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THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Anxiety Sampler Kits

The best thing about personalized medicine is that it’s obviously right. The worst thing is we mostly have no idea how to do it. We know that different people respond to different treatments. But outside a few special cases like cancer, we don’t know how to predict which treatment will work for which person. Some psychiatric researchers claim they can do this at a high level; I think they’re wrong. For most treatments and most conditions, there’s no way to figure out whether a given sometimes-effective treatment will work on a given individual besides trying it and seeing.

This suggests that some chronic conditions might do best with a model centered around a controlled process of guess-and-check. When it’s safe and possible, we should be maximizing throughput – finding out how to test as many medications as we can in the short time before we exhaust our patients’ patience, and how to best assess the effects of each. The process of treating each individual should mirror the process of medicine in general, balancing the need to run controlled trials and gather more evidence with the need to move quickly.

I don’t know how seriously to take this idea, but I would like to try it.

Some friends and I made thirty of these Anxiety Sampler Kits, containing six common supplements with some level of scientific and anecdotal evidence for treating anxiety (thanks to Patreon donors for helping fund this). The 21 boxes include three nonconsecutive boxes of each supplement, plus three boxes of placebos. They’re randomly arranged and designed so that you can’t tell which ones are which – I even put some of the supplements into different colored capsules, so you can’t even be sure that two capsules that look different aren’t the same thing.

Each box contains enough supplement for one dose, and all supplements are supposed to work within an hour or so. Whenever you feel anxious, you try the first non-empty box remaining. Afterwards, you rate how you felt on the attached log (not pictured). When you’ve finished all twenty-one boxes, you fill out a form (link is on the attached paperwork) and figure out whether there was any supplement you consistently rated higher than the others, or whether any of them were better than placebo. If your three highest ratings all went to boxes which turned out to contain the same supplement, and it did much better than placebo, then you have a strong argument that this is the best anti-anxiety supplement for you.

(this setup isn’t quite as irresponsible as it sounds. The six supplements I’m using are all considered very safe. I’m not concealing which six supplements are in it – it’s magnesium, 5-HTP, GABA, Zembrin, lemon balm, and l-theanine – so you can check if you have allergies to any of them. And there’s a spoilers page available if you have a bad reaction and need to tell your doctor what caused it)

Also on the form is a link to send me your data, which I’m asking you to do as a condition for using the kits. I’ll add everything up and this will double as an n = 30 placebo-controlled trial of six different supplements. I don’t think n = 30 is enough to impress anybody, but it might be enough to get some informal hunches about what works and be able to give people better advice. And if the experiment goes well, I can always make more kits.

If you live in the Bay Area, have enough anxiety that you expect to use a sample at least two days a week, and are okay with self-experimentation, these kits might be for you. Starting tonight I’m leaving a box full of them at the Rationality & Effective Altruism Community Hub, on the ground floor of 3045 Shattuck, Berkeley. REACH is usually open (or contains people who will open it if you knock) at all reasonable hours, and the caretaker there is aware that people might be coming in to get these kits. If you notice the box is out of kits, please comment here telling me so and I’ll add an update so people don’t waste their time.

Remember that by taking a kit, you’re saying you expect to have anxiety that you’d be willing to experiment on at least twice a week (it’s okay if it doesn’t work out this way exactly) and you’re committing to – if you’re able to finish the test – sending me a form with your results. People who are pregnant or nursing, who have relevant preexisting medical conditions, or who are already taking potentially-interacting medications should talk to their doctor before trying these kits. I will not give you medical advice about whether these kits are safe for your specific situation, so please don’t ask. If you would be comfortable taking a random supplement you got off the shelf at Whole Foods, you should feel comfortable with everything in here.

I might take this idea further, but I’m going to wait until the first set of results come in. If you are interested in taking this idea further, send me an email and let me know your thoughts.

Links 10/18: +1 Insiteful

Mark Hofmann, master forger, built a comfy career for himself forging documents that discredited Mormonism and selling them to Mormon officials who wanted to cover them up – for example, a letter in which Joseph Smith confessed that instead of seeing an angel, he had only seen a salamander. Then the murders began.

Byron White is the only person to have ever been both an NFL player and a Supreme Court Justice. He also won two Bronze Stars working naval intelligence in World War II. From his Wikipedia article: “White said that he was supposed to enroll at Harvard Law School, but got sick on the train ride there, so he got off the train in New Haven, Connecticut and went to Yale.”

Update on the mystery illness plaguing US diplomats in Cuba (and now China) – it may be a microwave-based weapon developed by the old USSR, possibly deployed from the back of a van. Still no word on who is using it against US diplomats or why.

Want to participate in a medical study? Don’t care which one? researchmatch.org helps connect researchers to wannabe-subjects. If you have a disease, great, but even if you don’t you can be someone’s control group.

Exposure to opposing views on social media increases partisan polarization. It’s not true that if people read the other side they would appreciate or like them more. I think this is probably related to everyone giving up on convincing the other side and focusing on radicalizing the base instead. If people were trying to convince you, listening to them would make you more convinced; if people are trying to radicalize your enemies, listening to them will make you more concerned. And here’s an article about people trying to do this right.

It’s 2018, so of course a rapper is planning to build a cryptocurrency-themed city in Senegal, and of course it’s already being compared to “a real-life Wakanda”.

One way to identify a brilliant person is that, while ordinary people are afraid you’ll steal their ideas, brilliant people have so many ideas that they know they will never be able to do all of them, and practically beg you to steal them so that they get done. Luke Muehlhauser is definitely a brilliant person, and here is his list of Projects I Wish I Had Time For. Somebody please do the historical music one and send it to me.

Eleven European nations are planning to mandate that recipients of government scientific grants must publish resulting papers somewhere they are freely available to everyone, eg open-access journals. This could be an even bigger deal than it sounds, since it would ensure open-access journals were the only place you could find a lot of the most important research, and so raise their prestige. Good job governments solving coordination problems!

Inevitably, capsule hotels have come to San Francisco. The symbolism isn’t great, but I’ve stayed at capsule hotels before and can recommend them as surprisingly comfortable and convenient.

Related: a real estate startup is getting into the Bay Area group house market. This sounds kind of like dialing the Bay-Area-ness up to 11, but it…actually seems like a good idea? They acquire and maintain the houses, screen potential residents, take care of chores like cleaning and keeping provisions stocked, and occasionally hold events, and residents pay them like any other landlord. professorgerm on the subreddit describes it as “take college dorms, remove the college, and make it a subscription model with transfer options”.

This month in dog-whistling: was a low-level Trump administration official resting her arms on each other in a totally normal way during the Kavanaugh hearings? Or was it a secret white supremacist salute? Update: it was the first one, and the official involved is a half-Mexican, half-Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Iran has one of the world’s largest cash transfer programs, though it’s not quite a basic income. Now a new study finds generally positive effects on labor participation.

Robin Hanson: The Game

The Institute for Competitive Governance is trying to crowd-fund an “open source legal system”, ie “an alternative law system for places where existing legal systems either do not exist or cannot be trusted”. Some more information here. There is no way this doesn’t end up being on the blockchain somehow. Also in crowdfunding news – friend of the blog Thomas Eliot is raising money for his new illustrated translation of the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Somewhat less likely to end up on the blockchain, but it is 2018.

This month in phrenology: “A series of studies conducted by Caltech researchers show that when people are shown photos of politicians they’re not familiar with, they can make better-than-chance judgments about whether those politicians have been convicted of corruption”. In particular. politicians with wider faces are more corrupt. And here’s a photoset in case you want to remind yourself what wide- and narrow-faced politicians look like.

The partisan makeup of different occupations. Note the consistent pattern where professions that manipulate the physical world are conservative and professions that manipulate ideas are liberal (in a way that doesn’t seem to depend entirely on skills or salary).

Ben Carson (who, remember, is still the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) comes out against NIMBYism, cites econblogger Noahpinion’s article.

Why do people on hallucinogenic drugs so often see spirals or concentric circles? Because the brain maps the visual field to the visual cortex using a polar-to-Cartesian coordinate transform, and drugs cause linear abnormalities in the visual cortex through a reaction-diffusion process similar to the one that makes stripes on zebras. If this doesn’t make sense, read the link, it’s brilliant and fascinating and one of the only times I feel like some aspect of human perception has been completely explained with no mystery left anywhere. Original paper is here, zebra-stripe-generator applet is here. (h/t eukaryotewrites)

Ron Unz did a lot of interesting work on both sides of the political spectrum, and you may have cached that he’s a guy with some heterodox opinions but still pretty thoughtful. I was disappointed to learn that he’s now gone totally off the deep end into Holocaust denial and other related beliefs; this article gives a good bio and summary. This scares me because I don’t know how it happened; I often see people I respect in one domain having otherwise crazy opinions, but for some reason it’s worse when I can watch it happening in real time.

Step one: some Chinese people are going back to wearing traditional Chinese clothes, how #aesthetic. Step two: uh oh, it looks like the people wearing traditional Chinese clothing are a far-right supremacist movement. Step three: “Conspiracy theories among Han Clothing Movement participants claim that there is a secret Manchu plan for restoration [of the Qing Dynasty] that has been underway from the start of the post-1978 reform era. They argue that Manchus secretly control every important party-state institution, such as the People’s Liberation Army, the Party Propaganda Department, the Ministry of Culture and especially the National Population and Family Planning Commission which is regarded as a stronghold of Manchu influence. They believe that its one-child policy is but “an escalation of the long-term Manchu genocide that targets the Han people”.

You know the planet astrological symbols? Where Venus is a mirror, Mars is a circle with an arrow coming out of it, and nobody ever remembers the others? Well, did you know that more than thirty asteroids have their own astrological symbols for you to not remember?

Roopkund is a small lake 15,000 feet high in the Tibetan Plateau, which made headlines when explorers discovered several hundred human skeletons on its desolate shores. Scientists carbon-dated the skeletons to around 700 AD. Now somebody has gene-sequenced them, and found that they are mostly Greeks. How did hundreds of Greek people get to a remote part of Tibet and die there en masse in the eight-century AD? Wikipedia discusses the mystery.

This month in “nobody has principles”, USA Today on the implications of Kavanaugh: “’Law review editors: brace for a tidal wave of legal academic theories supporting judicial minimalism, Thayerianism, and strong — very strong — theories of precedent. Above all: the Court must do nothing without bipartisan agreement, otherwise it is illegitimate.’ The past half-century’s enthusiasm for judicial activism will vanish, as legal academia turns on a dime to promote theories that will constrain the court until a left-leaning majority returns, at which point they’ll turn on a dime again.”

Ben Hoffman: Financial investment is just a symbolic representation of investment projected onto a low-dimensional space inside a control system run by the US government. Tldr he disagrees with Nassim Taleb’s barbell strategy.

A year after China said it would “dominate” AI, it seems to be walking back its position and calling for international collaboration.

Will MacAskill’s TED talk on effective altruism. Related: 80,000 Hours synthesizes and summarizes their research finding the highest-impact careers.

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte

Confronted with the science saying it’s bad for teenagers to wake up too early, California’s legislature passes a ground-breaking bill saying that schools may not start earlier than 8:30 AM – only for it to be vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, who is apparently in the pocket of Big Morning.

This probably confuses a lot of people’s narratives: women are having more children than they were a decade ago.

Evidence that the solar cycle affects human lifespan, embryo survival, and number of children, probably because UV affects folate levels. h/t towardsagentlerworld

Commuting by bicycle has gone down over the past few years, at least in part because working from home is finally starting to rise.

no_bear_so_low does research on Google trends, including how left-wing searches are gaining on right-wing searches over time and anxiety-related searches are exploding.

Genomic Prediction launches their flagship product, a test that will assign polygenic scores to embryos and let parents decide which ones to implant. So far only being used for a few specific disorders, but the same technology would work for traits like height or intelligence. Gwern estimates that at current tech level, a process like this could probably gain three IQ points.

Americans with a science PhD can “get a fast track to influencing policy” by applying for the AAAS Science And Technology Fellowship by Nov 1.

NYT uses Facebook data to generate a map of how likely people in any one American county are to have friends in another American county. You could probably do some interesting research on migration patterns with this tool.

A clustering algorithm sorts 50,000 philosophy papers onto a 2D grid to make a map of philosophy. Somebody needs to turn this into sentimental cartography.

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Kavanaugh: A Probability Poll

There’s some literature suggesting that people are more careful when they think in probabilities. If you ask them for a definite answer, they might give it and sound very confident, but if you encourage them to think probabilistically they might admit there’s more uncertainty.

I wanted to look into this in the context of the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so I asked readers to estimate their probability that Judge Kavanaugh was guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Ford. I got 2,350 responses (thank you, you are great). Here was the overall distribution of probabilities. Horizontal axis is percent chance he did it; vertical axis is number of people who responded with that percent:

This looks weird because people were most likely to give numbers rounded off the the nearest ten.

