OT20: Heaven’s Open

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

1. Corrections from last week’s links: thinking probably doesn’t fuel brain cancers (thanks, Urstoff), and the discussion of the psychology replication results is still preliminary and shouldn’t have been published.

2. Comment of the week is vV_Vv asking a question of Jewish law.

3. This is your semi-annual reminder that this blog supports itself by the Amazon affiliates program, so if you like it, consider buying some of the Amazon products I mention, clicking on the Amazon link on the sidebar, or changing your Amazon bookmark to my affiliate version so I will get a share of purchases. Consider also taking a look at other sponsors MealSquares and Beeminder.

4. Continue to expect a lower volume of blogging for the near future.

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766 Responses to OT20: Heaven’s Open

  1. Joe says:

    Scott, do you plan to review the new book Arriving at Amen by Leah Libresco? I know her blog Unequally Yoked is in your blog roll. Just thought that would be cool.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      She sent me a review copy, I’ve been meaning to read it, but in between work, blogging, floods, and various projects, my time for reading has been really low. If I am able to read it I’ll certainly review it.

    • Kevin S. Van Horn says:

      Leah’s conversion baffles me; I just don’t see how anyone who is serious enough about making their beliefs align with reality to attend an 8-day rationality workshop can believe in a god. I started out as a believer; it was the intellectual dishonesty required to support my belief in god that turned me into an atheist.

      • TomA says:

        Some people use the word “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. In this context, the religious usage becomes a subset definition and encompasses the human conceptualization of god in all its other forms.

        • Nornagest says:

          Pretty hard to go from that to “thou shalt”, but as long as you’re not according the Bible any more respect than any other comparably established piece of wisdom literature from a successful civilization, I suppose it can still work.

          • TomA says:

            Not really. After our species developed complex language, it became feasible (and advantageous) to pass on wisdom to succeeding generations via memetic indoctrination. Religions are just a social manifestation of this practice and they arose at a time when there were a great many unknowns.

          • Irrelevant says:

            as long as you’re not according the Bible any more respect than any other comparably established piece of wisdom literature from a successful civilization

            Dubious strategy. If we accept that ancient books of wisdom are in fact “God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” then I can think of many reasons why you would be best to pick one instead of trying to learn all of them and weight them equally.

        • Kevin S. Van Horn says:

          Leah converted to Catholicism; this is a faith with some very specific beliefs, not some vague fuzzy notion of “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. It includes such insanities as the belief that a priest muttering a few words over a cracker and a glass of wine turn it into actual flesh and actual blood, in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary.

          • youzicha says:

            Well, apparently, the Catholic doctrine is that the “essence” changes while the “accidents” remain the same, and that it’s the “accidents” that provides sense perceptions. So it’s not super clear what the evidence you would need to contradict it…

          • suntzuanime says:

            Well yeah, but I mean, come on. Come on.

          • Logan says:

            While it’s fun to describe other people’s beliefs in un-nuanced ways that make them sound stupid, transubstatiation does not contradict any empirical evidence. It’s like the ship of Theseus: there’s no definitive line between “flesh” and “not flesh” except by convention, and Catholics use a convention wherein “flesh of Jesus” includes such things as the body of a man from Galillee 2000 years ago as well as pieces of bread that a priest has muttered over. It’s a purely metaphysical claim.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “transubstatiation does not contradict any empirical evidence.”

            We are rationalists. “It doesn’t contradict empirical evidence” doesn’t cut it- we need something to cut away solipsism.

            “It’s like the ship of Theseus: there’s no definitive line between “flesh” and “not flesh” except by convention, and Catholics use a convention wherein “flesh of Jesus” includes such things as the body of a man from Galillee 2000 years ago as well as pieces of bread that a priest has muttered over.”

            The term flesh has a generally agreed upon definition that Catholics agree with. They aren’t saying that it also means “bread the priest has said words on”- they are claiming the words the priest say move the bread into this category.

            “It’s a purely metaphysical claim.”

            Yes and people here don’t believe you should believe in things that have absolutely no evidence for their existence. Metaphysical things being physically real (but not interacting with reality) is a biggie.

          • pacheco says:

            When I went to church school, the teacher claimed that one time one priest had actually transformed wine into blood. That sounds really scary now…

          • vV_Vv says:

            In order to make Transubstantiation not contrary to evidence, High Medieval Catholic theologians had to rape Aristotelian metaphysics, creating an unfalsifiable (hence maximally unparsimonious) belief.

            The interesting question is why did they went such great lengths of intellectual contortions to justify an old belief that is patently absurd.
            Couldn’t they settle for a less extreme interpretation of the Eucharist which didn’t involve changes of “substance”, as various people had suggested?
            Were they stupid?

            Of course they weren’t stupid. On the contrary, I think that this absurdity was deliberate.
            It was a power and status play: being able to say with a straight face something which is obviously absurd is a way to signal and affirm your status and power, particularly when you are also able to shun or even burn at stake those who disagreed.
            Indeed those who argued for less extreme interpretation of the Eucharist were declared heretics and excommunicated or worse. When the Protestant Reformation broke out, Transubstantiation became one of the main issues of contention as a part of the power play between the splintered churches and the Catholic Church.

          • Joe says:

            Here’s a cool video of a Eucharistic miracle.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Yeah, I find the arguments for transubstantiation to be bizarre and confusing. To say that something can still look, feel and taste like bread but its “essence” is converted into flesh…what does that even mean? What is “essence,” in this context?

            It’s kind of like driving down the highway in a car and having the person in the passenger seat tell me that the car is actually a dead trout. And when I point out the fact that we’re driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour and that would be impossible if we were sitting on a dead fish, he replies, “Well, I’m not saying we’re hallucinating or anything. Of course this object still has the sensory properties of a car, but its essence is that of a dead trout, so it’s not inaccurate to say that we’re literally driving down the highway in a fish.”


          • Joe says:

            I think Catholics can sympathize. We often get the same sort of feeling when we meet a transgendered person. We only accept this instance of substance and accidents change because it was revealed to us by Christ through the Church and confirmed by various miracles.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yeah, I find the arguments for transubstantiation to be bizarre and confusing. To say that something can still look, feel and taste like bread but its “essence” is converted into flesh…what does that even mean?

            Do you understand why people imbue cannibalism with (usually negative) moral significance? I mean, as a rationalist you are practically obligated to assert that you don’t see anything morally wrong with it so long as the meat is otherwise ethically sourced, etc, etc, but I hope you have not just the knowledge but some degree of understanding that for most people it doesn’t work that way. And I’d wager that if, vacationing in some quaint third-world village, you were served a plate of Long Pork as a special honor, you’d actually be somewhat revolted.

            There is indeed a real, physical difference between the particular arrangement of proteins, etc, in Long Pork and that in Just Plain Pork, but it pretty much requires sensitive scientific apparatus to reliably sort out. The thing that’s in Long Pork that makes it revolting to even contemplate eating, is the same sort of non-physical “essence” that Catholics assert can be transubstantiated into a cracker. The path by which it came to our table, matters even if it doesn’t affect the taste or the nutritional value.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Joe: Gender is kind of a weird thing for me in general and I don’t really get what it means for anyone (trans, cis or otherwise) to “feel” male or female. It seems to be a very personal and subjective thing. But I tend to respect people’s preferred pronouns as a matter of etiquette. Calling people what they want to be called is just good manners; if someone said his name was Bob you probably wouldn’t insist on calling them Robert.

            John: I do certainly understand why humans have social norms against eating their own species, and I would probably feel some uneasiness about eating human meat, because I’ve absorbed those social norms. But I don’t consider the “essence” of human meat to be different from pork (aside from those miniscule, insignificant molecular differences you mentioned) in any non-subjective sense. Our perceptions of it are different, but meat is meat. There’s nothing special about ours. If you’re arguing that transubstantiation does not actually change the bread and wine itself but simply changes people’s perceptions of it, maybe I’ve misunderstood transubstantiation.

          • John Schilling says:

            People who believe cannibalism to be morally wrong, do not believe this to be a matter of perception. That is how we describe their beliefs. They may be in error, but they believe that Long Pork is objectively possessed of the quality, “is wrong to eat”, and for reasons no scientific instrument would ever be able to discern.

          • Joe says:

            I agree using someone’s preferred pronouns and chosen name is good manners. But trans people demand you believe they actually are their preferred gender identity and if you respectfully disagree they call you transphobic or a bigot. That’s why I sympathize with your difficulties with the Eucharist.

          • Hyzenthlay says:


            Even for those who believe that cannibalism is always objectively immoral, saying that the meat itself possesses the inherent quality of “being wrong for humans to eat” seems like a strange and convoluted way of looking at it.

            That’s kind of like describing why murder is wrong by saying “the human body is possessed of the inherent quality of ‘should not be stabbed, shot, or otherwise injured in a way that causes it to not be alive.'”

            Maybe that’s how some people look at it. I don’t know. But even for those who view morality as an objective thing, I think they’re more likely to describe the act as inherently wrong.


            That’s often true of people in the social justice community, and I have plenty of disagreements with the way they act. But I don’t think that’s true of all trans people. Many of them are just going about their lives and aren’t particularly interested in policing everyone’s thoughts. As with any group (whether it’s atheists or Christians or the trans community or whatever) the loudest and most combative ones get the most attention.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            I was under the impression the prohibition against cannibalism isn’t “this is a fundamental property” type thing. People were/are willing to forgive cannibals who eat dead people when they were starving to death (although people in the situation who kill others in order to eat them are strongly condemned).

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            it pretty much requires sensitive scientific apparatus to reliably sort out

            Does it? After all many people can tell pork, beef and mutton apart without any scientific apparatus, and pigs are more closely related to sheep or cattle than to us.

          • Irrelevant says:

            What, you don’t think the chemical test lab/auditory frequency modulator/mop is a sophisticated apparatus?

      • Toggle says:

        Well, a surprising result means that you had some incorrect assumptions about reality. Leah’s conversion to Catholicism (as somebody serious enough about making their beliefs align with reality to attend an 8-day rationality workshop) is a form of evidence. It suggests one of two major possibilities: that that there are modes of Catholicism that do not involve willful self-deception, or that Leah might have been willing to commit willful self-deception despite the experience in CFAR. I’m not particularly familiar with Leah, but both options seem plausible; I know a lot of seemingly sincere and thoughtful Catholics, and I also know that people are basically nutty despite our best intentions.

        • RCF says:

          “Well, a surprising result means that you had some incorrect assumptions about reality.”

          Really? So if a million people flip a coin 20 times, and one of them gets 20 heads, does that one person have incorrect assumptions about reality?

          • Toggle says:

            If I flipped a coin and got 20 heads in a row, I would be a lot more likely to wonder whether I had a weighted coin.

      • Daniel Keys says:

        It doesn’t baffle me, exactly. If she hasn’t adopted certain beliefs that seem much more common in the hierarchy than among lay Catholics (in America), then she might even have more chance of meeting women at a Catholic church than she would at an atheist/rationalist gathering which served similar social functions. But it disappoints me.

      • Joe says:

        Kevin, She didn’t just attend a CFAR retreat she was a curriculum developer there. So she was leading the retreats. I have the opposite attitude towards the rationalist community. The more I read of Scott, Eliezer, Julia and all that they teach it becomes harder and harder to believe they are still atheists. I guess the way they feel about God is the way I feel about AI. To me the whole AI stuff is total crackpot nonsense.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          Why is AI nonsense? One can argue with how much of a threat it is, but the idea we can build intelligences and that they will only have the values we put into them is only controversial if you think humans gain the ability to think through unreplicatable processes.

          • James Picone says:

            Are you the person who was here several threads ago pushing the same AI-is-impossible line? The American Catholic hosted the article that person linked to, IIRC, which was a different one.

            You might want to go back and look at the objections raised there – they still apply.

            At the very least, you should consider that as far as materialists are concerned, the objections raised are quite literally meaningless, and also a bit laughable (we /already have/ an instantiation of intelligence in a computer in the materialist viewpoint, it’s in your head) and there are a lot of materialists in the rationalist cluster.

            EDIT: It is nice of them to make their religious viewpoint falsifiable, though. How rarely does that happen. Of course, they’ll claim any AI produced is a philosophical zombie and dodge falsification that way, but whatever.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Just looked at the first link; it doesn’t criticize AI, but the Turing Test. And it is off base. The reason he suggested the test instead of just measuring thinking is that thinking is a subjective process that you can’t directly observe. Having something the outward equivalent of thought might not be thought, but since we don’t have any way to differentiate it, it is essentially equivalent.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            To expand, it is looking under the lamppost… but we are comparing to other things we can see under other lampposts. We can’t observe other individuals mental states and we know their brains and thought process are different so we can say they are the same- only similar.

            And before you object, we know that other people can have incredibly different mental systems- aside from the mentally ill there is things like autism where (according to what I’ve read) an entire system is missing. Imagine explaining sight to a blind man, now imagine instead of a sense it is a way of thinking that comes automatically.

          • Ano says:

            “One can argue with how much of a threat it is, but the idea we can build intelligences and that they will only have the values we put into them is only controversial if you think humans gain the ability to think through unreplicatable processes.”

            We can’t build intelligences, though, and given that we don’t even really understand what intelligence is, the prospect of building one is way off. So while humans gaining the ability to think is probably not unreplicatable, it’s also a process we have very very limited understanding of.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            I wasn’t claiming we could do it right now- the optimists put thinks in the 2030s-50s.

          • Joe says:

            Samuel, Its a non starter form the get go as I think was explained in the links. But if you don’t accept or understand the arguments than just know that the optimists you’re talking about are either ignorant or being dishonest about how difficult it is to build and intelligence. Check out this review of Nick Bostroms book “Super Intelligence” to get an idea.

            Many of these advocates say that their critics are anthropomorphizing the super intelligence to much. But if an AI is going to achieve its goals, or what ever it has optimized for, its going to have to be able to think like a human and it looks like most of these guys going around fund raising don’t realize how hard that is.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Samuel, Its a non starter from the get go as I think was explained in the links”

            The first link isn’t about AI at all! It is about the Turing Test. Passing the Turing Test doesn’t mean something is an AI. If you produce a sophisticated enough Chat-bot it can pass the Turing Test.

            The second link declares its premises are correct and then declares that excludes AI- at no point does it justify the premise. Seriously he writes:

            “The very idea is, as I have noted before, an artifact of the modern post-Galileo, post-Cartesian “mathematicized” conception of matter taken for granted by Cartesians and materialists alike. If you define matter so that color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them are not really in matter at all but only in our conscious experience of it — so that color as an objective feature of the world is redefined in terms of surface reflectance properties, sound in terms of compression waves, and so forth — then naturally color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them are not going to be identifiable with or explicable in terms of “material” features of the world. This is the reason way materialism will always be afflicted by objections of the sort raised by Jackson, Nagel, Chalmers, et al., and given the conception of matter the materialist takes for granted these objections are unanswerable. ”

            Presumably colorblind people don’t have souls.

            ” Check out this review of Nick Bostroms book “Super Intelligence” to get an idea.”

            Building an emulation of a human brain is far out of reach. Building one of something simpler and working from there is not.

            Also they happened to get a big thing wrong
            “Consider, finally, in this “un-motivated” context, the “values-loading problem,” coined as a term I believe by Bostrom and treated at some length, wherein we must load human values into our super intelligence to prevent it from destroying the human race. How would the super AI know NOT to get my mother out of a burning building by simply throwing her out of the tenth floor?

            It sits on top of one those hills, for it is actually the old problem of commonsense knowledge.

            But it is worse, for values impartation, while based in this very concrete knowledge and its invariance laws, is actually embedded over our cognitive development, in our interaction with the concrete world and its beings, and this development, it is now being understood, is itself a dynamic trajectory through which our brain is travelling as a self-organizing dynamic system.”

            Sociopaths exist. Psychopaths exist. Having commonsense knowledge will not prevent an AI from killing you because its goals don’t include your happiness- it will just prevent it from doing that unintentionally.

            ” But if an AI is going to achieve its goals, or what ever it has optimized for, its going to have to be able to think like a human and it looks like most of these guys going around fund raising don’t realize how hard that is.”

            That is so broad it is meaningless- in what way is it supposed to look like a human?

            As for not realizing how hard it is, no one in the rationalist community has claiming to have solved the problem of FAI. We might have to settle for close enough because human values might not be internally coherent enough to be programmable.

          • RCF says:

            Joe, when someone asks you to defend your position, and you just hand then a list of links, that’s pretty much a Gish Gallop, except lazier.

            You also are equivocating between “conceptually impossible”, “practically impossible”, and “very difficult”.

        • Irrelevant says:

          The more I read of Scott, Eliezer, Julia and all that they teach it becomes harder and harder to believe they are still atheists.

          I’m used to the reverse complaint, “so and so religious leader doesn’t even believe in God anymore.”

      • An awful lot of smart and reasonable people over the centuries have believed in a god, so although they may well have been wrong, it isn’t plausible that all of them were intellectually dishonest.

        What you seem to be saying is that you didn’t find any good arguments for the position. It’s a considerable leap to conclude from that nobody else could.

        • Jiro says:

          Of course it’s plausible they all were intellectually dishonest (or most of them anyway).

          If they all believed in God by arguments and evidence, why did they mostly happen to believe in the version of God they were raised with rather than believe in either a random version, or all believe in the same version?

          • Logan says:

            That’s just not true. I mean it’s kind of true, but there have been a lot of different conceptions of god from different philosophers throughout the centuries (Spinoza comes to mind). Yeah, most of them meshed roughly with the current conceptions (in a broad sense, more Christians than satanists), but that’s just how people work. We’re a product of our zeitgeist. The sheer volume of differing ideologies that you find indicative of intellectual honesty is probably more indicative of either the bias of things you’re familiar with seeming more complex, or else a product of the internet age, where niche ideas are more accessible.

            Lots of people more-or-less agreeing isn’t evidence that they’re wrong, if anything it’s evidence that they’re right.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Lots of people more-or-less agreeing isn’t evidence that they’re wrong, if anything it’s evidence that they’re right.

            It’s evidence that the points they agree on are more likely to be right than the points they disagree on.

          • Jiro says:

            The point is that you don’t see Christians looking at the evidence and realizing that the evidence supports Islam. Somehow the evidence almost always supports the religion that it’s convenient for them to believe.

            Also, there are reasons why people agree on things other than being right, making the evidence of limited use.

          • Irrelevant says:

            The point is that you don’t see Christians looking at the evidence and realizing that the evidence supports Islam.

            You do, however, see Mongols looking at the evidence and concluding Tengriism is monotheistic.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            There’s a lot of “actually this polytheism is monotheistic” that pops up. At the same time there is a lot of monotheism with an all powerful god… that has less individuals one can pray to, magical abilities, prayer and other characteristics generally found in polytheism.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I got suspicious of global warming once I learned that 97% of climate scientists’ predictions for temperature increase were within the IPCC predictions, rather than a random number from 1 to 100.

            Isolated demands for randomness are even worse than isolated demands for rigor. At least rigor is something to strive for.

          • Jiro says:

            This isn’t an isolated demand for randomness because it’s not a demand for randomness at all. One way to satisfy the objection is to be random, but another way to satisfy it is to all believe in the same version. That’s a demand for “something other than just ‘what’s the most convenient'”, which includes randomness only because it’s one type of non-“what’s the most convenient”, not because randomness is good by itself.

        • Kevin S. Van Horn says:


          Give me an example of a smart and reasonable person who has believed in a god and written about why they believe this. In fact, give me the best example you know of. I’m pretty sure I can point out to you some form of intellectual dishonesty in their argument.

          Just FYI, I consider any sort of epistemic double standard, privileging the hypothesis, or special pleading to be forms of intellectual dishonesty when committed by a reasonably intelligent person.

          • Cauê says:

            Just FYI, I consider any sort of epistemic double standard, privileging the hypothesis, or special pleading to be forms of intellectual dishonesty when committed by a reasonably intelligent person.

            You vastly overestimate humans.

          • Troy says:

            Give me an example of a smart and reasonable person who has believed in a god and written about why they believe this. In fact, give me the best example you know of.

            Richard Swinburne. The majority of his corpus is devoted to this.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I think that the so called “rationalist” community, at least at its core, has a significant religious or religious-like undercurrent.

        Singularity, cryonics, etc. seem more based in religious-like wishful thinking rather than rational thought. There seems to be even a good vs. evil dichotomy: FAI (Jesus) vs. UFAI (Satan), cryonic revival (resurrection in Heaven) vs. Roko’s basilisk (posthumous punishment in Hell).

        In fairness, in recent years these religious-like memes seem to have mostly gone away, at least from public forums: Cryonics has disappeared from LessWrong and discussion of AI risks is much more sane.
        Scott Alexander, at least according to what he writes on SSC (I didn’t read most of his older writings on LessWrong and his other blogs) seems much more reasonable than Eliezer Yudkowsky, and may have effectively replaced him as the most prominent figure of the “rationalist” community.

        But given this historical connection between “rationalism” and the religious-like transhumanism/singularitarianism, it’s not very surprising that some people swing between it and traditional religion. E.g. Robin Hanson and Luke Muehlhauser had fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, Eliezer Yudkowsky had a very religious Jewish background, etc. Leah Libresco had an an atheist background and went the other way.

        • Leo says:

          seem more based in religious-like wishful thinking rather than rational thought

          What distinguishes this from “are non-completely-mainstream ideas that I disagree with”?

          There seems to be even a good vs. evil dichotomy: FAI (Jesus) vs. UFAI (Satan), cryonic revival (resurrection in Heaven) vs. Roko’s basilisk (posthumous punishment in Hell).

          What distinguishes this from “some of the predicted events would be very good, some would be very bad”?

          Cryonics has disappeared from LessWrong

          Do the survey results suggest decreasing belief/participation in cryonics?

          • vV_Vv says:

            What distinguishes this from “are non-completely-mainstream ideas that I disagree with”?

            There are non-completely-mainstream ideas that I disagree with which don’t involve immortality and beings with god-like powers, that is, the sort of stuff that is normally in the realm of religion.

            Of course, in principle one should rationally believe in immortality and beings with god-like powers if one had an argument based on reason and evidence. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

            What distinguishes this from “some of the predicted events would be very good, some would be very bad”?

            Again, it’s the sort of thing religion deals with. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

            Do the survey results suggest decreasing belief/participation in cryonics?

            I was talking about discussion of cryonics on the forum. Anyway, the surveys don’t show large changes.
            I suppose that once one signs up for cryonics they are likely to remain signed up, and the survey didn’t ask how many people signed up in the last year.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “There are non-completely-mainstream ideas that I disagree with which don’t involve immortality and beings with god-like powers, that is, the sort of stuff that is normally in the realm of religion.”

            That doesn’t make it religious. “Not dying” is something people really want and attempting to use science to achieve that is a time honored tradition. Medicine isn’t religious even though its entire goal is based on that.

            Singularity doesn’t involve godlike power. It involves things innovation moving so quickly we can no longer predict what will happen afterwards. There has been a lot of speculation about god like powers (because it would be really cool), but at its heart it just means that computers are capable of designing new hardware faster and faster. It could simply mean that computers come up with the fastest form of hardware physically possible and future development ceases (although that isn’t too bad since we are talking insanely good).

            Transhumanists like talking about it because a lot of issues we have can be solved if we have insane amounts of computing power to throw at the problem.

            “Again, it’s the sort of thing religion deals with. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

            Friendly AI is AIs that have goals that are consistent with what humanity wants. Unfriendly AI is ones that lack that. Given that covers all possible AIs it isn’t an extraordinary claim.

            Are you disputing AI is possible or AI could be an actual threat? The former has the existence of people to show you can just brute force it and for the latter… I’m going to assume your objection is existential threat. That depends entirely on how widespread the AI gets and how easy it is to do things like design and release bioweapons. I’m not seeing how that is an extraordinary claim. We’ve had humans do it in limited amounts and humans don’t spend 24/7 seeking to achieve their goals as efficiently as possible.

        • People who make a big deal about rationality, rather than quietly getting on with it, often have a religious background, and often simply reproduce or insert aspects of it. It takes zero extra bits of information to do something the same, and one to do something in the exact opposite way, but it takes a lot of bits to head off in some new direction.

      • SFG says:

        A lot of people wind up converting for social and/or emotional reasons. You meet people, and you can pray to God when you feel down. Rationality doesn’t offer you that (you meet people, but maybe not the kind you’re looking for, and only if you live in the Bay Area or someplace similar).

        Faith’s existed for thousands of years because it meets people’s needs, even if it’s not logical.

  2. Did that research project that you were working on last year end up going anywhere? Are you going to be published?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If you mean the same one I think you mean – I’m still gathering subjects. It’s slow as I have to wait for the right kind of patients to trickle in.

  3. BillG says:

    Going to give this one more try while I’m early in the commenting chain- I’ve been biting my nails for almost 25 years with only minor times stopping. The one time I successfully stopped was while I was a smoker. Eventually I quit smoking and started biting my nails again.

    Does anyone have any good advice to quit? I’ve tried all of the standards- things that taste bad on them and etc. May be barking up the wrong tree but respect this community enough to think there may be some good ideas.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      How about something that tastes worse? bad enough that you vomit.


    • Matt M says:

      I’m curious – why do you want to quit?

      I’ve been biting my nails since I was a kid and just can’t motivate myself to even try to stop. I know some people find it unattractive, but I can’t think of a logical reason to not continue what has in no way been a harmful behavior for me.

      • Emerit says:

        Would expect greater chance of virus transmission, especially if you have lots of contact with items other people touch or use (or you shake hands often).

      • haishan says:

        People finding it unattractive is harmful to you, though. The halo effect does real.

      • Swimmy says:

        I chipped one of my teeth by biting my nails. I got the chip filled in, reduced biting my nails by 95%, then chipped some more by biting them again just a little bit.

        Biting your nails: not even once.

        • Brian says:

          This is pretty wild. Like, there should be a basically 0% chance of chipping your teeth via biting your nails. How the hell are your nails harder than your teeth? I am amazed and impressed.

          • My guess, on no evidence, is that the chipping is a result of the upper tooth pressing against the lower in the process of nail biting.

            But it’s worth noting the distinction between hardness and fragility. Emerald is considerably harder than jade, meaning that a piece of emerald will scratch a piece of jade. But emerald is also much more fragile than jade, breaks more easily. There may be a similar effect here.

    • D_Malik says:

      Use fear conditioning. For instance, put a rubber band around your wrist. When you bite your nails, snap the band against your skin, hard enough to cause pain. If that doesn’t work, substitute some other aversive stimulus. For instance, look up at the ceiling and slowly count to 10, so as to induce boredom. (This worked for my knuckle-cracking, where other techniques failed.) Also, if the aversive taste technique doesn’t work, then you haven’t tried sufficiently aversive tastes.

      • anon85 says:

        Aversive tastes inevitably get in my food on occasion (e.g. when eating an apple). Maybe it works, but the cost seems too high.

        • Bill G says:

          That’s been my experience. And also I’ve failed to reapply frequently enough that the taste dissipates and then I bite wildly. So not only was my sandwich ruined, my nails are bitten!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Habit reversal therapy is the gold standard. Medicationwise, there’s some preliminary evidence for n-acetyl-cysteine. Some people try high-dose SSRIs on the assumption that it’s on the OCD spectrum. I would pay to see someone try Anafranil for nail biting.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        NAC is a nice overall supplement to be taking as well.

      • Bill G says:

        Replying to Scott as short-hand for the whole group- thank you all, will be looking into many of these methods.

        And yeah, motivation for quitting is increased virus transmission concerns as well as having already fairly damaged fingers, while working a visible professional job.

      • Levi Aul says:

        Whoa. Supposing that NAC works to enhance impulse inhibition in general… does this suggest that, say, people with Cystic Fibrosis, or even just chronic dehydration (anything that could cause increased mucoviscosity) will be more impulsive?

        I’m aware NAC shows promise in both Alzheimers and Parkinson’s, but I had been assuming it was for the other reason (that mucolytics are generally effective antibiofilm agents, and that this property might promote neuronal clearance of beta-amyloid before sheet formation can become acute.)

        Now I’m wondering what effect NAC has on Lesch–Nyhan.

    • AJD says:

      I stopped biting my nails when I started carrying a nail file in my pocket regularly. When I felt the impulse to bite my nails, I instead filed them with a device designed for that purpose.

      This may not work for you if what stimulates you to want to bite your nails is not the feeling that they’re too long or otherwise poorly groomed.

      • SanguineVizier says:

        This is very similar to how I managed to quit biting my nails after 25+ years of the habit. I made an effort to substitute cleaning underneath them whenever I felt the urge to bite. They are now not only long, but meticulously clean.

        • Bill G says:

          That sounds like at least a piece of any strategy I’d take to address. As crazy as it sounds, I often bite my nails in a misguided effort to make them cleaner/more uniform.

          • Creutzer says:

            I completely understand that and the strategy (variations) described above work pretty well for me.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Another groomed thumbs-up for carrying a file. Or in my case, a clipper. For me, it was enough to simply lower the cost of this alternative method to get me to stop (with rare exceptions).

      • Matthew says:

        This would work for me, too. I keep my nails cut to the quick, normally with clippers, and only bite them when I realize they’ve grown out when I’m somewhere other than home. I’m OCD about nail length, rather than having any particular compulsion to bite them.

    • thirqual says:

      Picked up an acoustic guitar, eschewed the pick. You’ll need very short nails on one hand, neatly filed nails on the other for proper finger picking. I stopped playing regularly since, but the habit did not come back.

      Of course, that might be a little low in the “bang for your buck” if you don’t want to learn an instrument.

      • Lambert says:

        I have a friend who plays classical guitar. She has to keep her nails well-groomed. Sh also uses the trick of using pieces of ping-pong ball to reinforce fingernails.

    • lilred says:

      Wellbutrin is awesome. 🙂

    • Tracy W says:

      There’s some ideas on the Beeminder forum.

    • jast says:

      Probably not practical, but I seem to have stopped biting my nails over a month-long vacation, and they grew fairly long. I since keep them sculpted, which reminds me not to bite them too much, because aethetics, and apparently I did the nail biting for a sort of stimming effect under stress, which the nails themselves now handle.

      So practically, maybe you can replace the biting with another stimming habit.

    • Quixote says:

      Two points

      – buy a good pair of nail clippers (not just cheap ones) and trine your nails once a week after you shower // this is easy to implement and gets you a surprising amount of mileage

      – if you really want to quit, the best way is not to focus on nail biting specifically, but to power level your mental awareness so you notice consciously when the desire to bite your nails arises and so that you can consiously disregard the desire and put it aside. The best way to get that is to cultivate a mediation practice.

      • Bill G says:

        Any good guides on meditation toward developing that sort of awareness? I’ve tried some in the past, but have never been consistent with it enough and felt a little amiss while doing it.

    • Alex Welk says:

      From someone who had been biting since childhood until just last year, what I found works was actually figuring out why I bit my nails. Sometimes it was boredom, other times it was hunger/wanting to chew on something to distract from hunger, and my last one was to ‘fix’ any sharp edges or broken edges. I set a specific way to fight each one. Boredom I fought by writing/doodling stuff for dungeons and dragons. Hunger I made sure to keep sunflower seeds to have something to chew. I also started carrying a nail file to fix my nails if they started to catch on cloth or looked unkempt. The combination of giving myself ‘outs’ to nail biting as well as a motivation to stop eventually worked. They say you have to get through a few weeks to break the habit, and it is completely true. I broke it a few times after a week or two, but finally made it about nine months ago. As a side note, having a good friend keep you on track with positive reinforcement is really helpful too (my fiance helped me). Good luck! It is also a very nice reminder of my past willpower to see nice even nails when I look down.

      • Bill G says:

        Did you ever run into any challenges when your nails got longer? I feel like this is something only a former-biter would understand, but the longer they get the stronger the urge to bite them.

    • Luke Somers says:

      My nail-biting (and knuckle-biting!) went away as I got rid of my constant anxiety – like, once I’d done well in sports it went down a notch, and once I had had a girlfriend it went down a notch, once I got a job, etc..

      I am glad that when I get anxiety now, which of course does happen from time to time, my reactions are less destructive in nature.

    • Ano says:

      I used to bite my nails, then stopped because my braces made it far too uncomfortable to continue doing so. I guess that’s not really helpful advice, though.

    • Error says:

      I used to have a similar habit. My solution was to regularly trim my nails too short to effectively bite. I still have a habit of chewing my *fingertips*, but I’m not quite willing to amputate them to stop that habit.

      Curiosity: In my version of the habit, I’m not usually aware that I’m doing it, which made it very difficult to intentionally stop. Is that the same for you?

    • DanielLC says:

      Keep nail clippers with you at all times. It worked okay for me. Although now I’ve picked up the habit if plucking my chin hairs with nail clippers. Maybe I should keep tweezers with me too.

    • alaska3636 says:

      Light calisthenics. The only way that worked for me was to substitute. Take that nervous energy and when you catch yourself, do a “penalty” five pushups. If you’re over-developed there, do lunges. You must do them on the spot. It provides a two-fold reinforcement: 1) redirects nervous energy; 2) it is embarrassing.

