Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable

Today during an otherwise terrible lecture on ADHD I realized something important we get sort of backwards.

There’s this stereotype that the Left believes that human characteristics are socially determined, and therefore mutable. And social problems are easy to fix, through things like education and social services and public awareness campaigns and “calling people out”, and so we have a responsiblity to fix them, thus radically improving society and making life better for everyone.

But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.

And I think I reject this whole premise.

See, my terrible lecture on ADHD suggested several reasons for the increasing prevalence of the disease. Of these I remember two: the spiritual desert of modern adolescence, and insufficient iron in the diet. And I remember thinking “Man, I hope it’s the iron one, because that seems a lot easier to fix.”

Society is really hard to change. We figured drug use was “just” a social problem, and it’s obvious how to solve social problems, so we gave kids nice little lessons in school about how you should Just Say No. There were advertisements in sports and video games about how Winners Don’t Do Drugs. And just in case that didn’t work, the cherry on the social engineering sundae was putting all the drug users in jail, where they would have a lot of time to think about what they’d done and be so moved by the prospect of further punishment that they would come clean.

And that is why, even to this day, nobody uses drugs.

On the other hand, biology is gratifyingly easy to change. Sometimes it’s just giving people more iron supplements. But the best example is lead. Banning lead was probably kind of controversial at the time, but in the end some refineries probably had to change their refining process and some gas stations had to put up “UNLEADED” signs and then we were done. And crime dropped like fifty percent in a couple of decades – including many forms of drug abuse.

Saying “Tendency toward drug abuse is primarily determined by fixed brain structure” sounds callous, like you’re abandoning drug abusers to die. But maybe it means you can fight the problem head-on instead of forcing kids to attend more and more useless classes where cartoon animals sing about how happy they are not using cocaine.

What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone…keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?

What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.

Even the most politically radioactive biological explanation – genetics – doesn’t seem that scary to me. The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes. I think I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population than you would changing people’s locus of control or self-efficacy or whatever, even if I wasn’t allowed to do anything immoral (except by very silly religious standards of “immoral”).

I’m not saying that all problems are purely biological and none are social. But I do worry there’s a consensus that biological things are unfixable but social things are easy – or that social solutions are morally unambiguous but biological solutions necessarily monstrous – and so for any given biological/social breakdown of a problem, we figure we might as well put all our resources into attacking the more tractable social side and dismiss the biological side. I think there’s a sense in which that’s backwards, and in which it’s possible to marry scientific rigor with human compassion for the evils of the world.

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374 Responses to Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable

  1. Multiheaded says:

    This is cool! There’s been this undercurrent in your writings on society and biology for a while now, and I think it’s a radically sane position.

  2. Lemminkainen says:

    What do you think about the generalized version of this position– if solving a problem requires either large-scale social coordination or a technological innovation, the second will usually be the easier and more effective solution?

    • Clockwork Marx says:

      It doesn’t strike me as a very controversial position to take. The problem is that it isn’t always easy to predict when a technological solution is going to emerge. Politicians who choose to allocate resources by investing in something that may pay off sometime in the future are going to find themselves at a disadvantage against politicians who are seen as directly addressing a problem (even if their solution is only going to be making things worse in the long-term).

      • Anonymous says:

        This is known to reactionaries, and is yet another reason why they want to get rid of democracy altogether.

        • peterdjones says:

          Cos absolutes rulers just love disruptive change

          Although this isn’t an artifact or relic, per se, I thought I’d post something about the infamous unbreakable glass that is reported to have made a brief appearance in Tiberius’ day. The story is chronicled by the writers Pliny and Petronius, but alas I don’t have the primary sources. Not very scholarly of me, I know. 🙁 So my telling of the story is all from seconadary sources…In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, a Roman glassmaker demonstrated a remarkable new glass at the imperial court. Unlike ordinary glass, it did not break. It must have seemed almost supernatural to the stunned onlookers. The event was recorded by contemporary writers Pliny and Petronius. They called his glass vitrum flexile — flexible glass. The craftsman displayed a beautiful transparent vase to the emperor and then dashed it to the ground. According to the story, it dented but did not break. Tiberius asked if the glassmaker had told the secret of unbreakable glass to anyone else. When the answer was in the negative, the Emperor had the unknown genius put to death (EEEK!) and his workshop destroyed. He feared that the new material would reduce the value of gold and silver.Reports of this incident have no doubt been embellished over the years. Petronius speaks of the glass maker repairing the dent with a hammer, although as far as I know, even today’s toughest shatterproof glass is not malleable and cannot be hammered like gold or silver.

          • Blogospheroid says:

            There are stories in India about the designers of the taj being put to death. I think these might be rumours, not sure of the historical veracity.

          • Anonymous says:

            There is a very widely reported story about St Basil’s Cathedral (20% older), but there is also documentation that suggests it is false.

          • Hainish says:

            He invented clear plastic?

      • TeMPOraL says:

        I agree. That’s why I personally lean to believe business/technological activity is often (but not always) more effective than trying to go into politics when you want to solve real problems. Legal landscape shapes around what people want to do, so if you throw a good enough invention on the market, politicians will have no choice but to adapt laws to accomodate it.

        That’s the reasoning behind my decision to focus more on engineering side and forgoing political means of fixing the world. This, and the fact you’re less exposed to the internal dynamics of politics-as-popularity-contest.

    • RCF says:

      I think there’s a rather large bias towards thinking technological solutions are easier, because generally, we don’t see that there’s a technological solution until we actually have the solution, but it’s quite easy to recognize when there’s a coordination solution, regardless of whether that solution is close at hand, or even remotely possible.

      And at this point, our technology has outraced our coordination so much that the latter is often the bottleneck, and what appears to be technological progress is often just coordination. It was about a decade between when DVDs were first invented until when they became the dominant medium for movies, because everyone was afraid of backing the next Betamax.

  3. One question I like to ask when evaluating a position is, “If this weren’t true, why might people support it anyway?” In the case of pouring all our efforts into attacking the social causes of a problem, one answer that comes up is that it provides opportunities to signal Personal Commitment to Making a Difference.

    • Clockwork Marx says:

      And sometimes it may simply be that people see no other way of combating a problem. It’s the equivalent doing a rain dance, people may realize it’s a poor solution, but what else are you going to do?

      • This is an extremely good point and I wish I’d thought of it.

        Of course, a relevant question is whether doing a rain dance is, in fact, better than doing nothing. In this community that’s not a question at all—of course it isn’t, don’t be silly—but plenty of people in society at large think it is.

        • Kyle says:

          It can be way better than doing nothing. If attacking the social causes is ineffective and its ineffectiveness is difficult or impossible to measure, there’s no end to the amount of employment you can create by hiring people to tackle those causes and hiring other people to measure their effectiveness. The only harm is the existential despair it instills in the handful of neuroatypicals who see through the ruse, but the time they spend being depressed and ranting about it on the internet is time they don’t spend writing revolutionary software that destroys jobs. Seriously, can you imagine how many man-hours it must take to implement new educational standards in every school in the nation only to repeat the process every five years?

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Not sure if serious. Agree with description of the mechanism, disagree with it being a good thing.

            Also, did you mean “autistic”? Neurotypicals are the ones who are unlikely to see through the ruse.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Kyle said “neuroAtypicals”, i.e., people who are not neurotypicals.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Kyle said “neuroAtypicals”, i.e., people who are not neurotypicals.

            Yes, you are right. Thank you, Ozy.

          • The other cost is to the recipients of ineffective (or possibly harmful) “help”, At a minimum, their time is being wasted, it’s quite possible that they give up on making their lives better because help from high status people isn’t working and/or resent actually useful high status habits, and in the most extreme cases, take serious damage from badly conceived help.

          • Vulture says:

            Or, alternatively, don’t bother to seek helpful help because they think they’re already being helped (And yes, I realize that mine and Nancy’s contradict each other).

          • I don’t think it’s really a contradiction, it’s just another way things can go wrong.

            The general problem seems to be that people tend to believe that if they’re trying to help they’re both proving their virtue* and can’t be making things worse. As a result, they don’t check on whether their help is actually helpful.

            People who are being helped may also buy into the idea that the intent to help is enough, so they’re patient with bad or ineffective help, or they may have insufficient power to get away from help they don’t want.

            *I’m inclined to blame Christianity, but I don’t know whether this issue of help getting compulsive shows up in non-Christian and non-Abrahamic cultures.

          • Kyle says:

            I’m not entirely unserious, but I also won’t claim that this any more than an attempt at coming up with a postcynical outlook. If you’re going to run makework schemes in a democratic society, you’d best obfuscate them within a byzantine organizational structure in which everybody thinks they’re climbing upward step by step but no single person has access to the global perspective that reveals the Penrose staircase.

        • Clockwork Marx says:

          I don’t know if it’s better or worse then doing nothing. If the “rain dance” is taking time and resources away from more effective non-social solutions it can be seen as harmful, but I suspect that this is rarely the case.

          It’s unlikely that the dancers would be otherwise working towards one of the promising non-social solutions if not conscripted by the dance. And after a certain threshold, pumping resources into projects tends to lead to diminishing returns.

          If nothing else, the “rain dance” can provide a template for a response to a problem that is less harmful then the responses people may attempt to implement otherwise.

          Sometimes it can even do some good, AIDS awareness may not be a cure for the disease, but it did manage to reduce the rates of transmission.

          I think the “harm-reduction” approach to drug-use, cutting, etc, is helpful here. An effective social response to a problem needs to keep its objectives realistic and concrete. Otherwise it will just devolve into a “kill all cancer forever with positive thinking” dance. Yes, dancing can raise awareness of a problem, but it can also become an out-of-control meme that crowds out awareness of other problems if its too good at spreading. Breast cancer awareness can become a kind of cancer itself.

          • To clarify, by “rain dance” I meant “proposed solution which cannot possibly work because it is not causally connected to the problem”. (As is the case if you interpret “rain dance” literally, which I intended to be a valid interpretation of my comment.) People often support rain dances if the problem is bad enough because “you never know, it might work”. Not all social interventions are rain dances; many have real effects.

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            I guess what I was getting at was that a rain dance can have some value even if it doesn’t actively combat a problem when it gets people to realize that there’s a drought going on.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      My first thought as well. The right certainly has no monopoly on the shady joys of enforcing “virtue”* on others; the relative decline of the religious right seems to have coincided with the rise of the left’s enforcement of busybody** virtue. People seem to enjoy enforcing their moral rules on everyone around them.***

      *”Virtue” being a catchall encapsulating values not captured by “morality.”
      **”Busybody” chosen because I am working on my principle of charity.
      ***An obvious conclusion nonetheless overlooked by arguments that the right wants to enforce morality but the left only wants to “improve society,” whatever that means.

      • MugaSofer says:

        When the Left says the Right want to enforce morality, they mean they want to enforce purity values, and you’re not so uncool as to embrace purity values, are you? Hah, those stupid right-wing people, grossed out by anything different to them. We can’t leave them in charge, can we?

        When the Right says the Lefts want to enforce morality, they mean it’s inherently evil to improve the world if it means forcing anyone to do what you say. In this specific instance. Obviously it’s OK when we do it to criminals, but something something freedom something something inherent rights something something independent individuals.

        • The Anonymouse says:

          I notice the assumption of “improv[ing] the world” snuck into the second paragraph, but not the first.

          • Luke Somers says:

            A) the first paragraph made fun of the left, and

            B) Someone might have a political opinion! Call the president of Madagascar!

        • Vulture says:

          When the Right says the Lefts want to enforce morality, they mean it’s inherently evil to improve the world if it means forcing anyone to do what you say.

          I wouldn’t call this a strawman – or even a weakman per se, but it certainly isn’t a very nice way of saying that they value personal freedom as a non-utilitarian Inherent Right.

          (Actually, I think it might even be more psychologically accurate to say that it is a utilitarian value, albeit not one that you or I probably weight as strongly. If push came to shove, I’d say most of those rightists would approve of banning private ownership of nuclear weapons, for example. But even if they didn’t, I doubt they would represent it internally as stemming from a nefarious opposition to the improvement of the world.)

        • RCF says:

          The Right also seems to often have a very selective idea of what “government” means. They are against “big government”, but “big government” often seems to mean “whatever level of government is implementing policies I don’t like”. If the federal government is implementing leftist policies, they advocate “state rights”. If the state government is implementing leftist policies, they argue for local control. They even accuse the government of violating freedom of religion for prohibiting public schools from sponsoring prayer, and don’t notice the absurdity of accusing “the government” of violating rights when all “the government” is doing is exercising authority over a different part of the government; the public school is itself “the government”.

      • Emile says:

        People seem to enjoy enforcing their moral rules on everyone around them.

        It’s a perfectly understandable inclination!

        Anytime we have to deal with somebody who pissed all over the toilet seat, or a park looking ugly because there’s litter all over it, or a useful team member being fired instead of the incompetent brother-in-law of the boss, or a drunken asshole insulting people in public, etc. we wish there were better social rules to discourage those situations.

        People wanting to impose their own moral rules is just a consequence of people being exposed to something they don’t like (and often expect others to not like either, usually rightfully so).

      • AJD says:

        People seem to enjoy enforcing their moral rules on everyone around them.

        If they didn’t think everyone should follow them, they wouldn’t consider them moral rules.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          “Everyone should follow them” and “they should be enforced” are not the same thing.

          Do you think everyone should accept evolution? Sure. Do you think that belief in creationism should be made criminal? Probably not.

          • OldCrow says:

            Only if you use ‘enforce’ to refer strictly to legal enforcement. We have a lot of ways to punish behavior if enough people agree that it should be forbidden – shunning, shaming, subtle discrimination.

            To use your example, I have no problem with encouraging a social stigma that keeps creationists from being biology teachers.

    • Steve Reilly says:

      Maybe, but why not signal your devotion by attacking the right cause instead of the wrong one?

      • Anonymous says:

        Because attacking the right cause isn’t holy enough. Changing society to force your norms and virtues on people is a holy endeavour; giving people multivitamins isn’t.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      It seems like you would replace Anti-Drug Teachers with Anti-Drug Researchers, and the politicians would still get to claim they are Funding Anti-Drug Efforts, and schools could be test-beds for the latest Anti-Drug Double-Blind Experiment.

      So it doesn’t just seem to be Personal Commitment, except on the part of people who have an extremely cushy job (since it’s impossible to really fail at a project with 0% success), and who probably wouldn’t be able to handle a research-based position.

      I mean, people manage anti-Cancer research funding all the time. There’s tons of huge positions that are all *about* signalling Personal Commitment By Curing Cancer. A lot of them even seem to be the same sort of extremely cushy job, except you say that Cancer is bad and ask for donations instead of saying Drugs are bad and asking for a paycheck.

      So… I mean, it actually seems like we have pretty clear proof that people are TOTALLY willing to support biological causes when it’s something like Cancer.

      It would seem instead that there’s some sort of social stigma against the idea that “bad grades” can be cured via the same methods Cancer can.

      Offhand I would suggest that Hitler’s eugenics programs probably created a generation with a SERIOUS bias against thinking of social problems this way. Sure, multivitamins aren’t genocide, but in this article alone we’ve gone from “people are poor because of bad genes” over to ” I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population.”

      I really don’t think Codex is suggesting eugenics, but I can see how a strong eugenics-phobia would pattern-match to this and vastly prefer the nice social solution >.>

      • Douglas Knight says:

        People didn’t strongly associate eugenics with Nazis until decades after the war, as the winners were winding down their own eugenics programs. Thus it looks to me like a contingent outcome that depended on events after the war.

      • a person says:

        No, slate star codex is in fact suggesting eugenics. What he’s not suggesting is brutally murdering millions of people. See The Worst Argument in the World.

      • MugaSofer says:

        >I really don’t think Codex is suggesting eugenics

        He is.

        The nice kind, not the kind that got hijacked by crazy racists.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’ll support the “Make the people with Bad Genetics sterile against their will” if Scott is wililing to enforce the corollary; “Make the people with Good Genetics have a minimum of four children”.

          After all, if the Bad Gene poor are muddying up the gene pool with their wanton unlicensed reproduction, then surely we need to raise the average of all that is good and smart by having lots more smart babies that will grow up to be smart people?

          I’m seeing a lot of you smart people on here quite willing to tell others to sacrifice for The Good Of Humanity; so how about you take the hit yourself? Yes, children are expensive and take a lot of time and effort, and you won’t be free to do the nice things you might want to do/purchase, but come on – the future of the world is at stake! Do you want tomorrow to be the province of the idiots and useless mouths?

          Have smart babies today and save the world!

          • AR+ says:

            I suspect you’re being sarcastic, but I’ve actually thought much the same thing.

            Indeed, if Scott is opposed to Moloch, then his plan to remove pregnancies due to impulsiveness if misguided. If we didn’t have people having passionate and poorly-thought out flings, we probably wouldn’t have evolved art and music. His plan, meanwhile, would strongly select for a desire to have kids for the sake of having kids.

            With no famines and much less getting-murdered-for-not-being-in-a-powerful-enough-coalition than in our ancestral environment, propensity to reproduce becomes the overriding selective factor. Now, that takes the form of anti-progressivism, and lack of planning ability. Scott’s plan replaces the latter with the desire to have kids itself.

            To prevent that, we need instead to somehow decouple number of children from the desire to have children.

          • Emile says:

            For what it’s worth, my second kid is on the way…

            (not that I particularly endorse “Make the people with Bad Genetics sterile against their will”)

      • David says:

        May I suggest that we differentiate ‘dysgenics’ – the effort to improve the gene pool by forcibly eradicating, or sterilising, the people you have labeled as untermenschen, from ‘eugenics’ in the broader sense of trying to improve the gene pool by whatever methods … as long as your methods are not cruel and coercive, there is no reason to consider it evil in principle.

