Open threads at the Open Thread tab every Sunday and Wednesday

OT15: Open Relationship

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

1. I’m off to California, so no blogging for a while. I’ll see some of you at Ruby and Miranda’s wedding on Saturday. Everyone else, I will have a post on meetup times up no later than this weekend. Yell at me if I forget.

2. Comments of the week: Douglas Knight explains heritability statistics, Gwern gives an economics answer to a statistics question, a health care economist discusses why it’s a weird market and how to improve it

3. I think I have room for another ad of about the same size and shape as the MealSquare one in around the same area. If anyone wants to pay for such, email me with an offer. For comparison, the MealSquares ad has gotten about 700 clicks a month.

Remember, no race and gender on the open thread. Ozy will put up a parallel open thread over at their place for you to talk about that.

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793 Responses to OT15: Open Relationship

  1. Daniel Speyer says:

    There’s a drug question that’s been bugging me for a while and this seemed like the place to ask.

    As I understand it, alcohol and benzodiazepines target basically the same parts of the brain, and have roughly the same primary effects. They’re both routinely used to treat anxiety disorders, PTSD, and similar problems.

    They’re also both addictive and have various harmful side effects.

    Presumably alcohol’s side effects are worse because doctors hardly ever recommend it.

    Presumably benzos’ side effects are worse because they require a prescription.

    I notice that I am confused.

    How do they compare? Does the whole thing make sense in the end?

    • Rachael says:

      I’m not a doctor or anything, but AFAIK the inconsistencies relating to alcohol are because it’s so old and so entrenched in culture already: if it were only discovered recently, it would probably be illegal or very tightly controlled.

      • Cheers says:

        Alcohol might not be available by prescription. (I like this article of Scott’s because it provides support for my habit of going online to self-diagnose my problems, then going to to see what I can buy on Amazon that will solve them.)

    • DanielLC says:

      Alcohol isn’t legal because it’s safe. Alcohol is legal because people reacted badly when it was made illegal. I don’t know for certain why the Prohibition ended, but I really doubt that it was due to the FDA finding alcohol to be safe.

      • Lupis42 says:

        One of the major contributors to the end of prohibition was the rising need for tax revenue. Before prohibition, taxes on alcohol, especially distilled alcohol, were the primary federal revenue generator.

        • Meredith L. Patterson says:

          That alcohol was a major source of tax revenue should have surprised approximately no one, since the sort of measuring equipment that later went on to make chemical engineering a viable career first got cobbled together in the 1600s when distillation became a major source of revenue in the Low Countries. This is an old and entrenched method of taxing a population. (Touring a distillation museum with a chemical engineer is also one of those experiences everyone should have at least once.)

      • Oscar_Cunningham says:

        Another factor is that alcohol is very easy to make, so it’s very hard to stop people from doing so.

      • Deiseach says:

        Apart from the popular image of bootleggers and “cafés” selling alcohol under the cover of selling tea and coffee, there was blatant abuse of the existing laws, very much “one law for the rich and another for the poor” which eventually undermined the experiment. From Chesterton’s collection of essays on “What I Saw In America”, when he visited in 1922:

        I went to America with some notion of not discussing Prohibition. But I soon found that well-to-do Americans were only too delighted to discuss it over the nuts and wine. They were even willing, if necessary, to dispense with the nuts. I am far from sneering at this; having a general philosophy which need not here be expounded, but which may be symbolised by saying that monkeys can enjoy nuts but only men can enjoy wine. But if I am to deal with Prohibition, there is no doubt of the first thing to be said about it. The first thing to be said about it is that it does not exist. It is to some extent enforced among the poor; at any rate it was intended to be enforced among the poor; though even among them I fancy it is much evaded. It is certainly not enforced among the rich; and I doubt whether it was intended to be. I suspect that this has always happened whenever this negative notion has taken hold of some particular province or tribe.

        …Now my primary objection to Prohibition is not based on any arguments against it, but on the one argument for it. I need nothing more for its condemnation than the only thing that is said in its defence. It is said by capitalists all over America; and it is very clearly and correctly reported by Mr. Campbell himself. The argument is that employees work harder, and therefore employers get richer. That this idea should be taken calmly, by itself, as the test of a problem of liberty, is in itself a final testimony to the presence of slavery. It shows that people have completely forgotten that there is any other test except the servile test. Employers are willing that workmen should have exercise, as it may help them to do more work. They are even willing that workmen should have leisure; for the more intelligent capitalists can see that this also really means that they can do more work. But they are not in any way willing that workmen should have fun; for fun only increases the happiness and not the utility of the worker. Fun is freedom; and in that sense is an end in itself. It concerns the man not as a worker but as a citizen, or even as a soul; and the soul in that sense is an end in itself. That a man shall have a reasonable amount of comedy and poetry and even fantasy in his life is part of his spiritual health, which is for the service of God; and not merely for his mechanical health, which is now bound to the service of man. The very test adopted has all the servile implication; the test of what we can get out of him, instead of the test of what he can get out of life.

        …But when some of the rich Americans gravely tell us that their drinking cannot be interfered with, because they are only using up their existing stocks of wine, we may well be disposed to smile. When I was there, at any rate, they were using them up very fast; and with no apparent fears about the supply.

        • Anonymous` says:

          I went to America with some notion of not discussing Prohibition. But I soon found that well-to-do Americans were only too delighted to discuss it over the nuts and wine. They were even willing, if necessary, to dispense with the nuts.

          Off-topic but potentially interesting: I read this, immediately reached over for the can of mixed nuts on my desk, dumped all that was left (about 2x the amount I usually eat) out onto a paper towel in front of me, and ate about five of them before I consciously made the connection between what I had read and what I had done.

          • Anonymous` says:

            Also I’m a relatively well-to-do American (except in income maybe; see also and don’t drink. Normally I would dismiss this as anecdotal evidence (and a century after the fact!), but since my opponent here is Chesterton I’m gonna wave this in his face.

          • Anonymous` says:

            I really want the ability to edit my comments.

            The very test adopted has all the servile implication; the test of what we can get out of him, instead of the test of what he can get out of life.

            I keep getting the strong impression Chesterton’s response to the prisoner’s dilemma is just to tell some other people to be cooperate-bot. Right now, if you don’t deal with other people primarily in self-profitable ways (if you cooperate) you get your lunch eaten by those who do (defect), and defect-defect, while it could get worse in the future, is currently *really good* for Adam Smith’s reasons. And sure it was worse in Chesterton’s time, but geez man, if you want it to get better advocate Tit-for-Tat-With-Eventual-Forgiveness, or Source-Reading (a more feasible approximation: hugely increased openness/publicness of all your dealings with anyone, so others can get a feel for your source from your other dealings). Something that would *actually incentivize the defectors to cooperate*.

            I’m starting to vaguely remember this point already being made by Scott; if it was I apologize for my plagiarism.

          • Nornagest says:

            This is a bit of a tangent, but “economic class is determined by income” is the sort of statement that flits between “false” and “interesting only to statisticians” depending on context. If you’re talking about economic class in an individual context, roughly ten times out of ten you’re actually interested in something that’s better proxied by education and family history (on the social side) or spending and credit patterns (on the economic side).

    • zz says:

      Alcohol has been used for many centuries by many cultures; it could be more dangerous than a lot of prescription or prescribed drugs, but kept with minimal legal restriction because of its place in culture.

      Date rape drugs (e.g. flunitrazepam) are benzodiazepines.

      Erecting a legal barrier probably reduces benzodiazepine abuse (most benzo abusers abuse multiple drugs, and use benzos to intensify their effects or mitigate side-effects); in particular, formulating benzos in slow-release preparations reduces their abuse liability without reducing their anxiolytic effects. The same cannot be said of ethanol.

      • lmm says:

        Have we tried slow-release alcohol?

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Hello, there. New to SSC, and I’m using my first post to point out that if being a date rape drug is a strike against, I think we have to concede that purely by volume of successes, ethanol is the most often used and successful date rape drug in the history of the world.

        If we eliminated alcohol, and I mean Gnon or the deity of your choice just said, “Alcohol no longer in any way affects human being differently than water,” or if we eliminated every single other date rape drug, which do you think would most effectively reduce date rapes? 🙂

        I am not a Prohibitionist of any kind. Just pointing out the problem.

        • Irrelevant says:

          Obvious difference is that people know when they’re drinking alcohol.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Yes, they do. This makes alcohol of less utility to people who are okay with carrying illegal drugs and slipping them to unsuspecting victims. On the other hand, it also makes alcohol of higher utility to people who aren’t willing to do that, but are okay with egging victims on until they drink enough to be vulnerable. Again, by volume (if you’ll pardon the expression) advantage: alcohol.

          • People don’t seem to have reliable knowledge of when they’re drinking alcohol. That’s why it’s possible to spike drinks.

          • Airgap says:

            Can you tell whether the cocktail I gave you has 1 or 2 jiggers of rum, after you’ve already had 3? I’m guessing “Not reliably” but I haven’t tried. Sounds like a job for Gwern. This is probably his favorite drinking game.

          • Anonymous says:


            I’ve little doublt that _I_ can, as a very experienced drinker, but I don’t think that the average young person could. Nor could I have done so in my early 20s.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Presumably, there will always be a demand of GABAA positive allosteric modulator drugs for recreational uses, because of the way people’s brains work.

      Ethanol is the oldest, the cheapest, the most culturally acceptable, the easiest to manufacture and therefore the most difficult to regulate and arguably the safer (at least in terms of acute toxicity) of these drugs, therefore, from a public health and crime prevention point of view, it is probably better to keep ethanol as a recreational drug and tightly regulate all the others.

      • fubarobfusco says:

        If nothing else, the human body is somewhat better at rejecting acute alcohol overdose — by emesis — than with some other drugs.

    • anon says:

      “A cynic might conclude that which rituals are prohibited is not so much a matter of morality, as habit.”

  2. Rachael says:

    I wonder if it would be possible for someone to write a plugin (like the new comments one) which allows people to subscribe to subthreads, rather than subscribing to a whole 800-comment thread, or checking manually for replies.

  3. calef says:

    Can we talk about the academic job market/PhD culture?

    Some anecdata: I’m pretty sure everyone in my cohort (STEM PhD program, big R1 research school) had eyes on tenure-track positions when they were applying to grad school. I’m pretty sure just about everyone still had eyes on tenure track jobs near the beginning of my first year.

    I can say with near certainty that significantly less than 50% of my cohort wanted to stay in academia after their first year in grad school.

    Let’s get some numbers. First hit on google that actually supplies easy numbers is Northwestern’s PhD completion data. About ~72% of people that start PhDs in the hard sciences finish them at Northwestern. From this article in the atlantic, it looks like about ~10% of Biology PhDs end up with tenure track jobs after graduation. Let’s call this an optimistic upper bound. A stack exchange answer hand-waves the actual percentage being closer to 2%. Call that a lower bound.

    So ~5% of the ~70% of people that originally sought to get PhDs end up being tenure track professors. This roughly agrees with estimates I’ve seen elsewhere (non-tenure track jobs are a thing too, but seem to be more of an issue in non-STEM fields).

    Are PhD students insane? Am I insane? Was I pathologically lied to about my chances of succeeding at what I initially sought out to succeed in? Is there a solution here? Is there even a problem? (Out of curiosity, how familiar-sounding is this story so far to other PhD holders out there?)

    Reason 1 this might not be a problem: People seeking PhDs are probably aware they have only a slim chance of getting a tenure-track job, but overall job placement for PhDs is something insane like 99% (at least for STEM folk). So if academia doesn’t work out, industry is always around the corner. But I suspect people still pathologically overestimate their chances of success in academia, at least initially. My gut reaction is that a huge number of people are pursuing PhDs that would have been much better off just immediately going to work in industry, or even just getting a Masters and then going to industry.

    I was going to put a Reason 2 but then I couldn’t think of one because everything kept circling back to “If this doesn’t work out, I can just bail and work in industry”. But I suppose I’m not convinced that [PhD + horizontal shift to industry job] is actually an acceptable bet when compared against [6+ years of industry experience in what you actually wanted to be doing].

    There’s also pretty big asymmetry in job placement across different tiers of schools which confounds the hell out of everything. This at best explains why PhD students stick it out in top school, and at worst indicates that lower tier schools are even worse off than I’ve described (perhaps significantly?).

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I get the impression we should probably be more specific than “STEM”; I mean, it’s somewhat of a useful category at least, but e.g. I expect mathematics and biology are going to give you pretty different results.

      • calef says:

        Well, I think tenure-track job placement is fairly similar across disciplines (they’re all rate limited by hiring freezes and professors that never retire).

        I think the relevant slice is, among those people that don’t get tenure track jobs, are they [doing something in industry directly related to their PhD work] or [not doing something in industry directly related to their PhD work].

        I suspect that Chemistry/Biology/CS will have considerably higher percentages in the former category, and Physics/Math will probably be dominated by the latter category (feel free to lump certain types of CS theory in with Math).

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Ah, I see; I had a pretty different distinction in mind. You initially talked about who wanted to remain in academia after a few years of grad school, so I wasn’t thinking about how likely that was, or what you would do if you didn’t, but rather how desirable it was to stay in academia in the first place. Basically I was thinking that in biology as opposed to math, you’re doing a lot more shitwork for a lot less credit…

        • Douglas Knight says:

          No, the job placement rates vary hugely between fields. Supply and demand just have nothing to do with each other. You seem to imagine that the system was in balance in, say, 1980, but then demand froze for the reason you mention. But that is completely wrong. Perhaps that is correct for math, where both professors and grad students are funded by teaching, but in biology, both are funded by research grants. It is the grant funder who sets the ratio of grad students to professors. And I believe that biology is a much larger proportion of grant funding than in 1980.

          • calef says:

            I think you were reading too much into what I said. I agree that supply and demand are decoupled here. My point was just that the rate at which new tenure track positions are being created is far outstripped by the rate at which new PhDs are being minted (see the figure text here).

            Out of curiosity, I looked up some data on the asymmetry of percentages of tenure-track-job-holders between different disciplines, and it is a bit across the board.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I was objecting to your first paragraph, both the part inside and outside parentheses. Your chart demonstrates that the situation is different across fields. Mathematicians have a much better chance than biologists. The parenthetical reason should be uniform across fields, but the fields are not uniform. I think that reason is a (perhaps the) reason that the situation in math is very different than 40 years ago, but I don’t think it is very important for the market in biology.

          • I’m not sure how significant it is, but note that the rules of the game changed substantially when the retirement at 65 provision of the standard tenure contract was ruled unenforceable. That must have substantially lowered the rate at which new tenure track positions became available. Of course, it may have been long enough ago so that the system has entirely adjusted to the change by now.

    • Murphy says:

      One side of it may be that by the time you finish a PHD you’ve been in uni for almost 10 years. You have a fair idea how things work, you know the culture, *it’s not daunting or scary*.

      You’ve spent almost 10 years of your life in a system where this small group are ultra-high status.

      And you’re surprised that people then disproportionately attempt to join this small ultra-high status group in the environment they’re used to and understand rather than taking their chances moving into a totally different system/culture?

      People value things other than money, like status, and they also value familiarity and safety. Plus most PHD’s are tap dancing on the tip of maslows hierarchy of needs. Starving is not a worry at that point.

      • Vaniver says:

        This is one side of it, and I totally agree that people overvalue academia. If you’re good at math, you really ought to intern in finance or programming or so on before deciding to keep doing academic math.

        But that’s not what calef is talking about. They’re talking about something happening in the first year of grad school. I suspect that’s a combination of:

        1. Grad school is harder than undergrad, and the competition is stiffer. Every grad student was in the top third of their undergrad program; now a third of them are in the lower third of their grad program. If everyone knows that approximately 10% of them will survive in academia, everyone outside of the top 20% or so should probably start giving up now.
        2. Age / restlessness. I started a company on the side when I was finishing up my undergrad, and it made it very difficult to be motivated to do bullshit undergrad schoolwork. (Challenging and interesting problems remained as motivating as ever.) It seems likely that at 23/24/etc., people start looking around and realizing that academia is not moving as quickly or rewarding them as much as they would like. Most grad students aren’t living in campus housing; it’s an off-campus apartment, maybe they have an SO they’re living with, etc., and they’re starting to realize how much worse / poorer student living is than adult living. If your dumber friends from undergrad are making engineer salary and you’re making barista salary, I suspect that leads to questioning your life choices.

      • LTP says:

        Nobody has mentioned what I think is one of the primary motivators: idealism. They want to contribute to humanity’s knowledge in a “pure” way, just for the sake of knowledge. Not to build some cool tech for a company for a profit.

      • One further point that may be relevant …

        Adam Smith argued that professions with a wide dispersion of outcomes tend to be underpaid on average, because young adults at the age at which they are choosing a profession tend to be optimists, to assume that they are the ones who will end up with the high incomes.

    • Fion says:

      I reckon there isn’t a problem. I’m currently applying for physics PhDs, and, like most, have my eyes on staying in academia afterwards. I know that statistically my chances of this are low (in fact we were given a talk in our final year of ugrad for all of us who were considering PhDs, in which they made sure we knew those statistics, so we weren’t “pathologically lied to” either). Your “Reason 1” sounds very sensible, but here’s another idea: I want to do a PhD. It’s not a hurdle I need to get over in order to get into academia; it’s what I want to spend the next few years of my life doing, so the time won’t be wasted if I decide (or am forced) to go into industry or teaching or even something completely unrelated. Planning for the future is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve just got to take life as it comes.

      • Troy says:

        Right, my feelings are similar. In grad school my fellow students would frequently complain about being a grad student, how little they were paid, etc.; and I thought “I’m getting paid to read, learn, write, and teach about interesting topics — what better gig is there?” If you’re good enough that you can then get paid even more to do that and have job security, awesome! If not, hey, it was fun while it lasted.

        Obviously the above does not apply for students whose programs are not funded.

        • onyomi says:

          I felt this way too, but I also did not have a realistic idea of what the academic job market was really like, especially since I was at a top program, so I figured “even if I don’t get a tenure track job at Harvard, I can certainly get a tenure track job in some reasonably nice place to live.”

          Turns out even that, even for people at top programs, even for people with prestigious postdocs, great references, etc. it is still an INCREDIBLY nerve-wracking and difficult process (I would literally say my job hunt took more out of me, mentally and physically, than writing my dissertation). And once you finally get that job you are still paid much less than most professionals your age. I have right now an academic job most would consider pretty good (TT at a well-endowed SLAC), but can still barely make ends meet.

          Yes, I have an interesting and rewarding job many would envy, but I still have almost no free time between teaching, research, conference attendance, etc., and I am still a hyper-educated person in my thirties who worries about paying my car note. And don’t even get me started on the adjuncts. If I can barely make ends meet I honestly don’t know how they even hang in there at rates like that (and considering they often have to drive around to many schools). Goes to show just how strong the idealistic pull to academia must be, when you’re a PhD who’d be better-served, financially, by working at Starbucks.

          I am a humanities PhD, so it may be somewhat different, particularly in that there aren’t as many lucrative private sector alternatives awaiting me if I decide to leave academia, but I think the fact that most grad students, no matter how hard they try to be realistic and informed, will still underestimate how soul-crushing, insanely competitive, and underpaying the academic job market is, probably holds.

          • Troy says:

            Yes, I think people often don’t have a realistic enough idea of the job market, and while I still think academia is awesome even taking that into account, it’s important to be informed.

            (I’m also a humanities Ph.D., for what it’s worth.)

    • Lupis42 says:

      If you model aspiring professors as aspiring actors, it comes out about the same – a few extremely high status folks at the top, a medium sized bunch of fairly well off professionals in the middle, and a huge mass of hopefuls waiting tables and trying to get in. It’s a pretty classic example of a tournament model where there are huge returns to being just a little bit better than everyone else.

      • onyomi says:

        This is very, very true, especially in my field of the humanities. I interviewed for TT jobs at a few different Ivy League institutions, each of which I failed to get, probably because another candidate was just slightly better than me in some parameter (usually experience, I think, though it could also have been charisma or something). This seemed reassuring at first, as one might think “well, if I was among the top two choices for a job at Princeton then certainly I can get a job at the state college in my hometown.”

        Not necessarily. Especially in my field there are a very small number of extremely desirable jobs and then a whole bunch of others, but those others do not hire from the same pool of candidates. They figure (accurately) you will leave as soon as you can get one of those desirable jobs, so they hire people with less “fancy” credentials. This means it is quite possible to almost get a tenure-track job at Yale and yet be unemployed next year.

    • Sarah says:

      I got restless around the first year in grad school. It wasn’t really just that it was hard; it was the combination of the difficulty and the *dullness.* Everybody had a one-track mind, laser-focused on math and nothing but math, and I…do not. It might be a personal weakness on my part, but it’s a *persistent* part of my personality and I figured sooner or later I had better adapt my life to it. And then I started reading Peter Thiel essays and was convinced that I could do more good for the world in industry than academia, and that was that.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I have a friend who is much smarter than me. The ironic part is, they think I am much smarter than them. The reason for this is that they went on to graduate school and do some very interesting and important scientific things, whereas I didn’t have the sticktoitiveness, and left science for business because I used up my non-boredom after about three years in undergraduate science. I know a lot more different things than they do. They know way more about the things we both know about. We each think the other is better at doing hard things.

        It refills, slowly, but if I use it up, it’s really hard for me to concentrate on whatever it is I used it up for until it does.

    • Joe Teicher says:

      >But I suppose I’m not convinced that [PhD + horizontal shift to industry job] is actually an acceptable bet when compared against [6+ years of industry experience in what you actually wanted to be doing].

      My mom worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry for a long time and she told me that it was just impossible to move beyond a certain level without a PhD. I think that is different for different industries at least for some PhD trumps masters + experience, for some reason.

      What I really don’t understand is why do so many STEM grad students want to have a career in academia? My impression of academic science is that it mostly involves begging the government for money so you can do an experiment so you can pay to publish an article about it that no one will ever read. And the grants are small and short term so you always have the fear that in a year you won’t have enough money to fund your lab and you’ll have to lay people off. Does that life seem more appealing than a higher paying job in industry where you don’t have to continually beg for resources? Or is it just that most grad students want to study stuff with no practical application?

      I seriously considered pursuing a physics PhD before I realized that I could go straight into finance after undergrad and do much better. But even when I wanted to be a physicist an academic career was never my ultimate goal.

      • 4gravitons says:

        I’d imagine it’s quite different in fields where there are industry jobs that still involve doing science. If you’re a molecular biologist, yeah, you can probably do exactly the same thing in industry. If you’re a condensed matter physicist, same deal.

        If you’re a high energy physicist, having a PhD might help you get finance jobs…but it’s possible that’s just a bubble, finance firms overestimating the effect of hiring physicists due to a few recent successes. If physicists are currently better at finance, then presumably the reasons why they’re better can be captured in a dedicated finance curriculum which will in turn train people better than a physics PhD will. Regardless, you’re not going to be doing what you signed up for. Astronomers seem to be in even lower demand by finance, while having essentially the same problem.

        • Kevin says:

          A high energy physics PhD typically entails significant experience not just in data analysis, but also at least one of: electronics, materials science, software, or computing. Most data science and big tech companies have positions in which a high energy physics PhD can perform well. The idea that finance is the only field for this degree outside of academia just isn’t true these days. You probably won’t be doing actual particle physics in these jobs, but a lot of the tasks and skills are very similar.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        People want to stay in academia because, for most, they have done nothing in their whole life other than be in academic institutions. It makes sense, in a perverse way: you start in school when you’re five(ish). You spend decades learning how school works and being really good at it. You get to being a grad student, and now you’re the highest-status student possible. It’s comfortable.

        The problems come when you realize that a) the academic job market is one of the toughest there is, or b) you’ve been economically outpaced by all your non-grad-student peers. Finding out that since you didn’t go to an Ivy you’re going to be an adjunct, is tough. Looking around and seeing your peers–including that guy from high school who dropped out to be a plumber–driving new cars and living in their own houses, while you’re in your thirties and living with roommates in an apartment, is tough.

        Suddenly you discover you’ve fallen into a debt-fueled trap, and all of your knowledge about Christine de Pizan or Judith Butler isn’t going to keep you from being poor. Worse, outside of your department, all of that esoteric knowledge doesn’t even bring you status.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        What I really don’t understand is why do so many STEM grad students want to have a career in academia? My impression of academic science is that it mostly involves begging the government for money so you can do an experiment so you can pay to publish an article about it that no one will ever read. And the grants are small and short term so you always have the fear that in a year you won’t have enough money to fund your lab and you’ll have to lay people off. Does that life seem more appealing than a higher paying job in industry where you don’t have to continually beg for resources? Or is it just that most grad students want to study stuff with no practical application?

        …and this the part where breaking off and handling, say, mathematics separately seems like a good idea. 🙂

    • Thecommexokid says:

      > Is it even a problem?

      Well, my experience (as a second-year physics grad student) is that many students attend grad school as a stalling tactic, because the entering the “real world” is new and scary whereas going to school is a very familiar thing that we’ve all gotten quite good at.

      And at least in physics, I don’t think this is a huge problem, because physics PhD students are paid to attend with teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships. So even if I spend 5 years getting a PhD and then go get a job for which the PhD was not required, all I’ve lost was the opportunity cost of whatever I could have been doing instead. Which shouldn’t be sneezed at, of course, but at least it’s not the tens of thousands of dollars in additional student debt that’s required to get an advance degree in, say, law or library science or music performance.

    • Xenophon says:

      Hmmm… My goals regarding academia remained unchanged from the beginning to the end of my Ph.D. in Software Engineering. But that may be rooted in having been an atypical student.

      I went to grad school in my late 30s after 15 years in industry. I had a few big goals. #1 was to get a Ph.D. so I could go back to doing the same kind of late-stage industrial research I had been doing over the previous 7 or 8 years. Most of my research before grad school went unpublished because my employer held it as trade secrets. And that made it hard to demonstrate a record of successful research when I started looking for another job. Goal #2 was to bring my professional knowledge back to fully current. Goal #3 was to wind up with more influence on which specific projects I work on.

      After too many years in grad school, I can say that I did in fact achieve all these goals. And I’ve gone right back to industry, exactly as I intended all along. I definitely use the training and skill I got while in grad school. I even work on projects that are related to my dissertation. These things are mostly true, however, because I knew where I was headed before I returned to school.

      Two goals that should be conspicuous by their absence are (A) become a professor (of anything, anywhere), and (B) make more money. I already knew that the faculty life was not for me. I do, in fact, make more money. But the increase will never ever make up for the income I didn’t make while I was in grad school. The opportunity cost of a Ph.D. only gets higher the older you are!

    • zac says:

      Are people switching their focus to industry degrees because they don’t think they can get a tenure-track job? Or do they see the day-to-day life of a tenured academic and decide that industry is more attractive?

      One reason so many people are focused on jobs in academia could be that the gatekeepers of academia are all tenure-track professors. I could imagine the admissions board looking more favorably on people who seem ‘like them’, so even if only half of people applying to grad school want a tenture-track job, most of the people admitted do.

    • pneumatik says:

      I have a PhD in Engineering from a school with a very good academic reputation, though it’s reputation is not as high in my specific field. Your anecdata of what new students want vs. not-new students is not out of line with my experience. I think part of the change is because before people go to grad school their education is largely controlled. They’re rarely if ever given problems before they’re taught how to solve them. Grad school instead requires you to figure out what you need to learn so that you can solve a particular problem, and you may even have to first figure out what problem is worth trying to solve to begin with. Some smart people get to grad school and find out they’re not good at this, and other smart people get to grad school and find out they don’t like this. For all grad students grad school is where they spend some time figuring out what they actually want to do in life; for some students it turns out to be not this.

      Fortunately smart people who can work on problems lots of other people are interested in are in high demand, so like most other STEM grad students I got paid to a stipend while I realized I didn’t want to be an academic in my field of study. They’re also in demand once they have their PhD. In fact, one advantage that newly-minted PhDs have over people in similar fields who went into industry after getting their undergrad degrees is that the PhD students have had 5+ years of training on how to run a highly challenging research program. I suspect I’m not the only grad student who only realizes in retrospect just how much responsibility, freedom, and flexibility to do research I actually had as a grad student. New PhDs usually still need to prove themselves if they go into industry, but I’m not surprised to see some job positions that require PhDs.

      Grad school is a weird thing, too, because it’s not like undergrad where tons of people go because it’s just an obviously good move. Some people go to grad school specifically because they want to have 5+ years to do research in something they’re really interested in and that a company won’t pay them to do. Other people really want to be professors. Others want a particular job that requires a PhD, so they see grad school as “putting in their time”. Since grad students have so much more freedom than undergrads people’s motivation can really influence what they do in grad school.

    • AJD says:

      My grad-school entering cohort (linguistics, top school) was eight people. I don’t have any clear idea of how many of us wanted tenure-track jobs when we started grad school. But I can say that out of the eight of us, one didn’t seek academic jobs, five currently hold tenure-track jobs (or the overseas equivalent), one had a tenure-track job and quit because he didn’t like it, and I’m an adjunct.

    • will says:

      Be careful, industry doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. In a lot of field, going into “industry” means leaving the phd field.

    • Kevin says:

      My primary reason for entering a PhD program was that I liked doing particle physics research and graduate school was the way to do more of it. I was already iffy on the prospect of becoming a professor when applying to grad school. (I actually went back and checked the personal statements I wrote on my applications to make sure my memories of this time period weren’t faulty. The statements said: “My goal is to become a research physicist, either as a professor or in a laboratory.”)

      Now I have a postdoctoral position at a national laboratory, because I want to keep doing particle physics research. Once this position ends, I’ll likely apply for permanent positions at the laboratory, but if I don’t get one, the data science and tech R&D fields are strong options for high energy physics PhDs. Many of my colleagues have taken such industry jobs, and in fact our experimental collaboration holds regular career panels and networking events to help young PhDs find these opportunities.

      There is an cost in terms of salary when comparing a graduate school stipend to the pay from starting an industry job right out of undergraduate. That’s an unfortunately necessary tradeoff if one wants to do certain kinds of research that aren’t available in industry. I minimized this opportunity cost by graduating quickly (a combination of serious undergrad research and course preparation, a supportive graduate advisor, and the timing of availability of data from my experiment).

      In summary, I think that having positive reasons for going to grad school (wanting to do the research and being focused on the end goal) makes a better experience than having negative reasons (wanting to avoid the “real world” or not knowing what else to do next). A lot of people do go to graduate school for the latter kind of reasons, or don’t realize the slim likelihood of becoming a professor (or the even slimmer likelihood of becoming a professor at a decent university*). I think academia is much more aware of and vocal about those pitfalls now than it was even 10 years ago, though obviously there’s a long way to go.

      * The trickle-down of professorships is really quite notable. During my time in grad school at Big Top 20 Public Research University, my group hired a new assistant professor whose education and experience were from Top 5 schools. Meanwhile, the few former graduate students from my group who achieved professorships tend to be located at Mediocre Southern University or similar places.

      • FrogOfWar says:

        I can confirm the trickle-down effect’s presence in the humanities as well. My top 20 philosophy grad program hires from even more highly ranked programs and places its grad students at schools you’ve never even heard of (those lucky enough to have placed anywhere, that is).

    • Thomas says:

      As a fourth year biology PhD student, I feel that I WAS pathologically lied to to get me here.

    • Hanfeizi says:

      I find it fascinating that everyone at a Tier 1 STEM research Ph.D. program had their eyes on tenure track positions when they could earn ten times as much by becoming a quant on Wall Street.

    • Anonymous says:

      I wanted to become a math professor when I went into college as an undergrad. It did not take very much time at all for me to realize my odds were extremely poor and to give up on the entire idea. It was not because of anything in my school but because I met some math grad students on IRC. Through talking to them, at some point I took note of the ratio of math grad students to math professors and realized my situation was not as I had idealized in my head. In retrospect I don’t understand why the pyramid structure didn’t occur to me much earlier. I think I was already quite aware of that shape in the context of big corporations.

      I ended up programming computers.

  4. Joshua Fox says:

    In the US, if you are hospitalized against your will, who pays? The state? Or is the patient sent the bill (to be paid with insurance if you have it, otherwise not).

    If hospitals can recommend forced hospitalization, it seems like a great revenue enhancer.

    For the purpose of this question, I am asking about non-indigent cases.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      The patient is sent the bill. I still have about $15K of medical debt due to being placed in a hospital against my will and without insurance.

      • that should be reason enough to be libertarian . time to end involuntary hospitalization ,except for individuals who are, perhaps, really behaving messed up – like to the extend of being insane. Idk what the specific requirements are, but insomnia should not be one of the.

        • Nita says:

          So, we should replace the current criterion — “poses a danger to himself or others” — with a new and improved one — “really behaving messed up – like to the extent of being insane”?

        • Franz_Panzer says:

          That should be reason enough to be a socialist. If the state pays the hospital bills no one can be burdened with debt because of a medical procedure they did not want.

          Works just as well.
          It’s almost as if a single anecdote isn’t enough to determine major policy decisions. 🙂

          • Daniel Speyer says:

            Alternatively, it’s a reason to go one way or the other and not mess around with hybrids that achieve two sets of flaws and neither set of benefits.

        • Joe Teicher says:

          What if you’re just unconscious and bleeding?

          • Garrett says:

            I volunteer as an EMT. We operate under the principle of Presumed Consent. Basically, the law is set up such that if you are in a condition so as to be unable to consent or refuse treatment, we presume you would want your life saved.

            The question that gets interesting is:
            What happens if you save somebody from a suicide attempt and they really don’t want to go to the hospital or be saved once they wake up?

          • Lambert says:

            They just try to kill themselves again? Most hospitals are multiple storey, as well as being full of pointy/toxic stuff.

          • Nonnamous says:

            If you’re unconscious and bleeding, I bet they would follow an advance medical directive, if you really desired to be left to bleed to death and created one.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            @Lambert: Presuming you didn’t lose control of all your bodily functions/movements and/or your ability to reason/are not braindead.

            Makes me think: Do they respect DNRs when handling attempted suicides?

            Edit: And more to the original point. Is it that hard to introduce a “do not take me to hospital if you find me unconscious and bleeding” card one could carry with them?

        • With my own political prejudices it seems like an excellent argument for the state paying for heathcare (at least in this case).

          As well as the obvious benefit of not putting vulnerable people in crushing debt, I would guess the decision is also better made when the costs are borne by the same entity on both sides, whereas I’d expect in the US it to be overused as there’s no cost to hopitalising someone if they pay for it.

        • DanielLC says:

          It seems to me to be reason to make it so the government pays for health care in which the person getting it does not consent. I see no reason to generalize more than that.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Seems like a heck of a reason not to consent, have you seen how much they charge for healthcare?

          • Godzillarissa says:

            @suntzuanime: Just change it to “unable to consent” then, that should be better. And if they just ‘play unconscious’, a whiff of ammonia should take care of that.

          • I did explicitly say “at least in this case”. But Im happy to argue the broader claim as well since we’re here:

            I rarely actively consent to getting ill. The majority of illness is caused by factors beyond the individuals control, so why should they be financially culpable for the cost?

          • Jiro says:

            The illness is also out of the control of the people who you are expecting to pay for the cost, so by your reasoning, they shouldn’t have to pay either.

      • Creutzer says:

        I’m really amazed that in the US, of all places, this is even deemed constitutional. It’s basically seizure of your money by the government, no?

        • suntzuanime says:

          It’s an attempt to solve Parfit’s Hitchhiker problems – the alternative is letting you suffer from illnesses that leave you unable to agree to pay to have them cured. Whether the gain there is worth the possibility of corruption is a question that would require both empirical investigation and a value judgment, but there is a real problem they’re trying to solve here. (Socialized medicine cuts the Gordian Knot here, which is one of the more persuasive arguments in its favor. Similar to how a National Income renders a lot of thorny issues about welfare irrelevant.)

        • David Hart says:

          If you hate that, you’ll loathe civil asset forfeiture.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Yeah, civil forfeiture is just theft. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          • Joe Teicher says:

            I don’t get why people hate civil asset forfeiture so much. Its like a small tax on being a criminal. Why is that more objectionable than the much larger taxes we have on being a productive member of society?

          • Vaniver says:

            Joe Teicher: the reason people hate CAF is because it’s guilty until proven innocent. They seize your money, and then you have to sue them to get it back. It hits a lot of people that are not criminals, and will disproportionately hurt people who do not trust the system enough to sue for their money back.

          • Irrelevant says:

            I don’t get why people hate civil asset forfeiture so much.

            …said Pollyanna.

            The CAF system is comically corruptible.

          • JRM says:

            California reacted to the asset forfeiture problems by requiring a criminal conviction for forfeiture. This seems to be a problem-solver.

