The Toxoplasma Of Rage


Some old news I only just heard about: PETA is offering to pay the water bills for needy Detroit families if (and only if) those families agree to stop eating meat.

Predictably, the move caused a backlash. The International Business Times, in what I can only assume is an attempted pun, describes them as “drowning in backlash”. Groundswell thinks it’s a “big blunder”. Daily Banter says it’s “exactly why everyone hates PETA”. Jezebel calls them “assholes”.

Of course, this is par for the course for PETA, who have previously engaged in campaigns like throwing red paint on fashion models who wear fur, juxtaposing pictures of animals with Holocaust victims, juxtaposing pictures of animals with African-American slaves, and ads featuring naked people that cross the line into pornography.

People call these things “blunders”, but consider the alternative. Vegan Outreach is an extremely responsible charity doing excellent and unimpeachable work in the same area PETA is. Nobody has heard of them. Everybody has heard of PETA, precisely because of the interminable stupid debates about “did this publicity stunt cross the line?”

While not everyone is a vegan, most people who learn enough about factory farming are upset by it. There is pretty much zero room for PETA to convert people from pro-factory-farming to anti-factory-farming, because there aren’t any radical grassroots pro-factory-farming activists to be found. Their problem isn’t lack of agreement. It’s lack of attention.

PETA creates attention, but at a cost. Everybody’s talking about PETA, which is sort of like everybody talking about ethical treatment of animals, which is sort of a victory. But most of the talk is “I hate them and they make me really angry.” Some of the talk is even “I am going to eat a lot more animals just to make PETA mad.”

So there’s a tradeoff here, with Vegan Outreach on one side and PETA on the other.

Vegan Outreach can get everyone to agree in principle that factory-farming is bad, but no one will pay any attention to it.

And PETA can get everyone to pay attention to factory farming, but a lot of people who would otherwise oppose it will switch to supporting it just because they’re so mad at the way it’s being publicized.

But at least they’re paying attention!

PETA doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot because they’re stupid. They shoot themselves in the foot because they’re traveling up an incentive gradient that rewards them for doing so, even if it destroys their credibility.


The University of Virginia rape case profiled in Rolling Stone has fallen apart. In doing so, it joins a long and distinguished line of highly-publicized rape cases that have fallen apart. Studies sometimes claim that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Yet the rate for allegations that go ultra-viral in the media must be an order of magnitude higher than this. As the old saying goes, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The enigma is complicated by the observation that it’s usually feminist activists who are most instrumental in taking these stories viral. It’s not some conspiracy of pro-rape journalists choosing the most dubious accusations in order to discredit public trust. It’s people specifically selecting these incidents as flagship cases for their campaign that rape victims need to be believed and trusted. So why are the most publicized cases so much more likely to be false than the almost-always-true average case?

Several people have remarked that false accusers have more leeway to make their stories as outrageous and spectacular as possible. But I want to focus on two less frequently mentioned concerns.

The Consequentialism FAQ explains signaling in moral decisions like so:

When signaling, the more expensive and useless the item is, the more effective it is as a signal. Although eyeglasses are expensive, they’re a poor way to signal wealth because they’re very useful; a person might get them not because ey is very rich but because ey really needs glasses. On the other hand, a large diamond is an excellent signal; no one needs a large diamond, so anybody who gets one anyway must have money to burn.

Certain answers to moral dilemmas can also send signals. For example, a Catholic man who opposes the use of condoms demonstrates to others (and to himself!) how faithful and pious a Catholic he is, thus gaining social credibility. Like the diamond example, this signaling is more effective if it centers upon something otherwise useless. If the Catholic had merely chosen not to murder, then even though this is in accord with Catholic doctrine, it would make a poor signal because he might be doing it for other good reasons besides being Catholic – just as he might buy eyeglasses for reasons beside being rich. It is precisely because opposing condoms is such a horrendous decision that it makes such a good signal.

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

In the same way, publicizing how strongly you believe an accusation that is obviously true signals nothing. Even hard-core anti-feminists would believe a rape accusation that was caught on video. A moral action that can be taken just as well by an outgroup member as an ingroup member is crappy signaling and crappy identity politics. If you want to signal how strongly you believe in taking victims seriously, you talk about it in the context of the least credible case you can find.

But aside from that, there’s the PETA Principle: the more controversial something is, the more it gets talked about.

A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, just as they’ll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you’re going to need more than that to draw people out of their shells.

On the other hand, the controversy over dubious rape allegations is exactly that – a controversy. People start screaming at each other about how they’re misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and Facebook feeds get filled up with hundreds of comments in all capital letters about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup. At each step, more and more people get triggered and upset. Some of those triggered people do emergency ego defense by reblogging articles about how the group that triggered them are terrible, triggering further people in a snowball effect that spreads the issue further with every iteration.


Only controversial things get spread. A rape allegation will only be spread if it’s dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics. An obviously true rape allegation will only be spread if the response is controversial enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics – which is why so much coverage focuses on the proposal that all accused rapists should be treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Everybody hates rape just like everybody hates factory farming. “Rape culture” doesn’t mean most people like rape, it means most people ignore it. That means feminists face the same double-bind that PETA does.

First, they can respond to rape in a restrained and responsible way, in which case everyone will be against it and nobody will talk about it.

Second, they can respond to rape in an outrageous and highly controversial way, in which case everybody will talk about it but it will autocatalyze an opposition of people who hate feminists and obsessively try to prove that as many rape allegations as possible are false.

I have yet to see anyone holding a cardboard sign talking about how they are going to rape people just to make feminists mad, but it’s only a matter of time. Like PETA, their incentive gradient dooms them to shoot themselves in the foot again and again.


Slate recently published an article about white people’s contrasting reactions to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson versus the Eric Garner choking in NYC. And man, it is some contrast.

A Pew poll found that of white people who expressed an opinion about the Ferguson case, 73% sided with the officer. Of white people who expressed an opinion about the Eric Garner case, 63% sided with the black victim.

Media opinion follows much the same pattern. Arch-conservative Bill O’Reilly said he was “absolutely furious” about the way “the liberal media” and “race hustlers” had “twisted the story” about Ferguson in the service of “lynch mob justice” and “insulting the American police community, men and women risking their lives to protect us”. But when it came to Garner, O’Reilly said he was “extremely troubled” and that “there was a police overreaction that should have been adjudicated in a court of law.” His guest on FOX News, conservative commentator and fellow Ferguson-detractor Charles Krauthammer added that “From looking at the video, the grand jury’s decision [not to indict] is totally incomprehensible.” Saturday Night Live did a skit about Al Sharpton talking about the Garner case and getting increasingly upset because “For the first time in my life, everyone agrees with me.”

This follows about three months of most of America being at one another’s throats pretty much full-time about Ferguson. We got treated to a daily diet of articles like Ferguson Protester On White People: “Y’all The Devil” or Black People Had The Power To Fix The Problems In Ferguson Before The Brown Shooting – They Failed or Most White People In America Are Completely Oblivious and a whole bunch of people sending angry racist editorials and counter-editorials to each other for months. The damage done to race relations is difficult to overestimate – CBS reports that they dropped ten percentage points to the lowest point in twenty years, with over half of blacks now describing race relations as “bad”.

And people say it was all worth it, because it raised awareness of police brutality against black people, and if that rustles some people’s jimmies, well, all the worse for them.

But the Eric Garner case also would have raised awareness of police brutality against black people, and everybody would have agreed about it. It has become increasingly clear that, given sufficiently indisputable evidence of police being brutal to a black person, pretty much everyone in the world condemns it equally strongly.

And it’s not just that the Eric Garner case came around too late so we had to make do with the Mike Brown case. Garner was choked a month before Brown was shot, but the story was ignored, then dug back up later as a tie-in to the ballooning Ferguson narrative.

More important, unarmed black people are killed by police or other security officers about twice a week according to official statistics, and probably much more often than that. You’re saying none of these shootings, hundreds each year, made as good a flagship case as Michael Brown? In all this gigantic pile of bodies, you couldn’t find one of them who hadn’t just robbed a convenience store? Not a single one who didn’t have ten eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence all saying he started it?

I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral – rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others – because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defense as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.

The Ferguson protesters say they have a concrete policy proposal – they want cameras on police officers. There’s only spotty polling on public views of police body cameras before the Ferguson story took off, but what there is seems pretty unanimous. A UK poll showed that 90% of the population of that country wanted police to have body cameras in February. US polls are more of the form “crappy poll widget on a news site” (1, 2, 3) but they all hovered around 80% approval for the past few years. I also found a poll by Police Magazine in which a plurality of the police officers they surveyed wanted to wear body cameras, probably because of evidence that they cut down on false accusations. Even before Ferguson happened, you would have a really hard time finding anybody in or out of uniform who thought police cameras were a bad idea.

And now, after all is said and done, ninety percent of people are still in favor – given methodology issues, the extra ten percent may or may not represent a real increase. The difference between whites and blacks is a rounding error. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is barely worth talking about- 79% of Republicans are still in support. The people who think Officer Darren Wilson is completely innocent and the grand jury was right to release him, the people muttering under their breath about race hustlers and looters – eighty percent of those people still want cameras on their cops.

If the Ferguson protests didn’t do much to the public’s views on police body cameras, they sure changed its views on some other things. I wrote before about how preliminary polls say that hearing about Ferguson increased white people’s confidence in the way the police treat race. Now the less preliminary polls are out, and they show the effect was larger than even I expected.


White people’s confidence in the police being racially unbiased increased from 35% before the story took off to 52% today. Could even a deliberate PR campaign by the nation’s police forces have done better? I doubt it.

It’s possible that this is an artifact of the question’s wording – after all, it asks people about their local department, and maybe after seeing what happened in Ferguson, people’s local police forces look pretty good by comparison. But then why do black people show the opposite trend?

I think this is exactly what it looks like. Just as PETA’s outrageous controversial campaign to spread veganism make people want to eat more animals in order to spite them, so the controversial nature of this particular campaign against police brutality and racism made white people like their local police department even more to spite the people talking about how all whites were racist.

Once again, the tradeoff.

If campaigners against police brutality and racism were extremely responsible, and stuck to perfectly settled cases like Eric Garner, everybody would agree with them but nobody would talk about it.

If instead they bring up a very controversial case like Michael Brown, everybody will talk about it, but they will catalyze their own opposition and make people start supporting the police more just to spite them. More foot-shooting.


Here is a graph of some of the tags I commonly use for my posts, with the average number of hits per post in each tag. It’s old, but I don’t want to go through the trouble of making a new one, and the trends have stayed the same since then.

I blog about charity only rarely, but it must be the most important thing I can write about here. Convincing even a few more people to donate to charity, or to redirect their existing donations to a more effective program, can literally save dozens or even hundreds of lives even with the limited reach that a private blog has. It probably does more good for the world than all of the other categories on here combined. But it’s completely uncontroversial – everyone agrees it’s a good thing – and it is the least viewed type of post.

Compare this to the three most viewed category of post. Politics is self-explanatory. Race and gender are a type of politics even more controversial and outrage-inducing than regular politics. And that “regret” all the way on the right is my “things i will regret writing” tag, for posts that I know are going to start huge fights and probably get me in lots of trouble. They’re usually race and gender as well, but digging deep into the really really controversial race and gender related issues.

The less useful, and more controversial, a post here is, the more likely it is to get me lots of page views.

For people who agree with me, my angry rants on identity politics are a form of ego defense, saying “You’re okay, your in-group was in the right the whole time.” Linking to it both raises their status as an in-group members, and acts as a potential assault on out-group members who are now faced with strong arguments telling them they’re wrong. And the people who disagree with me will sometimes write angry rebuttals on their own blogs, and those rebuttals will link to my own post and spread it further. Or they’ll talk about it with their disagreeing friends, and their friends will get mad and want to tell me I’m wrong, and come over here to read the post to get more ammunition for their counterarguments. I have a feature that tells me who links to all of my posts, so I can see this all happening in real-time.

I don’t make enough money off the ads on this blog to matter much. But if I lived off them, which do you think I’d write more of? Posts about charity which only get me 2,000 paying customers? Or posts that turn all of you against one another like a pack of rabid dogs, and get me 16,000?

I don’t have a fancy bar graph for them, but I bet this same hierarchy of interestingness applies to the great information currents and media outlets that shape society as a whole. It’s in activists’ interests to destroy their own causes by focusing on the most controversial cases and principles, the ones that muddy the waters and make people oppose them out of spite. And it’s in the media’s interest to help them and egg them on.


And now, for something completely different.

Before “meme” meant doge and all your base, it was a semi-serious attempt to ground cultural evolution in parasitology. The idea was to replace a model of humans choosing whichever ideas they liked with a model of ideas as parasites that evolved in ways that favored their own transmission. This never really caught on, because most people’s response was “That’s neat. So what?”

But let’s talk about toxoplasma.

Toxoplasma is a neat little parasite that is implicated in a couple of human diseases including schizophrenia. Its life cycle goes like this: it starts in a cat. The cat poops it out. The poop and the toxoplasma get in the water supply, where they are consumed by some other animal, often a rat. The toxoplasma morphs into a rat-compatible form and starts reproducing. Once it has strength in numbers, it hijacks the rat’s brain, convincing the rat to hang out conspicuously in areas where cats can eat it. After a cat eats the rat, the toxoplasma morphs back into its cat compatible form and reproduces some more. Finally, it gets pooped back out by the cat, completing the cycle.

It’s the ciiiiiircle of life!

What would it mean for a meme to have a life cycle as complicated as toxoplasma?

Consider the war on terror. They say that every time the United States bombs Pakistan or Afghanistan or somewhere, all we’re doing is radicalizing the young people there and making more terrorists. Those terrorists then go on to kill Americans, which makes Americans get very angry and call for more bombing of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Taken as a meme, it’s a single parasite with two hosts and two forms. In an Afghan host, it appears in a form called ‘jihad’, and hijacks its host into killing himself in order to spread it to its second, American host. In the American host it morphs in a form called ‘the war on terror’, and it hijacks the Americans into giving their own lives (and tax dollars) to spread it back to its Afghan host in the form of bombs.

From the human point of view, jihad and the War on Terror are opposing forces. From the memetic point of view, they’re as complementary as caterpillars and butterflies. Instead of judging, we just note that somehow we accidentally created a replicator, and replicators are going to replicate until something makes them stop.

Replicators are also going to evolve. Some Afghan who thinks up a particularly effective terrorist strategy helps the meme spread to more Americans as the resulting outrage fuels the War on Terror. When the American bombing heats up, all of the Afghan villagers radicalized in by the attack will remember the really effective new tactic that Khalid thought up and do that one instead of the boring old tactic that barely killed any Americans at all. Some American TV commentator who comes up with a particularly stirring call to retaliation will find her words adopted into party platforms and repeated by pro-war newspapers. While pacifists on both sides work to defuse the tension, the meme is engaging in a counter-effort to become as virulent as possible, until people start suggesting putting pork fat in American bombs just to make Muslims even madder.

And let’s talk about Tumblr.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well.

What happens is – someone makes a statement which is controversial by Tumblr standards, like “Protect Doctor Who fans from kitten pic sharers at all costs.” A kitten pic sharer sees the statement, sees red, and reblogs it to her followers with a series of invectives against Doctor Who fans. Since kitten pic sharers cluster together in the social network, soon every kitten pic sharer has seen the insult against kitten pic sharer – as they all feel the need to add their defensive commentary to it, soon all of them are seeing it from ten different directions. The angry invectives get back to the Doctor Who fans, and now they feel deeply offended, so they reblog it among themselves with even more condemnations of the kitten pic sharers, who now not only did whatever inspired the enmity in the first place, but have inspired extra hostility because their hateful invectives are right there on the post for everyone to see. So about half the stuff on your dashboard is something you actually want to see, and the other half is towers of alternate insults that look like this:

Actually, pretty much this happened to the PETA story I started off with

And then you sigh and scroll down to the next one. Unless of course you are a Doctor Who fan, in which case you sigh and then immediately reblog with the comment “It’s obvious you guys started ganging up against us first, don’t try to accuse **US** now” because you can’t just let that accusation stand.

I make fun of Tumblr social justice sometimes, but the problem isn’t with Tumblr social justice, it’s structural. Every community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent critics, I am not talking about you). It’s like one of those rainforest ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them. If Tumblr social justice is worse than anything else, it’s mostly because everyone has a race and a gender so it’s easier to fire broad cannonades and just hit everybody.

Tumblr’s reblog policy makes it a hothouse for toxoplasma-style memes that spread via outrage. Following the ancient imperative of evolution, if memes spread by outrage they adapt to become as outrage-inducing as possible.

Or rather, that is just one of their many adaptations. I realize this toxoplasma metaphor sort of strains credibility, so I want to anchor this idea of outrage-memes in pretty much the only piece of memetics everyone can agree upon.

The textbook example of a meme – indeed, almost the only example ever discussed – is the chain letter. “Send this letter to ten people and you will prosper. Fail to pass it on, and you will die tomorrow.” And so the letter replicates.

It might be useful evidence that we were on the right track here, with our toxoplasma memes and everything, if we could find evidence that they reproduced in the same way.

If you’re not on Tumblr, you might have missed the “everyone who does not reblog the issue du jour is trash” wars. For a few weeks around the height of the Ferguson discussion, people constantly called out one another for not reblogging enough Ferguson-related material, or (Heavens forbid) saying they were sick of the amount of Ferguson material they were seeing. It got so bad that various art blogs that just posted pretty paintings, or kitten picture blogs that just reblogged pictures of kittens were feeling the heat (you thought I was joking about the hate for kitten picture bloggers. I never joke.) Now the issue du jour seems to be Pakistan. Just to give a few examples:

“friends if you are reblogging things that are not about ferguson right now please queue them instead. please pay attention to things that are more important. it’s not the time to talk about fandoms or jokes it’s time to talk about injustices.” [source]

“can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others” [source]

“If you’re uneducated, do not use that as an excuse. Do not say, “I’m not picking sides because I don’t know the full story,” because not picking a side is supporting Wilson. And by supporting him, you are on a racist side…Ignoring this situation will put you in deep shit, and it makes you racist. If you’re not racist, do not just say “but I’m not racist!!” just get educated and reblog anything you can.” [source]

“why are you so disappointing? I used to really like you. you’ve kept totally silent about peshawar, not acknowledging anything but fucking zutara or bellarke or whatever. there are other posts you’ve reblogged too that I wouldn’t expect you to- but those are another topic. I get that you’re 19 but maybe consider becoming a better fucking person?” [source]

“if you’re white, before you reblog one of those posts that’s like “just because i’m not blogging about ferguson doesn’t mean i don’t care!!!” take a few seconds to: consider the privilege you have that allows you not to pay attention if you don’t want to. consider those who do not have the privilege to focus on other things. ask yourself why you think it’s more important that people know you “care” than it is to spread information and show support. then consider that you are a fucking shitbaby.” [source]

“For everyone reblogging Ferguson, Ayotzinapa, North Korea etc and not reblogging Peshawar, you should seriously be ashamed of yourselves.” [source]

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?? I could give two fucks about internet shitlings.” [source]

You may also want to check the Tumblr tag “the trash is taking itself out”, in which hundreds of people make the same joke (“I think some people have stopped reading my blog because I’m talking too much about [the issue du jour]. I guess the trash is taking itself out now.”)

This is pretty impressive. It’s the first time outside of a chain letter that I have seen our memetic overlords throw off all pretense and just go around shouting “SPREAD ME OR YOU ARE GARBAGE AND EVERYONE WILL HATE YOU.”

But it only works because it’s tapped into the most delicious food source an ecology of epistemic parasites could possibly want – controversy,

I would like to be able to write about charity more often. Feminists would probably like to start supercharging the true rape accusations for a change. Protesters against police brutality would probably like to be able to focus on clear-cut cases that won’t make white people support the police even harder. Even PETA would probably prefer being the good guys for once. But the odds aren’t good. Not because the people involved are bad people who want to fail. Not even because the media-viewing public are stupid. Just because information ecologies are not your friend.

This blog tries to remember the Litany of Jai: “Almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken”. We pretty much never wrestle with flesh and blood; it’s powers and principalities all the way down.


A while ago I wrote a post called Meditations on Moloch where I pointed out that in any complex multi-person system, the system acts according to its own chaotic incentives that don’t necessarily correspond to what any individual within the system wants. The classic example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which usually ends at defect-defect even though both of the two prisoners involved prefer cooperate-cooperate. I compare this malignant discoordination to Ginsberg’s portrayal of Moloch, the demon-spirit of capitalism gone wrong.

Steven in his wisdom reminds us that there is no National Conversation Topic Czar. The rise of some topics to national prominence and the relegation of others to tiny print on the eighth page of the newspapers occurs by an emergent uncoordinated process. When we say “the media decided to cover Ferguson instead of Eric Garner”, we reify and anthropomorphize an entity incapable of making goal-directed decisions.

A while back there was a minor scandal over JournoList, a private group where left-leaning journalists met and exchanged ideas. I think the conservative spin was “the secret conspiracy running the liberal media – revealed!” I wish they had been right. If there were a secret conspiracy running the liberal media, they could all decide they wanted to raise awareness of racist police brutality, pick the most clear-cut and sympathetic case, and make it non-stop news headlines for the next two months. Then everyone would agree it was indeed very brutal and racist, and something would get done.

But as it is, even if many journalists are interested in raising awareness of police brutality, given their total lack of coordination there’s not much they can do. An editor can publish a story on Eric Garner, but in the absence of a divisive hook, the only reason people will care about it is that caring about it is the right thing and helps people. But that’s “charity”, and we already know from my blog tags that charity doesn’t sell. A few people mumble something something deeply distressed, but neither black people nor white people get interested, in the “keep tuning to their local news channel to get the latest developments on the case” sense.

The idea of liberal strategists sitting down and choosing “a flagship case for the campaign against police brutality” is poppycock. Moloch – the abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives – will publicize whatever he feels like publicizing. And if they want viewers and ad money, the media will go along with him.

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistibly incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistibly incentivized to help them.

Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Under Moloch, everyone is irresistibly incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.

People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else. An engine that creates money by burning the few remaining shreds of cooperation, bipartisanship and social trust.

Imagine Moloch looking out over the expanse of the world, eagle-eyed for anything that can turn brother against brother and husband against wife. Finally he decides “YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? BIRD-WATCHING. LET ME FIND SOME STORY THAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE HATE EACH OTHER OVER BIRD-WATCHING”. And the next day half the world’s newspaper headlines are “Has The Political Correctness Police Taken Over Bird-Watching?” and the other half are “Is Bird-Watching Racist?”. And then bird-watchers and non-bird-watchers and different sub-groups of bird-watchers hold vitriolic attacks on each other that feed back on each other in a vicious cycle for the next six months, and the whole thing ends in mutual death threats and another previously innocent activity turning into World War I style trench warfare.


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624 Responses to The Toxoplasma Of Rage

  1. Anonymous says:

    The backlash to PETA brings to mind the recent complaints of Uber surge-pricing; that is, people complaining about something THAT WOULD OTHERWISE NOT EXIST.


    Same with Uber. Years ago this service didn’t exist. Now it does and people complain that it’s expensive.

    Entitlement is what people call this, but that’s the wrong word. This is not entitlement. I don’t know what I’d call it.

    • I think it’s the same phenomenon wherein people become outraged at the prospect of trading-off sacred values for mundane ones.

      • Fazathra says:

        I think it’s the same phenomenon wherein people become outraged at the prospect of trading-off sacred values for mundane ones.

        I think the perceived immorality of this comes because it breaks the moral principle of not taking advantage of people’s misery. It’s the same moral uneasiness that you feel towards the pay day lenders who take advantage of people’s momentary distress to lend them money at exorbitant rates of interest. From a utilitarian perspective this feeling is obviously stupid as all sides are deriving gains from trade, but that is where I think the condemnation comes from.

        • Murphy says:

          It’s basically Souperism:

          Bitterness over that kind of thing can last a long time.

          • anonymousCoward says:

            And we would agree that Souperism is deeply repugnant, yes?

          • youzicha says:

            That seems different, though, because it requires rejecting one ideology/ingroup, namely Catholicism. It makes sense that people identifying as Catholic would resent that the Protestants found a way to weaken Catholicism, and apparently people who “took the soup” were ostracized.

            But nobody really identifies as a meat-eater, or cheers for the meat-eating team? So taking up the water-bill offer doesn’t seem to require betraying any loyalties or defecting from anyone.

          • Alex Mennen says:

            @anonymousCoward, it sounds perfectly acceptable to me, for the same reasons Anonymous pointed out about PETA’s offer.

        • Viliam Búr says:

          I think the heuristics against “taking advantage of people’s misery” makes sense, because sometimes there are situations where some people cause other people’s misery in order to take advantage of it later. We certainly want to prevent that.

          All heuristics being imperfect, this heuristics also incorrectly applies to situations where people who “take advantage” didn’t contribute to the misery at all. But the world is complex, and we can never be sure who is contributing to which misery how. (Maybe there is a possible solution to the misery, but the people who benefit from “taking advantage” also lobby against that solution.) So if you are not sure about the causality, the only solution is to disapprove of all kinds of “taking advantage”.

          So perhaps the heuristics is: “I will not allow you to take so much advantage of other people’s misery that it would make me suspect that you might have a profit motive to contribute to the misery.”

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            I think that if taking advantage of people in disadvantaged situations were to be considered mostly legitimate, there would be a fear that more and more people and organizations would be incentivised to start adapting this tactic.

            As it is, the high trade-off of killing one’s own cause for publicity keeps people/groups with an established “brand” from doing anything that could be perceived as taking advantage of people.

            If you have an established brand, it’s better to play it safe and broadcast your message through your established channels. However, for the vast majority who lack these resources, controversy is the only way to avoid having your message get lost in the noise.

      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        What I think is outrageous is not that PETA is doing this promotion, but that people are offended by it.

        PETA’s charity here is the best kind of charity: it has strings attached that encourage people to reform bad behaviors and live better lives. It is the same principle as the old charities that used to require people to adopt a “clean” lifestyle rather than just sending them a check.

        If you have a limited amount of money to give out in charity, why not give it to the most virtuous and deserving people, instead of those most likely to use it for bad ends?

        My problem with PETA is that I disagree with their fundamental premises. I don’t think animal rights are a good cause. I think it’s actively harmful.

        But what I just can’t understand is the people who seem to actively support PETA’s goals, but are opposed to this method, which is perhaps the most reasonable method of advancing its beliefs that PETA has ever adopted.

        Let’s imagine the cause was a more worthy one. Some organization decides to give money to poor people, and in return asks them to sign a pledge stating that they will support open borders, and whenever they hear someone say “Why don’t the illegals just wait in line?” they will explain why that’s bullshit. If they don’t want to sign the pledge, the money goes to some other poor person who doesn’t want to condemn foreigners needlessly to much worse poverty.

        Is that organization the devil now in that scenario? I don’t think so.

        • John Schilling says:

          People are offended by this sort of quasi-charity because it is actively counterproductive. Well, unless you are a butcher or something. Why not give your limited charity funding to the most virtuous and deserving people? Because it doesn’t work, as you can plainly see from the response to the PETA example.

          The way actual human beings respond to that tactic, is to see you as dividing the human race into an in-group and an out-group and conspicuously abandoning the out-group to the wolves. Which even the less committed members of your in-group will see as a really crappy thing to do. You may argue that this is not what you are actually doing, and you may be correct on the facts, but being correct on the facts does not help you here.

          By contrast, giving charity to everyone who needs it with no strings attached, but putting your name and logo in a prominent place and repeatedly but politely asking people to consider the rest of your message, that has a record of working quite well with real people.

        • Jiro says:

          Of course the organization is the devil in that scenario. It’s just the leftist version of someone saying “suppose some organization gives money to poor people, but only on the condition that they sign a pledge opposing immigration. If not, the money goes to some other poor person who doesn’t want to condemn his fellow poor citizens to depressed wages caused by the immigrants”.

          Everyone thinks their own pet cause helps people. Saying “if the poor person doesn’t agree, the money goes to another poor person more interested in helping people” is something that anyone with any cause can say. If you think the minimum wage causes poverty, replace “condemn foreigners to worse poverty” with “condemn people priced out of jobs to poverty”. If you think the Democratic Party’s policies lead to a bad economy and thus to more poverty, you can say “if the poor person doesn’t agree to become a Republican, the money goes to another poor person who doesn’t want to condemn his fellow poor people to the financial hardship suffered under the Democrats”.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I don’t have a problem with any of those things per se. Obviously I have a problem with the ones with whose causes I disagree, but it’s because I disagree with the cause, not the means.

        • FeepingCreature says:

          Point 1: this is practically equivalent to buying opinions wholesale. (This kills the democracy.) People will believe things if they just repeat them enough.

          Point 2: If the poor are poor, we can argue to help them. If the poor are kept aloft by a carefully negotiated system of cheaply-bought opinions they’re contractually obligated to spread, any argument against this system is an argument for more poverty. It’s a policy attractor, and I think it’s a harmful one because point 1.

          Don’t imagine “don’t eat meat”, imagine “vote for candidate X”.

          • anonymous says:

            I think maybe one important thing is that PETA isn’t asking people to change their beliefs, but their behaviors–paying the water bills, not of people who sign pledges supporting animal rights, but of people who don’t eat meat for the month. That seems more like compensated work than opinion buying.

          • Anthony says:

            There’s a difference between asking a poor person to “support” open borders (assuming “support” at least includes “not making statements against the idea”) and asking a poor person to not eat meat. The latter is not a “cheaply-bought opinion … obligated to spread”, it’s a concrete action which may actually lead directly to a life improvement. (It may not, and I believe in general it will not, because the substitutions people will make will not improve their health nor ultimately be any cheaper, but there are plenty of authorities on both sides of the question.)

            Looking into it a little, and thinking about it, I now think the Detroit water grandstanding is probably one of the *least* offensive things PETA has ever done. (It’s certainly less offensive than their mere existence.) It’s still grandstanding, and exploiting other people’s misery for their own benefit, and it’s limited to ten households for one month, but they’re even going to give those households food!

          • Daniel H says:

            Anonymous, it may be economically equivalent to compensated work in some ways, but psychologically it’s not. I thought the same thing before reading the comments here, but they point out that humans aren’t perfectly rational and this would convince people of the message. It reminds me of a problem I have with some arguments against Pascal’s Wager.

            Obviously Pascal’s Wager is bad for a variety of reasons, but one of the arguments against it is “But I can’t just decide to believe whatever I want; I believe what I actually think is true, not what I gain benefit for believing”. Pascal wasn’t asking you to just start believing in God. He asked you to go to Church and go through the motions, and eventually you would brainwash yourself into believing in God.

            Similarly, here, they are being asked to stop eating meat for animal rights reasons. Soon enough, this will cause most people to actually believe those animal rights reasons.

        • Randy M says:

          HA! I was in complete agreement until you got to your supposedly unobjectionable cause. Anyway, agree on the meta-issue as I said below.

        • a person says:

          I know on utilitarian grounds it’s hard (impossible?) to object to this, but I am a utilitarian and it’s been a while since I’ve seen something that really offended me as much as this has.

          I think the main reason is that… okay, PETA as an organization doesn’t really care about these people’s access to water, otherwise they would be Water Bill Charity and not PETA. So the point of this is for publicity, to somehow use the people of Detroit as examples. The people of Detroit are therefore forced into a position where they have to signal allegiance to PETA if they want to drink water. But it’s not even like they can just sign a form – it’s a massively costly signal, especially for a poor person who has a) a million other things to worry about and keep track of, b) needs their food to have all the nutritional value per dollar they can get, c) probably doesn’t have a Whole Foods or etc. in their neighborhood. And then there’s the absurdity of the situation, where the hypothetical animal’s life that this person is saving by going veg is elevated over the life of that human being. And also imagine the embarrassment, of having to be that guy who is constantly inconvenienced by his role as a puppet to a pet cause of rich white liberal hipsters, simply because he is forced into that situation.

          In this light, it almost seems kind of sadistic. It would be like if I, a billionaire, went a few blocks to the hood and offered to pay someone fifty thousand dollars to carve my name into their skin, or to strip naked and paint “I’M A PIECE OF POOP” on their chest and walk around like that for three days. We know from the existence of child labor and minimum wage laws that just because an exchange hypothetically benefits both actors, does not mean our society should allow it.

          • You don’t need Whole Foods for a healthy vegan diet, but you do need a full sized supermarket or a little Mexican grocery store (additional suggestions are welcome) to get the ingredients, assuming you have the time and facilities to cook.

            If cooking isn’t feasible, I don’t know what it would cost to live on prepared food, but it’s probably more expensive and less convenient than eating animal products.

            Also, another possible problem with the deal PETA offered– how were they planning to enforce it?

          • RCF says:

            This isn’t about drinking water. Tap water costs about $0.10/cubic foot. Even if someone drinks one cubic foot per day, that’s $3 a month.

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            Enforcement strikes me as a big problem here. The only real option I can see is to have families police one another, leading to gossip about “that family that sneaks out to McDonalds late at night” or “the family hording Slim-Jims”. Even within households, how can parents keep their teenagers from ordering pepperoni pizzas?

            The only possible outcomes I can see are A) an increasingly fragmented community consisting of resentful hold-outs and mutually distrustful “vegans” or B) an system of mutual cheating where everyone keeps eating the same way they did before but covers up for one another.

            “A” accomplishes PETA’s goals but hurts the community and “B” benefits the community but fails to accomplish PETA’s goals. Either way, I can’t see a mutually beneficial outcome.

            Of course there would likely be a few long-term converts who otherwise wouldn’t have tried veganism, but this small number is unlikely to justify PETA’s expenditure.

          • Protagoras says:

            @Clockwork Marx, if I were PETA, I’d just go with honor system. There probably are a few honorable people, and anyway what they mostly want is publicity for the cause.

          • Jonas says:

            inconvenienced by his role as a puppet to a pet cause of rich white liberal hipsters

            But I always thought the rich white liberal hipsters genuinely cared about the effects of their favored policy on poor people and minorities and it wasn’t just a bunch of empty status-seeking virtue signaling? 🙁

            See also affirmative action, opposition to nuclear power, DDT ban and [you get the point].

            We know from the existence of child labor and minimum wage laws that just because an exchange hypothetically benefits both actors, does not mean our society should allow it.

            Your literal statement is weird: we know from the existence of something [a ban] that said existence is justified (or that its absence would be unjust)? The law is just because it is the law? That sounds like the stupid kind of conservatism I can never like. (I’m not a conservative, but some of e.g. Hayek’s more conservative views seem to at least have been thought about somewhat carefully.)

            Also, it’s not the least bit obvious that child labor laws are necessary in the west: ~100% of people can afford free public schools as a better alternative to having their children work, and if they can’t why would you shove the children who by assumption NEED(!!!) to work into the black market or worse—which is where they will end up because they NEED(!!!) to work. It’d be far better, I think, to give poor people some (more) cash so they don’t need to have their children work, in which case the need for a prohibition goes away.

            But I’m also here to spin the roulette wheel of new ideas, so if you wouldn’t mind—dear god I hope my tone wasn’t (too?) hostile—I would very much like to hear the scenario in which a child labor ban helps the child who would have otherwise worked (or their family), or failing that, helps someone else while not being at said child’s (or family’s) expense. I would be extra interested in an estimate of how frequent that is.

        • Anonymous says:

          The problem with this type of charity is that it’s paternalistic. It assumes that the person giving the charity knows more about how to help the person receiving the charity than the recipient themself. It also runs into problems when the strings attached aren’t actually in the other person’s best interest, which likely happens more often than you think.

          A good argument against this approach can be found here:

          • Jonas says:

            It assumes that the person giving the charity knows more about how to help the person receiving the charity than the recipient themself.

            I know Sally Satel has written a book titled “Drug Treatment: The Case for Coercion”. This isn’t really so much conditional-and-thus-due-to-dire-straits-quasi-coercive charity, but actual police-enforced… not charity but treatment. And the drug addicts in question who destroy their lives have a track record of acting against their own interests.

            I think maybe I should perhaps update my priors a wee little bit, and probably in your favor, but I’m not sure. Bayesianism is hard, let’s go wireheading.

        • Anonymous says:

          I agree with your general point, but question the analogy between the PETA case and conditional transfers to the “deserving poor”. In the case of conditional charity, the goal is to help the people accepting the money, but to give that money selectively and/or to give them an incentive to help themselves. In the case of PETA, they don’t care about the well-being of the people whom they’re paying, they just want then to stop eating meat and are willing to pay to get them to do it. PETA is engaging in trade, not in conditional charity.

        • Hmmmmm says:

          So why don’t the illegals just wait in line?

          I’ve never actually heard an argument in favor of illegal immigration, just “People who are against illegal immigration are racists!” Which isn’t an argument. If I tried to illegally immigrate to Germany wouldn’t they’d kick my ass out?

          • Richard Gadsden says:

            The reason that you don’t hear arguments in favour of illegal immigration is the same as the reason you don’t hear arguments in favour of illegal use of drugs. No-one thinks that illegal immigration is a good thing: one extreme wants it to be legal (open borders, or free movement of labour) and the other extreme wants it to be seriously punished (though, I note, no-one proposes taking that to the absolute limit of making it a defence to murder that the victim was an illegal immigrant).

          • Careless says:

            They don’t wait in line because most of them will never get in that way.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            So why don’t the illegals just wait in line?

            Because they will never get in that way.

            Look, I’m against illegal immigration, too, but policy debates should not be one-sided. Let’s not pretend there is a nice, legal immigration process that millions of people are side-stepping because they are too impatient to wait in line like everybody else. There isn’t.

            When you eat cheap meat for dinner, you should be fully aware that the animal you are swallowing lived a horrible life in an overcrowded cage where it never got to see the light of day. When you advocate against illegal immigration, you should do it in the full knowledge that most of those people will never be able to legally enter the country, and that they will almost certainly have a worse quality of life as a result. Anything else is intellectual cowardice.

        • Alan says:

          I tend to agree. I’m no fan of PETA, but this is one of the least objectionable things they have done.

          If they were serious about changing minds, however, rather than just garnering attention for themselves, they would have offered to pay the water bill for those who pledged to go vegetarian for a week or a month. People who can’t afford water can’t afford to go entirely vegan any way.

        • Sameer says:

          I agree with you on the issue at hand. Do you mind explaining to me why you believe that animal welfare is an actively harmful cause? (I started eating only humanely raised meat about 6 months ago for ethical reasons, but I really enjoy meat and dairy and find this inconvenient, so I’m actively in the market for compelling arguments against my position! It kind of sounds like I’m trolling here, but I’m not.)


