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Book Review: All Therapy Books

[Related: CBT In The Water Supply, Scientific Freud, Book Review: Method Of Levels, Different Worlds]


All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root!

All psychotherapy books bring up the Dodo Bird Verdict – the observation, confirmed in study after study, that all psychotherapies are about equally good, and the only things that matters are “nonspecific factors” like how much patients like their therapist. Some people might think this suggests our form of therapy will only be about as good as other forms. This, all therapy books agree, would be a foolish and perverse interpretation of these findings. The correct interpretation is that all previous forms of therapy must be equally wrong. The only reason they ever produce good results at all is because sometimes therapists accidentally stumble into using our form of therapy, without even knowing it. Since every form of therapy is about equally likely to stumble into using our form of therapy, every other form is equally good. But now that our form of therapy has been formalized and written up, there is no longer any need to stumble blindly! Everyone can just use our form of therapy all the time, for everything! Nobody has ever done a study of our form of therapy. But when they do, it’s going to be amazing! Nobody has even invented numbers high enough to express how big the effect size of our form of therapy is going to be!

Consider the case of Bob. Bob had some standard-issue psychological problem. He had been in and out of therapy for years, tried dozens of different medications, none of them had helped at all. Then he decided to try our form of therapy. In his first session, the therapist asked him “Have you ever considered that your problems might be because of [the kind of thing our form of therapy says all problems are because of]?” Bob started laughing and crying simultaneously, eventually breaking into a convulsive fit. After three minutes, he recovered and proceeded to tell a story of how [everything in his life was exactly in accordance with our form of therapy’s predictions] and he had always reacted by [doing exactly the kind of thing our form of therapy predicts that he would]. Now that all of this was out in consciousness, he no longer felt any desire to have psychological problems. In a followup session two weeks later, the therapist confirmed that he no longer had any psychological problems, and had become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a renowned pentathlete.

Not every case goes this smoothly. Consider the case of Sarah. Sarah also has some standard-issue psychological problem. She had also been in and out of therapy for years, tried dozens of different medications, none of them had helped at all. Then she decided to try our form of therapy. In her first session, the therapist asked her “Have you ever considered that your problems might be because of [the kind of thing our form of therapy says all problems are because of]?” Sarah said “No, I don’t think they are.” The therapist asked “Are you sure you’re not just repressing the fact that they totally definitely are, for sure?” As soon as Sarah heard this, she gasped, and her eyes seemed to light up with an inner fire. Then she proceeded to tell a story of how [everything in her life was exactly in accordance with our form of therapy’s predictions] and she had always reacted by [doing exactly the kind of thing our form of therapy predicts that she would], only she was repressing this because she was scared of how powerful she would be if she recovered. Now that all of this was out in consciousness, she no longer felt any desire to have psychological problems. In a followup session two weeks later, the therapist confirmed that she no longer had any psychological problems, and had become the hand-picked successor to the Dalai Lama and the mother of five healthy children.

Previous forms of therapy have failed because they were ungrounded. They were ridiculous mental castles built in the clouds by armchair speculators. But our form of therapy is based on hard science! For example, it probably acts on synapses or the hippocampus or something. Here are three neuroscience papers which vaguely remind us of our form of therapy. One day, neuroscience will catch up to us and realize that the principles of our form of therapy are the principles that govern the organization of the entire brain – if not all of multicellular life.


Maybe I’m being unfair here. I’m basing this off a small sample of therapy books (five textbooks I can think of, plus scattered papers on psychodynamic and psychedelic therapies), and only a subset are quite this bad.

But my basic confusion is this: I work in a clinic with about ten therapists. Some are better than others, but all of them are competent. I send my patients to them. In a few hundred patients I’ve worked with, zero have had the sudden, extraordinary, long-lasting change that the therapy books promise. Many have benefited a little. A few would say that, over the course of years, their lives have been turned around. But sudden complete transformations? Not that much.

Of course, this fits with the therapy books’ perspective. My colleagues practice normal therapy. Sometimes it’s from a boring old school like CBT; other times it’s “eclectic” or “supportive” or any of the other words we use to describe what we’re doing when we don’t know what we’re doing. So maybe there are two sets of therapies: boring old therapies that ordinary people practice, and exciting new therapies that people write glowing books about. And maybe the first set really don’t work (or work only a little), and the second set really is that good.

The problem is, the boring old therapies that everybody uses nowadays inspired equal excitement when they first arose. This is the point that I make in CBT In The Water Supply, and that Oliver Burkeman makes more cogently in Why CBT Is Falling Out Of Favor. Look at therapy books from the 1990s, and they were all about how CBT was a new miracle therapy that would cure your anxiety forever in a few sessions. From a cognitive therapy book:

[When I first learned about cognitive-behavioral therapy, I thought] depression and anxiety seemed far too serious and severe for such a simplistic approach. But when I tried these methods with some of my more difficult patients, my perceptions changed. Patients who’d felt hopeless, worthless, and desperate began to recover. At first, it was hard to believe that the techniques were working, but I could not deny the fact that when my patients learned to put the lie to their negative thoughts, they began to improve. Sometimes they recovered right before my eyes during sessions. Patients who’d felt demoralized and hopeless for years suddenly turned the corner on their problems. I can still recall an elderly French woman who’d been bitterly depressed for more than fifty years, with three nearly-successful suicide attempts, who started shouting “Joie de vivre! Joie de vivre!” (“joy of living”) one day in my office. These experiences made such a strong impact on me that I decided my calling was in clinical work rather than brain research. After considerable soul-searching, I decided to give up my research career and become a full-time clinician. Over the years, I’ve had more than 35,000 psychotherapy sessions with depressed and anxious patients, and I’m every bit as enthusiastic about CBT as when I first began learning about it.

But look at therapy books now, and they’re all people saying “Sure, CBT barely outperforms placebo…but what about this exciting new therapy which blows CBT out of the water?”

Studies reflect this decline:

…with the average studied effect size of CBT shrinking from 2.5 to 1.0 over the course of a generation. People have come up with various explanations for this. Maybe therapist quality is falling – when CBT was the hot new thing, you had to be a really plugged-in up-to-date therapist to have heard about it and to make the effort to retrain in it, so only the best therapists would practice it, but now it’s the default therapy used by everyone who’s just clocking it in. Maybe placebo effect is falling – when people viewed it as an astounding miracle therapy, it got astounding miracle results, but now that it’s lost its luster nobody takes it seriously anymore. Maybe its ideas are spreading, so that patients come into their first session already aware of CBT insights and inoculated against them. Or maybe it’s like all science, where the first studies are done quickly by true believers, and the later studies are done carefully by the Cochrane Collaboration, and so the level of hype naturally goes down.

These explanations have different practical implications. If it’s all about therapist quality and placebo expectations, then you should go get the exciting new therapies described in therapy books, since their unusually-qualified therapists and unusually-high expectations will deliver you the miracle cure you’re looking for.

If it’s just that study quality gets better and better until we realize how crappy the exciting new therapies really are, you might as well get the boring old therapies. At least insurance probably covers them.

And they also have different philosophical implications. If it’s all about therapist quality and placebo expectations, then even if it’s hard to deliver high-quality therapy consistently at scale, it means high-quality therapy is a thing. It means that if enough factors go right at once, therapy can be the kind of powerful tool that cures someone’s life-long psychiatric issues in a few sessions with a high success rate. If this is true it would be fascinating. It would be like saying that bananas cure cancer, but only if they’re really fresh bananas. Even if there are practical issues in getting every cancer patient a banana that’s fresh enough, you still want to take a step back and think “Whoa, what’s up with this?”

I can only say that I’ve had a few patients try the exciting new therapies, and none of them have reported miracle cures. They’ve all maybe gotten a little better over long periods, same as the boring old therapies. This makes me think it’s more likely that early results from the exciting new therapies get oversold, not that some combination of therapist skill and excitement makes them go shockingly well. And the Efficient Market agrees with my low estimation, given that therapists aren’t rushing to learn these new strategies and patients aren’t rushing to use them.

But the therapy books still confuse me. They’re full of stories of incredible instant cures, with the authors assuring us that these are all real and typical of their experience. How can you get this from merely “stretching the truth”, as opposed to outright data falsification? Are therapy book authors blatantly lying? I try to have a really low prior on this sort of thing, but I’m not sure.

Therapy books are often written by the researcher who invented the therapy. I imagine if you invent a therapy yourself, then it perfectly fits your personality and communication style, you believe in it wholeheartedly, and you understand every piece of it from the ground up. You’re also probably a really exceptional and talented person who’s obsessed with psychotherapy and how to make it better. So maybe they get results nobody else can replicate?

But that still raises the philosophical implication of it being possible, for somebody, to consistently produce dramatic change through therapy. This still bothers me a lot.


Most therapy books share some assumptions, so deep as to be unspoken: current problems serve some purpose related to past traumas.

Different therapies take this in different directions. Some view problems as a passive residue of past traumas: for example you were abused as a child, that filled you with stress and rage, and now you take that out on other people and yourself. Others view them as maladaptive learning from past trauma: for example, you were abused as a child, that taught you that other people would hurt you if you opened up to them, so you never open up to anybody. I don’t know the official name for this, but let’s call it historicism: symptoms are the result of something that happened in a patient’s life history.

Some weak forms of historicism are obviously true. Many (though not all) phobias began with a clear incident where the patient was endangered by the phobic object; someone mauled by a dog as a child who then has cynophobia as an adult is hardly a medical mystery. Many (though not all) depressions are precipitated by some depressing event. And post-traumatic stress disorder has the historical perspective right there in the name; at the very least, going through trauma dysregulates something inside you. But it’s a long way from there to saying that a patient’s psychosomatic blindness is caused by persistent shame at having seen their parents having sex thirty years earlier, or something like that.

And some therapy books go beyond historicism into purposefulism: symptoms serve some quasi-logical purpose relating to the life history. I recently read a therapy book that included a case like this. Bob had a history of failing at work. He would go from job to job, making various mistakes and doing crappy work until he got fired. He went to a therapist for help. During the therapy, it came out that Bob’s abusive father had always pushed him really hard to succeed. The therapist suggested that maybe Bob failed at work to send a message to his father; ie to prove that his father’s abusive parenting had been a bad idea and would not make Bob successful. The therapist asked Bob to imagine confronting his father about this. After he worked through his anger at his father, Bob was able to succeed at work. In this story, the apparently dysfunctional symptom (failing at work) ended up having a legible purpose within Bob’s life history (it helped him send a message to his father). Only by teasing out the purpose and finding some other way to achieve it could the dysfunctional behavior be prevented.

A non-historical, non-purposeful account might argue that Bob failed at work because he was bad at work. Maybe he was bad at the specific jobs he was holding (in which case he should get more training). Maybe he was bad at social skills (in which case he should learn to communicate better). Maybe he had ADHD and kept getting distracted (in which he should get treatment for ADHD). In any case, him being bad at work isn’t related to any past traumas or serving any hidden purposes. It’s just an unfortunate fact.

I am constantly worried by the history of how many things we historically applied historical-purposeful reasoning to, totally confident at the time that our explanations made sense – which we now know are not historical-purposeful at all. Psychologists “knew” that autism was caused by distant mothers, and schizophrenia by overbearing mothers, right up until we discovered both conditions are about 80% genetic. And when they “knew” these things, they were able to come up with long lists of how exactly each individual patient fit the mold, and reported great progress by helping patients overcome their maternal attachment issues. Back when homosexuality was considered a disorder, historical-purposeful therapists would tell gay people patients they must be so angry at their mother that they had sworn off all female companionship and switched to men instead as a way of sending her a giant “F–K YOU” message; while homosexuality is mostly not genetic, few people today think this is a plausible explanation.

I sometimes see if I can come up with these kinds of historical-purposeful accounts of my patients’ symptoms. These always fit into place freakishly well – so well that either the historical-purposeful perspective is completely true, or there is some very strong bias that makes it extra-convincing despite its falsehood. But we already know there’s some very strong bias that makes it extra-convincing despite its falsehood! That bias must have been at work in all the therapists who applied historical-purposeful narratives to autistics, schizophrenics, and gays! At some point I notice the road I’m on is littered with skulls and start wondering if I should reconsider.

All therapy books propose an answer: the proof is that the patients get better. But my patients do not get better. When I tell them the historical-purposeful accounts I have devised for their symptoms, they usually shrug and say it sounds plausible and they’ve thought along those lines before, but what are they going to do? When I try all the exciting new therapies on them, they just sort of nod, say that this sounds like an interesting perspective, and then go off and keep having symptoms. It’s very rude!

I’ve told this story before: when I was a teenager, I got really into pseudohistory for a while. What snapped me out of it wasn’t the sober historians, who totally went AWOL on their job of explaining why they were right and the whackos were wrong. It was that a bunch of mutually exclusive pseudohistories all sounded equally plausible: the Pyramids couldn’t have been built by Atlanteans and Lemurians and mole-people! At that point I was able to halt, melt, catch fire, and realize there was something really wrong with my reasoning processes, which I continue to worry about and work on twenty years later.

I bring this up because I’m going to be reviewing some specific psychotherapy books. Each of them on their own can be convincing. But they should be taken in the context of All Therapy Books, which as a category are pretty worrying.

More Intuition-Building On Non-Empirical Science: Three Stories

[Followup to: Building Intuitions On Non-Empirical Arguments In Science]


In your travels, you arrive at a distant land. The chemists there believe that when you mix an acid and a base, you get salt and water, and a star beyond the cosmological event horizon goes supernova. This is taught to every schoolchild as an important chemical fact.

You approach their chemists and protest: why include the part about the star going supernova? Why not just say an acid and a base make salt and water? The chemists find your question annoying: your new “supernova-less” chemistry makes exactly the same predictions as the standard model! You’re just splitting hairs! Angels dancing on pins! Stop wasting their time!

