OT26: Au Bon Thread

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

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1,101 Responses to OT26: Au Bon Thread

  1. Interesting thing I discovered in the wake of the recent shooting in Virginia: the rainbow flag (apparently one was found in the perpetrator’s apartment) is seen by some conservatives as a symbol of “anti-Christian hate” and “religious oppression.”

    Is this a widespread view? I had no idea.

    The gay pride rainbow flag reportedly found in Flanagan’s apartment is seen by many as a symbol of anti-Christian hate.

    After a white racist terrorist in South Carolina murdered nine innocent black churchgoers, photos of the racist with the Confederate Flag resulted in a media frenzy to ban the flag.

    Like the Confederate flag, the provocative gay pride flag, a symbol of religious oppression, has flown on government property….

    Thus far, other than a mention in the Telegraph, the media has not reported on the fact that Flanagan might have owned the LGBT rainbow hate-flag. Link

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      It’s annoying when the left plays victim. When the right does it too, it just doubles the annoyance.

    • Echo says:

      You’re probably missing the “bitter parody” angle here.
      Remember when the owner of the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard said he was going to paint over its flag, and the media cheered for him? Conservatives were joking that he should rename it to something inoffensive to the left, and suggested “General Che” with a cuban flag.

      It’s just a way of pointing out that one small group of people gets to decide what is and isn’t considered “offensive and hateful”.

  2. DoppiaEmme says:

    A leftist critique of the principles behind effective altruism, which might engross our gracious host or some of the people around here in this thread

    • Nita says:

      Summary: EA supports capitalism instead of dismantling it

      Well, yes, but I think most people here are already aware of that.


      “In arguing for their prescriptions, Effective Altruists often cite influential philosophers and religious figures expounding this principle. One of these is Mencius, the foremost interpreter of the Confucian tradition, who is said to have confronted King Hui of Liang and said: “there are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, ‘It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.’ In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying ‘It was not I; it was the weapon?’”

      The principle implicit in this passage doesn’t just apply to those with a little expendable income — if it does at all. It applies more immediately to members of the capitalist class who, just like the king, make it their business to control what others need for life and a minimum standard of living. When people die from lack of food, clean water, and medical care, members of the capitalist class say, “it is not owing to me; it is owing to the market.””

    • Nita says:

      On the other hand, the article does contain a few interesting links:

      The fallacy of philanthropy says ‘feed the hungry’, presenting liberal politics (do-good-ing) as an ethical duty. It short-circuits political discussions of large scale causes of poverty. I argue (Section VII) that much poverty is created by institutions that could be other than as they are.

      US$991.2 billion flowed illicitly out of developing and emerging economies in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. The illegal capital outflows stem from crime, corruption, tax evasion, and other illicit activity.

      Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) have been imposed to ensure debt repayment and economic restructuring. But the way it has happened has required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and development, while debt repayment and other economic policies have been made the priority.

      Funding social movements empowers communities to fight for their own needs, growing our society’s democratic forces.

    • onyomi says:

      Radicals on both left and right sometimes espouse the idea of “worse is better,” on the theory that by making a fundamentally evil or unworkable system function better, you are just enabling it. Radical leftists will say that charity prevents the fundamental contradictions of capitalism from fully manifesting themselves, and libertarians sometimes criticize people like Milton Friedman for thinking of ways to make the government suck less (because that only delays the day when people realize that government, fundamentally sucks, and should be abolished). There are also the libertarians who would rather a more statist Democrat win than a less-statist but still not libertarian Republican should win. The idea is that if you keep “reforming” welfare, social security, etc. you just delay the day when it inevitably crumbles. They would rather the evils of the state be manifested faster so we can get past them.

      I won’t deny this appeals to me, especially when politics feels like a super-slow-motion train wreck, and one just wants it to be done with so we can move on to something better.

      Yet at the same time, my current position is that better is better and worse is worse. If you can make things better, even if it’s not as better as you’d like, you should still do it. If you can prevent things getting worse, you should still do it, even if it seems strategically a bad idea. Not only does this seem morally more defensible, but I think the idea of “better before it gets worse” has a very poor track record. One would hope, for example, that the citizens of formerly socialist dictatorships would be like, super free market and liberal (though that does seem to be sort of true in places like Estonia?), but generally they seem to be more pro-state, and more amenable to socialist-type policies even after socialism has resulted in mass starvation, genocide, etc.

      And honestly, if people learned from their mistakes, why would Detroit keep voting for Democrats?

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Radicals on both left and right sometimes espouse the idea of “worse is better,” on the theory that by making a fundamentally evil or unworkable system function better, you are just enabling it. Radical leftists will say that charity prevents the fundamental contradictions of capitalism from fully manifesting themselves, and libertarians sometimes criticize people like Milton Friedman for thinking of ways to make the government suck less (because that only delays the day when people realize that government, fundamentally sucks, and should be abolished). There are also the libertarians who would rather a more statist Democrat win than a less-statist but still not libertarian Republican should win. The idea is that if you keep “reforming” welfare, social security, etc. you just delay the day when it inevitably crumbles. They would rather the evils of the state be manifested faster so we can get past them… but I think the idea of “better before it gets worse” has a very poor track record.

        The term for this kind of political strategy, in which a hated system is not to be reformed, and perhaps even to be helped along, in the hopes of speeding up the inevitable day when it collapses/the people wake up/whatever, is “accelerationism”. I agree that it doesn’t seem to have a very good track record; I can’t think of any notable accelerationist successes.

      • Nita says:

        One would hope, for example, that the citizens of formerly socialist dictatorships would be like, super free market and liberal

        1. Their first experience of the free market involved things like seemingly legitimate banks that turned out to be Ponzi schemes, collapse of various industries, and criminal gangs openly running protection rackets. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them decided that they don’t like it at all.

        2. If the state suddenly stopped paying pensions in the course of its transformation into a libertarian paradise, many retired citizens would starve. They know this, and keep a keen eye on the welfare policy.

        • John Schilling says:

          1. Except for those who emigrate to nations with established market economies, who are in my experience about the strongest proponents of free-market capitalism you will find.

          2. Hyperbole. Most people really, really dislike seeing their neighbors starving in the streets and will privately arrange to avoid this if the state doesn’t. It takes deliberate effort to arrange mass starvation in a nation with sufficient agricultural productivity is sufficient to feed everyone. However, most pensioners have a higher threshold for political action than “Hey, I’m not literally starving”, so the same point can be made without the hyperbole.

          • Nita says:

            1. True, but those emigrants are not a random sample — clearly they already thought that more capitalist countries are doing something right. E.g., this set is more likely to contain aspiring young businesspeople frustrated by the Soviet laws, and not senior citizens who were hoping for a peaceful retirement after a lifetime of factory work.

            2. Eh, in my book, needing food so badly that you’ll beg for it counts as starving. It’s a matter of opinion, I suppose.

      • And honestly, if people learned from their mistakes, why would Detroit keep voting for Democrats?

        (1) Detroit’s collapse is traceable to factors mostly irrelevant to partisanship. Detroit has been poorly served by both Republican and Democratic politicians. I think I wrote about this at some length earlier.

        (2) Detroit is sui generis, with a history unlike any other large city. Whatever you know about New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Boston or Philadelphia is not applicable to Detroit.

        (3) Politics has become largely nationalized, in Detroit just like everywhere else. African-Americans (in all parts of the U.S. including Detroit) vote against Republicans, based on the perception that Republicans don’t care about their interests. Republican political campaigns usually have little to say to the black community, because it makes more sense to use scarce time and resources in more productive ways. Those factors are mutually reinforcing.

        • Anon says:

          I’m interested in Detroit-related stuff. Got a link?

          • I’ve linked my personal rant about Detroit to my name, above. It’s not footnoted, and maybe some details are wrong, but it sums up my understanding of how Detroit wound up the way it is.

            There’s also a book that came out a couple years ago — Detroit City Is The Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, by Mark Binelli — which updates the story in many fascinating ways.

            Binelli writes:

            But there could also be another story emerging, the story of the first great postindustrial city of our new century. Who knows? Crazier things have happened in Detroit. It’s a place so unspooled, one’s wildest experiments, ideas that would never be seriously considered in a functioning city, might actually have a shot here. Nothing else had worked, and so everything was permitted. The ongoing catastrophes had, in a strange way, bequeathed the place an unexpected asset, something few other cities of it size possessed: a unique sense of possibility.

  3. Linch says:

    MacAskill’s book had a throwaway line that suggested that while chickens and pigs had lives with net suffering, dairy cows had net positive lives.

    Does anybody have any more information on this?

    • Kyle Strand says:

      Ancient Romans used the same word to mean both “fat” and “happy”, especially when applied to cattle. Dairy cows are kept nice and fat. Case closed!

  4. Black Mountain Radio says:

    So while some small percent of Reddit’s average users moved over, a very large percent of its witches did. Sometimes the witchcraft was nothing worse than questioning Reddit’s political consensus. Other times, it was harassment, hate groups, and creepy porn.

    So my understanding of the “Freedom On The Centralized Web” post is that people won’t go to an unpopular website that are websites full of witches about witchcraft and so moving from one online community is hard because of inertia and “establishment” websites and users slandering competing websites/communities. While this makes sense for a community like reddit having trouble moving to, say voat, it doesn’t make sense for why more of 4chan hasn’t moved to 8chan. 4chan’s most popular board is /b/ and it’s basically made of witches posting witchcraft. 8chan has a /b/ board that is witchy-er witches posting ultra-witchcraft. While reddit users aren’t by-and-large looking to practice dark arts, I was under the impression that most channers are. If that’s the case, why didn’t more of them move?

  5. noodles says:

    I remember seeing a paper about a woman (still alive) with basically absent frontal lobe, yet only slight mental retardation and no serious problems, a month or two ago, but can’t find it now. Does anybody have a link?

  6. Kyle Strand says:

    I suppose this is the best place to post a brief response to Kavec’s posted about undefined behavior that Scott highlighted, since it’s something I’ve been dealing with at work recently (I’m a C++ programmer)–although it’s also somewhat relevant to the latest post.

    Undefined behavior in the sense Kavec describes, with time-travel and whatnot, is only relevant to the C and C++ languages as described by their respective ISO standards. It is not relevant to other languages (even though languages like Fortran have some undefined behavior, which, as far as I can tell, really means something more like “unspecified”). And it is not relevant to reality–even in the realm of C and C++. The community, for some reason, seems to love emphasizing that “anything” can happen due to UB. But just because the standard doesn’t prohibit the compiler from doing something physically impossible doesn’t mean that the compiler will therefore be capable of doing the impossible; the standard doesn’t need to prohibit “nasal demons” (the canonical mostly-joking example of UB) because reality has conveniently already done so. Similarly, the compiler running on your laptop can’t form a black hole due to UB (yes, this is another example I’ve seen someone give of possible UB), regardless of the fact that, yes, it would still be standard-conformant if it did.

    What does this have to do with Kavec’s application of UB to Bayes and rationality? Well, Kavec’s idea of UB has very little to do with the actual nature of C compilers, much less to do with reality and mathematical models. Improperly estimating the probability of something using a faulty model and faulty inputs is highly likely to lead you to an incorrect conclusion, but so is refusing to estimate the probability of something because you lack any model at all, and the faultiest model isn’t going to cause time travel or create an invisible dragon in your garage.

    Any model that we attempt to create of reality is always going to be imperfect, because models by their nature elide information, and the universe is too full of information to completely comprehend anyway (even before taking into account the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). But models are incredibly–and obviously–useful. Newtonian physics fails to take many of the universe’s oddities into account, so you could say it exhibits “undefined behavior” when applied improperly–but it was still sufficiently accurate to get us to the moon and back.

    (I’ve been thinking quite a bit about UB recently because I ran into a situation at work where I’d forgotten a simple line of code and the compiler failed to warn me that I was invoking UB. I asked a stupid question about it on StackOverflow, but the question generated quite a few interesting answers and a lot of really excellent commentary, and it has somehow become my top-rated question on the site. )

  7. Douglas Knight says:

    Google thinks you’ve been hacked. As a consequence, that page is censored from normal searches.

  8. Pablo says:

    Is it worth seeing a psychiatrist to determine whether you have an autism spectrum disorder, if you think it’s plausible that you don’t have such a disorder and there isn’t a clear negative effect in your life? Or any negative effects that you perceive in your life might as easily be because of something else instead of the disorder?

    A few years ago, a friend told me that (at different times) a friend of hers and her mother asked her if I had Asperger’s, after I had brief interactions with those individuals. My friend’s friend was a recently minted college graduate who majored in psychology, and the mother worked at some sort of place related to mental health, I forget what. Also, my older brother wondered if I had Asperger’s after reading Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, which is about some hedge fund guys who made money in the 2008 crash, one of whom was diagnosed as an adult with Asperger’s. And when I was a little kid, apparently the school psychologist (or social services person or whatever) suggested to my parents that it was a possibility, but either they later decided I didn’t have it, or my parents didn’t believe them. My father believes I don’t have it, and was generally unhappy with the social services people at the school I went to (because I had to go to speech therapy and never really got my speech issues fully cured, whereas the speech issue he had as a child was resolved when he was 6 or 8 or so. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes that I attended elementary school in a rural rednecky part of New York whereas he attended one in a reasonably well off suburb of NYC.)

    My speech issues include a tendency towards monotone, sometimes talking louder than I realize I am, and issues with certain sounds (mainly vowels) which can make people who don’t know me think that I have a Canadian or British accent of some kind. I also sometimes can phrase things in a stilted way. I’m told that some of these are common among people with ASD.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that any social difficulties I have are worse than any social difficulties any other person has, and while I have things I’m interested in, I’m not sure I’m more interested in them than any other normal person, as far as I can tell without being able to read minds. And presumably my parents have some reason or another to believe I don’t have it. But none of the people who know me well (my parents and older brother) are experts, and the closest things to experts who have suggested it either didn’t interact with me for very long or suggested the possibility so long ago that no one can remember whether they retracted their hypothesis or if we simply chose not to believe them for whatever valid or invalid reason.

    In any case, I currently have health insurance, so I could see a doctor about it if I wanted, and I am mildly curious, but if I am successfully holding down a job and have no real complaints about my life in general, other than the sort of complaints which are due to the weakness of the economy for the past few years and deaths of close family members, should I bother seeing the doctor just to satisfy my curiosity?

    First time commenter at this blog, but have looked at it and Less Wrong for a while, and would like to take the time to give a thumbs up to Scott for being awesome and having the same name as my younger brother, and to all the commenters, who are better than the commenters in a lot of the blogs I read.

    • Peter says:

      There’s something to be said for keeping diagnoses off your medical notes (a moderately common sentiment amongst ASD types); I’m not sure what the law is like in your part of the world, but even if the law is friendly, having a diagnosis on your notes can cause unwanted hassle or worse. I managed to have the start of my job delayed for five weeks because of this.

      Apparenlty the big three causes of adult ASD diagnosis are a) the possibility coming up when trying to treat mental health problems such as anxiety, depression etc. b) relationship (as in marital) difficulties and c) having a child diagnoses with ASD. So if things take a turn for the worse then it might be worth re-considering.

    • Peter says:

      (gah – silly web browser is causing me problems…)

    • Nornagest says:

      What are you expecting a diagnosis to buy you?

      • Pablo says:

        Satisfaction of my curiosity, mainly. I don’t plan on really revealing it to anyone in ‘real life’ if I get a positive diagnosis. I frequently feel paranoid about interacting about people and it would probably help with that to know whether I’m just a poorly socialized person, or if I have a metal disorder.

  9. Does linking p-zombism with non-belief in the concept of qualia strike anyone else as a little ominous? Or is it just me ( <– see what I did there )

  10. BBA says:

    The Hugo Awards winners are out, and all the puppies lost.

    I predict a few more years of “How DARE you try to restrict the Hugos to people who share your politics? They’re supposed to be for people who share MY politics!”

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Puppies forced the SJWs to vote No Award in five different categories. That was a pretty good result all by itself; it’s a proof of concept that Vox Day’s strategy of burning the Hugos to the ground is feasible. Winning the awards would have been preferable, of course, but if they cannot be captured, at least they can be denied to the enemy.

      Incidentally, did anybody else here watch the Brainstorm Hugo Party webinar? It was pretty fun watching the Hugo broadcast in one window and Vox Day’s reaction in the other (although listening to two people talking at the same time was somewhat difficult).

      • Protagoras says:

        On what basis do you conclude the no award victories were produced by SJWs as opposed to merely people with good taste in fiction?

        • I think there was a strong SJW influence– otherwise the puppy nominees would probably mostly have come in at low ranks, but there wouldn’t have been nearly so many votes for No Award.

          This isn’t the sort of victory the SJWs want, and it’s going to interesting when changes to the nomination process come into play.

          I don’t see destroying the Hugos as any sort of victory and I don’t expect it to happen.

        • bluto says:

          The vote counts are released, and since its STV its not hard to see the various blocks from cross support.

        • Peter says:

          The results look in many places specifically anti-Puppy – but not uniformly so. Guardians of the Galaxy managed to win one despite being a Puppy nomination in a category with two non-Puppies. It’s obvious from the nominations that there was a lot of interest in that film from non-Puppy sources.

          One thing is clear – the surge of new members of the electorate isn’t a surge of Puppies. Now if these new members would get busy with the nominations for next year then hopefully there can be a ballot that contains things that the voters are inclined to vote on and things will be OK.

        • Anthony says:

          Because the “No Award” voters thought The Day The World Turned Upside Down deserved an award. Because the “No Award” voters voted as a bloc on the Best Novella category, when there were at least two, and probably three, nominees which were at least as good as the winners of the previous few years. Because more than three times as many people voted for “No Award” as for Totaled.

          • Brian says:

            This very much. If you compare the results to George R.R. Martin’s predictions, which I take as strongly indicative of what a vote based on “good taste” looks like, you can tell it was anti-Puppy rather than pro-quality based on the results Anthony noted (I personally thought “Big Boys Don’t Cry” was excellent in the Novella category), as well as the two editor “No Award” votes (especially long-form, where everyone across the spectrum agreed Toni Weisskopf deserved it on merit, but the Puppy-Free ballot had a No Award).

          • walpolo says:

            And Mike Resnick is a good choice for editor-short form as well.

            On the other hand, I doubt any of the John C Wright stories deserved to beat No Award on the merits. These were stories that Wright could only get published with Vox Day’s publishing company.

          • Held in Escrow says:

            Big Boys Don’t Cry was literally a hatefic aimed at an internet commentator who the author really loathed. There was nothing more to it.

          • Brian says:

            Held in Escrow–

            Are we talking about the same story? Because the one I read, and the one described in this review, is a cool thoughtful piece about the ethical implications of using (and discarding) self-aware military AI. I could use a cite for the claim that it’s hate-fic directed at an Internet commenter.

          • Held in Escrow says:

            Google Tom Kratman Athene (or it might be Thanatos); basically he lost an e-argument with an ex-tanker years back and had had an axe to grind since.
            I’m generally one of the last ones to cry “misogyny in genre fiction” but even Frank Millar was more subtle than Kratman

          • John Schilling says:

            Googling “Tom Kratman Athene” gets me an extremely negative review that I was only skimming towards the end but didn’t seem to mention any feud. “Tom Kratman Thanatos”, a very extended review that I’m not even going to skim unless you narrow it down.

            Noting that there’s a tanker that Kratman hates, even if adequately supported, is insufficient to establish “Big Boys Don’t Cry” as a personal attack; it’s pretty clearly a repackaged Bolo work, and that’s something that MilSF writers tend to write even without a vendetta driving them. Nor is the connection to Kratman’s supposed misogyny as obvious as you think it is – he hates women, so he writes a story where the sympathetic protagonist identifies as a woman? Almost certainly the tanker he hates from way back isn’t a woman; he’s not old enough to remember World War II, and there haven’t been women tankers between then and quite recently.

            I’ve never enjoyed a Kratman work that I can recall, and I stopped reading him altogether maybe 5-10 years ago. I won’t dispute the broad claim that BBDC wouldn’t have had a shot at the Hugo without slate voting. But the narrow claim that it was a personal attack on some specific target, needs more support than “google this, plus he’s a misogynist”.

          • Mike S. says:

            The extremely negative review (at least the one I found) has a brief mention that a messed-up tank that “was never properly integrated” called “THN” is supposed to be Athene, and that this is part of a running series of similar incidents. (“I told my mom about him making me a pedophile and killing me a ton”)

            Neither Kratman’s writing nor Athene’s makes me particularly interested in pursuing the question further. But stipulating the claim, the incident is a brief sideswipe rather than the central matter of Kratman’s story.

          • Nornagest says:

            it’s pretty clearly a repackaged Bolo work


          • John Schilling says:


            A sufficiently common and explicitly acknowledged trope in military science fiction that, if an artificially intelligent superhuman tank is a viewpoint character, the work is probably a Laumer homage.

            At a minimum, nobody in the field would tuckerize a real person as an AI supertank character without understanding that the community would see this as a Laumer homage, thus a default positive portrayal and not an effective way to score points against a nemesis.

      • Anon says:

        It continually baffles me how the various Puppy supporters characterize voting “No Award” in the Puppy-dominant categories as some kind of ‘scorched earth’ tactic, or somehow more destructive than the original problem of one slate determining the only possible nominees.

        From the point of view of the anti-Puppies, surely this is triage; the damage has already been done, but at least you can prevent it from being *worse* .

        • LHN says:

          Isn’t the same true of literal scorched earth tactics used as a defense? Deliberately sacrificing a limited territory in order to deny its use to the opposition, in the hopes that this will slow or stop their advance and protect the remainder of the territory?

          I’m at least assuming the strategic intent is that if the Puppies can’t win Hugos with their current methods, they’ll have to either change them or withdraw in exhaustion. Because who wants to pay ~$40/year for nothing?

          (My sense is that the Puppies are widely perceived by their opponents as having no interest in the Worldcon beyond the Hugo vote. Attending members, and those paying primarily to support the convention independent of the Hugo are presumed, rightly or otherwise, to be strongly non or anti-Puppy.)

          Presumably both sides think they can outlast the other at this point. Assuming a deadlock that isn’t broken by nomination reform on one side or sufficient raw numbers on the other, which first gets tired of an award process that doesn’t produce awards outside the top categories for years at a time is an empirical question.

          But the No Award victories tend towards the Pyrrhic. They may have denied the other side victory (aside from the trollier of the Rabids, for whom breaking the Hugos is likely in itself a win), but they still lost the opportunity to identify and honor award winners this year. I don’t personally know anyone on either side who was actually happy with the outcome.

    • John Schilling says:

      The Hugo Awards winners are out, and all the puppies lost

      “Guardians of the Galaxy” won, and that was both a Sad and Rabid Puppy nominee. But if you’re talking about purely written fiction:

      Best Novel was won by the sixth-place nominee, who was on the Hugo ballot only because one of the puppies chose to withdraw over the controversy.

      Best Novelette was won by a non-puppy because the Sad Puppies only chose to nominate four works for that category.

      Every other fiction writing or editing category, the puppies secured all five slots in the nomination and their opponents rallied behind “no award”.

      So, all of the puppies lost, and almost all of the non-puppies lost, and the Earth was well and truly scorched except in places where the puppies chose to withdraw. The anti-puppies are calling this a victory.

      The next year will indeed be interesting. If the Puppies chose to nominate five works in every category, there will be much more scorched Earth and the Hugos will probably be dead. If the Puppies chose to nominate only three or four per category, the non-puppies will sweep the board, and there will be much rejoicing among the anti-puppies in spite of the fact that their victory came by the grace of their hated foes. In which case, unless they are extremely gracious in their victory, 2017 will also be very interesting.

      In completely unrelated news, Andy Weir’s “The Martian”, the best and by far the most popular science fiction novel of 2014, was excluded from the ballot because the committee can’t figure out a decent way to deal with self-published works. Let the Hugos burn, preferably in the LOX/methane plume of a MAV under full power. I’ll be reading the good stuff, and blowing up building rockets.

      • BBA says:

        That’s assuming the puppies continue to control the nominations and the anti-puppies continue to control the final vote. Since everyone’s been made aware of how the process works, that seems unlikely to me.

        I’ve read that there will be rule changes in place next year to prevent these ballot-stuffing campaigns. Hopefully the changes will take – if not we’ll just get further escalation.

        • John Schilling says:

          There cannot be rules changes in place next year, because rules changes have to be ratified in two successive years.

          And do you really mean to suggest that excluding the registered voters whose votes (one per person) should be dismissed as “ballot stuffing” is the way to avoid further escalation? You think that’s actually going to result in the Puppies quietly going away?

          • brad says:

            I think the emerging idea is to discourage full slate nominations. If everyone is limited to a single nomination per category (or at least such votes are more heavily counted) than dominating the entire nomination becomes a much more difficult coordination problem. It means you need to create 5 sample ballots and distribute your supporters evenly among them somehow.

      • Echo says:

        Yep. Let’s keep handing them petrol and matches, and see if they’d rather burn down their playground than let anyone else in.
        If they do, it’s no loss.

      • Peter says: is remarkably interesting reading in the light of the above.

        Guardians of the Galaxy – the numbers on nominations are much larger here than in the written works – it seems highly likely that most of the nominators weren’t Puppies. So it’s clearly a work that non-Puppies actually liked.

        Best Novel – the two runners-up were non-Puppy too. Also worth noting is that Skin Game survived being no-awarded despite being Puppy.

        Best Novellete – the Sads did indeed nominate four works. The Rabids nominated five, and would have got a lock had the work been eligible. But it seems that Mr. Beale screwed up. The numbers incidentally are proof if proof were needed that the Rabids were the dominant driving force among the Puppies.

        It’s notable that the pattern of nominations differs between short and longer fiction. The slate effect seems particularly pronounced in the Short Story and Novella category, in the novellas the runner-up in the nominations didn’t get far off a place. If the Hugo voters got more busy with nominating they could prevent a lock there. Best novel seems fairly robust; given the pre-eminence of the novel, it’s good that that particular one is relatively Puppy-proof.

        The Martian: I did some reading, and things seem to be more complicated that that. It is indeed a brilliant book; it was also published in 2012. There seems to have been some confusion over eligibility, so you see a fair number of nominations this year – evidently the organisers don’t feel the need to rule on the eligibility of works “below the line”. Now it is a damn shame that all this came between such a brilliant work and a Hugo, but such is life.

        I notice that the Sads had previously pretty much disavowed any attempt to burn the Hugos. The big cause of the trouble seems to have been the Rabids, but hopefully people can come up with an appropiate immunoglobin in time. Maybe it’s as simple as getting people who had turned out to vote to turn out to nominate. From the nominations I estimate about 160-165 Rabid nominators – it shouldn’t be too hard to drown them out, should it?

        Long Live the Hugos!

        • John Schilling says:

          The Martian: I did some reading, and things seem to be more complicated that that. It is indeed a brilliant book; it was also published in 2012.

          And “The Three Body Problem” was published in 2008. Yes, we get that there is a “complicated” process by which the committee decides which nominations it will accept and which it will reject in cases like these. The results are patently nonsensical and the institution increasingly indefensible.

          • Peter says:

            Could you cite your sources which say that the committee rejected the nomination? As far as I can tell Weir himself was under the impression the work was ineligible, 141 nominators seemed to think otherwise and the results show no sign of the work having been deemed ineligible.

            In related news, we can also see who the Puppy slates pushed off the ballot for the Campbell awards. Oh look, right at the top of the list is Andy Weir. So Weir was robbed, and it was the Puppies who robbed him.

          • Echo says:

            Peter, making things up isn’t the most effective way to prove points.
            Just to start, you’re going to have to show some kind of evidence the puppies were involved in the campbell awards in the first place.

          • Peter says:

            Indeed, making things up is not an effective way to make a point. Which is why I’m not doing that.

            Evidence, as requested:


            Note the bits at the bottom of the two slates, saying “THE JOHN W. CAMPBELL AWARD”.

            That’s pretty conclusive in my books, but to further confirm, look again at Note how the Sads nominated three and the Rabids added a fourth. Note how that slate matches the top four nominations. Note how the Rabid-only candidate gets notably fewer nominations than the other three Puppy candidates – who get remarkably similar numbers of nominations.

            Now how about the evidence I requested?

        • walpolo says:

          Seems like one of the main takeaways here is that the Puppies really are a fringe group rather than a significant portion of serious fandom. At least, if there were enough of their supporters who cared enough to vote, the overall awards would not have gone the way they did.

          • John Schilling says:

            From the detailed vote counts, I get 1200 Puppies, 2400 Anti-Puppies, and 2400 voting their personal tastes – See also Brian’s comments on the subject. The Puppies seem to be divided 2/3 Sad and 1/3 Rabid, but that’s harder to pin down.

            I think 20% is well above the usual threshold for “fringe”. More to the point, it means that any organized Puppy slate that corresponds roughly to good taste in non-SJ science fiction is likely to dominate the nominations unless there is an anti-Puppy slate, regardless of the voting scheme.

          • walpolo says:

            Of course the SP3 slate was the farthest thing in the world from good taste in non-SJ SF. Good taste in right-wing message fic and Brad Torgersen’s self-published buddies, more like.

            If there were a Puppies slate that focused on good work, I would actually welcome that.

            But you’re right, fringe is too strong a word. Significant minority is more like it.

        • Brian says:

          From the vote breakdowns, we can see how many people voted the anti-Puppy slate even in the big, widely known categories (best novel, best dramatic presentation (long and short)):

          Best Novel: The anti-puppy slate was Ancillary Sword, Three Body Problem, and Goblin Emperor in any order, followed by No Award. With the three non-puppy novels removed, 2674 voters put No Award ahead of Skin Game and Dark Between the Stars. Since one would have to be politically motivated or insane to think Skin Game should be behind No Award, I’m comfortable saying that all of these voters were voting an anti-Puppy slate.

          Best Dramatic Presentation (long): Non Puppies were Captain America and Edge of Tomorrow. Guardians of the Galaxy won the first pass; Captain America and Edge of Tomorrow were 2nd and 3rd. On the fourth pass, 1105 voters put No Award ahead of The Lego Movie and Interstellar. Again, I’m comfortable saying that anyone voting that way voted straight anti-Puppy–so at least in this category, many of the anti-Puppy voters broke off, correctly seeing this as a category where the Puppy nominations didn’t matter.

          Dramatic (short): Orphan Black and Dr. Who were the non-Puppy nominees. They were also 1 and 2. On the third pass, 1194 people put No Award ahead of the other three, which included an excellent Game of Thrones episode. So, about the same number of strict anti-Puppy slate voters as in long form.

          In every other category, one can isolate about 2500 anti-Puppy slate voters. So my conclusion is that about 2500 voters voted straight anti-Puppy regardless of merit in all categories except dramatic presentation, where only about 1000-1200 did so in those categories.

          • Peter says:

            Best Dramatic Presentation (long): many of the anti-Puppy voters broke off, correctly seeing this as a category where the Puppy nominations didn’t matter.

            Alternative hypothesis: the Puppies happened to pick a film that was genuinely popular with non-Puppies. Looking at the nomination scores – oh, they’re the gift that keeps on giving – we see 769 nominations for GotG. Outside of the Best Dramatic Presentation (long) category the best Puppy pick (Skin Game – widely touted as a popular work) got 387 noms, and a lot of the top Puppy picks got fewer. So I’m counting a lot of non-Puppy support for GotG – plenty enough to for it to have been on the ballot even without the Puppies.

            This is all consistent with what a lot of non-Puppies were saying during the voting period – they’d had a look at the Puppy works, but didn’t like them.

          • Brian says:


            The nominations predated the major fight–the anti-Puppy crowd ignored the Puppies until the nominees were announced. My estimates of slate voters are based on the ballots for which the probability of slate voting is much greater than merits voting, specifically:

            Novel: Ballots that put No Award ahead of the two Puppy novels are unlikely to be merit-based; ballots that put Three Body Problem ahead of the Puppy novels may very well be merit-based. Remember that the correct vote for “I didn’t read this book and have no opinion about it” is no preference, not No Award. If you read Skin Game and didn’t like it, I assume you have neither a soul nor a sense of humor 🙂

            Dramatic (long)–we can’t isolate the official anti-Puppy slate vote because Guardians won, but I find it hard to believe someone would think neither Lego Movie nor Interstellar should be behind No Award on merit. Again, if you didn’t like either of these movies, there’s something wrong with you.

            Dramatic (short)–Similar to long, if someone voted all the Puppy nominees behind No Award, that seems unlikely to have been based on merit.

            Editor (long)–Given that the big names in sci fi regardless of politics said Toni Weisskopf deserved this one, I’m comfortable saying the No Award votes here were anti-Puppy slate voters.

            I’m trying to be as charitable as I can in determining anti-Puppy slate voting–e.g., I’m not assuming No Award votes in all-puppy categories were anti-Puppy slate votes unless reputable non-aligned people (like GRRM) have vouched for them, or unless (like the dramatic categories) I know enough to conclude otherwise.

            Novelette’s also a weird one–I find it hard to believe anyone could read all the works and conclude on merit that the order should have been “The World Turned Upside Down,” No Award, then the 4 Puppies, given that as far as I can tell no one reviewing the winner thought it was very good. And the 2500 votes that went that way match the 2500 that look like anti-Puppy votes in the other categories.

          • Peter says:

            The reason I’m talking about the nominations is precisely because it pre-dates the major fight. I want to get away from the “how can anyone not like X” and “if you didn’t like X, there’s something wrong with you”. Taste is subjective, opinions as to Hugo-worthiness doubly so. I think the result of recent votes suggest that the opinions of non-Puppy nominators are broadly in line with the opinions of non-Puppy Hugo voters; people can and do argue about what those opinions should be.

            There’s no official stipulation for what No Award should go to. Personally I think that if a work was incapable of being nominated without assistance from the slates, then it was entirely reasonable to No Award it. GotG was clearly on the other side of that line. Skin game? 387 nominations… If you subtract out 250 or so (see lots of the works that appeared on both slates), that’s 137 noms. That’s a fair way down the list, quite safely into “not nominated” territory.

            I do think that many non-Puppy voters have allowed their anger at the Puppies to influence their behaviour and opinions – last year, the Puppy nominations tended to come last among the actual awards, but there was only one work that placed below No Award – one by Vox Day. Proving that a vote was cast regardless of merit requires more than that – not only must you show that non-merit factors entered into the decision, you must exclude the possibility that merit factors entered in. TBPH I think it’s perfectly fine to No Award works which aren’t on the ballot fairly, especially in cases where those works have excluded the possibility of other works appearing on the ballot, but nevertheless I don’t think that’s the way that many non-Puppies have thought.

            There’s a distinction here between the varieties of Puppies. The Sad Puppies have made noises about people taking a flexible attitude to the slate: the slate post says: “As noted earlier in the year, the SAD PUPPIES 3 list is a recommendation. Not an absolute.” However, we’ve known for a while that the Sads were a numerical minority among Puppy voters, and the real powerhouse was the Rabids. The RP slate post says: “I encourage those who value my opinion on matters related to science fiction and fantasy to nominate them precisely as they are.” (Also the Rabid slate made 5 nominations in more categories than the Sad slate). Had the Puppy problem merely been a matter of the Sads – hell, had the Puppy problem been mainly the Sads – I may well have been taking a different line here.

            The Hugos have been wounded. They have been savaged by diseased animals, and some of the worse bites had to be cauterised to prevent infection.

          • walpolo says:

            >>Remember that the correct vote for “I didn’t read this book and have no opinion about it” is no preference, not No Award. If you read Skin Game and didn’t like it, I assume you have neither a soul nor a sense of humor

            What would be the correct vote for “This book is OK, but there were much better books this year that were forced out of the running, so this book is not a good contender for an award”?

          • John Schilling says:

            What would be the correct vote for “This book is OK, but there were much better books this year that were forced out of the running, so this book is not a good contender for an award”

            As with any other two-tiered voting system, either a vote for the best remaining candidate, an abstention, or owning up to the label of Wrecker. Per the Hugo web site,

            “You should vote for No Award as your first choice if you believe that none of the nominees are worthy of the Award, or that the Award category should be abolished.”

            Nothing about whether other works were worthy of the Award, just whether all of the actually nominated works were, in their own right, unworthy. And I’ve got no argument with the possibility that many people may have believed many of the works to have been unworthy. I can even buy the Best Novella and Best Short Story nominees as having been honestly No-awarded in total on their merits.

            But: 2,674 people (47.3% of voters) put “No Award” above Jim Butcher’s “Skin Game” for best novel. Butcher’s previous Hugo nomination was in 2009, for “Welcome to the Jungle”, a graphic prequel to “Skin Game”. All of 64 people (5.9% of voters) put “No Award” ahead of “Jungle”.

            Butcher’s Dresden Files series is extremely consistent in content and has been almost universally agreed to have improved with time. Voter standards may be different for graphic vs. text novels, but it is beyond credibility that a difference of such magnitude represents the actual tastes of a consistent electorate.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Brian
            Best Novel: The anti-puppy slate was Ancillary Sword, Three Body Problem, and Goblin Emperor in any order, followed by No Award.

            Iirc, some Puppy said The Three Body Problem would have fitted their criteria also, being Hard SF. I first heard about TBP on LJ, being recommended as from a Chinese author! translated by a Chinese!; none of those posts mentioned its content, except for one saying it was dull, with too much science stuff.

            So in an AU without all this vindictiveness, TBP would have been the obvious Hugo winner — getting votes from both Puppies and SJWs. In our universe, its Hugo took a lot of coincidences. Odd outcomes there; maybe it was aliens.

          • Brian says:


            Agreed, Three Body Problem is a proper winner based on merit, and the Puppy leaders said they would have endorsed it for a nomination had they read it ahead of time. I’m not sure if it wins in a non-Puppy world, though, because it was likely Puppy votes that put it ahead of the other non-Puppy choices.

            In any case, that wasn’t really the point I was trying to make. If you’re trying to isolate slate votes, you look at ballots for which the probability of them being merit-based is low. No Award over Skin Game is one such ballot for the anti-Puppy slate. Vox Day for editor is one for the Rabid Puppy slate. Etc.

