Open Thread 73.75

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474 Responses to Open Thread 73.75

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    Every so often I think of going back to an old alternate history story I wrote about an industrial revolution in ancient Greece, but I’m not sure about the technological plausibility.

    Is there any reason why, from a point of divergence in 330 BC where Alexander the Great promoted innovation across Macedonia, Greece couldn’t have reached the Industrial Age (say the equivalent of 1820 Britain) within a century or two?

    Followup question: what is the best aircraft that could have plausibly been produced in an 1820-Britain-equivalent Industrial Age ancient Greece? Certainly hot air balloons would have been a possibility, since France got those in 1790 (and it was apparently within the realm of superficial plausibility with ancient Peruvian technology). Can you strap a propeller to a hot air balloon, power it with a hand-crank or a foot-pedal or something, and have a primitive movable aircraft? What’s the main difficulty in going from hot air balloon to powered airship?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      You might like Pasquale’s Angel, in which the industrial revolution happens during the Italian Renaissance.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      But he did promote innovation. He funded Aristotle and Alexandria. Greek science and engineering moved very quickly, quicker than anywhere before the industrial revolution. The hypothetical that they moved even faster is not plausible. The Antikythera mechanism is said to be equivalent to Swiss clocks at the time of the Black Death. But that’s still a couple hundred years short of the industrial revolution.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      I think the issue is that human power is not sufficient to move a balloon big enough to lift a human at any appreciable speed, and therefore it’s still going to be at the mercy of the winds. This goes double for a hot-air balloon, which has to be bigger both because hot air is a worse lifting gas than helium or hydrogen (especially in the heat of a Greek summer!) and because you have to lift your source of heat as well.

      Hand-powered balloons did exist (and did within a year or two of the first balloon flight- Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew one in 1784) but were at best slightly steerable rather than actually movable. The first real airship was Giffard’s dirigible of 1851 which was filled with hydrogen and powered by steam, but even that could not fly against the wind as its top speed was only 6 mph. La France (again hydrogen-filled, but powered by electricity) was the first properly controllable airship, in 1884.

      So power is probably the main issue. I do wonder how useful an aeolipile might be as a source of power for an airship…

    • Chalid says:

      I don’t really know anything about the topic, but I recently ran across this book review of The End of The Past discussing whether an Industrial Revollution could have happened in ancient Rome. It suggests that Roman Empire had per-capita GDP comparable to 1700s Europe, and that the ubiquity of slavery and the social attitudes associated with large-scale slavery was what prevented industrialization.

      • HappyIdiotTalk says:

        If you’re not into reading the whole book, there was a review of The End of The Past on medium a few weeks ago that gives a really decent overview. Certainly there were some technological shortcomings vs 1700’s Europe but the social ideas about work due to slavery seem to be what never got the Industrial Revolution ball really rolling.

        • Deiseach says:

          the social ideas about work due to slavery seem to be what never got the Industrial Revolution ball really rolling

          More than just that, I think, though it certainly did shape the ideas: what you need is a mass market commodity that can be mechanised in production. The English Industrial Revolution was kicked off by the boom in the cotton industry; all the former small cottage industries in weaving were replaced by factory plants for commercially scaled weaving. This brought the population from the countryside into the towns and concentrated them there, and this in turn brought a requirement for supplying the increased population with the necessities of life and transporting the new bulk manufactured goods.

          In the ancient world (as in the American South), the mass market production would have been of agricultural goods – e.g. Egyptian wheat as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, and cotton for the American South. You can absorb a lot of human labour (hence slavery being economic) in growing and harvesting the crops, but it’s both more difficult to mechanise production (because you can’t concentrate all the production in a town, you need wide swathes of farmland) and less of a necessity – you already have the farmers and peasants, or slaves, to do the labour.

    • Tibor says:

      There has been quite a lot of progress, particularly in metallurgy, since the ancient times, medieval Europe (and China) was not quite stagnating scientifically. It is most easier to see that in the development of ever better armour. The ancient Greeks could not create a plate harness from 1400s. The astronomical clocks of the 15th century were comparable to the most advanced ancient Greek technology.

      So instead of 1-2 centuries after Alexander, I’d say 5-6 centuries is more plausible (assuming that you have the ideal “scientific conditions” throughout most of this time).

      Another thing which is sort of my hypothesis for why Europe took over the world instead of China, is that medieval Europe was very fragmented and that created a very competitive environment which eventually lead to the Renaissance and the industrial revolution (by the time of the industrial revolution, Europe was a lot less fragmented than before or even than today but still more than during the peak of the Roman Empire for example). At the same time, China was a lot more homogeneous and solid during most of that period, which might have stifled innovation. The Chinese invented gunpowder but the Europeans, trying to come up with ever more powerful weapons, perfected metallurgy and by the 16th century already had better cannons than anybody else, even though China had a considerable head start. I think this would not have happened so rapidly had the Roman empire survived. So assuming that Alexander’s empire stays in one piece and possibly even expands and basically becomes the Roman Empire just a few centuries earlier, I would also expect the progress to go at a slower pace than it did in late medieval or Renaissance Europe. Conversely, had China more or less permanently split into dozens of countries at the the right time they could have ended up the ones colonizing the Americans, developing better weapons than anybody else and dominating the world the way Europeans (well, mostly Spain, Portugal and England) did.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        Yeah, I was going to say: for the industrial revolution, it seems like the key thing that you need is a relatively powerful steam engine. I think that for a relatively powerful steam engine, you need pretty good metallurgy. I’m totally out of my element, here, and don’t know details more than “seems like you need strong metals.” But is there any sign that the Greeks were someplace other than hundreds or thousands of years behind the incremental advancements in metallurgy that allowed the industrially-capable steam engines?

        EDIT to add: And I’m even more out of my element in this assertion, so it’s probably wrong, but I also feel like metallurgy advancements up through the 18th or 19th Century did not come out of any kind of scientific process, but from hundreds of years of kind of random experimentation in “how could we make a cannon that’s a little lighter but doesn’t explode” and/or “how could we make armor that can resist weapons and you can still move in,” and/or “how can we make sword-blades that don’t break.” And probably fifty other things, with no theory behind them. Which makes me think that even a Greek state with a strong natural-philosopher bias would 10x the rate of metallurgical improvement.

        • Vorkon says:

          Just as a random aside, this is why I like the sudden jump in technology in Brandon Sanderson’s second Mistborn series.

          Because of the metal-based nature of the magic system, metallurgy was already pretty advanced, so once the Lord Ruler was out of the way and no longer purposefully holding society at a particular technological level, all of a sudden it goes from vaguely medieval fantasy to “boom, steampunk” in just a few generations.

          • Chalid says:

            IIRC, guns and similar had already existed before the Lord Ruler came to power, and he actively regressed the world’s tech level. So one reason that technology leapt forward so fast was probably that people were remembering the old technologies, perhaps restoring them from old designs or the like.

        • Nornagest says:

          The earliest steam engines operated at fairly low pressures, often only a couple of psi above atmospheric. I think Greek-level metallurgy could handle that, but the refined metals would have been a lot more expensive in Classical Greece than in early 1800s England.

          • gbdub says:

            But those just-above-atmospheric steam engines didn’t have the power-to-weight ratio you’d need for an effective airship power plant.

      • Chalid says:

        FYI, I think your idea was explored in Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and to a lesser extent at the end of Guns Germs and Steel, if you want to do more reading on it. Guns Germs and Steel IIRC attributed the greater fragmentation of Europe relative to China to geography. Rise and Fall of Great Powers is more about the details of how inter-state competition in Europe led to both technological and social innovation.

        • Tibor says:

          I haven’t read Guns, germs and steel (I’ve only seen a quick summary of the main arguments) but I’ve seen it be quite heavily criticized by a lot of people, which makes me a bit weary of the book as some of the critique seemed quite well researched.

          Does the book actually address the “Why not China” question at all? I know that it lists a couple of things as the advantages of the Europeans over say the Native Americans, but all of those advantages apply to the Chinese as well and at least since something like the early middle ages until the Rennaisance, the Chinese were actually in most ways ahead of the Europeans (and probably everybody else as well).

          • Brad says:

            It’s been a while, but my recollection is that the main narrative of the book is the Americas versus Europe, with “why not China” relegated to a single chapter with the vibe of “I’m not nearly as confident about this, but here’s some speculation”.

          • Chalid says:

            Brad is correct.

            Also a very disproportionate amount of the criticism of the book is aimed at that chapter.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            IIRC, It’s actually more “Why Eurasia?” (and not the Americas, Africa, Australia, etc.)

            And the biggest thesis is simply that the agricultural package was more easily formed and spread in Eurasia because it is long (has lots of area at the same latitude). Other things flow from this.

          • Tibor says:

            I’ve read some criticism about the “American” part of the book as well. For example there seem to have been some American plagues brought to Europe as well, although it is not entirely clear whether they really came form there (their description matched the descriptions of some diseases encountered in the Americas though) and there had been plagues at least in Mesoamerica even before the Spanish came there.

            I am also a bit skeptical about the animals. True, I am not a biologist or a geneticist but while the Europeans had horses and cattle etc. those animals are not natural, at least not in their modern forms. Horses used to be much smaller, to a point where one could not really ride them (not to mention that they would not like it)…which is also why at first they were used in chariots. The cattle were actually bigger and more aggressive (btw, the Nazis tried to reverse breed the original breed of cattle in Europe, I’m not sure why exactly), so the Northern Americans could probably breed the bison into something more tame. In southern America, I suppose it was more difficult, they did have the lammas but that seems to be it.

            Also, isn’t North America pretty long as well? Central and Southern America a bit less, that is true.

            Those of you who read the book, do you think it is worth reading (even if probably not entirely correct)?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I think it’s a fascinating book. Well worth a read.

            The Americas are long in the North-South direction. The USA and Canada are fairly wide, and on the same latitude as Europe, which is a reason why the agricultural package brought from Europe did so well here. But it is reasonable to ask why that North American land didn’t already have a society capable of resisting the the Europeans.

            Diamonds point about plagues was simply that the European plagues were extremely effective at vastly reducing the American population, which is obviously not true of any diseases that went the other way. My favorite story about that in the book is that there was a Mississippi city-state like group of over 1 Million people extant when Columbus makes land. No European ever sees any of them as they are all dead or gone by the time they make it that far.

            In addition, European settlers to America would comment that it was as if God had tilled the land for them. It wasn’t God. It was the Native Americans who were defeated without ever even seeing a European.

            His reasoning for why the diseases developed has to do with how populous for how long with how many domesticated animals. And there he makes the point about the precursors to domesticated grain in Eurasia vs. the Americas. The fore-runner to corn was about an inch long with just a few small seeds on it and took thousands of years to domesticate. IIRC, the sweet potato was developed in Mexico and did not spread north.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Having read GG&S, I forget: did Diamond ever address whether European success could simply be one of the hypothetical end cases of the Fermi paradox? As in, given the time scales involved, whoever figured out agriculture first (or maybe metalworking) was almost certain to dominate the planet, just as whichever planet works out eukaryotes first is almost certain to dominate the galaxy?

            It’s a boring answer, but could nevertheless be true. Whoever rolls the first 6 wins.

          • onyomi says:

            whoever figured out agriculture first (or maybe metalworking) was almost certain to dominate the planet

            I mean, the industrial revolution didn’t take place in Mesopotamia or Egypt? I personally credit the Dutch Revolt and rise of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “Bourgeois Values.”

          • Chalid says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            It’s been a long time since I read GGS, but one part of the answer is that agriculture arose independently many times around the globe and you can look both at how geography correlates to the time at which it arose and also to how geography relates to the evolution of the culture after.


            There is quite a lot of writing in GGS about the relative suitability of various kinds of animals for domestication and Diamond argues that just about anything even vaguely domesticatable was domesticated. I don’t remember the details so please don’t take this as representative of his argument, but one point that stuck in my mind was that even with modern biology and genetics we have domesticated very few additional animals.

          • IrishDude says:


            I’ve come across ‘bourgeois values’ in passsing before. Two questions, if you don’t mind:

            1) What values are bourgeois? ( I could guess, thinking of something like restraint, but would like to hear from those that have studied this)
            2) Does McCloskey offer reasons for why these values rise in certain places and not others?

          • onyomi says:


            McCloskey has written a few, large tomes on this subject, and I’ve only skimmed a few parts of them, but IIRC, the main thesis is that, sometime around 1500, some places in Europe, especially the Netherlands, started developing a culture where it was okay to be, well, bourgeois–that is, to be openly, proudly wealthy and powerful as a result of commerce, not military prowess or hereditary title.

            I think it has something in common with the “protestant work ethic” thesis in that McCloskey argues the “new” virtues were defined in terms of the old, traditional virtues, like faith, hope, love, justice, etc.

            Where I think her emphasis is different is in focusing on the ethical evaluation of what we might today call “capitalism.” Though it’s been a bogeyman for a couple of centuries by that name, really, merchants, traders, etc. have been looked down upon for millennia in most civilizations I know of. Certainly they attained wealth and power in the past, but it was rarely stable until justified by some kind of theology or heredity or military force. To take the example of China, there is a pattern whereby, every time merchants start to get really rich doing x (selling rice, salt, tea), suddenly the emperor decides that x will be a state monopoly.

            Being in a geographically, linguistically, culturally diverse little area which was nonetheless very well-situated for maritime trade, and exposed, by virtue of being ruled in absentia by the Spanish and a bunch of others who didn’t pay very close attention, to what we might call an early case of “benign neglect,” the Netherlands arguably had the opportunity to become a kind of 16th c. Hong Kong.

            And when your “nobility” is elsewhere, believing in a different religion, you may be temporarily unable to set up your own oppressive state monopolies, but you can start viewing the source of your own wealth and power–namely trade, with some respect and reverence for a change–a surprisingly revolutionary shift in world history (and we can see, even today, how the human default seems to be to view capitalism with suspicion).

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Guns Germs and Steel IIRC attributed the greater fragmentation of Europe relative to China to geography.

          That’s always seemed a strange idea to me, given that there are plenty of mountains in China, and the north of Europe is basically one big, long plain stretching from Brittany to the Urals.

          • John Schilling says:

            Plenty of mountains in China, but looking at my globe, relatively few fertile plains or valleys separated by those mountains. Aside from the upper Yangtze around Chongqing, China looks rather like a continuously populated plain in the east with mountains and arid highlands in the west. Not much in the way of peninsulas or large islands, either.

            As compared to Europe, which has yes a large open plain running across the northern part, but also Italy behind the alps, Iberia behind the Pyrennes, the geographically balkanized Balkans, the British Isles, and Scandinavia (itself split by mountains). Plus Anatolia, the Levant, and the Maghreb, if we’re willing to look at Europe’s peripheries.

            To be fair, if we’re going to take the expansive definition, then the Orient has Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Japan, arguably, was too isolated to contribute to early civilization-building, and maybe Korea and SE Asia weren’t populous enough. I agree that this is perhaps the largest weakness in Diamond’s thesis, and it is to his credit that he acknowledges this as well.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            China has plenty of mountains, but they largely encircle the country, instead of dividing it.

            The southern portion of the country definitely has more rough terrain, and Chengdu lies in the mountains in the western part of the country, but both of those locales were in fact often independent of the empires that formed in the northern plains, and during times of division were usually the last part to be unified (the Three Kingdoms are an extremely famous and stark example of this dynamic).

            An additional factor, I think, in China’s more frequent and longer-lasting unifications is cultural: each dynasty added more ties holding the nation together, from big engineering projects like the Grand Canal of the Tang (making communication between the northern Yellow and southern Yangtze valleys easier) to linguistic (the Chinese writing system, to this day the only real common tongue throughout China) to bureaucratic (the way land was divided, the system of tax collection, the way provinces were administered). Each one created a foundation of unification for the next empire to build on, so that each time a dynasty fell the period of disunion was shorter than the preceding, and the subsequent dynasty lasted longer – we go from centuries of division following the fall of Han to a mere century or so following the fall of Tang, to no noticeable interregnums at all from Song to Yan to Ming to Qing. The Chinese Civil War lasted decades, I suppose, but even that would have ended in full unification after 40 years or so if not for outside political factors preserving Taiwan.

            Finally, definitions I think play a role in the question of why China has historically been more unified – some places were indeed just as geographically defended as Italy or England were in Europe. But we don’t call those places China today. We call them Korea or Japan. China acquired all the places easy to unite, and so China by definition is composed of places more easily united.

            Why didn’t the same apply to Europe? Well, the northern European plain is divided by wide and swift rivers – the Seine, the Rhine, the Elbe, the Vistula. Typically the northern Europeans were in fact divided along those lines – France from the HRE, the HRE from Poland, Poland from Rus. Sometimes one conqueror or another would unite most of the northern plain – Charlemagne and Napoleon come to mind – but never lasted long enough to create those bureaucratic ties that the Chinese empires did in their own territory.

            I think those factors, coupled with the existence of independent kingdoms in Spain, England, Scandinavia, Russia (whose great size acts as a natural geographic barrier), and Austria (defended by the Alps, Danube, and Carpathians) which were more than willing to interfere with their northern neighbors to ensure no state there grew too powerful, more than explain why Europe was divided and China wasn’t.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @Chevalier Mal Fet

            no noticeable interregnums at all from Song to Yan to Ming to Qing.

            Full on “interregnums”, no, but the way you state it here ignores things like the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), and the “Northern Song” versus “Southern Song” periods. For added relevance to the “gunpowder weapons in China” component, from Wikipedia’s article on the Jin-Song Wars:

            The wars engendered an era of technological, cultural, and demographic changes in China. Battles between the Song and Jin brought about the introduction of various gunpowder weapons. The siege of De’an in 1132 was the first recorded use of the fire lance, an early ancestor of firearms. There were also reports of battles fought with primitive gunpowder bombs like the incendiary huopao or the exploding tiehuopao, incendiary arrows, and other related weapons.

            Losing a sizeable the northern chunk of your country for over a century and having to relocate your capital may not be an “interregnum”, but it’s not exactly a picture of unity or stability either.

          • onyomi says:

            @Kevin C

            I think Chevalier still largely gets it correct.

            When you say “losing a sizeable Northern chunk of your country” the word you are looking for is not “country,” but “empire.”

            Holding together an empire of that size and diversity is something Europe hasn’t accomplished since the fall of Rome. But, in China, it happened faster and more thoroughly as time went on. And I think the geography has a lot to do with that, as did each successive round of Northern invaders, who lay the groundwork for the next round of Han Chinese overlords.

    • Anon. says:

      3 main issues imo:

      1. Slavery – effects on investments in capital.
      2. Social attitudes toward commerce – the middle class is weak.
      3. You need a Francis Bacon type to invent science.

      Oh and probably printing, too.

      • Tibor says:

        You don’t necessarily need science as we understand today it to reach industrial revolution. You need competition and abolishing or severely weakening the privilegia of the guilds is what is probably a lot more important. Medieval European economy was in ways extremely regulated and essentially controlled by legal monopolies – the guilds. The subsequent deregulation brought about a lot of innovation.

        But most importantly, in CIV V “scientific method” is not a prerequisite for “industrialization”, so, there. 😛

      • Deiseach says:

        lt is a genuinely fascinating idea as to why the Chinese never invented cannon and firearms, as they certainly would have been interested in waging wars and in protecting the borders. I don’t think social homogeneity is a sufficient explanation, as all the local wars, rebellions, new dynasties overthrowing old, historical eras with names such as Warring States period, and the last dynasty being founded by the Manchu means that China may have had long stretches of nominal or actual unified rule, but there was always unrest bubbling under.

        I think perhaps that the various factions who obtained power didn’t want weaponry of that nature, as artillery makes too much of an equalising factor for an upstart nobleman with his regional army to mount a challenge versus the traditionally ‘what you can scrounge together and train of your peasant conscripts’. But I have no idea, and I wonder if anyone has explored the reason for ‘gunpowder yes, guns no’?

        • onyomi says:

          The Chinese did, in fact, invent cannons.

          Some argue that the Song Dynasty had some potential to result in an industrial revolution, having seen a period of rapid urbanization, expansion of division of labor, and a great many new technologies invented around that time.

          As for why it didn’t happen, obviously it’s s really complex question: fighting off nomadic warriors from the North all the time takes a toll, for one, though I tend to more generally blame China’s relatively “wide open” geography. It lends itself to imperialist despotism because it’s hard to defend smaller enclaves.

          Though you get periods of really vibrant exchange and rapid progress, they often get smashed down by a foreign invasion and/or despotic government interested much more in political stability than economic vitality, resulting in sometimes hundreds of years of relative isolation and technological stagnation.

          That is, unified rule could be, if anything, the problem.

        • Tibor says:

          As Onyomi notes, The Chinese had cannon (what is the correct plural btw. cannon or cannons?) but when the Europeans got finally got their hands around it (around the 14th century) they quickly improved it so that within a 100 years the Europeans were actually the ones exporting their technology. And interestingly it seems to be exactly this time when they outpaced China. 13th century China was probably more advanced technologically and in other ways than 13th century Europe, but by the 16-17th century it was clearly the other way around and only in the early 21st century do they seem to be seriously beginning to catch up. I wonder how it will be in the 22nd century 🙂

          I think that you’re not completely on a wrong track suggesting that the ruling classes did not like powerful firearms very much. There were attempts in Europe to ban crossbows because with the heaviest types it was too easy to kill the nobility. I am not sure if even a heavy medieval crossbow could penetrate 15-16th century plate armour but it could do that with earlier kinds of armour. Ultimately, this ban (coming from the pope I think) was ignored because everyone was busy using any advantage they could against their opponents. But if there is a centralized state whose main problem is keeping “barbarians” (whose technology is inferior to yours, so you don’t have to worry they will have better cannon than you) out and peasants down, then restricting technology that is dangerous to the status quo makes a lot more sense.

          This is also an interesting thesis. This is quite remarkable:

          the walls of the marketplace of Chang’an were thicker than the walls of major European capitals.

          • Deiseach says:

            Yeah, but with thick walls then you don’t bother bouncing your cannonballs off them, you go for sappers and crude bombs/mines (as in the famous “hoist with his own petard”).

            I do think a combination of the terrain and the need for border security being more pressing (not much good trying to haul cannon up mountains or over steppes) meant that artillery in that sense never developed, but surely handguns (even the more primitive match lock and wheel lock pistol) are going to be every bit as good for Chinese soldiers facing off against The Barbarians as in Europe?

            And now we get into the question of “Can a good archer kill more soldiers with firearms who are hampered by the need to reload which is a complicated process than the harquebusiers can kill the opposition, or at least kill them more quickly?” I’ll let the rest of you argue that one out 🙂

          • cassander says:


            The Archer/Musketeer question is gone into quite thoroughly here:


            The book is a VERY interesting look at pre-modern sea power in a whole lot of ways, but to answer your question in particular, a good archer was a lot more lethal, but making good archers didn’t just take years of effort, but really a whole culture dedicated to their production, and as such their numbers were almost always limited in ways that gunpowder weapons were not. And gunpowder weapons were simpler and more robust than crossbows.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I know archers took years upon years of steady practice (to the point where one English king banned all sports except longbow on Sundays so people would stay in practice), but a whole culture devoted to it? Are you talking about just the degree of practice, or something else?

          • Tibor says:

            I dunno if you need a culture. Most importantly you need people to practice the specific muscles needed to pull the high poundage bows. Accuracy is not really that important if you’re trying to hit someone in a large formation, you’d have to be really terrible, literally unable to hit the broad side of a barn, before that might be a problem. But those muscles require years of training (and constant training) and they are not trained enough by pretty much anything other than archery.

            In the movies it is always the sleek “elvish” or female characters (and nothing like the Brianne from GOT) who carry bows around but they’d actually be pretty terrible with them. You need a strong man to use a medieval English longbow and not just any strong man but a man who’s trained the muscles (mostly back muscles I think) needed to pull the string on such a bow. Even with an early gun, you can teach anybody how to use it in a day. This is why for example the Hussites used a lot of hand-guns (as well as crossbows) but almost no archers. You could not just give bows to a group of peasants and expect them to be very effective with those. And even the early firearms had some chance to penetrate armour of the time, whereas the bow simply couldn’t (I am not sure about the heaviest kinds of crossbows, they might have a small chance). Of course, most soldiers did not have the top-notch latest technology armour, which is why the bows still remained useful for some time.

          • cassander says:

            @Tibor and Evan

            The reason you needed a whole culture is that pre-modern states generally didn’t have the resources (financial, institutional,etc) to take a bunch of people who weren’t archers then set them to practicing with the bow day in and day out for years. Even if you had the money to hire the men, you almost certainly wouldn’t have the institutional fortitude to make sure that they actually practiced regularly, kept their bows in good shape, didn’t fatten up the muster rolls with old men, and so on. Even making the bows (composite bows here, long bows were simpler) was a complicated, labor intensive process that took a very long time and relied on relatively scarce expertise.

            If you wanted to have access to a reliable pool of well equipped archers, you pretty much had to have access to a culture that did that you could recruit from. Building it from scratch was simply too difficult. Bear in mind, “a culture that did that” doesn’t mean monomaniacal dedication to the bow above all else, the bow culture in medieval England was sufficient, but you’ll note that when that culture changed in England, the bow armies dried up despite government attempts to preserve them by fiat.

          • Tibor says:

            @cassander: The Roman empire (as well as the late republic) fielded a professional army and it would not have been a particular problem for them to have bowmen who practice every day. But I suppose your description fits the medieval European states. I would not say making the weapon is all that difficult. Yes, you need expertise to create a good bow but that’s true of any weapon and in terms of material bow is one of the simplest weapons you can make. From what I gather the best quality wood might not be available in your region, so you might need to import it (the English seemed to have imported wood from Spain and Italy) but with the medieval technology the same is true of the highest quality steel.

          • cassander says:

            >The Roman empire (as well as the late republic) fielded a professional army and it would not have been a particular problem for them to have bowmen who practice every day.

            They could have, but if you take random people off the street, it will take years to train them up to a competent level of archery, far longer than it took to teach them to march in rank and file. That doesn’t just dramatically increase the cost of your army, it makes your empire a lot more brittle because replacing losses takes a lot longer. And we know that because the late roman/early byzantine empire DID do that with cataphracts and it seems to have resulted in both effects.

            >But I suppose your description fits the medieval European states. I would not say making the weapon is all that difficult. Yes, you need expertise to create a good bow but that’s true of any weapon and in terms of material bow is one of the simplest weapons you can make. From what I gather the best quality wood might not be available in your region, so you might need to import it (the English seemed to have imported wood from Spain and Italy) but with the medieval technology the same is true of the highest quality steel.

            Well, for one, importing exotic woods isn’t exactly easy in a medieval world. You have to send your agents a long way away with a lot of money, then trust that they bring back the right stuff, and heaven help you if it doesn’t keep in the back of a wagon or on the deck of a ship. And even if you bring back experts, what happens if the fish glue made from your local fish or the horn from your local bovoid ends up having different, and less desirable, properties than the stuff where your experts came from?

            The bigger issue, though, was less material than temporal. Long bows are fairly easy, but composite bows took weeks to make and months to dry, and could be easily ruined by wet and damp. they were great if your day consisted of riding around your herds making sure nothing terrible happened, but hard to make in mass.

          • Tibor says:

            @cassander: As far as I know, composite bows were not made in Europe and they were not particularly suitable to the European climate either. Their main advantage seems to be on horseback, since they can be made more compact with the same poundage. But if you’re on foot then a simple longbow is perfectly fine and probably more durable, since it has fewer parts. Also, you can make bows without using any glue at all, if you cut the right wood in the right place, you naturally end up with a natural laminate. It does require a very good craftsman, though.

            And again, if you want the best materials, it does require importing woods (not necessarily exotic, it’s usually still the same tree but in some areas they just grow more in the way you want them to grow), but the same goes for steel. Medieval steel was not the perfect homogeneous steel we have today since they could not heat it up to high enough temperatures and so what ore you started out with was very important – hence you had this famous sought after steel from Toledo or Damascus (interestingly, the Indians seem to have been extremely advanced in steelmaking surpassing the Europeans by about 1000 years in quality and I am not sure if some of the “Damascus” steel was not actually Indian steel). But you could still make decent stuff without importing things.

            You’re right that it probably takes longer to train a mediocre archer than a mediocre heavy infantryman.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            And now we get into the question of “Can a good archer kill more soldiers with firearms who are hampered by the need to reload which is a complicated process than the harquebusiers can kill the opposition, or at least kill them more quickly?”

            No. On paper an archer looks more lethal (more accurate, better reload time), but a musket or arquebus bullet has much more killing power than an arrow, so a unit of musketeers are likely to inflict more casualties than an equally-sized unit of bowmen.

          • hlynkacg says:

            On paper an archer looks more lethal (more accurate, better reload time), but a musket or arquebus bullet has much more killing power than an arrow…

            Archers were indeed more lethal, and for a long time arrows did in fact have more killing power than muskets. The difference was that training someone to be a combat effective archer took decades where training someone to be a combat effective musketeer took months.

          • Mark says:

            Isn’t a musket more effective against armour than a bow?

          • The original Mr. X says:


            Archers were indeed more lethal, and for a long time arrows did in fact have more killing power than muskets.

            This blog

            contains lots of examples of bow vs. gun fights, most of which indicate that, when bows came up against handguns in battle, handguns tended to have the upper hand.

            The difference was that training someone to be a combat effective archer took decades where training someone to be a combat effective musketeer took months.

            Decades to lean a bow is a huge over-exaggeration, and I’d be very surprised if you can find a reputable source to back up this assertion.

            @ Mark:

            Isn’t a musket more effective against armour than a bow?

            Yes, and also, a wound from a musket-ball is more debilitating than a wound from an arrow.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:


            I think the timeframe where firearms were inferior to bows in range and lethality under real-world battlefield conditions is rather shorter than is often claimed by the fans of the “Amazingly Deadly English Longbow”. They DID provide a training advantage, but it wasn’t -just- a training advantage that proved decisive.

            The blog Mr. X link includes a lot of good stuff from primary sources on the subject, and while there was some contemporary critique by some interesting groups (like some 17th century armchair generals from England who thought that if they reinstituted longbow training among the yeomanry it would -totally- beat the matchlock and wheellock) the evidence is pretty firmly the other way.

            @Mr. X

            The decades figure is true for some specific types of bows, notably the English Long Bow.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The decades figure is true for some specific types of bows, notably the English Long Bow.

            Whilst English longbowmen were expected to train assiduously, I suspect a lot of this was to make sure that they didn’t lose the skills and fitness they’d acquired rather than because they needed all that time to acquire those things in the first place. As Tibor said, when firing at battalion-size targets accuracy isn’t that important; the main requirement to use a longbow was having good upper-body strength, and whilst this would have taken time to build up I don’t think it would have taken decades.

            (Plus, English longbowmen were among the best archers in Europe during their heyday, so it would be a mistake to take them as representative of what the average archer needed to be like.)

        • Carolus says:

          I can recommend The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History. It talks about the wall theory amongst other social causes for the divergence in Gunpowder technology.

        • cassander says:

          There’s a book on precisely this subject, Firearms, a global history. As onyomi points out, the chinese DID have cannons, but it posits as the reason they lagged in firearms development generally was precisely because their security concern was defending borders against steppe peoples, not laying sieges and that it was cannons and sieges that really drove firearms technology forward.

          I’m not sure I buy the explanation, the author doesn’t really explain why cannons drove technology forward more readily than hand weapons, though I can tell a few just so stories about why that might be the case. Still, it’s an interesting argument.

      • Anonymous Bosch says:

        I would add to this an IP system of some kind. By the 1600s Britain had a fairly robust system of patents and almost all of the significant inventions of the time were under some form of patent.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        1. Slavery – effects on investments in capital.
        2. Social attitudes toward commerce – the middle class is weak.

