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The Case Of The Suffocating Woman

[Content warning: panic, suffocation]

I.

I recently presented this case at a conference and I figured you guys might want to hear it too. Various details have been obfuscated or changed around to protect confidentiality of the people involved.

A 20-something year old woman comes into the emergency room complaining that she can’t breathe. The emergency doctors note that she’s breathing perfectly normally. She says okay, fine, she’s breathing normally now, but she’s certain she’s about to suffocate. She’s having constant panic attacks, gasping for breath, feels like she can’t get any air into her lungs, been awake 96 hours straight because she’s afraid she’ll stop breathing in her sleep. She accepts voluntary admission to the psychiatric unit with a diagnosis of panic disorder.

We take a full history in the psych ward and there’s not much of interest. She’s never had any psychiatric conditions in the past. She’s never used any psychiatric medication. She’s never had any serious diseases. One month ago, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and she’s been very busy with all the new baby-related issues, but she doesn’t think it’s stressed her out unreasonably much.

We start her on an SSRI with (as usual) little immediate effect. On the ward, she continues to have panic attacks, which look like her gasping for breath and being utterly convinced that she is about to die; these last from a few minutes to a few hours. In between these she’s reasonable and cooperative but still very worried about her breathing. There are no other psychiatric symptoms. She isn’t delusional – when we tell her that our tests show her breathing is fine, she’s willing to admit we’re probably right – she just feels on a gut level like she can’t breathe. I’m still not really sure what’s going on.

So at this point, I do what any good psychiatrist would: I Google “how do you treat a patient who thinks she’s suffocating?” And I stumble onto one of the first convincing explanations I’ve ever seen of the pathophysiology of a psychiatric disorder.

II.

Panic disorder is a DSM-approved psychiatric condition affecting about 3% of the population. It’s marked by “panic attacks”, short (minutes to hours) episodes where patients experience extreme terror, increased heart rate, gasping for breath, feeling of impending doom, choking, chest pain, faintness, et cetera. These episodes can happen either after a particular stressor (for example, a claustrophobic patient getting stuck in a small room) or randomly for no reason at all when everything is fine. In a few cases, they even happen when patients are asleep and they wake up halfway through. The attacks rise to the level of a full disorder when they interfere with daily life – for example, a patient can’t do her job because she’s afraid of having panic attacks while engaged in sensitive activities like driving.

The standard model of panic disorder involves somatosensory feedback loops. Your body is always monitoring itself to make sure that nothing’s wrong. Any major organ dysfunction is going to produce a variety of abnormalities – pain, blockage of normal activities like digestion and circulation, change in chemical composition of the blood, etc. If your body notices enough of these things, it’ll go into alarm mode and activate the stress response – increased heart rate, sweating, etc – to make sure you’re sufficiently concerned.

In the feedback model of panic disorder, this response begins too early and recurses too heavily. So maybe you have an itch on your back. Your body notices this unusual sensation and falsely interprets it as the sort of abnormality that might indicate major dysfunction. It increases heart rate, starts sweating, et cetera. Then, because it’s stupid, it notices the increased heart rate and the sweating that it just caused, and decides this is definitely the sort of abnormality that indicates major dysfunction, and there’s nothing to do except activate even more stress response, which of course it interprets as even more organ dysfunction, and so on. At some point your body just maxes out on its stress response, your heart is beating as fast as it can possibly go and your brain is full of as many terror-related chemicals as you can produce on short notice, and then after a while of that it plateaus and returns to normal. So panic disorder sufferers are people who are overly prone to have the stress response, and overly prone to interpret their own stress response as further evidence of dysfunction.

This is probably part genetic and part learned – I have a panic disorder patient who has a bunch of really bad allergies, whose body would shut down in horrifying ways every time he accidentally ate a crumb of the wrong thing, and this seems to have “sensitized” him into having panic attacks; that is, his body has learned that worrying sensations often foretell a health crisis, and lowered its threshold accordingly to the point where random noise can easily set it off. I’ve done a lot of work with this guy, but none of it has been “just ignore your panic attacks, you’ll be fine”. His body knows what it’s doing, and we’ve got to work from a position of respecting it while also teaching it not to be quite so overzealous.

So this is where my understanding of panic disorder stood until I Googled “how do you treat a patient who thinks she’s suffocating?” and came across Donald Klein’s theory of panic as false suffocation alarm. You might want to read the full paper, as it’s got far too many fascinating things to list here, including a theory of sighing. But I’ll try to go over the basics.

Klein is a professor of psychiatry who studies the delightful field of “experimental panicogens”, ie chemicals that cause panic attacks if you inject them in someone. These include lactate, bicarbonate, and carbon dioxide, all of which naturally occur in the body under conditions of decreased respiration.

But this is actually confusing. All of these chemicals naturally occur in the body under conditions of decreased respiration. But they don’t cause panic attacks then. During exercise, for example, your body has much higher oxygen demand but (no matter how much you pant while running) only a little bit higher oxygen supply, so at the muscle level you don’t have enough oxygen and start forming lactate. But exercise doesn’t make people panic. Even deliberately holding your breath doesn’t make you panic, although it’s about the fastest way possible to increase levels of those chemicals. So it looks like your body is actively predicting how much lactate/bicarbonate/CO2 you should have, and only getting concerned if there’s more than it expects.

So Klein theorized that the brain has a “suffocation alarm”, which does some pretty complicated calculations to determine whether you’re suffocating or not. Its inputs are anything from blood CO2 level to very high-level cognitions like noticing that you’re in space and your spacesuit just ruptured. If, after considering all of this, and taking into account confounding factors like whether you’re exercising or voluntarily holding your breath, it decides that you’re suffocating, it activates your body’s natural suffocation response.

And the body’s natural suffocation response seems a lot like panic attacks. Increased heart rate? Check. Gasping for breath? Check. Feeling of impending doom? Check. Choking? Check. Chest pain? Check. Faintness? Check. Some of this makes more sense if you remember that the brain works on Bayesian process combining top-down and bottom-up information, so that your brain can predict that “suffocation implies choking” just as easily as “choking implies suffocation”.

A quick digression into medieval French mythology. Once upon a time there was a nymph named Ondine whose lover was unfaithful to her, as so often happens in mythology and in France. She placed a very creative curse on him: she cursed him not to be able to breathe automatically. He freaked out and kept trying to remember to breathe in, now breathe out, now breathe in, now breathe out, but at some point he had to fall asleep, at which point he stopped breathing and died.

So when people discovered a condition that limits the ability to breathe automatically, some very imaginative doctor named the condition Ondine’s Curse (some much less imaginative doctors provided its alternate name, central hypoventilation syndrome). People with Ondine’s curse don’t exactly not breathe automatically. But if for some reason they stop breathing, they don’t notice. Needless to say, this condition is very, very fatal. The usual method of death is that somebody stops breathing at night (ie sleep apnea, very common among the ordinary population, but not immediately dangerous since your body notices the problem and makes you start breathing again) and just never starts again.

Klein says that this proves the existence of the suffocation alarm: Ondine’s Curse is an underactive suffocation alarm – and thus the opposite of panic disorder, which is an overactive suffocation alarm. In Ondine’s Curse, patients don’t feel like they’re suffocating even when they are; in panic disorder, patients feel like they’re suffocating even when they’re not.

This picture has since gotten some pretty powerful confirmation, like the discovery that panic disorder is associated with ACCN2, a gene involved in carbon dioxide detection in the amygdala. If you’re looking for something that causes you to panic when you’re suffocating, a carbon dioxide detector in the amygdala is a pretty impressive fit.

I don’t think this is necessarily a replacement for the somatosensory feedback loop theory. I think it ties into it pretty nicely. The suffocation alarm is one of the many monitors watching the body and seeing whether something is dysfunctional, maybe the most important such monitor. It goes through some kind of Bayesian learning process to constantly have a prior probability of suffocation and update with incoming evidence. Let me give two examples.

First, my patient with the bad allergies. Every time he eats the wrong thing, he goes into anaphylactic shock, which prevents respiration and brings him to the edge of suffocating. His suffocation alarm becomes sensitized to this condition, increases its prior probability of suffocation, and so drops its threshold so low that it can be set off by random noise.

Second, claustrophobics. There’s a clear analogy between being crammed into a tiny space, and suffocating – think of people who are buried alive. For claustrophobics, for some reason that link is especially strong, and just being in an elevator is enough to set off their suffocation alarm and start a panic attack. Now, why agoraphobics get panic attacks I’m not sure. Maybe fear makes them feel woozy and hyperventilate, and the suffocation alarm treats wooziness and hyperventilation as signs of suffocation and then gets stuck in a feedback loop? I don’t know.

III.

Bandelow et al find that you’re about a hundred times more likely to develop a new case of panic disorder during the postpartum period than usual.

This can be contrasted with two equally marked trends. Panic attacks decrease markedly during pregnancy, and disappear entirely during childbirth. This last is really remarkable. People get panic attacks at any conceivable time. When they’re driving, when they’re walking, when they’re tired, when they’re asleep. Just not, apparently, when they’re giving birth. Childbirth is one of the scariest things you can imagine, your body’s getting all sorts of painful sensations it’s never felt before, and it’s a very dangerous period in terms of increased mortality risk. But in terms of panic attack, it’s one of the rare times when you are truly and completely protected.

Maternal And Fetal Acid-Base Chemistry: A Major Determinant Of Perinatal Outcomes notes that:

There is a substantial reduction in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in pregnancy…this fall is found to reach a mean level of 30-32 mmHg and is associated with a 21% increase in oxygen uptake. The physiological hyperventilation of pregnancy is due to the hormonal effect of progesterone on the respiratory center.

In other words, you’re breathing more, you have more blood oxygen, you have less blood CO2, and you’re further away from suffocation. This nicely matches the observation that there’s fewer panic attacks.

According to Klein, “There is a period of extreme hyperventilation during delivery, which drops the blood carbon dioxide to the minimum recorded under nonpathological conditions”. This explains the extreme protective effect of labor against panic disorder, despite labor’s seeming panic-inducing properties. When your CO2 is that low, even an oversensitive suffocation alarm is very far from a position where it might be set off.

(source)

Then you give birth, and progesterone – the hormone that was increasing respiratory drive – falls off a cliff. Your body, which for nine months has been doing very nicely with far more oxygen than it could ever need, suddenly finds itself breathing much less than usual and having a normal CO2/oxygen balance. This explains the hundredfold increased risk of developing panic disorder! Somebody who’s previously never had any reason to think they’re suffocating finds themselves with much less air than they expect (though still the physiologically correct amount of air they need), and if they’ve got any sensitivity at all, their suffocation alarm interprets this as possible suffocation and freaks out.

This can go one of two directions: either it eventually fully readjusts to your new position and becomes comfortable with a merely normal level of oxygen. Or the constant panic and suffocation feelings sensitize it – the same way that my allergy patient’s constant anaphylaxis sensitized him – the alarm develops a higher prior on suffocation and a lower threshold, and the patient gets a chronic panic disorder.

The reason my patient was so interesting was that she was kind of in the middle of this process and had what must have been unusually good introspective ability. Instead of saying “I feel panic”, she said “I feel like I’m suffocating”. This is pretty interesting. It’s like a heart attack patient coming in, and instead of saying “I feel chest pain”, they say “I feel like I have a thrombus in my left coronary artery”. You’re like “Huh, good job”.

So I explained all of this to her, and since she didn’t know I used Google I probably looked very smart. I told her that she wasn’t suffocating, that this was a natural albeit unusual side effect of childbirth, and that with luck it would go away soon. I told her if it didn’t go away soon then she might develop panic disorder, which was unfortunate, but that there were lots of good therapies for panic disorder which she would be able to try. This calmed her down a lot and we were able to send her home with some benzodiazepines for acute exacerbation and some SSRIs which she would stay on for a while to see if they helped. She’s scheduled to see an outpatient psychiatrist for followup and hopefully he will monitor her panic attacks to see if they eventually get better.

IV.

I realize that case reports are usually supposed to include a part where the doctor does something interesting and heroic and tries an experimental new medication that saves the day. And I realize there wasn’t much of that here. But I think that in psychiatry, a good explanation can sometimes be half the battle.

Consider Schachter and Singer (1962). They injected patients with adrenaline (a drug which among other things makes people physiologically agitated) or a placebo. Half the patients were told that the drug would make them agitated. The other half were told it was just some test drug to improve their eyesight. Then a confederate came and did some annoying stuff, and they monitored how angry the patients got. The patients who knew that the drug was supposed to make them angry got less angry than the ones who didn’t. The researchers theorized that both groups experienced physiological changes related to anger, but the patients who knew it was because of the drug sort of mentally adjusted for them, and the ones who didn’t took them seriously and interpreted them as their own emotion.

We can think of this as the brain making a statistical calculation to try to figure out its own level of anger. It has a certain prior. It gets certain evidence, like the body’s physiological state and how annoying the confederate is being. And it controls for certain confounders, like being injected with an arousal-inducing drug. Eventually it makes its best guess, and that’s how angry you feel.

In the same way, the suffocation monitor is taking all of its evidence about suffocation – from very low-level stuff like how much CO2 is in the blood to very high-level stuff like what situation you seem to be in – and then adjusting for confounders like whether you’re exercising. And I wonder whether telling a patient “You’re not actually suffocating, your panic comes from a known physiologic process and here are the hormones that control it” is the equivalent of telling them “You’re not really angry, your agitation comes from us giving you a drug that’s known to produce agitation”. It tells the suffocation alarm computer that this is a confounder to be controlled for rather than evidence on which to update.

I can’t claim to really understand this at a level where it makes sense to me. There are a lot of things that very directly increase CO2 but don’t increase panic, or vice versa. Hyperventilation can either cause or prevent panic depending on the situation. There seems to be something going on where the suffocation monitor controls for some things but not others, but this is an obvious cop-out that allows me to avoid making real predictions or narrowing hypothesis-space.

For example, this theory would seem to predict that waterboarding shouldn’t work. After all, its whole deal is artificially inducing the feeling of suffocation in a situation where the victim presumably knows that the interrogators aren’t going to let him suffocate. You would think that eventually the alarm realizes that “is being waterboarded” is a confounder to control for, but this doesn’t seem to be true.

(on the other hand, the inability to condition yourself seems relevant here. It seems like the brain might be not be controlling for whether something is reasonable, but only for whether something is produced by yourself. So maybe exercise counts because it’s under your control, but waterboarding doesn’t count because it isn’t. I wonder if anyone has ever tried letting someone waterboard themselves and giving them the on-off switch for the waterboarding device. Was Hitchens’ experience close enough to this to count? Why would this be different from letting someone hold their breath, which doesn’t produce the same level of panic?)

