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OT15: Open Relationship

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. I’m off to California, so no blogging for a while. I’ll see some of you at Ruby and Miranda’s wedding on Saturday. Everyone else, I will have a post on meetup times up no later than this weekend. Yell at me if I forget.

2. Comments of the week: Douglas Knight explains heritability statistics, Gwern gives an economics answer to a statistics question, a health care economist discusses why it’s a weird market and how to improve it

3. I think I have room for another ad of about the same size and shape as the MealSquare one in around the same area. If anyone wants to pay for such, email me with an offer. For comparison, the MealSquares ad has gotten about 700 clicks a month.

Remember, no race and gender on the open thread. Ozy will put up a parallel open thread over at their place for you to talk about that.

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793 Responses to OT15: Open Relationship

  1. If this was my blog, I would have called it “Open Threadlationship”.

  2. Kyle Strand says:

    Scott (I note that you have only posted once in this thread, over two weeks ago, so perhaps I will be forced to send you an email instead if you don’t reply, because I am assuming you are not notified of every single new comment):

    Did you invent the idea of Schelling Fences? I assumed this was a known game-theoretic concept, but my googling has so far only revealed that Schelling Points are a well-known phenomenon. I’m trying to write a post on Math.SE about the concept, and realizing that if you’re the first person to come up with the idea, I may (bizarrely) be the first to apply it to a standard game-theoretical type game, at least in a public google-able forum. (Note: as long as that post is, it’s woefully incomplete, and what’s there is in need of improvement.)

    (By “standard,” of course, I mean “not involving murder-Ghandi.” But really what I mean is that you were making a (primarily) sociopolitical point while I am trying to make more of a purely game theoretical point.)

    (One extra interesting thought: if, instead of the payout-per-decision-threshold growing exponentially, the probability-of-losing-per-decision-threshold shrank exponentially, would a Schelling Fence still be helpful?)

    Edit: html fix (I don’t really grok tags, but I really should have seen that coming anyway)

  3. Douglas Knight says:

    I was reading something Scott wrote and I was reminded of this comic (62 panels).

  4. Daniel Armak says:

    Link: the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology has banned P-values and/or NHST.

    Authors are still free to submit papers to BASP with P values and other statistical measures that form part of ‘null hypothesis significance testing’ (NHST), but the numbers will be removed before publication [….]

    We believe that the p < .05 bar is too easy to pass and sometimes serves as an excuse for lower quality research [….]

    Speaking to Nature, Trafimow says that he would be happy if null hypothesis testing disappeared from all published research: “If scientists are depending on a process that’s blatantly invalid, we should get rid of it.” He admits, however, that he does not know which statistical approach should take its place.

  5. Tab Atkins says:

    This has a good chance of qualifying as race stuff and thus should be deleted, so feel free to do so if you judge it warranted, but it’s also about some interesting stats stuff that I haven’t had time to dig into yet.

    Apparently, police shootings of black men went down 56% in the month after Mike Brown was killed: http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/nationaltrends/ The website is attributing this to protests making a difference in how police respond to black men.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The reduction in killings by police of blacks was greater than the general reduction, but it’s probably not meaningful. You could also suggest that the huge reduction in killings by police is due to protests. But it’s probably just the weather. You could correct for that by taking the ratio of police killings to civilian killings.

    • Oscar_Cunningham says:

      Regression to the mean. Just look at that graph. August was a huge peak and September was just a bit below the mean. Also, shootings that generate news stories are more likely to occur in months with lots of shootings. So I don’t think that graph tells us anything that we didn’t already know, except that, as it turns out, the protests didn’t reduce the number of shootings.

      • Troy says:

        Also, I presume there are more police killings in summer months, since there are more crimes in summer months.

  6. Pingback: Links & Misc #1 | Hypermagical Ultraomnipotence

  7. onyomi says:

    Re. the “motte and bailey” fallacy everyone’s come to love to hate recently, I was thinking: is there any reason one couldn’t use the more colloquial “bait-and-switch” to refer to basically the same thing?

    • Cauê says:

      They’re kind of opposite, aren’t they?

      In m&b the operator “wants to be” in the bailey, while in b&s they want to be in the switch.

      In b&s they start from the safer / less objectionable position, then move; in m&b they start in the more objectionable position, then move to the safe one when confronted.

      • onyomi says:

        I see what you mean. On the one hand, they seem to both entail using a less objectionable position to provide cover for a more objectionable position, the occupation of which, in either case, is the goal (since in M&B one wants to return to expounding the more objectionable position as soon as criticism abates, meaning, in either case, the end goal is occupation of the objectionable position).

        Maybe the fundamental difference is that B&S is an “offensive” strategy designed to lure new converts (like with cults which only tell you the crazier parts of the faith once you’re deep in), while M&B is a “defensive” strategy designed to deflect criticism?

        • Cauê says:

          Sounds right to me.

          I also agree that using “bait and switch” may be preferable when it’s not advisable to stop and explain what you mean.

          (I’m not a native speaker and wasn’t aware of ambiguity in the idiom)

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Motte and bailey has the advantage of an essay explicitly saying which is which, while it’s not clear whether the “bait” is desirable to the speaker or the listener. But in practice canonical sources do not actually promote clarity, either in this example or in general.

        In any event, I am strongly in favor of “bait and switch” solely on the grounds of familiarity.

  8. My recent conversations about futurist topics (vertical farming, active seti, space colonization, directed panspermia):
    https://citizensearth.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/this-week-is-a-bit-sci-fi/

  9. A Propos of nothing:-

    William Prynne’s Histrio-Matrix, the Player’s Scourge or Actor’s Tragedie (1632), a fat book of more than a thousand pages, which forms an admirable compilation of all the Puritan arguments against the theatre. The work is a classic of abuse and a monument to the misplaced scholarship and zeal of its author. Unluckily for Prynne he referred to women actors as ‘notorious whores’ meaning a group of French actresses who had appeared at Blackfriars in 1629; the reference was taken to apply to Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies who were about to perform a pastoral at Whitehall. She made a Star Chamber matter of it and Prynne was fined 35,000 pounds, set in the pillory, shorn of his ears, branded and imprisoned for life. The SL on his cheeks he construed as Stigmata Laudis and bore bravely; it is pleasant to know that the life sentence was revoked by the Parliament of the Commonwealth, for although Prynne was a small-souled and cantankerous zealot with a maggot about homosexuality, he was a courageous fighter and a master of invective

  10. Chris says:

    I love the comments and community here, but for the love of all that is right and holy, get some properly nested comment structure.

    • Kyle Strand says:

      Or switch to Discourse, with no nesting…..

      (I’m not entirely sold on Jeff Atwood’s conviction that nesting is always terrible, or, for that matter, on Discourse, but it’s at least as good as every other commenting system I’ve ever tried, including Disqus, which is saying something.)

  11. Newman Heathcote says:

    Somebody remind me: What’s the game plan for defeating Moloch again? Did anyone make an outline of that? Is there something I’m supposed to be doing?

    • Anonymous says:

      Polluting lakes so you can cut costs rox because you’re dead before the consequences matter

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      From “Meditations on Moloch”:

      And the whole point of Bostrom’s Superintelligence is that this is within our reach. Once humans can design machines that are smarter than we are, by definition they’ll be able to design machines which are smarter than they are, which can design machines smarter than they are, and so on in a feedback loop so tiny that it will smash up against the physical limitations for intelligence in a comparatively lightning-short amount of time. If multiple competing entities were likely to do that at once, we would be super-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it possible that we will end up with one entity light-years ahead of the rest of civilization, so much so that it can suppress any competition – including competition for its title of most powerful entity – permanently. In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it is on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

      In other words, Scott is banking on a friendly singularity. If you want to help, the standard advice is to make lots and lots of money and send it to MIRI (unless you happen to be very, very smart, in which case you should become a MIRI researcher).

      • zz says:

        Very, very smart people amongst Slate Star Codex commenters? Such a thing would be totally, absolutely, and in all other ways inconceivable!

        (I recall reading something to the effect of “if you’ve spent a great deal of time in a math graduate program, you may not feel like you’re good enough to make meaningful contributions, but that’s because you’re spending all your time around people in a math graduate program, about 0 of whom will be coming to work at MIRI, so at the very least come to a workshop and actually find out if can contribute—you may be pleasantly surprised,” although I can’t find that anywhere on their list of desired qualifications, which is where I expected it, so this may have changed.

        See also HPMOR’s March 2014 update (“And remember: To be a PC, you’ve got to involve yourself in the Plot of the Story. Which from the standpoint of a hundred million years from now, is much more likely to involve the creation of Artificial Intelligence or the next great advance in human rationality (e.g. Science) than… than all that other stuff. Sometimes I don’t really understand why so few people try to get involved in the Plot. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that the important things are accomplished not by those best suited to do them, or by those who ought to be responsible for doing them, but by whoever actually shows up.“).)

    • Mark says:

      Moloch is:
      A non-conscious system.

      Non-conscious systems require:
      1) No thinking.
      2) Thoughts being ignored.

      Solution:
      1) Think about what you are doing.
      2) Don’t do things you know to be wrong.

      Moloch as computer:
      People are worried that a super brain computer is going to start rewriting itself in all kind of funny directions that we can’t predict, and end up eating everyone.
      Seems to me that this is a fear about a system’s ability to adapt itself to feedback. Evolution.
      A fear about the rate at which a man eating process might evolve.

      Evolution. Evolution has to take place at a rate which is slow enough to enable it to pick up on feedback from the environment, yet at a rate fast enough that the feedback doesn’t blow up the medium in which the process exists.
      In the case of super-brain, we provide the feedback. That means that if the super-brain process evolves at a rate significantly faster than our speed of action, it (the process) simply won’t be able to pick up on anything we do to it.
      Result: one squashed process.
      In order to be a danger to us, the process has to exist on a human level.
      So now, the question is this – how likely is it that the super-brain’s evolutionary process itself will evolve (yes, the evolution of evolution) to operate on a human level? I would suggest it is *highly unlikely* for the reason that there can be no feedback to an evolutionary-rate evolution, unless we are deliberately going out of our way to create super-brains with different rates of evolution and then squashing all the ones that don’t have exactly the right rate of evolution (such that we cannot squash them).
      So here is the thing. A Moloch like human eating super-brain isn’t going to evolve randomly. A human, or something very much like a human, is going to have to decide to make it. Even then, by necessity, it will have to be at a similar level to us.

      So we should probably just worry about what people are doing.
      Solution:
      1) Think about what you are doing.
      2) Don’t do things you know to be wrong.

  12. Fire Ant says:

    I recently read “On Types of Typologies” and “We Are All MsScribe”. In the latter article I noticed that I disagreed with the conclusion. The article stated that the human species could be understood through the story of MsScribe; I think that the exact opposite (if I interpreted Scott’s statement correctly) is true, that our species would be best understood by its ability to cooperate. After reading “On Types of Typologies” I took the Five Factor test (high Openness, average Conscientiousness, low Extroversion, high Agreeableness, low Neuroticism; anyone wanna be friends with me? :)) and I noticed that while I scored high on Agreeableness, Scott wrote he had a low score there (“OCIDN”). Could there be a correlation here?

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m low Extraversion, low Agreeableness, low Conscientiousness, high Neuroticism and average Openness, so I’m an unpleasant, slatternly, curmudgeonly hermit who takes offence easily and is convinced you’re all talking about me behind my back.

      But at least I like art and music and Culture 🙂

      • Fire Ant says:

        Let me assure you, then, that I have not figured out yet how to get behind a person’s back on the internet, let alone talking to someone there 🙂

        • Deiseach says:

          OH, so you’re saying that you’re insulting me to my face? 😉

          About the only thing I ever take seriously from these kind of assessments is the introversion score; if they get that anyway accurate, I’ll believe it, but the rest of it – I mean, “agreeableness” can cover an entire spectrum of meaning (Do I interact civilly and even, at times, pleasantly with my co-workers? Yes. Do I hang out with them after work? No. So am I agreeable or not?)

          • Fire Ant says:

            For Agreeableness, Wikipedia says something about […] general concern for social harmony. That is far away from a mathematically exact definition and physically measurable unit. It probably also is not that notable on an introverted person, since… well, for obvious reasons.

            As for what to take seriously from any test, I do not feel that it is hard to just assess these for myself, given that I think I understand my personality quite well – under the condition that I interpret the factors correctly. Whether the categorizations make sense is another question, but Scott already discussed that in “On Types of Typologies”.

    • Irrelevant says:

      RE: Types of Typologies, Five Factor reliably calls me extroverted while MBTI reliably gives me a neutral. Even their introversion/extroversion appear to not mean the same thing.

      Of course, I’m a scorpio so I consider the whole thing bullshit.

      • Fire Ant says:

        Well, I do not give very much about it either, but I really do like finding patterns.

        As for inconsistencies between the tests: Wikipedia has a short section comparing both models, and links in a paper. According to that, MBTI-“Feeling” corresponds to Five Factor “Agreeableness”. This doesn’t line up on me either, since I am both “Thinking” and “Agreeable”. Anyway, I am studying physics, so I’m probably not the best person to evaluate that.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hey, is there any actual substance to the Netanyahu thing?
    I keep seeing stories about it, but AFAICT the stories are 100% “here’s why the Netanyahu thing shows that the political party I disagree with are universally horrible”.

    Why does it matter if Netanyahu talks to Congress? Politicians talk to other politicians all the time, it’s sort of their job. Why does it matter if Obama talks to Netanyahu? Et cetera.

    • Protagoras says:

      Basically, you don’t want foreign powers stirring up disputes between different domestic factions to advance their own interests. One of the methods for avoiding this is having the executive handle all negotiations with foreign powers, rather than letting different factions carry out individual talks with foreign powers. Obviously, there are exceptions, and some conversations are just goodwill related, etc., but pursuant to this general policy, it is standard practice to at least have the State Department involved in any high level contact with foreign governments. How big a deal it is that the Republicans violated this general policy is of course debatable, but they did violate established conventions, and the conventions do exist for a reason.

      • Airgap says:

        Netanyahu is addressing Congress, not talking to Republicans. Talking to Republicans would make more sense. Like, Netanyahu says “Ok, you guys are going to be in power next time, so let’s do some talks now so we can both hit the ground running.” Fair enough. I can see how State might want to be involved, but inasmuch as Kerry reports to Obama, I can also see why Republicans would want State out of the loop.

        Addressing congress, on the other hand…WTF? Dude, you have your own parliament where you can talk all day. Fuck off.

        On the other hand, for some reason we do it kind of a lot: http://history.house.gov/Institution/Foreign-Leaders/Joint-Sessions/. Whatever. I guess they can listen to Netanyahu if they want. At least it keeps them off the streets.

        The only thing is that as far as I can tell, POTUS has jack shit to do with joint meetings/sessions. His complaint is that they didn’t send him a memo or something (“without following protocol and advising President Barack Obama first”). It’s not like he had veto power. They basically denied him the opportunity to say “If you invite him, I’ll do some other thing you don’t want me to do.” Well, shit. Ball’s in your court, Barry.

    • gattsuru says:

      The controversy is less about the meeting, and more about how it was arranged. Joint Sessions are not unusual, and occur with fairly regular precedence.

      Firstly, the invitation was extended by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (Republican), rather than any member of the Executive branch. In the United States, only the President has the power to receive foreign ambassadors and some related foreign speakers, and while the explicit text enumerates only some foreign governmental speakers, it’s been read to include most foreign heads of state. No one has the standing to actually enforce this, but it is technically unconstitutional, and we’ve had hand-swatting on occasion before. In theory, it’s a violation of the Logan Act of 1799, but this law has only actually been used on a couple occasions, and only as a threat against members of Congress.

      This was further complicated by early versions of the story claiming that the White House had not been informed of the message even when Netanyahu had accepted it, though this seems to not be the case (see correction at bottom of here for an example). This wouldn’t have been different in final effect, but there’s viewpoint difference between what looks like openly inviting the man and trying to sneak him in. The meta-level rule isn’t vitally important, but there are reasons you might favor establishment use of external political actors.

      At a deeper level, it’s politics. The Israeli elections are coming up soon, and the current US Obama Administration doesn’t really like the Israeli Netanyahu Administration. The Likud (Netanyahu’s party) aren’t “conservative” in the sense that most folk online or in the US say “conservative”, but from an international perspective Likud preferences are more easily aligned with Republican party goals. At the same time, Iran’s nuclear program is of significant interest for pretty much everyone involved who has feelings about ionizing radiation, and the Obama Administration is currently in talks with the Iranian government about them, and Congress has been threatening to pass sanctions against Iran separately (the Menendez-Kirk bill). If you have strong feelings on any of these individual matters, then the object-level stuff rules.

  14. Adam Casey says:

    The best Supreme Court case I’ve ever encountered. Are fish tangible? Are they objects? Can you make a false entry into them? What does Dr Seuss have to say about all this?
    http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-7451_m64o.pdf

    • Airgap says:

      No wonder fish are so hard to pick up.

      Actually, I think you would regard the tank the (small) fish go in as the tangible object, and the fish as entries. So the government’s argument would be that throwing the fish away is like crossing out entries in your books and saying they never happened, which is illegal, and Yates’s argument would be “Dude, that’s securities law. WTF does that have to do with fishing? Are you all on crack or something?”

      So far, I basically agree with the government here. He probably doesn’t deserve to go to jail for 20 years, but he wouldn’t anyway (maximums are one thing, federal sentencing guidelines are another).

      • suntzuanime says:

        I’m inclined to take the side of the fisherman (and the Court), because by God it is securities law and treating a fish tank as a recordbook in which the fish are entries is asinine, but I think it’s a tough question. And the Court did split 5-4 on it.

        • Kyle Strand says:

          I would have thought that if anything this would fall under a more generalized “concealing evidence of wrongdoing” type law, but that just shows my ignorance of the laws that are actually on the books.

          That said, if the intent of the undersized-fish law is to prevent fishermen from overfishing undersized fish, then punishing fishermen for throwing them back overboard seems like the worst possible solution.

          • Airgap says:

            You appear to be under the impression that he caught the fish and threw them back of his own accord. In fact, he caught the fish and was apparently going to keep them when the coast guard investigated his boat, and ordered him to keep the undersized fish in a separate tank as evidence. Instead, he threw them away.

            Suppose instead of ordering the preservation of the fish, the coast guard had then and there weighed and measured all the fish, recorded the numbers in a book, and ordered him to deliver it to their local field office. Instead he burned it, claimed it was lost, and that he didn’t remember what was in it. Would it be fair to charge him with destroying records of evidence in a federal investigation? If so, why isn’t it fair if the coast guard decided to postpone writing the numbers down until they got into port?

    • I think the Court made the right call here, based on standard rules of statutory construction, including the rule that ambiguities in criminal laws be interpreted toward leniency.

      I’m guessing the prosecutor charged under this statute, rather than a more plainly applicable one, because this one prescribes a larger penalty. It’s overreach, like using RICO to prosecute ordinary business fraud.

  15. Calvin Liu says:

    I’m curious how people feel about businesses like Lumosity. In particular, I think what’s compelling and has a lot of upside is the dataset they’re building on human cognition experiments (every game is an interface to a small experiment). But I don’t have the vision to imagine what they might be able to do with this dataset 5 years, 10 years, 50 years out. In what direction should they take it to make it the most useful?

  16. A new Vox article (http://www.vox.com/2015/2/24/8101117/chart-scandinavians-take-a-lot-of-antidepressants-that-might-be-a) is very similar to a Slate Star Codex post on Scandinavian depression (https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/15/depression-is-not-a-proxy-for-social-dysfunction/).

    Slate Star Codex:

    “Going by “antidepressant prescriptions” is a terrible way to do things, because it mixes amount of depression with resources devoted to treating depression – if the Scandinavian health systems are as good as everyone says, maybe they just treat a greater percent of their depressives than everywhere else.”

    Vox:

    “So what’s going on? In fact, many different factors affect a country’s rate of antidepressant use. The prevalence of depression is just one of them.

    For instance, high usage rates could actually be a reflection of better access to mental health care.”

    Perhaps this is common knowledge, but in any case the articles did struck me as very similar.

    • Deiseach says:

      This interests me, since my cynical side thinks that the primary care referral to counselling instead of prescribing anti-depressants that our Department of Health has just rolled out has less to do with an epiphany about community mental health and much more to do with cutting the drugs bill under pressure from the Department of Finance, since Health is one of the areas that simply eats money, they regularly run massively over-budget, and the country is banjaxed doing simply splendidly under our wise and prudent government and the boom-time cash isn’t there anymore.

      So if Sweden has what is regarded as a good, well-funded, health system, why are they prescribing medication to their depressives instead of counselling? Or maybe they’re prescribing in tandem with counselling?

  17. Deiseach says:

    Seems to be an outbreak of swine flu spreading throughout India – on the presumption that this will be the next mass vaccination warning in Europe/USA, you may wish to start loading up on the Vitamin D as a prophylactic – mushrooms for the vegetarians/vegans and salmon, sardines, egg yolks and fortified milk, cheese and yoghurt for we omnivores 🙂

    Also exposure to sunlight, for those of you in a climate with sunlight at this time of year (if exposure to rain warded off disease, we Irish would be the healthiest people in the world).

  18. Fran Sansisko says:

    Everyone else, I will have a post on meetup times up no later than this weekend. Yell at me if I forget.

    It’s Monday and still no post, so consider yourself yelled at…

  19. Godzillarissa says:

    I’ve been thinking about getting into charity/effective altruism/giving, but it seems like a horrible idea, given my financial security. I’m not earning little, by any means, but I don’t really have much savings, so I feel like I should get my life together before commiting to helping others. The idea being that if I get my life together and then start giving, it will be more effective than doing both simultaneously.

    In my head that sounds reasonable, but I’m wondering if I might just tell myself that to not have to care right now. Also there seems to be an argument that ‘you have to start someday’ and giving a little bit right now is much better than a large sum later.

    So basically, I’m asking: What level of stableness (if any) should one have before considering to give to charity, and why?

    • Airgap says:

      Probably a fair amount of stability, but you might consider giving tiny, trivial amounts (like $1/month) to charity just in order to build up the habit.

      Shit, I may do this. BRB.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        I also thought about giving tiny amounts to build the habit. What makes me sceptical is that I let myself be talked into a WWF membership 2 years ago, so I’m already giving ~80$/year and I don’t feel like that’s building any habits.

        But maybe that’s just too automated to really feel like giving (they just take the amount once a year). Making a monthly ritual out of it, where I transfer a little amount and feel good about myself more often might just help. I’ve gotta read up on a few things first, but I guess that could be done : )

        • Airgap says:

          Exactly: you generate more positive feelings for less money. Isn’t that what effective altruism is all about?

          • Godzillarissa says:

            On the off chance that you really meant it as snarky as I first understood it:

            I didn’t plan on coming in under 80$/year by giving monthly, so I’d actually give more money for getting more fuzzies. And indeed, effective altruism should harness the power of warm fuzzies and handing out cookies to maximize its potential.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Exactly: you generate more positive feelings for less money. Isn’t that what effective altruism is all about?

            Fwiw, I honestly first saw that as meaning there would be more recipients to get positive feelings (plus the donor of course, and all middlemen along the line).

          • Airgap says:

            I honestly first saw that as meaning there would be more recipients to get positive feelings

            It does mean that; I have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Depending on where you put your savings, you might be interested in a long SSC entry or discussion a while back, which showed good figures on investing money now to let it grow, then donating the larger sum later.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        I put my savings in a metal box right now, as I have neither the amount nor the stability to start investing.

        Although I am digging through several how-to-invest/retirement-finance books right now, so maybe that article you mentioned would be a good addition to that (could you provide a link per chance?).

        Makes me think, how different is investing in different countries and how much does american advice apply to, say, Germans?

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Basic investing advice (“buy low, sell high,” etc) is pretty universal. However, specific advice, especially for long-term investing, could vary quite a bit depending on the tax structure of the jurisdiction you’re investing in.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Get used to giving up 10% of your income. But first, instead of donating it to charity, keep it in a bank account. That’s good advice REGARDLESS of whether you want to start doing EA.

      Then, once you feel more stable, and having a bank account where you stash 10% of your income and pretend you don’t have access to will help with that, start moving towards giving the 10% to charity.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        I’m already saving ~18% of my income every month and it is indeed good advice. The problem I face right now is just that issues keep coming up, so everytime I have an okay-ish nest egg someone wants money from me :/

        You made me think about putting up another account/metal box, though, where I could really simulate giving the money away. I might not start with 10% until my savings are super stable, but that might just be a good way to go about this.

        (Minor nitpick, though. My scrupulosity likes to turn your first sentence into “You must give 10% of your income to be a decent person”. It’s probably not what you meant and I feel sufficiently well-adjusted today to flip my scrupulosity off, so no harm done. Also, I don’t want to go all tone-police on you, just thought you might want to know.)

        • Airgap says:

          everytime I have an okay-ish nest egg someone wants money from me :/

          Lie to them. It’s for the greater good.

    • keranih says:

      So basically, I’m asking: What level of stableness (if any) should one have before considering to give to charity, and why?

      Dave Ramsey’s world view is likely to not resonate well with most readers/commenters here, but the advice he gives is sound. (Look it up.)

      His recommendation (and I agree) is that no matter your level of income, you could be doing worse, and there are people who are. Give 10%.

      Your responsibility to help out others is based on your relative greater time, talent or treasure in relation to those others, not on the absolute wealth you have.

      “Save, invest, and give later” isn’t bad – so long as you did give later. “A bird in the hand”, etc, etc. So if this “give later” is your plan, make sure it’s in your will.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        Thanks for pointing out Dave Ramsey. I had a quick look at google/wiki and he seems to have interesting things to say. I’m looking forward to look into his stuff.

        As for ‘responsibility’, I do not accept that as a universal given. Also, I resent pushy EA-types (or just pushy types in general).

        • keranih says:

          What are EA types?

          My phrasing was faulty, I should have said “IMO” re: responsibility. However, I’d be interested in hearing what you thought governed the responsibility to help others, if not a relative inequality in that moment regarding the need at hand.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            By EA-types I meant effective altruism people. Although I guess you could just count in anyone giving to charity. I didn’t mean you btw, it was more like screaming “don’t judge me” at everyone *shrug*

            Regarding responsibility, I’m just not sure there’s such a thing as a universal anything. As I see it, most of everything is governed by expectations, pressure and approval or lack thereof, which doesn’t make it right or natural or definitive.

            Although I do see a very strong point in how there’s a responsibility to help people that are worse off, I just don’t think that anyone should assert that as definitive.

            Now, before going back to screaming “don’t judge me!”, I will just say that fuzzies and handing out cookies work much better on me than ‘having a responsibility’.

    • Joe Teicher says:

      Being a good person is all about how you treat the people you actually interact with, not distant strangers. I’m an excellent person and I don’t give to charity.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        If you’re at all serious, please share you method of asserting your excellence.

        If not, what were alluding to?

      • Hari Seldon says:

        I’m a miserable wretch of a human being, but I do give to charity. Go figure.

        • Nornagest says:

          In light of this, I’m starting to wonder if self-assessed moral worth might be inversely correlated with charitability.

      • keranih says:

        I’m an excellent person and I don’t give to charity.

        Out of curiosity, what self-assessment tool are you using, to reach that conclusion? And do you have any third-party verification?

        I tend to use “charitable” to encompass a number of things, including passing on wealth/material goods to others. In my use, ‘charity’ is different from ‘barter’, and includes giving things to people who do not – and likely will never have – the ability to repay me. (Including some who will never have the inclination to do so, even if they had the ability.) This gifting includes both material and non-material things, like attention, forgiveness, and encouragement.

        (Well, on my good days. On my bad days I just sit on the bench with my bottle and ignore the people who try to talk to me.)

        • Peter says:

          “do you have any third-party verification?” – maybe this is the issue. Maybe if you act nicely to people you get feedback from, and don’t care about people you don’t get feedback from, and don’t reflect on the matter too much, then that’s one way to become convinced of your own excellence. Of course, there are less charitable readings of the situation but where’s the fun in that?

      • Deiseach says:

        Luke 6: 32-34

        32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.

  20. Ialdabaoth says:

    Behold, I exist!

  21. Whatevs says:

    Can we have a link to Scott Alexander’s writing about his own medical career? How he chose to go to Irish med school, etc. I am in the process of applying and am not interested in reading studentdoctor forums … Scott’s single anecdotal experience seems more applicable and relevant and more human than dozens of accounts by … the typical studentdoctor poster.

    • Airgap says:

      He’s also the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. Seriously, dude, get a second opinion.

  22. Noah Siegel says:

    Remember Kobani, the city Scott mentioned in The Categories Were Made For Man?

    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2015/02/21/Turkish-military-convoy-passes-through-Kurdish-controlled-Kobani-in-Syria/9071424574247/

    The Turkish military recently had to coordinate with Kurdish forces, who are their long-time rivals, to relieve Turkish troops guarding Kobani.

    I think there’s a lesson there about people recognizing the negotiability of borders, but I can’t quite latch onto it. Either way, interesting development.

  23. onyomi says:

    This relates to the academic job market question above but seemed sufficiently broad to merit a new thread, assuming anyone’s interested in discussing it:

    Is there much academic work or general philosophizing (perhaps even by Scott) out there about what makes something a “tournament”-style “winner-take-all” model as opposed to a more gradual curve of ability/reward ratio? The academic job market is definitely winner-take-all, as the margin between “tenured professor at Ivy League institution” and “unemployed” is much thinner than you might think. Of course, there is also polygamy, etc.

    It seems to me that much of human civilization is an attempt to minimize this kind of dynamic, as a great majority of people are, by definition, not the 1% who reap the big rewards. Monogamy, for example, seems an imperfect solution to problems like jealousy and the unfairness of the, in most cases more traditional, dynamic by which the chief gets all the women.

    Many critiques of capitalism seem also to boil down to this.

    But I guess there must be some advantages: in academia, the fiercer the competition the more likely people are to do good work, assuming they aren’t scared off. Similarly, the most successful male having the most children seems optimizing, though again, only if it doesn’t go so far as to drastically reduce the genetic variability and therefore resilience of the tribe. I guess there is some theoretically optimal point between “winner-take-all” and total decoupling of ability and reward (communism, I guess), and maybe that’s a market economy, but there also does seem to be an understandable desire to keep pushing away from “winner-take-all,” which might also explain the perennial appeal of socialism despite the fact that (in my view, anyway), it’s been thoroughly debunked by history and economics.

    That said, I feel like there should not be a perfect correlation between “winner-take-all” and “competitiveness”–like, it seems possible there could be a very competitive market in something in which there is still not a very steep ability/reward curve. Is there a way to have the (free market, competitive) cake and eat it (share the profit with a larger number of entrants) too?

    Globalization seems to make it tougher. Also, the deciding factor may be the nature of the product/service: the more scalable and transportable the more everyone in the globe can buy from the top producer only. This is a concern with Harvard and Yale offering hug online courses: the number of academic jobs–and therefore diversity of academic thinking–could further dry up due to everyone in the world having the opportunity to take a course taught by the academic “stars.”

    • Anthony says:

      The “winner-take-all” dynamic isn’t inherent to capitalism; it’s a function of a large oversupply of labor compared to the demand.

      • The “winner-take-all” dynamic isn’t inherent to capitalism; it’s a function of a large oversupply of labor compared to the demand.

        Yes! Given that reality, it’s hard to think of any alternative system (short of cutting up whole jobs into tiny little pieces and spreading them around) that would not be “winner-take-all.”

        • Anthony says:

          Oh, it’s not that hard. A communist system which assigned jobs to everyone could easily decide to eliminate the jackpot end of those sorts of jobs. In fact, the Communists in the Soviet Union sort of did do that with the arts, and with academia. If you were selected to be a performer, you got a certain amount of pay; stars may have been paid more, but not on the scale that American stars get paid. And if you weren’t selected to be a performer, you were assigned a different job, and that was that.

      • I think the winner take all pattern is a result of a production function where being a little better makes you a lot more valuable.

        Consider the market for musicians. In a world without mechanical reproduction of music, the fiftieth best piano player is still producing something of great value, since most people don’t get to hear any of the best players. In a world with mechanical reproduction of music, the top five piano players can provide music for everyone who want to listen to piano playing. The effect is softened a bit by the fact there are different styles and the tenth best player might be the best jazz player or something. But it still gives you much more of a winner take all effect.

        Similarly in lots of other contexts.

        • onyomi says:

          As I suspected, globalization and free trade are likely to increase the strength of this dynamic, which I guess in a way is just a logical extension of the division of labor (only the best people at x get to/have to do x), but it seems it could be damaging to art and creativity in the long run.

          For example, if JK Rowling had made only 10 million on the Harry Potter books, but the remaining hundreds of millions she made had gone to other sci fi and fantasy writers then she would have been very handsomely compensated, but we would also have a lot more interesting sci fi and fantasy out there. Of course, “money spent on sci fi and fantasy books” is not a fixed pool like that, and some who spent on Harry Potter would likely not have spent on an alternative, but it still seems like the massive global popularity of certain products might crowd out more local products. I’m generally very much in favor of globalization, free trade, etc., but this seems like an arguably pernicious side effect.

          • onyomi says:

            I do realize, of course, that the advantage for consumers is that everyone in the world gets to consume the very best the world has to offer, but at a certain point, maybe the world stops producing the best possible because the chance of a reasonably remunerative career in some area becomes like playing the lottery?

    • onyomi says:

      Another thought: I wonder if a cultural group’s propensity to pursue “winner-take-all” careers might correlate with poorer average life outcomes.

      Going to engage in a bit of stereotyping over-generalization here, but indulge me: lets say all the Asian kids in school are intent on becoming doctors, lawyers, and engineers, while all the black kids in school are intent on becoming professional athletes or musicians. The latter set of careers *can* be very lucrative, but only for a very tiny percentage of the most talented and hard-working. The former set, by contrast, are sufficiently non-winner-take-all and high demand that every Asian in the school could, theoretically, attain a good career in one of them. The groups which have a cultural propensity to pursue winner-take-all careers, then, will tend to be chronically underemployed on average, since many of them will be spending a lot of time training for careers they can’t have.

      Academia itself, of course, belongs with professional musician and athlete (though probably not *as* bad as the latter) in the “winner-take-all” category, but most of those groups who frequently go into academia also tend to value all sorts of education more generally, and so I cannot think of any particular ethnic, cultural, or racial group which would be negatively affected by that on a large scale. If one particular culture started to strongly value academic employment to the exclusion of education for other purposes, however, I can imagine that would actually have a negative effect on outcomes for that group.

      Maybe when Tiger Mom et al say “these groups are successful because they focus on education,” what they are really saying is “these groups focus on training for lucrative but non-winner-take-all careers”?

      • Harald K says:

        Well, there’s a point made in my favorite libertarian essay, which I think applies here. It’s David M. Levy and Sandra Pearl writing about the historical debate between paternalists/racists and people like J.S. Mill.

        To sum it up briefly, Carlyle argued that the former slaves are growing gourds to satisfy their own lowly carnal pleasures, the monsters, when they could produce Valuable goods of Culture and Quality like spices and sugar! To which Mill replies that, well, if they find growing gourds more valuable than slaving for you, then probably they have excellent reasons for doing so.

        It’s the humane side of Homo Economicus. Sure, we might say people don’t always respond predictably to economic incentives. But we should at least assume they respond equally rationally to it.

        And that gets me to your post: If it is indeed the case that African Americans pursue risky paths where Asian Americans pursue safe ones, well, they probably do it for good reasons that make sense to themselves.

        I’ve long argued (and also in the case of gender, but this is an open thread!) that if you really need to determine who has it worst in an absolute sense, look at who takes real risks. You don’t take risks in a game you’re on a safe and steady path to winning. Those who takes risks are those who feel – rightly or wrongly, but probably rightly granting the humanistic Homo Economicus model above – that they have little to lose and much to gain.

  24. John says:

    What do you guys think about UKIP? To get the conversation started I’ve posted a piece on why you shouldn’t vote UKIP. Any contrary opinion welcomed.
    https://therosethatgrewthroughconcrete.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/why-you-shouldnt-vote-for-ukip/

    • Irrelevant says:

      Personally, I’m strongly in favor of open borders, but your argument is so weak it makes me slightly more favorably inclined towards UKIP. You may want to work on that.

      Scrying after people’s motives and calling them fascists are not productive methods of argument, and they’re not going to move the audience the direction you want here.

    • Airgap says:

      I would be inclined to argue that you should vote UKIP since the political class is so inbred that anything that shakes it up would be good, except that Nigel Farage’s best friend in politics is George Galloway, so now I don’t know what to think.

    • Seladore says:

      Hmmm. I’m going to try to give you some honest feedback.

      I really disliked this essay. Not because I disagree with anything it’s saying, but because it’s pretty badly written, and doesn’t really add anything new.

      To start with, the whole thing is very clunky. (I don’t know if you’re a native English speaker?). There are lots of really bad sentences throughout, like

      “The frightening nature of social attitudes to immigration is one that has a significant subjective factor to it’s severity.”

      and

      “The proof by assertion is potent because it suggests that the mere prevalence of an argument suggests its validity rather than the arguments qualities per se.”

      It really needs someone to go over it and clean it up and make it readable.

      Secondly, I’m not sure what you’re really trying to say. Or what you’re wanting to add to the conversation. You seem to start with the premises that UKIP and Farage are racist, then the essay goes

      UKIP and Farage are racist -> racism is bad -> UKIP sucks.

      I mean, I broadly agree with these statements. But so what? Who are you writing this essay for? There is no real argument, and no new information added: just a series of applause lights that left-leaning people will broadly agree with. When you write “UKIP’s ideology is only dangerous as the crowd is stupid”, who do you imagine reading that sentence and being impressed?

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m not a UKIP fan by any means, because I think the last thing British politics needs is another right-of-centre/right wing party, but the assumption that this is more or less the British wing of the KKK is dangerous.

        Certainly, there probably are an element of those who would be Little Englander/nostalgia for Empire and even White Supremacist, but equally probably there are probably those who can’t find any alternative to the current lot: New Labour made itself as similar to the Tories as possible to be electable, the Lib-Dems have sacrificed themselves for power, and the Tories are, well, the Tories.

        Unless you’re going to vote for the Greens or some tiny splinter socialist party, what choice does someone who is a moderate conservative have?

    • Jaskologist says:

      Disclaimer: I know basically nothing about UK politics, so feel free to disregard or trash this as ignorant. But what I do know, and what you conspicuously ignore, can be summed up in the word “Rotherham.” Namely, that your immigration and police policies have produced a thriving child sex trade, and all of your current politicians are continuing their policy of looking the other way. I would vote UKIP on that basis alone.