        (2) sounds pretty important to me. Lots of people say (1), but most of them don’t seem to mean anything, and the rest seem to just mean (2). But you claim that they are different. What do you mean by (1) ?

    • IrishDude says:

      Adam Smith notes that division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. The larger the market, the more division of labor you can have, which leads to more specialization and cheaper production of goods.

      As Adam Smith noted long ago, the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Much like a telephone or an Internet system, a market economy is a network good. As the size of the market expands from the local town or village to the region, nation, and beyond, network participants derive larger and larger benefits from trade, specialization, and economies of scale. For those connected to the global market, this system generates employment opportunities, high productivity per worker, and a vast array of consumer goods that are available at almost unbelievably low prices. This network system makes high-income levels and living standards possible.

      A larger market, that comes from larger populations and a more connected world, can directly lead to economic growth that might have made the industrial revolution possible. Perhaps the industrial revolution wouldn’t have been possible in 330 BC Greece because the extent of the market was too small from too small a population or limited trade outside the region.

      If true, then as a story element perhaps having additional trade routes opened that grows the size of the market and increases specialization could be one aspect to make the industrial revolution happen much earlier.

    • Deiseach says:

      My main gripe with that is that I don’t think Alexander would be particularly a good candidate; I don’t imagine he cared tuppence for the social impact of his conquests but he did care about establishing power. And he was a military genius that needed wars to fight, so pushing ever eastwards kept him occupied. An Alexander that went “Okay, that’s enough territory” and settled down to be a ruler (rather than head of a quasi-empire that he ruled while on campaigns) would have been a very different creature, and I think his faults would have become evident much earlier.

      I’m also wondering if physical mineral resource limitations would have prevented Greece’s Industrial Revolution – yes, I’m going off popularised history here, but it does give me the impression that it was the chance and fortunate combination of ‘iron plus coal deposits on land owned by one wealthy guy wanting to exploit these assets’ that kicked things off.

    • John Schilling says:

      What’s the main difficulty in going from hot air balloon to powered airship?

      Lightweight engines powerful enough to overcome a mild breeze. If you can’t maintain an airspeed of at least 15 knots, what you have is almost certainly a toy or a stunt rather than an operationally useful capability. Pedal-powered airships today seem to max out at 11 knots, and that’s using modern materials and aerodynamics. Steam engines never quite developed the necessary power-to-weight ratio, and not for shortage of inventors trying every approach to making better steam engines using all available technology. Plus, Alexander never quite managed to conquer Texas, and do you want to use an external combustion engine in a hydrogen-filled airship?

      The first airships to break 15 knots, and the first demonstration flights to e.g. return to their launch point under control, emerged in the 1880s using early internal combustion engines or in one case batteries. I doubt it is possible do do much better without that level of materials and manufacturing technology.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Can you steer an airship with angled sails the same way you would a seagoing ship?

        Unrelated question: how likely is it a civilization could industrialize but never discover gunpowder?

        • Eltargrim says:

          Sailing ships rely strongly on the water to travel in directions other than downwind, through the use of a keel or centreboard. I can’t think of a plausible equivalent for an airship off-hand.

        • John Schilling says:

          Sailing ships depend on the differential between air mass velocity (as experienced by the sails) and water mass velocity (as experienced by the keel and hull). If all of the fluids you are immersed in are moving at the same velocity, no combination of sails and/or keels will change the fact that you are drifting out of control. And while a very large airship may experience some degree of wind shear across its length, that’s not going to be enough for practical propulsion.

          Failing to discover gunpowder during early industrialization might be plausible; potassium nitrate comes from either geographically rare natural deposits or a manure extraction process that approximately nobody is going to experiment with until after a compelling application is discovered. Muck with long-distance trade to the point where the hot springs with native sulfur aren’t well-connected to the caves full of bat guano, and maybe you don’t get enough alchemists tinkering with that particular mix.

          More plausible, though, would I think be discovering black powder but never inventing the gun, using it instead as a fast-burn incendiary and low-grade rocket propellant. See, e.g., several hundred years of actual Chinese history, because yes, they did have some things that met the technical definition of “guns” but in almost the same sense that the ancient Greeks had steam engines. It took IIRC about three centuries and ten thousand kilometers of technological diffusion for some decidedly non-Chinese people to recognize the true killer app for gunpowder.

          • Edje says:

            As part of a half finished story concept, I did try to come up with a design of an airship which used kites to get the necessary velocity differential. The kites would extend well below or above the airship where wind speeds would be different. Never figured out for sure whether it would actually work. Another possibility would be to have the airship tethered to a mobile platform on the ground or sea.

        • Protagoras says:

          Various other explosives were discovered by 19th century chemists, and I don’t think it’s very likely that the absence of black powder would have hindered those discoveries (they don’t generally have anything to do with black powder). So I’d say that while I could imagine steam engines without guns, there would be guns quite soon thereafter (perhaps not powered by black powder), unless something happened to slow progress beyond that point.

          • cassander says:

            you can’t* use most explosives to make guns. Gunpowder is useful for guns precisely because it doesn’t explode, but burns rapidly, creating expanding gasses that push the bullet continually down a barrel. A gun based on an explosive would need to be a lot stronger, and thus heavier, than a gunpowder gun. It would also accelerate the projectile a lot less efficiently.

            *I’m sure it’s been done by someone, somewhere, but I’m not familiar with any widespread practical application.

          • John Schilling says:

            Also, the “various other explosives” of the 19th century were I believe all the result of applying nitric acid to various organic materials. Preindustrial discovery and manufacture of nitric acid starts with potassium nitrate, which is much easier for alchemists to muck about with when it becomes an article of interest and commerce for its use in gunpowder. In our timeline, the discovery of nitric acid comes about a generation or two after the introduction of gunpowder to Europe.

            If we imagine an alternate history where gunpowder escapes discovery because the few people willing to muck around in piles of batshit (or just plain shit) for an odd salt never stumble on to its most immediately vital application, we probably get to nitric acid, nitration, and the assorted nitro explosives much later as well.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Given that you somehow have nitric acid without black powder, you do quickly get to a usable propellant: nitrocellulose.

          • Protagoras says:

            Fertilizer research wouldn’t encourage investigation of batshit and learning of its properties? And I said 19th century because that was when other explosives besides black powder started being used in guns; perhaps that did require superior metallurgy, but you can also make better steam engines with superior metallurgy, so it hardly seems likely that Scott’s steam engine w/o black powerd world would be dramatically behind ours in metallurgy.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        Plus, Alexander never quite managed to conquer Texas, and do you want to use an external combustion engine in a hydrogen-filled airship?

        As [Alexander] traversed all Babylonia, which at once submitted to him, he was most of all amazed at the chasm from which fire continually streamed forth as from a spring, and at the stream of naphtha, so abundant as to form a lake, not far from the chasm. This naphtha is in other ways like asphaltum, but is so sensitive to fire that, before the flame touches it, it is kindled by the very radiance about the flame and often sets fire also to the intervening air

        -Plutarch, Life of Alexander, section 35.

    • cassander says:

      Much more likely than an industrial revolution is the early discovery of gunpowder. Gunpowder is relatively easy to make and primitive guns could be made with ancient level metallurgy, but there’s absolutely no reason to go looking for gunpowder if you don’t know it already exists, so you have to basically discover it by accident. In actual history, the traditional story is that some Chinese alchemist discovered it in the while looking for an elixir of youth, but there’s no reason that that alchemist couldn’t have come around several hundred years earlier in Athens or Ptolemaic Egypt.

    • Yosarian2 says:

      Well, the water wheel was invented in the Greek world sometime between the first and third century bc. It is possible to design a simple early industrial revolution factory around a water wheel as power source, and in fact those were common in the early industrial revolution. It would be crude, the gears and wheels would probably be much less precise and advanced, but maybe doable.

      A harder question is if they could have moved from there to a steam engine. Maybe? I don’t think they had the same level of metallurgy, which would be a real problem. Maybe you could make a clunky simple engine out of the kind of impure iron they could make, if you make it thick enough? Steam under pressure isn’t easy to contain, but maybe it’s possible.

      Another interesting question is if industrialization and a factory system of production would be economically competitive in a society with slavery.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Wait, didn’t they have industrialization in the US before slavery was banned? Sure, it does seem that most industrialization occurred in the North where slavery was banned, but if slavery was a strong competitor to wages then I would have thought the South would have had more industry.

        Also, it seems like more than coincidence that industrialization took off in the North just about the time that slavery was banned. Was there some causation there?

        • hoghoghoghoghog says:

          For what it’s worth, Rome was possibly more slavery-r than the antebellum US.

          The total numbers seem to be similar. Blacks never accounted for more than 20% of the US population, and not all Blacks were slaves, while Wikipedia says 10-15% of the Roman empire were slaves in the 1st century BC. On the other hand, in Italy (a very rich and populous place where you might expect tech to take off) 35% to 40% were slaves.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Also, it seems like more than coincidence that industrialization took off in the North just about the time that slavery was banned. Was there some causation there?

          Can we get some statistics on whether it was really “taking off,” or whether that’s an artifact of how history is taught? Also, watch out for confounding variables like the need to supply the huge Union Army stimulating industrial and financial development, or a suddenly more business-friendly Republican government.

        • Yosarian2 says:

          There was some industrialization going on in the US before the end of slavery, but yeah, it was almost entierly in the north. In fact, it was very common that cotton would be grown in the south, but then it would be transported to early factories in the north to be turned into textiles before being sold. Economically speaking, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense (especially considering the cost of transport at the time) unless there was something retarding the development of factories in the South.

          • Incurian says:

            Or the North had a comparative advantage, not being as suitable for agriculture.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            Sure, I’m sure there was some of that. I think there may have also been a cultural thing where the people in the South with a lot of capital were the plantation owners who were not really interested in investing in stuff like that.

  2. Scott Alexander says:

    Any thoughts on all those studies showing IQ is genetically correlated with height, with longevity, with low impulsivity, and with every other good trait?

    Mutational load seems like a good explanation, except that I think a lot of these correlations are done on SNPs, which I thought were different than what mutational load would affect.

    Another possibility seems like assortative mating. Suppose that in the past you could become a noble by being smart and manipulating your way to the top, or by being tall and fighting your way to the top. If nobles mated among each other, we would get a caste of tall smart people and a caste of short dull people. Insofar as those forces are still going on, or the genes haven’t entirely diluted, we would expect all good traits to be correlated and vice versa, which looks like what we actually see.

    The problem there is I don’t think I understand the methodology well enough to know whether it proves that people with the SNPs for IQ also have the SNPs for height, or whether it proves that the same SNP causes both increased IQ and increased height.

    If the latter, why would there be an “all good things” setting of the SNP, and a separate “all bad things” value? More specifically, why would evolution preserve the “all bad things” value?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      They are done on SNP chips, but they are not saying that a particular SNP predicts both height and IQ. They are just using SNPs to figure how closely everyone is related.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Let me strengthen that: There are no SNPs for IQ, so there are no SNPs that cause both IQ and height. (Well, common SNPs account for maybe 1% of the variance in IQ.)

    • onyomi says:

      It may not be all good things. Some studies apparently find correlations between aggressive behavior and biomarkers of lower stress, like lower resting heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol. And apparently criminals generally self-report experiencing less subjective stress than average (though I imagine having had a high-stress childhood might be a contributing factor to becoming a criminal–could even set the stress “set point” really high?).

      In other words, though I’d bet the conventional wisdom is somewhat correct that child abuse increases the likelihood of becoming a criminal, it may not always be the way we think: I guess we imagine that smart, non-violent, non-impulsive, long term planning people are also calm: they don’t act impulsively because they are able to calmly think things through, while “hothead” criminals, living in a constant state of high stress, can’t think that far ahead.

      But what if it’s more like smart, non-violent, non-impulsive people are able to make good long-term decisions because they worry a lot and would be scared to death of negative consequences were they to consider committing a violent, criminal, or short term-payoff-high long term-cost action like mugging someone to pay for drugs?

      On this general theory: the idea of the stressed-out, smart, careful planners and the paradoxically relaxed, impulsive, non-planners, there are clear advantages to both sets of behavior, depending on the circumstances. Setting aside that one might subjectively enjoy one’s life better as a low-stress criminal than a high-stress professor, it could be that the low-stress, high impulsivity strategy is good in times of war, conflict, deprivation, etc. when raping and pillaging are a good reproductive strategy, while nervous, worrying, long-term planning strategy is good in times of relative peace, order, and prosperity (also a time when the violent criminals are likely to be executed). And apparently there is some epigenetic effect where high childhood stress might flip some switches to shift you more towards the “rape and pillage” strategy?

      As for height, who said being taller has only advantages?

      And, of course, it might be a group thing: societies with some scholars and some raping pillagers might be more robust than societies with only one or the other?

    • Tibor says:

      Height is not so great on its own. It gives you an advantage in close combat and running and, well, you see a little more of your surroundings…I can’t see what else. It is usually found attractive, especially by women in men but that’s rather for what it is correlated with than its own benefits, I’d say.

      If you’re taller, you are less energy efficient, your joints are under more stress and you will on average have a shorter life span than if you were shorter and otherwise identical. Particularly for modern humans the practical advantages of height are mostly inconsequential, it would be better for us if we all suddenly were about 1,5m instead of 1,8m (for men).

      • John Schilling says:

        It gives you an advantage in close combat and running and, well, you see a little more of your surroundings…I can’t see what else.

        So, I can probably beat you up or kill you if I want, and if I don’t or can’t I can probably run away from you, and in either case I can see you coming from a safe distance. For most of human evolutionary history, doesn’t that set of advantages trump just about anything else?

        Well, except high-level social skills. Which seem to be correlated with height anyway, or at least used to court the favor of tall people.

        • Tibor says:

          Yes, in the past it was very useful. But for 21st century city dwellers not so much, at least outside of interaction with other humans who are hardwired to consider it good because of the benefits it used to bring.

          I think I wrote it poorly, because people seem to misunderstand my point, so just to be clear – yes, height is correlated with a lot of useful things but it is not like it causes them. We have evolved to note the correlation which is why women are attracted to taller men, all other things held equal.

      • Matt M says:

        Height is not so great on its own….It is usually found attractive, especially by women in men

        As if that isn’t the single most important evolutionary factor?

        • Tibor says:

          Women find it attractive because it correlates with a bunch of useful things and because it used to be very useful in history. For modern urban humans height is actually rather detrimental. Or it would be if it weren’t hardwired in our brains that height=good and healthy.

          • Nornagest says:

            The correlation with “good” might no longer be so valid, but the correlation with “healthy” certainly is — since stunted growth is one of the first things you get with childhood sickness or poor nutrition, being tall is a hard-to-fake signal that you grew up healthy and (relatively) wealthy.

            Some people are just naturally short, of course, but there’s nothing saying that an fitness cue has to be low in false negatives.

          • Tibor says:

            Essentially height changed from a trait that came around from natural selection to one supported by a mix of natural and sexual selection (being attracted to height became a useful trait because height was a useful trait) to one which is essentially a handicap favoured by sexual selection just like the peacock’s tail or women’s breasts. Unlike the peacock’s tail or breasts, it did not start as a handicap and essentially wasn’t one until very recently.

            Btw, it is interesting when women say they want to “look up” to their partner, since it is usually true both figuratively and quite literally.

          • Mark says:

            It’s weird though, because I find incredibly tall women unattractive. If that’s general, you’d think it’d limit the extent to which height became associated with other positive traits (women have clearly been subject to sexual selection).
            I wonder if large hooters are associated with intelligence.

          • gbdub says:

            Maybe it’s a proportion thing? Perhaps men are selecting for “wide hips in proportion to waist and height” and extra height throws that off? Or maybe the traits associated with height are more important to women selecting a mate – the “thought process” is “I want a mate that is faster and stronger than me, ergo taller”.

          • Nornagest says:

            For height as a fitness signal in women, I think signaling health is fighting with signaling youth, and which one wins, depends on the person.

          • gbdub says:

            I’m confused, are you suggesting that “height” signals “old”? Most people are at their final adult height withing a few years of reaching sexual maturity, so I don’t see how “tall” would fight with “youthful”.

          • Nornagest says:

            In that context I’m seeing shortness less as an independent signal and more as part of a package of neoteny cues. It’s cute, in other words.

          • Protagoras says:

            I find tall women attractive, myself. I wonder how common it is to find them unattractive (unless it’s quite common, no explanation for it seems needed; there’s obviously lots of variation in what people find attractive).

          • onyomi says:

            Overall, there’s a conflict between producing male offspring whom women will find attractive and producing female offspring whom men will find attractive. Because women tend to be attracted to traits indicating maturity and strength (largeness, hairiness, theoretically, baldness–not sure what happened there, etc.), while men are attracted more to neoteny+signals of fertility. Neoteny basically means “preserving child like features,” so not too big, not too hairy, etc. though ideally also having large hips and breasts for their obvious reproductive.

            I guess evolution has done a pretty good job isolating these factors so that those with a Y chromosome get a lot more of these; nonetheless, I think one still observes couples whose offspring of a particular gender are more likely to be judged conventionally attractive (two very tall parents with strong jawbones, for example, are probably more likely to produce attractive sons than daughters, for example).

            Also completely anecdotal: but I seem to notice a trend whereby it’s the really small women who are attracted to the really tall men, whereas taller women, paradoxically, may be attracted to shorter men. In other words, I think there may be a tendency for evolution to want to even out extremes by mate selection.

          • Mark says:

            If you google “breast size and IQ” you get a load of stuff about a 2011 study conducted by Dr. Yvonne Rossdale at the University of Chicago who found that women in the top quintile for breast size had an IQ 10 points higher than those in the bottom quintile.

            Only problem is that it appears to be incredibly persistent f_ke news that has been doing the rounds on the internet for about 15 years.

            I would guess that the link between intelligence/ height/ good stuff doesn’t have much to do with sexual selection since intelligent people have sex later, have fewer sexual partners, and have fewer offspring than dum-dums.

            We aren’t very good at assessing how much more intelligent someone else is than us, so there have to be diminishing returns for intelligence as an attractor (assuming that intelligence is attractive in the first place, which there isn’t much evidence for).

            So, if intelligence itself isn’t attractive, wouldn’t that mean that intelligent people would have to have partners who were more physically attractive (taller, stable etc.) than themselves?

          • Tibor says:

            I would say there is a lot of evidence that intelligence is attractive. But there seem to be two modes of attraction. One is a more “casual” attraction and another is a “serious” attraction. If you’re looking for a partner to have children with, you’re in the more serious mode and you pay a lot more attention to traits like intelligence. Intelligence is a great indicator of good genes and development and in fact the original purpose of the huge human brain might be exactly to serve as an indicator of good genes.

            Of course it does not work in a cartoony way where you tell someone your IQ and he/she is going to suddenly be interested. But there are ways to assess the brain of the other person – talking is the simplest one. If you have an interesting conversation with someone, that’s an indication of a good brain – from your perspective of course. What makes this interesting is that it takes a good brain to note a good brain 🙂 And then there are loads of other things like art, poetry, music,…those work better than more “practical” uses of intelligence, since generally fitness indicators work better if they are costly and give no benefit to survival (if you have both the creativity and resources to take time off to create a beautiful hand-axe, a cave painting or if you tell amazing stories, those are all indications that your brain is good, and since developing a brain well is hard as it is a very complex and energy-consuming organ, you are probably a good specimen, genetically).

            On a slightly related note, I think it is a mistake to think that men are less interested in the personality or intelligence than women are and more into looks. This holds only as far as we are not talking about committed relationships. But when men are looking for that, they care as much as women about the “inside”. For a one-off (slim, since conception is actually much less likely than a lot of people think) chance for offspring (obviously not a desirable outcome today), the man’s standards will generally be much lower (because it does not cost the man who is not going commit to that relationship or raise the child almost anything anyway) and then the much easier to assess traits such as looks will come forward.

          • Mark says:


            That’s true.
            People who are on the same wavelength as you are more attractive. But I don’t think having to be “intelligent enough” would explain the link between beauty and IQ.

            I’m really handsome. And there are three identical women, one is stupid, one is average, and the other is brainy.
            If I’m stupid, and they are all “intelligent enough”, what is the mechanism by which my handsomeness can become associated with intelligence?

            It only works if (1) I’m *more* attracted to brainy. (2) I’m already intelligent (handsomeness is already linked to intelligence) (3) The intelligent woman is able to get me by outwitting her rivals.

            I’d say (3) seems on the face of it the most likely – but that means that intelligence isn’t really sexually selected, it’s just instrumental in achieving sexual aims (?).

          • Tibor says:

            @Mark: Why would the intelligent woman pick you over a guy who is just as handsome as you but smarter or alternatively not as good looking but much smarter? I don’t think this is what happens in real life. Of course, good looks are, well, good, but if you’re an idiot and the woman is smart your chances with her are not very good. If she were a guy and you were a stupid beautiful woman your chances for a one-night stand might be better but with a long-term relationship you’d still be out of luck.

            And since conception (in humans) typically takes a couple of months of actual effort, which essentially means a relationship, you are not likely to reproduce without some commitment, which meas also getting someone to agree to that commitment in the first place.

            A good brain is not only good as an indicator of good genes but also as a detector of good genes. If you’re stupid yourself, you can’t tell which of the three beautiful women (probably) has the best genes overall. It is especially interesting, since I can’t think of any other indicator which also doubles as a detector.

    • Brad says:

      Any thoughts on all those studies showing IQ is genetically correlated with height, with longevity, with low impulsivity, and with every other good trait?

      Mutational load seems like a good explanation, except that I think a lot of these correlations are done on SNPs, which I thought were different than what mutational load would affect.

      I don’t understand the second sentence. I would think that a correlation study between height and IQ would be done by taking a large random sample of the population, getting a height and IQ measurement for each person and then doing some math. Where do SNPs come into play?

      • gph says:

        I don’t know what studies he is referencing, but I thought about it more like they’ve found SNPs that are separately correlated with IQ, height, etc. and then looking at these SNPs revealed that they are also correlated with each other within an individuals genotype.

        • Brad says:

          Let me see if I understand this:

          Study 1 shows that the presence of SNP A is correlated with increased IQ.
          Study 2 shows that the presence of SNP B is correlated with increased height.
          Study 3 shows that the presence of SNP A is correlated with the presence of SNP B.

          These three studies are then being summed up as IQ is genetically correlated with height?

    • Yosarian2 says:

      Couldn’t things like diet during childhood, air pollution or heavy metal exposure during childhood, diet of the mother during pregnancy, ect, affect all of those? Are we sure those are genetic correlations?

    • Vermillion says:

      This paper looked at exome sequencing not SNPs. They’ve got a reference population of about 60,000 that are roughly ‘normal’ at least compared to their test subjects.They found an association between more de novo protein truncating mutations and intellectual disability, as well as more severe autism. One important factor is that these mutations were found in genes that were not mutated in the general population.

      So mutational load is a factor, at least for very severe developmental disorders. So evolution is working as expected in the sense that these mutations are unlikely to get passed on. My guess is anything less severe…maybe there’s just not that strong a selective pressure on it.

  3. vollinian says:

    So my niece and nephew have to read 1984, Brave New World, Divergent (which ties to the theme of dystopia I suppose) and The Crucible in highschool, which isn’t uncommon.

    Other than the aforementioned books, what other books should be included in the high school curriculum? Fiction or non-fiction alike.

    • Deiseach says:

      At least Huxley and Orwell could write, so they’ll be exposed to a decent prose style at the very minimum. I’ve never seen or read Miller’s “The Crucible” and thus have no opinion on its merits as literature (though I can guess why it’s pushed as – connection to the scientific consensus post! – ‘be a brave lone outsider against the hysterical group think’ and ‘evil patriarchy and oppression of women’) and Divergent I have to Google, lemme check: yes, well, seems like standard fare and nothing that I’d particularly choose to read myself, but then again I’m not a teenager (sorry, “young adult”, though since 12-14 year olds seem to be the main audience for these I don’t see the labeling as fulfilling a marketing function anymore). I imagine it’s on there as the token ‘modern relevant for The Youth’ segment of the curriculum.

      I’m very wary of putting anything onto a curriculum since I think this can make reading a chore (and if you’re dissecting a novel, poem or play for The Themes to churn out the standard essay to get maximum marks in the set exam, it’s worse than useless for developing appreciation of literature) and maybe I’m wrong but I get the feeling a proportion, at least, of students don’t even bother reading the set text but rely on the Sparknotes etc. to get a condensed idea of ‘what is the book/play about’ and extract the “The theme of this scene in the play is such-and-such, regurgitate set answer for maximum marks’ parts from them.

      I’d tend to stick with the Dead White Male (and sometimes Female) standards, actually, since it’s very unlikely most students will voluntarily read Shakespeare or Austen, and giving them exposure to something older than “OMG, this is from 2010, it’s ancient!” can’t do any harm to jolt them out of their “all good people in the past thought, felt, spoke and behaved exactly like 20th/21st century Americans while the bad people had Victorian Values” mindset picked up from pop culture (I’ve whinged about the Susan Sarandon “Little Women” where they preferred to do a 20th century feminist reading of why Marmee advises Meg to have self-respect – the answer is ‘it increases your value on the marriage market if people don’t see you behaving like a ho’ – than try to understand why 19th century people might have thought behaving like a ho was not great for a young woman).

      Probably a faint hope, the same faint hope I have in making the kids do history so they won’t fall for the rubbish memes they see on the Internet (this is part of why I disagree with Bryan Caplan about “my kids don’t like music or art so since I homeschool them I can avoid forcing them to be exposed to this crap”*) 🙂

      *Sounds strong, but how else do I react to lumping in Art and Music as “indignities”?

      My kids hate music, dance, art, and group projects. I can spare them these indignities.

      Maybe he means “group projects” but again, the reasoning there is to teach them how to work with others as part of a team. Yes, maybe you do want to shove the glue-pot down Jimmy’s throat because he’s being a jerk, but we don’t do that (and when you are an adult and have to work with adult Jimmy-types, this lesson will stand to you).

    • rlms says:

      I think English lessons have multiple purposes that sometimes oppose each other. One is to develop general reading skills, starting from ability to read and hopefully moving onto ability to analyse. This can be done with almost any text (but some will be more interesting than others). Another is to encourage a passion for reading, ideally of “proper literature” but really anything is good. This requires books that are fun to read (for most people). But English lessons are also supposed to get you to read stuff you wouldn’t otherwise, and teach you to appreciate, or at least understand, hard literature.

      I think there are a few things that can be done to avoid satisfying one purpose at the expense of the others. Firstly, tailor the curriculum to specific students: whether or not a book is “fun” or “hard” (or both or neither) is down to the reader. Secondly, don’t make “hard” stuff unnecessarily “unfun”: if something is a play, go and watch it, and try to choose your classic works from the pool that people actually read for fun today. Thirdly, make expectations clear. Teaching The Hunger Games and King Lear in the same class runs the risk of suggesting the latter should be as easy to read as the former (or that the former has the literary merit of the latter!)

    • anaisnein says:

      1984 is fine and I’d strongly advocate for adding “Politics and the English Language.”

      I think there should be a unit on poetry with the focus on accessible, short lyric forms, like sonnets. Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Frost, e e cummings, Baraka or Brooks, for instance, should all work well for high schoolers. Add some of the most accessible contemporaries, e.g., Carol Ann Duffy, Rita Dove, Richard Siken. Explain the major poetic forms and have the kids practice writing e.g. sonnets, maybe also villanelles which are a lot of fun. If a full semester or even a year is allocated for this I’d add probably no more than a quick superficial show-and-tell unit on Old and Middle English, and also throw in some shorter world poetry in translation — ideally have the kids compare two different translations: let’s say Sappho’s Fragment 31 (Carson, Barnard), Rumi (the execrable and ubiquitous Barks vs e.g. Arberry), Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo (I have at least five versions of considerable interest and will be putting off choosing which to teach till such time as you offer me a salary for this).

      Exposure to poetry encourages the focused, close consideration of language and metaphor at the granular level: word choice, rhythm and form, rhetoric. Close reading, essentially. It’s a very fruitful pedagogic approach and arguably should be a prerequisite before introducing historicist or cultural-critical methods, which they’ll certainly encounter if they do any Eng lit in college. Poetry is also outstanding for building the ability to deal with ambiguity: to hold multiple meanings in one’s mind at a time, consider them simultaneously, see how they interact, without leaping to make a clean and satisfying decision that interpretation X is True and interpretation Y is False. This is very valuable for mature critical thinking.

    • Brad says:

      I think more important than any one particular book being on or not being on the list is that there are a fair number of books (as opposed to articles or blog posts or textbook chapters). Sitzfleisch is important.

    • Kevin C. says:

      I just recently had a conversation with someone about “books we had to read for school”, and which ones we ended up enjoying despite having to read them. And there was one in my experience which stood out in particular. It’s only very early 20th century, but it does break the “dead white male” pattern in at least the “male” part, being written by a woman, namely the Hungarian-born báró orci Orczy Emma (To use Hungarian name ordering and titles).

      I refer, of course, to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Because Sir Percy Blakeney, with his heroics, secret identity, and “dim-witted, foppish playboy” act, is the prototype for the likes of Zorro and Batman. Not to mention, it’s a rather different view of the French Revolution than one usually gets. It was a whole lot of fun to read (in junior high for me, but then, we had to read The Crucible in 7th grade, Brave New World in 8th grade, and I was actually in 5th grade when I first read 1984, not as a school requirement).

    • Vorkon says:

      Do you mean “what books should be read in high school” just on a general level, or are you looking for other books that describe and/or warn about a dystopia, specifically?

      If it’s the latter, I can’t believe Fahrenheit 451 was left off their list. It’s probably the most plausible and likely of the well-known dystopias. It might not seem timely, considering the decline in print media, but the general concept it describes is possibly more salient today than it’s ever been. 1984 and Brave New World describe vast, top-down conspiracies which are definitely worth being on the lookout for, but which would be almost impossible to pull off successfully, at least to the extent they exist in the books, and will eventually collapse under their own weight simply due to coordination problems. The scenario described in Fahrenheit 451 just requires laziness, and for people to act like people. It’s basically what you get if the “‘free speech’ goes the way of ‘family values'” that Scott describes in Sacred Values as Exhaustible Resources comes to pass. If you want to teach students about potential dystopias they want to avoid, that would be the first one I’d go for.

      It’s definitely more relevant than Divergent, at any rate.

    • Leit says:

      Okay, reading this I was absolutely certain that it was some sort of parody…

      …and then I clicked through to her profile on Independence Institute. Which is libertarian, and old-school liberal in the sense of “people should have all the rights” rather than neoliberal.

      Either way, not all fossil fuels are created equal. At least the chap who pushed diesel in the UK had the balls to own up that he pushed it for flawed reasons and straight-up admitted that he was wrong.

    • Chalid says:

      Apparently I missed the discussion where it was decided what “neoliberalism (sense 2)” was going to mean on SSC?

      • rlms says:

        The discussion happened only in my head, so that’s not surprising. Neoliberalism is one of the political ideology names with many different meanings, so I thought I’d indicate that. I count at least three senses: 1 is Reagan-Thatcher style marketism; 2 is where people use the language of identity politics to make themselves appealing to US-sense-liberals despite doing illiberal (or aliberal) things like intervening in Libya, or being an investment bank or PepsiCo; 3 is the general moderately free-market-favouring, moderately socially liberal political consensus of the leaders of the UK, Canada, Germany, and the US pre-Trump. 1 and 3 are generally used pejoratively, but could be reclaimed by their proponents. Sometimes I wonder about describing myself as a neoliberal(3).