      As someone above mentioned, a problem arose later as my nails got longer and the urge to bite them grew stronger. Keep a nail file and a nail clipper handy and learn to “do” nails. Problem that arose after this was my urge to click my nails on hard surfaces. And I’m back on the carousel.

    • Cadie says:

      Getting acrylic nails stopped my nail-biting, and even when I take them off I don’t bite anymore because the habit is broken.

      That might be easier for women than men, but… maybe a manicure would help deter the biting since it would mess up the manicure. A lot of men get those done and just have their nails buffed instead of lacquered.

  4. TomA says:


    I am relatively new to your website. Have you blogged yet on the impact of the obesity epidemic on the health care system? This seems to me to be a power series effect, and not just a linear impact with the growth of the population cohort.

    • aerdeap says:

      You wouldn’t happen to be the TomA that used to comment at Rocketpunk Monifesto, would you?

    • Deiseach says:

      Can I just leap (or waddle) in here and protest VERY FUCKING LOUDLY about this bullshit phrase “obesity epidemic”?

      For public scaremongering and fat-shaming, it’s golddust, very nice, medical profession and government bodies, congratulations, your PR consultants played a blinder on this one.

      But “epidemic”? Oh noes, you may catch fatness from that disgusting big blob sitting beside you on the bus! Actually, if the gut microbiome thing is correct, you may indeed catch fatness, but that doesn’t play into the handy-dandy “the only reason fat people are fat is because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough: lazy, greedy and lacking in willpower!”

      And please, don’t weasel-word about “By ‘epidemic’ we mean a sudden increase in the amount”.

      Oh, all those horrible fat people, hoovering up the scarce resources from real sick people! Are we getting into pseudo-Thatcherite divisions between the deserving and undeserving sick?

      I’ve been fat all my life. For decades I never used any medical services, unlike my thin fellow-citizens. No, not even for “I need a sick note for work”. I still have my tonsils and appendix. I never broke any bones. The worst disease I ever had was the measles, and that was taken care of at home with a paid-for-by-my-parents visit from the doctor.

      My sister, who is not and never was fat, was a constant visitor to hospitals and doctors since she developed a bad bout of pneumonia at the age of two. Needed her tonsils out. Fractured her arm. You name it, she caught it.

      It is only, literally, within the past five years that I’ve needed medical treatment and if you tell me my ailments are because I’m fat, I will punch you in your ignorant nose (the other way round: my undiagnosed and untreated PCOS was a contributing factor to my obesity, not vice versa).

      I am not arguing that being fat is perfectly fine and has no ill-effects. But I am arguing that doctors tend to blame all a fat person’s ailments on their being fat. I get this myself: my joint pains are attributed to me being fat and the extra weight putting strain on the joints. Fair enough, I don’t deny this. I don’t walk on my wrists so I don’t know how the fat

      BUT – my thin mother, my thin grandmother, and my thin sister had and have similar joint pains. My grandmother was confined to bed for the last fifteen years of her life because her joints literally froze and locked in place (her legs remained in a bent position and she couldn’t unbend them, and her fingers were unbendable as well). My mother had to get gold injections in her wrist. There is a history of arthritis for three generations that I can confirm in my maternal line (what my great-grandmother etc. was like I don’t know).

      My sister, with the same pains and same family history, has arthritis. This is because she’s thin. I, with the same pains, same family history, don’t have arthritis. This is because I am fat.

      I know all about being made ashamed of myself for being fat. Believe me, the only way anyone can make me more ashamed and disgusted with myself would be to drive me to the point of suicide. Yes, I’m so sorry that your father died of cancer because the scarce medical resources were used up by me and my fatness and my Type 2 diabetes. I’m part of the “obesity epidemic” engulfing the globe like a bad LRPG of “The Blob”. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

      And yes, as I’ve mentioned on here before, I’ve had the experience of a doctor wanting to deliver me a bad diagnosis so that he could pronounce righteous judgement on me for being fat, so don’t tell me this is all about promoting health and concern for our quality of life by the medical profession. His superior, the consultant in the department, was just as bad so it really was a case of ‘like dog, like pup’. I went to my appointment with the Big Cheese prepared to have a serious discussion about my state of health and to really start tackling my weight, etc. I came out in a fit of hysteria and had there been a McDonalds nearby I swear I’d have gone there and stuffed my face with a Big Mac and the unhealthiest junk I could purchase simply from contrariness because fuck it, if I was such a disgusting failure of an excuse for a human being, what was the point of even bothering trying to change and get healthy?

      I am off now to stuff my face with cream cakes and lie on the sofa watching crap telly all day. Because that’s what we fat people do, isn’t it? This is why we’re such disgusting, horrible, unsightly, ugly, unhealthy blobs of grease that clog up the doctors’ surgeries and hospitals of the land with our self-induced ailments.

      Rant over. Anger levels still high. Do not approach enraged fat woman, even with propitiatory gifts of chocolate and rum’n’coke. And no, I really don’t (based on experience) think this is wanting us to be happy and healthy by the medical profession; for the government, we’re an expense (all the lost productivity in business and industry when we’re not being good little cogs in the machine of capitalism) and for doctors, we’re embarrassing nuisances who are defiant and won’t do what we’re told by our betters and why don’t we just quietly go away and die and stop wasting the time they could be using to treat proper sick people?

      • Jiro says:

        I’ve been fat all my life. For decades I never used any medical services, unlike my thin fellow-citizens… My sister, who is not and never was fat, was a constant visitor to hospitals

        That is equivalent to “I drove drunk and I never got into an accident, and my sister always stayed sober and she crashed her car anyway”.

        When something causes problems on a statistical basis, that means that they happen more often, but they still don’t happen every single time, and an individual may escape the effects by pure luck. The fact that you personally got lucky (and your sister and family unlucky) has no bearing on how dangerous obesity is to health.

        • Godzillarissa says:

          I think this was rather meant as a counterexample to “all fat people”, than to disprove statistical impact of obesity.

          In the past I’ve also been fatter than most people would have liked and it’s really not about statistics for most people, not even doctors. Everything is always your fault, because “all fat people”. My still obese parents still get that everytime they visit the doctor. Deservedly or not, who knows? Noone even takes a look, as it’s obviously because they’re fat.

          So yeah, I get the rant, was my point.

          • Deiseach says:

            Thank you. That was my point: the blaring headlines about the obesity epidemic are that fat people are soaking up all the medical resources and using more than their fair share.

            I never went next, nigh or near a doctor for ill-health until five years ago, and even had I been normal weight, I’d probably still have had to go because of the maternal family history of arthritis.

            But because I’m overweight, any pains in my wrists is “because you’re fat”, and therefore my fault, not because I might have hereditary arthritis/immune system which is prone to inflammation which would have started causing trouble despite my weight anyway.

          • Surlie says:

            It makes sense for doctors to zero in on something as statistically dangerous as obesity if you visit their office while suffering from it.

            If you visited the doctor with untreated diabetes or heroin addiction or obvious infection, would you get similarly indignant if they deprioritized whatever you came to see them for in order to address the more evident medical concern?

          • The problems with doctors only noticing obesity include that fat people are subject all the same physical problems that thin people are (in some cases, at different rates), losing a lot of weight is both unlikely and takes a good bit of time*– meanwhile, a physical problem isn’t being treated, and many physical problems aren’t caused by obesity and won’t be cured by losing weight.

            Actually, the same would apply if someone was a heroin addict or had untreated diabetes. Even if people need treatment for a serious background condition, they also need treatment for their current symptoms.

            *I’m inclined to think that if diet, exercise, and weight loos surgery were evaluated the way drugs are, the side effects and failure rates would be high enough that none of it would be allowed to be prescribed.

        • Deiseach says:

          My point was we are not seeing scare headlines about “pneumonia epidemic” or “all these thin people every night in A&E using scarce resources” because that’s the general population.

          How about headlines about the “tobacco epidemic”? Haven’t seen any of those, even with the massive disapproval about smoking. Yet somehow we can get across disapproval of an unhealthy habit without blaring that it is a tsunami overwhelming our health services with all the smoking-related diseases increasing.

          I don’t see how labelling it an epidemic is going to help. I do see echoes of “THE BLACK DEATH” in using terms like “epidemic” and how it is evoking the idea that “The reason your mother couldn’t get the much-needed treatment is because of all the fat slobs clogging up the system and hogging the good treatment”.

          • Salem says:

            You are just factually incorrect. We are seeing headlines about the tobacco epidemic. “Tobacco epidemic” (in quotes) gets 165,000 hits on google, the first of which is to this WHO report on “the global tobacco epidemic.”

          • Jiro says:

            Also, we don’t see headlines like “all these thin people every night in A&E using scarce resources” because thinness is not associated with using unusually more resources. (Defining thinness as the level of thinness in the general population as you just did.) There are individual thin people that get sick and use extra resources, but *statistically*, they do not.

          • Murphy says:

            “Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia cost the country more than £15bn a year, according to the first analysis of the financial effects of the problems.”


            “BEAT warned that an anorexia epidemic is sweeping through to top independent schools.”


          • Deiseach says:

            because thinness is not associated with using unusually more resources

            Normal weight person has joint pains: well, that could be arthritis, it’s unfortunately perfectly normal part of aging. “Epidemic” of arthritis? Don’t be silly! Even though “epidemic” is a term used for “sudden increase in something undesirable”, and arthritis is undesirable, and since more people are living longer and we have an increasing aging population this means “sudden increase in something undesirable”, there’s certainly no need to use emotive terms like “epidemic”!

            Overweight person: It’s because you’re fat, don’t bother trying to confuse me with how all your family have the same problem even those who are normal weight, OBESITY EPIDEMIC TARGETING OUR PRECIOUS BODILY FLUIDS!!!!!

          • Surlie says:

            >How about headlines about the “tobacco epidemic”?

            In the U.S., tobacco use has plummeted while obesity has skyrocketed.

            “Epidemic” usually implies a trend, not just a large cohort.

      • Irrelevant says:

        We had an “obesity epidemic” because we weren’t allowed to have “detrimental side effects of mothers entering the workforce,” and we have an ongoing “obesity epidemic” because we aren’t allowed to have “rising numbers of unhealthy immigrant children.”

        • Murphy says:

          You are factually incorrect.


          >We re-examine the pace of rising obesity among Hispanic immigrants and the effects associated with longer duration in the US, or what is referred to as unhealthy assimilation, the convergence of immigrant health to a less healthy native-born standard.

          >Consistent with previous research, we find that across all race-ethnic groups, immigrants tend to be less obese than native-born persons.

          Migrants are less obese than native-born populations in the US.

          • Irrelevant says:

            You are correct, the delay before the new lifestyle kicks in means I should have said “minority” instead of “immigrant.”

        • Deiseach says:

          For YEARS (and excuse me doing the all-caps shouting here but my divine, my dudgeon levels are reaching “breaching the levee” point here) I avoided things like “it’s my glands” because I accepted the story that such things were only excuses; that fat people (including myself) were fat solely due to the fact that we consumed more calories than we burned up by work and exercise; that things like “I’m big-boned”, “it’s in my family”, and “it’s the fault of my glands” were indeed only excuses used to cover up the lack of willpower that we fatties obviously did not have, because we were too lazy and greedy to make the simple changes that would result in losing weight and becoming healthy.

          And then late in life I developed severe abdominal pains, for which I went for ultrasounds to see what might be causing them, and lo and behold, I did indeed have cysts on my ovaries.

          So reading up on the symptoms of PCOS I got very damn angry (can you tell?) because hey, that was me, particularly with the weird cholesterol levels where my total level was great, well within the normal range, but my triglycerides were way too high!

          And you know what? For years I had been wondering, given the symptoms, if maybe something was wrong with my reproductive system. But for those same years, because I was so fucking conditioned by the dominant paradigm that ‘blaming your glands is only making excuses for being fat’, I did nothing about it. Because the reason I was fat was because I was lazy and greedy, not because I had anything really medically wrong with me, right? That’s what society said, that’s what the medical profession said, that’s what doctors (the rare time my mother forced me to go to them to do something about my weight) said: here’s a diet sheet, here’s a diet book, eat less, exercise more, that’s all you need.

          Obesity – at very high levels of BMI – is looking to be a little bit more complicated than that. If it really is (amongst other things) your gut flora that have a very big impact on the way your food gets digested – well, do YOU, normal weight people, feel personally responsible for what types of gut flora you were born with, grew in your gut all your life, and are presently culturing internally? Do you feel guilty about having the wrong type? Do you feel that “oh no, my weight is not acceptable because I was so neglectful about being sure I have the proper microbiome, it is totally my fault and I deserve scorn and obloquy from the public and society at large”?

          Because why the fuck should I feel guilty about something I had no power over? Oh, but I’m visibly fat – so that entitles everyone to make snap judgements about me and my character and my lifestyle on appearance.

          You’d be out there protesting racism or sexism or homophobia if it were anyone else being judged on their appearance that way.

          • Kevin S. Van Horn says:

            Obesity is not a moral issue. It makes no sense to condemn someone for being obese.

            Obesity is, however, a health issue. So, no, nobody should feel guilty or unworthy for being obese, but on the other hand, for anyone who cares about their health and wishes to live a long life it is unwise to be complacent about obesity.

            Forget about guilt, forget about fault-finding, and toss the moral judgments; the most productive approach is to view obesity as a morally neutral practical problem to be solved.

          • Baby Beluga says:

            I’m… really sorry to hear about that, Deiseach. That’s really shitty.

            I can see why you are so angry. So would I be, if I had your experience.

          • Irrelevant says:

            A solid argumentative approach, Kevin, whose only problem is being declared wrong in hardware: moral intuitions are disease intuitions are fitness intuitions, you refine them consciously but cannot separate them any more than you can separate anger and embarrassment or keep sex and blood from playing off each other. Saying to ignore emotional context when the subject under discussion is an emotional context isn’t solving the problem, it’s denying it exists.

          • Deiseach says:

            Kevin, I’d love to forget about the guilt and concentrate on the underlying health issues. But it’s hard to do when people treat you as sub-human because you’re fat.

            When I started on the whole merry-go-round of attending doctors (the triggering incident was unexplained swelling in my leg after an accident, which I freely admit sent me into a frenzy of hysteria because that’s how the local hospital killed* my father: told him his swollen leg was due to a sprained ankle, rather than the venous embolism which broke loose, went to his brain, and triggered a fatal stroke which it turned out to be in fact) – when, after panic attacks and anxiety attacks and fits of turning blue with breathlessness at four in the morning I started going to the doctor and the local hospital, I was shocked by how one consultant treated me.

            Because he treated me like a person.

            He made eye contact with me (so many of the medical personnel couldn’t even bring themselves to look me in the face), told me his name, addressed me by name, explained to me what was going on and why and the whole of it.

            You know, like I was a real human being and not a disgusting fat blob whose problems were all down to her being lazy, greedy, idle and hence a disgusting lazy fat blob.

            *Putting it a bit strong? Yep. Still stand by that language. When someone presents with one leg much much more swollen in girth than the other, it’s dead white in colour, icy cold to the touch, the person is elderly and has directly beforehand been bedridden due to illness and has not had any accident or other reason they can think of where they turned their ankle – you say “Ah no, put on this pressure bandage on your ankle and the job will be oxo”?

          • Good Burning Plastic says:


            Obesity is not a moral issue. It makes no sense to condemn someone for being obese.

            But people sometimes do do things that make no sense.

          • Surlie says:

            I think a distinction can be made between the type of fat acceptance that says “Open mocking and discrimination against fat people is not okay” and the type that says “Being fat is normal and not unhealthy and the doctors are liars”.

            Unfortunately, the two are increasingly conflated, especially as the latter becomes easier to believe in some regions where obesity rates are particularly high.

      • Murphy says:

        epidemic doesn’t just refer to communicable disease.

        The definition also includes “a sudden, widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon.”

        As such “epidemic” is also often used to describe tobacco, crack and alcohol use and you don’t catch alcoholism from alcoholics.


        Drug abuse, smoking and alcoholism are all quite expensive because, like obesity, they tend to cause long term, extremely expensive health problems particularly in later life.

        Broken bones and childhood ilnesses are generally comparatively cheap for the health service.

        Obesity has an extremely high QALY cost for the individual to the point that bariatric surgery is very cost effective.


        • Deiseach says:

          Hm – so I couldn’t get surgery for a hysterectomy because the anaestheist thought I was too much of a risk being overweight, but apparently it’s peachy-keen putting me under general anaesthesia for bariatric surgery at the same level of weight?

          Don’t you think there’s a bit of hypocrisy there – given that my gynaecological problems are causing me much more inconvenience and pain?

          But it’s okay to let me suffer from those because I’m fat; whereas Doing Something about the fatness itself is much more urgent?

          • Murphy says:

            Medical services tend to specialise and don’t like complex cases because they tend to lead to corpses on your record. Addiction services will often punt people over to mental health if they also have severe psychosis because they’re not set up to cope with the combination even if the problems are related and drug induced psychosis is a major thing.

            The team doing bariatric surgery will have specialists used to dealing with surgery on morbidly obese people. As such the risk will be much lower. They’re not going to reject you due to weight like the psychosis ward isn’t going to reject due to psychosis.

            It’s utterly sensible and reasonable.

      • Salem says:

        If we can have epidemics of drug use, inequality, loneliness (!), absence, violence, and so on, then I don’t see how you can reasonably object to the term being used (yes, as a metaphor!) for obesity.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yes, I can damn well protest. I am not a communicable disease. I am not snatching the bread from your children’s mouths. I am not preventing you or any of your family members from having necessary medical treatment, medication, or surgeries. I am not asking you to pay for me to do or have anything.

          I would be very open to having help to lose weight. Being told I am, quite literally, the equivalent of ebola or the plague is not what I consider help.

          • Murphy says:

            Yes. You’re not but we’ve established that that’s not the only meaning of the word. It’s like objecting to the label ‘inflammatory’ xyz syndrome because you don’t believe you cause arguments.

          • Shenpen says:

            Don’t be dense. When people talk about Ebola epidemic, they don’t people people _are_ Ebola, they mean people _have_ Ebola. You are not a communicable disease, you merely caught it. This is a different story.

            If you are in the minority if fatties who otherwise have healthy eating habits, then it is not even communicable. But in the majority of cases the _lifestyle_ is communicable. I would not drink 1000 kcal booze a day if I would not see it in my family that it is “okay”.

          • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

            Just for reference, in drinker’s terms, how much is 1000 calories of booze?

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            1000 kcal of booze is equivalent to about 450 ml of vodka.

          • Luke Somers says:

            My wife worked on the epidemiology of non-virus-related, non-tobacco-related cancer.

            That was their specific focus. It was absolutely epidemiology, and there was absolutely no transmission vector.

          • grendelkhan says:

            Vodka is about the most calorie-efficient way to drink, since it’s just ethanol and water. Here’s a good list; a thousand calories can also be about five hard ciders, or two and a half margaritas, or seven shots of Bailey’s (which is a little more than three “drinks” in terms of pure ethanol.

          • Lambert says:

            what about that Polish ‘rectified spirit’ stuff?

          • Deiseach says:

            Ah, so when Katie Hopkins said immigrants are like cockroaches, she was only using a metaphor and nobody should have taken offence!

            Got it, Murphy. Same with calling black people “coons”, right? I mean, obviously a human being is not a raccoon, it’s only a metaphor! Or maybe a simile, who can keep those grammar elements straight?

            Hopkins wrote in the Sun on Friday: “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.

            “Because in the next minute you’ll show me pictures of aggressive young men at Calais, spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship … These two populations are the same. The migrants harassing Brit truckers at the port are the same as the vagrants making the perilous trip across the Med.”

            See? Nothing offensive at all about using epidemic and disease metaphors!

          • Murphy says:

            Oh for fucks sake. No. The term “obesity epidemic ” is not a metaphor. no. it’s not a racial slur or a slur of any kind.

            You are not equivalent to a refugee drowning in the Mediterranean. You don’t get to parasite off sympathy for them.

            It’s an accurate description. You made an incorrect, claim and when many people pointed out the glaring factual error in your beliefs you simply start trying to turn it into a race issue.

            The use of epidemic to describe actual epidemics is simply using language correctly.

            You are factually incorrect.

            You are not a persecuted little darling, you’re sounding simply like an utter nightmare patient who blames your own self harm on anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with your own opinion or do exactly what you want as soon as you want without ever making you feel bad for anything you do.

            Guess what? lots of people have a hard time convincing doctors that they have rare conditions because doctors are trained to say “horses” not “zebras” when they hear hoofbeats and most of the time the patient turns out to be wrong but people get embarrased about going on forums and saying “well I spent years insisting and insisting and getting angry at my doctor because i said I had this rare condition but it turned out the doctor was 100% correct to blame the really really common cause”.

            You’re simply ignorant of basic english and trying to hide your conviction in your fantasy of persecution behind the plight of the genuinely persecuted by accusing anyone who disagrees with you of racism.

            So fuck you. I’ve remained respectful until this post but you deserve nobodies respect.

          • Deiseach says:

            Well, hello, Murphy, how nicely and politely you engaged with me. I may indeed be stupid, ignorant, fat and ugly, but your inability to turn “epidemic” into anything other than a negative term does not depend on my stupidity, ignorance, fatness or ugliness.

            Ugly terms don’t become less ugly because the people you use them about are in the class of persons it is acceptable to blame, vilify or insult.

          • Murphy says:


            Because people obviously just hate children with cancer, puppies with thyroid problems and their cats so much that they want to blame, vilify and insult them.




          • Matthew says:

            There have actually been claims that obesity is contagious, although the research suggesting so has been challenged. This hasn’t stopped people from doing further research that assumes the social contagion model, though.

          • JRM says:

            I wonder if the gut microbia theory is right. I’m a weird data point:

            My immediate family is *fit*. My father, in his late 70’s, quit competitive bike-riding a few years back because of a couple of crashes, but he’s still in great shape.

            I was 15 and 5’4″, 94 pounds. I got appendicitis, which was diagnosed after it had burst. (That was an *unpleasant* six days.) Tons of antibiotics later, I was 5’4″ 88 pounds. And then I grew up and out and ate and I’m hungry. Some decades later, I’m 6’0″ 238#.

            Aside from me, the societal difference in treatment in fat dudes and fat women is considerable. I thought it was a good idea to introduce my own weight in front of a jury once; a fit female colleague said she would be aghast at doing so. (Aside: It was a good idea.)

            The world treats my chubby ass just fine. But I understand Deiseach’s anger.

        • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

          There’s nothing wrong with metaphors as such. But on this particular subject I think they’re best avoided because people seem to do such a bad job of remembering that they’re only metaphors.

        • Salem:

          Surely it’s possible to argue that a word is being misused by lots of people in lots of ways. One misuse doesn’t justify another.

          Part of the rhetorical force of “epidemic” comes from the idea of communicable disease, and borrowing that force for ills that are not contagious is dishonest rhetoric.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Part of the rhetorical force of “epidemic” comes from the idea of communicable disease, and borrowing that force for ills that are not contagious is dishonest rhetoric.

            In fields such as law and science, words can be carefully constructed and fixed in reference books. If an item turns up that doesn’t have an exact term to fit it, then there’s a time out while someone invents a new word for that purpose.

            Language in the wild doesn’t work that way. Where there is no obvious word, someone reaches out and grabs a word that kind of fits, so they can get on with the conversation. There is no obvious, commonly known word for ‘something bad that has appeared or recently grown surprisingly, and looks like it’s spreading by some particular unknown cause, and it happens to individual beings or institutions, etc’ except ‘epidemic’. When something like that turns up, it’s not unreasonable for laymen to grab the word ‘epidemic’ to refer to it for the moment, and that usage may stick if nothing better turns up.

            I agree that words shouldn’t be stretched too far from their precise official definition.

        • Deiseach says:

          So, all you neurodivergent people on here, you’re fine with being lumped in as part of an epidemic? With being compared to bacteria or viruses?

          Because you’re not the victim of the epidemic; the victims are the taxpayers who have to pay for the costs associated with loss of productivity to the economy due to your ill-health and the deserving sick who can’t get the treatment they need because you’re using resources beyond your fair share.

          [Condition] is the epidemic, the deserving sick and the taxpayers are the sufferers, and you are the infectious agent – the germ, the virus, the plague.

          • Cauê says:

            I never thought of “obesity epidemic” like that, and never got the impression that anyone else did, either.

      • Whitney says:

        Anecdotal evidence is not a research study

        • Sewing-Machine says:

          Do research studies have a better track record, of finding out useful things about diet, than anecdotes?

          • grendelkhan says:

            Given that anecdotes seem to cover any set of inputs you want to look for, anecdotes tell you nothing, in a formal sense.

            Prospective studies seem to do poorly, but retrospective studies seem better. To the extent that anecdotes are useful, they draw on that sort of thing.

            (As an example, one of the central tenets of the fat-positive movement is that Diets Do Not Work, that fat people cannot make themselves into skinny people, that of people who lose weight, all but epsilon will invariably put it back on. Weirdly, the one fat-positive feminist blogger I had followed who made a public commitment, did research and followed through with it, seemed to be part of that epsilon. I Notice That I Am Confused, y’know?)

            (Also see a little threadlet from last year.)

          • Sewing-Machine says:

            Those are interesting links.

            Some anecdotes are simply false. I expect that the data that research studies are based on, is less likely to be simply false. But I hardly trust their conclusions at all, am I mistaken? I would say that your epistemology is broken, if it tells you “in a formal sense” you can’t learn anything from a true anecdote.

          • grendelkhan says:

            “Formal” here relates to the “if you’re equally good at explaining any outcome, you don’t really know anything” thing. All of the learning-work is done by picking which anecdotes to select. You can find people who’ve lost half their body weight and kept it off for decades, and people who’ve failed to lose any weight despite trying a dozen diets, or rebounded to an even higher weight after trying.

            The state of the evidence, as I understand it, is that there’s a lot of confusion, and the best thing to do is to look at people who have lost weight, trying to see what it is they did; that’s what the NWCR study is about.

          • Zakharov says:

            In a Bayesian sense, you have to consider the chance you’d hear the anecdote if the conclusion it supports is true, compared to the chance you’d hear the anecdote if the conclusion it supports is false. If you’re hearing the anecdote from a motivated speaker, the evidential value of the anecdote is very low.

          • Sewing-Machine says:

            Bayesians should consider the probability they’d hear about an anecdote if. They should also consider the probability they’d hear about a research study if.

        • Leo says:

          When someone is frothing at the mouth because doctors have been cunts to her all her life, the correct answer is “That sucks”, not “Yes, but can you prove this happens systematically?”.

          Doctors being rude to fat patients, and dismissing fat female patients’ complaints, is well-established. That obese people are less healthy and that this is causal, are also well-established, but was not in question. The controversial questions are: Does dieting work; does shaming fat people cause them to diet; how much does it help them by causing them to diet; how much does it harm them by driving them to self-hatred, suicide, and spiteful binging; how to make doctors treat fat people for unrelated ailments, given that this is bad overall even if the shaming is helpful.

          • Zorgon says:

            No, both are correct responses. Emotive support and a request for clarification and / or proof of claims are both equally valid responses to strong emotive claims.

            Whether the recipient WANTS that response is frankly somewhat irrelevant to its validity.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            I think it depends on the situation. If a friend is really upset and venting to you about their pain (regardless of the topic), then yes, you should probably just let them vent and say “yeah, that sucks” as opposed to asking for evidence.

            On the other hand, if you’re engaged in a debate or an intellectual discussion with someone about an issue, asking for evidence is perfectly valid.

          • Zorgon says:

            I think we may have different ideas about what “validity” means.

      • Shenpen says:

        Even if the obesity epidemic purely means a sudden increase in unattractive people with poor self control without other health problems it is still a problem.

        Speaking as a BMI of 30, deep down everybody fat hate themselves and that is the root issue as self-hate creates all kinds of problematic behaviors. And no, it cannot be changed by somehow reprogramming society to be more acceptive of it. That is really an ass-backwards way to approach it, to change the norm instead of helping people to conform to it easier.

        It is an inescapable fact that people like effort and achievement. People respect people who swim over the Channel even though it is a retarded way to cross it when you could just take a ferry. It is not practically useful but the effort signals excellence.

        Fatness generally signals poor self control with food and exercise EVEN IF there are some exceptions. (I am a borderline alcoholic, 800 to 1000 kcal worth of beer a day adds up.) Thus people will never respect it and thus fat people will always hate themselves.

        We need to fix fat people, not social norms. E.g. psychotherapy for people who self-medicate their depression with food or drink. Hormonal therapy for the thyroid problems. Whatever. Liposuction and plastic surgery of the skin in worst case.

        • Leo says:

          Point of fact: Other fat people may be different from you. I assure you I do not hate myself for being fat, deep down or otherwise.

          Point of social grooming: I am very sorry you hate yourself and struggle with alcoholism and obesity. That must suck.

          Your argument is interesting.

          We (as a, uh, subculture) are inundated with “Be nice and demand very little; anything you demand hurts people who can’t do it” messages. There isn’t a coherent opposition, just some people who rebel against that with pointless cruelty and desperate assertions that nice people are pathetic and should kill themselves.

          This message is literally life-saving for quite a lot of people. You got out of bed today, awesome. You couldn’t get out of bed today, that’s okay, let go of the pressure to be Supercrip. You deserve nice things. Remember your self-care. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. You’re a Real [Whatever] no matter what you do. If someone tries to get you to conform, you’re okay, they’re mean.

          But it is fairly obvious that an ideology designed to help the weakest survive and love themselves may not be the best ideology to help stronger people excel.

          Can we design such an ideology? A very important point is that it must be opt-in. The people who need Boggle the Owl do in fact exist. (Also, when people say “so toxic and emotionally unhealthy!”, we can answer “Then don’t join”.)

          It would be nifty to make the norms/goals modular. Someone could say “I’m interested in proving how fearless I am, but not how much pain I can take. When you jump across a moving train at the last second, I’ll participate, and if I lose my nerve and jump too early, send me home humiliated. When you suspend yourself from flesh hooks, I won’t participate, and still feel pretty okay about myself.”. But I don’t think that works. First, it makes it too easy to give up and not improve. Second, it’d be confusing; you can think of someone as a rival or not a rival much more easily than separate out in which categories they are a rival. Third, the basic traits you want to train (toughness, strength, discipline) affect everything, you can’t separate them out neatly; fat people won’t jump as fast.

          How to change norms is fairly straightforward; if you can’t or won’t conform in some respect, be otherwise impressive, and write your angry blog posts about the norm being bad after you’ve proven yourself.

          I’m confused about what sorts of excellence we push, though. You say anti-fat norms are about self-control, but they seem to be more about attractiveness. Someone who eats like a pig but is skinny gains rather than loses points; people (who don’t have eating disorders and aren’t extremely religious) don’t fast. Changing norms so people grow up attracted to fat rather than skinny people sounds both more sensible and more doable than changing norm so people respect lack of self-control.

          • Shenpen says:

            I am not part of the be nice subculture and thankfully I don’t know much about it. (Not from the US.) Sounds like a bunch of wimps 🙂

            But I think this sorts itself out. Whenever a culture is too acceptive of weakness, it will sooner or later get overlorded by another one that isn’t.

            Okay, this sounds like just trying hard to sound evil, but this is roughly where the whole discipline of sociology began: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Khaldun#Works

            Ultimately people often don’t like toughness for the sake of toughness. What you need is 1) common, communal goals, not just individual ones so that people PRESSURE each other into pursuing them hard 2) a truly pressing need to pursue them, such as communal survival or independence.

          • Leo says:

            Wait, this doesn’t work. You’re trying to say both “You can choose between making your culture tough or wimpy; I recommend you choose toughness, because it’s good for the human soul and for resisting potentially invading cultures”, and “You can’t choose whether to make your culture tough or wimpy; if wimpiness is an option, too many people will take it, and your culture will remain wimpy until it is forced out of it”. Relatedly, you’re not distinguishing between pressures to be tough from inside and from outside the culture. Can you clarify?

            Also, just checking: Are you aware that the entire point of nice subculture is to let people remain alive, and that if we force everyone to be tough, a lot of people will, literally, no-kidding-or-hyperbole, die in the sense that their metabolism will cease and they will become corpses? I would very much appreciate it if you had a reaction to that. Could be “Not having to be tough is good for the generation or two that can afford it, but that good luck can’t last”, or “We have to choose between some dying or no one excelling, and excellence is important enough to allow those tragic deaths”, or “I don’t care if wimps die”, or “Bullshit, they’d all grow up if they had to”. But I want you to notice the bunch of wimps is currently alive.

          • Irrelevant says:

            if we force everyone to be tough, a lot of people will, literally, no-kidding-or-hyperbole, die in the sense that their metabolism will cease and they will become corpses.

            Uh, you’re going to need to translate that back into real examples, because as stated it’s an extremely odd claim.

            The only scenario that comes to mind where that’s true is allergies and asthma, and allergies and asthma are the field where we have the most compelling evidence that the “loss of toughness-ideals creates fatal weaknesses” stance is right, in that immunological misdevelopment seems to directly result from failing to train the immune system at a young enough age.