      Do note that I am a parent of mixed-race children. When your pitch to me (even implicitly) boils down to “stopping sexual exploitation of kids is racist,” well, sign me up for the racism. Now imagine how much stronger that pull would be for the pure-bloods.

      • Why has no one mentioned that before?

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Here? Either they didn’t think of it or they thought it was too inflammatory.

          In the mainstream press? Three guesses and the first two don’t count.

          • Sarcasm. Reactionaries are always bringing Rotherham up. I attribute that to their not having many facts on their side.

          • Airgap says:

            Actually, it’s because Rotherham is such a great fact for reactionaries. They may or may not have many others, but if you think they’ll avoid bringing it up out of a desire for variety in memetic warfare or something, I have bad news. Until somebody digs up the secret JBS connection to Rotherham, they’ll keep using it to score. I mean, how would you play it?

          • Zorgon says:

            As Airgap says – it’s because Rotherham is kind of the only thing the UK reactionaries have.

            Our entire fucking political system is clustered around a tiny number of neoliberal positions, so they can’t huff and puff about “the left” ruining everything with any degree of believability. Not that this stops them trying, but I think they got the hint when describing New Labour as “left wing” went from smirk-inducing to eliciting outright guffaws.

            That pro-austerity neoliberal party was followed by another pro-austerity neoliberal party and things got worse. So what are they going to do, talk about economics? No, they only really have one option; whine about the EU and yell “Rotherham!” over and over and over again.

            I’ll give them this, though – at least Rotherham was actually a thing, unlike Benghazi.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            But what if the economics is not their main concern? Strictly speaking, being anti-immigration is very much against neoliberal policies.

          • Jaskologist says:

            You guys seem to be mistaking me for a UK reactionary. I am neither of those things.

            But honestly, seeing you try to delegitimatize Rotherham as being one of those things that decent people just don’t talk about does mean I have to throw another thing on the “Moldbug was right!” pile.

            (There is another way to neutralize Rotherham as an issue for UKIP, by the way. You could actually deal with the problem. Unthinkable, apparently.)

          • Tom Womack says:

            Roughly every trigger warning I can think of applies to this; it’s not NSFW – it’s a law report – but thinking about the situation involved is exceedingly uncomfortable.

            In a sort of Rotherham-like context, I encountered http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B14.html this morning and am finding it very difficult to form a reaction to. I feel “she believed at the time, and appears still to believe, that she had in fact consented” is an intrinsically alarming sentence for a judge to write.

          • BD Sixsmith says:

            …clustered around a tiny number of neoliberal positions…

            Enter the Southwood Thesis.

          • Zorgon says:

            Jask – the statement “Rotherham is all the UK reactionaries have” doesn’t say anything about anyone other than UK reactionaries, including about people outside that group who talk about Rotherham.

            It’s not that it doesn’t need to be talked about – it did, and does, and was, and is (the papers filled with it for a month). Solutions were proposed and solutions are being implemented. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it has become the *only* thing UK reactionaries talk about, besides the terrible evil of the EU; I’m guessing because Rotherham is pretty much the only stick they have left with which to beat the UK’s Muslim population now that Abu Hamza is in prison.

            This tendency has become so pronounced that it has elevated Rotherham to the same exalted status as Benghazi; a term which, while originally referring to a specific incident or series of incidents, now primarily refers to How Awful The Other Tribe Is.

            My country may be an SJ-riddled, near-catatonic pensioner with what’s best described as political obsessive-compulsive disorder crossed with Alzheimer’s and what is hands down the Worst Media In The World (seriously, it’s just awful. Even the Independent has fallen from grace. There’s just nothing worth reading in print now). But it deserves better than boogeyman-chanting and idiots spraypainting “ROTHERHAM!” outside the front door.

    • Tarrou says:

      I dislike almost all of UKIP’s policies, and like almost all their sentiment. They may be wrong, but they are wrong for the right reasons, as opposed to the other parties, who are wrong/right almost at random, and always for the wrong reason.

      FFS, you have Labour openly claiming they couldn’t get elected, so they decided to get more immigrants in to vote for them. You don’t have to be a border hawk to see the problems with this sort of thing.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Somewhere old Bertolt laughs. The government has, in fact, found the people wanting, and decided to dissolve it and elect a new one.

    • There’s probably a discussion to bead about ukip, similar parties,the overton window, ye effects of PC on dialogue, etc.

  25. LTP says:

    Two things. First, I think Scott should do a post on global warming, how bad it is, etc. (if he hasn’t already, my short attempt to look for it turned nothing up). I recently heard some… extreme alarmist claims about globlal warming from somebody reasonably well informed about the issue, but I also have reasons to believe they’re personality leads them to be heavily biased towards the negative and worst case scenarios. I feel like there’s no overview of the issue that is reasonably untainted by politics that is layman friendly.

    Second, I wonder if what we call “genius” is not only about intelligence. To me, it’s actually something like high intelligence + obsession. When I read about the lives of geniuses and child prodigies, it’s striking that they still devoted a great deal of time to learning about their subjects of interest, working on their projects, taking initiative to advance in their learning, and so on, often from a young age. I wonder how many would be geniuses/child prodigies there are who had the intellect to be great, but not motivation to get really good enough at anything to show it?

    • James Picone says:

      Disclaimer: I think global warming is a big scary problem and carbon pricing mechanisms of some form should have been set up like a decade ago.

      If your acquaintance was referring to a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis style event, then you probably shouldn’t be overly worried. My understanding of the current science is that methane’s low atmospheric lifetime means that clathrate-gun style events are extremely unlikely to be immense problems. There’s some scientific discussion on the issue of large-scale methane releases, with a small group of researchers who are moderately to very convinced that it’s a potential extinction-level event (I think Shakhova is in this camp, not sure about any others) and the majority of climate researchers thinking it’s slightly scary but not any worse than continued exponential CO2 emissions on their own (i.e., unpleasant but not extinction-level unless we’re idiots and burn all the coal forever, even after it’s not economic).

      RealClimate, a blog run by some of the climate scientists who do a lot of IPCC work (Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, Stefan Rahmstorf, etc.) have looked at methane releases before, see for example http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/01/much-ado-about-methane/ and http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/01/an-arctic-methane-worst-case-scenario/ . They mostly conclude that the sensible worst-case scenarios are about as bad as continuing CO2 emissions, i.e. there’s not really a danger of utterly catastrophic methane release.

      About the only other extinction-level event I can see from climate change is if climate sensitivity is on the order 6c per doubling of CO2 and we don’t release until maybe one-and-a-half doublings. After about a 6c increase in global average surface temperature, average temperature in some places on Earth is high enough that humans living there can’t maintain homeostasis, IIRC. But about 90% of climate sensitivity probability mass is in the range 1.5c-4c, and the remaining 10% is mostly in the range 4-5. 6c climate sensitivity is extremely unlikely. Earth system sensitivity might be that high, but that’s only relevant on longer-than-a-century timescales.

      Spencer Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming is a pretty good reference to basically everything in climate science. Realclimate doesn’t update often and tends to be aimed more at people already in the know, but is occasionally quite interesting. SkepticalScience is a bit propaganda-y, but its list of global-warming-skeptic arguments and rebuttals is an excellent resource, roughly comparable to talk.origin’s index to creationist claims. Tamino is a professional statistician who has done some climate research, his blog is pretty snarky but usually quite good at explaining the statistics behind some result. His explanation about the ‘pause’ in global warming is one of the best ones I’ve seen. Wood for Trees provides an interactive climate-data-graphing tool that isn’t perfect but is occasionally useful.

      The IPCC reports are probably the best place to go for information on global warming, but they are pretty dense and difficult to interpret.

      • Airgap says:

        I’m a fan of Climate Audit myself. I don’t actually know whether global warming is a big scary problem or not, it could go either way. But I’m unlikely to believe anything coming out of the IPCC until Penn State has Mann shot at dawn. At a certain point, you just assume they’re making shit up and don’t bother to check anymore.

        • James Picone says:

          Have you read some of Deep Climate’s stuff about McIntyre (it’s talking about the Wegman report, but it’s the same complaint as McIntyre’s). As far as I can tell, McIntyre’s criticism of Mann’s early work is very wrong in ways that look suspiciously deliberate. In particular, the way they did their “It always turns up hockey sticks!” analysis didn’t detrend the tree proxies before using them to construct their red-noise series – that is, they fed in the data that generates a hockey stick if you do PCA to it into some PCA, found it generated a hockey stick, and then claimed you’d get the same result with arbitrary red noise. And when showing the results they sorted all the produced datasets by a hockey-stick-index and selected the top 12 or so upwards-turning ones, which is pretty blatant cherry picking. Finally, M&M didn’t actually attempt to evaluate whether MBH98’s decentered PCA mistake (which was, to be fair, a legitimate mistake) actually made any difference to the overall reconstruction – it actually doesn’t, if you do PC selection properly. See Wahl and Ammann’s paper.

          I’m not terribly impressed with the whole hockey-stick controversy, basically. It’s a single paleoclimate reconstruction from 1998, for crying out loud, and it was the very first principle-component reconstruction. It’s got a couple of methodological errors in it. That isn’t too surprising for novel research introducing a new technique. The more important question is whether those mistakes actually matter, and every investigation I’ve seen has demonstrated pretty clearly that they don’t, which seems to match up with every other paleoclimate reconstruction looking pretty much like MBH98.

          • Airgap says:

            Have you read some of Deep Climate’s stuff about McIntyre (it’s talking about the Wegman report, but it’s the same complaint as McIntyre’s). As far as I can tell, McIntyre’s criticism of Mann’s early work is very wrong in ways that look suspiciously deliberate.

            I looked into his stuff around when it came out. I remember concluding that while it initially looked impressive, and was commendable insofar as he was actually trying to take on McIntyre on the facts, rather than with spin, ultimately it was bogus. But it’s been a while and I don’t remember the specifics.

            It’s got a couple of methodological errors in it. That isn’t too surprising for novel research introducing a new technique.

            There’s nothing novel about PCA. If Mann had difficulty with PCA, he could have run his work by an actual, professional statistician. McIntyre, for example. Also, the errors in MBH98 go beyond just methodology (e.g. in data selection), and in my opinion kill their paper (though not necessarily the thesis itself).

            Other studies which purport to “separately” arrive at the same conclusion often make the same mistakes. Eventually, I gave up on it. Maybe the field has gone beyond those mistakes and the climate science of 2015 is straight. I doubt it. Like I said, I’ll believe it when Mann’s out on his ear. And it doesn’t look like there’s much risk of that at present.

          • James Picone says:

            PCA in the field paleoclimate was novel – Mann’s was the first PCA-based paleoclimate reconstruction. That’s usually how this happens – some statistical technique gets imported from a different discipline when someone realises that some problem they’ve been trying to solve can be represented as a problem solved by statistical technique X nobody has used in the field before.

            The minor methodological error of not centering properly is, to the best of my knowledge, the only PCA-related stuffup in MBH98. I’m aware there’s a host of other minor complaints about proxies being extended a couple of years by persistence, having missing data filled in by some process, Tiljander being an awful proxy, tree ring decline issues, etc. They just don’t seem that important to me – it seems obvious why they happen, because you’re trying to do a paleoclimate reconstruction and essentially all the proxies are flawed, there aren’t enough of them, etc., so you use what you can get. They don’t appear to have an actual substantive effect on the reconstruction, because most of the newer paleoclimate reconstructions are better about a lot of these (yes, including Mann’s latest ones), and because I’ve seen people redo Mann’s work without tree rings, without Tiljander, and you still get lower MWP temperatures than present. Hell, even Loehle’s interesting attempt roughly matches Ljunquist/Mann2008/Moberg/Marcott etc., just with more natural variability (probably because a limited pool of proxies and he didn’t attempt to do any statistical analysis more complicated than averaging anomalies). It’s just not plausible that the MWP was as warm as today, and, of course, if it were that implies that climate sensitivity is high and we should be more scared of CO2 emissions.

            This reads *very strongly* to me of the kind of sniping-at-details you get from the intelligent design crowd, without any attempt to determine how much impact a given error or ‘error’ actually has. Sure, the details matter, but if MBH98 slightly underestimated natural variability (which seems unlikely, have you seen the uncertainty ranges on his values?) that doesn’t actually bring the entire paleoclimate edifice down.

          • Airgap says:

            I differ from you on the impact of the errors (or at least I did back when I was familiar with the stuff). Let’s just say that “They don’t appear to have an actual substantive effect on the reconstruction” is highly controversial. I went through a few “MBH98 was fine, trust us” papers years ago, and wasn’t convinced.

            But the real reason I treat the edifice as brought down is the way they respond to criticism. Here’s some shit that used to happen a bunch. McIntyre raises concerns about tree rings and ice cores. One guy does a study with ice cores, but no tree rings and says “See, we get the same result! Tree rings aren’t the problem” Another guy does a study with tree rings, but no ice cores, and the same thing. Conclusion: all of McIntyre’s concerns are spurious. You could put this down to not being familiar with the criticism, except they’re constantly talking about how to show McIntyre up. I know what they say about stupidity being a lower-complexity explanation than malice, and indeed a lot of the IPCC guys are pretty stupid (e.g. Phil Jones), but the more I look, the less compelling stupidity seems as an explanation.

            It’s just not plausible that the MWP was as warm as today, and, of course, if it were that implies that climate sensitivity is high and we should be more scared of CO2 emissions.

            It doesn’t imply that climate sensitivity *to CO2* is high, which the whole point of the debate. If CO2 is a drop in the bucket, and if it used to be much warmer, everyone can chill the fuck out.

            Also, since your statement amounts to “whatever the facts, I’m correct” I suggest you double-check your thinking on the issue. This is a good general rule.

            This reads *very strongly* to me of the kind of sniping-at-details you get from the intelligent design crowd, without any attempt to determine how much impact a given error or ‘error’ actually has.

            Yeah? Well, I bet you think 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. Wake up, Sheeple!

            Seriously, this is low. Don’t do it.

          • James Picone says:

            It’s not so much ‘MBH98 is fine’, it’s more ‘yeah we made some mistakes, turns out they don’t change the big picture’. I think the current consensus is that MBH98’s mean doesn’t really reflect what the climate was actually doing over short timescales, but that what the climate was doing was inside the (rather large) uncertainty ranges. Ljunquist and Mann2008 both have a warmer MWP than MBH98 mean, and a slightly more pronounced LIA, for example. Don’t know about other reconstructions.

            McIntyre has nits to pick with literally every proxy. I don’t think it’s possible to make a reconstruction that doesn’t use a proxy McIntyre will take issue with.
            That is kind of the point I was trying to get at with the sniping-at-details thing. All of the proxy series have their problems – that’s why they’re called proxies, not thermometers. They’re all wildly imperfect. As a result, any reconstruction is going to have proxy series in it that are weird or have issues. That doesn’t invalidate the whole reconstruction, it’s just A Thing To Be Aware Of that increases the error bounds and is worth keeping in mind.

            McIntyre’s approach is to say “Tree rings do weird stuff over the last few decades, therefore if you use them in your reconstruction it’s completely wrong”. He doesn’t make any attempt to determine the impact of errors, he just flatly declares things fundamentally broken. He certainly doesn’t do his own paleoclimate reconstruction, because he doesn’t want to actually engage in scientific discussion, he doesn’t want to have an alternate hypothesis that can be tested, he just wants to knock climate science down a peg. That is not appropriate scientific behaviour. Frankly, I prefer Roy Spencer on the skeptic side. McIntyre has more statistical chops, Spencer does some pretty terrible curve-fitting, but Spencer is at least unfailingly honest, and he doesn’t play the isolated-demand-for-rigor game.

            Climate sensitivity is the same regardless of the source of forcing. How would water distinguish between an extra W/m**2 of insolation vs an extra W/m**2 from greenhouse gases, and evaporate for one but not for another?

            There is paleoclimate evidence that would suggest we have no idea about climate – if Loehle really was an accurate global reconstruction, for example, those wild temperature swings would be kind of a problem. There’s no real model for how climate could be unstable on century-level timescales with that little forcing difference, and yet also capable of staying in an ice age or interglacial for a long time.

            It’s just that a moderately-high MWP isn’t one of those things we can’t explain. It would just imply that climate sensitivity is closer to 4c than 2c. Paleoclimate studies already give a higher ECS than instrumental energy-balance things, anyway.

          • Airgap says:

            McIntyre’s approach is to say “Tree rings do weird stuff over the last few decades, therefore if you use them in your reconstruction it’s completely wrong”. He doesn’t make any attempt to determine the impact of errors, he just flatly declares things fundamentally broken.

            So if he does in fact invest significant effort in examining the impact of errors, will you join me on the dark side? No, don’t look at his blog first, that’s cheating.

            He certainly doesn’t do his own paleoclimate reconstruction, because he doesn’t want to actually engage in scientific discussion

            He doesn’t do reconstructions because it’s not his area. His profession before he retired was double-checking people’s statistics. Example: Somebody wants to sell you land for mining. They’ve done some tests and analyzed them and apparently it proves this is a shit-hot deal. So you send the report to McIntyre, and he tells you whether they did their math right. This is how he became a “Mining Executive” to Mann, although the company he started consulted on like 40% non-mining related statistics stuff. (Are you starting to see why I consider Mann especially untrustworthy? Or why I regard Deep Climate as a breath of fresh air in comparison?)

            Climate sensitivity is the same regardless of the source of forcing. How would water distinguish between an extra W/m**2 of insolation vs an extra W/m**2 from greenhouse gases

            Which weighs more: A ton of bricks or a ton of feathers? Seriously: The question is how much forcing per unit CO2, how big is the feedback, and what’s the “runaway” point, if it exists? Since the runaway point has to be hotter than the MWP (and probably the Holocene, although that may have made it too hot to stay in Jericho comfortably), if the MWP was very hot, the forcing per CO2 and feedback have to be pretty big for anyone to give a shit.

            It’s just that a moderately-high MWP isn’t one of those things we can’t explain. It would just imply that climate sensitivity is closer to 4c than 2c.

            You’re sure that’s the only thing it could imply? I mean, I don’t recall anyone pointing to the hockey stick graph and saying “See? Everything’s fine! Better than we ever imagined!” I mean, it could have happened, but still…

            Maybe you’re more up on this than I am, but it’s not clear how the MWP implies anything strongly about sensitivity one way or the other. I’ve heard of temperature proxies, but never forcing proxies.

          • James Picone says:

            So if he does in fact invest significant effort in examining the impact of errors, will you join me on the dark side? No, don’t look at his blog first, that’s cheating.

            Depends how good it is, how significant the errors turn out to be, and what you mean by ‘dark side’ here (it’s unlikely to change my opinion about the risks of global warming, it might change my opinion about the accuracy of paleoclimate research).

            He doesn’t do reconstructions because it’s not his area

            He should have the appropriate expertise, certainly by now. Getting a better hypothesis into the literature would be the best way of winning the argument, too.

            Which weighs more: A ton of bricks or a ton of feathers? Seriously: The question is how much forcing per unit CO2, how big is the feedback, and what’s the “runaway” point, if it exists? Since the runaway point has to be hotter than the MWP (and probably the Holocene, although that may have made it too hot to stay in Jericho comfortably), if the MWP was very hot, the forcing per CO2 and feedback have to be pretty big for anyone to give a shit.

            You’re sure that’s the only thing it could imply? I mean, I don’t recall anyone pointing to the hockey stick graph and saying “See? Everything’s fine! Better than we ever imagined!” I mean, it could have happened, but still…

            Runaway doesn’t have to happen for climate change to be a problem – we’re already seeing icecaps the world over melting (Antarctic sea ice is increasing, but that’s seasonal and the actual icecap is melting), and we’re definitely not at any kind of runaway point yet.

            Forcing per unit CO2 is not an area of significant discussion – the 3.7 W/m**2 for doubling of CO2 figure is pretty strongly based on known physics and known atmospheric profile. I think this is even widely accepted in sensible skeptic circles – Spencer, Lindzen, Curry, McIntyre, etc. Hell, even Watts has banned slayers from WUWT, although I don’t know whether he agrees with the forcing figure.

            Feedback is source-independent, obviously.

            Obviously if the MWP is driven by a climate forcing (probably TSI) then a strong MWP indicates strong feedback indicating larger warming from doubling CO2.

            If the MWP is driven by internal variation in the climate, then you can think of that as a kind of ‘internal forcing’ that interacts with the feedback – remember, feedbacks are just things that happen when the globe gets warmer / colder that themselves make the globe warmer/colder, so if internal variation can be large enough to cause MWP-style events (which seems kind of unlikely), then feedbacks will be involved.

            Only way that gets you small feedback values is a very large ‘internal forcing’. That’s extremely unlikely, because thermodynamics and because climate isn’t wildly unstable on century timescales.

            There are actually proxy reconstructions for some forcings – the Shapiro TSI reconstruction, for example – but I don’t know anything about their reliability. Over this kind of timescale the only forcings likely to be relevant are TSI and volcanoes, anyway.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            As a general aside, one of the best ways to get me to discount your argument is for you to say to your opponent, “if you’re so smart and you’re so sure I’m wrong, tell me the RIGHT answer.” Critics of the math and/or data analysis of global warming are not required to provide alternate hypotheses or do the work over again: it is entirely sufficient to show that it is wrong.

            If you claim that flies spontaneously generate from manure, and I demonstrate that if you take some manure that no flies have ever been near and no matter how long you wait no flies ever spontaneously generate from it, I have successfully refuted your claim. I am not required to explain the actual mechanism of reproduction to prove your hypothesis is wrong. I am only required to demonstrate that it is wrong. If I do explain an alternate means, so much the better, but it is not relevant to the strength of my refutation if I don’t.

          • James Picone says:

            Marc Whipple: I’m trying to explain that I don’t think McIntyre is interested in the truth, I think he’s interested in finding holes in whatever climate scientists think is the truth. That’s not virtuous, even if you’re right every time.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            James Picone: If he’s right that they’re wrong, and that what they advocate (massive rearrangement of the world’s economy) is not necessary and/or will not help, it is God’s work that he is doing, even if his actual motive is that a paleoclimatologist once kicked sand in his face at the beach in front of his girl.

            More generally, we don’t devote anything like enough effort and recognition to checking scientific theories and the people who do it. Yes, they may seem like curmudgeonly killjoys, but given how much we’re learning about what everybody thought were experimentally-proven principles of social science are non-replicable, it’s obvious we need them. A lot.

            Even more generally, math does not take sides. If I can prove your math is wrong, then your math is wrong. My motivation is irrelevant, because the math does not care. The universe did not re-arrange itself to suit my dastardly purposes because I sacrificed a virgin to the Adversary, undoing your brave and good statistical analysis.

            Right up until the day the whole thing fell through, I’m willing to bet that a lot of people at the SEC thought Harry Markopolos just had it in for Bernie Madoff. “Probably just jealous,” someone doubtless said. “Haters gonna hate.” And you know what? They could have been right. For all I know, Markopolos is a closet Marxist and thought Madoff and everyone like him were the enemies of The People. I don’t care. The math said Madoff couldn’t be honest, and the math was right.

          • Airgap says:

            Obviously if the MWP is driven by a climate forcing (probably TSI) then a strong MWP indicates strong feedback indicating larger warming from doubling CO2.

            What? No, dude. You could have high TSI and low feedback, or moderate TSI and more feedback.

            the 3.7 W/m**2 for doubling of CO2 figure is pretty strongly based on known physics and known atmospheric profile. I think this is even widely accepted in sensible skeptic circles

            I know, but remember we’ve changed our minds on this one before. It’s not that I’m anticipating a change here, not knowing the basis particularly well, but it’s important to keep in mind that this number isn’t the same sort of thing as free space permeability. Who knows what we’ll find out tomorrow? I mean, mainstream climate scientists used to think there was a MWP, for chrisssake.

          • James Picone says:

            TSI reconstructions aren’t amazingly precise or accurate yet, unfortunately, but Vieria(2011) and Shapiro(2011) both show ~1366 W/m**2 TSI around 1000 AD. Shapiro shows nearly an order of magnitude more variability in TSI, though, which is kind of hard to square with the observed absence of 10 W/m**2 variability of TSI over the observational period – PMOD TSI, observations since 1975, shows peaks of 1367 and troughs of 1365 or so. But the important part here is that in the 1970s, TSI was about 1366 W/m**2 on average: http://woodfortrees.org/plot/pmod/plot/pmod/mean:12

            Shapiro shows peaks at 1368 and troughs at 1358 over ~the last 2000 years, but let’s pretend that it went as high as 1378 over the MWP. This is an utterly extreme value. We wouldn’t expect that to be true.

            Then the change in forcing from the 1366 mean is 0.7 * (1378 – 1366) / 4. 0.7 from Earth’s albedo, you divide by four because Earth is a sphere. 2.1 W/m**2. CO2’s radiative forcing since 1750 is ~1.8 W/m**2, if you include the other greenhouse gases we emit in substantial quantities (methane, CFCs, etc.), you get about 2.7 W/m**2.

            That is, an implausibly high solar forcing isn’t quite as strong as everything we’ve emitted since 1750, and CO2 alone nearly equals it.

            It’s just not plausible for there to be an-about-equal-to-today MWP caused by solar forcing about as strong as the greenhouse forcing we’ve got today.

            We’ve gained about a 1c in anomaly over preindustrial. Assuming the MWP was as strong and caused by a 2.1 TSI, you get 0.47c/w/m**2, ECS is 1.7 – within IPCC ranges, but very much at the low end. That seems strange, given that a similar calculation applied to the present day is calculating TCR, not ECS, and ECS > TCR. Not impossible, just a bit weird.

            The 3.7 W/m**2 figure comes from MODTRAN, a tool that models radiative transfer in the atmosphere. I’m not sure what caused the 4 W/m**2 figure to be revised downwards.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            James Picone:

            Whenever anybody comments that an observed data point is “unreasonable” and “we wouldn’t expect that,” and therefore it can be ignored in evaluating a situation I hear Richard Feynman quoting NASA’s pre-Challenger safety evaluation of the Space Shuttle, which began, “A high degree of reliability should necessarily be assumed.” (Paraphrasing.)

          • James Picone says:

            Marc: The figure I was calling unreasonable, the 1378 W/m**2 TSI, is not observed. It was a hypothetical value selected to be extreme. It’s 10 W/m**2 over the highest observationally recorded TSI values, and 10 W/m**2 over the highest proxy TSI values.

      • LTP says:

        He was basically saying, not that humanity would go extinct, but basically that it would be so bad that billions would die and that human civilization would regress, and that there’s nothing we can do about it because of positive feedback loops or something.

        • James Picone says:

          As far as I’m aware, if you posed that scenario to the Gestalt Scientific Understanding of Climate Change, it would say something like “Well that’s not absolutely ruled out by what we know, but…”.

          Essentially it’s the position that either ‘climate sensitivity’ is very high – I imagine something about methane emissions from melting permafrost and/or clathrates keeping climate change going even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow?

          IPCC’s 90% confidence interval for climate sensitivity is 1.5c to 4c, peak confidence is at 3c, with most of the remainder lying in the 4c-5c range. For your friend’s scenario to be that bad, sensitivity would probably have to be more like 6c.

          As far as I’m aware, there’s very little to no evidence that methane emissions in a warming world will be bad enough to keep this all going in the absence of CO2 emissions.

          Climate change can be seen as a risk-management problem. In that context, the scenario you’re talking about is catastrophic but extremely unlikely. How much that affects your risk analysis is up to you.

      • I think skepticalscience.com is more than a bit propaganda-y. Its basic approach is to convince people that they have the real scientific truth because the web page links to real scientific articles–but they are reading the web page, not the articles, and the latter don’t actually fit very closely to what the web page says. For a specific example, look at their dismissal of CO2 fertilization and then check the articles.

        I’m also disturbed by the fact that it is run by someone who has misrepresented his own work in print. For details see:

        http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-climate-falsehood-you-can-check-for.html

        I don’t know enough about the other web pages you mention to comment on them.

        I’ve spent more time than I probably should have in online climate arguments. The main conclusion is that almost nobody on either side either understands the relevant science or much cares about it—almost all of it is people cheering for their team. One reason I’m here is that the standard of conversation is so much higher.

        The other conclusion, not limited to climate issues, is that for a lay observer to figure out what the scientific truth is is considerably harder than most people assume. Almost everyone forms opinions not on evidence and argument but on the basis of what sources of information he trusts. If you trust the wrong sources … .

        • James Picone says:

          I disagree with your interpretation that Cook misrepresented himself. I think your argument here, applied to a hypothetical similar paper on the scientific consensus on gravity, would find a very similar result – that most of the endorsement of the consensus is implicit rather than explicit quantification.

          I don’t think interpreting categories 2&3 as endorsing “earth is warming up, human CO2 emissions are main cause” is illegitimate because of that.

          I suspect Cook’s somewhat off-point rebuttal is because he pattern-matched you to the “But most of your papers were cat4!” objection because there’s been a lot of that nonsense from the Monckton and Watts crowd.

          • “I don’t think interpreting categories 2&3 as endorsing “earth is warming up, human CO2 emissions are main cause” is illegitimate because of that.”

            You think interpreting ‘Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change.’ as “human CO2 emissions are the main cause” is legitimate? That was the example for category 2. How do you get “main cause” out of “contribute to?”

            Do you have any explanation of the fact that Cook et. al. 2013 reported the summed number for categories 1-3 but not the individual numbers other than an attempt to hide the fact that category1 (“primary cause”) was tiny?

          • James Picone says:

            Given that anthropogenic sources are close to the only reason concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing (exception: methane, but even then arguably only because of all the other greenhouse gases), and given that CO2 is the principle one we’ve been increasing, it’d be kind of weird for someone to endorse “Emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change” and not “Anthropogenic CO2 is the principle contributor”.

            You wouldn’t expect many papers in cat1, for the same reason you don’t expect many astrophysics papers computing orbits to say “Oh, and Newton is pretty accurate”. The endorsement is going to be implicit – people using ideas in ways that imply they agree with Cook’s ‘consensus position’.

            He aggregated them because very few papers in those categories wouldn’t fit the anthro-CO2-is-main-cause position. Notice that when they asked scientists to rate their own papers, papers moved up the scale on the whole (they didn’t get a huge response rate, unfortunately – 14% for the ~8500 authors they could get emails for). They’ve got a nice graph demonstrating that here. ~10% of the self-rated papers were self-rated cat1. That’s 10% of the total, not 10% of the ones that take a position.

            It’s not like the data was hidden – Cook’s data has been up on SKS for a long time, they raised the money to make the paper open-access, etc.. I think interpreting the paper as malicious or conspiratorial is utterly unreasonable.

            It’s worth noting that only 10 papers were abstract-rated as being in cats 5-7, and 39 self-rated papers in cats 5-7.

            There were 18 abstract-rated cat1 papers and 228 self-rated cat1 papers.

          • Princess Stargirl says:

            I do not understand what you mean by this:
            “Given that anthropogenic sources are close to the only reason concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing (exception: methane, but even then arguably only because of all the other greenhouse gases), and given that CO2 is the principle one we’ve been increasing, it’d be kind of weird for someone to endorse “Emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change” and not “Anthropogenic CO2 is the principle contributor”

            The Question is specifically whether human activity is the principle cause of the warming. You did not answer this question.

          • James Picone says:

            The Question is specifically whether human activity is the principle cause of the warming. You did not answer this question.

            The only relevant emissions of greenhouse gases over the timescale concerned are anthropogenic. Someone concluding “Emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change” is extremely likely to also conclude “Human emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change”. Given that Earth is warming and the only major forcing going up is greenhouse forcing, you get to the full consensus position.

            The reason cat2 exists is because of abstracts that say something like “We’ve examined this glacier and found it has retreated this much over the past few years, likely due to greenhouse warming”. That fits cat2, and the authors almost certainly agree with the consensus. Very few people are going to bother writing “Also that greenhouse warming is human-caused due to CO2” because abstracts are space-limited and essentially everyone in the climate science field knows that GHGs are increasing due to human emissions, that the temperature is going up, and that TSI, galactic cosmic rays, or underpants gnomes aren’t sufficient explanations.

            So if you’re counting abstracts to try to determine what the consensus is, and you run into a cat2 paper, you’ve got to count it as something – hit, irrelevant, or miss. ‘hit’ is the best fit out of all of those categories, because chances are the authors would agree, it’s already eliminated like 90% of the preferred skeptic arguments, and the logical inference from the statements the paper makes and some other data is cat1.

        • Harald K says:

          Some people are a lot easier to trust than others. I have not found that Skepticalscience distort their sources.

          I have, however, found that you do: You took the first IPCC’s worst case scenario for climate sensitivity and worst case emissions projection (which turned out to overshoot actual emissions by a lot, thankfully), and concluded that IPCC had overestimated warming.

          My judgement is that you have an ideological (pro-establishment libertarian) axe to grind. A climate skeptic without that, if they exist, would probably rather be thankful for Skepticalscience even if they disagreed with some things, since they write stuff like twenty-part series giving an intro to ocean acidification. They’re a tremendous resource for digging into the science behind the claims.

          • James Picone says:

            Oh wow, I hadn’t actually poked around his blog on this matter, just looked at the post he linked here.

            Yeah, David Friedman, every time you run into something you think is a clever argument about how global warming isn’t working, I would strongly suggest looking up the argument in SkepticalScience’s list. I know you think they’re terrible propagandists, so feel free to investigate things they claim in more depth, but you’re making a lot of very simple mistakes.

            For starters, stop eyeballing trends from graphs when you’re using them to make an argument (for example, like you do here). You are not going to get the right answer. You should especially be very suspicious of eyeballed ‘pauses’ or changes in trend that start on an extreme value – like, for example, the ‘pause’ that’s supposed to have started in 1998. This is a classic statistical mistake.

            When you want to know how much it has warmed /as a result of CO2 emissions/, you have to account for a number of known non-CO2 effects on temperature, like el-Nino/la-Nina, aerosols, and volcanic eruptions. If you don’t, it can quite substantially affect your results. Volcanoes probably won’t matter too much if you don’t deliberately start on a volcano year or something like that, but ENSO can produce massive swings in global average surface temperature. 1998 was so stupidly warm because it was an amazingly strong ENSO event. http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/6/4/044022/ is a paper that produced a timeseries accounting for several of those influences already – Tamino of Open Mind was one of the authors, and he’s posted the data & code here. Unfortunately only goes back to 1979, because satellite data and also because it assumes global warming is linear and that doesn’t hold past ~mid 1970s. Lean&Rind 2008 is a similar paper that goes back further.

            WattsUpWithThat is essentially the least scientifically competent and least intelligent end of the skeptic group. Linking to it makes you look bad.

          • Airgap says:

            My judgement is that you have an ideological (pro-establishment libertarian) axe to grind.

            “Pro-establishment?” Is David Friedman gonna have to cut a bitch?

            Seriously, dude, don’t be a dick.

            A climate skeptic without that, if they exist, would probably rather be thankful for Skepticalscience even if they disagreed with some things, since they write stuff like twenty-part series giving an intro to ocean acidification.

            Which is nice of them, but not their major impact. Obviously, highly intellectually independent people can read them as a simple guide to “What is the establishment rebuttal for skeptic argument X?” And then go look at the actual argument. But since people generally don’t do that, can you see how a site whose main purpose is to reassure people that their views are Supported By Expert Consensus rather than increase their knowledge might bother me or David? I mean, the fact that the views supported aren’t mine does play into my feelings, but I don’t see you or James being particularly nice about WattsUpWithThat. It’s not my favorite skeptic site either, but still.

          • James writes:

            “You should especially be very suspicious of eyeballed ‘pauses’ or changes in trend that start on an extreme value – like, for example, the ‘pause’ that’s supposed to have started in 1998. This is a classic statistical mistake.”

            Indeed. And if you bother to read my posts, you will notice that I don’t make it. My claim was that temperatures flattened out sometime between 1998 and 2002 and remained roughly constant thereafter.

            I did a linear fit to the data from 2002 to 2012 (that was before the 2013 data were in), and the slope was very slightly negative. Do you disagree? My data source (NASA) was:

            http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

            If you want to run the regression for yourself. And if you look at the data, you will notice that 2002 was not, like 1998, an anomalously high year.

            My description of the second graph in the post you are apparently referring to (ocean heat) was that the rate of warming appears to decline starting about 2003.

          • James also wrote:

            “When you want to know how much it has warmed /as a result of CO2 emissions/, you have to account for a number of known non-CO2 effects on temperature, like el-Nino/la-Nina, aerosols, and volcanic eruptions. ”

            With enough parameters, you can fit the skyline of New York. Take a look at what people were saying about the effect of aerosols before the data were in—that they might cause either warming or cooling. Once it became clear that temperatures were constant to cooling from about 1940 to 1970, aerosols were offered as an explanation.

            It could be true, but it became less plausible when a second pause started about 2002. Combine that with the pattern leading up to 1910, and it rather looks like a rising line due to AGW with an alternating trend from some other cause, period about sixty years, superimposed on it.

            The test of a theory is its ability to predict, not its ability to explain things after they happened. By that test, the IPCC has done somewhat worse than a straight line fit to the data starting in 1910, when the current rise started.

          • Harold writes:

            ” You took the first IPCC’s worst case scenario for climate sensitivity and worst case emissions projection (which turned out to overshoot actual emissions by a lot, thankfully), and concluded that IPCC had overestimated warming.”

            I took what the IPCC described as its “business as usual scenario” in the first report and pointed out that the actual rate of increase since then was below the lower bound of the range it predicted. I also gave the results for the second report (“a little high”) and the third. Anyone curious can find my summary of the relevant evidence at:

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2014/03/have-past-ipcc-temperature.html

            And check it against the webbed IPCC reports for himself.

          • Two final comments before I abandon the climate subthread, which I probably should have stayed out of, given the difficulty of holding that topic to the standards of this site.

            1. Harald writes: “My judgement is that you have an ideological (pro-establishment libertarian) axe to grind.”

            Of course I’m biased–everyone is. I’ve discussed my biases (not the warming case in particular) on my blog.

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-i-believe-things.html

            My bias is libertarian but not pro-establishment. In case you haven’t noticed, the establishment position is that AGW is a terrible threat which must be dealt with. People holding that view delight in pointing out how many established institutions agree with them.

            2. While I think people overestimate the reliability of IPCC predictions, that isn’t my chief criticism of the current orthodoxy. The weak part of the argument, in my view, is the claim that warming to the level suggested by the IPCC reports for 2100 will obviously have large net negative effects.

            As I like to point out, the current climate was not designed for us nor we for it, and humans currently prosper across a range of climates much wider than the projected shift. The net effect of warming is very uncertain and there is no good reason to expect it to be negative, although it could be. I made the same argument some forty years ago about population, back when the orthodoxy was that population increase would obviously have very bad effects in the reasonably near future, and so far it hasn’t.