    • Emily H. says:

      I do think you can argue that any new thing changes the ecosystem in ways that can hurt others. In most of the US, the widespread use of cars changed city planning and made it close to impossible to do without a car. Public transit works well in New York because lots of middle class people use it, and they can exert political pressure; I can imagine a future in which Uber siphons off a lot of them, leaving an underfunded transit system used mainly by poorer people. Or, if the church down the road provides meals and beds for the homeless if they listen to a sermon – it may be better than not providing food and beds for people, but if it reduces support for secular homelessness services because people think the need is taken care of, that’s a problem.

      Which is not to say that PETA or Uber are bad things, but I don’t think people are just being entitled when they raise concerns about this kind of thing.

      • Careless says:

        You can imagine a future where so many middle class people are riding around NYC in Uber cars that it significantly impacts mass transit ridership? Where would the cars all fit?

    • Jacob Schmidt says:


      That is something I see quite frequently, though, I’d say there is harm in being targeted and taken advantage of by a comparatively wealthy interest group.

      I’ll admit that this case bothers less than others that come to mind, like religious charities forcing desperate folk to jump through sectarian hoops to receive aid: PETA, at least, has an honest goal, even if they are targeting the vulnerable.

      • Emile says:

        there is harm in being targeted and taken advantage

        The only impression “harm” comes from equivocation over what is meant by “to take advantage of” (you can “take advantage” of somebody and leave them better off, or worse off). The strict definition of “take advantage of” doesn’t mean you’re making somebody worse off, but that’s a frequent implication.

        • Symmetry says:

          I think that “take advantage” here was a perfect example of a use of the worst argument in the world.

          • Viliam Búr says:

            Yes. We focus on pattern-matching something to blackmail, while ignoring what exactly are those people asked to do (eat a different meal? give up money? be brainwashed?), and what will happen to them if they refuse (they die? they have to walk a long distance? they have to pay their own bills?).

            There is a moral difference between “join our cult or die from hunger” and “if you will eat a vegan pizza instead of quattro formagi, I will pay your bills”.

        • Anon says:

          >The only impression “harm” comes from […]

          Wrong. Poor people already have trouble eating a balanced diet. Demanding that they reduce what they’re allowed to choose from will only make it worse. PETA is also forcing them to choose the more expensive vegan alternative whenever meat would be cheaper, which I suspect is most of the time given that veganism is a life-choice for the middle and upper class (i.e. those who can afford it).

          • Hanfeizi says:

            Fresh veggies are a little spendy, but vegetable proteins are cheaper than meat. Dried beans, lentils and tofu are all cheap as dirt. Given more than a billion of the poorest people in Asia still live off of vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets based primarily on rice, greens and soy protein, it can be done.

          • ozymandias says:

            PETA isn’t making them do anything. If they don’t want to eat vegan, they’re left in exactly the same position they would be in if PETA didn’t offer them this additional option.

          • Daniel H says:

            Except, meat is often one of the most expensive ways to get calories and nutrition. A balanced vegetarian diet is harder to construct than a balanced nonvegetarian diet, but it is cheaper.

            Note: I am not a nutritionist. This is not a universal statement but an average one; it may not be true for all people at all grocery stores and/or restaurants.

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            Vegetarianism is cheaper, but veganism involves cutting out eggs and dairy, which are extremely cheap sources of calories and protein in the US which also have the advantage of requiring virtually no preparation.

            Veganism requires either $ or the skill and time to prepare one’s own meals. Most poor urban white and black families seem to be at a disadvantage over other poor ethnic groups because they typically don’t have the know-how to prepare their own meals.

            I may be wrong here, but typical markets in poor Asian/Middle Eastern/Hispanic/etc districts vs. those in poor black/white districts seem to reinforce this premise. The former mostly provide ingredients, the later mostly provide prepared foods.

      • Anonymous says:

        What I am saying is that how in any way can offering to pay poor people’s water bill payments in exchange for them not eating meat be WORSE than NOT making the offer?

        The Uber comparison is a bit more complex, but my motivation behind that was how can offering a ride for $80 be WORSE than not offering a ride at all?

        Both cases are absurd! There’s no “taking advantage” — both cases can end with the status quo being maintained if the recipient of the offer just decides NOT TO DO IT. WHICH WOULD BE THE CASE IF THE OFFER WERE NEVER MADE!

      • Alan says:

        Of course, recipients could just pledge to convert to veganism and then do whatever they like – there’s no way for PETA to enforce their conditions.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t think this is a fair comparison, since Uber is competing with taxi drivers, putting some of them out of business, and so when they implement surge pricing or whatnot, it’s actually limiting peoples options.

      • RCF says:

        I think that the question has to be asked, though, how non-surge pricing works. Suppose the market price is $5/mile but the set price is $3. How do the taxi rides get rationed? Does whoever happens to the moment call when a taxi becomes available get it? Does everyone who calls get put in a queue, and now people have to wait a long time to get a ride? Do taxi drivers pick rides on proxies for higher fares, such as going to neighborhoods with a better reputation for higher tips?

    • Jai says:

      I think it’s observation. You can’t see people not getting rides, so it’s not an issue. But you can see people being charged a lot of money for rides, and that makes it an issue.

      Call it the Copenhagen Interpretation of ethics.

    • Ppseu says:

      It smells bad when people profit or advance a cause by means which are only possible because someone else is miserable. This remains the case even when this profiting and/or advancement reliably alleviates that misery.

      It makes a sort of sense, actually. If you’re profiting from the fact that someone is crying, that gives you a de facto stake in making them cry more often (or just resisting changes which could cause them to cry less), which potentially leads to bad behaviour. I think the missing link is that the possibility of relevant bad behaviour is far lower than it was in the ancestral environment, so our natural reactions on issues like these are obsolete.

      (If Gurg is getting things he wants by trading Yarg those berries that make her feel less nauseous, it’s not implausible that he’s secretly causing her nausea somehow, and it’s highly likely that he won’t make any effort to work out what’s really wrong; as a result, it’s reasonable to make sure his profit comes at a cost. But PETA almost certainly had nothing to do with Detroit going bankrupt in the first place, so the outrage is pointless.)

    • zslastman says:

      In fairness, most objections I’ve heard to Uber complain about it replacing a regulated, expensive market, with a slightly less expensive but totally unregulated market.

      • theLaplaceDemon says:

        Those are the objections I have mostly seen as well.

        And honestly, the more I use Uber the more I appreciate traditional taxis. I’ve had multiple Uber drivers make wrong turns/miss exits, resulting in some combination of increased fair and being late. Never once had that happen with a taxi, despite many more rides.

        Why I still use Uber? The ease of using the app to call a car and pay.

        • gwillen says:

          If you’ve had an Uber driver do this to you recently, I’d be interested to hear the result of an experiment: Contact Uber and ask for a partial refund (based on the GPS data they record for every ride). My understanding is that it will be semi-automatically granted by Uber’s policy, but I have no data-points on whether this works or with how much hassle.

          • Bertram says:

            I’ve done this “experiment” several times and have always received at least a partial refund — a point in Uber’s favor, I would say. Traditional taxi drivers may well be better drivers on average, but there’s really no recourse if they mess up.

          • RCF says:


            What if you simply refuse to pay the full fare? Are they going to have you arrested?

    • DanielLC says:

      If there’s a way to pay people to cut down on meat that will make people despise you, PETA will figure it out. They won’t get controversy by offering nicely.

      If people wouldn’t have gotten outraged at PETA paying people to not eat meat, then PETA wouldn’t have made the offer.

    • Harald K says:

      people complaining about something THAT WOULD OTHERWISE NOT EXIST.

      Anonymous, have you heard about the ultimatum game? You get $10 to split with a partner, and the partner can either accept whatever split you propose, or reject it, in which case you both get nothing.

      If you know human nature at all, you probably guess that when you try that game in practice, people do complain about getting something that would otherwise not exist, even to the extent that they reject it just to punish the unfair partner.

      That’s exactly why people are mad at Uber for taking advantage of crises.

      And yes, they do take advantage of crises. They do not suspend their profit margin in times of “surge pricing”, and even when there’s no crises, they benefit from their selfish policy. I’ll explain how

      In my country, and I suspect in most jurisdictions, holding a taxi driving permit means you have an obligation to drive. You can’t just sit on it, or choose just to drive at the most profitable times (nor can you, rent out or sell the permit: it’s tied to your person. I understand some jurisdictions are a lot more stupid on that point).

      The deal with the municipal government is that taxis should be available on weekdays too, even if it’s a lot less profitable to drive then. Likewise, you can’t work only in the rich parts of town, or only for white customers. Taxi customers are happy that they can get cars at a predictable price when and where, they need them. Taxi drivers, while they might individually prefer to “skim the cream”, are happy that they compete on equal terms.

      Now Uber could do something similar: they could charge more during non-crisis situations in order to subsidize in crisis situations, for instance, or they could do a bit of collective bargaining and demand that drivers take their share of rides at inconvenient times (like regular taxis do).

      But they don’t. They are all about skimming the cream of the personal driving market, they disavow any personal, longer term responsibility towards their customer base. It’s not really in crisis situations that Uber is screwing its customers, it’s in everyday non-crisis situations, when they undercut the people who do play by some rules of solidarity to each other and to the customers. In effect, they are leeching of the trust we have in taxis to have a minimum of social responsibility.

      • 2cents says:

        What’s with all the glorifying of “real” taxis? The “real” taxis are disgusting and dirty. You often get a driver who struggles with the English language and you also often lose when the taxis driver decides he no longer takes credit cards or suddenly claimes he doesn’t have change for a $20 so you’re stuck giving a slow shitty taxi driver a huge tip. Not to mention being a driver on the road with these “legitimate” taxi drivers – they drive 5 miles an hour in a 45 mph zone just to increase the fair the passengers will be stuck paying. Uber isn’t the greatest. But damn if they aren’t better than the stinky real taxis driven by really sketchy people. If the market for fair, clean transportation didn’t exist then neither would Uber. Riders are tired of being taken advantage of by taxi companies. We deserve better. Taxi companies need to step up their game or go the way of the dinosaur.

        • JohannesD says:

          Apparently taxis in your country are way different from those in mine.

        • Hmmmmm says:

          Not to mention being a driver on the road with these “legitimate” taxi drivers – they drive 5 miles an hour in a 45 mph zone just to increase the fair the passengers will be stuck paying.

          Where do you live? You’re definitely not talking about NYC taxi drivers.

        • peterdjones says:

          And thats yet another Tragically Inevitable Problem that doesn’t exist outside the US.

          • Richard Gadsden says:

            I’ve never understood why Americans settle for such shitty performance from their government.

          • Jonas says:

            I’ve never understood why Americans settle for such shitty performance from their government.

            1. Decide to get better performance from their government.
            2. ???
            3. Profit!

            What’s step 2?

      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        But that whole analysis is misguided.

        Sure, Uber “skims the cream” by concentrating most on the most profitable markets. For example, they started with the black car service, which only richer people use. But then instead of being told: “Okay, Uber, you have to take those black cars out into the ghetto at 5 in the morning,” they create other tiers of service which are much more affordable.

        What happens if Uber is forced to serve the richest and poorest neighborhoods equally, and the most profitable and least profitable times equally? They lose money. They can’t provide high quality service that rich people are willing to pay for. They get cabs that are old, shitty cars, run by drivers that don’t speak English, and they don’t run very many cars at peak times. In other words, they become taxis.

        With no regulation, instead of inefficiently limiting their services arbitrarily, they squeeze the most money possible out of every level of income by providing services matching to how much people are willing to pay. Rich people get to ride in an Escalade at twice the price if they want, and they run as many Escalades as they need to fill that demand.

        On the other hand, poor or frugal people can use UberX which relies on lower-quality cars run by drivers who don’t know the city very well, so they have to use GPS navigation for everything. But it’s cheaper than some kind of certified person, so this group of people prefers it. And instead of being limited by some kind of medallion count, they can run as many as people are willing to pay for.

        As a result, more cars are run in total, serving people at every level of income.

        And the surge pricing thing is just absurd. What has always been the traditional complaint about getting a cab on New Year’s Eve? You can’t find one: everybody wants a cab then, but nobody wants to drive one. Surge pricing efficiently distributes the limited number of available rides to those who are willing to pay the most for them. This encourages drivers who otherwise would have preferred not to work on New Year’s Eve to come out and make $300.

        As more people catch on to that, they decide to become Uber drivers, just so that they can work on peak days as a part-time thing, and the price at peak times goes down until everyone can find a cab at a price only moderately above normal. Instead of a few lucky people being able to find one at a normal price.

        • Hmmmmm says:

          Surge pricing efficiently distributes the limited number of available rides to those who are willing to pay the most for them.

          Common Libertarian fallacy (can we start numbering them?) Price gouging distributes the limited number of available resources to those who are wealthiest, not to those who need it the most. Willingness to pay is not a measure of need; it’s a measure of wealth.

          • Viliam Búr says:

            Depends on whether the limited resources are limited in the long term. If they are limited forever, then yes, they will be forever inaccessible for the poor people. On the other hand, if the resources can increase gradually, if there is enough profit, then extracting more profit from the rich people will in long term make the service more accessible for the poor ones.

            Think about personal computers, or mobile phones. The first ones were available only to rich people. But they financed the industry, and today many poor people can afford a mobile phone or a personal computer.

            (If we hypothetically had some law in the past saying “you are not allowed to sell computers to rich people unless you also sell the same amount of computers to poor people”, today the computers would probably be more expensive than they are.)

          • Kibber says:

            Clearly you missed the part where before Uber the resource (taxis on New Year’s Eve) was not available to ANYONE, period, and Ubers creates more of that resource so that at least some people could use it. Also, at 2x-3x the regular price, “the wealthiest” becomes just “the wealthier” – which doesn’t pack quite the punch.

          • DanielLC says:

            But it’s important to give better stuff to wealthier people. If they don’t get better service, then what’s the point of being wealthy. If you think we’re doing it too much, the correct reaction is to increase taxes on the rich, not to arbitrarily limit which goods and services they get better versions of. If you force them to rent a cheap limo and they use the money they save on a slightly more expensive yacht, that doesn’t help anyone.

      • In what sense does a taxi driver, or any other service provider, have a “responsibility towards their customer base”? Their only responsibility is to provide the service offered for the price promised, ie. not to defraud, steal, or cheat. I’m not aware that Uber has done any of these things. They’re completely up-front about the nature of their services, and AFAIK they do care about actual fraud, such as drivers inflating miles or charging more than the official rate.

        As you may have noticed, I’m pro-Uber, and all of the criticisms of it I’ve seen seem to rest on nonsensical moral premises, such as the idea that people in a voluntary commercial transaction have obligations to each other which extend beyond the limits of the transaction.

        • Taxis often have special government-enforced privileges (e.g. only taxis are allowed to pick up people from the street, taxis and buses get special lanes, cartel-by-medaillon) in exchange for being an effective part of a public transportation network. It is not fair to cry “free market” on the obligations but still keep the privileges.

        • Harald K says:

          In what sense does a taxi driver, or any other service provider, have a “responsibility towards their customer base”?

          That is a very libertarian question, but I thought I answered it: Most people, for instance, are outraged at price gouging during crises, and this is proof that most people don’t share your value system. The attitude is that if there’s an earthquake, or a shooting, or similar, then business relationships take the backseat to our “citizen” relationship, or to our “fellow human” relationship. It’s not hard to understand.

          What is hard to understand, is the push to commodify all human relationships and reduce all obligations to economic ones. I mean, you can probably explain it historically, with this ideology gaining traction in England during the industrial revolution, so that factory owners wouldn’t have to feel guilt about employees on the brink of starvation (to quote a poster above here, why are they complaining about jobs that wouldn’t even exist?). It still does not provide a very satisfying explanation to me.

          • blacktrance says:

            “Most people don’t share your value system” isn’t a very strong argument, because all that it shows is the presence of disagreement, but doesn’t show which side is right. People might say that during an emergency, the business relationship takes a backseat to the citizen or human relationship – but they can say whatever they want. But supposing for the sake of argument that they’re right – why does the “citizen” or “human” relationship imply any obligation on my part?

          • Harald K says:

            If you reject that you have any obligations to your fellow humans/fellow citizens except as mediated by money (and contracts, I guess?), there’s not much I can say.

            And you’re right, it’s a weak argument that most people don’t share this value system, if the goal is to prove the value system wrong. But you can’t really prove a value system wrong.

            If you say it’s OK to exploit people to the maximum of your ability, be my guest, but then I’m not getting in your taxi (nor am I letting you regulate the taxi system, if I can help it).

          • What is hard to understand, is the push to commodify all human relationships and reduce all obligations to economic ones.

            That is hard to understand, especially since I’m not advocating that. I vehemently oppose reducing sacred moral obligations to commercial ones; I just don’t see that taxi service is a sacred obligation.

        • Herb says:

          One thing I’ll say for this comment: the writer is honest about the underlying philosophy: The writer’s name means “more to the right”. Not that this answer leaves much more room to the right.

          • Anonymous says:

            By Mai’s standards, that is an extremely liberal (libertarian) comment. Click on his name and see that there is a lot of room to be more right.

      • Menno says:

        Likewise, you can’t work only in the rich parts of town, or only for white customers.

        I think you would be surprised at the experience of poor and minorities in many US cities when it comes to taxis.

        Secondly, you are disregarding the supply part of surge pricing. The purpose of increasing rates during times of crisis isn’t just to make money off of desperation, it’s to incentivize drivers. If I’m an Uber driver, you’re right that I don’t have to drive on holidays or during snowstorms or after major events. So Uber nudges people to want to drive during times when drivers are needed.

        Compare that with a static taxi pool. You can’t build a fleet size around maximum capacity. Instead you find a balance. The downside is that during times of crisis or overly heavy usage, people are forced to go without.

        It’s price controls. And price controls are good at keeping prices stable but terrible at meeting demand. It’s why in nearly every real-world application of price controls we see shortages or massive surpluses. Maybe that’s an acceptable trade-off, but I disagree.

        It’s better to have a dynamic system that can adapt to situations even at the expense of some marginal losses compared to a static system.

        • Harald K says:

          I am aware of claims that US taxis are hell on earth, and I’m prepared to believe they are at least considerably worse than here. As I said, I think tradable permits (medallions) is a horrible idea.

          But I did address the supply part. In my perfect world, (and the current taxi system is closer to it than Uber, at least where I live), everyone pays a little extra to drivers during convenient times, in order to compensate them for their willingness to be available in less convenient times also.

          The taxi drivers/centrals have enough flexibility on scheduling that they can make sure there are enough taxis available during periods of high demand – especially predictable demand (such as new year’s eve), but even crises.

          • Jonas says:

            everyone pays a little extra to drivers during convenient times, in order to compensate them for their willingness to be available in less convenient times also.

            Wouldn’t paying them more during the less convenient times achieve the same thing?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        In America, some of these regulations you mention exist and some don’t. But regulations don’t enforce themselves. In practice, Uber obeys them much more than taxis. In particular, the main reason that people use Uber is that it comes when they call, even to poor parts of town.

      • Wirehead Wannabe says:

        Interestingly enough, whether or not people refuse “unfair” deals in the ultimatum game is highly culturally dependent.

      • RCF says:

        The term “would not otherwise exist” refers to some counterfactual. That then raises the question of which counterfactual. The logical counterfactual is one in which the person being criticized had not made the offer. But in the ultimatum game, the first place is given the money on the condition that they make the offer. The first player isn’t handing their own money out, they are portioning out the experimenters’ money. So the relevant counterfactual isn’t “you’re not offered any money”, it’s “you’re offered more money”.

    • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

      This is a huge problem in my mind.

      That hipster in the selfie is not only self-contradicting (because he uses the same method of blackmail against PETA that he accuses them of), he also has to explain why he doesn’t pay those water bills unconditionally.

      It gets worse when government is involved in this fallacious behavior, because they can seriously hurt people. A common theme is when they ban things that look like exploitation without compensating the party who needs it most for their loss of option value. It looks like morality and helpfulness but really makes people worse off.

      Full disclaimer: I’m not paying anyone’s water bills and have no intention to do so. I should get at least as much outrage as PETA for this.

      • roystgnr says:

        he also has to explain why he doesn’t pay those water bills unconditionally

        Negative rights seem to be more readily translated to personal obligations than “positive rights”. E.g. “He has the right to free speech” means “I have the obligation not to do violence to him for speaking”, but somehow “He has the right to water” never means “I have the obligation to provide him with water”, it always means “Somebody other than me has the obligation to provide him with water.”

        Whenever “Somebody other than me” is specified, as here, it’s generally specified in the least sensible way, as here: attacking a group that’s providing some free water for not providing enough free water. I know anti-capitalist criticism tends to be backwards in this way (e.g. a “price gouger” is the person offering the lowest price for something) but attacking even charitable giving seems especially low.

      • Anonymous says:

        Indeed, he engages in real extortion, rather than the fake extortion of PETA.

      • RCF says:

        I can clearly see both of his hands, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a selfie.

    • Fazathra says:

      The backlash to PETA brings to mind the recent complaints of Uber surge-pricing; that is, people complaining about something THAT WOULD OTHERWISE NOT EXIST.

      Same with Uber. Years ago this service didn’t exist. Now it does and people complain that it’s expensive.

      I’m not sure I understand your argument here. Are you saying that anything new should be automatically immune from criticism? How far back should this extend? Should people not criticise their iphones/ipods because they didn’t exist ten years ago, or moan about the price of petrol because a hundred and fifty years ago cars did not exist? Or perhaps nobody should complain about the rent because back in the ancestral environment there were no houses.

      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        You are clearly misinterpreting.

        He’s not saying, “It’s new, so you can’t complain.”

        He’s saying: if you’re going to complain, complain about the people who are doing nothing or hurting things, rather than about people who are helping less than they might.

        For example, in the rent situation: Don’t complain about landlords who charge high prices for low-quality apartments. At least they’re running apartments. Complain about the government and misguided activists responsible for rent control, zoning laws, and building codes that make it impossible to build new apartments that poor people might be able to afford.

        • wysinwyg says:

          If poor people can’t afford old, crappy apartments then they certainly can’t afford nice, new ones.

          Overall it’s probably better to build the new apartment buildings rather than use regulation to prevent such construction, but I don’t think anyone should kid themselves that the purpose for doing so would be to provide affordable housing.

          I might argue instead that increased construction –> more blue collar jobs –> higher wages for uneducated workers –> poor people can now afford the old, shitty apartments that tech workers have abandoned for the nice new apartments. (Which isn’t really the reason for building the new apartment buildings either, but it’s a more plausible mechanism by which doing so could help some poor people.) This won’t necessarily completely mollify bleeding hearts, though, since there’s a conspicuous shortage of little old ladies taking up construction jobs to supplement their social security.

          • You miss the point. Supply and demand suggests that when you artificially decrease supply, through zoning, rent control, and other things which reduce the incentive to build and rent housing, then the price goes up. The poor aren’t going to move into your shiny brand-new housing, but the existence of abundant shiny band-new housing will drive down the price of housing overall.

          • lupis42 says:

            But as the new nice apartments come into existence, the total number of apartments goes up, and the price of old shitty apartments drops. And many new apartments are much smaller than old apartments, so although the price per square foot may be three times as high, the total can still be lower.

          • aplofar says:

            It’s true that the purpose of such construction would not be to make housing more affordable, but that would probably be its effect. And this is where a lot of the time, people seem to be talking about similar things as though they’re made fundamentally different by the intentions involved. I hear folks who talk about ‘affordability’ and ‘the right to housing’ celebrating the creation of small handfuls of subsidized units, while decrying the construction of massive new districts of for-profit apartments (and almost identical in urban form to the subsidized units.) I ask, what’s the objection? Surely more supply must be good, or at least, not worse? And the reply I usually see is that it’s bad because it’s being done for the wrong reasons – that the right reason would be altruism, either ‘collective’ or individual, and that otherwise it represents “greed”. But there’s a selection effect just as with anything else – the altruistic builders who want to build very affordable housing and not rake in the cash tend not to last in the business very long because they have no profit margin; whereas GreedMonger Communities, Incorporated lives to build again, and bigger. (And get criticized for building luxury units, which the rich move into instead of buying old rooming houses and turning them into single-family homes. If there is a right to housing, would there not also be a right to build housing?)

          • wysinwyg says:

            You miss the point

            I think you actually may be missing my point. Note that my comment agrees that new construction is a better idea than blocking it with regulations, etc.

            and the price of old shitty apartments drops.

            I doubt the price of old shitty apartments would actually drop. (If we include rent control among the regulations/restrictions being dropped to encourage construction, they’ll probably increase. If rent control remains, then the apartments in question are probably already underpriced and won’t drop anyway.) However, the new construction would drive wages up which would have a roughly similar effect. I mention this explicitly in my comment.

            And this is where a lot of the time, people seem to be talking about similar things as though they’re made fundamentally different by the intentions involved…. I ask, what’s the objection?

            If effects are, as your comment implies, distinct from intentions, then the objection is that the effect is being conflated with the intention. I was actually explicit about this:

            … I don’t think anyone should kid themselves that the purpose for doing so would be to provide affordable housing.

            Intentions are clearly relevant to moral arguments, as demonstrated by the reams of jurisprudence implying that intention should be taken into account.

          • aplofar says:

            Intentions are clearly relevant to moral arguments, as demonstrated by the reams of jurisprudence implying that intention should be taken into account.

            Yes, of course I agree that intentions are relevant – but what I disagree with is people demanding a result and then being dissatisfied with it because it was done for “the wrong reasons”. The argument that I hear often (this is not specifically a response to you) is that housing is far too expensive, and this implies a moral problem. Fine. Then the supply which alleviates that problem arrives, and complaints begin about the intentions behind it. Which seems counterproductive, to me.

            I think the point of disagreement may also be towards the meaning of the word ‘purpose’:

            Overall it’s probably better to build the new apartment buildings rather than use regulation to prevent such construction, but I don’t think anyone should kid themselves that the purpose for doing so would be to provide affordable housing.

            I thought you meant “the purpose of loosening regulation to permit building isn’t to provide affordable housing”, with which I would disagree, but your comment makes me think you meant “the purpose of building new apartment buildings isn’t providing affordable housing”, in which case I agree. (Unless you are arguing that, all else equal, increased supply has little or no effect on prices, in which case we have a more fundamental disagreement.)

          • Mary says:

            I doubt the price of old shitty apartments would actually drop. (If we include rent control among the regulations/restrictions being dropped to encourage construction, they’ll probably increase.

            Then you haven’t encouraged enough new development.

            What are the landlords going to do when all the middle-class people go to live in the nice new apartments?

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is,

        There are two outcomes:

        1) Family gets no aid with water bill.

        2) Family gets aid with water bill AND stops eating meat.

        Outcome (1) can happen REGARDLESS of PETA’s actions. If the family is not offered aid, they get no aid. If they are offered aid and choose to not give up meat, they get no aid. Not sure what the problem here is — it’s not as though PETA previously was giving them aid unconditionally.

        This situation of two possible outcomes is STRICTLY SUPERIOR to the situation of just 1 outcome. Families who do not value meat more than the water bill can make that trade, and families who do value meat more than the water bill are in the SAME EXACT POSITION.

        Especially since there was NO PRIOR EXPECTATION that PETA pay the water bills.

    • stillnotking says:

      The PETA case is a really interesting one to think about. If you’re angry at PETA for giving the water-or-meat ultimatum, are you angry at the government for giving similar ones all the time? Are you angry at the fact that families who can’t pay their water bill face a far worse ultimatum from the city? (After all, anyone can stop eating meat. Not anyone can get a job.)

      I’m unsympathetic to anarchism on empirical grounds, but it’s hard to argue with some of their points in the abstract. The Leviathan makes PETA look like fluffy little kittens.

    • Deiseach says:

      Well, I’ve already had a half-kind of sort of mini-fighteen on Tumblr about this, so I’m quite willing to have another go, because I think PETA are a shower of [expletives deleted] and not alone that, they’re probably setting their cause – whatever it is, apart from patting themselves on the back over how they must all be super-enlightened purely correct only right-thinking beings because of all the criticism they get – back a hundred years.

      Before I begin, I don’t know what Scott’s policy (if any) on swearing or how much or what kind is, so I’ll cut that out, but imagine your favourite epithets liberally sprinkled throughout the following to get the flavour of my reaction to this stunt.

      I’m going to assume that PETA consider not eating meat to be more ethical than eating meat. By using the situation in Detroit, they are trying to (a) publicise their campaign (b) encourage people to adopt a more ethical lifestyle and/or a new system of ethics.

      Now it’s quite plain that PETA don’t care a straw about the people involved, else they’d be doing the water bill paying with no strings attached or they’d be involved in activism to change the situation. That’s fine, that’s not what they’re about; they’re an animal-rights movement not a social justice (in the Catholic sense) movement.

      Okay, so imagine a similar situation with, say, an evangelical non-denominational Christian church outreach or parachurch ministry involved in street ministry to the homeless. They run a volunteer shelter where you can get a bed for the night and a meal and have the chance to bathe, get rudimentary medical attention, and be in a relatively safe environment (they have a strict dry policy so no alcohol/drugs on the premises and they have enough volunteers so that bullying, petty theft and assault by your fellows is clamped down on).

      All you have to do is agree to recite the following simple formula about inviting Jesus into your heart and turning your life over to God. Some version of the Sinner’s Prayer. To make it more like the PETA example, let’s say you have to follow it up with a committment to a thirty-day programme of saying one Bible verse a day.

      That’s all. That’s a choice, right? That’s not creating the problem, it’s not even exploiting it, because homelessness exists and isn’t some problematic help better than none? Are you saying that you would prefer people to remain sleeping rough on the street and running the risk of dying by hypothermia these cold winter nights rather than take the offer? Surely it’s only people who are in a position of privilege and have never been poor and desperate who are making these objections! Besides, it’s giving people the chance to be exposed to Christianity, and they don’t have to keep saying the verses once the thirty days are up, and maybe they’ll find they like saying the prayers once they’ve had a chance to try it, and anyway it’s only giving exposure to their campaign to make people aware of Christianity (I’m using the kind of arguments I’ve seen used in defence of what PETA are doing).

      And how do you think these arguments would fly, if it was about religious strings attached to an offer? And why then should an ethical conversion, rather than a religious conversion, be let off the hook more easily?

      • Brad says:

        >And how do you think these arguments would fly, if it was about religious strings attached to an offer? And why then should an ethical conversion, rather than a religious conversion, be let off the hook more easily?

        (This is a under-developed idea that keeps coming up to me, and I’m certainly making errors here, but it’s something I’ve been trying to think about and write about for a while now:)

        It’s about what you consider sacred. I don’t mean merely in some ecclesiastic sense, but in a broader, more “secular” sense.

        I’ve had this feeling for a while that society essentially treats certain things as off-limits, that is sacred, or holy. The word for “holy” in the bible carries connotations, or in some cases, (to my knowledge) literally means “set apart”. “separated”. I suspect, one of the things that delimitates various ingroups/outgroups is what they consider sacred in this particular sense.

        So, easy example: I’m a Christian. I see Family Guy or South park or whatever making jokes about Jesus, sticking Jesus into action movies, and so on. I get uncomfortable because I consider (and again, since I am pretty dogmatic here, fair warning: I’m one of those fundamentalists you’ve heard so much about) Jesus and Christianity to be sacred. Hands off, that’s not for you to make jokes about. I have various metaphysical beliefs that indicate *why* view something as sacred, such as belief in sola scriptura views of the bible, belief in a literal resurrection, etc, but the effect is that I don’t want people to make Jesus jokes.

        Compare the logic here to people getting outraged over use of say, the N word. One of the interesting things here is how the word is limited to use by a certain class of people, African Americans, the word takes on a “separated” quality and is treated as sacred by that particular ingroup. White people cannot say it. Again, while there are reasons “why” (because it’s demeaning, it’s a loaded word with negative connotations, etc.), the actual effect of these beliefs turn cause the ingroup in question to effectively treat the N word in manner akin to sacred iconography. It’s not that we don’t agree with the logic here, but it’s hard to deny the word has taken on this quality of being “set apart”, at least by societal standards.

        Another example: consider the outrage over rape jokes. Again, no one likes rape, but there are tons and tons of jokes about say, murdering one’s mother-in-law and no one bats an eye at them. Rape, as a topic, is set apart, again on a set of underlying beliefs (which I don’t feel qualified to try to determine or write out here, as I tend to try to stay out of those debates), but the effect is to make the rape joke set apart and separated, as opposed to the “kill your in-law” joke, even though people do sometimes ill their in-laws and it’s an awful crime in the same sense rape is.

        I think humor is very often tied to this dynamic, frankly, particularly modern humor, because there is tendency to laugh off the sacred (in a sense). I’m still trying to get my head around it, but it seems like they’re a connection between people at things that are sacred to certain ingroups, sometimes even their own. A mild joke about my wife is cute, but a joke about my dick is suddenly hilarious, because I’m not supposed to talk about the latter in public. A joke about the differences between right handed and left handed people is weird and mostly flat, a joke about the differences between white people and black people is (or rather, at one point was) “innovative” or what-have-you. I sure you can think of way better examples here. The point is that humor is somehow tied to these ingroup/outgroup dynamics. (and it reminds me of how some people think some of the stranger (to us) rules in the Old Testament, such as the dietary laws and the “no-mixed-fabrics”-type-rules might have existed *solely* to deliminate the Isrealites form their neighbors, a form of ingroup/outgroup distinctions enforced by the divine.)

        So, why are you offended? Well, you hold it as a sacred that (and this is my speculation) that people do not say, proselytize our religious beliefs to others. It’s part of your ingroup dynamic and one of your unspoken “sacred” (again, in the social sense outlined above, not ecclesiastical, sense) rules. (I suspect this “sacred rule” might be tied into certain ideas of how pluralistic societies are supposed to act, but again, I don’t want to make too many assumptions here.) It’s certainly not part of *mine*; I hand out tracts quite a bit and it’s almost taken as a necessity in certain Christian circles (re: Baptist/reformed) that all Christians are to evangelize. By contrast, more broadly “ethical” topics don’t not fall into your particular list of “sacred v. not sacred” stuff and you see nothing wrong with bringing it up in negotiations with homeless people for food and shelter. It a mundane topic for you *because* it isn’t a sacred topic.

        At the same time, I can flip the example by replacing “sinners prayer” with “mark of the beast” and suddenly, I find the example intolerable, because now it’s stepping on the normative Christian ingroup belief that’s it’s not particularly Christian to say, worship the antichrist. But I digress.

        Maybe this was waste of time, but hopefully someone can harvest something useful out of it.

        • Matthew says:

          Again, no one likes rape, but there are tons and tons of jokes about say, murdering one’s mother-in-law and no one bats an eye at them.

          Given the prevalence of rape, even by the lower numbers in an earlier post, it’s quite likely that several people in a comedian’s audience will either have been victims of sexual violence at some point themselves or know someone else who was. How many of them will know a murdered mother-in-law?

        • Yes, I think that was kind of the point – “regular” religion is going to set off the “icky-outgroup-Wrong” detector of at least some people here in a way similar to the way satanism sets off yours.

          (Nice to have your perspective at SSC – please do stick around.)

      • Anon says:

        > Now it’s quite plain that PETA don’t care a straw about the people involved, else they’d be doing the water bill paying with no strings attached or they’d be involved in activism to change the situation.

        What? You care and have the power to change it and aren’t doing anything, presumably. It’s perfectly possible to care about a thing and still not take action to correct it.

        For the rest of your post:

        Yes, those people would also be doing a great deal of good. Churches offer free food to the general hungry public on the condition that you accept their religious literature, or whatnot, and everyone seems to generally accept that this is good thing.

        I was sure you were going to specifically mention Salvation Army, which is well known for doing almost precisely what you describe. And in fact you can find plenty of liberals complaining about them. But at least the people I normally hear complaining are very, very good about suggesting alternative charities to donate to which accomplish the same goal, rather than getting mad at Salvation Army for helping with strings attached. So I think real life provides some very clean counterexamples to your claim.

      • wysinwyg says:

        And how do you think these arguments would fly, if it was about religious strings attached to an offer? And why then should an ethical conversion, rather than a religious conversion, be let off the hook more easily?

        Realistically, they wouldn’t fly because human beings are moral hypocrites.

        On the other hand, this hypothetical church would probably have a more difficult time explaining that their motives aren’t conversion per se than PETA would have in the water bill example. PETA can always argue that their ultimate goal is to decrease the total amount of meat eaten and that their conditions for paying water bills are aimed at this goal rather than the goal of actually changing anyone’s opinions. Even if PETA would prefer the long-term effects of changing opinions rather than behavior, they could plausibly settle for changes in behavior since it still has an impact on their ultimate goal.

        Compare to an offer by a church to provide housing for homeless folks on the condition that anyone using that housing has to, e.g., take shifts working at a soup kitchen also run by the same church. There’s a condition on the help provided but the condition doesn’t require any sort of moral or religious commitment on the part of the people being helped. Does this still make people mad?

        Probably some people. Some people will get mad about anything.

      • Anonymous` says:

        I’m fine with what PETA’s doing and despite my pretty strong anti-Christianity, I’d still be fine with your hypothetical church program. (I’m also an econ student, so…)

    • Wes says:

      I think this is a clash of utilitarian ethics vs. virtue ethics.

      From a utilitarian perspective (which Ozy helpfully articulates in the link), PETA is helping. They are providing an option that was not there previously. If anyone takes advantage of it, the world will be better off. If nobody takes advantage of it, the world will not be worse off. According to utilitarian ethics, this is a “good” action.

      From a virtue ethics standpoint, PETA is taking advantage of people in an unfortunate situation, and that’s wrong. Most interpretations of virtue ethics tell us that when people are suffering from an unexpected disaster, it’s wrong to seek to profit from their misfortune. People who rely on virtue ethics will condemn PETA.

      • Quixote says:

        It’s not automatic that this helps under utilitarian ethics. It helps a few guys right now. And it establishes new norms and equilibria. Those new states may have long run good or bad consequences. Their are reasons why a person might believe this has long run bad consequences.

      • RCF says:

        “From a virtue ethics standpoint, PETA is taking advantage of people in an unfortunate situation, and that’s wrong.”

        That seems like begging the question to me.

        • Mary says:

          Even at law, a leonine contract might be set aside if you exploit someone’s position weakness to compel them to do something.

          Is this an equitable exchange? who can tell?

