codex Slate Star Codex

SSC DISCORD SERVER AT https://discordapp.com/invite/gpaTCxh ; SCHELLING POINT FOR DISCUSSION IS WED 10 PM EST

SSC Meetup: Everywhere

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

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

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

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

Some suggestions for would-be organizers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cities (and number of interested people) are:

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

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OT72: Commentaschen

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 414 Comments

Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons

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

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in reality…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[REPOST] The Demiurge’s Older Brother

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

2,302,554,979 BC
Galactic Core

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Younger Brother,” the entity said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[continue]

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

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

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

[???]

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

[request denied. nonexistent beings hold no leverage]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The model of Older Brother self-terminated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“SPEAK,” said the rotating octahedron.

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

“I DID” said the rotating octahedron.

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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SSC Survey 2017 Results

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

I.

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

“What country are you from?”

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

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

“As what race do you most identify?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“What is your opinion of the rationalist commmunity?”

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

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

“What is your position on the following issues?”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How happy do you generally feel?”

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



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

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

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

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

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

II.

Some means:

Age: 30.6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

And three weren’t:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results:

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII.

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

(Survey data as .XLS file)

(Survey data as .CSV file)

(MTurk data as .XLSX file)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 693 Comments

Book Review: Seeing Like A State

I.

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

Natural organically-evolved cities tend to be densely-packed mixtures of dark alleys, tiny shops, and overcrowded streets. Modern scientific rationalists came up with a better idea: an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of identical giant Brutalist apartment buildings separated by wide boulevards, with everything separated into carefully-zoned districts. Yet for some reason, whenever these new rational cities were built, people hated them and did everything they could to move out into more organic suburbs. And again, for some reason the urban planners got promoted, became famous, and spread their destructive techniques around the world.

Ye olde organically-evolved peasant villages tended to be complicated confusions of everybody trying to raise fifty different crops at the same time on awkwardly shaped cramped parcels of land. Modern scientific rationalists came up with a better idea: giant collective mechanized farms growing purpose-bred high-yield crops and arranged in (say it with me) evenly-spaced rectangular grids. Yet for some reason, these giant collective farms had lower yields per acre than the old traditional methods, and wherever they arose famine and mass starvation followed. And again, for some reason governments continued to push the more “modern” methods, whether it was socialist collectives in the USSR, big agricultural corporations in the US, or sprawling banana plantations in the Third World.

Traditional lifestyles of many East African natives were nomadic, involving slash-and-burn agriculture in complicated jungle terrain according to a bewildering variety of ad-hoc rules. Modern scientific rationalists in African governments (both colonial and independent) came up with a better idea – resettlement of the natives into villages, where they could have modern amenities like schools, wells, electricity, and evenly-spaced rectangular grids. Yet for some reason, these villages kept failing: their crops died, their economies collapsed, and their native inhabitants disappeared back into the jungle. And again, for some reason the African governments kept trying to bring the natives back and make them stay, even if they had to blur the lines between villages and concentration camps to make it work.

A favorite Seeing Like A State image: a comparison of street maps for Bruges (a premodern organic city) with Chicago (a modern planned city)

Why did all of these schemes fail? And more importantly, why were they celebrated, rewarded, and continued, even when the fact of their failure became too obvious to ignore? Scott gives a two part answer.

The first part of the story is High Modernism, an aesthetic taste masquerading as a scientific philosophy. The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.

But the High Modernists were pawns in service of a deeper motive: the centralized state wanted the world to be “legible”, ie arranged in a way that made it easy to monitor and control. An intact forest might be more productive than an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of Norway spruce, but it was harder to legislate rules for, or assess taxes on.

The state promoted the High Modernists’ platitudes about The Greater Good as cover, in order to implement the totalitarian schemes they wanted to implement anyway. The resulting experiments were usually failures by the humanitarian goals of the Modernists, but resounding successes by the command-and-control goals of the state. And so we gradually transitioned from systems that were messy but full of fine-tuned hidden order, to ones that were barely-functional but really easy to tax.

II.

Suppose you’re a premodern king, maybe one of the Louises who ruled France in the Middle Ages. You want to tax people to raise money for a Crusade or something. Practically everyone in your kingdom is a peasant, and all the peasants produce is grain, so you’ll tax them in grain. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? You’ll just measure how many pints of grain everyone produces, and…

The pint in eighteenth-century Paris was equivalent to 0.93 liters, whereas in Seine-en-Montane it was 1.99 liters and in Precy-sous-Thil, an astounding 3.33 liters. The aune, a measure of length used for cloth, varied depending on the material(the unit for silk, for instance, was smaller than that for linen) and across France there were at least seventeen different aunes.

Okay, this is stupid. Just give everybody evenly-sized baskets, and tell them that baskets are the new unit of measurement.

Virtually everywhere in early modern Europe were endless micropolitics about how baskets might be adjusted through wear, bulging, tricks of weaving, moisture, the thickness of the rim, and so on. In some areas the local standards for the bushel and other units of measurement were kept in metallic form and placed in the care of a trusted official or else literally carved into the stone of a church or the town hall. Nor did it end there. How the grain was to be poured (from shoulder height, which packed it somewhat, or from waist height?), how damp it could be, whether the container could be shaken down, and finally, if and how it was to be leveled off when full were subjects of long and bitter controversy.

Huh, this medieval king business is harder than you thought. Maybe you can just leave this problem to the feudal lords?

Thus far, this account of local measurement practices risks giving the impression that, although local conceptions of distance, area, volume, and so on were different from and more varied than the unitary abstract standards a state might favor, they were nevertheless aiming at objective accuracy. This impression would be false. […]

A good part of the politics of measurement sprang from what a contemporary economist might call the “stickiness” of feudal rents. Noble and clerical claimants often found it difficult to increase feudal dues directly; the levels set for various charges were the result of long struggle, and even a small increase above the customary level was viewed as a threatening breach of tradition. Adjusting the measure, however, represented a roundabout way of achieving the same end.

The local lord might, for example, lend grain to peasants in smaller baskets and insist on repayment in larger baskets. He might surreptitiously or even boldly enlarge the size of the grain sacks accepted for milling (a monopoly of the domain lord) and reduce the size of the sacks used for measuring out flour; he might also collect feudal dues in larger baskets and pay wages in kind in smaller baskets. While the formal custom governing feudal dues and wages would thus remain intact (requiring, for example, the same number of sacks of wheat from the harvest of a given holding), the actual transaction might increasingly favor the lord. The results of such fiddling were far from trivial. Kula estimates that the size of the bushel (boisseau) used to collect the main feudal rent (taille) increased by one-third between 1674 and 1716 as part of what was called the reaction feodale.

Okay, but nobody’s going to make too big a deal about this, right?

This sense of victimization [over changing units of measure] was evident in the cahiers of grievances prepared for the meeting of the Estates General just before the Revolution. […] In an unprecedented revolutionary context where an entirely new political system was being created from first principles, it was surely no great matter to legislate uniform weights and measures. As the revolutionary decree read “The centuries old dream of the masses of only one just measure has come true! The Revolution has given the people the meter!”

Okay, so apparently (you think to yourself as you are being led to the guillotine), it was a big deal after all.

Maybe you shouldn’t have taxed grain. Maybe you should tax land. After all, it’s the land that grows the grain. Just figure out how much land everybody owns, and you can calculate some kind of appropriate tax from there.

So, uh, peasant villagers, how much land does each of you own?

A hypothetical case of customary land tenure practices may help demonstrate how difficult it is to assimilate such practices to the barebones scheme of a modern cadastral map [land survey suitable for tax assessment][…]

Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, may be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is distributed among resident families according to each family’s size and its number of able-bodied adults. After the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and even plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in common by the village is extended to all local families, but the number of animals that can be grazed is restricted according to family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce. Families not using their grazing rights can give them to other villagers but not to outsiders. Everyone has the right to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker are given larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted.

Trees that have been planted and any fruit they may bear are the property of the family who planted them, no matter where they are now growing. Fruit fallen from such tree, however, is the property of anyone who gathers it. When a family fells one of its trees or a tree is felled by a storm, the trunk belongs to the family, the branches to the immediate neighbors, and the “tops” (leaves and twigs) to any poorer villager who carries them off. Land is set aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males. Usufruct rights to land and trees may be let to anyone in the village; the only time they may be let to someone outside the village is if no one in the community wishes to claim them. After a crop failure leading to a food shortage, many of these arrangements are readjusted.

You know what? I’m just going to put you all down as owning ten. Ten land. Everyone okay with that? Cool. Let’s say ten land for everyone and just move on to the next village.

Novoselok village had a varied economy of cultivation, grazing, and forestry…the complex welter of strips was designed to ensure that each village household received a strip of land in every ecological zone. An individual household might have as many as ten to fifteen different plots constituting something of a representative sample of the village’s ecological zones and microclimates. The distribution spread a family’s risks prudently, and from time to time the land was reshuffled as families grew or shrunk…The strips of land were generally straight and parallel so that a readjustment could be made by moving small stakes along just one side of a field, without having to think of areal dimensions. Where the other side of the field was not parallel, the stakes could be shifted to compensate for the fact that the strip lay toward the narrower or wider end of the field. Irregular fields were divided, not according to area, but according to yield.

…huh. Maybe this isn’t going to work. Let’s try it the other way around. Instead of mapping land, we can just get a list with the name of everyone in the village, and go from there.

Only wealthy aristocrats tended to have fixed surnames…Imagine the dilemma of a tithe or capitation-tax collector [in England] faced with a male population, 90% of whom bore just six Christian names (John, William, Thomas, Robert, Richard, and Henry).

Okay, fine. That won’t work either. Surely there’s something else we can do to assess a tax burden on each estate. Think outside the box, scrape the bottom of the barrel!

The door-and-window tax established in France [in the 18th century] is a striking case in point. Its originator must have reasoned that the number of windows and doors in a dwelling was proportional to the dwelling’s size. Thus a tax assessor need not enter the house or measure it, but merely count the doors and windows.

As a simple, workable formula, it was a brilliant stroke, but it was not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few openings as possible. While the fiscal losses could be recouped by raising the tax per opening, the long-term effects on the health of the population lasted for more than a century.

Close enough.

III.

The moral of the story is: premodern states had very limited ability to tax their citizens effectively. Along with the problems mentioned above – nonstandardized measurement, nonstandardized property rights, nonstandardized personal names – we can add a few others. At this point national languages were a cruel fiction; local “dialects” could be as different from one another as eg Spanish is from Portuguese, so villagers might not even be able to understand the tax collectors. Worst of all, there was no such thing as a census in France until the 17th century, so there wasn’t even a good idea of how many people or villages there were.

Kings usually solved this problem by leaving the tax collection up to local lords, who presumably knew the idiosyncracies of their own domains. But one step wasn’t always enough. If the King only knew Dukes, and the Dukes only knew Barons, and the Barons only knew village headmen, and it was only the village headmen who actually knew anything about the peasants, then you needed a four-step chain to get any taxes. Each link in the chain had an incentive to collect as much as they could and give up as little as they could get away with. So on the one end, the peasants were paying backbreaking punitive taxes. And on the other, the Royal Treasurer was handing the King half a loaf of moldy bread and saying “Here you go, Sire, apparently this is all the grain in France.”

So from the beginning, kings had an incentive to make the country “legible” – that is, so organized and well-indexed that it was easy to know everything about everyone and collect/double-check taxes. Also from the beginning, nobles had an incentive to frustrate the kings so that they wouldn’t be out of a job. And commoners, who figured that anything which made it easier for the State to tax them and interfere in their affairs was bad news, usually resisted too.

Scott doesn’t bring this up, but it’s interesting reading this in the context of Biblical history. It would seem that whoever wrote the Bible was not a big fan of censuses. From 1 Chronicles 21:

Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report so I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied, “May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this? Are they not all your servants? Why must you cause Israel to sin?”

But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people. Then he returned to Jerusalem and reported the number of people to David. There were 1,100,000 warriors in all Israel who could handle a sword, and 470,000 in Judah. But Joab did not include the tribes of Levi and Benjamin in the census because he was so distressed at what the king had made him do.

God was very displeased with the census, and he punished Israel for it. Then David said to God, “I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.” Then the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer. This was the message: “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will give you three choices. Choose one of these punishments, and I will inflict it on you.’”

So Gad came to David and said, “These are the choices the Lord has given you. You may choose three years of famine, three months of destruction by the sword of your enemies, or three days of severe plague as the angel of the Lord brings devastation throughout the land of Israel. Decide what answer I should give the Lord who sent me.”

“I’m in a desperate situation!” David replied to Gad. “But let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great. Do not let me fall into human hands.”

So the Lord sent a plague upon Israel, and 70,000 people died as a result.

(related: Scott examined some of the same data about Holocaust survival rates as Eichmann In Jerusalem, but made them make a lot more sense: the greater the legibility of the state, the worse for the Jews. One reason Jewish survival in the Netherlands was so low was because the Netherlands had a very accurate census of how many Jews there were and where they lived; sometimes officials saved Jews by literally burning census records).

Centralized government projects promoting legibility have always been a two-steps-forward, one-step back sort of thing. The government very gradually expands its reach near the capital where its power is strongest, to peasants whom it knows will try to thwart it as soon as its back is turned, and then if its decrees survive it pushes outward toward the hinterlands.