            For more details, see my blog, especially:

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-is-wrong-with-global-warming.html

          • James Picone says:

            Indeed. And if you bother to read my posts, you will notice that I don’t make it. My claim was that temperatures flattened out sometime between 1998 and 2002 and remained roughly constant thereafter.

            My description of the second graph in the post you are apparently referring to (ocean heat) was that the rate of warming appears to decline starting about 2003.

            i.e., you eyeballed a change in trend in noisy data, and at least one of those changepoints was on a ludicrously extreme value.

            If you do actual statistical analysis, there’s no evidence of a change in trend post mid-1970s.

            I did a linear fit to the data from 2002 to 2012 (that was before the 2013 data were in), and the slope was very slightly negative. Do you disagree? My data source (NASA) was:

            Better. The problem now is that uncertainty in linear regression over a ten-year period of global average surface temperature is rather large. Tamino conveniently has done a post where that time period is the example he uses, because Steve Goddard used it. I’m not sure why he doesn’t calculate a slightly-negative trend starting in 2002 and going to 2012, maybe he was using slightly different monthly data. The point still stands.

            I’m honestly kind of surprised all of this didn’t occur to you at first. You do economics. Surely that requires some statistical understanding?

            With enough parameters, you can fit the skyline of New York. Take a look at what people were saying about the effect of aerosols before the data were in—that they might cause either warming or cooling. Once it became clear that temperatures were constant to cooling from about 1940 to 1970, aerosols were offered as an explanation.

            We know, for an absolute fact, that TSI, volcanoes, ENSO, and anthropogenic aerosol affect the global average surface temperature. Not attempting to remove the influence of the better-characterised ones is an error, flat out. This isn’t just throwing a bunch of possibilities at the wall and seeing which ones stick, like your mischaracterisation of the history of the aerosol forcing suggests. If I made an argument based on GDP over time, and didn’t correct for inflation, I would be wrong.

            I took what the IPCC described as its “business as usual scenario” in the first report and pointed out that the actual rate of increase since then was below the lower bound of the range it predicted.

            There’s a reason they use the term ‘projection’. The IPCC isn’t trying to predict changes in CO2 emissions. That’s much harder than predicting changes in climate, and determining climate sensitivity is what they’re trying to do.

            The first IPCC’s report has a ‘business as usual’ scenario that emits substantially more CO2 than was actually emitted. If you just want to paint the IPCC as incompetent, just using that scenario is the way to go. If you want to honestly compare the first IPCC report’s ECS estimate to reality, you should use a scenario that’s closer to the amount of CO2 that was actually emitted, and you have to do some fiddling because they thought CO2 forcing was 4W/m**2 and that pushed their sensitivity values slightly downward, so first-report sensitivities aren’t directly comparable to third report onwards sensitivities.

            The link you got your .22c increase from 1990->2013 is dead, unfortunately, but fitting a linear trend to GISTEMP LOTI over the period produces a bit over 0.3c increase.

            That is, the comparison to the first report is apples to oranges (also taking the average rate of warming over the next century and comparing it to the present day is *very wrong* the warming rate is expected to increase because we’re adding more CO2 faster than the Earth is returning to equilibrium). The second report is close to dead on. The third report is close to dead on. The period covered by the fourth report hasn’t happened yet.

            You know enough to get yourself into trouble, but not enough to accurately evaluate your arguments on climate. If you actually care about being informed, please actually read some of the science here. SKS’ index of skeptic arguments is custom-made for this kind of thing.

            EDIT: Oh, and 2002 was warmer than 1998 at the time, and remains one of the five warmest years on record, as far as I’m aware. I’m not sure why you think it wasn’t an anomalously warm year. Meanwhile, 2012 was a noticeable low point.

          • Harald K says:

            When I called you a pro-establishment libertarian, I meant that you have libertarian sympathies but aren’t too interested in taking the consequences of libertarian positions if it means overturning too much of the established order, e.g. doing anything not “pro-business”.

            Some libertarians want to remove limited liability, for instance – my guess is that you aren’t in that crowd.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Harald: Calling David Friedman “pro-establishment” is a silly claim. He is an anarcho-capitalist. In books and lectures he has often argued in favor of such far-out ideas as eliminating the entire criminal legal system in favor of whatever laws the market manages to evolve in a decentralized fashion – it’s hard to get less “establishment” than that. For more, I recommend his book The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism.

            (webbed free pdf version here) (youtube’d 20-minute sketch intro lecture)

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Some information on David Friedman’s background.

            David’s father was Milton F.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Friedman

            David’s apple has fallen straight down through a hollow tree-trunk. 😉
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_D._Friedman

  26. Andy says:

    Short backstory: I’ve got epilepsy, I’m on anticonvulsants, they have weird side effects. I like to carefully document what happens in order to, well, for science.

    Short version of question: loss of ability to correct misspelt words or to consciously spell words, but intact ability to type words “on auto pilot”.

    Long version:

    I’ve had nominal aphasia for a long while now — I’ll forget the names of things. It probably happens a few times a day. I’ll be trying to refer to something and I’ll forget what it’s called, so I’ll have to describe it: “you know, that thing, uh, the thing in the kitchen, with the thing, uh, water? oh, yeah, the water filter”. Formally diagnosed, not a big deal in the scheme of things.

    More recently I’ve started developing semantic paraphasia — mixing up words with other words. I’ve recorded every instance of it over two weeks, and they all fall into two categories: very similar words that would both fit in context [eg, saying sheets instead of towels, when talking about getting things out of the washing basket], or words that sound quite similar but have no relation other than that [eg ‘sleep’ coming out as ‘speak’, in the sense of “I should speak soon” rather than “I should sleep soon”]. Happens maybe 5-10 times a day; bit annoying; pretty interesting, because I can’t find any data sources around that actually document this happening, so I can at least contribute that to the world; not a huge deal overall.

    But the newest and strangest thing is something I haven’t yet got a name for. I’m losing the ability to identify which part of a word is spelled incorrectly, or to work out how to fix it. For example, I might make a typo of ‘potenitlaly’, and I can identify that it looks sort of funny around the second half maybe, but I can’t work out exactly which letters are mixed up. But if I delete the word and just think “potentially” and type again on auto pilot, I can spell it just fine. The spelling problem only comes when I consciously think about how to spell the words; it’s like I have preserved muscle memory for typing words but things are getting a little bit mixed up in terms of reading and/or writing?

    This is a really interesting thing for me; I have absolutely no idea what it’s called, and while it’s a tad annoying, it’s actually just really interesting. I had no idea that brains could do that, and maybe it implies something about how the brain works, in terms of specific structural problems causing specific deficits?

    Obviously it’s something to discuss with my doctors, but I thought maybe the “hive mind” might have some thoughts.

    • blacktrance says:

      For example, I might make a typo of ‘potenitlaly’, and I can identify that it looks sort of funny around the second half maybe, but I can’t work out exactly which letters are mixed up. But if I delete the word and just think “potentially” and type again on auto pilot, I can spell it just fine.

      Isn’t it normal to have a milder form of this? In my case, it’s a lot easier to spell a word correctly than to find the errors in a misspelled word, even though I notice that it’s misspelled. If I spell the word correctly, I can compare the correct word to the misspelled one letter by letter and identify the misspelling, but to do it just by examining the misspelled word takes more effort.

    • DrBeat says:

      I’ll be trying to refer to something and I’ll forget what it’s called, so I’ll have to describe it: “you know, that thing, uh, the thing in the kitchen, with the thing, uh, water? oh, yeah, the water filter”. Formally diagnosed, not a big deal in the scheme of things.

      More recently I’ve started developing semantic paraphasia — mixing up words with other words.[…]

      Are these actually, like, notably unusual enough to warrant mention and diagnosis? Because these are behaviors shown by literally every single human being with which I converse on anything approaching a regular basis.

  27. Visitant says:

    23andMe now has the FDA’s blessing to market a genetic test to consumers.

    • Anonymous says:

      Moreover, if you can convince them that you’re British, they tell you everything.

      • onyomi says:

        This thing where the US government seems to exist to make the lives of US citizens worse (overzealous financial regulation making us pariahs in global banking, making it impossible for us to buy goods and services that you can buy anywhere else in the world, heavily taxing the income of expats who may well be paying heavy local taxes, ruining things like Intrade, etc.) is really starting to piss me off (even more than usual). No wonder people are renouncing their citizenship in record numbers.

        • Matthew says:

          No wonder people are renouncing their citizenship in record numbers.

          This is primarily driven by expatriates, so only one of the factors you listed above it can claim much of a causal relationship.

          • onyomi says:

            The fact that you can’t open a bank account in some places if you are a US citizen could also contribute… also, just general ill will toward the US govmt, which I’m sure there is more of since the TSA, etc.

  28. Alex says:

    Suppose we want to find causes that help first-world middle-class people.

    I think of containing nuclear weapons. Martin Hellman estimates a 1% per year risk of nuclear war. That is based on Cold War risk, and I agree with Carl Shulman that the risk now is probably lower. But it still seems scary.

    Based on GiveWell’s posts, other possibilities are zoning, macroeconomic policy, criminal justice reform, global warming, biosecurity, and medical research.

    Yesterday, I read this paper on economic growth. From that, I will add inequality, infrastructure, and “patience.” Carl Shulman has also mentioned increasing saving and investment.

    Does anyone have opinions on which of these is best? Am I missing anything? 🙂

    • Wrong Species says:

      How about setting up a non-profit that funds artists? I’m not sure if you are looking at a strict cost/benefit analysis but I think funding art by voluntary donations(rather than through government or the market) would have a lot of positive affects if more people did it.

      • Alex says:

        Maybe art, and ideas in general, is undervalued because it keeps benefiting society after its creator dies-who then can’t be compensated. Having art from today may benefit the far future just like Shakespeare is valuable today.

        But I don’t know how to decide whether this is true or false.

    • Deiseach says:

      Suppose we want to find causes that help first-world middle-class people.

      That sentence reminds me of nothing so much as Knife and Packer’s long-running cartoon strip in “Private Eye”, It’s Grim Up North London 🙂

  29. Alcohol isn’t legal because it’s safe. Alcohol is legal because people reacted badly when it was made illegal. I don’t know for certain why the Prohibition ended, but I really doubt that it was due to the FDA finding alcohol to be safe.

    The history of the imposition and repeal of nationwide alcohol prohibition in the U.S. (1919-1933) is complicated, interesting, and largely forgotten today.

    One of the major contributors to the end of prohibition was the rising need for tax revenue.

    No, no, no, that’s just silly. Both changes were done through amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which requires a proposal passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states. In other words, imposition and repeal were (had to be) powered by mass movements and overwhelming public feeling on the matter. There was very little concern about little things like tax revenue.

    People today tend to assume that the Prohibitionists were right-wing zealots who didn’t want anybody having fun. But back in the early 20th century, alcohol prohibition was seen as one of the Progressive Era reforms, along with woman suffrage, breaking up business monopolies, the income tax, and the direct election of Senators.

    Indeed, because women were assumed to detest alcohol, a lot of the arguments over letting them vote were about Prohibition. And, indeed, once Prohibition was put into the Constitition, opposition to women suffrage collapsed; an amendment giving women voting rights was enacted the following year (1920).

    Prohibition was popular in those days because the impact of alcohol abuse was visible everywhere. The “saloon” was a central institution in American life, and hard liquor was cheap and abundant.

    Book titles like “Prohibition: Era of Excess” give the impression that the legal change launched an era of overindulgence, but the opposite is true, as measured in tangible ways, such as deaths from liver cirrhosis. When it became illegal, Americans drank less. Or, perhaps, fewer Americans drank at all.

    Alcohol abuse in the U.S. has never returned to pre-1919 high levels. Prohibition deserves some credit for this, but obviously there are a lot of other cultural and economic factors.

    Meanwhile, a vast criminal infrastructure was built to illegally manufacture and supply alcohol to those who continued to drink. This was the beginning of organized crime in America, and the violence was terrifying to people.

    The end of Prohibition didn’t put an end to organized crime, of course, but starting in 1933, the homicide death rate fell steeply for eleven straight years, and other kinds of crime fell in tandem.

    Prohibition was ended by the same kind of mass political movement that started it, culminating in the 1932 election.

    [For those who aren’t familiar: the 1932 US Presidential election was when Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) overwhelmingly defeated incumbent president Herbert Hoover (R).]

    We now think of FDR’s victory as being about the economic depression, but neither presidential campaign had anything interesting to say about that at the time.

    More visibly, the election became polarized between “wets” and “drys”, with many prominent Republican “wets” publicly supporting Roosevelt on that ground alone.

    The Democratic victory was so complete in November 1932 that the lame-duck Congress (which in those days served until early March of the following year) came up with the votes to propose the 21st Amendment, to repeal the 18th Amendment, and ratification followed in short order.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I don’t know about abuse, but consumption of alcohol did return to pre-Prohibition levels. It never returned to the levels seen before the Second Great Awakening. (source: Rorabaugh)

      • Very interesting chart. I stand corrected.

      • Nornagest says:

        Four gallons of alcohol a year, that’s 15000 ml and change. So we’re talking a daily consumption of about the equivalent of… three and a half shots of 80-proof liquor, or two pints of strongish beer.

        Well, that’s not exactly temperate, but I was expecting worse.

        • Harald K says:

          Consumption is typically skewed, with some 20% of drinkers consuming 80% of the alcohol. 15 l of alcohol per year is about what they consume in Russia today, and Russia has serious problems with alcohol abuse.

          But I wonder about these numbers. I know that here in Norway, the first year we have reliable alcohol statistics for is 1851, and that’s apparently one of the earliest alcohol use statistics in the world. Estimating alcohol use in the 18th century doesn’t sound all that easy.

      • Harald K says:

        I wonder where Rorabaugh gets those estimates for alcohol consumption. 18th century public health statistics leave a lot to be desired.

    • Airgap says:

      We now think of FDR’s victory as being about the economic depression, but neither presidential campaign had anything interesting to say about that at the time.

      What they said may not have been interesting, but they sure said a hell of a lot about it. FDR’s campaign was basically “We’re in a depression because Hoover spent too much money. I’ll spend less.” It turned out he was full of shit, and the rest is history.

      • FDR’s campaign was basically “We’re in a depression because Hoover spent too much money. I’ll spend less.”

        Yeah, that’s exactly what I was talking about.

        • Airgap says:

          It’s hard to see how I’m supposed to read what you wrote as saying something besides “Lots of people think 1932 was a referendum on the depression, but it was actually a referendum on prohibition.”

          • Why not both?

            Certainly voters blame a weak economy on the party in the White House, then and now, whether anybody talks about it or not.

            At a minimum, though, it’s clear that people weren’t voting for things like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, because none of that New Deal stuff was proposed during the campaign. There wasn’t a debate about economic policy alternatives.

            But don’t just take my word for it. Go read a few weeks of newspapers from the fall of 1932. You’ll see a whole lot about “wets” and “drys”, and not much about how FDR would end the depression.

    • Lupis42 says:

      For more on the tax issue, take a look at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/

      Essentially, earnings from the income tax were falling, and people were asking why the government, which had gotten up to 40% of its revenue from liquor taxes before prohibition, was now instead spending money enforcing prohibition.

      • As far as I know, the info in Michael Lerner’s account is all perfectly valid (yes, restaurants and hotels suffered badly), but the author goes too far in portraying Prohibition as a daring, perverse decision that completely ignored what was known at the time.

        Whatever might be said about riots in Portland, Maine more than half a century earlier, a great many states and counties had already “gone dry” before 1919, without experiencing disasters.

        The 18th Amendment extended Prohibition to areas that had never wanted it, notably New York State. And that did not go well.

        Yes, Prohibition made it impossible to run the government on liquor taxes, but restoring federal revenues was NOT a big motivating factor for passing the 21st amendment.

        First of all, Prohibition wasn’t run solely on federal funds — state and local law enforcement took a large role.

        Second, during almost every year of Prohibition, the federal budget ran a sizeable surplus. See Table 1.1 here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/hist.pdf

        Third, the federal role in general was much more limited then. In constant dollars, per-capita federal spending in the mid-1920s was less than 3% of what it is today.

        • Harald K says:

          “The 18th Amendment extended Prohibition to areas that had never wanted it, notably New York State. And that did not go well.”

          In Norway, there was a schism in the teetotaller movement between the factions of Sven Aarestad, a progressive teacher from the countryside, and Johan Scharffenberg, a socialist physician from the city. Aarestad’s strategy was to hold municipal referendums: first for forcing all alcohol sales into a local monopoly and later to close those monopolies down. Scharffenberg was far more reform-optimistic, and wanted national prohibition. Thanks to WW1, the latter got his way, and results were much the same as in the US, though less extreme (among other things because there was never full prohibition, only on liquors and fortified wine).

  30. Some charities are using professional actors or models…

    Back in the 1980s when she was a grad student, my then-girlfriend/now-wife became a “poster child” of a sort.

    Though she herself had a car and never used any local buses, a photographer friend posed her standing sadly at a bus stop. This was for a print ad supporting a transit tax issue, with the text “What if the bus never comes?

    • Deiseach says:

      “What if the bus never comes?“

      Then you will simply have to walk the ten miles home uphill in the rain with an east wind blowing that would cut right through you to the bone, succumb to the consumption, and die a pathetically early death, Little Nell, as your aged and senile grandfather snuffles miserably at your bedside and your canary flutters its wings in one last flutter and then falls off the perch, as dead as you are, and the writer is slapping the pathos on with not alone a trowel but an industrial cement mixer in order to wring the last farthing out of the periodical sales.

      The heartstring-tugging doesn’t work on me, you may be able to tell.

  31. Paul Torek says:

    Philosophy of language-ish Swifties:

    Warning! Danger! Tom signed to his friend Will Robinson, waving his arms robotically.

    “Warning! Danger!” Tom symbolized.

    “I will now perform a speech-act,” Tom promised.

    “‘Lacks the letter pronounced like “cue”‘ lacks the letter pronounced like ‘cue’,” Tom whined.

  32. Here’s another suspicious-looking multiple-factor explanation/trend (of American political polarization), due to the political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I commented but don’t expect an answer from him:

    http://www.civilpolitics.org/content/the-ten-causes-of-americas-political-dysfunction/

    • Anthony says:

      Suspicious because it’s multi-factorial, but many of those factors are somewhat correlated to each other, so it’s not as multi-factorial as it looks.

  33. keranih says:

    A link for discussion or simply to be added to a link post, if appropriate:

    “Climate scientist tries art to stir hearts reguarding earth’s fate”

    The team commissioned the composer Laura Kaminsky to write music for the project. It also includes evocative images taken by nature photographer Garth Lenz, and projections of paintings (inspired by nature) by Rebecca Allan, displayed behind the musicians. “I was just thrilled at the thought of being able to use my art form — the medium of the string quartet — in some way that was relevant to this topic that I was so concerned about,” says violinist Rebecca McFaul….The music is intended to make people think about things like water and glaciers and warming temperatures. But, like all art, it’s open to interpretation….”It can take on so many different meanings for the listener,” says McFaul. “There’s no right or wrong answers for it. And the idea is just to live through it, and sit with it, and contemplate it.”The project isn’t meant to convert skeptics, Davies says. “It’s about convincing people who already believe we have these problems to start behaving like it.”

    I am not sufficently far along on the path to enlightenment that I can interact with this article without shouting “YOU ARE DOING SCIENCE SO SO SO VERY WRONG!” and nuking the concert hall from orbit, just to be sure. (poetic exageration for effect)

    Alternative views and reactions would be much appreciated.

    • He’s not doing science, he’s doing public relations. He admits that quite openly. Why would you be upset that a scientist doing public outreach should use art to strengthen their appeal?

      • Airgap says:

        Scientists should avoid public outreach on politically sensitive issues more strenuously than heroin or domestic violence. If you wanted to be a propagandist, why did you waste all that time learning how to tell the difference between fact and bullshit? The only reason is to convince people that you’re not a propagandist, so they lower their bullshit detectors. What people have actually done is raise their bullshit detectors against science in general. Great job, guys.

        • James Picone says:

          Banning people with training and practice distinguishing between fact and bullshit from discussing politically sensitive issues seems like a bad idea to me. Doesn’t that essentially just cede the field to bullshit? Also, doesn’t that provide a strong incentive for people with views counter to the facts to make issues politically sensitive, so as to exclude scientists?

          Also, y’know, if you think you’ve determined that it is a fact that action X has negative consequence Y, and people don’t know that, and action X is common, telling people seems to me to be ethically required. It’d be weird if climate scientists didn’t want to do public outreach, given that they are generally convinced that continuing to emit CO2 is a Really Bad Idea.

          • Airgap says:

            First, you can still participate in politics if you agree with scientists. Or if you disagree with them. I’m only concerned about the situation where you are them.

            Second, “public outreach” and “telling people” are two very different things. In the former case, you’ve probably already told people, and they haven’t responded in the way you think they ought to. I suppose under the circumstances you might decide that the next logical step was to resign from your professorship and spend the next ten years chaining yourself to the gates of power plants or something. What I object to is trying to have it both ways.

          • James Picone says:

            I don’t think the first resolves the problem – if scientists disagree with you on some matter, you’ve got an incentive to try and make that matter politically sensitive so as to exclude them from the conversation. And excluding the group of people best able to say “Well, this large set of facts is why I think X” from talking about politically sensitive issues is a great way to reduce quality of argument.

            Secondly, now scientists who discover that some action is dangerous, but can’t convince politicians or the public have to choose between trying to convince people and researching the dangerous thing? That does not sound optimal.

            I think this set of principles makes it exceptionally difficult for society to react to scientists discovering something is dangerous. I think if they were strictly followed, leaded petrol and paint, CFCs, acid rain and smoking would have been much larger problems than they were.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Here’s the problem:

            Scientists can’t debate with non-scientists without using non-scientific language.

            Once they start doing that, the human urge to show that you’re right and your opponent is wrong will do the rest, and the next thing you know scientists are spouting bullshit indistinguishable from that issuing from their opponents.

            You want to know the most ethical scientist I ever saw in a popular film, and one of the few who doesn’t constantly spout BS in the guise of science-y talk? Anne Heche’s character in “Volcano.”

            At one point the guy in charge of responding to the volcano questions her warning that the volcano isn’t done erupting by asking, “Are you sure?”

            She responds, “I’m a scientist. Certainty’s a big word.”

            And there’s the problem, in a nutshell. You can’t express normal scientific doubt in political debate, as we discussed elsewhere on this thread. So you can either be honest (and lose,) or you can lie about how sure you are (or, to be charitable, obfuscate the sources and level of uncertainty.)

            But if it’s not real science to claim you know something when p<.50 in a journal article, it's not real science to claim it in a political debate, and doing that causes exactly the discrediting effect Airgap is pointing out.

          • James Picone says:

            Note that Airgap wasn’t talking about debate, he was talking about ‘public outreach’, and the top comment that started this is essentially a lecture set to music. It’s education, not going on talk radio. I’m not sure entirely what category of communications Airgap is thinking of here, because he distinguishes it from ‘telling people’.

            I don’t think this kind of thing engenders doubt in science as a whole. My picture of the causality is something like Person strongly disagrees with some output of science -> Person finds scientist doing outreach -> Person complains about corruption/propaganda/pal review/whatever. That is, people who already distrusted some output of science are the people who care. They probably do want scientists to not do public outreach on their topic of importance, because they think the scientists are wrong.

            Were the researchers who discovered the CFC->ozone degradation link poor scientists for making a fuss about it, in your opinion?

          • Airgap says:

            I’m not sure entirely what category of communications Airgap is thinking of here, because he distinguishes it from ‘telling people’.

            I’d say if you discover that rising CO2 emissions will probably kill everyone, you could write a short, nontechnical article about it before going back to doing actual research, and leaving the creation of a mass movement for action to the people who do that shit for a living. You might occasionally give quotes to the paper to the effect that you agree with what the activists say (although if you’re agreeing with unsupported claims for political expediency, you have to turn in your scientist union card), but in general, you should stick to getting answers right, and avoid the task of getting right answers across. The deeper into a debate you are, the less you can see clearly, and that’s your job.

            Of course, you can reply “But there’s no debate here. There’s a scientific consensus against reactionary imperialist wreckers planting disinformation to deceive and harm the workers public!” Which might be true in a particular case, but doesn’t seem to prove the point. There’s no reason the good-guy propagandists can’t take on the bad-guy propagandists and leave the scientists to the science.

            Person strongly disagrees with some output of science -> Person finds scientist doing outreach -> Person complains about corruption/propaganda/pal review/whatever. That is, people who already distrusted some output of science are the people who care.

            They’re going to be the people most strongly motivated to make a big deal out of it, but what else do you expect? Do you never see people criticizing their “own side” on some matter of extra-issue conduct? Have you been reading the same SSC as the rest of us?

          • James Picone says:

            Under that system, Airgap, the Montreal protocol would probably have never been signed. I consider that a problem.

          • Airgap says:

            Under that system, Airgap, the Montreal protocol would probably have never been signed.

            No. Maybe “If the present system had been operating up until scientists wanted to advocate against CFCs, and then it was replaced by that system, then the Montreal Protocol probably wouldn’t have been implemented when it was implemented.” But maybe not. Also, the system would probably affect more than one thing, and you ought to consider the expected effect on all the things. (As an aside, there’s this guy Henry Hazlitt who you might want to read.)

            My theory is that the more you keep politics out of science, the more persuasive “There is a scientific consensus that X” is. Since basically anyone can spread that message, why you want scientists to do it is beyond me. You’d think they had enough to do already.

            One reason (but not the only one) that it would be more persuasive is that said consensus would be more likely to be true. Politics makes you stupid. It’s like smoking weed: It’s not a big deal if you want to do it at the end of the day to unwind, but it’s pretty irresponsible to do it at work.

          • James Picone says:

            So say Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina wrote a short, nontechnical article that got published in a few prominent newspapers, explaining that chemicals called ‘CFCs’, commonly used as a propellant in aerosols, a refrigerants, etc., damage the ozone layer and we should consider no longer emitting them. That’s it, they’re essentially out of public view from that point.

            So who starts up the movement to ban CFCs? Do we hope that a politician reads the article, is thoroughly convinced, and runs with it? Do we need some particular political movement (maybe hippies, given the subject matter and timing?) to pick it up and run with it?

            As far as I can tell there’s very little incentive for anyone to pick that issue up and run with it unless they can use it as a club to beat their opponents over the head (that is, if and only if it can be made political, and now everybody is obliged to fall into party lines). And this is /before/ industry insists CFCs are perfectly safe, look, here’s an expert who’ll say they can’t get into the stratosphere, Rowland and Molina are mavericks.

            I don’t see how it happens. CFCs, of course, are the easy one, because we very quickly had a surprising extreme event that demonstrated that the scientists involved were being too optimistic – they didn’t expect the ozone hole, they expected a global thinning over time.

            I want scientists to be able to do it, because a lot of the time the problem is educational – the vast majority of the population don’t know much about global warming, or CFCs, or DDT, or what-have-you – and the vast majority of the people who know enough to be educational are, at the very least, going to have some science training, even if they’re not actually a practicing scientist.

            Besides, the whole polite-nontechnical-article was arguably what was going on with the first two or three IPCC reports. Skepticalscience was launched in 2007. Realclimate in 2004. This art thing is recent.

            The first IPCC report was published in 1990, the second in 1995, and the third in 2001. The consensus has gotten noticeably stronger over the timeframe, but global warming skepticism was already a non-mainstream position in 1990.

            Given that writing dry scientific reports didn’t seem to be solving the problem…

          • Airgap says:

            So who starts up the movement to ban CFCs?

            Given that Rowland and Molina might have decided not to anyway, leaving us with the same question, it’s not clear how this is supposed to be a powerful objection.

            Do we hope that a politician reads the article, is thoroughly convinced, and runs with it?

            Be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? Note that I consider testifying before congress within the scope of telling people stuff, although admittedly disobeying the spirit of the rules is clearly a risk.

            As far as I can tell there’s very little incentive for anyone to pick that issue up and run with it unless they can use it as a club to beat their opponents over the head

            Or if they don’t want to die. I know political combat is a very popular form of collective action, but there are others.

            I don’t see how it happens.

            Before trying to determine whether it will happen from first principles, did you check whether it had ever happened before?

            Besides, the whole polite-nontechnical-article was arguably what was going on with the first two or three IPCC reports.

            Maybe the first two. Maybe. By TAR, the gloves were off.

            Given that writing dry scientific reports didn’t seem to be solving the problem…

            Well, it’s not entirely clear that writing inflammatory bullshit reports is having that much impact either. I see lots of talk, but not much action. UK said they were going to reduce emissions by 2050, probably hoping that people will have forgotten by then so that the present government at any given time doesn’t have to pay the political cost of implementing the reductions. CO2 has gone down a bit lately in the US, but I think the credit for that belongs more to the financial sector than derelict scientists.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            The first IPCC report was published in 1990, the second in 1995, and the third in 2001. The consensus has gotten noticeably stronger over the timeframe, but global warming skepticism was already a non-mainstream position in 1990.

            It would be interesting to see comparative timelines on the stages of this sort of thing — leaded gasoline, tobacco, etc — showing how soon the ‘skepticism’ push began (and where it was introduced, who funded it, etc). I would not be surprised if the respective industries were long on the watch for trouble, and pre-emptively began funding their own studies reporting the product safe, before the warnings could attract support.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            The issue is there isn’t a clear industry. While it clear how “cigarettes are bad” is something companies make cigarettes will fight, “CO2 is bad” doesn’t have a single industry it maps to easily. So you get a free rider and an additional issue.

            People like to talk about the oil companies, but demand for oil is pretty inelastic and the solutions tend to be focused on electrical power generation. Coal fired plants were already under attack by environmentalists so they don’t really worry about additional flak. So you don’t have strong incentives for these firms to fight anyway.

            So what you should expect is that while the above firms do put some money into this, it should be dramatically smaller than the other cases of corporate sponsored denialism.

            In fact given what has actually occurred you should expect some fossil fuel firms to be sponsoring what is supposed to be their opponents. Natural gas is a compliment to renewables and global warming acceptance makes greens stronger which weakens support for nuclear power which leads to more fossil fuel to take up the load (no, I’m not making that up- see Germany).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Samuel, while Germany’s decision to cut back nuclear power was bad on every criterion I can think of, it did not increase fossil fuel usage. Maybe it displaced gas with coal, increasing carbon output.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Samuel Sailer

            While it clear how “cigarettes are bad” is something companies make cigarettes will fight, “CO2 is bad” doesn’t have a single industry it maps to easily.

            ————————————-

            Starting from the other end, I wish someone would do something like this. Look at the deniers’ cites, follow their research backwards, see when their side’s first research was done, and who paid for it. What I’d expect is, the deniers would begin quietly initiating useful research, long in advance of need.

            We don’t need to speculate about how many industries or which ones contributed: that information is out there, though perhaps buried under cites of cites of cites. What would interest me is the dates: how long in advance was the denial research begun, how long was it held before wide release, did some increased publicity for the environmentalist side trigger the release, etc.

            Climate change deniers often accuse the other side of creating a consensus by jumping on a bandwagon for government grants etc. I think it more likely that, in the early days of such research, when the field was scanty, formless, and void, the most grant money and other funding would be coming from the threatened industries. It was the business world that had the motive, time, and money to start building the first bandwagon (in the darkness till needed of course).

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “What I’d expect is, the deniers would begin quietly initiating useful research, long in advance of need.”

            That’s sort of impossible in this case. It isn’t like people knew to start with the carbon dioxide was an actual issue. You can find this with cigarettes because they advertised themselves as healthy (and so were interested in that information to start with). You might be able to find that with unleaded gasoline because the idea something is toxic isn’t such a big leap.

            As far as I’m aware, the push by companies against global warming by funding scientific research took place in the 1990s. The ozone layer put global issues involving the atmosphere on the map and the 1990s were exceptionally hot.

            DK
            http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Electricity_Production_in_Germany.svg

            I may be misinterpreting this but it looks like the amount of fossil fuels and nuclear power started to go down around 08 (yes, I know that is around the depression)

            Then nuclear keep on declining and fossil fuel started to increase. Relative to long run demand fossil fuel usage hasn’t increased; relative to half a decade it looks like it has. Since the graph cuts off in 2011 (and the recent plant additions were since then) I would think the total fossil fuel usage has increased further. Wiki doesn’t have any more recent data with the except they note that renewable usage has dropped about .4% between 2011-2013 but that is for “primary energy consumption”.

            Looking at the trends for the UK and the US (which had a noticeable and slight decline for fossil fuels during that same time), nuclear slumped with the recession, but didn’t keep dropping and renewables grew. They aren’t the best comparison (they had a boom in fossil fuel in the 1990s; Germany was relatively flat during that time), but if you have a better source please share it. I don’t have the link to the one you previously provided (aside from it getting lost when my hard drive had to be replaced, I didn’t book mark it. I have an aversion to sites that claim “needs more labor” is good- the economist in me is instinctively repelled).

          • James Picone says:

            Mostly industry isn’t funding skeptic research in climate science – there’s very little of it being done. Most of the scientists who do publish skeptical research are being funded by industry / lobby groups (Willie Soon being the most recent notable example, but IIRC there’s reason to believe Carter, McIntyre, etc. are getting some funding), yes, but they don’t actually do much research – mostly they produce blogs, books, lectures, articles in newspapers and magazines, etc.. Industry is funding PR.

            That said, it’s also a bit schizophrenic. Some of the energy companies – BP, for example, I think? – are actually advocating for carbon taxes. Maybe because they accept the science, maybe because they’ve diversified sufficiently that they think it’ll hurt competitors more than them, maybe because they see a significant role for natural gas and they’ve got interests there, I dunno.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            SS: “Relative to half a decade”? No, relative to a cherry-picked baseline of 2009. If your baseline is either 2008 or 2010, it has declined. And even if you do take the baseline of 2009, it’s a pretty small change. Here is a graph that goes a couple years later.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ James Picone
            That said, it’s also a bit schizophrenic. Some of the energy companies – BP, for example, I think? – are actually advocating for carbon taxes.

            Saluting BP’s schizophrenic, my paranoid says that enormous companies with lots of accountants and research people and cash on the ground as needed, might do very well under carbon taxes, especially a company that is one of the early supporters and may have influence on how the law is written. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that the other companies will be happy in that briar patch too.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Samuel Sailer
            It isn’t like people knew to start with the carbon dioxide was an actual issue.

            Still, producers of smoke, smog, pea soupers etc have been under attack for a long time, so they might well have the last issue’s funded think tanks ready to work on whatever particular issue their attackers would come up with next.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “SS: “Relative to half a decade”? No, relative to a cherry-picked baseline of 2009.”

            I picked it because the Great Recession was a pretty universal shock. It is abundantly clear that Germany’s electrical market is not like the US or UK (who looked very different between 1980 and now; Germany’s usage of fossil fuels is a slow decline until the early 90s and a moderate increase in the mid 2000s; both these occur with nearly no effect from other sources while the US is a constant increase in fossil fuels until the Great Recession and the UK looks like it is substituting fossil fuels for nuclear power from 1998-2008) so I’m not willing to use any time before it. You should expect a drop in electrical generation, a recovery and then… England keeps on dropping in fossil fuels, but Germany doesn’t. If Germany builds more fossil fuels burning plants after the end date of the graph than the amount of fossil fuels Germany uses will go up.

            “If your baseline is either 2008 or 2010, it has declined. And even if you do take the baseline of 2009, it’s a pretty small change. Here is a graph that goes a couple years later.”

            Look, if you don’t want to continue the conversation, you don’t have to. However you are using what appears to be “percentage of energy mix from different sources”. That only proves that renewables is increasing faster than fossil fuels.

            “Still, producers of smoke, smog, pea soupers etc have been under attack for a long time, so they might well have the last issue’s funded think tanks ready to work on whatever particular issue their attackers would come up with next.”

            I don’t know; they didn’t show that degree of proactivity dealing with acid rain even though the mechanism behind it was a lot more easily to foresee in advance.

            This sort of behavior requires long term planning, a decent amount of scientific knowledge and a ruthless clear-sighted self interest I don’t think such firms are capable of. It isn’t like fossil fuel firms had any idea the temperate would rise; it was dropping from 1950-1970. Understanding what was going on and deciding it might become an issue latter requires an understanding of the climate (both global and social) that no one had at the time. Afterwards there wasn’t a reason to be worried- global warming got into the publics consciousness following the ozone scare when people suddenly realized we could screw up the atmosphere in pretty impressive ways (note; based on personal recollection of the early 90s and the fact that the IPCC and other things related to global warming starting taking off just after the Ozone issue was confirmed).

        • keranih says:

          This captures a great deal of why I’m frustrated with this sort of presentation.

          If fact X implies a risk to [n] people, then steps to reduce that risk should be considered, in conjunction with our certainty of fact X, the nature of the risk in question, and the size of [n].

          There are likely a multitude of steps which might impact either the risk or the size of [n] affected, and a variety of side effects of each of these steps.

          In order to choose the most appropriate response to the risk, we have to understand the relationships between the effects of the steps, the cost of the steps, and just how big a problem the risk is in the first place.

          And if it’s a society-wide problem in a democracy, we need buy-in from a large chunk of society.

          It’s not best to use emotion to weigh the accuracy of the process used to determine fact X, or the character of the risk, or the [n] involved, or the scope of solutions possible, or the projected side-effects of those solutions. It’s best to use rationality.

          As humans, we’re not getting completely away from irrational responses. But, to me, the deliberate choice to use emotion to drive selection of solutions is *wrong*.

          • Limimi says:

            I don’t know – I agree wholeheartedly that, in a perfect world, rationality should be used an emotion should count for little. But emotion counts for everything in this world and rationality is belittled or silenced outright. If we’re talking about something that you believe is literally life threatening, then appealing to emotion is unfortunately the only way to get anywhere with normal people.

    • Deiseach says:

      He’s doing this for the same reason animal shelters use pictures of cute puppies and famine relief charities use pictures of starving babies – to tug at the heart strings and evoke a “someone must DO something” reaction. You don’t up the mangy three-legged older dog which is the one which really needs the services, because that’s a turn-off to the public; you put up the cute puppy which gets the “aw, cute!” reaction which makes people reach into their pockets. You don’t put up the adults who are suffering because they’re not as appealing as the winsome big-eyed waifs. Some charities are using professional actors or models, particularly child actors or models, in newspaper and magazine campaigns in England, particularly homeless charities: part of this is not to use ‘real people’ because of issues of confidentiality and treating them with dignity, but part of it is also ‘real people’ are inconveniently not as attractive and appealing and able to portray “I am an innocent, suffering, big-eyed waif” as a trained actor can do.