        • Art Vandelay says:

          Neoliberalism is not a perfectly precise term but it looks pretty damn coherent when compared, for example, to all the different ideas and systems that get labelled socialism. Neoliberalism does get bandied around by people who haven’t thought through what exactly they mean by it, but there’s a version of it which is a unitary concept that covers all of 3 senses you divide it into.

          Broadly, it refers to the current political and economic order and traces the roots of this to the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, seeing them as a crucial turning point towards a consensus in favour of free markets as an organising principle. The defining feature is the extension the logic of the market into areas previously untouched by it, and a particularly notable aspect of this is the tendency to propose capitalism as the solution to traditionally left-wing problems e.g. the market for carbon-credits, selling nature to save it.

          New Labour in the UK are a good example of the political consensus. Although they increased state welfare spending they were firm believers in privatisation. The market as organising principle is accepted, the debate is over how much to supplement it with government spending.

          Some on the left take the free-market rhetoric of neoliberalism at face value, but the sharper ones point out that its actually an incredibly bureaucratised form of capitalism. If you want to create a free market in carbon credits you need to do lots of work measuring, monitoring, estimating, you need a system for issuing and trading the credits and all of this needs to be centrally co-ordinated by a load of administrators.

        • Machina ex Deus says:

          The first thing to do when you encounter a vague label X used negatively is to ask:

          Does any group call themselves X?

          Usually you’re better off just accepting that the term has been hopelessly burned, and find another one that expresses what you’re actually trying to say. Like I did with “liberal”….

      • Tekhno says:

        I get bothered when “neoliberal” is used to mean “progressive”, because it gets confused with the original meaning by the left to describe Pinochet/Reagan/Thatcher, but there is some overlap in that a character like Hillary Clinton could be described as neoliberal in both senses.

        So, it’s helpful to know what sense someone is using it in.

        • Tibor says:

          I concluded some time ago that neoliberal is simply a word that everyone uses against their opponents. In Germany, it is rarely used in a positive way because the word actually has origins in post-war western Germany which practiced sort of a classical liberal policy with a little bit more welfare state.

          But mostly I see it either used by conservatives to describe the center-ish parties in Europe and somehow George Soros also often comes up as a “neoliberal villain” in these circles, or by socialists who use it to describe anything and anyone who they don’t like and who is not a socialist. Often it is used as an alternative word for neocons for some strange reason, probably because both words start with neo-.

          When I see people use that word, (unless they carefully specify what they mean) my response is usually to significantly lower my expectations of the quality of their article/comment/speech.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’d adore if this was a leg-pull and if she’s being honest I commend her brass neck but it’s not going to happen because Earth Day is for the virtue signalling (and that’s the reason I’m glad I never see it as a big deal over on this side of the Atlantic; I’m sure a few green types make a token effort but nobody knows or cares about it in general).

  4. cactus head says:

    A few open threads ago, someone linked a 4 hour long youtube video about questioning the holocaust, and received the suggestion to transcribe the thing. How is the transcription coming along? I am interested to see it and the ensuing discussion. Has it already been posted somewhere?

    • Deiseach says:

      Haven’t seen hide nor hair of the person linking to the video nor a transcription and honestly don’t expect to see that happening. I think the OP was genuine in their sense of “I never heard questioning the Holocaust put using these kinds of details before, what do people think?” but given that the parts of the video I dipped my toe in (I am not going to watch four hours of it) were pure fruitcake, they picked a very unfortunate example for contrarian examination,

    • NIP says:

      Hi there, that was me!

      I have finished with the transcription, but seeing as I got the suggestion from someone to put it up on a private web page (since it might get me kicked off of wordpress or similar platforms) progress in getting it up on the internet has been going slow. Unlike most people here, I am not computer savvy at all and had never made a web page before. I had to ask advice (which was freely and courteously given, I might add: thanks Said!) from somebody, and even then it has been slow going.

      So, since I always flake out when I make promises, I’ll just say that I’ll put it up when it’s finished! Unless somebody just wants to see the raw transcript; but I don’t know why anyone would want that. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss the finer points of Holocaust denialism, I suppose I should direct you to /pol/ :^)

      • Evan Þ says:

        Thanks for the update. Unfortunately, your caution might be right.

        I guess Pastebin counts as nothing more than “raw transcript”?

      • Deiseach says:

        Hello, you! Glad to see you are making me eat my words re: the likelihood of a transcription. I wish you well with it, because four hours of listening to that voice would melt my brain 🙂

      • NIP says:

        @Evan Þ

        I guess Pastebin counts as nothing more than “raw transcript”?

        Yeah. I have a pastebin to use, but it’s kind of a ghetto way to share information, especially something so controversial and which people are already predisposed to dismiss out of hand. So I’m following Said Achmiz’ advice and having a go at making a personal web page for it. Even if it’s not very fancy, it proves via effort that I take the subject seriously and I’m not trolling, and at least then I can also put up the 250+ screenshots I took to document evidence from the video. So yeah, we’ll all have to wait for me to complete the preparations for this shitstorm.


        Glad to see you are making me eat my words re: the likelihood of a transcription.

        I have to say, it was quite distressing to be dogpiled like I was when I first dropped that youtube link; I don’t know if I was consequently a little paranoid or what, but when Said and others first made the suggestion to transcribe four hours of content and put it up on a personal web page which I didn’t have the skill to make at the time, I had the sneaking suspicion that their suggestion was in the vein of “that’ll shut him up.” But my neck of the internet woods doesn’t raise pansies who shy away from creating elaborately sourced arguments when challenged, so I basically had to go through with it.

        four hours of listening to that voice would melt my brain

        Try transcribing all of it, sister 😀

        • Said Achmiz says:

          I’m glad to hear my advice was useful.

          When you’ve made the page, feel free (if so inclined) to send me a link before publishing here; I am, among other things, a UX designer, and will be glad to check it for glaring or egregious usability problems.

          (If anyone’s wondering why I’d lend my assistance to this: there are many reasons, but one reason is a strongly held belief that bad or incorrect ideas are best defeated by the light of public examination. I inveigh against the practice, common in much of Europe, of censoring or banning Holocaust denial, though I myself am entirely convinced of that view’s complete falsity; this is me putting my money (or at least, time/effort) where my mouth is.

          SSC is a space where such public examination can be done; I think it’s important to eliminate all obstacles — such as poor accessibility or other usability issues — to this process. Let no one say that we’ve rejected this idea without examining it. Let nothing stop us from examining it. That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.)

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Said +1

          • NIP says:

            When you’ve made the page, feel free (if so inclined) to send me a link before publishing here; I am, among other things, a UX designer, and will be glad to check it for glaring or egregious usability problems.

            Thanks, I’ll be sure to hit you up when I’ve finished!

            this is me putting my money (or at least, time/effort) where my mouth is

            A manly sentiment, and one that I appreciate. It’s for the same reason that I’m making this webpage.

            SSC is a space where such public examination can be done; I think it’s important to eliminate all obstacles — such as poor accessibility or other usability issues — to this process. Let no one say that we’ve rejected this idea without examining it. Let nothing stop us from examining it. That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.

            Couldn’t have said it better myself.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I’ve always hated that phrase, “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”. It’s a broad statement licensing wide-scale destruction, it’s the sort of thing a villain would say. Compare “that which can be destroyed by a fitter organism should be” or “that which can be destroyed by online trolling should be” or “that which can be destroyed by the might of my undead legions should be”.

          • Said Achmiz says:


            There are lots of things a villain would say that are nonetheless true.

            But you’re not wrong; the sentiment does license wide-scale destruction. We could debate whether such destruction would, in fact, be justified, but that’s actually not necessary.

            The point of the quoted principle is for us to ask ourselves, when something we might hesitate to destroy comes in conflict with the truth — what is more important to us? This something? Or the truth?

            I don’t know about you, but the truth is pretty important to me. Discovering that a thing would be destroyed by the truth, generally makes me value that thing less. And even if not, I still tend to value the truth more. Can I imagine situations wherein that maxim may be violated? I can. But the maxim stands, nonetheless. I prefer to have the maxim, that I might be conscious of its violation, rather than not having it at all.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”

            fundamentally I understand this as a notion of equilibrium

            as in: if something is untrue then it WILL be destroyed. If not by me, then by someone else. By staying my hand, I’m just delaying the inevitable. I’m willing to do that in limited cases, but usually it’s just a stupid idea. So that’s how I would evaluate any of your other aphorisms.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I’ve always hated that phrase, “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”. It’s a broad statement licensing wide-scale destruction, it’s the sort of thing a villain would say. Compare “that which can be destroyed by a fitter organism should be” or “that which can be destroyed by online trolling should be” or “that which can be destroyed by the might of my undead legions should be”.

            Truth is inherently good in a way that fitter organisms, online trolling, or undead legions aren’t.

          • hlynkacg says:

            Truth is inherently good in a way that fitter organisms, online trolling, or undead legions aren’t.

            This strikes me as a case of begging the question.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            This strikes me as a case of begging the question.

            It is the philosophical assumption of people who say things like “Whatever can be destroyed by truth, should be.” On the contrary, nobody has the philosophical assumption that internet trolls or undead armies are inherently good.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Speak for yourself, buddy.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            yeah, i actually think in many senses online trolls are a good thing

            but whatever, let’s leave that aside. The point is that the truth will out. But undead armies aren’t exactly numerous – if you don’t attack with your undead legions, there probably won’t be another undead attack for the foreseeable future. And trolls gonna troll, but this can be prevented, so it calls for a half / half approach : what can be trolled easily, should be trolled, so the trolled get a thicker skin, but you should also try to make trolling harder and more annoying while giving users power to report or block trolls, so they don’t have to deal with them too long. Of course, this refers to abusive trolls – the sly trolls that simply pretend to misunderstand and so forth will definitely succeed, so I want them to do it such that everyone gains an understanding of how trolling works and learns how to avoid getting trolled.

  5. notsobad_ says:

    In the comments of Learning to Love Scientific Consensus there was some discussion on Pinker and his ability to make wild claims and not be ridiculed/challenged for them when others may be for sharing a similar view. This criticism struck me because I realized that whenever Pinker weighs in on an argument I usually think to myself “okay this is settled now no need to listen to anyone else”. Which is ridiculous, but I actually do react that way and I’m amazed I’ve never noticed. Maybe he’s just persuasive, but I feel I’m definitely too much of a fanboy. So…

    Has anyone fallen into the same trap? Are there any serious critiques on Pinker? Have there been times when he’s just blatantly wrong? Do you too forget to check your biases???

    • seladore says:

      I’ve never read any critiques of Pinker which struck me as particularly devastating.

      There were a a few negative reviews for “The better angels of our nature”, but they generally boiled down to either (a) critiquing the details of one or two individual studies he cites (when the book as a whole discusses trends revealed by many thousands of individual studies), or (b) critiquing the use of population-normalised statistics (which are widely used throughout the social sciences, and are the standard way of comparing different populations).

      • oiscarey says:

        I’ve often found myself in the same position and tried to find critiques of Pinker to convince myself of his flawed views, but I generally fail to find good criticisms. So I lapse back into my comfy state of bias towards him.

        Another type of criticism not mentioned by seladore is the Nassim Taleb argument that Pinker’s statistics are flawed inherently on the topic of war. Pinker use the stats to say that there has been a trend downwards and hypothesizes about why this may have been. He is careful to note that the stats do not prove that war is less likely to happen as a result of this trend. Taleb seems to claim that the fact that one cannot extrapolate from the stats means that claiming there is a trend is statistically meaningless. It seems he feels it is intentionally misleading so that Pinker can push a Whiggish view of history.

        I’m torn on this argument. To me, it seems acceptable to come up with potential explanations for people engaging in less violence at one point in time than they did at another point. However, I think Taleb’s view is that the stats indicate that the changes in violence rates cannot be differentiated from random changes, and so coming up with post-hoc rationalisations for randomness is wrong and can even be harmful (as he was correct about with the stock markets).

        That’s probably the best argument I’ve seen against Pinker, but Taleb is not very eloquent and indeed is very rude and aggressive. I would prefer to think that there must be some explanation for changes in the world. That may be statistically naive of me.

    • Anatoly says:

      Pinker is blatantly wrong: (the amount of wrongness grows if you explore some of the links to other entries on the same issue, or read the comment by SCF).

      The wrong claim here is that when an irregular verb turns into a noun and then back into a verb, as in the baseball phrase “to fly out”, the new verb will always, universally, be regular – thus “flied out” and never “flew out” in baseball. This appears plausible to many people, and is possibly connected to some strong intuitions we form about our own language usage, but in this case those intuitions are flat wrong: in the actual usage “flew out” is a significant minority. Morphology turns out to be much more flexible than Pinker claims it must be, based on the generative Chomskian framework he subscribes to.

      My tendency is to always be suspicious of Pinker’s claims; I think he tends to overreach, he’s too glib, and he severely mischaracterises the opposition by selecting its weakest specimen or building on outright strawmen.

      For example, this old article about “language mavens” that takes a strongly descriptivist position rubs me the wrong way, even though I myself am annoyed with many arbitrary prescriptivist bugaboos in English usage. As Pinker ridicules old myths on which language mavens supposedly build their proscriptions, he himself falls into at least one such completely false and ridiculous old myth: the claim that the prohibition against splitting infinitives was created in the 18th-century England by analogy with Latin. Never happened, seems very weird if you actually stop to think about it, and obviously wrong to people who actually read the 18th-century grammarians he ridicules. I did a short write-up on this some time ago.

      My disagreement isn’t ideological, or at least not wholly so; for example I agree strongly with the thesis of The Better Angels. I just don’t trust Pinker on the details. And I particularly don’t trust him to recount any controversial issue impartially.

      • notsobad_ says:

        This is interesting. I don’t know much at all about language so I could never say whether he’s right or wrong in these matters. A friend has suggested Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Sense of Style as good reads. Would you disagree?

        Edit: Your comment on splitting infinitives is interesting. Today I learned something.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Some bits of The Blank Slate are a bit cringe-y. When he’s talking about feminism and when he’s talking about art, he kind of comes off like he thinks he knows what he’s talking about, but doesn’t.

  6. Mark says:

    Superintelligence concerns – shouldn’t (less intelligent people) be as concerned about intelligent people, in a liberal/meritocratic society? Why not be as concerned about the people creating AI?

    Anyway, this is the place where I’m at politically – I feel like popular ethics (or at least fashionable popular ethics) comes from a sort of vaguely liberal, individualist place. You’re my friend because you are of value to me, or GTFO. No fundamental responsibility for anyone else.

    So, let’s say that there are super-brains out there, human super-brains, who are able to influence and control the institutions that govern society. If they don’t feel there is some social responsibility towards others, and they don’t feel they need us, we’re potentially in the shit.

    How to control human superbrains? Well, we could assume that different superbrains will be at cross purposes and counteract each other’s ability to act. To me, that rapidly turns into an argument for nationalism – each family needs a superbrain (or superbrain network) to look after their interest.

    I don’t think superbrain networks representing interest groups (as opposed to nations) are going to be as effective – working class intellectuals are first-and-foremost intellectuals – if we’re all defined by circumstance and relation to capital, effective working class intellectuals can be bought. As their circumstance changes, their loyalty shifts.

    So, basically we need to have either nationalism, or if we’re going to have a more universalist society, some sort of strict ethical system to determine who should have power (though wouldn’t that just be manipulated by the intelligent to their own purposes?)

    And now these intelligent humans are going to design AI Gods which reflect their values. Gulp.
    I just hope some of them are on my side.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      shouldn’t (less intelligent people) be as concerned about intelligent people, in a liberal/meritocratic society?

      That sort of sentiment is part (not all, but part) of what drives populist movements like brexit and the surge of support for Trump in the 2016 election, so I’d say it’s already present. The narrative of “A bunch of distant ‘intellectual’ elites almost sociopathically disinterested in their fellow countrymen and -women in favor of promoting the interests of their families and cosmopolitan class” is alive and well around here.

      It’s just not aimed at the super smart silicon valley types because the average person in places like rural Missouri where I live has no clue who they are.

      • Mark says:

        Yes, that’s right.

        So I guess Brexit, and the election of Trump, are attempts at keeping the NI in the box. I wonder if, ultimately, we’ll be able to apply the same solution to both problems.

        Here’s what I’d do, if I could design society. I’d say that anyone who wanted real power would have to commit some reprehensible act before ascension – sacrifice children as an initiation to the illuminati – but those who went through with it would be stuck in some sandboxed power game that didn’t really have much effect. Or killed.

        Only those who refused would get the real power. Requires you to be able to control information, though.

        I guess if I’m stupider than you, there is no way I’ll be able to think of an idea to outwit you, so I just have to rely on having better information. But if I can do that, I guess there is nothing to worry about.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          A large part of the brilliance of the American system is the founders recognized bad people would always seek power, so put them at cross purposes. Now the sociopaths in the legislature fight the sociopaths in the executive fight the sociopaths in the judiciary and maybe the little guy can keep his head down. Of course then we have the problem of the sociopaths in industry buying all the politicians, but, well, nothing’s perfect.

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      A brilliant human sociopath is so much safer than a paperclip optimizer. I’d prefer Alternate Universe Smart Hitler any day. AI also sidesteps some of our political defenses a la Weapons of Math Destruction.

  7. Tibor says:

    There seems to be a new drug which can treat neurological diseases, I know close to nothing about the subject so I wonder if anybody here (Scott?) can tell whether this is really such a big story or if it is just media hype. Another thing I don’t understand is that one of the drugs mentioned is already in use as a treatment of depression, but supposedly it still has to be tested before it can be sold as a drug against Parkinson’s etc. Why is that the case? The drug obviously has to be safe enough already. Also, I wonder whether a doctor who has a patient with a neurodegenerative disease could not simply make a fake diagnosis of depression and prescribe this drug to treat his patient (I am assuming that there are currently no drugs in use to treat that so even if this doesn’t work as well as it seems, it won’t be worse than doing nothing).

    Another question (US specific, I guess) – Scott wrote a couple of articles here about the patents and how it is possible to patent something that is not protected any more if you basically just rebrand it and show that it can treat something new. Would this drug then be subject to that, potentially raising its costs (in the US)?

    • rahien.din says:

      There seems to be a new drug which can treat neurological diseases, I know close to nothing about the subject so I wonder if anybody here (Scott?) can tell whether this is really such a big story or if it is just media hype. One of the drugs mentioned is already in use as a treatment of depression, but supposedly it still has to be tested before it can be sold as a drug against Parkinson’s etc. Why is that the case? The drug obviously has to be safe enough already.

      It’s an exciting result, and an interesting example of rational therapy design, but it’s still preclinical. Most instances of interesting preclinical findings will fail in clinical trials. We can’t prescribe our patients a medicine if we don’t have some reason to believe they will benefit.

      We need to test the drug for the specific indication of dementia because we need to know if it works in humans for dementia. It’s literally as simple as that.

      Especially because this is a rather extraordinary claim. The article claims that all the bad things about dementia (memory deficit, neurological symptoms, early death, brain degeneration) are due to overactivity in a single pathway, regardless of whether the dementia is a prionopathy or a tauopathy. And they claim that mice taking a common drug had reversal of their prionopathy or tauopathy without side effects. We require extraordinary evidence.

      Notably, trazodone has undergone randomized clinical trials for the agitation and aggression that occur in Alzheimer dementia, and it had no benefit on neuropsychiatric symptoms (PMID 11087767). That does not establish that it does not reverse dementia. But, it should make us even more skeptical of the idea that trazodone can cure dementia in humans.

      Also, I wonder whether a doctor who has a patient with a neurodegenerative disease could not simply make a fake diagnosis of depression and prescribe this drug to treat his patient.

      Well… that would be fraud.

      Edited for a little more precision.

      • John Colanduoni says:

        Do they need to fake a diagnosis in the US? I was under the impression that doctors in the US are given a pretty free hand when it comes to off-label prescription.

        • rahien.din says:

          I was under the impression that doctors in the US are given a pretty free hand when it comes to off-label prescription.

          Sometimes. There’s just no predicting the payor’s response. It really depends on A. how plausible is your intended use, and B. if the payor has some protocol in place to limit use. Here are two examples.

          I like to use a particular drug, clobazam, for the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy. Almost everywhere in the world, it can be given for epilepsy of almost any kind, and in many places is a first-line treatment. But in the US, its only indication is for the treatment of one particular type of severe epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. There is no clinical reason why that must be so. It just happens to be more expensive here. So, the payors all have protocols which make it terribly hard to prescribe clobazam, even for people who have Lennox-Gastaut. Prescribing clobazam off-label, even for severe drug-resistant epilepsy, is an incredible pain in the ass. Sometimes I am simply unsuccessful.

          I don’t treat autism, and there are no drugs that get rid of autism. That said, I had a weird experience. One of my autistic epilepsy patients is non-verbal at baseline, but after a sedation with ketamine, she was temporarily speaking in complete sentences. This makes little sense, but, I was willing to partner with mom and try an oral drug which works similarly to ketamine off-label to see if it could help her, on the strength of some meager evidence in the literature and this single anecdotal spell of lucidity. I got basically no pushback from her payor.

  8. onyomi says:

    What are the ethics of disobedience? What sorts of ethics of disobedience can a peaceful, orderly society accommodate, even need?

    Somewhat to my surprise, different versions of this question seem to be coming up a lot lately. Most recently, was it ethical for David Dao to refuse to leave his seat on an airplane when the Chicago police ordered him to do so? I’m concerned here more with the ethics than the legality, through presumably some of the fine print Dao knowingly or unknowingly signed up for when he bought his ticket have a bearing on that. Also, arguably problematic is the idea of “paying for dignity” (that is, there are probably certain standards of ethical treatment of anyone, and especially any customer which, as a matter of business ethics, no business should contravene, even if they are contractually allowed to).

    But also more serious cases like that of Keith Scott. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the police were right that he was holding a gun which they ordered him to drop, but he refused to do so. Let’s also set aside for the moment that Scott may have had some kind of brain damage making it difficult for him to understand or process the officer’s orders. Let’s instead consider it as a more general, uncomplicated case: if you are holding a gun (presumably not aimed at anyone in particular) and police or other authorities order you to drop it, and you don’t, are they justified in shooting you?

    Because of my anti-statist views (I view agents of the state as possessing no special moral authority), my view is that you only have an ethical obligation to follow orders from an agent of the state if they would be legitimate orders coming from someone other than an agent of the state. This tends to imply to me that physically removing Dao, if not the use of excessive force to do so, was justified, assuming he agreed that United had the authority to order him off their plane for such reasons when he bought a ticket on their private plane.

    But it also tends to imply to me that the police aren’t justified in shooting you just for holding a gun and refusing to drop it when they order you to, unless, of course, you are threatening to shoot them or someone else, in which situation anyone, not just a police officer, would probably be justified in shooting you, at least within the bounds of proportionality (should try not to shoot to kill if possible).

    In most online comments I see one of two reactions to both sorts of cases: generally Blue Tribe (ironically the more pro-state tribe in general, but anti-police in the particular) sees such cases as outrages and always sides with the protestor (that is, whoever is accused of ignoring police orders in a given newstory). Generally Red Tribe always says “when the police shout an order at you, you listen!” And that is certainly good practical advice. But is it ethically justifiable? Is acceptance of such a norm necessary for an orderly society? Is too much acceptance of such a norm a prerequisite for e.g. atrocities like the Holocaust?

    • Tibor says:

      Well, I agree with you but I think that really following this ethics to the conclusions is incompatible with a state structure, hence anybody who is not an anarchist or at least an “anarchist as long as it turns out not to have serious problems in practice, let’s try it somewhere and see” such as myself, will settle for something in between.

      I’d say this is more of an issue for the “blue tribe”. If they (IMO correctly) believe that the policeman ethnically has no special authority, how do they support the state, especially as they support a lot of other state involvement where they grant it a lot of authority they don’t grant other actors. But probably all non-anarchists will have to argue with something like “social cohesion trumps individual rights” or to use the fascist Star Trek quote “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” where the level of social cohesion required differs by political views. Essentially it becomes an utilitarian argument – it is ethically justifiable because it will lead to fewer dead, harmed and robbed people and that outweighs the costs. Of course a part of the argument is an empirical claim, which makes sense – I think most people would become anarchists if it turned out that (some form of) anarchy works better than the state.

      Maybe there are people who actually believe that the state officials have an intrinsic ethical authority (Confucius?) without the need of any external justification but I think that is a rare worldview nowadays.

      • Eltargrim says:

        the policeman ethnically has no special authority

        I realize that we’re back in the CW thread, but damn that started quick. (I jest)

      • Kevin C. says:

        Maybe there are people who actually believe that the state officials have an intrinsic ethical authority (Confucius?) without the need of any external justification but I think that is a rare worldview nowadays.

        Perhaps, but it’s one I’d defend. In particular, I’d start with poiting to works like Sidanius & Pratto’s “social dominance theory” as indicators as to how us humans, as social primates, are pretty much inherently socially hierarchical. From there, I’d shift to the Confucian Five Relationships, and how society is best modelled as a hierarchical network built of these asymmetric relations (I really need to finish up my “society is not a van der Waals gas” essay). Note that in the traditional view, all but one of the Five Relationships are considered hierarchical/unequal/asymmetric (and even by “modern” standards, two of the five still seem inherently such), and I’d add in that by considering 先輩/後輩-type seniority factors, even the fifth relation can often be hierarchically directed as well. Basically, in almost all links in the “social network”, one party to the bond has at least some measure of greater authority than (and over) the other. A ship can only have one captain, a car only one driver. Someone always ends up in charge; better to proparly formalize this so as to make the roles and responsibilities clear to all involved. “There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.” (Analects Book XII, Chapter 11, translation by James Legge.)

      • Yosarian2 says:

        >I’d say this is more of an issue for the “blue tribe”. If they (IMO correctly) believe that the policeman ethnically has no special authority, how do they support the state, especially as they support a lot of other state involvement where they grant it a lot of authority they don’t grant other actors.

        In general, I would say that Democrats tend to be more ok with the state as an economic actor (providing health care, helping the poor, ect) but are uncomfortable with the state limiting individual freedom of action beyond that which is strictly necessary, uncomfortable with a strong police force and a huge standing army, ect. Republicans are usually the reverse.

        As for your other question, I would say that in general liberals do think that police have *some* ethical authority, but only because the voters and our elected officials chose to give it to them. It’s limited, specifically defined by constitution and law, and always contingent on good behavior on the part of the police. Basically a social contract theory. If the police break their side of the contract or start acting like they have inherent authority, it’s seen as the duty of the citizen and the courts and the elected officals to reign them in.

    • qwints says:

      I don’t think the police analysis has the red tribe/blue tribe dichotomy you do – there are very strong anti-police tendencies among the red tribe and very strong pro-police tendencies in the blue tribe. I see the split as much more about the person disobeying (Malheur occupation versus college student occupations).

    • Eltargrim says:

      at least within the bounds of proportionality (should try not to shoot to kill if possible)

      I think you’ve hit on an important point here. I think part of the outrage over Dao is that he suffered serious injuries for a fairly minor act of disobedience. In another example, Tamir Rice wasn’t holding an actual gun when he was shot. I’m not familiar with the case of Keith Scott, but if the Wikipedia article is accurate, it seems like the police were the ones to escalate the situation to the point of lethal force, with no particular indication that Scott was an imminent threat.

      With most of the outrage that makes its way to my social media, the complaint seems rooted in a sense of disproportionality, rather than the fact that force was used at all. I think this is compounded by the second part of the statement I quoted. To the best of my knowledge, there is no reasonable nor effective way to “not to shoot to kill.” Discharging a firearm is inherently a lethal action, and there is no real way to mitigate that. The only places I can think of that wouldn’t lead to a substantial risk of death if they were shot are the hands and the feet, and those are targets that are difficult to hit (small and moving) and not particularly effective in ending threats. I think many people unfamiliar with firearms don’t realize this, which breeds statements like “why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg?”

      In short, I think that Blues aren’t necessarily opposed to the use of force, but to either the escalation or the rate of escalation of the magnitude of the force. For a recent court ruling where this was pertinent, see Moore v. City of Memphis

      I also think that most people on either side of the political spectrum haven’t really thought through their views to their conclusions, making general reactions of limited utility.

    • Civilis says:

      One of the reasons the Red Tribe takes the side it does is that many of the arguments made by the Blue Tribe against the police are the same ones made against lawful civilian gun owners. The initial case that sparked the national debate is the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case, which involved a civilian gun owner. It’s not clear that most of these situations would be ethically different if the person doing the shooting was a civilian instead of a police officer. In fact, I think this is one of the more valid Blue Tribe complaints of modern Red Tribe gun culture, that the more lawful gun owners are around, the harder it gets to determine if the person who you’re pointing a gun at is another lawful owner responding to the same perceived threat.

      As a law-abiding individual, if someone’s pointing a gun at me, and I’m not pointing my gun at them, it may not be my ethical responsibility to obey their orders to drop my weapon out of civic duty to obedience, but it’s almost certainly my duty to drop my weapon out of self-preservation, especially if I have reason to believe that they are not acting out of malice.

      (As a side note, this topic has given me new appreciation for Scott’s point in the Charles Murray debate. The Blue Tribe’s picking of unsympathetic individuals in the debate over the police use of force has had the effect of making me more sympathetic of the police, which is an example of what he says with regards to free speech.)

      • onyomi says:

        As a law-abiding individual, if someone’s pointing a gun at me, and I’m not pointing my gun at them, it may not be my ethical responsibility to obey their orders to drop my weapon out of civic duty to obedience, but it’s almost certainly my duty to drop my weapon out of self-preservation, especially if I have reason to believe that they are not acting out of malice.

        Actually, I was thinking that a simpler way to put my question might be this: the police can point their guns at you all day and tell you to drop your gun, but if you tell them to drop their weapons and then shoot them if they don’t comply, saying you felt threatened, I doubt the law will have much sympathy in the unlikely event you survive the encounter.

        So obviously there is a double standard. But is it necessary for an orderly society? I tend to think not. How about no one point guns at anyone if they aren’t in a situation where anyone would be justified in pointing a gun at someone?

        • Civilis says:

          There was a case in DC recently where firefighters were called to the home of someone that had not been seen in a while for a welfare check. They knocked and received no response, so they kicked the door in. The homeowner shot the firefighters, killing one. The homeowner was not charged with any crimes for shooting them (he was charged and convicted for owning an illegal weapon under DC’s strict laws).

          The reason you can’t point your gun at a police officer and tell them to drop their weapons is that if they’re doing it by procedure they’ve identified themselves as police officers and are wearing identification, so you should (in theory) know they’re not a threat. Like the firefighters in the story above, if the police don’t identify themselves and break into your place, and you shoot them, and you’re not committing any crimes you’re covering up by shooting them, you should not be in trouble for shooting them. (Admittedly, one of the libertarian complaints is that police are good at finding crimes to justify their invasion when things go badly, potentially even to the point of faking evidence, but that’s not a case of the law providing a double standard.)

          There’s no easy way to tell the difference between a law abiding civilian with a weapon and a criminal with a weapon. From a rational standpoint, it makes sense that to reduce the risks of friendly fire that when possible we should restrict weapon use to the group with the best means of identifying each other (uniforms and badges) and communicating with each other (police radio). Since the situation may start in a way in which this group isn’t present, there needs to be a handover protocol for when that group arrives which accounts for the risks involved, especially given the potential adversarial nature of the situation.

          (A separate problem is police being trigger happy when confronted with potential adversaries who may have potential lethal force, but that’s not a problem of obedience, as they’re shooting people who they don’t give a chance to drop their weapon, if they even have a weapon. Getting people to be sensible when dealing with police hopefully reduces risks to police and makes them less trigger happy.)