          • lupis42 says:

            @Joe Teicher

            To build on what Vaniver said, one of the common ways CAF is employed is to seize things that are comparable in value to the effort required to retrieve it. (e.g. lumps of cash in the tens of kilobucks, vehicles, etc. Time, fees, and legal costs for retrieval are going to be on the order of tens of kilobucks anyway, so most people will just suck up those losses, and police usually avoid targeting anyone with enough wealth/clout to make a stand on principal.

            If it was Criminal Asset Forfeiture, where the police were allowed to seize assets when the person in question were convicted of a crime, there would be a lot fewer people objecting.

          • suntzuanime says:

            It’s not a tax on being a criminal, it’s a tax on being accused of a crime, and oftentimes the basis for the accusation is “you have a lot of money for us to steal”. Civil asset forfeiture, by denying its targets the ordinary protections citizens have in criminal cases, does a good job of demonstrating why those protections ought to exist.

          • drethelin says:

            Joe: It creates very perverse incentives for what should be considered criminal. It’s a tax on criminals where the tax collectors profit directly in proportion to what they can get away with taxing (whereas at least the IRS doesn’t get to directly increase its own budget).

            A quote from Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett:
            “Tax farming. What a clever invention. … Because a) you saved the cost of tax collectors and the whole revenue system, b) you got a wagonload of cash up front. And c) the business of tax gathering then became the business of groups of powerful yet curiously reticent people who kept out of the light. However, they employed people who not only went out in the light but positively blocked it, and it was amazing what those people found to tax, up to and including Looking At Me, Pal.”

          • Joe Teicher says:


            How do you know it hits a lot of people who aren’t criminals? Is there any good data on that? Maybe the people don’t trust the system because they are criminals.

          • Joe Teicher says:


            I don’t think it’s anywhere near that expensive to get your stuff back. I’ve read it’s more like hundreds of dollars.

          • Joe Teicher says:


            Also, its not guilty until proven innocent. The government is the plaintiff in a civil suit against the property. They have the burden of proving it was used in a crime. It’s a lower standard than for a criminal trial but it’s a common one.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Joe Teicher:

            While I admit there may be an outlier or two out there, I am an attorney, and I am here to tell you that you don’t get your stuff back for a few hundred bucks. It takes months if not years, it costs thousands of dollars, and the burden of proof is, practically speaking, on YOU to prove that the money is yours and you acquired it lawfully.

          • Gbdub says:

            Yes, the burden of proof is effectively on the person the asset was seized from, because while the suit is going on, the government has your stuff, which may amount to a substantial portion of your assets. I believe one case involved the seizure of an entire motel, on the grounds that drug deals had been made on the premises (I don’t believe the owners were accused of facilitating the deals in any way). Because the motel was a family’s only source of income, and closing for a few months is bad for business, they were bankrupted.

          • Lupis42 says:

            @Joe Tiecher

            For more on how civil asset forfeiture is employed, see:

            For a particularly substantial example of it targeting non-criminals, try:

            Alternatively, you could run a straightforward test: Drive from CA through the state of Nevada to Colorado and back with a busted taillight and ten thousand dollars in cash on the passenger seat.

          • Joe Teicher says:


            I would never do something so stupid. I guess that CAF is a tax on criminals that occasionally ensnares the stupid instead. Sounds good to me!

          • Irrelevant says:

            Sounds good to me!

            Of course it does. You’re a man of weak imagination and weaker morals and assume the government’s thuggishness will always be directed at “someone else.”

          • Lupis42 says:

            @Joe Teicher

            It’s a tax on traveling with cash. Really, the only difference that I can come up with between civil asset forfeiture and banditry is that civil asset forfeiture is conducted by the government… wait, that was true of many bandits too.

            Highway robbery was essentially unknown in the US after the widespread adoption of the motor car, until we re-invented it.

          • “it’s a tax on being accused of a crime”

            Not even that. The charge isn’t against you, it’s against your property. There is no requirement that you be guilty of, charged with, even suspected of committing a crime.

          • Joe Teicher says:

            You say I “assume the government’s thuggishness will always be directed at ‘someone else.'”

            Perhaps the comment you are responding to was a little flippant. I apologize to anyone reading this for the tone of that comment. Let me make a precise claim and see if anyone wants to disagree. I claim that civil asset forfeiture is less objectionable than the federal income tax.

            CAF is targeted towards anti-social (criminal) behavior, while the federal income tax targets pro-social behavior. Sure, CAF harms some completely innocent people, but the federal income tax mostly harms completely innocent people! I can’t do an exact calculation but I am willing to bet that in expectation a normal law-abiding citizen will lose thousands of times more to federal income taxes than to civil asset forfeiture over their lifetime.

            I think that the main objections to CAF are: 1. It looks like robbery, whereas income taxes don’t.
            2. When it does harm innocents, it mostly harms poor people.

            For 1 I would say that yes, it looks bad and the government should figure out a way to frame it to look more palatable. However, I think the intelligent readers of this blog should be able to look beyond appearances and discuss substance.

            2 is more of a moral sentiment. I don’t consider poor people to more morally worthy than wealthier people, but I don’t know of a rational argument one way or the other.

          • lupis42 says:

            @Joe Teicher

            I would argue that it doesn’t just look like robbery, it *is* robbery, whereas things like taxation, while related, are much more limited.

            The primary axes that differentiate them:
            Taxation is imposed at rates that are fixed across the public, in relatively predictable ways, whereas CAF is applied more or less at the whims of the individual officer or department on the scene.
            The people responsible for enforcing the income tax do not receive their budget or compensation directly from the assets taxed, whereas CAF funds and seized items go immediately into the budget of the departments doing the seizing.
            The income tax, and taxation more generally, is levied at primarily fungible assets (e.g. money), whereas CAF frequently targets less fungible assets (a motel, cars, jewelry) which are often selected on the whim of the LEO(s) on scene.

            That would all be explained if CAF was treated as a criminal penalty, but instead CAF is constructed to bypass all of the normal protections US law offers to people accused of a crime.

          • Airgap says:

            You’re a man of weak imagination and weaker morals and assume the government’s thuggishness will always be directed at “someone else.”

            Irrelevant: I’m basically on the same side as you, and you’re making us look bad. Do you really think this is optimized to persuade?

            For example, a person may be happy with forfeiture because he imagines it as “Government takes money from criminals to provide health care for poor people.” You can point out it also means “Government takes money from non-criminals to provide explosions to foreigners.” (I doubt it funds explosions directly, but if you can save on DOJ, you have more for DOD).

            Which of these approaches do you think will change more minds? Also, just try to be nicer, to the extent you can stand to.

      • Joe Teicher says:

        That should be reason enough to get health insurance.

    • Anon says:

      [Posting anon, due to the sensitive nature of the reply]

      We were strongly persuaded (I’d say just a notch below coerced) by the state to run a number of unnecessary tests on our son. Even though insurance covered most of it I made a point to raise a ruckus and force the hospital or government to cover the costs rather than my insurance. Well, the insurer did not care, and all I could do was negotiate with the hospital to waive 50% of our deductible. Yes, the health care market and laws are completely fucked up.

  5. Princess Stargirl says:

    I am looking for a MLP fanfic I read but lost. Here is what I remember: SPOILERS

    1) Celestia and Twilight sparkle have been magically simulating ponywille over and over but Twilight is getting bored of life and not able to “form emotional attachments” to the ponies in the magical sim.

    2) The opening line (or close to opening) is something like “Today Twilight Sparkle was going to die.”

    3) Luna had recursivel improved her magic. Right after she does this she flies off into space and leave Twlight and Celestia without saying goodbye. Twlight finds the idea of recursively improving her magic like this unnaceptable.

    4) At the end Celestia is left alone and wondering what she will do with the rest of forever.

    I would be very thankful to anyone who could send me this story. It was really wonderful.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I have no idea, but on Reddit you could try asking in /r/tipofmytongue, it exists for this sort of thing.

      • Princess Stargirl says:

        OMG thank you so much!

        <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

        I was lookign for this for a long time and I am so happy its found !!!

        • FacelessCraven says:

          thanks to this comment thread, I stayed up till the wee hours of the morning reading Friendship Is Optimal and several of the spinoffs. Thanks much!

          Also, what the hell is with the confluence of this community and MLP? I was a brony long before I ever heard of this place, and even heard “Optimalverse” mentioned without knowing what it was. why so much crossover between transhumanists, rationalists, MLP and fanfic?

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Transhumanism and rationality are associated with each other because of The Sequences, and both are associated with fanfiction because of Methods of Rationality. As for My Little Pony, I think PhilGoetz explained it pretty well: “Harry Potter is about the wizarding world. Avatar is about a world war. MLP is about people.”

          • Princess Stargirl says:

            FIO is really great imo. I actually think its a rather good introduction to the “lesswrong viewpoint” on AI. However I did not find FIO as emotionally powerful as “Good night.” Though I found butterscotch/Light Sparks relations really touching and sweet.

          • Toggle says:

            FIO really is exceptional; I think it’s a good example of the kind of horror(?) and original narrative available to an author that is willing to engage with ASI in a really crunchy way. Most sci-fi authors complain about Singularity stories because their stories all turn in to yogurt when they try to engage with the idea. But Iceman illustrated some very good techniques for engaging with both the runup and the consequences of a hard takeoff.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @jaime – that comment was the last push I needed to tackle HPMOR, which I chewed through in two not-very-recovery-conducive sittings. really amazing stuff!

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      It was really wonderful.

      Why, thank you. “Good Night” is my story.

  6. Shenpen says:

    Poor California cannot into computers.

    >this is a huge problem with some minority communities in the UK, where the culture is not to go to hospital until you’re at death’s door

    I find this rational since Scott explained how many kinds of infections and other crap you can get even in a rich first-world hospital. Anyone used to Pakistani hospitals with much lower operating budgets probably has good reasons to not to go in one until really necessary.

    • eqdw says:

      I’m from Canada, not the UK, but I would expect similar dynamics to play in a UK hospital.

      In Canada, if you go to the hospital and you’re not actively dying on their doorstep, you can expect to be triaged and wait hours if not days to be seen. For example, I’ve had multiple friends recently cut the tips of their fingers off with a mandoline, and in every case they were waiting in the ER waiting room for upwards of 8 hours before even getting admitted and cared for by a nurse.

      In an environment like this, there is a strong incentive for at-home care when it’s not critically urgent. Further, the incentive is stronger for lower income demographics, because they are less able to disrupt their lives for so long. If I need to go wait at a hospital for 10 hours, office worker that I am, I’m pretty much free to go. I might be expected to work from the waiting room, but all I need is a laptop and a cell phone to do that. Compare, say, an unskilled service worker. Every hour they spend waiting at the ER is an hour they’re not getting paid. And they need to get paid a hell of a lot more than I do.

      In the intersection of those two incentives, it’s not surprising to me at all that disadvantaged communities have a culture of not going to the hospital for non-life-threatening problems

      • speedwell says:

        In an Irish hospital recently, I was triaged for five hours with severe kidney pain (in the one kidney I have remaining). After they decided to admit me, I waited three more hours in a side room for a bed to be prepared. After being shown to the ward, I found myself without a pillow, and it took 45 minutes for a nurse to locate one. But the last two things are not triage; it was an unusually busy Friday. I am sure they could have sent me home until the radiology techs reported for work Monday, but someone decided I needed to be kept under observation. In the meantime the stone (they are pretty sure it was a stone) passed itself.

        • Garrett says:

          I volunteer in EMS in the US. The two items of currency in the ER are pillows and IV pumps. Everything else can be found in droves.

        • Deiseach says:

          You got a BED? You really must have been bad! 🙂

          The one time they kept me in for overnight observation, I got the standard trolley in the corridor. That was a Bank Holiday weekend, though, and they were crazy busy with all the people who’d decided to go mountain hiking or to the beach or swimming pools and so forth: two separate emergency admissions of people with suspected broken necks after falls, kids with broken arms/broken legs, elderly people who took bad turns in the hot weather, etc. etc. etc.

      • Shenpen says:

        I don’t understand the working part. I live in Europe. If I go to the doctor they just give me a piece of paper to show to my employer and I am paid for that time. The pay is a fixed monthly salary anyway not per hour, so I am not paid for time anyway. It would take special paperwork to have unpaid holidays over the normal allotment, and most people do not do that so they get the same monthly pay no matter if they are at work or spend 3 weeks in hospital. Strange to hear Canada is not the same. Per hour pay is IMHO most governments don’t tolerate because it is difficult to regulate. If the government knows monthly living costs are minimum €800 they can easily set it as a minimum monthly wage. But if it is per hour, then the government cannot match it with living costs because then it is not rally sure everybody works 40 hours.

      • Counter anecdote: I live in the UK and have frequently been into nhs hospitals for minor injuries, as have many of my friends (students and alcohol tends to result in ER visits) and I’ve never had anything like that. I went into a walk in clinic for a infected toe a month ago and they saw me in less than half an hour.

        I’m sure there are comparative stats on waiting times somewhere. I’d guess the nhs is better funded because its considered politically very important (even right wing governments ringfence its budget).

  7. Mike says:

    Reading this piece in the Guardian by Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, I remembered I wanted to learn what all the fuss over Marxism is about. Can anyone recommend a good introduction on the subject? Not so much looking for arguments for or against, just want to understand the ideas.

    I would just go directly to Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction since that’s what our esteemed host did, but the reviews seem to indicate that Singer’s treatment is not particularly charitable. But if that’s the best introduction I’ll start there.

    • creative username #1138 says:

      In addition to whatever you decide to read I’d recommend also reading The Communist Manifesto. You will in no way get a complete picture of Marxism but it’s short, entertaining and will give you at least a little bit of a feeling of what made Marxism so attractive to so many people.

      • Airgap says:

        If you’re going to read the Communist Manifesto, you should balance it out with “Darkness at Noon.” You could also try “The Gulag Archipelago,” but that might be too much balance.

        • ddreytes says:

          Darkness At Noon and Gulag Archipelago (while both good and worth reading) don’t even come close to the kind of theoretical counterpoint / critique of Marxism that would be ideal here. Because they’re not even trying to be critiques of Marxism as an intellectual system, they’re accounts of the Soviet system in practice being awful, which is a totally valid but basically distinct purpose.

          I would recommend Aron’s “Opiate of the Intellectuals” for the purpose probably.

      • Wrong Species says:

        This is probably just my bias but reading The Communist Manifesto made me like capitalism more. He spends half of it talking about how great capitalism is compared to what came before and didn’t really elaborate enough on why socialism is needed.

        • drethelin says:

          This is actually a relevant concept that people seem to miss a lot: Marx thought Capitalism was the second best system ever invented. He just thought it would inevitably lead to Communism, which would be even better. Some thinkers, like Christopher Hitchens, started as Marxists and ended up concluding that Capitalism was actually the best we were going to get.
          From Wikipedia: “In 2009, in an article for The Atlantic entitled “The Revenge of Karl Marx”, Hitchens frames the late-2000s recession in terms of Marx’s economic analysis and notes how much Marx admired the capitalist system that he called for the end of, but says that Marx ultimately failed to grasp how revolutionary capitalist innovation was.”

    • RTWWII says:

      Study of Marxism is incredibly, possibly hopelessly politicised. We’re still dealing with mental contamination seeping from the abandoned ideological weaponry of the Cold War. Also, Marxism has evolved & branched tremendously since the 1840s, both theoretically and in the various spotty attempts at actual implementation. Are you hoping to get a sense of Marxism’s place in history or its political/ideological structure?

      If the former, a good place to start is probably the Communist Manifesto, which is super-short, very readable, and was after all the jumping-off point for most popular understanding of Marxism in the 19th-20th centuries. It also has a particularly amusing description of the radical changes to society that will happen after the revolution, when the proletariat are reshaping the world in preparation for the eschatonic arrival of Communism. Said earth-shattering reforms essentially describe mid-20th century Sweden. Anyway, it’s pretty easy to get through.

      This may sound a little odd, but I would highly recommend Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, which captures better than any academic or historical work I’ve ever read the ideological attractions of Marxism. It’s a sorta-novel (more like collection of interconnected short stories) interspersed with authorial interludes on the USSR’s “glory years” (early Khrushchev). It’s brilliantly written, jumps around from the historical dialectic to genetics to the invention of linear programming to the Soviet black market. There’s a truly good-faith attempt to get inside the heads of ideologues and apparatchiks who genuinely believed they were going to use Marxism to save the world.

      Scott has a review of it somewhere, but I enjoyed it more (and found its depictions of the mental world of Communism more appealing) than I think he did. It’s one of my favourite books.

      (Apologies for lack of hyperlinks, but last time I tried to insert them my comment got eaten)

    • social justice warlock says:

      IMO the best introduction to Marx’s economics is Fine and Saad-Filho’s Marx’s Capital; the best to his theory of history is G.A. Cohen’s Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense. Communist groups also often gather together short courses of study, several of which (scroll down to “Leninist”) are gathered here.

      As RTWWII notes, Marxists disagree and argue a lot, and in some cases the traditions have diverged enough that inferential distance renders some of that discussion unproductive, so none of the above is uncontroversial, but it will give you some starting points. As creative username notes, “Manifesto” is very readable, as is “Eighteenth Brumaire.”

    • Randy M says:

      ” I wanted to learn what all the fuss over Marxism is about”

      I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode. “Communism? You didn’t think Communism was a big deal?”

    • Matthew O says:

      If you read through these two blogs, you will learn everything you need to know about Marxism:

      A Critique of Crisis Theory by Sam Williams
      This blog focuses mostly on the economic side of Marxism. Read through the blog from the very beginning (start at the top of the menu on the right). The blog proceeds methodically through various Marxism economic concepts and debates.

      The RedStar2000 Papers
      This blog looks at more of the political/philosophical side of Marxism. If any links are broken, you can find backup links to the articles at:

      • Airgap says:

        Williams strikes me as being alternately preachy and creepy. He has tons of lengthy digressions about his struggles to understand “The Master” in already far-too-long articles, and whines about the malign influence of “bourgeois economists”, a term implying mercenary service to the ruling class, but which actually just denotes people who believe different stuff.

        Yet here Marx (or Engels) seemed to be rejecting the labor theory of value that Marx was so famous for! It was hard enough to learn that prices of commodities are determined by the amount of labor socially necessary to produce them. Now the masters were saying they weren’t! If what I was reading didn’t bear the name Karl Marx or Frederick Engels, I would be sure that I was reading the work of a dangerous revisionist.

        At first, my reaction was to blot these bizarre-sounding passages out of mind, since they seemed to stand in contradiction to the very “Marxist economics” that I was trying to master. I now realize that in those early days my own theory of value was closer to that of the classical economists but still quite a distance from that of the theory of value developed by Marx. It was a good first step toward understanding Marxist value theory but nothing more. I was still a long way from fully mastering it.


        In Volume III of “Capital,” Marx took the first step in developing a mathematical model that illustrates the process of the transformation from direct prices into prices of production. As always the case with his abstractions, Marx’s partial transformation of direct prices into prices of production is a powerful tool to uncover the hidden processes of the capitalist mode of production

        Christ alive…

        All the same, Marx’s solution to the transformation problem is only a partial solution. Modern bourgeois economists who specialize in “refuting Marx” see this as a weakness in Marxist theory that they hope to use to destroy Marx’s entire “system.”

        And then slightly later:

        So why is the transformation of direct prices into production prices still treated as a major problem in Marxist value theory? And why do bourgeois economists still think that they can use the transformation to “refute” Marx?

        Clearly they haven’t read your blog, dude. There’s more, but I can only take so much of this guy’s writing.

        Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend a good introduction to Marxist economics, because I think it’s stupid. Presumably, it’s possible to believe that Marxism apart from economics isn’t stupid (although I don’t), but I’d urge you not to waste your time on the economics part of it.

        • Matthew O says:

          I would go so far as to say that the economics part of it is really the only interesting part of it. That, and historical materialism (the process of not stopping satisfied with the explanation of “X-idea changed history!” but instead asking one step further, “Where did X-idea come from? If it was from a similar idea, where did that idea come from? The world is made of atoms. Ideas and thoughts do not come from some “spirit.” At some point, there was a material cause of these ideas. How do we find out what that material cause was?”)

          The economics and historical materialism are the only things about Marxism that actually try to explain how things work, that actually make testable, falsifiable predictions.

          Now, to be fair, you could say that Marxism’s economic predictions have been falsified (for example, did the “proletariat” wage laborers really get increasingly immiserated as capitalism developed? No, it wouldn’t seem so. How did Marxism get that wrong?”)

          Even if you think Marxist economics are wrong, though, I think it is interesting to figure out why these economics are wrong. Particularly because it is analogous to the question of why the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo (who themselves developed the labor theory of value) were wrong.

          • Airgap says:

            Even if you think Marxist economics are wrong, though, I think it is interesting to figure out why these economics are wrong. Particularly because it is analogous to the question of why the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo (who themselves developed the labor theory of value) were wrong.

            Murray Rothbard, the Austrian economist, explains it like this: “Capital starts out with two premises. One, the Labor Theory of Value, which is nonsense. Two, the claim that the fact of an exchange occurring means that the exchanged items are of equal value, whereas it actually means there’s a mutual inequality of subjective valuation. At this point you can stop reading.” You can expand on this, but I think he’s basically right. Garbage in, garbage out.

            He also thinks Smith and Ricardo are shit, that calling them “classical” is an insult to the subject and the better thinkers they mysteriously eclipsed, and that Smith is a Gouldian “Chaos Thief.”

            In the interest of fairness, here’s your boy Williams on Rothbard & co:

            Some leftists have been attracted to the Austrians at times, and see them as potential allies in the fight against imperialism and the wars it breeds. This is a dangerous tendency and should be combated. All supporters of Austrian economics are without exception bitter enemies of the working-class movement.

            Good point, Sam. I always knew Rothbard was up to no good. He’s got shifty eyes.

          • social justice warlock says:

            To anybody inclined to take Rothbard’s recommendation to not read Capital, I advise reading at least the first chapters, which handily demonstrate (whatever your ultimate judgments on Marx’s project) that Rothbard’s critique is at not-even-wrong levels of confusion.

          • ” Particularly because it is analogous to the question of why the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo (who themselves developed the labor theory of value) were wrong.”

            Incomplete, but why wrong?

            And, contrary to the usual talk, Ricardo didn’t have a labor theory of value. His model assumed that all goods were produced with the same ratio of labor to capital, so price proportional to labor input and price proportional to capital input were equivalent.

            And he had a discussion of how badly that simplifying assumption distorted his conclusions. For details see Stigler’s old essay, “David Ricardo and the 93% labor theory of value.”

          • Airgap says:

            For details see Stigler’s old essay, “David Ricardo and the 93% labor theory of value.”

            Spoiler: the remaining 7% is cocaine.

    • Tarrou says:

      Imagine everyone in the world was ingenious, altruistic and equally talented. Design political and economic system for said populace. Implement system with the populace we actually have. Kill everyone who points out that this doesn’t tend to work well. After several hundred million deaths, ravaged economies and political corruption and violence on a completely novel scale, call the whole thing off, take billions from the decadent capitalists, remodel society based on realistic principles, and try to get the rich countries to be stupid enough to try what never worked anywhere else.


    • Shenpen says:

      Counter-intuitively, I would say start with Distributism first, because it is also a critique that says capitalism does not equal free markets. But much easier. Read this sequence:

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        It’s a rather silly site.
        “Having a list of things an economy should do implies another list of things it should not do.

        it should not reward sloth, that is, create wealth without work, wealth not based on some productive endeavor; it must not weaken social bounds or encourage class warfare, and so forth.”

        Voluntary interaction is to be overridden by their moral intuition. Sadly not everyone has the same moral intuition so such systems quickly approach either banality or uselessness.

    • Ptoliporthos says:

      I recommend reading Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” instead. You’ll find that “capitalism” isn’t an ideology — it is just a word for an emergent property of the way that people naturally allocate their surplus goods, time, and money. Capitalism isn’t some novel, post-enlightenment discovery; some of the oldest written documents we have are cuneiform instructions for calculating inflation and interest rates for ancient Babylonian capitalists. Governments can make capitalistic processes more or less efficient at increasing general prosperity, (Smith even argues that sometimes governments should sacrifice increases in prosperity in favor of other interests), but governments can’t wholly prevent capitalistic processes from taking place without depriving citizens of their liberty.

  8. only 700 clicks for a site as popular as this?

    What do you think of practice making perfect or 10,000 hour rule? It would seem antithetical to rationality to believe this superstition. Holding the number of hours of practice constant, it would seem smarter people get much better returns for the hours they put in at intellectual endeavors such as math and chess. Music is a little different since some people have an ‘ear’ for it and other don’t; sports are another example where having an obvious physical advantage (being taller in basketball) could reduce the number of hours of practice needed for mastery.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Shorter than saying “it seems antithetical to rationality to believe this superstition” would be to say “it seems false”.

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s not even antithetical to rationality to believe that superstition. If Omega offered me $1M I’d believe that in a heartbeat.

    • zz says:

      Why, yes, of course it’s ridiculous! But not overwhelmingly so.

      10k hours practice should be a fairly good indicator of expertise because the only people putting in that amount of time have unusual amounts of innate talent; there’s no such thing as nonexpert musicians who’ve nevertheless practiced 10k hours, because nobody’s going to put in that time unless they have the innate talent to get that good, much like there’s no such thing as a short guy who’s practiced basketball for 10k hours or someone who got a 500 on their math SAT but practiced math for 10k hours.

      It’s also worth mentioning that the ‘innate’ factors on the mental side tend to be somewhat mutable. Not enough to turn someone who scored 700 on the math SAT into Grigori Perelman, and they’ll typically still be behind anyone with more innate ability who do the same practice, but things like IQ and processing speed and working memory (and ear for music) aren’t fixed.

      The 10k hour thing, however, is much more easily defeated! Not all practice is created equal! Baddeley and Longman (1978), for instance, showed that 40 hours of typing practice can get you to the same typing speed as 80 hours if you practice 1 hour a day instead of 4 hours a day. Rohrer and Taylor (2007) showed that you can get three times as many geometry problems correct in a one-week followup test if you practice them in a random order, rather than grouped by problem type (like how every single high school geometry text presents their problems). The Duolingo Effectiveness Study showed that Duolingo users reached the same proficiency as students taking a traditional course in one quarter the time. When you can get x2–x4 efficiency multipliers by deviating from the most common approaches, it’s ridiculous to assert that you need 10k hours to reach mastery (plus it’s not nice to the emergency response team!)

      • Harald K says:

        there’s no such thing as nonexpert musicians who’ve nevertheless practiced 10k hours

        We talked about tone deafness here the other day too, didn’t we?

        Music specialisation in the Norwegian equivalent of high school, you can get into in two ways: by grades, or by audition, half are determined by each. I came in by grades. So did an acquaintance. She had excellent grades, loved music, and was unfortunately horribly tone deaf. Unable to tell a third from a fifth. She was aware of it, of course.

        Maybe it was precisely because she was such a great student in all other fields, that she was determined that music would not be an exception. I don’t know 10000 hours, but I know she spent a lot of hours trying to get better. She improved, but not even to the level of most people starting out.

        So yeah, in general you don’t practice something you aren’t good at, but there are exceptions. I think advantage relative to the people you compare yourself to is more important than advantage in any absolute sense. If basketball had height classes like boxing has weight classes, I bet there would be more 10k hour basketball players.

        • zz says:

          I don’t recall discussing tone deafness, but by coincidence, I’m a decent* cellist with really, really bad ears. I’m not tone deaf, but I’m close enough a teacher once asked me if I was.

          I wound up getting as good as I have for a few reasons: my older sister also played cello, so when she had lessons, I usually got a 15–30 minute lesson at the end, my parents bought me a cello who’s cost wasn’t justified by my skill level at the time with the understanding I’d practice enough to justify the expenditure, I discovered Apocalyptica and really dug the idea of playing metal on the cello.

          As soon as I got good enough to overcome Dunning-Kruger, I abandoned any notion of playing professionally, so I don’t spend 4–7 hours a day practicing, and have wound up all sorts of behind, say, a friend (son of a professional musician) who was good enough to be accepted at a top-tier music school and then practiced 4 hours a day under the best teachers in the world, whereas I fit in 30 minutes 10–15 days a month.

          Things snowball: I get a few pushes in the right direction as a child and wind up the second best string player of my graduating class (out of ~100 students who started at 9 or 10), despite extremely modest innate talent (~50th percentile). Friend has a great deal of innate talent (and grows up in a much more music-friendly environment), disproportionately invests in it, and is to me what I am to the back of the second violins (AKA the Portsmouth Sinfonia). (Actually, he’s probably better than that, and I’m not good enough to understand exactly how outclassed I am.)

          And, yeah, my ears are loads better than they were before I discovered Apocalyptica and all manner of better than they would have been had I never pursued music. But 10k hours is a LOT of hours and there’s no way I’d ever pay that sort of opportunity cost trying to go pro.

          *I’m at that awkward skill level where I’m a lot better than pretty much anyone who isn’t pursuing music professionally, but a lot worse than anyone who’s looking for a performance career. I’m good enough to get the occasional paying gig at a church I’m connected to.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      I’m yet to read that book (‘Outliers’, I believe), but I suspect Gladwell just named a ridiculously high number to make it clear that “No, you will not achieve greatness without years of continued effort”.
      Whether it’s ~3000h for a musical genius, ~10000h for normal musicians, or ~20000h for the not at all musically inclined person wasn’t at all the point, I imagine.

      Also, to say XXXXh are needed isn’t at all reasonable, as I learn much more in 4x15min than in 1x60min. This is also emphasized in most books on how to learn an instrument (“practice an hour daily, not 8h every sunday”). So a set amount of hours will never be a realistic measure.

      Edit: Curse you zz! you beat me to it and explained it way better than me 🙁

    • Tangent says:

      I thought it was more of an order-of-magnitude thing? There are 8760 hours in a year, so you need to devote about a whole year of your life in total to be in with a chance of getting to the top of a given field. That sounds kind of plausible, at least in comparison with ten years or 0.1 years.

      Then again, I did an astro PhD, so I have very low standards for what is a good approximation 🙂

    • Marc Whipple says:

      I think that empirically it makes a good deal of sense, but I also think that the saying (common in the arts) that some people have twenty years of experience, and some people have one year of experience twenty times makes a good deal of sense. The two concepts partially cancel each other out. 🙂

      • FacelessCraven says:

        “I think that empirically it makes a good deal of sense, but I also think that the saying (common in the arts) that some people have twenty years of experience, and some people have one year of experience twenty times makes a good deal of sense.”

        I got into this a bit in the last open thread, trying to give a clearer explanation of what makes the difference between twenty years and one year twenty times. The short version:

        Skill at Art, for example, is actually made up of several sub-skills. These sub-skills are usually practiced and utilized using multiple specific techniques, most of which are interdependent, and some of which are easier than others. Optimal training involves tackling the easiest specific techniques to give you a foundation for the more difficult ones, until eventually you have a decent mastery of the sub-skill, and then iterating this for each of the various sub-skills.

        Most current art training is terrible because it does a bad job at organizing the specific techniques in an optimal sequence. People who randomly get the optimal sequence do better, people who don’t do worse. The other common failure mode is for people to latch on to a specific set of techniques, get very good at them, and then refuse to move beyond them because “this is what I’m good at”. Both failure modes are easily confused for “talent” issues, when really they are training problems.

        Biological talent in the art field does not seem to be decisive in a “get a job” sense. It’s highly questionable whether it’s decisive in the “be the best in the world” sense either, even when you take into account the extremely varied definitions of what the “best art” is.

    • eh says:

      10k hours could be viewed as a Schelling point and a drop-in replacement for “n hours, where n is really big, probably in the high thousands” rather than an arbitrary claim. It seems to be used as a reminder that mastering something is time consuming and that you need to work at it consistently for years, rather than a number of hours after which a skill is learned fully and doesn’t need further practice.

    • James Picone says:

      I would draw a distinction between ‘effectiveness at X’ and ‘mastery’. Effectiveness at performing a task is a combination of innate factors, environmental factors, and skill. Mastery is when skill is towards the top of the potential range.

      My experience here is mostly in programming, which I’ve almost certainly done at least 10,000 hours of during my life to date. Most of that practice, in my opinion, went into developing good heuristics, rather than understanding the semantics or syntax of particular constructs in particular languages. Good programmers want good heuristics for overall program design, for how to solve a particular problem (which ‘direction’ to go in at the start), what is likely to be causing bugs when you observe them, and where to look for information if you have a problem or want to know if the built-in stuff has a call that does something you want (i.e. google-fu).

      I’m not sure being smart makes it much faster to learn those heuristics. You have to generalise from incomplete and limited data to learn them (‘I had bug X, it was later found to be because of construct Y’ generalising to ‘bugs with some property A (like bug X) are often caused by constructs like Y’ requires selecting the right property from bug X and correctly inferring that that’s true in general). Within normal human ranges of intelligence, you still need to see at least one example of X before you can generalise, even if you reliably generalise correctly from the first example you see. I wouldn’t be surprised if the benefit of intelligence follows a logistic curve with the 50% mark below 100 IQ, and the effect is mostly saturated by IQ 130-150. With the potential for border effects where Von Neumann deduces the heuristics from first principles.

    • Tarrou says:

      Practice will always improve the performance of any normal human in just about any field. However, innate talent will make this practice more effective, and is definitely necessary to reach the top of any field. No amount of schooling is going to make someone with an 80 IQ into a world-class physicist. But it could give them a better grasp of physics than the average person. This is really basic stuff, and perfectly logical and well known for thousands of years. It amazes me we still argue over it.

  9. Michael says:

    Scott’s Surve/Thrive theory seems to be incredibly good predictor of political positions on various topics. However, what is to be made of the recent politicizing of vaccinations with Dems lining up on the pro-vaccine side with Repbulicans against. Surely if we’re in a world that’s under attack not only would we expect our own child to be protected against diseases, we would also demand it of every other child.

    • Lupis42 says:

      The fact that the issue is about whether it should be mandatory is one hint. As ‘Democratic’ social views have gained currency, the Democrats have started to become the party of ‘telling people what to do’, and the Republicans have started to become the party of ‘do your own thing’. I wonder how short a timescale that can work on, but if it’s anything like the antiwar movement, it can flip in just one election.

      Also, of course, the moment it became an issue, the Democrats and Republicans were honor bound to take opposite sides regardless of personal inclinations.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Whoa there. If you’re going to claim that Republicans have lined up “against vaccinations,” you’re going to need to back that up, with more than an errant Rand Paul comment.

      • JRM says:

        I think there are two separate fields:

        1. The vaccinations-cause-autism crowd. These people seem to run roughly parallel with the 9/11 truthers, which is to say more D’s than R’s, but surely some on both sides. For every Rand Paul, there’s slightly more than one Bill Maher.

        2. The Government-Should-Not-Force-Vaccinations crowd. This picks up a fair number of R’s, and I’d bet R’s win on this. Most D’s want government to fix things.

        (I am an R who supports mandatory vaccinations for kids in public schools.)

        • haishan says:

          I think you also need to look at two other populations:

          (A) People who are skeptical of vaccines or of the government mandating them;

          (B) People who actually don’t vaccinate their children.

          Polls suggest that (A) is about evenly split by party, or maybe slightly Republican-leaning; anecdotes and indirect estimates suggest that (B) leans white and liberal. This may just be an artifact of parents of young children skewing young and therefore Democratic, or there may be something more going on; for instance it may be that active non-vaxxers are disproportionately from (1).

          • Anthony says:

            Your option “A” is unclear – are you referring to general skepticism of government, or skepticism of a mandate for vaccination? It also conflates two very different positions, with different likely outcomes – a person who isn’t sure the government should be mandating vaccines is far more likely to vaccinate their own kids than a person who thinks that vaccines are ineffective, damaging, etc.

            Your (B) is far more than “leans white and liberal” – it’s pretty strongly a white, liberal phenomenon, as any perusal of the non-vaccination statistics would make clear. The claims by Democrat operatives that it’s a Republican thing are disingenuous at best.

          • haishan says:

            Anthony: Unfortunately the polling data I can find is pretty useless for disentangling the different groups of people in (A). The point is that there are people who believe the negation of “vaccines should be compulsory,” and people who actually don’t vaccinate, and they are demographically pretty different populations.

            You’re not gonna find any disagreement from me on the strength of the non-vax/white+liberal association. I just think it’s unproductive to get into shouting matches about exactly how white and liberal it is; what’s important is that it’s a different and smaller population than “people who agree with what Paul/Christie/’08 Obama said.”

    • Wrong Species says:

      There are probably other exceptions to it as well. I’m incredibly skeptical on those kinds of theories that try to explain why people believe the things they do. It’s usually just some variant on “my group is rational while they’re group is dumb”. Scott probably doesn’t believe that but it’s very convenient if you happen to be a progressive.