        For instance, the people who routinely get themselves screened for being a carrier for Tay-Sachs disease are a demographic who have an extremely strong historical reason to be worried about Nazi-style dysgenics, and yet, eugenics is exactly what they are doing whenever a couple of them, on learning that they are both carriers, decide to refrain from having children together, or break off their relationship and seek other, non-carrier partners.

        [Edit – sorry, I see that Hainish has already brought this up downthread]

        • James James says:

          “Nazi-style dysgenics”

          David, you are using the word “dysgenics” incorrectly. “Dysgenics” is commonly used to mean things which make the gene pool worse, e.g. intelligent people not having children, stupid people having more children than they would without subsidies.

          The Nazis thought they were practising eugenics. They may well have been practising dysgenics from our point of view — eliminating intelligent Jews — but that’s not the point. From their point of view, they were improving the gene pool: eugenics.

          How about “good eugenics” and “bad eugenics”? (Ignore the fact that “eu” means good, so the first is redundant and the second contradictory.) Eugenics/dysgenics refers to the consequences, good/bad refers to the method.

          I would define “good eugenics” as nice methods of improving the gene pool (e.g. genetic engineering, embryo screening, abortion), and “bad eugenics” as nasty ways (e.g. sterilisation, gas chambers).

          So “bad eugenics” is where the consequences would be good, but the method is a price not worth paying.

          People will disagree on which types of eugenics are good and which are bad. E.g. some people think abortion is bad; other people don’t care.

          The point is that there are two things about *genics: whether the consequences are good/bad, and whether the method is good/bad. Eu/dys refers to the consequences only. We need a better way of referring to the method.

          • Jun says:

            There’s already a term for the ‘good’ side of this: liberal eugenics. I might suggest “coercive eugenics” for the ‘bad’ side instead. That more clearly indicates the salient differences between the two, and also avoids coding our own values into the name.

          • Deiseach says:

            But the Nazis did not start with “Let’s eradicate the Jews”, they started with the (as you point out) common assumptions of the time about ‘improving’ the human race by humanely disposing of, first, the useless eaters: the mad, the retarded, the defective and then by using coercive sterilisation so as to prevent the ‘bad gene’ people breeding.

            It was only by steps they brought about the introduction of “let’s kill the Jews even if they’re smart, in fact, especially if they’re smart, because the smart ones are the biggest threat to us”.

          • Nornagest says:

            That seems a little disingenuous, Deisach. The Nazis didn’t start from eugenic goals and derive “let’s kill all the Jews” from that through some slippery-slope process; they started with a rather self-serving ethnic nationalism, one that already included an intense anti-Semitism, and worked their way backwards from there.

            It’s true that the genocide plan wasn’t finalized until the Wannsee Conference, but that doesn’t by any means imply that their intentions toward German Jews were ever benign. Formalized discrimination against Jews began as early as 1933, almost immediately after the Nazis came to power.

          • Mary says:

            I recommend The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz.

            Short version: the hardcore — and very unsuccessful — view was bitterly anti-Semitic. After the putsch, as early as the trial, they wrapped it up in ethnic nationalism as a better sell. Most Germans were sold that, which lead in due course to the original anti-Semitism.

            Indeed, many observers thought at the time that Hitler had gotten over his earlier attitude on Jews.

          • David Hart says:

            The way I had heard the word used, ‘dysgenics’ meant specifically trying to eliminate the ‘bad’ genes (I use the scare quotes because the people who try to implement it usually have a suspiciously skewed meaning of ‘bad’), whereas ‘eugenics’ was the broader term for trying to engineer a better gene pool. But I agree, the term is a little confusing, and am happy to run with Jun’s ‘coercive eugenics’ phrase.

        • Mary says:

          The terms you want already exist.

          “Positive eugenics” is encouraging or compelling more children from the best. “Negative eugenics” is encouraging or compelling fewer children from the worst.

          • Vilhelm S says:

            No, typically “good eugenics” are the methods that encourage, “bad eugenics” are the methods that compel. (Of course, not everyone will agree exactly with this formulation. E.g. people disagree about whether voluntary abortions are moral. But whether a method is moral or not is mostly unrelated to the “positive/negative” classification).

        • Hainish says:

          I think the fact that it’s Jewish people volunteering to be tested makes it more acceptable to the general public. (Because they’d have the most reason to worry about Nazi-style eugenics programs.)

          I’d go as far as to say that this kind of testing (by the Jewish community) is probably not considered eugenics at all, because eugenics involves forced sterilization and oppression and genocide. I think the word is just so . . . tainted . . . that it’d be really hard to promote any sort of positive, non-coercive intervention without risk of being called a Nazi.

    • Randy M says:

      “I really don’t think Codex is suggesting eugenics”
      Eh? I’m not sure if he’s said so in so many words, I’m I am sure he would probably decry any racial angle, etc., etc., but I think Scott is generally pro-eugenics.

      • Mary says:

        Well the little problem is that he’s assuming — such as right here —

        ‘ The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes. ”

        which assumes that the people with problematic genes are those who would not choose to have children if only they were not so impulsive or confused.

        This does not seem to have borne out in real life, where many people in very bad situations want to have those kids.

        • Anthony says:

          which assumes that the people with problematic genes are those who would not choose to have children if only they were not so impulsive or confused.

          This does not seem to have borne out in real life, where many people in very bad situations want to have those kids.

          Anectodally, it seems that people who are impulsive or easily confused end up having *more* children than they actually want, so even reducing their fecundity to what they want would be something of an improvement.

          Depo-Provera seems to have already picked a lot of this low-hanging fruit – you’re supposed to get the shot every three months, but it’s still something like 90% effective at nine months (iirc), so people who find it difficult to remember to get their shot every three months are still having fewer children than they would otherwise.

        • Emile says:

          which assumes that the people with problematic genes are those who would not choose to have children if only they were not so impulsive or confused.

          That’s a bit broad, I don’t think he’s assuming that; I’d rather say that “having unwanted children because of low self-control” is bad but self-perpetuating, and that forms of contraception that reduce the self-perpetuating aspect would be a net good (especially if the low self-control also leads to other things like criminality or difficulty holding a job)

          “Bad” traits that aren’t related to impulsiveness aren’t helped by contraception (and nobody is assuming they are), but hey, improvement in one direction is already good!

      • I’m pretty sure Scott has said, in as many words, that he’s pro-eugenics—but with the word “eugenics” having totally different connotations than it has in society at large. He wrote a specific comment about this which I’m currently searching for, and which I’ll edit this post to link to if I find it in the next hour.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Another answer is that it provides an ever increasing mandate for money and power. Bureaucracy is set up to try to solve social cause of a problem, fails to solve problem, claims that it needs more resources and power to solve problem, repeat ad infinitum.

    • Mary says:

      And if it does not work, why the victims are still there next time you want to signal.

    • Ryan says:

      Not that I think you’re wrong. That’s definitely at play. But I’d go a bit further than you on this one, at least with certain segments of the crowd.

      Ran Prieur defines evil as “wanting to destroy evil.” Or at least I remember him writing that. Anyway, like a lot of his ideas once you hear it you see it everywhere.

      I think that’s the explanation for SA’s recent realization that he doesn’t like Social Justice Warriors. All they want to do is destroy evil. If kids aren’t doing well in school, it’s time to route out the inherent racism, the injustice in funding, the Christian doctrine poisoning the process, whatever. Regardless of the problem, they want to hunt down and destroy the social evils which are responsible for it.

      Meanwhile the poor kids would be a lot better at math if they all took a 3 cent multivitamin every morning. And that makes Scott sad.

      • RCF says:

        “Ran Prieur defines evil as “wanting to destroy evil.””

        Define, as in iff?

        Also, it’s “root out”, not “route out”.

  4. Protagoras says:

    I completely agree. I suppose that the idea that social problems are easily fixable is connected to the swamp of nonsense surrounding “free will,” while “biological” has come to be the substitute for the generally over-simplified and unhelpful metaphysical notion of essence (without, of course, people other than some scientists abandoning any of the problems with the essentialist picture when they changed terminology).

    • I agree. At least part of what’s going on is the belief that people ought to improve their behavior through moral intuition and willpower, and nothing else. This may especially apply to low status people– note that high status people keep themselves physically comfortable, which tends to make it easier to behave well.

      Lead causing crime is inconvenient for both left and right-wingers. It means that there was a physical cause of crime and low intelligence which was correlated with race. On the other hand, the amount of exposure to lead was related to racism– in Chicago, at least, housing projects were placed near the expressway. I doubt this was a conspiracy to poison people, but it was putting them in the noisier, smellier environment.

      Sidetrack: any thoughts about how much good it would do to have serious restrictions on noise levels?

      • Andy says:

        Lead causing crime is inconvenient for both left and right-wingers. It means that there was a physical cause of crime and low intelligence which was correlated with race. On the other hand, the amount of exposure to lead was related to racism– in Chicago, at least, housing projects were placed near the expressway. I doubt this was a conspiracy to poison people, but it was putting them in the noisier, smellier environment.

        The academic term for this is “environmenal racism.” In my Geography department (faculty FULL of far-lefties, except for the one Putin-worshipping Russian nationalist) it’s a very popular topic. The lead observation has been very useful in bringing Left and (relative) Right together for environmental justice, when it is pointed out to the Right that bad environmental policy increases crime.
        In my more paranoid moments, I suspect that some rightists know about the correlation and continue to further environmental racism because a rowdy and dangerous underclass makes people in the middle and upper classes more violence, but I have no evidence and I have a tendency toward conspiracy theories, so I’m not even advancing it as a hypothesis, just an interesting bit of my own badbrains.

        • Jaskologist says:

          If you’re going to be a conspiracy theorist, at least point it in the right direction; the right doesn’t run Chicago. In fact, pretty much every slum area is wholly owned by the left, and has been for over a generation. What happens there is entirely a result of leftist plans, intentional or not.

        • RCF says:

          It seems to me that much, if not all, of this “environmental racism” is simply the operation of the free market. Environmentally poor area are occupied by the poor because they have lower market value, and the poor have less wealth to bid for good housing. Now, there may be racism involved in the fact they have less wealth in the first place, but I don’t see what value there is in applying the label “racism” what is, in itself, not racist is useful.

      • James James says:

        “On the other hand, the amount of exposure to lead was related to racism– in Chicago, at least, housing projects were placed near the expressway.”

        Hey, who mentioned race? Land near expressways will be cheap whether developed privately or by the state.

        Racism might be inferable if the expressway had been built second, and sited near a black area.

  5. Typhon says:

    Ok, so, society is fixed and biology is mutable.
    And society is heavily biased toward fixing problems through social rather than biological change.


    • Kaminiwa says:

      Nah, we just need to figure out what biological adjustments are needed to get society to bias the opposite direction.

      • Jai says:

        Then we’ll exhaust all the easy biological avenues, but in the process we’ll make society easy to improve. Then the next generation of contrarian rational bloggers will write about how changing society is easier than changing biology, and no one will listen to them either.

  6. suntzuanime says:

    I mean, you can say an opposition to eugenics is a “very silly religious standard”, but it’s extremely mainstream, and anything you do with an explicit goal of changing gene frequency in the population falls under the eugenics prohibition, voluntary or not.

    • Kaminiwa says: – Project Prevention (formerly Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity or CRACK) is an American non-profit organization that pays drug addicts cash for volunteering for long-term birth control, including sterilization.

      I think the mainstream is actually pretty accepting of the right *sort* of eugenics. Yes, they’ve gotten criticism, but they’ve also managed to stay in operation for two decades!

      (And just to be pedantic, trying to get pregnant has an explicit goal of adjusting gene frequencies on a very small scale, so clearly we have some social tolerance for the idea :))

      • suntzuanime says:

        No, people are freaked out if you say you want to have children to increase the frequency of your genes in the population. Try it sometime.

        • haishan says:

          I’m not convinced. This is pretty much the only reason to donate to a sperm bank (except for money, I mean), and sperm bank donation isn’t socially unacceptable…

          • suntzuanime says:

            You can donate to a sperm bank because you want to have children, wanting to have children is ok. You just have to be hypocritical about what it actually means and what the source of the desire is.

          • Tarn Somervell says:

            also altruism and related things? I mean some people just donate to feel good about having donated, so there’s that. I think that would be a far more common motivation than gene-frequency-increasing.

          • Anonymous says:

            … wait, there are sperm banks that receive (and accept) free donations?

          • AndR says:


            At least in the uk, pretty much all sperm banks are free. They’re not allowed to pay you, but they are allowed to compensate you for ‘lost earnings’, so you usually get ~35 GBP per visit.

        • B says:

          I’ve been quite open about choosing my wife on a partially eugenic basis. She sees it as a compliment, but other people indeed generally FTFO when they hear it.

          Same for choosing the kid’s name for SES of other carriers of that name.

          It’s retarded that it’s somehow considered uncouth to want the best for your children.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        CRACK, down to the very name, appears to me to have the purpose of generating controversy, not eugenics.

        I have always thought that the choice of sterilization over long-term birth control was a pretty obvious sign of this, but wikipedia says that not only do they offer birth control, but that 10 years ago they dropped their policy of offering more money for sterilization. So maybe it is for real.

        Still, it is a tiny organization that only pays out twice as much money to addicts as to its director. It does seem to be expanding, now treating 300 people per year.

        • Vulture says:

          Choosing to misspell a word (especially in the form C->K) is usually a sign of non-seriousness. Also, from the Wikipedia article:

          The [billboards] contain slogans such as “Don’t let pregnancy get in the way of your crack habit” and “She has her Daddy’s eyes and her Mommy’s heroin addiction”.[9] In interviews [the founder] said “We don’t allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children”,[10]

          My best guess is that they primarily exist to lean against the overton window à la Glenn Beck, with approximately that level of subtlety. And, hey, along the way they’ve probably even prevented a few crack babies.

          (You could argue that a lot of their [clients? customers? victims? beneficiaries?] are just picking up free cash for the babies they weren’t planning to have anyway, but a. probably not all of them and b. it’s good to remember that there’s probably a lot of rape in those neighborhoods, as well)

          Edit: And at least they eventually had the sense to change their name

      • I agree with Suntzu. A program like Project Prevention is at least somewhat controversial and fringe, and it isn’t trying to do eugenics — its goal is to prevent expensive and harmful pregnancies, not to change the frequency of drug-associated alleles. “The main objective of Project Prevention is public awareness to the problem of addicts/alcoholics exposing their unborn child to drugs during pregnancy.”

        Getting pregnant does seem to be an exception. Basically, society will call anything ‘eugenics’ (and despise it accordingly) if it’s an attempt to change human gene frequencies by means other than ‘I personally will have more/fewer kids’. Of course, it’s a lot less likely to deemed ‘eugenics’ if the genetic effect is a side-effect of some other goal, especially if it’s a non-obvious side-effect.

      • Anonymous says:

        >Project Prevention (formerly Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity or CRACK) is an American non-profit organization that pays drug addicts cash for volunteering for long-term birth control, including sterilization.

        People, in my experience, become legitimately freaked out when they learn this.

        They don’t know any anti-eugenics arguments – even the good ones – and so become scared and confused when they realize saying “that’s eugenics” is actually true and thus will not work.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          I think the implication of such objection is that drug addicts make bad judgments and do things not in their best interests when they need money for drugs, and that sterilizing them in exchange for money takes advantage of their bad judgment.

          • AR+ says:

            Eugenic sterilization that only works against people with bad judgment sounds like the most elegantly self-managing way you could go about it.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      To many people, ‘biologically caused’ = ‘genetically caused’, so a fresh term for ‘things like lead in the air, or lack of vitamin X’ would be helpful.

      • Levi Aul says:

        I tend to say “physiological” for those. As in, “toxins in the environment cause physiological problems–which have physiological, not social, solutions.”

        • “Physiologically caused” sounds good to me.

          Here’s one that I’ve heard is physiologically caused, but still multi-generational. FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) causes problems with impulse control and intelligence, which means that women with FAS are more likely to drink heavily when pregnant. Does anyone know whether this connection is sound?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Still too abstract, and sounds like a permanent condition of the body.

            On the object level, removing pollutants, giving better nutrition to children, etc — are very popular ideas on the Left. Also this approach fits the Left’s preference for “It’s not the criminal’s fault, it’s caused by his/her environment [which is poor because of Rightists not doing the right things, which brings Society back in, but with a better handle for changing that environment].”

            Imo a better term should include “environment/environmental” (since that can be changed though many physiological defects of the body cannot).

            A better term might be “biological environment factors” or, better, “environmental biological factors”.

        • Multiheaded says:

          +1 to that, good idea.

    • somnicule says:

      Could policy affecting, say, radiation exposure regulations arguably fall under that category?

    • Hainish says:

      Ashkenazi Jewish couples routinely get tested for genetic diseases (e.g., Tay Sachs), and if they’re Orthodox, the testing might be a routine part of the matchmaking process. It’s relatively uncontroversial. Of course, it’s not mandated by a government.

      • MajaZ says:

        Premarital beta-thalassaemia screening is apparently mandatory in Cyprus, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Palestine, although I believe in Cyprus it is only mandated by the orthodox church (who apparently also approve of abortion in these cases).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I was thinking of opposition to contraception.

      • suntzuanime says:

        I think most people are opposed to contraception as a means of manipulating the gene pool, even if they are not especially religious. You could say opposition to eugenics is part of the ubiquitous modernist liberal “religion” whose Devil is Hitler, I guess.

        The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world eugenics was a bad idea.