          • John Schilling says:

            Three Body Problem probably would have won on merit if it had been marketed as a Good Hard-is Science Fiction Novel in a world free of Puppies and anti-Puppies. Instead, I think it won because of A: merit, and B: late Puppy endorsement and C: being written by a Chinese Guy from China, thus Yay Diversity!. A disturbing fraction of the early reviews and recommendations had focused on that last part to the exclusion of almost everything else; I had a hard time finding out what the book was about and whether it would be worth my time to read it.

            As an actual member of a Puppy slate, you obviously get more positive votes from category B, and some extras in category A from people who wouldn’t otherwise have read it. But some of the category C votes turn into “No Award” by reflex and regardless of merit. Not clear whether this is a net win; the actual outcome may have been the best possible case for TBP.

          • AJD says:

            “You should vote for No Award as your first choice if you believe that none of the nominees are worthy of the Award, or that the Award category should be abolished.”

            Nothing about whether other works were worthy of the Award, just whether all of the actually nominated works were, in their own right, unworthy.

            But if you believe a work was not worthy of being nominated, surely a fortiori you believe that it’s not worthy of the award.

          • John Schilling says:

            Agreed, in the absolute sense. But only in the absolute sense. If a work is only “not worth nominating” because the voter thinks five other works were better but the rest of the electorate didn’t agree and left them off the ballot, then no. “No Award” is for works that wouldn’t be worth the award if they were literally the only thing published in the previous year.

            This is what nominations are for. And ranked-preference voting, for that matter. “Yes, we understand that you really think Bernie Saunders would be the Best President Ever. That’s not going to happen in 2016; can you at least join us in agreeing that Hillary Clinton is Good Enough, or sit back quietly and let us get on with business rather than shutting down the federal government for the next four years?”

          • Cauê says:

            [Edit: ninja’d]

            But if you believe a work was not worthy of being nominated, surely a fortiori you believe that it’s not worthy of the award.

            Some books can be “worthy” of being nominated even if at other five are deemed “more worthy” and it’s thought that it should be left out. Same thing for the award.

            Otherwise, we’re left with an interpretation of “worthy” that would mandate that one always vote for one book (the worthy one), and No Award above all the others.

          • AJD says:

            You are welcome to interpret the instructions for “No Award” that way; it seems that some people interpreted them slightly differently.

            I think it was via Barry Deutsch that I found this analogy that I think is quite apropos: If a runner in a race is found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs, they are disqualified from winning even if they did not need the drugs in order to win and would have won even without them.

          • Nornagest says:

            If on the other hand a fencer wins a title because of a novel tactic that’s not banned but generally thought not to be fair play, the rules or equipment are likely to change next year, but he keeps his title.

          • Cauê says:

            This is more like a runner winning a competition where a couple of other runners were poisoned by third parties, and the winner had nothing to do with it.

            Edit: something like this.

      • AJD says:

        Wait, is this the same Andy Weir as the one behind the webcomic “Casey and Andy”? I wondered what he’d moved on to.

        • John Schilling says:

          Yes, that’s him. And if you remember your Casey and Andy, you may notice that Jenn Brozek did garner a Hugo nomination, albeit in one of the No-Awarded categories. Apparently she’s retired from the international jewel thief business and now edits short fiction.

    • walpolo says:

      The sad thing is, I do absolutely believe that conservative authors’ work is rarely evaluated purely on merit. Indeed, the work of liberal authors gets the same treatment pretty frequently (as in the case of Tricia Sullivan’s Shadow Boxer). The real problem in SF is the insane online SJW movement that’s sprung up since RaceFail09. That’s what the Sad Puppies people are really reacting to. Unfortunately their plan for doing something about it will accomplish nothing (it tries to treat a distant symptom rather than the disease) and will inflict plenty of collateral damage.

      • walpolo says:

        Amazingly, there is such a thing as a reasonable, moderately conservative point of view on the 2015 Hugos:

        • Cauê says:

          Yes, that looks quite good.

          The Three-Body Problem situation is yet a little more interesting than he mentions, because, as Twitter likes to remind me, VD had said earlier in the year that Three-Body Problem would have made the Rabid slate if he had read it in time. Whether it would have been allowed to win by the anti-puppies in that case is left to the imagination.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Pretty good article, but it keeps saying Torgesen “should have” stated that the sweep was not intended and he’d take precautions against it next year, such as fewer Puppy nominees in each category, or so many that the Puppy vote would be split.* In fact Torgesen did state just that! (I didn’t note the url, but it was in Torgesen’s own blog.)

          * Imo limiting Puppy/anti-Puppy nominations to 1 or 2 per category is a good idea (the SMOFs are working on that), but having a lot of Puppy nominations and trusting the Puppies to split their votes among them, is a silly idea. All it would need is an informal slate within the slate from Vox Day, to organize the Puppies to ignore the extra nominations and converge on the best five.

          • John Schilling says:

            And even if we presume that Vox Day drops dead of a heart attack, how does this play out?

            1200 puppies, 2400 anti-puppies, 2400 neutrals. Presuming the Puppies (alone) engage in disciplined slate voting and at least moderately align their preferences with the neutrals, they can claim three or four nominations per category under any likely voting scheme. Reliably if they nominate three or four, with some degree of uncertainty if they nominate six or more and count on the uneven vote split to do the job for them.

            The one or two non-Puppy nominees will be the consensus choice(s) of the Anti-Puppies, not independent choices emerging from the diverse opinions of the neutrals. Then 2400 Anti-Puppies then vote their one or two favorites followed by “No Award”. There’s no practical way to turn off that behavior at this point. At least 100 of the neutrals will independently put at least one of the Anti-Puppy choices somewhere above “No Award”.

            The Anti-Puppies win every award in every category. The propaganda writes itself. “See, there’s no conspiracy to prevent those ‘Puppy’ books from getting a fair shake at the Hugos! It’s just that nobody else wants to vote for their crappy books! The voters have spoken, and the Puppies lost fair and square, by a landslide, in every category!”.

            How does this outcome help the Puppies, or the Hugos? At best, it hurts the Hugos less than did this year’s outcome – but at the expense of ceding de facto control of the Hugos to the Anti-Puppies, making them into a thing that is no longer of any value to the Puppies. So I’m not seeing what’s in it for them.

            And Vox Day, who probably isn’t going to have a heart attack, can do this math as well as I can.

          • brad says:

            I don’t think you can hold the anti-puppy vote as a constant. The size of that group depends in no small part on how “reasonable” the puppy coalition acts.

            If, for example, the puppies were to consist of one nominee for each category, I think there’d be very few dedicated anti-puppy voters. Which is not to say the puppy nominees would win, or even get a fair shake, but I don’t think there would be a concerted effort to vote no award ahead of them. The exception would be if Vox Day is a nominee, I imagine no matter what else happens there’s going to be a significant block of voters that want to no award him.

          • John Schilling says:

            If the Puppies nominate one work per category, the pre-ballot narrative will be, “The Puppies have decided to focus all their votes on this one horrible piece of reactionary pulp; This Must Not Happen!”. And they won’t be exactly wrong about that; a solid block of 1200 Puppy votes for an otherwise-median nominee[*] will usually win unless actively opposed.

            Each potential Anti-Puppy gets five ranked preference votes and has read four nominated works that they like. You think they are going to make their fifth vote in favor of the “reactionary pulp”? That they are going to leave a vote uncast when there is an important battle to be won?

            Anybody who voted Anti-Puppy this year, will almost certainly cast their otherwise-useless fifth-preference vote against the Puppies next year. (edit – in the hypothetical case where the Puppies nominate only one work per category)

            [*] The Puppies need at least some Neutral support to win, so they’ll lose if they actually nominate horrid reactionary pulp. That seems unlikely; Vox Day put some stinkers on the Rabid Puppy slate but I think just to fill out the five slots and raise a gratuitous finger to the Antis.

          • walpolo says:

            If I recall that post of Torgersen’s, it was something like “Wow, ha ha, we didn’t intend to sweep the nominations, but we sure are pleased to have achieved so much! Keep the flame, guys! Semper fi!”

            Not exactly “We didn’t expect to sweep the awards, we’re sorry to shut out everyone else completely, and next year we won’t do it again,” which is what Givens thinks he should have said.

          • BBA says:

            “Presuming the Puppies (alone) engage in disciplined slate voting…”

            Well, there’s the rub. I fully expect an anti-puppy slate next year. Sauce for the goose and all that. So the nominations phase turns into a partisan squabble for turnout, with both parties denying their actions are partisan, just trying to wrest the awards away from the eeevil cabal that’s taken them over. And so on. This is what GRRM meant by the awards being broken.

            I was anti-puppy this time because of a sense that they violated fair play. If the result is for the “good guys” to throw fair play out the window, then screw the good guys. I’ll go make my own scifi awards, with blackjack, and hookers! In fact, forget the scifi awards!

  11. Agronomous says:

    My wife: “My friend Leah has a new article up on The Federalist.”
    Me: “Leah who? Do I know her?”
    My wife: “I don’t think you’ve met her; her last name’s Libresco.”
    Me: “You know Leah Libresco?”

    Small world. Living in Washington, DC probably makes it smaller….

    • Echo says:

      Wouldn’t it be nice if interesting people like that were drawn to places that were actually good to live in? 😀

      • Agronomous says:

        DC can be interesting if you’re into politics—the nitty-gritty sausage-making kind, not the what-kind-of-system-should-we-have kind. Also the inside-baseball battling between parties and factions and who knows what else.

        I am not. I’m stupid enough already; I don’t need that kind of politics robbing me of yet more precious IQ points. I prefer places with more tech (and not just the government-or-military tech that’s practically the only kind around here), and college towns. But, oops, I have roots here now, and I’m not going to disrupt my kids’ lives over what I get to do with a few free hours every week.

        Having said that, are there any other DC-area SSC fans? Would a get-together be feasible?

  12. Pku says:

    1) In response to this: (TLDR: rational agents should generally more or less agree on everything, even with finite computational power): Does anyone have a good idea why real people tend not to act like this? (in theory, it would lead to the best decisions, so why haven’t people evolved to think like this?)
    Potential explanations:
    a) People tend to assume they’re smarter than other people, so they can disregard their opinions.
    b) People’s beliefs are more about signalling than making the best decision (it’s more important for your reproductive success to come off as the smartest guy in the tribe than to actually make good decisions).

    2) I’m teaching calculus next semester, and we’re experimenting with a “flipped” classroom (where the students watch online lectures beforehand and then talk about them in class). There seem to be a lot of people here with strong opinions about teaching here, what do you think about it?

    3) Anyone else here read the Dresden Files? It seems like the sort of thing a lot of people here would like.

    4) Is there any Rationality/SSC community/meetups in the NYC/New England area?

    • 1.

      People don’t share priors.
      People have differing values, which are difficult to update by exposure to facts/information.
      There’s no universal agreement on what counts as facts/information.(meta level differences)
      Trying to resolve meta level disagreements by appeal to facts/infomation runs into strange loops.

    • Troy says:

      Here’s Huemer on why people are irrational about politics:

  13. Carinthium says:

    I know it’s a bit late for this, but IRL I’ve just learned I’m going to be discussing the question of Free Will with a few other Philosophy students (casual discussion, not university) in about a week. Thus, requesting people’s views on the question to help me revise.

    NOTE: My own view is not very dissimiliar from standard Lesswrong, but I’m open to arguments from all sides as any philosopher should be.

    • walpolo says:

      What is the standard Lesswrong view of free will? (Prediction: it involves misconstruing the problem in such a way that it turns out to have an easy solution.)

      • Peter says:

        For EY: There’s a post from the sequences – which goes for compatibalism – or stronger. Also, there’s: “You don’t need neuroscience or physics to push naive definitions of free will into incoherence” which I interpret as saying that there are various concepts of free will, and some are incoherent. The post is connected with a bunch of posts to do with the philosophy of time which look pretty strongly like the B-theory.

        • walpolo says:

          That’s actually a very reasonable view (at least assuming the different concepts are taxonomized in a reasonable way).

      • JE says:

        I think the standard answer is that the question is meaningless. That “free will” isn’t a term that refers to any meaningful position.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Well I’m not sure whether this makes sense outside my head and it’s at least partially derivative, but I have a counter-argument for the very common idea that determinism is incompatible with free will / choice.

      Let’s say you have to choose your side for lunch, soup or salad, and you choose the soup. When you make that choice you have free will: that side of soup, whatever the reasons you chose it, is your choice.

      Then a day later I ask you if you remember what side you picked the day before. You correctly remember it was the soup. The choice is still free, and even if you had perfect knowledge of your past action rather than a fallible memory it would presumably not matter at all.

      So what if a day before your lunch I went to the Oracle at Deli and she muttered “soup” as the inevitable result of destiny. Assuming her foreknowledge is of equivalent accuracy to your memory, why should that eliminate your choice while the memory doesn’t? And just as a man with an infallible memory still made choices in the past, a man with infallible prophecy should still be able to make choices in the future.

      Even if the future and present are just as fixed as the past, that shouldn’t matter for the purposes of free will.

      • Troy says:

        This is closer to an argument for theological compatibilism than ordinary compatibilism — that is, it shows that free will is compatible with foreknowledge (and the only kind that’s likely to exist is divine), not with determination.

      • walpolo says:

        Here’s the problem with this: What’s under your free control can change over time.

        What you have free will (or control) over at a given time is what’s up to you at that time. Say the waiter asks you “Soup or salad?” at 5:00 and you respond “Soup” at 5:01.

        At 5:00, it’s up to you whether you order soup at 5:01.

        When it gets to be 6:00, it’s no longer up to you whether you eat (ate) soup at 5:01. You once had control over your 5:01 soup-eating, but now time has moved on and you no longer have control over it.

        So it’s false to say that the passage of time doesn’t “eliminate your free choice.” In the relevant sense, it does. At 5:00 you have free will (we’re assuming for the sake of argument) about what to eat at 5:01. At 6:00 you are no longer free to decide what you eat at 5:01.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Right, but the choice at 5 is just as free looking forwards from 4 or backwards from 6. The knowledge of what you did or will choose in itself doesn’t eliminate your choice.

          • walpolo says:

            But the knowledge of what you will choose doesn’t by itself mean that the future is “just as fixed as the past.” The past isn’t just fixed in the sense that we know the past. It’s fixed in the sense that the past isn’t under anybody’s control.

            You might even know your future actions and still have them under your control (for example, because you’ve already decided you’ll order soup tomorrow). But even after you’ve forgotten the past, the past is never under your control.

            (On the other hand, if the future is predetermined by the past, we have the classic puzzle about free will–because the past is not under your control, and so it seems the future must not be under your control either.)

        • Peter says:

          I think you’re assuming that there’s a single, unified, coherent, “given” concept of what free will is. I haven’t read all of the experimental philosophy literature on concepts of free will but this paper sticks in the mind. The paper stops short of concluding that the folk concept is incoherent, but I’d say it supports that view.

      • Pku says:

        I’ve thought this for years, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone else articulate it. (Note that I still don’t believe in free will, or have even heard a good definition of what “free will” should be, as opposed to the alternative. But I agree that predictability doesn’t necessarily contradict it.)

  14. onyomi says:

    This is maybe like the reverse problem of the “evaporative cooling of group beliefs” problem:

    In the past several years I’ve observed a few different “insurgent” political movements (Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and soon maybe Black Lives Matter, and the Donald Trump candidacy, if that ever made sense at all) fall apart into incoherence as they attracted more and more disgruntled people with grievances ranging from “the capitalist system,” “fracking,” “the truth about 9/11,” etc. etc.

    In other words, in any society (or at least ours) there seem to be a whole bunch of disgruntled single issue or cluster of issue groups just waiting for their “moment.” Thus, whenever, anything comes along which could plausibly be perceived as momentum for their “moment,” they suddenly emerge from the woodwork and try to make it about their issue. The insurgent movement tends to be welcoming, since, after all, they represent all those unhappy with “the system” in its current incarnation, or at least like to think they do.

    Is there some sort of term for this phenomenon in political science, and is there any way to avoid having it happen to your movement? I don’t mean ideological purity tests, exactly, but is there a way to expand a movement, especially a grievance-based movement, without attracting everyone who has a grievance about anything?

    • brad says:

      You can be centralized / hierarchical and have a concise message with achievable goals.

      Occupy Wall Street deliberately eschewed both. BLM looks like it is rejecting the latter, and is only partly centralized. The Tea Party is a sort of strange hybrid of grass roots efforts which are ineffectual for the same reason as OWS and one or more astroturf efforts which are fairly effectual. Perhaps ironically most in the movement claim to prefer the former and deny that the later exists at all.

    • PC says:

      Occupy Wall Street was started by people with grievances about “the capitalist system.”

      • Nita says:

        Presumably the original grievances were somewhat more focused. E.g., “Stalin’s purges violated human rights” is more focused than “collectivism is evil”.

    • Simon says:

      Occupy Wall Street might not have achieved very many of their concrete policy demands, but they *have* been successful in shifting the spectrum of socially acceptable political views, the so-called Overton Window, further to the left. I don’t think the election of SYRIZA or the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign would have happened so easily without OWS.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        “I’m just moving the Overton Window” is the modern salve of people who never had the social skill or ability to compromise. Plus it’s more fun to be an extremist.

        In a universe without Occupy, SYRIZA would still exist, because Europe and Greece in particular has always had extreme parties. And lots of people always vote against having their benefits being taken away.

        In a universe without Occupy, Sanders would still be a candidate, because populism has always been around in primaries.

        In a universe without “the Overton Window” being a known phrase, just as many people would hold extreme views. They would just come up with some different reason why it was a good idea that actually promotes their views, instead of facing the risks that moderates will quickly move away from them.

        • I’m pretty sure that the Occupy movements did a lot to make income inequality (rather than, say, something like too much money going to the wrong people) a public concern.

          • Simon says:

            That’s my main point. I don’t think either SYRIZA or Bernie Sanders would have become anywhere as popular as they did if it wasn’t for OWS making strident left-wingery more socially acceptable than it’s been in a long time.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’m pretty sure that the Occupy movements did a lot to make income inequality […] a public concern.

            I think refusing to make definite suggestions worked out well. It precluded the national discussion from getting hung up on details of a particular policy (say, restoring Glass/Seagel, which would also have sent out of the discussion those people who care about spelling).

            Locate the problem (99% of the wealth held by 1% of the population), give it a catchy name, and show why it’s important. Thus getting others to look for various solutions.

  15. Amanda says:

    Does anyone have experience dealing with nerve dysfunction in your hand(s)? The left half of my left hand (including my ring and pinky fingers) has been asleep for a little over a week. I went to a doctor and she said my ulnar nerve had probably gotten compressed or otherwise harmed and that there was nothing I could do to get it to go away except to wait and to stop typing. I also got a splint/brace thing (not sure what they’re called, it’s not super solid though), but that didn’t help either.

    I read online that anti-inflammatories can help, but I tried ibuprofin and it didn’t seem to do anything. I also tried keeping my elbow straight based off info from online, which does help a little bit, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything to get the numbness to go away completely.

    Is there really nothing else I can do? I’m so sick of my hand being asleep. I just want it to wake up. ): If anyone has any suggestions, they would be most appreciated! Thanks!

    Edit: Also, not sure if this is relevant, but my left shoulder also hurts really badly and I don’t know why, but since the ulnar nerve passes through there I think it might be related.

    • Nornagest says:

      I damaged a nerve in my hand in a forklift accident about a year ago. That caused me to lose sensation in one of my fingers — almost completely for two of three weeks, and partly for a month and a half or so, after which it slowly recovered. It’s entirely back to normal now.

      Nerves just take a while to heal. I was not prescribed anti-inflammatories or any other drugs and I didn’t stop typing, but it wasn’t an RSI-type injury.

      • Amanda says:

        It’s good to hear that your hand is back to normal now! I guess I really do just have to wait. Thanks for telling me about it; it makes me feel better to know that someone else regained sensation in their hand after having it be numb for so long.

    • Troy says:

      Do you use any vibrating machinery, like edge trimmers? Nerve damage can sometimes be a result of that.

      Can your doctor refer you to any physical therapists? They can sometimes help with things like compressed nerves.

  16. grendelkhan says:

    It’s belated, but I don’t know where else to put this.

    Google recently released Project Sunroof, a tool to estimate whether it’s profitable to put solar panels on your house and make customer referrals to installers. Customer acquisition is nearly half of the “balance of system” cost, i.e., the non-hardware cost. So the idea is that Google can find customers for installers cheaper than the installers can, and take a slice of the efficiency for itself.

    Much of the comment-section stuff I see is guessing that Google is going to sell your data without you asking them to (as if low-quality leads are somehow better than high-quality leads), but the underlying thing I see people asking is, essentially, “so, who’s getting exploited?”, when nobody is; that’s the whole point. Homeowners get cheaper electric bills, installers get business, Google gets referral money. All may profit. It’s like people have forgotten traditional capitalist values, like they can’t imagine a non-pathological capitalism. Which is pretty amazing.

  17. Zubon says:

    Next Michigan meetup is 22 August 2015, at Pizza House in Ann Arbor. Reservation is under the name “Less Wrong.”

  18. merzbot says:

    People with ASD or some other social skills impairment: Have you had any success teaching yourself social skills? I rejected social skills classes when I was a kid because I felt “too normal” but that’s coming back to bite me in the ass now.

    • Ayatollah Ever al-Anon says:

      Not AS myself but I’m the only “neurotypical” guy in my family so I have some experience with it from the outside.

      My suggestion would be to focus on building a (relatively) comfortable routine which minimizes the number of off-putting behaviors you engage in. Ideally you would want to develop explicit strategies, based on expert advice: the whole problem is that your gut is largely unreliable.

      That said, my breakdown of experts would be:
      0. An autism-specific resource focusing on avoiding stimming and similar behaviors
      1. A male fashion blog for grooming / wardrobe
      2. A male fitness blog for diet / exercise
      3. Books like “How to win friends and influence people” and “The 48 laws of power” for conversation
      4. Game / PUA blogs for romantic advice and basic tips other people won’t think to give (posture, eye contact, degrees of appropriate touching, etc)
      5. The Associated Press / Reuters (or a content aggregator like Buzzfeed, depending on your peer group) to skim topical conversation pieces and thus not be lost in discussions.

      Don’t forget that “Practice Makes Permanent”: the goal is to build good habits, so proper form matters. When you have to do things under pressure you’ll wish you had practiced them thoroughly beforehand.

      • Emily says:

        I think this is a good list, although I’d recommend Dr. Nerdlove instead of game/pua stuff. (For instance:

        I also knew someone who really benefited from taking an improv class. It seems to have made him a lot more comfortable in his body.

        Your friends can give you specific advice based on how they see you interacting. But you have to make it clear you’re open to hearing things that are negative and then you have to not get mad at them.

        • Leo says:

          PUAs teach you contempt for women. Dr Nerdlove teaches you contempt for yourself. If you must pick one, go with PUA. It’s easier to free yourself when you’re done.

          • Emily says:

            Well, those are bad choices. Is there an option that does neither? (If not, why not?)

          • John Schilling says:

            Is there an option that does neither? (If not, why not?)

            Courtship and seduction cannot be learned from a book, or a web site. I’ve tried. It takes practice, and lots of it. Unfortunately, contemporary Western society’s tolerance for the unskilled practice of courtship and seduction drops off dramatically past high school and is pretty much gone by college graduation. This is a big problem for people who don’t learn those skills in high school, and for those who would teach them.

            If you hold women in contempt, you can teach your shy nerdy male students to do the same, then go out there and practice seduction without regard to the creepy rapey vibe their early attempts will convey and the unease they will evoke in the target population. As Leo notes, it shouldn’t be terribly hard to undo this if and when they reach the stage when women are enthusiastically dating and having sex with them.

            If you hold shy nerdy guys in contempt, you can describe for them the techniques of courtship and seduction and follow with, “…and remember, if you can’t perfectly implement these, you have no business imposing your creepy rapey presence on real women! Go hide in your room with your tentacle porn like a proper little nerdboy”. And you can feel good about yourself, because you’ve done your part teaching the nerds to love – the rest is on them.

            If you hold neither women nor shy nerdy guys in contempt, you’re going to shy away from doing or even teaching anything of consequence, because whatever you try has obvious negative consequences up front. You’ll probably limit yourself to offering bland, inoffensive, and ultimately useless advice. Or you might help a very few shy nerdy guys who you like and care about enough to offer hundreds of hours of in-person support and guidance as a wingman, but there don’t seem to be enough of those to go around.

          • LTP says:

            Dr Nerdlove is the best if you can look past the occasional SJW comments he throws in, IMO.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            @John Shilling,

            I think you’re overselling the trauma of dealing with sub-par game. If a lonely guy goes up to an attractive woman and is awkward at her for ten minutes before she rejects him, I would bet dollars to cents that she forgets about it within minutes while he’s still thinking about it days later. There are exceptions, but they’re exceptional for a reason.

            As for contempt of women, I think that’s more a consequence of PUA writers mostly coming from night game. The club scene is fucking evil: the men are evil, the women are evil, the bar stools are evil. Day game is infinitely easier on the soul, believe me.

          • John Schilling says:

            I would bet dollars to cents that she forgets about it within minutes while he’s still thinking about it days later.

            Yes, but if the subject is his ability to practice the relevant social skills, it’s his memory that matters, not her forgetfulness. Nor is it irrational of him to do this – in the process of developing these skills by trial and error, he will have many opportunities for the exceptionally bad outcomes.

            And since the actual subject is some third party’s ability to offer useful advice on the internet, neither of those matters. It’s the reaction of the commentariat that offers feedback to the advisor, and the comments will be dominated by the extremes.

            The PUAs, if they did not feel contempt for women, would be driven from the internet in tears – and rightfully so, except that they may be incidentally performing a useful service that nobody else will. Dr. Nerdlove, from the comments, appears to be selling Nerd Hate as much as Nerd Love. So long as the advice is “Nerds should never do this thing, and here is a perfectly inoffensive thing for Nerds to do, and here’s why it’s bad that Nerds didn’t know this all along”, there is plenty of positive feedback from people who don’t want to deal with socially inept nerds and not much from nerds who have been substantially helped by the advice.

            The middle ground where one provides actually useful romantic advice for shy nerdy guys in a broadly respectful manner without receiving massively negative feedback, I don’t know that this niche can be filled on the free internet.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Every time I start up my car, I’m potentially going to cause some horrible accident that gets myself or my passengers or another driver or even a pedestrian killed. That’s a much more likely risk with a much worse of consequence if it comes to pass, and unless you practice approaches religiously you’re still going to be turning the key in your ignition much more often.

            If non-contemptuous PUAs should be “driven off the Internet in tears” by those much smaller risks, does that make all drivers extreme misanthropes? No, of course not.

            At the risk of Bulverism, this is a species of argument I only ever see from guys who are looking for an excuse to stop approaching. Because rejection sucks, and you need to push through a lot of rejection before you start getting results. But it is just an excuse, because if you really dealt with risks or morality the way you do here would drive yourself insane in a week.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Not super familiar with Dr Nerdlove, but yeah can’t hurt. My rationale with Pickup in particular was that the advice would also help with women, something “normal” social skills training actually seems to make guys worse at, and I’ve had AS friends use it successfully (albiet waaay back in the Mystery era ).

          Also, does anyone know how to edit the name on a comment after the fact? I switched mine for a joke but didn’t remember to turn it back when I made that comment…

          • Max says:

            If someone wants to start understand women PUA + evolutionary psychology is really great base. PUA field nowdays is wide and confusing though, and some of it is empty posturing, or,(worse) propaganda/sales

            There is third secret ingredient to understand female psych, but only after you mastered first two.

          • anodognosic says:

            Ugh. Where’s Ozy when you need zir.

          • Emily says:

            I spent a lot of time reading PUA-stuff. I had gotten out of an abusive relationship and I found myself wondering what had attracted me to my abuser. That there were men out there describing things like how to induce traumatic bonding* in your partner was informative to me**. And it works sometimes – I mean, I’m certainly an argument for it working (at least temporarily) – so I understand how you could read that as helping you understand women better. But also don’t do that stuff, please. The parts of PUA that aren’t based on deceiving and manipulating your partner – there are other places you can get that stuff.

            *not using that phrase, of course
            **because that was done to me, in case I wasn’t being clear enough about that

          • Science says:


            I doubt reading others’ just so stories about life on the savannah is going to help anyone do anything. Besides wouldn’t it be more fun to make up your own?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Also, does anyone know how to edit the name on a comment after the fact?

            Clicking ‘Edit’, then deleting the whole text when the edit box comes up, removes the text, and I think it vanishes the whole comment, name and all.

        • Nita says:

          Some people react badly to Dr Nerdlove.

          Perhaps (general) and Mark Manson (relationships)?

          • merzbot says:

            Succeed Socially looks good! And I’ve heard good things about Mark Manson.

          • Creutzer says:

            As a data point, what I’ve read of succeedsocially, I’ve found too abstract and devoid of substance. I’ve heard good things about Mark Manson, too, but never read any of his.

        • merzbot says:

          I haven’t read many of Nerdlove’s articles but I find posts like this off-putting for reasons that various Scott A’s have described in great detail. I won’t rule out the possibility that some of his posts are good though, and I’ll probably at least skim his blog.

          There’s also the fact that my problem isn’t that I’m a nerd. It’s that my brain is wired in such a way that some aspects of social interaction that come naturally to other people don’t come naturally to me. Advice targeted at nerds isn’t very likely to be useful to me unless he’s just using nerd as a dogwhistle for aspie. (But then his condemnation of nerds in the above post is super ableist, which just puts me off from him more.)

          And I’m put off by PUA for the same reasons everyone else is put off by PUA, combined with a deep, abiding, and probably unhealthy hatred for anything that smacks of The Red Pill.

    • Peter says:

      Erm. Not in any formal manner. I got my Asperger’s diagnosis at age 32 or so – people have sometimes used the term “very high functioning” but there are still plenty of problems.

      The informal muddling-through approach has its ups and downs. To a certain extent I like to read possibly-relevant stuff voraciously but I’m wary of taking advice – so I’m presenting my experiences and leaving you to work out whether to follow my example or not. First, there’s lots of bad advice out there, and second, stuff that works for others doesn’t work for me (see this for one reason among many why “conventional” advice aimed at everyone may be less than ideal for some). On the other hand if I see something that helps me see things in a different way it can help things “click” for me when previously it didn’t. In some ways gaining social skills (and other stuff – like being able to catch balls) seems like “late development” – things that should have come on line around age 7 or so might come on line decades later. Ho hum. A lot of it seems to be thinking “I need to work on X”, whenever you do some X to reflect on it later, work out what went right and what went wrong, resolve to do better next time and drip by drip the skills start to collect. At least they did for me.

      The PUA/Nerdlove debate: Scott Aaronson (doesn’t identify as autistic but seems to identify with the traits) has a huge complaint here. I’m not sure what your gender and sexuality are, so it’s not clear to me which advice is even in the ballpark for appropriate. For mostly-male mostly-straight me: a friend who will remain nameless once referred me to the PUAs, it was good reading for an evening’s-worth of train-wreck fascination but their utter lack of respect for women stopped me taking them seriously. I’ve never come into contact with Nerdlove myself, but I did manage to mess my head up by reading too much femininst stuff – a few years before my diagnosis. Basically if you’re down on yourself and think there’s something wrong with you that you need to get rid off, and you come across feminists saying there’s something wrong with you, there’s a danger of thinking, “ah, that’s what’s wrong with me” and spending a long time psychologically torturing yourself until you have finally had enough – top up with what may or may not be “mild” gender dysphoria and you have quite a cocktail there. I still haven’t recovered from all this and I still find myself getting randomly angry about it while cycling home from work. Your experiences may vary of course, but I suspect that there’s little non-terrible advice for you if you’re a straight or mostly-straight guy (if you’re not entirely straight, then you might find that your instincts are better with some genders than others. If you’re not entirely cis – apparently not uncommon among people with ASD – then you might find that your instincts are better when presenting as some genders than others (argh!). Or maybe that’s just me being weird.). If you’re gay or female… I expect that the situation is just as terrible, but in a completely different way that I’m less qualified to comment on.

      • Pku says:

        Regarding PUA: I’ve had a couple of friends who were into PUA who were decent people (and who’s advice was primarily “talk to women and be confident”, with some tips on how to do it more effectively). I also know some PUAs who are exactly as scummy as you describe }(according to the PUA friends I respect, there two main several schools of PUA, theirs and the one conforming to all the terrible stereotypes). What’s helped me is seeing some PUA guys I know (even the ones I totally don’t respect) try (and occasionally succeed) by exactly not doing anything confident or magical – “just go up and talk to her” seems trite and unbelievable, but amazingly, it actually works (and if it doesn’t, just think of it as grinding in an RPG).
        This also works (for me) in general for social situations – just being willing to try and not thinking there’s anything fundamentally wrong with me that would stop me from succeeding socially works (I mean, some people don’t like me/ I find boring, but everyone has that). Being smart is surprisingly useful – a lot of people will enjoy talking to you once they realize you’re intelligent, if you genuinely try to talk to them.
        (Disclaimer: I’m pretty sure that, despite being a nerdy math guy, I don’t have Asperger’s, so all this might be condescending to people who genuinely have inherent problems that I just don’t and don’t understand. But I do know from experience that it’s easy to think you have more problems with social interaction than everyone else when you’re within a standard deviation of normal in social skills, and that a lot of people are awkward and don’t really follow the subtext of social situations).

    • 27chaos says:

      Yes and no. I can manually control my social interactions with others for a while, but not for any continuous duration of time. I benefited from reading Paul Ekman, literature on business negotiations, and games theory. Also, a lot of bad pop psychology books. For less rigorous cognitive scaffolding allowing for the construction of many speculative ideas, evolutionary psychology and PUA writings have been somewhat helpful, not so much because they are true as because they provide a useful template for generating patterns.

      The reason I have more difficulty with prolonged interactions is that I simply don’t care enough to manage the hassle. Eventually, I get tired of working so hard to please everyone else, and will give in to the temptation to indulge myself by making a criticism of something that ought not be criticized, or talk about something that interests me rather than whatever boring small talk would interest everyone else.

      The other reason I have difficulty with prolonged interactions is that I lack self-confidence. This means that I usually have little opportunity to get benefits from social interactions with others. That makes the costs feel less worthwhile, and means I will give up sooner. Sometimes, I will think that I’ve ruined an interaction before it was actually ruined, and then indulge myself in a way I shouldn’t.

      IMO not all of the problem lies with me. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is horrible. It’s usually referenced with speaking about entertainment like books or movies, but I sometimes feel as though it applies to human beings as well. Part of Asperger’s is seeing things in a way which is incorrect or negatively biased, but another part of it seems to be lacking some negative biases that other people commonly have.

  19. Does reading numbers off an instrument count as experiencing qualia?

  20. Mark says:

    What is a nerd? Do they exist in Britain? (The whole idea has always struck me as a bit of an affectation.)

    As a (generally) fairly tolerant British person, who isn’t really that social – I have to say the whole idea of a nerd culture strikes me as vaguely appalling – sure… I can imagine *worse* groups – ones consisting only of extremely loud and insensitive people (is this necessarily distinct from nerd culture?)- but basically, a group made up of people on the basis of them having bad social skills must be fairly high up there on the list of groups I would never want to join.
    In the US, what do you call a person with bad social skills who doesn’t particularly like other people with bad social skills?

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      An asshole.

    • Deiseach says:

      To be fair, Mark, people in Britain have long laughed at the whole “Trainspotter” culture (and no, I don’t mean the Irving Walsh novel adapted to movie). The British equivalent of a nerd is an anorak.

      • Mark says:

        Hmmm… I think I might have been confusing geeks and nerds in my original post – anoraks/ trainspotters = geeks, whereas boffins = nerds (?)

        The idea of an anorak culture is appalling, the idea of a “boffin” culture is baffling.

        • stillnotking says:

          The American English equivalent of “boffin” is probably more like “guru”.

          I’m heroically resisting the obvious suggestion why England doesn’t have a subculture of fussy, snobbish people who love Doctor Who and are shy around the opposite sex.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            We have extrovert beer swilling football fans. Theyre just not different enough from usians to get much representation.

        • Peter says:

          “Boffin” seems very out-of-date to me, there’s a strong association with engineers and World War Two. “Anorak” again seems out-of-date, although there was a pub quiz team who adopted the label (and always won); to me it suggests the same sort of obsessive interest in something as “nerd” but a different cluster of things to be interested in.

          Somewhere in the same headspace is “swot” – when I typed it into google I got pictures of Hermione Granger which seems to get the stereotype down quite well. I don’t recall there ever having been a “swot” identity though, despite having been quite swotty at school myself.

          On googling for these things I also found “otaku” which is of course Japanese. I could well imagine an argument in Japan where one person says you only get otaku in Japan, one says you get Western otaku too, but only the manga/anime/etc. fans count and a third who says that all of those people they call “nerds” or “geeks” or whatever are basically otaku, and a fourth person saying “well, it depends on your definitions, doesn’t it”.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            “Masahiko is seventeen. He is a pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit,” this last all strung together like one word, indicating a concept that taxed the lexicon of the ear-clips.
            “A what?”
            “Otaku,” Mitsuko said carefully in Japanese. The translation burped its clumsy word string again.
            “Oh, we have those. We even use the same word.”
            “I think that in America they are not the same.”
            “Well, it’s a boy thing, right? The otaku guys at my last school were into, like, plastic anime babes, military simulations, and trivia. Bigtime into trivia.”
            “Yes, but you say they go to school. Ours do not go to school.”

