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Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad

[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned Helplessness, Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success, List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of The Secret Of Our Success. Deleted a controversial section which I still think was probably correct, but which given the number of objections wasn’t provably correct enough to be worth including. I might write another post giving my evidence for it later, but it probably shouldn’t be dropped in here without justification.]

I.

Years ago, I wrote about symmetric vs. asymmetric weapons.

A symmetric weapon is one that works just as well for the bad guys as for the good guys. For example, violence – your morality doesn’t determine how hard you can punch; they can buy guns from the same places we can.

An asymmetric weapon is one that works better for the good guys than the bad guys. The example I gave was Reason. If everyone tries to solve their problems through figuring out what the right thing to do is, the good guys (who are right) will have an easier time proving themselves to be right than the bad guys (who are wrong). Finding and using asymmetric weapons is the only non-coincidence way to make sustained moral progress.

The parts of The Secret Of Our Success that deal with reason vs. cultural evolution raise a disturbing prospect: what if sometimes, the asymmetry is in the wrong direction? What if there are some issues where rational debate inherently leads you astray?

II.

Maybe with an unlimited amount of resources, our investigations would naturally converge onto the truth. Given infinite intelligence, wisdom, impartiality, education, domain knowledge, evidence to study, experiments to perform, and time to think it over, we would figure everything out.

But just because infinite resources will produce truth doesn’t mean that truth as a function of resources has to be monotonic. Maybe there are some parts of the resources-vs-truth curve where increasing effort leads you the wrong direction.

When I was fifteen, I thought minimum wages obviously helped poor people. They needed money; minimum wages gave them money, case closed.

When I was twenty, and a little wiser, I thought minimum wages were obviously bad for the poor. Econ 101 tells us minimum wages kill jobs and cause deadweight loss, with poor people most affected. Case closed.

When I was twenty-five, and wiser still, I thought minimum wages were probably good again. I’d read a couple of studies showing that maybe they didn’t cause job loss, in which case they’re back to just giving poor people more money.

When I was thirty, I was hopelessly confused. I knew there was a meta-analysis of 64 studies that showed no negative effects from minimum wages, and a systematic review of 100+ studies that showed strong negative effects from minimum wages. I knew a survey of economists found almost 80% thought minimum wages were good, but that a different survey of economists found 73% thought minimum wages were bad.

We can graph my life progress like this:

This partly reflects my own personal life course, which arguments I heard first, and how I personally process evidence.

But another part of it might just be inherent to the territory. That is, there are some arguments that are easy to understand, and other arguments that are harder to understand. If the easy arguments lean predominantly one way, and the hard arguments lean predominantly the other way, then it will natural for any well-intentioned person studying a topic to follow a certain pattern of switching their opinion a few times before getting to the truth.

Some hard questions might be epistemic traps – problems where the more you study them, the wronger you get, up to some inflection point that might be further than anybody has ever studied them before.

III.

We’ll get to vast social conflicts eventually, but I want to start with boring things in everyday life.

I hate calling people on phones. I can’t really explain this. I’m okay with emailing them. I’m okay talking to them in person. But I hate calling them on phones.

When I was younger, I would go to great lengths to avoid calling people on phones. My parents would point out that this was dumb, and ask me to justify it. I couldn’t. They would tell me I was being silly. So I would call people on phones and hate it. Now I don’t live with my parents, nobody can make me do things, and so I am back to avoiding phone calls.

My parents weren’t authoritarian. They weren’t demanding I make phone calls because That Is The Way We Do Things In This House. They were doing the supposedly-correct thing, using rational argument to make me admit my aversion to phone calls was totally unjustified, and that making phone calls had many tangible benefits, and then telling me I should probably make the call, shouldn’t I? Yet somehow this ended up making my life worse.

Or: I can’t do complicated intellectual work with another person in the room. I just can’t. You can give me good reasons why I’m wrong about this: maybe the other person won’t make any noise. Maybe I can just turn the other way and focus on my computer and I won’t ever have to notice the other person’s presence at all. Argue this with me enough, and I will lose the argument, and work in the same room as you. I won’t get any good work done, and I’ll end up spending most of the time hating you and wishing you would go away.

I try to be very careful with my patients, so that I don’t make their lives worse in the same way. It’s often easy to get patients to admit they don’t have a good reason for what they’re doing; for example, autistic people usually can’t explain why they “stim”, ie make unusual flapping movements. These movements are distracting and probably creep out the people around them. It’s very easy to argue an autistic person into admitting they stimming is a net negative for them. Yet somehow autistic people always end up hating the psychiatrists who win this argument, and going somewhere far away from them so they can stim in peace.

Every day we do things that we can’t easily justify. If someone were to argue that we shouldn’t do the thing, they would win easily. We would respond by cutting that person out of our life, and continuing to do the thing.

I hope most readers find at least one of the examples above rang true to them. If not – if you don’t hate phones, or have trouble working near others, or stim – and if you’re thinking “All of those things really do seem irrational, you’re probably just wrong if you want to protect them against Reason” – here are some potential alternative intuition pumps:

1. Guys – do you have trouble asking girls out? Why? The worst that can happen is they’ll say no, right?

2. Girls – do you something get upset and flustered when a guy you don’t like asks you out, even in a situation where you don’t fear any violence or coercion from the other person? Do you sometimes agree to things you don’t want because you feel pressured? Why? All you have to do is say “I’m flattered, but no thanks”.

3. Do you diet and exercise as much as you should? Why not? Obviously this will make you healthier and feel better! Why don’t you buy a gym membership right now? Are you just being lazy?

I don’t mean to say these questions are Profound Mysteries that nobody can possibly answer. I think there are good answers to all of them – for example, there are some neurological theories that offer a pretty good explanation of how stimming helps autistic people feel better. But I do want to claim that most of the people in these situations don’t know the explanations, and that it’s unreasonable to expect them to. All of these actions and concerns are “illegible” in the Seeing Like A State sense.

Illegibility is complicated and context-dependent. Fetishes are pretty illegible, but because we have a shared idea of a fetish, because most people have fetishes, and because even the people who don’t have fetishes have the weird-if-you-think-about-it habit of being sexually attracted to other human beings – people can just say “That’s my fetish” and it becomes kind of legible. We don’t question it. And there are all sorts of phrases like “I don’t like it”, or “It’s a free country” or “Because it makes me happy” that sort of relieve us of the difficult work of maintaining legibility for all of our decisions.

This system works so well that it only breaks down when very different people try to communicate across a fundamental gap. For example, since allistic people may not feel any urge to stim or do anything like stimming, its illegibility suddenly becomes a problem, and they try to argue autistic people out of it. The worst failure mode is where illegible actions by an outgroup are naturally rounded off to “they are evil and just hiding it”. I remember feeling pretty bad once after hearing a feminist explain that the only reason men stared at attractive women was to intimidate them, make them feel like their body existed for other people’s pleasure, and cement male privilege. I myself sometimes stared at attractive women, and I couldn’t verbalize a coherent reason – was I just trying to hurt and intimidate them? I think a real answer to this question would involve the way we process salience – we naturally stare at the most salient part of a scene, and an attractive person will naturally be salient to us. But this was beyond teenaged me’s ability to come up with, so I ended up feeling bad and guilty.

If you force people to legibly interpret everything they do, or else stop doing it under threat of being called lazy or evil, you make their life harder and probably just end up with them avoiding you.

IV.

Different problems come up when we talk about societies trying to reason collectively. We would like to think that the more investigation and debate our society sinks into a question, the more likely we are to get the right answer. But there are also times when we do 450 studies on something and end up more wrong than when we started.

A very boring, trivial example of this: I think we should increase salaries for Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and other high officials. There are so few of this that it would be very cheap: quintupling every Representative, Senator, and Cabinet Secretary’s salary to $1 million/year would involve raising taxes by only $2 per person. And if it attracted even a slightly better caliber of candidate – the type who made even 1% better decisions on the trillion-dollar questions such leaders face – it would pay for itself hundreds of times over. Or if it prevented just a tiny bit of corruption – an already rich Defense Secretary deciding from his gold-plated mansion that there was no point in going for a “consulting job” with a substandard defense contractor – again, hundreds of times over. This isn’t just me being a elitist shill: even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agrees with me here. This is as close to a no-brainer as policies come.

But I think I would be demolished if I tried to argue for this on Twitter, or on daytime TV, or anywhere else that promotes a cutthroat culture of “dunking” on people with the wrong opinions. It’s so much faster, easier, and punchier to say “poor single mothers are starving on minimum wage, and you think the most important problem is taking money away from them to make our millionaires even richer?” and just drown me out with cries of “elitist shill, elitist shill” every time I try to give the explanation above. Sure enough, the AOC article above notes that although Americans underestimate the amount Congressmen get paid (they think only $120,000, way less than the real number of $170,000), most of them believe they should be paid less, with only 17% saying they should keep getting what they already have, and only 9% agreeing they should get more.

This is a different problem than the one above – the policy isn’t illegible to the people trying to defend it, but the communication methods are low-bandwidth enough that the most legible side naturally wins. That Congressmen are even able to maintain their current salary is partly due to them being insulated from debate: the issue never really comes up, so the consensus in favor of cutting their pay doesn’t really matter.

And yeah, I know, Popular Opinion Sometimes Wrong, More At 11. But this seems like a trivial but real society-wide case of the epistemic traps above, where if you increase one resource (amount an issue is debated) without increasing other resources (intelligence and rationality of the participants, the amount of time and careful thought they are willing to put in) you get further away from truth.

V.

Are there any less trivial examples? What about turn-of-the-20th-century socialism?

I was shocked to learn how strong a pro-socialism consensus existed during this period among top intellectuals. Socialist leader Edward Pease described the landscape pretty well:

Socialism succeeds because it is common sense. The anarchy of individual production is already an anachronism. The control of the community over itself extends every day. We demand order, method, regularity, design; the accidents of sickness and misfortune, of old age and bereavement, must be prevented if possible, and if not, mitigated. Of this principle the public is already convinced: it is merely a question of working out the details. But order and forethought is wanted for industry as well as for human life. Competition is bad, and in most respects private monopoly is worse. No one now seriously defends the system of rival traders with their crowds of commercial travellers: of rival tradesmen with their innumerable deliveries in each street; and yet no one advocates the capitalist alternative, the great trust, often concealed and insidious, which monopolises oil or tobacco or diamonds, and makes huge profits for a fortunate; few out of the helplessness of the unorganised consumers.

Why shouldn’t people have thought this? The period featured sweatshop-like working conditions alongside criminally rich nobility with no sign that this state of affairs could ever change under capitalism. Top economists, up until the 1950s, almost unanimously agreed that socialism would help the economy, since central planners could coordinate ways to become more efficient. The first good arguments against this proposition, those of Hayek and von Mises, were a quarter-century in the future. Communism seemed perfectly straightforward and unlikely to go wrong; the first hint that it “might not work in real life” would have to wait for the Bolshevik Revolution. Pease writes that the main pro-capitalism argument during his own time was the Malthusian position that if the poor got more money, they would keep breeding until the Earth was overwhelmed by overpopulation; even in his own time, demographers knew this wasn’t true. The imbalance in favor of pro-communist arguments over pro-capitalist ones was overwhelming.

Don’t trust me on this. Trust all the turn-of-the-20th-century intellectuals who flocked towards socialism. In the Britain of the time, the smarter you were, and the more social science and economics you knew, the more likely you were to be a socialist, with only a few exceptions.

But turn-of-the-century Britain never went communist. Why not?

One school of thought says it’s because rich people had too much power. Even though the intellectuals all supported communism, nobody wanted to start a violent revolution, because they expected the rich to win and punish them.

But another school of thought says that cultural evolution created both capitalism, and an immune system to defend capitalism. This is more complicated, and requires a lot of the previous discussion here before it makes sense. But it seems to match some of what was going on. Society didn’t look like everyone wanting to revolt but being afraid of the rich. It looked like large parts of the poor and middle class being very anti-communist for kind of illegible reasons like “king” and “country” and “God” and “tradition” or “just because”.

In retrospect, these illegible reasons were right. It’s hard to tell if they were right by coincidence, or because cultural evolution is smarter than we are, drags us into whatever decision it makes, and then creates illegible reasons to prop itself up.

Empirically, as people started devoting more intellectual resources to the problem of whether Britain should be communist or not – as very intelligent and well-educated people started thinking about the problem using the most modern ideas of science and rationality, and challenged all of their preconceived notions to see which ones would stand up to Reason and which ones wouldn’t – they got further from the truth.

(I’m assuming that you, the reader, aren’t communist. If you are, think up another example, I guess.)

There is a level of understanding that lets you realize communism is a bad idea. But you need a lot of economic theory and a lot of retrospective historical knowledge the early-20th-century British didn’t have. There’s some part in the resources-vs-truth graph, where you’re smart enough to know what communism is but not smart enough to have good arguments against it – where the more intellect you apply the further from truth it takes you.

VI.

Obviously this ends with everyone agreeing to think very hard about things, carefully distinguish notice which traditions have illegible justifications, and then only throw out the traditions that are legitimately stupid and exist for no reason. What other position could we come to? You wouldn’t say “Don’t bother being careful, nothing is ever illegible”. But you also can’t say “Okay, we will never change anything ever again”. You just give the maximally-weaselly answer of “We’ll be sure to think about it first.”

But somebody made a good point on the last comments thread. We are the heirs to a five-hundred-year-old tradition of questioning traditions and demanding rational justifications for things. Armed with this tradition, western civilization has conquered the world and landed on the moon. If there were ever any tradition that has received cultural evolution’s stamp of approval, it would be this one.

So is there anything at all we should learn from all of this? If I had to cache out “think very hard about things” more carefully, maybe it would look like this:

1. The original Chesterton’s Fence: try to understand traditions before jettisoning them.

2. If someone does something weird but can’t explain why, accept them as long as they’re not hurting anyone else (and don’t make up stupid excuses for why their actions really hurt all of us). Be less quick to jump to “actually they are doing it out of Inherent Evil” as an explanation.

3. As per the last Henrich quote here, make use of the “laboratories of democracy” idea. Try things on a small scale in limited areas before trying them at larger scale; let different polities compete and see what happens.

4. Have less intense competitive pressure in the marketplace of ideas. Kuhn touches on how heliocentric theory had less explanatory power than geocentric theory for a while, but was tolerated anyway long enough that it was eventually able to sort itself out and become better. If good ideas are sometimes at a disadvantage in defending themselves, leave unpopular opinions alone for a while to see if they eventually become more legible. I think this might look like just being kinder and more tolerant of weirdness.

5. If someone defends a tradition that seems completely wrong and repulsive to you, try to be understanding of them even if you are right and the tradition is wrong. Traditions spent a long time evolving to be as sticky as possible in the face of contrary evidence, humans spent a long time evolving to stick to traditions as much as possible in the face of contrary evidence, and this evolution was beneficial through most of history. This sort of pressure is as hard to break (and probably as genetically-loaded) as other now-obsolete evolutionary urges like the one to binge on as much calorie-dense food as possible when it’s available (related).

6. Having done all that, and working as gingerly and gradually as you can, you should still try to improve on traditions that seem obsolete or improvable.

7. Cultural evolution does not provide evidence that traditions are ethical. Like biological evolution, cultural evolution didn’t even try to create ethical systems. It tried to create systems that were good at spreading. Plausibly many cultures converged on eating meat because it was a good source of calories and nutrients. But if you think it violates animals’ rights, cultural evolution shouldn’t convince you otherwise – there’s no reason cultural evolution should price animal suffering into its calculations. (related).

Finally: some people have interpreted this series of posts as a renunciation of rationality, or an admission that rationality is bad. It isn’t. Rationality isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the demand that every opinion be legible and we throw out cultural evolution. Rationality is the art of reasoning correctly. I don’t know what the optimal balance between what-seems-right-to-us vs. tradition should be. But whatever balance we decide on, better correlating “what seems right to us” with “what is actually true” will lead to better results. If we’re currently abysmal at this task, that only adds urgency to figuring out where we keep going wrong and how we might go less wrong, both as individuals and as a community.

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455 Responses to Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad

  1. SolveIt says:

    I feel like this series of posts was the underlying theme of your writing all along.

  2. HarmlessFrog says:

    I hate calling people on phones. I can’t really explain this. I’m okay with emailing them. I’m okay talking to them in person. But I hate calling them on phones.

    Same. This is probably some kind of semi-common issue, I figure.

    3. Do you diet and exercise as much as you should? Why not? Obviously this will make you healthier and feel better! Why don’t you buy a gym membership right now? Are you just being lazy?

    I know you’re discussing meta-levels, but the concentration camp school of healthy lifestyle isn’t healthy. It feels horrible, is unsustainable for the vast majority, and doesn’t even reliably work for health outcomes.

    • nameless1 says:

      Yeah, but we are frickin’ fat. I do work out, don’t look very fat (big belly but no folds) and still hovering at the edge of diabetes. I hate all the shaming and virtue-signalling about diets and all, but at the end of the day I would rather not hover at the edge of diabetes. I look at 16 years old girls, a third of them overweight, and I noticed they walk visibly differently than their classmates. Assuming human joints were “meant” for the thin kind of walking, I think they are facing a lifetime of joint issues… this isn’t just beauty standards and crap like that, it is that I look out the window and I see thin 65 years old tourists sight-seeing, walking all day, and I am not sure I will be able to do that at 65, and I am fairly sure these young people will not be able to do it at 65. We are missing out on so much of life because of weight… I am no longer throwing myself on to hotel beds. Because I don’t want to buy them a new one.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Right. Sure, most people probably should not be spending two hours a day in the gym or whatever and eating only lean protein and fresh vegetables, but most people (in the West) would be happier if they moved significantly in that direction from where they are now. Source: am fat, 36, already have a shit knee that makes it difficult to do things I like doing, am generally much happier in periods where I eat properly and exercise, still usually don’t.

        • DinoNerd says:

          Dieting etc. is hard. You have to do all your own cooking, because the food industry peddles almost entirely unhealthy food, however much it conforms to the fad of the week. (If salt is bad, they add extra sugar; etc. ad infinitum. Because folks prefer the bad stuff – especially when they don’t consciously know it’s there. And there’s money to be made…) Gyms are wretched unpleasant places – and exercise for its own sake, rather than in daily life/as part of doing something you want done is just about the worst option. But cities are unwalkable, children are kept with adults (= taught to move at slower pace and go everywhere by car), and there isn’t even generally good public transit (which usually involves lots of walking to and from stops).

          Meanwhile people generally have a built in short term bias – adaptively so, in that if you don’t survive in the short term, there is no long term to worry about. Planning and preparing for the distant future is something done by those feeling secure and optimistic. And “when I’m 80” is very distant to a 20 year old, or even a 40 year old.

          • Spookykou says:

            You can eat very healthy without having to cook, you just have to pay a lot of money relative to eating out/and unhealthy. Domino’s will charge you 5.99 for a 210 calorie salad or a 2320 calorie pizza, and bring either to your house.

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            @Spookykou

            Raw meat isn’t that expensive.

          • Spookykou says:

            @HarmlessFrog

            I was responding to,

            You have to do all your own cooking, because the food industry peddles almost entirely unhealthy food

            Which I saw more as a claim that it is ‘harder’ to eat healthy cause you can’t eat out/order food, which I think is not true. Plenty of restaurants will sell you healthy food(In the US), they just charge the same as their unhealthy food, so you might be getting 1/10th the calories on the dollar. You won’t have the exact same selection obviously there is more total unhealthy food than healthy out there, but cooking healthy food for yourself will similarly limit your options.

          • James Banks says:

            > You have to do all your own cooking, because the food industry peddles almost entirely unhealthy food, however much it conforms to the fad of the week.

            It’s easier if you can share that among multiple cooks, although finding a good housemate/partner is non-trivial.

          • ChrisA says:

            Like many activities eating healthily has a learning curve, you can’t expect to be expert on day 1. So use the approach of thinking you are trying to learn about healthy eating rather than being a healthy eater. This means trying different foods that are more healthy, learning to cook healthy food, researching healthy eating and so on. What you will find is that you will unconsciously be more able to eat healthy without that mental drain of feeling like you are being forced to do something you don’t want to do.

          • vV_Vv says:

            You can usually find convenience shops almost anywhere that sell ready-to-eat cheap healthy food.

            E.g. a bowl of mixed salad + two servings of cooked or canned fish or meat with no added sugar or preservatives is a 400-500 kcal high-protein low-carb meal. Add a banana for ~110 kcals of satiating carbs. Is this difficult to find anywhere?

          • caryatis says:

            >Gyms are wretched unpleasant places

            I love gyms. As soon as I walk in the door, I relax a little bit because I know I’m in a welcoming place where I can be successful. I’m sorry you feel differently.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I love gyms. As soon as I walk in the door, I relax a little bit because I know I’m in a welcoming place where I can be successful. I’m sorry you feel differently.

            Also, deadlifts feel good.

      • HarmlessFrog says:

        Look into lowcarb, intermittent fasting, or both. Or even into the ultralow fat, if you like sugar and vitamin pills.

    • liskantope says:

      To me the phone thing is not only directly relatable but an example of an aversion that can be more easily explained than most, thus is not that illegible. When speaking “in real time” to another person, one is forced to think on one’s feet, understand the nuances of what the other party is trying to communicate, and form responses on the fly. This creates challenges not present in the medium of writing messages. Then, it’s not hard to see why this is way easier to do when the other party’s body language and hand gestures are visible and the sound quality is maximized by actually being a few feet away from each other.

      • Aapje says:

        Yeah. It’s a medium that greatly reduces information transfer compared to face-to-face interactions, but still has the same time pressure.

        I suspect that people who dislike calling are those who have more difficulty interpreting fairly subtle signals (like speech inflections). There is an expected rhythm to phone calls, where you can’t really be (far) too late. So for some people it might be similar to walking next to a person with a higher natural walking pace and having to constantly push themselves out of their comfort zone to keep up.

        • Randy M says:

          I think I’m better than average at interpretation, but still dislike phone calls. I think it’s worry about getting just the right response, which translates in text to editing a few times, but in speech to mumbling and interrupting myself and so on.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        Also, silence on the phone is awkward in a way that silence in person is not.

        • liskantope says:

          And for that matter, it can be hard to know when it’s a bad idea to begin speaking because the other person is starting to speak or hasn’t finished talking — it’s much easier to pick up on this when you can see what their face is doing. (I actually have issues with getting this right even in person, but on the phone it’s much worse.)

      • Desertopa says:

        In addition to those weaknesses, it also lacks the advantage that most other current long-distance communication methods have of leaving an easily-referenced record of the conversation afterwards.

        Not only do I hate calling people on the phone, unless the person is intractable in responding to other options, it generally doesn’t even seem like a comparably useful method.

        • Randy M says:

          Depends on how fast you text and if you have your hands and eyes free. Phones are quite useful for organizing things requiring mutual input or confirmation in a timely manner.

      • Along similar lines …

        I have no particular problem with phone calls, but I like being alone a good deal of the time. Back when I had a WoW character, I would explain my disinterest in joining a guild by describing myself as solitary by nature.

        I think it’s related to what you describe. If others are present, some part of my attention has to be on them, even if we are not interacting. It’s more comfortable and relaxing to be by myself.

      • Dragor says:

        I have always fucking loved phonecalls, and I think a lot of it is that speech inflections were highly legible to me, while visual social data is something I only began to competently process five years or so ago.

    • Auric Ulvin says:

      I’ve never understood why people focus so heavily on gyms for exercise. If you’re a powerlifter, or you’re looking for serious aesthetics, then sure, you need machines and weights. But our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to pump iron, they just ran around and did things. What’s the point of paying money for a treadmill when you can just go for a run outside? A lot of exercises only require a reasonably flat surface; I take a 2 minute break every so often to do various kinds of push-ups.

      I suspect the commercialization of exercise has a lot to do with the malaise in the West right now. Signing up for something (and paying real money) is something best to be done in the foggy future, never in the present. Going somewhere else, putting on gym attire, all of that is difficult and unpleasant, which exercise shouldn’t actually be.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I think it’s not just gyms, it’s the idea that exercise should be drab– simple repetitive movements.

      • broblawsky says:

        This kind of attitude falls into the exact kind of legibility issues that Scott is discussing in this post. Most people don’t want to do 2 minutes of pushups every 30 minutes, even if you can argue that it’s good for them.

      • Steve? says:

        I agree that it isn’t particularly intuitive. However, I think there are several direct and indirect reasons why people go to gyms.

        Direct:
        – As you alluded to, some people want to use equipment that is impractical to have at home (not only weights, but a pool, racquetball courts, etc.)
        – In many parts of the country working out outside is unpleasant much of the year (e.g. below freezing with icy sidewalks, hot and humid). Aside from the weather, running in a city can be annoying if you’re always dodging pedestrians or waiting at intersections. In that case, getting to a gym might be easier than getting to a park with a good running path.
        – Childcare: The YMCA we go to will watch your kids (for free with the standard membership!) for two hours while you work out. This is a huge deal for my wife who makes use of this several days a week.
        – Space considerations: Even if buying a treadmill and some weights might be more economical than a monthly gym membership, if you live in a small apartment you might not have room and getting a bigger place is much more expensive than the gym.

        Indirect:
        – Gyms can work as a nice Schelling point if you want to work out with other people. Your friend might not want to drive over to your place, go for a run, drive home to shower, and then drive to work. Meeting at a gym, showering there, and going to work might be more convenient.
        – Some people just prefer having separate places for separate things. It can work as a self-enforcement strategy. If you go through all the effort to get yourself to the gym, you might as well work out. You could think of this as exploiting the sunk cost fallacy (and the same if true for paying for the membership, of course). If you dislike working out, walking/driving to the gym delays starting to work out (more than just running once you step out of your house), but once you’re there then you’d feel silly if you just turned back around.

      • TheContinentalOp says:

        I used to run outside, but I got tired of the cold, the rain, the inattentive drivers, and the hard pavement. Now I walk 1/2 mile the the gym (U$10/month) and run on a treadmill in a climate-controlled environment where I am in no danger of being run over.

      • gleamingecho says:

        1) Treadmills and other equipment that lets you run in place or the equivalent so you don’t have to be outside.
        2) Some people like group classes for motivation/support.
        3) While bodyweight exercise is great for getting into or staying in shape, at some point you need progressive overload to get into better shape. Progressive overload = add more weight. Agree with OP though that you don’t need a gym to get into shape.

      • JohnNV says:

        Competitive 10k (37:12) and marathoner here (2:58!) I do try to do most of my exercise outside, even in the winter, but weather and time pressures mean that I frequently will have to use a treadmill to meet my weekly mileage goals. Plus swimming is a great way to add some extra aerobic time while working different muscles from running and is easier on your joints – although I try to do a lot of open water swimming in the summer, unless you have your own large pool and live in a warm climate, it’s not feasible for much of the year unless you have a gym membership.

      • sourcreamus says:

        When I am at home there is always something more fun to do than exercise. At the gym there is nothing else to do.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        “Hit the gym” is a synecdoche. I did a lot of exercising at home until I worked my way up to the gym, but I knew exactly what was meant by going to the gym.

        Do what works for you.

        • ChrisA says:

          I go to gyms as it is the most efficient time wise way to stay healthy. Two or three one hour sessions a week are all I need. Plus once you have a routine worked out it is great for experiencing flow. If I try little bits of different types of exercise the mental activity of planning that exercise means I am much less likely to do it and I don’t get into flow while doing it.

  3. LadyJane says:

    2. If someone does something weird but can’t explain why, accept them as long as they’re not hurting anyone else (and don’t make up stupid excuses for why their actions really hurt all of us). Be less quick to jump to “actually they are doing it out of Inherent Evil” as an explanation.

    5. If someone defends a tradition that seems completely wrong and repulsive to you, try to be understanding of them even if you are right and the tradition is wrong. Traditions spent a long time evolving to be as sticky as possible in the face of contrary evidence, humans spent a long time evolving to stick to traditions as much as possible in the face of contrary evidence, and this evolution was beneficial through most of history. This sort of pressure is as hard to break (and probably as genetically-loaded) as other now-obsolete evolutionary urges like the one to binge on as much calorie-dense food as possible when it’s available.

    Aren’t these two potentially in conflict with one another? Say, if one person’s seemingly wrong and repulsive tradition also involves shunning people who are weird but ultimately harmless?

    • quanta413 says:

      The conflict between them is much like the conflict in telling someone “don’t let what other people say bother you” and “don’t say mean things to people”.

      The proper advice varies depending whether you are talking about sending or receiving, acting on others or being acted upon, etc. It’s a bit like the robustness principle applied to people. Similarly, there are issues with taking such compact advice too far so to speak (although the robustness principle may be a good or bad idea for software, I think it’s a good idea for humans). Sometimes, you probably should be bothered by what others are saying, and sometimes you should say mean things. But humans tend to err in the opposite direction of the advice, so it’s still usually good advice.

      • nameless1 says:

        “Don’t say mean things to people” has a connotation of “People who say mean things are or should be low status.” “Don’t let what other people say bother you” has a connotation of “Not saying anything about the status of people who are saying mean things, and perhaps implying overly sensitive people should have low status.”

        Then more or less everybody correctly derives that it is people who say mean things are who deserve low status and not people who are sensitive so they get angry if they hear the second.

        Same story as telling women to be cautious about, you know what. They got angry. Because not uncautious victims deserve low status, but perpetrators.

        Why do people take an advice as an implication of low status? I don’t know. But advice is generally something from top to down? Sure our friends give us advice, but the doctor’s advice, delivered top to down, feels like the more central kind of advice.

        • Aapje says:

          Advice can be interpreted as an order directly or indirectly*.

          * Where the person tells you what the norm is, but it is actually a norm that benefits them, rather than an unbiased norm.

        • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

          > Why do people take an advice as an implication of low status? I don’t know.

          I believe that in modern world, where it is seen to be wrong to judge people by their immutable characteristics and factors outside of their control – agency is used as shorthand for judgement. Both good and bad work the same – you can only be judged (Positively or negatively) by your choices, not by your circumstances.

          Giving advices on how to prevent bad thing happening to you shifts judgment onto you. You chose poorly and now paying the price. By the same token, telling people that good things happened due to factors beyond their control will also anger them – they’ll likely angrily tell you how they are simple everymen who just choose the right thing that would work for everyone if only they’ve chosen to be as virtuous.

          • Spookykou says:

            Possibly related, I believe there is a general reluctance to think of the world in terms of incentives and environments that influence human behavior. I regularly think this way myself, and explain to people ways in which I try to restructure my environment to help encourage the kind of behavior I want to have, and the consistent response is a combination of confusion and admonishment.