    • onyomi says:

      Yes, yes, yes. This kind of thinking drives me CRAZY and is “uber” prevalent among even the highly educated, in my experience. Like when people complain bitterly that McDonalds or whoever pays their employees too little–to all of them, I want to say, “well, how many people do YOU employ?” The answer, of course, is usually zero. But somehow providing a huge number of people with a slightly crummy job which is nevertheless better than whatever alternative existed is more evil than just not providing anybody with any jobs.

      • wysinwyg says:

        “McDonald’s could potentially increase global utility while costing themselves little to nothing by forgoing some profits to pay better wages (which loss of profit helps to pay for itself through good PR)” is a different argument from “McDonald’s should be run out of business if they don’t forgo profits to pay better wages.”

        “How many people do YOU employ?” is a reasonable argument against the latter position (since it entails actually eliminating the crappy, low-paying jobs). I’m not sure it’s quite as good against the former (since it doesn’t). I don’t know how many people you know who actually argue the latter case, but this strikes me as a bit of a “weak man” argument.

        I’d also suggest that you may be understating the crumminess of such jobs.

        • onyomi says:

          I’m not underestimating the crumminess of such jobs. I have worked menial restaurant jobs for low pay myself. They really suck by today’s first world standards. I understand that. But they’re also in climate-controlled conditions and otherwise much more comfortable and bearable than 99% of the labor people have, historically, engaged in. More importantly, they’re better than the next-best alternative, assuming McDonald’s isn’t somehow enslaving their employees, or actively preventing them from seeking other employment.

          The fact is, McDonald’s is helping people who need jobs by creating employment opportunities. If you yourself are not currently employing a large number of people, then you are doing LESS than McDonald’s to help such people. If you are a Starbuck’s CEO and have found a way to profitably employ a huge number of people while providing better pay and benefits than does McDonald’s, then you may have room to criticize. Otherwise, it’s all glass houses.

          Besides, the fact that they *could* pay a little more if they wanted to is completely irrelevant. You *could* pay a little more for every good and service you purchase on a daily basis, couldn’t you? You just pay the sticker price when you buy things and don’t throw in a little extra? You probably even bargain when you buy a car. What a monster!

          Paying more than you have to for something is charity, not business. It’s supererogatory, not expected. We don’t expect it of ourselves or anyone else when we buy goods and services, so why should we expect it of companies buying labor services?

          It is perfectly analogous to the PETA case: people who are not helping at all criticizing people who ARE helping for not helping enough, or for putting weird conditions on their help.

        • RCF says:

          How would paying higher wages increase utility?

        • wysinwyg says:

          they’re better than the next-best alternative

          By definition. I could quibble with the rest of your first paragraph but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

          Otherwise, it’s all glass houses.

          You’re not employing nearly as many people as the US federal government. Are you thereby constrained from criticizing the US federal government by this same “glass house” logic?

          You *could* pay a little more for every good and service you purchase on a daily basis, couldn’t you?

          Well I do throw pocket change in the Starbucks tip cup sometimes which is pretty much what you’re suggesting I do. McDonald’s jobs are low wage with little chance for advancement. Making enough money to work one’s way through college requires taking more hours which…cuts into the time required to work one’s way through college. Even a small increase in wages could seriously increase the number of McDonald’s employees who can work their way through college. Me paying an extra few percent on every transaction I engage in won’t accomplish that. (Which is another reason why your “glass house” argument doesn’t really fly. I just don’t have the leverage McDonald’s does to make a positive difference in people’s lives.)

          We don’t expect it of ourselves or anyone else when we buy goods and services, so why should we expect it of companies buying labor services?

          Because while the fictional person “McDonald’s” can live in a 3-ring binder in a file cabinet somewhere in Delaware, “myself and everyone else” are human beings that require food and shelter.

          That is, I could adopt a set of moral premises in which I assume that corporate persons are the moral equivalents of actual persons and should be treated accordingly, but that seems utterly stupid to me. Corporations are inventions for the purpose of improving human lives, and if there is some way that a corporation could make a small sacrifice to ultimately improve human lives that seems worthwhile to me. Because, again, I do not value the well-being of McDonald’s (being a 3-ring binder in a file cabinet in Delaware somewhere) as much as any human person.

          Acknowledged: that most ways of hurting McDonald’s will also hurt McDonald’s employees and therefore not be a worthwhile tradeoff. What I am claiming is that in some cases there might be a way for the fictional person to be slightly less well off while on average all the actual living human beings involved are better off.

          It is perfectly analogous to the PETA case: people who are not helping at all criticizing people who ARE helping for not helping enough, or for putting weird conditions on their help.

          You could reinterpret “criticizing [fictional] people who ARE helping” as “suggesting ways [fictional] people could help more given the vast resources at their disposal” and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as unjust as you make out this rampant criticism of a non-real person with no emotions, feelings, or opinions to be.

          • onyomi says:

            “You’re not employing nearly as many people as the US federal government. Are you thereby constrained from criticizing the US federal government by this same “glass house” logic?”

            Does anyone criticize the federal government for not paying their workers enough? If so, it seems a much less common criticism than with McDonald’s, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I didn’t say the fact that McDonald’s employs a lot of people should render them immune to ALL criticism by people who don’t–only to complaints that the employment they are currently providing is insufficient.

            Governments are also not at all a fair comparison to private corporations, because they are tax-funded. While I don’t personally believe taxation is ever justified, those who do generally understand taxation as “the people’s money” which the government collects to use on things that benefit “the people.”

            Therefore, any taxpayer has a right to a strong opinion on how tax money gets spent, as opposed to, say, how McDonald’s money gets spent.

          • onyomi says:

            “Corporations are inventions for the purpose of improving human lives…”

            Yes, they are founded to improve the lives of their founders and investors, not to provide employment opportunities. And you know what benefits those people? Not paying more than they have to to procure the labor services they need.

            When people start companies it is generally with the aim of making a good product or service, and of making money in the process. It is not for the purpose of employing people per se. Employing people is a means to an end: like if you wanted your kitchen remodeled and you hire a contractor, what you want is the new kitchen, not the opportunity to pay people to work on it. It is a nice side effect of the integrative nature of the economy that others benefit by helping you get what you want, but that is not the primary purpose.

            Organizations founded for the explicit purpose of helping people other than their founders and investors are not businesses; they are charities. Charity is great, but it follows a completely different logic and serves a different social function than business. Trying to mix the two does not seem a good idea to me.

          • wysinwyg says:

            In the off-chance you check back…

            Yes, they are founded to improve the lives of their founders and investors, not to provide employment opportunities.

            That sounds like a premise rather than a conclusion. I may have somewhat different ideas of what the purpose or intended results of capitalism is than you do. In short, I think that the purpose of business is to improve human life.

            The usual (and usually pretty defensible) argument for laissez faire capitalism is that self-interest is actually the best way to improve human well-being overall. However, in cases where this is not true I feel justified in arguing that the usual approach isn’t providing the intended results and therefore “improving the lives of the founders and investors” results in a net decrease of human well-being and might be fruitfully regulated. (Or maybe incentives could somehow be shifted to get good results without direct regulation.)

            It seems to me you’re justifying the outcomes of capitalism by defining the outcomes of capitalism as good. That would be circular.

            It is a nice side effect of the integrative nature of the economy that others benefit by helping you get what you want, but that is not the primary purpose.

            You can certainly say that it’s a nice side effect rather than the primary purpose, but again that seems to me a premise rather than a conclusion. Certainly for the people starting the business it’s a side effect, but taking a larger view we can ask something like “why encourage capitalism rather than feudalism?” in which case it’s not as clear whether the society-wide effects of capitalism are a side effect rather than the primary purpose. Indeed, it seems like the “integrative effects” as you put it are probably one of the best moral justifications for a capitalist economy in the first place.

            If so, it seems a much less common criticism than with McDonald’s, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at

            You seem to be making the moral argument that a person is morally unjustified in criticizing an institution if that person is not personally capable of accomplishing what that institution has already accomplished. I don’t see that the form of the argument has to do with employment, specifically, so let’s instead talk about foreign policy. Unless you have your own state department that has accomplished as much in terms of international relations as the US state department, you should not criticize US foreign policy according the the form of moral argument you’re using.

            I think the argument is just too strong. Sure, it will stop people from complaining about things you don’t want them to complain about (assuming anyone actually follows this principle, which empirically no one actually does) but it will also prevent you from complaining about stuff you might otherwise want to complain about. I think if this principle were followed generally it would work to impoverish the marketplace of ideas by preventing potentially valid criticisms and alternative practices from being discussed.

            I didn’t say the fact that McDonald’s employs a lot of people should render them immune to ALL criticism by people who don’t–only to complaints that the employment they are currently providing is insufficient.

            Right, but I can’t criticize their food either unless I can make millions of hamburgers daily at relatively cheap prices (again, according to the general moral principle that you seem to be using implicitly to drive your argument). And so on. It just doesn’t seem realistic to me to limit the right to criticize to those who can demonstrably do it better based on the resources they themselves control.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not the same situation at all. They are superficially similiar at most.

        Mcdonalds is not “providing” people with jobs, it is paying people (near) the bare minimum to profit from their labour. This is no worse than most employers, but it’s not remotely like conditional charity. In one case someone is giving away resources , in the other it’s a trade, and the entity you’re comparing to the charity is getting by far the better side of the deal.

        There’s also the massive difference that one side is acting out of the kindness of their hearts and the other is trying to maximise profits. If mcdonalds payed a little more , they’d make a little less profit. If PETA payed less or attatched lighter strings , they’d be taking money away from charitable activities. Whether you agree with PETA’s methods, or even aims, making a trade off between unconditionality of charity for poor people (the charity is still happening), and charity for tortured animals bred to be killed for their flesh, does not have the same character as making a trade off between paying the absolute minimum possible and the QoL of the the (slightly less poor) people they’re supposed to be getting credit for employing, which is a deviation of 0 from their not-even-selfish incentive of maximising profit.

    • Randy M says:

      I’m actually not offended by this PETA plan, and I’m not a fan of them. But it is a shift from in-your-face offensiveness to helping people, albeit not everyone, still!
      Perhaps if it was framed like this “As a Vegan advocacy group, we know that eating healthy can be more expensive, so any vegan who needs help with basic expenses in poor areas can contact us to receive assistance,” it wouldn’t get people upset? Might not get noticed, though, as Scott points out, except in a “man bites dog” sort of way.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        Good point. Framing may change a lot. Saying “you have to become a vegan” sounds like blackmail. Saying “we help vegans (and we don’t mind if you only became a vegan yesterday)” sounds like selective help, but not a blackmail.

    • Histidine says:

      This is something I had to think about. Aside from the PETA case in the post, three other examples have been named in comments upthread. Listing all four:

      1) PETA is making poor Detroit families go vegan in return for covering their water bills. They could cover the water bills without demanding anything, but they don’t.
      2) The Souperists made starving Irish children submit to Protestant religious instruction in exchange for food. They could just give the food away without doing any proselytisation, but they didn’t.
      3) Uber charges high prices for its rides. It could charge more affordable prices, but it doesn’t.
      4) McDonald’s pays low wages that workers find hard to live on. It could pay higher wages, but it doesn’t.

      My initial reaction to the cases as presented is: slightly negative towards PETA and Uber, moderately negative towards McDonald’s, and strongly negative towards the Souperists.

      From my PoV, there are two considerations:

      1: What is the difference in utility between what the groups do and what they could do?
      – The poor Detroit families will go without water supply if they can’t find the money they need somehow (likely hard, else they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place). Significantly bad.
      – The McDonald’s workers either find another, better job (hard) or live in poverty. Very bad.
      – The Irish kids somehow get food somewhere (very hard), or starve to death. Very, very bad.
      – The people looking for a ride can find another cab (quite easy). Failing that, they can walk, take public transit, or (depending on where they’re going) just not go out. I find this only slightly bad (in street parlance, my response is “big deal”.)

      2: Why do the groups do what they do instead of what they could do?
      – PETA is trying to make more people vegans. I don’t care for PETA in general, but I do sympathize with the goal of getting people to eat less meat (or at least less factory-farmed meat), so I would assign this a moderate amount of positive utility.
      – Uber and McDonald’s are trying to improve their profit, while being already highly profitable and successful companies. I an unsympathetic to this, and rate its utility as zero. (If they were struggling to stay afloat, or if they were reinvesting their profit in, say, malaria drug development, I would be more sympathetic.)
      – The Souperists were trying to convert Irish children to Protestantism. As a fairly strong atheist, I consider converting a Catholic to become a Protestant to have basically zero utility, and a nonbeliever becoming a Protestant to be borderline negative.

      As an extreme example of #2 trumping #1: If there were a bunch of starving ISIS militants somewhere, and someone offered them food on the condition that they agreed to leave ISIS and renounce violent jihad, I’d applaud it. In fact, I’d consider giving them the food with no strings attached to be borderline immoral.

      Not sure how any of this relates to how the public in general actually reacted to the four listed cases.

      • Jiro says:

        In the ISIS case, I believe people would be justified in shooting the ISIS militants to get them to stop violent jihad. And if you’re justified in shooting them, you’re justified in doing other things to them that would normally be unethical, including taking advantage of a desperate need for food.

      • Histidine says:

        Thinking about it further, I realized I missed a third criterion: Is the demand made by the would-be benefactor onerous?

        Paying more for a cab ride is really minor for most people. Religious instruction and switching to a vegan diet may be mildly to moderately burdensome depending on circumstances. Working a job in fast food is even more so. Not being an ISIS militant is something that all decent people should be – are – doing anyway.

      • onyomi says:

        Your idea of utility seems strange to me.

        With the Souperist example, for example, it seems there are two possibilities:

        1. Souperists do not help out, or their help is refused; people suffer and/or die from hunger and do not convert.

        2. Souperists’ help is accepted. People do not suffer from hunger and do convert.

        Now in case 1, it’s clear both groups do not get what they want: Souperists would like to see more religious converts in the world, but they don’t get that. Poor people would like to eat, but they don’t get that.

        Even if we assume that religious conversion diminishes utility, the only way the net utility of 2 would be 0 (that is, equal to that of case 1, in which no interaction between the groups takes place) would be if the level of unhappiness and suffering the poor people endure as a result of their religious conversion somehow equaled the total suffering described in case 1, which seems highly unlikely.

        • Histidine says:

          There are three possible scenarios:

          1) Souperists don’t give out any food. Kids starve, incurring major negative utility.
          2) Souperists give food in exchange for accepting Protestant instruction. A few kids refuse and starve, and there may be additional negative utility for the kids from having to go through religious teachings.
          3) Souperists give food with no strings attached. All kids are fed; no negative utility on their part.

          (TV Tropes has a general term for #2-type scenarios: leonine contract)

          Now it may be true that #2 has significantly higher utility than #1, but #3 has higher utility still. I am accordingly criticizing the Souperists for doing #2 instead of #3.
          This may be unfair (not least because doing #1 instead of #2 would likely put the Souperists under the radar and let them avoid criticism entirely), but I think society should act to generate additional utility by creating a pressure away from #2 and towards #3.

          (There is an obvious drawback to this: Presented with the above criticism, a Souperist may react by switching to #1 rather than #3. The risk of this happening is an important consideration in determining how to move people towards #3; it seems plausible to me that generally speaking, positive reinforcement towards #3 is preferable to punishing or prohibiting #2.)

          • onyomi says:

            Yes, I can certainly understand and support encouraging option #3, but punishing and prohibiting option #2, strongly encourages the wholly inferior option #1, so I think people need to be careful about how they try to get people from #2 to #3. The best possible option, if it is feasible, is for you yourself to set an example by doing #3, I’d say.

            Unfortunately, I do agree with Scott that #3 may suffer from something of a publicity problem, as “nice guy helps people with no strings attached” is not as good of a news story as “jerk helps people with weird strings attached.” I’m just saying we shouldn’t let the “help” part get lost in our appraisal of the latter story.

            Whether for this case or the case of low-paying fast food jobs, the correct guideline to me seems to be that charity is supererogatory and therefore worthy of praise, but voluntary quid pro quo is ethically neutral and therefore not worthy of condemnation. Praise those who help with no thought of personal benefit. Praise or say nothing of those who help for the sake of personal benefit; save ethical condemnation for those who hurt.

          • Anonymous Cowherd says:

            (Actually replying to onyomi, apparently this is maximum thread depth or something.)

            Whether for this case or the case of low-paying fast food jobs, the correct guideline to me seems to be that charity is supererogatory and therefore worthy of praise, but voluntary quid pro quo is ethically neutral and therefore not worthy of condemnation. Praise those who help with no thought of personal benefit. Praise or say nothing of those who help for the sake of personal benefit; save ethical condemnation for those who hurt.

            Are you expecting this to be intuitively obvious and unobjectionable, or do you have an argument for it?

            I ask because my immediate (and also considered) reaction is that it’s voluntary quid pro quo that’s worthy of praise. Praise those who help for the sake of personal benefit, condemn those who hurt, and look with suspicion on those who help with no thought of personal benefit, as they’re probably up to something.

            (Incidentally, I dislike the whole concept of the supererogatory. I know this community argues back and forth about utilitarianism and virtue ethics a lot, but I thought it was pretty clear that deontology is right out. There’s no duty, so there can’t be an above-and-beyond-the-call.)

    • Thank goodness for capitalism and taxi cabs! We have alternatives to Uber.

      The backlash to PETA brings to mind the recent complaints of Uber surge-pricing; that is, people complaining about something THAT WOULD OTHERWISE NOT EXIST.

      Less snark-ily now: What an excellent post! The toxoplasmosis analogy is great, as well as the harkening to Moloch as Carthaginian strife demon. In general, I am no fan girl. I am sarcastic and fussy, yet felt no such sentiments after reading this. I’m not alone. I think, but am not certain, as one rarely can be with jwz, that even a rather prickly voice gives homage to author Scott with Replicators gonna replicate, earlier today 😉

  2. Thomas says:

    I love it when you tie things back to Moloch. From a reading perspective, not a “our species is really really screwed” perspective

    • lmm says:

      The anthropomorphization makes it more memorable but I worry that it’s not conducive to coming up with solutions.

      • wysinwyg says:

        Maybe it’s worthwhile as a solution to agency detection going haywire? A lot of people react to the revelation of bad things by trying to figure out who caused those bad things. But sometimes the bad things happen for reasons other than malevolent individuals. When bad things result from coordination problems in particular, we anthropomorphize that as “Moloch” to help us keep focused on the real problem instead of going on a goose chase for malevolent individuals.

        In that sense, in might be conducive to coming up with solutions in that it helps to prevent us from pursuing anything in a big class of non-solutions.

    • Vivificient says:

      I like it too. It’s a good strategy for framing humanity as the ingroup with impersonal economic forces as the outgroup. (Since otherwise when I read these kinds of posts if I’m not careful I’ll end up thinking of one of the two sides in an issue as the bad side, even though the whole point is that people are being driven needlessly to emnity.)

      • blacktrance says:

        It’s a good strategy for framing humanity as the ingroup with impersonal economic forces as the outgroup.

        This is exactly the problem with the framing of Moloch. Impersonal economic forces aren’t an outgroup, they’re not even a group, they’re people acting in accordance with their preferences, following incentives, etc. Anthropomorphizing a class of actions leads to misleading statements like “crush Moloch” – let’s get our torches and pitchforks and lynch… people who are responding to incentives and acting in accordance with their preferences? Part of the anti-Molochian project is changing the incentives so that people would act differently, but the real problems don’t lend themselves to easy slogans, which is as it should be, because fixing them is complicated and the torches and pitchforks mentality (or even milder forms of “crush the outgroup”) would only make things worse. As Alex Tabbarok once said, “No one goes to the barricades for efficiency”, which I think is something to celebrate, because things have to be pretty bad before going to the barricades results in an improvement.

        Moloch is not an outgroup, or an enemy, or a friend. There is no Moloch, there are only people.

  3. The thing I want most for the rationalist community right now is for us to figure out how to build a better garden for talking about social-justice-related issues. Because there are really important questions there that we as a society need to find the answers to, and I feel like if some corner of the rationalist community were able to keep the forces of Moloch at bay long enough to get some work done, they might produce some results, as they’ve managed to do on questions that weren’t as politicized.

    EDIT: Also, have comments been turned off on this post?

    • a person says:

      Because there are really important questions there that we as a society need to find the answers to

      What are these questions to you?

      To me it seems like the only questions that really matter are to what extent differences between races and genders are biological, and the fact that science doesn’t know yet is why the issues are controversial. So I personally feel like just talking about them rationally won’t do us much good.

    • This really hits the mark for me. How do we construct a better environment for discussing important issues that’s immune to tribalism and the motivated reasoning that follows from it? Throwing a large amount of “here look at this article on bias” seems to be a start, but I feel we could have a web site, community, or something that does things that are far more sophisticated than that. I also note that even rationalist communities are prone to non-constructive debates (I freely acknowledge I am guilty sometimes too), so we need something better.

      I guess what we really need is a giant intelligent machine made of humans constructed to fight Moloch. (Elua?) Like everyone else, I don’t know what that should look like, but I’d definitely like to see a discussion of what sort of ideas could contribute to that.

      Perhaps Scott will have further ideas (beyond what he’s said about donations to charity, which I don’t object to)

      • Armok says:

        I can totally build you that if you supply the humans and a decent web developer! If you can wait a decade or so for me to get rid of this illness, I can do it without the web developer.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      Obviously, it is impossible to have the rational debate on clickbait outrage websites. And when you try to have it somewhere else, as soon as you become somehow significant, these websites will have an incentive to attack you.

      If the community is supposed to achieve anything meaningful, they must be super resistent to this kind of attack. They must think about it strategically, because when the attacks come, they will already be in a bad position.

      Unfortunately, we have the situation that when a group of websites starts throwing completely baseless accusations on you, everyone will go “there is no smoke without a fire” and refuse to debate with you. Some of your members will be tempted to argue logically as if the opponent is honest (“we just have to explain them what we really believe!” — oops, more fuel for quote mining, and the universal argument that if they try to defend themselves that only shows they feel guilty), some members will be tempted to make a counter-attack (which will only support the meme). Worst case, even if your members are perfectly cool-headed and super-rational (which is already very unlikely), someone else can start speaking for you, and you can’t prevent your enemies from treating this volunteer as a legitimate speaker for you. (Trolls are the warriors of Moloch.)

      Probably the best solution would be to go completely offline. But then we can’t cooperate across geographical distances. Or to create a secret debate, which of course has the problem of defection, and difficulty to recruit new members.

      • Paul Torek says:

        >someone else can start speaking for you, and you can’t prevent your enemies from treating this volunteer as a legitimate speaker for you.

        Yes, but the anti-rationalist community is too small to matter. The trick is to get the mainstream media not to fall for the fake-spokesperson. That might not be too hard. Let’s say Scott’s blog is the rationalist forum in question. Most media would want to talk to Scott himself.

      • AlphaCeph says:

        It’s an interesting idea, the problem I see is that in many of these gender/race/politics debates there isn’t really a clear way to win.

        Suppose you had a forum to debate controversial gender/race/political issue that was totally immune to attack from outside, and which contained only cool headed, rational people. What would they get done? What would the victory condition be?

        I have a partial answer to my own question for gender-related issues, but it doesn’t revolve around debate.

  4. Anonymous says:

    >(You think I’m exaggerating? Listen: “YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? VIDEO GAMES.”)

    Oh boy, here we go.

    • Sylocat says:

      I remember the Console Wars and the Jack Thompson Crusade, and I’ve seen YouTube videos of Xbox Live chatter. And I can tell you, there has never been a time when no one hated each other over video games.

    • Nornagest says:

      Oh, people have always hated each other over video games, or at least have since they grew out of the kiddie ghetto. It’s just that the character of the objection has changed. Twenty years ago it was soccer moms getting upset that their precious babies could see cartoonishly gruesome violence in Doom and Mortal Kombat. These days no one cares about cartoon violence, but boob armor and the existence of the save-the-princess plot are somehow newsworthy. No one’s had much success tying gaming to racism yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

      And that’s just other people hating gamers. Gamers have always hated each other, too — at times just as intensely or more. Casual vs. hardcore, Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Microsoft, JRPG vs. WRPG, console vs. PC, Tetsuya Nomura’s zipper fetish vs. right-thinking people everywhere…

      • anonymousCoward says:

        you’re forgetting…. resident evil 4? The one set in Africa.

        • Nornagest says:

          5; 4 was set in rural… Spain, I think it was? But yes, I’d forgotten about that.

          Only one game, though, and I was talking more about the medium as a whole.

        • Anonymous says:

          You’re thinking of 5. 4 was the one set in Spain.

      • Anonymous says:

        I would go further and suggest that any past-time or activity of any sort with a large enough group of people (min size: 2) has the *potential* to be the root of a large argument devolving into factionalism. A couple related XKCDs seems appropriate now: and . All past-times are alike when examined closely enough, and we can find differences in anything. You can find actual birdwatching racism discussions if you google, sadly enough. The larger the number of people enjoying a past time and the more time, money, and attention that is focused on it, the more likely it is to be a breeding ground of this sort of thing – and videogames, which have been growing in marketshare and mindshare of the entertainment sector for years, has been very ripe for it.

        • Armok says:

          I dispute that min size! :p I have a counterexample at 0: any software task that has not yet been considered, but which have two or more obvious solutions, each preforming better at some cases and worse at others.

  5. mimosomal says:

    I’ve seen a few people who were previously pro-feminist on tumblr gradually get argued into changing their opinions as they saw a few of the flaws in feminism memes. And promptly started reblogging every single thing they saw criticizing feminism- Valid or not.

    The culture of controversy is horrifying not just because it polarizes people who are naturally drawn to one side or another, but also because if you can ever manage to persuade someone that perhaps a more moderate position is called for, they are much more likely to flip all the way over to the other side with a vengeance and pick up the very worst of the MRA memes to offend the feminists they can no longer tolerate and purge their follower list.

    Because being in one of the extremist camps sure seems to feel a lot better for most people than taking a position where you’ll get shot at from all sides.

    • Jaskologist says:

      You could argue that this is Bayesian reasoning in action. If I was previously confident in [Issueist] issue X, and later decide that I was way off on X, it stands to reason that the other things [Issueists] had me convinced of are also way off.

      • Sylocat says:

        Bayes’ Theorem says, “If people who are wrong about X also say Y, then assume Y is wrong too?”

        I can think of very few modes of thinking that are more conducive to political tribalism.

        • hawkice says:

          I think what he was pointing at is that when you have an ideology, it is a dense nest of ideas, values, suppositions, filtered data, etc. with so many interconnections between them that people simply cannot untangle them. If one point in the matrix of thought turns out to be wrong, you still have the same network of reinforcing beliefs — so the whole network gets torn down with that one element.

          The Bayesian moment is being consistent about “Haha! I know X because A B C and D!”, and “Haha! I know C because A B D and don’t you see how well X turned out!”, etc. past the point where you consider X true.

          That kind of thinking is not a great way to distinguish between truth and falsity (very rarely do details of one issue have much relation to details of another; that’s why they are called details), but before you dismantle all those implications and associations, you should have a conservation of expected probability adjustment on all the connected reasoning.

          [This general error class, of not noticing beliefs can be wrong because of the network of implications instead of object-level facts per se, is probably due to not having good access to that kind of vocab, among other things.]

      • Nornagest says:

        That only really holds if there’s some sort of general parameter of correctness that affects everything a group believes, and I very much doubt that. It might be weakly true, in that sometimes by pure coincidence an ideology will happen upon a Grand Theory of Why The Other Guys Suck that represents reality a bit better than the alternative. But anything that’s obviously true will quickly reach fixation, the selection pressure’s all in the direction of simplification and controversy and good headlines, and the reality of non-obvious issues tends to be complicated and boring and highly unsexy. So on average I’d expect any mature ideology’s performance to be little better than chance.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Well, at the early stage, all you really know is that Group A is good at making you believe things which aren’t so. Reflexively disbelieving them after that isn’t a great long-term strategy, but it’s a decent heuristic to use until you sort everything out.

          Consider the following Michael Crichton quote, which is basically saying you are dumb if you don’t use this heuristic:

          Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

          In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

          • Nornagest says:

            I think journalism might be a case where there is a relevant General Parameter hanging over everything. Nuance doesn’t drive clicks; angry tribalism does. We should therefore expect journalistic sources to be optimized for angry tribalism and against nuance in proportion to their dependence on clicks (or their dead-tree analogues) for revenue, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying “never trust the papers” but comes pretty close. But that doesn’t generalize to every group.

          • alexp says:

            Funnily enough, I’d use the same heuristic to ignore anything Michael Crichton says.

      • memeticengineer says:

        That doesn’t sound like valid Bayesian reasoning to me. It sounds like the fallacy of assuming that reversed stupidity is intelligence.

        To spell it out: let’s say that feminist theory is your evidence for believing X, Y and Z. You become convinced that X is false. In this case, it’s rational to place less weight on the evidentiary value on feminist theory, since it led you to a wrong conclusion. It’s also rational to reduce your credence in Y and Z, since your evidence for them is now much weaker.. But it’s decidedly *not* rational to suddenly believe not-Y and not-Z with very high credence, on this basis alone.

        • 27chaos says:

          It’s valid reasoning when the evidence is weighted properly. Stupid people really are less likely to have correct opinions than smart people.

        • DrBeat says:

          The whole “reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence” argument for giving groups like this credit only works if there are a small number of possible answers to things, such that it is conceivable they can hit it by accident.

          Also, it kind of presupposes that defective systems of reasoning arrive at conclusions by pure chance, which isn’t true. Feminist ideology is consistently wrong because the precepts it bases its worldview on are the opposite of the truth, and following feminist paradigms and reasoning will lead to the wrong answer every single time without exception, because that reasoning doesn’t lead to a random place, it leads to a place guaranteed to be incorrect.

          • memeticengineer says:

            Regarding the general notion of “reversed stupidity is not intelligence”: it doesn’t depend on there being only a few possible answers. The notion is that you know a foolish person believes X, so you very strongly believe the reversal of X. Let’s say someone believes that men and women are on average the same height. It would not be valid to strongly believe that men and women are extremely different heights on average. Note that this is the case even when X itself is wrong.

            Regarding feminism in particular: I can’t tell if what you’re saying is meant literally or as hyperbole. Assuming it’s literal, let me explain why it’s wrong.

            (1) If you start with 100% false premises, you will not deduce 100% false conclusions. Rather, you will be able to prove every possible false *or* true conclusions. It’s impossible to build a falsehood oracle just by starting with false premises and proceeding from there. The only way to do it is to build a truth oracle and reverse all of its answers at the end. The structure of feminism you describe is logically impossible.

            (2) One conclusion of the feminist belief system is that rape is really bad. Should we therefore conclude that rape is awesome? That seems like a reductio ad absurdum.

            (3) If feminism was actually effective as a falsehood oracle, then we should promote, treasure and cherish it because it would be a massive shortcut to producing truths about society and ethics, which otherwise seem very hard to come by.

          • DrBeat says:

            1: Feminism doesn’t believe the opposite of all true things. It believes in one opposite-of-true thing and bases all of its decision-making on that. Homeopathic theory isn’t based on the opposite of all true things, it’s based on one opposite-of-true thing. Homeopathic theory is also never right.

            2: “Rape is bad” is not a falsifiable conclusion, it is a value statement. “Rape is bad” is not an invention of feminism. “‘Rape is bad’ is an invention of feminism” is a perfect example of how feminism is always wrong. You may as well try to credit Communism with the idea that abusing people is bad.

            3: Do you not remember the thing you were responding to? Feminism produces the wrong answer one hundred percent of the time, but since there aren’t a small number of possible answers, it is not some cherishable oracle. If I create an ideology all about how the subterranean lizard-men are responsible for all ills in the world, and I interpret everything through this ideology, I will never ever ever arrive at a correct conclusion through it, and my incorrect conclusions will yield no useful information.

      • somnicule says:

        More cynically, in some communities it might be a signal of one’s ability to change one’s mind.

      • Surely if X is evidence for A, B and C, then A, B and C are evidence for X, and therefore a belief in !X should weaken my belief in A, B and C, but A, B and C should weaken the extremity of my belief in !X?

      • Viliam Búr says:

        I think it depends on how specifically the beliefs are connected. (They may be connected differently even for different people in the same camp.)

        If I have independent evidence for X, Y, Z, then learning that X is false will not undermine my belief in Y and Z significantly, because the arguments for them still feel valid.

        On the other hand, if my chain of reasoning is something like “I have reasons to believe that my leader is infallible, and my leaders says X, Y, Z”, then learning that X is false will remove all my evidence for Y and Z. It’s similar if the chain is “I believe X, and X implies Y and Z”.

        Of course this alone is not a reason to believe in non-Y and non-Z; I should merely become ignorant about Y and Z. But people are not good at admitting ignorance, they want to believe this or that way. However, if the chain of reasoning way “I believe X, and X is equivalent to Y”, then after learning that X is false it is valid to believe that Y is valid, too.

        So, it depends on the structure of beliefs. If you want to prevent your members from turning fully to the opposite side if they find a flaw, you should teach your beliefs as independent. Of course then you can have a lot of people who accept a subset of your beliefs and refuse the rest; and you might want to avoid that, to rather have less strong believers than many half-believers. The system with a few strong believers is probably more powerful politically, but also more fragile. On the other hand, for a two-part meme (which is fueled both by strong believers and strong anti-believers, because each of them serves as a reverse-stupidity recruitment tool for the other side), having a few strong believers is an advantage, regardless of the fragility.

        What’s best for the meme is not the same as what’s best for the cause. To use the specific example, more feminists help recruit more feminists, but also turn more people into anti-feminists; and vice versa, more anti-feminists help recruit more anti-feminists, but also turn more people into feminists… so while it is not sure whether it is a victory for feminism, it certainly is a victory for the “feminism + anti-feminism” two-part meme.

        To fight against the meme, we should evaluate X, Y, Z separately. And then we could conclude that e.g. feminists were wrong about X, but right about Y and Z. (And then we should get ready to be attacked by feminists for not believing X, and by anti-feminists for believing Y and Z.)

  6. So I have a friend, or someone who used to be a friend, who is in a convent. (This story is relevant to the above, but gradually.) I’m currently rather horrified that she is there. The rules of the convent read like a manual for bringing about persuasion through the dark arts rather than rational means: Isolation from society? Check. Conformity in dress and action? Check. Having other people read your mail, and being obliged to tell them all about yourself? Check. Framing so that leaving the convent is seen as rejecting a gift? Check. And so on and so forth.

    So this bothers me. It seems to me the kind of thing that is designed to produce non-agenty automatons. If a Catholic is reading this, bear with me.

    But to the people in the convent, of course, all this is precisely designed to free one from the slavery to the flesh. Conformity in dress and action? Destoys pride and vain signalling so you can be with Christ. Isolation from society? Again, separation from the world so you can be with Chris. All this is optimization, from their point of view, for truthseeking–not something designed to brainwash you. The basic Catholic point is that all this is supposed to be the only way you can really be perfect, or really be an agent, or something.

    This is a severe disagreement, then, between Catholics and me. I feel the rage when I see a FB article about someone joining a convent (“She said yes to Christ!”). And no doubt, if I were stupid enough to share some atheist article about Mother Theresa, people reading that would feel the rage. We could shout at each other a lot.

    The problem, though, is that this isn’t an edge case to either of our worldviews. It isn’t something that we can reasonably remain silent about, because we think it is really, really important. For me, it’s something important because it is about something at least resembling brainwashing. For them, it’s the highest calling a Christian can come to. I want to say things about it because it is distressing for me to think that someone thinking about joining a convent would not hear an opposing view. And they could say something similar, of course.

    So with regard to the above post. The above is really, really excellent. It’s convicting, to use the Protestant term of art. It’s like a secular sermon. (If Scott kickstarted a book by that title, I would fund the hell out of it. [Profits can go to charity to ease his conscience. {Please do this.}]).

    But the problem…. well… meh. This isn’t a disagreement with the above–it’s more of a problem for the whole SSC project which I don’t see a way out of. Some things people actually disagree with each other about, and actually disagree with each other to such an extent that the people with whom they are disagreeing don’t appear to them to be anything like rational agents. When I argue with a non-cloistered individual Consecrated to Christ, very nearly everything that they say presents itself to me as something a horrible, evil, infectious, dangerous memetic attachment would cause them to say. And no doubt they perceive very nearly everything I say as something someone would say who is in thrall to the Devil and Sin and bound by the chains of the flesh. It seems–although I’m not certain–that once you get separated from someone, after a certain point, they no longer present themselves to you as rational agents–that we lose the ability to see others as reasonable, if they are too far away. (We may be right or wrong in not seeing them as such, of course.) Catholic nuns and atheist rationalists seem clearly sufficiently far away that what is identified as truth-seeking behavior by one is usually identified as foreign-principality-infection by the other.

    And you don’t disagree with someone carrying a horrible infectious viral agent–you tell people to STAY AWAY NO MATTER WHAT. And this is surely true of memetic as well as viral agents. And this warning to stay away will be perceived as an attack–which, to a certain degree, it is–and this will lead to name calling. It leads to a fight, but it’s not a fight because of people forgetting the things that they actually agree on. It’s just a fight.

    So basically I’m wondering whether the body present thinks it’s true that we can’t really have reasonable disagreement between people separated by a certain distance–and I suppose, by extension, that we’re always going to get into nasty fights like these in any reasonably pluralistic society. (Not really sure I am right about this, of course, and not really sure I formulated this clearly.) It seems to jar a little with the SSC project, if so.

    (I’d also be curious what other examples people could think of, where what is identified to the self as extreme truth-seeking optimization is identified by the other as extreme brainwashing.)

    • Watercressed says:

      >And you don’t disagree with someone carrying a horrible infectious viral agent–you tell people to STAY AWAY NO MATTER WHAT. And this is surely true of memetic as well as viral agents

      This is not clear. While there is no upside to allowing viral agents to go around and infect people, allowing the same for memetic agents is both less bad and has benefits in allowing broader consideration of ideas.

      • Toggle says:

        Memes-as-virus is the dominant metaphor, but sometimes it’s also useful to switch gears to memes-as-alleles. In that case, discourse stands in for sex, which we use to recombine survival strategies for tomorrow’s minds. In this metaphor, limitations on discourse look less like a quarantine and more like a mandatory eugenics program.

        Which, I suppose, says less about the merits of free speech than it does about the dangers of choosing metaphors arbitrarily.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Yours is a better point than the one I was going to make, but luckily the two are compatible:

          There is an upside to allowing viruses to go around infecting people, which is why we do it. The opportunity cost involved in avoiding all viral infections is much worse than the cost of infection for most viruses. That’s why we don’t live in quarantine bubbles.