          • FacelessCraven says:

            On the nerd question:

            “When my Dad and I were at the Child’s Play golf tournament he saw me have a conversation with Kiko and Dabe about Nightlight. It was before I left for my vacation and I was really struggling to figure out what the monsters in this world would be like. The three of us were bouncing around ideas and my Dad just sat there and listened. We talked about the particular child’s fears informing each monster design. Dabe had the idea of getting real kids to draw monsters and then using those as reference. We talked about the color pallette and what the color choices should mean. When my Dad and I got back in the car he told me that he thought our conversation had been really interesting to listen to. We were talking about “make believe” stuff but we were doing it very seriously. He had never really seen anything like that.”

            via Penny Arcade:

            …It seems to me that the term “nerd” or “geek” contains an implication of a life built around the questionably-practical. This is a bit hidden in our current culture, where the nerds have largely “won”, and computer code and superheroes are now multi-billion dollar industries, but I think it’s still down there. nerds and geeks are the people who build their lives around the highly atypical, and arguably meaningless.

          • Peter says:

            Douglas Knight: that’s the thing – a similar set of traits, but they play out in a different cultural context, so the end result is different, and people can argue ad nauseam whether the same word should apply to two different groups or not.

          • Mark says:

            I think I’m going to start identifying as a swot from now on, and see where it gets me.

          • onyomi says:

            “Otaku” has a more broad and negative connotation in Japan than America, where it mostly refers to anime fans, specifically. Since it derives from the word “home,” to the Japanese it has a stronger implication of being a shut-in, usually obsessed with something, but not necessarily (though often) anime and video games.

      • Peter says:

        I have some friends who are railways enthusiasts and one thing they say is that there are something like six or seven different sorts of railways enthusiast and they sometimes get annoyed at how they get lumped together as “trainspotters” (especially as some of the ones I know are far more interested in railway stations). There’s outgroup homogeneity for you.

    • rsaarelm says:

      What is a nerd? Do they exist in Britain?

      ‘Anorak’ in British slang seems to refer to something like nerds. What about the Brits who were really into 8-bit microcomputer games in the 80s like, a lot of them were made in Britain? Or people really into Games Workshop or classic Doctor Who?

      The modern US nerd culture phenomenon might have ingredients from both businesses trying to create a market segment to profit from and the way identity politics can get a bit weird in the US. I’m still associating nerd culture with the older concept of learning complex miscellania just because you find it interesting and making mechanically intricate things that take much skill and effort, whether or not there’s commensurate economic gain from it. Basically the cultural cluster the Jargon File talks about. But that doesn’t get you good consumers, so now it’s more about just declaring affiliation with I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE thinkgeek mugs and self-diagnosing aspergers.

    • Peter says:

      The whole thing is one of those dratted “family resemblance” categories – or more than one, as it all gets intertwined with the whole “geek” thing, they’re hopelessly vague terms, different people use them differently, there are lots of “underlying realities” that the words point vaguely in the direction of but you have to wonder whether the words really carve nature at the joints. You can do text mining to find words associated with “geek” or “nerd” – see the scatterplot a little way down To a certain extent, you could assign amounts of “nerd points” for being/doing/following etc. the various things on the scatterplot and you qualify as a “nerd” or “geek” in proportion with your score…

      …except there’s also the “nerd culture” thing. A lot of it is to do with who you fit in with. Somewhat related to the geek/nerd thing is the autistic spectrum; there’s a lot to do with the autistic spectrum that has little or nothing to do with social skills (e.g. sensory issues), and a lot of people on the spectrum find they get on just fine with other people on the spectrum, not so much with neurotypicals, so it’s not so much “bad social skills” as “not fitting NT norms”. I’m on the spectrum myself, and have been to various autistic-spectrum events and groups… and I think there’s some truth to this, but it’s not the whole story. I find I fit in better in “nerd” (or “geek”) spaces better than autistic-spectrum spaces; shrug. Fitting in is a mixture of things; social skills that work in similar ways, shared interests, norms about what is to be tolerated and what isn’t. So another idea of “nerd” is someone who fits in well with other nerds; obviously this definition is somewhat circular, and you need the first idea of “nerd” to bootstrap this.

      Then there’s the whole “nerd” identity thing; this is a case of people explicitly using the word “nerd”, either to describe themselves or groups or events they’re in, or to find people/events/groups they might fit in with. There’s also the practise of stigmatising people as “nerds” or “geeks” – this has led to the terms being “reclaimed” as the people labelled with them went all “Nerd? I’ll show you nerd! I’m going to find me some other nerds to have a good time with, who cares about you?” and over time the stigmatising power of the labels has gone down… but I think it’s always there, under the surface, maybe very dilute but still there. This seems historically to have been more of a US thing, especially in the weird context of the US high school caste system, but it’s definitely around over here. In Cambridge, for example, there are lots of people who adopt the “geek” label (to a certain extent I’m one of them), as for “nerd” the thing which comes to mind is the “Festival of the Spoken Nerd” which is a stand-up comedy act that I went to see (highly recommended). So a third approach to defining “nerd” is “anyone whose self-identifies as ‘nerd'”, although you need the first two approaches to definition to see why anyone might do so; also, it’s possible for the first two definitions to work on their own even when the word “nerd” isn’t in common use. And you can see these various approaches going round in a circle a bit; nerd identity helps to crystallise nerdy social groups (even ones that don’t specifically identify as such) and to spread interests that might be shared among nerds. This last one isn’t always particularly positive; to a certain extent it’s a part of the reprehensible modern tendency to base things as much on identity as possible, and there are other gripes that I have.

      A quick note about social skills; these aren’t monolithic. There’s loud-and-insensitive, yes, there’s also the sort that ends up alone in a crowd very easily. Also, you can think of social skills as having a dark side – an expert manipulator needs social skills in order to be manipulative. I’ve heard it said that if you give social skills training to a psychopath, you don’t get a non-psychopath, you just get a more effective psychopath who can do more damage. So the existence of spaces where some social skills are looked on with suspicion can be appealing – imagine something like a disarmament pact.

      So, as I say, the whole thing is in flux, and applies more in some places than others, and the answer to some questions is “it depends on your definitions”. That’s natural language for you – in particular, the sort of informal almost-slang natural language that arises without any sort of official sanction.

    • brad says:

      When I was child, nerd and geek were two of many hurtful epithets hurled at children by other children as a means to hurt them. The socially inept were the disproportionate target of all such attacks and perhaps there was some association between those particular epithets and intelligence or diligence in school or the like, but by and large cruel children weren’t particularly picky.

      Sometime in the early teen years either the reclamation movement began or that’s when I become aware of it. It was at that point that the distinction between the two began to have real meaning. Nerds were supposed to be socially inept, intelligent, and interested in math, science, and computers. Geeks were supposed to be socially inept and interested in specific obscure art forms — Japanese cartoons, television science fiction, role playing games, and so on. There was a large amount of overlap between the two groups. Especially in the latter groups a lot of people found a group of friends for the first time, and that drew a lot of the sting out of being called a geek. It is far better to be “one of the geeks” than “a geek”. That wasn’t my experience, but it was for a lot of people and explains why anyone would ever proudly take as a label what was a term of derision.

      Finally, during and after the first great dotcom bubble, the terms got transformed into some sort of anodyne marketing frames and all the people who never had nerd thrown in their face as an insult wanted to label themselves that way. The transformation reminds a little of how in a movie they’ll take an absolutely gorgeous woman, put a pair of glasses on her, put her hair up in a bun, and throw on a frumpy sweeter, and try to convince you that everyone thinks she’s hideous.

      Personally, I’d be just as happy to never hear the words spoken again, and certainly would never voluntarily associate myself with either one.

      (This is all US FWIW.)

      • Simon says:

        As far as I’m concerned, people who don’t bite the heads off chickens for a living shouldn’t call themselves geeks.

    • merzbot says:

      “Nerd” has a couple of different definitions. To some, anyone who likes stereotypically nerdy things (gaming, comics, computers, math, science, anime, etc.) is a nerd. By this definition, someone who dresses well, has an active social life with non-nerds, and would rather “go out” to “the club” on a Friday night than a Smash tournament is a nerd if they like to play video games as often as anyone else likes to watch Netflix. It’s fashionable to be this kind of nerd.

      The other kind of nerd is really really into things that most people aren’t that into. Usually these are stereotypical nerd things, but not always. We form social circles around these common interests, not social ineptitude. Social ineptitude is just correlated with unusually strong interests in things most people don’t care about. I’m not sure which direction the arrow of causation points on that one.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks for the replies! Very interesting!

  21. Viliam says:

    Found this accusation online, not sure what to do with it, other than warn Scott to never be charitable to out-groups or critical to in-groups, because that may lead people to conclusion that he likes the former and dislikes the latter.

    Scott Alexander isn’t charitable to neoreactionaries in spite of disagreeing with them. He’s charitable to neoreactionaries because he likes them. Conversely, he’s extremely uncharitable to feminists because he dislikes them.

    • Nita says:

      But Hallquist didn’t just assert that out of nowhere. In the OP, he quoted Scott’s post on Tumblr that led him to that conclusion (the one where Scott calls object-level beliefs “boring” and the people who care about them “superficial”).

      • Viliam says:

        Now I noticed that Scott already wrote a response.

        I am afraid that the whole internet is recently becoming a place where being friends with the right people is more important that literally everything else. To paraphrase Orwell, if you want a vision of the future of the internet, imagine a high school with bullies stamping on nerd faces – forever.

        • Nita says:

          “Scott supports feminist values and policies” and “Scott dislikes feminists” are non-contradictory statements.

          What I’m seeing is two camps of nerds accusing each other of being DANGEROUSLY WRONG. It’s a time-honored cultural tradition, after all.

          And now you’ve decided to go for the nuclear option and equate the opposition to high school bullies (in other words, sadistic monsters who can’t be reasoned with).

          • Viliam says:

            I do not believe that all opposition is like this; rather that for Moloch-related reasons those who are seem rising in the ranks. When a movement embraces blind rage as the proper way to reason about the world, those of them who eventually say “wait, what if we are wrong about some specific detail?” are shoved away as traitors. So even when the individuals learn, the group doesn’t.

            If their approach to people they dislike is “I have to make you fired from your job, make you lose your friends, make everyone hate you, and punish everyone who refuses to punish you… because I cannot forgive that you said/wrote something I disagree with, or maybe just didn’t agree with me quickly enough”, then this comparison is probably unfair to the real school bullies.

            In any meaningful concept of justice since the Code of Hammurabi, there is the idea that revenge must be proportional to the original offense. Eye for an eye, tweet for a tweet; not more.

            If someone believes they have to ruin someone’s life because he was wearing a wrong shirt or something equally stupid… my model of the world says that the person simply enjoys ruining people’s lives, and only needed an excuse. Or the person must be insane in the clinical sense of the word, losing the capacity to determine what is proportional and what is not. Or maybe just drunk with power — but in that case, they are the last person ever who should give someone else a lecture about checking their privilege.

          • Nita says:

            I have to make you fired from your job, make you lose your friends, make everyone hate you, and punish everyone who refuses to punish you

            In this particular case, you seem to be the only one trying to make everyone hate someone you disagree with.

        • Science says:

          The whole internet, huh?

          Does that include the half billion people on 微信? Think maybe you want to revise the scope of your complaints — by approximately three or four orders of magnitude, maybe?

  22. Kusterdu says:

    I am currently studying history in graduate school. I was wondering if anyone had any ideas about a rational approach to history or knew of any writings on this subject. Thanks.

    • Troy says:

      Here’s a nice discussion of arguments from silence from a Bayesian perspective (behind paywall, sorry):

      Unfortunately from what I can tell there’s not much out there on applying probability theory to history. Most of what there is is focused on New Testament history from an apologetic standpoint, and is largely written by the author of the above, Tim McGrew. (There’s also Carrier’s Proving History, but it’s terrible.)

    • I don’t know of any rationalist approach, but a broadly rational approach seems to involve correcting for self-bias (diverse sources, introspection), trying to eliminate sources with obvious strong bias, and doing historian biography work to try to establish and correct for other unavoidable biases. Quantifying everything is usually not an option for anything except quite modern history, though there are plenty of exceptions (provided you’re careful about how the meaning of stats can change with context).

  23. grort says:

    Here are two questions:
    (1) What is the probability that the 2016 US Presidential election will be won by someone who isn’t currently a declared candidate?
    (2) I roll two fair ten-sided dice; what is the probability they both come up 1?

    My answer to question (1) is “I have no idea, but if you made me put a number on it, maybe one percent?”.
    My answer to question (2) is “Exactly 1%”.
    To a Bayesian thinker, my answers to the two questions above look exactly the same. But I think my answers to the questions above are actually very different. I think this is a flaw in Bayesianism. I think this is the flaw that makes Bayesian thinkers vulnerable to Pascal’s Mugging.

    I can imagine there being some other sort of reasoning, not Bayesian, which describes propositions not as “what is the probability that this is true?” but rather as “how much evidence do we have that this might be true?”. I think this other sort of reasoning would be able to say to Pascal’s Mugger: “Well, there’s zero evidence supporting the proposition (that you can generate 3^^^3 utils for me), so rather than try and assign it a probability, I’ll just ignore it.”

    • Nita says:

      I’m not an expert, but shouldn’t actual Bayesian inference (as opposed to the “I FUCKING LOVE BAYES” inference commonly seen around here) give you a distribution instead of a bare number? That would resolve your politics-vs-dice issue.

      • Peter says:

        Depends what you’re trying to infer. A Naive Bayesian Classifier for a binary prediction task may as well give you a single number; if you insist on a distribution you can have two numbers if you want, p and 1-, but when I’ve implemented them, what I wanted, and what I got, was a single probability.

        However there are other tasks where thinking and working in terms of distributions is better. For example, if you’re trying to estimate some number – e.g. the mass of Saturn[1] – using some data, then it’s natural to thing about some prior distribution of masses and how the evidence shifts the distributions – then you can quote the mean and standard deviation of the posterior distribution. In particular, if you’re looking for a continuous variable, your chances of being bang on with any particular number are infinitesimal. (I was tempted to say “to the nearest Planck mass” but it turns out that the Planck mass is shockingly high, about 2e-5 g, you can get electronic balances more precise than that for under $10000)

        In the in-between case, where the number of outcomes is greater than 2 but still finite or countable, sometimes you’re better off thinking in terms of single outcome probabilities, sometimes you’re better off thinking in terms of distributions. One of the advantages of thinking in terms of distributions is that you can go down the Objective Bayesian route and come up with an “uninformative prior” based on the Principle of Insufficient Reason. Before doing so, of course, you should make sure that there aren’t huge amounts of obviously relevant information you’re taking into account, otherwise you could end up being drastically underconfident on e.g the probability of the sun coming up tomorrow.

        [1] Apparently there’s a classic case study by Laplace on that.
        [2] There’s an even more classic study by Laplace on that too, and he notes that his neat little technique ends up being underconfident due to not taking relevant information into account.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      Read Chapter “The A_p distribution and rule of succession” from ET Jaynes’s Probability Theory.

    • jf says:

      A very standard Bayesian technique (at least among statisticians, don’t know about rationalists) is to use a hierarchical model. In this case, that would be something like: p is a random variable distributed according to some distribution on [0,1] which describes your uncertainty about how likely a currently undeclared candidate is to win, and then the probability that a currently undeclared candidate wins is distributed bernoulli with success probability p.

  24. BBA says:

    I’ve seen discussion over the rules of citizenship elsewhere, and I’m wondering what people’s thoughts are on it here. Broadly, there are two fundamental systems. “Jus soli”, the rule under English Common Law, is that citizenship is determined by place of birth – anyone born in the US is a US citizen. “Jus sanguinis”, the traditional Continental European rule, is that citizenship is based on parentage – anyone born to German parents is a German citizen. In practice most countries have modified their rules to include elements of both systems – see, for instance, the current US nationality statute.

    There are flaws in both – jus soli means illegal immigrants can have citizen children, while jus sanguinis means there can be a permanent class of non-citizens with no real ties elsewhere (and, conversely, citizens who have no real ties to their country of citizenship). Is there a workable alternative criterion for citizenship?

    • Nita says:

      How about a universal criterion? No one is born a citizen, everyone must pass some exams and pledge their support of the nation (once!). Of course, this requires a reasonable framework for dealing with all kinds of non-citizen residents.

      • Jiro says:

        This is not a good idea because the government benefits from having residents be non-citizens. Ideally for the government, they would make everyone except a couple of elite a non-citizen.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why should young children have citizenship at all? Wikipedia seems to say that Australia grants citizenship to those that live there from birth to age 10. This avoids the absurdity of birth tourism. If a foreign grad student has a child, the citizenship depends on whether the parents return home or become a permanent residents. The child of illegal aliens is not an obstacle to their expulsion, but neither may an older child be expelled from their only home (although 10 is a bit old for this threshold).

      • BBA says:

        Why should young children have citizenship at all?

        If you don’t grant citizenship automatically at birth, inevitably some people will fall through the cracks and end up stateless. That’s something to be minimized.

        • brad says:

          I’m all in favor of jus soli but I don’t think this objection is particularly strong. Many of the countries where the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessnes is in force (several European countries, but not the US) have decided to apply its rules as exceptions to their general citizenship policies only for people who would otherwise be stateless.

  25. Thomas Eliot says:

    Cultists of Cthulhu remains on kickstarter until September 3rd:

    The artefact that you have to find and read from in order to close the portal to Pluto in the scenario The Fungi From Yuggoth is named the Slate Star Codex in honor of this blog

  26. Matt says:

    An honest question – why is the rationality community seemingly engrossed in cryogenics and AI?

    • Nornagest says:

      Founder effects.

    • Trevor says:

      Because its founder, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is obsessed with those topics and has spent considerable effort to convince people who join the movement to agree with him on those topics. He believes that rational people should put considerable weight on those topics and often has discussed rationality in the context of those topics. This has led to some push back from the many people who see those as ridiculous and want to move the rationalist movement away from those topics and towards what they believe is important. This has created a rift in the movement and lots of arguments from both sides.

      • LTP says:

        Where are and who are the rationalists who are moving away from AI and cryonics (and related things)?

        I ask because these issues are the biggest reasons I hold the community at arm’s length, so I’d be curious to see what they think.

    • anodognosic says:

      Probably because it was essentially founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky and those are two of his big obsessions.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      The founding document of the rationalist community is The Sequences / Rationality: From AI to Zombies, which you should read. Among other topics they deal extensively with transhumanist issues such as cryonics and uploading. In fact, the whole reason Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote them is because he kept trying to explain to people his high-level transhumanist ideas and hopefully recruit researches and donors for his project of saving the world, but they kept getting stuck on basic points of epistemology and metaethics and so on. So he decided to just bridge the inferential gap once and for all with two years of nonstop blogging.

      • Deiseach says:

        Ah, now here is something I’d like cleared up: is the “rationality community” not a subset of the “rationalist community”, rather than being a new group founded on new principles? Because I’m fairly sure Rationalism per se was not discovered or invented or codified by Yudkowsky.

        So “Less Wrong” can self-describe as rationalists, no problem there; but if it (and the diaspora) are supposed to contain and originate rationalism within the United States (never mind the rest of the world), I think probably other people got there first? “A” rationality community, certainly! “The” rationality and/or rationalist community – hold your horses there.

        • anodognosic says:

          Meh. The “rationalist/rationality community” is a loose, unofficial term for a cluster of people who write and comment on the internet. And the general thrust of this community’s beliefs is very, very, VERY distinct from historical Rationalism.

        • Nornagest says:

          LW-style rationalism is kind of unfortunately named. Not only does it have nothing to do with Descartes-style rationalism, it’s directly opposed to it on a number of points: its epistemology is far more closely related to the empiricist tradition, filtered through contemporary statistics and cognitive science.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          “Rationality” is just the word that Eliezer chose to call his teachings. It has nothing to do with the historical use of the term to describe one of the two sides in the epistemological dispute over whether knowledge can be primarily gained by reasoning or experience. In fact, Eliezer’s teachings lean heavily towards empiricism and against philosophical rationalism.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I think Eliezer copied it economics, which uses it to mean “optimal,” ultimately tracing back to the decision theory literature at RAND in the 50s.

            (I previously suggested that he might have gotten it from the heuristics and biases literature, but now I think they use “normative” to distance themselves from the norms.)

          • Protagoras says:

            The classical rationalists have gone badly out of favor, and so most people are only aware of pretty unfair straw versions of them. The differences between the rationalists and empiricists were a lot more complex, and overall smaller, than usually portrayed. And to take one of Eliezer’s most important issues, between Bayesianism and frequentism, the former is a lot closer in spirit to classical rationalism, the latter to classical empiricism, and Eliezer of course sides with the former.

          • Peter says:

            Protagoras: I thought Hume was a classical empiricist, and his ideas on probability struck me as very Bayesian (minus the maths). In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding theres:

            “46. Though there be no such thing as _Chance_ in the world; our
            ignorance of the real cause of any event has the same influence on the understanding, and begets a like species of belief or opinion.”

            Possibly I’m seeing one dimension of Bayesianism here but not another.

          • Troy says:

            And to take one of Eliezer’s most important issues, between Bayesianism and frequentism, the former is a lot closer in spirit to classical rationalism, the latter to classical empiricism, and Eliezer of course sides with the former.

            I completely agree. Problems like underdetermination of theory by data make it very hard to avoid building in some kind of a priori preference for simpler theories or at least some kind of non-trivial judgments about the impact of background knowledge into one’s priors. Boom — rationalism.

            @Peter: Hume does speak of probability as ignorance, as in that passage — although in that he was not alone at the time. But he has a very naive kind of “straight rule” for induction — e.g., when he talks of the vivacity of belief that one will see X when one sees Y as just being the frequency with which one has seen X and Y together in the past. For a Bayesian the strength of that belief will depend on priors, and a philosophically savvy Bayesian will also bring in higher-level theories which would explain regularities like this one, and update on those.

            Locke is actually better on these scores, even though he’s usually also identified as an empiricist.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            “But he has a very naive kind of “straight rule” for induction — e.g., when he talks of the vivacity of belief that one will see X when one sees Y as just being the frequency with which one has seen X and Y together in the past.”

            The attribution of the straight rule to Hume is both anachronistic and doubtful. Among other issues, Hume’s empiricism forbids him to assign a maximal or minimal probability to any claim of fact, as the straight rule requires. I expect that Hume’s meager remarks on probability can be made compatible with any contemporary interpretation except maybe propensities, if you really wanted to read modern controversies into the work of a man born forty years before Laplace. Remember that the most prominent advocates of the other three schools– Carnap, Reichenbach and Von Mises, de Finetti and Ramsey– were all strict empiricists as well.

          • Protagoras says:

            As I said, the issue is complicated. Hume says things that make him sound like a frequentist, and he says things that sound more Bayesian. But then he says things that make him sound like a rationalist, too; the lines between rationalism and empiricism are not sharp. All sophisticated empiricists say some things that sound like rationalism (and conversely for sophisticated rationalists, of course). I stand by my original claim that Bayesianism is more rationalist in spirit, and frequentism is more empiricist. As for Knight’s list, hardly anybody in the 20th century openly admitted to being a rationalist, so it makes little sense to divide 20th century figures on rationalist/empiricist lines. Carnap, at least, was a neo-Kantian, and while calling a neo-Kantian an empiricist isn’t necessarily wrong, given how slippery the category of empiricism is (and how diverse neo-Kantians were), it’s certainly a different thing from a classical empiricist.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Carnap rejected the synthetic a priori from 1921 onward due to its apparent incompatibility with relativistic geometry, so it makes no sense to call him any kind of Kantian. I also don’t see how you can question his credentials as an empiricist: he identified as one, belonged to a movement which self-consciously included the word in its name, and devoted his entire career to various attempts to reconstruct human knowledge in terms acceptable to an empiricist.

      • Does rationalist (in this context) imply transhumanist? If so, why? Because I’ve been walking around thinking I’m a futurist and rationalist, but definitely not a transhumanist… am I horribly lost? X-D

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Transhumanism is definitely part of the rationalist cluster. But there are other parts, and most people won’t draw the boundary such as to exclude you just for not being a transhumanist.

          Can you clarify what you mean when you say that you are a futurist, but not a transhumanist? Does that mean you are familiar with, say, mind uploading and its prospects for immortality, but reject it as either impossible or immoral?

          • I’m in-principle comfortable with biological immortality through eventual medical advancement, though I think it presents obvious issues around population, adaptation etc. that need to be grappled with in a more complex nuanced way than we do now. I feel the same way about cyborgism if we grapple with the obvious security and control issues it raises.

            Based on light-medium reading on the topic, I think uploads are probably a bit harder than imagined at the moment. I also think survival of the human species is really important, so uploads are a bit of a problem for me in some ways.

            Technonaturalism as I call it, means trying to walk a realist, rational, middle road when it comes to technology. I think that’s harder than it sounds at first. I’m not convinced tech is generally good or bad, basically its a tool we have to engage with in an intelligent and discerning way.

    • anon says:

      I don’t know about the “rationality community”, but if you mean LessWrong, it is arguably an AI cult, complete with end-of-the-world prophecies and empirically unverifiable mumbo-jumbo.

      I also think the idea of a “rationality community” is vain. Are there really many blogs that claim to be part of this? Is, for example, Marginal Revolution a part of it?

      • LTP says:

        “I also think the idea of a “rationality community” is vain. Are there really many blogs that claim to be part of this? Is, for example, Marginal Revolution a part of it?”

        This is an interesting observation. It does seem like once you get away from LessWrong, Yudkowsky, and Yudkowsky’s buddies, there really isn’t a clear line between “rationalists” and just normal people with an interest in philosophy and science.

        • anodognosic says:

          “Buddies” is a little strong, but I’d call the rationality community essentially the members of the LW diaspora, plus maybe a few who were strongly influenced by LW but weren’t LW posters, like (I as far as I know) Leah Libresco. I would exclude sources like Marginal Revolution, Robin Hanson and Peter Singer, who were there before and whose interests only intersect with one part of the collection of LW ideas.

          Also, I get the impression from your tone that you have a kind of yucky feeling about the whole community, and I wonder why that is.

          • LTP says:

            “Also, I get the impression from your tone that you have a kind of yucky feeling about the whole community, and I wonder why that is.”

            Well, since you asked… (Edit: sorry, this was more long winded than I had intended)

            I think part of is a narcissism of small differences on my part. I am actually have a lot of similarities with the archetypical/stereotypical rationalist in many ways, and so at some level I think I’m especially disappointed and bitter that I have a few big problems with the community which keep me from really being apart of it. My thought process at a gut level when first found the community was “oh! I found My People!… oh wait, you construct your identity around a handful of things x, y, and z that I strongly disagree with/dislike…shit… but I thought I’d found My People! We have so much common, yet we’re so different at the same time”. Queue Darth Vader Big No!

            So, I have a lot of similarities with rationalists: I like philosophy, math, and (to a lesser extent) science; I have a contrarian streak; I’m intelligent; I’ve struggled socially in both friend-making and dating in part due to mental illness (really bad social anxiety); I dislike mainstream political discourse; my political intuitions lean towards a vaguely moderate libertarian liberalism (in the American sense of those words); I’m culturally blue/gray tribe but am skeptical and critical of much of the blue tribe zeitgeist, such as social justice, feminism, and identity politics; I like science fiction; I really enjoy both meta discussions and introspection; I tend to value charity and civility in argument; I enjoy the work of some people adjacent to LW, like Scott, Ozy, and Julia Galef; at least in theory (I’ve never actually tried either of these things) I like the concept of platonic physical affection being normal for friends, and also polyamory for romantic and sexual relationships; and I often identify as a nerd/geek.

            However, I also disagree with, and dislike aspects of, the community that are rather central to it: I’m… really not a fan of Yudkowsky for a variety of reasons (all of which you’ve probably heard before) and so I’m turned off by the “Yudkowsky Fanclub” aspects of the rationalist community; I am much more sympathetic to academic philosophy, specifically, and also academia in general, than the community, which is saying a lot because I think both have a lot of real problems and probably deserve more skepticism from the mainstream; I am at least skeptical about, and sometimes just flat out disagree with, a lot of philosophical positions that are taken to be standard in the community such as utilitarianism, reductionism (especially wrt the human mind), the computational theory of the human mind, and philosophical bayesianism; there are aspects of the community that come off as crankish to me, mainly cryonics and Roko’s basilisk; I’m pretty skeptical that the singularity will happen in the lifetimes of anybody alive today, and I’m also less sure that it will happen at all, and I’m certainly not donating money to AI research anytime soon; the community puts too much confidence in certain scientific ideas that reek of scientism, like evolutionary-psychology and being biased in favor of genetic explanations of social and psychological phenomena; and the community has some quasi-religious elements (mostly around the singularity and transhumanism) that make me wary of it.

            So, basically, I am very similar to a stereotypical rationalist in many ways, but there are also things I dislike about the community. So, I have strong mixed feelings about the community, which makes it feel a bit squicky because it almost looks like a bizarro version of my ideal community. I think this is analogous to how Scott is much more critical of, and emotionally invested in his critiques of, social justice warriors rather than fundamentalist Christians because (as he said himself) they’re much closer to him culturally and intellectually, and so seem (or maybe actually are) more personally threatening to him. Just to be clear, the similarities are at the meta level not the object level. I’m not saying I have the same problems with rationalists as Scott does with SJWs. My problems with rationalists, as I’ve laid out, are orthogonal to Scott’s critiques of SJWs.

            Let me hasten to add, for emphasis, that I don’t think rationalists are bad people or anything, and I do think you guys get some unfair criticisms (like the cringe “Lol what a bunch of aspie entitled white nerds” attacks that I see from time to time).

            But, if I sometimes feel a bit squicked out by the community, this is why.

          • anon says:

            You’ve articulated (roughly) my own views better than I could have. Thanks.

          • I loosely fit into this category in a few ways too, and find some ideas of the community are really spot on, while a minority come across as bizarre and not what I’d obviously identify as compatible with a strong interest in being rational. I much prefer SSC flavour to LW, though even here I sometimes feel a little odd-one-out for being into futurism but not transhumanist.

  27. Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

    So, I hang around a lot in internet communities of questionable reputation. One trend I’ve noticed, though I don’t think it’s particularly recent, is the usage of the phrase “You’re delusional” when what’s really meant is “I disagree” or “you’re wrong”.

    Now, word decay is not uncommon (literally, epic, fag, etc.), but there’s something about this one in particular that bugs me, like it’s a dishonest argumentative tactic. Does this make sense to anyone, or am I being paranoid here?

    • anodognosic says:

      “Delusional” implies you’re asserting something contrary to manifest evidence – you don’t see the obvious. It’s dishonest because it implies that the speaker’s position is obviously right, obviating the need for any argumentation.

  28. Jaskologist says:

    I’ve been looking through old comment threads, and found myself essentially arguing for the Correct Contrarian Cluster back in January. I’ve been mulling the concept over since Scott’s post, trying to separate the parts I believe in from the parts that are EY being wrong.

    So far, I have this:

    -There is a General Factor of Correctness, but it should be assigned to ideologies/tribes, not individuals. Too much noise at the individual level (although it does still bother me that Newton was a heretic).

    -Using current issues is a mistake, because it presumes too much about your own ability to be correct. Better to look at the past, where the results of many controversies are much clearer.

    -I’m much more interested in the GFC from the moral angle than the scientific angle. Particularly, for me the defining question is where your people fell on the question of Communism, which was so horrifyingly wrong that it dwarfs everything else. Libertarian economists earn points here; blue tribe does really, really badly, which goes a long way towards explaining why I don’t trust them now.

    -The above gets me to a very opposite place from EY, who holds atheism as the ultimate determinant of correctness, because atheists also did really poorly by that metric. In my old comment, I mention Chesterton as compared to his opponents, and I find again and again that the Christians are the ones generally on the right track. And while I said above that i was more interested in the moral angle than the scientific one, I do find it very significant that Christians basically invented science (and capitalism, and resurrected functioning democracy even if they weren’t the first to try it). Atheists have a lot of science-related sins to atone for from the last century as well, even if we put aside all the Communism-inspired terror famines.

    • Saint_Fiasco says:

      When there were lots of Christians and few atheists, most great discoveries were made by Christians, and also most of the atrocities.

      In the 20th century, because of that whole “Death of God” thing, atheism was considered a more respectable and reasonable position than before, and atheists discovered more stuff and committed more atrocities. In places where Christians still have a lot of power, they are still the ones making the discoveries and the atrocities.

      I’m not sure I agree with you that ideologies and groups have less noise. They seem to do whatever they want whenever they can get away with it. Individual humans at least pretend to have consistent moralities, sometimes.

      • Jaskologist says:

        There’s a whole non-Western world out there. They could have discovered science, but they didn’t.

        And I don’t really buy the prevalence argument. The atrocities atheists committed in the past century were of a whole different nature and scale from most of what came before them. Even in the science department, the hard work of “inventing” science had already been done, and while atheists started to make advances, there was the whole Lysenkoism thing and that embarrassing resistance to the Big Bang.

    • walpolo says:

      Truman and Kennedy were both blue tribe. Two of the most committed and effective enemies of communism in history.

      • Brian says:

        Neither Truman nor Kennedy map well onto the modern Blue Tribe–Democrat != Blue, especially before 1976 (and even then, how Blue Tribe is Bill Clinton, really?) Manufacturing union culture supporting Democrats like Truman is very different from the intellectual culture supporting modern Democrats like Obama. The only pre-70s Democrat I’d comfortably associate with today’s Blues is academic progressive Woodrow Wilson.

        Given that modern Blue Tribers tend to condemn Truman as a war criminal for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Kennedy as a warmonger for Vietnam, I don’t think they can get credit for those old anti-communists.

        • xq says:

          The same people who say Truman was a war criminal for nukes say Obama is a war criminal for drones.

          • Brian says:

            A fair point, but Red and Blue tribes are still cultural groups, not political groups. Non-elite, non-Ivy Midwestern white guys like Truman tend not to be Blue tribe in modern terms. Kennedy, maybe, but he was way more nationalistic and militaristic than a typical modern Blue triber.

          • John Schilling says:

            Kennedy, maybe, but he was way more nationalistic and militaristic than a typical modern Blue triber

            You’re talking about the Kennedy that actually lived in 1962. The Kennedy who died in 1963 is solidly Blue Tribe, and always will be no matter how Blue Tribe’s views evolve.

          • xq says:

            I don’t see how that helps. Kennedy was more nationalistic and militaristic than the same ideological groups in his time that Obama is more nationalistic and militaristic than in our time (approximately). So if Kennedy is atypical Blue tribe, so is Obama. Alternatively, you are defining tribes too narrowly here, and there has always been a lot of intratribal ideological division; neither is atypical, but simply represent a particular blue subtribe that is relatively comfortable with use of military force.

        • BBA says:

          Modern Blue Tribers also condemn Wilson for his unreconstructed racism.

          More to the point, Wilson was a Southerner of Scots-Irish descent and a devout Christian, which is squarely Red Tribe, his career in academia notwithstanding. (Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was unquestionably Red Tribe and my go-to example for how modern political categories can’t be clearly mapped onto the past.)

          Unless you define the Blue Tribe purely in terms of what hard-line campus activists believe, I just don’t see Wilson being Blue, especially compared to Kennedy.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Woodrow Wilson was one of the original and most important Progressives. I’d be more comfortable saying “you can’t project the tribes back 100 years” than trying to place him on Red Team.

          • Brian says:

            Jaskologist has it right–the correct answer is really “You can’t project the tribes back 100 years,” or even really 50 years. If you can’t map the president of Princeton and promoter of the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand pact who is widely acknowledged as either the most important or second most important progressive (Teddy Roosevelt being the other) to blue, you can’t map anyone from that period to a tribe. And why would you? Political philosophies were widely different back then from what they are today.

          • BBA says:

            I was under the impression that “tribes” were more cultural than political. I.e., Donald Trump would be considered a Blue Tribe Republican, Jimmy Carter is a Red Tribe Democrat, etc.

            If I’ve gotten this wrong, then sorry for the tangent.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Tribes weren’t even named until late 2000; I don’t think it reasonable to project their existence backwards half a century or more before that.

            “Blue Tribe” is not a synonym for “Democrats”; if it were we’d just say “Democrats”. Blue tribe had, by Y2K, effectively captured the Democratic party, but that was not the case in the 1960s.

        • anon says:

          So what you’re saying is the blue tribe does badly when you exclude all the members that prove you wrong

          • ddreytes says:

            It is a bit no-true-scotsmany, isn’t it?

          • Brian says:

            No, we’re saying point out some prominent current-day blue tribers who are vehemently anti-communist. Using Kennedy and Truman to establish anti-communist bonafides among the Blue Tribe is like using Lincoln or Frederick Douglass to establish anti-racist bonafides among the Red Tribe.

          • ddreytes says:

            Why in the hell would any current-day blue triber be vehemently anti-communist?

            That strikes me as kind of like asking for a prominent current-day blue triber who’s vehemently against free silver.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Calvinists invented science and capitalism. I’m not sure when you’re dating “functioning democracy to, but Calvinists probably played a role there, too.

      • Earthly Knight says:


        Catholic– Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes
        Lutheran– Kepler (heterodox), Tycho, Leibniz (irenic), Euler
        Anglican– Bacon, Boyle, Hooke
        Calvinist– Huygens, the Bernoullis, (possibly) Smith
        Extremely heterodox/deist/atheist– Newton, (probably) Smith, Hume

        • Jaskologist says:

          I’m not seeing the science-Calvinist connection here, either. The scientific fathers seem spread out across various Christian sects. The link between Calvinism and capitalism is better, although last I heard the consensus leaned against Weber’s thesis.

          Curious what was heterodox about Kepler. The man was willing to leave his home behind rather than renounce his faith. Newton was an Arian, which is a heresy, but a very Christian heresy, nowhere close to deism or atheism.

          Faraday – Sandemanian (tiny Protestant sect)
          Mendel, Lemaitres – Catholic

          • Earthly Knight says:


            “However, he did not adhere to the Lutheran position on the real presence and refused to sign the Formula of Concord. Because of his refusal he was excluded from the sacrament in the Lutheran church.”

            That’s all I can do for you, I make a point of not knowing what any of this stuff means.