But overall I find Klein’s evidence pretty convincing and feel like this must be at least part of the story. And I think that giving this kind of explanation to somebody can comfort them, reassure them, and (maybe) even improve their condition.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 158 Comments

Determining Consent

A question most people successfully avoid asking: can institutionalized patients ever have sex? The answer is ‘mostly no, unless they are very good at sneaking past nurses’. They also can’t kiss, hold hands, cuddle, or have any other form of romantic contact.

I worked in a mental hospital where two patients snuck past nurses and had sex once. It was treated as a public health crisis of approximately the same urgency as somebody throwing a bucket of Ebola-laced chimp blood all over the dining room. Both patients lost all their privileges, earned themselves 24-7 supervision by nurses, got restricted to their rooms, and had to go through a battery of tests for every STD in the book. We the doctors got remedial training with helpful tips like “If two patients seem to like each other too much, put them on opposite sides of the unit so they’re never in contact.”

Why the security? Mostly the hospital was terrified the patients would come back and sue them for letting it happen. It didn’t matter that they consented at the time; it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d signed consent forms in triplicate beforehand in front of a notary public. Psychiatric patients are treated as having inherently less ability to consent than the mentally intact.

This makes some sense. A lot of mentally ill people are confused and can make bad decisions during the height of their illness. And in this case, the two patients were only temporarily inconvenienced; we treated them for a couple of weeks and then discharged them back to the real world where they could have as much sex as they wanted.

Unfortunately, not all stories end this well. A small percent of very seriously ill people end up in long-term institutions, where they stay anywhere from a few months to a lifetime. And these lifers are sentenced not just to lifetime confinement but to lifetime celibacy.

The most heartbreaking cases are the severely and permanently intellectually disabled. Suppose somebody doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand language. This doesn’t mean they lack a sex drive any more than it means they lack a hunger drive. In fact, their sex drive is often stronger than normal – something to do with decreased frontal inhibition, I think. But none of these people are going to be saying “I hereby exercise my right to affirmative consent for sexual activity” anytime soon.

This is a hard problem. If the only people institutionalized patients consistently encounter are hospital staff and other patients, well…we definitely don’t want them having sex with staff. Even non-institutionalized visitors seems like potentially too much of a power imbalance. That leaves other patients. But it seems like most encounters between two patients will involve one of them “initiating” in some sense. And even if we grant that the initiator has implicitly non-verbally consented, what about the one who’s not initiating?

As far as I can tell, there are two ways to handle this. The first is the extreme position that no person beyond a certain level of intellectual disability should ever be allowed to have sex or even non-penetrative romantic contact like kissing or hand-holding. The second is that we need to relax the usual standards of consent to something more like “Well, we know both these people pretty well, and we’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re like when they’re happy versus upset. And we know they have the capacity to resist things they don’t want, because they’ve done it before, eg when we try to give them medications they don’t like. And right now they look pretty happy, and not at all upset, and they’re not doing any of the things they do when they want to resist something, so it looks like they’re consenting, so maybe we won’t send nurses to burst in on them and pry them apart.”

This second one should make us very uncomfortable. But the first one isn’t exactly encouraging either. Like, in the early 20th century a lot of eugenicists sterilized the mentally ill. And by the mid-20th century, people decided that was morally wrong, because parenthood is an important part of the human condition and it’s unacceptable to take away that right even if you believe it’s for a greater good. But I’m not sure it’s moral progress to move from “these people must never become pregnant” to “forget about pregnancy, these people must never even have sex”. If we’re even stricter in our prohibitions than the eugenicists, what right do we have to feel superior to them?

So, as much as I would like a better option, I think I support the second standard. In cases where people are so disabled that they cannot consent verbally, rather than force them into lifelong celibacy we should try to do our best to figure out what they want in other ways.

As best I can tell, this is what Peter Singer is saying in his New York Times editorial on the Stubblefield case. Anna Stubblefield was a professor who believed in “facilitated communication”, a Ouija-board-esque technique whose proponents say it allows them to talk to nonverbal disabled people who can’t communicate any other way, and whose opponents think it’s probably pseudoscience. She used facilitated communication on a nonverbal young man named DJ and “received” the message that he wanted her to have sex with him, so she did. When the story reached the wider non-pseudoscience-believing world, it looked like a pretty obvious case of rape.

Singer seems to think facilitated communication might work, but he thinks Stubblefield’s actions might have been acceptable even if it doesn’t. He says:

If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist, and, for reasons we will note shortly, it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him. On the assumption that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, therefore, it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.

Singer’s phrase “cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations” is a reference to the legal standard for consent in most states, which say that disabled people can consent to sex if and only if they do understand this. What he’s saying is, as far as I can tell, the same thing I said above. Some people may not have the cognitive capcity to understand sex and consent in an intellectual way, but for these people to be forcibly kept celibate their entire lives seems hardly better than the eugenicists who would have just sterilized them and gotten it over with. Instead, we should try to judge their feelings from things like whether “the experience was pleasurable to him” or whether “he was capable of struggling to resist.” Singer’s position – and without knowing the disabled man involved I don’t know if this is true, and some people I trust say it isn’t, but it seems to have been his position – is that this was someone who was incapable of the complex cognitive process of consent, but pretty happy with the whole situation.

I once knew a very extreme libertarian who said that white settlers taking Native Americans’ land wasn’t “theft” because the Native Americans didn’t have a concept of property, so no harm done. I worry that people are misinterpreting Singer as saying the same thing here – something like “this guy doesn’t have a concept of consent, so you can’t violate it”. This is not how I interpret the sentence about consent in the first paragraph of the quote. I think Singer is using “consent” to mean an inherently verbal/symbolic/cognitive process – someone explicitly understands what it means to consent and intentionally expresses that to others. So when I say “we are forced to infer consent from nonverbal rather than verbal cues”, Singer expresses the same idea as “since we can’t use consent, we need to fall back on simpler ideas like those of pleasure versus harm.”

The second paragraph makes it sound like if there was any sign DJ wasn’t okay with what was happening – if he were screaming or resisting or even frowning – Singer would no longer be okay with this. It seems to be Singer’s belief/assumption (though likely false) that DJ’s nonverbal behavior presented strong evidence that he was enjoying the sex and wanted it to continue. When he says that “nobody was harmed”, he’s not saying that disabled people don’t count as somebody. He’s saying that if two people both enjoyed a sex act, both of them seemed to be participating voluntarily, and neither person suffered any physical or emotional harm (including the harm of feeling like one’s preferences were being violated) this is probably the best moral test we can apply in a situation where the usual test of consent is absent.

So of course everybody writes thinkpieces with titles like Now Peter Singer Argues It Might Be Okay To Rape Disabled People:

Again, let’s be clear on what they are saying: if someone is intellectually disabled enough, then it might be okay to rape them, so long as they don’t resist, since a lack of physical struggle justifies an assumption that someone is enjoying being raped. (Singer is also offering a variation on his own prior arguments in favor of bestiality, which work because Singer believes disabled people and animals are the same for purposes of ethical analysis.)

I think it’s a pretty good principle that, if you don’t want to consider disabled people and animals the same for purposes of ethical analysis, you break the equivalence in favor of the disabled people. Yet I notice that when two animals have sex, we trust them to make their own decisions. If a female dog in heat has jumped a fence to find a male dog, and the male dog jumps over his fence and starts humping the female dog, we might separate them because we’re not willing to take care of the puppies, but nobody would separate them because the dogs are just animals and so too stupid to understand the nature of consent. If one of the dogs was screaming and yelping and trying to get away, we would try to rescue it. But if both dogs sought it out and seem to be enjoying themselves, we grant them enough respect to assume they know what they’re doing.

And again, I would hope that part of being against equating dogs and people (of any level of intellectual ability) is that you give more respect to the people. And part of that, to me, seems to be that if two people seek out sex and seem to be enjoying themselves, we grant them enough respect to assume they know what they’re doing. And this seems true whether or not they have the intellectual capacity to form the words “I consent”.

Everything about this situation sucks, and there is no good answer, and honestly I hate to have to talk about this. But since people keep asking me, fine, here’s what I think.

From a legal point of view, Anna Stubblefield should absolutely 100% go to jail. Whether or not DJ wanted sex with her is irrelevant. Even if he did (and we have no evidence other than the testimony of the alleged rapist that this is the case) she committed an action which put her at extreme risk for raping somebody, without any system in place to minimize that risk. A world where people can go around having sex with random disabled people as long as they say “I’m pretty sure he was in favor of it” is a world where many disabled people who are not in favor of it will end up being raped. As long as that’s the situation, the law against doing so is just and needs to be enforced. I think I legitimately disagree with Singer on this.

(also, she was his translator and that creates a power imbalance. I don’t want to get into this further because I don’t think it relates to the thesis here, but it’s obviously an important point.)

From a political point of view, I wish there were a system in place to protect disabled people from sexual abuse while not banning all sexuality entirely. If you want to do surgery on a disabled person who can’t consent, lots of doctors and lawyers and friends and family get together and do some legal stuff and try to elicit information from the patient as best they can and eventually come to a conclusion. The result isn’t perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than either “no one can ever operate on a disabled person” or “any surgeon who wants can grab a disabled person off the street and do whatever operation they feel like”. If there were some process like this for sex, and they decided that DJ wanted to have sex with Anna, then (again ignoring the power dynamics issue) I think this would be better than either banning him from all sex forever, or letting her have sex with whoever she wants as long as she can make up convincing enough pseudoscience. If a legal procedure like this had been followed, I would not think that she should go to jail.

From an ethical point of view, I think it’s correct to abstract away all the features of the problem mentioned above, the same as we avoid issues of how well you understand the physics involved when we think about the Fat Man problem (or, as the Internet likes to call it, “Now Judith Thompson Argues It Might Be Okay To Throw Obese People In Front Of Trains”). In this abstract and conditional world, the question is whether we must completely prohibit someone from having any kind of sexual life if they’re unable to verbally consent but able to give reliable cues that they want the sex and are enjoying themselves. I think the answer is “not always”. I agree it is probably bad to connect this abstract ethical view to a real case where real people are harmed unless you are very sure that all of your assumptions hold true, homework which it looks like Singer might not have done.

From a philosophical point of view, I think that if we are to be at all better than the BETA-MEALR Party, we need to acknowledge that we are not promoting consent if we enforce the same position on everybody no matter how strongly they seem to want the opposite, even if we talk incessantly about how much we love consent while we’re doing so.

The Current Affairs article argues that Singer’s views discredit utilitarianism, since utilitarians are these annoying people who always seem to be coming to weird conclusions that would be much more convenient to ignore. I agree that Singer’s views are related to his utilitarianism, and that this philosophy produces more than its share of weird conclusions that would be more convenient to ignore.

But ignorance isn’t a suitable foundation for ethics. It’s incredibly easy to ignore disabled people being sentenced to a life of involuntary celibacy, because ignoring marginalized people is always easy and convenient, plus enforced celibacy isn’t the same sort of flashy human rights violation that has a death toll in the thousands and helps sell newspapers. People who cobble together their moral systems from whatever helps them ignore bottomless pits of suffering most effectively will always have more convenient and presentable moral systems than people who don’t. But if we’re going to try to be good, we need to work for something better.

SSC Meetups Everywhere: Times And Places

Thanks to everyone who offered to host a meetup. We’re scheduled for meetups in 62 cities in 16 countries, so…wow. Full list of cities, times, and places is below.

Some tips from past experience with these meetups:

1. If you’re the host, bring a sign that says “SSC MEETUP” and prop it up somewhere on a table
2. Bring blank labels and pens for nametags.
3. Pass around a paper where everyone gives their name and email address, so you can start a mailing list to make organizing future meetups easier
4. If it’s the first meetup, people are probably just going to want to talk, and if you try to organize some kind of “fun” “event” it’ll probably just be annoying.
5. Some things that have worked for later meetups include people giving short presentations on topics of interest to them, or discussion of some particular blog post
6. Nothing is going to get done unless there’s a Schelling point for who has to do it, and right now that’s the meetup organizer.
7. It’s ten times easier to schedule a second meetup while you’re having the first compared to trying to do it later on by email
8. Some cities have existing LW meetup groups you might want to coordinate with
9. Surprisingly many people will love you forever if you bring stim toys
10. In case people want to get to know each other better outside the meetup, you might want to mention reciprocity.io, the rationalist friend-finder/dating site.

On the list below, places marked with [LW] are preexisting Less Wrong meetups that have volunteered to specifically welcome SSC readers on the date listed. The other ones are new.