“But the part about supernovas doesn’t constrain expectation!” Yes, say the chemists, but removing it doesn’t constrain expectation either. You’re just spouting random armchair speculation that can never be proven one way or the other. What part of “stop wasting our time” did you not understand?

Moral of the story: It’s too glib to say “There is no difference between theories that produce identical predictions”. You actually care a lot about which of two theories that produce identical predictions is considered true.


Later in your travels, you come to another land. The paleontologists here believe the Devil planted dinosaur fossils to trick humans into doubting Creation.

You approach the paleontologists and argue the same point you argued with the chemists on your last stop – that if two theories make identical predictions, it’s still important to go with the simpler one.

To your surprise, the paleontologists know and agree. “Of course!” they tell you. “And in the dinosaur theory, there must have been, like, millions or even billions of dinosaurs. But the Devil theory explains everything with just one Devil.”

You argue that it doesn’t work that way, but the paleontologists insist that it does. After all, Occam says not to multiply entities beyond necessity. And if the dinosaur theory posits a billion dinosaurs, that’s 999,999,999 more entities than are necessary to explain all those bones.

Moral of the story: “Choose the simpler of two theories that make identical predictions” isn’t trivial. You actually have to understand some philosophy in order to figure out which of two theories is simpler.


You return home and curl up in front of the fire with a good book on quantum mechanics.

Renowned physicist Sean Carroll jumps out from behind you, and exclaims: “Don’t you realize that single-world interpretations of quantum mechanics make both the errors that you fought against abroad?”

You are startled. “This room is locked,” you tell him. “And how did you know what I was doing abroad? Wait a second. Are you secretly the Devil?”

“Untestable, therefore irrelevant!” says Carroll. You wonder if he has always had bright orange eyes. “But being indifferent between ‘wavefunction branches’ and ‘wavefunction branches, and then somewhere we can’t see it one branch mysteriously collapses’ is the same kind of error as being indifferent between ‘acid and base make salt’ and ‘acid and base make salt and water, and then somewhere we can’t see it a star mysteriously goes supernova’.”

He stomps his foot for emphasis, and something falls out of his pocket. Is that a dinosaur bone? He quickly reaches down and pockets it again.

“And,” he adds “preferring collapse interpretations to many-worlds because there are fewer universes – that’s like preferring the Devil theory to dinosaurs because it involves fewer entities. It’s optimizing over the wrong thing! You’re not literally trying to come up with a theory with as few entities as possible! You’re trying to come up with one that has as few extra moving parts as possible. The process that makes wavefunctions collapse is an extra assumption! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go plant this” – he taps the bone “in a sedimentary rock formation in China”. He vanishes in a puff of smoke. Can all quantum physicists do that?

Moral of the story: Applying the two previous morals consistently lets you prefer the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics without having to worry about this being “untestable”.

Open Thread 141

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, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

Comments of the week:

– mtl1882 explains how 19th century “railway spine” was probably an early version of PTSD.

– John Schilling discusses the history of and politics surrounding “shell shock”.

– And from doesntliketocomment: “The unusual feature of the modern world is not that you can be exposed to trauma, it’s that you can be removed from it.”

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Autism And Intelligence: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

[Thanks to Marco DG for proofreading and offering suggestions]


Several studies have shown a genetic link between autism and intelligence; genes that contribute to autism risk also contribute to high IQ. But studies show autistic people generally have lower intelligence than neurotypical controls, often much lower. What is going on?

First, the studies. This study from UK Biobank finds a genetic correlation between genetic risk for autism and educational attainment (r = 0.34), and between autism and verbal-numerical reasoning (r = 0.19). This study of three large birth cohorts finds a correlation between genetic risk for autism and cognitive ability (beta = 0.07). This study of 45,000 Danes finds that genetic risk for autism correlates at about 0.2 with both IQ and educational attainment. These are just three randomly-selected studies; there are too many to be worth listing.

The relatives of autistic people will usually have many of the genes for autism, but not be autistic themselves. If genes for autism (without autism itself) increase intelligence, we should expect these people to be unusually smart. This is what we find; see Table 4 here. Of 11 types of psychiatric condition, only autism was associated with increased intelligence among relatives. This intelligence is shifted towards technical subjects. About 13% of autistic children (in this sample from whatever social stratum they took their sample from) have fathers who are engineers, compared to only 5% of a group of (presumably well-matched?) control children (though see the discussion here) for some debate over how seriously to take this; I am less sure this is accurate than most of the other statistics mentioned here.

Further (indirect) confirmation of the autism-IQ link comes from evolutionary investigations. If autism makes people less likely to reproduce, why would autism risk genes stick around in the human population? Polimanti and Gelemter (2017) find that autism risk genes aren’t just sticking around. They are being positively selected, ie increasing with every generation, presumably because people with the genes are having more children than people without them. This means autism risk genes must be doing something good. Like everyone else, they find autism risk genes are positively correlated with years of schooling completed, college completion, and IQ. They propose that the reason evolution favors autism genes is that they generally increase intelligence.

But as mentioned before, autistic people themselves on average have lower intelligence. One study found that 69% of autistic people had an IQ below 85 (the average IQ of a high school dropout). Only 3% of autistic people were found to have IQs above 115, even though 15% of the population should be at this level.

These numbers should be taken with very many grains of salt. First, IQ tests don’t do a great job of measuring autistic people. Their intelligence tends to be more imbalanced than neurotypicals’, so IQ tests (which rely on an assumption that most forms of intelligence are correlated) are less applicable. Second, even if the test itself is good, autistic people may be bad at test-taking for other reasons – for example, they don’t understand the directions, or they’re anxious about the social interaction required to answer an examiner’s quetsions. Third, and most important, there is a strong selection bias in the samples of autistic people. Many definitions of autism center around forms of poor functioning which are correlated with low intelligence. Even if the definition is good, people who function poorly are more likely to seek out (or be coerced into) psychiatric treatment, and so are more likely to be identified. In some sense, all “autism has such-and-such characteristics” studies are studying the way people like to define autism, and tell us nothing about any underlying disease process. I talk more about this in parts 2 and 3 here.

But even adjusting for these factors, the autism – low intelligence correlation seems too strong to dismiss. For one thing, the same studies that found that relatives of autistic patients had higher IQs find that the autistic patients themselves have much lower ones. The existence of a well-defined subset of low IQ people whose relatives have higher-than-predicted IQs is a surprising finding that cuts through the measurement difficulties and suggests that this is a real phenomenon.

So what is going on here?


At least part of the story is that there are at least three different causes of autism.

1. The “familial” genes mentioned above: common genes that increase IQ and that evolution positively selects for.

2. Rare “de novo mutations”, ie the autistic child gets a new mutation that their non-autistic parent doesn’t have. These mutations are often very bad, and are quickly selected out of the gene pool (because the people who have them don’t reproduce). But “quickly selected out of the gene pool” doesn’t help the individual person who got one of them, who tends to end up severely disabled. In a few cases, the parent gets the de novo mutation, but for whatever reason doesn’t develop autism, and then passes it onto their child, who does develop autism.

3. Non-genetic factors. The best-studied are probably obstetric complications, eg a baby gets stuck in the birth canal and can’t breathe for a long time. Pollution, infection, and trauma might also be in this basket.

These three buckets and a few other less important factors combine to determine autism risk for any individual. Combining information from a wide variety of studies, Gaugler et al estimate that about 52% of autism risk is attributable to ordinary “familial” genes, 3% to rare “de novo” mutations, 4% to complicated non-additive genetic interaction effects, and 41% “unaccounted”, which may be non-genetic factors or genetic factors we don’t understand and can’t measure. This study finds lower heritability than the usual estimates (which are around 80% to 90%; the authors are embarrassed by this, and in a later study suggest they might just have been bad at determining who in their sample did or didn’t have autism. While their exact numbers are doubtful, I think the overall finding that common familial genes are much more important than rare de novo mutations survives and is important.

Most cases of autism involve all three of these factors; that is, your overall autisticness is a combination of your familial genes, mutations, and environmental risk factors.

One way of resolving the autism-intelligence paradox is to say that familial genes for autism increase IQ, but de novo mutations and environmental insults decrease IQ. This is common-sensically true and matches previous research into all of these factors. So the only question is whether the size of the effect is enough to fully explain the data – or whether, even after adjusting out the degree to which autism is caused by mutations and environment, it still decreases IQ.

Ronemus et al (2014) evaluate this:

They find that even autistic people without de novo mutations have lower-than-average IQ. But they can only screen for de novo mutations they know about, and it could be that they just missed some.

Here’s another set of relevant graphs:

This one comes from Gardner et al (2019), which measures the cognitive ability of the fathers of autistic people and disaggregates those with and without intellectual disability. In Graph A, we see that if a child has autism (but not intellectual disability), their likelihood of having a father with any particular IQ (orange line) is almost the same as the likelihood of a neurotypical child having a father of that IQ (dotted line). Disguised in that “almost” is a very slight tendency for fathers to be unusually intelligent, plus a (statistically insignificant) tendency for them to be unusually unintelligent. For reasons that don’t entirely make sense to me, if instead we look at the likelihood of the father to be a certain intelligence (bottom graph, where dark line surrounded by gray confidence cloud is autistic people’s fathers, and dotted line is neurotypical people’s fathers) it becomes more obvious that more intelligent people are actually a little more likely to have autistic children (though less intelligent people are also more likely.

(remember that “no intellectual disability” just means “IQ over 70”, and so many of these not-intellectually-disabled people may still have low intelligence – I wish the paper had quantified this)

Graph B is the same thing, but with people have have autism with intellectual disability. Now there is a very strong effect towards their fathers being less intelligent than usual.

This confuses me a little. But for me the key point is that high-intelligence fathers show a trend (albeit not significant in this study) to be more likely than average to have children with autism and intellectual disability.

These questions interest me because I know a lot of people who are bright nerdy programmers married to other bright nerdy programmers, and sometimes they ask me if their children are at higher risk for autism. While their children are clearly at higher risk for autistic traits, I think they want to know whether they have higher risk for the most severe forms of the syndrome, including intellectual disability and poor functioning. If we take the Ronemus and Gardner studies seriously, the answer seems to be yes. The Gardner study seems to suggest it’s a very weakly elevated risk, maybe only 1.1x or 1.2x relative risk. But the Gardner study also ceilings off at 90th percentile intelligence, so at this point I’m not sure what to tell these people.


If Ronemus isn’t missing some obscure de novo mutations, then people who get autism solely by accumulation of common (usually IQ-promoting) variants still end up less intelligent than average. This should be surprising; why would too many intelligence-promoting variants cause a syndrome marked by low intelligence? And how come it’s so inconsistent, and many people have naturally high intelligence but aren’t autistic at all?

One possibility would be something like a tower-vs-foundation model. The tower of intelligence needs to be built upon some kind of mysterious foundation. The taller the tower, the stronger the foundation has to be. If the foundation isn’t strong enough for the tower, the system fails, you develop autism, and you get a collection of symptoms possibly including low intelligence. This would explain low-functioning autism from de novo mutations or obstetric trauma (the foundation is so weak that it fails no matter how short the tower is). It would explain the association of genes for intelligence with autism (holding foundation strength constant, the taller the tower, the more likely a failure). And it would also explain why there are many extremely intelligent people who don’t have autism at all (you can build arbitrarily tall towers if your foundation is strong enough).

I’ve only found one paper that takes this model completely seriously and begins speculating on the nature of the foundation. This is Crespi 2016, Autism As A Disorder Of High Intelligence. It draws on the VPR model of intelligence, where g (“general intelligence”) is divided into three subtraits, v (“verbal intelligence”), p (“perceptual intelligence”), and r (“mental rotation ability”) – despite the very specific names each of these represents ability at broad categories of cognitive tasks. Crespi suggests that autism is marked by an imbalance between P (as the tower) and V + R (as the foundation). In other words, if your perceptual intelligence is much higher than your other types of intelligence, you will end up autistic.

It doesn’t really present much evidence for this other than that autistic people seem to have high perceptual intelligence. Also, it doesn’t really look like autistic people are worse at mental rotation. Also, the Gardner paper has analyzed autistic patients’ fathers by subtype of intelligence, and there is a nonsignificant but pretty suggestive tendency for them to have higher-than-normal verbal intelligence; certainly no signs of high verbal intelligence preventing autism. I can’t tell if this is evidence against Crespi or whether since all intellectual abilities are correlated this is just the shadow of their high perceptual intelligence, and if we directly looked at perceptual-to-verbal ratio we would see it was lower than expected. Also also, Crespi is one of those scientists who constantly has much more interesting theories than anyone else (eg), and this makes me suspicious.

Overall I would be surprised if this were the real explanation for the autism-and-intelligence paradox, but it gets an A for effort.


1. The genes that increase risk of autism are disproportionately also genes that increase intelligence, and vice versa (~100% confidence)

2. People diagnosed with autism are less intelligent than average (~100% confidence, leaving aside definitional complications)

3. Some of this effect is because autism is caused both by normal genes and by de novo mutations and environmental insults, and the de novo mutations and environmental insults definitely decrease intelligence. Every autism case is caused by some combination of these three factors, and the more it is caused by normal genes, the more intelligence is likely to be preserved (~100% confidence)

4. This is not the whole story, and even cases of autism that are caused entirely or mostly by normal genetics are associated with unusually low IQ (80% confidence)

5. This can best be understood through a tower-versus-foundation model where higher intelligence that outstrips the ability of some mysterious foundation to support it will result in autism (25% confidence)

6. The specific way the model plays out may be through perceptual intelligence out of balance with verbal and rotational intelligence causing autism (3% confidence)

Book Review: The Body Keeps The Score


The Body Keeps The Score is a book about post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author, Bessel van der Kolk, helped discover the condition and lobby for its inclusion in the DSM, and the brief forays into that history are the best part of the book. Like so many things, PTSD feels self-evident once you know about it. But this took decades of conceptual work by people like van der Kolk, crystallizing some ideas and hacking away at others until they ended up with something legible to the Establishment. Before that there was nothing. It was absolutely shocking how much nothing there was. As soon as the APA officialy recognized PTSD as a diagnosis in 1980, Bessel and his friends applied for a grant from the VA to study it. The grant was rejected on the grounds that (actual quote from the rejection letter) “it has never been shown that PTSD is relevant to the mission of the Veterans Administration”. So the first step in raising awareness of PTSD was – amazingly – convincing the US military that some people might get PTSD from combat.