        • gattsuru says:

          The recommendation that folk who can’t support kids not have them is very, very common among the right, even many groups that oppose some forms of contraception. Likewise, there’s little controversy regarding genetic counselling for Tay-Sachs disease and similar conditions*. . Most viewers can’t even name the eugenics mechanism in Gattaca nor oppose the reduction in genetic diversity, which the movie glosses over — they dislike the invasive state, and the protagonist limited in his choices.

          Remember the outgroup homogeneity bias. Many religious concerns regarding contraception are different just between one subfaction of the same religion to the next : Protestants have no issue with condoms but may have ideological issues regarding contragestives, while the Catholic dogma against the contraceptive pill is significantly less strong than that against condom use. Opposition to eugenics is likewise complicated.

          * the unfortunate /other/ side is that these sorts of voluntary eugenics aren’t very effective. To have even a small effect on a recessive trait’s occurrence in the population, assuming random mating and no sterilization of recessive carriers, usually takes along the order of a hundred generations. To have a quick and dramatic effect on recessive traits, you need to not only test the entire populace, but sterilize or limit to non-standard fertilization or do a lot of genetic testing and abortion on fetuses for a large portion of that population that has no overt signs of illness or defect. These are well-known issues long-predating Hitler’s discrediting of eugenics : see Punnett (1917) and Fishing (1924). Even the more utilitarian parts of our society generally don’t take that side of the Trolly or Dust Speck problems, especially as large portions of the population value having genetically-descended children.

          • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

            I don’t think everybody ever thought about genetic screening as being a way to reduce the occurrence of the relevant disorders – its only purpose is to reduce the *damage* causes by them – which ends up actually slightly *increasing* the fitness of these alleles (by reducing the damage the alleles cause).

            Of course, “intentional” attempts on reducing (especially by an actually significant amount) the fitness of these alleles would be quite politically incorrect.

          • gattsuru says:

            In at least some cases, folk and especially who test positive are encouraged to adopt or go for surrogates, so there’s some negative fitness applied.

            You’re likely correct in that effect being overwhelmed by the secondary unintended effects.

    • grendelkhan says:

      Planned Parenthood has been very successful with “Every Child a Wanted Child”, which I think does a nice end run around the idea “we want some children to be born and some not to be” (Catholics have noticed this), because, far from implying that they’d take anyone’s choices away, they’re saying that they’re just helping people implement their own will as to when and how they want children. Which is true!

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      That’s why you don’t make your goal of changing gene frequency explicit. The angle of protecting the poor from the costs of childrearing is quite salable. For another example, if you replaced the Estate Tax (assessed based on how much the decedent passes on) with a graduate inheritance tax (assessed based on how much the inheritor receives), you could create a strong tax incentive for the rich to have multiple children, and no one would even suspect you of eugenics.

      • zaogao says:

        +1 for political foxiness.

        In general anything focused on reducing taxes will incentivize those who pay taxes and not those who do not, so we just need to make kids tax deductible… oh wait.

        Better thought, make parents legally and financially
        culpable for their kids illegal misdeeds.

        Because no one wants to be seen as not supporting children, I think some “Protect Our Children” program could provide the political capital for fairly draconian policies. A child is caught with drugs? Parents have to be drug tested. Paint a picture of some innocent kid who got into drugs due to his junkie mom, so if you oppose testing you are placing a kid back in a dangerous crack house environment. People who like drugs want to keep doing drugs, and while I am not sure their time horizon is long enough that they would have fewer kids, there could be a benefit of getting kids out of the houses where parents are afraid they may be drug tested.

  7. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    There’s this stereotype that the Left believes that human characteristics are socially determined, and therefore mutable… But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed.

    I think the standard model is more like that described in “Achievement Gap Politics.” Progressives think all social problems are due to oppression and poverty and lack of education. Conservatives think all social problems are caused by bad upbringing and a toxic cultural environment. And then there is the Voldemort view, The-View-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, which claims that social problems are caused by biological factors, either environmental (lead, iodine, etc…) or genetic.

    • somnicule says:

      I don’t see what’s Voldemorty about looking at biological environment factors, to be honest. Like, it doesn’t trip up my internal eugenics alarm or anything. Malnutrition would fall under that too, and everyone agrees that malnutrition is a shitty thing. Disease and parasites too, and exposure to radiation, and exposure to alcohol and drugs in utero, etc. Isn’t that part the bit that pretty much everyone agrees on, left and right?

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s the bit everyone forgets about – because there’s nothing to argue about, and so there’s little point in bringing it up.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        Maybe if everyone agrees on something, it becomes bad for signalling loyalty to one’s faction. Therefore people who are mostly concerned by making their faction win (hint: everyone who cares about politics too much) will ignore it.

        • somnicule says:

          That makes sense. Though now I think about it, having opponents to a cause gets it a lot more attention. Best example would be vaccines.

        • RCF says:

          On the other hand, claiming a noncontroversial position for your side is beneficial. For instance, “support the troops” is a rather noncontroversial position, but the Right has managed to make it seem like part of “their” platform.

          The people behind the Ice Bucket Challenge have tapped into the power of The Noncontroversial Position; once it reaches critical mass, every politician has to join in, because who wants to say “No, I don’t care about ALS”?

    • Charlie says:

      Well, we have laws about lead and iodine – how did that happen if the view is too terrible to be named? Clearly some ideas have snuck into at least one major political party.

      • gwern says:

        As far as I know, we have no laws about iodine: iodized salt became standard in the USA as part of an advertising push on the part of salt sellers (it differentiated the product) and remains voluntary. Not all salt products bother iodizing (apparently gourmet salts and seasalts often have no or low iodine levels now), and in conjunction with the War on Salt, means a good chunk of pregnant women are deficient in surveys.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          There is a small regulation that uniodized salt must be labeled with a warning: “This salt does not contain iodide a necessary nutrient.” I don’t know how old this is.

          • gwern says:

            Do you have a source for that? A bunch of searches in Google, Google Books, and Google Scholar for strings like ‘”This salt does not contain iodide” regulation OR law’ turns up nothing, and the phrase itself doesn’t seem to be that common either (certainly not as common as I would expect if it was mandated for all the non-iodized salts).

          • Douglas Knight says:


            Interesting that I copied the phrase from a source that correctly said iodide, but incorrectly said “contains” rather than “supplies.” If I get either word correct, that FDA shows up on the first page of google.

            I had not seen this link when I posted my previous comment, but I had seen a discussion of salt that has the disclaimer despite containing natural iodine.

          • gwern says:

            I see. Still, not much of a law: an advertising regulation put in place in 1977, apparently. I wonder if it’s even enforced.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            1973, actually, but I can’t give you a link, even a bitly link.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Search google books for “effective at packing plants on June 26 1973”

    • Emile says:

      I’ll agree with the other commenters that claiming “there’s a big social taboo against lead-based explanation” is just silly.

      Yes, some HBDish ideas squick some people, but let’s not overdo it please, this isn’t a persecution contest.

      • I don’t think there’s a big social taboo against explanations by lead, but I think there’s a big blind spot. The information about lead and crime has been pretty well accepted, but it hasn’t led to a big campaign to make sure the lead is gone or to look for other similar solutions.

        I believe this is because physiological solutions lack drama. There isn’t the fun of blaming people for fucking up. There isn’t the self-congratulation of helping (probably with a side dose of control). Physiological solutions take a long time, and they may involve writing off the current generation and just helping their children.

        And physiological solutions involve making things better for low status people, and then ceasing to be involved in changing their lives. Where’s the fun in that?

        • Emile says:

          I mostly agree (I was objecting to jaime blaming political correctness).

          A factor that probably contributes to making abstract interventions around morality and education etc. more popular than physiological ones is that those solutions are mostly implemented by talking (writing columns, letters to the editors, doing demonstrations, going on TV, etc.), which anybody can do, so it’s easy to jump in and take credit and claim one is making a difference. It’s much less easy to claim credit for reducing lead in the environment when all one did was talk. Public figures have less of an incentive to talk about the problem, so you don’t hear as much about it.

    • zaogao says:

      Another appropriate framework is locus of control. Left: Blacks don’t achieve because whitey keeps them down. Right: Blacks don’t achieve because they are lazy thugs.

      One of the saddest things things to me about the evolution of the black civil rights movement has been the abandonment of positive action.
      Black Panthers had libraries, reading rooms, free meals, etc. People talked about the importance of black businesses and building up capital in the community. I seem not to hear about these things anymore.

      I fully understand the dynamics that create the oppression mongering political cohort, what I don’t understand is why the positive, uplifting side has seemed to disappear. Is it simply that oppression mongering is now so powerful that to suggest a means of improvement is seen as disdaining those who do not succeed?

      Compare Obama ““The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society, groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.” Black men are objects who are acted on.

      Compare Malcolm X. “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” This is a level of personal responsibility I couldn’t see coming from any part of the political spectrum today.

      And Obama’s remarks still drew criticism for not focusing enough on systemic racism.

      Could someone with a little more knowledge of the history of civil rights chime in here please?

      • Matt C says:

        I don’t have special knowledge, but I agree. Reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, I thought early Nation of Islam seemed like an admirable organization.

        I imagine if they had stuck with self improvement goals they would eventually have dropped the militancy. Too bad it went the other way.

      • From an NRx perspective, I have to completely agree that Malcolm X was vastly preferable to MLK. Malcolm X represented Exit, whil MLK was Voice, which is to say that Malcolm X was ultimately on the side of the angels, while MLK was an instrument of evil. The fact that MLK has been canonized and Malcolm X has been relegated to a sidelight is exemplary of the general triumph of evil over good in the outcome of the civil rights movement.

        • Multiheaded says:

          [EDIT: this Light Side thing takes effort and practice!]

          Mai, I don’t like you and believe you to be a hypocrite from a tribe of hypocrites. I cannot at the moment further denigrate your line of thought in the Way I’m now committed to. I do strongly believe it to be deficient, delusional and in underestimation of the implications of just what Malcolm eventually came to stand for.

          P.S.: This is me trying to fight people while not automatically being like the worst possible kind of SJ person. I am still horrible at it.

        • Would there have been any NRx compatible way of opposing the Jim Crow laws?

    • RCF says:

      While I understand why the teacher might want to remain anonymous, an unnamed person alleging that an unnamed comment caused an unnamed school to try to kick him/her out of ed school on an unnamed pretext really give us little basis to evaluate the reasonableness of educational policy.

  8. Randy M says:

    I don’t have a problem with generalizations, but this seems to stray past useful general summary into strawman:
    >”But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.”

    The Right does traditionally believe that human nature is largely fixed, but not that behavior cannot be changed through proper incentives, instruction, religion, upbringing. It does oppose many new solutions to societal problems, as these tend to come from the progressives, some of whom have often thought that they could *fundamentally* transform people by carefully controlling their environment (hence the fixation on capturing schools, media, etc.), not because they think these are fruitless, but because they think these are bound to make matters worse by tinkering with forces ill understood due to hubris or naivette. The right thinks that the structures and institutions that have proven to be a civilizing force should not be torn down when a flaw is found.

    Human nature is like gravity, and building buildings–or especially altering them–without understanding–or even flat out denying it’s existence–is folly.

    Now, that said, I think you are making a strong point that low-hanging fruit of unmet biological deficiencies offer intelligent means of improving at least at the margins.

    • somnicule says:

      Progressivism and conservatism both have their biases, but progressivism seems to me to be more powerful, both for good and for harm. Well done progressive thought, updating on new information appropriately and so on is a much better option than remaining static and failing to change our social institutions in light of new circumstances, which in turn is a much better option than blindly advocating change for change’s sake.

      Compare Hospital A and Hospital B from here, as well as a hypothetical Hospital C. Hospital A uses common knowledge without updating on new evidence. Hospital B uses common knowledge, updates on the advances and nuances we’ve made, and performs better. Hospital C just makes change for change’s sake, perhaps politically motivated to conform to some leftist ideal of non-hierarchical systems or whatever, and performs a lot worse than either.

      The right is low-variance, low risk. The left is higher risk, with a proportionately higher payoff when done well.

  9. Steve Johnson says:

    Almost all social problems are the result of progressives doing things to “solve” social problems – the issue is that progressivism is under massive selective pressure to actually cause problems because that leads to more power for progressivism.

    Crime? In the 1960s the Warren court made law enforcement impossible so crime exploded. People couldn’t live that like that (when “Death Wish” is a blockbuster hit, something is going to change) so in a decade imprisonment rates skyrocketed. Now crime is climbing back up but progressives simply lie about it.

    Teen pregnancy? Progressives paid people who are biologically adapted to living in a low paternal (and generally parental) investment environment to have children. Shockingly, they had lots of children – sometimes even outside the proscribed age ranges.

    Obesity? Progressives think meat eating is evil so they pushed high carb / low fat for decades through just awful science. Shockingly, exactly what you’d expect to happen happened.

    Schools? Schools actually aren’t that bad if you make the correct comparisons – PISA scores in the US for various ethnic groups compared to their ancestral homelands. Of course, progressives love to have low IQ clients so the overall scores are dropping.

    • Steve Reilly says:

      Snarky post edited. Apologies to Steve Johnson. I’ll come up with a substantive reply.

    • JTHM says:

      While there are certainly well-documented cases of politicians pressuring police departments to artificially lower crime stats, murder rates are pretty much impossible to fudge–and those have been in decline in the United States since the early 90’s. See here:

      If we assume murder rates are correlated with rates of other violent crime, we are probably in a relative golden era of law and order. (See in the chart how murder rates are now nearly the lowest in a century?)

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Except that murder rates are being lowered by improved trauma surgery.

        The “metrics” and “policy” are the lifeblood of the progressive state so the first thing that goes is the honesty of the metrics.

        This stuff (figuring out what the actual state of things is) is hard – intentionally so.

        All that needs to be accomplished for most people is a plausible case that things aren’t falling apart – motivated cognition takes over from there. People don’t want face social exclusion and they certainly don’t want to do so so they can believe that things are falling apart and getting worse.

        • Multiheaded says:

          As Scott has repeatedly pointed out, attempted murder stats are falling too.

          • Wulfrickson says:

            Didn’t you read his comment? Especially when he said:

            This stuff (figuring out what the actual state of things is) is hard – intentionally so.

            Clearly those statistics are lies promulgated by the Cathedral. What, you can’t find any evidence that they’re lies? That just shows how deep the conspiracy runs. /s

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Rates of attempted crimes are the easiest for police to manipulate.

            The trauma argument is by counting bullet holes in hospitals. It ought to be more reliable.

          • Wulfrickson says:

            Do any hospitals actually report their counts of bullet holes? A bit of Googling didn’t turn up any likely statistical database; the closest thing I can find is this public- health study from 2011, which (on page 29) mentions trauma centers and better care as a partial explanation for a decrease in the homicide rate (but does not elaborate much).

          • Anonymous says:

            hospitals are I believe required to report gun shot victims

      • grendelkhan says:

        I was going to mention that the NRx response is that medicine has gotten better and people are more violent than ever, but Steve Johnson got there first.

        On the other hand, if the cops were messing with the stats–which is definitely happening; c.f. Adrian Schoolcraft–and thus the “metrics” which can be faked, are being faked… well, you’d expect victimization studies to show rising crime, things falling apart, getting worse, that sort of thing.

        They do not show this; the money graph is Figure 1, but they all pretty much follow the same shape.

    • peterdjones says:

      Any comment on why half of this doesn’t apply outside the states, particularly in Europe, the heartland of Progressivism?

      • Anonymous says:

        Firstly, according to neorxs, the US is the heartland of progressivism and Europe are its vassal states, and secondly, Europe has a conspicuous lack of a certain more-violent-than-average minority.

        • peterdjones says:

          Western Europe is more left wing than the US by any measure.

          The bottom 10% of European society is quite capable.of displaying the same behaviour patterns as the bottom 10% of US society …despite the conspicuous lack of A Certain Minority.

      • zaogao says:

        A helpful tip courtesy of Steve Sailer: statistics about America that aren’t disaggregated by race are at best misleading and are generally bullshit. You can do your part to raise the rationality water line by calling this out whenever you see it, which is at least daily.

        US White Non-Hispanic Murder Rate: 2.5
        European Murder Rate: 3

        It’s true that if you exclude Eastern Europe from the European sample the European rate drops significantly, but the difference it is not so drastic as it appears from countrywide statistics.

    • Anonymous says:

      >Teen pregnancy? Progressives paid people who are biologically adapted to living in a low paternal (and generally parental) investment environment to have children.

      Funny, I usually see the Left accused of having reduced birth rates below replacement by pushing contraception and undermining marriage (which provided incentives to reproduce.)

      >Progressives think meat eating is evil

      Well, it is.

      >so they pushed high carb / low fat for decades through just awful science. Shockingly, exactly what you’d expect to happen happened.

      People continued eating burgers and steak? That’s pretty much what I’d expect after a progressive program to stop them.

      >Schools actually aren’t that bad

      bursts out laughing

      • I’m inclined to think that part of the motivation for pushing low fat was puritanism– if most people like fat, there must be something wrong with it.

        • Clockwork Marx says:

          My bet is subsidized corn, wheat and soy (along with dirt cheep vegetable oils), not granola-eating hippies. People don’t eat less meat today, they just eat far more empty carbs along with it.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Every progressive initiative has someone making money off of it because of human nature. That doesn’t make the money making the driver.

            Companies do all sorts of things to be “green” because “green” propaganda is effective at putting ideas in people’s brains and there’s money to be made in selling things to people to make them feel good.

            Nabisco didn’t start the low fat crusade to sell Snackwells but once the crusade was on then Snackwells is a huge money maker because of the free publicity that progressives ginned up.