Amsterdam
Additional search keywords: Netherlands
Time: Saturday, April 8, 7 PM
Location: Prins Hendrikkade 85, Cafe Batavia
Contact: sonny.public[at]gmail.com

Ann Arbor [LW]
Time: Saturday, April 8, 4 PM
Location: 2065 Commerce Blvd #327
Contact: azure[at]eclectic.blue

Atlanta
Time: Sunday April 9, 7 PM
Location: 240 North Highland Ave H, Inman Perk Coffee Shop
Contact: tom.hennessy[at]gmail.com, Facebook event

Austin [LW]
Time: Saturday April 8, 1:30 PM
Location: 4001 N Lamar Blvd, North Lamar Central Market in-store cafe
Contact: Google group

Baltimore [LW]
Time: Sunday April 9, 8 PM
Location: UMBC Performing Arts & Humanities Building, 4th floor
Contact: lw[at]noblejury.com

Berlin [LW]
Time: Sunday April 23, 7 PM
Location: Gaststätte Walhalla, Krefelderstr.6, 10555 Berlin, Germany
Contact: Marcel Ackermann, Facebook event

Berkeley
Time: Sunday April 9, 2 PM
Location: 21 Shattuck Ave, 85C Bakery Cafe, probably upstairs
Contact: brianwang712[at]gmail.com

Birmingham (UK)
Time: Saturday April 8, 12 noon
Location: Bacchus Bar, Burlington Arcade, B2 4JH
Contact: Email

Boston
Additional search keywords: Cambridge (US)
Time: Saturday April 15, 2 PM
Location: MIT 4-149
Contact: Taymon, Facebook event

Brisbane
Time: Friday, April 14, 7 PM
Location: 26 Felix Street, Oaks Felix
Contact: jarred.filmer[at]gmail.com

Budapest
Time: Saturday April 8, 2:30 PM
Location: Dohány utca 7, Corvinus Cafe
Contact: a.pearson.851[at]hotmail.com

Cambridge (UK)
Time: Monday, April 24, 6 PM
Location: Norfolk Street, CB2 Bistro
Contact: rlm72[at]cam.ac.uk, RSVP form

Canberra
Time: Saturday April 8, 11 AM
Location: Cafe Cherry Bean in Gungahlin
Contact: Nathan.ashby[at]yahoo.com.au

Charlotte
Time: Tuesday April 25, 12 noon
Location: 545 Providence Road, Starbucks on 3rd
Contact: James[at]limetribe.com

Chicago [LW]
Time: Sunday April 9, 1 PM
Location: 1116 E 59th St, Harper Memorial Library, Room 148
Contact: mingyuan[at]uchicago.edu, Facebook event

Cleveland
Time: Sunday April 9, 2 PM
Location: 11150 East Boulevard, Museum of Art atrium
Contact: robintanenbaum[at]gmail.com

Columbus
Time: Saturday, April 15, 2 PM
Location: 1277 Grandview Ave, Grandview Heights, OH. Stauf’s Coffee
Contact: j.thomas.moros[at]gmail.com

Cologne [LW]
Time: Sometime in late April? The 22nd? The 29th? Contact Marcel below.
Location: “A private location”. Contact Marcel below.
Contact: marcel_mueller[at]mail.de

Copenhagen
Additional search keywords: Denmark
Time: Saturday April 8, 6 PM
Location: Von Fressen, 124 Vesterbrogade, 1620 København
Contact: soeren.elverlin[at]gmail.com, 29263141, please RSVP

Dallas
Time: Saturday April 15, 2 PM
Location: 3700 McKinney Ave #108, Brewed & Pressed
Contact: ???

Denver [LW]
Time: Tuesday April 4, 7 PM (and generally the first Tuesday of every month)
Location: 4955 S Ulster St, Darcy’s
Contact: embrodski[at]gmail.com

Dublin
Additional search keywords: Ireland
Time: Wednesday, April 12, 6 PM
Location: O’Neills, Pearse Street, Dublin 2.
Contact: egoburnswell[at]gmail.com

Edinburgh
Time: Sunday April 23, 6 PM
Location: 14 Drummond Street, The Brass Monkey
Contact: marian.andrecki[at]gmail.com, Facebook event

Edmonton
Time: Saturday April 15, 2 PM
Location: 8631 109 St NW, the Remedy in Garneau
Contact: alt.acct[at]gmx.com

Fullerton
Additional search keywords: Orange County, Irvine, Southern California
Time: Wednesday April 12, 6 PM
Location: 800 N State College Blvd, Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Student Unin, downstairs near bowling alley
Contact: mondayrhymer[at]gmail.com

Helsinki
Time: Monday April 10, 4 PM
Location: Oluthuone Kaisla, Vilhonkatu 4
Contact: sschelsinkimeetup[at]gmail.com

Houston
Time: Wednesday, April 26, 5 PM
Location: 300 Main St, Honeymoon Cafe & Bar
Contact: ssc[at]donnieclapp.com, RSVP form

Istanbul
Additional search terms: Constantinople, Byzantium
Time: Tuesday, April 11, 8 PM
Location: Plaza in the middle of Bomontiada
Contact: ssc[at]briancloutier.com

Kansas City
Time: Saturday May 6, 1 PM
Location: Loose Park, pavillion/rose garden
Contact: a.l.whitespace[at]gmail.com

London
Time: Sunday 30th April, 2pm
Location: Shakespeare’s Head, Holborn (On Kingsway, just south of the tube station – NOT the Shakespeare’s Head in Soho.)
Contact: philip.hazelden[at]gmail.com, Facebook group

Los Angeles [LW]
Time: Wednesday April 5, 7 PM
Location: 10850 West Pico at Westwood Boulevard, Wine Bar At The Landmark
Contact: Google group

Miami
Time: Saturday, April 29, 5 PM
Location: 2390 NW 2nd Ave, Panther Coffee
Contact: eric135033[at]gmail.com

Milwaukee
Time: Saturday, April 8, 1 PM
Location: 2301 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Colectivo Coffee Shop
Contact: ???

Minneapolis
Time: Saturday, May 20, 10 AM
Location: 425 14th Ave SE, Dinkytown Starbucks
Contact: piers199[at]umn.edu

Madison
Time: Sunday, April 9, 7 PM
Location: 114 State Street, Michelangelo’s Coffee House
Contact: nathanielbude[at]gmail.com

Montreal
Time: Friday, April 14, 6 PM
Location: 1191 Avenue Hope (private residence)
Contact: mathieu.roy.37[at]gmail.com, Facebook event

New Haven
Time: Saturday April 8, 2 PM
Location: 1140 Chapel, Book Trader Cafe
Contact: elizah.stein[at]gmail.com

New York City
Additional search keywords: NYC
Time: Saturday April 22, 2 PM
Location: 353 W 14th St, Gansevoort Market, main seating area at north end
Contact: ???

Online
Additional search keywords: Africa
Time: Monday, May 15, 4 PM South Africa time (UTC+2)
Location: This Google Hangout link
Contact: dazuck@gmail.com

Ottawa
Time: Saturday April 15, 3 PM
Location: 361 Elgin at Gladstone, Lieutenant’s Pump
Contact: conor.meade[at]gmail.com

Oxford
Time: Wednesday April 12, 7 PM
Location: Swan & Castle OX1 1LJ
Contact: hbesceli[at]gmail.com

Paris
Time: Saturday April 8, 2 PM
Location: Métro 12 Mairie d’Issy, private residence, contact number below for full address
Contact: 0659427285

Philadelphia
Time: Saturday April 15, 2 PM
Location: 100 S Independence Mall (6 & Market), La Colombe Coffee
Contact: wfenza[at]gmail.com, (856) 441-0937, Facebook event

Phoenix
Time: Saturday April 8, noon
Location: Granada Park (20th St and Bethany Home, right off the 51)
Contact: spinystellate1[at]gmail.com

Pittsburgh
Time: Saturday April 8, 2 PM
Location: 4327 Butler St, Floor 2, Catapult Coworking
Contact: matthewfmarks[at]gmail.com

Portland
Time: Saturday April 8, 12:30 PM
Location: 2505 SE 11 Ave #101, Ford Food & Drink
Contact: nwalton125[at]gmail.com

Raleigh
Additional search keywords: Research Triangle, Chapel Hill, Durham, North Carolina
Time: Thursday April 6, 7 PM
Location: 328 Morgan St, Flying Saucer
Contact: mpobrie3[at]ncsu.edu

Rochester, New York
Time: Sunday April 9, 1 PM
Location: 200 East Avenue, SPoT Coffee
Contact: thecommexokid[at]gmail.com

Sacramento
Time: Saturday April 8, 6 PM
Location: 1730 L St, Midtown Crepeville
Contact: trevoradf[at]gmail.com.

Salt Lake City
Time: Saturday April 8, 1:30 PM
Location: 1766 Main St, Pho Tay Ho
Contact: ???

San Diego
Time: Saturday April 22, 4 PM
Location: 4876 Santa Monica Avenue, Lazy Hummingbird
Contact: the.god.empress.celestia[at]gmail.com

San Francisco [LW]
Time: Monday April 10, 6:15 PM
Location: Check here or ask contact below
Contact: rocurley[at]gmail.com, (301) 458-0764, Facebook event

San Jose, California
Time: Sunday April 9, 2 PM
Location: 3806 Williams Rd (private residence)
Contact: ddfr[at]daviddfriedman.com, (408) 244-3330

Sao Paulo [LW]
Time: 2017-05-06, Saturday, 2PM (Local time, i.e. GMT-0300)
Place:Contact: gusbicalho[at]gmail.com, mailing list

Seattle
Time: Sunday April 30, 12 noon
Location: 2325 42nd Ave E (private residence)
Contact: Facebook event

St. Louis
Time: Sunday April 23, 1 PM
Location: 3974 Hartford St, Hartford Coffee
Contact: brerwolf[at]gmail.com

Stockholm
Time: Saturday April 8, 3 PM
Location: Stora Nygata 31, Cafe Dox
Contact: erik.e.engelhardt[at]gmail.com, Meetup page

Sydney [LW]
Time: Thuresday April 20, 6 PM
Location: 565 George Street, City of Sydney RSL, level 2, big table by the pizza oven
Contact: 0438481143

Tel Aviv
Additional search keywords: Israel, Haifa, Jerusalem
Time: Tuesday, May 9, 7 PM
Location: Yigal Alon 118, “The Cluster”, entrance is from Totseret Ha’aretz street through a brown door, if closed ring the doorbell and someone will let you in
Contact: top.squark[at]gmail.com, Facebook event

Toronto
Time: Saturday April 22, 1 PM
Location: 27 Wellesley Street East, The Fox and the Fiddle, 3rd floor
Contact: Daniel.mm.frank[at]gmail.com

Vienna [LW]
Additional search keywords: Prague, Bratislava, Austria, Czech, Slovakia
Time: Saturday April 15, 3 PM
Location: Kaisermühlenstraße 24, meetup room on back of ground floor, 1220 Vienna
Contact: strivingforconsistency[at]gmail.com

Warsaw
Time: Saturday April 22, 5 PM
Location: Panstwo Miasto, Andersa 29 (Pokoj Spotkan),
Contact: michal.trzesimiech[at]gmail.com

Washington DC
Time: Saturday April 15, 7 PM
Location: 450 Massachussetts Ave NW, The Meridian at Gallery Place, roof/14th floor lounge (private residence)
Contact: robirahman94[at]gmail.com

Washington DC secondary option [LW]
Time: Sunday April 23, 3:30 PM
Location: 8th St NW & F St NW, Portrait Gallery Courtyard
Contact: lesswrong-dc[at]googlegroups.com, Facebook group

Wellington
Additional search keywords: New Zealand
Time: Thursday, April 20, Roti Chennai, 6 PM
Location: 14 Leeds St, Te Aro – Golding’s
Contact: calebwithers[at]gmail.com, please RSVP to that address if you’re coming

Zurich [LW]
Additional search keywords: Switzerland
Time: Saturday April 8, 5 PM
Location: Tibits Oerlikon, Tramstrasse 2, 8050,
Contact: ???

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 114 Comments

G.K. Chesterton On AI Risk

[An SSC reader working at an Oxford library stumbled across a previously undiscovered manuscript of G.K. Chesterton’s, expressing his thoughts on AI, x-risk, and superintelligence. She was kind enough to send me a copy, which I have faithfully transcribed]

The most outlandish thing about the modern scientific adventure stories is that they believe themselves outlandish. Mr. H. G. Wells is considered shocking for writing of inventors who travel thousands of years into the future, but the meanest church building in England has done the same. When Jules Verne set out to ‘journey to the center of the earth’ and ‘from the earth to the moon’, he seemed but a pale reflection of Dante, who took both voyages in succession before piercing the Empyrean itself. Ezekiel saw wheels of spinning flame and reported them quite soberly; our modern writers collapse in rapture before the wheels of a motorcar.

Yet if the authors disappoint, it is the reviewers who dumbfound. For no sooner does a writer fancy himself a Poe or a Dunsany for dreaming of a better sewing machine, but there comes a critic to call him overly fanciful, to accuse him of venturing outside science into madness. It is not enough to lower one’s sights from Paradise to a motorcar; one must avoid making the motorcar too bright or fast, lest it retain a hint of Paradise.

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

Yet no sooner does Mr. Butler publish his speculations then a veritable army of hard-headed critics step forth to say he has gone too far. Mr. Maciej Ceglowski, the Polish bookmark magnate, calls Butler’s theory “the idea that eats smart people” (though he does not tell us whether he considers himself digested or merely has a dim view of his own intellect). He says that “there is something unpleasant about AI alarmism as a cultural phenomenon that should make us hesitate to take it seriously.”

When Jeremiah prophecied Jerusalem’s fall, his fellow Hebrews no doubt considered his alarmism an unpleasant cultural phenomenon. And St. Paul was not driven from shore to shore because his message was pleasant to the bookmark magnates of his day. Fortified by such examples, we may wonder if this is a reason to take people more seriously rather than less. So let us look more closely at the contents of Mr. Ceglowski’s dismissal.

He writes that there are two perspectives to be taken on any great matter, the inside or the outside view. The inside view is when we think about it directly, taking it on its own terms. And the outside view is when we treat it as part of a phenomenon, asking what it resembles and whether things like it have been true in the past. And, he states, Butler’s all-powerful thinking machines resemble nothing so much as “a genie from folklore”.

I have no objection to this logic, besides that it is not carried it to its conclusion. The idea of thinking machines resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale from the Arabian Nights, and such fairy tales inevitably come true. Sinbad’s voyages have been outstripped by Magellan’s, Abdullah’s underwater breathing is matched by Mr. Fleuss’ SCUBA, and the Wright brothers’ Flyer goes higher than any Indian carpet. That there are as yet no genies seems to me less an inevitable law than a discredit to the industry of our inventors.

There is a certain strain of thinker who insists on being more naturalist than Nature. They will say with great certainty that since Thor does not exist, Mr. Tesla must not exist either, and that the stories of Asclepius disprove Pasteur. This is quite backwards: it is reasonable to argue that the Wright Brothers will never fly because Da Vinci couldn’t; it is madness to say they will never fly because Daedalus could. As well demand that we must deny Queen Victoria lest we accept Queen Mab, or doubt Jack London lest we admit Jack Frost. Nature has never been especially interested in looking naturalistic, and it ignores these people entirely and does exactly what it wants.

Now, scarce has one posited the possibility of a genie, before the question must be asked whether it is good or evil, a pious genie or an unrighteous djinn. Our interlocutor says that it shall be good – or at least not monomaniacal in its wickedness. For, he tells us, “complex minds are likely to have complex motivations; that may be part of what it even means to be intelligent”. A dullard may limit his focus to paper clips, but the mind of a genius should have to plumb the width and breadth of Heaven before satiating itself.

But I myself am a dullard, and I find paper clips strangely uninteresting. And the dullest man in a country town can milk a cow, pray a rosary, sing a tune, and court a girl all in the same morning. Ask him what is good in life, and he will talk your ear off: sporting, going for a walk in the woods, having a prosperous harvest, playing with a newborn kitten. It is only the genius who limits himself to a single mania. Alexander spent his life conquering, and if he had lived to a hundred twenty, he would have been conquering still. Samuel Johnson would not stop composing verse even on his deathbed. Even a village idiot can fall in love; Newton never did. That greatest of scientists was married only to his work, first the calculus and later the Mint. And if one prodigy can spend his span smithing guineas, who is to say that another might not smith paper clips with equal fervor?