        • Cliff says:

          Clearly people who do wrong things deserve lowered status, including injudicious/incautious people and overly sensitive people, as well as harassers and abusers. The purpose of status is to reward/punish people for doing right/wrong things and thereby encourage prosocial behavior, right? If complaining about every slight makes you high status our culture is doomed. It’s high status people who can afford to be gracious and forbearing.

      • LadyJane says:

        That makes sense, although I still see a bit of an inherent contradiction if one is expected to be, for instance, both accepting of gay people and accepting of homophobes.

        As the Democratic Party learned back in the 60s, you can’t keep the support of both the Black community and White supremacists. Accepting one necessarily entails rejecting the other, directly or indirectly. And if you try to appeal to both of them, neither will support you.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          As the Democratic Party learned back in the 60s, you can’t keep the support of both the Black community and White supremacists. Accepting one necessarily entails rejecting the other, directly or indirectly. And if you try to appeal to both of them, neither will support you.

          I think this summation, while accurate in some ways, is a little misleading about the path that the civil rights/segregation split followed.

          Partly because, before FDR, there wasn’t really any Black support for Democrats. FDR managed to gain Black support without losing segregationists, for reasons having nothing to do with segregation.

          1948, when Black service members civil rights were being supported, is the first crucial point. But in 1964, Johnson knew, and was right, that segregationists would withhold national support from the party over the issue.

        • 10240 says:

          If someone does something weird but can’t explain why, accept them as long as they’re not hurting anyone else

          Doesn’t contradict the other point if the bold part is taken into account.

          Re homophobes: One can be relatively tolerant of gay people but also of homophobes who are not in a position to force their views on others. There have been a lot of discussion about how progressives (but also other ideologies that are ascendant at a given time) often prefer to not only get their way in terms of policy, but stomp over the remnants of their opposition; one may prefer to discourage this.

        • quanta413 says:

          That makes sense, although I still see a bit of an inherent contradiction if one is expected to be, for instance, both accepting of gay people and accepting of homophobes.

          I have trouble parsing this in a way that isn’t either trivial or weird, because I’m not sure what you mean by “accept”.

          Obviously, two contradictory beliefs can’t both be right, but when I think of accepting people I’m not thinking of accepting their beliefs as correct. I doubt I’ve ever met a single person who I wouldn’t find had some significant beliefs I thought were deeply incorrect in some situation. And vice-versa even more so, my political and personal beliefs are well outside the norm. Some subset of my beliefs will be horrifying to any major segment of Americans. Lots of people have worked with me, some of whom knew I disagreed with them. I can’t remember anyone cutting me off over religion or politics (although people sometimes get mad for a little while). The groups that would cut me off are fringe.

          There are specific situations where you can’t have two people with different beliefs on an issue in the same room together cooperating on something, but I think it’s the exception. Not the rule. In any given situation, most of a person’s beliefs just don’t matter.

        • Nicholas says:

          I think the premise violates the experiment. By homophobe, I assume you include people like Ben Shapiro who oppose gay marriage on the illegible, irrational ground of ‘god says so’. But generally, there people don’t hate gay people, and think they should be entitled to civil rights, they just disagree that maraige falls under the perview of the state, rather than of the church (remember, even Obama was a civil union supporter, not a gay marriage supporter until scotus got involved). So by labeling them ‘homophobic’ you’re doing that ‘assume they’re just evil’ thing.

          If instead, you mean people who want to use the force of state to castrate or imprison gay people, or people who want to do non-state violence to gay people, then their weirdness is clearly harmful.

        • Dack says:

          You can accept someone without appealing to them.

  4. jasongreenlowe says:

    I’ve really been enjoying this whole sequence. I agree with what you’re saying and with the way you’re saying it, and you’re putting it all more eloquently and clearly than I could have. Thank you!

  5. Clutzy says:

    Just FYI, you should call people more. Its very effective.

    • Walter says:

      I dunno man, it seems like everyone just lets you go to voice mail and texts you back.

    • Nick says:

      There are times when I’ve wished I could just call folks, but it’s only been because they have infinitesimal attention spans and zero consideration, so trying to clarify things like “Where and when are we meeting” gets me no response or an immediate, totally not thought out, totally unhelpful three word text. If you’re communicating with someone who spends more than a nanosecond considering whether what he’s bothering to write is going to be even remotely useful to the person he’s sending it to, texting is better.

      • tossrock says:

        In my experience, short-horizon logistical coordination is almost always better done over the phone. This is because it’s a synchronous communication method which can resolve all contingent questions in a single block. This is as opposed to asynchronous text communication, which is much slower (even very fast phone typers are much slower than speaking), spread out over a series of interrupts for each contingent question, and prone to petering out in the middle as someone gets distracted. In the best case, it’s SYN/SYN ACK/ACK, and in the worst case it’s Byzantine Generals.

    • CatCube says:

      Yeah. I hate, hate, hate people who will only text. Solving a thing that would take a 5 minute conversation where we can communicate quickly by voice and have a rapid back-and-forth instead requires interminable pecking on those ridiculous software keyboards to sort out even the most basic questions.

      E-mail is a middle ground, where you can at least generally use a better keyboard, but still often requires more back and forth to sort out things that are generally quickly handled in person or with a quick phone call.

      • Error says:

        From the other side, I have a similar antipathy for people who are too quick to call.

        At work, most of my team’s coordination happens over chat. I have a certain coworker. Nice guy, good at his job. But whenever he has an issue, he’ll spend maybe two lines trying to explain it, I’ll ask a couple clarifying questions, and he’ll immediately jump to “can we discuss this on a video call?”.

        Then, on the call, the actual thing he wants bears no resemblance at all to his attempts to explain it over email/chat. Like, I don’t understand how he got from Issue X to Textual Description Y. I’d think it was just me, but I don’t have this problem with anyone else on the team.

        I hate this. Absolutely hate it. A call is far more disruptive, leaves no log, can’t be proofread (i.e. invites misunderstandings), and must be answered synchronously. It should be a last resort, not a first.

        (that said, I share your hatred for texting too — but only in comparison to email/chat. Chat gives me the option of answering from my real computer, with a real keyboard. I’d rather type with broken fingers than try to type on a phone. It couldn’t be much slower.)

        • Don P. says:

          It sounds the two of you have incompatible problems, so to speak. His problem is that for some reason he can’t communicate his problems without a call (which, I notice, is a video call, which is a whole other kettle of fish). Your problem is that you hate calls. But he’s correct that he needs the call, because of his incompetence at textual communication.

          • Error says:

            That is more or less the conclusion I came to, yes. It’s double frustrating because I know that on some level, every time I accommodate him, I’m reinforcing the idea that the right way to get problems solved is “bug me for a call” instead of “work on his written communications skills”.

  6. shakeddown says:

    7. If a tradition is unethical, cultural evolution probably isn’t a good counterargument to it. Like biological evolution, cultural evolution didn’t try to create ethical systems. It tried to create systems that were good at spreading. Plausibly ancient gender roles did a great job at producing lots of strong sons who could serve in your army, and lots of fecund women who could birth those strong sons. Absent the need to constantly fight life-or-death wars against Mongols, it’s okay to say we find this abhorrent and are going to stop.

    I’m a lot more skeptical of the “gender is bad” counterexample, for unclear reasons. In the previous post, you said

    And fourth, maybe we’re not at the point where we really want unique contributions yet. Maybe we’re still at the point where we have to have this hammered in by more and more examples. The temptation is always to say “Ah, yes, a few simple things like taboos against eating poisonous plants may be relics of cultural evolution, but obviously by now we’re at the point where we know which traditions are important vs. random looniness, and we can rationally stick to the important ones while throwing out the garbage.” And then somebody points out to you that actually divination using oracle bones was one of the important traditions, and if you thought you knew better than that and tried to throw it out, your civilization would falter.

    If we assume we still have some blind spots, I’d guess they’re on cultural/social issues – we can probably catch most science/nuirition/accidental poisoning issues with modern science, but the more social-sciency things get the harder it is to judge (both because it’s complicated, and because our incentives are screwy). So I’d be incredibly careful of taking cultural things – especially basic building blocks like gender – and throwing them out because hey, it was probably just for dealing with Mongol invaders and can’t possibly be useful anymore.

    • Furslid says:

      I’m not sure it’s just for dealing with mongol invaders either. I would not force anyone into traditional gender roles, but I still think they are useful.

      1. Traditional gender roles provide an easier to use framework for relationships. Many people will have better results using traditional roles than trying to develop their own frameworks.

      2. There is evidence that children do better in ways that are still relevant now if they are raised in a traditional family. Abandoning traditional gender roles has lead to a rise in one parent households.

      3. One tradition is avoiding poly relationships. Poly done wrong can be very bad. Some people can do poly right, but most people would do it wrong. I’d be more comfortable with poly on the fringes until traditions develop that make doing it right easier.

    • keaswaran says:

      On that point about cultural things, we’ve been doing this weird experiment for the past 200 years, where people live in nuclear families and get their subsistence from an employer for whom they do contract work. It’s a major change from basically every human society before, where people lived with their extended family, and the vast majority of them provided for their own subsistence with trade around the edges. It’s produced a lot of major cultural dislocation. Getting rid of gender roles might be more or less extreme than that shift.

      • theredsheep says:

        The medieval family, in both Eastern and Western (Christian) Europe, was largely nuclear. Don’t know about economic matters.

      • shakeddown says:

        I agree that it’s probably a comparable shift. The shift to the current employment/nuclear family model is roughly the same as the industrial revolution (changing our model from isolated farmers to massive supply chains). Which was probably a good thing overall, but definitely had some Rocky bits (including two world wars and several famines with eight figure death tolls). So it might be good overall, but expect some serious disruption before we hit any sort of stability.

    • 10240 says:

      While I don’t think it’s easy to reason about social science things, I also don’t think that traditions are likely to get it right: traditions developed at a time when many of the relevant circumstances were very different than today.

      About gender, IMO not strongly pressuring people into traditional roles, but also not pressuring them to abandon them works well: an an approximation, people tend keep those (and only those) elements of traditional roles that are either still important, or match their personal preferences. I think this describes today’s society.

  7. DS says:

    Actually, the HIV thing shows illegibility is even worse than you think.

    You saw your friend as pointing to the taboo “don’t be homosexual.” But HIV in Africa spread heterosexually, along highway routes, through prostitutes and truckers. “Don’t be homosexual” wasn’t the right taboo to save the 15 million Africans dead of AIDS.

    And conversely, the (non-anal, non-promiscuous, socially regulated) homosexuality of Athenian Greece wouldn’t have transmitted HIV. “Don’t be homosexual” wasn’t relevant to their risk, even though they were doing it.

    Yet in both Africa and San Francisco, the larger idea of “obey all traditional sex taboos” would reduce the risk, even if in each case it included things that didn’t individually pay off.

    This ironically just strengthens your point about “illegibly” valuable custom. You and your friend thought the custom was evolved by the risks from homosexuality. So what would have happened if we’d given you two a time machine and a djinni, to change people’s sex behavior in the past?

    If you and your friend had time-machined the 1990s to erase homosexuality, but not erased African prostitute/trucker culture, we would still have millions dead in Africa of AIDS.

    But a properly conservative community that obeyed the sex taboos without caring about the “reason”, and that used their djinni-wish to time-machine a period of obedience to *all* the traditional sex taboos, would have saved the people in both San Francisco and Africa.

    So it’s even worse than you thought – you can’t properly make the useful part of the tradition legible, even when you’ve already seen how it’s useful!

    • This is a good point. “Don’t be homosexual” is just a small part of a conservative worldview that also includes taboos like “don’t be promiscuous”, and used to include “no sex before marriage”.

      • albertborrow says:

        Oh, it still includes “no sex before marriage” – it’s just harder to get away with saying that outright nowadays, because of how absurd it is to request that of someone. Instead, they’ll deliver a post mortem scolding (“If you hadn’t had sex before marriage, this wouldn’t have happened.”) every time something even moderately bad comes out of premarital sex, which makes the same point but is less socially costly. You see the same thing with “don’t be homosexual”. My father is a moderate homophobe. He would never say that phrase to someone’s face. But if one of my gay friends got AIDS in some terrible situation, my dad would say something along the lines of, “If he didn’t have gay sex, he wouldn’t have gotten AIDS.”

        This is part of how traditions keep their stickyness – you can reinforce an association by saying something entirely factual about whatever anecdote you’ve brought up, without actually taking the leap into generalization.

        • benjdenny says:

          Two things you might consider:

          I’m old enough in the church to know many people who credibly didn’t have sex until marriage. Remember that there’s a not insignifigant amount of people who go into their mid-twenties or thirties without having sex despite trying to; it’s difficult for them to make it work.

          This implies a cohort (that my experience shows me exists) of people for whom it would be kind of hard/challenging to have sex at all or frequently for whom the social norm discourages them from trying just enough that they skate through.

          Imagining that everyone the no-premarital-sex affects is uber-hot and socially skilled and would be covered in genitals at all times with no effort over-simplifies. I think to be honest about this you have to think about the people for whom the rule has enough effect to delay sexual activity another year or so, and for whom this pushes sex back to marriage or commitment to their eventual marriage partner, which has nearly the same effect.

          The second thing is that this still has the desired effect to some extent if it only diminishes the frequency of sex; a no-guilt teen who has sex every weekend is more at risk than my high-school friend Mark, who was considered hot and could have had sex every weekend, but only had sex occasionally because of the guilt or influence of the norm.

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        People in my church (I am Mormon) still talk about not having premarital sex, and they emphasized this *a lot* when I was a teenager.

      • Alkatyn says:

        Unfortunately the way sexual tabboos are enforced and promulgated tends not to limit the behaviour of medium to high status heterosexual men.* If you had a policy of generally enforcing sexual tabboos you’d end up doing a lot of unnecessary harm to gay people, but not meaningfully limiting the behaviour of men seeing prostitutes or having multiple female sexual partners in other ways.

        My guess would be this is because tis heterosexual men in positions of power who enforce the tabboos, and have no interest in punishing their own group. So a theoretically useful norm against risky sex ends up reinforcing existing power structures and not fixing the problem.

        • Watchman says:

          The same taboos can be used to bring down the powerful (not always successfully – see the allegations against Trump). Enforcing taboos is a choice, and like all such things this means it can be deployed for social/political gain.

          And taboos are classically enforced by grannies, not middle-aged high-status individuals, since acquiring status is often not simply a matter of following taboos but of actually manoeuvring around the edges of them. This is why taboos are strongly held in say rural Pakistan whilst high-status individuals actually live in less taboo-dominated cities.

        • Randy M says:

          My guess would be this is because its heterosexual men in positions of power who enforce the taboos, and have no interest in punishing their own group.

          I don’t think this is true, at least not in the strong form. There’s more hypocrisy than norm breaking. Pastors in churches will readily condemn porn or adultery, rather than try to preserve their own sexual freedom at the expense of women.

      • DinoNerd says:

        Does it? From what I’ve seen in people’s behaviour, the proper conservative worldview is – females had better be pure, but boys will spread wild oats (they just better not do it with our daughters – and if they do, we’ll force the pair to marry) and high status males can fuck any female they want, provided they keep a veneer of respectability (i.e. deny the relationship in public).

        This is of course a revealed preference description. Lip service to purity is commonly part of the package for everyone. A display of contrition may be required to ‘excuse’ one’s acceptable-in-practice behaviour if it comes to public notice.

    • Aapje says:

      @DS

      The actual traditional Christian taboo is sodomy, not homosexuality. Arguably, the shift among conservative Christians to be against homosexuality, evolved from the sodomy taboo.

      There is evidence that anal sex is widespread among heterosexuals in Africa.

    • theredsheep says:

      I’ve said this before, but I doubt it has much at all to do with VD; homoeroticism just reduces stable het pair bonding, stable het pair bonding is important to marriage, marriage produces families, and families are the foundation-stone of all societies. Though I have not studied the history of sexuality in any depth and that’s mostly based on a few striking examples–Athens had rampant pederasty combined with teen brides who spent their lives imprisoned in the back of the house, for one. Probably there are abundant counterexmples though.

      Our society is really weird in the way it has almost completely removed family formation from discussions of sexuality, and IMO it doesn’t make sense to discuss these historical taboos as though people at these time periods perceived anything like a sexual marketplace.

      • Watchman says:

        But this viewpoint needs to justify the importance of family defined as parents and children. Historical records are pretty clear that the sexual marketplace is nothing new, whilst the conception of family as a married couple is very modern: it doesn’t work as a useful definition in societies with larger multi-generation households (and family is a word for household as much as biological kin) or with high mortality of childbearing-age females.

        More to the point, for men at least sex and procreation are separate (if obviously compatible) activities. Accepting responsibility for offspring has always been a choice, and in recent history (when the nuclear family ideal was evolving and dominant) social pressures were not to do so, making the consequences of extra-marital sex less significant.

        If you want to rephrase your argument around parental commitment then it would likely be more convincing. The benefit to culture is well-supported and therefore culturally-literate children, not a stable hetrosexual partnership, which is simply one way of achieving this, albeit seemingly the most effective for western society in recent years (our data for this will always be hindcasting, since for childhood it’s outcomes that matter).

        • theredsheep says:

          I said nothing about the nuclear family, and in any case it doesn’t matter because the extended family is more or less a cluster of nuclear families (and it doesn’t matter if the household includes slaves or servants, they all had parents who took care of them at some point and the bulk of households in most societies will not be able to afford large numbers of either).

          A kid has two parents, and it’s more helpful to have both around when rearing it, for reasons of financial and emotional support as well as physical security and role modeling. Even if you allow for polygamy and the like–which are (in practice, in developed societies) rare for a reason–same-sex pairings are still a net drain because they’re not where the kids come from; you’ve reduced the number of options on the “market.”

          To clarify what I mean by that, I have in mind the idea of sex primarily as a means of pleasure pursued by free agents–the modern urban American norm, more or less. Historically, a sexual partner was a fellow-parent, and you got married because that’s how you formed a household. It was a critical life stage bypassed by few and generally with some stigma. Now, people did cheat, and always will, but we’re talking about social norms here.

          Anyway, the nuclear family isn’t that rare in history. I can’t recall the exact title, but the book is something like “Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.” It makes clear that a couple with children was considered both desirable and the norm, with exceptions only for cases such as poverty.

          • meltedcheesefondue says:

            >extended family is more or less a cluster of nuclear families

            An extended family is very different from a cluster of nuclear families. Within an extended family, food, economy, justice, possessions, and leisure activity, could all be assigned or controlled by members of the extended family. Your clan was essential to your survival; without it, you would often die, and sometimes you wouldn’t even meet anyone from outside it for most of your life.

            That’s very different from modern nuclear families, with a mere two parents and most other services provided by state or corporations. Essentially, nuclear families is much closer to radical individualism than it is to extended families.

          • theredsheep says:

            Irrelevant to the point I intended to make, which is that human beings do better when raised by two parents and families are either couples or clusters of related couples, with rare exceptions for polygamous societies–and in these, for obvious reasons, polygamy is generally not the norm. A few high-status men accumulate wives, while some others do without to compensate.

            To clarify: kids come from parents. That requires heterosexual sex. People get married for one reason or another. Regular sex between couples is desirable both because it increases fertility (important in premodern societies) and because it promotes pair bonding (household is less tense when parents don’t despise each other, arguably gives woman some leverage as well). If either partner is also having sex with a same-sex partner, it is likely to have a negative effect on their relationship with the spouse. This is a Bad Thing.

            However, since somebody brought it up, I looked it up, and Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium confirms that Byz. society was centered on nuclear families as well. So both European Christendoms, where anti-gay feeling was strong, were nuclear-oriented. Islam was more tribal in its origins, and has some animus towards homosexuals. I don’t know how deep its theological roots are, or how long they continued to have more extended families in the middle ages etc., but I know the stigma against homoeroticism could have been stronger. As I recall, five percent of surviving Abbasid poetry is related to pederasty. This doesn’t sound impressive until you realize that the share dedicated to praising women is also five percent, the remainder being patron-praise poems (roughly equivalent to paid advertising). Eventually the whole caliphate was hijacked by Turkish slave soldiers/catamites.

            Pre-Christian Rome was extended, fine with homoeroticism. China and its Confucian satellites were more extended-oriented, and had no stigma against homosexuality that I know of. Don’t know about India. All this doesn’t add up to much, but it’s an interesting set of correlations.

          • theredsheep says:

            Don’t know enough about ancient Israelite family structure to speculate. Anybody know anything about the size of ancient Jewish families? Googling seems to bring up a lot of jibber-jabber and untrustworthy sources (e.g. Creationists).

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        I’m extremely skeptical that the risks of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes can explain pre-Columbian homosexuality taboos. Those diseases aren’t nearly as dangerous as syphilis or HIV – though they sometimes cause fertility-related complications in women – and unlike HIV in particular, they aren’t notably more transmissible between men and other men than they are between men and female prostitutes.

        • jumpinjacksplash says:

          I agree, I think it’s really dubious that it’s a VD thing. I’d suspect/speculate (suspectulate?) that it’s a consequence of other taboos:

          1. Being a passive/receiving sex partner is inherently feminine/submissive (these two get equated because gender roles)

          2. Higher status men thus shouldn’t be receptive homosexuals, and they and their families lose status for doing so (the Romans and the Pashtuns both seem to have got stuck at this point)

          3. Families strongly discourage their children from being receptive homosexuals (partly status retention, and partly something related to the Pashtun “if you won’t stop me f*cking your daughter, you won’t stop me stealing your goats” principle)

          4. All homosexuality gets tarnished by association, or as abetting sin, or as hypocrisy by a more egalitarian moral framework (Christianity in the Roman case)

          All of this is probably boosted by the fact that if you live in a society with hierarchical gender roles, your default assumption will be that romantic relationships are inherently hierarchical, and will impute this onto homosexuality. I suspect this is why tolerance of homosexuality has gone from everyone utterly abhorring it to everyone (secular) now struggling to come up with any convincing legible argument against it – we now officially view relationships as inherently egalitarian (whatever they’re like in practice).

        • teageegeepea says:

          It’s my understanding that anal sex in particular makes the transmission of basically every STD more likely.

    • teageegeepea says:

      Here’s an argument that African AIDS is distinctive due to their medical system using lots of tainted needles:
      http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/02/africa-hiv-perverts-or-bad-med.html
      It seems that HIV is less common in the more Muslim & northerly parts of Africa, though whether that’s due to sexual taboos or less needles is hard to say.

      Also, HIV isn’t the only thing to be worried about. Our current advances in antibiotics appear to be encouraging a certain subset of people to be highly promiscuous without using protection on the assumption that a doctor can fix whatever ails them later, which we would expect to breed more virulent & antibiotic resistant strains of those diseases.

  8. bufordsharkley says:

    Top economists, up until the 1950s, almost unanimously agreed that socialism would help the economy, since central planners could coordinate ways to become more efficient. The first good arguments against this proposition, those of Hayek and von Mises, were a quarter-century in the future. Communism seemed perfectly straightforward and unlikely to go wrong; the first hint that it “might not work in real life” would have to wait for the Bolshevik Revolution. Pease writes that the main pro-capitalism argument during his own time was the Malthusian position that if the poor got more money, they would keep breeding until the Earth was overwhelmed by overpopulation; even in his own time, demographers knew this wasn’t true.

    For what it’s worth, I think this tends to oversimplify the history of “capitalist” vs “socialist” discourse. For one thing, one of the primary strains of socialist thought in Britain and the United States was based upon the work of Henry George (this recent article lays out good background), and George was quite outspoken in his doubts of the efficiency and workability of central planning. (This led George’s ideology to be adopted both by generations of socialists as well as early libertarians like Albert Jay Nock). His arguments may not have exactly been laid out in the allocation framework as per Hayek, but they were certainly more sophisticated than Malthus’s.

    But turn-of-the-century Britain never went communist. Why not?

    To some extent, the George-flavored brand of socialism was put into effect, as the “New Liberal” platform ran heavily on land reform, and elevated “[their] first, and only, radical Prime Minister”.

    Concessions were made with the People’s Budget of 1909 that tended to erode the radicalism of the movement, but it at least partially explains where the energy went.

    • salvorhardin says:

      And August Bebel foresaw exactly why communism wouldn’t work and what horrors it would lead to in the 1880s. It’s like the housing crash: the answer to “why didn’t anyone see this coming?” is “some people did, and anyone who observed and reasoned as well as they did could have.”

  9. Ghatanathoah says:

    The whole AIDs thing seems like a pretty bad example of a tradition turning out to have an illegible justification. It seems more like an instance of a stopped clock being right twice a day. HIV had not spread to humans at the time anti-homosexuality taboos developed. The STDs that did exist at the time lacked the freakish properties of HIV that were tailor-made to spread invisibly through sexually active communities. Cultural evolution is not that much more forward-looking than biological evolution, it seems unlikely that hundreds of years ago society preemptively evolved an anti-homosexuality taboo just in case a mutant super-STD evolved in a few centuries hence.

    The issue is muddied further by the gay rights movement’s massive lobbying for AIDs treatment. I’m not sure what would have happened in a world without a gay rights movement, but where HIV had evolved at about the same time. Obviously it might have spread to gay people more slowly. But I’m not sure if it would have been discovered as quickly if the gay activists groups hadn’t drawn so much attention to it; it well might have had more time to spread. I don’t think that Haitian immigrants, another group in the US that suffered a lot of early infection, were nearly as well organized. And I don’t know how much the gay community’s lobbying accelerated the development of anti-retroviral drugs. That hypothetical world might well have seen a greater number of deaths from AIDs that was discovered and treated years later than in our timeline.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The STDs that did exist at the time lacked the freakish properties of HIV that were tailor-made to spread invisibly through sexually active communities.”

      Is that true? I think the most salient factor was that the others were all curable by that point. I think syphilis spread in a pretty similar way back when it was first around. See study speculating that about 10% of people in London in 1900 had syphilis.

      Independently, I disagree with the “stopped clock” formulation. Suppose your mother says “Don’t drive drunk”, and you drive drunk and hit a tanker truck and start a giant fire that causes a bridge to collapse and kills a hundred people. Obviously your mother didn’t predict that in particular, but is it “stopped clock is right twice a day”, or “useful warnings can deal with a wide range of scales of disaster”?

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        I think syphilis spread in a pretty similar way back when it was first around.

        As in, disproportionately through homosexual sex? If so, when was the taboo actually working?

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        I think syphilis spread in a pretty similar way back when it was first around.

        Which isn’t nearly as long ago as when the homosexuality taboo first appeared in Europe. I have the impression that the homosexuality taboo intensified in Victorian England, and I can buy that syphilis might have played a role in that – although now we’re talking about a time frame of a few hundred years; I’m not sure if that’s long enough for the types of traditions we’re talking about to develop.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I think syphilis spread in a pretty similar way back when it was first around. See study speculating that about 10% of people in London in 1900 had syphilis.

        In the case of syphilis specifically, I think that taboos against homosexuality in Europe developed centuries before syphilis made it there, especially if we accept the dominant theory that syphilis is a New World disease brought to Europe by Columbus. As far as we can extrapolate from scant records, pre-Columbian Native Americans didn’t have the same sort of anti-gay taboos that Europeans did. This makes me question how useful such taboos were in preventing disease. It seems strange that Europeans would develop such taboos and Native Americans wouldn’t; considering that Native Americans had far more incentive to do so since they had syphilis and pre-Columbian Europeans likely didn’t.

        Obviously your mother didn’t predict that in particular, but is it “stopped clock is right twice a day”, or “useful warnings can deal with a wide range of scales of disaster”?

        The point I am trying to make is that AIDs is a bad example of the dangers of questioning evolved tradition and conventional wisdom because the evolution of a new type of lethal disease that is resistant to all existing STD treatments is the kind of thing that it isn’t reasonable to expect a cultural reformer to predict.

        I think a closer, if a bit more convoluted analogy, would be someone’s mother warning them not to get drunk when they are out because drunk driving is unsafe and they are too poor to call a cab or an Uber. They follow their mother’s warning until they get a better job and are able to afford an Uber when they are too drunk. However, a flying saucer lands on the street they are driving down and their driver hits it, causing a giant explosion.

        AIDs didn’t just differ in scale from other STDs. It also differed in predictability. The evolution of a new and horrible STD within decades of the time we learn how to treat all the other ones isn’t quite as fantastic as an Uber hitting a flying saucer. But it’s still pretty fantastic odds. AIDs seems to me to be, if anything, the cultural evolutionary version of a Gettier problem.

        Making another analogy, imagine there’s a crackpot who protests against the surgical removal of wisdom teeth. They insist that evolution put them there for a reason, so we shouldn’t remove them. I think we’d be right to dismiss them as a crackpot. I don’t think they’d be any less a crackpot if a new disease evolved that only killed people who had their wisdom teeth removed. (To clarify, the crackpot isn’t a scientist who discovers the new disease before anyone else, they’re a hippy environmentalist who thinks wisdom teeth must be good because all “natural” things are good. Their being right in in this instance is a Gettier case.)

        • Jaskologist says:

          The point I am trying to make is that AIDs is a bad example of the dangers of questioning evolved tradition and conventional wisdom because the evolution of a new type of lethal disease that is resistant to all existing STD treatments is the kind of thing that it isn’t reasonable to expect a cultural reformer to predict.

          The whole point is that reason itself may not be a great tool for changing tradition. It’s not an excuse to say “they couldn’t have predicted that using reason,” because that’s the entire point.

        • “As far as we can extrapolate from scant records, pre-Columbian Native Americans didn’t have the same sort of anti-gay taboos that Europeans did.”

          There were many different Native American societies with differing attitudes toward homosexuality, some of which were very harsh, the Aztecs for instance. Syphilis is only one example of the pre-AIDS stds, there were many, the phenomenon is older than humanity itself:

          “Human papillomavirus type 58 causes cervical cancer in 10–20% of cases in East Asia. It is rarely found elsewhere. An estimate of the date of evolution of the most recent common ancestor places it at 478,600 years ago (95% HPD 391,000–569,600). As this date is before the generally accepted date of the evolution of modern humans, this suggests that this virus was transmitted to humans from a now extinct hominin. As this virus is usually transmitted sexually this furthermore suggests that mating occurred in this area between modern humans and a now extinct hominin species”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Interbreeding_between_archaic_and_modern_humans&oldid=839043854#Indirect_evidence

    • nameless1 says:

      Here in Europe AIDS was not even associated with gays. It was associated with unprotected sex and there were huge condom campaigns thrown on all young people, regardless of sexual orientation. The most famous person with AIDS we have heard about was Magic Johnson who is straight. I think the authorities simply thought straight people should be using condoms anyway to prevent unplanned pregnancies, so used AIDS as another argument for it. There was this joke, a reporter asks some average guy, have you heard about HIV, are you using condoms? And then he says yes, I don’t want to catch it, I am wearing it all the time, only taking it off for peeing and for having sex.