      It’s not about science, it’s about the gut-reaction – “bellyfeel”, as Orwell put it in “1984”.

      • How large is the cost of that policy through persuading attentive observers that what you are doing is a fraud and, by perhaps illegitimate inference, that all attempts to urge benevolence are fraudulent? At only a slight tangent …

        When I was in my early twenties I spent a summer as a congressional intern. My congressman lent me out four days a week to the Joint Economic Committee, which lent me to a group producing a fact book on state and local finance.

        I pointed out a fact that was obviously true (demographics about people already born), obviously important (it had to do with costs of schooling, the largest expenditure of state and local governments). They denied neither that it was true nor that it was important but refused to include it in their fact book because it was a reason state and local governments would need less money than one might expect, and they wanted the readers of their fact book to believe they would need more.

        Since then my working assumption is that any academic work on a politically live issue is likely to be fraudulent, since I observed it happening at first hand. One may read this in two ways:

        1. And a good thing too, because it’s true.

        2. But some people do honest work, and I won’t believe that either.

        • Deiseach says:

          Speaking as a very minor bureaucratic minion, I can understand why your fact book people didn’t want to include your true, important fact, and that is the dreaded word CLAWBACK 🙂

          So they include your true, important fact and that demonstrates they don’t need as much money in the budget as last year. Great! Money saved!

          Except they don’t get to keep that money, it has to be returned to central government (or whoever provided it in the first place).

          Secondly, they then get a decreased budget for next year, since they’ve demonstrated that they don’t need as much money.

          And so if anything unforeseen crops up (five thousand extra babies are born above the numbers forecast, thirty thousand Polish electricians move in to take advantage of the booming construction industry and all need Polish grocery stores to cater to them, Giant Purple Triffids infest the local waterways), there is no ‘give’ there to absorb the extra costs. Either services have to be cut, or taxes raised, or nothing is done, and the public will like none of those choices and will complain very loudly.

          And you can’t go cap in hand to central government looking for “hey, how about returning that spare money to us?” because it’s already been spent, and now you and every other state are back at square one looking for extra money for next year’s budget, and you all get assessed the same.

          So that’s why at year’s end in every government department and local government office, if there’s any money left in the kitty, you are told “For God’s sake spend it on something, anything, so we can say truthfully we used up our entire budget and put in for the same or an increased amount next year”.

          • The people I was working with were not a state or local government. They were academics, making up a group that was, under various hats, a project of the Joint Economic Committee (federal), a project of George Washington University, and a project of the Governors’ Conference. They were, supposedly, producing information that the interested layman could use to understand issues having to do with state and local finance.

            Of course the Governors’ Conference would want them to produce arguments for states getting more money. The fact that they were willing to do deliberately dishonest work, either to please one of the groups they were working for or to satisfy their own political preferences, was what I found shocking.

    • James Picone says:

      Looks like kitschy, terrible art intended to carry A Message. Not so much science, but I don’t think anyone is trying to do science here. I can respect trying a new tack in science communication here, because public understanding of climate science is abysmal. I don’t know what the actual content of his lecture is, so I have no idea how accurate / well-explained it is.

      • Deiseach says:

        Been here before in the late 80s with Heathcote Williams, James. I had to suffer through “Whale Nation” because of my vegan brother 🙂

      • keranih says:

        Even it is well explained and correct, does that justify the use of emotional manipulation to get people to agree to proposed courses of action?

        Of course, if it is not correct, then the use of emotion only compounds the wrongness, IMO.

        • James Picone says:

          I didn’t even bother watching the video attached, so I don’t know what the actual content is. I could imagine ways where it could be fine.

          For example, if they’re essentially giving a lecture on climate change to music, which is roughly what I think is going on, then using art to try to make something memorable and interesting while doing basic education is fine, maybe even laudable if it’s good art.

          If they’re using art to give people happyfeels associated with Doing Something About Global Warming, but not specifically pushing a solution, than I’m just kind of meh. Kind of icky and exploiting people and we-know-best, but on the other hand we really do need to do something about global warming.

          If they’re pushing a particular strategy, I’m not too happy. Global warming is complicated enough that strategies for dealing with it are unlikely to be explained particularly well here (beyond, I guess, ‘price carbon’).

          Part of the problem here is that the populace knows approximately nothing about global warming, other than it’s bad, it involves CO2, and there are vague associations with hippies and maybe hurting the economy. The usual mechanisms that feed new scientific ideas out into the wider community either work too slowly to be useful here, or have failed for whatever reason (they never worked to begin with, global warming is counterintuitive or difficult in some way that sabotages it (the difference between climate and weather probably being the big one), active and loud entrenched interests deliberately muddying the waters). In an environment like that, new science-communication approaches that actually contain educational content are a really good thing for people to be trying. I wouldn’t even mind if a bunch of the populace that is currently undecided ended up as climate skeptics, if they at least knew what climate sensitivity was and didn’t claim that everything is a huge conspiracy.

          EDIT: Watched the video now, it’s essentially just wank and very little actual information about what’s going on. Other than the article talking it being “…a lecture on climate with a musical performance”. The webpage for the thing has an excerpt, though. Looks closer to a vaguely plaintive cry that Someone Do Something than anything else, but could potentially have legitimate educational content. There’s some ecological stuff I don’t know enough about to critique, although the claim that the ecosystem “doesn’t produce waste” raised an eyebrow.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            And there you have it. This is, inevitably, what happens in these situations. Noble intentions turn into, with depressing speed, “wank.”

  34. Peter says:

    A silly trolly dilemma for fans of the genre:

    You and a colleague are working in the Hypothetical Situation Mines. Your colleage needs to do some work on some train tracks, he says, “Keep an eye out for trollies for me” – he’s concentrating hard on his work, has ear defenders or something on that means he can’t look out for himself but you can signal to him. Sure enough a trolley appears, heading towards him. You then – surprise surprise – notice five people further down the track, all in a cluster. If you don’t warn your colleage he’ll die – and block the trolley, saving the five people further down the track.

    I have a maxim for situations like this: “when you’re in a hypothetical situation, shoot someone!” But leaving aside the question of what one really should do, and looking for instinctive responses, the instinctive response is to say I should warn my colleague. This seems to go counter to the usual act/omission distinctions that tend to result in five dead people.

    • John Schilling says:

      Warn him. Stopping the trolley is his job. He can certainly block the trolley with his body, he may be able to stop the trolley by some other means you don’t know about.

      And yes, shoot someone. Whenever you’re in a thought experiment where there’s an obvious ethical course of action except, look, over here, five innocent people who will absolutely certainly die, cannot be saved by any means but doing the otherwise-obviously-unethical thing!, that didn’t happen by accident. Shoot the asshole who tied those people to the tracks to make a philosophical point 🙂

      • onyomi says:

        “Warn him. Stopping the trolley is his job. He can certainly block the trolley with his body…”

        Yes, also this allows the one making the sacrifice to determine whether or not he wants to make the sacrifice (assuming he can’t do anything else to stop the trolley other than sacrificing himself), which eliminates the objection I always have to the usual answer to the trolley problem (that it unfairly takes away the agency of the one sacrificed “for the greater good”).

        • DanielLC says:

          By the same token, shouldn’t the five people on the track get a chance to decide if they want to make the sacrifice to save the one person?

          • onyomi says:

            They were already going to die if conditions remained unchanged, like the patients who will die without the organ transplants in the surgeon problem. Most people have a different intuition about the surgeon vs. the trolley car problem, but I’m not sure why (seriously, I wish I understood what, exactly, it is, since I share it, to some extent, even though I have the same problem, in both cases, with forcing someone to make a sacrifice; my best guess is that it is the same as the difference with the fat man problem, namely that the fat man and the healthy patient seem to be in no danger and you kill them, whereas the people on two different train tracks both seem to be in danger and you merely choose who dies).

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Don’t shoot anybody. Shoot the track switch and send the trolley into the bottomless gorge someone inexplicably built a spur into. If it’s good enough for Indiana Jones, it’s good enough for me.

    • Jiro says:

      A world where people keep their word is, on the average, better than one where they don’t, even if failing to keep their word is better in some specific situations So you should precommit to keeping the “warn of trolleys” deal. When the trolley actually comes, your precommitment will then force you to warn him, regardless of whether his death saves more people.

      You could instead precommit to “keep your word except in situation X”, but that only works if X is a Schelling point (otherwise “a world where…” is not possible.) And “warn me unless my death saves more people” is not a Schelling point.

      Most people are unable to do this when it’s called a “precommitment” but they can do it when the precommitments are called “honor”, “ethics codes”, “honesty”, etc.

      Disclaimer: I am not a utilitarian.

      • DanielLC says:

        Suppose you always keep your word. Someone asks you to watch for trolleys for him. Should you say “I’ll warn you if I see a trolley except in the unlikely event that failing to warn you will save more lives”?

        • Jiro says:

          If the solution to the no-promise version of the problem is that you should warn him unless it saves more lives, then the solution to the version with promises would indeed be what you describe.

          However, it seems to me that the no-promise version is also subject to similar reasoning. Given how bad people’s judgment is about whether sacrificing lives is necessary, we should precommit to not sacrificing such lives. This will cause a worse result in the cases where your judgment is correct and more people would have been saved by sacrificing others, but averaged over all worlds, including ones where your judgment is erroneous, it would produce a better result. Again, people do precommit in this manner, they just don’t call it precommitment.

    • Deiseach says:

      Shove him under the trolley yourself. At the very moment he was a potential trolley-sacrifice, the Trolley Which Must Be Appeased appeared and The Small Crowd Comprising The Mystic Number Of Five also appeared.

      This is a sign from the Trolley Gods that he is the chosen victim and if you fail to appease them, who knows what untold horrors they will unleash in their wrath? 🙂

      • Kiya says:

        Down with the Trolley Gods. Destroy all trolleys. Their covenant to transport our goods from point A to point B was not worth the cost. Follow me to the distant land of hypothetical scenarios where mules carry everything and no one gets trampled.

        • Deiseach says:

          If we are to believe these hypothetical scenarios, the only conveying trolleys do is OF OUR SOULS TO HELL FOR MURDER!!!!!

          🙂

        • Airgap says:

          Did you forgot how the Trolley Gods “so loved the world that they gave their only begotten handcar, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life?”

          Forgive them, father, they know not what they do.

          • Deiseach says:

            Au contraire, Airgap, whomsoever believeth in the Trolley Gods, the same shall select and take and sacrifice as a sin offering to the Gods of the Trolley the person who is in the place of the five (or it may be the ten) who are the People of the Trolley Gods, and he shall be a sacrifice before the People, and his blood shall be shed, and scattered, and sprinkled upon and before and behind the Handcar, that he shall make an atonement through his oblation by the holy Handcar because of the People of the Trolley Gods, lest they should perish because of their transgressions in all their sins.

            And so shall the Trolley Gods be appeased, and the People be spared, and the holy Handcar of the Trolley Gods pass over and be diverted away from the dwelling-places and standing-places of the People of the Trolley Gods, from the track where they are even unto the track where they are not, and the Five (or it may be Ten) shall be spared through the sacrifice for them of the One.

            This is Old Testament, not New Testament, Hypothetical Scenario, Airgap. I’m sure it’s all in Leviticus somewhere 😉

          • John Schilling says:

            There are parts of the Old Testament that I could never read as anything but horrific in the original (and hopefully mistranslated) context. I should like to thank you all for casting them in such a humorously entertaining light. Clearly, your scripture-fu is better than mine 🙂

    • DrBeat says:

      If your only options for saving people from this trolley in a mine built to have goddamned trolleys in it and built to have people in it not being killed by trolleys is “let someone die to reduce the trolley’s forward momentum”, then every single person involved in every single stage of the process of mine creation and trolley management has fucked up so comprehensively that all of the rules of reality have broken down. You just throw up your hands and shout “Nope! Fuck it, I’m done,” walk out, and get a job eating hypothetical pies instead.

      In seriousness: responses to questions like this are valueless, as are the questions themselves. They are gibberish. They are not words, they are noises. Every such hypothetical is posed as an excuse to make someone admit to something or make a choice that the question-poser wants them to admit or choose, even if the only goal is “to feel smugly superior to the answerer.” There are some questions where the only correct answer is not Option A or Option B, but “Fuck you,” and every trolley problem falls into this category.

      • Deiseach says:

        I always thought the Trolley Problem was set in the public streets, where the tram lines are (and where people and other vehicles are also using the roads). That’s why I could visualise the tram on the wrong track where five (or ten) people are crossing the street and do you switch the tram to the track which will kill the single person?

        Though now I’m getting the image of the trolley in the mines and the postulator of the problem being interrupted just as they are getting into the full swing of “Do you throw the switch to change the tracks” by someone in a hi-vis jacket with a clipboard going “Hello, I’m the Health and Safety rep and I’m here to talk to you about your lack of trolley safety protocols” 🙂

  35. Deiseach says:

    While Scott is off to California in the morning, I’ll throw this one in for advice or opinion from ye all.

    So I’ve finally bitten the bullet and asked my GP about going on anti-depressants. She’s referred me to counselling instead, not wanting to go down the medication route if we can try something else first. Since everyone on my father’s side of the family (including my late father) is or was on “pills for their nerves”, I too don’t want to go down the medication route if I can help it.

    Thing is, I don’t think I can help it. Not any more.

    So, counselling. Any good, or would I be better standing on the bridge throwing stones into the quay? Or just Google the most prescribed anti-depressant and order that off the Internet as self-medication?

    Because I know I am already setting myself up to sabotage this, and I only made the phone call to set up the initial assessment this lunchtime!

    (1) It will involve talking about feelings. I don’t do feelings. I think, I don’t feel. “How do you feel about that/how does that make you feel?” I. DON’T. KNOW. IF. I. KNEW. HOW. I. FELT. I. WOULDN’T. BE. HERE.

    (2) Reading the information leaflet I am already snorting and rolling my eyes –
    Counselling may involve:
    – Discovering new ways of coping
    – Making changes
    – Developing new skills and finding what works for you

    I know I need to make changes, but I’m very resistant. And if ‘discovering new ways of coping’ involves cute verbal tricks to re-programme the brain and fool yourself into feeling better/jarring yourself out of the old rut, it won’t work for me because as I said on here before, my paternal family are extremely good with language and I will be too aware of word-manipulation for it to work; it’s like knowing how the magician does the trick before he pulls the card out of the boiled egg, you aren’t fooled even though you want to be.

    (3) See what I mean about setting up to sabotage it before it even begins?

    (4) I am very good at bullshitting. Very good. This has been my coping strategy to date. Even if the counsellor/therapist knows I’m bullshitting and not really doing my mental and verbal exercises like a good little client, I’m not on medication, I’m not a suicide risk, and I’m not in danger of harming others so the worst sanction they can give me is “You’re not serious about this, so I’m ending these sessions”. Which is no sanction, because I don’t want to sit there for half an hour over eight weeks and talk about how I’m feeling and tell you the sorry tale of my failed life .

    Anyone considered themselves to be/has been diagnosed as clinically depressed, over a long period, and done counselling either on its own or in tandem with medication? Worth putting myself through the wringer (bearing in mind I REALLY REALLY DON’T WANT TO DO THIS but if I don’t do something now, when am I ever going to do it? and I can’t live another year like this, not after forty years of it) or not?

    • Vaniver says:

      I don’t do feelings.

      I don’t do feelings, yet.

      I know I need to make changes, but I’m very resistant.

      The primary thing you want to look for is a counselor that you will like as a person. Tell your counselor that you’re looking for a strong therapeutic alliance, and don’t be afraid to switch if you don’t have one.

      I would recommend printing out this comment and showing it to any counselor you want to work with. This will cut through some of the bullshit, and you might not be surprised to learn that this is a typical response to counseling, and they likely have strategies in place to deal with this (or can refer you to a counselor who specializes in people with your preferences).

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t do feelings yet

        I don’t want to do feelings at all. I’m very happy (where “happy” means “I don’t throw up from anxiety”) not having feelings. I don’t want to care about people and things. I don’t want to be chirping with the bluebirds, thanks very much.

        RE: switching counsellors, it’s more a matter of taking what I can get. It’s an initiative of the national health service that has only recently started up, and like every other national health service provision, it’s:

        – You’ll be on a waiting list to be seen (about 8-10 weeks)
        – Whoever we have who is available to take you is the person you’ll be seeing

        I absolutely don’t want to do this at all, but I’m at a low enough ebb finally that I’m being forced to do something at long last about the inside of my head.

        • speedwell says:

          The Irish don’t do therapy, my husband says. Well, HE doesn’t do therapy. He didn’t understand when I was trying to save my sanity while applying for his green card in the US (an eight month separation) and wondered, innocently, I thought I was ill. Well, yes, I was crying every day because I didn’t know whether to expect good news or bad, and I didn’t have the coping skills to deal with my feelings, and I found an excellent therapist in my city in Texas who taught me the things I had never learned about managing unwanted thoughts. Now that we’re in Sligo, and dealing with joblessness (he did have a job for a while, but nothing since it ended), those lessons are coming in handy.

          If you need medication, you need it. I will say that. I don’t have good results on any medication I’ve tried, and my case is almost certainly different from yours. But even though I’m a lurker and you don’t know me well, maybe you’d like a Skype chat or (depending where you are) even tea from time to time while you are waiting on the wheels to grind slowly on your therapy options. I know I’ve been feeling isolated and it would help me too. My username at hotmail.com if you feel like contacting me 🙂

          • Deiseach says:

            Thank you for the very kind offer, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I can’t do (it’s not you, it’s me).

            I can type it out, because it’s pixels on a screen. Looking someone in the face and saying it – no. Impossible.

            Which is why (sigh) a blister pack of tablets is easier than ‘go to hospital in town, meet counsellor, sit there with her looking at you for twenty-thirty minutes, real human being in the flesh now knows all your miserable pathetic worthlessness’.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          While you’re on the waiting list, ask your parish priest about other resources for counseling.

        • Nicholas says:

          >I don’t want to do feelings at all. I’m very happy (where “happy” means “I don’t throw up from anxiety”) not having feelings. I don’t want to care about people and things. I don’t want to be chirping with the bluebirds, thanks very much.
          >
          This is a meaningful, large, and potentially chunky part of why you have been recommended therapy. You have not prevented yourself from having feelings, statistically speaking, you have trained your mind to flinch from thoughts that might make you aware of your feelings, so that you can have a learned blankness about the content of your feelings. You have responded to a blinking red light on a machine by taping over the light so you can’t see it, and now the machine is breaking and the technician is going to lecture you on how you don’t fix your engine by disabling the check engine light.

          • Deiseach says:

            I do realise that, but the thing is:

            – I have a particular feeling about a particular situation right now
            – Rationally, I know the objective actual reality is one way and how I feel about it is the other
            – The feeling is demonstrably false, inaccurate, and distorting my perception of the reality
            – I therefore choose to discount the feeling and go with bringing my reasoning in line with the reality
            – The feeling may be valid as a feeling, but it is in direct conflict with reality and so it is not helping me if I act as if the feeling is true or accurate or helpful when it is none of those things

            It’s more like a car alarm beeping because it was set off at random, than a fault light flashing to indicate the engine is out of oil.

            That is, I have no reason to believe the feelings are anything more than false positives in themselves, rather than being indicators of an underlying problem that needs fixing (or that can be fixed).

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Not all counsellors use these techniques. Ones that don’t default to them can be hard to find, but they do exist. Good luck.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Try CBT. It’s still “talking about feelings” but it’s not “about how I’m feeling and tell you the sorry tale of my failed life.”

      • Deiseach says:

        What turns me off about the little I’ve read on CBT is precisely the clever verbal tricks part: it’s no damn good me telling myself a mantra that boils down to “every day in every way things are getting better and better”.

        I know the necessity for faith, but frankly I prefer using faith to invoke the aid of St Anthony of Padua (recently helped me find something lost yet again, thanks St Anthony!) than go on a “complete this assignment by attending a social event” programme of behavioural change.

        I don’t want to attend social events. That’s what I mean by bullshitting: I can force myself (save up enough spoons, to borrow the concept) to do this once, or even twice.

        Well, great! You’ve done that and it wasn’t as awful as you thought so you can do it again another time and, like exercise, the more you do it, the easier it gets!

        Except it doesn’t. I’ve done that “force yourself into a situation you avoid” thing before and it’s been:

        1. Okay, expended a massive amount of psychic effort on forcing myself to do this and behave in a ‘normal’ way
        2. Short term ‘that wasn’t so bad’ result
        3. Do it again. Same amount of massive psychic expenditure.
        4. No short-term relief, just tiredness from massive psychic expenditure.
        5. Like exercise, you have to do this again and again and again. Once more, scrape up enough psychic resources to do this. Unlike alleged effects of exercise, it doesn’t get easier the more you do it: it still takes massive psychic expenditure, and the well is running dry by this point.
        6. Aftermath – I hated that. I hate it, I’m exhausted, I didn’t have fun, I’m never doing that again.
        7. I don’t do that again because I simply haven’t the spoons until I recharge over months.

        That’s why this time round I broke down and asked for drugs. Typical of my luck: I was offered anti-anxiety drugs when I didn’t want them; now I want anti-depressants, I can’t get them 🙂

        • Marc Whipple says:

          The weird thing about mantras is that they work even if you think they are total bullpuckey, and nobody knows why.

          I should amend that: believing that they are total bullpuckey has a very small effect on their effectiveness, so long as that belief doesn’t interefere with you actually practicing them. If you don’t do them because you don’t think they’ll work, your belief will have a 100% negatory effect. 🙂

          • speedwell says:

            Seconding the use of mantras. They help me very much, especially because I’ve always turned to song and chant as a way of self-calming (I hum all the damn time, lol). A Hindu priest in Houston told me that he didn’t care if I believed in the deity or not, and that it might be useful for me, the atheist, to think of the mantra as a way to focus on the thing in reality that the deity represented. This makes sense to me.

            Search for Deva Premal on YouTube if you want a soothing, Western-compatible start.

        • Setsize says:

          Your bit about disliking verbal tricks had me thinking “this person might do better with Mindfulness flavored therapy than with CBT flavored therapy.”

          Also, as someone with limited social/interaction spoons I have found group sessions to be far more tolerable than one-on-one, because you do more listening than speaking in a group, and you get to think about other people’s problems a little more.

        • Nicholas says:

          How many situations did you put yourself in? The advice I remember (through a haze of years) was that I would have to put myself into my particular ‘learning environment’ a few time a week for two years, and then I might see noticeable effects.

      • Airgap says:

        I don’t know much about CBT in a clinical setting, but if it’s anything like the way it’s portrayed in porn, I can’t see how it’d do you any good.

        • Deiseach says:

          You naughty person, you, Airgap!

          Yes, it’s an unfortunate acronym 🙂

          Luckily (or not?) I do not possess the requisite dangly bits for that particular course of physical behaviour-modification.

    • Z.Frank says:

      I have Persistent Depressive Disorder, or what they used to call dysthymia. I’ve had it since adolescence. Only within the past year did I seek treatment. Partly this was because I’d expected that eventually my life satisfaction would improve “on its own” after I’d achieved some milestone, like getting my degree or getting a good job or having a loving, long-term relationship with someone. None of these things actually helped.

      But part of the reason I didn’t seek treatment was because I saw my symptoms of dysthymia as interconnected to some of the things about me I value most. I’m pessimistic and cynical because I reject all kinds of magical and wishful thinking. I don’t believe that the world is necessarily a good one or that humanity on a whole is necessarily good, I don’t believe that repeated feelings of inadequacy are necessarily the result of some delusion, I don’t believe that everyone can succeed, and I don’t believe that a “positive outlook” actually makes things better for you (excepting by maybe making other people find you more pleasant to be around). Much of what I read in “self-help” books and much of the descriptions I’d read of psychotherapy was profoundly alienating to me. A lot of it sounded like the sort of nonsense you’d find in the New Age section of a bookstore, not much better than the “Law of Attraction;” a lot of it seemed anti-rational, like it was saying that to be happy you need to systematically overestimate your abilities and how much you matter to others.

      One especially alienating thing I read recently was in Seligman’s Flourish, where he quotes one of his former students on how positive psychology transformed her life. She talks about how she became “a happier person, more attuned to [her] own spirituality and to reasons to celebrate gratitude” and how she used “visualization techniques” like “meditation and collaging.” She was trying to “get romantic love into her life” – to find a husband basically. She says: “My collage had words and images outlining how I wanted my life to be. … I chose my favourite love song, the James Taylor version of ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),’ and every night before bed for the three months before I met my husband, I listened to it religiously, as if to serenade love into my life. The words ‘How Sweet It Is’ were also on my collage, right above the words ‘Bridal Suite.'”

      Seligman apparently thought this was representative of the application of positive psychology techniques, or at least of the outcomes you get from applying those techiques, or else he wouldn’t have included it in his book where he did. But I don’t want to be “attuned to my spirituality,” because I don’t believe in “spirituality.” I find it superstitious to believe “visualization techniques” will bring anything into my life and I don’t want to do anything “religiously.” And I will never, ever be the kind of person who will find “collaging” useful or meaningful for anything. Reading this passage I got the sense that positive psychology – or maybe just being happy in general – just isn’t for people with my personality. And I got the sense that maybe to be happy you have to be gullible.

      Anyway, I’m now on anti-depressants and taking an online course of CBT therapy. I do not think I’ve gotten any better. But the good news is that the therapy, so far, isn’t as bullshit as I thought it would be. A lot of the stuff it is saying I’ve heard before and some of its advice isn’t really implementable, but the therapy isn’t as filled with wishful-thinking or anti-rationality as I worried.

      Perhaps the course would work for you, Deiseach, though I know what you’re looking for is drugs.
      https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome

      I should warn that the material is written in an… unusual style. I guess I would describe it as the style you would get if you translated the text into English from some other language quite literally, without worrying about awkward constructions. Or maybe it is written like someone trying, but failing badly, at emulating the style you get in children’s picture books. It’s weird, but amusing.

      • Deiseach says:

        I should thank everyone for their advice, which I will now do.

        Thank you all.

        Counselling is going to be hard work. A pill, on the other hand, is much easier. I can screw my courage up to go to the initial assessment. I can probably force myself to attend the first appointment. After that?

        Plus, if the first meeting is “Assess if and what is wrong with you”, then I am woefully tempted not to give the honest answers but the answers that will tick off as “Not too screwed-up at all; only take a recommendation of a self-help book, teach a few techniques and good to go after two-three sessions” so as to get out of the damn thing.

        If it’s to do any good, I will have to answer honestly.

        I do not want to answer honestly. I do not want to talk to someone face-to-face about “Well, actually, no, I don’t have what you Earth-humans call ‘friends’.”

      • Deiseach says:

        This is precisely the attitude I have, Z. Frank. Anything that involves trying to change my attitudes by telling myself “You are smart, you are important, and people like you!” is going to have my bullshit detectors pinging so hard, I’ll sound like the carillon of Cobh Cathedral.

        Because I’m not smart, I’m not important, I don’t matter, and while people don’t dislike me, they’re not going to be devastated if I dropped off the face of the earth in the morning.

        Drugs would be easier 🙂

        • FacelessCraven says:

          “Because I’m not smart, I’m not important, I don’t matter, and while people don’t dislike me, they’re not going to be devastated if I dropped off the face of the earth in the morning.”

          You sound a lot like me. For some life situations, an optimistic assessment seems perversely unrealistic. A big part of the reason I have zero interest in therapy is that talking about why my life is miserable, or how it came to be miserable, does nothing to make it less miserable. I already know how to improve it, the problem is summoning up the willpower to do so, over and over again over a long enough time frame to achieve results. Chemicals might help with that. scripted conversation seems unlikely to.

          Friends might, though.

          • Nicholas says:

            One of the more peculiar things in life is thinking that I know I disagree with you now, and that I agreed with you in the past, and also that I will agree with you in the future. Because my meta-awareness that my brain is multi-optimizing won’t be able to to free my limbic system from the rogue forces.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thanks for the MoodGYM recommendation and this is genuine thanks, not sarcasm. I wanted to make that very clear at the start, because WARNING: SWEARING AND FOUL LANGUAGE AHEAD.

        (1) It appears to be written in an informal style, so it’s using Australian slang. Thank the stars for children’s TV where, due to exposure to programmes like “Round the Twist”, I recognise many of these expressions 🙂

        (2) Sweet bleeding wounds of Christ, I hope nothing like this is going to crop up in these counselling sessions or I’m out the door like a shot off a shovel.

        NO, I do NOT want to click on the icons and find out about the MoodGYM characters. Sure, I recognise it’s a cutesie way of personifying the concepts, and that I’m supposed to pick one and identify with them, so as (for instance) Elle gets better I get better; as I cheer her on, I cheer myself on.

        FUCK OFF. WHAT AM I, SIX? NO, I DO NOT NEED A TEDDYBEAR TO CUDDLE.

        (3) Oh great, a graph with no context. Are these ‘scores’ on the quizzes high, low, average? What is the maximum or minimum here? Am I fucked-up, really fucked-up, or dude, that is some fucked-up fucked-upness right there, the likes of which has never before been seen in the history of fucked-upness?

        (4) Oh double great. Weepy pathetic Elle whom I want to smack in the mush (and I’ve only just met the character) thinks she would be happy if only she could get love because she wants a man (well, maybe she wants a woman. Or an octopus. She just wants LOVE anyway, tanjdammit!). Her ‘happy’ counterpart who is supposed to be the contrast is all ‘yeah, beating the birds off with a stick, me’.

        TREBLE FUCK OFF. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO GET THEIR ASHES HAULED. NOT EVERYONE THINKS AMOR VINCIT OMNIA. EXCUSE ME, WHERE IS THE ASEXUAL/AROMANTIC VERSION OF THIS CRAPPY QUIZ?

        So far, so good! I am enjoying the hell out of myself snarking at this, but if it’s intended to be actual helpful ‘based on what most people think would make them happy’ – well, they don’t know too many late middle-aged fat angry asexual/aromantic white Irish Catholic women, do they?

        I really am enjoying myself yelling abuse at the screen. If that’s the therapy mode, then it’s working! Time to continue the rest of the session 🙂

        • Deiseach says:

          I DO NOT WANT TO BE MORE LIKE NOPROBLEMOS HE IS A JERK AN OVER-CONFIDENT JERK WHO THINKS THE SUN SHINES OUT OF HIS BACKSIDE HE’D EAT HIMSELF IF HE WAS MADE OF CHOCOLATE.

          ELLE MAY BE WEEPY AND PATHETIC BUT SHE’S REALISTIC.

          Okay, I think this is too young for me. So far, it seems to be aimed at 18-22 year olds. I’m more in the age range of the mother/granny of the 18-22 year old examples they’re using (oh noes! I failed my exams last semester! No I don’t fight with my parents! Teased my little brother and fell over the dog!)

          Maybe thirty years ago I’d have been a better fit, but I really can’t identify with a character who is worrying about missing the pop concert with her friends.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi. I’ve spent most of my life being depressed. I am entirely unresponsive to antidepressants (never tried MAOIs and I suspect they might work, but my depression is no longer life-destroyingly bad, and I don’t want to die if I eat cheese.) Therapy has helped. Not CBT or any of that crap, but real “talk about family history and childhood” type therapy. But I mean, I had tried various therapies a few times before I experienced it working. The stars were aligned this time.
      BTW I’m also Irish- hi there.

      Conditions that I think were necessary for my therapy to work:
      1) I suspect my therapist is unusually good at his job.
      2) He’s a good fit for me in several other ways which are orthogonal to skill.
      3) I threw myself into the process really intensely.
      4) previous use of hallucinogens.

      You might be a less awkward case, but I get the feeling from your comments you might not be!

      Anyway, your doctor’s probably sending you to CBT or whatever. My suspicion is that those kinds of therapy work on depressive episodes, but not on depressive personalities, where it’s deep rooted. Also the aesthetic is annoying, as you pointed out. That said, it’s probably worth at least showing up. Try it before you reject it.

      Maybe try one of the mindfulness courses like MBSR? They’re less aesthetically annoying and they go deeper. And you don’t have to talk about things.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thank you for the good advice. Indeed, something where I would not have to talk about things sounds like something to which I would be willing to commit.

        I do realise that for anything in counselling to work, I have to make an honest effort and engage with it, and if I go in with the attitude “this is all crap and it’s not going to work”, well then, it’s not going to work.

        But I absolutely do not want to talk to anyone about things, which is why I’m dreading a potential “So, what makes you think you’re suffering from depression? How do you feel?” encounter. It was horrible enough simply answering my GP when she asked the completely reasonable “Why do you want anti-depressants? Why do you think you’re depressed?” questions.

    • Limimi says:

      Holy mackerel, it is freaky how accurately your post describes me. Like, outright spooky. Given that we are apparently the same person located in different bodies on the opposite sides of the planet, my advice is get antidepressants. Don’t bother with therapy, it will probably be as pointless as you expect.

      There are two reasons for this – 1) you expect it to fail, so if it looks like it is going to you’ll take it as a given, which will kick off a vicious spiral until you either give up or your eight weeks end. That’s based on my own experiences. 2) is based on a combination of my experiences with my knowledge of you gleaned from your comments in the past – your counsellor will invariably fail. Every counsellor I have ever seen has looked dumbstruck at me when I tried to explain my scrupulosity or why their answer doesn’t make sense, and you are definitely smarter than I am. If our similarities hold true, then eventually you will stop mentioning things that seem like they will require half your session be spent explaining something, and if you’re avoiding talking about things then you might as well not bother with therapy.

      Based on my brain chemistry, you should try an SNRI antidepressant and stay away from MAOIs. Also you should get yourself checked for schizophrenia.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m laughing about the schizophrenia, because one merry hobby of mine as a teenager was reading through encylopaedia articles (this was in the days before everyone could get on the Internet) to figure out what variety of schizophrenia it was most likely that I would develop.

        Ah, the happy days of yore!

        Yes, I think I’ll probably give the counselling the go-by and try and score some anti-depressants from somewhere (I’ll ask my sister what her doctor is prescribing).

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          St. John’s Wort tea is on the grocery shelves in the US, and gives a good quick punch of clarity/cheerfulness. I seldom use it, but it can give a quick view of a situation for perspective, without the clouds and rain.

          I find “Easy Now” tea helpful for mellowness and preventing over-reactions (not the version with valerian).

    • pneumatik says:

      Like someone else has already said, don’t discount the value of mantras. You think what you say, you do what you think, and you become what you do. It may not cure you of anxiety in a triggering situation, but I’ve found simply telling myself that it’s the right thing to do certain things that I don’t really want to do, and then doing them, has made me enjoy doing them more. It was a really weird experience for me. If you haven’t read through thelastpsyciatrist.com, you should consider it. Feel free to ignore the parts about how advertising is ruining the world, but read all the parts about how to be a human.

      Ideally you could go into therapy with a positive attitude, but if you could do that you might not need therapy. The next best thing is to go through the motions and make an honest effort even if you don’t think it will work. If nothing else you’ll be doing something different, and that might help.

      There’s some benefit, too, to accepting yourself as you, and doing this as a separate thing from assessing your actual value (however you want to value yourself). Whoever you are it’s okay to be you. IME once I had that attitude I could at least think about how to improve the part of me that bothered me the most.

      Or it all may not work. You wouldn’t be the first person to outsmart a counselor / therapist.

  36. njnnja says:

    To follow up on one of the comments of the week – While spurious correlations in time series is of course a serious issue, what is even worse when dealing with time series data is spurious regressions. If your time series are not stationary, then the distribution of regression coefficients does not fit the t-distribution that is always used to determine the quality of the regression. So for non-stationary time series, you will obtain “statistical significance” in your regression much more often than you should. And it’s not even a like the typical spurious correlation problems, like a confounding variable where maybe you could figure out what the “real” relationship is, but rather, just a serious mathematical pain in the neck that requires you to use better (and of course more complicated) tools like differencing the time serious or using cointegration techniques.

  37. briancpotter says:

    Are there any examples of progressives who respond to conservative “most changes are bad, most traditions exist for a good reason” style arguments by biting the bullet, and saying something to the effect of “yup, there’s a chance what we change will screw society up, but the alternative is to be stuck in a local optimum forever, so it’s worth the risk.”

    (I don’t necessarily endorse this argument, but I’d be interested to see if anyone made it).

    • anon says:

      I don’t really see why a progressive would make that argument, since in 2015 they’re basically the establishment and it’s really the “conservatives” who are looking to shake things up.

      • MichaelT says:

        How so? What specific policy do conservatives support that would really shake up society? Repeal of the healthcare law would be the only example I can think of, but going back to the way things were 5 years ago (which weren’t really that different anyway) is hardly a large deviation from established tradition.

        • Anonymous says:

          Anon’s rhetoric is pretty common among conservatives and basically translates to “liberals control society because I can’t be homophobic anymore.”

          • Nornagest says:

            I think you can be more charitable than that.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous I disagree with the premise but alright jackass, tell me how “I can’t be homophobic any more” ISN’T evidence for “Liberals control society”. Because it seems to me that society changing in ways aligned with liberal goals is suggestive of liberals having more control over society.

          • cbhacking says:

            Since when does “control society” mean you have no incentive to change things? I mean, the US government controls society in a much more direct sense than any “adherents of one of two nebulously-defined political ideologies”. The US government makes all kinds of changes. For example, a bit over a decade ago, it sent out troops to war on foreign territory. This could have brought down the government and all its power, if enough people decided that this action was worth revolution at home. The action in question was in keeping with some US traditions and in violation of some others, but it was undeniably a change, and it could have cost those in power their power. Yet they made it anyhow. That’s the way the world works. Power is literally meaningless if you do not exercise it, and even exercising it to prevent change introduces a change, because as a nation we have a tradition of changes. Not necessarily radical changes (though I could give examples), not necessarily changes that align current society more closely with past society (though I could give examples), not necessarily changes toward or away from future changes (I could give examples of either), but changes nonetheless.

            Oh, and for the anon calling people “asshole”, the fact that you retain the right to do that suggests that “liberals” don’t, in fact, control society. They may influence it, but they’re hardly the only ones that do. More to the point, if “liberals” control (American) society, why is America still so much more conservative than much of Europe (on subjects like religion, healthcare, gay rights, gun ownership, and many other areas)? Besides, nobody truthfully said you can’t be homophobic anymore; that statement is trivially disproven. On the other hand, you can’t reliably avoid negative social consequences for identifying as homophobic or acting in a homophobic manner. That can be called a liberal victory, but it scarcely means they’ve won the war.

          • Not The Same Anon says:

            @cbhacking,

            You seem to have defined ‘in control of society’ as ‘meaningful opposition does not exist and/or is legally forbidden from dissenting’ which is frankly a rather terrifying way to approach kulturkampf, particularly a struggle one instigated oneself. One can in fact win a war without the other side being brought to unconditional surrender.