          • gbdub says:

            There was a case in AZ where a bunch of cops did a no-knock raid on the wrong house, which happened to be the home of a recently returned war vet who (understandably) woke up startled and grabbed his AR-15. He was immediately filled with dozens of bullets and died on the scene. I don’t believe any officers were charged.

            So I think you ought to need a bit more than a quick “hey it’s the cops” to get your police immunity from shooting innocent people.

            Another issue, I understand that e.g. someone with a knife can cover a lot of ground before you can shoot them, and someone with ill-intent can probably draw and fire on you before you can react, if you wait till the gun is pointed at you before reacting.

            But I think that might proves too much: Yes, it’s true that anyone within 20 ft of a cop could get a jump on them before they could shoot back. But certainly we don’t think police are justified in shooting any suspected criminal within 20 ft of them? I hear too many cases of “well he reached for his waistband, it might have been a gun…”

            Police have a ton of protection – equipment, their backup, their union rep, the law. They ought to be held to a higher, not lower standard of engagement. “I thought he might be reaching for the gun that someone said he might possess. So I unloaded a mag on him” would never cut it as a self-defense plea.

            Here’s the controversial part – this will probably mean that somewhat more cops will get shot. But the trade of a lot fewer citizens being shot is probably worth it. I mean, the justification for our admiration of cops is that “they put their lives on the line”. But the rules of engagement are “put cops at minimal risk, even if it means we kill a lot of people that turned out to have cell phones, not guns”.

            That doesn’t even fly in a COIN war zone, where often the official rules of engagement are closer to “don’t shoot until he’s already shot at you once, or at least until you’ve already yelled, cajoled, fired a shot across his bow, and he’s about to pull the trigger”.

            Why we would hold our soldiers in Afghanistan to a higher standard than beat cops amongst our own citizens is baffling.

          • rahien.din says:


            Certainly we don’t think police are justified in shooting any suspected criminal within 20 ft of them?

            Motte-and-bailey. You’re conflating “police enter home of suspected armed criminal, find man aiming a rifle at them, and open fire as they presume to be in immediate danger of being killed” with “police officer preemptively shoots suspected criminal within 20-foot radius.”

            Why we would hold our soldiers in Afghanistan to a higher standard than beat cops amongst our own citizens is baffling.

            The standard is the identical : the willingness to shoot, or the quickness with which one shoots, is proportional to the risk inherent in the encounter.

            A platoon of soldiers armed with rifles and wearing ballistic armor is a much harder target for a single assailant packing a handgun, who is being watched from multiple angles by trained warfighters who don’t have to read anyone their rights before detaining them, and who have greater latitude to impose lethal or nonlethal force. Even if the perp is lucky enough to kill one soldier, they are going to die. Because the soldiers incur much lower risk in this type of encounter, they can afford to be more cautious in the lead-up. Therefore, we require them to be more cautious.

            The cops are at higher personal risk in this sort of encounter. If a beat cop is arresting a suspected criminal, and they wait to defend themselves until the criminal aims a weapon, they are much more likely to be overpowered and killed. And the perp is likely to survive and escape. So, the cop has to be more willing to shoot, because it is a riskier encounter.

            This is even more obvious if we replace “police” or “cop” with “soldier” in your examples above. If a soldier was walking through base alone, and they encountered a civilian whom they suspected of committing a crime, and that civilian appeared to be reaching for a gun, the soldier could justifiably open fire. If a team of soldiers was doing a no-knock raid and encountered a man pointing a rifle at them, that man would immediately be filled with dozens of bullets and die on the scene.

            Similarly, If I am a tank operator, and a civilian pulls a handgun on me, I might just laugh and radio the infantry. If I am a soldier in the barracks wearing no armor with only my sidearm at hand, and I encounter an armed civilian combatant, I shoot immediately.

          • Brad says:

            If the cops are at such greater risk, then how come they die violently at such lower rates?

          • rahien.din says:


            That’s a totally invalid comparison. Soldiers in Afghanistan have higher aggregate death rates than cops in America because soldiers get killed in wartime combat. Cops are being killed by civilians with handguns.

            As I said, the willingness to shoot, or the quickness with which one shoots, is proportional to the risk inherent in the encounter.

        • J Mann says:

          That’s a fairly libertarian viewpoint – it basically says that the police should be in the same position as vigilantes. I have two concerns:

          1) First, I think that once police are on the scene and response time isn’t an issue, most people think that the police are preferable to vigilantes. They’re trained and specialized in some of the functions, and are less likely to have a personal stake, and are subject to a program of administrative management and review.

          2) Second, vigilantes can avoid liability by not getting involved (or by calling the police). The police don’t have that choice. If somebody calls 911 and says that a kid is wandering around the park with a gun or is driving at unsafe speeds, the police need to get involved if that’s within their terms of engagement.

          • Civilis says:

            Not necessarily on number 2, at least for the United States; the police don’t have a responsibility to any individual, at least as far as I, a IANAL, can understand Warren v. District of Columbia.

          • Iain says:

            I am also NAL, but I think that is a (slightly) over-broad reading of Warren v District of Columbia. The principle there is that (in the absence of some special relationship) the police do not have any enforceable legal duty to specific citizens, but do owe a duty to the public as a whole. Here’s the key section:

            The public duty concept has drawn some criticism for purportedly creating the rule that: “`Because we owe a duty to everybody, we owe it to nobody.'” Riss v. City of New York, supra at 585, 293 N.Y.S.2d at 901, 240 N.E.2d at 862 (Keating, J., dissenting). A duty owed to the public, however, is no less enforceable because it is owed to “everybody.” Public officials at all levels remain accountable to the public and the public maintains elaborate mechanisms to enforce its rights—both formally in the courts and less formally through internal disciplinary proceedings. In the case of the Metropolitan Police Department, officers are subject to criminal charges and a penalty of two years imprisonment for failure to arrest law breakers. D.C.Code 1973, § 4-143. Additionally, officers are answerable to their superiors and ultimately to the public through its representatives, for dereliction in their assigned duties. D.C.Code 1973, § 4-121.

            The absence of a duty specifically enforceable by individual members of the community is not peculiar to public police services. Our representative form of government is replete with duties owed to everyone in their capacity as citizens but not enforceable by anyone in his capacity as an individual. Through its representatives, the public creates community service; through its representatives, the public establishes the standards which it demands of its employees in carrying out those services and through its representatives, the public can most effectively enforce adherence to those standards of competence. As members of the general public, individuals forego any direct control over the conduct of public employees in the same manner that such individuals avoid any direct responsibility for compensating public employees.

            So if somebody is driving through the park at unsafe speeds with a gun, the police do have a duty to intervene. It’s just that this duty cannot be enforced by individual citizens suing the police. I will point out that J Mann’s post did bring up police being “subject to a program of administrative management and review”, which is precisely the sort of enforcement that Warren v. District of Columbia encourages. (I am skeptical of the practical effectiveness of self-administered police review, but that’s separate from the narrow legal question.)

          • The Nybbler says:

            The police have a duty to the public in general, but no one in particular. Since the public in general can’t be named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit (except through their proxy the state… which is to say, the same organization the police are part of), the part about them having a duty to the public has no effect.

          • Brad says:

            Duty doesn’t begin and end at the contours of tort law. That’s like saying that if the Supreme Court says that a certain provision of the Constitution is non-justiciable then that provision has no effect.

          • Iain says:

            @The Nybbler:
            Did you actually read the section I quoted? It specifically addresses how lawsuits are not the only possible mechanism for accountability, and discusses a number of alternatives.

            I’m sure that people who thought Obama’s DOJ was too harsh on cops will be relieved to learn that it is logically impossible for different branches of the government to disagree.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Did you actually read the section I quoted? It specifically addresses how lawsuits are not the only possible mechanism for accountability, and discusses a number of alternatives.

            Yes, as Marie Antoinette apocryphally pointed out to the mob that there are things one could eat other than bread. When the court tells you to seek redress for an individual harm through political action, that’s a brush-off, nothing more.

          • J Mann says:

            Nybbler, I think your position is a little absolute.

            The police do have constraints that vigilantes don’t. They’re subject to oversight from their superiors and elected government officials, promotion and command decisions are made based on their performance, in extreme cases, elected officials can lose their jobs.

            I don’t think we’re going to convince each other, but IMHO it’s an exaggeration to say that police are subject to no control. For the majority of us sheeple, we prefer the police, who at least have some measure of accountability and a path for improvement, to any alternative.

            (Well, I prefer “better police,” but that’s probably a stepwise process).

          • IrishDude says:

            @J Mann

            For the majority of us sheeple, we prefer the police, who at least have some measure of accountability and a path for improvement, to any alternative.

            Private security guards outnumber public police officers by three to one in the United States. They’re accountable to the customer, and have incentives for improvement given they must compete against other private security firms (there are over 9,000 private security firms in the U.S.).

    • The Nybbler says:

      Peaceful and orderly, or just. Pick no more than one. The way most societies achieve “peaceful and orderly” is by picking one group to be the authority — that’s the Corporation, or the Captain, or the Cop, or whatever. If there’s a dispute, the authority automatically wins. You drop the gun, get off the plane, move away from the rental car counter. And then you get on with your life with one more grudge to nurse.

      In the US we cover this up by pretending that the correct thing is to comply now, sue later… but the fact is, we do not have a system capable of providing after the fact justice for the sorts of relatively minor disputes we’re talking about here. The legal system is far too cumbersome in the first place for relatively small amounts, and furthermore, the side with authority has a great advantage. They have lawyers on staff, they’ve been working with lobbyists to keep you out of the courts, to limit their damages (e.g. not being responsible for incidental and consequential damages), and the standard of proof often ends up being ridiculous for you (e.g. a full video of the incident) while an uncorroborated word from them (“he was resisting”) is taken as gospel.

      So the answer is that yes, it’s ethical to resist an authority trying to screw you. There is no justice; you’ll probably lose bigger if you resist but it’s the only chance you have.

      • Tibor says:

        In the case of the corporation you have the option of switching to their competition as well as convincing other people that they should (United Airlines were probably damaged significantly more by bad publicity than they would hypothetically have to pay in damage payments). You don’t have that option with the police.

        • The Nybbler says:

          They were only damaged by bad publicity because Dao disobeyed and was publicly dragged off the plane. Had Dao complied, there would be essentially zero damage to United.

          • Tibor says:

            Good point. He could have written an angry blog post or an equivalent of that later but that would not have had nearly as much impact.

      • J Mann says:

        I’d say there’s more justice the more injury their is.

        Dao’s complaint is essentially that they should have refused him boarding at the gate instead of letting him take his seat, because the language of his ticket happens to permit the airline to “refuse boarding” but not to ask someone to deplane. He might be right, but his injury is that he wanted to get to Louisville that night and he didn’t.

        An angry twitter will hurt United a little. A small claims suit for the value of his next day’s income would make them either pay him a few thousand or pay that much to a lawyer. That sounds about right.

        On the other hand, let’s say Dao sticks to his seat. The most likely case is that dozens of other passengers miss their connection while he and United argue over whether the contract of carriage permits United to deny flights to passengers with their butts in seats or only to ones who haven’t yet boarded. Then eventually, Dao’s arrested and spend the night in jail.

        As it was, Dao got “lucky” that (1) he hit his head on a chair while fighting the police officers; (2) head wounds are visually striking; and (3) it was taped by a sympathetic passenger who narrated how unfair it all was.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      Onyomi, your reasoning is generally on track but you’re failing to think through the mechanics of use of force. You’re basically reasoning as if there was no practical difference between a non-compliant man standing with a pistol in a holster at his hip, and a man standing with a pistol in his hand in a proper firing grip, pointed at the ground. In reality, there is a huge amount of difference.

      Someone with a firearm in hand can point and fire in a fraction of a second. Someone with a knife in hand can close and deliver a serious or lethal wound faster than the average -trained- person can deploy a firearm from a retention holster (much less a concealed carry holster) within 15-21 feet, sometimes more depending on the specifics of holster and reaction time. Not all violent actions come nicely pre-signalled with verbal and non-verbal signposts like “Hey, Motherfucker! I’m Gonna Kill you for what you said about…”.

      Therefore, once a firearm is out of a holster or off a shoulder sling and is being held properly, that person IS presenting an imminent lethal threat. Pulling a weapon out and having it ready in hand already escalates a situation to lethal force, so proportionality isn’t even an issue.

      And in reality, there is no such thing as “shoot to wound”. The only time I have EVER seen this attempted was a police stand-off with a suspect with a gun who was drunk and suicidal. He had pulled a chair out into his lawn and was sitting in it, holding the weapon loosely by the grip but -not- with his fingers inside the trigger guard, letting it dangle between his legs. And even then, it was a shot taken with a precision rifle, and frankly it was the wrong thing to do both ethically and tactically given the risk s of missing and provoking return fire, the fact that he was putting a rifle bullet on a path to bounce off the gun and/or the ground and go who-knows-where in a crowded neighborhood, etc.

      • gbdub says:

        Should the police be allowed to use lethal force on anyone who has the potential to attack with lethal force in “a fraction of a second”, whether or not that person has actually attempted, or even indicated an intention to, actually attack with lethal force? It seems like that would justify shooting just about anyone.

        Does “didn’t instantly drop the gun he was holding but not pointing at anyone” constitute a sufficient “intention to attack with lethal force”?

        • Trofim_Lysenko says:

          Since it is functionally impossible to prove OR disprove intention or possibility after the fact in most cases, gbdub, I am unwilling to rule out the use of lethal force.

          So yes, “didn’t instantly drop the gun he was holding but not pointing at anyone” absolutely CAN constitute a sufficient cause to shoot to kill. I do think it’s context dependent, but see above about context being pretty difficult to determine after the fact, since in real life suspects can and do go from “just standing there, not pointing the gun at anyone” to blazing away merrily with zero warning.

          • gbdub says:

            Sure, but we’re asking a firm question: is it okay for cops to always err on the side of “shoot” in that scenario which you admit is uncertain. Because legally, they appear to be totally in the clear (or at least are very rarely if at all punished) any time they shoot in that scenario. Basically, holding a gun for a nanosecond after a cop says “drop it” is a justified death sentence?

            Suspects are citizens too, and a dead citizen isn’t a good outcome just because they might have been about to attack – I suspect we are erring on the side of “too quick to shoot” in many scenarios. This sounds super insensitive, but what’s the “killed or shot at ratio” for cops vs. suspects? If cops are shooting a lot more often than they are victims or intended victims of lethal force, that seems to indicate they are in actual imminent danger significantly less often than they are claiming self defense.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            It’s not at all clear to me that cops -do- always err on the side of shoot. And I did not say that the cop, there in that moment, could not be certain.

            I am pointing out that even in cases where the cop IS certain, and is in fact correct, that may be impossible to corroborate after the fact.

          • gbdub says:

            Sorry, I shouldn’t have said “is it okay for cops to always…”, but “is it always okay for cops…”

            You seemed to be arguing that that, because you can never be certain the cop wouldn’t have been attacked, the cop was therefore justified (or at least, cannot be legally held unjustified) in any “guy had a gun and didn’t drop it instantly” scenario. I don’t believe cops always shoot in that scenario, but they seem to do so often enough that it’s become a social issue. Also the scenario “He made a motion that could have been reaching for a gun”.

            Basically, I took (possibly in error?) your position to be, “cops are justified in responding with lethal force, if they believe it is possible that the suspect is about to use lethal force”.

            I think that “possible” should at least be changed to “likely”, and should probably lean toward giving cops a little less leeway/take-them-at-their-word in that regard than we currently do.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            Not in ANY case, but I believe that you are unlikely to dramatically alter the outcome of officer-involved shooting investigations by tweaking the top level precedents around use of force. That isn’t the problem here.

            The current standard on police use of force is whether the action is “reasonable”, judged from the perspective of a reasonable police officer with similar training and experience facing similar circumstances and in possession of the facts known to the officer at the time, NOT any facts that were learned later.

            That’s a good standard, and I think any attempt to fiddle with it is going to be a cure that’s worse than the disease. The problems with officer-involved shooting investigations and the difficulty of successful prosecutions usually come down to either poor accountability mechanisms in the case of the investigations, and the fact that juries are horrible on the other. The fix to the former comes down to local DA and city organization vs. Police leadership and unions (cf. New York). The latter actually IS a “social problem”, and thus not amenable to legislative solutions.

            You can (and should) put body cams on every police officer in the US, but my prediction is that while it may affect the lesser use of force complaints, it will not budge the needle much if at all on Officer-Involved Shootings.

            Of course, I can say all that, and mean it, but while I think there are definite improvements to be made (especially in certain cities), I am not at all convinced that there is a “social issue” around officer-involved shootings. For one thing, we don’t have national statistics. The DoJ and FBI didn’t even BEGIN to put together a FRAMEWORK for rigorous data collection from local PDs until 2016. Now, that in and of itself IS a problem and needs fixing post-haste, but it also means that anyone who says things like “police shootings of civilians in America are at an X year high” is talking out his ass. Prior to this year, the UCR contained only scattershot, voluntarily-submitted data from local PDs, not even the same departments year to year.

            Now, individual departments, especially major metro area departments, HAVE kept data, but of the ones I’ve looked at over the past couple years while this was being argued about either the trends are stable (Dallas) or downward (Philadelphia, New York), or the whole department is so fucked up that use of force issues are just a symptom of the underyling rot (e.g. Baltimore, and even there, the cure turns out to be not much less rotten than the disease. Key takeaway there is ‘a hatchet job on the generally guilty’.)

        • gph says:

          >Should the police be allowed to use lethal force on anyone who has the potential to attack with lethal force in “a fraction of a second”, whether or not that person has actually attempted, or even indicated an intention to, actually attack with lethal force? It seems like that would justify shooting just about anyone.

          How would that be just about anyone? Last time I checked the vast majority of people I encounter on a daily basis are not wielding lethal weapons in a ready to use position.

          • gbdub says:

            Sure, but how many people occasionally reach for a waistband in a way that could be grabbing a weapon, if you had one? And the “20ft” reference is to the idea that an unarmed (or knife/club armed) assailant could cover at least that much ground before you could bring them down by gunfire, and are thus a potential threat.

            I don’t believe that “unarmed” automatically means not a deadly threat, and it’s annoying when it gets treated that way by the media. At the same time, defenses of police shootings often use justifications for “was plausibly a threat” that are broad enough to cover a significant percentage of people police encounter daily.

          • Aapje says:

            Sure, but how many people occasionally reach for a waistband in a way that could be grabbing a weapon, if you had one?

            There is a subculture where it is cool to wear pants that are too large without a belt. Seems like those people might pull up their pants frequently.

    • J Mann says:

      I’ll start from intuitions.

      I think Dao should have left the plane when asked and that it was reasonable for the police to physically pull him from his seat when he refused. (I’m assuming that he was resisting being pulled from his seat and hit his head on an armrest during a close quarters struggle, not that the police beat him in the face to force compliance – that would be unreasonable.)

      Under the facts as you describe them, I think Scott should have dropped the gun. I don’t think the police should have shot him if there was a safer way to manage the situation.

      Moving on to explore a rule for civil disobedience in the face of police instruction, my general rule is that it’s ethically reasonable (1) (a) to protest severe injustice (b) if you are willing to suffer the legal; consequences; or (2) to refuse to comply with an unquestionably illegal or immoral instruction.

      But the social costs of not complying with police instructions are substantial, so in cases where the police instruction is arguable (like Dao) or obviously reasonable (like Scott), I think the instructed person should comply. Even then, the police should use minimum necessary force to enforce compliance.

      In Dao’s case, whether he was entitled to stay on the plane comes down to some nitpicky lawyering on whether the wording of his ticket gives United a right to block him at the gate, but not one to remove him from a plane, and/or whether they have a right to bump him for non-purchased flyers like the crew they needed to get to Louisville. It might be unsatisfactory to try to resolve those questions in court or social media, but there was no practical way to resolve them on the plane. The police were not going to be able to order United to fly Dao to Louisville based on a legal analysis of whether “refuse boarding” in the carriage contract excludes requesting a passenger to deboard once boarded, so Dao’s best case was that he might successfully delay hundreds of other passengers, and then still not get to Louisville.

      If a request from a police officer is obviously illegal “take off your clothes and blow me” or immoral “reveal to me where my ex-wife is so that I can shoot her,” then yes, disobey, and if you can do so without paying the consequences through trickery or by fleeing, even better, but if there are arguments for both sides, comply, because society doesn’t work when every jerk with an arguable case thinks they can disobey the police.

      • Evan Þ says:

        But… legally and morally speaking, how is “take off your clothes and [CENSORED]” or “give all your money to Bob over there” different from “get out of your legally purchased seat on this airplane which let’s assume for the sake of argument you have every right to remain in”?

        (Okay, let’s try to focus on my second example so as to stay away from moral issues surrounding sex specifically?)

        • J Mann says:

          Thanks, that helped clarify my intuitions.

          I’ll refine it to say if the police are obviously corrupt, then civil disobedience becomes more viable in my opinion. On the other hand, I don’t want people resolving their disagreements about their legal rights by resisting police.

          In my personal opinion, Dao’s legal case to remain on that plane is highly debatable. and I don’t think it’s reasonable for him to ask police to resolve it on the spot.

          Let’s say you’re in a seat, and some other guy says he has a ticket for the same seat. and the police get called. Sooner or later, they’re going to ask one or both of you to leave. IMHO, the better Rawlsian rule for society is that you comply. You might be 100% sure that you’re right but (1) maybe you’re wrong and (2) even if not, the police don’t have any way to resolve the situation in the moment, and we’re all better off if they can make reasonable decisions to keep the peace.

          On the other hand, if the police officer says “My girlfriend doesn’t have a ticket, but wants to go to New York, so get out of your seat so she can go,” then that use of police power is obviously corrupt and I’d be OK with someone resisting it. Presumably, at some point, if the police are serving a sufficiently corrupt power structure, then the same principle applies, but the cost to society of this resistance is high enough that I’d prefer that people save it for the more extreme cases.

        • beleester says:

          In the first two cases, the police officer obviously knows that what they’re demanding is illegal. In the case of the airline seat, it’s not obvious that the officer knows the details of United’s contract or that he can immediately decide whether that contract allows United to deplane someone who’s boarded. He’s a cop, not a judge. So he’s trying to resolve the immediate situation, and let them fight it out in court afterwards.

          In this case, the police were mistaken about the legal answer and used excessive force, both of which were bad things. But in general, that’s why “get out of your airline seat” and “take off your clothes” are different – one is questionably legal and the cop is given discretion, one is obviously illegal.

          Although really, if you’re being forced to do something that you think is illegal, asking for the legal response is kind of the wrong question. The legal response is something you do after you’ve survived the encounter, when you have time and access to the courts. As the saying goes, you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride.

          So the question is really just whether you think it’ll cost you more to resist now, or to comply and resist later. If they’re trying to rape or rob or murder you, it’s probably best to resist now. If the only thing at stake is an airline seat, it’s probably not worth it.

          • The Nybbler says:

            So he’s trying to resolve the immediate situation, and let them fight it out in court afterwards.

            Once again, this is not a real option. Once the immediate situation is resolved, it’s over and done with. The person who complies will not be able to be made whole; the cost of fighting will overwhelm the judgment even if they win, and the deck is stacked against them in court as well. Noncompliance _might_ work. Rarely. Usually it’ll end with the noncompliant person damaged even more.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I see the distinction you’re trying to make. But as the parable of Buridan’s Ass suggests, you can’t really draw a definite distinction between “questionably legal” and “illegal.” So yes, you need to leave it up to the courts in the last resort.

            And there… I agree with The Nybbler. At best, the court will compensate me for my proved monetary costs – e.g. a new ticket and a hotel room – but that won’t actually make me whole. Maybe I’ve missed another day with my family; maybe I’ve lost an important business deal; maybe I’ve missed my grandpa’s funeral or my sister’s wedding. And that’s at best; in practice, the policeman will probably be shielded by the pernicious and dangerous doctrine of qualified immunity. In a position anything like that, I would have no trust in the courts.

            (Yes, this’s a socially-dangerous situation. But is there anything we can do about it?)

    • Kevin C. says:

      In most online comments I see one of two reactions to both sorts of cases: generally Blue Tribe (ironically the more pro-state tribe in general, but anti-police in the particular) sees such cases as outrages and always sides with the protestor (that is, whoever is accused of ignoring police orders in a given newstory). Generally Red Tribe always says “when the police shout an order at you, you listen!”

      Are you familiar with Arnold Kling’s “three axes/languages of politics” model? Because this looks like a pretty good example. For those here who might not be, it holds that the “liberal”/”Blue Tribe” sort tend to look at political conflicts via an “oppressed/oppressor” axis (whereby, as per qwints’s reply, the degree to which the police get mapped as “oppressor” depends on the person disobeying and how well they map to “oppressed”), while the “conservative”/”Red Tribe” sort view things along a “civilization/barbarism” axis, and “libertarian” sorts (like Kling himself) seeing things on a “freedom/coercion axis”.

      As to asking about the general “ethics of disobedience”, as I’ve gotten older I’ve drifted heavily to a very Chinese-influenced view. My perspective, basically, is that “civil disobedience” is almost never justified; that the only time disobedience is justifiable is when the authority in question has fully forfeited legimacy/the Mandate of Heaven, and outright rebellion against and removal of the authority is justified.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I am fairly convinced by the idea that the right wing vs. left wing struggle in most political contexts is actually one between order-stability-authority-tradition-civilization and justice-progress-mobility-“fight for the little guy”, etc.

        This is one reason I, despite becoming more “conservative” in a Chesterton’s fence kind of way in my old age, still somewhat resist the label “right wing”: because I am very anti-authoritarian.

        • AnonYEmous says:

          but how does that respond to the various kinds of left-wing authoritarianism that we do see sprouting?

          I guess you can contest that this phenomenon exists, but I can find a lot of people that will tell you it does. Some of them just classify this new authoritarianism as right-wing and therefore not real left but that really seems like a no true scotsman writ large.

          My personal view is that the Left says “things can be better” and the right says “no they can’t and what we have now is fine”. Maybe that’s just one facet of both wings, though.

          • onyomi says:

            Well, I could say that a lot of people who claim to be left-wing are really fascists or authoritarians in disguise (I frequently argue that the “left wing” in America today is actually more “conservative” in a number of ways: note that Scott’s argument to vote for Hillary kind of amounted to “stay the course and don’t take a big risk”), but I guess one does have to distinguish between the “listen to the police because that’s what good citizens do” and the “you don’t get to pick your gender identity because prescriptive gender behaviors exist for a reason” kind of “authoritarianism” and the “we can have an amazing new world if we all just submit to the [will of the proletarian vanguard], [Venus Project], [utopian scheme I thought up]” kind of authoritarianism.

            Generally speaking, I think the frequency of certain types of personality is probably comparatively evenly distributed across groups (being in no small part genetic, I’d imagine–I don’t rule out, however, the idea that genetic groups may be predisposed to be more authoritarian, conformist, etc. than others, on average), but that historical contigency greatly changes the way they manifest.

            For example, if you take the same person who, let’s suppose, is genetically predisposed to be an authoritarian busybody, and raise them in a deep blue state or a deep red state, then the things they chose to get all authoritarian and busybodyish about will probably differ, but maybe not so much the intensity of that impulse: maybe in the red state this person is going to be an anti-abortion crusader, in the blue state an SJW. I very much think there is overlap between today’s SJW personality and the person telling you you were going to go to hell for your sins and/or crusading against “demon rum” 100 years ago.

            I guess this somewhat contradicts my above notion that there is anything non-incidental about the Red-Blue Right-Left distinction, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are no differences, either in group predisposition to certain personality types or in the practical effects on thinking of say, growing up in a very liberal versus very conservative social group.

            As for who’s more authoritarian today? Maybe it is the left. Which is maybe why I keep finding myself “on the right.” But I’m also very much not with that group, which seems usually to be on the right, who are always inclined to defend, e.g. the police and the armed forces, and council submission to authority.

            What’s that quote about “the left is determined to keep making mistakes and the right is determined to see they never get fixed”?

  9. rlms says:

    Question for taxation-is-theft libertarians: how do you decide who can own property? I imagine most libertarians don’t think taking eggs from a chicken, or toys from your child (that they own) count as theft. I agree, but on the basis that they aren’t harmful. If you reject that defence for taxation, how you justify the examples given?

    • Tibor says:

      I think a better and stronger argument is “taxation is inefficient” (in that the results are inferiour to a market system from a more or less utilitarian point of view for various reasons), but emotionally I still subscribe to the taxation is theft (technically, I’d rather say taxation is extortion, that is more accurate, it is not like the tax officers come to your place at night and steal your money…it’s rather that if you don’t give them the money they will do bad things to you).

      I think that the chicken is an animal and hence not really considered as an actor on the same level as a human. I am confused about the use of they in your second example. Is “they” the child (I would use “it” for a child instead) or “they” as in “most libertarians”? I guess that if you mean the child then the argument would be that children or mentally ill people don’t (yet, in the case of children) have the full capacity to exercise their rights and therefore it is acceptable for their parents to be, well, paternalistic. I think different libertarians would disagree on a level to which they can do that and some might simply say that as long as the child owns the toys, you are violating its rights if you take the toys from it.

      I have even seen some libertarians arguing for animal rights from a libertarian perspective, although I am not sure they’d go as far as to say that taking eggs from a hen is violating her rights.

      • rlms says:

        “They” is the child, I think it would be weird to refer to a child as “it” unless they were very young.

        I was originally planning on just giving the animal example, but I think it’s fairly weak on its own as the debate of “why can’t animals own property” is really the same as that of “why can you kill animals”. But regarding children and other people with diminished capacity, it seems to me that if you say it’s OK to infringe on their rights if it’s in their interest then you’re conceding that the same is in principle possible with regards to normal people. Therefore we are just quibbling about how irrational people have to be before taxation is justified, and people are pretty irrational!

        • Tibor says:

          I guess “it” sounds natural to me because the grammatic gender of the word “child” is neutrum in Czech (or German). Similarly, I have a tendency to use “she” with the word “person” but “he” with the word human because that corresponds to their grammatical genders in all languages that I know and that use them.

          I think the standard argument is that it is reasonable to expect parents to both want the best for their children and actually know better than the children themselves what is “best for them” – to a certain point. Neither of that can be applied to the state (i.e. some anonymous bureaucrats somewhere). The fact that beyond a certain point and age we are not willing to let our parents (who know us very well and care for us more than almost anyone) make decisions for us suggests that we especially should not be willing to let other people do that, in particular someone who doesn’t even know you and whose interests might not be very well aligned with your own. Libertarians tend to strongly criticize the fact that in the public discourse, the state is often assumed to behave differently from other actors, sort of like a deus ex machina even though there are no good reasons to assume that people act differently in a public office than they would otherwise.

        • IrishDude says:

          Children have a wide age range. The mental capacity of 3 year olds and 13 year olds are pretty different and therefore how you ought to treat them is different. In general I support giving kids as much as agency as they can responsibly handle and have a pretty ‘free range’ philosophy to parenting.

          Details on your taking toys scenario affects how I think about the ethics of the situation. Did the child buy the toy on their own? Is the child using the toy in a threatening way towards others? How old is the child and what is their capacity for reasoning?

          One big trump card for parents is they own/rent the house and therefore have wide latitude to make rules of conduct for within the house.

          Therefore we are just quibbling about how irrational people have to be before taxation is justified, and people are pretty irrational!

          Treating adults like children is something I find pretty unappealing, but to the extent you think masses of adults are irrational and need paternal supervision, don’t forget that politicians and bureaucrats are people too and so would be similarly irrational.

