8. Chaz
9. Tad
10. Keith

1. Chad
2. Chase
3. Tyler
4. Brody
5. Brad
6. Trey
7. Hunter
8. Scott (@#$% YOU TOO, REDDIT)
9. Biff
10. Preston

Clarity Campaigns can tell us what percentile each of these names are on the political spectrum. When I plugged all of them in, the median douchebag name was in the 98.5th percentile for Republicanness. In other words, with a little bit of noise the top ten douchiest names are pretty much the top ten most Republican names.

(The big exception is “Chaz”, which leans Democrat. But I refuse to believe that “Chaz” is a real name anyway.)

I tried to test alternate hypotheses that Clarity just over-Republicanned all names, or that it was a function of these being male names, or white names, or names of a certain generation. I tested the top ten most popular male baby names of 1990 (that being the generation probably in its peak douchebag years right now) and combined their full name and nickname versions (since I didn’t want to confound by whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to go by a nickname). The median popular 1990 male name was in the 73rd percentile for Republicanness. This isn’t surprising – men tend to be more conservative than women, and this effect probably swamps any within-gender name effects, so if all male names are more conservative than all female names we would expect the average male name to be about the 75th percentile for Republicanness. Our popular 1990 control group comes very close.

But the average douchebag name is in the 98.5th percentile for Republicanness.

I can think of two three hypotheses.

First, douchebags are disproportionately Republican.

Second, the parents who name kids douchebag names are disproportionately Republican, and Republicanism is partly hereditary (I almost missed this one, but JayMan reads this blog and I know he would call me on it if I forgot).

Third, “douchebag” is a tribally-coded slur. If someone asks “Have you ever noticed that all assholes are named things like ‘Moishe’ or ‘Avram’ or ‘Menachem’?” – then they’re telling you a lot more about the way they use the word ‘asshole’ than about the Moishes and Menachems of the world.

I expect there are many more fun things I will think of to do with this name list.

Ley Lines Of The Midwest

This is now unexpectedly a geography blog.

That’s Ohio and Indiana as seen from space.

And that’s Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota as seen from space.

Each small grey dot is a town. Are there straight horizontal or vertical lines that connect more than a chance number of towns? And are the towns arranged in a consistent coordinate grid pattern?

As best I can tell there are a few short straight lines probably representing more-used local roads, but few that persist across entire states. I don’t think there’s any consistent grid pattern. This is the opposite of my initial impression, which was that there was a clear and striking coordinate grid. But when I try to measure the native unit of the coordinate grid, I find that my mind is confusing a whole bunch of vaguely square-ish patterns into one illusory system.

There is a square pattern to the Midwest, deriving from the Public Land Survey System, but its scale is 6 mile x 6 mile squares, which is smaller than any of the distances on either of these maps. There is supposedly a higher level of grid, the 24 mile x 24 mile quadrangle, but it doesn’t seem to be as important and I don’t see that on this map either.

I titled this post “Ley Lines” as a joke, but we might as well see if there are any actual ley lines. The best candidates seem to be the cities between the yellow dots – which are Waterloo, Davenport, Peoria, Bloomington, and Champaign – and the cities between the red dots – which are Springfield, Champaign, Lafayette, Fort Wayne, and Toledo. If you want to stretch it, you could also imagine a horizontal line between the blue dots – Madison, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Flint, Sarnia, London, and continuing to Buffalo just off the map.

As far as I know there’s no explanation for any of these – no highways, no rivers, nothing – and they’re all just coincidences.

We had some interesting discussions about Midwestern geography during our last Michigan Rationalist Meetup. My favorite part was learning that the town of Zilwaukee, Michigan was named by two brothers hoping that would-be settlers on their way to Milwaukee would get confused and settle there instead. It sounds like a dumb urban legend, but it was previously admitted to on the Zilwaukee city website. I notice their new website doesn’t mention this, which means either that it’s been disproven or they decided to stop advertising to the world that they’re descended from morons.

[EDIT: And here’s a church website that uses Zilwaukee as a metaphor for the Devil]

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The Dark Side Of Divorce

A while ago I read The Nurture Assumption and found myself convinced by its basic thesis that genetics completely trumped parenting.

The argument was that there are lots of studies showing that parenting has important effects – for example, if parents yell at their kids, their kids will turn out angry and violent, or something. But these studies neglect possible genetic contributions – angry violent parents are more likely to yell at their kids, so maybe the kids are just inheriting genes for anger and violence. A lot of parenting studies are subject to these kinds of confounds. And one of the best tools we have for disentangling them – behavioral genetics twin studies – very consistently show that most important outcomes are 50% genetically determined, 50% determined by “non-shared environment”, and almost completely unrelated to the “shared environment” of parenting. Therefore, we should conclude that pretty much all of the effect supposedly due to parenting is in fact due to genetics, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of “parenting style” you use unless it can somehow change your child’s DNA.

One of the stories I most remember from the book – and I’m sorry, I don’t have a copy with me, so I’m going from memory – was about the large literature of studies showing that children of divorce raised by single mothers have worse outcomes than children of intact two-parent families. This seems like a convincing argument that children need both parents to develop properly, which if true would be a shared environmental effect and an example of why good stable parenting is necessary.

But other studies found that children who lost a father in (for example) a car accident had outcomes that looked more like those of children from stable two-parent families than like those of children of divorce. So maybe the divorce effect doesn’t reflect the stabilizing influence of two parents in a kid’s life. Maybe it reflects that the sort of genes that make parents unable to hold a marriage together have some bad effects on their kids as well.

(damn you, Rs7632287! This is all your fault!)

It’s compelling, it’s believable, and I believed it. Unfortunately, I recently had the time to double-check, and it doesn’t seem to be true at all.

The best introduction to divorce research I could find was Amato & Keith’s meta-analysis Parental Divorce And The Well-Being Of Children. It looks through 92 studies that compare children of divorced and non-divorced families and finds that “children of divorce scored lower than children in intact families across a variety of outcomes, with the median effect size being 0.14 of a standard deviation,” this last clause of which is almost New Cuyaman in its agglomerativeness.

This is a small effect size, and indeed most of the studies they’re looking at aren’t even significant. But once agglomerated together they become very significant, and the analysis tries to determine the cause. The most popular proposed causes are “children in divorced families lose the benefits of having two parents”, “children in divorced families are in economic trouble”, and “children in divorced families have to deal with stressful family conflict.”

Although there’s a little bit of evidence for all three, in general the evidence lines up for the last one of these – the family conflict hypothesis.

If the problem is not enough parents or not enough money, then having the custodial parent (usually a single mom) remarry ought to help a lot, especially if she marries somebody wealthy. But usually this doesn’t help very much at all.

If the problem is not enough money, then children of divorce should do no worse than children of poor two-parent families. But in fact they do, and children of divorce still do worse when controlled for income.

If the problem is not enough parents or not enough money, then these ought to persist over time if the custodial parent doesn’t remarry or get richer. But if the problem is stressful conflict, then it ought to get better over time, since the stress and conflict of the divorce gradually becomes more and more remote. Although there are some dueling studies here, the best studies seem to find the latter pattern – bad outcomes of divorce gradually decrease over time.

If the problem is stressful conflict, then children of divorce ought to do no worse than children in families full of stressful conflict who are nevertheless staying together. Indeed, controlling for the amount of stressful conflict within a family gets rid of most of the negative effect of divorce.

Therefore, although there was some evidence for all three hypotheses, the stressful conflict hypothesis was best-supported. But the stressful conflict hypothesis could also explain the pattern where kids whose fathers died in car accidents don’t show the same pattern of problems as children of divorce. Having a parent die in an accident is no doubt traumatic, but it’s a very different kind of trauma from constant familial yelling and bickering.

More to the point, the genetic explanation of divorce has been investigated specifically in at least four studies that I know of, using different methodology each time.

Brodzinsky, Hitt, and Smith studied the effect of divorce on biological versus adopted children. They were unable to find any differences in the level of disruption and poor outcomes.

O’Connor, Caspi, DeFries, and Plomin (yes, that Plomin) also studied biological versus adopted children. They found that biological children showed a stronger effect on academic achievement and social adjustment (consistent with genetic explanations), but adopted children showed an equal effect on behavioral problems and substance use (consistent with environmental explanations).

Burt, Barnes, McGue, and Iacono use a different methodology and compare children whose parents divorced when they were alive with children whose parents divorced before they were born. Presumably, only the former group get any environmental stress from the divorce, but both groups suffer from any genetic issues that caused their parents to split. They find that the negative effects of divorce are mostly limited to the group whose parents got divorced when they were alive, consistent with an environmental explanation.

Finally, a bunch of people including Eric Turkheimer get the requisite twin study in and compare the children of pairs of identical twins where one of them got divorced and the other didn’t (where do they find these people?) Somehow they scraped together a sample size of 2,554 people, and they found that even among children of identical twins, the children of the divorced twin did worse than the children of the non-divorced twin to a degree consistent with the negative effects not being genetic. They tried to adjust for characteristics of the twins’ spouses, but that’s the obvious confound here. I look forward to seeing if future researchers can get a sample of pairs of identical male twins who married pairs of identical female twins, one couple among whom got divorced.

So I owe mainstream psychology an apology here. I was pretty sure they had just completely dropped the ball on this one and were foolishly assuming everything had to be social and nothing could be genetic. In fact, they were only doing that up until about ten or twenty years ago, after which point they figured it out and performed a lot of studies, all of which supported their idea of the stress of divorce having significant (though small!) non-gene-related effects.

And although I haven’t had time to look through them properly yet, here’s a study claiming that the association between fathers’ and childrens’ emotional and behavioral problems is “largely shared environmental in origin”. And here’s a study claiming that “analyses revealed that [shared environment] accounted for 10%-19% of the variance within conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, depression, and broad internalizing and externalizing disorders, regardless of their operationalization. When age, informant, and sex effects were considered, [shared environment] generally ranged from 10%-30% of the variance.”

So the shared environment folks haven’t completely dropped the ball, some of them seem to be fighting back, and it will be interesting to see where this goes and whether anybody is able to reconcile the different evidence.

One likely talking point: shared environment and childhood situation obviously impacts things during childhood. For example, if you have parents who are mean and abusive, this can make you stressed and you don’t get enough sleep and then maybe you do really badly at school. But once you get out of that environment, your academic abilities will revert to whatever your genes say they should be. The Nurture Assumption never denies this and is absolutely willing to admit that shared environment can affect outcomes during childhood, although even there less than one might expect. This also seems to be the tack Plomin is taking when he discusses the Burt study.