          • Leo says:

            I believe some very general claims about chronic (meaning lasting, not necessarily permanent) conditions, but I’ll narrow it down to just depression. If I’m wrong about depression, I’m most likely wrong about the other cases.

            I have known a lot of severely depressed people. Some of these people intellectually believe that they’re very brave and strong for surviving, for getting out of bed, for making an appointment with a doctor; that it’s fine to let everything but survival fall by the wayside in a pinch; that they should enjoy as much happiness as can be found inside their limitations; that they belong to a brotherhood of fighters against depression, and should be proud of it, and talk about it, and ask for help. They don’t usually alieve those beliefs, but are constantly encouraged to. They are also expected to talk about their feelings and feel better from doing so; to enjoy cute things and compliments and hugs; and to want reassurance and sympathy.

            Some others hold themselves to the same standards they do while not depressed, and are ashamed when they inevitably fall short. They believe their depression is a weakness that they ought to be able to overcome alone, and are reluctant to discuss it. They talk about it little and late. They don’t form a community. Because of this, they tend to overtax the few people (me) they turn to for support. [I don’t mean you, mate, you rock.] They often try to shock themselves out of the depression by requiring more of themselves.

            The first group copes with depression better, recovers from depression faster, and kills themselves a hell of a lot less than the second.

            I don’t know of any studies that directly support these observations. I can point out correlations between their demographics, but that wouldn’t make it obvious which way the causality goes.

        • Deiseach says:

          We need to fix fat people, not social norms.

          There are social attitudes which could be construed as negative towards black people. We need to fix black people, not social norms. Black people are responsible for their degree of blackness. If they just used mercury soap and skin-lightening creams, then the problem of internalised self-hatred would be solved!

          • Jiro says:

            Dark skin is not intrinsically bad. Poor self control of the type which leads to obesity *is* intrinsically bad.

          • Lambert says:

            There are social attitudes which could be construed as negative towards people with messy hair. We need to fix people with messy hair, not social norms. People with messy hair are responsible for their degree of messed hair-ness. If they just used combs and skin-brushes, then the problem of internalised self-hatred would be solved!

            (If you had seen the top of my head, you would probably accuse me of hypocrisy.)

          • Anonymous says:


            If I give you one real-world example of poor self-control being good, does that mean it’s not intrinsically bad?

          • Jiro says:

            No, because
            1) Your example will probably be of poor self control being balanced by some other benefit, which doesn’t disprove that it’s intrinsically bad, and
            2) Even if it’s not, actual human language should not be interpreted such that unconditional statements are completely unconditional. I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to pretend to be drunk at a party, losing self-control would do better than not losing self-control. But that’s not the kind of situation we mean when we say that poor self-control is bad.

          • Shenpen says:

            This is a dark art, avoid. It has about zero epistemic use but can intimidate and silence people who – unlike me – would be afraid about getting compared to socially marginalized people (racists). I don’t because i am thankfully outside this American style social justice drama so if and when I for some reason would ever feel the need to hate a race I could do that without repercussions, but people who are inside it would be intimated by it.

            Aside that, it is simply asserting similarity to something else, which is not useful at all. You can compare a group of people to a largely innocent victim group or you could compare them to psychopathic murderers. Both would be just word-play until something more evidence-like than a simple Ctrl + H search and replace is used.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          I don’t think we need to “fix” fat people, I think we need to empower them (and everyone else) with better psychological strategies for navigating a world filled with temptations. In the West, we’re constantly surrounded by unnatural, calorie-rich food that’s scientifically engineered to interact with our brains the same way cocaine does. If you ever want to shock and horrify yourself, go have a meal at TGIFriday’s and then look up the caloric content online; chances are you just consumed about two full days’ worth of calories, and you might not even feel particularly full, because there’s very little fiber, just sugar and fat.

          I’m a pretty healthy weight right now, but I love food. Unless I weigh myself every morning and make a conscious effort to eat well, my weight starts to creep slowly and inexorably up, and I think that’s the case for many of us. If people are tired, busy, stressed, overburdened with responsibilities, or suffering from mental or physical problems, they’re less likely to have the psychological wells of willpower necessary to not reach for that Double Bacon Monster Thickburger as a way to get a quick dopamine rush to get them through the last few hours of their long, shitty day working a minimum wage job so they can get home to their other responsibilities.

          Just telling people “try harder” doesn’t work. You need specific strategies. I’ve taken to doing things like, when I go to a restaurant, I cut my burger in half and immediately ask for a to go container and put half of the burger in there so I’m not tempted to eat it all, and remind myself how nice it will be to have it as a snack tomorrow. Or eating more fiber earlier in the day so I feel fuller. Or always leaving a couple bites on my plate in order to subvert that “clean your plate” programming from childhood which often drives me to overstuff myself.

          I do think that by and large, weight issues are due to overeating (or eating the wrong things) but in our society that’s incredibly easy to do if you’re not being vigilant about it. I don’t think fat people are just lazy; some of them might have excellent self control in other areas of their lives. But everyone has their particular vices.

      • TomA says:

        Did not mean to strike a nerve with this question. You may want to read “Missing Microbes” by Dr. Martin Blaser. Overuse of antibiotics in infant care is being tied to a large increase in several serious and chronic medical conditions, not just obesity. Over the past half century, many parents have unwittingly altered the course of their children’s lives by trading off a quick ear ache remedy for a lifetime of stunted microbiome efficacy.

      • Error says:

        Actually, if the gut microbiome thing is correct, you may indeed catch fatness, but that doesn’t play into the handy-dandy “the only reason fat people are fat is because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough: lazy, greedy and lacking in willpower!”

        I have never liked this framing. Not necessarily because it’s not correct; I don’t know if it is or not, and don’t care. Rather, I hate the continuing assumption that gluttony and sloth are inherently sinful. I am totally in favor of eating too much and not exercising enough. I like my ice cream; let’s have more of it. I dislike the treadmill; let’s have less of it.

        The correct solution to the obesity problem, insofar as it is a problem, isn’t to demand that fat people pull white-knuckle diets, nor to pretend that they are somehow evil. It’s not to rewrite society to stop finding obesity unaesthetic, either. For one thing, as Scott’s pointed out, social change is orders of magnitude harder than physical change. For another, I’m not terribly happy about the idea of trying to coerce people’s preferences into an acceptable form. What we *should* be doing is trying to decouple caloric intake from weight gain in the same way that we’ve successfully decoupled sex from babies.

        I will not be satisfied until people can eat whatever they damn well please while maintaining whatever weight they damn well choose. That we cannot currently do so is a failure of evolution’s, not ours.

        (full disclosure: I’m mildly overweight (entirely due to self-control issues) and my partner is fat (unsure of causal breakdown). Bias applies.)

        [As an aside, I would be *really happy* to see Scott do an analysis of obesity in general. It’s basically impossible to find information about it, and the options for dealing with it, that isn’t politically slanted.]

        • Paul Torek says:

          Thank you Error. That was a needed moral compass correction.

          • Shenpen says:

            I don’t find much moral about it. Error completely ignores the virtue-ethics aspect, the predictable result on human character. Removing yet another avenue to practice white-knuckled self-restrained will on the average result in people have less of this ability, which is both problematic because sometimes it is still needed and because if there is anything in the Buddhist theory of the ego our desires would get one step towards enslaving us.

        • Jiro says:

          Error: That’s like we should solve the drunk driving problem by making it so that driving drunk doesn’t cause any accidents (perhaps because “driving” involves a mostly self-driving car).

          It’s not false, but it would also be foolish to stop any attempt to prevent drunk driving and put it all towards making self-driving cars. Reducing the rate of drunk driving can have immediate effects. and getting self-driving cars that are that good is going to take a while and you need to do something in the meantime. (And you’re probably still going to get self-driving cars before you get the ability to eat unlimited quantities of normal foods without weight gain).

          • Deiseach says:

            Jiro, should we then address the increase in STIs by banning condoms? After all, why make it easier for people to have more sex when having more sex is causing the problem?

            It’s interesting that society is going the way of making sexual indulgence easier and easier and acting to generate the attitude of sex positivity but not where alcohol and overweight is concerned.

          • Error says:

            Hrm. Agreed that a partial solution in the meantime is good — but I don’t think that dieting and the culture of shame around it actually constitute even a partial solution. Given the sub-10% success rate and the tendency of the remaining 90+% to feel continuously horrible about it, I think it might not just be useless, but net negative.

            From my perspective, the social problem looks like this: Yes, fat people are typically viewed as unattractive in our society (and let’s face it, that’s the real reason everyone cares so much, no matter what words come out of their mouths about it). This is unpleasant for everyone involved. There are three solutions: fat people can lose weight to seem more attractive; everybody else can change their preferences to include fat people; or both sides can give up and just accept it as-is. The current MO of “stop eating things you like, start doing things you hate, almost certainly fail to lose weight anyway, and feel terrible about it” makes very little progress towards any of those solutions and is a miserable experience. Getting rid of the “feeling terrible about it” would be a good start, but that requires people to stop thinking of it as a moral failing and start thinking of it as a practical problem: our brains and bodies were not designed for an environment where you can get 10,000 extremely tasty calories for $10. Even if the diet failure rate *is* just a matter of not being able to keep out of the cake and the ice cream, that’s not a moral failing, just an outdated adaptation. Framing it as a moral failing (i.e. gluttony and sloth as sin) is the part that irritates me so much.

            Bariatric surgery may actually qualify as a partial solution in the short term. It’s highly effective and the risks are relatively low (at least for gastric sleeve, which by my understanding is the current best method). They’re not zero, though, and I think if it gets more widespread we’re going to run into the people-worry-more-about-flashy-deaths-than-routine-heart-attacks problem.

          • Jiro says:

            In that analogy, you’re trying to compare condoms resulting in not getting STDs to making food not cause obesity (or making drunk driving not kill). The analogy fails because we already have condoms, but making food not cause obesity or making drunk driving not kill require huge technological advances. Since we already have condoms, the question “what do we do while waiting for the technology” never comes up.

          • “Framing it as a moral failing (i.e. gluttony and sloth as sin) is the part that irritates me so much.”

            “Sin” may not be the most appropriate term. But if you think people are acting foolishly through short sightedness or lack of self-control, it’s perfectly reasonable to lower your opinion of them. Whether that’s appropriate in this case depends on the facts, which are to some degree under dispute.

            At a slight tangent, I concluded some time back that the campaign against overweight was to some degree based on prejudice rather than science. The term “obesity” gets applied to levels of overweight that don’t fit the ordinary language meaning of the term. And stories about the health effects of moderate overweight seem to seriously exaggerate the evidence.

            At a further but perhaps useful tangent, I concluded some time back that, of all the foods out there, kimchee has the highest ratio of taste to calories, and so is what one ought to nibble when one is not really hungry but feels like nibbling something.

          • Surlie says:

            The condoms analogy doesn’t make sense here because there is no anti-weight gain condom. Except maybe bulimia, which is pretty much universally thought of as having risks which do not outweigh any potential benefits. Or post hoc methods like lipo and bariatric surgery, which are also risky and expensive.

            In the absence of reliable methods of decoupling weight gain from calorie intake, trying to coerce people into consuming less calories is really the only option.

            I’m all for research into such a decoupling, absolutely.

        • Error:

          As you may know, there is a non-digestible fat called Olestra. It does, to a limited degree, what you want. My impression is that it was the subject of a good deal of hostile criticism, possibly unwarranted, in part perhaps motivated by the feeling that there was something wrong with letting people eat too much and not get fat. I gather it’s still available in a few products.

          • Deiseach says:

            The analogy fails because we already have condoms

            Condoms did not evolve out of thin air; they were an invention in response to a perceived need (to let people have sex without consequences of pregnancy and disease).

            You don’t want to have kids/get the clap? Then don’t have sex. Sure, you may feel horny all the time, but you just have to get used to that! Think of your health! Exhibit some self-control!

            That’s the equivalent of what fat people are told: You don’t want to get fat? Well, go on a life-long diet and get used to constantly feeling hungry! Think of your health! Exhibit some self-control!

          • Error says:

            As you may know, there is a non-digestible fat called Olestra.

            I actually didn’t know that. The wikipedia article is interesting reading.

          • Shenpen says:


            >You don’t want to have kids/get the clap? Then don’t have sex.

            I find it pretty normal. This is not an extreme idea at all. For about 50% of young men getting sex is surprisingly hard and can score only once in a few years. So from that angle a prudish attitude is not so different from the results they get in a permissive culture.

            In fact, being strongly supportive of permissive sexuality is a female and alpha-male attitude. The average guy will be rarely enthuisastic about it: he knows it is hard enough to score anyway.

            Whoever invented the Sexual Revolution was surely not a man with average attractiveness. For him is a lot like ending alcohol prohibition in a hypothethical place where all bars are on the 100th floor and there is no lift.

        • Matthew says:

          What we *should* be doing is trying to decouple caloric intake from weight gain in the same way that we’ve successfully decoupled sex from babies.

          Ethically, I endorse this. Selfishly, as someone whose body shape actually does depend on current exercise and diet habits, I’d be less happy in that particular utopia, because my athletic body would no longer be the signal of conscientiousness and discipline that it is now. (Admittedly, loss of this advantage in the dating game would be counterbalanced by the increased number of attractive women. In non-mating contexts, however, there’s no compensation.)

          • disciplinaryarbitrage says:

            But surely such utopias would quickly develop different signals of conscientiousness that you could apply yourself towards? (Or simply reweight the existing assessment of those virtues.) I suspect that, at least to a moderate degree, there’s a sort of conservation of methods of signaling a given socially desirable attribute. Better yet, if your body is, to a greater extent than average, more the result of your effort and discipline than genetics/microbiome/whatever, then you’re probably better off in the diet-uncoupled weight world, where you could apply your self-discipline towards higher-fidelity signals of conscientiousness!

        • Shenpen says:

          What is your meta? Eliminating the need of willpower and self-restraint from ALL areas of human behavior gradually? Two issues with that, one is that such society does not resist systemic shocks well (i.e. if we ever have to wage an interstellar war against the Kzin we will find our soldier material is a bunch of wimps), another is that if there is anything true about the Buddhist theory of the ego, our egos would eat as alive and result in rather horrible psychological mindstates if not the need to engage with reality would keep them in check. Reality sometimes says NO to our desires and from this angle it is a GOOD thing.

          Or would you just eliminate it from this field of human life? Why exactly this one? It is a good practice.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            This isn’t exactly a planned thing- people will invent stuff that other people desire and it will lead inevitably to this.

  5. Douglas Knight says:

    I would like to return to Kipling’s Copybook Headings and the topic of why the poem arouses such strong reactions, and such a strong identification as a conservative poem.

    The point of the poem is that there are hard limits of which one must be wary. This seems to me like a very mild claim. But discussing the poem, many people, both left and right declare this to be a strongly rightist principle. There are leftist examples in a lot of environmental rhetoric and sometimes the claim that, say, inequality will lead to revolution.

    Of course, all the examples are of Progressive programs going wrong. It definitely is a conservative poem. But those are just examples. Cannot their politics be disentangled from the general message?

    One thing that is conservative is the name: Copybook Headings. The implication is that the right way to learn these rules is to inherit them, not to figure them out. Yet the content of the poem does not seem to bear that out. These Gods are older than writing; people learn them from being humbled. Indeed, geological terms and the ending indicate that people keep making the same errors; that they could have learned from experience and didn’t even need the Copybook.
    (And what’s up with “the Gods of the Market”? A condemnation of capitalism? an anachronistic “marketplace of ideas”?)

    • Vulture says:

      “The Gods of the Marketplace” seemed, to me, to evoke Vanity Fair*, the aptly-named bazaar of trivialities in Pilgrim’s Progress, but that’s just free-association.

      * Yes, like the magazine. Apparently Christian satire packs so little punch these days that it can be reclaimed effortlessly.

      • Nornagest says:

        Vanity Fair the magazine has been around under some variation of that name since 1913, which I wouldn’t cite as a godless era. I think it’s more that Pilgrim’s Progress was such a cultural institution in its time that it lost most of its punch through overexposure.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Your two paragraphs do not seem compatible to me. If Thackery defanged the image in 1848, why would Kipling use it in 1919?

        • Vulture says:

          I wasn’t necessarily saying that Kipling was directly referencing Pilgrim’s Progress; I was kind of trying to trace back what it evoked for me, since it seemed like a well-chosen phrase to me but you seemed to find it confusing.

          In retrospect my footnote was slain by its own wittiness; I knew in the back of my mind that Vanity Fair the magazine was rather old, but I was so pleased with myself for pointing out the hypocrisy that I didn’t let that get in the way. I honestly don’t know enough about the cultural milieu of the time to know whether it’s plausible that Kipling’s word choice was even influenced by Pilgrim’s Progress.

      • Deiseach says:

        I always felt naming the magazine “Vanity Fair” was an example of what would nowadays be called post-modernist hipster irony? That kind of smart, chic cynicism of the time, referencing urban and urbane sophistication, because it was just too delicious, darling, calling it that after the heavy Victorian morality of our parents’ and grandparents’ times.

        Apparently post-irony is a thing!

    • Steve Johnson says:

      One thing that is conservative is the name: Copybook Headings. The implication is that the right way to learn these rules is to inherit them, not to figure them out. Yet the content of the poem does not seem to bear that out. These Gods are older than writing; people learn them from being humbled. Indeed, geological terms and the ending indicate that people keep making the same errors; that they could have learned from experience and didn’t even need the Copybook.

      Tribes aren’t unitary things nor are they constant units.

      Tribe A has sub-tribes 1 and 2 that live one village away. Sub-tribe 1 makes some change and gets wiped out (or sub-tribe 2 makes a change that fixes some flaw that might have been fatal under the right circumstances while those circumstances strike sub-tribe 1 and sub-tribe 1’s culture gets them wiped out). Next generation all of tribe A is from sub-tribe 2.

      Plenty of room for learning from experience of very close groups. The Lombards and Vandals and Goths are all gone today and yet their cultural and genetic descendants are still around.

      Your traditional culture is going to be pretty well adapted to survival. The Gods of the Copybook headings is about not forgetting the lessons – it’s one man’s analysis of lessons that are tempting to forget so they are commonly forgotten.

    • Michael Watts says:

      As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of man
      There are only four things certain since Social Progress began
      That the dog returns to his vomit, and the sow returns to her mire,
      And the burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the fire

      Ignore the specific call-out to Social Progress. I don’t read that as saying there are limits we can’t move beyond. I read it as saying that if you try to make a change to society, society will change itself back. The message is that we can’t move at all. If you take the examples into account, the message is that we shouldn’t move, and trying will hurt us to no benefit.

      So… it looks like a conservative theme to me, inherently inimical to progressives.

      • haishan says:

        We moved as the Spirit listed. They never changed their pace,
        Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
        But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
        That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

        I’m not sure that Kipling thinks we’re stuck in one place. As much as today’s progressives may shudder to think it, it’s hard to see the cultural imperialism advocated in “The White Man’s Burden” as something other than “progress” — helping the “new-caught, sullen peoples” progress, and helping the white man control his own destiny.

        What does seem clear is that we can’t outrun the Gods of the Copybook Headings. To the extent we progress, we’ll do so at the rate they say we can. Or else, well, you know what happens.

        • Eggo says:

          Wasn’t the point of The White Ban’s Burden how pointless and self-destructive that whole enterprise was?

          “And after?- Ask the Yusufzaies
          What comes of all our ‘ologies.

          A scrimmage in a Border Station-
          A canter down some dark defile
          Two thousand pounds of education
          Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
          The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
          Shot like a rabbit in a ride! “

          • Are you confusing two different poems? The one you quote (Arithmetic on the Frontier”) is about the disadvantage that the British had fighting the Afghans. “The White Man’s Burden” as about what the U.S. should be doing in the Philipines.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Cannot their politics be disentangled from the general message?

      Lol, of course not.

      One thing that might prove an interesting exercise would be to try to write a Progressive version of the poem, with Conservative pipe dreams being destroyed by harsh reality. See if you can get it to come out the other way.

    • Bugmaster says:

      My opinion has not changed; I think that the poem is a very conservative one; but by “conservative”, I do not mean, “espouses Red Tribe values”, but rather, “denies that social progress is desirable or even possible”. To that extent that transhumanist values are progressive, it denounces them, as well.

      Let me go line by line, as per this source:

      “And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all” — the Gods of the Copybook Headings (henceforth GotCHs) are eternal, and thus likely unchangeable. Change is the essence of progress, so this is strike one against progressive values.

      “But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind” — I have a feeling Kipling is mocking the buzzwords of his day, so perhaps we shouldn’t take this line too seriously. Still, in this verse, humanity turns away from GotCHs by explicitly embracing progressive values: self-improvement, forward planning, open-mindedness. This is bad news for the humans, because soon we learn…

      “That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.” — that’s what happens when you look to the future (with your Vision and Breadth of Mind) instead of the past.

      “With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch” — once again, humans embrace Hope, as opposed to soberly reviewing the past (or perhaps the present), as the GotCHs demand.

      “So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.” — this line, on the other hand, is fairly worldview-agnostic. Self-deception is a bad thing regardless of whether you are a conservative or a progressive. That said, Kipling does seem to imply that people who look toward the future are more prone to self-deception than those who focus on the past and the present.

      “And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”” — this is the first of many time-honored cliches that Kipling throws out.

      “On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life” — in this stanza, Kipling does not exactly come out in favor of “Fuller Life”.

      “And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”” — another cliche.

      “In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,” — in this stanza, Kipling implies that “abundance for all” is not something you should even try to achieve. Granted, “robbing Peter to pay Paul” is just a terrible strategy and thus worldview-agnostic; however, Kipling goes on to say that…

      “And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”” — another cliche, but this one explicitly denies transhumanist values. According to Kipling, “abundance for all” is a pipe-dream.

      “That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four” — more cliches (although, granted, this is good advice regardless of your worldview).

      “There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. ” — Kipling explicitly repudiates Social Progress in this stanza (and piles up some more cliches besides).

      “When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,” — the final stanza drips with sarcasm; in this specific line, Kipling is denying transhumanist values once again, promising that…

      “The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!” — nothing good can come of ignoring GotCHs.

      Overall, when I read this poem, I get the feeling that, in it, Kipling does not make the distinction between “looking to the future and seeking to achieve social progress” and “being a flighty bobble-head who is easily distracted by shiny things and glib promises”. Social progress is an illusion that leads to “terror and slaughter”; the only way to survive is to stick to time-honored cliches and rigid rules of behavior. Kipling seems to imply that statements such as “The Wages of Sin is Death” and “Fire will Burn” are equivalent. Progressive policies are doomed to fail not because we are too incompetent to implement them properly, but because the very idea of social progress is contrary to the laws of nature.

      If that’s not a conservative outlook, I don’t know what is.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m not a huge fan of Kipling, but I thought that “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” was about human nature, and how at base the old drives and imperatives are still there, and we may think we’re free of all the nonsense of the past and can build the newer, better future – but we’re still humans, still prone to the same failings as our ancestors, and we may be smarter but our guts are the same, with the same appetites and “want this, hate you” impulses despite what our kinder, gentler brains are trying to say.

      • Irrelevant says:

        “If you don’t work you die.”” — another cliche, but this one explicitly denies transhumanist values.

        “If you don’t work, you die” is the first principle of transhumanism, right above “If you work, you might not die.”

        • Bugmaster says:

          I was under the impression that the ultimate goal of transhumanism is immortality (so no one can die in principle unless he wants to, barring catastrophic events such as gamma-ray bursts) and the end of scarcity (so no one needs to work unless he wants to). Is that not so ?

          • Nornagest says:

            Transhumanism doesn’t have an ultimate goal. That’s sort of the point.

            Immortality is a goal, but we should not expect transhumanists to consider their mission accomplished when we get there. And post-scarcity societies are almost entirely unrelated; they’re the sort of thing you’d expect transhumanists to be interested in, but only because they require a similar techno-utopian mindset. The one certainly doesn’t necessitate the other.

          • Bugmaster says:


            That makes sense, on both counts; I stand corrected.

            Still, being the contrarian that I am, I would argue that immortality would be difficult to achieve without first eliminating (or, at least, greatly reducing) scarcity. But that’s more of a nitpick than a serious disagreement.

          • Bugmaster:

            At a tangent … . We have greatly reduced scarcity–most moderns, I think, don’t appreciate how rich we are. McCloskey’s estimate is that the average real income of the world, including the poor parts, is at least ten times what it was through most of history. Since Mao’s death, real per capita income in China has gone up more than twenty-fold–and the Chinese are still relatively poor by first world standards.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I think your exegesis of the conservatism as “denying that social progress is possible” is wholly wrong.

        The conservative view is not that progress is impossible, it’s that changing your mind every five minutes isn’t progress, it’s merely change. Progress is moving further and further along the same path, or building higher on top of the foundation you’ve already laid.

        CS Lewis, naturally, has a whole essay along these very lines.

        • Sylocat says:

          Bugmaster did explicitly say that he was using a different definition of “Conservative” from the more commonly cited one(s).

          • Bugmaster says:

            While this is true, I think that Kipling (or, at least his persona as presented in the poem) would disagree even with Jaskologist’s milder definition of “conservatism”. Instead, he would say that, no matter what you do, “The Dog returns to his Vomit”; and thus, at the end of the day, social progress is impossible. We could have technological or scientific progress, sure; but any attempts to change the basic mores of society are doomed to “Terror and Slaughter”.

            By contrast, progressive values explicitly view social change as the primary goal. Consider the most popular progressive gains since Kipling’s time: a larger role of women in society; relaxed taboos against sex; wider acceptance of people of other races, sexualities, and genders; reduced emphasis on religion in general; etc. These are not merely technological achievements (although there’s a technological component to many of them); these are fundamental changes to the very fabric of our society, and, as such, they are exactly what Kipling warns against.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            “The dog returns to his vomit” is a metaphor for Progressives making the same error repeatedly, not that some other Progress is impossible.

          • Bugmaster says:

            If Progressives keep making the same mistake repeatedly, doesn’t it rather imply that the very idea of Progress is questionable at best, nonviable at worst ?

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            No, it implies some Progressives are stupid (or mad).

        • Cassander says:

          I’m fairly certain I know what it says, but do you have the name of that lewis essay?

      • The poem isn’t saying that nothing can change, it’s saying that some things don’t change, and pretending they can because you want to believe it has bad consequences. Certain “progressive” projects can’t work. It doesn’t follow that none can.

    • Anonymous says:

      A common progressive ideal is that human nature and society are very malleable and can be changed for the better, while conservatives might argue that there are natural laws (i.e. the gods of the copybook headings) that people must acknowledge and work with, and that history shows attempting to change these laws doesn’t work.

    • Cassander says:

      I love this poem, but I disagree that “The implication is that the right way to learn these rules is to inherit them, not to figure them out.” The poem implies that learning the rules is painful, which is why those who learned them the hard way sought to engrave them in the minds of their children. Of course, as we grow more distant from the original lesson learners, we chafe under the rules and start to doubt.

      As for the Gods of the market, they’re definitely anti capitalist. The critique here is the standard conservative critique of capitalism, that riches will make is soft and the creative destruction of capitalism will disrupt traditional values/institutions whose worth cannot be reckoned in dollars.

    • (I somehow posted this in the wrong place, am putting it here and will see if I can remove the other copy)

      I’m not sure about the “Gods of the Market.” To me it suggests idols set up in the marketplace—cheap popular religion. I don’t think the usage of “the market” as a symbol for capitalism was established that early.

      Note that, in “The Peace of Dives,” Kipling is describing how the market leads to peace.

      • Fibs says:

        The gods of the marketplace promise beautiful things. They’re people you can bargain with. Maybe pigs can fly! Maybe the moon is stilton (cheese)! Maybe two and two is five?

        The god of the copybook headings are not mutable. They don’t change, they don’t promise and they aren’t interested in wondering if the moon is alive. You’re welcome to go to the gods that says it is, and if you make that diety your chosen patron then, well, fire vomit warble.

        It’s an odd reading to see it as anti-capitalist. What it is is anti-self deception / wishful thinking.

        I also doubt the poem is really “anti progressive” – I’d argue its thesis is that physical processes aren’t up for discussion. Fire burns us, water wets us, the moon isn’t cheese, two and twois four and any smooth tongued wizard promising otherwise is making you construct an edifice on very shaky foundations, and at some point those immutable constraints will catch up. It seems to be Kipling’s “thing” – lots of his works use mechanical forces to explain things. Like “Arithmetic of the Frontier” – which is a great poem – its more about the absurdity of the underlying process.

        “Strike hard who cares – shoot straight who can –
        The odds are on the cheaper man”

        Likewise the Copybook headings. Empires and tribes built on lies about physical forces eventually crumble down when said gods catch up.
        (Also: robbing selective peter to pay for collective paul gives us plenty of money but nothing to buy?

        Right. Because why make anything, sell anything or work at anything if you don’t have the profit motive to guide you. I’m not saying I agree, I’m saying this poem cannot possibly be anti-capitalist)

      • mico says:

        I agree, and think this is misleading for a modern audience.

        I would suggest substituting “forum” for “market” although “forum place” is only barely serviceable as poetry.

        I find it mildly interesting that, while some commenters accuse the poem if being thin wrapping paper for a collection of simplistic clichés, there isn’t a great deal of agreement on questions as simple as what it means.

  6. tgb says:

    On the Flynn effect: does anyone have old IQ tests? Can we just take some and see how supposedly easy they are now? Ideally, they’d be from as long ago as possible, but even just from, say, the 60’s would work. Any studies doing just this? I googled around but there are so many scammy IQ test websites drowning out anything relevant that I gave up.

    • Emily says:

      Progressive matrices have been used for a long time. I think that’s where Flynn found the effect. They’ve probably just been recentered, like the SAT and the ASVAB, not replaced with new tests. (Edit: I mean, the SAT has also been changed. But there was a recentering before that. If you are looking for old tests, look for the military stuff they used in WWII.)

      • JK says:

        IIRC, the Flynn effect on the SAT has been rather small. Math scores have improved, verbal scores haven’t.

      • Emily says:

        The renorming of the SAT was to make scoring easier, not harder. The point I was making was that in order to keep the same score distribution on a test when the capabilities of test-takers are changing, you don’t have to replace the test, just change the relationship between test performance and scoring. (With the SAT, whatever performance changes we’ve seen due to the the Flynn effect are overwhelmed by the changes we’ve seen with regards to more students taking the SAT.)

        • Douglas Knight says:

          In the period 1972-1993 there was a decline in scores without much expansion of the proportion of test-takers. In fact, there was a decline in the absolute number of high scores, despite population growth giving an expansion in the absolute number of test-takers.

      • DanielLC says:

        You notice the Flynn effect from recentering, but I would imagine the IQ tests themselves would change. People aren’t going to still be using 60-year-old tests, so you can’t just use a current test with an old scoring system.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      You can try old college entrance exams.

      The one that always comes up is the Harvard one from 1869. This of course, was from the old pre-meritocratic days so a man of average intelligence should have been able to pass it, right?


      Columbia expected this reading to have been done as a background for their exam:

      Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I and II; Pope’s Iliad, Books I and XXII; the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers in The Spectator; Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, Lowell’s Vision of Sir Launfal, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, […] Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America, De Quincey’s The Flight of a Tartar Tribe, [and] Tennyson’s The Princess.

      • ddreytes says:

        You know, I really think (and have thought for a while) that the Harvard exam really is not as hard as it looks. I think it looks a lot harder than it is for a few reasons.

        One, we mostly don’t learn Greek or Latin anymore (I had
        Latin, but this is admittedly rare). But that doesn’t mean we’re less smart, only that we learn different things (and the same is true for a lesser extent about the other sections). Two, some of the techniques and styles that we use are different, so for instance the arithmetic. Three, most of the people who are looking at this aren’t high school seniors, and so it’s been a while since they were thinking about plane geometry (and, really, even if you are a high school senior today, you might not be fresh on plane geometry. At my school we covered geometry in sophomore year and were doing calculus by senior year, which I don’t think is rare, and which isn’t really an indictment of our educational system, but which would make a test like this harder). And we also haven’t taken time to exhaustively study for the exam as I imagine the Harvard applicants would have done.

        Honestly, with the exception of the Greek bits – as I say, I never had Greek – I feel extremely confident that, given a chance to prepare for it, 18-year-old me would have done very well on a test like that. Now, of course, I’d be hopeless.

        As for the reading… well, yeah. We read different things now. I don’t know if that’s actually a reflection of intelligence, or if it’s nothing more than a change in choices of things to read (that’s not rhetorical; I really don’t know). All I can say is that I don’t think that I would have been incapable of reading any of those things at that age.

        • Limi says:

          Not only do we read different things now, and judge literary content differently (To kill a mockingbird, heart of darkness, catch 22 or nineteen eighty-four – none would have been considered worthy of the status back then, based on the writing styles alone) we also read much much less – if you were a well to do man of learning in those days, all of those books would have been in your library and you would have read them because you wouldn’t have tv or the internet, or possibly even non-related company to take up your time.