          • 3rd says:

            This Melting Asphalt essay puts words to the ideas surrounding​ “treating adults like children”. Irrisponsible adults have less personhood than rational agents.

          • IrishDude says:

            Interesting essay, thanks. The main thesis to me seems to be to treat others with respect if you want to be treated with respect, which I agree with.

            One of the key quotes from the essay “We can phrase this recursively: “You must treat other persons as persons.” This starts with a strict prohibition on violence and coercion, and extends to any act that even hints at such.

            Another quote: “The flip side of this, of course, is that when you don’t uphold your end of the bargain (the responsibilities of personhood, which we will articulate below), you’re no longer entitled to the benefits. Specifically you forfeit the most important benefit — the right to conduct yourself among persons — and consequently you’ll be pushed to the margins of society, if not forcibly removed from it. This is how we treat children, criminals, the profoundly senile, and the profoundly psychotic.”

            So, to the extent taxation uses (hints of) violence and coercion and treats other respectable people as non-persons, it is state agents that lose their right to be treated with respect and subsequently have less personhood. Contra the second quote though, they don’t get pushed to the margins of society or get forcibly removed from it.

          • Matt M says:

            they don’t get pushed to the margins of society or get forcibly removed from it.

            On the other hand, nobody ever recorded a song titled “fuck the software engineers”

      • Kevin C. says:

        I’d like to butt in here and note that plenty here seem to be using “child” in both the “age” sense and the “offspring” sense. But I thnk too much emphasis is being put on the former. Do your parents suddenly cease to have more experience (and the wisdom that presumably comes with it) the day of your eighteenth birthday? Do they ever suddenly cease to want the best for you, their child, because of your age? No.

        I seem to recall something in the bits shared by the Abrahamic religions, some very important bits, which have some bit about “honor your father and your mother”, yes? Doesn’t pretty much every society have something to this effect. And I don’t see any expiration dates stuck on there, do you? I’d say what ever the leval of legal authority, the moral authority of parents clearly persists. In fact, subscribing to a viture ethics view (and noting that virtues are habits), I’d note the virtue of honoring and respecting one’s parents and their authority over you is, at its core, about one’s attitude toward them, and attitudes are internal; the cultivated virtue should persist in cultivation independent of the more “external factors”, and thus should rightly persist not only beyond one reaching one’s majority, but upon the death of one’s parents, because “it’s about you, not them”, and thus one should continue to respect and obey one’s parents’ wishes even when they are no longer living, independent of any states beyond death or the absence thereof. (I can’t recall which Chinese author it was who first introduced me to this purely secular/non-supernatural defense of traditional “ancestor worship”, but it stuck with me.)


        As to the lower applicability to the state, I’d say this is at least a function of the degree to which the state is “some anonymous bureaucrats somewhere”, and partially a problem of incentives. Perhaps one might look at how to alter the incentives for the rulers to actually have more “paternal” care toward their subjects, to go with the “paternalism”, relative to “anonymous bureaucrats” with diffuse responsibility. Perhaps also a more “personal” relationship between ruler and ruled, with, say, oaths of personal fealty and responsibility and clear, set-out relationships with specific, non-anonymous authorities, with contracts specifically spelling out all the attendant rights and duties.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I’d say what ever the leval of legal authority, the moral authority of parents clearly persists.

          No, at least not totally. When I was ten years old, my parents could tell me – morally, not just practically – to get off the web and get to bed on time. Now, they can’t. If for some strange reason they tried, I’d feel morally justified in ignoring that order.

          I agree that my eighteenth birthday is nothing more than a cultural Schilling point – but you need to pick something, and it’s usually decent enough.

          • Kevin C. says:

            If for some strange reason they tried, I’d feel morally justified in ignoring that order.

            And I know folks who would argue that this attitude illustrates how us Westerners are deficient in xiào (“filial piety” is the usual translation, but some have argued that “filial subordination” is a more accurate rendering), and that one should be as attentive and obedient to one’s parents at thirty as one is at thirteen.

            but you need to pick something, and it’s usually decent enough.

            Why do we need to “pick something”? Why not instead conclude that the duty of obedience and subordination to one’s parents carries no expiration date, but is a lifelong obligation persisting not only into maturity but beyond even the death of one’s parent?

          • The Nybbler says:

            For one, obligations like that lead to extraordinary measures, like parricide, to relieve the obligation. Even if the obligation survives death, in practice dead parents make few demands.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @The Nibbler

            For one, obligations like that lead to extraordinary measures, like parricide, to relieve the obligation.

            How common is parricide in Confucian cultures, anyway? It doesn’t seem that high by what I’ve read.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Why not instead conclude that the duty of obedience and subordination to one’s parents carries no expiration date, but is a lifelong obligation persisting not only into maturity but beyond even the death of one’s parent?

            Because of the same moral reasons lying behind the Rule Against Perpetuities?

            Because we value individual freedom, and filial piety outweighs that when one’s a kid who really does need to be told to get to bed on time, but not when one’s sufficiently mature? In the last resort, that just aligns better with my (Western-trained) moral sense, but it also seems to me that leads to a better and more vibrant culture, as well as fewer moral dilemnas from parents commanding kids to go against their own moral sense, as well as more individual happiness.

        • Tibor says:

          Just to clarify – I was assuming the child was your child, otherwise it’s just theft one way or another (unless the parents agree to it).

          In your description, I think it is really hard to make the incentives align, most importantly, because you as a ruler have to make rules for a rather diverse group of people who have different goals and motivations. There are essentially two ways to get around that – prescribe what people SHOULD want and go with that. That is of course extremely paternalistic, essentially fascist. Another way is to limit what you as the governor will decide for everyone until you get so some bare minimum. For example, while people might differ on the specifics, pretty much everyone wants some national defence, courts, police…thus you get to classical liberalism where the state is to be kept minimal. Realistically, you still have the incentives problem and I don’t see a clear way around it other than the market. Yes, democracy does work to some extent but it is a rather crude tool which hopefully prevents tyranny and assures peaceful and orderly transition of power but does not do much beyond that. It is still on average better than other forms of government, but possibly not than some forms of anarchy.

          Another way to narrow down the incentives is separatism. Instead of a huge state of 300 million, the US could become 300 fully independent states of 1 million, or 600 states of 500 000. If you follow that logic you end up with anarcho-capitalism or something similar where geography disappears and you choose your government just like you choose your internet provider for example. You choose the one which most suits you given all the necessary constraints and that is then in a sense more “personal”. I guess you can do something like that with keeping the state structure if your society is fairly homogeneous in places and the heterogeneity is mostly geographical. The closest actual country like that seems to be Switzerland (A country of 6 million with half as many “federal states”as the US and a federal government which possibly has less power over the cantons than the US federal government does over the states). The closest to “choose your government” seem to be the Amish, but of course, compared to the general population, they are fairly homogeneous in their goals to begin with.

          • Kevin C. says:

            First, it seems you may have missed it, but by more “personal” government than anonymous bureaucrats, I meant feudalism; where you know which “lord” made a governmental decision, rather than it being the product of an impersonal “process” in a bureaucracy where no one bears individual responsibility for any outcome of the “process”. (In short, I’m calling for the rejection to at least some degree of Weber’s “rationalization” and “bureaucratization.”) And I’m not sure where exactly you would fit the feudal model into your analysis.

            you as a ruler have to make rules for a rather diverse group of people who have different goals and motivations.

            That depends on how much rulers are supposed to make rules, versus primarily enforcing and defending them. If I remember your past comments, you come from a place without a robust “common law” tradition. But there is a long historical tradition with Germanic cultures (including Norse/North Germanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures), that the law is, in many ways, “prior” to the state, that not even the king is “above the law”. That the core and bulk of the law is not man-made legislation, but comes via lengthy tradition from the collective cultural understanding of right and wrong behavior.

            prescribe what people SHOULD want and go with that. That is of course extremely paternalistic, essentially fascist.

            But this is, in many ways, how a group has a common culture. Consider, for example, the historical process of Hanification/Sinicization, whereby groups became assimilated into Han culture. I’d argue that a definition of “Fascism” that would place Imperial China as “essentially fascist” is probably overbroad.

            For example, while people might differ on the specifics, pretty much everyone wants some national defence, courts, police…thus you get to classical liberalism where the state is to be kept minimal.

            I’d again ask you to look at the actual functions of government, cost of government as fraction of GDP (see Clark’s Farewell to Alms), and level of intrusiveness of Western European feudal systems as compared to present states. (Note, I don’t mean the Hollywood “Dung Ages” myths.)

            It is still on average better than other forms of government, but possibly not than some forms of anarchy.

            First, I’d dispute both parts of this. For the first part, read Moldbug. As for anarchy, I’m with the quote that “anarchy is the most unstable of all organizations; it collapses into government at the slightest prod.” But I must admit a strong preference for anarcho-capitalism over all proposed “anarchies”. As I’ve commented before, generally when critics compare anarcho-capitalism to “feudalism”, and anarcho-capitalists defend against these charges, both tend to have in mind the inaccurate picture of feudalism that owes more to Monty Python and Mel Brooks that actual history, but that a more accurate picture of Western European feudalism would show it to be something much closer to anarcho-capitalism than most would think. Thus my support; I expect that when “prodded”, anarcho-capitalism would collapse into something much like feudalism (which is the outcome I would seek).

            Another way to narrow down the incentives is separatism. Instead of a huge state of 300 million, the US could become 300 fully independent states of 1 million, or 600 states of 500 000.

            Here’s where subsidiarity, subinfeudation, and the like come in. “The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away” and all that. Major subdividing, down toward more culturally homogeneous communities, is definitely to be preferred to large modern states. But I don’t think it can actually reach to the full anarcho-capitalist “choose your own government” model, because I expect that, for multiple reasons, governance to remain linked to geography, and that people mostly aren’t going to be (or shouldn’t be) as mobile to produce the full level of “foot-voting” usually postulated in such models. In short, better the Habsburg-ruled HRE than Brussels-ruled EU.

          • Tibor says:

            @Kevin: Feudalism can potentially be closer to anarcho-capitalism than most other systems. If your serfs can move about and subscribe to a different lord and there is a reasonable number of them then you get sort of a competitive dictatorship, which might work quite well. As long as the lords start restricting the freedom of movement it drifts towards just an ordinary dictatorship (essentially a smaller version of what came after feudalism anyway – absolutism) which is usually nothing great unless you luck out with a really great dictator (but the one who comes after him is probably not going to be so enlightened).

            I am not quite sure why you assume that my idea of the middle ages is that of the “bring out your dead” scene from the Monty Pythons. So far, the thread had nothing to do with the middle ages in the first place.

            I’d say it is difficult and usually quite inaccurate to assign modern labels to old systems – was Imperial China fascist? It would meet some criteria but obviously in many ways it was a system very different from 20th century fascism. Is forced cultural conversion a bad thing? I’d definitely say so. What puzzles me a bit is that you advocate feudalism and at the same time (if I grok what you’re saying) Imperial China. If you want an empire then cultural unity is handy. But you could have a multitude of feudal kingdoms instead, each with its own culture. That is, unity (in each individual state) can be achieved by enough separatism.

            As for the ruler not necessarily being the one who makes laws, of course I know of the common law (or for example the Islamic or Jewish law where the ruler also is the enforcer rather than than the lawmaker). I’d say “Germanic tradition” is a bit too broad though, there is no common law in Germany or Austria and to my knowledge there has never been a common law tradition there, so Anglo-Saxon+Norse is a bit more accurate. But I will be happily corrected in case I’m missing something. In any case, I meant ruler in a broader sense, kind of like “the government”, which includes the courts as well.

          • Kevin C. says:


            I am not quite sure why you assume that my idea of the middle ages is that of the “bring out your dead” scene from the Monty Pythons.

            Because in my experience, that’s almost everyone’s idea of the Middle Ages. It’s incredible how many seem to think droit du seigneur/ius primae noctis was an actual thing, or that Colombus had trouble funding his expedition because ‘everyone thought the world was flat and that he was going to sail off the edge’, or that royal absolutism was part of feudalism rather than what replaced it, and so on. Though this may just be due to mostly dealing with the products of American public schooling.

            I’d say it is difficult and usually quite inaccurate to assign modern labels to old systems

            And yet you were the one who described any attempt to “prescribe what people SHOULD want and go with that” as “essentially fascist” with no disclaimer as to limits in time or place.

            What puzzles me a bit is that you advocate feudalism and at the same time (if I grok what you’re saying) Imperial China.

            First, the degree of centralized authority in China was variable across history, and sometimes overstated. Particularly if you look at the Tang Dynasty or earlier, the local aristocracy had plenty of power. Are you familiar with the Chinese proverb tiān gāo, huángdì yuǎn and its variants?

            Second, I pointed to Imperial China to first show that your use of the term “Fascist” was overbroad — going by what you said, then a large fraction (likely a majority) of human civilization was “essentially fascist” — and second, to show that cultural assimilation and homogenization is, in fact, a workable strategy, and if it can work on the scales of the Chinese Empire, then it can clearly work on smaller-scale communities. I mean, every community has values and rules and norms and rites to which one must submit to be a part of it. After all, there are norms of behavior one must adhere to in order to comment and participate here in the SSC community. What I’m saying is embrace both separatism and homogenization to produce more harmonious, uniform polities and sub-polities. For the most part, diversity is not strength. (And as a third reason for pointing to Chinese examples, while I wish that some portion of Western civilization could be salvaged, I can admit that it went wrong in several places (leading to where we are now), and others decayed beyond repair, and I think Confucian thought and culture is the best place to look for how to “patch” those failings.)

            As for Germanic law on the continent, see some here, but the fact of contact with Rome lead to much earlier codification of written laws compared to Germanic tribes elsewhere, particularly the Goths. From the wiki link:

            Compared with other barbarian tribes, the Goths had the longest time of contact with Roman civilization, from migration in 376 to trade interactions years beforehand. The Visigothic legal attitude held that laws were created as new offenses of justice arose, and that the king’s laws originated from God and His justice-scriptural basis.[9] Mercifulness (clementia) and a paternal feeling (pietas) were qualities of the king exhibited through the laws.[10] The level of severity of the law was “tempered” by this mercy, specifically for the poor; it was thought that by showing paternal love in formation of law, the legislator gained the love of citizen.[11] While the monarch’s position was implicitly supreme and protected by laws, even kings were subject to royal law, for royal law was thought of as God’s law.[12] In theory, enforcement of the law was the duty of the king, and as the sovereign power he could ignore previous laws if he desired, which often led to complications.[13] To regulate the king’s power, all future kings took an oath to uphold the law.[14] While the Visigoths’ law code reflected many aspects of Roman law, over time it grew to define a new society’s requirements and opinions of law’s significance to a particular people.

            My point, overall, is that rlms is fundamentally right in seeing this as a problem for “taxation-is-theft libertarians”. Libertarians are a tiny minority, and one that skews very WEIRD, high IQ, very white, and very male, for reasons, and these sorts of “libertarian” attitudes are pretty much guaranteed to be rare with respect to humanity as a whole. When your axioms lead you to either tie yourself in rhetorical knots to defend basic human parenting practices, or else to conclude that despite their apparent successes in bringing forth successive generations, that almost every parent in the whole of human history has been “doing it wrong”, you should probably reexamine those axioms. The sort of libertarianism under discussion is seen as unworkable and ridiculous by a lot of (perhaps most) people for good reasons; it requires a level of rationality, independence, self-sufficiency, delay of gratification, future time orientation, and so on that most human beings cannot reach. By the standards of “adulthood” being put forth in this discussion, most people never achieve such. In the words of IrishDude, the “masses of adults are irrational and need paternal supervision”; most human beings do, in fact, need “paternalism”, too many for libertarianism to ever be workable. Most of us are peasants in need of proper lords.

          • Knowing which Lord made a decision does not get you all the way to to responsibility, because you cannot hold him accounntable.

            Feudalism would amount to Archipelago if all the Lords mystetiously allowed people to leave, but it is not in the interests of a failing Lord to have their serfs desert them. Archipelago is usually seen as needing a superstate to underwrite exit anf entry rights, and usually seen as not anarchic for that reasons.

          • Kevin C. says:


            Knowing which Lord made a decision does not get you all the way to to responsibility, because you cannot hold him accounntable.

            But, neither can one hold accountable an algorithm. Because a key part of Weberian rationalization and his description of bureaucracy is the replacement of human judgement and discretion with “action taken on the basis of and recorded in written rules… implemented by neutral officials”; that is to say in more modern parlance, replacement by algorithms. In a bureaucracy, any individual bureaucrat has limited responsibility of outcomes, as they take action primarily due to procedures, rules, and processes laid down by (often multiple) others. One cannot much hold a “faceless” bureaucracy “just following and implementing the rules” accountable for a specific decision either.

            And it might just be me being an irrational social primate, but if a decision goes against me, I’d much prefer to have a specific human being to blame for it, rather than it being the bloodless rules and procedures of a buck-passing bureaucratic mass, given I’m unlikely to be able to do much about it either way (except try to appeal to a higher authority, and again that’s much easier with a clear hierarchy of fealty rather than bureaucracies answering to the directives of higher bureacracies).

            tl;dr to put it more crudely, as a “little guy”, I expect to get screwed over no matter the system, so I’d at least like to be able to put a face and a name to who’s screwing me over.

    • Civilis says:

      Not a true libertarian, but I can try to answer the question.

      The subject of minors in politics is a special case: in theory, it’s very hard, but the ad-hoc system we have in practice works well in most cases.

      Children, by their nature, start out as not fully able to consent, and as their faculties develop, gain more control over their lives. By default, what is effectively a unwritten contractual arrangement exists between parent (or guardian) and child, in which the child gives up some rights to the parent in return for not having the responsibilities of adulthood. I don’t think this arrangement violates libertarian principles as long as the minor child is able to nullify the contractual arrangement once independently judged competent to make that decision, at which point the responsibilities of the contract are nullified for both ends. “As long as you live under our roof, you obey our rules,” is a good shorthand.

      If an animal (or a plant, or a non-living intelligence like an AI) gets to the point where it can contest its own rights, the same would apply. If the chicken argues that she has a right to her own eggs, I’m going to let her take them.

      [Added] The difference between taxation and the two circumstances you’ve presented is that in judging taxation both sides are perfectly competent to negotiate their own arrangements. Parents can’t arbitrarily take the property of their adult children.

    • Jiro says:

      I don’t consider it wrong to take eggs from a chicken for the same reason I don’t think it’s wrong to take grains of wheat from a wheat plant: chickens and wheat plants aren’t people.

      And the question about taking toys from kids is actually a specific case of “how can we justify violating the rights of kids in general“–it has no specific connection to property rights as opposed to other sorts of rights.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Those are weird examples. You can take eggs from chickens because chickens aren’t people, not because it does or doesn’t harm them (you can also kill chickens and eat them, and that’s obviously harmful to the chicken). And if you reject the idea that it’s morally okay to harm non-people, that’s a moral/ethical axis that’s orthogonal to libertarianism.

      You can take toys from your own child at least partially on the basis that you’re the owner of their toys, not them, and you’re their guardian and caretaker, not on the basis that it does no harm. If you take toys from another person’s child, even if you do no harm, it’s still theft (alternately: it is, by definition, harm, even if the child doesn’t burst into tears).

      • rlms says:

        Regarding chickens, I’m using “harm” to mean “moral badness”, rather than “damaging the chicken’s ability to fulfil it’s purpose” or similar. You could argue that harming chickens (in the second sense now) isn’t morally bad because they are different (e.g. in intelligence) to humans, and I’d agree with you to an extent! But if you use that as justification for taking their eggs not being theft, then you also have a justification for taking things from humans with the intelligence of chickens, which I don’t think many libertarians support. If you start from the premise that humans have souls but animals don’t, or similar, you could get around the issue that way.

        Regarding children, I think it’s perfectly possible for children to own toys, and for taking toys that belong to children you aren’t the parent of to be legitimate (e.g. teachers). I think you are right that being responsible to and for the child involved is a relevant factor, as is acting in their best interest. But I think there is a reasonable analogy between parent-child and government-citizen to be made there which makes the taxation=taking things without permission=theft argument weak.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          I don’t actually have to justify taking eggs from chickens as based on intelligence. I can base it on any number of differences that chickens have from humans, including a confluence of several factors.

          There is certainly a defensible line of argument that says that you should care about whether you harm chickens. There is a perhaps-less-defensible line of argument about whether chickens can meaningfully have property. But those are not really connected to libertarianism. A hypothetical libertarian who granted all the rights of humans to chickens would say you can’t take eggs from the chicken. A libertarian who is okay with taking eggs from chickens would say that chickens do not hold all of the rights of humans, not that it’s okay to violate a chicken’s property rights because it doesn’t harm them.

          My child’s teacher can not take a toy away from my child permanently. If they do, it’s theft. A teacher can, in their capacity as the person keeping order in a school, make my child put their toy away, or share it. That’s no longer analogous to taxation. If the government took my money away for the duration of a school-day, especially for some obvious purpose that relates to an association that I at least have some reasonable alternatives for, that’s obviously way less of an intrusion of my property rights than actual taxation is.

        • Loquat says:

          We sort of do take things from people with the intelligence of chickens, though; if someone’s severely intellectually disabled, they’ll almost certainly have some sort of guardian looking after them and making decisions about property, etc, for them. To be sure, there’s an expectation that the guardian will prioritize their charge’s well-being, but the human-with-chicken-level-intellect isn’t going to be allowed to dispose of their property as they please.

          • Deiseach says:

            Even the most intellectually disabled human is still smarter than a chicken, unless we are talking about someone born without a brain or some catastrophic problem of that nature.

            Sorry to jump in like that, but I get irritated by the equivalence people like to make between humans and animals when discussing animal rights, where they wildly over-estimate the intelligence/sapience of animals and wildly down-grade the intelligence/ability of humans. Chickens are not very smart, even the smartest chicken is probably going to come second to a raven or parrot (which are taken as smart birds), much less a human, even a severely disabled human.

            We can measure how badly a human is disabled (even if the old scoring of “moron, cretin or idiot” has fallen out of favour) but despite studies purporting to show that “chickens are as smart as toddlers” no, we haven’t even arrived at “Chickens have an average IQ of 5/10/20”.

            Even if we take “human with chicken level intellect”, at the best reading of it we’re talking about a “human with three year old’s level of intellect” which is, I think, a better method of comparison and doesn’t involve the difficulty of a metaphorical “is managing the money for someone with profound level of intellectual disability the same as taking a stone away from a chicken?” where we get sidetracked about “do chickens have rights? the same rights as humans? what rights do humans have?”

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Yeah, I agree with Deiseach, and more so, if there are any humans that are as dumb as chickens, then they are so vastly, vastly rare that, honestly, it may well be that we overestimate the rights that they’re due, or just decide that in the service of not triggering any emotional hang-ups we have, we live with the minuscule societal friction of giving them a bit more deference than we “should.”

            (We could also make the argument that due, again, to the incredible rarity of people as dumb as chickens, we take a position of epistomological modesty in assessing whether a given non-verbal human is genuinely as dumb as a chicken, or if there’s something more going on behind their eyes.)

            In a vastly counterfactual world in which people as dumb as chickens were 1% of the population, we might well have different norms about how we would treat people as dumb as chickens, and we might all have made our peace with those norms.

            So I think what I’m saying is: These are terrible, terrible, terrible analogies for taxation.

    • onyomi says:

      I am one of those “taxation is theft” libertarians, but I see the question of whether or not taxation is theft as separate from the question of what property rights are, how they are derived and defined, etc.

      Since I don’t ascribe any special ethical status to government agents, all it takes for me to get to “taxation is theft,” is to ask, “if anybody but the government did this, what would it be?” For me, the answer is “theft,” therefore, I call taxation theft.

      As for what constitutes theft–whether taking from a 12 year old is not theft and taking from a 13-year old is, that, to me, is a separate question. We accept that taking from adults is theft, and the government generally only taxes adults, so that makes taxation theft, unless one can prove government agents have a special moral status.

      A traditional Confucian might argue that government agents do have a special moral status because the relationship of a government to its citizens is like that of a parent to a child, but I find that idea pretty weak for all kinds of reasons I probably don’t have to enumerate, since it’s an intuition I think a good majority of people, not just libertarians, share.

      • Matt M says:

        As for what constitutes theft–whether taking from a 12 year old is not theft and taking from a 13-year old is, that, to me, is a separate question. We accept that taking from adults is theft, and the government generally only taxes adults, so that makes taxation theft, unless one can prove government agents have a special moral status.

        A traditional Confucian might argue that government agents do have a special moral status because the relationship of a government to its citizens is like that of a parent to a child

        I think it’s worth discussing the difference between custody and ownership. Consider, if you give a toy to your 5-year-old nephew for their birthday. Does the child “own” the toy? I would suggest no, not really. There is an implicit understanding that you are really giving ownership of the toy to the child’s parents. That you do not expect the child to exercise full control of the toy, but rather, you concede that their parents may choose to limit the time or manner of use of the toy for various reasons.

        In all honesty, the same dynamic is in place with most “private” property, imho. My position is basically “we already live under socialism,” at least if socialism means “public ownership of the means of production.”

        While it’s true that private actors retain physical custody of most of our productive assets (the same way a child typically retains physical custody of his toys), the government reserves the unilateral right to dictate the terms and manner of use of the assets (down to fairly ridiculous micromangement such as “you must offer your employees health insurance that covers birth control pills”), it reserves the right to have the “first dibs” on any income these assets generate (they set the tax rate, not you, and they reserve the right to change it at any time without your input), it reserves the right to take it from you completely (with “fair compensation” that they unilaterally determine), it typically charges you for the right to retain custody (in the form of property taxes), etc.

        I think it’s a very real and apt comparison. A wealthy businessman does not “own” his factory any more than a child “owns” his toys.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          This strikes me as a huge excluded middle. Like we have to make a binary decision between “every man is an island with total autonomy over his property” and “well, you don’t actually own anything and you have no cause to complain no matter how little autonomy you’re given.”

          A businessman has and should have much more ownership of his factory than my two year old daughter has of her toys.

      • Kevin C. says:

        A traditional Confucian might argue that government agents do have a special moral status because the relationship of a government to its citizens is like that of a parent to a child, but I find that idea pretty weak for all kinds of reasons I probably don’t have to enumerate, since it’s an intuition I think a good majority of people, not just libertarians, share.

        I’d dispute all of this. Given you don’t enumerate them, I cant be sure, but I suspect the “intuition” you refer to is (like “libertarian” tendencies in general) much less common than you think. I’ll concede it might, might, be a majority of fully WEIRD types; but as for humanity as a whole, I’d say it looks to be a minority position.

        “Paternalism”, broadly speaking, is the natural form of Neolithic human organization. Paternalism is good, it is right, and modern individualism and libertarianism are hyper-Western aberrations.

        • Paternalism may be adaptive or maladptive to partucular circumstances. Likewise individualism.

        • IrishDude says:

          @Kevin C.

          Who would you like to be your paternal decision maker? Someone decided from a majority of your neighbors? Someone you pick? A hereditary monarch?

          If you want someone to rule over you, I think you ought to have that right. I’d prefer if you didn’t try to enforce that preference on me, however.

          • Kevin C. says:

            Who would you like to be your paternal decision maker?

            Well, my mother is my representative payee for my SSI and Adult Public Assistance (state welfare).

            As for in more general, political terms, I’ve indicated that my preference is indeed for a multi-tier (semi-)hereditary aristocracy topped by a hereditary monarch. Of course, true monarchs, who do not merely “reign”, are in very short supply, and tend to rule the sort of territories where outsiders, especially irreligious white ones, are not terribly welcome. It’s very much the Groucho Marx problem: no king worthy of his crown would accept the miserable likes of me as his subject. As I’ve said before, under my ideal system of government, I personally would be pretty much unable to thrive, and would in fact likely be executed.

  10. aqs says:

    Reposting for visibility.

    tl;dr. We thought (at the meetup organizers’ Google group) that some kind of centralized public repository of regional SSC meetups would be nice. Our current bare-bones solution is a glorified text file on Github.

    Suggestions are welcome. If you want something more fancy, you are welcome to volunteer your workforce. 🙂

  11. HappyIdiotTalk says:

    Anyone out there have any thoughts/experiences with stoicism? I’ve been reading up on some of it and it seems useful for dealing with daily life stress but I’m wondering if anyone here has any long term experience with it.

    • Tibor says:

      I think the stoics got a lot of things right but a couple of things wrong. Most notably I don’t think you can really control your emotions to the level the stoics consider ideal or that it is a good thing. Emotions can sometimes tell you something you don’t admit to yourself otherwise, so I think a better idea is to explore them and figure out what lies behind them, then address those things. But I haven’t read much about stoicism either, mostly Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, so I might be misinterpreting it a bit.

    • rahien.din says:

      Stoicism is basically cognitive-behavioral therapy. I think it’s a good idea for people to become acquainted with. The two premises are 1. Stress happens to everybody all the time, no matter what, and 2. We can and should decide how to plan for and react to stress. Simple enough.

      Like anything, it can be taken too far. For instance, at my best I am rather Stoic in response to life stresses and it drives my wife totally bananas. And I agree with Tibor that if one is using Stoicism to flee from or control their emotions, that is a problem.

      • Kevin C. says:

        Stoicism is basically cognitive-behavioral therapy. I think it’s a good idea for people to become acquainted with. The two premises are 1. Stress happens to everybody all the time, no matter what, and 2. We can and should decide how to plan for and react to stress.

        As someone who has been through a group therapy “distress tolerance/mindfulness” course (twice) based on Marsha M. Linehan’s “dialectical behavior therapy” offshoot of CBT (to quote Wiki, “DBT combines standard cognitive behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice.”), I can second this.

    • andrewflicker says:

      Reading the Stoics helped me get through my divorce, and has lent me a lot of equanimity since, I think, but it’s hard to tease that out from how I might have naturally mellowed as I got out of my twenties.

  12. sohois says:

    I’ve had a lot of spare time at work recently, and so have been digging through the archives, in particular going through old link posts since they tend to be the best time wasters.

    A lot of time spent bemoaning seemingly interesting scientific breakthroughs which I can only presume went nowhere as I never heard of them again. Not that that is particularly a surprise when it comes to scientific links. Also plenty of good laughs at some of the more egregiously wrong predictive articles and descriptions, such as Paul Ryan being some kind of Machiavellian genius back at the beginning of 2015.

    Seems like some kind of ‘meta-links’ post would be pretty informative, going back through the many link posts and picking out updates or those laughable with hindsight. Also, and this is perhaps most important, I think Scott really needs to just pick one spirit animal. At the moment you’ve got some kind of spirit zoo going on and its getting absurd. Perhaps some kind of uncertain Chameleon, or other species of indecisive lizard, would be most suited.

  13. zz says:

    Relevant to EA and vaguely related to Learning to Love Scientific Consensus:

    I have a relative Scott would describe as a specialist researcher in dairy cows. They are (somewhat?) often flown literally across the globe for just a few days for their expertise, is how rare/valuable their expertise in dairy cows is.

    As happens when you have a relative who is this good at dairy cows, we talked about dairy cows this past Easter. Since I spend a lot of time around EA, I brought up an animal welfare perspective. My relative, speaking only for dairy cows, was of the opinion that consuming dairy likely drove wellbeing of dairy cows in America (IIRC, economies of scale mean more money available for cow wellbeing is a first approximation) and that “factoring farming” (which they instantly taboo’d) was, for dairy cows, both more humane and more environmentally friendly. (Concentrating cows lets there be a vet around 24/7, climate control, and methane collection.) These claims were backed up by said relative’s spouse, who (I think?) has a DVM or a relevant PhD, possibly both, as well as the relative’s parent, DVM, who grew up on an idyllic farm and could speak to the many ways that factory farms were better for dairy cows.