I separated responses into bins from 0 – 9%, 10 – 19%, and so on to 90 – 100%. Keep in mind that the last bin is slightly larger than the others, so it might make it unfairly look like more people gave extreme high answers than extreme low answers. I also switched the vertical axis to percent of responses in each bin. Smoothed out, it looks like this:

This looks pretty balanced, and it is: the average probability is 52.64%. This is probably a fake balance based on all the different demographic skews involved cancelling out: 2.5x as many Democrats as Republicans answered the survey, but 9x as many men as women did.

Here are the results broken down by party (blue is Democrats, red is Republicans):

And here are the results broken down by gender (blue is men, pink is women):

There should be an interaction between party and gender, because men are more likely to be Republicans, and women Democrats. I didn’t have enough data to investigate this too carefully, so I can’t say whether gender controlled for party remains significant or not.

I asked two questions to assess participants’ level of background knowledge: where did Kavanaugh go to law school? (correct answer: Yale) and what is Kavanaugh’s wife’s name? (correct answer: Ashley, but a shout-out to everyone who wrote “Mrs. Kavanaugh” and to the one person who wrote “beer”). Here are the probabilities of people who got both questions right (gold) vs. both questions wrong (green):

People with high background knowledge were more extreme in their answers, and slightly more likely to think Kavanaugh is innocent. I worry that I made a mistake in the questions I chose, since people who are more sympathetic to Kavanaugh might be more likely to know about his family. In retrospect, I should have asked at least one question about Dr. Ford.

What about neutral people? Do such people exist? I looked at people who were neither registered Democrats nor Republicans, and who rated their liberal-vs-conservative ideology, on a one to ten scale, as 4, 5, or 6. These people looked like this:

This chart makes it look like they’re slightly leaning towards guilt, but I think that might be a function of the binning; their mean probability of guilt was 49.85%, about as close to “totally uncertain” as you can get. Neutral people with more background knowledge were, again, more likely to lean innocent, with a mean of 41%.

I asked people whether they felt the evidence that Kavanaugh may have committed sexual assault was sufficient to reject his nomination to the Supreme Court, regardless of any other reasons to vote for or against him (like his legal opinions). 55% of respondents thought that yes, his nomination should be voted down; 45% still supported him. Here is a list of support for confirmation by probability of guilt:

Of people who thought there was only a 0 – 9% chance Kavanaugh was guilty, 98% thought he shouldn’t be rejected from the Supreme Court on this basis alone. Of people who thought there was a 90-100% chance of guilt, 96% thought that was sufficient to reject the nomination. Of people who thought there was 50-50 chance of guilt, about 50% still supported him and 50% opposed him.

This question suggests there is no real consensus about how plausible an accusation has to be before it means someone should be denied nomination to the Supreme Court. People generally agreed that if there was below a 25% chance the accusations were true, he should definitely be confirmed, and if there was above an 80% chance, he definitely shouldn’t be. But between 25% and 80%, people were pretty split on whether the Senate should err on the side of not confirming a potential assaulter, or wait until it was beyond a reasonable doubt. If we were trying to make these answers into a guideline for how a Senator should vote, it looks like they would be satisfying the most people if they voted to confirm if they thought the accusations had a less than 50% chance of being true, and to reject if they thought they had a more than 50% chance. I wonder how many people would endorse this rule as written.

I also asked people whether they would reject Kavanaugh in the hypothetical universe where he had immediately admitted to the accusations, then apologized for his actions and said he had changed as a person since then. About 55% of people said they would accept him in this scenario, meaning he gains about 10% support in the SSC demographic compared to the real-world situation. But the question was poorly worded and I’m not sure how many people answered yes they would reject him, accidentally meaning to say yes they would accept him.

Here is a graph of how people answered this hypothetical compared to how guilty they thought he was:

There’s no correlation. This makes sense: how guilty you think he is in this universe shouldn’t affect your opinions about a hypothetical universe where you know he’s guilty – but for some reason I’m still surprised. I guess I expected people’s partisan biases to sneak in, even if they didn’t make sense. Maybe the question was so confusing that answers to it are basically random.

Overall, when asked to use probabilities people were able to admit to a little bit of uncertainty in their answer. They could give probabilities that were well-formed and self-consistent. But none of this came close to removing the partisan bias and the strong difference in opinions. There is no consensus in the general SSC demographic, and even unbiased people as a group are unable to send a coherent signal. This is not a good way to get beyond confusion and disagreement on an issue like this one.

You can download the raw data (slightly cleaned up) here.

OT112: Opentagon Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. I am retiring the scott[at]shireroth[dot]org email in favor of scott[at]slatestarcodex[dot]com. Please use the new email if you want to reach me. I prefer not to receive comments on blog posts by email. If you have a comment on a blog post, please put it on the comment section of the blog or the subreddit.

2. Comment of the week is this set of tweets on how the adversarial collaboration contest’s main benefit might not be to readers, but to participants and to democracy itself.

3. I am interested in publishing basically any good adversarial collaboration people do (this isn’t a promise, just an expression of interest). If you have one, let me know. If you’re thinking of doing one and you want to know if I would publish it beforehand, let me know. Also, I am slightly behind on paying some of the people who need payment, but I will take care of it later this week.

4. In some weird reverse of Conquest’s Law, any comment section that isn’t explicitly left-wing tends to get more right-wing over time. I am trying to push against this and keep things balanced, so I want to be explicit that I’m practicing affirmative action for leftist commenters. You may have noticed some leftists saying things that should have gotten them banned. After some thought, I’ve decided to keep them around anyway with warnings instead (this means you, Brad and Freddie). I will still ban leftists for more serious issues. This doesn’t mean other people will be able to get away with this kind of behavior, so consider yourself warned.

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Nighttime Ventilation Survey Results

Thanks to the 129 people who tried altering their nighttime carbon dioxide levels after my post on this, and who reported back to me. There was no difference between people who pre-registered for the study and people who didn’t, on any variable, so I ignored pre-registration.

126 people reported one intervention they performed. The most common was sleeping with a window open:

People generally reported slight but positive changes:

When asked to rate the magnitude of improvement to well-being on a 0 to 5 scale, they averaged 1.4:

I mentioned in the post that succulents could help in theory, but you needed to get the right kind of succulents and you needed at least ten of them. I was skeptical that anyone really got ten succulents in their room, so I wondered whether that might work as a crypto-placebo group.

If so, the intervention failed to separate from placebo. Succulent users had an average improvement of 1.29, compared to about 1.50 for people who did other things. The difference wasn’t significant, although admittedly the sample size was low.

Looking at the various groups, the most striking difference was actually people who left a window open (1.57) vs. people who did one of the other named options (1.31). A few people who left windows open mentioned this made their room cooler, which seemed to help with sleep. But this is very post hoc, and this difference wasn’t significant either.

Here are some reports from people who described dramatic improvement:

Less headaches, less fatigue in the morning, less trouble staying asleep through the night

I slept more comfortably, woke less in the night, and felt less fatigue in the morning. I also felt more alert during the day. I used a CO2 meter. Peak level changed from 1400s before to 800s after the intervention.

When I get up I feel less groggy, It takes my brain less time to get on line, I can way more often wake up and do things right away rather than spend time in a stunned haze or distracting myself so I don’t fall back asleep. I feel more like doing things and have the energy to back that up, it lasts some time after I wake up but usually not all day. I feel like I sleep better.

And here are some of the more typical results from people who said they felt only minor or placebo-like improvements:

Possibly more alert upon waking, possibly needing slightly less time sleeping to feel rested

Slightly more likely to sleep through the night and/or feel better rested in the morning.

I don’t recall waking up as often, but maybe it’s a placebo. If it’s a placebo, it’s a cheap/free one and I’m happy to keep taking it as long as it works. Oh god is taking this survey going to make it not work anymore?

Despite the underwhelming results, most people were going to stick with their intervention:

I consider these results basically negative – both for nighttime ventilation, and for the ability of informal blog surveys to give data that one can be confident in either way. But I’m glad some people think they feel better, and the results of the last question suggest it still might be a cheap and productive thing to try.

If you’re interested in analyzing this further, you can download the data at this link.

Next Door In Nodrumia

[Content note: attempt to consider real people’s real problems using angel-on-pinhead impractical reasoning and ideas]

I.

Imagine the state of nature, except for some reason there are cities. Some people in these cities play the drums all night and keep everyone else awake. The sleep-deprived people get together and agree this is unacceptable. They embark on a long journey to the wilderness where they found their own community of Nodrumia.

They form a company, the Nodrumia Corporation, which owns all the property in the area. The corporation distributes usage rights via a legal instrument that looks suspiciously like private property: people who own usage rights keep them forever, can do whatever they want with the land, and can freely transfer and sell them to others. The only difference is that the usage rights have a big asterisk on them saying “contract is null and void if you break the rules of the Nodrumia Corporation”. These rules are set by a board chosen democratically by the inhabitants, and are all things like “You can’t play drums at night”, and “You can’t sell property to people who will play the drums at night”, and “Anyone who plays the drums at night shall be exiled”.

One day a Nodrumian wants to move out, so he puts his house up for sale. The highest bidder is a drummer who wants to use the property as a studio so he can play the drums at night. The Corporation steps in and bans the sale. The property owner protests, saying that he is being oppressed.

According to libertarian philosophy, who is in the right?

The argument against the drummer: the land is basically the private property of the Nodrumia Corporation, and libertarians believe that private landowners should be able to determine what happens on their property. And more fundamentally, the people there have a strong preference against living near drummers, and that preference seems fundamentally satisfiable if their property rights are respected, and it seems stupid to legislate a world where people are forever forbidden from satisfying a fundamentally satisfiable preference and have to be unhappy all the time.

The argument in favor of the drummer: this is basically just a town. “People who live together in a community, and are governed laws made by a democratically elected council” is a town. It seems sort of unlike a town because of its strange history, but really in America a lot of towns were formed by people leaving society, finding unoccupied (or “unoccupied”) land, and building a community there. Some of them were even formed with some sort of utopian goal in mind, or specifically to escape things the inhabitants didn’t like about the places they came from. The only real difference between Nodrumia and the average town is its odd property right structure, but this is a difference in name only: everyone who moves into any town knows that they own their property only insofar as the things they do on their property don’t conflict with town bylaws. Seriously, Nodrumia is just a town. And the whole point of libertarians is that they are skeptical that governments (including town governments) should be able to ban people from doing things. Therefore, the drummer should be allowed to open his drum studio.

A second argument against: imagine we’re talking about a private company like Microsoft. Libertarians agree that Microsoft has the right to decide that none of their employees can play the drums at their cubicle in a way that disturbs other employees. This suggests that playing the drums isn’t a fundamental right. But it’s unclear how Microsoft is different from the Nodrumia Corporation.

A second argument in favor: maybe this isn’t just a town. The way it’s presented, it sounds like more of a city-state. Its government is a national government. If we’re saying national governments can make laws banning musical instruments, we’ve gotten very far from libertarianism, haven’t we?

We could resolve the conclusion by saying that libertarianism is wrong, actually externalities are bad, and it’s totally okay to ban them. Or we could use an expanded idea of property rights that included that right not to have noise on your property (though this opens up a big can of worms). But if we wanted to at least keep some claim to be working within a strict libertarian paradigm, I think we would have to make an argument based on what kind of characteristics an institution needs to be more like a corporation or intentional community (which have the rights to be strict) vs. a national government (which should be erring on the side of permissiveness). To me, the key differences seem to be things like:

– exit rights and transaction costs of leaving
– number of other options
– ease of forming a new one
– degree to which membership is voluntary vs. hereditary

So to give an example, most people have the intuition that the US government banning pork for religious reasons is bad, but also that if you go into a mosque and demand they let you eat pork there you’re in the wrong. I think this is because:

– the people in the mosque have the option to very easily not be in the mosque
– if you don’t like the mosque, you can always go to a church or an atheist meetup
– you can always start your own mosque, with blackjack and hookers
– most people in the mosque chose to be there because they agree with the mosque’s principles

But:

– it’s hard to leave the US if you don’t like it
– there aren’t that many other countries and you might not be able to find one you like
– it’s very hard to start a new country
– most US citizens are only citizens because they were born here, and didn’t necessarily sign on to any philosophical commitments

This is ignoring some important issues, like whether banning pork is the ethically correct action, or whether the majority of the people in each community support the ban. It’s just trying to give a completely formal, meta-level account of why our intuitions might be different for these two cases.