    • Depends on what you think youre being attached by.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      @Michael – “Scott’s Surve/Thrive theory seems to be incredibly good predictor of political positions on various topics. However, what is to be made of the recent politicizing of vaccinations with Dems lining up on the pro-vaccine side with Repbulicans against. Surely if we’re in a world that’s under attack not only would we expect our own child to be protected against diseases, we would also demand it of every other child.”

      As others have pointed out, I’m pretty sure the anti-vax movement is mostly democrat, not republican. From what I’ve seen, the pro-vaxxing side has taken the strategy of linking anti-vaxxing to percieved “anti-science” campaigns like intelligent design and climate skepticism.

      tl;dr: it’s “That’s the sort of thing a republican would say”, not “republicans say this.” Probably it’s very easy for the line between the two to be blurred by usual tribal effects.

      Also, from what I remember of the early days of anti-vaxxing from back when I found their arguments interesting enough to follow, the movement started as a conspiracy theory about the Bush administration mandating shoddy vaccines to drive profits to friendly pharma companies.

      • Irrelevant says:

        According to a graph I saw on twitter, so take this with copious helpings of salt, the party split on people who don’t vaccinate their children is pretty even.

        Difference? The Republicans who don’t vaccinate are spread pretty evenly all over the country and therefore have negligible health impact, while the Democrats who don’t vaccinate are concentrated in a handful of counties that are now outbreak-prone.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Irrelevant, could you find the graph for me?

          • AJD says:

            Irrelevant may have been thinking of the graph seen in this article.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Thanks, but that article says that both left and right non-vaxers come in clusters. I guess Irrelevant did not attribute that part to the graph.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Not with the amount of effort I’m willing to put in, unfortunately. I would have just linked it in the first place otherwise. Issue is I don’t remember who tweeted the article OR how long ago it was except in very vague terms, so I’d be searching about 6 weeks of posts by 20ish people to maybe find it. Sorry.

            It wasn’t the graph AJD linked, though the results were similar and may have been based on the same data though.

            that article says that both left and right non-vaxers come in clusters.

            It did assert that, but it’s a damn tenuous claim. The Pediatrics article it links only finds the clusters in the expected region of California (though it only looked in California) and the only counterbalancing non-liberal clusters the article mentions are two insular religious communities: The Amish and Orthodox Jews, neither of which is a group that maps well onto the traditional political spectrum.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          my view could be heavily colored by my usual communities, and by early experience with anti-Vaxxing, so you might well be right. I am pretty sure the modern iteration started during the Bush administration, and specifically during the bird flu pandemic worries in the mid-2000s.

    • Tarrou says:

      I think this one is pretty accidental. The “government should not mandate” is not only congenial to most Rs, it’s the basic common-sense position of most people. I think some left-leaning media people thought they were going to get some “gotcha” quotes from R politicos and started asking these questions, and then it turned out most of the recent anti-vacc activity is on the left.

      FWIW, the anti-vacc on the right isn’t based on the effectiveness of the treatment, it’s religious exceptions. I was never vaccinated as a child because to do so would demonstrate lack of faith in the ability of god to heal people. You can feel this is idiotic, but it is a honestly held religious belief, and it’s going to require a constitutional amendment to get around. So there’s that too.

  10. M.C. Escherichia says:

    Can anyone recommend a good placebo? I hear the “placebo” family of drugs is super-effective against many ailments, so I’d like to try taking one, maybe 3 times a day, I just need to think of a convenient one to acquire, not sugar-based since I don’t want to hurt my teeth…

    • Peter says:

      I find that the placebo effect works a bit better when potentiated with something pharmacologically active. In my experience, the placebo effect of SSRIs is so good, it starts kicking in before I even start taking them.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’ve never gotten to write this before: you might want to look into alternative medicine.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      I’d advise hypnosis, but it turns out that there may be more than a placebo involved, so your mileage may vary. 🙂

    • Paul Torek says:

      The answers to this thread (so far) are brilliant, especially if you take them seriously.

    • Tracy W says:

      Dihydrogen monoxide is a popular no-sugar option. Most homeopathic pharmacies carry it.

    • For real expertise on the high level version, let me recommend Christian Science practitioners. As Mark Twain remarked some time back, Christian Scientists know how to cure imaginary diseases, and since half the diseases mankind suffers from are imaginary that gives them a pretty good success rate.

  11. Andrew Sabisky says:

    one for the next linkfest: a fascinating paper that finds

    a) a surprisingly low mutation rate for older fathers (scarcely greater than that of teenage males)

    but coincidentally

    b) an incredibly high false paternity rate amongst West Africans – 8%, and this is in a big sample not biased towards pre-existing suspicions. For comparison, studies in Anglo countries find a false paternity rate of about 1%, and this study finds a similarly low rate in Middle Easterners (1.6%). Implications worth thinking about.

    • Harald K says:

      It’s not new that there are big cultural differences in how much cheating is going on, see the wikipedia page on monogamy for instance… attitudes toward infidelity have varied in our own cultures over time too.

      One factor which the paper discusses is that if the norm is that young women marry much older men, then the false paternity rate is going to be higher. Not because younger women (necessarily) cheat on older men more, but that they are more likely to get pregnant if they do.

      I see also that the big sample that the paper discusses, is people seeking family reunions in Germany. Since they take expensive paternity tests at their own expense, we can assume they think they’re related to their kids (assuming they know how DNA testing works), it is indeed surprising to see such high rates of non-paternity there.

      But people seeking family reunions to Germany – to one particular city of Germany and one in Austria, if I read the paper correctly – are not a random sample. If family reunions are anything like in Norway, a few extended family clans stand for a significant share of them, and this is even more likely if they’re all trying to immigrate to the same town. It would be most risky to generalize to all West-Africans.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Have attitudes towards infidelity changed over time? Non-paternity rates have not varied over time. Several studies have shown non-paternity rates of 2% over centuries in several countries in Western Europe. One over 700 years in England.

        • Mary says:

          How were they established?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Comparing the Y chromosomes of men with the same surname, for surnames rare enough not to have multiple origins. Half of men named Sykes really are directly descended from the original, 700 years ago. For common names, it’s more difficult, and I don’t know if they’ve tried.

          • Ano says:

            Presumably by comparing genetic markers between people who can trace back their lineage to a common ancestor 700 years ago.

          • fubarobfusco says:

            It seems to me that surname studies would likely pick up a certain amount of false bastardy due to people changing their names for one reason or another.

            Adoption is also a thing.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Right, non-paternity is an overestimate of false paternity.

          • RCF says:

            Don’t illegitimate children have the surname of their mother? How common have out-of-wedlock births been?

      • Deiseach says:

        Juliet loves Romeo but is forced by her family to marry Paris – what do we expect to happen next? Arranged marriages, especially of younger women to older men, possibly do have higher rates of infidelity – anyone know of any studies on this?

        • Andrew Sabisky says:

          well, it depends on context some. If the penalty for shagging Romeo is getting stoned to death, and that penalty is enforced with at least some non-zero frequency, I wouldn’t necessarily expect Juliet to stray very often, no matter how unappealing Paris is.

          • Deiseach says:

            You mean Sir Richard Burton LIED to me in his translation of the Thousand and One Nights, with all the tales of handsome young men and their derring-do in order to meet their lovers, the young and beautiful wives of old, rich, fat and suspicious merchants? 😉

          • JDG1980 says:

            That may have been the case in the Middle East, but I’m much more skeptical if it was the case in early modern Europe. When Henry VIII had two of his wives executed for adultery, this was considered a historically noteworthy event, not business as usual. There would certainly have been a serious social stigma against a woman who cheated on her husband, but the cuckolded man would also risk being a subject of ridicule before his peers. (“Why can’t he keep her satisfied? Maybe he can’t get it up? Maybe he prefers boys?”)

          • Deiseach says:

            Henry’s case was different; he was the king, so adultery by his wife was a threat to the dynasty if she became pregnant by her lover – that’s why he had Anne Boleyn accused of incest with her brother and of using witchcraft to entice him into marrying her.

            His second execution, that of the unfortunate Catherine Howard, was as much about the wounded vanity of an aging man as anything. And the very fact that his having his wives executed being noteworthy shows what I was saying – not that people accepted adultery as par for the course, or that cuckolds were not figures of fun, but that (a) human nature hasn’t changed and people will have affairs no matter the risk (b) society may disapprove, but it also realises these things happen (c) because Henry was mocked for his marital difficulties (see what the 16 year old Christina of Denmark said about his possible interest in her as a marriage alliance: “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”), the penalty for adultery was not death – kings being exceptional cases.

            Adultery with the spouse of the monarch could be considered a minor form of treason, and it was for that treason Anne and Catherine lost their heads (as well as for making Henry look a fool both at home and abroad). Indeed, Henry had Anne tried on treason charges (not alone was adultery by the queen treasonous, but she was accused of plottng with a lover or lovers to kill Henry)

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            I think adultery with the monarch’s spouse is still considered high treason in the UK.

  12. Barryogg says:

    So I got in a heated argument with my friend over Guantanamo last week, and it left me wondering: real life is not 24, so the ticking timebomb argument for torture doesn’t hold. But let’s assume the Least Convenient World. There’s five people kidnapped, in danger of suffocation or starvation, and the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured. And since death is worse than torture, in theory this should be an easier decision than the Trolley Problem, but for some reason I feel much more queasy about it than about pullling the lever. And I’m not quite sure why my intuitions diverge here.

    • zz says:

      Perhaps because the least convenient world is so different from IRL that I would be surprised if your intuitions hold.

      “Kidnappees live if and only if torture” is a pretty heroic assumption. Going forward, we have to assume that torture is definitely going to save the kidnappees, which fails a couple time: (a) we usually don’t get to be so overwhelmingly confident that the kidnapper knows their location (may have the wrong person, kidnappees may have escaped or been moved by accomplices) or (b) they may already be dead. Going the other way, you’re going to have to convince me that torture is the only way to retrieve the kidnappees, which, as technology progresses, I have increasing trouble accepting. the rescuers may even genuinely believe it’s their only option, but given a strong “no torture, no exceptions” constraint may be able to get creative and figure it out anyway.

      Also, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that torture is better than death.

      But, in our Least Convenient Possible World, our intuitions count for nothing because it is so wildly different from IRL where not only is torture okay, not torture is not okay.

      • Barryogg says:

        Good points, but I’m confused by your last sentence. Could you rephrase/expand on that?

        • Viliam Búr says:

          For almost any belief X you have, I can create a Least Convenient Possible World where having the belief X leads to a huge disaster.

          (Trivial example: In the Least Convenient Possible World there is a God who will send everyone to hell if you believe X, but will send everyone to heaven if you don’t believe X. Would you want to believe X in such world?)

          Therefore, the ability to create such Least Convenient Possible World is not per se an argument against X in our world.

          (It is more like an examination of X, where we could find out for example that X = X1 + X2, and you really only care about X1, but don’t care about X2, and the idea of the Least Convenient Possible World could force you to verbalize this difference.)

        • zz says:

          >But, in our Least Convenient Possible World, our intuitions count for nothing because it is so wildly different from IRL where not only is torture okay, not torture is not okay.

          I claim that the Least Convenient Possible World is so very different from IRL that we should expect our intuitions to yield incorrect results. For instance, IRL, our intuitions (correctly) proscribe torture. However, in this Least Convenient World, the things that generated this heuristic have broken down such that torture is acceptable. In fact, they’ve broken down so far that that we’re morally obligated to torturing kidnappers.

          • Barryogg says:

            I see, that’s what I thought you meant but I wasn’t sure. I think you sentence would be more readable if “where” was replaced with “that”.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      Possibly because pulling a lever, while less removed than inaction, is less direct an action (and much “cleaner”) than straight-up torture… perhaps try to conceptualize it as pulling a lever that activates a nondescript torture machine?

      • Randy M says:

        Trolley problem is not just pulling a lever, it is in some variations pushing a bystander into the path.
        Again, this is not a plausible world unless you know exactly what it will take to stop a trolley or relevant disaster.

    • Harald K says:

      In the real world, you’ll never know that “the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured”.

      Here’s a trolley type dilemma: A terrorist has taken two hostages, and he demands that unless you kill one of them, he will kill both. If you do, he will release the other one. Do you kill or do you not? (all other options are closed off by the usual trite trolley problem mechanisms).

      Trick question! The terrorist kills the other one even if you kill the first. Not only is he a murderer, he’s a liar too. (Imagine that! what’s the world coming to, when you can’t even trust terrorists in trolley problems?)

      The depressed perspective, which is in this case the right perspective, is that you can do everything the “best” way in this world and still fail. The terrorists kill everyone. The meteor wipes us all out. You lose custody and your ex-wife hides your kids for 17 years. Things that matter to you, things that are everything to you, are, when you come down to it, still ultimately at the mercy of forces outside your control. Even if you spend all your life assembling power. Even if you sacrifice 99% of those things you care about to you-know-who , in order to gain power to protect the last 1%.

      So don’t play that game. You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

      • Randy M says:

        “In the real world, you’ll never know that “the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured”. ”

        Presumably you’ve already tried asking nicely. You can be certain that they haven’t given the whereabouts yet, or prescribe a sequence to follow that escalates if no true leads have been given.

        On second thought and more charitably, you probably mean “You can’t know whether they really know nothing or are lying to you.”

        But regardless, there is surely cases no more implausible where torture is rational than, say, suicide/euthanasia or forced hospitalization, stopping trolleys, etc. from a utilitarian, rationalist perspective, right?

      • +1 to this, which is more important than every other answer to this thread combined:

        So don’t play that game. You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Amen. My response to any such “do evil act X or I will do evil act Y” situation would be, “I have no way to hold you to your word and the most important thing I know about you is that you are the kind of person who would force somebody to act evilly. Frankly, I suspect you’ll do Y anyway. So go ahead and do it.”

      • keranih says:

        You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

        The conflict arises because one puts values on saving lives, and to adhearing to a moral/ethical code. In this case, the possibility of saving a life (of another) vs the certainty of violating the moral code (of ones self).

        At what point does adhearing to ones moral code be sufficently valuable to discard the life of another?

        Most would say lying, torture of a human, and torture of an animal are all wrong. Nearly all would say that it’s okay to lie to the police about the Honduran immigrants in your attic. Nearly all would say that it’s not okay to torture the cop into telling you where the arrested Hondurans are being taken.

        The debate over using animals to test medications to use in relief efforts in Honduras (and elsewhere) is a bit more open.

        There are people willing to die for what they believe, and we tend to honor those people. We have some less sympathy for those who would only put their honor on the table for sacrifice.

      • Anthony says:

        A terrorist has taken two hostages, and he demands that unless you kill one of them, he will kill both. If you do, he will release the other one. Do you kill or do you not?

        Phrased somewhat differently and fuzzily, this is approximately the decision that the police need to make every time there’s a “hostage situation” that they can’t negotiate the release of the hostages. It’s not exact, because it’s possible that none of the hostages will die, but it’s also possible that all the hostages will die. But the police have to expect that trying a rescue in force will result in hostage death(s) when deciding whether to do it.

    • John Schilling says:

      For every actual ticking-bomb / hostage-in-deathtrap scenario where the only hope is a nigh-unflappable terrorist that you’ve got in custody but can’t crack, there are at least ten thousand pissed-off policemen who have locked up probably-harmless criminals except, well, the criminal might have accomplices who might right now be plotting to kill all the eyewitnesses, here’s our circumstantial evidence, clearly we have to get to the bottom of this right now by any means necessary…

      Real human beings are really, really bad at doing ad-hoc consequentialist ethical calculations in real time for emotionally charged situations. Torture is convenient, easy, effective, and emotionally satisfying. So:

      Plan A: An absolute deontological rule about not torturing people, EVER, NO EXCEPTIONS.

      Plan B: A whole lot of mostly-harmless criminals and no small number of innocent bystanders are going to be tortured – many of them to death – because some cop was having a bad day. On rare occasion we will find out about this afterwards and agree that the cop’s ethical calculations were in error and a bad thing happened and we’ll feel bad about it.

      Plan C. Whatever you thought fit in the “plan C” slot, is really another form of Plan B.

      Corollary: If you’re the cop who decides that because this time the ticking bomb is nuclear and you’re all out of ideas, that does constitute a justification for torture, that leaves the rest of us with a different dilemma:

      Plan A: denounce, vilify, and then execute or imprison for life one consequentially-ethical cop who saved thousands of lives.

      Plans B & C: see above.

      It is consequentially and deontologically virtuous for the rest of us to toss Jack in prison and throw away the key. Sorry, Jack – it’s for the greater good.

      Also, if you pull the lever to divert the trolley onto the track with the one victim, we’re probably going to throw you in prison as well.

      • FacelessCraven says:


        If the ticking time bomb is worth sacrificing the suspect’s right not to be tortured, it’s worth sacrificing the cop’s right not to be imprisoned as a torturer as well.

        • Jiro says:

          By that reasoning we should treat jailors as kidnappers (what punishment to give them that is not recursive is beside the point), saying “if preventing crime is worth sacrificing the subject’s right not to be imprisoned, it’s worth sacrificing the jailor’s right not to be treated as a kidnapper, too”.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            There is no broad agreement that being jailed for a crime you’re convicted of is a serious injustice.

            If stopping the bomb is really worth torturing someone, it’s probably worth torturing someone + jailing the torturer too. If it’s not worth the later, how sure are you that it’s worth the former, and why?

            [EDIT] – It seems to me that you suggest an interesting point, though. The problem with torture isn’t its efficacy as punishment, but rather its efficacy as coercion. I’m not sure I object nearly as strongly to various “tortures” in a punishment context as I do in an interrogative one.

          • John Schilling says:

            Imprisoning people is frequently necessary[*], and jailers derive no great benefit from doing so. It is a necessary part of a job that provides them with a paycheck, but it’s not a particularly good job or large paycheck. There is no great moral hazard of jailers arranging to imprison more people than they ought to.

            Torture, by comparison, is almost never a necessary part of police or even military intelligence work, but it is a very useful expediency for an unethical cop. Allows him to at least appear to do the job we expect him to do by other less harmful means, with less personal effort and aggravation. There is thus a great moral hazard that the existence of any provision for legal torture will result in the frequent torture of people who have annoyed an overworked cop but otherwise done no wrong.

            A strict “No torture, no excuses, Or Else.” policy will either allow a very very few terrorist bombings that could have been stopped, or punish a very very few cops for having stopped terrorist bombings the only way they could, and it will prevent many innocent people from being tortured. Net win on consequentialist grounds, and a prime candidate for any deontological system.

            [*] in the sense of being the least-harmful method yet devised for addressing a very common and harmful problem.

          • Irrelevant says:

            There is no great moral hazard of jailers arranging to imprison more people than they ought to.

            Except when there is!

          • Torture warrants have been put forward as a way of alowing torture under exceptional circumstances , whilst not casualising it.


          • John Schilling says:

            What good does that do, in a world where warrants are rubber-stamp approvals for whatever the police want to do?

            Normally, the warrant requirement at least requires the police to go on record and document what they plan to do, which is worth something. But I’m pretty certain that the cops who want to torture people will claim that these are also cases that have to be kept absolutely secret so as to avoid tipping off the terrorists who are plotting mayhem and evil. That puts us squarely in the territory of the FISA Court and its 0.03% rejection rate, rather than ordinary courts which seem to “only” approve 99.35% of search warrant requests, and possibly as few as 81% of warrant requests from notoriously corrupt law enforcement agencies.

            This is not to say that the courts themselves are corrupt or incompetent. Rather, courts are intrinsically adversarial, and when a process is necessarily structured to exclude the defendant, the prosecution will win every time. You’ve got the wrong tool for the job.

            Nobody has yet invented the right tool for the job.

          • suntzuanime says:

            A low rejection rate proves nothing except that the conditions under which a warrant will be granted are clear and the applicants are smart enough not to waste the judge’s time with defective applications. Selection bias!

          • John Schilling says:

            That would explain a 19% rejection rate. It is not plausible at 0.65% and utterly ridiculous at 0.03%. Members of two different professions do not ever agree that often on explicitly contentious matters.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            By that standards you must think Japan is a dystopian police state. The alternative is that the rules are clear for what can be accepted and they only put forward requests that will be accepted.

          • Jiro says:

            I’d certainly say that Japan’s judicial system is doing something very unsavory and that the extremely high conviction rate in Japan is a sign that innocent people are being convicted.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Jiro, I used to think so, but then I realized that conviction is an unnatural category for comparison across very different systems. A more natural category is clearance, which is lower in Japan than America.

            Also, almost all crimes in Japan that go to trial have a confession. Only 1% of the time does the judge throw out the confession, but American judges throw even fewer plea-bargains.

          • John Schilling says:

            In the particular arena of law enforcement, Japan is a dystopian police state. That 99+% conviction rate is basically achieved by torturing the accused until they confess. Even if they happen to be innocent. Oh, wait, that isn’t “torture”, that’s just “interrogation”. Using threats, physical abuse, stress positions, sleep deprivation,isolation and all the other “interrogation” techniques that have people saying all sorts of nasty things about the CIA. Possibly the CIA has gotten a bad rap.

            Or possibly this is what happens when you start saying, “Hey, torture, seems really useful and effective, we’ll just put some judicial protections in place and everything will be fine!”. And from the outside, everything looks fine. The actual torture takes place in clean isolated rooms you’ll never see, the victims disappear into prisons or psych wards where you’ll never hear from them (or they just neatly commit suicide), and the streets are clean, safe, and crime-free.

            Jiro’s intuition is spot-on. In anything as inherently contentious as law enforcement, if everyone agrees that everyone has been doing the right thing 99+% of the time, that’s basically a screaming neon sign saying that nobody is even trying to stop people from doing something very, very wrong.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            John, declaring a system to be “dystopian” is meaningless grandstanding. The useful question is whether it is better or worse than another system. Does anything you said in your comment distinguish the Japanese system from the American? Ultimately, does it produce more or fewer false confessions?

            As I said, the 99% conviction rate is not interesting. But your Economist link claims that 95% of those arrested sign confessions. That is a more interesting claim, though still difficult to compare across countries. It is, however, in contradiction to other sources I have seen.

          • John Schilling says:

            I would have chosen a word other than “dystopian”, but I wasn’t the one who asked the question. If the question is asked without objection, answering it is not grandstanding.

            The 99% conviction rate I do find interesting, for reasons already stated.
            As for the 95% confession rate, what sources have you been seeing that say anything different? Googling for “Japan police conviction rate” and taking the first ten results with numerical answers, I get in addition to the Economist’s 95%, figures of 89%, 95%, 92%, 90%, 86-92%, 90%, more than 90%, 92%, and more than 95%. Some of these are harder numbers than the rest, but it averages to about 92% of arrests leading to confessions.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            John, most of your sources do not say that. Only 2, 4, and 7 claim to count confessions per interrogation or per suspect. 6 talks about the confession rate without making any indication of the denominator. 1, 3*, 5, and probably 8 and 9 (p336-337=p21-22) are about the proportion of trials prosecuted with a confession. I have see the second rate quoted many times and I imagine it is correct. It corresponds to the American rate of guilty pleas. The rate in Japan is comparable to the rate in federal courts, though higher than the rate in state courts. I suspect that 2, 4, 7, and the Economist are mistaken, transforming the second kind of confession rate into the first, perhaps passing through a ambiguous source like 3 or 6.

            Your last source, p363(p48), says that while 40% of convicts go to jail, 5% of formal suspects go to jail. Thus very few formal suspects go to trial. But that does not show that they do not confess, because there are non-judicial guilty resolutions. My opinions were formed a few years ago by reading a number of papers, only one of which I recorded. On page 9 it says that 1/6 of arrests go to trial, compatible with the previous numbers. For murder, 43% of arrests lead to trial. Presumably there are no non-judicial guilty resolutions and the other 57% were cleared. I suppose it is possible that they confessed, but another’s confession was more convincing, but a footnote seems to say that they did not confess.

            Also, what we care about is the confessions per interrogation, not the confessions per arrest. It may well be that the arrest happens after the confession. But it is probably hard to get numbers on voluntary interrogation.

            * While the text of 3 is ambiguous, the slides break down confession rate by court, suggesting that it is a proportion of trials, not a proportion of interrogations.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Bang, nail on the head. Comment of the week in my book.

    • A good litmus test for whether it’s really a good idea to torture a suspect for information is “Am I willing to be judged by a jury of my peers and quite possibly go to jail for this?” Unless you’re in a pathologically inconvenient world where only Jack Bauer can save the world and needs to do so every year.

      • Tracy W says:

        The only solution I’ve come up with to that scenario that I’m comfortable is if for when I’m the police officer, and then afterwards I hand myself in for the full legal punishment for torturing someone. (Not just submit to going on trial, just plead guilty, go straight to jail, do not collect $200.)

        That’s the incentive-aligning solution. If I’m so certain and the outcome is so bad that I, personally, am willing to go to jail for 10 years rather than live with the outcome of not torturing, then I’ll do it.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          This is the philosophy behind the ancient proverb, “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” If you really think you have to, then do it. But be prepared to face the consequences.

    • blah says:

      Given flawed human nature, morally permissible actions != morally permissible policy. There’s a difference between a police officer roughing up a suspect in the back room before the bomb goes off, and the president maintaining a network of designated torture sites around the world.

    • “Death is worse than torture”

      Citation needed. It’s not like the torturee gets to state their preference and have it be respected.

      • Troy says:

        I had a number of people in an ethics class I taught years ago who were either planning to join the military or had already been in the military. This issue came up when we discussed torture, and almost all agreed that they’d rather be tortured than killed.

        • Anonymous says:

          Are they just not very imaginative?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            I would imagine it depends rather heavily on how you set the choice up. I would rather be tortured for five minutes, say, then die. That seems like an easy choice. I’m not sure I’d rather chronic torture for, say, a year than a nice clean checkout now.

          • RCF says:

            “I would rather be tortured for five minutes, say, then die.”

            I take it you mean “than die”.

        • Thomas Eliot says:

          Did you poll them again after they experienced a variety of tortures for various durations? The suicide rate among veterans strongly supports the “they are unimaginative” hypothesis

    • Anonymous says:

      > death is worse than torture

      I think anyone could be made to beg for death.

    • Airgap says:

      Maybe this is a sign that your intuitions are wrong about the Trolley Problem too.

      There’s also the problem that torture is usually a crappy way to get intel from prisoners. It’s much more effective to manipulate or con them. Tell the kidnapper you’ve rescued the hostages already, and they’re giving statements to the police now, and he’s finished. But if he gives a full confession, you can take the death penalty off the table. “Just start from the beginning, and tell me the whole story…you drove where? Okay, go on…” This is how actual spies do it. Not because their superior morals prevent them from torturing, but because it’s the winning strategy. Lots of cold warriors would have been perfectly happy torturing commies if it worked. It mostly didn’t, and they wanted to win.

      Also, in the real world, pushing people in front of trolleys to stop them is a shit strategy. Sailer went on about this for a while: “What would probably happen is you end up in a wrestling match with the guy you’re trying to push in front of the trolley while it keeps going and kills the people” or words to that effect.

      I know these are supposed to be philosophical thought experiments to draw out issues, but I don’t see where it’s written that I’m not allowed to transcend the thought experiment in order to gain even greater insight. Or rather, I did see where it was written, but I crossed it out and replaced it with scatological graffiti.

      • James Picone says:

        I think the point of not challenging the hypothetical is that “Can you stop a trolley by throwing a guy in front of it?” isn’t the interesting question here, the question is “In a situation where you can take a positive action that will kill n people and save m people, or take no action, killing m people, n < m, is it ethical to take the positive action?"

        • Airgap says:

          I don’t think that’s an interesting question. And if the point of these is to generate interest, I find it hard to see how splitting hairs about the acceptability of torture is supposed to be more interesting than learning about spies.

      • Anonymous says:

        OMG this. I hate that about trolley problems. Because of course in actuality our moral intuitions are rooted in our physicality, not in our capacity for abstract moral reasoning.

        I don’t think the fact that people would flip a switch to kill one person and save five but wouldn’t push a person onto the tracks to kill one person and save five tells you anything interesting. I think it demonstrates that people actually imagine those scenarios when they’re described to them, and when they play out the “push a guy onto the tracks” idea their brain says “nope, that wouldn’t work. Nope, really wouldn’t work. Well, now I’ve just tried to kill someone for no reason.” And of course that affects how they evaluate the correct course of action, even if they’re trying conscientiously to ignore the implausibility.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Yes. In a physical emergency situation, you react by physical reflexes, and training if any, and intuitions like “First, do no harm”.

          For a 1 to 5 situation that is imaginable, there’s a vegetative patient scheduled for organ harvesting tomorrow. He sits up and says, “Hey, I could get well”. You could get away with ignoring this and telling no one. Do you let the harvest proceed as scheduled, find an excuse to postpone it and see what happens, or tell the world and cancel it? — Me, I’d probably let it proceed.

    • Tarrou says:

      I view the whole thing a bit differently, from a Law of War perspective. This is basically codified rules where we all agree that certain behaviors we don’t want done to our guys if they’re captured, so we won’t do that to others we capture. Quid pro quo. Nation states can be held responsible for the actions of their militaries (Japan, etc.).

      Assymetric warfare falls outside this purview, and as such has always been sanctioned differently by nation states. This sort of warfare disproportionately falls on civilians both as targets of the aggression and as the camouflage of one side of the combatants. Furthermore, in these specific cases, there is no quid pro quo for prisoners, they torture and execute almost all prisoners.

      All this is beside the morality of the action, and the precise definitions of what exactly torture is (which are not usually productive). However, in realpolitik and international law of war, there is no reason whatsoever not to torture ISIS prisoners, for instance. If people want the protections of the Geneva conventions, by those conventions they need to be the uniformed armed forces of a nation that has signed those conventions. Spies, saboteurs, covert ops, snipers etc. have never fallen under the conventions except as a matter of tradition. This is a similar case to extending constitutional protections to non-citizens. We can do it if we want to, but we don’t have to. We can extend Geneva Conventions to captured terrorists, but we are under no compulsion to do so. They do not merit them.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        I’m pretty sure snipers count as regular soldiers- they are no more immoral than bomber pilots or artillery.

        • Tarrou says:

          As I said, this is all beside the morality of it all. The issue with snipers is not morality, but identification. Wearing a ghillie suit or a “sanitized” uniform (one without unit, military and personal identification) places one outside the protections afforded to uniformed military personnel. It’s not enough to be a member of a military, you must be identifiable as a member of that military, and from range. The whole purpose is to protect civilians, who will be targeted more if one side does not wear identifying uniforms. Basically, if you are not identifiable as a soldier to the enemy, you are an assymetric combatant and do not have any rights under conventional law of war. In practice, most rights are extended anyway, but this is not a requirement.

          Not many people have trouble identifying civilian from military aircraft (except the Ukrainian separatists?). And artillery is almost exclusively the purview of military forces.

          • Anthony says:

            Snipers are not inherently “out of uniform”. The laws of war require merely an armband, so that irregular forces can still claim combatant status under the laws of war. So wearing a black tracksuit with an army armband is enough for a sniper.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          I’m almost positive that isn’t how military law works. For starters that would imply the usage of snipers is a war crime. I’m pretty sure no one has ever been prosecuted for that in since the convention was laid down.

          • Tarrou says:

            The use of snipers isn’t a war crime unless they target the civilian population expressly. The snipers are merely taking a personal risk if captured, as the opponent is not required to treat them as an official POW (not a huge concern these days, any opponent we have won’t observe the conventions in any case). Snipers were often executed out of hand in the past when captured.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Did you miss Anthony’s point? Snipers are covered by the convention- you are not allowed to shoot them out of hand.

            Your position also implies it is acceptable to shoot out of hand soldiers that work without shirts. Oddly enough the Japanese didn’t get to claim that for the Pacific front.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Snipers are covered by the convention, but they are usually shot out of hand if anyway as line troops really, really, REALLY hate taking sniper fire. This is technically a war crime when it happens, but trying to prevent this is generally understood to be impossible.

            wearing a ghillie suit doesn’t matter, since the soldier is wearing a uniform under it anyway. There is a difference between camouflage and disguise; the former is acceptable, the latter is banned.

    • JDG1980 says:

      Your intuitions diverge because they are based on the real world, not a thought experiment. And in the real world, we know that torture is a relatively ineffective method of interrogation, and we also know that if it is allowed to be used, it will metastasize and become used in more and more marginal cases, not just the rare “ticking bomb” hypothetical.

      It’s like one variant of the trolley problem. “Assume if you push a fat guy off a bridge, he’ll stop the onrushing trolley.” No, I won’t assume that, because I know for a fact that it’s not true. Philosophers wonder why people answer this one differently than the one about flipping a track switch, but the answer is obvious: they believe flipping the switch will actually achieve the desired result, but don’t believe that pushing the fat man off the bridge will do so, no matter how hard you stipulate it. And they’re right to think this way, since we live in the real world.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        in the real world, we know that torture is a relatively ineffective method of interrogation

        I keep seeing this Blue Tribe meme about the ineffectiveness of torture; I have never seen a good justification for it. How, exactly, do we know this?

        • houseboatonstyx says:
        • FacelessCraven says:

          Torturing a person doesn’t make them tell the truth. It doesn’t even make people do what you want them to. Torturing someone makes them do whatever they think they can do to make the torture stop. If you knew exactly what that was with a high degree of reliability for every potential subject, then you wouldn’t need torture in the first place because you could already read minds.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            This is a problem but not an insurmountable one. There are methods which can be used to sort truth from fiction with a reasonably good success rate.

            I do not advocate torture, but I am not going to claim it never works to support my opposition, because that’s not true.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            I’m pretty sure the success rate of “people we torture are actually our enemies” is higher than the rate of “people killed in the drone strike were actually our enemies”. I’m not seeing a fantastic amount of difference.

          • Cauê says:

            It seems quite obvious to me that torture would work in cases where information would be hard to get but easy to check. This appears to remain true even if all arguments for “torture never works” were granted.

            Other uses for torture should be effective as well. I think the meme makes a lot of sense for confessions, but not much else.

            (insert the obvious disclaimers here)

            My take is this meme thrives on the affect heuristic, with a bonus for instinctive disgust at being perceived as saying “positive” things about something repellent, in a way similar to the drive to search for some way out of giving an actual answer to trolley problems.

        • On the effectiveness of torture …

          Under Athenian law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture, presumably because they wanted slaves to testify against their masters and the masters could punish them for doing so.

          Our main sources on Athenian law are orations written by professional orators to be memorized and delivered by the parties. They include two orations on the subject of the reliability of evidence procured by torture. One points out the obvious problem—the victim will say whatever you want to get you to stop torturing him. The other reports that, in all of the history of Athens, there was no case in which testimony taken under torture had turned out to be false.

          They were both composed by the same orator.

        • Irrelevant says:

          It’s easy to check: try and torture multiple people into confessing for the same crime. If that works, torture doesn’t.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Torturing for confessions needs to be distinguished from torturing for information. If torture can be used to get a person to say whatever you want, it is precisely this property which makes it valuable for the latter, and unhelpful for the former.

          I’ve sometimes been amused by the mixed messages of pop culture attempting to hew to the “torture doesn’t work” line. On Burn Notice, if our heroes had the bad guy in custody, they would never torture him, because of course that doesn’t work; better do some convoluted con instead. On the other hand, if the bad guys had one of the good guys, it was a race against time, because they have ways of making you talk, and you never know if somebody will hold out or not.

          Are you 99% certain that you wouldn’t give up important information under torture? Because that’s pretty much the implication of “torture doesn’t work.”

          • Fnord says:

            “Torture doesn’t work at all” is somewhere between a rhetorical simplification, a partisan talking point, and a weakman. The more sophisticated (and perfectly sufficient to justify banning torture) argument is “torture doesn’t work better than (or indeed as well as) other interrogation techniques”.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            I’d think the continued use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by intelligence agencies would be evidence that torture does work, at least to an extent.

          • Harald K says:

            For torture to “work”, it’s not enough that once in a blue moon the victim may give accurate information. They would have to give accurate information often enough that it outweighs all the times they give false information.

            But it’s an academic question, since torture is always used to get confessions/justifications, never information. I can’t think of a single counterexample. I don’t think they exist.

            Whatever Happened to Anonymous: Sure, it can work. It probably doesn’t work for what they claim it works for, but it can work to get what they’re actually aiming for: confessions, justifications to move against others, and in general arguments for the agencies own continued existence and empowerment.

            The US government tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed because they wanted a Saddam-Al Qaeda link. They tortured Sami al-Hajj because they wanted an Al Jazeera-Al Qaeda link. In both cases they didn’t get what they wanted. Maybe they should take a tip from Stalin and North Korea, and start threatening family members instead.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Harald, you don’t think that there is a single documented case in the history of the world of a torturer who wanted information? You are coddled in a peaceful time when information is not valuable, but people in war certainly do want information. The Gestapo didn’t want excuses or justifications, because it didn’t need excuses to justify its actions. Here are a bunch of examples from WWII.