          • Murphy says:

            I’m going to dispute the statement that we read much less. Those books might have been in your in your library and you might have read them *because you have feck all else to read*.

            The latest generation reads more words per day on average and writes more per day than any generation in history. Much of it is facile facebook stuff, blogs and news articles but the average teen is vastly better read than the average teen from back then.

          • Limi says:

            I hope this doesn’t come across as snarky, but I thought it was obvious that when I said that I meant literary content. There is absolutely no contest between now and then – in those days reading recreationally was not even possible for most people.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            If you don’t know anything about history, your thoughts about what is obvious will be wrong.

          • Limi says:

            Do I know nothing about history? What have I said that gives you reason to say so?

            Edit: Is there any particular reason, while we are discussing this, you didn’t think it was necessary to explain what you were talking about in the first place, instead of just calling me ignorant?

      • suntzuanime says:

        This came up in Scott’s introduction to neo-reactionary ideology; my take on it is that the entrance examination isn’t all that much harder, it just seems harder because it tests for things that were being taught in schools at the time, and schools teach different things now. If you took an 1869 Harvard student and had them take an AP Computer Science test they’d do pretty poorly.

      • Alex Godofsky says:

        Sure, if in return they have to take AP Physics.

      • Bugmaster says:

        If you go back and time and ask them, “how many bits are in a byte ?”, they’d fail too.

        • wnoise says:

          But if you asked them how many bits are in an octet, they probably would get it right.

      • Harald K says:

        Old test are always going to seem to be harder than tests today. The thing they learned that you didn’t, you notice, but it’s much harder to notice the thing you learned that they didn’t.

      • tgb says:

        These are interesting but I really want the old IQ tests for exactly the reason of all these things people are pointing out that are or aren’t on the test any more. It just frustrates me that there is so much written about the Flynn effect but I’ve yet to see someone go “Oh look at these old tests we gave new people scoring them as they would have back in the day and everyone did remarkably well!” Instead you see complicated statistical models and people arguing whether tests are time invariant, blah blah blah.

        Did we lose all the old IQ tests in a terrible fire at the National IQ Test Archive? Probably not, so I’m imagining this has been done somewhere and I just can’t find it.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Can you point to a primary source documenting the Flynn test that does “complicated statistical models” rather than giving the old and new tests to a single population?

          Perhaps your point is the old test is only a decade old and you’re skeptical of chaining together all these comparisons?

        • Troy says:

          You might try your question at Dr. James Thompson’s blog: http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.com/

        • Emily says:

          I answered this question for you. The tests are the same. That’s how we know there is an effect – by using the same tests over time. It is exactly the case that people who argue for the Flynn effect do so by saying “we used the same tests and now people do better.” From the wikipedia page on the Flynn effect: “For the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test, subjects born over a 100-year period were compared in Des Moines, Iowa, and separately in Dumfries, Scotland.”

      • Princess Stargirl says:

        The mathematics sections are not hard. The algebra section especially is extremely easy. I could finish the algebra section in about 2 minutes. Younger me could probably accurately do the algebra in 5-10 or something.

        • Unique Identifier says:

          I am positive that you couldn’t answer the algebra section in two minutes, even if all you had to do was to mechanically copy a sheet of the correct solutions.

      • Sly says:

        A lot of people have already listed reasons why this is not exactly valid, but here is another one.

        How many people went to Harvard back then versus today? College in 1869 was more of something the elite did, it was for the dedicated and driven. Now college is just the extension of high school that most students are expected to do.

        College in general is just less of a filter these days, and it has essentially nothing to do with intelligence.

      • RCF says:

        Were applicants allowed to use a slide rule? I find it exceedingly difficult to believe they were able to do the math by hand. And why was Harvard testing applicants on their ability to do math on British currency?

      • Derelict says:

        “Compare Athens with Sparta.” HOW?!?

        Like, what are we supposed to describe? Is that an essay question? How long did we have to write an answer to that?

        • RCF says:

          It’s quite likely that prep school curricula were sufficiently standardized that Guessing The Teacher’s Password would be feasible for a Well Educated Man, and the test is really “Have you both gone to a prep school that teaches the Proper Curricula, and been paying enough attention that you can regurgitate the proper talking points?”

        • Irrelevant says:

          By means of Xenophon, naturally.

    • JK says:

      There are some sample questions from Army Alpha and Beta tests used in WWI here.

  7. Dale says:

    Suppose I drive to work for 30 minutes or an hour every day. Is there any reason not to become an Uber driver and take someone with me each way? Do I get to see where my prospective passenger wants to go?

    • Anthony says:

      I haven’t driven for Uber or Lyft, but I think I recall that you do get to see the destination; if you don’t want to go that way, you don’t respond as available.

      The reasons not to take riders would be:

      There aren’t any riders available on your way. This is likely more of a morning than evening problem.
      The riders aren’t going in a helpful direction. If you work near but not in a big job center, or on one side of a big downtown, you may have to detour somewhat (through probably heavy traffic) to deliver your rider to where they’re going. This is more likely a problem for evening riders, who aren’t going quite where you are going.
      The logistics of picking up and delivering riders may add a significant amount of time to your commute, and Uber/Lyft don’t pay enough to make up for that.

    • Emerit says:

      Don’t have much time to type, so will link:


      tl;dr: I think that your acceptance rate of new rides needs to be north of 80% or so to retain access to the app. Would look at the article to check though, or the websites mentioned therein

    • mobile says:

      I’ve also been looking into this. uberpeople.net has a lot of reports from the field. Some other things to consider:
      * your regular insurance policy may not cover you while you are transporting somebody else for Uber. Uber’s supplemental coverage might not be very supplemental. An appropriate commercial policy will run $4-6K/year.
      * depending on where you drive, you may need additional permits before Uber will hire you. This may or may not be a hassle.
      * There is a general sentiment of declining customer quality on the forums (and a sentiment of declining Uber driver quality). You’d think someone riding with you from the suburbs to the job center at morning rush hour is going to be cool, but you never know.

      Oh, and it looks like you do have to accept a request before you can see the destination, at least on Uber.

    • RCF says:

      You might want to try to find someone who is regularly wanting to get a ride, and set up a carpool.

  8. Dale says:

    Suppose it is bad to break promises.

    Is it immoral to persuade people to take a mighty oath of great import that you know in advance they will break?

    Is it immoral to persuade people to take a mighty oath of great import that you know in advance they will probably break?

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      My immediate response is “Only if the probability that they will keep the promise, and do whatever the promise entails, times the utility of those things is greater than the probability they will break the promise times the utility of that thing.” This is a consequentialist/utilitarian (though by no means a normal utilitarian) view, where we weight keeping promises at some level, and weight other things at different levels. But I’m not sure, on reflection, if that’s really the answer to the question you’re asking.

    • We could pattern match to persuading someone to walk into an ambush. It seems slightly better if it’s only a probable ambush but still pretty bad. For mercantile ethics it’s dishonest trading and for guardian ethics it would depend entirely on whether you classify this person as an ally.

      • Jiro says:

        When someone walks into an ambush, the ambush is harmful to him because of forces outside his control. When you lead someone to make a promise he won’t keep, it’s his own decision to break the promise.

        So the analogy doesn’t work unless
        1) You ignore free will, even as an approximation, in which case the question “is it immoral for me to do X” is meaningless (since you don’t choose to do X), or
        2) The situation where the person won’t keep the promise is one where he pretty much has to break his oath to avoid worse consequences (such as not knowing that the oath requires him to sacrifice his daughter).

        • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

          What about a “forced to eat dog meat” situation? Would the oathkeeper be at fault for taking an oath he could’ve (but maybe didn’t) know that might put him in an impossible situation?

    • Tracy W says:

      Okay, so hypothetical case, you know someone who has a really bad temper and has been violent in the past. They have been in and out of jail for years and have just gotten out after the punishment for their last crime.

      You persuade them to take a mighty oath of great import not to be violent in the future. You know in advance they will probably break this oath, but there was a RCT that indicated that in situations like this taking a mighty oath reduced the probability of violent re-offending from 95% to 80%. Is it immoral to persuade them to take that oath?

      • Jiro says:

        Persuading them to take the oath is still doing bad stuff to them. It’s just that the bad stuff is balanced by the fact that by a roundabout mechanism, it also does good stuff to them.

      • Tracy W says:

        And cutting someone’s skin open to remove a tumour is doing bad stuff to them. It’s just that the bad stuff is balanced by the fact that by a roundabout mechanism, it also does good stuff to them. Is surgery therefore immoral?
        (If you like, stipulate surgery done on someone rushed to hospital unconscious and unable to consent).

        • Jiro says:

          No, and I don’t think that for oaths either.

          The original question equivocates between “bad by itself” and “bad in combination with the other consequences”. When you say “suppose it is bad to break promises”, that normally means “bad by itself”. But asking whether something is immoral means (under most theories of morality, perhaps not under the ones which say that you shouldn’t lie even to save a life) “is it bad in combination?” Breaking a promise is (by supposition) bad in the first sense, and so is persuading someone to make a promise they will break. But persuading someone to make a promise they will break is not necessarily bad in the second sense.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @Tracy W:

        I like that your hypothetical is a “mighty oath of great import”. Some of the others that people have thrown out don’t seem to rise to that level.

        But we are told to assume at the beginning that breaking promises is bad. I’m not sure your hypothetical adequately reflects this condition, as the hypothetical concentrates on the harm of the activity that breaks the promise, not the harm of the actual promise breaking. I think that is what Jiro was getting at.

        Frankly, I think I am with you and reject the premise of the question. Probably because deonotology only makes sense to me in a framework of consequentialism.

        As to your hypothetical, I think the only question is “Does the overall harm caused by the re-offenders decrease as well?” If there exists a mechanism that makes those who take the oath and subsequently break it do more harm than they otherwise would have, then it becomes much less clear.

        But in your framing, I think you are correct that the answer is clear.

        edit: replaced utilitarianism with consequentialism, because that was my intended meaning.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Is it immoral to persuade people to take a mighty oath of great import that you know in advance they will break?

      Only if I promised not to.

    • Harald K says:

      The only way you can truly know in advance that they will break the promise, is if it’s literally impossible for them to fulfill. Then I’d say it’s immoral, what kind of weird game are you playing with them?

      But even if it’s possible for them to fulfill: if you hold back knowledge that makes the promise much harder for them to fulfill, knowledge that might have stopped them from making the promise in the first place, then it’s also wrong.

    • tailcalled says:

      What’s the point in persuading them to take the mighty oath if you know they will break it? Does it make them keep their promise for a short time? If so, could you convince them to keep the promise for the amount of time you expect? etc.

    • Deiseach says:

      Isn’t the first one suborning perjury? That’s not much approved of, to my understanding 🙂

      It depends why you’re asking people to swear oaths. If I know Tom is going to break his oath never to eat bread again as soon as he has toast for breakfast next morning, why on earth am I asking him to swear such an oath?

      Is my only purpose to get Tom into trouble? That’s certainly immoral. Am I trying to trick Tom into something? Again, that’s immoral.

    • blacktrance says:

      I’m inclined to say that it’s not wrong. Breaking the oath is the other person’s choice. As long as you don’t take away that other person’s ability to choose otherwise or conceal morally relevant information from them, you aren’t responsible for other people’s misdeeds.

      • Anonymous says:

        If you offer someone ten million dollars to commit murder, are you responsible for their subsequent misdeeds?

        • suntzuanime says:

          Offering someone money to commit murder is you causing a murder to occur. Causing someone to break their own oath is not you causing one of your own oaths to be broken.

        • blacktrance says:

          No. They are autonomous moral agents, free to refuse if they want to. You are at most responsible for giving them an incentive to commit misdeeds, but that doesn’t make you responsible for what they choose to do.

          • DrBeat says:

            If you take an action,

            the action is likely to cause a murder,

            the intent of the action is to cause a murder to occur,

            and without that action the murder would not have occurred,

            then yes, you are responsible for the murder.

          • blacktrance says:

            the action is likely to cause a murder

            The problem is in this step. It isn’t enough to merely be likely to cause a murder, because the channel through which it happens matters. The action only causes a murder if the assassin freely chooses to commit murder. If I’d fire the gun myself, I’d be responsible because the gun is incapable of making choices, but a person can refuse, and if they do, then the murder doesn’t happen.

          • DrBeat says:

            It’s enough to be “likely” to cause a murder when the explicit purpose and intent of the action is to cause that murder to occur.

            The requirement that it be likely to cause murder is just so, say, putting a voodoo murder hex on someone you hate isn’t the same as putting a hit out on them.

    • DanielLC says:

      Are we assuming it’s terminally bad? I consider it instrumentally bad, so I could theoretically work out if getting someone to make a promise in a given situation is bad. I’d say don’t pick promises based on whether or not they’d break them. You don’t want to just get the to promise things you know they’ll break and make them look untrustworthy, but you also don’t want to avoid asking for promises that you know they’ll break and make them look more trustworthy than they actually are.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Is terminal vs. instrumental functioning here as essentially just another way to frame deontological vs. consequential?

        And when looked at through those two lenses, in a consequentialist framing the oath giver is guilty of harm when the oath swearer breaks their pledge (regardless of how sure it was that the pledge would be broken!)

        But in a deontological system, only the oath swearer is guilty.

        Frankly, I think the deontological/consequential split is really akin to the nature/nurture debate. You have to have both for any system to function.

    • KG says:

      The obvious context of your question for me(coming from a Mormon background) is that of LDS temple covenants. If you’re not familiar with them, members are encouraged to make certain oaths or promises that they will obey certain commandments and specific blessings are promised by God in turn. Because your question fits that context so perfectly and I can’t think of any other context it fits, I’ll try to address that issue specifically even though my answers could very easily not apply to other contexts of your question.

      I guess my only real insights are that it doesn’t seem to me that these covenants are meant to be the kind of contracts we normally encounter in which one party promises X, the other promises Y and if party X doesn’t fulfill his part of the contract that leaves the contract null and void and party Y no longer has to do his side. Rather, they are promises we make and then when we fail to meet our end, re-make or renew(sacrament). Many of the promised blessings of the covenant are ones that enable the covenant maker to keep the promises, and without which, the tasks outlined would certainly be impossible. It is a promise, that by it’s nature, enables one to keep the promise. Like signing a contract to perform a concert but within the contract is that you will be given the sheet music to the piece you will play and weekly lessons to prepare for it. Even if I know that my child will fail to practice every day as she signed, if after she fails that one day she continues to practice and eventually accomplishes the end goal of performing and becoming a master pianist then technically with a normal contract I would not be obligated to give her whatever I had promised because she didn’t fulfill her end to the letter. But I won’t, because when I had her sign the contract I knew she would fail, but that teaching her the standard so that she could eventually rise to meet it would be part of what enabled her to meet it and become a master pianist and I care about that a lot more than the bumps along the way.

    • Ano says:

      Does it matter if you yourself take a mighty oath of great import to persuade someone to take a mighty oath of great import that you know in advance they will break?

  9. Wulfrickson says:

    Scott, given your previous writing on the problems with trolls in survey data, you may be interested in Philip N. Cohen’s reanalysis of the Regnerus study that found worse life outcomes in people raised by same-sex couples. Cohen argues that if a small number of trolls answers the multiple-choice questions on a survey randomly, then this will create spurious associations between uncommon choices (because the trolls are disproportionately represented among the respondents who mark uncommon responses). This, Cohen claims, accounts for apparent association of same-sex parenting (a rare event) and other infrequent adverse life outcomes.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Oooh, interesting!

    • Steve Johnson says:

      Child rearing is the sole exception to the worse life outcomes and mental health of homosexuals? The results don’t need to be explained away.

      • Charlie says:

        Intrigued, I decided to google “IQ and homosexuality,” and it turns out that your prediction failed miserably. Feel free to do the same search I did to find out why! The Slate article that was my top result actually had a really good mention of sampling bias, too.

        • Steve Johnson says:

          That slate article is really really bad. Either way, it’s very much beside the point.

          IQ is neither a life outcome nor is it measure of mental health.


          Several large population-based public health studies are discussed in the November American Psychologist (Vol. 56, No. 11) by Susan Cochran, PhD, an epidemiologist in the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health, who authored or co-authored many of the studies. Specifically, the studies find:

          *Higher rates of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use or dependence in lesbian and gay youth.
          *Higher rates of recurrent major depression among gay men.
          *Higher rates of anxiety, mood and substance use disorders, and suicidal thoughts among people ages 15 to 54 with same-sex partners.
          *Higher use of mental health services in men and women reporting same-sex partners.

          Gleaning this type of information on LGB people has never been possible in general surveys before, Cochran notes. However, because the surveys on which these studies are based examine HIV-risk factors, including psychiatric problems and sexual behavior, they include questions on sexual orientation and sexual partners, she says.

          “It’s a breakthrough because it has traditionally been difficult to gather large samples of gays, lesbians and bisexuals due to their small numbers in the population,” Cochran explains.

          Of course she then puts out political cover.

          • So you conclude that this data justifies policy measures to make life more difficult for gay men and lesbians?

          • Brad says:

            @ Larry:

            I don’t see anywhere in the comment chain above where someone suggests that group A having worse life outcomes justifies worse treatment of said group.

          • Sylocat says:


            Usually when someone badmouths the “life outcomes” of homosexuals, it’s to justify policy decisions that make it harder for them. Even if said life outcomes can often be traced to external sources, such as discrimination and demonization.

          • rttf says:


            You should learn to argue against what people actually say instead of what you think they could have said.

          • Usually when someone badmouths the “life outcomes” of homosexuals, it’s to justify policy decisions that make it harder for them.

            Presumably a decent longitudinal study would document worse-than-average “life outcomes and mental health” for all kinds of subgroups: non-whites, left-handers, high school dropouts, diabetics, smokers, fast food restaurant workers, drivers at fault in car accidents, homeowners with overdue property taxes, etc., etc.

            But none of those groups are singled out and systematically denied the right to marry their romantic partner, adopt children, etc. That’s because a group’s somewhat-worse-than-average life prospects are not relevant to whether society should allow them those things.

            So if you want to provide empirical support for traditional anti-gay policies, as the authors of that study plainly did, it’s not enough to show that, on the average, homosexuals are a bit worse off than most people. That’s not news.

            Rather, you need to show that the group is dramatically and intrinsically worse at basic life functions, like parenting, than everybody else.

            From the standpoint of anyone who actually knows gay and lesbian parents, that’s a really extraordinary claim.

            But it might seem reasonable to the majority of people, for whom the idea of homosexuals raising children is utterly novel. Above, Steve Johnson writes: “The results don’t need to be explained away.”

            Hence, it’s absolutely fair game to be skeptical of the Regnerus study and point out how the data were manipulated, cherry-picked, and misinterpreted.

          • grendelkhan says:

            I wonder how life outcomes and such differ between closeted and out gay men. If your model includes more people being made gay by more social acceptance, then you have good utilitarian reasons to make things suck more for gay people.

            Like, your policy recommendations given this data would be diametrically opposed based on whether your model is “the closet makes things worse for gay people” or “coming out makes things worse for gay people” (or, further in that direction, “choosing to be gay makes things worse for people”).

      • Wulfrickson says:

        To the contrary: behavioral genetic studies reliably turn up small or zero influence of parenting on most important adulthood life outcomes and personality traits. If you accept the general validity of behavioral-genetic methods (and it seems that people with your views do, at least in politically congenial contexts), then shouldn’t we treat a finding that same-sex parenting has harmful consequences that persist into adulthood as the unexpected result that deserves special scrutiny?

    • Deiseach says:

      Thanks, Wulfrickson, now I can explain away bad results from any poll or survey or study I don’t like with “Pooh, that’s only because of all the liberal or progressive trolls who deliberately answered in a way to make my side look bad!”

      Sure, bad faith responses on the part of participants will skew studies, but unless you can back it up that this particular study was flawed due to the large proportion of trolls (apart from any other flaws in the study), then how can you separate that out as “But this only applies to this study, every other survey and study is pure as the driven snow when it comes to being troll-free”?

      • Troy says:

        Sure, bad faith responses on the part of participants will skew studies, but unless you can back it up that this particular study was flawed due to the large proportion of trolls (apart from any other flaws in the study), then how can you separate that out as “But this only applies to this study, every other survey and study is pure as the driven snow when it comes to being troll-free”?

        The argument is that this study is problematic because some of the variables being tested (same-sex parents, asexuality) are rare enough that even a few trolls can lead to spurious correlations. This would be a potential problem for any study testing rare variables.

        • Wulfrickson says:

          And, to be clear, it’s not required that the trolls be politically motivated, only that there be some element of randomness in their answers (for example, if they just want to finish the survey and collect their $20 reward for participation as quickly as possible, without caring much about the accuracy of the results), so that the same group of trolls is overrepresented in every rare condition. As Cohen points out, the fact that the correlations that remained significant after correcting Regnerus’ more obviously faulty methods were the ones between same-sex parenting and the rarer conditions (e.g. asexuality) hints that something of this sort may have happened.

        • Deiseach says:

          But again, how do you differentiate “This is an odd result and politically it’s not the kind of one I’d like, so I’m going to assume trolls were involved” from “This is an odd result but maybe it’s true, I should look further at it”?

          Because I do know that there’s a lot of protest about anything smacking of “This study shows same-sex parenting causes problems for kids” and that there is pressure for “No, it’s just as good or even better!”

          the correlations that remained significant after correcting Regnerus’ more obviously faulty methods were the ones between same-sex parenting and the rarer conditions (e.g. asexuality) hints that something of this sort may have happened.

          You could equally read it as being raised in a non-conventional/non-traditional household means more openness to non-traditional orientations of sexuality/gender, so that the idea of (for instance) asexuality is presented as a possibility rather than being totally unknown, and an asexual/other rare orientation child in a queer household has more chance of knowing that this is a possibility, more chance of being supported if they ‘come out’ as such and more information and support? I had no idea asexuality was even a thing until within the last five or six years, but now I do know, I can see that I realised I was asexual (even though I hadn’t the knowledge or the terminology) when I was nine! Isn’t it possible same-sex parents would respond to a child who said to their parents (as I did to my mother) “I don’t want a husband, I’m never getting married or having children” not with “Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older” but instead “You could be asexual, honey”?

          Has anyone piped up with “It’s possible trolling was involved” for studies warning of the bad outcomes of, for example, homeschooling? I picked this at random because I have no interest either way, and looking for studies on the negative effects led me to the title of one such as “The civic perils of homeschooling” – rather an alarmist title, or not?

          Another negative article has this in the abstract:

          Supporters of home schooling are usually religious fundamentalists who have increasing power in the USA and elsewhere. They have formed a national coalition and have joined in a tense rightist hegemonic alliance with neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, an alliance that seeks to reconstruct our common-sense about education and about all things social.”

          Hmmm – no, can’t see any kind of political bias involved there when it might come to presenting results or interpreting them if they don’t stack up with what you might like to find!

          • Irrelevant says:

            Judging by the summaries I’m seeing, that first paper is perfectly accurate, the primary point of disagreement is that the parents involved would retitle it “The Fucking Point of Homeschooling.”

          • Troy says:

            But again, how do you differentiate “This is an odd result and politically it’s not the kind of one I’d like, so I’m going to assume trolls were involved” from “This is an odd result but maybe it’s true, I should look further at it”?

            This study is evidence for both trolls and actual underlying correlations. Evidence can simultaneously raise the probability of two mutually exclusive hypotheses (and these hypotheses aren’t even mutually exclusive).

            On social science more generally, I don’t think we really disagree; social science is in a bad state and a lot of it is politically motivated.

      • Kiya says:

        (edit: what Troy said)
        I agree that it’s good to avoid isolated demands for rigor with respect to trolls as elsewhere. But not all studies are equally susceptible to being pwned by trolls in this way. If the groups you’re studying are about the same size and about the same proportions as you’d expect in the population you’re surveying (for instance, you’re comparing self-reported men and self-reported women, and about half of respondents sort into each), probably the truthful respondents drown out the trolls in each group. If you want to study small unusual groups, you can do extra work to verify answers among the small groups you’re interested in, and in this way sort out the people who were actually raised by same-sex parents or whatever from the people who just picked it because it seemed funniest.

    • Jaskologist says:

      If so, wouldn’t we have to flay every study about tiny tiny groups, “leaving nothing but a wisp of foul-smelling ill-will trailing from [their] remains”?

      • If so, wouldn’t we have to flay every study about tiny tiny groups, “leaving nothing but a wisp of foul-smelling ill-will trailing from [their] remains”?

        Well, that was a blog post, not a scientific paper, so I think a little triumphalism might be excusable.

        But yeah, any time someone takes a tiny number of cases from a large social science dataset, and extrapolates large conclusions from them, I think that data should be examined closely.

        For example, the 1960 U.S. Census has cross-tabulations, at various levels of detail, showing the distribution of married women by age and children-ever-born.

        And almost none of the cells (combinations of age and number of births) are empty!

        For 15-year-olds who have given birth 7 or more times, they report 241 cases!

        Not only that, they report 62 women in the 15-19-year-old category who have birthed 12 or more times!

        My wife assures me that none of those things are physically possible.

        In other words, every one of those cases is a coding error, either with the wrong age or the wrong number of births; they actually belong elsewhere in the table.

        In general, close study of a tiny percentage of cases with rare or extreme combinations of characteristics is unlikely to yield valid conclusions.

        • Deiseach says:

          For 15-year-olds who have given birth 7 or more times, they report 241 cases!

          Is this an age-of-marriage/age-at-first-birth thing? Because “married/first got pregnant at 15, now in mid-20s, 7 kids” is possible, whereas your wife is correct that 7 kids by age 15 (even if they start puberty at around 11) is not possible – except if multiple births are involved. I have anecdotally heard of a couple which had a run of twins (first birth single child, next pregnancy twins, then twins again for the third pregnancy) but that seems to be pushing the bounds of “it’s not impossible, merely highly unlikely” rather far.

          • Irrelevant says:

            I’d assume every member of that category is a result of misreading the 2 in 25 as a 1.

          • Is this an age-of-marriage/age-at-first-birth thing? Because “married/first got pregnant at 15, now in mid-20s, 7 kids” is possible

            No, it’s age as of the time of the Census, in April 1960. Indeed, elsewhere in the complicated set of crosstabs, it’s given explicitly that 15-year-olds were born in 1944 or 1945.

            Here’s the original report if you want to see for yourself.

  10. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Wrong Species’s hypothetical in the last open thread inspired in me a silly thought: If every SSC commenter got stranded on a desert island, how long would we survive? If the answer is indefinitely, then how long would it take us to rebuild civilization?

    • There was also a discussion related to this in a thread last year.

    • Charlie says:

      We could probably live there as long as there’s a sufficiently large ecological niche for large omnivores. But on average this is not the case, so we’d probably die off unless we could build Kons Tiki and gtfo.

    • Wrong Species says:

      We would probably die trying to decide what government we should have.

      • haishan says:

        Nah, we’d definitely die trying to decide what government we should have.

        (To be fair to us, this is also a likely end-scenario for the human species as a whole, just on a much bigger scale.)

    • Irrelevant says:

      Dunno about the rest of you, but my survival rate in a desert island scenario depends entirely on the reliability of century-old novels about castaways, so I probably die.

      • Nornagest says:

        Taken as a realistic survival novel, Robinson Crusoe and most of its imitators cheated like mad, mainly by placing an unreasonable variety of tools and supplies in easily-accessible parts of the shipwreck. I last read it when I was eleven or so, but even then my suspension of disbelief was tested in a number of places.

        Of course, it’s not meant to be a realistic survival novel.

    • Murphy says:

      I get the impression that more geeks have unusual skills and are more likely to learn crafts as a hobby and have been in organizations like scouting. (fact check anyone, I’ve not done a literature search) so they might do slightly better than average at getting shelter etc set up.

    • As a young geek, I lived in social isolation. I took it for granted that mutual rejection between me and everyone else was a permanent state of being. Hence, I spent my pre-teen and adolescent years studying things like botany and small-scale agriculture and carpentry and beekeeping and edible wild plants and so on. I expected to become a solitary subsistence farmer in some very remote area.

      Surely I am not the only one in SSC’s community who grew up this way.

    • How many of us are there? How big is the island?

      (A better thought experiment might be that we are magically transported back in time to ~10,000 yr before present and dropped into North America. Can we found a civilization that can successfully race against Eurasia to world domination?

      • Nornagest says:

        That’s an interesting question. I imagine the answer might end up hinging on whether Jared Diamond’s hypotheses about domesticability turned out to be correct.

        We might have a certain advantage over the later American indigenous civilizations, though, in that the Quaternary extinction event would still have been ongoing at the time, giving us more megafauna to choose from. I believe there’d still have been native horse species, for example.

      • Leonard says:

        Just … one … more… turn!

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          -Rationalist Empire-
          Philosophical, Creative
          Starting Technologies: Philosophy, Scientific Method
          Unique Units: Probe Team – (Spy)

          THE DAWN OF MAN

          The sun rises on the year 8000 BC. Since time immemorial, the rationalist people have lived a digital nomadic life. After years of wandering, they are ready to settle down and found your first city.

          Scott Alexander, your people have vested absolute power in you, thrusting you can build a Civilization to stand the test of time!


          • Paul Torek says:

            Sheer awesomeness.

          • Susebron says:

            If we’re willing to start in the 1400s and try to make treaties with European nations rather than conquering them to start with, we could go with a custom nation in Europa Universalis 4. I’ll see if I can think up some national ideas.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Was the joke that those techs are both useless for early game expansion in comparison to cheaper techs like “Mining” or “Hunting” and Scientific Method is in fact actively disadvantageous because it closes off valuable early wonders?

            I guess maybe starting with Philosophy lets us found Taoism, a turn 1 religion has its benefits (although they’re reduced thanks to Scientific Method shutting us out of monasteries).

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Was the joke that those techs are both useless for early game expansion in comparison to cheaper techs like “Mining” or “Hunting” and Scientific Method is in fact actively disadvantageous because it closes off valuable early wonders?

            I guess maybe starting with Philosophy lets us found Taoism, a turn 1 religion has its benefits (although they’re reduced thanks to Scientific Method shutting us out of monasteries).

            The idea was supposed to be that rationalists are very well versed in both philosophy and the scientific method, and can apply them immediately after being dropped in 8000 BC America without needing any special resources or industrial capabilities. It was only after I picked them as starting technologies that I started wondering how a faction with those techs would actually play.

            You are right; being the first civilization to snag Philosophy gives us a religion right off the bat (let’s call it Singularitarianism or Transhumanism to keep with the theme). No Monasteries is kinda brutal, but we can still spread our religion by beelining Monotheism and adopting Organized Religion. Having Philosophy will also knock off 800 beakers if we decide to race for Liberalism, so that’s pretty nice.

            Also, our Great People should totally be named after people in the movement. Eliezer Yudkowsky is a Great Priest, Gwern Branwen is a Great Scientists, and Luminous Alicorn is a Great Artist.

            BTW, does anybody have a better idea for a special unit? Or any ideas for a special building? I’m thinking either Blog – (Laboratory) or Cryonics Bay – (Hospital).

          • MachineElf says:

            If I suggested a UB, it’d be a Monastery replacement that doesn’t obsolete and has Scientist slots. It pushes you to a Great Scientist rush even more clearly than Philo/Cre, which feels like good gameplay/flavor integration unless you’re the sort that would prefer Priest slots, and lets the T1 religion be actually relevant.

            It’s also really painful for me to see Cre on a leader whose civ is guaranteed a free religion – the whole point of Cre is that you don’t have to blow hammers in a new city on culture producing buildings, and one of the big benefits of religion is that you can offload the hammer cost to an already developed city where they cost relatively less.

          • se23 says:

            Unique wonder: FAI, seems pretty obvious. Sounds like a victory condition to me.

            Other unique units: Blogger, could spread culture somehow or it could work like corporations?

            Unique building: Rationality dojo, units trained in this city get +1 on all the random numbers generated on their behalf

          • Baby Beluga says:

            If you start with Scientific Method, you can get Biology right off the bat, which just seems amazing to me.

          • MachineElf says:

            First off, Scientific Method is only one of the prerequisites for Biology; the way the Civ IV tech tree displays, you need at least one “arrow” prerequisite, indicated by the arrows going along the path, and all of the “picture” prerequisites, indicated by a little picture on the upper right of the tech box. In Biology’s case, the picture prerequisite is Chemistry, which is not much earlier than Scientific Method.

            Secondly, Biology has a cost of 3600 beakers. By way of comparison, the ancient techs run about 50-200. Biology’s a good tech, certainly a better one to start with than Philosophy or Scientific Method, but as long as it costs more than five times all of its competitors there’s probably something more cost-effective to research.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            In any case, I was assuming that you couldn’t research forward from Philosophy and Scientific Method until you had finished researching their prerequisites.

          • Baby Beluga says:

            Ah, you’re right–I’d forgotten about the exponentially increasing beaker costs, and the other prerequisite. I guess starting with Scientific Method isn’t that good after all.

