OT19: Don’t Thread On Me

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

1. Comments of the week are Scott McGreal actually reading the supplement of that growth mindset study, and gwern responding to the cactus-person story in the most gwernish way possible.

2. Worthy members of the in-group who need financial help: CyborgButterflies (donate here) and as always the guy who runs CrazyMeds (donate by clicking the yellow DONATE button on the right side here)

3. I offer you a statistical mystery a little closer to home than the ones we usually investigate around here: how come my blog readership has collapsed? The week-by-week chart looks like this:

Notice that the week of February 23rd it falls and has never recovered. In fact, I can pinpoint the specific day:

Between February 20th and February 21, I lost about a third of my blog readership, and they haven’t come back.

Now, I did go on vacation starting February 20 and make fewer posts than normal during that time, but usually when I don’t post for a while I get a very gradual drop-off, whereas here, the day after a relatively popular post, everyone departs all of a sudden. And I’ve been back from vacation for a month and a half without anything getting better.

I would assume maybe WordPress changed its method of calculating statistics around that time, but I can’t find any evidence of this on the WordPress webpage. That suggests it might be a real thing. Did any of you leave around February 20th for some reason and not check the blog again until today? Did anything happen February 20th that tempted you to leave and you only barely hung on? I get self-esteem and occasionally money from blog hits, so this is kind of bothering me.

4. I want to clarify that when I discuss growth mindset, the strongest conclusion I can come to is that it’s not on as firm ground as some people seem to think. I do not endorse claims that I have “debunked” growth mindset or that it is “stupid”. There are still lots of excellent studies in favor, they just have to be interpreted in the context of other things.

869 thoughts on “OT19: Don’t Thread On Me

    1. Anonymous

      Fairly well-written, but it seems like you’re retreading ground other people have already tried and, in my opinion, failed on. We don’t take on consciousness as a concept because it’s explanatory or useful in other areas. We take it on because it’s a fundamental part of our experience – if we have experience – actually, “a fundamental part” isn’t fundamental enough; but you get the drift. It’s not a problem that it’s circular. That just shows that it’s basic, the way membership (or whatever) is in set theory. Some things do explaining and others stand in need of explaining; consciousness is the latter.

      1. Citizensearth

        Thanks for taking the time to comment. Let me explain why I disagree.

        “it’s a fundamental part of our experience”
        Is it? You’re just making a statement. I think you need to provide supporting evidence or logic for this claim. I’ve tried to supply logic and evidence to say the concept may be a bit wonky. I mean I get that feeling you mean, but the point of the article is that we might be interpreting this feeling with fallacious logic.

        “but you get the drift.” … “Some things do explaining and others stand in need of explaining; consciousness is the latter.”

        I do kind of feel like your comments are a perfect illustration of my exact point – consciousness being treated unsceptically and accepted without the need for a precise definition or logical justification. You’re telling me consciousness is obvious and literally doesn’t need explaining. For me that’s not just the wrong argument, it’s not really acceptable philosophy because philosophy is at it’s heart a field that demands we justify and show evidence for all our claims. I also feel your acceptance of circular logic is going against one of the most important and well known fallacies. I hope that doesn’t come across too critical, but I think they’re important points to consider.

        1. Troy

          it’s not really acceptable philosophy because philosophy is at it’s heart a field that demands we justify and show evidence for all our claims.

          The received view in epistemology from Descartes through Russell was a form of foundationalism on which all our beliefs are divided into two kinds — inferential and non-inferential — where the former are based on the latter, and the latter are not justified by anything else, because they are either self-evident or known immediately through experience.

          Your suggested view here — that we need further evidence for all claims — leads to a well-known regress problem: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-foundational/#1

          Consciousness is exactly the kind of phenomenon that would be known immediately through experience, on the form of foundationalism sketched above. Trying to argue against its existence on the basis of other things that we’ve observed through conscious experience (e.g., material objects) is like sawing off the branch you’re standing on. Our access to those other things is mediated through our consciousness.

          1. Urstoff

            It’s not untendentious that knowledge of consciousness is non-inferential.

            I think what needs to be clarified before any discussion can get off the ground is what properties consciousness has over and above standard perception. Often, those properties entail unacceptable conclusions. For example, I think Jackson’s Mary thought experiment compelling, but given that epiphenomenalism is a conclusion of that thought experiment, it ends up being a reductio of whatever concept of consciousness is used in the thought experiment. If your concept of consciousness entails that it has no causal properties, then your concept of consciousness is a bad one. Even non-inferential knowledge has to be caused by something.

          2. Troy

            It’s not untendentious that knowledge of consciousness is non-inferential.

            It’s not universally agreed upon; that’s right. However, that knowledge of consciousness is non-inferential is itself immediately obvious upon reflection. The fact that others (for reasons I cannot fathom) deny it does not imply that they are reasonable to do so. The dialectical counterpart of foundationalism is that arguments need to start with un-argued for premises, and this is my un-argued for premise.

            I think what needs to be clarified before any discussion can get off the ground is what properties consciousness has over and above standard perception.

            As I understand it, perception is a kind of consciousness, but not the only kind. I can be conscious if I am not presently perceiving anything — for example, if I am dreaming or imagining (and so sensing, but not perceiving, since perceiving is factive), or doing mental math.

            but given that epiphenomenalism is a conclusion of that thought experiment

            Not without further assumptions…

            it ends up being a reductio of whatever concept of consciousness is used in the thought experiment.

            Epiphenominalism is crazy, but it’s not self-evidently false. A view which says that I am not conscious, or that there are no qualia, or anything like that, is self-evidently false. I don’t accept epiphenominalism, but I would sooner accept it than deny the existence of consciousness.

          3. Citizensearth

            Your suggested view here — that we need further evidence for all claims — leads to a well-known regress problem”

            I didn’t say other claims were the only acceptable evidence. I’m not such a newbie to think trees don’t have roots.

            Of course if someone says they sense a “consciousness” I technically have no cause to disagree – assuming they’re honest that’s just a fact of what they sense. But if the concept they use to describe it includes very specific philosophical assumptions, I think we have ample cause to take a closer look. Otherwise I can just say “I sense evidence of dualism/evidence of monism/any complex set of evidence I wish” and no-one can say otherwise. The point is asking “is that truely what I sense, or is it what I sense filtered through a set of philosophically partisan assumtions?”.

            “Consciousness is exactly the kind of phenomenon that would be known immediately through experience … Trying to argue against its existence on the basis of other things that we’ve observed through conscious experience”

            This begs the question as you’re assuming “conscious experience” is the appropriate and complete description for the thing that allows us to observe, and then you’re using that as evidence consciousness is indispensible. That’s actually the core problem I’m trying to point out in the article.

          4. Citizensearth


            “I think what needs to be clarified before any discussion can get off the ground is what properties consciousness has over and above standard perception. Often, those properties entail unacceptable conclusions”

            I may be mistaking your meaning, but conclusions don’t seem to determine the truth of things?

            Also, just to clarify, do you mean identifying properties as an act of definition of consciousness or as evidence of what consciousness is like? Because the latter would be a flawed path to take if the initial concept of consciousness was flawed (as I think it is outside its dualist home).

            “If your concept of consciousness entails that it has no causal properties, then your concept of consciousness is a bad one.”

            I agree, and I think in a physicalist universe this is the case necessarily. The only way for it not to be the case if you’re using “consciousness” as a label to describe some brain function you’ve found, which is unwise considering it has a long history and signficant connations arising from its dualist roots.

          5. Troy

            This begs the question as you’re assuming “conscious experience” is the appropriate and complete description for the thing that allows us to observe, and then you’re using that as evidence consciousness is indispensible.

            I think it is self-evident that perception is a kind of conscious experience; no conscious experience entails no perception. (This doesn’t mean ‘conscious experience’ is a complete description, though. I never claimed that.)

            You are right to observe that the term ‘consciousness’ is used in different ways, and so perhaps you’re objecting more to second-order consciousness (awareness of one’s being aware, experiencing one’s experiencing) being a precondition of first-order consciousness of the kind I’m describing. In that case we don’t disagree; presumably some animals have first-order consciousness without second-order consciousness, for example.

          6. Urstoff


            Dennett has plenty of thought experiments for why knowledge of consciousness might be non-inferential (“Quining Qualia” being the major work here). They’re not definitive, of course, but I don’t think it’s obvious by any means. Stating something is “obvious” seems to me just a way to beg the question, but if you think it’s obvious and someone else doesn’t, then maybe discussion can go no further.

            As for perception, I mean perception cognitively defined: information gathered via transducers that is used to navigate the environment. Flies perceive, your Roomba perceives, and your grandmother perceives. That all mobile organisms perceive is uncontroversial. What I’m wondering is what properties of consciousness has over and above the kind of perception your Roomba has. I don’t think analysis has progressed much beyond “what it’s like”-ness. And with that sort of notion, I do think Jackson-style arguments for epiphenomenalism (as well as arguments for the conceivability of zombies) act as a reductio to that concept. If your concept of something leads to the impossibility of knowing that you have it, then you have a defective concept (Shoemaker made this point way back in 1975; not many people seem to have noticed, though). And note that saying a concept of consciousness is defective is not the same thing as saying that a person isn’t conscious.

          7. Urstoff


            By “properties of consciousness” I simply mean the properties a conscious state is supposed to have over and above other cognitive states (and some people content that it is a non-cognitive state, too; see the debate about representationalism in consciousness). Are conscious states private? Are they incorrigible? Is our knowledge of them non-inferential? What our phenomenal properties? (saying that consciousness has phenomenal properties is obviously unilluminating)

            As for the causal properties condition, that’s more about epistemology, not physicalism (which I think is false, underdescribed, or not warranted, depending on which version you subscribe to). How can we have knowledge of something that has no causal properties? Especially when we obviously talk about these states and make introspective reports, etc.

          8. Citizensearth


            “How can we have knowledge of something that has no causal properties? Especially when we obviously talk about these states and make introspective reports, etc.”

            I agree that we cannot. I think our difference is that from this you reason “conciousness must have causal properties that we have not yet clearly described” whereas I think “perhaps the concept is poorly formed” (at least outside dualism – I am somewhat non-commital leaning towards neutral monism).

            “Especially when we obviously talk about these states and make introspective reports, etc.”

            My point is not that such reports are imaginary, but rather that we frame them in philosophically partisan language that alters what they can be used to proove. For example, phrase them as the brain’s speech centre signalling to other parts of the brain, or you can phrase them as internal mental events of a discrete subject in an external world of objects (dualism).

            Perhaps another way to put this is that a consciousness (if we defined it unequivocably), or any mind/brain type object, cannot have inuitive access/perception of itself. “if the brain was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it”. For this reason I think there’s ample cause to be suspicious of the intuitive appeals to consciousness, and to be wary of what philosophical assumptions they might hide.

            As you say there are epistemological questions here – but is it realy possible separate out the two topics?

          9. Citizensearth


            “I think it is self-evident that perception is a kind of conscious experience; no conscious experience entails no perception.”

            If perception is a brain processing sensory input, then we absolutely can have perception without “conscious experience”. We don’t need a “consciousness”, just a brain. I’m not saying that’s true (or false), because perhaps you object to that definition, but I simply want to draw attention to how the words and their definitions are actually hiding philosophically partisan assumptions. I tentatively suspect there’s no easy neutral language with which to discuss the philosophy of mind, because a mind/brain/consciousness just doesn’t have intuitive access to itself. For this reason I’m extremely wary of attaching our moral claims to entities that are likely just a product of what is essentially our imagination of our self.

          10. Troy

            @Urstoff and Citizensearth: the main disagreement between us seems to revolve around our understanding of more supposedly “innocent” cognitive concepts like ‘perception.’ Urstoff, you say,

            As for perception, I mean perception cognitively defined: information gathered via transducers that is used to navigate the environment. Flies perceive, your Roomba perceives, and your grandmother perceives. That all mobile organisms perceive is uncontroversial.

            I reject this functionalist definition of perception (and information gathering, for that matter). I don’t think my Roomba perceives. You might worry that we’re just talking past each other and using technical terms differently then, but I am actually even more dogmatic than that. I think ‘perceive’ is a pre-theoretical term that we get from our ordinary experience, and that we then extend it to things like machines, we are either anthropomorphizing them or speaking metaphorically. Metaphorical language can be useful, of course, and perhaps it’s useful for scientists to define a technical, functional sense of ‘perception.’ But then we need to be very clear that this is not the same sense of ‘perception’ as in ordinary speech and thought. I get my concept ‘perception’ from introspecting on my own experience; I perceive myself perceiving things, and thus get my concept ‘perception’ by perception just like I get my concept ‘red’ by perceiving red things. And when I introspect, what I introspect is not this functionalist thing; it’s something else (as evidenced by the fact that I can, e.g., imagine myself perceiving X without acting or being disposed to act in any of the ways a functionalist definition appeals to).

            Citizensearth, you say, anticipating this kind of response,

            I’m not saying that’s true (or false), because perhaps you object to that definition, but I simply want to draw attention to how the words and their definitions are actually hiding philosophically partisan assumptions.

            I agree with this, in a sense. I think that our basic experience of the world is philosophically loaded; and I don’t think that most interesting conversations can take place from a philosophically neutral standpoint. I just think the proper response to this is a reason to accept the “philosophically partisan assumptions” given to us by our experience!

          11. Urstoff


            Well, I’ll continue to use that definition of “perception” because it’s the one cognitive psychologists use (either explicitly or implicitly) when studying abilities such as vision, hearing, etc. It’s well within your conceptual rights to use the term “perception” to designate something else, and that’s fine as long as we keep the two concepts separate. My main point is that consciousness seems to have properties over and above those possessed by the cognitive psychologist’s concept of perception, that much is obvious, but when spelling out these properties, one must absolutely make sure to avoid any sort of properties that entail epiphenomenalism (or zombies, etc.). The failure to do so seems to have two possible explanations: either we just haven’t got the properties nailed down quite yet (which would seem odd given the millions of manhours dedicated to introspecting on one’s own experience) or that, as Dennett and others propose, there is a cognitive mechanism that generates in us such beliefs that there are such properties.

          12. Troy

            It’s well within your conceptual rights to use the term “perception” to designate something else, and that’s fine as long as we keep the two concepts separate. My main point is that consciousness seems to have properties over and above those possessed by the cognitive psychologist’s concept of perception, that much is obvious,

            Let’s suppose that cognitive psychologists really are using the concept of perception you describe. (I don’t deny that they say they do, but I suspect that their actual use of the concept conflicts with their theoretical views.)

            In that case, that concept just doesn’t have anything to do with consciousness. Consciousness is not cog-psy-perception+. Cog-psy-perception isn’t even a necessary condition for consciousness. I can be completely disabled, incapable of moving a muscle and so incapable of physically responding in any way to information coming in, and yet still be conscious. So I think this is just the completely wrong route to be starting down in the first place.

            but when spelling out these properties, one must absolutely make sure to avoid any sort of properties that entail epiphenomenalism (or zombies, etc.).

            First, I know of no valid argument with otherwise uncontroversial premises that takes us from consciousness that is not of the cog-psy-perception variety (or qualia, or whatever) to epiphenomenalism or zombies (by “zombies” I presume you mean the metaphysical possibility of zombies). Second, if there were such an argument the thing to do would be to accept epiphenomenalism or zombies, because those conclusions are not self-evidently false, whereas any thesis that tells me that I’m just a cog-psy-perceiver and there’s nothing else to my mind is self-evidently false.

            Suppose I were to consider this argument:

            (1) I exist.
            (2) If I exist, something must have caused me to exist.
            (3) But the same goes for that thing, etc.
            (4) Therefore, there is an infinite sequence of causes.

            Your reaction to “spelling out the properties of consciousness” strikes me as analogous to me reacting to the above argument by denying its first premise, on the grounds that its conclusion seems crazy (perhaps for Hilbert Hotel type reasons). There are no doubt many things wrong with the above argument, but its first premise is not one of them!

            The failure to do so seems to have two possible explanations: either we just haven’t got the properties nailed down quite yet (which would seem odd given the millions of manhours dedicated to introspecting on one’s own experience) or that, as Dennett and others propose, there is a cognitive mechanism that generates in us such beliefs that there are such properties.

            I deny that Dennett or anyone of his ilk can explain how we could get beliefs in such properties, because Dennett and his ilk cannot even explain beliefs. All they can explain are cog-psy-beliefs, which I do not think = beliefs for the same reasons I don’t think cog-psy perception = perception.

          13. Urstoff


            You can accept epiphenomenalism and zombies, but to do so means you have to accept a pretty weird epistemology whereby you can have knowledge of non-abstract objects without having any causal interaction with them. Your assertion that you have conscious states is, presumably, done via typing on a computer or some other physical mechanism. But if your conscious states can only be caused but not cause anything, how could they eventually lead to your typing behavior? Similarly for zombies, zombies don’t know whether they are a zombie or not. They believe just as firmly that they have conscious states and will describe them in fine detail. So how do you know you’re not a zombie and people with conscious states actually have some type of experience much more rich and radically different than yours? Again, your epistemology has to be very strange if you are to assert that you are conscious if you either accept epiphenomenalism or the metaphysical possibility of zombies. If you want to have a strange epistemology to maintain that you have conscious states in some yet-to-be-clarified sense, then sure, go ahead, but I’ll accept the other horn of the dilemma.

            Your “I exist” argument is not analogous because it does not have similar epistemological consequences.

            Here’s the basic argument:
            1. We have mental states with properties x, y, z, where x, y, and z are properties characteristic of what we typically call “conscious states”.
            2. Only mental states that are epiphenomenal can have properties x, y, and z.
            3. We cannot have knowledge of epiphenomenal mental states.

            Clearly you can’t hold all three of these propositions at once. (3) seems to me to be the most obviously correct. Thus, (1) and (2) are where the work needs to be done. Either you can try to clarify the properties that conscious states posses to avoid epiphenomenalism or you can attack the arguments that claim properties x, y, and z lead to epiphenomenalism. I think attempts at the latter have not been very successful, so I favor the first approach.

          14. Troy


            I agree with you that epiphenominalism is weird — not self-evidently false, but weird. I don’t accept it. As for zombies, I’m agnostic on whether they’re metaphysically possible, but I don’t think that their being metaphysically possible is as problematic as you suggest:

            Similarly for zombies, zombies don’t know whether they are a zombie or not. They believe just as firmly that they have conscious states and will describe them in fine detail.

            Zombies do not have beliefs. Beliefs require consciousness. Perhaps zombies have cog-psy-beliefs (i.e., “functionalist” beliefs), but those are not beliefs. Words come out of their mouth that sound like descriptions, but they are not descriptions because descriptions require intentionality, which zombies do not have.

            So how do you know you’re not a zombie

            I introspect and see experience. That’s how I know I’m not a zombie.

            If you wanted to get absurd results from the possibility of zombies, questioning how I can know that others aren’t zombies strikes me as a more promising route to go.

            Here’s the basic argument:
            1. We have mental states with properties x, y, z, where x, y, and z are properties characteristic of what we typically call “conscious states”.
            2. Only mental states that are epiphenomenal can have properties x, y, and z.
            3. We cannot have knowledge of epiphenomenal mental states.

            Clearly you can’t hold all three of these propositions at once.

            Well, you could — deny that we have knowledge of our mental states. But if you insert “knowledge of” between “have” and “mental” in (1), then this does look like a formal trilemma.

            Either you can try to clarify the properties that conscious states posses to avoid epiphenomenalism or you can attack the arguments that claim properties x, y, and z lead to epiphenomenalism

            I would probably attack the latter claim. Naturally it depends on the properties x, y, and z, but I don’t know of any persuasive arguments to epiphenomenalism from qualia, or the claim that Mary doesn’t know what red looks like, or anything like that. If you know of some you find persuasive I’m happy to tell you which premises I deny. (I suspect that such an argument would move from qualia –> some kind of dualism and some kind of dualism –> epiphenomenalism. I would question both steps; I’m not convinced that some kind of neutral monism can’t accommodate the data of consciousness, and if we accept dualism I see little reason to accept the causal closure of the physical.)

    2. houseboatonstyx

      + 1 for the article you linked, and your questioning of bias.

      As a leftist Environmentalist, I didn’t follow up on this line I remember from Rand: “To be conscious, means to be conscious OF something.” She was criticizing a ‘mystic’ goal of ‘being conscious only of pure consciousness itself”, but it might fit some things in your article too.

      I’ve been concerned for a while that consciousness, used by many as a starting point for fairly important moral reasoning, is a shaky concept when we try to utilise it outside its traditional dualist home.
      Yet if consciousness has played a role in so much moral reasoning – are we just to discard it? Certainly unpleasant consequences don’t negate logic, but if we are to loosen our grip on this bond, this moral link between you and I, then what can we reach for?

      No doubt that topic is beyond a brief article like this. But a logical starting point, I think, is life. Straight-forward, biological life. [….] we’re all living creatures, living together in a difficult universe. If we are to consider moral questions, perhaps this is the best place to begin.

      I agree with that approach.

      1. Citizensearth

        Great thanks for the supportive feedback! I too am very fond of environmental protection, though I am happy to draw on ideas from the right or left to do so. Do you have a blog or site btw?

  1. dlr

    I’m a newcomer to your blog. I’ve been reading through some of your older posts. In ‘thrive/survive’ you say
    “… I despair of any theory that will tell me why school choice is a rightist rather than a leftist issue”

    Is that still a murky area for you? It seems very clear cut to me. Conservatives dislike what their children are being taught by their teachers. Teachers are far further left, politically and socially than the average member of society, let alone the average Conservative. The Conservative feels that his/her children are being indoctrinated by the paid ideologues of the left wind state. School vouchers would make it easier for Conservatives (and everyone else) to find schools and teachers who will teach their children the values/world view they agree with.

    I personally agree with them. It’s as big a mistake to have a government controlled school system, as it is to have a government controlled media, or a government controlled church. All are (or easily can become) propaganda organs.

    1. David Friedman

      There is a second reason. The teachers’ unions are one of the strongest interest groups within the Democrat party. They believe, I suspect correctly, that they would be worse off bargaining with private schools than with public schools, since in the latter case they are, in effect, sitting on both sides of the table.

      My impression is that some people on the left not associated with the organized political left are sympathetic to school vouchers.

      1. Luke Somers

        Aside: It’s ‘the Democratic party’, not ‘the Democrat party’. Just because the noun for individuals and the party as a whole, and the adjective forms all coincide for most parties does not mean that this is so for all political parties.

  2. Carinthium

    It’s probably too late to get info in this OT thread (it’s a lot easier to do this closer to the start of it), but does anyone know much about what an intelligent reactionary would think of Puella Magi Madoka Magica? I think it’s safe to say that if they’re a reactionary they’ve have criticise a lot, but I’m curious how.

    I have my own views of the series, but don’t want to say yet so as not to ‘contaminate’ things.

    1. Ever An Anon

      Injecting political criticism into every aspect of life is more of a hallmark of modernist religions/ideologies than traditional worldviews. Not that the premodern world didn’t have censors but they seem to have been a lot more laid-back than ours are.

      As for Madoka, I like it on aesthetic grounds. It’s a very skillfully written animated and performed tragedy, which is rare enough, and thematically it shows a helpless struggle without abandoning hope which is IMO even rarer. The Faust connection is very well done as well especially considering how the Japanese often struggle to understand occidental symbolism (see Evangelion).

      If I had to criticize it on political or ethical grounds I would say it’s fine overall. Hubris and nihilism lead to spectacularly bad ends, while perseverance is difficult but ultimately rewarded. The fanservice featuring pre- or barely pubescent girls is disturbing but less common than in most magical girl anime. Fans make a big deal about the implied lesbianism but that seems like more of the same “muh homoeroticism” reaction you get towards any close same-sex friendship in fiction (see Kirk/Spock).

      Does that help?

      1. Kevin C.

        I’d second what Ever An Anon says. I’d also add that PMMM also makes an implicit case against utilitarianism, in that a certain character illustrates its inhumanity.

    2. jaimeastorga2000

      I have not watched Madoka, but I know that AntiDem is one of neoreaction’s foremost experts on anime. You should ask him.

  3. Thomas

    I’m a fourth year PhD student in the life sciences, and I need mentorship, preferably from a Slytherin, or at least someone with a Slytherin hat. My advisor doesn’t want me doing “mercenary collaborations”, or quick experiments with researchers outside my field in exchange for secondary authorships. He says I need to focus on my thesis research in the next year so as to publish and graduate. Are there any academics in the SSC readership who have the insight to tell me whether this is good advice or whether he just wants me pumping out papers with his name on them so he can get tenure?

    1. Anonymous

      It’s not enough to get advice from generic academics because the answer depends on the field. Different fields value quality vs quantity and interdisciplinary work differently.

      1. Thomas

        What I’d really like is a biology professor or bioinformatician to mentor me at a distance.

  4. James Picone

    I’ve had a cold the last couple of days, and went through the interesting experience of buying cold drugs. As a result, I’d be interested in seeing a SSC-style breakdown of decongestants, because my broad conclusion is that the entire field of cold/flu drugs are /awful/. The supermarket that I checked first was something like 70% herbal nonsense, and they had a very limited range of actual drugs. The pharmacy that I checked after had more stuff, I found something that seemed okay, grabbed that.

    Later I had cause to look up the actual compounds present. Paracetamol (pain relief, effective), dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant that apparently also has some interesting sedative/dissociative properties, no idea about effectiveness), phenylephrine in the ‘day’ pills (decongestant brought in to replace pseudoephedrine because people used to make meth out of it, apparently some questions about effectiveness?) and chlorpheniramine in the ‘night’ pills (An antihistamine as far as I can tell, which doesn’t seem terrible useful. If I thought this was allergic I would have bought an antihistamine. Unless antihistamines help with colds? I didn’t think they did…)

    As far as I can tell there’s a very real possibility that the only benefit these pills have over paracetamol are reducing coughing, which is nice, but wasn’t really my primary goal.

    TL;DR: Scott or someone else competent in medical stats, does phenylephrine actually have a decongestant effect, and do antihistamines help with colds?

    1. Anonymous

      Phenylephrine fucking sucks and is only popular because of restriction on (pseudo)ephredrine.

      All-in-one cold formulations are bullshit. Buy the ingredients separately for much cheaper.

      For aches/pain: paracetamol, ibuprofen (if you can’t get paracetamol)
      For congestion: pseudoephedrine, antihistamines (not as effective). Anything that’s GOOD at treating congestion will keep you up, so antihistamines are sadly your best bet there.
      Antihistamines: cetirizine, diphenhydramine (if you want to sleep)
      Cough: dextromethorphan — get this alone or with guaifenesin, most formulations come with chlorpheniramine and paracetamol (I’m not encouraging ABUSE but taking more than the recommended dose is safe and very effective for cough suppression). Guaifenesin is an expectorant and helps clear your throat/lungs (think of it like a decongestant for your lungs)
      Menthol drops are excellent for cough suppression and throat pain (menthol is a local anesthetic)

      1. Addict

        Woah, Acetimenophine (paracetamol) over Ibuprofen in your mind? To me, acetimenophine is the “shitty white powder they put in cold medicine so you can’t take enough to get psychoactive effects without killing your liver” and has basically no medicinal effect whatsoever (30m onset time, 30m duration of anti-inflammatory effects, USELESS), while Ibuprofen actually does fix pain/aches, lasts for hours instead of minutes, and is filtered by kidney rather than liver and so is significantly less toxic.

        I was under the impression this was how most people felt. Ibuprofen >> naproxen >>>> acetimenophine. Why do you disagree?

  5. haishan

    So I went on a coffee date last weekend, and the lady I was with mentioned a study she’d read on “some kind of monkey — chimps or capuchins or something” where certain monkeys were given makeup and subsequently gained status in the monkey community, I guess. Anyway, she can’t find the study now, but I figured if it’s real and she didn’t dream it someone in this crowd would know.

    Unrelated: can Scott or any of the other doctors in the house tell me anything about Abilify as an adjunctive treatment (w/ SSRI) for depression? Like, is it actually useful? Cochrane’s unimpressed but it seems to be pretty commonly prescribed. (This is not a request for medical advice.)

        1. Citizensearth

          I think evolutionary-focused approaches are less popular than others within anthropology, and this is a very specific hypothesis within the evolutionary approach. IIRC, a common criticism of this sort of evolutionary game theory approach is that it uses plausible but ultimately vague and/or untestable hypothesis, drawing on one of many possible interpretations of potential evolutionary strategies/motives. I’m not sure I think that exactly, but I’d definitely try to review psychological, cultural and other evolutionary explanations before accepting this as fact.

  6. Larry Kestenbaum

    From a discussion above:

    I don’t know man; legislative quotas scare the shit out of me.

    I’m not an advocate of quotas, but you might not know that for almost a century, both major U.S. political parties have been using gender quotas in choosing national committee members and delegates to their national conventions.

    Starting in 1920*, the Democratic and Republican National Committees identically consisted of one man and one woman from each state and territory. In recent years, Democrats added more committee members for larger states, but each seat is still gender-designated.

    No matter what the gender of the position, everybody gets to vote on who fills it. Men and women are NOT voting separately to elect their “own” representatives.

    Note that the policy considerations behind this scheme are not identical to those applicable to an actual governing body. For example, a political party wants to look inclusive of both genders as a matter of public relations. A political party also wants to preclude internal arguments about gender under-representation, since there are always other urgent tasks at hand.

    Since most Democratic Party activists are women, and most Republican Party activists are men, the 50/50 gender quotas are a political subsidy for Democratic men and Republican women.

    * In 1920, the U.S. constitution was amended to guarantee voting rights for women; before this, only a few states allowed women to vote.

  7. CThomas

    Here’s a question I have. I’m almost embarrassed to ask it because it will reveal the depth of my ignorance but I’m very confident that people here will have an easy answer. This is about passwords for web sites. A lot of password-protected sites want you to use really complex passwords, often mandating the inclusion of numerals and sometimes even “special” non-letter characters like punctuation marks or similar characters. The thing that confuses me about this is that I would have guessed that the only practicable way for hackers or other imposters to get your password would be to obtain it directly by somehow getting access to your information. I would have thought that it would be quite difficult to obtain the password by, e.g., guessing every combination of letters of any length possible in the password system. I would have thought that the latter means would be prevented by the large number of possible combinations plus the ability of a system to prevent the iterated guessing of thousands or millions of sequential erroneous passwords. But if I’m right about that then what is the benefit of an especially complicated password using numerals and ampersands and whatnot? If someone gets access to your password directly then all the ampersands in the world won’t help. So what gives? Why is “npqf5$gtw” meaningfully better than “noqfaagtw”? Am I right that it’s easy to prevent the acquisition of the latter through iterative guessing? And if so, then how does the inclusion of other sorts of characters provide better security?


    1. Anonymous

      Yes, your example of 9 letters, all lower case, is plenty of password strength for exactly the reasons you give. Even 6 random letters is plenty for most sites. Websites don’t let you do that partly out of incompetence and partly out of fear that your short all lower case password isn’t actually random.

      Go to google and change your password. Every letter you type, it reevaluates and scores it. It is pretty good at judging whether your proposed password actually is random. If you do all lower case, it wants more letters than otherwise, but it is sensible. (But if google is your email, that account is very valuable and it should be a lot longer than other passwords. I think google declares 9 lower case letters merely “moderate strength.”)

      The real danger is password reuse: someone hacks one site, gets your password there and tries it out at other websites. Thus lots of weak passwords are generally better than one strong password. But when people hack websites, they usually don’t directly get the actual passwords. Sometimes they do, from incompetent websites. In that case, the strength of the password doesn’t matter at all. But usually they get a hash of the password. They can then guess the password and compare it to the hash. They can try trillions of passwords at leisure, no 10,000 try limit. So this is the main situation where the strength of a website password does matter.

    2. Nornagest

      Brute-forcing passwords is surprisingly easy. It’s not too hard to make it impractical to brute-force a single account from a single remote location — timeouts will do it, though even that won’t save you if your password is “guest” — but outside of a few situations that’s a relatively naive attack; your average scriptkiddies don’t care about you in particular, they just want someone’s credit card data or whatever, and so by targeting multiple accounts they can speed up their guesses to a rate limited only by network and I/O. There are clever things you can do to stop this, but a lot of websites don’t bother.

      So sequential guessing of thousands or millions of passwords isn’t actually that hard. The problem then becomes making the space of possible passwords — the entropy, in information-theoretic terms — large enough that yours won’t be found in thousands or millions of tries. There are only a few thousand common English words, so using a dictionary word is a bad idea. Picking letters randomly is a better idea, but it’s hard for an automated system to tell the difference between mostly-random and mostly-nonrandom (without putting as much computational effort in as it would take to crack the password), so a quick and dirty way to enforce reasonably high entropy is to require inclusion of non-alphanumeric characters: where there might be ten thousand common words that could be used as passwords, there’s somewhere on the order of a million passwords of the scheme “common word, plus a random character in a random location”. Adding things like numbers and weird capitals bumps that up further. (Note however that a million guesses is about 20 bits of entropy, which is not particularly high as these things go; I’m not saying that this describes a good password scheme, because it doesn’t.)

      There are also much stronger attacks you can run if you have direct access to password hashes — Google “rainbow table” for one example — but that’s not what your average user should be worried about.

    3. Jaskologist

      Most* people use actual words as passwords. This makes it much easier for a hacker to guess (and really, really easy for a computer which can guess millions of times a second). Even trying all possible letter combinations under, say, 8 characters is pretty quickly done these days.

      Adding in weird characters and numbers expands the search space a bit, and forces you away from the easily-guessable words. But really, making your password longer is where the real wins come from. I’ve seen compelling arguments for passphrases over passwords based on both this and ease of memory.

      That said, many of the restrictions sites put on passwords are stupid, and often counter-productive. I have a pretty good password generating scheme, but when it fails a certain site’s rules, I’m forced to go with a less secure, more memorable variant.

      *Or at least a large enough contingent to make it a good attack vector.

    4. Saint_Fiasco

      I know this one, and it’s not trivial.

      It turns out websites never actually store your password. They store a different code that is the result of applying a one-way function to the password.

      A one way function is like a transformation of A into B in which you can easily tell B given A, but you can’t easily tell A given B.

      As an example, take the position in the alphabet of all the letters in your name and add it together. That’s easy to do. But if I tell you that the sum of the position of the letters in my name is 86, you will have a hard time guessing my name, right? You would pretty much *have* to brute force it.

      When a hacker steals a password database, they only steal their hashes, and they are usually much more complicated than the sum of the letters. If you have a complex password, they will have a hard time getting your actual password just from the hashes.

      1. Chevalier Mal Fet

        Shamus Young also has pretty accessible introductions to the topic, he’s where I got most of my knowledge of web security from. Here’s a recent blog post with an intro to it, as well as some discussion in the comments: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=25961

        He’s got more, but I don’t have the time to search mroe deeply into the archives for it at the moment.

    5. Neike Taika-Tessaro

      Two things:

      – it’s signalling to people who want to hack the site that they’re going to have to cycle through ~50 characters per character in your password if they want to brute force it, rather than just 26. Better go target someone else.

      – actually following that guideline means that if hackers try to brute force with only the letters of the alphabet, they will not be cracking your password today, so it makes sense to follow the guideline, in the off-chance it isn’t a mandatory rule anyway.

      That being said, hackers won’t actually care and will assume that your password follows certain patterns anyway and reduce the complexity of their brute force attack that way. (Though do be careful with xkcd’s recommendation. Also, h/t Jaskologist, who also linked to it.)

      As someone who’s worked in IT security, password guidelines frustrate me (and constantly result in me creating less than ideal passwords, embarrassingly!). They usually result in people writing the password down somewhere that is considerably less safe than their skull.

      In either case, the best vector of attack is still phishing or social engineering. “Hello, this is your company helpdesk. We have a ticket here involving the workstations in your office space. Could you let me know what username and password you last used to log on…?”

      (Edit: In other news, I type too slowly, and CThomas has already thanked everyone else. Welp! I’m leaving this comment here in case someone finds it insightful.)

      1. Nornagest

        I’ve never met a password policy that didn’t at least mildly annoy me, but none more than arbitrary upper bounds on password length. Guys, if you’re already running a hash function, you’re really not going to notice the cost of using dynamic storage for the password input.

        I’ve even worked on a site that accepted arbitrary-length passwords, then went ahead and hashed only their first eight characters. That’s the worst of both worlds and gives you roughly the security of a wet paper bag — particularly since users are alerted that something’s up the first time they mistype the end of a long password and get let in anyway. Needless to say, I fixed that as soon as I figured out a way to that didn’t break all the legacy passwords in the system.

        1. Neike Taika-Tessaro

          Agreed on all counts.

          One of the first things I did when I took over a website from someone else was to kick the password length limit they’d introduced. They were hashing the password, so there wasn’t even a reason for that. Go figure.

          The story about the site with the arbitrary-length-but-not-really passwords is making me shudder. What a nightmare. In the name of all users of the unidentified website, thank you for fixing that.

        2. Jaskologist

          I hate the ones that tell you to use special characters, but only these specific special characters. To me, that’s basically a big sign screaming “we don’t know how to properly avoid sql injection.”

          1. Neike Taika-Tessaro

            To me it would scream “we don’t hash the password”. Don’t have to worry about SQL injection if you’re only handling a hash. (I mean, you still ought to worry about SQL injection, at the very least for healthy habit-building, but that’s a different topic.)

            For other fields, I accept it. A high security site I was involved with coding basically had character whitelists for every form field that ever cropped up. That didn’t mean we didn’t pay attention to SQL injection, XSS, CSRF and even all subtler nine yards, at the highest branches culminating in bizarre practises such as ermergawd we need to add noise to this part of the code so it’s not obvious by measuring the electricity usage when we’re encrypting something (okay, no, we didn’t do that one, but we thought about it). It just meant we decided to turn paranoia up to 11. Why trust anything at all, ever?

            That being said, I would probably raise eyebrows if, say, a gaming website tried to restrict my input in the same way (assuming I even noticed).