          • Harald K says:

            Douglas Knight, is the best documentation you can come up with a blog post on another site with unsourced allegations?

            Bear in mind that torturers have an incentive to lie about torture working, not just to political leadership but to their enemies. If you really know A and B are both in the resistance and capture A, then torture him and get him to incriminate B (since you can put words in B’s mouth, this will be a lot easier than getting him to incriminate some unknown C you’ve never heard about). Sure, you could have moved against B right away, but now you’ve demoralized and scared the resistance.

            If you have decrypted the enemy’s communication or otherwise have covert intelligence on them, you risk exposing your source by relying on information thus gained. A myth of effective torture is useful here – it gives you an excuse to use the information, plus it has the same demoralizing effect on the enemy.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The more sophisticated (and perfectly sufficient to justify banning torture) argument is “torture doesn’t work better than (or indeed as well as) other interrogation techniques”.

            I think it’s clear what we need: a rigorous double-blind study comparing torture to other interrogation techniques (and, of course, placebo-based interrogation).

        • Cauê says:

          This meme partially comes from misunderstandings about how torture is or can be used. Interview with former CIA director (the whole thing is interesting):

          ‘2. EITs were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly.
          Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren’t torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” Instead, EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. “
          10. EITs liberated detainees from religious bondage. Rodriguez said Abu Zubaydah eventually “told us that we should use waterboarding … on all the brothers,” because

          “the brothers needed to have religious justification to talk, to provide information. However, they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities [of] resistance. So once they felt that they were there, they would then become compliant and provide information. So he basically recommended to us that we needed to submit the brothers to this type of procedure. … As a matter of fact, it would help them reach the level where they would become compliant and provide information.”

          Hayden said the Abu Zubaydah story “was important for my own soul-searching on this.” The detainee’s view of the interrogators, he said, was that “Allah expects us to obey him, but he will not send us a burden that is greater than we can handle. You have done that. Therefore you have freed my soul, that I can speak to you without fear of hell.”’

  13. David Hart says:

    So, I’m not sure it’s polite to re-open a subthread on an old post, but here goes. A couple of weeks ago I got into a brief discussion in this sub-thread about the use of language that excludes-by-implication a lot of people when non-exclusionary language is perfectly available. I didn’t keep up because a) I’m terrible at remembering to go back to scan for replies, and b) knowing that people do need to deliberately scan for replies, if I need to go and think about my reply and the website as a whole has moved on, I may not bother. Can I second Rachael and say that an option to emailed only when someone specifically replies to you would be great.

    …but in the meantime I later ended up in a discussion on Facebook about cultural appropriation, where a friend of mine was asking people not to use expressions from African American Vernacular English (unless,presumably, they were native speakers), and I expressed some skepticism about how far it was productive to take this principle if people are merely borrowing words from another dialect, and not actually using them in a way that is dismissive, belittling or generally taking the piss. They seem to be arguing for a sort of intellectual property rights regime whereby if you come up with an idea, and you are a member of a group A that has a significant history of being mistreated by group B, you ought to be entitled to expect members of group B from making their own use of that idea. Which I can understand in some circumstances, but the idea that it is always wrong to make use of an idea from a culture that members of your culture have mistreated would seem to preclude a lot of the cultural exchange that makes art, music, dance, literature etc fresh and interesting, and that sounds like too high a price to pay.

    The initial comment was a disclaimer expressing the intention to use the word ‘man’ to refer to all of humanity, despite the fact that it excludes by implication all humans who are not men. I wouldn’t have bothered commenting at all if the person hadn’t specifically drawn attention to the fact that they were using it (and, quite possibly, neither would Ozy, but because it had nothing to do with the substantive content of the main body of the comment, it stood out as a gratutious put-down to anyone not of the commenter’s tribe, when there was no obvious reason to bring tribalism into it. Anyway, others chimed in to say that it was important not to accede to requests to modify one’s language to avoid causing discomfort to others, since this will only incentivise become to become more easily-offended and make more such requests until … well, I’m not quite sure what the end point of the process is in every case, but I can certainly understand Nydwarcu’s argument in the case of, say, religious extremists demanding no one ever say anything they consider blasphemous, then tightening their position until eventually you’re not allowed to say anything less-than-gushingly-reverential about their religion. But I can’t be comfortable making that a general proposition, since some uses of language are genuinely hurtful (for instance, racial slurs, for reasons expressed by our host in part V of this post … and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.

    The only middle ground I can think of is to consider all requests to modify one’s language or behaviour for other people’s comfort, and evaluate whether the cost of doing so is low, or the reduction in discomfort is high, and the risk of a spiral of self-modification is low, but I’ve no idea how to calibrate these things.

    From my own perspective, not using racial slurs, and remembering to use the inclusive ‘human’, ‘people’ etc forms rather than ‘man’, ‘mankind’, using ‘they’ as gender-neutral singular for nonspecified people, looks trivially easy, compared to, say, using ‘they’ for a specific, named person (though I appreciate the reasons why it’s worth making the effort, and I do try to remember). And these are instances where there is a genuine belittling or dehumanising inference in the words in question: even though some individual people are not bothered by them, or consider them too trivial to worry about (and are perfectly within their rights to do so), others are bothered, and are entitled to be bothered – just as, say, a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

    Whereas scanning your vocabulary for phrases that arose among marginalised groups seems like a lot more cognitive effort for a lot less pay-off in terms of other people’s comfort. But my estimate could be wildly atypical – perhaps there are people who find the extra cognitive load of using the more inclusive terms to be exhausting, but have no problem at all avoiding loan-words from marginalised dialects.

    So my question to the community is: assuming you want to steer an optimum course between causing needless offence and incentivising a form of heckler’s veto, how do you try to get a handle on the numbers?

    • Anon says:

      Here’s how to fix your problem:

      1. You choose not to be offended by words.
      2. You ignore people who use insults instead of arguments.

    • lmm says:

      > some uses of language are genuinely hurtful (for instance, racial slurs, for reasons expressed by our host in part V of this post … and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.

      Not convinced. The argument you link is basically that it’s legitimate to not want people to use a word that was used by people who hurt you. Which seems perilous: is it ok to insist that people not dress like people who hurt you? That people of the same race as people who hurt you must avoid you? These things can be more “triggering” than word choice, after all.

      Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason. Would that be so bad? To my mind the main difference would be that we’d have a higher quality of discourse.

      • Nita says:

        Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason.

        That would be nice (perhaps), but so far we’ve seen something else:

        – everyone becomes as offensive as they can,
        – and then everyone sits in echo chambers, circlejerking about the evil and stupid outgroup(s)

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Would it be so bad? It depends on how the arms race plays out. If defense doesn’t broadly best offense, it’s pretty bad. If the contest favors certain groups over others, that might also be bad.

        Compare to the same argument except with violence.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I believe it was in one of the links posts here that I saw the story of a college student who was in essence subjected to a restraining order because a fellow student said she reminded him of the person who raped her. Turns out that slippery slope is more of an indifferently icy front step.

      • Jiro says:

        Having “genuinely hurtful” as a criterion is an incentive for people to feel genuinely hurt by more and more things. (And given how human psychology works, they actually can feel genuinely hurt even though it would be within their power not to be hurt by them.)

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          For a very long time, it’s been generally accepted that words like ‘fuck’, ‘asshole’, etc are genuinely hurtful. If the justification for those is, “Well, you shouldn’t be hurt, suck it up” — then perhaps all claims of “That word hurts me” should be similarly dismissed.

          • Irrelevant says:

            But that’s untrue. What’s been generally accepted is that those words shouldn’t be said in polite company. That’s far, far different from being genuinely hurtful, whatever “genuinely hurtful” even means.

            Hell, depending on relational context, treating someone as if they were polite company can be genuinely hurtful. Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” makes use of that fact in its introductory scene, for instance.

      • Tracy W says:

        Some thoughts:
        1. if a word can be substituted by another word that conveys basically the same meaning, is pronounceable but is not a slur, do the substitution. .
        2. be less likely to do the subsititution the longer the word length gets going.
        3. if the suggested replacement conveys no meanginful information to the average educated but not specialist reader, don’t do it (in other words “Atlantic Archipealago” is ridiculous as a replacement for the British Isles).
        4. if the objection is to basically discussing a concept, that’s an illegitimate request. (Eg, why religion X sucks).
        5. If the community in question has no agreement on what a good terminology is (not just a couple of cranks, but en masse), ignore (or alternatively, go shoot yourself.).

        So, using “decent” instead of “Christian”, fine.

      • Mary says:

        “Which seems perilous: is it ok to insist that people not dress like people who hurt you? That people of the same race as people who hurt you must avoid you? ”

        Not hypothetical, BTW.

        I recently assisted a young man who was subjected by administrators at his small liberal arts university in Oregon to a month-long investigation into all his campus relationships, seeking information about his possible sexual misconduct in them (an immense invasion of his and his friends’ privacy), and who was ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away. He was found to be completely innocent of any sexual misconduct and was informed of the basis of the complaint against him only by accident and off-hand. But the stay-away order remained in place, and was so broadly drawn up that he was at constant risk of violating it and coming under discipline for that.

        from here:

      • FacelessCraven says:

        “Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason.”

        To reiterate a previous comment, there are places on the internet that have tested this theory, and if you’re willing to subject yourself to the inculcation process, they’re actually pretty great.

    • indifferent says:

      courtesy is extraordinarily cheap compared to the dividends it pays. despite the way people describe it ‘respectful behavior’ requires no empathy whatsoever and very little cognitive resources beyond the initial memorization. it is an extremely low hanging fruit in social interactions.

      what the particular rules of courtesy happen to be are irrelevant. unless your goal is explicitly to change those rules it is much more pragmatic to follow along with them and thereby make achieving your actual goals easier.

      • Gbdub says:

        Sure, but at some point a request for courtesy can become a demand for kowtowing. I think this discussion was meant to be a question of where we ought to draw that line.

        Personally I think requests for courtesy ought to be reasonable and reciprocal – what is the courtesy requester willing to compromise for the comfort of the requestee? “People who look like you were historically nasty to people who look like me” is not sufficient to do away with the reciprocity requirement, I think.

        • indifferent says:

          i think i’ve been unclear. my main point isn’t to adopt any particular proposed set of rules but that fighting over which rules we ‘ought’ to use is itself a waste of time. especially since none of us have or likely will ever obtain the power to make those decisions.

          if some upstart has to request / demand a particular ‘courtesy’ then obviously it is not yet the norm and you’re not going to get anything from following it. as a great (fictional) man once said “any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”

          if however you have wandered into the forbidden city then it’s absolutely in your best interest to kowtow. there are kings in every society and your word choice is a large determinant of whether they will treat you favorably or unfavorably.

          ‘oughts’ related to pride or ethics are irrelevant here. it’s a simple question of succeeding or failing to adapt your behavior to meet new circumstances

          • Gbdub says:

            The trick is that in the contexts we’re discussing, it’s not clear whether or not you’re in the forbidden city. We have a mishmash of subcultures intermingled, plus social norms are legitimately evolving, so at the margin there’s going to be a clash of expectations and it’s not entirely obvious who can claim to be the “norm” or even if there is a norm at all.

            Certainly, when in Rome do as the Romans. But what are my social obligations as an American should I happen to come across a Roman in Shanghai?

      • Mary says:

        “very little cognitive resources beyond the initial memorization”

        Huh? Is it not conspicuously obvious that the tactic nowadays is to keep changing them so you can’t memorize them?

      • Deiseach says:

        Woo-hoo! I get a chance to quote this Belloc poem! 🙂

        Of Courtesy, it is much less
        Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
        Yet in my Walks it seems to me
        That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

        On Monks I did in Storrington fall,
        They took me straight into their Hall;
        I saw Three Pictures on a wall,
        And Courtesy was in them all.

        The first the Annunciation;
        The second the Visitation;
        The third the Consolation,
        Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

        The first was of St. Gabriel;
        On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;
        And as he went upon one knee
        He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

        Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –
        It was Her month of heavy load;
        Yet was her face both great and kind,
        For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

        The third it was our Little Lord,
        Whom all the Kings in arms adored;
        He was so small you could not see
        His large intent of Courtesy.

        Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,
        Go bless you, People, one by one;
        My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

    • Gbdub says:

      Certainly there is some level of “cultural appropriation” that I think we can agree ought to be considered offensive (I’m thinking of the “African Child” video at the start of Get Him to the Greek). Basically, steryotyped fetishization that disrespects the source.

      But in general I think cultural appropriation is a good thing – that’s how assimilation happens, after all. It is widely accepted that a wide swath of modern music can trace its lineage to African Americans. Also southern food. Would the world be better off if Elvis had never been allowed to play rock or gospel? If Colonel Sanders had never been allowed to fry a chicken? If Texas Cowboys never started cooking fajitas? If Chuck Norris was never allowed to learn karate? To go another way, what if Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t allowed to play a western instrument?

      Cross pollination between two cultures, even if one has historically oppressed the other, can make both cultures better. It might even be the best way to make the one culture stop oppressing the other.

      The alternatives to this seem worse – either subcultures get completely subsumed, forced to join the larger culture with no input of their own, or a fractured world of segregated micro cultures that never talk to each other. These both seem pretty bad compared to the proverbial melting pot.

      • LTP says:

        I agree with this 100%.

        I feel like the vast majority of cases of people being upset by appropriation reflect an immaturity and insecurity among the offended parties. Your culture isn’t a limited resource being taken. As long you aren’t being attacked, fetishized, or mocked, I don’t see a problem.

    • Irrelevant says:

      OK, well that post sprints across an impractical amount of ground. I think I’d have four reasonably long and only loosely related replies to different parts of it, because you kept moving from one subject in need of significant unpacking to address to another. So I’m going to skip all that and give my opinion on In God We Trust instead.

      an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency

      I take issue with In God We Trust being the national motto, but not with having it on the currency. (And the monetary usage predates the motto by a century.) When it’s on the dollar, the context makes it much less an endorsement of faith in divinity than a denouncement of faith in money, and I’m fine with that.

      For the national motto, they should have just said what they were thinking and made it “Fuck Communism!”

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I remain convinced, and nothing anyone says will ever sway me, that “In God We Trust” is on the currency because the person who originated the joke, “In God We Trust… all others pay cash,” was involved in the design of the original currency that bore it.

      • Lizardbreath says:

        I always thought it was a “Star-Spangled Banner” reference. From the last verse:

        Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
        Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
        Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
        Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
        Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
        And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
        And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
        O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

        Which makes it look like the point is, “We believe that if we do the right thing, we will win. Therefore we will make sure to always do the right thing, and let the rest take care of itself.”

        Which has its flaws, but it’s not something I feel the need to invest a lot of energy in fighting (even though I’m an atheist).

        • Marc Whipple says:

          There is a quote, whose source escapes me, to the effect of, “America is not good because she is great. America is great because she is good. If she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

          A cynic might say we have been watching this come true for quite some time now.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      “and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.”

      There are corners of the internet that have aggressively adopted this strategy, and the end result is that, for members of the community at least, conventional insults become largely meaningless. The downside is that their ability to communicate with outsiders is somewhat diminished, but is that really an unacceptable price to pay?

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I like a diverse group. Diverse in genders, race, demographics, style, and vocabulary, etc etc. When an older man of apparently conservative opinions quotes Russell Kirk’s writing about “fallen man” or “mankind”, I think it’s very appropriate for the poster to use the same terms that Kirk used. It’s all of a piece. Quaint words for quaint ideas? — well, I do the same thing with C.S. Lewis. Modernizing terms loses much of the resonance of the old speaker, the associations, the context of the old statement. And I think it’s nice when the poster gives a nod to the modern style and a polite ‘excuse’ for not adopting it!

      Otoh, when discussing a particular current group that contains (or could contain) both/all genders, it would be jarring, off-putting, to see ‘man/men’ instead of ‘person/people’ or instead of ‘the human race’, ‘mankind’.

      Between those extremes, there’s a principle in writing, that you don’t use anything so inappropriate to the immediate context that it ‘knocks the reader out of the story’, wherever on the spectrum it is.

      Of course when an individual has requested a particular term be used for themself, for gender reasons, that’s different.

    • Airgap says:

      They seem to be arguing for a sort of intellectual property rights regime whereby if you come up with an idea, and you are a member of a group A that has a significant history of being mistreated by group B, you ought to be entitled to expect members of group B from making their own use of that idea.

      I think this is an excellent idea. All jocks off the internet now!

      a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

      Can you tell me the name of the Muslim and the Atheist referred to here, so I can not invite them to parties?

      In all seriousness, I don’t think this can be done. Or rather, I don’t think anyone will do it. You’re not going to quantify how offended people are times how sincere you think they are times how many of them there are (with deductions for mixed-race people on racial word questions) and so on. You’re not going to do this, so take it off the table.

      What you actually want is a way to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing on this question. And there isn’t one, because there isn’t a right thing. There are arguments on the side of more civility, and more potentially-offensive candor. So instead, you optimize for the level of offense in other people you’re willing to risk, given the sort of environment you want. This is much easier, because you already kind of know what this is, even if you can’t put a number on it.

      • AJD says:
        a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

        Can you tell me the name of the Muslim and the Atheist referred to here, so I can not invite them to parties?

        I realize you’re being at least a little tongue-in-cheek here, but, um… elaborate? What actually do you mean here? I find it difficult to get inside the head of someone who thinks that’s it’s unreasonable for the hypothetical Muslim and atheist here to hold those attitudes.

        • Irrelevant says:

          And yet you think it’s unreasonable to not voluntarily hang out with performatively offended people?

          Because that’s what he’s suggesting. Actually less than that, since he’s just suggesting not bringing them to parties, which is to say, places where there’s a high risk of their offendedness coming up and a high desire not to have arguments that would ruin the mood. This is perfectly reasonable.

          • AJD says:

            I don’t know what you mean by “performatively offended”, and I don’t see how it’s related to the scenario under discussion.

            Do you not believe that people actually feel insulted?

          • Airgap says:

            Actually, I was just mocking the point of view that takes their concerns seriously, although you’re right too.

            One of the ways you live in a diverse society is you learn how to deal with the fact that people are different from you and have different folkways and that’s okay. For example, you learn that when this Christian says that your action is very Christian, he’s praising you, and you should respond appreciatively. If your reaction is to berate him about his imaginary sky-friend, maybe living in a diverse society isn’t for you. Also, you can’t come to my party.

          • AJD says:

            Do you think a man would be in the wrong to feel annoyed if somebody complimented him by telling him that his behavior was “very ladylike”?

            One of the ways you live in a diverse society is you learn how to deal with the fact that people are different from you and have different folkways and that’s okay. For example, you learn that…

            For example, you learn that some people aren’t Christian, and that it is nevertheless possible for them to be virtuous.

    • Matthew says:

      …just as, say, a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’,

      I (Jewish by background, atheist by cosmology) have actually encountered this, and talking about whether it’s offensive is really missing the point.

      If I hear someone do this, and I know that they know that I’m not Christian, you have a situation where I expect them to be more likely to defect, because I think that they expect me to defect — if Christian = moral, not Christian is a least weak evidence for = less moral — so there are really serious game-theoretic consequences for this.

      If they actually do think that, then it’s beneficial to have it out in the open, but if they don’t it’s effectively the equivalent of a tremble in an interated prisoners’ dilemma. Not good.

      Also it’s likely to prime others to make the association Christian:MoreMoral. Which is objectionable on both game theoretical and truth grounds.

      • Airgap says:

        If I hear someone do this, and I know that they know that I’m not Christian, you have a situation where I expect them to be more likely to defect, because I think that they expect me to defect — if Christian = moral, not Christian is a least weak evidence for = less moral — so there are really serious game-theoretic consequences for this.

        So he’s saying: “You have just behaved in a way which I view as moral. Therefore, I expect you to defect in future.” Either defection is moral for Christians (it isn’t), or…what? I don’t get it.

        I’m guessing you mean that in general, he thinks of you as a potential defector, because you’re not Christian. But how could he not increase his probability for you cooperating?

        Either way, this is very confusing. I must be missing something here.

        • Matthew says:

          Confusion disappears if you understand that the non-Christian is not the one being praised in this case, merely present and hearing it.

          • Airgap says:

            So Christian A praises (Christian?) B while Jewish Atheist is present, and CA knows JA is not a Christian. Therefore, JA now thinks CA is more likely to defect against him (because CA thinks JA more likely to defect).

            I mean, maybe what you saw suggests that he identifies moral behavior more strongly with being a Christian than the average Christian. I assume you haven’t checked this. Anyway, I’d sort of suspect that the effect of “recognizes and praises good in other people” to dominate that, but whatever.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The implication is that he’s acting against his nature. I think it’s reading a little too much into it, but I can see why somebody on the receiving end would feel insulted in that way.

          • Airgap says:

            If the Christian was addressing him, it indicates that the Christian thinks he’s becoming a more moral person, and thus less likely to defect, so the Christian will be less likely to defect against him.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I (Jewish by background, atheist by cosmology) have actually encountered this, and talking about whether it’s offensive is really missing the point.

        Ha! A perfidious Judaeus! 🙂

        Indeed your game-theoretic argument can explain why the word “perfidious” changed it’s meaning from “faithless” into “treacherous”.

    • Tarrou says:

      Offense is taken, not given. If “offense” is to be the currency of debate, it will be unending.

      Personally, when ever I hear “That’s offensive”, it gets translated in my head as “I have no argument, so I’m going to ad hominem”.

      Calling offense is the debate equivalent of flipping the chess board when one is two moves from being mated. It’s the last act of an immature, petty and desperate loser.

      • Luke Somers says:

        Sometimes that’s what’s behind a claim of offense. On the other hand, sometimes (insert string of insults here).

  14. I want someone to explain to me why chiropractors are treated as woo peddlers by many in the rationalist community, and why they’re grouped as “homeopathic” medicine by the medical community.

    When I have severe back pain (usually from lifting something with bad posture), I go to my chiropractor. When I get there, he makes me lie down and jerks at my back in superficially alarming ways… but my pain immediately goes away and I feel better. From this, I conclude that chiropractic adjustment is extremely effective against back pain. He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics. I cannot imagine how the kind of pressure he applies could possibly be considered a placebo. I literally see nothing in common between him and the rest of “alternative medicine,” except for the fact that my physician disparages his practice. I don’t get it.

    • Anon says:

      >When I have [some vague symptom that usually goes away on its own], I go to my [homeopath]. When I get there, he [gives me some sugar pills] and I feel better. From this, I conclude that [homeopathy] is extremely effective against [my symptoms]. He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics. I cannot imagine how [his sugar pills] could possibly be considered a placebo. I literally see nothing in common between him and the rest of “alternative medicine,” except for the fact that my physician disparages his practice. I don’t get it.

      • This is not a helpful response.

        • Airgap says:

          It’s probably more snarky than is optimal, but it’s basically correct. Chiro might be legit or it might be garbage. But your statement isn’t enough to determine it either way. For example, you can also replace “my homeopath” with “my physician”, and “my physician” with “Mary Baker Eddy.”

      • Deiseach says:

        Anon, explain to me why you think that is a better response than explaining the difference between chiropractors and physical therapists, bearing in mind the placebo effect does exist and may play a greater role in the effectiveness of conventional medical treatment than we might wish?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        That sounds like a test that could Prove Too Much. Any nouns could be inserted in your first [.]’s. “I had a headache so I went to an M.D. He gave me some aspirin. He did not offer surgery to remove a brain tumor, offer a prescription for physical therapy for my posture, or offer radiation therapy.”

        Fwiw, after I moved, I asked my new MD to recommend a good chiropractor; apparently he had zim on file, because his reply was quick.

    • lmm says:

      Their official bodies make many claims of effectiveness that are not supported by evidence. See e.g. the quotes in

      • This was illuminating, especially when I followed the links to straights and mixers. I had previously never even heard of “straight” chiropractic, which is indeed a lot more like woo than what I was familiar with.

        This largely allays my concerns. I shall continue to see my chiropractor for back pain and not for ear infections, which is what I was doing anyway.

    • suntzuanime says:

      My understanding is that many of them peddle “woo” (I hate that term) alongside their actually-effective treatments. Like if a Real Doctor gives you an SSRI for your depression and feeds you a line about how your seratonin is out of balance, it doesn’t matter too much that his explanation of why his methods work is bullshit, it only matters that his methods work.

      • memetiengineer says:

        Why do you hate the term “woo”? (Not endorsing it, just curious.)

        • suntzuanime says:

          It’s a dismissive mocking term for claims that basically implies the speaker and all reasonable people are above engaging with them. That’s a very dangerous sort of thing to have around, because an error in classifying a claim as “woo” becomes very hard to correct.

          If your claim is called “false” you can argue that it’s true. If your claim is called “nonsense” or even “bullshit”, you have a tough row to hoe, but still the path of arguing for its truth is open to you. If your claim is called “woo”, all arguing for its truth is going to get you is a rolled eye and a condescending smile. It reminds me of the various terms the Social Justice movement uses to shut down argument like “hateful” and “privileged”; the point is not to claim that it’s false, but to tell the people on your side that there can be no argument that it’s true, so stop listening.

          • Anonymous says:

            I believe in a lot of stuff that gets labelled “woo.”

            I find it a very useful term. It’s derogatory, sure, but I don’t really care what other people think about my beliefs. And when I describe something I did at the weekend or whatever as “woo” it’s a convenient signal that it’s not something I’m interested in discussing (from any kind of rationalist or pseudo-rationalist perspective.)

            I guess what I’m saying is that some beliefs are not “claims”, and actually shouldn’t be debated. Call those “woo.” Why not? It’s good to call them something.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’ve found ‘woo’ a useful term. An MD asked, “And do you do anything for your XYZ?”

            I said, “Woo works for me on that.”

            He nodded, “Woo works.” And he dropped the XYZ and got back to what I’d come in for. I think my use of the derogatory term reassured him.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I applaud your doctor. Unless the use of woo is itself dangerous and/or is causing the patient to avoid treatment they need to avoid serious problems or death, any physician who tells them that something they think is helping isn’t helping should be horsewhipped. First do no harm.

    • youzicha says:

      Per Wikipedia, “Systematic reviews of this research have not found evidence that chiropractic manipulation is effective, with the possible exception of treatment for back pain”, so you may have hit upon the one condition for which it actually works.

      The chiropractic theory also states that lots of (most?) other diseases is caused by your spine being misaligned, which affects the nervous system, which affects other internal organs, which causes the symptoms. That seems extremely wooey to me.

      • Airgap says:

        Except that medical science can’t actually rule the chiropractic out, because that shit is really complicated. Not that I believe it, mind you. Just have a little humility.

        • pneumatik says:

          If it’s not testable then it’s not science, and is no different from any other treatment that hasn’t been shown to be effective. There’s lots of medical treatments, especially drugs, where we don’t completely understand how they work but we can still test for effectiveness. Also, practitioners with their patients’ best interests in mind advocate for the treatments with the most evidence to support them.

      • JDG1980 says:

        What percentage of patients seek chiropractic treatment for issues other than back pain? Is this actually common?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        The chiropractic theory also states that lots of (most?) other diseases is caused by your spine being misaligned, which affects the nervous system, which affects other internal organs, which causes the symptoms.

        “Circulation smerculation! No large studies even in gladitorial medicine have found real evidence that this ‘circulation of the blood’ exists. Much less, that ‘interference’ with this ‘circulation’ can cause disease in any organ, anywhere. Gangrene in the feet, loss of memory in the head — all from the same non-existent cause?”

    • Murphy says:

      …. Imagine that we lived in a different world where there were no chiropractors but there was an alternative medicine field known as “Lensery”.

      Imagine that practitioners of “lensery” held/were taught that almost all health problems were due to the blockage of flows of light through the body, that things like brain cancer and liver disease could be treated by focusing sunlight onto different points on peoples limbs. Imagine that amongst all the hundreds of crazy claims they also included the idea that a pair of specially shaped lenses placed in front of the eyes could help people who were long or short sighted.

      You might go to a lenser with blurry vision and he might give you perfectly good glasses.

      But if you go along with a kidney stone they still set up the lenses and start shining light on your arms.

      Would the last belief make them entirely respectable assuming they don’t give up all the rest of the crazy stuff?

      chiropractors are basically like that. They’ve got this massive massive body of crazy stuff like treating cancer with spinal adjustment (because in their system it’s all about energy flows through the body) and a tiny fraction that lines up pretty well with physiotherapy: ie the idea that massaging and manipulating the muscles and bones in your back can help with some back problems.

      • Imagine that, in this world, 90% of the actual treatments which people seek from Lensists are for corrective eyeglasses, and the majority of the public is unaware of the more unusual Lensery treatments. Furthermore, mainstream medical doctors are unwilling to prescribe eyeglasses because of their association with Lensery, instead suggesting expensive and unreliable treatments such as eye surgery.

        In this world, the Lensists really are performing a valuable public service. Furthermore, we should expect that over time Lensist practice (though not necessarily Lensist theory) will approach this-world ophthalmology as Lensists concentrate on those treatments which are empirically effective and demanded by their patients.

        • Anthony says:

          Close. Imagine that some number of patients with eye problems, and with small but nagging other ailments, go to the Lenser for glasses and, now able to read the brochures in the office, ask the Lenser if they really can treat gout. The Lenser, who hasn’t pushed those treatments beyond having the brochures in the lobby, says that he can, and those patients embark on a series of illuminations for their gout.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I don’t think many chiropractors would embark on a treatment they knew so little about; perhaps one would tell the patient, “There’s something I could try. Lensing is harmless; would you like to be my first gout test subject?”

            But steelmanning your premise to apply to Lensers who really have used lensing on gout, if a few lensing treatments don’t help my gout, I’d drop it . But I’d continue to wear my eyeglasses, and hope the Lenser stays in business so he can service mine, and so other people can get eyeglasses. And so he can continue looking for new uses for lenses, and perhaps find some.

    • MichaelT says:

      The problem with Chiropractors is they often just do adjustments, which provide short term relief without a addressing the cause of your pain. Most people’s back pain is not caused by a single fall or accident, but years of built up mechanical issues. Unless he is also offering you exercises to correct the imbalances in your muscles or increase your mobility, he is just cashing checks for short term relief when you come in.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Well, a good point, and one should always follow up on chronic issues, but your argument seems to lead to the conclusion that people with arthritis shouldn’t take Advil, since it doesn’t address the underlying causes. If a person has a back issue and it is either unremediable by conventional medicine or the only cure is serious and potentially hazardous back surgery, but the chiropractor can provide relief that lasts a while and doesn’t make things worse, bring on the chiropractor, says I. 🙂

        • MichaelT says:

          You’re probably right that it’s better than nothing, but it’s well within their ability to be much better. Most back pain, especially among the non-elderly, is the result of tight leg muscles (typically the hamstrings, hips, and the muscles of the glute complex) and the inability of people to activate their transverse abdominus properly. These are correctable issues, and many people can completely resolve their pain issues by correcting them.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            No argument with any of that, except a practical one: My MIL, for instance, goes to the chiropractor once every month or two. She reports it helps her greatly. More exercise, especially exercise designed to alleviate the problem you describe, would also do that.

            But she’s not going to do the exercise. She’s just not.

            So unless one goes with the philosophy that she deserves to be in pain if she doesn’t have the will to exercise, I don’t really see that having the chiropractor available is negatively affecting her chances of addressing the real problem.

    • Anonymous says:

      “He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics.”

      Chiropractors have a bad reputation because a lot of them *do* do that. You have one of the good ones.

    • moridinamael says:

      Indeed, the answer is that some chiropractors think they can cure AIDS and cancer with spinal adjustments. This taints the perception of the practice. There seems to be an ongoing war for the soul of chiropractic.

      Many of the evidence-based chiropractic techniques have been adopted by good physical therapists already.

    • Sarah says: and the following links are a good explanation.

      In short:
      1.) Chiropractic is based on false beliefs about the human body;
      2.) Controlled studies find that chiropractic definitely doesn’t relieve most of the things chiropractors claim; it probably doesn’t relieve upper back or neck pain; it *might* relieve low back pain but this is contested.
      3.)chiropractic on your neck can cause stroke (through arterial dissection)

      The last is why I actually warn people against chiropractic whereas my attitude to, say, acupuncture is “meh, rituals probably help people heal.” Being whacked on the back of the neck is risky.

      Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are chiropractors who won’t whack you on the back of the neck. I’ve met several who say they wouldn’t dream of such a thing. It’s even possible, as with any kind of alternative medicine, that there is a “true art” practiced by a minority of skilled practitioners and overshadowed by the crowds of fakers. The point is that a priori, choosing a random chiropractor, you shouldn’t expect to do any better than the studies say you will.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        It’s even possible, as with any kind of alternative medicine, that there is a “true art” practiced by a minority of skilled practitioners and overshadowed by the crowds of fakers.

        Sturgeon’s Law applies to many professions. Lawyer, tax accountant, auto mechanic, almost everything. So you don’t choose at random. You see if their websites have hype, you look them up in referral services, you ask your friends for referrals — and ask your MD, pharmacist, physical therapist.

        The point is that a priori, choosing a random chiropractor, you shouldn’t expect to do any better than the studies say you will.

        I’ll steelman you a study confined to well-regarded, top of the field chiropractors, which finds even their treatments ineffective (on average, median, whatever, with large sampling size, etc etc).

        Most studies have a bell curve, where maybe 10% of patients are on the right tail. Looking at medicine for a moment, a drug with that kind of result is not going to be worth a manufacturer investing in. It will get written up as ineffective. But if you’re a patient, and other treatments have problems — then the rational thing is to find out whether YOU are in that 10% that it does work on. (And if it’s the only thing that relieves a serious problem for you — then do you CARE whether it’s a placebo?)

    • Douglas Knight says:

      To address the question about placebo, not the question about woo: Whether something works tells you nothing about whether it is a placebo. Back surgery is less effective than chiropractic, which is less effective than acupuncture. How much of each of those is “real” and how much placebo? Such experiments cannot directly address this. But sham acupuncture is just as good as real acupuncture, from which we conclude that acupuncture is pure placebo. And that shows that placebo is powerful enough to that one cannot rule out the possibility that back surgery and chiropractic are purely placebo effects.

      (And that does not answer the question about woo, because people do not call back surgery woo.)

    • eqdw says:

      This is mostly personal anecdote, but, I might offer the following reasons:

      1. Regardless of what chiro is or isn’t *today*, it definitely started out as woo. Giving present chiro the most charitable assumptions: maybe it’s just inertia

      2. High variance in quality. I’m a foreigner talking about a foreign country, so it may be different in the US. I’ve been to a few chiropractitioners in my life, and they run the gamut. One of them was highly professional, had tons of medical textbooks, worked out of a hospital. Another had a private practice in his house, his waiting room was filled with propaganda posters and borderline-religious magazines, and he made sure to mention how “Mainstream Medicine™ treats symptoms, we treat the underlying problem” in every third sentence]

      3. Personal experience: I went to a chiro a few years ago and it made my back problems *much much worse*. At the time, I did some research and found out three things: a) there are a lot of other people who have had my negative experience; b) the official chiro line is “for some people it gets worse before it gets better”; c) It only got more worse for the people in (a)

      I am undecided on whether or not chiro, in general, is beneficial or not. But I’m pretty confident that in the set of all chiropractors, there is a nontrivial number of woo pseudomedicine practitioners. Conflation of this subgroup with the whole may explain your question

    • Nicholas says:

      The answer I am familiar with is that chiropractors are using techniques developed by osteopaths, a kind of licensed medical practitioner. But because chiropractors are not osteopaths, they are not held to a particular standard of training or practice, in the same way that nutritionists are not to be trusted, because if they met basic qualifications for assumption of trustworthiness they’d be dietitians.

    • Tarrou says:

      If a chiropractor helps you with joint pain, that’s very plausible and if it works, keep at it.

      If your chiropractor claims to cure cancer or gout by cracking your bones, he’s a quack.

      It is the second group rationalists and medical professionals generally deride, and sometimes the first gets lumped in.

  15. Troy says:

    I herewith begin Part I of ? of a series of arguments against consequentialism.

    Argument 1:

    (1) If consequentialism is true, then what I ought to do is maximize expected utility.
    (2) There is a non-zero probability that the world is “infinite,” in the sense of containing an infinite amount of value and/or disvalue (according to whatever your favorite version of consequentialism says is valuable or disvaluable).
    (3) If (2), then the expected utility of any action is either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined. Either way, no action has greater expected utility than any other.
    (4) So, if consequentialism is true, it is always ethically indifferent what we do. [from (1)-(3)]
    (5) It is not always ethically indifferent what we do.
    (6) Therefore, consequentialism is false. [from (4)-(5)]

    I take (1) to be definitional. I understand “expected utility” to be a function of epistemic probabilities and objective values (e.g., pleasure). That is, each state of affairs has an objective value and an epistemic probability given my evidence of coming about given that I perform some action.