      • Can we found a civilization that can successfully race against Eurasia to world domination?

        We have always been at war with Eurasia.

      • grendelkhan says:

        I wonder what the best short-path is, if you, I don’t know, get to be a temple oracle that your people will listen to over the next couple thousand years. Like Anne Poole from “Fine Structure”, or, I suppose, someone playing “Civilization”.

        I suppose you need farming and domestication so that you can do anything other than just finding food. Then mining and metallurgy, to make decent tools. Enough math to do the rest. Sources of energy, to make better tools. Start with waterwheels and windmills, since those can be built by hand. Electricity is still the easiest way to move it around. Enough chemistry to make and use liquid fuels and learn basic medicine and pharmacology. Mass production and precision manufacturing following all that, tools to make tools, until you can build the whole internet.

        Writing that down makes me achingly aware of just how much I must be leaving out. The sorts of things the Global Village Construction Set people have really thought about.

        (Edit: I just read this article on the GVCS project and… wow am I ever glad I don’t live on a farm. Life without modern conveniences is hard. I can see why this sort of effort is mostly the province of religious fervor.)

      • Dude Man says:

        Would the gender imbalance create problems initially? Obviously that wouldn’t matter after a generation, but you still have to get to that point first.

        That, and the problem with using SSC commenters as the basis of a civilization is the same as the problems people pointed out with using Harvard faculty to begin a civilization; a group of intelligent people who don’t have any relevant knowledge is still a group of people who don’t have any relevant knowledge.

      • Izaak Weiss says:

        The biggest problem would probably be that our gender imbalance is skewed in the wrong direction. We’d be reduced to ~20% of our size after the first generation, which we would have to account for.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      This reminds me of an idea I had for decades involving competitive civilization.

      The idea requires a reasonably abundant supply of pristine type M planets, so don’t expect this any time soon, but it’s still fun to think about. Choose one planet. Regulation Size teams (say, 1000 people each) are positioned in reasonably surveyed starting areas. Starting material: nothing but their naked bodies and requisite monitoring devices and spectator cameras (which they are forbidden to dismantle or otherwise use for materials). Objective: be the first team to send a member (or descendent) across a finish line on a space station in low orbit. The only rule is to not attack or sabotage other teams; the point is to see how fast you can move from hunting / gathering to the age of manned rocketry or equivalent, given that you know at least one way to do it.

      In other words, if you knew it was a race, how would you optimize the team? (Pick a different member count if you like.)

      • This is a multi-generational project, so much so that I suspect that the most important variable is how well you can transmit the rules of the game and the value of winning to your descendants.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          Could be. How certain are you that it would absolutely require multiple generations? At the level of competition I envision, everyone would supposedly know exactly what they need to do to start climbing the ladder, and would be reasonably young – farmers, hunters, lumberjacks, and miners at the start, supported by stonesmiths, spinners, weavers, cooks, and later carpenters, bronzesmiths, millers, etc.

          Given the parameters, I’d expect it to feel very different from a Sid Meier game. No quibbling over religion or government (beyond very goal-oriented management); no resources sunk into military or even entertainment; people land already knowing what inventions to go for, so there’s no time spent there. I even kicked around the idea of how much study of the planet is permitted before landing (getting familiar with the local fauna, spotting necessary mineral veins and energy sources, etc.).

          Even so, it does seem like it could take a while, even longer than a lifetime, even assuming longevity treatment was abundant by then.

      • Wrong Species says:

        On a smaller level, that could be a good reality show.

  11. Adam says:

    I never comment usually but read the blog and just bought a book using your link.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      yeah… about that.
      Is there a way to channel money Scot’s way using the german amazon.
      Afaics there’s no affiliate-link available (is it even possible?).

      • Nestor says:

        AFAIK each national amazon is a separate affiliate program so Scott would need to signup to the German one and accrue sufficient commissions to make it reach minimum payment. Impractical for just one person unless you are in a position to make large purchases for say, a department you work for (Back when I had a popular blog someone was doing something like this judging by the annual pattern of large software purchases I observed). Or if Scott decides to start blogging in German.

        • Godzillarissa says:

          Oh ja! Schiefersternkodex, das ist gut!

          Seriously though, I don’t have a whole department to buy stuff for, so I guess there’s nothing I can do right now :/

  12. Alex says:

    I’m seeking to better understand the views of folks who say they favor genetic enhancement. I’m puzzling over us already being able to do enhancement with IVF. If you use gametes from folks with perfect SAT scores, the IQ of the kids will likely be far above average. But I don’t recall hearing many folks advocating expanding doing this. Have they? If not, why not? Anyone want to take a position on whether it would be good if IVF kids became the new normal?

    I wrote some thoughts here

    • Douglas Knight says:

      People want their own children, not half-adoptions.

      The Nobel sperm bank failed. Its official title was the “Repository for Germinal Choice”; indeed, the very idea of selecting donors was not so popular in 1980. But today, prospective parents do care about the phenotype of the donor. They care more about height than IQ, but they love Ivy donors, for whatever reason.

      • Michael Watts says:

        Steve Sailer observed (I don’t know whether the observation is accurate) that demand for intelligence is very heavy in the egg market, while being mostly a non-phenomenon in the sperm market. He theorized that this is because sperm is cheap, letting anyone use donated sperm, but eggs are very expensive, and the men who can afford that really care about intelligence.

      • Alex says:

        Okay. I agree, at least to an extent. But do the arguments being made for enhancement allow parents to prioritize having genetic children? Or do they imply the current state of affairs is wrong?

        • Wrong Species says:

          It’s not that they want the kid to necessarily turn out like themselves. They just want to know that it’s their genes.

        • Irrelevant says:

          Uhm, “allowed to prioritize” kinda doesn’t parse here? The theory is that, morality being willing to spin like a weathervane in the face of technology, the people will quickly change their mind about what they want to prioritize, then find it baffling that people ever prioritized anything else.

          • Alex says:

            If the vast formless things come and change everything, then yeah, I guess we need to play along. I’m asking about moral arguments made now.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Now? I don’t think it’s relevant now, the scale isn’t there and for the professional-classers that do IVF the IQ bump probably isn’t going to outweigh the intangibles of having their own child. The relevant moral argument now isn’t that you need to birth more clones of some Ivy Leaguer with marginally better genes, it’s that you need to have four kids starting in your mid 20s instead of 1 starting in your late 30s.

          • Alex says:

            The relevant moral argument now isn’t that you need to birth more clones of some Ivy Leaguer with marginally better genes, it’s that you need to have four kids starting in your mid 20s instead of 1 starting in your late 30s.

            How about four IVF kids?

            And I wouldn’t necessarily call the genes marginally better. IVF users are somewhat more educated than the general population, but not that much more. Studies find slim IQ differences between IVF kids and normal kids, but I think if we tried, we could change this. There’s been talk about how IQ gains of five points per generation are big. With IVF as a new normal, we could raise IQ 15 points in one generation! It would, of course, mean totalitarianism.

            Now, that’s a very extreme case. But we could at least go in this direction, and yet I don’t recall seeing proposals to, say, offer tax credits for conceiving kids with Yale gametes. If you truly favor enhancement, then why not?

          • Irrelevant says:

            If you truly favor enhancement, then why not?

            Geez, nobody’s gonna let me take my reactionary hat off today, are they?

            Mass-IVF is a premature attempt at bootstrapping before we actually know what we’re doing, it probably wouldn’t work, it would have unknown secondary effects on the genepool, it encourages longer delays between generations and weaker family structures, and any attempt at implementation would be absurdly, farcically, blood-runs-in-the-streets tyrannical.

            The way you force a 15-point improvement in a generation isn’t by the smartest guy having 10,000 kids, it’s by every man who gets caught committing a stupid crime being executed along with his progeny and ideally their mothers. Proven tech, scalable, gives positive rather than negative social incentives, and is merely Draconian rather than Azathothian.

      • grendelkhan says:

        Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman did a paper which seems like it would address pretty much all of those problems. You don’t get a child you couldn’t have had; you just get a better (how to helpfully define ‘better’ here is a subject of the paper) roll of the dice, and that’s probably enough to get some hair-raisingly spooky results.

        (I posted that paper to a social-justice forum’s discussion of eugenics a few months ago and, disappointingly, got nothing back.)

    • Velociraptor says:

      Off topic, but I wonder how wise it is to discuss important stuff (of any sort) on tumblr

    • Bugmaster says:

      I personally favor genetic enhancement as something to strive for, but I don’t think we currently know enough about human genetics to achieve this safely. If genetic enhancement becomes routine today, I foresee a lot of failure modes along the lines of “vulnerable monoculture”, “harmful long-term side-effects”, “reproductive failures”, and other issues associated with reduced genetic diversity.

      That said, I see this as a technical challenge that needs to be solved, and not as some sort of a moral or theoretical barrier.

      • Alex says:

        I am kinda skeptical of arguments from genetic diversity. Maybe it’s all those times folks have argued things like, Don’t eliminate Down syndrome! We need genetic diversity!

      • I don’t think the monoculture problem is likely unless the enhancement is a government program enhancing everyone with the same genes. Different parents want different things, so if it’s simply a new and available technology, you ought to end up with lots of genetic diversity.

    • Tracy W says:

      In addition to other reasons, IVF is expensive and rough on the mother’s health. And donating eggs is also rough on the donor.

    • Most people want their own children if possible.

      My favorite solution is from an early Heinlein novel, _Beyond This Horizon_. It’s a technology that lets each couple select, from among the children they could have, which ones they do have. The trick is to select separately on egg and sperm. The trick to doing that without damaging them is to take advantage of the process that produces egg and sperm, which also produces bodies with the rest of the genes. Analyze those, subtract from the full genotype, and you’re done.

  13. onyomi says:

    A bit of a strange question, but if the goal of AI research is to create something which is smarter than us but also benign, might it not also be possible to go the biological route?

    Example, find the animal with the most favorable intelligence-to-time to sexual maturity ratio. Let’s say it’s some kind of monkey that can have baby monkeys after one year.

    Create a battery of intelligence tests for the monkey and pick say, the 100 smartest monkeys. Mate them with each other and then select the next generation for smartness, niceness, and, if possible, brevity of time to sexual maturity. Keep mating the smartest, nicest, and fastest developing monkeys with each other generation after generation.

    How long would it take to produce a monkey as smart as a human? How long to produce one smarter than a human?

    This subjectively feels creepier and/or more unethical than creating a superintelligent AI, but is it really any worse? Yes, the smart monkeys will at some point start demanding rights and freedoms, etc., but even if they do, they are probably going to want to have sex with the very small population of super-smart monkeys in existence, and is bringing them into existence inherently any crueler than bringing into existence a self-aware silicon being in a box? At least, as animals ourselves, we sort of understand how animals think and function. A super-intelligent animal selected for niceness and empathy seems unlikely to suddenly decide to turn the world into paperclips, since, even if its intelligence should be greater than we can comprehend, it will still likely understand and empathize with us.

    I had this idea after reading about a study in which researchers mated the most friendly-to-human foxes in each generation until, before long, they had created foxes which acted like golden retrievers. Interestingly, the friendly foxes developed floppy ears, as are also usually only seen in domesticated dogs.

    Of course this also smacks of eugenics performed on humans, but besides the obvious political and ethical barriers to that, we also take too long to have children, often, seemingly in proportion to how smart we are, to say nothing of the difficulty in getting each generation of smart people to partner with other smart people.

    • Alex Godofsky says:

      Or try this with octupuses, but breed them for longevity too. Because creating an intelligent underwater octupus civilization would be awesome.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        Makes me think of the Octopi colony from Never Mind the Gap.

      • Kopczynski says:

        Creating a race with an incentive to encourage global warming seems like a bad plan.

        • onyomi says:

          *Our* race may have an incentive to cause global warming. More habitable, arable land would be opened up by the retreat of the cold than spoiled by the incursion of the waters, most likely.

          • The rough rule of thumb is that a foot of sea level rise shifts the coastline in about a hundred feet. So a meter, the high end of the current IPCC projection for 2100, moves the cost by a hundred meters, about a twentieth of a mile.

            There are costs due to people living very close to the coast, but the reduction in usable area is trivial. The increase due to temperature contours shifting north in the northern hemisphere is not.

            So your “most likely” is an understatement.

        • Alex Godofsky says:

          Worth it.

          • onyomi says:

            Yes, having an awesome underwater civilization of super-smart octopi also totally seems worth some climate distortions.

      • Kevin C. says:

        Cuttlefish would be a better choice of cephalopod. Cuttlefishes and squid are more social than solitary octopuses, and show more complex signalling to conspecifics (via chromatophores and postures). Cuttlefishes also have a higher brain-to-body size ratio, likely the highest of any invertibrate.

    • Charlie says:

      One trick that people are working on is to use observational science on currently-alive humans to figure out which genes get good results, then use in-vitro methods to produce babies with those genes. This speeds up the process considerably.

      But upon stating this, you can see why this might not lead to superintelligence – we need the right genes to be in the gene pool in order to select for them. Waiting on the right genes to appear is a much longer process that wouldn’t show up when breeding foxes or humans. We might be able to produce a generation of Einsteins soonish, but we might not be able to produce a generation of babies as far beyond Einstein as Einstein was beyond Pee-Wee Herman.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      This subjectively feels creepier and/or more unethical than creating a superintelligent AI, but is it really any worse? …is bringing them into existence inherently any crueler than bringing into existence a self-aware silicon being in a box?

      You may be interested to learn that Eliezer is opposed to creating a self-aware FAI. He figures that creating a nonsentient FAI will be no harder than creating a sentient one, so he might as well do the former and avoid any thorny ethical issues that might arise with the latter.

      • Nornagest says:

        That sounds… convenient, if true. But I’m not really convinced.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, what if consciousness is an emergent property that results when you’re smart enough?

        Certainly in the animal kingdom consciousness strikes me as being on a spectrum, not a binary: humans are more conscious than cats and dogs, but cats and dogs are a little conscious.

        Of course computers right now are already superior to us in some ways and I’m pretty sure they’re not conscious, but that’s because, thus far, we’ve only created very fancy calculation and memory storage/playback machines. There’s no room for computers right now to get creative.

        Presumably the benefit of super intelligent AI is that it synthesizes information in novel and unexpected ways. Once we have something that does that, are we sure it won’t be de facto conscious? Further, if it then started demanding rights, etc. would we be able to tell the difference between a truly conscious computer and a very convincing, very smart pzombie computer?

        The very idea of a non-sentient super intelligence is pretty interesting, if hard to imagine: it’s almost like a simulation of intelligence that produces the answers a super intelligent being would come up with, but without there actually existing a super intelligent being. Though I guess that’s another reason to call it *artificial* intelligence, assuming it’s possible.

        • Hari Seldon says:

          Why does consciousness have to be a requisite of intelligence? And how could we distinguish between “true consciousness” and clever coding that makes the interface seem self aware to a human observer?

          Stipulating that a “being” must be conscious seems like a pretty rigorous demand. Having worked in care for the mentally disabled, I would contend that there are many thousands of people in existence who seem to function without being self aware. They may exhibit signs of self-preservation and respond to pleasure / pain stimuli, but they do not seem to be self aware. But who am I to make that call?

          Defining consciousness in AI, may prove to be as fruitful as determining whether or not the AI has a soul.

          If you haven’t already read it, Blindsight by Peter Watts touches on this.

          • Nornagest says:

            Why does consciousness have to be a requisite of intelligence?

            Why else would it have evolved? It’s not like we’re dealing with a vestigial intestinal fold here; even if we don’t know exactly what it consists of, it seems likely to be a complex structure, and it definitely has behavioral implications. Those both imply selection pressure.

            With that in mind, it seems to me that there are only a few options here:

            1. Consciousness is a prerequisite of (some level of) intelligence.

            2. Consciousness is not a prerequisite of intelligence, but it is a prerequisite of our particular brand of intelligence, or some facet of it.

            3. Consciousness has nothing to do with intelligence, but it’s adaptive (or was at one point) for some other reason.

            4. Consciousness is much simpler than it appears.


            5. Some form of panpsychism is true.

            Of the five, #1 seems to me to be the least astonishing, so it’s my working hypothesis for the time being.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Why do you assume consciousness evolved? From where I sit panpsychism seems like the best solution to the hard problem of consciousness, that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter that predates evolution. In any case, consciousness is not well enough understood to make these sorts of confident statements about it.

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t, but if it didn’t, then panpsychism’s the only serious solution in the running.

            I’m mainly skeptical of it as a solution since our consciousness seems so selective, and since the bits of ourselves it covers seem so closely tied to our volition. If it was a fundamental physical property, then that leaves gaps that need explaining, and there’s no obvious physical structure to do that.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Asking “why else would it have evolved” seems like you’re assuming it did, and you’re not really taking the panpsychist hypothesis seriously but including it only for completeness’s sake. You say consciousness -> evolution is the “least astonishing” hypothesis but I feel like this is the sort of mundane definition of astonishment that leads to rejecting the Many-Worlds Hypothesis, not a real scientific evaluation.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not really going for full-bore scientific here, more just a top-level summary of my approach to the problem.

            As to astonishment, my last post should cover some of why I think the panpsychist hypothesis still leaves some real complexity. It’s not that I think it’s weird, it’s that I think it glosses over a hell of a lot.

          • “Why does consciousness have to be a requisite of intelligence?”

            While I don’t (yet) think it necessary needs to be, since this is a new line of thought to me, the first thought that occurred to me was that you’d need consciousness to reflect on your own thought processes.

            I don’t know if that’s true, though. The two things might be decoupled. Additionally, being able to reflect on your own thought processes may not be necessary, even though it seems like a prerequisite for self-improvement to me right now.

      • Sylocat says:

        After reading Metzinger’s Being No One, I’m not sure that “consciousness” is a coherent enough concept to differentiate an AI based on it.

    • Tracy W says:

      Out-of-sample-performance is a problem. I suspect you’d get a monkey out highly correlated with whatever measure of intelligence, niceness and empathy you were using, and very stupid, cruel and apathetic in other ways.

      • onyomi says:

        Nothing in nature or humanity I’ve seen leads me to believe that intelligence and empathy are that context-specific. Of course, the tests would have to be adjusted every few generations, both to be more challenging, and, hopefully, more comprehensive.

        • Tracy W says:

          That’s not surprising. When you look at nature and humanity, you’re looking at us in our testing environment.

          But, when we look around the world, we can see many species adapted only to certain sub-sets of our environments. Elephants don’t roam Antarctica, or the streets of New York, presumably because they are only adapted to a more limited range of environment. Humans and cockroaches are the main things evolution has thrown up that can handle diverse environments.

          What’s more, let’s say we are very dumb and un-empathic outside of our testing environment. How would you know?

          • onyomi says:

            Okay, but we are selecting for creatures that are empathetic to humans, and humans will be interacting with each generation to see which ones get along. Therefore, the creatures will have the kind of empathy we care about, if not other kinds.

            Similarly for intelligence, to the extent we are able to measure the types of intelligence we value, we will be able to select for it. It could be that we make monkeys that are really good at math problems but bad at creative thinking, but I don’t see how this is any less of a problem with AI.

          • Tracy W says:

            @onyomi: we’d be selecting for creatures that are empathetic to humans within whatever lab setup we’re using to breed them. We might wind up with monkeys highly selected to be empathetic to humans with a certain range of odours, but don’t give a darn about any human who smells wrong, where the odours are caused by something particular in the local drinking water. Working out what range of test conditions to use is hard, for example, I once did some contract work at Unilever, and the team there had just finished a big project traveling the world taking photos of people washing dishes, because Unilever had changed the formulation of their dishwash, and they’d tested its effect on hands in the lab, but around the world a lot of people wash clothes squatting over a bucket, and the water sloshes out onto their feet, and the new formulation caused skin problems on feet, though not on hands.

            I agree with you that this is a problem for any AI.

    • Harald K says:

      This sounds like a good experiment to cure many ridiculously optimistic ideas about evolution, and learn the hard way how much the supply side (diversity) matters compared to the demand side (selection).

      But it’s cheaper and more humane to just use genetic algorithms. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: everyone who thinks they’re smart, thinks they can program etc. and has common sense ideas about evolution that you don’t think other people appreciate – go play with genetic algorithms, try to make them do some serious work, or just do interesting alife stuff.

      Document what you think will happen, and watch it not happen. Tweak the mutation rate, tweak the crossover rate, the representation, tweak, tweak, tweak, and watch as it just keeps failing to deliver.

      Any programmer worth his salt has done this already, but sadly few have taken any lessons from it when it comes to their speculation about biological evolution.

      • suntzuanime says:

        A programmer that took lessons about biological evolution from their dicking around with genetic algorithms would tend to end up creationist.

        • Harald K says:

          That’s going a bridge too far, obviously. The goal isn’t to learn anything in particular about biological evolution, but to get rid of some of the rosy assumptions about evolution in general.

      • onyomi says:

        I think this is precisely the potential advantage of the biological method over the artificial method: unexpected things are bound to happen in either case, but it seems easier to correct for them when they are happening at a level anyone can see. A small misjudgment in code, by contrast, might only become obvious after it’s too late.

    • Kiya says:

      People have been doing roughly this with dogs for like 10k years. We now have dogs that are smart enough to understand a few words for physical actions they can take and nice enough to want to please humans by doing these actions when so instructed.

      • onyomi says:

        But the same thing was accomplished with foxes in a couple of decades when experimenters were very intentional and careful about it.

        This is also why you select for rapid sexual maturation.

        Also, dogs have been selected for many things other than intelligence. Friendliness to humans has been one thing, and on that score it’s a rousing success. Golden Retrievers like people more than most people like people. Also guard dog traits, herding traits, etc. I don’t think there’s been much intentional effort to select dogs that can solve basic math problems, etc.

    • gwern says:

      Create a battery of intelligence tests for the monkey and pick say, the 100 smartest monkeys. Mate them with each other and then select the next generation for smartness, niceness, and, if possible, brevity of time to sexual maturity. Keep mating the smartest, nicest, and fastest developing monkeys with each other generation after generation.

      Building brains is an energy-intensive task – all those billions of myelinated neurons learning and updating don’t come for free. Monkeys are stupider than us in part because cheaper stupider brains are more adaptive.

      Consider the tradeoff between bodily growth & metabolism, and the brain in “Metabolic costs and evolutionary implications of human brain development”, Kuzawa et al 2014 http://www.pnas.org/content/111/36/13010.long : fulltext https://pdf.yt/d/Op8q2FdapabChlPU / https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/243666993/2014-kuzawa.pdf

      The metabolic costs of brain development are thought to explain the evolution of humans’ exceptionally slow and protracted childhood growth; however, the costs of the human brain during development are unknown. We used existing PET and MRI data to calculate brain glucose use from birth to adulthood. We find that the brain’s metabolic requirements peak in childhood, when it uses glucose at a rate equivalent to 66% of the body’s resting metabolism and 43% of the body’s daily energy requirement, and that brain glucose demand relates inversely to body growth from infancy to puberty. Our findings support the hypothesis that the unusually high costs of human brain development require a compensatory slowing of childhood body growth.

      So one would expect that as your monkeys get smarter, their development time will correspondingly become delayed. You may be able to speed it up by feeding them a ton of food, but I haven’t heard that’s helped in humans yet…

      • onyomi says:

        Well, it could work with humans if we bred generation after generation of people with unusually high metabolisms–people who can actually make use of all the extra food now available to us, and which would be available to our smart monkeys/octopi.

        I agree there might be a problem with bigger brains correlating to slower development times, but in any given generation there is bound to be one subset with the most favorable intelligence to development time ratio. That is what we are selecting for, rather than pure intelligence or pure rapid development. This might slow down the development of intelligence at first, but it might be compensated for as the generations start coming faster and faster.

    • Adam says:

      Most of the point of artificial intelligence research isn’t to make something smarter than us but more benign. It’s to make something that performs roughly human tasks like pattern recognition and understanding in sensory input and natural language, learning and adaptation, creative idea generation, at a roughly human level, but which can do it running on digital circuitry that is faster, more reliable, more durable, and more easily reprogrammable than a biological substrate. Taking advantage of the hardware is a big part of it. Right now, we’re better at a lot of things than computers, but we also get tired, die, have emotional needs, political ideologies and biases, and are difficult to retrieve data from if we get shot in the head or something, and we can’t just plug a stored program into the next generation. We take 30 years to get up to speed on what the last person was doing.

    • aguycalledjohn says:

      The problem is genes don’t necessarily stack in that way, you may reach an upper limit of what it is possible to do with the genetic stock.

      For example we can breed dogs to get progressively larger, but they ccan never get to elephant sized without a series of major mutations. They’re still roughly based on the same dog plan.

      Selective pressure can only work with what it has, and beneficial mutations are extremely rare.

      You might have more success with genetic modification where you can directly add the necessary new genes.

  14. Wrong Species says:

    Last time I asked how long it would take for a group of knowledgeable people stuck on an island to rebuild civilization. This time I want to flip the scenario. Lets say a group of average intelligence people with no relevant knowledge had access to any resource we have available and were the only survivors. How long would you expect it to take them to rebuild civilization and would that be sooner than the group of smart people stuck on an island?

    • I think it would take quite a long time because without people of very high intelligence it would be almost impossible to achieve much of the technology we take for granted. The best tech you could get would have to be understood (to a level in which they could develop/maintain/operate it) by a person of average intelligence. Afaik, that excludes a lot of modern machinery, electronics and computers for example. It also excludes many mechanisms of administration and organisation (democratic, government and corporate), as well as a lot of medical stuff etc etc. The top percentages aren’t the only ones contributing of course, but I think if you remove them there you’d be massively set back until high intelligence was able to evolve again.

      • Wrong Species says:

        They could still have some genius children. It’s just that the initial group is average.

        • Perhaps, or perhaps there are specific mutations for genius that aren’t held by all the population (a lot of really really smart people are also pretty unstable in my experience, so that would make sense to be a minority trait). If it’s just the right combination of relatively common alleles, then I guess it would reemerge in a handful of people after a few generations. Still probably going to be waiting a long while, and hopefully all the advanced books etc will not be destroyed in that time).

          • Limi says:

            What? Smart people have dumb kids and vice versa all the time.

          • Sure, I get what you’re saying, but apparently IQ is something like ~50% heritable. Plus, I can’t think of many instances where geniuses have come from couples with access to education back also average intellgience, so perhaps the dice just move the score up and down rather than just randomly selects a level of intelligence. Also, there’s the social factor – even if the dice ended up on the right genetic combinations for intelligence, environmental factors will further limit.

        • Matt M says:

          The children would probably be the key.

          An average person has no idea how to build a computer – but they probably have some basic understanding of how they work. They know about 1s and 0s, they know that silicon chips are involved, etc. They might not know how to apply that basic knowledge to actually produce a working PC, but if they could keep the basic knowledge alive, eventually people will be born who are smart enough and will be able to “connect the dots”

    • Nestor says:

      If they are average and have no lack of resources they have no big incentive to rebuild civilization, so a couple hundred years until they breed to modern nation levels and have enough people to both need more resources and provide the required demographics

    • Bill G says:

      As a question to add to this- would they desire to reproduce modern civilization fully? Surely there would be some amount of utopia building in the project– but without geniuses would they choose wisely which advances they would attempt to recreate?

    • Muga Sofer says:

      By “any resource we have available” … what do you mean? Because right now, we *have* a technological civilization available.

    • Cassander says:

      The more interesting question is a group of highly intelligent people with little relevant knowledge (e.g. The humanities faculty at Harvard) vs. people with more knowledge but less ability (e.g. Their plumbers, carpenters, and gardeners). Which would be more civilized in 10 years? 100?

      • Eggo says:

        Judging from what we’ve seen of academia lately, I suspect “The Help” would win quite handily about five minutes after the Harvardians clawed each other’s eyes out over “fair and socially just resource distribution”.

        Doubt they’d even have time to die of starvation, cholera, or… whatever it is you die of when you don’t have carpenters.
        Splinters? Collapsing chairs?

      • Salem says:

        The Harvard team wouldn’t survive 5 years let alone start an enduring civilization.

      • Nornagest says:

        If we’re including social scientists, I wouldn’t be surprised if a small but thriving tribe of experimental archaeologists and experimental archaeologist groupies emerged from Harvard.

        The Help would probably still win overall, though.

    • Lets say a group of average intelligence people with no relevant knowledge had access to any resource we have available and were the only survivors. How long would you expect it to take them to rebuild civilization

      That’s pretty much the premise of the novel Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, and many other works of fiction.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      Depends on how many there are.

      Today’s civilization depends very strongly on division of labor. There are at least thousands of difference professions, each needing a critical mass of people, an educational system etc.

  15. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    In this Tumblr post The Unit of Caring argues that since she can stop being lazy and work hard by taking modafinil, being lazy does not make you a bad person and being industrious is not virtuous. Otherwise, we would have to admit that she is an unvirtuous woman six days of the week, but becomes a good woman by taking a 50 mg pill of modafinil one day per week, which she claims is absurd.

    I’m more inclined to bite the bullet. A man is his brain. Everything he is, every action he takes, is instantiated as electrical impulses and chemicals. If we cannot judge men when the chemicals in their brains make the difference between laziness and industriousness, how can we judge them when the difference is instead between dullness and genius, or sainthood and mass murder? To show how virtue arises from chemicals explains virtue; it does not explain it away.

    The ultimate destination of The Unit of Caring’s argument is to abandon the concepts of virtue and deservingness altogether. This is par the course with utilitarians. Eliezer wrote that “Saddam Hussein doesn’t deserve so much as a stubbed toe. Pain is never a good thing, no matter who it happens to, even Adolf Hitler.” Scott’s Parable of the Talents” series was largely about how talents are all luck of the genetic draw, and therefore confer no virtue or moral value. And The Unit of Caring herself, in a separate Tumblr post, states that she does not “believe that any criminals, no matter how evil, deserve to be punished (in the sense that a world where they suffer is morally better than a world where they’re happy, if other people aren’t affected).”

    I find this repugnant.

    Incidentally, I am reminded that I really need to get my hands on some adrafinil and see if this thing really is God’s gift to geekkind.

    • Jiro says:

      One possible reply is “I consider laziness to be worthy of condemnation when they do not take reasonable steps to overcome it. A mildly lazy person could overcome it, but has chosen not to. A severely lazy person could not reasonably overcome it.”

      This would occasionally fail if you run into someone who would otherwise be severely lazy, has overcome enough of it to move up to mildly lazy, and can’t overcome any more, but it is possible that laziness is bimodal and such cases are rare.

    • It seems to me that the main problem with characters like Hitler etc. is not that they went unpunished, but that they did really really bad things, then the apparent repugnance of the general position you descrbe is decreased I think. After all it seems that our primary duty would be to prevent Hitler’s actions, not to ensure that they are properly punished. However, we cannot abandon punishment regardless so long as it plays an important corrective role that cannot be replaced by something more “positive”.

      But I think there would be a risk where punishment became intrinsically valued, instead of instrumentally valued. In that world the line between justice and sadism is just too blurred. I think this would have the terrible risk of deincentivising us from actually solving problems (such as preventing Hitler, or removing motivations for crime).

      Perhaps this risk is reducing virtue to consequence, but I personally don’t consider that as weakening our consideration of virtue.

      • *correction of first sentence

        It seems to me that the main problem with characters like Hitler etc. is not that they went unpunished, but that they did really really bad things. I think with this in mind the apparent repugnance of the general position you descrbe is decreased.

    • Vamair says:

      People are complex automata. There are good and bad actions and there are more and less broken people. Non-fixed person may be lazy or paralyzed, so “less broken” doesn’t mean “more virtuous”. To fix people you may use punishments. It’s a quite effective and broad-spectrum way to fix people. But if we know some less harmful and more efficient way to do the same, we call their problem a health problem and solve it with whatever we have. And there always is a more efficient way. If we don’t know anything better, and blame doesn’t work too, we also say it’s not the person’s fault. It may not explain away virtue, but I still believe both concepts of “virtue” and “just deserts” are rooted in muddy heuristics of “how to fix people”.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Okay, but what are the rules for assigning punishment and blame? And in particular where do you get your everyday heuristics? The human brain’s system one is the only artifact on the galaxy capable of comprehending a human social situation, so you’d better use its output somehow.

        • Vamair says:

          Do I ever advocate using some other artifacts for generating or evaluating heuristics? I guess I do. Computers and statistics, sometimes. But usually our brain is the best we have.
          Rules for assigning blame and punishment? As I’ve just told, common utilitarian approach. If we make the situation better by using blame, we should use it. I think we often underestimate the damage, though, but some can argue that’s not the case. If our blame is the best instrument to improve person’s actions, or the actions of the observers, we use it. If a person modifies themself to remain unmoved by blame, we should still blame them, because game theory. Otherwise we probably shouldn’t. The first gain is that you stop wasting energy blaming non-people things that can’t react to blame, and that’s a surprisingly common behavior. I guess there is a danger your blame may become less effective, if you don’t really alieve anyone to be guilty in some “metaphysical” sense. But I’m not sure about that.
          I get my everyday heuristics from my evolution history, from society and from my own knowledge and thoughts. How is it relevant?