            Do you really think that Burger King ginned up the whole gay marriage thing to sell “pride bugers”?

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            Pride burgers are actually a thing?

            Regardless, I’m not convinced that attaching moral values (Puritan or progressive) to food has played a significant role in the obesity epidemic. It’s more of a consequence of a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest, most convenient, and most palatable foods possible.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Regardless, I’m not convinced that attaching moral values (Puritan or progressive) to food has played a significant role in the obesity epidemic.

            That’s not the argument.

            The argument is that progressives values say something “eating meat is bad” – which is taken as truth. The race is then on for justifications for that “truth”. Ancel Keys makes up the lipid hypothesis through the worst imaginable data cherry picking. Scientific grants then follow if you can come up with proof for what everyone knows – low fat good.

            Then the opportunists come in. That’s where the real money is made. The scientists making a living creating fraudulent studies is minor in size in comparison (but more directly corrupt – Snackwells may be horrible but Nabisco is only profiting from a stupid/evil idea which someone else went through a major expense to convince the public).

            The “pride burgers” is just an illustration because it operates the same way but no one could possibly believe that Burger King was a major force pushing for gay marriage so they could sell burgers.

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            “Obesity is caused by progressives pushing a low fat diet” was you initial claim, correct?

            While I see no reason to doubt that many progressives promoted a low fat diet (along with plenty of people who wouldn’t identify as progressives in a thousand years), I find it absurd to think that it has been the primary driver of obesity in the last few decades. If I remember the data from the book salt, sugar, fat correctly, rates of total fat consumption haven’t declined at all in the last few decades.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Funny, I usually see the Left accused of having reduced birth rates below replacement by pushing contraception and undermining marriage (which provided incentives to reproduce.)

        Different demographics. Progressives are increasing the birth rate of the underclass by subsidizing their reproduction, and reducing the birth rate of the middle class through mechanisms such as the ones you describe. Which is a problem, because the middle class produces wealth, and the underclass consumes wealth. Progressives have a great word for this kind of situation; “unsustainable”.

        • Hainish says:

          Progressives seem to favor expanding access to birth control and abortion, and ensuring that working people have paid parental leave. These would seem to have the opposite effects from the ones you suggest.

    • BenSix says:

      Progressives think meat eating is evil so they pushed high carb / low fat…

      No, in fact if anything the lipid hypothesis led to more animal deaths as people found it even more convenient to slaughter billions of chickens for their lean, lean breast meat.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Why do you assume that progressives push things because they’re effective?

        Progressives push ideas for two reasons:

        1) The idea seems holy so you can feel morally superior for pushing it
        2) The idea directly causes problems so you can push for more holy causes

        • BenSix says:

          It isn’t a question of being “effective” – the low fat dieticians advocated lean meats. Ancel Keys specifically promoted the consumption of “fish, chicken, calves’ liver, Canadian bacon”.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Can you elaborate on this ‘selective pressure’?

    • B says:

      Do you have a citation for “Now crime is climbing back up but progressives simply lie about it.”?

      I stated the more/less same once and Ozy took me, legitimately, to task about proof or at least examples. I distinctly remember reading about multiple stats massaging jobs that were uncovered, but couldn’t quickly find any definitive ones.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Do you have a citation for “Now crime is climbing back up but progressives simply lie about it.”?


  10. Princess_Stargirl says:

    Changing your weight is extremely difficult. Even for people who can afford to order healthy food for every meal. And who live in houeseholds without much temptation. I myself am not at all fat but I am chubbier than I want to be. And have been trying to lose weight for about 3 years without any success. Everyone knows people with every advantage who can’t seem to budge from their “normal weight.” Why would people assume its easy to solve weight problems for society, when such a percentage of people cannot solve their own weight problems, even in ideal situations. Of course the scientific studies on how many people lose weight long term on diets are very convincing evidence weight loss is hard, but I am not expecting people to have read those.

    On the other hand though treatment of gays is a major issue. And it seems to be getting solved through purely social means at a pretty fast rate.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      On the other hand though treatment of gays is a major issue. And it seems to be getting solved through purely social means at a pretty fast rate.

      Maybe beliefs are easier to change socially than behaviors? Social programs successfully convinced people that being overweight is unhealthy, but it didn’t result in people losing weight.

    • There is a difference between “can not” and “will not”. Problems of excess fat storage on the human body fall solidly into the latter category.

      The fact is that when external circumstances facilitate calorie restriction, people lose weight. Proof: look at people after a famine. I guess they are just privileged?

      The causal chain for bodyweight is Choice -> Consumption -> Bodyweight. Any study done outside of the lab (e.g., any long term study) only measures the full chain (i.e. Choice -> Bodyweight). Such studies can fundamentally NOT measure whether one can choose to lose weight, all they can measure is whether one does choose to do so. You need a lab study with controlled portions to measure the Consumption -> Bodyweight link.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        I think “I can’t lose weight” has an implicit “without paying costs that are larger than the benefit of losing the weight.” Specifically, starvation is very hard, very unpleasant, and very unhealthy, and thus does not have much to recommend it as a weight-loss strategy.

        • The Anonymouse says:

          //I think ‘I can’t lose weight’ has an implicit ‘without paying costs that are larger than the benefit of losing the weight.’//

          I think this is almost right. But the better implicit choice-description is more likely: “I can’t lose weight without paying short-term costs that are greater than my short-term desires, regardless of the long-term benefits.”

          • AndR says:

            And then you realise that the long-term benefits are doubtful; if the current options only allow you to lose weight at great personal cost, keeping the low weight will probably have the same great personal cost.

            So you’ll be paying the short term cost all the time.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            I think your argument is ignoring that the benefits of weight loss actually *are* smaller than the costs for some people. Very obvious examples: my girlfriend is fat and recovering from an eating disorder and if she diets it may trigger her ED again; if I eat fewer calories than my brain wants me to eat, then I will end up sobbing about how I am a terrible person.

            Perhaps more controversially, the costs of a conventional diet can be higher than the gains. The National Weight Control Registry findings show that people who have sustainably lost a lot of weight typically exercise for an hour each day, weigh themselves once a week, and maintain a low-calorie diet for the rest of their lives. It is very reasonable for many people to go “…actually I’d rather have the extra seven hours and the ability to eat dessert, even given the lifespan benefits of lower weight.”

          • AR+ says:

            That point on exercise is not really reasonable for most people. The long-term and short-term health benefits of exercise, and the mental-health benefits, are established to be SO high that I think, “If you’re a rationalist, then why aren’t you fit?” is a valid point for almost anybody. Especially anybody enthusiastic about radical life-extension, because it IS our best current life-extension technology.

            It amuses to me to think that if we came up with something like, “Ok, this treatment will make your clinically immortal, BUT you have to do an hour of intense exercise for an hour per day, 5 days per week for it to work,” that median life expectancy wouldn’t go up at all.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            AndR: How does that work? To lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you use. To keep the low weight you need to consume the same amount of calories that you use. I would think that the former is harder than the latter.

          • Moderate obesity (BMI 30-35) reduces life expectancy by about 3 years. If you’re 30 years old and expect to live to age 77 given your current moderate obesity, working out for an hour a day for the rest of your life means spending about two years of your life working out. One way of framing this is that 2/3 of the time you gain is spent on exercise.

            (If you only value waking hours, then you’re really spending three years of your life exercising, which means you’re gaining zero years of life unless we count the time spent exercising.)

            That may be worth it if you intrinsically enjoy exercise, or if it improves your quality of life generally; but it does seem as though someone who dislikes exercise could rationally give up one ‘free’ year of life for the sake of spending a lifetime worrying less about calorie intake, eating more enjoyable foods, sharing meals more with non-dieting friends and loved ones, etc. I’d expect it to depend a lot more on how much their diet and exercise impacts their general quality of life, than on years gained v. lost.

            Comparing a miraculous mortality cure to a gain of 1-3 years seems unfair. Severely obese people might gain more like 10 years of life, though ’10’ is still pretty different from ‘hundreds of trillions of years of life’.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Ken: Eating fewer calories than you burn is a large cost paid for a short period. Eating the same amount of calories than you burn is a small cost paid for the rest of your life. (Also, possibly complications about setpoints that I don’t fully understand.)

    • a person says:

      Do you regularly count calories and ensure that you are eating at a decifict? Or is your problem that you lack the willpower to do this? This might be a dumb question but I always wonder this when people talk about being unable to lose weight.

      • Princess_Stargirl says:

        I should have been clear on that. It is the later case, when I follow on fairly restricted diets I do lose weight (Though I am lucky I can afford to eat sushi and such as a component of a diet). The issue is I find it extraordinarily difficult to follow a diet. Despite the fact that my weight makes me very upset (objectively its not that bad but it feels terrible to me).

        If I wake up in the middle of the night it is incredibly hard for me not to eat something unhealthy. And f there is nothing unhealthy I will just gorge on anything I can find. At one point I tried to not have ANY food of my own in my apartment and all that happened is I would eat my flatmate’s food in the middle of the night :(. This just made the problem worse.

        Also when I eat sufficiently little food to lose weight I feel very hungry. My opinion is that the willpower I need to be at the weight I want long term is just too extreme. I probably can’t do it. I will have to hope I can remain cute despite being chubby.

        • Matthew says:

          External motivation might help a bit. Print a picture of the Eye of Sauron with the words “I AM WATCHING YOU” and “NO NOSHING AFTER MIDNIGHT” and tape it to the refrigerator.

          There is evidence for this sort of thing.

          ETA: I also find increasing exercise much easier than decreasing food intake, but all available evidence suggests I also enjoy/feel compulsion to exercise way more than the average person.

        • Viliam Búr says:

          If I wake up in the middle of the night it is incredibly hard for me not to eat something unhealthy.

          Why does it have to be something unhealthy? Is it because other things don’t taste good enough? Or just because the unhealthy thing happens to be the easiest to find?

          The strategy could be to find something relatively harmless and tasty enough, and make stock of it for the midnight raids. I recently always keep a lot of vegetables in my fridge, and add some ingredients for taste (spice, a slice of cheese). That way, even when I switch to “must eat!!!” mode, the harm is reduced. (Without the cheese, it would be even better in theory, but I would be more tempted to choose something more tasty. So instead I accept that there is 10% of cheese, if it makes me more likely to eat the 90% of vegetables.)

        • coffeespoons says:

          I did gain some weight (10 pounds or so) in my early to mid-20s which I’ve found very difficult to shift (I’m now 30). Like you I’m not actually fat, but I’m mildly unhappy with my weight (probably not as unhappy as you since I know lots of fat-positive types). I think a calorie controlled diet would work, but I also think it would be extremely difficult to follow long term, and I don’t see the point in trying hard to lose weight if I can’t keep it up long term.

          However, I’ve found focusing on not gaining further weight to be pretty successful. If I’d kept up the eating habits of my mid-20s I’d be really very big by now I think. My tips for not gaining more weight are:

          1. Keeping lots of fruit easily available as a substitute for sugary snacks.
          2. I often make big pots of stew, with tons of vegetables and smaller amounts of meat, fat and carbs. Vegetables are low in calories so large portions aren’t terribly calorific. And I’m more likely to feel full after a large portion even if it’s not more calorie dense. Even when I’m not making stew I overload my plate with vegetables.
          3. Trying to stop eating when I feel full.
          4. I occasionally wake up hungry (to be honest, pretty rarely) and I find that 1 slice of wholemeal bread tends to do the trick and it’s dull enough that I don’t have the urge to overeat it.
          5. Weighing myself regularly – if I can see that I’ve gained a few pounds I make sure I’m following 1) 2) and 3) correctly and I tend to go back to my normal weight quickly. It’s extremely difficult for me to lose weight that I put on years ago, but I find it easy to lose it immediately after gaining it.

          • coffeespoons says:

            In fact I’m not sure why there’s so little focus on further weight gain prevention! It feels like it would be much easier for most people than trying to lose weight.

          • BenSix says:

            It feels like it would be much easier for most people than trying to lose weight.

            True. But it would make it harder to sell things.

          • I’m not convinced that not gaining weight if one is on a default of gaining weight trajectory is significantly easier than losing weight, but I haven’t seen evidence on the subject. I’m not even sure how the experiment could be designed.

      • coffeespoons says:

        Why does it matter if willpower is a factor? Willpower isn’t easy to change!

        Edit: So I suppose willpower vs other factors might matter in terms of obesity treatments. However, mostly when people make this argument “low willpower” means “it’s your fault and you’re not deserving of sympathy. Let me shame you now”.

        • Aleph says:

          Shaming is a powerful way to discourage shameful behavior.

          For instance, in my experience Asian mothers have a strong tendency to shame their daughters, loudly and publicly, for gaining weight, and I’d wager this is part of the reason few Asians are overweight.

        • coffeespoons says:

          Non-Asian fat people get shamed all the time. Fat women I’ve known have suffered from lots of negative street harassment (e.g men shouting “fat bitch” instead of “nice tits”) for instance, plus comments from their families.

      • Anon256 says:

        My experience with attempted calorie restriction is that I end up sleeping quite a bit more (like 10 hours a night vs my usual 7-8), which presumably means slower metabolism negating much of the benefit, and is anyway not an acceptable side effect long-term.

        • anon1 says:

          That’s also been my experience. Except instead of 10 hours it was more like 12.

        • Viliam Búr says:

          Are you sure this is about calories? Maybe it’s just some component of the food that you are missing. Perhaps you could try calorie restriction using some other kind of food than what you usually use (when doing calorie restriction).

      • Quixote says:

        If you hold your breath for a long enouph time, your brain will eventually force you to stop.

        Less immediate, but similar if you just decide not to drink water or consume any fluids your brain will eventually force you to drink. It won’t be with a direct involuntary forcing like an inane of breath, but it will be forced. Your brain will eventually make you unable to think about any thing but water and even unable to desire or care about anything but water. To the extent you care about anything at all, or have anything you want to accomplish, you will go drink water.

        Peoples brains will do essentially the same thing if they are deprived of calories. And different peoples brains set their force actions to start at different level of caloric deprivation.

        If you want to power level your empathy and your understanding of people who have trouble losing weight, set yourself a goal of no water / fluid for 60 hours and then try to make it happen with self control (ie no having a friend lock you in a basement for two days)

    • peterdjones says:

      There’s got to be more to it than biology because obesity rates vary so much between countries.

      • thirqual says:

        From an French living in the US perspective :

        1) the amount of food served in restaurants is absurdly large. And people tend to eat out/order food more often (it is cheaper in the US to eat out/order food than it is in France, but more expensive to cook from scratch than in France).

        2) the amounts of sugar and/or fat added in prepared or ready to cook meals is much, much worse. Especially the amount of sugar added to fat-free stuff.

        3) speaking of added sugar, why is it in bacon, bread, etc ?

        4) generally speaking, I feel the cheapest stuff you can find in a US food store is much worse than the cheapest equivalent in a French store. It is especially true for ready-to-eat stuff, and I tend to cook from scratch so I am not that impacted, but still.

    • Anonymous says:

      >On the other hand though treatment of gays is a major issue. And it seems to be getting solved through purely social means at a pretty fast rate.

      Do we actually know this? I see a lot of people talking about how much we love gays and want them to get married, but then I saw a lot of people talking about colourblindness and little (or negative) reduction in stereotypes under test conditions.

      • gattsuru says:

        Do we actually know this?

        Polls on gay marriage, on bans on gay sex, on how unsafe gay men or lesbian women are, on dozens of related topics, all have had very dramatic changes in the last twenty years. Behaviors have had mindboggling changes over the last fifty — a politician talking about gay civil unions in 1960 would have been committed lest he be heard by a reporter : today, it’s the outdated position only held by the homophobic right.

        It’s probable there’s some degree of signalling, here, but at a certain point the signal controls the act.

        ((HIV treatments would be a possible biological explanation, but they shouldn’t matter much for lesbian women.))

        • Anonymous says:

          I said the treatment of gays. It’s easy and indeed common to change one’s rhetoric without improving one’s treatment of someone in any measurable way.

          I doubt the gains have been literally zero, in point of fact, but simply assuming that a shift in the Overton window must equal a reduction in discrimination is poor methodology to say the least.

          • gattsuru says:

            It’s easy and indeed common to change one’s rhetoric without improving one’s treatment of someone in any measurable way.

            There are significantly fewer vice squads rounding folk up and chemically castrated them, for starters. Sorry if that’s a little too much snark, but there’s a pretty big difference in behaviors.

            At a deeper level, I’m not sure you can have that level of change in rhetoric without a change in action. There’s a decent argument that gay marriage is a low-benefit for its political cost, but it’s quickly on its way to universal and has at least some economic impact. Even if the whole thing was political signalling — and I think it certainly started with it, if you look at the history starting at Baehr v. Miike — at some point achieving the signalling required a change in the law.

      • Brian Donohue says:

        So perhaps what has changed in the gay marriage thing is behavior, not beliefs.

        Isn’t this the important thing? A certain type, however, appears to be unsatisfied with anything short of a total mental transformation. This type gives me the heebie-jeebies.

    • J. Quinton says:

      Changing your weight might be one of those social-physiological causes like lead. According to some sources, bad sleeping habits fuck with your hormones and leads to either weight gain or makes it harder to lose weight. Probably the advent of widespread technology like artificial light keeps people up later than normal and would be correlated with weight gain.

      Even without the references to these studies, any experienced gym rat knows that getting enough sleep is absolutely essential for making gains. Being in the gym lifting weights (or running or swimming or any other physical activity) doesn’t actually build muscle. Those activities just design muscle. The actual building of muscle and losing fat happens when you sleep. I’ve been lifting weights for about 15 years, I’m currently 217 lbs at about 13% bodyfat. If I’m consistently getting less than 6 hours of sleep then I would not be making any progress.