But studies have found that the negative effects of divorce can last well into adulthood. On the other hand, none of those studies have been the ones that compare genetic and environmental effects, and I get the feeling their quality is kind of weak. So it’s not completely ruled out by the data that the short-term effects of divorce are robust and environmental, but the long-term effects of divorce are spurious and/or genetic. But this seems kind of like fighting a rearguard action against the evidence.

Finally, a sanity check. Suppose your parents get divorced when you’re 16. Your high school grades drop and your behavior gets worse. Maybe you fail a couple of classes and start using drugs. The couple of classes failed mean you’re going to a second-tier instead of a first-tier college, and the drug use means you’re addicted. How does that not affect your life outcomes, even if five years later you’ve forgotten all about whatever psychological stresses you once had?

Overall I am less confident than before that shared environment is harmless.

And while I’m bashing Nurture Assumption, I don’t remember the exact arguments used against birth order effects, but we found such impressive numbers on the last Less Wrong survey that I’m not very impressed with the claims that they don’t exist.

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How To Use 23andMe Irresponsibly

As you might remember, the FDA stomped on 23andMe for using too many irresponsible genetic tests that purported to tell you things about yourself and your health with limited support. They eventually worked out a deal where the FDA allowed 23andMe to continue to operate, but they couldn’t claim to be able to predict personal outcomes from your genes.

That means if we want to use 23andMe irresponsibly, we’ve got to do it ourselves. Luckily I recently figured out how to do this and it is exactly as much fun as you would think.

If you’ve got a 23andMe account, log in, go to your name and picture on the bar on the top, and click on the little inverted triangle to get the drop-down menu. Go to the “Browse Raw Data” option, which will give you the option to go to a gene or an SNP. Now all you have to do is find an SNP you’re interested in (an SNP will look like the letters “rs” followed by a string of numbers) plug it in, and interpret the results.

Your best bet here is SNPedia, a wiki collection of different SNPs. If you want to know, for example, something interesting about your risk of heart disease, you can search “heart disease” and get a list of the most relevant SNPs (in this case, rs2383206, rs10757278, rs2383207, and rs10757274). If you click on the first, you can find on the top right in little colored boxes that someone with (A;A) at this site has normal risk of heart disease, someone with (A;G) 1.4x increased risk, and someone with (G;G) 1.7x increased risk.

In this case my 23andMe results are pretty straightforward – it tells me I am (G;G), which is common enough in white people (see the little colored bars on the left of SNPedia; the CEU bar is Caucasian Europeans). Other times the results require an extra step. For example, SNPedia’s page on rs1801133 offers three choices – (C;C), (C;T), and (T;T), but 23andMe tells me that I have (A;A), which didn’t appear to be an option. The problem here is that 23andMe is giving me the minus strand – if you click to expand your result, it will tell you that (“dbSNP Orientation: minus”). When it gives you the minus strand, you have to manually reverse it to get the plus strand. Remember, A is the reverse of T, and C is the reverse of G. So my (A;A) is their (T;T), and I have 1.5x risk of various cancers.

This doesn’t necessarily bear any relationship to reality, because genetics studies often fail to replicate, and even when they’re right they might only apply to certain populations, and even when they apply to people usually people misinterpret what they mean. That’s part of why the FDA banned 23andMe from doing this, and part of why the word “irresponsible” is right in the title. Even if these SNPs survive the tests of time and replication, they will explain at most a few percent of the variance in complex traits, and any claims otherwise are exaggeration at best and pure hype at worst.

But with that fair warning, here are some of the genes I think are most fun to look up. I cannot disclaimer enough that this is for your own amusement only and unlikely to resemble reality in more than the most tenuous way and if I imply otherwise it is a silly joke.

Rs909525 is linked to the so-called “warrior gene” which I blogged about in the last links roundup. People with the normal four or five repeat version of these gene are less violent than people with the three-repeat version, and people with the two-repeat version are massively overrepresented among violent criminals. See for example this article. Although this SNP isn’t the warrior gene itself, it’s linked to it closely enough to be a good predictor. This is on the X chromosome, so men will only have one copy (I wonder how much of the increased propensity to violence in men this explains). It’s also one of the minus strand ones, so it’ll be the reverse of what SNPedia is telling you. If you’ve got T, you’re normal. If you’ve got C, you’re a “warrior”. I’ve got C, which gives a pretty good upper limit on how much you should trust these SNPs, since I’m about the least violent person you’ll ever meet. But who knows? Maybe I’m just waiting to snap. Post something dumb about race or gender in the open thread one more time, I dare you…

Rs53576 in the OXTR gene is related to the oxytocin receptor, which frequently gets good press as “the cuddle hormone” and “the trust hormone”. Unsurprisingly, the polymorphism is related to emotional warmth, gregariousness versus loneliness, and (intriguingly) ability to pick out conversations in noisy areas. 23andMe reads this one off the plus strand, so your results should directly correspond to SNPedia’s – (G;G) means more empathy and sociability and is present in 50% of the population, anything else means less. I’m (A;G), which I guess explains my generally hateful and misanthropic outlook on life, plus why I can never hear anyone in crowded bars.

Rs4680 is in the COMT gene, which codes for catechol-o-methyltransferase, an enzyme that degrades various chemicals including dopamine. Riffing on the more famous “warrior gene”, somebody with a terrible sense of humor named this one the “worrier gene”. One version seems to produce more anxiety but slightly better memory and attention; the other version seems to produce calm and resiliency but with a little bit worse memory and attention. (A;A) is smart and anxious, (G;G) is dumb and calm, (A;G) is in between. if you check the SNPedia page, you can also find ten zillion studies on which drugs you are slightly more likely to become addicted to. And here’s the 23andMe blog on this polymorphism.

Rs7632287, also in the oxytocin receptor, has been completely proportionally and without any hype declared by the media to be “the divorce gene”. To be fair, this is based on some pretty good Swedish studies finding that women with a certain allele were more often to have reported “marital crisis with the threat of divorce” in the past year (p = 0.003, but the absolute numbers were only 11% of women with one allele vs. 16% of women with the other). This actually sort of checks out, since oxytocin is related to pair bonding. If I’m reading the article right (G;G) is lower divorce risk, (A;A) and (A;G) are higher – but this may only apply to women.

Rs11174811 is in the AVPR1A gene, part of a receptor for a chemical called vasopressin which is very similar to oxytocin. In case you expected men to get away without a divorce gene, this site has been associated with spousal satisfaction in men. Although the paper is extremely cryptic, I think (A;A) or (A;C) means higher spousal satisfaction than (C;C). But if I’m wrong, no problem – another study got the opposite results.

Rs25531 is on the serotonin transporter. Its Overhyped Media Name is “the orchid gene”, on the basis of a theory that children with one allele have higher variance – that is, if they have nice, happy childhoods with plenty of care and support they will bloom to become beautiful orchids, but if they have bad childhoods they will be completely screwed up. The other allele will do moderately well regardless. (T;T) is orchid, (C;C) is moderately fine no matter what. There are rumors going around that 23andMe screwed this one up and nearly everybody is listed as (C;C).

Rs1800955 is in DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene. Its overhyped media name is The Adventure Gene, and supposedly one allele means you’re much more attracted to novelty and adventure. And by “novelty and adventure”, they mean lots and lots of recreational drugs. This one has survived a meta-analytic review. (T;T) is normal, (C;C) is slightly more novelty seeking and prone to drug addiction.

Rs2760118, in a gene producing an obscure enzyme called succinate semialdehyde dehydrogenase, is a nice polymorphism to have. According to this article, it makes you smarter and can be associated with up to fifteen years longer life (warning: impressive result means almost certain failure to replicate). (C;C) or (C;T) means you’re smarter and can expect to live longer; (T;T) better start looking at coffins sooner rather than later.

Rs6311 is not going to let me blame the media for its particular form of hype. The official published scientific paper on it is called “The Secret Ingredient for Social Success of Young Males: A Functional Polymorphism in the 5HT2A Serotonin Receptor Gene”. Boys with (A;A) are less popular than those with (G;G), with (A;G) in between – the effect seems to be partly mediated by rule-breaking behavior, aggression, and number of female friends. Now it kind of looks to me like they’re just taking proxies for popularity here, but maybe that’s just what an (A;A) nerd like me would say. Anyway, at least I have some compensation – the popular (G;G) guys are 3.6x more likely to experience sexual side effects when taking SSRI antidepressants.

Rs6265, known as Val66Met to its friends, is part of the important depression-linked BDNF system. It’s a bit depressing itself, in that it is linked to an ability not to become depressed when subjected to “persistent social defeat”. The majority of whites have (G;G) – the minority with (A;A) or (A;G) are harder to depress, but more introverted and worse at motor skills.

rs41310927 is so cutting-edge it’s not even in SNPedia yet. But these people noticed that a certain version was heavily selected for in certain ethnic groups, especially Chinese, and tried to figure out what those ethnic groups had in common. The answer they came up with was “tonal languages”, so they tested to see if the gene improved ability to detect tones, and sure enough they claimed that in experiments people with a certain allele were better able to distinguish and understand them. Usual caveats apply, but if you want to believe, (G;G) is highest ability to differentiate tones, (A;A) is lowest ability to differentiate tones. (A;G) is in between. Sure enough, I’m (A;A). All you people who tried to teach me Chinese tonology, I FRICKIN’ TOLD YOU ALL OF THE WORDS YOU WERE TELLING ME SOUNDED ALIKE.

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OT8: Love Is An Open Thread

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

1. In case you missed the belated announcement last Open Thread, Ozy has a blog again. Since I ban discussion of race and gender in these open threads, each semimonth Ozy runs a concurrent Race And Gender Open Thread, complete with concurrent race-and-gender-related puns. And here one is now.

2. Thanks to everyone who comments with “Why would you bother writing about this? It’s so obvious!”. You have helped me see the light, and in the future I will make sure to only post things that I am certain zero of my several thousand readers already know.

3. The Less Wrong survey might close this weekend if Ozy and I feel up to starting the statistics on it then, so if you haven’t taken it yet now might be a good time to go over there and get started.

4. If you’ve taken the LW survey, you’ve already marked down whether you read this blog or not so I have information about you. If you haven’t, I would like to get some information about you to see what kind of people are here, who I have and haven’t scared off, and increase my sample size for some correlations I’m going to try to get off of the LW survey. So here is a Slate Star Codex Survey [EDIT: Now closed! Do not take!] for you. Remember, if you’ve already taken the LW survey, do not take this one too!

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More Links For November 2014

Today’s thing which affects weight gain and is neither eating less or exercising more: exposure to ultraviolet radiation (warning: in mice). And it seems to work independently of Vitamin D, which has some relevance to the many studies showing sunlight has all sorts of good effects which just taking a Vitamin D pill can’t replicate.