            That’s kind of the problem actually. If >90% of academia is liberal, even outside of the humanities / social sciences, liberals can say “but Dr. X over at Liberty University is still allowed to research [insert controversial topic of study] so we’re far from being in control!” If CEOs, billionaire sports team owners, politicians and nobel winning scientists are all semi-regularly stripped of their positions and titles for making private ‘gaffes’ (even years earlier!) on ‘controversial’ topics, liberals can say “the fact that these guys have those attitudes are evidence we’re not in charge yet” with a straight face. I could keep going but it would just be tedious.

            It’s especially bizarre because, by this standard, very few people have ever controlled anything. Even most so called absolute monarchs and dictators didn’t have the political power to completely stamp out dissent and historically most in fact were regularly forced to compromise when trying to implement their pet projects.

          • Anonymous says:

            I called Anonymous a jackass not because I agree/disagree with them but because as Nornagest said, they were being very uncharitable.

          • Anonymous writes:

            “Anon’s rhetoric is pretty common among conservatives and basically translates to “liberals control society because I can’t be homophobic anymore.””

            How about “the current orthodoxy is what came in during the New Deal, and largely consists of Bismarck’s version of socialism.” Repealing the New Deal looks more like a “conservative” approach than a “progressive” approach, but is the opposite of conservative in the literal sense of the term.

        • Nicholas says:

          Red Tribe members as a whole are very divided on any issue that could be considered liberal on their part. Roe v. Wade is now old enough that supporting it is a conservative position and not a liberal one, but if you are very old you were able to vote before then, and thus are maintaining a position that has been conservative up to the recent goal-post moving. Bombing the middle east with nuclear weapons until everyone there is dead is a policy sometimes endorsed by Red Tribe public speakers in my home state that would be a liberal position in degree if not in kind.

          • Irrelevant says:

            There are virtually no American foreign policy conservatives, at least by the field-specific definition, and haven’t been for a century.

        • “What specific policy do conservatives support that would really shake up society?”

          A full scale voucher system, in which any student could have a voucher for the per student cost of the public school system?

          Beyond that, it depends who you include in “conservatives.” If you include libertarians, as many but not all do, then the policies might include abolishing medical licensing, the ICC, civil forfeiture, FDA requirements for new drugs, … . One of the talks I give is entitled “Should we abolish the criminal law” (and replace it with an expanded version of tort law). Does that qualify?

          Taking the more non-libertarian parts of the old conservative coalition, the policies might include making abortion illegal.

      • Hari Seldon says:

        I think the whole concept of conservative and progressive in the US has been confounded almost to the point of being meaningless.

        When you talk to people who have actually thought about things beyond “Yeahhh! GO RED TEAM!” it seems the philosophy boils down to two valid ideas.

        1. The story of mankind is a story of those in power abusing those below them resulting in millenia of oppression, slavery of all kinds, and poverty. This seems to happen in all times and all places to all peoples. What we really should be worried about is using our collective will as the government to ensure people’s freedom to act as they see fit and prevent actions from harming others. The government needs to be severely limited in scope and power lest it become the very source of abuse it was meant to prevent.

        These people tend to lean center/right libertarian.

        2. Moloch is a powerful force that creates harm and suffering. We should assert our collective will against the powers of Moloch. If everybody gives just a little, we will have a massive pool of resources to actively fight the ills we see in our world.

        These people tend to lean center left.

        But the only voices you hear in American politics are far right and far left. Which to me sound very similar from both sides.
        “We know what is best for EVERYBODY. If only you morons from the other tribe would listen we could use the government to enforce our morals, values and culture on the whole country.”

        I see very little difference between outspoken progressives and conservatives. They both want near unlimited governmental power to imprint their personal esthetic on the world. Authoritarianism is good as long as it is mandates their own preferences.

        At least the neo-reactionaries have some decent arguments of authority for authority’s sake.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          In a world full of liberals and libertarians, it’s a wonder the PATRIOT act ever got passed.

          • Hari Seldon says:

            I don’t think most people are classical liberals / libertarians. It requires some thought to get to that point. But humans seem to be hardwired for tribalism. No thinking required.

            The Patriot Act passed because, at the time, it was Tribe USA vs. Tribe Terror. Whichever party was in power was NOT going to let an opportunity like that escape.

          • Nornagest says:

            “I don’t know how Nixon ever got elected. No one I know voted for him!”

        • The way Hari puts it makes it sound as though libertarians are moderate conservatives. Speaking as a libertarian, we can be just as immoderate as anyone else–just in a different direction.

          Part of what makes U.S. political labels confusing is that, since sometime in the 1950s, the conservative movement has been an alliance between, loosely speaking, classical liberals (aka libertarians) and traditionalists, united in their opposition to the New Deal orthodoxy that was and is the dominant political position of both parties.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Not in national politics. The admission that you aren’t sure something would work is the kiss of death for any political proposal as your opponent will use it as an admission of weakness.

      I myself say this kind of thing all the time when advocating changes. As do, I suspect, most reasonable people.

      • Tom West says:

        Indeed. It’s painful to face the fact that in the open court, where you are attempting to persuade someone to a position rather than trying to come to one, *any* admission of the costs of your preferred policy is basically self-sabotage, despite the fact that any sane person knows *every* policy has costs.

        Such admissions are very effectively used as “See, even the the people pushing it don’t believe it will work!”

        The cost of being senior enough that your words make a difference to public policy is that you may no longer discuss policy in a public forum as a rational person.

        It’s unfortunate, but that’s politics. If you want rational discussion, you must keep such completely private, or be immaterial to the outcome. It’s why I have respect for those who are willing to advance my preferred policies at the expense ever having a reasonable public discussion again.

        • Held In Escrow says:

          As a rule of thumb, sure. The one situation I can think of where there is an advantage is when you’re attempting to win the argument based on convincing the third party that you are more honest than the other guy. Admitting faults lets you signal that you’re not going to do anything to win while implying your opponent is… thus they’re willing to lie and therefore not to be trusted.

          This generally only works when you already have an in on your opponent being dishonest however and you need to drive the point home.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I think that this argument fails to distinguish between “bullshit” and purposeful lies.

            If you can catch your opponent in a purposeful lie, then yeah, you might get somewhere. But if you just point out he’s bullshitting, nobody’s going to care, because it’s expected behavior for politicians and advocates. Or, rather, people who were already on your side will agree that it’s terrible, and people on the other side will think that you’re being unreasonably particular.

            Probably the best recent example is President Obama’s “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan.” People opposed to the ACA say this was a lie: it wasn’t. It was bullshit. Because the President didn’t know if it was true or not and more importantly, he didn’t care. Likewise the whole “it will save money” thing. If he’d said, “Each and every American citizen will get a check for $2,000 every year reflecting the money we’ll save,” then yeah, maybe people who supported the ACA would care. Short of that, it’s bullshit, and it’s what they expect.

            The cost of this “free pass,” however, is being labeled as a bullshitter, which means that you will lose a LOT of persuasive ability and/or authority with everyone who isn’t already in your camp. This is what has happened to a lot of climate change advocates. They’ve been caught bullshitting, and now they are branded as bullshitters, which means that people who might otherwise have given them credence don’t really care what they have to say anymore.

            In case you’re not familiar with the distinction in this context, I’m using the definitions from Harry Frankfort’s “On Bullshit.” Wiki summary:

            [B]ullshit either can be true or can be false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to his or her agenda.

          • Held In Escrow says:

            I’m coming at it from a different angle; if your opponent has already been established as a bullshitter, you can signal that you not only have the moral high ground but are implicitly trustworthy by being willing to admit to small faults. Establishing trust is generally done in a relative manner; you are more likely to seem honest if you show yourself to be so when opposed to a liar because of the amount of separation you have between your truth and their lies.

            That said, I do very much agree with the point about bullshitters ruining trust; I’ve always referred to it as Michael Mooring; when you have enough data to support your argument, but you decide to go the extra mile and shoot yourself in the foot with hyperbole and lies.

    • Any radical or revolutionary (including the libertarian right)

    • Yeah, I’m going to agree with the above who say that this kind of admission is exactly the thing you’d never see in political discourse, because in political discourse our own side is obliged to be nothing but sunshine and unicorns and the other side is obliged to be nothing but death and destruction.

      This is more or less what I say about polyamory, though, when it comes up–regardless of whether polyamory is an optimal relationship strategy (I’m pretty sure the optimal relationship strategy varies from person to person, in fact, of course) I’m pretty glad some people are willing to try it. You know more about how humans work in a world with polyamorists than you do in a world without them.

    • Airgap says:

      Yes, but they were all purged for violating Party Discipline.

  38. Troy says:

    Question about statistical methods, for those who know more about them than I do.

    Suppose you are running an experiment on the effect of a weight loss pill, Slim, over a 6-month period. You run a double blind experiment on Slim in which you randomly select half of the people in your experiment to go on Slim and half to go on a placebo, without them or you knowing which is on which. Then you record results at the end of the 6 months.

    Now, you want to test the “null hypothesis” that any weight loss you saw in the Slim experimental group was caused by either random variation in weight or a placebo effect. In particular, you want to see if the probability of weight loss as great as what you actually observed in the Slim patients has a probability below .05 (or some other statistical significance threshold) given the null. In order to calculate this probability, you need the null hypothesis to specify the variance you would expect if it were true.

    My question is this: how is this variance determined? My understanding is that it is in some way a function of the actually observed variance in the test, but beyond this I’m fuzzy. Is it some kind of average between the variance in the experimental group and the control group?

    Note that my question is about how such tests are usually run, not about how they should be run. (I’m interested in the latter question, but want to make sure I understand the answer to the former first!)

    • The Do-Operator says:

      The null hypothesis is not defined until you observe the outcomes in people taking placebo. This is the purpose of the control arm.

      In a randomized trial, the null hypothesis will have to be a comparison between the two arms of the experiment. The natural null hypothesis is some variation of “the distribution of weight loss in the active arm is identical to the distribution of weight loss in the placebo arm”. To test this, you can use the observed variance in the placebo arm

      Note that using the observed variance is completely valid in a hypothesis test (even though the null variance is traditionally taught)

      However, using the null variance for a confidence interval is verboten.

      • Troy says:

        So, if I understand your answer correctly, you would use the observed variance in the control arm in my scenario?

        Note that using the observed variance is completely valid in a hypothesis test (even though the null variance is traditionally taught)

        I don’t understand what you’re getting at here. I thought that, as you say above, the null hypothesis is not defined until the test is done? what then does the “null variance” mean, if not the observed variance?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      In practice the two branches have similar standard deviations and the question doesn’t come up.

      • Troy says:

        What if Slim was sometimes very effective, but its effects are very uncertain? Sometimes it doesn’t do a thing, but when it works it works big. (Perhaps it interacts with certain genotypes or something: explain this however you like.) This would give it a large variance, wouldn’t it?

  39. stillnotking says:

    This story from the Harvard Law Review has been making the rounds lately:

    I recently assisted a young man who was subjected by administrators at his small liberal arts university in Oregon to a month-long investigation into all his campus relationships, seeking information about his possible sexual misconduct in them (an immense invasion of his and his friends’ privacy), and who was ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away. He was found to be completely innocent of any sexual misconduct and was informed of the basis of the complaint against him only by accident and off-hand. But the stay-away order remained in place, and was so broadly drawn up that he was at constant risk of violating it and coming under discipline for that.

    When the duty to prevent a “sexually hostile environment” is interpreted this expansively, it is affirmatively indifferent to the restrained person’s complete and total innocence of any misconduct whatsoever.

    It’s a striking example of how unbalanced our intuitions become when we assign infinite moral weight to something.

    • Airgap says:

      As ready as I am to believe the worst about colleges handling sexual harassment, this might not be as bad as it sounds. For example “He reminded her of someone” might mean “and she therefore believed he was that person, and acted accordingly.” Or she didn’t think that, but the administrators didn’t understand that when she spoke to them. Also, the fact that the stay-away order remains in place might be down it being the responsibility of a different department than the investigative one, and the secrecy of the process (he only found out he was innocent by accident; how would the other department know?)

      If this is just a bureaucracy that can’t find its dick with both hands, we may not approve, but it’s not exactly storm-the-bastille time.

      • Jiro says:

        The argument “we shouldn’t consider X so important that we do anything to stop it” still applies when “anything” includes “do things that circumvent the checks and balances in the system”. It’s true that that kind of thing probably depends on a bureaucracy, but that just pushes it up a level–we shouldn’t subject people to potentially dangerous, unchecked, bureaucracies in order to stop X.

        • Airgap says:

          I’m not taking a position on the argument one way or the other. I’m saying that the example motivating the argument might be bullshit.

          • Jiro says:

            I think the argument “we must do anything to keep women from being hurt, even if it means railroading an innocent man” and “we must do anything to keep women from being hurt, even if it means subjecting men to bureaucracies that will, eventually, end up railroading an innocent man” are not different enough for the former to count as bullshit if the latter is true.

          • Anonymous says:

            But the example you have cited, if it is true, isn’t actually keeping women from being hurt.* So your claim that it’s the overarching value here isn’t working. It’s a case of incompetent bureaucracy run rampant, not one value being given infinite moral weight. No woman has actually been protected by this bullshit.

            *Reasons for this claim:
            1) It is highly unlikely that the person who originally complained intended this outcome. If she finds out about it and has normal levels of empathy, she probably feels bad.
            2)Knowing something this extreme could happen will actually dissuade other women from saying anything in a similar situation.
            3) In addition, original complainant probably feels frightened. The man who reminds her of her rapist has now got reasons to be angry with her. Perhaps all his friends are angry with her too.
            4) If the internet somehow uncovers this woman’s identity, she will go through hell. Even if that doesn’t happen, the fear of it would be a big deal.

          • John Schilling says:

            5) If the student in question is the rapist, or a rapist, and would not have been dissuaded by a quiet “we know and we’re watching”, expelling him simply adds revenge to the list of motives for further rapes, eliminates classwork and study as distractions, leaves him with less to lose, and does not materially prevent him from forcibly raping female Harvard students.

            However, if he’s not a rapist and Harvard successfully controls the publicity, then one woman at least is protected from the real mental anguish of repeatedly seeing a man who triggers “rapist!” in her mind, and depending on how the PR is handled other women may be protected from the lesser anguish of believing the administration is uncaring and will not protect them from rapists generally.

            QED, the university implicitly understands that the man in question isn’t really a rapist, believes that it has near-absolute power in this regard, and is in fact trying to railroad an innocent man to protect a women or perhaps many women. As well as their own reputation. It’s just that they are trying to protect against a much lesser harm than actual rape, and in this case not doing a very good job of it.

          • Airgap says:

            [The arguments] are not different enough for the former to count as bullshit if the latter is true.

            I think it’s worth calling bullshit, even if the real facts are bad, because otherwise you just get more bullshit.

        • Anonymous says:

          Your premise 5 is silly; expelling a student rapist would in fact be a good way to protect female Harvard students. However it doesn’t seem to have any bearing whatsoever on the actual facts or arguments at hand, so I won’t debate it.

          Your QED doesn’t logically follow from anything prior, even if premise 5 were true. And it’s not true. I also don’t see any reason to assume the combination of bureaucratic co-ordination, malice, and utter stupidity that you seem to be attributing to the Harvard administration. Though I will note that conspiracy theorists often seem to believe their enemies are like that.

          I’m going to stick with the position that behaviour that is obviously ineffective at protecting women isn’t indicative of an administration that has protecting women as its ultimate value. It is rather indicative of incompetent bureaucracy run amok.

          • John Schilling says:

            Co-ordination between whom? As far as I know, the actual decision to expel was made by one person at Harvard, the rest was bureaucratic autopilot.

            And while I have fortunately never been involved in a rape investigation, I have witnessed firsthand at least one sexual harassment investigation where the decisionmaker privately and explicitly acknowledged that this was his reasoning. Do whatever makes the girl shut up and go away, trusting that the guy understands things will only get worse if he doesn’t shut up and go away. No conspiracy, no malice, just institutional incentives making this the only easy path for the decisionmaker and the least-painful path for everyone else once he’s made that decision.

            But if it pleases you to believe that actual conspiracies are necessary for institutions to behave wrongly, such that you are excused from defending your position on the grounds that your opponents are obviously lunatic conspiracy theorists, then have at it, Anonymous.

          • Anonymous says:

            My position is as stated in my original post and restated again in the second post (clause following “the position that…”) None of your comments have even addressed it.

            That said, in the case under discussion the decisions that have been made are obviously not the easiest and least-painful path for anyone. They’re irrational and unhelpful to every party involved. So your anecdote about a completely different incident is irrelevant.

            And of course I don’t think a conspiracy is necessary for institutions to behave wrongly. I said the exact opposite. Infer better.

          • Airgap says:

            expelling a student rapist would in fact be a good way to protect female Harvard students.

            It’s been hinted at elsewhere, but one is moved to ask why female Harvard students are entitled to these protections, whereas female wherever-he-ends-up-next students are not. Oh wait, I think I can guess. Still, it does allow the vast MRA conspiracy to tar the proponents of campus sex codes with the charge of classism. Run it up the flagpole, guys.

            behaviour that is obviously ineffective at protecting women isn’t indicative of an administration that has protecting women as its ultimate value. It is rather indicative of incompetent bureaucracy run amok.

            Abandoning its core function and running amok is basically the natural state of bureaucracy, so I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about it.

          • Anonymous says:

            Both your quoted statements are direct refutations of claims made by other posters. That’s the context they exist in.

            If the statements had been made in some other, entirely different context, then projecting “classism” or “being bent out of shape” onto said statements might be logical. Probably not, but one can at least imagine contexts that would justify it. This context doesn’t.

            And thanks for your profound insight into the nature of bureaucracy; that wasn’t at all implicit in what I already wrote.

  40. Troy says:

    I herewith begin Part I of ? of a series of arguments against consequentialism.

    Argument 1:

    (1) If consequentialism is true, then what I ought to do is maximize expected utility.
    (2) There is a non-zero probability that the world is “infinite,” in the sense of containing an infinite amount of value and/or disvalue (according to whatever your favorite version of consequentialism says is valuable or disvaluable).
    (3) If (2), then the expected utility of any action is either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined. Either way, no action has greater expected utility than any other.
    (4) So, if consequentialism is true, it is always ethically indifferent what we do. [from (1)-(3)]
    (5) It is not always ethically indifferent what we do.
    (6) Therefore, consequentialism is false. [from (4)-(5)]

    I take (1) to be definitional. I understand “expected utility” to be a function of epistemic probabilities and objective values (e.g., pleasure). That is, each state of affairs has an objective value and an epistemic probability given my evidence of coming about given that I perform some action.

    Support for (2): There is a non-zero probability that the universe contains an infinite number of people. There is a non-zero probability that the universe will continue indefinitely into the future, with more people coming into existence. There is a non-zero probability that people will continue to exist in an afterlife in which they will receive positive and/or negative utility.

    See Nick Bostrom’s paper for further elaboration of this style of argument, and objections to possible ways out.

    • Nita says:

      How does (3) follow from (2)?

      • Troy says:

        To take a simple case, suppose that there is an infinite amount of positive value in the world and a finite amount of disvalue and that I know this. Then the expected amount of value in the world, given that I perform action A, is infinite. But, the expected amount of value in the world, given that I perform alternative action B, is also infinite. So orthodox decision theory does not discriminate between A and B, because the total amount of value in the world is infinite either way.

        • Nita says:

          All right. Let’s call the current amount of value, whatever it is, 0.

          Then, action A, which increases value by 5 utilons, is preferable to action B, which increases value by 3 utilons.

          • Troy says:

            Right now there is (we’re assuming) an infinite amount of value, e.g., an infinite number of happy people. Your suggestion seems to be to “renormalize” the current amount of value at 0 or something like this. Is that right?

            Let’s grant that this works if the current value is infinite and we’re just concerned with finite future effects. It doesn’t seem to me that it works if total future value is infinite. For then the expected new value (if the value now is 0) if you do A is infinite, and the expected new value if you do B is infinite.

            You might respond that provided that everything else in the world is the same for A and B, if one part of the world contains more value (2 more utilons) given A then you ought do A. For instance, suppose we represent the worlds given A and given B as follows:

            A’: {2, 2, 1, 1, …}
            B’: {1, 1, 1, 1, …}

            where the members of those sets represent how much value there is at successive states of the world. Then it seems we ought do A. This is similar to Kagan and Vallentyne’s suggestions discussed in Bostrom’s paper.

            If you say that, I’ll grant your claim, but maintain that our problem remains. In particular, I’ll argue that to make the above proposal work, you’ll need to extend it so that it lets us calculate expected values. Let’s grant that you can do this: take one future, say B’, as a baseline, give it value 0, and then give possible outcomes value relative to it, so that A’ has a value of 2, for instance.

            Now I’ll argue that there’s always a non-zero probability that some action available to you right now will have infinitely extended effects into the future. For instance, suppose that there’s a small but non-zero probability that B will have a “run-on” of good effects with ever increasing utility. Then one possible outcome of B is something like

            B*: {1, 2, 3, 4, …}.

            If there are other actions that also have this possibility (or if B could also lead to indefinitely decreasing utility), then knowing that A’ > B’ will not help us in making decisions under uncertainty, because our uncertainty will make the expected value of at least some of our actions either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined, and there will be no way to decide between two members of any of these classes (or between regular finite actions and actions with undefined expected utility).

        • Paul Torek says:

          It seems possible that although the summation over all history is infinitely positive whether I do A or do B, still, at any point in time (after a finite interval), universe A is better than B. That would seem sufficient reason for doing A rather than B, from a utilitarian standpoint.

          • Troy says:

            A good thought. I have the same worries as I did above with Nita’s suggestion, about translating this into expected utility. But here’s another objection.

            Compare two worlds, Slow and Fast. In Slow, God creates one person a day, on through infinity. In Fast, God creates two people a day, on through infinity. These people are all happy, but all causally isolated from each other, so that their existence does not affect each other.

            Now suppose that in Slow and Fast, God creates the same people, understood however you like (qualitatively indistinguishable, same quiddities, whatever). Moreover, the two worlds are indistinguishable except for the rate at which they are populated. Then your principle implies that Fast is better than Slow. But it seems that Fast and Slow are equally good. They contain the same people, with the same happiness and the same lives.

          • Paul Torek says:

            To quote Michael Blume from another thread,

            Om nom nom bullet =)

          • Troy says:

            There’s also David Lewis’s memorable quip: “that’s not an objection to the theory, that’s the theory!”

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        I assume it’s a marginal argument: If the utility of the universe is infinite, any change in utility performed by our actions is negligible. Infinity + x = infinity and the like.

        EDIT: Ninja’d

    • FrogOfWar says:

      There’s an unclarity in your premises.

      (2) claims that there is a non-zero probability of P. (3) claims that if P, then Q. But you can’t do the Modus Ponens you want to get to (4), since “there is a non-zero probability of P” is not “P”.

      So you should change the antecedent of (3) to “there is a non-zero probability of P. But then (3) has an implausibly strong consequent, which should be weakened by putting a “it is possible that” (a diamond) operator in front of it. You then have to also add a diamond in front of (4) and then another diamond under the scope of the negation in (5).

      This makes the argument a bit weaker since the claim that it is not possible that my actions be ethically indifferent is a stronger claim than the claim that my actions aren’t always as a matter of fact ethically indifferent. But presumably the new (5) is still plausible.

      • Troy says:

        My intention was for (3) to be read as: “If there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite, then the expected utility of any action is infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.” I maintain that the consequent of this does follow from the antecedent: see my response to Aris below.

        I agree that your suggested modification would still make the argument plausible, and would then work against so-called “actual consequences consequentialism,” which just says that you ought to do what will in fact maximize value. I take it that such a theory is useless as a decision procedure, though, and so I’m aiming my sights at what I see as the more plausible “expected consequentialism,” which focuses on the expected outcomes of your actions.

        • FrogOfWar says:

          Yeah, I noticed the uncommon “expected” a while after posting, but I wasn’t sure you were still following the thread so didn’t bother amending my post.

          In any case, I think this is a good idea for a series of posts since consequentialism is plausibly the area where LW-sphere people least understand their opponents, our own famously charitable host included.

          I’ve been considering writing up a correction to the consequentialism faq, which is the worst thing I’m aware of Scott having written. Maybe this will spur me on.

          • Troy says:

            I thank you for your support, and am spurred by a similar rationale. Perhaps we can team up, and the LW-sphere (but, alas, not the world) will be better off when we are done!

    • MichaelT says:

      My biggest question for consequentialists/utilitarians is why do they not support a program to kill all violent criminals and harvest their organs? It seems completely clear that from a consequentialist/utilitarian calculation that this would better society. We would permanently remove violent people from society, we would not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year housing them in prisons, we’d save untold amounts of money by having almost no dialysis patients, and many people who would have died without the organ would now be alive.

      • Irrelevant says:

        I would assume most of them do support that, or would under the proper circumstances, but if they think of it now, conclude that since this idea is well outside the realm of politically viable concepts and will draw odd stares it isn’t utility-maximizing to talk about supporting it.

        • MichaelT says:

          And that is what scares me about this outlook. There are many horrible programs that could be pitched on some plausible utilitarian ground. You could advocate for such things as sterilizing anyone who falls below the 50th percentile in IQ, mandatory abortions for fetuses that test positive for defects such as down syndrome, etc. I know most utilitarians would say, “well, when you look at the psychological effects these policies would have on society, then the would actually decrease utility.” The problem with this is only die-hard utilitarians (a very small portion of the population) would realize this, and the policy could still be sold to the population at large.

          • Irrelevant says:

            You can advocate for any of those ideas from virtually any outlook though. And likely be more successful with the electorate from most of the others. What’s specifically bad about utilitarianism here?

      • John Schilling says:

        Because we read Niven, and understand the actual consequences at the end of this path?

        • MichaelT says:

          The point I was trying to make was that my horror at the prospect of utilitarianism is its reduction of human beings into numbers, and that there’s some Newtonian mechanical calculation we can use to determine each person’s value.

          • cypher says:

            Do you not also find the idea of placing unthinking, unfeeling, non-person abstract philosophical concepts as effectively more valuable than human lives and prosperity, horrifying?

          • Irrelevant says:

            Why would he? People tend to be terrible. I only like about eight of them. Ideas are a lot more deserving.

            I’m about 70% joking here.

          • MichaelT says:

            @cypher, I’m not sure I’m getting what you’re hinting at.

          • cypher says:

            Basically, most other moral systems, when asked to make a choice between people and some abstract moral principle, will pick the abstract moral principle. That might be “truth”, that might be “justice”, that might be “property”, etc.

            To take the classic Jew in the attic example, the truth-only moral system picks “truth” over the hidden Jew.

            But “truth” isn’t a person that can be meaningfully hurt. The hidden Jew, on the other hand…

            Most legal rights and many legal and common moral norms can be derived through Consequentialism variants, just with the caveat that consequences take precedence.

          • Irrelevant says:

            That of course ignores the practical application. People of the “justice, though heaven shakes” persuasion quite reasonably expect that it will never come to that in reality. The practical function of holding such a beyond-the-pale belief is to win at chicken by disabling your steering wheel: if you can convince everyone (including yourself) that you would prosecute even in the face of angelic intercession, then the question of whether you’ll prosecute in the face of political opposition or threats to your family doesn’t come up.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Heck with Niven. Try Max Brooks if you want to see a real problem with doing this. 🙂

      • Aris Katsaris says:

        > My biggest question for consequentialists/utilitarians is why do they not support a program to kill all violent criminals and harvest their organs?

        It would be giving society an incentive to create (or invent) violent crime, just for the purpose of harvesting the organs of the violent criminals. I’m likewise against using convicts as unpaid manual labor, or as sex-slaves.

        > we would not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year housing them in prisons

        From everything I’ve heard, convicting someone to the death row costs more than keeping them in life imprisonment. So, no, it would not save money.

        • MichaelT says:

          The reason death row inmates cost so much is not the death penalty in and of itself, but the bureaucratic apparatus that grew around it. I doubt people given the death penalty in the 19th century cost much less than the prisoner given a long sentence. So, the utilitarian could argue from this that we should severly limit the appeals process, because the people who the current process helps are either guilty or poor, and there utility is low. The point I was driving at was that utility reduces human beings to quantifiable numbers (i.e. you add +6 utility to society and I +4, therefore you’re life is more valuable), which is abhorrent to me. You could say that is not rational, which maybe true, but I don’t that every decision in the world needs to be completely rational.

          • James Picone says:

            You and conflating utility-to-society and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is not about maximising utility-to-society, it’s about maximising net utils, where ‘utils’ are a measure intended to represent goodness-of-life. There’s variance in what to actually measure with the utils, but say it’s happiness (hedonic utilitarianism). Then you can’t conclude “I’m better” or “I’m worth more” from having more utils of happiness than someone else. That’s not how it works.

            How it actually works is that if you’re considering mugging some guy and taking his stuff, that might be worth n (n 0) utils for you, and it’s only ethical if |n| < |m| (ignoring second-order effects for simplicity).

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I don’t support the death penalty because I do not trust society with the power to kill people who are currently not a significant threat. In my opinion the negative consequences of this program, which further incentivizes bad marginal decision making regarding the death penalty, far outweigh any potential positive consequences.

      • keranih says:

        I think you could get a number of people behind this, provided you established a sufficently accurate test to identify violent crimininals. Which we have not got.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Right now I think the strongest argument there is that there’s so much work to be done before we even reach that point!

        Why not kill violent criminals and harvest their organs? Well, right now we kill (some) violent criminals and DON’T harvest their organs. Once we’re harvesting organs from the violent criminals we do kill, THEN we can talk about expanding the program.

        Why not sterilize all poor people? Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it. Why not improve access to contraception, and THEN we can talk about forced sterilization.

        The reason this isn’t just an abdication of the question is that I think once we make a lot of the common-sense not-unethical utility improvements, the world would be a sufficiently better place that the unethical ones would stop looking so tempting, or we’d be in a better place to consider them (eg poverty would look so much different that sterilizing the poor to break the cycle of poverty would mean a different thing)

        • Randy M says:

          “Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it”

          Citation needed.

          • Anthony says:

            Well, if you fuzz the distinction between “trial lawyers” and “government”, and between “contraception” and “the sponge and IUDs”, he’s right.

          • Randy M says:

            That’s a fuzz too far.

          • Nicholas says:

            If your conception of contraception includes access to abortion then there’s this:
            http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/local/2015/01/15/montgomery-lawyer-appearing-daily-show-tonight/21829337/
            If your conception of blocking includes preventing access passively, then many states have made the decision to defund free contraception programs. When my home state was told, for example, that abstinence only education probably shouldn’t be mandated, they just removed sex from the curriculum full stop.

          • suntzuanime says:

            If your conception of blocking includes failing to fund, I block little children from having ice cream cones on hot summer days. That’s not philosophically coherent.

          • cbhacking says:

            @suntzuanime: do you represent an agency that forcibly takes money from little children on the basis that you’ll provide them with the things they need? For that matter, do the children *ask* you to provide those ice creams?

            I mean, yes, failing to provide A is not the same thing as blocking access to A when others would be willing to provide it. Absent any other context, I have no argument there. However, there is context and it matters. Comparing your goals, responsibilities, and actions to those of governments is absurd. “Blocking” may have been a poor choice of word – I don’t know if there are actual examples of such blocks, or if it’s just hyperbole for “not providing” – but it’s a hell of a lot easier to argue that government should provide useful supplies to citizens in need than that you should provide luxuries to random children. The situations are not parallel!

          • suntzuanime says:

            I assumed that our host was referring to some specific drug or procedure or something that the vile FDA was holding up. Wasn’t there some big hullabaloo about a male contraception pill that got invented (and how it was anti-feminist because it takes away women’s control of their reproduction)? I remember something about that, that would be a good candidate for contraception being blocked by the government in a way that would make sense to use those words.

          • Mary says:

            “do you represent an agency that forcibly takes money from little children on the basis that you’ll provide them with the things they need? ”

            The state takes money from people on the basis that it will provide people with public goods. Contraception is not a public good.

          • Nita says:

            @ Mary

            Since unwanted pregnancies generate various “public bads”, preventing them can be an appropriate state function.

          • Randy M says:

            Scott didn’t same “some contraception”. Of course, he didn’t say “all contraception”, either, but the implication was that the blocking action would lead to more pregnancy, which may be true on the (slim) margins but is implausible to have a large effect when cheap and effective contraception is widely available.

        • MichaelT says:

          First, what are you talking about when you say “Right now there are millions of poor people who desperately want contraception and the government is blocking them from getting it.” This isn’t happening in the US. Anyone can buy condoms from a store and birth control pills are both cheap and not difficult to obtain.

          And I take your point, but I like to take arguments to their logical extreme and see what happens. It’s like when people argue that the minimum wage increases economic wage, I wonder why you wouldn’t advocate a minimum wage of $100/hour.

          • ddreytes says:

            It’s like when people argue that the minimum wage increases economic wage, I wonder why you wouldn’t advocate a minimum wage of $100/hour.

            Because it’s politically impractical.

            At that point, you might as well just advocate for full communism now; it’s approximately as likely to happen. Advocates of a minimum wage might or might not believe that a $100/hour wage would be good, but it’s never going to be adopted, and it would be outré enough that no one would listen to them. So advocating for it would be not only pointless but harmful.

          • cbhacking says:

            Anyone can buy condoms from a store and birth control pills are both cheap and not difficult to obtain.

            Except, of course, for the people who can’t buy them because they don’t have the money, or because they can’t get to a store that will sell them and can’t afford or are otherwise unable to get an Internet connection, or any of several other reasons.

            Condoms, purchased in small counts (the only way a poor person could hope to purchase them, at least at a store), are actually fucking expensive (pun used quite intentionally). I used what could have been, if I’d bought the (fairly ordinary, no more expensive than any other in the store) condoms in packages of three or less, at least 1500 food calories worth of condoms today. To a lot of people, that’s not *close* to worth it. Sure, the kind of food I eat, it’d be more like 300 calories… but then, I can afford to buy condoms in bulk, too, and to post this comment on the Internet from a home computer.

            Now, to be sure, SNAP (food stamps) in the US mean that it’s usually possible to avoid literally starving to death, especially if you are lucky enough to be able to cook food. On the other hand, if living with your lover means $30/mo in condoms, you might no longer be able to pay the electricity bill. As for just not having sex instead, good luck convincing somebody working their ass off to pay the bills that the one form of recreation they can afford (in time and money) to enjoy with their loved one isn’t OK. They’ll just switch to something with an even lower efficacy than condoms (which aren’t actually super effective to start with).

            In fairness, that’s not exactly “the government is blocking them from getting it”. The government could make them available freely, though – in bulk, the things really are cheap, especially as governments measure things – and yet, in most jurisdictions, do not. There are definitely cases where the government puts barriers (ha) in the way of easy access, even if they don’t actually make them unavailable.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Practical information for those in need — condoms are available free in various places. I see an open box full on a shelf in the restroom at a local food co-op, and elsewhere iirc. Since the co-op has a supply they can afford to give away free, then it’s probably available to other stores or agencies also. It would be worth calling around to inquire about other sources.

            But in general, I strongly disagree with the argument I’ve seen here, that access to contraception is not a problem. I can’t easily find the breakdown of costs I saw in 2012, but one point was that even cheap generic bc pills required a prescription, which required a doctor’s visit and pelvic exam/pap smear. For someone who doesn’t have a regular doctor, ime a doctor would also require an initial visit before accepting me as a new patient. This adds up to a lot of cost (or co-pays).

            Cheap generic drugs don’t work for everyone; better bc pills can be up to $50-80*/mo. Many women for medical reasons cannot take bc pills, and other methods are much more expensive.

            Also — breaking news here! — some men don’t like condoms.

            * $80 in 2012

        • Tracy W says:

          So we can talk about forced sterilisation in basically every developed country but the USA?

      • cypher says:

        Please don’t do 1-2 step deep analysis of consequences for Consequentialism like that.

        You can’t just directly incentivize the state to up and kill people. It’s highly dangerous. On top of that, criminals are still people and still have value so long as they aren’t vegetables.

        Why did you pick that example instead of mandatory opt-out organ donation? A lot more regular people die each day than criminals get the death penalty, and most of them were already going to die so there’s little incentive to sentence more people to death to harvest their organs.

        Additionally, a number of utilitarians already support opt-out organ donation.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          Merely allowing recipients to PAY donors would almost instantly solve the kidney and liver transplant waiting lists. Why force anyone to donate when you haven’t tried merely ALLOWING people to do so on their own freely-set terms?

          (To paraphrase another libertarian: “I seek the staid, moderate ground between prohibition and compulsion.”)

          • cypher says:

            That doesn’t cover all organs, but it also serves as a more moderate option to be considered waaaay before cutting apart criminals.

          • Devilbunny says:

            Cypher – actually, it can cover all organs, so long as there are brain-dead people with usable organs whose families nonetheless choose not to donate. A check for $20k to the next of kin might very well change their minds.

      • ilzolende says:

        We don’t even harvest organs from people who are already dead in accidents and did not oppose organ donation when alive. If we have an opt-out donation system, heavily promote organ donation to healthy living people as a charitable activity, and work on organ synthesis and mechanical substitutions, and we still have lots of people dying for lack of transplants and a system we trust not to be negatively influenced by the perverse incentives killing people for organs would create, then we can talk about your proposal.

        In practice, people run away screaming from switching from opt-in to opt-out donation because some people might have their organs used for transplants after they’re dead even though they would have objected had they had the time to fill out opt-out forms, so bringing up your proposal would really not lead to it being implemented.

        You can use incomplete utilitarianism to justify lots of bad things, but you can use incomplete deontology or virtue ethics or any number of religious ethical systems to justify bad things as well, so this is hardly a utilitarian problem.

        Also, most utilitarians are loathe to violate deontological constraints without checking the reasons for doing so thoroughly first, because most utilitarians recognize the importance of moral heuristics.

      • Larry Niven has a series of stories that explore one problem with this approach. Once you accept the principle and find that there is still a shortage of organs, there will be political pressure to keep expanding the definition of violent criminals.

        I discovered those stories after publishing an article in the Journal of Political Economy making a different version of the same point. An efficient punishment, such as a fine or organ forfeiture, imposes a cost on the person punished but a benefit on others—unlike ordinary execution (cost and no benefit) or imprisonment (cost to both criminal and state). So why not shift to a system which uses efficient punishments wherever possible?

        One answer is that such a system gives whoever can get control over the legal system an incentive to punish people whether or not they are guilty. You end up with large rent seeking costs as (in the case of organ forfeiture) some people try to expropriate the biological resources of others and other people try to defend themselves against such expropriation. Civil forfeiture and punitive damages in tort provide other examples of the problem.