            …she says and then remembers that Dragon Cave does not allow question-marks in dragon descriptions. Yeah, that. That’s quite something. I definitely raised some eyebrows (all of them, to be precise) when I found that out, it’s just been a while and I’d blissfully forgotten about it.

        3. Universal Set

          Not too long ago the computer network at my then-workplace (yes, not just a random website) did the ‘silently truncate passwords to 8 characters’ thing, which I was horrified about when I discovered. I pointed this out to one of the people who maintained the network, and their response was roughly “oh yeah, it does that”.

          Here’s the kicker: said workplace was the mathematics department at a major research university (I was a grad student).

          They might have fixed this by now, but it was that way for several years after I started and for goodness knows how long before that.

          My bank (actually credit union) at the time also only took up to 10 character passwords. There were no other restrictions on the passwords. (Okay, probably not actually quite true: I think they had a minimum length of 6 characters too.) I like to think that my annoyed message to them about how this was stupid and counterproductive to security inspired the change they made a year or so later to allow much-longer passwords.

          1. Brock

            An eight-character limit generally means the site is still using DES crypt, which truncates its input to eight characters, as its hashing function, instead of something up-to-date.

      2. CThomas

        Then please accept my supplemental thanks to you and others for continuing to post on this.


        1. Neike Taika-Tessaro

          *sheepish* I was actually just concerned I was being redundant with my contribution because you already felt sufficiently informed, but thank you. (In case I gave a disgruntled impression, I apologise! I was actually just trying to be funny, but re-reading it now I think that may not be as obvious as it seemed at the time.)

    6. James Picone

      So some people have already pointed out hash-database attacks which allow password guesses as fast as your hardware can manage, and that people are terrible at choosing passwords (Every time a password database gets leaked, computer security blogs tend to post a list of the most common passwords in them. They don’t change much. Here’s an example of some of the popular passwords, not from a security blog). I’m just going to explain the mathematical effects of requiring more characters. I don’t know how much maths you’ve done, I apologise in advance if this is all stuff you already know.

      You can calculate the number of passwords possible with a given password set by taking the number of possibilities for each character and multiplying them all together. Say we want to know how many passwords there are if they’re all 8 characters long and composed entirely of alphabetical characters only. There are 52 possible values for each character, 8 characters, so it’s 52**8, about 5*10**13. If someone really wants to know your password, commodity PC hardware has four cores running at ~3*10**9 clocks per second, we’ll assume perfectly pipelinable so 3*10**9 instructions per second, and say 1000 instructions to get a new guess, hash it, and check the hash against yours. That’s 4*3*10**9 / 10**3 hashes per second, 1.2 * 10**7. 4.1*10**6 seconds to check every password, 47 days. In practice there’s at least an order of magnitude either side of that one, and of course the attacker doesn’t have to check literally every password, just until they hit upon yours. Essentially, 8-character alphas-only passwords are breakable by a determined cracker of average skill on commodity hardware. If your threat model is more along the lines of national governments, then you have to contend with the problem being embarrassingly parallel – if they add another commodity processor doing the same thing, they can halve the time it will take.

      Now let’s assume we mandate at least one single number or punctuation mark, and also that we’re idiots and limit the punctuation to !@#$%^&*(). Finally, let’s assume all our password-users do the bare minimum and just insert a single ‘special’ character somewhere in their password.

      52**8 * 20. But that special character could be anywhere in the password. There are 9 possible places, so there are 9 more possibilities, 52**8 * 20 * 9. We’ve gained two orders of magnitude more passwords from that change, and now it takes two orders of magnitude more time for anyone to crack them from the hashes.

      If the users are clever and mix ‘special’ characters into their 8-character passwords, there are now 72 possibilities for each character, 72**8 is about 7*10**14, so about an order of magnitude more (it’s less than the extra-symbol-character case because those were 9-character passwords).

      The short version is that minor changes in what characters are used in passwords can significantly increase the search space. I’ve worked for places where ‘national governments’ were the threat model, and they mandated >=20-character passwords with a capital, a number, and a punctuation mark. Taking the same set of punctuation marks, and adding spaces (they allowed those), and assuming random sets (which approximately nobody did, but still…), you get (52 + 20 + 1)**20 possibilities, which is about 1.8*10**37, i.e. a lot.

      In practice, I just use passphrases. They’re long, easy to remember, avoid all the simple script-kiddie cracking tricks (i.e. they’re not ‘password’ or ‘12345678’), and have acceptable entropy even if someone knows you’re using them. The only problem with them is websites enforcing dumb password rules – maximum length sucks (and is a red flag for security). I’ve used a password system that forbade consecutive identical characters, which also sucked.

      1. Anonymous

        I’ve worked for places where ‘national governments’ were the threat model, and they mandated >=20-character passwords with a capital, a number, and a punctuation mark. Taking the same set of punctuation marks, and adding spaces (they allowed those), and assuming random sets (which approximately nobody did, but still…)

        If you want secure passwords, you generate them randomly and give them to the users. All these rules about passwords are incompetence. Security theater.

  8. Bill G

    Has anyone ever had any success quitting nail biting or a similar habit? I’ve had the habit for at least 20 years with multiple not quite successful attempts to quit. I usually am able to quit long enough for them to get really easily biteable, but then fall back in. I was treated for some anxiety many years ago, but don’t feel I have much of a problem with it today. Any thoughts?

  9. Carinthium

    Query. Does anyone here have useful information on the Padre Pio case? There’s an IRL argument on the matter I want to be able to weigh in on.

    In case it isn’t obvious, things are important to this to the extent they are evidence for or against the existence of miracles occurring.

    1. Saint_Fiasco

      The Catholic Church is very picky with its miracles, they are not totally credulous. I mention this because I think they found no proof of supernatural abilities in Padre Pío, otherwise he would be Saint Pio.

        1. Saint_Fiasco

          Huh, you are right. I checked his wikipedia page and it does not explain why they changed their mind when they had rejected his miracles before. Could it be because he wasn’t as popular back then?

          Usually when a charismatic catholic dies, the Church tries to find someone who had a disease and was cured after praying in his name or something, which seems to be what happened in this case.

          I assumed Carinthium was interested in his more spectacular miracles, like the stigmata or his shadow clone.

          1. Anonymous

            Can you provide some documentation of the claim that they rejected his miracles? 30 years is a perfectly normal time frame.

          2. Saint_Fiasco

            >Can you provide some documentation of the claim that they rejected his miracles?

            I don’t have it on me at the moment, but the rejection I’m talking about is the one in the second paragraph of the “controversies” section of the wikipedia article. The Pope at the time hated the guy.

          3. Anonymous

            Oh, OK. That’s enough documentation for me. I thought you were talking about after his death. Pius changed his mind from 1920 to 1940. And then John was also negative. But Paul and John-Paul were uniformly positive from his death to canonization.

    2. Deiseach

      Oh, good luck with that one! Popular devotion is pretty crazy (in all senses of the word) about Padre Pio, and you’re going to get reports of all sorts of miracles up to the “Wait, what???” level 🙂

      Could you give a hint as to what the argument is about? Is it, for instance, “Well, I think he faked his stigmata” (an accusation made at the time) or “I flat out do not believe in bilocation” or is it something a little more mundane like his powers of discernment in the confessional?

      1. Carinthium

        The pro-Padre Pio guy (name withheld) seems to believe practically all of it, but strictly speaking their argument posistion is simply that Padre Pio’s miracles are authentic enough to provide strong evidence for God’s existence.

        The anti-Padre Pio guy (who I might have helped if I knew anything about the topic) contends Padre Pio was either a fraud or crazy because miracles don’t exist, and God doesn’t exist.

        1. Deiseach

          Okay, taking the second one first: that’s assuming your proof before you’ve found it. Of course if you believe miracles cannot happen, then you’re reduced to naturalistic explanations, either natural causes, or delusion or deliberate fraud on the part of the human actors.

          If the miracles can be shown to not be susceptible of a natural explanation (at least according to current understanding), then this is data that something beyond mere naturalism is at work. Going from that to proof of God is a longer step.

          Suppose telepathy is really real? Then the powers of discernment Padre Pio is said to have shown in the confessional were not supernatural graces of God, but the paranormal power of mind-reading (and if there’s a science behind psionics, it might be one day shown to be natural in origin, the same way being able to imagine a purple cow is natural in origin even though purple cows do not exist in reality).

          So before we start dragging God or one particular version of God into it, we have to consider: is this event/physical manifestation/reported prophecy or locution accurate, and is it genuine?

          Because even if (say) he faked the stigmata, that does not prove that miracles do not exist (the same way that the existence of forged money does not prove real currency does not exist).

          So I’m afraid all I can say to your two friends is rein it in on both sides; to the sceptic, be willing to consider the evidence for things like discernment and stigmata (we’ll keep away from the flashier things like bilocation and ecstatic levitation) and to the enthusiast, don’t push too far on what you consider to be “proof” for anything, and be equally willing to consider there may be exaggeration and a degree of hysteria or pious legendry to reports by people of what they saw/were told by him.

  10. Gael N

    There was recently a Cornell study about how female applicants are preferred for STEM professorships.


    Many people call the study into question because it runs in contrast to the “accepted” wisdom that gender bias against women exist in STEM. Personally I don’t see this as unusual even if there is major gender bias against women in STEM. Most people I know in STEM recognize the lack of women and will apply some form of affirmative action in favor of women when both applicants are equal in every other way except gender. Whether they truly believe they are better qualified might not override their need to contribute to social justice in some form.

    Anyway, this seemed like exactly the sort of article that you analyze on this site.

  11. Fixer McPusherman

    Hey, if you wanna pursue that truth-beauty wave diffusion thing, you could do a thing where the guy does the opposite of DMT (like gets seriously depressed, IDK) and encounters Pure Truth, which is also unspeakably ugly and horrific and alien, kind of like looking at a dog on the close-up. Like Faith Of Our Fathers. It’d be great.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m dumb.

    1. Susebron

      I once read a story about something like that. I believe it was called “Teeth”. It was one of the best Lovecraftian stories I’ve read that wasn’t written by Lovecraft. I’ll see if I can find it.

      Edit: Here’s an excerpt.

    2. Nancy Lebovitz

      See also Norman Spinrad’s “No Direction Home”.

      Vg’f n fubeg fgbel frg va n phygher jurer crbcyr hfr pnershyyl pubfra cflpurqryvpf nyy gur gvzr. N zna gevrf tbvat bss nyy uvf cflpurqryvpf.

  12. Deiseach

    Possible contender for Worst (or at least Most Misleading) Headline in a newspaper article?

    Astronomers revealed that they believe a meteor that streaked across the sky above Chelyabinsk in Russia (pictured) triggered the conversion of biblical figure Paul

    Fortunately, they do go on to clarify that neither St Paul nor the Chelyabinsk meteor were time-travellers (which may or may not disappoint you to hear).
    I don’t mind the religion bashing (I’m used to weirder-than-the-last ‘rational’ explanations for Biblical miracles, though my favourite one is still “Jesus did not walk on the water, He was surfing on a very small, very localised ice floe that occurred in a very, very, rare climactic condition for the Sea of Galilee which is why the disciples, who were local fishermen born and reared in the area who spent their adult working lives on the Sea of Galilee, were so freaked out by these completely natural conditions”). But my Inner Correct Usage In English Tyrant is outraged! 🙂

    I know it’s “The Daily Mail”, but I’d expect better even from them – the article reads like poorly translated from the original Russian – “Roman and Protestant faith strands”???? Presumably by “Roman”, they mean “Roman Catholic” but either their proofreading is crappy (not surprised there) or they lifted this wholesale from a news agency and never checked before bunging it up on their online site (strongly inclined to believe this is the explanation).

    1. Creutzer

      But my Inner Correct Usage In English Tyrant is outraged!

      I don’t know, there is nothing that says the time variable of “streaked” and that of “triggered” need to be bound to the same value…

      1. Deiseach

        The way it is phrased makes it sound like “this meteor”, not “a similar occurrence” or “this is the kind of encounter”. If I said “The dog barked and I fell off my bicycle”, the implication there is that the barking of the dog startled me so that I fell off. A connection in time between the barking and the fall is established by my phrasing. Same with “a meteor… above Chelyabinsk triggered…Paul”.

        It’s horribly clumsy; I know straplines need to be short and pithy, but this is unintentionally incoherent. The Mail should stick to worrying about the effects of immigrants on house prices! 🙂

        As I said, I’m not even going to get into the certainty that ah yes, this is what made Paul convert – mindreading from two thousand years later? That’s even better than timetravelling meteors! 🙂

  13. whateverfor

    If you’ve been paying any attention to the news you’ve probably heard about the riots in Baltimore. There’s a narrative right now that the riots are an inevitable effect of the Freddie Gray killing, and I think it’s totally wrong.

    Some background: I’ve lived in Maryland my whole life. When the University of Maryland won the basketball championships, there were substantial riots. The standard explanation here was that you just had a pile of unruly excited drunks dumped onto the street at the same time, so chaos happened. That made sense to me at the time. When I was attending UMD later, the women’s basketball team won the national championship. A bunch of people rushed out into the street and lit things on fire then, too. At this point the old explanation is obviously wrong, or at last insufficient.

    My hypothesis: these later riots were caused by the initial narrative. People got the idea from the media that rioting after big Terps wins was the natural way of things. When a win happens, everyone who is casually interested in ripping up street signs and lighting fires in the street knows now is the time to do it. There’s also an element of coordination: not only is chaos more fun with friends, but you’re much more likely to get away with it if you have other bad actors for cover.

    The implications for the current situation in Baltimore are rather obvious. It’s not the killing that triggers the riots but the protests, and the protests themselves are merely a signal/excuse: the legitimate protestors are about as much to blame as the university sports teams were. The narrative that the rioters are just opportunists is closer to the truth, but I think it fails to understand the fundamental and necessary role the media plays. All the handwringing about how this is a natural extension of black rage against the police and protests is the actual cause of these copycat riots.

    (Disclaimer: there are definitely actual civil unrest riots that aren’t just the media helping to coordinate opportunistic sociopaths. I just don’t believe that’s the main cause of the riots in Baltimore).

      1. whateverfor

        I think most historical riots would be “actual civil unrest” riots? When there’s actual civil unrest the riots will tend towards a purpose though.

        Just go to Wikipedia “List of Riots” and start clicking ones from pre-1900 at random. The Baltimore Bank Riot of 1835 was over the failing of the Bank of Maryland and the loss of deposits. The rioters started at one of the Directors houses, tore it up, and kept going for more directors until they were stopped. Cincinnati riots of 1884: a man was given a manslaughter charge when the mob thought he was guilty of murder, so they started by wrecking the courthouse then tried to get to the jail to lynch him. You see the same pattern over and over: there’s a reason for anger, the target of the anger is attacked first, then it spreads from there to connected parties.

    1. thepenforests

      Hmmm, the idea has some initial plausibility to me, and I’m inclined to believe that it’s at least partially true. Let’s look for contradictory evidence, though: the idea would suggest that rioting is a kind of natural state that (some) people fall into whenever they think they can get away with it, or whenever they think a riot will be occurring anyway that they can latch onto, bandwagon-style. The obvious thing to look for for disconfirmation then would be cases where riots were expected to happen but never materialized. Are there any well-known examples of this occurring? Another obvious question would be: why do some sports events end in riots and not others? You could say that there’s a history of riots in some cases, but if past riots create the expectation of a riot which creates the actuality of a riot, what causes the initial riot that sets off the chain in the first place?

      1. thepenforests

        Another thought: I worry that the idea contains only positive feedback. If riots beget the expectations of riots beget more riots, then absent some countervailing force we would have been locked in an endless cycle of riots ages ago. There has to be something keeping the process in check.

        1. FacelessCraven

          I believe we call that force “riot cops”, and eventually “the national guard.”

          [EDIT] To elaborate, the negative feedbacks predictably happen after the fact, not before, and their efficacy is limited. It seems obvious to me, and is likely obvious to the rioters themselves, that rioting will not meet serious consequences for a time but cannot be sustained indefinitely.

      2. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

        >You could say that there’s a history of riots in some cases, but if past riots create the expectation of a riot which creates the actuality of a riot, what causes the initial riot that sets off the chain in the first place?

        I don’t think there is anything to say that all riots are of the same type. The obvious options include “pissed about something,” “drunken stupidity,” and “can get away with it.”

        The fact that the first happens should be uncontroversial. For no other reason than I like the name, we’ll use the Defenestrations of Prague (synopsis: irate citizens develop the habit of tossing the targets of their ire out of windows) as a suggestion for a typical case. I am shooting from memory, but it seems to have a lot of compelling factors: specific grievances bursts into mob violence, said violence is directed primarily at the source of said grievances, and having affected the desired remedy there is little or no follow-on disturbance. We’ll call this a “directed riot.”

        That the second happens should also be no surprise. conf. pumpkin festival. You could claim that the mechanism described ties to two together: lots of drunk people do lots of stupid drunk things (because they are drunk, have poor impulse control, are not dissuaded by potential repercussions). Others observe the risk level involved and rationally (or otherwise) make the decision to do the same the next time the opportunity presents itself.

        Hypothesis: the risk of “undirected” riots is inversely proportional to the risk of the authorities responding with a brutal massacre. (The correlation with riots directed against the authorities is a different question.)

    2. Jesse M.

      The article at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/the-brutality-of-police-culture-in-baltimore/391158/ seems to indicate there’s a long history of police brutality in Baltimore which probably disproportionately affects poor blacks, so without excusing the rioters, this would fit the idea of long-simmering tensions reaching a breaking point, even if a history of the media making rioting seem “natural” also might play some role (when explaining social events I think it’s always good to consider the possibility of multiple important causal factors).

    3. stillnotking

      As Freddie deBoer pointed out, the leftists cheering on the riots would universally admit that an actual insurrection by the oppressed people of Baltimore could never succeed (and are hardly rushing to the barricades themselves), so it’s mere tribal signaling of the worst, most destructive kind.

      1. Jos

        I’m always glad to read Freddie, but I’m not clear why he knows “to send the invoice [for the riots] to the cops who killed Freddie Gray.” By his analysis, we should be asking what the root cause for police violence is, and then sending the invoice there (or, more consistently, concluding that that prior cause itself had a cause, and then continuiung our search.)

        1. Jesse M.

          Maybe by “send the invoice” he is talking more about who he thinks it’s best to assign primary moral blame to the riots for, rather than a non-moral statement about causality (these two issues often get conflated in discussions of societal problems, like how people who point to US policies that may contribute causally to Islamic extremism are accused of blaming America and letting the terrorists off the hook). And who it’s “best” to assign blame to may be influenced by consequentialist intuitions about what type of blaming is most likely to move things in a positive direction–while rioters may be blameworthy on an individual level, focusing on blaming them may just lead to more excusing of police brutality in the future and consequently perpetuating the cycle, while stopping the rioters but assigning primary moral blame to the high levels of police brutality Baltimore might have a realistic chance of leading to reforms like police body cameras, increased penalties for police who are guilty of brutality, etc. (and blaming even more root causes, like the legacy of slavery and white supremacist ideologies in the US, has little chance of leading to any realistic reforms)

        2. Cerebral Paul Z.

          There’s probably a moral double standard at work here not unlike the one identified in ‘Radicalizing the Romanceless’: In the case of cops, everyone pretty much agrees that no, if you’re a certain kind of person, beating up on defenseless people is its own reward. No root causes needed here!

    4. Jos

      I’ve been at a couple sports riots, and there definitely is a riot tipping point – when people expect a riot, especially far enough in advance that they can road trip to it, you’re more likely to get one.

      Now it’s probably the case that many of the rioters in this case were much angrier than the people in our sports riots, and I’m sure that contributes too.

      … But were I Brutus,
      And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
      Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
      In every wound of Caesar that should move
      The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

  14. Sophie

    Is anyone aware of a program that creates seating arrangements of people around tables based on certain parameters, like Person A and Person B have to be next to each other, Person C and Person D have to be within conversation distance, Person E has to be at the head of the table, etc?

    1. gwern

      Have you looked in Google for such software? I would expect there to be software for this since it’s related to many well-solved optimization and graph problems. For simple seating arrangements, you could just write a short program to generate random seating arrangements and filter out the ones which don’t satisfy your criteria and it’d probably yield perfectly good arrangements within seconds/hours.

    2. Rauwyn

      If you know a little about programming, or want to learn: Try the programming language PROLOG? I used it for a computer science class in college and this seems like the sort of problem it’s designed for; essentially, you tell it what you need your answer (seating chart) to look like and it goes through all the possibilities and returns those which match your requirements.

    3. James Picone

      That problem feels NP-hard to me – the number of possible seating arrangements is proportional to n! (it’s exactly n! if there are different rules for everyone and you can’t rotate solutions (which your ‘head-of-the-table’ example implies)), so it’d depend on how many acceptable solutions there are, which depends on your rules.

      If you’re trying to solve a large instance of this problem, you’re probably not going to be able to get a computer to solve it.

      1. JM

        It is NP-hard in the most general form, because the problem as stated is basically just integer programming CSP.

        (Don’t know why I wrote integer programming instead of CSP the first time. Friggin’ finals…)

      2. nico

        Actually, if you make the assumption that everyone is sitting at some number of round tables (and can therefore only interact with the people to their immediate left and right), then the problem becomes just bipartite matching, which is polynomial.

        1. JM

          “Person C and Person D have to be within conversation distance”

          That suggests interactions go a bit farther that just neigbhors.

        2. James Picone

          Person E has to be at the head of the table

          Round tables have no ‘head’ of the table.

          This is what I was getting at when I discussed not being able to ‘rotate’ solutions and the number of acceptable solutions.

  15. Derelict

    I read your post about Moloch (and the one about “Andrew Cord”) a while back, and you referenced a character called Elua, who was simultaneously the god of everything namby-pamby and somebody you’d want to run away from as fast as possible if you opposed him.

    I haven’t read the Kushiel’s Legacy series, but what exactly does Elua do in the stories (if you don’t mind spoiling it to someone who doesn’t mind being spoiled at) that makes him so fearsome? I seem to remember you mentioned something about turning an evil power’s own forces against them (specifically demonically controlled ants).

    I ask because too often I see people laud gods of “flowers and free love” who are nice on the surface but turn nasty when times get tough, and praise that quality for being “realistic” and “badass” representations of a god of free love and kindness (basically Good Is Not Nice and Good Is Not Soft on TVTropes) even though it completely kills their theme of free love and kindness. I desperately want to believe that Elua isn’t like that, that he’s a Badass Pacifist who defeats his enemies without ever turning nasty at them and thus is actually worthy of being called the god of the things he is. Buuuuut I haven’t read the books to actually know that, nor could I find any information about that on the Internet, so I’m asking.

    1. Bugmaster

      I’ve read Kushiel’s Legacy, because Scott’s recommendation put me over the threshold of “sufficient amount of recommendations for a book I normally wouldn’t read”. I have since then raised the threshold.

      The Elua that Scott talks about is, IMO, not present anywhere in the book.

      (WARNING: minor spoilers)

      No one turns turns an evil power’s own forces against them; at least, not in a major world-altering way. The protagonist succeeds at everything because she is a Mary Sue with a 10/10 rating in every mental and social attribute. Her one weakness is physical combat; which is why, quite early on in the series, she acquires a completely devoted consort whose rating in physical combat is somewhere over 9000. This ensures that, a priori, there exist no situations that the two of them cannot solve by seduction, deduction, induction, or outright decapitation.

      Originally, I expected to dislike the book because of the BDSM sex scenes (since BDSM isn’t my thing), but in fact the sex scenes in the book are pretty mild, and — dare I say it — boring. So, I ended up disliking them after all, albeit for a different reason than I thought I would (though, to be fair, perhaps if I enjoyed BDSM I would think otherwise).

      One feature of the book I did enjoy was the world-building. I thought it was very well executed. I wished there was more of it, and less of all the other stuff.

      Watching the protagonist conquer her enemies through the power of sex (and real-time language translation) is not nearly as interesting as it sounds when she does it for the 20th time in a row — and especially when everyone around her keeps saying, “that protagonist, she is so sexy and smart, we have never seen anyone as sexy or as smart, not in living memory”. It gets old pretty quick.

      1. stillnotking

        Don’t forget the author’s regrettable tendency to cast the non-D’Angeline peoples of her world as foils. Hamfisted, anachronistic social criticism is never far below the surface of the books.

        Despite that, and the rampant Mary Sue-isms, and the fact that the sex scenes are mostly boring or creepy — Carey always refers to the male organ as a “phallus”, which adds a tweedy, unintentional humor to some of them — I thought the novels were entertaining. Her prose style is above adequate (except for all the phalluses), and she certainly understands male sexuality better than the average writer of romances, which, make no mistake, the Kushiel books are. I don’t regret reading them the way I regret reading, say, most of Tom Clancy. I’d recommend them for summer relaxing, or palate-cleansing after something really heavy.

    2. Nornagest

      I’ve read Kushiel’s Legacy. Spoilers for it follow.

      Elua is not, exactly, the god of flowers and free love, although he’s certainly happy with flowers and free love (one of his commandments is “Love as thou wilt”), and comes off as pretty hippie in comparison to the Abrahamic God of the setting (who, by comparison, is pretty Old Testament in style).

      The most concise way I can put it for a LW audience is that he’s the god of the human utility function. His little pantheon is composed of angels and demons (most deriving in some way from Christian or Jewish esoterica) that represent various aspects of that, from artifice to defense to sexuality to sadism. His followers are effective not because of miraculous interventions, but because they’re pursuing goals deeply compatible with their architecture and therefore tend to be pretty good at them.

      (Also because of magic angel blood and, once, the secret name of God — the big scary Pancreator, I mean, not the hippie — but never mind that. The theology gets a little watered down in later books.)

      This is most usefully contrasted against an adversary faction that worships, basically, the Zoroastrian devil, adheres to the ethical system you’d expect with that kind of god, and therefore ends up self-destructing rather spectacularly despite overt divine (demonic?) intervention.

      1. Derelict

        I see. So is Scott making personifications that aren’t actually representative of the symbol he’s ascribing them to, or is it more of an allegorical thing where he tacks those personifications on to create a new symbol? If the latter’s the case, I want to know about the symbol that Scott’s trying to create rather than the character in the books — is Scott’s idea of Elua one who kills his enemies through sheer kindness and cunning, or one who acts nice most of the time but turns to violence and vengeance to become scary when necessary (which sounds like the sort of thing Moloch would want, to be honest)?

        As an aside, would you say that in the books, the only people who really have to be afraid of Elua are factions that are already so twisted, evil, and violent that they’re only one internal conflict away from self-destruction?

        1. Bugmaster

          > So is Scott making personifications that aren’t actually representative of the symbol he’s ascribing them to…

          I think so, yes.

          > And so really, the only people who really have to be afraid of Elua (as he exists in the novels) are factions that are already so twisted, evil, and violent that they’re only one internal conflict away from self-destruction?

          I would agree with that, yes. Also, in the novels, Elua doesn’t even factor as much as his followers, specificially Namaah (roughly speaking, the goddess of sensuality, universal love, and sex); Kushiel (god of S&M, justice and retribution); and Cassiel (god of self-sacrifice, bodyguards, and ass-kicking). Of these, Kushiel actively empowers the protagonist and therefore arguably exists in some sort of a supernatural way; the other “gods” are more like philosophical principles and/or natural processes.

          Other supernatural entities do exist in the novel, and most of them wield readily demonstrable magical powers; but their relationship to Elua and his band of followers is tangential at best.

        2. Nornagest

          As an aside, would you say that in the books, the only people who really have to be afraid of Elua are factions that are already so twisted, evil, and violent that they’re only one internal conflict away from self-destruction?

          Nah, that was just the clearest example. Most of the factions are painted as confused and hung up in various ways, but basically functional and not actually evil (though not so functional or so good as the protagonists).

          Half the first book takes place among, basically, Vikings (well, Iron Age Germanic tribesmen); most of the second takes place in a Venice that was never Christianized. The protagonist looks down on both in various ways, but also makes friends among both.

    3. houseboatonstyx

      @ Derelict
      This reminds me slightly of the difference between Kali and Durga. Durga is a plump grandmother sitting primly on a pacing lion and holding up a sword as though it were a flower, while defeating demons. Some critics say that’s unrealistic, she’s not really engaged; others say that’s a feature, showing how much power she has.

      Kali jumps in, swinging her sword and having fun. http://www.ancient.eu/Kali/

      1. Derelict

        I don’t begrudge Kali her fun — it’s mostly the overt respect people seem to have of that specific quality (nice on the outside, but fearsome if you oppose them) I mentioned that I can’t stand, for whatever reason. An iron fist wearing a velvet glove is still an iron fist.

        Not to mention, Kali doesn’t really personify the trait I was talking about at all — she’s not really the nice-on-the-outside type either. Although I suppose Durga is the pacifist in that

    1. Neike Taika-Tessaro

      In case anyone finds this question at a later date and wants to answer, I’ve stopped checking back to this open thread, but I would really be interested in hearing an answer! 🙂 If you have one and wouldn’t mind contacting me off-site, you can reach me at my gmail address, username pinkgothic, that would be super awesome.

      (If I find an answer via a different avenue, I hope I’ll remember to comment the answer here.)

  16. Robert Liguori

    I’ve got a question about car insurance. As far as I can tell, it buying the minimal car insurance in my home state of North Carolina will cover $30,000 dollars for medical expenses (with a max of twice that per accident). It also looks like this is well over the average actual bodily injury claim, so that the only cases in which this insurance would be insufficient would be an unusually injurious traffic accident.

    Given that the average person only gets into 3 to 5 serious traffic accidents in their lives, if you know that you are not going to drive drunk, drive while using a cell phone, and so forth, does it make sense for you to buy just the minimal car insurance? I ask because it looks like most people in my home state are paying what I’m paying ($90 a month, through Amica, for $250,000/$500,000 insurance).

    Is there some likely scenario I’m not seeing in which I (or the hypothetical average person) would want this level of coverage? $750 a year compounded seems like it would get me to the level of protection from the higher coverage in 40 years, and it seems like I’m unlikely to get into an accident that will cost much more than the standard insurance amount in that time frame.

    So, how do the rationalists here calculate the expected utility of their own car insurance?

    1. grendelkhan

      As I understand it, insurance is a way of protecting yourself from a very big downside by replacing it with a small, predictable downside. Pay O($100) a month to guarantee that you won’t be randomly bankrupted by an O($100k) expense. Plus, you don’t have to wait forty years to actually get that guarantee.

    2. jaimeastorga2000

      Go with the minimum. The government is already forcing you to buy more insurance than you need; no need to pay even more. If the fact that other people are buying more insurance than the minimum bothers you, you might be interested in gwern’s article on console insurance; suffice to say, most people are not exactly rational about insurance.

  17. Mike Street Station

    OK I confess, it’s all my fault. I know why your readership declined.

    Feb 20th I wrote a post naming Slate Star Codex blog of the month. I thought I was complimenting your blog, however it must have backfired, resulting in declining readership.


    1. Citizensearth

      Apparently a whole bunch of people read your blog and do the opposite? You should ask them to definitely not send you any money under any circumstances. 😛

  18. grendelkhan

    I was surprised that this didn’t make much news: back in 2006, there was an MIT/DOE report about building “enhanced geothermal” power plants where that sort of resource was previously unrecoverable. The DOE has since started a project called FORGE to build a research site to develop the idea; the five candidate sites were announced yesterday. I’m excited about this (some people follow railways, some people follow skyscrapers; I follow power plants), but I’ve seen nothing about this in the usually very thorough alternative-energy news.

    Not wind-and-solar enough to be sexy for the anti-nuclear climate hawks, not thorium enough to be sexy for the pro-nuclear climate hawks, and not fracking enough to be sexy for the remaining curmudgeons, maybe?

    1. Tom Womack

      Isn’t EGS absolutely all about the fracking – it’s about processes for breaking up deep hot dry rocks sufficiently that you can use them as in-situ boilers? I suppose it’s difficult to imagine a world in which $60 million of funding from DoE improves the technology of fracking, at which Big Oil has conservatively thrown a hundred times that much already.

      It’s not a process that you can use everywhere, which is going to reduce the sexiness somewhat, but I agree it’s a bit surprising not to see any coverage.

      There’s something suggestive of a non-uniform prior about the way that the five sites include two on the grounds of national laboratories and two inside US Naval Air facilities, but that may just be that those are places where you don’t need permits to drill three-kilometre holes and frack.

      1. Held In Escrow

        It’s like fracking but you’re recycling the water a lot better (because it’s what carries the heat and thus the power) IIRC.

        1. Tom Womack

          I think you’ve got some uses confused here; if you frack for oil, you pump down a small amount (a few million gallons) of high-pressure water with chemically-optimised slime and size-optimised grit in it, once or a few times, and it comes back up the well mixed with the fluids you actually wanted to frack for, at the rate of a few million gallons the first week and maybe a few tens of thousands of gallons a day thereafter.

          If you frack for heat, you start by pumping down the few million gallons, and then you repeatedly pump down very much more water as working fluid for getting the heat up; there probably is an awkward initial phase because amongst the things you don’t want in water going through even the dirty side of a heat-exchanger are chemically-optimised slime and grit

          1. Held In Escrow

            The point I was trying to get at was that with fracking you’re pumping down a bit of water and losing maybe half of it; the objective of EGS is to recover all the water you’re constantly pumping down as it carries the heat back up. As the main cause of concern from fracking is this water lose (and what to do with the dirty water you recover) I think that EGS has a good incentive to be designed in such a way that you don’t lose water.

            This is from cursory knowledge and a few talks with a geologist a while back; I mainly do energy markets, so this is more of a side interest than an area of expertise. Tell me if I’m off base at all here.

      2. Douglas Knight

        Yes, it uses fracking, but it applied to a completely different goal. It is mining heat, not fossil fuels, so it is not at all surprising that fossil fuel companies did not pursue it and that there was low-hanging fruit for others to pursue.

        1. Tom Womack

          I’m not surprised that fossil fuel companies didn’t pursue it; but I would be quite surprised, given the disparity in investments, if the technology for mining heat produced spin-offs particularly useful to the industry that mines fluid.

    2. Wrong Species

      People come up with these alternative fuel ideas all the time. No one is talking about it because they haven’t done anything yet.

    1. Tom Womack

      It sounds deeply implausible, if only because measuring the speed of light without sticking extra apparatus in the middle of the assembly requires a clear light path, and the region they’re saying they’re measuring the speed of light in is inside a large copper shell.

      To the point that my first reaction, if I had the effort which I don’t, would be to try to chase sources to work out who made it up.

      At least the NASA effort to see whether large spinning superconducting discs reduced the force of gravity above them (spoiler: they don’t) provided new technology for the manufacture of large pieces of superconductor.

    2. Emile

      Nope. It’s “source” is page 94 of a long forum thread that verged off-topic, with the “warp” topic already under full discussion for several pages. If they can’t be arsed to dig up the original source, then they’re probably playing Chinese whispers deliberately – is there a name for this kind of “sensationalism through vagueness and obscurity”? (X says something; Y takes a quote out of context and adds some speculation; Z quotes Y out of context and adds some more speculation, etc.)

    3. Luke Somers

      Before getting into sources – just off the physics – this is more credible than the superluminal neutrino kerfluffle a couple years back which happened to be just bad wiring. Take a moment to note the weakness of this endorsement.

      ASSUMING for the rest of this post that it works:

      It’s not a route to a warp drive. I mean, they managed to do a trick which lets them bend space the opposite way from usual, thereby making a tiny region act a little bit lighter than it ought to be… in comparison to the region around it. This caveat wipes out most of the use.

      It’s like… Suppose you’re looking at an egg carton floating on the ocean. The egg carton happens to be heavy enough that the bottom of the inside is noticeably under water. We would like to get more of the carton above water. We are focusing on the bottom of the egg carton and noticing that there’s a dimple. WOW it goes up in one spot! If we made the egg carton 10^7 times bigger, that dimple would be the size of a mountain!

      Well, yes. But making the egg carton 10 million times larger will push the bottom further under water. 10 million times further under water.

      This is not helping.

      So anyway, it’s kind of like that. It’s impressive that they found a dimple, but that doesn’t really help accomplish the flashy headline stuff they’re talking about.

      Now maybe there’s a way around it, but that would involve new physics, in a way that this doesn’t.

      1. Jesse M.

        @Luke Somers:
        “ASSUMING for the rest of this post that it works: It’s not a route to a warp drive. I mean, they managed to do a trick which lets them bend space the opposite way from usual, thereby making a tiny region act a little bit lighter than it ought to be… in comparison to the region around it.”

        Not sure what you mean, you seem to be talking about weight of things in the region, this experiment was about the speed of light in the region. If you can make light move faster than c=299792458 m/s in a local region, presumably you can also in principle make massive objects move faster than c in that region. What’s more, if such an effect still obeys the relativistic principle that the laws of physics should work the same way in different inertial reference frames, then any ability to transmit information FTL in one frame implies the ability to use a system of multiple FTL transmitters with different rest frames to transmit information backwards in time, as explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tachyonic_antitelephone

        So, this would be a huge deal if it held up–either allowing us to violate causality, or disproving the age-old principle that the laws of physics work the same way in all inertial frames–which is a pretty good reason to bet against it.

        1. Luke Somers

          You know you don’t know what I’m talking about, so why do you talk to me about necessary consequences? There would not be any local violations of c.

          The question is, did they induce a region of negative energy density through weird electromagnetic effects vaguely akin to the Casimir Effect but much more intense?

          What would that accomplish? Just as positive energy density (e.g. mass) produces an effect which slows time around it (this is uncontroversial – google “relative speed of clocks at bottom and top of mountains”), a negative energy density would have the opposite effect.

          Of course, this then runs into the problem I described above.

          1. Jesse M.

            “You know you don’t know what I’m talking about, so why do you talk to me about necessary consequences?”

            No, I didn’t in fact know that, I responded to what I thought you meant, as one always does. I’m happy to be corrected if I misunderstood though.