      • Tarpitz says:

        My favourite variant involves three SAS soldiers – an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – captured on a black ops mission by the forces of a nefarious dictator (at the time it was generally Saddam Hussein). Allowed to choose the manner of their own deaths, the Englishman is shot, the Scotsman hanged, and the Irishman injected with the HIV virus. When liberated by friendly forces, he’s asked why he chose such a horrible, lingering death, and explains that he had them all fooled: he was wearing a condom.

      • Randy M says:

        Here in Europe AIDS was not even associated with gays. It was associated with unprotected sex and there were huge condom campaigns thrown on all young people, regardless of sexual orientation.

        Do you mean associated psychologically or statistically? The safe sex messaging in the states was broadly targeted as well, rarely pointing out how much riskier homosexual sex is or why.

      • According to my elder son’s description of his high school sex-ed class in the Philadelphia suburbs, HIV was described as if it was an ordinary venereal disease, with no suggestion of a link to homosexuality or anal intercourse. My conjecture was that that represented a left-right alliance. The left didn’t want homosexuals to be blamed for the AIDS epidemic, the right wanted to scare kids out of premarital sex.

        That would have been about thirty years ago.

        • JustToSay says:

          That was my experience as well (around the same time), to the point where I did not even realize that AIDS was more common among gay men, or had any connection to gay men at all, until my late-twenties.

          Partly I’m still embarrassed by my degree of naivete. Partly, it feels like evidence of systemic deceit that has left me extremely distrustful of all pro-homosexuality messaging and, by (possibly unreasonable) extension, pro-trans messaging.

          This is probably unfair, and I know that most groups who manage to get any cultural power will do the same thing to achieve their goals, but it’s had a big influence on how I view all of that. “People will lie very effectively to cover up the downsides,” is hardly shocking, but it makes me pretty unlikely to believe them when they say, “Okay, but there aren’t any other downsides; trust me. Also, we should be in charge of designing your child’s sex-ed curriculum.”

          • Jack says:

            To me this is a bizarre perspective. For a long time most gay art (in my community) was about HIV. It’s still a very common theme. Queer people do not in general think about “covering up the downsides” because queerness is generally seen as not a choice, and therefore not to be defended on some kind of cost-benefit analysis. If you mean the downsides of sexual activity, ie STI risk, loads of queer community organizations exist specifically to educate queers and MSM about these things. It’s quite a stretch to go from some curriculum designers feeling uncomfortable talking about gays and STIs in a sex ed class to “systemic deceit”. It must be changing, but for a long time coming to learn about the way AIDS ravaged “the gay community” was a sort of initiation rite for young gay men. Sex ed curricula are generally not great on homosex ed, the innocent explanation being that there are not that many homos, and getting more information useful to non-heteronormative experiences into curricula is an ongoing project for activists.

          • Aapje says:

            @Jack

            It seems to me that it’s the outsiders with great sympathy for a group who will more often tell falsehoods, because it’s much easier for them to adulate the group, assuming that negative claims are just lies by those who hate the group.

            For example, surveys show that white liberals are less likely to have negative beliefs about blacks than black people themselves.

          • Nootropic cormorant says:

            @Aapje, intuitively true, but note that white liberals are a group selected to not have negative beliefs about blacks.

          • Jack says:

            @Aapje Even if your claims are true (I do not mean to express skepticism nor agreement) we’d still have a problem with “groups who manage to get any cultural power will do the same thing [systemic deceit]” as an explanation of these curricula? “Them”? The implication of “all pro-homosexuality messaging”? Like, the “mainstream” could be a giant pro-fag conspiracy of deceit but please go listen to some actual fags before indicting them?

          • JustToSay says:

            @Jack

            I appreciate your initial comment, because it does point out an obvious distinction I hadn’t been making. I’m completely willing to believe there was a big difference between what LGBT individuals and communities were saying among and about themselves, and what mainstream, non-queer advocates of homosexuality preferred everyone believe for ends-justifies-the-means reasons. That’s certainly borne out by what I’ve seen and heard since then, but it wasn’t part of my mental model when I was younger. I agree that no one was asking any LGBT people what to include in our particular sex ed classes.

            I do still think I was exposed to a pretty big and intentional cultural push to get most people to have their mental model of the typical gay man be exactly the same in every respect as a straight man, except at night he lays down with his male partner. I think that involves some serious lies of omission, and I still don’t like that. I expect David’s also correct above when he suggests that some conservatives were happy to represent it that way as well in a hs sex-ed context because it added more to their list of reasons for abstinence.

            Also, no, I didn’t mean that anyone sitting in those sex ed classes or watching that media or whatnot was going to be personally weighing the pros and cons of being gay. I meant “downsides” as in “downsides of mandating broad social enthusiasm for it.” I probably wasn’t clear on that.

          • Jack says:

            I appreciate your clarifications. I’d add an ironic note: there is an ongoing debate among queer activists over respectabilisation. All marginalized groups face a version of the same dilemma: to what extent do we change to fit the norm in order to be accepted? If we do not make ourselves respectable we will be rejected; if we do make ourselves respectable we will have lost what makes us distinctive and acceptance will be meaningless. Which I guess is to say, a lot of what you identify as a push to identify gay men as just like straight men is thought of by some as problematic respectabilisation, but it’s not just about representations. Many gay men in fact want and have monogamous relationships, white picket fences, dogs and kids and so on as part of this shift.

          • Aapje says:

            @Jack

            Yes, it’s the same with nerds. There is a lot of pressure to be ‘more inclusive,’ which often fails to recognize that the differences meet certain needs in the first place.

            With it being taboo to point out certain group differences, we can’t even have an adult discussion about it (in general society).

        • salvorhardin says:

          FWIW this was far from universal at that time. My high school sex-ed class (1990-91) definitely taught that anal intercourse was risker for HIV transmission and STD transmission generally, and explained why, without passing any moral judgment. The overall social climate of the school at the time was somewhat homophobic but the class and teacher were definitely not; we were taught also about the mostly-heterosexual propagation paths for AIDS in Africa, for example, as well as about the fact that anal intercourse is not an exclusively homosexual practice.

    • Watchman says:

      Chlamydia makes people infertile. Gonnoreah can cause crippling side effects. Both would be the sort of thing we might expect taboos to be in place to avoid (you don’t have to understand germ theory to note those sleeping around have health problens). HIV is an example here, which happens to be more dramatic than the other known STIs, but the taboos would make sensemble with these considered. And we don’t know HIV did not exist before: some diseases seem to disappear/evolve into something more benign after all.

      • teageegeepea says:

        some diseases seem to disappear/evolve into something more benign after all

        Per Paul Ewald’s work on “New Germ Theory“, that only happens when an evolution toward benign symptoms is selected because transmission is less likely otherwise. An example he gives is cholera in South America. An outbreak spread into three countries with different water systems. Chile had relatively clean water, so it evolved to be benign enough not to have as many obvious effects. The opposite happened in Guatamala, where the disease can basically treat a person as a factory for producing more disease which it will expect to spread quickly enough that it can burn out its current host.

  10. gkai says:

    What about when it’s the good guys that are wrong? A lot of critics about our modern taboos/polical correctness/hollywood philosophy (not sure how to call it) boil down to: PC is feel good lies, actual reality is different and don’t care for fairness. It’s very probable that the lies often serve a purpose (For example promoting cooperation and reducing violence), but imho the critics are right, mainstream PC is often demonstrably wrong.
    So while Reason is assymetric in Right vs Wrong almost by definition (The counterexamples shows more indetermination linked to incomplete information/poor reasoning, than a non-monotonic “truth(amount of reasoning)” imho), for Good vs Bad it is not clear at all. Not surprising as what is Good or Bad is much less clearer in the first place…

    • nameless1 says:

      In general, why would truth be more convincing than untruth that feels good to believe or is in people’s interest to believe? I don’t want to get into the political stuff like PC, but it is clear that advertisements target emotions, not Reason. And they know what sells. If people were rational, advertisements would be dry data. In reality, they simply associate products with good feelings.

      It sometimes even works on me, dammit. I love those car, SUV, jeep ads where they are driving them across beaches and other kinds of cool terrain. (Because I love rallying as a motorsport. It is big in Europe and I find it interesting how it is not big and fairly new in the US, despite the “car culture”.)

      • silver_swift says:

        So you have established that emotional appeals are a very effective, but still symmetric weapon.

        The whole point of the original post was that even though assymetric weapons are horribly inneficient compared their symmetric counterparts, they have the benefit of working even when deployed by the enemy. If emotional advertisements are effective regardless of whether they are deployed by the good or the bad guys, we should discourage their use and switch a debate strategy that works even if we are the bad guys.

      • keaswaran says:

        My conjecture on the car thing is that US car culture means that after this many decades, most people associate driving with the drudgery of an awful commute through traffic. In Europe, if you can commute by some means other than car, then the car can still be used as a fun getaway without being associated with sitting in traffic and going to work.

  11. nameless1 says:

    >I hate calling people on phones. I can’t really explain this. I’m okay with emailing them. I’m okay talking to them in person. But I hate calling them on phones.

    Where are you on the Spectrum? In my case I am sure I hate it because of my Asperger. Being bad at figuring people out leads to a kind of distrusting people. When I talk with people on the phone and not see their face, I imagine they are making a “you are saying something extremely stupid, well all know you are an idiot and we all have zero respect for you, but I will pretend to humor you” face.

    I don’t care about people’s faces when I write an email, because an email is not “me”. It is a messenger, a message in abox. They can judge the message but not “me”. Which makes no sense but I just feel like this.

    Well, maybe not the Spectrum but maybe how other kids deal with kids on the Spectrum.

    Content warning: potential flashbacks to painful childhood memories.

    There is this behavior, I would not call it bullying but certainly an unfriendly behavior, of kids making fun of kids on the Spectrum by pretending to agree with them. You tell them a story, which they find completely boring and stupid, but they egg you on, saying cool story brah and go on and tell the details and all, and you don’t notice what they are doing, you are wondering why other kids are laughing. They throw more and more curiosity and praise at you, you feel like you are in this rare exceptional instance not shunned but actually popular, you keep telling your story, and only when they curiosity and praise is raised to absurd levels, you realize they were making fun of you and their actual meaning was 100% the opposite. This sucked. So at least I want to see people’s faces when I tell them stories.

    • cactus head says:

      Calling people on the phone is unpleasant because actually ringing someone in real life is an incredibly rude demand that they drop whatever they’re doing and attend to whatever’s on your mind. It’s amazing that anyone ever let phones into their houses.

      • brmic says:

        Back in the day, we used to have social norms around when phoning someone was acceptable. If you called earlier or later, that was considered rude.
        If post-work to dinner is housework time, interruptions during that time may sometimes be pleasant.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Why wouldn’t you call that bullying?

      • nameless1 says:

        Because I understand bullying as abnormal, unacceptable bad behavior that “society” (teachers etc.) should be able to put a stop to. While this is more like just normal, acceptable bad behavior. A certain amount of meanness is normal for children.

        Twenty years later they would work in marketing, the Aspie would be the one programming the CRM software for them and they would treat him with respect. Because now he is useful. And in a certain sense powerful – he can find good excuses to deny feature requests. So better not piss him off.

        The reason they treated the Aspie classmate meanly was that he was useless to them in the things they cared about. He could have helped with the homework but they did not care about that. They mostly cared about their position in the social hierarchy of the class.

        Maybe we just need to drive students harder. Hard enough that they actually have to resort to teamwork, much like in a normal corporate job. So not in the sense of encouraging competition but rather demanding everybody to do okay. Teamwork, and usefulness in a team leads to respect. I mean, that is how Simmler defines prestige or respect: one’s value on the teaming-up market.

        The nerd experience at schools is terrible largely because the nerd is just so useless to the normie classmates in everything they care about. Then grow up, get a suitable job, be good at it, and people suddenly respect you for it, because it is useful for them. We need teamwork in schools.

        • Aapje says:

          Hard enough that they actually have to resort to teamwork, much like in a normal corporate job.

          This will just result in bullying of the dead weight. In the military, where recruits are often given hard tasks, many of which require team work, you have quite a bit of bullying.

          The fundamental problem with schools is that it forces kids together to do tasks that they don’t tend to care about, with peers that they don’t get to select and without the ability to get rid of the undesired; with an overall lack of maturity making everything worse.

          It is true that the kids are often judged relative to each other, so other kids doing better at the assigned tasks can make the life of the less capable or more lazy worse. So they have an incentive to bully the capable out of the group. This is where more team work can make a difference, but it won’t magically end bullying.

          • nameless1 says:

            So it would turn shift bulling from the capable to the incapable? I think that would be a very big improvement, because teachers, officers etc. already know they must pay disproportionate attention to the incapable, either find them an easier place or get them up to speed. And it is precisely that attention that stops bullying. While with bullying the capable the issue is that you get A’s and B’s and behave well and teachers don’t pay any attention to you because you seem entirely OK and not in need of any extra attention.

  12. Michael Watts says:

    Was improved tolerance and equality worth 100,000+ deaths? Honestly, both answers to that question would be equally horrible, so I’m not even going to try.

    Almost completely off topic: this illustrates a phenomenon that’s fascinated me for years: the question that makes you worse off just by asking it.

    The paradigm for me comes from an episode of Friends, which I’ll recap here:

    Phoebe receives a surprise visit from her husband, Duncan (unknown to the viewers before this episode). It turns out to have been a marriage of convenience: he was a gay Canadian ice dancer who wanted a US green card, and she was his friend and did him a favor.

    Except it wasn’t a marriage of convenience. Phoebe really accepted the marriage because she was in love with Duncan and wanted to be married to him.

    And the reason for Duncan’s visit is that he was only gay for reasons of social pressure. He’s found the woman for him, and he’s visiting Phoebe to ask for a divorce so he can marry that girl instead.

    Obviously, Phoebe does not take this well. The conclusion of their ensuing discussion is Phoebe asking him (paraphrased from memory) “do you think that… if you’d known you were straight then… that I could have been the one…” and then cutting herself off with “You know what, I don’t think there’s any answer to that question that would make me feel any better.”

    And I agree — I think that no matter what the answer to that question is, getting it will make you feel worse than you did before. This is hard to explain from a logical, law-of-the-excluded-middle perspective.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I have two explanations for two different contexts. Let me know if either seem salient to you.

      Model 1: our sense of feeling good is based on difference between status quo and salient counterfactual. When you hear question of “could i have been with the ex that got away” you make the counterfactual of having been together this whole time salient. And proceed to feel bad.

      Model 2: if asked to make a taboo tradeoff, because people can emotionally process hypothetical loss stronger than hypothetical gains, regardless of what they choose the feeling of choosing feels worse than never getting the question.

    • Walter says:

      This feels like the ‘island of blue eyed people’ kind of thing, where what is being changed is two or 3 levels down. Before asking Phoebe hadn’t had to consider what she wanted the answer to be, as soon as she asked the question she realized that all answers were unfavorable, and that she knew that, and that now he knew that, and now she knew he knew, etc.

    • honoredb says:

      Scott Adams said something way back when relevant to both this tangent and the main topic (at least a little). He was arguing, if I remember, that democracy was not an effective process, and proposed a thought experiment: take something the country is evenly divided on, and then poll ten smart people. Will they be evenly divided too? He claimed that either answer would reflect negatively on democracy: either intelligence is irrelevant to the outcome of democracy, in which case it can’t really be an intelligent system, or intelligence is relevant but democracy on a high scale is reducing its impact.

      I think in this case the trick works because it prevents you from unconsciously “having it both ways,” seeing intelligent thought as driving democratic outcomes while also seeing democratic outcomes as superior to just having philosopher princes decide everything. And this post illustrates one possible response (among many), that a successful system needs both experts and crowds as input because experts have more legible wisdom and crowds have more illegible wisdom.

      In Phoebe’s case, before asking the question she can sort of average out the {high pain of missed opportunity, no pain of rejection} possibility and the {no pain of missed opportunity, high pain of rejection} into having low pain on both axes. After asking, it’s clear that there’s high pain out there somewhere, and pain generally combines sublinearly so having one huge pain is worse than two smaller ones.

      • moridinamael says:

        Alternative answer: There aren’t any smart people. The smartest human is very very dumb, and completely incapable of understanding complex systems, much less making useful predictions about untested policies, given incomplete information, in a chaotic environment. Asking “ten smart people” is not much better than asking the ten smartest dogs what they think about nutrition. At least the dogs aren’t deluded into thinking they have some expertise because they read a book about it.

        There are, of course, types of problems where smarter people will outperform dumber people. I would argue this is a narrow class of problems, falling into a specific windows of complexity and knowledge-availability. Too complex, too many interacting phenomena, and smart people will mistakenly think they understand the implications of the complexity, when they actually don’t. Too many unknowns, and smart people will mistakenly think those unknowns don’t matter, or not even understand that there are relevant facts they don’t know when performing their assessment. Both smart and dumb people are about equally likely to not realize when the current problem under consideration falls outside of that window of complexity and information availability, leading them to make really bold statements about how good minimum wage is.

        And then, there’s another class of problems that are solved about equally well by smart and dumb people.

        Nutrition, economics, and ecology may literally be beyond the scope of human comprehension.

        • Lillian says:

          You claim nutrition is beyond the scope of human comprehension, and yet professional actors routinely gain or lose large amounts of both weight and muscle mass as required by their roles. Professional fighters can shift weight classes while retaining their fighting abilities. Nutrition seems to be as solved problems when you have professional nutritionists and personal trainers managing your food intake and activity levels.

          In fact it’s so much a solved problem that it doesn’t even seem to matter what your professional’s pet theory of nutrition is. Some people hire low fat experts, others hire low carb experts, and still others hire experts who are obsessed with weird juice cleanses, and nonetheless all these experts with their incompatible theories remain employed because they can reliably get results for their clients.

          The part nobody has figured out is how to reliably get the people who can’t afford personal trainers to manage their weight on their own. This is clearly not because nutrition is beyond human comprehension, but more because humans are just kind of bad at self-regulation. Under controlled conditions you can make anyone any weight. So nutrition is easy, it’s dieting that’s hard.

          • Clutzy says:

            I agree, the unsolved problem is not nutrition, it is sustainable self-discipline.

            This isn’t only in nutrition. You can prevent heroine addicts from using if you have aggressive monitors. You can prevent even the horniest 15 year old boy from masturbating if you watch him 24/7. The problem is having a good enough whip.

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            In fact it’s so much a solved problem that it doesn’t even seem to matter what your professional’s pet theory of nutrition is. Some people hire low fat experts, others hire low carb experts, and still others hire experts who are obsessed with weird juice cleanses, and nonetheless all these experts with their incompatible theories remain employed because they can reliably get results for their clients.

            The part nobody has figured out is how to reliably get the people who can’t afford personal trainers to manage their weight on their own. This is clearly not because nutrition is beyond human comprehension, but more because humans are just kind of bad at self-regulation. Under controlled conditions you can make anyone any weight. So nutrition is easy, it’s dieting that’s hard.

            Dieting is a lot less hard if you choose one of the correct, proven-to-work methods. This is the part where the nutrition experts come in. The rest of the population, who rely on the food pyramid or one of its permutations, are going to have a tough time losing weight, and even worse time being healthy, because the pyramid-style nutrition isn’t healthy.

            The pyramid is almost designed to make you ill and fat. They call it ‘low fat’ but it isn’t low fat enough to trigger the correct physiological responses in subjects. (Granted, you need to basically whip people to consistently follow an ultralowfat diet, beacuse of how unpalatable it is, but that’s more on your point that self-discipline is hard.) At the same time, it’s not low carb at all, so it won’t work through those pathways, either. And the common advice is to eat many small meals, which completely obviates the metabolic advantage of intermittent fasting.

            All of the mentioned, reliably effective methods – low carb, ultralow fat, intermittent fasting – work. But they are also quite difficult to pull off alone, because social expectations screw you. Without an uncompromising “no exceptions” kind of mindset, it’s hugely difficult to make sustainable long-term changes. The methods are not equally difficult, but they’re all still at least challenging to pull off if you don’t want to be some kind of social outcast who always insists on bringing their own food or dictating the hosts what they should feed him or not eating at socially required times.

            In short, mainstream nutrition outside of expert coaching, is nuts. I can’t wait for the old guard to die and get replaced by people who actually look at the myriad experiments disproving the popular myths and accept the results.

          • moridinamael says:

            “Nutrition” is bigger than weight loss. Are eggs bad? Is steak bad? Is broccoli good? How good? How much fiber do you need? How much fiber is optimal? Vitamins? What kind of oils do you need, in what ratios? What foods cause cancer? What foods only cause cancer when you don’t eat enough of other foods that offset their negative qualities?

            Sure, if you put a human through a crucible of physical exertion and limit their food intake to specific macronutrient ratios, they will become more “fit”. This observation is to nutrition as “don’t burn piles of money” is to economics.

          • morris39 says:

            Given the many conflicting/contradictory studies and poor practical results, consider contributing causes other than ignorance, will power and deception. Parasitic gain? Empirically we know of parasite/host interaction (decerption) which genetically or physically cause harm to the host for the gain of the parasite. I do no see this aspect discussed in literature regarding humans/animals. Why is that?

        • Anatoly says:

          >The smartest human is very very dumb, and completely incapable of understanding complex systems, much less making useful predictions about untested policies, given incomplete information, in a chaotic environment.

          I like your take, but how do you square it with Tetlock’s superpredictors?

          • moridinamael says:

            My first thought is that if you know that you don’t understand economics, that actually makes you better calibrated than somebody who mistakenly believes that they do.

            The “outside view” that superpredictors allegedly use is exactly how you would think if you realized you didn’t understand something. Instead of querying your obviously incorrect model of how the economy works, you just look at what happened last time a similar situation arose, and put hefty uncertainty bounds on that prediction.

        • morris39 says:

          Agree. We are not capable of deep understanding, Plato was in fact right about shadows on the wall. Humans are good at recognizing patterns, even abstract ones. Models (incl. complex ones)are then created which can give accurate predictions e.g chemical reactions, machines etc. But there is no deeper understanding outside the particular model. Animals can learn patterns to predict human behavior. But there is a class of people who claim that there is no is no limit to human intelligence and that they are able to teach this skill and should be paid from the public purse. They have been persuasive for the last 500 years but seem to be running into a wall of late. Interesting fantasies ensue.

          • moridinamael says:

            I agree in spirit, but I want to push even harder on that. We’re good at recognizing patterns relative to other animals. But I can point a machine learning algorithm with a few thousand nodes at a problem that an individual human would never be able to untangle in a hundred years of thinking about it, and that AI will find an optimal solution or a sparse representation or whatever it is I asked it to do, in like an hour.

            There’s probably a scholarly language for what we’re talking about here. Like, there are those puzzles that they subject crows and dogs and monkeys to. Humans can generally just immediately see how to solve the puzzles without even interacting with them, because we have a capacity to concretely imagine things one or two or three steps in advance. I think it has to do with the amount of bits we can hold in working memory, and maybe also the fact that our representations are richer and deeper, meaning a single bit in working memory represents a more complicated object in the world.

            A really smart agent would be able to glance at extremely difficult or human-impossible logic puzzles and “see” the solution in a similar way.

            Think about how embarrassing it will be to talk about politics when AI is really a thing. We won’t be able to escape how dumb we sound.

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          Human emotions are less than completely logical.

        • Michael Watts says:

          Yes, that’s what I meant by “this is hard to explain from a law-of-the-excluded-middle perspective”. But the fact remains that, if you don’t ask the question at all, you end up being better off than you can ever be in any scenario where you do ask it. Hence my interest.

  13. onyomi says:

    I really like this series, though I think an additional factor I’d like to see more on is object-level biases that may exist as a result of socio-economic factors.

    For example, on Scott’s account, which is one I agree with, the evidence and arguments against communism are now really strong in a way they weren’t 120 years ago. But the thing is, most intellectuals, especially sociologists, are still about as left wing as their societies’ respective Overton windows can accommodate and often then-some.

    I don’t think it was primarily about capitalism having a weird truth curve where if you study it a little you think it’s bad, but if you study it a lot you realize it’s good. It seems to me more a case of a certain group (intellectuals) in societies (Western and also e.g., Chinese) wanting really, really badly to believe one thing and being dragged, kicking and screaming, away from it by horrifying facts and devastating arguments–and then, only as much as was needed to distance themselves from those things.

    To me this is less about the truth curve of capitalism vs. communism and more about “maybe something about the social position of intellectuals makes them really strongly biased in a particular way.”

    On the other side of the coin, it seems likely that the poor and middle class tend not only to be more conservative than the cognoscenti but systematically biased in particular ways.

    Or maybe this just pushes the issue up a level by observing that different groups within societies might have different sets of “traditions” that bias them in different directions? For example, maybe intellectuals have a “tradition” of acting as gadflies of a sort? I certainly know families that promote such an idea as a different family might teach the kids “respect your elders,” etc.

    • nameless1 says:

      >For example, on Scott’s account, which is one I agree with, the evidence and arguments against communism are now really strong in a way they weren’t 120 years ago. But the thing is, most intellectuals, especially sociologists, are still about as left wing as their societies’ respective Overton windows can accommodate and often then-some.

      ???? in my universe, they switched from economic leftism to social leftism. In Rorty’s terminology, from reformist left to cultural left. What do you hear more about, racism or poverty? I definitely hear a lot more about racism. And when I hear about poverty, it is about the poverty of the jobless. Not the employed working class. “Proletarian” is a word that went completely out of the vocabulary.

      • Spookykou says:

        Anecdata, both of the sociology professors that I have known spent very little time in class on economic issues, and both were pro-communism.

      • keaswaran says:

        It’s definitely true that “cultural left” ideology is more widespread among academics than classic Marxist left ideology. And yet Marxist class-based ideas are still quite prominent and widespread (at least, a whole lot more so than in other populations). There’s a widespread meme among many of my (academic) social circles that diversity and anti-racism and identity politics are in some sense fundamentally neoliberal distractions from the fundamental class struggle.

    • To me this is less about the truth curve of capitalism vs. communism and more about “maybe something about the social position of intellectuals makes them really strongly biased in a particular way.”

      Just throwing this one out there. If we use class analysis and view publicly funded intellectuals as a class, then two reasons for the educated occupying the left end of the overton window are that they heavily depend on the state for their existence and that they influence the employment criteria for society. They see that their economic position will be more secure in a society that leans further to the left, and they are attracted to socialism because the expansion of the state (not the literal definition of socialism but an obvious consequence) means that a greater degree of the employment in society is governed by the system of credentials that they control.

      One way to test this theory would be to check whether intellectuals clustered in the same way (relative to the time) before Universities became so heavily dependent on the state (so before the 19th Century pretty much). An alternative theory is that intellectuals are higher in the trait openness of the OCEAN model and that trait correlates with left leaning beliefs in general. However, it may be that trait openness only correlates with the left in this society, and this is not some universal all-time phenomenon. I don’t think anyone’s ever checked whether people attracted to the communist parties of the third world are high in this psychological trait, but I could be wrong.

      • If we use class analysis and view publicly funded intellectuals as a class, then two reasons for the educated occupying the left end of the overton window are that they heavily depend on the state for their existence and that they influence the employment criteria for society.

        I’m reminded of one of my father’s comments about India. India had exchange controls, justified as a way of making sure that India’s scarce foreign exchange was used for the good of the country instead of being wasted on luxuries. The justification was done by well off Indian academics and bureaucrats in air conditioned New Delhi hotels.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        Once we’ve established on non-Bulverist grounds that dirigism is a Bad Thing, there are any number of motivational explanations we can play around with. I have a sneaking fondness for the one that says it attracts people who did well in school, and wish adult life could be more like school.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        Not to mention the slightly pettier point that intellectuals generally think intellectuals should get the most respect, but under capitalism that goes to businessmen. What’s harder to explain is the social views; if academia is disproportionately white and male (I have no up-to-date stats, but this was definitely the case in the past), why would academics support diversification more strongly than society as a whole? (other than the possibility that it’s in some sense morally correct)

        • onyomi says:

          Academics in the humanities, at least, are definitely not overwhelmingly white and male anymore, and my sense is that the heavy focus on identity roughly corresponded to that change (though that may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem). So, it may be there’s nothing to explain. But if there is, another possibility that seems likely to me is a situation where it’s in the socio-economic best interest of individual white males to take actions that are not good for the group “white males” in some long-term, generalizable sense, or at least, not in a way that cashes out in white males occupying a higher proportion of good jobs in a particular industry/field.

          Consider, for example, a social situation in which a white, male judge may accrue greater status and prestige for himself by hiring non-white and/or female law clerks.

          • jumpinjacksplash says:

            I think the individual-benefit explanation probably holds in most fields, but raises the question of why diversity/wokeness is the value that you signal to increase status? Why not religious piety, class (in either direction), racism or patriotism? I can see practical problems with using any of those that wokeness lacks, but I’d assume there has to be more to it than “we needed an arbitrary value for signalling, so we went with this one.”

            I may be taking a far too academic-driven view of rising wokeness, but at least chronologically the model for this looks like academics->high-level activists/journalists->politicians/folk activists.

      • @DavidFriedman

        I’d expect Indian intellectuals to be different in character because of the caste system for one thing.

        @jumpinjacksplash

        if academia is disproportionately white and male (I have no up-to-date stats, but this was definitely the case in the past), why would academics support diversification more strongly than society as a whole? (other than the possibility that it’s in some sense morally correct)

        This is a legitimately good counterargument to the argument of “they’re acting in their own interests” I’m proferring. Both left and right political activists are going to pursue strategies that try to increase the chances of not just gaining a foothold but cementing it. For the right (in America), that’s usually said to be gerrymandering, whereas for the left it’s usually said to be immigration. It’s possible “diversity” is just a proxy issue to creating a large group of grateful client voters. Of course, to the degree that academics are already non-white and non-male, it can again be chalked up to group interest.

        The other explanation is that the tendency to believe in things for moral reasons is stronger than class interests, and then we are back to the OCEAN model and whatever interaction between inherited tendencies and cultural norms create this outcome.

    • carvenvisage says:

      To me this is less about the truth curve of capitalism vs. communism and more about “maybe something about the social position of intellectuals makes them really strongly biased in a particular way.”