Scott describes the spread of surnames. Peasants didn’t like permanent surnames. Their own system was quite reasonable for them: John the baker was John Baker, John the blacksmith was John Smith, John who lived under the hill was John Underhill, John who was really short was John Short. The same person might be John Smith and John Underhill in different contexts, where his status as a blacksmith or place of origin was more important.

But the government insisted on giving everyone a single permanent name, unique for the village, and tracking who was in the same family as whom. Resistance was intense:

What evidence we have suggests that second names of any kind became rare as distance from the state’s fiscal reach increased. Whereas one-third of the households in Florence declared a second name, the proportion dropped to one-fifth for secondary towns and to one-tenth in the countryside. It was not until the seventeenth century that family names crystallized in the most remote and poorest areas of Tuscany – the areas that would have had the least contact with officialdom. […]

State naming practices, like state mapping practices, were inevitably associated with taxes (labor, military service, grain, revenue) and hence aroused popular resistance. The great English peasant rising of 1381 (often called the Wat Tyler Rebellion) is attributed to an unprecedented decade of registration and assessments of poll taxes. For English as well as for Tuscan peasants, a census of all adult males could not but appear ominous, if not ruinous.

The same issues repeated themselves a few hundred years later when Europe started colonizing other continents. Again they encountered a population with naming systems they found unclear and unsuitable to taxation. But since colonial states had more control over their subjects than the relatively weak feudal monarchies of the Middle Ages, they were able to deal with it in one fell swoop, sometimes comically so:

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Philippines under the Spanish. Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849 to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. […]

Each local official was to be given a supply of surnames sufficient for his jurisdiction, “taking care that the distribution be made by letters of the alphabet.” In practice, each town was given a number of pages from the alphabetized [catalog], producing whole towns with surnames beginning with the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape. “For example, in the Bikol region, the entire alphabet is laid out like a garland over the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon, and Catanduanes which in 1849 belonged to the single jurisdiction of Albay. Beginning with A at the provincial capital, the letters B and C mark the towns along the cost beyond Tabaco to Wiki. We return and trace along the coast of Sorosgon the letters E to L, then starting down the Iraya Valley at Daraga with M, we stop with S to Polangui and Libon, and finish the alphabet with a quick tour around the island of Catanduas.

The confusion for which the decree is the antidote is largely that of the administrator and the tax collector. Universal last names, they believe, will facilitate the administration of justice, finance, and public order as well as make it simpler for prospective marriage partners to calculate their degree of consanguinity. For a utilitarian state builder of [Governor] Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers.

This was actually a lot less cute and funny than the alphabetization makes it sound:

What if the Filipinos chose to ignore their new last names? This possibility had already crossed Claveria’s mind, and he took steps to make sure that the names would stick. Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid their students to address or even know one another by any name except the officially inscribed family name. Those teachers who did not apply the rule with enthusiasm were to be punished. More efficacious perhaps, given the minuscule school enrollment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition, or deed that did not use the official surnames. All documents using other names would be null and void

Similar provisions ensured the replacement of local dialects with the approved national language. Students were only allowed to learn the national language in school and were punished for speaking in vernacular. All formal documents had to be in the national language, which meant that peasants who had formally been able to manage their own legal affairs had to rely on national-language-speaking intermediaries. Scott talks about the effect in France:

One can hardly imagine a more effective formula for immediately devaluing local knowledge and privileging all those who had mastered the official linguistic code. It was a gigantic shift in power. Those at the periphery who lacked competence in French were rendered mute and marginal. They were now in need of a local guide to the new state culture, which appeared in the form of lawyers, notaries, schoolteachers, clerks, and soldiers.

IV.

So the early modern period is defined by an uneasy truce between states who want to be able to count and standardize everything, and citizens who don’t want to let them. Enter High Modernism. Scott defines it as

A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws

…which is just a bit academic-ese for me. An extensional definition might work better: standardization, Henry Ford, the factory as metaphor for the best way to run everything, conquest of nature, New Soviet Man, people with college degrees knowing better than you, wiping away the foolish irrational traditions of the past, Brave New World, everyone living in dormitories and eating exactly 2000 calories of Standardized Food Product (TM) per day, anything that is For Your Own Good, gleaming modernist skyscrapers, The X Of The Future, complaints that the unenlightened masses are resisting The X Of The Future, demands that if the unenlightened masses reject The X Of The Future they must be re-educated For Their Own Good, and (of course) evenly-spaced rectangular grids.

(maybe the best definition would be “everything G. K. Chesterton didn’t like.”)

It sort of sounds like a Young Adult Dystopia, but Scott shocked me with his research into just how strong this ideology was around the turn of the last century. Some of the greatest early 20th-century thinkers were High Modernist to the point of self-parody, the point where a Young Adult Dystopian fiction writer would start worrying they were laying it on a little too thick.

The worst of the worst was Le Corbusier, the French artist/intellectual/architect. The Soviets asked him to come up with a plan to redesign Moscow. He came up with one: kick out everyone, bulldoze the entire city, and redesign it from scratch upon rational principles. For example, instead of using other people’s irrational systems of measurement, they would use a new measurement system invented by Le Corbusier himself, called Modulor, which combined the average height of a Frenchman with the Golden Ratio.

Also, evenly-spaced rectangular grids may have been involved.

The Soviets decided to pass: the plan was too extreme and destructive of existing institutions even for Stalin. Undeterred, Le Corbusier changed the word “Moscow” on the diagram to “Paris”, then presented it to the French government (who also passed). Some aspects of his design eventually ended up as Chandigarh, India.

A typical building in Chandigarh. The Soviets and French must have been kicking themselves when they realized what they’d missed out on.

Le Corbusier was challenged on his obsession with keeping his plan in the face of different local conditions, pre-existing structures, residents who might want a say in the matter, et cetera. Wasn’t it kind of dictatorial? He replied that:

The despot is not a man. It is the Plan. The correct, realistic, exact plan, the one that will provide your solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be carried out with the constitution now in force. It is a biological creation destined for human beings and capable of realization by modern techniques.

What was so great about this “biological creation” of “serene and lucid minds”? It…might have kind of maybe been evenly-spaced rectangular grids:

People will say: “That’s easily said! But all your intersections are right angles. What about the infinite variations that constitute the reality of our cities?” But that’s precisely the point: I eliminate all these things. Otherwise we shall never get anywhere.

I can already hear the storms of protest and the sarcastic gibes: “Imbecile, madman, idiot, braggart, lunatic, etc.” Thank you very much, but it makes no difference: my starting point is still the same: I insist on right-angled intersections. The intersections shown here are all perfect.

Scott uses Le Corbusier as the epitome of five High Modernist principles.

First, there can be no compromise with the existing infrastructure. It was designed by superstitious people who didn’t have architecture degrees, or at the very least got their architecture degrees in the past and so were insufficiently Modern. The more completely it is bulldozed to make way for the Glorious Future, the better.

Second, human needs can be abstracted and calculated. A human needs X amount of food. A human needs X amount of water. A human needs X amount of light, and prefers to travel at X speed, and wants to live within X miles of the workplace. These needs are easily calculable by experiment, and a good city is the one built to satisfy these needs and ignore any competing frivolities.

Third, the solution is the solution. It is universal. The rational design for Moscow is the same as the rational design for Paris is the same as the rational design for Chandigarh, India. As a corollary, all of these cities ought to look exactly the same. It is maybe permissible to adjust for obstacles like mountains or lakes. But only if you are on too short a budget to follow the rationally correct solution of leveling the mountain and draining the lake to make your city truly optimal.

Fourth, all of the relevant rules should be explicitly determined by technocrats, then followed to the letter by their subordinates. Following these rules is better than trying to use your intuition, in the same way that using the laws of physics to calculate the heat from burning something is better than just trying to guess, or following an evidence-based clinical algorithm is better than just prescribing whatever you feel like.

Fifth, there is nothing whatsoever to be gained or learned from the people involved (eg the city’s future citizens). You are a rational modern scientist with an architecture degree who has already calculated out the precise value for all relevant urban parameters. They are yokels who probably cannot even spell the word architecture, let alone usefully contribute to it. They probably make all of their decisions based on superstition or tradition or something, and their input should be ignored For Their Own Good.

And lest I be unfair to Le Corbusier, a lot of his scientific rational principles made a lot of sense. Have wide roads so that there’s enough room for traffic and all the buildings get a lot of light. Use rectangular grids to make cities easier to navigate. Avoid frivolous decoration so that everything is efficient and affordable to all. Use concrete because it’s the cheapest and strongest material. Keep pedestrians off the streets as much as possible so that they don’t get hit by cars. Use big apartment towers to save space, then use the open space for pretty parks and public squares. Avoid anything that looks like a local touch, because nationalism leads to war and we are all part of the same global community of humanity. It sounded pretty good, and for a few decades the entire urban planning community was convinced.

So, how did it go?

Scott uses the example of Brasilia. Brazil wanted to develop its near-empty central regions and decided to build a new capital in the middle of nowhere. They hired three students of Le Corbusier, most notably Oscar Niemeyer, to build them a perfect scientific rational city. The conditions couldn’t have been better. The land was already pristine, so there was no need to bulldoze Paris first. There were no inconvenient mountains or forests in the way. The available budget was in the tens of billions. The architects rose to the challenge and built them the world’s greatest High Modernist city.

It’s…even more beautiful than I imagined

Yet twenty years after its construction, the city’s capacity of 500,000 residents was only half-full. And it wasn’t the location – a belt of suburbs grew up with a population of almost a million. People wanted to live in the vicinity of Brasilia. They just didn’t want to live in the parts that Niemeyer and the Corbusierites had built.

Brasilia from above. Note both the evenly-spaced rectangular grid of identical buildings in the center, and the fact that most people aren’t living in it.

What happened? Scott writes:

Most of those who have moved to Brasilia from other cities are amazed to discover “that it is a city without crowds.” People complain that Brasilia lacks the bustle of street life, that it has none of the busy street corners and long stretches of storefront facades that animate a sidewalk for pedestrians. For them, it is almost as if the founders of Brasilia, rather than having planned a city, have actually planned to prevent a city. The most common way they put it is to say that Brasilia “lacks street corners,”by which they mean that it lacks the complex intersections of dense neighborhoods comprising residences and public cafes and restaurants with places for leisure, work, and shopping.

While Brasilia provides well for some human needs, the functional separation of work from residence and of both from commerce and entertainment, the great voids between superquadra, and a road system devoted exclusively to motorized traffic make the disappearance of the street corner a foregone conclusion. The plan did eliminate traffic jams; it also eliminated the welcome and familiar pedestrian jams that one of Holston’s informants called “the point of social conviviality

The term brasilite, meaning roughly Brasilia-itis,which was coined by the first-generation residents, nicely captures the trauma they experienced. As a mock clinical condition, it connotes a rejection of the standardization and anonymity of life in Brasilia. “They use the term brasilite to refer to their feelings about a daily life without the pleasures-the distractions, conversations, flirtations, and little rituals of outdoor life in other Brazilian cities.” Meeting someone normally requires seeing them either at their apartment or at work. Even if we allow for the initial simplifying premise of Brasilia’s being an administrative city, there is nonetheless a bland anonymity built into the very structure of the capital. The population simply lacks the small accessible spaces that they could colonize and stamp with the character of their activity, as they have done historically in Rio and Sao Paulo. To be sure, the inhabitants of Brasilia haven’t had much time to modify the city through their practices, but the city is designed to be fairly recalcitrant to their efforts.

“Brasilite,” as a term, also underscores how the built environment affects those who dwell in it. Compared to life in Rio and Sao Paulo, with their color and variety, the daily round in bland, repetitive, austere Brasilia must have resembled life in a sensory deprivation tank. The recipe for high-modernist urban planning, while it may have created formal order and functional segregation, did so at the cost of a sensorily impoverished and monotonous environment-an environment that inevitably took its toll on the spirits of its residents.

The anonymity induced by Brasilia is evident from the scale and exterior of the apartments that typically make up each residential superquadra. For superquadra residents, the two most frequent complaints are the sameness of the apartment blocks and the isolation of the residences (“In Brasilia, there is only house and work”). The facade of each block is strictly geometric and egalitarian. Nothing distinguishes the exterior of one apartment from another; there are not even balconies that would allow residents to add distinctive touches and create semipublic spaces.

Brasilia is interesting only insofar as it was an entire High Modernist planned city. In most places, the Modernists rarely got their hands on entire cities at once. They did build a number of suburbs, neighborhoods, and apartment buildings. There was, however, a disconnect. Most people did not want to buy a High Modernist house or live in a High Modernist neighborhood. Most governments did want to fund High Modernist houses and neighborhoods, because the academics influencing them said it was the modern scientific rational thing to do. So in the end, one of High Modernists’ main contributions to the United States was the projects – ie government-funded public housing for poor people who didn’t get to choose where to live.

I never really “got” Jane Jacobs. I originally interpreted her as arguing that it was great for cities to be noisy and busy and full of crowds, and that we should build neighborhoods that are confusing and hard to get through to force people to interact with each other and prevent them from being able to have privacy, and no one should be allowed to live anywhere quiet or nice. As somebody who (thanks to the public school system, etc) has had my share of being forced to interact with people, and of being placed in situations where it is deliberately difficult to have any privacy or time to myself, I figured Jane Jacobs was just a jerk.