        “Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment,” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 107, no. 6 1999 pp. S259-269.

        • Airgap says:

          The case for whipping is looking stronger all the time.

          One of the major objections to judicial corporal punishment in the United States was that it was unpleasant to administer.

          Well, I always thought Asimov’s Laws were dumb…

    • Gbdub says:

      1) There is also a non-zero probability that the universe, and the people in it, are finite. Given this, consequentialism still works, you just have to discount the value of actions by the probability of an infinite universe.

      2) Even if the universe is infinite, the laws of physics would appear to preclude us from ever interacting with more than a finite subset of the universe. Consequentialism still works within this subset.

      3) Even if consequentialism is complete bunk on a universal scale, it may still be a good, maybe even the best, ethical framework for human behavior on Earth. Newtonian physics are wrong if you don’t add on relativity – but at a local level Newtonian models are usually more than good enough.

      • Troy says:

        I’m not entirely sure what you have in mind by (1). At any rate, I suspect that I can respond to it and (2) as I did to Nita above, by arguing that there’s always a non-zero probability that some action available to you right now will have infinitely extended effects into the future. I can grant for the sake of argument that this is incompatible with our best laws of physics, but point out that our laws of physics do not have probability 1 on our evidence, and other laws on which our actions have eternal consequences do.

        On (3): it seems to me that for this to work consequentialism would have to “approximate” some better moral system. I’m not sure what that system would be, though.

        You might weaken (3) to a point where I would accept it. I’m happy, e.g., to say that we should be concerned about local consequences. But I think this is neither the only thing we should be concerned about nor a basic normative fact, which puts me at odds with classical consequentialists.

        • Gbdub says:

          Basically, to the extent that we can cause infinite effect, it is a “smaller” infinity than the totality of an infinite multiverse. (Consider the difference between countable and uncountable infinities.) And anyway we can’t really have infinite effect, because unless you have a way for information to flow faster than the speed of light, your influence wi’ll always be limited by that.

          What I really meant by 1, then, is that in a truly infinite universe, you can never meaningfully alter the balance of consequences – even if you cause infinite effect, there will be a larger infinity outside your influence. Which could kill consequentialism. However, there is a non-zero chance (since we haven’t solved physics) that the universe, or at least the people in it, are finite. Consequentialism could be valid in the finite universe case, therefore, you should still consider it, at least to the level of P(finite)*effectSize(finite).

          In other words, I’m rejecting that we can have “infinite” consequences such that effectSize(infinite) > 0. And I really don’t understand what you mean by “other laws on which our actions have eternal consequence do [have probability 1]”. Unless our current laws of physics are absolutely false, how do you assign 100% value to hypothetical laws that say exactly the opposite? And again, note that “eternal” is not exactly the same as “infinite” (some infinities are more infinite than others).

          For 3), a useful model need not approximate any more valid model, at least not the way you’re implying. It just needs to predict local effects better than random.

          Basically, I think the infinite model you propose is a cop out – you’re claiming that, because you can’t predict the effects in places we can’t observe, you can ignore the predictable effects in the places we can. The opposite is true – if I truly can’t predict outside my locality, then the expected value of any action is 0. But the local impact can be predicted to be nonzero, so doesn’t it make sense to pay attention to that?

          I’d say the burden of proof is on you to prove that the universe operates differently outside our current view. Otherwise, it seems much more likely that something that locally increases value will have a positive or null impact outside the locality. And in that case consequentialism still holds value – at a minimum more value than the “we can’t predict anything” hypothesis.

          • Troy says:

            Basically, to the extent that we can cause infinite effect, it is a “smaller” infinity than the totality of an infinite multiverse. (Consider the difference between countable and uncountable infinities.)

            An interesting thought, but I don’t see why this needs to be true. For instance, suppose that there’s a multiverse with a countably infinite number of universes, each containing a finite number of people. Then there are (total) a countably infinite number of people. So the total amount of value in the world (= multiverse) is countable, just like the total amount of value that (we’re supposing) we can (possibly) cause.

            And anyway we can’t really have infinite effect, because unless you have a way for information to flow faster than the speed of light, your influence wi’ll always be limited by that.

            I don’t see how the speed of light comes into it. Suppose, in a simple model, that I can perform some action that gives two people 1 util. If I do, then this will cause them to each give two more people 1 util, etc. Provided that we don’t run out of people, no information needs to travel faster than the speed of light.

            The heat death of the universe does come into it, since this means we run out of people. That’s where I would bring in the assumption that it’s possible that physical models which imply that the universe will end are false, or that our actions have effects in some other way (e.g., in an afterlife).

            What I really meant by 1, then, is that in a truly infinite universe, you can never meaningfully alter the balance of consequences – even if you cause infinite effect, there will be a larger infinity outside your influence. Which could kill consequentialism. However, there is a non-zero chance (since we haven’t solved physics) that the universe, or at least the people in it, are finite. Consequentialism could be valid in the finite universe case, therefore, you should still consider it, at least to the level of P(finite)*effectSize(finite).

            Okay, that’s helpful. My two responses to this would be (1) it would still seem problematic if consequentialism is possibly useless in telling us what to do, especially if that possibility is reasonably probable; and (2) I think that there’s a non-zero probability of our actions having infinite effects, which would still scuttle this decision procedure (or, in the best case scenario, make it advise us to spend all our time trying to bring about whatever the most probable infinitely good effects are).

            And I really don’t understand what you mean by “other laws on which our actions have eternal consequence do [have probability 1]”. Unless our current laws of physics are absolutely false, how do you assign 100% value to hypothetical laws that say exactly the opposite?

            That was carelessness on my part. I meant to say that the probability of these alternate laws is non-zero.

            For 3), a useful model need not approximate any more valid model, at least not the way you’re implying. It just needs to predict local effects better than random.

            But whether consequentialism gives us the right advice more often than other moral systems requires settling the normative ethical question of what the correct moral system is.

            I’d say the burden of proof is on you to prove that the universe operates differently outside our current view. Otherwise, it seems much more likely that something that locally increases value will have a positive or null impact outside the locality.

            But expected utility is not just based on what is most likely, it’s also based on the value of the outcomes. And when that value is positively or negatively infinite, traditional expected utility theory breaks down; it can’t tell you what option to choose. So if, say, there’s a non-zero probability that locally-decreasing-value-act Local Decrease will lead to infinite value overall and a higher probability that locally-increasing-value-act Local Increase will lead to infinite value overall, then traditional expected utility theory doesn’t tell you how to choose between them. In this case you might say to go with Increase because the infinite outcomes are equivalent, and Increase gives you a higher probability. But it’s not clear that this is right, if the infinities they offer are different, e.g, if they look like this (for successive times):

            Local Decrease: {2, 4, 8, 16, …}
            Local Increase: {1, 1, 1, 1, …}

            Maybe the probabilities and utilities will work out just right so that the above kind of case doesn’t arise, and you can come up with some simple intuitive modification of traditional expected utility theory to account for the infinities involved. But I’m skeptical.

    • Peter says:

      If we’re going down the Act Consequentialist route (IMO there are very good reasons not to), then I see no reason not to restrict the consideration of consequences to your future light cone… which between now and the heat death of the universe or some other thing is going to be finite.

      Could be an issue for various forms of Rule Consequentialism, though. Interesting.

      This sort-of reminds me of the problems with some forms of Average Utilitarianism whereby the existence or otherwise of some people you can’t interact with in the distant past / distant galaxies can influence what you “should” do about population.

      Also: if you allow the infinite thing to be God (I was about to say “I don’t”, but I’m an atheist/agnostic, we’re talking Deep Foundational Philosophy here, therefore I suppose the “agnostic” bit comes to the fore) then that’s a new and interesting way in which consequentialism and the idea of God interact badly.

      • Aris Katsaris says:

        Even if the universe had an infinite duration, one has finite intellect and can only estimate the progress of events up to a future point in time before it all goes fuzzy.

        That a person doesn’t know if their current actions will have a positive or negative effect a trillion years in the future, doesn’t prevent them from trying to use their minds to estimate the consequence of their actions a minute from now, or a day from now, or in certain occasions a few years or decades from now.

        The whole argument seems to be saying “My mind isn’t infinite, therefore we should pretend to be as dumb as rocks”

      • Troy says:

        I see no reason not to restrict the consideration of consequences to your future light cone… which between now and the heat death of the universe or some other thing is going to be finite.

        This is similar to Gbdub’s suggestion above. My response to this move is to argue that there’s a non-zero probability that our actions will have infinite consequences, either because the scientific theories you’re appealing to are wrong or because they’re not incompatible with this suggestion.

        One way to run this is indeed to appeal to God. So long as you’re not what Dawkins calls a “strong atheist” who assigns a probability of 0 to theism, then the appeal to (say) a possible afterlife should still wreak havoc on the expected utility of your actions.

    • Aris Katsaris says:

      Your whole argument lies in points (2) and (3), (everything before and after is just framing) but your point (3) is utterly incoherent.

      – If the universe is infinite, it does NOT follow that “the expected utility of any action is either infinitely positive, infinitely negative, or undefined”

      – Even if that indeed followed, it would NOT then follow that “Either way, no action has greater expected utility than any other”.

      • Troy says:

        Good sir, I maintain that not only is (3) not utterly incoherent, it is true!*

        The expected value of act A is the sum of the values of the possible states of the world given that you A, multiplied by their probabilities given that you A. That is, EV(A) = P(S1|A)V(S1) + P(S2|A)V(S2) + …

        Now suppose that one of the possible states of the world, say S1, has infinite value, and that P(S1|A) > 0. Then P(S1|A)V(S1) = infinite. If all the other terms in our sum are either finite or infinite, then our sum is infinite. If some are negatively infinite, our sum is undefined. (I ignore greater and lesser cardinalities of infinity for simplicity’s sake here.) So, it follows from “there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite [in the above sense]” that the expected value of A-ing is either infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.

        (A concession: this is only true if there is a non-zero probability of an infinite world given that you A. So I was not careful in my original formulation. But I take it to be implausible that some action you could perform could change the probability that the world is infinite to 0.)

        Now suppose that there’s a non-zero probability of infinite value in the world and a zero probability of infinite disvalue, and (as per the above concession) this is true given any action available to you. Then any action has infinite expected value, by the above argument. For (possible) infinite disvalue and (definitely) no infinite value, flip the argument around. For (possible) infinite value and infinite disvalue, all actions have undefined expected value. In any of these cases, no action has greater expected value than any other.

        (If some actions hold the promise of infinite value and other don’t, then not all actions are on a par. But so long as there’s more than one in the former camp, a consequentialist decision procedure still doesn’t tell us what to do.)

        ______
        * Subject to minor alterations I just thought of.

    • Nisan says:

      (1) is incorrect. That’s not what consequentialism means.

      • haishan says:

        Right, I read that and was like “welp, this is unlikely to be worth my time.” There are already lots of respected and powerful antiutilitarian arguments made by people who don’t conflate consequentialism with utilitarianism.

      • Troy says:

        I’ve been using “utility” in the decision theoretic sense to refer to the extent to which one outcome is preferable to or more valuable than another. As such, I’m not assuming that utility = happiness.

        I grant that I should have been more explicit that I was not conflating consequentialism with utilitarianism, as this is a common mistake. But I note in my defense that I did say, “I understand “expected utility” to be a function of epistemic probabilities and objective values (e.g., pleasure).”

        • Joe Teicher says:

          If you’re a selfish consequentialis then the infinity issue doesn’t come up unless you are immortal.

    • Mark says:

      You point out that E(X|utility is infinite) is probably the same as E(Y|utility is infinite) for any actions X and Y, if they’re both positive at all. Fine, but that’s likely an argument against unbounded utility functions. Amend utilitarianism to say, “Choose the action A that maximizes E(A|utility is finite); if utility is infinite, spin in a circle forever.”

    • Jake says:

      Seems like you can counter the infinite argument by just using a utility function that has a locality component. Similar to how a lot of people have utility functions that have temporal discounting (e.g. $10 now is of higher utility than $100 is 10 years.), if you do spatial discounting, the infinites can be brought under control to something that is more meaningful. I’d further make the argument that most consequentialists already to this to some degree.

      • Jiro says:

        If your utility function has a locality component, then the utility-maximizing action might to be to run away from suffering people. (If you try to fix this by changing the function’s component to “locality at the time I started calculating”, so running away doesn’t help, then the utility-maximizing action might be to preemptively stay away from suffering people.)

        • Anonymous says:

          Why would you run? You don’t know the utility of helping those suffering people until you calculate it, by which point it’s too late!

        • Troy says:

          I like Jiro’s objection and endorse it. Analogues to my response to Paul Torek also hold here: in particular, you could improve the world (from your perspective?) by bringing people spatially closer to you, or making (the same) people be born more quickly, etc. (depending on whether it’s spatial or temporal discounting).

          I suspect that you are right that most consequentialists do this to some degree, but it seems to me to be in tension with the spirit of consequentialism, or the arguments often used to motivate the view.

        • Joe Teicher says:

          Avoiding seeing suffering is a common and excellent strategy for a happy life. I highly recommend it!

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Nisan has already pointed out the essential flaw — that you don’t really seem to have a good handle on what “consequentialism” and “utility” mean. (Or rather, what “utility” can mean — it has at least two separate meanings, which should not be conflated, although people seem to do it constantly no matter how much you tell them not to.)

      I don’t want to get too sucked into this, but here’s a brief overview of A. consequentialism vs. utilitarianism and B. how the word “utility” gets used (and abused).

      1. Consequentialism is a general term for any ethical system wherein it’s the end result of actions that determine their goodness. I like to say that “consequentialism is a coherence condition” — you have a notion of what actions are better, you have a notion of what results are better; ideally these two should be compatible, in that better actions should yield better results. Consequentialism enforces this, in the unique possible way: by using the latter to determine the former.

      2. Utilitarianism is a particular form of consequentialism that cares about something called “utility” (sense 1), which can be assigned to people (defined however); goodness of a particular state of the world is determined by putting all the utilities into some monotonic function (such as summing or averaging). Notably, the result depends only on the multiset of utilities, not who has what utility — people all have “equal moral worth”. Utility should probably be taken to be a real number (this would certainly make the theory easier), but, man, who the hell knows — the existence of a notion of “utility” is one of the assumptions behind utilitarianism, but as for how to actually define it, who knows.

      Note the absence of “expected utility” thus far.

      (Note also that the monotonic function used needn’t be a sum or anything like that, so there goes the infinite increases and decreases. Of course, doing an average over infinitely many people, when any two people are interchangeable, has serious mathematical problems… but who says it has to be anything so simple as summing or averaging?)

      3. Now we get to “utility” (sense 2). If we accept certain assumptions about how an idealized, rational consequentialist agent will behave, then there are theorems — the VNM theorem and Savage’s Theorem — that state that any such agent acts to maximize to maximize the expected value of some (agent-dependent) real-valued function of states of the world; this function is called the agent’s “utility function”.

      This sense of utility has absolutely nothing to do with “utility” in the utilitarian sense! It refers to what the agent is trying to maximize [the expected value of]. Now, it’s possible that the agent is a utilitarian, in which case the agent’s utility (sense 2) depends on people’s utility (sense 1). But, firstly, this is not necessarily the case; the agent could be purely selfish, we never said anything that would prevent that. Secondly, note the shift between the two senses of utility here! More detail on that in a bit.

      Note, by the way, that the utility function is determined by examining the agent’s preferences; while it is “cardinal” in that it does assign real numbers to states of the world, it is ultimately expressing “ordinal” information (the agent’s preferences over actions). It just turns out that these preferences being expressible via a utility function is just what is required in order to be coherent (at least, if we accept that Savage’s or Von Neumann & Morgenstern’s assumptions are good ones). It doesn’t mean the numbers are independently useful. Indeed, individual utility numbers cannot be, because utility functions are not unique; they are unique only up to positive affine transformations (that is, combinations of multiplying by a positive constant and/or adding a constant). That said, if you have four utilities a, b, c, and d from the same agent, then the value (a-b)/|c-d| does contain meaningful information about the agent’s preferences (and all meaningful numbers about the agent’s preferences can be expressed in terms of these). (Edit: Note that these utilities don’t need to be utilities of states of the world, they just need to be things of type “utility” (sense 2). E.g., if the agent has a bounded utility function (see below), and x is a utility, then the number (x-inf)/|sup-inf|, where sup and inf are the supremum and infimum of the agent’s utilities, is certainly meaningful; this is equivalent to normalizing the utility function so that the infimum is 0 and the supremum is 1. So in the bounded case anyway extracting meaningful numbers becomes a little easier.)

      But I’ve gotten a little off track — as I was saying, if the agent is a utilitarian, then the agent’s utility (sense 2) depends on everyone’s utility (sense 1). But:
      A. This doesn’t tell us how it depends on them. If it’s just equal to the sum or average of them, then ignoring for now the issue of creation and destruction of people, maximizing expected utility (sense 2) would correspond to maximizing the expected sum of everyone’s utility (sense 1). And in this context — and only in this context or one possessing similar properties — does it make sense to speak of “maximizing expected utility” when “utility” is used in sense 1 instead of sense 2. Otherwise, you should only ever be speaking of maximizing expected utility (sense 2).
      B. Again, note the shift between the two senses; we have utility (sense 2) (of the agent) depending on utility (sense 1) (of everyone). Now, there could be good reasons to at least in some cases identify those cases… but as soon as we do that, we run into problems of circularity; you very possibly end up with cases where utility (sense 1) of someone depends on utility (sense 1) of themselves, or, worse yet, where utility (sense 2) of someone depends on utility (sense 2) of themselves — which, recall, is dangerous, because individual utility (sense 2) numbers aren’t meaningful unless combined in the right ways. Of course, the resulting equations might well turn out to have a unique solution! Doing this isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just mathematically dangerous. (Edit: And in the case of sense 2 depending on sense 2, I’m pretty doubtful it’s meaningful even if you do take all the precautions above.)
      C. To return to A. for a moment — if the reason we accept the notion of utility (sense 2) is because of Savage’s Theorem rather than the VNM theorem — and I think Savage’s Theorem makes a rather more compelling case — then we are required to additionally conclude that utility functions must be bounded. Thus, when it comes time to maximize expected utility (sense 2), infinities are simply not a possibility. If the agent is a utilitarian, then yes, this may require combining utilities (sense 1) in an unusual manner.

      (The VNM theorem assumes that we already accept the notion of probability. By contrast, Savage’s theorem does not; it proves that with the right conditions, the agent must work as if it both believed in probability and is trying to maximize the expectation of its utility function. Hence why I like it better. Although the “probability” in this case is only required to be finitely additive.)

      • Troy says:

        Sniffnoy: I am aware of the distinctions that you are drawing. Terminology in this area is confusing and I should have been clearer about what I meant. I’ve been using “expected utility” in the sense of “expected value,” where I am not making judgments about what value is or what it inheres in. It could be happiness and inhere in people, it could be beauty and inhere in ecosystems. I can run the argument either way.

        I am using value in an “objective” sense if what is actually valuable. So, expected utility/value in my sense is a function of what the agent ought to value (and the degrees of belief he ought to have), not what he actually does value (or the degrees of belief he does have). I consider the view on which agents ought to maximize expected utility in the latter sense to be more of a Humean view than a consequentialist view, as it (typically) denies the existence of objective values.

        I was also tacitly assuming an additive form of consequentialism. But I think the same problems arise and are perhaps even worse for other forms of aggregation.

        (Incidentally, I had not thought about the circularity you discuss in (3B). This seems to me like a potential problem for preference utilitarianism; but I will have to think about it.)

        • FrogOfWar says:

          The (3B) point is an analogue to one of Hume’s arguments against the claim that self-love is our only motivation. We need other more basic motivations to ground what would count as a satisfier of one’s self-love in order for self-love to make sense as a motive to begin with.

          For the same reason, two people could not have as their only desire the satisfaction of the other’s desires.

          It’s the same problem you find in the Liar Paradox literature. There we need to ground all sentences about truth in sentences that are about the world itself rather than truth. Here we need to ground all sentences about preferences in sentences that are not themselves about preferences.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I was also tacitly assuming an additive form of consequentialism. But I think the same problems arise and are perhaps even worse for other forms of aggregation.

          Well there’s your problem, isn’t it? 🙂 But seriously, who says consequentialism has to involve any sort of “aggregation” in this sense at all? Consequentialism is just a coherence condition. This seems more like an argument against [possbly slight generalizations of] utilitarianism, not consequentialism more generally.

          • Troy says:

            Fair enough, my target is really aggregative forms of consequentialism. (Going back and looking at Bostrom’s essay I see he is explicit about this, and so is more careful than I was.)

    • 2. Is a mini argument that seems to be aiming to get the conclusion “there is an infinite amount of value out there in the world” from the premise “there is infinite amount of potential .valuable stuff out there in the world”.

      But the idea of Value being a thing in the world is metaphysically dubious, and the idea of a linear relationship between Valuable Stuff and Valuation by Agents is also problematic. For one thing, it seems likely that agents can only gain or lose finite amounts of valuable stuff in individual actions. For another, there is plenty of evidence of agents setting bounds and discounting, rather than valuing stuff linearly.

      • FrogOfWar says:

        The idea behind (2) is that there might be an infinite number of agents, not that there might be an infinite number of things that a finite number of agents value.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      You can still say one “world history” is “Better” than the other even if the integral of the utility function is infinite on both.

      In order to make this concrete imagine you have two real valued functions of time. On could define a partial order by saying f is greater than g if the set {x|f(x) < g(x)} has finite measure. There are obviously many other partial orders you could devise. The order induced from the L1 norm is not the only order we can construct.

      • Troy says:

        This is true, but whether or not it can save consequentialism is unclear. I discuss similar proposals upthread, but the basic difficulties are two:

        1. A partial order does not let us calculate expected utilities, because expected utilities require a cardinal measure and not just an ordinal measure.

        2. Any attempt to get a cardinal measure out of this kind of proposal will still arguably not be able to handle cases where our actions themselves have potentially infinite effects. If there’s a non-zero probability that action A will cause an infinite amount of changes to the world, and likewise for action B, but those changes aren’t the same, then it’s doubtful that there will be any expected utility decision theory to let us choose between these cases.

        • cbhacking says:

          Ordering lets us maximize utility, and that’s literally all that matters. It’s entirely possible, for any bounded set of possibilities*, to assign a utility ranking to them if you have a comparative utility function, and therefore it’s possible to maximize utility even if you don’t know what the maximal value (or any other) is. To make that argument work, you’d have to not only discount but rule out a comparative utility function.

          Comparisons tend to be relatively easy, even with infinities; consider the infinite values of X = sum(|N|) for N = all positive integers and Y = sum(2*|N|) for N = all positive integers. Not only can we see that X < Y, but we even know by what factor; we can say that Y = 2X.

          You may be interested to know that computers work with functions that have potentially-infinite values all the time. Look up “lazy evaluation” for an idea.

          * The true set of possibilities may be unbounded, but you can only consider a bounded set anyhow. Utilitarianism doesn't** say you can find the global maximum of the utility function, it says you should try to maximize utility in the most effective way you know how.

          ** To the best of my knowledge. I'm relatively new to the concept.

          • Troy says:

            Ordering lets us maximize utility under perfect knowledge. The reason we need cardinal rankings is because of uncertainty. For example, suppose that we have three possible outcomes, O1, O2, and O3. All have infinite value, but O1 > O2 > O3. We also have two actions, A1 and A2. Now suppose that

            P(O1|A1) = .5,
            P(O2|A1) = 0,
            P(O3|A1) = .5,

            and

            P(O1|A2) = 0,
            P(O2|A2) = 1,
            P(O3|A2) = 0.

            Expected utility theory can’t tell us which action to perform merely based on the fact O1 > O2 > O3. We need to know how much better O1 is than O2, and O2 than O3, to know how to calculate the expected utility of A1 and A2.

            Maybe we can quantify better-ness by taking limits in the way you suggest, but it will depend on the case, and whether there’s a privileged limit function for approaching the infinity.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      (2) isn’t complete, and that’s why the idea fails. If you allow for a constant probability distribution for the universe containing x amount of utility, then if the universe has x utility, and you do an action with y utility, then you can measure the relative goodness of an action by a function f(x,y) = y/abs(x).

      If we want to evaluate an action y=a, (I’ll write this as E(a)) then we need to sum up all values of f(x,a) for every value of x. if we use an integral for this, it’s going to be hard to type out, but I’ll try:

      E(a) = the limit of [1/(t+t) * integral from -t to t of f(x,a) dx] as t goes to infinity.

      If we do this, we end up with an expression that looks somewhat like (and I’m sorta cheating here, not going into all the details, and that’s because i’m lazy, but this does increase the chance that I’m wrong):

      (a*2*infinity)/(2*infinity)

      Which simplifies to a.

      So, in conclusion, we have proved that the expected utility equals the theoretical utility, if we assume that all universes are equally likely.

    • memetiengineer says:

      Obvious counter-example to your argument: egoistic hedonism is a form of consequentialism, and (2) is obviously false. I suspect that for similar reasons it would fail for many other forms of non-utilitarian consequentialism.

      • Troy says:

        I’m not sure egoistic hedonism is a form of consequentialism, but at any rate my argument still applies to it. There is a non-zero probability of an afterlife (or some other scheme where you live forever — it can involve uploading yourself into a computer if you like) in which you will continue experiencing pleasure and pain forever.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          This is easily handled by a discounting rate, I believe. (At least, assuming boundedness, which we should be, because of Savage.) And if there weren’t an easy solution, who cares? Nothing you’ve said rules out a harder one.

          It really seems like you’re going about this backwards, in a sense. You’re making a lot of implicit assumptions about how utility has to be calculated, showing the results are incoherent, and claiming this is an argument against consequentialism! It’s just an argument against particular methods of calculating utility. None of what you’re saying would be convincing to someone who takes consequentialism by itself seriously (as opposed to someone who only endorses consequentialism because it follows from utilitarianism).

          • Troy says:

            Yes, time preference can get out of this particular case. It won’t help if you can get an infinite amount of utility at some future time (e.g., perhaps the beatific vision is infinitely valuable). But if your view of value is narrow enough (e.g., you think it’s just pleasure), and you’re willing to claim lots of a priori knowledge for yourself, you might claim to know with certainty that such a scenario is impossible.

            If a discounting rate does help here, we face an issue of determining the “correct” discounting rate: how much ought you place greater weight on nearer outcomes?

            In general, I think that proposed alterations of how to calculate expected utility will run afoul of a dilemma: either they will not solve the problem of infinite value, or they will be independently problematic — e.g., they will face counterexamples or not sit well with the kinds of motivations people give for (aggregative) consequentialism. For instance, time discounting literally counts some goods less than others.

            I don’t think that my argument is a knockdown refutation of consequentialism (or utilitarianism). It’s one of a variety of reasons I don’t accept either view, but philosophy involves weighing costs and benefits, and I’ve got nothing against someone’s saying “this is an interesting problem and I don’t know what the solution is, but on balance the weight of the philosophical evidence seems to me to still favor consequentialism.”

          • Sniffnoy says:

            OK; this is all fair enough.

            (Although, once again, the problem of “an infinity at a later time” though is not a problem; utility functions can’t be infinite! And certainly not if we further assume that they’re bounded. 🙂 Indeed, if we don’t assume boundedness, then discounting doesn’t necessarily save you, as you could have something that grows in utility faster than the discounting rate.

            …at least, if that makes sense. I’m not sure that I’m combining things here in a way that’s really meaningful. But it’s no more meaningless than what you’ve been suggesting, at any rate. 🙂 )

          • Troy says:

            utility functions can’t be infinite

            This is where it would be clearer for me to say “value,” which is a more pre-theoretic term. Inasmuch as “utility” is a technical term within some mathematical system, maybe this is right, but then the question just becomes whether value (in the pre-theoretic sense) = utility (in this technical sense), and I’ll maintain that it’s not certain that it does.

            Indeed, if we don’t assume boundedness, then discounting doesn’t necessarily save you, as you could have something that grows in utility faster than the discounting rate.

            Ah, yes, that’s another difficulty I hadn’t thought of above: similar to the rejoinder to the response to the St. Petersburg Problem which relies on diminishing marginal returns.

            I have not studied bounded utility functions enough to know to what extent the worries I’ve been raising here apply to them, but they seem to me a promising route to pursue.

        • memeticengineer says:

          Egoistic hedonism is most certainly a form of consequentialism. An agent practicing it would judge their actions solely by their consequences according to a given standard of value (their own pleasure).

          In addition to the arguments already cited (discount rate, no such thing as finite duration infinite pleasure) your “there might be an afterlife” argument sounds like Pascal’s Wager. Since there is no known way to affect one’s likelihood of entering a positive afterlife, one would have to ignore this possibility when doing expected value calculations.

          Now that I think about it, it seems to me that any form of average utilitarianism (as opposed to total utilitarianism) would also completely evade your argument, for basically the same reason as any form of egoist consequentialism. If a single moral subject cannot have infinite utility, then their average is not infinite, even if there are an infinite number of them.

          • Troy says:

            Egoistic hedonism is most certainly a form of consequentialism. An agent practicing it would judge their actions solely by their consequences according to a given standard of value (their own pleasure).

            I think of consequentialism as the view that one ought maximize the value of the world. On the simplest views of value this is seen as the sum of the value in the world, but more sophisticated views might think of it some sort of average, or not aggregative at all (see my discussion with Sniffnoy upthread).

            I don’t see egoism as a kind of consequentialism because it doesn’t tell you to maximize the value of the world, it tells you to maximize your own well-being. Simple additive egoistic hedonism tells you to get as much pleasure as you can. This doesn’t involve maximizing value in general, it involves maximizing value-for-you. It either says that there is no such thing as value in general, or admits that there is but says that it doesn’t matter for ethics. So either value-for-you isn’t value in some objective sense, or it is, but maximizing objective value is not the goal of this form of egoism: for it says to ignore value-for-others.

            Of course, given certain understandings of “consequentialism” and “consequences,” almost any ethical view trivially counts as a kind of consequentialism. e.g., If consequentialism just means “concerned with consequences,” and “consequences” includes things like “having broken the categorical imperative,” then we could call Kant a consequentialist.

            In addition to the arguments already cited (discount rate, no such thing as finite duration infinite pleasure) your “there might be an afterlife” argument sounds like Pascal’s Wager.

            It’s clearly related to Pascal’s Wager, inasmuch as it brings in infinite utilities in an afterlife. But its upshot is different.

            Since there is no known way to affect one’s likelihood of entering a positive afterlife, one would have to ignore this possibility when doing expected value calculations.

            This seems to me like a surprising thing to say about the probabilities of various afterlifes. You really think that it’s equally likely that you enter a positive afterlife, given that you live any kind of life at all? Most major world religions would reject that claim. Do you assign them all credence 0?

            Now that I think about it, it seems to me that any form of average utilitarianism (as opposed to total utilitarianism) would also completely evade your argument, for basically the same reason as any form of egoist consequentialism. If a single moral subject cannot have infinite utility, then their average is not infinite, even if there are an infinite number of them.

            This avoids an “infinite number of persons” (or other value-bearers) way of getting an infinitely valuable world, but not other ways. For instance, suppose that there is a possible afterlife in which you enjoy ever increasing utility, though at any particular time it’s finite. Your life looks something like this, with the numbers representing utility at a time:

            {1, 2, 4, 8, …}

            The average of this series is infinite, and so the value of your life is infinite, on an average form of utilitarianism.

    • Daniel Smith says:

      I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities. I don’t think these are solved problems, but I expect they are solvable, or at least some approximation can be made which doesn’t blow up. An easy hack is to just define a finite time window that you care about.

      Even more practically, imagine writing a computer program to estimate utility. It will never have this problem because it doesn’t have unbounded time/space to perform these computations. (assuming sane bounded utility functions.)

      I feel like you came up with this neat argument, got excited, and didn’t spend more than a minute or two trying to think of why it might not hold.

      I think what was mentioned some time ago on this site about ancestry–you either (in the long run) become everyone’s ancestor or no-one’s–is also true for actions: their repercussions either (in the long run) blow up and affect everything or die off and affect nothing. But I think it’s safe to say that the uncertainty in your computation will quickly become larger than the Nth tertiary effect…

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities.

        That’s not what utility functions are for!

        (Also, a better hack than a finite time window is a discounting rate.)

      • James Picone says:

        Objection: Even if you take a finite amount of time to do the computation, that computation could involve symbolic math to prove that the outcome will be infinite. It doesn’t take an infinite amount of computation to show that 1 + 1 + 1… isn’t finite.

      • Troy says:

        I feel like you came up with this neat argument, got excited, and didn’t spend more than a minute or two trying to think of why it might not hold.

        You give me too much credit! 🙂 I read the argument in Nick Bostrom’s aforementioned essay and am merely popularizing it.

        Of course there are objections to the argument, just like there are objections to any philosophical argument! I posted it to stimulate discussion, and now I’m trying to reply to objections, but I don’t take the argument to be an open-and-shut case or any such thing.

        I expect that it is possible to a) define a utility function that does non-stupid things with infinities and/or b) define a comparison function that does non-stupid things with infinities.

        I’m more skeptical of the former than the latter. Philosophers have attempted both, and Bostrom criticizes strategies that have been proposed in his paper.

        An easy hack is to just define a finite time window that you care about.

        You can certainly do this. But it seems to me that if you do you’ve given up on consequentialism; you’re no longer concerned about maximizing overall value, just the value of this small part of the world.

    • James Picone says:

      I object to (3). I don’t see how it follows from (2).

      I agree that (1) and (2) could potentially imply that /some/ actions have infinite expected utility for certain definitions of utility. I don’t think it means that /all/ actions have infinite expected utility (which is, I think, what you meant?). A utilitarian could bite the bullet, say “Well if you’ve calculated that the expected utility of some action is positive infinity, do that action. If you’ve calculated that the expected utility of several mutually-exclusive actions is positive infinity, do one of them, it doesn’t really matter”, and otherwise do normal utilitarian things with actions that have finite expected utility.

      Most actions that you take have nth order effects that fall off past some n. If I choose to steal a loaf of bread, at first order I expect the store that sells the bread to lose some utility, at second order I expect to very slightly contribute to citizens of the area feeling like there’s crime, at third order I expect to extremely slightly contribute to generally Tough On Crime legislation in the area, and so on. If the utilities were -1 + 0.5 * -1 + 0.25 * -1… then it’s -2 utility all up.

      • Troy says:

        Here’s my thought behind (3) (copying from here. The expected value of act A is the sum of the values of the possible states of the world given that you A, multiplied by their probabilities given that you A. That is, EV(A) = P(S1|A)V(S1) + P(S2|A)V(S2) + …

        Now suppose that one of the possible states of the world, say S1, has infinite value, and that P(S1|A) > 0. Then P(S1|A)V(S1) = infinite. If all the other terms in our sum are either finite or infinite, then our sum is infinite. If some are negatively infinite, our sum is undefined. So, it follows from “there is a non-zero probability that the world is infinite [in the above sense]” that the expected value of A-ing is either infinite, negatively infinite, or undefined.

        This doesn’t quite hold if some actions have the potential to change whether or not the world has infinite value. One might also reply to the argument (as others have) that we can somehow set aside infinite value that we don’t impact. In either case the closely related problem of how to deal with actions that have potential (negative) infinite payoff arises. Then the utilitarian could indeed say what you say above.

        Whether this is a satisfactory response is up for debate. One might think it implies that you ought do things you ought not do (e.g., spend all your time trying to bring about some super unlikely chain reaction that will continue increasing utility forever). One might also worry that there will be lots of actions that have potential infinite payoff and that we won’t have a way to choose between them. You could even argue that it’s possible that all actions have infinite payoff: just consider hypotheses of the form,

        H1 = God will bring about infinite value if I do A1,
        H2 = God will bring about infinite value if I do A2,
        etc.

        for all available actions A1-An.

        • James Picone says:

          I would prefer to model the expected value as the sum of the distributions of change in value per affected actor, rather than the sum of the total value * probability of state occurring of the universe. I think that avoids your first problem, if my intuition is right here, because there’s a finite number of actors affected by a given time (light cone), and as actors are further from you in time and space the expected change in utility distribution will become wider and wider, becoming uniform across all possible changes at infinity (and thus contributing nothing to the summed utility distribution).

          Your second argument there seems stronger. I’ll have to think about that. My intuition says that the uniformity must count against it somehow – because it applies to all possible actions, it should cancel out. Maybe the secret is using hyperreals to represent value. 😛

          • Troy says:

            On modeling expected value as change: the trick here, it seems to me, will be to precisify “change in value.” What’s the state of the world that’s being modified by the action? It can’t be the present state of the world, because the expected change will then always be infinite, negative infinite, or undefined, as before. Is it “the way the world would be otherwise”? This is suggested more by what you say, but counterfactuals like this are notoriously difficult to determine.

            Hyperreals might help. Bostrom seems to think this is one of the most promising approaches to the problem. I’m not familiar enough with the mathematics of hyperreals to know whether it’s feasible or not.

    • Airgap says:

      If you’re just trying to avoid ethical paralysis, which seems to be the main motivation, you can count only the portion of the infinite universe you can comprehend and analyze in order to decide which has higher value, which will be finite. This is what we do in real life. For example, when we worry about the future, we talk about making things better for “Our children, and our children’s children” and then we stop talking.

      Another example: according to certain over-dramatic AI researchers, posting on the internet could lead to arbitrarily high negative value on the other side of the singularity. Since that’s by definition outside of my ability to predict and comprehend and evaluate for decision-making purposes, I continue to post on the internet. Basilisk. Take that, MIRI!

    • Possible refutation of argument 1:

      * Predictions are imperfect and finite
      * Expected utility of an action is based upon predicted likelihood of causally linked events
      * Therefore, expected utility is finite.

      So basically, if expected utility = consequence * likelihood, but an increasingly infinite number of events have equal likelihood as we reach the limit of our predictive powers, then expected utility approaches zero as we go “further out”. We mostly don’t have to worry about humans a million years from now or on some distant planet, because we have no reliable way to predict how our actions would effect them.

  41. I want someone to explain to me why chiropractors are treated as woo peddlers by many in the rationalist community, and why they’re grouped as “homeopathic” medicine by the medical community.

    When I have severe back pain (usually from lifting something with bad posture), I go to my chiropractor. When I get there, he makes me lie down and jerks at my back in superficially alarming ways… but my pain immediately goes away and I feel better. From this, I conclude that chiropractic adjustment is extremely effective against back pain. He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics. I cannot imagine how the kind of pressure he applies could possibly be considered a placebo. I literally see nothing in common between him and the rest of “alternative medicine,” except for the fact that my physician disparages his practice. I don’t get it.