This seems to justify the libertarian intuition that we shouldn’t be bossing private companies around. It also justifies the much more common intuition that we can boss private companies around when they’re monopolies or otherwise seem hard to get rid of, like people discussing whether the government should make Facebook have better privacy policies. If there were hundreds of equally-sized alternatives to Facebook that people could easily switch to, with a wide variety of privacy policies, it probably wouldn’t come up as often.

Towns seem kind of midway between companies/mosques and national governments. They’re not easy to leave, but realistically people leave towns all the time; I’ve switched cities maybe six or seven times during my life. There are thousands of towns you can live in, including dozens of big cities. Forming a new town isn’t easy, but there’s lots of open land where you could do it in theory if you wanted to; it’s not really beyond the ability of even a dedicated private citizen. And about two-thirds of people no longer live in the town where they were born.

I think a libertarian treatment of this issues would argue that towns have the most right to pass restrictive laws when things like exit rights are most salient, and less right when they aren’t.

The drummer moving into Nodrumia seems like a clear case where exit rights are really salient. The drummer isn’t even in Nodrumia yet, so clearly he has the ability not to be in Nodrumia if he wants. The transaction costs of moving to not-Nodrumia are zero, since he’s not even in the town yet. It seems like starting a new town is easy, since the Nodrumians themselves managed it. And although the story doesn’t give a time course, it seems plausible that most of the people involved are still first-generation migrants to Nodrumia – and the drummer definitely is.

The harder case would be one where, by natural population turnover, the first generation of Nodrumians has children, about half of the second generation want to play drums, and in the interim all the available land has been settled by other towns that ban drums, and there are no pro-drum towns to move to. I don’t know what I think in this case, although I’m tempted to say that if there are thousands of towns but none of them permit drumming, that’s kind of like there being thousands of companies but none of them will pay you $500 an hour – you’re asking for something nobody else wants and you should reconsider your request (though given numbers like this, it should be possible for the pro-drum faction to get at least one town for themselves, even if they have to buy out the existing inhabitants).

In the recent discussion of NIMBYism, YIMBY partisans keep saying things like “it’s illegal to build high-density cities!”. This confuses me, because I don’t think it’s illegal for a private citizen to build a high-density city, assuming she can afford enough unincorporated land and the construction costs [EDIT: maybe not]. And it’s not illegal for a town to change its urban policy to become a high-density city, assuming it wanted to. This seems kind of like saying “It’s illegal to have a community made entirely of log cabins”. You can totally get some people together and found a log cabin community, you’re just not allowed to force existing towns to switch to all-log-cabins unless the citizens want to. I think the reason this argument seems unconvincing to me but convincing to them is that I’m reasoning from a perspective where communities are a basic unit, whereas the YIMBYs are reasoning from a perspective where individuals are the basic unit, eg “It’s illegal for me to sell my house to a high-rise developer”.

And I’m reasoning from a perspective where communities are a basic unit because I believe in Archipelago, a world where the only win-win solution to our many differences about what societies should look like is to let people form highly-varying communities with exit rights and let people live in whichever one they want. This solution depends on Nodrumia’s right to kick out drummers and it depends on viewing towns as being basically a form of private property owned cooperatively by the town members.

If you try to take someone else’s private property because it’s standing in the way of economic progress, that’s eminent domain. I’m not 100% against eminent domain all of the time, but it should be a very last resort. This is why I find NIMBYs’ objection of “we should be allowed to decide what happens to our town” so sympathetic. They’re analogous to Nodrumia’s right to not allow drum studios, and without that kind of private-property-analogous right I’m skeptical that anywhere can provide the good life to its citizens. Without letting towns be at least kind of like private property, they all converge onto the highest-entropy state permitted by the wider country they live in (eg Las Vegas but more so). If you want a libertarian national government but also accept that some people want to live in places other than Super-Vegas, you need to let towns pump against entropy and retain some distinction from each other, the same way we let individual citizens arrange their own lives the way they want. That’s part of why I find myself more sympathetic to local governments than to national governments.

II.

This model also suggests a solution for YIMBYs – start their own town somewhere.

This might be harder than it sounds, because if the YIMBYs aren’t very committed, once they have a high-density walkable city that they’re happy with, they might lose their will and be tempted to keep other people out to prevent it from becoming more crowded. Even if they were very principled, the next generation of inhabitants might not be.

The solution is charter cities. Some profit-seeking individual or corporation could buy some land, explicitly note that they weren’t making it a full democracy, and then try to turn it into the biggest, most economically productive city possible so they could skim a little bit off the top.

If the California state government is really concerned about the housing shortage, but also doesn’t want to densify San Francisco, here is what it can do. Encourage some company to buy a promising but currently empty tract of land (I’m saying “some company”, but we all know it would end up being Peter Thiel). Give them various concessions to lure people in, like that people living there only have to pay half as much in state taxes (or, if they really want to start a land rush, they can exempt the area from the plastic straw ban). The company has strong incentives both to make the city as populous and dense as possible, and to make it the sort of place where rich people want to live and businesses want to operate. Tech companies, social-climbers, and the like move there instead of San Francisco. The San Franciscan NIMBYs are happy, the tech companies are happy, the company that owns the land is happy, and the California state government is happy. The end.

This isn’t so outlandish – I grew up in this city. In 1864, an investor named James Irvine bought a big tract of California land. Over the next century, his heirs formed a group called The Irvine Company to develop it further. They got their big break in 1959, when James’ grandson Myford Irvine cut a deal with the University of California to build a college on the still mostly-empty land, virtually guaranteeing it would grow into a town. The Company planned out their ideal urban utopia, raised some money, and built it according to plan. Now Irvine is the 16th largest city in California, and Irvine Company head Donald Bren has $16.3 billion and is the 80th richest person in the US. Irvine consistently tops various “best city” and “highest quality of life” rankings and manages to balance some density (the listed density of 4,000 is probably an underestimate because of the deliberately preserved wilderness areas; other parts are much denser including a few 20-story buildings) with a very safe, suburban feel. It’s also very good at attracting tech companies: Blizzard, Broadcom, Allergan, and the US headquarters of Samsung, Sega and Toshiba are all located there. It’s also an outlier in new housing construction, growing its housing stock at (informal estimate) 5% per year – twice the rate of Austin, three times that of Seattle, and five to ten times that of San Francisco.

I know this probably “won’t” “work” “in” “real” “life”, just like everything good or interesting or creative. But a state policy of deliberately creating super-Irvines in suitable areas would relieve the need to develop anywhere else. It would slice through concerns that it’s politically impossible to upzone existing cities, concerns about congestion and crime and transit inadequacy in existing cities, concerns about disrupting the culture of existing cities, and concerns about existing cities’ poor business climate and poor reception of out-of-staters. It would be a good way to attract all of the pro-density pro-walkability people to one place so that they weren’t scattered among a bunch of people who wanted lower-density towns. People could make it sustainable and renewable and otherwise buzzwordable. We could finally say, in all honesty, that America had caught up to Senegal.

Right now there’s a small movement for charter cities, but it’s usually considered the sort of thing that will only happen in the Third World. But California already has some legal provisions for a very weak form of charter city, and some parts of California are already getting kind of Third-World-ish. I don’t know whether it’s possible. But it doesn’t seem obviously harder than getting San Francisco residents to agree to add new housing at the rates that would be necessary to make a dent in the crisis.

Highlights From The Comments On NIMBYs

Quixote writes:

It’s odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias.

But just a few comments down, Lasagna says:

I despise (I’m choosing that word carefully) [New York City]. I still commute there every day, and I can’t stand it – the broken infrastructure, the horrible smells, the $14 for a yogurt and coffee in the morning, the massive crowds of unpleasant people (how could we NOT be? We’re walking through an open sewer). There’s a litany of other things that keep me permanently angry and depressed (just the thought of how much earlier I would have started a family if I didn’t live there….) I find it decadent, selfish, shallow – pick your bad adjective. I’ll stop now.

Where I live now is nice. We have a town we can walk to, a lawn for the kids to play on and me to mow, we cook at home, we have enough room for our family to live and the kids to get exercise, even indoors. There’s no WAY I’m giving that up so I can live in an apartment again, all so NYC can squeeze MORE people into its area.

If I had my way, we’d be much further away from the metro area than we are now, in a bigger, cheaper home with more land. But that isn’t possible; NYC is where my job is, and that’s that. Fine. But let’s not make things worse, and make NYC (and San Francisco, and DC, and Boston) even MORE indispensable generators of jobs. And please don’t think for a second that there aren’t sizable numbers of people like me, and like you, who do not want these things for our families […] Thanks for letting me rant. You should have seen the first draft of this thing. Twice as long, Scott. A litany of woes and anger.

This would be fascinating if it weren’t so predictable. One person describes NYC as “basically utopia”, and another person can’t stop ranting about how much he hates it and is glad to have escaped it.

In the same vein, from Cerastes:

“I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, …”

THIS!!! A MILLION TIMES THIS!!

The concept of living somewhere that isn’t green is literally nauseating to me, and the idea of a place that isn’t teeming with wild animals feels like suffocating. My house is in as wild a place as possible given my commute, budget, and region, and almost every room has a fully planted vivarium with an animal (as well as my office).

The amount of urbanist triumphalist crap drives me up the wall, as if these people cannot see why someone would not want to live in conditions far inferior to even low-quality zoos, or why someone might need to balance a job in a city with such desires.

Being 100% honest, I actually feel like there’s something genuinely wrong with people who don’t feel the need to spend time in nature, especially if they also lack pets. They’re like sterile androids in some sort of weird dystopia, utterly cut off from life.

I think this is why these discussions are so hard. People’s preferences on what makes an acceptable place to live differ so strongly, and in so many little ways, that I think a lot of the debate is just people screaming to have their existence acknowledged. It’s infuriating to feel like everyone around you is calmly assuming as obvious and universal, preferences that could make your life not worth living.

And that makes it tempting to come on too strong, to say that no, my preferences are obvious and yours are crazy. An earlier draft of the post suggested that people who enjoy living in San Francisco might be “lizardmen”; I deleted it on advice from more sober-minded friends. I assume it would have just made the lizardmen San Franciscans angrier, and made them talk even more about how they couldn’t stand living somewhere where they had to drive more. I get it. Everyone’s preferences exist, competing access needs, etc.

If cities are your personal Hell, then even if on some intellectual level you know that other people can tolerate them, it becomes hard to fight for subjecting more and more people to hellish conditions. And if cities seem great to you, and suburbs boring and stupid, then you start thinking anyone defending their suburb against urban encroachment must just be classist or racist or something.

FosterBoondoggle writes:

As far as I understand it, the gist of the complaint about YIMBYism here is that SA likes living in a lowish density suburb (Montclair? Piedmont?), thinks that’s his right, and fears the YIMBYs will try to upzone his neighborhood and fill it with condos and 5-story apartments. But if he’s been paying any attention to what YIMBYs (like, say, Brian Hanlon, head of CAYIMBY) are actually saying, it’s not that Montclair needs to be full of skyscrapers (it’s on a hillside with narrow streets, so that doesn’t make much sense). It’s that the parts of Oakland, SF, Berkeley, the peninsula, parts of the S. Bay that are accessible to people without a car (Rockridge, N. Berkeley, S. Berkeley near Shattuck, the area near the Apple spaceship in Cupertino) should be upzoned for greater density. Walkability is desirable to a lot of people.

It brings network effects, like stable and successful local businesses, good restaurants – e.g., College Ave. in Rockridge – that are net positive for everyone. It brings walkable access to mass transit, which reduces climate impact. Another net positive for everyone. It brings easier access to wilderness like the east bay hills or west Marin, because dense communities mean less sprawl. (Which is why the CA Sierra Club’s opposition to most current development, as captured by Scott Lucas here is particularly ironic.)

No one (I know, never say “no one”) is trying to upzone SA’s single family Oakland hills neighborhood.

Yes, a lot of the discussion of preferences above is completely irrelevant, because in the real world there will always be some suburbs and some cities (at least until the age of ecumenopolis).

When I say that YIMBYs are often right about their policy proposals but make me hate them anyway, that’s what I mean. There’s no reason these debates have to devolve into “suburbs and people who like them suck” vs. “cities and people who like them suck”, but they often do – and I admit I am personally guilty of reinforcing this.

(case in point: in accordance with the prophecy, someone definitely wants to upzone my single-family neighborhood)

From fluorocarbon:

I didn’t know what to think going into this article, but I ended up being fascinated with it for anthropological reasons. Is San Francisco really that horrible? Programmers live three to a bedroom? People play music all night at BART stations?

I would say that, though it’s an interesting post, it’s not really an accurate representation of the YIMBY movement outside of the Bay Area. When I think of the YIMBY movement, I think of organizations like Strong Towns. They don’t want giant towers, but rather fewer shopping malls and more pedestrian-centric development.