Ross Douthat: how worried should we be about the decline in cults? I mean, there’s an obvious good side, ie fewer cults, but does it say something broader about a loss of creativity and nonconformity?

You probably all know about the phrase “turtles all the way down”, so I’m just posting this here as a reminder to myself to use its history and etymology next time I need an example of memetic evolution from a mildly amusing precursor to a nearly perfect version that goes viral.

A study confirms that global inequality is decreasing, an effect powered primarily by people in rapidly-developing countries growing closer to their developed counterparts. But before you celebrate too much, remember that at some point most countries will have caught up with each other and then global inequality will be driven by within-developed-country factors, which are pretty much all tending towards increasing gaps.

The kind of car they drive in Raikoth.

Things that exist: a Disney sitcom about a dog with a blog called Dog With A Blog.

Things I didn’t know: along with their infamous attempts to cast doubt on climate change, the Koch brothers also support gay marriage, cuts to the military, and the American Civil Liberties Union. It is nice that they are working to build a better society, but it would be even nicer if we could be sure we’d still have a planet to put it on.

Two genes have been found to have a significant association with violent crime, with an odds ratio as high as thirteen times the violent crime of the general population (!). The particular gene was already pretty well-known and has been discussed to death, but this acted as confirmation and gave an especially impressive picture of effect size. Since someone will bring up differing frequency in different ethnic groups, here’s a non-terrible discussion of that particular angle. Interestingly, there have already been court cases in which defendants have used a positive test for their gene to “excuse” their crime and decrease their sentence. The philosophical implications of this are confusing and probably too long to get into in a links post.

I always knew “anchorite” was something vaguely like a hermit, but I don’t realize how, uh, metal it was until I read Wikipedia’s anchorite article. After having the rites for the dead said over them by a priest, anchorites would entomb themselves in a tiny cell, with only a tiny opening through which food and water could be passed, and remain there without leaving for the rest of their natural lives, possibly decades (Ozy asks: “Can you have books? I think I would be okay with that if I got books”).

Sardinia is asking to be taken over by the Swiss, on the grounds that the Swiss seem better at running things than the Italians. Aside from the fact that it’s not going to happen, this sounds like a hugely important innovation in governance, adding a third prong to the ideas of competitive governance which so far consist mostly of charter cities and vague motions at running nations like corporations. It seems to keep the best features of colonialism (having corrupt areas with no history of effective self-government ruled by extremely competent foreigners) while throwing away the worst (because presumably if you invite the Swiss in, your association with them is voluntary and you can kick them out if they don’t do a good job). Add something where the Swiss get to keep 10% of whatever they add to Sardinia’s GDP and you’ve got a business model. Cowen memorably describes it as “competitive federalism on a world scale”. I hope the next US election includes a “forget politicians, just let the Swiss run America and see what happens” option.

Read Montague and team try to predict political orientation from fMRI correlates of disgust response. Not even anything obviously political, just how your brain reacts when you see a picture of a dead body. Now, I’m not super knowledgeable about ROC curves, but if I’m reading this right, they got 98 – 99% accuracy. Can that be right? Is this just one of those overfitting things where they’re doing machine learning on too little data and can explain anything they want? Or does some kind of neural disgust wiring explain almost all of politics? Somebody help me out here.

We know genetics causes 50% to 80% of variability in IQ. But no one’s ever been able to find a gene that explains more than a fraction of a percent of that. Is everything extremely rare mutations? Or is there some kind of very bad paradigm failure going on here? A study from 2013 that I just noticed finds that, no, common and easily testable genetic markers explain at least 50% (and probably more) of heritable IQ variance. That means we’re not likely to get some kind of huge breakthrough and we’ve just got to tediously go through each of a couple thousand genes and catalog the tiny contribution made by each and how they interact.

Speaking of IQ, Dalliard’s article Is Psychometric g A Myth? starts by accurately noticing that “as an online discussion about IQ or general intelligence grows longer, the probability of someone linking to statistician Cosma Shalizi’s essay g, a Statistical Myth approaches 1″ and goes on to try to refute the article. I had trouble understanding Shalizi’s original, but found Dalliard’s sketch of Shalizi much easier – which means either that he’s a vastly better writer or that he’s strawmanning him to something simpler and less compelling. I am pretty confident that Dalliard successfully refutes Shalizi’s argument as he understands and portrays it, but I’ll have to reread the original to make sure he gets the argument itself right.

I said last month that Leah Libresco won Halloween, but that might have been premature. Ben Hoffman dressed up as the book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

I will always link my ingroup: Artificial Intelligence – Machine Versus Man. Good profile of MIRI (though see Luke’s clarifications) and some other people involved in the same line of work. Some of whom are more clueful than others – Peter Diamandis is quoted as saying: “Why would machines bother to harm us when we are as interesting to them as the bacteria in the soil outside in the backyard?”, which comes off as less reassuring than he probably intended given that as I write this a dirt field outside my office is being paved over to build a new parking lot (with the consequences for its soil bacteria best left unstated). Much more interesting: Larry Page is reading Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. That might be the best AI risk-related news I’ve heard all year.

The Left learns how to play the “take an old party platform, see how it has changed, and use it to show that modern society has drifted in the wrong direction” game. And they’re doing a pretty convincing job. Compare section 3.5 here.

Media antics: CNN reports that a certain candidate “won 52-47 among women”, which he did. Salon states that this is racist, because the candidate lost among the subgroup of black women, so to say he won among women means that you’re claiming “women of color are some separate entity, some mysterious other, some bizarre demographic of not-women.” Has now turned into giant flame war, see eg Salon Writer Condemns Arithmetic As Racist, which seems like about the correct angle. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll turn out to be that Salon parody site people keep confusing with the real thing?

Trouble At The Kool-Aid Point. Originally written about women in women-hostile fields, it compares harassment to the “Kool Aid Point” in consumer brands where a brand which is too successful starts to inspire backlash (eg “If you use Apple, you’re a sheep”). I think the idea is that women can do okay in these fields if they don’t stick out, but once they gain some measure of fame people start harassing them under the cover of trying to be the person bravely pointing out how undeserved their popularity is. Most of the commentary I’ve been reading has gone beyond the original gendered presentation to discuss how this happens to anyone popular. My personal go-to example would be that as soon as HPMOR became popular, it inspired all of these hate blogs and hate forums attacking it and Eliezer personally under the guise of “righting the wrong” of it being more successful than it “deserved”.

After the mid-term elections is as a good time as any to review the arguments that Obama is basically a Republican. Alternately, maybe the Obama administration has pursued a surprisingly conservative defense policy because the President has a lot less power than the “second government” of diplomats, military brass, and various levels of advisors.

First rationalist to get elected to a state legislature starts a blog for her constituents, name-drops Less Wrong and the sequences. What was I saying about always linking my ingroup? But I feel kind of bad because she’s getting more attention from rationalists than her actual constituents, so maybe don’t bother her too much.

Prisoner’s Dilemma tested among actual prisoners, find that they cooperate much better than the general population. I’m not too surprised. They’re in an environment where they feel like an oppressed group defined in contrast to a much larger group, and that tends to build cohesion (see: norms against ‘snitching’). I can’t access original paper to see if the study was anonymized, but if not that’s another factor – I’d hate to be the guy who defected against my cellmate.

Vox: Give the Democrats some credit for America’s economy recovering much quicker than any other developed nation, plunging unemployment, decreasing household debt, and other generally-ignored indicators of economic health.

Related: Asian-Americans are voting more Republican. This should probably be a bigger story for the Republicans than it is. First, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are doomed because immigration will alter the future demographic makeup of the US in favor of minorities, who heavily lean Democrat. But Asian-Americans are one of the fastest increasing minorities, so if GOP can capture Asians while Dems capture blacks and Hispanics, they can stand their ground a little better. Second, the Democratic talking point will always be “GOP is the party of racist white people, Democrats are the party of vibrant diversity”, but if the Republicans can get a minority on their side, it will start looking like both parties are multiracial coalitions of different groups. That will confound the Democratic narrative and maybe it would force everybody to think about race and politics in a slightly more sophisticated way.

Related: the biggest lesson of the midterm elections is that unprincipled destructive obstructionism works.

Very related: Nick Land’s electoral strategy would be for the Republicans (or, I guess, the Democrats if they wanted to try) to try to get as much power as possible except the Presidency. Then use their power to obstruct things and ruin the country. The public will blame the (opposite party) President, allowing your party to gather even more power. Then rinse and repeat in a vicious cycle, gradually chipping off Presidential powers so that you control everything. The only downside is that you have to ruin the country for it to work. One may debate how much of a difference this represents from business as usual

Group selectionism has long been considered pretty dead in the evolutionary biology community. But I was recently clued in to a couple-year-old flare-up of the old debate. Biology titan E. O. Wilson published a paper The Evolution of Eusociality claiming that eusociality – the extreme form of cooperation found among insect colonies like ants and bees – could not have evolved through kin selection (as previously believed) but must have evolved through group selection (ie colonies where everyone cooperates beat colonies that don’t). The theory was met with very strong (and sometimes unnecessarily personal) opposition from other important biologists including Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, although Coyne seems to unexpectedly admit the main point that kin selection can’t produce eusociality, which was news to me. Here’s another biologist who gives a good overview of the entire debate. Of interest to me because of the importance I place on this same process in human affairs; people will always be irresistably incentivized to defect, but this is held in check by a counter-incentive to form cooperative communities that spread by group selection.

Stuart Armstrong on explanations for unemployment. Most people familiar with economics know that in theory unemployment shouldn’t exist, since an oversupply of workers should lower salaries until the supply exactly matches demand. But it’s worth remembering how important this process is. If the employment market cleared, then every abled person could have a job in their field, the need for the social safety net would go way down, and people would be able to leave toxic workplace environments knowing there would always be another job they could go into. As such, “why does the employment market fail to clear, in defiance of classical economics?” becomes an important question.

If you’ve read the story of MsScribe, you already know how Internet harrassment + sock puppets + social justice can be a toxic combination. A science fiction author is found to secretly be the same person as a blogger called RequiresHate who uses social justice rhetoric and out-of-context quotes to rile up mobs, send them to harass and threaten competing writers, and damage their careers. She has since given a very partial apology, but her supporters have defended her by saying that it’s racist for white people to police people of color in how they respond to racism – meaning probably there will be no consequences and the same sort of thing will continue. I worry that this sort of thing seems to happen in any community that reaches more than a certain percent social justice people, and it’s one reason I get so paranoid about social justice memes entering communities I care about.