    • Gays used to be ostracized as low-status outsiders. We haven’t solved the social problem of ostracism; it’s just that a decades-long propaganda campaign has culminated in treading religious conservatives as low-status outsiders, and gay people as high-status insiders. Obviously the success of this campaign varies a lot by location and class, but I’d wager that the correlation holds: the degree to which your social group is supportive of LGBTBBQ strongly predicts the degree to which you consider religious people to be creepy weirdos, and vice versa.

      IOWs I don’t think that ostracism of gays is a problem that we’ve solved, but rather an (immutable?) feature of human social dynamics which has been retargeted on a different object.

      • no one special says:

        I think this is a really good point, though it makes me sad.

        Your post good and you should feel good.

      • Quixote says:

        If someone is a bigot they can stop being a bigot. My parents, by virtue of being raised in the 50s used to be prejudiced against gay people. Now after exposure to more information, by virtue of being reasonable people they are no longer predjudiced against gay people.

        If someone is malicious enough that they choose not to stop being a bigot that is evidence.

        Moving “low status” from something randomly distributed to purposefully malicious behavior seems to be about as clear a case of progress as it can be.

        • Matt C says:

          I notice that you automatically translated Mai’s “religious conservatives” into “people who are purposefully malicious”.

          I’m guessing this wasn’t even conscious. Care to remark?

      • Emile says:

        Eh, I find that a bit too negative; look at how blacks, gays, jews and gypsies were treated a hundred years ago or so; is there any group that’s treated as bad? (pedophiles? furries? otherkin?)

        I think our ostracism of low-status outsiders has gotten better with time, i.e. people on the bottom of the totem pole are treated better than on the previous totem pole (also, as you say, the order has shifted around a bit).

        • Nornagest says:

          In terms of institutional treatment, pedophiles are the only serious candidate I can think of. Trans people might be close if you count personal treatment. The religious and the right-wing don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, even here in Northern California (“the land of fruits and nuts”), except maybe in a few professional enclaves like academia.

          I haven’t seen any serious furry hate in years (though bronies seem to have adopted part of their whipping-boy role), and the predominant response to otherkin seems to be confusion. I also have a hard time treating the mockery of what’s essentially a fandom as a social problem on the level of racism; on some level, furries, bronies, juggalos, etc. are signing up for their treatment in a way that genetic or sexual minorities aren’t.

          • gattsuru says:

            There are still institutions where transfolk can only be legally recognized as the gender they identify with if permanently sterilized, regardless of whether that’s their desire presentation or ideal medical treatment. Some of the gatekeeping is pretty ugly at an institutional level, as well.

            It’s not up there with Tuskegee, and you’re right in that we seem to tolerate a lot fewer overt abuses than in the 20s or 50s, but there’s still a number of places that are pretty unpleasant.

            ((I think some of the treatment of mental illness /might/ get pretty close, though. We treat low-status mentally ill folk now better than in the 30s, but that’s damning with such faint praise that I can’t exclude harmful involuntary medical experiments.))

            I haven’t seen any serious furry hate in years (though bronies seem to have adopted part of their whipping-boy role)…

            The biggest difference is more that some folk have gotten bored of it as a go-to joke. It’s still pretty prominent as a byword for creepy and abusive fetishism, even when you’re talking about the nonsexualized portions of the fandom.

            If you’re to use the test “would common, legal, and non-bedroom components of interest result in stigma or loss of employment if publicized”, well, there are /some/ furries that use their real name, but the vast majority still feel that a wall of separation is vital not just from their real-world identity, but even from other online personas.

            And in many ways, the brony thing is largely about treating that interest as an expansion of furry fandom — there’s a lot of overlap in artists and writers, and some overlap on audience.

            … on some level, furries, bronies, juggalos, etc. are signing up for their treatment in a way that genetic or sexual minorities aren’t.

            I don’t like comparing the furry fandom to sexual or racial minorities, or use of the closet metaphor, but I’m not sure it’s such a clear difference in kind. Furries don’t exactly choose to be really interested by animal myths, and I’ve not heard of many sexualized furries who didn’t start out with the attraction long before they found media focused on it.

            There’s something that’s a difference, but it’s really hard to put my finger on it — there’s a lot of pattern overlap in behavior.

          • Nornagest says:

            And in many ways, the brony thing is largely about treating that interest as an expansion of furry fandom — there’s a lot of overlap in artists and writers, and some overlap on audience.

            I can see the overlap, but the type of stigma seems distinctly different to me. In particular, there’s a gender-performative aspect of brony hate that seems entirely absent in furry hate: (adult, male) bronies get attacked not for being overly enthusiastic about children’s media, but specifically for being overly enthusiastic about media for little girls.

          • In institutional terms, you’re definitely correct: no one, certainly not Christians, faces the same sort of legally imposed sanctions that used to be routinely applied to eg. blacks. I suppose that’s something.

            OTOH it’s still the case that the gay rights movement massively failed by its own rhetoric. It was billed as an effort to accept a variety of differences, but its actual victory has been accomplished by “Shun the unbeliever! Shun, shun!”

        • Princess_Stargirl says:

          Furries/otherkin are treated really terribly and their treatment makes me very sad.. But I think furries would have been mistreated 100 years ago as well.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “On the other hand though treatment of gays is a major issue. And it seems to be getting solved through purely social means at a pretty fast rate.”

      I realize this is going to require a lot more evidence than I am going to give right now, but I think it’s possible that there is more biology involved in the current revolution in gay rights than meets the eye. I can think of at least two possibilities:

      Endocrine disruptors in the environment are affecting sexual maturation leading to many more gay people (1, 2)

      – Decreased level of infective disease is altering the salience of disgust intuitions, which were a lot of the driver of hatred toward gays. See

      I agree that even if contributors these aren’t the main contribution to the success of gay rights (although they may have helped push it over an edge). But I also don’t think it was public awareness campaigns and having more gay characters in the media either. I think it was a combination of decreased religiosity (which we could discuss all day), increased communication ability (so that gays can be aware of the existence of other gays), and more people knowing gays and so being more tolerant leading to more gays coming out (in a chain reaction).

      There’s a distinction I’m trying to draw here between the purely social (like DARE), and social pushing of biological levers (like how being abused as a child might activate an evolved program towards defensiveness and aggression). I agree I don’t have it defined very well. But I would likely attribute more of things like gay rights to the second kind of thing than the first kind of thing.

      • Vulture says:

        And the sympathy/visibility fallout of the AIDS epidemic was also a huge contributor – but maybe that’s not quite the kind of biological intervention you’re thinking of 😛

      • Nornagest says:

        Neither of those explanations seems to account for historical pederasty, which seems to have been really common across several cultures if not exactly all that similar to gay relationships as they’re now portrayed.

      • I asked a gay friend why marriage equality was chosen as a major issue. He said it happened because gays wanted hospital visitation rights during the AIDS epidemic, and weren’t getting them.

        I have no idea whether equality for homosexuals could have happened earlier. It’s a hard counterfactual to check.

      • It seems plausible to me that openly gay celebrities and characters (e.g., Ellen) played a role at least as large as ‘more people personally knowing LGB people’. It’s not clear to me how many people actually got to know LGB friends in the runup to the gay marriage boom, and it’s not clear to me how many people go to the polls to personally help a friend (v. to express an identity or abstract moral principle). I think there’s more recent precedent for political shifts based on prior shifts in ideology and mass culture (e.g., the civil rights movement, the rise of the religious right) than political shifts based on acquiring a sudden influx of close friends (or a sudden influx of information about close friends).

        My model says that common knowledge is a huge factor in people’s perception of social norms (and therefore in their decision-making). Mass media and pop culture determine common knowledge in a much stronger fashion than thousands of scattershot ‘I found out my friend Bob is gay’ episodes do. The civil rights movement’s momentum seems to have come primarily from the former mechanism; and it also seems obvious that common knowledge about the civil rights movement and its fruits is a huge part of what made the same-sex marriage shift so swift and powerful.

      • CaptainBooshi says:

        I don’t know enough to comment on the plausibility of your biological possibilities, although they seem to be countered by the cultures in the past where relationships between boys and men were fairly common and widely accepted. They do seem interesting, though, and I would like to see more research on them.

        I do wonder at your separation of “more people knowing gays and so being more tolerant” and ” increased communication ability (so that gays can be aware of the existence of other gays)” from “public awareness campaigns and having more gays in the media.” Those first two things seem to be directly related to the latter, yet your statements seem to indicate you see no connection. I totally agree that it was not solely “public awareness campaigns and having more gays in the media,” but claiming that they didn’t help seems to be a very strong claim.

  11. JayMan says:

    But I do worry there’s a consensus that biological things are unfixable but social things are easy – or that social solutions are morally unambiguous but biological solutions necessarily monstrous

    Well, to be frank, people are stupid. They are going want an easy-to-remember/categorize rule, regardless of the accuracy of such.

    First off, on that, I don’t like this division between “genetic” and “social.” As one venerable hbd* chick would ask, where does the “social” environment come from?

    But you’re quite right, people do have the conception that genetic = immutable and environmental (which is what we really mean when we say “social”) = mutable. Disproving the genetic rule is weight. Disproving the “environmental” one is homosexuality.

    What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight

    On the matter of obesity I’ve compiled a comprehensive page, covering important facts about it, such as its heritability, resistance to change, and overstated direct health impacts:

    Obesity Facts | JayMan’s Blog

    For the record, I don’t buy that vitamin study for a second. I’d like to see replication with a larger sample.

    I think I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population than you would changing people’s locus of control or self-efficacy or whatever, even if I wasn’t allowed to do anything immoral (except by very silly religious standards of “immoral”).

    Theoretically, you could do that with the proper genetic selection – everything is changeable via genetics. It is our DNA that makes us who we are.

    Though, I get your broad point – and I agree: there are probably drug and pathogen related fixes (especially the latter) that can be effected without necessarily altering the genes.

  12. Douglas Knight says:

    the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation

    I think that’s a confusing sentence. The claim is that 1/5 of kids in the study had spectacular cognitive gains. Presumably they had the poorest diets, but I don’t think there was any attempt to determine whether they had less money. The study population was not representative, but was working-class hispanic. The mean increase was the same in this study as in earlier meta-analysis, but I don’t know if earlier studies were representative, either.

    Actually, suddenly on page 8, a study of middle class white schools in California shows up with no citation (I think it’s Schoenthaler 1991b). They have higher mean IQ, but more responders to vitamins. This argues against poverty producing bad diets. (at least in the sense that you shouldn’t target just the poorest 20%)

    I am suspicious of the statistical methodology. I am happy with the result of a mean increase of 3 points from vitamin pills, but I do not like the conclusion that 1/5 of the population are responders. They imply that this 1/5 of the population whose IQs increased by a standard deviation are obvious outliers. If that were true, they wouldn’t need statistics, but it is a lie. IQ test-retest reliability is not that great, especially of kids. Indeed, what really happened is that 1/5 of the placebo population increased by a standard deviation, while 2/5 of the active group passed the threshold. I really don’t like thresholds. I wish they’d shown a scatter plot. At least we know that the threshold was chosen to replicate a previous study, reducing the room for fishing.

    • Anthony says:

      Middle-class whites in California in 1991 had all sorts of weird ideas about food; it’s possible that kids on various fad diets (plus as much junk food as they could sneak) were subclinically deficient in various nutrients, and thus responded well to supplementation.

      • Vulture says:

        Unhealthy middle-class fad diets, however, like many things, are no longer as confined to California subcultures as they were in the 1990s.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I should clarify the main point: these studies do show a 3 point mean gain. I am skeptical of the distributional claims, but to a first approximation, the mean is the important thing.

      I should have put this at the beginning of the comment. In fact, I tried, and the spam filter wouldn’t let me, as discussed elsewhere.

  13. Douglas Knight says:

    Sometimes there are cheap biological interventions. But sometimes there are expensive biological interventions that don’t work, but people throw money down a hole for a long time anyways. See Lewis Thomas’s “Technology of Medicine.” (though I don’t know any examples where the biological intervention is expected to fix social problems)

    Probably there are also cheap social interventions that we forget, because they were cheap. Sweden switched from driving on the left side to the right side. The GI bill really did increase college attendance (whether that was a good thing is another issue, but there was a real intended social effect). Many other policies probably increased college attendance, though less clearly. I believe that top-down advocacy for the distribution of primers and construction of schools increased literacy. You claim to believe that the legalization of prostitution in Rhode Island reduced rape.

    • coffeespoons says:

      Anti-smoking campaigns and drink driving campaigns strike me as successful social interventions.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Also, Scott, you called banning soda machines and large sodas “social interventions.” If they had worked, you’d call them biological interventions. They are certainly cheap and easy by the standards of this post.

      [Added: well, I guess a difference is that it’s obvious that it’s easier to change people’s consumptions of micronutrients than their consumption of macronutrients. But that’s not biology vs society.]

      • Nornagest says:

        Bans on soda make me feel conflicted. On the one hand, soda might be the single worst component of the standard American diet; on the other, banning large sodas is exactly the sort of clumsy, heavy-handed interventionist policy that I really dislike, and it seems liable to provoke all sorts of perverse incentives.

        On consideration, I think its heart is in the right place but its implementation is terrible. Taxing highly caloric drinks proportionately to volume (say, somewhere between a quarter and fifty cents per twelve ounces [that’s about 350 ml, for you metric barbarians]) would probably be a better idea.

        • Matthew says:

          Yes, that also takes care of the “switching from diet soda to non-soda things that actually have sugar in them is not an improvement” problem.

          • Vulture says:

            By the way, this isn’t entirely on-topic, but do you or anyone have a sense of what the evidence is wrt negative health effects of diet soda?

            I ask because after being diagnosed with T1D I have started drinking lots of diet soda, since it is now by far the easiest non-water thing for me to drink. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth it to cut this habit.

          • I’ve heard– and have one anecdotal example– that aspartame can increase appetite.

            For short run effects, you could experiment. Especially if giving up diet soda is hard, try switching to one sweetener for a few weeks, and see what happens.

          • no one special says:

            @Vulture: Re: Diet Soda

            The pop-health warning about diet soda is that the body mistakes the aspartame for real sugar, and secretes insulin. This is unlikely to be an issue for a type 1 Diabetic.

            I am slightly hypoglycemic — eating sugar causes my pancreas to overreact and dump out a ton of insulin, resulting in a horrific “sugar crash”. I can say that diet soda does not cause this effect.

            I’m sure your dentist will tell you that diet soda is full of acid which is bad for your teeth, too.

            If you have rumors of other negative health effects, those will be independent of problems from insulin release or teeth acid.

          • Vulture says:


            Thanks for the info! I always hear about aspartame, but previously the most substantial thing I heard against it was that “some people reported headaches”.

          • Matthew says:

            I will present both anecdotal and meta-analysis evidence on diet soda.

            Anecdotal: I drink a lot of it. If artificial sweeteners actually are carcinogenic, I’m screwed. However, I definitely lost weight when I switched from regular soda to diet (many years ago now), and I’m currently somewhere in the 10-12% body fat range (admittedly, I get a ton of exercise).

            Meta-analysis that artificial sweeteners are okay in moderation (definitely better than sugar) via a link in this Atlantic story that just came out recently

      • Douglas Knight says:

        And changing when school starts!
        that’s much more social than banning soda machines.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The GI bill really did increase college attendance (whether that was a good thing is another issue, but there was a real intended social effect). Many other policies probably increased college attendance, though less clearly.”

      Good point. I would put in a more successful category social interventions of the form “provide incentive -> people act on incentive”, which aren’t expected to change anyone’s thought processes in the same way as some of the other examples. A similar example would be things like “punish crime harder -> people commit less crime”. That doesn’t require editing the culture, just expecting cause and effect not to suddenly be suspended when government redistribution is involved.

      This is why I like basic income guarantees. They don’t claim any more complicated causal process than “if you give people money, people will have more money”

      • AR+ says:

        …except the people you took the money from, of course.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Let’s not succumb to the evil of Marxism by making inconvenient inquiries as to what allowed those particular people to accumulate most of the money!

          • AR+ says:

            By all means. I’m just asking that both sides be acknowledged. Even Economics on One Lesson, whose one lesson is that you have to pay attention to every side of a transactions, still goes out of its way in almost every chapter to point out that, “Now, if you’re actually trying to do X, then this policy could work…”

            It’s an especially important point here, because if the government is funded by income tax, it’s not really coming from people who have accumulated wealth so much as those who are accumulating. More broadly, it is largely safe to assume that anything that is actually allowed into law somehow funnels money to the 0.01% in the end anyway, so you can either tax surgeons and lawyers for your redistribution schemes or else stop beating around the bush and launch an actual people’s revolution.

          • Multiheaded says:

            It’s an especially important point here, because if the government is funded by income tax, it’s not really coming from people who have accumulated wealth so much as those who are accumulating.

            Good point. That’s why I’m curious about things like Georgism, although I don’t have the economic understanding to really evaluate its proposals. But basically I agree that when people cheer for “free market capitalism”, they implicitly mean “more rent for me and people like me”.

            (Another case where the bourgeois notion of desert leads to some ugly mental contortions! At least us leftists are honest about wanting in on all the rent.)

      • Vulture says:

        +1. A good rule of thumb for social interventions might be “Don’t persuade, incentivize.”

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Here’s a social intervention that worked: the Temperance Movement c 1840 reduced alcohol consumption much more than Prohibition did.