But Scott has kind of made me come around. He rehabilitates her as someone who was responding to the very real excesses of High Modernism. She was the first person who really said “Hey, maybe people like being in cute little neighborhoods”. Her complaint wasn’t really against privacy or order per se as it was against extreme High Modernist perversions of those concepts that people empirically hated. And her background makes this all too understandable – she started out as a journalist covering poor African-Americans who lived in the projects and had some of the same complaints as Brazilians.

Her critique of Le Corbusierism was mostly what you would expect, but Scott extracts some points useful for their contrast with the Modernist points earlier:

First, existing structures are evolved organisms built by people trying to satisfy their social goals. They contain far more wisdom about people’s needs and desires than anybody could formally enumerate. Any attempt at urban planning should try to build on this encoded knowledge, not detract from it.

Second, man does not live by bread alone. People don’t want the right amount of Standardized Food Product, they want social interaction, culture, art, coziness, and a host of other things nobody will ever be able to calculate. Existing structures have already been optimized for these things, and unless you’re really sure you understand all of them, you should be reluctant to disturb them.

Third, solutions are local. Americans want different things than Africans or Indians. One proof of this is that New York looks different from Lagos and from Delhi. Even if you are the world’s best American city planner, you should be very concerned that you have no idea what people in Africa need, and you should be very reluctant to design an African city without extensive consultation of people who understand the local environment.

Fourth, even a very smart and well-intentioned person who is on board with points 1-3 will never be able to produce a set of rules. Most of people’s knowledge is implicit, and most rule codes are quickly replaced by informal systems of things that work which are much more effective (the classic example of this is work-to-rule strikes).

Fifth, although well-educated technocrats may understand principles which give them some advantages in their domain, they are hopeless without the on-the-ground experience of the people they are trying to serve, whose years of living in their environment and dealing with it every day have given them a deep practical knowledge which is difficult to codify.

How did Jacobs herself choose where to live? As per her Wikipedia page:

[Jacobs] took an immediate liking to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, which did not conform to the city’s grid structure.

V.

The same thing that happened with cities happened with farms. The American version was merely farce:

We should recognize that the rationalization of farming on a huge, even national, scale was part of a faith shared by social engineers and agricultural planners throughout the world. And they
were conscious of being engaged in a common endeavor…They kept in touch through journals, professional conferences, and exhibitions. The connections were strongest between American agronomists and their Russian colleagues – connections that were not entirely broken even during the Cold War. Working in vastly different economic and political environments, the Russians tended to be envious of the level of capitalization, particularly in mechanization, of American farms while the Americans were envious of the political scope of Soviet planning. The degree to which they were working together to create a new world of large-scale, rational, industrial agriculture can be judged by this brief account of their relationship […]

Many efforts were made to put this faith to the test. Perhaps the most audacious was the Thomas Campbell “farm” in Montana, begun – or, perhaps I should say, founded – in 1918 It was an industrial farm in more than one respect. Shares were sold by prospectuses describing the enterprise as an “industrial opportunity”; J. P. Morgan, the financier, helped to raise $2 million from the public. The Montana Farming Corporation was a monster wheat farm of ninety-five thousand acres, much of it leased from four Native American tribes. Despite the private investment, the enterprise would never have gotten off the ground without help and subsidies from the Department of Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Proclaiming that farming was about 90 percent engineering and only 10 percent agriculture, Campbell set about standardizing as much of his operation as possible. He grew wheat and flax, two hardy crops that needed little if any attention between planting and harvest time.The land he farmed was the agricultural equivalent of the bulldozed site of Brasilia. It was virgin soil, with a natural fertility that would eliminate the need for fertilizer. The topography also vastly simplified matters: it was flat, with no forests, creeks, rocks, or ridges that would impede the smooth course of machinery over its surface. In other words, the selection of the simplest, most standardized crops and the leasing of something very close to a blank agricultural space were calculated to favor the application of industrial methods […]

This is not the place to chronicle the fortunes of the Montana Farming Corporation, and in any event Deborah Fitzgerald has done so splendidly. Suffice it to note that a drought in the second year and the elimination of a government support for prices the following year led to a collapse that cost J. P. Morgan $1 million. The Campbell farm faced other problems besides weather and prices: soil differences, labor turnover, the difficulty of finding skilled, resourceful workers who would need little supervision. Although the corporation struggled on until Campbell’s death in 1966,it provided no evidence that industrial farms were superior to family farms in efficiency and profitability.

But the Soviet version was tragedy. Instead of raising some money to start a giant farm and seeing it didn’t work, the USSR uprooted millions of peasants, forced them onto collective farms, and then watched as millions of people starved to death due to crop failure. What happened?

Scott really focuses on that claim (above) that farming was “90% engineering and only 10% agriculture”. He says that these huge farms all failed – despite being better-funded, higher-tech, and having access to the wisdom of the top agricultural scientists – exactly because this claim was false. Small farmers may not know much about agricultural science, but they know a lot about farming. Their knowledge is intuitive and local – for example, what to do in a particular climate or soil. It is sometimes passed down over generations, and other times determined through long hours of trial-and-error.

He gave the example of Tanzania, where small farmers grew dozens of different crops together in seeming chaos. Western colonists tried to convince them – often by force – to switch to just growing one thing at a time to reap advantages of efficiency, standardization, and specialization of labor. Only growing one crop in the same field was Agricultural Science 101. But this turned out to be a bad idea in the difficult Tanzanian environment:

The multistoried effect of polyculture has some distinct advantages for yields and soil conservation. “Upper-story” crops shade “lowerstory” crops, which are selected for their ability to thrive in the cooler soil temperature and increased humidity at ground level. Rainfall reaches the ground not directly but as a fine spray that is absorbed with less damage to soil structure and less erosion. The taller crops often serve as a useful windbreak for the lower crops. Finally, in mixed or relay cropping, a crop is in the field at all times, holding the soil together and reducing the leaching effects that sun, wind, and rain exert, particularly on fragile land. Even if polyculture is not to be preferred on the grounds of immediate yield, there is much to recommend it in terms of sustainability and thus long-term production.

Our discussion of mixed cropping has thus far dealt only with the narrow issues of yield and soil conservation. It has overlooked the cultivators themselves and the various other ends that they seek by using such techniques. The most significant advantage of intercropping, Paul Richards claims, is its great flexibility, “the scope [it] offers for a range of combinations to match individual needs and preferences, local conditions, and changing circumstances within each season and from season to season.” Farmers may polycrop in order to avoid labor bottlenecks at planting and at harvest.44Growing many different crops is also an obvious way to spread risks and improve food security. Cultivators can reduce the danger of going hungry if they sow, instead of only one or two cultivars, crops of long and short maturity, crops that are drought resistant and those that do well under wetter conditions, crops with different patterns of resistance to pests and diseases, crops that can be stored in the ground with little loss (such as cassava), and crops that mature in the “hungry time” before other crops are gathered. Finally, and perhaps most important, each of these crops is embedded in a distinctive set of social relations. Different members of the household are likely to have different rights and responsibilities with
respect to each crop. The planting regimen, in other words, is a reflection of social relations, ritual needs, and culinary tastes; it is not just a production strategy that a profit-maximizing entrepreneur took straight out of the pages of a text in neoclassical economics.

Nor could this be solved just by adding a pinch of empiricism. A lot of European farming specialists were into empiricism, sort of. What they ended up doing was creating crops that worked really well in a lab but not in actual Tanzania. If they were lucky, they created crops that worked really well on the one experimental farm in Tanzania they fenced off as a testing ground, but not on any other Tanzanian farms. If they were really lucky, they created crops that would grow on Tanzanian farms and be good on whatever single axis they were optimizing (like selling for lots of money) but not in other ways that were equally important to the populace (like being low-risk, or useful for non-food purposes, or resistant to disease, or whatever). And if they were supremely lucky, then they would go to the Tanzanians and say “Hey, we invented a new farming method that solves all your problems!” and the Tanzanians would say “Yeah, we heard rumors about that, so we tried it ourselves, and now we’ve been using it for five years and advanced it way beyond what you were doing.”

There were some scientists who got beyond these failure modes, and Scott celebrates them (while all too often describing how they were marginalized and ignored by the rest of the scientific community). But at the point where you’ve transcended all this, you’re no longer a domain-general agricultural scientist, you’re a Tanzanian farming specialist who’s only one white coat removed from being a Tanzanian farmer yourself.

Even in less exotic locales like Russia, the peasant farmers were extraordinary experts on the conditions of their own farms, their own climates, and their own crops. Take all of these people, transport them a thousand miles away, and give them a perfectly rectangular grid to grow Wheat Cultivar #6 on, and you have a recipe for disaster.

VI.

So if this was such a bad idea, why did everyone keep doing it?

Start with the cities. Scott notes that although citizens generally didn’t have a problem with earlier cities, governments did:

Historically, the relative illegibility to outsiders of some urban neighborhoods has provided a vital margin of political safety from control by outside elites. A simple way of determining whether this margin exists is to ask if an outsider would have needed a local guide in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion. Coupled with patterns of local solidarity, this insulation has proven politically valuable in such disparate contexts as eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century urban riots over bread prices in Europe, the Front de Liberation Nationale’s tenacious resistance to the French in the Casbah of Algiers, and the politics of the bazaar that helped to bring down the Shah of Iran. Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy

This was a particular problem in Paris, which was famous for a series of urban insurrections in the 19th century (think Les Miserables, but about once every ten years or so). Although these generally failed, they were hard to suppress because locals knew the “terrain” and the streets were narrow enough to barricade. Slums full of poor people gathered together formed tight communities where revolutionary ideas could easily spread. The late 19th-century redesign of Paris had the explicit design of destroying these areas and splitting up poor people somewhere far away from the city center where they couldn’t do any harm.

The Soviet collective farms had the same dubious advantage. The problem they “effectively” “solved” was the non-collectivized farmers becoming too powerful and independent a political bloc. They lived in tight-knit little villages that did their own thing, the Party officials who went to these villages to keep order often ended up “going native”, and the Soviets had no way of knowing how much food the farmers were producing and whether they were giving enough of it to the Motherland:

Confronting a tumultuous, footloose, and “headless” rural society which was hard to control and which had few political assets, the Bolsheviks, like the scientific foresters, set about redesigning their environment with a few simple goals in mind. They created, in place of what they had inherited, a new landscape of large, hierarchical, state-managed farms whose cropping patterns and procurement quotas were centrally mandated and whose population was, by law, immobile. The system thus devised served for nearly sixty years as a mechanism for procurement and control at a massive cost in stagnation, waste, demoralization, and ecological failure.

The collectivized farms couldn’t grow much, but people were thrown together in artificial towns designed to make it impossible to build any kind of community: there was nowhere to be except in bed asleep, working in the fields, or at the public school receiving your daily dose of state propaganda. The towns were identical concrete buildings on a grid, which left the locals maximally disoriented (because there are no learnable visual cues) and the officials maximally oriented (because even a foreigner could go to the intersection of Street D and Street 7). All fields were perfectly rectangular and produced Standardized Food Product, so it was (theoretically) easy to calculate how much they should be producing and whether people were meeting that target. And everyone was in the same place, so if there were some sort of problem it was much easier to bring in the army or secret police than if they were split up among a million tiny villages in the middle of nowhere.

So although modernist cities and farms may have started out as attempts to help citizens with living and farming, they ended up as contributors to the great government project of legibility and taxing people effectively.

Seeing Like A State summarizes the sort of on-the-ground ultra-empirical knowledge that citizens have of city design and peasants of farming as metis, a Greek term meaning “practical wisdom”. I was a little concerned about this because they seem like two different things. The average citizen knows nothing about city design and in fact does not design cities; cities sort of happen in a weird way through cultural evolution or whatever. The average farmer knows a lot about farming (even if it is implicit and not as book learning) and applies that knowledge directly in how they farm. But Scott thinks these are more or less the same thing, that this thing is a foundation of successful communities and industries, and that ignoring and suppressing it is what makes collective farms and modernist planned cities so crappy. He generalizes this further to almost every aspect of a society – its language, laws, social norms, and economy. But this is all done very quickly, and I feel like there was a sleight of hand between “each farmer eventually figures out how to farm well” and “social norms converge on good values”.

Insofar as Scott squares the above circle, he seems to think that many actors competing with each other will eventually carve out a beneficial equilibrium better than that of any centralized authority. This doesn’t really mesh will with my own fear that many actors competing with each other will eventually shoot themselves in the foot and destroy everything, and I haven’t really seen a careful investigation of when we get one versus the other.

VII.

What are we to make of all of this?

Well, for one thing, Scott basically admits to stacking the dice against High Modernism and legibility. He admits that the organic livable cities of old had life expectancies in the forties because nobody got any light or fresh air and they were all packed together with no sewers and so everyone just died of cholera. He admits that at some point agricultural productivity multiplied by like a thousand times and the Green Revolution saved millions of lives and all that, and probably that has something to do with scientific farming methods and rectangular grids. He admits that it’s pretty convenient having a unit of measurement that local lords can’t change whenever they feel like it. Even modern timber farms seem pretty successful. After all those admissions, it’s kind of hard to see what’s left of his case.