    Support for (2): There is a non-zero probability that the universe contains an infinite number of people. There is a non-zero probability that the universe will continue indefinitely into the future, with more people coming into existence. There is a non-zero probability that people will continue to exist in an afterlife in which they will receive positive and/or negative utility.

    See Nick Bostrom’s paper for further elaboration of this style of argument, and objections to possible ways out.

    • Nita says:

      How does (3) follow from (2)?

      • Troy says:

        To take a simple case, suppose that there is an infinite amount of positive value in the world and a finite amount of disvalue and that I know this. Then the expected amount of value in the world, given that I perform action A, is infinite. But, the expected amount of value in the world, given that I perform alternative action B, is also infinite. So orthodox decision theory does not discriminate between A and B, because the total amount of value in the world is infinite either way.

        • Nita says:

          All right. Let’s call the current amount of value, whatever it is, 0.

          Then, action A, which increases value by 5 utilons, is preferable to action B, which increases value by 3 utilons.

          • Troy says:

            Right now there is (we’re assuming) an infinite amount of value, e.g., an infinite number of happy people. Your suggestion seems to be to “renormalize” the current amount of value at 0 or something like this. Is that right?

            Let’s grant that this works if the current value is infinite and we’re just concerned with finite future effects. It doesn’t seem to me that it works if total future value is infinite. For then the expected new value (if the value now is 0) if you do A is infinite, and the expected new value if you do B is infinite.

            You might respond that provided that everything else in the world is the same for A and B, if one part of the world contains more value (2 more utilons) given A then you ought do A. For instance, suppose we represent the worlds given A and given B as follows:

            A’: {2, 2, 1, 1, …}
            B’: {1, 1, 1, 1, …}

            where the members of those sets represent how much value there is at successive states of the world. Then it seems we ought do A. This is similar to Kagan and Vallentyne’s suggestions discussed in Bostrom’s paper.

            If you say that, I’ll grant your claim, but maintain that our problem remains. In particular, I’ll argue that to make the above proposal work, you’ll need to extend it so that it lets us calculate expected values. Let’s grant that you can do this: take one future, say B’, as a baseline, give it value 0, and then give possible outcomes value relative to it, so that A’ has a value of 2, for instance.

            Now I’ll argue that there’s always a non-zero probability that some action available to you right now will have infinitely extended effects into the future. For instance, suppose that there’s a small but non-zero probability that B will have a “run-on” of good effects with ever increasing utility. Then one possible outcome of B is something like

            B*: {1, 2, 3, 4, …}.

            If there are other actions that also have this possibility (or if B could also lead to indefinitely decreasing utility), then knowing that A’ > B’ will not help us in making decisions under uncertainty, because our uncertainty will make the expected value of at least some of our actions either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined, and there will be no way to decide between two members of any of these classes (or between regular finite actions and actions with undefined expected utility).

        • Paul Torek says:

          It seems possible that although the summation over all history is infinitely positive whether I do A or do B, still, at any point in time (after a finite interval), universe A is better than B. That would seem sufficient reason for doing A rather than B, from a utilitarian standpoint.

          • Troy says:

            A good thought. I have the same worries as I did above with Nita’s suggestion, about translating this into expected utility. But here’s another objection.

            Compare two worlds, Slow and Fast. In Slow, God creates one person a day, on through infinity. In Fast, God creates two people a day, on through infinity. These people are all happy, but all causally isolated from each other, so that their existence does not affect each other.

            Now suppose that in Slow and Fast, God creates the same people, understood however you like (qualitatively indistinguishable, same quiddities, whatever). Moreover, the two worlds are indistinguishable except for the rate at which they are populated. Then your principle implies that Fast is better than Slow. But it seems that Fast and Slow are equally good. They contain the same people, with the same happiness and the same lives.

          • Paul Torek says:

            To quote Michael Blume from another thread,

            Om nom nom bullet =)

          • Troy says:

            There’s also David Lewis’s memorable quip: “that’s not an objection to the theory, that’s the theory!”

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        I assume it’s a marginal argument: If the utility of the universe is infinite, any change in utility performed by our actions is negligible. Infinity + x = infinity and the like.

        EDIT: Ninja’d

    • FrogOfWar says:

      There’s an unclarity in your premises.

      (2) claims that there is a non-zero probability of P. (3) claims that if P, then Q. But you can’t do the Modus Ponens you want to get to (4), since “there is a non-zero probability of P” is not “P”.

      So you should change the antecedent of (3) to “there is a non-zero probability of P. But then (3) has an implausibly strong consequent, which should be weakened by putting a “it is possible that” (a diamond) operator in front of it. You then have to also add a diamond in front of (4) and then another diamond under the scope of the negation in (5).

      This makes the argument a bit weaker since the claim that it is not possible that my actions be ethically indifferent is a stronger claim than the claim that my actions aren’t always as a matter of fact ethically indifferent. But presumably the new (5) is still plausible.

      • Troy says:

        My intention was for (3) to be read as: “If there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite, then the expected utility of any action is infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.” I maintain that the consequent of this does follow from the antecedent: see my response to Aris below.

        I agree that your suggested modification would still make the argument plausible, and would then work against so-called “actual consequences consequentialism,” which just says that you ought to do what will in fact maximize value. I take it that such a theory is useless as a decision procedure, though, and so I’m aiming my sights at what I see as the more plausible “expected consequentialism,” which focuses on the expected outcomes of your actions.

        • FrogOfWar says:

          Yeah, I noticed the uncommon “expected” a while after posting, but I wasn’t sure you were still following the thread so didn’t bother amending my post.

          In any case, I think this is a good idea for a series of posts since consequentialism is plausibly the area where LW-sphere people least understand their opponents, our own famously charitable host included.

          I’ve been considering writing up a correction to the consequentialism faq, which is the worst thing I’m aware of Scott having written. Maybe this will spur me on.

          • Troy says:

            I thank you for your support, and am spurred by a similar rationale. Perhaps we can team up, and the LW-sphere (but, alas, not the world) will be better off when we are done!

    • MichaelT says:

      My biggest question for consequentialists/utilitarians is why do they not support a program to kill all violent criminals and harvest their organs? It seems completely clear that from a consequentialist/utilitarian calculation that this would better society. We would permanently remove violent people from society, we would not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year housing them in prisons, we’d save untold amounts of money by having almost no dialysis patients, and many people who would have died without the organ would now be alive.

      • Irrelevant says:

        I would assume most of them do support that, or would under the proper circumstances, but if they think of it now, conclude that since this idea is well outside the realm of politically viable concepts and will draw odd stares it isn’t utility-maximizing to talk about supporting it.

        • MichaelT says:

          And that is what scares me about this outlook. There are many horrible programs that could be pitched on some plausible utilitarian ground. You could advocate for such things as sterilizing anyone who falls below the 50th percentile in IQ, mandatory abortions for fetuses that test positive for defects such as down syndrome, etc. I know most utilitarians would say, “well, when you look at the psychological effects these policies would have on society, then the would actually decrease utility.” The problem with this is only die-hard utilitarians (a very small portion of the population) would realize this, and the policy could still be sold to the population at large.

          • Irrelevant says:

            You can advocate for any of those ideas from virtually any outlook though. And likely be more successful with the electorate from most of the others. What’s specifically bad about utilitarianism here?

      • John Schilling says:

        Because we read Niven, and understand the actual consequences at the end of this path?

        • MichaelT says:

          The point I was trying to make was that my horror at the prospect of utilitarianism is its reduction of human beings into numbers, and that there’s some Newtonian mechanical calculation we can use to determine each person’s value.

          • cypher says:

            Do you not also find the idea of placing unthinking, unfeeling, non-person abstract philosophical concepts as effectively more valuable than human lives and prosperity, horrifying?

          • Irrelevant says:

            Why would he? People tend to be terrible. I only like about eight of them. Ideas are a lot more deserving.

            I’m about 70% joking here.

          • MichaelT says:

            @cypher, I’m not sure I’m getting what you’re hinting at.

          • cypher says:

            Basically, most other moral systems, when asked to make a choice between people and some abstract moral principle, will pick the abstract moral principle. That might be “truth”, that might be “justice”, that might be “property”, etc.

            To take the classic Jew in the attic example, the truth-only moral system picks “truth” over the hidden Jew.

            But “truth” isn’t a person that can be meaningfully hurt. The hidden Jew, on the other hand…

            Most legal rights and many legal and common moral norms can be derived through Consequentialism variants, just with the caveat that consequences take precedence.

          • Irrelevant says:

            That of course ignores the practical application. People of the “justice, though heaven shakes” persuasion quite reasonably expect that it will never come to that in reality. The practical function of holding such a beyond-the-pale belief is to win at chicken by disabling your steering wheel: if you can convince everyone (including yourself) that you would prosecute even in the face of angelic intercession, then the question of whether you’ll prosecute in the face of political opposition or threats to your family doesn’t come up.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Heck with Niven. Try Max Brooks if you want to see a real problem with doing this. 🙂

      • Aris Katsaris says:

        > My biggest question for consequentialists/utilitarians is why do they not support a program to kill all violent criminals and harvest their organs?

        It would be giving society an incentive to create (or invent) violent crime, just for the purpose of harvesting the organs of the violent criminals. I’m likewise against using convicts as unpaid manual labor, or as sex-slaves.

        > we would not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year housing them in prisons

        From everything I’ve heard, convicting someone to the death row costs more than keeping them in life imprisonment. So, no, it would not save money.

        • MichaelT says:

          The reason death row inmates cost so much is not the death penalty in and of itself, but the bureaucratic apparatus that grew around it. I doubt people given the death penalty in the 19th century cost much less than the prisoner given a long sentence. So, the utilitarian could argue from this that we should severly limit the appeals process, because the people who the current process helps are either guilty or poor, and there utility is low. The point I was driving at was that utility reduces human beings to quantifiable numbers (i.e. you add +6 utility to society and I +4, therefore you’re life is more valuable), which is abhorrent to me. You could say that is not rational, which maybe true, but I don’t that every decision in the world needs to be completely rational.

          • James Picone says:

            You and conflating utility-to-society and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is not about maximising utility-to-society, it’s about maximising net utils, where ‘utils’ are a measure intended to represent goodness-of-life. There’s variance in what to actually measure with the utils, but say it’s happiness (hedonic utilitarianism). Then you can’t conclude “I’m better” or “I’m worth more” from having more utils of happiness than someone else. That’s not how it works.

            How it actually works is that if you’re considering mugging some guy and taking his stuff, that might be worth n (n 0) utils for you, and it’s only ethical if |n| < |m| (ignoring second-order effects for simplicity).

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I don’t support the death penalty because I do not trust society with the power to kill people who are currently not a significant threat. In my opinion the negative consequences of this program, which further incentivizes bad marginal decision making regarding the death penalty, far outweigh any potential positive consequences.

      • keranih says:

        I think you could get a number of people behind this, provided you established a sufficently accurate test to identify violent crimininals. Which we have not got.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Right now I think the strongest argument there is that there’s so much work to be done before we even reach that point!

        Why not kill violent criminals and harvest their organs? Well, right now we kill (some) violent criminals and DON’T harvest their organs. Once we’re harvesting organs from the violent criminals we do kill, THEN we can talk about expanding the program.

        Why not sterilize all poor people? Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it. Why not improve access to contraception, and THEN we can talk about forced sterilization.

        The reason this isn’t just an abdication of the question is that I think once we make a lot of the common-sense not-unethical utility improvements, the world would be a sufficiently better place that the unethical ones would stop looking so tempting, or we’d be in a better place to consider them (eg poverty would look so much different that sterilizing the poor to break the cycle of poverty would mean a different thing)

        • Randy M says:

          “Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it”

          Citation needed.

          • Anthony says:

            Well, if you fuzz the distinction between “trial lawyers” and “government”, and between “contraception” and “the sponge and IUDs”, he’s right.

          • Randy M says:

            That’s a fuzz too far.

          • Nicholas says:

            If your conception of contraception includes access to abortion then there’s this:
            If your conception of blocking includes preventing access passively, then many states have made the decision to defund free contraception programs. When my home state was told, for example, that abstinence only education probably shouldn’t be mandated, they just removed sex from the curriculum full stop.

          • suntzuanime says:

            If your conception of blocking includes failing to fund, I block little children from having ice cream cones on hot summer days. That’s not philosophically coherent.

          • cbhacking says:

            @suntzuanime: do you represent an agency that forcibly takes money from little children on the basis that you’ll provide them with the things they need? For that matter, do the children *ask* you to provide those ice creams?

            I mean, yes, failing to provide A is not the same thing as blocking access to A when others would be willing to provide it. Absent any other context, I have no argument there. However, there is context and it matters. Comparing your goals, responsibilities, and actions to those of governments is absurd. “Blocking” may have been a poor choice of word – I don’t know if there are actual examples of such blocks, or if it’s just hyperbole for “not providing” – but it’s a hell of a lot easier to argue that government should provide useful supplies to citizens in need than that you should provide luxuries to random children. The situations are not parallel!

          • suntzuanime says:

            I assumed that our host was referring to some specific drug or procedure or something that the vile FDA was holding up. Wasn’t there some big hullabaloo about a male contraception pill that got invented (and how it was anti-feminist because it takes away women’s control of their reproduction)? I remember something about that, that would be a good candidate for contraception being blocked by the government in a way that would make sense to use those words.

          • Mary says:

            “do you represent an agency that forcibly takes money from little children on the basis that you’ll provide them with the things they need? ”

            The state takes money from people on the basis that it will provide people with public goods. Contraception is not a public good.

          • Nita says:

            @ Mary

            Since unwanted pregnancies generate various “public bads”, preventing them can be an appropriate state function.

          • Randy M says:

            Scott didn’t same “some contraception”. Of course, he didn’t say “all contraception”, either, but the implication was that the blocking action would lead to more pregnancy, which may be true on the (slim) margins but is implausible to have a large effect when cheap and effective contraception is widely available.

        • MichaelT says:

          First, what are you talking about when you say “Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it.” This isn’t happening in the US. Anyone can buy condoms from a store and birth control pills are both cheap and not difficult to obtain.

          And I take your point, but I like to take arguments to their logical extreme and see what happens. It’s like when people argue that the minimum wage increases economic wage, I wonder why you wouldn’t advocate a minimum wage of $100/hour.

          • ddreytes says:

            It’s like when people argue that the minimum wage increases economic wage, I wonder why you wouldn’t advocate a minimum wage of $100/hour.

            Because it’s politically impractical.

            At that point, you might as well just advocate for full communism now; it’s approximately as likely to happen. Advocates of a minimum wage might or might not believe that a $100/hour wage would be good, but it’s never going to be adopted, and it would be outré enough that no one would listen to them. So advocating for it would be not only pointless but harmful.

          • cbhacking says:

            Anyone can buy condoms from a store and birth control pills are both cheap and not difficult to obtain.

            Except, of course, for the people who can’t buy them because they don’t have the money, or because they can’t get to a store that will sell them and can’t afford or are otherwise unable to get an Internet connection, or any of several other reasons.

            Condoms, purchased in small counts (the only way a poor person could hope to purchase them, at least at a store), are actually fucking expensive (pun used quite intentionally). I used what could have been, if I’d bought the (fairly ordinary, no more expensive than any other in the store) condoms in packages of three or less, at least 1500 food calories worth of condoms today. To a lot of people, that’s not *close* to worth it. Sure, the kind of food I eat, it’d be more like 300 calories… but then, I can afford to buy condoms in bulk, too, and to post this comment on the Internet from a home computer.

            Now, to be sure, SNAP (food stamps) in the US mean that it’s usually possible to avoid literally starving to death, especially if you are lucky enough to be able to cook food. On the other hand, if living with your lover means $30/mo in condoms, you might no longer be able to pay the electricity bill. As for just not having sex instead, good luck convincing somebody working their ass off to pay the bills that the one form of recreation they can afford (in time and money) to enjoy with their loved one isn’t OK. They’ll just switch to something with an even lower efficacy than condoms (which aren’t actually super effective to start with).

            In fairness, that’s not exactly “the government is blocking them from getting it”. The government could make them available freely, though – in bulk, the things really are cheap, especially as governments measure things – and yet, in most jurisdictions, do not. There are definitely cases where the government puts barriers (ha) in the way of easy access, even if they don’t actually make them unavailable.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Practical information for those in need — condoms are available free in various places. I see an open box full on a shelf in the restroom at a local food co-op, and elsewhere iirc. Since the co-op has a supply they can afford to give away free, then it’s probably available to other stores or agencies also. It would be worth calling around to inquire about other sources.

            But in general, I strongly disagree with the argument I’ve seen here, that access to contraception is not a problem. I can’t easily find the breakdown of costs I saw in 2012, but one point was that even cheap generic bc pills required a prescription, which required a doctor’s visit and pelvic exam/pap smear. For someone who doesn’t have a regular doctor, ime a doctor would also require an initial visit before accepting me as a new patient. This adds up to a lot of cost (or co-pays).

            Cheap generic drugs don’t work for everyone; better bc pills can be up to $50-80*/mo. Many women for medical reasons cannot take bc pills, and other methods are much more expensive.

            Also — breaking news here! — some men don’t like condoms.

            * $80 in 2012

        • Tracy W says:

          So we can talk about forced sterilisation in basically every developed country but the USA?

      • cypher says:

        Please don’t do 1-2 step deep analysis of consequences for Consequentialism like that.

        You can’t just directly incentivize the state to up and kill people. It’s highly dangerous. On top of that, criminals are still people and still have value so long as they aren’t vegetables.

        Why did you pick that example instead of mandatory opt-out organ donation? A lot more regular people die each day than criminals get the death penalty, and most of them were already going to die so there’s little incentive to sentence more people to death to harvest their organs.

        Additionally, a number of utilitarians already support opt-out organ donation.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          Merely allowing recipients to PAY donors would almost instantly solve the kidney and liver transplant waiting lists. Why force anyone to donate when you haven’t tried merely ALLOWING people to do so on their own freely-set terms?

          (To paraphrase another libertarian: “I seek the staid, moderate ground between prohibition and compulsion.”)

          • cypher says:

            That doesn’t cover all organs, but it also serves as a more moderate option to be considered waaaay before cutting apart criminals.

          • Devilbunny says:

            Cypher – actually, it can cover all organs, so long as there are brain-dead people with usable organs whose families nonetheless choose not to donate. A check for $20k to the next of kin might very well change their minds.

      • ilzolende says:

        We don’t even harvest organs from people who are already dead in accidents and did not oppose organ donation when alive. If we have an opt-out donation system, heavily promote organ donation to healthy living people as a charitable activity, and work on organ synthesis and mechanical substitutions, and we still have lots of people dying for lack of transplants and a system we trust not to be negatively influenced by the perverse incentives killing people for organs would create, then we can talk about your proposal.

        In practice, people run away screaming from switching from opt-in to opt-out donation because some people might have their organs used for transplants after they’re dead even though they would have objected had they had the time to fill out opt-out forms, so bringing up your proposal would really not lead to it being implemented.

        You can use incomplete utilitarianism to justify lots of bad things, but you can use incomplete deontology or virtue ethics or any number of religious ethical systems to justify bad things as well, so this is hardly a utilitarian problem.

        Also, most utilitarians are loathe to violate deontological constraints without checking the reasons for doing so thoroughly first, because most utilitarians recognize the importance of moral heuristics.

      • Larry Niven has a series of stories that explore one problem with this approach. Once you accept the principle and find that there is still a shortage of organs, there will be political pressure to keep expanding the definition of violent criminals.

        I discovered those stories after publishing an article in the Journal of Political Economy making a different version of the same point. An efficient punishment, such as a fine or organ forfeiture, imposes a cost on the person punished but a benefit on others—unlike ordinary execution (cost and no benefit) or imprisonment (cost to both criminal and state). So why not shift to a system which uses efficient punishments wherever possible?

        One answer is that such a system gives whoever can get control over the legal system an incentive to punish people whether or not they are guilty. You end up with large rent seeking costs as (in the case of organ forfeiture) some people try to expropriate the biological resources of others and other people try to defend themselves against such expropriation. Civil forfeiture and punitive damages in tort provide other examples of the problem.

        “Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment,” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 107, no. 6 1999 pp. S259-269.

        • Airgap says:

          The case for whipping is looking stronger all the time.

          One of the major objections to judicial corporal punishment in the United States was that it was unpleasant to administer.

          Well, I always thought Asimov’s Laws were dumb…

    • Gbdub says:

      1) There is also a non-zero probability that the universe, and the people in it, are finite. Given this, consequentialism still works, you just have to discount the value of actions by the probability of an infinite universe.

      2) Even if the universe is infinite, the laws of physics would appear to preclude us from ever interacting with more than a finite subset of the universe. Consequentialism still works within this subset.

      3) Even if consequentialism is complete bunk on a universal scale, it may still be a good, maybe even the best, ethical framework for human behavior on Earth. Newtonian physics are wrong if you don’t add on relativity – but at a local level Newtonian models are usually more than good enough.

      • Troy says:

        I’m not entirely sure what you have in mind by (1). At any rate, I suspect that I can respond to it and (2) as I did to Nita above, by arguing that there’s always a non-zero probability that some action available to you right now will have infinitely extended effects into the future. I can grant for the sake of argument that this is incompatible with our best laws of physics, but point out that our laws of physics do not have probability 1 on our evidence, and other laws on which our actions have eternal consequences do.

        On (3): it seems to me that for this to work consequentialism would have to “approximate” some better moral system. I’m not sure what that system would be, though.

        You might weaken (3) to a point where I would accept it. I’m happy, e.g., to say that we should be concerned about local consequences. But I think this is neither the only thing we should be concerned about nor a basic normative fact, which puts me at odds with classical consequentialists.

        • Gbdub says:

          Basically, to the extent that we can cause infinite effect, it is a “smaller” infinity than the totality of an infinite multiverse. (Consider the difference between countable and uncountable infinities.) And anyway we can’t really have infinite effect, because unless you have a way for information to flow faster than the speed of light, your influence wi’ll always be limited by that.

          What I really meant by 1, then, is that in a truly infinite universe, you can never meaningfully alter the balance of consequences – even if you cause infinite effect, there will be a larger infinity outside your influence. Which could kill consequentialism. However, there is a non-zero chance (since we haven’t solved physics) that the universe, or at least the people in it, are finite. Consequentialism could be valid in the finite universe case, therefore, you should still consider it, at least to the level of P(finite)*effectSize(finite).

          In other words, I’m rejecting that we can have “infinite” consequences such that effectSize(infinite) > 0. And I really don’t understand what you mean by “other laws on which our actions have eternal consequence do [have probability 1]”. Unless our current laws of physics are absolutely false, how do you assign 100% value to hypothetical laws that say exactly the opposite? And again, note that “eternal” is not exactly the same as “infinite” (some infinities are more infinite than others).

          For 3), a useful model need not approximate any more valid model, at least not the way you’re implying. It just needs to predict local effects better than random.

          Basically, I think the infinite model you propose is a cop out – you’re claiming that, because you can’t predict the effects in places we can’t observe, you can ignore the predictable effects in the places we can. The opposite is true – if I truly can’t predict outside my locality, then the expected value of any action is 0. But the local impact can be predicted to be nonzero, so doesn’t it make sense to pay attention to that?

          I’d say the burden of proof is on you to prove that the universe operates differently outside our current view. Otherwise, it seems much more likely that something that locally increases value will have a positive or null impact outside the locality. And in that case consequentialism still holds value – at a minimum more value than the “we can’t predict anything” hypothesis.

          • Troy says:

            Basically, to the extent that we can cause infinite effect, it is a “smaller” infinity than the totality of an infinite multiverse. (Consider the difference between countable and uncountable infinities.)

            An interesting thought, but I don’t see why this needs to be true. For instance, suppose that there’s a multiverse with a countably infinite number of universes, each containing a finite number of people. Then there are (total) a countably infinite number of people. So the total amount of value in the world (= multiverse) is countable, just like the total amount of value that (we’re supposing) we can (possibly) cause.

            And anyway we can’t really have infinite effect, because unless you have a way for information to flow faster than the speed of light, your influence wi’ll always be limited by that.

            I don’t see how the speed of light comes into it. Suppose, in a simple model, that I can perform some action that gives two people 1 util. If I do, then this will cause them to each give two more people 1 util, etc. Provided that we don’t run out of people, no information needs to travel faster than the speed of light.

            The heat death of the universe does come into it, since this means we run out of people. That’s where I would bring in the assumption that it’s possible that physical models which imply that the universe will end are false, or that our actions have effects in some other way (e.g., in an afterlife).

            What I really meant by 1, then, is that in a truly infinite universe, you can never meaningfully alter the balance of consequences – even if you cause infinite effect, there will be a larger infinity outside your influence. Which could kill consequentialism. However, there is a non-zero chance (since we haven’t solved physics) that the universe, or at least the people in it, are finite. Consequentialism could be valid in the finite universe case, therefore, you should still consider it, at least to the level of P(finite)*effectSize(finite).

            Okay, that’s helpful. My two responses to this would be (1) it would still seem problematic if consequentialism is possibly useless in telling us what to do, especially if that possibility is reasonably probable; and (2) I think that there’s a non-zero probability of our actions having infinite effects, which would still scuttle this decision procedure (or, in the best case scenario, make it advise us to spend all our time trying to bring about whatever the most probable infinitely good effects are).

            And I really don’t understand what you mean by “other laws on which our actions have eternal consequence do [have probability 1]”. Unless our current laws of physics are absolutely false, how do you assign 100% value to hypothetical laws that say exactly the opposite?

            That was carelessness on my part. I meant to say that the probability of these alternate laws is non-zero.

            For 3), a useful model need not approximate any more valid model, at least not the way you’re implying. It just needs to predict local effects better than random.

            But whether consequentialism gives us the right advice more often than other moral systems requires settling the normative ethical question of what the correct moral system is.

            I’d say the burden of proof is on you to prove that the universe operates differently outside our current view. Otherwise, it seems much more likely that something that locally increases value will have a positive or null impact outside the locality.

            But expected utility is not just based on what is most likely, it’s also based on the value of the outcomes. And when that value is positively or negatively infinite, traditional expected utility theory breaks down; it can’t tell you what option to choose. So if, say, there’s a non-zero probability that locally-decreasing-value-act Local Decrease will lead to infinite value overall and a higher probability that locally-increasing-value-act Local Increase will lead to infinite value overall, then traditional expected utility theory doesn’t tell you how to choose between them. In this case you might say to go with Increase because the infinite outcomes are equivalent, and Increase gives you a higher probability. But it’s not clear that this is right, if the infinities they offer are different, e.g, if they look like this (for successive times):

            Local Decrease: {2, 4, 8, 16, …}
            Local Increase: {1, 1, 1, 1, …}

            Maybe the probabilities and utilities will work out just right so that the above kind of case doesn’t arise, and you can come up with some simple intuitive modification of traditional expected utility theory to account for the infinities involved. But I’m skeptical.

    • Peter says:

      If we’re going down the Act Consequentialist route (IMO there are very good reasons not to), then I see no reason not to restrict the consideration of consequences to your future light cone… which between now and the heat death of the universe or some other thing is going to be finite.

      Could be an issue for various forms of Rule Consequentialism, though. Interesting.

      This sort-of reminds me of the problems with some forms of Average Utilitarianism whereby the existence or otherwise of some people you can’t interact with in the distant past / distant galaxies can influence what you “should” do about population.

      Also: if you allow the infinite thing to be God (I was about to say “I don’t”, but I’m an atheist/agnostic, we’re talking Deep Foundational Philosophy here, therefore I suppose the “agnostic” bit comes to the fore) then that’s a new and interesting way in which consequentialism and the idea of God interact badly.

      • Aris Katsaris says:

        Even if the universe had an infinite duration, one has finite intellect and can only estimate the progress of events up to a future point in time before it all goes fuzzy.

        That a person doesn’t know if their current actions will have a positive or negative effect a trillion years in the future, doesn’t prevent them from trying to use their minds to estimate the consequence of their actions a minute from now, or a day from now, or in certain occasions a few years or decades from now.

        The whole argument seems to be saying “My mind isn’t infinite, therefore we should pretend to be as dumb as rocks”

      • Troy says:

        I see no reason not to restrict the consideration of consequences to your future light cone… which between now and the heat death of the universe or some other thing is going to be finite.

        This is similar to Gbdub’s suggestion above. My response to this move is to argue that there’s a non-zero probability that our actions will have infinite consequences, either because the scientific theories you’re appealing to are wrong or because they’re not incompatible with this suggestion.

        One way to run this is indeed to appeal to God. So long as you’re not what Dawkins calls a “strong atheist” who assigns a probability of 0 to theism, then the appeal to (say) a possible afterlife should still wreak havoc on the expected utility of your actions.

    • Aris Katsaris says:

      Your whole argument lies in points (2) and (3), (everything before and after is just framing) but your point (3) is utterly incoherent.

      – If the universe is infinite, it does NOT follow that “the expected utility of any action is either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined”

      – Even if that indeed followed, it would NOT then follow that “Either way, no action has greater expected utility than any other”.

      • Troy says:

        Good sir, I maintain that not only is (3) not utterly incoherent, it is true!*

        The expected value of act A is the sum of the values of the possible states of the world given that you A, multiplied by their probabilities given that you A. That is, EV(A) = P(S1|A)V(S1) + P(S2|A)V(S2) + …

        Now suppose that one of the possible states of the world, say S1, has infinite value, and that P(S1|A) > 0. Then P(S1|A)V(S1) = infinite. If all the other terms in our sum are either finite or infinite, then our sum is infinite. If some are negatively infinite, our sum is undefined. (I ignore greater and lesser cardinalities of infinity for simplicity’s sake here.) So, it follows from “there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite [in the above sense]” that the expected value of A-ing is either infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.

        (A concession: this is only true if there is a non-zero probability of an infinite world given that you A. So I was not careful in my original formulation. But I take it to be implausible that some action you could perform could change the probability that the world is infinite to 0.)

        Now suppose that there’s a non-zero probability of infinite value in the world and a zero probability of infinite disvalue, and (as per the above concession) this is true given any action available to you. Then any action has infinite expected value, by the above argument. For (possible) infinite disvalue and (definitely) no infinite value, flip the argument around. For (possible) infinite value and infinite disvalue, all actions have undefined expected value. In any of these cases, no action has greater expected value than any other.

        (If some actions hold the promise of infinite value and other don’t, then not all actions are on a par. But so long as there’s more than one in the former camp, a consequentialist decision procedure still doesn’t tell us what to do.)

        * Subject to minor alterations I just thought of.

    • Nisan says:

      (1) is incorrect. That’s not what consequentialism means.

      • haishan says:

        Right, I read that and was like “welp, this is unlikely to be worth my time.” There are already lots of respected and powerful antiutilitarian arguments made by people who don’t conflate consequentialism with utilitarianism.

      • Troy says:

        I’ve been using “utility” in the decision theoretic sense to refer to the extent to which one outcome is preferable to or more valuable than another. As such, I’m not assuming that utility = happiness.

        I grant that I should have been more explicit that I was not conflating consequentialism with utilitarianism, as this is a common mistake. But I note in my defense that I did say, “I understand “expected utility” to be a function of epistemic probabilities and objective values (e.g., pleasure).”

        • Joe Teicher says:

          If you’re a selfish consequentialis then the infinity issue doesn’t come up unless you are immortal.

    • Mark says:

      You point out that E(X|utility is infinite) is probably the same as E(Y|utility is infinite) for any actions X and Y, if they’re both positive at all. Fine, but that’s likely an argument against unbounded utility functions. Amend utilitarianism to say, “Choose the action A that maximizes E(A|utility is finite); if utility is infinite, spin in a circle forever.”

    • Jake says:

      Seems like you can counter the infinite argument by just using a utility function that has a locality component. Similar to how a lot of people have utility functions that have temporal discounting (e.g. $10 now is of higher utility than $100 is 10 years.), if you do spatial discounting, the infinites can be brought under control to something that is more meaningful. I’d further make the argument that most consequentialists already to this to some degree.

      • Jiro says:

        If your utility function has a locality component, then the utility-maximizing action might to be to run away from suffering people. (If you try to fix this by changing the function’s component to “locality at the time I started calculating”, so running away doesn’t help, then the utility-maximizing action might be to preemptively stay away from suffering people.)

        • Anonymous says:

          Why would you run? You don’t know the utility of helping those suffering people until you calculate it, by which point it’s too late!

        • Troy says:

          I like Jiro’s objection and endorse it. Analogues to my response to Paul Torek also hold here: in particular, you could improve the world (from your perspective?) by bringing people spatially closer to you, or making (the same) people be born more quickly, etc. (depending on whether it’s spatial or temporal discounting).

          I suspect that you are right that most consequentialists do this to some degree, but it seems to me to be in tension with the spirit of consequentialism, or the arguments often used to motivate the view.

        • Joe Teicher says:

          Avoiding seeing suffering is a common and excellent strategy for a happy life. I highly recommend it!

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Nisan has already pointed out the essential flaw — that you don’t really seem to have a good handle on what “consequentialism” and “utility” mean. (Or rather, what “utility” can mean — it has at least two separate meanings, which should not be conflated, although people seem to do it constantly no matter how much you tell them not to.)

      I don’t want to get too sucked into this, but here’s a brief overview of A. consequentialism vs. utilitarianism and B. how the word “utility” gets used (and abused).

      1. Consequentialism is a general term for any ethical system wherein it’s the end result of actions that determine their goodness. I like to say that “consequentialism is a coherence condition” — you have a notion of what actions are better, you have a notion of what results are better; ideally these two should be compatible, in that better actions should yield better results. Consequentialism enforces this, in the unique possible way: by using the latter to determine the former.

      2. Utilitarianism is a particular form of consequentialism that cares about something called “utility” (sense 1), which can be assigned to people (defined however); goodness of a particular state of the world is determined by putting all the utilities into some monotonic function (such as summing or averaging). Notably, the result depends only on the multiset of utilities, not who has what utility — people all have “equal moral worth”. Utility should probably be taken to be a real number (this would certainly make the theory easier), but, man, who the hell knows — the existence of a notion of “utility” is one of the assumptions behind utilitarianism, but as for how to actually define it, who knows.

      Note the absence of “expected utility” thus far.

      (Note also that the monotonic function used needn’t be a sum or anything like that, so there goes the infinite increases and decreases. Of course, doing an average over infinitely many people, when any two people are interchangeable, has serious mathematical problems… but who says it has to be anything so simple as summing or averaging?)

      3. Now we get to “utility” (sense 2). If we accept certain assumptions about how an idealized, rational consequentialist agent will behave, then there are theorems — the VNM theorem and Savage’s Theorem — that state that any such agent acts to maximize to maximize the expected value of some (agent-dependent) real-valued function of states of the world; this function is called the agent’s “utility function”.

      This sense of utility has absolutely nothing to do with “utility” in the utilitarian sense! It refers to what the agent is trying to maximize [the expected value of]. Now, it’s possible that the agent is a utilitarian, in which case the agent’s utility (sense 2) depends on people’s utility (sense 1). But, firstly, this is not necessarily the case; the agent could be purely selfish, we never said anything that would prevent that. Secondly, note the shift between the two senses of utility here! More detail on that in a bit.

      Note, by the way, that the utility function is determined by examining the agent’s preferences; while it is “cardinal” in that it does assign real numbers to states of the world, it is ultimately expressing “ordinal” information (the agent’s preferences over actions). It just turns out that these preferences being expressible via a utility function is just what is required in order to be coherent (at least, if we accept that Savage’s or Von Neumann & Morgenstern’s assumptions are good ones). It doesn’t mean the numbers are independently useful. Indeed, individual utility numbers cannot be, because utility functions are not unique; they are unique only up to positive affine transformations (that is, combinations of multiplying by a positive constant and/or adding a constant). That said, if you have four utilities a, b, c, and d from the same agent, then the value (a-b)/|c-d| does contain meaningful information about the agent’s preferences (and all meaningful numbers about the agent’s preferences can be expressed in terms of these). (Edit: Note that these utilities don’t need to be utilities of states of the world, they just need to be things of type “utility” (sense 2). E.g., if the agent has a bounded utility function (see below), and x is a utility, then the number (x-inf)/|sup-inf|, where sup and inf are the supremum and infimum of the agent’s utilities, is certainly meaningful; this is equivalent to normalizing the utility function so that the infimum is 0 and the supremum is 1. So in the bounded case anyway extracting meaningful numbers becomes a little easier.)