Leah Libresco was one of the first people to link to my old LiveJournal and so helped me get my start in blogging. She’s also put me in touch with some of the best parts of the Catholic blogosphere, given me a place to stay when I visited DC, and sung the part of Cerune in my version of “Philosopher Kripke”. So of course I will advertise her new book on Catholic prayer for her, even though it’s probably not quite targeted at the SSC demographic. Its website describes it as “cobbling together a creole as best I could, building up my understanding of spiritual life using the tools and analogies that I already had…using the way that subroutines are nested safely in bigger tasks in computer programming as I tried to figure out how to wrap the Liturgy of the Hours around my hectic, day-to-day life…relying on my understanding of cognitive biases like the sunk cost fallacy when I tried to figure out what made it hard to go to Confession.” So okay. Maybe kind of targeted at the SSC demographic.

But if you’re so irredeemably evil as to be beyond any hope of divine salvation, don’t worry: Nick Land also has a book out.

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Growing Old

A while ago a friend asked me to critique her writing. I said “You sound like a teenager”. It was less patronizing than it might have been, because she was a teenager, although I guess still pretty patronizing. Then she asked me for an explanation, and I didn’t have one, because some kind of “essence of teenagerdom” is hard to place.

But recently I was thinking about this again, because I was rereading Byron’s “Growing Old”. Part of his Don Juan, it’s a series of reflections about turning thirty (really, Byron? Growing Old? Thirty?). I was reading it because I had read it when I was fifteen or so, and gotten some things out of it, and I’d resolved to reread it when I was older to see if I could get anything else:

But now at thirty years my hair is grey—
(I wonder what it will be like at forty ?
I thought of a peruke the other day—)
My heart is not much greener ; and, in short, I
Have squandered my whole summer while ’twas May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort ; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul invincible.

And lo and behold, I do sympathize a lot more now. For example, what’s with my hair? It’s not turning grey. But it is falling out en masse. I haven’t thought about a peruke – which I think it one of those big white old-timey wigs George Washington used to wear – yet. But maybe I should.

But moving on:

No more—no more—Oh ! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new ;
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee.
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew ?
Alas ! ’twas not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.

There’s something very raw about being young. I remember reading a psychotherapy book that, like most psychotherapy books, talks about childhood trauma. Their prescription was that it gets buried under lots of layers of unconscious baggage, and you need to bring it to the surface. Once it’s at the surface, the patient’s reaction should be something like “That? That was what bothered me all this time?” Because when you’re a child, everything is more intense. Yeah, some childhood trauma is getting beaten or abused. But other childhood trauma is getting called names on the playground, or being left alone without knowing where your parents were. I find a lot of the “inner child” school of psychology to be kind of bunk, but I find interesting the idea of your inner child as somebody who you’re much stronger than, somebody who they respect because you’ve developed really powerful psychological coping mechanisms they could never dream of, so that you’re a protector figure.

Ozy talks about this a lot in the context of their borderline personality disorder. I tend to think of a lot of symptoms of borderline as being associated with neoteny – a preservation of childlikeness into adulthood (I don’t know how orthodox this is). For Ozy, everything is still raw, maybe will always be raw. Every even slightly good thing that happens delights them. Every even slightly bad thing that happen traumatizes them.

The flip side of childhood trauma is childhood wonder. When you’re young, and to a lesser degree when you’re a teenager and even in your early twenties, you have a great capacity to be amazed at the raw beauty of the world. As you grow older, you get less direct exposure to things as you have more and more schemas to put them in: “Oh, yeah, that’s a beautiful sunset, it looks a lot like the five thousand other sunsets I’ve seen. I’ll just tag it ‘sunset’ and move on.” There’s a big loss there, but there’s a compensatory gain:

No more–no more–Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though Heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.

That last couplet really resonates with me. You tend to think of judgment and wisdom as something you gain by laborious cultivation. And here’s Byron, saying “Somehow I seem to have gotten some good qualities. God only knows how that happened. Seriously, of all people, me?”

A lot of the time we make fun of teenagers for having crazy high libido. And then they grow older, and their sex drive calms down a little bit. I actually haven’t checked whether anyone knows if this is due to objective reductions in hormone levels, or if maybe once you’ve gone on a couple of dates and been in a couple of relationships it’s no longer quite so exciting.

But it’s not just sex. There’s this entire complex of teenage and early-twenties things around sex and extreme politics and mysticism and fashion, and some of it is praiseworthy in the sense of being really excited about new things, and part of it is just not having any idea what you’re doing, so that realistic opportunities and insane opportunities look about the same. And so you end up on this roller coaster of grandiose plans, inevitable letdowns, gnawing horrible fears, and unexpected relief. And then eventually you kind of bottom out and stop doing this.

I don’t know if this is biological either. Michael Vassar (and as far as I know no one else) theorizes about a “second puberty” in the late teens/early twenties where the brain starts to take on an adult form. There’s some evidence for – for example, this is the age at which a lot of previously latent mental disorders like schizophrenia develop. And there’s some evidence against – nobody had a conception of teenagerdom until like 1940s America or so. But it’s certainly a useful concept. Just as after puberty dies down you kind of naturally stop being so concerned about sex and acne and whatever, so after second puberty get a deal of judgment. You stop being so concerned about…what?

What is the end of Fame ? ’tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper :
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour ;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture and worse bust.

Erikson calls the psychological crisis of the teenage years “identity versus role confusion”, and Reb Wiki’s commentary on his work adds that:

Erikson does note that the time of identity crisis for persons of genius is frequently prolonged. He further notes that in our industrial society, identity formation tends to be long, because it takes us so long to gain the skills needed for adulthood’s tasks in our technological world. So… we do not have an exact time span in which to find ourselves. It doesn’t happen automatically at eighteen or at twenty-one. A very approximate rule of thumb for our society would put the end somewhere in one’s twenties.

Let me take a stab at that “persons of genius” exemption, since some of my friends whom I’ve gotten a chance to observe are probably smart enough to qualify.

Anyone even a little bit smarter than normal gets feted and celebrated as a kid. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling my parents during a conference that “your son needs to go into science so he can cure cancer.” This is dumb. In a school of a thousand people, you can be the smartest kid in the school, more than smart enough to impress your teachers – and still be only one of the 300,000 smartest people in the country. If those other 300,000 people didn’t cure cancer, there’s a pretty good chance your son won’t either. But when you’re a kid, all you have to do to look smart is read the occasional science book and cultivate an interest in quarks. You can just go around saying “Did you know there are six types of quarks?” and everyone will think you’re some kind of genius.

Then you grow older. You reach the point where nobody thinks you’re a genius unless you can prove some kind of new result, which is a lot harder. You go to a good college, and suddenly you’re in an environment preselected so that everybody else is about as smart as you are. If you’ve been coasting through life on being able to name all six types of quark (and who’s going to know if you get one wrong?) this is pretty disorienting.

And so part of Erikson’s “role confusion” is thinking “Wait, I was the guy who was going to cure cancer. I can feel my status slipping away from me as I become more and more mediocre. What am I going to do to prove that I really am that cool?”

I think a lot of the pathologies of adolescence are part of that urge, hollow promises of regaining lost status. The key is to provide a narrative in which you are great and which is impervious to external disconfirmation. Extremist politics, mysticism and fashion all fit the bill for different personalities.

Along with the pathologies there were the ill-advised adventures. “I’m going to be a great person by…um…exercising an hour a day, from now on, all the time, and eventually becoming really buff.” Lasted a month. Then “I’m going to be a great person by…um…learning to speak ten languages, one at a time.” Lasted until first encounter with the Finnish case system. “I’m going to become a great person by…” The problem with all of these were that none of these were things I actually wanted to do (cf Randall Munroe, “Never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.”)

Actually, forget Randall Munroe. The best related quote is a different Monroe, who said that “although you are ambitious, you have no ambition.” And so:

Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure ;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure :
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
‘Time is, Time was, Time’s past’ : a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes—
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.

One of the key points of the rationalist community is to learn to “optimize” rather than “satisfice” things, and it’s a useful lesson. But everyone sometimes needs reverse advice, and younger me – and younger lots of people – didn’t really understand satisficing.

When I was about ten, I decided to just optimize my entire life. I made a schedule of exactly what I would do every day – each minute filled with some sort of very productive character-building activity. Then I followed it for two days. Then I gave up and felt bad about it for a while.

That’s the sort of optimizing that only Young Scott could love. But I’ve been reading On The Road recently, and I wonder if the sort of Beat culture of authenticity is a different kind of optimizing, where you’re throwing everything at being different and more real, to the point of abandoning family and financial stability and whatever else.

There’s a place for this kind of optimization, if it’s what you want to do. But I eventually noticed that attempts to optimize my life and be maximally good were making me kind of miserable. I think that’s where the judgment part comes in. You learn when it’s okay to stop getting mad at yourself for not being perfect and take a little bit of time to relax and enjoy.

Byron is maybe a bad example of learning to overcome ambition, since he did kind of become super famous. But even that can be a kind of relaxing ambition. You learn what you’re good at, even if it’s something like poetry that might not be the most lucrative and world-changing thing around, and you focus on that. You’re not going to be Julius Caesar, but you might be Lord Byron. Or if not Lord Byron, you might at least have a career and be good at it. Role confusion gives way to identity.

(even MIRI, the most healthily ambitious people I know, have backed down from “we will save the world all by ourselves, right now” to “we will contribute an important part in an eventual effort to save the world”)

In fact, I think that’s the most important part of the solution, the part that makes it a little more dignified than abject surrender to being a cog in the machine. Vague formless ambition crystallizes into a couple of things that you’re good at and want to pursue, and then it doesn’t seem like ambition any longer. It just seems like the thing you’re doing.

Byron also got one other thing right, which was that he was able to sacrifice ambition to pleasure. This seems a better shrine to sacrifice at than “akrasia” or “conformity” or “vague feelings that I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But I, being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass ;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’

Seems like another riff on the same subject. Ambition and the raw energy of youth turning to a vague fondness that he got things mostly right, for a human.

I hate to change poets in midstream, but Chesterton says much the same:

…the doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.

The theme to me seems the same. Youth is scary. Everything is important. Philosophy seems perilously close. Every tiny thing inspires doubts. Then “there is strength in striking root and good in growing old”. You get a base. You know where you are standing. Things feel calmer and safer. You go from role confusion to identity.

Byron talks of “reading your Bible and minding your purse”. Chesterton talks about “we have marriage and a creed”. I read these as kind of similar. It’s about finding an ideology – in contrast to the constant ideology-searching of youth where you get your Communists and your Daoist and your anarchists and whatever. And then it’s about turning to be more interested in the everyday world of things like marriage and family and relationships and balancing your checkbook.