    • Irrelevant says:

      Otherwise, we would have to admit that she is an unvirtuous woman six days of the week, but becomes a good woman by taking a 50 mg pill of modafinil one day per week, which she claims is absurd.

      She is of course correct, that is absurd: were she a virtuous woman, she would take 50mg modafinil six days per week, and rest the seventh.

    • Harald K says:

      This is par the course with utilitarians.

      Is it? It’s par the course for us Kant-fans too, anyway. It’s sensible, is what it is.

      Going around trying to give people what they deserve is dangerous business, as Gandalf pointed out. Even trying to determine what people deserve is dangerous. It is better if your treatment of others can be justified without any reference to what they ultimately deserve. Just about all political philosophies, from libertarianism to communism, try to do away with the judgment of ultimate deserts.

      The only people who seriously embrace the idea that we should/can judge inherent merit are reactionaries, neo- and otherwise. They’re not doing a good job of converting people, for entirely sound reasons.

      • Leonard says:

        [abandoning the concepts of virtue and deservingness altogether] It’s sensible, is what it is.

        … The only people who seriously embrace the idea that we should/can judge inherent merit are reactionaries, neo- and otherwise.

        About merit, I don’t see a lot of room between common sense and what I think reactionaries believe. Specifically: merit exists and we can and should judge it, albeit imperfectly. This is “should” not in some nebulous moral sense but rather “if we want a functioning society”. You should not have idiots design your nuclear reactors. Or, you should not allow crime to go unpunished. Copybook heading stuff, this.

        So I think you must be making some distinction I don’t understand based on “inherent”. What do you mean by “inherent merit”? And in what sense do you think reactionaries think that we should judge it, but nobody else does?

      • Salem says:

        Yeah, like Leonard I think you are defining the term “reactionary” awfully broadly here.

      • haishan says:

        Virtue and desert are two different things. Conflating them is unhelpful.

      • Anonymous says:

        >The only people who seriously embrace the idea that we should/can judge inherent merit are reactionaries, neo- and otherwise.

        With all due respect, I don’t think you have any idea what you’re talking about.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’d modify that to “criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes but not for anything else, and they don’t deserve to be treated less humanely than non-criminal people while being punished.”

      Society is perfectly justified in depriving a criminal of their liberty when they have been convicted of a crime. Society is not justified in saying “Your child was killed in a traffic accident when the school bus crashed? You deserve that suffering because you are yourself a murderer”. Society is in no way justified in killing the criminal’s child, mother or other family member/loved one in a tit-for-tat/eye for an eye class of punishment.

      I would agree that it is not morally better to have a world where, when we imprison or otherwise punish criminals, we then say “they should be locked up for twenty hours out of twenty four” or “kept in solitary confinement” or “denied opportunities for education or recreation” or “made to wear certain colours, types of clothing, given certain foods, denied others” and the likes, merely because “they’re criminals, they’re bad people, they deserve to be punished for being bad in general, not for any specific cause”.

    • Jiro says:

      In an analogy for the modafinil case, imagine that your car is broken and you can’t get to work. Work is a mile away and you just refuse to walk any substantial distance. Is this your fault?

      It also turns out there’s a bus one day a week. You still refuse to walk any substantial distance, but because there is a bus, even if you refuse, you still get to work.

      Is your refusal to walk bad? You’re refusing to walk both times, yet one day a week your refusal to walk means nothing, and on the other six days, your refusal to walk is considered blameworthy. Did you become a good person one day just because there was a bus that day?

      • Irrelevant says:

        Virtue is in actions, not minds, so it’s no stranger to try and pull prudence and temperance from a bottle than courage.

        It should not be significant where virtue comes from, it is definitely significant that the punishment for lacking it is exile.

        • Jiro says:

          The point is, whether there is a bus affects whether the *same* pattern of activity on your part (refusal to walk) is virtuous or not.

          In other words, taking modafinil *does* mean she is virtuous one day of the week, for the same reason that you are virtuous on days when the bus is running. Bus–>taking modafinil, refusal to walk–>refusal to exceed that day’s baseline laziness.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Unit of Caring claims that laziness-shame is not an effective motivator. No doubt this is often the case, but I worry that there’s a selection bias at work, that no one stopped to ask if anyone *is* being motivated by the old virtue ethics.

      I’ve found that as I follow the progressive tendency to exonerate others of responsibility, I feel a growing temptation to do the same for myself.

      “What you do not do, you cannot have done, ” a non – literal voice whispers, “and what you cannot do, you cannot be blamed for not doing.”

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m generalizing like crazy from my own experience here, but what I’ve found is that while shaming others rarely gets them to do what you want in the short term and often gets them to think you’re an asshole, wanting to avoid feeling ashamed is a powerful internal motivator.

        It’s not totally clear to me how external shaming relates to internal feelings of shame, but I’d be astonished if they’re completely uncorrelated.

    • haishan says:

      I wonder how many rationalist consequentialists have actually read much of the virtue ethics literature? Like, I know Scott read McIntyre; I don’t really like McIntyre much but that’s at least something. But Anscombe, e.g., doesn’t ever say anything like that virtue is immutable and fixed in a person — sometimes I am a just person who acts justly, sometimes I am an unjust person who acts unjustly, etc. I’m certainly no Anscombe, but I’ve read a lot of that literature, and I’m with you. I think that Kelsey (um, Kelsey’s friend who wrote the post, I mean) is exactly what she says — lazy most of the time, diligent on modafinil. This is, in fact, a good argument against the concept of fixed virtue; it’s just that intelligent people who talk about virtue don’t really believe that it is fixed.

    • Psmith says:

      I tend to agree. Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” was fairly important in bringing me to this conclusion.

    • Alex says:

      I would distinguish between a person’s conscious desire to work and their level of executive function. If you have ADHD, maybe you wind up being really lazy, but given the choice to pay a high cost for a pill that would cure you, you would pay. In my opinion, you are probably still a good person. On the other hand, you could have great executive function and get lots done but not be willing to give up much to keep that privilege. You are likely to be more successful economically, but I don’t give you as much moral credit.

      Full disclosure: I may have ADD.

  16. Kopczynski says:

    I’m training a Markov chain on the Sequences ebook and Scott’s “Top Posts” list, for fun and practice. If anyone has a more comprehensive scrape of SSC or wants my parsed data, poke me.

    I’ll share results soon, if they’re amusing.

    • Vienna says:

      Years ago, a friend told me about a site called “Write Like Paul” powered by a Markov chain of Paul Graham’s writing and a textbox. When you typed sentences in to the textbox, it would prompt you to autocomplete the next word based on the Markov chain trained on Graham’s writing. I always thought this was a fabulous idea, but I was never able to find it online. (Maybe it was just this guy’s side project that never got published.)

      I think it would be awesome if someone made this, especially for writers that are recognized as fabulous like Graham and Scott Alexander. I think it could potentially train us plebes to write much better and could also be an interesting brainstorming tool.

    • Izaak Weiss says:


      I’d like to play around with your parsed data. email: izaak (dot) weiss (at) gmail (dot) com

  17. Quinn says:

    Question for readers: where do you get access to the paywalled papers Scott references? I know he has access through work and others have it through school, but I’m not in school, and I don’t have that kind of job. Libraries, perhaps (I live in Oakland)?

    • Anonymous says:

      google scholar. don’t just click on the title, which is paywalled, but look to the right to see if there is a second link. and if that doesn’t work, click “all 3 versions.” libgen. tricky. often people do bad searches that don’t find an article that it really has. it’s best to enter the doi number.

      • Quinn says:


      • Anatoly says:

        Another libgen instance that seems more stable to me (same books/papers).

        If libgen doesn’t have it, /r/Scholar might help.

        Occasionally if you can view the abstract or the first page, it helps to choose a rare-looking sequence of several words and search it as a phrase (with “”) on Google and Google Books.

    • iarwain says:

      I often find that the best place to find papers is on the author’s website. They often upload their papers, or at least rough drafts of their papers, to their own websites. For some reason these versions of the papers don’t often show up in Google Scholar.

  18. The Smoke says:

    Hi, I have a rather direct request: I am currently living in Switzerland, and consider going to the US for my graduate studies in Pure Mathematics. Accidentally, I will be in San Francisco for some days this month and will probably have some free time to make a short visit to either Stanford or Berkeley university in the time from May 26-28. Since a lot of people here seem to be from that area, if you are, or know, a math grad student at one of these universities who would be willing to meet me on campus and talk a bit about their experience, I would be glad if you’d let me know!
    You can contact me under smokelectrix@gmail.com.

  19. Godzillarissa says:

    So hey, I’ve been trying to simplify my everyday life, seeing how I can’t seem to get that stuff handled. Basically I’m looking to remove (or just concentrate) whole areas of need-to-dos as much as possible. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

    – I got rid of all dishes and cutlery, except 2 full sets of each. Doing the dishes is a breeze (compared to before).

    – I got a tactical reserve of all things drugstore (shampoo, cleaning sponges etc.). Most of that stuff even gets delivered, so that’s about 2~3 orders every 2 months.

    – I threw away all of my socks and bought 24 pair of plain black ones. Never again will I care about a missing sock and non-matching color ones.

    So like I said, this is just to get everyday life to be less daunting and annoying. Maybe some of you would want to pitch in with their own ideas.

    • Tracy W says:

      The sock thing doesn’t work long-term. At least not for me. The socks wear at different rates, and that’s very annoying.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        Damn, you’re right, that could become a problem. I’ll keep that in mind and see if it’s feasible to sort out more-worn ones or maybe just switch out the whole batch.

        Good to see I’m not the only one thinking about sock strategies, though 😉

      • mobile says:

        The sock thing totally works. To future proof this strategy as much as possible, pick a standard brand and style from a standard store that is likely to be in stock when you have to buy another pack three years from now.

        • Godzillarissa says:

          I went for a brand that’s carried by amazon, which got them delivered to my doorstep as an added comfort. Might be hard to find that brand again, although it’s not that expensive to just fully swap all socks for a new brand.

    • Albatross says:

      My brother deliberately chooses socks that don’t match. If you consistently wear one black sock and one grey sock eventually someone will say, “Hey! Your socks match today! They are both the same color.”

      • Sylocat says:

        That’s my strategy too.

        • Jiro says:

          If your terminal goal is to have matching footwear, this is a bad idea. And I don’t understand why someone would *not* have that as a terminal goal.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        Well, that still leaves you with short socks, long socks, thick socks, thin socks etc. For me personally, that’s not bearable from a conceptional standpoint.

  20. creative username #1138 says:

    Am I the only one that is getting annoyed by the trend of using services like donotlink to deny sites traffic?

    I understand if you do it to pure clickbait articles but more and more I see it being used for any site someone has any ideological disagreement with.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take the position that any traffic you’d get from someone who’d go out of their way to deny you traffic is traffic you don’t really deserve, even if your clickbait was not egregious. It seems to provide more pro-social incentives than the alternative.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      Hm… I don’t have a problem with that practice, but it makes me think.

      It’s a bit like pirating (e-)books of ideologically opposed authors, is it not? I don’t have a problem with that either, on the grounds that I’d never pay money to read “that garbage”, but I should maybe read it anyway, just to be sure what I’m arguing against. Which sounds a lot like the arguments that music pirates (arr!) use to rationalize their behavior, so it might be a slippery slope after all.

      Or it might be non-violent protest (hacktivism, even), however you look at it *shrug*.

      • Sylocat says:

        IIRC, donotlink still gives ad revenue, just not the traffic that improves Google search or Alexa rankings. I could be wrong though.

        • Godzillarissa says:

          Nah, I looked it up and it seems like you’ve got that right. They’re really only denying them the better ranking by instructing the googlebots to ignore the link.

          Why they would stop there, though, is another question.

      • The Smoke says:

        It seems like you are assuming that music piracy is wrong and so has to be any argument defending it.

        • Godzillarissa says:

          Huh… I don’t think it’s wrong. Or right. In fact, I don’t trust myself to make that judgement.

          It’s just that most music pirates’ arguments are complete and utter nonsense and I wouldn’t want to sound like them (which I started to do, so I pointed it out). But morally, I don’t judge.

        • The Smoke says:

          Ok thanks for clarifying. I think as long as your argument is not complete nonsense, you don’t have to worry about that, though. 😉

      • RCF says:

        If you are better off for it existing, and you would pay if pirating were not possible, then it’s unethical to pirate. If you wouldn’t pay for it anyway, or if [(it exists and you read it) > (it exists and you don’t read it)] but [(it doesn’t exist) > (it exists and you read it]), then it’s ethical to not pay for it. In fact, if the world is worse off for it existing, then it’s unethical to pay for it. If you think that, given that it exists, it is better that other people see it, but it would be even better if it didn’t exist at all, then it is ethical to deny link traffic.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Paste-binning people started as 4chan paywall avoidance a couple years back, then transitioned to revenue denial during the Gawker hatedom last year, and then last winter became a way of signalling “I am not easily provoked by internet bullshit” even when the site had no ads. It was actually really interesting to watch, since it was a case of meme development that DIDN’T have a billion people all shouting “look at the meme” around it and that very nicely fit the thou->you pattern, where insecurity about when to use a new standard led to it dominating, just to be safe.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      I see it as simply a natural extension of boycotting tactics already in widespread use. In fact, I actually have GGBlocker installed; it redirects browsers to the archive.is version of webpages in order to deny them clicks.

      • Eggo says:

        Ha, and of course it’s not on github. I’ll have to try that–accidentally followed a tinyurl’d Kotaku link the other day.

    • anon says:

      It started with denying traffic for specific reasons, but as people started complaining about selctive use it became a general “there, now no one can accuse me of advertising”. Its people choosing to block everything rather than only blocking by their own personal agenda. At the end of the day I feel all-or-nothing is the way to do it. As an ex-blogger once said, if you’re reading it it’s for you. You dont really “win” by finding new way to talk incessantly about new outrage porn youve found. If you just want to share an article and more people will view it if its archived then archive it.

    • aguycalledjohn says:

      Do you think usign adblock is similarly immoral, since you’re denying content creators the right to present their work in the manner they want and to get the rewards they think they should have per veiw? IF not why not?

  21. Apologies in advance I’m having a little trouble getting this question out of my brain onto the screen coherently….

    I recently was thinking that I, like the many other quasi-intellectual blogs I like to read, post isolated rants not connected to any particular project or effort to create a lasting body of knowledge.

    To counter this I’ve tried to organise my thoughts into permanent pages on my blog, structured in a logic way (I’m fairly happy with the results so far), but there’s a limit to what one person can do. I think Eliezer/LW is an example of someone doing this much more prominently, having created a much larger set of content with a well organised structure (sequences) and then having become very well known. But it’s still limited by the time and intellectual capacity of one person.

    Academic work is also often like this. It’s very much centered around individuals, with any “body of knowledge” only arising by people doing meta-analysis of the areas where there is general consensus. This seems to me to be the easy part. The extreme of this would probably be something like wikipedia, where there’s no creative thinking or original research, just maybe a lit review and incremental writing.

    So a lot of intellectual work seems to revolve around an individual ranting in a very unstructured way. I wonder if it would be possible, and better or worse, if people tried more to coordinate their work and deliberately aim for a body of knowledge? Spontaneous/emergent bodies of knowledge might indeed be far superior, but I can’t really think of a good way to compare the two. Perhaps coordination/proximity messes with the intellectual incentives in bad ways (competition for attention/status/clash of agendas)? Does it clash with some notion of intellectual freedom? Would it produce interesting results? What do you think?

    I was also wondering if anyone can think of good examples of really successful “collaborative” blogs? By this I mean a shared blog that isn’t just a group of like-minded people (eg. SSC), but is a systematic coordinated effort to do intellectual work, with specific goals or bodies of knowledge in mind.

    Or, do you know of any efforts to organise random intellectual blog posts into a structure of any kind?

    • US says:

      Are you unfamiliar with blog collections like Scienceblogs and Discover Magazine’s blogs? I think those kinds of blogs mostly deal with popularization of science and ‘science news’, but I’m assuming they might be marginally relevant to your queries.

  22. Also, following up from up from my above post, does anyone know of any online projects to research and document existential risk in an open but structured way (aside from people working on those wikipedia pages)?

    • Alex says:

      I feel obligated to claim once more that existential risk is a pointless notion.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Well, okay, but you’ll be just as dead as the rest of us.

        • Alex says:

          Indeed. I just feel like existential risks fall into one of these categories:

          1) It’s just totally beyond our comprehension, so we can’t do anything. Examples: AI risk, grey goo

          2) Not existential risks, except in some weird cases that are unlikely or very far in the future. Those cases return us to (1). Examples: nuclear war, global warming

          3) Asteroids and comets

          Asteroids deserve some action but they don’t seem to warrant an existential risk concept just for themselves.

          • suntzuanime says:

            The existential risks that are totally beyond our comprehension don’t even have names. AI and nanotech do not fall into this category.

          • I see what your saying but I disagree on a couple of points. I think you’ve successfully argued it is difficult to mitigate/avoid existential risk, but then have claimed that same argument shows its impossible to do anything about it. The future is never certain, but no-one would claim we can’t influence it. The magnitude of consequence outweighs the difficulty of predictions, I think. Specifically in the case of AI risk, there is a considerable chance that institutions working in this area may be influenced by the availability of AI safety information.

            I think you’re somewhat right in suggesting we’re conflating global catastrophic and existential risk a bit. However, I feel catastrophic risk could create existential risk in many cases, because humanity wouldn’t have the availability of fossil fuel to aid development of civilization a second time if it collapsed. This, while mitigating technological risks, would limit our ability to defend ourselves against asteroids or major climatic changes. Global catastrophic risks are also pretty important and their analysis is similar, so I think this grouping is sensible. I acknowledge the labelling might be misleading in a minor way. Perhaps ECR (existential and catastrophic risk) would be a useful term to use.

  23. Colonel Mustard says:

    Question from someone I just introduced to SSC: how would you reconcile your theory of outgroups (https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/) with Red Tribe Americans’ hatred of the USSR fifty years back? My guess is socialist European nations would be a closer outgroup, yet incurred less hatred.

    • Brad says:

      A bit of minuta, but 50 years ago was 1965, and this is not very far removed from the red scare, where the outgroup was communist/socialists within America, real or imagined. Just something to consider.

    • sourcreamus says:

      Communists were not an outgroup but a foreign tribe. It is easy to hate a foreign tribe when they are fighting against you.

    • Tarrou says:

      I actually slightly disagree with the formulation of Red Tribe, because the best description I’ve been able to formulate for “Right” wing politics is that they are more concerned with the far enemy than the close one. I think that rightists are concentric in loyalty, family first, then political group or religion, then country, then humanity, etc. So it would make perfect sense for conservatives to side with their political opposition against foreign threats, which I think can be demonstrated (President Obama got more support for bombing Syria from Republicans than Democrats). Political “Leftism” in this formulation is the opposite, it sides with whoever is farthest against who is closest. Hence the outcry about celebrating Bin Laden’s death followed by street parties at Maggie Thatcher’s.

  24. zslastman says:

    Hi Scott – very practical question about your amazon afffiliation. I live in germany, can I still get you your cut while using ‘amazon.de’? Your link brings me to amazon.com.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      @Nestor answered my somewhat pretty much identical question above. It doesn’t seem like we Germans can assist Scott right now 🙁

  25. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    4. Continue to expect a lower volume of blogging for the near future.

    Are you testing the hypothesis that this lead to the decrease in blog readership?

  26. Zorgon says:

    So, over on this side of the Big Pond we’ve just had an election, and it’s been a bad one for my highly Blue Tribe social circle. The end result has been a massive surge of disbelief and anger that they could have been “betrayed” by the populace in such a fashion. Most of them seem unable to accept the idea that a very large majority of this country is so invested in right-wing concepts like “welfare scroungers” and the endless debt alarmism that’s been pushed endlessly by the media here, or that much of the country does not agree with them about how much of a disaster the previous 5 years have been.

    I’ve been linking them to I Can Tolerate Everything Except The Outgroup in an attempt to explain the Dark Matter Politics phenomenon, but that presents two problems: firstly, it’s very long and their attention spans are not what one would hope for, and secondly, many of them are very Blue Tribe-invested and get spiky and angry about much of the rest of the material in that post.

    So, here’s what I’m wondering: Has anyone else written a version of the same concept in shorter (but ideally close to as eloquent) form, ideally with less Grey Tribe political content?

    • Eggo says:

      Now is perhaps not the best time to reach whatever small minority of these people are worth reaching out to. You might end up like the Pacifoids.
      I’d wait for the two minutes hate to pass before trying a few gentle, personally-tailored one-on-one discussions (rather than Hey Read This Challenge To Your Deeply Held Beliefs On Facebook).
      Unless you’ve spotted one friend who looks really uncomfortable with all the bile? But then you might have just found a closet tory.

      When the blues start shrieking “stomp the fascists and anyone who looks like them”, it’s best just to stay out of their way unless you’re trying to goad them.

      • Zorgon says:

        I’m primarily looking for a way to grant the terminally confused Blue Tribers some measure of understanding why, despite every single person on their Facebook (including me) voting against the Tories, said party somehow inexplicably wound up with a popular vote majority.

        I Can Tolerate Anything But The Outgroup contains that information, but it also contains a whole shedload of other rather excellent but also very Grey-oriented writing which muddies up the signal somewhat. Hence my wondering if someone’s done a cleaner version anywhere.

        • Eggo says:

          I don’t think I expressed myself very well, and there also seems to be a… rationalism gap in the way rationalists expect others to see the world.
          Rather than the grey-oriented examples, I suspect that just presenting information you hope to bring understanding will just mark you as “and anyone who looks like them”.

          Now is a time for the (UK) blue community to engage in collective garment-rending and hair-tearing. The simple act of saying “let’s be rational about this” makes you a dangerous outsider.
          Not crying or wearing appropriate mourning clothes at a funeral is a good non-political example.

          • Zorgon says:

            While I appreciate the sentiment – my wife is currently suffering severe culture shock after discovering her father voted Tory – these are friends who are genuinely outright confused and looking for reasons as to why this happened.

            There are also a bunch of disabled friends of mine who are actively organising, gathering information on getting through medical assessments, dealing with dehumanising DWP nonsense, navigating the appeals process and so on. I’ve been highly impressed, and I may well help out if a convenient opportunity comes up.

            While the public face may be one of gnashing teeth and tearing hair, at least in my circles the grassroots Blues in the UK are getting their shit together. I only hope this is being repeated in other places, as I am thoroughly convinced that the current Tory-Red Tribe administration is not nearly as Grey-friendly as some of my Greyer friends like to pretend it is, starting with TPP and the Snooper’s Charter and growing worse from there. I still hope for a serious Grey-oriented political movement in the UK, but I’m not holding my breath, so a resurgent Blue Tribe is about all I can expect.

          • Irrelevant says:

            I still hope for a serious Grey-oriented political movement in the UK.

            What would that even look like?

          • Zorgon says:

            Just off the top of my head:

            STEM-oriented party, technocratic policies, probably vaguely center-right economically but probably significantly more interested in ideas like UBI than most center-right parties.

            Base the party around a pledge to provide full sourcing and data behind all decisions (with some kind of protocol for emergencies). Employ specialist scientifically-educated spin doctors to reduce the data into soundbites while maintaining access to the original data.

            Actively encourage dissent amongst the party and keep use of the whip to a minimum necessary to function as a government (say, budgets and Queen’s Speech).

            Again, barely formed as a concept, but this would seem a significantly more Grey party than any currently in existence in the UK.

          • Deiseach says:

            these are friends who are genuinely outright confused and looking for reasons as to why this happened

            Because you have a first-past-the-post system, so any party does not have to win a majority of the total votes cast; it just has to win a majority of the seats.

            Because the Tory scaremongering about UKIP and (ironically) the SNP may have worked, and worked too well; I had to laugh, after the whole “We’re better together” business during the referendum on Scottish independence, then the turn-around to “Oh no, we don’t want those Scots making decisions in the national parliament for England” – the bit about the United Kingdom being England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and maybe/maybe not various islands seems to be gone in the wash!

            Because from the Irish experience, I could have forecast that with an unpopular coalition government but an opposition that doesn’t look much better/still are mainly made up of the same old faces who were in power previously and screwed up then, what happens is that the junior/weaker party gets slaughtered at the polls and the major/stronger party, though disliked or even hated, is seen as “well, it’s either these or those, and those would be even worse in power, so it’s stick with the devil you know”.

            Because all the polling in the world is not going to tell you how many people are actually going to go out and vote on the day. If all the people who say “I’d never vote for Party X” don’t get off their backsides and go out and vote for Party Y or Party Z, X is going to have a good chance of winning. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to people who have been active running “Vote ‘no’ to Party X” online or in local groups; come polling day, they feel they’ve done their bit and voting is an anti-climax so it just never gets around to being done.

          • Creutzer says:

            this would seem a significantly more Grey party than any currently in existence in the UK.

            This would seem a significantly more Grey party than any current in existence anywhere, no?

          • Zorgon says:

            Yes, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the UK has led the way in political development.

            I should also probably mention that about half of those ideas exist in some form in at least one current UK political party (mostly the Greens, Lib Dems pre – Coalition and New Labour). With the very major exception of the commitment to data, my proposed Grey Party would primarily consist of the intersection of existing Grey wings from other parties.

        • Deiseach says:

          But “everyone on my Facebook” is not everyone in the country, or even a majority of everyone on Facebook; it’s “people like me or people I know or people who share similar beliefs to mine”.

          If they really are feeling “betrayed by the populace”, I can’t give you any tactful advice on how to gently break the political facts of life to them (my opinion would tend to be (a) why do you think New Labour is any better than the Tories? They changed so as to get into positions of influence and leadership the same kind of public-school vote-winners to get into power (b) hold the fuck up a minute, why does the ordinary man or woman in the street owe you an explanation for anything, pally? Who died and made you God-Emperor, Lord and Lady Bountiful?)

          I also am deeply sceptical that a technocrat party would be much better for the worse-off in general, such as the disabled who are facing tougher assessments and slashed benefits. The natural allies in real-world working out of policies for technocrats are large businesses and industrial concerns; they might not be (say) as tilted towards the financial services as the Tories are, but companies like Apple (I know I keep using them as an example, but the knowledge box dodge is so pertinent) are a fit for them, and doing business to make it easier and more attractive for those STEM companies to operate is going to flavour policy decision-making:

          The UK’s patent box scheme was estimated to have cost the country £300 million (€378 million in today’s money) in lost tax revenue last financial year and the bill has been forecast to hit £1 billion (€1.26 billion) in 2017.

          The as-yet-unknown flipside to the deal is the extra tax income and jobs the incentive generates through more investment, and in keeping local SMEs and other domestic businesses in the country.

          So far there has been little hard evidence on how effective the scheme has been in attracting business, although pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline announced it was building a £500 million factory in the UK in the wake of the changes.

          • Zorgon says:

            The former is what I am trying to help them understand, hence wanting a version of Dark Matter Politics that’s sufficiently ideologically clean-roomed to pass the currently hyperactive out-group monkey politics test.

            I genuinely believe there are a lot of people of all Tribes who do not understand that the picture of common wisdom that they are getting from social media et al is quite so distorted as it is. I feel a broadly accessible version of the Dark Matter Politics concept would be very valuable.

          • Deiseach says:

            The former is what I am trying to help them understand, hence wanting a version of Dark Matter Politics that’s sufficiently ideologically clean-roomed to pass the currently hyperactive out-group monkey politics test.

            Perhaps a breakdown of constituencies? If Constituency A has three seats up for grabs, the main candidates with a chance of getting elected are a Tory, someone from UKIP and an Independent, and there’s (for example) a perceived strong chance that the UKIP guy will beat the Tory, then in the lack of Proportional Representation people who wouldn’t ordinarily vote Tory will do so to prevent the UKIPper getting in – the “lesser of two evils” choice.

            They won’t vote Labour or Lib-Dem because the perception is these are no-hoper candidates; they won’t vote for the Independent because that would be splitting the vote; they’re not so much voting for the Tories to win as they are for the UKIP to lose.

            I imagine from what you say that you’d have no hope of telling them some people prefer to vote Conservative or even like the party and their policies, and even worse chance of trying to get across that people who might have voted Labour have been put off by the current lot; I have nothing against Ed Milliband but the two kitchens thing didn’t help; you expect the Tories to be posh bastards and not give a damn about it, but someone who’s trying to be “Look, I’m ordinary people!” and visibly failing at it comes across as patronising, insulting (‘do they really think we’re that stupid we’d fall for such a stunt?’) and visibly missing the point – someone should have tied him to a chair and played Pulp’s “Common People” on repeat until the lesson sank in: unless you bloody well were born and reared on a council estate or in a house out the country with no running water (and no, the old Steward’s Lodge on your great-uncle’s country estate does not count for this purpose), do not try to be all faux-matey “Call me Dave” (as I said, nobody seriously believes David Cameron is a “Dave” type, but when Labour tries the same stunt it does look like being contemptuous of their trade-union/working-class roots).

        • “somehow inexplicably wound up with a popular vote majority”

          The Tories ended up with a popular vote plurality, an MP majority.

          More striking, and perhaps worth more blue tribe worries, is that UKIP, while it got only one seat, was the third largest party by popular vote. Especially since many in blue tribe are in favor of some sort of proportional representation–which might well have produced a Tory-UKIP coalition after the election.

          • Irrelevant says:

            This has been greatly amusing to me on the Facebook image macros side, with all my British friends blaming FPTP for the election going the way it did and failing to notice who most benefits from proportionality.

          • Zorgon says:

            Good point. Still doesn’t change the problem of how to get Blue Tribe members to understand that there is a strong plurality of Red Tribe voters.

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            Of course, in a proportional election, people would have voted quite differently, and most likely some other parties would have been on the ballot.

            We can’t know how that would have gone in any detail. Big picture would probably have been similar.

    • I thought that. in Europe, the Red Tribe are the socialists and communists, and blue is symbolic of conservatism.

      Or has the political color coding from the 2000 U.S. presidential election (Gore’s campaign used blue, Bush’s campaign used red, so the networks colored states that way) become so powerful that it has overridden tradition in the UK?

      • Nornagest says:

        We’re not in Europe. We’re on SSC. Seems likely that Zorgon’s simply playing to the audience.

        Although, from what I’ve gleaned, political tribalism in the UK doesn’t work quite like it does in the US, so “Blue Tribe” probably isn’t a perfect analogy.

      • Every map of the UK election results that’s been made has used red for Labour and blue for the Conservatives, so that association is still firmly entrenched. Zorgon was just using Scott’s vocabulary which uses the opposite convention.

      • Zorgon says:

        Wot dey sed.

        I’m not really sure I agree with Nornagest that the tribalism is all that different. My way of looking at it is that in the UK, the Blue Tribe comprises all the people who (would have) hated Thatcher and the Red Tribe comprises all the people who (would have) loved her. Simplistic but pretty much covers all the bases.

      • Lambert says:

        We could use the words ‘Left’, and ‘Right’. That’s pretty unambiguous.

    • Jaskologist says:

      As a UK political ignoramus, I’m most intrigued by how consistently bad the polls have been lately. And then we turn around and believe opinion polls.

  27. Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

    One question, does the, now twice in a row, exclusion of the “race and gender” disclaimer mean that they are now allowed (given that ozy seems to have stopped making OTs), or is it just an acknowledgement that most readers are now familiar with the rule?

    • I think the rule is dead. I have violated it quite flagrantly without any consequence (as yet).

      • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

        The rule, as applied at least, doesn’t forbid talking about gender or race in any context, rather than just bringing it up as a primary topic of discussion.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      From OT18:

      “4. I’ve given up on Ozy ever posting any more open threads at their place, but you still can’t discuss race and gender here. No, life isn’t fair.”

      I figure this was a reaction to the disclaimer being missing in OT17. Half of us went wild with race and gender discussions while the other half kept bugging him if it’s allowed all of a sudden. It wasn’t then and it probably isn’t now :/

      (Is it allowed to discuss if it’s allowed to discuss race and gender? :p)

  28. Limi says:

    Hey, so a couple of weeks ago, a Jewish commenter posted his reasoning on why Judaism is correct – I can’t find it now (I’m on my phone) but it was essentially ‘the Talmud is one of our oldest recordings of a historical nature, and it has been attested as fact by so many people for such a long time that it must be correct.’ It drove me crazy when I read it the other day, because I find that argument to be incredibly flawed, but what with it being posted several weeks ago, I knew there was no way I could discuss it with the author.

    The author (who I have forgotten the name of) did write down his email address for continued discussion with another poster, so I was wondering a) if the author is here would you mind if I emailed you? Or b) would it be ok for me to lay out my reasoning here in the hopes he (or any others who believe that) sees it and we can discuss it? I know religion isn’t sex or race, but it’s a darn touchy subject for some, so I would rather ask first.

    • Cauê says:

      You probably mean the various contributions by Yehoshua K on this thread. This one has the “if you wish to continue the conversation” bit.