  14. CaptainBooshi says:

    I do wonder how much of this is also because people really hate being told that their choices may not have been entirely of their own will. All of the social problem-solving things you mentioned were trying to change incentives, or convince people that doing something one way was better for them, and it’s a much easier sell to say that “Outside forces are trying to make you do something bad,” rather than “You’re not really in control of yourself, and we think we can change who you are to make things better.” Not all of the biological problems you mentioned were like that (the intestinal gut-flora one wasn’t, as an example), but a lot were, and that alone would be enough for people to really want to believe the problem is entirely social.

  15. Liskantope says:

    I think I agree with the overall conclusion of this post, but my other main reaction is to reflect on the general contrast between the mindsets of the left and the right. I’m not sure that socially leftist ideology is characterized by a “socially determined” stance while socially rightist ideology is characterized by a “biologically determined” stance. I do see this as an important element to debates on race and gender, but don’t think it applies to left/right debates in general.

    What I do see as the most fundamental issue behind the left/right split is determinism versus individual free will. Leftists tend to believe that human conditions and behaviors are determined (either by large-scale societal forces, or biology, or both), while rightists tend to believe that they are a product of individual (undetermined) choice. This even extends to the fiscal sphere as well: the leftist mentality suggests that the poor are victims of an unfairly structured society, while the rightist mentality suggests that the poor are individually responsible for their own poverty.

    This explains the fact that it is actually those on the left who oppose lecturing children in schools on the evils of drugs or premarital sex, or criticizing people for being obese (a.k.a. “fat-shaming”), or meting out harsh jail sentences to drug users, or condemning homosexuality. In cases where those on the left believe these human characteristics or behaviors are socially determined, they readily propose laws to create societal change. Those on the right, who believe these characteristics are merely a result of individual choice, oppose these laws and prefer to wag their fingers at people to encourage them to make “better” choices. Meanwhile, neither the left nor the right seems comfortable in general with promoting any kind of biological regulation, even as a remedy to a phenomenon that some (more likely leftists) may contend to be rooted in biology.

    This is definitely a vast oversimplification, but if I had to specify one overall driving force in the ideological divide for social issues, this would be it.

    • Anonymous says:

      If one were steelmanning this model, you could argue that the Right believes in biological differences … in motivation. So women freely choose to be barefoot and pregnant etc.

    • Lesser Bull says:

      Or the Left believes people respond to interventions, whereas the Right believes the respond to incentives.

      Or the Left believes people respond to incentives too, but are less comfortable with negative incentives than the right.

  16. Rand says:

    I’d like to hear this related back to your area of expertise, Scott.

    You have an entire industry devoted to dealing with mental disorders, and the vast majority of these disorders seem to be deal with primarily by… talking. And there have been plenty of studies on the effects of talking, and there seems to generally be some effect but not that much.

    And then there’s the psychopharmaceutical industry, which tries to solve mental disorders by actually changing the chemicals floating around in your bloodstream. And I don’t know much about the effectiveness of such drugs, but the potential certainly seems to be there. And yet they overwhelmingly seem to take second place to therapy (which doesn’t surprise me simply based on the economic interests of the people prescribing them.)

    Is it fear of drugs, especially drugs that effect the mind, that explains the preference? Or is it simply that all of the drugs available don’t work or are legitimately dangerous? I’m sure you’ve given some thought to this.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “second place.” Psychiatrists may prefer talk therapy, but drugs are much more popular, if only because they are much cheaper. Psychiatrists can prescribe talk therapy, but they can’t make people pay for it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Are you American? “Talk therapy gets prioritized over psychopharmacology” hasn’t been true of psychiatry in this country for…at least twenty years, maybe longer.

      • Rand says:

        Aren’t drugs overwhelming classified as “second-line treatment” (or third-line etc.)? I understand that certain drugs (SSRIs, Ritalin) may be over prescribed by lazy doctors, but from limited evidence, it seems that psychiatrists are very hesitant about prescribing most psychiatric medication. That could just be the ones I’ve spoken to, though.

  17. Dude Man says:

    One possible reason that biological causes might get ignored is that the experts working on a problem might not think of them. We’ll never know how every little thing interacts with the human body, so its possible that we just don’t find out about something that could help solve a problem. Not to mention, the people we look towards to solve problems are experts in fields related to the problem and not doctors or medical researchers. For example, when people were trying to reverse the crime boom, no one thought to suggest that removing lead in gasoline might cause crime to go down because no one made the connection between leaded gasoline and crime until after the effects of banning leaded gasoline were observed.

    Also, biological solutions might not get adopted because they would require other changes that people don’t want to make. The arguments against starting school later aren’t that the evidence is wrong, but rather that it would ruin sports, working parents wouldn’t be able to rely on their older children to watch their younger children, “back in my day, we started school at 7am and we liked!”, and other non-biological complaints. Any biological solution would have to be considered along with their non-biological side effects.

    Side note: one of the major hurdles towards fixing our educational system is that any change that might help the students but hurts some other interested party isn’t done. We want to improve education, but we want to maintain the status quo even more.

  18. Luke says:

    Yes, and in many ways, computer science is more mutable than biology.

    Whenever somebody says “Well, we need to fix education and then we can blah” or “We’re trying to solve global coordination so that we can blah,” I say, “What? Fix education? Fix global coordination? It’s probably easier, by several decades, to build a self-improving AGI that fixes everything.”

    • MugaSofer says:

      “What? Fix education? Fix global coordination? It’s probably easier, by several decades, to build a self-improving AGI that fixes everything.”


    • Blogospheroid says:

      I’d agree with you Luke, but the values that would be encoded in the AI would still be a political struggle, right? That one’s not going anywhere. Unless you’re ok with being evil and coding it with whatever you think is right.

      • Indirect normativity is supposed to mitigate this problem. It’s still possible to have infighting about which algorithm is best for determining CEV, but at least the infighting won’t concern traditional object-level political disputes. It’s possible for liberals and conservatives to agree that a certain algorithm will produce the best answer, in part because there will be uncertainty about whose views are closer to the CEV — and people are optimists about whether they’ll be the ones vindicated in the end.

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        I don’t understand how you think it would be evil for you to put your own values into an AI. If you don’t want to force The Universe to conform to them then they are not really your values are they?

        (obviously this post is ignoring arguments that say trying to code a superinteligence at all is too dangerous anyway, which may have merit, but you don’t seem to think that)

        Unless I misunderstood something or you were not being serious when you said being evil… (i’m very bad at detecting that).

        Also I think people are probably seriously underestimating the difficulty of creating AGI utopia. I don’t think it can’t be done, but I don’t think it would at all be easy. And getting humanity to try it/ not stop you IS a global coordination problem…

        Edit: Also I would argue that we should try and improve things in the short term simultaneously as we try and improve things in the long term. AGI Utopia could be great, but getting as close as we can to Utopia in the meantime would be great also.

        • Viliam Búr says:

          we should try and improve things in the short term simultaneously as we try and improve things in the long term. AGI Utopia could be great, but getting as close as we can to Utopia in the meantime would be great also.

          So, try to invent the Friendly AI to bring the Utopia, and simultaneously increase human rationality to allow people fix problems until the AI is ready (and also to prepare better AI researchers)? That’s already the plan. 😉

        • Doug S. says:

          If you copy/pasted *my* values into an AI, it would spend its time goofing off instead of saving the world. 😉

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It doesn’t seem one can be so certain of a near singularity that everything else can be safely ignored (although it still might be in individuals’ comparative advantage to focus on the singularity rather than individual causes)

  19. Kappa says:

    And that is why, even to this day, nobody uses drugs.

    Scott joke detected.

    • Matthew says:

      Does anybody know if there is a technical term for this specific type of humor?

      • kenzo says:


      • memeticengineer says:

        The pattern seems to be: long, serious setup of facts and logic, followed by a surprising punch line. In this case, the punchline depended on verbal irony (i.e. real meaning was exact reverse of surface meaning). Another example, the recent “so antisocial and unjust that it could only possibly come from the social justice movement”, is a combination of wordplay and subverting the expectation that a right wing group would follow. I don’t know if there is a short term that would cover all the other examples besides “Scott Joke”. There’s definitely a noticeable pattern but I think the main reasons these jokes work are context and timing, rather than specific technical humor elements.

        • Hainish says:

          As an analogy: Subverting the trope?

        • Scott F says:

          An analysis of Scott jokes[1] would, I think, find that the setup is mostly factual/empirical and in agreement with the audience’s knowledge, the punchline is in agreement with the setup[2], but the punchline is not in agreement with the audience’s knowledge.

          A super-technical term might be ‘non-transitive irony’: A is congruent with B, B is congruent with C, but A is violently incongruent with C.

          1: I make these jokes as well, so I heartily approve of this label.

          2: For an alien who knows nothing about drug use, the joke would be missed and the alien would actually believe nobody uses drugs anymore.

          • Kappa says:

            Ooh, “non-transitive irony” is interesting. I will keep an eye out to see if future Scott jokes fall under that label.

  20. SanguineEmpiricist says:

    Good post, however the ADHD lecture was indeed terrible and a horrible insult overall. How anyone can be in a position to lecture and have those two points as the take away is beyond me.

    • Anonymous says:

      Were you at the lecture? Scott has coworkers reading his blog?

      Were the two points of takeaway the two points Scott mentioned? From the post, I thought that those were just two hypotheses of many, and perhaps cause was not even the topic.

  21. Adam says:

    And of course everyone massively underestimates the cost of social interventions, both literal expenditure and the horrific pain it inflicts for no good reason.

    Yikes, unpleasant combination.

  22. Fronken says:

    The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes. I think I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population than you would changing people’s locus of control or self-efficacy or whatever, even if I wasn’t allowed to do anything immoral (except by very silly religious standards of “immoral”).

    Decreasing the frequency of a gene, sure.

    But increasing it? Good luck pulling that off without large-scale social engineering.

    • Your comment makes sense only when it refers to a low-frequency allele. At 50/50, there can’t be any difference in difficulty (by symmetry – increasing the A variant is just decreasing the T variant, etc).

  23. Blogospheroid says:

    I thought of this a while back. If the feminists of the world had any true strategic thinking, they would be falling all over each other to fund SENS. I think it would be easier to reverse aging when compared to trying to eliminate “lookism” and “ageism” from men’s sexual preferences, via social means.

    • People tend to prefer solutions which will have some effect in their own lifetimes. It isn’t obvious how long SENS will take.

      Also, preventing aging doesn’t solve all issues about appearance.

      • Blogospheroid says:

        Point 2 first – If I have read sens correctly, there will be no issues of appearance because the elasticity of the skin will never be allowed to significantly degrade.

        If Scott’s point is right, then SENS is better as it is a biological intervention and is preferable to social revolutions where all the losers are simmering in the background waiting for the day when the counter revolution happens.

        If SENS works, it is win-win. The {good} feminists win. They get a world where intellect is genuinely preferred since all women look 26 years old.
        The {good} capitalists win. They get a world where a lot of people are a lot more serious about saving money and genuine long term effects.
        The guys who want hot chicks around win because everyone around is physically young.
        The girls who want hot men around are happy because everyone around is physical young.
        The environmentalists are happy because everyone now has to become an environmentalist.

        It’s a low probability(acc. to popular opinion), but high reward play. Sorry for the sens propaganda Scott.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think “ageism” is something many people are primarily concerned about, as opposed to something people bring in to support their case that there are lots of isms.

    • Nita says:

      I’ve never seen anyone politically get up in arms over the fact that individual men find young women attractive. What I have seen is three things:

      1. Discussions of “ageism” as a general bias in society, resulting in age discrimination by employers and such.

      2. Disapproval of adult men who express a preference for teenage girls (SENS won’t really help with this, unless it involves universal neoteny).

      3. Talk about “the Wall” etc. taken as evidence of misogyny. This is probably what you had in mind, but to me it seems fairly reasonable — after all, it’s a fact that aging will eventually damage everyone’s health and looks, but you don’t see me cackling with glee as I describe the consequences of men’s aging in detail and relish their loss of “value” and “power”.

      • Blogospheroid says:

        The fertility and the looks of women decrease faster than that of men. This makes the process of aging a much greater enemy of the female sex compared to males.
        Robin Hanson imagines situations where people have children early and go to college after their children are grown up. These societal changes will take too much time and do not resolve the issues more permanently.
        Aiming at aging as the common enemy is much more likely to succeed, being a biological intervention. A lot of the societal changes that are sought have a much higher probability of happening if aging is defeated.

      • Matthew says:

        So, anecdote is not data, blah blah…

        I’m in my mid-30s, and look about 30. My desired age range listed on OkCupid is 24-35. I have, in fact, had a woman reply to one of my messages with: “It does seem like we might be a good match, except that you appear to be ageist.”

        So, yes, there are women out there who consider a man “ageist” if he prefers to date women who aren’t older than himself.

        • Army1987 says:

          Are you sure she was honest about the reason to not date you?

          • Matthew says:

            Dozens of women don’t reply at all to my messages. Why would this one reply like that, if she wasn’t being honest about it? In context, she appeared to be inquiring rather than straight-up accusing. I acknowledged my preference while denying that this was a reasonable application of the term “ageism”; she didn’t reply again after that. (Which is fine, because someone that extreme on the SJ axis is probably not a good match.)

  24. Papermoon says:

    You’re comparing biological engineering with social engineering. When i think the point is that there is no engineering human will. I think framing society in this way is always doomed to failure.

    There is the enlightenment idea of human behaviour. That the mind is fundamentally not biological but a thing unto itself. This doesn’t just mean that you try to understand the mind by looking at behaviour and not the brain, but that you throw out the whole nature vs nurture debate and replace it with human will. Eg, why does someone behave a certain way? because they choose to.

    And from this assumption you have a boatload of enlightenment philosophy about changing society that doesn’t attempt engineering or even use any metric of any kind, but instead relies on passionate and romantic argument.

    You can laugh at how deeply unsatisfying this is as an explanation but just look at the massive success of enlightenment philosophy and religion at achieving social change.

    Just by framing human behaviour in this wooly minded way i think you can get a lot of insight into the problems you’re listing.

    For example:
    why shouldn’t people take drugs?
    why is an improvement in cognitive ability valuable?
    why shouldn’t people be obese?
    why is it better to concentrate in school?

    What would Nietzsche, Hulme, Smith or Jesus say about these problems? and why are they so much better at social engineering than the modern social engineers?

    • Gabriel says:

      This is a simplistic and muddled history of ideas.

      The free will vs. determinism debate doesn’t quite fall neatly along left vs. right or even atheist vs. theist lines.

      What I would say is that the chief idea of the liberalism is individual autonomy, though I can understand how that would rely on some conception of free will. Most progressive movements stem from the push for greater individual autonomy for the maximum number of people: democracy (individuals organizing and governing themselves), feminism, etc. An institution like slavery (which many past and even some present right-wingers defend) is an obvious infringement of individual autonomy. In this regard, demands for liberty and demands for equality are intimately linked.

      On the radical left, people like Marx argued for the abolition of arbitrary social hierarchies not because he thought equality was a good in itself (he didn’t think all people possessed the same potential at birth), but because those hierarchies stymied individual flourishing. Marxists and anarchists often claim that liberalism is compromised and conceals oppression in a more insidious way than conservatism. Of course, the reality of Marxist states would make Marxism even more compromised from this perspective. Liberalism has a better track record of self-correction and learning from past mistakes.

      The right — and this applies to all the different strands (monarchist, fascist, “libertarian,” etc.) — rejects the principles above. For the right, the individual is (and should be) subordinate to forces beyond his control. These forces can take myriad forms: the state, the slaveholder, the patriarch, the nation, the race, and the market are among the most common ones throughout history.

      However, the right does not completely reject the importance of the creative will. Take one particular formulation of this: “Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothing,” in the words of Carl Schmitt. What is this but an expression of the creative will? But the right differs from the left in that it reserves the powers of the will for the chosen few rather than the greatest number possible. This usually means “dictator” but there are other substitutes. For someone like Schmitt, decisions were made by the sovereign, not the masses.

      I consider National Socialism the apotheosis of right-wing thought, in that its objective was the most radical rejection of the left possible (which may rankle some reactionaries, but I’m willing to defend it, and I’m probably more familiar with the right’s canon than they are), and it’s no coincidence that the most famous film from that regime was called Triumph of the Will.

      • Liskantope says:

        What I would say is that the chief idea of the liberalism is individual autonomy, though I can understand how that would rely on some conception of free will.

        Yes, for the notion of individual autonomy to be meaningful, one must believe in at least some conception of free will (maybe deterministic, maybe libertarian*). But the position that one has the right to individual autonomy is distinct from the position that one’s actions are actually undetermined individual choices. It seems possible to be a classical liberal who vouches for the right to personal autonomy and still be a determinist.

        * I mean “libertarian” in the philosophical sense rather than the political ideology

      • no one special says:

        What I would say is that the chief idea of the liberalism is individual autonomy,

        For the right, the individual is (and should be) subordinate to forces beyond his control.

        Are you European, by chance? These summaries seem to be the opposite of what we’d call “liberal” and “right-wing” in the united states. Liberals are strong on collective group-based views, speaking often about outcomes derived from group membership and downplaying the role of individual choice. Right-wing groups are very strong on the rhetoric of individual choice, and downplay group membership. If someone told me “the individual is subordinate to forces beyond their control,” I would expect them to be liberal. If they talked about individual autonomy, I would assume they were conservative.

        This mental whiplash makes me think you must be coming from a very different place than I am.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          He’s obviously using “liberal” in the sense of classical liberalism. For your purposes, you can think of it as basically meaning libertarian.