If this were about suddenly ceasing to care about ideas, then it would be monstrous and I’d be trying to resist it every way I can. But neither Chesterton nor Byron became intellectual lightweights in their old age. I think of it as getting to participate in the world of ideas because you want to, rather than because you have to. In Jung’s words, “swimming rather than drowning”. Or since the ocean of thought is maybe too big for a swimming metaphor, you’re still out at sea, but you’ve got a nice sturdy ship instead of a Neurath’s boat where you have to build your vessel while you’re sailing on it.

In an unhealthy society, it can be dangerous to lose revolutionary fervor. But in a healthy society, it seems to be a natural and important process. I don’t know if our society is healthy enough for me to be entirely comfortable with it. There are a lot of people who can’t get a stable career, people who are trying as hard as they can. But even in a revolution you need a couple of people to keep things running and maybe donate money earned at a stable job to the people with more zeal (see: Engels), and in the spirit of satisficing rather than optimizing I’m pretty okay with this role.

…or maybe you stay an anarchist or a Daoist or a communist. But then it’s because you’re set in that philosophy and you like it and you’re making a stand there, rather than because it’s your Experiment Of The Month. It’s good to have Experiments Of The Month – high expected value of information, low transaction costs for changing your mind – but it’s also a relief to be done with that. Identity in place of role confusion. As for the adult world of relationships and checkbooks, it’s a different and lower-variance way of contributing to the community, and if you’re lucky you can have kids and start the whole cycle over again.

Yesterday I turned thirty years old. People keep asking me how I feel about it. I think I agree with Byron. I passed my youth not too unpleasantly. And if I had it over again, it’d pass. So thank the stars that matters are no worse.

The Right To Waive Your Rights

I do understand the logic behind not allowing just any old contract to be legally binding. The reductio ad absurdum is the EULA that says “By opening this product, you agree not to sue us if this product malfunctions and hurts you, not to give us any negative feedback, and not to object if this product monitors everything you do and reports it back to us.” And people never read those things, so it basically means companies can be above whatever laws they choose.

The other reductio is the job offer with the contract saying “By accepting this job, you agree to work whatever hours we tell you without overtime, and you can’t raise sexual harassment complaints, and you’re bound by a non-compete agreement not to work in this industry again if we fire you.” That’s basically selling yourself into slavery, and although in theory the problem should be limited by people being unwilling to sign such a deal, in practice, the job market.

I do understand the logic, really. But restrictions on contracts scare me, and they should scare you too.

It’s easy to say things like “Well, in those examples above, contracts are a tool used by the powerful to oppress the powerless. And it seems like a general case that the powerful will have lots of ability to coerce the powerless into signing unfair contracts, so in general banning forms of voluntary contract should always be a progressive, pro-egalitarian position.” And a lot of progressive egalitarians do say this.

So let me talk about my f@#king life.

Every day I get to evaluate new psychiatric patients in the emergency room. A lot of them are there for attempted suicide. They say they’re depressed. They say they’re not getting any treatment for their depression. I gingerly bring up that they might want to stay a couple of days in the psych unit for treatment.

“Oh, no, I could never do that. My sainted mother’s in the hospital on her death bed now, and I’m the only family she has left, and if I’m not there with her when she goes it would haunt me forever. And my kid has his Little League championships this evening, and it’s the only time he’s ever won something, and he specifically told me if I’m not there cheering him on he’ll never forgive me.”

I gingerly bring up that, actually, the law requires that if someone is a danger to themselves or others, I have to commit them to the psychiatric hospital, whether it is convenient for them or not.

“What? Me? A danger? No! I was just really tired, and high on drugs, and my car broke down, and I don’t have any money to fix it, and I saw some pills, and I impulsively did something stupid. I’ll never do it again! Honest! If you give me the name of an outpatient psychiatrist, I’ll go there every day! Twice a day! I promise!”

I gingerly bring up that this isn’t really a debate, that they’re squarely in the “very high risk” category, and all of the appropriate rules and procedures say that they need to spend a little while in the hospital and get treatment. That sometimes getting treatment for unremitting life-ruining totally unmanaged depression is a good thing.

“You don’t understand. It’s not just my mother and the Little League game. I’ve already missed a couple days of work this month, and my boss says if I miss any more I’m going to be fired, and there’s no way I can find another job in this economy, and without that money me and my kids will lose our house. And I’m in the middle of a divorce and I have to be at the court in two days for the hearing or else my sadistic abusive ex will get custody of the kids.”

I gingerly bring up that no, really, this isn’t a debate, there are rules here.

“You don’t understand! I have to transport my adopted daughter’s boyfriend to safety. This man’s done no wrong, and he needs a doctor’s care. Another hour yet, and then I’m yours, and all our debts are paid.”

I’m not heartless. I really want to respect people’s autonomy. I obviously want to help people stay alive long enough to get better, but I don’t really have any personal investment in maintaining the suicide rate at exactly zero if the human costs of doing so are too high. I just want to do more good for my patients than harm. So finally I give up and go ask a superior, and they always say the same thing. Commit.

Suppose that I guess this patient’s risk of another suicide attempt in the next year is something like 15%. Suppose that 1/5 of those attempts will result in serious injury or death. So there’s a 3% one-year risk of suicide-related injury or death for this guy.

Suppose that if a lawyer comes to a person who has just suffered a suicide-related injury, or the family of a person who has just completed suicide, and offers them a free $500,000 at no cost to them, at least 10% of people will take it.

So if 3% of patients get hurt, and 10% of the ones who get hurt sue, then one in every three hundred patients like this whom I discharge is going to sue me. And win, because it’s my legal duty to assess a patient’s safety and treat if unsafe. And if I take an obviously suicidal patient and send them home untreated, no court in the world is going to rule in my favor.

I see about a hundred of these people a year, so that’s a lost lawsuit about every three years. Depending on how bad the court loss is, and how good my malpractice insurance is, I might not be completely ruined by a single lawsuit. I might get to keep my house, keep the clothes on my back, keep my job, keep my medical license. Then again, I might not. And another lawsuit every three years? Good frickin’ luck.

This is not a theoretical possibility. The doctors older and more experienced than I am have seen it happen. A guy begs to be allowed to go, says he’s not suicidal at all, everything will be fine. The doctor goes soft and lets him. He thanks the doctor profusely, says she can’t possibly understand how much it means to him. The next month he shoots himself and is permanently crippled. A lawyer informs him he can get $500,000 by suing the doctor for breach of duty since she let him go home even though he was clearly suicidal, and the doctor doesn’t have a leg to stand on. There’s the guy on the stand, saying “She knew I was suicidal, I told her all about it, and she did nothing!”

(Doctor’s attorney: “But didn’t you specifically ask not be treated?” Patient: “Yes, but I wasn’t in my right mind. Maybe the fact that I was undergoing psychiatric evaluation just after a suicide attempt should have clued you in!“)

I want to do what’s right for my patients. But I also want to follow the law. And I also want to avoid losing my livelihood and everything I have. There have been times I may have slightly bent certain standards, when the moral pull was so strong I wasn’t going to be able to sleep at night otherwise. But on the main, I don’t want to last only three years in the business. That’s not good for me, and it’s not good for patients who I might otherwise be able to help.

The progressive says: “This insistence on the sanctity of voluntary contracts only benefits privileged oppressors. It allows them to force poor innocent victims to sign away their rights to protest ill treatment.”

And so it does. I’m clearly the privileged oppressor here. And I would really like to be able to ask my patients to sign a contract saying they waive their rights to sue me if things go wrong. Actually, I want to be even more evil than that. I want to ask my patients to sign a contract waiving their rights to sue me, and threaten to commit them to hospital against their will if they refuse.

And yet this would be the most powerful method possible of protecting patient autonomy. I would love to be able to bend the rules for a patient who has some really good reason not to want to go to hospital, whether it’s their dying mother or their demanding boss or even just that they can’t afford it (did you know they can force you to pay for your involuntary commitments? What a country!) I would love to be able to tell them “Well, as your psychiatrist I strongly recommend hospitalization, but you’re in your right mind, you’ve got decision making capacity, and hey, it’s your life.” But the only way I can do this without pretty much ensuring I’m going to get bitten sooner or later is if they can waive their rights to take advantage of me.

This situation kinda maps on to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, you know. We can both cooperate – I send him home, he doesn’t sue me. I can cooperate while he defects – I send him home, then he sues me. I can pre-emptively defect against him – commit him to hospital.

When you prevent people from making deals to cooperate with each other in Prisoner’s Dilemmas, terrible things happen. It means that, unless one or another party is a martyr, they’re both going to end up defecting on each other. And when both parties defect on each other, that’s no big deal for the more powerful party, but a disaster for the powerless oppressed people we’re trying to help. When we end up in mutual defection, I don’t have to deal with anything worse than the patient yelling at me while I write it down on my little pad and try to sound sympathetic. The patient has to miss their son’s Little League championship game and then he never talks to them again.

(ninety percent of sob stories are false, but ten percent are true).

I know it sounds weird to insist on a right to waive your rights. Isn’t that more of an anti-right, so to speak? But come on, read your Schelling. In multiplayer games, the ability to limit your options can provide a decisive advantage. If you’re playing Chicken, the winning strategy is to conspicuously break your steering wheel so your opponent knows you can’t turn even if you want to. If you’re playing global thermonuclear war, the winning strategy is to conspicuously remove your ability not to retaliate, using something like the Dead Hand system. Waiving your right to steer, waiving your right not to nuke, these are winning strategies; whoever can’t do them has been artificially handicapped.

I do understand the logic behind not allowing just any old contract to be legally binding. But I also think that the right to waive your rights is a right. We understand that there are cases in which we can violate rights; there are a whole host of exceptions to the right of free speech. But it requires a good reason, and you had better realize you’re treading on dangerous ground.

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Ethnic Tension And Meaningless Arguments


Part of what bothers me – and apparently several others – about yesterday’s motte-and-bailey discussion is that here’s a fallacy – a pretty successful fallacy – that depends entirely on people not being entirely clear on what they’re arguing about. Somebody says God doesn’t exist. Another person objects that God is just a name for the order and beauty in the universe. Then this somehow helps defend the position that God is a supernatural creator being. How does that even happen?

“Sir, you’ve been accused of murdering your wife. We have three witnesses who said you did it. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Well, your honor, I think it’s quite clear I didn’t murder the President. For one thing, he’s surrounded by Secret Service agents. For another, check the news. The President’s still alive.”