    • Anon says:

      >When I have [some vague symptom that usually goes away on its own], I go to my [homeopath]. When I get there, he [gives me some sugar pills] and I feel better. From this, I conclude that [homeopathy] is extremely effective against [my symptoms]. He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics. I cannot imagine how [his sugar pills] could possibly be considered a placebo. I literally see nothing in common between him and the rest of “alternative medicine,” except for the fact that my physician disparages his practice. I don’t get it.

      • This is not a helpful response.

        • Airgap says:

          It’s probably more snarky than is optimal, but it’s basically correct. Chiro might be legit or it might be garbage. But your statement isn’t enough to determine it either way. For example, you can also replace “my homeopath” with “my physician”, and “my physician” with “Mary Baker Eddy.”

      • Deiseach says:

        Anon, explain to me why you think that is a better response than explaining the difference between chiropractors and physical therapists, bearing in mind the placebo effect does exist and may play a greater role in the effectiveness of conventional medical treatment than we might wish?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        That sounds like a test that could Prove Too Much. Any nouns could be inserted in your first [.]’s. “I had a headache so I went to an M.D. He gave me some aspirin. He did not offer surgery to remove a brain tumor, offer a prescription for physical therapy for my posture, or offer radiation therapy.”

        Fwiw, after I moved, I asked my new MD to recommend a good chiropractor; apparently he had zim on file, because his reply was quick.

    • lmm says:

      Their official bodies make many claims of effectiveness that are not supported by evidence. See e.g. the quotes in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Chiropractic_Association_v_Singh

      • This was illuminating, especially when I followed the links to straights and mixers. I had previously never even heard of “straight” chiropractic, which is indeed a lot more like woo than what I was familiar with.

        This largely allays my concerns. I shall continue to see my chiropractor for back pain and not for ear infections, which is what I was doing anyway.

    • suntzuanime says:

      My understanding is that many of them peddle “woo” (I hate that term) alongside their actually-effective treatments. Like if a Real Doctor gives you an SSRI for your depression and feeds you a line about how your seratonin is out of balance, it doesn’t matter too much that his explanation of why his methods work is bullshit, it only matters that his methods work.

      • memetiengineer says:

        Why do you hate the term “woo”? (Not endorsing it, just curious.)

        • suntzuanime says:

          It’s a dismissive mocking term for claims that basically implies the speaker and all reasonable people are above engaging with them. That’s a very dangerous sort of thing to have around, because an error in classifying a claim as “woo” becomes very hard to correct.

          If your claim is called “false” you can argue that it’s true. If your claim is called “nonsense” or even “bullshit”, you have a tough row to hoe, but still the path of arguing for its truth is open to you. If your claim is called “woo”, all arguing for its truth is going to get you is a rolled eye and a condescending smile. It reminds me of the various terms the Social Justice movement uses to shut down argument like “hateful” and “privileged”; the point is not to claim that it’s false, but to tell the people on your side that there can be no argument that it’s true, so stop listening.

          • Anonymous says:

            I believe in a lot of stuff that gets labelled “woo.”

            I find it a very useful term. It’s derogatory, sure, but I don’t really care what other people think about my beliefs. And when I describe something I did at the weekend or whatever as “woo” it’s a convenient signal that it’s not something I’m interested in discussing (from any kind of rationalist or pseudo-rationalist perspective.)

            I guess what I’m saying is that some beliefs are not “claims”, and actually shouldn’t be debated. Call those “woo.” Why not? It’s good to call them something.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’ve found ‘woo’ a useful term. An MD asked, “And do you do anything for your XYZ?”

            I said, “Woo works for me on that.”

            He nodded, “Woo works.” And he dropped the XYZ and got back to what I’d come in for. I think my use of the derogatory term reassured him.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I applaud your doctor. Unless the use of woo is itself dangerous and/or is causing the patient to avoid treatment they need to avoid serious problems or death, any physician who tells them that something they think is helping isn’t helping should be horsewhipped. First do no harm.

    • youzicha says:

      Per Wikipedia, “Systematic reviews of this research have not found evidence that chiropractic manipulation is effective, with the possible exception of treatment for back pain”, so you may have hit upon the one condition for which it actually works.

      The chiropractic theory also states that lots of (most?) other diseases is caused by your spine being misaligned, which affects the nervous system, which affects other internal organs, which causes the symptoms. That seems extremely wooey to me.

      • Airgap says:

        Except that medical science can’t actually rule the chiropractic out, because that shit is really complicated. Not that I believe it, mind you. Just have a little humility.

        • pneumatik says:

          If it’s not testable then it’s not science, and is no different from any other treatment that hasn’t been shown to be effective. There’s lots of medical treatments, especially drugs, where we don’t completely understand how they work but we can still test for effectiveness. Also, practitioners with their patients’ best interests in mind advocate for the treatments with the most evidence to support them.

      • JDG1980 says:

        What percentage of patients seek chiropractic treatment for issues other than back pain? Is this actually common?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        The chiropractic theory also states that lots of (most?) other diseases is caused by your spine being misaligned, which affects the nervous system, which affects other internal organs, which causes the symptoms.

        “Circulation smerculation! No large studies even in gladitorial medicine have found real evidence that this ‘circulation of the blood’ exists. Much less, that ‘interference’ with this ‘circulation’ can cause disease in any organ, anywhere. Gangrene in the feet, loss of memory in the head — all from the same non-existent cause?”

    • Murphy says:

      …. Imagine that we lived in a different world where there were no chiropractors but there was an alternative medicine field known as “Lensery”.

      Imagine that practitioners of “lensery” held/were taught that almost all health problems were due to the blockage of flows of light through the body, that things like brain cancer and liver disease could be treated by focusing sunlight onto different points on peoples limbs. Imagine that amongst all the hundreds of crazy claims they also included the idea that a pair of specially shaped lenses placed in front of the eyes could help people who were long or short sighted.

      You might go to a lenser with blurry vision and he might give you perfectly good glasses.

      But if you go along with a kidney stone they still set up the lenses and start shining light on your arms.

      Would the last belief make them entirely respectable assuming they don’t give up all the rest of the crazy stuff?

      chiropractors are basically like that. They’ve got this massive massive body of crazy stuff like treating cancer with spinal adjustment (because in their system it’s all about energy flows through the body) and a tiny fraction that lines up pretty well with physiotherapy: ie the idea that massaging and manipulating the muscles and bones in your back can help with some back problems.

      • Imagine that, in this world, 90% of the actual treatments which people seek from Lensists are for corrective eyeglasses, and the majority of the public is unaware of the more unusual Lensery treatments. Furthermore, mainstream medical doctors are unwilling to prescribe eyeglasses because of their association with Lensery, instead suggesting expensive and unreliable treatments such as eye surgery.

        In this world, the Lensists really are performing a valuable public service. Furthermore, we should expect that over time Lensist practice (though not necessarily Lensist theory) will approach this-world ophthalmology as Lensists concentrate on those treatments which are empirically effective and demanded by their patients.

        • Anthony says:

          Close. Imagine that some number of patients with eye problems, and with small but nagging other ailments, go to the Lenser for glasses and, now able to read the brochures in the office, ask the Lenser if they really can treat gout. The Lenser, who hasn’t pushed those treatments beyond having the brochures in the lobby, says that he can, and those patients embark on a series of illuminations for their gout.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I don’t think many chiropractors would embark on a treatment they knew so little about; perhaps one would tell the patient, “There’s something I could try. Lensing is harmless; would you like to be my first gout test subject?”

            But steelmanning your premise to apply to Lensers who really have used lensing on gout, if a few lensing treatments don’t help my gout, I’d drop it . But I’d continue to wear my eyeglasses, and hope the Lenser stays in business so he can service mine, and so other people can get eyeglasses. And so he can continue looking for new uses for lenses, and perhaps find some.

    • MichaelT says:

      The problem with Chiropractors is they often just do adjustments, which provide short term relief without a addressing the cause of your pain. Most people’s back pain is not caused by a single fall or accident, but years of built up mechanical issues. Unless he is also offering you exercises to correct the imbalances in your muscles or increase your mobility, he is just cashing checks for short term relief when you come in.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Well, a good point, and one should always follow up on chronic issues, but your argument seems to lead to the conclusion that people with arthritis shouldn’t take Advil, since it doesn’t address the underlying causes. If a person has a back issue and it is either unremediable by conventional medicine or the only cure is serious and potentially hazardous back surgery, but the chiropractor can provide relief that lasts a while and doesn’t make things worse, bring on the chiropractor, says I. 🙂

        • MichaelT says:

          You’re probably right that it’s better than nothing, but it’s well within their ability to be much better. Most back pain, especially among the non-elderly, is the result of tight leg muscles (typically the hamstrings, hips, and the muscles of the glute complex) and the inability of people to activate their transverse abdominus properly. These are correctable issues, and many people can completely resolve their pain issues by correcting them.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            No argument with any of that, except a practical one: My MIL, for instance, goes to the chiropractor once every month or two. She reports it helps her greatly. More exercise, especially exercise designed to alleviate the problem you describe, would also do that.

            But she’s not going to do the exercise. She’s just not.

            So unless one goes with the philosophy that she deserves to be in pain if she doesn’t have the will to exercise, I don’t really see that having the chiropractor available is negatively affecting her chances of addressing the real problem.

    • Anonymous says:

      “He doesn’t offer to align my chakras, identify ley lines which are causing my pain, or heal me with the power of quantum psychodynamics.”

      Chiropractors have a bad reputation because a lot of them *do* do that. You have one of the good ones.

    • moridinamael says:

      Indeed, the answer is that some chiropractors think they can cure AIDS and cancer with spinal adjustments. This taints the perception of the practice. There seems to be an ongoing war for the soul of chiropractic.

      Many of the evidence-based chiropractic techniques have been adopted by good physical therapists already.

    • Sarah says:

      http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/chiropractic-a-brief-overview-part-i/ and the following links are a good explanation.

      In short:
      1.) Chiropractic is based on false beliefs about the human body;
      2.) Controlled studies find that chiropractic definitely doesn’t relieve most of the things chiropractors claim; it probably doesn’t relieve upper back or neck pain; it *might* relieve low back pain but this is contested.
      3.)chiropractic on your neck can cause stroke (through arterial dissection)

      The last is why I actually warn people against chiropractic whereas my attitude to, say, acupuncture is “meh, rituals probably help people heal.” Being whacked on the back of the neck is risky.

      Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are chiropractors who won’t whack you on the back of the neck. I’ve met several who say they wouldn’t dream of such a thing. It’s even possible, as with any kind of alternative medicine, that there is a “true art” practiced by a minority of skilled practitioners and overshadowed by the crowds of fakers. The point is that a priori, choosing a random chiropractor, you shouldn’t expect to do any better than the studies say you will.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        It’s even possible, as with any kind of alternative medicine, that there is a “true art” practiced by a minority of skilled practitioners and overshadowed by the crowds of fakers.

        Sturgeon’s Law applies to many professions. Lawyer, tax accountant, auto mechanic, almost everything. So you don’t choose at random. You see if their websites have hype, you look them up in referral services, you ask your friends for referrals — and ask your MD, pharmacist, physical therapist.

        The point is that a priori, choosing a random chiropractor, you shouldn’t expect to do any better than the studies say you will.

        I’ll steelman you a study confined to well-regarded, top of the field chiropractors, which finds even their treatments ineffective (on average, median, whatever, with large sampling size, etc etc).

        Most studies have a bell curve, where maybe 10% of patients are on the right tail. Looking at medicine for a moment, a drug with that kind of result is not going to be worth a manufacturer investing in. It will get written up as ineffective. But if you’re a patient, and other treatments have problems — then the rational thing is to find out whether YOU are in that 10% that it does work on. (And if it’s the only thing that relieves a serious problem for you — then do you CARE whether it’s a placebo?)

    • Douglas Knight says:

      To address the question about placebo, not the question about woo: Whether something works tells you nothing about whether it is a placebo. Back surgery is less effective than chiropractic, which is less effective than acupuncture. How much of each of those is “real” and how much placebo? Such experiments cannot directly address this. But sham acupuncture is just as good as real acupuncture, from which we conclude that acupuncture is pure placebo. And that shows that placebo is powerful enough to that one cannot rule out the possibility that back surgery and chiropractic are purely placebo effects.

      (And that does not answer the question about woo, because people do not call back surgery woo.)

    • eqdw says:

      This is mostly personal anecdote, but, I might offer the following reasons:

      1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiropractic#Conceptual_basis. Regardless of what chiro is or isn’t *today*, it definitely started out as woo. Giving present chiro the most charitable assumptions: maybe it’s just inertia

      2. High variance in quality. I’m a foreigner talking about a foreign country, so it may be different in the US. I’ve been to a few chiropractitioners in my life, and they run the gamut. One of them was highly professional, had tons of medical textbooks, worked out of a hospital. Another had a private practice in his house, his waiting room was filled with propaganda posters and borderline-religious magazines, and he made sure to mention how “Mainstream Medicine™ treats symptoms, we treat the underlying problem” in every third sentence]

      3. Personal experience: I went to a chiro a few years ago and it made my back problems *much much worse*. At the time, I did some research and found out three things: a) there are a lot of other people who have had my negative experience; b) the official chiro line is “for some people it gets worse before it gets better”; c) It only got more worse for the people in (a)

      I am undecided on whether or not chiro, in general, is beneficial or not. But I’m pretty confident that in the set of all chiropractors, there is a nontrivial number of woo pseudomedicine practitioners. Conflation of this subgroup with the whole may explain your question

    • Nicholas says:

      The answer I am familiar with is that chiropractors are using techniques developed by osteopaths, a kind of licensed medical practitioner. But because chiropractors are not osteopaths, they are not held to a particular standard of training or practice, in the same way that nutritionists are not to be trusted, because if they met basic qualifications for assumption of trustworthiness they’d be dietitians.

    • Tarrou says:

      If a chiropractor helps you with joint pain, that’s very plausible and if it works, keep at it.

      If your chiropractor claims to cure cancer or gout by cracking your bones, he’s a quack.

      It is the second group rationalists and medical professionals generally deride, and sometimes the first gets lumped in.

  42. David Hart says:

    So, I’m not sure it’s polite to re-open a subthread on an old post, but here goes. A couple of weeks ago I got into a brief discussion in this sub-thread about the use of language that excludes-by-implication a lot of people when non-exclusionary language is perfectly available. I didn’t keep up because a) I’m terrible at remembering to go back to scan for replies, and b) knowing that people do need to deliberately scan for replies, if I need to go and think about my reply and the website as a whole has moved on, I may not bother. Can I second Rachael and say that an option to emailed only when someone specifically replies to you would be great.

    …but in the meantime I later ended up in a discussion on Facebook about cultural appropriation, where a friend of mine was asking people not to use expressions from African American Vernacular English (unless,presumably, they were native speakers), and I expressed some skepticism about how far it was productive to take this principle if people are merely borrowing words from another dialect, and not actually using them in a way that is dismissive, belittling or generally taking the piss. They seem to be arguing for a sort of intellectual property rights regime whereby if you come up with an idea, and you are a member of a group A that has a significant history of being mistreated by group B, you ought to be entitled to expect members of group B from making their own use of that idea. Which I can understand in some circumstances, but the idea that it is always wrong to make use of an idea from a culture that members of your culture have mistreated would seem to preclude a lot of the cultural exchange that makes art, music, dance, literature etc fresh and interesting, and that sounds like too high a price to pay.

    The initial comment was a disclaimer expressing the intention to use the word ‘man’ to refer to all of humanity, despite the fact that it excludes by implication all humans who are not men. I wouldn’t have bothered commenting at all if the person hadn’t specifically drawn attention to the fact that they were using it (and, quite possibly, neither would Ozy, but because it had nothing to do with the substantive content of the main body of the comment, it stood out as a gratutious put-down to anyone not of the commenter’s tribe, when there was no obvious reason to bring tribalism into it. Anyway, others chimed in to say that it was important not to accede to requests to modify one’s language to avoid causing discomfort to others, since this will only incentivise become to become more easily-offended and make more such requests until … well, I’m not quite sure what the end point of the process is in every case, but I can certainly understand Nydwarcu’s argument in the case of, say, religious extremists demanding no one ever say anything they consider blasphemous, then tightening their position until eventually you’re not allowed to say anything less-than-gushingly-reverential about their religion. But I can’t be comfortable making that a general proposition, since some uses of language are genuinely hurtful (for instance, racial slurs, for reasons expressed by our host in part V of this post … and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.

    The only middle ground I can think of is to consider all requests to modify one’s language or behaviour for other people’s comfort, and evaluate whether the cost of doing so is low, or the reduction in discomfort is high, and the risk of a spiral of self-modification is low, but I’ve no idea how to calibrate these things.

    From my own perspective, not using racial slurs, and remembering to use the inclusive ‘human’, ‘people’ etc forms rather than ‘man’, ‘mankind’, using ‘they’ as gender-neutral singular for nonspecified people, looks trivially easy, compared to, say, using ‘they’ for a specific, named person (though I appreciate the reasons why it’s worth making the effort, and I do try to remember). And these are instances where there is a genuine belittling or dehumanising inference in the words in question: even though some individual people are not bothered by them, or consider them too trivial to worry about (and are perfectly within their rights to do so), others are bothered, and are entitled to be bothered – just as, say, a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

    Whereas scanning your vocabulary for phrases that arose among marginalised groups seems like a lot more cognitive effort for a lot less pay-off in terms of other people’s comfort. But my estimate could be wildly atypical – perhaps there are people who find the extra cognitive load of using the more inclusive terms to be exhausting, but have no problem at all avoiding loan-words from marginalised dialects.

    So my question to the community is: assuming you want to steer an optimum course between causing needless offence and incentivising a form of heckler’s veto, how do you try to get a handle on the numbers?

    • Anon says:

      Here’s how to fix your problem:

      1. You choose not to be offended by words.
      2. You ignore people who use insults instead of arguments.

    • lmm says:

      > some uses of language are genuinely hurtful (for instance, racial slurs, for reasons expressed by our host in part V of this post … and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.

      Not convinced. The argument you link is basically that it’s legitimate to not want people to use a word that was used by people who hurt you. Which seems perilous: is it ok to insist that people not dress like people who hurt you? That people of the same race as people who hurt you must avoid you? These things can be more “triggering” than word choice, after all.

      Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason. Would that be so bad? To my mind the main difference would be that we’d have a higher quality of discourse.

      • Nita says:

        Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason.

        That would be nice (perhaps), but so far we’ve seen something else:

        – everyone becomes as offensive as they can,
        – and then everyone sits in echo chambers, circlejerking about the evil and stupid outgroup(s)

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Would it be so bad? It depends on how the arms race plays out. If defense doesn’t broadly best offense, it’s pretty bad. If the contest favors certain groups over others, that might also be bad.

        Compare to the same argument except with violence.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I believe it was in one of the links posts here that I saw the story of a college student who was in essence subjected to a restraining order because a fellow student said she reminded him of the person who raped her. Turns out that slippery slope is more of an indifferently icy front step.

      • Jiro says:

        Having “genuinely hurtful” as a criterion is an incentive for people to feel genuinely hurt by more and more things. (And given how human psychology works, they actually can feel genuinely hurt even though it would be within their power not to be hurt by them.)

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          For a very long time, it’s been generally accepted that words like ‘fuck’, ‘asshole’, etc are genuinely hurtful. If the justification for those is, “Well, you shouldn’t be hurt, suck it up” — then perhaps all claims of “That word hurts me” should be similarly dismissed.

          • Irrelevant says:

            But that’s untrue. What’s been generally accepted is that those words shouldn’t be said in polite company. That’s far, far different from being genuinely hurtful, whatever “genuinely hurtful” even means.

            Hell, depending on relational context, treating someone as if they were polite company can be genuinely hurtful. Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” makes use of that fact in its introductory scene, for instance.

      • Tracy W says:

        Some thoughts:
        1. if a word can be substituted by another word that conveys basically the same meaning, is pronounceable but is not a slur, do the substitution. .
        2. be less likely to do the subsititution the longer the word length gets going.
        3. if the suggested replacement conveys no meanginful information to the average educated but not specialist reader, don’t do it (in other words “Atlantic Archipealago” is ridiculous as a replacement for the British Isles).
        4. if the objection is to basically discussing a concept, that’s an illegitimate request. (Eg, why religion X sucks).
        5. If the community in question has no agreement on what a good terminology is (not just a couple of cranks, but en masse), ignore (or alternatively, go shoot yourself.).

        So, using “decent” instead of “Christian”, fine.

      • Mary says:

        “Which seems perilous: is it ok to insist that people not dress like people who hurt you? That people of the same race as people who hurt you must avoid you? ”

        Not hypothetical, BTW.

        I recently assisted a young man who was subjected by administrators at his small liberal arts university in Oregon to a month-long investigation into all his campus relationships, seeking information about his possible sexual misconduct in them (an immense invasion of his and his friends’ privacy), and who was ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away. He was found to be completely innocent of any sexual misconduct and was informed of the basis of the complaint against him only by accident and off-hand. But the stay-away order remained in place, and was so broadly drawn up that he was at constant risk of violating it and coming under discipline for that.

        from here:
        http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/02/trading-the-megaphone-for-the-gavel-in-title-ix-enforcement-2/

      • FacelessCraven says:

        “Suppose everyone becomes as offensive as they can (because it’s a way to win arguments) and then everyone becomes as unflappable as they can, for the same reason.”

        To reiterate a previous comment, there are places on the internet that have tested this theory, and if you’re willing to subject yourself to the inculcation process, they’re actually pretty great.

    • indifferent says:

      courtesy is extraordinarily cheap compared to the dividends it pays. despite the way people describe it ‘respectful behavior’ requires no empathy whatsoever and very little cognitive resources beyond the initial memorization. it is an extremely low hanging fruit in social interactions.

      what the particular rules of courtesy happen to be are irrelevant. unless your goal is explicitly to change those rules it is much more pragmatic to follow along with them and thereby make achieving your actual goals easier.

      • Gbdub says:

        Sure, but at some point a request for courtesy can become a demand for kowtowing. I think this discussion was meant to be a question of where we ought to draw that line.

        Personally I think requests for courtesy ought to be reasonable and reciprocal – what is the courtesy requester willing to compromise for the comfort of the requestee? “People who look like you were historically nasty to people who look like me” is not sufficient to do away with the reciprocity requirement, I think.

        • indifferent says:

          i think i’ve been unclear. my main point isn’t to adopt any particular proposed set of rules but that fighting over which rules we ‘ought’ to use is itself a waste of time. especially since none of us have or likely will ever obtain the power to make those decisions.

          if some upstart has to request / demand a particular ‘courtesy’ then obviously it is not yet the norm and you’re not going to get anything from following it. as a great (fictional) man once said “any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”

          if however you have wandered into the forbidden city then it’s absolutely in your best interest to kowtow. there are kings in every society and your word choice is a large determinant of whether they will treat you favorably or unfavorably.

          ‘oughts’ related to pride or ethics are irrelevant here. it’s a simple question of succeeding or failing to adapt your behavior to meet new circumstances

          • Gbdub says:

            The trick is that in the contexts we’re discussing, it’s not clear whether or not you’re in the forbidden city. We have a mishmash of subcultures intermingled, plus social norms are legitimately evolving, so at the margin there’s going to be a clash of expectations and it’s not entirely obvious who can claim to be the “norm” or even if there is a norm at all.

            Certainly, when in Rome do as the Romans. But what are my social obligations as an American should I happen to come across a Roman in Shanghai?

      • Mary says:

        “very little cognitive resources beyond the initial memorization”

        Huh? Is it not conspicuously obvious that the tactic nowadays is to keep changing them so you can’t memorize them?

      • Deiseach says:

        Woo-hoo! I get a chance to quote this Belloc poem! 🙂

        Of Courtesy, it is much less
        Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
        Yet in my Walks it seems to me
        That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

        On Monks I did in Storrington fall,
        They took me straight into their Hall;
        I saw Three Pictures on a wall,
        And Courtesy was in them all.

        The first the Annunciation;
        The second the Visitation;
        The third the Consolation,
        Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

        The first was of St. Gabriel;
        On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;
        And as he went upon one knee
        He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

        Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –
        It was Her month of heavy load;
        Yet was her face both great and kind,
        For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

        The third it was our Little Lord,
        Whom all the Kings in arms adored;
        He was so small you could not see
        His large intent of Courtesy.

        Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,
        Go bless you, People, one by one;
        My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

    • Gbdub says:

      Certainly there is some level of “cultural appropriation” that I think we can agree ought to be considered offensive (I’m thinking of the “African Child” video at the start of Get Him to the Greek). Basically, steryotyped fetishization that disrespects the source.

      But in general I think cultural appropriation is a good thing – that’s how assimilation happens, after all. It is widely accepted that a wide swath of modern music can trace its lineage to African Americans. Also southern food. Would the world be better off if Elvis had never been allowed to play rock or gospel? If Colonel Sanders had never been allowed to fry a chicken? If Texas Cowboys never started cooking fajitas? If Chuck Norris was never allowed to learn karate? To go another way, what if Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t allowed to play a western instrument?

      Cross pollination between two cultures, even if one has historically oppressed the other, can make both cultures better. It might even be the best way to make the one culture stop oppressing the other.

      The alternatives to this seem worse – either subcultures get completely subsumed, forced to join the larger culture with no input of their own, or a fractured world of segregated micro cultures that never talk to each other. These both seem pretty bad compared to the proverbial melting pot.

      • LTP says:

        I agree with this 100%.

        I feel like the vast majority of cases of people being upset by appropriation reflect an immaturity and insecurity among the offended parties. Your culture isn’t a limited resource being taken. As long you aren’t being attacked, fetishized, or mocked, I don’t see a problem.

    • Irrelevant says:

      OK, well that post sprints across an impractical amount of ground. I think I’d have four reasonably long and only loosely related replies to different parts of it, because you kept moving from one subject in need of significant unpacking to address to another. So I’m going to skip all that and give my opinion on In God We Trust instead.

      an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency

      I take issue with In God We Trust being the national motto, but not with having it on the currency. (And the monetary usage predates the motto by a century.) When it’s on the dollar, the context makes it much less an endorsement of faith in divinity than a denouncement of faith in money, and I’m fine with that.

      For the national motto, they should have just said what they were thinking and made it “Fuck Communism!”

      • Marc Whipple says:

        I remain convinced, and nothing anyone says will ever sway me, that “In God We Trust” is on the currency because the person who originated the joke, “In God We Trust… all others pay cash,” was involved in the design of the original currency that bore it.

      • Lizardbreath says:

        I always thought it was a “Star-Spangled Banner” reference. From the last verse:

        Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
        Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
        Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
        Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
        Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
        And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
        And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
        O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

        Which makes it look like the point is, “We believe that if we do the right thing, we will win. Therefore we will make sure to always do the right thing, and let the rest take care of itself.”

        Which has its flaws, but it’s not something I feel the need to invest a lot of energy in fighting (even though I’m an atheist).

        • Marc Whipple says:

          There is a quote, whose source escapes me, to the effect of, “America is not good because she is great. America is great because she is good. If she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

          A cynic might say we have been watching this come true for quite some time now.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      “and if we adopt an ‘always disregard any request to use the least likely-to-hurt phrasing for fear of being manipulated by self-modify offense-takers’ policy, then the extreme case there is everyone saying things that offend and alienate others until we are in a perpetual shouting match where we can’t have nice things.”

      There are corners of the internet that have aggressively adopted this strategy, and the end result is that, for members of the community at least, conventional insults become largely meaningless. The downside is that their ability to communicate with outsiders is somewhat diminished, but is that really an unacceptable price to pay?

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I like a diverse group. Diverse in genders, race, demographics, style, and vocabulary, etc etc. When an older man of apparently conservative opinions quotes Russell Kirk’s writing about “fallen man” or “mankind”, I think it’s very appropriate for the poster to use the same terms that Kirk used. It’s all of a piece. Quaint words for quaint ideas? — well, I do the same thing with C.S. Lewis. Modernizing terms loses much of the resonance of the old speaker, the associations, the context of the old statement. And I think it’s nice when the poster gives a nod to the modern style and a polite ‘excuse’ for not adopting it!

      Otoh, when discussing a particular current group that contains (or could contain) both/all genders, it would be jarring, off-putting, to see ‘man/men’ instead of ‘person/people’ or instead of ‘the human race’, ‘mankind’.

      Between those extremes, there’s a principle in writing, that you don’t use anything so inappropriate to the immediate context that it ‘knocks the reader out of the story’, wherever on the spectrum it is.

      Of course when an individual has requested a particular term be used for themself, for gender reasons, that’s different.

    • Airgap says:

      They seem to be arguing for a sort of intellectual property rights regime whereby if you come up with an idea, and you are a member of a group A that has a significant history of being mistreated by group B, you ought to be entitled to expect members of group B from making their own use of that idea.

      I think this is an excellent idea. All jocks off the internet now!

      a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

      Can you tell me the name of the Muslim and the Atheist referred to here, so I can not invite them to parties?

      In all seriousness, I don’t think this can be done. Or rather, I don’t think anyone will do it. You’re not going to quantify how offended people are times how sincere you think they are times how many of them there are (with deductions for mixed-race people on racial word questions) and so on. You’re not going to do this, so take it off the table.

      What you actually want is a way to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing on this question. And there isn’t one, because there isn’t a right thing. There are arguments on the side of more civility, and more potentially-offensive candor. So instead, you optimize for the level of offense in other people you’re willing to risk, given the sort of environment you want. This is much easier, because you already kind of know what this is, even if you can’t put a number on it.

      • AJD says:

        a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’, or an atheist is entitled to be bothered by having ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, where ‘we’ is used to include those who don’t in fact trust in gods.

        Can you tell me the name of the Muslim and the Atheist referred to here, so I can not invite them to parties?

        I realize you’re being at least a little tongue-in-cheek here, but, um… elaborate? What actually do you mean here? I find it difficult to get inside the head of someone who thinks that’s it’s unreasonable for the hypothetical Muslim and atheist here to hold those attitudes.

        • Irrelevant says:

          And yet you think it’s unreasonable to not voluntarily hang out with performatively offended people?

          Because that’s what he’s suggesting. Actually less than that, since he’s just suggesting not bringing them to parties, which is to say, places where there’s a high risk of their offendedness coming up and a high desire not to have arguments that would ruin the mood. This is perfectly reasonable.

          • AJD says:

            I don’t know what you mean by “performatively offended”, and I don’t see how it’s related to the scenario under discussion.

            Do you not believe that people actually feel insulted?

          • Airgap says:

            Actually, I was just mocking the point of view that takes their concerns seriously, although you’re right too.

            One of the ways you live in a diverse society is you learn how to deal with the fact that people are different from you and have different folkways and that’s okay. For example, you learn that when this Christian says that your action is very Christian, he’s praising you, and you should respond appreciatively. If your reaction is to berate him about his imaginary sky-friend, maybe living in a diverse society isn’t for you. Also, you can’t come to my party.

          • AJD says:

            Do you think a man would be in the wrong to feel annoyed if somebody complimented him by telling him that his behavior was “very ladylike”?

            One of the ways you live in a diverse society is you learn how to deal with the fact that people are different from you and have different folkways and that’s okay. For example, you learn that…

            For example, you learn that some people aren’t Christian, and that it is nevertheless possible for them to be virtuous.

    • Matthew says:

      …just as, say, a Muslim is entitled to be bothered by the phrase ‘that’s very Christian of you’ where ‘Christian’ is used as a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘decent’,

      I (Jewish by background, atheist by cosmology) have actually encountered this, and talking about whether it’s offensive is really missing the point.

      If I hear someone do this, and I know that they know that I’m not Christian, you have a situation where I expect them to be more likely to defect, because I think that they expect me to defect — if Christian = moral, not Christian is a least weak evidence for = less moral — so there are really serious game-theoretic consequences for this.

      If they actually do think that, then it’s beneficial to have it out in the open, but if they don’t it’s effectively the equivalent of a tremble in an interated prisoners’ dilemma. Not good.

      Also it’s likely to prime others to make the association Christian:MoreMoral. Which is objectionable on both game theoretical and truth grounds.

      • Airgap says:

        If I hear someone do this, and I know that they know that I’m not Christian, you have a situation where I expect them to be more likely to defect, because I think that they expect me to defect — if Christian = moral, not Christian is a least weak evidence for = less moral — so there are really serious game-theoretic consequences for this.

        So he’s saying: “You have just behaved in a way which I view as moral. Therefore, I expect you to defect in future.” Either defection is moral for Christians (it isn’t), or…what? I don’t get it.

        I’m guessing you mean that in general, he thinks of you as a potential defector, because you’re not Christian. But how could he not increase his probability for you cooperating?

        Either way, this is very confusing. I must be missing something here.

        • Matthew says:

          Confusion disappears if you understand that the non-Christian is not the one being praised in this case, merely present and hearing it.

          • Airgap says:

            So Christian A praises (Christian?) B while Jewish Atheist is present, and CA knows JA is not a Christian. Therefore, JA now thinks CA is more likely to defect against him (because CA thinks JA more likely to defect).

            I mean, maybe what you saw suggests that he identifies moral behavior more strongly with being a Christian than the average Christian. I assume you haven’t checked this. Anyway, I’d sort of suspect that the effect of “recognizes and praises good in other people” to dominate that, but whatever.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The implication is that he’s acting against his nature. I think it’s reading a little too much into it, but I can see why somebody on the receiving end would feel insulted in that way.

          • Airgap says:

            If the Christian was addressing him, it indicates that the Christian thinks he’s becoming a more moral person, and thus less likely to defect, so the Christian will be less likely to defect against him.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I (Jewish by background, atheist by cosmology) have actually encountered this, and talking about whether it’s offensive is really missing the point.

        Ha! A perfidious Judaeus! 🙂

        Indeed your game-theoretic argument can explain why the word “perfidious” changed it’s meaning from “faithless” into “treacherous”.

    • Tarrou says:

      Offense is taken, not given. If “offense” is to be the currency of debate, it will be unending.

      Personally, when ever I hear “That’s offensive”, it gets translated in my head as “I have no argument, so I’m going to ad hominem”.

      Calling offense is the debate equivalent of flipping the chess board when one is two moves from being mated. It’s the last act of an immature, petty and desperate loser.

      • Luke Somers says:

        Sometimes that’s what’s behind a claim of offense. On the other hand, sometimes (insert string of insults here).

  43. Barryogg says:

    So I got in a heated argument with my friend over Guantanamo last week, and it left me wondering: real life is not 24, so the ticking timebomb argument for torture doesn’t hold. But let’s assume the Least Convenient World. There’s five people kidnapped, in danger of suffocation or starvation, and the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured. And since death is worse than torture, in theory this should be an easier decision than the Trolley Problem, but for some reason I feel much more queasy about it than about pullling the lever. And I’m not quite sure why my intuitions diverge here.

    • zz says:

      Perhaps because the least convenient world is so different from IRL that I would be surprised if your intuitions hold.

      “Kidnappees live if and only if torture” is a pretty heroic assumption. Going forward, we have to assume that torture is definitely going to save the kidnappees, which fails a couple time: (a) we usually don’t get to be so overwhelmingly confident that the kidnapper knows their location (may have the wrong person, kidnappees may have escaped or been moved by accomplices) or (b) they may already be dead. Going the other way, you’re going to have to convince me that torture is the only way to retrieve the kidnappees, which, as technology progresses, I have increasing trouble accepting. the rescuers may even genuinely believe it’s their only option, but given a strong “no torture, no exceptions” constraint may be able to get creative and figure it out anyway.

      Also, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that torture is better than death.

      But, in our Least Convenient Possible World, our intuitions count for nothing because it is so wildly different from IRL where not only is torture okay, not torture is not okay.

      • Barryogg says:

        Good points, but I’m confused by your last sentence. Could you rephrase/expand on that?

        • Viliam Búr says:

          For almost any belief X you have, I can create a Least Convenient Possible World where having the belief X leads to a huge disaster.

          (Trivial example: In the Least Convenient Possible World there is a God who will send everyone to hell if you believe X, but will send everyone to heaven if you don’t believe X. Would you want to believe X in such world?)

          Therefore, the ability to create such Least Convenient Possible World is not per se an argument against X in our world.

          (It is more like an examination of X, where we could find out for example that X = X1 + X2, and you really only care about X1, but don’t care about X2, and the idea of the Least Convenient Possible World could force you to verbalize this difference.)

        • zz says:

          >But, in our Least Convenient Possible World, our intuitions count for nothing because it is so wildly different from IRL where not only is torture okay, not torture is not okay.

          I claim that the Least Convenient Possible World is so very different from IRL that we should expect our intuitions to yield incorrect results. For instance, IRL, our intuitions (correctly) proscribe torture. However, in this Least Convenient World, the things that generated this heuristic have broken down such that torture is acceptable. In fact, they’ve broken down so far that that we’re morally obligated to torturing kidnappers.

          • Barryogg says:

            I see, that’s what I thought you meant but I wasn’t sure. I think you sentence would be more readable if “where” was replaced with “that”.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      Possibly because pulling a lever, while less removed than inaction, is less direct an action (and much “cleaner”) than straight-up torture… perhaps try to conceptualize it as pulling a lever that activates a nondescript torture machine?

      • Randy M says:

        Trolley problem is not just pulling a lever, it is in some variations pushing a bystander into the path.
        Again, this is not a plausible world unless you know exactly what it will take to stop a trolley or relevant disaster.

    • Harald K says:

      In the real world, you’ll never know that “the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured”.

      Here’s a trolley type dilemma: A terrorist has taken two hostages, and he demands that unless you kill one of them, he will kill both. If you do, he will release the other one. Do you kill or do you not? (all other options are closed off by the usual trite trolley problem mechanisms).

      Trick question! The terrorist kills the other one even if you kill the first. Not only is he a murderer, he’s a liar too. (Imagine that! what’s the world coming to, when you can’t even trust terrorists in trolley problems?)

      The depressed perspective, which is in this case the right perspective, is that you can do everything the “best” way in this world and still fail. The terrorists kill everyone. The meteor wipes us all out. You lose custody and your ex-wife hides your kids for 17 years. Things that matter to you, things that are everything to you, are, when you come down to it, still ultimately at the mercy of forces outside your control. Even if you spend all your life assembling power. Even if you sacrifice 99% of those things you care about to you-know-who , in order to gain power to protect the last 1%.

      So don’t play that game. You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

      • Randy M says:

        “In the real world, you’ll never know that “the kidnapper won’t give their whereabouts unless tortured”. ”

        Presumably you’ve already tried asking nicely. You can be certain that they haven’t given the whereabouts yet, or prescribe a sequence to follow that escalates if no true leads have been given.

        On second thought and more charitably, you probably mean “You can’t know whether they really know nothing or are lying to you.”