I’ve also talked to some people in Boston on the YIMBY/pro-development side. The arguments I heard from them are:

1 – parking requirements are dumb
2 – more inner suburbs should zone for multi-family units (triple deckers)
3 – there should be more mixed used developments
4 – increased density should be allowed close to public transportation (MBTA) stations
5 – there’s an absurd amount of red tape when developing anything and it should be reduced

These all seem reasonable to me and nothing on that list would destroy existing neighborhoods. But then again I find walkable multi-family neighborhoods (2-4 stories) with mixed use developments and narrow streets much more pleasant than either single family suburban car sprawl or Mega-City One huge Manhattan towers everywhere.

Okay, I vote that Team Gleaming Skyscrapers and Team Leafy Suburbs come together to burn the heretic.

Ana53294:

The equivalent cities by population in Europe [to San Francisco] would be Valencia, Seville, Leeds, Glasgow, Stockholm, Cologne, Frankfurkt. And they don’t suck as much. Most of them are quite pleasant.

You can have a greater density than San Francisco, a lower crime rate, a nice metro system, all while living in an apartment that is at a bikable distance to work and is much more affordable. With clean streets and no visible needles. For that, you need better sidewalks, good infrastructure, bike lanes, better policing and social policies, better public transportation, more parks (and close them at night). I lived in a city with the population of SF, and I never had anybody shout at me in the public transportation (although I usually biked). San Francisco is a high density city. Why isn’t it more bikable? that would reduce the strain on the public transport and the roads.

So, in order to fix all those things NIMBYs complain about, you just need to fire the entire SF city council, and hire a foreign one fix those issues separately from the housing issue..

I agree with this. Most of the US’ problems with dense cities are solveable in principle. But I would still feel more comfortable if the order went first, solve the problems, second, tell everyone not to worry about them because of how solveable they are. Otherwise, I think people are justified in having a high prior that the problems won’t be solved, just as they haven’t been solved so far, and so higher-density cities will indeed keep having all of these problems that make them hard to live in.

Andrew on why prices might go down faster than the models I quote predict:

I think that SF allowing moderately more housing would affect prices far more than what you suggest. Prices follow supply and demand, but prices also build in future expectations about supply and demand. Right now, SF works very hard to forbid construction. Therefore, you get lots of investors buying property. SF’s stance on denying construction affects demand as well as supply. If SF started allowing enough new construction that housing prices would stop going up, many of those outside investors would take their money elsewhere.

Atlas against worrying too much about agglomeration effects:

Increasing density in SF could make things worse, because…it will increase the economic benefits of living and working in SF? Enrico Moretti’s book the New Geography of Jobs did a good job explaining that there are a lot of positive effects that come from people living and working next to each other in big cities.

Gwern adds:

Yeah, that was my problem with #3’s summary. ‘It might not lower housing prices on net, all it might do is fail by creating billions or trillions of dollars in compounding new wealth through greater economic efficiency in a vital technological hub.’ Oh, is that all? Sounds like a pretty good way to fail.

DS against some of the statistics:

Unfortunately, the post’s numbers are based on a badly unrepresentative sample. 2008-2015 is right after the housing bust. This sample looks at housing construction at the single lowest period it’s ever been in modern American history.

The post tries to generalize from 2008-2015 to answer “how fast could we build.” But that’s like measuring unemployment in 2009-2011 or 1930-1934, and using it to answer how many people could have a job!

Even in Texas and California, they used to build a lot more apartment buildings than they do. The peak of American construction seems to have been 1965-1985. New construction permits in that period in (e.g.) California appears to have been about 3-4 times the rate of today. That’s more than fast enough to meet the standard set in your post.

Meanwhile, New York City has been seriously limiting new construction since about 1960, which makes citing Manhattan prices as evidence that allowing construction doesn’t work exactly backwards. (Fun fact: the NYT did an article showing that 40% of Manhattan’s already-existing buildings would be illegal to build today.)

If you want dense with lots of current construction, try Seoul, South Korea. There, rent-to-income is about 35% of average national income.

That’s equivalent to an SF Bay Area with a median rent of $2,000 a month (~35% of average California income), as against current typical rent of about $3,000/mo (~50% of average California income).

So if the Bay Area were as pro-housing as Seoul, over time you might cut housing prices by a third, and get a lot more people in.

Douglas Knight, on how growing cities doesn’t necessarily have to be disruptive for people who don’t like density:

Lots of people in the comments are equivocating or talking nonsense because they refuse to talk about details.

3% growth, doubling in a generation, sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you know it’s coming, then you shouldn’t buy the density you want, but a little less dense. And it is the plan. The State of California requires towns to build at a certain rate and most of them are just cheating. One of these days the State will take back the power of zoning and catch-up building will be disruptive, in part because it will be done at such a distance.

Whether 3% growth is disruptive depends on the details. If it’s smooth in place and time, it sounds pretty reasonable to me. Consider a town of 1 acre lots. Every year, tear down 1% of the houses and build 4 new houses on 1/4 acre lots. The character of the town will change, but smoothly. This shouldn’t disrupt the community, no more than the normal turnover, which is a lot higher than 1%.
Alternately, one could tear down 1/3000 of the houses and build apartment buildings for 100 people each. This would be much more socially disruptive. It would create more economic diversity. It would cluster newcomers, making them less integrated into the new community. This is the kind of thing the State will do, if it acts on its own. On the other hand, if the apartments are near train stations, it might not be as bad for traffic.

TheNybbler on whether cities have to be where the jobs are:

When cities were hollowed-out enclaves of crime and poverty, many employers set up in or moved out to suburban office parks and had plenty of productivity. Some even did that before the fall of the cities, Bell Labs being a NYC area example. Now cities are fashionable again and the suburban office parks are empty (except in Silicon Valley). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

wulfrickson is skeptical that agglomeration effects are really that bad:

The Zuegel piece that Scott linked in point 3 (arguing that agglomeration effects may mean that more housing => higher prices) was discussed pretty widely when it came out, and the consensus was that things could come out that way in theory, but the empirical evidence points in the other direction: agglomeration effects are probably not big enough. Here’s a bit of Twitter discussion. Another paper by French economists estimates that increasing a region’s population by 10 percent would increase costs of living by 0.3 to 0.8 percent, once housing supply adjusts to compensate (in the short run, it’s more like 1 to 3 percent). This isn’t anything to write home about.

peopleneedaplacetogo takes a wider perspective:

I expect my friends to keep moving to the Bay regardless of what happens with housing policy (since their employers can generally pay enough to make it worthwhile no matter how high rent is). But more broadly I think this kind of regional economic inequality is actually exacerbated by NIMBYism; for most of their history per capita incomes in rich US regions (like California) and per capita incomes in poor US regions (like Kentucky) were converging, but this trend stopped in the late 1960s right around when zoning became widespread, and subsequently reversed. Caps on production of housing near jobs made it hard for workers from Kentucky to fill labor shortages in California, but also weakened the bargaining power of the workers still in Kentucky who could no longer so credibly threaten to move to California. Everyone being free to move where they want can help those who don’t move too.

grendelkhan says that one reason California is especially bad is Prop 13:

Normally, these things scale reasonably: if you build more houses, the occupants pay property tax, and that pays for the fire and police service, the roads, power lines, water service, all that.

Prop 13 in California turns this on its head. Housing, even when it appreciates in value, doesn’t pay more in taxes. In fact, the real property-tax rate goes down due to the 2% annual cap on increases, which is generally below inflation.

California has an unusually high cost of living, largely driven by high housing costs. (Everything here is interconnected.) So infrastructure costs more there, because labor costs more. To raise the money for this, cities and counties issue bonds and raise sales taxes, and most of all, “impact fees”, where a new development pays tens of thousands of dollars to make up for the depressed property taxes of their neighbors.

And because commercial developments change hands more often (property taxes reset on sale), and commercial developers can afford larger impact fees, cities fearing a pension crunch approve more commercial than residential real estate; the incentives are such that every town wants someone else to be the bedroom community. So we add more jobs than places for workers to live, as well.

The pension crisis is very real, and cities are trying to make up for a broken revenue model. Infrastructure is pretty much off the table.

And from eternaltraveler:

I’m in SF bay and have been for the last 9 years because this is the best place in the world to find venture capital for anti aging biotechnology. The entire Bay is otherwise almost entirely horrible, but the alternative is certain death.

Uh, thanks for putting things in perspective, I guess?

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Steelmanning The NIMBYs

[Epistemic status: very unsure. I sympathize with many YIMBY ideas and might support them on net; this post is me exaggerating the NIMBY parts of my brain to a degree I’m not sure I honestly support. This focuses on San Francisco to make it easier, but other cities exist too. Thanks to Nintil for some of the bright-line argument in part four. Conflict of interest notice: I live in a lower-density part of Oakland]

Everyone I know is a YIMBY – ie “Yes In My Back Yard” – ie somebody who wants cities (usually San Francisco dominates the discussion) to build more and denser housing. This is a reasonable position, and is held by apparently-reasonable people – centrists, rationalists, economists, self-proclaimed neoliberals. Since everyone involved holds reason and civility as an important value, I would expect the discourse around housing to be unusually reasonable and civil.

I have a weird habit of encountering the best parts of some movements and the worst parts of other movements, in a way that doesn’t match other people’s experiences. And certainly I know many YIMBYs who are amazing people who I love. But as for the movement as a whole, I feel like apparently-reasonable people have dropped the ball on this one. Sorry for having to say this, but YIMBYism is one of the most tribal, most emotional, most closed-minded movements I have ever seen this side of a college campus. So much so that even though I agree with much of what it says, I cannot resist writing a 5,000 word steelman of their enemies just to piss them off.

So here are some YIMBY claims and why I cannot be entirely on board with them.

1. San Francisco is uniquely terrible at building new housing

San Francisco currently has just short of 400,000 houses.


(source)

Each year, it builds a few thousand new houses, for a long-term growth rate hovering a little above 0.5%.


(source)

How does this compare to other cities? I used data from Civic Dashboards to compare the housing stock growth rate of ten major US cities. They only had data from 2008 – 2015, so the analysis only includes those years. They find a higher SF growth rate than listed above, probably because growth has been increasing recently. Here’s what they got:

San Francisco is actually doing pretty okay. [EDIT: Commenter peopleneedaplacetogo points out a chart by metropolitan area rather than city, and using slightly different years, in which SF comes out looking quite a bit worse]

The problem isn’t that SF is building fewer houses than other cities in its league. It’s that demand keeps increasing so much that a normal amount of housing construction doesn’t help.

This might be an unfair objection, because the YIMBY argument might be that San Francisco is uniquely terrible at responding to demand for new housing, and this may be true. But it will important to get a sense for the range of levels of housing construction different cities are capable of, so we can better understand what scenarios are plausible in the next section.

2. Building more housing in San Francisco is an easy way to lower rents

Lowering rents in San Francisco is certainly important: a 1-bedroom apartment costs about $3500. At prices like these, city natives may have to move out because they can no longer afford rent. The lower- and middle- class citizens who work service jobs and maintain infrastructure either disappear or are faced with multiple-hour commutes from the nearest affordable area. Even tech workers with good salaries have to live in overcrowded apartments with multiple roommates to make ends meet. Facets of a good life that depend on having lots of space – like having social gatherings or raising a family – become almost impossible.

The laws of supply and demand suggest that if San Francisco built more housing, the price would go down. This is the foundation of YIMBYism, and it’s basically correct.

But how much would price go down? This requires some economic modeling, which has luckily been done for us.

The San Francisco Examiner follows a paper by Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu that estimates a 2% increase in housing will cause a 3% decrease in rents. On the other hand, by the time San Francisco has finished building 2% more housing, the population and demand will have increased, meaning that a large portion of the gains will be expended just staying in the same place. They come up with a model that accounts for this, and set themselves a goal of decreasing the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment to “only” $2100 – at least we can’t accuse them of being too ambitious!

They find that this would require a 2.5% housing stock growth rate maintained over twenty years. Going back to the graph from before:

No large US city was able to attain this rate in the eight year period my data comes from, including cities experiencing tech booms during those years. Austin, Texas was able to come close. But at the time, Austin had a population density of 2,500/sqm. San Francisco has a density of 19,000/sqm. Building new houses is easy if all you have to do is clear away tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes – and Austin still only made it up to 2%. We’re expecting San Francisco to clear away existing neighborhoods and angry anti-development activists, and reach 2.5%? And maintain that rate for twenty years?

[EDIT: Commenters point out that the time period my data covers is unusually bad for housing growth. Austin’s records show it was able to grow faster – 4.8% – until 2000, although during that time it was a very small city expanding into mostly empty space. Since 2000, growth has averaged about 2.8%, which is slightly faster than the SF scenario above.]