            “Just as positive energy density (e.g. mass) produces an effect which slows time around it (this is uncontroversial – google “relative speed of clocks at bottom and top of mountains”), a negative energy density would have the opposite effect.”

            Ah, I thought you were talking about a higher value of light speed as measured by rulers and clocks inside the region. Yes, it seems negative energy would curve spacetime (without changing the local speed of light, as you said) in such a way as to produce a “time contraction” according to pervect on this thread, who always seems to know his general relativity stuff. But I still think this scenario would allow for causality violations (closed timelike curves), since one could create a localized tube where light travels faster due to the spacetime curvature inside, but outside the tube the spacetime would be flat as in SR, and so you could just apply the spacetime diagram analysis of how a pair of tachyons in SR would violate causality shown here, but with the a pair of negative-energy tubes taking the place of the two tachyon worldlines. This idea of a negative-energy tube where light travels faster might actually be the same as, or at least similar to, a Krasnikov tube, and the wiki article does note that although a single tube wouldn’t lead to causality violations in general relativity, a pair arranged in the right way would be predicted to violate causality, something demonstrated in this paper (see section 4 on p. 9).

    4. James Picone

      Also note the indication that this wasn’t in vacuum at the end of the article – it’s /extremely/ unlikely that any kind of proto-spatial-distortion-thing will be tolerant of atmosphere continually moving across its boundary.

      (The EmDrive thing that they’re testing probably doesn’t actually work, incidentally. I would be very surprised if they got any thrust in vacuum).

    5. Jesse M.

      Even if it’s not pure experimental error, there are plenty of subtle cases in physics where something seems to be moving faster than light, but it turns out to be due to some complicated way in which multiple waves whose peaks each travel at light speed add together (Fourier analysis) to produced a combined wave pulse that moves faster than light, such that this can’t actually be used to transmit information about localized unpredictable events (like a coin flip or a particle decay) any faster than light–see for example http://www.iitk.ac.in/infocell/Archive/dirjuly3/science_light.html and http://phys.org/news73152138.html

      As a simple analogy, imagine you have a bunch of sports fans “doing the wave” on a really long bench. If I am at one end and I want to coordinate them by sending each one a radio signal telling them when to stand, I can time it so that the wave of each person standing moves faster than light. For example, suppose when my clock says 100 seconds I send a signal to a fan 10 light-seconds away (a light-second is the distance light travels in a second, akin to a light-year), so the signal will reach them and they’ll stand up when my clock reads 110 seconds (I won’t actually see them stand until later, but imagine I have multiple clocks at different locations which are synchronized in my frame of reference). But if a bit earlier when my clock said 95 seconds, I sent a signal to a fan 20 light-seconds away, then that fan will stand when my clock reads 115 seconds. So a film will show the two fans standing in sequence only 5 seconds apart according to my clocks, even though the distance between them is 10 light-seconds, thus “the wave” created by multiple fans standing up in sequence can travel twice the speed of light even though each of my individual radio signals telling fans to stand only traveled at the speed of light.

    6. John Schilling

      The underlying EMdrive almost certainly doesn’t work at all, so working as a warp drive is exceedingly unlikely.

      1. I was at the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference when Brady et al released their test results. I’ve also used the particular model of thrust stand they did. In the hands of an expert, it has a resolution of about ten micronewtons steady-state. The lack of description of experimental procedure, or prior published work by any of the authors using that thrust stand, suggests that they have no specific experience with the model but just borrowed the nearest available “micronewton thrust stand” and had at it. They claim measured thrust of 30-50 micronewtons, well within the bounds for experimental error for a non-expert user.

      2. They claim that it produces 30-50 micronewtons – “Hey, measured thrust, greater than the ten micronewton nominal accuracy of the device, yay us!” – with or without the asymmetric grooves carved into the inner surface. When the underlying theory says it should produce about 10,000 mN with the groves and zero thrust without.

      3. If the EMdrive actually did work the way they say it does, it would be a perpetual motion machine. And not just in abstract theory. Just work out whatever glitches are keeping you from getting the 10,000 mN of thrust you are supposed to be getting, and put two EMdrives on the ends of a 10-meter boom spinning in a vacuum chamber. Couple the shaft of the boom to a dynamo, spin up to a few hundred m/s, use the dynamo to power the EMdrives, and you’ll have enough juice left over to run a 100-watt light bulb.

      Now that would be a convincing demo.

      1. Luke Somers

        The idea they’re nominally testing is several orders of magnitude less likely to work than the space-bending effect they just claimed.

        Space bending doesn’t violate anything in particular. Space is bent all the time. Usually the other way… *cough*… but the theories are set up to accommodate such things.

        Spontaneous violation of conservation of momentum? Not…. so… much.

  19. Nancy Lebovitz

    A psyhotherapist is explaining why medical costs are out of control in the US as a problem of coordinative communication– no one believes that it costs time/money/effort for people to keep each other informed, and since it isn’t accounted for, the costs accumulate.

    If you liked this, consider contributing to Siderea’s Patreonso there can be more like it.

    1. Deiseach

      I cannot resist the old joke:

      Do you like Kipling?

      I don’t know, I’ve never kippled!

      1. Charlie

        Oh, it’s easy. You just turn into a herring, open yourself up and throw out your guts, take a quick rinse and salt dip and then throw yourself into the smoker.

    2. US

      (Mathematician’s answer:) Yes. It seems unlikely that one of the standard deviations involved are zero.

      (Sorry, but in general I like to discourage people asking questions like these because it seems to me that very often the question people think they’re asking is not the question they’re actually asking. It seems to me that people in general might become slightly less confused about statistics if the people who know better were to focus more on potential mechanisms/causal pathways and less on meaningless variables like ‘correlations‘ when asking questions.)

      1. David Friedman

        I asked whether there was a correlation, not whether there was a correlation coefficient. In common usage, “is there any correlation” means “is the correlation coefficient positive.”

        Speculation about causal pathways had occurred to me, but I first wanted more information on whether there was a pattern to be explained. My casual impression was there there was, since one of the first people I met at the Palo Alto LW party was a fellow fan of Kipling’s poetry, which most people are not. But that’s a very small sample.

        Also, I would have thought that a mathematician would realize that “one” is singular.

        1. US

          🙂 I’m not a mathematician (you can google ‘mathematician’s answer’ if you’re not familiar with this concept/trope), and English is not my first language.

          “Speculation about causal pathways had occurred to me, but I first wanted more information on whether there was a pattern to be explained.”

          My point would be that finding a correlation would tell you next to nothing anyway, so you might as well go straight to the causal pathways.
          I think that although it’s a very common practice, it’s in general not a good idea to go hunt for correlations which can then later be ‘decomposed’ or ‘explained’.

          Sometimes when identifying causal pathways is expensive you do want to do preliminary data analyses first in order not to waste resources hunting ghosts, but in most contexts it seems to me that testing/evaluating models which do not have a firm theoretical foundation (or at least *some* theoretical foundation) is a bad idea. Burnham and Anderson’s book on model selection has had a big impact on my thinking in regards to these and related matters, if you want to know where I’m coming from (and are perhaps familiar with their work), though I’m perhaps less permissive of data dredging in preliminary analyses than they are. There’s a very strong argument to be made that variables like adjusted R^2s and correlation coefficients are poor variables to apply in a model selection context and that these variables should not be used for model selection and instead restricted to description only.

        2. Deiseach

          I think I’d consider Kipling more of a very competent versifier than a poet (I’d class Chesterton’s verse the same, just to show that it’s not all personal bias on my part). I wouldn’t be an enthusiast, I have to say.

          Ack! My poetry tastes have fallen away so much, I have no idea who the modern poets are, nor read any of their work. I really will have to get on that again!

          1. David Friedman

            Elliot argued that Kipling was mostly writing verse not poetry, but that some of what he wrote was actually poetry, I think great poetry.

            I would disagree with Deiseach on both Kipling and Chesterton. Some of GKC’s work, such as the Horrible History of Jones, I would classify as doggerel, but not Lepanto or The Ballad of the White Horse.

            Almost none of Kipling’s work strikes me as doggerel. And there is a sense in which he was much more modern than most of those called modern poets, since he used features of the modern world as both subjects and metaphors. Consider “Hymn to Breaking Strain,” where the central image is the table of breaking strains at the back of an engineering textbook. Cummings does a little of that (“Lenses extend/Unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish/Returns on its unself”) but I can’t think of any equivalent in, say, Frost.

            Do you know “The Mary Gloster?” I think it’s the best of the Browning monologs–and by Kipling. If that isn’t poetry, are Browning’s?

          2. Aaron Brown

            I have a rough idea of what people mean when they contrast poetry with verse (or doggerel) but I’d be interested in SSC people taking stabs at explaining the difference.

            (My rough idea: Great poetry can rhyme and scan without constantly reminding you of how hard the author had to work to get it to rhyme and scan.)

          3. FacelessCraven

            my understanding would be that doggeral lets the ryhme dictate words and images, where “good poetry” picks images, finds good words to convey them, and then fits them into rhyme.

            There’s also a sense that the subject matter of doggeral is base, common, vulgar, not worthy of serious contemplation.

          4. David Friedman

            What Eliot meant, as best I recall, was that verse was intended to get all of its effect at the first reading. You could reread to get the effect again, or to figure out how it was produced, but not to see deeper into the work.

            Poetry, on the other hand, did not give its full effect on one reading.

            It didn’t strike me either as a good distinction or a description of what was different about Kipling’s work.

          5. Deiseach

            Oh, I’m not saying all their works are doggerel, let me make that clear!

            But there is a difference between competent verse and poetry. Chesterton and Kipling both hit poetry at times (funnily enough, Chesterton strikes me as more poetically successful in his prose, which may have to do with his early training as an art student; that obviously left him with an eye for tone and colour and subtle effects) but some of it is simply verse: rollicking good rhyming verse, but not poetry.

            So what is poetry? Ah, that’s a whole other question 🙂

      2. Douglas Knight

        To put it in concrete terms, SSC readers are more likely to like Kipling than the average American because they read more. Whether they like Kipling more than the average reader is dominated by whether they like poetry more than the average reader. Neither of these observations is interesting.

        1. James

          I seem to recall seeing Kipling’s poetry mentioned on a neoreactionary reading list of some kind. Insofar as there’s a known overlap between neoreaction and rationalist circles, this might point to at least a slightly more substantial connection than this.

    3. James

      I bought a cheap secondhand paperback of Kipling’s poetry recently because of noticing him popping up in these sorts of circles (whatever that means). I’m no great reader of poetry, but I like the poetry insofar as it’s strong on the traditional, easy-to-appreciate merits of poetry, like rhyme and metre. Something like Gods of the Copybook Headings is a very powerful expression of a worldview that is deeply antithetical to my lefty, progressive intuitions. But I feel like it’s healthy to encounter powerful expressions of things to which you’re constitutionally antithetical every so often.

      I like Orwell’s essay on him a lot.

      1. Ilya Shpitser

        What did you find antithetical to your progressive intuitions in that poem? (Honest question.)

        1. James

          Roughly, the intuition is that it’s possible to improve our lot through something like the standard leftie projects – redistributing wealth, fighting oppression, and what-have-you. The antithetical claim that I read the poem as making is that there exist certain ineluctable forces (Moloch?) that doom these efforts to fail.

          I don’t think I believe the strong form of this view, but I guess it’s true in some weak form.

        2. FacelessCraven

          @Ilya – “What did you find antithetical to your progressive intuitions in that poem? (Honest question.)”

          Now you’ve got me curious. The poem to me seems entirely hostile to progressive thought. Do you see it differently? Also an honest question, because if so, I’d imagine hearing your take would be fascinating. It’s one of my favorite poems as well.

          Kipling is probably 90% responsible for my interest in poetry.

          1. Ilya Shpitser

            Caveat: the author is both figuratively and literally dead.

            My take is that the economy/society is a big system, and we want it to do certain things for us. Progressives want it to do one set of things (e.g. help the poor, give people a safety net, provide for worker safety, etc. etc.) Conservatives want it to do another set of things (e.g. make it easier to start a business, reward based on merit, etc. etc.)

            As a big system, economy/society has certain laws it follows (descriptive laws, just as laws of physics are descriptive). Laws like “people follow incentives,” “you can get emergent bad outcomes, Moloch style,” “if you conjure a bureaucracy to solve a coordination problem for you, it will start implementing its own goals, not yours,” etc. In implementing your program, progressive or otherwise, you need to be mindful of these, on pain of doing the opposite of what you want, or doing things inefficiently.

            My view of this poem is that it is reminding us to respect the laws the system follows, even if we don’t like them, as we go about getting it to do what we want it to do.

          2. Susebron

            I think the anti-progressive thing is a combination of skepticism of anything that promises good stuff, and the specific sets of maxims he’s endorsing. “The wages of sin are death.”

        3. Bugmaster

          Personally, I think that Gods of the Copybook Headings exemplifies the essence of conservatism. The titular “Copybook Headings” refer to children’s calligraphy exercise books, which used maxims and proverbs (perhaps such as “The Wages of Sin is Death”) as examples. Kipling is saying that these maxims are timeless and undeniable; that any attempts to circumvent them are doomed to failure; and that such attempts are most likely motivated by stupidity, greed, and other cognitive/moral defects.

          Progressive thought, on the other hand, states that the Copybook Headings aren’t all that great, and that it is our duty to change them, in order to build a better world. This is the kind of thought that Kipling explicitly argues against. Which is a little ironic, since when I first read the poem, I had to look up “Copybook Headings” to see what that term even meant.

          That said, I think that Kipling’s sentiment can be compatible with progressive thought, if one interprets it a little more weakly. We could presume that the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” represent laws of nature, as opposed to moral principles — though it’s very likely that Kipling himself did not make that distinction.

          In this case, “Water will wet us”, and “Fire will burn”, so if you base your actions in life on repeatedly sticking your bare hand in the fire, you will fail — regardless of how much you’d like to believe otherwise. On the other hand, perhaps the fact that “the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire” is something that we can change, however gradually…

          1. Jaskologist

            If Copybook Headings isn’t a succinct statement of “progressivism is bad,” I’m not sure what is. How can anybody read that as not hostile to leftist thought?

            The Mother Hive is, in many ways, the same thing in short story form. Kipling would have embedded himself firmly in the modern conservative movement today; indeed, I first encountered Mother Hive in Russel Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader.

          2. Ilya Shpitser

            Consider that the statement “Progressivism is bad” is kind of stupid and needs unpacking. Why is that statement worth saying? Why would someone as smart as Kipling bother saying it?

            Even if Kipling is your ideological foe (which he isn’t — since he is not your contemporary he is not even playing in the same stadium), he’s not an evil mutant.

            Saying that Kipling thought “progressivism is bad” is sort of like saying Tolkien thought we shouldn’t build FAI because he was nostalgic for an idealized past. You can’t just take these people out of their context and extrapolate away.

          3. Bugmaster

            FWIW, I do not consider myself to be a “progressivist” by any means, but I think it’s pretty obvious that Kipling — or, at least, his opinion as expressed in the poem — is opposed to progressivism to the maximum extent possible.

            Progressive ideology basically states that human nature could and should be changed, and that many of the moral precepts of our ancestors are in fact immoral, and should be modified or discarded. These are all of the things that Kipling explicitly opposes. Of course, saying that Kipling opposes these ideas is not the same thing as saying he’s right…

          4. FacelessCraven

            @Ilya Shpitser – “Consider that the statement “Progressivism is bad” is kind of stupid and needs unpacking. Why is that statement worth saying?”

            One might argue that Progressivism’s fundamental axioms are false, that man is not infinitely or even very greatly malleable, that we are not free to reinvent civilization as we please, that things are the way they are for fairly deterministic reasons, and wishing they were otherwise is a waste of time and effort and will only make things objectively worse. It seems at least plausible that “Gods of the Copybook Headings” is in fact making those exact arguments.

            “Saying that Kipling thought “progressivism is bad” is sort of like saying Tolkien thought we shouldn’t build FAI because he was nostalgic for an idealized past. You can’t just take these people out of their context and extrapolate away.”

            Kipling specifically names “Social Progress” as the theology of the Gods of the Marketplace. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that “Social Progress” and modern Progressivism are even separate movements, much less unrelated ones.

          5. David Friedman

            “We could presume that the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” represent laws of nature, as opposed to moral principles — though it’s very likely that Kipling himself did not make that distinction. ”

            I would have thought it was obvious that, in that poem, he is describing what he considers laws of nature. The point in each case is not “this change is wicked” but “this change doesn’t work, has bad consequences.”

          6. Ilya Shpitser

            “Progressive ideology basically states that human nature could and should be changed”

            “that man is not infinitely or even very greatly malleable”

            My reading of Kipling’s intent is that yes, he would oppose above. I agree!

            I don’t think he opposes values, (or at least its much harder to me to read that from the text), I think he might be opposing certain empirical claims. Even if you read opposition-from-values from the text in some way, you then run into ‘evil mutants’ territory. I don’t read ‘evil mutant’ from Kipling based on what I know of his life.

            “Social Progress” is about goals (e.g. its progress if we no longer discriminate against black people, abolish colonialism, women vote, etc. These were live issues around Kipling’s time) “Human nature malleability” is about means, and has empirical content.

      2. David Friedman

        Orwell’s essay is in some ways impressive, but it’s worth noticing that Orwell was apparently unaware of the existence of _Kim_, Kipling’s one really successful novel. And while I believe one can support his claim of a sadistic strain (consider “The Rhyme of the Three Captains”), I think the evidence Orwell cites is of realism, not sadism.

    4. Emile

      I don’t like most English-language poetry (I have a book of American verse, and I find most of it completely uninteresting), but I do like Kipling, Tolkien and Poe’s verse, and know several of their poems by heart (I recite’em to my kids to get ’em to sleep, despite the fact that they don’t understand English).

      If anybody has similar tastes (likes Kipling, Poe, Tolkien but not Whitman) I’d be interested in other poetry recommendations 🙂

      I don’t expect much of a correlation between that and “lesswrongishness” once you correct for education level and/or love of reading.

      1. Tom Womack

        Is what you like basically the formal metricness of it all? In which case I would suggest Swinburne (perfectly polished beautiful word-smithery, though often not _saying_ very much), Chesterton (Lepanto is one of my great loves) and Housman (I would recommend reading late Housman only when more cheerful than usual)

        1. Deiseach

          Swinburne is an amazing versifier, which is part of his problem; he has no problem reeling off reams and reams of perfectly rhyming verse, but there’s nothing much there beyond beautiful sound 🙂

          “Atalanta in Calydon” really is his best work, though I’m fond of Dolores and where we both meet in mutual sympathy is that Swinburne loves the sea, as I do.

      2. Larry Kestenbaum

        I do like Kipling, Tolkien and Poe’s verse, and know several of their poems by heart (I recite’em to my kids to get ‘em to sleep, despite the fact that they don’t understand English).

        I also recited poetry to get my daughter to sleep, starting when she was a baby and couldn’t understand the words.

        I don’t know any Kipling by heart, but my repertoire does include some Poe and Tolkien.

        I started memorizing poetry, not in school, but in an unsuccessful attempt to impress a girl.

        1. David Friedman

          Before my daughter was old enough to speak, I used the Rubaiyat to get her to sleep while carrying her. The first evidence we had that she understood any speech was that, when I said “Wake, for the sun” she would put her head down on my shoulder–she knew that meant she was supposed to go to sleep. Not that she did.

          Later, I put her to slip to “Horatius at the Bridge.” The result, when we were driving somewhere one evening, was a little voice from the back seat:

          “Larth Porthena of Cluthium, by the nine gods …”

          Nowadays she points out the mistakes in my memory of various poems.

    5. Fibs

      What, you mean to imply there are people somewhere out there who *aren’t* fans of Kiplings poetry? I’m shocked, Sir. Shocked!

      But it’s good poetry. The Benefactors is neat and I’m quite fond of the Hymn of Breaking Strain, just to mention two at the top of my head.

      I’m not sure you’d find a casual correlation that somehow implies something about the people liking the stuff – does liking Kipling’s poetry imply something about my personality, for instance? If I read the Junglebook or Kim does it make me… Well, yeah. What does that make me? I mean, what’s the specific correlating factor? Library availability or unstuck K keys on a keyboard?

      Sorry, I think you might possibly be asking a different question than you’re asking. Are there certain themes in Kipling’s general works that have some more thematic resonance with a certain set of mind? Probably.

      1. David Friedman

        “The Hymn of Breaking Strain” is one of my favorites, but I think “The Mary Gloster” may be his best poem. I love what he does with meter in “The Last Suttee.”

        Part of what I was thinking is that the main reason not to like Kipling is a slightly out of date PC attitude—”horrible imperialist racist”—unlikely to be common in the rationalist community. It’s hard to maintain that image after reading _Kim_, but I expect most people with that attitude haven’t read it.

        But the other basis for my question was encountering another Kipling fan at a LW party. Modern people who like and know poetry are rare, and Kipling isn’t what one is likely to see much of in college courses.

        1. Bugmaster

          Kim is one of my favorite books of all time. I personally find it very hard to think of Kipling as a “horrible imperialist racist” after reading Kim; “a humanist ahead of his time” would be a better description. However, I am reasonably certain that, according to the modern social justice sensibilities, the book is would be called at least “problematic”, if not outright “racist”, for oh so many reasons.

          Just to name one example, this is a book written by a straight white male British imperialist about the native culture of the people of color whom Britain is actively oppressing; as such, it is a giant example of cultural appropriation, and therefore racist (assuming, that is, that you subscribe to the social justice worldview).

          1. Jaskologist

            Ok, now that we have some Kim fans, maybe you can all explain something to me:

            There’s a scene where the guy is training/testing Kim, and he either breaks a pot and makes it appear whole or the other way around. What the heck is happening there?

            (I enjoyed the book overall, but felt like it ended rather abruptly. Maybe he was hoping to write some sequels.)

          2. Bugmaster

            Ok, so first of all, SPOILERS !

            But secondly, I don’t think we the readers are supposed to be able to answer that question; this fact is, in a way, one of the central themes of the book.

            Does the old man have magic powers ? Or did he just hypnotize Kim ? Or is Kim imagining things ? The answer matters to us, but to Kim, it is irrelevant. It is what it is.

            Does the magical river that the monk is trying to find really exist ? Is it really magical ? This is not a question that Kim even considers; he is ready to follow the old man regardless, because doing so is a holy act in and of itself.

            You might argue that such a worldview is wrong, or inefficient, or whatever; but I think that Kipling does a very good job of presenting it in a way that is clear, engaging, and reasonably unbiased (despite being, you know, an evil British straight white male oppressor and stuff).

          3. David Friedman

            “Does the old man have magic powers ? Or did he just hypnotize Kim ?”

            I think that in the book, hypnotism is the old man’s magical power. It isn’t quite the same as real world hypnotism, but that’s what it is modeled on. And Kim, perhaps because his white blood makes him a little less vulnerable to that sort of magic, succeeds with some difficulty in resisting it.

            I don’t think Kipling tries to restrict himself in his fiction to true facts. I think it quite unlikely, for example, that if a wagon wheel touches a sleeping dog the dog will get out of the way before the wheel crushes him, or even that Kipling believed it. But pretending that that was true works as conveying an image of how good the reflexes of the fictional wolves in _The Jungle Book_ are.

  20. LTP

    I wonder if there’s a name for this, or if at least some people here can relate.

    I sometimes call myself apolitical because I don’t have many *positive* political beliefs or convictions. Oh sure, if a ballot measure comes up I know how I’ll vote, but I don’t feel *that* strongly about it, usually.

    And yet, I do have very many and strong *negative* political beliefs. Basically, I’m anti-left, particularly of the radical (of one degree or another) sort. There is something that is just so repellent about that point of view. I could engage with a neo-monarchist and not feel much more than mild annoyance on a bad day, and yet people like Ta-Neihisi Coates (sp?) or the Jacobin magazine folks, or most forms of internet social justice, for example, just make my blood boil even when I try to be charitable (ETA: sometimes even when I have leanings in their direction, even!). I would almost call it triggering, occasionally I’ll have literal panic attacks after reading this stuff. This is especially weird because I’m very blue tribe in my personal behavior and social values (“social” in the sense of how I treat people in and what I value in my personal relationships and communities, not in the sense of “society”).

    I’ve actually known people who were the inverse of me: anti-right but not really pro-anything. I’ve never met people like me offline, though.

    I usually just refrain from expressing my anti-left-ness because I fear people will assume I’m very red tribe in my non-political beliefs and behaviors when I’m not.

    Can anyone relate to this?

    1. Nita

      I can anti-relate: I see radical leftists as misguided, yet sympathetic, but tend to get annoyed by neoreactionaries and such.

      It might be because I associate the former with “Justice Is Very Important”, and the latter with “Crush the Weak and the Weird for the Greater Good!” (nrx) or “I Do What I Want” (libertarians).

      Or it might be because I’ve never talked to a radical leftist in real life, while nationalists, traditionalists and libertarians are easy to find, so they seem like a more credible threat.

      1. Wrong Species

        You have never met a radical leftists in real life but have met a self-proclaimed white nationalist? I have a very hard time believing that.

        1. Nita

          I mean ordinary, ethnic nationalists, not “white nationalists” (they probably do believe in the superiority of white people as well, but their primary loyalty is to “their” people, specifically).

          I’ve also met an outspoken racist, but he was more anti-black than pro-white — you know, complaining that there are too many “monkeys” in Brussels and such (it was a Russian dude working for a big pharma company, so he went on a lot of business trips).

        2. Whatever happened to Anonymous

          Missing, possibly relevant information:

          I think Nita is from Eastern Europe.

    2. Alexander Stanislaw

      This isn’t unique. A quick perusal of Friendly Atheist, the politics section of Fox News or many other partisan sources (I daresay most), will reveal that much of politics involves bashing the weakest arguments of your enemies or pointing them out at their worst. Making positive policy suggestions is rare because it is difficult.

    3. onyomi

      I can relate to having more in common culturally and temperamentally with the blue tribe and yet feeling my blood boil when I read leftist tracts. That said, I have more distinct political views than it sounds like you have.

      The problem with the social justice warriors is obvious, but I’m curious, can you point to a specific quality or qualities in the writing of less willfully inflammatory leftists which trigger you (I can think of many examples in my own case, but curious to hear what it is you think is bothering you, specifically)?

      1. LTP

        Hrm, I feel like it is a lot of things.

        Part of it certainly is being born and raised in the most blue-tribe place in the my region of the US, where I’ve seen a lot of the mindless tribalism, the inconsistencies, the smugness, the social signalling reasons for being leftist, etc. among blue-tribe people in the real world which makes a lot of leftist arguments often seem fake and disingenuous to me, though I totally recognize that this is unfair and uncharitable.

        I think the biggest part of it is that there’s a utopianism underlying most leftism, even if only implicitly, which implies very unreasonable moral demands and judgments on society and individuals. Often I think the implication is that if you’re privileged in your society (as I am, being a white male American with upper middle class parents) then unless you devote your life to leftist activism you’re a bad person. When a leftist says society is “unjust”, they are saying it is unjust compared to a utopian society. Note that this isn’t just SJW who say this, but marxists, socialists, environmentalists, and even the non-SJW social justice people as well. No matter what form of leftism you’re talking about, there is underlying it a theory of an all pervasive system that is evil and oppressive. This means that pretty much everything I value, and even my own existence, is morally corrupt. And furthermore, because I’m in a privileged position, I can’t even argue against the existence of the system, or even merely the kind of system the leftist proposes, effectively because either I’m obviously opposed for selfish reasons or can’t see my invisible privilege. I cannot be a good person in my society, is the upshot, unless I devote my life to toppling the system in some way. Furthermore, my moral intuitions (I have stronger moral intuitions than political ones) just are so different that those that leads people down that line of reasoning, so I don’t even think it’s true.

        I guess, in a way, I find leftism very dehumanizing and reductive (in the bad sense of the word) about human life, morality, and politics, and how these things relate to my life as a privileged (by their definitions) person (though I also think it can be dehumanizing about non-privileged people, too, especially those that are inconvenient for their ideology); it tells me my life is inherently morally corrupt; and, I can’t even defend myself against them (in their eyes) or have a discussion because their ideology has defenses against that built into it.

        ETA: Plus, I have a very strong negative reaction to many of the political tactics that happen to be much more common on the left, and even valorized by the left: disruptive protests, riots, public shaming, “education” that doesn’t involve any nuance or non-strawman dissenting views, etc.

        Finally, exacerbating all this, because some form of leftism is very prominent in my local blue-tribe community, it’s not some theoretical thing I only run into online. I can’t simply turn off my computer and be secure that I’ll very likely never have to reckon with it in my life and personal relationships with people in my day-to-day (unlike, say, radical feminism or neoreactionaries).

        Note, that in less inflammatory leftism much of this is at least partially implicit, or couched in nicer language, but it is still definitely there.

        I feel like that was rambling, I’ve never tried to put what is behind those emotions into words. I hope that gives you an idea of what’s behind them. What about your case? I’m curious about that.

        1. onyomi

          I feel pretty similarly to you, though I did grow up in a family of moderate-ish Republicans in the South, and my grandfather was really into Ayn Rand (though I didn’t really know much about that till after I had already become a libertarian through other channels), so I don’t think there was as much of a “rebelling against” quality for me, though I have certainly been exposed to massive amounts of leftist thinking since living in New England for several years going to grad school in the humanities.

          For me, it’s just that, ever since I was first exposed to Libertarianism (Harry Browne), it has seemed blindingly, obviously correct to me. Not only on ethical grounds, but it seemed obvious to me that all the empirical evidence pointed to more libertarian societies being more successful. The fact that people in places like Detroit could still be voting for Democrats just beggars belief to me.

          Moreover, even before that, it always seemed intuitively obvious to me that rights of freedom of association should be pretty much absolute, and that it was outrageous to think that just because some people voted therefore you couldn’t enter into a voluntary agreement with someone to (pay for sex, buy drugs, pay less than the minimum wage, hire a non-union worker…).

          I think deep down what irks me especially is being treated like a child. I didn’t like being treated like a child even when I was a child, and I like it even less now. I once thought to summarize it: “The GOP wants to be your dad, the democrats want to be your mom, and the libertarians want to treat you like an adult.”

          Added to this is a kind of coy obscurantism I notice is very common among leftist intellectuals (see my comments on Adorno et al elsewhere in this same open thread) that really pisses me off. It’s like, if your ideas are so great then express them clearly and unequivocally.

          I am also disgusted by the more mainstream left’s blatant appeal to emotion and ignorance on the part of the general public: if you are against the affordable care act that must mean you want care to be unaffordable, etc.

          I also can’t stand identity politics and the sort of “victim olympics” that seems to have arisen.

          Mainstream GOPers sometimes make my blood boil, mostly when they are calling people “isolationists” for not wanting to bomb the hell out of everywhere, or when they are elevating what I consider to be minor social issues to the level that they determine the outcome of an election (though leftwing bullying of “intolerant” right wingers has recently reached the level where I feel more sympathy for the people who just didn’t want to make a gay wedding cake).

          And there’s the willingness to overlook repugnant means (the potential for violence and/or imprisonment implied by every law) in order to achieve desirable ends, as well as the hubris that says they always know what is best for everyone–again, treating people like children. Am reminded of this comic:


          Replace “eugenics” with all utopian ideas about what society “should” look like.

          1. Jesse M.

            “Not only on ethical grounds, but it seemed obvious to me that all the empirical evidence pointed to more libertarian societies being more successful.”

            Leaving all ethical questions like “should people have the right to any voluntary associations they want?” aside, I think there is pretty decent empirical evidence that in terms of quality-of-life issues like health and crime and social mobility, people tend to be better off in states that use more progressive tax systems to reduce inequality, see for example the various charts towards the bottom of this article: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/29/ill-fares-the-land/

          2. Alexander Stanislaw

            it always seemed intuitively obvious to me that rights of freedom of association should be pretty much absolute

            Earnest question, do you think that racial segregation should be legal? For example that private businesses should have the right to only allow people of a certain race to say rent an apartment?

            If not how do you square that with absolute freedom of association?

          3. onyomi

            Yes, I think private individuals should be able to choose to associate or not associate with anyone on the basis of any criteria whatsoever. That IS freedom of association. Telling someone they can’t own a business that only sells to people with red hair named Paul is at odds with freedom of association.

            That said, I am, of course, against any *laws* enforcing racial or any other type of segregation as that would also be at odds with freedom of association. The law should neither say whom you must associate with nor whom you may not associate with.

          4. Jesse M.

            “it was outrageous to think that just because some people voted therefore you couldn’t enter into a voluntary agreement with someone to (pay for sex, buy drugs, pay less than the minimum wage, hire a non-union worker…).”

            What would you say about a voluntary agreement to take a job under the condition that you vote for a certain politician? And what if all the good jobs available have such requirements, so the choice is basically one between accepting such an agreement or being poor?

          5. onyomi

            @Jesse M, I don’t see why I would want to adjust my commitment to freedom of association under those circumstances, though I also don’t see how those circumstances could ever obtain in the absence of a law of some kind enforcing them.

          6. Cauê

            The thing with “what if all would-be options had the same unsavory restriction” is that, if that’s true, then this is a society that thinks those restrictions are acceptable, and would probably create laws that agree with this.

            If, however, this society has enough people who disagree with the restriction that it would be possible for laws to be made against it, then it also has enough people who will spontaneously offer options without the restriction.

            (the picture can be complicated in some ways, such as federal laws against local customs, but in general this kind of hypothetical scenario feels like cheating)

          7. Jesse M.


            “I also don’t see how those circumstances could ever obtain in the absence of a law of some kind enforcing them”

            Do you mean you think this would only happen given a law saying that all companies must require employees to agree to vote for a particular candidate? If so I disagree, it doesn’t seem particularly implausible that most major companies would choose to adopt such hiring requirements in the absence of any laws for or against it, since there’d be very little downside to doing so (assuming a culture in which there are large numbers of qualified applicants that don’t object to such contracts) but a potential major upside in being able to tilt elections in favor of politicians who would do things to those corporations’ benefit, like spending more tax money on corporate welfare, striking down laws against pollution, etc.

            For another example, would you be fine with it being legal for people to voluntary sign away their freedoms to become slaves, even if the people who did this were typically doing so out of desperation? (say, because it was in the midst of a depression and they were facing starvation)

          8. onyomi

            Firstly, I’m not really sure why the issue of voting, specifically, is relevant. Couldn’t it just be any weird condition on employment, like, say, “if you work for us you must always wear a funny hat in public”?

            Second, in the absence of a law enforcing uniformity (that is, foreclosing the option of doing otherwise), there will *always* be a downside of putting weird conditions on employment–namely that weird conditions are a disutility imposed on the employee. All things equal, an employer is going to have to pay an employee at least a little bit more to do job x+accept weird condition than just to do job x.

            In the case of the vote buying scenario, the question is, is the employee’s single vote worth as much as the additional money the employer will need to pay to get him/her to accept this condition? In most cases I’d imagine the answer is no, though I don’t see it as a huge problem if it isn’t. Moreover, I’m not even sure this is illegal right now in the US. Is it? Regardless, even if a particular type of free association threw a big wrench in democracy, which I don’t think this would, I would still not favor curtailing free association for that reason, because I’m not in favor of democracy (because a majority of people voting to force the minority to do something doesn’t make it right).

            As for the “can you sell yourself into slavery” question, I would say that, in theory, yes you can, just as I’d be okay with you selling your organs, though I think most decent societies, with states or without, would not uphold more extreme versions of such contracts (say, you sold yourself into indefinite servitude as a desperate teenager and now you’re 40 but your “master” won’t allow you the possibility of buying back your freedom), due to, perhaps, failure of consideration.

          9. David Friedman

            I don’t think the vote buying case is a simple issue of freedom of contract. The votes are being cast somewhere. Assume, for simplicity, they are electing a politician, and assume we regard the polity in question as a morally legitimate actor (if not, switch to a vote used to decide some decision by a private actor entitled to make it—say what subject Scott will post on next week).

            The polity sets its voting rules. One rule might be “you are not allowed to vote in this election unless you are voting for your own preferred candidate—purchased votes are not allowed.” Someone who sells his vote and still casts it is violating the terms on which he is associating with the polity.

            Again, if you want to make the argument cleaner by avoiding the question of whether a government has the right to exist, let alone to make voting rules, suppose Scott announces that he will decide which of two topics to post on next on the basis of a vote, but that the condition for voting is that your vote has not been purchased.

          10. onyomi

            This is a good point. This problem can be circumvented fairly easily by changing the terms on which the voting (private or public) is allowed, rather than the allowable terms of private contracts.

            Also, given that all voting in US elections is secret, I’m not sure how a firm could verify that an employee was voting for the right person anyway. That is, the mechanics of voting in the US seem already to largely preclude such a problem.

          11. Harald K

            “…a society that thinks those restrictions are acceptable, and would probably create laws that agree with this.

            If, however, this society has enough people who disagree with the restriction that it would be possible for laws to be made against it, then it also has enough people who will spontaneously offer options without the restriction.

            This is something Libertarians do sadly often. Entirely discount costs and difficulties of coordination, and assuming that if society has found a way of coordinating (e.g. laws against discrimination), then coordination must have been trivial to achieve in other ways.

            I’ll tell you a fable. There once was a libertarian economist who had the great idea of issuing bonds for outcomes. “I can decide what should be done. Then I leave to the market to decide how to best achieve it!”, he said.

            He wanted a ditch dug in a field. To this purpose, he auctioned off bonds saying: “I will pay 100$ to the holder of this bond, if at this date, an adequate ditch has been dug on my property.” With some legalese, of course, to ensure he got a good ditch.

            Some young men heard of this, and they thought “great! we can dig that ditch no problem!”. Together, they managed to buy all the bonds at a low price, and they set off to town to buy shovels. But then they heard the economist shouting at them from the distance: “No no, you silly people, what are you wasting money on shovels for? The bonds will ensure that the ditch will get dug! You don’t need them!”