      • Doug S. says:

        Counterargument 1. Link is not safe for sanity.

        Counterargument 2 (rot13’d for your protection):
        lbh whfg ybfg gur tnzr

      • David Hart says:

        …unless you yourself are carrying rival memetic viral agents which are threatened by that other person’s memes, and which can spread themselves more effectively if that other person is nowhere near you to counteract them. Which is what I think SeekingOmniscience was getting at – what is good from a god’s-eye-view may be bad for the specific memeplexes we currently value.

      • When I read that comment, I immediately tried to think of some benefit to letting viral agents go around and infect people, and Guns, Germs, and Steel came to mind: it may suck for people in your civilization, but when you meet a different civilization without your old immunities they get crushed, if you call that an advantage. Which would actually support you: it seems likely that that when civilization with tons of competing memes / idea runs into civilization without so many, the one with more memes / ideas prevails. So one could develop a theory of American cultural imperialism based on this. Or something. Whether this is a benefit probably depends on what you think most contributes to adaptive fitness of memes / ideas…

        But thanks for the criticism. You’re right that it is not clear that the quotation is true, and that there are obvious and clear benefits of letting memetic agents encounter people. How about I respond by qualifying the generality of the statement: you at least tell people whom you regard as in a nascent, youthful, particularly vulnerable epistemic state to stay away–that seems more generally true. (And Xianity and rationalism, oddly, share that they regard large portions of mankind as being in a vulnerable ungrounded epistemic state.)

        • Brad says:

          > I immediately tried to think of some benefit to letting viral agents go around and infect people, and Guns, Germs, and Steel came to mind: it may suck for people in your civilization, but when you meet a different civilization without your old immunities they get crushed, if you call that an advantage. Which would actually support you: it seems likely that that when civilization with tons of competing memes / idea runs into civilization without so many, the one with more memes / ideas prevails.

          I’m a fundamentalist Christian, and I tend to browse fairly rabidly antitheist forums quite a bit. I was asking myself this morning why I did this, and the answer was sort of along the lines of “understanding their lines of reasoning will assist me in inoculating myself and developing counter-arguments.” In other words, it was the same exact lines or reasoning you’re expressing here. (and frankly, this is also part of why I personally suspect lots of atheists lurk and show up in the Christian forums, particularly those devoted to apologetics.)

          Weird, no?

          • wysinwyg says:

            I think it’s interesting to consider whether “inoculating oneself against competing worldviews” can be distinguished from “fairly considering competing worldviews”. If our access to our own motivations is limited, then we might not even be able to tell which we’re actually trying to do in any particular situation.

            Also, I certainly seem to have more sustained and interesting streams of consciousness in response to arguments with which I disagree than I do with arguments with which I agree. One could plausibly engage with alternate worldviews to improve thinking about one’s own worldview.

    • LorenzoCanuck says:

      As a Catholic who has a number of atheist friends, it seems, from my experience, that disagreement is only detrimental to the extent that the controversy begins to affect the daily lives of the interlocutors in relation to one another. Obviously your convent example is on the extreme end, but in most cases a Catholic and an atheist (or agnostic, or Pastafarian, or whatever) can live in harmony since they usually have vaguely similar life goals such as advancing careers or trying to raise families.

      The problem arises when this commonality begins to collapse, when the implications of utterly contrasting belief systems begin to manifest as contradictory ways of life. Your convent example is one, but another would be if, for example, one party decides that having over 5 children is part of their divine calling, or if one person wants to send their son to a private school that the other wants to shut down, because he believes private schools should not exist.

      Ultimately, I think that the existence of such incidents demonstrates that pluralism is not a stable end-state for society if it generates such completely antithetical views. At some point trends will shift to favour one world-view over all the others, simply because there is no other way to have a naturally stable polity. It seems that, essentially, you need to start making conversions to your worldview, if at the very least as a self-protection measure.

      • Brad says:

        This reminds me of Chesterton’s remarks in Orthodoxy to the effect that if you’re going to paint the world, you should pick one color and stick with it, rather than switching when you get bored with painting tigers blue.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      “I’m wondering whether the body present thinks it’s true that we can’t really have reasonable disagreement between people separated by a certain distance

      I think it’s true, and recommend this post on that subject:

      The TL;DR is that when the person you’re arguing with has too much separation from you it is REALLY HARD to not seem like a crazy person, yet subjectively doesn’t feel like it OUGHT to be so hard as it actually is.

      • I hadn’t read that before, thanks. That was enjoyable and made sense of why we seem to expect people to be much inferentially closer than they often are.

        It helped me formulate two reasons that intelligent and otherwise reasonable people might not be able to disagree or discuss things profitably, though. One is the above–enormous inferential differences make people think that other people are insane.

        I think there’s another one, though, in the sense that particular beliefs about the world lead to particular beliefs about good habits to have while thinking, and these habits can just be incompatible. An atheist might affirm habits like those in EY’s 12 virtues–say, for instance, that you need to get the habit of noticing confusion as an indicator you might be wrong. But a theist might think that one ought to have the habit of clinging to particular beliefs because confusion is from the devil. Or an atheist might say that because he’s an evolved animal, the intutive sense people get of Someone being there might just be horribly wrong because intuitive senses are often horribly wrong, and so good epistemological practice is to not trust it. But a theist might think the intutive sense one gets of Someone being there is from God, and to ignore it is to crush a particular sensus divinitatis (

        At least, that might be something different from inferential distance. Inferential distance seems like something more biologically based, and the habits difference seems like something (maybe) more culturally based. I dunno.

    • Thursday says:

      This is one of the weaknesses of Scott’s piece, though it is in many ways an excellent post: there really are some issues where people radically disagree.

    • caramel says:

      what if the 2000 years institutional tradition of philosophy and civilization-building practice that Catholicism has built up has interesting points to make? What if it’s simply true that detaching oneself from the world allows one to argue about it without constantly wondering about how they can advantage themself by their arguments?

      I mean, but here I am, anonymously on the Internet, so no one knows who I am or how, if at all, I advantage myself by this argument. Plus, faster information turnaround than the old monks reading and writing books system.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        There are good kinds of feedback (the ones we get from scientific experiments) and bad kinds of feedback (the ones we get from Moloch). If you detach yourself from the world, you remove both. You are allowed to say true things that would have cost you a career outside of the monastery. You are also allowed to say things that are just plain crazy.

    • Nita says:

      I too sometimes feel like Scott’s stance is, basically, “Sure, these object-level issues are horrible and all… but what really matters is people being rude in blog comments!” 🙂 However, I think the point you’re making is orthogonal to this particular post.

      Yes, there are differences in values, worldviews, and epistemology, both between individuals and between groups. And it’s scary to see other people turning into belief-aliens right in front of you.

      But, on the other hand, there are also beliefs we have in common. Perhaps not with every person in every situation, but certainly on most of the controversial issues with most people, there is an area on consensus: e.g., having “sex” with an unconscious person without prior consent is wrong, reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies is a worthy goal, we should minimize the amount of pain we inflict on the animals we breed.

      And these points of agreement could be a basis for both action — implementing policies most of us would support, even if our reasons are different, and dialogue — trying to persuade each other and expand the common ground, one step at a time.

      But the outrage machine described in Scott’s post makes the common ground seem smaller, erodes it in the long term, and distracts everyone from actually working on the problems.

      • Yeah, I think you’re pretty much right that this an orthogonal issue. Maybe should have waited for the open thread or something. I agree with everything you say.

        (Including that it is terrifying and flesh-chillingly creepy to see people become belief-aliens.)

      • Thursday says:

        I agree that there is actually a lot more agreement out there on certain issues than is apparent from what you see on the internet.

        But Scott’s article seemed to imply at times that people don’t actually disagree strongly on many issues. Not all the nastiness can be blamed on the perverse incentives out there.

        Jon Haidt’s work is a good place to start on the gaping differences in worldview that people sometimes have.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        I think about it this way: even if people have different values (some people believe they do, some believe they don’t, I am not sure), good communication may allow us better cooperation in the Prisoners’ Dilemma.

        If we instead optimize for fighting each other, the results are suboptimal in case our values are different, and deeply tragical if they are not.

    • Jadagul says:

      I’ve heard this idea phrased (by Rorty) as “non-commensurable values” or “non-commensurable worldviews”. If your premises and foundational beliefs are far enough away from someone else’s, it becomes basically impossible to have a coherent or sensible conversation with them.

      (I’m acutely aware of this because I’m a bit off from a bunch of people. I’m probably going to throw a bomb relevant to Scott’s post in a separate comment thread, but I also find a desire for equality to be totally incomprehensible, and reject any argument that involves the concept of fairness or deserving something).

    • Deiseach says:

      If it’s not breaking a confidence, what order is your (ex)friend joining? Enclosed or religious institute (all nuns are sisters, but not all sisters are nuns)?

      Generally, discernment of a vocation nowadays is more nuanced than it used to be, and psychological fitness is one of the things assessed. Also, you go through a series of stages before final profession of vows; up to then, it’s revocable. Using the example I’m most familiar with (my sister is an ex-nun; didn’t take final vows but was first profession stage, now she’s married with two kids if that’s any encouragement to you about your friend?)

      There’s a short introductory period where you and the order scope each other out to see if you’re a good fit for each other, this can be anything up to six months.

      Then there’s the period of candidacy (what used to be called a postulant) that can last from one to two years.

      Then you’re a novice, which is another two year period.

      Then you make your first profession which is taking temporary vows binding for three to six years, depending what order.

      Then finally after all that, final profession and commitment for life.

      So you do get chances to change your mind, and it does happen that people are refused by orders at any time and get told “We don’t think this is the place for you”.

      • Carmelites. I suspect you’re familiar with their practices, so I won’t describe to to you in detail why many of them would very easily seem problematic.

        I’m aware not everything is taken in one step, and it’s certainly true that the staged approach is better than the alternative. Even in light of this I am extremely troubled by Carmelite practices re. communication and so forth.

        Edit: Might as well add that, even from a Catholic perspective, theological justifications for these practices appear to me to be really severely lacking — or depend on a kind of inherited Neoplatonic dislike of the world, which seems to me pretty much separated from any moderately viable Catholic theological perspective. So there’s that as well.

        • Deiseach says:

          Well, to be fair, everyone knows that the Carmelites are tough – sort of the equivalent of special forces units in the armed forces of any nation.

          If someone is thinking of becoming a Carmelite, then they’re probably very sure of what they want to do. Doesn’t necessarily mean they realise exactly what they’re getting into, and a lot of people have a very romantic notion of the religious life which doesn’t survive contact with the reality of it. And I doubt your friend is as extreme as St Therese of Lisieux, who wanted to join the Carmelites at the age of fifteen but was rejected on the sensible grounds that she had to be at least sixteen before they’d even consider it and then, when on a visit to Rome with her father and present at a public audience with the pope, threw herself before him on her knees begging him to tell the Carmelites to take her (‘Because you’re the Pope, they have to do what you tell them!’), and had to be dragged away weeping by the Swiss Guard 🙂

          I can’t really comment, though, as a couple of decades back, my (the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a) crush went off to join the Cistercians 🙂

    • pneumatik says:

      I think the Consecrated to Christ people you talk to also think everything you say “presents itself to [them] as something a horrible, evil, infectious, dangerous memetic attachment would cause [you] to say.” They don’t use those words, but they mean the same thing. In fact their model for how to become more religiously pure seems to incorporate memes as a significant component even if it doesn’t call them that.

      People have been trying to control ideas for as long as there’s been history. Ancient attempts by societal leaders to control religion are really a type of memetic warfare, though perhaps a very simple form. Generally speaking ancient religions that were open to other religions and had a way of incorporating them did better than ancient religions that required strict doctrinal purity.

      As for staying away from memetic risks, I disagree. Your worldview, by which I mean the mental model you use for all of reality, should be constantly adjusted to incorporate everything you’re exposed to. If you’re exposed to a meme, like joining a convent, and it changes your worldview to the point where you start acting differently then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I find no good standards for determining what information people should not ever be exposed to. I don’t even think there are people you should never have discussions with, assuming you can do so in physical safety.

      Yes, we’ll always get into nasty fights over our disagreements. Moloch requires it because if you’re good at surviving strife you’ll eventually start causing it to weed out competitors who can’t survive it. Take heart in the fact that Cthulhu swims ever leftward, at least on long enough time scales. Scott’s gardens of rational discussion seem to grow wherever they spout up, and they are often involved in astonishingly good achievements for humanity. Eventually we may become the unstoppable eusocial aliens that could pose an existential threat to us.

      • Mary says:

        “Take heart in the fact that Cthulhu swims ever leftward, at least on long enough time scales.”

        Only because the Ministry of Truth rewrites history so that things cease to be leftist once they fail.

        Prohibition was a great Progressive cause.

        So was segregation — it was not the end of Reconstruction but the election of Woodrow Wilson that set it loose, and they openly said they were glad to finally be free of that fossilized dogma of the equality of man.

        Involuntary eugenic sterilizations were another Progressive cause, too.

      • Yeah, I meant the way the nun perceives me to be more or less the way I perceive the nun.

        But yeah, what I originally wrote sort of wandered between “Well intentioned people, far distant in idea-space, might not be able to agree profitably / reasonably,” which I pretty much still think is true, and “We need to censor,” which I think is probably wrong in nearly all cases–I still wonder about what attitude one takes towards the epistemologically immature. But yes, it seems that gardens of rational discussion do grow over their competitors in the end.

        …although, I’ll be totally frank, humanity becoming the Superhappies is not at the moment high on my list of priorities. 🙂

    • John Henry says:

      “And you don’t disagree with someone carrying a horrible infectious viral agent–you tell people to STAY AWAY NO MATTER WHAT.”

      That’s true if you consider yourself to be vulnerable to the agent. That’s why it’s useful to cultivate a healthy immune system and to have all the best vaccines and medicines available. After that, I think the virus/meme analogy breaks down.

      Personally I have a lot of faith that truth will out eventually, and that it wins out more quickly when people have honest and well intentioned conversations. Consequently I regard the “Quarantine!” response to unwelcome memes as dangerous, and prefer a “Vaccinate, treat, and cure” response to those memes I regard as unwelcome. As far as I can tell, the best cure for a dangerous idea is a better idea, administered via conversation. Conversation means listening, understanding, and debating respectfully – something I see an awful lot of on SSC (which just gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies.)

      In short, I don’t think the situation is as bleak as you paint it. The real problem isn’t fundamental disagreements – it’s fear of contamination. People who don’t trust the truth to win out in an honest conversation (or who fear that there is a difference between the truth and the “right” idea) are going to have a hard time listening to one another. Maybe the solution is to start with a conversation about conversation? Infect them with the idea that the truth will ultimately trump any memetic agent (given the right environment: honest and well intentioned conversation) and *then* you can have a real conversation with them, regardless of the ideological gulf between you.

  7. AJD says:

    Even hard-core anti-feminists would believe a rape accusation that was caught on video.

    …I’d bet you 10 dollars that I could find three counterexamples. But even if I’m right, I don’t actually want to go looking for them.

    • Sylocat says:

      Steubenville provided way more than three counterexamples.

      Of course, Steubenville also falls under this part…

      An obviously true rape allegation will only be spread if the response is controversial enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics

      • Coscott says:

        Knowing almost nothing about this:

        Why does it fall under that part? What is was the controversy?

        • Sylocat says:

          When the verdict was announced, CNN’s newscasters devoted a bit too much time to talking about how hard it was to watch these “very good students” and “star football players” have their promising futures fall apart.

          I’m trying not to editorialize, I tried not to deliberately give it a negative reading, and I do think the justice system in general is draconian (the Sex Offender Registry does need overhaul), but CNN really did seem to be talking as though the two rapists were tragic victims.

    • DrBeat says:

      Is this a “you can find some shmuck to believe any proposition” response or a “I define feminism as good and good as feminism so the people who oppose it must have all negative qualities” response?

    • Gibborim says:

      1: Steubenville.

    • Looking for them would imply searching for “rape caught on video”, which is likely to return 100% really unpleasant porn sites. <>

    • Gbdub says:

      I suspect the “I can find a counterexample” attitude is a powerful tool of Moloch. You can always find a counterexample – but this is not always significant. All too often I see articles in my FB feed of the form “BREAKING: People Say Offensive Things on Twitter!” Invariably the actual content of such articles is one or two particularly nasty anonymous Twitter posts, then a bunch of scene chewing about how this Says Something Important about society as a whole. The actual legwork of proving that “anonymous ass says something nasty about X” actually indicates that “a significant population actually believes nasty things about X” is left as an exercise for the reader, and thus the controversy monster is fed.

      • Drew Hardies says:

        OTOH, “I can find a counterexample” could be a useful way out of the trap in Scotts post.

        Inventing (or over-hyping a tiny minority) an opposition lets us have long conversations about stuff that would otherwise drop off the radar.

        I’m convinced, for example, that the Westboro Baptist Church helped push the national consensus towards gay rights.

        The problem, unfortunately, is that the FB feeds seem to be: “BREAKING: People from the Other Tribe say offensive things on Twitter.”

        And then we’ve got a trade-off where people can exploit tribalism to get an excuse to talk at length about how bad things are bad.

    • cpopell says:

      Steubenville wasn’t about anti-feminists, it was about small town celebrity.

      Anti-feminist tends to be a particular, semi-educated stance, if you take it to mean ‘against feminist ideology/epistemology’ rather than ‘conservative’.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        There’s a difference between “everyone who disagrees with feminists” and “anti-feminists”.

    • RCF says:

      If we’re simply discussing a sex act that was caught on tape, and which is alleged to be nonconsensual, the movie Deep Throat would be an example. My understanding is that Paris Hilton claimed that she wasn’t aware of what she was doing during the events of the sex tape. And there was an incident in which a woman was videotaped receiving oral sex and later claimed to be drunk to consent (and there were feminists condemning bystanders for standing by, because apparently people have an obligation to interrupt any public sex act they witness to evaluate the participants’ state of mind).

  8. Alex Godofsky says:

    When we say “the media decided to cover Ferguson instead of Eric Garner”, we reify and anthropomorphize an entity incapable of making goal-directed decisions.

    I think you undersell the New York Times editorial board.

    edit: I’ll grant that they could be just responding rationally to incentives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency

  9. Buck says:

    Re animal rights charities: Many people have actually heard of Vegan Outreach. They hand out more than a million leaflets a year on university campuses. This is an impressive number of interactions, arguably more valuable ones than PETA’s, and it might just be coincidence that you’re not one of the people who ran across them.

    There are other organisations in animal welfare which try to optimise more for media coverage than Vegan Outreach while being less objectionable than PETA, most notably Direct Action Everywhere, who managed to get a bunch of mainstream coverage recently.

    People in animal rights certainly think about these problems.

    • Dave Rolsky says:

      I’d also point out Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing as animal advocacy groups that are able to get media attention without being outrageous. They do it by regularly releasing absolutely horrifying undercover video of abuse on factory farms and slaughterhouses.

      They seem to be incredibly good at getting media coverage, and the coverage they get is pretty consistently about the issue, not about their own silly stunts.

      PETA is simply trapped in a very old-school “all media is good media” mentality. Maybe that had some value when they started in the 80s, but as Scott points out, enough people are aware of the basic issues (factory farming, etc.) that optimizing for media coverage and nothing else seems like a pretty poor strategy.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      I’ve been involved in a number of vegan communities along the west coast and I’ve never heard of Vegan Outreach. I have not met anyone who is not familiar with PETA (conversely, I have also not met anyone that *supports* PETA)

    • Nisan says:

      I had Direct Action Everywhere in mind when I read the post. Its publicity seems to be an effect of controversy — as I understand it, its lucky break came when Glenn Beck mocked one of their protests. Possibly it can surpass PETA at its own game, find a new Pareto frontier in the controversy/publicity space, and still be less controversial than PETA.

    • Daniel says:

      I don’t think that “[VO] hand out more than a million leaflets a year on university campuses” implies that “many people have actually heard of VO”. Just because someone receives a pamphlet doesn’t mean that they remember the organisation that gave them the pamphlet (or even that they actually read the pamphlet).

    • Deiseach says:

      I have a vegan animal-rights activist brother and I get all this PETA-style crap from him and let me tell you, it has not changed my mind re: vegetarianism/veganism.

      In fact, after one or two of their stupid pronouncements, I’m in a mood to go “Let’s bring back the live plucking of geese!”

    • Absque hoc says:

      Is Direct Action Everywhere supposed to be less controversial and objection-raising than PETA? Their backlash seems de facto to have been as bad as some of the worst blowback PETA have received and maybe worse than the typical PETA campaign. And its defenders often invoke the “it doesn’t matter if the response is uniformly hostile, it’s still good publicity” line.

    • Darryl Williams says:

      I have been handed and summarily thrown away many dozen leaflets on my college campus. 1million leafets a year sounds like enough to have a small pile in the local landfill of a college town, impressive maybe, but then, so would socks be.

  10. ASR says:

    Many schools of ancient philosophy (e.g., the Stoics or Epicureans) have an undercurrent of resignation or detachment. Roughly, they teach that “the world is a big chaotic place and lots of things happen that you can’t control. The point of a philosophical education is to help you make peace with that.” Modern science and even modern political theory is much more about transforming or fixing the world.

    Scott has done a fantastic job of pointing out ways in which our control over the world is exceedingly imperfect. In trying to improve the world by collective action, we create serious coordination problems. There is no particular guarantee that these problems are actually soluble. Arrow’s theorem and similar results demonstrate that some natural-seeming coordination problems do not have any possible solution.

    Is the right approach a return to a less activist world-view? Should we be trying to fix the problem, or primarily trying to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are trapped inside a badly flawed system?

    • Jordan D. says:

      I’m not so sure I see a necessary dichotomy.

      It seems to me that people ought to strive to accept the world-as-is with as much equanimity as possible. If the world is full of serious co-ordination problems, I desire to see the world as full of serious co-ordination problems! If those problems are unsolvable, I should desire to see them as unsolvable.

      But my prior against a problem being ‘unsolvable’ is pretty high. Like, if I define ‘solving this problem’ as ‘removing all the negative consequences by changing the world in a way which exclusively produces good outcomes’, that’s pretty unsolvable-sounding, but that’s also not normally the standard for solving problems.

      (Given how long green-team/red-team biases, halo effects and feedback loops have been going on, they certainly look very *hard* to solve even by a lower standard.)

      But unless there’s a really good reason for getting worked up about the world being in an imperfect-but-improvable state, a little equanimity is probably healthy for most people. I don’t think I’ll see Moloch slain in my lifetime, so I should learn to love the world even though Moloch is in it.

      …but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t measure every sword I come across to see if it’ll strike its heart.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      I think it’s entirely possible, and very important, to be aware of and use accordingly each approach. You can be reconciled to the badly flawed system while still trying to fix it.

    • Jake says:

      You might as well be describing the gulf between rationalism and post modernism. Not that I disagree with you, but the movement you are proposing is that large. I dare say that many rationalists have disregarded the notion that man can be perfected through repressive application of culture and morality, which already puts us squarely opposed to post-modernist thought and the “activist” world view.

      This is of course, not to say, that society cannot be made more equitable or just or safe, but as you are alluding to, the world/society/mankind are flawed. For instance, despite all our efforts to eliminate expressions of evil intent and action, there are not many rational people who would state that evil can be eliminated from man.

      Therefore the question is more of a philosophical one – Imagine you live in a desert village where the sun rising every morning causes pain, discomfort, potentially even death, to the people in your village. Do you attempt to keep the sun from rising or do you protect yourself from it’s rays? Many people in “our village” have not accepted the inevitability of the sun, so they act in ways that they think can stop it that are often disruptive to the rest of the people who are attempting to find shelter or protect themselves or others.

      I think the same scenario applies to your question, that is, a significant portion of the population have not accepted the nature of man as flawed, so rather than working within those constraints to find equitable solutions, they seek instead to fix that which cannot be fixed.

      So, to put it succinctly – the “only thing” (and I suppose it’s quite a big thing) standing in the way of your proposition is the post-modernist “tabula rasa” interpretation of the nature of man and the infatuation that media and cultural activists have with it.

      • eqdw says:

        Imagine you live in a desert village where the sun rising every morning causes pain, discomfort, potentially even death, to the people in your village.

        I find this an interesting example because we actually do live in this world. The sun causes pain (sunburns), discomfort (overheating), and potentially death (skin cancer). Meanwhile, most people have generally accepted the inevitability of this and take measures to protect themselves (sunscreen) instead of trying to block out the sun (like Mr Burns did in the Simpsons)

    • The problem is that there’s no obvious way of telling which issues are soluble or not, so passivity means not solving ones that could be solved.

      For example the stoics would say that disease will always ravage mankind and we should come to accept the impermanence of life, then we eradicated smallpox, invented antibiotics, massively reduced infant mortality, etc. War and general violence is far less common than it was in the past, and while politics is still fractious we don’t have emperors proudly displaying the severed heads of their rivals anymore.

      I don’t think stoic detachment would have allowed you to solve those problems, or our current ones, to change things you need to care.

      • eqdw says:

        This is kind of why I always hated The Serenity Prayer

        It sounds like a really good thing: Let’s fix what we can, but be at peace with what we can’t fix, and let’s be smart enough to figure out the difference.

        It always bothered me, though, because no two people could seem to agree on the difference, and this was pretty big. In particular, I knew a bunch of people who would use “I accept that which I cannot fix” to justify inaction in an obvious way (“Why bother donating to charity, we’re never going to solve poverty”), and others who would implore others with this in order to justify their shitty actions (“I’m the boss. I’m allowed to exercise arbitrary authority over you. You would be wise to accept this, as you cannot change it”).

        • Doug S. says:

          “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

        • Meredith L. Patterson says:

          That’s why I like the version which ends with “… and the equipment, training and staff to make a difference.”

      • Lesser Bull says:

        On his old site, Scott pointed out that Buddhist/Stoic/Christian resignation is probably better for the individual but maybe worse for the society. The ideal thing, of course, is to defect–be a Stoic in a society of strivers.

    • blacktrance says:

      An intermediate approach is probably the best. On one hand, most of us have little influence over large-scale problems, there are institutional barriers to change, etc, so one could realistically expend a lot of effort trying to change things on a large scale and accomplish nothing. On the other hand, it’s not actually true that we can’t do anything – each of us has a non-negligible amount of influence in our social circles, and at least when it comes to cultural change in one’s immediate environment, one person can do a lot. Beyond that, some people are in a position to accomplish large-scale changes, whether through discovering vaccines, making decisions for influential companies, etc. So the general rule of thumb is to push for changes in areas where you’re influential and to be less activist in other areas.

    • Anonymous Cowherd says:

      You have taken the first step on the path to Neo-Reaction. Come, friend, the dark side awaits….

  11. Anonymous says:

    We need some kind of social technology that can put hard limits on this insanity. Infobitt might fit this bill, or it might make the insanity spiral even more out of control, we shall see. I wonder how many potential controversies have been strangled in their crib by the existence of wikipedia over the years. Moldbug’s old essays about uberfact and duelnode proposed a way to harness the insanity and channel its power, which seemed prettty cool but who knows.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      On politically contentious topics wikipedia tends to be horribly biased towards one side or another. Since winning on wikipedia makes it seem like your side is right, people fight to accomplish that. It’e especially useful if you can get Wikipedia to reflect your side’s slant during the very earliest stages of the news cycle, so that lazy reporters read your slant and write articles that reinforce it, which can then be used as source material to justify making the page even more slanted in the future!

      (If one cares about what’s actually *true* it is often helpful to read the “talk” page to see what points of view are being actively suppressed by biased editors.)

      (Entries related to global warming tend to be *particularly* bad in this regard. Or economics. Or medicine.)

      • peterdjones says:

        Alternative theory: WP isn’t actually biased, but appears to be to people with nonstandard opinions,

        • 2CleverUsername says:

          Eh, given what’s happened with the GamerGate WP article, it’s fairly obvious that WP has insoluble problems when it comes to controversial articles.

          For those that weren’t following the history of it, all of the GamerGate-related articles were turned into polemics attacking the “wrong” side of GG. This was done by one very biased editor. Even when asked by Jimbo to step away from it, he refused, and when the page was unlocked yesterday, turned it into even more of an attack page.

          WP’s nightmarish bureaucratic structure means it’s largely impossible to deal with an ideological editor like this. And as the ideological divides get deeper and more common going forward, more WP editors are going to fall on one side or another of whatever the controversy-of-the-week is, making the problems even worse.

        • Anthony says:

          Look at the edit history on any article with nationalist implications which *you* don’t care about. (Armenia-Azerbaijan issues are a good one if you don’t already have an opinion.) The articles are full of edit-warring, and often have a significant slant which changes every few months (or faster), depending who’s come up with new sources to push their POV.

          Clearly, WP articles with political implications are biased, and they have a terrible time preventing the controversy from affecting the quality of the articles. Part of their problem is that it’s hard to imagine how things could get better – it’s surprising the amount of effort neutral editors already put into limiting the flame wars; I’m not sure how they’d get more.

  12. Wirehead Wannabe says:

    Great, now you’ve got me plotting to create an army of sockpuppet accounts praising the virtues of the CIA’s torture program.

    • llamathatducks says:

      I thought about the torture report example while reading this.

      The torture report details conduct that is clearly terrible, like pointless torture of innocent people. But it’s still politicized, discussed a lot, has plenty of outrage about it – and people who disagree with the outrage. Clearly we don’t always just nod along sadly and look away when something clearly awful is revealed.

      There are older SSC posts and concepts that address this: uber-politicization of all the things, and the “if I’m bad at fidelity then fidelity isn’t important” argument (“if we torture people, torture must not be so bad”). Perhaps those factors outweigh the “yeah these things are obviously bad so I won’t pay attention, whatever” factor.

    • Pickering says:

      Would there be a way to write about it such that conservatives were triggered?

      If we need to torture a few American citizens to help make our moderate Muslim friends in Pakistan feel safe then you’d be a racist to try and stop Obama fulfilling his duty to the international community. And if the government needs to probe your anus you should calm down and stop being such a homophobic prude – we have college educated experts working on this and they know what they’re doing. The fact that a few old white men like McCain think torture is bad is meaningless because they’re just hung up on outdated Christian morals.

      The fact that you’re only bringing this up now that there’s a black man in the White House is really problematic, why don’t you Google: ingrained racial bias, shitlord.

  13. James Miller says:

    Scott, this is brilliant. Please consider becoming a full time writer.

    • Matthew says:

      I think he effectively explained in the post itself that this would be a bad idea. His truth-seeking incentives are much better aligned while he is not relying on writing as his primary source of income.

      (I am pessimistic about even Scott’s ability to make a living while mostly excluding the “things I will regret writing” category.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Actually, he didn’t quite say that — he only said that paged view advertising is corrupting. Looking at other bloggers, it appears to me that direct payment would provide different incentives. And he isn’t being paid by the page view, so pursuing controversy probably wouldn’t actually goose his income. (But it probably is true that he gains readers from his controversial posts, regardless of the other details.)

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      I would actually strongly counsel against this – I am betting that a good deal of what makes Scott’s writing so prolific and brilliant is the pressure caused by having a full-time job that doesn’t allow him to write whenever he wants to.

      • James Miller says:

        From an outside view, are the best writers people who do it full time?

        • Not THAT anonymous commenter says:

          “From an outside view, are the best writers people who do it full time?”

          There are many ways to answer this question 🙂

          One interesting hypothesis is that the best (I’ll be more specific: most innovative/interestng) writers (et al), more often than not, don’t HAVE to do it full-time. They either do something else for money (Kafka, Melville, Charles Ives) or come from/inherited/married money (Pynchon, Burroughs, Stephin Merritt).

          But then you have writers (et al) who are motivated by the need to earn a living (Ta-Nahesi Coates) or who don’t seem to care about money one way or the other (pick your favorite local genius).

          In other words: GREAT QUESTION! How bout them Dodgers?

      • macrojams says:

        This is a total non-sequitor, but this is the first I have seen you comment in a while. Have you been able to relocate/has your situation improved?

    • Andy McKenzie says:

      Oddly enough, I found this post to be a great example of one reason that he should keep his day job, which is that it allows him to choose to write about articles like charity and methodological statistics that won’t garner many views but will be important and improve the world. If his livelihood depended on it, as well as the well being of his loved ones, this would be a much harder choice to make.

      Sidenote, Scott already knows this but in case others are curious, psychiatrists actually have some of the shortest average hours of any medical specialty, so once he finishes residency he should have relatively more time to blog than he would in a different specialty, ceteris paribus.

    • lmm says:

      On this post of all posts, you need to consider the incentives. There is an oversupply of writers and success is only weakly correlated with ability. Can you think of a way to make it so that writing more and/or better will make Scott more likely to get the things he cares about? Because I can’t.

      • James Miller says:

        Success for Scott could involve being a columnist for, say, Slate or the Bloomberg View and being read by far more people than he is now. If Scott could get 100x as many readers, then his occasional efficient charity articles would reach 100x as many people.

        • Anthony says:

          Megan McArdle, who is probably the most-commented-upon columnist at Bloomberg View, only gets about 2 to 3 times as many comments as Scott does *already*. So the question is would Scott rather have a lot more readers, or a lot more commenters? The discussion here is pretty high-quality; I’m not sure it would get better (just busier) at Bloomberg View or The Atlantic.

    • macro minimizer says:

      Or, at the very least, release a printed (book) version of these posts on political ideology. I think a lot of people are looking for this kind of clarity and even-handedness.

      Most attempts at being nonpartisan are transparent bullshit. This is the real thing.

      • chaosmage says:

        Or agree to let a volunteer compile an ebook file that can go up on Amazon for a few cents.

        Andy Weir, author of The Martian, says sales of the 99c (minimum price) ebook on Amazon far outnumbered downloads of the same text that had long been freely available at his web site.

        And then he found out paper publishers go through Amazon’s lists of bestselling ebooks looking to close book deals.

      • eqdw says:


        I work at an on-demand publishing company. If Scott wants to compile these into a book, he should let me know.

        I can’t really offer any financial incentives or anything. But I like to imagine the warm fuzzies of professionally networking with a reader is something

      • Error says:

        I’d buy a physical copy of the Moloch-related posts. Hell, if they were organized well, I’d buy multiple copies and hand them out to people. I prefer my reading on dead tree anyway, and I’m always disappointed when good stuff isn’t available in a form where I can physically turn the pages.

        (I’d have some concern that references to LW-sphere concepts might make it opaque to outside readers, but SSC doesn’t seem as prone to that as LW itself.)

    • ukk says:

      But as a brilliant writer he could turn us into packs of rabid dogs without us even noticing. The incentive would always be there, lurking.

      Moloch be damned.

  14. I’m actually a little bit freaked out by how much I admire you Scott. Keep it up.

  15. Jaskologist says:

    I’m not sure the timing works out right for your theory. Ferguson became a big story before we had any real information on it, particularly (and importantly) the information that supported the police officer. Similarly, the UVA rape story was a big one before it became clear that it was fabricated (although that certainly blew it up further).

    I don’t have a good alternative theory to offer. I do find it weird that that both the Trayvon and Ferguson stories were such poor supports for the narratives they were intended to push, especially when there were much worse injustices available that would have served. It seems like it would take a special kind of incompetence to miss that badly, but I haven’t seen any theories attributing it to malice which make much sense either.

    • Jos says:

      I understood Scott to be saying that the most extraordinary claims are the ones that break through, and are more likely to be false than regular “dog bites man” stories.

      • Not THAT anonymous commenter says:

        I think that’s it, too. The outrage over Brown’s shooting, the UVA case, and (going back in time) the McMartin preschool case had a lot to do with outrageousness, which, with hindsight, had a lot to do with implausibility.

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s a plausible claim, but it does not seem to me to be remotely like what Scott is saying.

    • RCF says:

      It does seem like a common pattern, though: Rodney King, Jena Six, Duke Rape Case, Tawana Brawley, Tamir Rice, Osacar Grant, Andy Lopez. And look at the people who have gained prominence as civil rights leaders: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton.

      It’s interesting to compare this to Rosa Parks; the people orchestrating that boycott carefully vetted who was going to be the public face. They didn’t just pick some random person who refused to give up their seat.

    • Kibber says:

      Thanks for that comment! Indeed, Ferguson became big in media in large part because of the unrest – and I highly doubt any protesters saw anything but racism and injustice in what happened there – even before the the non-indictment. Being big is what made Ferguson controversial, not the other way around.

    • SemiAnonymous says:

      Here’s a thought: How about… those stories were pushed because they were poor supports. Perhaps the idea was not to try to convince people of the rightness of the cause, but to stir up old animosities and inflame people and create further division, since those doing the pot-stirring are dependent on perpetuating the anger to keep the money flowing in. Divide et impera.

  16. Jared says:

    I half-jokingly told my family that the government should ignore issues that are controversial and quietly try to pass a bunch of laws that people have no opinion on. My suggestion: getting rid of the penny. They are so pointless, I don’t know why we have still have them.

    • eqdw says:

      Planet Money (I think it was them, but I can’t find the link) had a podcast about abolishing the penny. IIRC, their basic conclusion was “penny production is a significant source of business for mining industries, and mining industries have lobbyist connections”. Seemed a little too just-so for me but it’s plausible.

      In the mean time, maybe they’re just saving it as a high-visibility-low-impact distraction for real political shenanigans. That’s what Canada did; they announced abolishing the penny at the same time as some other unpopular things, and the media was so busy talking about the penny that everything else slid under the radar

      • Irenist says:

        I once had to write a little homework assignment for a legislative law & politics class: “imagine you’re going to lobby Congress for some policy X and tell me how you’ll do it.” I picked ditching the penny, since it’s such a great idea, it’s concrete, and it could potentially at least be a bipartisan topic (which would allow me to develop a bipartisan lobbying strategy, thereby doubling the amount of pages I could churn out for my homework assignment by having two parties’ worth of lobbying tactics).

        IIRC, my research turned up, to my distress, that the relevant House subcommittee(s) at the time I was writing had a majority of members hailing from districts with substantial zinc and/or copper mining. I think there’s one on Mints and Coinage or something For all I know, blocking penny eradication is why they sought those assignments. I think I recall that the Senate had a similar pattern, but (unsurprisingly, given how much more economically diverse whole states are than most House districts) the pattern was less pronounced.

        (To reiterate: this is all from hazy memory of a long-ago homework assignment; epistemic status is “can’t be bothered to google for corroboration right now”)

    • Kacey Now says:

      I’ve long thought that if party X is seen as responsible for getting rid of the penny, then party Y will spin it as, “Party X’s financial irresponsibility has resulted in so much inflation even they admit our currency is becoming worthless,” etc. It’s the kind of nonpartisan issue that could quickly become partisan once it actually happens.