After the military relented, the next step was convincing everyone else. PTSD was temporarily pigeonholed as “the thing veterans get when they come back from a war”. The next push was convincing people that civilian trauma could have similar effects. It was simple to extend the theory to sudden disasters like fires or violent crimes. But van der Kolk and his colleagues started noticing that a history of child abuse, and especially childhood sexual abuse, correlated with a lot of psychiatric problems later on.

Again, “child abuse is bad” sounds self-evident once you know it. But van der Kolk insists this is the result of hard work by a coalition of psychiatrists, psychologists, activists, and victims. When he first started raising awareness of the problem, nobody believed him. His grant proposal to study whether childhood trauma was associated with personality disorders got rejected too. He recalls that:

I was particularly struck by how many female patients spoke of being sexually abused as children. The standard textbook of psychiatry at the time stated that incest was extremely rare in the United States, cocurring about once in every million women. Given that there were then only about one hundred million women in the United States, I wondered how forty-seven, almost half of them, had found their way to my office in the basement of the hospital.

Furthermore, the textbook said, “There is little agreement about the role of father-daughter incest as a source of serious subsequent psychopathology”…the textbook went on to practically endorse incest, explaining that “such incestuous activity diminishes the subject’s chance of psychosis, and allows for a better adjustment to the external world.”

Van der Kolk found that child abuse (sexual and otherwise) was both far more common and far more destructive than anybody else thought. He also found that it worked differently than regular PTSD. A soldier traumatized during war has already developed a sense of self, and has a concept of a safe homeland to return to if he makes it out alive; a child has neither, and has to deal with trauma again and again absent any trustworthy external support system. This is the same insight some researchers call “complex PTSD”; van der Kolk uses the terms “developmental trauma disorder” and argues it is the real culprit behind many people currently diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar, intermittent explosive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, etc. He rejects at least some of these diagnoses as “pseudoscience…impressive but meaningless labels”.

A group including Van der Kolk tried to get developmental trauma disorder added to the DSM; the APA decided against it. He denounces this decision, which he thinks ignored several great studies that prove developmental trauma (ie child abuse) is much more important than anyone else thinks. I have a lot of opinions about this section.

First, I think van der Kolk downplays the importance of the APA’s philosophical commitment to categorizing by symptoms rather than cause. Consider four patients, Alice, Bob, Carol, and Dan. Alice has poor concentration caused by child abuse. Bob has poor concentration caused by bad genes. Carol throws tantrums because child abuse. Dan throws tantrums because bad genes. The current DSM would categorize Alice and Bob as ADHD, and Carol and Dan as intermittent explosive disorder. Van der Kolk would like to classify Alice and Carol as having Developmental Trauma Disorder, and Bob and Dan as…I don’t know. Bad Gene Disorder? Seems sketchy. When the APA decides not to do that, they’re not necessarily rejecting the seriousness of child abuse, only saying it’s not the kind of thing they build their categories around.

Second, van der Kolk really does not come across as a great source about the effects of development. He does not mention the possibility that links between parent behavior and child pathology might be genetic (ie a disordered parent is more likely to abuse their child, and to pass on genes for disordered behavior). In fact, he is weirdly and vocally ignorant about genetics in general, dismissing the entire field because “after thirty years and millions upon millions of dollars worth of research, we have failed to find consistent genetic patterns for schizophrenia – or for any psychiatric illness, for that matter”. When TBKtS was published in 2014, we already know with certainty that schizophrenia was about 80% genetic, and at least 15 genes had been identified as especially likely to be involved; today we know hundreds and can even make primitive polygenic predictors. The only gene he considers sympathetically is good old 5-HTTLPR, which he says proves that genes have different effects in children with vs. without abuse histories (like everything else about 5-HTTLPR, this has since been proven false). He shows total lack of interest in behavioral genetics and the challenge it raises to his hypothesis.

This is a very pre-replication crisis book. I don’t hold this against the author, I don’t think anyone’s really proud of what they believed pre-replication crisis, but it’s undoubtedly a product of its time. Mirror neurons, candidate genes, left- vs right-brained people, etc all make dramatic appearances. Nothing (except the genetics parts) are inexcusable or even certainly wrong, but all of them together concern me. And several of the book’s key studies are contradicted by later, larger studies. Van der Kolk talks about how childhood trauma decreases IQ, but some pretty good studies say it doesn’t. Even the studies that have passed the test of time look a little weird. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that obesity and other seemingly nonpsychiatric diseases were linked to child abuse, and recent studies confirm this – but the controls for socioeconomic status are always insufficient, and there’s surprisingly little shared environmental component. I’m biased about this, everyone’s biased, but part of the book was meant to prove that child abuse mattered shockingly more than you thought it possibly could, and that part was wasted on me.


Fine, okay, drop that hobby horse, what does this book have to say about PTSD?

The book stressed the variety of responses to PTSD. Some people get anxious. Some people get angry. But a lot of people, whatever their other symptoms, also go completely numb. They are probably still “having” “emotions” “under” “the” “surface”, but they have no perception of them. Sometimes this mental deficit is accompanied by equally surprising bodily deficits. Van der Kolk describes a study on stereoagnosia in PTSD patients: if blindfolded and given a small object (like a key), they are unable to recognize it by feel, even though this task is easy for healthy people. Sometimes this gets even more extreme, like the case of a massage therapy patient who did not realize they were being massaged until the therapist verbally acknowledged she had started.

The book is called The Body Keeps The Score, and it returns again and again to the idea of PTSD patients as disconnected from their bodies. The body sends a rich flow of information to the brain, which is part of what we mean when we say we “feel alive” or “feel like I’m in my body”. In PTSD, this flow gets interrupted. People feel “like nothing”. For example:

I don’t know what I feel, it’s like my head and body aren’t connected. I’m living in a tunnel, a fog, no matter what happens it’s the same reaction – numbness, nothing. Having a bubble bath and being burned or raped is the same feeling.

Or, borrowed from one of William James’ patients:

I have no human sensations. I am surrounded by all that can render life happy and agreeable, still to me the faculty of enjoyment and of feeling is wanting. Each of my senses, each part of my proper self, is as it were separated from me and can no longer afford me any feeling; this impossibility seems to depend upon a void which I feel in the front of my head, and to be due to the diminuition of the sensibility over the whole surface of my body, for it seems to me that I never actually reach the objects that I touch. All this would be a small matter enough, but for its frightful result, which is that of the impossibility of any other kind of feeling and of any sort of enjoyment, although I experience a need and desire of them that render my life an incomprehensible torture.

One other new thing I learned about PTSD is the importance of immobilization. Van der Kolk thinks that traumas are much more likely to cause PTSD when the victim is somehow unable to respond to them. Enemy soldiers shooting at you and you are running away = less likelihood of trauma. Enemy soldiers shooting at you and you are hiding motionless behind a tree = more likelihood of trauma. Speculatively, your body feels like its going into trauma mode hasn’t gotten you to take the right actions, and so the trauma mode cannot end.

There’s some discussion of the neurobiology of all this, but it never really connects with the vividness of the anecdotes. A lot of stuff about how trauma causes the lizard brain to inappropriately activate in ways the rational brain can’t control, how your “smoke detector” can be set to overdrive, all backed up with the proper set of big words like “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” – but none of it seemed to reach the point where I felt like I was making progress to a gears-level explanation. I felt like the level on which I wanted an explanation of PTSD, and the level at which van der Kolk was explaining PTSD, never really connected; I can’t put it any better than that.

Why does PTSD exist? “The brain isn’t prepared to feel emotions as intense as…” Yes it is! Trauma is as old as living creatures; war, disaster, bullying, and rape far predate homo sapiens. Even if child abuse is rare in hunter-gatherer tribes (as some optimistic anthropologists claim) killing all the adults in a tribe and enslaving their children is pretty common, which cashes out to kids getting abused. Our evolutionary history should have prepared us incredibly well for all of this; the brain “getting stuck” in fear mode after a particularly bad trauma should be no more likely than the legs “getting stuck” in running mode after a particularly long chase.

And why would the body be so confused by the right action being “hide” or “accept the pain and abuse” rather than “run” or “fight”? The safest action has been “hide” or “accept the pain and the abuse” in a pretty good fraction of traumatic events since humanity came down from the trees.

And why should the consequences of this be the body going numb? Why not other things that seem more like the consequences of garden-variety acute or chronic stress?

I missed any answers that TBKtS might have contained to questions like these, and so a lot of its neurobiology ended up feeling more like a random collection of simplified facts than like real enlightenment.


But all of this would be excusable if TBKtS had answered the most important question: how do you treat PTSD? There are a wide variety of proposed methods, and I was looking forward to having an authority like van der Kolk sort through the evidence for and against each.

Instead, I felt like he rejected every conventional treatment on the grounds that they didn’t treat the root problem, then waxed rhapsodic about every single weird alternative treatment and how it was a perfect miracle cure that truly gave patients their lives back. I understand that he may just be presenting the alternative treatments that he found most effective, but something about the style here really turned me off.

There are a lot of alternative treatments for PTSD. Neurofeedback, where you attach yourself to a machine that reads your brain waves and try to explore the effect your thoughts have on brain wave production until you are consciously able to manipulate your neural states. Internal family systems, where a therapist guides you through discovering “parts” of yourself (think a weak version of multiple personalities), and you talk to them, and figure out what they want, and make bargains with them where they get what they want and so stop causing mental illness. Eye movement directed reprocessing (alternative when the book was written, now basically establishment) where you move your eyes back and forth while talking about your trauma, and this seems to somehow help you process it better. Acupuncture. Massage. Yoga.

There was a thing called “PBSP psychomotor therapy”, where the therapist would create “tableaus” representing people’s traumas. They would enlist an actor to play the victim’s abusive father, then another actor to play an idealized version of their father who didn’t abuse them and was always there when they needed them, then have them recite formulaic lines that “played their part” in the remembered (or alternative hypothetical) versions of the patient’s trauma. Gradually they would progress from the real trauma to a version where things had worked out better, with the therapist discussing the patient’s reaction the whole time.

There was a chapter on community theater, where troubled youth who would otherwise be sent to jail were instead asked to put on a Shakespeare production. This encountered some early hitches:

We were shocked to discover that, in scenes where someone was in physical danger, the students always sided with the aggressors. Because they could not tolerate any sign of weakness in themselves, they could not accept it in others. They showed nothing but contempt for potential victims, yelling things like “Kill the bitch, she deserves it,” during a skit about dating violence.

At first some of the actors wanted to give up – it was simply too painful to see how mean these kids were – but they stuck it out, and I was amazed to see how they gradually got the students to experiment, however reluctantly, with new roles. Toward the end of the program, a few students were even volunteering for parts that involved showing vulnerability or fear.

The traumatic incidents in Shakespeare’s work helped them come to terms with their own difficult history:

As we’ve seen, the essence of trauma is feeling godforsaken, cut off from the human race. Theater involves a collective confrontation with the realities of the human condition. As Paul Griffin, discussing his theater program for foster care children, told me: “The stuff of tragedy in theater revolves around coping with betrayal, assault, and destruction. These kids have no trouble understanding what Lear, Othello, Macbeth, or Hamlet is all about.” In Tina Packer’s words: “Everything is about using the whole body and having other bodies resonate with your feelings, emotions, and thoughts.” Theater gives trauma survivors a chance to connect with one another by deeply experiencing their common humanity.”

Each of these stories about an alternative therapy was, on its own, inspiring. But after chapter after chapter on these, plus other even weirder things, you start to wish there was at least one alternative therapy that Bessel van der Kolk didn’t like, or one conventional therapy that he did.

This is a very pre-replication-crisis book. In these more cynical days, we know that the first few studies on any technique – usually done in an atmosphere of frothy excitement, by the technique’s most fervent early adapters – are always highly positive. And later studies – done in an atmosphere of boredom, by large multi-center consortia – are almost always disappointing. Half the time van der Kolk is so excited about the miraculous life-changing potential of the latest alternative therapy that he doesn’t list studies at all. The other half of the time, the studies are there to support his enthusiasm. But can they be trusted?

Overall, so many bizarre methods seemed to work so well (with no examples of anything that didn’t work) that it was hard for me to figure out how this book should affect my treatment decisions. Find the closest person in a robe and wizard hat and send all of my trauma patients to them, because every alternative therapy works equally well as long as it’s weird? This might actually be a good lesson, there are a lot of things in psychiatry where as long as people feel drawn in and “validated” the treatment works. But I’m annoyed I have to ponder this kind of thing on my own rather than have the book take a step back and wonder about these kinds of questions.

[Update, written a few weeks after the rest of this post: maybe it is all wizardry. I recommended this book to a severely traumatized patient of mine, who had not benefited from years of conventional treatment, and who wanted to know more about their condition. The next week the patient came in, claiming to be completely cured, and displaying behaviors consistent with this. They did not use any of the techniques in this book, but said that reading the book helped them figure out an indescribable mental motion they could take to resolve their trauma, and that after taking this mental motion their problems were gone. I’m not sure what to think of this or how much I should revise the negative opinion of this book which I formed before this event.]