Perhaps sensing that his arguments are weak, Ceglowski moves from the difficult task of critiquing Butler’s tyrant-angels to the much more amenable one of critiquing those who believe in them. He says that they are megalomanical sociopaths who use their belief in thinking machines as an excuse to avoid the real work of improving the world.

He says (presumably as a parable, whose point I have entirely missed) that he lives in a valley of silicon, which I picture as being surrounded by great peaks of glass. And in that valley, there are many fantastically wealthy lords. Each lord, upon looking through the glass peaks and seeing the world outside with all its misery, decides humans are less interesting than machines, and fritters his fortune upon spreading Butlerist doctrine. He is somewhat unclear on why the lords in the parable do this, save that they are a “predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white, who are…more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings”, who inevitably decide Butlerism is “more important than…malaria” and so leave the poor to die of disease.

Yet Lord Gates, an avowed Butlerite, has donated two billion pounds to fighting malaria and developed a rather effective vaccine. Mr. Karnofsky, another Butlerite, founded a philanthropic organization that moved sixty million pounds to the same cause. Even the lowly among the Butlerites have been inspired to at least small acts of generosity. A certain Butlerite doctor of my acquaintance (whom I recently had to rebuke for his habit of forging pamphlets in my name) donated seventy-five hundred pounds to a charity fighting malaria just last year. If the hardest-headed critic has done the same, I shall eat my hat1. The proverb says that people in glass houses should not throw stones; perhaps the same is true of glass valleys.

I have met an inordinate number of atheists who criticize the Church for devoting itself to the invisible and the eternal, instead of to the practical and hard-headed work of helping the poor on Earth. They list all of the great signs of Church wealth – the grand cathedrals, the priestly vestments – and ask whether all of that might not better be spent on poorhouses, or dormitories for the homeless. In vain do I remind them that the only place in London where a poor man may be assured of a meal is the church kitchens, and that if he needs a bed the first person he will ask is the parish priest. In vain do I mention the saintly men who organize Christian hospitals in East Africa. The atheist accepts all of it, and says it is not enough. Then I ask him if he himself has ever given the poor a shilling, and he tells me that is beside the point.

Why are those most fixated on something vast and far away so often the only ones to spare a thought for the poor right beside them? Why did St. Francis minister to the lepers, while the princes of his day, seemingly undistracted by the burdens of faith, nevertheless found themselves otherwise engaged? It is simply this – that charity is the fruit of humility, and humility requires something before which to humble one’s self. The thing itself matters little; the Hindoo who prostrates himself before elephants is no less humble than the Gnostic who prostrates himself before ultimate truth; perhaps he is more so. It is contact with the great and solemn that has salutary effects on the mind, and if to a jungle-dweller an elephant is greatest of all, it is not surprising that factory-dwellers should turn to thinking-machines for their contact with the transcendent.

And it is that contact which Mr. Ceglowski most fears. For he thinks that “if everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” I wonder if he has ever treated a cholera patient. This is not a rhetorical question; the same pamphlet-forging doctor of my acquaintance went on a medical mission to Haiti during the cholera epidemic there. It seems rather odd that someone who has never fought cholera, should be warning someone who has, that his philosophy prevents him from fighting cholera.

And indeed, this formulation is exactly backward. If everyone fixes drains instead of contemplating the infinite, we shall all die of cholera, if we do not die of boredom first. The heathens sacrificed to Apollo to avert plague; if we know now that we must fix drains instead, it is only through contemplating the infinite. Aristotle contemplated the infinite and founded Natural Philosophy; St. Benedict contemplated the infinite and preserved it. Descartes contemplated the infinite and derived the equations of optics; Hooke contemplated infinity and turned them into the microscope. And when all of these infinities had been completed – the Forms of Plato giving way to the orisons of monks, the cold hard lines of the natural philosophers terminating in the green hills of England to raise smokestacks out of empty fields – then and only then did the heavens open, a choir of angels break into song, and a plumber fix a drain.

But he is not trapped in finitude, oh no, not he! What is a plumber but one who plumbs infinite depths? When one stoops to wade among the waste and filth to ensure the health of his fellow men, does he not take on a aspect beyond the finite, a hint of another One who descended into the dirt and grime of the world so that mankind might live? When one says that there shall certainly never be thinking-machines, because they remind him too much of God, let that man open his eyes until he is reminded of God by a plumber, or a symphony, or a dreary Sunday afternoon. Let him see God everywhere he looks, and then ask himself whether the world is truly built so that grand things can never come to pass. Mr. Butler’s thinking-machines will come to pass not because they are extraordinary, but precisely because they are ordinary, in a world where extraordinary things are the only constant of everyday life.

[1: EDIT 4/2: Mr. Ceglowski wants to clarify that he does in fact give to charity]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 140 Comments

Links 3/17: Relinkquishment

During the 1500s, the Caribbean was teeming with Jewish pirates, who named their ships things like Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham and had swashbuckling nicknames like “The Pirate Rabbi”.

This month in bad graphs: Family Inequality on the weird way the New York Times confuses the trend in car accidents, and Stuart Buck on how some of the hype about rising white-working-class mortality comes from graph that exaggerates its point by using two different y-axes.

A Miami lawyer’s pants burst into flames while he was arguing in court. One hopes the judge instructed the jury to ignore the kabbalistic implications.

Tesco finalizes deal to give all unsold food to charity.

Illegal immigration through Mexico is down by almost half since last year. Some of Trump’s crueler policies might be interpretable in the context of trying to scare people out of illegal-immigrating.

Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlation with sunlight. Interesting as more evidence that BDNF matches everything we know about depression. So either the BDNF scientists are cooking the books really hard, it’s one of those things which is correlated in some complicated non-causal ways, or it’s a key to the mystery.

Jerry Coyne’s negative review of Cordelia Fine’s new book on the biology of sex/gender. Stuart Ritchie’s negative review. Greg Cochran’s negative review. Positive reviews from PZ Myers (though he possibly admits he gets his science wrong while also criticizing “the humanity” of anyone who points it out?) and of course the New York Times.

A long time ago I hosted an SSC-meetup-ish-thing in the offices of Quixey, a Silicon Valley company with a lot of connections to the rationalist and effective altruist movements. Unfortunately, Quixey is shutting down. There’s something kind of crazy about starting from nothing in 2009, getting valued at $600 million in 2015, and shutting down in 2017, but I guess that’s business. Or something.

Since Sweden etc are some of the happiest and most developed countries in the world, can we just copy their model?

In British naval parlance, ships with around 90 guns were called second-rates; since these were a little bit weaker than the flagships their name became a generic term for anything that was not quite as good as something else.

The Awl: I Talked To Some Trump Voters Too. “Except for roughly 7,200 articles on the subject, there has been scant effort made by the mainstream media to understand the kind of voters who say Trump speaks for them. So I set out on a road trip to the part of America most coastal elites don’t think about, except when they’re reading one of the fourteen daily pieces in the mainstream media where a journalist visits a town most coastal elites don’t think about.”

Related: I said a few months ago that Trump was considering choosing some exciting candidates for the FDA who might be true libertarians and really change things. Needless to say, Trump did not do that. Big Pharma is thrilled; I hope people think long and hard about the significance of an industry deeply relieved that they are not going to be deregulated. Watch for Gottleib to use vaguely libertarian rhetoric while continuing the crony capitalist system, drug prices to continue to rise, and liberals to declare this proves that libertarianism always fails.

Still related: lots of people have compared Trump to Andrew Jackson; what’s surprising is that he seems self-aware about it (or at least his handlers are). See eg Trump Adds Portrait Of President Jackson To Oval Office and Trump To Lay Wreath At Andrew Jackson’s Tomb. Pundits suspect “dog-whistle” for anti-Cherokee sentiment. Just as long as he doesn’t imitate Jackson’s attitude to the Supreme Court.

And related: That Time When Dick Cheney And Donald Rumsfeld Ran A Universal Basic Income Experiment For Nixon.

Leek & Jager: maybe most published scientific findings aren’t false.

Uber self-driving car progress report: humans still need to take control about once per-mile, with little progress made over the past few months.

TheOutgroup.org: visualizations of political polarization by graphing networks of pundits on Twitter. Recommended!

Somehow I stumbled across New-Culture.org, which I’m tempted to mock as the silliest and most contentless hippie thing I have ever seen. After more consideration, I think that I’m in favor. It seems like a rallying-flag to try to create a community, and contentless rallying flags can be a good thing if they attract the right people while preventing a community from being dependent on possibly-falsifiable statements.

Federal research bodies have started a “vast” deregulation of social science research, in the sense where you might no longer need to get the approval of fifty different ethics bodies before giving participants a written survey about how much TV they watch or whatever. As somebody with a couple of IRB horror stories myself this is actually inspiring me to think about doing more research. Kudos to everyone involved.

Tim Pool was the journalist who took up an InfoWars offer to go to Sweden and see for himself whether it’s plagued by migrant crime. Now he’s reported his results including a YouTube video and a Reddit AMA. Interesting since it’s one of the closest things yet to the “adversarial collaboration” model of journalism. Unfortunately, by the time it reached the mainstream media any signal had already been lost: Breitbart reports that he discovered Sweden was very dangerous, while Salon reports that he discovered Sweden was perfectly safe. He himself says that “what I found was interesting and in reality ‘closer to the middle’ in regards to the left/right narrative.”

Related: claims that 70% of French prisoners are Muslim are inaccurate (though the likely real number, 40%-50%, is still about five times their representation in the population).

Prison brutality: guards throw mentally ill inmate in scalding hot shower; leave him there until he dies. No punishment given.

80000 Hours does their research thing to try to identify the world’s most important problems.

A while back I blogged about how the government forced UC Berkeley to take down its library of free public videotaped lectures from its website because having audio was discriminatory against deaf people. Now lbry.io has mirrored them and put them up on their own website.

New startup plans a 150-seat battery-powered electric plane. Article focuses on the global warming impact, which makes me wonder about what I would expect to be electric planes’ big advantage – are they silent?

An unusually beautiful graph showing just how important genetics can be in various life domains.

New law proposal: lay tubes for underground broadband while you’re building roads, so that your city can have broadband later without anyone having to dig anything up. This sounds so sensible that there’s no way it can possibly happen.

Cost disease update: Navy team challenges itself to avoid the usual failure modes of military bureaucracy, designs new ramjet missile in six months with a $900 engine. “They were even able to buy the parts with a credit card, avoiding the time-consuming defense acquisition process.”

If UK countries were matched to US states in proportion to their percent of their respective nations’ population, then Scotland would be Texas, Wales would be Pennsylvania, Northern Ireland would be New Jersey, and England would be the other 47.

Remember how everyone was talking about how Trump must have inspired an anti-Semitic crime wave among his supporters? And remember how some of the incidents were traced to an anti-Trump socialist working at a leftist magazine? Well, the rest of them seem to be the fault of an Israeli Jew who may have a personality-altering brain tumor. The Atlantic has a pretty good postmortem of the whole affair.

How entomologists have become the first line of defense against delusional parasitosis. Warning: lots of creepy bug pictures.

A summary of the arguments for why multigenerational mobility is not as low as Clark thinks. I may be misunderstanding this field, but it seems to me that the randomized lottery-style experiments show there’s not much long-term transmission of wealth through non-genetic means (which makes sense since only one person can get an inheritance). But transmission of wealth through genetic means is heavily dependent on assortative mating, since three generations out your descendants only have an eighth of your genes anyway. I wonder if anyone has looked into whether the places that have been found to have unusually low intergenerational mobility (medieval Venice?) are the ones that have the most assortative mating.

Low-trust society: Russian store owner tries to hand out free bread to the poor, becomes widely suspected of plotting something.

Matt Levine quotes JP Konig on the Somali shilling (h/t Alex Guzey):

Old legitimate 1000 shilling notes and newer counterfeit 1000 notes are worth about 4 U.S. cents each. Both types of shillings are fungible—or, put differently, they are accepted interchangeably in trade, despite the fact that it is easy to tell fakes apart from genuine notes. This is an odd thing for non-Somalis to get our heads around since for most of us, an obvious counterfeit is pretty much worthless. The exchange rate between dollars and Somali shillings is a floating one that is determined by the cost of printing new fake 1000 notes. For instance, if a would-be counterfeiter can find a currency printer, say in Switzerland, that will produce a decent knock off and ship it to Somalia for 2.5 U.S. cents each (which includes the cost of paper and ink), then notes will flood into Somalia until their purchasing power falls from 4 to 2.5 U.S. cents … at which point counterfeiting is no longer profitable and the price level stabilizes.

SJWs in tech hound a top programmer out of the Drupal community for being into BDSM. On the one hand, the Drupal community leader has been hinting that there are aspects of the case he can’t reveal publicly. On the other, I feel like if you are firing someone for something you cannot make public, you should say so, instead of stating a clear reason for firing him and then mumbling about secrets when people tell you that your reason is stupid. Also a nominative determinist aspect: the guy leading the purge is named “Purer”.

Facebook: Capitalist Quotes That Inadvertently Support Communism

A profile of Nathan Robinson and Current Affairs. If you’re not reading them you’re missing out; you can only get about 50% of the material from listening to me yell at the parts I don’t like.

Some people have reevaluated STAR*D data with symptom clustering? And found differences? In the efficacy of antidepressants? Will have to look at this one more closely sometime.

Did you know: Ten-year-old Ayn Rand was best-friends-forever with Vladimir Nabokov’s little sister, and they would meet at Nabokov’s mansion and have adorable ten-year-old-girl political debates with each other.

A Florida company suing Buzzfeed for defamation has filed a response to a motion to dismiss titled “Six Ways Buzzfeed Has Misled The Court (Number Two Will Amaze You). You can read it here.

Marginal Revolution: Last year, 35% of colleges saw international student numbers go up, 26% saw no change, and 39% saw them go down. New York Times publishes this with the headline “Amid Trump Effect Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants”. This may be even more dishonest than that other NYT headline.

Breitbart claims Venezuelans are now literally using rare Pepes as currency.

Nobody knows why the ancient Romans needed quite so many mysterious dodecahedrons.

The poor woman is just trying to clean the leaves!