“Huh. For some reason I vaguely remember thinking you didn’t have a case. Yet now that I hear you talk, everything you say is incredibly persuasive. You’re free to go.”

While motte-and-bailey is less subtle, it seems to require a similar sort of misdirection. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying it’s a fact that needs to be explained.

When everything works the way it’s supposed to in philosophy textbooks, arguments are supposed to go one of a couple of ways:

1. Questions of empirical fact, like “Is the Earth getting warmer?” or “Did aliens build the pyramids?”. You debate these by presenting factual evidence, like “An average of global weather station measurements show 2014 is the hottest year on record” or “One of the bricks at Giza says ‘Made In Tau Ceti V’ on the bottom.” Then people try to refute these facts or present facts of their own.

2. Questions of morality, like “Is it wrong to abort children?” or “Should you refrain from downloading music you have not paid for?” You can only debate these well if you’ve already agreed upon a moral framework, like a particular version of natural law or consequentialism. But you can sort of debate them by comparing to examples of agreed-upon moral questions and trying to maintain consistency. For exmaple, “You wouldn’t kill a one day old baby, so how is a nine month old fetus different?” or “You wouldn’t download a car.”

If you are very lucky, your philosophy textbook will also admit the existence of:

3. Questions of policy, like “We should raise the minimum wage” or “We should bomb Foreignistan”. These are combinations of competing factual claims and competing values. For example, the minimum wage might hinge on factual claims like “Raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment” or “It is very difficult to live on the minimum wage nowadays, and many poor families cannot afford food.” But it might also hinge on value claims like “Corporations owe it to their workers to pay a living wage,” or “It is more important that the poorest be protected than that the economy be strong.” Bombing Foreignistan might depend on factual claims like “The Foreignistanis are harboring terrorists”, and on value claims like “The safety of our people is worth the risk of collateral damage.” If you can resolve all of these factual and value claims, you should be able to agree on questions of policy.

None of these seem to allow the sort of vagueness of topic mentioned above.


A question: are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine? Take a second, actually think about it.

Some people probably answered pro-Israel. Other people probably answered pro-Palestine. Other people probably said they were neutral because it’s a complicated issue with good points on both sides.

Probably very few people answered: Huh? What?

This question doesn’t fall into any of the three Philosophy 101 forms of argument. It’s not a question of fact. It’s not a question of particular moral truths. It’s not even a question of policy. There are closely related policies, like whether Palestine should be granted independence. But if I support a very specific two-state solution where the border is drawn upon the somethingth parallel, does that make me pro-Israel or pro-Palestine? At exactly which parallel of border does the solution under consideration switch from pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian? Do you think the crowd of people shouting and waving signs saying “SOLIDARITY WITH PALESTINE” have an answer to that question?

But it’s even worse, because this question covers much more than just the borders of an independent Palestinian state. Was Israel justified by responding to Hamas’ rocket fire by bombing Gaza, even with the near-certainty of collateral damage? Was Israel justified in building a wall across the Palestinian territories to protect itself from potential terrorists, even though it severely curtails Palestinian freedom of movement? Do Palestinians have a “right of return” to territories taken in the 1948 war? Who should control the Temple Mount?

These are four very different questions which one would think each deserve independent consideration. But in reality, what percent of the variance in people’s responses do you think is explained by a general “pro-Palestine vs. pro-Israel” factor? 50%? 75%? More?

In a way, when we round people off to the Philosophy 101 kind of arguments, we are failing to respect their self-description. People aren’t out on the streets saying “By my cost-benefit analysis, Israel was in the right to invade Gaza, although it may be in the wrong on many of its other actions.” They’re waving little Israeli flags and holding up signs saying “ISRAEL: OUR STAUNCHEST ALLY”. Maybe we should take them at face value.

This is starting to look related to the original question in (I). Why is it okay to suddenly switch points in the middle of an argument? In the case of Israel and Palestine, it might be because people’s support for any particular Israeli policy is better explained by a General Factor Of Pro-Israeliness than by the policy itself. As long as I’m arguing in favor of Israel in some way, it’s still considered by everyone to be on topic.


Some moral philosophers got fed up with nobody being able to explain what the heck a moral truth was and invented emotivism. Emotivism says there are no moral truths, just expressions of little personal bursts of emotion. When you say “Donating to charity is good,” you don’t mean “Donating to charity increases the sum total of utility in the world,” or “Donating to charity is in keeping with the Platonic moral law” or “Donating to charity was commanded by God” or even “I like donating to charity”. You’re just saying “Yay charity!” and waving a little flag.

Seems a lot like how people handle the Israel question. “I’m pro-Israel” doesn’t necessarily imply that you believe any empirical truths about Israel, or believe any moral principles about Israel, or even support any Israeli policies. It means you’re waving a little flag with a Star of David on it and cheering.

So here is Ethnic Tension: A Game For Two Players.

Pick a vague concept. “Israel” will do nicely for now.

Player 1 tries to associate the concept “Israel” with as much good karma as she possibly can. Concepts get good karma by doing good moral things, by being associated with good people, by being linked to the beloved in-group, and by being oppressed underdogs in bravery debates.

“Israel is the freest and most democratic country in the Middle East. It is one of America’s strongest allies and shares our Judeo-Christian values.

Player 2 tries to associate the concept “Israel” with as much bad karma as she possibly can. Concepts get bad karma by committing atrocities, being associated with bad people, being linked to the hated out-group, and by being oppressive big-shots in bravery debates. Also, she obviously needs to neutralize Player 1’s actions by disproving all of her arguments.

“Israel may have some level of freedom for its most privileged citizens, but what about the millions of people in the Occupied Territories that have no say? Israel is involved in various atrocities and has often killed innocent protesters. They are essentially a neocolonialist state and have allied with other neocolonialist states like South Africa.”

The prize for winning this game is the ability to win the other three types of arguments. If Player 1 wins, the audience ends up with a strongly positive General Factor Of Pro-Israeliness, and vice versa.

Remember, people’s capacity for motivated reasoning is pretty much infinite. Remember, a motivated skeptic asks if the evidence compels them to accept the conclusion; a motivated credulist asks if the evidence allows them to accept the conclusion. Remember, Jonathan Haidt and his team hypnotized people to have strong disgust reactions to the word “often”, and then tried to hold in their laughter when people in the lab came up with convoluted yet plausible-sounding arguments against any policy they proposed that included the word “often” in the description.

I’ve never heard of the experiment being done the opposite way, but it sounds like the sort of thing that might work. Hypnotize someone to have a very positive reaction to the word “often” (for most hilarious results, have it give people an orgasm). “Do you think governments should raise taxes more often?” “Yes. Yes yes YES YES OH GOD YES!”

Once you finish the Ethnic Tension Game, you’re replicating Haidt’s experiment with the word “Israel” instead of the word “often”. Win the game, and any pro-Israel policy you propose will get a burst of positive feelings and tempt people to try to find some explanation, any explanation, that will justify it, whether it’s invading Gaza or building a wall or controlling the Temple Mount.

So this is the fourth type of argument, the kind that doesn’t make it into Philosophy 101 books. The trope namer is Ethnic Tension, but it applies to anything that can be identified as a Vague Concept, or paired opposing Vague Concepts, which you can use emotivist thinking to load with good or bad karma.


Now motte-and-bailey stands revealed:

Somebody says God doesn’t exist. Another person objects that God is just a name for the order and beauty in the universe. Then this somehow helps defend the position that God is a supernatural creator being. How does that even happen?

The two-step works like this. First, load “religion” up with good karma by pitching it as persuasively as possible. “Religion is just the belief that there’s beauty and order in the universe.”

Wait, I think there’s beauty and order in the universe!

“Then you’re religious too. We’re all religious, in the end, because religion is about the common values of humanity and meaning and compassion sacrifice beauty of a sunrise Gandhi Buddha Sufis St. Francis awe complexity humility wonder Tibet the Golden Rule love.”

Then, once somebody has a strongly positive General Factor Of Religion, it doesn’t really matter whether someone believes in a creator God or not. If they have any predisposition whatsoever to do so, they’ll find a reason to let themselves. If they can’t manage it, they’ll say it’s true “metaphorically” and continue to act upon every corollary of it being true.

(“God is just another name for the beauty and order in the universe. But Israel definitely belongs to the Jews, because the beauty and order of the universe promised it to them.”)

If you’re an atheist, you probably have a lot of important issues on which you want people to consider non-religious answers and policies. And if somebody can maintain good karma around the “religion” concept by believing God is the order and beauty in the universe, then that can still be a victory for religion even if it is done by jettisoning many traditionally “religious” beliefs. In this case, it is useful to think of the “order and beauty” formulation as a “motte” for the “supernatural creator” formulation, since it’s allowing the entire concept to be defended.

But even this is giving people too much credit, because the existence of God is a (sort of) factual question. From yesterday’s post:

Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. What is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say ‘Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!’

Who the heck thinks that? Everybody, all the time.

Once again, if I can load the concept of “feminism” with good karma by making it so obvious nobody can disagree with it, then I have a massive “home field advantage” when I’m trying to convince anyone of any particular policy that can go under the name “feminism”, even if it’s unrelated to the arguments that gave feminism good karma in the first place.

Or if I’m against feminism, I just post quotes from the ten worst feminists on Tumblr again and again until the entire movement seems ridiculous and evil, and then you’ll have trouble convincing anyone of anything feminist. “That seems reasonable…but wait, isn’t that a feminist position? Aren’t those the people I hate?”

(compare: most Americans oppose Obamacare, but most Americans support each individual component of Obamacare when it is explained without using the word “Obamacare”)


Little flow diagram things make everything better. Let’s make a little flow diagram thing.

We have our node “Israel”, which has either good or bad karma. Then there’s another node close by marked “Palestine”. We would expect these two nodes to be pretty anti-correlated. When Israel has strong good karma, Palestine has strong bad karma, and vice versa.

Now suppose you listen to Noam Chomsky talk about how strongly he supports the Palestinian cause and how much he dislikes Israel. One of two things can happen:

“Wow, a great man such as Noam Chomsky supports the Palestinians! They must be very deserving of support indeed!”


“That idiot Chomsky supports Palestine? Well, screw him. And screw them!”

So now there is a third node, Noam Chomsky, that connects to both Israel and Palestine, and we have discovered it is positively correlated with Palestine and negatively correlated with Israel. It probably has a pretty low weight, because there are a lot of reasons to care about Israel and Palestine other than Chomsky, and a lot of reasons to care about Chomsky other than Israel and Palestine, but the connection is there.