          • no one special says:

            Simply apply the handy Europe to America Translator!

            Liberal => Conservative
            Right-wing => Actual Nazis
            Left => Communists

            It seems like the window of legitimate political speech is much wider in Europe than in the states.

          • Anonymous says:

            Gabriel specifically mentions libertarianism, so it’s pretty implausible that it’s what he means by liberalism.

  25. Army1987 says:

    doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep

    How do we know that if schools started later children wouldn’t just go to bed later and sleep the same amount?

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      This is probably what would happen if children lived in hermetically sealed bubble environment, but humans tend to wake up with daylight. I remember that when I was serving out my four year sentence at the local high school, I had to wake up before dawn in order to catch the school bus.

    • Rob Miles says:

      Because in various experiments and pilot schemes carried out in which schools started later, that didn’t happen. e.g.

      Obviously these things are very hard to run as rigorous experiments, but so far the evidence seems to show improvements in various outcomes consistent with students being better rested.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        That is a British study. Americans have an additional effect that is easier to measure: fewer car crashes. Scott’s link didn’t mention crashes, but it did explicitly address Army’s question.

  26. From a historical perspective, society is certainly not fixed. Human behaviour has been radically altered both as a result of intentional actions on the part of governments and other influential organizations and as a side-effect of economical development. This has led to a decrease in violence, increased tolerance, changed sexual norms, you name it.

    Likewise, historically, biology was of course pretty fixed, because we didn’t know much about it. That is rapidly changing, however. Our knowledge of effective social influence is also improving (e.g. consider the newly invented nudge idea) but presumably not as fast. So I think that the post is largely right; it is becoming relatively speaking easier to influence behaviour through the biological route, in comparison to the social route. It could be argued that those who fail to see this live in the past, where it was indeed true that the biological route was pretty closed.

  27. BenSix says:

    It is a false dichotomy. (Perhaps people dislike ideas such as “sleeplessness causes academic underachievement” because it does nothing to affirm their ideological bandwagons.) When conservatives promote belief in human nature, though, they refer not merely to health and talents but to our capacities for doing right and wrong, and would thus be cautious about the extent to which people can and will act wisely and justly. Argumentum ad Hitlerum is applied to determinist arguments with a greater frequency than argumentum ad Stalinum, argumentum ad Maoum and argumentum ad Pol Potum are brandished against arguments related to socialisation but all plans intended to change people and their communities on a significant scale should account for the flaws of planners.

    • I believe a lot of the opposition to later start times for high schools is based on the beliefs that high school students can go to sleep earlier if they choose to (this is not based on evidence, but it’s a convenient tool for blaming them), and that it’s virtuous to make yourself get up earlier than you want to.

      There’s also an issue with bus schedules– if you don’t want small children waiting for the bus in the dark in the winter and you don’t want to buy more buses, then you have to have a very early schedule for the high schools.

      Another possibility would be shortening the school day for high schools, but that seems to be unimaginable.

      It seems to me that some high school schedules are on the early side even for adults. It wouldn’t surprise me if the good effects of later schedules are mostly from the students being better rested, but some of the effect is from teachers being better rested.

      • Nornagest says:

        It seems to me that some high school schedules are on the early side even for adults.

        Yep. After graduating high school, I never got up that early again, except briefly in college when I had 8 AM classes and a nasty bus schedule to contend with. (High school started earlier, but I lived closer.)

      • Creutzer says:

        Another possibility would be shortening the school day for high schools, but that seems to be unimaginable.

        This is really weird, because in central Europe, school tends to be over in the early after noon, which made it hard for me to understand the comment about children waiting for the bus in the dark. I was puzzled at first because when I used to leave for school in winter, it was sometimes still dark when I left home.

  28. Fazathra says:

    This might be slightly off topic, but I have been trying to understand the implicit reasoning behind intelligent rightist/neoreactionary positions for quite a while. I’ve tried reading some neoreactionary stuff, but it either seems to be obscurantist or to assume and skim over the core reasoning behind their positions. So this is an attempt to charitably explain in plain English what I think is the core of the rightist position. Coming at this from the perspective of a cathedral brahmin, I may be way off, so any neoreactionaries are welcome to correct me, but anyway, here goes:

    There are a set of traits that are conducive to building and sustaining an orderly and pleasant civilisation. Let’s call these traits virtue* and people who have them virtuous. Virtue, however, is hard, and that left to their own devices most people will not behave in a virtuous manner. Virtue is determined both by biology and culture; some people are naturally more virtuous than others, but how virtuous people are can also be affected by the social incentives they face. As a society, we want to maximise virtue and therefore we both want to increase the proportion of people who are naturally virtuous, and craft incentive systems that reward virtue and punish vice. Empirically, the successful societies of the past probably possessed incentive structures well suited to generating virtue. We (America) come from a society which was successful in the past, so assuming that the traits which are virtuous have stayed the same, then the culture of the our past society is probably good at generating virtue in our current society. Luckily, we still have (had) the culture of our past so, absent any attempts to change it, we have nothing to worry about. But, people do keep trying to change it, and they claim that their changes will improve the system. However, we should be automatically suspicious of their changes for three reasons:
    1.) Most changes to any complex system are bad.
    2.) Most changes are suggested by humans; humans are naturally unvirtuous, so we should expect most changes proposed by them to be unvirtuous too.
    3.) As an extension to 2.): Most changes are suggested by leftists, who are optimising towards the decidedly unvirtuous ideal of equality, so any changes suggested by them are extremely likely to be unvirtuous.

    In earlier times, the negative effects of most changes were quickly and easily seen: if you tried to implement communism or feminism or whatever in the 12th century, you would starve.
    However, the industrial revolution has allowed us to suffer less consequences for our unvirtue than in earlier ages, at least at first; we have built a small buffer against gnon. So, we appear to face a tradeoff. We can do things that make people happy, but make society in general less virtuous: We can implement minimum wages and a welfare state, but we get a large, unproductive, and criminal ghetto class who would otherwise have starved or found work below the minimum wage; we can implement feminism and make women less oppressed, but we get an increasingly dysfunctional SMP, marriage and family formation rates decline, bastardy rates rise, and the incentives for men to produce at their full capacity to provide for women and children are slowly eroded. Thus, in general, the more we implement leftism, the more our starting stock of virtue is eroded: our civilisation becomes more disordered, our economic and technological growth rates decline, our political process becomes increasingly ineffective and corrupt, etc. So, in a sense, we can view leftism as civilisational entropy.

    However, leftism is not a tradeoff but a trap. You cannot chose a stable point on the curve: disorder is contagious; leftism begets more leftism; Cthulhu swims ever leftwards; civilisation enters a downward spiral towards the left singularity – the point at which you have traded off all your civilisational capital for a moment of bliss and complete social justice, and after that you return to barbarism and must begin accumulating virtue anew. The only way to survive the game is not to start playing.

    In addition, even if this is not the case, we must look at the opportunity costs of leftism, as they are much larger than most imagine. The more leftism, the less virtue, the less effective our civilisation is, the slower our economic and technological growth rates, and thus the longer it will take to reach the singularity, if we reach it at all. The opportunity costs of leftism compound enormously over time and are much greater than the immediate consequences, as bad as those may be. So that given the choice between, say, feminism, and having the singularity occur ten years earlier, the utilitarian must choose the singularity, as against ten years in a universe of hedonium, the benefits of feminism pale into insignificance.

    So thus, even though we now have the ability to be more leftist than we otherwise could, we still should not do so, as the opportunity costs of leftism are enormous and leftism is intrinsically dangerous anyway. Instead we should keep on maximising virtue and just suck it up till we reach the singularity. This means conserving the remaining virtue-generating aspects of our society, and restoring those that have decayed to their previous forms. Thus, neoreaction.

    * by virtue I mean gnon!virtue, not human!virtue.

    Is this an accurate description of the reasoning behind conservative/ neoreactionary beliefs? Is there anything major that I have missed? Thoughts? Comments?

    • Jaskologist says:

      It’s probably a good summary of conservative views. I’m not so sure about NRX. They’ve got a whole thing about monarchs, too.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      I’ve tried reading some neoreactionary stuff, but it either seems to be obscurantist or to assume and skim over the core reasoning behind their positions.

      I used to have this problem. Then I met master Jim. He hit me with a stick, and I achieved dark enlightenment. But I see that you mentioned the left singularity in your summary, so presumably you have read James, and found him wanting. If you are looking for a ginormous Scott-like post which summarizes all the basic assumptions of neoreaction and clearly lays out the sequence of inferences which follow from those assumptions, I am afraid you are out of luck.

      We can do things that make people happy, but make society in general less virtuous.

      Do you mean things people claim to want, or things which actually make them happy? Neoreactionaries often argue that feminism and the welfare state make females and the underclass less happy than virtuous (to use your terminology) society.

      The more leftism, the less virtue, the less effective our civilisation is, the slower our economic and technological growth rates, and thus the longer it will take to reach the singularity, if we reach it at all.

      Belief in the technological singularity is far from being a reactionary consensus. Techno-commercialists like Land tend to take the idea seriously, but e.g. the Anti-Democracy Activist would brush it off as Star Trek bullshit. Even if the singularity is impossible, the long-term existance of a virtous civilization itself can be a terminal goal, especially if you know that it will be your descendants who inhabit it, and especially when you consider the alternative (hunter-gatherer foraging).

      So that given the choice between, say, feminism, and having the singularity occur ten years earlier, the utilitarian must choose the singularity, as against ten years in a universe of hedonium, the benefits of feminism pale into insignificance.

      Utilitarianism, especially of the kind which promotes tiling the universe with hedonium, is also not a particularly popular ideology in neoreaction. In fact, you are unlikely to see arguments which rely on reasoning that each unit of time without the singularity carries a massive opportunity cost outside of LessWrong.

    • Leonard says:

      Neoreactionaries appreciate “virtue”, but that’s not what I see as the key insight into the mindset. Rather, it is the insight that egalitarianism is bad through and through. Not only is inequality a contingent fact of history, political equality is impossible, and indeed political inequality is desirable. Most people should have no political power. We are unequal, we can’t be equal, and we should be unequal if we wish to be well governed.

      “Well governed” is the desire to have a government which is secure, effective, and responsible. Of course, I doubt many people anywhere on the political spectrum would claim to want a government that is insecure, ineffective, and/or irresponsible. And yet… in democracy, that’s what we have.

    • Erik says:

      You seem to be on the right track. I think another major point the neoreactionaries have in common is thinking “Democracy has gone boink and the incentive structures are warped”.

      Elected politicians, to a first approximation, gain from whatever they can skim during their period in office, rather than what they can set up for the long term (I think the technical term is “usufruct”) so their incentive structure is directed towards short-term policies.
      This is basically the same problem the Left likes to point out with corporations being interested in quarterly revenue rather than sustainability. Some corporations have a rudimentary patch on the issue by paying leaders in stock shares, whose total value depends on the long-term performance. Such a solution could be backported to rewarding politicians by giving them some kind of government bonds paying off over decades.

      Another incentive for an elected politician, since long-term rewards aren’t coming directly from governmental service, is to set up own long-term rewards. One example is the “lecture circuit”: some politicians use their political capital to build social capital for later, then use the social capital to get paid to go around talking, not so much because they’re topic experts as because they’re big important people. Another is by distributing power somewhere more permanent, such as the civil service, which doesn’t have to stand for elections or any such nonsense; and the civil service repays politicians in various ways.

      Speaking of the civil service, elected politicians often find it convenient to drop off power there for another reason: evasion of responsibility. “The bureaucracy did it.” Only Congress, nominally, can make law, but the civil service can promulgate regulations which have all the force of law, and Congress is often not in a position to go through the whole lawmaking thing. This results in farces such as Congress asking the Department of Transportation to please implement Congress’ new law in the way Congress wants.

      Now I approve in principle of some degree of delegation – elected officials simply can’t be knowledgeable enough to write appropriate law about everything – but the way it works at present has created a large disconnect between having the power to make decisions and receiving credit or blame when things go right or wrong. (One might abbreviate these to “authority” and “responsibility”, but using those terms on their own I would find a bit misleading.)

      And it all gets worse when you combine this with Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which I prefer to think of in more evolutionary terms, less bombastic complaining-about-bureacracy terms: those bureaucracies dedicated to self-perpetuation tend to outlast those which are not; those bureaucracy members focusing on the maintenance of their own office tend to outlast those focusing on anything else. Corollary: bureaucracies will stick to their goal only as long as sticking to their goal is a way for the bureaucracy to perpetuate itself and a way for its members to retain their position. Corollary to the corollary: civil servants need to be very, very firable for not sticking to their goal. This does not appear to be the case.
      (There’s also an analysis of a similar effect in church markets at Why Methodists Don’t Go To Heaven.)

      Getting back to the point about authority and responsibility — consider Scott’s earlier letter to the FDA. The FDA seems to have authority here, as suggested by Scott writing this letter to the FDA rather than writing his elected representative, let alone voting for a particular candidate in his elections.
      (Again, I approve in principle. But I’m leading up to a big complaint.)

      So who has responsibility? Consider three cases: 1) the FDA makes a good decision about what to restrict, 2) the FDA gets too restrictive and prevents the spread of something that saves lives, 3) the FDA gets insufficiently restrictive and allows the spread of something that saves lives. In case 1, what is the FDA’s reward? Is it the default state of people at the FDA continuing to receive money and prestige for having a job at the FDA? In case 2, it seems hard to notice this happening. In case 3, who’s going to catch flak – the person at the FDA who made a particular decision? I don’t even know if such people exist! I don’t know how the FDA makes its decisions! And what is the role of elected politicians in all this?

      So, getting to the neoreactionary complaint-bundle, it goes something like this:
      You (addressed abstractly to democracy, or its appropriate representative/supporter/etc) lied to us. You made false promises. You lied about who has power and makes decisions, lied about who to blame, and lied about how to fix it. You also lied about how to get good results. And you lied about what the hell this “democracy” thing even is and how it works.

      The last sentence could be expanded into a lot more stuff about how politicians don’t respond to popular will, disagreements between public opinion and government policy, references to “direct” democracy (think Switzerland), how public opinion is not an unmoved mover, and elect-a-new-people shenanigans. But I think you get the idea – there’s a big lie, and lies are one of the oldest transgressions humanity has ever taken offense at.

      The “thing about monarchs” Jaskologist mentions is one of several proposals for alternatives to democracy under discussion. Others include ancap private security agencies, bitcoin-blockchain-like contracts, theocracy, or outright being honest about what a democracy is and how it works, perhaps with a few changes such as e.g. making a vote contractable.

    • Erik says:

      Hm, on consideration. Scott, could you send my email to Fazathra? This post’s comment section may not be the best place to have the discussion at length.

    • Lesser Bull says:

      I don’t think its complete, but its a pretty good basic description. I found myself unconsciously nodding along as I read.

  29. Army1987 says:

    The way replies to deleted comments are shown unthreaded below everything else is very confusing.

  30. Greg Barton says:

    There is no left/right political split as you describe on nature vs nurture. Note the “is homosexuality a choice” debate is flipped.

    And if you want a biological approach to obesity I suggest you look at low carb high fat diets.

  31. AMac says:

    Scott, I take it that the terrible ADHD lecture was one that you had to attend… not one that you gave 😉

  32. Anonymous says:

    Unrelated question: I enjoy emoticons, the old fashioned kind with just a colon and a parenthesis. Whenever I type one here in a comment, it gets replaced by one of these terrible yellow things: 🙂 Those are dumb. Is there a way for to make it not autocorrect?

    • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

      You can do it like this :-​) (there’s a U+200b between 2 of the characters, in linux you insert it by Control-Shift-U 200b, I don’t know how to do it in windows).

  33. anon says:

    Your examples of changing biology remind me a bit of a story Lansburg made up about a girl saving starfish on a beach. In his example it was about charity but it fits here too. The contrarian told her, you can’t save all of them. She resolutely picks one up and tosses it in the water, “I saved that one.”

    • Ken Arromdee says:

      What happens when the next contrarian comes along and tells her the same thing? Does she then get to agree with the contrarian and say “I can’t save them all”? If the answer is “yes”, then it’s not clear why she didn’t say that for the first starfish. And if the answer is “no”, that implies she should be saving starfish until it takes up 100% of her free time.

      • anon says:

        The girl’s wisdom lie in her rejection of the question.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          That’s just the same thing, rephrased a bit. Does she reject the question when she meets the second contrarian? If she keeps rejecting the question whenever she meets a new contrarian, she’ll have to save an endless number of starfish. If she doesn’t, then she agrees with the contrarian.and you have to wonder why she didn’t do that in the first place.

          • anon says:

            She doesn’t have to do anything at all. She can save another, or go home. At the very least she could move to a section of the beach where she isn’t being harassed. The question is rejected because it assumes her point was something other than it was. Can’t save all the starfish, but she isn’t there to save all the starfish. We can’t make everyone healthy, but we can put some iron filings in cereal and help. True, we can’t help everyone but that wasn’t the point, so why bring it up?

          • RCF says:

            Because then one fewer starfish would have been saved?

    • Landsburg didn’t make that up, it’s ancient. I saw it on a motivational poster in middle school. Wikipedia says it’s based on a story related in a 1969 essay.

      • anon says:

        Almost certainly my misattribution, thanks.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        Another version appeared in an episode of M*A*S*H.

        Potter: Rule Number One is that young men die in wars. Rule Number Two is that doctors can’t change Rule Number One.

        Pierce: I know one doctor who can keep one young man from dying in one war.

        [ Goes back to work ]

        • I just realized the actual moral of this story: Don’t fall prey to scope insensitivity.