    This relative is at a school with what appears to be a not-inactive EA group. The perspective that buying dairy drives animal welfare seems to be both absent in EA and held by at least one specialist researcher, one (non-?)specialist researcher and one fieldworker with a lifetime of metis. My fear is that if my relative were to present to the EA group at their school, they would be received about like Peter Singer presenting to a disability rights group. OTOH, I’ve heard animal rights EAs talk about how EA is all about finding things that do a lot of good that might seem weird or counterintuitive. EA has been on the wrong side of disability rights activists, so I hope that a lot of good would come out of a dialogue getting opened.

    If I can get assurances that my relative, who I am extremely confident would present in good faith, will be received in good faith and a contact person (I’m trying to preserve the privacy of my relative and myself), I’ll make moves to try to set things up. No guarantees: my relative is as busy as you might expect a specialist researcher who often gets flown halfway across the world might be and appears to have a moderate preference for keeping to themselves and avoiding controversy. OTOH, they really like talking about dairy cows.

    • Jiro says:

      If you don’t sanity-check your beliefs, you’ll end up with a lot of results that seem weird or counterintuitive.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’d say go for it, but with the caveat that remember, EA contains the section of people who were ready, willing and able to schism over the provision of vegan-only meals at a conference, so there’s always the chance they’ll run up against a “dairy farming is rape” type.

      I have never, ever heard references to a “rape rack” in my life, maybe I just don’t move in the right farming circles or maybe this person is making up stuff/regurgitating fabrications they saw others use.

    • rlms says:

      I think your fear is almost certainly unfounded. EAs are probably better than average at dealing calmly with weird-sounding ideas, but I don’t think that’s even relevant here. A high proportion of people in the EA group at my university are vegetarian, but I think there are very few vegans. I think it is unlikely that anti-dairy people would form any kind of majority of a general EA group, let alone an angry strident one.

    • Tekhno says:


      EA has been on the wrong side of disability rights activists

      EA pessimist here, though I’m interested in the experiment that’s going on.

      I believe that will be just the start (and there was the veganism dispute Deiseach mentions). I wonder whether regular old “let’s follow emotionally appealing heuristics instead of calculating stuff” altruism isn’t more effective than “Effective Altruism”, and whether EAs won’t just morph back into regular altruists due to social pressures against coming up with controversial charity options that turn out to raise living standards when you look at the evidence.

      EA + social politics is just A. Social costs set limits on how effective you can be, because you need to appease people’s preconcieved notions, which slows down the rate at which new hypotheses can be tested. The Effective Altruism project may ultimately turn out to be an inadvertent investigation of why existing altruism is the way it is.

      • zz says:

        Effective Altruism -> Existing Altruism.

        The EAG vegan bikeshed massacree is the main reason I want assurances before asking my relative to come within 10 meters of EA. Is also the thing that moved me from EA to EA-adjacent, which involves giving all you can to whatever GiveWell recommends—after inspecting their review of course, which is really just existing altruism with an extra dose of epistemic purity and cause prioritization. Happily, GiveWell has built enough trust elsewhere to overcome social costs and preconceived notions. Altruism + GiveWell + Inspection (AGI) may very well be the way forward.

  14. Mark says:

    “We have to do mathematics using the brain which evolved 30 000 years ago for survival in the African savanna.”

    In humans, the speed of totally controlled mental operations is at most 16 bits per second. Standard school maths education trains children to work at that speed.

    The visual processing module in the brain crunches 10,000,000,000 bits per second.

    I offer a simple thought experiment to the readers who have some knowledge of school level geometry.

    Imagine that you are given a triangle; mentally rotate it about the longest side. What is the resulting solid of revolution? Describe it. And then try to reflect: where the answer came from?

    The best kept secret of mathematics: it is done by subconsciousness.

    Mathematics is a language for communication with subconsciousness.

    A while back there was a bit of a discussion about whether spacial ability was important in mathematics, I think the general discussion was something to do with gender differences.

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      Useless anecdote: one of the better geometers (Princeton PhD blah blah blah) I know is freakishly, learning disability level bad at mental rotations. He totally does communicate as that blog post describes though.

    • rlms says:

      I think the triangle thing is just an example. Maths does sometimes require fast subconscious System 1 thinking, but that thinking is only spatial in some cases. Separately, slow, careful System 2 thinking is also often required. The rest of the comment describes one kind of communication between mathematicians: trying to convey intuitions. But that isn’t the only kind, maths papers are the complete opposite. Also, mathematical communication between e.g. engineers will be a lot more System 2.

      • beleester says:


        My immediate reaction to the quote was “I don’t agree with that at all.” Maybe you can visualize what a solid of revolution looks like, but the more common question I got in school was “What is the volume of this solid of revolution?”, and that’s not really something you can do with unconscious intuition.

        But then I clicked the link, and read through the context, and he’s talking about how mathematicians talk to each other. How when two people have the same “mental model” in their heads, they can communicate very easily even if they don’t make sense to an outside observer, because they both know what they’re talking about and they just need to say enough to trigger the unconscious reference in the other person. And that seems true to me in a lot of contexts.

        I bet if you heard two football fans talking, you’d hear a similar “unconscious” conversation, except it would be more like “Picture a Cover 3 defense” than “Picture a surface of revolution.”

    • Tibor says:

      If spatial ability were crucial in mathematics, most artists would be very good mathematicians and conversely most mathematicians would be naturally talented artists. I think that you do need this ability in certain areas of mathematics. But I think you still need a lot less than what an artists who is capable of hyperrealist paintings needs. Most of the time you do what is basically a 2D projection of your model and then you look at it there. Very rarely do you actually need to picture things in 3D. Most of the things are in general dimensions (if they have dimensions at all) and so imagining them in 2 or 3 dimensions does not make much of a difference. Some people claim they can imagine higher dimensions but I don’t really believe them.

      So in short, it probably helps but it is not needed at a very good level and the differences between average male and female spatial imagination should not play a role. I think it is significantly more important in art.

      Also, note that mathematics has a larger ratio of women to men than for example physics or especially computer science. About a third of undergrad students seem to be women, quite consistently. Then it drops by the PhD and even more later. Women also tend to do more applied things in maths more often, but that does not necessarily mean those things are easier. My impression from my studies was that women approach it in a more practical way than men, that is they see it as a way to get a good job rather than something that interests them. Now this is the case of most male students of mathematics as well, but there are more male than female students who study it mostly because they like it. I am not sure if it is correlated with the actual ability. I have no data but anecdotal evidence (people I studied with) suggests that it is not. Sometimes I was surprised to see people who I considered smarter than me to end up doing something quite applied or decide not to continue in research after finishing (a very good) PhD.

      • rlms says:

        “Also, note that mathematics has a larger ratio of women to men than for example physics or especially computer science. About a third of undergrad students seem to be women, quite consistently.”

        Where? In my experience both computer science and maths undergraduates are around 15% female, physics is a little higher, and engineering quite a lot higher (25%).

        • Tibor says:

          Where are you from? This is almost the reverse of what I observed. I studied in Prague, there were close to zero female students in the engineering (and the university actually literally subsidized female students – giving them a small stipend just for being female) and computer science, a bit more in physics and about a third in mathematics – i.e. my field. The information about engineering is second hand from a friend who studied there, it is a different university (Czech technical university, whereas I studied at the Charles University which has no engineering departments). His observation of the maths and physics at his school matched mine, although I think there were fewer women at the CVUT in general (except for construction engineering and architecture), possibly because it is a technical university.

          • rlms says:

            I’m in the UK. Other than for physics, my percentages are from Cambridge admission statistics (pdfs here). Engineering had more women in 2015 and 2014 than previous years by about 4% which matches my anecdote-based theory that the proportions are changing in that direction as it starts to be seen as a profession like law or medicine. Physics is a guess, as the stats don’t break down the sciences.

          • Tibor says:

            Thanks! I don’t have any actual data, or at least don’t know where to find it. For what it’s worth the percentage of female undergraduates at the university in Germany where I’m doing my PhD seems to be about the same, again based on casual observation only.

            So either my observation does not represent reality accurately or for some reason there is a difference between Czech/German and British female students for some reason and it is especially weird if for some reason they prefer engineering to maths in one place and the other way around in another. I always thought that it is sort of for the same reasons men like car magazines and all these technical specifics and women generally don’t and so they’re not very interested in studying similar things either (and if they do engineering it is construction which is not so much about cogwheels and springs or whatever they actually do in machine engineering 🙂 ), whereas maths, being abstract, is more “gender neutral”. I don’t know how it is with engineering with Germany, again the university here has no engineering department.

  15. Rhys Fenwick says:

    Anecdata about AI risk and public perception:
    The largest university debating tournament in Australia ended just a few hours ago; the grand final debate was whether or not to ban AI research. Both teams and most of the large audience (regardless of specialty) seemed to understand the basic outlines of the issue and accepted the potential for an Unfriendly AI, suggesting that the ideas are percolating through the top few layers of academia pretty thoroughly.
    Interestingly the negative team won- not by dismissing the risks of AI research, but by arguing (in part) that if an AI *did* decide to kill us all, it would be using superintelligent reasoning to justify it and that as such if it reached the conclusion that humanity needs to die it would probably be correct and we shouldn’t stop it.

    • Tekhno says:

      @Rhys Fenwick

      Interestingly the negative team won- not by dismissing the risks of AI research, but by arguing (in part) that if an AI *did* decide to kill us all, it would be using superintelligent reasoning to justify it and that as such if it reached the conclusion that humanity needs to die it would probably be correct and we shouldn’t stop it.

      This is fascinating to me.

      I’m constantly reassured by people who believe in objective morality that they fully recognize that morality isn’t some material thing in the world that can be measured, there are no ethical atoms, and that they are using objective analysis from a pre-agreed standpoint where we smooth over individual differences and assume a common human purpose and then discover the objective method for fulfilling that, but this sounds exactly like the strawman moral realism I secretly think everyone believes in anyway. reee etc.

      the conclusion that humanity needs to die

      For what purpose? For whose benefit?

      • Iain says:

        It’s worth noting that university debate rounds are judged not on which team is right, but on which team presents the best case for their side. Having participated in university debate myself, I am quite confident that, upon hearing the result, half the debaters in the room would have immediately started explaining to anybody willing to listen what they see as the correct response to the “we all deserve to die” argument, and how much better they would have done if they were participating in the round. (A small number of them might even have been right.)

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        For what purpose? For whose benefit?

        The galactic IRS needs lots of paperclips.

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        I think the extreme moral realist position is that ‘good’ is as real as cats are real. You don’t have a cat detector, and you may not even be able to define ‘cat’ without finding one and pointing at it, but they are still pretty damn real.

        In particular, when you let people reassure you that they don’t think ‘good’ is as fundamentally real and conclusively detectable as methane, you are letting them off the hook too easily. There is still a vast gulf between moral realists and regular folks.

        Anyway, the flaw in the debaters argument might not be the moral realism part, but just bog-standard “can you really trust this supposedly all-knowing entity”. If you assume God exists, is omnipotent and is morally perfect, and then replace every instance of ‘AI’ in the argument with ‘God’, it becomes a somewhat compelling argument for why you shouldn’t worry about God turning everyone’s blood into lava next Tuesday.

        • Salem says:

          I believe the survey evidence suggests that most “regular folks” are moral realists.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            Do you happen to remember where? Philosophy-by-survey is catnip to me. This survey shows that moral realism wins among professionals, but of course it could win among non-professional too:

            My characterization of “regular folks” is based entirely on my weird and WEIRD personal experiences. But among people I’ve met who to the best of my knowledge have never studied philosophy, none of the non-religious have been moral realists and the Protestants have been either too sophisticated for me to pin down or nihilists.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            It’s a little complicated: see e.g. , but I think the standard view is still that the folk are moral realists.

            One thing that makes it challenging to assess is that the most sophisticated forms of anti-realism bend over backwards to accommodate realist-sounding discourse, to the point where it becomes pretty much impossible to pull apart by a survey the folk could understand.

      • Humans need to beieve in moral realism. Humans cant rationally believe in moral realism.That adds up to believing in moral realism irrationally.

  16. Trofim_Lysenko says:

    So, that “Is it time to deny white men the franchise?” HuffPo post WAS a sokal-style hoax. The editorial defense of it as a totally legitimate viewpoint from “mainstream feminist principles” on the part of the staff, however, was not. They promptly 180-ed on their defense of the article when it became clear they were punked, and pulled the article.

    Whether this proves anything about anything is left to the biases of the audience. The usual suspects are spinning it the usual ways: “the fact that this was a hoax and huffpo pulled it proves that anti-feminist reactionaries are totally nutso about the imagined threats of feminism” vs. “the fact that huffpo staff fell for this and then vehemently defended it as legitimate and grounded in mainstream feminist theory proves that modern feminists/progressives/arglebargle really DO have it in for white men!”

    Current count of left/feminist sources saying “Hmmm, having someone fall for this as legit makes me want to narrow the overton window on rhetoric against white male privilege” or right/anti-feminist sources saying “hmmm, the fact that this was a hoax makes me want to be less ready to believe the worst about feminists/leftists”?


    Le Sigh.

    • zz says:

      Another take: almost no one knows what “mainstream feminist principles” are and the HuffPo editors were self-appointed defenders of a consensus that didn’t exist.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        almost no one knows what “mainstream feminist principles” are

        Another take: “feminist principles” don’t really exist. Feminism is a collection of rhetorical weapons to be used in service of the immediate aims of anyone willing to call themselves a “feminist.” So, the “deny white men the franchise” article just becomes one more spear to be polished.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      Yep, I think it’s entirely plausible to argue that the Huffpo defense was more about kneejerk territorial defense of the website than “this is what HuffPo editorial REALLY believes, everyone!”.

      My personal hope is that being so easily baited into defending that position would make the editors (and hopefully sympathetic huffpo readers) be a little more circumspect and introspective, but that’s probably asking too much.

    • Brad says:

      Leaving aside this particular incident, Huffington Post in general occupies the same bucket in my mind as buzzfeed — on rare occasion surprised that they have legit content but by and large total clickbait crap.

      Do others have a different impression?

    • cassander says:

      right/anti-feminist sources saying “hmmm, the fact that this was a hoax makes me want to be less ready to believe the worst about feminists/leftists”?

      I’m not sure why that would be the case. A bunch of feminists working at huffpo thought it was legit and ran it. The only way to get the argument you’re claiming would be if the hoaxers drew up the article to look like it was run on huffpo, then passed it around facebook or something.

      • rlms says:

        Rubber-stamping an article requires less thought and ideological engagement than actually writing one. If Breitbart published an article with the headline “Maybe the Jews really do run everything”, my opinion of them would go down. If it was then revealed that it was submitted in bad faith, my opinion would go back up somewhat.

        • Matt M says:

          What if, when people questioned whether it might have been in bad faith, the Breitbart editorial staff came back and said “Absolutely not, we fully agree with the opinions expressed in this article. Everyone already knows the Jews run everything, so we don’t understand what all the controversy is about!”

          • rlms says:

            That would have happened in between the two changes of opinion, and would lead to a further downward shift. But that doesn’t affect the upward shift after it’s revealed to be a hoax. In either case, the total shift is negative, but the positive shift from learning it’s a hoax is the same.

            Sidenote: my opinions would be revised further downwards in the case of Breitbart, as the Huffington Post encourages submissions from random authors whereas Breitbart doesn’t.

        • cassander says:

          Depends on the sort of rubber stamp. I know a lot of huffpo material is user generated and they’re just a clearing house. If all they did was not refuse to publish it, I agree with you. But if this went through a more serious editorial process where it competed against other articles for limited slots, or was selected for publication in some way, then not so much. In that case, they read it, thought is was less objectionable than many other choices, and published it.

    • Urstoff says:

      The most annoying part of the whole thing was all the “outrage” from anti-SJW types. You can’t both want to cultivate a norm of reasoned discussions on campuses and places like that but also hyperventilate and tweet a million types about how terrible this person is and the HuffPo for running it. If it’s a bad argument, ok, then point out where it’s bad. Engage or ignore.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        If it’s a bad argument, ok, then point out where it’s bad. Engage or ignore.

        I think it’s more a comment on where the Overton window is. If a fairly mainstream publication ran an article titled “It May Be Time to Deny Blacks the Vote” I do not think the response from the rest of the mainstream media or the twitterverse would be to engage in reasonable discussion and engagement.

        • gbdub says:

          The fact that HuffPo defended and engaged with the article is the bad part. I mean, why does it matter if it was a hoax, from that perspective? Yeah, HuffPo was baited into running (and defending) something pretty awful – but they took the bait!

          So on the one hand, it’s good that there don’t seem to be a lot of feminists willing to defend the content of that article to the bitter end – on the other hand its concerning that HuffPo thought it was worth defending (and not just from a “free speech” perspective, but a “that’s a totally legitimate stance for someone to take”), until they found out they got punked.

          • Brad says:

            You may as well say Verizon defended and engaged with the article as HuffPo. The HuffPo qua HuffPo decision was to have a massively decentralized publication process. You want to criticize that decision, fine. But the actual nuts and bolts involved one person in South Africa that green lit the original post and another two that probably had input into standing behind it or not.

            I wonder how this story came to light in the first place. I don’t remember who posted it two or three open threads ago, but presumably whoever it was isn’t a regular reader of the “voices” section of Huffington Post South Africa.

          • The Nybbler says:


            No, besides just running it, the HuffPo SA editor-in-chief literally defended it (until she found out she’d been taken, anyway).

            Not to worry, though, the responsible party has been fired. (The irresponsible ones are still employed)

          • Brad says:

            The editor-in-chief is one of the “another two”. The other one is the general manager.

            By the way, lest you think that editor-in-chief sounds particularly impressive, the entirety of Huffington Post South Africa is 10 people — including both business and editorial.

          • gbdub says:

            How many paid employees were actually involved in the decision to forcibly remove an elderly doctor from a United plane? Is it wrong to change your opinion of United in any way based on that incident?

            “Well this was just a small satellite office of HuffPo, not HuffPo HuffPo” is something of a defense of the parent company – but that’s an easy standard to abuse/apply inconsistently.

            In any case, it’s not like Arianna Huffington herself came down and blessed this article as Truth, but “editor in chief of a small international office” is still a long way from “random unaffiliated blogger”.

            I think I’m basically at “this is not meaningless, but it’s also not by itself a huge indictment of Huffington Post as a whole”. Other than that they have an open liberal bias and employ a lot of people that share that, but we knew that already.

          • Brad says:

            I mean I didn’t think much of huffpo to begin with (see comparison with buzzfeed above), so if you want to condemn them for it that’s fine with me. I’m more objecting to the statements about the “overton window” or “mainstream publications” or “a bunch of feminists” or “mainstream feminists”.

            South Africa is a pretty strange place ideologically, albeit for somewhat understandable reasons.

        • Urstoff says:

          Of course it wouldn’t, but that doesn’t make the response to this article any less disappointing.

      • suntzuanime says:

        ???? It’s totally fine to be outraged at the outrageous things people say on campuses. Nobody was suggesting donning masks and storming the HuffPo server building, which would be the analogy to what the left is doing to campus speakers.

        The norm where you have to reasonably/logically argue with every idiot saying damn fool things is not sustainable, there’s too many idiots, it doesn’t scale. Not bashing their heads in with lead pipes, on the other hand, scales perfectly well.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Eh. Fundamentally the issue is this:

      The fight either is about principles, or it isn’t.

      But it’s quite clear at this point the fight isn’t about principles, it is almost entirely over what words mean. And when the fight is about what words mean, strikes like this are critical hits. When you understand the point isn’t really to prove what feminists believe, but to prove that “feminist” means something other than what the feminists claim it means. “Look, your own people are willing to believe this is part of your belief structure, you cannot discount this kind of extremism as an irrelevant minority faction.”

      It was, in that light, a successful attack.

      As for the principles of the matter, it is quite irrelevant, but sane people have long since noticed that the arguments aren’t about principles anyways.

  17. rlms says:

    So, the UK’s having an early general election. Any thoughts?

    • Mark says:

      I don’t understand why the labour party voted for it. I mean, their polls couldn’t actually be worse.

      • cassander says:

        They couldn’t stop it anyway and didn’t want to be accused of being against the election?

        • Mark says:

          Labour had just enough votes to block it – 650 MPs in the house of commons, fixed term parliament act required 2/3 majority to vote for election (434), Labour has 229 MPs, 650 – 229 = 421.

          • rlms says:

            It would’ve been very embarrassing if Corbyn had ordered MPs to reject it, but enough betrayed him that they couldn’t block it. There could also have been internal political issues, such as significant number of MPs saying “you keep claiming you can win an election. If you believe that, you’d better show us, or we’re defecting to the Lib Dems”.

          • Mark says:

            Yeah, I guess they are hoping that Corbyn will lose and that’ll be the end of him.

      • Salem says:

        “We believe this government is awful and should be replaced by us. But no, we don’t want to have the chance to replace the government, we want them to continue in place for another few years.”

        It’s a tough sell.

        It would also be an unsuccessful sell – the Conservatives could have just repealed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (only a simple majority needed) or voted no-confidence in themselves (only a simple majority needed, been done twice in Germany for the same purpose).

        If you can’t block the election, you have to pretend to be in favour of it.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          the Conservatives could have just repealed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (only a simple majority needed)

          In the Commons and the Lords, and they don’t have a majority in the latter.

          And while a vote of no confidence in your own government may have worked in other countries, it is (for obvious reasons) unheard of in the UK and might be politically difficult for that reason.

          • Salem says:

            It might be difficult, but they’d still manage it. And it would be twice as difficult for Labour to vote confidence in the Conservatives to prevent the election.

            Yes, they could have badly damaged themselves in order to force May to call the election in a slightly embarrassing way. It wasn’t a hard call.

        • Mark says:

          In that case, it doesn’t seem like there is much point to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Was it just another one of Cameron’s bright ideas? Or something that only made sense in the context of the coalition government?

          • Evan Þ says:

            The same reason there’s a point to the English Bill of Rights or the previous Septennial Act – they can also be technically overridden by a later Parliament, but it’s politically impossible.

          • Mark says:

            So, an attempt to establish a new political norm that hasn’t quite got there yet?

          • Salem says:

            It made perfect sense in a scenario where no one has a Commons majority as was the case when it was passed. It was an assertion of the power of the Commons over the Prime Minister and prerogative power. But, in the present time, where the Prime Minister commands the Commons, it makes no difference.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            It was basically to make sure that neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems could defect on each other by waiting till their poll figures were better than their partners’ and then causing a general election.

    • Mark says:

      Currently Lib Dems are 100 to 1 to get the largest number of seats which seems very unlikely to me. I’m kind of tempted to lay a bet with those odds.

      What would have to happen for the lib dems to become the largest party? All urban pro-EU conservative seats flip to Lib Dem plus Lib Dems win a load of seats from Labour? I’d guess that’s closer to 1 in a thousand.

      • rlms says:

        I agree that it seems pretty improbable. I think the most likely way it could happen would be for the Conservatives to make some blunder that leads to many of their pro-Brexit seats going to Ukip, as well as an implausible swing to the Lib Dems from all other parties.

      • Salem says:

        It’s really hard to say what the denominator is. There have only been 22 general elections under the current set of rules. Only 8 under the current party system – and only 1 if you count Scotland. The Lib Dems have only contested 6 general elections. So although the Lib Dems emerging as the largest party seems like something massively out of sample, with a chance far smaller than 1 in 1000, you have to be careful that you aren’t reading too much into a tiny sample.

        By way of comparison, it’s easy to see in retrospect that it was absurdly overconfident to offer 5000-1 odds on a team winning the Premier League. But that kind of rare event had never struck before, so people didn’t have an idea of how rare it is.

        That said, if the Lib Dems were going to win, would they really be neck-and-neck with UKIP in the polling?

        • Mark says:

          Yeah, that’s true, it is difficult to give a precise number.

          I’m just thinking about the number of fairly unlikely things that have to happen in quite a short space of time, given the current state of the polls.
          In the last election the Lib Dems only came second in 66 constituencies plus the 10 they won, and quite a few of those areas voted Leave – so basically, they’d have to find some issue, in the next few weeks, and Europe probably wouldn’t do it, where they suddenly become the preferred choice over at least two, and possibly three, other parties compared to the last election.

          So, I suppose you could look at the probability of something wiping out the Conservatives, wiping out Labour, and wiping out UKIP at the same time. How many times have parties been wiped out in the past? How likely is it to happen to three parties in the space of a month or so?

          • Iain says:

            In a multi-party race, you don’t need to wipe out every opposing party. If one opponent collapses completely, and you capture a sufficient fraction of their vote, that can be enough.

            You can imagine a world in which Labour implodes messily and the Lib Dems pick up the pieces, leaning heavily on a “Cancel Brexit” platform and capturing most of the Remain vote, while UKIP and the Tories split the Leave vote. It seems very unlikely, but I don’t know whether it is 1000:1 unlikely. As Nate Silver says, polling in the UK is notoriously unreliable.

          • Mark says:

            OK, so, we’re looking for an absolute Labour collapse and a partial Conservative collapse.

            I suppose Labour are already kind of collapsing, so the most unlikely part would be the Conservatives losing a load of seats to UKIP.

            Yeah, I wouldn’t be confident offering a bet at 1000 to 1. Let’s say the Conservatives are exposed as shape shifters, or they have secret plans to stay in Europe, that might do it… so, we’re really looking at the probability of some massively damaging scandal – probably the most damaging scandal to ever happen.

            The probability of a black swan. How do you work out the probability of a black swan event?
            Is it fair to ignore it?

          • AnonYEmous says:

            You can imagine a world in which Labour implodes messily and the Lib Dems pick up the pieces, while UKIP and the Tories split the Leave vote.

            (shortened that a bit)

            As I understand it, UKIP has always been a fringe party, and their main issue – they’re literally the “UK Independence Party” – has been taken care of via Article 50 being triggered to begin Brexit. Immigration, their other hobby-horse, is at least theoretically going to be taken care of as a result of Brexit. Plus Nigel Farage resigned, and the UKIP leadership is apparently a right mess. So there’s not much of a reason to vote UKIP and few did in the first place.

            As to poll unreliability: the recent spate of poll unreliability seems to be driven by populism, right-leaning specifically. Maybe Corbyn can pull some left-wing populism off, but he’s been in the public eye for a while and most people just don’t like him, as far as I can tell, to the point that the Labor Party lost a lot of votes under him. If the Lib Dems can get someone populist, maybe we could see a similar upset, but it’s looking pretty close to 1000:1 unlikely.

            And as to the UK polls being generally unreliable, meh. Still seems like clear trends are there. But I guess I can’t really speak to it.

    • Salem says:

      1. I don’t get the sense of a great deal of excitement about this election from my Labour-supporting friends. They seem to accept that they deserve to lose badly. In many ways that makes it especially dangerous.

      2. The composition of May’s victory is as interesting than the margin. If the Conservatives win by 100 seats but become an older, poorer, less cosmopolitan party, that would be a disaster for the country.

      3. It is extremely unfortunate that we’re having yet another election being conducted on the old boundaries. This has now dragged on >7 years and badly needs fixing ASAP.

      4. For thirty years, the public was given no serious alternative to a pro-EU platform. That wasn’t healthy. Now, there’s no serious alternative to a pro-Brexit platform – and arguably, no serious alternative full stop. That’s even worse. For all its faults the American political system is much more permeable to outsiders than ours. It’s easy to point to our upsides (Farage is a joke and Trump is President) but in the long run I wonder if the unseen costs are more significant. With a more permeable system, we wouldn’t have jumped immediately from mild Euroscepticism being taboo, to full exit.

      • random832 says:

        > With a more permeable system, we wouldn’t have jumped immediately from mild Euroscepticism being taboo, to full exit.

        Oddly enough, some US analyses blame a similar thing for Trump, i.e. that we jumped immediately from “everyone is establishment politicians” to full Trump. One analogy that got repeated a lot was “Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites”, and this is why his character and temperament don’t really matter (or the latter is a plus) to the people who voted for him.

      • John Schilling says:

        For thirty years, the public was given no serious alternative to a pro-EU platform. That wasn’t healthy. Now, there’s no serious alternative to a pro-Brexit platform

        Agreed on the first part. As for the second, there was no serious alternative to a pro-war platform on 4 September 1939 (or 8 December 1941, for the Yanks). Should there have been?

        From a domestic political standpoint, the referendum has been held. If you put it to another vote, whether popular or parliamentary, either Brexit is ratified or a majority of Britons are shown that their vote doesn’t really matter, their rulers will just call however many votes it takes for them to get it “right”. That way lies the end of democracy, and if not with actual revolution I would lose what respect I still hold for the British people.

        From an international political standpoint, Article 50 has been revoked, the letter has been sent, and the EU is not going to pretend that didn’t happen. Britain’s future relationship with the Continent will be renegotiated, and the terms it will get if it takes the “sorry, we didn’t really mean it, please let us stay!” position will not be as favorable as the deal the UK had before Brexit.

        Some decisions, a nation will suffer greatly if it can’t decide once and commit fully.

        • LHN says:

          British democracy got a little theoretical around then anyway, with general elections (last held in 1935) suspended till the war was over. (So even if there had been an antiwar faction, it wouldn’t have been possible to express itself electorally.) By contrast, if the US electorate thought responding to Pearl Harbor was a mistake and wanted to reverse course, it could have made that clear in the 1942 Congressional election and the 1944 Presidential one.

          Granted, the latter would have been pretty late in the day, but a clear antiwar– or more plausibly, Japan First or Japan Only– sentiment in the 1942 campaign could well have had an effect even in advance of the election.

  18. sty_silver says:

    What is the best charity right now helping with the hunger crisis in South Africa and/or Yemen? Someone I know asked me to pose that question. They also said it’s important the charity supports local markets rather than importing food wherever that’s possible. (I know very little about this myself.)

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      South Africa? Somalia is where it’s worst I think. And I must say I am very pessimistic about charity to Somalia. The famine is occurring now because of warlords blocking the food I believe. Will sending more food result in fewer hungry people? I’m not sure.

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      Yemen is that 1-in-a-million case where you might actually be better off donating to politicians/activists than aid groups. Yemen is a normally a food importer, which is just fine so long as no one is bombing and mining your ports. UK and USA could probably get the Saudis to stop doing that (since they are providing essential assistance to the Saudi war effort). As neither the UK, nor the US, nor Saudi Arabia has any compelling interests in Yemen beyond keeping up appearances, this should not be a huge political problem.

  19. Kevin C. says:

    Over at Quillette, there’s an interesting pseudonymous essay, “The De-Professionalization of the Academy.

    This unevenness in faculty preparation would not represent a travesty if not for the glut of highly qualified Ph.Ds. entering the job market each year, many of whom remain on the market year after year. Hundreds of newly-minted, extremely impressive Ph.Ds. often go without full-time work, and some are unable to secure positions as adjuncts. Such difficulties in finding academic work are not primarily due to the “over-production” of Ph.Ds., as is commonly held. Rather, as the labor historian Trevor Griffey argues, the proximate cause is the de-professionalization of academic fields – the penchant for hiring contingent faculty without Ph.Ds., and an apparent administrative preference for under-qualified, inexperienced faculty. In the case of Hudson’s General Studies program, this kind of hiring proceeds apace, despite the large pool of excellent candidates, most of whom would be more than happy to teach at our university while enjoying its cosmopolitan environs. It is not as if these candidates do not apply for jobs in our program. They do. But I have seen their applications passed over for far less qualified, even egregiously unqualified candidates.