      I think it’s more about how people become intellectuals in the first place.

      At the most basic level, the more attracted to ideas you are the quicker and more deeply you reflexively become attached to them, the easier a time you will have in the education system.

      Then it’s probably also true in the modern education system that the more you insist on things being justified to your satisfaction before you will deign to accept the, the more trouble you will have.

      This certainly doesn’t describe all intellectuals, but I think this is basically just because that there are different mind set-ups people can have to enable them to do good intellectual work.

      e.g. someone with more of accountant’s temperament might achieve the same outcome of “no problem focusing on abstract ideas” because they have more conscious ability or less expectation for stimulation, an “absent minded bumbler/professor” type because they are naturally more oriented in the realm of ideas than the physical world, a hardass engineer type because they like the fact that it’s difficult, a shy librarianish type because they like things with low stimulation, etc etc.

      But “high and unrestrained enthusiasm for ideas” does seem to be a basic way people are commonly getting their heads to stay on straight in front of textbook. (Or to put it another way, a type)

      • onyomi says:

        Yeah, we had a discussion about this recently wrt to art and research: basically fields like art and academia demand constant freshness, which can mean people doing weird things for the sake of having something new to do. This type of field, in turn, will tend to attract people who are easily excited by new ideas, as opposed to people who think things were just fine the way they were.

        This predicts academics and artists (at least sense doing those things required constant freshness, which maybe in the past it didn’t so much; curious about what the turning point was–would guess shift away from theology/devotional art) will always trend liberal in the sense of “not conservative,” though not necessarily “left wing” as commonly perceived since, e.g., one can imagine a case where the hot new idea is fascism. Then again, it seems to me academic support for fascism was a lot more limited than for socialism/communism, so I still have a suspicion that academic left-wing-ism is more of a secular, rather than cyclical trend at this point.

  14. catherio says:

    … but having some Silly Rules is important (see https://arxiv.org/abs/1811.01267)

    “rules with no discernible direct impact on welfare [… aka silly rules] render a normative system both more robust and more adaptable in response to shocks to perceived stability”

    My basic understanding is that if some of the rules (like “don’t wear hats in church”) are totally inconsequential to break, these provide more opportunities to signal that your community punishes rule violation, without an increase in actually-costly rule violations.

    • nameless1 says:

      Silly usually ain’t silly if you look at the context and apply some psychology. It used to be considered rude for a man to wear a hat anywhere indoors. No idea why but if it was so, then hat in church obviously worse than hat in a pub. Was the hat anywhere indoors rude silly? Well, I don’t know, but it was okay for women. I have no idea where the difference came from.

      • fluffykitten55 says:

        I think it was considered rude because male hats were often used to keep out the cold, and so keeping one on inside was insulting to the host, indicating that the dwelling was ill heated or damp, or that they intended to leave at short notice. Whereas female hats were (primarily/also) decorative, and so their use had no implication.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          In that case, though, you’d expect the rule to be more relaxed in the case of churches, which tend to be much chillier than private homes.

      • Lambert says:

        Like most age-old traditions, men not wearing hats indoors is a 19th c. innovation.
        Historical cooking reenactor John Townsend notes that men would commonly wear tricorns and the like indoors.

      • DinoNerd says:

        Not just OK – women were required to cover their heads in some (major) Christian traditions.

        And then there’s the Jewish idea that a woman’s hair may only be seen by her husband, leading to some quantity of women shaving their heads and wearing wigs.

    • gleamingecho says:

      If people were not wearing hats because of 1 Corinthians 11:4, they wouldn’t have considered it silly.

  15. gkai says:

    WRT to communism being bad, I am not sure how much advanced economic knowledge and skills you need to start to see it’s not a good idea. Most of us are exposed to a primitive form of communism in early childhood, when parents and teacher usually ask us to share what we have, and give a bunch of toys to everybody and let the child sort it for themselves how to distribute it. It may looks like communism when you distribute the toys and treats, and it is: everybody have the same access/amount else child will complain. When on their own, some kids will try to get more than others and more or less succeed, but adult intervention to equilibrate is mostly welcomed (certainly by those deprived, not much resisted by the ones who have more than their share).
    Equal share will pass, but if you start giving more to those “in needs”, it will already be a harder task getting all the Kids to comply.
    Now if you try do the same with things kids bring themselves, or have assembled/gathered themselves (so they have invested their own energy/work in it) and share it to the group, equaly, expect much more resistance. Redistribute it to “those who need it”, taking from those who build or bring, and you have a lot of very angry kids.

    I think we can extend that to adults, communism will not be that attractive as soon as you have something to loose, even if you see others having much more than you. Pure communism is a hard sell in any society where you invest a lot of efforts in long term material building. If you don’t (short-term focus), or invest efforts in non-material stuff that can not be redistributed, it may be easier to sell. Could explain why it is more popular in intellectuals

    • Harkonnendog says:

      Well said. The class of people who think about economic policies and get those thoughts recorded are the farthest way from manual labor.

      The person who works harder or more efficiently than fellow workers, say a brick layer, wants a system that rewards such work. The person who is side by side with that harder working / more efficient person does not begrudge such work being rewarded.

      Maybe that is why the poor / working class rejected it.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        There’s an old joke in the UK that Communists are all former private school pupils who are horrified at the thought that anyone has to work for a living. People who actually do don’t think it’s too bad.

      • Nootropic cormorant says:

        Can I get any data about the supposed rejection of communism by the workers (in disproportion to the other classes)?

    • Nootropic cormorant says:

      The system where the goods are taken from those that produce them is called capitalism, not communism.

      • Harkonnendog says:

        Taken in exchange for capital, as in wages? Or taken at the point of a gun or through threat of force, like taxation? I’m not sure what you mean.

  16. liskantope says:

    With regard to accepting other people’s illegible preferences… I wish I could show this essay to, like, two-thirds of all the people I’ve ever lived with. Seriously, a common core of my issues with roommates has been that they refuse to accept or understand my illegible preferences (I often refer to these as “irrational aversions”) while refusing to admit that their own illegible preferences are just as difficult to ground rationally. Just establishing an understanding that illegible preferences should be respected by default or at least treated on an even playing field, and that having immediate objective logical explanations for preferences should not be a requirement for validation, would have immediately improved my relationships with people I’ve lived with 100%.

    Relatedly, I’ve always found it striking how so many people assume that the only valid food preferences, in terms of not liking and refusing to eat certain foods, are ones that can be explained in a direct logical manner. Never at any point in my growing up (I was a very picky child and still have more foods I just can’t stand than most adults) did I have such a notion. In other words, I had always assumed that food preferences are more or less unexplainable short of being able to detect precisely how individual brains are wired and that asking someone “why” they didn’t like a certain flavor, say, is absurd. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered that most people don’t seem to see it at least somewhat more explainable.

  17. Murphy says:

    I think this post falls a little bit into the trap that people often accuse the rationalist community of: that of acting a bit too much like the classical rationalists. Putting too much focus on thought and too little on experimentation.

    Reality is the last arbiter of truth.

    Experiment and replication is the way we solved many intractable arguments.

    You don’t need to have the mental chops to fully understand the mechanisms by which something works if you have good experimental evidence showing that it does or does not.

    You don’t need to explain *why* something illegible makes people happy if an RCT shows that doing away with it makes people unhappier.

    The practical problems with communism were discovered through attempts at implementation.

    Similarly I remember a few years ago all the pseudo-informed people who liked to get excited about nuclear stuff were on about gas cooled pebble-bed reactors and all the ways they were obviously better than conventional ones… then someone built a test reactor and it turns out the carbon balls grind together, produce carbon dust which creates fire hazards and other issues and the temperatures can cause cracks to form which let in oxygen which… anyway the experimentd poured cold water on a lot of the intellectual musing and settled a lot of arguments.

    Similarly Molten-Salt Reactor Experiments inform far more than intellectual musing about thorium.

    When in doubt and especially when you feel certain and believe there’s no doubt: RCT it.

    If there’s still uncertainty then at least it’s now significantly bounded and informed uncertainty.

    Sure, there’s arguments for things like paying senators millions… but there’s also lots of poorly run countries where the leaders have solid golden toilets so if you’re gonna try it then come up with some falsifiable claims and *test them*. Don’t just rely on a big brain and guessing about what feels right.

    • Enkidum says:

      But if the thing you’re thinking about is “society would work better if we did X”, how do you test it without potentially making things really, really bad?

      This sentence is doing a lot of work for you: “The practical problems with communism were discovered through attempts at implementation.” Yes, we have pretty good empirical evidence now that communism doesn’t work well, and hundreds of millions of corpses. This is a BAD THING.

      Part VII is trying to do some of the work you actually need to do, namely figure out how you can still have testing without exploding the world every few decades.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        But if the thing you’re thinking about is “society would work better if we did X”, how do you test it without potentially making things really, really bad?

        Federalism. Let’s please stop trying to settle every legal/cultural issue at the national level and let California be a “free abortions for everybody gay roller disco” and Alabama can be a theocracy and let the chips fall where they may.

      • An Fírinne says:

        > Yes, we have pretty good empirical evidence now that communism doesn’t work well, and hundreds of millions of corpses. This is a BAD THING.

        This is just wildly historically inaccurate. Some historians say 100 million but none say hundreds of millions.

      • In the case of communism, there were small scale tests earlier. The Oneida commune, for example, worked for one generation but eventually collapsed when the charismatic founder tried to pass control to his son, and it never got above a few hundred members. There were a variety of other examples. The lesson seems to be that it works for a small group united by some strong religious/ideological belief but scales badly.

        • hls2003 says:

          State communism seems to have been the innovation at issue, right? I mean, if you’re looking for earlier voluntary communes, the Catholic Church had whole orders devoted to them, and then there’s the “Early Acts” church which held property in common.

        • Furslid says:

          I think this might be related to Dunbar’s number. We can really only know so many people (about 150). If everyone knows everyone else, communism can be run using humans’ innate social abilities. It can probably be bootstrapped a little higher by knowing representatives of units, or by having a close knit inner community who collectively know everyone.

          • Matt M says:

            Of course, that sort of limitation, in and of itself, would prevent it from “competing” with capitalism in any meaningful sense. 150 people simply isn’t enough to produce a society with a division of labor complex to provide the sort of standard of living that is easily attainable under capitalism.

            Saying “System X works in a society of 150 people” is akin to saying “System X works in a society that doesn’t care to advance much beyond primitive subsistence agriculture”

          • Mark Atwood says:

            society that doesn’t care to advance much beyond primitive subsistence agriculture

            We just recently had a neo-tankie in here who wrote

            “I idealize a society of happy poor people”

            url https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/03/03/open-thread-122-5/#comment-728051

          • Furslid says:

            @Matt M

            It also works for small scale groups within larger societies. The Oneida example was pretty prosperous, and they made their money by producing luxury silver goods for the larger economy. Some socialist theories have factories run communally with a market for goods between factories and consumer goods.

          • The Oneida example was pretty prosperous, and they made their money by producing luxury silver goods for the larger economy.

            I don’t think so. The Oneida corporation, which made and makes silverware (not mostly made of silver), was created as an ordinary corporation in response to the collapse of the Oneida commune. As best I recall, the commune’s most successful product was an animal trap.

        • Enkidum says:

          It’s fair that there were earlier tests of communism, and I think that fits with Scott’s points in VII – there’s a lot of room to allow small-scale experiments, but we should be very wary of scaling up.

    • GreatColdDistance says:

      This is really important. But testing can only get you so far, as you see in the minimum wage example he gives. Reality is messy, and it isn’t always obvious what changes will affect what.

      A state could raise the pay of its leadership and see what happens in the next 5 years, but they can’t make an experiment with isolated variables. SO MANY THINGS will affect the quality of governance in a state over that period, and different people will have different notions of what makes for good governance. For example, if during that 5 years period the economy improves noticeably, income inequality rises, pollution is reduced, and crime rates go up, it will be difficult to balance those outcomes to determine which (if any) of those resulted from the policy change and to balance the positive outcomes against the negative.

      • This is really important. But testing can only get you so far, as you see in the minimum wage example he gives.

        At a slight tangent … . For a long time, the normal position of economists was that minimum wage laws reduced employment for low skill workers. The reason was not the evidence, although there was some, but the obvious implication of the logic of economics—if you raise the cost of an input, producers use less of it. Most economists didn’t actually say so in public, because it would make them look like right wingers, which wasn’t prudent for professional academics—I’m thinking of an anecdote Leo Rosten told of a conversation he had with an economist on the subject.

        That was to some extent altered by the Card and Kruger paper. What got most public attention was the very weak empirical evidence they offered. But what was actually interesting was that they had an internally consistent economic argument showing that under certain logically possible circumstances a minimum wage could increase the employment of low skilled workers.

        It was a neat argument but not, in my view, a very convincing reason to expect minimum wage laws to have good effects, since it depended on assuming the relevant employment markets to be monopsonies, which seems less plausible for unskilled labor than for skilled labor. David Card made it clear in one interview that he didn’t expect the result to hold for a large increase in the minimum wage. But it provided a loophole for economists who didn’t want to hold the unpopular position of opposing all minimum wage laws but also didn’t want to take a position that could not be defended within economic theory.

        Jim Buchanan used to say that all economists agreed that a minimum wage law increased unemployment among low skilled workers, and that that was not an empirical fact about beliefs but part of the definition of an economist. That was close to true prior to the Card and Kruger article, but I don’t think it is true now—David Card is clearly an economist, as best I can tell quite a good one.

      • sourcreamus says:

        We could also do a natural experiment and look at the pay of state legislators and whether the ones that get paid more do a better job. California has by far the highest paid legislators in the country and it does not seem like they are doing a great job.

        • GreatColdDistance says:

          That is valid way to try to answer the question! But this approach is also limited in the same way. California is different from other states for so many reasons along so many different axis that you’ve got a very high burden of proof to demonstrate that the reason for the difference in Cali’s performance in some metric is related to the legislative pay. That’s the struggle with minimum wage, so many things impact the economy that it is really hard to interpret the results of a natural experiment where different places set different minimum wages.

    • Null Hypothesis says:

      Not to drive things off topic, but contrary to the pebble-bed reactors that weren’t prototyped until after the hype, Molten Salt Reactors have a long history of incredibly successful prototypes, including some that ran for years with sustained operation. There aren’t any “oh god, this one unexpected factor means this tech can’t work” gremlins hiding behind the veil of initial experimentation, like there was with the pebble-bed reactors.

    • Similarly I remember a few years ago all the pseudo-informed people who liked to get excited about nuclear stuff were on about gas cooled pebble-bed reactors and all the ways they were obviously better than conventional ones… then someone built a test reactor and

      For a parallel story, consider the Wankel engine. It’s a cleverer and more elegant design than reciprocating pistons, and for quite a while was offered as an example of path dependence–the only reason we used reciprocating pistons was that they had developed first, so a lot of minor improvements had been developed to make them work better, but if only someone made a serious effort with the Wankel design … .

      Then first NSU and then Mazda produced cars with Wankel engines. It turned out that there were non-obvious problems with the design sufficiently serious so that NSU abandoned it. Mazda produced a sports car with a Wankel engine for quite a while, but eventually gave up.

  18. Aapje says:

    Education/knowledge correlates with polarization and bias: 1 2 3 4

    An issue with rationality is that it may in reality often be rationalization. What if high IQ and knowledge don’t merely enable people to convince others of bad conclusions due to their ability to make a convincing argument, even if that argument is actually quite biased, but also enables people to convince themselves?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      So much this. Oh look, the Ph.D.s hired by the Society Against The Proliferation of Stuff We Don’t Like have used reason and math to prove Stuff We Don’t Like is bad! Checkmate, people who Like Stuff We Don’t!

    • This fits Dan Kahan’s results, which I think I have mentioned here before.

      He looked at issues, such as evolution, global warming, gun control, where belief had become a marker for group identity. His conclusion was that the more intellectually able someone was, the more likely he was to agree with his group’s position, whether that meant believing in evolution or not believing in evolution.

      He argued that this was rational behavior. Whether you believe in evolution has very little effect on the world but can have a large effect on you. If you are a professor at an elite university and don’t believe in evolution, the people you mostly interact with will have a lower opinion of you, with negative consequences for you. If you live in a southern town where almost everyone you interact with is a fundamentalist Christian and do believe in evolution … . The smarter you are, the better you are at persuading yourself of the views it is in your interest to believe.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

      • 10240 says:

        I’m not sure that this involves deceiving oneself intentionally or even subconsciously. We don’t think much about things we’ve grown up knowing as obviously true, until someone challenges us. When someone challenges what we consider a fact, our first reaction is to argue for our position. A slam dunk argument that immediately convinces us to change our position is rare.

    • HowardHolmes says:

      What if high IQ and knowledge don’t merely enable people to convince others of bad conclusions due to their ability to make a convincing argument, even if that argument is actually quite biased, but also enables people to convince themselves?

      That is the single most profound statement I have read….anywhere.

      • arch1 says:

        J.E. Littlewood, in his book “Littlewood’s Miscellany”, recounts Bertrand Russel’s opinion that [my paraphrase] what Kant did in trying to answer Hume (to which Littlewood believed there *was* no answer) was to invent more and more sophisticated stuff until he could no longer see through it and could believe it to be an answer.

      • dieb says:

        Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography, has a good story about this.

        “I believe I have omitted mentioning that , in my first voyage from Boston, being becalmed off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I considered, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. Then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

        (Found here: http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/autobiography/page18.htm)

  19. Bugmaster says:

    I think you’re confusing “rationality” for “omniscience”.

    Imagine that you’re an average peasant living in the ancient city of Ur. A wild-eyed stranger comes to you and starts explaining how the world actually isn’t flat, but round; that the Sun is a giant ball of fire-that-is-not-fire, but so unimaginably far away that it appears just like a small golden ball in the sky, etc. etc. When you ask for some evidence, the stranger says, “oh, you don’t have the technology to comprehend it yet, but meanwhile, let me tell you how every drop of water is host to a myriad invisible demons”.

    At this point, if you were a rational person, your only reasonable course of action would be to reject the stranger’s ravings. This is not a failure mode of rationality, because, short of divine intervention, there’s no way for you to tell which raving stranger is right, when they’re all raving about different things. Evidence-based reasoning is not guaranteed to give you correct answers every time — just on average, and eventually.

    On the other hand, rationality isn’t obstinance, either. If your patient is telephono-phobic, and you give him all the logical reasons for why calling people on the phone makes perfect sense, and he sincerely agrees with you but can’t bring himself to do it anyway — then it’s not his fault for being irrational; it’s your fault for having an incorrect model of his mind, which you should update at your earlier convenience. It is not the case that you applied reason correctly to the problem and came up with the wrong answer; it’s the case that you failed to take some very obvious evidence into account.

    Most of the examples you bring up fall into one of these two categories. I do agree with some (not all) of your conclusions at the end, but they do not follow from your premises.

    • Walter says:

      I think you have the obstinacy shoe on the wrong foot here. If one party uses evidence and the other party concedes the point and then doesn’t alter their behavior your take is that the first person is the obstinate one? That they are the one at fault?

      • Bugmaster says:

        In my scenario, the telephonophobic person agrees (sincerely) that all of the arguments for using the phone are perfectly rational, and that being able to call people on the phone is a very useful advantage… but he still can’t bring himself up to do it. He is not being deliberately obtuse; he wants to be able to use the phone, he just doesn’t know how. At this point, doubling up on the purely rational arguments is not going to accomplish anything; you need to apply some more evidence-based rationality to figure out what precisely is different about the telephonophobe’s mind, and how it might be compensated for.

        • Walter says:

          I feel like you are kind of dancing around the obvious.

          Remember that Yudkowsky story about someone giving a story about ambulance drivers not taking them, and he was like ‘huh, I wonder how that could be’, and made up a story about how it could? And ultimately he found that the simplest explanation was true? They lied to him.

          The way you square the riddle of ‘I could, and I wanted to, but I didn’t’, (absent complications) is that they didn’t want to. There aren’t 2 minds in the body. You got to own everything you do.

          EDIT: Also see Scott’s post on laziness and compare the destruction of the word in there with ‘wanting’ here. You are just gonna end up inventing another word that means ‘double for sure really gonna do it’ if you let ‘want to’ not actually mean they try and do.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Walking has many advantages over other modes of transportation: it’s extremely robust and maneuverable, it improves health, it’s very energy-efficient, etc. There are many places that are unreachable by any means other than walking.

            So, if a person confined to a wheelchair keeps refusing to walk, despite acknowledging all of these arguments, then he’s just being irrational, right ?

          • 10240 says:

            @Bugmaster In that case the “I could” part doesn’t hold, obviously.

          • Spookykou says:

            @Walter I do sometimes feel as if there are 2 minds in my body, and I regularly have experiences where it seems that my subconscious mind is antagonistic to the wishes of my conscious mind. Another way of describing this would be that my own mind is the complications preventing me from doing what I want and could do. I regularly experience negative emotional and physical sensations, there are behaviors that I can engage in that assuage these feelings, but have negative consequences of their own. The balancing act is not easy, and sometimes I fail, but I don’t think that ‘I don’t really want to’ accurately captures my internal experience. I imagine that the extent to which our subconscious processes influence our behaviors is not consistent across all people, in all situations.

        • 10240 says:

          In practice, conflict often arises when a particular preference (e.g. not calling over the phone) causes inconvenience to someone else. E.g. a family member asks you to arrange something over the phone, and you refuse. If you have a strong aversion, your refusal would be accepted as understandable, but not if you only have a slight aversion.

          If you avoid using the phone, it’s clear that you have some amount of aversion, explicable or not. If you could provide a rational reason why you have a strong aversion, people would give you a pass. But if you can’t give a rational reason, we have no way to determine whether you have a strong aversion, or you have a weak aversion and act like you have a strong aversion to be accorded a better treatment than if people knew you’re not strongly bothered by phone calls. That’s why people try to insist on a rational explanation.

          Several high-profile political debates involve that people can’t know the strength of other people’s preferences, and thus how different groups’ preferences should be weighted against each other. E.g. I have no way to assess to what extent women are bothered by verbal sexual harassment.

  20. TheStoryGirl says:

    Is there any chance of examining the evolutionary justification for prohibitions against induced abortion?

    Because I personally don’t understand the pro-life tradition as anything other than an obsolete, irrational attachment to the unborn and/or infants. I get that babies were highly valued in eras when many didn’t survive into adulthood, but that’s not a problem anymore. Infant mortality is exceedingly low these days. Arguably too low. There are a lot of people on the planet draining a lot of resources that we almost certainly wouldn’t have missed if they hadn’t been born.

    As a modern civilization with an ever-expanding competition for resources, I just can’t see how this tradition could possibly continue to serve us. In our present and likely future circumstances, do we actually need to expand the population of human beings? Do we need human beings – any human beings – so badly that many human beings must be born into sub-optimal environments and other human beings must be compelled to raise them?

    I’ve never seen a pro-life argument that doesn’t boil down to irrational values statements (“all life is sacred”) or fearful speculation about lost potential (“what if we abort the next Albert Einstein?” (my reply to the latter is that we’re equally if not more likely to abort the next Jeffrey Dahmer.)).

    Can anyone help me see the pro-life argument outside the usual terms?

    • Murphy says:

      I’m not sure you’re after the pro-life argument or the argument for natalism or the argument against A Modest Proposal.

      People mostly aren’t pro-life because they want to maximize for number of humans.

      People typically aren’t against eating babies to maximize for number of humans.

      “It’s good that children not die” is often just a precept for many people akin to “it’s good for there to not be a lot of people getting raped at knifepoint” or “Pain and suffering is bad”

      Precepts rarely have much logic behind them. There’s often some set of justification people come up with for them but they’re more decoration.

      Children not dying from preventable infections before the age of 5 is seen as good by most people for pretty much the same reason the BabyEaters consider eating babies to be good.

      It just is.

      Unless you don’t share those values.

      If you consider a foetus to be a person with moral weight and if you believe that the right to life outweighs the right to bodily autonomy then a pro-life position tends to fall out fairly naturally.

      Killing Einstein is a tragedy but so is someone killing a kid with downs syndrome. People don’t need to be smart to have moral weight/value or to make killing them wrong.

      Most moral positions boil down to value statements eventually.

      Without value statements about bodily autonomy and freedom most of the pro-choice positions falter just the same.

      • Randy M says:

        Precepts rarely have much logic behind them. There’s often some set of justification people come up with for them but they’re more decoration.

        Right, some things go behind logic, and some things go in front of logic, because logic can’t rest on the bottom.

    • onyomi says:

      The consistent trend as we’ve gotten richer has been to value individual human lives more highly and to push earlier the point at which they start “counting for something.” Back when infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower people were also treated as more expendable, unless they happened to be a local chieftain, skilled hunter, etc. Infanticide was pretty common during lean times in many premodern civilizations because it was a hardship to feed additional children.

      Put differently, human life was just cheaper in times past and was expected to start ROIing (work on the farm) a lot sooner. Correspondingly, the threshold for attaining something like the respect we now accord to human life was also higher–in traditional China babies didn’t even get a real name for a month or so, at which point they’d survived long enough to introduce to the clan and the ancestors. That is, the chances of any individual zygote becoming someone who “mattered” were once a lot lower.

      I think the recent upswing in opposition to abortion also has a lot to do with better, more routine ultrasound. When you can look inside and clearly see what looks like a person it becomes easier to push back the threshold for thinking of them as a person. And with lower infant mortality comes less need to have six children in order to have two children survive to adulthood, meaning each individual child (often born later so reproductive window may not be viable later) is seen as more indispensably precious.

      At a time when there’s a waiting list to adopt and couples pay big bucks for in vitro is it any wonder it strikes some people as “murder” to kill a viable little person you can see (especially when they get to the point of having obvious head, fingers, toes, etc.)?

      I understand what you’re saying: right now having more children is less necessary because they’re more expensive, more likely to survive, and generally don’t start paying off, economically, for decades, if ever. I think this is why people have fewer children now (along with better contraception option)… so on some level it may boil down to whether you perceive abortion as analogous to “late” contraception or early infanticide.

      Also highly recommend this piece by Michael Huemer.

      • theredsheep says:

        But Christian opposition to abortion is quite old–see the Didache, first or second century, where it’s lumped in with infanticide, pederasty, and sorcery. When I read it, the translator noted that all of these were considered “gentile vices,” unknown among Jews, so the taboo may predate Christianity itself. It wasn’t all that well enforced in medieval society, where children were often killed by exposure, but then neither were a lot of other Christian rules.

        • onyomi says:

          The Tang Dynasty government bemoaned the immorality of and tried to outlaw slavery. The Edo Japanese government published morality tracts depicting people who practiced infanticide as quasi-demonic. I’m also definitely not claiming it didn’t bother premodern people all that much if they miscarried or lost an infant to small pox. I’m rather saying we have very similar moral intuitions to peoples of times past but our comparative wealth and safety allows us to carry them further.

      • onyomi says:

        Put slightly differently, a big reason why abortion is such a perennially difficult issue may be that the same socio-economic-technological-cultural forces inspiring us to more highly value bodily autonomy for individual adult women may simultaneously be inspiring us to more highly value the life of each individual fetus, and at earlier and earlier stages of development.

      • Thanks for the Huemer link–it’s a good piece, as one would expect from him. I notice that his reaction to Thompson’s violinist’s argument was the same as mine.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Can anyone help me see the pro-life argument outside the usual terms?

      I’m gonna guess here, since I don’t think I’m the typical conservative. I’m more of the born-again kind Scott is arguing for here.

      Infant mortality is exceedingly low these days. Arguably too low.

      Please realize you’re being a bit of a jerk here. That’s not a reproach, but an answer to your question. Some – really, most people – love children. Some women actually had miscarriages or even lost young children. “Arguably too low” is at least insensitive – not to mention plain wrong, when we have so many effective contraceptive methods. Neither abortion, nor miscarriages, nor infanticide can be considered viable population control in the age of uterine implants.

      How is this relevant to an apparent resurgence of the pro-life movement? I think it’s a direct response to abortion pride. Having this kind of sentiments (“proud to have had an abortion”, “arguably too low” etc) appear so often into the public discourse makes one want to do something about it. Educating people that abortion shouldn’t be fashionable is much harder and unlikelier than simply forcing them to stop.

      In my (somewhat poorer and less civilized) corner of the world we have a similar problem – doctors started refusing to perform abortions. Which is pretty strange because historically we’ve been under an abortion ban the previous generation, and it was very very bad. Bad enough so you’d think speaking against freedom of abortion is absurd. And yet, you can find hospitals with a dozen specialists, and none performs at-will abortions.

      The answer is actually pretty simple. The erosion of morals and traditions (hehe, that was on purpose) led to a generation that thinks nothing of having sex, not educated enough to use protection, and heavily reliant on abortion as a contraceptive method. So you have doctors that went to med school for 6-7 years to learn how to deliver and care for babies, and what they do all day every day is kill them, for absolutely no good reason. It doesn’t take long for them to start claiming “religious reasons” to stop.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I’m not sure if you’re asking why the pro life cultural idea (all lives are sacred) was selected for, or why we might want it to persist.

      Not equipped to answer the former. Will try to tackle the latter.
      1. To extent it’s related to pronatalism, I think lives of most people are generally worth living. We don’t need a bunch more mentally impaired people born, but I would strongly prefer to exist as one than to not exist. And from a rawlsian veil of ignorance would prefer to live in a world where i have equal higher chance of having to take care of someone and to exist as someone who needs to exist.

      2. Also, it”s a bulwark against people in power deciding who ‘deserves to live’. Regardless what I said above, unlike most pronatalists who cache out their views low level “no abortions”, i think of life as implicit contract with parents. I would have agreed to be aborted after I was born for a chance for that not to happen. And I think most people would. But my views are horrible to other people who don’t endorse policy “parents can kill children against their will before, say, legal adulthood, or more reasonably when they become more emotionally developed than the median slaughtered cow, six months or so maybe”. But if anyone in power had dumb ideas like I do, it would cache out as “let’s kill all X for common good, or prevent all X from being born for common good”. I don’t know what the X is in advance. But historically I usually disagree with X as a category I would prefer nonexistence over being a part of.

      How do my views cache out in practice?
      Surprisingly median for america (“abortion okay in 1st trimester, icky in 2nd, horrifying in 3rd).
      Not knowing in advance who I will be, weighted by chance I exist as that person in possible worlds, I want people to be raised by parents who want them, and not have risk of being dismembered alive the moment before would have otherwise been born, and it seems to me the society I would most want to roll the dice on being randomly born or not born into is one where abortion is illegal somewhere in 2nd trimester outside of rape/life of mother but not less serious exceptions.