And even if it works – even if the city can do the impossible – that only lowers rents down to $2100 for a single-bedroom apartment.

Experimental Geography uses broadly the same model, but asks a different question: how much does San Francisco have to increase housing just to tread water and not have rents keep going up? You can read their reasoning at the link, but the answer is “1.5%”:

This seems potentially achievable, but still difficult. A paper by the Federal Reserve finds similarly grim results. I’m not aware of any models that have come to the opposite conclusion.

True, every little bit helps. But affordable housing advocates frequently say that complicated policies like public housing or subsidies are necessary to help poor people who want to stay in high-cost cities. I often hear YIMBYs push new construction as an alternative to these measures, saying that all we need is increased housing supply. But even in the best-case scenario, increased housing supply will take decades to do anything, and lower-income people are at risk of losing their houses now. And even in the best case scenario, increased housing supply will just make apartments slightly more affordable. It’s less likely they can let low-income people live comfortably in the city, or high-income people comfortably raise families there.

3. But at least building more housing will make things a little better, and it certainly can’t make them worse, right?

Devon Zuegel points out that we’re really not sure if that’s true. Why does Manhattan have higher land values than Kansas? Because people want to live where other people (and jobs) are. The denser you make a city, the more other people and jobs will be there, and the higher the land values will get.

Or to put it another way – suppose San Francisco dectupled its housing growth for decades, until it was packed border to border with skyscrapers, and was exactly as dense as Manhattan. In a simple supply-based model, the glut of supply should make rents crash to only a few hundred dollars a month or less. But in actual Manhattan, single-bedroom apartments cost $3800 a month – even more than in San Francisco! If your theory predicts that turning a city into Manhattan will make rents plummet, then consider that turning Manhattan into Manhattan made rents much worse, and so maybe your theory is wrong.

Devon points out that she cannot calculate the coefficients here, so she is not sure whether building more housing will make rents go down (because of supply and demand) or up (because of the Manhattan effect). But we might consider Austin a natural experiment. The model above found that if San Francisco grew housing at 2.5% per year for twenty years, rents would go down by a third. But Austin grew housing by 2.0% per year for about twenty years, and during that time, the average cost of a house doubled. I am not sure San Francisco, which starts from a much higher baseline density, would see the same trend. But at the very least, agglomeration effects suggest all of the terrible and pessimistic models above are still overly optimistic.

Tripling San Francisco’s housing rate until it’s higher than any existing American city, and maintaining it at this rate for an entire generation, might make one-bedroom apartments cost “only” $2100. Or it might do less, or nothing, or make things worse. Right now we don’t know.

4. Holdouts who oppose development are inexcusably selfish, or hate poor people, or are racist

If you want to see real loathing, don’t ask a communist about the rich, or a Trump voter about immigrants. Ask a YIMBY what they think of landowners in a nice quiet part of the Bay who don’t want San Francisco spreading to their area, or who don’t want the BART light rail line connecting their city to San Francisco.

And if you want to see great acting, don’t go to Hollywood or Broadway. Wait for a YIMBY to start monologuing their impression of what these people are like. The exact script differs from person to person, but always includes liberal use of phrases like “the poors”, “brown people”, and “I’ve got mine”.

But I sympathize with these landowners. San Francisco is easy to hate. Even a lot of the people who already live there hate it. They hate the streets piled with discarded needles and human waste. They hate the traffic (fifth worst in the world) and the crime (third most property crime in the US). They hate living five people to a three-bedroom apartment. They hate having aggressive people scream incomprehensible things at them on the sidewalk. They hate the various mutually hostile transit systems that interlock in a system I would call byzantine except that at least you could get around medieval Constantinople without checking whether the Muni and CalTrain were mysteriously failing to connect to each other today. They hate that everyone else in the city hates them, from visible KILL ALL TECHIES graffiti on their commute to work, to a subtle mood of seething resentment from everyone they meet. They hate the omnipresent billboards expecting them to have strong opinions on apps.

I’m not saying everyone in San Francisco hates it. There are people who like all sorts of things. Some people like being tied up, whipped, and electrocuted by strangers. And a disproportionate number of these people live in San Francisco. I am just saying this isn’t a coincidence.

And I sympathize with the people who don’t want BART stations near them. BART stations are also easy to hate. I have a friend who ended up needing stitches after ill-advisedly walking too close to a BART station late at night and getting robbed and beaten up. One of my patients is currently freaking out after their friend ended up in the hospital for the same reason. Some women avoid getting beaten up, but still have stories of getting groped or sexually harassed. BART stations tend to collect a penumbra of litter, drug use, weird people playing incredibly loud music at all hours of the night, weird people shouting at each other at all hours of the night, and the never-dissipating stench of marijuana mixed with urine. This stuff is usually just background noise, but it did make the news last year when forty to sixty teenage thieves took over a BART car in the station and robbed and beat up the passengers, and then again earlier this summer when there were three unrelated murders at BART stations in one week. These don’t seem to have been gang shootouts or anything – they were just people trying to get on their train and getting randomly murdered instead. I am very aware I could get murdered every time I get on a BART. Last time I got off one (three days ago), there was a guy standing in front of the door shouting “FUCK YOU KKK WHITE BITCH” at any woman (of any race) trying to enter or leave the station. Nobody found this surprising or unusual. It’s just what BARTs are like.

But tell a YIMBY that someone, somewhere, is against having a BART station in their neighborhood, and it’s like waving a red flag at a bull.

Maybe clear-cutting everything in the way of San Francisco’s expansion is the utilitarian correct thing to do. Maybe it would increase the US economy so much that we can’t afford not to do it. But Thomas Hobbes wrote that sovereigns may not demand someone go willingly to their death, because resisting death is such a natural human urge that people in the state of nature could not sign it away when forming a primordial state. And some European countries don’t count resisting arrest as a crime, because they consider freedom so fundamental that nobody can be blameworthy for trying to protect it. I believe some people need to have BART stations near their houses, just like some people need get arrested or be executed. But resisting each of these seems so natural and fundamental that I am unwilling to blame anyone for trying. I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, and that the campaign against people who want to keep their suburbs suburban doesn’t take this into account.

I have heard YIMBYs counter that we don’t have to turn Marin County into San Francisco II, that there’s a balance between trying to preserve what’s good about a place and reflexively opposing all new development. But on slippery slopes where a coalition of people with slightly different preferences are trying to coordinate, drawing a bright line and refusing to cross it is the theoretically correct solution. This is especially true when each new development brings in new voters who may be less attached to the current nature of a place and more willing to vote in future development. Sometimes the only stable solution is just to not get on the slope.

And I have heard YIMBYs counter that if people don’t want to live in an urban environment, they shouldn’t have bought a house in a city. But they kind of didn’t. They bought a house in a medium-density suburb, then some other people came and said “No, this has to be a city”. If they give up, let San Francisco spread to their current home, and move to another medium-density suburb, what’s to prevent other people from trying to urbanize there too? Is our social technology just totally unable to deal with the problem of “how can we let people who want to live in a medium-density suburb live in a medium-density suburb?” Wasn’t the solution supposed to be “these people all gather together, start a community together built to their unique specifications, incorporate, and then pass laws about what their community can or can’t include”? What was wrong with that solution? Some people can’t tolerate the big city – what do you want them to do? Sell their house, leave all their friends and family, and try to start again somewhere else? You think that’s an exaggeration? If where I live became more like San Francisco, I would do that. Lots of people would!

I’m not saying there aren’t compelling reasons to urbanize less-dense areas. But I do feel like there’s a missing mood here that makes me really upset whenever I hear YIMBYs talk about this.

5. Even if building more housing doesn’t lower costs, it will at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so.

I don’t like the “even if” framing.

If you have been pushing a claim for years, and it turns out you were wrong, then you owe it to the people you have been disagreeing with to say “oops” and take a moment to worry about whether you should lower your smugness level in general. I try to do this when I remember, though I am not always good about it and of course I am limited by my ability to catch and correct my own mistakes.

(I have sometimes been guilty of pushing the “all we need is more housing claim”, so, uh, oops, sorry, upon doing more research I see I was wrong)

The opposite of this is saying “Even if that’s not true, this other thing supports my point”, without explicitly conceding anything at all.

5b. Okay, sorry. Oops, I was wrong about the housing prices. Now that I’ve said that, don’t you also think that building more housing would at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so?

This is a good and important point, and I think the strongest one in the YIMBY arsenal. I am not really against it, but I can think of two qualms I have with it.

The first is that the argument for ignoring the costs of new construction to existing communities have always relied on the humanitarian necessity of lowering rents for the disadvantaged. If all we’re trying to do is be able to pack a few more people who can pay $3500 a month in, the humanitarian necessity seems less pressing.

But second, bringing more people in helps trap the economy in the same dynamics that caused this problem in the first place.

Some people really enjoy living in dense cities like San Francisco. Other people, for the reasons listed above, really prefer not to. Many of the people who prefer not to are in San Francisco anyway. I signed up to work in the suburbs, but just before I started, my group begged me to work a few days a week in San Francisco because that was where they needed more doctors. I grudgingly agreed. During my time there, I treated depressed San Francisco residents. One refrain I heard again and again was that they hated living in San Francisco, but had come anyway because their company pressured them, or because their companies would pay them extra, or because that was where all the best jobs in their industry were. These people’s long-term plan was to use San Francisco as a springboard to gain enough money or career capital to be able to achieve their dream of leaving San Francisco.

Alon Levy describes the same thing his In The Mines, where he compares the outlook of people moving to San Francisco to that of people working in mines or oil rigs. Nobody likes working in a mine or oil rig. They go there because it pays really well, and if they grin and bear it for long enough, they can pay off their debts or save for the future or do something that allows them to live in a place that isn’t a mine or oil rig:

. People who work on oil rigs, which as a rule are placed in remote locations, get paid premiums. Remote locations with oil have high incomes and high costs in North America, but even the Soviet Union paid people who freely migrated to Siberia or the far north extra. The high wages in this industry are especially remarkable given that the workers are typically not university-educated or (in the US) unionized; they cover for poor living conditions, and a hostile environment especially for families.

I bring up this background because of conditions that I’ve heard second-hand in San Francisco. When I first heard of university-educated adults living several to a bedroom, I assumed that it was a result of extremely high rents and insufficient incomes. But no: I am told a reasonably transit-accessible two-bedroom in San Francisco proper is $5,500 a month at market rate, which is affordable to a mid-level programmer at a large tech firm living alone or to entry-level programmers (or non-tech professionals) living one to a bedroom.

And yet, I’ve heard of Google programmers living two to three to a bedroom in Bernal Heights, not even that close to BART. I’ve also heard a story of people near the Ashby BART stop in Berkeley renting out their front porch; the person sleeping the porch was not a coder, but some of the people living inside the house were.

I have not talked to the people in these situations, only to friends in Boston who live one person (or one couple) to a bedroom, even though they too can afford more. As I understand it, they treat the Bay Area as like working in the mines. They earn a multiple of the income they would in other industries with their education and skills, and have no particular ties to the region. (Some East Coasters have taken to use the expression “drain to the Bay,” complaining that friends in tech often end up leaving Boston for San Francisco.) The plan is to save money and then retire in their 30s, or take a lower-paying job in a lower-cost city and start a family there.

But people have to grudgingly endure poor conditions aboard oil rigs because they’re the only place you can pump oil. Why do they need to grudgingly endure poor conditions in San Francisco?

My understanding is that some industries like technology benefit from centralization. The more programmers are in a city, the easier it is to run a tech company there. The more tech companies are in a city, the easier the job search is for programmers. The more entrepreneurs are in a city, the easier it is to be a venture capitalist there. The more venture capitalists are in a city, the better it is to be an entrepreneur. Add useful infrastructure like Y Combinator and Triplebyte and maybe everyone in tech benefits from being in the same place.

This raises the possibility of a classic inadequate equilibrium, a situation that nobody likes but everyone is stuck in. For example, even if people don’t like Facebook’s privacy policy, interface, or anything else about Facebook, they mostly stick with Facebook because that’s where all their friends are and they’re not coordinated enough to move at the same time. Even if neither passengers nor drivers like Uber, they might use it anyway, because the passengers know that’s where they’ll get a driver soonest, and the drivers know that’s where they’ll get a passenger soonest, and nobody acting alone can break out of the trap.

But if centralization really increases productivity, hasn’t the market decided this is the best solution? I see two ways this might be false. First, it could be that centralization happened in the wrong place – that, if anyone had been able to centrally coordinate, the tech industry should have ended up in Austin or somewhere else that’s well-planned and has lots of geographical room to expand into. Second, it could be that centralization is just a game of keeping up with the Joneses. If there were no San Francisco, then some company would still end up employing the best programmer. But given that there is a San Francisco your company might have to move to San Francisco or have no chance of luring them away from all the companies that have.