    I was appointed by the dean of General Studies to serve as the chair for a writing hiring committee, a committee charged with hiring one full-time writing professor, who not only could teach first-year writing classes but also offerings in journalism. The committee of three met late in the fall semester to discuss the first group of candidates, before undertaking the second set of Skype interviews. I mentioned that I had received an email from one of the candidates and shared it with the committee members. After reading the email aloud, I argued that the missive effectively disqualified the candidate. The writing was riddled with awkward expression, malapropisms, misplaced punctuation, and other conceptual and formal problems. Rarely had a first-year student issued an email to me that evidenced more infelicitous prose. I asked my fellow committee members how we could possibly hire someone to teach writing who had written such an email, despite the fact that it represented only a piece of occasional writing. The candidate could not write. I also pointed back to her application letter, which was similarly awkward and error-laden. My committee colleagues argued that “we do not teach grammar” in our writing classes. Sure, I thought. And a surgeon doesn’t take vital signs or draw blood. That doesn’t mean that the surgeon wouldn’t be able to do so when required.

    The committee went on to hire the woman in question. Since assuming her position, the new hire posted an official faculty profile linked from Hudson’s General Studies program page. Her faculty profile page betrays the same awkward prose, poor incorporation of quotes, and other problems of expression typical of first-year student writers, but usually not professors. The profile also includes a glaring grammatical error. I strongly believe that her official evaluations are likely as bad as her reviews.

    Edit: “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon looks to haveidentified (by Googling a quoted grammatical error) the “diversity hire” professor, and thus the pseudonymized university, spoken of in the article.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Well, calling it “Hudson” along with it being a “top-ranking metropolitan U.S. university” certainly narrows it down. NYU would have been my second guess (after Columbia)

      Note that M.F.A is still considered a terminal degree in creative writing, so it’s not that surprising a lot of faculty would hold it rather than a Ph.D. And since there’s a push to change this and require a Ph.D. for tenure-track positions, some of the hostility of faculty holding M.F.As for those holding Ph.Ds may come out of that dispute rather than anything the author mentioned.

  20. Well... says:

    What’s the most horrific way you can imagine an inhabited planet (such as ours) being destroyed?

    • Nornagest says:

      Depends, what are you scared of?

      • Well... says:

        Is there a way a planet could be destroyed that you find absolutely (not subjectively) horrific?

        • Nornagest says:

          Honestly, I’m having a hard time thinking of many. Partly because the scale’s so large that I have a hard time thinking of it other than abstractly, and horror works better at personal scales; plus, if you’re talking literally rather than figuratively destroyed, the energies it’d take are so huge that no one would have much time to suffer.

          That being said, I always thought vacuum collapse was a spooky idea, for roughly the same reasons that Archer’s scared of brain aneurysms.

          • John Colanduoni says:

            Although the astrophysics of the specific mechanism is sketchy at best, something with a timescale similar to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves gives plenty of time to suffer. Even better, it gives humanity plenty of time to let its worst colors (or best) show in the face of a slow to start but inevitable demise.

    • Anatoly says:

      In a new SF novel by a very talented Polish author Jacek Dukaj, out in the English translation as “The Old Axolotl”, a strong ray of neutrons at relativistic speeds, wider than the diameter of Earth, hits the planet and immediately kills everything biological it encounters (all proteins break down). The inhabitants of the half of the surface initially shielded by the planet itself have hours to live, as Earth continues turning and the ray, hypothesized to be an intentional Death Ray sent by an advanced alien civilisation from far away, continues killing all life. Very few people are able to upload themselves to local networks using a new, and imperfect, brain-scanning gizmo marketed at immersion gamers, and survive. That’s the first few pages of the book; the rest is about how the digital survivors cope and what they try to do on the planet with a dead biosphere.

      I’m not actually sure I recommend this, as I stopped reading the book halfway due to it being so unremittingly depressing (though in a convincing way), but others may find that to be an acceptable level of depressing.

      (I wish someone would translate from Polish and publish Dukaj’s *Other Songs*, a mind-blowing fantasy novel with strong philosophical underpinnings that left a deep mark on me when I read it in the Russian translation a few years ago)

      • Eltargrim says:

        A neutron ray is a poor choice for such a weapon, even at relativistic speeds, due to the short half-life of free neutrons.

        Gamma ray bursts, however, would achieve largely the same effect, and are depressingly plausible. I think that the hours-of-life time scale is appropriate for maximum horror: too short for a plausible solution to emerge, but long enough for our inner demons to wreak havoc, and for despair to set in.

        On a more anthropomorphic level, the destruction of Earth in The Hitchhikers Guide is fairly appropriate: destroyed due to the whims of an ineffectual, uncaring bureaucracy.

        • John Schilling says:

          Gamma ray bursts, however, would achieve largely the same effect, and are depressingly plausible. I think that the hours-of-life time scale is appropriate for maximum horror: too short for a plausible solution to emerge, but long enough for our inner demons to wreak havoc, and for despair to set in.

          Never underestimate the power of nerds to imagine solutions to merely technical problems, no matter the magnitude. Unless the source is in the equatorial plane, part of the Earth’s surface will remain shielded indefinitely. A part that can probably be reached by fast plane before “sunrise”. How much time do I have to stock that plane with the biological necessities of life before departure?

          Also, the biological necessities of life will be imagined to include a comely and willing young woman, because I’m totally turning your Inconstant Gamma Ray Burster from existential horror into a hard-SF love story. So there.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Also, the biological necessities of life will be imagined to include a comely and willing young woman

            Preferably several dozen of them, and IVF equipment, and a lot of frozen sperm.

            (Sorry. But your protagonists can make some of the babies the old-fashioned way, too!)

          • dodrian says:

            A more interesting (and painfully realistic?) story would be said technologically inclined nerds pull off a monumental effort to compile all they need to rebuild civilization in mere hours only to get to New Eden and realise that none of them are women :-/

        • cactus head says:

          A nitpick: I think the short half-life wouldn’t be a problem because time would slow for the neutrons as they approach the speed of light, allowing them to travel arbitrarily long distances before half of them decay.

          Something similar actually happens in real life–muons are short-lived particles that are produced in collisions between cosmic rays and the edge of the atmosphere, so short-lived that you’d expect them to decay before they hit the ground. But muon detectors on Earth see many more muons than expected, and this can be measured by comparing the muon flux at sea level and on a mountain.

          • Eltargrim says:

            Time dilation and length contraction are absolutely factors to consider, but we also must consider that space is big. Really big. Mind-bogglingly big. Even if we can get the neutrons up to (1-1E-15)c, half of them would decay in the time it would take to traverse 1 000 lightyears, with kinetic energies on the order of PeV. Another order of magnitude of the subtraction gets us a three-fold increase in range for a two-and-a-half-fold increase in the kinetic energy per particle. Then factor in the number of neutrons you’d have to use to have an appreciable effect on matter…

            If you’re throwing around energies on that scale, why not use something a little less short-lived and more destructive, e.g. antiprotons? Or better yet, why are you even bothering? You’re already manipulating mass-energy equivalent to stellar masses, what’s a planet to you?

          • simon says:

            At that kind of speeds it hardly matters if the stuff you are using is antimatter – the kinetic energy dwarfs the annihilation energy.

            Neutrons at least at smaller speeds have more penetration depth than antiprotons, that could be a reason to use neutrons. I don’t know if that difference holds up much at relativistic speeds (since I guess only a nucleus will stop either particle anyway).

    • dodrian says:

      Anything where Earth knows that it’s coming and can’t do anything to stop it.

      Greg Bear’s The Forge of God executes this story brilliantly on the macro level (and one of the few books I’ve read which gave me visceral reactions to the horror of it).

      Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy focuses on one man coming to terms with the impending apocalypse, and how he sees society. It’s great on the micro level.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      What’s the most horrific way you can imagine an inhabited planet (such as ours) being destroyed?

      Blown up by a Death Star?

    • Kevin C. says:

      Pulled into the Warp/Immaterium and shattered by a Warp storm like Caliban?

  21. Mark V Anderson says:

    In the spirit of Bean, John S, and Aajpe sharing their expertise with the group, I thought I’d write a posting about my area of expertise. Hopefully this isn’t too boring, but it is an important policy issue in the United States. I speak of corporate taxes as they relate to international earnings of multi-nationals. Every journalistic treatment I’ve seen of this explains it partly but never fully.

    I will number each concept to organize the discussion.

    1) Both individuals and corporations in the US are subject to tax on income earned anywhere in the world. They may also receive credit on foreign taxes paid on the same income to avoid double taxation. But foreign tax credits are very complicated, so one can’t always get full credit. Also, for corporate tax, the tax rate in the US is higher than almost all other countries, so rarely do credits offset all the additional US tax paid on foreign earnings.

    2) So if a US corporation sets up a branch office in France, all the profits earned in France are subject to US taxes.

    3) But to make it more complicated, if the US corporation instead sets up a wholly owned corporation in France instead of an unincorporated branch, then the profits of the French corporation are not subject to US tax (mostly), because it is a French entity, not a US one.

    4) An exception to the rule of #3 is the subpart F rules, where certain income of the French corporation is included with the income of the US owner. One example of such income is passive income, such as interest and dividends. In my experience, large US multi-national corporations average about 10-20% of their foreign subsidiary income as subpart F income. But my experience is limited to a few companies, so be skeptical of this.

    5) Other than subpart F income, the earnings of foreign US subsidiaries (earned outside the US) are never taxed in the US, until the foreign sub sends dividends to its parent. When pundits talk about deferral of tax on international income, this is what they are talking about – that this is not taxed until dividends are declared. But of course for most multi-nationals, dividends will never be declared, because they don’t want to pay US tax on their foreign sub’s earnings. So the word “deferral” may not be quite correct.

    6) I find the outrage about this “tax loophole” to be less than convincing. This is income of foreign subsidiaries earned outside the US. It is only considered to be US income because US corporations own the foreign corps. Why does the US have the right to tax income earned outside its borders in the first place? There are a long line of US Supreme Court cases ruling that states in the US are not allowed to tax income earned outside their borders. I think the same concept should apply to the US about taxing income outside its borders.

    7) Even more outrage is devoted to “inversions.” This is where the tax ownership is flipped so the parent company is no longer in the US. So for the above example in #3, this would be a restructuring so that the French corp now owns the US corp, and the outside shareholders own the French company. Thus any earnings of the French corp would never be taxed by the US, as long as it wasn’t earned in the US. The French corp could then send its earnings to the US corp, but not as dividends. Instead those payments would be investments and so not taxed by the US. This technique is seen as sleazy tax tactics of the highest order, but I think it is perfectly reasonable reaction of multi-nationals that are trying to be taxed only by the countries where they earn the money. And I do think that if the tax rules are changed so that the tax “deferrals “ discussed in #5 are taxed at 100%, inversions will become a lot more common.

    8) I think that the US should change to a territorial system of taxation where they only tax earnings in the US, because that is the fairest system.

    • John Schilling says:

      Why does the US have the right to tax income earned outside its borders in the first place?

      One somewhat plausible justification that comes to mind is that if e.g. a US-owned corporation making a profit in some banana republic finds its assets therein nationalized, it will predictably lobby the United States to send the State Department and if necessary the Marine Corps to get them back, which is an expensive line of business for the United States Government to be in and which purely domestic American taxpayers maybe oughtn’t subsidize. Nobody lobbies the Belgian government to go invade banana republics on behalf of Belgian corporations because Belgium doesn’t have a marine corps (and anyone dealing with the Belgian state department knows it isn’t backed by a marine corps).

      This argument doesn’t hold up very well in the case of a US-owned business in Belgium, because the Belgians are fairly well-behaved and unlikely to go about nationalizing things. But my intuition is that the discrepancy between US and Belgian corporate tax rates is small and so the US owners of Belgian-sited businesses aren’t paying much to Washington, whereas the generalissimo who this year is nationalizing US-owned businesses was last year attracting them with tax breaks.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Note that Apple apparently had $13 billion of tax breaks in Ireland, at least the EU thought so. I don’t think Ireland is likely to nationalize Apple. My impression is that the tax losses of US companies abroad would be enormous if they had to pay US tax on all foreign earnings – in the billions for most large multi-nationals.

        In any case I think your rationale is very thin. Part of that I suppose, is that I am totally against the US taking any steps at all to stop the nationalization of US companies abroad. That is the business of the company, and the risk they take when they invest internationally. And in fact, the US interfering with other countries on behalf of their local firms is wrong partly for the same reason the taxing outside one’s borders is wrong: imperialism.

        • John Schilling says:

          Part of that I suppose, is that I am totally against the US taking any steps at all to stop the nationalization of US companies abroad.

          I quite agree, but I’m not sure you and I speak for the United States of America in this matter.

          My point is, “We will send our diplomats and gunboats to protect your company’s interests” and “Your company will pay taxes to our government” are a coherent whole, each part unsustainable without the other. And, for better or for worse, the former has been a part of US policy for about as long as we’ve had a corporate income tax.

          • Matt M says:

            While I won’t claim this doesn’t, or hasn’t happened, I feel like it’s probably greatly exaggerated. Assets of very large and influential corporations have been nationalized in Venezuela in recent memory, not only did we not send the army in, I can’t recall any politician demanding we do so.

            It seems like this sort of thing could only happen in a small enough country where the Marines could restore the general order of things in a weekend without breaking a sweat, and might conceivably provide more benefit (in terms of live combat training and practice) than costs.

          • John Schilling says:

            Libya is probably the biggest recent example where full-on nationalism and military intervention were in play, and it was a mixed deal for US oil companies. US diplomatic activities to secure intellectual property protection in China are also a relevant example, though lacking the military dimension (fingers crossed, glancing nervously Trumpward).

            But you’re right that we seem to be doing less of this than we did a century ago when we were setting up the rules for income taxes. If there’s an opportunity to overhaul the tax code, that ought to be taken into consideration (fingers crossed, glancing nervously Trumpward)

          • Jiro says:

            Even when the US government actually is willing to intervene abroad, the costs for such US interventions are a tiny percentage of all taxes paid by companies. (Note that you can’t charge the entire cost of the intervention to the companies themselves, since the intervention is also to the benefit of the rest of the United States.)

      • IrishDude says:

        One somewhat plausible justification that comes to mind is that if e.g. a US-owned corporation making a profit in some banana republic finds its assets therein nationalized, it will predictably lobby the United States to send the State Department and if necessary the Marine Corps to get them back

        If true, we’ll see if GM’s tax dollars get their money’s worth from the U.S. government re Venezuela:

      • Rock Lobster says:

        The US doesn’t do that anymore, mostly because the optics are so bad and the damage to the country’s economy would itself be detrimental to other US-owned assets in the country.

        But also these days it’s easier for the U.S. to just shut you out of the global financial system, which usually makes seizing assets not worth the blowback. Sometimes this can be through sanctions but other times it can be a New York State judge who will put an injunction in place preventing banks from cooperating with you.

        Argentina famously ran into this issue where their bonds were issued under the laws of the state of NY, they defaulted and tried to offer 30 cents on the dollar in exchange notes, and then years later the holdouts led by the hedge fund Elliot Management were able to convince a judge that they were owed payment on the bonds.

        Now you may ask, what was to stop the Argentine govt from just snubbing the NY courts? Well, in order to make payments on any of their USD-denominated bonds, even the ones they wanted to service, they had to go through BNY Mellon, the trustee (guess what the NY in BNY stands for). The judge placed an injunction on BNY facilitating ANY payments until Argentina made the holdouts whole (or more realistically struck a deal, or even more realistically made an offer the judge thought was reasonable and would be willing to cram down Elliot’s throat). To get out of all this Argentina would have had to default all over again on everything and divorce itself completely from the US banking system and do the whole thing out of Argentina, which would reduce their access to capital tremendously.

        So TL;DR nowadays the gunboats are digital.

    • Thegnskald says:

      On #6, income earned outside of a state can be taxed by that state, as anybody who has worked remotely for companies based in certain states can attest to. (New York tends to be the most aggressive about this, as I understand.)

      • Incurian says:

        Also, if you are in the military you have a to pick a state to pay taxes to (although you can choose a state that doesn’t think you owe it anything).

        • Matt M says:

          Worth noting that many states still TRY and come after you though. California would notorious send tax bills to me and my various subordinates when we were stationed there, even when our homes of record were in other states, and we did not legally owe California anything. I basically got someone on the phone to admit that they do this intentionally in the hopes that people ignorant of the rules will blindly pay the bill without looking it up or thinking about it.

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        And for extra fun, the state you’re working in gets to tax that income to. Depending on the how the laws are written, you can end up paying state income tax on 100% of your annual income to two different states. I did that the year I moved, and it made me somewhat cranky.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Oh? At least for the two states I’ve looked into (NC and MI), they only tax earnings made while you’re living in the state. So, when I moved out of North Carolina in July, they only taxed what I earned before the move.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Depending on the how the laws are written, you can end up paying state income tax on 100% of your annual income to two different states.

          There’s a Supreme Court decision that declares that illegal, but it’s recent.

        • Trofim_Lysenko says:

          @Evan Thorn, Nybbler

          Per their website and the tax forms I filled out at the time, Michigan claims the right to tax all your out-of-state personal income as long as you are a Michigan resident (defined as being domiciled in the state of Michigan for 183 days or more out of the tax year, which I was).

          Missouri OTOH claims that if you are domiciled in MO (which I was at the time of filing, having moved a few months previously), you are a MO resident, period, unless you can prove that you have no fixed abode in the state, AND have a fixed abode in another state, AND spent less than 30 calendar days in Missouri for the given tax year. They also tax your total gross income, but allow for a tax credit for income tax paid to other states.

          …And now that I’ve looked up the paper form for the 2011 MO-CR, I suspect that the e-file provider I used fucked up my MO-CR, because the tax credit I received on my MI taxes against my MO taxes ended up being just a few dollars, when it should have reduced my MO taxes to nothing…

          Take-Away: Do your taxes by hand yourself or using e-file software you control…

          Honestly, I was making so little at the time that it was just a matter of eating up my federal refund, but when you live paycheck to paycheck you rather look forward to that money.

          • Evan Þ says:

            NC is much more generous; they flatly say “Part-year residents are required to report all income received while a resident” only, plus a couple exceptions. I filled out that form myself a few years ago, by hand, and enjoyed seeing my tax liability go down to near-zero. (Now I’m also seeing I got off a bit easy… that page says I should’ve sent them a copy of my federal form since it showed my new out-of-state address, but IIRC I forgot that. Oh well; I’ve got everything saved just in case they come knocking.)

            As for MI, there I’m only going by what the tax software told me. I’m a VITA volunteer, and normally we only do federal taxes (WA doesn’t have any state income tax, thank you very much), but this one lady who’d moved out of MI mid-year came in when things were slow enough that the site manager told me I could go ahead and complete her state taxes too.

      • John Colanduoni says:

        I would have found the fact that the U.S. and Spain have a better tax treaty than New York State (and City) and California funnier if I didn’t actually have to pay the number I calculated.

        Note for posterity: don’t do your own taxes for the first time if you lived in two states and worked in another that year. Especially if you managed to also involve two local governments that collect income taxes.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        On #6, income earned outside of a state can be taxed by that state

        This is not true. You may not like how this is interpreted, but it is definitely the law of the land. I am not a expert in this area, but it might be considered that you earn the income in your state of residency if it is considered temporary. I know that sometimes states do tax people on where they work and not on where they live, as some states are aggressively trying to get taxes from highly paid athletes, musicians and executives that work there temporarily.

        Also, the states are often very aggressive about what they consider taxable in their state, and it is rarely worth going to court to rectify their mistakes. I am a professional tax accountant, and I’ve seen many a time where I know that a state is taxing illegally, but it also isn’t worth the fight to get it right.

    • Corey says:

      I think it is perfectly reasonable reaction of multi-nationals that are trying to be taxed only by the countries where they earn the money.

      If there was a clear correspondence between “where they earn the money” and some facet of reality it would be reasonable.

      But with little effort, it’s possible to assign income and expenses across borders to assign all of one’s profits to low-tax countries (like one can assign income and expenses such that any particular movie has “lost money”).

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        This is almost completely untrue. I have worked in transfer pricing. There are hundreds of pages of regulations that the Treasury Department has published to make it very difficult for companies to arbitrarily place profits in the most advantageous countries. Heck I worked my butt off just to stay in compliance with these complex rules, without even trying to make it work better for the company. You have been brainwashed by journalists on this subject.

        However, there is a kernal of truth to this. For the largest companies, there are billions of dollars of tax at stake as to how these profits are placed by country. These companies can afford the most brilliant lawyers and economists in the country to make arguments that the tax courts will believe, even if they may be deceptive. The IRS experts are out-classed in this endeavor. So it is true that many of the largest companies are moving profits to lower taxed jurisdictions. Sometimes I think that the complicated regulations written by the Treasury make things worse, because it just gives corporations’ high priced talent more raw material to work with. But I do also see large corporations often lose big tax cases. I think that’s when they get too greedy and try to take too much advantage of the IRS.

        • Corey says:

          Thanks, always nice to hear about journalism errors from a real expert.

          My work is in IP-heavy stuff and my employer recently inverted, so my personal perspective was somewhat skewed.

      • Rock Lobster says:

        A big one for this is when you have a lot of IP baked into the sale price. If you’re a pharma company and you have a pill that costs $1 to produce but you’re selling it for $1000, with the difference theoretically coming from all the R&D costs that went into the IP, then you can have the US subsidiary sell the pill for $1000 but license the IP for $999 from the low-tax jurisdiction sub where the IP resides, then almost all the profit goes to the tax haven sub.

        This is basically why so many pharma companies were trying to do tax inversions a few years back.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          Yes putting the IP into a low tax jurisdiction is a major way for multi-nationals to lower their global tax rates. But it is far from simple to do this. Presumably this low tax jurisdiction is not where the original research was done, so the IP must be transferred there after the research is done (although I did work for one firm that planned to have a lot of its research done in Ireland, one of the few countries that is low tax but probably also has a few world class researchers).

          The problem (for the multi-nationals) is if the research is done in the US, then the IP is necessarily in the US too, at least to start with. And there there are US tax laws which require tax to be paid on the full fair market value of IP moved from inside the US to outside the US. Paying this tax upfront would effectively negate the tax advantage of having this IP in a low tax jurisdiction, if the fair market value is correct. And that’s the rub — because again with the best lawyers and economists in the country, many multi-nationals can convince a court of an incorrectly low value, giving the multi-national a windfall. I would be in favor of disallowing the movement of the IP from where it is originally generated (for tax purposes), because of the mis-match in a fight between the IRS and large firms.

          • Rock Lobster says:

            I should really have a better handle on all the nitty gritty of this since it’s part of my job (investment research including pharma).

            I have two follow-up thoughts to what you just said:
            1) a lot of pharma IP is acquired, which I think would mean they can buy the IP from the subsidiary that suits them best. The acquisition price is often a pretty small proportion of the total realized value of the drug, because the acquirer still has to go through years of testing and approvals on it.

            2. I’m not sure how IP allocation works. R&D is expensed under GAAP so if a drug is developed internally it wouldn’t even show up as an asset on the balance sheet right?

            This conversation is making me aware of some things I had previously hand-waved away.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            @ Rock.

            I will try to answer your questions, but I am limited to understanding quite what you are asking, and also I don’t work with this on a regular basis, so I am not sure of the traps involved.

            I think the most important issue here is we are talking about transfer pricing here, not book accounting of the original expenses. So if the value of a widget being sold includes $5 of proprietary technology, and that tech is owned by an affiliate in a low tax jurisdiction, then the firm must make a $5 payment to this affiliate for each widget sold (nice tax benefit). How much it cost to create the tech in the first place doesn’t matter (and it is true there won’t be any substantial asset on the balance sheet if internally developed). But if the tech was developed in the US this location does matter, because the firm wants to get this tech to be owned in the low tax area to get this benefit. So they need to “sell” the tech to the low tax area affiliate, or invest in this affiliate with the tech. But either way they run into the tax rule that causes them to pay tax on full market value when it leaves the US, as I said before.

            I have no experience with actual pharma practices, so I’m not sure how that works. I suppose it makes sense for acquired tech to be acquired by a low tax affiliate. But if there is still lots of testing to be done on the drugs, then the expenses for these tests would be deducted in the low tax affiliates, which is what they don’t want, and pretty much defeats the purpose of using a low tax affiliate. I don’t know how they do this.

    • Brad says:

      8) I think that the US should change to a territorial system of taxation where they only tax earnings in the US, because that is the fairest system.

      Doesn’t “earnings in the US” or any other state run up against the basically insoluble transfer pricing issue? We can mostly figure out where a sale occurred, but for a complicated multinational with lots of moving parts in lots of countries, can we ever really tell where earnings occurred?

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        See my comment above. It is very complicated. I would prefer us to move to the state method of allocating income, which is to apportion the income split based on the level of sales, property, and payroll in each jurisdiction. This method comes with its own set of problems, but I think it is simpler than what is used internationally.

  22. Kevin C. says:

    So, for the edification of those of us who aren’t in the UK, how big a thing is this: “GPs ‘bribed’ to NOT send patients for cancer tests: NHS pays millions for rationing hip ops, heart checks and even tumour scans” (From The Daily Mail)? Terrible scandal, business as usual, or baseless scaremongering?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know anything about the British health system, but there are a bunch of cancer tests which everyone agrees are overdone and negatively affect patient care. Prostate cancer screening famously gives you a bunch of false positives and tiny tumors that would take longer than the patient’s expected lifetime to cause problems, and some of the smartest doctors I know are involved in anti-prostate-screening efforts (see eg)

      I don’t know if that’s what the article is talking about, but it’s a potential innocent explanation.

    • Loquat says:

      They don’t say specifically what cancer or heart tests were included (save that the cancer tests were “urgent”, whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context – were non-urgent cancer tests not subject to the incentives?), or what the rationale for including them was, so without more information I’m skeptical.

    • Art Vandelay says:

      Well I can see why the folks at the Daily Mail would be worried, they’re famous for their obsession with cancer. This Website was set up to

      Help to make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.

    • I live in the UK but not in the Daily Mail reality bubble.

  23. Sluggish says:

    A random question, and apologies if there’s a really simple answer that I’m not seeing:

    Doesn’t the strict separation of “offense” from “harm” rely on a corresponding separation between mind and body? Any purely moral (that is, not pragmatic/practical) stance on free speech seems to rely on mind-body dualism. Since I wouldn’t have thought most people were mind-body dualists, isn’t this pretty troubling?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      This should only bother you if the concept of “information” bothers you in the same way.

      • suntzuanime says:

        There’s a physical definition of “information”, while “offense” is a social construct.

        Anyway, if you think mind/body physicalism is a problem for rigorously grounding purely moral stances on free speech, wait until you hear about the is-ought divide.

        • Sluggish says:

          I guess that’s fair. Purely moral stances are pretty tricky to come by.

          Having said that, don’t you think it’s fair to read a moral claim into many defenses of free speech? I could be totally wrong, but it seems to me that many such defenses rely on a strict distinction between mental and physical harm. I’m thinking particularly of that cliche about where the right to swing your arm ends.

          pre-edit: This is really weaselly, now that I read it again: let me go and find some specific examples and I’ll get back to this.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Distinctions that are less than infinitely strict work just fine in practice. Our morality itself is not infinitely rigorous, so no aspect of it can be expected to be. We all just gotta get by.

          • Sluggish says:

            That’s a very sensible way of putting it.

            Having said that, I don’t see a lot of people saying “look, I can see that you’re drawing the (somewhat arbitrary) line between insult and assault in a different place than me”, though – I see a lot of people worried about the “rise of masked thugs”, or denouncing students as snowflakes etc. That speaks to me of moral condemnation rather than practical disagreement a little.

          • suntzuanime says:

            You don’t think there are any practical reasons to want to avoid the rise of masked thugs?!?

          • Sluggish says:

            Hah. Not what I meant, though I definitely put that badly.

            I guess all I mean is that one person’s violent suppression of speech is another person’s swift action to interrupt violence, and that this distinction is pretty arbitrary, and that an emotive phrase like “masked thugs” seems to me to imply an absolute moral condemnation rather than a recognition of that grey (ish?) area.

            The distinction is a Schelling fence (am I using that term correctly?), not an objective fact. I get that we might want to encourage people to get on the right fence-line, but I think it’s more complicated than “preventing the rise of masked thugs”.

            (I should note that I’m very much a proponent of free speech and very much not a mask-wearing thug/vigilante. Also, I should really spend a long time more thinking about this before talking about it.)

          • suntzuanime says:

            I think you can do a pretty good categorization of speech vs. violence even if it’s not an infinitely perfect one. This is how categories act in practice. All areas are grey, but some of them are pretty fucking dark and some are pretty fucking light and we don’t lose a ton of info by simplifying those issues to black and white. Giving a speech is a rather prototypical example of speech, and whacking someone over the head with a heavy object is a rather prototypical example of violence, and if you can’t distinguish the two you need to stop taking philosophy classes.

          • Sluggish says:

            C’mon, I’ve been pretty clear that I’m purely interested thinking these through, and that in all practical terms I think we’re in complete agreement. I feel like you’re implying that I’m an idiot, and I don’t think it’s warranted.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were an idiot. I meant to imply you were losing your grip on reality. For some, the study of philosophy is a harmless vice, but others take it seriously and go kinda nuts.

            Anyway, the answer to staying sane is to stop thinking in absolutes and start thinking in amounts. Don’t say “the (somewhat arbitrary) line between insult and assault”, say the “the (almost entirely clear) line between insult and assault”. A Human’s Guide to Words is a good resource for how to sanely think about categories.

      • Sluggish says:

        I’m a philosophy student (sort of) – pretty much everything bothers me.

    • Incurian says:

      How common are strictly moral defenses of free speech?

      • Sluggish says:

        Less common than I thought, having taken a look around.

        Having said that, they do often rely on a strict distinction between mental and physical harm; not so much in the recent discussions around speakers on campuses, but very much so in discussions of (for example) abortion protesters.

        • Incurian says:

          You could also say they rely on a strict distinction between subjective and objective harm, and that switching the standard from the latter to the former would have some predictably negative effects.

          • Sluggish says:

            What do we mean by “subjective harm”, though?

            If we mean that the effect of the action taken depends on the person it effects, then that would seem to include quite a few physical actions – if I gently punch someone on the arm, it matters quite a lot whether the arm is already broken (or that they’re a baby, or whatever). It depends on the subject.

            If we mean that the state of being brought about by the action is only harmful for some people, there seem to be two problems: first, whether stabbing someone in the ear with a needle is ‘harmful’ seems to depend quite a lot on whether they’re in a piercing studio and have paid me to stab them, so it depends on who they are. If they have, then they probably won’t think of their bleeding ear as “harm”.

            Second, one could argue that the specific state of mind caused by the action is objectively harmful – it’s just that the action doesn’t cause it in all people. That’s the same as the broken arm thing, I guess. You could formulate the argument as something like “being shouted at when you have PTSD is always harmful – it’s just that you don’t have PTSD”

            All of this is just musing of course.

          • lvlln says:

            The line between “objective” and “subjective” is obviously fairly hazy, probably as hazy as that between “mental harm” and “physical harm.” In the end, it’s about how and where we draw the line.

            For instance, it’s generally accepted that it’s very easy to prove to the layman that someone has a broken arm or that someone is a baby, and what we commonly know about human physiology tells us that a gentle punch to their arm is highly likely to cause severe pain or injury. It’s also fairly easy to prove that someone has expressed a desire to be stabbed in the ear.