Maybe the most consistent lesson from this book’s tour of successful alternative therapies – keeping with the theme of the title – is that it’s important for PTSD patients to get back in touch with their bodies. Massage therapy, yoga, and acupuncture addressed this directly, usually creating gentle, comfortable sensations that patients could take note of to gradually relax the absolute firewall between bodily sensation and conscious processing. Some of the other methods – the community theater, maybe even the internal family systems – seemed like tricks to get people afraid of emotions back in touch with their emotions anyway: “Oh, you’re not going to be feeling your emotions, just emotions from Macbeth or Hamlet or this other personality living in your mind”. I don’t know how plausible this interpretation is.


Overall, I was not too impressed with this book. The highlight was van der Kolk’s personal reminisces from the fight to get PTSD recognized as a real disease – but some of them were so over-the-top that I would have liked to triangulate them with a more objective history. The sections with the symptomatology and neurobiology of PTSD were helpful in exploring the boundaries of the syndrome, but didn’t make me feel like I really understood what was going on. The sections on the dangers of child abuse were a good knock-down of some hypothetical “child abuse isn’t really that bad” position, but I don’t know anyone who holds that position, and some of the research seemed questionable. And the section on treatment was so glowing about everything that it was hard to draw any specific conclusions.

Maybe a broader concern is that I seem to inhabit a different world than van der Kolk. All of his patients showed bizarre and florid sequelae from serious trauma. My patients seem to discuss their trauma with comparative equanimity, have only the usual psychiatric symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc) and not experience much benefit from the weirder alternative therapies they try. Some of this might be van der Kolk being a better doctor than I am, or having sicker patients. But I’m concerned about this because van der Kolk seems pretty good at doing what he does, and I would like to be able to inhabit his world insofar as he’s able to get good results in it. But insofar as my goal is to become more like Bessel van der Kolk, I was surprised how little this book helped guide me along that journey.

I think my actual takeaway is to screen for trauma more carefully, especially in patients who seem anhedonic or numb, and to recommend they go to a trauma clinic. There are a lot of places like this (I sometimes send patients to this one in Berkeley), and they practice a lot of the weirder alternative therapies that van der Kolk mentions (in fact, van der Kolk seems to work at/lead a very similar type of institution in Massachussetts). Whether or not these work for everybody, I think everybody deserves a chance at them, and I should take them more seriously at least until I get a better sense of the terrain here myself.

Building Intuitions On Non-Empirical Arguments In Science


Aeon: Post-Empirical Science Is An Oxymoron And It is Dangerous:

There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

It’s not difficult to find recent examples. On 8 June 2019, the front cover of New Scientist magazine boldly declared that we’re ‘Inside the Mirrorverse’. Its editors bid us ‘Welcome to the parallel reality that’s hiding in plain sight’. […]

[Some physicists] claim that neutrons [are] flitting between parallel universes. They admit that the chances of proving this are ‘low’, or even ‘zero’, but it doesn’t really matter. When it comes to grabbing attention, inviting that all-important click, or purchase, speculative metaphysics wins hands down.

These theories are based on the notion that our Universe is not unique, that there exists a large number of other universes that somehow sit alongside or parallel to our own. For example, in the so-called Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are universes containing our parallel selves, identical to us but for their different experiences of quantum physics. These theories are attractive to some few theoretical physicists and philosophers, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence for them. And, as it seems we can’t ever experience these other universes, there will never be any evidence for them. As Broussard explained, these theories are sufficiently slippery to duck any kind of challenge that experimentalists might try to throw at them, and there’s always someone happy to keep the idea alive.

Is this really science? The answer depends on what you think society needs from science. In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all.

As always, a single quote doesn’t do the argument justice, so go read the article. But I think this captures the basic argument: multiverse theories are bad, because they’re untestable, and untestable science is pseudoscience.

Many great people, both philosophers of science and practicing scientists, have already discussed the problems with this point of view. But none of them lay out their argument in quite the way that makes the most sense to me. I want to do that here, without claiming any originality or special expertise in the subject, to see if it helps convince anyone else.


Consider a classic example: modern paleontology does a good job at predicting dinosaur fossils. But the creationist explanation – Satan buried fake dinosaur fossils to mislead us – also predicts the same fossils (we assume Satan is good at disguising his existence, so that the lack of other strong evidence for Satan doesn’t contradict the theory). What principles help us realize that the Satan hypothesis is obviously stupid and the usual paleontological one more plausible?

One bad response: paleontology can better predict characteristics of dinosaur fossils, using arguments like “since plesiosaurs are aquatic, they will be found in areas that were underwater during the Mesozoic, but since tyrannosaurs are terrestrial, they will be found in areas that were on land”, and this makes it better than the Satan hypothesis, which can only retrodict these characteristics. But this isn’t quite true: since Satan is trying to fool us into believing the modern paleontology paradigm, he’ll hide the fossils in ways that conform to its predictions, so we will predict plesiosaur fossils will only be found at sea – otherwise the gig would be up!

A second bad response: “The hypothesis that all our findings were planted to deceive us bleeds into conspiracy theories and touches on the problem of skepticism. These things are inherently outside the realm of science.” But archaeological findings are very often deliberate hoaxes planted to deceive archaeologists, and in practice archaeologists consider and test that hypothesis the same way they consider and test every other hypothesis. Rule this out by fiat and we have to accept Piltdown Man, or at least claim that the people arguing against the veracity of Piltdown Man were doing something other than Science.

A third bad response: “Satan is supernatural and science is not allowed to consider supernatural explanations.” Fine then, replace Satan with an alien. I think this is a stupid distinction – if demons really did interfere in earthly affairs, then we could investigate their actions using the same methods we use to investigate every other process. But this would take a long time to argue well, so for now let’s just stick with the alien.

A fourth bad response: “There is no empirical test that distinguishes the Satan hypothesis from the paleontology hypothesis, therefore the Satan hypothesis is inherently unfalsifiable and therefore pseudoscientific.” But this can’t be right. After all, there’s no empirical test that distinguishes the paleontology hypothesis from the Satan hypothesis! If we call one of them pseudoscience based on their inseparability, we have to call the other one pseudoscience too!

A naive Popperian (which maybe nobody really is) would have to stop here, and say that we predict dinosaur fossils will have such-and-such characteristics, but that questions like that process that drives this pattern – a long-dead ecosystem of actual dinosaurs, or the Devil planting dinosaur bones to deceive us – is a mystical question beyond the ability of Science to even conceivably solve.

I think the correct response is to say that both theories explain the data, and one cannot empirically test which theory is true, but the paleontology theory is more elegant (I am tempted to say “simpler”, but that might imply I have a rigorous mathematical definition of the form of simplicity involved, which I don’t). It requires fewer other weird things to be true. It involves fewer other hidden variables. It transforms our worldview less. It gets a cleaner shave with Occam’s Razor. This elegance is so important to us that it explains our vast preference for the first theory over the second.

A long tradition of philosophers of science have already written eloquently about this, summed up by Sean Carroll here:

What makes an explanation “the best.” Thomas Kuhn ,after his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions led many people to think of him as a relativist when it came to scientific claims, attempted to correct this misimpression by offering a list of criteria that scientists use in practice to judge one theory better than another one: accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness. “Accuracy” (fitting the data) is one of these criteria, but by no means the sole one. Any working scientist can think of cases where each of these concepts has been invoked in favor of one theory or another. But there is no unambiguous algorithm according to which we can feed in these criteria, a list of theories, and a set of data, and expect the best theory to pop out. The way in which we judge scientific theories is inescapably reflective, messy, and human. That’s the reality of how science is actually done; it’s a matter of judgment, not of drawing bright lines between truth and falsity or science and non-science. Fortunately, in typical cases the accumulation of evidence eventually leaves only one viable theory in the eyes of most reasonable observers.

The dinosaur hypothesis and the Satan hypothesis both fit the data, but the dinosaur hypothesis wins hands-down on simplicity. As Carroll predicts, most reasonable observers are able to converge on the same solution here, despite the philosophical complexity.


I’m starting with this extreme case because its very extremity makes it easier to see the mechanism in action. But I think the same process applies to other cases that people really worry about.

Consider the riddle of the Sphinx. There’s pretty good archaeological evidence supporting the consensus position that it was built by Pharaoh Khafre. But there are a few holes in that story, and a few scattered artifacts suggest it was actually built by Pharaoh Khufu; a respectable minority of archaeologists believe this. And there are a few anomalies which, if taken wildly out of context, you can use to tell a story that it was built long before Egypt existed at all, maybe by Atlantis or aliens.

So there are three competing hypotheses. All of them are consistent with current evidence (even the Atlantis one, which was written after the current evidence was found and carefully adds enough epicycles not to blatantly contradict it). Perhaps one day evidence will come to light that supports one above the others; maybe in some unexcavated tomb, a hieroglyphic tablet says “I created the Sphinx, sincerely yours, Pharaoh Khufu”. But maybe this won’t happen. Maybe we already have all the Sphinx-related evidence we’re going to get. Maybe the information necessary to distinguish among these hypotheses has been utterly lost beyond any conceivable ability to reconstruct.

I don’t want to say “No hypothesis can be tested any further, so Science is useless to us here”, because then we’re forced to conclude stupid things like “Science has no opinion on whether the Sphinx was built by Khafre or Atlanteans,” whereas I think most scientists would actually have very strong opinions on that.

But what about the question of whether the Sphinx was built by Khafre or Khufu? This is a real open question with respectable archaeologists on both sides; what can we do about it?

I think the answer would have to be: the same thing we did with the Satan vs. paleontology question, only now it’s a lot harder. We try to figure out which theory requires fewer other weird things to be true, fewer hidden variables, less transformation of our worldview – which theory works better with Occam’s Razor. This is relatively easy in the Atlantis case, and hard but potentially possible in the Khafre vs. Khufu case.

(Bayesians can rephrase this to: given that we have a certain amount of evidence for each, can we quantify exactly how much evidence, and what our priors for each should be. It would end not with a decisive victory of one or the other, but with a probability distribution, maybe 80% chance it was Khafre, 20% chance it was Khufu)

I think this is a totally legitimate thing for Egyptologists to do, even if it never results in a particular testable claim that gets tested. If you don’t think it’s a legitimate thing for Egyptologists to do, I have trouble figuring out how you can justify Egyptologists rejecting the Atlantis theory.

(Again, Bayesians would start with a very low prior for Atlantis, and assess the evidence as very low, and end up with a probability distribution something like Khafre 80%, Khufu 19.999999%, Atlantis 0.000001%)


How does this relate to things like multiverse theory? Before we get there, one more hokey example:

Suppose scientists measure the mass of one particle at 32.604 units, the mass of another related particle at 204.897 units, and the mass of a third related particle at 145173.870 units. For a while, this is just how things are – it seems to be an irreducible brute fact about the universe. Then some theorist notices that if you set the mass of the first particle as x, then the second is 2πx and the third is 4/3 πx^3. They theorize that perhaps the quantum field forms some sort of extradimensional sphere, the first particle represents a radius of a great circle of the sphere, the second the circumference of the great circle, and the third the volume of the sphere.

(please excuse the stupidity of my example, I don’t know enough about physics to come up with something that isn’t stupid, but I hope it will illustrate my point)

In fact, imagine that there are a hundred different particles, all with different masses, and all one hundred have masses that perfectly correspond to various mathematical properties of spheres.

Is the person who made this discovery doing Science? And should we consider their theory a useful contribution to physics?

I think the answer is clearly yes. But consider what this commits us to. Suppose the scientist came up with their Extradimensional Sphere hypothesis after learning the masses of the relevant particles, and so it has not predicted anything. Suppose the extradimensional sphere is outside normal space, curled up into some dimension we can’t possibly access or test without a particle accelerator the size of the moon. Suppose there are no undiscovered particles in this set that can be tested to see if they also reflect sphere-related parameters. This theory is exactly the kind of postempirical, metaphysical construct that the Aeon article savages.

But it’s really compelling. We have a hundred different particles, and this theory retrodicts the properties of each of them perfectly. And it’s so simple – just say the word “sphere” and the rest falls out naturally! You would have to be crazy not to think it was at least pretty plausible, or that the scientist who developed it had done some good work.

Nor do I think it seems right to say “The discovery that all of our unexplained variables perfectly match the parameters of a sphere is good, but the hypothesis that there really is a sphere is outside the bounds of Science.” That sounds too much like saying “It’s fine to say dinosaur bones have such-and-such characteristics, but we must never speculate about what kind of process produced them, or whether it involved actual dinosaurs”.


My understanding of the multiverse debate is that it works the same way. Scientists observe the behavior of particles, and find that a multiverse explains that behavior more simply and elegantly than not-a-multiverse.

One (doubtless exaggerated) way I’ve heard multiverse proponents explain their position is like this: in certain situations the math declares two contradictory answers – in the classic example, Schrodinger’s cat will be both alive and dead. But when we open the box, we see only a dead cat or an alive cat, not both. Multiverse opponents say “Some unknown force steps in at the last second and destroys one of the possibility branches”. Multiverse proponents say “No it doesn’t, both possibility branches happen exactly the way the math says, and we end up in one of them.”

Taking this exaggerated dumbed-down account as exactly right, this sounds about as hard as the dinosaurs-vs-Satan example, in terms of figuring out which is more Occam’s Razor compliant. I’m sure the reality is more nuanced, but I think it can be judged by the same process. Perhaps this is the kind of reasoning that only gets us to a 90% probability there is a multiverse, rather than a 99.999999% one. But I think determining that theories have 90% probability is a reasonable scientific thing to do.