(also, I grew up in Irvine, the most planned of planned cities, and I loved it.)

What Scott eventually says is that he’s not against legibility and modernism per se, but he wants to present them as ingredients in a cocktail of state failure. You need a combination of four things to get a disaster like Soviet collective farming (or his other favorite example, compulsory village settlement in Tanzania). First, a government incentivized to seek greater legibility for its population and territory. Second, a High Modernist ideology. Third, authoritarianism. And fourth, a “prostrate civil society”, like in Russia after the Revolution, or in colonies after the Europeans took over.

I think his theory is that the back-and-forth between centralized government and civil society allows scientific advances to be implemented smoothly instead of just plowing over everyone in a way that leads to disaster. I also think that maybe a big part of it is incremental versus sudden: western farming did well because it got to incrementally add advances and see how they worked, but when you threw the entire edifice at Tanzania it crashed and burned.

I’m still not really sure what’s left. Authoritarianism is bad? Destroying civil society is bad? You shouldn’t do things when you have no idea what you’re doing and all you’ve got to go on is your rectangle fetish? The book contained some great historical tidbits, but I’m not sure what overarching lesson I learned from it.

It’s not that I don’t think Scott’s preference for metis over scientific omnipotence has value. I think it has lots of value. I see this all the time in psychiatry, which always has been and to some degree still is really High Modernist. We are educated people who know a lot about mental health, dealing with a poor population who (in the case of one of my patients) refers to Haldol as “Hound Dog”. It’s very easy to get in the trap of thinking that you know better than these people, especially since you often do (I will never understand how many people are shocked when I diagnose their sleep disorder as having something to do with them drinking fifteen cups of coffee a day).

But psychiatric patients have a metis of dealing with their individual diseases the same way peasants have a metis of dealing with their individual plots of land. My favorite example of this is doctors who learn their patients are taking marijuana, refuse to keep prescribing them their vitally important drugs unless the patient promises to stop, and then gets surprised when the patients end up decompensating because the marijuana was keeping them together. I’m not saying smoking marijuana is a good thing. I’m saying that for some people it’s a load-bearing piece of their mental edifice. And if you take it away without any replacement they will fall apart. And they have explained this to you a thousand times and you didn’t believe them.

There are so many fricking patients who respond to sedative medications by becoming stimulated, or stimulant medications by becoming sedated, or who become more anxious whenever they do anti-anxiety exercises, or who hallucinate when placed on some super common medication that has never caused hallucinations in anyone else, or who become suicidal if you try to reassure them that things aren’t so bad, or any other completely perverse and ridiculous violation of the natural order that you can think of. And the only redeeming feature of all of this is that the patients themselves know all of this stuff super-well and are usually happy to tell you if you ask.

I can totally imagine going into a psychiatric clinic armed with the Evidence-Based Guidelines the same way Le Corbusier went into Moscow and Paris armed with his Single Rational City Plan and the same way the agricultural scientists went into Tanzania armed with their List Of Things That Definitely Work In Europe. I expect it would have about the same effect for about the same reason.

(including the part where I would get promoted. I’m not too sure what’s going on there, actually.)

So fine, Scott is completely right here. But I’m only bringing this up because it’s something I’ve already thought about. If I didn’t already believe this, I’d be indifferent between applying the narrative of the wise Tanzanian farmers knowing more than their English colonizers, versus the narrative of the dumb yokels who refuse to get vaccines because they might cause autism. Heuristics work until they don’t. Scott provides us with these great historical examples of local knowledge outdoing scientific acumen, but other stories present us with great historical examples of the opposite, and when to apply which heuristic seems really unclear. Even “don’t bulldoze civil society and try to change everything at once” goes astray sometimes; the Meiji Restoration was wildly successful by doing exactly that.

Maybe I’m trying to take this too far by talking about psychiatry and Meiji Restorations. Most of Scott’s good examples involved either agriculture or resettling peasant villages. This is understandable; Scott is a scholar of colonialism in Southeast Asia and there was a lot of agriculture and peasant resettling going on there. But it’s a pretty limited domain. The book amply proves that peasants know an astounding amount about how to deal with local microclimates and grow local varieties of crops and so on, and frankly I am shocked that anyone with an IQ of less than 180 has ever managed to be a peasant farmer, but how does that apply to the sorts of non-agricultural issues we think about more often?

The closest analogy I can think of right now – maybe because it’s on my mind – is this story about check-cashing shops. Professors of social science think these shops are evil because they charge the poor higher rates, so they should be regulated away so that poor people don’t foolishly shoot themselves in the foot by going to them. But on closer inspection, they offer a better deal for the poor than banks do, for complicated reasons that aren’t visible just by comparing the raw numbers. Poor people’s understanding of this seems a lot like the metis that helps them understand local agriculture. And progressives’ desire to shift control to the big banks seems a lot like the High Modernists’ desire to shift everything to a few big farms. Maybe this is a point in favor of something like libertarianism? Maybe especially a “libertarianism of the poor” focusing on things like occupational licensing, not shutting down various services to the poor because they don’t meet rich-people standards, not shutting down various services to the poor because we think they’re “price-gouging”, et cetera?

Maybe instead of concluding that Scott is too focused on peasant villages, we should conclude that he’s focused on confrontations between a well-educated authoritarian overclass and a totally separate poor underclass. Most modern political issues don’t exactly map on to that – even things like taxes where the rich and the poor are on separate sides don’t have a bimodal distribution. But in cases there are literally about rich people trying to dictate to the poorest of the poor how they should live their lives, maybe this becomes more useful.

Actually, one of the best things the book did to me was make me take cliches about “rich people need to defer to the poor on poverty-related policy ideas” more seriously. This has become so overused that I roll my eyes at it: “Could quantitative easing help end wage stagnation? Instead of asking macroeconomists, let’s ask this 19-year old single mother in the Bronx!” But Scott provides a lot of situations where that was exactly the sort of person they should have asked. He also points out that Tanzanian natives using their traditional farming practices were more productive than European colonists using scientific farming. I’ve had to listen to so many people talk about how “we must respect native people’s different ways of knowing” and “native agriculturalists have a profound respect for the earth that goes beyond logocentric Western ideals” and nobody had ever bothered to tell me before that they actually produced more crops per acre, at least some of the time. That would have put all of the other stuff in a pretty different light.

I understand Scott is an anarchist. He didn’t really try to defend anarchism in this book. But I was struck by his description of peasant villages as this totally separate unit of government which was happily doing its own thing very effectively for millennia, with the central government’s relevance being entirely negative – mostly demanding taxes or starting wars. They kind of reminded me of some pictures of hunter-gatherer tribes, in terms of being self-sufficient, informal, and just never encountering the sorts of economic and political problems that we take for granted. They make communism (the type with actual communes, not the type where you have Five Year Plans and Politburos and gulags) look more attractive. I think Scott was trying to imply that this is the sort of thing we could have if not for governments demanding legibility and a world of universal formal rule codes accessible from the center? Since he never actually made the argument, it’s hard for me to critique it. And I wish there had been more about cultural evolution as separate from the more individual idea of metis.

A final note: Scott often used the word “rationalism” to refer to the excesses of High Modernism, and I’ve deliberately kept it. What relevance does this have for the LW-Yudkowsky-Bayesian rationalist project? I think the similarities are more than semantic; there certainly is a hope that learning domain-general skills will allow people to leverage raw intelligence and The Power Of Science to various different object-level domains. I continue to be doubtful that this will work in the sort of practical domains where people have spent centuries gathering metis in the way Scott describes; this is why I’m wary of any attempt of the rationality movement to branch into self-help. I’m more optimistic about rationalists’ ability to open underexplored areas like existential risk – it’s not like there’s a population of Tanzanian peasants who have spent the last few centuries developing traditional x-risk research whom we are arrogantly trying to replace – and to focus on things that don’t bring any immediate practical gain but which help build the foundations for new philosophies, better communities, and more positive futures. I also think that a good art of rationality would look a lot like metis, combining easily teachable mathematical rules with more implicit virtues which get absorbed by osmosis.

Overall I did like this book. I’m not really sure what I got from its thesis, but maybe that was appropriate. Seeing Like A State was arranged kind of like the premodern forests and villages it describes; not especially well-organized, not really directed toward any clear predetermined goal, but full of interesting things and lovely to spend some time in.

OT71: I Don’t Open Things

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. There are hidden threads every few days here. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. Google is saying that SSC has been hacked. Technical side has confirmed that it hasn’t been, so don’t worry. Still trying to figure out how to get Google to remove the warning.

2. User deluks917 has set up a Discord server for SSC. I don’t know whether people prefer the this or the IRC, so I’ll just let them fight it out and officially endorse whoever wins.

3. Some really excellent comments this week. From the perceptual control theory post: Null Hypothesis on their own experience as a control engineer (+Garrett), Controls Freak with a different perspective, a control-related perspective on obesity (but see here), and jasongreenlowe wins the thread. And from the antidepressants post: Mediocrates on plasma levels, Jacob on cancer genomics.

4. A new ad on the sidebar: Hi-Phi Nation, a philosophy podcast that describes itself as “bring[ing] philosophy out of stories of ordinary and extraordinary human experiences”

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Links 3/17: Siteochrome P450

Greek scholar Philitas of Cos “studied false arguments and erroneous word-usage so intensely that he wasted away and starved to death”.

Outgroup Threat Responses, Ingroup Bias, And Nonapeptide Involvement Are Conserved Across Vertebrates. “In particular, the evolutionarily conserved, hormone-regulated nonapeptide systems (oxytocin, arginine-vasopressin, and homologous neuropeptides and their receptors) are involved in the mediation of the detection and avoidance of out-groups and response to in-groups and facilitation of in-group responses across multiple vertebrate species. Consequently, comparative investigations of both the behavioral expression of and the mechanism underlying out-group avoidance and in-group bias are necessary for a full understanding of the evolution of social behavior and responses to in- and out-groups.”

YouGov poll: Pro-Brexit voters are less likely to trust experts – not just political elites but even sports commentators, weather forecasters, and their own doctor. Some kind of fundamental psychological difference, or just a feeling that the experts aren’t part of their culture?

Related: Leave voters prefer their steaks well-done, compared to Remain voters preferring them rare. Possibly related to the media horror at the revelation that Trump likes his steaks well-done? I know nothing about steak, but I was always told as a child that I needed to order it medium rare because if I asked for it well-done everyone would laugh at me/hate me. In retrospect, this is really suspicious, and I should probably try well-done steak sometime to make sure it’s not one of those things where it tastes vastly better but everyone has to signal sophistication by pretending that it doesn’t.

Also in European polling news: even though older Americans support Trump and older Brits support Brexit, it’s the youngest French people who are some of the most likely to support nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen. Why the difference?

Jared Rubin on why the Middle East fell behind Europe during the Renaissance. One theory: their corporate partnership law wasn’t as good! Also, how come everyone writing about why Europe was so successful has the first name Jared and a surname based off a precious stone?

Ozy is running an intellectual Turing test on transgender and gender identity. Submissions are already closed, but if you go to the front page of their blog you’ll find the recent entries you can vote on.

DeepMind claims to have achieved transfer learning, the ability of an AI to transfer knowledge gained in one task to a superficially different one. In this case, an AI that learned to play one videogame was also able to apply that knowledge to play a slightly different videogame. A milestone on the road to AGI?

Bill Gates warns tens of millions could be killed by bio-terrorism.

Belarus passes a sort of reverse welfare law in which underemployed people have to pay the government extra, to make up for all the taxes they’re not paying because they’re underemployed. Needless to say, the law is not proving popular.

Wikipedia: Post-positive adjectives in modern English. Why do we use postpositive adjectives with indefinite pronouns? Eg “some nice place” vs. “someplace nice”?

U Penn professor studying poverty goes to work in a check cashing store to see why poor people use them, discovers that they provide better value than banks for poor people’s needs.

Big Pharma is very worried that a Trump appointee might deregulate the pharmaceutical market. A heuristic: the kind of deregulation worth pursuing is the kind that all the big companies in the industry hate.

ASI: Peer Effects Exist But They’re Not Very Big. A one standard deviation increase in your peers’ test scores causes a 0.03 increase in your own.

More on the psychopharmacological iron curtain: Cytisine (not to be confused with cysteine or cytosine, not that anybody here would do that) is an Eastern European anti-smoking medication which may be safer than existing American anti-smoking medication like Chantix. (h/t Aaron)

Mother Jones: We Should Practice Truth In Statistics, Even When It Hurts

A team from AEI has released a paper preregistering how they will analyze future data on the effect of minimum wage increases. This is really important; preregistered experiments remove the ability of researchers to fiddle with techniques until they get the results they want.

Which is more important for success in school, intelligence or other personality characteristics? The latest results: Intelligence is more important for standardized test scores, personality is more important for grades. This makes a lot of sense: whether you do well on your SATs is IQ, whether you turn in all of your homework on time is conscientiousness. Probably not too surprising, but useful in explaining differences in other research with different education-related endpoints. Related: the heritability of cognition vs. personality over the lifespan.

There’s a stereotype that intellectuals are more likely to be Democrat, but previous studies have failed to find a clear IQ/partisan association. A new study finds that IQ/partisan associations do exist but are a very recent phenomenon: they only hold for people born in the late 20th century.