            In a sense, whether someone has a broken arm, or whether someone is a baby, or whether someone has expressed a desire to be stabbed in the ear, are subjective calls. After all, who gets to make the call that someone making a set of noises through their mouth can be correctly interpreted as expressing a specific desire, or that seeing someone’s arm in a cast and an X-ray with a bunch of white shapes on a black background can be correctly interpreted as that person having a broken arm? But I think that these cases rely on things that almost everyone tends to expect almost everyone else in society to understand – the meaning of words in a shared language, or the shape of bones and techniques used to fix them when broken – that in most cases, people would agree that these are “objective” situations.

            Obviously, this isn’t absolute and should be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. If someone expressing a desire to be stabbed in the ear and the stabber don’t share a common language, then consent can’t be determined. If someone wearing a cast goes into a society with no knowledge of casts, they can’t fault someone for gently punching them in the arm and thus causing extra injury or significant pain without meaning to.

            And getting to the PTSD example, that’s an area that’s closer to the hazy borderline, I think. It’s not obvious how one can determine if someone has PTSD – or what sort of things that PTSD leaves that person sensitive to – so it’s hard to claim that the harm caused to someone with PTSD by someone shouting at them clearly lies on the “objective” end of the spectrum, in the same way that someone gently punching a broken arm is “objectively” harming that person. One can obviously claim that one has PTSD, but also obviously such claims can be false and prone to abuse.

            Personally, it seems to me that emotional and mental harm are important things to consider, and it’s generally a good thing that preventing those is becoming more of a concern as time goes on. But since we have no way of reading people’s minds, we have to be very very careful in how we go about identifying that harm and preventing it. If person A claims that person B saying X causes them mental harm, then person B can just turn around and claim – with just as much veracity and trustworthiness – that not being allowed to say X causes them just as much mental harm. We can’t just go immediately to taking people’s claims of mental harm at face value, because this territory is, currently, far more on the “subjective” end of the spectrum than physical harm is.

            And certainly, unless and until we have methods of observing people’s mental states that are as much agreed upon as being accurate as observing people’s physical states, mental harm should never be equated to or even supersede physical harm in terms of the damage it causes.

    • John Schilling says:

      Sticks and stones may break my bones nonconsensually; words will never hurt me unless I choose to listen. Rare exceptions mostly already addressable under assault, trespass, and public-nuisance laws independent of the particular words chosen.

      And really, when people complain about being “hurt” by someone else’s words, that’s mostly posturing. What they really object to is that a third party might willingly hear and be persuaded by the words, and that shouldn’t be any of their damn business under the law.

      • rlms says:

        I don’t think the second paragraph is true. Insults definitely exist, and I think they often play some role in people trying to shut down speech. I think this applies especially in cases involving legality, which are more likely to be motivated by impact of speech on feelings than boycotts of speakers etc.

      • beleester says:

        You don’t always get a choice about listening to someone, not unless you can turn your ears off. Insults can emotionally hurt you, and emotions aren’t something you can reliably control. No matter how loudly you insist to yourself that the insult is false or that you don’t care, it still registers on some level.

        (If you dispute this, I invite you to go to a high school and tell all the bullied kids that it’s their own fault for listening to the bullies.)

        • The Nybbler says:

          If you dispute this, I invite you to go to a high school and tell all the bullied kids that it’s their own fault for listening to the bullies.

          Perhaps things are different in this degenerate age, but when I was in high school, the bullies would physically attack their victims, not just insult them.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            You are so stupid. You’re probably one of those retards. You a retard, Nybbler?

            (More nuanced)

            Insults might have resulted in fights more often “back then”, but there have always been insults. Submitting to the insult or fighting is based on a complex set of factors, one of which is simply “Do I think the bully can (easily) beat me up?”

          • The Nybbler says:

            I believe you have misread my comment. It’s not that bullies would not engage in insults, of course they would. But if the victim failed to respond to the verbal insults (or if the bullies felt like it), the bullies would also engage in physical attacks. Delivering an insult while shoving, hitting, or tripping the victim, for instance. Or sometimes merely doing the hitting, shoving, or tripping. If you didn’t listen (or pretended not to listen) to the bullies, they would get your attention.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            HBC’s insult was well played – I could feel what I guess is called a trigger. And even so, I think Nybbler has it more correct in this case.

            I used to get bullied all the time in school, and I remember the words, followed by the shoving. I remember ignoring the words, and then getting shoved until it was made clear to me that I could no longer ignore the words, because it would result in shoving and hitting.

            Later, when I felt confident enough to resist shoving and hitting, the words promptly stopped bothering me. The only thing I was forced to give up was involvement in those bullies’ social circles. (This might sound like no great loss, but to be fair, some of the less pushy bullies were attached enough to some of the more desirable circles that it cost me a little social networking.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I would submit that bullying has always been a means to assert social dominance, violence is simply one tool available for this.

            If you get in a fight with your buddy because you guys are angry at each other, sure he might beat you quickly, and even give you some nasty bruises. Or you guys might beat the tar out of each other. But if the end result of that is not a loss of the friendship, but a strengthening of it, the pain is fairly easily bearable.

            It’s not the physical pain of the bullying that matters nearly as much. You both even point out an example of physical bullying intended to make sure you pay attention to the psychological bullying.

            Sure, you can put an end to the bullying by successful establishing status in some way, but that doesn’t speak to the point of whether successful verbal bullying is harmful.

          • John Schilling says:

            IIRC, and I was there, bullies started using “retard” at about the time “retard” became the officially approved polite term for the conspicuously unsmart. When the language changed, they started using “special” in the same way.

            Nybbler and Brinkley are right; bullying is about harassment, physical and otherwise, more than it is about insults. Bullies are generally quite skilled at tailoring their attacks to avoid language that would invole the wrath of authority, and cannot be stopped by any “no insult” policy that is not so expansively vague as to defy fair enforcement.

            And, back on point, nobody of any great significance is trying to do that. The attacks on free speech today, are not directed at bullying. And what anti-bullying activities I do see, rarely take the form of tailored content restrictions on face-to-face speech. Give the anti-bullying activists credit for that much; they don’t seem to have come up with anything that works, but they are at least sticking to the mostly-unobjectionable subset of plans that don’t work. The anti-free-speech activists, not so much.

          • onyomi says:

            Re. bullies:

            In a recent thread someone else mentioned the idea that free speech could be harmful if say, done on a loudspeaker at 3 am outside your house. Someone replied that, in such a case, it’s the loudspeaker and 3 am parts that constitute the violation (harassment), not the actual content of the words.

            Bullying is, indeed, about harassment, not the content of words, per se. In fact, as John Schilling notes, in my experience, bullies like to play a game of plausible deniability, which is what allows harassment to continue. It’s the delivery of the words–often repeated over weeks and months, muttered, whispered, said threateningly but with plausible deniability, etc. which are the harassment, not the content of the words.

            This is why I agreed in the last thread about free speech and the commons that inviting Milo to a campus is arguably burning some of the free speech commons, not because of his opinions, but because he apparently sometimes targets individual students in a way that isn’t just about expressing a general idea.

            I guess part of the difficulty here is the idea that “bullying is in the eye of the beholder.” That is, if someone says they feel threatened, we should always believe them. I don’t think this is true. I think that, while it may be difficult, from the outside, to determine when harassment is really going on, precisely because of the plausible deniability tactic, I don’t think that means it’s impossible to evaluate the claim. Like stalking, it’s an identifiable pattern of behavior which we don’t simply have to take the victim’s word for.

            In any case, in most of these controversial campus cases, it’s entirely obvious who is doing the harassing.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            When the language changed, they started using “special” in the same way.

            can confirm, under 25 and “special” is an insult meaning retarded, all of my generation would agree

          • LHN says:

            In my middle school in the early 80s, calling someone “a sped” was a go-to insult. (A mild to medium strength one.)

            It was only years later that I realized that it was a contraction of “special ed”.

        • John Schilling says:

          You don’t always get a choice about listening to someone, not unless you can turn your ears off.

          I can hang up the phone perfectly well. And approximately 0% of the free-speech controversies I have seen lately have involved deliberate insults delivered in person to someone who was not going out of their way to court them. That’s not the speech people are actually trying to suppress, even if it is the one type that might arguably harm the innocent.

        • Matt M says:

          I generally disagree with this.

          I think what makes bullying generally intolerable is not the severity of the offense, but the constant repetition of it. Hearing one person insult you a few times is no big deal, no matter what they say, especially if said person is easily avoided in the future. But when it comes to bullying, school and the workplace are unique circumstances in that you’re essentially stuck and required to see the same people all the time (school much moreso than work, because adults can theoretically find a new job).

          So I basically agree with the “sticks and stones logic.” It’s not the words themselves that hurt a victim of bullying, it’s the constant repetition of a pattern of harassment that one has absolutely no means of avoiding or preventing.

          • beleester says:

            If you’re going to assert “Words can’t hurt you because you never have to listen to them,” and then admit that there are cases where you do have to listen to them, I feel like you’re actually agreeing with me.

          • Matt M says:

            We probably dispute on how often those cases arise. My argument is “almost never.”

    • Philosophisticat says:

      One difference, that may or may not matter, between offense and other sorts of harm is that you might have reasons to be, or not to be offended in response to what someone says, but you do not have reasons to be, or not to be in pain in response to being hit in the balls by a sledgehammer.

  24. Kevin C. says:

    The US Census Bureau has released a new report [pdf] on young adulthood (18-34) in America, and the economic and demographic changes since 1975. And while I’ve not fully absorbed it all yet, several points already stand out.

    More young people today live in their parents’ home than in any other arrangement: 1 in 3 young people, or about 24 million 18- to 34-year-olds, lived in their parents’ home in 2015.

    And this is very recent; the report subsequently points out:

    In 2005, the majority of young adults lived independently in their own household, which was the predominant living arrangement in 35 states. A decade later, by 2015, the number of states where the majority of young people lived independently fell to just six.

    And for the rise of NEETs:

    Of young people living in their parents’ home, 1 in 4 are idle, that is they neither go to school nor work. This figure represents about 2.2 million 25- to 34-year-olds.


    Far more young adults miss the bar set for financial independence: less than 1 in 3 were financially independent of their parents by the age of 21 (when measured by the proportion of 21-year-olds whose income was at least 150 percent of the poverty threshold) (Table 1). The true proportion that is financially independent is probably lower because young people may omit the financial help from their parents, such as a down payment for a mortgage or help paying the rent or other bills, when reporting their income. This kind of help should not be underestimated. About 1 in 3 of all 18- to 34-year-olds rely on their parents for financial assistance.

    Looking at income distribution:

    More young men are falling to the bottom of the income ladder. In 1975, only 25 percent of men, aged 25 to 34, had incomes of less than $30,000 per year. By 2016, that share rose to 41 percent of young men. (Incomes for both years are in 2015 dollars.)

    Figure 1 on page four was highly illustrative. With reagrds to polling of what people believe constitute the important milestones for achieving “adulthood”, completion of formal schooling scores the strongest. For ‘financial independence from parents’, a majority rate it only “somewhat important”; and a larger majority rate ‘no longer living in parents’ household’ as only “somewhat important”. The biggest there, though, looks to be that marriage and parenthood are no longer expected steps to adulthood, but (much delayed) options/luxuries that come (if ever) well into “adulthood”: 55% of respondants rate both of those as “not important” to becoming an adult.

    Lot of interesting data there, indicating plenty of major — and rapid — shifts in the past 40 years.

    [Edit: fixed html tag errors]

    • Gobbobobble says:

      More young people today live in their parents’ home than in any other arrangement: 1 in 3 young people, or about 24 million 18- to 34-year-olds, lived in their parents’ home in 2015.

      Important to note:

      The CPS counts college students living in dormitories as if
      they were living in their parents’ home. As a result, the number of
      young adults residing in their parents’ home is higher than it would be
      otherwise, especially for 18- to 24-year-olds, who are more likely to
      be living in college housing.

      Looks there’s around 17 million undergrad students – if we assume that ~1/3-1/2 of them live in dorms (this was my experience, anyway), that knocks a big chunk off of the number of those who’d generally be considered “living at home”.

      Neat report, though, thanks for sharing.

  25. Thegnskald says:

    Since politics has calmed down a little bit and I’m not attacking anybody directly:

    Presidential golf trips are (mostly) an absurdly obvious euphemism. They’re conducting state business, or receiving tours of facilities, which the government doesn’t want the public to think about too heavily. There’s a reason presidents have trouble cutting them short immediately if a crisis arises during one, and why every president (with the curious exception of Jimmy Carter) since the Cold War began has engaged in a slowly increasing, presidency-by-presidency, number of golf trips.

    This is part of a general trend; the government isn’t quite as incompetent as it appears; indeed, it has managed to position itself such that accusations of competence on the part of the government tend to get dismissed as paranoia. Notice, for example, how paranoid this very paragraph reads. It’s quite a convenient position, if you think about it.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      every president (with the curious exception of Jimmy Carter) since the Cold War began has engaged in a slowly increasing, presidency-by-presidency, number of golf trips.

      That’s a pretty precise statement. Where do you get your numbers?

      I think that the top 3 are Wilson, Eisenhower, Clinton.

    • Nornagest says:

      I think in most cases it’s more likely that they involve both conducting state business (on a less formal level than what typically goes on in the White House) and actually playing golf. Whenever there’s a lot of negotiation to be done, it usually goes smoother if the getting-to-know-you and communicating-intentions phases are moved away from the literal negotiating table; golfing’s a traditional venue for that for a number of reasons, although it’s not the only one. George W. Bush liked to take diplomats to his ranch in Texas. I don’t know what Jimmy Carter did but I assume it was something similar.

      • Jordan D. says:


        Trust me on this one, politicians- and especially executives- do in fact play a lot of golf. That isn’t to say that they don’t do other things on those golf trips, but if their offices are reporting that they went golfing, they probably did do that. Golf is just really, really popular as an icebreaker at those levels.

  26. Evan Þ says:

    Huge if true: Physicists claim to have created/observed negative mass. Here’s the original paper; can someone with a journal login please look it over?

    If this can be replicated, as I understand things, it would have phenomenal implications for conservation of energy and perhaps render an Alcubierre warp drive or stable wormholes possible. However, without replication, I’m skeptical; and without the full text or a background in particle physics, I have no way of evaluating the experiment. Thoughts?

    • cactus head says:

      Paper’s available at however I don’t have the background to evaluate the claims.

    • smocc says:

      It is true but not nearly as exciting as the headlines make it sound. Note the abstract starts “A negative effective mass…” Effective mass is a property of excitations in low-energy, highly interacting systems. It’s called mass by analogy only. It has nothing to do with the kind of mass gravity interacts with.

      This is of interest to condensed matter physicists, but not anyone else.

      • smocc says:

        Now that I’ve reviled sufficiently intensely against the bad headlines, let me show my actual feelings about it.

        This is pretty darn cool on several levels.

        From an experimental condensed matter perspective, it’s a cool phenomenon in a condensed matter system that has never been engineered before.

        From a theoretical condensed matter perspective, it appears to be validating several cool ideas that people already had, and cementing some relationships between concepts.

        It is also cool from a theoretical particle physics perspective. There’s a lot of overlap between particle theory and condensed matter theory nowadays for deep reasons. Most condensed matter phenomenon are well described by the same theoretical tools that describe particle physics (namely quantum field theory). One of the major questions of past few decades has been “what phenomenon can arise in principle from a quantum field theory system.” The discovery has been that the answer is more than we thought. This confirms that a system that is described by quantum field theory can indeed exhibit negative effective mass excitations, with much of attendant weirdness that entails.

        However! Condensed matter systems and particle systems are related only by analogy. Just because quantum field theory can describe a phenomenon doesn’t mean the phenomenon must exist in nature. The existence of a condensed matter system that exhibits negative effective mass tells us interesting things about our theoretical tools, but nothing about what nature is like, except in this very carefully engineered condensed matter system.

        Put another way, the relationship between condensed matter systems and particle systems is purely analogous. This system can teach us about negative mass and gravity only insofar as gravity is like this system, and there’s nothing to suggest that gravity is actually like this system in any ways but the most boring.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Thank you! I’d never heard of effective mass before, so not only did the headline take me in but the caveat in the paper title did nothing to save me.

          I’m not sure I’m understanding your last few paragraphs correctly. Are you saying that there’re a whole lot of longstanding analogies between effective mass (in condensed matter systems) and actual mass (in particles in the general universe) so that this might hint that the analogies continue and there’s actual negative mass?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I don’t think so, as they close with:
            “and there’s nothing to suggest that gravity is actually like this system in any ways but the most boring.”

          • smocc says:

            No, that’s not what I’m saying.

            There are analogies between effective mass and actual mass, and we understand why those analogies are correct, and also what the limits on those analogies are.

            It’s conceivable that there you could engineer some condensed matter system that would have behavior analogous to one model of gravity in the presence of negative mass. This system could then tell you something about how that model of gravity would act if there were negative mass. But it would not tell you if there is gravity with negative mass in nature (or even if your model of gravity is the correct one)

            An analogy for this idea: Often in teaching intro physics students about circuits teachers present analogies to other systems. One professor at my institution uses a ski slope. The skiers are the charges moving in the circuit, a battery is like a chair lift taking skiers to the top of the mountain, and resistors are like ski runs of varying slopes that can diverge and connect like circuits.

            Now imagine you go to a ski slope and study the flow of skiers. For the most part you find that the analogy between circuits and skier-flow holds up. But then you notice some skiers with their skis off hiking up the mountain. “Huh, that’s an interesting thing those skiers are doing,” you say. “I’m going to tell my friends who are interested in ski dynamics.” Then your university PR department says “Amazing! Negative current flowing against a potential! This has so many astounding implications for electronic circuits! The rules of energy conservation have to be rewritten!” You groan and rub your temples.

    • Matt M says:

      So…. will I live long enough to have an Asari girlfriend?

      • Skivverus says:

        Probably depends more on augmented reality, genetic engineering, and/or sufficiently advanced cosplay, but maybe?

      • LHN says:

        The Charon relay’s slated to be opened in 2149, so it may be touch and go.

        (And really, we should just leave it alone for a few hundred more years, then emerge into a mysteriously empty galaxy.)

  27. Matt M says:

    Free-speech related:

    Previously, I have mentioned how ubiquitous it is to encounter otherwise generally well-educated people who legitimately believe that “hate speech is not protected by the first amendment [in the US].” Some have suspected that I am exaggerating this or questioned whether I have any data to back it up that this is a legitimate concern.

    It’s only one point, but consider this tweet, from someone who was about two steps away from becoming President.

    Does anyone care to explain/defend this? I think it’s somewhat possible that he knows he’s technically wrong, but is intentionally spreading misinformation in order to increase the amount of people who believe “the thing he wants to happen” is, in fact, the default and established way of things. Thoughts?

    • rlms says:

      It would be interesting to see how many people believe that flag-burning is not protected, and what the intersection of the two groups is.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I think it’s somewhat possible that he knows he’s technically wrong, but is intentionally spreading misinformation in order to increase the amount of people who believe “the thing he wants to happen” is, in fact, the default and established way of things.

      I don’t know if that’s what Dean is up to, but I think it is what a lot of people are up to. Particularly journalists and advocates.

      Naturally, Volokh gave Dean the standard Volokh slapdown on this issue.

  28. CatCube says:

    So, I finished the morning session of the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (the test you take to get your Professional Engineer certification). That session either went really well, or really, really badly. I knew how to solve all but about 5 right off (out of 40), pretty much getting one of the multiple choice answers right off, and when I went back to those 5, two I found out that they were a lot easier than I thought. (One turned out to be “find this number in the problem statement and bubble it in as the answer.”) One problem used an equation I had never heard about before, but I just multiplied a bunch of the numbers in the problem statement together and got one of the answers, so maybe I got that one right. I ended up finishing at about 1:57 out of four hours, and spent the next 40 minutes checking work (did find two mistakes) before handing it in.

    Now, however, I’m paranoid that I missed a bunch of things; they pretty much always try to make common mistakes as the other answers–one of the mistakes I know I made was because I made an easy mistake (and corrected it while checking my work). Does anybody else have this problem, where they start thinking its a trap when a test is too easy?

    We’ll see how the afternoon session goes, since it starts in two hours. I’m going to grab some lunch.

    Edit: Aaaargh! At lunch, I realized I had made a stupid mistake on one of the problems, by not thinking through what the question was asking for.

    • Eltargrim says:

      Does anybody else have this problem, where they start thinking its a trap when a test is too easy?

      Not to psych you out, but it’s been my consistent experience that when a test is really easy, I’ve been doing really poorly. It’s when a test is moderately challenging that I tend to have my best results.

      Of course, the above is entirely predicated on the idea that the test is supposed to be a fair evaluation of your knowledge of the material. During my undergrad, I had to take a second-year quantum chemistry class, when I was already doing quite well in third-year quantum physics. That exam was quite easy, and I did exceptionally well; but I knew it wasn’t a trap, I legitimately knew the material above the level that the class was being evaluated at.

      So while it could be a trap, it could also be you’re actually well above the level the test is intended to challenge. So enjoy your lunch, sit the afternoon session with confidence, and good luck with the rest of your PEng!

      • CatCube says:

        I’m psyching myself out with that line of thinking! However, I’m a structural engineer, and a fair number of questions were statics questions or finding the maximum stress in cross-sections. A lot of the rest were area and volume problems or definitional and concept-type questions.

        Also, the question writers aren’t above shit like this (this is roughly what a senior engineer in our district saw on his 10 years ago):
        A column has a dead load of 35 kips and a live load of 25 kips. The building is located in southern Missouri. The seismic Site Class is D, and the column forms part of an eccentrically-braced frame. The 500-year wind event is 105 mph, and the building is atop an escarpment 120′ above the surrounding terrain. What is the service load on the column?

    • The Nybbler says:

      When a test is too easy I’m suspicious of it being a trap…. but sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not.

      Just remember when you get your P.E. you officially go from Useful Working Engineer to Hidebound Pusher of Paper Whom The Young Turks Mutter Imprecations About.

      • CatCube says:

        Done with the afternoon session. This one was “better” by Eltargrim’s criteria where it was more challenging. I’m not sure if my crushing it during the morning session was enough to balance out the “We fucking love masonry design!” in the afternoon, because I have never once designed masonry since college. Plus there were three problems that basically boiled down to “Look up the answer in the publication you don’t have.”

        As far as going to paper pusher, I’m going to stiff arm as much Team Leader stuff as I can. At least when I was in leadership positions in the Army, if somebody wasn’t producing I could make their lives miserable. Plus, I suck at the paper pushing part of the job in the TL positions I already have.

        What field are you in? In mine (structural engineering) the expectation is you’ll get your P.E. more or less as soon as you can, even though you won’t actually be in major leadership positions for another 8-10 years.

  29. BBA says:

    As we’re all well aware, something happened about 5-7 years ago and suddenly all of pop-cultural criticism is required to view everything through a socio-political lens. Contra what some would have us believe about the liberal media, this is a new phenomenon: as the author of the linked piece notes, the famously liberal Pauline Kael (“only one person I know voted for Nixon”) would excoriate left-wing “message movies” when the preachiness detracted from the quality of the work. Now it’s mandatory for any discussion of the new miniseries of The Handmaid’s Tale to go into how very timely and relevant it is.

    What I’m wondering is: how did this happen? I remember reading these kinds of takes in my college newspaper in the early 2000s, but many of my fellow students took them with a skeptical eye, and it was basically unheard of once you got off campus. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s partly that Facebook (which, let’s not forget, was originally targeted at college students) has basically destroyed the line between on-campus and off-campus media, and partly the recession. It used to be that when you graduated you hit the “real world” face-first and had no time to worry about how “problematic” the movies are when you’re trying to hold a job down. Then the recession hit, and you had a bunch of unemployed liberal-arts majors with lots of time on their hands free to blog about their politics to their hearts’ content. This does explain the rapid spread of wokeness into the mainstream, but I don’t know how it managed to so rapidly and completely supplant the old Kaelian paradigm of criticism. What do you think, sirs?

    • Loquat says:

      How does this compare to the rise of clickbait in general? Excoriating popular media properties for their “problematic” elements, or praising them for teaching Important Lessons, makes much better clickbait than just talking about the quality of the writing/acting/etc.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      I think that the boring answer is “the US is increasingly partisan; this is one manifestation of increasing partisanship.”

      Of course, that rather begs the question about why we are increasingly partisan, but if you’re narrowly interested in the evolution of media tone, I think it’s a sufficient answer.

      Why we are increasingly partisan is maybe more interesting. I tend to think that it has to do with the decline of locality/increased need to be part of national rather than regional or local groups.

      • BBA says:

        The ’90s and ’00s were plenty partisan, though. What I’m wondering is why there was a sudden cultural shift to politicize literally everything. The plot of Passengers was unremarkable when the screenplay was written in 2007 yet problematic as fuck when the movie was released last year. How did everything change in a mere decade? And you can’t say 2007 wasn’t a partisan time, or that the media wasn’t as liberal then – it was. I was there.

        • AnonYEmous says:

          the political is the personal


          i think moving politics into the realm of morals as regards isms, is what really done did it. But I have to admit that this is in no way the full explanation.

          Other explanation is just : “The media”.

        • qwints says:

          I disagree. Passengers would have been objected to much earlier. Overboard was thematically similar on 1987 and was subject to contemporaneous critique.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          Well, the 90’s and 00’s may have been plenty partisan, but I don’t think that they were as partisan as today. Is this controversial? I thought it was well-accepted.

          For example:

          Now, maybe we’re saying the same thing, you as a question, and I as an answer. Maybe your question boils down not to “why is the media politicizing everything,” but “what accounts for the rise in partisanship”? But if you’re narrowly asking why the media is politicizing everything, I think that it’s because of partisanship. That is, specifically, partisanship is feeling that people of opposing political views are not just different or wrong, but the enemy. And people politicize everything in order to use it as a weapon to attack the enemy.

          Why increasing partisanship? Everyone needs an outgroup, and conversely an ingroup. I think that until recently, for a lot of people, local groups served as ingroups and outgroups, and often did not map well to national political groups. So the opposing national political group was a fargroup, and didn’t generate much antipathy so much as kind of bewilderment.

          Then the social networks connected us all in the mid-00’s, and everyone started being part of a national conversation. Give that a few years to feedback and change people’s habits, and opposing national political groups became outgroups, and thence partisanship, and thence politicizing everything.

          It’s a theory. As our host would say: epistemic status: I kind of made up a lot of things with no evidence beyond a hazy anecdotal sense that it “feels right,” which probably means it’s not right.

          • Kevin C. says:

            That is, specifically, partisanship is feeling that people of opposing political views are not just different or wrong, but the enemy… Why increasing partisanship?

            Some of it could be as you say. But, I’d submit an alternative theory. With the increased information via the internet, social networks, and so on, could the increasing partisanship, as you define it, perhaps be at least partially people “updating their views on the evidence”? That is to say, perhaps the reason the two opposing sides/tribes increasingly see each other as enemies is because we are, in fact, enemies?

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I’ve long thought the country wasn’t much more partisan today, so much as they were much more aware of the partisanship that had always existed. This is mostly an artifact of the Internet, and more precisely, the spread of multi-cast networks to the general population. Several million people can now afford to submit opinions to thousands of others, as easily as they could when sitting around about five at a dinner table. It used to be that when you had a forum that large, it was a church or convention or lodge meeting, and you picked your words much more carefully.

            I think people will gradually learn to do that again.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          My theory is that shortly after Obama’s second win in 2012, Progressive ideology hit critical mass in the culture. Once everyone culturally active was on the same side, there was no conflict left to sustain unity. The culture as a whole turned on itself, accelerated by the rapid blowup of social media, in a shitstorm-spiral that continues to this day.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            To me, the flashpoint was 9/11. That was when we saw the most stark sea change in American opinion, and to some extent, world opinion. More Americans than before were staking real blood on their views – some dropping whatever they were doing to join the military, others stressing that even this wasn’t worth war, and lots of people even changing sides over it, to the shock of their neighbors or fellow travelers.

            But this was just the flashpoint in the keg of a changing framework for sharing ideas – cheap web access, and pressure on news sources to maintain income in a world where news could be had for free.

          • Matt M says:

            More Americans than before were staking real blood on their views – some dropping whatever they were doing to join the military, others stressing that even this wasn’t worth war, and lots of people even changing sides over it, to the shock of their neighbors or fellow travelers.

            You really think that hadn’t happened before?

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I’m well aware it had happened before. I’m only speaking to the most recent local maximum.

            (There are people who wonder if the conditions are approaching those necessary for another American civil war. So far, I am very skeptical of that.)

          • Matt M says:

            I’m only speaking to the most recent local maximum.

            How most recent? Because people keep saying things like “we are more partisan than we have ever been” which is clearly false. If what you mean is “we are more partisan than we have been in the last 30 years” then you should probably say that instead.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I don’t know who you’re arguing with, but it’s not me. I encourage you to reread starting with FacelessCraven’s comment, or going back to sandoratthezoo’s.

        • keranih says:

          The plot of Passengers was unremarkable when the screenplay was written in 2007 yet problematic as fuck when the movie was released last year.

          …um. Can you unpack this a hair? Because I’m fairly non-woke, and not a feminist, and don’t go looking for places to get offended in my SFF happy place, but I thought the actions of the male lead in Passengers were both *problematic as all fuck* AND were well addressed in the film. So did my other non-lefty friends who saw it.

          I would love to hear other thoughts on this.

          • Mark says:

            – Passengers Spoilers

            I had a similar feeling.

            In the movie, she had basically decided to leave behind (and never see again) all of her family and friends, travel to the planet alone, and then travel back to earth (leaving behind anyone who had come to the planet with her) in order to build her reputation as a writer.

            I think that, for me, that made Chris Pratt’s choice less problematic – I guess, underneath, I thought that her choices were wrong, and that it was less of an issue to ignore them. If she’d been travelling to the planet with her family and friends, husband and children, I’d have enjoyed it a lot less.

            And then, if she’d been on the spaceship with her children, and decided to stay with Pratt at the end, I’d have felt it was complete bullshit. So, I can kind of imagine how someone who views individual choice (with people choosing to do fairly selfish/isolating things) as absolutely primary would be annoyed by this movie.

          • John Schilling says:

            I was unaware of any feminist controversy over Passengers, but then I didn’t see the movie nor follow the press when it first came out because I’d seen that plot done often enough before and didn’t think Hollywood had anything to add but nice visuals.

            OK, nice visuals. And here be spoilers.

            The egregious nature of the male lead’s conduct was properly addressed, as it has been every time I’ve seen that story told. If I had to guess, the part people are objecting to is the part where Aurora choses to forgive Preston and live happily ever after alone with him. I think this, also, was reasonably dealt with, but I also believe there is a strain of feminism where a certain class of offenses against women are to be treated as Absolutely Totally Unforgivable, and any deviation from this rule counts as a “trivialization” of the original offense.

            I also don’t think this is something that has happened since 2007, because I saw the same thing in some of the feminist response to Robert Heinlein’s “Friday”. In 1982.

          • BBA says:

            I haven’t seen the movie myself – I was just referring to the Vox article’s take on it. Feminist takes are nothing new but their complete dominance of the media is, and this movie was such a nightmare that the studio really should’ve known better.

          • John Schilling says:

            …this movie was such a nightmare that the studio really should’ve known better.

            Third-largest opening of 2016, $229 million gross against $119 million production costs, two Oscar nominations, oh, what a horrific nightmare that must have been.

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      Early 2000’s might have been a high water mark for pure art, witness the influence of DFW. Could be a misleading baseline. And note that if Kael was denouncing message movies, it follows that people in the past were bank-rolling message movies. You could tell a plausible story where art and criticism inverse each other.

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