      • Limi says:

        That’s the one, but I don’t feel comfortable emailing Yehoshua without permission. Cheers for the link, it is an interesting, if baffling to me, conversation.

    • I’m not the author and can’t speak for him, but I write books and have a blog and give public lectures and have no objection to people emailing me to ask questions or argue with me.

      • Limi says:

        Cheers, but the fact you have a public presence is kind of the problem – before I wrote anything online professionally I discarded almost any email from a name or address I didn’t already know, and that’s not even mentioning that some people may have a problem with being contacted, as a privacy issue. On the other hand, he did already print his email in a comment, so it would be reasonable to assume that he expects some uninvited emails, but perhaps he didn’t consider that, or set up that email as a burner, etc. Even though I know it’s incredibly, almost astronomically unlikely, I feel ridiculously anxious about emailing someone without permission.

        • Unique Identifier says:

          What follows is well meant:

          Send the e-mail. Stop overthinking it. By now, my inner Freud tells me that you’re not really worried about bothering the author, but about your own disappointment if he doesn’t answer.

          There is no way this man isn’t able to deal with unsolicited email. Perhaps it disappears in some junk folder, perhaps he filters heavily by subject or sender, perhaps he reads but can’t be bothered to answer. I don’t think you’ll find any good way of figuring it out in advance, which isn’t overall more costly than just sending the mail and hoping for the best.

          You may want to consider the following, if it helps you getting the e-mail sent., but avoid adding to the list of things you absolutely have to get right before sending unsolicited e-mail:

          – help the recipient filter. Make sure the subject line is descriptive, make it clear that you haven’t corresponded before, explain what sort of response you are hoping for.

          – do not dump a wall of text straight into his inbox. You can make a shorter, probing mail first – ‘I read your this and that, personally I think x and y, I wanted to ask some questions regarding such and such.’

          – help the recipient to really understand where you’re taking the conversation – avoid ‘baiting’. If you are looking for feedback on your 10 page theory, then very briefly explain what’s interesting about the theory and why you think the recipient is likely to take interest in it or be knowledgeable about it.

          One of the advantages of a shorter sort of handshake-mail to lead in, is that:
          a) you impose less on the author
          b) you don’t invest as much in the e-mail, such that being ignored or dismissed isn’t quite as disappointing

          • Limi says:

            Alright, thanks, that’s a really good way of looking at it. My main issue is my scrupulosity, but the thought that I might not get a reply definitely didn’t help, and with you and David saying go for it, along with the clear reasoning in your second paragraph, I feel a lot better about doing so. Thanks, I really appreciate it.

  29. Noah Motion says:

    You keep writing we should expect a “lower volume of blogging.” Do you mean that we should expect a constant, lower-than-before volume of blogging? Or do you mean, each time you write it, that we should expect a volume lower than we expected in the immediately preceding time period?

    • Godzillarissa says:

      This time, at least, it was “Continue to expect a lower volume of blogging for the near future.” (emphasis mine), so I guess it’s a constantly lower volume.

      Anyway, you know full well it doesn’t mean anything :p

  30. Troy says:

    Disclaimer: I have no training in computer science or game theory.

    Background: As I understand it, computers are able to beat the best humans now at most deterministic two-player games — Chess being the most notable. Programmers are working on making a computer program that can win at Go. This is proving substantially harder, as I understand it, primarily because there are exponentially more possibilities than in Chess, so “brute search” methods have a much harder time.

    Question: Would it be possible to design a (deterministic, two-player) game that computers could not consistently win at — even with a lot more computational power than they currently have — by making the space of possible outcomes infinite? I’m thinking in particular about the possibility of a variant of Go, which had normal rules except that the size of the board was constantly expanding: say it starts out 3×3, then the next move becomes 4×4, etc. Since the board is constantly expanding, the game would need to end differently: perhaps when one player gets 100 points, as measured by their captured stones and surrounded area.

    Am I right that a game like this would have an infinite number of possible outcomes? If so, would this make it “unsolvable” by a computer in any interesting sense? Thoughts (and corrections by people with more expertise in these areas than me) appreciated.

    • Murphy says:

      In theory the game could have an arbitrarily large finite search space but almost all games would take place within a relatively small board.

      it isn’t simply the search space that makes Go harder for computers. There are problems with similar search spaces that humans are much worse at but Go is strategy based and AI currently isn’t much good at that.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      I’m definitely not an expert, but my intuition is that such a game would start out easier for AI than standard Go (because of the smaller board) and end up being increasingly difficult if you managed to drag it out long enough.

      I’m basing this on a rather simple “AI imagines making random moves and sees what might happen” monte-carlo style “brute-force” program. In which case, at least, what really matters is how many options *the next few turns* have, not how many options the *entire game* has (which is in any case infinite, if you can keep playing the game indefinitely.)

      That said, there’s something in the idea. A game like Nomic, for example, which is genuinely infinite, is basically Turing-complete (although not deterministic in the standard formulation.)

    • US says:

      (Don’t know anything about Go, but reasonably strong chess player with some game theory background.)

      A few observations:

      a) Although chess computers are better than humans, chess is not ‘solved’ but for a very limited proportion of all potential positions (you can e.g. google ‘endgame tablebase’ if you’re not familiar with these). Backward induction has been applied to endgame positions with limited material left and these have yielded solutions to many known endgames, but when computers play chess only a small proportion of all moves during a game will be derived from tablebases. Forced mates and forced draws e.g. by perpetual check are other examples of solved positions, but again when you reach those branches of the game tree the game is for practical purposes already over and both players usually know it (if they’re strong). Most of the time the computer is ‘on its own’, calculating and evaluating positions along the way using the algorithms at its disposal. Computers may also have opening books where they don’t have to ‘think’, but opening stuff is in this context more complicated than endgames because feedback goes both ways here (all elite chess players use computers to improve on their openings, so instead of telling the computer that these are the best moves in this opening, the computer is telling the player).

      b) I don’t have personal experience with this stuff, but I’ve been told by people who ought to know that chess computers have improved dramatically over the last couple of decades not only because of hardware improvements but also because of software improvements/increased algorithmic efficiency. A big part of the latter factor relates to programmers having gotten better at telling the programs which parts of the game tree to ignore – pruning the game tree is a really important part if you want a well performing engine as the number of potential positions to calculate continues to be way too large to admit a program to calculate all of them, and you’ll get a poorly performing engine if you don’t find a way to make the program ignore irrelevant branches. The key point being that for practical purposes the game tree complexity of chess means that the numbers are already here ‘too big’ – they’re not infinite, but they’re large enough to cause a lot of problems and developers have found impressive ways to work their ways around these problems and give us some really impressively strong programs. The decision-rules the engines apply to the positions are the ones kicking the grandmasters’ asses, not the collections of ‘solved positions’ to which the program also has access – chess programs don’t need to ‘calculate everything to the end’ to defeat humans, and I don’t think a Go program necessarily would either, with or without your modified rules.

      Your specific rule changes to Go to me seem to imply that there’d still be a stopping rule, as well there should be – people don’t want to play games which never ends because of e.g. infinite loops. The game is in finite time and it eventually stops when a specific criterion is met – and so I don’t really see how you’d ever get to infinity that way. Infinity is really big and if there’s an identifiable last number on a list, the list is not infinite. If the list is not infinite, it seems to me that you should in theory be able to use backwards induction to solve the problem (given enough time and computing power etc.). If you know the game ends when someone has 100 points, you should (‘in theory…’) be able to make a program which can identify all the potential game branches where 100 points can be achieved, and then move backwards to a game tree where people have 99 points, etc. As far as I’ve understood, Go is already sufficiently complex to cause a lot of problems without the added bells and whistles – so is chess (again, even though computers are great at it, for most positions the game is far from solved).

      If you found/made a game where you’d know for certain that it’d be impossible for the computer to win ‘because of infinity’, you’d probably run into the problem that few humans would be willing to play the game either.

      Edit: Here’s an interesting r/askscience thread on chess moves/positions and infinity. As the top rated commenter notes, “The number of legal games is […] estimated by Littlewood and Hardy to be around 10^10^5 […]. This number is so large that it can’t really be compared with anything that is not combinatorial in nature. It is far larger than the number of subatomic particles in the observable universe”. Further perspective is added by u/Wondersnite:

      “There are 10^80 protons in the Universe. Now imagine inside each proton, we had a whole entire Universe. Now imagine again that inside each proton inside each Universe inside each proton, you had another Universe. If you count up all the protons, you get (10^80)^3 = 10^240, which is nowhere near the number we’re looking for.

      You have to have Universes inside protons all the way down to 1250 steps to get the number of legal chess games that are estimated to exist. […] Imagine that every single subatomic particle in the entire observable universe was a supercomputer that analysed a possible game in a single Planck unit of time (10^(-43) seconds, the time it takes light in a vacuum to travel 10^(-20) times the width of a proton), and that every single subatomic particle computer was running from the beginning of time up until the heat death of the Universe, 10^1000 years ≈ 10^11 × 10^1000 seconds from now.

      Even in these ridiculously favorable conditions, we’d only be able to calculate

      10^80 × 10^43 × 10^11 × 10^1000 = 10^1134

      possible games. Again, this doesn’t even come close to 10^10^5 = 10^100000.

      Basically, if we ever solve the game of chess, it definitely won’t be through brute force.”

      • Troy says:

        Thanks. One clarification:

        If you know the game ends when someone has 100 points, you should (‘in theory…’) be able to make a program which can identify all the potential game branches where 100 points can be achieved, and then move backwards to a game tree where people have 99 points, etc.

        I think that there should be a countably infinite number of situations in which one player has 100 points. A regular Go game is played on a 19×19 board, and alternating black and white stones are placed on intersections with the goal of capturing as much territory as possible. In the variant I’m imagining, you could just keep placing stones in the new edge of the board, and if you did this you’d never capture territory and so not get 100 points. So theoretically the game could go on indefinitely.

        Of course, if your opponent is trying to capture territory, you’d have to block them if you’re not capturing territory yourself. Whether this fact allows for some kind of “pruning” of the possible outcomes to leave us only with finitely many practical possibilities is unclear to me.

        • US says:

          Aha, I see. As mentioned I don’t know anything about Go, so I wasn’t really the person to ask when it comes to potential rule changes in that game context, and I hadn’t really much of an idea what the proposed rule change implied. How the rule change would affect game length seems to me to be a halting problem and these are, as far as I’ve understood (yet another area about which I don’t know much), in general unsolvable.

          I’m slightly curious about this and I also touched upon it in my first comment, but if the proposed rule change implies that a game might conceivably never end, who would ever be willing to play it? Isn’t that a major problem, rather than the opposite? I’m not sure I see the appeal; in chess rules like the 50 move rule and threefold repetition were implemented precisely to *avoid* outcomes like these, where the game would fail to terminate after a reasonable amount of time. It seems to me the alternative to an at least potentially ‘solvable game’ is a bad idea on principle, for precisely these reasons.

          • Troy says:

            I’m slightly curious about this and I also touched upon it in my first comment, but if the proposed rule change implies that a game might conceivably never end, who would ever be willing to play it? Isn’t that a major problem, rather than the opposite?

            Well, as I said, I’m not sure whether or not it would be possible for one side to “force” an end to the game. This game would not be like Chess in that one player’s moves (without repetition rules) could straightforwardly prevent the game from progressing. In general the gameplay I suggested — continuing to play on the edge of the board — would not be a good strategy, because it would neither give you points nor keep your opponent from getting points. You would have to play “defensively,” trying to block possible ways for your opponent to capture territory. Doing this usually gives you the possibility of capturing territory as well, and so your opponent might have to go on the defense against you rather than try to work directly on the territory he initially was focused on. (This interplay is part of the appeal of Go strategy.)

            Basically (partly because of my ignorance of Game Theory) I’m not sure whether or not there are an infinite number of possible games if both players are playing “optimally,” or even whether that question is well-defined. But it seems to me that even if there are an infinite number of outcomes, knowing how to prolong the game indefinitely might be highly non-trivial and non-algorithmic, such that people would be interested in playing in order to see whether they could end the game (with them winning).

            Edit: Incidentally, if you like Chess and are interested in game theory, you should learn Go! It’s an incredibly elegant game, and I myself am I “convert” from Chess to Go. I play on the PandaNet server: http://pandanet-igs.com/communities/pandanet

          • US says:

            Right, I think that comment gave me a better idea about what you were intending to do with the rule change and which assumptions you’d made regarding the consequences. One difference was that I’d assumed it would be trivial to come up with a new (risk-free) strategy in the new setting which would mean that the player with the inferior chances of winning would at least never lose the game.

            Good comments by James and suntzuanime below.

            I don’t think I’ll ‘convert’/give up chess; I like the game too much and have spent a lot of time on improving specific aspects of my game. Most of the efforts would not carry over if I were to start playing other mind games instead (other former chess players have recommended poker, but I think you’re the first ‘Go-convert’ I’ve encountered).

            I think the only argument at all likely to convert me to another mind game would be a much more favourable sex ratio of players. In Denmark where I live something like 99% of all tournament players are male, so this is not a good hobby if you’re a single male looking for a hobby which might improve upon your chances of finding a partner; it’d probably be hard to find a worse hobby in that respect.

          • James Picone says:

            I’d like Go better if there wasn’t three or four subtly different variants based around different ad-hoc patches to a game bug (the various ko rules).

    • James Picone says:

      I am a programmer with some formal computer science training, but only undergrad stuff, not a lot in this particular area beyond the basics.

      At each game step, how many moves are there in your expanding-Go-board?

      First turn, 9 moves.
      Second turn, 15 moves.
      Third turn, 23 moves.

      After n turns there are only a finite number of moves that can possibly have been made (9*15*23 by the third turn, for example). The only way it would end up with an infinite number of moves would be for the victory condition (first to 100, for ex) to potentially take an infinite number of steps to happen. That is the case here – consider if both players just started building a wall in a different direction – but I’m not sure it’s interesting. Besides, when minimaxing computers always have a move horizon they don’t look over, and for any finite horizon there’s only a finite number of moves available. I don’t think computers would be any worse at your proposed game than at normal Go.

      That said, it is entirely possible to make games that minimax (the brute-forcey solution used for Chess) is absolutely not appropriate for. The thing to focus on is the ‘branching factor’ – the number of possible moves at each turn. In conventional Go, the branching factor is gigantic. Even if you have heuristics that tell you which of the many possible moves are batshit insane and shouldn’t be made, there are far too many plausible Go moves to effectively minimax on full-sized boards (on smaller boards, computers already beat humans because the branching factor is smaller). It doesn’t help that board evaluation in Go requires solving NP-hard problems. That’s one way to make minimax unpleasant, but computational power always wins. It’s possible to make small changes that increase the branching factor significantly, but that starts to look silly after a while, and it makes it harder for humans to play too.

      Another approach is to make the game hidden-information in some way. There are deterministic two-player games where both players do not have access to all the relevant information (Magic the Gathering and similar card games minus cards with random mechanics, for example). It’s possible to kind-of minimax these if you know the space the hidden information can fill and just have them as distinct nodes in the graph, but with the right choice of hidden information that can be difficult. Pokemon isn’t deterministic, but it’s maybe a good model for how hidden information can make minimax unpleasant – every pokemon on your opponent’s team that you haven’t seen yet could be 1 of 50-odd possibilities, assuming your opponent isn’t an idiot and hasn’t selected bad pokemon, and then they’ve got four moveslots that could have been filled in in a number of different ways, different stat spreads that could be relevant, and one of three different abilities. Leads to a lot of combinations if you just stick them all in your minimax tree.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Worth noting is that Magic: the Gathering and similar card games are non-deterministic by their very natures, because you shuffle your deck before the game.

        There’s nothing inherently hard to deal with for a computer about non-deterministic games; you maximize expected value instead of maximizing value. It’s not hard for a computer to play perfect blackjack, for example. The reason games with random elements are considered more difficult for computers is that random elements expand the game tree that a brute force algorithm has to consider without giving the more heuristic algorithms that humans use extra options to overwhelm them. Game designers talk about making games less “chessy” by adding randomness, and basically what they mean is less amenable to brute force computational methods.

        • RCF says:

          Blackjack isn’t adversarial, though (in the sense that, although the dealer is your adversary, he/she/it has no discretion and therefore does not act as an adversarial agent).

    • RCF says:

      Creating a larger search space won’t necessarily lead to an advantage for humans, if humans aren’t better equipped to deal with it. But if you really want a game with an infinite number of possible moves:

      There is an array ARY of n positive integers. At the beginning of each turn, there is some k such that the kth element is the first nonzero element. The current player then decrements ARY[k] and, for all ik. If this results in an array with all-zero entries, the player wins. If not, it becomes the other player’s turn.

      This probably needs a few more tweaks to make it intractable, but it satisfies your condition of having an infinite number of options (at least, on the turns where an entry reaches zero).

    • Even the current-best chess programs don’t win by just brute-forcing all possible moves; they use heuristics to explore only good-looking moves. So even though greatly increasing the number of possible moves would make the program infeasible to brute-force, that wouldn’t prevent computers from beating humans.

      In fact, the game Arimaa was designed to be much harder for computers to beat than chess. Every turn, a player can move four of their pieces, so the computer has to consider a lot of possible moves that the opponent can do. Yet last April, someone’s computer program finally won the Arimaa Challenge (pending an academic paper describing the algorithm), by beating the best human players at a tournament.

    • Hypothetical: There are a lot of variant rules for chess (knights move 3+1 instead of 2+1, the board wraps around, etc.).

      I’m guessing that if the game had two randomly chosen rule variants (check to make sure the resulting game is playable and not trivial), humans would be better at it than computer programs.

      If we hit a point when computers were better at it than humans, we wouldn’t necessarily have AI, but we’d be a good bit closer than we are now.

      • Aaron Brown says:

        I suspect this wouldn’t make much of a difference. My understanding is that chess programs are essentially a game tree search algorithm and a board evaluation function. In a version of chess with randomized rules, the game tree search algorithm would need barely any modification. The board evaluation function would need to be extended to give sensible outputs given the new rules, but I don’t think that would be much of a problem.

        Bobby Fischer created a chess variant with random starting positions, to take away the advantage of having memorized a lot of openings, but I suspect a computer program wouldn’t be too put out by this either. (I don’t think much of the advantage of a computer comes from its mastery of “opening books”, and in any case, a computer could have a lot more openings memorized than a human anyway.)

        • Why do you think board evaluation wouldn’t be a hard problem?

          • Aaron Brown says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz:

            This Wikipedia page gives a sketch of a simple evaluation function. My intuition tells me that most improvements to this (apart from tweaks to the numbers) would work by taking account of what happens a few moves later, which is what the search function already does.

            Wikipedia does say that Deep Blue’s evaluation function was pretty complex (“split into 8,000 parts, many of them designed for special positions”), but a lot of the complexity came from automated analysis of master games. I guess that last part would be harder if you didn’t have a giant database of master games to analyze, but the human player will be similarly disadvantaged.

  31. Ryan B says:

    I read Sam Harris’ small book Free Will. I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on it. Did you find it persuasive?

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      Most of the members here are familiar with less wrong and its sequences; its pretty well agreed that philosophical Free Will is an incoherent concept.

  32. rictic says:

    I never can remember to use amazon affiliate links, but if you put up a Patreon I’d totally donate monthly. I’d expect nothing out of it, just knowing that it was helping to support your blogging.

  33. Paul Brinkley says:

    Going through your past Top Posts, I finally got around to The Spirit of the First Amendment. I had a few thoughts about it that I didn’t see after going through the comments. Like many of them, I too thought it was a good post, so my comment is in light of that.

    Most of the comments I see wrestle with the tradeoff between fighting argument with counterargument only, to protect the spirit of the First, and pursuing alternate tactics in selected cases to thwart Gish Gallops.

    I’ve long considered this the central tradeoff. (To doxx or not to doxx? That is the question!) I also think it’s unwise to prescribe a default rule here, because I believe it’s clearly right to shut down a bad arguer in progress, and clearly right to stick to argument versus good arguers. The key problem here is that *we don’t always know which one we’re up against* (including, in some cases, even if we *think* we know, although being scrupulously rationalist helps), and even if we do, our audience is a fluctuating group of whoever’s paying attention, and *they* don’t always know.

    Another concern I didn’t see addressed is the habit of commenters to assume that what they’re up against are bad faith arguers (“idiots” is the word I saw used at various times). I see this as possibly presuming too much. Consider: what is *that* arguer thinking? If he were honest, if he genuinely believed his case and thought he was fighting a worthy fight, what would that look like to other people? Particularly, people not on his side? Particularly: us?

    In other words, how do we know *we* aren’t the problem? It’d be easy to say “well, because we’re rational”. But how often does any of us check that? It’s not a constant; we don’t just learn Bayesian logic and suddenly render ourselves forever impervious to lousy thinking. We can get tired and make mistakes.

    This splits the case considerably – what to do if you believe you’re up against a bad arguer, and so does your audience; if you’re the only one who believes it; if someone other than you believes it; if everyone believes it *except* you; throw in certainties of belief, and the stakes of the issue at play; it gets complicated fast. And it might not even be worth the effort to find out for sure.

    At such a point, I think doxxing or other tactics *might* be wise, and might be unwise; it’s necessarily a gamble. If you chose to doxx someone you might never know whether it was the right or wrong call. All you’d know is that it was what you did. Others might come along and doxx you in response. (Incidentally, that’s one of the big things I don’t like about doxxing; it’s typically asymmetrical.)

    I appreciate Chris Hallquist’s point about there being a level between fabulously wealthy and utterly destitute, at which we could strive to put bigots; at the same time, in light of the above, I don’t think we can presume to put them squarely there. Rather, I think this is something anyone can attempt to use as a factor in how they treat someone with toxic opinions. So if your bank is Jerry Falwell’s last chance at getting a home loan, you could feel justified in giving it to him, and if you think other banks might cover it, maybe you could tell him to take a hike. Or you could tell him that regardless. And if his book sells a million copies, well, maybe his opinions weren’t that toxic after all. Either way, this isn’t something on which any of us is entitled to be sole judge.

    • Eggo says:

      “I should only use a strategy of causing great injury to someone when I know it will only result in an ineffective slight”?
      Machiavelli would disagree.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I… don’t know what you’re referring to. I never made the quote above, and I think I don’t even agree with it…

        • Eggo says:

          The Hallquist suggestion: “if your bank is Jerry Falwell’s last chance at getting a home loan, you could feel justified in giving it to him, and if you think other banks might cover it, maybe you could tell him to take a hike.”

          That just leads to him having both a home and a justified grudge against you, which instantly reminded me of the Machiavelli quote:
          “men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Ahh, ok, thank you.

            The thing there is that in that hypothetical, the banker doesn’t perceive their refusing Falwell’s loan as a “great injury”. It’s only a minor setback, because the banker sees other bankers who might make the loan. Since it wasn’t a great injury, I didn’t recognize it as an instance of your claim.

            (Might give rise to a Bystander Effect though, I suppose.)

            If a Falwell were refused a loan by one banker out of ten, he might see value in punishing that one bank; that one banker could see this as one of the drawbacks of being in a minority group. If a Falwell were refused by 5-9 banks out of ten, however, Falwell would have to go through considerable trouble to retaliate; and those 5-9 bankers would see that as a benefit of being in the majority group. So, Machiavelli’s observation is astute, and IMO corresponds well with the algebra for dealing with opinions one finds toxic, as I described it.

    • In regards to your first part:

      Say you’re playing soccer with a couple of people down at the local sports field. It’s pretty casual, and when there’s a foul generally the player with the ball calls it and unless people are being jerks then everyone agrees and moves on. The stakes aren’t that high, and the goal is basically to have fun. From time to time, though, you get a situation where things get a bit competitive, tensions escalate and suddenly every possible foul is the makings of a fist fight. So we invented referees. They’re (usually) neutral, with no investment in the outcomes other than the *quality* and fairness of the game. Sometimes they’re biased and that creates a total disaster, but if they’re selected properly then it massively improves the quality of the game (even if the losing side rarely admits it).

      Maybe we (?) need to think more about sophisticated referees and refereeing systems for discussions? I don’t know exactly how that would work, but maybe they could “blow the whistle” on fallacies or something.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Naturally, a large part of me believes that it would be best for discussion participants to referee themselves. Employing referees makes sense in roughly the same way that employing arbitrators in legal disputes does. (Which is to say, it’s not a bad idea.) The catch is that people would have to respect the authority of the referee. The referee on a blog like this one is invariably the owner, since the owner has natural authority to ban. So that much works out.

        The more pertinent catch to me is getting people to recognize the rules of discussion. A referee is pretty inefficient if the referee has to keep coming in on every other post. SSC and LW strike me as excellent resources for education on that front, and I see the commenters as both excellent students and excellent teaching assistants, practicing on each other, and helping each other learn the habits of avoiding fallacies and bad arguments. If anything, I feel we don’t push each other enough in that spirit.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        Problem: the obvious tactic when referees are present is to game the refs.

        This is hard to do in the context of professional sports, where there are many enormous and wealthy stakeholders whose return on investment depends on the game at least appearing to be fair, but it’s easy to do in the context of an argument on the internet, where only the most fanatical participant usually cares about the results. Look at how aggressively people try to get their personal definition of “abuse” or “harassment” or “hate speech” accepted on the social media channel of your choice, or organize to edit Wikipedia to turn their own opinion of a controversy into accepted fact: that’s too easily going to be the fate of such referees.

        • Along similar lines for a different version of the solution … .

          I was in a FB discussion. Someone said “Source A is reliable, source B is not, I know that because web page C, which rates sources of information, says so.”
          (Not a literal quote).

          I looked at page C and noticed that the source to which they gave their very highest rating was _Rolling Stone_, the source of the UVa bogus rape story. For details see:


        • Irrelevant says:

          The standard solution in the old model of interest-based forums was cabalism: anyone can participate in the community’s topic of choice, but there’s a non-trivial entry bar of contributions to the community’s interests before anyone cares what you think about anything outside that topic, and anyone who wakes up the referees by obnoxiousness without being able to demonstrate the appropriate level of commitment to the community is gonna have it end quite badly for them. It gives superficially silly results –X is banned for political trolling, Y does the same and isn’t because Y has memorized a large number of the Manuals of the Outer Planes– but in practice it works out.

        • Basically referees getting overwhelmed by the players.

          I think the solution to this would to get people (a community of people) to be at least as interested in spending time refereeing as playing. So I guess that would mean analysising others conversations, ones you don’t especially have an interest in, for fallacies, evidence and the like.

  34. FriendOfSSC says:

    Sorry if you’ve addressed this before but any reason you don’t have a Patreon or something similar for people interested in supporting SSC but unwilling to assign it the sole “thing I think about when I want to buy something on Amazon which I don’t even do that frequently” slot in their brain? Personally would be happy donating 5-10 dollars a month, but have never bought anything through your Amazon links…

    • Anonymous says:

      Same. I don’t always remember to use referral links, and I sometimes prefer to give the referral bonus to people other than Scott (sorry!). I’d like a better way to show appreciation.

  35. ton says:

    I just learned about the Mandela effect. (If you aren’t familiar, see these links:


    Anyone have an opinion on this?

    I came across http://weirdterritory.com/2014/07/21/dont-let-the-mandela-effect-become-a-thing/, which strongly struck me as Skepticism Done Wrong. In particular:

    “On her website, Broome acknowledges that examples such as these “may be false memories and other issues of mental health, or simply erroneous news reports”, but she also argues that “the sheer volume and consistency of them raise deeper and more intriguing questions”. I would argue that trying to validate something just because a lot of people do it is a logical fallacy, one known as the Bandwagon Fallacy, but this hasn’t stopped Broome from creating a website and subreddit in order to collect examples of other people’s false memories for her book.”

    This is not actually the Bandwagon Fallacy, which is when you say “a lot of people believe X, therefore X. The claim is “a lot of people remember X, therefore X must have happened”, which seems more plausible (well, if not for the low prior.)

    “If they can find a member of the Uncontacted Peoples of Brazil who has a memory of Patrick Swayze recovering from his pancreatic cancer, then yes, I may consider Broome’s hypothesis again, but for now, it’s bunk.”

    That sounds like asking way too much. Obviously someone from a different culture wouldn’t know about ours, even if the theory was true.

    I feel like stranger theories have been investigated, so we shouldn’t be skipping this one just because it’s very unlikely.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The key leap of logic is between “raises deeper and more intriguing questions” and “obviously the answer is the quantum / ‘Sliders’ concept”. There could well be something interesting and novel going on psychologically/culturally here that deserves study. The problem is amateur scientists thinking “here’s something weird, what else is weird, hey quantum mechanics is weird! what do I know about quantum mechanics, I guess it involves alternate realities in some way. hey, my favorite schlock SciFi TV show involves alternate realities! oh my god what if the show was real”. The fallacy runs a lot deeper than the Bandwagon fallacy, it’s related to privileging the hypothesis or just not, in general, knowing how one goes about thinking about things.

    • 420smokedankmemes says:

      The stuff about the Berenstain Bears is excruciating and discourages me from looking any further into this. Obviously people remember it being spelled as Berenstein because a) that’s how it’s pronounced b) they were small children when they watched the TV show c) small children can’t spell very well d) people don’t usually remember tiny details like that from their childhood.

    • darxan says:

      Maybe people had Mandela confused with Steve Biko who died in prison , and was played by Denzel Washington in 1987 British movie Cry Freedom.

    • Limi says:

      Ok, so I know how this is going to sound to everyone, simply because I know how every other one of those examples looks to me, and I am not suggesting it has anything to do with sliders – although I object vigorously to it being described as schlock >:o – but the dilemma/dilemna thing is freaking me out.

      As a small child I won many spelling bees, and the reason I could successfully spell words is because I love the construction of them, and the difference between their spelling and pronunciation always delights me in particular. And one word I always loved to say ‘correctly’ to myself in my head was dilemna.

      But then one day I noticed a bunch of people were spelling it dilemma. Americanised spelling, I thought, and a particularly ugly example,but hey, it’s the internet. Nevertheless, I had to write about the same topic, and when I did I noticed the expected spellcheck underline. ‘Stupid American browser’ I would have muttered, if I was in a TV show. Nevertheless, I ignored it and submitted the article to my editor. Who, of course, dragged me up on an odd misspelling – that of dilemma. No doubt smiling to myself, I explained that actually, heh, no, the proper spelling is dilemna, never mind, it’s a common mistake. But no, my editor assured me that it was spelled dilemma, it had always been spelled that way, and was I feeling ok? Indignantly I googled the word, bringing up a dozen dictionaries – in all of which the word was spelled dilemma, had always been spelled dilemma, and etymologically could only be dilemma.

      This bugged me for about ten minutes, and after the requisite scene where I collapsed to my knees in the middle of times square, every advert beaming DILEMMA as the camera spins around me, I thought ‘good one idiot’ and moved on. Suffering from schizophrenia as I do, I am very used to false memories, and while they are usually more alarming, or at least not so incredibly mundane, I have learned to live with them, and the fact that I will occasionally look like a lunatic whether I like it or not. Reading now though, of other people having the same experience with dilemna, particularly when some commenters mention enjoying saying it to themselves, I am thoroughly freaked out and not sure what is going on.

      Although I am pretty certain I didn’t slip into an alternate dimension where everything is the same except for the word dilemma. But if I did, fuck you, whoever it is that dictates what alternate universe someone gets thrust into. Out of literally every possible universe, you chose this one? Fuck you so much.

      • Susebron says:

        Assuming that people are more likely to go into “nearby” universes, that seems like it would happen fairly often. The majority of changes wouldn’t be noticed, so “one word is spelled slightly differently” is a very small but still noticeable change. The real oddity is that so many people have the same experience, which would suggest that universe-switching happens mostly in groups.

        If there is no tendency towards nearby universes, then things change. The vast majority of possible universes aren’t survivable. Of course, if you have to switch with your counterpart, that limits the space of worlds, and you’re unlikely to go to a universe in which major changes happened before your birth.

        • Limi says:

          Hey now, if I’m going to imagine it’s a parallel universe thing, I’m also going to imagine it’s guided so I can have someone to get angry with.

      • Jesse M. says:

        Maybe just a little mental slippage between the relatively rare “dilemma” and some other words that have “mn” with the n being silent, like “damn” and “condemn” and “solemn” and “column” and “autumn”? It seems like this would naturally tend to be an “attractor” in the space of possible misspellings of “dilemma”…

      • Daniel says:

        I’ve seen this happen to other people before. A good example is, what’s the proper spelling of ‘The Berenst@in Bears’?

      • I’m a “dilemma” guy and always have been, but I have had arguments with “dilemna” people who were VERY, VERY sure they were right.

  36. MacKenzie Pantoja says:

    Something I’ve always been curious about: do studies that try to determine the heritability of IQ ever try to account for the traits that you develop in the womb, as opposed to just what happens after birth? Namely, for example, if a woman with a low IQ drinks while she is pregnant, and the child has a low IQ. Does he have a low IQ because the mother has a low IQ or is because the mother drank while she was pregnant? Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but I feel like this variable could manifest itself in other ways, i.e., marijuana use during pregnancy, plus it’s well established that poor people (and therefore people with low IQs) are generally less healthy than wealthy people. Maybe the baby is funneled cheap/unhealthy food during pregnancy, or for whatever reason is poorly nurtured, and this has an effect on IQ. Have any studies that try to determine the heritability of IQ examined this factor? It obviously is not easy, but still.