            (“Extremely heterodox/deism/atheism” category is an “other” category. Not trying to sneakily pick Newton in the sectarian draft or anything.)

            Edit: Actually, I will say a little more. Kepler was a mystic, and his views on the primacy of the sun and the geometric and musical harmonies of the solar system savored strongly of Pythagoreanism– Kuhn even described him, somewhat unfairly, as a sun-worshipper.

          • Deiseach says:

            Skimming through the Wikipedia articles, Kepler’s heterodoxy (from a Lutheran standpoint) seems to be founded on accusations of Calvinism; now, since he’d been taught by a pupil of Melancthon, who in his time was also accused of inclining towards Zwinglism by the Lutherans, it’s entirely possible his personal theological convictions did not match up completely with the official Lutheran doctrine (which was undergoing development after the death of Martin Luther and the struggles between Melancthon, those of the Reformed more inclined to Calvinism, and the Lutheran parties which held themselves to be the true upholders of Luther’s theology).

            The Reformation was very much not a homogenous movement, and indeed to say “Protestant” is not really much more meaningful as anything other than a label indicating “Not Roman Catholic”.

    • Mark says:

      Was communism especially bad?
      I don’t think it was in a different league with regards to atrocities.
      And was communism (economically) worse than “capitalism”? Seems to me in the twentieth century we had an economic thesis-antithesis-synthesis thing going on…

      • onyomi says:

        “Was communism especially bad?”

        This again?

        Haven’t we had this exact same conversation like, ten times in the past month or two?

        I’m not blaming you in particular for not reading every comment on every thread; just meta-commenting that seemingly every thread lately someone says something to the effect of “isn’t capitalism sort of equally bad as communism?” then David Friedman or someone comes in and points out how capitalism has created unprecedented improvements in standards of living while communism resulted in tens of millions of deaths, etc. etc.

        I’m not saying I want to shut down any future pro-communist or anti-capitalist arguments (though honestly I am as baffled by defenders of communism as anti-vaxxers), but can we at least agree that the presumption is that the 20th century largely proved capitalism right and communism wrong, such that any claim to the contrary has to meet a pretty high hurdle?

        Maybe I should just start linking this every time it comes up?

        • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

          I think we should be at least as receptive of communists as we are of neoreactionaries.

          If you think this argument is tedious, just make a general purpose copypasta.

          • onyomi says:

            I mean, I will agree that neoreaction is as fringe a view as communism in the US today, though it doesn’t have nearly so horrific a track record (of course, it doesn’t have much track record at all, for good or ill, depending on how you define it), and while I think communism should be at least as toxic as fascism, given its history, I’m definitely not saying “let’s all shame and shut down any pro-communist arguments.” (I wouldn’t mind seeing a pro-fascist argument on SSC either, for that matter, and would actually be rather fascinated as one would be upon encountering an albino deer.)

            What I am saying is that it seems we get a lot of pro-communist arguments (and I’m counting “communism wasn’t so bad” or “capitalism is just as bad as communism” as “pro-communist” in this context) coming from people who seem genuinely surprised that communism gets such a bad rap.

            Like, the neoreactionaries are, if nothing else, painfully aware of the sort of arguments likely to be leveled against them.

          • Brian says:

            “I wouldn’t mind seeing a pro-fascist argument on SSC either, for that matter, and would actually be rather fascinated as one would be upon encountering an albino deer.”

            I won’t–I’m a neo-Austrian classical liberal–but I’ll point out that there are plenty of pro-fascist arguments out there, as long as you don’t call it “fascism.” For example, pretty much anyone who thinks that modern “communist” China is the wave of the future. And EY put about as good a defense of fascism as can exist in Quirrelmort’s voice in HPMOR.

          • LHN says:

            The midcentury SF writer James Blish self-defined as a non-totalitarian fascist. While I don’t know of any specific political writing, IIRC his novel A Torrent of Faces was set in a future under his idea of a functional fascist government. The high concept was “Earth with a population of one trillion”; Blish posited that only a highly regimented state could administer a polity of that size.

            I read the book years ago, but remember essentially nothing about it except for mention of a Ukrainian city named “Gitler”, after a famous smiter of Russians. (And referencing some ambiguity or transformation of the g vs. h sound in Ukrainian or Russian that was explained to me once, but which I’ve forgotten.)

            Someone on the net says that Blish believed Asimov had cribbed some of his ideas from that book for The Caves of Steel, citing a 1987 biography of Blish by James Ketterer.

          • onyomi says:

            Arguably, fascism, if you don’t call it that, is THE reigning philosophy of most so-called “liberal democracies” today trying to navigate a “third way” between pure capitalism and pure socialism through government-business “cooperation.” In my view, FDR was undoubtedly the US version of Franco and Mussolini, and his policies and style of politics still cast a long shadow here.

            Contra that, Jonathan Haidt makes a pretty good argument that fascism and Soviet-style socialism have more in common with each other than Swedish-style socialism or US-style capitalism have with either–namely because both fascism and Soviet-style socialism/communism are focused on sacrificing the individual to the needs of the group, whereas capitalism and Swedish-style socialism are both about meeting the needs of the individual, just in different ways. Not sure if I totally buy it, but makes a certain amount of sense.

        • Mark says:

          It isn’t sufficiently clear what we are talking about/criticizing.
          The Soviet Union sure seems like a real stinker of a country – but only in the same way as revolutionary France.
          Perhaps attempting to establish a radical utopian vision requires lots of people being killed. Solution – don’t go in for radical utopian visions.
          That isn’t peculiar to communism – neither is killing lots of people.
          And I think I’d be hard pressed to say whether modern Western European nations owe more (economically) to “capitalism” or “communism”…
          (Standards of living improved in the Soviet Union too…)

          • Mark says:

            That is to say… is the War in the Vendee a sufficient criticism of liberalism?

          • Nornagest says:

            “Killing lots of people” is actually kind of a low bar in this context; the differences are in the orders of magnitude. We aren’t good at intuiting between numbers that big, but that doesn’t mean the distinction isn’t significant.

            Specifically, the Reign of Terror killed about fifty thousand people. That’s not a small number, and it left a big impression in European political consciousness, but next to guys like Stalin it’s junior-varsity stuff. Even taking into account France’s lower population at the time.

          • onyomi says:

            This does seem to be the most common apology for communism I’ve seen: that the millions of deaths which occurred in the USSR, PRC, Cambodia, North Korea… were somehow incidental to the communist philosophy. This seems like a pretty big coincidence.

          • Mark says:

            I think that any extreme position (one that many people in a society will be strongly opposed to) will require extreme violence in its implementation.
            That was the problem with the 20th century communists – they were extremists. It wasn’t a matter of any specific policy detail being bad – they believed they were right and insisted upon rapidly implementing reforms that many people were opposed to. It doesn’t matter *what* the policy is – change the prayer book – shave beards – if enough people oppose it, and you insist strongly enough, things are going to get nasty.

            That doesn’t mean that we won’t gradually get to the place that the communists wanted to go, or that it’d be particularly bad to be there.

          • onyomi says:

            But there are many good arguments about why communism cannot work, even if it were somehow implement gradually and peacefully. See von Mises on the calculation problem, for example.

            When you insist on implementing a fundamentally unworkable system, whether rapidly or gradually, it will inevitably run up against the problem that ever more draconian measures are required to combat backsliding (black markets, for example). And that’s why communist regimes always end up brutal, even if they didn’t start that way.

          • Mark says:

            I have to say, I’m suspicious – I don’t think communism has been *proven* to be wrong (and I’m not even sure that communism necessarily has to equal central planning).
            Anyway, you can’t normally determine what is “politically workable” outside of a political, social, and technological context. That is the mistake. To think you have some perfect technical solution to the problem of people because all the numbers add up on your piece of paper (don’t worry about the assumptions that underlie them).
            It would equally be a mistake to assume that because a particular idea wasn’t workable in one social/technological context that it *never could be*. So, while the existence of political violence in communist regimes is certainly a data point, I don’t think its safe to assume the total bankruptcy of the system, or related systems.

          • TrivialGravitas says:

            Or maybe if communist regimes that *weren’t* brutal hadn’t been overthrown by brutal capitalist coups you’d have another data point.

            Unless you can demonstrate that Allende was *also* a mass murderer in waiting it seems that what was really going on is exactly what Mark describes, and on both sides, with the capitalists turning to mass murder the second it was what was needed for capitalists to win.

          • Brian says:

            TrivialGravitas – so what’s your excuse for Chavez/Maduro’s Venezuela, or even Castro’s Cuba after the initial revolutionary mass murders? Even if you want to blame the mass murders on particular bad communist leaders, why is every communist state also an economic basketcase, only to begin improving after abandoning communism (either in name–e.g., East Germany and most of Eastern Europe) or in principle (e.g., China and Vietnam)? There are way too many natural experiments where either similar populations were divided by border and the capitalist side did far better (East/West German, North/South Korea), or where populations went from one system to the other, improving under capitalism and deteriorating under communism (Vietnam before, after, and today; China, East Germany and Eastern Europe, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Cambodia…) And these cases generally all showed communism failing along the exact lines that von Mises and Hayek predicted. When repeated natural experiments keep confirming theory, the probability that the theory is correct gets pretty high.

          • John Schilling says:

            But the worst abuses of communism, the holodomor, the Maoist famines, the piles of skulls in Cambodia, occurred when the Communists were securely in power. To the extent that they faced some small opposition, it mostly wasn’t capitalist unless you stretch that term beyond all recognition. And there wasn’t anything resembling a threat of a “brutal capitalist coup” in the backstory of the main examples.

            The actual battles between capitalism and communism, killed relatively few people. And I frequently see all of those deaths assigned to the “capitalist” sides of the ledger. When the communists win, then they go on to slaughter on a truly horrific scale and for no good reason. If the answer to that is, “well, it’s because the capitalists turned all the surviving communists into brutal thugs”, I give up.

            Not, “give up the fight against communism”, mind you, but give up the attempt to debate charitably with the communists.

          • Mark says:


            “As historian Mike Davis has documented, the ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ saw mass starvation in India, China, Brazil and much of Indochina as the British established capitalism in the region (Davis, 2000). Far from being an unfortunate but unnecessary excess, these famines were a direct result of traditional production methods being destroyed in favour of wage-labour and the ‘market system’, and were done in the interests of merchants and large corporations such as the EIC. Large food grains were exported or even simply held in storage as local peasants starved. Furthermore, these starvations were regarded as at best unimportant and at worst actually essential to discipline the newly acquired workforces.”

          • onyomi says:


            I’m not just talking about what’s politically workable, I’m talking about what’s physically workable. No communist societies have functioned without black markets and the charity of non-communist societies: i. e. cheating. And they’ve not just failed; they’ve failed in precisely the ways the early critics of communism predicted they would.

            When theory says “this won’t work because x” and you try it repeatedly and it not only fails, but fails because of x, then you have pretty strong evidence that it isn’t going to work, unless you can think of some good way to get around x. The Venus Project is one such attempt: basically replace the price mechanism with superintelligent AI for some reason.

            But until and unless we have computer God to tell us what to do all the time, prices and private property are necessary to coordinate the vast networks of production in a modern economy.

            And communism-like experiments have also been tried on smaller scales many times in the early history of the US, btw. Most were a disaster; perhaps the most successful I know of was the Oneida commune, which needed almost 100 administrators out of 300 people, and still only lasted 30 years. It was maybe small enough to work in economic terms (being only the size of a medium-sized company), but it required constant self-examination meetings to banish selfishness, not coincidentally like China during the Cultural Revolution, and North Korea today.

            So if you need an AI god and a fundamental change in human nature requiring constant brainwashing, then I think it’s safe to say a system is unworkable.

          • Mark says:

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the real concern regarding information is determining consumer demand – if you weren’t particularly concerned about consumer choice, you could institute a centrally planned system with a “pricing system” based upon energy inputs or man-hours for a (pre-determined) amount of production.
            You could use that objective information to determine the most efficient way of achieving your fixed goals.

            Having said that, common ownership of the means of production does not preclude some sort of market system where consumer choice *can* be expressed. This is one possible solution to the capitalist calculation problem of determining what people (as opposed to the powerful/rich) want.

            Otherwise, the objections to communism are about how people respond to incentives – and personally, I don’t think this is something you can separate from a social/technological context (people behaving more altruistically than you think likely can’t be described as “physically impossible”. )

          • onyomi says:

            I’m not sure how one can be unconcerned with consumer choice, as producing goods and services people want is the whole point of an economy. As for collectively owned factories catering to the needs and desires of customers, what incentive would they have to do so? If the business loses money, it’s “everyone’s money,” so not my problem. If the business makes money, it’s “everyone’s money,” so not my windfall. How do you like the service at your local DMV?

            Perhaps “physically impossible” is not the right phrase; what I was trying to get at is that it’s not just that people would have to behave more altruistically for it to work, it’s that they would need an impossible amount of knowledge about all the inner workings of a thousand industries and all the minor preferences of countless consumers. See Hayek on the pretense of knowledge.

            Consider: right now we live in a state of relative “clothing anarchy.” Almost anyone can produce any type of clothing they want and sell it at whatever price consumers will pay. There is not even intellectual property protection in fashion, yet fashion designers somehow manage to make money.

            Now imagine we attempted to impose order on this “chaos” by appointing some sort of “apparel czar,” charged with determining what everyone wants to wear and how best to produce that for them. Private clothing companies, of course, are not allowed to compete with the clothing czar, as that would be anti-egalitarian. Even assuming the best of intentions, do you imagine that consumers will be more or less happy with the quality, price, and selection of their clothing under this new regime?

          • Nita says:

            If the business loses money, it’s “everyone’s money,” so not my problem. If the business makes money, it’s “everyone’s money,” so not my windfall.

            If this argument worked, it would work for any jointly owned venture. Are all companies with more than one owner dysfunctional?

            How do you like the service at your local DMV?

            I’m guessing that’s some sort of state institution? I’ve received a lot of good service at those. Occasionally someone’s having a bad day or whatever, but it’s not frequent enough to matter.

          • onyomi says:

            “If this argument worked, it would work for any jointly owned venture. Are all companies with more than one owner dysfunctional?”

            Of course not. There’s a huge difference between splitting profits and losses among 2 or 3 owners or even 100 major shareholders and splitting profits and losses among say, 200 million “owners.” A country is not a company, and its people are not its “shareholders.” I’m still waiting for my tax refund check from those years when the government supposedly ran a surplus.

            As for the DMV, you must not be American. It is a government office charged primarily with driving accreditation. That is, you go there when you need to take a driving test, renew your driver’s license, etc. It is famously inconvenient, with the simplest of tasks taking hours and costing far more money than they should. They are only open at times when most people are working and can’t afford to take off half a day to stand in line. They refuse to take even the simplest steps to make it easier for you (like being able to accept or send faxed or e-mailed records; it was quite a while before they’d even accept credit cards), because they have no incentive to do so. And the employees there are usually mean, petty, and in a bad mood, probably because all their “customers” are in a bad mood, because going to the DMV sucks, and because, even if they had good ideas to improve efficiency, they would never be allowed to implement them.

            The reasons for this are clear: there is no competition and they can neither make a profit if they do a good job nor go out of business if they do a bad job. The customers are, in fact, a nuisance to them, since they get paid the same whether or not anyone shows up. Run every aspect of society the way the US runs driving accreditation and you’d pretty much get North Korea.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I never understood why everybody hated the DMV, when I always got prompt, polite, and efficient service at mine. Then I moved from the country to the city, and I got to experience two-hour-lines and snippy employees and all the stereotypes that I had assumed were insane. Based on this experience, I have an alternate hypothesis to “government can never effectively provide services” – the Department of Motor Vehicles is underfunded in population-dense areas. They don’t hire enough employees or have enough space, relative to the population they serve, to make things run smoothly, so things don’t run smoothly.

          • John Schilling says:

            Alternate hypothesis, a non-trivial fraction of the “customers” at a rural DMV office will be friends-of-friends, or friends-of-family, such that general discourtesy will generate negative feedback where it matters.

          • onyomi says:

            The eternal refrain of the government apologists (and no, I’m not trying to categorize you as such more generally, Suntzuanime): we just need more money. And yet no matter how much money you pour into [public schools, health care…] it never seems to be enough.

            I have also experienced the difference between government offices in the city and the country, and yes, they do tend to be less awful in the country. But I don’t think it’s just about the amount of money they get relative to the size of the population they serve. I think it’s about the size of the population they serve. Full stop.

            When serving a very small population, it becomes possible to be more flexible and humane when dealing with the public because they haven’t reached that point they reach in a city where you have to effectively shut strangers out in order to function (imagine smiling and greeting each person you saw in NYC).

            Private business handles this very well, as free markets beautifully coordinate large numbers of people in different countries who never meet one another. Walk into a Chipotle in NYC and marvel at the efficiency. They’re not having a polite chat with each customer, but you sure do get your burrito fast.

            The organizational principles and incentives that prevail in the public sector, however, do not scale up nearly so well. This is why one can have effective “communism” within a family, but not a nation: Dunbar’s number, etc. etc.

            The sad irony is that support for government is usually stronger in cities, perhaps because people see how things cannot run on a smile and a handshake as they do in the country. Yet this is the great error. It is precisely where the possibility of individualized, human interaction with each person breaks down that we must allow markets to function.

          • Pku says:

            What confuses me about the communist debate here is that it seems like the one thing everyone here feels they can gang up on and declare as evil as Reagan did. I agree that communism doesn’t seem to work, it just seems strange that people here can be charitable to neoreactionaries but go berserk on anything associated to communism (and communism seems like the one thing around here that gets legitimately used to tar ideas with bad reputation just for being associated with it). It’s like – when people here are pro-MIRI, they’ll usually hedge as much as possible and say things like “ok, AI risk may be less likely than I think, but even so, running the calculations, you should still worry about it.” While when people here talk about communism, they don’t hedge at all – even though there’s definitely room for them to hedge and still condemn communism.
            Regarding the accusations that communism inevitably leads to Stalin – there were plenty of places, such as Israeli kibbutzim (and I think some places in south america), where it just failed gracefully and collapsed into a different economic system instead of going all genocidal. Besides, I can’t help wonder: had Soviet Russia won the cold war, would they be bringing up things like coca cola death squads as examples of how horrible capitalism is? (This isn’t a defence of communism – just pointing out that, due to the cold war, western culture still has a huge bias on emphasizing everything bad associated with communism. I agree that communism still seems to be pretty bad/ineffective after accounting for that, but it seems like the one issue where people here will take pride in that bias instead of hedging their bets.)

          • onyomi says:

            I think morality demands that we declare communism to be a horror early and often. It was the ruling philosophy of the most evil nation state of all time (the USSR) and it is the ruling ideology of the current reigning champ for “worst government in the world,” the DPRK. There is no double standard involved in condemning communism and giving a pass to neoreaction, because neoreaction has nothing like the horrific track record of communism, even if you define it broadly to include all colonialism.

            The only remotely comparable point of comparison is fascism, especially of the most brutal Nazi variety, and I don’t think anyone here or anywhere in the mainstream culture gives Nazism a pass. Plus, I think fascism and communism are really two sides of the same collectivist coin, so if you want me to more broadly condemn “collectivism” I will, but communism has been the worst offender of all, thus far, and is also, imo, still more dangerous, as I don’t see anyone defending Nazism.

            Plus, it’s not like we have one or two examples of communism becoming a nightmare and several others of it just being not so great to balance it out. The example you cite of the Kibbutzim, like the Oneida Commune I mentioned, are not comparable because they are so small scale. The reason places like the USSR and the DPRK could became as horrible as they did is because they were big enough to strictly control people’s movements, which is how you know your government has officially become evil: when you won’t allow people to leave. And it’s not just the USSR and the DPRK; it’s the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; it’s Cambodia, East Germany, and Venezuela. Basically, the results range from “extreme poverty” on the good end to “outright genocide and total surveillance state” on the bad.

            And you’ll note that even if we did “gang up” on the communism apologists, I think it has, for the most part, been pretty civil. I didn’t say “you horrifying monster, how can you defend such an evil philosophy!!??” (and honestly it really is *that* perplexing to me that anyone can say “communism wasn’t SO bad” at this point in history), I just presented (for the umpteenth time) all the economic, historical, and practical reasons why communism did not and cannot work (without super AI and genetically re-engineered humans, at least).

            If Nazism has earned getting no respect and being ganged up on in intellectual communities, then Communism has earned it several times over.

          • Simon says:

            The right wing in Japan, including the current government under Shinzô Abe, frequently give the WW2-era Japanese Empire a free pass or insist that its war crimes were exaggerated if not made up by Allied propaganda… despite the fact that its occupation of China was so brutal it managed to horrify even the other Axis Powers. (look up the story of John Rabe)

          • onyomi says:

            “The right wing in Japan, including the current government under Shinzô Abe, frequently give the WW2-era Japanese Empire a free pass…”

            Yeah, but they wouldn’t get a free pass if they posted that opinion on SSC.

          • Mark says:

            Regarding your point that an economy exists to satisfy consumer demand: well, you could have an economy that was established to satisfy the demands of a small number of consumers, or to provide people with what *we* think would be best for them… or for anything else really.
            With Stalinism, the underlying idea was to focus on industrialization so that the country would be strong enough to repel foreign invaders. And, in this respect, it succeeded.
            I guess hierarchical systems work better where there is one specific goal to be achieved (they certainly work better at achieving that goal where people in general are opposed to it, or if it is a public good of some kind.) You might even include competition within a system of this type to improve long-term efficiency – but the demand needn’t come from individual consumers.
            We might have all manner of objections to such systems, but they can clearly exist – and further that it isn’t entirely obvious that the demand of individual consumers always add up to the best possible guide as to what to do.

            Anyway, it seems to me that your criticism of communism is based upon the difficulty of motivating people in such a system, and you view the atrocities as emerging as a consequence of these difficulties.
            OK… I think that if you believe people are motivated by a golden rolex, the more general point you are making is that they are motivated by earning the regard of others. I don’t see why generating regard for those who do a good job necessarily requires private ownership of capital, or even why that regard should necessarily be tied to increased consumption.
            The point you make may be true of contemporary society, but the observation that society is not currently ready for communism does not (as far as I am aware) contradict the most general principles of communism (that the social structure reflects the technological capacity of society) – but would be a criticism of utopians attempting to establish extreme visions (Mao).

          • Mark asked if communism was really that bad, and in the majority of cases such as the USSR, Cambodia etc, its fairly clear that it totally was.

            The thing that concerns me a little is how this is used as an attack against the left in general. The only political group I know of that has basically no blood on its hands, at least if you exclude fairly minor incompetence, is social democrats like those that are ascendent in the scandanvian countries. And though Scott’s recent article made some great points about a sorry history of the left’s denialism, if we apply the historical sympathiser argument consistently, conservatives come out at least as badly as social dems, because conservatives were very very directly responsible for the rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany. I have conservative friends and draw on conservative arguments myself sometimes, so I don’t want conservatives to be required to establish that they’re *not Nazi’s* everytime they open their mouth. But I don’t really want social dems (and hey, even non-authoritarian socialists) to have to answer for the problems of communism when they open their mouth either, so long as they don’t support totalitarianism.

            That’s not to say similar problems couldn’t emerge within either the left or right, but if flaws are to be established, I’d prefer the exact problem was calmly discussed, rather than people getting smeared with the crimes of political cousins.

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t think anyone here or anywhere in the mainstream culture gives Nazism a pass

            Ur-rationalist Spock of Vulcan suggested a qualified endorsement for Nazism in “Patterns of Force”. Perhaps not coincidentally the same endorsement Communism gets pretty much everywhere: It works surprisingly well if you ignore all the mass murder, and maybe if we try without mass murderers at the helm next time…?

            Well, except for the bit about working surprisingly well. The Communists had more opportunities than the Nazis to back down, and less reason to keep going. Any condemnation of the Nazis ought to apply even more so to the Communists; any defense of Communism ought to be seen as more contemptible than a defense of Nazism, but that is rarely the case.

            Is contemporary western society excessively intolerant of Nazis, or excessively tolerant of Communists?

          • Mark says:

            @John Schilling

            The major difference is that Nazism doesn’t really have any existence separate from the Nazi state – for example, the foundational Nazi text (such as it is) was written by the head of the Nazi state. The same isn’t true of communism.
            If I were to create a new state and call it the Kantian Republic , and then somehow ended up killing millions of people based upon my interpretation of Kantian ethics, it might raise questions about Kant, but it wouldn’t instantly discredit him(though it might discredit my interpretation). People who wished to call themselves Kantians would still be able to do so without having to apologize for my state.

            If on the other hand I were to call my state the Markist Republic based upon the theory of Markism that I had invented, and the result of these ideas and my own implementation of them were the death of millions, it would be a bit harder to call yourself a Markist and maintain a distance from the results.

          • onyomi says:


            “Anyway, it seems to me that your criticism of communism is based upon the difficulty of motivating people in such a system…”

            Again, that’s only half of it. The other half is the problem of knowledge and coordination. Even if you had a country of only super-altruistic people, elimination of price signals for producer goods and/or consumer goods is devastating to the modern economy and becomes only more devastating the more specialized and interdependent the global economy becomes.

            Prices, both of the means of production and of final goods and services, encapsulate very complex and diffuse information spread throughout the economy. When you try to eliminate or manipulate them, the result is flying blind in terms of what to produce, how much to produce, and how to produce it.

            You are right that a command economy can work better when there are only a couple of clearly defined goals, like “win WWII.” One of the great errors of the 20th century is imagining that the command economy used to say, win WWII could be marshaled in the service of meeting consumer wants and needs. To do that well is actually much, much more complex than blowing things up, and requires the wisdom of crowds as manifest in prices.

          • onyomi says:


            On the one hand, I totally agree that it’s bad form to compare advocates of welfare transfer payments to Stalin or advocates of immigration restrictions to Hitler. On the other, I sort of feel like mainstream right-wing and left-wing politics in most Western democracies today are just socialism and fascism as they manifest within a much more limited Overton Window.

            Like, in another case of “voters thankfully not getting the government they deserve,” I am often surprised at the radical sorts of policies average Democrat and Republican voters will privately admit they wish could be implemented. But these people then vote for Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, because that’s what’s on offer to nudge things slightly more in the direction they’d like. Thus, if one has good reason to believe, for example, that Bernie Sanders is only not calling for the nationalization of industry because he can’t get away with it, and Donald Trump is only not calling for… actually he seems to get away with just being a fascist.

            Now there do seem to be genuine structural differences between say, Scandinavian-style socialism and USSR-style socialism, and to the extent supporters of the former are in no danger of slipping into support of the latter, again, I’d say it’s not kosher to tar them with the crimes of the latter.

            But to the extent your average GOP voter is a wimpy fascist and the average Democrat a frustrated socialist, I think maybe some reductios may be justified: like, the fact that nationalizing farming was a disaster in the USSR does not imply that nationalizing health care will be an equally huge disaster, but it may still give one an idea of why it isn’t a good idea.

            The above is one reason I don’t hold any political views the logical endpoints of which I’m not comfortable with. I think small government would be good and no government would be even better. I’ll vote for someone who promises to cut taxes, but I’d also vote for someone who promised to eliminate the income tax if I thought he could really do it.

          • John Schilling says:

            The major difference is that Nazism doesn’t really have any existence separate from the Nazi state – for example, the foundational Nazi text (such as it is) was written by the head of the Nazi state. The same isn’t true of communism.

            But that just means that Nazism is tried once, fails, and condemned for all time as irredeemably evil, whereas Communism is tried over and over and over and results in mass slaughter in a dozen countries on four continents, and oh, that’s just details in implementation, you can’t just throw out the whole concept just for that.

            I suppose the fairer comparison would be Fascism vs. Communism, but there’s still a double standard with Nazism being almost universally accepted as the archetype of Fascism whereas Stalinism and Maoism are merely failed subspecies of Communism which are not to be taken as representative of the whole.

            Fascism and Communism have the same pattern of causing oppression and slaughter everywhere they are tried, a kilodeath here, a megadeath there. Fascism generally comes in with a lower body count, and greater economic prosperity as a consolation prize for the survivors. Communism comes with prettier speeches for the impoverished and oppressed.

          • @onyomi

            While at a object level I feel that no government means you just get a government that you don’t have a say in, at a meta level I find your comment broadly reasonable.

          • Nornagest says:

            [Communism] is the ruling ideology of the current reigning champ for “worst government in the world,” the DPRK.

            Depends what you’re calling communism; the DPRK’s relationship with it is somewhat complicated. North Korea came into existence as a more-or-less orthodox Marxist-Leninist state shortly before the Sino-Soviet split; during that split, though, it was caught between the Chinese and Russian blocs and wanted to remain independent from both. In order to do this it came up with juche, a native model of socialism that departed from both Leninism and Maoism.

            Over the next fifty-odd years, and particularly after 1992, the nationalistic aspects of the philosophy came to be emphasized more and more. Eventually — sometime in the Kim Jong-il era — this led to an almost total split with its Marxist roots, and it no longer calls itself communist nor much resembles other branches of Marxism in detail. It’s still extremely authoritarian and collectivist, though — moreso than most countries that do still call themselves communist.

          • onyomi says:


            “While at a object level I feel that no government means you just get a government that you don’t have a say in, at a meta level I find your comment broadly reasonable.”

            This is getting a bit off topic, but my view is that no government means people get the law, protection, roads, arbitration, etc. they pay for, rather than the government they vote for. The obvious objection is that the rich will have more control over the law, but that is also obviously true now. I would say that Walmart caters better to the needs of the masses than our current govmt, which to me indicates that anarchocapitalism would serve their needs for law better as well.

          • onyomi says:


            For the reasons I stated in my discussion with Mark, real communism is fundamentally unworkable. For this reason, all nominally communist nations sooner or later morph into something else, often an authoritarian, nationalistic, surveillance state, but if you’re lucky (China, Vietnam), something quasi-capitalist.

          • Mark says:

            Two views of communism:

            1) 20th century communism was a poor implementation of basically sound principles – different interpretations of those principles might produce better results (alternatively, aspects of communism might have value). Due to outside opposition only brutal communist states focused on building military strength survived (all communist nations heavily influenced by Stalin). Economic problems emerged because of this focus on building heavy industry – there was no mechanism to express consumer demand. There isn’t anything historically unique about the atrocities/famines that occurred under communism.

            2) The principles of communism inevitably lead to a command economy, because there is no other way to motivate people in a system that is so contrary to human nature. Prices derived from capital mediated demand are vital for every aspect of the economic system, the distribution of this capital must be determined by free trade or it has no meaning. The communist system was so poorly conceived that attempts to implement it resulted in the largest death toll in history.

    • xq says:

      You’re missing the “cluster” part of “correct contrarian cluster.” To get a decent cluster you need a lot of questions. You have two (perspective on communism and Nazism). Having a “defining question” is directly contrary to the idea. You can weigh questions by importance, but you need a bunch of them.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Well, Communism and Nazism were pretty the major question of the previous century, so if we look at recent history, that’s what we have to evaluate on, because everything else pales in comparison. But there is a reason I note the Scientific Revolution, Capitalism, and Democracy, each of which are substantial improvements in human thriving, and each of which come out of that same intellectual tradition.

        • xq says:

          If there really are only two relevant questions then it doesn’t work–the concept of a correct cluster requires many questions. There are lots of reasons a person, or ideology, could get two questions correct, other than that they have a general method that works better for figuring these issues out. You have a 25% chance even if you pick at random.

          I’m sympathetic to your overall approach here, but I think we need to be a little more methodologically rigorous for it to yield useful insight.

          As for the Scientific Revolution, Capitalism, and Democracy, all modern ideological groups are heirs to the tradition that developed these, so I don’t think it’s very useful.

      • Jaskologist says:

        So, I knew everyone would get hung up on my conclusions near the end, but I’m interested in the line of thought, too. What big questions would you look at? Do you disagree with my basic framework that we should stick to past controversies that have mostly shaken out already?

    • Jeffrey Soreff says:

      >Particularly, for me the defining question is where your people fell on the question of Communism, which was so horrifyingly wrong that it dwarfs everything else.

      Dwarfs everything else? Really? There was this conflict in the 20-th century with another totalitarian group as well…

      • John Schilling says:

        Which killed far fewer people than did communism. It may be an exaggeration to say that the evils of communism “dwarf” the evils of fascism; they’ve both probably got eight-figure bodycounts to their name. But unless you lump the Japanese in with the fascists, and blame them for absolutely all of the deaths of WWII, and use the lowest credible estimates of the Communist death toll, the Communists “win” this contest. Probably by a factor of two.

        • Jeffrey Soreff says:

          A factor of two sounds about right. I wouldn’t use “far fewer” to describe that ratio myself. To my ear, this sounds too much like treating the fascist death toll as negligible. As you said, they both got eight-figure body counts. A large chunk of that may simply be that the communists ruled for decades, and the fascists lost WWII and didn’t rule for as long. Though, As a fraction of population controlled, Pol Pot’s ~25% bodycount is probably the largest.

  29. kerani says:

    A sort-of admin-ish question: Commentators here reference “factory farming” fairly frequently in discussions of veganism and animal rights. What is the model used here to differentiate “factory farming” from “other farming”?

    • bluto says:

      I grew up deep in farm country and moved to the city in adulthood and as best I can tell, it mostly seems to be a response to city folks who are terrified their food supply is vulnerable (not to going away but to being corrupted) as they grow farther from the land.

      Everything I saw in the country made me realize that there are good people and bad people at every level in animal husbandry and that more than anything else is the key to how humane any part of the operation is.

      • keranih says:

        I myself agree with this, and don’t agree with most vegan philosophy, but find it difficult to rationally disagree/debate without knowing the definitions of the terms being used. As “factory farm” is a phrase I don’t use, I wanted to know how the people using it defined it.

        • John Schilling says:

          “Factory Farm” is ill-defined and generally means “the opposite of Family Farming, which all True Americans like”. Specifically, the two distinguishing features are corporate ownership of very large agricultural enterprises, and treatment of livestock as productive machinery with zero empathy by the caretakers and particularly with the animals fixed in enclosures not much larger than their bodies for much of their lives.

          If the animals spend a small fraction of their lives in cozy enclosures under empathetic caretakers, but the farm is owned by GloboMegaFarmCorp, expect to see a carefully edited photospread proving that “factory farming” is going on. The small fourth-generation family operation whose chicken coop hides hundreds of battery hens in tiny cages (pie-making machine optional) will probably get a pass because why complicate such a nicely framed issue? Still, there’s something approximating a consistent and useful definition to work with here.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            [Contentless post acknowledging the Chicken Run reference goes here]

          • John Schilling says:

            When I see a twenty-chickenpower ornithopter departing the nearest farm, I will sincerely reconsider my negative opinion of Veganism.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            tl/dr: Factory is as factory does.

            The way I see the words honestly used is that ‘factory farming’ refers to the methods used: animals packed in … I started to say ‘dehumanizing’ cages … with various cruel things done to them. It could be done in any size business, however owned; but in practice it’s done in big buildings rather like factories, owned by big corporations, which like many big corporations are not owned by any one small family … see next paragraph.

            And the non-factory chickens are not usually in big buildings owned by big corporations, but by individuals, or their small nuclear families, living next to their (small or medium sized) chicken coop and its large outside yard. So though the words as used are not on the same axis, they are convenient handles.

            Many factory chickens are dishonestly labeled ‘family farm’ or ‘free range’ either on grounds of being owned by a family or some special definition of ‘free range’ — see ‘regulatory capture’.* Anything in a supermarket with a bar code and expensively illustrated cartons and ‘family farm’ in professional font — almost certainly isn’t. The real ones will be in small funky co-op stores and have cheap labels and packaging, probably smeared, and with freezer burn inside — and cost a lot more (but worth it) than the supermarkets charge, even for their fancy labeled ones.

            * Same with the label ‘organic’, now conveniently redefined. And ‘whole milk’ defined as 3.25% milkfat.

          • keranih says:

            @ John Schilling – thanks for the reply.

            Still, there’s something approximating a consistent and useful definition to work with here.

            I’m still struggling with it.

            With regards to the “corporate ownership” – nearly all businesses are incorporated to some extent, yes? Even ‘family farms’, in order to allow for orderly transfer from one generation to the next, yes? How does this get assessed?

            and treatment of livestock as productive machinery with zero empathy by the caretakers and particularly with the animals fixed in enclosures not much larger than their bodies for much of their lives.

            How much more than ‘zero’ empathy is required? How is empathy measured? And how much bigger than the animal’s bodies do the enclosures have to be, and how much is “much of their lives”?

            I mean, a broiler chicken isn’t confined at all, but is loose on the floor of a barn/chicken house owned by an individual (while the birds are owned by the parent company). Also, the broiler chicken is slaughtered at 6-8 weeks of age, which is not very long at all. And I think it’s a bit much to expect a human to develop feelings for any particular bird out of a flock of 50 (much less a house of thousands) even if the birds lived for four months, and cycled through at 3 times a year.

            I do hold that a person should ensure that the birds are not sick, get enough to eat, are protected from the weather (and hawks, and dogs, and random neighborhood kids) and so on, but why the emphasis on caring about them emotionally?

          • keranih says:

            @ houseboatstyx – thanks for the reply.

            It’s not helping much, because (to take your example) the chicken farms I’ve been on have been owned by the individual (well them and the bank) and their families, right next to large barns housing many many birds.

            And no one has been able to say what is “packed” and what “various cruel things” are – except to use vague and wishy-washy terms that are not well defined.

            I’m also not convinced that “real family farm food” – as you describe it, with untracable labels and poorly handled, temperature-abused food – is actually better.

            Surely when people (such as the highly rational lot with LW, etc) get so worked up over something, they actually have something solid to base their pov on.

            Perhaps I will ask this again in another open thread when I can put it higher up for more eyeballs.

          • bluto says:

            So as an example, the most recent animal cruelty video that I’ve seen is from MercyforAnimals showing someone beating a chicken to death in a rather inhumane manner.