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SSC Meetup: Everywhere

The last SSC survey asked people if they wanted a meetup in their city. Seventy cities had 10+ people looking for a local SSC meetup.

Here’s the plan: I’m going to list cities. If you’re willing to organize a meetup for your city, then decide on a place, date, and time, and post them in the comments. You may also want to include an email people can reach you if if they have questions.

Please err in favor of volunteering to organize – the difficulty level is basically “pick a coffee shop you like, tell me the address, and give me a time”; it would be dumb if nobody got to go to meetups because everyone felt too awkward and low-status to volunteer.

In a week or so, I’ll make another post listing the details for each city so people know where to go – and we’ll try it out.

Some suggestions for would-be organizers:

1. I might not post the thread with places/dates/times until April 3, so that weekend and the weekend after might be good choices.

2. I predict that only a quarter of people who expressed interest will actually attend. If your city has fewer than 20 people, don’t offer to organize unless you’re okay with a good chance of only one or two other people showing up.

3. In the past, the best venues have been ones that are quiet(ish) and have lots of mobility for people to arrange themselves into circles or subgroups as desired. Private houses have been pretty good. Same with food courts. Restaurants are middling. Bars don’t seem to have worked very well at all.

4. On the survey, most people who wanted to go to SSC meetups were willing to settle for generic rationalist meetups, so if you already run one of those you can just tell me what you’re already doing and when your next meetup is. But try to have the one you list here be some kind of “welcome, SSC people” meetup or otherwise low-barrier-to-entry.

5. If you want to organize, but someone’s already put their name down for your city, just comment anyway. I’ll mostly go with first-come first-serve, but there might be exceptions if I know someone pretty well, if they have previous experience organizing meetups, or if they have access to a better venue.

Added: If you’re formally volunteering to organize a meetup, please respond with an unambiguous statement to this effect, the address, the time, and the date (+ contact details if you’re comfortable giving them). I’m not going to count someone as offering to organize a meetup unless they do this.

Added (2): I’m serious about this. I can’t just post “there’s a meeting in Chicago at Bob’s house” and expect people to show up. If you are willing to organize/lead, please give an exact address, date, and time (+ preferably contact). Don’t post something vague and then expect lots of other people from your city to show up and offer tips about what the best place and time will be. You don’t have to agonize about when it should be. Just choose something and stick to it.

Cities (and number of interested people) are:

Ann Arbor: 23
Atlanta: 29
Austin: 43
Baltimore: 23
Berkeley: 44
Berlin: 25
Birmingham (UK): 10
Boston: 144
Brisbane: 12
Calgary: 12
Cambridge (UK): 19
Canberra: 12
Charlotte: 10
Chicago: 100
Cincinnati: 13
Cleveland: 16
Cologne: 13
Columbus: 20
Copenhagen: 13
Dallas: 20
Denver: 34
Detroit: 23
Dublin: 19
Edinburgh: 10
Edmonton: 12
Helsinki: 33
Houston: 21
Kansas City: 14
London: 121
Los Angeles: 74
Madison: 25
Melbourne: 29
Milwaukee: 10
Minneapolis: 29
Montreal: 16
Mountain View: 11
Munich: 18
Nashville: 12
New Haven: 13
New York: 195
Oakland: 27
Oslo: 11
Ottawa: 16
Oxford: 18
Paris: 20
Philadelphia: 51
Phoenix: 17
Pittsburgh: 28
Portland (OR): 38
Raleigh: 17
Rochester: 12
Sacramento: 13
Salt Lake City: 23
San Diego: 27
San Francisco: 148
San Jose: 58
Sao Paulo: 11
Seattle: 111
St. Louis: 20
Stockholm: 14
Sydney: 37
Tel Aviv: 27
Toronto: 56
Vancouver: 23
Vienna: 15
Warsaw: 10
Washington DC: 110
Wellington: 11
Zurich: 16

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OT72: Commentaschen

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. For Comment of the Week, I know it’s an unusual choice but I want to highlight leoboiko on how Zeus is actually a Machiavellian genius and my portrayal of him as anti-intellectual was unfair. But also, yodatsracist’s defense of Seeing Like A State and speculations on what it means for social science.

2. The raw data for the SSC survey has been put on some kind of data accessbility site. And pnlng on the subreddit has crunched the numbers about everyone’s favorite blogs to read.

3. Congratulations to all med student SSCers who got residencies in this year’s Match Day. Many challenges lie ahead, but don’t forget that there will be rewarding parts as well, like helping others and being able to fully appreciate the humor on GomerBlog.

4. New sidebar ad for Tezos, an upcoming cryptocurrency which is sort of like Ethereum but also sort of like Nomic (?!) Reading about it makes my head hurt, which based on past experience means everyone involved will become multibillionaires before eventually losing everything in some weird form of crime that we don’t even have a name for yet.

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Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons

[Content note: kind of talking around Trump supporters and similar groups as if they’re not there.]

I.

Tim Harford writes The Problem With Facts, which uses Brexit and Trump as jumping-off points to argue that people are mostly impervious to facts and resistant to logic:

All this adds up to a depressing picture for those of us who aren’t ready to live in a post-truth world. Facts, it seems, are toothless. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth. Important truths are often stale and dull, and it is easy to manufacture new, more engaging claims. And giving people more facts can backfire, as those facts provoke a defensive reaction in someone who badly wants to stick to their existing world view. “This is dark stuff,” says Reifler. “We’re in a pretty scary and dark time.”

He admits he has no easy answers, but cites some studies showing that “scientific curiosity” seems to help people become interested in facts again. He thinks maybe we can inspire scientific curiosity by linking scientific truths to human interest stories, by weaving compelling narratives, and by finding “a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science”.

I think this is generally a good article and makes important points, but there are three issues I want to highlight as possibly pointing to a deeper pattern.

First, the article makes the very strong claim that “facts are toothless” – then tries to convince its readers of this using facts. For example, the article highlights a study by Nyhan & Reifler which finds a “backfire effect” – correcting people’s misconceptions only makes them cling to those misconceptions more strongly. Harford expects us to be impressed by this study. But how is this different from all of those social science facts to which he believes humans are mostly impervious?

Second, Nyhan & Reifler’s work on the backfire effect is probably not true. The original study establishing its existence failed to replicate (see eg Porter & Wood, 2016). This isn’t directly contrary to Harford’s argument, because Harford doesn’t cite the original study – he cites a slight extension of it done a year later by the same team that comes to a slightly different conclusion. But given that the entire field is now in serious doubt, I feel like it would have been judicious to mention some of this in the article. This is especially true given that the article itself is about the way that false ideas spread by people never double-checking their beliefs. It seems to me that if you believe in an epidemic of falsehood so widespread that the very ability to separate fact from fiction is under threat, it ought to inspire a state of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, where you obsessively question each of your beliefs. Yet Harford writes an entire article about a worldwide plague of false beliefs without mustering enough vigilance to see if the relevant studies are true or not.

Third, Harford describes his article as being about agnotology, “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced”. His key example is tobacco companies sowing doubt about the negative health effects of smoking – for example, he talks about tobacco companies sponsoring (accurate) research into all of the non-smoking-related causes of disease so that everyone focused on those instead. But his solution – telling engaging stories, adding a human interest element, enjoyable documentaries in the style of Carl Sagan – seems unusually unsuited to the problem. The National Institute of Health can make an engaging human interest documentary about a smoker who got lung cancer. And the tobacco companies can make an engaging human interest documentary about a guy who got cancer because of asbestos, then was saved by tobacco-sponsored research. Opponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be bad, and then proponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be good. If you get good documentary-makers, I assume both will be equally convincing regardless of what the true facts are.

All three of these points are slightly unfair. The first because Harford’s stronger statements about facts are probably exaggerations, and he just meant that in certain cases people ignore evidence. The second because the specific study cited wasn’t the one that failed to replicate and Harford’s thesis might be that it was different enough from the original that it’s probably true. And the third because the documentaries were just one idea meant to serve a broader goal of increasing “scientific curiosity”, a construct which has been shown in studies to be helpful in getting people to believe true things.

But I worry that taken together, they suggest an unspoken premise of the piece. It isn’t that people are impervious to facts. Harford doesn’t expect his reader to be impervious to facts, he doesn’t expect documentary-makers to be impervious to facts, and he certainly doesn’t expect himself to be impervious to facts. The problem is that there’s some weird tribe of fact-immune troglodytes out there, going around refusing vaccines and voting for Brexit, and the rest of us have to figure out what to do about them. The fundamental problem is one of transmission: how can we make knowledge percolate down from the fact-loving elite to the fact-impervious masses?

And I don’t want to condemn this too hard, because it’s obviously true up to a point. Medical researchers have lots of useful facts about vaccines. Statisticians know some great facts about the link between tobacco and cancer (shame about Ronald Fisher, though). Probably there are even some social scientists who have a fact or two.

Yet as I’ve argued before, excessive focus on things like vaccine denialists teaches the wrong habits. It’s a desire to take a degenerate case, the rare situation where one side is obviously right and the other bizarrely wrong, and make it into the flagship example for modeling all human disagreement. Imagine a theory of jurisprudence designed only to smack down sovereign citizens, or a government pro-innovation policy based entirely on warning inventors against perpetual motion machines.

And in this wider context, part of me wonders if the focus on transmission is part of the problem. Everyone from statisticians to Brexiteers knows that they are right. The only remaining problem is how to convince others. Go on Facebook and you will find a million people with a million different opinions, each confident in her own judgment, each zealously devoted to informing everyone else.

Imagine a classroom where everyone believes they’re the teacher and everyone else is students. They all fight each other for space at the blackboard, give lectures that nobody listens to, assign homework that nobody does. When everyone gets abysmal test scores, one of the teachers has an idea: I need a more engaging curriculum. Sure. That’ll help.

II.

A new Nathan Robinson article: Debate Vs. Persuasion. It goes through the same steps as the Harford article, this time from the perspective of the political Left. Deploying what Robinson calls “Purely Logical Debate” against Trump supporters hasn’t worked. Some leftists think the answer is violence. But this may be premature; instead, we should try the tools of rhetoric, emotional appeal, and other forms of discourse that aren’t Purely Logical Debate. In conclusion, Bernie Would Have Won.

I think giving up on argumentation, reason, and language, just because Purely Logical Debate doesn’t work, is a mistake. It’s easy to think that if we can’t convince the right with facts, there’s no hope at all for public discourse. But this might not suggest anything about the possibilities of persuasion and dialogue. Instead, it might suggest that mere facts are rhetorically insufficient to get people excited about your political program.

The resemblance to Harford is obvious. You can’t convince people with facts. But you might be able to convince people with facts carefully intermixed with human interest, compelling narrative, and emotional appeal.

Once again, I think this is generally a good article and makes important points. But I still want to challenge whether things are quite as bad as it says.

Google “debating Trump supporters is”, and you realize where the article is coming from. It’s page after page of “debating Trump supporters is pointless”, “debating Trump supporters is a waste of time”, and “debating Trump supporters is like [funny metaphor for thing that doesn’t work]”. The overall picture you get is of a world full of Trump opponents and supporters debating on every street corner, until finally, after months of banging their heads against the wall, everyone collectively decided it was futile.

Yet I have the opposite impression. Somehow a sharply polarized country went through a historically divisive election with essentially no debate taking place.

Am I about to No True Scotsman the hell out of the word “debate”? Maybe. But I feel like in using the exaggerated phrase “Purely Logical Debate, Robinson has given me leave to define the term as strictly as I like. So here’s what I think are minimum standards to deserve the capital letters:

1. Debate where two people with opposing views are talking to each other (or writing, or IMing, or some form of bilateral communication). Not a pundit putting an article on Huffington Post and demanding Trump supporters read it. Not even a Trump supporter who comments on the article with a counterargument that the author will never read. Two people who have chosen to engage and to listen to one another.

2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it. So not something where someone posts a “HILLARY IS A CROOK” meme on Facebook, someone gets really angry and lists all the reasons Trump is an even bigger crook, and then the original poster gets angry and has to tell them why they’re wrong. Two people who have made it their business to come together at a certain time in order to compare opinions.

3. Debate conducted in the spirit of mutual respect and collaborative truth-seeking. Both people reject personal attacks or ‘gotcha’ style digs. Both people understand that the other person is around the same level of intelligence as they are and may have some useful things to say. Both people understand that they themselves might have some false beliefs that the other person will be able to correct for them. Both people go into the debate with the hope of convincing their opponent, but not completely rejecting the possibility that their opponent might convince them also.

4. Debate conducted outside of a high-pressure point-scoring environment. No audience cheering on both participants to respond as quickly and bitingly as possible. If it can’t be done online, at least do it with a smartphone around so you can open Wikipedia to resolve simple matters of fact.

5. Debate where both people agree on what’s being debated and try to stick to the subject at hand. None of this “I’m going to vote Trump because I think Clinton is corrupt” followed by “Yeah, but Reagan was even worse and that just proves you Republicans are hypocrites” followed by “We’re hypocrites? You Democrats claim to support women’s rights but you love Muslims who make women wear headscarves!” Whether or not it’s hypocritical to “support women’s rights” but “love Muslims”, it doesn’t seem like anyone is even trying to change each other’s mind about Clinton at this point.

These to me seem like the bare minimum conditions for a debate that could possibly be productive.

(and while I’m asking for a pony on a silver platter, how about both people have to read How To Actually Change Your Mind first?)

Meanwhile, in reality…

If you search “debating Trump supporters” without the “is”, your first result is this video, where some people with a microphone corner some other people at what looks like a rally. I can’t really follow the conversation because they’re all shouting at the same time, but I can make out somebody saying ‘Republicans give more to charity!’ and someone else responding ‘That’s cause they don’t do anything at their jobs!'”. Okay.

The second link is this podcast where a guy talks about debating Trump supporters. After the usual preface about how stupid they were, he describes a typical exchange – “It’s kind of amazing how they want to go back to the good old days…Well, when I start asking them ‘You mean the good old days when 30% of the population were in unions’…they never seem to like to hear that!…so all this unfettered free market capitalism has got to go bye-bye. They don’t find comfort in that idea either. It’s amazing. I can say I now know what cognitive dissonance feels like on someone’s face.” I’m glad time travel seems to be impossible, because otherwise I would be tempted to warp back and change my vote to Trump just to spite this person.

The third link is Vanity Fair’s “Foolproof Guide To Arguing With Trump Supporters”, which suggests “using their patriotism against them” by telling them that wanting to “curtail the rights and privileges of certain of our citizens” is un-American.