      • MacKenzie Pantoja says:

        I’m still a bit skeptical. I would imagine there is much more similarity in the fetal environments of fraternal twins than those of two people born of other mothers, despite the fact that they are not developed in the same chorion. To be convinced, I’d need to see studies that involve gestational surrogacy.

        • Clay Campaigne says:

          Ok ok I don’t know about genetics and that wasn’t a direct answer. But I think the confound you point out only applies to adoption studies, not twin studies. The simplest calculation of heredity in twin studies assumes additive effects (ACE model), and is thus not sensitive to the effect you’re worried about. It’s automatically controlled for. If there are no GxE interactions, you can just compare the phenotype correlation between MZ and DZ twins. In light of the above review, I guess it’s better to use dichorionic MZ twins for comparison with the DZs. Apparently the resulting heredity estimates are about the same as those using other methods (adoption studies, etc.). See here:

          I doubt you’ll get large-enough N for gestational surrogacy….

          Maybe there are some indirect techniques using the effects of calamities, as mentioned here: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21647641-childs-long-term-well-being-more-profoundly-shaped-influences-pregnancy
          Maybe in unrelated people, you could see how much the predicted correlation (based just on SNPs) is suppressed when one of them was gestating during a calamity.

          • MacKenzie Pantoja says:

            I’m sorry, I don’t know a ton about biology and I’m having a tough time understanding the first link. But they’re still comparing twins, and I do believe that twins in any context will share more similar fetal environments than two people born of a different mother. I understood the second link, think it was a step in the right direction but still an imperfect measure.

          • Clay Campaigne says:

            In reply to MP, May 16, 2015 at 1:34 pm:
            The assumption in the most basic MZ / DZ twin comparison is that the environment is the same for both.
            W.r.t. fetal environment, if they’re both dichorionic, then differences in the correlation will be attributable to genetic differences. But I don’t know much about biology either.

            Now, you will say that MZs are treated more similarly than DZs, so that their shared environments are more correlated. This is part of the motivation of Minnesota Study of Twins Raised Apart (MISTRA), and also…I think there is a study based on DZ twins who were misidentified by their families as MZs, because they looked identical, which had similar results?

    • It isn’t IQ, but it’s related.

      The relative length of the first and third finger apparently correlates with gender and correlates with relative ability in verbal vs mathematical skills—and the second correlation exists even if you control for gender. The explanation I have seen is that that relative length is a marker for the mix of hormones in the womb you were incubated in. A womb with a female fetus in it has, on average, more of some hormones and less of others than one with a male fetus. But it’s the hormone mix, not the gender of the fetus, that produces both the finger size effect and the relative ability effect.

      All of that is from pretty casual browsing so I’m not certain it is true, but if it is it gives an example of an intellectual trait that appears related to genetics (male/female) but actually is related to fetal environment.

  37. anonymous says:

    I have some of the symptoms of autism, but not strongly so. I found a place that specializes in counseling for non-neurotypical people, but they charges thousands of dollars. There’s a state agency that might pay for it, but they need a solid diagnosis. And getting a diagnosis would cost thousands of dollars. I’m now trying to see if I can get a diagnosis either through a government agency, or a private provider who takes Medi-Cal. Does anyone know of any resources in the SF Bay Area (South Bay)? Thanks.

  38. Clay Campaigne says:

    Did you ever hear from anybody about submitting a Technical Comment to Science regarding the Expectations of Brilliance…Gender paper in Science? I submitted one recently, past the deadline, and then only afterwards I saw your blog post, which I think nailed it. I hope the comment(s) that gets published was as good as your post.

  39. Max says:

    What do you think about hierarchical agent theory of brain?

    Can explain consciousness – yes, all kind of psych diseases – yes. Fits into evolution?Networks? yes yes!

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      What novel predictions does it make that differentiates it from the current model? I didn’t see anything like that in there.

      • Max says:

        What is considered “current model”?

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          No idea; I’m not a neurologist. Typing this in on google gets Holonomic brain theory so its clear there are a bunch of other theories as weird or even weirder.

  40. psychorecycled says:

    Let me know if this is a forbidden topic.

    Can anyone provide a justification for owning a handgun which is NOT…

    – Shooting recreationally frequently enough that owning a handgun as opposed to repeatedly renting one makes sense from a fiscal perspective.
    – A fear of being attacked in a manner where a concealed weapon would save your life.
    – Your ownership of a handgun is a professional requirement.

    Those are the three that I can think of which actually make sense to me: dropping $500-$1000 on a tool designed to kill people doesn’t make sense to me otherwise.

    I realize that I own things that could kill people, but, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t own anything which was designed to, first and foremost, kill people/animals/things which are alive. ‘Because I want to’ isn’t a good enough reason to own a very efficient, purpose-built, killing device, like high-yield explosives. What are the (legitimate) justifications for owning a less-efficient killing device?

    I come from a Blue Tribe background, but I think that the aversion to private ownership of firearms not justified by one of the three points above is a good idea as opposed to an ideological habit. It seems to works well in other countries: Canada, large parts of Europe, and large parts of Asia, I think.

    Is this a Blue Tribe thing where I’ve just been told that handguns are bad so much that I’ve internalized it and gotten rid of any cognitive dissonance? I am on board with long gun ownership–you go out and buy that shotgun or rifle (with a low-capacity magazine and low rate of fire because you’re using it for home defence or hunting)! But I don’t get handguns in the volumes they are purchased in the United States. There aren’t enough shooting ranges or people who fear for their lives in public. Are there?

    • Max says:

      Sport can be a big reason (either shooting/hunting) and no -renting is not same thing. Ask any hardcore skier, golfer, tennis player etc

      Survivalist argument doesnt count? – you never know when sh1t might hit the fan and its better be prepared

      • psychorecycled says:

        Is a handgun good survivalist equipment? Long guns are better for hunting, and will kill your fellow man quite efficiently if and when they become a threat such that lethal force is an appropriate response.

        A lot of my aversion is (likely) due to the fact that I am really, really just not a big fan of killing people.

        Your comment on professional sporting is noted and appreciated.

        • Montfort says:

          If you read enough survivalist chatter, you’ll come across discussions comparing equipment. Usually someone trots out a phrase like “the worst gun [or other piece of equipment] for an emergency is the one you left at home” – you do still have to carry your firearm if you want to use it, and while slings exist, handguns are much more convenient.

          It seems many of them are concerned about self-defense, which a handgun does okay at.

          • vV_Vv says:

            But I think we can put survivalists, especially those who expect a sudden end-of-civilization apocalypse, in the nutjob bin.

            I assume that the OP was asking for reasonable justifications for handgun ownership.

            It seems to me that self-defense from random criminals may be a reasonable justification, depending on where you live and what is your job. Self-defense from zombies or some other nonsense is not.

          • Irrelevant says:

            While we almost certainly won’t contract Contagious Tasmanian Devil Face Cancer, if we do, the zombie preppers will be laughing all the way to the bank vault they now hide in.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          You could probably get a decent picture of the handgun / long gun tradeoff on any website discussing firearms. The traits that come most easily to mind for me:

          * range (long guns can shoot farther)
          * accuracy (long guns are more likely to put the round where you aimed it)
          * weight (long guns will take more energy to carry)
          * bulk (long guns will get caught on things handguns wouldn’t)

          I can think of other traits, but they are probably inconsequential (e.g. ammo for a long gun also tends to be heavier).

    • James Picone says:

      Relevant data: Australian firearms regulation. Handguns are limited to target shooters and some security guards.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Scott has a great piece on gun control at his old blog. Well, it’s actually a meta-level post about political argumentation which uses gun control as a case study, but that’s close enough for our purposes. You may find section 1 interesting.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        In part 1 of that piece, Scott added an addendum about how the CDC was banned from researching firearms violence. It’s a meme that comes up a lot in this discussion, so it’s interesting to take a look at the background of how that ban happened.


        Gun Control is my favorite example of the inherent fragility of science.

    • Irrelevant says:

      First, to the best of my limited knowledge on the subject you’re wrong in assuming that handguns are only the best choice for some sort of public “concealed weapon” scenario, and they’re also the best choice for the standard home invasion that a gun-owner would be worried about. Houses are, for obvious reasons, not designed to conveniently and effectively have rifles used inside them.

      To the point though, you’re a rationalist, act like it. History is blood and terror, humans are distinctly lacking in the armored plating and claw departments. Were you an alien biologist, you would conclude that humans need artificial weaponry like they need artificial shelter. What evidence leads you to conclude that you, specifically, are sufficiently safe not to need weapons? And given the strength of the prior that humans do need weapons, is it more likely that evidence is accurate and you, remarkably among all humans, is one of the exceptions, or that the evidence-giver is lying to you?

      The red tribe, in other words, considers claims of peaceful civilization in the same category as claims of psychic ability.

      • James Picone says:

        What evidence leads you to conclude that you, specifically, are sufficiently safe not to need weapons?

        Well I haven’t needed one yet, nor have the vast majority of people I know.

        This whole no-guns thing is working out pretty well from where I sit.

        (Possible confounder: I live in Adelaide, a not-particularly-dense city of ~1.1 million people with generally low crime, and I’ve never lived in one of the high-crime suburbs.)

        • caryatis says:

          Literally everyone is at some risk of being attacked, so everyone meets psychorecycled’s second criterion. I’ll take your word for it that you live in a low-crime area, but it’s not zero crime.

        • “Well I haven’t needed one yet, nor have the vast majority of people I know.”

          I’ve never been in a house that caught fire, and I don’t think I know anyone who has. I still have smoke alarms. If the negative consequences are large enough, it’s worth taking precautions against even unlikely risks.

          • Irrelevant says:

            If the negative consequences are large enough, it’s worth taking precautions against even unlikely risks.

            Also, of course, if the precaution is trivial enough in price.

            Hmm. The disaster prep equivalent to GiveWell would be fascinating.

          • switchnode says:

            Hmm. The disaster prep equivalent to GiveWell would be fascinating.

            Hm, yes! My first thought was go bags, but I don’t know of any group that’s ranked those or other suggestions by efficiency. Anyone?

          • James Picone says:

            The question was “What evidence leads you to believe you’re sufficiently safe without a gun?”, paraphrasing. The evidence that leads me to believe that is observing that, to the best of my knowledge, none of my friends or acquaintances have ever been in a situation where having a gun would be useful for self-defence (I do know some farmers who have guns for shooting kangaroos and/or rabbits).

            That influences the benefit end of the equation pretty substantially. The expected value of a gun purchase, for me, is negative. That’s all.

            Smoke alarms cost less than guns (especially when you include training and practice), and I run into fire a lot more than I run into violence.

            I do actually know one person who lost a family member in a house fire, but I’m not sure if it was a smoke-alarms-are-useful kind of fire, or a bushfire. And this kind of thing is sufficiently unlikely that it’s just a coincidence.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ switchnode

            My first thought was go bags, but I don’t know of any group that’s ranked those or other suggestions by efficiency.

            That would vary a lot by location, obviously. Hm, what about a bag that can hold several smaller modules, which are included according to the user’s most likely risks: fire, flood, ice, etc. And, to some extent, zie’s medical condition; test equipment, glucose, and a few other things that would be useful for all diabetics, though prescription medical supplies would not (and would not keep).

          • John Schilling says:

            Smoke alarms cost less than guns (especially when you include training and practice), and I run into fire a lot more than I run into violence.

            Really? Fire, as in uncontrolled, dangerous fire?

            In 2013, the FBI estimated 1.2 million violent crimes in the United States, resulting in over 14,000 deaths. The NFPA reports, coincidentally, 1.2 million fires calling for a professional response, but only half of those involved structures or vehicles and the death toll was only 3,200 or so. And while we have talked here before about the remarkable decline in violent crime rates in recent decades, both structural fires and fire deaths are down by more than 50% from 1977, compared to 25% for homicides.

            If uncontrolled home fires of the sort smoke detectors might be useful against are a thing you encounter more than “once in a lifetime, maybe, if I ask around my friends and family”, then you’re maybe doing something wrong. And if you think that home fires are a thing worth investing in security against, then violent crime would seem to justify a much larger investment.

          • James Picone says:

            Really? Fire, as in uncontrolled, dangerous fire?

            No, just fire.

            Trying to find equivalent statistics for Australia. This ABS page notes that:

            In the 12 months prior to interview in 2013-14, of the 18.5 million persons aged 15 years and over in Australia:

            418,200 (2.3%) experienced at least one physical assault
            538,500 (2.9%) experienced at least one threatened assault, including face-to-face and non face-to-face threatened assaults
            65,600 (0.4%) experienced at least one robbery
            Of the 17.6 million person aged 18 years and over, 48,300 (0.3%) experienced at least one sexual assault.

            So ~1 million if you just sum them up. Probably not an equivalent statistic to the one you quoted, because there are an order of magnitude less people over here. This page lists ~150,000/year. I’m not sure why the discrepancy.

            Couldn’t find housefire stats with a cursory look.

            But victims of violent crime are not a random sample of the population. And I have very few of the relevant risk factors. Non-bushfire house-fires are also not a random-sample, of course, but I think the effect isn’t as strong. I honestly think I have a larger chance of being in a house that catches on fire than being a victim of a violent crime.

            I also don’t think guns are straightforwardly beneficial in a violent-crime situation. I can see situations where pulling a gun escalates a mugging to a homicide, and I imagine in a country where civilians regularly have guns, people performing burglaries will be more likely to carry a weapon, and more likely to use it.

            Even without that, your own data is house fire deaths ~a quarter of violent crime deaths, and I wouldn’t be surprised if owning a gun and learning to competently use it costs more than four times what smoke alarms cost. Smoke alarms cost ~$20, according to the internet, and they need to be replaced once/decade. There’s very little maintenance required.

            How often do you need to practice with a gun to be basically competent? How much does that cost? I genuinely don’t know and have no real scale for it.

          • John Schilling says:

            I also don’t think guns are straightforwardly beneficial in a violent-crime situation. I can see situations where pulling a gun escalates a mugging to a homicide, and I imagine in a country where civilians regularly have guns, people performing burglaries will be more likely to carry a weapon, and more likely to use it.

            You can imagine this, but you can’t see it because it isn’t the case. The one time I know of that the FBI included “…so what did you do about it, and how did that work out for you?” in their periodic crime-victimization survey, self-defense with a firearm was the only response that reduced the risk of injury to the victim, by about 40% from baseline. Murders associated with robberies represent less than 6% of all homicides in the United States, and most of those do not involve gunfights with law-abiding citizens.

            Behaviorally, we observe that people who plan burglary in the United States, may or may not carry guns but are almost always careful to make sure the target building is unoccupied – you break in when the residents are on vacation, not when they are asleep. Muggers, similarly, use dress and demeanor to select the victims least likely to offer resistance, and in my experience respond to a gun by running away immediately.

            Unless murder was specifically the objective from the outset, a criminal cannot win an actual gunfight with an armed citizen; he loses the moment either party pulls the trigger, and the only question is how badly. Criminals seek to intimidate law-abiding citizens; they save deliberate lethal violence for their fellow criminals whose associates won’t cooperate with the police even if the police really cared about criminal-on-criminal violence.

            How often do you need to practice with a gun to be basically competent? How much does that cost? I genuinely don’t know and have no real scale for it.

            Maintaining sufficient competency that a handgun is an asset rather than a liability requires a few hours every six months or so, maybe $20-30 in ammunition. Much more than that if you want an even chance of winning a gunfight against a professional, but most criminals aren’t professional gunfighters and again the real standard is making it clear to the criminal that he’s actually in a gunfight without accidentally shooting any innocent bystanders along the way.

            Note that you’ll need a roughly similar degree of training and practice for a fire alarm to be anything more than a psychological comfort. All those fire drills you went through in school weren’t just there so the teachers could jerk you around, and that’s in mid-day. If the plan is that you’ll quickly and efficiently round up your family and your key valuables in five minutes at zero-dark-thirty with a siren blaring in your ear, that’s not actually going to work.

          • I know the plural of anecdote is not data, and, honestly, I am sort of on the fence about the whole firearm thing, in that I’m fairly sure I don’t ever want to own one (can’t picture myself pulling the trigger, even for intimidation purposes), but I can’t really justify to myself telling other people they can’t have one. So, largely, I let other people argue about the subject.

            South Africa is not the US, and it definitely isn’t Europe. The cultures are rather different, and the scenario I’m about to describe is probably not going to happen this way in either of the latter-mentioned nations.

            Nonetheless, I want to share that I might actually not be alive today if my parents hadn’t owned a gun.

            There was a brief time when my parents and I lived in Johannesburg, which has always had one of the larger crime rates, even within South Africa. My father had to leave on a business trip for a few days. One night, my mum woke up to the sound of glass breaking downstairs. She woke me up, got her gun, shot in the air to let the burglars know that she was armed, called the police, locked the door to the room and holed up in it with me, waiting for the police to arrive.

            When the police showed up several hours later, the burglars were long gone, of course (deterred by the gunshot), and mum and I came down and inspected the damage. They’d run off with our hi-fi and some other things. But the thing that was really scary (only in hindsight; as a child I was, amusingly, completely unbothered by any of this, and even wrote a little short story about it to make mum realise how awesome she was – though my school insisted on counselling, to my bafflement) was that they left a really nasty looking axe behind.

            We’re fairly sure they didn’t assume the house was unoccupied.

            Needless to say we moved back to Cape Town shortly after the incident (it wasn’t the first theft we had to deal with, just the most bold; previous cases had just stolen things out of our garden, despite the barbed-wire-topped walls around the premises).

            I don’t think we’d have likely been in a worse position if they’d also have had a gun. As far as we’re aware, they simply weren’t expecting any resistance and thought that if we were going to notice they’d shown up, they could just hack us down.

            Of course, this is just speculation I’m forwarding from the Jo’burg police that they in turn based on other burglaries in South Africa. That being said, a close friend of mine lost her father to him getting stabbed to death in a robbery (with an excessive amount of stabbing – they found something like sixteen stab wounds on the victim, or some other obscene number… the mind boggles), so I do believe the police’s assessment.

            tl;dr: Due to personal experience, I think guns probably help to defend from crime, even without that anyone has to die or be wounded in the process.


            I don’t want to weigh the above against a potential increase in school shootings or other issues that may or may not arise from gun ownership being wide-spread, because I don’t think I’m informed enough to make a statement about that. I also need to stress, again, that there are huge cultural differences between the US, South Africa, and Europe (where I now live).

            But I think sometimes having an actual story helps, and perhaps the above grants some insight into why some people feel strongly about being allowed to own guns.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            @Neike: While I agree with the “plural of anecdote is not data” aphorism, I appreciate anecdotes like yours as an existence proof (and in that sense, an anecdote is a datum). I.e., here’s how a scenario could play out, where owning a gun is seen as the most rational option; it’s stipulated that showing that scenario is frequent would be a separate step.

            (As far as defensive gun uses (DGUs) per unit time, most gun rights advocates tend to cite Gary Kleck’s figure (on the order of a million plus, per year); gun control advocates tend to cite David Hemenway’s figure (on the order of 50-80 thousand). Hemenway’s response to Kleck’s methodology appears plausible insofar as I’ve skimmed it, but appears short of a refutation. I tried looking for a little while for responses to Hemenway’s methodology – nothing’s turned up for me so far. To know more, Wikipedia’s article on DGUs is a fine starting point, including the talk page.)

            Glad you survived that burglary.

          • Irrelevant says:

            gun control advocates tend to cite David Hemenway’s figure (on the order of 50-80 thousand)

            …Which is still an order of magnitude larger than shooting deaths. Good to know the issue is settled.

          • Limi says:

            This conversation has long moved on from this point by now, but I think it’s important to note that comparing the gun situation in the US to Australia is comparing apples and oranges – for one, Australia never had gun ownership as a central tenet of citizenship, and gun control has been in effect here for nearly two decades now.

            This has undeniably had a positive effect on our rate of large gun incidents, but it has also had a negative effect too – for example while I don’t know if John is correct when he says Behaviorally, we observe that people who plan burglary in the United States, may or may not carry guns but are almost always careful to make sure the target building is unoccupied – you break in when the residents are on vacation, not when they are asleep. it is certainly no longer the case in a, where the incidence of people being burgled while they are at home has risen dramatically (unfortunately I can’t find the stats at the moment, but I will update this post when I do). I generally don’t think an American and an Australian can have a discussion about gun control, we’re just not talking about the same thing.

          • John Schilling says:

            [low estimate of armed self-defense in US is 60-80,000/yr]…Which is still an order of magnitude larger than shooting deaths. Good to know the issue is settled.

            Well, not quite, because not every defensive gun use results in an innocent life saved. Taking Neike’s story as a reasonable prototype, armed citizens will initiate armed self-defense as soon as they become the victims of attempted robbery. Yet, in the United States at least, only about 0.2-0.3% of robberies lead to murder. So 60-80,000 defensive gun uses would only come to 120-240 innocent lives saved, and Keck’s 1.2-1.5 million DGUs would give 2500-4500 saves. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

            And, of course, this is properly compared not against the total number of shooting deaths, but the shooting deaths attributable to defensive gun use – which is even harder to calculate, as a great many defensive gun uses wind up being officially categorized as unsolved murders. Probably in the range of 500-2000/yr. Perhaps the killings we really care about in this context are the innocent bystanders, the accidental shootings, and the like, rather than the violent criminals who got what they signed up for; that likely brings the total down by an order of magnitude or so but makes the numbers even harder to pin down.

            And possibly if we try to do this ethical calculus on a consequentialist basis we find that the psychological costs outweigh the physical, with millions of people either living in terror or empowered to overcome their fears as they overcome their attackers. But good luck doing the math on that one.

            So, no, the issue isn’t settled. Unless maybe you’re a deontologist or a virtue ethicist; some of those can pin it down pretty firmly by their own standards.

      • Does humans need weapons mean all humans need weapons,. or is it OK to arm only a caste of professionals?

        Does arming yourself still make you safer, when everyone else arms themselves.

        Is the end point of an arms race a good place to be?

        • Irrelevant says:

          End points of arms races are all of the best places to be. It’s the beginnings of new arms races you want to avoid.

          No particular opinion on the other two questions.

          • @Irrelevant

            Being at the end point of an arms race is undesirable to me because I don’t want the extinction of the human race to add to my worries.

            Did you get that my other two questions were intended to hint that your rational way of answering the quesiton actually biases it quit a lot.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Of course I got that, all three of your questions are standard arguments whose existence was taken into account when I made the original statement.

            As for bias, I’m actually of the opinion that Americans own quite a wasteful number of guns, but debating the optimal number of guns is impossible in an environment where a substantial portion of the speakers refuse to acknowledge there is an optimal number of guns.

        • Jiro says:

          Hiring a caste of professionals is expensive (and if you’re referring to the police, the police do not have the legal obligation to protect you, contrary to popular belief, and will probably not arrive in time to save your life anyway).

          And arming yourself leaves you safer if the people who would hurt you are stronger than you physically and/or have enough numbers to safely overpower you physically. Guns are called equalizers for a reason.

          • “Hiring a caste of professionals is expensive ”

            Compared to what?

            “(and if you’re referring to the police, the police do not have the legal obligation to protect you, contrary to popular belief, and will probably not arrive in time to save your life anyway).”

            I’m amazed you can know that when you dont know which country I live in.

            “And arming yourself leaves you safer if the people who would hurt you are stronger than you physically and/or have enough numbers to safely overpower you physically. ”

            Strategies that lead to better outcomes individually can lead to worse outcomes globally. Tragedy of the commons and all that.

          • Jiro says:

            If you come from a country where the police can be sued for failing to protect your life, I’d be really surprised. The only legal ruling on that subject that I *know* about is for the USA, but it really wouldn’t make sense for any country.

          • @Jiro: Just for completion’s sake, it doesn’t strike me as an altogether strange notion. In Germany […] a citizen is obliged to provide help in case of accident or general danger if necessary. Note that this is not the same as a duty to protect, which I don’t know whether it’s given for police, and can’t seem to find something about just yet, but at the very least, police are also citizens and thus have a duty to rescue.

            Whether their special status increases this duty to a duty to protect, I don’t know.

            It’s also possibly and immediately plausible to me that they might have a de-facto duty to protect, because the degree to which they can be “reasonably expected” to help is raised enough by their training and background to effectively make the duty to rescue rule (as applied to them) look near-indistinguishable from a duty to protect; but ultimately, I don’t know, and this is just speculation on my part.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            If you live in a country with a professional police force, it is a very safe conclusion that the police have no duty to protect individual citizens.

            If they had such a duty, the police would be liable in the frequent event that they fail to protect citizens from harm through accident, negligence, etc, and the civil system would be rapidly sued into bankruptcy.

            [CW: rape and general awfulness]

            The modern police system is explicitly designed to provide deterrence and to catch and punish criminals after the fact. Response times in the case of an actual incident are usually pretty bad. Like it or not, individuals are responsible for their own safety. According to the fairly massive amount of data available, guns are the most efficient method for self-defense.

        • Ptoliporthos says:

          Historically, arming a caste of professionals always seems to work out better for the armed caste than the disarmed caste.

          Like Bryant said in Blade Runner: “Stop right where you are! You know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people!”

          • “Historically, arming a caste of professionals always seems to work out better for the armed caste than the disarmed caste.”

            Even when they are the ones who do the dying on the battlefield, and the disarmed caste are the ones who do the being protected?

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Yes because the armed caste proceeded to rule over everyone else in peacetime (and much of the time the unarmed caste was also dying on the battlefield; they tended to be conscripted to be porters, camp followers and the like).

            The only big exception to this in the ancient world I can think of was China.

          • Irrelevant says:

            The only big exception to this in the ancient world I can think of was China.

            Not my area, but the impression I get is that the military history of China is so odd because rather than running out of room for princes, they kept running out of room for peasants.

        • John Schilling says:

          If you give a caste of professionals a monopoly on some vital function, you are now utterly beholden to that caste and any demands it may chose to make upon you. This is particularly true if the function is defense.

          We had the discussion here not long ago about how various bad decisions by the Pentagon had given the Lockheed-Martin corporation a monopoly on the ability to defend western civilization against enemies with mechanized armies for the next thirty years, and consequently LM was filling out a blank check with the value of One Trillion Dollars and expecting it to be honored. For real, and it will be.

          Now how does that play out when the police realize they have the same blank check? They are already quite well-paid, once you factor in overtime and benefits, but just for example there’s that thing with the cop-cameras and the no more “street justice” or at least cut down on the shooting unarmed black teenagers and the like. Lot of cops don’t seem to like that sort of meddling by ignorant liberal do-gooders.

          And you can maybe make the cops wear the cop-cams, but you can’t make them respond to a rape-in-progress call in less than an hour. When, between the Blue Flu and the White Mutiny, the police in YourTown can’t offer anything more than sympathy for your daughter’s third rape this year, well, there’s ThatOtherTown with no cop-cams and lots of beatings and dead black teenagers – and no rapes of pretty white girls.

          You’re moving to ThatOtherTown. Oh, yes, you are. Or else you’re voting for the sheriff who proposes to implement ThatOtherTown’s proven style of policing in YourTown.

          Or you’re giving your daughter a handgun, and teaching her how to shoot it, and at whom. Your choice.

          • “If you give a caste of professionals a monopoly on some vital function, you are now utterly beholden to that caste and any demands it may chose to make upon you. ”

            So you are utterly beholden to the evil doctors and and accountants? No, because specialised castes can still have oversight. If you do things right.

            “hen, between the Blue Flu and the White Mutiny, the police in YourTown can’t offer anything more than sympathy for your daughter’s third rape this year, well, there’s ThatOtherTown with no cop-cams and lots of beatings and dead black teenagers – and no rapes of pretty white girls.”

            I have no familiarity with those specific problems , because I live in a place where they dont happen.
            Because of doing things right.

            ETA If we were education or health, your brain would probably be capable of entertaining the thoughts “improve the schools” and “improve the hospitals” as options.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            That’s not the greatest example given that (in the US) medical costs have ballooned out of control and the tax code continuously increases in complexity.

            While the latter is probably unintentional, the former does look like the large scale rent seeking.

            Of course this is dependent about the caste developing… class consciousness! And police are a lot more likely to develop it than other professions.

            For just a simple example, look at California (I know, they are uniquely dysfunctional) prison guards who earn unusually high salaries.

          • Irrelevant says:

            So you are utterly beholden to the evil doctors and and accountants?

            In that anyone who does not charter the appropriate holy accountants and insurers is breaking the law, yes.

      • psychorecycled says:

        I’m friends with a couple of pro-gun individuals, including a few that keep weapons in the house due to a fear of being attacked. In this situation, they have indicated that they’d prefer a shotgun loaded with pellets light enough that they won’t go through drywall (they have family) which maintain enough stopping power to put someone down. There seems to be disagreement in the self-defence community about what you should keep in your house to stop people from killing you.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          The best tool? A sign out front that indicates you are armed. The trick is to make sure that only people who own guns have the sign; maybe a copy of your registration?

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Why do you think only people with the sign should have guns? Why not let anyone have such a sign, armed or not, and force would-be home invaders to have to play the roulette game?

        • Irrelevant says:

          A barbican.

      • I don’t have a strong opinion on individual moral choices on this issue (I live in Australia where we have lower gun ownership than US), but I imagine in area where they feel relatively safe and where law enforcement is reasonably reliable, then people might rationally assess that the likelihood of an accident or firearm theft (shot with your own gun for example) might actually be considerably higher than the chance of successfully saving your life with one.

        • Irrelevant says:

          Oh, certainly. To be clear here, my point wasn’t to say “Cassandra is right about everything, cower in the hills with a gun in each hand!” but to frame for the perspective that this is an Exceptional Claim Meets Extraordinary Evidence scenario.

      • vV_Vv says:

        What evidence leads you to conclude that you, specifically, are sufficiently safe not to need weapons? And given the strength of the prior that humans do need weapons, is it more likely that evidence is accurate and you, remarkably among all humans, is one of the exceptions, or that the evidence-giver is lying to you?

        Professional specialization. We have a few highly specialized and trained categories of people: soldiers, police officers, private guards, who are wield weapons and provide (broadly defined) security and defense services in a well regulated way.
        They may not be enough satisfy all reasonable personal security needs, thus they may be some niche for non-professional privately-owned weapons, but they should be enough for most people.

        Indeed there are many first-world country where non-professional private ownership of weapons is banned or severely restricted and these countries have low crime rates, and no or low war/terrorism/guerrilla within their borders.

    • Vamair says:

      I’m very far away from any gun control debates, but I’ve always thought that letting citizens own guns allows for much more effective militia formation, either for a protection against some sort of invasion or for a revolution if a country falls under control of a non-benevolent dictator.

      • The question of whether it is in my interest to own a handgun and the question of whether it is good for people to own handguns are not the same. In my view, the strongest argument for the right to bear arms in modern society is that if citizens are disarmed, then the cops become the only protection against crime, and if the cops are the only protection against crime people will be tolerant of increases in the power of the cops.

        • Irrelevant says:

          I remain optimistic for the replacement of cops with private security.

        • someone says:

          a rough out of my head correlation of countries’ armament rate vs willingness to accept police power are not at all correlated the way you’d expect from this, rather inversely. switzerland being the only data point supporting your theory

        • RCF says:

          Also, the provision of that protection is dependent on political favor.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Reasons off the top of my head:

      – historical value
      – family heirloom
      – fear of assault in a manner in which *open* carry would make a difference
      – defense of property
      – creating / modifying / testing handguns as a hobby
      – education (showing other people how to handle one)
      – cheap deterrent against foreign / domestic invasion

    • Cauê says:

      I see this from time to time as a talking point from the Blue tribe, but I think it’s backwards. If people want X, that’s their business, and what needs justification is forbidding X.

      (I realize that Blues assume that the case for prohibition is obvious or has been conclusively made, but it turns out that no, it isn’t and it hasn’t, and I don’t think people are aware of that)

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      The default assumption is that people should be allowed to do anything they want for whatever reasons they want. If you are going to ban something you need to show this will reduce harm.

      There have been many studies on gun control. The sign of the effect on crime is disputed. However the magnitude of the effect is always tiny. Even if the sign was not disputed a tiny reduction in crime does not justify overruling the preferences of millions of people.

      Gun ownership does not cause much (if any) net damage relative to how many people own guns. So I couldn’t care less why people want to own guns. All preferences are legitimate even if we cannot satisfy them all!

      • Leo says:

        About half of suicides in the US are by gun. Suicidal people tend to be impulsive and just not commit suicide at all if a method is removed. Wouldn’t banning guns entirely reduce suicide by at least 25%?

        • Jaskologist says:

          I’m not suicidal. Should something be prohibited to me because 0.0067% of the population has impulse control problems? If so, what else should we ban?

          • Leo