          12. Jaskologist

            What would you say about a voluntary agreement to take a job under the condition that you vote for a certain politician?

            Isn’t it precisely the purpose of Eich et al. to condition employment on voting the correct way? What you call a nightmare scenario, I call social justice.

          13. James Picone

            “To work here you must vote for candidate X” is qualitatively different to “To work here you must not support policy Y”, although they’re both bad.

          14. Cauê

            Harald, I don’t see how your post is an answer to mine… If a [democratic] society has laws against discrimination, then it has many people who dislike discrimination. Simply by conducting their business as usual, these people will provide non-discriminatory options on the market, no coordination required.

            But insert general disclaimer here, as there are enough potential complications that I don’t feel like listing them.

          15. Cerebral Paul Z.

            Following up on what Caue said: the Jim Crow laws can be viewed as the “solution” to the massive coordination problems which kept private discrimination in the market from providing as much segregation as the white majority of the time wanted. For example, the specific law at issue in Plessy v Ferguson was passed because the railroads balked at the expense of adding separate coaches for blacks; the railroad on which Plessy took his fateful ride cooperated with opponents of the law to provide a test case that they hoped would end in the law being struck down.

          16. Cerebral Paul Z.

            On second thought, I may have been hasty calling it a coordination problem; more likely, the problem was simply a gap between the amount of segregation whites were willing to vote for and the amount they were willing to pay for.

          17. Jesse M.

            “Firstly, I’m not really sure why the issue of voting, specifically, is relevant.”

            It’s specifically relevant because if my scenario would have any significant chance of happening in the type of society you outline, that would suggest that this type of society is inherently unstable, because it has a good chance of naturally turning into an oligarchy where the political system is controlled by large corporations, and there’s no reason to expect they will preserve all the libertarian freedoms of the original society (for example, they might plausibly think it was in their interests to outlaw unions, or to persecute people who criticize their government)

            “Second, in the absence of a law enforcing uniformity (that is, foreclosing the option of doing otherwise), there will *always* be a downside of putting weird conditions on employment–namely that weird conditions are a disutility imposed on the employee. All things equal, an employer is going to have to pay an employee at least a little bit more to do job x+accept weird condition than just to do job x.”

            This would only work if the prospective employee is getting offers from multiple companies that want to hire them to do job x, and at least some aren’t including the same condition in the offer. Do you think this would still be true for most employees in the midst of an economic recession or depression, for example? And what if all the biggest hirers in a given job market do have voting conditions, so that even if other companies without such conditions exist, they don’t have enough need or money to hire a significant fraction of the skilled people who want work in this field? Even without either of these conditions, there may be other reasons job applicants wouldn’t feel they had any perfectly equivalent alternative options, like if other job possibilities would require moving and there’s only one major company looking for people to do a given type of job in their home town (a factory town, for example), or cases where one company just seems like it’d be more interesting and rewarding to work at, like being a programmer at Apple or Google vs. some less exciting software job (or one with less prestige or opportunity for advancement) that pays about the same.

            “Moreover, I’m not even sure this is illegal right now in the US. Is it?”

            Even if it wouldn’t be illegal to require people to promise to vote for a given candidate, it’s illegal to follow someone into a voting booth or record yourself voting. But in the type of society you envision, this type of law would interfere with a person’s ability to form a voluntary contract with the provision “I promise to record myself voting on my cell phone and give the footage to you”, so presumably you would want to strike down such laws.

            “I’m not in favor of democracy (because a majority of people voting to force the minority to do something doesn’t make it right).”

            Constitutional democracy doesn’t allow a simple majority to do anything they like, there are rights built into the constitution which are much more difficult to change. In any case, what system do you prefer to determine what is “right”? If it’s some type of monarchy or dictatorship, then when the leadership changes hands, what if the new leader doesn’t believe that all mutually-agreed contracts should be legal?

            “As for the “can you sell yourself into slavery” question, I would say that, in theory, yes you can, just as I’d be okay with you selling your organs, though I think most decent societies, with states or without, would not uphold more extreme versions of such contracts (say, you sold yourself into indefinite servitude as a desperate teenager and now you’re 40 but your “master” won’t allow you the possibility of buying back your freedom), due to, perhaps, failure of consideration.”

            With teenagers there’s always the question of whether they have the mental competence to fully understand the consequences of their actions, but what if you sold yourself into slavery as a mentally competent adult, for example one who did it out of desperation during an economic depression when it seemed the only alternative was starvation? In general, do you think people should be able to break contracts with no significant legal penalties, even if the contract itself stipulated a significant penalty?

          18. Harald K

            “If a [democratic] society has laws against discrimination, then it has many people who dislike discrimination. Simply by conducting their business as usual, these people will provide non-discriminatory options on the market, no coordination required.”

            Wrong. This is because there may be a collective action problem. See, there may be profitable reasons to discriminate.

            Say that you ban all gypsies from your shop, because gypsies steal, you say. If you do this, you are of course a racist asshole, as it’s morally wrong to judge an entire group like that. It’s a great injustice to those gypsies who don’t steal, no matter how few there may be.

            But it is quite possible that gypsies on average do steal more than others. It’s also possible that there is a significant minority of the population (larger than the gypsies) who hate gypsies, and who refuse to go into the shop if they see a gypsy there. It’s quite possible for a solid majority to be opposed to racism, racial prejudice, collective punishment of racial groups, and still for it to be profitable to be a racist. You as a racist shop owner may get a competitive advantage over non-assholes.

            There are costs to being an asshole too. Thanks to shop owners like you, now the gypsies are marginalized and even more resentful and angry at the majority population, and they become even more inclined to steal and act antisocially (heh) on average. But that’s a cost carried by the whole community. The profit is private to you.

            There are lots of times in the world that it’s profitable to break ranks and be unjust. That we have succeeded in coordinating to stop that, in form of laws, does not mean that we could have easily done it in any other way.

          19. Cauê

            I must confess that, when I put in the disclaimer about potential complications, “what if a minority is in fact so much more likely to steal that you’d lose more money from theft than you’d gain from doing business with them” was not something I had in mind. Unrealistic.

            More seriously, there’s the “other customers may avoid a store that serves gypsies” thing. But then you have, what, a bunch of gypsy customers looking for someone to take their money, and nobody will? No, of course many people will, especially in this society who dislikes discrimination so much that they can democratically pass a law against it.

            (I started this arguing only against Jesse’s “what if all the jobs available have such requirements” example – the “all” part is what I find very unlikely)

          20. Harald K

            You simply refuse to believe that it can be profitable to be unjust if a majority is in favor of justice. You simply deny the possibility of coordination problems. That’s exactly the libertarian attitude that I complained about.

            It is not nearly as unrealistic that there may be some demographic it’s profitable to exclude. They may have little money to spend, and shops may have tight margins.

            If you think it’s impossible for shops and shoplifting, consider banks and insurance. There, the costs associated with information are more up in the day. If it was legal to discriminate credit access or insurance premiums on the basis of race, are you so sure there would be no way to make money on it? Are you so sure it wouldn’t have an impact on the affected groups?

            Even if we can pass laws against discrimination, it’s not certain there’s a principled majority against discrimination. It’s possible that consistent rejection of discrimination is merely something of a compromise, everybody’s second choice (classical antidemocrats used to argue this). If so, there may well be other stable equilibria. Reaching the “good” equilibrium may requires coordination and credible commitments. You can’t assume it would go just find without laws.

          21. Jiro

            Here’s a simpler version. Keep the shoplifting example. However, the shopowners don’t completely keep gypsies out of their shops. Rather, they figure out that because gypsies have a higher rate of shoplifting, selling to gypsies is only profitable if they charge gypsy customers extra, to compensate for the increased risk of shoplifting.

            That doesn’t seem to allow the “of course, people will take the gypsies’ money” objection because they are, indeed, willing to take gypsies’ money. Furthermore, any store who tries to take gypsies’ money *without* charging extra will lose money (because of the increased risk of shoplifting), so stores cannot profit by failing to discriminate.

            Is this a desirable situation?

          22. InferentialDistance

            Furthermore, any store who tries to take gypsies’ money *without* charging extra will lose money (because of the increased risk of shoplifting)

            Maybe we should investigate ways to get gypsies to steal less rather than legislate shop-owners into being vulnerable?

          23. Cauê

            Harald, we’re not saying incompatible things.

            Again, I never “denied the possibility of coordination problems”. I’m saying that some effects do not require coordination, which is completely different.

            Also, you seem to be arguing that it’s possible for some people to have economic incentives to discriminate. OK! Meanwhile, I’m arguing that it’s at least very unlikely for all people to simultaneously have such incentives.

            Perhaps you’re saying it takes coordination for there to be zero discrimination? Yes, it does. But it’s not required for the availability of many nondiscriminatory options on the market, alongside would-be options that are denied to some people.

            Jiro, this only happens if the expected losses from gypsy shoplifiting are actually higher than the expected profits from gypsy customers. This doesn’t look realistic to me. Is this actually the case for any existing demographic?

          24. Luke Somers

            For some stores, like, say, jewelry? Yeah, I can see profiling customers as being more profitable than letting everyone in. If P(sale) is low enough, it doesn’t take a lot of P(robbery) to drive profits negative.

          25. Cauê

            Would you say that, in the case of jewelry stores, there are examples of actual, real world demographics that would be more profitable to keep out as a matter of policy, specifically on account of the expected losses from increased probability of shoplifting exceeding the expected gains from ordinary sales? What I meant by “unrealistic” is something like “I don’t think this actually happens in the real world”.

        2. Nita

          I think the biggest part of it is that there’s a utopianism underlying most leftism, even if only implicitly, which implies very unreasonable moral demands and judgments on society and individuals.

          Well, that’s interesting. How do you feel about the utopianism of LW-style rationalists? Their goals (Friendly super-AI, immortality) are even more ambitious than leftists’.

          Also, Eliezer seems to believe that anyone who isn’t smart enough to work for MIRI should get the highest-paying job they can and donate as much as possible to FAI research. I suppose Scott would add GiveWell’s recommended charities and intelligence enhancement research to the list of acceptable donation targets. Are you bothered by them implicitly judging you ethically inferior?

          1. Harald K

            I am really bothered by the implicit judgment by the LW crowd that right and wrong depend only on outcomes, that smart people are better at predicting outcomes, and therefore you should do as Eliezer Yudkowsky says even if it sounds crazy to your inferior brain.

            Granted, they don’t come out and directly say that very often. But it seems to me it follows from the things they believe. For all I know they just avoid saying it because they worry about the reactions it would provoke. In that case, they are really just smarter neoreactionaries.

          2. FacelessCraven

            @Nita – “Well, that’s interesting. How do you feel about the utopianism of LW-style rationalists? Their goals (Friendly super-AI, immortality) are even more ambitious than leftists’.”

            Immortality and friendly AI are potential discrete technologies. For now they don’t exist, and those of us not actively working on making them exist can go on about our lives assuming they never will exist right up until they do. Compare to the Revolution, for which we need to more or less unmake our entire civilization so that something better can then rise from the ashes… eventually… at some unspecified date in the future.

          3. Nita

            @ FacelessCraven

            There’s nothing “discrete” about FAI — the idea is that it will unmake our entire civilization / subsume and transform it in a completely unpredictable way (hence the term “singularity”). And you must do what you can to help create it, or else UFAI will destroy civilization instead, and it will be all your fault, you selfish fool.

            I see two differences between left-utopia and LW-utopia:

            1) left-utopia proposes that better versions of existing tools (human minds and labor, institutions, memes, machines and software) will be sufficient, while LW-utopia requires hypothetical new tools (superintelligence);

            2) although both left-utopians and LW-utopians consider the current situation terrible, only LW-utopians argue that failing to fulfill their goals means certain doom (“existential risk”).

          4. Bugmaster

            @Harald K:
            I think there’s some merit to the LW philosophy, just not as much as some people might think.

            > that right and wrong depend only on outcomes

            I would provisionally agree with this. If you have the best intentions in mind, and you really want to help humanity, and you believe that the best way to do that is to implement some crazy policy (say, banning left-handed people or something like that), and you did that and it made things worse… then yeah, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions were, you were wrong. On the other hand, people can reasonably disagree on what “helping humanity” entails.

            > that smart people are better at predicting outcomes

            It depends, are they predicting outcomes in their area of expertise ? Einstein was pretty smart (or so I’m told), but I bet there are lots of bookies who are better predicting the outcomes of sports matches than he ever was.

            > and therefore you should do as Eliezer Yudkowsky says even if it sounds crazy to your inferior brain.

            This implies that Eliezer Yudkowsky is super-smart, and possibly even the smartest person ever. Even if we were willing to grant this dubious proposition, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s track record regarding the prediction of outcomes, in areas of interest to us. As far as I understand, that record is spotty at best…

          5. Nornagest

            @Harald — If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure that right and wrong depend only on outcomes, and that smart people are better (all else equal) at predicting outcomes, but it doesn’t remotely follow from that that you should do whatever Eliezer says, particularly if it sounds crazy.

            IQ isn’t magic. In particular, it doesn’t give you domain knowledge without (sometimes large) investments of effort, and even in situations where domain knowledge doesn’t seem to aid prediction much (see for example the articles on the limits of expert judgment that float around LW occasionally), I’m unaware of anything saying that raw IQ does better.

            The rationality program is largely an attempt to escape those problems by way of identifying and cultivating factors that lead to domain-independent good judgment, but the jury’s still out on how good an attempt it is.

          6. onyomi

            I personally am not against utopianism in the sense of being cautiously optimistic about amazing new technologies, or in terms of looking for better forms of human organization. What I always object to is the “ideas so good we made them mandatory.”

            I also disagree with many LWer’s apparent tendency to embrace an “ends justifies the means” sort of consequentialism or utilitarianism. I am not a consequentialist, though I do think consequences matter; they are just not the only thing that matters. Means matter too, and embracing repugnant means to achieve supposedly desirable ends strikes me as almost never long-term beneficial.

          7. jaimeastorga2000

            embracing repugnant means to achieve supposedly desirable ends strikes me as almost never long-term beneficial.

            I think the standard LW response would be that long-term benefits are consequences, and that if the outside view tells you that using repugnant means for seemingly good short-term benefits tends to end badly, that is a perfectly good reason to avoid using repugnant means even if it seems to you like a good idea at the time. See Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Ends Don’t Justify Means (Among Humans)” and “Ethical Injunctions.”

          8. onyomi

            Good point, but I also object to using repugnant means because they are repugnant, not simply because they tend to lead to bad consequences.

          9. LTP

            “Well, that’s interesting. How do you feel about the utopianism of LW-style rationalists? Their goals (Friendly super-AI, immortality) are even more ambitious than leftists’.”

            Well, I’m one of those SSC readers who isn’t a big fan of LW rationality, Eliezer, or utilitarianism, and the unreasonable demands and utopianism is a big part of it, plus a few other things (I’m not opposed to techno-optimism, as long as it’s grounded). I do find much from that community to be annoying, and in fact I strongly disagree with them on many counts. However, I don’t feel *angry* at them most of the time (there are a few opinions/attitudes they’ve addressed that grind my gears, but only a few). I think I get less angry at the LW folks because it’s a small community whose members I won’t really encounter much in the real world unless I actively look for them.

        3. Emile

          I feel somewhat like this – a lot of the fundamental philosophy around oppression and privilege and the environment and status-quo just seems wrong to me (as in, not a useful way to think and talk about reality), and, like you, I strongly dislike the shaming, the holier-than-thou preaching, the disruptive protests…

          However I wouldn’t say that form of leftism is prominent in my local community (I live in France), so it is something I’m mostly exposed to online.

          1. Peter

            From the UK (well, from my parts of Cambridge, which are a weird bubble all of their own)… it seems to be something seeping into the UK, but it does seem to be more of an American thing. There’s a perpetual worry than anything bad from America is going to find a way across the Pond in a decade or two, possibly minus the redeeming features (I think PTerry said something about that in… Eric, was it?) – and faster in the UK than on the continent.

            Me: a slightly old-fashioned centre-left liberal/social democrat who doesn’t like the new rhetoric etc. and worries about becoming “politically homeless” so to speak.

        4. Larry Kestenbaum

          Often I think the implication is that if you’re privileged in your society (as I am, being a white male American with upper middle class parents) then unless you devote your life to leftist activism you’re a bad person. When a leftist says society is “unjust”, they are saying it is unjust compared to a utopian society. Note that this isn’t just SJW who say this, but marxists, socialists, environmentalists, and even the non-SJW social justice people as well. No matter what form of leftism you’re talking about, there is underlying it a theory of an all pervasive system that is evil and oppressive. This means that pretty much everything I value, and even my own existence, is morally corrupt.

          Sure, there are people who think that way, but at least in my world, they are more active and prevalent in online fora than in actual politics.

          I’m more liberal and certainly more politically active than probably almost everyone here. Moreover, I live in, and have won elections in, one of the most politically liberal counties in America. And I don’t think I fit your description at all.

          Yes, there are problems that should be addressed, there are things that are unfair, but that doesn’t mean we should remake society from the ground up.

          I note that the most successful and liveable nations (specifically including the U.S.) have been the ones with mixed economies and pragmatic, incrementalist leadership.

          Admittedly, as a local government official, I have a deep investment in Making Stuff Work, rather than ideological purity or overthrowing the established order.

          In my case, Making Stuff Work includes extending the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, which is to say, real-world people with real-world problems, that will benefit from a relatively trifling change in the law. I certainly don’t see that as overthrowing anything.

          I cannot be a good person in my society, is the upshot, unless I devote my life to toppling the system in some way…. Note, that in less inflammatory leftism much of this is at least partially implicit, or couched in nicer language, but it is still definitely there.

          I deny that I am doing this. Indeed, I reject the concept of political sins of omission. Most people have other things to do with their lives — things that are entirely worthwhile on their own terms.

          1. ThirteenthLetter

            “In my case, Making Stuff Work includes extending the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, which is to say, real-world people with real-world problems, that will benefit from a relatively trifling change in the law. I certainly don’t see that as overthrowing anything.”

            I agree with you on that specific point. But unfortunately we now live in a country where the next question has to be: what happens if a baker in your jurisdiction declines to cater a gay wedding for religious reasons? And even if you, personally, defended their right to do so, how long would you stay in office — or be willing or able to hold up against the activist backlash?

    4. houseboatonstyx

      I present here as Far Left, because I’d like to see Environmentalism, Animal Rights, etc, pushed to extreme measures, and some pretty strong feminist measures (like quotas in legislatures and more female [preferably Lesbian] heads of state).

      But the SJ-type rhetoric does rather scare me. It’s like they’re tearing down rationality itself, just to bully people online — and if Coates has caught it too….!

        1. LTP

          I’m not a frequent reader of his, but I feel like he’s become way less charitable towards white thinkers generally and is more and more supportive of radical methods like rioting. I think the Obama era has embittered him. Maybe he always was like that and I missed it, though. As I said, not a regular reader.

        2. houseboatonstyx

          Note that I said “if Coates has caught it too….!”

          My sampling size of Coates’s material is very small, but I remember some time ago he was remarkably civil and calm even with Southerners, inviting them to share. What I saw around the Fergerson time, looked like he had fallen into the same shallow attitudes as most people on his side.

          And LPT grouped him thus: “people like Ta-Neihisi Coates (sp?) or the Jacobin magazine folks, or most forms of internet social justice”.

        3. John Schilling

          I used to be a fairly regular reader of Coates, and gave up for about this reason. Somewhere between Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, he became fixated on the idea that white cops were deliberately murdering black men and nobody cared, and started claiming that white supremacy was the overriding principle of mainstream American society. Said these sorts of things too often and too explicitly for me to overlook, steelman, or otherwise charitably interpret. And started “moderating” the comment section of his blog so as to turn it into an echo chamber.

          He’s not contributing to a useful dialogue any more, and I’m not sure he even wants to try any more.

          1. BBA

            I don’t necessarily agree with Coates but after the events in Baltimore I can see why he’s given up. When nothing ever changes and nobody ever acknowledges the truth you witness every day, what’s the point of a dialogue? All that’s left is nihilism and despair.

          2. DrBeat

            Things like Baltimore are at least partially a result of people like Coates lying their asses off about how omni-victimized American blacks are.

            The far left can’t seem to distinguish “nobody acknowledges my experiences” from “there are people who don’t instantly agree with every claim I make about my experiences and what they should mean for everyone else”.

      1. Mary

        “some pretty strong feminist measures (like quotas in legislatures”

        And here I thought the franchise was supposed to be feminist. Defanging it with quotas is, rather, anti-feminist, since the right to vote is not the right to mark a paper or pull a lever but to choose the representative. And it doesn’t matter who does the voting when nominating is controlled like that, as Boss Tweed sagely observed.

        1. houseboatonstyx

          I was thinking of a quota like 50/50. I feel like with the whole female population available, there couldn’t be much ‘packing with selected tokens’.

          And it doesn’t matter who does the voting when nominating is controlled like that, as Boss Tweed sagely observed.

          I don’t see nominating being controlled here. Say, everyone can run. If the final total comes out 60/40, then 10 districts with a male winner, would have him removed and the highest scoring female in that district would get the post. Now as to which 10 districts would be switched. that could be those where the gap between male winner and female runner-up was smallest.

          1. Harald K

            If you want representativity, go for sortition. You would get 50% women right away without the need for treating anyone favorably.

            You might have to wait a good deal longer for your lesbian president, though.

            Seriously, though: Think about the actual women who succeed in politics. The Hillary Clintons, the Margaret Thatchers, the Golda Meirs etc. Gender is a surface attribute which in itself doesn’t matter much. Elections aren’t biased against women directly, they’re biased towards many underlying characteristics, a few of which happen to make women underrepresented.

            The gender imbalance is a symptom. A quota for women is like treating rubella with a concealer stick, as I see it. What we need is a vaccine, and random selection is the only one that fits the bill.

          2. Jaskologist

            The extent to which NRX and leftists seem to agree that there’s just too darn much democracy and rule by the people never ceases to surprise me.

          3. onyomi

            Yeah, I saw recently an article saying that female politicians would usher in an era of peace. What the author seemed not to understand is that success in politics today is all about having a certain personality type which more men than women have. If you demand half the politicians be women you are just going to have a bunch of really aggressive women of lower qualification (since to draw an equal number from a smaller pool requires accepting lower qualifications–the reason female students at liberal arts colleges are smarter).

            Overall I think this is an understudied aspect of political systems: we tend to think “communism isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that we had Stalin and Pol Pot. If we had had someone nicer in charge things might have turned out different.”

            The point is, if every time you try a given political system brutal psychopaths somehow end up occupying the highest office, maybe it’s a problem with the system, not the individuals. All societies have brutal psychopaths and brilliant kind-hearted people. The key is to have a system which stymies the former and empowers the latter, rather than the reverse.

          4. houseboatonstyx

            @ Harald K

            If you want representativity, go for sortition. You would get 50% women right away without the need for treating anyone favorably.

            Might get an interesting assortment. But giving up elections is not just the bathwater, it’s the whole bathtub.

    5. Wrong Species

      I can definitely relate. I’m probably more political than you, but similar in being more like a progressive than a conservative. Whenever a progressive starts talking about specific political points(at least when it comes to welfare or gay marriage), I usually find myself nodding in agreement, but the minute they start talking about their values it makes my blood boil. And it’s usually the opposite with libertarians. I’m a natural born libertarian but whenever they start getting specific I start tuning them out.

    6. David Friedman

      Two comments related to this thread:

      1. George Orwell is my favorite example of someone who both identified with the left and was repelled by much of what the left was saying and doing.

      2. On why one might find current leftism upsetting … . Thomas Sowell has a book called _The Vision of the Anointed_, whose basic thesis is that modern liberals hold views designed to let them feel superior and don’t really care whether the actual results of the policies they push are good or bad. I stopped after the first bit of it because it was quite convincing—Sowell is a bright guy—and I don’t enjoy seeing the world that way.

    7. onyomi

      Okay, here’s a good example of the sort of thing that really makes me angry, and which, for better or for worse, I am more likely to expect from blue tribe commentators than red:


      Regardless of what one thinks of Ted Cruz or the particular issue, I am just flabbergasted by the rudeness and childishness on display. This is a major news network and everyone smirks and giggles before offering their commentary on a serious issue?

      Moreover, I think this may stem from a sort of “Vision of the Anointed”-type mindset: to the commentator’s minds it is literally comical how far Ted Cruz has strayed from the cool, elite discourse. One of them even notes how she, like Cruz, went to Harvard, simultaneously asserting her own impeccable elite credentials and subtly implying that it’s amazing Cruz could have spent time at the same elite bastion and yet so thoroughly failed to absorb the prevailing ethos.

  21. onyomi

    This is an incredibly broad question, but does anyone have opinions about why Marxist and literary theoretical writings (and, God forbid, Marxist cultural/literary theoretical writings like Adorno) are so inscrutable? It’s not that they don’t contain some good insights, it’s that they make you fight so hard to find them.

    I say this as someone in the liberal arts wing of academia who has to deal with this stuff regularly and still finds it quite annoying. And I feel that at a certain point, “it’s not me, it’s them,” that is, I don’t think their ideas are genuinely so complex that it’s the ideas themselves I struggle to comprehend, but rather their manner of expressing them. This seems verified to me in that every time I do “get it,” I realize that I could have said the same thing far more simply.

    My working theories are all very uncharitable: one, only very-smart-but-very-confused minds become Marxists in the first place, so it’s no wonder their writing is like a maze, and/or it’s a way of translating a few minor insights into a tenured professorship, i.e. take the average amount of insight in a slatestarcodex post and somehow turn it into an impenetrable book-length study the primary purpose of which is to make said insight seem more insightful by virtue of all the work the reader must go through (and intelligence the author must be perceived to have had) to get to it.

    I know I’m painting with a broad brush and that there are wide variations in the quality and readability of Marxist theorists (I find Bourdieu to be pretty readable, for example), but there is nonetheless a very noticeable trend. This also kind of applies to Continental philosophy more generally.

    Anybody have any better ideas?

    1. Jon Gunnarsson

      I suspect your very uncharitable theory is correct. If they expressed their ideas clearly, the average person, or at least the intelligent layman, would be able to understand them, and then their theories would be exposed for the nonsense they are.

    2. LTP

      Based on lurking in some philosophy related parts of the web and being a philosophy major myself in a heavily analytic/anglosphere department, you’re not alone in your feelings about continental philosophy, and marxist and literary stuff in particular. I myself have limited exposure to primary sources of the continental kind. I can’t speak about Marxist stuff specifically. But in terms of continental stuff in general, based listening to others’ perspective the charitable way to view continental philosophy is that continental philosophy is much more reliant on antecedent knowledge of the history of philosophy and the technical vocabulary of whatever type of continental philosophy you happen to be talking about (“continental”, as I’m sure you know, is more a sociological and stylistic category and less a substantive one). You may say that is intentionally obscurantist and cliquish, and maybe you’re right. But, to steelman them, I think many continentals of various types would say that they are often engaged in more ambitious and radical projects than analytic philosophers, and so they need specialized and vaguer language because they simply cannot express their ideas in plain language. The difficulty for non-experts to understand it is an unfortunate but necessary part of their projects.

      But, that’s me trying to be charitable, and your uncharitable interpretation may be correct.

      ETA: I hope this is clear, it’s late and I’m tired.

      1. Douglas Knight

        That is just not compatible with Onyomi’s claimed experience of extracting simple claims expressible in simple language from these works. It seems to me that there are only two possibilities: either O is entirely mistaken and the claim is not at all in the work; Or the claim is in the work and the author should have spelled it out, perhaps as a first approximation, or even as a pitfall! Either Onyomi is incompetent, the author is incompetent, or the author is intentionally obscure.

    3. Harald K

      I think the standard explanation (read: Popper’s, which I loosely recount) for bad humanistic writing is that Kant’s big works were accidentally verbose because he didn’t have time to be succinct. Then Hegel took advantage of the impenetrability of the critiques, to write deliberately verbose and impenetrable works, convincing everyone that this was what “critique” and “dialectic” was all about, and that he was obviously the natural heir to Kant, and if you can’t understand why you’re obviously not a real intellectual.

      Seems the attitude was that if the hoi polloi can understand what you’re saying, you’re suited for the priesthood, not for being an academic philosopher.

      Marx was of course indebted to Hegel, getting the whole idea of inevitable historical progress from him. So it’s no surprise he was inscrutable, too. Not that it’s the only path through which inscrutability became a virtue, but probably for the things you mention.

      1. Peter

        I seem to recall there being something about Hegel being a crypto-atheist too who (felt he) had to hide his views by being obscure.

        1. Protagoras

          The crypto-atheist explanation probably already applies to Kant. Kant did in fact encounter minor difficulties with official censorship, and likely would have encountered less minor difficulties if he had been less obscure.

          1. Harald K

            If Kant was a crypto-atheist, the second necessary postulate would have been a colossal lie… and then Kant’s infamous views on lying would also have been a collossal lie… and at that point, you got to wonder if Kant meant anything he said at all. I think we can safely say he was a theist.

          2. Harald K

            Or wait, maybe you only mean that he was obscure in order to avoid censorship? That would be another matter…

          3. Protagoras

            I am more committed to the “Kant was obscure to avoid censorship,” but I also believe, less confidently, that Kant was an atheist. However, I wouldn’t call the second necessary postulate a “colossal” lie. I merely think “God” is a misleading and basically inaccurate name for what Kant is talking about (and similarly for “immortality” and “freedom.”)

          4. Cauê

            It’s been years since I read Kant, but I remember reading the Critique of Practical Reason and thinking “you need some pretty religious assumptions for this to even begin to make sense”.

            I especially remember him making a case for the existence of an afterlife, on the basis that, since we clearly aren’t rewarded for virtuous behavior in this life, an afterlife might balance it out.

            You may be using a pretty specific definition of “atheist” here, or my undergrad-era reading may be way off (very possible, actually), but this surprised me too.

          5. Protagoras

            I’m pretty confident that your undergrad-era reading was way off (certainly mine was). Kant’s moral philosophy is too complicated for a comment; the best brief summary I can give is to say that Christine Korsgaard has convinced me that her interpretation of Kant’s moral philosophy is largely correct. Korsgaard’s interpretation of Kant also lines up with her own views about ethics, which do not make any appeal to religion. Korsgaard is a little easier to understand than Kant is, perhaps partly because there are fewer things she needs to be obscure about. So I’d say anyone who actually wants to understand Kant’s ethics should look at a lot of Korsgaard’s work. But it’s not easy; “easier to understand than Kant” is of course not saying much.

        2. Lightman

          As someone who has read a lot of secondary reading on Hegel (seminar last semester) – the interpretation of Hegel’s religion is a very controversial question; some people read him as an atheist, some as the last great Christian philosopher, some as a sort of in-between. It’s a very complicated question, though God features pretty prominently in Hegel’s works.

    4. James

      “Very-smart-but-very-confused” is a great phrase. I think it expresses what I was trying to say about Derrida when he came up in the comments to the last links thread.

    5. Brock

      John Searle has said that he asked Michel Foucault (a colleague of his at Berkeley), “Why the hell do you write so badly?” Foucault replied, “If I wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn’t take me seriously.”


      Historically, I think a lot of the bad writing of Marxists (and other philosophers in the Continental traditions) is a stylistic inheritance from Hegel.

      1. onyomi

        I definitely suspected Hegel had something to do with it, though I think John Searle is probably right about the more direct cause: a culture in Europe (France and Germany especially, it seems) of viewing clear and succinct ideas as simplistic and naive (“not deep”). I guess this culture must have preceded Hegel (and maybe Kant), however, else I doubt he would have become as popular as he did.

        I actually run into this all the time in academia: simple answers of any kind are viewed as prima facie suspect and naive because, you know, the world is a complex place. What many in the liberal arts seem almost to have forgotten is that, all-else-equal, simpler answers are better.

        But simple answer shut down interminable conversation on intractable problems and so are actually undesirable, perhaps in the way that no one in the business of writing diet books wants to hear “eat less, exercise more.”

        Americans writers, even academic writers, however, are in my experience, much better at grasping the value of simplicity where simplicity is possible. I absolutely take seriously Foucault and Bourdieu’s reported claim that, in order to be taken seriously in France, they *had* to be at least a little obscure.

        1. James

          I actually run into this all the time in academia: simple answers of any kind are viewed as prima facie suspect and naive because, you know, the world is a complex place. What many in the liberal arts seem almost to have forgotten is that, all-else-equal, simpler answers are better.

          Stephen Pinker:

          I’ll give you an anecdote that might give you the difference between the mindset of the scientist and the humanities scholar. I once went to an interdisciplinary conference with scientists and humanities professors. At the end of a talk exploring a painting, the speaker said: “Well, I hope to have complicated the subject matter in several ways.” I thought, that’s the difference between a scientist and a critic – the scientist would say: “I hope to have simplified the matter in several ways.”

          1. Deiseach

            But sometimes subjects are more complicated than on a surface reading! I’m pulling this off the top of my head, but take David’s Oath of the Horatii.

            On the surface, it’s a perfect example of the clear, calm, Neo-Classical style in art, put to the service of, and representative of, the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values.

            But what are those values? Are Enlightenment values the valorising of the state over the individual? Because that is what David’s painting seems to be saying: an appeal to the French people (and note the prominent foreground character dressed in the colours of the Tricoleur) to bond together as patriots and soldiers in the cause of –

            – what? France? The monarchy? The revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity)? But the Revolution was certainly not clear, calm Neo-Classicism in action!

            And David invents (the liberty of the artist) the scene that he is depicting; he shows the three brothers taking the swords and making the oath on those swords, from and in the hands of their father – which apparently was not the historical version of ‘what really happened’.

            Also, the salute/oath taking of the brothers looks, with our history behind us, uncomfortably like the Fascist salute – and apparently this is not a coincidence. Is Fascism the heir of the Enlightenment? It seems to have made a claim to be so!

            And that’s not even getting into the action of the event depicted, and whether we consider the Horatii admirable and virtuous, or robotic in their denial of the claims of blood and kinship; the emotional suffering of the women and how it is downplayed in favour of the heroism of the men, and much more!

          2. onyomi


            I don’t think anyone is arguing for *over*simplification, just that, when possible, simpler is better.

            Though you do give a good example of what academics might call “unpacking.” In general, I prefer “unpacking” to “complicating” as a term for what we do, though there is a lot of overlap between these two in practice.

            I think I prefer “unpacking” because it implies that people have been chunking something which needs to be, at least temporarily, de-chunked and re-examined. “Complicating” on the other hand, seems to imply that simple answers are prima facie undesirable.

        2. Harald K

          But simple answer shut down interminable conversation on intractable problems and so are actually undesirable, perhaps in the way that no one in the business of writing diet books wants to hear “eat less, exercise more.”

          The professionalization of philosophy is also something Popper touches on as a problem, and explanation of how Hegel could become so popular. I want to call this the “Vroomfondel and Majikthise” problem.

      2. Lightman

        I strongly suspect that Searle is making up the Foucault quote. I also think that Foucault is not particularly difficult to follow, at least for a philosopher (not just for a continental philosopher, but for philosophers in general). Derrida is the real obscurantist, I think.

        1. Irenist

          I’m inclined to agree, although in fairness to Derrida, his interests seem to be much more abstract and hermeneutic, whereas Foucault will often be describing actual, like, stuff that happened (say, the torture of the regicide with which he opens Discipline & Punish), which is a lot easier to describe concretely than whatever the heck Grammatology is.

          1. Lightman

            I’ve actually only recently started reading Derrida (for class) and I do agree that he’s nowhere near as bad as people make him out to be, if you read him in context (i.e., if you’ve read Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche – which is of course a tall order for most people). “Differance” is still a very interesting essay, if difficult to understand. I feel like I can extract claims from it (though that kind of defeats his project, in a certain way – he wants us to think beyond the idea of propositional logic) but it’s hard for me to evaluate them. His texts are made less penetrable because he employs the “hermeneutic circle” technique that Heidegger pioneered (the idea that a text can only be interpreted as a whole; that reading should be circular, not linear; this causes difficulties on a first read, though makes rereading somewhat rewarding). He also has a tendency to undertake the procedures he’s describing while describing them.

            Derrida’s sycophants and followers are generally more obscurantist than he was.

        2. onyomi

          Foucault is really not that bad at all. He belabors points, but his writing is reasonably clear, and he is usually belaboring by providing copious historical detail, which is more justifiable.

          Derrida is pretty bad, though he has nothing on Lacan, who clearly liked the cult of personality aspect, which strengthens my impression that “seeming deep” was very important to him (in his defense, he explicitly states that he tries to force the reader to work), which is too bad, because I think he actually has some interesting things to say. I feel similarly about Deleuze.

          Even worse are Paul De Man, Guy Debord, and Adorno. As far as I can tell, Adorno wrote tens of thousands of words just to argue that advertising creates artificial needs. And at no point in all those words did he clearly address basic objections like, “why do many advertising campaigns fail?”, so far as I can recall. I’m sure I’m not doing justice to Adorno, but that’s the whole problem with him and many other theorists like him: it’s not that he has no interesting ideas, but that to do justice to him is entirely too much work for too little payoff in terms of interesting ideas.

          Not sure whether I should be glad that Marxists didn’t write more clearly because if they had, maybe their ideas would have gained more widespread currency, or unhappy that they didn’t write more clearly, because if they had the bad ideas among their ideas would have been debunked more quickly and thoroughly, and their successors wouldn’t dominate the liberal arts wing of academia. I lean toward wishing they had written clearly.

    6. ddreytes

      My sense is that it’s primarily a stylistic & aesthetic difference that stems from the two coming out of different cultures and having different influences. I think continental thought has valued literary style more, which is not necessarily a compatible end with clarity; for instance, with Nietzsche. I think continental thinkers are much more likely to think that the point of philosophy is not to state truths but to inculcate modes of thought in the reader – see, again, Nietzsche – and that has similar effects.

      And sometimes I think it’s just a matter of the distinct personal tastes – I’ve often suspected, reading Heidegger, that he wrote the way he did mostly because he was just an asshole.