Imagine that rising sea levels or something force the evacuation of the Bay Area. Google moves to San Diego, Facebook moves to Santa Barbara, and Twitter moves to San Rafael. Five years later, when Google programmers are sipping daiquiris on the beach in San Diego outside their affordable four-bedroom homes, are they thinking “Man, I wish I was in a crowded unliveable city with multiple inconsistently-connected transit networks right now”? Or are they happy that the option of not living in San Francisco suddenly opened up for them?

The other reason I often hear why people move to San Francisco even though they hate it is because everyone in their subculture is there. Lots of subcultures – queers, hippies, rationalists, etc – seem to be centering in San Francisco. But this might have similar dynamics to the tech situation. Suppose you’re a hippie living in St. Louis, and you’ll be happy as long as there are at least fifty other hippies to form a thriving hippie scene. All the other hippies in St. Louis have some number of other hippies they need to be happy. We can imagine a domino effect where one hippie leaves St. Louis, that causes another hippie to go beneath their threshold and leave St. Louis, that causes more hippies to go beneath their threshold, and so on, until there are no hippies in St. Louis anymore and you have to move to San Francisco or remain tragically un-hip. In this case, the best-case scenario for most St. Louis hippies is that the outflow to San Francisco is limited, so that St. Louis isn’t depleted of its hippie population as quickly. This is also good for hippiedom in general, since there might be proto-hippies in St. Louis who would join the scene if it existed, but who will never convert if all the St. Louis hippies are gone to SF.

(if it sounds like I’ve been thinking about this a lot, that’s because exactly these dynamics have been shaping rationalist communities in cities around the world for the past 5-10 years).

The hyperbolic worst case scenario is that centralization dynamics are too strong, and as more and more people move to San Francisco, life becomes harder and harder for the few remaining stragglers, until finally they give in. San Francisco becomes more and more crowded. Rents increase (through the process mentioned in part 3), number of people per bedroom increases, traffic increases, crime increases. Finally everyone lives in San Francisco, everyone hates it, and nobody can move out – unless they want to give up any chance of working in tech, and spend their entire life talking about cars and football with people named Bud. “San Francisco is unliveable, but at least we’ve made sure lots of people can live there!”

So the counterargument to “Every new housing unit built lets one more person move to San Francisco” is “Every new housing unit prevented saves one person from having to live in San Francisco”.

6. There are no alternatives

I’m not sure this one is wrong.

The argument in Part 5 seems much weaker than the other arguments – so weak that we should probably keep our usual policy of erring on the side of letting people live where they want.

And even if we didn’t want that – even if we thought centralization was a big problem that has to be fought against – it seems weird to leave the fight to crotchety old homeowners worried about noise pollution, and to hope that their self-interest coincidentally creates the world that is best for everybody.

I know there are a lot of urbanists who hate suburbs. I don’t. I grew up in a suburb consistently included in those Most Liveable Towns In The US ranking. It was really nice, and I often remember of it fondly when dealing with the stresses of living in slightly-more-urban Oakland due to me being a dirty rotten defector and participating in the centralization dynamics above. I wish for a world where everyone who wants has a chance to grow up in a nice suburb like that, and I don’t want anyone to have to live in a place like San Francisco unless they’re genuinely into that kind of thing.

I wish for a world with perfect coordination, where half the population of San Francisco decides to move to Helena, Montana at the same time. Half the number of tech companies in San Francisco ought to be enough tech companies for anybody, and the wide sky and endless plains would be a nice change of scenery. I wish for a world where hippies collectively choose Augusta, Maine as the new hippie capital, and so all of the hippies can move there and have great hippie culture and not have to fight with techies for the last $3000 apartment in the Mission.

I’ve heard some people say the federal government should take an active interest in decentralizing tech, since right now one well-placed tsunami could wipe out the United States’ entire technological advantage. I don’t know if this would be a good idea. I’ve heard other people say maybe we can just use virtual reality offices and VR teleconferencing to avoid the need for living anywhere in particular at all. I don’t know if this would be a good idea either.

Since none of those things will ever happen, I don’t know how to get to any of the worlds I want. If there are processes that favor centralization, I don’t know how to fight those processes. I don’t know if there’s some affordable housing policy that would really work. I don’t know if there’s something that balances the interests of every demographic. But I do think that just building more houses won’t, on its own, be a solution to the problem.

Open Thread 111.5: Announcements And Surveys

This would normally be a Hidden Open Thread, but it’s visible so I can make more announcements:

1. Adversarial collaborators should email me (at scott[at]shireroth[dot]org) their payment details (Bitcoin, Paypal, or preferred charity) by next Sunday. If I don’t have your details by next Sunday, I will pay the entire prize to your collaborator who did give me their details. If I don’t have either person’s details by Sunday, I will keep the money.

2. One month ago, I discussed research into carbon dioxide in bedrooms. Some commenters told me they were going to change their ventilation based on that post. If you did so, I’d like to know how it went. Please take this short survey.

3. This is still an off-weekend thread, so no culture war discussion, please. But if you want, you can take a a short survey about the Kavanaugh hearings.

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Adversarial Collaboration Contest Results

Thanks to everyone who participated or voted in the adversarial collaboration contest. The winners are:

Grand Prize ($1000): Does The Education System Adequately Serve Advanced Students?

Editor’s Choice ($500): Should Transgender Children Transition?

Honorable Mentions ($250): Should Childhood Vaccination Be Mandatory?, Are Islam And Liberal Democracy Compatible?

I’m sorry for jerking the number and value of the prizes around so many times, but I wanted to balance my preferences, the contestants’ preferences, and readers’ preferences – and this was the best way I could think of to do it. Nobody has gotten less money than they expected, although some prize categories have gotten more money than I originally said. In the end I could not in good conscience let any of these escape without getting a prize. Thanks to this blog’s Patreon supporters for making this possible. All winners should email me with their preferred form of payment (I can do Paypal, Bitcoin, or donations to a charity of their choice).

The overwhelming winner of the popular vote was the collaboration on education. I agree this one was excellent. It cited a lot of research, analyzed it very well, and mostly came to conclusions. Its only flaw from my perspective was a lack of focus; it discussed many different educational interventions, some of which were similar enough that it was hard for me to keep track of what was going on.

I chose the collaboration on transgender children. I thought it did an exceptional job of addressing a specific hot-button issue many people are concerned about, presenting all the evidence on both sides, and mostly coming to conclusions. My strongest complaint was that it ignored some of the potential side effects of puberty blockers which commenters pointed out, and sort of trivialized bone problems that are not trivial; given that the side effects of puberty blockers was a major crux of this question, I found that to be a major weakness. I was still very impressed with the piece’s ability to break down and navigate such a controversial question.

The first honorable mention, the collaboration on childhood vaccination, was also a great example of navigating a controversial topic. It seemed to come closest to outright saying one of the two sides was correct – though see the commentary below for more on that. I had to take off points because the conclusion – that lots of countries get away without having mandatory childhood vaccinations, so surely America can too – seemed overly simplistic. Those other countries might maintain high childhood vaccination rates because of cultural differences, or a different (eg socialized) health system, or lots of other things that might not generalize to the US. Again, this was the crux of the issue, so minor flaws here are very important. The section on the hygiene hypothesis, while fascinating, seemed kind of unfocused to me and probably could have been much shorter.

The second honorable mention, the collaboration on Islam and democracy, was maybe the most thoroughly researched, but also seemed the least structured. The writers chose to list democratic and undemocratic features of six Islamic countries. Since they found one Islamic country (Tunisia) that seemed pretty much like a liberal democracy, they concluded the two were compatible. But in real life, when people ask whether Islam and democracy are compatible, I imagine them wondering things like “Are Muslim countries less likely to be democratic than other countries?” or “Is the Muslim religion one reason why there is so little democracy in the Middle East?” or “In mixed countries, do Muslim populations resist democratic norms?” The collaboration’s focus on listing the particular features of particular Muslim countries’ institutions seemed like a really complete answer to a really boring question.

I asked the various collaborators to send me their reports on the process. Their answers are below, or scroll down to the end of the blockquotes for my summary.

TracingWoodgrains from the education collaboration:

My adversarial collaboration was similar to how Kahneman describes his experience (https://pastebin.com/d6cbN765): a “failure to disagree.” When Michael and I zoomed into an issue at the object level, we usually agreed. Then we’d zoom out and realize we used that object-level detail as part of two drastically different narratives. I have no education credentials besides having been a deeply frustrated student; he was a happy student and now enjoys teaching. That dichotomy between teacher and student, happy and unhappy, defined our perspectives.

Going in, I was confident that tailored curriculum involving ability grouping could help advanced students progress up to 4-5 grade levels above where they are now, that school is a deeply harmful place for many advanced students academically and socially, and that education should follow the principles of game design (using online tools to allow students to progress at their own paces while encouraging them to progress quickly).

Our project was extensive and far-reaching, mostly due to our disagreement and Michael’s tireless willingness to keep working with me. We approached it as a research project more than anything else, which mostly meant “toss all relevant-looking research and related writing towards each other, read it manically, and see where and how disagreements bubbled up as we were learning.” At the start, I was coming from a position of near-complete ignorance towards the state of specific research on ability grouping, though I had passing familiarity with acceleration research and what I felt was a comfortable understanding of the (poor) state of research around online education. So a lot of my “position-shifting” was learning:

I learned that tracking, in a traditional sense, had much weaker evidence than I was anticipating, but the more it looked like what my intuitive view of its ideal, the better it fared. So: few peer effects, strong effects based on curriculum change, strongest impact based on diagnostic testing and precisely tailored curriculum. My views on acceleration as a useful, underfocused stopgap measure did not change. My understanding of the complexities of the education system, and why it was so far from what I hoped to see, grew tenfold. Michael’s pressing reminders of the competing purposes of education and experience in the field helped me a lot there.

That’s most of the small stuff. I had two genuinely paradigm-shifting experiences: First, on the happiness of advanced students. Typical mind here–I’d always just assumed that most advanced students were bored, held back, and miserable in school. It seemed one of the most obvious things in the world to me. But it’s really, really hard to find any of that in the research. Most studies indicate them enjoying school more than other students, (tautologically) performing better, and having lower incidence of mental health issues. My view shifted to intelligence as a potential intensifier for other risk factors (ADHD, autism, etc.), but not as the core cause of student frustration in school. My belief that the “smart kids” who are bored and miserable in school tend to be underprioritized and mis-served remains largely unchanged, but I have a very different view of this group.

Second: Michael pointed me towards noticing the apparent mediocrity of a lot of schools implementing some of the digital/in-person hybrid instruction I dreamed of. Rocketship Schools, School of One, Khan Academy, and others grounded my expectations of any sort of revolution. At the same time, we discovered Art of Problem Solving, which is probably the best thing in the world, and seeing what they’ve done with online education and specifically math made me realize that people smarter than me have been doing a really good job on “my” project. So now I see less need of creating the right resources, more of expanding their availability and sifting them out from the sea of garbage.

Less paradigm-shifting, but significant, is that I grew to trust experts more as I noticed that when you dug deep enough, most of the serious researchers came to pretty similar conclusions but wrapped them in different narratives, and really bad ideas that filtered through were less because the serious researchers had really bad ideas, more because their messages got distorted or ignored to better fit political agendas and the vagaries of people’s opinions.

(Bonus areas where I didn’t change my view, just properly grew one because I didn’t know enough to have a view before: direct instruction as intriguing and mostly good, Joplin plan and nongraded schools as intriguing and oddly ignored, early childhood education as incredibly high potential in specific fields, a growing frustration with just how much politics has infected and damaged education)

One example best outlines our differences: Direct Instruction. Michael actually brought it up to highlight problems he saw with online schools–basically, pointing out that it works, but isn’t attractive at all, except in educational emergencies. I hadn’t heard of it before and got about as far as “it works” before getting really fascinated by its whole story. I looked at schools that use it, interviewed someone closely involved with it, read into it, and concluded that it had a lot of potential that was being neglected since people felt like it wasn’t how they “should” learn. That whole arc was never supposed to happen. It was an offhand example that he raised to dismiss. And my response was basically “this is amazing; how have I never heard of this before?”

That happened again and again–where I would see an unusual, academically intensive approach that got good results, we’d talk about it, and he’d ask, “right, but what’s the point?” Sorting by aptitude over age level, high-intensity accelerated math programs, early (pre-K) academics, so forth. It’s worth repeating–we almost never disagreed about what studies showed, just on the importance of particular studies and particular points. And that was enough to fuel a hundred pages or so of disagreement.