      But I’ve gotten a little off track — as I was saying, if the agent is a utilitarian, then the agent’s utility (sense 2) depends on everyone’s utility (sense 1). But:
      A. This doesn’t tell us how it depends on them. If it’s just equal to the sum or average of them, then ignoring for now the issue of creation and destruction of people, maximizing expected utility (sense 2) would correspond to maximizing the expected sum of everyone’s utility (sense 1). And in this context — and only in this context or one possessing similar properties — does it make sense to speak of “maximizing expected utility” when “utility” is used in sense 1 instead of sense 2. Otherwise, you should only ever be speaking of maximizing expected utility (sense 2).
      B. Again, note the shift between the two senses; we have utility (sense 2) (of the agent) depending on utility (sense 1) (of everyone). Now, there could be good reasons to at least in some cases identify those cases… but as soon as we do that, we run into problems of circularity; you very possibly end up with cases where utility (sense 1) of someone depends on utility (sense 1) of themselves, or, worse yet, where utility (sense 2) of someone depends on utility (sense 2) of themselves — which, recall, is dangerous, because individual utility (sense 2) numbers aren’t meaningful unless combined in the right ways. Of course, the resulting equations might well turn out to have a unique solution! Doing this isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just mathematically dangerous. (Edit: And in the case of sense 2 depending on sense 2, I’m pretty doubtful it’s meaningful even if you do take all the precautions above.)
      C. To return to A. for a moment — if the reason we accept the notion of utility (sense 2) is because of Savage’s Theorem rather than the VNM theorem — and I think Savage’s Theorem makes a rather more compelling case — then we are required to additionally conclude that utility functions must be bounded. Thus, when it comes time to maximize expected utility (sense 2), infinities are simply not a possibility. If the agent is a utilitarian, then yes, this may require combining utilities (sense 1) in an unusual manner.

      (The VNM theorem assumes that we already accept the notion of probability. By contrast, Savage’s theorem does not; it proves that with the right conditions, the agent must work as if it both believed in probability and is trying to maximize the expectation of its utility function. Hence why I like it better. Although the “probability” in this case is only required to be finitely additive.)

      • Troy says:

        Sniffnoy: I am aware of the distinctions that you are drawing. Terminology in this area is confusing and I should have been clearer about what I meant. I’ve been using “expected utility” in the sense of “expected value,” where I am not making judgments about what value is or what it inheres in. It could be happiness and inhere in people, it could be beauty and inhere in ecosystems. I can run the argument either way.

        I am using value in an “objective” sense if what is actually valuable. So, expected utility/value in my sense is a function of what the agent ought to value (and the degrees of belief he ought to have), not what he actually does value (or the degrees of belief he does have). I consider the view on which agents ought to maximize expected utility in the latter sense to be more of a Humean view than a consequentialist view, as it (typically) denies the existence of objective values.

        I was also tacitly assuming an additive form of consequentialism. But I think the same problems arise and are perhaps even worse for other forms of aggregation.

        (Incidentally, I had not thought about the circularity you discuss in (3B). This seems to me like a potential problem for preference utilitarianism; but I will have to think about it.)

        • FrogOfWar says:

          The (3B) point is an analogue to one of Hume’s arguments against the claim that self-love is our only motivation. We need other more basic motivations to ground what would count as a satisfier of one’s self-love in order for self-love to make sense as a motive to begin with.

          For the same reason, two people could not have as their only desire the satisfaction of the other’s desires.

          It’s the same problem you find in the Liar Paradox literature. There we need to ground all sentences about truth in sentences that are about the world itself rather than truth. Here we need to ground all sentences about preferences in sentences that are not themselves about preferences.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I was also tacitly assuming an additive form of consequentialism. But I think the same problems arise and are perhaps even worse for other forms of aggregation.

          Well there’s your problem, isn’t it? 🙂 But seriously, who says consequentialism has to involve any sort of “aggregation” in this sense at all? Consequentialism is just a coherence condition. This seems more like an argument against [possbly slight generalizations of] utilitarianism, not consequentialism more generally.

          • Troy says:

            Fair enough, my target is really aggregative forms of consequentialism. (Going back and looking at Bostrom’s essay I see he is explicit about this, and so is more careful than I was.)

    • 2. Is a mini argument that seems to be aiming to get the conclusion “there is an infinite amount of value out there in the world” from the premise “there is infinite amount of potential .valuable stuff out there in the world”.

      But the idea of Value being a thing in the world is metaphysically dubious, and the idea of a linear relationship between Valuable Stuff and Valuation by Agents is also problematic. For one thing, it seems likely that agents can only gain or lose finite amounts of valuable stuff in individual actions. For another, there is plenty of evidence of agents setting bounds and discounting, rather than valuing stuff linearly.

      • FrogOfWar says:

        The idea behind (2) is that there might be an infinite number of agents, not that there might be an infinite number of things that a finite number of agents value.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      You can still say one “world history” is “Better” than the other even if the integral of the utility function is infinite on both.

      In order to make this concrete imagine you have two real valued functions of time. On could define a partial order by saying f is greater than g if the set {x|f(x) < g(x)} has finite measure. There are obviously many other partial orders you could devise. The order induced from the L1 norm is not the only order we can construct.

      • Troy says:

        This is true, but whether or not it can save consequentialism is unclear. I discuss similar proposals upthread, but the basic difficulties are two:

        1. A partial order does not let us calculate expected utilities, because expected utilities require a cardinal measure and not just an ordinal measure.

        2. Any attempt to get a cardinal measure out of this kind of proposal will still arguably not be able to handle cases where our actions themselves have potentially infinite effects. If there’s a non-zero probability that action A will cause an infinite amount of changes to the world, and likewise for action B, but those changes aren’t the same, then it’s doubtful that there will be any expected utility decision theory to let us choose between these cases.

        • cbhacking says:

          Ordering lets us maximize utility, and that’s literally all that matters. It’s entirely possible, for any bounded set of possibilities*, to assign a utility ranking to them if you have a comparative utility function, and therefore it’s possible to maximize utility even if you don’t know what the maximal value (or any other) is. To make that argument work, you’d have to not only discount but rule out a comparative utility function.

          Comparisons tend to be relatively easy, even with infinities; consider the infinite values of X = sum(|N|) for N = all positive integers and Y = sum(2*|N|) for N = all positive integers. Not only can we see that X < Y, but we even know by what factor; we can say that Y = 2X.

          You may be interested to know that computers work with functions that have potentially-infinite values all the time. Look up “lazy evaluation” for an idea.

          * The true set of possibilities may be unbounded, but you can only consider a bounded set anyhow. Utilitarianism doesn't** say you can find the global maximum of the utility function, it says you should try to maximize utility in the most effective way you know how.

          ** To the best of my knowledge. I'm relatively new to the concept.

          • Troy says:

            Ordering lets us maximize utility under perfect knowledge. The reason we need cardinal rankings is because of uncertainty. For example, suppose that we have three possible outcomes, O1, O2, and O3. All have infinite value, but O1 > O2 > O3. We also have two actions, A1 and A2. Now suppose that

            P(O1|A1) = .5,
            P(O2|A1) = 0,
            P(O3|A1) = .5,


            P(O1|A2) = 0,
            P(O2|A2) = 1,
            P(O3|A2) = 0.

            Expected utility theory can’t tell us which action to perform merely based on the fact O1 > O2 > O3. We need to know how much better O1 is than O2, and O2 than O3, to know how to calculate the expected utility of A1 and A2.

            Maybe we can quantify better-ness by taking limits in the way you suggest, but it will depend on the case, and whether there’s a privileged limit function for approaching the infinity.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      (2) isn’t complete, and that’s why the idea fails. If you allow for a constant probability distribution for the universe containing x amount of utility, then if the universe has x utility, and you do an action with y utility, then you can measure the relative goodness of an action by a function f(x,y) = y/abs(x).

      If we want to evaluate an action y=a, (I’ll write this as E(a)) then we need to sum up all values of f(x,a) for every value of x. if we use an integral for this, it’s going to be hard to type out, but I’ll try:

      E(a) = the limit of [1/(t+t) * integral from -t to t of f(x,a) dx] as t goes to infinity.

      If we do this, we end up with an expression that looks somewhat like (and I’m sorta cheating here, not going into all the details, and that’s because i’m lazy, but this does increase the chance that I’m wrong):


      Which simplifies to a.

      So, in conclusion, we have proved that the expected utility equals the theoretical utility, if we assume that all universes are equally likely.

    • memetiengineer says:

      Obvious counter-example to your argument: egoistic hedonism is a form of consequentialism, and (2) is obviously false. I suspect that for similar reasons it would fail for many other forms of non-utilitarian consequentialism.

      • Troy says:

        I’m not sure egoistic hedonism is a form of consequentialism, but at any rate my argument still applies to it. There is a non-zero probability of an afterlife (or some other scheme where you live forever — it can involve uploading yourself into a computer if you like) in which you will continue experiencing pleasure and pain forever.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          This is easily handled by a discounting rate, I believe. (At least, assuming boundedness, which we should be, because of Savage.) And if there weren’t an easy solution, who cares? Nothing you’ve said rules out a harder one.

          It really seems like you’re going about this backwards, in a sense. You’re making a lot of implicit assumptions about how utility has to be calculated, showing the results are incoherent, and claiming this is an argument against consequentialism! It’s just an argument against particular methods of calculating utility. None of what you’re saying would be convincing to someone who takes consequentialism by itself seriously (as opposed to someone who only endorses consequentialism because it follows from utilitarianism).

          • Troy says:

            Yes, time preference can get out of this particular case. It won’t help if you can get an infinite amount of utility at some future time (e.g., perhaps the beatific vision is infinitely valuable). But if your view of value is narrow enough (e.g., you think it’s just pleasure), and you’re willing to claim lots of a priori knowledge for yourself, you might claim to know with certainty that such a scenario is impossible.

            If a discounting rate does help here, we face an issue of determining the “correct” discounting rate: how much ought you place greater weight on nearer outcomes?

            In general, I think that proposed alterations of how to calculate expected utility will run afoul of a dilemma: either they will not solve the problem of infinite value, or they will be independently problematic — e.g., they will face counterexamples or not sit well with the kinds of motivations people give for (aggregative) consequentialism. For instance, time discounting literally counts some goods less than others.

            I don’t think that my argument is a knockdown refutation of consequentialism (or utilitarianism). It’s one of a variety of reasons I don’t accept either view, but philosophy involves weighing costs and benefits, and I’ve got nothing against someone’s saying “this is an interesting problem and I don’t know what the solution is, but on balance the weight of the philosophical evidence seems to me to still favor consequentialism.”

          • Sniffnoy says:

            OK; this is all fair enough.

            (Although, once again, the problem of “an infinity at a later time” though is not a problem; utility functions can’t be infinite! And certainly not if we further assume that they’re bounded. 🙂 Indeed, if we don’t assume boundedness, then discounting doesn’t necessarily save you, as you could have something that grows in utility faster than the discounting rate.

            …at least, if that makes sense. I’m not sure that I’m combining things here in a way that’s really meaningful. But it’s no more meaningless than what you’ve been suggesting, at any rate. 🙂 )

          • Troy says:

            utility functions can’t be infinite

            This is where it would be clearer for me to say “value,” which is a more pre-theoretic term. Inasmuch as “utility” is a technical term within some mathematical system, maybe this is right, but then the question just becomes whether value (in the pre-theoretic sense) = utility (in this technical sense), and I’ll maintain that it’s not certain that it does.

            Indeed, if we don’t assume boundedness, then discounting doesn’t necessarily save you, as you could have something that grows in utility faster than the discounting rate.

            Ah, yes, that’s another difficulty I hadn’t thought of above: similar to the rejoinder to the response to the St. Petersburg Problem which relies on diminishing marginal returns.

            I have not studied bounded utility functions enough to know to what extent the worries I’ve been raising here apply to them, but they seem to me a promising route to pursue.

        • memeticengineer says:

          Egoistic hedonism is most certainly a form of consequentialism. An agent practicing it would judge their actions solely by their consequences according to a given standard of value (their own pleasure).

          In addition to the arguments already cited (discount rate, no such thing as finite duration infinite pleasure) your “there might be an afterlife” argument sounds like Pascal’s Wager. Since there is no known way to affect one’s likelihood of entering a positive afterlife, one would have to ignore this possibility when doing expected value calculations.

          Now that I think about it, it seems to me that any form of average utilitarianism (as opposed to total utilitarianism) would also completely evade your argument, for basically the same reason as any form of egoist consequentialism. If a single moral subject cannot have infinite utility, then their average is not infinite, even if there are an infinite number of them.

          • Troy says:

            Egoistic hedonism is most certainly a form of consequentialism. An agent practicing it would judge their actions solely by their consequences according to a given standard of value (their own pleasure).

            I think of consequentialism as the view that one ought maximize the value of the world. On the simplest views of value this is seen as the sum of the value in the world, but more sophisticated views might think of it some sort of average, or not aggregative at all (see my discussion with Sniffnoy upthread).

            I don’t see egoism as a kind of consequentialism because it doesn’t tell you to maximize the value of the world, it tells you to maximize your own well-being. Simple additive egoistic hedonism tells you to get as much pleasure as you can. This doesn’t involve maximizing value in general, it involves maximizing value-for-you. It either says that there is no such thing as value in general, or admits that there is but says that it doesn’t matter for ethics. So either value-for-you isn’t value in some objective sense, or it is, but maximizing objective value is not the goal of this form of egoism: for it says to ignore value-for-others.

            Of course, given certain understandings of “consequentialism” and “consequences,” almost any ethical view trivially counts as a kind of consequentialism. e.g., If consequentialism just means “concerned with consequences,” and “consequences” includes things like “having broken the categorical imperative,” then we could call Kant a consequentialist.

            In addition to the arguments already cited (discount rate, no such thing as finite duration infinite pleasure) your “there might be an afterlife” argument sounds like Pascal’s Wager.

            It’s clearly related to Pascal’s Wager, inasmuch as it brings in infinite utilities in an afterlife. But its upshot is different.

            Since there is no known way to affect one’s likelihood of entering a positive afterlife, one would have to ignore this possibility when doing expected value calculations.

            This seems to me like a surprising thing to say about the probabilities of various afterlifes. You really think that it’s equally likely that you enter a positive afterlife, given that you live any kind of life at all? Most major world religions would reject that claim. Do you assign them all credence 0?

            Now that I think about it, it seems to me that any form of average utilitarianism (as opposed to total utilitarianism) would also completely evade your argument, for basically the same reason as any form of egoist consequentialism. If a single moral subject cannot have infinite utility, then their average is not infinite, even if there are an infinite number of them.

            This avoids an “infinite number of persons” (or other value-bearers) way of getting an infinitely valuable world, but not other ways. For instance, suppose that there is a possible afterlife in which you enjoy ever increasing utility, though at any particular time it’s finite. Your life looks something like this, with the numbers representing utility at a time:

            {1, 2, 4, 8, …}

            The average of this series is infinite, and so the value of your life is infinite, on an average form of utilitarianism.

    • Daniel Smith says:

      I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities. I don’t think these are solved problems, but I expect they are solvable, or at least some approximation can be made which doesn’t blow up. An easy hack is to just define a finite time window that you care about.

      Even more practically, imagine writing a computer program to estimate utility. It will never have this problem because it doesn’t have unbounded time/space to perform these computations. (assuming sane bounded utility functions.)

      I feel like you came up with this neat argument, got excited, and didn’t spend more than a minute or two trying to think of why it might not hold.

      I think what was mentioned some time ago on this site about ancestry–you either (in the long run) become everyone’s ancestor or no-one’s–is also true for actions: their repercussions either (in the long run) blow up and affect everything or die off and affect nothing. But I think it’s safe to say that the uncertainty in your computation will quickly become larger than the Nth tertiary effect…

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities.

        That’s not what utility functions are for!

        (Also, a better hack than a finite time window is a discounting rate.)

      • James Picone says:

        Objection: Even if you take a finite amount of time to do the computation, that computation could involve symbolic math to prove that the outcome will be infinite. It doesn’t take an infinite amount of computation to show that 1 + 1 + 1… isn’t finite.

      • Troy says:

        I feel like you came up with this neat argument, got excited, and didn’t spend more than a minute or two trying to think of why it might not hold.

        You give me too much credit! 🙂 I read the argument in Nick Bostrom’s aforementioned essay and am merely popularizing it.

        Of course there are objections to the argument, just like there are objections to any philosophical argument! I posted it to stimulate discussion, and now I’m trying to reply to objections, but I don’t take the argument to be an open-and-shut case or any such thing.

        I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities.

        I’m more skeptical of the former than the latter. Philosophers have attempted both, and Bostrom criticizes strategies that have been proposed in his paper.

        An easy hack is to just define a finite time window that you care about.

        You can certainly do this. But it seems to me that if you do you’ve given up on consequentialism; you’re no longer concerned about maximizing overall value, just the value of this small part of the world.

    • James Picone says:

      I object to (3). I don’t see how it follows from (2).

      I agree that (1) and (2) could potentially imply that /some/ actions have infinite expected utility for certain definitions of utility. I don’t think it means that /all/ actions have infinite expected utility (which is, I think, what you meant?). A utilitarian could bite the bullet, say “Well if you’ve calculated that the expected utility of some action is positive infinity, do that action. If you’ve calculated that the expected utility of several mutually-exclusive actions is positive infinity, do one of them, it doesn’t really matter”, and otherwise do normal utilitarian things with actions that have finite expected utility.

      Most actions that you take have nth order effects that fall off past some n. If I choose to steal a loaf of bread, at first order I expect the store that sells the bread to lose some utility, at second order I expect to very slightly contribute to citizens of the area feeling like there’s crime, at third order I expect to extremely slightly contribute to generally Tough On Crime legislation in the area, and so on. If the utilities were -1 + 0.5 * -1 + 0.25 * -1… then it’s -2 utility all up.

      • Troy says:

        Here’s my thought behind (3) (copying from here. The expected value of act A is the sum of the values of the possible states of the world given that you A, multiplied by their probabilities given that you A. That is, EV(A) = P(S1|A)V(S1) + P(S2|A)V(S2) + …

        Now suppose that one of the possible states of the world, say S1, has infinite value, and that P(S1|A) > 0. Then P(S1|A)V(S1) = infinite. If all the other terms in our sum are either finite or infinite, then our sum is infinite. If some are negatively infinite, our sum is undefined. So, it follows from “there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite [in the above sense]” that the expected value of A-ing is either infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.

        This doesn’t quite hold if some actions have the potential to change whether or not the world has infinite value. One might also reply to the argument (as others have) that we can somehow set aside infinite value that we don’t impact. In either case the closely related problem of how to deal with actions that have potential (negative) infinite payoff arises. Then the utilitarian could indeed say what you say above.

        Whether this is a satisfactory response is up for debate. One might think it implies that you ought do things you ought not do (e.g., spend all your time trying to bring about some super unlikely chain reaction that will continue increasing utility forever). One might also worry that there will be lots of actions that have potential infinite payoff and that we won’t have a way to choose between them. You could even argue that it’s possible that all actions have infinite payoff: just consider hypotheses of the form,

        H1 = God will bring about infinite value if I do A1,
        H2 = God will bring about infinite value if I do A2,

        for all available actions A1-An.

        • James Picone says:

          I would prefer to model the expected value as the sum of the distributions of change in value per affected actor, rather than the sum of the total value * probability of state occurring of the universe. I think that avoids your first problem, if my intuition is right here, because there’s a finite number of actors affected by a given time (light cone), and as actors are further from you in time and space the expected change in utility distribution will become wider and wider, becoming uniform across all possible changes at infinity (and thus contributing nothing to the summed utility distribution).

          Your second argument there seems stronger. I’ll have to think about that. My intuition says that the uniformity must count against it somehow – because it applies to all possible actions, it should cancel out. Maybe the secret is using hyperreals to represent value. 😛

          • Troy says:

            On modeling expected value as change: the trick here, it seems to me, will be to precisify “change in value.” What’s the state of the world that’s being modified by the action? It can’t be the present state of the world, because the expected change will then always be infinite, negative infinite, or undefined, as before. Is it “the way the world would be otherwise”? This is suggested more by what you say, but counterfactuals like this are notoriously difficult to determine.

            Hyperreals might help. Bostrom seems to think this is one of the most promising approaches to the problem. I’m not familiar enough with the mathematics of hyperreals to know whether it’s feasible or not.

    • Airgap says:

      If you’re just trying to avoid ethical paralysis, which seems to be the main motivation, you can count only the portion of the infinite universe you can comprehend and analyze in order to decide which has higher value, which will be finite. This is what we do in real life. For example, when we worry about the future, we talk about making things better for “Our children, and our children’s children” and then we stop talking.

      Another example: according to certain over-dramatic AI researchers, posting on the internet could lead to arbitrarily high negative value on the other side of the singularity. Since that’s by definition outside of my ability to predict and comprehend and evaluate for decision-making purposes, I continue to post on the internet. Basilisk. Take that, MIRI!

    • Possible refutation of argument 1:

      * Predictions are imperfect and finite
      * Expected utility of an action is based upon predicted likelihood of causally linked events
      * Therefore, expected utility is finite.

      So basically, if expected utility = consequence * likelihood, but an increasingly infinite number of events have equal likelihood as we reach the limit of our predictive powers, then expected utility approaches zero as we go “further out”. We mostly don’t have to worry about humans a million years from now or on some distant planet, because we have no reliable way to predict how our actions would effect them.

  16. stillnotking says:

    This story from the Harvard Law Review has been making the rounds lately:

    I recently assisted a young man who was subjected by administrators at his small liberal arts university in Oregon to a month-long investigation into all his campus relationships, seeking information about his possible sexual misconduct in them (an immense invasion of his and his friends’ privacy), and who was ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away. He was found to be completely innocent of any sexual misconduct and was informed of the basis of the complaint against him only by accident and off-hand. But the stay-away order remained in place, and was so broadly drawn up that he was at constant risk of violating it and coming under discipline for that.

    When the duty to prevent a “sexually hostile environment” is interpreted this expansively, it is affirmatively indifferent to the restrained person’s complete and total innocence of any misconduct whatsoever.

    It’s a striking example of how unbalanced our intuitions become when we assign infinite moral weight to something.

    • Airgap says:

      As ready as I am to believe the worst about colleges handling sexual harassment, this might not be as bad as it sounds. For example “He reminded her of someone” might mean “and she therefore believed he was that person, and acted accordingly.” Or she didn’t think that, but the administrators didn’t understand that when she spoke to them. Also, the fact that the stay-away order remains in place might be down it being the responsibility of a different department than the investigative one, and the secrecy of the process (he only found out he was innocent by accident; how would the other department know?)

      If this is just a bureaucracy that can’t find its dick with both hands, we may not approve, but it’s not exactly storm-the-bastille time.

      • Jiro says:

        The argument “we shouldn’t consider X so important that we do anything to stop it” still applies when “anything” includes “do things that circumvent the checks and balances in the system”. It’s true that that kind of thing probably depends on a bureaucracy, but that just pushes it up a level–we shouldn’t subject people to potentially dangerous, unchecked, bureaucracies in order to stop X.

        • Airgap says:

          I’m not taking a position on the argument one way or the other. I’m saying that the example motivating the argument might be bullshit.

          • Jiro says:

            I think the argument “we must do anything to keep women from being hurt, even if it means railroading an innocent man” and “we must do anything to keep women from being hurt, even if it means subjecting men to bureaucracies that will, eventually, end up railroading an innocent man” are not different enough for the former to count as bullshit if the latter is true.

          • Anonymous says:

            But the example you have cited, if it is true, isn’t actually keeping women from being hurt.* So your claim that it’s the overarching value here isn’t working. It’s a case of incompetent bureaucracy run rampant, not one value being given infinite moral weight. No woman has actually been protected by this bullshit.

            *Reasons for this claim:
            1) It is highly unlikely that the person who originally complained intended this outcome. If she finds out about it and has normal levels of empathy, she probably feels bad.
            2)Knowing something this extreme could happen will actually dissuade other women from saying anything in a similar situation.
            3) In addition, original complainant probably feels frightened. The man who reminds her of her rapist has now got reasons to be angry with her. Perhaps all his friends are angry with her too.
            4) If the internet somehow uncovers this woman’s identity, she will go through hell. Even if that doesn’t happen, the fear of it would be a big deal.

          • John Schilling says:

            5) If the student in question is the rapist, or a rapist, and would not have been dissuaded by a quiet “we know and we’re watching”, expelling him simply adds revenge to the list of motives for further rapes, eliminates classwork and study as distractions, leaves him with less to lose, and does not materially prevent him from forcibly raping female Harvard students.

            However, if he’s not a rapist and Harvard successfully controls the publicity, then one woman at least is protected from the real mental anguish of repeatedly seeing a man who triggers “rapist!” in her mind, and depending on how the PR is handled other women may be protected from the lesser anguish of believing the administration is uncaring and will not protect them from rapists generally.

            QED, the university implicitly understands that the man in question isn’t really a rapist, believes that it has near-absolute power in this regard, and is in fact trying to railroad an innocent man to protect a women or perhaps many women. As well as their own reputation. It’s just that they are trying to protect against a much lesser harm than actual rape, and in this case not doing a very good job of it.

          • Airgap says:

            [The arguments] are not different enough for the former to count as bullshit if the latter is true.

            I think it’s worth calling bullshit, even if the real facts are bad, because otherwise you just get more bullshit.

        • Anonymous says:

          Your premise 5 is silly; expelling a student rapist would in fact be a good way to protect female Harvard students. However it doesn’t seem to have any bearing whatsoever on the actual facts or arguments at hand, so I won’t debate it.

          Your QED doesn’t logically follow from anything prior, even if premise 5 were true. And it’s not true. I also don’t see any reason to assume the combination of bureaucratic co-ordination, malice, and utter stupidity that you seem to be attributing to the Harvard administration. Though I will note that conspiracy theorists often seem to believe their enemies are like that.

          I’m going to stick with the position that behaviour that is obviously ineffective at protecting women isn’t indicative of an administration that has protecting women as its ultimate value. It is rather indicative of incompetent bureaucracy run amok.

          • John Schilling says:

            Co-ordination between whom? As far as I know, the actual decision to expel was made by one person at Harvard, the rest was bureaucratic autopilot.

            And while I have fortunately never been involved in a rape investigation, I have witnessed firsthand at least one sexual harassment investigation where the decisionmaker privately and explicitly acknowledged that this was his reasoning. Do whatever makes the girl shut up and go away, trusting that the guy understands things will only get worse if he doesn’t shut up and go away. No conspiracy, no malice, just institutional incentives making this the only easy path for the decisionmaker and the least-painful path for everyone else once he’s made that decision.

            But if it pleases you to believe that actual conspiracies are necessary for institutions to behave wrongly, such that you are excused from defending your position on the grounds that your opponents are obviously lunatic conspiracy theorists, then have at it, Anonymous.

          • Anonymous says:

            My position is as stated in my original post and restated again in the second post (clause following “the position that…”) None of your comments have even addressed it.

            That said, in the case under discussion the decisions that have been made are obviously not the easiest and least-painful path for anyone. They’re irrational and unhelpful to every party involved. So your anecdote about a completely different incident is irrelevant.

            And of course I don’t think a conspiracy is necessary for institutions to behave wrongly. I said the exact opposite. Infer better.

          • Airgap says:

            expelling a student rapist would in fact be a good way to protect female Harvard students.

            It’s been hinted at elsewhere, but one is moved to ask why female Harvard students are entitled to these protections, whereas female wherever-he-ends-up-next students are not. Oh wait, I think I can guess. Still, it does allow the vast MRA conspiracy to tar the proponents of campus sex codes with the charge of classism. Run it up the flagpole, guys.

            behaviour that is obviously ineffective at protecting women isn’t indicative of an administration that has protecting women as its ultimate value. It is rather indicative of incompetent bureaucracy run amok.

            Abandoning its core function and running amok is basically the natural state of bureaucracy, so I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about it.

          • Anonymous says:

            Both your quoted statements are direct refutations of claims made by other posters. That’s the context they exist in.

            If the statements had been made in some other, entirely different context, then projecting “classism” or “being bent out of shape” onto said statements might be logical. Probably not, but one can at least imagine contexts that would justify it. This context doesn’t.

            And thanks for your profound insight into the nature of bureaucracy; that wasn’t at all implicit in what I already wrote.

  17. Troy says:

    Question about statistical methods, for those who know more about them than I do.

    Suppose you are running an experiment on the effect of a weight loss pill, Slim, over a 6-month period. You run a double blind experiment on Slim in which you randomly select half of the people in your experiment to go on Slim and half to go on a placebo, without them or you knowing which is on which. Then you record results at the end of the 6 months.

    Now, you want to test the “null hypothesis” that any weight loss you saw in the Slim experimental group was caused by either random variation in weight or a placebo effect. In particular, you want to see if the probability of weight loss as great as what you actually observed in the Slim patients has a probability below .05 (or some other statistical significance threshold) given the null. In order to calculate this probability, you need the null hypothesis to specify the variance you would expect if it were true.

    My question is this: how is this variance determined? My understanding is that it is in some way a function of the actually observed variance in the test, but beyond this I’m fuzzy. Is it some kind of average between the variance in the experimental group and the control group?

    Note that my question is about how such tests are usually run, not about how they should be run. (I’m interested in the latter question, but want to make sure I understand the answer to the former first!)

    • The Do-Operator says:

      The null hypothesis is not defined until you observe the outcomes in people taking placebo. This is the purpose of the control arm.

      In a randomized trial, the null hypothesis will have to be a comparison between the two arms of the experiment. The natural null hypothesis is some variation of “the distribution of weight loss in the active arm is identical to the distribution of weight loss in the placebo arm”. To test this, you can use the observed variance in the placebo arm

      Note that using the observed variance is completely valid in a hypothesis test (even though the null variance is traditionally taught)

      However, using the null variance for a confidence interval is verboten.

      • Troy says:

        So, if I understand your answer correctly, you would use the observed variance in the control arm in my scenario?

        Note that using the observed variance is completely valid in a hypothesis test (even though the null variance is traditionally taught)

        I don’t understand what you’re getting at here. I thought that, as you say above, the null hypothesis is not defined until the test is done? what then does the “null variance” mean, if not the observed variance?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      In practice the two branches have similar standard deviations and the question doesn’t come up.

      • Troy says:

        What if Slim was sometimes very effective, but its effects are very uncertain? Sometimes it doesn’t do a thing, but when it works it works big. (Perhaps it interacts with certain genotypes or something: explain this however you like.) This would give it a large variance, wouldn’t it?

  18. briancpotter says:

    Are there any examples of progressives who respond to conservative “most changes are bad, most traditions exist for a good reason” style arguments by biting the bullet, and saying something to the effect of “yup, there’s a chance what we change will screw society up, but the alternative is to be stuck in a local optimum forever, so it’s worth the risk.”

    (I don’t necessarily endorse this argument, but I’d be interested to see if anyone made it).

    • anon says:

      I don’t really see why a progressive would make that argument, since in 2015 they’re basically the establishment and it’s really the “conservatives” who are looking to shake things up.

      • MichaelT says:

        How so? What specific policy do conservatives support that would really shake up society? Repeal of the healthcare law would be the only example I can think of, but going back to the way things were 5 years ago (which weren’t really that different anyway) is hardly a large deviation from established tradition.

        • Anonymous says:

          Anon’s rhetoric is pretty common among conservatives and basically translates to “liberals control society because I can’t be homophobic anymore.”

          • Nornagest says:

            I think you can be more charitable than that.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous I disagree with the premise but alright jackass, tell me how “I can’t be homophobic any more” ISN’T evidence for “Liberals control society”. Because it seems to me that society changing in ways aligned with liberal goals is suggestive of liberals having more control over society.

          • cbhacking says:

            Since when does “control society” mean you have no incentive to change things? I mean, the US government controls society in a much more direct sense than any “adherents of one of two nebulously-defined political ideologies”. The US government makes all kinds of changes. For example, a bit over a decade ago, it sent out troops to war on foreign territory. This could have brought down the government and all its power, if enough people decided that this action was worth revolution at home. The action in question was in keeping with some US traditions and in violation of some others, but it was undeniably a change, and it could have cost those in power their power. Yet they made it anyhow. That’s the way the world works. Power is literally meaningless if you do not exercise it, and even exercising it to prevent change introduces a change, because as a nation we have a tradition of changes. Not necessarily radical changes (though I could give examples), not necessarily changes that align current society more closely with past society (though I could give examples), not necessarily changes toward or away from future changes (I could give examples of either), but changes nonetheless.

            Oh, and for the anon calling people “asshole”, the fact that you retain the right to do that suggests that “liberals” don’t, in fact, control society. They may influence it, but they’re hardly the only ones that do. More to the point, if “liberals” control (American) society, why is America still so much more conservative than much of Europe (on subjects like religion, healthcare, gay rights, gun ownership, and many other areas)? Besides, nobody truthfully said you can’t be homophobic anymore; that statement is trivially disproven. On the other hand, you can’t reliably avoid negative social consequences for identifying as homophobic or acting in a homophobic manner. That can be called a liberal victory, but it scarcely means they’ve won the war.

          • Not The Same Anon says:


            You seem to have defined ‘in control of society’ as ‘meaningful opposition does not exist and/or is legally forbidden from dissenting’ which is frankly a rather terrifying way to approach kulturkampf, particularly a struggle one instigated oneself. One can in fact win a war without the other side being brought to unconditional surrender.

            That’s kind of the problem actually. If >90% of academia is liberal, even outside of the humanities / social sciences, liberals can say “but Dr. X over at Liberty University is still allowed to research [insert controversial topic of study] so we’re far from being in control!” If CEOs, billionaire sports team owners, politicians and nobel winning scientists are all semi-regularly stripped of their positions and titles for making private ‘gaffes’ (even years earlier!) on ‘controversial’ topics, liberals can say “the fact that these guys have those attitudes are evidence we’re not in charge yet” with a straight face. I could keep going but it would just be tedious.

            It’s especially bizarre because, by this standard, very few people have ever controlled anything. Even most so called absolute monarchs and dictators didn’t have the political power to completely stamp out dissent and historically most in fact were regularly forced to compromise when trying to implement their pet projects.

          • Anonymous says:

            I called Anonymous a jackass not because I agree/disagree with them but because as Nornagest said, they were being very uncharitable.

          • Anonymous writes:

            “Anon’s rhetoric is pretty common among conservatives and basically translates to “liberals control society because I can’t be homophobic anymore.””

            How about “the current orthodoxy is what came in during the New Deal, and largely consists of Bismarck’s version of socialism.” Repealing the New Deal looks more like a “conservative” approach than a “progressive” approach, but is the opposite of conservative in the literal sense of the term.

        • Nicholas says:

          Red Tribe members as a whole are very divided on any issue that could be considered liberal on their part. Roe v. Wade is now old enough that supporting it is a conservative position and not a liberal one, but if you are very old you were able to vote before then, and thus are maintaining a position that has been conservative up to the recent goal-post moving. Bombing the middle east with nuclear weapons until everyone there is dead is a policy sometimes endorsed by Red Tribe public speakers in my home state that would be a liberal position in degree if not in kind.

          • Irrelevant says:

            There are virtually no American foreign policy conservatives, at least by the field-specific definition, and haven’t been for a century.

        • “What specific policy do conservatives support that would really shake up society?”

          A full scale voucher system, in which any student could have a voucher for the per student cost of the public school system?

          Beyond that, it depends who you include in “conservatives.” If you include libertarians, as many but not all do, then the policies might include abolishing medical licensing, the ICC, civil forfeiture, FDA requirements for new drugs, … . One of the talks I give is entitled “Should we abolish the criminal law” (and replace it with an expanded version of tort law). Does that qualify?

          Taking the more non-libertarian parts of the old conservative coalition, the policies might include making abortion illegal.

      • Hari Seldon says:

        I think the whole concept of conservative and progressive in the US has been confounded almost to the point of being meaningless.

        When you talk to people who have actually thought about things beyond “Yeahhh! GO RED TEAM!” it seems the philosophy boils down to two valid ideas.

        1. The story of mankind is a story of those in power abusing those below them resulting in millenia of oppression, slavery of all kinds, and poverty. This seems to happen in all times and all places to all peoples. What we really should be worried about is using our collective will as the government to ensure people’s freedom to act as they see fit and prevent actions from harming others. The government needs to be severely limited in scope and power lest it become the very source of abuse it was meant to prevent.

        These people tend to lean center/right libertarian.

        2. Moloch is a powerful force that creates harm and suffering. We should assert our collective will against the powers of Moloch. If everybody gives just a little, we will have a massive pool of resources to actively fight the ills we see in our world.

        These people tend to lean center left.

        But the only voices you hear in American politics are far right and far left. Which to me sound very similar from both sides.
        “We know what is best for EVERYBODY. If only you morons from the other tribe would listen we could use the government to enforce our morals, values and culture on the whole country.”

        I see very little difference between outspoken progressives and conservatives. They both want near unlimited governmental power to imprint their personal esthetic on the world. Authoritarianism is good as long as it is mandates their own preferences.

        At least the neo-reactionaries have some decent arguments of authority for authority’s sake.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          In a world full of liberals and libertarians, it’s a wonder the PATRIOT act ever got passed.