      But again, I think this is primarily an aesthetic difference.

      1. Douglas Knight

        No, no, no. The question is why so few continental philosophers write like Nietzsche.

        1. ddreytes

          Writing like Nietzsche (particularly writing as well as Nietzsche) is really, really hard.

        2. Lightman

          Luce Irigaray wrote a feminist critique of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s interesting. “Marine Lover,” if you want to check it out.

    7. Irenist

      I mentioned the antique practice of pedagogical esotericism upthread in relation to a question about the Bible. I don’t think it’s directly applicable to continental philosophy, but the subcultural urge to value the gnomic over the plainspoken might be coming from a similar place to the ancient preference. In ancient times, the main issue was that you weren’t going to own many books, so they’d better repay rereading. In modern continental academia, I imagine the denser stuff is more likely to be a fruitful field for doctoral candidates looking for texts to analyze, leading to more citations, etc. Noah Smith has done some blogging about the idea that simpler models might make for better macroeconomics than the DSGE models that are presently prestigious in the field. Maybe the attraction of continental philosophers to convoluted prose springs from similar incentives to those that attract macroeconomists to more prestigious, but sometimes computationally unwieldy, DSGE models.

    8. Zykrom

      Is it possible that writing this way is actually a really good way to get a hardcore “fanbase?”

      Basically, you would want to write in a style that’s exactly obscure enough that most of your readers wouldn’t “get it” but a few would do so easily.

      So then when people start evaluating your work, the ‘chosen’ will be struck by how much the dissenters seem to be misunderstanding everything, and come to the conclusion that only idiots disagree with you.

      Even if at first you aren’t too impressed, seeing enough bad arguments against something will eventually make you more favorably disposed towards it.

      Also, it has the (more likely) benefit that people who know about your ideas will be the ones who either like your writing style or were invested enough to dig the point out of your awful prose.

      It’s possible that Mencius Moldbug benefited from this dynamic to some extent.

  22. Emlin

    Without reading other comments so it won’t influence my opinion, but sorry if this turns out to be repetitive:
    I went back to around the drop-off period and what I recall, is that I got “behind” in reading/absorbing the posts around that time and meant to “come back when I have a bunch of time and feel really mentally ‘on’ so I can ‘catch up'” and that didn’t really happen.

    Eventually, I just gave up on catching up and started from the present recently again.

    I don’t know how common this experience is, since it was certainly influenced by personal factors such as illness and a large project around that time, but also I am a reader who tends to take my time understanding the whole post and then also read all the comments so denser posts, and posts with more math, are going to get me further behind

    1. Jon Gunnarsson

      I don’t think this could explain such a sudden and large drop-off in readership.

  23. thepenforests

    Any podcasts that the SSC commentariat would recommend? I always like the idea of listening to podcasts but I’ve never found one that really grabs me. I was listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up, which is pretty interesting, but it doesn’t have that many episodes.

    (All suggestions will be considered, but obviously if any get multiple recommendations they will be considered more strongly)

    1. Wrong Species

      I would recommend Hardcore History by Dan Carlin if you’re in to history. EconTalk by Russ Roberts if you’re interested in economics.

      1. thepenforests

        I am interested in those things, and I’ll check them out. I just had a realization though, which is that (for better or for worse) what I was probably really looking for in a podcast was insight porn. That’s what really drew me into the LW/SSC sphere, realistically. And I’m not sure how to feel about that. I mean, there are worse things in the world than insight porn – insights are great, and it’s not like they’re all fake or meaningless. But on the other hand I probably undervalue the kind of steady, methodical learning that doesn’t come with the built-in reward of a dramatic “aha!” moment. I’ll have to ponder this.

        (Mind you, if anyone does know of a reliable insight porn podcast, I’m all ears)

        1. Wrong Species

          I’m not exactly sure what you mean by insight porn but I don’t think those count. This isn’t like a TED talk where some guy spends 20 minutes talking about a “world changing idea”. It’s more like a guy(or two) having a conversation about stuff they know that is pretty accessible to a decently smart person.

          1. thepenforests

            Oh sorry, maybe it’s not as widely used a term as I thought. I’ve seen it on LW from time to time, but that doesn’t mean much. Personally I would say TED talks sometimes fall into the insight porn category, but they’re more often inspiration porn if anything. Here’s an essay talking about the concept of insight porn (which (fittingly? ironically?) is itself pretty insightful):


            In any case, I probably shouldn’t only be looking for insight porn podcasts, so I thank you for the recommendations. I’ll probably give hardcore history a try.

    2. LTP

      If you’re interested in non-LW philosophical conversation, The Partially Examined Life is excellent. They have a few bad episodes IMO, but overall they’re an excellent show.

      Basically, it’s a semi-formal roundtable with a bunch of young-ish philosophy PhD holders where they go over a reasonably sized section of a philosophical text.

    3. Jaskologist

      History of Philosophy without any Gaps
      Laszlo Montgomery’s Chinese History Podcast
      History on the Run

      (There are a number of “Learn Foreign Language X” podcasts as well. They are likely useful as part of active study, but I have not found them helpful from a passive learning standpoint.)

    4. Paul Torek

      Great question! I have had hit-and-miss luck with Philosophy Bites by Edmonds and Warburton, and Space Time Mind by Mandik and Brown. Both are philosophy. Both contain enough “hits” to make the “misses” tolerable. Thanks for the suggestions, y’all.

  24. Nancy Lebovitz

    It seems to me that conscientiousness involves a feeling of “this thing ought to be done well and thoroughly”– it’s an external requirement, rather than feeling “I am doing this thing because it makes sense to me and serves my goals.”

    I’m not sure where to go with this, but to people have ideas about where this sense of an external requirement comes from?

  25. Wrong Species

    Hypothetical: A group of really smart people get stranded on an island. They decide to make their peace with the island and try to build a civilization. Knowledge isn’t an issue because there is a diverse group of engineers, scientists, doctors and whatever else they might need. Would they be able to have electricity, factories or pretty much anything we associate with modern civilization?

    1. Bugmaster

      It depends, how many people are there in the group, and how many of them survive the first month ?

      Imagine a situation where you just have a single guy with a super-genius level of intelligence, but an average human body. He knows exactly what to do in order to rebuild civilization. That night, he gets eaten by a puma.

      On the other hand, if 100,000 people of average intelligence land on that island and manage to survive, chances are decent that their remote descendants will rediscover electricity at least at some point — after all, this is what our remote ancestors did…

      1. Wrong Species

        They all survive. I’m not sure on the size of the group but anymore than a thousand would feel like cheating(and a thousand is probably pushing it). I’m mostly wondering if it’s possible to build an advanced society with only the tools available on an island. So much of our society depends on global trade. How much could people accomplish without all of the resources we have at our disposal?

      2. houseboatonstyx

        Lack of materials would be the most limiting factor. But your moderns would have a great advantage: they already know what works. It may have taken a CAD program to design the best shape for a windmill rotor, but now that we know what that shape is, we don’t need a computer or even metal to make one.

    2. Faradn

      A good treatment of this idea is Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It’s fiction, but it’s very thoroughly researched fiction (which won’t surprise you if you’re familiar with Verne).

    3. thepenforests

      Seems to me that the main limiting factor would be lack of materials, wouldn’t it? Factories would require metal, which may or may not be present on the island. Electricity I suppose could be generated through wind, tidal, or hydroelectric means, so you wouldn’t necessarily need fossil fuels, but again you’d need metal to create the generator and the wires.

    4. ddreytes

      I guess I don’t really see what use there would really be for factories, in that situation, so I suppose they probably wouldn’t have them.

    5. Dennis Ochei

      You’d need special kinds of stones to make knives and other tools with your bare hands. There would also need to be metal ore on the island. A full exhaustive list of the requirements of thr island would be difficult to specify, but I’m pretty confident all the things needed to create modern conveniences couldn’t be found on a single island.

      1. Jiro

        Jules Verne’s characters were given help by Captain Nemo, including a box of equipment and tools that “just washed up on the island” and a random grain of wheat that may or may not have actually come from him.

    6. Irenist

      Well, there’s knowledge and there’s know how. I think one of the biggest barriers (not necessarily insurmountable, just big) even for “a diverse group of engineers, scientists, doctors” is that transitioning from “this rock has iron ore in it; let’s build a fire under it” to actual machine tools and whatnot probably requires a bunch of craft skill that isn’t that common nowadays, even if the abstract knowledge of what’s needed would be present in your group.

      1. Paul Torek

        This, and you’re putting it mildly. Your group has to rediscover the technological quirks of, say, clay ovens in which to cook ores, and how to make charcoal for fuel. Yikes. I hope the rest of your engineers know more history than I do; I’ll be largely useless.

        1. Wrong Species

          That’s the main thing I was thinking about. If civilization collapsed, we couldn’t just start at the same place we are now, we might have to retrace our steps. It probably wouldn’t take thousands of years to get where we are now but it could take a lot longer than we would like.

      2. Deiseach

        Not even that; on a basic level “Do we know what plants are safe to eat – will this mushroom kill us?” Can they butcher game? Can they hunt, fish, and so forth? Can they make shelters and clothing? The whole Robinson Crusoe bit, and Defoe cheated massively there by having Crusoe able to swim out to the ship and retrieve handy convenient tools he had no way of manufacturing for himself 🙂

  26. sgr

    Statistically: yes, there was a statistically significant, but small, decrease in traffic around Feb 20.

    I took your plots and guessed some numerical values of whatever the vertical axis means (“readership units” will do for now). Then I did an unequal variance, 1-sided t test in R, to see if the mean was greater before Feb 20 than after.

    The result was significant at both weekly (p ~ 4e-5) and daily (p ~ 0.001) granularities:

    Welch Two Sample t-test

    data: weeklyHitsBefore and weeklyHitsAfter
    t = 7.3011, df = 8.017, p-value = 4.144e-05
    alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is greater than 0
    95 percent confidence interval:
    0.4938131 Inf
    sample estimates:
    mean of x mean of y
    2.7750 2.1125

    Welch Two Sample t-test

    data: dailyHitsBefore and dailyHitsAfter
    t = 4.2012, df = 8.574, p-value = 0.001282
    alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is greater than 0
    95 percent confidence interval:
    0.62889 Inf
    sample estimates:
    mean of x mean of y
    3.842857 2.722222

    However, though the result is statistically significant, the effect size is small. The weekly mean readership units declined from 2.78 to 2.11; the daily readership units (presumably different units) declined from 3.84 to 2.72.

    So the finding is statistically significant but the effect size is small.

    1. Douglas Knight

      You should apply this procedure to data from several random processes, including a random walk. But first you should think hard about what you actually did. This is the hard part.

  27. Albatross

    Wasn’t there a national hot button issue around February? I seem to remember some issues crossing over into other media at some point on feminism and rehab clinics. There could be readers who only check for certain issues.

    Open thread idea: What if the long decline in crime is due to police catching criminals instead of innocent people? The FBI crime lab made up most of its information. Each innocent person they convicted means the criminal escaped to commit more crimes. Perhaps affordable portable video, DNA evidence etc have reduced crime by ruling out innocent suspects that would have been convicted in the past. When the police arrest and convict the correct person, future crime is reduced because the criminal is in prison. As prejudice and hunches have gradually been replaced by evidence and a diverse police force, more accurate convictions have reduced crime.

  28. Lambert

    Scott, if you are in need of some random contriversial scientific issues about which to write 1000 word analyses, may I reccomend/request detrimental effect of aspartame on humans and memory repression?

    A better meta-level solution to sate my curiosity on such topics would be to blog about how to make the conclusions in such analyses in a ielatively foolproof way.

    1. Matthew

      Not necessarily on memory specifically, but seconding the request for Scott-quality review of Aspartame.

  29. XXX

    By how much do methods in clinical psychology improve in 25 years?
    I have the impression that consensus in psychology changes all the time and in fact I have helped with organising (the tech part of) some kind of biannual training for psychologists which seems to be mandatory where I live. I wonder if it is very different for the subfield that I mentioned.

    To be more precise, I did some kind of concentration test that the guy told me pilots also have to do, as my doctor suspected ADHD. I did it on a laptop and computer that were clearly from the early nineties, and I had great results. But apparently some of the surveys I did showed that I am depressed, so I was fed with antidepressants and my inability to concentrate seen as a symptom.
    But now that I feel that is over, it just got worse. And I wonder if a test that works with numbers and patterns isn’t that good of a method to spot concentration problems in someone who is naturally interested in such a thing. And a professional did have a suspicion about it, so it’s not like I’m self-diagnosing myself, and I’m just wondering if I should try again or believe that test.

  30. Cauê

    I’d like to push my luck and once again ask a question to the smart religious people in SSC, as I’ve done a couple of times before, to have a better, non-straw understanding of religion.. Again I promise not to argue about it, and would ask other people to try not to rehearse the same old arguments again.

    So… the Bible. It’s not at all clear to me what place it occupies in “sophisticated theology” today. I’m not even sure what questions to ask, so I’ll try to make it open-ended: How important is it? What’s important about it? How do you see those problems that we atheists love to bring up (regarding science, morality, consistency)? Do the answers change significantly depending on which books we’re talking about (or, e.g., Old vs. New Testaments)?

    Thanks in advance for any responses.

    1. Troy

      Okay, I’ll give it a shot: the Bible is important because it is a record of God’s progressive self-revelation in history, which began in the Old Testament but culminated in the incarnation. However, the Bible itself is not God’s revelation (a point on which many Christians are confused); it is a record of revelation. It it is not inerrant, and should be read and understood in the light of (a) God’s primary revelation, Jesus Christ, and (b) God’s Church, which was responsible for codifying the Biblical canon.

      Beyond that, it’s very largely contextual. Books of the Bible are written in different genres with different aims and require different approaches for interpretation. You shouldn’t take Psalm 137 (“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock”) as giving you moral advice, but you should take it as a heartfelt expression of the depths of human emotion and the pain of the Jews in exile. Some books of the Bible are clearly not historical, and likely not intended as such (Jonah), others clearly are (the Gospels).

      The most difficult cases of Biblical interpretation, it seems to me, arise with respect to passages that appear to be presented as historical but impute to God morally problematic qualities, in particular the conquest narratives of the Old Testament. There are several interpretative strategies available here. One is to deny the historicity of these parts of the OT. The passages in question may still have value in, say, giving us a perspective on how the ancient Hebrews viewed God (inasmuch as they are ascribing to him these words and actions), or in serving as allegory for spiritual struggles (as many early Christian interpreters thought). Another strategy is to accept the historicity of these passages, and explain God’s apparently morally problematic commands by holding that God’s revelation is tailored to the culture and attitudes of the time.

      1. thepenforests

        “However, the Bible itself is not God’s revelation (a point on which many Christians are confused); it is a record of revelation. It it is not inerrant, and should be read and understood in the light of (a) God’s primary revelation, Jesus Christ, and (b) God’s Church, which was responsible for codifying the Biblical canon.”

        Out of curiosity, how standard is that point of view? Is it part of the “official” teachings of a particular denomination of Christianity? I mean, you say that some Christians are confused about this, but I’m not sure why it wouldn’t simply count as having a “legitimate” theological difference of opinion.

        1. Mai La Dreapta

          Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, and probably Anglicans would sign on to that statement. The low-church Protestants would not; the Biblicism of those groups is such that they assert that the Bible itself, rather than the person of Christ, is the definitive revelation of God. I have even heard in some places that “the Bible is Jesus”, a view which most other groups regard as Bibliolatry.

          You might regard this as a “legitimate theological difference” — I think that the Baptists and other Protestants do — but partly because of issues like this, you won’t find very many Christian rationalists or nerds who identify with low-church Protestantism. So if you’re asking this crowd, you’re going to get overwhelmingly high-church answers. My experience with Protestant pastors leads me to think that most people with formal theological training would also agree with the statement above, with varying degrees of discomfort, but I’m not very confident that this would hold over a larger sample size.

          1. FacelessCraven

            Low-Church-Protestant analogue here. We’d disagree with the Bible being errant per se; we shift the error over to the reader’s interpretation rather than the text itself. It seems to me that both approaches are intended to keep motivated interpretation from trumping reason in a theological debate. From our perspective, though, we’re equally worried about syncretism. Once you’ve agreed that the text itself isn’t infallible, it seems to me that fallibility becomes a fully-general answer to any conflict between the faith and the world. From a High Church perspective, how do you decide which parts of the bible are in error and which aren’t?

          2. Troy

            thepenforests: I advocate a “big tent” approach to who to count as Christian, so I wouldn’t say that Biblical inerrantists aren’t Christians or anything like that. To that extent it’s a “legitimate theological disagreement.” However, I would agree with Mai La Dreapta that inerrantism is very much a modern Protestant concept, and that it can (but certainly does not always) come close to idolatry in placing the Bible above Christ.

          3. Troy

            FacelessCraven: you ask, From a High Church perspective, how do you decide which parts of the bible are in error and which aren’t?

            The standard High Church answer is that you rely on the Church. I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer myself, inasmuch as it seems to presuppose ecclessial infallibility, which I don’t accept.

            My own view is that the answer to this question is (trivially) the same as the answer to how you decide what parts of any putative source of information are or are not in error: you figure out what your evidence supports about the reliability of that source on this instance.

            Giving content to that is a highly non-trivial task here just as in any other area of life, but here’s a sketch: we have extremely strong evidence, on ordinary historical grounds, to think that the New Testament books, at least, are generally reliable historical documents. From the NT we learn about Jesus, the founder of our faith and head of the Church, and because of the miracles that he and his disciples performed have strong reason to think that he was God incarnate. We also learn in the NT and other ancient sources about the formation of the Church, and what we learn gives us reason to trust the (especially early) Church as a generally (though not infallibly) reliable source. Inasmuch as the Bible was and is endorsed by the Church, this gives us additional reason to trust the Bible.

            Given that framework, that the Bible records some event as history or a certain Biblical author (say Paul) endorses some rule is strong evidence that that event occurred or that that rule is morally binding on us, but it is not infallible evidence, and should be weighed against both Church teaching and the teachings of Jesus. And Jesus is, I think, an infallible source (although our access to his teachings is fallible).

            To take my example from upthread: I think it’s fairly clear (though not undisputable) that Jesus taught pacifism and that the early Church was almost uniformly pacifist. Inasmuch as the conquest narratives of the OT portray a God that conflicts with this ethic, this gives us reason to doubt the accuracy of those narratives.

          4. FacelessCraven

            @Troy – I’m rather embarrassed that I didn’t anticipate appeal to the authority of the Church itself. That seems obvious in retrospect. The rest of your explanation makes good sense, and sounds pretty similar to how we do things, with only a few variables and changes in emphasis.

            As for the OT conquering accounts, it seems to me that most people are willing to accept “the ends justify the means” logic, even when it’s utterly fallible humans doing the calculation. If we’re willing to accept dust specks versus torture, who’s to say that the sim programmer isn’t right to take similarly callous actions for what he can see as entirely sufficient ends?

          5. Deiseach

            I’m tempted to say that a variety of Protestantism (not necessarily low-church but definitely of the Reformed strain) elevates the Epistles of St Paul above the Gospels; the amount of to-ing and fro-ing over, for instance, the concept of “justification” as worked out by Paul in these documents, and the corresponding lack of appeal to the words of Jesus in the Gospels, continually strikes me 🙂

          6. Mai La Dreapta

            We’d disagree with the Bible being errant per se;

            Well so would I, so as far as that goes we’re in agreement. I would state that the Scriptures are inerrant in everything that they intend to teach, but discerning what the Scriptures intend to teach in a particular passage requires wisdom guided by the Tradition.

            All groups do this to some extent. No one thinks that Genesis 30:37-43 is infallible advice about animal husbandry, for example: we all agree that that’s not the point of the passage. The same thing can be said for many other passages.

          7. Troy

            I’m tempted to say that a variety of Protestantism (not necessarily low-church but definitely of the Reformed strain) elevates the Epistles of St Paul above the Gospels; the amount of to-ing and fro-ing over, for instance, the concept of “justification” as worked out by Paul in these documents, and the corresponding lack of appeal to the words of Jesus in the Gospels, continually strikes me

            Sounds plausible. I would add that it’s certain parts of Paul read through a broadly Augustinian lens.

            If we’re willing to accept dust specks versus torture, who’s to say that the sim programmer isn’t right to take similarly callous actions for what he can see as entirely sufficient ends?

            Well, yes, if you’re a consequentialist then any kind of action can be justified if the circumstances are right. Sounds like a good reason to not be a consequentialist. 🙂

    2. FacelessCraven

      For reference, I was raised Christian, turned Atheist for a decade, and then rejoined Christianity. I’m pretty sure I don’t count as a “rationalist”; I haven’t read through all the sequences yet, but what I have read I greatly enjoy. I would like to think that I consistently attempt rationality, at least. With the caveats out of the way…

      We Christians are proceeding from the axiom that the world we live in is a sim created and maintained for our enjoyment and benefit, because the sim’s programmer values our existence. The Bible is seen as communication from the sim programmer, made in good faith and with perfect competency, but necessarily constrained by the values of the creator and hence the core rules of the sim (ie, respect for free will, no deterministic brain-rewriting). The purpose of this communication is to explain the sim, its programmer and his values, so that we can effectively cooperate with him in the process of leaving the sim for eventual instantiation into baseline reality.

      In my experience, popular Atheist critique of the bible is usually a pretty close analogue to the Daily Show’s critique of conservative thought. Most of it seems to revolve around shallow gotchas, straw-manning and sneers rather than engagement on the actual issues. This isn’t terribly surprising, given how “popular” communication in general works. Most arguments about morality and consistency I’ve encountered seemed easy to answer within an interpretation framework. The nasty ones, things like the Canaanite genocide, I have no good answer for but am warily willing to bite the bullet on.

      The scientific attacks that concern me are mainly archaeological/historical. A large portion of the Old Testament is pretty clearly a historical account, and it being a false account would trouble me a great deal. On the other hand, I’m pretty skeptical about how reliable “scientific findings” are in general, and the attacks along that axis didn’t seem conclusive to me even when I was an Atheist. [EDIT] – the potential for further scientific attacks also seems clear; I’m not sure my faith would be compatible with a world where the operations of the brain were provably deterministic and directly manipulable, but at the same time I’m very much hoping I live to see brain uploading. There’s obviously a conflict there, but one I’m willing to defer until it becomes a practical concern.

      It seems to me that the issue ultimately comes down to a personal choice. It was possible for me to build a coherent worldview around Atheist axioms, and I believe I’ve built a coherent worldview around Christian axioms. I prefer the Christian ones for a variety of interconnected reasons, of varying levels of rationality. This fits what I would expect from what I think I understand about God.

    3. Irenist

      In addition to echoing what Troy said, I’d like to offer two points:

      1. Vatican II issued a dogmatic constitution called “Dei Verbum.” Contemporary Catholic thinkers generally strive to think in concert with it, and it might be useful reading for you. Among the points it makes are that God is the author of Scripture which unerringly teaches us what God intended to teach us through Scripture, but that He willed to work through autonomous human authors. These latter authors could be wrong about matters of historical or scientific fact, but since that didn’t impinge on the moral or creedal stuff God wills to communicate, He let them write what they thought. The Bible ain’t a science or history textbook, in other words, and shouldn’t ever be expected to be inerrant about stuff like that.

      2. Esotericism is a huge deal in understanding ancient writing. Not esotericism of the “spooky occult secrets” sort, but pedagogical and belle-lettristic esotericism. I’ve been asked in SSC comments before why, if God inspired the Bible, He didn’t CLEARLY LAY OUT what His plan was, and prove it was Him by dropping some modern science in there or something. The answer to the latter part is that He was working through autonomous human authors who didn’t know any modern science. The answer to the former is that ancient people never would’ve preserved a book that clearly laid out anything, because they scorned such books. They liked their books like we like our online RPGs: full of hidden Easter eggs. (Indeed, if you’ll pardon the pun finding analogical “Easter” eggs in the Old Testament was kind of the main hobby for Christian exegetes for centuries.)

      From a P.E. Gobry’s “pedagogical esotericism”-stressing review of the recent Straussian work “Philosophy Between the Lines” by Arthur M. Melzer

      Philosophers did not just practice esotericism as a way of sneaking subversive ideas past the censors, but also as a pedagogical device, much in the way of Socrates’ insistent questioning. For the Ancient philosophers, philosophy was not just, perhaps not even primarily, a body of doctrine, but an attitude of the mind towards contemplation and relentless questioning. The task of making philosophers, then, was not primarily about imparting ideas, but about leading people towards a certain state of mind. The philosopher wanted his pupils to discover his ideas on their own, by studying the text and working hard to get past the literal meaning, and thereby growing into a philosophic mind and posture.

      In this regard, Melzer points out something else (in retrospect obvious, but which was quite an “Aha!” moment for me), which is the rarity of books in the era before the advent of the printing press, and the fact that the classical liberal arts curriculum included long study in “rhetoric” (i.e. the art of writing) which is something we have all-but forgotten. Everyone who was educated was trained in writing and reading between the lines. And because books were rare and expensive, owners of books, instead of the contemporary practice of reading a book once and then just moving on to the next, would typically reread the same book many times over their lifetime. Knowing this, authors would typically be alert to write in an esoteric style, concealing many layers of meaning into the text, so that the book would still be rewarding on the Nth reading. Just like, to the contrary, anyone writing a book today knows all-too-well that his book is competing with millions of other books, and so strives to make his argument as clear, literal and obvious as possible for fear that the reader just drop the book and move on to another.

      If this is how everyone understood the art of writing and the art of reading until very recently, then, certainly, this should have an impact on how we read the Bible. In fact, Strauss was first alerted to the reality of esoteric writing by his reading of Maimonides and Rashi, the two greatest Medieval rabbis. (Maimonides (like Aquinas) read Aristotle esoterically, as did every single Ancient commentator (Aristotle is the single author with the biggest secondary literature in the Ancient world), even though today Aristotle is considered as perhaps the most literal Ancient philosopher.)

      Even without referring to inspired spiritual senses, we should still realize that the Modern prejudice that the surface meaning of a text is almost always the most authentic is just that–a culturally-contingent prejudice. By contrast, educated readers and writers for the rest of history would have had precisely the opposite assumption: that it’s more likely that the surface meaning of the text is not the most authentic. And this is indeed how many rabbis and Church Fathers read the Bible.

      Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/the-ancient-art-of-reading-and-biblical-interpretation/

      Anyway, that’s a lot. But as a “high church” type, if there was ONE concept I wish rationalists had in their head about the Bible, it would be how the modern secular, post-Protestant prejudice that a high quality book is necessarily a highly perspicuous book is 180 degrees from the stylistic canons of the Bible’s own era. Once I discovered the perspective of pedagogical esotericism, studying the Bible went for me from frustration at its ambiguity to delight in its intricacy. And I suddenly understood why the Church Fathers and the medieval Scholastics enjoyed commentating it so much, and why moderns tend to dislike it so much.

      1. darxan

        Apparently God kept final edit privilege w/r/t the Bible. From OrthodoxWiki:

        The Righteous Simeon was one of the seventy scholars who came to Alexandria to translate the Holy Scriptures into Greek. The completed work was called “The Septuagint,” and is the version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church.

        St Simeon was translating a book of the Prophet Isaiah, and read the words: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son” (Is 7:14). He thought that “virgin” was inaccurate, and he wanted to correct the text to read “woman.” At that moment an angel appeared to him and held back his hand saying, “You shall see these words fulfilled. You shall not die until you behold Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.” Tradition says he died at the great age of 360.

        What is funny is that God is using his divine authority to keep a mistranslation in the Bible, and poor Simeon is cursed to live 300 extra years because he wanted to correct it.

        1. Zykrom

          For a sufficiently weird value of “cursed.”

          I’d better start learning biblical Hebrew so I can “mistranslate” something…

        2. Irenist

          Great story!

          St. Augustine, for one, tended to view the Septuagint Greek New Testament as almost equal in authority, and certainly as divinely inspired as, the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. When there’s an obvious discrepancy (like in different age values reported in some list of patriarchs in Genesis or something), Augustine will generally try to ferret out the symbolism God intended with the discrepancy. Us high church types tend to enjoy mocking King James Only sorts, but heck if the attitudes of the Church Fathers (and the writers of the New Testament!) toward the Septuagint aren’t (sort of kind of very broadly) reminiscent.

          On stuff like the issue of whether Hebrew “almah” (roughly, maiden) was properly translated by the Septuagint as Greek “parthenos,” (virgin), I think a couple observations bear making:
          1. For all I know (or care), modern or medieval Hebrew “almah” just means “young woman” if the word survives at all. But contemporary English “maiden” doesn’t mean much more than that, whereas Elizabethan English “maiden” clearly implied virginity. The Septuagint translators were closer in time to the authorship of the prophetic texts than the rabbis who helped forge post-Temple Judaism after 70 CE. So maybe rather than assuming the legendary Seventy translators were idiots, we should assume that the Seventy were fluent in the Hebrew and Greek of their day, and translated accordingly?
          2. Given its use for Old Testament citations both in the inspired text of the New Testament, and the canonical value assigned to it by the early Church (e.g., Augustine), the general Christian attitude toward the Septuagint has been that it was trustworthy in its own right. Modern fads in Biblical “higher criticism” have eroded this regard, and led many to fetishize dubious reconstructions of the intent in the minds of the ancient Hebrew scribes. But it is a basic principle of Christian exegesis that what we are interested in is what God intended to say through the text, a matter for which the understanding in the mind of the original scribe is one piece of the puzzle, but no more than that. I doubt the Psalmist was picturing Christ in particular when he was inspired to write of the suffering servant, but God knew what He was about. Like Hebrew scribal intent, the Septuagint, which I for one stand with the Fathers in according a high independent value, is another appropriately consulted guide to what God meant. So while it’s certainly ambiguous if “maiden” in the Hebrew means “virgin,” I’ll take the authority of the New Testament-and-Patristic-endorsed Septuagint on that question over some nineteenth century German higher-critical Biblical scholar, and certainly over somebody playing “gotcha” with it.

          1. Douglas Knight

            1. For all I know (or care), modern or medieval Hebrew “almah” just means “young woman” if the word survives at all. But contemporary English “maiden” doesn’t mean much more than that, whereas Elizabethan English “maiden” clearly implied virginity. The Septuagint translators were closer in time to the authorship of the prophetic texts than the rabbis who helped forge post-Temple Judaism after 70 CE. So maybe rather than assuming the legendary Seventy translators were idiots, we should assume that the Seventy were fluent in the Hebrew and Greek of their day, and translated accordingly?

            Equally, why do you assume modern critics are idiots? I cannot adjudicate the actual translation, but I can see that the modern critics do neither of the things you claim: neither look to medieval Hebrew nor assume that the Septuagint was written by idiots.

          2. Irenist

            @Douglas Knight:

            Fair enough. But the usual gotcha is “almah” didn’t mean virgin, so Christians are dopes for thinking it was prophetic. If Christians have independent reason for using the Septuagint to interpret the Hebrew, then the gotcha falls flat. That’s my (limited) point.

          3. Matthew

            You know, there are these people out there called Jews, who’ve been relying on the Hebrew version continuously. You’ll find that the virginity interpretation has never had any currency in Jewish tradition.

          4. Matthew

            Yes, I’m sure. They had no choice when writing the Septuagint, because ancient Greek had no way to make the distinction.

          5. Irenist


            You know, there are these people out there called Jews, who’ve been relying on the Hebrew version continuously.

            You know, Jews in the Hellenistic world were primarily Greek-speaking for centuries, and used the Septuagint in synagogue. (Unsurprisingly enough: How many American Jews look up Bible quotes in Hebrew, vs. googling them in English?)

            Wikipedia (yes, I know, but it’s quick) article on the Septuagint:

            Pre-Christian Jews, Philo and Josephus considered the Septuagint on equal standing with the Hebrew text.[33][34] Manuscripts of the Septuagint have been found among the Qumran Scrolls in the Dead Sea, and were thought to have been in use among Jews at the time.
            Starting approximately in the 2nd century CE, several factors led most Jews to abandon use of the LXX. The earliest gentile Christians of necessity used the LXX, as it was at the time the only Greek version of the Bible, and most, if not all, of these early non-Jewish Christians could not read Hebrew. The association of the LXX with a rival religion may have rendered it suspect in the eyes of the newer generation of Jews and Jewish scholars.[23] Instead, Jews used Hebrew/Aramaic Targum manuscripts later compiled by the Masoretes; and authoritative Aramaic translations, such as those of Onkelos and Rabbi Yonathan ben Uziel

            And Wikpedia on the “Development of the Hebrew Canon”:

            The Septuagint (LXX) is a Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, translated in stages between the 3rd to 2nd century BCE in Alexandria, Egypt.
            Philo and Josephus (both associated with first century Hellenistic Judaism) ascribed divine inspiration to its translators, and the primary ancient account of the process is the circa 2nd century BCE Letter of Aristeas. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls attest to Hebrew texts other than those on which the Masoretic Text was based; in some cases, these newly found texts accord with the Septuagint version.[10] Strong evidence exists that the Septuagint was the canon in place in first century Palestine. “Authors Archer and Chirichigno list 340 places where the New Testament cites the Septuagint but only 33 places where it cites from the Masoretic Text rather than the Septuagint.”[11]

            So the Septuagint predates widespread diaspora use of the Masoretic text by roughly 400 years, sometimes tracks better with the oldest manuscripts we have, enjoyed widespread currency among Jews throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries, and was only abandoned around the time that Christian proof-texting from the Septuagint became a serious irritant to the Jewish community (which abandonment couldn’t possibly have involved any animus or bias, right?), which as Rodney Stark points out, was likely (given reasonable demographic assumptions) hemorrhaging less rabbinically inclined, more culturally Hellenized Jews to the less demanding, more assimilationist new Jesus sect. So rabbinical opinion on whether the once universally applauded Septuagint had mistranslated almah, or whether Jesus was the bastard son of some Roman legionary named Panthera, or any of the other opinions about Christianity issuing from the rabbis of that period, were just the impartial observations of philological experts, right? What could be more rationalist than to comfortingly buttress one’s atheism by taking the demographically threatened rabbis at their word about why a 400 year old, nigh-universally employed translation was suddenly unworthy, instead of wondering if maybe they had biases, too, just like the rest of us?

          6. RCF


            “If Christians have independent reason for using the Septuagint to interpret the Hebrew, then the gotcha falls flat. That’s my (limited) point.”

            If the assertion that it was prophetic is made for evidentiary reasons, then the objection does not fall flat at all. The degree to which an event is evidence depends on how unlikely it is. The more doubt that there as to what the correct interpretation is, and the more possible interpretations there are, the more likely it is that one of them will fit what actually happens.

          7. Irenist


            That’s a very good point. I was just thinking more of the “you guys are dopes, don’t you know that’s a mistranslation?” level of argument, which I think can be rebutted just by showing that Christian churches have been well aware of it for centuries and have thought about the matter in some detail.

            At the far more serious level you’re arguing at, though, you’re right that the possibility of an alternate intention in the mind of the original Hebrew scribe is an effective rebuttal to any prophetic claims.

            Now, in my case, I don’t share the enthusiasm for arguments rooted in the accuracy of prophecy. It’s still a licit form of argument among us high church types, but it’s rather fallen out of fashion. (Perhaps b/c we’re all insufferable snobs and prophecy stuff is sort of a Fundamentalist fixation. I don’t think I’m a horrible snob, but I’d be the last to know, wouldn’t I?)

            Anyhow, as I’ve cluttered up this thread with at great length, I have my own reasons for placing credence in the “parthenos” translation, about which of course YMMV and doubtless does.

            Still, “this prophecy came true” is an extraordinary claim, and the bare possibility that an alternate meaning was intended is enough to render the evidence decidedly not-extraordinary. Frankly, given how voluminous and symbolism-laden the Bible is, even if the virgin birth was prophesied, we’d be likely to get a few hits like that just on random chance, yeah? (This is my conscious reason for finding the prophecy-as-evidence apologetics far, far less compelling than, say, Augustine and Pascal did. But I also find them rather…vulgar…which is what makes me worry there’s some snobbery in there, too.)

            In sum: FWIW, I happily concede your point, which is an excellent one.

        3. Deiseach

          On my reading, the point of the story is that the whole “almah doesn’t mean ‘virgin’, it just means ‘young woman'” interpretation (which is quite deliberately meant to deny the doctrine of the Virgin Birth) is not some modern discovery by smart independent thinkers, but that the old-timey orthodox (small “o”) theologians were quite aware of the objection and did not find it particularly convincing.

          Which, if you’re taking the bare literal meaning of the words on face value, it’s not: this is the equivalent of Isaiah saying “The young woman will have a baby when she’s married”. Whoa, hold on there with that crazy future prophecy stuff! Saying a married woman is going to get pregnant is a bit like saying that the sun is going to rise in the morning (unless she or her husband is sterile or that there is use of contraception to prevent pregnancy) – not really all that startling when it comes to being a prophecy.

          Unless you invoke the context of the prophecy (that Isaiah was referring to a specific woman and a specific marriage and a specific hoped-for pregnancy in the context of the political and dynastic struggles of his time), or unless you take it as “the New foreshadowed by the Old” traditional exegesis, then it really has no use as a prophecy.

          1. Jiro

            the point of the story is that the whole… interpretation (which is quite deliberately meant to deny the doctrine of the Virgin Birth) is not some modern discovery by smart independent thinkers, but that the old-timey orthodox (small “o”) theologians were quite aware of the objection and did not find it particularly convincing.

            Look at any argument about why Jews shouldn’t be treated as inferior beings (that doesn’t depend on something modern such as IQ tests), and I’ll bet you could find it addressed by old time theologians who didn’t find it very convincing. Likewise, look at any argument why the Biblical creation story should be interpreted figuratively.

            Theologians heavily use, and used, motivated reasoning, so the fact that something has been addressed by theologians has little relevance to whether it’s correct. Do you seriously think that if the objection was correct, theologians wouldn’t still have “addressed” it in a plausible-sounding way?