So, advice for future adversarial collaborations: First off, it can only work if both are very, very willing to talk about the topic–the whole topic, not only their pet issues within it. If you find yourself uninterested in a part of the topic the other person is passionate about, pay close attention, since that’s often the most important part of disagreement. Second, it takes a lot of time. We took more time than strictly needed because we both enjoyed the research and conversations, but I’d guess 50-100 hours is a reasonable amount of time to set aside. Third–expect to find a lot of disagreements that boil down to differing priorities and interpretations of object-level facts you both agree on. If you’re both reasonable and willing to work together, you may find little factual ground you disagree on, even while telling two very different stories of the big picture.

One last thing: Adversarial collaborations are a phenomenal thinking tool. This was the most satisfying project I’ve worked on, bar none, and the best learning experience of my life. Talking in depth with someone who disagrees with you is incredible. If both agree, it’s hard to sustain a conversation, but the second someone says something wrong-seeming, it spurs a sort of need to respond, a creative burst. I read more research and focused more on that topic than I have at any other point, even though education has been one of my core interests for a while. Michael was the best partner I could have asked for on the project. I expect that we’ll still talk about wildly different things moving forward: I still love the potential in online learning, non-graded schools, and accelerated/intensive tools that depart dramatically from the current school model. Michael still loves teaching and working within the system mostly as it stands, and doesn’t trust most radical changes.

Thank you very much for organizing this contest. It was an incredible opportunity and a vital experience.

Michael from the same education collaboration:

I really want to give you something really detailed and good about our collaboration, but that would take a lot of work. Instead I’ll just give you the quick, stream of consciousness version.

When I first saw TW’s comment on your post, I thought his views on education were absolutely naive. I heard him expressing a love for game-based education, which I thought to be faddish and flashy in education but without much value. He also expressed that the strongest students were especially poorly-served by education. I thought that was dead wrong; smart kids would do fine, in general, out of school. Without checking, I can’t remember if he said anything about ability grouping. That wasn’t the point, anyway. What I heard was (sigh) another technophile education utopian who thinks that their own particular experience should be the basis of a system tasked with educating millions of children.

So we started chatting, and pretty soon we’d created an 150 page google doc. The doc contained our debates, annotated bibliographies, brief memoirs documenting our own experiences in education, etc.

I’m coming from all of this as a guy who was pretty conventionally successful in my academic life, and ended up in teaching almost by accident. In my professional life I’ve given a lot of attention to students who aren’t succeeding in my classes. Those are the situations that have made me the most passionate to put in extra efforts to help them. So things like volunteering to tutor a kid outside of class, to go over homework during my planning period, rethinking my pedagogical approaches.

At the same time, I had recently experienced a few cases in my honors elementary age classes that were making me think. And I was going back to work at a camp for talented math students.

So I’d say the real thing that changed me, through this experience, is I spent a lot of time thinking about students who find a class too easy, and what that can feel like. That was the most significant way that my views changed through working with TW. He consistently drew my attention towards students who are talented but unhappy.

I feel as if with what we wrote about technology, my views didn’t significantly develop through our collaboration. I think TW quickly learned that his tech optimism is future-optimism, not present-optimism, and that’s a change for him. But otherwise what we did there was more along the lines of finding a common narrative that we both thought important for people to understand the situation with technology and learning. That involved a lot of back and forth between us, as it’s hard to put everything in a way that satisfies both a pessimist (me) and an optimist (him). That’s how we conceived of this work, though.

A lot of the other things we did were more about fleshing out new conceptual territory than changing my views. I didn’t really have strong opinions about tracking or ability grouping. I was eager to learn something new, and TW was a great partner for working through the literature.

There was a lot of debate during this project, and we still disagree deeply. It’s hard to say who “won” our collaboration or who pushed who further etc. I’ve been reading about a lot of this stuff over the past 8 years. I don’t know how old TW is but he’s younger than me. I certainly urged him to read certain people who I thought were foundational, like Larry Cuban or David Labaree. A lot of this was very new to me though, and I was trying to integrate my experience in the classroom with my reading. I feel as if my strong views on gamification were quickly confirmed, and I also think that my view that smart kids mostly turn out alright were vindicated too. I’m sure TW has complementary ways in which he feels he shifted my views, though I’m not exactly sure what he’d say.

One thing that I think people haven’t given enough thought to is the differences between adversarial collaborations in different fields. Certainly there is a difference between medical research, economics research, comparative politics and education research. Each field has a different epistemology, and education research is a big tent containing many individual subfields. That means that TW and I had to do something that I love doing, which is figuring out how cog psych and big metanalysis and economic studies and case studies and history of education all fit together in a coherent whole.

So while I can imagine a briefer more focused write up for our collaboration, I think it’s possible that making sense of classroom questions is going to involve a lot more fuzziness and wandering than for certain other questions. We can’t just easily answer the question of whether top students are harmed by schooling. Compared to what? What’s the vision? What’s the purpose of schooling? That’s a question you don’t really need to ask about e.g. vaccines. The goal is to keep people alive without harming anybody else. I know there is some fuzziness there, but it’s just not the same magnitude.

One more thing, before I call it a night: by design, TW were non-adversarial in our collaboration. Early on, I sent TW an email where I said, you know what? We’ve figured out that we deeply disagree. I’m not interested in tallying points on whether my beliefs have been weakened or changed or your’s have. Instead, let’s just try to figure things out together. And that’s what we did.

I think a major question going forward is whether adversarial collaborations work best when you have an opponent or when things are framed so as to reduce opposition.

John and Christian from the Islam collaboration:

WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL POSITIONS?
JohnBuridan’s initial position was that it was highly unlikely that Islam consistently opposed liberal democracy. ChristianFlanery’s position was that intrinsic components of Islam operate contrary to liberal democracy.

HOW MUCH DID YOUR POSITION SHIFT, AND HOW?

JohnBuridan’s position did not shift towards the other side of the aisle; he still think the opposing position holds too large a generalization. He did shift his approach to the question from a theoretical approach to a more descriptive one. ChristianFlanery convinced JB that the logic of surveying the variability in Islamic political thought would require immense time and resources. It would end up requiring us to determine what different groups of Muslim thinkers and activists think of each other. CF convinced JB that a descriptive and historical framework would come closer to providing insights into how the diversity of Islamic political thought caches out in real modern day politics.

CF became more conscious about how new Islam’s interactions with liberal democracy are. This made him less confident in his initial position. Furthermore, CF now has high confidence that liberal democratic polities can be achieved in the right conditions. CF continues to believe that a fundamentalist component in Islam will always exist, but he is now agnostic about whether Muslim populations will be experimenting with liberal democracy well into the future.

HOW MUCH DEBATE AND ARGUMENT WAS THERE?

Constant unceasing debate, but in a context of high levels of trust. We did not fall victim to one-upsmanship or point scoring debates. Preexisting intellectual rapport allowed us to trust each other not to load the dice too much. Although each of us probably gave too much ground to other person in certain places throughout the paper – many of which the commentariat picked up on – we think that such tradeoffs made the work possible.

The key to resolving debate for us was an established process for the paper. Each had three countries to research and do the write up on, and each of us edited each other’s rough drafts. We wrangled over essentially every line of the introduction but had the patience for very long phone calls to resolve them. Oftentimes we would disagree and circle back to the disagreement a week later and come to a solution. We both agreed beforehand to try to only pick battles we thought worth fighting. Tense moments surrounded our discussion of the introduction, the conclusion, constitution, Lebanon, and Iran. Our longest back-and-forths concerned the introduction and conclusion.

IS THE CONCLUSION CLOSER TO ONE PERSON’S ORIGINAL POSITION?

Our conclusion is closer to the side of commensurability. Nonetheless it is fairly neutral, and we try to leave the door open for the reader’s own knowledge and expertise to affect the conclusion. Our goal was to provide enough background knowledge of some slice of the Islamic world from which a general reader could inform their own conclusions.

– Lots of readers were deeply concerned about how we chose the countries we did. We chose the countries before doing deep research, and we were looking for a few key traits:
1) majority-supermajority Muslim
2) culturally diverse
3) geographically distant from one another.
4) tractable to discuss (we did not feel that we could do Saudi Arabia or Pakistan justice, and we considered the possibility of many other countries.)

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FUTURE ADVERSARIAL COLLABORATORS?

Our main points were:
1) Establish high levels of trust beforehand. Discuss all sorts of topics and allow for a lot of freewheeling conversation about fundamentals before you buckle down to work.
2) Design a method and framework and develop a clear division of labor.
3) Split the difference wherever possible. We veered towards choosing the least controversial phrasing, but we also believe that a noncontroversial statement said well does a lot of good. Consistently work then discuss.
4) The fact that our topic was broad gave us plenty of thought-space to work with each.
5) Have a partner that is incentivized. We were both were enthusiastic about the Ad Collab format, confident we could make a contribution to the field of our topic, and the possibility of money was meaningful.
6) We both had time in our schedules. It was summer, and we both worked in academic and educational institutions at the time.

From Mark W, who wrote the pro-vaccine side of the vaccination collaboration:

WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL POSITIONS?

My initial position was that herd immunity is a compelling government interest, and that it is well within the power of a reasonable government to implement a mandatory policy in order to achieve this end.

Interestingly, the first part of this statement (that herd immunity is a compelling government interest) was not challenged by my collaborator, so I think we spent less time making the case in favor of herd immunity than we probably should have. This was likely a mistake on my part, as I should have been spending more time shoring up my side – even those parts we agreed on – as this was one of the areas some commentators found lacking.

(Of course, if you are adversarially collaborating in bad faith, you could choose to agree quickly and dismiss significant parts of your opponent’s argument so as to focus less energy defending their strongest points. I’m not saying my collaborator did that; I think he was arguing in good faith. I’m just saying that you could…)

On the second point, Mark Davis began by saying that he believes vaccines are a major causal factor in autoimmune and autoinflammatory disease. I responded that we looked at that angle back in grad school (about 10 years ago for me) and my recollection of the evidence was that vaccines are not a good explanation for this phenomenon.

HOW MUCH DID YOUR POSITIONS SHIFT, AND IN WHAT WAYS?

My position that mandatory vaccinations is good policy shifted to the extent that we showed it’s not required to achieve herd immunity. I would say that as a matter of public policy influence, the burden falls on the side opposed to mandates to persuade the public that there’s a better way. On the side of vaccines causing autoimmunity, I was not swayed much. I think it’s possible that mycobacterial vaccines contribute a little, but the problem is that there are too many types of mycobacteria, and families of protective/sensitizing commensals are so broad that a highly-specific intervention such as vaccination is unlikely to be able to wipe out a whole family like that and leave you sensitized to developing autoimmunity. Mark Davis wanted to put forward the hypothesis that not only are vaccines bad (because, he believes, they cause autoimmunity) but that the bad outweighs the good they otherwise cause. I felt that one point we made in the essay was that even if it turns out that vaccines contribute significantly to autoimmunity (a claim I don’t find much evidence for) he is presenting a false choice. The public health implications are not either disease control and unchecked autoimmunity, or unchecked disease and autoimmunity control. There are populations that don’t have disease exposure and that don’t have autoimmunity, and there’s no good reason to jettison vaccines and the positive good that they bring (which we both agreed on) out of a belief that otherwise we have to live with autoimmunity.

There’s one point that didn’t make it into the final essay – due to time constraints and narrative flow – I wanted to add. If you believe that autoimmunity is prevented by exposure to pathogens that are vaccinated against, this has dire ethical implications. It’s one thing to believe that the measles vaccine caused your child to get asthma. Even if you’re wrong and unpersuadable, your proposed solution will be to not vaccinate your child. If you believe that a lack of disease exposure caused your child to get asthma, you’ll want to actively work to ensure that all your children contract each disease you refuse to vaccinate against. Otherwise, it makes no sense to not vaccinate against something, if you think the causal mechanism requires exposure, too. Thus, there is an ethical problem here, not with allowing parents to opt-out of vaccination, but with allowing parents to actively seek to spread disease through their communities. If a parent drives around with an 18-month-old in the back seat with no seatbelt, then intentionally gets into a car wreck, they would be criminally liable – even if they were only caught attempting such a feat. There’s a good case to be made that intentionally infecting your child with a disease known to cause morbidity and/or mortality should carry criminal liability. Davis didn’t make this exact case, but it’s really the only natural extension of his claim. If you oppose vaccination on the grounds that you believe it’s necessary to experience disease exposure in order to protect against autoimmunity, you have to be willing to expose your children to disease.

HOW MUCH DEBATE AND ARGUMENT WAS THERE?

Most of the debate was about whether vaccines can lead to autoimmunity. This was the driving factor behind our time delays. We went through multiple drafts surrounding this point as a main focus of conflict. Davis sent a couple of articles suggesting some causal link between vaccines and autoimmunity. I sent back about a dozen more that argued causal link, no effect, and protection. I also pointed out that the review he sent me actively argued against his point, as did every other review on the subject I could find and multiple meta-analyses.