        But regardless, there is surely cases no more implausible where torture is rational than, say, suicide/euthanasia or forced hospitalization, stopping trolleys, etc. from a utilitarian, rationalist perspective, right?

      • +1 to this, which is more important than every other answer to this thread combined:

        So don’t play that game. You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Amen. My response to any such “do evil act X or I will do evil act Y” situation would be, “I have no way to hold you to your word and the most important thing I know about you is that you are the kind of person who would force somebody to act evilly. Frankly, I suspect you’ll do Y anyway. So go ahead and do it.”

      • keranih says:

        You are not lord of the world of outcomes. You cannot decide whether the hostage lives or dies. You can’t decide whether the ticking bomb goes off. But what you can do, is decide whether you want to be a torturer or not.

        The conflict arises because one puts values on saving lives, and to adhearing to a moral/ethical code. In this case, the possibility of saving a life (of another) vs the certainty of violating the moral code (of ones self).

        At what point does adhearing to ones moral code be sufficently valuable to discard the life of another?

        Most would say lying, torture of a human, and torture of an animal are all wrong. Nearly all would say that it’s okay to lie to the police about the Honduran immigrants in your attic. Nearly all would say that it’s not okay to torture the cop into telling you where the arrested Hondurans are being taken.

        The debate over using animals to test medications to use in relief efforts in Honduras (and elsewhere) is a bit more open.

        There are people willing to die for what they believe, and we tend to honor those people. We have some less sympathy for those who would only put their honor on the table for sacrifice.

      • Anthony says:

        A terrorist has taken two hostages, and he demands that unless you kill one of them, he will kill both. If you do, he will release the other one. Do you kill or do you not?

        Phrased somewhat differently and fuzzily, this is approximately the decision that the police need to make every time there’s a “hostage situation” that they can’t negotiate the release of the hostages. It’s not exact, because it’s possible that none of the hostages will die, but it’s also possible that all the hostages will die. But the police have to expect that trying a rescue in force will result in hostage death(s) when deciding whether to do it.

    • John Schilling says:

      For every actual ticking-bomb / hostage-in-deathtrap scenario where the only hope is a nigh-unflappable terrorist that you’ve got in custody but can’t crack, there are at least ten thousand pissed-off policemen who have locked up probably-harmless criminals except, well, the criminal might have accomplices who might right now be plotting to kill all the eyewitnesses, here’s our circumstantial evidence, clearly we have to get to the bottom of this right now by any means necessary…

      Real human beings are really, really bad at doing ad-hoc consequentialist ethical calculations in real time for emotionally charged situations. Torture is convenient, easy, effective, and emotionally satisfying. So:

      Plan A: An absolute deontological rule about not torturing people, EVER, NO EXCEPTIONS.

      Plan B: A whole lot of mostly-harmless criminals and no small number of innocent bystanders are going to be tortured – many of them to death – because some cop was having a bad day. On rare occasion we will find out about this afterwards and agree that the cop’s ethical calculations were in error and a bad thing happened and we’ll feel bad about it.

      Plan C. Whatever you thought fit in the “plan C” slot, is really another form of Plan B.

      Corollary: If you’re the cop who decides that because this time the ticking bomb is nuclear and you’re all out of ideas, that does constitute a justification for torture, that leaves the rest of us with a different dilemma:

      Plan A: denounce, vilify, and then execute or imprison for life one consequentially-ethical cop who saved thousands of lives.

      Plans B & C: see above.

      It is consequentially and deontologically virtuous for the rest of us to toss Jack in prison and throw away the key. Sorry, Jack – it’s for the greater good.

      Also, if you pull the lever to divert the trolley onto the track with the one victim, we’re probably going to throw you in prison as well.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        This.

        If the ticking time bomb is worth sacrificing the suspect’s right not to be tortured, it’s worth sacrificing the cop’s right not to be imprisoned as a torturer as well.

        • Jiro says:

          By that reasoning we should treat jailors as kidnappers (what punishment to give them that is not recursive is beside the point), saying “if preventing crime is worth sacrificing the subject’s right not to be imprisoned, it’s worth sacrificing the jailor’s right not to be treated as a kidnapper, too”.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            There is no broad agreement that being jailed for a crime you’re convicted of is a serious injustice.

            If stopping the bomb is really worth torturing someone, it’s probably worth torturing someone + jailing the torturer too. If it’s not worth the later, how sure are you that it’s worth the former, and why?

            [EDIT] – It seems to me that you suggest an interesting point, though. The problem with torture isn’t its efficacy as punishment, but rather its efficacy as coercion. I’m not sure I object nearly as strongly to various “tortures” in a punishment context as I do in an interrogative one.

          • John Schilling says:

            Imprisoning people is frequently necessary[*], and jailers derive no great benefit from doing so. It is a necessary part of a job that provides them with a paycheck, but it’s not a particularly good job or large paycheck. There is no great moral hazard of jailers arranging to imprison more people than they ought to.

            Torture, by comparison, is almost never a necessary part of police or even military intelligence work, but it is a very useful expediency for an unethical cop. Allows him to at least appear to do the job we expect him to do by other less harmful means, with less personal effort and aggravation. There is thus a great moral hazard that the existence of any provision for legal torture will result in the frequent torture of people who have annoyed an overworked cop but otherwise done no wrong.

            A strict “No torture, no excuses, Or Else.” policy will either allow a very very few terrorist bombings that could have been stopped, or punish a very very few cops for having stopped terrorist bombings the only way they could, and it will prevent many innocent people from being tortured. Net win on consequentialist grounds, and a prime candidate for any deontological system.

            [*] in the sense of being the least-harmful method yet devised for addressing a very common and harmful problem.

          • Irrelevant says:

            There is no great moral hazard of jailers arranging to imprison more people than they ought to.

            Except when there is!

          • Torture warrants have been put forward as a way of alowing torture under exceptional circumstances , whilst not casualising it.

            http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2011/09/07/the-case-for-torture-warrants/

          • John Schilling says:

            What good does that do, in a world where warrants are rubber-stamp approvals for whatever the police want to do?

            Normally, the warrant requirement at least requires the police to go on record and document what they plan to do, which is worth something. But I’m pretty certain that the cops who want to torture people will claim that these are also cases that have to be kept absolutely secret so as to avoid tipping off the terrorists who are plotting mayhem and evil. That puts us squarely in the territory of the FISA Court and its 0.03% rejection rate, rather than ordinary courts which seem to “only” approve 99.35% of search warrant requests, and possibly as few as 81% of warrant requests from notoriously corrupt law enforcement agencies.

            This is not to say that the courts themselves are corrupt or incompetent. Rather, courts are intrinsically adversarial, and when a process is necessarily structured to exclude the defendant, the prosecution will win every time. You’ve got the wrong tool for the job.

            Nobody has yet invented the right tool for the job.

          • suntzuanime says:

            A low rejection rate proves nothing except that the conditions under which a warrant will be granted are clear and the applicants are smart enough not to waste the judge’s time with defective applications. Selection bias!

          • John Schilling says:

            That would explain a 19% rejection rate. It is not plausible at 0.65% and utterly ridiculous at 0.03%. Members of two different professions do not ever agree that often on explicitly contentious matters.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            By that standards you must think Japan is a dystopian police state. The alternative is that the rules are clear for what can be accepted and they only put forward requests that will be accepted.

          • Jiro says:

            I’d certainly say that Japan’s judicial system is doing something very unsavory and that the extremely high conviction rate in Japan is a sign that innocent people are being convicted.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Jiro, I used to think so, but then I realized that conviction is an unnatural category for comparison across very different systems. A more natural category is clearance, which is lower in Japan than America.

            Also, almost all crimes in Japan that go to trial have a confession. Only 1% of the time does the judge throw out the confession, but American judges throw even fewer plea-bargains.

          • John Schilling says:

            In the particular arena of law enforcement, Japan is a dystopian police state. That 99+% conviction rate is basically achieved by torturing the accused until they confess. Even if they happen to be innocent. Oh, wait, that isn’t “torture”, that’s just “interrogation”. Using threats, physical abuse, stress positions, sleep deprivation,isolation and all the other “interrogation” techniques that have people saying all sorts of nasty things about the CIA. Possibly the CIA has gotten a bad rap.

            Or possibly this is what happens when you start saying, “Hey, torture, seems really useful and effective, we’ll just put some judicial protections in place and everything will be fine!”. And from the outside, everything looks fine. The actual torture takes place in clean isolated rooms you’ll never see, the victims disappear into prisons or psych wards where you’ll never hear from them (or they just neatly commit suicide), and the streets are clean, safe, and crime-free.

            Jiro’s intuition is spot-on. In anything as inherently contentious as law enforcement, if everyone agrees that everyone has been doing the right thing 99+% of the time, that’s basically a screaming neon sign saying that nobody is even trying to stop people from doing something very, very wrong.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            John, declaring a system to be “dystopian” is meaningless grandstanding. The useful question is whether it is better or worse than another system. Does anything you said in your comment distinguish the Japanese system from the American? Ultimately, does it produce more or fewer false confessions?

            As I said, the 99% conviction rate is not interesting. But your Economist link claims that 95% of those arrested sign confessions. That is a more interesting claim, though still difficult to compare across countries. It is, however, in contradiction to other sources I have seen.

          • John Schilling says:

            I would have chosen a word other than “dystopian”, but I wasn’t the one who asked the question. If the question is asked without objection, answering it is not grandstanding.

            The 99% conviction rate I do find interesting, for reasons already stated.
            As for the 95% confession rate, what sources have you been seeing that say anything different? Googling for “Japan police conviction rate” and taking the first ten results with numerical answers, I get in addition to the Economist’s 95%, figures of 89%, 95%, 92%, 90%, 86-92%, 90%, more than 90%, 92%, and more than 95%. Some of these are harder numbers than the rest, but it averages to about 92% of arrests leading to confessions.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            John, most of your sources do not say that. Only 2, 4, and 7 claim to count confessions per interrogation or per suspect. 6 talks about the confession rate without making any indication of the denominator. 1, 3*, 5, and probably 8 and 9 (p336-337=p21-22) are about the proportion of trials prosecuted with a confession. I have see the second rate quoted many times and I imagine it is correct. It corresponds to the American rate of guilty pleas. The rate in Japan is comparable to the rate in federal courts, though higher than the rate in state courts. I suspect that 2, 4, 7, and the Economist are mistaken, transforming the second kind of confession rate into the first, perhaps passing through a ambiguous source like 3 or 6.

            Your last source, p363(p48), says that while 40% of convicts go to jail, 5% of formal suspects go to jail. Thus very few formal suspects go to trial. But that does not show that they do not confess, because there are non-judicial guilty resolutions. My opinions were formed a few years ago by reading a number of papers, only one of which I recorded. On page 9 it says that 1/6 of arrests go to trial, compatible with the previous numbers. For murder, 43% of arrests lead to trial. Presumably there are no non-judicial guilty resolutions and the other 57% were cleared. I suppose it is possible that they confessed, but another’s confession was more convincing, but a footnote seems to say that they did not confess.

            Also, what we care about is the confessions per interrogation, not the confessions per arrest. It may well be that the arrest happens after the confession. But it is probably hard to get numbers on voluntary interrogation.

            * While the text of 3 is ambiguous, the slides break down confession rate by court, suggesting that it is a proportion of trials, not a proportion of interrogations.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Bang, nail on the head. Comment of the week in my book.

    • A good litmus test for whether it’s really a good idea to torture a suspect for information is “Am I willing to be judged by a jury of my peers and quite possibly go to jail for this?” Unless you’re in a pathologically inconvenient world where only Jack Bauer can save the world and needs to do so every year.

      • Tracy W says:

        The only solution I’ve come up with to that scenario that I’m comfortable is if for when I’m the police officer, and then afterwards I hand myself in for the full legal punishment for torturing someone. (Not just submit to going on trial, just plead guilty, go straight to jail, do not collect $200.)

        That’s the incentive-aligning solution. If I’m so certain and the outcome is so bad that I, personally, am willing to go to jail for 10 years rather than live with the outcome of not torturing, then I’ll do it.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          This is the philosophy behind the ancient proverb, “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” If you really think you have to, then do it. But be prepared to face the consequences.

    • blah says:

      Given flawed human nature, morally permissible actions != morally permissible policy. There’s a difference between a police officer roughing up a suspect in the back room before the bomb goes off, and the president maintaining a network of designated torture sites around the world.

    • “Death is worse than torture”

      Citation needed. It’s not like the torturee gets to state their preference and have it be respected.

      • Troy says:

        I had a number of people in an ethics class I taught years ago who were either planning to join the military or had already been in the military. This issue came up when we discussed torture, and almost all agreed that they’d rather be tortured than killed.

        • Anonymous says:

          Are they just not very imaginative?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            I would imagine it depends rather heavily on how you set the choice up. I would rather be tortured for five minutes, say, then die. That seems like an easy choice. I’m not sure I’d rather chronic torture for, say, a year than a nice clean checkout now.

          • RCF says:

            “I would rather be tortured for five minutes, say, then die.”

            I take it you mean “than die”.

        • Thomas Eliot says:

          Did you poll them again after they experienced a variety of tortures for various durations? The suicide rate among veterans strongly supports the “they are unimaginative” hypothesis

    • Anonymous says:

      > death is worse than torture

      I think anyone could be made to beg for death.

    • Airgap says:

      Maybe this is a sign that your intuitions are wrong about the Trolley Problem too.

      There’s also the problem that torture is usually a crappy way to get intel from prisoners. It’s much more effective to manipulate or con them. Tell the kidnapper you’ve rescued the hostages already, and they’re giving statements to the police now, and he’s finished. But if he gives a full confession, you can take the death penalty off the table. “Just start from the beginning, and tell me the whole story…you drove where? Okay, go on…” This is how actual spies do it. Not because their superior morals prevent them from torturing, but because it’s the winning strategy. Lots of cold warriors would have been perfectly happy torturing commies if it worked. It mostly didn’t, and they wanted to win.

      Also, in the real world, pushing people in front of trolleys to stop them is a shit strategy. Sailer went on about this for a while: “What would probably happen is you end up in a wrestling match with the guy you’re trying to push in front of the trolley while it keeps going and kills the people” or words to that effect.

      I know these are supposed to be philosophical thought experiments to draw out issues, but I don’t see where it’s written that I’m not allowed to transcend the thought experiment in order to gain even greater insight. Or rather, I did see where it was written, but I crossed it out and replaced it with scatological graffiti.

      • James Picone says:

        I think the point of not challenging the hypothetical is that “Can you stop a trolley by throwing a guy in front of it?” isn’t the interesting question here, the question is “In a situation where you can take a positive action that will kill n people and save m people, or take no action, killing m people, n < m, is it ethical to take the positive action?"

        • Airgap says:

          I don’t think that’s an interesting question. And if the point of these is to generate interest, I find it hard to see how splitting hairs about the acceptability of torture is supposed to be more interesting than learning about spies.

      • Anonymous says:

        OMG this. I hate that about trolley problems. Because of course in actuality our moral intuitions are rooted in our physicality, not in our capacity for abstract moral reasoning.

        I don’t think the fact that people would flip a switch to kill one person and save five but wouldn’t push a person onto the tracks to kill one person and save five tells you anything interesting. I think it demonstrates that people actually imagine those scenarios when they’re described to them, and when they play out the “push a guy onto the tracks” idea their brain says “nope, that wouldn’t work. Nope, really wouldn’t work. Well, now I’ve just tried to kill someone for no reason.” And of course that affects how they evaluate the correct course of action, even if they’re trying conscientiously to ignore the implausibility.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Yes. In a physical emergency situation, you react by physical reflexes, and training if any, and intuitions like “First, do no harm”.

          For a 1 to 5 situation that is imaginable, there’s a vegetative patient scheduled for organ harvesting tomorrow. He sits up and says, “Hey, I could get well”. You could get away with ignoring this and telling no one. Do you let the harvest proceed as scheduled, find an excuse to postpone it and see what happens, or tell the world and cancel it? — Me, I’d probably let it proceed.

    • Tarrou says:

      I view the whole thing a bit differently, from a Law of War perspective. This is basically codified rules where we all agree that certain behaviors we don’t want done to our guys if they’re captured, so we won’t do that to others we capture. Quid pro quo. Nation states can be held responsible for the actions of their militaries (Japan, etc.).

      Assymetric warfare falls outside this purview, and as such has always been sanctioned differently by nation states. This sort of warfare disproportionately falls on civilians both as targets of the aggression and as the camouflage of one side of the combatants. Furthermore, in these specific cases, there is no quid pro quo for prisoners, they torture and execute almost all prisoners.

      All this is beside the morality of the action, and the precise definitions of what exactly torture is (which are not usually productive). However, in realpolitik and international law of war, there is no reason whatsoever not to torture ISIS prisoners, for instance. If people want the protections of the Geneva conventions, by those conventions they need to be the uniformed armed forces of a nation that has signed those conventions. Spies, saboteurs, covert ops, snipers etc. have never fallen under the conventions except as a matter of tradition. This is a similar case to extending constitutional protections to non-citizens. We can do it if we want to, but we don’t have to. We can extend Geneva Conventions to captured terrorists, but we are under no compulsion to do so. They do not merit them.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        I’m pretty sure snipers count as regular soldiers- they are no more immoral than bomber pilots or artillery.

        • Tarrou says:

          As I said, this is all beside the morality of it all. The issue with snipers is not morality, but identification. Wearing a ghillie suit or a “sanitized” uniform (one without unit, military and personal identification) places one outside the protections afforded to uniformed military personnel. It’s not enough to be a member of a military, you must be identifiable as a member of that military, and from range. The whole purpose is to protect civilians, who will be targeted more if one side does not wear identifying uniforms. Basically, if you are not identifiable as a soldier to the enemy, you are an assymetric combatant and do not have any rights under conventional law of war. In practice, most rights are extended anyway, but this is not a requirement.

          Not many people have trouble identifying civilian from military aircraft (except the Ukrainian separatists?). And artillery is almost exclusively the purview of military forces.

          • Anthony says:

            Snipers are not inherently “out of uniform”. The laws of war require merely an armband, so that irregular forces can still claim combatant status under the laws of war. So wearing a black tracksuit with an army armband is enough for a sniper.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          I’m almost positive that isn’t how military law works. For starters that would imply the usage of snipers is a war crime. I’m pretty sure no one has ever been prosecuted for that in since the convention was laid down.

          • Tarrou says:

            The use of snipers isn’t a war crime unless they target the civilian population expressly. The snipers are merely taking a personal risk if captured, as the opponent is not required to treat them as an official POW (not a huge concern these days, any opponent we have won’t observe the conventions in any case). Snipers were often executed out of hand in the past when captured.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Did you miss Anthony’s point? Snipers are covered by the convention- you are not allowed to shoot them out of hand.

            Your position also implies it is acceptable to shoot out of hand soldiers that work without shirts. Oddly enough the Japanese didn’t get to claim that for the Pacific front.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Snipers are covered by the convention, but they are usually shot out of hand if anyway as line troops really, really, REALLY hate taking sniper fire. This is technically a war crime when it happens, but trying to prevent this is generally understood to be impossible.

            wearing a ghillie suit doesn’t matter, since the soldier is wearing a uniform under it anyway. There is a difference between camouflage and disguise; the former is acceptable, the latter is banned.

    • JDG1980 says:

      Your intuitions diverge because they are based on the real world, not a thought experiment. And in the real world, we know that torture is a relatively ineffective method of interrogation, and we also know that if it is allowed to be used, it will metastasize and become used in more and more marginal cases, not just the rare “ticking bomb” hypothetical.

      It’s like one variant of the trolley problem. “Assume if you push a fat guy off a bridge, he’ll stop the onrushing trolley.” No, I won’t assume that, because I know for a fact that it’s not true. Philosophers wonder why people answer this one differently than the one about flipping a track switch, but the answer is obvious: they believe flipping the switch will actually achieve the desired result, but don’t believe that pushing the fat man off the bridge will do so, no matter how hard you stipulate it. And they’re right to think this way, since we live in the real world.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        in the real world, we know that torture is a relatively ineffective method of interrogation

        I keep seeing this Blue Tribe meme about the ineffectiveness of torture; I have never seen a good justification for it. How, exactly, do we know this?

        • houseboatonstyx says:
        • FacelessCraven says:

          Torturing a person doesn’t make them tell the truth. It doesn’t even make people do what you want them to. Torturing someone makes them do whatever they think they can do to make the torture stop. If you knew exactly what that was with a high degree of reliability for every potential subject, then you wouldn’t need torture in the first place because you could already read minds.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            This is a problem but not an insurmountable one. There are methods which can be used to sort truth from fiction with a reasonably good success rate.

            I do not advocate torture, but I am not going to claim it never works to support my opposition, because that’s not true.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            I’m pretty sure the success rate of “people we torture are actually our enemies” is higher than the rate of “people killed in the drone strike were actually our enemies”. I’m not seeing a fantastic amount of difference.

          • Cauê says:

            It seems quite obvious to me that torture would work in cases where information would be hard to get but easy to check. This appears to remain true even if all arguments for “torture never works” were granted.

            Other uses for torture should be effective as well. I think the meme makes a lot of sense for confessions, but not much else.

            (insert the obvious disclaimers here)

            My take is this meme thrives on the affect heuristic, with a bonus for instinctive disgust at being perceived as saying “positive” things about something repellent, in a way similar to the drive to search for some way out of giving an actual answer to trolley problems.

        • On the effectiveness of torture …

          Under Athenian law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture, presumably because they wanted slaves to testify against their masters and the masters could punish them for doing so.

          Our main sources on Athenian law are orations written by professional orators to be memorized and delivered by the parties. They include two orations on the subject of the reliability of evidence procured by torture. One points out the obvious problem—the victim will say whatever you want to get you to stop torturing him. The other reports that, in all of the history of Athens, there was no case in which testimony taken under torture had turned out to be false.

          They were both composed by the same orator.

        • Irrelevant says:

          It’s easy to check: try and torture multiple people into confessing for the same crime. If that works, torture doesn’t.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Torturing for confessions needs to be distinguished from torturing for information. If torture can be used to get a person to say whatever you want, it is precisely this property which makes it valuable for the latter, and unhelpful for the former.

          I’ve sometimes been amused by the mixed messages of pop culture attempting to hew to the “torture doesn’t work” line. On Burn Notice, if our heroes had the bad guy in custody, they would never torture him, because of course that doesn’t work; better do some convoluted con instead. On the other hand, if the bad guys had one of the good guys, it was a race against time, because they have ways of making you talk, and you never know if somebody will hold out or not.

          Are you 99% certain that you wouldn’t give up important information under torture? Because that’s pretty much the implication of “torture doesn’t work.”

          • Fnord says:

            “Torture doesn’t work at all” is somewhere between a rhetorical simplification, a partisan talking point, and a weakman. The more sophisticated (and perfectly sufficient to justify banning torture) argument is “torture doesn’t work better than (or indeed as well as) other interrogation techniques”.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            I’d think the continued use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by intelligence agencies would be evidence that torture does work, at least to an extent.

          • Harald K says:

            For torture to “work”, it’s not enough that once in a blue moon the victim may give accurate information. They would have to give accurate information often enough that it outweighs all the times they give false information.

            But it’s an academic question, since torture is always used to get confessions/justifications, never information. I can’t think of a single counterexample. I don’t think they exist.

            Whatever Happened to Anonymous: Sure, it can work. It probably doesn’t work for what they claim it works for, but it can work to get what they’re actually aiming for: confessions, justifications to move against others, and in general arguments for the agencies own continued existence and empowerment.

            The US government tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed because they wanted a Saddam-Al Qaeda link. They tortured Sami al-Hajj because they wanted an Al Jazeera-Al Qaeda link. In both cases they didn’t get what they wanted. Maybe they should take a tip from Stalin and North Korea, and start threatening family members instead.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Harald, you don’t think that there is a single documented case in the history of the world of a torturer who wanted information? You are coddled in a peaceful time when information is not valuable, but people in war certainly do want information. The Gestapo didn’t want excuses or justifications, because it didn’t need excuses to justify its actions. Here are a bunch of examples from WWII.

          • Harald K says:

            Douglas Knight, is the best documentation you can come up with a blog post on another site with unsourced allegations?

            Bear in mind that torturers have an incentive to lie about torture working, not just to political leadership but to their enemies. If you really know A and B are both in the resistance and capture A, then torture him and get him to incriminate B (since you can put words in B’s mouth, this will be a lot easier than getting him to incriminate some unknown C you’ve never heard about). Sure, you could have moved against B right away, but now you’ve demoralized and scared the resistance.

            If you have decrypted the enemy’s communication or otherwise have covert intelligence on them, you risk exposing your source by relying on information thus gained. A myth of effective torture is useful here – it gives you an excuse to use the information, plus it has the same demoralizing effect on the enemy.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The more sophisticated (and perfectly sufficient to justify banning torture) argument is “torture doesn’t work better than (or indeed as well as) other interrogation techniques”.

            I think it’s clear what we need: a rigorous double-blind study comparing torture to other interrogation techniques (and, of course, placebo-based interrogation).

        • Cauê says:

          This meme partially comes from misunderstandings about how torture is or can be used. Interview with former CIA director (the whole thing is interesting):

          http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2013/01/the_case_for_torture_ex_cia_officials_explain_enhanced_interrogations.single.html

          ‘2. EITs were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly.
          Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren’t torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” Instead, EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. “
          (…)
          10. EITs liberated detainees from religious bondage. Rodriguez said Abu Zubaydah eventually “told us that we should use waterboarding … on all the brothers,” because

          “the brothers needed to have religious justification to talk, to provide information. However, they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities [of] resistance. So once they felt that they were there, they would then become compliant and provide information. So he basically recommended to us that we needed to submit the brothers to this type of procedure. … As a matter of fact, it would help them reach the level where they would become compliant and provide information.”

          Hayden said the Abu Zubaydah story “was important for my own soul-searching on this.” The detainee’s view of the interrogators, he said, was that “Allah expects us to obey him, but he will not send us a burden that is greater than we can handle. You have done that. Therefore you have freed my soul, that I can speak to you without fear of hell.”’

  44. Andrew Sabisky says:

    one for the next linkfest: a fascinating paper that finds

    a) a surprisingly low mutation rate for older fathers (scarcely greater than that of teenage males)

    but coincidentally

    b) an incredibly high false paternity rate amongst West Africans – 8%, and this is in a big sample not biased towards pre-existing suspicions. For comparison, studies in Anglo countries find a false paternity rate of about 1%, and this study finds a similarly low rate in Middle Easterners (1.6%). Implications worth thinking about.

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/282/1803/20142898.full.pdf

    • Harald K says:

      It’s not new that there are big cultural differences in how much cheating is going on, see the wikipedia page on monogamy for instance… attitudes toward infidelity have varied in our own cultures over time too.

      One factor which the paper discusses is that if the norm is that young women marry much older men, then the false paternity rate is going to be higher. Not because younger women (necessarily) cheat on older men more, but that they are more likely to get pregnant if they do.

      I see also that the big sample that the paper discusses, is people seeking family reunions in Germany. Since they take expensive paternity tests at their own expense, we can assume they think they’re related to their kids (assuming they know how DNA testing works), it is indeed surprising to see such high rates of non-paternity there.

      But people seeking family reunions to Germany – to one particular city of Germany and one in Austria, if I read the paper correctly – are not a random sample. If family reunions are anything like in Norway, a few extended family clans stand for a significant share of them, and this is even more likely if they’re all trying to immigrate to the same town. It would be most risky to generalize to all West-Africans.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Have attitudes towards infidelity changed over time? Non-paternity rates have not varied over time. Several studies have shown non-paternity rates of 2% over centuries in several countries in Western Europe. One over 700 years in England.

        • Mary says:

          How were they established?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Comparing the Y chromosomes of men with the same surname, for surnames rare enough not to have multiple origins. Half of men named Sykes really are directly descended from the original, 700 years ago. For common names, it’s more difficult, and I don’t know if they’ve tried.

          • Ano says:

            Presumably by comparing genetic markers between people who can trace back their lineage to a common ancestor 700 years ago.

          • fubarobfusco says:

            It seems to me that surname studies would likely pick up a certain amount of false bastardy due to people changing their names for one reason or another.

            Adoption is also a thing.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Right, non-paternity is an overestimate of false paternity.

          • RCF says:

            Don’t illegitimate children have the surname of their mother? How common have out-of-wedlock births been?

      • Deiseach says:

        Juliet loves Romeo but is forced by her family to marry Paris – what do we expect to happen next? Arranged marriages, especially of younger women to older men, possibly do have higher rates of infidelity – anyone know of any studies on this?

        • Andrew Sabisky says:

          well, it depends on context some. If the penalty for shagging Romeo is getting stoned to death, and that penalty is enforced with at least some non-zero frequency, I wouldn’t necessarily expect Juliet to stray very often, no matter how unappealing Paris is.

          • Deiseach says:

            You mean Sir Richard Burton LIED to me in his translation of the Thousand and One Nights, with all the tales of handsome young men and their derring-do in order to meet their lovers, the young and beautiful wives of old, rich, fat and suspicious merchants? 😉

          • JDG1980 says:

            That may have been the case in the Middle East, but I’m much more skeptical if it was the case in early modern Europe. When Henry VIII had two of his wives executed for adultery, this was considered a historically noteworthy event, not business as usual. There would certainly have been a serious social stigma against a woman who cheated on her husband, but the cuckolded man would also risk being a subject of ridicule before his peers. (“Why can’t he keep her satisfied? Maybe he can’t get it up? Maybe he prefers boys?”)

          • Deiseach says:

            Henry’s case was different; he was the king, so adultery by his wife was a threat to the dynasty if she became pregnant by her lover – that’s why he had Anne Boleyn accused of incest with her brother and of using witchcraft to entice him into marrying her.

            His second execution, that of the unfortunate Catherine Howard, was as much about the wounded vanity of an aging man as anything. And the very fact that his having his wives executed being noteworthy shows what I was saying – not that people accepted adultery as par for the course, or that cuckolds were not figures of fun, but that (a) human nature hasn’t changed and people will have affairs no matter the risk (b) society may disapprove, but it also realises these things happen (c) because Henry was mocked for his marital difficulties (see what the 16 year old Christina of Denmark said about his possible interest in her as a marriage alliance: “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”), the penalty for adultery was not death – kings being exceptional cases.

            Adultery with the spouse of the monarch could be considered a minor form of treason, and it was for that treason Anne and Catherine lost their heads (as well as for making Henry look a fool both at home and abroad). Indeed, Henry had Anne tried on treason charges (not alone was adultery by the queen treasonous, but she was accused of plottng with a lover or lovers to kill Henry)

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            I think adultery with the monarch’s spouse is still considered high treason in the UK.

  45. M.C. Escherichia says:

    Can anyone recommend a good placebo? I hear the “placebo” family of drugs is super-effective against many ailments, so I’d like to try taking one, maybe 3 times a day, I just need to think of a convenient one to acquire, not sugar-based since I don’t want to hurt my teeth…

    • Peter says:

      I find that the placebo effect works a bit better when potentiated with something pharmacologically active. In my experience, the placebo effect of SSRIs is so good, it starts kicking in before I even start taking them.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’ve never gotten to write this before: you might want to look into alternative medicine.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      I’d advise hypnosis, but it turns out that there may be more than a placebo involved, so your mileage may vary. 🙂

    • Paul Torek says:

      The answers to this thread (so far) are brilliant, especially if you take them seriously.

    • Tracy W says:

      Dihydrogen monoxide is a popular no-sugar option. Most homeopathic pharmacies carry it.

    • For real expertise on the high level version, let me recommend Christian Science practitioners. As Mark Twain remarked some time back, Christian Scientists know how to cure imaginary diseases, and since half the diseases mankind suffers from are imaginary that gives them a pretty good success rate.

  46. Michael says:

    Scott’s Surve/Thrive theory seems to be incredibly good predictor of political positions on various topics. However, what is to be made of the recent politicizing of vaccinations with Dems lining up on the pro-vaccine side with Repbulicans against. Surely if we’re in a world that’s under attack not only would we expect our own child to be protected against diseases, we would also demand it of every other child.

    • Lupis42 says:

      The fact that the issue is about whether it should be mandatory is one hint. As ‘Democratic’ social views have gained currency, the Democrats have started to become the party of ‘telling people what to do’, and the Republicans have started to become the party of ‘do your own thing’. I wonder how short a timescale that can work on, but if it’s anything like the antiwar movement, it can flip in just one election.

      Also, of course, the moment it became an issue, the Democrats and Republicans were honor bound to take opposite sides regardless of personal inclinations.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Whoa there. If you’re going to claim that Republicans have lined up “against vaccinations,” you’re going to need to back that up, with more than an errant Rand Paul comment.

      • JRM says:

        I think there are two separate fields:

        1. The vaccinations-cause-autism crowd. These people seem to run roughly parallel with the 9/11 truthers, which is to say more D’s than R’s, but surely some on both sides. For every Rand Paul, there’s slightly more than one Bill Maher.

        2. The Government-Should-Not-Force-Vaccinations crowd. This picks up a fair number of R’s, and I’d bet R’s win on this. Most D’s want government to fix things.

        (I am an R who supports mandatory vaccinations for kids in public schools.)

        • haishan says:

          I think you also need to look at two other populations:

          (A) People who are skeptical of vaccines or of the government mandating them;

          (B) People who actually don’t vaccinate their children.

          Polls suggest that (A) is about evenly split by party, or maybe slightly Republican-leaning; anecdotes and indirect estimates suggest that (B) leans white and liberal. This may just be an artifact of parents of young children skewing young and therefore Democratic, or there may be something more going on; for instance it may be that active non-vaxxers are disproportionately from (1).

          • Anthony says:

            Your option “A” is unclear – are you referring to general skepticism of government, or skepticism of a mandate for vaccination? It also conflates two very different positions, with different likely outcomes – a person who isn’t sure the government should be mandating vaccines is far more likely to vaccinate their own kids than a person who thinks that vaccines are ineffective, damaging, etc.

            Your (B) is far more than “leans white and liberal” – it’s pretty strongly a white, liberal phenomenon, as any perusal of the non-vaccination statistics would make clear. The claims by Democrat operatives that it’s a Republican thing are disingenuous at best. http://thefederalist.com/2015/02/13/the-orwellian-campaign-to-project-anti-vaccination-onto-republicans/

          • haishan says:

            Anthony: Unfortunately the polling data I can find is pretty useless for disentangling the different groups of people in (A). The point is that there are people who believe the negation of “vaccines should be compulsory,” and people who actually don’t vaccinate, and they are demographically pretty different populations.

            You’re not gonna find any disagreement from me on the strength of the non-vax/white+liberal association. I just think it’s unproductive to get into shouting matches about exactly how white and liberal it is; what’s important is that it’s a different and smaller population than “people who agree with what Paul/Christie/’08 Obama said.”

    • Wrong Species says:

      There are probably other exceptions to it as well. I’m incredibly skeptical on those kinds of theories that try to explain why people believe the things they do. It’s usually just some variant on “my group is rational while they’re group is dumb”. Scott probably doesn’t believe that but it’s very convenient if you happen to be a progressive.

    • Depends on what you think youre being attached by.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      @Michael – “Scott’s Surve/Thrive theory seems to be incredibly good predictor of political positions on various topics. However, what is to be made of the recent politicizing of vaccinations with Dems lining up on the pro-vaccine side with Repbulicans against. Surely if we’re in a world that’s under attack not only would we expect our own child to be protected against diseases, we would also demand it of every other child.”

      As others have pointed out, I’m pretty sure the anti-vax movement is mostly democrat, not republican. From what I’ve seen, the pro-vaxxing side has taken the strategy of linking anti-vaxxing to percieved “anti-science” campaigns like intelligent design and climate skepticism.

      tl;dr: it’s “That’s the sort of thing a republican would say”, not “republicans say this.” Probably it’s very easy for the line between the two to be blurred by usual tribal effects.

      Also, from what I remember of the early days of anti-vaxxing from back when I found their arguments interesting enough to follow, the movement started as a conspiracy theory about the Bush administration mandating shoddy vaccines to drive profits to friendly pharma companies.

      • Irrelevant says:

        According to a graph I saw on twitter, so take this with copious helpings of salt, the party split on people who don’t vaccinate their children is pretty even.

        Difference? The Republicans who don’t vaccinate are spread pretty evenly all over the country and therefore have negligible health impact, while the Democrats who don’t vaccinate are concentrated in a handful of counties that are now outbreak-prone.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Irrelevant, could you find the graph for me?

          • AJD says:

            Irrelevant may have been thinking of the graph seen in this article.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Thanks, but that article says that both left and right non-vaxers come in clusters. I guess Irrelevant did not attribute that part to the graph.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Not with the amount of effort I’m willing to put in, unfortunately. I would have just linked it in the first place otherwise. Issue is I don’t remember who tweeted the article OR how long ago it was except in very vague terms, so I’d be searching about 6 weeks of posts by 20ish people to maybe find it. Sorry.

            It wasn’t the graph AJD linked, though the results were similar and may have been based on the same data though.

            that article says that both left and right non-vaxers come in clusters.

            It did assert that, but it’s a damn tenuous claim. The Pediatrics article it links only finds the clusters in the expected region of California (though it only looked in California) and the only counterbalancing non-liberal clusters the article mentions are two insular religious communities: The Amish and Orthodox Jews, neither of which is a group that maps well onto the traditional political spectrum.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          my view could be heavily colored by my usual communities, and by early experience with anti-Vaxxing, so you might well be right. I am pretty sure the modern iteration started during the Bush administration, and specifically during the bird flu pandemic worries in the mid-2000s.

    • Tarrou says:

      I think this one is pretty accidental. The “government should not mandate” is not only congenial to most Rs, it’s the basic common-sense position of most people. I think some left-leaning media people thought they were going to get some “gotcha” quotes from R politicos and started asking these questions, and then it turned out most of the recent anti-vacc activity is on the left.

      FWIW, the anti-vacc on the right isn’t based on the effectiveness of the treatment, it’s religious exceptions. I was never vaccinated as a child because to do so would demonstrate lack of faith in the ability of god to heal people. You can feel this is idiotic, but it is a honestly held religious belief, and it’s going to require a constitutional amendment to get around. So there’s that too.

  47. only 700 clicks for a site as popular as this?

    What do you think of practice making perfect or 10,000 hour rule? It would seem antithetical to rationality to believe this superstition. Holding the number of hours of practice constant, it would seem smarter people get much better returns for the hours they put in at intellectual endeavors such as math and chess. Music is a little different since some people have an ‘ear’ for it and other don’t; sports are another example where having an obvious physical advantage (being taller in basketball) could reduce the number of hours of practice needed for mastery.