            It’s a family farm (T&S Farms) that’s responsible for the abuse.

  30. anon says:

    I feel like I don’t understand nearly enough about a far future where technology just stagnates at current levels. What do things look like in 1,000 years? Or 10,000? Would anything we do right now matter?

    • Doctor Mist says:

      I’m really curious why you would be interested. Do you think there is even a remote chance of that happening?

      I don’t mean to denigrate your question, which seems like it might be interesting if I could get past my initial reaction that it’s “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?”

      But okay, let me try one approach. Suppose we knew that in 200 years the galaxy will implode, leaving not a trace behind. Would anything we do right now matter? I say yes — be kind to strangers, nurture those you love, keep your promises. It won’t make the galaxy not implode, but it will make the world a better place and give your life dignity.

      If the technology of 10,000 years from now is the same as it is now, it could support a lot of different kinds of society, some wonderful and some vile. Whether there’s anything you can do that will push us in one direction or the other is an open question, but that’s true for any assumptions about the future. You do the best you can.

      And that all seems so obvious I wonder if I am just completely misunderstanding your question.

      • anon says:

        Productivity growth is slowing (and long-term interest rates seem low, right?), so I think it might happen. But the bigger point is that we can’t hope to predict specific new technologies, so let us not waste our time trying. That doesn’t mean we can’t influence the future; there was a lot the ancient Greeks said that still matters, not because they predicted technology, but because many things haven’t changed.

        Thanks for being open-minded enough to wonder about the meaning of my rather vague question.

        I mean whether anything we might do would matter to the future, but less to us.

        Clearly, we should avoid total nuclear wars, although it’s not clear to me that this matters more to the far-distant future than to us. A better candidate might be gradual but massive global warming. But has anyone painted a comprehensive picture of how to benefit the future? For example, should we try to create permanent works of art like the Long Now Foundation’s big clock?

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Productivity growth is slowing (and long-term interest rates seem low, right?), so I think it might happen.

          These (especially the low long-term interest rates) are short-term observations that strike me as unlikely candidates to govern the next thousand years.

          I mean whether anything we might do would matter to the future, but less to us.

          Then I fall back on my observation about the varieties of society current tech could support. There’s a meme from one sort of thinker that our technology developed too fast and outran our philosophical maturity. This always struck me as a little facile, but if our tech were in a rut for a thousand years, it might be a perfect opportunity for our philosophy to “catch up”. I feel sure that even current tech could give us a much nicer world than we have now, if we could avoid all the ratholes we insist on diving into. But maybe figuring out how to avoid them counts as technology? (If “technology” is considered that broadly, though, it makes me all the more unconvinced that we’ll be frozen at our current state.)

          There’s a wonderful talk Vernor Vinge gave, somewhere on YouTube, about the Singularity, where he describes, with amusing graphs, the different worlds that might pertain if somehow the Singularity were just plain impossible. I tried to hunt it down but failed. Maybe somebody else knows where it is.

  31. Positron42 says:

    Thoughts on the viability of expanding the rationalist/LessWrong/SSC cluster’s offline presence via a rationalist organization with chapters on college campuses?

  32. gbdub says:

    Any good advice/programs for improving typing/breaking bad typing habits quickly?

    I’m basically a touch typist, in that I don’t need to look at the keyboard to type effectively. But my technique is awful. I mostly use my index fingers and thumbs, so my hands move all over the place and I’m underusing most of the other fingers.

    The trouble is, I’m so used to this approach that going to the “correct” method will significantly slow me down for awhile, which gets really annoying and has so far frustrated my efforts. I know I could ultimately be faster with better technique, but it involves dropping to the bottom of a learning curve. FWIW I’m an engineer that types a lot, but speed is rarely a priority.

    In general, anyone have success with changing habits when you’ve “perfected” an inefficient approach, forcing you to temporarily lose effectiveness to start over with the “right” method?

    • Nate says:


      • switched from normal crawl stroke to kicking with the opposite foot once per arm stroke
      • changed video-game key bindings a bunch of times
      • changed from HNC Romaja (an OS X-only keyboard layout) to sebeolsik final (although I don’t use that layout very much either, so I’m still slow)

      It stinks for a while and you screw up a lot in the beginning, but eventually your brain remaps your desires to the new muscle memory.

  33. Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

    Five Thirty Eight on p-hacking. Most interesting because they have a web-app thingy that lets you actually p-hack a data set in order to arrive at contradictory results.

    On the technical side the article is mostly covering stuff that Scott has talked about; however, I was disappointed to not see them cover preregistration of study design. I may have missed where they mentioned it in passing or obliquely alluded to it when I skimmed the latter half. It certainly didn’t have the prominent placement I thought it should get in a serious discussion about the State of Science in light of p-hacking and hypothesizing after the results are known. I also didn’t see any explicit mention of the file drawer effect, although it was certainly alluded to. They talk about Retraction Watch, which was new to me.

    I was pleased to see an accessible discussion of the topics in a main stream site (or as main stream as statistics can get), but the discussion was inherently limited by their premise: everything is fine, nothing to see here, occasional spectacularly false or fabricated results are an expected consequence, but everything is working as intended. Consequently, they fail to consider whether anything could be done to improve the process. Science may not be broken, but that does not preclude us from making it better.

    Sometime when I am not about to step out the door I’ll read it again more carefully.

    • Troy says:

      I mostly agreed with what the article had to say (and I love the web-app). The problem is what the article left unsaid. You mentioned the file drawer effect, which is big. More generally we need to frankly acknowledge the incentives that scientists have to discover certain results and not others — sometimes these incentives are financial, sometimes they are political/ideological, but p-hacking, the file drawer, etc., are all symptoms of scientists following those incentives rather than simply seeking the truth. The article does mention the incentive to publish, but not incentives to publish only certain kinds of results.

      A case in point is the discussion of whether referees give more red cards to dark-skinned players:

      “On the one hand, our study shows that results are heavily reliant on analytic choices,” Uhlmann told me. “On the other hand, it also suggests there’s a there there. It’s hard to look at that data and say there’s no bias against dark-skinned players.”

      Or that dark-skinned players commit more/worse offenses. That’s a very obvious alternative explanation of the data, and should be among the main hypotheses considered if one were actually studying this. But because it’s a politically incorrect hypothesis, it goes unmentioned.

      • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

        I think we are on pretty close to the same page. The article does a pretty good job of at least obliquely touching on the difficulties that Science faces. However, instead of courageously facing those difficulties and considering solutions, it excuses them with “see, science it hard but working as intended.” In order to support that conclusion it presents something of a strawman. I feel like it softballs the questions it addresses directly, and only touching on others as obliquely as possible. Consequently, a lot is left unsaid that could be.

        W.r.t. your particular objection, the article does talk a fair bit about confirmation and other researcher biases–the bias to only publish certain (positive, spectacular, popular, etc) results. But instead of going down the rabbit hole about all the different ways it invades the scientific process or how to address and correct the effect, the author waves it away as another example of why science is hard.

        As for your chosen example, I actually think that you (and even the article [and maybe even the researchers]) are missing [what should have been] the underlying thrust of the project. It really strikes me that the exercise was designed to study meta-analysis. They created a diverse set of pre-registered (and hopefully not p-hacked), peer reviewed studies without publication bias based on the same data set and the same hypothesis to examine meta-analysis under ideal circumstances. The hypothesis chosen is completely irrelevant to that aim. Hell, they very well could completely make up the data set for all it matters to that objective.

        Having said that, the last sentence of the quote kind of scuttles the whole thing; he is suspiciously jumping the causation shark. Whether it is a slip of the tongue, out of context, in an informal discussion; or he is really digging into the bias causation hypothesis which the study obviously was not designed to prove… is ambiguous. Unfortunately, it very well could be the latter, which makes it kind of an ironic example for the author to choose.

        I just have this secret hope that Uhlmann meant that sentence to say something like “despite the effect of analytic choices on individual studies, given a sufficient set of studies under rigorous publication standards, it is possible to arrive at reasonable confidence of the truth regarding the specific question under analysis.” But that is a lot harder to spit out than “it is hard to look at that data and say that there is no [informal description of the result].”

  34. moridinamael says:

    I was wondering if anybody was following the development of Ethereum, and specifically the platforms being built on it like Augur (prediction market) and Boardroom (governance apparatus), and furthermore how this technology is basically the larval stage of the Shining Garden of Kai Raikoth.

    • moridinamael says:

      Just talking to myself here, but:

      Augur is pretty much the Angel of Evidence.

      The Angel of Salience would be practically trivial to implement using modern web technology.

      The Angel of Preference is probably the most hand-wavingly unrealistic part of the system. It just sort of assumes that we’ve reduced the problem of ethics to a calculation. I still sort of feel like we’ve got enough of ethics figured out that we could encode something rough using QALYs and then allow the Archangel to modify the innards of the Angel of Preference as the science of ethics becomes further refined.

      Something like Boardroom serves as Archangel, allowing all the technologies to be linked together and then when a certain policy is decided to be optimal, it automatically moves around money/changes contractual content to reflect the new policy. This removes the issue of humans just sort of ignoring what the Archangel says. If anything, it’s a little alarming to think about how you could “bring up what you cannot put down” with such automated contracts.

      I am 74% serious about this.

      • moridinamael says:

        76% serious.

        Scott, just tell me if I’m … plagiarizing or something, and I’ll stop.

        • Artemium says:

          And I am 80% serious in my effort to contribute if you have some good ideas how to spread Raikoth ideas in reality. I’ll contact you over GHub.

          • moridinamael says:

            Please do. Right now I’m just trying to understand the basics of the infrastructure well enough to code something, and perhaps do some ether mining if I can find a computer with an adequate GPU.

        • Any chance you could could TLDR this thread for the rest of us who are a little confused? o_O

          • Loquat says:

            Referring to a fictional idealized society Scott created, described in detail here.

            If you don’t want to read that whole thing, what’s being referred to is Raikoth’s system of governance – it’s governed not directly by humans, but by four “Angels”, massive complex computer programs. The Angel of Preference surveys what everyone wants, Evidence is a prediction market, Salience is a suggestion box where all citizens can vote suggestions up or down, and the Archangel combines the results of the previous 3 to decide what should be done.

          • Cheers for that. I had read a little about Raikoth, and thought it was kinda cool, but I couldn’t remember the angels for some reason.

    • Loquat says:

      I still barely understand Ethereum myself, but the creations of the Angels is by far the easiest part of Raikoth – perfecting the language and the people are exponentially tougher, and even getting people to do what the Angels say is going to be a tough sell for much of the real-world population.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I just had a quick look and their marketing scares me. “Unstoppable” is not an adjective I want applied to software.

      (Also I’m not sure the word “trustless” has connotations as good as they think it does.)

  35. my comment about the grey tribe went into spam. can you fish it out. thanks

  36. Shenpen says:

    I am digging into NRx group dynamics / thede theory, starting with Nydwracu’s firste post. The topic is completely new to me. Are they are any good non-NRx, preferably scientific sources, that more or less say this?

    – people really care about signalling group membership

    – people really don’t mean their ideologies seriously, they just use them to signal group membership

    – even connotational uses of words (emotion) are less important than exosemantic gang signs: people would rather identify with a word that feels bad, but defines their ingroup, than with a word that does not but feels good

    As these seem to be the basics of the idea. Any non-NRx scientific sources?

    • Jiro says:

      Asking “are there any studies which result in this predetermined conclusion” seems like a recipe for getting predetermined conclusions.

      • Creutzer says:

        It may not be that bad: one could read these studies under the angle of “are they any good?”. I agree, though, that it’s incomplete as an epistemic strategy.

    • Randy M says:

      That sounds more like Robin Hanson than Nrx specifically. Try reading through his blog, which is probably linked on the left sidebar.

    • I don’t claim to know very much about NRx, but I’m fairly dubious of politically motivated emphasis on a single-aspect of human nature, where all behaviour is reduced to a single motivation that is not obviously universal. It’s a pretty common political strategy. For example, Marxists think that humans are fundamentally “productive”, capitalism you’ve got homo economicus, libertarians its desires for freedom and control, etc. Humans have multiple instincts and I suspect there is significant variance within the species on which ones are most powerful for any given individual. I think this is anecdotally obvious – we’ve all know people that will do anything to look cool, some who want to dominate, or please, some who are vicarious, others who are contrarians, some social, some introverted, etc etc. Sure, signalling group membership is underestimated by most people, but wouldn’t we want some incredibly weighty evidence to elevate signalling membership so high?

      • Shenpen says:

        What I find attractive about such theory is that Marxists, libertarians etc. are groups who fight other groups. So focusing on political group dynamics is an approach that every other group validates by their very existence and behavior.

  37. Troy says:

    I’ve had tinnitus (a high-pitched tone I hear in my head) for a long time. It hasn’t bothered me much in the past, but recently it has gotten much worse and I’ve been having trouble falling asleep.

    Is there anyone else with tinnitus who has found a solution to this problem? Doctors and the Internet suggest that there’s no known medical cure, and I’m wary to try a bunch of different drugs based on slim evidence. But if there’s some not-too-intrusive way to make it easier for me to sleep I might try that. I’ve been trying to find music that I can fall asleep too, but it’s hard to find something that is simultaneously soothing and actually masks the tinnitus. The best I’ve found is something like Pachelbel’s Canon — high-pitched brass seems to mask the tinnitus pretty well.

    • onyomi says:

      How’s your blood pressure?

        • onyomi says:

          Fine, as in, no higher than it was before you had tinnitus? (The “normal” level of 120-80, is, imo, actually the level past which problems begin, not the level to aim for).

          I say this because I recall experiencing tinnitus during a bout of highish blood pressure (high for me, but still a level most doctors wouldn’t worry about–130/90ish). When I got it back down to my “normal” of 100/60, it went away.

          • Troy says:

            I don’t know if it’s higher than before the tinnitus got bad. The past couple times when I’ve been to the doctor they’ve taken my blood pressure and said it’s normal, but I don’t think I got exact numbers for comparison with earlier. I can ask about that next time I go in; thanks.

    • Professor Frink says:

      Sometimes tinnitus can be caused by things like earwax build up. Genetically, I have bad ear wax impaction and every few yeas I have an ENT clean things out (as my mother and grandfather do as well). Works wonders for the stuffy feeling in my ears, and the ringing goes away.

    • AM says:

      My mother had that, and in the end it was a benign tumor. Probably rare, but might be worth checking out.

    • Setsize says:

      I have an iPhone app called tinnitus pro that plays white noise (or audio of your choice) with notch filters applied to block the bothersome frequency. The idea is if you have tinnitus at say 650 hz, playing sound at 630 hz and 670 hz will mask it. It seems somewhat effective.

    • I’ve got a solution, but I don’t know how typical my tinnitus is. The tinnitus comes and goes, and sometimes seems to be initiated by swallowing saliva wrong– that is I’ll swallow (possibly in some way which isn’t my usual) and the tinnitus starts up immediately.

      Anyway, what works is for me to run my attention down the big muscle which starts at the back of my ear a number of times . I’m not sure how many times — I think it’s less than five minutes worth. Stroking the muscle doesn’t seem to work, but maybe I don’t repeat it enough times.

      I’ve tried paying attention to what happens when I run my attention down that muscle so that I could perceive the process in detail. Unfortunately, this makes the method not work. I need to just run my attention down the muscle (I think it’s the sternocleidomastoid, (though I don’t need to go all the way down to the sternum) and not track the effect while I’m doing that.

      A little evidence that the muscle might be involved– a couple of times (not related to tinnitus) I’ve noticed that when I turn my head, I can feel a muscle pulling on my eardrum.

      When I googled [tinnitus massage] I found trigger points for tinnitus video. Since I don’t have tinnitus at the moment, I can’t say whether it’s good for that, but I found it worked spectacularly well for me as self massage.

  38. one of my posts was eaten by the spam filter can you fish it out. thanks

  39. Reb Quixote says:

    I don’t have a question, I just wanted to say thank you for writing this blog. This probably sounds super-dorky, but I’ve been getting into your writing recently and I find myself smiling all the way through. Your cognitive clarity is a warm bath for the mind and spirit, and I can feel all my anger towards poor thinkers dissolve in a big mess of “it’ll all be okay”. Thanks 🙂

  40. Jaskologist says:

    Nominative determinism:

    Robin G. Mahfood, President and Chief Executive Officer of Food For The Poor.

  41. walpolo says:

    Has anyone checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me? Worth reading?

    • NZ says:

      Steve Sailer’s written a lot about it. Based on the excerpts he’s posted, I would say it is not worth reading if you’re looking for a good read, but is worth reading if you want to know what kinds of insane things are being praised in the mainstream media these days.

      • walpolo says:

        Just read his review… it reads like it was written by John Derbyshire. I have to go take a shower now.

        • NZ says:

          I think John Derbyshire also gave some comments on it.

        • Randy M says:

          You should have specified “Has anyone-unlike-John-Derbyshire checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book”

          • walpolo says:

            I guess that is a non-trivial caveat around here.

            I’m interested to hear skeptical takes on Coates’s book, but someone who feels comfortable assuming that the problem with black America has more to do with nature than nurture isn’t going to raise the kinds of concerns that interest me.

          • Kevin C. says:

            Walpolo, Rod Dreher also has an in-deph critical review of the book, which you may prefer to Sailer’s writing, for the reasons you gave.

        • Simon says:

          I think John McWhorter also wrote a critical review in “The Daily Beast”, if one that was nowhere as harsh as Sailer’s take. Not that this would be very hard to do, for that matter.

    • I have a morbid curiosity like seeing a train wreck..but I don’t want to pay him

      • onyomi says:

        Me too. Also, I want to be fair to all my progressive friends who love him, and to know what they are talking about. But also don’t want to give him any money.

        • walpolo says:

          Why all the hate? He’s not a clear thinker by any means, but he’s a good writer in some ways and does a good job expressing a certain aspect of the zeitgeist (in the columns I’ve read).

          • John Schilling says:

            He used to be a good writer, up to about the time Trayvon Martin was shot. He is now a talented writer, hateful, intolerant, and devoted to the false premise (explicitly stated at least once) that the fundamental organizing principle of American society in the 21st century is actual white supremacism. Something broke, and what’s left doesn’t work any more.

            Between the principle of charity and my memories of his genuinely good writing, I kept reading for most of a year after he turned to the dark side. But I’m done now.

          • walpolo says:

            You’ve certainly put a finger on something that’s been bothering me about his writing for a while now.

          • stillnotking says:

            I remember Coates writing some very reasonable stuff about the Zimmerman acquittal. Over the last year or so, he’s gotten much more strident — the cynic in me notes that his stridency has coincided with greatly increased popularity, and, one assumes, remuneration.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            My experience exactly matches yours, John. And it is a shame, but I imagine Mr. Coates gets paid a lot more, now.

          • walpolo says:

            It seems like the Michael Brown case is the one that really drove everyone nuts. Coates included, maybe? I’m not sure of the timing.

          • John Schilling says:

            Looking back, I think it was actually the Jordan Davis shooting that pushed Coates over the edge. But his commentary on that one almost always refers back to Trayvon Martin. So, maybe the Martin shooting has him wobbling, hoping maybe it is an isolated incident and capable of dealing with the uncertainty inherent in a shooting with no witnesses but the shooter, and the next time it’s proof of enemy action and racism becomes a sentient foe pursuing his people through the ages and unto eternity.

            Not sure I really like this sort of remote dissection of someone else’s mental state. Ultimately, what matters is Coates was once reasonable and readable, and is IMHO no longer so. The change did come before Ferguson, I’m pretty sure.

          • onyomi says:

            I think the Michael Brown thing, more than the Trayvon Martin thing, or, strangely enough, even the Eric Garner thing (the only one of the three in which I, personally, felt the police were obviously in the wrong), really was the tipping point for Black Lives Matter, etc. And I’m so grateful to Scott for writing the Toxoplasma of Rage, which is the only way I can make sense of that fact (that the movement chose to concentrate its outrage on a seemingly very poor case, much like the UVA rape story).

          • LTP says:

            “He used to be a good writer, up to about the time Trayvon Martin was shot. He is now a talented writer, hateful, intolerant, and devoted to the false premise (explicitly stated at least once) that the fundamental organizing principle of American society in the 21st century is actual white supremacism. Something broke, and what’s left doesn’t work any more.”

            I miss the old Coates.

          • kerani says:

            I used to think of him as someone who could tease apart different perspectives on events and political movements, and push me to look at things from an angle I had not previously used.

            In multiple columns, he wrote things with tremendous humility and appreciation for all his fellow humans, even when they made him crazy with their anger and irrationality.

            He doesn’t do that much any more. Somewhere he lost appreciation for povs that he didn’t agree with, and thus lost me as a reader.

            (He’s also not quite as good of a writer as some have billed him – and I am *deeply* disappointed in how no one called him on ripping off Steinbeck in one passage in his reparations writing.)

            I agree that this breakdown came before Ferguson.

          • BBA says:

            As Coates and allies use it, “white supremacism” is shorthand for all the ways society is structurally biased against African Americans. The term is deliberately provocative, but there is a point to it. Explicit racism is taboo, but there are still a lot of policies that while officially neutral are driven by unstated racial prejudice. (See, e.g., that Lee Atwater quote that leftists post way too often.)

            Contra Coates, I think white supremacism is breaking down, just not in the way most of us want it to. We will soon approach the day when police officers will be able to kill white people with impunity too.

          • I suppose Coates losing his mental flexibility as a result of police murdering black men should be added to the damage caused by racism, though Social Justice probably made things a little worse for him.

            If you want a copy of his book without sending him money, there’s also buying a used copy.

            The police are already killing white people with impunity— the difference is that it’s rare enough that white people have to read about it in the news to realize it’s a serious problem. Shetterly argues that the major risk is to poor people– I’m not sure that he’s right. Also, since #AllLivesMatter is something of a sore point, I’d go with #StopPoliceCrime or #EndPoliceImpunity or somesuch.

          • John Schilling says:

            Coates’ mind closed around two instances of not-cops killing unarmed black people, well before cops killing unarmed black people entered either the public consciousness or Coates’ writing.

          • LTP says:

            @Nancy, if those are all the cases of cops shooting unarmed people, then cops shooting people is extremely rare. There are over 1 million police officers in the US.

            It’s just gross exaggeration to say police are shooting people with impunity.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Bouncing off the wall to a possibly constructive idea:

            What blew my occasional reading of Coates, was his open threat to ban a certain commentator if they ever again tried to comment on a certain issue (and Coates’s style in making the threat). The next I heard was that Coates had closed comments on all entries.

            I never looked into the details, but it all (and his imo going into table-banging with recent cliches) looked like a blogger freaking out from having to moderate too many comments he didn’t like.

            So I wonder if there’s a niche for a cottage industry a blogger could out-source some of zis moderation to. Volunteer moderators, working for love of the subject or some other personal reason, are tempted to either privilege their own opinions or slack off. A cottager with a small stable of vetted freelance moderators could make money offering their services for a percentage, and everyone would have a non-emotional incentive to get the work done fairly and promptly — aka ‘skln in the game’?

          • Simon says:

            I’m most curious to see what the statistics are for police brutality against Latinos, Native Americans and other ethnic groups I imagine would also be disproportionately singled out for violence by the authorities. That entire aspect of the discussion that Nancy mentioned seems to get lost in the shuffle when it should be an obvious factor, but maybe that’s because I’m not American that there’s some surrounding context I’m missing.

        • Echo says:

          I’m sure your local library has ten copies by now. Buying (new) books is for chumps.

      • kerani says:

        Public library?

      • LTP, it’s plausible that the list *doesn’t* include all the cases of the police killing unarmed people. Statistics about police killings have only started to be collected. Furthermore, it doesn’t include cases of police engaging in unjustified physical attacks that don’t end in killing, nor does it include harassment that threatens injury but doesn’t cause it.

        It matters if the police can get away with murder– this affects police behavior even if rather few of the police actually murder.

        As Simon says, the evidence is that bad behavior by the police is concentrated in specific communities. I strongly recommend that you read The New Jim Crow. It starts with an account of the author (a black civil rights lawyer) taking years to gradually come to believe that there’s a mass incarceration problem for black people. The NAACP and the Black Congressional Caucus didn’t have mass incarceration on their agenda. In addition to the specifics, it’s a great book for rationalists because it’s an account of how easy it is to be wrong and create horrific consequences. Part of the problem was that civil rights activists were accustomed to finding a perfect victim and getting laws changed. This works some of the time (Rosa Parks), but it fails when the victims have their reputations damaged by having been convicted and where a good bit of the behavior which needs to be changed is by the justice system and not necessarily illegal.

        It’s also of interest because it’s from the point of view of social justice, which seems to be a great deal more sensible than Social Justice.

        Also, I hadn’t realized how sharp the divide could be between blacks who are middle class or higher and poor blacks. I’d read Koontown Killing Caper (recommended– very intense, funny, bitter, and intelligent), which points at the divide, but the book is hyperbolic and satirical and I wasn’t sure how literally to take it.

        As for Coates, I’ve been a somewhat casual reader of his work, and like several of you, I used to like it quite a bit. I was horrified at his letter to his son. He worked hard and made his life quite a bit better, but now he’s telling his son to despair.

        I think Coates had a legitimate partial point about the violent black street culture he grew up with. There are people (some of them black, I think) who believe that the VBSC shows that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the people who engage in it. Coates argues that the violence is a normal human reaction to the violence which is already there. Unfortunately, he doesn’t allow that white people are also living in a context, and don’t have simple choices to make everything different and better.

        (Sidetrack: I’ve been attracted to the idea that if people have trouble changing something, this means it’s actually difficult to change rather than feeling that people are just plain bad for not doing better. This would seem to imply that if the Catholic Church has had a hard time getting to the point of working on cleaning up its act about pediphilia, I should cut it some slack, which is an annoying conclusion.)

        Part of Coates’ situation is that system 1 doesn’t quantify– a small chance of being murdered by the police feels like a huge risk. It’s very different from feeling that there’s no chance of being murdered by the police, and especially so if you have to deal with being threatened by the police relatively often.

        I have some hope for him– he doesn’t stop thinking, and he’s changed his mind before.

        • What do folks here make of the claim that black people and/or slaves built the US?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            would be very interested in hearing about the actual evidence for this claim. I have no real ground for an opinion one way or another.

          • onyomi says:

            Isn’t the “Compound Interest” post Scott recently linked all about evaluating this claim?

          • Brian says:

            Dierdre McCloskey covers some of the “slavery/colonialism is responsible for Western economic success” ground in Bourgeois Dignity, and the stats tend to disprove it. In the U.S., if slavery was responsible for economic growth, there needs to be an explanation for why the Southern economy was weaker than the Northern economy. It’s not just agriculture vs. manufacturing; free Midwestern farms generally outproduced their Southern slave counterparts, and that can’t explain why the South didn’t build their own successful factories.

            Now, as an aside, I think there’s a very interesting thread in the way U.S. history is taught to young children where the colonial U.S. consists of Puritans in New England and royalist slave owners in the South, and that’s it. In Russell Shorto’s “Island at the Center of the World,” he explains how the founding of the New Amsterdam colony and its 17th century Dutch roots did a lot more to influence the U.S. liberal capitalist way of life than New England or Virginia ever did, but no one paid any attention to it because when England annexed New Amsterdam and New Sweden, turning them into New York and New Jersey respectively, the victors wrote the history books. Frankly, I’ve thought that we should accordingly replace Thanksgiving with more Dutch-aligned traditions to honor the New Amsterdam colony over the Plymouth colony, except that I prefer turkey to fish 🙂

            The point of the aside is that if the founding of America looks like religious fanatics in the North vs. slave owners in the South, it might look like slavery made America great, when in fact the manufacturing and commerce in the central states, originated by Dutch, Scandinavian, and German immigrants, was a lot more important to the U.S. economy.

          • Eric says:

            Irrelevant but fun fact related to Dutch influence in early America, the only President that didn’t speak English as a first language, Martin Van Buren, spoke Dutch. He was from a Dutch speaking area of New York

    • alexp says:

      I don’t agree usually agree with Coates (though I suspect more than a lot of other people responding to you), but I think he has an excellent way of conveying the African American experience and often can keep me on my toes by preventing easy generalizations of inner city African American culture.

      For example: the criticism of black children aspiring to be pro athletes or rappers instead of engineers or lawyers is easily countered by the fact that children of all races and socioeconomic background aspire to be pro athletes and musicians.

      Or that the commonly cited phenomenon of studious inner city black kids being bullied to studying really doesn’t happen.

      • Brian says:

        Citation on the second point? I’ve coached debate in a primarily black inner city school in Chicago, and it sure looked real to me at least among the boys (the girls had a different set of issues).

  42. onyomi says:

    Do people have any opinion on what is causing the supposed drop in male fertility over the past several decades? Pesticides? Plastics? Cell phones? Obesity? Low vitamin D?

    Like everyone getting super fat and fatter over the past decades, it’s one of those vaguely ominous trends which one can sort of trace to a bunch of different things, none of which are wholly satisfying, though, like that, it may also be that there is no one smoking gun, but rather a confluence of several things.

    • gbdub says:

      Increased estrogen / hormones in general (e.g. growth hormones given to food animals)? I vaguely remember hearing that girls are entering puberty significantly earlier than in the past. Rumblings about increased hormones in milk supply (no idea if that’s even remotely valid).

      I have however been interested for awhile in the impact of the birth control pill, since a large portion of those hormones end up passing through the body into the water supply (possibly with adverse impacts such as reducing fish fertility).

      It’s always struck me as inconsistent and a little disturbing that many of the same women who wouldn’t dare eat a bite of non-organic chicken (because of the additives!) gladly pop a daily dose of concentrated female hormones. Seems like the latter has to have a much bigger impact, yet no one seems that worried (indeed many want to make it even easier to access).

      • AJD says:

        It’s inconsistent that people who take a daily dose of clearly-labeled, pharmacist-supervised hormones with the goal of subjecting themselves to the predictable effects of those hormones won’t eat something containing unidentified and unverified additives whose effects they can’t predict and don’t want?

        • Randy M says:

          Yes; in either case it’s sacrificing “purity” on the say-so of men in lab coats.
          Of course, in the case of organic food, objecting to it means they pay more money for food but get social status out of it (for certain social circles). In the case of birth control, objecting means a harder time getting sexual pleasure regularly and social status in different contexts.

        • Gbdub says:

          The hormonal content of meat from hormone fed farm animals might be unknown, but it’s certainly small compared to the pill. If you’re worried about unknown effects of eating meat containing artificial hormones, you ought to be worried about unknown effects of taking hormonal birth control.

          And humans taking hormones has downstream (no pun intended) impacts on the environment, just as feeding hormones to farm animals does.

          I’m worried about chickens on antibiotics, but primarily because of the potential for antibiotic resistant disease. If I myself were happily taking the same antibiotic every day, it would be inconsistent of me to be worried about the tiny dose of antibiotics I’d get from the chicken.

          I’m not trying to make a super-strong point here, it just seems to be a bit of a blind spot in the public zeitgeist.

      • Loquat says:

        Age of female puberty is also heavily influenced by nutrition – a girl who’s been underfed all her life is naturally going to enter puberty later than she would have if she’d been consistently well-fed, for the same reasons the female body shuts down the ovulation/menstruation cycle in periods of extreme starvation.

        Not sure about influences on male fertility – I’ve heard interesting theories on endocrine disruptors, particularly Bisphenol A which has been heavily used in plastic food containers and in metal food can linings, but it’s highly unlikely that’s the One True cause of the decline.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      I’d guess it’s a result of a steady decline in perceived social status. It’s getting increasingly difficult to be a big fish in -any- pond.

      (There’s also a joke in there about feminism -literally- making men less fertile that could be made, and which might even hold a nugget of truth.)

      • onyomi says:

        Is there any established link between perceived social status and sperm quality? I know that men get a boost of testosterone when their home team wins a championship, etc. but I wonder if living a consistently lower status life could result in consistently lower testosterone, and, if so, why would not the fertility of the poor and/or peasant class have been lower, historically (the stereotype seems to be the opposite)?

        Do any surveys show generally lower self esteem on the parts of men today as compared to 30 or 50 years ago? It seems possible, though a bit bizarre: so much for us entitled, narcissistic millenials and our participation trophies… or maybe when everyone’s a winner, no one is?

  43. Andy says:

    I’m learning Python for game programming, using the Pygame library. What I really want, yearn, burn to make, is hex-based wargames, on the model of the old 5-Star General games. But Pygame’s math and logic seem more suited for grid-based games. There are hex-based grid examples, libraries, and games on the Pygame site, but most of the links seem to have died, or the pages have withered. Thus is the glory and shame of open source – a thousand flowers bloom, but most have already withered.

    Does anyone have a suggestion for a live, active tutorial or example for creating hex-based grid games in Python?

    • Saint_Fiasco says:

      Battle for Wesnoth is a hex-based wargame, and it’s open source. Unfortunately, it’s mostly C++, but it might be possible to take a look at how it handles the hex grid and take inspiration from that?

      • Andy says:

        I’m sorta familiar with Wesnoth, so I’ll give it a shot. Problem is, Python is my first programming language. I have no idea how similar C++ is, but given the screwed-up expressions my C++-fluent mother got when I tried to explain Python syntax, I am not optimistic.

        • jeorgun says:

          Python is generally considered one of, if not the, most beginner-friendly programming languages, and C++ is generally considered one of the least beginner-friendly, so caveat emptor. That said, I’m currently working on writing a simple hex-based Civ-style game in C++, so it’s not impossible by any means.

    • rsaarelm says:

      I’ve written hex-based grid map code. If you can already do a square grid, going to hex is actually extremely simple. Let’s say you’ve currently got 32×32 pixel square grid, and want to move to pointy-top hexes.

      Step one: You want the logical geometry to match a hex map. In addition to the four cardinal directions, you allow movement along the diagonal (1, 1), but not along the other (-1, 1) diagonal. The map is still a rectangular grid internally, but now it has the movement topology of a hex map.

      Step two: Your sprite-drawing code for drawing the tile at map cell (x, y) to screen is currently something like draw_tile(map[(x, y)], x * 32, y * 32). Change this into draw_tile(map[(x, y)], x * 32 – y * 16, y * 32).

      And you’re pretty much done. There’s some more tweaking to do like drawing your square tiles into hex-shaped ones and making them mesh nicely to each other, but basically you just use a square grid as before, enable movement along one diagonal and do a different linear transform when drawing the tiles to screen, and there’s your hex map.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but Amit Patel has a bunch more stuff about hexes. There’s also a short page on the roguelike development wiki.

      • Andy says:

        Thanks, I’m looking at these and trying to get my head around the math. Maybe because it’s first thing in the morning, maybe because it’s not in Python, but I’m going to have to trudge through all that and wrap my head around it.

    • Viliam says:

      Not a Python programmer, so I can’t recommend a specific library. But it should be relatively easy to make one.

      I believe that what you need are proper abstractions. You should never be doing things like “on odd lines, add 1 to x; on even lines, remove 1 from x” except inside the library. In the application you should only speak about “positions”, “directions”, “neighbors” and “distances”.

      For example, when you create a board, you would specify that you want a board of top-flat hexagons, with 10 hexagons in a column, and 10 columns, even columns higher than odd columns; and perhaps a size of hexagon in pixels. Then you would get a “Board” object. You could ask how wide and high it is in pixels. You could ask for a “Field” object corresponding to given pixel where user clicked. Then the “Field” objects would implement methods like “compute distance between these two Fields” and “return a list of all Fields within distance 3 from this Field” etc. You would have six “Direction” objects (they would depend on whether the board has top-flat or top-sharp hexagons), you could get “the next Field from this Field in this Direction”, “the Direction next clockwise to this Direction” etc.

      You will know you made the library well when outside of the “Board” constructor the code will be exactly the same for different shapes of board.

      (If having a Java example would help you, send me a mail to “” and I will make one.)

    • Agronomous says:

      Excellent! I’ve used PyGame (sometimes in conjunction with PyOpenGL), and like it.

      Others have given good answers about implementing hex grids; I’m going to offer another way to think about them.

      Take a bunch of squares, possibly the ones on graph paper, or just some you draw on a sheet of paper. Pair up the squares up-and-down, so you get a grid of cells that are 2 high and one wide.

      Now shift every second column down (or up, it doesn’t matter) by one square. You get something that looks like a brick wall turned on its side.* Take the rule, “you can move to any other cell you share a border with”: from any cell, you can move straight up, straight down, or any of the four 45° diagonal directions (and each one gets you to a different neighboring cell).

      Look at a hex grid, oriented so the tops are flat (not pointy): take the same border-sharing rule: from any cell, you can move straight up, straight down, and in any of the four diagonal directions 30° away from the horizontal (and each one gets you to a different neighboring cell). This is what another poster meant by “topologically the same as a hex grid”.

      You can further enhance your intuition by actually drawing the hexagons on your 2×1 tiling. Make the first hexagon like this: pick a cell and making the flat hexagon sides be the middle half of the cell’s top and bottom sides (i.e. starting 1/4 of the way in from each end). Construct new sides by drawing diagonals that connect those 1/4 points with the 1/4 points of the bottom side of the upper-left neighbor cell (which is the same as the top side of the lower-left neighbor cell), etc. Once you have the first hex, it should be obvious how to extend the tiling.

      What have you done now? Well, you have a (slightly horizontally-squished) hex grid. How big is each hex? For each hex side of each cell, you give up a triangle and gain a triangle; they’re of equal area, so a hex has the same area as a cell: two squares. Another way to think of the hex grid is that it’s the cell grid, but with the vertical sides tilted in alternating directions.

      If you take a moment to draw this out, it should help your intuition (it helped mine). You should now be able to look at a cell grid and envision the corresponding hex grid, and vice-versa.

      (*This pattern is called “stretcher bond” or “running bond,” and is the most boring of any structurally-sound bond. I’d like to the excellent Wikipedia article, but that would cause many people to waste a lot of time there.)