HOW DID YOU RESOLVE IT?

Davis maintained that this body of evidence was not sufficiently strong to persuade him. At the outset, we had agreed that the burden of proof lay with his side in defending an active harm perpetrated by vaccination. Given that the evidence trended in the opposite direction, he conceded to allow language that public policy should not discourage vaccination – on the condition that private individuals be enabled to disagree with public consensus.

IS THE CONCLUSION CLOSER TO ONE PERSON’S ORIGINAL POSITION?

I’m not sure. I’d say the first part (about mandatory vaccination) preserves my stipulation that elimination of mandates is only okay insofar as the objective of herd immunity is maintained. Thus, even though I capitulated, I did so within the realm of broader public policy objectives I believe in. For the second part, we probably stuck closer to my side, in that there was simply no way to advise public policy changes based on weak evidence of hypothesized harms. That said, there were lots of caveats and hedging.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FUTURE ADVERSARIAL COLLABORATORS?

Some thoughts on my experience:

– Time was definitely a factor. Repeat back-and-forth drafts took the most time, because one person would usually have it for a week or more before turning it back to the other person.
That means at least two weeks per draft. If something like this were to become a regular feature, I would advise future collaborators to allow extra time, and maybe wait to submit in a future round. – Every time I tried to add a strong statement, such as “we have no evidence to support [X]” “there is no reason to believe [X] and ample reason to believe [Y] instead” he would object. I suspect there’s a strong tendency as a collaborator to not capitulate your side.
– That said; I did end up capitulating on part of my side (the mandate part) because we stated at the outset under what conditions we would do so. My conditions were met (other countries without mandates achieve herd immunity, so clearly it’s not an absolute requirement, and some countries with mandates do not achieve herd immunity, so clearly it’s not sufficient), so I conceded that point.
– My collaborator stopped there, however, so the most we could recommend was, “sure they do things differently elsewhere, but we don’t really know what that entails; go look it up yourself.”
– We spent most of our time on the particularly contentious second part of the collaboration. This may have been why the first part was weaker than it could have been.
– The assigned titles tended to focus public discussion on what they thought was the main debate, but often that was either not the whole debate, or the debate had shifted as a result of the collaboration.

If you choose to do this again in the future, I would recommend a few changes:
– Have collaborators choose titles.
– Require collaborators to stake out one or two specific claims they wish to refute/defend a priori, and have that be outlined in the first part of the final submission. I know we mostly did this with the bolded statements, but not all of the positions made it into the final piece, so it was hard to tell where people were coming from.
– Have the collaborators include conditions that would be necessary for them to concede their positions. I feel like it would be within the role of a moderator to remand any concessions that are unrealistic, or not well-matched to the claim. (i.e. “I will be convinced once 1,000 years’ of RCTs have been completed.”)
– Require a concluding section that states whether the conditions were met, rejected, or uncertain – as well as what should happen moving forward.
– Where possible, include a third, impartial, moderating collaborator. This is theoretically the person with no horse in the race. If there’s disagreement, they can say to one side, “sure, but you’re not arguing based on the evidence anymore, you’ve been bested on that front; we need to draft stronger language that reflects the actual state of the evidence.”
– The SSC community is a great resource. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have used part of an open thread to discuss elements of the ACC. For example, asking an
international audience about what their on-the-ground vaccination experience is like in the UK/Ireland/France/etc. I should have done this unofficially, but it would also have been helpful to have an official, “first comment is for ACC contributors to ask the community for input”. That would also allow the rest of the community to contribute to the contest.

From a_reader, who wrote the anti-transition side of the transgender collaboration:

WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL POSITIONS?

My position was that “transgender children” (gender dysphoric children) shouldn’t transition in childhood – neither socially nor by suppressing puberty at 12 (or even earlier!)

Because a lot of them – percent differs among sources, but something between 30-90% – desist, cease to feel and act like the opposite sex. And that’s a better outcome: not needing surgery and hormones for the entire life, having less problems in society acceptance (even as gays/lesbians, as most desisters become) and in finding partners.

If dysphoria persists from 3 to 18, that’s it, transition may be necessary, but it’s better if it’s not necessary, if the problem ceases spontaneously.

Social transition in childhood (before adolescence) – that means name, pronouns, hairstyle, clothes of the desired gender – makes desisting more difficult. But puberty blockers at 12, I thought, can do worse: prevent the desistance from happening, stopping exactly the natural process that may have cured gender dysphoria, by the action of puberty hormones on the brain.

HOW MUCH DID YOUR POSITIONS SHIFT?

My position didn’t shift that much, but now I understand better why so many parents choose to let their children transition and take puberty blockers, how distressful gender dysphoria is for those children – anxiety, depressing symptoms, sometimes (at puberty) even suicide attempts – and social transition and even puberty blockers seem to alleviate it substantially.

I still consider (spontaneous) desistance a better outcome. And I still tend to think that maybe puberty blockers may stop that process. But I admit I didn’t found conclusive evidence (only circumstantial: all children on puberty blockers persist).

HOW MUCH DEBATE AND ARGUMENT WAS THERE?

Not much. In the beginning, flame7926 created a document shared by Google Docs, for documentation, where both of us wrote about the studies (and media articles and blog posts describing cases) we found. One found a study and wrote a few lines about it, then the other added their own observations – using different colors each of us at different times, so that in the end that document looked like a rainbow, matching the subject.

HOW DID YOU RESOLVE IT?

After the documentation stage, flame7926 asked me if I changed my position, I said not really, so after a short discussion, we agreed to not recommend for or against childhood transition, to just present all the evidence, the risks and benefits.

IS THE CONCLUSION CLOSER TO ONE PERSON’S POSITIONS?

The conclusion seems to be that there isn’t yet enough evidence for a firm, definitive conclusion. So it tries to keep a balance between our positions, resuming the evidence and admitting uncertainties.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FUTURE ADVERSARIAL COLLABORATORS?

I think besides conscientiousness, you need a degree of agreeableness and being a mistake theorist, not a conflict theorist (at least not about the subject); it is also important to have enough time (that is, quite a lot) and to find the subject interesting (but not essential, not among your main values – otherwise you risk to become a conflict theorist).

I was really lucky to have such a good “adversary” like flame7926, who in the end worked more than me: he wrote most of the final entry (as you probably have already noticed, I’m not a native English speaker). Seeing how many people were abandoned by their partners, I realize how lucky I was.

And from flame7926, who wrote the pro-transition side of the same collaboration:

I enjoyed the adversarial collaboration process and like the idea a lot. I think that it has the potential to produce very productive discussions and papers. I think it definitely can moderate individuals’ opinions – get them to recognize that many things aren’t so black and white.

To begin, I thought that transgender children should be allowed whatever options they want in terms of socially transitioning, while I had less strong of an opinion on puberty blockers (mostly because I didn’t know much about them). Honestly, I didn’t know that much about gender dysphoria or transgender expression in children and youth before commencing with this project, so my opinion wasn’t very formed. I did feel strongly though that we not present “desistence” as a preferred option because I think it is at least reminiscent of transphobic and homophobic attempts to convert individuals away from their identity – an often very traumatic and distressing process. And I thought that once you remove the idea that desistence is preferred (because I think it is very difficult to have that macro-level preference while remaining supportive of individual children on a micro-level) then social transitioning becomes preferred. I also thought that these cases of “desistence” might just be people expressing cross-gender behavior and not actual transgender identities.

I think my position moderated some towards a more even approach, and I can understand why parents and others would want children to desist from transgender identities (as long as this happens without trauma). I also stand stronger behind current research on desistence, in the sense that I do think there is strong evidence that a sizable fraction of children who express desire to either be the other gender or that they are the other gender will not express those same desires later in life. Yet I still think (and believe the evidence shows) that social support of children is extremely important (in terms of mental health), and I think denying their desire to socially transition can run counter to that. I also think the example of Samoa and other societies shows that gender dysphoric feelings are not constrained to our culture, but that the mental health associations are culturally contingent.

I would say there was some debate and argument. As a_reader describes in their response, we had a collaborative Google Doc broken down by topic, like social transitioning, puberty blockers, mental health etc. One person would pull some evidence from an article, the other person might pull some contrary evidence. Debate proceeded in that fashion, with more and more sources being brought in. There wasn’t that much overarching debate, but I think our topic was broad enough that it needed to be broken down in components in which we actually examined the evidence.

When it came time to write our paper, it seemed that neither of our positions had shifted that much. We presented the evidence, but I don’t believe there is currently enough evidence on puberty blockers to make a recommendation either way. Given that we did not end up agreeing on social transitioning, we could not recommend either way. I did end up writing most of the paper (at the request of my co-author) and am glad that we were able to produce something that moderated and expressed both viewpoints. I’m also proud of how we integrated quantitative evidence with more qualitative sources and anecdotal accounts, which I also feel are important when dealing with issues that are, necessarily, subjective.

In terms of advice, I think just being able to put in the time is important. Seeing the small number of projects that were completed, I wonder why so many dropped out. I’m glad I had such a motivated partner (I would say that they did more work than I did). I think that it is also important to be able to moderate your viewpoints and understand where your disagreements come from, even if you don’t end up reaching the same conclusion. I think that having someone else working can keep you on track, if you see them making process. I am curious how other groups divided up the writing on their projects (especially since I believe that most of them ended up longer than ours?).

My executive summary: almost no one changed their mind on the overall issue (a few people changed on smaller subpoints), but almost everyone moderated their opinion at least a little.

Some of the collaborations raised concerns I hadn’t considered. Although John and Christian were happy with their result and many other people liked their collaboration, I still can’t shake the feeling that they solved their intractable disagreement by avoiding their actual cruxes and searching under a streetlight they didn’t lose their keys near. If you force two people to write a mutually agreeable essay on a topic they can’t agree on, it’s probably hard to prevent them from inadvertently shifting to a slightly different topic where everything is cut and dried and factual and agreement is easy.

I was originally very excited to see the vaccine collaboration come out strongly in favor of “vaccines do not raise disease risk”, since it looked like someone had really changed their mind on a controversial topic – then disappointed again once I learned that vaccine opponent Mark Davis had not been convinced, but just agreed that the burden of proof was on him and he hadn’t met it by convincing his adversary. If I were a vaccine opponent, I would be pretty upset that the adversarial collaboration comes out strongly in favor of vaccines even though the two collaborators weren’t both on board.

And as a vaccine proponent, I worry that Davis’ magnamity in allowing the final result to be mostly pro-vaccine convinced Webb to “reciprocate” by being less forceful than he could have been in other areas, and not fight back too hard against the technically-true-but-fraught claim that other countries had higher vaccination rates than the US without mandatory vaccination programs. I don’t know if this really happened in this collaboration (from the write-up it looks more like they agreed on the preconditions under which they would give in, and maybe those weren’t thought out too well) but I think the two adversaries agreeing to “compromise” by each giving up on one of their key points, rather than really come to agreement or present their disagreement exhaustively, is a failure mode to be watched for.

This particularly bothered me in the vaccine collaboration because of another factor I hadn’t considered. I previously hoped adversarial collaborations could be a good match for “pseudoscience”, ie questions where the mainstream is overwhelmingly on one side but there are still some holdouts with an alternate narrative. Certainly these topics cry out for explanation, but the current paradigm – RationalWiki-type “skeptics” who make fun of pseudoscience with cheap shots – are really bad at convincing believers and usually mangle the theories they try to criticize. An adversarial collaboration format could make sure that debunkers have to address pseudoscientists’ strongest arguments – and that pseudoscientists’ supposed counterarguments to the debunking get addressed also.

I now worry that such collaborations would systematically end up legitimizing pseudoscience. If nearly everyone believes that some theory (UFOs, Bigfoot, etc) is false, and some prominent proponent and opponent of the theory do a collaboration, then even if everything goes great and the end result is mostly skewed to the opponent’s side, then there will still be a few compromises and places where the opponent gives into a little social pressure to frame things in a less-than-maximally-hostile way. So if the end result comes out 90% anti-Bigfoot – well, believing in Bigfoot 10% is more than most people currently believe in Bigfoot, so most credulous readers would update in a pro-Bigfoot direction. True, any debate between pro- and anti- Bigfoot factions will involve some pro-Bigfoot arguments that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise, but the adversarial collaboration format risks importing them into the final product in a way that makes it seem like they have a stamp of approval. I’m not sure this format is a good match for pseudoscience unless somebody finds a way around this.

Thanks to everyone who participated. I would like to do more with this format and will probably devote at least a similar amount of time and money to it next year; if anyone has ideas to improve the contest, or better ideas for promoting adversarial collaborations than another contest like this one, please let me know.