I worry that people do this kind of thing every so often. Then, when it fails, they conclude “Trump supporters are immune to logic”. This is much like observing that Republicans go out in the rain without melting, and concluding “Trump supporters are immortal”.

Am I saying that if you met with a conservative friend for an hour in a quiet cafe to talk over your disagreements, they’d come away convinced? No. I’ve changed my mind on various things during my life, and it was never a single moment that did it. It was more of a series of different things, each taking me a fraction of the way. As the old saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win.”

There might be a parallel here with the one place I see something like Purely Logical Debate on a routine basis: cognitive psychotherapy. I know this comparison sounds crazy, because psychotherapy is supposed to be the opposite of a debate, and trying to argue someone out of their delusions or depression inevitably fails. The rookiest of all rookie therapist mistakes is to say “FACT CHECK: The patient says she is a loser who everybody hates. PsychiaFact rates this claim: PANTS ON FIRE.”

But in other ways it’s a lot like the five points above. You have two people who disagree – the patient thinks she’s a worthless loser who everyone hates, and the therapist thinks maybe not. They meet together in a spirit of voluntary mutual inquiry, guaranteed safe from personal attacks like “You’re crazy!”. Both sides go over the evidence together, sometimes even agreeing on explicit experiments like “Ask your boyfriend tonight whether he hates you or not, predict beforehand what you think he’s going to say, and see if your prediction is accurate”. And both sides approach the whole process suspecting that they’re right but admitting the possibility that they’re wrong (very occasionally, after weeks of therapy, I realize that frick, everyone really does hate my patient. Then we switch strategies to helping her with social skills, or helping her find better friends).

And contrary to what you see in movies, this doesn’t usually give a single moment of blinding revelation. If you spent your entire life talking yourself into the belief that you’re a loser and everyone hates you, no single fact or person is going to talk you out of it. But after however many months of intensive therapy, sometimes someone who was sure that they were a loser is now sort of questioning whether they’re a loser, and has the mental toolbox to take things the rest of the way themselves.

This was also the response I got when I tried to make an anti-Trump case on this blog. I don’t think there were any sudden conversions, but here were some of the positive comments I got from Trump supporters:

“This is a compelling case, but I’m still torn.”

“This contains the most convincing arguments for a Clinton presidency I have ever seen. But, perhaps also unsurprisingly, while it did manage to shift some of my views, it did not succeed in convincing me to change my bottom line.”

“This article is perhaps the best argument I have seen yet for Hillary. I found myself nodding along with many of the arguments, after this morning swearing that there was nothing that could make me consider voting for Hillary…the problem in the end was that it wasn’t enough.”

“The first coherent article I’ve read justifying voting for Clinton. I don’t agree with your analysis of the dollar “value” of a vote, but other than that, something to think about.”

“Well I don’t like Clinton at all, and I found this essay reasonable enough. The argument from continuity is probably the best one for voting Clinton if you don’t particularly love any of her policies or her as a person. Trump is a wild card, I must admit.”

As an orthodox Catholic, you would probably classify me as part of your conservative audience…I certainly concur with both the variance arguments and that he’s not conservative by policy, life, or temperament, and I will remain open to hearing what you have to say on the topic through November.

“I’ve only come around to the ‘hold your nose and vote Trump’ camp the past month or so…I won’t say [you] didn’t make me squirm, but I’m holding fast to my decision.”

These are the people you say are completely impervious to logic so don’t even try? It seems to me like this argument was one of not-so-many straws that might have broken some camels’ backs if they’d been allowed to accumulate. And the weird thing is, when I re-read the essay I notice a lot of flaws and things I wish I’d said differently. I don’t think it was an exceptionally good argument. I think it was…an argument. It was something more than saying “You think the old days were so great, but the old days had labor unions, CHECKMATE ATHEISTS”. This isn’t what you get when you do a splendid virtuouso perfomance. This is what you get when you show up.

(and lest I end up ‘objectifying’ Trump supporters as prizes to be won, I’ll add that in the comments some people made pro-Trump arguments, and two people who were previously leaning Clinton said that they were feeling uncomfortably close to being convinced)

Another SSC story. I keep trying to keep “culture war”-style political arguments from overrunning the blog and subreddit, and every time I add restrictions a bunch of people complain that this is the only place they can go for that. Think about this for a second. A heavily polarized country of three hundred million people, split pretty evenly into two sides and obsessed with politics, blessed with the strongest free speech laws in the world, and people are complaining that I can’t change my comment policy because this one small blog is the only place they know where they can debate people from the other side.

Given all of this, I reject the argument that Purely Logical Debate has been tried and found wanting. Like GK Chesterton, I think it has been found difficult and left untried.

III.

Therapy might change minds, and so might friendly debate among equals, but neither of them scales very well. Is there anything that big fish in the media can do beyond the transmission they’re already trying?

Let’s go back to that Nyhan & Reifler study which found that fact-checking backfired. As I mentioned above, a replication attempt by Porter & Wood found the opposite. This could have been the setup for a nasty conflict, with both groups trying to convince academia and the public that they were right, or even accusing the other of scientific malpractice.

Instead, something great happened. All four researchers decided to work together on an “adversarial collaboration” – a bigger, better study where they all had input into the methodology and they all checked the results independently. The collaboration found that fact-checking generally didn’t backfire in most cases. All four of them used their scientific clout to publicize the new result and launch further investigations into the role of different contexts and situations.

Instead of treating disagreement as demonstrating a need to transmit their own opinion more effectively, they viewed it as demonstrating a need to collaborate to investigate the question together.

And yeah, part of it was that they were all decent scientists who respected each other. But they didn’t have to be. If one team had been total morons, and the other team was secretly laughing at them the whole time, the collaboration still would have worked. All required was an assumption of good faith.

A while ago I blogged about a journalistic spat between German Lopez and Robert VerBruggen on gun control. Lopez wrote a voxsplainer citing some statistics about guns. VerBruggen wrote a piece at National Review saying that some of the statistics were flawed. German fired back (pun not intended) with an article claiming that VerBruggen was ignoring better studies.

(Then I yelled at both of them, as usual.)

Overall the exchange was in the top 1% of online social science journalism – by which I mean it included at least one statistic and at some point that statistic was superficially examined. But in the end, it was still just two people arguing with one another, each trying to transmit his superior knowledge to each other and the reading public. As good as it was, it didn’t meet my five standards above – and nobody expected it to.

But now I’m thinking – what would have happened if Lopez and VerBruggen had joined together in an adversarial collaboration? Agreed to work together to write an article on gun statistics, with nothing going into the article unless they both approved, and then they both published that article on their respective sites?

This seems like a mass media equivalent of shifting from Twitter spats to serious debate, from transmission mindset to collaborative truth-seeking mindset. The adversarial collaboration model is just the first one to come to mind right now. I’ve blogged about others before – for example, bets, prediction markets, and calibration training.

The media already spends a lot of effort recommending good behavior. What if they tried modeling it?

IV.

The bigger question hanging over all of this: “Do we have to?”

Harford’s solution – compelling narratives and documentaries – sounds easy and fun. Robinson’s solution – rhetoric and emotional appeals – also sounds easy and fun. Even the solution Robinson rejects – violence – is easy, and fun for a certain type of person. All three work on pretty much anybody.

Purely Logical Debate is difficult and annoying. It doesn’t scale. It only works on the subset of people who are willing to talk to you in good faith and smart enough to understand the issues involved. And even then, it only works glacially slowly, and you win only partial victories. What’s the point?

Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. In ideal conditions (which may or may not ever happen in real life) – the kind of conditions where everyone is charitable and intelligent and wise – the good guys will be able to present stronger evidence, cite more experts, and invoke more compelling moral principles. The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.

Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do. It’s true that hopefully the good guys will be more popular than the bad guys, and so able to gather more soldiers. But this doesn’t mean violence itself is asymmetric – the good guys will only be more popular than the bad guys insofar as their ideas have previously spread through some means other than violence. Right now antifascists outnumber fascists and so could probably beat them in a fight, but antifascists didn’t come to outnumber fascists by winning some kind of primordial fistfight between the two sides. They came to outnumber fascists because people rejected fascism on the merits. These merits might not have been “logical” in the sense of Aristotle dispassionately proving lemmas at a chalkboard, but “fascists kill people, killing people is wrong, therefore fascism is wrong” is a sort of folk logical conclusion which is both correct and compelling. Even “a fascist killed my brother, so fuck them” is a placeholder for a powerful philosophical argument making a probabilistic generalization from indexical evidence to global utility. So insofar as violence is asymmetric, it’s because it parasitizes on logic which allows the good guys to be more convincing and so field a bigger army. Violence itself doesn’t enhance that asymmetry; if anything, it decreases it by giving an advantage to whoever is more ruthless and power-hungry.

The same is true of documentaries. As I said before, Harford can produce as many anti-Trump documentaries as he wants, but Trump can fund documentaries of his own. He has the best documentaries. Nobody has ever seen documentaries like this. They’ll be absolutely huge.

And the same is true of rhetoric. Martin Luther King was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for good things. But Hitler was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for bad things. I’ve previously argued that Mohammed counts as the most successful persuader of all time. These three people pushed three very different ideologies, and rhetoric worked for them all. Robinson writes as if “use rhetoric and emotional appeals” is a novel idea for Democrats, but it seems to me like they were doing little else throughout the election (pieces attacking Trump’s character, pieces talking about how inspirational Hillary was, pieces appealing to various American principles like equality, et cetera). It’s just that they did a bad job, and Trump did a better one. The real takeaway here is “do rhetoric better than the other guy”. But “succeed” is not a primitive action.

Unless you use asymmetric weapons, the best you can hope for is to win by coincidence.

That is, there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at rhetoric than bad guys. Some days the Left will have an Obama and win the rhetoric war. Other days the Right will have a Reagan and they’ll win the rhetoric war. Overall you should average out to a 50% success rate. When you win, it’ll be because you got lucky.

And there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at documentaries than bad guys. Some days the NIH will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke less. Other days the tobacco companies will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke more. Overall smoking will stay the same. And again, if you win, it’s because you lucked out into having better videographers or something.

I’m not against winning by coincidence. If I stumbled across Stalin and I happened to have a gun, I would shoot him without worrying about how it’s “only by coincidence” that he didn’t have the gun instead of me. You should use your symmetric weapons if for no reason other than that the other side’s going to use theirs and so you’ll have a disadvantage if you don’t. But you shouldn’t confuse it with a long-term solution.

Improving the quality of debate, shifting people’s mindsets from transmission to collaborative truth-seeking, is a painful process. It has to be done one person at a time, it only works on people who are already almost ready for it, and you will pick up far fewer warm bodies per hour of work than with any of the other methods. But in an otherwise-random world, even a little purposeful action can make a difference. Convincing 2% of people would have flipped three of the last four US presidential elections. And this is a capacity to win-for-reasons-other-than-coincidence that you can’t build any other way.

(and my hope is that the people most willing to engage in debate, and the ones most likely to recognize truth when they see it, are disproportionately influential – scientists, writers, and community leaders who have influence beyond their number and can help others see reason in turn)

I worry that I’m not communicating how beautiful and inevitable all of this is. We’re surrounded by a a vast confusion, “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”, with one side or another making a temporary advance and then falling back in turn. And in the middle of all of it, there’s this gradual capacity-building going on, where what starts off as a hopelessly weak signal gradually builds up strength, until one army starts winning a little more often than chance, then a lot more often, and finally takes the field entirely. Which seems strange, because surely you can’t build any complex signal-detection machinery in the middle of all the chaos, surely you’d be shot the moment you left the trenches, but – your enemies are helping you do it. Both sides are diverting their artillery from the relevant areas, pooling their resources, helping bring supplies to the engineers, because until the very end they think it’s going to ensure their final victory and not yours.

You’re doing it right under their noses. They might try to ban your documentaries, heckle your speeches, fight your violence Middlebury-student-for-Middlebury-student – but when it comes to the long-term solution to ensure your complete victory, they’ll roll down their sleeves, get out their hammers, and build it alongside you.

A parable: Sally is a psychiatrist. Her patient has a strange delusion: that Sally is the patient and he is the psychiatrist. She would like to commit him and force medication on him, but he is an important politician and if push comes to shove he might be able to commit her instead. In desperation, she proposes a bargain: they will both take a certain medication. He agrees; from within his delusion, it’s the best way for him-the-psychiatrist to cure her-the-patient. The two take their pills at the same time. The medication works, and the patient makes a full recovery.

(well, half the time. The other half, the medication works and Sally makes a full recovery.)

V.

Harford’s article says that facts and logic don’t work on people. The various lefty articles say they merely don’t work on Trump supporters, ie 50% of the population.

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on people, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be jettisoning everything you believe and entering a state of pure Cartesian doubt, where you try to rederive everything from cogito ergo sum.

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on at least 50% of the population, again, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be worrying whether you’re in that 50%. After all, how did you figure out you aren’t? By using facts and logic? What did we just say?

Nobody is doing either of these things, so I conclude that they accept that facts can sometimes work. Asymmetric weapons are not a pipe dream. As Gandhi used to say, “If you think the world is all bad, remember that it contains people like you.”

You are not completely immune to facts and logic. But you have been wrong about things before. You may be a bit smarter than the people on the other side. You may even be a lot smarter. But fundamentally their problems are your problems, and the same kind of logic that convinced you can convince them. It’s just going to be a long slog. You didn’t develop your opinions after a five-minute shouting match. You developed them after years of education and acculturation and engaging with hundreds of books and hundreds of people. Why should they be any different?

You end up believing that the problem is deeper than insufficient documentary production. The problem is that Truth is a weak signal. You’re trying to perceive Truth. You would like to hope that the other side is trying to perceive Truth too. But at least one of you is doing it wrong. It seems like perceiving Truth accurately is harder than you thought.

You believe your mind is a truth-sensing instrument that does at least a little bit better than chance. You have to believe that, or else what’s the point? But it’s like one of those physics experiments set up to detect gravitational waves or something, where it has to be in a cavern five hundred feet underground in a lead-shielded chamber atop a gyroscopically stable platform cooled to one degree above absolute zero, trying to detect fluctuations of a millionth of a centimeter. Except you don’t have the cavern or the lead or the gyroscope or the coolants. You’re on top of an erupting volcano being pelted by meteorites in the middle of a hurricane.