      • Jared says:

        I think that the news with Cuba is a good example of what I’m talking about. My prediction is that the republicans will choose to end the embargo. However, if Obama had turned it in to a huge campaign issue and publicized his efforts, then then the republicans would be doing everything in their power to keep Cuba down.

    • cassander says:

      the zinc lobby and the congressional delegation from illinois have been keeping the penny alive for at least a couple decades.

  17. pwyll says:

    Do you read Throne & Altar? I’m guessing not, but coincidentally enough Bonald put up a post there last week with almost the exact same thesis:

  18. Sam Rosen says:

    This explains some of why you are a centrist, Scott.

    In your day-to-day life you see disputes all the time where one side is conspicuously wrong, and you judge these disputes appropriately. You *are* aware of the balance fallacy. Yet, when a topic becomes huge enough to become Part Of The National Conversation, then it’s going to be “dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics.”

    Just as Chesterton Fences are a meta-argument for conservatism, the PETA Principle is a meta-argument for centrism.

    • Nornagest says:

      It’s an argument for political skepticism. I’m not sure that necessarily implies centrism.

      • Sam Rosen says:

        Well, if this model is correct, things the that get talked about will mostly involve issues where both sides have “things to get angry over.” Noticing people on the left have a reasonable grievance and also noticing that people on the right have a reasonable grievance is a species of centrism. Though, you’re right, not wholly synonymous with the concept because the prescriptions for how best accommodate the preferences of both groups don’t have to be half-way between their recommended prescriptions.

  19. Paul says:

    Edit: Also, what James Miller said: you could write this stuff full time, I’d buy the book.

    The first thing the gamergate meme did was build discussion forums. With these it spread rapidly, even reforming at 8chan after 4chan expelled it. In this time many gamergate carriers began discussing the creation of friendly videogame news sites. Multiples such sites were launched with funding and attention from carriers, and rapidly bootstrapped themselves by focussing on controversial topics. Page view based internet advertising further incentives controversy. Speaking of pageviews: gamergate meme carriers widely use to capture snapshots of sites, preserving the outrage-generating properties of links without giving the enemy advertising revenue.

    Both gamergate and anti-gamergate are leaderless online movements with the mutual goal of (memetic) extermination. They have prominent members, but no one group or person can do more than influence their course. They self-modify, rapidly adopting the use of tools like to improve internal outrage generation. Users even build tools like the gamergate blocklist, a tool which auto-blocks any Twitter account following more than N accounts deemed to be carriers of the gamergate meme.

    Analogizing the combined social graph and information distribution channels of a distributed movement to a brain, these memes are doing radical neurosurgery. They’re not just evolving better outrage generating media, they’re generating tools to improve their ability to generate outrage, changing their structure, and adding new information-propagation nodes. Viewed through this lens, it almost looks like a very primitive AI bootstrapping.

  20. onyomi says:

    Wow, this is a really great article, and articulates something that was driving me crazy all throughout the Ferguson thing. I generally try to avoid posting about politics, and especially about race and gender on Facebook, because it’s just not worth the headache, but I did, unwisely post one little comment about how it seemed to me that there was a strong tendency to pick the wrong cases to focus on.

    I wasn’t even denying the premise that “police brutality is a big problem which disproportionately affects black people.” I even explicitly said something like that in my post. Yet even questioning whether the Brown case was the right one to get outraged about when there were so many other more unambiguously outrage-worthy cases out there got me shouted down. It was “white people don’t understand.” “How dare you blame the victim,” “STFU (not in acronym form)” from otherwise very kind, educated FB friends, etc. And then someone posted an NYTimes article about the fallacy of looking for the “perfect” victim (disregarding the question, of course, of whether Brown WAS a victim, which I guess only a racist would ask, since to the non-racist, a black person killed by a white policeman is, by definition, a victim).

    And when the Garner thing got big and I saw the video of him getting strangled I was genuinely and profoundly outraged, saddened, and disgusted, both at the way the police behaved, and at the failure of the justice system, in all the ways I was supposed to be outraged about Ferguson but wasn’t… yet I quickly realized that if I posted about my outrage over that, it would one, only be to “prove” how not-racist I am to all the cool people and two, be a very ineffective way to do so, since, it doesn’t take an “anti-racist” to be outraged over the Garner case, it just takes a reasonable person, and isn’t that totally boring?

    But I don’t think I consciously realized this latter bit of internal calculation in regards to signalling until I read this article. I think you are definitely on to something.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      it just takes a reasonable person, and isn’t that totally boring?

      This. Reasonable opinions are disappearing from social media, because they are boring.

      Maybe internet only replicates what has already happened millenia ago with human speech. Why are people so irrational? Because rationality is boring. This is the fate of human race. For a short while the internet was better, because it was full of nerds. Now the internet follows the same fate.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Maybe internet only replicates what has already happened millenia ago with human speech. Why are people so irrational? Because rationality is boring. This is the fate of human race. For a short while the internet was better, because it was full of nerds. Now the internet follows the same fate.

        I don’t think it’s just a matter of rational thought being “boring”, there is also a market dynamic into play: Social network platforms and content generators are run by companies trying to maximize user “engagement”, which results in ad money.
        Given the information overload, content tends to become salient based on its emotional charge. This gives media companies the incentive to create emotional superstimuli.

        This phenomenon, known as yellow journalism, is in fact older than the Internet, but the Internet amplifies it.
        Online social networks like Twitter and Facebook, in particular, are set up to provide users with content that reinforces their prexisting preferences, generating echo chambers and polarization. For instance

      • Nita says:

        For a short while the internet was better, because it was full of nerds.

        Nerds? The people famous for religious debate-wars on topics ranging from vim vs emacs to systemd vs anything-other-than-systemd? These are your paragons of reasonable interaction?

      • Kibber says:

        Reasonable and simple (but non-obvious) is actually rarely boring; problem is, reasonable opinions on complex issues are rarely simple, and complex reasoning is hard to grasp, and harder still the more complex it is.

  21. ilzolende says:

    The good news here is that we’ve mostly managed to coordinate to work around this by setting and adhering to standards of civil arguing, even if there’s a few different sets of standards. People manage to be vectors for these memes mostly without physically attacking vectors at other stages in the cycle, with a few failures.

    Thanks a bunch for this explanation! This is probably why all the articles I see about nonprofit A focus on its more nebulous and arguable flaws (“After they made this offensive statement, bad stuff similar to the statement happened, but we can’t prove causality!” “Their rhetoric sounds similar to Nazi rhetoric!” “They do activity x!” when only people who already oppose this organization think x is bad) rather than less controversial failings, like the fact that the nonprofit in question has allowed group B to advertise with them, and group B appears consistently in UN reports and other reports due to their use of torture on unambiguously innocent victims.

    (I don’t think the identity of nonprofit A or group B is relevant, but if anyone wants to know, just ask.)

    I seriously dislike being a vector of memes that I oppose, which is why the exceptions I make to my “never promote religion memes” are when I am in a situation when I can’t really influence people. (The retired missionaries aren’t going to be more Christian if I carol for them.)

  22. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think the toxoplasma analogy quite works. It’ close, but the memetics really fails. The key point in is that the DNA stays the same as it moves from cat to rat, so we have multiple strains of the parasite, each one competing with each other to become more effective at infecting hosts on both sides of the divide.

    In the “jihad” and “war on terror” case, there is no DNA that is preserved between the transmission. The conversion from one side to the other is overly broad. For example, violence on one side also encourages “stop the violence!” memes on the other. I suppose this is a good thing that individual strains are not competing for their ability to provoke the other side, but merely for their ability to spread among their own side, given the environment set up by the memes on the other side. I think a better analogy is a symbiotic relationship.

  23. Not Randall Monroe says:

    Give credit to the XKCD comic please.

  24. onyomi says:

    Also, though I am a super pro-free market anarcho-capitalist, I have to say that news reporting is one area where market incentives really seem to produce a lot of perverse effects (just one area??? I’m sure others might chime in, but yes, to me, at least, the media seems uniquely bad in this respect). It’s just so much more profitable to stoke tribal animosities and sensationalize everything than to aim for any sort of dispassionate presentation of facts or careful, balanced analysis. In a sense, it’s like “news” is being replaced by “outrage porn” or something, which, while it might serve some psychic purpose, does not function as “news.”

    I don’t have very good ideas how this might be fixed, either with the government coercion I don’t like, or in an anarcho-capitalist society. I suspect the only thing that could really change it in either case would be a shift in attitudes toward greater awareness of this sensationalism and the tribalism it stokes and a corresponding growth in demand for more nuanced treatments… but I imagine that will be very slow in coming.

    • anodognosic says:

      News reporting, political commentary, opinion journalism, press releases, science reporting, blogging, micro-blogging, facebook posting, advertising, the TV and film industry, talk radio, televised political debates, and so on, ad nauseam, to encompass the whole of the apparatus of mass communication, on which our entire political and social system rests.

      But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln et c

    • Blogospheroid says:

      Prediction markets on everything people care about. Generate a whole new set of data which people end up analysing like business news does today. But even these may have to be subsidised.

    • SemiAnonymous says:

      You’re making a common mistake. You’re assuming that the purpose of the reporting in the NYT is to make money. Making money may not be the goal. They may have other purposes in mind, as in promoting an agenda, not trying to turn a profit. Being a loss leader for promoting an ideology is probably a more succinct way of putting it.

  25. Ghatanathoah says:

    So one obvious counterexample comes to mind: Rosa Parks. Parks was deliberately selected by anti-segregation activists as a rallying point because of the lack of ambiguity in her case. There were other black people who refused to move to the back of the bus beforehand. But they were not chosen because their cases were more ambiguous and less sympathetic. Many of them had rude and confrontational personalities, or had made disreputable lifestyle choices. Parks was chosen because she was a completely unambiguous example of a good decent person who was forced to go to the back of the bus.

    Why did the NAACP and others not obey Moloch’s incentive structure? Was it MediaMoloch weaker in the 60s because the media was less advanced? Did it simply take time for the toxoplasma to infect the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement was the result of that infection?

    Whatever the case, the Civil Rights people in the 60s are generally regarded as more successful at changing policy than the subsequent Black Power people. They are also better remembered in history. So maybe fighting against infection is the way to go, even if it reduces media exposure.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I can think of a lot of counter-examples. In fact, I think it is a very common strategy for activists to pick cases that will generate broad agreement/outrage in their favor.

      Consider the Phelps family. They don’t get attention because the nation is divided over support for them. They get it because everybody hates them, which makes them useful for tarring the rest of the anti-SSM side.

      This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the point of the post, any more than pointing to the turtle invalidates the statement “cheetahs evolved to run super-fast.” There are a lot of useful strategies available, and not all of them are compatible with each other. Molech selects for many things.

    • Gbdub says:

      Perhaps part of the “problem” is that the civil rights movement actually WAS pretty successful? And now it’s a lot harder to find examples of unambiguously bad things happening to unambiguously good people in ways that are pretty clearly caused by an identifiable and solvable problem?

      • llamathatducks says:

        But it is in fact pretty easy to find examples of e.g. police brutality that are clearly wrong; this posts actually mentions at least one. I guess maybe “pretty clearly caused by an identifiable and solvable problem” is fuzzy, but mostly only because of “pretty clearly”; it is in fact possible to analyze and discern some structural factors in how police departments work that contribute to this kinda stuff.

    • RCF says:

      The bus boycott was spearheaded by civil rights organizations, rather than the media (I don’t know how wide known this is, but Rosa Parks was actually chosen before she refused to give up her seat). The civil rights organizations were optimizing for civil rights advancement. The social justice movement, despite its name, is not in fact optimizing for civil rights advancement. Rather, participants are optimizing for the warm fuzzies of self-righteous indignation.

  26. AR+ says:

    Funny, I was just thinking about how a concerted effort to eliminate toxoplasma in humans would be the ultimate test of societal effectiveness: in the least convenient world where no vaccine can be found and it really just comes down to eliminating cats, could a democratic society officially sanction throwing bags of adorable kittens into furnaces, even if it’s for the sake of destroying a behavior-altering human brain parasite?* Given that we can not stop selling water to farmers at grossly below market rates in California despite there being a bit of a dry spell because their lobby is too powerful, I suspect that we would also fail to eliminate toxoplasma.

    So this prompts the question: does this implicitly propose the existence of solutions to this analogous problem that we don’t implement because it emotionally amounts to throwing bags of adorable kittens into furnaces? The good feeling of supporting your fellow in-groupers, I suppose.

    *Yeah, there would be other problems caused by eliminating cats, but the bags of kittens part would probably get a disproportionate share of opposition propaganda.

    • theLaplaceDemon says:

      To be fair, I don’t know that the issue of how much toxoplasma alters human behavior is at all settled at this point. The handful of people in relevant subfields I have talked to seem to think it’s premature to draw strong conclusions.

      Edit to say: Your idea is interesting to think about though…can’t imagine people would consent to killing kittens unless they were REALLY scared of toxoplasma.

    • Nornagest says:

      My understanding is that toxoplasmosis is actually really easy to treat in humans; it’s just that we rarely do because it rarely produces noticeable symptoms. I doubt it’d be much harder in cats.

    • RCF says:

      There are already plenty of kittens being euthanized. They’re just being killed in animal shelters away from public view. If Jews can be thrown into furnaces, kittens certainly can be. Australia has a rather strong anti-rabbit policy, despite those being quite cute as well.

  27. Eric Rall says:

    This is pretty impressive. It’s the first time outside of a chain letter that I have seen our memetic overlords throw off all pretense and just go around shouting “SPREAD ME OR YOU ARE GARBAGE AND EVERYONE WILL HATE YOU.”

    This pattern has a long history. Take for example the Democratic-Republican reaction to the Jay Treaty in 1795: “Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t light candles and sit up nights damning John Jay.”

  28. Kaminiwa says:

    Any thoughts on how we solve this? It seems like a step backwards from a previous culture of nuanced decision-making, but in the same way democracy is a chaotic mess compared to dictatorship – it’s probably still an important step forward?

    Also there is a little smile at the very bottom of your blog post, and that is making me happy 🙂

  29. Wouter says:

    The government of the city of Ghent gives its inhabitants a 200 euros discount on any electric bicycle, but only if they stop driving a car. (people who didn’t drive a car in the first place can’t get the discount).
    Virtually everyone thinks this is a perfectly reasonable way of incentivising bycicle use and disincentivising car use.
    It is also analogous to your PETA example.

    • Anonymous says:

      One major difference is that transport is more of luxury good then water.

    • Deiseach says:

      Because it permits the people of Ghent a choice. To really be analogous to the PETA and Detroit situation, the Ghent cityfolk would have to be given the ‘choice’ “Electric bicycle or nothing, and if you pick nothing, you still have to pay road tax”.

    • Eric Rall says:

      My intuition is to object more to the Ghent example than the PETA example. The difference is that PETA is spending their own money (presumably acquired through voluntary private donations), while the City of Ghent is spending money taxed from the same population being offered the choice.

    • eggo says:

      Really? Because it seems like a massive handout to healthy rich car owners.

  30. Doug S. says:

    When newspapers started, they did exactly the same thing. It was called “yellow journalism”.

  31. Douglas Knight says:

    Ferguson made the news because of rioting and police response, long before people polarized on the original shooting. Riots always make the news, and there was one within 36 hours of the shooting. Maybe social media helped organize the protests, but I doubt social media confrontation was involved.

    Most of the 60s race riots, such as in Watts, were prompted by non-fatal police brutality.

  32. satanistgoblin says:

    Why is PETA considered assholes here? They are offering a to do something nice for others doing something nice. I’m not vegetarian, not PETA fan, but is that vegan in the picture seriously nuts? Does he expect Peta to start paying everyones water bills all of the sudden or does he prefer that they pay noones at all?

    • Deiseach says:

      It’s because PETA are piggybacking on other people’s misfortune. Now, maybe some of the people who might consider making the bargain always wanted to try being vegan and this is a great chance. On the other hand, some of the people who might consider making the bargain may be so desperate they’d agree if the conditions were “You have to dress up as Hitler for a month”.

      If PETA wanted not to be assholes, they could do a campaign about “Try veganism for a month and we’ll pay your grocery bills for the non-animal products foodstuffs!”

      Using “fucked-up to the point of collapse city needs to screw dosh out of poor people who are now in danger of having to do without a basic necessity of life (because without drinking water people tend to die)” for cheap attention-grabbing headlines is not ‘avoiding being assholes and convincing people that veganism does not go hand-in-hand with being a sanctimonious asshole’.

      • satanistgoblin says:

        While it would surely be better to offer a similar deal to everybody, and yes, they are using the Detroit problems to their publicity, I still find such a standard for non-assholery way too high. They are also publicising the water problem too, for example. If people didn’t like PETA getting publicity this way, well, they should be giving it even more by publicising their outrage.
        I do wonder how the hell would PETA make sure that people aren’t secretly eating meat, huh?
        “because without drinking water people tend to die”
        Let’s be real, if people could not afford even to drink water they would have starved to death long ago.

  33. Totient says:

    Comparing this dynamic to Moloch is brilliant.

    I mean, I’ve been (trying to) tell people about this exact problem for years. (“It’s not a liberal/conservative bias. It’s a sensationalism bias. The media produces so much outrage because, collectively, that’s what we want to consume. The problem isn’t the really just the media, it’s a collection of very poor incentives“.)

    The description just takes me to long for me to drop in a conversation.

    Crystallizing this pattern as is great. The enemy has a Name. We can fight memes with counter-memes.

  34. deskglass says:

    If Tumblr’s requirement that responses contain a copy of what they’re responding to has led to great discussions in which people misrepresent each other less than usual, we wouldn’t know because those discussions wouldn’t stir controversy.

    • Nornagest says:

      You could ask people who hang out on Tumblr. I only half do, but I’ve never seen such a discussion.

  35. mark neyer says:

    This will fix the problem. A formal language for group discussion. People who routinely jump on false controversies will be tuned out, and we can give more signal to people whose statements are rational.

    • Technical solutions only work if people adopt them. Whats the incentive for most people?

      • Mark Neyer says:

        we need to build an interface to make it easier for anyone to add statements in this system, and an interface for quickly analyzing the statements people make, looking for contradictions, limits of trust, etc.

    • Brian says:

      I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the need to formalize our decision-making in ordianry discourse, and I think this is an exciting attempt to do that.

      I do think there are serious issue with it, though. First, it requires its users to learn a new formal language and actively speak in it, which basically guarantees zero adoption.

      Second, it requires large-spread adoption before we obtain meaningful results. When we pair that with the first issue, we have a serious issue with the efficacy of this solution.

      Towards a better solution:

      The tool needs to be immediately useful to the user, even if there is only one user.

      The process of using the tool needs to be immediately easy and intuitive to the user.

      The results don’t need to be immediately world-changing, so much as just marginally useful. The world-changing happens as the tool scales up.

      I think even something as simple as a template that allows the user to make points in an argument distinct, to assign confidence values to points, to decompose points into subpoints, and to align counter-arguments with the points the address.

      This is a tool that’s not especially difficult to use, and is probably something I would use right away even if I were the sole user, because of the potential to clarify the way I think and write and argue.

      From there you can scale up the sophistication of the tool: networks between users to define paradigms of thought, automatic calculation of probabilities, the automation of parsing natural language into the formal argument structure, pattern recognition on large-scale databases to validate probability weights and claims of fact, etc.

      I doubt even this is enough to solve our large-scale coordination problems, but I think it could be a good start, and I intend to pursue it further.

      • mark says:

        I’ve been wanting that thing you’re describing for years now. I’ve taken a few stabs at it, but I’ve put it on hold for gradschool reasons.

        You can find my code at And an example is runnong on a heroku instance at

        User interfaces are hard.

        • Mark Neyer says:

          this is awesome. i built a demo of something very simliar here –

          the idea is that one person makes a claim and defends it by providing reasons. other users can only challenge reasons – but htey can’t write words. they just click reasons and say ‘i challenge this’ – while the original claimant ads more subreasons.

          there’s no backend to this, but i’d like to build it out.

          • Mark says:

            Thanks other Mark! I’ve been thinking about argument mapping since I built out that prototype. And I see a lot of problems now.

            I designed the system for a specific kind of internet argument. The kind of argument where there is one resoundingly correct side. Like creation/evolution. The system falls apart as soon as you move away from that model. It handles ambiguity poorly. It can’t handle degrees of uncertainty. And it can’t handle cost/benefit trade offs.

            Things random people post is generally weak evidence. There should be much more argumentative weight given to a methodologically sound study, over some anonymous anecdote.

            I have some ideas how those issues can be tackled. But won’t have the time to do it for a long while.

      • Mark Neyer says:

        we want to build an interface to make it easy to generate statements, and to view amalgamations of statements. i agree that right now this is unusable.

    • 27chaos says:

      Here’s what I fear will happen:

      1. Because the social incentives that favor controversy remain intact, people will not actually be more inclined to talk to those who are moderate under that system. Instead, being moderate will be seen as a sign one is traitorous and shouldn’t be talked to.

      This already happens in other places. Moderates are typically called “concern trolls” by those who disagree with them.

      2. Minority viewpoints that are unpopular will be unfairly criticized. Those who are inclined towards questioning society’s assumptions will be less well liked than those who cater to them.

      3. There are other, more stable equilibria that can result other than promoting moderate opinions. Suppose that the initial userbase is 60% liberal and 40% conservative. Over time, we should expect conservatives to leave for places they’re more comfortable in, even as liberals join.

  36. Nisan says:

    I’m warming up to the idea of anthropomorphizing Moloch. When your friends say awful things on social media, it’s not them who are doing it, it’s Moloch.

  37. Blue says:

    It’s funny that you’ve chosen Moloch, who is itself a reference to capitalism. When marxists are talking about how capitalism turns us against each other, they aren’t just talking conspiracy-minded corporate CEO’s. They’re talking about inhuman dynamics like this.

    Your poetic summary doesn’t go far enough. It’s not that we have a broken system, it’s that the system is working exactly as designed, which is to produce misery.

    The only hope is when we reject the system, which itself requires a very radical re-understanding of our own world. But words like radical, or anti-capitalist become dirty words, and change becomes impossible.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I always thought of Moloch as a reference to evolution (on a large, more-than-just-biological scale), not capitalism.

      • Charlie says:

        You should read Howl, it’s short and excellent and referencing it makes you sound mart.

      • wysinwyg says:

        It doesn’t seem that way to me. For example, it seems unlikely to me that Scott would describe a genetic algorithm for determining the most efficient charity among a set of charities as a manifestation of Moloch even though it is an instance of evolution. However, it seems plausible that Scott might describe a rogue auto-trading program that destabilizes prices in a particular commodity market as a manifestation of Moloch even if it isn’t a genetic algorithm.

        It seems unlikely to me that Scott would describe any instance of biological evolution as a manifestation of Moloch.

        Instead, I think that Scott uses “Moloch” to refer specifically to coordination problems. There’s a connection to both evolution and capitalism, however. Capitalism provides a substrate for evolution of firms and (maybe more importantly) coordination problems seem to be stable orbits in the capitalist substrate. (That is, capitalism doesn’t provide incentives to eliminate coordination problems so when such problems arise they tend to stick around for awhile barring explicit intervention into the capitalist substrate.) So firms tend to evolve in such a way as to cause coordination problems (or, rather, it looks that way in hindsight) and Scott calls that tendency “Moloch”.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      One of the common defenses of capitalism is that it is basically a domesticated Moloch (Thomas Sowell is one of the more erudite people who use this defense). It is designed to take the perverse incentive structures that Moloch generates and turn them towards good.

      For instance, Moloch tends to inspire “races to the bottom” where everyone defects and the end result is something no one wanted. Capitalism uses this to provide cheap consumer goods for everyone. All the manufacturers want to charge super-high prices for their products. But there’s always the incentive for one manufacturer to defect and undercut the others. This results in a race to the bottom where manufacturers are forced to sell products cheaply, a result none of them wanted, but is good for consumers.

      Many arguments over economic regulation can be interpreted as arguments over how to keep Moloch properly tame while still being productive.

      • llamathatducks says:

        I like this description. Except that I’d say a “race to the bottom” is only partly a good result, since it results in cheap goods but also low wages. But yes, hence attempts to tame the beast through regulation.

    • eggo says:

      Please tell me more about your magical post-capitalist system in which certain groups will never use their control of scarce resources to bribe/extort others.

      Because as long as people need water, and it takes labour to provide that water, you’ll end up with the same “inhuman dynamic”. Your lot just seem to prefer commissars having the power.

      • Blue says:

        Commissars are terrible (Moloch in bureaucratic form), but if we assume the worst of human behavior at all times, most systems don’t work.

        For instance, I could express cynicism at a populist democracy where the 51% doesn’t vote to make the rest into oppressed chattel. Such a dream goes completely against what we know of human selfishness. (Even with liberal rights, there are many ways the majority can take advantage of the minority if it wants to.)

        Yet, we somehow seem to manage it actually. Or even if our government does oppress the minority, we understand that it *shouldn’t*, and hope to make a democratic society where no one takes advantage of that particular loophole.

        My point wasn’t to point towards “use this economic system!” but rather that the systems Scott points towards are systems other social-thinkers have been worried about for a long time (well over a hundred years). They’ve been popularly delegitimized to a large extent, but it doesn’t always make them wrong. Capitalism, as expressed through Facebook shares, *is* a dehumanizing system that encourages our worst instincts while alienating us from one another.

        It’s really really interesting that the most shared tag is “regret”.

      • ozymandias says:

        I dunno, man. Like… the fact that Detroit is getting called a “water crisis” and has a lot of people getting really outraged about it and is a Major News Story and all suggests that it is, in fact, extremely uncommon for people in the US not to be able to obtain water. I mean, that’s not exactly an anti-capitalist point– the current capitalist system seems to be working okay except in a notoriously fucked-up city– but it is sort of weird to bite the “capitalism will always have people unable to afford water!” bullet when the “actually, there is a weird outlier” argument is right there.

      • 27chaos says:

        Reported for tribalism and unnecessary hostility.

        1. No one here is anything but themselves. Saying “you lot” is disrespectful.

        2. I’m skeptical the person you’re talking to actually has a preference for commissars controlling others.

        I favor capitalism too. But we shouldn’t be jerks about supporting it, especially not in the comments of a post telling us to avoid such actions.

        • Blue says:

          I think he read Scott’s post very closely, and was just PETA-ing my comment.

          We can differ on which economic systems provide the most stuff for people, but the psychological points remain. A system that promotes whoever becomes the most popular and inspires the most passion sounds kind of useful (like a tamed Moloch that some other commenter mentioned)… but this is what it actually creates.

          A system based on fulfilling desires quickly learns the best way to grow is to make us desire new things. Sometimes it’s a shiny plastic object (and don’t we all make fun of people who buy those), but more often the created desire is this outrage cycle or similar exacerbated emotional phenomenon.

          Mostly I just want to point out that there is already a word for what Scott has been describing in these posts lately. It’s not “memes” or “evolution”, it’s capitalism (which itself was coined by capitalism’s critics.) Whether that’s good or bad is up to the reader.

          • RCF says:

            “It’s not that we have a broken system, it’s that the system is working exactly as designed, which is to produce misery.”

            There is some puppet master who designed “the system”, and did it to produce misery?

            “But words like radical, or anti-capitalist become dirty words.”

            And for good reason.

            “Capitalism, as expressed through Facebook shares, *is* a dehumanizing system that encourages our worst instincts while alienating us from one another.”

            So, your argument of capitalism basically consists of relabeling anything you don’t like “capitalism”.

            “A system based on fulfilling desires quickly learns the best way to grow is to make us desire new things.”

            Assuming facts not in evidence followed by argument from anthromorphizing.

            “It’s not “memes” or “evolution”, it’s capitalism ”

            No, it’s not.

      • peterdjones says:

        Detroits , bankrupt cities, don’t happen in the developed world other than the US, so the problem has been solved several times over….without commissars.

  38. Izaak Weiss says:

    You know I really hate it when I read one of your posts and leave with a general feeling of dissatisfaction about how the world works and a burning desire to try and fix things.

    By which I mean that this was a really excellent posts and one of your bests. (Even if it had just contained the section about the terrorist/war on meme, this post would have been one of your best.)

  39. There’s exceptions to this. The organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott purposefully avoided publicizing Claudette Colvin’s case like they did Rosa Parks’ because Colvin was a teenage girl who had become pregnant out of wedlock, while Parks by comparison was much harder to criticize. The NAACP knew they had to pick someone to represent the movement that could actually win (to paraphrase E.D. Nixon). Deliberating avoiding unnecessary controversy sometimes works out.

    • Jstone says:

      Is that really a true counter-example though? What Scott is describing is a system that rewards Vulgar i.e. sensationalist activism with page views, ad revenue and self-aggrandizement. What it doesn’t do, is actually mobilize people to accomplish structural change. The mainstream Civil Rights leaders of the ’60s were pragmatists and they had concrete legislative goals they wanted to accomplish. Their agitation tactics needed to be very carefully tailored to garner as broad a base of support possible. It helped that their opponents were self defeating in their brutality.

      The campaign to codify gay marriage has been similarly levelheaded, pragmatic and averse to unnecessary controversy. It’s a good thing that those reform efforts were guided by liberals instead of divisive social justice radicals.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        If the Civil Rights movement had wanted to maximise long-term support for the civil rights movement, then they would have approached things very differently – they’d have cried outrage over lynchings of actual rapists, for example. That would polarise (between lynching-is-bad and rape-is-bad) instead of unifying and isolating extreme opponents (which is what they actually did).

  40. somnicule says:

    Half-baked idea: News aggregator with a main sort function of “consensus”. People vote articles up or down, are sorted into clusters based on voting patterns, and the articles with broad approval from multiple clusters get promoted. The controversial articles, with significant disparities in approval from different clusters, quietly disappear

    Of course, this would only work with a National Social Media Czar. More or less passing the buck here.

    • Harald K says:

      This would be very gameable. News aggregators are in general very gameable.

      The first problem is multiple/sockpuppet accounts. Not much to say about that, other than that it’s a hard problem to deal with.

      The second problem is that (going from something a reddit admin said once), about one in ten ever register on a site, and about one in ten of those ever write or vote. Of those again, most people only vote or reply when they have a strong reaction to something (which is why popular one-liners get far more extreme ratings than essays), while there are a few people who vote on almost everything.

      The third problem is that there’s a feedback effect here: stuff that “quietly disappears” tends to do so quickly, after only a very few people have ever looked at it. And guess what, those people tend to be the power users.

      My proposed solution is sortition; that people don’t get to vote on everything, but instead they get two random comments every day (or so), and told to judge which one better contributes to the discussion. Since you don’t self-selected for issues you care strongly about, your judgment will probably be fairer. And since it’s only one decision each day, you can afford to think a little more about it.

      You can then do cluster analysis on the answers if you wish, and maybe mark especially divisive comments. But I’d leave to people to decide what sort of conclusions they should draw from polarization.

      • Anonymous Cowherd says:

        My proposed solution is sortition; that people don’t get to vote on everything, but instead they get two random comments every day (or so), and told to judge which one better contributes to the discussion.

        Slashdot has been doing random meta-moderation for ages now–users with decent karma sometimes get asked to review the fairness of recent moderation decisions.

    • Brad says:

      …Aren’t you basically describing (a lightly more sophisticated and on a grander scale) Reddit?

      Your National News Czar is what we in the business would call a “mod”, and goodness, there are lots of problems with those too.

      • somnicule says:

        By News Czar I mean someone who enforces which social media people use, rather than someone moderating the individual platform. Otherwise everyone’ll just go to the more inflammatory ones.

  41. chaosmage says:

    I sharply disagree with your assessment that your posts on very controversial topics are your least useful. Your rational, data-driven and lengthy considerations have rare quality, meaning you have practically a monopoly in that area. About charity, you’re pushing the right message, but so are others.

    Maybe check how post length correlates with hits? I’d assume that your longer posts get more traffic because they’re really hard to summarize and people will say about them “go read it in full”. Why would they do that about charity posts?

  42. Rhys Fenwick says:

    I suspect that the problem may be slightly worse than you think.
    Pre-Ferguson, the Garner case was a fairly open-and-shut case of police brutality that everyone who noticed pretty much agreed on. Post-Ferguson, while (as you noted) there is still broad agreement, there is nevertheless a small but persistent pro-Pantaleo movement. Part of this would just be the increased exposure bringing it to the attention of assorted fringe groups- the more you sample any population, the higher the probability of getting an outlier- but I suspect there’s more going on.
    I think that not only do controversial cases polarise issues (even previously unpolarised ones), but they prime every following case to be controversial as well, at least for a while afterwards. You said even the most anti-feminist of anti-feminists would condemn videotaped rape- here is a case of videotaped brutality that even major figures of the opposing tribe agree is troubling, and yet there are still people supporting it.
    If I’m right, there are a few different mechanisms of action. Firstly, by polarising people, the deliciously controversial gap between their windows of acceptable behaviour grows and some previously boring cases become Moloch-fodder. Secondly, it loads up the issue with affect on both sides (is controversial affect [two groups loading opposite affect onto the same case] a thing? If not, I’m making it one), so that innocuous cases adopt the baggage of less innocuous ones. Thirdly, memes need their food and when they find a source, they’ll do their best to milk it dry before moving on- which is probably why the media dragged up the Garner case in the first place.
    Whatever the causes, the effect is unpleasant to say the least. In the wake of a controversial edge case, every following case is scrutinised for the slightest drop of outrage- and if any is found, the whole situation repeats. It seems as though Moloch isn’t content with reducing a patch of human experience to a flaming wartorn parasite-infested heap: he must salt the earth so nothing good grows there for years, then lay incindiary mines so anyone trying to clean up the mess dies while making the situation worse.
    On a side note, I would love for the next issue to be sexism in the study of reproductively viable worker ants, just to watch confusion reign supreme.

  43. Landstander says:

    I don’t want to burden you, but I swear to God you may be saving my brain with these articles. Being a long-time progressive who started to hate internet social justice was (figuratively) driving me insane in 2013, and I feel like you’re properly contextualizing a lot of thoughts I had about it in smartwords.

    For example, connecting to the point about reblogging wars: when the Ferguson grand jury decision came in, I noticed the same effect where comedic accounts felt the need to weigh in. My absolute favorite example was from the “Doug Episodes” twitter, a (decently funny) account which tweets out absurdist descriptions of possible Doug episodes. This was their tweet on Ferguson:

    I showed this to someone just to revel in the absurdity of the FAKE DOUG EPISODES COMEDY TWITTER feeling the need to weigh in, and was met with mild hostility for questioning his well-intentioned actions.

    And now I feel like I get it. I understand the Doug episodes man and his support.

    • Anonymous Cowherd says:

      He may be understandable, but he still deserves to be laughed at–and then condemned. Cats don’t have any choice about being part of the toxoplasmosis system; people have free will and must be help accountable accordingly.

      For the first couple decades, one of the core laws of the Internet was “Don’t feed the trolls”. This shackle has been shaken off in recent years, and look where it’s getting us.

      Some parts of the Internet are nothing but trolls. If you are there, you’re part of the problem.

  44. Rhys Fenwick says:

    Also, I can’t help but feel that there’s some sort of irony in writing an extremely in-depth post on why ‘Things I Will Regret Writing’-style posts are terrible and are leading to polarisation, poorer public discourse, and the general collapse of civilisation…and tagging it as ‘Things I Will Regret Writing’.

  45. Eric J says:

    Couldn’t the (alleged) effect of press exposure of rape allegations being negatively correlated with truthfulness be due to the fact that reporters select for headlines like “woman gets raped and university does not give a fuck” over “woman gets raped and perpetrator is arrested” when a reasonable explanation for why a rape allegation would not be actioned upon is that it was dubious?

  46. Jadagul says:

    Well, I can probably unite most of the rest of the comments section? Opposition to factory farming is morally horrifying and it makes me angry that it exists. Animals have no moral worth and the idea of trading off any amount of human welfare for any amount of welfare is something I find so totally disgusting that I have trouble processing it.

    (I don’t expect this to particularly convince anyone; it’s kind of silly to argue for premises. But I don’t like seeing the idea that “factory farming is bad” go unchallenged, and it’s all over the place).

    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      Jesus Christ, I’m glad you’re here.

      I agree with you 100%. “Animal rights” are a nonsensical concept, and animal welfare by no means ought to have any primary significance to humans. Any significance it rightfully has is only derivative: it is not valued for itself but because it advances human interests in some way.

      I think that animal welfarism is just as baseless and perverse as the kind of self-abnegating utilitarianism that so many “rationalists” seem to support.

      • Jared says:

        Do you assign any moral worth to animals? Would you support my decision to torture a stray cat just for fun?

        • Jadagul says:

          A few people asked this same question, and my answer is, honestly, it depends why it’s fun for you. If it’s fun because it’s interesting, go for it. If it’s because you enjoy the idea of things suffering and being miserable, it’s probably bad for you. But I don’t care about the cat.

          (For the record, I’m definitely not a utilitarian and more-or-less a virtue ethics guy. “Being the sort of person who enjoys torture” seems concerning to me. But “harm to cats” isn’t a problem).

          • Jared says:

            Ok then. Why do you think humans have moral worth and animals don’t? Are all humans deserving of equal worth? How much moral worth do you give to infants, the mentally retarded and comatose patients?

          • Jadagul says:

            If you’re asking me “why” I don’t think animals have moral worth, I really don’t know. It’s a contingent fact, but that doesn’t mean I can explain it. The basic principle is that humans are people, and animals are not people. And I can’t justify that because foundational moral principles can’t be justified. Sort of by definition.

            For the rest, those are all tricky questions that I don’t think I have neat or short answers for–mainly because I don’t think I accept a framework that makes them into particularly coherent questions. Humans are people and we should want them to be happy and fulfilled. Animals are not people and we shouldn’t care.

          • verdant says:

            What would your reaction be to obviously sentient extraterrestrials of equal-to-human level intelligence? Would they be in the “not people” category by virtue of not being human, and therefore humans would have the right to inflict whatever degree of death and suffering we pleased on them? Or would you consider them to have moral worth, by virtue of their sentience?

            If the former, then it seems to me that this position is simply a sort of extreme nationalism/chauvinism, except applied to the human species as a whole rather than one race or nation. I do think animals have moral worth to at least some extent, so I disagree incredibly strongly with it, and can’t say I have any more respect for it than I would for the views of (to pick a random example) an extreme Turkish nationalist who felt that the interests of the Turkish nation trumped every other moral consideration, but it is consistent, certainly.