      • Note that the implications of the veil of ignorance argument depend on whether a fetus is a person–whether being a fetus that gets aborted is one of the possibilities for you behind the veil.

        The veil of ignorance argument done right (Harsanyi not Rawls) implies that you should choose the society to maximize average Von Neumann utility. That conclusion is, I think, clearly wrong once you consider alternatives with different numbers of people in them, since it implies that whether the existence of a person is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how happy other people are. Precisely the same life counts as an improvement in a society where lots of people who that person will never meet are a little less happy than he is, a worsening in a society where they are a little more happy. I have an old article (unfortunately not webbed) discussing that problem, and the issue of how to compare alternative futures with different numbers of people in them.

        James Mead made the same point well before I did.

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          @DavidFriedman

          The veil of ignorance argument done right (Harsanyi not Rawls) implies that you should choose the society to maximize average Von Neumann utility.

          Maybe ‘veil of ignorance’ is a term of art that means something different than how I use it.
          What I mean by ‘veil of ignorance’ is what society would I want to create if I will experience all conscious moments experienced by everyone in that world.

          If all the worlds I consider have the same number of people, that basically collapses to how you define it, but I think my approach is fully flexible and avoids the need to make the conclusion you find clearly wrong.

          Edit: I know I said ‘rawlsian veil of ignorance’. I didn’t realize at the time there were different veils of ignorance, apparently at least rawls and harsanyi, and maybe what I meant was neither. Please educate me what expression I can use to mean what I meant when talking to someone who knows a lot of stuff.

          • jumpinjacksplash says:

            What I mean by ‘veil of ignorance’ is what society would I want to create if I will experience all conscious moments experienced by everyone in that world.

            I’m pretty sure this would be more of a window of omniscience, and would have fairly hardball-utilitarian results (e.g. death to anyone who has reached the point where their life going forwards would have more suffering than happiness). From your earlier post, it sounds like you’re aiming more for “I’m designing a society, but I have no idea which of the people in it I’ll end up being.” This is the Rawlesian veil of ignorance.

            Interestingly, from a purely rationalist-utilitarian perspective, I can’t work out why those two formulations would produce different results. Intuitively, they really seem to.

    • zby says:

      All things equal simple rules are better than complex ones. This is especially important for important rules. And it is especially important when it is hard to enforce the rules – when you want to stick to those that are obvious and not easy to manipulate etc.

      “Don’t kill people” is simple and important rule and it also worked really well just until now.

    • Walter says:

      I dunno if serious, but, like, this shouldn’t be complicated.

      Take a newborn in a cradle, one second out of the mother. You agree this child is a human and should not be killed, yeah? Doing so would be murder? This life, at least, is sacred?

      Ok, rewind time a second, baby now halfway into woman, halfway out, doctor pulling. Same question.

      Another second, baby now almost all in mother, “Push, Push”, etc. Same question.

      And so forth.

      Presumably, as you are pro choice, there is a second where you are like “this fetus is not human, removing it is not murder”. You are a point on a continuum. (if you think you are all the way on the end, consider Abortion Jones, who believes that parents should be able to legally kill their kids at any age whatsoever, and Procreation Phil, who believes that life is sacred even before conception, such that anyone who interrupts a meet cute is guilty of murder).

      The people birth-ways of you are more pro choice. The people conception ways of you are more pro life. The ones birth ways don’t see themselves as killing babies any more than you do, and the ones conception ways don’t see themselves as enslaving women any more than you do.

      • DinoNerd says:

        I once quite sincerely asked why, given beliefs such as you describe above, the religious proselytizer I was talking to didn’t devote all their time to making babies. Those poor ova/sperm seem almost as deserving as a fertilized ovum, which seems almost as deserving as a blastocyte, which seems …

        I’m not sure how high the chances are for a freshly fertilized ovum not ever becoming a viable infant, given a mother in good health, with good nutrition, and a desire to have a child. But I’d guess somewhere in the 20-80% range – lots and lots of fertilizations go nowhere much.(*)

        If the mother’s less than perfectly healthy, eating an unhealthy or inadequate diet, etc. then the numbers presumably get worse. And if she’s in especially bad shape, her body is likely to get rid of the baby so as to keep her alive. All of which makes excellent evolutionary sense, by the way, at least if there are other children, or a reasonable chance that conditions will improve.

        (*) A quick google gives rates of 10-20% miscarriage if the pregnancy lasts long enough for the woman to become aware that she is pregnant and 30-50% if you count fertilizations that don’t last long enough to be noticed.

        So if a given ovum has (let’s say) a 50% chance of being fertilized, if the woman spends her whole fertile period supplying it with sperm, and a 50% chance of being born once fertilized, why isn’t making babies a religious obligation…. assuming your religion goes down the path outlined above, I mean.

        • Spookykou says:

          I feel like this kind of objection is normally an isolated demand for rigor and in all other aspects of life people would recognize the distance between a zygote and gametes and accept that there is a substantive difference between owning bread and having bread in your toaster.

        • Walter says:

          Continuing to treat as sincere, their reasons for not sliding further in either directions on the scale are exactly the same as yours.

          That is, Fertilized Ovum Guy doesn’t slide to ova/sperm for the same reason First Trimester Guy doesn’t slide to First Trimester Minus One Day, for the same reason your own point is where it is and not one second earlier.

    • S_J says:

      I’ll look at it through a different lens:

      Opponents of abortion usually class abortion in the same category as infanticide. Proponents of abortion usually class abortion in the same category as condoms/contraceptives, a way to prevent unexpected pregnancies from producing a child. *

      I find this to lead to irrational value statements on the part of proponents of abortion. The irrational value statement is that a fetus has the same moral weight as a non-fertilized ovum. **

      It may be possible to argue that a fetus (or embryo, or zygote) has less moral weight than a newborn baby. But it is an irrational value judgement, in my mind, to give the fetus/embryo/zygote the same moral weight as a non-fertilized ovum.

      I also find it disconcerting to realize that the political party that usually calls itself the Party of Science will go to great lengths to ignore the science of gestational development.

      On the one hand, at the point the pregnant woman misses her monthly period for the first time, the developing embryo has very little differentiation. On the other hand, within two weeks of that first missed period, the embryo has differentiated enough to form a cardiac muscle that begins beating. One week later, the disgestive system begins to form, and the brain/nerves begin to develop, along with the structures that differentiate head from torso.

      By the end of the second month of pregnancy (measured as the date of the second missed period), the embryo has become a fetus with head/torso/arms/legs/hands/feet, a beating cardiac muscle, measurable neural activity, and even pseudo-breathing movements of the developing lungs. The fetus is barely 1 inch long, and has the appearance of a newborn baby in miniature.

      Yet almost all discussion by abortion proponents contains references to “just a blob of cells”, alongside political arguments that any limitation of abortion in any of the three trimesters of pregnancy is a springboard into complete prohibition of abortion.

      Using the scientific knowledge I gave above, can you pinpoint the time at which a human zygote/blastocycst/embryo/fetus deserves protection from deliberate destruction?

      ———–
      [*] There are two general categories of pregnancy-prevention, separate from the ending of pregnancy after it has begun.
      One of these categories is prevention of fertilization of ovum by sperm: condoms, intra-uterine-devines, other mechanical barriers fall into this category. The rhythm method attempts to duplicate this method without the use of actual mechanical barriers.
      The other general category is preventation of implantation of fertilized ovum. The contraceptive pill falls into this category.
      Some moralists make a great deal of trouble about this distinction.

      [**] Technically, a pregnancy has intermediate stages of zygote, blastocyst, and embryo before the stage of fetus. My understanding of the development of pregnancy is that by the time most women miss their first period, the development has already passed zygote/blastocyst stages, and is in the embryo stage. The embryo stage turns into the fetal stage about four or five weeks after that point.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        @S_J
        “it is an irrational value judgement, in my mind, to give the fetus/embryo/zygote the same moral weight as a non-fertilized ovum”

        Can you expand more on this?
        Can you explain why you think infanticide is bad? Or is it your starting dogmatic belief (which is totally fine, just trying to understand your perspective. I have dogmatic beliefs of my own).

        For me, I think pain is bad, and the destruction of conscious entities with meaningful internal narratives is bad, and the existence of conscious entities with meaningful internal narratives is good. Those are my relevant dogmatic beliefs.

        From these I reason: i’m totally indifferent to where in the gestational stage a fetus gets aborted, if it’s before they can feel pain and are conscious. And I care about as much about as much about a six-month old infant as I do an animal I’m willing to eat: “I wouldn’t kill it myself, and if I grew up in a society where killing it was considered complete evil I wouldn’t question that moral teaching, but in the society I live in I don’t think about it too much”. And if I was convinced that a particular policy on abortion (any stance, pro or anti) would increase the number of happy flourishing people (say, long-term number of children existing raised by parents who want them) I would be inclined to support that policy.

        • Jayson Virissimo says:

          For me, I think pain is bad, and the destruction of conscious entities with meaningful internal narratives is bad, and the existence of conscious entities with meaningful internal narratives is good. Those are my relevant dogmatic beliefs…
          From these I reason: i’m totally indifferent to where in the gestational stage a fetus gets aborted, if it’s before they can feel pain and are conscious

          So, if you mean conscious-at-a-point-in-time, rather than potential-for-consciousness, then your dogmatic beliefs don’t seem to provide resources for condemning killing the unconscious (say, people that are currently asleep) in a way that is painless. If, on the other hand, you mean potential-to-be-conscious, then this would also apply to a fetus (although less directly, as it may take one months, rather than hours, until gaining/regaining consciousness).

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            I do mean ‘conscious-at-a-point-in-time’. I am absolutely opposed to killing someone while they’re unconscious.

            If you kill someone who’s unconscious, then there will be future points in time (all those times they will have been awake) when they would have been conscious (which I think is a moral good) that they now will remain unconscious during, and so that would be bad, and it is on that basis that I would condemn killing the unconscious.

          • Enkidum says:

            Yes, but that’s true of literally every viable fetus as well.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            @Enkidum
            You are right. My views as stated may be incoherent.
            Please forgive me, allow me to try to reformulate them.

            I think that, more or less, of two states of the world which contain conscious beings, I define the morally preferable world as the one which everyone would generally prefer to experience all conscious moments of. (i.e. something like sequentially living all conscious lives)

            I would prefer to live in a world where no one kills me in my sleep, even if it means I don’t get to kill others in their sleep.
            I don’t have a strong opinion about if I’d prefer to have a chance to live if otherwise I’d be aborted, or a chance to live because my mom before did abort and now has resources and willingness to raise someone different, etc.
            If I know that I will be aborted, I don’t care which point between inception and beginning of consciousness I get aborted, nor do I prefer having never been conceived I am completely neutral.

            It is not obvious to me at all under what abortion policy the world is most moral. Maybe if people can plan their families, they will have more, well-adjusted children later; or people value the freedom to be able to organize their lives. Or maybe there really will be more people and the integral of their experience will have more weight.
            Or maybe most people not me are antinatalist.

          • 10240 says:

            @Jayson Virissimo @NoRandomWalk A simple correction is have-been-conscious-and-will-be-conscious. The main reason I oppose killing is that most conscious people prefer to continue living, i.e. being conscious again in the future (perhaps after an interruption such as sleep).

          • Enkidum says:

            Kudos for acknowledging the mistake. Personally I think one needs some kind of reference to a singular identity/personality having intrinsic value.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      Can anyone help me see the pro-life argument outside the usual terms?

      Why is it necessary to go beyond the usual terms? The simplest explanation here is that pro-life activists are motivated by exactly what they say they’re motivated by: They believe fetuses are people and that it’s wrong to kill people.

    • As a modern civilization with an ever-expanding competition for resources, I just can’t see how this tradition could possibly continue to serve us.

      Julian Simon wrote a book entitled “The Ultimate Resource.” He meant people.

      At the time he wrote it, the attitude you are reflecting was widely accepted. It led to predictions–the most extreme being that there would be unstoppable mass famines in the 1970s, with hundreds of millions of people dying, short of that the graphs in Limits to Growth and the general view that, unless population growth could be stopped, poor countries were going to get a lot poorer.

      The argument made sense if you believed that natural resources were the main constraint on how well off we are. One problem with that belief, back then, was the observation that the five most densely populated countries in the world were either rich developed countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) or poor countries in the process of becoming rich (Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore—Hong Kong was much more densely populated than even Singapore and became even more successful, but it wasn’t a country).

      What actually happened was the opposite of the predictions. Poor countries kept growing and became modestly less poor. Calories per capita in the third world trended up instead of down. I think the correct conclusion is that while natural resources matter, they are not the main constraint on human welfare.

    • Furslid says:

      This argument doesn’t apply now, because we have enough resources to feed as many babies as women want to have. That wasn’t the case in the past.

      Instead of asking “Why should a woman have a baby she doesn’t want?” ask “Why should this woman get to have a baby?” If the woman or the known father of the child isn’t high status enough, society can make them abort and allow better people to have kids. This would have been a tempting argument. I don’t think implementing it would have been good for society.

    • 10240 says:

      Evolution (biological or cultural) is blind. A nation or species doesn’t need to not die out, but the species and nations that continue existing are the ones that take actions conducive to not dying out. Today a low-fertility nation, culture, religion or other group may not die out, but it will still be out-bred by groups that value fertility more (unless perhaps the low-fertility group manages to recruit from high-fertility groups). Whether the low-fertility group should regard that as a problem is a matter of values, and not a rational question.

    • teageegeepea says:

      We’re currently rather far from the Malthusian boundaries. People who purposefully try to have more children generally don’t wind up with fewer surviving to adulthood. So an aversion to abortion seems like it would be favored as an evolutionary strategy. Similarly, Steve Pinker once quipped that if birth control pills grew on trees we would find them as scary as snakes.

    • The anti-abortion crusade is somewhat like the “save the rainforest” crusade. Both issues seem supremely important and supremely moral to those raised in certain subcultures. Within both subcultures, it is widely accepted that others, deep down, accept the framing of these as moral issues, and that they disagree only because of selfishness, a desire to put profit or convenience above morality. Outside of these subcultures, people just don’t care. It’s not that they love abortion or cutting down the rainforest. They just don’t see how the taking of life from organisms without preferences of their own (unborn children or trees) is a moral issue.

      As for the evolutionary justification for it, this is obvious, a person with an aversion to it will have more kids than someone without an aversion to it.

      “In our present and likely future circumstances, do we actually need to expand the population of human beings? ”

      Yeah. All else being equal, more humans on the planet would increase wealth and happiness on both a total and an average level, because of more innovation. Yes, there would also be more serial killers, but there’d also be more people for them to target, leading you to be just as safe. Of course there is a notional limit, a “carrying capacity,” but the existence of this limit does not prove we are anywhere near it. If we were, there would be clues, like middle-class people being unable to afford to drive gas guzzlers and weigh 300 pounds. This doesn’t lead me to be pro-life, because in the case of that policy, all is not equal.

    • carvenvisage says:

      Can anyone help me see the pro-life argument outside the usual terms?

      not sure I can do that but from a meta point of view, you could note that people tend to have less kids the more successful, intelligent, and comfortable they are, so in the long run maybe we should have some kind of pro-life default value in our culture.

  21. rch264 says:

    Point VI is very confusing to me. While there is strong epidemiology to support the higher transmission rates of HIV in men who have sex with men, the HIV/AIDS crisis didn’t hit until the 1980s and taboos against homosexuality far precede the 1980s. In fact, I’m aware of no evidence that there is higher transmission risk of other STIs that had been epidemics in the past (i.e. syphillis), so on closer inspection I think this explanation falls apart.

    This brings me to another point which seems to be through-line in your post: elegant explanations which strike at the “heart” of an issue have tremendous rhetorical power, even if they have no intrinsic reason to be more true. I think your friend’s explanation for the taboo against homosexuality is a perfect example. Many of the “epistemic traps” that you describe are short, to the point, and comprehensive, even when using sophisticated evidence (what is a meta-analysis if not an effort to distill an entire body of literature into a bullet point?). Such “unified theories” are great when you are trying to persuade someone, but what if these types of explanations simply don’t exist for a lot of questions? Perhaps for some questions, the “truth” involves a complex interplay of variables each with their own U-shaped or polynomial functions (i.e. a low or high minimum wage could be worse than an intermediate minimum wage, and the “sweet spot” is itself a function of a third and fourth variable not yet characterized). In that case, it might be that there is lots of flip-flopping on these questions because everyone is trading in snake-oil unified theories, and because cognitive biases change with culture we wind up floating between different “elegant” (but wrong) explanations. “Cultural evolution” through this lens really has nothing to do with pursuit of truth, but instead a changing landscape of which fundamental (but wrong) theories our cultural milieu is willing to accept.

    This issue, our obsession with elegant mechanisms, is a HUGE problem in science right now that people have started talking about. Every field wants a unifying theory, and while I think this pursuit has value it comes at a cost of continuously grifting ourselves. I think it extends much further into the epistemic landscape than anyone is comfortable acknowledging

    • MostlyHamless says:

      No, the explanation doesn’t fall apart. The reason that AIDS got so burned into recent memory is because of how it ambushed a society that for >2 generations got accustomed to equate “STD” with “curable”. Historically there was no lack of STDs that were nasty and not curable.

      Any model for STD spreading needs to account for:
      1. Number of different sexual partners
      2. Chance of STD transmission per sex act
      3. Frequency of sex acts

      Across hetero/gay/lesbian categories, the above is known to break as:
      1. lesbian < hetero < gay
      2. lesbian < hetero ~= gay
      3. lesbian < hetero < gay

      Those are not numbers but distributions, values vary per study and area (and #2 varies per STD), but the relations are fundamental and ubiquitous. #1 and #3 almost trivially follow from the corresponding category involving one, two or zero testosterone-fueled participants. This wouldn't work out differently in contemporary US or in the middle east 8.000 years ago. Nor would the mathematics of STD spreading be any different — except somewhat during periods while gay sex is strongly curbed by societal pressure.

      Thus, the fact that AIDS had decimated the gay population but not the lesbian population, is not just a “20th century outlier”, and it squares just fine with a “germ theory” of why Leviticus 20 (Torah / Old Testament) is tabooing gay sex and yet says nothing of lesbian sex.

      A rationalist shouldn’t be insufficiently surprised by this “assymetry” of Leviticus, given how it is otherwise mostly symmetrical, providing gender-swapped proscriptions for almost all else. Such as one passage tabooing step-mother/step-son sex (20:11) and another separately tabooing step-father/step-daughter sex (20:14), etc. Consider there’s even separate passages tabooing sex between man and animal (20:15) and between woman and animal (20:16) — yet even after having exhausted all those combinations, Leviticus still doesn’t expend a single sentence on lesbian sex. And in context, it’s implausible that it’s a combination no-one had thought of. Coincidence? Or how about, they didn’t spot a motive for concern?

      So yes, it could be a case of “cultural evolution” spotting an actual pattern in the spread of diseases. Leviticus condemned gay sex and not homosexuals per se. To the degree that this “forced” male bisexuals into heterosexual practice, it curbed the spread of those disease outbreaks to women.

      Subsequent cultures came to bash lesbians about as much as gays [citation needed], but Leviticus — as a frozen moment of history — was invested in comprehensively regulating hetero sex, had outright prohibited gay sex (which it had no sufficient incentives to regulate), and simply wasn’t concerned with lesbian sex. Although “germ theory” was not the only contributor to this situation, I don’t see any of that as “germ theory falling apart”.

  22. JoeCool says:

    Following these rules how are we ever going to identify people who are just inherently evil/doing something for corrupt reasons.

    A minority sure, but especially in power hubs (Washington D.C L.A, etc) I imagine they congregate and become a significant force.

    Then again, maybe I’ve just been reading too much of Athena walker and Jacob wells (psychopaths, that is people not capable of feeling guilt and emotional empathy).

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I am very confused on this as well. I think focus should be on reforming systems, not identifying corruption resistant politicians.

      But incrementally! For all the corruption and systemic rot in the U.S. system I think it’s way better than…..literally any other country on earth. I think such a diverse population with any less strong a historical institutional commitment to pluralism would have had a 2nd civil war by now.

      To your point though my heuristic is “idiosyncratic people who show off good moral behavior even with risky”. My two best examples of this would be John McCain (suffered torture out of principle, valued ideas over political expedience), and Cory Booker (vegetarian single male with religious background who rescued someone from a burning building). How would my heuristic perform if I was philosopher king? Re. Mccain probably 6 more middle east wars, maybe world peace. But probably just 6 more middle east wars with no gain. Re. Booker he hasn’t done anything not in his craven political interest since being elected (except for marginal charter advocacy, and literally nothing since started running for president). Other people applying same heuristic (maverick, outside the system) gets us Trump. The opposite view (institutional respect and prestige, no evaluation of personal qualities or competence) gets us Hillary.

      I still prefer anything stable to an ideologue willing to impose personal moral views on rest of population (equal roll of dice between pence and bernie, for example), and the current system, high rates of psychopathy in washington accepting, seems reasonably okayish.

    • Furslid says:

      These aren’t the right rules for identifying evil. However psychopaths are rare. If a significant fraction of the population believes something, then “Everyone who believes X believes it because they are evil.” is wrong.

      Even if their leaders are evil, the followers mostly aren’t.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      There are murderists, but if you assume people are murderists, you will make a lot of errors.

  23. Bram Cohen says:

    It’s important to be clear on what’s actually traditional. For example most of the crud referred to as ‘traditional chinese medicine’ dates back to the 1950s.

    There are many old traditions having to do with making a semblance of a tribe, including notably going to a regular church. There’s significant evidence that losing tribal affiliation increases depression a lot but there are few good ideas about how to get it back, and the churches available to go to now are quite different from the old ones and might not even help with depression, even if you’re willing to swallow the downsides of them.

  24. Forlorn Hopes says:

    I think you got the homosexuality point all wrong. It wasn’t the bronze age elders stroking their oiled bronze age beards and thinking “I feel like making homosexuality taboo” that protected us against the spread of diseases.

    It was the combo-taboo against pre-marital sex, divorce, and infidelity. If you’re only ever having sex with one person then the maximum number of people a STD can spread too is one. And that STD is going to have trouble getting into anyone in the first place, you’d have to get it from a needle or something.

    But since homosexuality was so far outside social taboos, if you break it you may as well break the other taboos about pre-marital sex (you can’t get married anyway) and infidelity (you’re not married anyway) and go wild with as many partners as you want. That lets Aids spread like crazy. If Moses had written “some dudes like to do it with other dudes. Judge not least ye be judged!”, we’d have had a few thousand years of priests telling gay couples “marry first, don’t cheat, don’t devoice” and no aids crisis.

    • Tarpitz says:

      You’re rather assuming that the reason for greater promiscuity among gay men is largely social. A reasonable alternative (or complementary) hypothesis is that men have on average a much stronger biological urge to promiscuity than women, and gay men sleep around more than straight men essentially because they can.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        @Tarpitz. Plausible. In my anecdotal personal experience from living with a roommate who is very plugged into the promiscuous gay scene and has vacillated between trying to convert a straight mormon boy when we stopped in salt lake city, and pining for a stable monogamous marriage, gay promiscuity is determined much more by prevailing social norms than base biological drive difference between men and women.

        Not saying i wouldn’t expect gay men to have 2x affairs of lesbian women (if both people in monogamous relationship with expectation of fidelity) if gay marriage was totally normalized…but the factor that enabled the aids crisis was orders of magnitude larger than 2.

      • Forlorn Hopes says:

        Not necessarily.

        Even if gay men were biologically more prone to promiscuous behaviour than straight men you can still assume that a culture where homosexual relationships were normalised but held to strong promiscuity taboos will have more monogamy in gay relationships than one where gay relationships are excluded from society, and thus outside the jurisdiction of the promiscuity taboo.

      • Furslid says:

        @Tarpitz

        You don’t even need to go to biological drives. One of the reasons to refrain from sex is not wanting pregnancy. The introduction of reliable birth control lead to women having more sexual partners than before. As gay men don’t have to fear pregnancy, they have less reason to avoid promiscuity.

        • DinoNerd says:

          True – but lesbians seem to be if anything less promiscuous than heterosexual couples, and they aren’t going to get pregnant either.

          • Furslid says:

            You mean porn has been lying to me!?

            Seriously. I agree that men probably have innately higher drives for promiscuity than women for evolutionary reasons (more women for a man = more kids, more men for a woman != more kids).

            I don’t think the lack of pregnancy explains the whole difference, but it does explain part.

  25. tophattingson says:

    “Karl Marx and the Close of His System” was published in 1896 and gave good reason to think that Communism would not give the workers the cornucopia that it promised. Reasons that remain valid to this day. The information required to put the rebuttal together was available by the 1870s. That Communism got anywhere at all after the end of the 19th century requires more than just considering whether there wasn’t enough information to cross it out, because there definitely was enough information.

    • Going a bit later, the the Calculation Controversy was mostly between the wars yet, as Scott points out, as late as 1955 a lot of prominent economists took it for granted that central planning was a viable model for economic development.

      The arguments had all been made by then—people on the socialist side of the controversy had accepted the advantages of the decentralized market approach and were trying to offer ways in which a socialist system could use it. That didn’t prevent Samuelson from taking it for granted that if the Soviet Union invested a larger fraction of income than the U.S. it would grow faster, entirely ignoring the question of whether their institutions would lead to proper allocation of resources, capital included.

      • ChrisA says:

        In 1955 there was a very recent experience in central planning by the west which ended up with with the allies winning the Second World War. So this was probably part of the reason it was acceptable in most circles to think like that. It is probably true that facing an emergency like WW2 a centrally planned approach was a good idea.

  26. elswithers says:

    One weakness of many rational arguments is the unstated, unexamined assumption. Case in point: the argument that higher congressional salaries will reduce corruption assumes there exists some level of wealth (just modestly beyond current Congressional salaries) which will be satisfying and dampen the drive to accumulate more. I find it all too easy to find examples of people in public life (including many in politics) who have accumulated many times the amount of wealth necessary to assure comfort and security for themselves and their progeny, and yet obsessively pursue ever more.

    To my mind this is a pathology, like dipsomania or sex addiction, but I don’t know that it can be found in the DSM.

    • Aapje says:

      Indeed, such pathological people may seek out high-paying positions, resulting in a positive correlation between pay and fraud.

      Furthermore, there are also other potential mechanisms. For example, high wealth may transform the lives of politicians in a way that makes them become bad politicians. For example, because they lose touch with the problems of people with little money.

    • bullseye says:

      I think the idea is not that higher-paid politicians will become immune to bribery, but that they will require more expensive bribes so it won’t happen as often.

      • John Schilling says:

        The “bribes” politicians presently receive are scaled to the cost of their re-election campaigns or to their expected post-political income, so I am skeptical that the effect will be significant for any plausible increase in their official salary.

        It’s a reasonable idea, pointed in the right direction, and the first-order effects will probably be positive. Just a small enough positive that we have to look more closely at unintended second-order effects, like the diminished legitimacy of a government of men we have just officially admitted are motivated by filthy lucre(tm).

        • Nornagest says:

          That might be true when we’re talking about “bribes”, i.e. special-interest donations to PACs and the like, but I don’t think it’s true when we’re talking about bribes, i.e. paying a politician directly to do something for you. Bribery scandals are rare, but they do happen, and every time one comes to light I’ve been astonished by how low the numbers are: often as low as four digits, and I’ve rarely seen more than five. That’s very small potatoes compared to the kind of money involved in federal-level budgets.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Representatives and Senators make $174k annually. There is a certain bias toward Old Money among Senators, so most of them live pretty well, but the standard of living of Representatives is often quite low. Representatives need to maintain two domiciles, one back home for fundraising on weekends, and one during the week in DC. Many wind up sharing a house or even sleeping on a couch in the office.

      AOC was shocked at the idea she should sleep in her office, instead of sleeping in a big bed in a private bedroom with her man, the way grownups are meant to live.

  27. WarOnReasons says:

    I was shocked to learn how strong a pro-socialism consensus existed during this period among top intellectuals.

    In the academic and literary circles of the period expressing anti-socialist views was likely to elicit reactions similar to those that expressing support for Republicans would produce on campus today. Someone who reported millions of people dying of starvation in the USSR risked turning into a social pariah and then being shot in mysterious circumstances. Someone who denied the existence of the same famine and wrote glowing reports from the USSR might earn the Pulitzer prize for his efforts.

    Being an intellectual does not prevent a person from being selfish. If intellectuals/scientists/experts have to pay a strong penalty for being wrong then I would trust their opinions significantly more than that of a non-intellectual/expert. But when their personal incentives lie elsewhere I see little sense in trusting them.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      Okay…..sure. but surely the consensus has to start from somewhere, and still requires explanation?

      And I think the right explanation is “smart people with little real life experience think organizing all of society is not that complicated” –> academics super pro socialism, people not in power with few means and an experience of being screwed over by system much more skeptical of anyone saying “i will reorganize society, it will help you, give me all the centralized power, trust me”

      • Viliam says:

        Academia as a whole can suffer from “halo effect”, and believe that if they are better than an average person at e.g. calculus, they must be automatically better at everything. Including telling the average people how to live their lives.

        But there is no need to wait until the consensus arises naturally. Soviet Union can simply invite a few intellectuals for a visit, provide them lots of vodka and free sex, with the implied offer that if they write positive reports at home, they can get invited again. Many people are ready to sell their souls, especially when a comfortable excuse is provided.

    • JPNunez says:

      The anticommunism scare was probably exaggerated. Think about McCarthyism; it did not end with McCarthy being shot in mysterious circumstances, just him dying of alcoholism. If anything, McCarthyism got the opposite effect, and probably the red scare in general helped the guy get his Pulitzer.

      edit: -had the dates wrong initially-

      • teageegeepea says:

        McCarthy was censured by the Senate before he died (and after Operation Mockinbird turned on him for being a pawn in Hoover’s proxy war against “Wisner’s gang of weirdos”).

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m not 100% sure I’m tracking, but Duranty’s Pulitzer was in 1932, well after the First Red Scare and well before the Second.

    • 10240 says:

      To be fair (for the information of other readers) Jones’ shooting is suspected of being orchestrated by the NKVD, not by pro-Soviet Western intellectuals.

  28. Jiro says:

    And if it attracted even a slightly better caliber of candidate – the type who made even 1% better decisions on the trillion-dollar questions such leaders face – it would pay for itself hundreds of times over.