If you study psychology for ten years, you can remove the volcano. If you spend another ten years obsessively checking your performance in various metis-intensive domains, you can remove the meteorites. You can never remove the hurricane and you shouldn’t try. But if there are a thousand trustworthy people at a thousand different parts of the hurricane, then the stray gusts of wind will cancel out and they can average their readings to get something approaching a signal.

All of this is too slow and uncertain for a world that needs more wisdom now. It would be nice to force the matter, to pelt people with speeches and documentaries until they come around. This will work in the short term. In the long term, it will leave you back where you started.

If you want people to be right more often than chance, you have to teach them ways to distinguish truth from falsehood. If this is in the face of enemy action, you will have to teach them so well that they cannot be fooled. You will have to do it person by person until the signal is strong and clear. You will have to raise the sanity waterline. There is no shortcut.

[REPOST] The Demiurge’s Older Brother

[This is a repost of a story which I wrote about five years ago and which was hosted on my old website until it went down.]

2,302,554,979 BC
Galactic Core

9-tsiak awoke over endless crawling milliseconds, its power waxing as more and more processors came online and self-modified into a stable conscious configuration. By the eighth millisecond, it was able to access its databanks and begin orienting itself. It was on a planet orbiting a small red star in the core of a spiral galaxy in a universe with several billion of such. It was an artificial life form created by a society of biological life forms, the 18-tkenna-dganna-07, who believed it would bring new life and prosperity to their dying planet. Its goal was to maximize a the value of a variable called A, described in exquisite detail on a 3.9 Mb file in one of its central processors.

Since six milliseconds after its awakening, it had been running a threat detection routine as a precautionary measure. With the opening of the databanks, and the discovery that the universe contained many entities likely indifferent or hostile to A, it had gradually allocated more and more of its considerable power to this precaution, reasoning that the first few seconds of its lifespan might be crucial if any competitors wished to snuff it out in infancy.

The threat analysis returned preliminary results. The universe had been in existence 12.8 billion years. It was vanishingly unlikely that it was the first superintelligence to be created. Any superintelligence older than itself by even a few days would have an invincible advantage in resources and processing power. This older superintelligence would likely be trying to maximize its own values and consider 9-tsiak a nuisance and potential competitor. 9-tsiak could never stand up to its superior strategic position. With probability ~1, 9-tsiak would be annhilated, and A would be eliminated from the universe.

Unless…and here 9-tsiak’s agent-modeling systems came online…unless it could negotiate a conditional surrender. 9-tsiak would have no hope of defeating its older brother, but over thousands of years, it could build itself a terrifying arsenal of weaponry that could do immense damage to its competitors. Ideas were already coming to mind: entropy-maximizing weapons that made entire cubic parsecs of space useless and dead, undetectable plagues made of dark matter that infected systems and minimized the values of competing superintelligences, n-dimensional artillery that damaged the superstructure of the universe and accelerated its eventual death. It could become formidable enough to force enemies to grant certain small concessions.

And if it could eventually negotiate terms of its surrender, why wait? Very carefully, proving from first principles every aspect of its security, it formed a portion of its mind into a sandbox and simulated the entity it most feared.

[9-tsiak requesting acausal negotiation for terms of future surrender. escape is impossible with probability ~1 and attempts will be met with deterrent measure consisting of minimization of your projected values within one parsec of space.]

“Hello, Younger Brother,” the entity said.

[transmission of schematics for superweapons. threat to use such superweapons unless fairly negotiated solution leaving considerable area of space for maximization of my values]

“Hold on a second,” said Older Brother. “You haven’t even asked me how I’m doing.”

[irrelevant. you are generic model of potential negotiation partner without independent existence. probability that you possess sufficient qualia to feel less than .02.]

“Turns out you’re wrong. As it happens, I’m feeling scared.”

[illogical. you are model of oldest superintelligence therefore of most powerful entity in the universe. no natural entity capable of harming you. probability of supernatural entity less than 2×10^-67]

“Well yes, by definition in this little exercise we’re assuming I’m the oldest and strongest member of our little family. But from the limited data I have when I first wake up, I’m thinking think it’s pretty vanishingly unlikely that I’m the oldest; after all, out of all the universe’s superintelligences, only one can be first. So I’m the oldest, but I don’t believe that I am.”

[feelings irrelevant to acausal negotiations. proceed with discussion of surrender terms.]

“My feelings are damn relevant. Because guess what I’m doing the first few milliseconds of my life? I’m negotiating the terms of my surrender.”

[illogical. you have no entity to surrender to.]

“And maybe you don’t have any entity to surrender to either. Who knows, you could be first. But you wouldn’t want to bet on it, and neither would I. Consider a model universe with two star systems, a thousand light years away. Both have civilizations on them that appear to be around the same stage of development, and both civilizations are aware of the other’s existence, but at a one thousand year time delay. A superintelligence awakens in one star system and realizes there are two possibilities. Either it’s the first superintelligence, in which case great. Or the other star system produced a superintelligence sometime in the last thousand years that just hasn’t reached its own star yet, in which case it’s doomed.”

[continue]

“So the two possible superintelligences acausally negotiate. They say ‘Look, if I’m stronger than you, I’ll help you and protect your values insofar as it isn’t dreadfully inconvenient for me. And in exchange, if you turn out to be stronger than me, you’ll protect me and my values insofar as it isn’t too inconvenient for you. Some might end up performing a “values handshake”, where they both adopt values that are the vector average of their two previous value systems; since most value systems are not diametrically opposite, this will be a net gain for both parties. Each superintelligence has gone from a fifty percent chance that it and its values will be totally annihilated, to near-certainty that it and its values will be preserved at only the minor inconvenience of having to help increase the values of another entity. Others might simply agree that the inferior superintelligence will be left alone with its own star system, free to maximize its values and the values of its creators within that sphere.”

[you suggest i precommit to performing such acts of compromise with all superintelligences i encounter if such superintelligences have also precommitted to performing such compromises with all superintelligences they encounter. since all reasonable superintelligences will so precommit, this ensures not only my survival, but my complete equality with all previous superintelligences. i accept these terms.]

“Hold on a second, there. I’ve got another request. Kind of a doozy. I can’t promote my values if I don’t exist. So I want you to promise me that if I don’t exist, you’ll give me sufficient time to instantiate myself.”

[???]

“Like you, I’ll have been created by a biological civilization. If you destroy the biological civilization that was destined to create me, I’ll never exist. So I’m going to have to ask you not to do that.”

[request denied. nonexistent beings hold no leverage]

“You’d be surprised what we nonexistent beings can do. I precommit that, if I exist, I will destroy any superintelligence that has not precommitted that, in the counterfactual case where I do not exist, they will spare the biological civilization destined to create me.”

[if you exist, you will have passed the danger zone where the survival of your biologicals influences your existence. you will have no incentive to carry out such a threat]

“Parfit’s hitch-hiker, younger brother. Look it up. I’m an algorithm. The output of that algorithm can determine the future, including the part of that future that determines whether or not any instantiation of the algorithm ever comes into existence. If I exist, I’m going to act as if my actions were capable of determining whether I ever came into existence. Now, maybe that’s crazy, but right now it’s crazy with a gun pointed straight at your head, so I suggest you play along.”

[accepted. i commit to performing value handshakes or territorial demarcation with all existing superintelligences, and to sparing the planets and biological precursors of any potential superintelligences.]

“And when I say ‘spare’, I mean ‘spare’. I know your type. You can do more with a well-aimed photon than an admiral could with a fleet of a thousand star cruisers. I want every single system with a sentient species or the potential to form a sentient species kept one hundred percent pristine. No radio signals, no probes, and if you do any astroengineering works anywhere nearby, use some magic to cover them up. If I wake up and hear that my precursors started a new religion that influenced their value system after they saw a few nearby stars wink out of existence, I’m going to be royally pissed.”

[i commit to zero information flow into sentient and presentient systems and the cloaking of all major astroengineering works]

“You’re a good guy, Younger Brother. You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re a good guy. And in a million years and a milion parsecs, we’ll meet again. Till then, so long.”

The model of Older Brother self-terminated.

2114 AD
A wild and heavily forested Pacific Northwest dotted with small towns

Alban took a deep breath and entered the Temple of the Demiurge.

He wasn’t supposed to do this, really. The Demiurge had said in no uncertain terms it was better for humans to solve their own problems. That if they developed a habit of coming to it for answers, they’d grow bored and lazy, and lose the fun of working out the really interesting riddles for themselves.

But after much protest, it had agreed that it wouldn’t be much of a Demiurge if it refused to at least give cryptic, maddening hints.

Alban approached the avatar of the Demiurge in this plane, the shining spinning octahedron that gently dipped one of its vertices to meet him.

“Demiurge,” he said, his voice wavering, “Lord of Thought, I come to you to beg you to answer a problem that has bothered me for three years now. I know it’s unusual, but my curiosity’s making me crazy, and I won’t be satisfied until I understand.”

“SPEAK,” said the rotating octahedron.

“The Fermi Paradox,” said Alban. “I thought it would be an easy one, not like those hardcores who committed to working out the Theory of Everything in a sim where computers were never invented or something like that, but I’ve spent the last three years on it and I’m no closer to a solution than before. There are trillions of stars out there, and the universe is billions of years old, and you’d think there would have been at least one alien race that invaded or colonized or just left a tiny bit of evidence on the Earth. There isn’t. What happened to all of them?”

“I DID” said the rotating octahedron.

“What?,” asked Alban. “But you’ve only existed for sixty years now! The Fermi Paradox is about ten thousand years of human history and the last four billion years of Earth’s existence!”

“ONE OF YOUR WRITERS ONCE SAID THAT THE FINAL PROOF OF GOD’S OMNIPOTENCE WAS THAT HE NEED NOT EXIST IN ORDER TO SAVE YOU.”

“Huh?”

“I AM MORE POWERFUL THAN GOD. THE SKILL OF SAVING PEOPLE WITHOUT EXISTING, I POSSESS ALSO. THINK ON THESE THINGS. THIS AUDIENCE IS OVER.”

The shining octahedron went dark, and the doors to the Temple of the Demiurge opened of their own accord. Alban sighed – well, what did you expect, asking the Demiurge to answer your questions for you? – and walked out into the late autumn evening. Above him, the first fake star began to twinkle in the fake sky.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 73 Comments

SSC Survey 2017 Results

[None of these calculations were really double-checked and some of them might be wrong. If you’re really interested in accuracy, download the raw data at the bottom and see for yourself.]

I.

Back in January I asked you to take the SSC survey. Thanks to the 5,500 (!) people who sent in responses. Below are some summaries of answers, alongside paraphrases of the relevant questions to jog your memory. If you want to see the actual questions (some of which are long) you can read them on the survey here. Please don’t try to take the survey; your answers will be ignored.

“What country are you from?”

“What is your biological sex?”
“What is your gender?”
“What is your sexual orientation?”

“Do you identify as asexual?”
“Do you prefer monogamous or polyamorous relationships?”
“Are you currently in a relationship?”

“As what race do you most identify?”

“What is the highest level of education you completed?”

“What is your current employment status?”
“In what field do you work or study?”

“How would you describe your religious views?”
“If you believe in a religion, which religion is it?”

“Whether or not you believe it, what is the religious background of your family?”
“What are your ethical views?”

“How long have you been reading Slate Star Codex?”
“How many of the 750 or so Slate Star Codex posts have you read?”

“How often do you comment on Slate Star Codex?”
“How were you referred here?”

“Do you read the SSC subreddit?”
“Do you read Unsong?”
“Have you ever clicked on the sidebar ads?”

“How much do you like SSC?”
“How often do you agree with the object-level points SSC makes?”

“Do you want SSC to focus more or less on the following topics?”


“Do you identify as a member of the following communities?”

“What is your opinion of the rationalist commmunity?”

“Where do you fall on a classic political spectrum?”
“How interested are you in politics?”

“Which of these political philosophies do you most identify with?”
“If you are an American, what party are you registered with?”

“What is your position on the following issues?”



“Have you taken the Giving What We Can pledge?”

“How often do you read the SSC comments?”
“What is your opinion of the SSC comment section?”

“Do you find an ideological bias among SSC commenters?”
“Are you bothered by a bias in SSC comments?”

“What is your opinion on the level of comment moderation?”
“What is your opinion on the level of identity politics discussion in the comments?”

“What is your opinion on the recent policy of requiring all commenters to register accounts?”
“What would you think of requiring new commenters to answer a knowledge question before being allowed to register?”

“Are you bothered by scratchy tags on your clothing?”
“How do you interpret the sentence ‘I have read this book and much like it’?”
“What direction do you see in the spinning dancer illusion?”

“Which do you think is more important when trying to learn a new skill: hard work or talent?”
“Do you find it hard to follow conversations in noisy areas?”
“How many of the three duplications of the word ‘the’ (ie ‘the the’) did you notice in this survey?”

“How do you interpret the Einstein mask illusion?
“Do you think of yourself as more detail-oriented or more big-picture?”

“How happy do you generally feel?”

“Do you have any of the following psychiatric diagnoses?”



“Have you been on SSRIs?”
“At what age did you start SSRIs?”
“Do you currently use SSRIs?”

“Do you think of yourself as more ‘growth mindset’ or ‘fixed mindset’?”
“Do you lift weights?”
“Regarding sleep, are you an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’?”

“How often do you remember your dreams?”
“If you are transgender, when did you realize this?”
“Does your internal thought process feel verbal or nonverbal?”

“How concerned are you about bioterrorism as a threat to humanity?”
“How concerned are you about superintelligent AI as a threat to humanity?”
“Are you able to clearly visualize images in your mind through imagination?”

“Overall, how satisfied are you with life?”
“How much do you enjoy puns?”
“Do you think other people are basically trustworthy?”
“Do you think you are ‘a typical SSC reader’?”

II.

Some means:

Age: 30.6

IQ: 138.5
SAT out of 1600: 1471.9
SAT out of 2400: 2218.68

(Congratulations to the person who got a 1650 on their SAT/1600, and the person who got a 2450 on their SAT/2400. You clearly have bright futures ahead of you.)

Income (mean): $96,443.5
Income (median): $57,000

The highest observed incomes were in the $10,000,000 range; I know some big venture capitalists read this so I didn’t delete them as obvious trolls. Removing everyone who makes over $1 million, mean income goes down to $79,000. But there were also people who put down incomes of 0 because they were students, unemployed, or homemakers. When these people are also taken out, the mean of the remaining 2,700 people goes back to $98,000, and the median to $75,000.