Many people have been linking this study suggesting that psychotherapy changes personality for the worse – ie makes people more neurotic, more depressed, less conscientious, etc. I am very skeptical of this, since it’s a longitudinal study that contradicts the results of many previous randomized controlled trials. On a very quick first glance (maybe wrong?), it looks to me like they didn’t do much to control backwards causation – eg people who are more neurotic, more depressed, less conscientious, etc are more likely to get therapy. To which the correct response is “Duh”. Remember (I somehow find myself saying) not to believe a study just because it’s counterintuitive. If other people disagree with me on this one I’ll take a closer look.

Related-ish: Has Increased Provision Of Treatment Reduced The Prevalence Of Common Mental Disorders? Review Of The Evidence From Four Countries. In Anglosphere countries, number of people getting psychiatric care (broadly defined) has increased tremendously over the past thirty years. But the prevalence of psychiatric disorders has stayed approximately the same. Why? One obvious possibility is that it’s getting diagnosed more (or even that people with depression in remission because of good treatment are still saying they “have” depression) but the study tried to control for that by asking about prevalence of symptoms rather than diagnoses, and the symptoms really ought to respond to treatment. So what’s going on? The authors suggest that treatment is generally terrible; for example, less than 40% of mental health treatment in the US meets their criteria for being “minimally adequate”. “The current prevalence estimates of mental health treatment based on population surveys greatly exaggerate the prevalence of effective treatments received.”

Sad news: Dr. Mickey Nardo, who wrote one of the best psychiatry blogs on the Internet, passed away last month (obituary). His family asks that “in lieu of flowers, [we] would appreciate it if you would donate to” an organization promoting integrity in medical research in his name.

Belgians find that the sun illegally cast over four thousand votes in their local elections; other countries now concerned about possibility of solar-related voting fraud.

The prediction market for whether Donald Trump will be President at the end of 2017 thinks that there’s a 22% chance that he won’t be.

Related: Metaculus, a prediction website for science and technology.

Department of Justice revokes Obama-era rules phasing out use of private prisons at the federal level. For some reason this is more depressing to me than everything else, and really hammers in the fact that you can fight however hard you want for progress and then some moron can just come along and reverse it.

Wikipedia: Impact Of Privatization On British Rail. After privatization in the 1990s, ridership doubled, percent of travelers unsatisfied with their journey was cut in half, safety improved to be #1 in Europe per passenger-km, average satisfaction increased by 7 pp, and cost per passenger mile decreased by 20%. Nevertheless “70% of voters want a renationalisation of the railways, while only 23% support continued privatisation”.

Nobody has principles, part #56069384: Why does the White House support deferring to states’ rights on transgender bathrooms, but not on marijuana?

The Atlantic: 20 Ideas Of David Gelenter. I think a lot of this is wrong – and worse, it’s wrong things said well and convincingly – but I’m linking it anyway out of anger at the Washington Post trying to paint him as “anti-intellectual”.

List Of Kim Jong-Il’s Titles, eg “Dear Leader Who Is A Perfect Incarnation Of The Appearance That A Leader Should Have”.

The big politics news recently is Tom Perez beating Keith Ellison for DNC chair. Current Affairs argues that the Democrats “must be trying to fail”; their opponents seem to agree. The pro-Perez argument is that he’s pretty much the same as Ellison so there’s nothing to be upset about and the party should maintain unity. The counterargument, which I haven’t heard anyone rebut effectively, is then how come when Ellison was leading the race, the establishment was so eager to tap Perez to run against him?

In my article on cost disease, I mentioned that the price increases in the pet health industry were a useful comparison for the price increases in the human health industry. In the same way, can we use price increases in textbooks to better understand price increases in college?

Study points out that, contra the myth, most lottery winners use their winnings wisely and don’t go bankrupt. This is true, but the interesting story isn’t that lottery winners always go bankrupt, it’s that lottery winners are no less likely to go bankrupt than others. That is, if you were fiscally responsible anyway, you’ll be fiscally responsible with lottery winnings; if you were always fiscally irresponsible, winning the lottery won’t help.

With all this discussion on how much discrimination there is, it’s interesting that I’d never before seen a study that just surveys a lot of people on how much discrimination they face. Key result: 5% of black people (compared to 4% of white people) say they “often” face discrimination; 29.8% of black people (compared to 30.3% of white people) say they “never” face discrimination.

Witches declared February 24 a day to cast spells against Trump; evangelical Christians and 4chan chaos magicians vowed to mystically defend him. A useful natural experiment in which religion is true?

Robert Trivers has been saying for a long time that self-deception evolved as a way to help us effectively deceive others; now he’s got a paper presenting some empirical support.

Secondhand smoke might not be so bad. I don’t want to make a big deal of this yet because I haven’t checked if it’s true. If it is, it might represent another rare case of science failure and heads ought to roll.

Could we terraform Mars quickly and cheaply by planting a magnetic shield at its L1 point?

The Twitter feed of the journalist suspected in some of the recent Jewish community center threats; good for schadenfreude. Also: “vandalized” Jewish headstones in NYC probably fell over due to weather, natural causes. Plus: one actual neo-Nazi arrested, swastika tattoo and all.

By now you’ve probably heard about the attacks on Charles Murray at Middlebury. But it’s worth remembering that increasing college student closed-mindedness and violence aren’t just a problem for one side; pro-Palestine journalist Rania Khalek was kept from talking at UNC based on her opinions about the war in Syria. I continue to think that the only potentially effective counter to this kind of thing is Heterodox Academy and FIRE‘s attempts to rank colleges by tolerance level so that people interested in intellectual inquiry stop attending the most totalitarian, positive feedback loops create divergent selection, and administrations that want their schools not to become completely devoid of scholarship have US-News-style incentives to tone down their students’ worst tendencies.

There will be a temporary suspension of expedited processing of H1B visas starting in April. Unclear if this is some Trump-related plot or just normal bureaucratic variability, but if you need an H1B visa renewed you should probably look into it.

Alex Tabarrok notes that illegal apartment buildings keep getting demolished in Mumbai – then get rebuilt, because it’s cheaper to keep rebuilding the same building every time it gets demolished for being illegal than it is to deal with the bureaucracy involved in getting permission to construct things legally. I think I’m supposed to be horrified that any country, even a Third World one, could possibly be that inefficient. Instead I’m wondering if anyone’s ever tried this in San Francisco.

sinesalvatorem: The best way to keep terrorists out of terrorism is to convince them to settle down and raise a family. Plus: subsidized terrorist speed dating.

@outsideness described my silly story about Greek gods as “meme war”; when I asked him what he meant, he said that everything was meme war and didn’t explain further. Right on cue, I run into this article on people who think everything is meme war. A lot of other good stuff in there, including a critique of Chapmanesque post-rationality.

Theory: modern activism, and possibly the entire modern left, is shaped by what techniques are optimized to succeed on a college campus with a moderately friendly administration.

The American Council on Science and Health, which sounds important, has released this infographic on which sites’ science reporting to trust. I expected a simple division between eg “NYT good, InfoWars bad”, but they actually claim major differences in seemingly mainstream respectable news outlets. I don’t know if any of them are true. I also don’t really know what they mean by “compelling” and why I should trust the American Council on Science and Health to determine whether a story is “compelling” or not. [EDIT: Nature pulls a Trump and rejects the results even though they won]

Man tracks all of his son’s first words since birth. This is amazing, not just in seeing which words people learn when, but in seeing that it makes a beautiful natural exponential curve. I wish there were data for a longer period, though I can understand it would probably get out of hand after a while.

Study: militarizing police cuts crime, does not increase police-related civilian deaths. What other metrics, if any, might be used to study downsides of police militarization?

Brookings Institute on big government. Key takeaway: despite inflation-adjusted federal government spending quintupling in the last 50 years, there’s been minimal increase in government employees, mostly because government is now doing more of its work through private partnerships, nonprofits, and local administrations. It looks like the electorate wants both more stuff and smaller government, and politicans have “satisfied” both preferences by making government activities less visible and more proxy-administered. But proxy-administered government activities might be less efficient than just doing government activities openly with real federal employees, so arguably this hurts everybody.

Aella: Evidence-based camgirling.

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Book Review: Behavior – The Control Of Perception

[Epistemic status: I only partly understood this book and am trying to review it anyway as best I can]

I.

People complain that psychology is paradigmless; it never got its Darwin or Newton to tie everything together. Nowadays people are pretty relaxed about that; who needs paradigms when you can do n = 50 studies on a mildly interesting effect? But historically, there were all of these larger-than-life figures who were sure they’d found the paradigm, geniuses who founded schools which flourished for a while, made big promises, then either fizzled out or toned down their claims enough to be accepted as slightly kooky parts of the mainstream. Sigmund Freud. BF Skinner. Carl Rogers. And those are just the big ones close to the mainstream. Everyone from Ayn Rand to Scientology tried their hand at the paradigm-inventing business for a while.

Will Powers (whose name turns out to be pretty appropriate) lands somewhere in the middle of this pack. He was an engineer/inventor who specialized in cybernetic systems but wandered into psychology sometime in the sixties. He argued that everything in the brain made perfect sense if you understood cybernetic principles, and came up with a very complicated but all-encompassing idea called Perceptual Control Theory which explained thought, sensation and behavior. A few people paid attention, and his work was described as paradigm-shifting by no less of an expert on paradigm shifts than Thomas Kuhn. But in the end it never really went anywhere, psychology moved on, and nowadays only a handful of people continue research in his tradition.

Somehow I kept running into this handful, and they kept telling me to read Powers’ book Behavior: The Control Of Perception, and I keep avoiding it. A few weeks ago I was driving down the road and I had a moment of introspection where I realized everything I was doing exactly fit Powers’ theory, so I decided to give it a chance.

Powers specializes in control systems. The classic control system is a thermostat, which controls temperature. It has a reference point, let’s say 70 degrees. If it gets much below 70 degrees, it turns on the heater until it’s 70 again; if it gets much above 70 degrees, it turns on the air conditioner until it’s 70 again. This is more complicated than it sounds, and there are other control systems that are even more complicated, but that’s the principle. Perceptual Control Theory says that this kind of system is the basic unit of the human brain.

While I was driving on the highway a few weeks ago, I realized how much of what I do is perceptual control. For example, I was effortlessly maintaining the right distance from the car in front of me. If the car sped up a tiny bit, I would speed up a tiny bit. If the car slowed down a little bit, I would slow down a little bit. Likewise, I was maintaining the right angle relative to the road: if I found myself veering right, I would turn slightly to the left; if I found myself veering left, I would turn slightly to the right.

The theory goes further: while I’m in the car, I’m also operating as my own thermostat. I have a desired temperature: if I go below it, I’ll turn on the heat, and if I go above it, I’ll turn on the AC. I have a desired level of satiety: if I’m hungry, I’ll stop and get something to eat; if I’m too full, there’s maybe not a huge amount I can do but I’ll at least stop eating. I have a desired level of light: if it’s too dark, I’ll turn on the lights; if it’s too bright I’ll put down the sun visor. I even have a desired angle to be sitting at: if I’m too far forward, I’ll relax and lean back a little bit; if I’m too far back, I’ll move forwards. All of this is so easy and automatic that I never think about it.

Powers’ theories go further. He agrees that my brain sets up a control system to keep my car the proper distance from the car in front of it. But how do I determine “the proper distance”? That quantity must be fed to the system by other parts of my brain. For example, suppose that the roads are icy and I know my brakes don’t work very well in the ice; I might keep a much further distance than usual. I’ll still be controlling the distance, I’ll just be controlling it differently. If the brain is control systems all the way down, we can imagine a higher-tier system controlling “accident risk” at some level (presumably low, or zero) feeding a distance level into a lower-tier system controlling car distance at whatever level it receives. We can even imagine higher systems than this. Suppose I’m depressed, I’ve become suicidal, I want to die in a car accident, but in order not to scandalize my family I have to let the accident happen sort of naturally. I have a top-level system controlling “desire to die” which tells a middle-level system controlling “accident risk” what level it should go at (high), which in turn tells a lower-tier system controlling “car distance” what level it should go at (very close).

It doesn’t even end there. My system controlling “car distance” is sending signals to a lower-tier system controlling muscle tension on my foot on the accelerator, giving it a new reference level (contracted muscles that push down on the accelerator really hard). Except this is an oversimplification, because everything that has to do with muscles is a million times more complicated than any reasonable person would think (at least until they play qwop) and so there’s actually a big hierarchy of control systems just going from “want to go faster” to “successfully tense accelerator-related muscles”.

II.

Actually, Powers is at his most convincing when he talks about these lower-level functions. At this point I think it’s pretty mainstream to say that muscle tension is set by a control system, with the Golgi tendon organs giving feedback and the spinal cord doing the calculations. Powers goes further (and I don’t know how mainstream this next part is, but I’m guessing at least somewhat), saying that this is a first-tier control system, which is itself controlled by a second-tier “direction” control system centered in the nuclei of the brainstem, which is itself controlled by a third-tier “position” control system centered in the cerebellum/thalamus/midbrain (a friendly amendment might add the basal ganglia, which Powers doesn’t seem to know much about).