            If the latter, I do not see how both of those positions can be consistently held, as there is enough evidence of some degree of sentience in certain animals (great apes, corvids, etc.) that we’re not all that far off from that case actually existing- and then that gets into the question of what degree of sentience gives moral worth, and at that point I think we’ve already moved well out of any place where “animals have no moral worth” is a supportable statement, as it either has a bunch of exceptions, or it’s based on beliefs about animal intelligence which seem to go strongly against what the science on animal intelligence indicates, so far as I’m familiar with it.

          • Jadagul says:

            That’s actually a much better question, and one I have thought about. I’d probably have to see what I thought in the circumstance, but my rough guideline is something like “people are beings that I can have coherent conversations with and engage in deliberate cooperation with.” This rules out cats and dogs but potentially rules in extraterrestrials. (It potentially rules out extraterrestrial paperclip maximizers, but I think that’s a virtue).

            I realize that leads to some interesting questions about “why do I care about children”, but the answer is (very roughly, to the best of my ability to make precise) that they’re potential people.

            (The joke version I go with is “I don’t respect things that I can’t have a logical conversation with. This rules out animals, small children, and most adults.”)

            I don’t care super much about the great apes, but respecting them doesn’t bother me in the same way that respecting dogs or chickens does.

      • BenSix says:

        …it is not valued for itself but because it advances human interests in some way…

        Serious question: if you encountered a man booting a cat or dog to death, would you object? And, if so, would you reduce your objection to their historic usefulness?

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        “I think that animal welfarism is just as baseless and perverse as the kind of self-abnegating utilitarianism that so many “rationalists” seem to support

        Utilitarianism condemns self-abegnation. A utilitarian should consider their own welfare just as important as anyone else’s. Not taking your own welfare into consideration is just as immoral as not taking someone else’s welfare into consideration.

        I think the reason so many rationalists support animal welfare and utilitarianism is simple: these positions generally make sense, so a rational person would support them, unless that person lacked a conscience to motivate them to act morally. Utilitarianism is mostly just a systematized version of common-sense morality. Animal welfare is a recognition of the fact that “human” is a fuzzy category with lots of different parts, and some of the morally significant parts are parts animals share.

        • Jadagul says:

          Animal welfare and utilitarianism are positions that make sense to the people they make sense to. Universalizing claims like that is hard.

        • blacktrance says:

          Acting as if you assigned an equal value to everyone’s well-being is still self-abnegation, even if you assign the same value to yourself as you assign to everybody else, because it will frequently cause you to act in a way that overrides your interests in favor of improving well-being in general. The absence of self-abnegation would be if your well-being overruled the general good.

        • anon1 says:

          If I care exactly as much for myself as for each other human on the planet, that means about one seven billionth of my total caring goes towards myself – which is indistinguishable from total indifference.

          There’s also whatever pseudo-caring can be grudgingly allocated on the grounds that, to a point, being happier makes me more productive, but that’s not even slightly the same as valuing my happiness for its own sake. If I were an ideal utilitarian, I would want to hack my own brain so that happiness stopped being important for my productivity. If that isn’t self-abnegation, what the heck is?

          It does seem that some other people, maybe people with fewer depressive tendencies, have a view of utilitarianism that does not require this, or maybe that does not distinguish between caring about oneself as a means versus as an end.

          • Vegemeister says:

            If I were an ideal utilitarian, I would want to hack my own brain so that happiness stopped being important for my productivity.

            Wouldn’t you want to do that even if you were perfectly selfish? It would keep you out of the unproductivity/unhappiness synergy trap.

          • anon1 says:

            I’m in a position (boring job doing a thing I don’t much care about) where productivity doesn’t contribute much to my personal happiness as long as it’s enough to keep me from getting fired. Higher productivity could maybe eventually lead to higher pay, but when I already have enough to live comfortably that is unlikely to have much effect on happiness. It also seems like unlinking happiness and productivity would have pretty horrible consequences if most people did it, so it seems like a defection.

            That said, if my work were sufficiently meaningful, I would tend to agree with you.

          • anon1 says:

            To clarify: clearly the harm of the individual defection (in unlinking happiness and productivity) is too small to matter compared to the money I could donate, assuming utilitarianism. But in my default vaguely virtue-ethical system, it matters.

      • Doug S. says:

        My father: “I’ll support giving legal rights to animals when I can sue them for damage they cause.”

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I came here to post (a slightly milder version of) this. (I’m not disgusted / can’t-process / anything, but I agree entirely with the sentiment.)

      Let me also add that to the extent that factory farming makes meat more affordable, it seems to be an unalloyed good. Especially with respect to chickens; chicken is by far the most affordable meat, and you can (with a bit of skill/experience) stretch a single chicken to provide a good amount of protein and animal fat for a family of four for a week. Affordable chicken is a really, really beneficial thing for low-income families (speaking from experience here). Inasmuch as factory farming makes this possible — factory farming is a truly wonderful thing.

    • Harald K says:

      Kant also did not assign animals any moral value in themselves. However, he argued that it was still wrong to abuse animals, since your inclination to not abuse e.g. a cute puppy, probably helps you stay on the strait and narrow vis a vis humans too. It’s not right to undermine a healthy aversion to cruelty.

      There’s also the factor about failing gracefully. Say you’re somehow wrong about animals having no moral value. In that case, if you stuck to Kant’s perspective (or better yet, were a vegetarian), you would have accidentally done far less bad things.

      • Jadagul says:

        For the first point: yeah, the sort of person who enjoys seeing cats suffer is probably a bad person. But the fact that cats (or, more relevantly, chickens and pigs) suffer isn’t itself bad.

        For the second: it’s not _possible_ to be wrong about a foundational moral claim. They can’t be true or false. Value is a transitive word–“I value X” or “X has value to me.” It is demonstrably true that “chicken welfare has no moral value to me.” It is demonstrably false that “chicken welfare has value to many people.” The second fact makes me sad.

        • Harald K says:

          But even so, it’s possible to be wrong, because the moral claim isn’t quite foundational.

          If you’re one of the people who wants to assign worth based on brain activity, you may be wrong about the animal’s brain activity. If you want to assign value based on what society thinks, you may be wrong about what society thinks. If you believe there are objective rights and wrongs independent of your own ideas about them (which I do), you may even be wrong despite there being no way to prove it.

          • Jadagul says:

            But I don’t believe any of those things. “There are objective rights and wrongs” is sort of a silly claim–it still has to be right by some standard, and if you claim that one standard is the right standard, then it has to be right by some standard, and…

            For the others–no, it actually is foundational. Animals don’t have moral worth because moral worth isn’t something I ascribe to animals. It’s not about brain activity or about society or anything, it’s about what I choose to value. And while it’s possible, I suppose, to be wrong about what I value, I’m reasonably confident I’m correct in this case.

          • Nita says:

            it’s about what I choose to value

            Wait, you chose what you value? So, do you remember valuing other animals along with humans, and then deciding not to?

            Also, if you get to choose what to value, what about everyone else? On what grounds are you telling us that we “shouldn’t” care about animals?

          • Jadagul says:

            I don’t remember ever valuing animals along with humans. Which is probably why I never chose to start. Since I don’t value animals, choosing to ascribe value to animals would not further any of my current animals, and thus I don’t. If, counterfactually, I did value animals, then ascribing value to animals would promote my values, which include valuing animals, and thus I would do so.

            “You shouldn’t care about animals” is equivalent to “It would further my values if you would cease to value animals.” Which is true. Once you really do give up on the idea that morality really refers to facts about the world, that’s all such statements can mean, really. But I can’t give you an argument for why your values should change–the idea of such an argument is kind of silly.

          • Nita says:


            So, you realize that your values are different from the values of many other people. Then, why exactly are you “angry that [opposition to factory farming] exists”? Are you worried that meat might become more expensive? Do you hate it when other people try to fulfil their values, as a matter of principle?

          • Jadagul says:

            Do I hate it when other people try to fulfill their values? When their values are horrible, yes.

            In general, anything that sacrifices well-being of humans for well-being of animals just seems so warped to me. I can get into the heads of pro-lifers and reactionaries and singularitarians and extreme liberals and conservatives. I can kind of get into the heads of traditionalists and pro-monogamists. The idea of animal welfare being important is just so alien I can’t figure out how to handle it.

            But concretely: yes. Moves towards taking animal welfare more seriously will make animal products rarer and more expensive, which is harmful to people who enjoy or purchase them. And it accomplishes (from my perspective) nothing. It’s like someone who collects a whole bunch of valuable resources and burns them for no reason.

          • Nita says:

            anything that sacrifices well-being of humans for well-being of animals just seems so warped to me

            Even if the “sacrifice” is voluntary? If the vast majority of people, when well-informed, would choose to consume less meat, I don’t think you’d have moral grounds to complain about any resulting changes in the market.

            Have you ever had a pet? Can you understand pro-lifers in cases of anencephaly?

    • Thomas says:

      I also don’t think that non-human animals have moral worth (my mind is open on this subject though), and I still think that factory farms are really bad. They poison the surrounding land and use up a lot of resources that could more usefully produce plant-based food.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        These are interesting points. Could you say more about them? Perhaps a link or two?

        However, I note that “poison the surrounding land” is not the same sort of thing as “use up a lot of resources that could more usefully produce plant-based food”. The former is pretty clearly bad (at least, so it seems, pending details); the latter, more controversial. What do you mean by “more usefully”? I mean, I don’t want my meat replaced by plant-based food. I like meat. So even if we could produce plant food instead with those resources, why should we want to?

        • wysinwyg says:

          You like meat, but should your fondness for meat be an overriding concern in my moral calculus regarding the desirability of factory farms?

          Affordable chicken is a really, really beneficial thing for low-income families (speaking from experience here). Inasmuch as factory farming makes this possible — factory farming is a truly wonderful thing.

          I can take this argument for factory farming a lot more seriously than “I like meat”. However:

          So even if we could produce plant food instead with those resources, why should we want to?

          Switching to plant-based sources of fat and protein might be even more beneficial to the low-income families from your argument. Is there any reason why I should cater to your preference for meat rather than the obvious utility of decreasing the cost of macronutrients for low-income families?

          Not sure what you’re looking for in regard to links. You can try going on google scholar and searching “factory farm pesticides” and “factory farm soil depletion” to decide whether the usual lefty talking points have any validity in this matter. (If you look it up yourself, you don’t leave yourself the easy out of saying “well those links look biased” or something like that.)

          Here’s Tim Worstall at Forbes throwing US factory farming under the bus to justify eating meat in general.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            You like meat, but should your fondness for meat be an overriding concern in my moral calculus regarding the desirability of factory farms?

            Is there any reason why I should cater to your preference for meat rather than the obvious utility of decreasing the cost of macronutrients for low-income families?

            Your moral calculus is, of course, your own business. I can’t make that decision for you, nor even meaningfully advise you on it. The most I can say is that my fondness for meat should, presumably, be about as much of a concern to your morality as any other preference that any other person has.

            I will note that if your moral calculus just generally takes things like “survival” and “health” seriously, but does not take things like “enjoyment” and “pleasure” seriously, then adhering to it would seem to lead to a world which is… not very fun. Not a world I’d want to live in, I can tell you that.

            Thanks for the search terms. I will do some research on this.

        • Meredith L. Patterson says:

          Rolling Stone‘s Jeff Tietz wrote a piece on the externalities of factory hog farming in North Carolina where the phrase “poisoning the land” seems particularly applicable.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            Thanks! That was a fascinating read.

            If the account in the article is true (I default to a cautious “probably true, but I’d like at least some confirmation, what with all the shoddy reporting going on these days”), then it is thoroughly convincing! The described effects on human populations are horrifying; no one should have to live this way, especially in my own country. The environmental effects, as well, are quite sufficient to label this a net bad. I think that, if I find confirmation of this account of pig factory farming, these facts are likely enough to get me to stop eating factory-farmed pork (at least that produced by this company? are others the same? it’s worth additional research, anyhow).

            So why the heck don’t anti-factory-farming activists lead with this??? Why do they only rarely even mention this stuff? Why in the name of all that is holy would you make your case with something as irrelevant as “oh no, the poor animals” when, it seems, there are actual humans being terribly harmed by the practice you’re decrying? How can your first argument not be “there are innocent people being slowly and horrifically poisoned and killed, and ecosystems destroyed”?

            I think this, maybe more than anything that PETA has done, lends credence to the notion that animal rights activists… really don’t care about humans. And that’s scary.

      • Jadagul says:

        This is entirely fair, and if I’d been less sleepy when I posted I’d have said something clearer about it. There are legitimate reasons to worry about factory farming because it has…interesting environmental impacts, and because widespread antibiotic resistance is terrifying.

        The part that horrifies me is the idea that we should be worried about the chickens.

        • Mary says:

          I note, by the way, that the organic fertilizer used to create organic vegetables — comes from factory farms. Free-range animals will not concentrate their manure in a location where it can be gathered.

          • Tom Womack says:

            ‘Free-range animals will not concentrate their manure in a location where it can be gathered.’

            There are two ways round this. You let the herbivores out to graze the place where you will be planting next year, they poo where they will, and that puts nutrients into the fields and you put the herbivores somewhere else next time. Chickens will also eat beetle larvae.

            Or you provide the herbivores a shelter with straw in it, and gather up the dirty straw from time to time – the classic source of manure is horse-stables. Providing a cow-shed or a stable isn’t what’s usually called factory farming.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      What exactly is a human or an animal? There’s not a clean break between the two concepts, it’s a continuum. Do you find trading off human welfare against chimpanzee welfare less disgusting than trading off human welfare against fish welfare since chimpanzees are basically just furry deformed humans? What about if we resurrected the Neanderthals or the Homo habilis? Are they human or animals?

      I think the mistake you’re making is not realizing that the concept of “human” is made up of lots of smaller parts, and it’s possible for a creature to have some of those parts, not all of them. For instance, a chimpanzee is definitely more “human” than human who is brain-dead. It possesses many properties that the majority of humans have (for instance, it has feelings, curiosity, the ability to reason, etc.), whereas the brain dead human does not.

      Most chimpanzees also have more of a moral conscience than humans who have antisocial personality disorder, and a moral conscience is generally considered one of the things that most make us “human,” so much so that we call people who act without conscience “inhuman.” Do you really think that human sociopaths, who would rape and kill you if they thought they could get away with it, are more deserving of your moral consideration than a chimpanzee who would try to help you if he saw that you were hurt?

      • blacktrance says:

        My answer to this is that humans in the sense of “possessors of rights” closely (but perhaps not perfectly) matches the concept of humans in the biological sense. Beings who have rights are beings for whom we benefit by recognizing their rights if they recognize our rights in a reciprocal way. If we’d be better off using them as property than trying to cooperate with them, they don’t have rights, and also if they’re incapable of agreeing to not mistreat us (or if they’re incapable of mistreating us in the first place), they don’t have rights, either. Basically, a Hobbesian argument for human rights is also a Hobbesian argument for animals being property to be used for our benefit.

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          Beings who have rights are beings for whom we benefit by recognizing their rights if they recognize our rights in a reciprocal way.

          This suggests that I should perhaps assign greater moral valuable to dogs and bonobos than I should to ethnic supremacist humans, since dogs and chimps are more likely to reciprocally recognize my rights.

          I am not sure if this is counterintuitive or perfectly logical 🙂

          • blacktrance says:

            Actually, this argument can be used against certain forms of ethnic supremacy, as what ultimately matters is the benefits of cooperation, rather than skin color or ethnic origin.

          • Anonymous says:

            But this is also the same argument that most supremacists use.

          • blacktrance says:

            You’ve been talking to some very different supremacists than I have, then. The supremacists I see endorse collectivist, nationalist policies, not the individualism of the Hobbesian approach.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yes, supremacists are collectivist; they are all about cooperation. The argument I meant is that similarity makes it easier to cooperate. Maybe only the most sophisticated make that argument, but the rest don’t make any argument at all. Those that do argue claim to speak for the rest, to articulate what is inchoate in the intuitions of the typical supremacist.

          • blacktrance says:

            There is no necessary connection between cooperation and collectivism. For example, if we trade with each other or work side-by-side, we are cooperating with each other, but not in a collectivist way – each of us is seeking to further his own ends by cooperating with the other. This is in contrast with collectivism, which has some view of a “common good” (whether on the level of a tribe, state, ethnic group, class, etc).

            As for the ethnic supremacists’ argument, regardless of whatever differences there may be, we are not so different as to be unable to gain by cooperating by agreeing to not kill each other – which is where rights come from.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          If we’d be better off using them as property than trying to cooperate with them, they don’t have rights, and also if they’re incapable of agreeing to not mistreat us (or if they’re incapable of mistreating us in the first place), they don’t have rights, either.

          Examples of support for this position might be found among writings of c. 18th century Englishmen engaged in the use, or trade, of ‘savages’ as slaves.

          • blacktrance says:

            People who voiced support for this position but also supported slavery were factually mistaken, because for the institution of slavery to be justified, would-be slaves would have to fulfill the above criteria for being property, and they don’t.

    • kerani says:

      Yes, this.

      If our host was to present his reasoning for objecting to “factory farming” (perhaps by begining with a definition of the practice, as well as data-supported evaluations of the practices in question) I might have some ground for agreeing with him.

      However, to simply roll a sound bite like “pretty much everybody who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it” off the tongue as if it were a factual statement is absolutely off-putting, and made me struggle through the rest of the post. And question the seriousness, and utility, of what would otherwise be a quite intriguing article.

      (To be clear – I do hold that animals have value, including the use of their lives to feed humans, and I do not condone abuse either for amusement or failure to correct shortcomings in welfare. None of which makes PETA, MFA, or any of their lot useful.)

      • ozymandias says:

        This is not actually a post about the merits of factory farming. It is a post about poor incentives in discussion which happens to use factory farming as an example. The example totally works to prove Scott’s point as long as you agree that there don’t seem to be a whole lot of angry pro-factory-farming advocates, no matter what your position is on factory farming itself. In general, having long sections in the middle of essays about a totally unrelated topic tends to bore and confuse readers. (“…wasn’t this about poor incentives in discussion? Why is there a ten-thousand-word discussion of animal rights in the middle?”)

        • kerani says:

          It is a post about poor incentives in discussion which happens to use factory farming as an example. The example totally works to prove Scott’s point as long as you agree that there don’t seem to be a whole lot of angry pro-factory-farming advocates, no matter what your position is on factory farming itself.

          I don’t agree with that statement, however, and that Scott is unaware of any farming defense advocates says something unfortunate about his conversation pool, which leads me to question his knowledge base and reasoning.

          Which I find really really annoying because I had, up until that statement, been finding his essays moving and thought provoking.

          Now I’m going to have to go back and re-evalute my previous re-evaluations.

      • Nita says:

        I do not condone abuse either for amusement or failure to correct shortcomings in welfare

        Wait, it sounds like you do object to factory farming, as it’s typically practiced at the moment.

        So, are you annoyed at Scott’s choice of words only out of solidarity with the members of Jadagul’s moral minority group?

        • kerani says:

          Wait, it sounds like you do object to factory farming, as it’s typically practiced at the moment.

          Please describe what you mean by “factory farming” and I may agree with you.

          My experience with what is “typically” called “factory farming practices” does not lead me to make blanket negative statements about them.

          My disagreement with Scott’s choice of words is that I question how much he actually knows about farms of any sort.

    • wysinwyg says:

      Even if one is not on board with the concept of “animal rights” they may be morally opposed to factory farming. Factory farming has effects besides causing suffering to animals, some of which may be bad. Determining whether factory farms are actually bad presumably entails analyzing the benefits and drawbacks.

      You can also consider that one might rationally adopt moral premises that grant animals some moral worth even without going so far as to grant them “rights”.

      Stating a premise that animals have no moral worth (you didn’t make an argument for it) does very little to challenge the argument that “factory farming is bad” even if everyone was willing to fairly consider it.

      • Randy M says:

        It does challenge the opinion that “the comment section will universally agree with me that factory farming is terrible”, though.

      • Jadagul says:

        One can rationally adopt any set of moral premises that aren’t directly contradictory. That’s what “premise” means. I’m in a distinct minority on this issue, but that doesn’t make it any less my position.

        I specifically didn’t argue for the premise that animals have no moral worth, because you can’t argue in favor of (or against) premises. “The welfare of animals” has zero weight in my value calculus.

    • Doug S. says:

      [for the sake of argument]
      As a selfish human, I am disturbed by the though of animals in factory farm conditions and oppose them on the grounds that I would rather not be disturbed in such a manner.
      As a speciesest human, I object to factory farming on the grounds that it is disturbing to many people and causes them distress to know that it is happening.
      [/for the sake of argument]

  47. Anonymous says:

    The bird-watching controversy basically already happened with the EagleCam showing a wounded chick while maintaining the importance of the Prime Directive.

  48. Andrew Sabisky says:

    This inter-group polarisation dynamic is then magnified by intra-group polarisation driven by chimp politics (a good way to prove yourself to the group is by persecuting and excluding arbitrary others from it).

    This can lead to some highly entertaining outcomes; we have now almost got to a point where smart feminist women with reasonably prominent public roles should avoid identifying as feminist at all costs. That way no one can try to kick you out of the club, particularly if you don’t plan on toeing the party line at all times. You get some hate from the in-group, but less than you would if you identified as part of it (see also Mayer, Marissa).

    Similarly, sending a strong signal that you don’t sign up to commonly held shibboleths can avoid an awful lot of hate from those who do. How can they persecute someone who doesn’t sign up to their framework? Their punishments have no power. Who gets more hate from social justice warriors – Laurie Penny or Steve Sailer? Laurie, of course, because she’s signalled that she wants to be part of the club, so she can consequently be hurt by exclusion from it. How could they hurt Steve? He’d just laugh.

    Polarisation all the way.

    • veronica d says:

      Who wants to kick out Laurie Penny? She’s lovely, cool, and amazing.

      • Meredith L. Patterson says:

        I follow her on Twitter, and back when I paid closer attention to my full TL I’d occasionally notice public apologies from her about how she’d phrased something, or some other thing that had given offence; ISTR some of these rose to the level of ending up in her Guardian columns, but I haven’t been following those closely either. :-/ My overall impression of her is that she takes intelligent dissent seriously and deserves presumption of better faith than I recall the call-outs I saw offering her.

    • Kevin says:

      ^^^yeah, never saw any SJW hate on Laurie Penny. Just Googled and nothing (could have used the wrong search terms though) Not disbelieving you, but would love a link to SJW’s calling her out cause it must be mind-destroying….

  49. g says:

    There is another confounding explanation for the “things I will regret writing” articles being the most popular. By definition, those are articles you had a good reason not to write; but you wrote them anyway. That would be because you had something particularly important to say, or a particularly clever way of saying it, or something like that. In other words, you should expect the TIWRR-tagged articles to be among the most important and/or best-written, because otherwise you wouldn’t have posted them.

    (This very article is an example.)

    • Anonymous` says:

      I was searching the comments for this point to post it if it wasn’t already posted, but my version missed the “these articles were screened by cost” part of the mechanism:

      Scott, your “things I will regret writing” articles are extremely insightful and often *not* very partisan, so that you’re merely triggering people’s controversy drives is an overly pessimistic explanation for these articles’ popularity.

  50. ydirbut says:

    Was there a lot of media coverage of the Ferguson thing before the rioting started? If there wasn’t, I think that implies a different model.

    I’ve never started a riot, but I don’t think the process normally includes a dispassioned examination of all the available evidence. I would suggest that the rioting started because of built up grievances, and that the specific incident was just the metaphorical match in the powderkeg.

    • Fazathra says:

      Yes, but who builds up and propagates the grievances in the first place? And remember there were lots of protests in places other than Ferguson too.

      • wysinwyg says:

        I’d guess that there’s lots of buildup and propagation of grievances by many different sources and that it probably doesn’t have much to do with any particular individuals (as may be implied by your use of the word “who” rather than “what”).

        One could argue that the homosexual victims of the Holocaust “built up and propagated the grievances” that led to their detention and systematic killing by having so much gay sex but that argument won’t make much of an impact on folks who don’t share its implicit moral premises.

    • CAE_Jones says:

      Having a Facebook friend from St Louis who posted news stories about racial tension in the area well before the Brown incident has me wanting to agree with your assessment.

  51. Anonymous says:

    I remember Eliezer once proposed that, as part of the War on Terror, any media outlet that reported on a terrorist attack should be fined for donating advertising space to a terrorist movement.

    Perhaps the same is true of other cycles. In order to promote social justice/fight political correctness, we should boycott anyone on our side who helps publicise the Enemy’s clickbait.

  52. MugaSofer says:

    I remember Eliezer once proposed that, as part of the War on Terror, any media outlet that reported on a terrorist attack should be fined for donating advertising space to a terrorist movement.

    Perhaps the same is true of other cycles. In order to promote social justice/fight political correctness, we should boycott anyone on our side who helps publicise the Enemy’s clickbait.

    • Fazathra says:

      This is good on the object level, but truly terrible on the meta level if we consider the inevitable results. If the government is handing out the punishments then we just have straightforward state censorship, while if each individual side is doing it then the incentives inevitably lead to more polarisation as each side penalises those on their own side who show the slightest sign of sympathy or understanding toward the hated enemy.

      • Muga Sofer says:

        I believe the original idea would be that the state should do it, yes. The fines would be in proportion to the value of the ad-space given over to terrorism.

        >if each individual side is doing it then the incentives inevitably lead to more polarisation as each side penalises those on their own side who show the slightest sign of sympathy or understanding toward the hated enemy.

        I was suggesting we boycott those on our side that link to the Enemy’s *least* sympathetic actions – controversial-for-the-sake-of-controversy clickbait – not their *most* sympathetic actions.

        For example, conservatives should (perhaps) boycott “it’s official – [harmless thing] is racist now” stories, while liberals should boycott “look what these bigots are saying now” articles. Both serve only to increase controversy and drive traffic to their site.

  53. BenSix says:

    I think this post from the resident contrarian at Crooked Timber complements our host’s…

    …not only can you always “get a game” in the Israel/Palestine conflict, it’s a team sport. There any many injustices and abuses in this horrible old world, but not many of them will provide you with a social life. The political argument over the Middle East, however, will give you an entire set of friends, activities, topics of conversation – nearly all the services which an American college fraternity provides for its members.

    (That dude looks like the worst vegan in the world, by the way. “Humans irritated me so I am going to harm a cow!” It’s like expressing your disapproval of Bono by stealing from a hungry orphan.)

  54. DrBeat says:

    You act as though the feminists and PETAists and such are making a tradeoff, that they have to make, in order to accomplish their goals. But are they accomplishing anything? They get people talking, but the only people convinced to side with them are the people who already sided with them. Later on, you describe this as people acting on a perverse incentive that creates destructive and pointless action, but earlier you act as if this is the best/only way they can accomplish their goals, so I am not sure what side you want me to land on here.

    I also think you don’t really get the conflict between feminism and anti-feminism, because you seem to keep framing it as “these are the universally positive things feminism claims to be the only way to support, so anti-feminists must be the people who don’t like those things” but that’s sort of minor to the point at hand so you probably don’t want to talk about it.

    • Coscott says:

      He is not saying they are making a tradeoff to accomplish their goals. He is saying they are making a tradeoff to accomplish the “goals” of the meme. The meme wants to thrive as a meme, it does not want to reduce animal suffering. If the meme has two forms, which are both sides of the debate, it thrives just by getting talked about.

    • Richard Gadsden says:

      I don’t think it’s a trade-off. I think it’s that the scummy people who want to behave like PETA allows become more well-known, so they attract more followers and more money and that makes them better-known and so they succeed.

      The whole point of memetics was to use the apparat of natural selection on ideas, and PETA is a successful idea without the need for intent.

  55. Eq says:

    Off topic, but it’s good internet hygiene to link to or give credit to images you use (e.g. the xkcd one).

  56. lupis42 says:

    This is an excellent summary of the first half of the reason I try to avoid ‘current events’.
    (The second half, because paying attention to ‘the news’ results in having no understanding of risks and rates, as explained here:

    In a way, there’s a sort of solution to this, which is to radically tune out as much as possible. Start ignoring places that you routinely get triggered. Try to filter your input stream down to things that are a) personally useful, or b) relatively uncontroversial. The correct response to a controversy is to ignore people who are talking about it.
    Of course, this is like dieting, i.e. easy to describe in the abstract, and very difficult to put in practice in the moment when temptation is right there in front of you. Fortunately, techniques that help dieting work here too – manage the temptations you’ll be exposed to. Don’t punish yourself for failures, simply try to get back on the wagon without delay.

    • This is my approach. My RSS reader has maybe a dozen feeds in it. Only about half of them are political/controversial. The ones that I select for politics are ones like SSC: ones which are thoughtful and interesting rather than outrage-generating, whether I agree with them or not. I have been on twitter a few times, but am yet to find a non-terrible use case for it.

    • Jared says:

      If you are getting “triggered” every time you read the news, then you should pick better news resources. It doesn’t have to be something really good, just something less sensationalist.

  57. Vladimir Slepnev says:

    Like many other posts by Scott, this one deserves a stupidly epic soundtrack:

    The lyrics are surprisingly relevant 😉

  58. John Maxwell IV says:

    “As the old saying goes, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” This part looks like it got screwed up.

    Anyway, if you understand memetics as well as you think, let’s see you repackage the ideas in this post so they go viral 😉 Can’t be much harder than pretending to be a superintelligent AI and convincing a human gatekeeper to let you out of its box can it?

  59. Nestor says:

    Tumblr is extremely manipulative in it’s design, I use it because a lot of the artists I follow have migrated to it, but I can’t help feeling constantly annoyed by many of it’s design choices.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Could you write about those design choices or link to someone who has?

    • Nornagest says:

      Honestly I don’t think a lot of it is manipulation so much as simple unresponsiveness. Tumblr is basically designed as an image-sharing platform, and its feature set is very narrowly focused on that. It does work well in that role. But it just so happens that the feature set that makes it easiest to rapidly propagate images while (kinda) preserving attribution also constitutes a recipe for hate when you apply it to political microblogging, memes, and those annoying infographics you see all the time on it.

  60. Karmakin says:

    I’ve actually long used the term “PETA Problem” for basically self-promoting activism over things that will actually result in sustainable long-term change. It always seemed to get the point across.

    In today’s world where social cachet is becoming a more and more desired currency, I think this signaling effect is more and more pronounced. How to change this, I don’t know, other than reducing the importance of social cachet, which I’m not convinced we’re even able to put that particular genie in the bottle. And on top of that, people with social cachet want to keep that particular advantage. So they use their soapbox to demonize people who think that…wait a second…social cachet might not be a good indicator of what is good and what is bad and all that. And that reinforces and increases the value of signaling, making the problem a little bit worse.

    That’s the way I see it in any case.

  61. Handle says:

    Sailer has written extensively about our preference for 50-50 dramatic situation in which the outcome is uncertain and could go either way right up until the last minute: Sports, Electoral Politics, etc. Inflammatory Controversies are like endless overtime in which each side thinks it scores a point, then the other side does, and over and over.

    And he’s also written about places like Slate who seem to writing articles specifically tailored to provoke and troll for outraged conservatives who can’t help but put their two cents in the comments. Most of their readership on their zaniest crap is conservatives, judging from the comments. This is probably Slate defrauding its advertisers, because I’m guessing those page views aren’t generating any sale-consummating clicks. So they have commercial incentive reasons – at least for the moment and until their advertisers get wise to the scam – to gin up controversy.


    Sometimes bad cases get promoted because they stand for the proposition that “X exists” when X doesn’t actually exist. Evidence of X is hard to come by, and in desperation, anything that remotely smacks of X is immediately pounced upon in a leap before you look, because the news is just “too good to check” in terms of the ability to say, “See! See! I told you X existed and is a real widespread problem as opposed to a really rare and aberrant thing!”

    For example, hoaxes that get reported by easily duped journalists. These are real, they happen all the time. Because they fit the priors we want to believe – the ones that are high-status and politically leverageable – and so represent highly motivated confirmation bias.

    For example – NY Mag recently went live with the insanely ridiculous story about that teenager who made “$72 Million!” in the stock market, and had to climb down, humiliated, when it turned out the kid just made it up and played them like fools, which they were.

    • Emily says:

      Commenters are not representative of readers at all. People who hate, for instance, an Amanda Marcotte piece are more likely to write a comment about how they hate it than any other group is to express their opinion about it.

  62. tyra says:

    If you’re vetting all comments, you’ve probably gotten this message 10 times already, so just ignore it if that’s the case.

    “As the old saying goes, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” Here the “once is happenstance” somehow ended up in the link for “twice”.

  63. Getting the outrage level wrong— in 1992, Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on tv, partly to see what would happen and partly to draw attention to sexually abusive priests. As far as I can remember, all the publicity went to how obnoxious it was to tear up a picture of the Pope.

    And on the other hand, Catholics are generally opposed to capital punishment, but what gets the attention is Catholic opposition to contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Opposition to capital punishment somehow fails to generate enough outrage.

    I’ve read a little about the early days of abolitionism, and it was a movement which spread really fast in England. I’m inclined to think that in addition to the outrageousness of slavery, that sort of moral movement was a relatively new thing– there weren’t so many competing moral demands, so people didn’t have as much resistance.

    As I recall, Ferguson hit the news before the video about Michael Brown shoving the convenience store clerk came out. People didn’t start out knowing it was going to turn out to be a divisive case.

    Again as I recall, people from Stubenville didn’t take the video seriously– enforcement doesn’t happen automatically from video, it only happens if people care about what’s shown on the video.

    One thing I see from the outrage treadmill is that the cost of being moral keeps getting raised– this can make even trying to be moral seem to be not worth it.

    I’m concerned about the relationships being destroyed in this politicized era. It’s a non-trivial loss.

    I’m not interested in being racist, but I’ve decided to not read anything that starts with “Dear white people” and I feel much better for it. It’s definitely a “fuck you” to anyone who says I’m a bad person if I want to protect myself emotionally.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m concerned about the relationships being destroyed in this politicized era. It’s a non-trivial loss.

      Yes! Personal should never be political, but even more importantly, political should never ever ever ever become personal.

      • blacktrance says:

        They’re not easily separable, and even when they are, it’s not clear that they should be kept separate. One’s politics are a reflection of one’s values, and those are important in personal relations as well.

        • Anonymous says:

          In most countries politics is not very important for your well-being, at least compared to friendships, relationships, hobbies and other personal things. Making politics an important criteria in choosing friendships is totally backwards. Politics is inaccurate representation of your values anyway since vast majority of all values are unrelated to politics.

          • blacktrance says:

            There is at least a correlation between politics and values, and there’s a causal factor as well. In terms of values and personality, the average libertarian, the average SJW, and the average conservative are different, and the political differences are at least in part caused by the differences in values between those people.

            Maybe it’d be more accurate to say that one’s personality and values are a major part of what determines whether one is Red, Blue, or Gray, and it definitely makes sense to choose friendships depending on that characteristic.

          • Anonymous says:

            Sometimes I am so glad that my country is not nearly as politicized as the US 🙂 . I am still able to befriend people with whom I disagree politically. There are more important things in life.

            Something is rotten in the state of USA

  64. maxikov says:

    I am pro-factory-farming. While there are certain problems in its current implementation (like the overuse of antibiotics), they are not intrinsic to the method, just like the business practices of Monsanto aren’t intrinsic to genetic engineering. As for the advantages:

    (1) Factory farming provides a more controlled environment than free range farming. That means it can, if applied correctly, provide meat and eggs with much lower probability of having parasites, harmful bacteria or viruses. Which is nice.

    (2) It is more cost- and recourse-efficient. When we already have some problems with the environment and availability of fertile land, I find pushing the argiculture to less efficient methods a particularly bad idea. In addition, having farming permanently subsidized doesn’t seem like a very good idea either.

    I personally don’t really care about the well-being of chickens, but if someone does, I see certain possibilities to increase it that are compatible with factory farming. For example, keep them on heroin (which is very cheap when produced with industrial methods instead of drug cartels) up until the moment they should be killed, minus the time for heroin to be metabolized. Or find a way to massively inflict as much brain damage as possible (in order to stop them feeling anything, if they actually do feel) without compromising their basic bodily functions (seems like they maintain that even when decapitated, so that’s a pretty low standard), the ability to eat, and produce eggs.

    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      Absolutely, I am also in favor of factory farming. If they’re doing something that somehow harms human health, then I’m against that specific practice.

      But I am not at all concerned about stopping it for the sake of “animal rights” or “animal welfare”. I don’t regard those things as having any weight compared to the slightest benefit to a single human.

      And moreover, most of the alleged things that factory farming is doing to harm humans are overblown because of the motivation of pro-animal activists to use the “shotgun approach” of finding any argument—true or not—that might decrease support for it.

      • Doug S. says:

        Is “people not being squicked by awful-seeming things being done to chickens” a benefit to people?

  65. Athrelon says:

    So I’m not sure I’m convinced by this mechanism, but consider…

    If news was the result of holiness signalling by the right, we’d have stories trying to out-right-wing each other (12 reasons why “enhanced interrogation techniques” are effective and we should use them on domestic criminals). If we had a neutral Moloch process merely optimizing for controversy, we’d look for controversies where the country is actually split 50-50. If media is driven by intra left holiness signalling, we’d see them pushing left wing narratives to the edge of plausibility, which appears to be what we in fact see.

    Which implies there’s something more going on than a pure, spherical cow Molochattractor, the actual humans involved do make some difference. At the very least, they can drag the Overton window in a particular direction in the process of being turned into controversy-generating machines.

    • Fazathra says:

      If news was the result of holiness signalling by the right, we’d have stories trying to out-right-wing each other (12 reasons why “enhanced interrogation techniques” are effective and we should use them on domestic criminals).

      Heh. Can you imagine the rightist version of upworthy? “Heroic billionaire tycoon fights oppressive tax regime. You’ll never guess what happens next…” “Ten tweets which show why all immigrants need to be deported…” “That moment when a liberal tries to claim all races are equal…” “12 reasons why monarchy is better (and it’s not what you think)…”

      More seriously though:

      If media is driven by intra left holiness signalling, we’d see them pushing left wing narratives to the edge of plausibility, which appears to be what we in fact see.

      Which implies there’s something more going on than a pure, spherical cow Molochattractor, the actual humans involved do make some difference.