          2. Deiseach

            Jiro, despite what you seem to fear, I have no intentions of dragging you to the baptismal font by the hair of your head.

            What I was saying that the modern “Actually, almah is a mistranslation (you rubes)” gotcha is not some stunning new idea that nobody ever heard of before, but that those musty old scholastics were actually aware of the objection and the variant translation.

            We’ve had this before about Scriptural translation and why translators used certain words and not others, and Augustine and Jerome had a correspondence about Augustine asking him “So why did you use this term rather than that one, which is more accurate?” and Jerome explaining his choices.

          3. Jiro

            The point is that it’s going to be an idea theologians have heard of and “addressed” before completely independently of whether the idea has any merit.

      2. Deiseach

        Has anyone ever read any of the von Daniken books that were so amazingly popular back in the 70s? You know, the ancient astronaut type of thing. Glyphs and ancient monuments showing Advanced Modern Technology they could not possibly have created themselves, so some hyper-advanced alien race must have given it to them.

        And how these items are interpreted as hyper-advanced alien technology is that they’re shown to be the tech of the time (the 70s) – which we’ve now gone far past, so to us those devices don’t look anything like proof that they were left by a civilisation capable of interstellar travel, precisely because the interpretations of the technology are so dated. von Daniken is seeing what he wants to see and basing it on the technical ability of his time – “it has to be a rocket ship, look at the radio valves!” type of reasoning. The flip side of that is that if such ancient documents or paintings or sculptures genuinely showed tech of our day (or beyond), they would have been literally unrecognisable by the standards of the 70s.

        That’s how demands about “If the Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, why doesn’t God tell the scribes about DNA?” strike me. Suppose a 17th century sceptic had demanded that God tell the scribes about phlogiston, as that was the cutting edge science of the day. We now know that to be false. What would have been proof of its correctness at that time would nowadays be proof of its falsity (think of Joseph Smith’s papyri).

        I’m not saying DNA is false! But demands that “If this really is knowledge provided by an omniscient being, then it should [insert Best Science of Our Time] as an explanation” strike me as falling into this trap: our Best Theories of the Day can be shown to be false later, and by putting them into a book, instead of proving its truth, it instead proves its falsity. And also, if we say “But why not put in something like DNA that is undeniably true and won’t be superceded by a later theory?”, then again we’ve got the “un-understandable by the knowledge of the day” problem; imagine how garbled the transmission of such knowledge would be after three thousand years (we could be looking at stylised images like the Assyrian Tree of Life motif representing the double helix!)

        In sum: the Bible is not about science, it’s about the right relationship between God and humanity. It’s like Scott’s cactus and bat people trying to talk about love and joy and the narrator wanting a specific mathematical solution first 🙂

          1. Irenist

            A bunch of people are trapped inside a video game. Decades in the game are mere milliseconds in real life. Whether the people’s characters die young or old makes only a few milliseconds’ difference to playing time, and none to their post-game real life fates. However, whether they act morally within the game will (for, um, reasons) radically and irrevocably determine their real life fates. The game doesn’t have much runtime left. Do you send the players a message about morality, or one about how to survive another few milliseconds?

          2. Clockwork Marx

            Also, you designed the game, the post game, and all of the minds you’re trying to communicate with.

          3. Deiseach

            It does seem to me that a benevolent God handing out rules should have mentioned something about boiling the drinking water.

            Oh, you mean like all the purity rules in Leviticus? The ones that progressives in churches like to wax merry about, in the “shellfish argument” about same-sex marriage and gay rights, for instance?

            God did indeed give a list of dietary restrictions, if I’m recalling correctly, but I don’t see people taking those as evidence one way or the other for independent scientific corroboration of His existence 🙂

          4. Irenist

            @Clockwork Marx:

            Sure, all the usual theodicy problems remain for Christian apologetics. I’ve no desire to debate them here, and I bet Scott would rather I not do that anyway.

            The (comparatively minor) point was just that the “in-Universe” interpretation of Biblical inspiration isn’t prima facie stupid just because there aren’t a lot of modern health tips in the Bible, because on the “in-Universe” view of the Christian mythos, a single sin is objectively worse than any amount of temporal misfortune, because the soul is eternal and the body isn’t. Now, the view that God should care more about our morals, and thus that it is entirely fitting that His Revelation should focus on moral and dogmatic matters rather than on relieving our temporal misfortunes may very well be a silly one. But not an obviously inconsistent one.

        1. Jiro

          Phlogiston was pre-science, Science as we know it now rarely (I’d say pretty much never) overturns existing scientific wisdom (except when it shows that existing scientific wisdom is appropriate for the cases to which it has been applied but does not generalize).

          1. Mai La Dreapta

            Calling phlogiston “pre-science” is begging the question. Phlogiston was the accepted consensus of scholars of its day, and it correctly accounted for the available experimental evidence. If you’re allowed to banish phlogiston to the realm of non-science, then you can simply do the same for any other theory which becomes sufficiently out-of-date.

          2. Deiseach

            So you want God to factor out a prime number, and then three thousand years later after transcription errors, this is run on a computer by modern day people, turns out wrong, and everyone goes “Ha! Told you deities don’t exist!”

            There are enough people gone and going crazy deriving secret Biblical codes based on mathematics that I’m quite glad God did not put mathematics into the Bible; gematria does not interest me particularly.

      3. Mai La Dreapta

        I had written a pretty long reply to the OP which seems to have been eaten by the comment monster, but fortunately your post covered most of the main points. In particular, I want to underline the fact that allegory and esotericism are the dominant interpretative frameworks by which the Fathers interpret the Old and New Testaments, and more importantly it’s how the New Testament authors interpret the Old. I generally presume that the literal meaning of the text is also true in the absence of any other consideration, but if the literal meaning becomes untenable, the spiritual meaning may remain. (And this approach to the problem, contra many internet atheists including Yudkowsky, is not a form of doublespeak invented after science cast the Scriptures into doubt, but was known and acknowledged in ancient times. St. Augustine most prominently discusses this.)

        1. Deiseach

          From Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI, on the four senses of Scripture (traditionally the literal and the spiritual, the spiritual being divided into the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical):

          One may mention in this regard the medieval couplet which expresses the relationship between the different senses of Scripture

          “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
          Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.

          The letter speaks of deeds; allegory about the faith;
          The moral about our actions; anagogy about our destiny”

          So – for Catholicism (and I’m guessing the Orthodox and Oriental Churches as well), the Bible is indeed the word of God, but not the Word of God – the Word is not a book, but a Person, the logos, the beginning of St John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word” (yes, Scott, like that joke on your Twitter), the Word made Flesh, Jesus, God made Man, Second Person of the Trinity.

          1. Mary

            One notes that in this structure, the “literal” encompasses both “literal” and “figurative.” It means what the passage obviously means.

            “It started to rain”‘s literal meaning is “it started to rain.” “Her heart broke”‘s literal meaning is “she suffered great anguish.”

            In a work of fiction, of course, any author could also have added spiritual meanings. The rain falling could also be an indication of grief. The woman’s heart being broken could also be the moment that the society she belongs to (and represents) rejects the man who broke her heart.

        2. Carinthium

          Objection. What is to stop allegory readers from seeing what they want to see? Modern literary interpretation has enough trouble getting objective meaning, and there’s a lot less temptation to rationalise a fiction book than the Word of God.

          If God wanted to make himself clear, he could easily have been more literal.

          1. Wrong Species

            Good point. For an omnipotent being God sure is terrible at sending messages clearly.

          2. Troy

            If God wanted to make himself clear, he could easily have been more literal.

            One of Irenist’s points in the post that started this subthread is that God was working through autonomous human authors, and that ancients wouldn’t have respected or kept around a book that did not have layers of meaning. It’s not God who is not being literal; it’s the human authors of the Bible.

            The worry that we then don’t have anything solid enough to go in in understanding God’s will has been addressed elsewhere in this thread, I think. Above I suggested that the Bible is not itself God’s revelation; it is a record of that revelation. God’s revelation includes things like his interactions with the ancient Israelites and especially his incarnation in Christ. Becoming incarnate and modeling the kind of life that he wants humans to lead sounds to me like a pretty clear message from God.

          3. Deiseach

            How much more literal than “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me” can you get?

          4. Carinthium

            Some bits are highly literal, I agree. But others really aren’t. How do you explain the bit where the Israelites are promised the land from the Euphrates to the Nile?

  31. Corey

    I’m kind of annoyed that Scott McGreal’s comment got elevated to comment of the week. McGreal correctly picks up on the dodginess of apparent motivation for the collapsed analysis, but from my (Bayesian) point of view, his (and Scott Alexander’s) focus on statistical significance blinds him to the actual import of the data. To wit: the justification on offer for collapsing the categories may be wrong but the the collapsed analysis results reported in the paper are reasonable.

    (Of course, if Janet Johnson’s assessment is correct, the whole question of statistical methodology is moot anyway.)

  32. yli

    I would guess that nothing happened to your readership and it’s just that the way the data collection works changed or something. In any case, the fact that the commenters can invent a bunch of rationalizations for why a drop would have happened recently is almost irrelevant. If you posted that graph on any previous open thread, people would have had no trouble coming up with other rationalizations for why a drop should have happened *then*. If you’d said the readership had suddenly increased, ditto. if you’d said the readership had stayed weirdly constant, same thing.

    “Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.”

    … Maybe this even was some kind of test of willingness to rationalize arbitrary claims. If so, I hope I pass. 🙂

    1. 27chaos

      Given that we trust Scott to not randomly lie, it makes sense to look for explanations. If you approach every problem with the mindset that one of the stated premises is wrong, then you’ll be fooled less often by problems with wrong premises, but you’ll have a harder time answering problems which are correctly posed.

      If I asked you “X*2=4, what is X?” and you responded “maybe 4 is a lie, and actually 8 is supposed to be there, or 204398435784, or 6”, that answer would not make you a clever rationalist.

      1. US

        (This was meant to be a reply to ‘yli’, not ’27chaos’).

        “I would guess that nothing happened to your readership and it’s just that the way the data collection works changed or something. In any case, the fact that the commenters can invent a bunch of rationalizations for why a drop would have happened recently is almost irrelevant.”

        He mentions your first option himself (“maybe WordPress changed its method of calculating statistics”) but also notes that this seems unlikely to be the cause as they haven’t made any announcements about that (“I can’t find any evidence of this on the WordPress webpage”) (and you would expect them to announce changes with such a large effect), which is probably why people are willing to speculate about other causes. I also have a wordpress account and note in the comments that I can’t see a similar effect in my stats, making this explanation even less likely (although not much less likely, as I mention n is small in my case – but it is independent support for a ‘not wordpress’-explanation).

        Multiple readers mention changes in a high-impact algorithm, e.g. google, as a likely explanation, and to the extent that it’s not just noise I consider this explanation far more likely than changes in stats management by wordpress. Such an explanation is really hard to test because you’ll never be told by google that they made these important changes and they had these consequences, but an explanation being hard to test does not mean the explanation is wrong.

        I’m sure if he’d made up random data and asked us to explain what was going on, he’d also get a lot of explanations involving various factors, some more plausible than others. But that doesn’t mean something real isn’t going on in the data in this case, nor that the right explanation has not been provided by some of the contributors (given the abruptness of the change, conditional on it being a real effect and not just noise a monocausal explanation to me seems more likely). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen less impressive effect sizes in regression discontinuity designs applied in published papers.

    2. Julie K

      I would have said that your strength as a fiction-writer is your ability to write something that readers find *less* confusing that reality. (i.e. No plot holes) 🙂

    3. RCF

      Perhaps the numbers are normal, but Scott has developed anosognosis that causes him to think they’re off.

  33. yli

    Anyone else having problems with the commenting system?

    When try to I post a comment, about half the time it’ll never appear. If I try to post it again, though, it’ll say that it’s a duplicate comment. Maybe it’s going to a moderation queue? Input appreciated from anyone who knows what’s going on.

    When this happens, neither Firefox nor Chrome will work. Turning on a VPN so I’m coming from a diferent IP address doesn’t work either. Trying with my Ubuntu computer instead of my Win 7 one also doesn’t work. The only thing that (sometimes) works is waiting and trying again later. In the last open thread someone reported this, but said it went away when they stopped using hyperlinks – this doesn’t help for me.

    I hope this comment goes through. EDIT: I’m lucky today.

        1. jaimeastorga2000

          The spam filter also eats comments with the names of certain banned members. I ran into that problem back when multiheaded was banned, and was reduced to calling him “polycephalous.” Check your comment to see if it includes the name of any banned members.

  34. Helge Bjerck

    I went to a liberal arts college, but didn’t get a degree in any of the liberal arts, going for biology instead. In any case, this means that I was constantly barraged by people talking about how great the liberal arts are. One of the main claims is that a liberal arts degree teaches you how to think. I feel like this is claim is taken for granted, event though it seems like it has easily testable predictions (e.g. those with liberal arts degrees have greater critical thinking skills than those who do not, performance in liberal arts courses correlates with critical thinking skills).
    Has anybody ever tested this? Basically, I’m too lazy/snobby to do read the psychological/sociological/pedagogical literature I would need read in order to answer this question myself, and I’m reaching out to y’all to do my dirty work for me.

      1. LTP

        I believe certain majors have been shown to increase critical thinking abilities in other studies, namely philosophy and math, though I heard that second hand and don’t have a source for it.

        1. Protagoras

          Philosophers are slightly less likely to make a narrow range of basic logical mistakes which are otherwise extremely common. They seem as prone to other forms of irrationality as anyone else, sadly. Similarly, extensive education in statistics seems to slightly reduce people’s susceptibility to some of the mistakes in dealing with probabilities that people commonly commit. In both cases, extensive study of the fields in question seems to be required before the effects become noticable; one class as an undergrad doesn’t make a discernable difference. Reducing cognitive biases seems to be extremely difficult.

  35. Navin Kumar

    I have a constrained effective altruism problem.

    Suppose you want to donate to Nepali relief efforts (for reasons of solidarity) – what’s the best charity to donate to?

    Thanks in advance.

  36. FedeV

    Scott, if you’d like some help poking around with the data, I can try to fit some kind of piece-wise linear model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multivariate_adaptive_regression_splines) and to see if I can identify the discontinuity or if it’s just some random noise.

    Alternatively, you could use google analytics and check to see which part of your traffic fell down the hardest? Facebook referrals? Google search results? I have absolutely zero knowledge of web analytics though.

  37. Troy

    Here’s an economics question that has puzzled me for some time. Keynes predicted (in his essay, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren) that as people got richer, they would work less — e.g., move from 40 hour weeks to 20 hours weeks. Although Keynes was right that there would continue to be substantial economic growth, this prediction has not been borne out. Why?

    Some possibilities:
    (1) People value leisure less than Keynes thought, or value money (or something that comes with money, like status) more than he thought.
    (2) Employers have incentives to not hire workers who will work for less of the week, e.g., because of costs associated with hiring more workers and ensuring their productivity.
    (3) People would like to work less, but artificial incentives produced by government regulation stand in the way. For example, requiring health insurance for “full-time” jobs but not “part-time” jobs makes 40+ hour a week jobs more attractive than they would otherwise be.
    (4) People would like to work less, but social conventions stand in the way. The 40-hour workweek is a well-established social convention, and employers are reticent to break it when that’s what employees expect and employees are reticent to ask for something different when that’s not what employers are explicitly offering.

    (1) is not true of my own case, but I may not be representative. Perhaps (2) is true in lower-wage jobs with high turnover, but is it true when companies are hiring, say, office workers who tend to stick around for 10 years? (3) seems plausible for countries with these kinds of regulations, but are all western countries like this? In Canada, for instance, health care is not tied to your employer, but 40+ hour work weeks are still the norm.

    If I had to bet I’d put my money on (4), but I’m interested in seeing what other people think.

    1. Held In Escrow

      There’s several good explanations to this, but the one I’m fond of is that we normalize new additions to our standards of living. It costs more to have a house with running water, internet, and a smart AC/heat system than to not, but nobody wants to live in a house without those if they can help it. Thus although we’re making more money, we’re also having to spend more money in order to gain the same amount of happiness that our forefathers had. The human psyche is gaseous, expanding to fit whatever container it is put in and it takes a lot of effort to compress it back again.

      There are of course strong social expectations in place in regards to 40 hour work weeks, with much of that being built around looking professional rather than being efficient, so that plays somewhat of a role.

      1. Troy

        I think this is certainly part of it, but it’s possible to live in a house with most modern conveniences (e.g., the ones you list) for much less money than what’s considered middle class income in the U.S. — I’d say $20,000/year for a married couple in cheaper parts of the country, based on my personal experience. However, when you add in frivolous spending (eating out for lunch each day rather than packing a sandwich) expenses add up quickly. And I suspect that many Americans value what I would see as frivolous purchases more than I do.

        1. Held In Escrow

          I think that’s a core component of it; people don’t want to live in the cheaper parts of the country. They want to live in the urban or suburban centers, they want neighborhood pools and rec centers, they want a 401k and knowing that they’ll get paid every other week.

          What’s frivolous for one person is a basic human right to another. Hell, when I had a $10 an hour job I’d bring a cheap lunch every day. Now that I have one that’s over double that I eat out and would loathe to go back to making a sandwich for lunch in the morning.

          Our needs expand to meet our means.

    2. John Schilling

      (2) is definitely true for high-skill, long-term workers because of overhead effects. Assume it takes six months of full-time (40 hr/wk) effort for a new employee to get up to speed on whatever task or project they are working. And then ten hours a week to keep track of what everyone else on the project is doing, maintain currency in their professional skills, keep up with the literature, and of course complete the mandatory sexual-harassment prevention training, ethics training, desert tortoise awareness training, etc.

      If I hire one person to work forty hours a week for five years under such conditions, I get 7,020 hours of productive work. If I hire two people to work twenty hours a week for five years, I get a total of 4,160 hours of productive work. That’s 40% less productivity for the same cost; I really need to hire 3.375 half-time workers to replace one full-time.

      And that assumes that the “keep track of what everyone else on the project is doing” overhead is constant. If I’ve got three-and-change times as many people working on the project, that’s more people everyone has to talk to in order to understand what is going on. Probably an extra layer of management. More desert-tortoise awareness training staff, because I can’t train each person half or a third as much.

      But if I can get my people to work 60 hours a week, that’s 12,130 hours of productivity from one man over five years. I will about break even even if I have to pay time-and-a-half for overtime – which I maybe don’t if the guy is a salaried employee. And I can start cutting down on overhead and run a generally leaner project team.

      Where labor is not a commodity, where specific skills and knowledge and connections matter, you want the right man for the job and you want that man on the job right up to the edge of burnout.

      And if you’re asking to work 20 hours a week so you have time to raise your children, play golf, or whatever, understand that you are not offering one-third of what the 60 hr/wk overachiever is providing, you’re offering maybe one-sixth. This will be reflected in the salary and benefits you can negotiate, but it may be camouflaged (e.g. half the nominal full-time salary for a lower-ranked position, no insurance or pension, no bonuses or promotions).

      1. Troy

        Good points. I think that I would marginally prefer to make $20,000/year with a 20-hr workweek than $120,000/year with a 60-hr workweek (other things equal — e.g., I don’t really love my job), because I value leisure time much more than money after I’ve got enough money for a certain basic level of comfort. However, my preferences are probably atypical.

    3. Jon Gunnarsson

      I think it’s a combination of (1) and (2). Since Keynes’s days, work in the developed world has become more complicated (less manual labour, more white collar labour), which means that the costs of education and training are higher. And since these are fixed costs, this development would tend to drive up the number of hours worked.

    4. Douglas Knight

      When Keynes made that prediction, the poor worked more hours than the rich. Today, the rich work more hours than the poor.

        1. Jon Gunnarsson

          The article you cited actually agrees that the rich today work more hours than the poor, so I don’t see how it is a counter-point to what Douglas Knight wrote.

      1. Douglas Knight

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to be cryptic. I meant to preface the claim with “Keep in mind that…” This fact does not in any way addresses the question. However, almost everything that people say about this topic is nonsense and can be filtered out by knowing this.

    5. jaimeastorga2000

      Zero-sum competitions and/or monopolies, such as land and housing, credentialed education and licensing, status signals, and women, eat virtually any surplus above what you need to survive. Several really smart people have come to this conclusion, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky, Michael Vassar, and Vladimir M. Thus, most of the gains of economic growth go to people who are positioned to capture economic rents, and most people benefit merely in the sense that they can afford to buy slightly nicer stuff with their meager left-overs (such as CD players instead of gramaphones).

        1. jaimeastorga2000

          Probably the biggest expense for most women looking for a man these days is going to college, where they can meet a variety of high-quality potential mates. Some women even attend university for this explicit purpose, often referred to as getting an MRS degree. Less common but also expensive is cosmetic surgery such as liposuction, breast augmentation, and face lifting.

          I don’t think clothing counts. As long you don’t care about brand names or following the latest fashion, attractive clothing is quite cheap compared to the above expenses, and most of the obsession over designers and fashions seems to me more like a status competition with other women than an attempt to attract men; I doubt most men can even tell the difference.

          1. FacelessCraven

            perhaps the status contest between women has serious impacts on the ability to secure the limited pool of men?

          2. Cadie

            At least at the middle-class level, if you’re in at least okay shape and know your body and personal style, you can dress yourself well *extremely* cheaply. Just be picky about the fit. Careful accessorizing and shopping at second-hand stores can get you clothes that are just different enough from what everyone else is wearing that you look even more fashionable because it’s subtly different but still similar and it looks good.

            Perhaps the rich are more attuned to designers and the small details that other people miss and that wouldn’t work. I don’t know. I just know that a $2.99 basic knit shirt from Thrift City and $4.99 jeans look about the same as spending $75 on a similar outfit at Ann Taylor or somewhere, except I’m not limited to this season’s colors which 8 times out of 10 don’t look good with my skin tone anyway, and I have more money left over to buy better shoes or the perfect earrings.

      1. Cauê

        “slightly nicer stuff” doesn’t come close to doing it justice.

        Cars, televisions, computers/internet, telephones/cellphones/smartphones, these things are lifechangers (I’m sure we can come up with other examples). And all the small everyday luxuries we don’t usually think about are cumulatively important as well.

        The CD/gramophone looks cherrypicked as an example of incremental development of the same basic thing, but even then, how many people have access to mp3 players today compared with gramophones then?

      2. Irenist

        Anecdotally, zero-sum competition is a huge factor in the U.S. because of bidding wars for housing in desirable public school districts. I grew up in a poor area and as an adult I was once perfectly happy living alone in an unfurnished bedsit with no private bathroom (since I had a library card to keep my floor piled high with stacks of books), but now that I’m a parent I’d be uncomfortable raising my child in similar conditions, mostly because I’d be wary of our likely neighbors in an area as impoverished the one where I was raised, or sending her to the schools there. But to buy into a good school district, my wife and I had to buy more house than I would have wanted otherwise. I suspect this is far from uncommon. I think Elizabeth Warren’s “Two Income Trap” idea is partly about this: the gains of a second working spouse get wasted on school-district competition.

      3. ADifferentAnonymous

        To be clear, it looks like EY and Vassar are talking about extraction of economic rent by monopolies, while Vladimir M is talking about zero-sum competitions, rather than all three of those authorities agreeing it’s a mix of both factors.

    6. Quixote

      I’d bet on 4. I work at a large corporate, we’ve discussed this before and would like to move in the direction of other kinds of work arrangement since te research shows they are more productive and boost retention. But it’s hard to shift existing equilibrium. It’s really hard to change culture and even harder to change cultural backgrounds.

      1. Troy

        Thanks, that’s interesting. It’s a good counterpoint to John Schilling above too that there are benefits as well as costs to having more workers work fewer hours per week (in terms of productivity, retention, etc.). I don’t know what the optimal balance is, but I bet it’s less than 40 hours a week at least for some lines of work.

        1. Quixote

          Just for a bit more context we would be looking to do something more like 60->45 rather than 40->20. So some of johns points about fixed costs and the fixed ‘cost’ or training / learning periods apply differently.

          The trade offs work differently for different people. At 80 hours a week almost no one who takes maternity leave comes back and works at their prior level. At 60 hours you still lose over half. If you get that down to 40 and you are keeping >75% of people. so overtime you can have a much better retention rate and retain internal knowledge.

          On the other hand for a lot of single folk, people would accept a greater than 20% pay it for having to work 4 days a week instead of 5 on the theory of what’s the point of having money if you never have the Freetime to enjoy spending it.

          // all numbers in this post rounded to nearest pleasing sounding attractor

    7. Doctor Mist

      I vote for (3), and would add that there is both a present-effect and a future-effect. Seeing what chaos the government is willing to inject into the economy makes it much harder to achieve any sense of security about how much money I “need”.

      I am a few days away from retirement, and by sensible computations could have retired some time ago. But if I have to include “What if the government decides to confiscate or inflate away half of what I have saved?” it’s a bit harder.

      Note also that (3) impacts (2). Part of the overhead of having an employee is imposed by the government, in the form of obstacles to firing, required benefits, etc.

    8. Matt C

      Are you sure we’re not working a lot less than we did in Keynes’s time?

      People spend a lot more time in school than they used to, and most people live long enough to have a retirement now. Six more years of schooling and ten years of retirement (made up numbers) is a sizeable chunk of life not working compared to a guy in 1940.

      Also there are more people on disability, on unemployment, on the dole/welfare, etc.

      Women started doing paid work more since 1940, but if you’re counting hours worked we’d want to compare to the unpaid work women had been doing. Don’t know how that shakes out.

      I looked at https://stats.oecd.org/ and running the numbers back to 1950 shows a decline in hours worked for France, Sweden, and USA (these countries ran all the way back to 1950). Other countries show declines too. The stat I am looking at is labeled “Average annual hours actually worked per worker” so I do not think these declines are talking about the decrease in labor force participation mentioned above.

      It looks to me like Keynes was at least partly correct and we are working quite a bit less than we used to. I think the rest of the difference is mostly your 1). Most people don’t really mind working a 40 hour week and they like nice cars and central heat and iPhones.

        1. Matt C

          I don’t understand what you mean. Are you saying today’s leisure activities are more time consuming than leisure used to be?

          1. Nancy Lebovitz

            It may just be a matter of where I hang out, but it seems as though people don’t just have more media (including books) to consume, they’re consuming more of it and knowing more about the details.

    9. David Friedman

      Do you have data showing that people are not, on average, working fewer hours a year now than they were working when Keynes made that prediction? It wouldn’t be my guess.

      1. Troy

        I thought this was the conventional wisdom on Keynes’s essay today, but I do not now remember where in particular I’ve read this.

        If we do work less now than we used to, I am confident that we don’t work as much less as Keynes thought; he thought that by now most of us would be working 15-hour weeks.

        1. David Friedman

          Suppose, what strikes me as more likely, that people are working fewer hours, but not nearly as many fewer as Keynes expected. Three possibilities occur to me:

          1. Jobs, on average, have become substantially less unpleasant over the past eighty or ninety years, so lower marginal utility of income with higher incomes is balanced, at least in part, by lower marginal disutility of labor.

          2. Keynes overestimated how rapidly MUI falls as income increases. That fits my more general impression that most people believe that, if their income doubled, they would have everything they wanted, and additional expenditure would be mainly display. The attitude makes sense, since people have little reason to think about ways of spending money that obviously make no sense at their current income. But when it does double … .

          3. A different version of 2, less consistent with the usual economic approach. The individual utility function actually resets as a result of a change in income. Someone who was mildly happy at $20,000 a year has in increase over time to $30,000. For a while he is very happy, then he gets used to it, and his utility slides back to what it used to be—and requires another increase to bring it back up. Which will again only be temporary.

          For an extreme example, a friend who spent time living with a pretty isolated Indian tribe in (I think) central America—she thought she was only the second non-native speaker of their language—reported that they didn’t seem significantly less happy than the people she knew back in the U.S.

        2. David Friedman

          Suppose, what strikes me as more likely, that people are working fewer hours, but not nearly as many fewer as Keynes expected. Three possibilities occur to me:

          1. Jobs, on average, have become substantially less unpleasant over the past eighty or ninety years, so lower marginal utility of income with higher incomes is balanced, at least in part, by lower marginal disutility of labor.

          2. Keynes overestimated how rapidly MUI falls as income increases. That fits my more general impression that most people believe that, if their income doubled, they would have everything they wanted, and additional expenditure would be mainly display. The attitude makes sense, since people have little reason to think about ways of spending money that obviously make no sense at their current income. But when it does double … .

          3. A different version of 2, less consistent with the usual economic approach. The individual utility function actually resets as a result of a change in income. Someone who was mildly happy at $20,000 a year has an increase over time to $30,000. For a while he is very happy, then he gets used to it, and his utility slides back to what it used to be—and requires another increase to bring it back up. Which will again only be temporary.

          For an extreme example, a friend who spent time living with a pretty isolated Indian tribe in (I think) central America—she thought she was only the second non-native speaker of their language—reported that they didn’t seem significantly less happy than the people she knew back in the U.S.

    10. someone

      The somewhat famous “Bullshit Jobs” Essay by David Graeber votes #4 with the variation that lots of people already work less, we just have to stretch it out to 40h because of #4.
      That vague culture thing is also my favourite.

      Edit: the data i internalized, also i am too lazy to look for sources now, is this: Agricultural society had somewhat less workhours than today but with great variation over the year/situation, industrialisation brought 60-70h workweeks from which workers fought gradually downward combined with change of work to white-coller work i.e. things workers needed to be in good shape for and had to be competited over. The question is why the decline mysteriously stopped at 40h.

      1. Held In Escrow

        An argument with no actual backing, and the only evidence he puts forth is factual wrong (unlimited supply of jobs for corporate lawyers? I had to check to make sure that wasn’t written decades ago). Accusations of an Illuminati-esque ruling class trying to prevent a popular revolution through meaningless work? I half expect for Scooby Do and the Gang to pull off his mask and show that it was Old Man Marx all along!

        1. someone

          You are right of course. I brought it up because it corresponds well with the anecdotal evidence i have from consulting and a law firm. These are kinds of work were you cannot guess from the number of hours done on the outcome. Still everyone is busy signalling that they stay so very long at the office, look how hard they work. Which leads to things being done just to fill the hours. You know a legal argument, thats kind of bullshit? doesn’t matter, we will add it, just because we can.
          I was hoping someone could bring a little flesh to that skeleton of an argument.

    11. ADifferentAnonymous

      Robin Hanson thinks short hours signal bad things.

      “Once as a young man working at Lockheed, I decided to switch from working 40 to 30 hours per week, to spend more time on my independent research. My rate of advancement in the company didn’t just slow by 25%, it stopped completely — I was seen as not serious about my job. This suggests a signaling explanation for retirement: spreading our end of life play across the rest of our life would makes us look less serious and productive as workers.”

  38. Troy

    Two thoughts on Growth Mindset, now that I’ve finally read through all of Scott’s recent posts on the subject:

    (1) Scott expresses skepticism of the Very Controversial Position that “Belief in the importance of ability directly saps a child’s good qualities in some complicated psychological way. … It shifts children into a mode where they must protect their claim to genius at all costs, whether that requires lying, cheating, self-sabotaging, or just avoiding intellectual effort entirely.”

    While I share much of Scott’s skepticism about growth mindset, I don’t think that it’s true for me that the VCP “really doesn’t match my experience” or that “The people I know who are most interested in issues of innate ability don’t behave at all like Dweck’s subjects.” With respect to the latter, I suspect that the LW-sphere is not a representative sample of bright people who believe in the importance of ability. On the other hand, the VCP seems semi-plausible to me in another domain with lots of bright people who implicitly believe themselves to be very talented, namely academia. I think academics in my own field do often feel a need to “protect their claim to genius at all costs.” If I am to be honest, I think I feel this need myself in the way in which I present myself to my colleagues. I don’t think it significantly biases the conclusions that I come to, but I think it does make me less likely to admit when I don’t understand something or to ask for help when I need it. And I think my experience of the latter is quite common among academics.

    (2) Arguing for the other side: if I wanted to explain the impressive positive results in growth mindset studies that Scott mentioned in his earlier posts, it seems like the best bet would be experimenter bias of some sort: in particular, I’d bet that children could tell how the experimenters wanted them to perform and performed accordingly. It seems like it ought to be possible to have assistants run the studies who are not familiar with the theory being tested and just read to the children the speech given to them. (e.g., experimenters could pay college students to do this.) That’s what I’d like to see on some of these impressive studies of Dweck et al.

  39. Daniel Speyer

    Do you have http-referer data for your traffic? If the sudden drop is in one source, that will probably tell you what’s going on. If it’s in everything at once, it’s more likely to be a co-incidence.

    Maybe Google improved their algorithm with regards to Pakistani milf porn, and that stream of misplaced traffic went away. My plurality credence is that it’s something that silly.

  40. Harald K

    I have been thinking a lot about that Credence Calibration Game that Scott posted in a comment recently. I know it’s old news to all you long time fans of Scott and the LW crowd, but seems so cool.

    Unfortunately, the app is no longer available. Bent Spoon games, which made the game for Android, is apparently no more. It’s a bit odd, since I know apps from other defunct publishers are not automatically removed from Google Play.

    Anyway, do anyone know a way to get that app?

    1. Anonymous

      You can find the app here: http://rationality.org/calibration/

      I found it incredibly frustrating, because my 70% was extremely overconfident, like 55%, but on the other hand, my 60% was extremely underconfident, like 75%. Which, okay is weird, but I should be able to correct that. I mean, if I just hit 70% every time I think 60% and vice versa, that should reverse the scores. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get reasonable scores.

      I basically used 60% for “I have no idea but I have some inclination of a guess”, but then when I tried to correct these scores later, I would think “I only have a guess… 60%, but aha! I should do 70% instead. But those would invariably turn out wrong. On the flip side, when I thought “70%, wait a minute I’m probably overconfident, I should do 60% instead” I would invariably answer correctly.


      1. Harald K

        No, as you can see, the Android link from that site is dead. I don’t have windows or mac at home, so can’t play it.

        On the other hand, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to write a version of it myself. He won’t mind, will he?

  41. Nestor

    Your node of the ancestor simulation got dialed down, you’ve probably drifted away from whoever the true focus of this world instance is.

    Quick, try to figure out who it could be! Who did you stop hanging out with around that date? Social relevance is just the canary in the coalmine, the cognitive effects will soon follow, and you’ll end up as a less resource intensive p-zombie.

  42. Fazathra

    I’m fairly unversed in moral philosophy, so this is an open-ended question, but is there any philosophically consistent basis for “rights” like a right to life etc. Rights do not seem to fit very well into a utilitarian or virtue ethical framework, and only really fit into deontology if you have rules like “you must respect people’s rights” which is basically arbitrary. Why do people believe there are such things as “human rights” which must be followed? Is there any real argument for thinking rights exist beyond the bare assertion that they do in places like the UN’s declaration of Human Rights?

    1. Carinthium

      Off the top of my head (I’m pressed for time), rights make no sense within a utilitarian system.

      For a deontologist, saying people have a ‘right’ to a certain thing is another way of phrasing behaviours which should not be done to them without their consent, which I could accept if there was a good moral argument for it. With such an argument behind it, I see no reason not to call them rights. For a virtue ethicist, general rules of behaviour are still possible so ‘rights’ could exist in a broad sense.

      However, in practice I agree that there is no reasonable case for the existence of human rights of any sort, or for that matter moral truth of any sort.

      1. porridgebear

        There’s also a moral agent focused version: “rights” as moral claims about what it is properly ethical to secure by force.

        Roderick Long has some lectures that focus on this version.

    2. Peter

      I’ve seen the phrase “patient-centred deontology” used to described rights-oriented moral philosophies – e.g. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/#PatCenDeoThe. Personally I have little time for this. Incidentally, I also have little time for preference utilitarianism – to me, these two seem to have the same problem in reverse; they seem to have their agents and patients in a muddle. Possibly I need to expand on that if there’s demand.

      Bentham was certainly keen on legal rights, so some forms of rights fit into utilitarian systems, and it’s not too much of a push to go for customary rights too. I forget what Mill’s exact views were but ISTR them being more in favour of rights than Bentham’s. If you consider rule utilitarian systems, then conceivably the optimal rules might take the form of rights, and contract(arian|ualist) systems (which can often be shoehorned in under “deontology” if you like to keep the deontology/consequentialism/virtue ethics trilemma going) are pretty similar IMO and the same applies.

      I had a thought about natural rights, which until recently I’d been dismissing as nonsense upon stilts, but I wondering whether the tendency of people to get angry when some sorts of bad stuff happens to them or people/things they care about gives some naturalness to whatever customary/hypothetically-optimal/whatever rights your system might give. This is partly based on re-interpreting “endowed by the Creator” as a reference to evolution. At this stage this is an idea to play with, nothing more.

      I tend to go for multi-layered moral philosophies, there’s plenty of room for rights in some of the middle or upper layers, I think whatever your deep underpinnings.

      1. Carinthium

        I’m curious about your beliefs about agents and patients, for what it’s worth. Above all, I’m curious about your reasoning for getting to your beliefs about agents and patients in the first place.

        I’m also curious about what you mean by a moral-layered moral philosophy.

        Minor note- On your idea of natural rights, I have no actual logical argument against it but I’m pretty sure it would lead to conclusions unpleasant to modern Western culture. If you’re curious, I’ll elaborate.

        1. Peter

          Agents and patients. Well, classical hedonic utilitarianism is very much patient-centred, it looks at various experiences and calls things that lead to the good ones “good” and the bad ones “bad”. I might also call it agent-patient.

          Deontology… well, the term covers a multitude of sins, including what I’d like to call “Irreducible List Deontologies”[1], but the ones worth taking seriously are of the Kantian family. These I see as agent-agent, or even moral agent-moral agent. Less about acting on a patient, and more about interacting with another agent, maybe hypothetical ones that think as you do in the place of the real ones you actually encounter, but still, agent-agent.