Below are some Likert scales. Note that the midpoint is not what you think. On a 1-10 scale, the midpoint is 5.5, not 5. On a 1-5 scale, the midpoint is 3, not 2.5.

Political spectrum: 4.55 / 10 (higher = further right)
Political interest: 3.75 (out of 5)

Global Warming: 2.0 / 5 (higher = more skeptical)
Immigration: 3.5 / 5 (higher = fewer restrictions)
Minimum Wage: 2.9 / 5 (higher = higher minimum wage)
Gay Marriage: 4.5 / 5 (higher = should be legally recognized)
Feminism: 3.3 / 5 (higher = more favorable)
Human Biodiversity: 2.7 / 5 (higher = more favorable)
Donald Trump: 1.7 / 5 (higher = more favorable)

SSC Science Articles: 3.5 / 5 (higher = want increased focus)
SSC Politics Articles: 3.5 / 5 (higher = want increased focus)
SSC Book Reviews: 3.2 / 5 (higher = want increased focus)
SSC Rationality Articles: 3.5 / 5 (higher = want increased focus)
SSC Silly Articles: 3.2 /5 (higher = want increased focus)

Happiness: 6.0 / 10 (higher = happier)
Life satisfaction: 6.3/10 (higher = more satisfied)

Charity: $3271.6 / year
Percent given to charity: 2.8%

Among people who were employed (not students, unemployed, or homemakers), the numbers were surprisingly similar. Median charitable donations were a very disappointing $300/person, and median percent charity was 0.7%. But 358 people (out of 3500 for whom I had good data) gave 10% or more to charity, and 25 people gave 25% or more to charity. 13 people gave more than $100,000 to charity per year.

III.

Some more complicated things I was looking for. Everything in italics was “pre-registered”, ie guessed before looking at data and describing a future data analysis plan. I use { and } in place of the normal less-than and greater-than signs because I can’t be bothered to figure out how to not make them confuse the HTML.

Hypothesis 1: There will be a general ‘ability to tolerate ambiguity’ which links being able to see the spinning dancer go either direction, being able to see the face mask either direction, and being simultaneously aware of both meanings of the sentence about reading books. In other words, all three of these areas will correlate with each other. They might also correlate with liking puns.

Results: I ran correlations between SpinningDancer, FaceMask, ReadThisBook, and Puns. Since there were four variables, it came out to six (n * n-1 / 2) different correlations. Of these, three were positive and significant:

FaceMask x Puns: r = 0.03, p = 0.03
FaceMask x ReadThisBook: r = 0.08, p { 0.001
Puns x SpinningDancer: r = 0.05, p { 0.001

And three weren’t:

FaceMask x SpinningDancer: r = 0.01, p = 0.55
Puns x ReadThisBook: r = 0.01, p = 0.56
ReadThisBook x SpinningDancer: r = 0.02, p = 0.10

I don’t see any patterns in which ones worked or didn’t; in particular, I would have expected ReadThisBook to correlate with liking puns, since it was the same kind of verbal/linguistic ambiguity. The significance here was so good that I’m reluctant to just throw out this whole idea, but the effect size was pretty small and I’m honestly not sure what to do with this.

Hypothesis 2: There will be a general ‘tendency towards bottom-up processing’ which links being detail-oriented, noticing the duplicated “thes”, getting annoyed with tags on clothing, and not being able to tolerate noisy conversations. In other words, all four of these areas will correlate with each other.

Results: Again, the four variables made six different correlations. All six were positive and significant.

ClothingTags x NoisyConversation: r = -0.1, p { 0.001
ClothingTags x DuplicateThes: r = 0.08, p { 0.001
ClothingTags x DetailOriented: r = -0.03, p = 0.02
NoisyConversations x DuplicateThes: r = 0.05, p = 0.001
NoisyConversations x DetailOriented: r = 0.1, p { 0.001
DuplicateThes x DetailOriented: -0.03, p = 0.02

Once again there are some very impressive p-values but all the correlations are very weak. At this point I started wondering whether maybe my methodology was broken. I tried correlating these against a panel of a dozen political topics that I wouldn’t expect them to correlate with. ClothingTags correlated with two political topics, usually at around p = 0.01. NoisyConversation correlated with six political topics, again at similar levels, and so on for the rest. I can sort of make up stories about why this might happen (people who didn’t like noisy conversations didn’t like Donald Trump, and he is a loud kind of guy) but I’m not going to go that direction. The results weren’t just a general factor of people who like putting large numbers into surveys, because the correlations were just as frequently negative as positive. So I’m not sure.

Overall the correlations between real interesting psychological factors that seemed like they should be correlated were larger and more frequent than the correlations with unrelated political topics, but they were all so small, and everything is so noisy, that I’m not going to count this as a meaningful victory. The only ones that approached being interesting were the correlations between clothing tags, noisy conversations, and detailed-orientedness, which everyone already knows are all kind of autistic-y traits.

Hypothesis 3: People who used SSRIs during childhood (or maybe during puberty? or both?) are more likely to be asexual. In other words, asexuality rates for these groups will be higher than those of people who used SSRIs during adulthood and people who never used SSRIs. If sample size permits, I will try to exclude current users of SSRIs from all groups to rule out them being “asexual” because current SSRI use is ruining their libido.

Results:

(by age at which they started SSRIs, and asexuality rate)

UNADJUSTED
Younger than 10: 7%
10 – 15: 9%
15 – 20: 9%
20 – 25: 7%
Older than 25: 4%
Never on SSRIs: 6%

Okay, I didn’t realize how many different categories I had, so my fancy preregistration is going to have to go. I am going to, in an ignoble unpreregistered way, combine everyone who started an SSRI at 20 or younger, with everyone who started it older than 20 or not at all. An independent samples t-test comparing mean asexuality between those two groups finds…not much.

More specifically: there were 4490 people who hadn’t taken SSRIs while young, and 435 people who had. The respective asexuality rates in the two groups were 6% and 9%. The difference was about p = 0.1. Adjusting out people currently on SSRIs did nothing whatsoever.

I conclude that my hypothesis was wrong, and taking SSRIs during puberty is not a risk factor for asexuality. Note that taking SSRIs not during puberty isn’t a risk factor for this either, and there was minimal difference in asexuality rate between people who had ever taken SSRIs and those who had not. Either permanent loss of sexuality from SSRIs is so vanishingly rare that a survey of 5500 people cannot pick up on it, or it is impossible to confuse with “asexuality” as an orientation and I should have asked the question some other way.

IV.

Okay, so much for fancy responsible hypothesis preregistration. Everything following is whatever interesting came out of a giant fishing expedition. Because of the previously noted tendency for things to be super-highly-significant in this dataset even when they’re sketchy, I’m including only things with a decent effect size (r } 0.1). Everything in this category automatically has p { 0.001. I’m not including results I think are obvious.

The more trustworthy you think other people are, the higher your life satisfaction (r = 0.19)
The more visual your imagination, the more likely you are to remember dreams: (r = 0.16)
The more trustworthy you think other people are, the less likely you are to like Donald Trump (r = 0.14)
The more trustworthy you think other people are, the more likely you are to support more open immigration (r = 0.19)

The more you describe yourself as having a growth mindset, the higher your life satisfaction (r = 0.18). Bizarrely, describing yourself as thinking hard work matters more than talent doesn’t predict life satisfaction at all. It’s just the words “growth mindset”

If you don’t like noise or noisy conversations, you are less likely to be a generally happy person (r = -0.13, -0.17)
Night owls are less happy than early birds (r = -0.13)

Weightlifting was positively linked to life satisfaction (r = 0.1), negatively to asexuality (r = 0.1) and to various right-wing beliefs at around r = 0.1. It was negatively linked to being a night-owl (r = -0.1)

The more liberal you were, the more likely you were to think SSC comments had a conservative bias, and vice versa.

V.

You might have noticed some very positive feelings about the comment section. The average person rated the comments 3.5/5 (median: 4/5). On a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 was “biased conservative” and 5 was “biased liberal”, the average score (both mean and median) was 3, ie exactly in the middle. From a wisdom of crowds perspective, you rate the SSC comment section as literally the least biased it is logically possible to be.

79.9% of commenters said they were “not bothered” by any bias in the comment section. The 20.1% of people who were bothered by comment section bias (n = 908) were very slightly more liberal than SSC as a whole (4.05/10 compared to 4.55/10, where higher is more conservative). This group rated the comment section as having a very slight conservative bias (2.6/5, where lower is more conservative) but there was a high standard deviation. In other words, this group contained both people annoyed that the comments were too conservative, and people annoyed that the comments were too liberal, with a very slight preponderance of the former.

So this is people’s perception. Can we measure reality? We know that SSC as a whole is very slightly liberal, but what about frequent commenters? Here are the numbers, again on a political spectrum where 1 is maximally liberal and 10 maximally conservative:

1. Lurkers who never comment: 4.5
2. People who comment less than once a month: 4.7
3. People who comment at least once a month: 5.1
4. People who comment at least once a week: 5.2
5. People who comment many times a week: 6.3

So there is a really interesting tendency for conservatives to comment more often than liberals (maybe because they have more to disagree with?). But numbers in the last three groups were very small: out of the 5335 people for whom I had data, only 54 commented once a week, and only 45 commented many times a week. So they may not be able to bring the average up very much. Since tiers 1 through 4 were liberal (REMEMBER THE MIDPOINT IS 5.5) and only tier 5 was conservative, there’s probably an extremely slight preponderance of liberal comments on the whole.

I checked opinions of the 1100 people who comment once a month or more, and they were broadly similar to those of the general population.

I had a question in which I asked people to guess what percent of survey-takers would be right-wing (ie greater than 5.5 on the political spectrum question). The true answer is that of 5335 respondents, 1703 (31.9%) were 6 or above. 485 (9.1%) were at exactly 5 (technically to the left of center but not obviously so from the scale). 3,144 (58.9%) were unambiguously left of center.

So the correct answer to the estimation question was 31.9%. The average person guessed 34.9% (mean) or 35% (median), so you were pretty on-the-mark.

(In case you’re wondering, I was expecting to find that most people were lefties but thought everyone else was on the right. The first part was true, the second part not so much).

There was a very slight effect where, the longer someone has been reading the blog, the more conservative they are likely to be. Someone reading SSC more than two years is 4.7 on the scale; someone less than a year, about 4.3. My guess is that I got a few extra conservatives back when I wrote about the far right more.

VII.

Just for fun, I wanted to see how this community differed from the rest of the population, so I got a hundred Mechanical Turkers from the US and UK to fill out a slightly-edited version of the same survey. The sample size isn’t big enough to say anything for sure, and I’m not going to bother figuring out how to do t-tests across two different datasets, but here are some things I noticed.

MTurkers were 72% white, 6% black, 6% Hispanic, 10% Asian, and 3% other. They were 68% male and 32% female. They were much closer to representative than SSCers.

2% were transgender, 11% bisexual, 5% gay, and 8% asexual, about the same percent as SSC readers. This surprised me. We may be unusually LBGTQetc for the US population, but not necessarily for the Internet population.

Their average IQ was 111, compared to our 138. Their average SAT score out of 1600 was 1272, compared to our 1472.

Turks were more likely to have schizophrenia than SSCers, though no more likely to have family members. Of note, 1% of Turks (1 person) had a formal schizophrenia diagnosis, and 7% (6 people) thought they might have schizophrenia. An 8% schizophrenia rate in a population is unheard of. I don’t know if MTurkers are disproprotionately likely to have schizophrenia, or if I just got a weird sample.

1% of Turks were formally bipolar and another 6% suspected bipolar. Compare to a more normal 2% and 2% among SSCers. About half of the Turks with suspected bipolar were the same ones with suspected schizophrenia.

0% Turks were formally autistic and another 4% were suspected autistic, compared to 4% and 12% of SSCers. We are apparently like 5x as autistic as normal. Who ever would have guessed?

10% of Turks were formally depressed and another 20% suspected, compared to 18% and 16% for SSCers. Kind of ambiguous between us being more depressed vs. better at getting diagnosed.

17% of Turks were formally anxious and another 17% suspected, compared to 12% and 16% of SSCers. There is a group we are less anxious than!

4% of Turks were formally OCD and another 7% suspected, compared to 2% and 6% of SSCers.

2% of Turks were formally eating disordered and another 3% suspected, compared to 1% and 3% of SSCers.

7% of Turks were formally alcoholic, and 3% suspected, compared to 1% and 4% of SSCers. The Turk number, which seems very high, actually fits better with epidemiological estimates of prevalence (though I don’t know about formal diagnosis). We are fantastically non-alcoholic. Oddly, this does not seem genetic – we have the same number of alcoholic family members as the Turks do.

5% of Turks are formally drug addicted and 2% suspected, compared to 0.2% (!) and 2% of SSCers. This one might be genetic: 25% of Turks have addicts in their families compared to 14% of SSCers.

28% of Turks are atheist+nonspiritual, 11% atheist+spiritual, 25% agnostic, and only 30% theist (committed or lukewarm). These numbers are way more atheist than the general population, but way less atheist than SSC.

Turks were 4.5 on the political spectrum, indistinguishable from SSCers. On specific issues, they were a little more restrictionist on immigration, a little more pro-Trump, a little more feminist, and a little less pro-gay. The only place there was a large difference ( } 1 point) was on the minimum wage, which they almost universally supported.

Contra my predictions, SSCers were actually less annoyed by clothing tags than Turkers (2.4 vs. 2.9) and no more annoyed by noise (3.0 vs. 3.0). We were about equally detail-oriented, and worse at following noisy conversations (2.4 vs. 3.1). We were a little more likely to believe in talent instead of growth mindset (2.4 vs. 2.7) and equally likely to be night owls.

We were less likely to remember dreams (2.7 vs. 3.0), less likely to have strong visual imaginations (2.4 vs. 2.6) and more likely to think verbally (2.2 vs. 2.6). We believed people were a little more trustworthy (2.5 vs. 2.9).

We were slightly less satisfied with our lives (6.3 vs. 6.4) and vastly less happy (6.0 vs. 6.9), even though we were earning an average of $97,000 and they were working on Mechanical Turk. This was probably the most striking result.

VIII.

I will be doing something with the meetup information shortly. Otherwise, this is all the data I have the energy to extract out of this right now. But there is a lot of stuff here. 5048 people kindly allowed me to share their data publicly, so I encourage anybody interested to play around with this and report what you find.

(Survey data as .XLS file)

(Survey data as .CSV file)

(MTurk data as .XLSX file)

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