I don’t know anything about neural nets, so maybe this system isn’t actually a neural net, but whatever it is I’m thinking of, it’s a structure where eventually the three nodes reach some kind of equilibrium. If we start with someone liking Israel and Chomsky, but not Palestine, then either that’s going to shift a little bit towards liking Palestine, or shift a little bit towards disliking Chomsky.

Now we add more nodes. Cuba seems to really support Palestine, so they get a positive connection with a little bit of weight there. And I think Noam Chomsky supports Cuba, so we’ll add a connection there as well. Cuba is socialist, and that’s one of the most salient facts about it, so there’s a heavily weighted positive connection between Cuba and socialism. Palestine kind of makes noises about socialism but I don’t think they have any particular economic policy, so let’s say very weak direct connection. And Che is heavily associated with Cuba, so you get a pretty big Che – Cuba connection, plus a strong direct Che – socialism one. And those pro-Palestinian students who threw rotten fruit at an Israeli speaker also get a little path connecting them to “Palestine” – hey, why not – so that if you support Palestine you might be willing to excuse what they did and if you oppose them you might be a little less likely to support Palestine.

Back up. This model produces crazy results, like that people who like Che are more likely to oppose Israel bombing Gaza. That’s such a weird, implausible connection that it casts doubt upon the entire…

Oh. Wait. Yeah. Okay.

I think this kind of model, in its efforts to sort itself out into a ground state, might settle on some kind of General Factor Of Politics, which would probably correspond pretty well to the left-right axis.

In Five Case Studies On Politicization, I noted how fresh new unpoliticized issues, like the Ebola epidemic, were gradually politicized by connecting them to other ideas that were already part of a political narrative. For example, a quarantine against Ebola would require closing the borders. So now there’s a weak negative link between “Ebola quarantine” and “open borders”. If your “open borders” node has good karma, now you’re a little less likely to support an Ebola quarantine. If “open borders” has bad karma, a little more likely.

I also tried to point out how you could make different groups support different things by changing your narrative a little:

Global warming has gotten inextricably tied up in the Blue Tribe narrative: Global warming proves that unrestrained capitalism is destroying the planet. Global warming disproportionately affects poor countries and minorities. Global warming could have been prevented with multilateral action, but we were too dumb to participate because of stupid American cowboy diplomacy. Global warming is an important cause that activists and NGOs should be lauded for highlighting. Global warming shows that Republicans are science denialists and probably all creationists. Two lousy sentences on “patriotism” aren’t going to break through that.

If I were in charge of convincing the Red Tribe to line up behind fighting global warming, here’s what I’d say:

In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.

Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industralize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.

We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.

In the first paragraph, “global warming” gets positively connected to concepts like “poor people and minorities” and “activists and NGOs”, and gets negatively connected to concepts like “capitalism”, “American cowboy diplomacy”, and “creationists”. That gives global warming really strong good karma if (and only if) you like the first two concepts and hate the last three.

In the next three paragraphs, “global warming” gets positively connected to “America”, “the Bush administration” and “entrepreneurs”, and negatively connected to “Russia”, “China”, “oil producing dictatorships like Iran and Venezuela”, “big government bureaucrats”, and “welfare parasites”. This is going to appeal to, well, a different group.

Notice two things here. First, the exact connection isn’t that important, as long as we can hammer in the existence of a connection. I could probably just say GLOBAL WARMING! COMMUNISM! GLOBAL WARMING! COMMUNISM! GLOBAL WARMING! COMMUNISM! several hundred times and have the same effect if I could get away with it (this is the principle behind attack ads which link a politician’s face to scary music and a very concerned voice).

Second, there is no attempt whatsoever to challenge the idea that the issue at hand is the positive or negative valence of a concept called “global warming”. At no point is it debated what the solution is, which countries the burden is going to fall on, or whether any particular level of emission cuts would do more harm than good. It’s just accepted as obvious by both sides that we debate “for” or “against” global warming, and if the “for” side wins then they get to choose some solution or other or whatever oh god that’s so boring can we get back to Israel vs. Palestine.

Some of the scientists working on IQ have started talking about “hierarchical factors”, meaning that there’s a general factor of geometry intelligence partially correlated with other things into a general factor of mathematical intelligence partially correlated with other things into a general factor of total intelligence.

I would expect these sorts of things to work the same way. There’s a General Factor Of Global Warming that affects attitudes toward pretty much all proposed global warming solutions, which is very highly correlated with a lot of other things to make a General Factor Of Environmentalism, which itself is moderately highly correlated with other things into the General Factor Of Politics.


Speaking of politics, a fruitful digression: what the heck was up with the Ashley Todd mugging hoax in 2008?

Back in the 2008 election, a McCain campaigner claimed (falsely, it would later turn out) to have been assaulted by an Obama supporter. She said he slashed a “B” (for “Barack”) on her face with a knife. This got a lot of coverage, and according to Wikipedia:

John Moody, executive vice president at Fox News, commented in a blog on the network’s website that “this incident could become a watershed event in the 11 days before the election,” but also warned that “if the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain’s quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.”

Wait. One Democrat, presumably not acting on Obama’s direct orders, attacks a Republican woman. And this is supposed to alter the outcome of the entire election? In what universe does one crime by a deranged psychopath change whether Obama’s tax policy or job policy or bombing-scary-foreigners policy is better or worse than McCain’s?

Even if we’re willing to make the irresponsible leap from “Obama is supported by psychopaths, therefore he’s probably a bad guy,” there are like a hundred million people on each side. Psychopaths are usually estimated at about 1% of the population, so any movement with a million people will already have 10,000 psychopaths. Proving the existence of a single one changes nothing.

I think insofar as this affected the election – and everyone seems to have agreed that it might have – it hit President Obama with a burst of bad karma. Obama something something psychopath with a knife. Regardless of the exact content of those something somethings, is that the kind of guy you want to vote for?

Then when it was discovered to be a hoax, it was McCain something something race-baiting hoaxer. Now he’s got the bad karma!

This sort of conflation between a cause and its supporters really only makes sense in the emotivist model of arguing. I mean, this shouldn’t even get dignified with the name ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem fallacy is “McCain had sex with a goat, therefore whatever he says about taxes is invalid.” At least it’s still the same guy. This is something the philosophy textbooks can’t bring themselves to believe really exists, even as a fallacy.

But if there’s a General Factor Of McCain, then anything bad remotely connected to the guy – goat sex, lying campaigners, whatever – reflects on everything else about him.

This is the same pattern we see in Israel and Palestine. How many times have you seen a news story like this one: “Israeli speaker hounded off college campus by pro-Palestinian partisans throwing fruit. Look at the intellectual bankruptcy of the pro-Palestinian cause!” It’s clearly intended as an argument for something other than just not throwing fruit at people. The causation seems to go something like “These particular partisans are violating the usual norms of civil discussion, therefore they are bad, therefore something associated with Palestine is bad, therefore your General Factor of Pro-Israeliness should become more strongly positive, therefore it’s okay for Israel to bomb Gaza.” Not usually said in those exact words, but the thread can be traced.


Here is a prediction of this model: we will be obsessed with what concepts we can connect to other concepts, even when the connection is totally meaningless.

Suppose I say: “Opposing Israel is anti-Semitic”. Why? Well, the Israelis are mostly Jews, so in a sense by definition being anti- them is “anti-Semitic”, broadly defined. Also, p(opposes Israel|is anti-Semitic) is probably pretty high, which sort of lends some naive plausibility to the idea that p(is anti-Semitic|opposes Israel) is at least higher than it otherwise could be.

Maybe we do our research and we find exactly what percent of opponents of Israel endorse various anti-Semitic statements like “I hate all Jews” or “Hitler had some bright ideas”. We’ve replaced the symbol with the substance. Problem solved, right?

Maybe not. In the same sense that people can agree on all of the characteristics of Pluto – its diameter, the eccentricity of its orbit, its number of moons – and still disagree on the question “Is Pluto a planet”, one can agree on every characteristic of every Israel opponent and still disagree on the definitional question “Is opposing Israel anti-Semitic?”

(fact: it wasn’t until proofreading this essay that I realized I had originally written “Is Israel a planet?” and “Is opposing Pluto anti-Semitic?” I would like to see Jonathan Haidt hypnotize people until they can come up with positive arguments for those propositions.)

What’s the point of this useless squabble over definitions?

I think it’s about drawing a line between the concept “anti-Semitism” and “oppose Israel”. If your head is screwed on right, you assign anti-Semitism some very bad karma. So if we can stick a thick line between “anti-Semitism” and “oppose Israel”, then you’re going have very bad feelings about opposition to Israel and your General Factor Of Pro-Israeliness will go up.

Notice that this model is transitive, but shouldn’t be.

That is, let’s say we’re arguing over the definition of anti-Semitism, and I say “anti-Semitism just means anything that hurts Jews”. This is a dumb definition, but let’s roll with it.

First, I load “anti-Semitism” with lots of negative affect. Hitler was anti-Semitic. The pogroms in Russia were anti-Semitic. The Spanish Inquisition was anti-Semitic. Okay, negative affect achieved.

Then I connect “wants to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine” to “anti-Semitism”. Now wanting to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine has lots of negative affect attached to it.

It sounds dumb when you put it like that, but when you put it like “You’re anti-Semitic for wanting to end the occupation” it’s a pretty damaging argument.

This is trying to be transitive. It’s trying to say “anti-occupation = anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism = evil, therefore anti-occupation = evil”. If this were arithmetic, it would work. But there’s no Transitive Property Of Concepts. If anything, concepts are more like sets. The logic is “anti-occupation is a member of the set anti-Semitic, the set anti-Semitic contains members that are evil, therefore anti-occupation is evil”, which obviously doesn’t check out.

(compare: “I am a member of the set ‘humans’, the set ‘humans’ contains the Pope, therefore I am the Pope”.)

Anti-Semitism is generally considered evil because a lot of anti-Semitic things involve killing or dehumanizing Jews. Opposing the Israel occupation of Palestine doesn’t kill or dehumanize Jews, so even if we call it “anti-Semitic” by definition, there’s no reason for our usual bad karma around anti-Semitism to transfer over. But by an unfortunate rhetorical trick, it does – you can gather up bad karma into “anti-Semitic” and then shoot it at the “occupation of Palestine” issue just by clever use of definitions.

This means that if you can come up with sufficiently clever definitions and convince your opponent to accept them, you can win any argument by default just by having a complex system of mirrors in place to reflect bad karma from genuinely evil things to the things you want to tar as evil. This is essentially the point I make in Words, Words, Words.