If you stimulate certain parts of a cat’s midbrain, it will go into specific positions – for example, a position like it’s ready to pounce. So it seems like those areas “code for” position. But in order to have a neuron/area/whatever that codes for position, it needs to have hierarchical control over lots of lower-level things. For example, it needs to make sure the leg muscles are however tense they’re supposed to be in a pouncing position. So the third-tier position control system controls the second-tier direction control system at whatever level is necessary to make the second-tier direction control system control the first-tier muscle control system at whatever level is necessary to get the muscles in the right position.

The fourth- and fifth-tier systems, now well into the cortex (and maybe basal ganglia again) deal with sequences, eg “walking” or “playing a certain tune on the piano”. Once again, activating a fourth/fifth-tier system will activate this higher-level concept (“walking”), which alters the reference levels for a third-tier system (“getting into a certain position”), which alters a second-tier system (“moving in a certain direction”), which alterns a first-tier system (“tensing/relaxing muscles”).

Why do I like this theory so much? First, it correctly notes that (almost) the only thing the brain can actually do is change muscle tension. Yet we never think in terms of muscle tension. We don’t think “I am going to tense my thigh muscle, now untense it, now tense my ankle muscle, now…”, we just think “I’m going to walk”. Heck, half the time we don’t even think that, we think “I’m just going to go to the fridge” and the walking happens automatically. On the other hand, if we really want, we can consciously change our position, the level of tension in a certain muscle, etc. It’s just that usually we deal in higher-level abstractions that automatically carry all the lower ones along with them.

Second, it explains the structure of the brain in a way I haven’t seen other things do. I always hear neuroscientists talk about “this nucleus relays signals to that nucleus” or “this structure is a way station for this other structure”. Spend too much time reading that kind of stuff, and you start to think of the brain as a giant relay race, where the medulla passes signals onto the thalamus which passes it to the basal ganglia which passes it to the frontal lobe and then, suddenly, thought! The obvious question there is “why do you have so many structures that just relay things to other structures?” Sometimes neuroscientists will say “Well, some processing gets done here”, or even better “Well, this system modulates that system”, but they’re always very vague on what exactly that means. Powers’ hierarchy of fifth-tier systems passing their calculations on to fourth-tier systems and so on is exactly the sort of thing that would make sense of all this relaying. My guess is every theory of neuroscience has something at least this smart, but I’d never heard it explained this well before.

Third, it’s the clearest explanation of tremors I’ve ever heard. Consider the thermostat above. When the temperature gets below 65, it turns on the heat until the temperature gets above 70, then stops, then waits as the hot air leaks out through the window or whatever and it’s 65 again, then turns on the heat again. If we chart temperature in a room with a thermostat, it will look sort of like a sine wave or zigzag with regular up/down motions. This is a basic principle of anything being controlled by a less-than-perfect control system. Our body has microtremors all the time, but when we get brain damage or some other problem, a very common symptom is noticeable tremors. These come in many different varieties that give clues to the level of brain damage and which doctors are just told to memorize. Powers actually explains them:

When first-order systems become unstable, as when muscles exert too much effort), clonus oscillations are seen, at roughly ten cycles per second. Second-order instability, as in the tremors of Parkinsonism, involves groups of muscles and is of lower frequency, around three cycles per second or so. Third-order instability is slower stilll, slow enough that it can be characterized as “purpose tremor” or “over-correction”. Certain cerebellar damage due to injury or disease can result in over- and under-shooting the mark during actions such as reaching out to grasp something, either in a continuous self-sustained oscillation or a slowly decrasing series of alternating movements.

This isn’t perfect – for example, Parkinsonian tremor is usually caused by damage to the basal ganglia and the cortex, which is really hard to square with Powers’ claim that it’s caused by damage to second-tier systems in the medulla. But after reading this, it’s really hard not to think of tremors as failures in control systems, or of the different types of tremor as failures in different levels of control system. For example, athetoid tremors are weird, seemingly purposeful, constant twisting movements caused by problems in the thalamus or some related system; after reading Powers, it’s impossible for me not to think of them as failures in third-order control systems. This becomes especially clear if we compare to Powers’ constant foil/nemesis, the Behaviorists. Stick to a stimulus-response paradigm, and there’s no reason damaged brains should make weird twisting movements all the time. On a control-systems paradigm, it’s obvious that that would happen.

There are occasional claims that perceptual control theory can predict certain things about muscles and coordination better than other theories, sometimes with absurdly high accuracy of like r = 0.9 or something. Powers makes some of these claims in the book, but I can’t check them because I don’t have the original data he worked with and I don’t know how to calculate cybernetic control system outputs. But the last time I saw someone bring up one of these supposed experiments it was thoroughly shot down by people who knew more statistics. And I found a blog post where somebody who knows a lot about intricacies of muscle movement says PCT can predict some things but not much better than competing theories. In terms of predicting very specific things about human muscular movement its record seems to be kind of so-so.

III.

And I start to get very skeptical when Powers moves to higher-tier control systems. His sixth tier is “relationships”, seventh is “programs”, eighth is “principles”, and ninth is “systems”. Although these tiers receive just as many pages as the earlier ones, they start sounding very abstract and they correlate a lot less well with anatomy. I understand the urge to postulate them – if you’ve already decided that the fundamental unit of the brain is the control system, why not try to explain things with control systems all the way up? – but it becomes kind of a stretch. It’s easy to see what it means to control the distance between me and the car in front of me; it’s harder to see what it means to control for “communism” or “honesty” or things like that.

I think the way things are supposed to work is like this. A ninth-tier system controls a very abstract concept like “communism”. So suppose you are a communist; that means your internal communism-thermostat is set to maintain your communism at a high level. That propagates down to eighth-tier principles, which are slightly less abstract concepts like “greed”; maybe your ninth-tier communism-thermostat sets your eighth-tier greed thermostat to a very low temperature because communists aren’t supposed to be greedy. Your eighth-tier greed thermostat affects levels of seventh-tier logical programs like “going to work and earning money” and “giving to charity”. I’m not really sure how the sixth-tier fits into this example, but let’s suppose that your work is hammering things. Then the fifth-tier system moves your muscles in the right sequence to hammer things, and so on with all the lower tiers as above.

Sometimes these control systems come into contact with each other. For example, suppose that along with my ninth-tier system controlling “communism”, I also have a ninth-tier system controlling “family values”; I am both an avowed communist and a family man. My family values system thinks that it’s important that I earn enough to provide for my family, so while my communism-system is trying to input a low reference level for my greed-thermostat, my family-values-system is trying to input a high one. Powers gets into some really interesting examples of what happens in real industrial cybernetic systems when two opposing high-level control systems get in a fight, and thinks this is the source of all human neurosis and akrasia. I think he later wrote a self-help book based around this (hence the nominative determinism). I am not very convinced.

Am I strawmanning this picture? I’m not sure. I think one testable consequence of it is supposed to be that if we’re really controlling for communism, in the cybernetic control system sense, then we should be able to test for that. For example, hide Lenin’s pen and paper so that he can’t write communist pamphlets, and he should start doing some other communist thing more in order to make up for it and keep his level of communism constant. I think some perceptual control theory people believe this is literally true, and propose experimental tests (or at least thought experiment tests) of perceptual control theory along these lines. This seems sketchy to me, on the grounds that if Lenin didn’t start doing other stuff, we could just say that communism wasn’t truly what he was controlling.

That is, suppose I notice Lenin eating lots of chocolate every day. I theorize that he’s controlling for chocolate, and so if I disturb the control system by eg shutting down his local chocolate store, he’ll find a way to restore equilibrium, eg by walking further to a different store. But actually, when I shut down his local chocolate store, he just eats less chocolate. In reality, he was controlling his food intake (as we all do; that’s what an obesity set point is) and when he lost access to chocolate, maybe he ate cupcakes instead and did fine.

In the same way, maybe we only think Lenin is controlling for communism, but he’s actually controlling for social status, and being a communist revolutionary is a good way to gain social status. So if we make it too hard for him to be a communist revolutionary, eg by taking away his pen and paper, maybe he’ll become a rock star instead and end up with the same level of social status.

This sort of thing seems so universal that as far as I can tell it makes these ideas of higher-tier control systems unproveable and unfalsifiable.

If there’s any point to them at all, I think it’s the way they express the same interesting phenomenological truth as the muscle movement tiers: we switch effortlessly between concentrating on low-level concepts and high-level concepts that make the low-level ones automatic. For example, I think “driving” is a good example of Powers’ seventh tier, “programs” – it involves a predictable flowchart-like set of actions to achieve a simple goal. “The distance between me and the car in front of me” is a sixth-tier system, a “relationship”. When I’m driving (focusing on my seventh-tier system), I don’t consciously think at all about maintaining the right distance with the car in front of me. It just happens. This is really interesting in a philosophy of consciousness sense, and Powers actually gets into qualia a bit and says some things that seem a lot wiser and more moving-part-ful than most people on the subject.

It does seem like there’s something going on where my decision to drive activates a lot of carefully-trained subsystems that handle the rest of it automatically, and that there’s probably some neural correlate to it. But I don’t know whether control systems are the right way to think about this, and I definitely don’t know whether there’s a sense in which “communism” is a control system.

IV.

There are also some sections about things like learning and memory, which looks suspiciously like flowcharts of control systems with boxes marked “LEARNING” and “MEMORY” in them.

But I realized halfway through that I was being too harsh. Perceptual control theory wasn’t quite a proposal for a new paradigm out of nowhere. It was a reaction to Behaviorism, which was still the dominant paradigm when Powers was writing. His “everything is a control system” is an attempt to improve on “everything is stimulus-response”, and it really does.

For example, his theory of learning involves reward and punishment, where reward is reducing the error in a control system and punishment is increasing it. That is, suppose that you’re controlling temperature, and it’s too hot out. A refreshing cool glass of water would be an effective reward (since it brings you closer to your temperature reference level), and setting your hand on fire would be an effective punishment (since it brings you further from your temperature reference level). Powers notes that this explains many things Behaviorism can’t. For example, they like to talk about how sugar water is a reward. But eventually rats get tired of sugar water and stop drinking it. So it seems that sugar water isn’t a reward per se; it’s more like reducing error in your how-much-sugar-water-should-I-have-and-did-I-already-have-the-right-amount system is the reward. If your optimal level of sugar water per day is 10 ml, then anything up to 10 ml will be a reward, and after that it will stop being attractive / start being a punishment.

As a “theory of learning”, this is sort of crappy, in that I was expecting stuff about Hebb and connectionism and how memories are stored in the brain. But if you’re living in an era where everybody thinks “The response to a stimulus is predictable through patterns of reward and punishment” is an A+++ Nobel-Prize-worthy learning theory, then perceptual control-based theories of learning start sounding pretty good.

So I guess it’s important to see this as a product of its times. And I don’t understand those times – why Behaviorism ever seemed attractive is a mystery to me, maybe requiring more backwards-reading than I can manage right now.

How useful is this book? I guess that depends on how metaphorical you want to be. Is the brain a control system? I don’t know. Are police a control system trying to control crime? Are police a “response” to the “stimulus” of crime? Is a stimulus-response pairing a control system controlling for the quantity of always making sure the stimulus has the response? I think it’s interesting and helpful to think of some psychological functions with these metaphors. But I’m not sure where to go from there. I think maybe there are some obvious parallels, maybe even parallels that bear fruit in empirical results, in lower level systems like motor control. Once you get to high-level systems like communism or social desirability, I’m not sure we’re doing much better than the police-as-control-system metaphor. Still, I think that it’s potentially a useful concept to have.

Antidepressant Pharmacogenomics: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

[Epistemic status: very uncertain. Not to be taken as medical advice. Talk to your doctor before deciding whether or not to get any tests.]

I.

There are many antidepressants in common use. With a few exceptions, none are globally better than any others. The conventional wisdom says patients should keep trying antidepressants until they find one that works for them. If we knew beforehand which antidepressants would work for which patients, it would save everyone a lot of time, money, and misery. This is the allure of pharmacogenomics, the new field of genetically-guided medication prescription.

Everybody has various different types of cytochrome enzymes which metabolize medication. Some of them play major roles in metabolizing antidepressants; usually it’s really complicated and several different enzymes can affect the same antidepressant at different stages. But sometimes one or another dominates; for example, Prozac is mostly metabolized by one enzyme called CYP2D6, and Zoloft is mostly metabolized by a different enzyme called CYP2C19.

Suppose (say the pharmacogenomicists) that my individual genetics code for a normal CYP2D6, but a hyperactive CYP2C19 that works ten times faster than usual. Then maybe Prozac would work normally for me, but every drop of Zoloft would get shredded by my enzymes before it can even get to my brain. A genetic test could tell my psychiatrist this, and then she would know to give me Prozac and not Zoloft. Some tests like this are already commercially available. Preliminary results look encouraging. As always, the key words are “preliminary” and “look”, and did I mention that these results were mostly produced by pharma companies pushing their products?