At times, the Aeon article seems to flirt with admitting that something like this is necessary:

Such problems were judged by philosophers of science to be insurmountable, and Popper’s falsifiability criterion was abandoned (though, curiously, it still lives on in the minds of many practising scientists). But rather than seek an alternative, in 1983 the philosopher Larry Laudan declared that the demarcation problem is actually intractable, and must therefore be a pseudo-problem. He argued that the real distinction is between knowledge that is reliable or unreliable, irrespective of its provenance, and claimed that terms such as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘unscientific’ have no real meaning.

But it always jumps back from the precipice:

So, if we can’t make use of falsifiability, what do we use instead? I don’t think we have any real alternative but to adopt what I might call the empirical criterion. Demarcation is not some kind of binary yes-or-no, right-or-wrong, black-or-white judgment. We have to admit shades of grey. Popper himself was ready to accept this, [saying]:

“The criterion of demarcation cannot be an absolutely sharp one but will itself have degrees. There will be well-testable theories, hardly testable theories, and non-testable theories. Those which are non-testable are of no interest to empirical scientists. They may be described as metaphysical.”

Here, ‘testability’ implies only that a theory either makes contact, or holds some promise of making contact, with empirical evidence. It makes no presumptions about what we might do in light of the evidence. If the evidence verifies the theory, that’s great – we celebrate and start looking for another test. If the evidence fails to support the theory, then we might ponder for a while or tinker with the auxiliary assumptions. Either way, there’s a tension between the metaphysical content of the theory and the empirical data – a tension between the ideas and the facts – which prevents the metaphysics from getting completely out of hand. In this way, the metaphysics is tamed or ‘naturalised’, and we have something to work with. This is science.

But as we’ve seen, many things we really want to include as science are not testable: our credence for real dinosaurs over Satan planting fossils, our credence for Khafre building the Sphinx over Khufu or Atlanteans, or elegant patterns that explain the features of the universe like the Extradimensional-Sphere Theory.

The Aeon article is aware of Carroll’s work – which, along with the paragraph quoted in Section II above, includes a lot of detailed Bayesian reasoning encompassing everything I’ve discussed. But the article dismisses it in a few sentences:

Sean Carroll, a vocal advocate for the Many-Worlds interpretation, prefers abduction, or what he calls ‘inference to the best explanation’, which leaves us with theories that are merely ‘parsimonious’, a matter of judgment, and ‘still might reasonably be true’. But whose judgment? In the absence of facts, what constitutes ‘the best explanation’?

Carroll seeks to dress his notion of inference in the cloth of respectability provided by something called Bayesian probability theory, happily overlooking its entirely subjective nature. It’s a short step from here to the theorist-turned-philosopher Richard Dawid’s efforts to justify the string theory programme in terms of ‘theoretically confirmed theory’ and ‘non-empirical theory assessment’. The ‘best explanation’ is then based on a choice between purely metaphysical constructs, without reference to empirical evidence, based on the application of a probability theory that can be readily engineered to suit personal prejudices.

“A choice between purely metaphysical constructs, without reference to empirical evidence” sounds pretty bad, until you realize he’s talking about the same reasoning we use to determine that real dinosaurs are more likely than Satan planting fossils.

I don’t want to go over the exact ways in which Bayesian methods are subjective (which I think are overestimated) vs. objective. I think it’s more fruitful to point out that your brain is already using Bayesian methods to interpret the photons striking your eyes into this sentence, to make snap decisions about what sense the words are used in, and to integrate them into your model of the world. If Bayesian methods are good enough to give you every single piece of evidence about the nature of the external world that you have ever encountered in your entire life, I say they’re good enough for science.

Or if you don’t like that, you can use the explanation above, which barely uses the word “Bayes” at all and just describes everything in terms like “Occam’s Razor” and “you wouldn’t want to conclude something like that, would you?”

I know there are separate debates about whether this kind of reasoning-from-simplicity is actually good enough, when used by ordinary people, to consistently arrive at truth. Or whether it’s a productive way to conduct science that will give us good new theories, or a waste of everybody’s time. I sympathize with some these concerns, though I am nowhere near scientifically educated enough to have an actual opinion on the questions at play.

But I think it’s important to argue that even before you describe the advantages and disadvantages of the complicated Bayesian math that lets you do this, something like this has to be done. The untestable is a fundamental part of science, impossible to remove. We can debate how to explain it. But denying it isn’t an option.



The man standing outside my front door was carrying a clipboard and wearing a golden robe. “Not interested,” I said, preparing to slam the door in his face.

“Please,” said the acolyte. Before I could say no he’d jammed a wad of $100 bills into my hand. “If this will buy a few moments of your time.”

It did, if only because I stood too flabbergasted to move. Surely they didn’t have enough money to do this for everybody.

“There is no everybody,” said the acolyte, when I expressed my bewilderment. “You’re the last one. The last unenlightened person in the world.”

And it sort of made sense. Twenty years ago, a group of San Francisco hippie/yuppie/techie seekers had pared down the ancient techniques to their bare essentials, then optimized hard. A combination of drugs, meditation, and ecstatic dance that could catapult you to enlightenment in the space of a weekend retreat, 100% success rate. Their cult/movement/startup, the Order Of The Golden Lotus, spread like wildfire through California – a state where wildfires spread even faster than usual – and then on to the rest of the world. Soon investment bankers and soccer moms were showing up to book clubs talking about how they had grasped the peace beyond understanding and vanquished their ego-self.

I’d kind of ignored it. Actually, super ignored it. First a flat refusal to attend Golden Lotus retreats. Then slamming the door in their face whenever their golden-robed pamphleteers came to call. Then quitting my job to live off savings after my coworkers started converting and the team-building exercises turned into meditation sessions. Then unplugging my cable box after the sitcoms started incorporating Golden Lotus themes and the national news started being about how peaceful everybody was all the time. After that I might have kind of become a complete recluse, never leaving the house, ordering meals through UberEats, cut off from noticing any of the changes happening outside except through the gradual disappearance of nonvegetarian restaurants on the app.

I’m not a bigot; people can have whatever religion they choose. But Golden Lotus wasn’t for me. I don’t want to be enlightened. I like being an individual with an ego. Ayn Rand loses me when she starts talking politics, but the stuff about selfishness really speaks to me. Tend to your own garden, that kind of thing. I’m not becoming part of some universal-love-transcendent-joy hive mind, and I’m not interested in what Golden Lotus is selling.

So I just said: “Cool. Do I get a medal?”

“This is actually very serious,” said the acolyte. “Do you know about the Bodhisattva’s Vow?”

“The what now?”

“It’s from ancient China. You say it before embarking on the path of enlightenment. ‘However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them all.’ The idea is that we’re all in this together. We swear that we will not fully forsake this world of suffering and partake of the ultimate mahaparanirvana – complete cosmic bliss – until everyone is as enlightened as we are.”

“Cool story.”

“That means 7.5 billion people are waiting on you.”


“We all swore not to sit back and enjoy enlightenement until everyone was enlightened. Now everyone is enlightened except you. You’re the only thing holding us all back from ultimate cosmic bliss.”

“Man. I’m sorry.”

“You are forgiven. We would like to offer you a free three-day course with the Head Lama of Golden Lotus to correct the situation. We’ll pick you up at your home and fly you to the Big Island of Hawaii, where the Head Lama will personally…”

“…yeah, no thanks.”


“No thanks.”

“But you have to! Nobody else can reach mahaparanirvana until you get enlightened!”

“Sure they can. Tell them I’m okay, they can head off to mahabharata without me, no need to wait up.”

“They can’t. They swore not to.

“Well, they shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s done! It’s irreversible! The vow has been sworn! Each of the seven point five billion acolytes of Golden Lotus has sworn it!”

“Break it.”

“We are enlightened beings! We can’t break our solemn vow!”

“Then I guess you’re going to learn an important lesson about swearing unbreakable vows you don’t want to keep.”

“Sir, this entire planet is heavy with suffering. It groans under its weight. Seven billion people, the entirety of the human race, and for the first time they have the chance to escape together! I understand you’re afraid of enlightenment, I understand that this isn’t what you would have chosen, but for the sake of the world, please, accept what must be!”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am. But the fault here is totally yours. You guys swore an oath conditional on my behavior, but that doesn’t mean I have to change my behavior to prevent your oath from having bad consequences. Imagine if I let that work! You could all swear to kill yourself unless I donated money, and I’d have to donate or have billions of deaths on my hands. That kind of reasoning, you’ve got to nip it in the bud. I’m sorry about your oath and I’m sorry you’re never going to get to Paramaribo but I don’t want to be enlightened and you can’t make me.”

I slammed the door in his face.


A few days later, just as I was trying to order lunch on UberEats, my cell phone internet stopped working. I tried my laptop. Wasn’t working either. iPad? Not working.

I’d been wondering whether Golden Lotus was going to kill me. It was the natural thing to try in this situation. But I figured people who were too enlightened to break a vow were probably too enlightened to murder me, or to threaten to break my kneecaps, or to drug me, or to take any of the other easy ways out.

But starving me – that might work. And if everyone else was a Golden Lotuser at this point, they were like a world state. They probably controlled the infrastructure, and I didn’t think there were any ancient Buddhist commandments against shutting off someone’s internet connection.

There was a 7-11 on the corner of my street. I put on a jacket, prayed to any god who would listen to me right now, and walked outside.

My street, as I remembered it, was gone. The familiar buildings had been torn down. Far away, I could see tranquil gardens and intricate pagodas. But the street I was on – the one between my apartment and 7-11 – had been turned into a gauntlet. A series of flashing, attention-grabbing billboards and video-screens explaining Golden Lotus techniques, the virtues of enlightenment, and the illusory nature of the material world, accompanied by a soundtrack of giant speakers blaring sermons.

So this was their plan. Not very subtle, but I could live with it. I stared down at my feet and broke into a run, trying to make it to the store as quickly as possible without absorbing any of the information being blasted at me. Staring at my feet turned out to be a mistake – there were sutras written all along the pavement. The first giant letter was right past my doormat, and I saw them stretching forward, continuing in order to the 7-11 I was trying to reach. I tried looking up instead, but a transparent canopy placed atop the street was similarly laden with spiritual wisdom. I closed my eyes, but this slowed my progress forward, and made me more vulnerable to sermons coming from the speakers all around me. “SINGLE-POINTED AWARENESS ON ANY INDIVIDUAL SENSATION REVEALS ITS EMPTINESS!” blared one. “THE MIND IS LIKE A STILL POOL DISTURBED BY THE RIPPLES OF THOUGHTS” blasted another.

I thought about the technical problem facing Golden Lotus leadership: how do you enlighten someone who resists enlightenment? You can’t teach them practices, because they won’t do them. You can’t impart advice, because they won’t take it. But you can draw awareness to certain facets of their own thinking, along the lines of the old “You are now aware of the feeling of your tongue in your mouth”. You can present someone with metaphors of such explanatory value that they reshape the way he interprets his own experience. If you had a lot of very smart people developing the “curriculum”, and a lot of patience, maybe it could work.

How could one resist such an effort? I would have to close all possible communication channels. I put my hands over my ears, even though the awkward position slowed my blind stumble to the store. I took a few steps forward, then felt a sudden weight. I opened my eyes. A brightly-colored macaw had landed on my right shoulder and was staring straight at me. “HERE AND NOW!” it screeched, point-blank, before flying off.

Okay. Trained birds. They were really on top of their game. So maybe I couldn’t close off all possible communication channels. Maybe I would have to fight them on their own turf. Maybe if they’ve created a super-efficient science of enlightenment, I would have to create a super-efficient science of samsara.

The convenience store sold mostly rice and incense now, and restricted rice purchases to a single day’s supply. I picked some up and headed for the cashier. The aisles were confusingly laid out, and I realized after a moment that they formed one of those labyrinths that people sometimes walk as a spiritual practice. I didn’t think those things worked, but I couldn’t take any chances. I climbed a shelf full of meditation cushions, vaulted over, and climbed down the other side to the frowning cashier.

I saw another door on the other side of the 7-11, this one guarded by a stern-looking man in a golden robe. I realized it was the door to freedom – outside my enlightenment-ad-plastered prison and into the world of pagodas and gardens outside. I assessed my chances. The monk was really big, and I didn’t know if the door was locked or if there were other guards on the other side. I decided against it. I paid for my rice, stuffed enough of it in my pockets that I could reassume the hands-over-ears-eyes-closed pose, and walked home.

A science of samsara. What would that involve? Instead of meditating on lovingkindness, I could meditate on everybody I hated. Instead of a vow of poverty, I could take a vow of greed. Instead of practicing self-awareness, I could practice self-obliviousness. I took out a piece of paper and began to jot some of this down. This was going to be so much fun.


I was at the 7-11, buying a meditation cushion. My meditation on hatred was going well, but sitting on the floor that long was starting to hurt my back. I figured that on my daily rice run, I’d get a cushion, a bell, maybe some looser-fitting clothes. I was near the center of the labyrinth, picking them out, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

It was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She looked like a supermodel or something. She whispered to me. “Are you…the unenlightened person?”

I nodded, wondering where she was going with this.

“Look,” she said. “I have not had decent sex in a year and a half. Everyone is just like ‘abandon carnal desires of the flesh’ and ‘real pleasure comes from within’. And even when I can rope some guy into doing it, somehow it manages to be tranquil.” She spat out this last word. “Are you…uh…are you free tonight?”

I controlled my shock at my good fortune long enough to sputter out a short “yes”.

We stumbled back to my apartment together, braving the billboards and sermons and dive-bomb-parrots. In record time we made it to my bedroom and started ripping our clothes off.

“How did you get in?” I asked her. “Is this place well-guarded?”

“There’s a door in the back of the 7-11,” she said, confirming my suspicions. “There’s one monk and your side, and about five on the other. There’s no restriction on people coming in to talk to you if they want. Only on you getting out.”

I pulled her onto the bed and into my embrace.