  44. AS says:

    Scott, you’ve covered using ketamine to treat depression before, but with the comment that it’s only available via the few doctors that are performing research on it. According to Bloomberg, however, there are now a few dozen clinics that offer it. Keith Ablow (self-proclaimed “America’s most well-known psychiatrist”) is starting a company to enable primary care physicians to offer it as a side business, with the goal of getting 250-500 doctors on board.

    Of course there’s several caveats still. It’s not particularly well-studied, and the science still isn’t there on how long-lasting it is (the doctor primarily profiled in the article has settled on maintenance treatments every 6-8 weeks, apparently just based on his own experience). And also it’s an off-label use, so insurance likely won’t pay for it.

    Nevertheless, it does appear to be a more real option than it used to be. And given that it’s been routinely used as an anaesthetic for 50 years at much higher doses, there likely aren’t any nasty unknown side effects (as distinct from the known hallucinatory side effects, which don’t sound all that terrible, as side effects from psychiatric treatments go).


  45. Peter says:

    AI thoughts, segueing from topic to topic in case any of it is of interest. Some of this is based on “assuming this is worth talking about” of course…

    Someone linked to Stuart Russell’s talk AI talk – – and it was encouraging. I found it good to see people other than MIRI taking the issue seriously, and providing a diversity of thought.

    Some of the stuff to do with Inverse Reinforcement Learning looks almost like virtue ethics – find examples of “admirable people” and figure out what they’re really aiming at. Sounds similar to how Aristotle describes his programme in the Nicomachean Ethics. You could almost throw out the AI safety aspect of it and sell the idea as “computational philosophy” (or maybe psychology) – if Inverse Reinforcement Learning actually goes anywhere there’s bound to be interesting stuff in the results from that, even if the results aren’t machine-actionable. That said, it sounds like there’s quite a lot of AI work to get there, which brings me on to my next point:

    “If future AI is so damn smart, how come it can’t figure out what values it should have itself?” It’s a nice quip, does it go beyond that? If you’ve got a pre-superintelligence that’s a better AI researcher than any human AI researcher and a better philosopher than any human philosopher, but not yet ready to take over the world, then surely that’s the “mind” you want to throw at the problem. Is the danger from “sub/super”-intelligence – which is superhuman enough to take over the world, but below human levels in terms of not doing obviously bad stuff.

    Taking over the world – perhaps the key value we need to find a way to encode is Not Taking Over The World, or to put it less bluntly, preserving human agency. This seems to me to be a slightly odd goal; one which I think works oddly when you think in terms of utility functions. How to make an AI that’s a good citizen, that respects human autonomy – and maybe the autonomy of other AIs too? Perhaps some thought could be lavished on what a Kantian AI might be like. Another line of thought is to develop ideas in artificial agency, seeing how AIs might interact with each other. Currently there’s lots of AI work on zerosum games like Chess, or single-player games. Would there be insights to be had from making AIs for nonzerosum games – ones with more meat on them than the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma? (That said I had some fun a year or two back doing reinforcement learning on the IPD, and, well, it was amateur tinkering by someone who had never done reinforcement learning before, but found it interesting).

    • gbdub says:

      I’m not necessarily proud of this, but I read your last paragraph and immediately thought up “Affirmative Consent Bot”. Would it be possible / useful to just really strongly encode a rule to not do anything to a person that they don’t explicitly consent to? It would at least need to be devious to take over the world with that rule.

      Then again Affirmative Consent Bot would probably have a hard time being more useful than a human, given that it would have to spend so much time asking for permission. So people would probably start doing work-arounds. But maybe if we made the first AIs Affirmative Consent Bots it would at least keep them contained long enough to understand their behvior a bit better.

      • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

        Consent is not a sufficient shield against something vastly more intelligent than you are, because it will just say the thing which it has deduced will get you to consent, and then go on to do whatever it was going to do.

        whatever it was going to do needs to already be a win condition.

        • Jiro says:

          That assumes that a sufficiently advanced AI can get you to consent to anything. This assumption is not warranted.

          • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

            probably not anything, no.

            But I would expect that there are lots and lots of horrifying things I could be talked around on, one way or another.

        • Gbdub says:

          First, I’ve specified “Affirmative Consent Bot”, which requires the consent to be freely given and enthusiastic. Thus, consent gained through threat, blackmail, etc. doesn’t count. I suppose you’d also need to specify it can’t order someone else to violate affirmative consent.

          But yes, I’m not saying it’s impossible for the bot to take over the world, just much more difficult. It at least avoids the “I’m killing everyone to achieve world peace” problem.

      • Peter says:

        This is starting to look like one of those “AI in a box” games, where the AI kindly suggests that it would be able to get so much more done if you disabled or at any rate modified its affirmative consent routines. Where’s EY when you need him?

  46. What do you think of high-IQ sperm banks, where smart people are paid to donate.

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      You may safely call those ‘any sperm banks’, or at least to a soft degree, since most sperm banks require(amongst other things) college degrees from their applicants. Even so, I don’t see this as a necessarily bad idea, though I think that most women/couples who could choose between characteristics would put IQ lower on the list of desirable traits than you might assume.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I went to an Ivy League school and it was pretty common knowledge that they aimed to attract male students from said prestigious school. I might even have done it myself, but I assumed I would be too short. Smart and tall is what women are looking for in sperm, and getting into an Ivy League school is a good enough proxy for “smart.”

    • Deiseach says:

      Didn’t they try one of those already?

      And apparently there are people claiming to be high-achievers selling their sperm online? I think that would be very risky, to be honest, buying sperm that way!

    • anon says:

      If possible, I want to conceive some of my children using gametes from folks with perfect SAT scores. When I have the money, I plan to take a serious look into this.

      • Linch says:

        Hey anon! So…I like myself and I want more of me. As long as I do not have financial expectations to the child, I’m willing to give my sperm in return for a trivial donation to the AMF. If you’re interested, chat with me and I’m sure we can come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement. 🙂

        I am quite serious about this offer and I will try my best to be as honest as possible. The outside view should be that you could find a significantly better match for your preferences than my genetic profile (I personally know people who I consider to be significantly smarter than myself and while I’m very healthy, I consider myself below average at team sports). However, I could provide a lower bound for you and you can help me decide whether it’s worth my while to go through the rigmarole of trying to donate to a sperm bank.

        (my SAT score was only 2240, but I had a perfect GRE, which is arguably harder)

    • Mark says:

      I don’t know… more intelligent people might provide a benefit to society, but does having a particularly intelligent child provide any benefit to a parent?

      If it was me, I think I’d rather select sperm on the basis of a pleasing personality.

      • anon says:

        I would think that, yes, it does benefit the parent. If your kids get rich then they are likely to, e.g., give you a room on their yacht.

        That said, the more important consideration for me is that, since one of my goals is to be rich, it would be, not immoral exactly, but sort of disquieting, to bring kids into the world who have anything but the best possible chance at getting rich themselves.

        • Agronomous says:

          I would think that, yes, it does benefit the parent. If your kids get rich then they are likely to, e.g., give you a room on their yacht.

          Argh. You’re just like my father: “For the millionth time, Dad, it’s called a cabin when it’s on the yacht.” Frankly, I think it’s a subtle (or possibly subconscious) signal that he’s not really all that grateful for it. What does he want? One with an ocean view?

    • Cadie says:

      I don’t see a problem with this, since it’s all voluntary. I’d be a bit bothered if those were the only choices to purchase from (and, to some extent, this is the case, and it does bug me a little) because intelligence isn’t the only trait a recipient might want to select for, or even high on the list. Since intelligence runs in my family – the lowest-IQ sibling out of five is around 120-125, and that one isn’t me – but unfortunately so do low and medium-grade mental illness and short stature, it’s far more important for me to select for mental health and social skills first, and height / general appearance second. Average intelligence is fine because most likely my side has that covered and a child needs more than that, they’ll do best in life if physically and mentally healthy and well-rounded and at least somewhat conventionally attractive. But intelligence does make a difference, and it is largely hereditary, so high-IQ screening as an option is a good idea.

      • anon says:

        Do you have any comment on why you would use your eggs rather than select the highest quality available? Do you have perfect SAT scores? Also, if you have poor or middling social skills or health, why not screen this out entirely?

        To me, using my own gametes seems questionable. Whether they look like me may be less important than that they win.

        • suntzuanime says:

          At that point why even bother getting pregnant? Let the high-quality people mate with each other and be satisfied that high-quality people are being born.

          I guess you might get a kick out of playing mad eugenicist and combining the exact sets of traits to create the World’s Strongest Child. But beyond that, if using your own gametes is gratuitous, so is using your own womb. If you’re not particular about the person who wins being related to you, well, somebody’s going to win, right?

          • anon says:

            Use a surrogate womb if you want.

            I know that I cannot make myself much more athletic, socially skilled, smart, and so forth. But one alternative to winning myself would be for my kids to. What is important is that society recognizes they are mine. And at least in the US, society will. Therefore, if these children win, I do too.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Because they’re not your children otherwise?

          If you just want someone awesome to inherit your stuff and/or name then forget IVF, do what the Japanese do and adopt a promising young man in his early twenties. I’m sure that you could do a talent search much more cheaply than conceiving and raising kids and with much less risk of not getting a winner.

          • anon says:

            They should not already have two other parents. To me, whether they are my children may well be decided only by whether society, and they themselves, acknowledge it.

            I don’t know how much interest I have in passing on my own genes or traits. If I was a Harvard grad and convinced I could do this and not hurt the children’s chances, I would, but I’m not even close.

            One question here is what we think the winning type of person looks like. If we’re headed for idiocracy, then what I said above is wrong. Anyone want to guess on long-term trends?

          • Ever An Anon says:

            My childrens’ abilities matter to me, but the abilities of random unrelated kids who live in my attic do not. Even if some government form in a drawer somewhere says they’re mine that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

            Also, to be honest, fuck Harvard and fuck perfect SAT scores. I have friends at Harvard Law and Princeton and MIT: trust me they’re not the supermen you assume. Hell, I was pretty close to a perfect SAT score myself (didn’t study my math very diligently, but nailed the other sections), but you’d better think twice about taking my sperm unless you want some unbelievably autistic kids.

            If you want good kids, there are things you can do. Find an opposite sex partner who isn’t your cousin or over 30, selecting for hotness (body/face symmetry, height, fine motor skills, good skin/hair, high-normal range intelligence) and avoiding basket cases. Get genetic councilng, especially if you’re both Jewish, and make sure to do genetic tests (mainly CNV, not SNPs) so that you can terminate in case of Downs or AS. That’s about it, your kids will be fine and if you desperately want them to go to an Ivy you can probably pressure them into it.

          • anon says:

            US society does not share your insistence that kids need to be genetically related. This is not an Islamic theocracy that has no adoption, or Europe, where IVF is heavily restricted. Do you wish we were more like one of these?

          • Ayatollah Ever al-Anon says:

            Curses, the infidels have discovered my secret EUrabian identity! And I’d have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for those meddling superkids and that anon!

            (Really, how does one respond to that kind of question?)

            Anyway I think I’ve been clear: if society or the government or your neighbor’s dog says something that doesn’t make it true. Nothing particularly theocratic about it, just not buying every bridge someone tries to sell you.

          • anon says:

            I think it’s an intriguing question what genetic profile would maximize the expected social status of kids. Before I looked for gametes, I might want to read the literature and come up with a model. (Got any links?) You could be largely right in your suggestion, although perhaps you could find a donor that has all those traits but also a perfect SAT score and the right Big Five traits.

          • Linch says:

            It depends on what you think quantifies success, but I would argue that looks are not as important for success as a trifacta of general intelligence, social savviness, and conscientiousness. This is especially true for males. Actually I’m pretty sure that if you are NT and able-bodied and you are in the 99th, probably even the 95th+ percentile for those three, you have very good odds on being *pretty* successful assuming reasonable standards. Looks can compensate for a relative lack of social savviness, but looking at stereotypically successful careers (Law, I-B, management consulting, entrepreneurship, science, most of the arts), I don’t really see how being good looking could really compensate for mediocre intelligence or conscientiousness.

            That said, as somebody raised in a stereotypically East Asian household (in the US) and did not enjoy my childhood particularly, I would caution anon against being extremely success-driven when it comes to children.

  47. Has anybody ever studied how much impact GiveWell has on the charities it reviews?

    IE, if GiveWell were to suddenly endorse Charity X, how much would their donations change by?

  48. Jon Gunnarsson says:

    Since there is a good number of Less Wrong people here, this seems like a good place to ask. Can anyone explain this idea of Timeless Decision Theory to me?

    As far as I understand it, TDT says for example that you should cooperate in the (true, non-iterated) prisoner’s dilemma because if the other player is also a timeless decision agent, and hence makes the same decision as you do, then you’re both better off cooperating.

    Yes, if you can somehow get the other player to to cooperate, then C-C is better than D-D. But if you can do that, D-C is still better. And if the only way to get the other player to pre-commit to cooperation is to do the same, then obviously you should do that, and orthodox game theory is totally on board with that. But if such a pre-commitment is possible, you’re no longer actually playing prisoner’s dilemma. Any way you slice it, defection is the only correct option in a true prisoner’s dilemma.

    TDT seems obviously stupid to me. Is there something I’m missing?

    • suntzuanime says:

      The idea, fundamentally, is that pre-commitment is always possible. It’s semantics whether this means that there’s no such thing as a true scotsman or not.

      • Jon Gunnarsson says:

        Credible commitment is often difficult. Credible mutual commitment is more difficult still. And when you bring in transaction costs and uncertainty (you don’t necessarily know that you will be in a prisoner’s dilemma situation with a particular person in the future), it often becomes unprofitable.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Credible commitment is often difficult. Credible mutual commitment is more difficult still.

          Not between timeless decision agents! That’s sort of the whole point.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I think I may see where you’re going wrong in your thinking. In your original post you have a “because if” where you should have an “if”. Timeless agents don’t cooperate with defectbots, cooperatebots, humans, and other lesser beings. You only gain an advantage by cooperating with yourself and things similar enough to you.

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            Okay, that makes sense. I still don’t see how that has any real world applications. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any timeless decision agents. And even in a world with lots of timeless decision agents, why would you want to be one, rather than just pretend to be one? And for that matter, how do you know that all those supposed timeless decision agents aren’t just pretending, too?

          • Peter says:

            Humans aren’t perfect CDT agents either, or perfect EDT or whatever agents, and that doesn’t stop people (well, decision theorists) talking about them.

            The way I read TDT is that for whatever relationship is claimed between CDT and observable reality, you can try substituting TDT for CDT and probably get something better. I don’t understand all of the ins and outs of TDT, but for me it looks a lot like Kantian ethics, or at least Parfit’s reading of them. It’s enough that I found it intriguing, I don’t know nearly enough to be convinced by it though.

          • suntzuanime says:

            And even in a world with lots of timeless decision agents, why would you want to be one, rather than just pretend to be one? And for that matter, how do you know that all those supposed timeless decision agents aren’t just pretending, too?

            Well, this is the crux of the matter. In a world where the other agents are sufficiently similar to you, you would want to be cooperative rather than pretend to be cooperative, so that the other agents will be cooperative instead of just pretending. “Acausal Decision Theory” is the term used because there is no causal link between your cooperation and their cooperation, and yet in the worlds where you cooperate they cooperate and things go better for you, so why not cooperate?

            As to when you’re in a world with sufficiently similar agents, I don’t know if that’s been worked out yet. Possibly there are advantages to making sure that, say, your political elites all attend the same colleges or etc.

        • Professor Frink says:

          TDT is just a way of smuggling in notions of “credible pre-commitment.”

          If you have no uncertainties about how a past agent predicted your behavior, then you can credibly commit, so then you get cooperation. I don’t think there really are many real-world newcomb-like problems, in reality uncertainty swamps the predictive power you need for “timelessness”

      • Peter says:

        The way I saw TDT, it looked like TDT was what you wanted if you wanted a “general purpose precommitment”; rather than having to anticipate each and every situation you might need a specific precommitment for, pre-commit to TDT and you’re done.

        I suppose in Jon Gunnarsson’s terms, a “true” prisoner’s dilemma presupposes “either you aren’t a TDT-agent, or they’re not a TDT-agent, or at least one of you doesn’t have reason to believe the other might be a TDT-agent”.

        Other fun with “non-true” dilemmas. Take the chicken dilemma, and assume you’re an Always Defect agent and they’re an Always Defect agent – maybe you’re computer programs in a chicken dilemma tournament. The best thing for you to do is the worst thing for you to do is the only thing for you to do: Defect. You can still reasonably say, “it would have been better for me to be some other sort of agent”, you can expect Always Defect agents to get weeded out if it’s one of those evolutionary tournaments.

        If you want to think in terms of free will, then recommending TDT is sort-of assuming free will in terms of what to be, but not directly in terms of what to do.

    • Linch says:

      Is TDT meaningfully distinct from ideas of superrationality?

  49. Oleg S says:

    What is a problem with total QALY being target function for a friendly AI?
    I just cannot reconcile the apparent lack of agreement on target funciton for the AI optimizer and relative consensus of rational altruism community (and some national healthcare authorities) on what constitutes a proper measure of effective spending of money.

    • Froolow says:

      I’m pretty well steeped in the QALY paradigm, and I think your solution is going to look *something* like what the rationalist community eventually settles on, but it going to have enough problems that people won’t regard to problem as solved by any means.

      To give one issue NICE struggles with often; if all you care about is literally maximising QALYs, fertility becomes way more important than (say) pain, because the best you can do by alleviating someone’s pain is give them a handful of QALYs over their lifetime, but if you can get them pregnant then not only do you get a big blob of probable future QALYs, but that blob of QALYs can generate *more* blobs of QALYs. Taken to its extreme, contraception should be treated as a great evil according to the NHS. An AI taking it to extremes could look a lot worse.

      You can get around the problem (like the NHS does) by making a distinction between ‘future people’ and ‘potential people’, but there are other problems and value judgements that have to be made to solve these problems (or bullets to be bitten to keep the value judgement) until eventually you lose the simplicity of the QALY in a sea of value judgements (at which point – when you have *really* specified what you mean – you lose the broad agreement which you say is critical in your judgement that QALYs are the way forward).

      I think QALYs are a really great invention – probably one of the most important of the modern era – but you have to be extremely careful about which domains you apply them to; they maximise *something*, but what that thing is is subtle and open to interpretation.

      • This problem is trivially easy to avoid by being realistic about the fact that life can be so unpleasant as to be in the negatives. Followed by biting the bullet on the repugnant conclusion >;D

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          I think you are right.

        • Peter says:

          Given that a) the repugnant conclusion is based on a highly unrealistic hypothetical and Parfit pretty much says so explicitly, and b) for any AI we might construct, we only need it to behave well in situations that turn up, it’s not a huge bullet to bite in this case.

      • Oleg S says:

        By the way, is there a practice of discounting future QALYs in the similar way as future cash inflow/outflow is discounted when Net Present Value is calculated?

        • Froolow says:

          Yes. NICE use a discount rate for QALYs of 3.5% (same as future cash), but it isn’t strictly necessary that future QALYs be discounted at the same rate as future spending – if you have reason to believe we will become better at generating QALYs given a fixed (real) amount of money, you could consider lowering the QALY discount rate. In my opinion they probably should, to something more like 1.5%.

          • Oleg S says:

            Taking 3.5% discount rate, 1 day of depression today has about the same QALY value as complete extinction of humanity in the Milky Way around 2000 years from now:

            Depression cost = 0.55QALY / 365 = 0.0015 QALYs
            Extinction of humanity im MW cost = 400billion [stars] * 400billion [humans/star] / (1 – 100%/103.5%) = 4.7*10^24 QALYs.
            Ratio of these two factors is 3*10^27, which is 1.035^1840.

            Since we probably won’t discover FTL and colonize Milky Way in 2000 years, this is a conservative estimate of x-threat. Don’t know if it tells something about QALY limitations, discounting, long time or existention threats though.

      • Murphy says:

        Maximizing QALY’s (that individuals get) is not the same thing as maximizing QALY’s (total).

        • Froolow says:

          “Making people happy isn’t the same as making happy people”

          And I agree. But some people don’t – for example a lot of x-risk Effective Altruists implicitly assume we should care a lot about making lots of happy people in the future compared to making people happy now.

          These sorts of issues mean that I wouldn’t trust an AI following a ‘maximise QALYs’ rule, because even if you solved the one issue I posed above, there are ten more just as serious I didn’t mention, and probably just as many just as serious I don’t even know yet.

          • Murphy says:

            One thing I don’t like on less wrong is the implicit assumption that maximizers are the go-to. I think the discussion is sometimes overly shaped by some of the assumptions in some of the simpler articles.

            You could also quite validly have an X-maintainer which doesn’t seek to maximize X but does seek to keep X above some arbitrary point with some reasonable level of confidence. But that’s probably an argument for another thread.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            You could also quite validly have an X-maintainer which doesn’t seek to maximize X but does seek to keep X above some arbitrary point with some reasonable level of confidence.

            Bostrom’s scenario for this is: How sure can it be that it has achieved this? Could it acquire more resources in order to make the count more reliable?

            Okay, “reasonable level of confidence”. But how do I know I have achieved something with 80% confidence? Am I 100% confident of that confidence level? Maybe the safest thing to do is keep the level at 2X, just to be sure. But then…

            Honestly, I suspect your angle is close to the right approach. But there’s some serious work associated with specifying that so it doesn’t lead to the same problem at a meta-level.

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      There is no uncontroversial way of measuring quality of life. What you have with QALY is just lists of guesstimates for how much a particular disease or injury reduces quality of life. These guesstimates are made by medical experts who possess common sense and normal human morality and are thus able to notice when their methodology gives them absurd results. There’s a risk that a very powerful AI would find some sort of exploit that lets it cheaply increase QALY-points without actually increasing human well-being.

      I don’t know any details about how QALYs are actually calculated, so maybe the following example doesn’t work. But if not, then something similar probably would.

      When humans want to maximise egg production, they put lots of chickens into small cages, give them food and water to sustain them and anti-biotics so they won’t get sick. This is a very miserable life for chickens, but an efficient way of producing eggs if you don’t care about the welfare of chickens. Now imagine an AI “farming” QALYs. It produces lots of humans and puts them in cages where they are fed and watered and receive whatever medical treatment is cost-effective. These humans will be quite miserable, but that doesn’t matter, we only care about the objective criteria of QALY. They will also probably be less healthy than free range humans, but this moderate decrease in the quality of life factor is easily compensated by the massive cost reduction compared to free range humans.

      This example illustrates a crucial problem with the QALY approach, namely that it only cares about health, even though it’s perfectly possible to lead a miserable life even if one is in perfect health.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        This is generally a problem with formal definitions of utility that don’t match exactly whatever human intuitions led to the definition.

        But if we ever need a formal definition, e.g. to be parsed by decision algorithms, there is no way around this.

      • Peter says:

        I think there are QALY weights for mental health, which is related to misery – I seem to recall that severe depression unaccompanied by other health problems was running at a weight of about 0.5 or so, maybe a bit lower.

        Other things – I don’t think there are QALY weights for wireheading, and I could see a lot of people being concerned to prevent a Bright New Mandatory Wireheading Future – it doesn’t seem the best to me. Others may disagree – paging Wirehead Wannabe…

        • Froolow says:

          If you’re curious, the most extreme you can put depression on a QALY survey accompanied by no other health problems at all gives your QoL weighting as 0.414 in the UK and 0.550 in the US (people in different countries obviously feel differently as to how bad depression is relative to other illnesses).

          In reality, many depressed people also have trouble with ‘Activities of Daily Living’ such as holding down a job or keeping up with schoolwork, and again score badly on ‘Self-Care’ (remembering to wash and eat), so I’d reckon the actual QALY weight is more like 0.3 or 0.4.

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            Factory-farmed humans would probably be cheaper by a factor of at least ten compared to us free range humans. You don’t need education, transportation, entertainment, etc.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            You don’t even need the full humans. You could grow brains in vats instead. Also great for wireheading.

            The true obstacle, beyond the abuse potential and social resistance to Franken-anything, is that most people need to carry their own economic weight most of the time.

      • Oleg S says:

        Doesn’t exactly that line of reasoning prevent spending money on fighting schistosomiasis in Sub-Saharan Africa?

    • walpolo says:

      Read Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids (or “With Folded Hands”)

  50. First-Time Commenter says:

    Taubes believes the human body is good at regulating its own weight via the hunger mechanism. For example, most Asian people are normal weight, despite the Asian staple food being rice, which is high-calorie and available in abundance. Asians don’t get fat because they eat a healthy amount of rice, then stop. This doesn’t seem to require amazing willpower on their part; it just happens naturally.

    Taubes’ argument is that refined carbohydrates are playing the role of Clozaril-in-orange-soda. If you don’t eat refined carbohydrates, your satiety mechanism will eventually go back to normal just like in Asians and prisoners and rats, and you can eat whatever else you want and won’t be tempted to have too much of it – or if you do have too much of it, you’ll exercise or metabolize it away. When he says you can “eat as much fat as you want”, he expects that not to be very much, once your broken satiety mechanism is fixed.

    Taubes is wrong. The best and most recent studies suggest that avoiding refined carbohydrates doesn’t fix weight gain much more than avoiding any other high-calorie food.

    I've never read Taubes. That said, I'm on a paleo-ish diet. One of the the main benefits I've noticed is that it's much easier to skip the brownies and ice cream and such when I'm at the grocery store; I'd say it's a +3 Will save vs. baked goods. I've also been able to finish dinner by 8 and postpone breakfast until noon on most days; this ends up cutting out most snacking, if nothing else.

    Once I started limiting my eating window, the pounds started to wander off; I've gone down 20 pounds or so in a year of this. My mother has had even more impressive results once her carb-fueled sweet tooth finally died out. The funny thing is that Taubes' descriptions, at least in my family, seem to have more explanatory power than anything else on offer.

    Oddly enough, the guy who egged me into eating this way is…Asian. Rail-skinny in high school, got fat during college, and got back to normal by cutting out rice and sugar and burger buns.

    (Yes, I know a handful of anecdotes don't falsify a generalization, but I thought this was too funny to not comment)

    • dndnrsn says:

      Taubes’ book has some big holes in it. Regardless of those holes, my most serious fat loss has always been on low-carb diets where I avoid sugars and starches.

      I think my reason is similar to what you are describing: the foods I tend to overeat are carb-heavy: junk food, baked goods, beer, etc. I don’t think it has anything to do with Taubes’ proposed mechanism, which seems wacky to me.

      I don’t see the point of the “which is the best diet?” research – it seems like individual psychological factors are a big part. I just lose fat best on a low-carb diet because once I start drinking beer or eating cookies, I almost inevitably plow through 6+ pints or devastate the cookie aisle of the nearest supermarket. The same doesn’t happen to me eating stuff high in protein and fat but low in carbs.

      • gbdub says:

        Same here. The things I’m most tempted to OVEREAT are carb-heavy, and if I’m disciplined about reducing carb intake I don’t replace it with overeating protein or fat heavy foods.

        And eating less carbs in general does seem to reduce craving for them. For whatever reason, it’s much easier for me to turn down an extra piece of chicken than an extra helping of pasta or dinner roll.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Plus the most overeatable high-carb stuff is very often high in fat, too: chips, cookies, etc. I don’t know how often people eat a whole loaf of plain bread, but smashing a bag of chips or box of cookies is practically hard not to do for a lot of us.

          But Taubes is silly and some of his ideas just don’t work. I bought a copy of his book and there’s more than one angry marginal notation I made.

          • Second-Time Commenter says:

            I don’t know how often people eat a whole loaf of plain bread[…]

            I’ve been able to plow through 1/2–3/4 of a par-baked artisanal loaf before. Eating the whole thing at one sitting would be a stretch (in two senses of the word), but doable.

          • dndnrsn says:

            On its own? If it’s good bread I can see that.

            I do recommend reading Taubes, because it’s good practice at picking out reasonable from unreasonable.

          • Nornagest says:

            I misread that as “eating Taubes”, and now I’m a little disappointed.

          • dndnrsn says:

            According to Taubes you couldn’t gain weight from eating him. No carbs.

          • Deiseach says:

            A small crusty sliced pan with butter? Washed down with a pot of good strong tea?

            If I was very hungry and it was my main meal of the day, it’d be doable. I’d be stuffed as full as an egg and feeling unpleasantly gluttonous, but it’s doable.

  51. RichardCory says:

    Why doesn’t the concept of “Chinese math” (if we get just 1% of china to buy this widget, we will be successful!) as seen in economic business terms apply to idea that there *must* be life and even advanced life in the universe simply because there is soooooo much of it out there?

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Because it is still possible for life to be improbable enough that a large finite part of the universe doesn’t produce it often enough, e.g. for light cones of civs to overlap.

      • Murphy says:

        I’ll be interesting to see what happens with the observations of exoplanets.

        Just a few years ago one of the possibilities was “maybe planets are just super rare”

        Now we know they’re super-common. If a few planets turn out to have atmospheric spectra implying life then it would imply that life is also super common which would be worrying.

    • Salem says:

      It does apply, and in just the same way.

      “If we get just 1% of china to buy this widget, we will be successful” does not mean that any old product will be successful. Both successful and unsuccessful products have been launched based on this thinking! The emotional work there is being done by “just” and “china.” Oh, “just” 1%. “China,” some faraway yet populous country. Imagine it being said instead by a Chinese executive. “For this widget to be successful, one person on each street in the nation must buy it.” Doesn’t sound so easy now. It’s all in the affect.

      So yeah, there’s a lot of universe. Are there trees with armchairs as fruit? Your logic above applies just the same. The size of the universe is not an excuse to insist that any wished-for event must be real, in the same way that the size of the Chinese market is not an excuse to insist that your widget will be successful. There is almost certainly an as-yet-undiscovered clump of rock somewhere in the universe. There is almost certainly not an armchair-tree. You actually have to do the work and consider the likelihood of life, not wave your hands.

    • math is can be demonstrated with empirical evidence ; ET life in the universe cannot . If the conditions are not present for ET life, there can’t be life,, no matter how big the universe is

    • I personally think it probably does apply – the set of imaginable universes with the apparently unremarkable (apart from life) Earth being the only location of life is a lot smaller than the set of imaginable universes where life on Earth exists but hasn’t noticed any of the other life that exists yet, or where advanced life rarely survives long.

  52. Max says:

    What is practical utility of charity? Have there been any serious examples of inventions/Great people appearing solely (or even at least in large part) because of it? What great things happened thanks to it?

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      This kiiiind of assumes that utility is measured in great inventions/deeds rather than in things like loving family and happy lives, but even then one could argue that charity kept, say, a poor person from becoming desperate enough to burn Bill Gates’ house to the ground while he was busy inventing the modern age.

      • Max says:

        a poor person from becoming desperate enough to burn Bill Gates’ house to the ground while he was busy inventing the modern age.

        This sounds like an extortion racket.

        • Stefan Drinic says:

          I *can* name some examples of extortion rackets leading to what you’d call greatness, so I’d say I’m in the clear here.

          • Max says:

            I was asking for arguments for charity, not for extortion rackets (virtues of which are another matter).

            Buying of “poor persons” with charity just so they dont burn/revolt is not the most optimal solution.

          • suntzuanime says:

            What makes you think buying off “”poor persons”” is not the most optimal solution? You have something better in mind? Some people still run the “brutal oppression” strategy but it’s kind of considered gauche internationally.

          • Stefan Drinic says:

            Half of the reason I even brought this up is that the line between charity freely given and extortion rackets can be blurry. The Marshal plan contributed to West European recovery post WW2, but do we count this as the good and noble initiative that is charity, or as a bribe to ensure half the continent wouldn’t turn red?

            Hell, given that most people are comfortable with less people starving being a good thing, I’m not sure what other arguments you expected to see here. Would you count welfare as a form of charity?

        • anodognosic says:

          You didn’t answer the main point, which is that utility is not only about greatness but about regular people living well.

          • Max says:

            “People living well” = idiocracy

          • anodognosic says:

            I don’t think you *get* utilitarianism.

          • Max says:

            I don’t think you *get* utilitarianism.

            I don’t think you can accept that people may have utility function which differs from yours

          • anodognosic says:

            It’s an odd utilitarianism that excludes the utility of the great majority of the human population.

            Maybe you believe that great people have such a capacity for utility that they overwhelm everyone else’s, even to the point of making everyone else miserable?

            Except we have a term for those people. We call them *utility monsters*.

    • Nita says:

      Although the climb from a charity-worthy situation to “greatness” usually requires a few generations (and supportive infrastructure, such as good schools), I did manage to scrounge up a few examples among the people I consider notable:

      William Dance paid for young Michael Faraday’s tickets to lectures.
      Elihu Robinson mentored his servant boy, John Dalton.
      Thomas Skottowe paid for the primary education of his farm laborer’s son, James Cook.
      Franklin Leonard Pope let the young Thomas Edison live and experiment in his basement.
      The Flying University, an underground non-profit, educated Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

      Of course, if someone’s starving or sick, their education and freedom to experiment is not going to be the first priority. And a lot of people are starving or sick right now, so all this “mentoring” and such is on the back burner for effective altruists.

      • Max says:

        Thank you for taking time to find examples. But none of them are charity. They are at best individual patronage

        In fact histories of all those individuals are examples against charity – no social institution ever helped them and they achieved whatever they did throughout their hard-work and dedications. All those money going to charity could have helped those geniuses and maybe some who never made it. Rewarding weakness is weakening the strong

        • Nita says:

          Well, you didn’t specify your personal definition of charity. To me, giving money to a non-relative and not expecting anything in return is a charitable act. Classical patronage involved an obligation to provide services to the patron.

          The reason why these people needed help was that charitable institutions didn’t hand out such luxuries as education or lab space. In most Western countries, this issue has been remedied using taxes.

          And, of course, if any of them died of a preventable disease in childhood, no amount of potential cleverness or patronage could bring them to greatness.

    • The world needs maintenance as well as greatness.

      • Max says:

        Run away consumerism destroys the world -not maintains it. By supporting weak, poor and stupid you create more of them. Just look at Africa population boom

        • brightlinger says:

          Africa is not exactly a poster child for “runaway consumerism”. European countries are frequently criticized for being welfare states, yet have some of the lowest growth rates around.

        • pneumatik says:

          Moloch destroys the world. At best we could perhaps have indefinite stagnation, but either everyone would have to willingly support it or some people would have to ruthlessly enforce it (and I suppose have enough resource and energy surplus to recover from the total costs of enforcing it). In fact, my initial thought is that if you’re not destroying the world to provide for humans then you’re living in a Malthusian civilization.

    • brightlinger says:

      Every once in a while, I see someone _explicitly_ justify charity with the claim that there are more people like Ramanujan out there who are falling through the cracks, and society could benefit from more of them if they didn’t have to depend on meeting their Aiyer by sheer luck.

      I am left to wonder what the “practical utility” of great deeds is, if improving people’s lives doesn’t count.

  53. Dude Man says:

    So there was an Atlantic article about how we create life stories for ourselves. In it, there was this paragraph about false memories:

    Pasupathi’s not convinced that it matters that much whether life stories are perfectly accurate. A lot of false memory research has to do with eyewitness testimony, where it matters a whole lot whether a person is telling a story precisely as it happened. But for narrative-psychology researchers, “What really matters isn’t so much whether it’s true in the forensic sense, in the legal sense,” she says. “What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth.”

    First, is it reasonable to interpret this as encouraging self-deception? The researcher seems to be arguing that it is more important for memories to be meaningful than accurate.

    Second and more broadly, is it really a good idea to encourage self-deception as a way to improve mental health? How do you square advice like this with treating honesty as a terminal value?

    • The second question might depend somewhat on whether the theory of depressive realism is true. I am ambivalent about the theory but I have always found it interesting.

    • Setsize says:

      Rather than an endorsement of self-deception, I read that passage as merely trying to describe what “narrative-psychology research” is concerned with, by way of contrasting it with “false memory research.”

      That is, the question “are memories true?” may not have much to do with the question “what role do narratives play in the mind?”

      • walpolo says:

        Right, they might mean “matters for our theory” rather than “matters in the big scheme of things.”

        Although it’s hard to see what the evolutionary explanation for this sort of memory would be. When would a false narrative ever be more advantageous than a true narrative?

    • First, is it reasonable to interpret this as encouraging self-deception? The researcher seems to be arguing that it is more important for memories to be meaningful than accurate.

      It might be critical for the patient to figure out a way to make sense of a memory, particularly if it’s a memory of a social situation that could be interpreted in many different ways.

      Second and more broadly, is it really a good idea to encourage self-deception as a way to improve mental health? How do you square advice like this with treating honesty as a terminal value?

      Who’s treating honesty as a terminal value? It’s not hard to think of circumstances where honesty is less important than other values.

    • anodognosic says:

      This is a deep, deep question. Let’s take the distinction between narrative meaning and objective fact.

      A mindset asymptotically approaching objectivity would be strictly Bayesian, so that everything is expressed as a percentage. There would be no emotional attachment to any beliefs – in fact, there would be no beliefs per se, only predictions about sense-data.

      Imagine applying this all the time to everything, including your personal life. It’s literally impossible. It’s not how human minds work. And it doesn’t fit at all our intuitive/narrative functioning, from which we derive meaning (in the sense of “meaning of life”).

      We can’t escape embracing narrative to the detriment of rationality to the extent that we want meaning in our lives. People might vary in the balance they end up in (which is why, for instance, I think Scott finds it so hard to model people who like “earthfic”, as per the previous sub-thread). There are ways to make them work together, but for the most part that means alternation, using rationality to course-correct or rein in intuitive/narrative reasoning.

      TL;DR The terminal values of honesty (in this sense) and meaning are competing goods, and you can’t have one without compromising a bit of the other.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        “A mindset asymptotically approaching objectivity would be strictly Bayesian, so that everything is expressed as a percentage. There would be no emotional attachment to any beliefs – in fact, there would be no beliefs per se, only predictions about sense-data.”