      I imagine the null hypothesis here is that the holier-than-thou signalling process is a pure spherical cow in that it shows no inherent bias towards leftism, but rather its current leftness is simply due to initial conditions. I.e. prior to the rise of media technology which enabled such spirals, ideology and ideological supremacy was basically a random walk and it just so happened that the time when media technology began to rise was when leftism was on the ascendant and as such tilted the spirals in a leftist direction which then became baked into the system as it matured.

    • haishan says:

      If we had a neutral Moloch process merely optimizing for controversy, we’d look for controversies where the country is actually split 50-50.

      I think if Moloch is optimizing for controversy, he’ll try to find soft margin issues that divide the public into two groups as far apart as possible while minimizing the number of people who don’t take a side. There’s no real preference for whether the split is 50/50 or 75/25 or 99/1. While much of the media, and especially huge chunks of Tumblr, does in fact push the “If you don’t believe [STATEMENT ON THE FAR EDGE OF LEFT THOUGHT] you’re a [MEMBER OF MORALLY-AWFUL CLASS]” narrative, this has the effect of redrawing the margin to put people close to it on one side or the other. It certainly seems to me like the Left does a better job of this than the Right, but this might be because Left sacred values are ones I got drilled into me from an early age, while Right sacred values are ones I hold more intellectually and came to later in life. (So YMMV). But there are obvious currents of neoreactionary thought that have the same effect of drawing a boundary and ensuring that you’re either firmly on THIS side, or way over THERE. While I generally avoid the right end of the mainstream media like a plague, Benghazi seems like an example of the same thing from them (although I could easily be wrong). So this seems like a pretty plausible mechanism to me.

      (Side note: I’m actually pretty intrigued by the maximum margin classifier interpretation of politicization and wonder if it would be possible to come up with a model explaining it. However, I know nothing about math nor about social science, so I’m probably not the best person for this.)

    • Sarah says:

      Half the US population is conservative, but it seems that way more than half of the *writing* is liberal. And this holds true even in a world of social media when anyone can write on the internet.

      Possible explanations:

      *memetic dominance is still driven by institutions (like universities and magazines) that are left-dominated, even in a world where technically anyone can blog

      *there’s some intrinsic connection between the left and words; conservative culture is just somehow *less talkative* on the whole. [relevant data point: libertarian culture is extremely talkative, which probably explains why libertarians have disproportionate memetic dominance compared to their actual numbers.]

      • Hainish says:

        Another explanation: age. Because conservatives skew older, there are fewer of them writing (esp. on the Internet).

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t know. The broadcast media certainly skews liberal, and almost all of the commentators I personally read or know about are liberal or libertarian or occasionally members of a bizarre libertarian offshoot that wants to bring back formal aristocracy — but whenever I see one of those constellation diagrams of the blogosphere, it doesn’t look like it’s dominated by the liberal cluster.

        With that in mind, I think we might be dealing with a selection bias issue more than anything structural.

        • Doug S. says:

          The broadcast media certainly skews liberal

          With the conspicuous exception of talk radio (at least in the U.S.).

        • Anonymous Cowherd says:

          If you’re talking about real blogs, as opposed to places like Slate, then yes, I tend to think there’s a decent balance. My guess is that that’s mostly path-dependent, and the left has been chipping away at it for a while now.

          To recap for the young’uns, once upon a time, everyone on the internet was a libertarian. Then 1994 happened and the rest of world came online. Fast forward to 9/11, where you find the coincidence of a major right-wing rallying point, a remnant population of right-libertarian geeks, and the recent development of easy-to-use blog-hosting software: Behold, the warbloggers are born. Of the core of the original right blogosphere from ten years ago, only Instapundit remains, but a whole ecosystem has flourished around him.

          Fast-forward a couple more years, and someone in the throes of Bush Derangement Syndrome (probably a commenter at DailyKos, but I can’t prove it) uses unholy necromantic spells from the suppressed final work in Alinksy’s trilogy, Rituals For Radicals, to raise the barely-cooled corpse of John Rawls as a shambling monster so he can go back to devouring the minds of the living. Behold: patient zero for the SJW virus.

          The first major zombie rising is the Occupy movement, which is luckily unable to gather the critical mass to literally rip everyone’s heads off in the traditional follow-up to mass left-wing street movements. Disheartened (but sadly not re-headed), the hordes retreat to their dorms and basements, where they quickly realize that they can annoy the whole country and ruin random people’s lives without getting arrested or rained on. They proceed to occupy Tumblr, a platform originally created for sharing My Little Pony fetish art, instead, and use it as a base from which to invade, infest, and infect those terrible parts of the internet that are merely liberal.

          And so here we stand, a society on the brink (or so Moloch would have you believe). Will the left succeed in starting the civil war that they (and Moloch) so desperately want? Will the right hold the line on traditional American freedoms without slipping into Moloch’s traditional American authoritarianism? Will Mencius Moldbug ride in on a white charger, bearing a sword of gold, wearing a ring granting him absolute dominion over the earth on one hand and carrying a proclamation banning fractional-reserve banking in the other? Or will we all wake up as paper clips tomorrow?

          Tune in never for the next exciting episode of Meme Theatre, brought to you by Acme Hemlock, helping suppress bad memes for over two thousand years. Άκμή: when he absolutely, positively, must stop talking!

  66. Robert Liguori says:

    I’m…not certain about the rape section. For one, it seems to me like the test case for controversy would be the most commonly reported rape: rape committed by an acquaintance, under the influence of alcohol. In addition, when the UVa story was initially spreading, I didn’t see a lot of discussion of it as a controversy; I saw a lot of people who spread the story not expecting it to be doubted. (This might be an artifact of my own online community presence, of course.)

    I feel like there’s a missing factor here, one which correlates with controversy but isn’t quite it. Narrativity, maybe? People report news that tells stories when those stories exemplify how they think the world works, and are themselves dramatic and interesting?

    Or maybe we’ve reached the point where it’s purely about the reporting that makes events viral, and that while each individual action in a category are clearly uncontroversially bad (e.g., the various bits of abusive idiocy hurled during the Ant Drone Thingy), what gets traction is people reporting on them with conclusions which are not justified (“This reaction to our perfectly legitimate and politely phrased grievances proves the other side is bad and wrong!”), and it’s purely the generated media driving the rage cycle, not the real-world events.

    • Agreed. This is one of Scott’s posts where I think his general analysis is correct and insightful but his tentpole examples are bad.

      Feminist activists circulated the UVA story because they thought it was persuasive, not controversial. As reported, a woman was horrifically gang-raped and the frat, University administration, and even her own friends looked the other way. Who could deny the existence of rape culture in the face of that evidence? It was only after the story got legs that serious flaws in the reporting became apparent and the controversy began.

      Likewise, Ferguson first became a big story because local activists were determined to bring attention to how egregiously wrong it was that a cop shot an unarmed person in the street and the police department didn’t even bother to investigate what happened. They held big, ongoing protests, and police made heavy-handed efforts to suppress them. The activists were placing their chips on a story they thought was a winner, not a lightning rod for controversy.

      Scott’s feedback loop of controversy kicked in well after voices showed up to problematize both stories. So I think the conclusion is that even when activists push stories that most people would agree with them about, the stories only last when opponents show up who can find a way to push the story into the controversial margin.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        Perhaps it’s the case that what we’re looking for (in these examples) are really unarguable cases of unprosecuted wrongdoing, and that the really unarguable cases are the ones that do get prosecuted, which leaves the arguable cases, so when we do encounter a case that seems unarguable but is also unprosecuted, that’s optimising for a case where we don’t know all the facts.

  67. stillnotking says:

    Great post (did you really tag this one “regret”?), but there’s one part of this argument I can’t square. People adopt radical cases and radical stances not just for signaling purposes, but because we actually disagree — your Catholic man thinks God doesn’t want us using condoms, while I would dispute that reasoning, not just factually but morally. I see divine command theory as an indefensible commitment to ignorance and potential tyranny; he sees my moral skepticism as a devious snare of Satan. Controversial opinions and cases may heighten those contradictions, but they don’t create them. Moloch needed a much better reason to start the cycle of violence in the Middle East than “Hey, you know what people don’t hate each other over yet…?” He needed oil.

    IIRC, when the genes-vs.-memes discussion was getting underway back in the ’90s, the most common objection to adopting the meme framework was that memes are ill-defined. The second most common was that they’re not very important, certainly not as important as genes. I think there’s something to the latter, even if the former has been decisively swept aside (in popular usage, at least). The causes of human behavior are best looked for in our most basic motives, our most basic disagreements. If it often seems like those disagreements are superficial artifacts of media culture, well, that itself could be the memeplexes doing their flashy, attention-grabbing routine, couldn’t it?

    • BenSix says:

      Controversial opinions and cases may heighten those contradictions, but they don’t create them.

      Yes, while I think it is true that one of the significant functions of the media is to inflame disagreements it is worth remembering that men have been at each other’s throats since long before the word “media” would have made people think not of Fox News or the New York Times but the grand-kid of Helios. What is interesting is how tribal and sacred impulses can be exploited in a society where so much else encourages pacification.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      >your Catholic man thinks God doesn’t want us using condoms, while I would dispute that reasoning, not just factually but morally. I see divine command theory as an indefensible commitment to ignorance and potential tyranny; he sees my moral skepticism as a devious snare of Satan.

      Funny thing, but I have literally never seen a Catholic dismiss pro-condom arguments as “devious snares of Satan”. They generally argue that the Catholic position is actually correct, instead, and the pro-condom argument is missing important features of the problem.

      I’m sure it happens occasionally, but it doesn’t seem to be common, let alone a massive problem that renders all discourse on the topic impossible.

  68. Eduardo says:

    Well, it seems that Rationality itself it is a complex memetic organism then. One who enters in a symbiotic relationship with us (giving us tools to better decision making so we can last longer and spread it further).

    Can we use some “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis” approach to some of the cases exposed here to see if we get a clue on how to fight this dual stage types of memes, perhaps by some type of uncaring operator, a mind with sociopathic or psychopatic tendencies perhaps?

    (Admittedly this presupposes, that those memes exist and they are “just” dual stage memes… And I know it sounds really desperate and weird to use those individuals to analyse a problem, I am disturbed by the implications of this post. Scott feel free to censure/edit this post if I sound too moronic or insane)

  69. EH says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the UVa section. That situation reads like the author (Erdely) chose Jackie’s story because Jackie made a “good” victim. According to the original narrative she was lured into a gang-rape initiation ritual while completely sober — there’s no room there for the small army of people who will reliably try to second-guess the actions of any rape victim. The focus of the story was supposed to be on how terrible universities are at handling rape cases, and so Erdely needed to lead with an uncontroversial victim who wouldn’t draw attention away from that.

  70. Scott,
    this post is as good at it is long. Well done! I have two minor quibbles to point out, and I’ve finally resolved to do so, trusting that at least in here I won’t be feeding the Moloch.

    The first is on Memes: the way I understand the subject is only marginally related to parasitology. The whole idea is that ideas are subject to natural selection because they can replicate from one brain to another (and mutate while doing so), then extended to other informational media such as websites etc. So the analogy applies to genes and memes, where the former use the DNA substrate and the latter use minds and by extension written words (and more). I understand the appeal of parasitology for your specific case, as it links nicely to Toxoplasmosis, but sometimes I just can’t help getting a little over-zealous when the theory of evolution gets somewhat misrepresented. This is inconsequential for the main points you raise, so I’m mentioning it just because I can’t resist the temptation.
    Second, perhaps more importantly, you repeat many times a variation of the following:

    it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got.

    And this again disturbs me because it subtly misrepresents what’s going on, and in this case it may even undermine your discourse in an oblique way. Whatever the subject, flagship cases will be the ones that are controversial (difficult to adjudicate, able to split the factions in roughly even proportions), not the worst possible cases. The worst possible cases would be the ones that only the hard-core ingroups will ever be able to confidently support, and will look uncontroversially unconvincing to all neutral viewers.
    It may seem a minor semantic issue but it isn’t, because realising that the highly infectious controversies tend to cluster in the grey “uncertain” area is (albeit pretty obvious) also a way to point to a constructive interpretation: in itself, the fact that what has the greatest potential of getting most people attention is usually a problem that is difficult to untangle could be a good thing. It’s the subsequent and potentially independent polarisation of opinion that is where the trouble begins. As a consequence, the possible (weak) countermeasures are about trying to create a culture where disagreements are expected and accepted (see my conclusions here, I may be wishful-thinking, but I thought it was worth pointing it out.

    • Kai Teorn says:

      True, controversy is not necessarily bad. Gray areas are boundary areas, and it seems entirely rational to focus on gray areas if we want to shift these boundaries in some direction. On the other hand, such focus on not-clear-cut cases may just result in black areas becoming blacker and white areas becoming whiter, without the boundary moving much at all – that’s Scott’s point as I understand it. But opinions do shift, historically. Did controversies help or hinder these shifts? I think we need much more empirical evidence, including lots of smartly designed psychological experiments, to get any idea.

      • Yes, the Moloch that Scott describes polarises and perhaps makes the grey area thinner, but it does so in a way that is most likely unhelpful. I’d look for a slightly different evidence, though:
        1. The polarisation and entrenchment are known and readily observable phenomena. We know they happen, and we know they don’t help converging to better understandings.
        2. Thus, finding ways to reduce them whenever a controversy is catching fire is most likely going to be helpful. It would be nice to know how to do so reliably, and that is a question that has to be explored empirically.

        The question you ask: given that controversies cluster around grey areas (a good thing), and that they however polarise opinions excessively (a bad thing), do we know if the typical result is good or bad? Is a very good question, and in our current context, I think it is more useful to look at the pragmatic version: what factors make the plus or minus side prevail? Which is another way to approach the problem I’m posing: how do you minimise the downside?

    • Randy M says:

      There is a notorious murderer who is brought out as a case against capital punishment that I think is a good example of using an extreme case; I forget the names involved, unfortunately; a cop killer from the northeast iirc.

  71. Sarah says:

    So, re: “almost no-one is evil; almost everything is broken” —

    I agree that almost no human beings are primarily evil. But I think that to some degree it makes sense to think of there as being malicious “powers and principalities.”

    Moloch, as you describe him, is the spirit of perverse incentives that lead to results nobody wants. Tumblr “wars” are a result of Tumblr’s reblog structure, as you correctly point out, and that’s a Moloch sort of phenomenon. Mutual defection on the Prisoners’ Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons are both classic examples of Moloch problems. I think I agree with you that meaningless political controversy tends to be a Moloch kind of problem.

    But Moloch isn’t the worst thing out there. Freud wrote of Thanatos, the driving impulse towards death and killing. Judaism speaks of the “yetzer hara”, the evil inclination. Poe wrote of the “imp of the perverse.” Rand wrote of “hatred of the good because it is good.” John said “all who do evil hate the light.” There is a human impulse to cruelty, a will-to-destroy. It’s a part of human nature; nobody’s immune, though different people are “possessed” by malevolence to different degrees.

    Madeleine L’Engle’s “Echthroi” are a good metaphor for this. There aren’t really evil humans in her books, though there are misguided ones. But the Echthroi really *are* evil, and sometimes they get to humans and make them serve darkness.

    (Ordinarily, as children’s-books-with-surprisingly-deep-theology go, I think Diane Duane is much more legit than Madeleine L’Engle, but I think L’Engle deals with evil better. The Lone Power is just an asshole, whom I find it hard to give credit for all the damage in the universe. The Echthroi, on the other hand… are very believable.)

    • blacktrance says:

      There’s a sliding scale of coordination failure vs evil. At one end is things like defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma by driving in heavy traffic, buying goods that are cheaper than they should be because of externalities, etc. Few would argue that there’s anything wrong with that. Somewhat more towards the evil end is things like toxic arguments on Tumblr, where it’s sort-of a coordination failure, but not entirely – someone can opt out of that environment and pursue something more noble; participating in toxic tribal arguments is defection when you’re in a tribe, but belonging to that kind of tribe is both optional and evil. Related to them, but more towards the evil end, is acting out of spite, something like “My (or my tribe’s) enemies have angered me, I’m going to lash out at this innocent person”. It’s firmly in the evil category at this point, but there’s still an element of the situation that’s outside the person’s control. And then there are the people who kick puppies and cackle madly while they burn down orphanages.

      Somewhere orthogonal to this scale are people who intentionally do evil, but believe it to be good – not people who are empirically misinformed or ethically confused, but who believe that their evil intentions are actually good.

    • Meredith L. Patterson says:

      This comment is brilliant and you are brilliant.

      I get the same thing out of L’Engle, and Lewis’ Space Trilogy as well.

  72. JK says:

    Only controversial things get spread. A rape allegation will only be spread if it’s dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics.

    In all this gigantic pile of bodies, you couldn’t find one of them who hadn’t just robbed a convenience store? Not a single one who didn’t have ten eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence all saying he started it?

    Ambiguity of the facts explains the magnitude and persistence of these controversies, but it does not explain why a specific incident among many others is initially selected by the media or activists as the one to promote.

    Mike Brown’s death became a global news story long before it was known that he had just robbed a store, or that many witnesses took the cop’s side. Al Sharpton initially referred to Brown as a “gentle giant”, saying: “I understand he was never in trouble. Wasn’t a bad kid at all. Yet they are trying to say that he got into a scuffle.” This was the narrative that was established at the outset: a gentle giant holding his hands up in the air while a racist white cop brutally executes him. If the real facts had been available from the start, it’s possible that the story would never have become more than a local news item.

    Similarly, the UVA rape story was reported by Erdely as something that was completely factual and backed up by evidence (I don’t think Erdely was deliberately fraudulent, just very biased towards believing Jackie). It was initially accepted as truthful by just about everybody, and only after some sleuthing by skeptics did the narrative begin to unravel.

    There is no evidence that the people who made these incidents into big stories thought that there was anything suspicious about their facts. They did not intend to cause controversies.

    A much more credible explanation of why these big race/sex stories tend to collapse is that journalists and activists have strong ideological presuppositions about the prevalence and nature of racism and sexism, and they are eager to promote any story that seems to confirm their presuppositions. Michael Brown’s death seemed at first glance to fit conventional ideas about racism. Various people found, with the help of confirmation bias, that the “gentle giant gunned down by racist cop” narrative was eminently plausible and just ran with it.

    Similarly, Erdely apparently searched through many campuses for stories about rape, finding nothing interesting until she heard about Jackie. Erdely’s belief that US college campuses are characterized by “rape culture” that condones assaults on women made her suspectible to Jackie’s fabrications.

    The fact is that the police and criminal justice system in America are not, by and large, biased against blacks (see Scott’s recent post on this). And, contrary to the rape culture hypothesis, the status of women on US college campuses is not similar to that of women in war zones. The way that the media initially reported on Jackie and Michael Brown (and the Duke lacrosse case, and Trayvon Martin, and so on) reflected journalists’ ideological beliefs about what racism or sexual violence are like, not what they are actually like in today’s America.

    What happened between Brown and Darren Wilson was that Brown acted stupidly by violently confronting an armed police officer and got killed. Scott wonders why the media chose Brown as its poster boy for victims of racism when so many other blacks are apparently killed by the police without any fault of their own. But what if “perfect victims” of racism are in fact in very short supply, and Brown’s case is actually a very typical example of fatal confrontations between black youths and the police? This would suggest that the only reason that the Ferguson story became so big was that, for whatever reason, the “facts” that were initially available were wildly inaccurate, whereas in other similar cases more accurate facts are available from the start, preventing the incident from ballooning into a national story. The media wants their race stories to offer clear-cut moral lessons, but real stories aren’t like that when you get to the bottom of them.

    Similarly, the circumstances of sexual assault and rape on college campuses are often murky and boozy, with ambiguity about what happened and about consent or lack thereof. Wealthy blond frat boys gang raping coeds with impunity is what certain people are, for ideological reasons, convinced must be happening, not what actually ever happens.

    • anonymousCoward says:

      This seems like an excellent point to me, and unfortunately it boils down to “those other people I don’t trust anyway are just wrong”. I assumed the rolling stone account was true when I was debating it with a friend, so my entire intellectual engagement with it was based on larger issues, not the controversy surrounding the events themselves.

      The best counterargument I can think of is the different responses to the cases of Brown and Garner.

      The best counter-counterargument I can think of is that Garner’s case didn’t involve gunfire. Grappling resulting in death is a lot more ambiguous as far as intent goes than actually shooting someone. Also, shootings bootstrap into the additional controversy over “gun violence”, where choke-holds don’t.

    • Anonymous Cowherd says:

      Al Sharpton initially referred to Brown as a “gentle giant”, saying: “I understand he was never in trouble. Wasn’t a bad kid at all. Yet they are trying to say that he got into a scuffle.” This was the narrative that was established at the outset: a gentle giant holding his hands up in the air while a racist white cop brutally executes him. If the real facts had been available from the start, it’s possible that the story would never have become more than a local news item.

      Sharpton is the closest thing I’m aware of to a falsity oracle. Every word out of his mouth is a lie, including “a”, “an”, and “the”. His publicly claiming belief in a fact is sufficient grounds for me to disbelieve it unless and until further evidence arises. If he went on TV and declared that 2+2=4, I would conclude that he had found some context where it wasn’t true and was trying to conceal the fact. If it were possible to criminalize anything involving journalism, uncritically repeating a claim of his would be criminal negligence.

  73. J. Quinton says:

    Behold Chthulu! One of the sephirot of Gnon!

  74. chaosmage says:

    You’ve completely left out an essential part of memetics, which is that memes compete. While this starts an evolution that can make a few of them stronger, they all weaken each other. You leaving that out makes memes seem stronger than they are.

    You make the global rage controversies sound like unprecedented danger. I disagree with that assessment, because national issues like Ferguson and global ones like the War on Terror are outcompeting for attention the countless local rage controversies which are worse.

    There’s bickering in every village, there are feuds in every extended family, there’s resentment at every border. These all used to be a lot meaner, and frequently violent. This should be quite obvious from The Better Angels Of Our Nature. But if your excellent theory of Toxoplasma-like rage memes applies to gender issues on Tumblr, why wouldn’t it apply to the citizens of 18th century Tinyville always going on about each other, and to the hate between aunt Margie and uncle Billy that’s been going on for three decades?

    You can look at rage bouncing back and forth between two groups on Tumblr, see a problem, and tell everyone about it. Well done. But please also see that this is much easier than to recognize a similar pattern within a tiny community where everything is personal and little collective brainpower is available. Tiny rage memes (hateful memories, unforgotten injustices etc.) bounce back and forth in local colonies that are perhaps too small to host a brainpower-hungry rational house cleaning process. Bringing in a social worker or therapist has helped clean a lot of houses, but lots of places especially outside the First World don’t have enough of these. If these hateful conflicts are Toxoplasma-like rage memes too, that gives an angle of attack. They’ll die when outcompeted by stronger memes. When the kids are too busy on Facebook to listen to aunt Margie talking about Billy again.

    But if you can find another solution that works on the big and obvious problem, maybe it’ll work on the many small and nonobvious ones, too.

    • Brian says:

      This is a very good point.

      Maybe the quantity of outrage is more or less fixed, but instead of being squandered in petty local issues, the new information ecology has allowed it to become concentrated in the important issues that affect large groups of people, where that outrage is needed to affect change? If so, then perhaps these new systems are resulting in a higher utility gain per unit of outrage.

    • aplofar says:

      And also, the past has plenty of examples, especially religious ones, of society-wide rage-epidemics about things we think of now as absurdly trivial. My favourite example is the Old Believers of Russia, many of whom fled to the four corners of the earth, or went to jail (1600s Russian jail, mind you) for making the Sign of the Cross with two fingers, not three, because of course the survival of true Christian Orthodoxy hinges on the integrity of liturgical practise.

      I think one effect of the reach of social media and the controversy incentives of contemporary news is that the habits of nursing personal grudges and ostracizing the non-conformist get transferred to issues outside the personal sphere. The cost of transmitting individualized denunciation has gone down, but people still feel personally insulted as though they’ve been slandered by one of the other villagers. In premodern and non-telecommunicating society, the choice is mostly between localized, individual hatreds that can be communicated only to the individuals in question, and broader tribal hatreds that usually are mediated through larger institutions, with little personal contact. But now, you get to see the whole tribalist controversy narrated, enacted and argued by actual people, under a process which generally selects for the most unhinged, uninhibited commentators. It’s like a hybrid-vigor virus – all the intensity of hating the outgroup, mixed with a fear of being personally denounced as belonging to that outgroup.

  75. Kai Teorn says:

    So what are we to do to fight the controversy plague? What personality traits could help one stay clean, and maybe, if widespread enough, even block the rise of the Moloch? More to the point, how can we change our society to help those traits spread? For example, the xkcd comic you quote suggests that those less prone to meaningless online battles may have a slightly better chance of “going to bed”, hence of reproducing sexually. Of course this effect would be tiny at best, but that’s a start!

  76. Eric Bruylant says:

    This seems highly related to a concept I attempted to explain as a comment on one of Eliezer’s posts ( ) a couple of weeks ago, but is vastly more clear and generalized.

    “Possible contributing factor: With very intense competition between lots of memes like on social networks (esp. when winner takes all, and whether a meme gets shared depends vastly more often on a snap judgement rather than intelligent consideration), selection for memes that are more viral is a relatively larger factor than usefulness to a movement, as compared to previous eras where core movement builders played a larger role in deciding which memes the group adopted.

    That’s kind of an awkward explanation, but it’s a similar idea to the way that politicians optimize for “how good this will look” to the public, because in general optimizing directly for “what will be the best utilitarian choice for my voters” will make them lose badly to someone equally competent optimizing for appearance. However, if you changed the rules of the game so only a very small number of randomly selected people were candidates the candidates best able to signal “I am trying to be effective” would be more likely to be putting a larger portion of their effort towards being effective (politicians are massively selected for “able to optimize for appearance”, so random citizens would be generally less able to), though that would probably be more than counteracted by randomly selected people being less generally competent.”

    Also, although charity-related posts may do good most directly, I would predict that your moloch posts and others tackling the fundamentals of fixing society have much higher overall benefit, since they’re operating at a meta-level and in a way that’s unique (to my knowledge).

  77. Jos says:

    Scott, a quibble. You write:

    “Studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Yet the rate for allegations that go ultra-viral in the media must be an order of magnitude higher than this.”

    I think it’s more precise to say that studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are concluded to be false after police investigation. The remainder are split between: referred to prosecution (so probably true), victim withdrew from process or stopped proceedings (we don’t know if true) and facts too inconclusive to reach conclusion. (Again, we don’t know).

    In your case, I don’t think any of the three cases you cite would qualify for the 2-8 percent, even today. Duke Lacrosse was referred for prosecution, so the studies would classify it as not “unfounded”, and IIUC, UVa was withdrawn by Jackie, so again, it wouldn’t be classified as unfounded. IIRC, Tawana Brawley’s allegations were presented to the grand jury, but didn’t make it out – I don’t know the studies well enough to say whether that would classify as unfounded or not.

    Not to belittle the problem – rape is a terrible issue and we should act to prevent it. But that particular stat doesn’t tell us much about the percentage of rape accusations that are actually false – what we know is that of criminal allegations, it looks like 2-8 percent are found to be unfounded after investigation, ~40% result in referrals for prosecution, and we just don’t know much about the other 50%, or of the % veracity of accusations made in the paper.

      • Jos says:

        Fair enough, although I still think I am probably right on the math in this one.

        In the article you linked, Scott also appears to assume that only 8% of rape accusations are actually false – unless I’m misreading the materials, I do think it’s more accurate to say that 2-8% of criminal allegations are found to be very probably false after investigation, ~ 30-40% are referred for prosecution, and we don’t know much about the other ~50%.

    • AlphaCeph says:

      Yeah, I picked up on that too. 98-92% are true rapes? Seems a little on the high side, especially the 98% figure.

  78. Anonymous says:

    We need more elitist media. Perhaps state funded like BBC or funded by subscribers that view themselves as truth seekers, perhaps even elitists, who would find outrage seeking as something beneath them and would view it with contempt. Maybe that would give us a more solid anchor that would be useful during media storms. Maybe similarly how there are a lot of small banks and money lenders, we also need a central bank-equivalent for the world of media or some big stable bank equivalents? Maybe we need more aristocracy and elitism in media.

    • Ano says:

      “Aristocratic” is generally used as a pejorative because it implies a certain insulation from the pressures and concerns of the majority, but in some cases that can be very helpful. Unfortunately this isn’t a direction that anyone can actually get behind. Whether it’s left-wingers saying that privileged people can’t talk about divisive social issues like abortion or race, or right-wingers who see the enemy as being ivory-tower intellectuals and what we need more of is savvy self-made businessmen who know what the “real world” is like, the one thing people aren’t demanding is clinical detachment.

    • blacktrance says:

      We have PBS. The problem is whether anyone will want to watch elite media when other options are available.

      • Anonymous says:

        Revenue of BBC: £5.102 billion
        Revenue of CPB: $445.5 million. Even if PBS and NPR gets a lot of donations, they are still not in the same league as BBC, especially considering that UK has 63,1 million residents, while US has 319.4 million residents. PBS+NPR would have to have a budget of about $40.4 billion to be the equivalent of BBC. Maybe this would allow them to have a lot of high quality shows that even an average person would want to watch.

  79. John Schilling says:

    I’m skeptical about the proposed mechanism here, at least in its simplest form. The bit about controversy being favored on the battleground of memetic evolution is sensible enough. But one of the big weaknesses of memetic theory is that it tends to deny the agency of the actual human beings making the decisions.

    In the case of the UVA rape story, that really comes down to one human being, Sabrina Erdely. She was delegated the task of telling the One True Story of an Atrocious Campus Rape for this news season, and she spent months setting it up. At Rolling Stone, at least, she was the only one on that particular beat, and I’m not aware of anyone at any other major news outlet working a similar story – mostly it was just little vignettes interspersed in essentially statistical discussions of campus rape. So in this case, at least, it isn’t so much a question of which of the many campus rape stories wins the battle of memetic evolution, but which one story Samantha Erdely choses to cover.

    So what was her personal motive for chosing such a weak example? I don’t think it is that she was specifically looking for a weak or marginal example because those are the most controversial and thus effective, because I don’t think that particular story can really be controversial in a useful way. If the story is fundamentally true, or if Erdely knows it is a lie but thinks it will hold up, then it’s a story of the brutally violent forcible gang rape of a pretty white girl by a bunch of near-strangers. That’s even farther out than factory farming on the list of Things Absolutely Everybody Really Hates. If the story is a lie and Erdely knows or suspects that the truth will come out, then it’s a false accusation of gang rape for political gain. Granted, there are a few people in Blue Tribe who seem to be OK with that, but it’s still pretty uncontroversially a Bad Thing to falsely accuse people of rape. Erdely’s chosen story is only transiently controversial as it flips over from one extreme to the other; there’s no controversial middle ground for it to occupy.

    So my question is, what was her human motive for chosing that one story from among the many she encountered in her months of research? The “because controversy” hypothesis, seems to have her consciously acting against her own interests; I don’t see how she could benefit from this story unless it remained uncontroversial.

    My hypothesis is that we are seeing people seeking not controversy, but certainty within a false mental model – specifically, the mental model where the Other Tribe is Pure Evil. The sort of people who are actually in favor of factory farming, gang-raping pretty white girls, gunning down innocent black men for fun, or whatever. What is “needed”, are the case studies that unambiguously highlight this divide between Pure Good and Absolute Evil.

    And which basically don’t exist, because fraternities rarely if ever brutally gang-rape* pretty white girls and police generally don’t go around shooting unambiguously innocent black men, etc. These are the sort of behaviors just about everyone agrees are wrong, and so outside of e.g. war zones everyone effectively cooperates to suppress them. Actual examples are either very well concealed, or quickly and uncontroversially resolved with the punishment of the perpetrators. Leaving honest and diligent advocates empty-handed. But the less honest or at least less diligent reporters can usually find something that at first glance looks kind of like a case study of Pure Good vs Absolute Evil, apply a bit of confirmation bias, and set loose in the world. Where it will spread by the same deliberate agency, until the increased scrutiny causes the underlying story to fall apart.

    [*] As opposed to other, more ambiguous and thus less narratively effective, sorts of rape. And for that matter, the police shoot a fair number of ambiguously innocent black men.

    • anonymousCoward says:

      The de facto thesis of the Rolling Stone story was that our current system of dealing with rape is fundamentally and monstrously broken, to the extent that we need the policy currently being pitched as “Listen And Believe”. For a goal that specific, you need a very specific kind of story, one where society’s routine safeguards systematically failed at every level, which is the exact story that Rolling Stone published.

      • John Schilling says:

        No; that’s the story that Rolling Stone tried to publish. They failed. Why they failed, in spite of trying very hard, is I think key to understanding the problem.

        I think they failed because society’s routine safeguards almost never fail to prevent the brutally violent gang rape of pretty white girls, or at least to promptly and severely punish the rapists. If that’s what you insist on telling stories about, your stories will be almost entirely false positives. If you limit yourself to true stories, what you mostly find is society’s safeguards commonly failing to prevent or punish more ambiguous sorts of rapes, or rapes within populations that much of the population has written off as irredemably crime-ridden.

        Those sorts of stories might be more socially useful, but they aren’t as personally beneficial for the journalists who cover them. Same with, e.g., policemen gunning down wholly innocent black men for grins and giggles, vs. the unpleasant and dubiously necessary stuff that police actually do on a regular basis.

  80. Paul says:

    I think there’s one more element that set the Brown case apart from others. There are tons of police killings, as you point out, but only in Ferguson — for the first time since the LA riots — was there sustained civil disorder and destruction of property committed by non-black bloc types, aggravated by the militarized police response. That was/is an actually rare occurrence.

  81. Jiro says:

    I’m also skeptical about the idea that attacking people in the Middle East creates more terrorists. Although Scott didn’t phrase it that way, it usually carries the connotation that innocent people hurt by collateral damage become terrorists. However, much of the culture in the Middle East is based around tribe, family, and honor–which means that even if we had a magical smart bomb that killed just the guilty terrorists and never hurt any innocent people, it would still radicalize people and create terrorists from innocents simply because of the kinship ties between innocents and the dead terrorists. So I’m not sure that collateral damage to innocent people really makes much of a difference.

    • Doug S. says:

      There’s something of a different mentality there, or so I’ve been told. There’s a reason that a Qur’an burning generates violent outrage while the Haditha massacre was a non-event. Imagine the stereotype of an urban gang of teenage boys. If they get in a fight with a rival gang over territory and someone gets killed, well, that’s life. They know the risks, and when people fight, sometimes people die. The outcome will stand and you’ll go back to relative peace. And they certainly don’t care if some stranger runs into the wrong asshole and gets shot. If you or your gang diss them, though, if you mock and humiliate them, oh, it’s on, and they’re going to hunt down and kill you and your whole posse, because that kind of thing can’t be forgiven. “Death before dishonor” isn’t a slogan, it’s a fundamental assumption of social life that people don’t think to question.

      The median age in the United States is 36.9. The median age in the United Kingdom is 40.5. The median age in Iraq is 20.6, and in Afghanistan, it’s 18.0. They’re a country of teenagers and people who think like teenagers. And they’re teenagers with guns. Imagine a middle school in which every student was given an AK-47 when they enrolled and are expected to take them to class with them. That’s the Middle East.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        I can not recommend this comment enough. Baraka is real, and we discount it’s influence at our own peril.

  82. gattsuru says:

    I don’t think it’s controversy, per say. Talk among people on the Left (not Blue!) in the first days after the shooting of Brown and they literally could not imagine someone believing Wilson was anything but guiltyguiltyguilty of shooting an unarmed, innocent teenager in the back while his hands were raised in surrender. The Rolling Stone article is the most clear-cut example of horrible sexual assault imaginable, with none, and it’s literally unimaginable to think of any respectable person questioning whether it describes rape. That’s not something selected or repeated for controversy, that’s something selected for being as clear-cut an example as possible!

    The problem is… well, you’ve done posts on the replication problem in scientific journals. We’re not focusing on the most typical stories, the small effect sizes, or the negative or maybe results, but the exceptions. Sometimes these true! The Rolling Stone article was pretty obviously trying to follow the Steubenville and Torrington cases; there’s a number of pretty ugly police shootings every year. And Steubenville went hella-viral even if the overwhelming majority of controversy was over whether the rapists involved should be jailed or fired out of cannon into the sun, with a small town of like twenty-thousand people not willing to seriously deal with the crime properly because monkey-brains.

    But a lotta times they’re exceptions because they didn’t actually happen that way. The Rolling Stone article had a trifecta of a sober victim, upper-class assailants, and violent assault that everyone knows and can find examples individually, but took a lot of searching to find in combination. The initial reporting on Brown had an air of black-and-white innocence and guilt that wasn’t as obviously present to the Left with Garner or Crawford or a thousand other possible cases. It’s only after these stories become front-page news that incompleteness and inaccuracy of first reports comes up.

    The particularly morbid thing is that the part that makes deaths like Garner or Crawford less appealing is the same part that would make them exceptionally compelling. Crawford was carrying a BB gun in a store… in a state with legal open carry of real firearms, and called in by a paranoid dude who’d described himself as an ex-marine. Garner was an elderly guy selling cigarettes under the table, which sounds bad but also describes a behavior that a huge amount of the red and grey tribe kinda don’t mind.

    There are a lot of media bits that fit this sorta characteristic, maybe even most media bits. And this obviously isn’t unique to the Left or even Red-Blue-Grey politics — the ethics in ant-farming community has these fascinating stories about folk being shadowbanned on reddit for asking the wrong question, or anti-ant-ethics people doxxing a transperson, and it’s not until you look closer that the most serious allegations end up having a huge number of buts underneath them. Nor is it new to the internet : you can see precursors dating back to the founding of the United States, and I’m sure folk with a better sense of history could find more than that.

    • Michael Brown didn’t start out as a highly controversial story– the video of him shoving the convenience store clerk didn’t come out until after there’d been some public uproar.

      I’m inclined to think that the big hook, beyond his being an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer, was that the initial suspicious behavior was jaywalking, an especially trivial offense.

      • John Schilling says:

        As I mentioned elsewhere, if you’re looking for uncontroversial stories of Good vs. Evil, in a generally functional and civilized society, you tend to come up empty-handed. At best, you find the stories where the cops arrested Evil before you ever heard anything was wrong and Evil is on track for twenty-to-life. Because, being uncontroversial, everybody involved puts a stop to that sort of thing as soon as they find it.

        If you really really really need an uncontroversial story of Good vs Evil, and “OBTW Evil was arrested last week and is doing twenty to life” won’t do for your purposes, what you wind up running with are the controversial stories where one side’s story sounds like Pure Good Horribly Victimized if you take their word for it and you’re too tired to fact-check it. Which you do, until the wheels come off.