          • Hari Seldon says:

            I don’t think most people are classical liberals / libertarians. It requires some thought to get to that point. But humans seem to be hardwired for tribalism. No thinking required.

            The Patriot Act passed because, at the time, it was Tribe USA vs. Tribe Terror. Whichever party was in power was NOT going to let an opportunity like that escape.

          • Nornagest says:

            “I don’t know how Nixon ever got elected. No one I know voted for him!”

        • The way Hari puts it makes it sound as though libertarians are moderate conservatives. Speaking as a libertarian, we can be just as immoderate as anyone else–just in a different direction.

          Part of what makes U.S. political labels confusing is that, since sometime in the 1950s, the conservative movement has been an alliance between, loosely speaking, classical liberals (aka libertarians) and traditionalists, united in their opposition to the New Deal orthodoxy that was and is the dominant political position of both parties.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Not in national politics. The admission that you aren’t sure something would work is the kiss of death for any political proposal as your opponent will use it as an admission of weakness.

      I myself say this kind of thing all the time when advocating changes. As do, I suspect, most reasonable people.

      • Tom West says:

        Indeed. It’s painful to face the fact that in the open court, where you are attempting to persuade someone to a position rather than trying to come to one, *any* admission of the costs of your preferred policy is basically self-sabotage, despite the fact that any sane person knows *every* policy has costs.

        Such admissions are very effectively used as “See, even the the people pushing it don’t believe it will work!”

        The cost of being senior enough that your words make a difference to public policy is that you may no longer discuss policy in a public forum as a rational person.

        It’s unfortunate, but that’s politics. If you want rational discussion, you must keep such completely private, or be immaterial to the outcome. It’s why I have respect for those who are willing to advance my preferred policies at the expense ever having a reasonable public discussion again.

        • Held In Escrow says:

          As a rule of thumb, sure. The one situation I can think of where there is an advantage is when you’re attempting to win the argument based on convincing the third party that you are more honest than the other guy. Admitting faults lets you signal that you’re not going to do anything to win while implying your opponent is… thus they’re willing to lie and therefore not to be trusted.

          This generally only works when you already have an in on your opponent being dishonest however and you need to drive the point home.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I think that this argument fails to distinguish between “bullshit” and purposeful lies.

            If you can catch your opponent in a purposeful lie, then yeah, you might get somewhere. But if you just point out he’s bullshitting, nobody’s going to care, because it’s expected behavior for politicians and advocates. Or, rather, people who were already on your side will agree that it’s terrible, and people on the other side will think that you’re being unreasonably particular.

            Probably the best recent example is President Obama’s “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan.” People opposed to the ACA say this was a lie: it wasn’t. It was bullshit. Because the President didn’t know if it was true or not and more importantly, he didn’t care. Likewise the whole “it will save money” thing. If he’d said, “Each and every American citizen will get a check for $2,000 every year reflecting the money we’ll save,” then yeah, maybe people who supported the ACA would care. Short of that, it’s bullshit, and it’s what they expect.

            The cost of this “free pass,” however, is being labeled as a bullshitter, which means that you will lose a LOT of persuasive ability and/or authority with everyone who isn’t already in your camp. This is what has happened to a lot of climate change advocates. They’ve been caught bullshitting, and now they are branded as bullshitters, which means that people who might otherwise have given them credence don’t really care what they have to say anymore.

            In case you’re not familiar with the distinction in this context, I’m using the definitions from Harry Frankfort’s “On Bullshit.” Wiki summary:

            [B]ullshit either can be true or can be false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to his or her agenda.

          • Held In Escrow says:

            I’m coming at it from a different angle; if your opponent has already been established as a bullshitter, you can signal that you not only have the moral high ground but are implicitly trustworthy by being willing to admit to small faults. Establishing trust is generally done in a relative manner; you are more likely to seem honest if you show yourself to be so when opposed to a liar because of the amount of separation you have between your truth and their lies.

            That said, I do very much agree with the point about bullshitters ruining trust; I’ve always referred to it as Michael Mooring; when you have enough data to support your argument, but you decide to go the extra mile and shoot yourself in the foot with hyperbole and lies.

    • Any radical or revolutionary (including the libertarian right)

    • Yeah, I’m going to agree with the above who say that this kind of admission is exactly the thing you’d never see in political discourse, because in political discourse our own side is obliged to be nothing but sunshine and unicorns and the other side is obliged to be nothing but death and destruction.

      This is more or less what I say about polyamory, though, when it comes up–regardless of whether polyamory is an optimal relationship strategy (I’m pretty sure the optimal relationship strategy varies from person to person, in fact, of course) I’m pretty glad some people are willing to try it. You know more about how humans work in a world with polyamorists than you do in a world without them.

    • Airgap says:

      Yes, but they were all purged for violating Party Discipline.

  19. njnnja says:

    To follow up on one of the comments of the week – While spurious correlations in time series is of course a serious issue, what is even worse when dealing with time series data is spurious regressions. If your time series are not stationary, then the distribution of regression coefficients does not fit the t-distribution that is always used to determine the quality of the regression. So for non-stationary time series, you will obtain “statistical significance” in your regression much more often than you should. And it’s not even a like the typical spurious correlation problems, like a confounding variable where maybe you could figure out what the “real” relationship is, but rather, just a serious mathematical pain in the neck that requires you to use better (and of course more complicated) tools like differencing the time serious or using cointegration techniques.

  20. Deiseach says:

    While Scott is off to California in the morning, I’ll throw this one in for advice or opinion from ye all.

    So I’ve finally bitten the bullet and asked my GP about going on anti-depressants. She’s referred me to counselling instead, not wanting to go down the medication route if we can try something else first. Since everyone on my father’s side of the family (including my late father) is or was on “pills for their nerves”, I too don’t want to go down the medication route if I can help it.

    Thing is, I don’t think I can help it. Not any more.

    So, counselling. Any good, or would I be better standing on the bridge throwing stones into the quay? Or just Google the most prescribed anti-depressant and order that off the Internet as self-medication?

    Because I know I am already setting myself up to sabotage this, and I only made the phone call to set up the initial assessment this lunchtime!

    (1) It will involve talking about feelings. I don’t do feelings. I think, I don’t feel. “How do you feel about that/how does that make you feel?” I. DON’T. KNOW. IF. I. KNEW. HOW. I. FELT. I. WOULDN’T. BE. HERE.

    (2) Reading the information leaflet I am already snorting and rolling my eyes –
    Counselling may involve:
    – Discovering new ways of coping
    – Making changes
    – Developing new skills and finding what works for you

    I know I need to make changes, but I’m very resistant. And if ‘discovering new ways of coping’ involves cute verbal tricks to re-programme the brain and fool yourself into feeling better/jarring yourself out of the old rut, it won’t work for me because as I said on here before, my paternal family are extremely good with language and I will be too aware of word-manipulation for it to work; it’s like knowing how the magician does the trick before he pulls the card out of the boiled egg, you aren’t fooled even though you want to be.

    (3) See what I mean about setting up to sabotage it before it even begins?

    (4) I am very good at bullshitting. Very good. This has been my coping strategy to date. Even if the counsellor/therapist knows I’m bullshitting and not really doing my mental and verbal exercises like a good little client, I’m not on medication, I’m not a suicide risk, and I’m not in danger of harming others so the worst sanction they can give me is “You’re not serious about this, so I’m ending these sessions”. Which is no sanction, because I don’t want to sit there for half an hour over eight weeks and talk about how I’m feeling and tell you the sorry tale of my failed life .

    Anyone considered themselves to be/has been diagnosed as clinically depressed, over a long period, and done counselling either on its own or in tandem with medication? Worth putting myself through the wringer (bearing in mind I REALLY REALLY DON’T WANT TO DO THIS but if I don’t do something now, when am I ever going to do it? and I can’t live another year like this, not after forty years of it) or not?

    • Vaniver says:

      I don’t do feelings.

      I don’t do feelings, yet.

      I know I need to make changes, but I’m very resistant.

      The primary thing you want to look for is a counselor that you will like as a person. Tell your counselor that you’re looking for a strong therapeutic alliance, and don’t be afraid to switch if you don’t have one.

      I would recommend printing out this comment and showing it to any counselor you want to work with. This will cut through some of the bullshit, and you might not be surprised to learn that this is a typical response to counseling, and they likely have strategies in place to deal with this (or can refer you to a counselor who specializes in people with your preferences).

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t do feelings yet

        I don’t want to do feelings at all. I’m very happy (where “happy” means “I don’t throw up from anxiety”) not having feelings. I don’t want to care about people and things. I don’t want to be chirping with the bluebirds, thanks very much.

        RE: switching counsellors, it’s more a matter of taking what I can get. It’s an initiative of the national health service that has only recently started up, and like every other national health service provision, it’s:

        – You’ll be on a waiting list to be seen (about 8-10 weeks)
        – Whoever we have who is available to take you is the person you’ll be seeing

        I absolutely don’t want to do this at all, but I’m at a low enough ebb finally that I’m being forced to do something at long last about the inside of my head.

        • speedwell says:

          The Irish don’t do therapy, my husband says. Well, HE doesn’t do therapy. He didn’t understand when I was trying to save my sanity while applying for his green card in the US (an eight month separation) and wondered, innocently, I thought I was ill. Well, yes, I was crying every day because I didn’t know whether to expect good news or bad, and I didn’t have the coping skills to deal with my feelings, and I found an excellent therapist in my city in Texas who taught me the things I had never learned about managing unwanted thoughts. Now that we’re in Sligo, and dealing with joblessness (he did have a job for a while, but nothing since it ended), those lessons are coming in handy.

          If you need medication, you need it. I will say that. I don’t have good results on any medication I’ve tried, and my case is almost certainly different from yours. But even though I’m a lurker and you don’t know me well, maybe you’d like a Skype chat or (depending where you are) even tea from time to time while you are waiting on the wheels to grind slowly on your therapy options. I know I’ve been feeling isolated and it would help me too. My username at if you feel like contacting me 🙂

          • Deiseach says:

            Thank you for the very kind offer, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I can’t do (it’s not you, it’s me).

            I can type it out, because it’s pixels on a screen. Looking someone in the face and saying it – no. Impossible.

            Which is why (sigh) a blister pack of tablets is easier than ‘go to hospital in town, meet counsellor, sit there with her looking at you for twenty-thirty minutes, real human being in the flesh now knows all your miserable pathetic worthlessness’.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          While you’re on the waiting list, ask your parish priest about other resources for counseling.

        • Nicholas says:

          >I don’t want to do feelings at all. I’m very happy (where “happy” means “I don’t throw up from anxiety”) not having feelings. I don’t want to care about people and things. I don’t want to be chirping with the bluebirds, thanks very much.
          This is a meaningful, large, and potentially chunky part of why you have been recommended therapy. You have not prevented yourself from having feelings, statistically speaking, you have trained your mind to flinch from thoughts that might make you aware of your feelings, so that you can have a learned blankness about the content of your feelings. You have responded to a blinking red light on a machine by taping over the light so you can’t see it, and now the machine is breaking and the technician is going to lecture you on how you don’t fix your engine by disabling the check engine light.

          • Deiseach says:

            I do realise that, but the thing is:

            – I have a particular feeling about a particular situation right now
            – Rationally, I know the objective actual reality is one way and how I feel about it is the other
            – The feeling is demonstrably false, inaccurate, and distorting my perception of the reality
            – I therefore choose to discount the feeling and go with bringing my reasoning in line with the reality
            – The feeling may be valid as a feeling, but it is in direct conflict with reality and so it is not helping me if I act as if the feeling is true or accurate or helpful when it is none of those things

            It’s more like a car alarm beeping because it was set off at random, than a fault light flashing to indicate the engine is out of oil.

            That is, I have no reason to believe the feelings are anything more than false positives in themselves, rather than being indicators of an underlying problem that needs fixing (or that can be fixed).

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Not all counsellors use these techniques. Ones that don’t default to them can be hard to find, but they do exist. Good luck.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Try CBT. It’s still “talking about feelings” but it’s not “about how I’m feeling and tell you the sorry tale of my failed life.”

      • Deiseach says:

        What turns me off about the little I’ve read on CBT is precisely the clever verbal tricks part: it’s no damn good me telling myself a mantra that boils down to “every day in every way things are getting better and better”.

        I know the necessity for faith, but frankly I prefer using faith to invoke the aid of St Anthony of Padua (recently helped me find something lost yet again, thanks St Anthony!) than go on a “complete this assignment by attending a social event” programme of behavioural change.

        I don’t want to attend social events. That’s what I mean by bullshitting: I can force myself (save up enough spoons, to borrow the concept) to do this once, or even twice.

        Well, great! You’ve done that and it wasn’t as awful as you thought so you can do it again another time and, like exercise, the more you do it, the easier it gets!

        Except it doesn’t. I’ve done that “force yourself into a situation you avoid” thing before and it’s been:

        1. Okay, expended a massive amount of psychic effort on forcing myself to do this and behave in a ‘normal’ way
        2. Short term ‘that wasn’t so bad’ result
        3. Do it again. Same amount of massive psychic expenditure.
        4. No short-term relief, just tiredness from massive psychic expenditure.
        5. Like exercise, you have to do this again and again and again. Once more, scrape up enough psychic resources to do this. Unlike alleged effects of exercise, it doesn’t get easier the more you do it: it still takes massive psychic expenditure, and the well is running dry by this point.
        6. Aftermath – I hated that. I hate it, I’m exhausted, I didn’t have fun, I’m never doing that again.
        7. I don’t do that again because I simply haven’t the spoons until I recharge over months.

        That’s why this time round I broke down and asked for drugs. Typical of my luck: I was offered anti-anxiety drugs when I didn’t want them; now I want anti-depressants, I can’t get them 🙂

        • Marc Whipple says:

          The weird thing about mantras is that they work even if you think they are total bullpuckey, and nobody knows why.

          I should amend that: believing that they are total bullpuckey has a very small effect on their effectiveness, so long as that belief doesn’t interefere with you actually practicing them. If you don’t do them because you don’t think they’ll work, your belief will have a 100% negatory effect. 🙂

          • speedwell says:

            Seconding the use of mantras. They help me very much, especially because I’ve always turned to song and chant as a way of self-calming (I hum all the damn time, lol). A Hindu priest in Houston told me that he didn’t care if I believed in the deity or not, and that it might be useful for me, the atheist, to think of the mantra as a way to focus on the thing in reality that the deity represented. This makes sense to me.

            Search for Deva Premal on YouTube if you want a soothing, Western-compatible start.

        • Setsize says:

          Your bit about disliking verbal tricks had me thinking “this person might do better with Mindfulness flavored therapy than with CBT flavored therapy.”

          Also, as someone with limited social/interaction spoons I have found group sessions to be far more tolerable than one-on-one, because you do more listening than speaking in a group, and you get to think about other people’s problems a little more.

        • Nicholas says:

          How many situations did you put yourself in? The advice I remember (through a haze of years) was that I would have to put myself into my particular ‘learning environment’ a few time a week for two years, and then I might see noticeable effects.

      • Airgap says:

        I don’t know much about CBT in a clinical setting, but if it’s anything like the way it’s portrayed in porn, I can’t see how it’d do you any good.

        • Deiseach says:

          You naughty person, you, Airgap!

          Yes, it’s an unfortunate acronym 🙂

          Luckily (or not?) I do not possess the requisite dangly bits for that particular course of physical behaviour-modification.

    • Z.Frank says:

      I have Persistent Depressive Disorder, or what they used to call dysthymia. I’ve had it since adolescence. Only within the past year did I seek treatment. Partly this was because I’d expected that eventually my life satisfaction would improve “on its own” after I’d achieved some milestone, like getting my degree or getting a good job or having a loving, long-term relationship with someone. None of these things actually helped.

      But part of the reason I didn’t seek treatment was because I saw my symptoms of dysthymia as interconnected to some of the things about me I value most. I’m pessimistic and cynical because I reject all kinds of magical and wishful thinking. I don’t believe that the world is necessarily a good one or that humanity on a whole is necessarily good, I don’t believe that repeated feelings of inadequacy are necessarily the result of some delusion, I don’t believe that everyone can succeed, and I don’t believe that a “positive outlook” actually makes things better for you (excepting by maybe making other people find you more pleasant to be around). Much of what I read in “self-help” books and much of the descriptions I’d read of psychotherapy was profoundly alienating to me. A lot of it sounded like the sort of nonsense you’d find in the New Age section of a bookstore, not much better than the “Law of Attraction;” a lot of it seemed anti-rational, like it was saying that to be happy you need to systematically overestimate your abilities and how much you matter to others.

      One especially alienating thing I read recently was in Seligman’s Flourish, where he quotes one of his former students on how positive psychology transformed her life. She talks about how she became “a happier person, more attuned to [her] own spirituality and to reasons to celebrate gratitude” and how she used “visualization techniques” like “meditation and collaging.” She was trying to “get romantic love into her life” – to find a husband basically. She says: “My collage had words and images outlining how I wanted my life to be. … I chose my favourite love song, the James Taylor version of ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),’ and every night before bed for the three months before I met my husband, I listened to it religiously, as if to serenade love into my life. The words ‘How Sweet It Is’ were also on my collage, right above the words ‘Bridal Suite.'”

      Seligman apparently thought this was representative of the application of positive psychology techniques, or at least of the outcomes you get from applying those techiques, or else he wouldn’t have included it in his book where he did. But I don’t want to be “attuned to my spirituality,” because I don’t believe in “spirituality.” I find it superstitious to believe “visualization techniques” will bring anything into my life and I don’t want to do anything “religiously.” And I will never, ever be the kind of person who will find “collaging” useful or meaningful for anything. Reading this passage I got the sense that positive psychology – or maybe just being happy in general – just isn’t for people with my personality. And I got the sense that maybe to be happy you have to be gullible.

      Anyway, I’m now on anti-depressants and taking an online course of CBT therapy. I do not think I’ve gotten any better. But the good news is that the therapy, so far, isn’t as bullshit as I thought it would be. A lot of the stuff it is saying I’ve heard before and some of its advice isn’t really implementable, but the therapy isn’t as filled with wishful-thinking or anti-rationality as I worried.

      Perhaps the course would work for you, Deiseach, though I know what you’re looking for is drugs.

      I should warn that the material is written in an… unusual style. I guess I would describe it as the style you would get if you translated the text into English from some other language quite literally, without worrying about awkward constructions. Or maybe it is written like someone trying, but failing badly, at emulating the style you get in children’s picture books. It’s weird, but amusing.

      • Deiseach says:

        I should thank everyone for their advice, which I will now do.

        Thank you all.

        Counselling is going to be hard work. A pill, on the other hand, is much easier. I can screw my courage up to go to the initial assessment. I can probably force myself to attend the first appointment. After that?

        Plus, if the first meeting is “Assess if and what is wrong with you”, then I am woefully tempted not to give the honest answers but the answers that will tick off as “Not too screwed-up at all; only take a recommendation of a self-help book, teach a few techniques and good to go after two-three sessions” so as to get out of the damn thing.

        If it’s to do any good, I will have to answer honestly.

        I do not want to answer honestly. I do not want to talk to someone face-to-face about “Well, actually, no, I don’t have what you Earth-humans call ‘friends’.”

      • Deiseach says:

        This is precisely the attitude I have, Z. Frank. Anything that involves trying to change my attitudes by telling myself “You are smart, you are important, and people like you!” is going to have my bullshit detectors pinging so hard, I’ll sound like the carillon of Cobh Cathedral.

        Because I’m not smart, I’m not important, I don’t matter, and while people don’t dislike me, they’re not going to be devastated if I dropped off the face of the earth in the morning.

        Drugs would be easier 🙂

        • FacelessCraven says:

          “Because I’m not smart, I’m not important, I don’t matter, and while people don’t dislike me, they’re not going to be devastated if I dropped off the face of the earth in the morning.”

          You sound a lot like me. For some life situations, an optimistic assessment seems perversely unrealistic. A big part of the reason I have zero interest in therapy is that talking about why my life is miserable, or how it came to be miserable, does nothing to make it less miserable. I already know how to improve it, the problem is summoning up the willpower to do so, over and over again over a long enough time frame to achieve results. Chemicals might help with that. scripted conversation seems unlikely to.

          Friends might, though.

          • Nicholas says:

            One of the more peculiar things in life is thinking that I know I disagree with you now, and that I agreed with you in the past, and also that I will agree with you in the future. Because my meta-awareness that my brain is multi-optimizing won’t be able to to free my limbic system from the rogue forces.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thanks for the MoodGYM recommendation and this is genuine thanks, not sarcasm. I wanted to make that very clear at the start, because WARNING: SWEARING AND FOUL LANGUAGE AHEAD.

        (1) It appears to be written in an informal style, so it’s using Australian slang. Thank the stars for children’s TV where, due to exposure to programmes like “Round the Twist”, I recognise many of these expressions 🙂

        (2) Sweet bleeding wounds of Christ, I hope nothing like this is going to crop up in these counselling sessions or I’m out the door like a shot off a shovel.

        NO, I do NOT want to click on the icons and find out about the MoodGYM characters. Sure, I recognise it’s a cutesie way of personifying the concepts, and that I’m supposed to pick one and identify with them, so as (for instance) Elle gets better I get better; as I cheer her on, I cheer myself on.


        (3) Oh great, a graph with no context. Are these ‘scores’ on the quizzes high, low, average? What is the maximum or minimum here? Am I fucked-up, really fucked-up, or dude, that is some fucked-up fucked-upness right there, the likes of which has never before been seen in the history of fucked-upness?

        (4) Oh double great. Weepy pathetic Elle whom I want to smack in the mush (and I’ve only just met the character) thinks she would be happy if only she could get love because she wants a man (well, maybe she wants a woman. Or an octopus. She just wants LOVE anyway, tanjdammit!). Her ‘happy’ counterpart who is supposed to be the contrast is all ‘yeah, beating the birds off with a stick, me’.


        So far, so good! I am enjoying the hell out of myself snarking at this, but if it’s intended to be actual helpful ‘based on what most people think would make them happy’ – well, they don’t know too many late middle-aged fat angry asexual/aromantic white Irish Catholic women, do they?

        I really am enjoying myself yelling abuse at the screen. If that’s the therapy mode, then it’s working! Time to continue the rest of the session 🙂

        • Deiseach says:



          Okay, I think this is too young for me. So far, it seems to be aimed at 18-22 year olds. I’m more in the age range of the mother/granny of the 18-22 year old examples they’re using (oh noes! I failed my exams last semester! No I don’t fight with my parents! Teased my little brother and fell over the dog!)

          Maybe thirty years ago I’d have been a better fit, but I really can’t identify with a character who is worrying about missing the pop concert with her friends.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi. I’ve spent most of my life being depressed. I am entirely unresponsive to antidepressants (never tried MAOIs and I suspect they might work, but my depression is no longer life-destroyingly bad, and I don’t want to die if I eat cheese.) Therapy has helped. Not CBT or any of that crap, but real “talk about family history and childhood” type therapy. But I mean, I had tried various therapies a few times before I experienced it working. The stars were aligned this time.
      BTW I’m also Irish- hi there.

      Conditions that I think were necessary for my therapy to work:
      1) I suspect my therapist is unusually good at his job.
      2) He’s a good fit for me in several other ways which are orthogonal to skill.
      3) I threw myself into the process really intensely.
      4) previous use of hallucinogens.

      You might be a less awkward case, but I get the feeling from your comments you might not be!

      Anyway, your doctor’s probably sending you to CBT or whatever. My suspicion is that those kinds of therapy work on depressive episodes, but not on depressive personalities, where it’s deep rooted. Also the aesthetic is annoying, as you pointed out. That said, it’s probably worth at least showing up. Try it before you reject it.

      Maybe try one of the mindfulness courses like MBSR? They’re less aesthetically annoying and they go deeper. And you don’t have to talk about things.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thank you for the good advice. Indeed, something where I would not have to talk about things sounds like something to which I would be willing to commit.

        I do realise that for anything in counselling to work, I have to make an honest effort and engage with it, and if I go in with the attitude “this is all crap and it’s not going to work”, well then, it’s not going to work.

        But I absolutely do not want to talk to anyone about things, which is why I’m dreading a potential “So, what makes you think you’re suffering from depression? How do you feel?” encounter. It was horrible enough simply answering my GP when she asked the completely reasonable “Why do you want anti-depressants? Why do you think you’re depressed?” questions.

    • Limimi says:

      Holy mackerel, it is freaky how accurately your post describes me. Like, outright spooky. Given that we are apparently the same person located in different bodies on the opposite sides of the planet, my advice is get antidepressants. Don’t bother with therapy, it will probably be as pointless as you expect.

      There are two reasons for this – 1) you expect it to fail, so if it looks like it is going to you’ll take it as a given, which will kick off a vicious spiral until you either give up or your eight weeks end. That’s based on my own experiences. 2) is based on a combination of my experiences with my knowledge of you gleaned from your comments in the past – your counsellor will invariably fail. Every counsellor I have ever seen has looked dumbstruck at me when I tried to explain my scrupulosity or why their answer doesn’t make sense, and you are definitely smarter than I am. If our similarities hold true, then eventually you will stop mentioning things that seem like they will require half your session be spent explaining something, and if you’re avoiding talking about things then you might as well not bother with therapy.

      Based on my brain chemistry, you should try an SNRI antidepressant and stay away from MAOIs. Also you should get yourself checked for schizophrenia.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m laughing about the schizophrenia, because one merry hobby of mine as a teenager was reading through encylopaedia articles (this was in the days before everyone could get on the Internet) to figure out what variety of schizophrenia it was most likely that I would develop.

        Ah, the happy days of yore!

        Yes, I think I’ll probably give the counselling the go-by and try and score some anti-depressants from somewhere (I’ll ask my sister what her doctor is prescribing).

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          St. John’s Wort tea is on the grocery shelves in the US, and gives a good quick punch of clarity/cheerfulness. I seldom use it, but it can give a quick view of a situation for perspective, without the clouds and rain.

          I find “Easy Now” tea helpful for mellowness and preventing over-reactions (not the version with valerian).

    • pneumatik says:

      Like someone else has already said, don’t discount the value of mantras. You think what you say, you do what you think, and you become what you do. It may not cure you of anxiety in a triggering situation, but I’ve found simply telling myself that it’s the right thing to do certain things that I don’t really want to do, and then doing them, has made me enjoy doing them more. It was a really weird experience for me. If you haven’t read through, you should consider it. Feel free to ignore the parts about how advertising is ruining the world, but read all the parts about how to be a human.

      Ideally you could go into therapy with a positive attitude, but if you could do that you might not need therapy. The next best thing is to go through the motions and make an honest effort even if you don’t think it will work. If nothing else you’ll be doing something different, and that might help.

      There’s some benefit, too, to accepting yourself as you, and doing this as a separate thing from assessing your actual value (however you want to value yourself). Whoever you are it’s okay to be you. IME once I had that attitude I could at least think about how to improve the part of me that bothered me the most.

      Or it all may not work. You wouldn’t be the first person to outsmart a counselor / therapist.

  21. Peter says:

    A silly trolly dilemma for fans of the genre:

    You and a colleague are working in the Hypothetical Situation Mines. Your colleage needs to do some work on some train tracks, he says, “Keep an eye out for trollies for me” – he’s concentrating hard on his work, has ear defenders or something on that means he can’t look out for himself but you can signal to him. Sure enough a trolley appears, heading towards him. You then – surprise surprise – notice five people further down the track, all in a cluster. If you don’t warn your colleage he’ll die – and block the trolley, saving the five people further down the track.

    I have a maxim for situations like this: “when you’re in a hypothetical situation, shoot someone!” But leaving aside the question of what one really should do, and looking for instinctive responses, the instinctive response is to say I should warn my colleague. This seems to go counter to the usual act/omission distinctions that tend to result in five dead people.

    • John Schilling says:

      Warn him. Stopping the trolley is his job. He can certainly block the trolley with his body, he may be able to stop the trolley by some other means you don’t know about.

      And yes, shoot someone. Whenever you’re in a thought experiment where there’s an obvious ethical course of action except, look, over here, five innocent people who will absolutely certainly die, cannot be saved by any means but doing the otherwise-obviously-unethical thing!, that didn’t happen by accident. Shoot the asshole who tied those people to the tracks to make a philosophical point 🙂

      • onyomi says:

        “Warn him. Stopping the trolley is his job. He can certainly block the trolley with his body…”

        Yes, also this allows the one making the sacrifice to determine whether or not he wants to make the sacrifice (assuming he can’t do anything else to stop the trolley other than sacrificing himself), which eliminates the objection I always have to the usual answer to the trolley problem (that it unfairly takes away the agency of the one sacrificed “for the greater good”).

        • DanielLC says:

          By the same token, shouldn’t the five people on the track get a chance to decide if they want to make the sacrifice to save the one person?

          • onyomi says:

            They were already going to die if conditions remained unchanged, like the patients who will die without the organ transplants in the surgeon problem. Most people have a different intuition about the surgeon vs. the trolley car problem, but I’m not sure why (seriously, I wish I understood what, exactly, it is, since I share it, to some extent, even though I have the same problem, in both cases, with forcing someone to make a sacrifice; my best guess is that it is the same as the difference with the fat man problem, namely that the fat man and the healthy patient seem to be in no danger and you kill them, whereas the people on two different train tracks both seem to be in danger and you merely choose who dies).

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Don’t shoot anybody. Shoot the track switch and send the trolley into the bottomless gorge someone inexplicably built a spur into. If it’s good enough for Indiana Jones, it’s good enough for me.

    • Jiro says:

      A world where people keep their word is, on the average, better than one where they don’t, even if failing to keep their word is better in some specific situations So you should precommit to keeping the “warn of trolleys” deal. When the trolley actually comes, your precommitment will then force you to warn him, regardless of whether his death saves more people.

      You could instead precommit to “keep your word except in situation X”, but that only works if X is a Schelling point (otherwise “a world where…” is not possible.) And “warn me unless my death saves more people” is not a Schelling point.

      Most people are unable to do this when it’s called a “precommitment” but they can do it when the precommitments are called “honor”, “ethics codes”, “honesty”, etc.

      Disclaimer: I am not a utilitarian.

      • DanielLC says:

        Suppose you always keep your word. Someone asks you to watch for trolleys for him. Should you say “I’ll warn you if I see a trolley except in the unlikely event that failing to warn you will save more lives”?

        • Jiro says:

          If the solution to the no-promise version of the problem is that you should warn him unless it saves more lives, then the solution to the version with promises would indeed be what you describe.

          However, it seems to me that the no-promise version is also subject to similar reasoning. Given how bad people’s judgment is about whether sacrificing lives is necessary, we should precommit to not sacrificing such lives. This will cause a worse result in the cases where your judgment is correct and more people would have been saved by sacrificing others, but averaged over all worlds, including ones where your judgment is erroneous, it would produce a better result. Again, people do precommit in this manner, they just don’t call it precommitment.

    • Deiseach says:

      Shove him under the trolley yourself. At the very moment he was a potential trolley-sacrifice, the Trolley Which Must Be Appeased appeared and The Small Crowd Comprising The Mystic Number Of Five also appeared.

      This is a sign from the Trolley Gods that he is the chosen victim and if you fail to appease them, who knows what untold horrors they will unleash in their wrath? 🙂

      • Kiya says:

        Down with the Trolley Gods. Destroy all trolleys. Their covenant to transport our goods from point A to point B was not worth the cost. Follow me to the distant land of hypothetical scenarios where mules carry everything and no one gets trampled.

        • Deiseach says:

          If we are to believe these hypothetical scenarios, the only conveying trolleys do is OF OUR SOULS TO HELL FOR MURDER!!!!!


        • Airgap says:

          Did you forgot how the Trolley Gods “so loved the world that they gave their only begotten handcar, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life?”

          Forgive them, father, they know not what they do.

          • Deiseach says:

            Au contraire, Airgap, whomsoever believeth in the Trolley Gods, the same shall select and take and sacrifice as a sin offering to the Gods of the Trolley the person who is in the place of the five (or it may be the ten) who are the People of the Trolley Gods, and he shall be a sacrifice before the People, and his blood shall be shed, and scattered, and sprinkled upon and before and behind the Handcar, that he shall make an atonement through his oblation by the holy Handcar because of the People of the Trolley Gods, lest they should perish because of their transgressions in all their sins.

            And so shall the Trolley Gods be appeased, and the People be spared, and the holy Handcar of the Trolley Gods pass over and be diverted away from the dwelling-places and standing-places of the People of the Trolley Gods, from the track where they are even unto the track where they are not, and the Five (or it may be Ten) shall be spared through the sacrifice for them of the One.

            This is Old Testament, not New Testament, Hypothetical Scenario, Airgap. I’m sure it’s all in Leviticus somewhere 😉

          • John Schilling says:

            There are parts of the Old Testament that I could never read as anything but horrific in the original (and hopefully mistranslated) context. I should like to thank you all for casting them in such a humorously entertaining light. Clearly, your scripture-fu is better than mine 🙂

    • DrBeat says:

      If your only options for saving people from this trolley in a mine built to have goddamned trolleys in it and built to have people in it not being killed by trolleys is “let someone die to reduce the trolley’s forward momentum”, then every single person involved in every single stage of the process of mine creation and trolley management has fucked up so comprehensively that all of the rules of reality have broken down. You just throw up your hands and shout “Nope! Fuck it, I’m done,” walk out, and get a job eating hypothetical pies instead.

      In seriousness: responses to questions like this are valueless, as are the questions themselves. They are gibberish. They are not words, they are noises. Every such hypothetical is posed as an excuse to make someone admit to something or make a choice that the question-poser wants them to admit or choose, even if the only goal is “to feel smugly superior to the answerer.” There are some questions where the only correct answer is not Option A or Option B, but “Fuck you,” and every trolley problem falls into this category.

      • Deiseach says:

        I always thought the Trolley Problem was set in the public streets, where the tram lines are (and where people and other vehicles are also using the roads). That’s why I could visualise the tram on the wrong track where five (or ten) people are crossing the street and do you switch the tram to the track which will kill the single person?

        Though now I’m getting the image of the trolley in the mines and the postulator of the problem being interrupted just as they are getting into the full swing of “Do you throw the switch to change the tracks” by someone in a hi-vis jacket with a clipboard going “Hello, I’m the Health and Safety rep and I’m here to talk to you about your lack of trolley safety protocols” 🙂

  22. keranih says:

    A link for discussion or simply to be added to a link post, if appropriate:

    “Climate scientist tries art to stir hearts reguarding earth’s fate”

    The team commissioned the composer Laura Kaminsky to write music for the project. It also includes evocative images taken by nature photographer Garth Lenz, and projections of paintings (inspired by nature) by Rebecca Allan, displayed behind the musicians. “I was just thrilled at the thought of being able to use my art form — the medium of the string quartet — in some way that was relevant to this topic that I was so concerned about,” says violinist Rebecca McFaul….The music is intended to make people think about things like water and glaciers and warming temperatures. But, like all art, it’s open to interpretation….”It can take on so many different meanings for the listener,” says McFaul. “There’s no right or wrong answers for it. And the idea is just to live through it, and sit with it, and contemplate it.”The project isn’t meant to convert skeptics, Davies says. “It’s about convincing people who already believe we have these problems to start behaving like it.”

    I am not sufficently far along on the path to enlightenment that I can interact with this article without shouting “YOU ARE DOING SCIENCE SO SO SO VERY WRONG!” and nuking the concert hall from orbit, just to be sure. (poetic exageration for effect)

    Alternative views and reactions would be much appreciated.

    • He’s not doing science, he’s doing public relations. He admits that quite openly. Why would you be upset that a scientist doing public outreach should use art to strengthen their appeal?

      • Airgap says:

        Scientists should avoid public outreach on politically sensitive issues more strenuously than heroin or domestic violence. If you wanted to be a propagandist, why did you waste all that time learning how to tell the difference between fact and bullshit? The only reason is to convince people that you’re not a propagandist, so they lower their bullshit detectors. What people have actually done is raise their bullshit detectors against science in general. Great job, guys.

        • James Picone says:

          Banning people with training and practice distinguishing between fact and bullshit from discussing politically sensitive issues seems like a bad idea to me. Doesn’t that essentially just cede the field to bullshit? Also, doesn’t that provide a strong incentive for people with views counter to the facts to make issues politically sensitive, so as to exclude scientists?

          Also, y’know, if you think you’ve determined that it is a fact that action X has negative consequence Y, and people don’t know that, and action X is common, telling people seems to me to be ethically required. It’d be weird if climate scientists didn’t want to do public outreach, given that they are generally convinced that continuing to emit CO2 is a Really Bad Idea.

          • Airgap says:

            First, you can still participate in politics if you agree with scientists. Or if you disagree with them. I’m only concerned about the situation where you are them.