        Setting aside the dogmatic identification of objectivity with Bayesianism, why on earth would this be true? A perfect reasoner would have excellent grounds for investing a high credence in (say) the proposition that atoms exist– what a non-Bayesian would call belief in atoms– but this is in no way a prediction concerning sense-data. I also expect a perfect reasoner would deny that there were any such thing as sense-data, cognitive psychology having informed us long ago that this isn’t how the brain works.

        • anodognosic says:

          @Earthly Knight Propositions are mind-things. So is the concept of “atom”. Their connection to reality is in their prediction of perceptions (since you objected to “sense data.” It doesn’t matter). If you want to push against the horizons of objectivity, you formalize the model mathematically, free of (some of) the limitations of human mental models, and stick to the predictions and observations (cf. quantum physics, one of the most objective fields; it’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the most difficult to apprehend intuitively).

          I mean, I have no objection to talking about beliefs or atoms or what have you. (I’m actually arguing for letting more human subjectivity into thinking.) But you have to admit they’re concessions to the subjective human way of understanding reality.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            The concept of an atom is indeed a “mind-thing”, but this is beside the point, because I wasn’t talking about the concept. Atoms themselves are not mind-dependent, they’re part of the furniture of the world. The purpose of scientific theories is not just to predict the course of future experiences. They’re also involved with explaining the structure of the universe and the nature of its constituents, which includes inter alia atoms, molecules, organisms, and cells.

            The point you’re making about belief is even more obscure to me. Our ideal reasoner has a mathematical model: it attaches a very high credence to some prediction about her sense-data, for instance, “I will be appeared to redly one week hence” (never mind how the passage of a week is represented as a sense-datum). This seems sufficient to me for belief– she believes that she will see something red one week from now.

          • anodognosic says:

            >This seems sufficient to me for belief

            Here is the central issue of contention. What is *belief* for?

            Let’s imagine a computer that’s programmed to hit a blue ball with a bat. But this computer doesn’t contain a variable or node or category for “ball” at all. It has its camera, and when the light that hits the camera is within a certain range of configurations (corresponding to an approaching ball), it swings the bat. Here, there is no belief, only perception, computation and action.

            In human, intuitive reasoning, beliefs (or something belief-like; the details of the phenomenology don’t matter) figure into the computation that leads a batter to hit the ball, because that’s the human way of modeling. Computers can reach the same result, often better results, via different routes. Rationality and objectivity are neutral about methods, as long as the prediction (and resultant action) are the same. If you happen to reach a prediction without beliefs (except, perhaps, belief in the prediction itself; we cannot fully transcend our human minds), why add the extra step of forming a belief?

            My point is that it’s because beliefs, among other things, are our (intuitive, subjective) native software, and we can only derive meaning from things that run on our native software. Ultimately, my intention is to reach a reductio of the idea that we can’t ever compromise (objective) truth, because *even holding a belief apart from a prediction is such a compromise*.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Your example conflates two distinct questions– whether the computer has beliefs about the external world and whether it has beliefs sans phrase. We may be able to answer the former in the negative, but not the latter.* If the computer selectively responds to blue balls (…another reason the example is poorly chosen) it must have some way of representing blue ball-shaped stimuli and attaching a credence to them, and so must perforce believe that it is being appeared to bluely and spherically (assuming that it otherwise is capable of having doxastic states, which may impose some additional requirements).

            This still doesn’t address the point about atoms, which are real independently of what you or I or any computer believes or predicts.

            *Probably not, actually, but the simplicity of the examples we’re using make this harder to see. The computer’s equations will have to include variables for theoretical terms, which cannot be reduced to any finite disjunction of sense-datum reports.

          • anodognosic says:

            Calling a computer’s representations “beliefs” is an undue anthropomorphization. If there are variables, they need not conform to anything we would conceive of mentally. The fact that it may use a radically different system of representation, and perhaps even a better one, shows that our representational framework is limited by its architecture.

            Re: atoms: atoms are not actual things as we conceive them, these separate, unitary entities. They are more like a mishmash of wavefunctiony stuff, far better represented by the mathematics of quantum physics. (I’d even go farther and say that most people’s intuitive concept of atoms is still of little billiard balls knocking into other little billiard balls, and that it’s hard to go beyond that because image schemas. But this is not essential to my point.)

            The question I pose is, why do we insist on the suboptimal representation that is the atom when we have more precise mathematical ones? Because we crave an intuitive understanding beyond the math, or at least need a more intuitive placeholder in our minds.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            “Calling a computer’s representations “beliefs” is an undue anthropomorphization.”

            I’m afraid it is you who are anthropomorphizing– you’re using an unduly restrictive definition of belief (whose parameters are still unclear to me) to rule out non-human intelligences as possible believers. This is just semantic jiggery-pokery and therefore not very interesting. All I mean by belief is a sufficiently intelligent system which assigns a high subjective probability or truth value T to some piece of representational content.

            “They are more like a mishmash of wavefunctiony stuff, far better represented by the mathematics of quantum physics.”

            Sure, whatever. The important point is not nailing down what atoms are, just that they exist, that our ideal reasoner will believe in them, and that they are not sense data.

            “why do we insist on the suboptimal representation that is the atom when we have more precise mathematical ones?”

            I’m having trouble making heads or tails of this– if the atom (the particle, not our mental image of it!) is a “suboptimal representation”, what in the blue blazes do you think its representing? What, moreover, is the mathematical theory representing, if not the atom?

          • anodognosic says:

            >All I mean by belief is a sufficiently intelligent system which assigns a high subjective probability or truth value T to some piece of representational content.

            This is Bayesian-rationalist belief, which I hold is not quite the same as narrative-intuitive belief. This seems like a fair distinction, or at least is specific enough to be open to argumentation. My contention is that only narrative-intuitive belief can carry meaning (as in the sense of “meaning of life”). If a Bayesian-rationalist belief carries meaning, it is only to the extent that it associates with a narrative-intuitive belief.

            >What, moreover, is the mathematical theory representing, if not the atom?

            “What, moreover, is the gigantic ball of hot plasma at the center of our solar system, if not Apollo’s chariot being driven across the sky?”

            An exaggeration, but which expresses the relationship I’m referring to. Both represent the same thing, but are on different points along a subjective-objective spectrum, where the subjective extreme is the one that most conforms to our intuitive-narrative reasoning. The “atom” concept implicitly carries untrue assumptions because it conforms to our intuitive understanding (that of a unitary, separable object, for instance), but is as a result intuitively more convenient and satisfying than the wave function, so it survives.

            If this is clear, then there is no disagreement left.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            “This is Bayesian-rationalist belief, which I hold is not quite the same as narrative-intuitive belief. This seems like a fair distinction, or at least is specific enough to be open to argumentation.”

            Okay, but you started out denying that the ideal reasoner would have any beliefs at all and ended up by introducing a (to my eye, unnatural) distinction between two different types of belief and claiming that she would have one sort but not the other. You’ll forgive me if I’m having trouble following the dialectic.

            “An exaggeration, but which expresses the relationship I’m referring to.”

            I don’t think you quite caught the thrust of my question. Calling the atom a representation is a confusion of symbol and referent, because an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world. It’s the silly Bohr model or whatever set of equations that are representations. I wish I could say you’ve made your position clear to me, but I’m not convinced it’s clear even to you.

          • anodognosic says:

            >a (to my eye, unnatural) distinction between two different types of belief

            The fact that most people would not recognize a belief as an experience-anticipator suggests that they are phenomenologically distinct. The fact that people not only have, but are routinely attracted to, unfalsifiable beliefs suggests there is a mechanism at play wholly distinct from experience-anticipation. As does the fact that even people trained in rationality think nothing of suspending disbelief in reading fiction.

            The ideal-reasoner-belief is a tool for prediction; intuitive-narrative-belief serves a psychological purpose. Ideal-reasoner-belief is a fitness maximization process; intuitive-narrative-belief is an adaptation execution.

            If you can’t tell the distinction, I fear you’re projecting the idealized case on the human one. Circling back to my original point, the problem with failing to make that distinction is you end up thinking that experience-anticipation is the only purpose of beliefs and end up missing others which are connected to creating intuitively satisfying meaning of the world. The point is: sometimes it’s a good thing to sacrifice some of the experience-anticipation purpose of belief for the meaningness (to use David Chapman’s neologism) purpose of belief. In other words, to a certain extent, it’s okay and even necessary to *believe in belief*.

            > an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world

            So is Apollo’s fiery chariot. Get out of the car, EK.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Your thoughts are getting disorganized, so I’m going to part with a question. If I ask the ideal reasoner whether there are planets outside of our future light cone, will she say yes or no? If no, how can she be an ideal reasoner, yet incapable of completing the most straightforward inductions? If yes, how can she be concerned only with predictions about sense-data, when planets outside of our future light cone are causally isolated from us unto eternity?

        • anodognosic says:

          >Your thoughts are getting disorganized

          If your words don’t get tied up in a knot when you’re discussing foundational epistemology, you’re not trying hard enough. To wit, the following gets it almost exactly backwards:

          >Calling the atom a representation is a confusion of symbol and referent, because an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world. It’s the silly Bohr model or whatever set of equations that are representations.

          Re: your question: The ideal reasoner is a fiction, so maybe? It doesn’t matter. The relevant examples are those beliefs that are unfalsifiable not because of physical constraints, but by deliberate human design. The question is: why do humans *defend beliefs from evidence*? This is so ludicrously antithetical to the ideal reasoner that there must be some other purpose at play.

          Naive rationalism rejects any such purposes. I’m saying you can’t, and shouldn’t.

  54. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    The recent scuffle about effective altruism and vegetarianism reminded me of a delightful episode which took place in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Facebook. Basically, Eliezer’s then girlfriend (now wife) Brienne wrote a post which argued that meat-eaters and vegetarians did not actually have different values, but merely disagreed about whether animals were sentient (in the sense of having qualia and being able to experience pain) and therefore morally relevant. Eliezer shared the post approvingly, and a bunch of people showed up in the comment section to explain to Eliezer that, no, meat-eaters toally think animals are sentient but we still eat them, yes, really. Eliezer was skeptical, so he ran a poll asking his meat-eating readers whether they thought animals could suffer. He was surprised when the result came back 4:1 in favor of sentience, and apologized to the vegetarians for accusing them of strawmanning meat-eaters. He then concluded that perhaps this helped to explain why a surprising number of people sympathized with the sociopathic Professor Quirrell.

    TL;DR: Meat-eaters are literally Voldemort.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      ISTM EY’s usually uses “sentient” with a much narrower meaning than is standard (outside sci-fi). A less ambiguous word for EY’s meaning is “sapient”.

      • Setsize says:

        No, sentient is the right word.

        Sentient: Has subjective experiences. If X is sentient, there is a thing-it-is-like-to-be an X.
        Sapient: Intelligent; has complex thoughts.

        I would wager that the majority of EY’s respondents believe e.g. cows are sentient but not sapient.

        And it is plausible, at least at the thought-experiment level, to be sapient but not sentient.

        It is common in sci-fi to use “sentient” to cover both, but sci-fi is generally blinkered on this point.

        • kernly says:

          Sentient: Has subjective experiences.

          This does not line up AT ALL with how I have seen this word used before this. Everything with a brain has ‘subjective experiences.’ I’ve never heard mosquitoes defined as ‘sentient.’

          • Jiro says:

            My computer is probably as complicated as a mosquito brain. I don’t think my computer is either sapient or sentient. Nor do I see how you could tell whether either one has subjective experiences. You could say that the mosquito reacts to its environment, but that is not necessarily a sign of subjective experience (and anyway my computer can do that).

            You could try to claim that the mosquito avoids things that make it feel pain, but deciding that it “feels pain” assumes your answer.

          • Randy M says:

            I’ve seen people argue that vegetarians should consider eating shellfish because while technically animals their nervous system is undeveloped to the point they probably aren’t sentient like chordates are.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Randy have you read DFW’s Consider the Lobster? It made me kind of iffy that argument.

          • Randy M says:

            No, who is that?

            I was refering before to Mark Sisson, and to be accurate, he was only speaking of muscles, I think.

          • Deiseach says:

            vegetarians should consider eating shellfish

            Cockles and mussels alive, alive-oh! 🙂

          • anodognosic says:

            @Randy David Foster Wallace. His essay (Consider the Lobster) is not terribly scientific, but he explores the issue with sincerity and humanity and ends up on an ambivalence that I have shared since reading it.

        • Deiseach says:

          I thought “sentient” was more than mere awareness, that it contained some element of “self-awareness” even in however small a part.

          Mosquitoes being aware of their environment – sure. Self-aware? No.

          Dogs have some self-awareness? Yes. So dogs are sentient? To a degree, yes. But dogs are not people, puppies are not human babies, you are not the mommy or daddy of that animal.

          (Obligatory harrumphing finished now).

          What you say about sapient but not sentient fascinates me; could this be the case for octopuses, which appear to be extremely intelligent, but I have no idea how you’d measure if they have a sense of self or self-awareness?

          • anodognosic says:

            Deiseach, I know that you oppose abortion. Do you believe a human fetus has more sentience than any animal you have no objection to killing? Throughout the whole pregnancy? If not, about when do you think it gains this sentience? (On this last point, I don’t mean to hit you with a slippery slope. I really just want a vague sense.)

            Or do you have a distinct reason for opposing abortion?

            Full disclosure: I believe abortion is in the ballpark of killing a dog – that is, in general, I’d rather it not happen, but acceptable when weighed against some measure of human suffering.

          • Deiseach says:

            Hmm – yes, you know what, anodognosic, you’re right! From now on I’ll change my tastes to eat veal instead of steak, because calves obviously have less sentience and life experience than adult cows, and if it’s only an immature sample of its species, then it doesn’t count!

          • anodognosic says:

            I’m serious and I feel your answer was glib.

            The relevant issue is not life experience, but sentience, and maturity is only relevant to the extent that it affects sentience. A zygote has no sentience, I think we can agree, but a 3-year-old child certainly does (I don’t support infanticide, but my earliest memories are of about that age and I don’t know enough about human mental development to be any more confident about the sentience of younger children). There might be some difference of sentience between a 3-year-old and a 20-year-old — I have no idea. But that difference is surely a rounding error compared to the difference between a zygote and a 3-year-old. Extend that reasoning to your example about the calf and the cow – if there is a difference in sentience, it is minimal.

            So, because I actually want to know: is your standard for the wrongness of killing something sentience? If so, is that why you think abortion is wrong? If so, at what point between a zygote and a 3-year-old do you think a human gains sentience?

            And if your reason for opposing abortion isn’t sentience, what is it?

            (An ideal response would actually be a sincere answer to these questions.)

          • Setsize says:

            Well, I’d call having self-awareness “having self-awareness”, and I’d call having a theory of mind “having a theory of mind,” and I’d call having social relations “having social relations” and so on 🙂

            It is true that sci-fi writers and others roll various conflations of these traits up into something they call “sentience,” but I think that rolling all these things together doesn’t make a word that is useful for thinking about moral relevance or the nature of mind.

            In Star Trek whenever there is a question of a thing’s sentience, it’s usually resolved by having that thing perform a feat of sapience, like linguistic communication (particularly linguistic communication about states of mind.) But at the same time they have a Ship’s Computer which is quite linguistically competent, can report its own self-diagnostics, senses and reacts to all manner of things, and performs feats of sapience up to and including the construction of novel, themselves sentient Holodeck characters, but somehow manages not to be sentient in their reckoning.

            My intuition is that mammals are sentient, cephalopods are sentient, clams are not, and mosquitoes I’m not sure about but lean toward no. I feel like it ought to require something beyond being responsive to stimuli or having a representation of the environment and one’s place in it — I assert Roombas and Google self-driving cars are not sentient — but kind of the exact problem is that all purported third-person tests of sentience end up testing something else. And then you have the panpsychists who claim that literally all things are sentient, and I can’t exactly disprove that either.

          • Loquat says:


            I personally favor legal abortion, but my understanding is that most people who oppose it but eat meat believe that humans are in a separate moral category from animals altogether. A human fetus, allowed to grow to maturity, will become a human being, will love other humans and be loved in turn, will have the potential to do great deeds, etc. A cow, barring massive genetic engineering, will never be anything more than a cow.

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, two points here:

            (1) False equivalence. We are comparing immature – and you can’t get much more immature than not yet born – entities with born and mature entities, then doing a fast shuffle and emoting about “But the poor little chicken or cow or pig or bunny rabbit! How can you be so cruel?” and dressing that up with “Oh, a pig is more sentient than a foetus”.

            A foetal pig in utero is no more or less sentient than a foetal human in utero. If we’re going to compare entities on an equal level, then we have to compare (say) a three year old human child with a six month old pig (for rough parallel in life stages).

            (2) Now, even if we take born and six month old pigs to be the approximate equal in life development to a three year old human, humans are different. I do not accept that a pig or an elephant (and I’d assign high levels of intelligence and even something you could meaningfully call sentience to elephants) is morally equal to a human being. I do not accept that humans have the right to kill members of their own species, whether we’re basing our argument on sentience, stage of physiological development, or convenience for the temporally senior entity. By the same token, I think humans killing food animals is not murder.

          • Linch says:

            Deiseach, are you making an explicit claim of speciesm in the sense of “this is my species, therefore it’s doubleplusgood” or is there something *other* to humans vs.non-human animals that we have not previously captured in this conversation?

            Put another way, killing another human for food is generally agreed to be morally wrong (in all but a trivial number of instances), but would you extend the same courtesy to elves if they are real? For the sake of the argument, assume Tolkeinian elves who are allegedly longer-lived, more beautiful and in some sense smarter and more sophisticated than the race of Men.

            Secondly, is your perception that killing animals for food “not murder” but humans is a question of kind, or just of degree? Will you be willing to annihilate all the dolphins in the world to extend the life of a human (eg, me) by a second? Why or why not? (If yes will your response be true of intelligent aliens/elves as well?)

    • Deiseach says:

      This is serendipitous!

      If ever I run amuck and go full-on Hannibal Lecter, it will be the mangled corpse of a vegan I am found crouching over, and screaming in a high-pitched cackle as they drag me away “But I’m only eating a herbivore! There’s no difference between human and non-human animals!”

      This dire vision of my possible future brought to you courtesy of my vegan/animal rights activist brother posting “vegan humour” (sic) propaganda on Facebook and driving me batty with the nonsense. I may possibly expand on this later when I’m not at work (and not supposed to be doing this on my tea break) 🙂

      • Linch says:

        It takes multiple tries, but you can train facebook to hide stuff you don’t like.

        I’ve successfully done this for buzzfeed, upworthy, cracked, cat pictures and political memes.

        I would hesitantly recommend hiding vegan memes for a potentially nontrivial increase in your emotional affect.

    • Roxolan says:

      Did you save those links at the time, or do you have a handy way to search for old facebook conversations? I would very much like one.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, I don’t really have conversations with him on this. Mainly I leave snarky comments on the posts. I’ll dig out the relevant link when I have a bit more time later today.

        The thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the things he’s pushing. I don’t think animal cruelty is of little or no concern, and when it sticks to concrete action, that’s fine.

        But the “killing and eating an animal is exactly the same thing as killing and eating a human” notions are ones I obviously do not agree with, and the moral posturing gets a bit much (e.g. the only reason people eat meat is because they enjoy animals being tortured and murdered, nothing else).

        • BD Sixsmith says:

          But the “killing and eating an animal is exactly the same thing as killing and eating a human” notions are ones I obviously do not agree with…

          If nothing else, would vegan who endorse this notion merely post satirical memes if people started eating human flesh?

    • rsaarelm says:

      I’m a bit confused how anyone who believes in evolution would actually have a principled belief that cattle animals won’t feel subjective pain pretty much like humans do. Any two mammals have a lot of shared biological machinery and the biggest thing humans have going for them is one weird trick for really complex symbolic thinking. Pain is very much a non-symbolic experience though, and animals and humans have pretty similar outward responses to experiencing pain. What animals might not have is a symbolic mental life narrative going “I’m stuck in a cage and being prodded with an electrified stick, my life is horrible”, but that doesn’t mean pain doesn’t hurt them.

      I suppose you could make an argument that you need the internal life narrative before you can be said to suffer, but from the discussion I’m not at all sure which thing the meat-eaters were supposed to believe. I guess the latter stance is pretty mainstream. You shouldn’t cause pain to animals, because pain does hurt them, but since you assume they don’t have internal life narratives, painlessly killing them is considered morally neutral. Of course in practice factory farming is probably causing quite a bit of pain for the animals as well, so people are basically just trying not to think about it too much.

      I think Descartes explicitly believed that animals have zero subjective experience, but he didn’t know about evolution and presumably thought humans have souls which provide subjective experiences and animals do not.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Consciousness is not really well-understood, it is generally considered to be a Hard Problem. You can get famous as a philosopher by writing an essay called “What Is It Like To Be [an animal]” and you don’t even have to answer the question, that’s how hard the problem is. Given this, you should be a little less confused that some people have come to different answers than you have.

      • Deiseach says:

        There’s the physical side of pain: yes, I’d agree that me getting stuck in the side with a knife and a cow getting stuck in the side with a knife are both going to have the same kind of experience and have the same pathways in our bodies to report and react on the stimulus from skin to brain and it is going to be very unpleasant.

        The subjective experience? Immediately it probably is going to be much the same: the blaze of hurt and the agony of the wound and the physical organism lighting up with signals that “injury injury injury” has occurred.

        Less immediate? Does a cow ‘know’ it’s been hurt? Well, of course it’s aware of being injured. But does it process that knowledge in the same way as a human, has it the same memory, can it contemplate and anticipate and think about it the same way?


        So can animals physically suffer? Of course they can. Can they emotionally suffer? That’s disputable. Do they emotionally suffer in the same exact manner as a human (e.g. the stock vegetarian/vegan example of cows bellowing when separated from their calves and ‘crying’ and this being implicitly, if not explicitly, compared to and put on the same level as a human mother being forcibly separated from her child) – no, I would be inclined to say not.

        Because if we’re going to go down the cuddly momma animal route, then animals which reject, abandon and overlie their offspring are just as guilty, should be held just as responsible, as a human parent which refused to feed or keep its offspring warm and sheltered, or drove it away with blows and kicks and bites.

        You can’t have it both ways: animals being innocent victims with human-level emotions and sentience (whatever about sapience) while at the same time they only act on instinct and if they kill or mistreat other animals, that’s got nothing to do with blameworthiness (e.g. humans are held to higher standards in comparison with sharks when it comes to killing; humans are blamed for killing sharks out of baseless fear and prejudice, while carefully-worked out diagrams are created for sharks killing humans not being their fault because the outline or movements of a human in the water resembled that of a prey animal and triggered the shark’s natural instincts).

        I don’t blame animals for killing or acting according to their nature and instincts, but the flip side of that is that I don’t consider animals to be quasi-humans in fur suits.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Deiseach
          I don’t blame animals for killing or acting according to their nature and instincts, but the flip side of that is that I don’t consider animals to be quasi-humans in fur suits.

          No such thing. Humans are animals in robot suits, pretending that we have the real emotions and the other animals are robots.

          Because if we’re going to go down the cuddly momma animal route, then animals which reject, abandon and overlie their offspring are just as guilty, should be held just as responsible, as a human parent which refused to feed or keep its offspring warm and sheltered, or drove it away with blows and kicks and bites.

          Catch one of those pigs and you’re welcome to eat her. As a matter of pig eugenics and for the outcome of no more babies of hers suffering that way. I wouldn’t say that pig was guilty and deserved execution — but I recognize that it’s my own maternal instinct that powers my moral judgement against that human.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I think Descartes explicitly believed that animals have zero subjective experience, but he didn’t know about evolution and presumably thought humans have souls which provide subjective experiences and animals do not.

        Yep. If someone were to say, “Soul/sentience/sapience/consciousness/’real feeling’/ is a noun useful as an undefinable but absolute reason for justifying anything that is convenient to do to any non-human”, I might be rather tempted to applaud.

    • kernly says:

      By that definition, ants are ‘sentient.’ That’s a really stupid definition.

      Eating meat causes animals to feel pain. It also causes [those same] animals to feel everything else – hunger, satisfaction, pleasure, fear, desire etc. Having children makes animals feel pain. Stopping your house from being structurally compromised by termites makes animals feel pain. It doesn’t actually say anything to say that a course of action will cause pain. The response should be – “yeah, and what *else*?”

      • Nita says:

        We don’t actually know whether ants feel pain. Fish are a matter of debate. Dogs almost certainly do.

      • John Schilling says:

        How does eating meat cause animals to feel pain? Do their souls exist in some blissful cow heaven until someone bites into a hamburger, whereupon they suffer? The mechanism for that, has to be interesting.

        Eating meat requires that an animal die. That’s going to happen in any event, unless perhaps because not eating meat means the animal is never born. It does not require that the death be painful, or that pain be caused during any part of the animal’s life. Most human carnivores prefer to minimize the pain experienced by their future meat animals, to a level lower than that generally seen by similar animals in the wild.

        We could argue about the extent to which that preference is achieved. But really, I think you will first want to pin down exactly what it is you object to and what it is you think is happening. Because your formulation is not just unconvincing, but anti-convincing.

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          Eating meat, in itself, does not cause pain to animals. Buying meat does indirectly cause it because it incentivizes breeding more of them through the mechanism of supply and demand. There are other indirect consequences, including some that reduce pain to other animals through habitat displacement, and cases where this mechanism doesn’t (fully) apply, e.g. because of government subsidies. But this has traditionally been the core argument and seems robust.

          • onyomi says:

            This interestingly seems to imply that eating meat might be more moral than vegetarianism if you only eat the meat of animals whose existence seems likely to have been a net subjective positive on the part of the animal. That is, if cows could decide whether or not their life had been worth living, probably those who get several years of grazing in peaceful pastures before being slaughtered would say “yes,” whereas a chicken with no beak being force-fed in a tiny cage would say “no.”

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            onyomi, yes, if you could reliably meat such a standard at acceptable cost. (Altering their biology for lower pain sensitivity and higher welfare would also be an option)

    • Anon. says:

      How in the name of the lord does a “rationalist” believe in qualia?

      • Nita says:

        Hey, everyone — I’ve found the p-zombie!

      • anodognosic says:

        I don’t see the incompatibility.

        • Anon. says:

          I’m having trouble seeing the intersection point between lesswrongian rationalism and dualism.

          • Setsize says:

            Believing that subjective experiences exist does not mean believing they are irreducible or non-physical.

            Daniel Dennett, to name someone who is obviously not a dualist, argues at length for how phenomenology (i.e. the use of subjective experience as data*) is necessary in psychology.

            (*) Phenomenology in Dennett’s discussion is the stance that subjective experience should be the primary source of evidence in psychology. He contrasts it with the stance that subjective experiences should be taboo as evidence, which is called behaviorism. Contrary to popular belief, behaviorism does not mean denial of the existence of subjective experience either; behaviorists just think that subjective data is inadmissible as evidence and a theory built on third person observation will end up explaining subjective observations. Dennett thinks this is impractical and proposes a middle path called “heterophenomenology” which uses both first and third person observations to build an intermediate language, with awareness of the limitations of each type of evidence. (Heterophenomenology is of course a reconstruction of what psychologists have done all along.)

          • Anon. says:

            Qualia != “subjective experience”. Dennett believes that qualia do not exist, I don’t understand why you’d bring him up in that context…

          • anodognosic says:

            Qualia does not necessarily entail dualism. What it *is* is a central aspect of the hard problem of consciousness, which, last time I checked, had not been solved by the LW community.

            Less facetiously: there are those on LW who deny the existence of qualia. It’s not an uncontroversial position.

          • Setsize says:

            In this thread, “having qualia” has been treated interchangeably with “having subjective experience,” “there is a thing it is like to be” and so on, and I took the complaint “How does a rationalist believe in qualia?” to refer to the way “qualia” has been used in this thread.

            Dennett takes pains never to deny “qualia” in this weak sense of subjective experiences. He argues that stronger properties that have been asserted for “qualia” are wrong (i.e. they are not irreducible, ineffable, or the base currency of consciousness,) and because of the incoherence of stronger meanings of “qualia” we’d be better off tabooing the word “qualia” altogether.

            So, great, let’s taboo “qualia.” That means you should reread this thread, charitably and silently replacing occurrences of “qualia” with something closer to what they refer to. You may find that no one here has been talking about the kind of strong-qualia that Dennett denies. You may have a definition of “qualia” that asserts something beyond subjective experience, but no one here is obligated to use words according to your definition.

          • Anon. says:

            Dennett doesn’t make a distinction between “weak” and “strong” qualia… And it’s not “my definition”. Sure, the term is a bit nebulous and not everyone agrees on the Dennett definition (intrinsic, private, ineffable, directly accessible to consciousness), but everyone is in the same ballpark at least. Pulling a few different definitions from SEP: “properties of sense data”, “intrinsic non-representational properties”, etc.

            Why would anyone use an obscure, technical term like “qualia” to communicate the simple and common idea of “subjective experience”?

      • Jaskologist says:

        Qualia are the only thing we have direct experience of; everything else is derivative. There is a reason that Descartes, the original Rationalist, ended up with “I think” as the one thing he couldn’t doubt. It’s kind of strange that NeoRationalists now tend to deny the “I” portion of that. Why deny what is literally right before your eyes?

        • anodognosic says:

          “I” brings in a set of assumptions that are inconsistent with Descartes’ supposed project of departing from a point of radical skepticism – in particular, the existence of a separable, unitary agent that is doing the thinking.

        • Annms says:

          “Why deny what is literally right before your eyes?”

          This could get you in trouble if you ever attend a stage magic show.

          • Irenist says:

            Defending qualia != defending naïve realism. Qualia are things like “I perceive two brown patches.” The fact that the two brown patches are the two halves of a box an illusionist just sawed in half (or not) has nothing to do with the perception of the patches. The illusionist wants you to interpret the patches (and the rest of what you see) as evidence that he just sawed his lovely assistant in half. But that’s a question of how you interpret your qualia, not of whether you have them.

          • Jaskologist says:

            In this phrasing, stage magic shows are beyond your eyes.

    • NZ says:

      I see it the other way: vegetarians and vegans are too quick to deny the possible sentience of plants. (Of course most meat eaters don’t even think about it.)

      I lay out the argument more fully here:

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Since food animals all eat plants too, or other animals who eat plants, this wins you no case against vegetarianism or veganism. “They are stuck in the middle” is not an argument either, since a reduction can be better than no reduction.

        Of course, this has been discussed before:

        Even if all living things suffered equally, no matter how we treat them and what we eat, we can still change the amount of living things:

        I understand the desire for a cheap rationalization against veganism from a meat eater’s perspective though. It would certainly be convenient. But plants are even more alien to us than insects, so we should not be too keen on projecting our minds onto them.

        • NZ says:

          Since food animals all eat plants too, or other animals who eat plants, this wins you no case against vegetarianism or veganism.

          Huh? Obviously vegans aren’t running around trying to stop lions from eating gazelles, or gazelles from eating grass. I accept at face value their point that as humans with special human cognitive abilities like reason and complex morality, we should impose special rules upon our own behavior that don’t apply to other organisms. I’m simply saying the reasoning for their particular rule not to eat meat doesn’t hold up. Alien-ness isn’t the factor, pain&suffering is.

          Also, I don’t need any convenient rationalization against veganism. The most convenient thing would be to just not think about it–this is what most people do. Vegans aren’t getting between me and a steak any time soon.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            I accept at face value their point that as humans with special human cognitive abilities like reason and complex morality, we should impose special rules upon our own behavior that don’t apply to other organisms.

            I disagree with that point, we have the ability to influence the behavior and number of other organisms, and we should do so to reduce pain and suffering.

            I just don’t see the logic of saying, “Plants feel pain too, therefore it doesn’t matter how many animals we eat.” After all, the animals are fed with plant feed. So anyone who eats meat eats the plants indirectly as well. How does that not destroy your argument “Against Veganism: If it’s wrong to eat animals, it’s wrong to eat plants”?

            Also you have not acknowledged that plant pain is much more speculative and different in nature than any pain a being with a CNS can feel.

            Also, I don’t need any convenient rationalization against veganism.

            Good, but you did specifically formulate one and link to it. The usual motivation is to portray one’s own preferred consumption as moral.

          • NZ says:

            we have the ability to influence the behavior and number of other organisms, and we should do so to reduce pain and suffering.

            Can you provide an example of vegans trying to influence the behavior of other organisms besides humans? In my previous comment I said that vegans obviously aren’t doing this.

            I just don’t see the logic of saying, “Plants feel pain too, therefore it doesn’t matter how many animals we eat.”

            That’s not really an accurate paraphrasing. I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit. That’s silly, so instead you should just go for a more reasonable case-by-case assessment of what you’ll eat based on something less universal than feeling pain.” If that still ends up with you not eating meat, that’s fine, but now you don’t have the illogical pretense before it.

            Plant pain is speculative I suppose, but only slightly more so than worm pain or insect pain. As I said in my post, plants have a set of physical characteristics that could be called a “veggie nervous system” and pain is a phenomenon that sits on top of nervous systems. Plants surely don’t experience pain in a way that’s similar to a mammal, but just because we can’t comprehend what pain is like for a plant doesn’t mean they don’t experience it. To me, the fact that they are complex living things with veggie nervous systems suggests that they probably do experience some kind of pain.

            you did specifically formulate [a convenient rationalization against veganism] and link to it.

            I don’t think of it as a “rationalization,” because I’d eat meat either way. It’s just something I thought about once and has come up a few times since then in online conversations, so I decided to write a short blog entry about it.

          • Deiseach says:

            Obviously vegans aren’t running around trying to stop lions from eating gazelles

            Well, then they should be! Because if there really is no difference between human and non-human animals, if we all have the capacity for sentience and sapience and loving and all the rest of it, then there’s no excuse for predators to get away with inflicting suffering on prey.

            Vegans should be out there changing the diets of those animals, because if you can put your obligate carnivore pet cat on a vegan diet, why not an obligate carnivore big cat?

            Oh don’t be silly, that’s completely different?

            YES. And that is where we fall down on the moral equivalence scale, because humans are different and do possess more moral weight.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            Can you provide an example of vegans trying to influence the behavior of other organisms besides humans?

            Yes, for example David Pearce here. Others have written more about how to affect wild-animal suffering for many years now, e.g. the links here, this discussion here and others I’m sure you can find if you look for them. (Not all the authors are vegans.) Obviously this is not a trivial matter since we need ecosystem services intact and many people want nature intact for its own sake, so there are additional tradeoffs. Of course, we are already displacing habitats and therefore reducing predation.

            I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit. That’s silly, so instead you should just go for a more reasonable case-by-case assessment of what you’ll eat based on something less universal than feeling pain.” If that still ends up with you not eating meat, that’s fine, but now you don’t have the illogical pretense before it.

            I agree with this, but again, with the caveat that plant pain is much more speculative and biologically alien than the pain of most animals we eat, and again, the plants fed to animals would have to count as well.

          • NZ says:

            Yeah, so David Pearce et al is, to my eyes, ridiculous. We are each of us a biome full of predation and death on the microbiological scale.

            As far as I know, vegans aren’t just against harming animals that are eaten. They also don’t want to harm poisonous frogs and stinging insects and revolting flatworms–but whether these animals experience pain is only slightly less speculative than whether plants do.

            I’m not sure I see why it’s relevant that food animals are fed plants. I’m not arguing that “it’s not okay to eat plants but it is okay to eat meat.”

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit.

            Actually that is quite possible. Tomatoes, squash … nuts, grains, seeds … these are made by the plant to be eaten by animals, who will carry the seeds and plant them elsewhere.

          • NZ says:

            Tomatoes, squash … nuts, grains, seeds … these are made by the plant to be eaten by animals

            Most of those things, in the form you’d normally eat them, have been genetically engineered by people out of much less appealing versions found in the wild. Squirrels and deer probably don’t mind bitter misshapen little tomatoes, but humans saw fit to make these things tastier, juicier, sweeter, bigger, etc.

            (And also to make them much more abundant. Nobody ever stumbled into a clearing in the woods where tomatoes just grew in rows as far as the eye could see.)

            Genetic engineering and industrial agriculture require doing things with plants and their reproductive capabilities that vegans would normally not tolerate being done to animals.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            My comment keeps getting eaten. Tl/dr: shop farmers’ markets and small funky organic produce stores.

      • Buckyballas says:

        It seems to me that we are all applying Schelling fences somewhere or another. Most people apply the fence around the human species (although there is still debate on whether to place the fence before or after birth and some people still think it is okay for people they don’t like to be outside the fence). Pescatarians place the fence around mammals, birds, and maybe reptiles and amphibians. Vegetarians place the fence around animals. “Sentience”, “capacity for suffering”, “desire to live” seem to all be on a evolutionary continuum and it’s possible for our ethics to slip too far in either direction. Of course there is plenty of room for reasoned debate on where to put the fence, but I’ve never quite thought about it in this Schelling fence way. Out of curiosity, where aren’t there more people who put the fence around mammals only?

        • Randy M says:

          Probably because of the long tradition of domesticating mammals has led to (some of) them being the tastiest and easiest to farm. Excepting perhaps chickens.

          • John Schilling says:

            Also because the lives beef cattle are about as unobjectionable as any common farm animal, particularly for traditional ranching.

          • Buckyballas says:

            I meant from an ethical perspective rather than a historical one. I guess it’s a capacity for pain thing? Apparently, some vegans are okay with eating oysters because there is no evidence that they feel pain. Also, pain in other animals is a bit controversial so it makes sense to conservatively draw the fence around animals. That is, until you consider that plants “feel” something pain-like. The slope does indeed appear to be quite slippery.

          • Randy M says:

            I know you meant ethically, but sometimes the practicality will limit what ethical cases are made. It would be a case of doing 90% of the work in going vegan for an equally arbitrary ethical line that stands little chance of meeting anyone’s moral intuitions.
            It’s fairly clear based on human history that there is no innate “Teat & Hair” solidarity among the “higher orders” of animals.

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a principled defense on ethical rather than health terms, but that maps pretty well to the common “avoid red meat” diet.