    I find this line of reasoning terrible for reasons that have nothing to do with this specific example. Having the estimated effects of something save or cost a huge amount of money is par for the course for any change of that scale. Maybe if you created a law banning McDonalds from Washington DC, Congressmen would be X% healthier, and vote in a marginally better way because of their physical health, and in Y% of votes this would make a difference that affects us by trillions of dollars.

    Unless you’re going to analyze most of the factors on that scale in general, you have no business cherry picking one that you happen to be concerned about and pointing out that it saves a lot of money. A ton of things that you haven’t considered, and can’t practically consider, all could save or cost similar amounts of money.

    Be less quick to jump to “actually they are doing it out of Inherent Evil” as an explanation.

    I’d like to see an essay which explains when it’s okay to jump to inherent evil as an explanation, short of someone outright saying “I’m inherently evil”. Remember your essay about how it’s hard to direct advice at the people who need it; the people who are already too reluctant to consider evil are the ones most likely to listen to your advice about being more reluctant to consider evil.

    (And I think even some of your own material has fallen under :too reluctant to consider evil”.)

    • Murphy says:

      shouting “inherent evil” is easy.

      Everyone wants to believe their ideological opponents are storybook villains who shout “FOR EVIL!!!!” while making their choices.

      But story book villains are rare. There’s the occasional serial killer eating baby hearts but even then it’s more common for them to be people who think they’re doing what god told them to do or something similar who stop trying to eat baby hearts when the lithium kicks in.

      Which doesn’t seem like something you’d observe with something inherent.

      Some people consider voting for trump “inherent evil”, some people consider supporting pro-choice positions “inherent evil”. So at the very least if you’re gonna call your opponents evil, at least be clear about your definition of inherent evil.

      Especially if your definition catches a large percentage of the countries population.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        There are lots of inherently evil I’m fine with coexisting with. Because they don’t try to impose their evil views on anyone. Here I define evil as “has values incompatible with mine, maybe a psychopath with respect to a group of conscious entities I have empathy for”.

        When we shout at someone “evil!” In a political context we usually mean “someone who has different and incompatible values we prefer war over coexistence with given how persuadable we are to each other’s worldview”.

        I wish we came up with two different words for these two different contexts.

      • Jiro says:

        Evil people are rare, but evil people are not nonexistent, so it is possible to underestimate how many of them there are around.

        Some people consider voting for trump “inherent evil”, some people consider supporting pro-choice positions “inherent evil”.

        “Inherently evil” is a description that can be right or wrong depending on the details of the specific example. There is no substitute for examining that specific example and making a particularized judgment. Someone who says that voting for Trump is inherently evil has made a mistaken judgment, but the fact that he has made a mistaken judgment does not generalize to a principle of “all such judgments are mistaken”.

  29. Jack V says:

    …That was really interesting too.

    I notice that something similar plays out in my individual “what’s the most sensible behaviour” heuristics. I think there’s a lot to be gained from “thinking analytically about what it might be useful to plan to do”, and also a lot to be gained from “following what everyone else does, and not changing habits that seem to work, even if you don’t know why”.

    I think most people naturally do more of the second, and most people I know tend to do more of the first. I’ve definitely had wins from both, e.g. people are amazed at my skill for “if someone annoys me, seeing if there’s a way to fix it”. And “if I have a problem, making a systematic list and then deciding on a solution”. And “making a decision, then I’ve made it so stop worrying about it.” But there’s also a lot to learn from opaque heuristics. Like, “if you have a diary/todo list/inbox that works for you KEEP IT, don’t change unless you’re sure you can switch back”. And “be five minutes early for everything just like your mum said, even if you don’t understand why”.

    So there’s definitely a “generate new ideas by copying people and thinking hard, but try them out cautiously, and be willing to switch back”. It sounds like society has a similar (but more complicated) system, where there is innovation when there’s sufficient pressure, but people only try it when they’re sure.

  30. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    How do you feel about talking on the phone if the other person calls you? If the phone call is pre-arranged?

    I have a notion that there are efforts to help the poor which add up to helping the people who are somewhat poor while hurting people who are very poor. This would apply both to a minimum wage and to minimum housing standards.

    Meanwhile, if there are a lot of studies pointing in both directions, it might be fair to conclude that minimum wage laws don’t have a large effect.

    I’ve been playing with the idea of modesty for government action. There’s a assumption that it’s good for laws to be enforced, but the current improvement for homosexuals was only possible because the laws against them weren’t enforced very effectively. What if we’re making another mistake of comparable magnitude but more enforcement of laws makes it harder to discover or change?

    • Aapje says:

      I can’t speak for Scott, but my own aversion to phone conversations is no different for being called or for the call to be planned.

      • onyomi says:

        Do you have an aversion to conversation in person? If not, what do you perceive as the difference when talking on the phone?

        • Aapje says:

          Much less so.

          I think that the difference is that body language is important to how I both perceive and send information.

          • onyomi says:

            It’s funny I almost find it easier to have an extended, one-on-one conversation with a person on the phone than in person because in person it feels a little awkward (to me) if there isn’t something else to be doing with one’s body, like eating a meal with the person, having a drink, going for a walk, etc. whereas on the (non-video) phone the occasion can just be “called to catch up” and you can do whatever feels comfortable with the rest of you.

            I guess body language isn’t that important an element of how I communicate, maybe even to the point I find it distracting. Of course, this opens up the possibility I am ruder on the phone than in person, but it makes it more comfortable for me if I’m less worried about committing a faux-pas with my own body language or interpreting the other person’s body language to decide whether I’ve made them uncomfortable for some reason.

    • Meanwhile, if there are a lot of studies pointing in both directions, it might be fair to conclude that minimum wage laws don’t have a large effect.

      There are two other plausible explanations:

      1. There is a lot of noise in the relevant signal, so the effect gets drowned out. That’s almost certainly true if what you are looking at is the overall unemployment rate, since minimum wage workers are a tiny fraction of all workers.

      2. People on the side that is wrong—perhaps on both sides—have a strong incentive to reach a particular conclusion, so lots of articles for the wrong conclusion get produced. We have had a lot of discussion here on how easily research can produce false results.

      • Matt M says:

        Didn’t Seattle recently commission two separate studies to determine the effect of its recent minimum wage increases, and, even using the same “sample”, they came to two dramatically different results?

  31. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Perfect illo for this article. I’ll footnote if people can’t see it.

  32. VirgilKurkjian says:

    Scott, are you sure you’re using “legible” in the right way here? I don’t see how your use fits any of the definitions you’ve given, i.e. it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with interpretability given low context/local knowledge:

    …arranged in a way that made it easy to monitor and control. An intact forest might be more productive than an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of Norway spruce, but it was harder to legislate rules for, or assess taxes on.

    …organized and well-indexed that it was easy to know everything about everyone and collect/double-check taxes…

    …legibility (see James Scott) means that the display is measurable and doesn’t require local knowledge or context to interpret.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      Scott’s use of legibility here seems to mean “explicable, intelligible, and justified according to a scientific worldview.” As I understand it, if some aspect of culture is the product of cultural evolution but contains beliefs that are false or unjustifiable according to science, or just not justified at all (“people doing X for no good reason”), that makes it illegible.

      This is low-context and independent of local knowledge because a scientific worldview is something that people, especially ruling elites, learn at universities to be applied everywhere. That is, “doesn’t require local knowledge or contest to interpret” in your last quote really means “can be interpreted using the context and knowledge that ruling elites already have, namely, scientific training”.

  33. Ninety-Three says:

    3. Do you diet and exercise as much as you should? Why not? Obviously this will make you healthier and feel better! Why don’t you buy a gym membership right now? Are you just being lazy?

    Yes? It is not unreasonable to expect someone who keeps avoiding the gym to be able to produce the answer “I’m lazy”, and it makes a pretty good response to someone who keeps badgering you to go to the gym based on its obvious health benefits. I am one of those lazy people, and I am in fact behaving irrationally, if you define rational as “maximizing a non-hyperbolically-discounted utility function”. What is the word lazy for if not describing that kind of behaviour?

    • Said Achmiz says:

      if you define rational as “maximizing a non-hyperbolically-discounted utility function”

      But why would you define “rational” in this way? To me, such a definition seems to be quite obviously… irrational.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        It’s pretty hard to justify a hyperbolic discount rate. Either no discount or exponential discounts are pretty intuitively easy, but following a hyperbolic discount produces behaviour that looks like you’re terrible at planning/anticipating your own preferences. For instance, hyperbolic discounting leads to setting your alarm for 7 AM (because it’s important to wake up early tomorrow), but then snoozing the alarm when it wakes you up because now that the events are closer your tradeoffs on “sleep in vs get to work on time” look different.

  34. Enkidum says:

    One of the books which most closely echoes the points you’ve been making is Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul. It’s got an awful lot of flaws, and whenever I talked to someone who was an expert on the specific cases that he describes in detail they would explain to me how he got it all wrong. But I think the overarching picture it gives is an important one, and an important corrective to the purely positive views of reason that seem dominant in this community.

  35. Alkatyn says:

    Re the communism in Britain example: Historically a lot of the demands of early communists (for things like workplace safety laws, beginnings of a welfare state, etc) were achieved via the existing system. Which both took away the direct motivation for change and provided evidence against the idea that only radical change could achieve those outcomes. Resulting in the former communists joining up with existing political parties and institutions.

    • trees says:

      Strong agree. Many socialist ideas were implemented and had a major positive impact on workers’ wellbeing. Central planning turned out to be a terrible way of managing production and distributing resources, but a lot of their other ideas were very successful. The “immune system to protect capitalism” looks to me like adopting just enough socialist ideas to keep the threat of revolution at bay.

      • Many socialist ideas were implemented and had a major positive impact on workers’ wellbeing.

        How do you know? Do you have a good sample of otherwise similar societies that didn’t adopt those ideas for comparison?

        Consider the case of the minimum wage. Lots of people would include it in your category. Lots of other people–a much larger fraction of economists than of the general public–would classify the effect as negative. Telling which it is is a nontrivial problem.

  36. Loris says:

    These seem to have pretty obvious responses to me.

    1. Guys – do you have trouble asking girls out? Why? The worst that can happen is they’ll say no, right?

    Wrong. Maybe that’s the worst possible result for an attractive guy, but it might be the best plausible result for an unattractive one – and the worst possible result is far worse.
    Dependent on context, that might be, for example:
    The girl is currently one of your few friends, and afterwards is not.
    The girl is horrified by the thought, and discusses this with her friends. Soon everyone knows you as ‘the creep’.
    The girl is disgusted by the thought, and files a harassment complaint.

    3. Do you diet and exercise as much as you should? Why not? Obviously this will make you healthier and feel better! Why don’t you buy a gym membership right now? Are you just being lazy?

    Pick one:
    a) Yes I’m just lazy. I’m not going to buy a gym membership I won’t use.
    b) I could do something more productive with my time than exercise.
    c) No, exercising makes me feel worse, not better.

    These seem like bad examples for ‘illegibility’ because they’re so easily explained.

    As other people have observed, the AIDs/gay example is also weak, because it was promiscuity rather than homosexuality which was really the problem.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      As other people have observed, the AIDs/gay example is also weak, because it was promiscuity rather than homosexuality which was really the problem.

      No, homosexuality was actually an important factor. The transmission rate of AIDS during normal sex is pretty low, but it’s much higher for anal sex, because of messy biology reasons. Given that gay men tend to have more anal sex than straight men, the gay community was uniquely at risk for the AIDS epidemic.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Also the fact that men have a greater biological tendency towards promiscuity than women. Eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap.

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        This is true for HIV but not for other STDs. There’s no way the AIDS epidemic reached back in time and started the homosexuality taboo.

      • Loris says:

        Homosexuality might have been a factor in that ‘perfect storm’, but not the really crucial one.

        a) it’s an important factor in only a subset of HIV outbreaks.
        b) engaging in anal sex is not synonymous with homosexuality; homosexual women are … unlikely to engage in that practice, while those in heterosexual relationships potentially are.
        c) Conrad suggests men might also be more predisposed to promiscuity. But since the significance of promiscuity was my point, I feel like that shouldn’t count against it.

        However…
        Looking at the article again, it initially puts equal weight on both homosexuality and promiscuity (although it later fixates on the former):

        My friend pointed out that the obvious cultural-evolutionary-justification for traditional sexual morality – both compulsory monogamy and compulsory heterosexuality – was to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

        In an imaginary world with strict and total monogamy (but free initial choice of partner), there would be essentially no STD transmission.
        Meanwhile, in an alternate world with no homosexuality but open relationships there would be STD transmission as some function of the network topology. The more promiscuous, the more disease, effectively.

        There are relationship structures which don’t conform to monogamy or enforced heterosexuality which also have essentially no ongoing STD transmission (for example, strictly closed groups of … I don’t know, 6)

        So the ‘traditional sexual morality’ – really Christian morality – did provide protection, sure. But it also needlessly stopped lots of people living their best life.
        And furthermore, the Catholic church did all it could to prevent use of the equipment which would have prevented the spread of disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people died of Aids in Africa than all the initial wave of American outbreaks due to that policy. – So much for that morality.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          And furthermore, the Catholic church did all it could to prevent use of the equipment which would have prevented the spread of disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people died of Aids in Africa than all the initial wave of American outbreaks due to that policy. – So much for that morality.

          This is a common myth. Condom distribution programs failed to slow the spread of AIDS.

          • Loris says:

            This is a common myth. Condom distribution programs failed to slow the spread of AIDS.

            Are you sure about that? Your link says “Evidence on risk compensation associated with HIV prevention interventions is mixed.” Which a) isn’t the same thing, and b) implies that results vary dependent on other factors.
            A quick googling suggests that major issues are insufficient distribution and limited uptake… which must be attributed at least partly down to the Catholic church’s stance.

            And there do seem to have been successes in numerous countries.

            The empirical evidence is that using a condom consistently greatly reduces the spread of STDs. This is particularly important for sex workers. It’s unfortunate then if use of condoms become criminalised. Selected Africa-relevant quotes:

            In Kenya, 50 percent of outreach workers said that police had harassed them during the course of their outreach work.

            In Namibia, 50 percent of sex workers said police destroyed their condoms and 75 percent of those who then did sex work had unprotected sex.

            That sort of thing would probably reduce the success rate significantly, don’t you think?

        • b) engaging in anal sex is not synonymous with homosexuality; homosexual women are … unlikely to engage in that practice, while those in heterosexual relationships potentially are.

          I think the norm was much more strongly against male homosexuality than against female homosexuality.

        • teageegeepea says:

          Islam seems to be very negatively correlated with HIV in Africa. But it’s possible the main cause of the epidemic there is tainted needles:
          http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/02/africa-hiv-perverts-or-bad-med.html

        • Dack says:

          @ Loris

          So much for that morality.

          First off, you can’t morally say “If you can’t be good, at least be smart.” At least not in a natural law conception of morality. The Catholic Church would argue against consequentialism,…so it’s more than a little uncharitable to jeer their morality for not being consequenialist as if that were the only possible framework.

          the Catholic church did all it could to prevent use of the equipment which would have prevented the spread of disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people died of Aids in Africa than all the initial wave of American outbreaks due to that policy.

          But I’m pretty sure that this is incorrect anyway. If it were true, you would expect practice of Catholicism to correlate positively with HIV infection. (I.e., the more Catholic African nations would have higher HIV infection rates and less Catholic African nations would have lower HIV infection rates.)

          Let’s skim the data.

          By percentage and real numbers, the most Catholic African nations are:
          Equatorial Guinea (80.7 % Catholic, 4.7% infected)
          Burundi (62.1% Catholic, 1.3% infected)
          Gabon (50% Catholic, 5% infected)
          Democratic Republic of the Congo (28.7m Catholics, 1.6% infected)
          Nigeria (23.9m Catholics, 3.7% infected)
          Uganda (13.4m Catholics, 7.2% infected)

          Meanwhile, the most HIV infected African nations are:
          Eswatini (6% Catholic, 26% infected)
          Botswana (4.9% Catholic, 23.4% infected)
          Lesotho (45.7% Catholic, 23.3% infected)
          South Africa (7.1% Catholic, 17.3% infected)
          Zimbabwe (7.7 % Catholic, 14.9% infected)
          Namibia (16.9% Catholic, 13.4% infected)

          Sources:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_by_country
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIV/AIDS_in_Africa
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eswatini#Religion

          • Loris says:

            @Dack
            First of all I’d like to thank you for your work on this.
            I’m going to skip over the morality discussion.

            But I’m pretty sure that this is incorrect anyway. If it were true, you would expect practice of Catholicism to correlate positively with HIV infection. (I.e., the more Catholic African nations would have higher HIV infection rates and less Catholic African nations would have lower HIV infection rates.)

            I think your “skim” with the top 6 country lists is a bit misleading here – I actually think it does.
            I’m going to use solely data from the links you provided below.

            I’m repeating myself if I say that promiscuity is the primary factor in STD spread. I don’t think that’s contentious – but in any case the HIV/AIDS in Africa article agrees:

            High-risk behavioral patterns have been cited as being largely responsible for the significantly greater spread of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa than in other parts of the world.

            Given that, it’s noticeable that the six “most HIV infected African nations” in your list are all in Southern Africa. These are generally not particularly catholic. There’s one exception; the catholic nature of Lesotho doesn’t seem to have protected it – and I agree that the catholic church presumably hasn’t had much affect on the others. The article breaks these out and says it’s a combination of widespread social acceptance of multiple partners, and a cultural resistance to condom use by men plus poverty (meaning that prostitutes are essentially obligated to engage in unsafe practices).

            OK. Let us look at the rest of Africa. To what extent does catholicism correlate with HIV prevalence? Well, the top two references both have maps. I’ve taken the liberty of editing the relevant parts of these maps into a side-by-side comparison (uploaded to a free image hosting site).
            Which mainland African countries with a significant fraction of catholics have an Aids problem? All of them!
            (sidenotes – a) the colour scale of the disease graph is non-linear. All-in-all, I think that’s acceptable. b) Democratic Republic of Congo is grey on the disease side, but this is ‘no data’ rather than ‘no Aids’ – it’s going to be on the high side. c) Madagascar is an island, distinct and notoriously isolated, so I don’t feel its divergence from the trend is significant for the sake of this discussion)

            So, this isn’t a perfect correlation. It isn’t perfect data either (getting good data is really damn hard as the HIV article makes clear).
            There’s an overlying promiscuity factor, along with politics and other cultural factors, and the epidemic nature of disease itself, which all affect the results and obscure the trend.
            But it looks pretty clear to me that a country in Africa being ‘Catholic’ really really isn’t a plus in this instance.

          • Dack says:

            I didn’t go into this making a claim that we should expect the more Catholic nations to do better WRT HIV. Rather I was coming out against your claim that I felt was not supported by the facts that we have available.

            the Catholic church did all it could to prevent use of the equipment which would have prevented the spread of disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people died of Aids in Africa than all the initial wave of American outbreaks due to that policy.

            I don’t think that they did everything in their power to prevent condom use. I think they merely refused to distribute them or advocate for them. I think if they had done everything in their power, those maps would look very different.

          • Loris says:

            I don’t think that they did everything in their power to prevent condom use. I think they merely refused to distribute them or advocate for them. I think if they had done everything in their power, those maps would look very different.

            Okay, well I concede “everything in their power” was a little hyperbolic.
            But – it’s pretty clear the catholic church and its subjects did quite a bit more than merely refuse to distribute condoms.
            1) Advocate against them at various levels
            2) Sow distrust with lies (example)
            3) Use its power to cause difficulties for organisations using them.
            4) Actively sabotage condom distribution for instance:

            If 50 million condoms were delivered to Lusaka, he found, too often they had disappeared by the time medical aid bundles, or “kits,” reached peripheral areas where people needed them—removed, many aid workers believed, by Catholics with a moral objection to their use.

            (Note that this is a partial source, but I don’t think it’s untrue)

          • Loris says:

            Okay, well I concede “everything in their power” was a little hyperbolic.

            Looking back over this – that’s your phrase, not mine. I said “all it could”, which I think is rather less of an overstatement.
            Googling with the phrase gives many hits which suggest my usage is consistent with common parlance.

          • Dack says:

            2) Sow distrust with lies (example)

            Okay that’s disappointing. The direct quote does suggest to me that something was lost in translation though:

            “Condoms are not sure because I know that there are two countries in Europe, they are making condoms with the virus on purpose,”

            many aid workers believed, by Catholics with a moral objection to their use.

            An anonymous person’s assumption is not a source. That’s not even an anecdote. That’s a rumor.

            Aside from that, the site does not seem unbiased.

            1) Advocate against them at various levels
            3) Use its power to cause difficulties for organisations using them.

            Do you have any sources for 1 & 3?

            everything in their power vs all it could

            I’m not sure what distinction you are trying to make here.

          • Loris says:

            An anonymous person’s assumption is not a source. That’s not even an anecdote. That’s a rumor.

            It’s not one person, it’s many. Some of them may go on the record – but perhaps not in the news. The source of this particular example did ask not to be named. This may be to avoid reprisals against themselves or Catholic workers? It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
            It’s not one event, it’s many. Condom shipments are notorious for going astray in Africa.
            You can certainly argue that it isn’t proven that a catholic in was responsible in any particular event, but I suggest that when the quantities involved are millions, they’ve probably not been stolen for personal use – and given that it’s specific to condoms, rather than all equipment, it could be considered a reasonable suspicion.
            You also might not have noticed, but all these sources are pretty diplomatic – I think because they’re trying to solve the problem, not cause a shitstorm.

            Do you have any sources for 1 & 3?

            I found some, but I’m starting to feel that you must have lead a sheltered life not to be aware of these issues already.

            1) High level advocacy – political lobbying (pdf)

            In countries with significant Roman Catholic populations, governments frequently bow to pressure from religious leaders to censor information about condoms in school-based HIV/AIDS curricula or other HIV-prevention programs.

            3) Exert pressure from positions of power – eg. in the article I already linked to

            In one case, a local diocese refused to receive rent from a prominent NGO working on HIV & AIDS—apparently because they were distributing condoms on Catholic-owned land—forcing the NGO to relocate.

            I’m not sure what distinction you are trying to make here.

            I was feeling disillusioned.
            It’s pretty disappointing when you expend effort on reasoned argument, then it appears that the disagreement was simply that someone didn’t understand that a common phrase isn’t meant to be taken completely literally.
            I mean, I absolutely do believe that one should use words in accordance with their definition. But, given the nature of language, there has to be some flexibility. There should be effort expended in understanding what is meant just as as in saying things well.
            This is the second time this has happened to me with a phrase like that.
            “Do all you can”, “Give it your best effort” and similar absolutely never mean “liquidise all your assets, abandon all other goals, and your morals in the pursuit of this objective”, so I’m at a bit of a loss why people seem to choose this in particular to be pedantic about.

  37. Scott says:

    Well-adjusted master race who doesn’t have any of the hang-ups you listed checking in. My own hang-ups will remain conveniently unlisted. 😛

    In all seriousness, I’m reminded in this discussion over legibility of research that posits the best way to deceive someone and get past their innate lie-detecting countermeasures is to sincerely believe what you’re saying to be true yourself. Byrne and Whiten posit that the whole reason we developed large brains as a species is to win this arms race against each other, game-theoretic models support evolutionary pressure towards self-deception in cooperative societies, and Trivers brings around the argument that “guys, this is the whole reason we have a thing we call the subconscious in the first place.” Basically, the system that takes in and follows cultural knowledge, and leaves the conscious mind to ignore it or defend it if need be.

    On the evolutionary-pressure note, while I agree that the things you listed are good cultural institutions in the pursuit of a better (More internally consistent? More effective in reaching proclaimed goals? More powerful? More likely to stave off X-Risk?) society, they seem individually… weak. In that on the individual level, in giving other traditions additional weight over your own, you’re more likely to have your own values compromised through cultural merger or being steamrolled. I don’t see moves towards pluralism working from the bottom-up for this reason. In order to bring around these sorts of norms, I think you have to already be at the top of the power structure you’re trying to affect.

  38. Hackworth says:

    This makes me think questioning traditions (voluntarily or not) is the only tradition that matters. What if everyone obeyed all the relevant taboos at all times and HIV (or any other STD) never spread? Where would be the incentive to develop good anti-retroviral drugs, to research infection vectors? Where would be the incentive to research why nixtamalization exists if everybody did it and nobody ever got pellagra for failing to do it?

    Was improved tolerance and equality worth 100,000+ deaths?

    Perhaps the right question would be: Were 100.000+ deaths *necessary* for improved tolerance and equality? Were 100.000+ deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to correctly categorize nuclear war in the public mind as the savagery it is? Were the horrors of WW1 and WW2 necessary to establish the Geneva convention? Were the ethic disasters of slavery and industrialization necessary for human and worker rights?

    Empirically, they were, because they all preceded their solution, or at least their alleviation. Things have to get bad before they can get significantly better. Any way you want to euphemize and circumscribe it, the goal of human activity is to reduce suffering; first the personal kind, then the human kind, then all others. But for that, suffering has to exist in the first place.

    Of course, as our toys get bigger and stronger, at least since the mass deployment of nuclear ICBMs and other man-made existential threats, “things going bad” and “suffering” can reach a point of no return. We are grown-ups now, our physical and intellectual capacity to shape the world are no longer sufficiently limited to safeguard ourselves against our caveman brain, a brain that is just as bad at coming up with novel systems that don’t break down before a lot of trial and error as it was in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago. Culture has more or less propped up this brain of ours, but the margin for error is rapidly dwindling, and I fear culture is not going to keep up in the long run.

  39. JtBeowulf says:

    Not to go full “Jordan Peterson,” on this one, but I find it interesting that the book of Genesis begins with a take on this overarching dilemma/cautionary tale.

    Humans effectively wake up from a perfect slumber of innocence in nature to this bizarre and untested form of consciousness. Some voice in our programming says “Do what I say, don’t think you’re smarter than the laws I’ve laid down.” As if God came down and said “Some things are off limits and as they say in Vegas ‘the house always wins.”

    The first poisonous plant (to borrow from Heinrich’s baby example) we grab is for Reasoning things out on our own and trying to think really hard about what we should and should do beyond what our innate intuitions or traditions, taboos or mores were up until that time.

    Seems interesting in light of these recent articles that the ancient Hebrews start their story with “Trying to reason your way around the house rules ends in death. Best rely on our traditional practices to keep us safe and btw, we’ll write them down so it’s clear.” No wonder the next few books of the Tanakh lay out a laundry list of taboos and cultural practices to follow up on that theme.

    Love the blog and I’m a long time reader, but for whatever reason I thought this was a cool point to add in. Thanks for all you do.

  40. mischal says:

    (Sorry ..no english native)
    After reading this blog for years, I finally couldn’t refrain myself from not commenting.
    This whole series ,and esp. This part, are so wonderfuly crafted and thought through, that it realy pains me to point out that it’s all demented bullshit.

    I can’t be bothered to explain in detail.. if you want to try ..give up reason and add irrational perspectives.

    I’m sorry..but keep up the good work

  41. JohnBuridan says:

    Those seven points at the end are actually beautiful! Thank you.
    1. Understand traditions.
    2. Accept weird people as much as possible.
    3. Test on a small scale and scale up slowly.
    4. Tolerate bad ideas even as you challenge them.
    5. Tolerate people who seem stuck in a tradition. (Even maintain friendship with them, if you can!)
    6. Try to improve the tradition. (I love this. If you understand the tradition, you can reason from within it and improve it.)
    7. Traditions are not always ethical. (The way you phrased this I think is a little overstated. Traditions frequently are ethical, but not always. Where do you think ethics come from, if not emerging from a tradition?)

    • Nick says:

      Where do you think ethics come from, if not emerging from a tradition?

      Come on, man, not everyone is a MacIntyrean.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Sorry. I should have been clearer. I don’t mean that traditions are impossible to critique because, “GOTCHA! YOU CAN’T DO CRITIQUE WITHOUT A TRADITION!”

      I mean something more banal than McIntyre; traditions get most of their critique from the inside, so some aspects of a tradition at any point in time will be ethical, though surely not wholly right for the reasons Scott outlined.

  42. the obvious cultural-evolutionary-justification for homosexuality taboos was to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, which spread somewhat more easily through gay compared to straight relationships.

    In what way is this homophobic drivel “obvious” ? So far as I know there’s nothing to back this up, it’s entirely backed by prejudice and stereotypes (such as “gay people are more promiscuous” and “only gay people have anal sex”, neither of which are likely to be true). Would you please not peddle that kind of idiocy and find better examples.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I shared Scott’s impression, but never looked into the data.

      This is the first study I found on google when searching. It seems to support his conclusions.
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3334840/

      Please either be persuaded that you are wrong, or provide your own study that shows evidence for either statements:
      Straight men have as many or more partners than gay men.
      Straight men have as many or more STIs than gay men.

      if you do I will probably be persuaded I am wrong, since I think the effect size is large enough that any decent study would capture it.

      • May I suggest kindly to you not to blindly believe that a study which is based on self-reporting is necessarily representative of the behavior of a population as a whole. Self-reporting introduces bias that should be obvious.

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          Yeah for sure, self reporting has biases. I picked the first study I found to avoid study cherrypicking bias.

          Because I think the effect size is so large, I think any study in a peer reviewed journal regardless of methodology will find the same conclusion. And will admit I am wrong.

          Do you think you can find one study that disagrees with Scott’s conclusion?

          If you do, I will probably find five more random studies if it will not take me long, and unless they all agree with the first one I found, I will apologize admit you are right that Scott’s conclusion that the justification was “obvious” was too strong.

        • notpeerreviewed says:

          May I suggest kindly to you not to blindly believe that a study which is based on self-reporting is necessarily representative of the behavior of a population as a whole.

          Former public health department worker here: STI rates are far higher among MSM than among heterosexual men, and so are mean partner counts (driven mostly by a minority of gay men who participate in promiscuous subcultures.) This is not a controversial point in epidemiology. However, I think your general point is correct and the disease explanation for homosexuality taboos isn’t very plausible, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere in the comments.

          • Oh yeah that reminds me of that old OkTrends post about the user base of OkCupid : https://web.archive.org/web/20120312082752/http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/gay-sex-vs-straight-sex/

            It turns out that a tiny fraction of gays have single-handedly two-handedly created the public image of gay sexual recklessness—in fact we found that just 2% of gay people have had 23% of the total reported gay sex, which is pretty crazy.