            Second, “public outreach” and “telling people” are two very different things. In the former case, you’ve probably already told people, and they haven’t responded in the way you think they ought to. I suppose under the circumstances you might decide that the next logical step was to resign from your professorship and spend the next ten years chaining yourself to the gates of power plants or something. What I object to is trying to have it both ways.

          • James Picone says:

            I don’t think the first resolves the problem – if scientists disagree with you on some matter, you’ve got an incentive to try and make that matter politically sensitive so as to exclude them from the conversation. And excluding the group of people best able to say “Well, this large set of facts is why I think X” from talking about politically sensitive issues is a great way to reduce quality of argument.

            Secondly, now scientists who discover that some action is dangerous, but can’t convince politicians or the public have to choose between trying to convince people and researching the dangerous thing? That does not sound optimal.

            I think this set of principles makes it exceptionally difficult for society to react to scientists discovering something is dangerous. I think if they were strictly followed, leaded petrol and paint, CFCs, acid rain and smoking would have been much larger problems than they were.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Here’s the problem:

            Scientists can’t debate with non-scientists without using non-scientific language.

            Once they start doing that, the human urge to show that you’re right and your opponent is wrong will do the rest, and the next thing you know scientists are spouting bullshit indistinguishable from that issuing from their opponents.

            You want to know the most ethical scientist I ever saw in a popular film, and one of the few who doesn’t constantly spout BS in the guise of science-y talk? Anne Heche’s character in “Volcano.”

            At one point the guy in charge of responding to the volcano questions her warning that the volcano isn’t done erupting by asking, “Are you sure?”

            She responds, “I’m a scientist. Certainty’s a big word.”

            And there’s the problem, in a nutshell. You can’t express normal scientific doubt in political debate, as we discussed elsewhere on this thread. So you can either be honest (and lose,) or you can lie about how sure you are (or, to be charitable, obfuscate the sources and level of uncertainty.)

            But if it’s not real science to claim you know something when p<.50 in a journal article, it's not real science to claim it in a political debate, and doing that causes exactly the discrediting effect Airgap is pointing out.

          • James Picone says:

            Note that Airgap wasn’t talking about debate, he was talking about ‘public outreach’, and the top comment that started this is essentially a lecture set to music. It’s education, not going on talk radio. I’m not sure entirely what category of communications Airgap is thinking of here, because he distinguishes it from ‘telling people’.

            I don’t think this kind of thing engenders doubt in science as a whole. My picture of the causality is something like Person strongly disagrees with some output of science -> Person finds scientist doing outreach -> Person complains about corruption/propaganda/pal review/whatever. That is, people who already distrusted some output of science are the people who care. They probably do want scientists to not do public outreach on their topic of importance, because they think the scientists are wrong.

            Were the researchers who discovered the CFC->ozone degradation link poor scientists for making a fuss about it, in your opinion?

          • Airgap says:

            I’m not sure entirely what category of communications Airgap is thinking of here, because he distinguishes it from ‘telling people’.

            I’d say if you discover that rising CO2 emissions will probably kill everyone, you could write a short, nontechnical article about it before going back to doing actual research, and leaving the creation of a mass movement for action to the people who do that shit for a living. You might occasionally give quotes to the paper to the effect that you agree with what the activists say (although if you’re agreeing with unsupported claims for political expediency, you have to turn in your scientist union card), but in general, you should stick to getting answers right, and avoid the task of getting right answers across. The deeper into a debate you are, the less you can see clearly, and that’s your job.

            Of course, you can reply “But there’s no debate here. There’s a scientific consensus against reactionary imperialist wreckers planting disinformation to deceive and harm the workers public!” Which might be true in a particular case, but doesn’t seem to prove the point. There’s no reason the good-guy propagandists can’t take on the bad-guy propagandists and leave the scientists to the science.

            Person strongly disagrees with some output of science -> Person finds scientist doing outreach -> Person complains about corruption/propaganda/pal review/whatever. That is, people who already distrusted some output of science are the people who care.

            They’re going to be the people most strongly motivated to make a big deal out of it, but what else do you expect? Do you never see people criticizing their “own side” on some matter of extra-issue conduct? Have you been reading the same SSC as the rest of us?

          • James Picone says:

            Under that system, Airgap, the Montreal protocol would probably have never been signed. I consider that a problem.

          • Airgap says:

            Under that system, Airgap, the Montreal protocol would probably have never been signed.

            No. Maybe “If the present system had been operating up until scientists wanted to advocate against CFCs, and then it was replaced by that system, then the Montreal Protocol probably wouldn’t have been implemented when it was implemented.” But maybe not. Also, the system would probably affect more than one thing, and you ought to consider the expected effect on all the things. (As an aside, there’s this guy Henry Hazlitt who you might want to read.)

            My theory is that the more you keep politics out of science, the more persuasive “There is a scientific consensus that X” is. Since basically anyone can spread that message, why you want scientists to do it is beyond me. You’d think they had enough to do already.

            One reason (but not the only one) that it would be more persuasive is that said consensus would be more likely to be true. Politics makes you stupid. It’s like smoking weed: It’s not a big deal if you want to do it at the end of the day to unwind, but it’s pretty irresponsible to do it at work.

          • James Picone says:

            So say Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina wrote a short, nontechnical article that got published in a few prominent newspapers, explaining that chemicals called ‘CFCs’, commonly used as a propellant in aerosols, a refrigerants, etc., damage the ozone layer and we should consider no longer emitting them. That’s it, they’re essentially out of public view from that point.

            So who starts up the movement to ban CFCs? Do we hope that a politician reads the article, is thoroughly convinced, and runs with it? Do we need some particular political movement (maybe hippies, given the subject matter and timing?) to pick it up and run with it?

            As far as I can tell there’s very little incentive for anyone to pick that issue up and run with it unless they can use it as a club to beat their opponents over the head (that is, if and only if it can be made political, and now everybody is obliged to fall into party lines). And this is /before/ industry insists CFCs are perfectly safe, look, here’s an expert who’ll say they can’t get into the stratosphere, Rowland and Molina are mavericks.

            I don’t see how it happens. CFCs, of course, are the easy one, because we very quickly had a surprising extreme event that demonstrated that the scientists involved were being too optimistic – they didn’t expect the ozone hole, they expected a global thinning over time.

            I want scientists to be able to do it, because a lot of the time the problem is educational – the vast majority of the population don’t know much about global warming, or CFCs, or DDT, or what-have-you – and the vast majority of the people who know enough to be educational are, at the very least, going to have some science training, even if they’re not actually a practicing scientist.

            Besides, the whole polite-nontechnical-article was arguably what was going on with the first two or three IPCC reports. Skepticalscience was launched in 2007. Realclimate in 2004. This art thing is recent.

            The first IPCC report was published in 1990, the second in 1995, and the third in 2001. The consensus has gotten noticeably stronger over the timeframe, but global warming skepticism was already a non-mainstream position in 1990.

            Given that writing dry scientific reports didn’t seem to be solving the problem…

          • Airgap says:

            So who starts up the movement to ban CFCs?

            Given that Rowland and Molina might have decided not to anyway, leaving us with the same question, it’s not clear how this is supposed to be a powerful objection.

            Do we hope that a politician reads the article, is thoroughly convinced, and runs with it?

            Be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? Note that I consider testifying before congress within the scope of telling people stuff, although admittedly disobeying the spirit of the rules is clearly a risk.

            As far as I can tell there’s very little incentive for anyone to pick that issue up and run with it unless they can use it as a club to beat their opponents over the head

            Or if they don’t want to die. I know political combat is a very popular form of collective action, but there are others.

            I don’t see how it happens.

            Before trying to determine whether it will happen from first principles, did you check whether it had ever happened before?

            Besides, the whole polite-nontechnical-article was arguably what was going on with the first two or three IPCC reports.

            Maybe the first two. Maybe. By TAR, the gloves were off.

            Given that writing dry scientific reports didn’t seem to be solving the problem…

            Well, it’s not entirely clear that writing inflammatory bullshit reports is having that much impact either. I see lots of talk, but not much action. UK said they were going to reduce emissions by 2050, probably hoping that people will have forgotten by then so that the present government at any given time doesn’t have to pay the political cost of implementing the reductions. CO2 has gone down a bit lately in the US, but I think the credit for that belongs more to the financial sector than derelict scientists.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            The first IPCC report was published in 1990, the second in 1995, and the third in 2001. The consensus has gotten noticeably stronger over the timeframe, but global warming skepticism was already a non-mainstream position in 1990.

            It would be interesting to see comparative timelines on the stages of this sort of thing — leaded gasoline, tobacco, etc — showing how soon the ‘skepticism’ push began (and where it was introduced, who funded it, etc). I would not be surprised if the respective industries were long on the watch for trouble, and pre-emptively began funding their own studies reporting the product safe, before the warnings could attract support.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            The issue is there isn’t a clear industry. While it clear how “cigarettes are bad” is something companies make cigarettes will fight, “CO2 is bad” doesn’t have a single industry it maps to easily. So you get a free rider and an additional issue.

            People like to talk about the oil companies, but demand for oil is pretty inelastic and the solutions tend to be focused on electrical power generation. Coal fired plants were already under attack by environmentalists so they don’t really worry about additional flak. So you don’t have strong incentives for these firms to fight anyway.

            So what you should expect is that while the above firms do put some money into this, it should be dramatically smaller than the other cases of corporate sponsored denialism.

            In fact given what has actually occurred you should expect some fossil fuel firms to be sponsoring what is supposed to be their opponents. Natural gas is a compliment to renewables and global warming acceptance makes greens stronger which weakens support for nuclear power which leads to more fossil fuel to take up the load (no, I’m not making that up- see Germany).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Samuel, while Germany’s decision to cut back nuclear power was bad on every criterion I can think of, it did not increase fossil fuel usage. Maybe it displaced gas with coal, increasing carbon output.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Samuel Sailer

            While it clear how “cigarettes are bad” is something companies make cigarettes will fight, “CO2 is bad” doesn’t have a single industry it maps to easily.


            Starting from the other end, I wish someone would do something like this. Look at the deniers’ cites, follow their research backwards, see when their side’s first research was done, and who paid for it. What I’d expect is, the deniers would begin quietly initiating useful research, long in advance of need.

            We don’t need to speculate about how many industries or which ones contributed: that information is out there, though perhaps buried under cites of cites of cites. What would interest me is the dates: how long in advance was the denial research begun, how long was it held before wide release, did some increased publicity for the environmentalist side trigger the release, etc.

            Climate change deniers often accuse the other side of creating a consensus by jumping on a bandwagon for government grants etc. I think it more likely that, in the early days of such research, when the field was scanty, formless, and void, the most grant money and other funding would be coming from the threatened industries. It was the business world that had the motive, time, and money to start building the first bandwagon (in the darkness till needed of course).

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “What I’d expect is, the deniers would begin quietly initiating useful research, long in advance of need.”

            That’s sort of impossible in this case. It isn’t like people knew to start with the carbon dioxide was an actual issue. You can find this with cigarettes because they advertised themselves as healthy (and so were interested in that information to start with). You might be able to find that with unleaded gasoline because the idea something is toxic isn’t such a big leap.

            As far as I’m aware, the push by companies against global warming by funding scientific research took place in the 1990s. The ozone layer put global issues involving the atmosphere on the map and the 1990s were exceptionally hot.


            I may be misinterpreting this but it looks like the amount of fossil fuels and nuclear power started to go down around 08 (yes, I know that is around the depression)

            Then nuclear keep on declining and fossil fuel started to increase. Relative to long run demand fossil fuel usage hasn’t increased; relative to half a decade it looks like it has. Since the graph cuts off in 2011 (and the recent plant additions were since then) I would think the total fossil fuel usage has increased further. Wiki doesn’t have any more recent data with the except they note that renewable usage has dropped about .4% between 2011-2013 but that is for “primary energy consumption”.

            Looking at the trends for the UK and the US (which had a noticeable and slight decline for fossil fuels during that same time), nuclear slumped with the recession, but didn’t keep dropping and renewables grew. They aren’t the best comparison (they had a boom in fossil fuel in the 1990s; Germany was relatively flat during that time), but if you have a better source please share it. I don’t have the link to the one you previously provided (aside from it getting lost when my hard drive had to be replaced, I didn’t book mark it. I have an aversion to sites that claim “needs more labor” is good- the economist in me is instinctively repelled).

          • James Picone says:

            Mostly industry isn’t funding skeptic research in climate science – there’s very little of it being done. Most of the scientists who do publish skeptical research are being funded by industry / lobby groups (Willie Soon being the most recent notable example, but IIRC there’s reason to believe Carter, McIntyre, etc. are getting some funding), yes, but they don’t actually do much research – mostly they produce blogs, books, lectures, articles in newspapers and magazines, etc.. Industry is funding PR.

            That said, it’s also a bit schizophrenic. Some of the energy companies – BP, for example, I think? – are actually advocating for carbon taxes. Maybe because they accept the science, maybe because they’ve diversified sufficiently that they think it’ll hurt competitors more than them, maybe because they see a significant role for natural gas and they’ve got interests there, I dunno.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            SS: “Relative to half a decade”? No, relative to a cherry-picked baseline of 2009. If your baseline is either 2008 or 2010, it has declined. And even if you do take the baseline of 2009, it’s a pretty small change. Here is a graph that goes a couple years later.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ James Picone
            That said, it’s also a bit schizophrenic. Some of the energy companies – BP, for example, I think? – are actually advocating for carbon taxes.

            Saluting BP’s schizophrenic, my paranoid says that enormous companies with lots of accountants and research people and cash on the ground as needed, might do very well under carbon taxes, especially a company that is one of the early supporters and may have influence on how the law is written. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that the other companies will be happy in that briar patch too.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Samuel Sailer
            It isn’t like people knew to start with the carbon dioxide was an actual issue.

            Still, producers of smoke, smog, pea soupers etc have been under attack for a long time, so they might well have the last issue’s funded think tanks ready to work on whatever particular issue their attackers would come up with next.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “SS: “Relative to half a decade”? No, relative to a cherry-picked baseline of 2009.”

            I picked it because the Great Recession was a pretty universal shock. It is abundantly clear that Germany’s electrical market is not like the US or UK (who looked very different between 1980 and now; Germany’s usage of fossil fuels is a slow decline until the early 90s and a moderate increase in the mid 2000s; both these occur with nearly no effect from other sources while the US is a constant increase in fossil fuels until the Great Recession and the UK looks like it is substituting fossil fuels for nuclear power from 1998-2008) so I’m not willing to use any time before it. You should expect a drop in electrical generation, a recovery and then… England keeps on dropping in fossil fuels, but Germany doesn’t. If Germany builds more fossil fuels burning plants after the end date of the graph than the amount of fossil fuels Germany uses will go up.

            “If your baseline is either 2008 or 2010, it has declined. And even if you do take the baseline of 2009, it’s a pretty small change. Here is a graph that goes a couple years later.”

            Look, if you don’t want to continue the conversation, you don’t have to. However you are using what appears to be “percentage of energy mix from different sources”. That only proves that renewables is increasing faster than fossil fuels.

            “Still, producers of smoke, smog, pea soupers etc have been under attack for a long time, so they might well have the last issue’s funded think tanks ready to work on whatever particular issue their attackers would come up with next.”

            I don’t know; they didn’t show that degree of proactivity dealing with acid rain even though the mechanism behind it was a lot more easily to foresee in advance.

            This sort of behavior requires long term planning, a decent amount of scientific knowledge and a ruthless clear-sighted self interest I don’t think such firms are capable of. It isn’t like fossil fuel firms had any idea the temperate would rise; it was dropping from 1950-1970. Understanding what was going on and deciding it might become an issue latter requires an understanding of the climate (both global and social) that no one had at the time. Afterwards there wasn’t a reason to be worried- global warming got into the publics consciousness following the ozone scare when people suddenly realized we could screw up the atmosphere in pretty impressive ways (note; based on personal recollection of the early 90s and the fact that the IPCC and other things related to global warming starting taking off just after the Ozone issue was confirmed).

        • keranih says:

          This captures a great deal of why I’m frustrated with this sort of presentation.

          If fact X implies a risk to [n] people, then steps to reduce that risk should be considered, in conjunction with our certainty of fact X, the nature of the risk in question, and the size of [n].

          There are likely a multitude of steps which might impact either the risk or the size of [n] affected, and a variety of side effects of each of these steps.

          In order to choose the most appropriate response to the risk, we have to understand the relationships between the effects of the steps, the cost of the steps, and just how big a problem the risk is in the first place.

          And if it’s a society-wide problem in a democracy, we need buy-in from a large chunk of society.

          It’s not best to use emotion to weigh the accuracy of the process used to determine fact X, or the character of the risk, or the [n] involved, or the scope of solutions possible, or the projected side-effects of those solutions. It’s best to use rationality.

          As humans, we’re not getting completely away from irrational responses. But, to me, the deliberate choice to use emotion to drive selection of solutions is *wrong*.

          • Limimi says:

            I don’t know – I agree wholeheartedly that, in a perfect world, rationality should be used an emotion should count for little. But emotion counts for everything in this world and rationality is belittled or silenced outright. If we’re talking about something that you believe is literally life threatening, then appealing to emotion is unfortunately the only way to get anywhere with normal people.

    • Deiseach says:

      He’s doing this for the same reason animal shelters use pictures of cute puppies and famine relief charities use pictures of starving babies – to tug at the heart strings and evoke a “someone must DO something” reaction. You don’t up the mangy three-legged older dog which is the one which really needs the services, because that’s a turn-off to the public; you put up the cute puppy which gets the “aw, cute!” reaction which makes people reach into their pockets. You don’t put up the adults who are suffering because they’re not as appealing as the winsome big-eyed waifs. Some charities are using professional actors or models, particularly child actors or models, in newspaper and magazine campaigns in England, particularly homeless charities: part of this is not to use ‘real people’ because of issues of confidentiality and treating them with dignity, but part of it is also ‘real people’ are inconveniently not as attractive and appealing and able to portray “I am an innocent, suffering, big-eyed waif” as a trained actor can do.

      It’s not about science, it’s about the gut-reaction – “bellyfeel”, as Orwell put it in “1984”.

      • How large is the cost of that policy through persuading attentive observers that what you are doing is a fraud and, by perhaps illegitimate inference, that all attempts to urge benevolence are fraudulent? At only a slight tangent …

        When I was in my early twenties I spent a summer as a congressional intern. My congressman lent me out four days a week to the Joint Economic Committee, which lent me to a group producing a fact book on state and local finance.

        I pointed out a fact that was obviously true (demographics about people already born), obviously important (it had to do with costs of schooling, the largest expenditure of state and local governments). They denied neither that it was true nor that it was important but refused to include it in their fact book because it was a reason state and local governments would need less money than one might expect, and they wanted the readers of their fact book to believe they would need more.

        Since then my working assumption is that any academic work on a politically live issue is likely to be fraudulent, since I observed it happening at first hand. One may read this in two ways:

        1. And a good thing too, because it’s true.

        2. But some people do honest work, and I won’t believe that either.

        • Deiseach says:

          Speaking as a very minor bureaucratic minion, I can understand why your fact book people didn’t want to include your true, important fact, and that is the dreaded word CLAWBACK 🙂

          So they include your true, important fact and that demonstrates they don’t need as much money in the budget as last year. Great! Money saved!

          Except they don’t get to keep that money, it has to be returned to central government (or whoever provided it in the first place).

          Secondly, they then get a decreased budget for next year, since they’ve demonstrated that they don’t need as much money.

          And so if anything unforeseen crops up (five thousand extra babies are born above the numbers forecast, thirty thousand Polish electricians move in to take advantage of the booming construction industry and all need Polish grocery stores to cater to them, Giant Purple Triffids infest the local waterways), there is no ‘give’ there to absorb the extra costs. Either services have to be cut, or taxes raised, or nothing is done, and the public will like none of those choices and will complain very loudly.

          And you can’t go cap in hand to central government looking for “hey, how about returning that spare money to us?” because it’s already been spent, and now you and every other state are back at square one looking for extra money for next year’s budget, and you all get assessed the same.

          So that’s why at year’s end in every government department and local government office, if there’s any money left in the kitty, you are told “For God’s sake spend it on something, anything, so we can say truthfully we used up our entire budget and put in for the same or an increased amount next year”.

          • The people I was working with were not a state or local government. They were academics, making up a group that was, under various hats, a project of the Joint Economic Committee (federal), a project of George Washington University, and a project of the Governors’ Conference. They were, supposedly, producing information that the interested layman could use to understand issues having to do with state and local finance.

            Of course the Governors’ Conference would want them to produce arguments for states getting more money. The fact that they were willing to do deliberately dishonest work, either to please one of the groups they were working for or to satisfy their own political preferences, was what I found shocking.

    • James Picone says:

      Looks like kitschy, terrible art intended to carry A Message. Not so much science, but I don’t think anyone is trying to do science here. I can respect trying a new tack in science communication here, because public understanding of climate science is abysmal. I don’t know what the actual content of his lecture is, so I have no idea how accurate / well-explained it is.

      • Deiseach says:

        Been here before in the late 80s with Heathcote Williams, James. I had to suffer through “Whale Nation” because of my vegan brother 🙂

      • keranih says:

        Even it is well explained and correct, does that justify the use of emotional manipulation to get people to agree to proposed courses of action?

        Of course, if it is not correct, then the use of emotion only compounds the wrongness, IMO.

        • James Picone says:

          I didn’t even bother watching the video attached, so I don’t know what the actual content is. I could imagine ways where it could be fine.

          For example, if they’re essentially giving a lecture on climate change to music, which is roughly what I think is going on, then using art to try to make something memorable and interesting while doing basic education is fine, maybe even laudable if it’s good art.

          If they’re using art to give people happyfeels associated with Doing Something About Global Warming, but not specifically pushing a solution, than I’m just kind of meh. Kind of icky and exploiting people and we-know-best, but on the other hand we really do need to do something about global warming.

          If they’re pushing a particular strategy, I’m not too happy. Global warming is complicated enough that strategies for dealing with it are unlikely to be explained particularly well here (beyond, I guess, ‘price carbon’).

          Part of the problem here is that the populace knows approximately nothing about global warming, other than it’s bad, it involves CO2, and there are vague associations with hippies and maybe hurting the economy. The usual mechanisms that feed new scientific ideas out into the wider community either work too slowly to be useful here, or have failed for whatever reason (they never worked to begin with, global warming is counterintuitive or difficult in some way that sabotages it (the difference between climate and weather probably being the big one), active and loud entrenched interests deliberately muddying the waters). In an environment like that, new science-communication approaches that actually contain educational content are a really good thing for people to be trying. I wouldn’t even mind if a bunch of the populace that is currently undecided ended up as climate skeptics, if they at least knew what climate sensitivity was and didn’t claim that everything is a huge conspiracy.

          EDIT: Watched the video now, it’s essentially just wank and very little actual information about what’s going on. Other than the article talking it being “…a lecture on climate with a musical performance”. The webpage for the thing has an excerpt, though. Looks closer to a vaguely plaintive cry that Someone Do Something than anything else, but could potentially have legitimate educational content. There’s some ecological stuff I don’t know enough about to critique, although the claim that the ecosystem “doesn’t produce waste” raised an eyebrow.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            And there you have it. This is, inevitably, what happens in these situations. Noble intentions turn into, with depressing speed, “wank.”

  23. Here’s another suspicious-looking multiple-factor explanation/trend (of American political polarization), due to the political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I commented but don’t expect an answer from him:

    • Anthony says:

      Suspicious because it’s multi-factorial, but many of those factors are somewhat correlated to each other, so it’s not as multi-factorial as it looks.

  24. Paul Torek says:

    Philosophy of language-ish Swifties:

    Warning! Danger! Tom signed to his friend Will Robinson, waving his arms robotically.

    “Warning! Danger!” Tom symbolized.

    “I will now perform a speech-act,” Tom promised.

    “‘Lacks the letter pronounced like “cue”‘ lacks the letter pronounced like ‘cue’,” Tom whined.

  25. Some charities are using professional actors or models…

    Back in the 1980s when she was a grad student, my then-girlfriend/now-wife became a “poster child” of a sort.

    Though she herself had a car and never used any local buses, a photographer friend posed her standing sadly at a bus stop. This was for a print ad supporting a transit tax issue, with the text “What if the bus never comes?

    • Deiseach says:

      “What if the bus never comes?“

      Then you will simply have to walk the ten miles home uphill in the rain with an east wind blowing that would cut right through you to the bone, succumb to the consumption, and die a pathetically early death, Little Nell, as your aged and senile grandfather snuffles miserably at your bedside and your canary flutters its wings in one last flutter and then falls off the perch, as dead as you are, and the writer is slapping the pathos on with not alone a trowel but an industrial cement mixer in order to wring the last farthing out of the periodical sales.

      The heartstring-tugging doesn’t work on me, you may be able to tell.

  26. Alcohol isn’t legal because it’s safe. Alcohol is legal because people reacted badly when it was made illegal. I don’t know for certain why the Prohibition ended, but I really doubt that it was due to the FDA finding alcohol to be safe.

    The history of the imposition and repeal of nationwide alcohol prohibition in the U.S. (1919-1933) is complicated, interesting, and largely forgotten today.

    One of the major contributors to the end of prohibition was the rising need for tax revenue.

    No, no, no, that’s just silly. Both changes were done through amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which requires a proposal passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states. In other words, imposition and repeal were (had to be) powered by mass movements and overwhelming public feeling on the matter. There was very little concern about little things like tax revenue.

    People today tend to assume that the Prohibitionists were right-wing zealots who didn’t want anybody having fun. But back in the early 20th century, alcohol prohibition was seen as one of the Progressive Era reforms, along with woman suffrage, breaking up business monopolies, the income tax, and the direct election of Senators.

    Indeed, because women were assumed to detest alcohol, a lot of the arguments over letting them vote were about Prohibition. And, indeed, once Prohibition was put into the Constitition, opposition to women suffrage collapsed; an amendment giving women voting rights was enacted the following year (1920).

    Prohibition was popular in those days because the impact of alcohol abuse was visible everywhere. The “saloon” was a central institution in American life, and hard liquor was cheap and abundant.

    Book titles like “Prohibition: Era of Excess” give the impression that the legal change launched an era of overindulgence, but the opposite is true, as measured in tangible ways, such as deaths from liver cirrhosis. When it became illegal, Americans drank less. Or, perhaps, fewer Americans drank at all.

    Alcohol abuse in the U.S. has never returned to pre-1919 high levels. Prohibition deserves some credit for this, but obviously there are a lot of other cultural and economic factors.

    Meanwhile, a vast criminal infrastructure was built to illegally manufacture and supply alcohol to those who continued to drink. This was the beginning of organized crime in America, and the violence was terrifying to people.

    The end of Prohibition didn’t put an end to organized crime, of course, but starting in 1933, the homicide death rate fell steeply for eleven straight years, and other kinds of crime fell in tandem.

    Prohibition was ended by the same kind of mass political movement that started it, culminating in the 1932 election.

    [For those who aren’t familiar: the 1932 US Presidential election was when Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) overwhelmingly defeated incumbent president Herbert Hoover (R).]

    We now think of FDR’s victory as being about the economic depression, but neither presidential campaign had anything interesting to say about that at the time.

    More visibly, the election became polarized between “wets” and “drys”, with many prominent Republican “wets” publicly supporting Roosevelt on that ground alone.

    The Democratic victory was so complete in November 1932 that the lame-duck Congress (which in those days served until early March of the following year) came up with the votes to propose the 21st Amendment, to repeal the 18th Amendment, and ratification followed in short order.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I don’t know about abuse, but consumption of alcohol did return to pre-Prohibition levels. It never returned to the levels seen before the Second Great Awakening. (source: Rorabaugh)

      • Very interesting chart. I stand corrected.

      • Nornagest says:

        Four gallons of alcohol a year, that’s 15000 ml and change. So we’re talking a daily consumption of about the equivalent of… three and a half shots of 80-proof liquor, or two pints of strongish beer.

        Well, that’s not exactly temperate, but I was expecting worse.

        • Harald K says:

          Consumption is typically skewed, with some 20% of drinkers consuming 80% of the alcohol. 15 l of alcohol per year is about what they consume in Russia today, and Russia has serious problems with alcohol abuse.

          But I wonder about these numbers. I know that here in Norway, the first year we have reliable alcohol statistics for is 1851, and that’s apparently one of the earliest alcohol use statistics in the world. Estimating alcohol use in the 18th century doesn’t sound all that easy.

      • Harald K says:

        I wonder where Rorabaugh gets those estimates for alcohol consumption. 18th century public health statistics leave a lot to be desired.

    • Airgap says:

      We now think of FDR’s victory as being about the economic depression, but neither presidential campaign had anything interesting to say about that at the time.

      What they said may not have been interesting, but they sure said a hell of a lot about it. FDR’s campaign was basically “We’re in a depression because Hoover spent too much money. I’ll spend less.” It turned out he was full of shit, and the rest is history.

      • FDR’s campaign was basically “We’re in a depression because Hoover spent too much money. I’ll spend less.”

        Yeah, that’s exactly what I was talking about.

        • Airgap says:

          It’s hard to see how I’m supposed to read what you wrote as saying something besides “Lots of people think 1932 was a referendum on the depression, but it was actually a referendum on prohibition.”

          • Why not both?

            Certainly voters blame a weak economy on the party in the White House, then and now, whether anybody talks about it or not.

            At a minimum, though, it’s clear that people weren’t voting for things like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, because none of that New Deal stuff was proposed during the campaign. There wasn’t a debate about economic policy alternatives.

            But don’t just take my word for it. Go read a few weeks of newspapers from the fall of 1932. You’ll see a whole lot about “wets” and “drys”, and not much about how FDR would end the depression.

    • Lupis42 says:

      For more on the tax issue, take a look at

      Essentially, earnings from the income tax were falling, and people were asking why the government, which had gotten up to 40% of its revenue from liquor taxes before prohibition, was now instead spending money enforcing prohibition.

      • As far as I know, the info in Michael Lerner’s account is all perfectly valid (yes, restaurants and hotels suffered badly), but the author goes too far in portraying Prohibition as a daring, perverse decision that completely ignored what was known at the time.

        Whatever might be said about riots in Portland, Maine more than half a century earlier, a great many states and counties had already “gone dry” before 1919, without experiencing disasters.

        The 18th Amendment extended Prohibition to areas that had never wanted it, notably New York State. And that did not go well.

        Yes, Prohibition made it impossible to run the government on liquor taxes, but restoring federal revenues was NOT a big motivating factor for passing the 21st amendment.

        First of all, Prohibition wasn’t run solely on federal funds — state and local law enforcement took a large role.

        Second, during almost every year of Prohibition, the federal budget ran a sizeable surplus. See Table 1.1 here:

        Third, the federal role in general was much more limited then. In constant dollars, per-capita federal spending in the mid-1920s was less than 3% of what it is today.

        • Harald K says:

          “The 18th Amendment extended Prohibition to areas that had never wanted it, notably New York State. And that did not go well.”

          In Norway, there was a schism in the teetotaller movement between the factions of Sven Aarestad, a progressive teacher from the countryside, and Johan Scharffenberg, a socialist physician from the city. Aarestad’s strategy was to hold municipal referendums: first for forcing all alcohol sales into a local monopoly and later to close those monopolies down. Scharffenberg was far more reform-optimistic, and wanted national prohibition. Thanks to WW1, the latter got his way, and results were much the same as in the US, though less extreme (among other things because there was never full prohibition, only on liquors and fortified wine).

  27. Alex says:

    Suppose we want to find causes that help first-world middle-class people.

    I think of containing nuclear weapons. Martin Hellman estimates a 1% per year risk of nuclear war. That is based on Cold War risk, and I agree with Carl Shulman that the risk now is probably lower. But it still seems scary.

    Based on GiveWell’s posts, other possibilities are zoning, macroeconomic policy, criminal justice reform, global warming, biosecurity, and medical research.

    Yesterday, I read this paper on economic growth. From that, I will add inequality, infrastructure, and “patience.” Carl Shulman has also mentioned increasing saving and investment.

    Does anyone have opinions on which of these is best? Am I missing anything? 🙂

    • Wrong Species says:

      How about setting up a non-profit that funds artists? I’m not sure if you are looking at a strict cost/benefit analysis but I think funding art by voluntary donations(rather than through government or the market) would have a lot of positive affects if more people did it.

      • Alex says:

        Maybe art, and ideas in general, is undervalued because it keeps benefiting society after its creator dies-who then can’t be compensated. Having art from today may benefit the far future just like Shakespeare is valuable today.

        But I don’t know how to decide whether this is true or false.

    • Deiseach says:

      Suppose we want to find causes that help first-world middle-class people.

      That sentence reminds me of nothing so much as Knife and Packer’s long-running cartoon strip in “Private Eye”, It’s Grim Up North London 🙂

  28. Visitant says:

    23andMe now has the FDA’s blessing to market a genetic test to consumers.

    • Anonymous says:

      Moreover, if you can convince them that you’re British, they tell you everything.

      • onyomi says:

        This thing where the US government seems to exist to make the lives of US citizens worse (overzealous financial regulation making us pariahs in global banking, making it impossible for us to buy goods and services that you can buy anywhere else in the world, heavily taxing the income of expats who may well be paying heavy local taxes, ruining things like Intrade, etc.) is really starting to piss me off (even more than usual). No wonder people are renouncing their citizenship in record numbers.

        • Matthew says:

          No wonder people are renouncing their citizenship in record numbers.

          This is primarily driven by expatriates, so only one of the factors you listed above it can claim much of a causal relationship.

          • onyomi says:

            The fact that you can’t open a bank account in some places if you are a US citizen could also contribute… also, just general ill will toward the US govmt, which I’m sure there is more of since the TSA, etc.

  29. Andy says:

    Short backstory: I’ve got epilepsy, I’m on anticonvulsants, they have weird side effects. I like to carefully document what happens in order to, well, for science.

    Short version of question: loss of ability to correct misspelt words or to consciously spell words, but intact ability to type words “on auto pilot”.

    Long version:

    I’ve had nominal aphasia for a long while now — I’ll forget the names of things. It probably happens a few times a day. I’ll be trying to refer to something and I’ll forget what it’s called, so I’ll have to describe it: “you know, that thing, uh, the thing in the kitchen, with the thing, uh, water? oh, yeah, the water filter”. Formally diagnosed, not a big deal in the scheme of things.

    More recently I’ve started developing semantic paraphasia — mixing up words with other words. I’ve recorded every instance of it over two weeks, and they all fall into two categories: very similar words that would both fit in context [eg, saying sheets instead of towels, when talking about getting things out of the washing basket], or words that sound quite similar but have no relation other than that [eg ‘sleep’ coming out as ‘speak’, in the sense of “I should speak soon” rather than “I should sleep soon”]. Happens maybe 5-10 times a day; bit annoying; pretty interesting, because I can’t find any data sources around that actually document this happening, so I can at least contribute that to the world; not a huge deal overall.

    But the newest and strangest thing is something I haven’t yet got a name for. I’m losing the ability to identify which part of a word is spelled incorrectly, or to work out how to fix it. For example, I might make a typo of ‘potenitlaly’, and I can identify that it looks sort of funny around the second half maybe, but I can’t work out exactly which letters are mixed up. But if I delete the word and just think “potentially” and type again on auto pilot, I can spell it just fine. The spelling problem only comes when I consciously think about how to spell the words; it’s like I have preserved muscle memory for typing words but things are getting a little bit mixed up in terms of reading and/or writing?

    This is a really interesting thing for me; I have absolutely no idea what it’s called, and while it’s a tad annoying, it’s actually just really interesting. I had no idea that brains could do that, and maybe it implies something about how the brain works, in terms of specific structural problems causing specific deficits?

    Obviously it’s something to discuss with my doctors, but I thought maybe the “hive mind” might have some thoughts.

    • blacktrance says:

      For example, I might make a typo of ‘potenitlaly’, and I can identify that it looks sort of funny around the second half maybe, but I can’t work out exactly which letters are mixed up. But if I delete the word and just think “potentially” and type again on auto pilot, I can spell it just fine.

      Isn’t it normal to have a milder form of this? In my case, it’s a lot easier to spell a word correctly than to find the errors in a misspelled word, even though I notice that it’s misspelled. If I spell the word correctly, I can compare the correct word to the misspelled one letter by letter and identify the misspelling, but to do it just by examining the misspelled word takes more effort.

    • DrBeat says:

      I’ll be trying to refer to something and I’ll forget what it’s called, so I’ll have to describe it: “you know, that thing, uh, the thing in the kitchen, with the thing, uh, water? oh, yeah, the water filter”. Formally diagnosed, not a big deal in the scheme of things.

      More recently I’ve started developing semantic paraphasia — mixing up words with other words.[…]

      Are these actually, like, notably unusual enough to warrant mention and diagnosis? Because these are behaviors shown by literally every single human being with which I converse on anything approaching a regular basis.