        • Loquat says:

          Why would anyone put their fence around mammals specifically? I’ve having trouble thinking of any perspective where it’d make sense to include rabbits and sheep, but exclude chickens and iguanas. Especially since the order mammalia also includes common pests like rats and mice, which almost nobody in human history has respected the moral worth of.

          • Nita says:

            Mammals are very similar to us in terms of physiology and behavior. The discovery that we’re related is fairly recent, as is the acceptance of the possibility that physiology is all there is to us, so historical attitudes are a poor guide.

          • Loquat says:

            I don’t find physiological similarity to be a good reason to draw a moral distinction between creatures that are otherwise not terribly different, though, and I don’t think many other people would either. Plenty of bird species take good care of their young and have complex social interaction, just as many mammals do. Putting a Schelling fence around mammals and excluding birds means believing that it’s more wrong to kill a mouse than it is to kill one of the multiple species of birds that use tools.

          • Nita says:

            Sure, crows are probably smarter than mice. But lots of people also consider them “pests”.

            Though, considering the context, the people who don’t eat mammals are probably thinking cow vs chicken, not mouse vs crow.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        Your argument stipulates that whatever primitive communication systems plants use qualify as plant-nervous-systems (despite the absence of, you know, nerves) and that whatever travels through those communication systems when the plant is cut or smashed qualifies as plant-pain. But this nets only the conclusion that plants feel plant-pain, when what we are interested in is whether plants feel real pain, that is, whether they experience a phenomenal state similar to the one humans experience when our tissue is damaged. And you haven’t provided any evidence for that claim.

        • gbdub says:

          How do you know that crustacean pain or fish pain or chicken pain is “real pain”, but plant pain isn’t? Isn’t it much more likely that it’s a continuum rather than a sharp distinction?

          • Earthly Knight says:

            A continuum from the Fs to the not-Fs does not preclude there being clear-cut cases of each. For example, there is a continuum from mountains to hills to bumps in the ground to flat land, but we can still pinpoint Aconcagua as clearly a mountain and the Marianas Trench as unambiguously not a mountain. The same is true for pain: plants do not experience it, while pigs almost certainly do. We know this, as one of the earlier commenters suggested, because of the overwhelming homology between the parts of the human brain which are responsible for pain and the neuroanatomy of pigs.

          • Buckyballas says:

            @Earthly Knight, you are right that it does not preclude clear-cut cases, but what do you do about the gray areas (e.g. insects, fish, shellfish, reptiles, etc.)? I am genuinely curious how to draw a line with “feels pain” that isn’t a little bit arbitrary? On the other hand, drawing a line at “are you human”, while evolutionarily questionable, is pretty straightforward. Although now that I think about it, I think I would experience significant disgust eating Neanderthal. That makes me a little less keen to defend speciesism. Blech.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            In principle I draw the line at chordates, although to be on the safe side I don’t kill or contract the deaths of any organism with brains except for pest arthropods. This seems to me like the most sensible way to go about it: don’t eat anything where you think there’s a significant chance that it feels pain, and then err on the side of caution a ways beyond that, because false positives (your not getting to eat salmon) are much less costly than true negatives (a sentient being getting tortured to death).

            Neanderthals are so-so as an example because it’s controversial whether they count as a distinct species. Intelligent aliens are, I think, a more vivid case– if you came across a helpless Vulcan or Mon Calamari or Time Lord, would you be okay with torturing, killing, and eating it? No? How, then, can you justify doing the same to a pig?

          • NZ says:

            Vulcans are too easy an example, because they look like people and can speak with people.

            What about a superintelligent alien but one that bears no resemblance to anything on Earth and with which meaningful communication is impossible? One that evolved in such a radically different environment that by comparison plant anatomy looks analogous to ours? In other words, one that almost certainly doesn’t experience pain the way a human does. (You know it’s superintelligent because it just beamed out of a gleaming starship.)

            Would you eat one of those?

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Triffids, maybe? I would not, could not eat a triffid.

            The crux of the argument that other vertebrates feel pain is neuroanatomic homology, but analogies could also suffice. My conjecture would be that intelligent life, wherever we find it, is likely to experience pain comparable to ours, because pain is an exceedingly useful adaptation for any motile organism with a central nervous system. But this is just a guess, without knowing the details of the alien species its hard to say for sure.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Earthly Knight
            In principle I draw the line at chordates, although to be on the safe side I don’t kill or contract the deaths of any organism with brains except for pest arthropods.

            I think you have the right distinction — between what is and is not practical to put into action (for consequences!). Rather than worrying about whether the Devil is kosher, I’d spend my time carrying a spider outdoors or earning money to donate to forest preservation.

            [ Trigger warning some details of omnivore practices ]

            At this stage, because availability, I eat some meat of all colors, dairy from the nearest store, veg of the day from the farmers market, as much root vegs as I can stomach because they keep well (even though digging them has injured worms). Because trying to go vegan or even vegetarian would take resources I can’t afford, if I’m donating to keeping a few acres comfortable for innumerable animals and plants.

            Keeping kosher, or Jainist ahimsa, is a lot of fun — but for practical consequences, not very efficient.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Devil has cloven hooves, but I doubt he chews the cud. Though that’s an entertaining mental image.

        • NZ says:

          I don’t think plants’ systems are all that primitive, at least not in the sense of being crude. And the term “veggie nervous system” is just a shorthand; of course plants don’t have nerves.

          You’ve summed my idea up pretty well though (“whatever travels through those systems when the plant is cut or smashed qualifies as plant-pain”) with the caveat that I’m not referring to chemical or other types of signals that can be detected by machines in a lab, but to a phenomenon that sits atop those systems the way software sits on top of hardware, just as our “pain” is a phenomenon that sits atop the hardware of our CNS.

          Outside of responding to my own arguments, I’ve never heard a vegan admit that plants feel plant-pain. If I had, I might have also heard a vegan explain why plant pain doesn’t matter but worm- or beetle- or frog-pain does. Here you’re providing a reason: it’s because you’re only interested in a phenomenal state similar to the one humans experience.

          This strikes me as arbitrary and also a little odd: all of a sudden, our experience is so privileged? If you can experience something the way we do, great, we’ll rally to protect you. If not, too bad, you didn’t make the cut. We’ll mow you, breed you to our exact specifications, plant you in rows and spray chemicals on you, chop you up while you’re still alive, and squeeze the life-blood out of you without a second thought.

          • onyomi says:

            I do think it is misleading to describe plants as “primitive.” I seem to remember reading somewhere that potatoes have more genes than humans, for example? Or at least more complex genomes when it comes to the encoding of certain enzymes, etc. Imagine you had to survive and reproduce without being able to move at all. How much more complex would your system of hormones, enzymes, etc. be?

            We are necessarily biased to care about things that are like us. We know pain is bad because we know we don’t like pain. Plants surely don’t experience anything we’d recognize as pain, nor even have anything we’d recognize as an experience, so our moral intuitions have no applicability to them–nor, do I see any reason they should.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’ve never heard a vegan admit that plants feel plant-pain.

            I occasionally see reports of evidence for that. A Jaina monk explained the general case this way: “Plants do feel pain but it is not as strong as animals’ pain; it’s like when you have novocaine.”

            Jainas’ ranking is pretty much like everyone’s, I think. “Don’t eat anything in the ‘animal kingdom’; plants are better but try to stick to the ones that involve less violence one way or another.”

            My guess is, that various plants co-evolved various ways to deal with animals. Some made poison or thorns etc to repel animals. Some made surplus fruit or berries for animals to spread. Some made surplus foliage for animals to eat, leaving manure in exchange.

            Hopefully they make the surplus foliage less sensitive to pain than the main plant, or the whole plant less sensitive than other plants.

            One of my favorite memories is of a Jaina yuppie (in cloth tennis shoes) saying, “The perfect food is avocado. You eat the pulp and plant the seed.” But I didn’t get very far asking if I should avoid beansprouts because it takes so many lives to make a meal. He laughed at me and said, “You don’t have to get everything right in this incarnation, you will have plenty more.”

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ NZ
          Vulcans are too easy an example, because they look like people and can speak with people.

          Whew! I am reminded of Niven’s Kzinti diplomat named Speaker-to-Animals.

      • Anonymous says:


        That doesn’t work as an argument against veganism.
        If we were to accept that plants are just as sentient as plants, and that it’s just as bad to harm them, then a diet that include animal food would still be the least moral.

        That’s because to raise an animal takes a lot of plant matter. All the calories and other nutrients in a piece of meat or cheese ultimately comes from plants, which are fed to the animal. However, the conversion of plant calories into meat or dairy is wasteful. You could get the same amount of nutrition, while harming less plants, by eating plants directly.

        Following your premise that plants are equal to animal, the omnivorous diet is the one that causes the most harm; the normal vegan diet that includes vegetables grains and legumes is in the middle, and the least harmful diet is one based on fruit and nuts, close to what “raw vegans” eat.

        Therefore your point can’t possibly support meat eating.

        • NZ says:

          The idea is that recognizing that all living organisms experience (or are likely to experience) something on the “pain” spectrum when they are in distress reframes the whole notion that “pain caused per calorie delivered” is the basis of morality with respect to consumption. If the idea is that my choices are between being 10x evil or 1000x evil, then your morality scale has built into it a belief I don’t agree with: that survival is immoral.

          Instead, it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not act like a sadist. Little boys like to go around squashing bugs and tearing leaves off of trees, but a moral adult should not do stuff like that.

          • Anonymous says:

            No, of course it doesn’t mean that survival is immoral.

            The notion that there is a degree of badness in the sufference and death of animals or plants, doesn’t at all require putting human survival on the same level as the survival of animals or plants. You will agree with me that humans are more important than animals or plants.

            It’s perfectly possible, and in my opinion wise, to say: it is important not to harm animals and plants, but it is more important to ensure human survival; therefore, to harm animals or plants is bad, except for the minimum that is required for human survival (a minimum which happens to be vegan whether or not plants are capable of pain, as I previously proved), in which case it’s GOOD, because human survival is good.

            You said “it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not act like a sadist”. I agree with that. But if we condemn killing for the sadistic pleasure of the kill, a condemnation which implies that it is somewhat valuable that animals and plants not be harmed, then I don’t see any logical reason we shouldn’t also condemn killing 10 for food when you have the option (that is to say, veganism) of killing just 1 for the same amount of food. So I would amend what you wrote slightly and write “it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not harm creatures unless it’s very difficult to avoid doing so”. From that, veganism follows.

          • NZ says:

            One problem is that “the minimum required for human survival” is a slippery slope if pursued in earnest. Vegans season their food, for example, with herbs. They don’t need to, but they do. Those herbs are also plants that had to be killed. Or maybe they use salt–well, salt has to be mined and mining certainly kills organisms. Or maybe they use no seasonings–but they still eat their food off of ceramic plates using silverware. Ceramic is made of clay–which has to be dug up, unnecessarily risking plant and animal life–and silverware is mined–see my previous comment about salt. Paper plates are made of wood and plant material. Heating food in order to prepare it typically–at some point–means burning plant material, which even if it’s already dead might be serving as a home to living organisms. And does the vegan eat until he is full, or only enough to ward off starvation and ensure he has enough energy to procreate, and that his mate has enough nutrition to bring a baby to term (thus ensuring “survival”)?

            Eating just enough uncooked, unseasoned fallen fruit to ensure you don’t starve and can still have sex sounds like a rotten existence. Even if it were noble to voluntarily live that way, in practical terms you’d have trouble getting even the most fervent vegans to actually commit to it. That’s why instead most vegans say what you said, “the minimum required for human survival” but actually mean much more than just the minimum.

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            Not living on the edge of starvation and indulging in pleasurable things allows vegans to be more productive in harm-reducing activities, including advocating for veganism, saving human lives etc. It’s very unlikely that the maximum of (caused utility)-(caused disutility) lies in the place you describe.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Anonymous
            You will agree with me that humans are more important than animals or plants.

            If that’s you-generic then I’ll say, important to whom, and for what ends?

            If the importance is maximum hedonic utilons*in this century, then plants and animals are more important than humans.l There are more of them and, according to several theories, they suffer less.

            * in net-positive beings.

          • NZ says:


            So, vegans are allowed to break their principles because they do good deeds, while the rest of us should abide by their principles because we go around making the world more and more terrible?

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            If we’re talking about consequentialist vegans, the principle is “when you have a choice, choose whatever is likely to result in the best consequences”, so they’re acting in accordance with it. And if eating meat somehow enables you to do more good (enough to outweigh the animal suffering and then some), they should approve of your meat-eating.

            If we’re talking about some other vegans, you’ll have to be more specific.

          • NZ says:


            As far as humans go in general, I’m very kind to animals. I don’t see the need to defend my balanced diet that includes a bit of meat and lots of fruit and vegetables–all of which are living things that experience pain, perhaps even horror, and then die in order for me to eat and enjoy them.

            Therefore I reject outright the moralizing of vegans, consequentialist or otherwise. If you (general “you”) don’t want to eat any animal products, suit yourself, but don’t be self-righteous, preachy, or whiny about it: short of God telling you to be vegan your reasoning will always be arbitrary and vapid, so you might as well just come up with a simple and honest reason like “I don’t like meat” or “I don’t like to think of cute animals dying.”

            If you see someone beating a dog or tearing the wings off a beetle, then by all means step in and do something. But know that just by existing you are likely playing a role in the pain–and certainly in the death–of billions of living organisms every day. How many organisms live and fight and die in order to make the unique biome of your gut function properly?

            You haven’t discovered “this one weird trick” to significantly reduce any “universal suffering index” by not eating meat. Moral veganism is for that reason disingenuous, perhaps even fraudulent. For that reason I suspect it exists on a subconscious level more as a class marker than anything else.

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            One part of the problem is that you seem to treat the ability to suffer as a binary value: TRUE for all living things, FALSE for everything else. Other people tend to assume that different living things differ in their capacity for suffering (e.g., stabbing a random human being = -10000 utilons, poking an earthworm with a needle = -2 utilons).

            The other part of the problem is that you seem to assign an equal probability to the statements “pigs can suffer”, “wheat can suffer” and “bacteria can suffer”. Other people usually take into account the probability that some organisms (e.g., plants or bacteria) might not suffer at all.

            This leads you to reasoning like “No matter what I do, I will cause suffering, therefore it doesn’t matter and I can do whatever.”

          • NZ says:


            As long as an earthworm can suffer, I don’t feel confident assuming that poking it with a needle isn’t just as bad as stabbing a human, from a “utiliton count” standpoint. In that sense I’m agnostic but prefer to err on the side of caution. (Keep in mind, I don’t take my cues about what to eat from a utilitarian equation–I’m criticizing a moral veganism which ostensibly does.)

            And you’re right, I do assign an equal probability to the likelihood that various living organisms of different complexity can suffer. This only seems unrealistic to me if suffering is treated as “something similar to the suffering I’m familiar with.”

            My whole point there was that suffering is a phenomenon sitting on top of biological hardware. Anything with biological hardware, even if it’s very simple, therefore seems likely to experience some kind of “suffering” phenomenon. Ours may only seem “more acute” because we’re also able to reflect on it, vividly remember it, retell it in colorful language, etc.

            I never said “it doesn’t matter and I can do whatever.” I explicitly stated the opposite: that there are lines to be drawn around sadistic abuse and egregious destruction of animals and plants. But I don’t purport to base those lines around some half-baked notion of “total objective utility”.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            ETA: This was before I saw later comment. I wish we could branch further out!

            @ Nita


            @ NZ

            When you’re reduced to conflating eating a nut that has fallen from a tree with eating a factory farmed chicken, on the ground that the tree’s ancestors were probably selectively planted … it’s hard to read that as anything other than trolling.

            Any proposition can be attacked that way. Buy “Made in USA”? But far enough back, those items may use materials that were mined in China.

            Do you know the “Rule of 80/20”? In this case, the big obvious practical action may get a worthwhile result, which is a level worth discussing. Trying to take the discussion down to a tiny impractical level — attacks good faith discussion.

            The fact that “I don’t like the way some proponents talk about [practical level] X” does not mean “[Practical level] X is wrong”. (And, voting against Gay Marriage because one doesn’t like the the campaign slogan, is not fair to the actual gays.)

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            But I don’t purport to base those lines around some half-baked notion of “total objective utility”.

            What do you base them on?

            (Your lines themselves sound pretty good to me.)

          • Nita says:


            Sure, no one can be 100% confident about anything. But let’s say there’s a trolley about to run over either a puppy (by default) or a young dandelion (if you pull a lever). Would you pull the lever? Would your choice be different if it was a piglet vs a young head of lettuce?

            I would say something can be called “suffering” only if it’s similar to the suffering we’re familiar with in some morally relevant way. What’s the point of using the same word if there’s no similarity?

            My whole point there was that suffering is a phenomenon sitting on top of biological hardware. Anything with biological hardware, even if it’s very simple, therefore seems likely to experience some kind of “suffering” phenomenon.

            All of our experiences sit on top of biological hardware. Suffering, love, pride, religious feelings, anger, compassion, amusement — does every living thing experience those, too?

            there are lines to be drawn around sadistic abuse and egregious destruction of animals and plants

            OK. What about abuse for the sake of cost-efficiency instead of sadism? Is that on the “wrong” or “right” side of your line?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            I don’t feel confident assuming that poking [a worm] with a needle isn’t just as bad as stabbing a human, from a “utiliton count” standpoint. In that sense I’m agnostic but prefer to err on the side of caution.

            Amount of suffering at different biological levels is a question of fact, and not binary. Choosing as principle to err on the side of caution vs the other side, is binary.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Nita

            The language needs a neat word for non-human suffering. 😉 Till one turns up, ‘suffering’ is going to be used a lot.

            I would say something can be called “suffering” only if it’s similar to the suffering we’re familiar with in some morally relevant way.

            Whuf. I’m not even going to count how many words would have to be established there before a discussion could start — and it would be in a severe question-begging frame at that.

            Suffering, love, pride, religious feelings, anger, compassion, amusement — does every living thing experience those, too?

            Suffering is on a level common to all living things, is the simplest and safest assumption. Most of your other things are built on that foundation: anger is suffering +adrenalin+something to remove; love causes suffering when frustrated; compassion is suffering at the sight of another creature suffering; etc.

            On the same level, bliss is common to all; love is bliss when not frustrated; etc.

            Most of our emotions are a mixture. To change the metaphor, suffering and bliss are the hot and cold water taps. What ’emotion’ we get is shaped by the ever-changing hose or container that mixture flows into; pond, fountain, etc.

            Different creatures in different environments have differently structured outlets. Some are complex like amusement. In some species some are standard equipment=instincts (care for offspring, defending territory/possessions, herd instinct, duration of pair bonding, survival instinct, etc). Humans may be the only species that makes abstract names for those instincts and calls them moral duties.

            To recognize suffering in another creature, we don’t need to know exactly which emotion/s it is feeling (or is capable of feeling).

          • Nita says:

            @ houseboatonstyx

            Evidently, we are already using the word to refer to very different phenomena. E.g., some people would say “fish do feel pain, but they don’t experience suffering”, while you say “suffering is on a level common to all living things”.

            anger is suffering +adrenalin+something to remove

            Oh no, that’s too hardware-specific. NZ would not approve. So, let’s replace “adrenaline” with “an internal signal that tends to trigger a more action-ready state”. And now, we have angry bacteria, fungi, and even individual cells in your body!

          • NZ says:

            Agree about further branching! This is getting ridiculous. OK, this will be my last response on the Au Bon thread.


            I reduced the selectively-planted tree nut thing because the selective breeding of animals and “stealing of offspring” is something vegans typically include as a non-trivial item in their list of complaints against the meat and dairy industries.

            I mostly approve of your later comments to Nita except at the end where you start trying to break down various emotions into their essences. There, you get into stuff I’m not nearly as confident about as I am about whether plants feel pain.


            I’d save the puppy or the piglet, because they are cuter than dandelions or heads of lettuce. Good thing I don’t subscribe to a philosophy that tries to weigh everything in utilitons.

            houseboatonstyx answered a lot of your other points in a way I generally approve of (see above), but I’ll go ahead and include what I wrote:

            Maybe suffering’s a loaded term, but consider it shorthand for some basic form of “I AM EXPERIENCING A LIFE OR DEATH EMERGENCY” and variations of that (e.g. having to do with one’s offspring).

            If you like the word “pain” better we can keep it to that instead, but then I’d say vegans still seem to be complaining about the pain humans cause to other organisms (they forget plants of course), not just suffering.

            Whatever we call it, it’s a response all living things need in order to survive at the most basic level, which is why I surmise that it probably exists as a phenomenon on top of even the most simple hardware, while love/pride/religiosity etc. probably don’t.

            Personally, I’d judge abuse-for-cost-efficiency on a case by case basis where I learned about it and felt alarmed for some reason, and I probably wouldn’t use any measure that I would claim is universally objective. But then, I also wouldn’t claim it as a philosophy that others are wrong for not following.* But like I said, that’s the difference between me and vegans.

            *To re-emphasize, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding you don’t want to eat meat or use any animal products. I do think it’s wrong to make up BS reasons and pretend you’re clever and righteous for having done so, when really what you’re doing is trying to sort out which white people listen to NPR and which listen to country.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ NZ, Nita
          OK, this will be my last response on the Au Bon thread.

          I wish we could continue this, somewhere, sometime. We three seem to be close to agreement on several points … and as Pooh Bear said, “Having got so far, it seems a shame to waste it”.

          NZ said:
          [Suffering/pain] probably exists as a phenomenon on top of even the most simple hardware, while love/pride/religiosity etc. probably don’t.

          That’s part of what I was trying to say.

          Nita said:
          Oh no, that’s too hardware-specific. NZ would not approve. So, let’s replace “adrenaline” with “an internal signal that tends to trigger a more action-ready state”. And now, we have angry bacteria, fungi, and even individual cells in your body!

          Nice image, but by the time you’ve made that change, we’re not talking about anger.

          NZ said:
          you start trying to break down various emotions into their essences. There, you get into stuff I’m not nearly as confident about as I am about whether plants feel pain.

          I was agreeing with you that we don’t have to identify any specific emotion in them, in order to default to assuming our actions can hurt them, and erring on the side of caution.

          As for ‘suffering’ vs ‘pain’ for this level below emotions, I think ‘pain’ is too specific. It suggests a sharp, localized injury such as a stab. ‘Suffering’ covers pain and many more things, such as diffused discomfort, perhaps unreconized malaise, etc.

      • Nita says:

        Plants, on the other hand, have no CNSs. But they do have organs that transmit messages both within and between individuals.

        1. What are those organs? Specifically, the ones for within-individual transmission?

        2. Not every internal signaling system is a nervous system. E.g., our endocrine system is not a nervous system, and none of its signals are “pain”.

        3. I agree that physiologically different systems can, in principle, have morally similar functions. But there is no reason why every living organism has to have an ability to experience pain and suffering. In animals, it developed as motivation to GET AWAY from the bad stimulus ASAP. But plants (generally) can’t do that, so a sense of pain wouldn’t be very helpful.

        4. And finally, I’ve never seen a vegan argue against eating literally all animals. No one’s interested in eating nematodes or flatworms, so the question never comes up.

        • NZ says:

          1. I don’t know what they’re called. I know that plants can do those things, and I presume it’s their organs–not magic–that enable them to do it.

          2. True. But the systems I’m referring to in plants don’t just moderate the plants’ chemicals: they send and receive information from other plants, bend limbs towards light, analyze the nutritional content of surrounding soil, identify up from down, etc.

          3. Plants can do a lot. They bend, close up, turn themselves sour, etc.

          4. Yeah, like I said it seems to be something most vegans (the ones I’ve talked to at least) haven’t thought about.

    • Leonard says:

      What surprises me about this (besides EY being that clueless about normal people) is that 20% of meat-eaters think animals “ARE NOT sentient / experiencing pain / have something it is like to be / have qualia”. Whoa. 20% of EY’s friends don’t think cows experience pain?

      Intellectuals really can rationalize just about anything. (To be slightly fairer, I suppose it hinges on what a person thinks “experience” means.)

      • Alex Godofsky says:

        There’s (potentially?) a big difference between “experiences pain in the way that a human feels pain” and “experiences pain in the way that my Roomba detects that it has run into a chair”. “Cows don’t experience pain” would be shorthand for the latter.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think people were answering the survey question as “I do understand that animals feel pain as physical organisms, but I don’t think they’re sentient in a meaningful way. So if you are forcing me to choose “do I think animals are sentient because they can feel pain?”, I’m going to answer “no” (if I think sentience is the important part of this question) or “yes” (if I’m being literal-minded about ‘do I think animals feel pain’) but that their experience of pain is not sufficient when it comes to deciding the moral question of “is eating meat eating a sentient being?”

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        He probably has friends who dont believe humans have qualia.

      • Deiseach says:

        animals “ARE NOT sentient / experiencing pain / have something it is like to be / have qualia”.

        That’s a tangle. Let’s break it down:

        Do I believe:
        (a) animals are NOT sentient. Yes, that’s what I believe.

        (b)(i) animals are NOT experiencing pain. No, I consider animals experience physical pain in the same manner humans experience physical pain because we’re all made of matter and it works in a particular fashion.
        (b)(ii) Yes, I do not believe animals experience pain in the same fashion humans do. Indeed, different animals experience pain differently: I don’t think a fly experiences pain as a fish experiences pain as a cow experiences pain as an elephant experiences pain, that is, aware of it, capable of understanding that this sensation is called ‘pain’, remembering past pain, anticipating future pain, and so forth.

        (c) do NOT have something it is like to be. What does this even mean? A chair has “something it is like to be”. A cloud, a wave, an octopus, an orange, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and my vegan/animal rights activist brother’s eight cats (yes, really) all have “something it is like to be”. Do I believe animals physically exist in the form appropriate to their species? Well, duh! Do I believe – what? animals have some animalness sense of being “a cat” or “a pigeon” that they understand, compare to others of their species and to other species, have a tradition/culture/society of “being cat” or “being pigeon” and so on? Obviously, no (sorry, no “Baa-ram-ewe”).

        (d) do NOT have qualia. Hang on while I look up what “qualia” are. Okay, if I’m taking it correctly, for example the colour of a sunset is experienced as quale when it is subjectively, as well as objectively (the physical wavelength of the light stimulus on the parts of the eye) seen and experienced; so we can say “my love is like a red, red rose” and have that mean something recognisable to all, even if it’s not absolutely literal.

        I’m saying “no” here. How do I know how a horse experiences the taste of grass or the feel of wind? But I’m going to err on the side of “simpler brains, simpler capacities”.

        So to sum up, in order to answer that question correctly I would have to say “yes, no/yes, yes/no, no” but since apparently I can only give a flat “yes” or “no”, then I’d say “no” (and so give the impression I think animals are sentient but I’ll eat them anyway).

        • Nita says:

          (c) “something it is like to be” refers to something like “immediate subjective experience” or “in-the-moment awareness informed by the senses”, not the various things you mention 😛

          It’s from Thomas Nagel’s classic essay, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”: (it’s a bit long, but not very technical — his point is that some things, such as subjective experience, are inaccessible to reductionist methods)

    • AnonMeatEater says:

      I’m a meat-eater who does not doubt many animals can suffer and prefer not to die. I’m not for Voldemort.

      I believe the bad of my food’s death is smaller than the good of my food’s relatively stress-free life before that. Basically I think it is better for factory farm animals to exist than to not exist. It seems to me that a vegan who’s against factory farming is telling that factory-farmed cow or pig, who is maybe as sentient as a one-year-old child: “I would prefer it if you’d never been born. Your death will be so horrible to me that whatever enjoyment you have in your life, I would prefer for you not to have that.”

      Since animal suicide exists, animals not killing themselves are revealing a preference to live (even in domesticated form, even on factory farms) rather than die. There are other species who express different preferences, basically by dying when in captivity, or by refusing to procreate if they don’t get specific needs met by the zoo they’re in. These species are labeled impossible to domesticate, and their numbers are dwindling.

      I think part of the reason people advocate an end to meat-eating is that what they imagine the alternative is animals living in the wild. Animals in the wild look prettier to humans than animals in stables, even though they’re constantly hungry, in danger from predators, full of parasites etc. But the alternative that would actually result from a world of vegans isn’t that the farm animals will go back to frolicking in some untouched wilderness, but that they’ll be reduced to small zoo populations in a world of farmland and parks, and I think that alternative is worse.

      It seems to me that the human animal is prone to limiting its food options, both in obviously pathological ways (anorexia, religious food taboos) and in simple preferences, and that seems highly correlated with the individual’s capacity for the emotion of disgust. So vegetarianism and veganism seem to me like elaborate rationalizations for that, with some signaling of self-denial (i.e. puritanism) and tribal membership on top. I feel very little disgust, and I think that’s probably most of the actual reason why I enjoy meat (and any and all other food that isn’t downright poisonous).

      I expect people to prefer thinking I’m Voldemort rather than agree with me on the desirability for farm animals to exist, so I don’t normally discuss this. But this is SSC, people are supposed to be reasonable here, and this time around not even race and gender are expressly prohibited, so I’m curious to see how those of you who are convinced of veganism hope to convince me otherwise. I’d be particularly interested in any vegans who also report feeling very little disgust, and who didn’t become vegans to signal something to their friends or romantic interest at least in the beginning.

      • Linch says:

        The revealed preference of anything to continue existing is extremely weak evidence for their lives actually being net positive, for obvious evolutionary reasons (Remember that your genes don’t give a damn how happy you are).

        I think it’s perfectly plausible that many people who have attempted suicide and failed perceives their own life to be net negative, and that you can’t round it all away to “they just want attention” or, more poetically, “a plea for help.” If you accept that this claim is true for humans who have Reason and higher degrees of agency, etc., it seems natural to believe that this might be true of animals who have stronger survival instincts than humans who are at least somewhat capable of moderating it.

        I don’t know what the modal vegan position is. Of the vegans I’m familiar with, most of them are pretty explicit about believing that for many animals, them not having been born will be a more preferable situation than a life of presumed agony in a factory farm. Your mileage may vary.

        (I have heard of vegans who are essentialists with regard to the environment and are trying to end factory farming so there’s more Land for Nature which is Obviously Good, but I have only met vegetarians, not actual vegans, with this view. That said I will not be surprised if the essentialism view is that of the median vegan).

    • Annms says:

      By yout summary, this sounds like yet another case of EY finding a weak excuse to feel smugly superior to other people. Agreeing that animals can feel pain doesn’t imply completely agreeing with vegetarians on moral and factual matters.

  55. Hedonic Treader says:

    If you could take a pill that cuts the intensity of all your future suffering to 10% of its natural intensity, would you take it?

    Assume there are no side-effects, and no dampening of positive or neutral experience, but also no functional compensation for your behavior (ie. you would have to compensate deliberately or accept any resulting damage)

    ETA: What if you could choose other percentages? At which level would you fix it?

    • Anonymous says:

      >no functional compensation for your behavior (ie. you would have to compensate deliberately or accept any resulting damage)

      That is to say you may not be aware of how much you are damaging your body? I’m not sure what you mean — what damage other than physical could feeling less suffering cause?

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Well, suffering is a motivator. That’s why it evolved. Physical suffering to avoid physical damage is only one part. There are also social and mental forms that regulate behavior.

        What I meant was that the pill offers no automatic fixes to compensate for these, you have to do it consciously or accept the resulting downsides as a cost (including possible physical damage).

        • Setsize says:

          Having been in and out of major depression, I have some pretty strong evidence that the interaction between my level of suffering and the adaptiveness of my behavior has the opposite sign from what you seem to be presuming.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        There’d be a damage to your social life if all that kept you from being an asshole was the remorse of being an asshole.

        There’d be a damage to your ethical integrity if all that kept you from eating meat was guilt for killing the animals.

        Which would both be a decrease in positive feelings, rather than actual “bad” damage, but damage nonetheless.

        • Anonymous says:

          [this reply also addressed to Hedonic Treader]

          In that case I think without going very out of my way to make sure I acted exactly the same as before the change in suffering, I would probably find myself in a new equilibrium where I do whatever it is suffering slightly less stabilizes at.

          (Sorry if this is an unsatisfactory remark. I am tired and will maybe say more tomorrow.)

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          You can also use your new powers for good if for example your loss aversion was preventing you from donating to charity, your tiredness was preventing you from working very hard and making more money for charity, etc.

    • My gut reaction is to say “yes, definitely.” This seems so obvious to me that I can’t even really describe my reasoning for it. I feel like I’m probably missing something, though. I would love to hear counterarguments.

      Edit: I would not take the pill if it reduced my suffering to 0%, though; some negative feedback is necessary to avoid harmful actions, and to motivate future improvement. 10% seems like a safe level of suffering and I think in my case it would (more than) counteract the fact that I’m more neurotic than is healthy.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Yes, some forms of suffering are maladaptive (neuroticism, or as Setsize mentioned, depression) or perhaps no longer adaptive because we live in different circumstances than our ancestors (e.g. fear of spiders in some regions is functionally obsolete).

        Getting rid of those is a pure gain, and if we can invent the technology, we should. If I had this pill, my life expectancy would increase because it would almost certainly prevent more suicidal ideation than cause other damage. If I could have children with only 10% suffering, I would be more likely to reproduce, too.

        That said, not all suffering is maladaptive, and there would probably have to be judgment calls how much a reduction of (functional) suffering is worth.

    • DavidS says:

      Yes. It’s not totally costless, though, and I’m not sure I’d do it if I knew future suffering would be similar to current suffering: it’s more about protection from risk of much worse things later.

      Downsides include
      – I think many people, including me, would drink a lot more with all sorts of health implications, if hangovers were only a tenth of what they are
      – Some loss of richness/contrast of experience.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        I agree that risks of worst-case suffering should enter the decision, and it makes sense to accept some serious downsides for it.

        Of course, if such a technology was invented with the intention to make life better for many overall, it could not be too maladaptive, because otherwise it would be banned or shunned by most people.

        As for the contrast/richness… I’m not sure you really need suffering for that. You could contrast very good experiences against neutral ones, or different modes of experience against each other.

        • DavidS says:

          I don’t think you need suffering for contrast, it’s not an absolutist ‘no light without darkness’ thing. It’s just that the relatively low levels of suffering I’ve experienced in my life, and the rarity of really intense unhappiness, mean I get quite a lot of contrast for quite little suffering.

          Compare and contrast: I am also happy to pay for things to make me happy, EVEN THOUGH there are ways to be happy that don’t involve me paying for things.

    • Max says:

      Yeah would take it. Also would take a pill which would remove fear completely ( I prefer rely on logical risk assessment than intuition, even though that in some cases intuition is superior )

    • bluto says:

      I would keep it in my pocket waiting for a terminal diagnosis (ccancer, Alzheimer’s, gut shot far from medical facilities, etc).

    • Chalid says:

      Yes. It wouldn’t really change my life now, but when I’m seventy and I can’t move about without pain, when I’m eighty and fighting through an agonizing chemotherapy, when I’m ninety and dying over months in a hospital bed–oh hell yes.

    • Matt says:

      It seems to me that said pill is essentially stoicism, and that this question is asking if one were capable of just deciding to be 10% more stoic, would they do so. Is this an accurate interpretation?

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Stoicism, as I understand it, also negates intense positive affect or pleasure. While I can see an aesthetic appeal to it, that’s not what I mean, and many who would want to reduce their suffering would not in fact want to reduce their other emotions.

        Also 10% means a reduction of 90%, so it would be more than 10% more stoic.

    • onyomi says:

      See, I view suffering as separate from pain. Pain is often useful information. Suffering is being bothered by pain. Some might say that that just means suffering is emotional pain, but I think we can draw a distinction here as well: I can feel sadness and be bothered by it or feel sadness and not be bothered by it. I will experience more suffering even at the same level of physical or emotional pain if I know that the pain is due to something bad rather than something good, for example. On the opposite side, give a man a “why” and he can tolerate any “how.”

      If possible, I would reduce my level of suffering to 0% of what it is now, but keep my ability to feel pain the same. To lower my ability to feel pain would just increase the likelihood of me injuring myself or ignoring my emotional needs, whereas I see no real downside to eliminating the ability to feel suffering (and I think this applies to emotional pain as well as physical pain–I’m not saying I never want to feel sad again, just that I never want to be *bothered* by feelings of sadness–I would rather be able to dispassionately use the feeling of sadness as a datum: maybe I’m feeling sad because I haven’t talked to my mother in a long time, etc. just as I would use the feeling of pain to decide, “maybe I need to adjust my weightlifting form”).

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        That’s a good distinction. Indeed nociception (awareness of physical “pain”) is not the same thing as suffering from it. In pain asymbolia patients, the two are distinct (nociception still works, but they no longer mind it).

        I’m not sure how far this goes with all emotions, but e.g. melancholia can be saviored, just like we can enjoy bitter taste. I find it much less plausible to savior real distress or anxiety.

        • onyomi says:

          I don’t know if I’d eliminate my ability to feel anxiety, but I would certainly reduce it to 10% of what it is now, as I find it to be pretty much wholly maladaptive in my life. Sure, maybe it would have kept me getting eaten by a sabertooth tiger 30,000 years ago, but now it just makes me suffer needlessly and harms my performance at tasks which require relaxed concentration, i.e. almost everything.

      • Psmith says:

        This is a damn good point, and absolutely true in my experience, particularly when it comes to physical pain and discomfort. In this connection, I recall a Highland Games competitor and amateur strongman I used to talk to occasionally who swore by a Flexeril and Xanax cocktail for severe injuries. I suppose this is also what the Zen types are talking about when they encourage you to be mindful of this or that (e.g., “being able to dispassionately use the feeling of sadness as a datum.”)

    • Cadie says:

      Yes. 10% is enough that I’ll still feel it and notice it, especially once I get accustomed to the lower levels of suffering. I don’t think it would take that long for my psychological and physical senses to sharpen and more easily notice “mildly bad” feelings and I can use that information to help make better decisions, without being overwhelmed by the fear of social rejection or failure.