          • Nornagest says:

            If a small fraction of a population is hugely promiscuous, that’s worse for STD transmission than if the same numbers are driven by a large fraction being moderately promiscuous, not better. As a toy example, consider a population with 10 people in it. Mean partner counts are the same (not exactly, but close enough) if each person has sex with two people a week as if 9 of them have sex with 1 person and one has sex with nine, but in the former case, assuming perfect transmission, three or four people will be infected a couple of weeks after introducing an infected partner and in the latter case all of them will.

      • souleater says:

        I appreciate the study, and I share your and Scott’s impression.
        I do have one complaint about the study.
        It seems possible to me that many gay men, when faced with a society that will never accept them in a traditional, monogamous, relationship, could instead be persuaded to live in the moment, and never bother to try and settle down.
        I’m pointing this out because the change in gay acceptance has changed dramatically between the dates in the above study (1996-2006) may result in dramatic change in monogamy rates over the past 15-25 years.

        BTW, I do appreciate the fact that you intentionally used the first study you found, and think that is probably the fairest way it could have realistically been done.

        • quanta413 says:

          The rampant deaths due to AIDS will also have exerted some pressure on who is left in the gay male community to have somewhat different mores than beforehand as well.

          I’d be surprised if gay men as a group looked identical to male-female couples in the future, but I also expect some convergence. Wasn’t Andrew Sullivan’s argument for gay marriage partly that it would make homosexuality more similar to heterosexuality?

          Also, my vague memory is lesbians have very different numbers of partners, etc. than gay men. But as far as I’m aware the taboo was against both forms of homosexuality. That would seem to be a strike against the “conservative sexual mores all about preventing STIs”.

    • Randy M says:

      Stereotype =/= false.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      I thought that gay men being more promiscuous and practicing anal sex more than other groups was common knowledge. I also dont see it as being homophobic, whether true or not. My respect for gay men is not based on the assumption that they have sexual mores that are similar to heterosexual couples.

      If you have evidence that these notions are false, I would love to see it.

      • “common knowledge” is a different word for “stereotype” (but with an added implicit assertion that because it is known, it is true).

        See the comment by notpeerreviewed and the link in my answer, above.

        • Reasoner says:

          Some psychology research has found that stereotypes tend to be pretty accurate:

          https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201210/stereotype-inaccuracy

          (That’s not to say they aren’t harmful)

        • quanta413 says:

          You haven’t actually answered the evidence presented. First you said there was no evidence. While the evidence is weak for the broader claim (I don’t find the broader claim “STI infection –> heteronormative conservative social mores” persuasive at all), I disagree as far as evidence about the narrower claims of distribution of promiscuity and STI rates. Then when someone linked an academic study with self-reported evidence you said self-reported evidence didn’t count.

          But there aren’t many good ways to know how many sexual partners people have or how much people have anal sex except by self-report. And then you posted a link to an ok-cupid blogpost that almost certainly gathered its data by self-report. So somehow, self-reported evidence is now ok?

          On top of that, selection of a subpopulation by using ok-cupid is probably a more systematically biased sample compared to the whole population than surveys based on random dialing even if those studies were restricted to a few studies. And it’s a blog post by one guy at an online dating service vs. an academic article from the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. Authority shouldn’t be trusted blindly, but everything here lines up in favor of trusting the academic article by epidemiologists over a blogpost.

          To be clear, I don’t buy the idea that sexuality norms formed primarily to prevent spreading STI’s, even though the full cultural conservative package of only having sex after marriage with your spouse and never divorcing obviously would do pretty well at reducing the incidence of STI’s. For the maybe roughly 1/2 or less of the population that could manage to follow it. Mostly because it’s not the primary focus that cultural conservatives themselves have given for their norms. And I find their reasons mostly cogent even if I only agree on roughly half of things. Most of the conservative things I’ve read or people I’ve heard from view reduced STI rates as a side benefit if it’s brought up at all.

    • 10240 says:

      The “obvious” part was Scott’s friend’s view (quoted), not Scott’s.

      Few people would say “only gay people have anal sex”, most people would say gay men have more anal sex than straight people, which is enough for the conclusion. Especially since in epidemiology, transmission probability going above some threshold can have disproportionate effects.

      You are arguing in strongly loaded terms about a controversial topic, and insist on evidence from others without providing evidence yourself. I suspect your mode of reasoning was the following:
      (1) You don’t want a norm against homosexuality to exist for reasons of fairness and equality.
      (2) If gay people have an especially high STD risk, it can be used (rightly or wrongly) as an argument for a norm against homosexuality.
      (3) So you feel that claims of factors leading to high STD risk among gay people are unlikely to be true, and you feel a strong need to argue against them.

      That’s an implicit appeal to consequences, and not conducive to an unbiased evaluation of evidence — whether (1) is right or not, whether (2) is a good argument or not, and whether actual evidence suggests that gay men have more risky sex than heterosexual people or not.

  43. daneelssoul says:

    I think your examples in III are a lot more legible than you give them credit for. I mean for a lot of autistics they can explain that they stim because it relieves physical discomfort for them. Like sure they cannot explain the underlying neurochemistry that leads to the discomfort, but the people who find stimming annoying also can’t explain why they find it annoying at that level of detail either.

    Similarly, not wanting to call people on the phone because you find it stressful (I’m assuming that’s the reason) seems pretty legible to me. And “I don’t want to work in the same room as you because I know from experience that when I try to work in the same room as someone else even if they are being quiet I am unable to get anything done” is also pretty clear.

    Sure. In none of these cases can you explain the underlying reason why these behaviors are necessary, but you can present strong evidence that doing otherwise causes specific problems, which really ought to be enough.

  44. Garrett says:

    Recently, the concept of PrEP, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – giving HIV medication to people before they are infected, was shown to drastically reducing the rates of HIV infection. I had hoped that with this we’d be able to make life safer for gay men and hopefully, eventually, eliminate AIDS.

    And then I discovered that men who have sex with men aremore likely to get gonorrhea and that the rates of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea infectionsis higher for gay/bi men and seems to be increasing. So it looks like part of the existing conservative sexual taboos would still have value here.

    • daneelssoul says:

      Though my impression is that a lot of this effect is just that gay people are less likely to use condoms than heterosexuals since they don’t need them for birth control. If this is the major effect, it would suggest that this is not a case of culture having gotten things right (because these taboos evolved before condoms were prevalent), but of culture having been lucky.

      • hls2003 says:

        Condoms don’t enter into it, even taking just the issue of incentives (i.e. not natural predilections) for promiscuity. Whether or not condoms are invented, non-procreative sex still lacks pregnancy as a “check” on the incentives to sleep around, while potentially procreative sex does have that check. So you would expect that particular incentive to favor higher promiscuity among groups whose sex cannot be procreative, irrespective of condoms.

        • daneelssoul says:

          Maybe. But pregnancy is only a check against promiscuity (rather than against sex in general) because of other cultural institutions related to it.

          Like I guess you could argue that homosexuality lead to problems work STDs because it had not been allowed to develop a culture of manogomy (though I think it had been developing more of one lately).

          Finally, I am unwilling to give cultural evolution too much credit here, because I’m not convinced that Western taboos against homosexuality were due to cultural evolution. My impression is that it was mostly a top-down decision by the Catholic Church, not w competition between many different policies some of which thrived better than others.

          • Dack says:

            I’m not convinced that Western taboos against homosexuality were due to cultural evolution. My impression is that it was mostly a top-down decision by the Catholic Church,

            They didn’t decide it. They inherited it from Judaism.

          • And Islam also has a taboo against male homosexuality.

  45. jermo sapiens says:

    3. As per the last Henrich quote here, make use of the “laboratories of democracy” idea. Try things on a small scale in limited areas before trying them at larger scale; let different polities compete and see what happens.

    This is the most important point, to me at least. And what do you know, it looks like the United States has a constitution which is specifically designed for doing exactly that!

    This would reduce the temperature of political debates in America by a large amount.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      @jermo,
      No. The U.S. constitution is not designed for states to be laboratories of democracy, whereby things that work in one state get adopted by others.
      It’s designed so that, if one thing works in one state, and another thing works in a different state, they can both have the thing that works in their state without having to have a war over what gets imposed on all states at the federal level.

      If you consider how much higher the temperature of political debates would be if all the things under local control were federalized, I think you’d smile at how nice and relatively friendly the status quo is.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        It’s designed so that, if one thing works in one state, and another thing works in a different state, they can both have the thing that works in their state without having to have a war over what gets imposed on all states at the federal level.

        Sure. But there’s nothing stopping one state from adopting a measure from another state if it works out well there.

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          Yes, I totally agree with you. Adopting good policies from other states is a good idea. As is a state testing a policy at a city level, or for a willing subset of its population, etc.

          I was just making the point that states exist and were historically created as a compromise of pluralism, and I think remains their greatest benefit relative to federalizing everything.

          tl;dr I’m not sure if we disagree, and my tone in the first reply may have been overly confrontational =P

          • jermo sapiens says:

            You’re right I dont think we disagree. I was not talking about what the framers intended, just remarking on the fact that the US constitution allows for a laboratory of democracies.

  46. Randy M says:

    It’s possible a lot of traditions can be obviated by technology. Remove sexual taboos because we can use technology to prevent birth, cure stds, or freeze eggs for delayed childbirth.
    Don’t worry about eating healthy, traditional diets, because we can treat diabetes and give you vitamin supplements.
    Don’t worry about encouraging work, because we have automation and provide a living for everyone.
    Don’t worry about encouraging loyalty, because we have advanced weapons.

    This is fine, unless anything goes wrong and there’s any sort of systemic failure or shock to the systems that everyone’s health, reproduction, security, whatever depends on. We seem to be optimizing for fragility.

    It also means that our culture has to be transmitted entirely; other civilizations see tempting portions to adopt, like diet or whatever, and end up with problems unless hey also grow their necessary technological base that those new norms are adaptations to.

    • Nick says:

      This is fine, unless anything goes wrong and there’s any sort of systemic failure or shock to the systems that everyone’s health, reproduction, security, whatever depends on. We seem to be optimizing for fragility.

      I’m not convinced it’s fine. I’m thinking out loud here, take what follows with heaping supplies of salt, but I worry that we’ve gone and destroyed fourteen or fifteen things that sure seem key for human flourishing, and that’s a big reason Scott feels he’s constantly skirting bottomless pits of suffering. But we don’t see it, or we’re inoculated (to say nothing of practical difficulties) against going back. Like, to take Scott’s example, everyone seems to agree nursing homes are terrible, and even outside nursing homes we’ve got lots of sorta healthy old people who are totally isolated from family and their friends are all dead and they’re miserable. Old people are really pretty useful to have around, even in this fast paced quickly changing world, and they’ll be happier for it, and we might be happier for it, too. Maybe having them live with their family was better for everyone involved? But good luck ever turning the clock back on this one.

      Someone mentioned Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Henrich. I went and watched the first half and Cowen twice posed the problem, What if we’re getting further from our niche and genetic evolution can’t happen fast enough? Henrich gave two answers: 1) genetic evolution has been speeding up too, but if it’s not at the same rate cultural evolution is speeding up then that doesn’t help long term, and he can’t lay his finger on precisely how, and if it’s assortative mating (a possibility Cowen raised) isn’t that really super concerning? And 2) we can biologically adapt without necessarily genetically adapting. He gives the example of our brains adapting to read; it dramatically enlarges our hippocampus or something. This helps too, I’m sure, but can it help forever? Anyway, the question speaks to my concern: isn’t there any point at which we can as a species admit that we have a nature with norms for flourishing and lean into that, rather than leaning on technology or infinite economic growth or whatever?

      • Randy M says:

        Thanks for the reply. FWIW, people who know me might have read that “This is fine” another way.

        Anyway, the question speaks to my concern: isn’t there any point at which we can as a species admit that we have a nature with norms for flourishing and lean into that, rather than leaning on technology or infinite economic growth or whatever?

        This runs into to problem where you push a norm or suite of them that tends to lead to flourishing for most people and get understandable pushback from people who assert that they fall outside those guidelines, they flourish in different ways, and your pushing of norms harms them.

        One of the most telling words in regards to this is “hetero-normative.” It’s the next thing opposed after homophobia and discrimination, and it’s seen as wrong because we as a culture should not put forth any particular option as a default or a generally preferable thing–even if that option is what perpetuates and sustains civilization. The harm from doing so is pretty speculative at best, but it is still regarded as offensive to put forth a message that makes someone feel like their inclinations are somehow not normal, even if those inclinations provide serious handicaps in achieving what the average person genuinely values.

        Similarly, there’s a big difference between “don’t be hurtful to overweight people” and “beauty comes in all shapes.” Some human shapes and sizes are rightfully disturbing; they arise from behaviors that are unhealthy, restrict the lives the those who habituate them, and so on. The decent person will treat them with compassion regardless. But a decent person will also not want to see the norm torn down for their own sake when it still provides useful guidance.

        • Nick says:

          Thanks for the reply. FWIW, people who know me might have read that “This is fine” another way.

          Sorry, Randy; I didn’t mean to imply you were a heathen!

          This runs into to problem where you push a norm or suite of them that tends to lead to flourishing for most people and get understandable pushback from people who assert that they fall outside those guidelines, they flourish in different ways, and your pushing of norms harms them.

          I think there’s two problems here, or rather, two things that superficially don’t look like the same thing. First are the folks who are dispositionally inclined toward certain vices, like someone who has an eating disorder. The DSM is perfectly happy to diagnose such things and make a whole typology according to when you’re eating too much or too little. It has a pretty good idea what the good life is, and anorexia isn’t a part of it, no matter how much the 70 lb patient says she likes her body better this way. Even most of the “beauty comes in all shapes” people are willing to use normative terms like unhealthy or disordered.

          Then there are the folks who appear to just have a different way of flourishing. Recently our society started putting gay folks in this category: homosexual attraction isn’t disordered, just different, and anyway homophobia is the usual reason they can’t live their lives. Some “beauty comes in all shapes” folks will argue this way: at least some overweight people are that way because of a genetic condition, and forcing extreme diets on them will only make them miserable. I’m skeptical this category even exists, though; I think the answer here is, as you say, to treat these folks with compassion, indeed mercy—but without therefore approving, much less celebrating, such things as homosexual sex or gluttony. Even setting aside what damage such celebration does to general norms (and in the case of homosexuality, this is if anything overblown), the real reason I’m skeptical this exists is that I think human flourishing is more tightly integrated than this picture suggests. Like, it has to pain many gay men that they can’t have biological children with their partner. But that’s not homophobia, that’s just biology. Yes, it’s tragic that this is denied to them by nature—but nature has denied it to so many more besides them; gay folks are not unique here. It seems to me the consistent thing to do is to collapse this into the first category.

          Personally, though, having laid out the argument I just have, I’m much more concerned about being trumped by an anarcho-primitivist. Why am I advocating morality which developed under agricultural societies when humans flourished for eons as hunter-gatherers? I think my only defense is that the agricultural revolution happened slowly enough that we can be sure we’re pretty well adapted to it. But I’m not sure this is empirically true; cp. Robin Hanson’s stuff about farmer vs forager morality, where it sure seems like the latter is still in us. And the bigger problem is, if the facts of human nature which shape morality are so contingent, what’s wrong then with changing our natures some more? Sure, we might be happier with under a pre-modern morality, but we don’t like the premodern morality. So how about we just gene-edit ourselves until we’re happy under fully automated luxury gay space communism? I think my best answer, and a very weak answer it is, is that nature might not allow that. Too bad for lazy gay space communists, but maybe nothing short of literal wireheading will make any sort of creature happy with that. Of course, wow do I have no evidence whatsoever for this.

          So, given it leads to this radical subjectivism about our nature, I wonder whether this whole line of reasoning is just a dead end.

          • Randy M says:

            Sorry, Randy

            Certainly no offense taken–just clarifying that I was aiming to argue from common ground and noticing a flaw even still.

            So how about we just gene-edit ourselves until we’re happy under fully automated luxury gay space communism?

            For one answer, I’ll point back to my notion of engineering in fragility–your luxury gay space communism needs space age technology to work, and at the very least you want a viable control group preserved that can function should that technology fail. Which, when you’re talking about things like holding back std epidemics with evolving cocktails of anti-viral drugs, doesn’t require a civilization resetting meteor, but simply economic troubles making that kind of personal expense untenable.

            But also

            Why am I advocating morality which developed under agricultural societies when humans flourished for eons as hunter-gatherers?

            I think it bottoms out in what sort of proof you instinctively feel the need for. You won’t abstain from eating all vegetables still in case their poisonous and we just haven’t noticed yet; but nor will you help yourself to wilderness salad when confronted by strange flora.

            We can still evolve our norms with reason, but we need to consider the potential scope of the change and the length of time that the experiment has run for. I guess I’m ending by endorsing Scott’s conclusions–perhaps with some additional caveats, but pulling back from upending society every generation is needed even if stasis is impossible. Which is similar to the conversation of “What have conservatives ever done for us” from a few threads ago.

  47. lighthouseaurelius says:

    You forgot Bastiat preceding Mises and Hayek. His arguments weren’t as developed but they should have given pause.

    • hls2003 says:

      That was my thought as well. Bastiat was also one of the earliest I’m aware of who argued that socialism and communism were “the same plant in different stages of growth.”

  48. Icedcoffee says:

    On section VI, this is logic is pretty warped. So you can point to any negative outcome from making a change as a rationale for not having made the change? This is logically equivalent to the universal pre-k post, where people spend lots of money trying to tackle a problem, and then claim victory when they make improvements on a completely different problem. (This is putting aside whether relaxation of sexual taboos in the 70s/80s is in any way responsible for the HIV epidemic, which seems like a stretch.)

    More broadly, I think these posts are less critiques of reason than they are critiques of belief. Maybe this is a byproduct of being a lawyer, but beliefs often seem to entice people to make decisions before they need to. Why believe anything about the minimum wage? If you aren’t directly presented with a decision regarding minimum wage, you are just making up you mind sooner than you needed to.

    Rather than Chesterton’s Fence, I’d advocate “Chesterton’s Speedbump.” In most of these cases, the problem is not change per se, but too much change too quickly.

  49. Nav says:

    Time to beat my dead horse; the topics you’re discussing here have a lot of deep parallels in the psychoanalytic literature. First, Scott writes:

    If you force people to legibly interpret everything they do, or else stop doing it under threat of being called lazy or evil, you make their life harder

    This idea is treated by Lacan as the central ethical problem of psychoanalysis: under what circumstances is it acceptable to cast conscious light upon a person’s unconsciously-motivated behavior? The answer is usually “only if they seek it out, and only then if it would help them reduce their level of suffering”.

    Turn the psychoanalytic, phenomenology-oriented frame onto social issues, as you’ve partly done, and suddenly we’re in Zizek-land (his main thrust is connecting social critique with psychoanalytic concepts). The problem is that (a) Zizek is jargon-heavy and difficult to understand, and (b) I’m not nearly as familiar with Zizek’s work as with more traditional psychoanalytic concepts. But I’ll try anyway. From a quick encyclopedia skim, he actually uses a similar analogy with fetishes (all quotes from IEP):

    Žižek argues that the attitude of subjects towards authority revealed by today’s ideological cynicism resembles the fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish. The fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish has the peculiar form of a disavowal: “I know well that (for example) the shoe is only a shoe, but nevertheless, I still need my partner to wear the shoe in order to enjoy.” According to Žižek, the attitude of political subjects towards political authority evinces the same logical form: “I know well that (for example) Bob Hawke / Bill Clinton / the Party / the market does not always act justly, but I still act as though I did not know that this is the case.”

    As for how beliefs manifest, Zizek clarifies the experience of following a tradition and why we might actually feel like these traditions are aligned with “Reason” from the inside, and also the crux of why “Reason” can fail so hard in terms of social change:

    According to Žižek, all successful political ideologies necessarily refer to and turn around sublime objects posited by political ideologies. These sublime objects are what political subjects take it that their regime’s ideologies’ central words mean or name extraordinary Things like God, the Fuhrer, the King, in whose name they will (if necessary) transgress ordinary moral laws and lay down their lives… Kant’s subject resignifies its failure to grasp the sublime object as indirect testimony to a wholly “supersensible” faculty within herself (Reason), so Žižek argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. Žižek argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. What political ideologies do, precisely, is provide subjects with a way of seeing the world according to which such an inability can appear as testimony to how Transcendent or Great their Nation, God, Freedom, and so forth is—surely far above the ordinary or profane things of the world.

    Lastly and somewhat related, going back to an older SSC post, Scott argues that he doesn’t know why his patients react well to him, but Zizek can explain that, and it has a lot of relevance for politics (transference is a complex topic, but the simple definition is a transfer of affect or mind from the therapist to the patient, which is often a desirable outcome of therapy, contrasted with counter-transference, in which the patient affects the therapist):

    The belief or “supposition” of the analysand in psychoanalysis is that the Other (his analyst) knows the meaning of his symptoms. This is obviously a false belief, at the start of the analytic process. But it is only through holding this false belief about the analyst that the work of analysis can proceed, and the transferential belief can become true (when the analyst does become able to interpret the symptoms). Žižek argues that this strange intersubjective or dialectical logic of belief in clinical psychoanalysis also what characterizes peoples’ political beliefs…. the key political function of holders of public office is to occupy the place of what he calls, after Lacan, “the Other supposed to know.” Žižek cites the example of priests reciting mass in Latin before an uncomprehending laity, who believe that the priests know the meaning of the words, and for whom this is sufficient to keep the faith. Far from presenting an exception to the way political authority works, for Žižek this scenario reveals the universal rule of how political consensus is formed.

    Scott probably come across as having a stable and highly knowledgeable affect, which gives his patients a sense of being in the presence of authority (as we likely also feel in these comment threads), which makes him better able to perform transference and thus help his patients (or readers) reshape their beliefs.

    Hopefully this shallow dive was interesting and opens up new areas of potential study, and also a parallel frame: working from the top-down ethnography (as tends to be popular in this community; the Archimedean standpoint) gives us a broad understanding, but working from the bottom-up gives us a more personal and intimate sense of Why the top-down view is correct.

  50. An Fírinne says:

    > think we should increase salaries for Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and other high officials. There are so few of this that it would be very cheap: quintupling every Representative, Senator, and Cabinet Secretary’s salary to $1 million/year would involve raising taxes by only $2 per person. And if it attracted even a slightly better caliber of candidate – the type who made even 1% better decisions on the trillion-dollar questions such leaders face – it would pay for itself hundreds of times over. Or if it prevented just a tiny bit of corruption – an already rich Defense Secretary deciding from his gold-plated mansion that there was no point in going for a “consulting job” with a substandard defense contractor – again, hundreds of times over. This isn’t just me being a elitist shill: even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agrees with me here. This is as close to a no-brainer as policies come.

    Two things here

    1.Increasing congressmen/women’s wage could make them even greedier for money. Once you get a taste of the high life you may want it even more.

    2.Why not just ban these “consulting jobs” for individuals elected to congress?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      2.Why not just ban these “consulting jobs” for individuals elected to congress?

      This was one of the specific policy proposals in Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” platform in the 2016 election. For some reason congress declined to take him up on it…

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        I don’t know why congress declined to take him up on it, but it would be plainly unconstitutional.

        You can’t take away someone’s free speech, forever, because of a job they held. Lobbying is fundamentally paid advocacy. It’s constitutionally protected.

        • Enkidum says:

          You may not be able to prevent someone from saying something. But I don’t see that this means you are not allowed to prevent them from being paid to say that thing. If people want to lobby out of the goodness of their hearts, by all means let them do so.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lobbying_in_the_United_States

            “While lobbying is subject to extensive and often complex rules which, if not followed, can lead to penalties including jail, the activity of lobbying has been interpreted by court rulings as constitutionally protected free speech and a way to petition the government for the redress of grievances, two of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

            Are you arguing that it should be constitutional to ban lobbying, or are you arguing that under the current constitutional order it isn’t unconstitutional?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            They can absolutely lobby. But we can also regulate who is allowed to be paid to lobby.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            @Conrad Honcho,
            No, it is not constitutional under the current law to regulate who is allowed to be paid to lobby.

            You can have disclosure requirements (we have a lot of these). And you can ban quid pro quo bribery (which the law definitely does).

            You cannot regulate who is allowed to do the lobbying. Lobbying used to be basically illegal, but state and federal courts reversed themselves over the course of U.S. history and at this points this is very basic settled constitutional law. Lobbying counts as advocacy/petition of the government, and is therefore part of the 1st amendment, and can’t be denied from someone because of what job they had in the past.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Are you sure about that?

            We cannot forbid John Smith from lobbying the government.

            We cannot forbid MegaCorp, Inc from lobbying, or paying for lobbyists.

            I don’t see any reason we cannot forbid MegaCorp from paying John Smith to lobby on their behalf.

          • Furslid says:

            @ Conrad Honcho

            Can you forbid John Smith from paying someone to lobby the government on his behalf?

            Can you forbid John Smith, James Doe, and Jenny Roe from paying someone to lobby on their behalf?

            If not, then why can’t the shareholders of MegaCorp pay someone to lobby on their behalf?

          • Enkidum says:

            The question isn’t can we forbid John Smith from paying someone to lobby on his behalf, it’s can we forbid John Smith from paying Jane Doe in specific (as opposed to literally anyone else) to lobby on his behalf?

            I’m not sure what the answer to the second question is from a US constitutional perspective (and I’m not a US citizen or resident, for whatever that’s worth). But it seems from the standpoint of developing ideal governments, it’s the kind of restriction on freedom that might be worth putting in place.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I said MegaCorp could pay someone to lobby, and we cannot forbid them from hiring lobbyists. I’m saying I think we can stop them from paying former Senator John Smith, specifically because of his past employment as a Senator.

            MegaCorp can still hire non-Senator Jill Johnson.

            Senator John Smith can still go lobby pro bono on behalf of John Smith, or the Audubon Society or whatever. He could still lobby on behalf of MegaCorp for free out of the kindness of his heart. He just can’t be paid to lobby.

            ETA: oh and yeah if this is unconstitutional it seems like something worthy of a constitutional amendment. Given how hated lobbyists and politicians are, it might even have a shot at passing.

          • Perhaps one could view restrictions on lobbying as a sort of non-compete agreement?

            Part of the employment contract for being a congressman is agreeing not to accept any later employment where you are paid to influence legislation–influencing legislation being the job of congressmen.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            Yes. I am extremely sure that this would be unconstitutional.
            If y’all wanna discuss constitutional amendments and merits thereof, that’s fine. It would however require exactly that.

            “In Thornton v. U.S. Term Limits, the Court ruled that the qualifications the Constitution outlines for membership in Congress are exhaustive and cannot be added to. Any attempt to render congressional eligibility contingent upon a contract that contained extraneous terms would, as a result, be illegal.”

            It would be unconstitutional to have a law that says in effect ‘you can be a Senator only if you agree to later not be a lobbyist’.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I don’t think that applies. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton was about preventing people from serving in congress. This is about regulating their behavior after they leave congress. Nobody’s saying John Smith can’t be a Senator. We’re saying former Senator John Smith can’t be a lobbyist.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            @Conrad Honcho you may be right. I’m not convinced my previous citation applies.

            I think this might be more pertinent (from the ACLU):
            https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-senate-opposing-expansions-post-employment-bans-and-regulations-grassroots#_ftn2
            [2] Buckley, supra at 16; see also Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina, 487 U.S.781 (1988).
            https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/487/781/

            “Former congressional staff do not lose their rights as a result of having been employed by the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that lobbying activity is political speech that is at the core of the First Amendment.[1] The protected nature of this activity is not altered by the fact that the speech is on behalf of others for a fee.[2] Additionally, the Court has found that, without specific justification, the Constitution does not tolerate “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, even for minimal periods of time.”[3] “

          • John Schilling says:

            You may not be able to prevent someone from saying something. But I don’t see that this means you are not allowed to prevent them from being paid to say that thing.

            Do you see why we can’t pass a law mandating twenty-year prison sentences for the crime of “hiring other people to operate printing presses that are used to print newspapers saying bad things about the President of the United States”? Only small-town weeklies where the CEO and Editor-in-Chief also operates the press can say bad things about the President? What about paid reporters? Can we make it against the law to pay reporters to dig up bad things to say about the President?

            Freedom of speech and of the press are almost broadly and universally accepted, at least within the US legal system, of including collective as well as individual speech, and to include professional or commercial speech where some people are being paid for their contribution.

            That which it is legal for a person to say, it is legal for them to pay another person to say on their behalf or to be paid to say on someone else’s behalf. Exceptions to this are rare and you’re unlikely to get the courts to sign off on this one. Nor should you want to.

          • Furslid says:

            Re: Term limits.

            What if the Democrat and Republican parties got together to impose term limits without law. All candidates must agree with term limits to run as a Democrat or Republican. If any politician attempts to run for office beyond the agreed upon limit, they are kicked out of the party. They can’t run on their party’s ticket and the party will run a candidate against them. Even a popular politician like Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t get elected with his former party splitting the votes.

            Given our current level of cooperation this would be impossible.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Do you see why we can’t pass a law mandating twenty-year prison sentences for the crime of “hiring other people to operate printing presses that are used to print newspapers saying bad things about the President of the United States”?

            We sentenced Dinesh D’Souza to 5 years probation and a $30k fine for buying too much political speech. I don’t see why we can’t fine or imprison MegaCorp Inc for buying too much political speech from former Senator Smith.

            How do you square the whole “can’t buy political speech” thing with campaign finance laws? Are those unconstitutional?

  51. McClain says:

    Enjoying this series on rationally examining the problems/limitations of rationality! (“Meta-rationality”?)
    Regarding your assertion that asymmetric weapons are the only non-coincidental way to make sustained moral progress, I’d just like to point out a coincidental asymmetry which sustains moral progress.
    It’s the decision matrix generated from these thoughts:
    – ”Someone did something good or bad to me.”
    – “I will pay it forward or pay it back.”
    Three of the four possible outcomes are moral; the one immoral option is paying forward something bad.
    Separately, regarding minimum wage, it’s easy to show that it fails at some point, because raising the minimum wage to twelve million dollars an hour would not make everyone rich. If your grocery store is paying its cashiers that much, either your grocery bill will be umpteen gazillion dollars or the store will close. The question seems to be whether a more modest minimum wage merely has more modest bad effects, or whether there’s an optimal point below which it actually does more good than harm. If the latter, how do we determine that optimal point?

  52. ajfirecracker says:

    There were good replies to Marx even prior to Mises and Hayek. Bohm-Bawerk’s ‘Karl Marx and the close of his system’ is basically a total refutation of the economics of Marx. It is from 1896.