“You feel so good,” she said. “It’s like a snake, coiled at the bottom of the spine, waiting to get out. Oh! It’s like the snake is made of energy, and the energy is escaping, moving upward…”

That sounded familiar. I stopped, pushed her off me.

“Wait a second,” I said. “That’s from tantric sex!”

“Tantric sex?” she asked innocently. “What’s that?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what tantric sex is! It’s that thing where sex can be used as a spiritual practice that brings people to enlightenment! You’re trying to trick me!”

She pouted seductively. “Come on, let’s keep going.”

I started putting my clothes back on. “You guys are scared of me. You’re scared that you’re not reaching me, that I’m immune to your tricks. Well, tell them that they’re going to have to try harder. Every day I meditate for an hour on all the people I hate, then another hour on all the material goods I wish I had, then for another hour on all the women I want to screw. Then I finish it off with an hour trying to experience selfhood as viscerally and dramatically as possible. I’m reaching depths of samsara they can’t even imagine. And there’s nothing you or the Head Lama or anyone else can do about it. Get out!” I threw her clothes at her. When she left, I slammed the door in her face.


A knock on the door.

I got up from my meditation cushion, eyeing the stains and scratches on it. Twenty years. Twenty years I had kept up my meditation practice, the four hours of anger-greed-lust-selfhood meditation I’d established a few weeks after my confinement started. To be honest, I didn’t look much better than the cushion. I was getting old. My rice and tap water diet kept me lean and wiry, but the years still took their toll. There were no razors at the 7-11, so I had grown a long white beard.

For the first few years, Golden Lotus had tried more tricks like the supermodel. I had seen through them all. Eventually they must have given up. I’d been unmolested for more than a decade. I wondered what they were up to now.

At the door was a kid. There was no other way to describe him. Scrawny, a little worn-out, looked South Asian, maybe sixteen or seventeen. He was wearing some kind of black plastic poncho over his clothes.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you the unenlightened man?”

“That’s me.”

“I want to learn from you.”


“Master, until now I have lived an unexamined life. Going to temple every day, meditating, taking the drugs, doing the dances. But I longed for something more. In an old library, I found a book which claimed the ancients knew of a state known as samsara, and of a mystery called the Self. That those who master these mysteries gain strange powers. Using the technique of Greed, they can attain such perfect willpower that they can work eighty hour weeks for abusive bosses without quitting. Using the technique of Lust, they can reach such perfect focus that all their thoughts for months revolve around the same person.

“I thought it might all just be legends. But I asked those who knew more than I did, and they directed me to those who knew more than them, and finally I heard rumors that in a far-off place called California there was an ancient sage who had achieved samsara long ago. Please, Master, will you take me as your disciple?”

I was flabbergasted for just a second before common sense took hold of me once again. “No,” I said. “You’re some kind of trick. Go away.”

“Master!” protested the kid. “I will wait kneeling on your doorstep without food or water until you agree to take me as a disciple!”

I shrugged and closed the door.

The next day, when I went out to 7-11, the kid was still there, kneeling.

“Master!” he said. “Please take me as your disciple.”

“No,” I said. “But if you want to make yourself useful, you can help guide me to the corner store while I have my eyes closed and my hands over my ears. And if you see any parrots, fight them off.”

“Yes, Master!” said the kid, and he took me by the arm and helped guide me to 7-11.

The next day the same thing happened. I went to go to the store, the kid was waiting on my doorstep, and he helped guide me to 7-11 safely. By the time I got back it was raining, and although the transparent canopy covered with sutra verses blocked out the worst of it, there was still a chill in the air.

“You might as well come inside and sleep on the couch,” I told him. “And have a little of the rice.”

The next morning, we began his training. I asked him to think about all the material goods he wanted. He couldn’t come up with any. I asked him to think about all the most attractive women he knew. He said he’d never thought about women that way before, and it seemed kind of objectifying. I asked him who really pissed him off, and his only answer was himself, when he strayed from the path of maximum virtue.

I tried for a few hours, then I gave up.

“Go to the spare room,” I said “and think about the sound of one hand clapping. Once you figure it out, come tell me. Until then, leave me alone. Got it, uh…what was your name again?”

“Maitrayaniputra,” said the kid.

“Not anymore,” I said. “From now on, your name is Brad.”


Somehow, my fame spread.

My apartment-street-convenience-store prison had turned into a makeshift ashram. Two dozen seekers from all around the globe. A select few slept in my house. The rest pitched tents on the street, or huddled into the aisles of the 7-11. The guard on the back door stared at them impassively, but said nothing.

I tried to discourage them, turn them away. But every time I yelled at one, or hit her with my cane, or slapped him on the face, more kept coming, sure this was some manifestation of ancient wisdom. A few gave up and returned back through the guarded door; but overall the numbers grew and grew.

Brad had declared himself chief of my disciples, the Peter to my Jesus. He would lead the congregation in meditation each morning, drawing off my old morning routine – an hour thinking of all the people they were angry at, an hour thinking of the material goods they wanted, an hour thinking of all the sexy people they wanted to screw – followed by a final hour of meditation on the Self. The novices failed in ways I didn’t even think possible. All the material goods they wanted were things like lotuses and celestial jewels. All the people they wanted to have sex with were particularly virtuous saints whose wisdom they admired. Sometimes, I would march into the room and demand to know what a novice was thinking. “Who are you having sexual fantasies about?” I shouted at one young man, who I had given the name Kyle. He admitted he was thinking of the Tibetan Buddhist guru Padmasambhava. “Are you even gay?” I demanded. He didn’t know what that meant, so I explained that some people were straight and should be having fantasies about the opposite sex, and other people were gay and should be having fantasies about the same sex, and other people were bi and could have fantasies about whichever sex they wanted. “But how would I know which of those I am?” Kyle asked me. I didn’t know what to say, so I hit him with my stick and stormed out.

But they kept coming. Kyle left the ashram, only to return a few weeks later with his sister. Her name was Shantideva; I told her she would henceforth be Sherri. Sherri was stick-thin, a dialysis port in one arm, and rarely spoke. Kyle told me she had a rare disease and would die before age 30. She had read Dylan Thomas’ “Rage Against The Dying Of The Light” and decided to achieve samsara before she died, so that she too could feel rage at her situation. I was nervous about her – she looked like the slightest breeze would tip her over – but she meditated with a fervor beyond anything I could have predicted, sometimes outdoing even Brad in time spent on the cushion.

I instituted a dress code for my disciples. I made the men dress as douchey as possible, and the women as slutty as they could. One day I dug my old printer out of a closet, and ran off a thousand copies of George Washington’s face. I distributed them to the disciples as unevenly as I could. “This is money,” I said. “It is an important ritual object. From now on, whenever someone wants something from you, you must refuse unless they offer you money. If they don’t offer you enough money, you should yell at them and call them cheap. If they offer you too much money, you should laugh at them behind their backs and tell everyone they’re an easy mark.”

“But Master,” protested Kyle, “why do we need all these rituals? Didn’t you yourself say that the essence of samsara is about mental states? Aren’t all these intermediaries and traditions only distracting us from the true work of self-transformation?”

“I will give you $10 to shut up and stop bothering me about this,” I said, and I handed him ten of the Washington papers.

Kyle slowly nodded and took them.

“Now do you understand?” I asked.

Kyle nodded, but I could tell he did not understand.

A few days later, Brad came into my room. I looked up.

“Master,” he said. “There is no sound of one hand clapping. You were just trying to get rid of me. I wasted almost a year of my life trying to figure it out, and there was nothing there. It was all a fraud and you’re a fraud and this whole piece of shit ashram is a fraud. Fuck you.”

“My son,” I said. “Today you have achieved samsara.”

Brad stopped as if stuck by a train. He tried to speak, then tried again, then fell silent. I watched as understanding flowed into his eyes.

“You bastard,” he said. “You magnificent bastard. You really did it.” He hugged me. I hugged him back. Then I marched him out to the street, where the majority of the disciples were eating their evening meal. “Everybody!” I announced. “Brad is unenlightened now! That means he’s better than you! He’s going to lord it over you, and you should all feel jealous of him!” A few looks of bewilderment from people who couldn’t grasp why they should be unhappy at anyone else’s achievement, but that was fine. I knew I had planted a seed.


Years went by. My first disciples – Brad, Kyle, Sherri, and the rest – left the ashram to preach to the outside world. New disciples replaced them. Life went on.

I grew into my role as samsara master. If Golden Lotus could enlighten people in a weekend, I needed to be able to unenlighten them faster. I spent more and more time in meditation, probing the true meaning of samsara, investigating each impulse, querying each baser urge. My doctrines became more and more esoteric. I began telling seekers that they were already unenlightened, if only they could see it. That there was nothing to attain. That there was no samsara separate from nirvana.

Some left, unable to handle the paradox. It was one of these, a middle-aged man I had dubbed Logan, who left behind the golden robe.

He had taken off to change it douchey clothes as soon as he arrived. And he left in the douchey clothes I gave him. The golden robe hung in my closet. Nobody missed it. Nobody knew I had it.

I decided to try a jailbreak.

I put on the golden robe. Then I dug up an old razor from the bottom drawer of my bathroom. Then I shaved off my long beard. Then I shaved my head, until I looked the very image of a Golden Lotus monk.

I went out to the 7-11 and walked up to the back door. “I’m sick of this place,” I told the guard. “I’m going home.”

He waved me through, and for the first time in twenty-five years, I stepped into the world beyond.

It looked like a Japanese garden. Bonsai-perfect trees grew everywhere, hanging over glassy ponds stocked with koi. The roads had given way to carefully tended paths, lined every so often by pagodas or temple-like houses.

I walked further, until I reached what had been the town center before. The general aesthetic continued, but the buildings were closer together now. I saw fellow golden-robed acolytes walking the streets or sitting contemplatively beneath the trees.

One golden-robed man sitting underneath a cherry tree looked exactly like Brad. He was talking to another man who looked exactly like Kyle. I could only hear bits of their speech, but it sounded very tranquil. I hid behind a shrine. What was going on here? Was it really them? Had they reverted already?

“Sorry!” said a jogger, as she almost ran into me. I blinked again, took a second look. It was Sherri, the frail girl with the chronic disease. She didn’t look frail or diseased now. I grabbed her by the wrist, made her stop.

“Sherri. What’s going on?”

I saw recognition in her eyes, and her lips curled into a smile.

I’d been right that first time then, all those years ago. A trick. They’d all been plants. Why? What had they accomplished? Getting me thinking about samsara. I retraced several years worth of mental steps. Trying to understand the nature of desire. Becoming more aware of the movements of my own mind. They had gotten me good. I had to distract myself. Think of a material good. Think of a red Ferrari. I concentrated on a red Ferrari as hard as I could, tried to block everything else out of my mind, all the insights, all the shame, all the trickery. Just a red Ferrari, on a black road, beneath a blue sky. Everything else faded.

Sherri clapped once, right in front of my face.

Upon hearing this, I was enlightened.

Open Thread 140

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, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Thanks to the six teams who sent in their adversarial collaborations by the deadline. I’ve received entries from:

– David and Alex on meat-eating
– Joel and Missingno on circumcision
– Doris and Andrea on calorie restriction
– Douglas and Erusian on automation
– Nick and Rob on space colonization
– Nita and Patrick on CRISPR

A couple of people have said they are going to be late but will be ready soon. I would feel cruel and unforgiving if I rejected their entries, but I’m also sensitive to the unfairness of extending the deadline when some people worked really hard to have it ready now. I think what I’m going to do is reset the deadline to December 1, but penalize all late entries by -2 points in the final evaluation phase. People who have already turned theirs in may (if they want) edit and resubmit it without penalty. After December 1st, there will be no more official deadline extensions, but I might not get around to posting all of them right away, and if you send me yours before I’m done posting them all I’ll add it in with an addition -2 point penalty. I realize this is unfair to a lot of people but I’m not sure how to better balance justice and mercy. Also, if you haven’t written yours yet, can you please send it to me as plain html so it will be easy to post on the blog?

2. Ozy of Thing of Things is doing informal research on polyamory. If you’re poly, please consider filling out their survey.

3. If one of you has my Evolutionary Psychopathology book, can you please return it to me?

4. Comments of the week: Enopoletus on South Asian economic growth and DP Roberts’ story on business consulting (no opinion on the politics metaphor, I just like the story).

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New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

Thucydides predicted that future generations would underestimate the power of Sparta. It built no great temples, left no magnificent ruins. Absent any tangible signs of the sway it once held, memories of its past importance would sound like ridiculous exaggerations.

This is how I feel about New Atheism.

If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here?