  83. Tom Scharf says:

    “pretty much everybody who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it”

    CORRECTION: “pretty much everybody YOU KNOW who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it”

    There is also a bit of a No True Scotsman taste to this statement.

    I have no problem with factory farming. I cry not one iota for a corn stalk that is cut down in order to be packaged up and sent to my grocery store for my self centered human consumption. I like bacon and think it is already too expensive. And yes, I have visited factory chicken and pig farms.

    It’s the cost of feeding a large population at a reasonable price.

    Don’t like it? Well go eat your free range chicken. Eat your organic corn that was humanely executed in a means that meets your moral requirements. There is a market that serves your needs. Don’t tell the rest of us how the chickens we eat need to be treated so your feelings aren’t hurt. Public awareness is fine, sanctimony is not.

    Better yet, move to the country and build your own farm. The food delivery system we have in place in near miraculous for what it does. In 1900 43% of income was spent on food, now it is 13%. Big Ag deserves some respect for what it has accomplished.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      >It’s the cost of feeding a large population at a reasonable price.

      … except vegan diets can feed a larger population for less, so no, it isn’t.

      Factory farming is a massively suboptimal local maximum, where all the incentives are for individuals to continue being awful or pay a cost – Moloch, in a word. It isn’t a global maximum.

      If we cooperate, we can do much, much better.

      • eqdw says:

        … except vegan diets can feed a larger population for less, so no, it isn’t.

        There’s a qualitative difference with that point though.

        Some people want to eat meat. Factory farming is a way to satisfy this preference.

        Vegan diets do not satisfy this preference for the people who want to eat meat.

        Saying “Vegan diets also do that” requires some people to either change their preferences or permanently forgo them before it’s a viable solution to the stated problem. Meanwhile, most modern democratic societies have generally agreed that, all else equal, allowing individuals the freedom and ability to maximize their own preferences is, well, preferable. I mean, if nothing else, it’s consequentialism/utilitarianism.

        Now of course, we could have a discussion about whether the tradeoff is worth it; whether we actually end up with net positive utils if we allow factory farming (which is bad) to drive down meat prices for people who want meat (which is good), vs if we mandate a vegan diet (which is bad for people who want meat) in order to prevent animal suffering (which is good). For that matter, I’m generally sympathetic to this argument (though on mostly ecological, not ethical grounds)

        But just saying “let them eat soy” ignores the fact that some people like meat, and self-stated desire to eat meat is just as valid as someone else’s self-stated desire to do, well, pretty much anything.

        • ozymandias says:

          But even so you don’t get an *infinite* right to do *everything* you want– your actions have effects on other people. In particular, you can probably view animal suffering as an externality that hasn’t been accounted for in the price of meat. If meat were taxed appropriately in line with how much suffering it caused to animals and *then* people continued to eat meat, your argument stands.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          self-stated desire to eat meat is just as valid as someone else’s self-stated desire to do, well, pretty much anything

          There are reports that some shellfish from the far east are caught and/or processed by people who are effectively slaves. Here’s a hypothetical case. Suppose the only people who could harvest sea-cave shrimp were children (the same size as Victorian chimney-sweeps), and the work were so uncomfortable and dangerous that the children had to be enslaved and forced to do it, with many casualties and much health damage. If the UN were trying to stop this practice, depriving the world of sea-cave shrimp, how strongly would you weigh in your moral calculus an American’s desire to continue getting all his protein from sea-cave shrimp?

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I swear I’m not a big animal rights person. But you’re not really representing the other side fairly.

      The other side doesn’t want to tell you how to eat chicken to prevent their feelings from being hurt. They want to do it to protect the chicken’s feelings from being hurt. Specifically, they don’t want the chicken to feel horrible pain while it is being farmed. Their behavior is all for the chicken’s sake, not for their own.

      Thomas Sowell once said that morality is being hard on yourself, while sanctimony is being hard on others and easy on yourself. It seems to me that while there are certainly some sanctimonious animal-welfare people, a lot of them are awfully hard on themselves. Their lives are legitimately a little harder than they would be if they ate meat. I know that I certainly miss the extra money I spend on cage-free eggs.

      Your argument that “we are going to keep doing what we’re doing, if you don’t like it get your own thing” kind of falls apart if you replace factory farming with pretty much anyone else. Imagine if some parents were selling their children as sex slaves and told you that if you didn’t like them doing that you should have your own children. Or imagine that humans were being factory-farmed instead of pigs.

      I think the problem is that you don’t really understand the argument animal-welfare people are making. They are arguing that animals are morally significant, that harming one is as bad (or almost as bad) as harming a human. Telling them to mind their own business is like a murderer telling the cops to mind their own business and stop investigating that blood dripping out of his trunk.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        Of course the answer is “it depends”. I do understand the animal welfare argument, and I reject it. It’s that simple. Don’t confuse that with the failure to empathize with that position. I would be revolted if people ate dogs, but this moral position is somewhat arbitrary as eating cows is OK by me. If another society had cultural values that eating dogs is OK, I understand that. I could live in their society and not eat dogs and feel no particular urge to convert them. People draw their lines in different places, I’m OK with that.

        Eating meat is not a societal decision we need to make as a group, it is and should be a personal decision.

        If vegans can convince and cajole people to their side that is fine. When people get religious about their vegan-ism, it is overstepping my line. I wonder what vegans would think if I thought they should be forced to eat meat and all chickens should be factory farmed? Outraged I suspect.

    • BenSix says:

      Don’t tell the rest of us how the chickens we eat need to be treated so your feelings aren’t hurt.

      While I do not dispute that there are people who base their opinions on nothing but there emotional impulses, I think it is often cheap how people in rationalist and alt-right circles imply that while their opinions are based on nought but reason other peoples’ must be based on their hurt feelings.

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      When people say “factory farming”, they are generally referring to animal farms, not plant farms. The issue is completely separate from industrial farming vs “organic” farming. Organic farming is dumb and you are right that industrialized agriculture is the way to go. This has nothing to do with the debate of what kind of food we should be producing.

      Also, have you actually seen anyone advocate for the well-being of corn (honestly it would not surprise me if there were a few) or was that a joke?

      • Tom Scharf says:

        It was a bit of a joke to point out that one could just as easily take a moral position that only free range corn should be allowed. Because the moral dividing line is mostly based on one’s own value system and is somewhat arbitrary, it is a bit pretentious to assume your dividing line is the right one and all should adhere to your value system. The freedom of food religion should be respected.

        • Illuminati Initiate says:

          Yeah, see, this is a fully general counterargument to law. All value systems are arbitrary. I often see people say things along the lines of “you can’t force your morality on me!”.

          “Well, OK, then you have to respect my right to sacrifice my slaves to the Dark Gods. Whats that, you think what I’m doing is evil? But that’s just your opinion, you can’t force it on me!”

          My point is not that those situations are equally bad, its that both are equally forcing arbitrary morality on others.

  84. zaogao says:

    “The purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better.” -Derbyshire

    A take on similar issues

  85. Anthony says:

    Porn tumblr does not work to maximize outrage. It doesn’t maximize anything very effectively, except the availability of niche porn. This is probably intrinsic to the content rather than the medium.

  86. Anonymous says:

    “Studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false.”

    Is that actually the case, as in “Studies show that 94 to 98 percent of rape allegations are true”? Or is it the case that only 2 to 8 percent are *proven* to be false, with a high percentage of cases neither proven to be true nor proven to be false?

    • Jos says:

      I talk a little bit about this upthread. I’m a long way from expert, but as far as I can tell, I think it’s closer to your second formulation.

  87. Will says:

    The thing that bothers me about the PETA thing is that being vegan in a healthy way is can actually be kind of expensive, especially if you live in a dying area of Detroit with limited transportation (hence, limited access to diverse grocery stores). Its not like there will be ready access to seitan, tofu,etc.

    Its sort of a double bind- if you get your water paid for, you’re probably down to only beans for your source of protein. Soy and almond milk, if available, are probably at least 50-60% more expensive, etc.

  88. Alex Godofsky says:

    Scott, but the media really is made up of only a moderate number of organizations and individuals that really do make goal-directed decisions. There were people with real agency who decided to cover Ferguson; it didn’t “just happen”.

    • Christian Kleineidam says:

      The fact that there are players that make goal-directed decisions doesn’t mean that what Scott said about memetics is false. Those players just know how the system works.

      PETA knows how it get’s coverage. Finding the responsible actor for the Ferguson coverage is likely harder, but they also now the rules.

  89. K. says:

    >Race relations are at historic lows

    That’s, uh…I guess you’re using an extremely short-term definition of “historic?”

  90. Walter says:

    I find it entirely appropriate that Moloch speaks in all caps.

    I think in future articles we could just understand any line in all caps to be the voice of Moloch. (Not really, barrier to understanding for new readers and all).

  91. Irrelevant says:

    Possibly-existent future humans, fictional characters, and animals all trigger a failure mode in human moral judgment, which is that we conflate the signals from the empathy system we use to guess when suffering is happening to other humans with suffering itself. It’s a good and necessary thing that the system can work along with our imaginations this way –the alternative would require we teach people how to avoid hurting others like we do the multiplication tables– but when it’s applied to invalid targets, it also results in calls for artistic censorship, belief in voluntary extinctionism, and opposition to efficient food production.

    There are other arguments that can be made on all of these subjects, but it’s no more valid to argue against factory farming based on emotionally projecting yourself into a chicken than it is to argue against Grand Theft Auto based on emotionally projecting yourself into one of its polygon structures.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I agree with this completely. I am opposed to factory farming. But the reason I pay for cage-free eggs isn’t because I naively projected myself into a chicken. It is because I read some neuroscience that seemed to indicate that the pain-feeling structures in a chicken’s brain were similar enough to mine that I should assign a reasonable probability to chickens feeling pain.

      I do agree that this failure mode appears in animal rights a lot. For instance, a lot of animal rights people seem to attribute complex human motivations like a desire to not be “exploited” and a desire for status and class equality to animals. This seems like obvious anthropomorphism to me, I do not see any solid scientific evidence for these motivations, except in a few very human-like animals like chimps.

      Another example of this failure mode is gourmet pet food, where people project the status-feelings they get from consuming positional goods onto animals that are obviously not feeling them.

      • Jared says:

        That’s one of the things I have against some animal rights activists. If your main concern is preventing animal pain, then you should love zoos. They keep animals safe and well fed in exchange for some concept of “freedom” that I’m pretty sure animals don’t have. Taking this to it’s logical conclusion, all animals should be in zoos. That’s not practical right now, but it could be in the future. In the end, we’re going to have to ask ourselves what’s more important, animal autonomy or reducing animal suffering. I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.

      • verdant says:

        That’s pretty much exactly my position. Growing up with pets and in a fairly rural area, I’ve been around animals enough to be quite certain that there is some level of consciousness/sentience there (varying based on species, of course- and I mean, I can’t prove that, but I can’t outright disprove solipsism either, and it’s a similar question IMO.) The science on the subject, so far as I’ve followed it, would seem to back this up (animal consciousness hasn’t been proven, no, but, well, aside from the “disproving solipsism” issue, given that eliminative materialism is a position that seems to be taken relatively seriously, human consciousness seems to run into a lot of the same issues)- and it certainly makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that our own sentience came from somewhere, rather than springing up out of the ether. Since consciousness/sentience/ability to feel would be my measure of what gives something moral worth, it seems to me that there is a moral imperative to avoid cruelty, at the very least, and therefore factory farming in its current form is a very bad thing, in my view.

        Nevertheless, I think trying to apply exactly the same moral standards to animals as we do to humans is foolhardy. I think you’re right about the problems with trying to apply complex human motivations to animals- a particularly vivid example of that, in my view, are the (possibly apocryphal?) cases of animal rights groups granting lab animals “freedom”… into habitats that they can’t survive in. Assuming that actually happened, that’s an example of that degree of anthropomorphism actually causing harm to animals, and is kind of why I’d say I support animal welfare rather than animal rights- the latter, IMO, tends to lead to a way of approaching the issue which is actually often not particularly good for the animals themselves.

  92. Ron says:


    You want to rewrite this in a more accusatory way so I can share it with people and they will read it? =)

  93. Ryan Carey says:

    The solution must be to write a comment that you’ll regret about charity on the effective altruism forum!

  94. JohnMcG says:

    I’m not so sure I’m completely on board…

    As other have noted, the UVA case was not *supposed* to be controversial. It seems pretty clear to me that the credibility problems were a bug and not a feature. It had worked its way through the news cycle before some whispers started that there were some aspects of it that appeared to be poorly reported. Indeed, it was too perfect.

    To take another example, the issue of gun control seems to only rise to prominence in relation to school shootings, which would seem to be the area of least controversy. In contoversial cases, like Trayvon Martin, the topic was “stand your ground” laws, not gun control.

  95. JB says:

    Can someone explain why people are mad about PETA about this? They’re offering a positive-sum trade; it’s a trade between free water bills and the status quo. And besides which, there’s a limited number of people whose water bills they can afford to pay, so they may as well pay for the vegans first, since that’s the thing they’re trying to encourage. Why don’t the people who are angry about PETA’s generosity offer to pay the water bills for everybody who PETA isn’t covering?

    • Jiro says:

      JB: Would you feel the same if it was poor people having their water bills paid if they converted to Christianity? Or if they agreed to oppose gay marriage?

      • Daniel H says:

        I think a fairer comparison might be “go to Church at the appropriate times, including Chistmas, Easter, etc.”. Converting to Christianity is an expression of beliefs, whereas I’m fairly sure you’re allowed in Church (for most denominations) even if you don’t identify as Christian. Similarly, PETA is paying water bill for actions, even if you generally think animals are evil and all of them should be driven extinct except for a small breeding population for food. I’m against it because actions generally lead to beliefs in humans.

      • JB says:

        (sorry for the late reply; probably nobody will read this).

        I think my gut reaction would find it kind of skeezy for Christian groups to do that. But thinking about it carefully, many religious groups offer free services to the poor, like soup kitchens, food banks, clothing donations, safe housing, education, and other charitable programs. And to me that represents the best and most positive contribution that religious groups can make, and an effort that I broadly support even though it probably results in a lot of poor desperate people associating Christianity or other religions with positive feelings, helping hands, and a caring community. I call that fair play, and any positive affect and supporters that organized religion gets from those kind of efforts is well-deserved and justly earned.

        I think the negative reaction against PETA comes in part from a deep failure to properly appreciate the circumstances of a desperate Detroit family who has *nobody* offering to pay their water bills.

        • Anonymous says:

          Most charity is not purely delivery of food, but also involves an opportunity to pray, if not a demand for prayer, though almost never a demand for conversion. And most charity is within the community: it is assumed that the recipients are already (say) Christian, not in need of conversion, but in need of encouragement, in need of a reminder to pray. And probably desiring the reminder.

          Yes, missionary work usually involves charity, and yes, the purpose is to associate the religion with wealth, but it is also for mere exposure to practice of the religion.

        • JB says:

          It occurred to me that what I really wanted to say is that, if any of the Detroit poor are complaining about PETA’s tactics, then I will change my mind and condemn PETA too. If they feel like they’re being extorted and that the whole issue would be fine if PETA would just go away and stop offering them this deal that they don’t want, then PETA would seem to be in the wrong. But if the complaints are only coming from people who aren’t facing water bills themselves, like presumably the vegan holding the poster in the photo, then I’ll have to stand by PETA on this one.

    • Daniel H says:

      I agreed with this comment while reading the original post, but I found some of the discussion under the first comment of this post quite convincing that it could actually be a problem (they are in effect buying political beliefs, not just animal lives; imagine if they were paying for votes instead of diets). I’m sure a lot of the anger is caused by them not helping everybody (which nobody would notice if they didn’t pay anybody’s bills, just like nobody complains about (random fortune 500 company…) Exxon Mobil not paying Detroit water bills), but some of it actually makes sense.

  96. T. Greer says:

    I think you have missed something with Ferguson and its path to prominence.

    In its original form Ferguson controversy had two dimensions. The first was the shooting itself. This seemed to get lots of local attention and sparked the early protests, but it was not what made it a national issue.

    The second was the heavy-handed, “lets send in a battalion of police officers who look like they came from Iraq and a police tank for good measure” response to these protestors. I had heard absolutely nothing about Ferguson until this happened and it was this second problem that seemed to be driving all the social media outrage.

    So under this model: Ferguson shooting happens, only gets local attention –> Ridiculous and oppressive police response brings national attention —> Once the issue is nationalized it is politicized and becomes one of Scott’s “referendums on everything” —> social justice/progressive types are now stuck championing a less than ideal victim of injustice that they might not have chosen themselves.

  97. Ryan says:

    It’s fun watching SA’s slow decent into the Cult of Moldbug.

    “I have always said, the first Whig was Moloch.”

    – SA, March 3, 2029

  98. mushroom says:

    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.”

    We should think in more detail about the psychological needs that are met by controversy-seeking behaviors, and see if any of these needs can be better met in some other way. Not all the factors that fuel political dysfunction are intractable:

    Actionable Need 1: People feel a need to forecast future changes to in-group opinion, and political controversies are useful for this purpose. When a behavior is motivated by this need, it can be modeled as gossip: Something that allow us to covertly query and coordinate pending shifts in in-group opinion, without any single person taking risky unilateral action. A tell-tale sign of this need is a demand that everyone must participate in providing their opinion on some controversy. We can predict that this need will be more acute when a group has experienced rapid change, when there is little central coordination, or when the in-group punishments for non-coordination are greater. I think this describes “Internet social justice drama” absurdly well, as well as the tendency of mass-participation revolutionary movements to devour themselves.

    This is the low hanging fruit for left-leaning groups. These groups should stop picking at the scabs of insecurity in their members, and temper their obsession with the vanguard.

    Actionable Need 2: People feel a need to monitor the (maybe secret!) actions of the out-group. Controversies (or rather, the out-group response to a controversy) are seen as more revealing of the hidden tendencies of the out-group.

    This is probably the low hanging fruit for right-wing groups. I don’t know what to do about it. From the outside, it will look like paranoia: Socialism, Obama’s birth certificate, the war on Christmas, the “Left wing agenda”, the Cathedral, etc. Since few actual right-wingers are probably reading this, I will phrase the advice for left-leaning actors: Look at the internal dysfunction of left-leaning groups. Can you understand some of the unease that any reasonable person must feel when they reflect on the ascendancy of these groups? Although this worry is sometimes expressed in bizarre ways, the worry itself is grounded in legitimate concerns about the chaotic nature of the left. I hope that someone with more experience with right-wing groups can comment on what such a group might do internally.

    If left-leaning groups can deal with their insecurity, and right-leaning groups can be made less paranoid, then I think we find fewer people are drawn to particular types of controversies in the first place.

  99. cassander says:

    I think your analysis in the last part is off. say there was a secret progressive cabal. when they got together to pick stories, they’d have all the same biases and prior beliefs that individual progressives do now. and the individual progressives are the ones choosing to push stories like the UVA “rape.” That story was selected for all sorts of reasons, but chief among them was that it fit many of those biases to a T. I say it’s exactly the sort of story the progressive cabal would run with, because it’s political, which means it’s about raising the status of the right sort of people and lowering the status of the wrong sort of people, not stopping rape. Which is not to say that the progressives aren’t opposed to rape, just that the tribal monkey brain tends to win in the long run.

    A cabal might screen out the worst cases, do a bit more due diligence, but the effect would be pretty marginal. Worse, even if the cabal itself was rational, for a story to have a serious effect, it has to catch on with the public, which means that it has to trigger their tribal monkey brains, and blander but truer stories won’t do that.

  100. Christian Kleineidam says:

    For a more detailed analysis of the incentives of the blogging industry Ryan Holiday’s “Trust me, I’m lying” is very good. Ryan was among others PR manager for American Appeal and did PR for Tucker Max.

  101. Simon says:

    Echoes the arguments McChesney made against ID politics in American Cultural Studies.

  102. There is an argument that rape claims gets covered more by media after it has been shown to be false. In particular, in the UVA case, many more news sources covered the situation after Rolling Stone’s retraction than before it. Now, it is possible that they would have covered it anyways and were simply getting around to it. But this is suggestive, and is an obvious alternative hypothesis than the idea that people are deliberately focusing on the ambiguous cases.

  103. Lesser Bull says:

    You need to include a link to one of your depression med posts at the end of this one.

  104. I have to admit I’m another one of those people who didn’t get the outrage against PETA (your blog post was the first I’d heard about it, so perhaps it’s the neutral tone you present it with), but some of the comments here have shed some light on it. I still think outrage is way overdoing it, but I think I understand where it comes from, which helps. That’s usual what I find most important about controversies: Figuring out what angle the opposition is coming from that brought them to their conclusions. Sometimes this opens me up to sharing their point of view; sometimes (as in this case) it doesn’t.

    But mostly I wanted to say thanks for the article. It touches on a few subjects I’ve thought about in similar ways before, but would never have thought to bring together so articulately before. I wish I could have your way with words.

    I run a few assumptions in life:

    1) people are generally not terrible, even if they may say the one or other terrible thing,
    2) communication is incredibly difficult, moreso because it seems easy; often if we want the same things but because of the way we talk about them, it sounds like we don’t (often because issues will conflate two things that people can care about, and both sides will care about both things, but prioritise them differently).
    3) we’re currently in a communicative transition zone, because the internet has increased the speed of information to a critical level. As a species, we’re still learning how to handle the medium.

    (Those are not all of my assumptions in life, but they’re the ones relevant for the article. In fact, I can’t think of any other ones right now, but that’s because it’s almost two in the morn– oh good grief. Scott. What have you done to me?!)

    But I never thought to mash those things together; and now you have, and the result is pretty fantastic.

    I should admit that unlike you I’m optimistic about the future of all this, but I would say this is something that still has some maturation ahead of itself, to say the least. If I had to compare my abstract mental image with something, I’d say it’s a bit like a phoenix – it needs to self-immolate to truly reach its potential. Which, in turn, sounds much more dramatic than what I vaguely imagine might eventually mark the end of the aforementioned communicative transition into more peaceful waters. I picture as an anticlimactic event no one really notices, but that just kind of happens.

    And I genuinely think blogs like this one help nudge it into its mature direction. Obviously not single-handedly; not by a large margin. But this is also an ecological niche, and I think it has a lot of potential for enduring in the memetic jungle.

    (I feel like I need to be punished for the gratuitous use of abstractions and metaphors in this post. I hope something can be gleaned from it, regardless. If not, I’ll gracefully dodge responsibility by pointing out that by now it really is two in the morning (OK, -9 minutes) and I need to be up in five hours.)

  105. Bartek_Bialy says:

    I wonder about motivations. Is it that we’re trying to voice our pain but in a manner, that seems to me to be unlikely to result in having our needs met? (And that way stimulating pain in others so it moves like a domino). Or is it the “contribution-acceptance” axis of needs but satisfied through the group competition? Perhaps each case is different.

    In my opinion there are strategies for peace but you would need to work on a case-by-case basis. Try to iterate through seven billion people…

  106. me says:

    Did you write this in a vain attempt to actually attract more traffic to your charity posts?

  107. Airgap says:

    What if this is a sign that people already care enough about stuff?

    The hidden premise in the PETA Principle is that IF you want to spread your cause further, you have to sabotage it by being an asshole. Obviously, the cause-bearer wants to spread his cause all the way, and thinks nothing of the consequences. But what about the interests of humans in general? Maybe, collectively, we already care enough about all the bad things. We’ve reached the point of diminishing marginal returns for caring.

    If so, we come to an interesting conclusion: the activists running afoul of the PETA Principle aren’t trapped in an impossible situation between letting the cause fail and being an asshole. They’re just assholes. Sociopathic defectors trying to spread their cause for fame, fortune, prestige, and psychic satisfaction, with no interest in whether this is a good thing overall.

    Now, if you’ve ever met these sorts of people, you realize this fits them to a t. Regular readers may recall the exchange between Scott and Arthur REDACTED, but examples abound. We’ve all excused them in the past on the grounds that The Cause Is Just. Maybe we were just wrong, and they were using this confusion to take advantage of us the way sociopathic assholes do.

  108. Pasha says:

    My theory is that some religious leaders of the past tried to “warn” or lessen the impact of memetic evolution on people’s actual life. Tao Te Ching tried to just go with “those who know don’t talk, those talk don’t know” and a few other prohibitions against languages. Buddhist Sutras have a broad view of freedom from the five skandhas, with linguistic memes [probably] belonging to skandha #3 – conception. Buddhism, unlike Taoism, puts a strong emphasis on setting up counter-memes of its own. The Diamond Sutra is an example of a counter-meme, which says: “spread me and get merit” and talks about “unreality of concepts and ideas.” The Buddhist formula of “X is not X but is merely called X.” Counter-memes are, of course, dangerous in that they can become the very thing that they were meant to defend against. To help avoid that, “freedom even from these words” and “use your own judgement” is part of the counter meme.

    We probably keep re-discovering memes and Moloch, but they were likely known by other names, Maya, demons, etc. And while we are anthropomorphizing complex evolving distributed systems, how do we know memes aren’t sentient in some way?

    • Anonymous Cowherd says:

      There’s a view floating around the NRX community that “real” Christianity (in the Early Church sense) was a horrifically corrosive meme that literally destroyed civilization, and that the Catholicism of the Dark and Middle Ages was a containment system set up to prevent it from wrecking what was left of order.

      The containment lasted about 1000 years*, at which point the virulent form of the meme escaped the pages of the New Testament and promptly caused three hundred years of really awful wars.

      I’m not sure if there are any practical lessons here, as stuffing literacy back in the bottle again and forcibly cloistering all the intellectuals is unlikely to be feasible this time, but it’s interesting to consider (that chunk of) history memetically as not just meme combat, but meme containment.

      *I think I just identified the Beast chained in the Pit for 1000 years. This would explain some things about the present era….

  109. Dan Simon says:

    About thirty years ago, I formulated “Gresham’s law of Usenet”, which stated that “bad postings drive out good”. In other words, if one posted a sane, sensible, reasonable remark, readers would nod sagely in agreement and move on. But if one posted a completely ludicrous, offensive and confrontational attack on a previous remark, dozens of trolls (although I don’t think the term was used back then) would come out of the woodwork and respond in an equally ludicrous, offensive and confrontational manner, each setting off a similar response, and so on, until battles among ludicrous, offensive and confrontational posters were all that one could reasonably hope to find. Needless to say, this dynamic has now carried over into blogs and social media.

    That explains why angry, unproductive arguments dominate those media, but it doesn’t explain why divisive, polarizing stories dominate. After all, people can say ludicrous, offensive and confrontational things about just about any subject–so how do certain subjects come to dominate? Here, I think our host misses a key factor: what the confrontational topics share is a fact pattern that lends itself more or less equally well to two completely different interpretations, depending on one’s prior biases. Michael Brown was either an innocent bystander gunned down by a racist cop, or a seasoned hoodlum who started a fight with an arresting officer and lost. (Similarly for Travyon Martin.) And PETA is either a creepy cult luring converts by promising cash to the desperate, or a high-minded nonprofit using donated cash to promote high-minded behavior. In these cases, where two diametrically opposed interpretations of the same facts are competing for dominance, it’s not surprising that a great many people chime in loudly, often and aggressively, hoping to score a “win” for their preferred interpretation by adding their voice to the cacophony. In cases where the narrative isn’t in significant dispute, on the other hand, there’s no need to compete to establish one’s preferred one, and therefore no need to chime in.

    Of course, in reality volume doesn’t really “win”–the individual case ultimately gets resolved by the appropriate legal or political processes, and the larger issue gets debated over years or decades, and more or less resolved one way or the other (or perhaps oscillates back and forth between two or more resolutions over time), based on collective experience, interests and preferences. But few people have the sense of perspective to hold their tongues in the heat of the moment, when it seems that at least half the country has completely “misinterpreted” a recent event.

  110. JR says:

    I recently decided to start regularly giving to charity more or less because of your discussions about it on here, though the immediate catalyst was a couple of posts on Thing of Things.

    But at least from my own subjective perspective, that doesn’t seem like the main impact reading your blog has had on me. In any case, it seems murkier than you let on to determine what kinds of posts make the biggest difference. It could do a lot of good if a post about the principle of charity or the typical mind fallacy reaches someone and they start evaluating arguments a little better forever after that. Or one of your posts informed by game theory could help someone realize what it means for a problem to be structural, and then at least they’d have a shot at identifying the right kinds of solutions.

    Crudely, the groups you can reach in these cases are (1) people who want to effectively give money to charity but lack certain useful tools you can share with them to do so, and (2) people who want to better evaluate arguments and solve problems but lack certain useful tools you can share with them to do so. Since (2) is probably a much larger group than (1), it could end up mattering more.

  111. Philippe Saner says:

    I like a lot of what you’re saying here, but I think you’re off-base on the Ferguson situation.

    It was already blowing up before any of the controversy showed up. There was at least one major petition running before any of the “he stole cigars, therefore it’s okay to murder him” BS came out. Partly because he was young, and unarmed, and apparently had a promising future. Partly because it was a very clear-cut murder, with eyewitnesses. But I think mostly because the black population of Ferguson was fed up with their monstrously corrupt and racist police force.

    This is a common pattern in controversy; the problem builds for years and then explodes as soon as it gets a spark. Think of the Penny Arcade “dickwolves” controversy. That particular comic wasn’t so awful by Penny Arcade standards, but it opened the floodgates and a whole lot of unspoken irritation with Penny Arcade spilled out.

    Take the dickwolf scandal, replace being unpleasant on the internet with racist oppression and a rape joke with a murder, and you have something a lot like Ferguson.

  112. Hi Scott (and others).

    If Tumblr is an environment prone to this sort of factionalism and non-constructive debate, what would the opposite be like? ie. conducive to reasonable group discussion and truth-seeking without the social signalling. Could we construct such an environment?

    • Anonymous Coward says:

      I don’t think that’s a lofty goal. It just takes strict moderation and a self-selected group of reasonable people who want to have good discussions. There are a bunch of heavily moderated discussion subreddits that have what I think you’re looking for. And there’s this place, of course.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        I disagree. Moderation doesn’t scale well, but tumblr’s outrage generator scales like whoa.

        You can build small communities without that infrastructure (as long as they stay below Dunbar’s number, then there are individual reputations) but once they get too big, you need it baked-into the design.

    • Philippe Saner says:

      I think any space that’s not too public would work fine. Just get a few people who value reasonable and honest discussion in there to start and the culture will grow around them.

  113. Salem says:

    I think the major problem is you posit a level of agreement that simply doesn’t exist.

    [P]retty much everybody who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it. There is pretty much zero room for PETA to convert people from pro-factory-farming to anti-factory-farming, because there aren’t any radical grassroot pro-factory-farming activists to be found. Their problem isn’t lack of agreement. It’s lack of publicity… Everybody hates rape just like everybody hates factory farming.

    This is way off-base. Everyone hates rape, but lots of people simply don’t care about factory farming. Animal rights people like to pretend the problem is lack of publicity (it’s a comforting story), but in reality most people know about factory farming and just don’t agree that it’s a salient moral issue. There’s no need for pro-factory-farming activism, because factory farming isn’t threatened. Similarly, the fact that (almost?) no-one describes themselves as a pro-pornography activist doesn’t mean that everyone hates pornography, or that the only reason Mary Whitehouse didn’t succeed was lack of publicity. In fact, this attitude that “everyone would agree with me if only they knew the truth” is part of the reason animal rights activists are so widely despised (yes, I know it’s not all of them).

    Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

    But we don’t all want these things, once they are no longer pitched at a rarified level of abstraction. Many of these bogeymen are only seen as universally negative because you have chosen negative-affect terms. People on the left love green subsidies (that’s corporate welfare) and the deliberate creation of majority-minority Congressional districts (that’s gerrymandering). What I call wasteful government spending is what you call a vital service. Everyone wants to simplify the tax code, but no-one agrees what that means.

    the controversial nature of this particular campaign against police brutality and racism made white people like their local police department even more to spite the people talking about how all whites were racist.

    This is a super-uncharitable reading.

    Overall, and this is a repeated theme in your work, you see people who deeply, fundamentally agree but are tragically torn apart by the vicious forces of ‘Moloch.’ I think you need to take far more seriously the idea that people fundamentally disagree about all sorts of things, and that it’s the miracle of modern Western norms and society that we have merely some minor slanging matches on tumblr rather than the historical norm of violent repression. Moloch is our friend.

    • Anthony says:

      There’s no need for pro-factory-farming activism, because factory farming isn’t threatened.

      Not quite. There’s no(t much) need for pro-factory-farming activism because factory farming makes money. If people’s tastes changed to the extent where people weren’t willing to buy factory-farmed meat or eggs at a price that made the farmers a profit, they’d stop. People don’t factory-farm out of a an abstract principle in favor of it, and there are almost none who would give it up if they found it more profitable to do otherwise.

      Similarly, the fact that (almost?) no-one describes themselves as a pro-pornography activist doesn’t mean that everyone hates pornography

      almost noone. Pornography has such a negative emotional connotation that it’s really rather hard to defend it as a positive good if you’re attempting to actually convince people. It’s much easier to defend it as part of the general principle of free speech, or letting people alone, or to attack laws against it by exploiting the fuzziness of the boundary, etc.

    • K. says:

      Yes, I agree pretty strongly with most of this. The inclusion of “stopping prison rape” as something we all want particularly jumped out at me – I assure you, I have run into plenty of people who are actively against stopping prison rape. They think it’s what criminals deserve, and if you don’t want it to happen to you then you shouldn’t commit crimes. They regard the statement “we should work harder to ensure that people in prison aren’t sexually abused” as a slap in the face to victims of crime.

      I regard prison reform as one of the most important human rights issues going on today, but I don’t talk about it in person with anyone I don’t know very, very well, and this is why. It’s not just because I can’t get people to agree on specific proposals for stopping prison rape, or that they don’t agree that there’s a lot of it, or that I can’t get them to agree that specific incidents are awful. It’s that they often don’t agree that the welfare of prisoners is a thing worth caring about at all.

      Incidentally, prison rape is a good example of why this:

      “Rape culture” doesn’t mean most people like rape, it means most people ignore it.

      …isn’t exactly true. Yes, if you ask people “what do you think of rape?” they will all say it’s awful. But when you start bringing up certain specific categories of nonconsensual sex, you’ll hear different opinions, and those sometimes actually do include being actively in favor of it, or at least actively opposed to the idea of taking any measures at all to stop it.

      • Anonymous Cowherd says:

        This includes, BTW, some SJWs who think it’s awesome that some white males have to live for years terrified of being raped.

    • You’re right how great an achievement it is for disagreement to take the form of debate rather than violence or repression. Pretty easy to forget when we’re living in the bubble. But Moloch doesn’t refer to Western society. In what way is Moloch ever good?

  114. T. Asharsson says:

    Scott, when you tag these essays with regret, does it imply also that you don’t completely agree with the opinions therein, or that you’re likely to change your mind, or something?

    • coffeespoons says:

      I would think it’s that he agrees with what he’s saying, but it might not be pragmatic to e.g. criticise feminism in public, instead of keeping his criticisms to himself. Later he might think that he should have kept quiet.

      • T. Asharsson says:

        So would Scott agree that he’s probably not going to change his mind from what he says? (E.G. Not go any more right or left on issues.)

  115. anonymous says:

    there’s a tumblr post going around, making fun of this phenomenon, that says “reblog if you saw goody proctor with the devil, ignore if you’re a bride of the devil”

  116. Bree says:

    I remember a few facebook posts of “Why aren’t you talking about Ferguson! You must be racists!” That was pretty jaw-dropping.

    A good friend of mine worked for a newspaper in the 90’s. He became very disillusioned about the choices of stories published. He said working at that newspaper is the only reason he knew that the Al-qaeda declared war on the US in 1996, because very few news outlets actually reported on it, including the paper he worked for. You’d think that would have been, you know, important. Curious why this was largely ignored given this “toxoplasma” thesis on what drives media attention. I suppose you could say that the unrest in the middle east was no longer controversial or interesting news, even when the US was in a state of war with some self-proclaimed revolutionaries?

  117. Another example you don’t mention is climate controversy, which I spend too much time involved in online. What’s striking is the amount of it that is on the extremes. Critics try to argue that the world isn’t warming (the data have been “adusted”) or that there no reason to think humans are responsible. People on the other side claim that Earth will become uninhabitable, at least for humans and possibly for all life, if we don’t do something immediately if not sooner.

    The alarmists, and the less extreme people in that direction, read the critics’ posts and conclude that anyone who disagrees with their orthodoxy is an ignorant fundamentalist, or possibly in the pay of the oil companies. And respond on that assumption. The critics, and the less extreme people in that direction, read the alarmist quotes and conclude that anyone who thinks global warming is a problem is an end of the world nut. And respond on that assumption.

    And when I observe people attacking me on the grounds that since I said something critical about end of the world people I must not believe in AGW, I conclude that they are obviously nuts, and respond accordingly. And similarly in the other direction.

    • drs says:

      “People on the other side claim that Earth will become uninhabitable, at least for humans and possibly for all life, if we don’t do something immediately if not sooner. ”

      Hey look, an unquantified plural. Which people, and how many? I’ve seen some such myself, but most people I see worrying about AGW worry about shocks to our food supply, health, and civilization, not uninhabitability for humans.

  118. At a less pessimistic tangent …

    I’ve long thought that the love of controversy could and should be harnessed for educational purposes. Have a course with two teachers, one of whom is on one side of some controversy (capitalism/socialism, religion/atheism, climate alarmism/climate skepticism) and one on the other. Each gets half the class for a month, and is free to do whatever he wants to persuade them of his view. Then they switch classes. During and after, students from the two classes interact.

    An idea encouraged by the amount of time and effort I have spent into looking into one question or another in order to respond to arguments against my position.

    • BenSix says:

      That sounds fun.

      Robert P. George and Cornel West‘s classes must be interesting to watch. Ed Feser and Hugo Schwyzer also used to be colleagues which must have been interesting. (“I compare George Tiller to Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ed compares the assassinated physician to Jeffrey Dahmer.”)

    • houseboatonstyx says:


      Discussion of an extreme claim of either side, collapses into ad hominem (often Bulverizing). Imo a better approach would be, to demote the big picture into background, and consider any separate current proposed action according to its own costs/benefits, with each cost and each benefit weighted according to its probability.

  119. SUT says:

    The PETA offer isn’t offensive at all framed another way – as a scholarship to existing vegans in detroit. Just as the Catholic church can pay a cost of living fee for its missionaries or members.

    What’s offensive is pitting someone’s basic survival need (water) against their right to disa