If we kinda tweak the definition of “anti-Semitism” to be “anything that inconveniences Jews”, we can pull a trick where we leverage people’s dislike of Hitler to make them support the Israeli occupation of Palestine – but in order to do that, we need to get everyone on board with our slightly non-standard definition. Likewise, the social justice movement insists on their own novel definitions of words like “racism” that don’t match common usage, any dictionary, or etymological history – but which do perfectly describe a mirror that reflects bad karma toward opponents of social justice while making it impossible to reflect any bad karma back. Overreliance on this mechanism explains why so many social justice debates end up being about whether a particular mirror can be deployed to transfer bad karma in a specific case (“are trans people privileged?!”) rather than any feature of the real world.

But they are hardly alone. Compare: “Is such an such an organization a cult?”, “Is such and such a policy socialist?”, “Is abortion or capital punishment or war murder?” All entirely about whether we’re allowed to reflect bad karma from known sources of evil to other topics under discussion.

Look around you. Just look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for? Correct. The answer is The Worst Argument In The World. Only now, we can explain why it works.


From the self-esteem literature, I gather that the self is also a concept that can have good or bad karma. From the cognitive dissonance literature, I gather that the self is actively involved in maintaining good karma around itself through as many biases as it can manage to deploy.

I’ve mentioned this study before. Researchers make victims participants fill out a questionnaire about their romantic relationships. Then they pretend to “grade” the questionnaire, actually assigning scores at random. Half the participants are told their answers indicate they have the tendency to be very faithful to their partner. The other half are told they have very low faithfulness and their brains just aren’t built for fidelity. Then they ask the participants victims their opinion on staying faithful in a relationship – very important, moderately important, or not so important?

There is a strong signal of people who are told they are bad at fidelity to state fidelity is unimportant, and another strong signal of people who are told they are especially faithful stating that fidelity is a great and noble virtue that must be protected.

The researchers conclude that people want to have high self-esteem. If I am terrible at fidelity, and fidelity is the most important virtue, that makes me a terrible person. If I am terrible at fidelity and fidelity doesn’t matter, I’m fine. If I am great at fidelity, and fidelity is the most important virtue, I can feel pretty good about myself.

This doesn’t seem too surprising. It’s just the more subtle version of the effect where white people are a lot more likely to be white supremacists than members of any other race. Everyone likes to hear that they’re great. The question is whether they can defend it and fit it in with their other ideas. The answer is “usually yes, because people are capable of pretty much any contortion of logic you can imagine and a lot that you can’t”.

I had a bad experience when I was younger where a bunch of feminists attacked and threatened me because of something I wrote. It left me kind of scarred. More importantly, the shape of that scar was a big anticorrelated line between self-esteem and the “feminism” concept. If feminism has lots of good karma, then I have lots of bad karma, because I am a person feminists hate. If feminists have lots of bad karma, then I look good by comparison, the same way it’s pretty much a badge of honor to be disliked by Nazis. The result was a permanent haze of bad karma around “feminism” unconnected to any specific feminist idea, which I have to be constantly on the watch for if I want to be able to evaluate anything related to feminism fairly or rationally.

Good or bad karma, when applied to yourself, looks like high or low self-esteem; when applied to groups, it looks like high or low status. In the giant muddle of a war for status that we politely call “society”, this makes beliefs into weapons and the karma loading of concepts into the difference between lionization and dehumanization.

The Trope Namer for emotivist arguments is “ethnic tension”, and although it’s most obvious in the case of literal ethnicities like the Israelis and the Palestinians, the ease with which concepts become attached to different groups creates a whole lot of “proxy ethnicites”. I’ve written before about how American liberals and conservatives are seeming less and less like people who happen to have different policy prescriptions, and more like two different tribes engaged in an ethnic conflict quickly approaching Middle East level hostility. More recently, a friend on Facebook described the-thing-whose-name-we-do-not-speak-lest-it-appear and-destroy-us-all, the one involving reproductively viable worker ants, as looking more like an ethnic conflict about who is oppressing whom than any real difference in opinions.

Once a concept has joined up with an ethnic group, either a real one or a makeshift one, it’s impossible to oppose the concept without simultaneously lowering the status of the ethnic group, which is going to start at least a little bit of a war. Worse, once a concept has joined up with an ethnic group, one of the best ways to argue against the concept is to dehumanize the ethnic group it’s working with. Dehumanizing an ethnic group has always been easy – just associate them with a disgust reaction, portray them as conventionally unattractive and unlovable and full of all the worst human traits – and now it is profitable as well, since it’s one of the fastest ways to load bad karma into an idea you dislike.


According to The Virtues Of Rationality:

The tenth virtue is precision. One comes and says: The quantity is between 1 and 100. Another says: the quantity is between 40 and 50. If the quantity is 42 they are both correct, but the second prediction was more useful and exposed itself to a stricter test. What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The narrowest statements slice deepest, the cutting edge of the blade. As with the map, so too with the art of mapmaking: The Way is a precise Art. Do not walk to the truth, but dance. On each and every step of that dance your foot comes down in exactly the right spot. Each piece of evidence shifts your beliefs by exactly the right amount, neither more nor less. What is exactly the right amount? To calculate this you must study probability theory. Even if you cannot do the math, knowing that the math exists tells you that the dance step is precise and has no room in it for your whims.

The official desciption is of literal precision, as specific numerical precision in probability updates. But is there a secret interpretation of this virtue?

Precision as separation. Once you’re debating “religion”, you’ve already lost. Precision as sticking to a precise question, like “Is the first chapter of Genesis literally true?” or “Does Buddhist meditation help treat anxiety disorders?” and trying to keep these issues as separate from any General Factor Of Religiousness as humanly possible. Precision such that “God the supernatural Creator exists” and “God the order and beauty in the Universe exists” are as carefully sequestered from one another as “Did the defendant kill his wife?” and “Did the defendant kill the President?”

I want to end by addressing a point a commenter made in my last post on motte-and-bailey:

In the real world, the particular abstract questions aren’t what matter – the groups and people are what matter. People get things done, and they aren’t particularly married to particular abstract concepts, they are married to their values and their compatriots. In order to deal with reality, we must attack and defend groups and individuals. That does not mean forsaking logic. It requires dealing with obfuscating tactics like those you outline above, but that’s not even a real downside, because if you flee into the narrow, particular questions all you’re doing is covering your eyes to avoid perceiving the the monsters that will still make mincemeat of your attempts to change things.

I don’t entirely disagree with this. But I think we’ve been over this territory before.

The world is a scary place, full of bad people who want to hurt you, and in the state of nature you’re pretty much obligated to engage in whatever it takes to survive.

But instead of sticking with the state of nature, we have the ability to form communities built on mutual disarmament and mutual cooperation. Despite artificially limiting themselves, these communities become stronger than the less-scrupulous people outside them, because they can work together effectively and because they can boast a better quality of life that attracts their would-be enemies to join them. At least in the short term, these communities can resist races to the bottom and prevent the use of personally effective but negative-sum strategies.

One such community is the kind where members try to stick to rational discussion as much as possible. These communities are definitely better able to work together, because they have a powerful method of resolving empirical disputes. They’re definitely better quality of life, because you don’t have to deal with constant insult wars and personal attacks. And the existence of such communities provides positive externalities to the outside world, since they are better able to resolve difficult issues and find truth.

But forming a rationalist community isn’t just about having the will to discuss things well. It’s also about having the ability. Overcoming bias is really hard, and so the members of such a community need to be constantly trying to advance the art and figure out how to improve their discussion tactics.

As such, it’s acceptable to try to determine and discuss negative patterns of argument, even if those patterns of argument are useful and necessary weapons in a state of nature. If anything, understanding them makes them easier to use if you’ve got to use them, and makes them easier to recognize and counter from others, giving a slight advantage in battle if that’s the kind of thing you like. But moving them from unconscious to conscious also gives you the crucial choice of when to deploy them and allows people to try to root out ethnic tension in particular communities.

All In All, Another Brick In The Motte

One of the better things I’ve done with this blog was help popularize Nicholas Shackel’s “motte and bailey doctrine”. But I’ve recently been reminded I didn’t do a very good job of it. The original discussion is in the middle of a post so controversial that it probably can’t be linked in polite company – somewhat dampening its ability to popularize anything.

In order to rectify the error, here is a nice clean post on the concept that adds a couple of further thoughts to the original formulation.

The original Shackel paper is intended as a critique of post-modernism. Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Some classic examples:

1. The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

2. Or…”If you don’t accept Jesus, you will burn in Hell forever.” (bailey) But isn’t that horrible and inhuman? “Well, Hell is just another word for being without God, and if you choose to be without God, God will be nice and let you make that choice.” (motte) Oh, well that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m going to keep rejecting Jesus. “But if you reject Jesus, you will BURN in HELL FOREVER and your body will be GNAWED BY WORMS.” But didn’t you just… “Metaphorical worms of godlessness!”

3. The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don’t really like feminism very much, they object “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!” (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.

4. Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.

5. Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.

6. Likewise, singularitarians who predict with certainty that there will be a singularity, because “singularity” just means “a time when technology is so different that it is impossible to imagine” – and really, who would deny that technology will probably get really weird (motte)? But then every other time they use “singularity”, they use it to refer to a very specific scenario of intelligence explosion, which is far less certain and needs a lot more evidence before you can predict it (bailey).

The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.

Recently, a friend (I think it was Robby Bensinger) pointed out something I’d totally missed. The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a perfect mirror image of my other favorite fallacy, the weak man fallacy.

Weak-manning is a lot like straw-manning, except that instead of debating a fake, implausibly stupid opponent, you’re debating a real, unrepresentatively stupid opponent. For example, “Religious people say that you should kill all gays. But this is evil. Therefore, religion is wrong and barbaric. Therefore we should all be atheists.” There are certainly religious people who think that you should kill all gays, but they’re a small fraction of all religious people and probably not the ones an unbiased observer would hold up as the best that religion has to offer.

If you’re debating the Pope or something, then when you weak-man, you’re unfairly replacing a strong position (the Pope’s) with a weak position (that of the guy who wants to kill gays) to make it more attackable.

But in motte and bailey, you’re unfairly replacing a weak position (there is a supernatural creator who can make people out of ribs) with a strong position (there is order and beauty in the universe) in order to make it more defensible.

So weak-manning is replacing a strong position with a weak position to better attack it; motte-and-bailey is replacing a weak position with a strong position to better defend it.

This means people who know both terms are at constant risk of arguments of the form “You’re weak-manning me!” “No, you’re motte-and-baileying me!“.

Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. Then I can accuse you of making life easy for yourself by attacking the weakest statement anyone vaguely associated with feminism has ever pushed. And you can accuse me if making life too easy for myself by defending the most uncontroversially obvious statement I can get away with.

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

PS: Nicholas Shackel, original inventor of the term, weighs in.

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