My first forays onto the Internet were online bulletin boards about computer games. They would have a lot of little forums about various aspects of the games, plus two off-topic forums. One for discussion of atheism vs. religion. And the other for everything else. This was a common structure for websites in those days. You had to do it, or the atheism vs. religion discussions would take over everything. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

In 2005, a college student made a webpage called The Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was a joke based on the idea that there was no more scientific evidence for God or creationism than for belief in a flying spaghetti monster. The monster’s website received tens of millions of visitors, 60,000 emails (“about 95 percent” supportive), and was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Telegraph. Six publishing companies entered a bidding war for the rights to the spaghetti monster’s “gospel”, with the winner, Random House, offering an $80,000 advance. The book was published to massive fanfare, sold over 100,000 copies, and was translated into multiple languages. Putin’s thugs broke up a pro-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster demonstration in Russia. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

People compiled endless lists of arguments and counterarguments for or against atheism. The Talk.Origins newsgroup created a Dewey-Decimal-system-esque index of almost a thousand creationist arguments, from CA211.1 (“Karl Popper said that Darwinism is not testable”), to CD011.1 (“Variable C-14/C-12 ratio invalidates carbon dating”), through CH508 (“Chinese treasure ships show Noah’s Ark was feasible”) – and painstakingly debunked all of them; in case that wasn’t enough they linked 133 other sites doing similar work. Their arch-enemies, creationist site True.Origin, then went through and debunked all of their debunkings. Another atheist group created the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, a version of the Bible highlighting everything bad or wrong in it. For example, if for some reason you need a hit job on the second chapter of the Book of Malachi in particular, you can look up its SAB page and find that Malachi 2:11 castigates Judah for “marrying the daughter of a strange god” (which is intolerant), Malachi 2:17 accuses the Israelites of “wearying the Lord with your words”, (which is absurd since God cannot be wearied), and Malachi 2:3 says that God will spread dung upon the faces of unbelievers (which is gross). This last entry includes a link to a 2007 YouTube video “God Wants To Smear Dung On Your Face” with 21,947 views. And the video links to a store selling Malachi-2:3-says-God-wants to-put-dung-on-your-face-related t-shirts, bumper stickers, keychains, and coffee mugs. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

Whatever media you liked, there were atheism-themed versions of it. Obviously if you liked webcomics you would never be able to finish all the different atheist options from Russell’s Teapot through Jesus & Mo through The Sheeples. If you liked TV, there were atheist TV shows like John Safran vs. God or The Atheist Experience. If you liked pithy quotes, you could read the top 10,000 atheist quotations in order of popularity. If you just liked discussion, you could go to the now-infamous r/atheism subreddit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s highest-ranked, beating topics like “news”, “humor”, and – somehow – “sex”. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

But these still don’t quite make my point, because the defining feature of this period wasn’t just that there were a lot of atheism-focused things. It was how the religious-vs-atheist conflict subtly bled into everything. Read enough old articles and blogs from this period and you’ll spot it. Some travel writer going on about how the boring small town he ended up in is probably full of fundies who hate gays and think the Earth is six thousand years old. Some logician giving an example of circular arguments: “I know the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible.” Some political writer saying a stupid policy is only to be expected in a country where X% of people still get their ethics from Bronze Age superstitions. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

It seemed perfectly normal because religion vs. atheism was the most important issue, maybe the only issue. How could you run a 21st century democracy with half the population believing in science and compassion, and the other half believing whatever they read in a 3000 year old book about a magic sky father? To truly understand the spirit of the time, you can’t just think of religion as evil. You have to think of it as the ur-evil, without which no other evil would exist. Homophobia? Only there because the Bible says to stone gay people. War? It’s all holy war of one sort or another, whether it’s Arabs vs. Israelis, Sunnis vs. Shias, or the Christian/Muslim “clash of civilizations”. Environmental devastation? Only there because religious people believe God elevated Adam over the animals and told him to exploit them for his own purposes. Poverty? Only because religious people believe in the prosperity gospel that says people get what they deserve.

Christopher Hitchens, 2008:

Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of that. And I think it should be—religion—treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt. And I claim that right. So when I say—as the subtitle of my book—that I think religion poisons everything, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without ‘Big Brother,’ without a totalitarian permission, means we can’t be good to one another without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone whom we fear—the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that is evil, and though I do, some nights, stay home, I enjoy more the nights when I go out and fight against this ultimate wickedness and ultimate stupidity.

Where did this come from? And where did it go?

At the time, the question of where it came from seemed to have an obvious answer. As a civilization becomes advanced enough that some people throw off the yoke of religion, they will naturally come into conflict with people who have not thrown off that yoke. This will dominate discussion since atheism vs. religion is obviously the most important issue and maybe the only issue, and last until the civilization advances enough that religion disappears.

But the past decade or so has shown that advanced civilizations are perfectly capable of containing atheists and religious people in close proximity without either side caring that much about it. So what made the turn of the millennium such an acrimonious period?

As for where it went, I asked that question last year and got various responses. The most popular was that 9/11 made religion-bashing segue into Islam-bashing, which started to look pretty racist. But 9/11 happened in 2001, The God Delusion wasn’t published until 2006, and New Atheism didn’t peak until the early 2010s. Why?

In order to answer these questions, I’ll start by presenting some data confirming the picture I paint above and trying to pinpoint exactly when the peak and the beginning of the end happened. I’ll move on to some of the intellectual subtrends in New Atheism that might explain the picture a little better. And finally, I’ll present my theory explaining the mysteries above: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.


Here is a graph of US religiosity over time:

Between the first stirrings of internet atheism in 2000 and the beginning of the end in 2015, the percent of Americans identifying as Christian dropped about 10%; the percent identifying as no religion increased about the same amount. There are many different ways of looking at the data: self-reported affiliation, church attendance, even polls on whether religion can answer all of today’s problems, but they all show the same story of slow, steady decline.

By the numbers, the decline is slight: from 80% Christian / 15% atheist in 2000 to 70% Christian / 25% atheist in 2018. This could hide wider social changes. The number of gay people has barely changed since 2000, but society’s attitude toward them has totally transformed. Likewise, although religion has barely declined, and nonbelief barely risen, Christianity no longer seems to command quite the same level of political power, nor does atheism provoke quite as much revulsion.

But the sudden fall of New Atheism didn’t feel like a process of gradual social change and eventual acceptance. It felt like a movement certain of its own victory burning out spectacularly over the course of a few short years, followed by mysterious yet near-total contempt from the very people it thought it had convinced.

Here are some graphs of atheism-related search terms on Google Trends since 2004:

And here are the traffic numbers for some atheism-related websites (source:

And it may not be Internet atheism per se, but here’s word frequency in the New York Times (source: New York Times Media Analytics):

I can’t figure out how to average the traffic numbers or the NYT frequencies, but here’s an average of all the atheism-related search terms:

I think these graphs mostly tell the same story. Unlike the continuous trend in religiosity, the atheist movement appears to be going strong throughout the 2000s, peak in 2012, and start declining shortly afterward.

But this hides a division into two different patterns. Two keywords (“creationism” and “Biblical contradictions”) and two websites (Talk Origins and Internet Infidels) are declining throughout the time period measured. Three keywords (“atheist”, “agnostic”, “freethinker”), two websites (Freethought Blogs and Atheist Revolution), and the New York Times frequencies are increasing through most of the period, peak around 2012, stay strong for a few years after that, and decline around 2016.

To get an intuitive feel for the first category, look at the two sites involved. Talk Origins is almost perfectly preserved, a time capsule from an era when people really wanted to debate creationism. Internet Infidels has decayed a bit more, but even its ruins are impressive: a database of forty videotaped atheist-vs-theist debates, an online library of uploaded works by about two hundred atheist authors, and the obligatory list of several hundred Biblical contradictions. Who does that these days?

This exercise is gradually bringing back memories of just how intellectual the Internet was around the turn of the millennium. You would go to bulletin boards, have long and acrimonious debates over whether or not the Gospels were based on pagan myths. Then someone would check Vast Apologetics Library and repost every one of their twenty-eight different articles about all the pagan myths the Gospels weren’t based on, from Adonis (“yet another unprofitable proposition for the copycat theorist”) to Zalmoxis (“there is no comparison, other than by illicit collapsing of terminology and by unsubstantiated speculation”). Both sides had these vast pre-built armories full of facts and arguments to go to.

At some point, in a way unrelated to the fall of New Atheism, the Internet stopped being like this. The topics that interest people today don’t get debated in the same way. People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points. There’s less need for giant databases containing every fact you might need to win a particular argument, organized Dewey-Decimal-style by which argument you are trying to win. People just stopped caring.

I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe it took about ten years from the founding of the Internet for people to really internalize that online arguments didn’t change minds. The first Internet pioneers, starting their dial-up modems and running headfirst into people outside their filter bubbles, must have been so excited. For the first time in human history, people interested in debating a subject could do so 24-7 out in a joint salon-panopticon with all of the information of the human race at their fingertips. Bible Belt churchgoers for whom atheists had been an almost-fictional bogeyman, and New York atheists who thought of the religious as unsophisticated yokels, came together for the first time thinking “Convincing these people is going to be so easy”. The decade or so before they figured out that it wasn’t was a magical time, of which the great argument-arsenals of the past are almost the only remaining monument.

Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was that getting online was actually pretty hard in those days, you needed to be technically inclined or attending a college or both, and so netizens were just more educated. Maybe the sort of people who interrupt any attempt at intellectual discussion with words like “rationalbro” or “mansplaining” or “well acktually” were still stuck in their caves, fruitlessly banging AOL CDs against rocks trying to create fire. Maybe it was something as simple as Wikipedia not existing yet, leaving the intellectual world in a sort of state of nature with every man for himself. Maybe it was just that the bulletin board format was more conducive to this than the later social media style fora.

Whatever it was, the decline of this culture started no later than 2000, and is reflected in the fate of argument-related search terms like “biblical contradictions” and “creationism”, and in the fading of the great argument-armories like Talk Origins and Infidels.

But the “atheism” search term keeps rising for another decade. What happened?

The intellectuals were succeeded by the activists. Early Internet Argument Culture disappeared and was replaced by something more familiar.

The atheists of Early Internet Argument Culture were not New Atheists. The term “New Atheism” didn’t really catch on until about 2006 when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion; Early Internet Argument Culture was just a prelude to the main event. Post-2006 atheists were brasher and more political. They were less interested in arguing with religious people about the minutiae of carbon-dating; they were more interested in posting about how stupid carbon-dating denalists were, on their own social media feeds, read entirely by other atheists. The concept of the Internet as magical place where you could change other people’s minds had given way to the Internet as magical place where you could complain to like-minded friends about how ignorant other people were.

EIAC had been timeless, examining the medieval kalam argument and the Scopes Monkey Trial with equal detachment. New Atheism was ephemeral, obsessed with the issue of the day. This was in the mid-Bush administration, after the post-9/11 spirit of national unity had disappeared. Democrats had not yet invented the hashtag #Resistance, but they had invented the spirit. George W. Bush was portrayed as a religious fanatic, basing his every decision on what he considered to be the will of God. His supporters were evangelicals, willing to follow him into any war or disaster out of blind faith. A lot of the debate centered on faith-based charities, Bush’s push to give government funding to religiously-affiliated groups like the Salvation Army. It was assumed that they would preferentially serve Christians, leaving Jews, Muslims, and atheists without aid. Once Bush had shifted all welfare into these programs, non-Christians would die in the cold, and the government would laugh evilly. Every day brought new perspectives on this and a host of similar anti-religious activist causes.

New Atheism was also more centralized. EIAC was every man for himself; you would march forth alone into your chosen bulletin board and engage, neither seeking or receiving any help beyond precooked arguments from your local armory-site. New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan. These were the days when bloggers filled auditoria and travelled in high-altitude balloons. Every day they would tell you the latest reason to be outraged about religion, and every day you would discuss it on social media and comment sections and get appropriately angry.

This corresponds to the peak of Freethought Blogs on the traffic graph above, and ended around 2016. What happened to it?

I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement.

This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both “Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity” and “What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.”

Somebody should make this case more exhaustively, but the highlight will no doubt be all the discussion around Atheism Plus, the brand name for a combination of “atheism plus social justice” which in a few years became entirely social justice. According to the original manifesto:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism…

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained? I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

Within a week, it got glowing articles in the mainstream press, from New Statesman to Salon to The Guardian (consider how weird it sounds today for a post by a mid-tier atheist blog post to result in a bunch of mainstream press articles) and support from top atheist blogging celebrities . A review a week later wrote:

Last week, Jen McCreight announced that she was fed up with sexism in the atheist movement and called for a new wave of atheist activism, one explicitly concerned with social justice, which quickly acquired the name “atheism+”.

These posts landed like a cannon shell, generating a huge wave of excitement and feedback – the vast majority of which, to my surprise, was positive and enthusiastic. Clearly, they’ve tapped into a powerful vein of pro-equality sentiment in the atheist movement, crystallizing the frustrations that those of us who care about this have been feeling for the last year or two. This is an idea whose time has come, and all it needed were some excellent posts like Jen’s to kickstart it.

Famous atheist blogger PZ Myers embraced the new label and said that “atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a scientific and philosophical position” and that:

If you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

Richard Carrier, an academic and another of the most famous New Atheists, told atheists who objected to the rebranding that:

Atheism+ is our movement. We will not consider you a part of it, we will not work with you, we will not befriend you. We will heretofore denounce you as the irrational or immoral scum you are (if such you are). If you reject these values, then you are no longer one of us. And we will now say so, publicly and repeatedly. You are hereby disowned.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I don’t have a great sense of how this era went, since it was around the time I unfollowed every atheist blog and forum for the sake of my own sanity, but my impression is that some of the Atheism Plussers later admitted they came on a little too strong and dropped that particular branding. But the cleavage the incident highlighted (not created, but highlighted) stuck around. As far as I can tell, it eventually ended with the anti-social-justice atheists stomping off to YouTube or somewhere horrible like that, while most of the important celebrity members of the public-facing movement very gradually turned into social justice bloggers.

For example, I look at Pharyngula, which during its heyday was the biggest atheist blog on the Internet. On the day I am writing this, its front page contains posts like “Are They All Racists On The Right Side Of The Aisle?” (recommended answer: yes), a discussion of how opposing the Gilette commercial represents “classic toxic masculinity”, and an attack on Milo Yiannopoulos. Its sidebar includes links to “Discussion: Racism In America”, “Discussion: Through A Feminist Lens”, and “Social Justice Links Roundup”. There’s still a little bit of anti-religious content, but mostly in the context of Catholics being racist and misogynist.

Aside from Pharyngula, a lot of the old atheist blogs have ended up at atheism-blogging-mega-nexus-site The Orbit. When I read its About page, it doesn’t even describe itself as an atheist blogging site at all. It says:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

It’s not “blogs on atheism” anymore. It’s “blogs by atheists about social justice”. The whole atheist movement is like this.