          (“Actual” should of course not be interpreted to mean “intended by the author”.)

          I wonder why I didn’t realize this with the starfish. I think it’s because I don’t care about starfish that much, so throwing a bunch of starfish into the ocean seems like mostly signaling Love For All Living Things while failing to actually accomplish much good.

    • RCF says:

      Of course, there’s a finite carrying capacity for starfish, so she didn’t cause any net decrease in starfish death.

      • Emile says:

        That argument applies to humans too; so far 100% of humans end up dying (still to be verified for those still alive…), and anybody who saved someone didn’t cause any decrease in that number.

        (I agree its not exactly the same argument)

  34. Deiseach says:

    But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.

    As a Right-winger, or right-leaning, or at least conservative (by my country’s standards; American politics are much too confusing for me to try mapping where my views fall in that landscape), I don’t think I believe this.

    Rather, it’s that the Left or the liberals or “Them Over There” go bippity-bopping along, thinking society is malleable and all those fusty old rules are holding us back from achieving the levels of enlightened rapture we all deserve, so they push social liberty.

    Which is great for those who can handle it, but there are many who can’t. And so I tend to regard with scepticism the notion that (say) the problem of drug abuse can be solved by decriminalising drugs (soft drugs like marijuana or weed or whatever the cool kids are calling it now usually).

    Ireland has an alcohol problem, there is no doubt of that. We just had the edifying spectacle today of last night’s results of 15 and 16 year olds getting their State exam results, which means getting drunk and getting themselves into situations they cannot handle.

    But what I’m seeing in my job, both previously in local government education and now in local government housing, is people who are fucked up, not by drink so much, but by ‘recreational drug use’. So, as far as I can see, the push for decriminalisation campaigns may be cloaked in left/liberal language, but it really boils down to ‘fuck you Jack, I’m all right’.

    Those who can handle occasional or even regular use and not piss their lives away want their habit to be socially acceptable so that they avoid opprobrium, and they can buy the stuff cheap and without the risk of encountering petty (and not so petty) criminals, and as for the people who can’t handle it? Who will suffer through this social liberalisation? Well, fuck them.

    We’ve got a government in place that is very right-on in some aspects, e.g. it’s pushing really hard for same-sex marriage. Yay, equality, progress, liberalisation, right? Yes, but that same government is also centrist-right, very pro-business/capitalism, and quite willing to screw over the weak, vulnerable and poor in order to keep the national balance sheet looking attractive to our overlords in the IMF and EU. Social welfare programmes get slashed so we can keep giving tax breaks to multi-nationals.

    That’s why I’m less enamoured of the “Evil Right versus Virtuous Left” formulation here; some ‘Left’ or socially liberal changes are very inexpensive (in terms of political capital) and will be easily incorporated into a ‘Right’ government agenda. The deciding factor, to my view, is money: will it be more or less expensive to introduce same-sex marriage/decriminalise soft drugs/incorporate this latest change?

    It would be completely feasible for a government to decide that there are enough votes to be gained from nice middle-class college graduates in good jobs by promoting a campaign of decriminalising soft drugs and even making them available ‘over the counter’, while simultaneously slashing budgets for social housing, mental health services, social workers and all those expensive supports that the greedy freeloaders on the dole suck up like sponges from the tax revenue of those nice middle-class professionals.

    And what about those in the lower class/underclass who will abuse that freedom to freely buy recreational drugs? Well, to hell with them! Let them die in the streets; the poor don’t vote and they only cost money, it’s their bad genetics and their own bad choices that brought them to this.

    • Deiseach says:

      Re: education and a progressive secular agenda.

      Our current Minister for Education is very big on this. He’s what you might call, in all fairness, Left by Scott’s definition (he’s a member of the Labour Party). He’s also open about being an atheist.

      So he’s really pulling out all the stops to Get Religion Out of Schools and Get The Catholic Church Out of Education.

      This (if it ever succeeds) is the kind of progressive, liberal, secular, enlightened, rationalist Left cause that won’t (in real terms) cost one single penny. A teacher in primary school changes from thirty minutes of ‘it’s nice to be nice so let’s all be nice’ religious education to thirty minutes of ‘let’s fill in the maths workbooks’? Still getting the same day’s pay for the same day’s work.

      Know what we really need, for a start, in Irish primary (and secondary) schools? A school psychological service. We don’t have ‘school nurses’ in Ireland; as a former job-sharing school secretary, I can attest that if a kid hurts themselves, they get sent to the office where (if it’s not too serious) we give them a sticking plaster or an eye-wash bottle. If it is serious, we call their parents or some other caretaker to take them out of school so they can be brought to the doctor.

      We get kids coming in at age 12 who need to be assessed. A lot of our pupils come with behavioural and learning difficulties. They need an official psychological assessment so we can apply for ‘disadvantaged school’ funding (and so we can best address their needs). Parents have to try and arrange that, and it’s usually a shock to them to try and navigate setting up an appointment with the official school psychologist service to arrange to have the child tested, because it will be the first time they’ve encountered this necessity.

      I think Scott would agree that a child with needs should be getting some kind of support long before the age of twelve.

      But that would cost money, and we can’t have that. Our reforming Minister for Education will quite happily take on the bishops, but when it comes to taking on his cabinet colleagues and looking for extra money for such vital supports, no way. No rocking the boat there!

      And that, my dear friends, is why this Evil Right-Winger who thinks nature is fixed and messing around with society will do little to change the underlying problems unless we get serious about deep levels of engagement and long-term support, is quite sceptical of the “Left Is Always Good, Right Is Always Bad” notion peddled in the opening of this post.

    • AR+ says:

      Well, why should people who can handle it have to suffer for the sake of those who can’t? Here you are, on the Internet, even as people suffer from Internet addiction. If we banned the Internet, that wouldn’t be a problem. Yet this is widely regarded as a bad idea. So it’s a matter of degree. You can’t just say that people will suffer, because that can be said, to some degree or another, about every freedom.

      But even that seems like a simplification. Maybe it’s different in Ireland, but in America, the War on Drugs has become such an incredible social harm in its own right that you’d have a pretty hard case in claiming that addicts and their communities would actually be worse off without the massive fraction of the prison system dedicated to them, to say nothing of how it finances the Mexican cartels. Just writing off the addicts themselves as part of the cost of freedom seems downright humane compared to the alternative we’re currently stuck with.

      And hey, if we just made sure that the addicts were sterilized, maybe it wouldn’t even be as much of a problem in a few generations, eh? If we’d started that to begin with, instead of prohibition, we’d be seeing the benefits by now.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thanks for proving my point for me: as long as *you* can get baked and not suffer the consequence, fuck the vulnerable – after all, they’re not real humans, are they? They’re only bad gene addicts who should be sterilised out of the human race, and then nice real people like you needn’t lift a finger to help anyone who falls down, because it’s all their fault.

        • Hainish says:

          I’m only bringing this up because it might be relevant to how you perceive U.S. left vs. U.S. right: I *think* that AR+ is U.S. right.

        • Anonymous says:

          Wow. I’m not sure how you made the jump from him arguing a contrary position to him claiming that the people discussed are not even human. Not productive.

        • AR+ says:

          If we’re talking actual policy, then I’d say that if you wanted to make the lives of the American poor better, ending the War on Drugs is an unambiguously good idea. Almost all of the harms that illegal drugs cause among poor communities is either a consequence of them being illegal, or a consequence of the brutal enforcement attempts carried out to save people from themselves. The devastation is has caused is hard to underestimate, yet in the push to end it, we have people like you talking about how it is our social duty to save addicts from themselves, and if that means throwing them into a concrete rape-box for 10 years and destroying their lives and family and most of their community, then so be it.

          Well, people don’t usually say that last part. But that’s how it’s currently implemented. That’s where moralizing rhetoric can get you if you don’t keep it in check.

          I must also call attention to the fact that you are acting as though the choice is between the availability of drugs and the non-availability of drugs, when we have decades of experience to show that the choice is in fact between the availability of drugs, and the availability of drugs + a brutal drug war police state.

          • Drug prohibition does reduce people’s access to drugs, though. Maybe not by enough to justify the costs, but there’s no serious question that drugs are more readily available if they’re legal than if they’re not.

          • Matthew says:

            Note that “end the drug war” need not be a synonym for “full commercial legalization of everything.”

            There are many excluded middles there, but to name just a few:

            1. Reduce drug possession to an administrative offense — you pay a fine, but it doesn’t send you to prison; it doesn’t get recorded in a way that destroys future job prospects; etc.

            2. Related to (1), don’t legalize, but stop treating drug offenses like violent crime. No more no-knock raids with SWAT gear; no more stop-and-frisk or exempt small amounts of drugs (but not weapons) from frisk charges; etc.

            3. (For marijuana; obviously not a good idea for methamphetamine or alcohol) Legalize grow-your-own and share-for-free, but not commercial sale. I believe this was actually the preferred approach of Mark Kleiman, who is the adviser to some of the states that have legalized marijuana. (They didn’t go this route because it removes the potential for tax revenue, I assume.)

            There are many other possible intermediate steps.

          • Nornagest says:

            For marijuana; obviously not a good idea for methamphetamine or alcohol)

            Note that it actually is legal in most US states to brew your own beer or wine for personal use or limited non-commercial distribution, and this doesn’t seem to be a significant contributor to any serious social problems. When I looked into it a couple months ago, the limit was 100 gallons a year, which is way more wine than you’d need and probably more than you could give away — something on the order of 500 bottles.

            Distilling your own hard liquor is illegal, but I don’t get the impression that the law’s widely enforced, at least in California.

          • Matthew says:

            You’re right, I should have been more specific. Homebrew beer is fairly safe. Distilling your own moonshine is somewhat riskier. I wasn’t think so much of it creating social problems as the fact it’s easier to mess up and end up with something that’s partly methyl alcohol, for example.

          • Army1987 says:

            1. Reduce drug possession to an administrative offense — you pay a fine, but it doesn’t send you to prison; it doesn’t get recorded in a way that destroys future job prospects; etc.

            IOW a tax, except implemented in a clumsy way.

    • Hainish says:

      As someone who’s left in the U.S., I think you have it exactly backwards. The drug war targets predominantly poor men of color, who end up in jail even for possession of “soft” drugs. Your last paragraph, especially, seems to reflect what the U.S. left thinks that the U.S. right thinks of the poor. (I’ve never heard that sentiment expressed by anyone on the left, but do sometimes come across it from the right.)

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Of course it does.

        It’s easy to intimidate witnesses to assault.

        It’s hard to intimidate a police chemist who testifies that the white lump the “vibrant youth” was holding is cocaine.

        The whole “war on drugs” is a sideline.

  35. Pingback: Society And Biology - CURATIO Magazine

  36. 27chaos says:

    I think government is bad at changing society to improve upon democratic liberalism. But although government is perhaps ineffective there, other actors have power they can exert on society. Society changes from the bottom up, not top down; this is different than not changing at all.

    I have always been interested in non governmental associations for collective action, I think they might have a lot of useful potential.

    Huh. Why is my comment up here, above some comments made yesterday?

    • The comments below this one (as of this writing) were originally replies to a different comment that has since been deleted. The comment system here puts non-deleted replies to deleted comments at the bottom of the thread, below all other comments regardless of when they were posted.

  37. Michael Wittig says:

    Taking the idea in this post as a given, does anyone have any suggestions as to where to push in response? I am a web developer (Ruby on Rails) with a bio background and wouldn’t mind a career change into someplace where I could push these sorts of interventions. IE, what companies or nonprofits out there are working on these sorts of interventions, or what business opportunities exist to sell these interventions profitably?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is not super related to this post, but if I get the opportunity to push someone into a socially useful scientific career, I suggest genetic engineering, particularly whichever subfield of it allows you to create strands of DNA on demand and inject them into eggs to create custom organisms. Like these people, but with more followthrough.

      I think genetic error correction (see here) is a super-important pre-singularity technology – and one that right now we don’t have anyone from the community in place to help with. I want to wait until a later post when I can justify this better, but if you’ve got Bostrom’s “Superintelligence”, the basic argument is on page 41, starting with “One intervention that becomes possible when human genomes can be synthesized is genetic spell-checking”.

      • Michael Wittig says:

        Your reply is somewhat more related than you might expect. That was my original career path; I double majored in Computer Science and Cell/Molecular Biology, my undergrad research was in algal genomics and then algal genetic engineering, and then my graduate research was initially in, well, DNA computing which was the closest thing I could find. Turns out doing research, especially benchwork research, makes me rather severely depressed. I can’t even do pure computational research. So far as I can tell, I’m an engineer-type, which appears to be distinctly different from being a scientist-type. This seems to be mostly the rate of success of

        So, if you know of any researchers working on that sort of thing who need computational tools built, especially computational biology tools, especially people that have existing such tools that suck and need improved and have the resources to mentor someone trying to dive into the field, then that’s the sort of job I would be interested in. I seem to be *very* effective as a supporting engineer type for smart technical people. I can’t do research but I can build information manipulation tools.

        I’d be pretty interested in working on building tools to assist with doing phenotypic load calculations, for example.

  38. R. says:

    The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes.

    Would that, like, actually, help?

    Even if the developed world funded such programs, it’d be essentially meaningless. Perpetually undeveloped countries, wouldn’t implement such programs, would still suffer from high population growth and their surplus populations would be still trying to immigrate.

    Furthermore, religiously-motivated conservatives are going to be ferociously opposed to something like that…

  39. Joel says:

    It seems to me, Scott, that you’re assuming that problems caused by biology have only biological solutions, and that problems caused by society have only social solutions. It’s not clear to me, though, why that should be the case. For example, suppose that relative to our current environment, people with a certain difference in their brain physiology have ADHD, so that it has in that sense a “biological cause.” That wouldn’t imply that it wasn’t possible to alter their social environment in such a way that they would be able to function well, pay attention, etc.

  40. G Joubert says:

    Having a granddaughter with this diagnosis, I’m thinking true cases of ADHD have a cause that runs deeper than these two things you remember (iron deficiency and spiritual desert).

    She manifested symptoms all the way back to infancy. So that rules out the spiritual desert of adolesence. Iron deficienecy might be viable, but I don’t think that was the cause either.

    OTOH, her father was also severely ADHD, to the point that it greatly affected his productivity as an adult. Last I heard he was doing a prison stretch.

    I’m guessing heredity.

    • Vulture says:

      Out of curiousity, how exactly does one assess an infant for ADHD? (edit: for background, I have ADHD w/ a family history myself, but had been partial to the iron explanation after reading some literature reviews and meta-analyses. I’m asking because I’m surprised that the iron hypothesis would have lasted so long if it is so easily ruled out.)

      • G Joubert says:

        Mainly she was very alert to her surroundings, eyes wide-open, constantly examining everything going on around her, all at a very young age, 4 months or less. Once she was walking (10 months) it was nonstop action, to the point of risk. She required 100% ongoing hands-on attention and supervision during every waking moment. It wasn’t confirmed until age 4 when she was referred by her preschool teacher. A complete diagnostic workup was done and it came back ADHD w/ODD. Two years later, when she got to first grade, she got crosswise with her teacher and a referral was done again and the workup repeated, and the diagnosis was reconfirmed. The school district wanted to be sure. That’s the story. There’s a certain confirmation going on, but it’s not hindsight bias: this kid was very different from day one. And now at age 13 still is.

  41. Patrick Robotham says:

    I think the reason that social explanations are preferred is that biological explanations require one to actually know things. Everyone understands coercion. Furthermore, the debates about using coercion are generally about whether it’s moral to employ (and everyone can have opinions about that). In contrast, very few people have the time to research how biology affects behavior and formulate effective policy proposals.

  42. Furslid says:

    One overlooked mechanism, is that manipulating society, is a social phenomena. It’s very difficult to compensate for these additional changes. Suppose it’s found that giving children some names has major negative effects later in life. How do you prevent people from giving their kids bad names? If you make it illegal, people must now get government approval to name their kids. If you advertise, you are telling those kids who already have or get bad names that their parents failed them. How are kids effected by having names their parents don’t want. How are subcultures effected if they can’t use many of their traditional names. Can you know what effects this will have? Even when these interact with your improvements?

    The social changes from any biological improvements don’t directly interact the same way.

    We also have set up the social infrastructure to mandate more biological changes easily. Product safety and environmental laws were major social changes. But changing the content of these laws isn’t nearly as big of a change.

  43. Army1987 says:

    BTW, have your object-level recommendations about supplementation changed much since your Quantified Health Prize entry?

  44. ” let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts.”

    BMI is inversely related to suicide.

    Bariatric surgery increases the risk of suicide.

    One possibility is that people with high BMIs are less likely to try to kill themselves, but when they do, it’s because of stigma.

    Another is that you’ve run into a statistical blip.

    A third is that things have gotten a lot worse for fat people, but it’s too soon for it to show up in the studies.

    I’m not sure how the effect of bariatric surgery fits into this, since I assume that if it’s hitting people who ended up with high BMIs, they’d still be part of the BMI is inversely related to BMI contingent.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Quoting your first link:

      an inverse relationship of BMI with risk of suicide death, but a positive relationship with suicide attempts.

    • Matthew says:

      I bet you the Bariatric surgery –} suicidal ideation is because of some sort of micronutrient deficiency, not because of weight.

      (Someone I’m close to who’s had bariatric surgery has to get B12 injections now, for example. There are probably other nutrient absorption issues as well.)

  45. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2014/09/17 | Free Northerner

  46. Justin says:

    Have you heard of the contraceptive Vasagel being developed by the Parsemus Foundatation? It works like a vasectomy, except it should be easily reversible and is inexpensive. Your dream of universal birth control may be closer than you realize.