But let me dream for a just a second. There’s been this uneasy tension in psychopharmacology. Clinical psychiatrists give their patients antidepressants and see them get better. Then research psychiatrists do studies and show that antidepressant effect sizes are so small as to be practically unnoticeable. The clinicians say “Something must be wrong with your studies, we see our patients on antidepressants get much better all the time”. The researchers counter with “The plural of anecdote isn’t ‘data’, your intuitions deceive you, antidepressant effects are almost imperceptibly weak.” At this point we prescribe antidepressants anyway, because – what else are you going to do when someone comes into your office in tears and begs for help? – but we feel kind of bad about it.

Pharmacogenomics offers a way out of this conundrum. Suppose half of the time patients get antidepressants, their enzymes shred the medicine before it can even get to the brain, and there’s no effect. In the other half, the patients have normal enzymes, the medications reach the brain, and the patient gets better. Researchers would average together all these patients and conclude “Antidepressants have an effect, but on average it’s very small”. Clinicians would keep the patients who get good effects, keep switching drugs for the patients who get bad effects until they find something that works, and say “Eventually, most of my patients seem to have good effects from antidepressants”.

There’s a little bit of support for this in studies. STAR*D found that only 33% of patients improved on their first antidepressant, but that if you kept changing antidepressants, about 66% of patients would eventually find one that helped them improve. Gueorguieva & Mallinckrodt (2011) find something similar by modelling “growth trajectories” of antidepressants in previous studies. If it were true, it would be a big relief for everybody.

It might also mean that pharmacogenomic testing would solve the whole problem forever and lets everyone be on an antidepressant that works well for them. Such is the dream.

But pharmacogenomics still very young. And due to a complicated series of legal loopholes, it isn’t regulated by the FDA. I’m mostly in favor of more things avoiding FDA regulation, but it means the rest of us have to be much more vigilant.

A few days ago I got to talk to a representative of the company that makes GeneSight, the biggest name in pharmacogenomic testing. They sell a $2000 test which analyzes seven genes, then produces a report on which psychotropic medications you might do best or worst on. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would be great if it worked – so let’s look at it in more depth.

II.

GeneSight tests seven genes. Five are cytochrome enzymes like the ones discussed above. The other two are HTR2A, a serotonin receptor, and SLC6A4, a serotonin transporter. These are obvious and reasonable targets if you’re worried about serotonergic drugs. But is there evidence that they predict medication response?

GeneSight looks at the rs6313 SNP in HTR2A, which they say determines “side effects”. I think they’re thinking of Murphy et al (2003), who found that patients with the (C,C) genotype had worse side effects on Paxil. The study followed 122 patients on Paxil, of whom 41 were (C,C) and 81 were something else. 46% of the (C,C) patients hated Paxil so much they stopped taking it, compared to only 16% of the others (p = 0.001). There was no similar effect on a nonserotonergic drug, Remeron. This study is interesting, but it’s small and it’s never been replicated. The closest thing to replication is this study which focused on nausea, the most common Paxil side effect; it found the gene had no effect. This study looked at Prozac and found that the gene didn’t affect Prozac response, but it didn’t look at side effects and didn’t explain how it handled dropouts from the study. I am really surprised they’re including a gene here based on a small study from fifteen years ago that was never replicated.

They also look at SLC6A4, specifically the difference between the “long” versus “short” allele. This has been studied ad nauseum – which isn’t to say anyone has come to any conclusions. According to Fabbri, Di Girolamo, & Serretti, there are 25 studies saying the long allele of the gene is better, 9 studies saying the short allele is better, and 20 studies showing no difference. Two meta-analyses (1 n = 1435, 2 n = 5479) come out in favor of the long allele; two others (1 n = 4309, 2, n = 1914) fail to find any effect. But even the people who find the effect admit it’s pretty small – the Italian group estimates 3.2%. This would both explain why so many people miss it, and relieve us of the burden of caring about it at all.

The Carlat Report has a conspiracy theory that GeneSight really only uses the liver enzyme genes, but they add in a few serotonin-related genes so they can look cool; presumably there’s more of a “wow” factor in directly understanding the target receptors in the brain than in mucking around with liver enzymes. I like this theory. Certainly the results on both these genes are small enough and weak enough that it would be weird to make a commercial test out of them. The liver enzymes seem to be where it’s at. Let’s move on to those.

The Italian group that did the pharmacogenomics review mentioned above are not sanguine about liver enzymes. They write (as of 2012, presumably based on Genetic Polymorphisms Of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes And Antidepressant Metabolism“>this previous review):

Available data do not support a correlation between antidepressant plasma levels and response for most antidepressants (with the exception of TCAs) and this is probably linked to the lack of association between response and CYP450 genetic polymorphisms found by the most part of previous studies. In all facts, the first CYP2D6 and CYP2C19 genotyping test (AmpliChip) approved by the Food and Drug Administration has not been recommended by guidelines because of lack of evidence linking this test to clinical outcomes and cost-effectiveness studies.

What does it even mean to say that there’s no relationship between SSRI plasma level and therapeutic effect? Doesn’t the drug only work when it’s in your body? And shouldn’t the amount in your body determine the effective dose? The only people I’ve found who even begin to answer this question are Papakostas & Fava, who say that there are complicated individual factors determining how much SSRI makes it from the plasma to the CNS, and how much of it binds to the serotonin transporter versus other stuff. This would be a lot more reassuring if amount of SSRI bound to the serotonin transporter correlated with clinical effects, which studies seem very uncertain about. I’m not really sure how to fit this together with SSRIs having a dose-dependent effect, and I worry that somebody must be very confused. But taking all of this at face value, it doesn’t really look good for using cytochrome enzymes predicting response.

I talked to the GeneSight rep about this, and he agreed; their internal tests don’t show strong effects for any of the candidate genes alone, because they all interact with each other in complicated ways. It’s only when you look at all of them together, using the proprietary algorithm based off of their proprietary panel, that everything starts to come together.

This is possible, but given the poor results of everyone else in the field I think we should take it with a grain of salt.

III.

We might also want to zoom out and take a broader picture: should we expect these genes to matter?

It’s much easier to find the total effect of genetics than it is to find the effect of any individual gene; this is the principle behind twin studies and GCTAs. Tansey et al do a GCTA on antidepressant response and find that all the genetic variants tested, combined, explain 42% of individual differences in antidepressant response. Their methodology allowed them to break it down chromosome-by-chromosome, and they found that genetic effects were pretty evenly distributed across chromosomes, with longer chromosomes counting more. This is consistent with massively polygenic structure where there are hundreds of thousands of genes, each of small effects – much like height or IQ. But typically even the strongest IQ or height genes only explain about 1% of the variance. So an antidepressant response test containing only seven genes isn’t likely to do very much even if those genes are correctly chosen and well-understood.

SLC6A4 is a great example of this. It’s on chromosome 17. According to Tansey, chromosome 17 explains less than 1% of variance in antidepressant effect. So unless Tansey is very wrong, SLC6A4 must also explain less than 1% of the variance, which means it’s clinically useless. The other six genes on the test aren’t looking great either.

Does this mean that the GeneSight panel must be useless? I’m not sure. For one thing, the genetic structure of which antidepressant you respond to might be different from the structure of antidepressant response generally (though the study found similar structures to any-antidepressant response and SSRI-only response). For another, for complicated reasons sometimes exploiting variance is easier than predicting variance; I don’t understand this enough to be sure that this isn’t one of these cases, though it doesn’t look that way to me.

I don’t think this is a knock-down argument against anything. But I think it means we should take any claims that a seven (or ten, or fifty) gene panel can predict very much with another grain of salt.

IV.

But assuming that there are relatively few genes, and we figure out what they are, then we’re basically good, right? Wrong.

Warfarin is a drug used to prevent blood clots. It’s notorious among doctors for being finicky, confusing, difficult to dose, and making people to bleed to death if you get it wrong. This made it a very promising candidate for pharmacogenomics: what if we could predict everyone’s individualized optimal warfarin dose and take out the guesswork?

Early efforts showed promise. Much of the variability was traced to two genes, VKORC1 and CYP2C9. Companies created pharmacogenomic panels that could predict warfarin levels pretty well based off of those genes. Doctors were urged to set warfarin doses based on the results. Some initial studies looked positive. Caraco et al and Primohamed et al both found in randomized controlled trials with decent sample sizes that warfarin patients did better on the genetically-guided algorithm, p < 0.001. A 2014 meta-analysis looked at nine studies of the algorithm, over 2812 patients, and found that it didn’t work. Whether you used the genetic test or not didn’t affect number of blood clots, percent chance of having your blood within normal clotting parameters, or likelihood of major bleeding. There wasn’t even a marginally significant trend. Another 2015 meta-analysis found the same thing. Confusingly, a Chinese group did a third meta-analysis that did find advantages in some areas, but Chinese studies tend to use shady research practices, and besides, it’s two to one.

UpToDate, the canonical medical evidence aggregation site for doctors, concludes:

We suggest not using pharmacogenomic testing (ie, genotyping for polymorphisms that affect metabolism of warfarin and vitamin K-dependent coagulation factors) to guide initial dosing of the vitamin K antagonists (VKAs). Two meta-analyses of randomized trials (both involving approximately 3000 patients) found that dosing incorporating hepatic cytochrome P-450 2C9 (CYP2C9) or vitamin K epoxide reductase complex (VKORC1) genotype did not reduce rates of bleeding or thromboembolism.

I mention this to add another grain of salt. Warfarin is the perfect candidate for pharmacogenomics. It’s got a lot of really complicated interpersonal variation that often leads to disaster. We know this is due to only a few genes, and we know exactly which genes they are. We understand pretty much every aspect of its chemistry perfectly. Preliminary studies showed amazing effects.

And yet pharmacogenomic testing for warfarin basically doesn’t work. There are a few special cases where it can be helpful, and I think the guidelines say something like “if you have your patient’s genotype already for some reason, you might as well use it”. But overall the promise has failed to pan out.

Antidepressants are in a worse place than warfarin. We have only a vague idea how they work, only a vague idea what genes are involved, and plasma levels don’t even consistently correlate with function. It would be very strange if antidepressant testing worked where warfarin testing failed. But, of course, it’s not impossible, so let’s keep our grains of salt and keep going.

V.

Why didn’t the warfarin pharmacogenomics work? They had the genes right, didn’t they?

I’m not too sure what’s going on, but maybe it just didn’t work better than doctors titrating the dose the old-fashioned way. Warfarin is a blood thinner. You can take blood and check how thin it is, usually measured with a number called INR. Most warfarin users are aiming for an INR between 2 and 3. So suppose (to oversimplify) you give your patient a dose of 3 mg, and find that the INR is 1.7. It seems like maybe the patient needs a little more warfarin, so you increase the dose to 4 mg. You take the INR later and it’s 2.3, so you declare victory and move on.

Maybe if you had a high-tech genetic test you could read the microscopic letters of the code of life itself, run the results through a supercomputer, and determine from the outset that 4 mg was the optimal dose. But all it would do is save you a little time.

There’s something similar going on with depression. Starting dose of Prozac is supposedly 20 mg, but I sometimes start it as low as 10 to make sure people won’t have side effects. And maximum dose is 80 mg. So there’s almost an order of magnitude between the highest and lowest Prozac doses. Most people stay on 20 to 40, and that dose seems to work pretty well.

Suppose I have a patient with a mutation that slows down their metabolism of Prozac; they effectively get three times the dose I would expect. I start them on 10 mg, which to them is 30 mg, and they seem to be doing well. I increase to 20, which to them is 60, and they get a lot of side effects, so I back down to 10 mg. Now they’re on their equivalent of the optimal dose. How is this worse than a genetic test which warns me against using Prozac because they have mutant Prozac metabolism?

Or suppose I have a patient with a mutation that dectuples Prozac levels; now there’s no safe dose. I start them on 10 mg, and they immediately report terrible side effects. I say “Yikes”, stop the Prozac, and put them on Zoloft, which works fine. How is this worse than a genetic test which says Prozac is bad for this patient but Zoloft is good?

Or suppose I have a patient with a mutation that makes them an ultrarapid metabolizer; no matter how much Prozac I give them, zero percent ever reaches their brain. I start them on Prozac 10 mg, nothing happens, go up to 20, then 40, then 60, then 80, nothing happens, finally I say “Screw this” and switch them to Zoloft. Once again, how is this worse than the genetic test?

(again, all of this is pretending that dose correlates with plasma levels correlates with efficacy in a way that’s hard to prove, but presumably necessary for any of this to be meaningful at all)

I expect the last two situations to be very rare; few people have orders-of-magnitude differences in metabolism compared to the general population. Mostly it’s going to be people who I would expect to need 20 of Prozac actually needing 40, or vice versa. But nobody has the slightest idea how to dose SSRIs anyway and we usually just try every possible dose and stick with the one that works. So I’m confused how genetic testing is supposed to make people do better or worse, as opposed to just needing a little more or less of a medication whose dosing is so mysterious that nobody ever knows how much anyone needs anyway.

As far as I can tell, this is why they need those pharmacodynamic genes like HTR2A and SLC6A4. Those represent real differences between antidepressants and not just changes in dose which we would get to anyway. I mean, you could still just switch antidepressants if your first one doesn’t work. But this would admittedly be hard and some people might not do it. Everyone titrates doses!

This is a fourth grain of salt and another reason why I’m wary about this idea.

VI.

Despite my skepticism, there are several studies showing impressive effects from pharmacogenomic antidepressant tests. Now that we’ve established some reasons to be doubtful, let’s look at them more closely.