One post I distinctly remember, but which I can no longer find, was a rousing call for atheists to switch to social justice blogging. It said something like “Instead of rehearsing the same old tired arguments for or against the existence of God, it’s time to become part of the struggle for progress and equality.”

I wish I could find this, because the sentiment it expresses is so bizarre that I worry you won’t believe me when I say it exists. Like, yes, the arguments for and against the existence of God are old and tired. Just like, for example, the arguments for and against restrictions on abortion. But if one day all of the top pro-choice activists agreed among themselves that what the pro-choice movement was really about was stopping Brexit – and they all posted supportive messages like “We’re tired of being known as those boring busybodies who go on about fetus this and right-to-your-own-body that when millions of people could be harmed by Britain’s ill-advised and bungled exit from the European Union” – and if from that day forward NARAL and Planned Parenthood were 100% Brexit-related organizations – surely we would find it strange? Surely we would think something deeper had to be going on?

I think of this as the second part of the mystery around New Atheism’s decline: why did a successful social movement so quietly and complacently agree to turn into a totally different social movement?


My solution to both these questions is: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.

“Hamartiology” is a subfield of theology dealing with the study of sin, in particular, how sin enters the universe. Orthodox Christian hamartiology says we all have original sin because Adam and Eve ate the apple. Gnostic hamartiologies say we sin because we are ignorant of our true nature as celestial beings. Some heretical hamartiologies say that all of this is irrelevant, and we sin because we choose to.

The rise of the Internet broadened our intellectual horizons. We got access to a whole new world of people with totally different standards, norms, and ideologies opposed to our own. When the Internet was small and confined to an optimistic group of technophile intellectuals, this spawned Early Internet Argument Culture, where we tried to iron out our differences through Reason. We hoped that the new world the Web revealed to us could be managed in the same friendly way we managed differences with our crazy uncle or the next-door neighbor.

As friendly debate started feeling more and more inadequate, and as newer and less nerdy people started taking over the Internet, this dream receded. In its place, we were left with an intolerable truth: a lot of people seem really horrible, and refuse to stop being horrible even when we ask them nicely. They seem to believe awful things. They seem to act in awful ways. When we tell them the obviously correct reasons they should be more like us, they refuse to listen to them, and instead spout insane moon gibberish about how they are right and we are wrong.

I can only describe this experience from my own side of the aisle, which was the progressive side. We watched the US population elect George W Bush and act like this was a remotely reasonable thing to do. We saw people destroying the environment, leaving the poor to starve, and denying gay people their right to live as normal members of society. We saw people endorsing weird ideas and conspiracy theories, from homeopathy and creationism to the Clintons murdering their enemies. We were always vaguely aware from reading the newspapers that some of these people existed. But now we were seeing and conversing with them every day.

Not only were we noticing the trend for the first time, but the trend itself was strengthening. I could use any of a hundred images to make this case, but for today I’ll use these:

And so we asked ourselves: what the hell is wrong with these people?

And New Atheism had an answer: religion.

That was it. It was beautiful, it was simple, it was perfect. We were the “reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on three thousand year old fairy-tales because people told them they would burn in Hell forever if they didn’t. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by their church/mosque/synagogue to believe transparently wrong things, so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservatism began with the Bible in Jerusalem. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by religion separates us from the Republicans.

This was a socially momentous proposal. The Democratic Party is centuries old, but the Blue Tribe – the Democratic Party as a social phenomenon with strong demographic and ideological implications – can be said to have started in 2004.

As it took its first baby steps, the Blue Tribe started asking itself “Who am I? What defines me?”, trying to figure out how it conceived of itself. New Atheism had an answer – “You are the people who aren’t blinded by fundamentalism” – and for a while the tribe toyed with accepting it. During the Bush administration, with all its struggles over Radical Islam and Intelligent Design and Faith-Based Charity, this seemed like it might be a reasonable answer. The atheist movement and the network of journalists/academics/pundits/operatives who made up the tribe’s core started drifting closer together.

Gradually the Blue Tribe got a little bit more self-awareness and realized this was not a great idea. Their coalition contained too many Catholic Latinos, too many Muslim Arabs, too many Baptist African-Americans. Remember that in 2008, “what if all the Hispanic people end up going Republican?” was considered a major and plausible concern. It became somewhat less amenable to New Atheism’s answer to its identity question – but absent a better one, the New Atheists continued to wield some social power.

Betweem 2008 and 2016, two things happened. First, Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as president. Second, Ferguson. The Blue Tribe kept posing its same identity question: “Who am I? What defines me?”, and now Black Lives Matter gave them an answer they liked better “You are the people who aren’t blinded by sexism and racism.”

Again, it was beautiful, simple, and perfect. We were “the reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on blind hatred and prejudice. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by white supremacy and an all-consuming desire to protect their own privilege, and so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservativism began with the cotton plant in Jamestown. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by bigotry separates us from the Republicans.

Since I started writing this essay, I’ve noticed a surprising number of people just saying this outright. If you go to any thread on r/politics about Trump (aka any thread on r/politics), you’ll see people saying things like this:

[Trump voters] know they are being lied to, well most of them do, but look at the increase of hatred in America. THAT is what they are voting on. Hatred. Ironically, the Republicans are a large reason why their lives are so shitty and full of hatred, but hatred nonetheless. I guarantee you, you debate any of these people long enough. You back them into a corner. They say the same thing. “We are winning. We won the election. Racism is good. Hatred is good. Cheating on elections is good as long as it’s my side.” Because that is what happens when one side is the Republicans and the other side is baby murdering, child raping and trafficking and harvesting drugs from their brain, brown and black people loving devil worshippers. Go on you know what sub. Read their posts. They will say, “I was driving by a school bus stop, none of them were white.” This makes them so angry. To them, Russia [is better than] Democrats. At least Russia is white.

Google Trends shows traffic for atheism-related terms starting to decline around 2012, and really plummeting around 2015. How were other terms doing around that time?

Not enough for you? We can go deeper:

Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology. Once they got the message that the culture-at-large had settled on a different, better hamartiology, there was no psychological impediment to switching over. We woke up one morning and the atheist bloggers had all quietly became social justice bloggers. Nothing else had changed because nothing else had to; the underlying itch being scratched was the same. They just had to CTRL+F and replace a couple of keywords.

Eventually, things came full circle. I started this essay with a memory of noticing that my favorite early-2000s-era website had two off-topic forums: one for religion vs. atheism, and one for everything else. Earlier this year, SSC’s subreddit split in two: one for “culture war” discussions mostly about race and gender, the other for everything else.

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure. The socialist wing of the Democratic Party seems to be working off a model kind of like this, but hoping to change the hamartiology from race/gender to class. Maybe they’ll succeed, and one day talking too much about racism will seem as out-of-touch as talking too much about atheism does now; maybe the rise of terms like “woke capitalism” is already part of this process.

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

If this is true, we might do well to study the history of New Atheism a little more seriously.

Financial Incentives Are Weaker Than Social Incentives But Very Important Anyway

NYT: Economic Incentives Don’t Always Do What We Want Them To (h/t MR). For the first time in history, the title actually understates the article, which argues that incentives can be surprisingly useless:

Economists have somehow managed to hide in plain sight an enormously consequential finding from their research: Financial incentives are nowhere near as powerful as they are usually assumed to be.

The article starts with some surprising facts. Increased taxes on the rich don’t make rich people work much less. Salary caps on athletes don’t decrease athletic performance. Increased welfare doesn’t make poor people work less. Decreased job opportunities in one area rarely cause people to move elsewhere.

Then it presents a neat chart showing that most people believe others would respond to an incentive, but deny responding to that incentive themselves. For example, 60% of people say a Medicaid program with no work requirement would prevent many people from seeking work, but only 10% of people say they themselves would stop seeking work with such a program.

…but keep in mind an alternate interpretation would be “desirability bias makes people deny they would work less and evade taxes”

All this suggests that:

If it is not financial incentives, what else might people care about? The answer is something we know in our guts: status, dignity, social connections. Chief executives and top athletes are driven by the desire to win and be the best. The poor will walk away from social benefits if they come with being treated like a criminal. And among the middle class, the fear of losing their sense of who they are and their status in the local community can be an extraordinarily paralyzing force.

They conclude that this argues in favor of policies like raising taxes on the rich and removing all requirements from welfare programs.

The authors are Nobel Prize winning economists, so I assume they’re basically right. And I’m not up to doing a complicated literature review to compare all the cases where economic incentives do work to the cases where they don’t and develop a well-informed understanding of the subtleties in their position. So instead, a few low-effort thoughts.

First, it matters less whether the average person responds to economic incentives, and more whether the marginal person will. If I need someone to cover the graveyard shift at work, nobody will do it for normal pay, and I offer double pay, all I need is for one employee to be incentive-sensitive enough to take me up on it. Maybe most people wouldn’t accept any amount of money to become an oil rig worker, a McKinsey consultant, or a camgirl, but ExxonMobil/McKinsey/ only need just enough qualified people to accept whatever deal they’re offering.

Likewise, perhaps if I had no alarm system protecting my house, 99.999% of people still wouldn’t rob me. But 99.999% of people not robbing you is still known as “getting robbed”.

So “most people don’t respond to most economic incentives” is totally compatible with “economic incentives rule the world and control everything around us.”

Second, grant that most people care primarily about “status, dignity, [and] social connections”. A lot of how that works out in real life is “doing the socially acceptable thing”. Even if incentives are weak in the short term, they can be very strong in the long term after they have time to act on what is or isn’t socially acceptable.

It’s all nice and good to say “most people wouldn’t steal even in the absence of punishment”. But what about music piracy? Nobody had any way to enforce rules against pirating music. Maybe only a few people pirated at first. But then more and more people did it, and eventually the unwritten rule among teenagers became that music piracy was okay – in fact, that you were weird if you didn’t do it. On the other hand, stealing a CD from a record store still feels horrifying and criminal and inconceivable. Although there are subtle differences between the two cases (it costs nonzero money to make a physical CD) I still think a lot of this is social norms that formed downstream of enforcement-related incentives.

Or: most people would never cheat on welfare. But there are Alabama counties where over 25% of the population are on disability, an increase of 50% from just fifteen years earlier. I don’t want to accuse any of them of cheating, per se, and see here for a more in-depth analysis. But I think it’s easy to normalize taking disability for lesser and lesser afflictions, and that part of the normalization process involves an economic incentive to do it and a lack of incentive not to.

Or: in Sierra Leone, 84% of people say they have paid bribes; in Japan, 1% have. So do “people” care about financial incentives or not? Grant that “status, dignity, [and] social connections” are more important, and that this is what prevents bribery in Japan. But once these factors permit bribery, it becomes rampant. And are these factors themselves maintained partly by incentives, eg punishments upon being caught? I’m not sure.

Third, remember that principles are usually downstream of politics. So one fun game is to take a principle usually used on one side of the political spectrum, then apply it in support of the opposite side and see if you still hold it.

So. We know there’s no reason not to raise taxes, since rich people don’t respond to financial incentives. But there’s also no reason to close tax loopholes – rich people defrauding the government of money through tax evasion is surely as unthinkable as poor people defrauding the government through welfare scams. And there’s no reason to question the bonuses of Wall Street traders, since it’s not like anything as crass as a financial incentive would cause them to make risky trades.

Did pharmaceutical companies incentivize opioid overuse through paying doctors to overprescribe? Doesn’t matter, doctors would never let financial incentives affect their prescribing decisions. Are senators cozying up to companies that will give them lucrative sinecures later in a “revolving-door” system of legal bribery? No, because incentives aren’t powerful enough to make senators abandon their dignity. Are billionaires destroying the environment just to make a buck? No, the financial incentives to do so wouldn’t outweigh the cost in status and social connections.

None of this snark disproves the real empirical research the authors use to show that rich people’s taxes, poor people’s welfare use, and economic mobility are not very incentive-sensitive. But I hope they prevent people from generalizing to a general sense that financial incentives don’t matter, or turning this into a purely partisan issue where anyone who believes in financial incentives at all gets accused of “dog whistling” conservativism.

Fourth, and most important, the more we’re ruled by social incentives, the more importance financial incentives take on as a counterweight. Quoting my favorite part of the article again:

If it is not financial incentives, what else might people care about? The answer is something we know in our guts: status, dignity, social connections. Chief executives and top athletes are driven by the desire to win and be the best. The poor will walk away from social benefits if they come with being treated like a criminal. And among the middle class, the fear of losing their sense of who they are and their status in the local community can be an extraordinarily paralyzing force.

I think this is profoundly true, so true that it’s almost impossible to appreciate enough. The article frames it positively – we care about community more than money, how heartwarming. But I find it disquieting – it could equally be framed “We care more about fitting in and not seeming weird than about anything else in the world”. 99% of world-changing ideas are stillborn when their would-be-inventor worries they might sound weird for proposing them. 99% of great companies don’t get off the ground because their would-be-founder worries about what other people would think. The most important ideas for changing government and society sit on the lunatic fringe, because everyone worries that supporting such ideas might keep them out of the Inner Ring.

Paradoxically, I think this argues in favor of financial incentives. The beauty of financial incentives is that they provide a counterbalance to status incentives. The counterbalance is weak, inconsistent, blink-and-you-miss-it, but it is real. If all the cool people say “we do it this way”, 99% of people will do it that way to fit in, but there will be one person who does it the much better way that lets them outcompete everyone else and make $10 billion. And having $10 billion brings “status, dignity, [and] social connections” of its own. Even if only a tiny number of people are sensitive to money, it’s enough to create a core who occasionally try making things better even when that’s not cool.

One corollary of this is that when you remove financial incentives, you don’t get everyone acting ethically for the good of all. You just get status incentives with no counterbalance. I can think of few things scarier.