          There’s a conception of animals as being patients but not moral agents; Bentham famously advises protecting animal welfare, in a fairly natural and direct manner, whereas Kant has to go through some IMO unsatisfying contortions to do this. On the other hand hedonic utilitarianism has some issues with trustworthiness; there are ways of dealing with these but I’m sure that others might opine that they’re unsatisfying contortions.

          So I see preference utilitarianism as trying to make utilitarianism more agent-agenty, and patient-centred deontology (PCD) as trying to make deontology more agent-patienty. And I’m at a loss to explain why, but these feel… like cheap ersatzes, “ugly hybrids”.

          I said something about “unsatisfying contortions” – actually I’m a big fan of the idea that a moral philosophy specifies a small, concise idea of what fundamentally determines morality, and that other things flow from that – this is the “multi-layer” thing. Some people seem to get terribly upset when confronted with a moral system that doesn’t make their favorite issue a fundamental thing – it’s not enough for some people for something to be very important, it has to be intrinsically important – you can see I have little time for this way of thinking, I may be biased. Anyway, for me, I suppose I think that preference utilitarianism and PCD are trying to push the “missing” bit into the fundamental level, rather than letting it flow from it.

          [1] An arbitrary list of prescriptions and proscriptions, “just because”, possibly backed with something like Divine Command, often repeated loudly and in a moralizing tone of voice. Closely related to various “Objective List” philosophies that Parfit identifies. As you can see I have little time for this, and also it gives me an opportunity to take a cheap sideswipe at antireductionism too.

          1. Troy

            If I wanted to play Devil’s Advocate, my response would be that a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler: and, as it turns out, the moral landscape is complicated.

            As it happens, though, I share your desire for a simple fundamental system. On “Objective List” deontology, I am reminded of this marvelous quote from Geach’s essay, “Good and Evil”:

            “We must allow in the first place that the question ‘Why should I?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ is a reasonable question, which calls for an answer, not for abusive remarks about the wickedness of asking; and I think that the only relevant answer is an appeal to something the questioner wants. Since Kant’s time people have supposed that there is another sort of relevant reply–an appeal not to inclination but to the Sense of Duty. Now indeed a man may be got by training into a state of mind in which ‘You must not’ is a sufficient answer to ‘Why shouldn’t I’?; in which, giving this answer to himself, or hearing it given by others, strikes him with a quite peculiar awe; in which, perhaps, he even thinks he must not ask why he must not. … Moral philosophers of the Objectivist school, like Sir David Ross, would call this ‘apprehension of one’s obligations’; it does not worry them that, but for God’s grace, this sort of training can make a man apprehend practically anything as his obligations.”

            I don’t agree with him that the answer to this question must ultimately appeal to something the questioner wants, but I share his (and your) dislike for Objective List views that don’t give any kind of deeper explanation for the content of the List.

          2. Carinthium

            Why should preference utilitarianism or patient-centered deontology be bad simply because of what they do? I’ve given to understand preference utilitarianism at least has good actual reasoning.

            Preference utilitarianism is definitely concise, and is ‘small’ in the same sense act utiltarianism is. I don’t know patient centered deontology though.

            What about the possibility the moral landscape (which is a set of intuitive moral ‘beliefs’) is ultimately self-contradictory or otherwise unable to logically ‘fit’?

            If so, shouldn’t we just discard morality alltogether as useless?

          3. Peter

            Troy – well, your Devil’s Advocate – the moral landscape is indeed complicated, one of the appeals of consequentialist systems is that the link between act (or rule or whatever) and consequences is mediated by the complicatedness of the world as it is, thus you can have a complicated surface morality underpinned by a small clean kernel.

            (Also, having done a chemistry degree, it’s remarkable how much a messy and complicated world of surface phenomena can be reconciled with a relatively clean and simple theory.)

            Carinthium: as I say I’m at a slight loss to say why I feel what I do. I think, searching for bad reasons for my position that I might be guilty of, I’m a bit of a rule utilitarianism partisan (more or less of the acceptance varieties that Parfit a) likes and b) thinks reconcilable with his preferred version of Kantianism). In particular, the various dilemmas that people came up with suggest that classic act utilitarianism involves biting quite a lot of bullets; I think intuitions conflict and you’re going to have to bite a few, but it’s worth keeping the bullet count down, and I’m impressed by the way (my preferred forms of – you can assume this from here on) rule utilitarianism help avoid a great many of those bullets. Also, given that act utilitarianism is self-effacing, I think that rule utilitarianism is what it effaces itself into, which I think is a point in favour of it, although others may disagree. Anyway, given this, I sort of see preference utilitarianism as being a bit redundant – it sort-of fixes up classic act utilitarianism in a roughly similar way, but doesn’t give me the “ooh, that’s neat” that rule utilitarianism does for me.

            Also, preference utilitarianism, for me, seems a little tainted by association with Singer. Yes, “Singer is anathema” is closer to being anathema to me than Singer is, but that doesn’t mean I have to like his more… controversial… views.

          4. Carinthium

            To sum up- I diagree with the idea of appealing to intuitions as part of a moral theory in the first place.

            Why do you think we should do that much? Do you have good reasoning behind it?

    3. Citizensearth

      I think you’re right that deontology is the form of reasoning from which rights would be most likely to philosophically flow, though people from other schools of thoughts may support them for practical reasons (eg. they’re good at achieving morally good outcomes). If I remember correctly both libertarian philosophy and Kantian reasoning can provide a basis for rights-based moral thinking, but someone that knows either in more detail may wish to correct me on that.

      In practice I imagine support for a rights-based approach in the real world is one third pragmatism, one third emotionally based, and one third theological in some form. I think in general most philosophers usually see rights as more of a simple label for deeper and more complex moral questions.

    4. ADifferentAnonymous

      I’d say rights aren’t basic in consequentialism. They can still make sense as political constructs. To first order you might parse “I declare a universal right to X” as “I don’t think it’s ever good for a government to take away/not provide X”.

      ETA: Consider an analogy: “Crimes” can’t be a basic entity in utilitarianism either, but having a knowable set of laws with somewhat predictable application leads to more utility than trying to punish everyone who decreases utility.

    5. blacktrance

      Rights are a product of morally ideal law. As long as your preferred ethical system produces some ideal set of laws, it has room for rights.

    6. TomA

      There is also the evolutionary aspect as it relates to all memetic traits. If the adoption and implementation of a social rights regime is advantageous to the survive and thrive imperative, then it will persist simply because it works.

    7. cypher

      You can view rights as a heuristical approach to ethics based on common human failure modes, designed for relatively fast resolution of ethical problems.

      “Right to life” (as a negative right), for example, covers all possible ways an agent might kill someone else, and classifies them all as wrong (until we add our additional layers later). It’s short and easy to remember, and people seem to like phrasing it in that way instead of a command (“don’t kill.”)

      Utilitarianisms only generate rights as an intermediate node or government policy, however, rather than something true by itself.

    8. David Friedman

      For a slightly different angle on this …

      I live in the SF bay area and was vaguely aware of the existence of the LW/Rationalist community, mostly via my elder son. But what got me interested enough to start coming to the third Saturday Palo Alto parties was this blog. It struck me that a fair number of the commenters were people it would be interesting to talk with, and many seemed to be part of a social network near me.

      Of course, discovering that the host of the third Saturday parties was a fellow Kipling fan didn’t hurt.

    9. David Friedman

      I think rights can be part of a rule utilitarian approach. “Don’t violate property rights,” for instance, is a rule that, if generally followed, is likely to result in higher utility than “violate property rights whenever you think doing so increases total utility,” given the imperfections of human judgement. Similarly for “don’t murder people.”

      Think of it in terms of conventional economic efficiency proofs. If something is worth more to you than to its present owner, you can buy it. Your feeling free to steal it only changes things if it’s worth less to you than to the present owner, and in addition creates the costs associated with guarding property and trying to defeat the defenses. That isn’t a rigorous utilitarian argument because willingness to pay is an imperfect measure of utility, for familiar reasons, not to mention transaction costs, but it might produce better outcomes than any alternative rule.

      1. Shieldfoss

        I think rights can be part of a rule utilitarian approach. “Don’t violate property rights,” for instance, is a rule that, if generally followed, is likely to result in higher utility than “violate property rights whenever you think doing so increases total utility,” given the imperfections of human judgement. Similarly for “don’t murder people.”

        This is my approach as well – I tend to phrase it as “Rights do not exist in any meaningful fashion as such, but are very useful heuristics so long as moral decisions are made by fallible humanity.”

        Though I suddenly realize rights might still be around even after all the important decisions start being made by AI – so long as the AI cares bout us and our concerns – because we care about rights.

    10. David

      Other commenters have already touched on the idea, but our host actually has proposed a model of rights as heuristics which are so useful in general, and where our human biases make us terrible judges of when they aren’t useful, that it makes sense to conceive of them as if they were inviolable laws of the universe. See part 6 of the Consequentialism FAQ (though I don’t know how much of that he still endorses).

    11. RCF

      It seems quite clear to me that rights are simply another way of stating moral rules. “People have a right to their belongings” means “It is morally wrong to steal”.

      1. Troy

        Counterexample: it is morally wrong for you to never let your brother play with your new toy. But your brother does not have a right to your toy.

  43. frogcurious

    I’m on immunosuppressants for IBD (azathioprine) and I want to take kambo*. Since they’re both active on the immune system I’m cautious about it. Also the azathioprine works, not 100%, but it is effective, and I definitely don’t want to mess that effect up. Since people often explain kambo as “stimulating the immune system” I’m a bit worried that it would undo the effect of immunosuppressants, though I suspect that explanation is probably too oversimplified to be useful in this case.

    Should I just ask a pharmacist? It seems like kambo has 100s of different active compounds, which complicates the question. And it is not particularly well known.

    This commentariat seems like a good place to crowdsource information which I could use to calculate the risks. Anyone know anything about this subject? Scott?

    (*not endorsing this link but it seems as good as any other on this subject http://www.heartoftheinitiate.com/files/Kambo-Scientific-Research-Healing-Treatments.pdf)

    1. Rowan

      I’ve never before heard of kambo, but I’m enthusiastic enough about seeing someone else with IBD in the rationalsphere that I feel I need to add something. I do have experience with worries about other drugs that affect the immune system while taking azathioprine, in my case that meant reading about melatonin one day, discovering it supposedly boosted the immune system, and immediately ceasing to take it. It was listed as having a drug interaction with azathioprine and other immunosuppressants, but I suspect that got listed on relevant websites just based on assumptions derived from “boosts the immune system” without more reason than that, and that that’s only happened to melatonin but not kambo because the former is wayyy more well-known. I noticed no change, although I did get worse in subsequent months which now that I’m thinking about it may have actually been because the melatonin was being helpful instead of counteracting the immunosuppressant. But now I’m on Humira, and that’s a thing that’s working that I don’t want to mess with, at least until I’ve been on it for a while and things have stabilised enough for me to notice effects of other changes I make.

      I suggest, if there’s this little information out there, you try self-experimentation and see if you can go full Gwern on the problem.

  44. Godzillarissa

    So, I was on holiday in Scotland (via the Netherlands from Germany) a few weeks ago and I noticed something that I’d like to have a few opinions on.

    The thing is, as far as I can tell, there’s not really a market for fair-trade-anything in Germany. We kinda have an “organic” shelf every now and then, and little shops that sell local goods along with vegan food etc. But it’s really not a big thing for most people around here (Bavaria, if you’re interested).

    The minute we got off the plane in Amsterdam, though, EVERYTHING was fair-trade, organic, like really in your face (and twice as expensive). Even the airplane food was made with ‘local bread’ (whatever that means, when you’re on a plane). And it continued all through Glasgow, onto the Isle Of Arran (but that was to be expected, since it’s a small island and all).

    Anyway, question time:
    Is fair-trade, locally grown, organic food this huge thing Germany didn’t pick up on yet? Or is it just a “how can we get tourists to pay more?”-label that is applied in airports and other tourist-dense areas?

    1. Emily

      I think there’s a general trend for this stuff in the UK. It’s possible that it’s more prevalent in touristy areas, but it’s definitely not confined to them. (I live in the southwest, and I’ve noticed it mainly in various bits of the south. Interesting to know it’s in full force in Scotland.)

    2. James

      Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty common across Britain. Fairtrade varieties of certain fairtrade-y goods (chocolate, bananas, wine?) can be obtained in most supermarkets.

      I can’t speak for anywhere else. I’m surprised it’s so scarce in Germany. I wonder if somewhere like Berlin is any different to Bavaria on this axis.

    3. Deiseach

      I find that interesting, since the Anthroposophist, Steiner Schools, biodynamic stuff I know about through my sister all orginates in Germany, and the local health store here has products like Weleda and Dr Hauschka, so my impression is that naturopathy and things like homeopathic remedies are, if not “big”, at least not uncommon in Germany?

      Not to mention the Reinheitsgebot which was a selling point in advertising German beers over here!

      I would therefore have expected the ‘organic, fair-trade, all natural’ things to do well there, and you are saying that is not so?

      1. Godzillarissa

        It might be I’m just not as exposed to it, due to my (very neraly nonexistent) social circles. But since the organic (or “bio” in german) hype tapered off, it’s not a mainstream thing as far as I can tell. It’s just kinda there and some care, but most don’t, as far as I can tell from my personal experience.

        Re “Reinheitsgebot”: I also noticed that beer in the UK is much more diverse than in Germany. Which makes the vast bulk taste… very unexpected, while there’s also really good stuff. I’m not sure if the “Reinheitsgebot” isn’t to blame for german beer’s same-ness.

    4. Franz_Panzer

      I’m surprised to hear that this is not a thing in Germany, because it certainly is in Austria. Fruit, vegetables and dairy product made “aus biologischer Landwirtschaft” and similar labels (which I would say are the equivalent of the english “organic”) are everywhere. When you buy meat you can see from which farmer in which part of Austria it comes from. Supermarkets, even the disconters, have fresh bread, often even baked in the store.

      Now, I don’t know how “in your face” the advertisement about that kind of products is in the UK, so maybe I can’t say whether I would find it over the top or not. But to hear that this is something basically not noticable in Germany is surprising to me.

      1. Godzillarissa

        I’m sure the actual difference got blown out of proportion by the marketing (which is really In Your Face).

        So I guess it is “a thing” here, too. It’s just that when you buy organic/bio, you’re basically signalling “I’m special”, while in the UK I had a feeling it’s just what you do.

        Regarding “freshly baked” goods (and a bit off-topic):
        I just always assume that’s frozen and de-frosted/re-baked at the supermarket and they make no claims for it to be “local” or “baked right here”.

        1. Cadie

          Not sure how it works elsewhere, but in American supermarkets, “freshly baked” usually means that the product arrived frozen, and it was thawed and baked at the store. I worked in a store bakery for awhile and we’d set up trays of frozen unbaked (but already risen, shaped, etc.) products in a large refrigerator, and early the next morning we’d bake them and add icing if needed. So they really were BAKED freshly at the store, but not prepared there except for the last step of icing donuts.

          1. Godzillarissa

            That’s probably how they do it here, too. In hindsight I made it sound a bit different, sorry for that :/

            Anyway, if that’s what people understand and buy then more power to them, I guess. I myself wouldn’t call that “freshly baked”, though, even if it’s technically true.

    5. Jon Gunnarsson

      Fellow Bavarian here. I suspect this is just part of the general trend of Germany being quite thrifty when it comes to buying food. Which raises the question of why that tendency exists, and I have no idea why.

      1. Deiseach

        Which raises the question of why that tendency exists, and I have no idea why.

        Don’t mention the war(s)? 🙂

        1. Jon Gunnarsson

          I don’t quite follow. Are you saying that Germans are frugal when it comes to buying food because of food shortages during the World Wars?

          1. Godzillarissa

            I don’t know about people in general, but the elderly here seem to be very much influenced by the shortages during and post WWII. Many won’t buy organic food if it’s more expensive than non-organic food.
            The mentality seems to be “We didn’t have that before and still we lived.”.

    6. Douglas Knight

      Organic is a strategy of bundling competent labor with expensive products, but Germans are generally competent, so there is no room for this niche.

    7. chaosmage

      As a German, I find fair-trade and organic stuff in my very unremarkable local supermarket. There are a number of niche shops, a couple of vegan restaurants and vegan fast food joints, and even a “vegan only” supermarket. Of course this is in Leipzig, a big-ish city. Hannover is a similar-sized city and also has things like an “organic only” food supermarket. Berlin has even more of this; I once read a funny newspaper article about a Berlin drug dealer who specializes in organic fair trade cocaine.

      But there is a sharp urban/rural divide. When I’m out in the country, food stores compete on nothing but price. Even eggs that aren’t from factory farming can be hard to find.

      So my guess is you’re from rural, rather than urban, Bavaria.

      1. Godzillarissa

        Hm… I grew up in a city with a population of ~25k and moved to one of ~60k about 5 years ago. Both are tourist-dense, so that maybe cancels out the relatively low population a bit. I also visited Augsburg pretty frequently and munich on occasion, but apart from fancy restaurants it’s pretty much the same everywhere, afaict.

        And while there are specialty stores and the organic shelf in the supermarket, I don’t feel like it’s much of a thing for the general population. Sure, there’s the fancy, upper middle class “I only eat organic” crowd and the hipster students and the “hippies”, but that’s about it.

  45. zz

    It occurs to me that dead children is often not a large enough denomination: dead children, like birds, don’t scale well. I don’t feel much difference between 2k dead children (~$6M), 20k dead children (~$66M), and 200k dead children (~$666M).

    Thus (and this probably only really works for Americans), I propose adding the denomination Columbine massacres. The Columbine shooting killed 12 children. At $3340 / child, that works out to $40k. Roughly speaking, $200k is a Columbine massacre a day for a work week, $1M is a Columbine massacre a day for a month, $15M is a Columbine massacre a day for a year, and $1B is a Columbine massacre a day for your entire life (assuming the life transhumanists and life extension folks fail, which is a pretty strong assumption.)

    Now $6M (Columbine massacre a day for half a year), $66M (Columbine massacre a day for 4 years), and $666M (Columbine massacre a day for half your life) are closer to feeling as far apart as they actually are.

    (nb, this values change if you include the adult or shooters who died—and I think you should—but the result remains correct on the Fermi level, which is where all the original calculations happened in the first place.)

    1. RCF

      This comment is rather bizarre. Changing to Columbine adds just one order of magnitude. The real work is done by having it repeat over a long time. So why are you treating Columbine as being the central innovation? Also, Columbine was a rather politicized event. You might not want to bring up those associations.

  46. US

    Others have touched upon this, but I see pretty much no way the drop-off in readership has anything to do with something you did. Are the wordpress stats the only stats you have of your readers? I’d feel very deprived of data if that was all I had to go on, and I don’t get anywhere near 1% of your traffic (…nor would I want to get that kind of attention…). If you don’t have much data to go on, one way to investigate further might be to compare the development of comments over time with that of the hits; if comments haven’t dropped off as well, what’s going on is not what you’re worried about (old-timers giving up on your blog).

    A substantial proportion of all blog hits are first-timers who arrive via search engines. That you can’t find any announcements about changes in search algorithms or similar I’m not surprised about (update: apparently I can’t read – you didn’t look for those, but rather for wordpress announcements…); I think tweaks to the algorithms are mostly made without public announcements of the changes, and it seems to me that search providers have a clear incentive to withhold information about many of the changes they make, as withholding such information makes their algorithms harder to game for people in that business.

    For what it’s worth I don’t observe any significant changes to the wordpress stats of my own blog around that time when looking at the data, but n is arguably way too small for this to lend much support to the view that it’s not a wordpress thing.

  47. zslastman

    So, looking back at the posts from that time, there is one minor thing present that turns me off the blog a bit, exemplified by your announcement of a friends wedding, and your plugging of meal squares. That thing is the sense that this is a blog for rationalists, but rationalists in the sense of ‘the actual social clique of people living in the SF bay area calling themselves rationalists’. Stuck as I am on another continent, it sometimes makes me feel a bit foolish to be so invested in a community of people that I will never meet. I think to myself, “Maybe I should be reading more mainstream philosophy and newspapers, so I can have conversations with actual people around me. Nobody here wants to hear about Moloch”. I don’t mean this as criticism of course, you guys are totally right to be forming a community. It’s just not practical in most places.

    I would never have pinpointed ~Feb 23rd as a focal point of that though, so I’m maybe privileging the hypothesis a bit.

    1. frogcurious

      Generalising all Scott’s readers from myself, it’s this.
      The post which said, among other things, “I’ll see some of you at Ruby and Miranda’s wedding,” was on Feb 20.

      It sat at the top of the blog for a week.

      I remember looking at that post and having a sense that this blog is not for me. Not as in “I don’t like it,” but as in “this blog is written for people who know who Ruby and Miranda are. It’s not for me.”

      And I definitely haven’t checked it as much since then. It wasn’t in any way a conscious, rational decision. I just didn’t feel the same pull. I only came back here today to ask my kambo question.

      I think people who are high on the nerd spectrum, so to speak, are particularly over-sensitive to a sense of rejection or exclusion in the spaces where they’ve invested their nerdiness. Part of the reason behind getting nerdy about stuff is often that it’s a socially safe place to invest your sense of self. I wonder if Scott inadvertently scared off a bunch of readers who had started to invest their nerdy selves in SSC.

      1. Irenist

        I wasn’t put off by that post, but I do seem to recall thinking “Oh, I guess he’ll be too busy to post for a while” and checking SSC less often for a bit thereafter.

    2. Bugmaster

      Huh, that’s interesting. I came to this blog from LessWrong, so I was always under the impression that the word “rationalist” referred to a very specific community of people who live in San Francisco, care about mental biases, either donate to or are on the payroll of MIRI, are all dating each other, support cryonics, have weird dietary habits, are led by Eliezer Yudkowsky, are good writers, etc.

      Some of these things aspects simply don’t concern me personally (living in San Francisco, dating each other); others I don’t care about in general (meal squares, being led by anyone); still others I either disagree with or find downright silly (AI risk, cryonics); but some aspects of the rationality community are either useful or simply interesting (mental biases, science writing); so, overall, I don’t think the community is totally irrelevant to those outside of its physical presence.

      1. Mark

        I would love for there to be a community about “mental biases, science writing” without any of the less wrong silliness. Can someone start a kickstarter?

  48. Simon

    I’m gonna admit that I don’t read SSC as often as I used to, mostly because I don’t have as much free time as last year.

    One possible explanation for the lower hit count after February is that I noticed that you don’t write as many political blog posts nor as often as in January and before. Aren’t the political ones those that get the most links from elsewhere?

  49. Sylocat

    Jacobin (of Jacobinghazi fame) recently published an article about the search for extraterrestrial life and how some of the common fears and expectations are really just anthropocentrism on our part. There are parallels with the field of AI as well, in terms of how a truly alien intelligence might set societal priorities.

    1. Creutzer

      It doesn’t seem implausible that the natural evolution of an intelligent species always ends in a certain region of mindspace, though. And it seems overwhelmingly likely that the resulting creatures will possess a certain degree of assholishness. So I don’t see at all how concerns about that can be dismissed as unjustified anthropocentrism. The article also makes the mistake of tying psychology to the economic system when human minds evolved long before current economic conditions came about.

      1. Peter

        Also – “That aliens would have imperial ambitions is taken as natural. Far from being the historical outcome of a specific organization of capital in the latter half of the second millennium…”.

        Um. Ghengis Khan? Attila? Tamerlane? Caesar? Alexander? Shaka? Xerxes? Suleiman? I’m a bit hazier on the pre-1492 Americas but I’m sure the Aztec and Inca empires didn’t just spring up from nowhere. Let’s add Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui… I couldn’t settle on a famous Aztec conqueror, but it’s pretty hard to deny that they engaged in plenty of violent expansionist imperialism.

          1. DrBeat

            I highly recommend you not read that novel, because it cheats, and almost every detail of the setting exists not as a natural consequence of something, but because the author needs it to be that way to Make A Point.

          2. FacelessCraven

            @DrBeat – I greatly enjoyed it and didn’t detect any cheating at all, but I’d be fascinated to hear your views on it. What about it seems so objectionable to you?

          3. DrBeat

            Given the theme about uncaring evolution, the abilities of the starfish-alien-cells only make sense if they evolved in an environment with humans and their evolutionary strategy was to make humans feel bad about their ability to perceive the world.

            Since so much of the story is devoted to figuring out the aliens, this is kind of an enormous deal. The whole Big Important Point the author is making is about consciousness not being adaptive, and how ruthless evolutionary competition is, and how therefore consciousness will be crushed out by competition… and he does this by putting the humans up against aliens that are specifically evolved to be able to beat humans and make humans feel bad about how much of the world they can’t see without having consciousness.

            I’m not going to stop harping on this. The aliens, without consciousness, without ever having met humans or any Earthican life, adapted to be invisible to a quirk in human vision that I am pretty sure doesn’t even work that way (saccades are when we see by simulating movement, not when we can’t see;) that requires absolutely flawless down-to-the-millisecond timing in reacting to a nerve impulse that has less than an inch to travel to be carried out, in an organism that is across the room.

            Making an intelligent organism able to do that would be bullshit. Making an unintelligent organism able to do that without ever having encountered Earthly life is super turbo ultra bullshit II: hyper fighting.

            Also, the vampires. The vampires only exist so that at the end they can kill off humanity and the author can Make A Point about how consciousness isn’t adaptive. There is no reason presented for humanity to bring vampires back to life. Every thing they do, a computer does better, and the story establishes that we already have people whose job it is to interpret the outcomes of computers for people to understand, so it’s not like vampires are around because they are closer to human. They require specialized chemicals to be able to see right angles without stroking out, and we make it for them For Reasons, and even though their super-calculating malicious insentient intelligence doesn’t communicate with other vampires, they kill off almost everyone offscreen Because Of Reasons.

            Of course, the vampires, being insentient, can do anything, because sentience doesn’t do anything! We know it doesn’t do anything because the author describes how people make impulsive decisions before the ‘conscious thought’ part of their brains activates, and then handwaves away long-term consideration or planning as something that doesn’t count Because Reasons. He lays out an argument that denies or handwaves away every good thing sentience grants an organism, and talks about the huge evolutionary cost it has, and somehow doesn’t put together that he disproved his own argument; he has handwaved away all of the evolutionary benefits of sentience, showed the evolutionary cost of sentience, and then says that sentience is doomed because evolution doesn’t select for things with high cost and no benefit — his argument says that sentience shouldn’t exist, so clearly, his argument is wrong!

            The author wants to Make A Point with Serious, Hard SF about how being sentient isn’t adaptive. He creates the aliens in the story so that they somehow adapated to an environment nothing like their own, without having intelligence. Everything involving the vampires is a Second-Order Idiot Plot, as their existence, not to mention their conquest of Earth, requires every human in the world to be an idiot. He ends with handwaving about how the science proves him right even though it doesn’t, because without that handwave, his story’s Important Point collapses into “What if things that require thought didn’t actually require thought? That would make you feel bad, wouldn’t it?”

          4. Bugmaster

            For once, I disagree completely with Dr. Beat. I do agree that some of the events in the book, and aspects of the setting, were probably chosen in order to make for a more interesting story; but then, this is why Blindsight is a work of fiction, and not a scientific article.

            (WARNING: very minor spoilers)

            The book makes a very compelling argument that consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or agency. It further argues that consciousness is itself quite maladaptive. Of course, it’s still better to have both intelligence and consciousness than neither of those things, which is why humans have had such a good run so far.

            The “vampires” in the setting should be familiar to the crowd here; they’re basically unboxed AIs who have been created by engineering as much consciousness out of humans as possible. As such, they can re-purpose all that brainpower that humans routinely use to contemplate themselves to the task of actually achieving their goals. The vampires were created to perform specific jobs, and humans let them out of the box because of course humans would let something like that out of the box — if you’ve ever talked to a human, you’d know this was true.

            The aliens are a step beyound even the “vampires”. They are fully intelligent, and lack any kind of consciousness whatsoever, because they never developed any during their evolution.

            I agree that some of the powers ascribed to “vampires” as well as the aliens are a tad unrealistic; but again, this is a work of fiction, not a scientific treatise. Besides, I also find some of the powers that LessWrong-ians ascribe to AIs to be a tad unrealistic (to put it mildly), so I don’t see what the problem is.

            What makes Blindsight such a great book, IMO, is not merely its scientific accuracy (which is considerable, especially compared to your average SF), but the fact that it somehow makes you experience, in a very rough way, what a being who possesses intelligence but not human consciousness would be like. The answer is, “it would be a lot more efficient, for one”.

            “Think of all the things that you most cherish,” — Blindsight says — “All of the things that make you who you are, at the very core. Everything that is quintessentially Human. Well, all of that stuff is just an evolutionary dead-end that is holding you back. You’ll never get anywhere unless you dump that baggage, like the appendix that it is, and can totally help you do that”.

            The fact that Blindsight says this very convincingly is what makes the book so utterly terrifying, and, IMO, such a wonderful read.

          5. Nita

            The book makes a very compelling argument that consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or agency.

            Does anyone actually believe they’re the same thing? A common belief is that consciousness is either necessary for agency or an inevitable side-effect of it. The book explores the possibility that this belief is wrong, but that’s not the same thing as making an argument against it (unless you consider “I can imagine it” an argument).

            To be honest, I was more disturbed by the assumption that there are no perpendicular lines in nature — now that’s cheating!

          6. FacelessCraven

            [Deleting a bunch of stuff that Nita and Bugmaster said more eloquently]

            The core of the book is whether intelligence requires sentience. I think he makes a good case that intelligence without sentience is at least plausible, but if you strongly disagree, I can see why the book wouldn’t work well for you.

            Regarding two specific plot points you raised:

            The invisibility trick seems entirely plausible to me, given that I’ve experienced an extremely dramatic example of inattentive blindness, and that the Scrambler in question had plausible access to a real-time brain scan of the victim.

            Likewise, the Vampires seem to me to make much better sense then you’re giving them credit for. The book explicitly laid out that AI was of very limited utility, that the vampires were essentially mass-producible and eminently controllable and manipulable geniuses. There’s also a reasonable suspicion that the AIs are actually the ones pushing the Vampire proliferation, as a tool to better interface with/control humanity. As the Theseus AI says, “you don’t like taking orders from machines. Easier this way.

            I also strongly suspect that the Vampire “takeover” doesn’t work the way you seem to be thinking it does, and in general your read on Vampires doesn’t match mine at all. My read is that they push the already teetering human society over the edge by taking harmful action when doing so is possible without detection. They do this without needing coordination, because destroying human society is in their individual interest. A world where humans are reduced to prey is better for them, so they make that world one action at a time. They aren’t conquerors, they’re slow-acting poison in the water supply.

            There’s also the other possibility, that they’re simply continuing to act as tools of the human elite, or the AIs. None of the three options is even mutually exclusive, so it could be any combination of the three. Watts doesn’t specify in detail, because that is what the sequel is for.

          7. DrBeat

            The fact that Blindsight says this very convincingly is what makes the book so utterly terrifying, and, IMO, such a wonderful read.

            And what I am saying is that no, no it doesn’t say that very convincingly. Every single element that allows it to appear convincing is cheated in. The author, through a proxy, confronts the single most obvious argument against his theory, and gives it a handwave that is, at best, a quarter-step above “Well that doesn’t count because of reasons.”

            And don’t tell me it’s okay because LW-ers ascribe bullshit powers to AI as well — I’m the guy who called that out as cheating too, remember?

          8. Zykrom

            “The book explores the possibility that this belief is wrong, but that’s not the same thing as making an argument against it (unless you consider “I can imagine it” an argument).”

            Being fair, this is about the best we can do. Or at least, the best I’ve encountered and understood.

            Before I read Blindsight, I assumed that consciousness and agency had to go together precisely because I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

        1. Wrong Species

          My favorite part:

          “The idea that humans possess inherent traits is known as “biological determinism” — the notion that traits we observe in ourselves are natural, products of our biology, not of the cultural and historical situation we live in.”

          Because believing that people have inherent traits is literally the same as believing that culture doesn’t matter at all.

          1. Nornagest

            So humans are made of meat because of contingencies of the cultural and historical situation, now?


          2. Peter

            Made of meat, historical contingencies – my vote on this goes for “possibly technically true, but I just said ‘technically'”:

            Consider: if humans had somehow avoided all of the wars and pointless status symbols and so forth for a millennium or two, we might all be uploaded into computers or robots by now.

          3. RCF

            And then they say “anthropologists are near-ubiquitous in their assertion that that biological determinism is flagrantly false”. (Double “that” from the original) So nothing is biologically determined?

        2. FacelessCraven

          @DRBeat – “And what I am saying is that no, no it doesn’t say that very convincingly.”

          Why do you think consciousness is integral to intelligence?

          Numerous creatures, many of them insects, exhibit complex social and behavioral systems, even simple technology. Ants appear to engage in farming. What makes you certain that this behavior has an upper bound on complexity without a conscious component?

          What do you think of the various citations Watts provides from the neuroscience field, particularly things like savantism, or on things like the “zen” induced by tDCS? Every skill I’ve ever studied seems to involve ingraining responses so they come instinctively, ie without mental effort, without thought. What specifically does consciousness contribute to problem-solving/complex skills?

          1. Nornagest

            I’m not DrBeat, but for me, the best argument against the book’s thesis was the exact complexity that Watts invokes to give his aliens their competitive edge. I haven’t got a clue what consciousness consists of, but evolution doesn’t spit out complex maladaptive systems for no good reason; the very fact that we evolved it is excellent evidence either that it’s adaptive or that it’s very simple and energetically lightweight.

            Sexual selection or path dependence would offer a way out here, but I don’t recall the former being mentioned, and the vampires disprove the latter in the book’s universe.

            (That being said, I don’t feel that the book meaningfully “cheated”, at least beyond the ordinary standards of science fiction.)

          2. FacelessCraven

            Let me just take a moment to bask in the delight of actually finding a community where an appreciable percentage of the population have read (and formed opinions on!) Blindsight.

            You people are awesome.

          3. Deiseach

            Intelligence need not depend on consciousness, I’ll give you (and Watts) that. But agency is a different matter.

            It’s in the vampires’ interests (individually) to reduce humans to prey? But if they are not conscious, if they react and don’t have long-term planning and foresight, if they are biological drives that see a human and go “dinner” and go for what will let them turn humans into “happy meals on legs”, what is the agency there? How can they be agents, if there is no communication, no co-ordination, and no sense of “this is beneficial for me” because there is no sense of “me” and “my interests”, just appetite and a form of intellect being driven by those appetites and instinctual automatic reactions to stimuli?

          4. FacelessCraven

            @Deiseach – “But if they are not conscious, if they react and don’t have long-term planning and foresight…”

            I think the argument is that they DO have long-term planning and foresight, and that those things don’t require consciousness either. Not only that, but they do a pretty decent job of simulating consciousness to interact with humans; they can learn human language and carry on a conversation.

            “How can they be agents, if there is no communication, no co-ordination, and no sense of “this is beneficial for me” because there is no sense of “me” and “my interests”, just appetite and a form of intellect being driven by those appetites and instinctual automatic reactions to stimuli?”

            Just truncate the “me”. “This is beneficial for me” reduces down to “this is beneficial.” Removing consciousness actually universalizes the Vampire’s perspective. To the extent that vampires have similar value profiles (arguably a very great extent, since they have no consciousness to drive individualism), they are going to pursue mutually beneficial outcomes without needing coordination.

            @Nornagest – “the very fact that we evolved it is excellent evidence either that it’s adaptive or that it’s very simple and energetically lightweight.”

            His argument didn’t seem to be that it was “maladaptive” in anything but relative terms. And as Watts notes, there’s a growing amount of experimental evidence that consciousness interferes with skill rather than increasing it. Our brains seem to work better in a number of ways when they aren’t generating subjective experience, or are at least generating less of it. One of his implied endgames, I think, is that humans *turn off their own consciousness* in pursuit of power.

          5. FacelessCraven

            @James Picone – “Are the vampires just p-zombies?”

            No no, they’re VAMPIRES.

            sorry, couldn’t help it. Yeah, pretty much, with the thesis of the book being that lack of consciousness makes them a whole lot smarter than baseline humanity.

            Judging from the excerpts, the sequel involves humans reverse-engineering the process to allow consciousness to be turned on and off selectively. Corps hire people to have their consciousness switched off for the duration of their contract, hence actual “zombies”.

    2. satanistgoblin

      Did you think this to be a worthwhile article? Or did you link it out of sadism? Because it is pure idiocy. Yes, maybe aliens would be nicer than us. Or maybe nastier! So, since we have no idea yet, why take any risks?

    3. RCF

      Wow, that’s quite a parade of fallacies. There’s the whole “ascribe the entirety of negative human attributes to failing to follow your ideology”. Then there’s also how they take the concern about the possibility of hostility and say that people are assuming that aliens would be hostile. Are these people so mentally incompetent that they are unable to distinguish between assuming something, versus bringing up the possibility of it? Or do they think their readers are too stupid to recognize the difference?

  50. Max

    Well I found this blog around February trough the link on infoproc and find it fascinating, intelligent, articulate and thought provocative. So please keep it up !

  51. Alex

    Re: The readership drop-off. Ash Wednesday this year was Feb. 18, and maybe you have a large block of devout Christian readers who gave up the Internet for Lent. I wouldn’t worry too much as they should start trickling back now that we’re done with Easter celebrations.

    (Tongue firmly planted in cheek ic that was not clear)

    1. haishan

      You’re joking, but I did commit to giving up commenting on this blog for Great Lent (starting 23 February Gregorian this year), with some degree of success. Also, “rationalist Lent” is a thing.

      1. Irenist

        I gave up commenting on blogs for Lent. That meant that I would look at SSC to see if there was a new post, and maybe to read the comments, but I wouldn’t follow the comments as closely because I wouldn’t be waiting to see if I’d prompted any interesting replies. I found this blog through Leah Libresco, IIRC, and I may not have been the only Christian to have done so. I doubt it’s a major factor, but Lent is at least a small part of it.