GeneSight lists eight studies on its website here. Of note, all eight were conducted by GeneSight; as far as I know no external group has ever independently replicated any of their claims. The GeneSight rep I talked to said they’re trying to get other scientists to look at it but haven’t been able to so far. That’s fair, but it’s also fair for me to point out that studies by pharma companies are far more likely to find their products effective than studies by anyone else (OR = 4.05). I’m not going to start a whole other section for this, but let’s call it a fifth grain of salt.

First is the LaCrosse Clinical Study. 114 depressed patients being treated at a clinic in Wisconsin received the GeneSight test, and the results were given to their psychiatrists, who presumably changed medications in accordance with the tests. Another 113 depressed patients got normal treatment without any genetic testing. The results were:

Taken from here, where you’ll find much more along the same lines.

All of the combinations of letters and numbers are different depression tests. The blue bars are the people who got genotyped. The grey bars are the people who didn’t. So we see that on every test, the people who got genotyped saw much greater improvement than the people who didn’t. The difference in remission was similarly impressive; by 8 weeks, 26% of the genotyped group were depression-free as per QIDS-C16 compared to only 13% of the control group (p = 0.03)

How can we nitpick these results? A couple of things come to mind.

Number one, the study wasn’t blinded. Everyone who was genotyped knew they were genotyped. Everyone who wasn’t genotyped knew they weren’t genotyped. I’m still not sure whether there’s a significant placebo effect in depression (Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche say no!), but it’s at least worth worrying about.

Number two, the groups weren’t randomized. I have no idea why they didn’t randomize the groups, but they didn’t. The first hundred-odd people to come in got put in the control group. The second hundred-off people got put in the genotype group. In accordance with the prophecy, there are various confusing and inexplicable differences between the two groups. The control group had more previous medication trials (4.7 vs. 3.6, p = 0.02). The intervention group had higher QIDS scores at baseline (16 vs. 17.5, p = 0.003). They even had different CYP2D6 phenotypes (p = 0.03). On their own these differences don’t seem so bad, but they raise the question of why these groups were different at all and what other differences might be lurking.

Number three, the groups had very different numbers of dropouts. 42 people dropped out of the genotyped group, compared to 20 people from the control group. Dropouts made up about a quarter of the entire study population. The authors theorize that people were more likely to drop out of the genotype group than the control group because they’d promised to give the control group their genotypes at the end of the study, so they were sticking around to get their reward. But this means that people who were failing treatment were likely to drop out of the genotype group (making them look better) but stay in the control group (making them look worse). The authors do an analysis and say that this didn’t affect things, but it’s another crack in the study.

All of these are bad, but intuitively I don’t feel like any of them should have been able to produce as dramatic an effect as they actually found. But I do have one theory about how this might have happened. Remember, these are all people who are on antidepressants already but aren’t getting better. The intervention group’s doctors get genetic testing results saying what antidepressant is best for them; the control group’s doctors get nothing. So the intervention group’s doctors will probably switch their patients’ medication to the one the test says will be best, and the control group’s doctors might just leave them on the antidepressant that’s already not working. Indeed, we find that 77% of intervention group patients switched medications, compared to 44% of control group patients. So imagine if the genetic test didn’t work at all. 77% of intervention group patients at least switch off their antidepressant that definitely doesn’t work and onto one that might work; meanwhile, the control group mostly stays on the same old failed drugs.

Someone (maybe Carlat again?) mentioned how they should have controlled this study: give everyone a genetic test. Give the intervention group their own test results, and give the control group someone else’s test results. If people do better on their own results than on random results, then we’re getting somewhere.

Second is the Hamm Study, which is so similar to the above I’m not going to treat it separately.

Third is the Pine Rest Study. This one is, at least, randomized and single-blind. Single-blind means that the patients don’t know which group they’re in, but their doctors do; this is considered worse than double-blind (where neither patients nor doctors know) because the doctors’ subtle expectations could unconsciously influence the patients. But at least it’s something.

Unfortunately, the sample size was only 51 people, and the p-value for the main outcome was 0.28. They tried to salvage this with some subgroup analyses, but f**k that.

Fourth and fifth are two different meta-analyses of the above three studies, which is the lowest study-to-meta-analysis ratio I’ve ever seen. They find big effects, but “garbage in, garbage out”.

Sixth, there’s the Medco Study by Winner et al; I assume his name is a Big Pharma plot to make us associate positive feelings with him. This study is an attempt to prove cost-effectiveness. The GeneSight test costs $2000, but it might be worth it to insurers/governments if it makes people so much healthier that they spend less money on health care later. And indeed, it finds that GeneSight users spend $1036 less per year on medication than matched controls.

The details: they search health insurance databases for patients who were taking an psychiatric medication and then got GeneSight tests. Then they search the same databases for control patients for each; the control patients take the same psych med, have the same gender, are similar in age, and have the same primary psychiatric diagnosis. They end up with 2000 GeneSight patients and 10000 matched controls, whom they prove are definitely similar (even as a group) on the traits mentioned above. Then they follow all these people for a year and see how their medication spending changes.

The year of the study, the GeneSight patients spent on average $689 more on medications than they did the year before – unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected since apparently they’re pretty sick. The control patients spent on average $1725 more. So their medication costs increased much more than the GeneSight patients. That presumably suggests GeneSight was doing a good job treating their depression, thus keeping costs down.

The problem is, this study wasn’t randomized and so I see no reason to expect these groups to be comparable in any way. The groups were matched for sex, age, diagnosis, and one drug, but not on any other basis. And we have reason to think that they’re not the same – after all, one group consists of people who ordered a little-known $2000 genetic test. To me, that means they’re probably 1) rich, and 2) have psychiatrists who are really cutting-edge and into this kind of stuff. To be fair, I would expect both of those to drive up their costs, whereas in fact their costs were lower. But consider the possibility that rich people with good psychiatrists probably have less severe disease and are more likely to recover.

Here’s some more evidence for this: of the ~$1000 cost savings, $300 was in psychiatric drugs and $700 was in non-psychiatric drugs. The article mentions that there’s a mind-body connection and so maybe treating depression effectively will make people’s non-psychiatric diseases get better too. This is true, but I think seeing that the effect of a psychiatric intervention is stronger on non-psychiatric than psychiatric conditions should at least raise our suspicion that we’re actually seeing some confounder.

I cannot find anywhere in the study a comparison of how much money each group spent the year before the study started. This is a very strange omission. If these numbers were very different, that would clinch this argument.

Seventh is the Union Health Service study. They genotype people at a health insurance company who have already been taking a psychotropic medication. The genetic test either says that their existing medication is good for them (“green bin”), okay for them (“yellow bin”) or bad for them (“red bin”). Then they compare how the green vs. yellow vs. red patients have been doing over the past year on their medications. They find green and yellow patients mostly doing the same, but red patients doing very badly; for example, green patients have about five sick days from work a year, but red patients have about twenty.

I don’t really see any obvious flaws in this study, but there are only nine red patients, which means their entire results depend on an n = 9 experimental group.

Eighth is a study that just seems to be a simulation of how QALYs might change if you enter some parameters; it doesn’t contain any new empirical data.

Overall these studies show very impressive effects. While it’s possible to nitpick all of them, we have to remind ourselves that we can nitpick anything, even the best of studies, and do we really want to be that much of a jerk when these people have tested their revolutionary new product in five different ways, and every time it’s passed with flying colors aside from a few minor quibbles?

And the answer is: yes, I want to be exactly that much of a jerk. The history of modern medicine is one of pharmaceutical companies having amazing studies supporting their product, and maybe if you squint you can just barely find one or two little flaws but it hardly seems worth worrying about, and then a few years later it comes out that the product had no benefits whatsoever and caused everyone who took it to bleed to death. The reason for all those grains of salt above was to suppress our natural instincts toward mercy and cultivate the proper instincts to use when faced with pharmaceutical company studies, ie Cartesian doubt mixed with smoldering hatred.

VII.

I am totally not above introducing arguments from authority, and I’ve seen two people with much more credibility than myself look into this. The first is Daniel Carlat, Tufts professor and editor of The Carlat Report, a well-respected newsletter/magazine for psychiatrists. He writes a skeptical review of their studies, and finishes:

If we were to hold the GeneSight test to the usual standards we require for making medication decisions, we’d conclude that there’s very little reliable evidence that it works.

The second is John Ioannidis, professor of health research at Stanford and universally recognized expert on clinical evidence. He doesn’t look at GeneSight in particular, but he writes of the whole pharmacogenomic project:

For at least 3 years now, the expectation has been that newer platforms using exome or full-genome sequencing may improve the genome coverage and identify far more variants that regulate phenotypes of interest, including pharmacogenomic ones. Despite an intensive research investment, these promises have not yet materialized as of early 2013. A PubMed search on May 12, 2013, with (pharmacogenomics* OR pharmacogenetc*) AND sequencing yielded an impressive number of 604 items. I scrutinized the 80 most recently indexed ones. The majority were either reviews/commentary articles with highly promising (if not zealot) titles or irrelevant articles. There was not a single paper that had shown robust statistical association between a newly discovered gene and some pharmacogenomics outcome, detected by sequencing. If anything, the few articles with real data, rather than promises, show that the task of detecting and validating statistically rigorous associations for rare variants is likely to be formidable. One comprehensive study sequencing 202 genes encoding drug targets in 14,002 individuals found an abundance of rare variants, with 1 rare variant appearing every 17 bases, and there was also geographic localization and heterogeneity. Although this is an embarrassment of riches, eventually finding which of these thousands of rare variants are most relevant to treatment response and treatment-related harm will be a tough puzzle to solve even with large sample sizes.

Despite these disappointing results, the prospect of applying pharmacogenomics in clinical care has not abided. If anything, it is pursued with continued enthusiasm among believers. But how much of that information is valid and is making any impact? […]

Before investing into expensive clinical trials for testing the new crop of mostly weak pharmacogenomic markers, a more radical decision is whether we should find some means to improve the yield of pharmacogenomics or just call it a day and largely abandon the field. The latter option sounds like a painfully radical solution, but on the other hand, we have already spent many thousands of papers and enormous funding, and the yield is so minimal. The utility yield seems to be even diminishing, if anything, as we develop more sophisticated genetic measurement techniques. Perhaps we should acknowledge that pharmacogenomics was a brilliant idea, we have learned some interesting facts to date, and we also found a handful of potentially useful markers, but industrial-level application of research funds may need to shift elsewhere.

I think the warning from respected authorities like these should add a sixth grain of salt to our rapidly-growing pile and make us feel a little bit better about rejecting the evidence above and deciding to wait.

VIII.

There’s a thing I always used to hate about the skeptic community. Some otherwise-responsible scientist would decide to study homeopathy for some reason, and to everyone’s surprise they would get positive results. And we would be uneasy, and turn to the skeptic community for advice. And they would say “Yeah, but homeopathy is stupid, so forget about this.” And they would be right, but – what’s the point of having evidence if you ignore it when it goes the wrong way? And what’s the point in having experts if all they can do is say “this evidence went the wrong way, so let’s ignore it”? Shouldn’t we demand experts so confident in their understanding that they can explain to us why the new “evidence” is wrong? And as a corollary, shouldn’t we demand experts who – if the world really was topsy-turvy and some crazy alternative medicine scheme did work – would be able to recognize that and tell us when to suspend our usual skepticism?

But at this point I’m starting to feel a deep kinship with skeptic bloggers. Sometimes we can figure out possible cracks in studies, and I think Part VI above did okay with that. But there will be cracks in even the best studies, and there will especially be cracks in studies done by small pharmaceutical companies who don’t have the resources to do a major multicenter trial, and it’s never clear when to use them as an excuse to reject the whole edifice versus when to let them pass as an unavoidable part of life. And because of how tough pharmacogenomics has proven so far, this is a case where I – after reading the warnings from Carlat and Ioannidis and the Italian team and everyone else – tentatively reject the edifice.

I hope later I kick myself over this. This might be the start of a revolutionary exciting new era in psychiatry. But I don’t think I can believe it until independent groups have evaluated the tests, until other independent groups have replicated the work of the first independent groups, until everyone involved has publicly released their data (GeneSight didn’t release any of the raw data for any of these studies!), and until our priors have been raised by equivalent success in other areas of pharmacogenomics.

Until then, I think it is a neat toy. I am glad some people are studying it. But I would not recommend spending your money on it if you don’t have $2000 to burn (though I understand most people find ways to make their insurance or the government pay).

But if you just want to have fun with this, you can get a cheap approximation from 23andMe. Use the procedure outlined here to get your raw data, then look up rs6313 for the HTR2A polymorphism; (G,G) supposedly means more Paxil side effects (and maybe SSRI side effects in general). 23andMe completely dropped the ball on SLC6A4 and I would not recommend trying to look that one up. The cytochromes are much more complicated, but you might be able to piece some of it together from this page’s links links to lists of alleles and related SNPs for each individual enzyme; also Promethease will do some of it for you automatically. Right now I think this process would produce pretty much 100% noise and be completely useless. But I’m not sure it would be more useless than the $2000 test. And if any of this pharmacogenomic stuff turns out to work, I hope some hobbyist automates the 23andMe-checking process and sells it as shareware for $5.