    2. Cerebral Paul Z.

      “No way am I giving up the Internet two years in a row,” Tom said unrelentingly.

    3. Muga Sofer

      I did actually reduce my internet usage for Lent, although I didn’t cut it entirely.

  52. Gwen S.

    Last month, future Daily Show host Trevor Noah was discovered to have made a bunch of tweets which demeaned women, Jews, atheists and transgender people. Noah refused to apologize and Comedy Central came to his defense saying “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”

    I am really angered by the hypocrisy of Comedy Central. Comedy Central loves to make judgy videos about people who’ve made a handful of unfortunate remarks. Not just big names like Brendan Eich or Jon Kyl but ordinary people like Crystal O’Connor, or the Redskins fans who were lured onto the Daily Show under false premises. Noah and his employer are saying “a big picture view that doesn’t reduce a complex person to a handful of unfortunate remarks for me, but not for thee.”

    And it’s not even a conservative verses liberal issue. Women, Jews, atheists and trans people are supposed to be type of people the Comedy Central protects. Instead, they’ve sided with the big-name celebrity who wouldn’t even apologize. Talk about punching down.

    1. Harry Johnston

      For context: I don’t actually know who or what Comedy Central is, and although I vaguely recall watching various online clips that I think may have been from the Daily Show I’m not sure I am remembering correctly. It may or may not be on air in my country; I watch little live TV. I have no idea who Trevor Noah is and don’t recall reading about the criticism you describe.

      But “Women, Jews, atheists and trans people are supposed to be type of people the Comedy Central protects” sounds improbable. Surely Comedy Central’s mission is not to protect, but to entertain? To be funny?

      Again, I’ve never watched them, but from your description I would guess that those “judgy” videos are or were intended to be entertaining. They may also serve a social purpose by criticizing anti-social points of view, but I would expect that to be seen at most as a bonus; the primary purpose, I would assume, is entertainment. I would not imagine that affecting the employment of the people being made fun of was considered to be either a primary or secondary purpose.

      In similar ignorance, I would guess that the criticism of Trevor Noah was not intended to be entertaining and was intended to affect his employment prospects.

      From this perspective, it does not seem to me that Comedy Central’s position is hypocritical.

      1. Peter

        Possibly: “being mean to people is funny, but also icky. Now if we’re mean to people who deserve it, then the ick factor goes away and we can be mean to people with a clean conscience.”

        Am I being excessively cynical here? Am I being hypocritical even?

        1. Fazathra

          If by “people who deserve it” you mean people of the opposing tribe, then you are completely correct. The punching up/down rhetoric is just a paper thin rationalisation of this.

          1. ddreytes

            The concept of “not punching down”, I think, made a lot more sense when it was a point about the specific ethos of a specific comedian. Whether or not you thought Colbert lived up to it, he at least meant something pretty definite by it (and I suspect something not entirely political).

            When you try to turn it into a moral imperative or a broad cultural maxim or some kind of foundational principle of politics, it makes a lot less sense.

          2. Shieldfoss

            The concept of “not punching down”

            Honestly, I suspect the chain is even simpler, and adequately explained in the SSC post afrom some days ago about “intolerant” being the new accusation we use in these days of tolerance when we want to hit people we don’t tolerate: Bullies will just adapt to whatever our culture approves of as targets and bully those people. Right now, the accepted targets are “Whoever you can mention right after saying ‘punching up’,” and so the phrase gets associated with bullies.

          3. Anonymous Coward

            I guess that’s technically true if you abstract “racists” and “minorities” into opposing tribes, but I hope you agree that it’s more acceptable to make fun of racists then it is to make fun of minorities. That’s what people mean by punching up vs. punching down.

          4. Shieldfoss

            I guess that’s technically true if you abstract “racists” and “minorities” into opposing tribes, but I hope you agree that it’s more acceptable to make fun of racists then it is to make fun of minorities. That’s what people mean by punching up vs. punching down.

            That seems like a cached thought. I invite you to take five minutes to think it over (I will reply tomorrow with the counter-example that immediately sprang to mind when I read your post. I am tribally in agreement with you, but cannot in good intellectual conscience agree that you are accurately describing the world-as-is.)


            Eh, never mind.

            If the original was directed at me, I encourage you to repost – my first post in this thread was quick and off-the-cuff and I am likely to agree with any criticism you have of it. (For some reason, if I make a second block-quote, it doesn’t include the name, even if the name has changed to a different poster)

          5. Jiro

            It’s more acceptable to make fun of racists than minorities if

            1) You’re in the US, or perhaps in other areas of the west, and

            2) “racists” and “minorities” refer to those groups who typically receive such labels in the US or the West, not to those groups who literally fit the definition.

            “Rude employees at the northernmost Target in Cleveland Ohio working in the electronics department last Thursday” is a minority of one, but it is okay for me to make jokes about that minority.

          6. RCF

            “it’s more acceptable to make fun of racists then it is to make fun of minorities. That’s what people mean by punching up vs. punching down.”

            No, I think for many of the people who say that, the division is being “privileged” and “oppressed”, not “racist” and “minorities”. If you complain about a black person being racist, you’re tone trolling. And black people can’t be racist, because racism requires institutional oppression. Etc.

          7. Shieldfoss

            That seems like a cached thought. I invite you to take five minutes to think it over (I will reply tomorrow with the counter-example that immediately sprang to mind when I read your post. I am tribally in agreement with you, but cannot in good intellectual conscience agree that you are accurately describing the world-as-is.)

            Returning to this: I was thinking specifically of the case of the pizza place that wouldn’t cater to homosexuals. In order to avoid the race/gender/openThread edict, I will not be performing any analysis here except to say that if you read that story as an example of weak homosexuals “punching up” against powerful bigots, then you are using non-standard versions of “weak” and “powerful.”

        2. Faradn

          I’m not sure if it’s a matter of deserts but what is actually funny. Racist and sexist jokes tend to be lazy snowclones. Comedians can get away with third-rate racial humor because it taps into still-existing prejudices that spawn the crude and unimaginative parts of people’s cognition.

          Not saying racial humor is inherently unfunny, just statistically so.

          1. Cauê

            Racist and sexist jokes work because they push against taboos. Compilations of “offensive jokes” on the internet include not only race and gender, but also things like incest, pedophilia, ludicrous violence, tragedies (e.g. cancer jokes, 9/11), and religion depending on the community. The pattern also shows up in comedians that focus on offensiveness (e.g. Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle) and in the general tone of Encyclopedia Dramatica, for instance.

            These themes have something in common, and it’s not “tapping into still-existing prejudices”, but “you can’t joke about that!!”

          2. Faradn

            It’s not letting me reply directly–nested too far in maybe?

            Yes, the “edgy” excuse. Sometimes it’s valid. The problem is, stereotypes are worn out and boring almost by definition. It’s possible to do interesting and truly edgy things with them–trouble is there’s little incentive to. People will guffaw at “edgy” humor that is anything but, because people are stupid.

          3. Cauê

            because people are stupid.

            If that’s how you want to put it. But then that’s the reason people laugh at anything. A comedian’s job is to find ways to press the stupid buttons that make people stupidly and pointlessly laugh.

            I don’t think you can make the case that this reaction is any less stupid and pointless when triggered by some buttons than others.

    2. Carinthium

      Question. I don’t actually know about this issue, but is there any logical, non ad-hoc rule differentiating the remarks Comedy Central has mocked and the remarks Trevor Noah has made?

      My actual position is pro-Freedom of Speech with mockery being a bad idea, except mockery of logical holes in an argument or other irrationalities. I don’t know the facts, so I don’t know how well that fits.

      But to stigmatise people for demeaning these categories whilst allowing remarks of equal irrationality to slide is very hard to justify. How are people supposed to judge whether humans are in fact equal or whether demeaning claims are true if nobody is allowed to make them?

      The alternate position would be to say that humans are too stupid and irrational to be trusted with exposure to these sorts of things. But there are plenty of stupid mistakes people make that aren’t censored when publically advocated.

      You may have a consistent position for all I know. But I thought I might as well check.

      1. Gwen S.

        Not that I can see. That’s why I think it’s hypocritical of Comedy Central to mock people for making stupid comments, but deflect criticism when their own employee makes a stupid comment.

        1. Mai La Dreapta

          Comedy Central is definitely being inconsistent, but I don’t see why they should be bound to consistency on this issue. Their job is to entertain, not implement a rigorously consistent ethical framework about who to mock.

          At the object level, I support their decision because I want to do everything possible to erode the notion that having ever made a *-ist tweet or whatever makes you permanently unemployable.

    3. AR+

      These are completely different things. Comedy Central mocks people. People who dredge up problematic content like this are out to force people to kneel in supplication to their ideology, or else be professionally ruined. Nobody would care if this sort of dustup tended to end in people making judgy videos of the target’s unfortunate remarks.

      But that not the world we live in, and that’s not what Comedy Central is defending him from.

      1. Gwen S.

        Maybe. To CC’s credit, Colbert did interview Andrew Sullivan who said that Brendan Eich shouldn’t have lost his job.

      2. Gbdub

        Comedy Central actually does have an unfortunate habit of only mocking the “right” people, as any follower of South Park will be aware (in particular, South Park constantly mocks Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Scientologists, but CC first censored and then stopped showing South Park episodes involving Mohammad).

        And The Daily Show / Colbert Report definitely have a political slant in who they are willing to mock / how cruel they are willing to be. I’m hoping a Republican wins the next presidential election, if for no other reason than that political comedians, who tend to be coastal liberals, will take the kid gloves off again.

        1. Wrong Species

          South Park probably mocks environmentalists more than Jews or Mormons. They’re pretty well known for their moderate libertarian views. Of course, Comedy Central is a different story.

        2. Careless

          The South Park thing isn’t really a political correctness issue, though, it’s a “they’re terrified of Muslims” issue.

      3. RCF

        “People who dredge up problematic content like this are out to force people to kneel in supplication to their ideology, or else be professionally ruined.”

        That is just a bunch of demagogic nonsense.

    4. Irrelevant

      Women, Jews, atheists and trans people are supposed to be the type of people Comedy Central protects.

      That is an utterly bizarre statement. Comedy Central doesn’t exist to protect anyone. The Daily Show doesn’t exist to protect anyone either, unless we’re extending the verb “protect” to include creating a sort of ballpit for disaffected Bush-era lite-liberals to hang out in.

      1. Muga Sofer

        “The kind of people CC claims to be protecting when they mock these people,” perhaps.

    5. RCF

      What is an example of a tweet that demeans a member of the mentioned groups, and what is an example of a judgy video?

  53. Timothy Underwood

    Possibly drop off from something? I started reading regularly after the link from Vox, which was a few weeks before that. Are you losing long time readers or seeing a temporary bump in regular readers that was small enough to not be visible dissipate?

  54. Chris Johnson

    I’m one of your readers who discovered you in July and peaked off around February of this year. It’s crazy that so many other people fell off too, if the data is accurate.

    Echoing others, there’s definitely been a drop-off of controversial posts since around then. I’m curious if you’ve tried charting viewership against posts tagged with “things I regret writing”. Another idea, although it’s a lot of effort, would be to do another mini-SSC survey and compare results.

    I have more complicated theories as to why the waves of culture war bubble up as they do, but it’s clearly out of scope. The gist of my theory is there’s a pedagogy around internet outrage culture, and (specifically) a moment of development where fighting online culture wars against THE DAMNED SJWs makes a lot of sense, but it’s never quite sustainable for all but the most socially outcast of people. And the most socially outcast of people typically find a way to exit themselves from any budding community / movement, leaving the progressive status quo largely intact.

    I’m sure there’s some Advanced Moldbug Theory that explains this way better than I can.

  55. Secretariat

    In the US it seems like more and more employers are being asked to provide more and more of their employees’ needs, not just supplying wages for productivity. There’s employer mandate for health insurance, health insurance for the family, paid maternity leave, retirement programs (pensions, 401k), life insurance, tuition programs. This appears to be what Wikipedia calls liberal corporatism (“capitalist companies are social institutions that should require their managers to do more than maximize net income, by recognizing the needs of their employees”).

    At the same time the labor force seems to be more flexible than ever. Big institutional employers that used to offer life time employment seem to be either dying (Kodak) or moving away from the model (GM). Corporate restructuring layoffs have been a norm for quite a while. At-will employment seems to be the norm in the US, especially with falling unionization rates. And people seem to be changing jobs more often voluntarily as well. Future Work Place says that vast majority (91%) of millenials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. And let’s not forget about the flexible jobs of the so called “sharing economy” (Internet Taxis, Taskrabbit, &c.) where it’s often the norm for workers to be individual independent contractors (as opposed to working for staffing firms) not employees. In these positions it’s being uncommon to be splitting time between direct competitors. These folks aren’t full time employees at all.

    These two forces seem to be at odds. So how does it make sense to have long term core needs filled by employers rather than by government when your employer can get fire you for no reason at all and is likely to do so as it responds to the natural business cycle. Sure it may make sense for some employers to provide benefits as part of an efficiency wage, but overall it doesn’t seem to work. Both of these trends seem to be accelerating but they also seem to be on a collision course.

    I even recently saw an article from attacking the liberal corporatist model from the left, even going so far as to question the gospel of minimum wage and full-time-employees-should-not-be-on-food-stamps, favoring social democracy instead.

    So why are both of these trends accelerating at the same time when they seem to be at odds, and where might this situation end up?

    1. ddreytes

      I have no data or real evidence here. But anecdotally, there seems to be in part a link between the two trends, in that companies are more and more incentivized to hire short-term contract workers, or non-full time, or etc, precisely to avoid paying benefits.

      As to the broader logic of it, as a system, I think you have a pretty goddamn good point there.

      1. roystgnr

        “We keep cutting deeper and deeper into the goose, but we seem to be getting even fewer golden eggs out than ever!”

    2. Kiya

      To take issue with one thing you mention without having an opinion on the overall point: the Forbes article that gives the 91% number cites in turn an infographic that does not, as far as I can find, actually make that claim. I’d also be inclined to distrust younger millennials’ (according to the infographic, millenials are 18- to 38-year-olds) self-reports as representative of their long-term career plans, as many of them are still in college or have just started working. I’m not sure exactly what the original survey asked due to the infographic dead end, but people in their twenties might plan to stay in their initial few jobs for only a few years, and then apply somewhere they prefer once they have more experience to put on their resume. This doesn’t explain the 38-year-olds.

    3. John Schilling

      The trends are separated by about half a century. The one where corporations are asked to provide for their workers’ health care, retirement, etc, that one peaked in the mid-twentieth century. A lot of that was strong labor unions, and another big chunk was FDR’s wage freezes forcing corporations to find other ways to increase compensation for high-value employees. None of this was mandated by law, it just became industry standard practice, and in an environment where lifetime employment at a single corporation was the norm, it was not an unreasonable practice. Enforcement? If you ran a corporation and didn’t offer your employees free medical, you were running a corporation without employees.

      The old model is breaking down, people aren’t expected to work for one corporation their whole life, and that’s generally a good thing. But it means corporations have less of an interest in investing in the long-term health, prosperity, and productivity of their work force. People who have become accustomed to getting such things for “free”, are now finding out how much they really cost and reacting the way people usually do when faced with the loss of something to which they feel entitled – go to the biggest player in the game and say, “the evil meanies are taking away my stuff, which is rightfully mine. Make them give it back!”

      Since we live in a democracy, this means that what was once industry standard practice is now becoming legal mandate, even as it become less sensible as policy. But very little of this is industry being asked to provide “more”, except where things like maternity leave are being implemented in a somewhat clumsy attempt at gender equality.

    4. Jon Gunnarsson

      I don’t see a contradiction here. Employers are mostly giving these benefits instead of wage increases for tax reasons or because they’re forced to do so by law. As for why such laws exist, my guess is that voters are stupid and don’t understand economics. They think it’d be nice to get those benefits, but they don’t realise that for every dollar they get in non-wage benefits, they get (approximately) one dollar less in wages, and that this also goes for benefits they don’t actually want badly enough to pay for voluntarily.

      1. ddreytes

        I think it’s stupid but I also think it’s mostly a compromise. I don’t think voters would be asking employers to provide those things if it was politically practical to ask the state to provide them. But, because that’s not politically realistic, we end up with a slightly nonsensical alternate position that is politically realistic.

        (Whether or not you think the state should provide those things, I think that’s at least a more logical position)

        1. Jaskologist

          It’s not a compromise, it’s a back-door. It’s not that voters are necessarily clamoring for companies to be required to act as agents of the state providing ever-more benefits, it’s that politicians are trying to make them agents of the state, and this is one way of hiding that from the voters.

          Obamacare would be a good case-in-point. Obviously, the people writing it really wanted some sort of single-payer, but the people didn’t, so they instead made a Rube-Goldberg version of single-payer to try to hide it. As it happens, the voters weren’t thrilled with that either, hence the massive Democratic losses in Congress.

          But at no point in this were voters clamoring for nuns to buy birth control. That’s all on the Brahmins.

          1. ddreytes

            Without getting too much into political narratology, I don’t think it’s true that the political actors responsible for the ACA all wanted single-payer. The narrative on the time among the left was all about Obama’s complete disinterest in single-payer, his refusal to even consider it. Of course that could all have been lies, but the reporting at the time was certainly about the left wing in Congress pushing for single-payer and the Obama administration pushing against it. Anyway there were certainly people who came to ACA as a compromise but the idea that it’s entirely a back-door for single payer doesn’t ring true to me.

            More broadly, it makes more sense to me to look at all of these things as the result of the complicated and conflicting interests and desires of numerous (sometimes interlocking) political groups. And a very inefficient result of that process. Rather than as a fully-formed result of some specific cadre of politicians.

          2. Held In Escrow

            From actually talking with someone involved in the scorekeeping and having the politicos bounce ideas off them side of things: the issue with the ACA is that Obama played it entirely hands off. He gave it to Max Baucus to write and that’s how we got what we have, thanks to Senator’s Baucus having the legislative skills of a rhesus monkey.

          3. HeelBearCub

            It is definitely not the case that we got the ACA as it is because Democracts broadly were trying shoe-horn in single-payer.

            Making Federal Employee health insurance available as an option to everyone on the exchanges passed the house. That might have ultimately led to single payer, it certainly was making the biggest payer possible available as an option.

            But 0 Republicans were willing to vote for a bill that then needed 60 out of 60 Democratic votes in the Senate. Some of those Democrats were from quite conservative states and were them themselves just barely left of center. They are the ones who determined how far left the bill could go.

            And this is also why Obama stayed relatively hands off. The Senate is the body that was the smallest bottleneck. The Senate puts a great deal of power in the hands of single Senators. Obama wanted the next step on the road to universal healthcare, not another failed attempt.

            And Obama was proven correct. The bill passed. Which is more than any other president that wanted to make health insurance universally available had been able to accomplish.

  56. Chris Billington

    Hey! I remember that around about that time (plus or minus a month because my memory is terrible), I stopped getting emails from wordpress that you had new posts.

    I wasn’t sure why, but having lost faith in wordpress RSS notifications and not bothering to investigate, I googled ‘how to get email notifications when a website updates’, and am now getting email notifications from some thing called blogtrottr instead.

    Actually, I think I assumed that you turned off your RSS feed because you didn’t like the attention you were getting over the social justice stuff. I didn’t bother to check whether this was the case, since I was able to restore email notifications after my five second trip to google.

    EDIT: nope, I was way off. My last email notification from wordpress was in September 2014, and was the ‘I am being framed’ post. It made sense to me that you might be trying to reduce publicity after that, so I didn’t think twice about the hypothesis that you had disabled RSS.

      1. Chris Billington

        Ah, of course. It was just WordPress’s functionality for subscribing to updates. I didn’t bother to think about what I had signed up for since it was working and I don’t subscribe to many things. I had just mentally grouped all these things together.

  57. Alex

    Lately I’ve been thinking that…

    1. Philosophy is useless. In reality, reasoning is used to justify pre-existing morality, so all philosophers are doing is selling pretty words to whoever wants to hear them.

    This is not true if the philosopher is able to get their ideas written into civil or religious law. But I’m not aware of much “philosophy” that makes it that far.

    2. I don’t think Noah Smith’s version of growth mindset is the same as Dweck’s. He’s right, but she’s wrong.

    3. I would like to know which of right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation is more highly correlated (1) with the main right vs. left public opinion axis and (2) with Eysenck’s tough-mindedness vs. tender-mindedness public opinion axis. I heard somewhere that right-wing authoritarianism is closer to social conservatism and social dominance orientation is closer to economic conservatism. I also heard that social dominance orientation is correlated with the tender-mindedness facet of agreeableness. Maybe these are different sorts of “tender-mindedness.”

    4. (Game of Thrones Season 5 Episode 3 Spoiler)


    It will be nice to know if Tyrion survives his capture during today’s episode, and how Sansa, Theon and Ramsay navigate their situation. It seemed a long episode (but good).

    1. Addict

      “This is not true if the philosopher is able to get their ideas written into civil or religious law. But I’m not aware of much “philosophy” that makes it that far.”

      The entire Western World has been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was 100% philosophy. Milton, Locke, Wren, Hooke, Wilkins, and that whole London gang were directly responsible for the Glorious Revolution which overthrew James II Stuart, the French Revolution which overthrew the Bourbons, and the American Revolution.

      First, government was about a ruler who dominated through the right of conquest. Then, with the Magna Carta, government was a contract between the rulers and the ruled, essentially saying that the ruled wouldn’t revolt if the ruler didn’t act like a despot. Then the idea came about that the people could govern themselves how they best saw fit. To deny the philosophical nature of this position is to do a great disservice to the thinkers who brought it about.

      From the Confusion, an excellently well-researched book about the birth of the Enlightenment:

      Moseh laced his fingers together and stretched his arms, which was a noisy procedure. “I am going to bed,” he said. “If they are looking for reasons to burn you, Edmund, and if you are not giving them any, it follows that Jack and I will soon be dangling from the ceiling of the torture-chamber while clerks stand below us with dipped quills. We’ll need our rest.”

      “If any one of us breaks, all three of us burn,” said de Ath. “If all three of us can stand our ground, then I believe they will let us go.”

      “Sooner or later one of us will break,” Jack said wearily. “This Inquisition is as patient as Death. Nothing can stop it.”

      “Nothing,” said de Ath, “except for the Enlightenment.”

      “And what is that?” Moseh asked.

      “It sounds like one of those daft Catholicisms: The Annunciation, the Epiphany, and now the Enlightenment,” Jack said.

      “It is nothing of the sort. If my arms worked, I’d read you some of those letters,” said de Ath, turning his head a fraction of a degree towards some scrawled pages on the end of this table, weighed down by a Bible. “They are from brothers of mine in Europe. They tell a story—albeit in a fragmentary and patchwork way—of a sea-change that is spreading across Christendom, in large part because of men like Leibniz, Newton, and Descartes. It is a change in the way men think, and it is the doom of the Inquisition.”

      “Very good! Well, then, all we must needs do is hold out against the strappado, the bastinado, the water-torture, and the thongs for another two hundred years or so, which ought to be plenty of time for this new way of thinking to penetrate Mexico City,” said Jack.

      “Mexico City is run out of Madrid, and the Enlightenment has already stormed Madrid and taken it,” de Ath said. “The new King of Spain is a Bourbon, the grand-son of King Louis XIV of France.”

      “Feh!” said Moseh.

      “Eeew, him again!” said Jack. “Don’t tell me I’m to peg my hopes of freedom on Leroy!”

      “Many Englishmen share your feelings, which is why a war has been started to settle the issue, but for now Philip wears the crown,” said Edmund de Ath. “Not long after his coronation he was invited to the Inquisition’s auto da fé in Madrid, and sent his regrets.”

      “The King of Spain failed to turn up for an auto da fé!?” Moseh exclaimed.

      “It has shaken the Holy Office to its bones. The Inquisitor of Mexico will probe us once or twice more, but beyond that he’ll not press his luck. Scoff all you like at the Enlightenment. It is already here, in this very cell, and we shall owe our survival to it.”

      “In reality, reasoning is used to justify pre-existing morality, so all philosophers are doing is selling pretty words to whoever wants to hear them.”

      …Certainly a portion of philosophy is this. Perhaps you are simply saying that the rest of philosophy, the successful, useful portions of philosophy which have been so grounded in society as to be taken for granted, should be called by some other name, so as not to taint it by association with people having a wank? Or do you mean to deny the role of philosophy in shaping much of modern society?

        1. Carinthium

          I have a LOT of things to say here.

          1- You’re limiting philosophy to ethics here. What about epistemology, philosophy of mind etc.?

          2- You assume that the idea of true knowledge for it’s own sake is not valuable. To some people it is. If you want to argue that they can’t reach it that’s another matter.
          (Side note- It’s incredibly rare I grant you, but there are philosophers in history who have greatly dissented against the views of the day, including in ethics, to the point where your description of rationalising intuitions is unfair)

          3- How can you deal with radical scepticism without philosophy? Any argument which appeals to empirical information regarding this is automatically circular, leaving only circular ones.

          4- Argument by analogy is fallacious, although making a point clearer by the use of an analogy is legitimate.

          In this case, Paine was an exceptional writer. Assuming US independence was indeed a tipping point, this would give him far more influence than most. If it was indeed a tipping point, George III of all people must clearly have had a lot of influence on the outcome as well even if he used it incompetently).

          5- Just checking, but the logical implication of what you are saying is that being a rationalist in the Elizier Yudowsky/Robin Hanson sense is useless, right? Their view clearly involves large amounts of philosophy.

          Significant numbers are swayed into cryonics by LessWrong beliefs. Whether they make the right or the wrong decision, this decision is rooted in a worldview created by this kind of rationalism.
          (Minor Side Note: I like the rationalist movement in this sense of the term, but am a bit queasy about calling it rationalism because there’s already a philosophical movement by that name which is grossly opposed to it)


          My own view, summarised:
          -I have arguments regarding the Sceptical problem too long to summarise here

          -If you don’t have a mind capable of dissent against majority morality and, whether through your own effort or other’s, at the point where you learn to disregard your intuitions as philosophical evidence, philosophy is indeed useless for you. Most philosophers are partway on this, making them almost useless.

          Even then, you are probably grossly wrong but if you have a good mind as well you can improve on the cultural beliefs you were raised with.

          -If you don’t have the willpower and other capacities to act on which you have figured out, philosophy is ‘useful’ in your internal assessment of the world but will have little effect on how you actually act. Some people consider this to be useful, but most don’t.

          -Philosophy cannot change the world except in the highly unlikely event somebody who has truly taken these steps is in a position of sufficient power. But the individual with it can be better off.


          All that being said, believing that intuitions are not evidence is not a difficult step for somebody on Slate Star Codex. Most of us can handle dissenting against those around us as well.

          1. Alex

            I can’t quite bring myself to take the Skeptical Argument seriously.

            Does Robin Hanson’s view of how to be “rationalist about X” involve large amounts of philosophy?

            I feel like, clearly, forming a personal “philosophy” has value, or I probably would not be here. But this seems like a broad interpretation of the word “philosophy”. Actually I concede that basic moral philosophy is useful, but mainly as a way of integrating, and describing precisely, different pre-existing intuitions. This takes a back seat to having the right intuitions.

          2. Carinthium

            You seem to assume that intuitions are useful. Why? Why do you assume your intuitions are actually accurate?

            As an extenstion of that, what other than intuitions do you have against the skeptical argument?

            You chose an unusual case, but there is indeed philosophical background assumptions there. The idea that an empirical approach is superior on certain issues is philosophical, for example, and an implicit rejection of the idea that truth should be pursued for it’s own case.

            You seem to have picked one of the least philosophical posts, however.

          3. Alex

            Intuitions are sometimes neither useful nor accurate. But I don’t think philosophy can do much to improve them; for that, we need experience. 🙂

          4. Carinthium

            It’s true that philosophy is very bad at changing how we feel (unless it gets so far as changing social conventions themselves, in which it’s easy).

            But you seem to be ignoring the possibility that people can, at least within limits, change their behaviour by overriding feelings with philosophical reasoning. I agree there’s a limit, but why do you assume it’s practically zero?

          5. houseboatonstyx

            @ Alex
            Intuitions are sometimes neither useful nor accurate. But I don’t think philosophy can do much to improve them;

            In a situation where two or more of your intuitions conflict, we can use philosophy (or at any rate something above the level of the intuitions themselves) to judge which one to follow in this situation, or whether/how long to keep looking for a way to satisfy both of them. That’s a skill that can be improved.

          6. Alex


            I agree. My main point is to say that you need intuitions as a foundation, so that some so-called “high-impact questions” are…not high impact. For example, you can’t “solve population ethics” and then convince the world to implement your result. That’s nuts.

        2. Alex


          To clarify, I think political philosophy has a respectable chance of impact. The philosophers you mention did hasten the arrival of the Enlightenment. My comment about vast formless things was just intended to say that these philosophers did not cause the Enlightenment. If they were never born, other folks eventually would have written similar philosophy.

          What motivated my original comment was abstract questions in moral philosophy, like population ethics. I don’t think anyone grounds their politics on the answers to these questions. Systematized theories can resolve conflicts when intuitions conflict, which has a place, but compared with having the right intuitions, it’s a second-order issue.

          1. Addict

            “If they were never born, other folks eventually would have written similar philosophy.”

            What makes you believe this? Having studied the time period in some detail, I am almost positive that without wilkins and hooke, the enlightenment would not have happened.

      1. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

        First, government was about a ruler who dominated through the right of conquest. Then, with the Magna Carta, government was a contract between the rulers and the ruled, essentially saying that the ruled wouldn’t revolt if the ruler didn’t act like a despot.

        I am pretty sure this is American Mythology with little relation with history. Not the least of which because the Anglo-Saxons were in the habit of choosing their kings, and extracting from them promises to rule well. It is just a coincidence that choosing the son of the last king was sometimes an effective strategy for not fighting a war with what would otherwise be an irritated, disposed heir. In that light, the Magna Carta is not a novel invention. The Norman magnates, like the Anglo-Saxons before them, chose as their king someone who wasn’t the heir and in exchange received promises to rule well. Promises that were, by the way, ignored before the ink was dry. The fact they were written down at all is likely due to the fact that the disposed heir was Duke of Normandy and the previous Duke of Normandy managed to conquer the kingdom. The usurping king was obliged to make very serious sounding promises to get the barons to back the scheme.

        The ironic thing is that this myth gets it exactly backwards. Prior to the Norman invasion, the Earls were incredibly powerful. A few of leading ones acting together were as or more powerful than the king. For example, Edward the Confessor was a puppet of the Godwin family because they controlled a handful of the earldoms. And when sufficiently irritated with their king they were not at all shy about revolting. William the Bastard arguably had no intention of displacing the natives during The Conquest. But they kept revolting, and he was obliged to keep suppressing the revolts, confiscating their lands and titles in the process until there were none left. Those land were divided up and distributed amongst those loyal to him so that by the time of the Doomsday Book not even the leading few hundred of the new barons could challenge the king. Or his children, such our usurper that signed the Magna Carta. Revolt was no longer an option against a tyrannical king, and the ability of the magnates of the land to choose who ruled them rapidly eroded.

      2. ADifferentAnonymous

        Antithesis: political and economic forces change the world, and the philosophers whose ideas support the change rise to prominence. I’m pretty sure Marx mostly believed this, but it’s by no means an exclusively Marxist position. Historical causation is generally a fascinating own question; I had a professor who argued technological innovation was not a driving force in bringing about the Industrial Revolution.

        1. someone

          Marx is an interesting point here, as his Philosophy clearly had an enormous impact on the shape of the world for the following ~100 years.
          Also, we get into weird discussions if someone were to argue with Marx that no, he had no impact, it was a historical imperative determined by the means of production.

        2. Carinthium

          In this thesis, what led to the rise of Christianity? I see no reason why it was uniquely better suited to Rome than the alternatives. Paganism had problems, but primarily from lack of credibility.

          Mohammed’s Islam clearly changed a lot. It won primarily because of Mohammed being an extraordinary individual, though. What was it about Arabia that made Islam, rather than say a Christian sect, inevitably the winner?

          1. ADifferentAnonymous

            Maybe a christian sect could have succeeded in Arabia, but only if it looked a lot like Islam. And similarly Rome was ripe for conversion to something with certain traits that Christianity had. I don’t know the history of these cases well enough to say if this is plausible.

          2. Carinthium

            I think that’s what they’d say. The question is how to demonstrate that certain traits made victory inevitable and what they were.

            Why, for instance, must religious intolerance necessarily succeed in Ancient Rome? Why is, say, Mohammed’s brilliance as a writer not considered a major factor?

      1. Vladimir Slepnev

        I feel that GoT might have more characters with plot armor than most people admit. I’d be pretty surprised if Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Arya or Littlefinger died before the final season. In the final season, all bets are off.

        1. Quixote

          Tyrion is awesome in the books, but he seems much bigger in the show because of Peter Dinkledge being such a powerful and charismatic actor. I’m not sure he actualy has plot armor. But I also wouldn’t bet against him.

        2. Susebron

          I don’t know much about the show. How far behind the books is it, and how much has it diverged? I’ve got some thoughts, but they’re all based on the books and there’s a special circle of hell devoted to people who give out ASOIAF spoilers.

          1. Loquat

            The show is simultaneously a book behind, a book ahead, and wandering off onto its own path altogether, depending on which character’s subplot you’re looking at. Cersei and Arya are still working on book 4, Tyrion and Daenerys are partway through book 5, Bran finished up his book 5 plot last season and has this season off, and Sansa, Brienne, and Jaime have all either finished or skipped their book 4 and 5 plots and are now doing things that actively conflict with the published material.

            The way the show’s been going, I am 99% certain Sansa will end the series both alive and in a position of relative power.

        3. Bugmaster

          I feel that GoT might have more characters with plot armor than most people admit. I’d be pretty surprised if Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Arya or Littlefinger died before the final season. In the final season, all bets are off.

          [Edna Krabappel] Ha ! [/Edna Krabappel]

          That’s all I can say 🙂

          1. InferentialDistance

            [Potential Spoiler]
            There is a fortuitously placed Red Priest near the only confirmed death among those characters. And another Red Priest was able to raise the dead. And the character’s death was a cliffhanger. I predict the nearby Red Priest will bring said character back from the dead.

          2. Susebron

            [Potential spoiler]
            Also, said character has at least one other confirmed method of not dying, which was specifically foreshadowed in close proximity to said character.

          3. James Picone

            [Potential spoiler]
            Also we didn’t see the corpse, just some text indicating that they were wounded, badly. Maybe they just flat out survive.

      2. FacelessCraven

        I’m pretty sure he’s going to survive the series, but that doesn’t feel like “Plot Armor” to me. He’s highly intelligent and pragmatic, courageous enough to take serious risks when the payout is worthwhile, always looking for an angle.

        It seems to me that most major characters who die in Game of Thrones do so because they fail to accept the world as it is, rather than as they wish it to be. They make bad decisions, and those bad decisions catch up with them sooner or later. Tyrion makes very few bad decisions, and has a keen sense of when to roll the dice and when to play it cool. He always does what he can to ensure that those around him have an interest in his survival, and so he survives.

        Jon Snow would have seemed like a much better example of someone insulated by plot armor. He’s not very smart, has long been out of his depth, and usually just seems to be making it up as he goes along.

          1. Zorgon

            While you’re probably right in general, it’s seemed to me for that Daenerys is an exception to this. Jon Snow has been forced to learn cluefulness while Daenerys stumbles from idiotic decision to idiotic decision with nothing like the degree of consequences that would be inflicted on any other character in the series.

            Then again, since we know GRRM revels in killing off popular characters, we may yet see him pop the “Khaleesi” bubble before the end.

          2. Held In Escrow

            Daenerys is somewhat of a deconstruction of the “lost son of the king” trope in that she would be your standard fantasy protagonist anywhere else… but in ASoIaF she’s constantly screwing things up despite having plot armor. One of my friends calls her George W Bush with Dragons, because she’s goes Right to Protect all over the city-states without having a decent plan of how to unfuck the situation.

            I highly doubt she’s going to have a happy ending because of it

          3. FacelessCraven

            @Zorgon – “…while Daenerys stumbles from idiotic decision to idiotic decision with nothing like the degree of consequences that would be inflicted on any other character in the series.”

            …She has a dedicated core of fanatically loyal retainers, a near-unbeatable army, and three dragons. She’s got some truly impressive insulation from the bad consequences of her decisions.

            That said, the decisions she’s been faced with have been uniformly no-win for a while. It seems to me that her decision-making skills up to acquiring the Unsullied were fairly good. Starting from nothing, she acquired loyal followers, dragons, and a professional army. She had no land, but acquiring the army left her in de facto control of a city state. What should she have done from there?

        1. John Schilling

          None of Tyrion’s positive attributes, in-universe, saved him from being executed for Joffrey’s murder. He didn’t have the sense to get out of King’s Landing before it was too late, his scheming was ineffectual, nobody had enough of a real interest in his survival to help him – but he’s the kind of person GRRM likes, and so Jamie also suddenly likes him enough to risk his life for Tyrion’s on no politically sound basis. Tyrion is the kind of person I like too, so I’m not complaining.

          Jon, Arya, and Daenerys have Plot Armor in the sense of being central to plots that have too much invested in them to be abandoned at this stage. Without Dany, nothing that happens on Essos can plausibly matter to anyone else we care about, and that plot is too big to turn into a giant shaggy dog story.

          Dany and Arya are also sympathetic, attractive, strong, independent female characters, which makes them nigh immortal. GRRM could perhaps have killed them off in the novels, when they were just novels, but it isn’t going to happen on-screen.

          1. Susebron

            Dany is immortal not because she’s a strong female character, but because she has dragons. When it comes to plots, Essos is only the tip of the iceberg. If GRRM isn’t going to kill off literally everyone at the end, dragons are almost certainly going to get involved. There are only a few other characters who I would plausibly expect to be able to control a dragon, and none of them have access to any dragons. He’s not going to kill her off without giving dragons to someone else first.