    Free digital copy:
    https://mises.org/library/karl-marx-and-close-his-system

  53. moridinamael says:

    In StarCraft 2, wild, unsound strategies may defeat poor opponents, but will be crushed by decent players who simply hew to strategies that fall within a valley of optimality. If there is a true optimal strategy, we don’t know what it is, but we do know what good, solid play looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. Tradition, that is to say, iterative competition, has carved a groove into the universe of playstyles, and it is almost impossible to outperform tradition.

    Then you watch the highest-end professional players and see them sometimes doing absolutely hare-brained things that would only be contemplated by the rank novice, and you see those hare-brained things winning games. The best players are so good that they can leave behind the dogma of tradition. They simply understand the game in a way that you don’t. Sometimes a single innovative tactic debuted in a professional game will completely shift how the game is played for months, essentially carving a new path into what is considered the valley of optimality. Players can discover paths that are just better than tradition. And then, sometimes, somebody else figures out that the innovative strategy has an easily exploited Achilles’ heel, and the new tactic goes extinct as quickly as it became mainstream.

    StarCraft 2 is fun to think about in this context because it is relatively open-ended, closer to reality than to chess. There are no equivalents to disruptor drops or mass infestor pushes or planetary fortress rushes in chess. StarCraft 2 is also fun to think about because we’ve now seen that machine learning can beat us at it by doing things outside of what we would call the valley of optimality.

    But in this context it’s crucial to point out that the way AlphaStar developed its strategy looked more like gradually accrued “tradition” than like “rationalism”. A population of different agents played each other for a hundred subjective years. The winners replicated. This is memetic evolution through the Chestertonian tradition concept. The technique wouldn’t have worked without the powerful new learning algorithms, but the learning algorithm didn’t come up with the strategy of mass-producing probes and building mass blink-stalkers purely out of its fevered imagination. Rather, the learning algorithms were smart enough to notice what was working and what wasn’t, and to have some proximal conception as to why.

    I think StarCraft is also similar to reality in that there’s probably no end to it. Traditional nixtamilization is better than not doing any nixtamilization. Modern processes which accomplish the underlying goal of nixtamilization are better than the traditional process[citation needed]. Putting nanotechnological metabolic regulators in every cell of your body, and then eating whatever you want, is potentially better than either of the above. Every policy is sensitive context in ways that are impossible to fully account for. “Communism is bad” is a true statement for all socio-technological contexts in which Communism is bad, but might be false for socio-technological contexts in which it might not be bad.

    • JPNunez says:

      The way the AI played was somewhat unusual, though.

      It constantly attacked positions that humans considered well defended, throwing wave after wave at ramps with buildings on top -a defense tradition from SC1- and eventually (and sooner rather than later) penetrating it and winning.

      But that was with a setting that let the AI know too much; when they cut its knowledge to be more in line with what humans saw, the AI was defeated, aggressive attacks against good defenses nonwithstanding.

    • LesHapablap says:

      Online poker was quite a bit like this. The accepted strategies were somewhat dogmatic, and things would drift over time. Generally it all started very tight and aggressive, became looser and more aggressive as time went on, then by the time I quit pros were doing things that seemed loose/passive at times and would have been scoffed at in years prior.

      When I stopped playing in 2011 there was a shift toward Game Theory Optimal play vs. the traditional exploitative strategies. Perfect exploitative play will always make more money than GTO, but GTO works better against excellent opponents and a thorough understanding of GTO play would supposedly improve your understanding of your opponents’ weaknesses. IE: if you understand GTO strategy you can see how your opponents differ from GTO, and exploit those differences.

      When AI pokerbots started to actually win, they were playing GTO strategies that often did things that seemed very wrong. And yet somehow they were balancing their hand ranges in ways that made them unexploitable.

    • beleester says:

      One thing to note in Starcraft is that you’ve also got a balance team specifically pushing the rules to support that “tradition.” If a degenerate strategy is uncovered – cannon rush, PF rush, etc. – that prevents the game from going down the traditional path of “mine, build an army, expand, tech up, build a bigger army” then the developers will likely step in and try to make that strategy unviable, because getting cannon-rushed isn’t fun. So the fact that AlphaStar’s strategy looks rather “traditional” says something about the power of tradition, but also about how good the developers are at their jobs.

      • Spookykou says:

        The game dev thing works in both directions though, they change the balance which invalidates the tradition, then change it back, in general games that are still ‘live’ are probably not a good fit for this idea, Brood War might be a better fit for a highly complex chess.

  54. vpaul says:

    Jut to be annoying about your paying Congress more example – I have the intuition that a lot of times, people do better work when their primary motivation is not money. And I feel that for certain careers (Nonprofit, government etc.), people should be motivated by something aside from money.

    It bothers me when nonprofit CEOs make hundreds of thousands of dollars. I am aware of the counter arguments (increased fundraising, etc), but it still bothers me. Nonprofit CEOs shouldn’t be motivated by money. It bothers me more than bankers’ salaries, or athlete / musician salaries (though the athlete / musician thing kind of annoys me too).

    Wouldn’t this illegible argument fit the model you are talking about?

    • I don’t think it’s illegible. It’s analogous to Hayek’s argument on why, in political systems, the worst get on top.

      You have a selection mechanism for a job. It selects people with certain characteristics. They might not be the characteristics you want someone to have in order to do the job.

      In my Legal Systems Very Different From Ours book, one of the puzzles I discuss is the Chinese examination system, which tested people largely on their fluency in traditional philosophy and literature then gave the highly selected winners government jobs. One possible explanation is that they were selecting for people who had internalized a moral system which would lead to their choosing to do the job well rather than to benefit themselves at the expense of those they ruled.

      Similarly you may argue that, because of principal-agent problems, the optimal head for a charity is not someone who is motivated mainly by money but someone who is motivated by the desire to accomplish the charity’s goals.

      This also links into my old blog post on the Rice Christian Cycle.

      • Bugmaster says:

        One possible explanation is that they were selecting for people who had internalized a moral system which would lead to their choosing to do the job well…

        Another possible explanation is that they were administering arbitrarily difficult tests in order to optimize for graft; people who could afford to pay the test-givers would rise to the top and become test-givers themselves. I’m not sure about China, but I’m pretty sure this was the case in Korea (which led to their near defeat against Japan, which they avoided only with the help of Admiral Yu), as well as in Russia and then USSR (to a lesser extent).

  55. sclmlw says:

    I wonder how much of this could be dealt with through better framing. Human brains respond better to stories than to data, so instead of focusing on getting the data right for the broad swath of humanity, focus on getting the story right. Take, for example, in the case of Elected Official Pay. Here’s the story:

    Corruption in Congress has always been a problem, but more so today than at any other time in history. We want to get money out of politics, but how do you do that when rich people buy the opportunity for the first say?

    We don’t have the same level of corruption in most police forces in the US than many developing countries have. How do we do it? A big part of the difference is pay. If you don’t pay your police enough, the risk of getting caught taking a bribe is much lower than the benefit of the bribe. Pay them like they’re flipping burgers, and anyone can bribe an officer out of a ticket for less than the cost of the ticket in the first place. Pretty soon bribery is their main source of income. By paying our police officers and judges more we don’t eliminate corruption, but we do make it rare. Rare enough that a culture develops around not being corrupt.

    How do we change that same culture in Washington? Well, the people they deal with have a lot more money. They make enough that a $50 bribe isn’t going to phase them. But major corporations can afford to make $50,000 bribes to get their way. More, even. We should do the same thing we do to prevent police corruption with politicians and pay them more. Not because they deserve it, or because they’re worth it, but because it’s the only way to keep them honest.

  56. FrankistGeorgist says:

    Why exactly did Pederasty culturally evolve to a reasonably stable position in the Mediterranean then? Apparently against the gradient of taboos which are broadly anti homosexuality? It seems like a pretty big exclave of the acceptable in the realm of the culturally unacceptable.

    Perhaps it’s a true anomaly we’re aware of because it came from our cultural ancestors, but I’ve heard something similar also popped up in Japan and elsewhere. I look forward to much just-so analysis.

  57. Tohoya says:

    The section on homosexuality here is a pretty good object lesson in how badly this sort of reasoning can lead you astray:

    -You have a sample size of one. There has never been a sexually transmitted disease as deadly as AIDS, and it’s likely there never will be again. It was a black swan event. We have no reason to believe that homosexuality created the disease, only that the permissive sexual culture in particular gay enclaves in the west helped it spread – and even then, only until drug cocktails and improved safer sex methods ameliorated the problem. The homosexuality taboo would not have prevented the vast majority of death from AIDS, most of them in Africa, and it’s blind luck that it developed first in the west and then spread to Africa rather than other way around.

    -Actually, scratch that, you have a perfectly ample sample size if you’d just broaden your horizons. We’re hardly the first culture to have been permissive towards or celebrate homosexuality in some way, shape or form. We have no reason to believe that the Romans, Greeks, indigenous tribes and so forth suffered from more sexually transmitted infections for their permissiveness.

    -In fact, the Western Christian strict prohibition on homosexual contact is an outlier in the historical record; convergent cultural evolution across the globe has usually settled on something substantially more easygoing, if not insisting on strict equality with sexual and romantic relationships capable of producing children. Pair bonding for life in homosexual couples is mostly new, but the level of homosexual sex that was going on and approved of is very much not.

    -While we’re talking about trusting local traditions over the rationalist or modernist intellectuals, it’s worth noting that the homsoexuality taboo has, throughout history, almost never been the result of organic cultural evolution. In the west, in particular, it was the imposition of a clerisy willing to uproot thousands of years of local custom and tradition for the sake of what reason told them about theology, and the millennia of squandered misery inflicted on a harmless minority shows just how unwise that bit of social engineering was.

    -Seriously, Scott, you’re better than this! You’re on bloody tumblr, one of your central points in this article shouldn’t be undercut by a 101-level of understanding of the history of homosexuality. The only way your argument makes sense is if one assumes that gay rights is an entirely modern phenomenon , a revolt against all traditions of the past, when anyone who’s picked up Plato knows that isn’t the case.

    -But, as I said, this shows just how easy it is to misapply this line of argumentation, once you’ve taken the plunge. Perhaps it is simply one more instance of cultural learning, that now that Scott respects tradition, he’s willing to trust those who explicitly defend tradition more seriously? It’s very easy for this to become an aesthetic appreciation rather than an intellectual one – an aesthetic appreciation so strong that it is capable of steamrolling over the historical record in favor of whatever history most flatters the prejudices of the traditionalists.

    • sclmlw says:

      As I was reading that whole section of justification, “now we know why [X] is culturally inherited” I got this vague sense that he was boiling manioc to make it taste less bitter. It’s a post-hoc just-so story that makes you feel like you understand something regardless of whether you really understand it or not. It’s anathema to the whole project of rationality while masquerading as rationality, which is probably why he’s getting push back on it. And I don’t think the push back is wrong. I just think Scott is trying to work this idea of culturally inherited behaviors into rationalism and it’s not working … yet. It feels like he’s trying to work through some of these ideas still.

      There’s a fundamental problem of unknown unknowns. You don’t know whether a particular behavior evolved a.) culturally at random, b.) due to circumstantial-non-adaptive reasons (“wear Hanes because Michael Jordan approves!”), or c.) because they provide an adaptive advantage. And as with manioc, you might think you understand the reason (get rid of the bitter taste) but in the end you missed it entirely (don’t slowly poison yourself over time). Maybe that’s because you don’t know it yet, as Scott assumes, but maybe it’s because the reason is obsolete to the point you don’t even have the cultural context to understand the relevance anymore.

      I’m reminded of an old story about a woman who learned to cook pot roast from her mother. As part of the process she always cut the ends off the roast before putting it in the pan. One day this woman was teaching her own daughter to make pot roast and she starts cutting off the ends. Her daughter asks, “Mom, why do you cut that part off?”

      She didn’t know, so she called up her mother, who said, “My pan was too small, so I had to do that to make it fit. I have a larger pan now, so I don’t need to cut off the ends. I stopped doing that years ago.” Since these things are almost always path-dependent, and the historical/archeological evidence of the path tends to degrade over time, it’s likely we’ll never know whether the reasons for most culturally-ingrained knowledge are ahead of us (waiting to be discovered/understood like with nixtamilization) or behind us (encoded in a roasting pan that long since went to the dump).

    • teageegeepea says:

      Lots of cultural & genetic selection has been the result of disease. And sexually transmitted diseases have had a large impact even aside from HIV. Greg Cochran has pointed to the “infertility belt” (caused by STDs) within Africa as evidence how things with high prevalence & fitness costs are usually due to pathogens. He worked with Paul Ewald on “New Germ Theory”, which is probably best represented in book-length form with Ewald’s “Plague Time”. The recent finding that cervical cancer is overwhelmingly the result of HPV was further evidence for that.

  58. blacktrance says:

    If you’re trying to answer the binary question of whether the minimum wage is good or bad, it might be troubling that you flip positions multiple times as you get more information. But you’re getting a better understanding of the issue in general, so in that light, the system works.

    As for preferences, while they can be used as an excuse, not presenting illegible (or socially undesirable) reasons, they’re also a genuine basic reason on their own, and then they have nothing to do with legibility. There’s not an illegible reason why I don’t like the taste of broccoli, I just don’t like it. Talking to me about the health effects isn’t going to charge my taste, so unless I’m greatly underestimating the benefits, it’s not going to change my mind. In asserting this preference I’m not hiding anything from being examined with reason.

    • blacktrance says:

      Also, often the motivation for a non-basic preference is quite legible to the person who has it, they just don’t want to expose it to others because it’d be received poorly – they’d judge the preference-holder negatively, fail to understand the context, respond by taking some undesired action, etc. When I used to be really averse to making phone calls, I could’ve given a legible explanation to my parents, but it would’ve caused frowns and unpleasant words.

      This is different from traditions, where the justification (if any) is illegible to everyone involved.

  59. emiliobumachar says:

    There’s a stray “Hi” in the text, just before “The worst failure[…]”

    Why, hi back to you, sir.

  60. Rack says:

    This Feynman quote has come to me often as I’ve read the last few posts:
    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  61. Jack says:

    Could we get a content notice for context free and insensitive discussion of homophobia? Your “100,000 deaths vs tolerance” question is fucked up for more reasons than you have identified. In addition to a number of good points made above, it seems very likely that homophobia was a significant exacerbator of the spread of HIV among faggy types in the first two decades. Causes are a lot more complicated than this. I love these discussions of the cultural value of homophobia that purport to offer a justification for calling people faggots, bullying them, and occasionally beating torturing and leaving them to die tied to a fence, under the very nice name of “enforcing norms”. Norms have killed many more than 100,000 people. Yeah I’m sorry about all the gonorrhea kids.

    • Jack says:

      I see you removed the section in response to previous complaints. Thanks!

    • jermo sapiens says:

      Your “100,000 deaths vs tolerance” question is fucked up for more reasons than you have identified.

      I understand that that question may be offensive to you, and it might be that the question is completely irrelevant to anything because the premise is wrong. But while exploring complex issues such as this, shouldnt we tolerate people being wrong about stuff? I really dont know whether the spread of AIDs was in any way related to the increased tolerance for homosexuality, but it’s certainly an interesting hypothesis, and if it’s true, very important information, specially for gays.

      I realize your request was for a content warning, but instead Scott removed it, which is a shame. I understand Scott, in the current climate where anything controversial brings out the bullies, to simply choose to get rid of it. Do you really feel better now?

      Would you apply the same standard for groups other than gays? If someone criticized the catholic church for causing the deaths of millions, would you request a content warning for bigotry against Christians (and be glad once the content was removed)? or with Islam? I realize that criticizing Christianity or Islam is not necessarily bigotry, but what Scott was engaged in above was also not bigotry, not by a long shot.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        @jermo sapiens
        It’s not obvious to me Scott removed it because of politically correct focused criticism. If so, agree with you completely.

        However, maybe he thought he was wrong, and doesn’t want to make arguments he thinks are wrong?
        A lot of commentators pointed out homosexuality wasn’t banned in a lot of places where STDs were an issue, and made other arguments for why his assumption wasn’t the best explanation.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          This is now below the title of this post:

          Deleted a controversial section which I still think was probably correct, but which given the number of objections wasn’t provably correct enough to be worth including. I might write another post giving my evidence for it later, but it probably shouldn’t be dropped in here without justification.

          Emphasis mine.

      • Jack says:

        1. I agree we should tolerate people being wrong.

        2. I am not sure I agree it’s an interesting hypothesis. It purports to a kind of knowledge that might not exist. That said this is not my beef.

        3. I do feel better now. I did not expect SSC to remove the section (which was almost certainly in response to comments before mine) but I think that is a reasonable thing for a person to do with respect to claims they decide were under-evidenced where they want to avoid conflict. Do you think I was being a bully?

        4. Your examples at the end make me think I did not express myself clearly. I don’t really mind people being wrong and I don’t really mind people being accidentally hurtful. This was a combination of both. And yes, people discussing “tolerance” as though it is a set of pieces of paper that say two men are married rather than a very real material condition of not being attacked is a pet peeve of mine. Claims that seem (I say “seem” because SSC says they have secret further evidence on the subject) to be ignorant of relevant context and at the same time reproduce definitely harmful homophobic practices deserve extra care.

        I did not accuse SSC of bigotry. I did not mean to say anything like “you can never pursue what might be considered a controversial position on teh gays”. I have to mention queers because the structure this poorly told just-story reproduces is homophobia–it’s not a group-specific standard. Words do things and when we speak we should weigh up all the things words do. If we are airing whimsies that happen to look like justifications for violent practices like homophobia, we ought to be more careful.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          3. I do feel better now. I did not expect SSC to remove the section (which was almost certainly in response to comments before mine) but I think that is a reasonable thing for a person to do with respect to claims they decide were under-evidenced where they want to avoid conflict. Do you think I was being a bully?

          No, I dont think you were being a bully. My reaction to your comment was mostly due to the current climate where any and all complaints by marginalized groups lead to censorship. I know you were not requesting censorship, but I did wonder why you felt the need to express your offense when it’s quite clear Scott is no homophobe and was just wrestling with complicated issues. To borrow your phrase, if we are airing whimsies that happen to look like justifications for censorship, we ought to be more careful.

          Homophobia is certainly still around, but institutional homophobia is dead and buried. 90%+ of all big corporations have changed their logo to the rainbow during the present month, it is illegal in my country (Canada) to speak out against anal sex (I didnt say gays, I said anal sex, and I’m not joking), and YouTube just demonetized half of its channels because a gay man complained of being the target of insults. I dont believe we can do much more, as a society, to express our disapproval of homophobia.

          So we’re moving at 99% of the speed of light (the speed of light in this analogy is 0 homophobia, perfect acceptance of gays by every single member of society), but if you want to get to 99.9999%, you will need to spend more energy than you did getting to 99%. Not only that, but spending the extra energy required to get to 99.9999% will have negative side effects like censorship, it may even backfire.

          I’m merely suggesting that this energy is better spent elsewhere.

          • Jack says:

            No, I dont think you were being a bully.

            Great. I think I’ve made it clear why I felt the need to express my offense. I’m not that interested in having a conversation about the other issues you raise here and now but I will record my position should it be of interest. I get called a faggot about once a year walking down Yonge Street. This is clearly Not Very Bad At All and perhaps even a sign that we are in Good Times. But I think it is representative of a simmering underlying tension and I am horrified of backsliding. I think we are seeing a backlash against many things I like and part of this is retroactive functionalist defences of “norms” (like “enforced monogamy”). Provincial human rights legislation is probably not constitutionally mandated and Jordan Peterson is meeting with Doug Ford.

            Incidentally, the court specifically rejected your interpretation of the law at paras 176-177. You can disagree about their interpretation of Whatcott’s flyers, but the decision is clearly targetted at hate speech toward persons of a certain sexual orientation rather than “speaking out against anal sex”.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            FTR, the Supreme Court also says this at paragraph 124:

            Courts have thus recognized that there is a strong connection between sexual orientation and sexual conduct. Where the conduct that is the target of speech is a crucial aspect of the identity of the vulnerable group, attacks on this conduct stand as a proxy for attacks on the group itself. If expression targeting certain sexual behaviour is framed in such a way as to expose persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification, it cannot be said that such speech only targets the behaviour. It quite clearly targets the vulnerable group. Therefore, a prohibition is not overbroad for capturing expression of this nature.

            [Emphasis added.]

            Paragraphs 176 and 177 suggest that in some cases speaking out against sexual activity would be allowable but in the way Whatcott did it, it’s not. So the legal framework now is unclear and if you speak out against anal sex, you might be committing a crime, and you might not. It’s up to a judge to decide whether you stayed on the right side of the law. Better to just shut up in this case.

          • Jack says:

            All crimes are up to a judge (or jury) to decide. I really don’t see why you think this is a particularly tricky distinction. You can speak out against anal sex as long as you don’t do it in a way that “expose[s] persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification”. The two flyers for which Whatcott was convicted were not in the least ambiguous, including phrases like “Keep Homosexuality out of Saskatoon’s Public Schools!” and “the homosexuals want to share their filth and propaganda with Saskatchewan’s children”. Surely you don’t think it is ambiguous that Whatcott was targetting homosexuality specifically and not anal sex in general.

            The court specifically denied that two other of Whatcott’s flyers constituted hate speech despite including the phrase “[t]he ads with men advertising as bottoms are men who want to get sodomized. This shouldn’t be legal in Saskatchewan!” That’s speaking out against anal sex. Moreover we are awash in safe sex campaigns speaking out against condomless anal sex in a way that no one thinks is hate speech. “Better to just shut up” really fails to express the climate here.

            There is a potential ambiguity if one wants to talk about “homosexual conduct” in general, that is any sex among people of the same sex rather than specific acts that straight people might also engage in. I think this what the court meant by conduct that is “a crucial aspect of the identity of the vulnerable group”. But please note I am still responding to your claim: “it is illegal in my country (Canada) to speak out against anal sex (I didnt say gays, I said anal sex, and I’m not joking)”. This is incorrect and misleading. There is wide and clear ambit to talk about and “speak out against” anal sex without coming close to hate speech.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            But please note I am still responding to your claim: “it is illegal in my country (Canada) to speak out against anal sex (I didnt say gays, I said anal sex, and I’m not joking)”. This is incorrect and misleading. There is wide and clear ambit to talk about and “speak out against” anal sex without coming close to hate speech.

            It is hyperbolic, but not “incorrect and misleading”. When the court says:

            Where the conduct that is the target of speech is a crucial aspect of the identity of the vulnerable group, attacks on this conduct stand as a proxy for attacks on the group itself.

            the conduct at issue is anal sex. And the court clearly says that attacks on “anal sex” will be construed as a proxy for attacks on gays.

            I dont think a scientific paper discussing the health risks posed by anal sex would be considered hate speech. Maybe in 5-10 years, we will achieve levels of wokeness previously considered unattainable, and it will be, but hopefully not. But if you’re just a guy writing a blog post about how anal sex contributed to the AIDS epidemic… not so clear anymore (Probably true). I would expect a judge in a real court to probably find this is allowable, but I would still object to such a case even being prosecuted. In a human rights commission, staffed by woke SJW activists, I would absolutely expect a finding of discrimination against the accused.

            WRT to Whatcott himself, of course he was talking about gays. It might be relevant that Whatcott himself is so anti-charismatic that if I were to argue for a cause I would pay a substantial sum for Whatcott to represent the other side. When I see a loser like Whatcott argue against homosexuality, it literally increases my sympathy for gay people. When I see a loser like Whatcott get arrested and prosecuted, the opposite happens. I’m not sure how I would feel about it if Whatcott was charismatic.

          • Jack says:

            I’ve already presented my interpretation of that specific passage as referring to homosexual conduct in general rather than anal sex specifically. Quoting it again without context isn’t going to change my mind. Your interpretation of the sentence is contradicted by the court’s finding that Whatcott–Whatcott!–can say “sodomy should be illegal” without it being hate speech. You are welcome to frighten yourself with decontextualised bits of obiter dicta, but your read is belied by what courts actually do, and you have no actual examples of speaking out against anal sex resulting in a hate speech conviction.

            There are serious stakes here. The most censorious actions in recent Canadian politics have been reactionaries trying to scare people into thinking they can’t say anything without fearing prosecution. Actual examples of problematic prosecutions are scarce, so they have to posit trends and questionable interpretations of existing law and slippery slope scaremongering. Jordan Peterson has of course done a lot of this, hypothesizing about things he might some day want to not say somehow landing him in prison. The move is to exaggerate and misrepresent anti-discrimination law in order to mobilise a greater contingent of people into thinking it over-reaches, because the real target is not undue censoriousness but anti-discrimination and hate speech laws at all. If that’s what you’re serving I’m not having it.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            There are serious stakes here.

            Indeed there are. Just recently a BC man was told by the court that he could not refer to his trans child’s birth name, lest he be accused of “family violence”, nor could he discuss the case in public, and that the hormone treatment for this kid who is in grade 9 would proceed despite the father’s objections.

            Also in BC, a transgender m2f activist filed 16 separate human rights complaints against various beauty salons for refusing to perform a bikini wax on them. I dont think any decisions issued in these cases yet, but the process is the punishment.

            The move is to exaggerate and misrepresent anti-discrimination law in order to mobilise a greater contingent of people into thinking it over-reaches, because the real target is not undue censoriousness but anti-discrimination and hate speech laws at all. If that’s what you’re serving I’m not having it.

            If anti-discrimination laws and hate speech laws were applied fairly and equally, it would greatly decrease people’s objections to them. Unfortunately these cases are typically decided by progressive activists posing as neutral arbiters, based on the identities of the complainants and accused.

          • Jack says:

            Wowza you are going all over the place. Not only is AB v CD about an entirely different area of law, but am I to take this as an instance of a problematic or unfair application of the concept of the best interests of the child? It is indeed unfortunate that a conservative activist group (Culture Guard) is motivating and bankrolling a parent in their ongoing quest to mistreat their child, apparently based on some vague notion that the parent’s rights are at risk. When you have two parents who disagree about what treatment is in a child’s best interests and a specialist who agrees with one parent, a decision must be made. Siding with the parent+specialist over the parent would not seem a terribly controversial choice? Family law has lots of hard cases like this. So what? I think this case fits my theory better than yours: it’s not an unfair or unequal application of the law by “progressive activists posing as neutral arbiters” (apparently meaning old white cis judges). Rather, it’s conservative activists, including Culture Guard, fighting a losing case against a child’s best interests so they can send a fundraising e-mail to scared cis people about the death of liberty and better motivate the real fight: against pro-trans policies in general.

            I’m also not sure what to take from your bikini wax example. I don’t know that situation, but if a beauty salon allegedly refused to perform a bikini wax on a person on the basis of an appraisal of their gender, you have alleged discrimination. That’s kinda precisely how the anti-discrimination law is supposed to work.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      occasionally beating torturing and leaving them to die tied to a fence, under the very nice name of “enforcing norms”.

      I thought that was all pretty well debunked at this point. The guy who killed Matthew Shepard was a homosexual sex partner of Shepard’s, and he was killed over drugs. The “gay panic” was an attempted (and terrible) legal defense, but not true.

      • Jack says:

        I hadn’t heard. Seems plausible. Thanks for letting me know this is in controversy and I’ll use some other terrible crime next time I’m being polemical.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I think you were right that Scott should not have included that section without extensive justification. Pick something less controversial. And while I’m against the bullying of or violence against homosexuals, I also despise the manipulative propaganda media, so there we go.

  62. Alan Crowe says:

    The doctrine of “Chesterton’s Fence” calmly accepts that we have lost the reason for the Fence and proposes that we delay demolition until we have reverse engineered the reason and contemplated our post hoc version.

    We can do better. I call the following approach to updating the rules for society The Conservatism of the Archive.

    Write down your rules. Write down why you have chosen them. Write down what your critics say will go wrong. Write down what your critics say we should do instead. Keep it all safe in the archive for 100 years.

    When things don’t go according to plan, dig through the archive. Did you stick to your rules? Really? In a way that is faithful to the reasons why they were supposed to work? What about the critics? Did things go wrong in the way that they predicted, or in some other way?

    If the critics predicted the exact way that things would go wrong, they win. Dig out their suggestions and give them a try. If the critics predicted different screw-ups than actually happened, cry. Nobody knows anything. But at least you have an archive. What it was like. What people thought. How it actually turned out. That is a basis for working out what to do next.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      My prediction is that any such system, once formalized, will be subverted by the then-existing dominant forces, who will make predictions of failure in accordance with their policy goals and then bring about those failure methods.

      Since I can’t avoid politics in making a concrete case, I’ll use straw politics of dead people: I claim that allowing Julius Cesare to continue will result in him claiming unprecedented and unacceptable political and legislative power, while his friends claim that executing him will result in civil war.

      Both sides are right.

      • Alan Crowe says:

        That is a good criticism.

        The goal the Conservatism of the Archive is modest. “think very hard about things” is an underdeveloped plan. Rather than add to the pile of thinking techniques, one might emphasis record keeping. Having more things to ““think very hard about”, stored in the archive, might help.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          No amount of things in the archive to think about will stop the process which results in people predicting disaster if they don’t get their way, and then bringing about the disaster they predicted to vindicate themselves.

  63. AnthonyC says:

    Just pointing out that your first figure is basically a personal Gartner Hype Cycle for minimum wage with an inverted y axis. Also, that the entire media, venture capital, startup, academic, and large company ecosystems go through that process when first figuring out a sognificant minority of Exciting New Ideas despite having known about the cycle for decades and having large personal economic incentives for getting it right.

    It also kinda looks like a damped harmonic oscillator converging toward truth… maybe that’s a natural shape for rational estimates when using randomly-ordered noisy data points to update a low-information prior?

  64. jhertzlinger says:

    The example I sometimes use is Aristotle’s physics. The physics derived by Pure Reason is not in accordance with reality. OTOH, untutored people can throw a ball across the room.

    As for the telephone phobia, I also have it. I think it’s because I’m better at interpreting facial expressions than tones of voice.

  65. Ray says:

    Isn’t your point about socialism somewhat undermined by your earlier post on the Fabian society, which describes Pease’s vision of Socialism as expressed in the Fabian society’s “True Radical Programme” as something that “basically reads like a description of the average modern democracy’s public policies.”

    Given you quoted Pease in order to demonstrate the turn of the 20th century consensus in favor of socialism, it would seem what was common sense then is common sense now, just no longer called socialism.

    • I don’t think those things were called socialism then either, strictly speaking. When it comes to the Fabians we have to distinguish the means from the ends. The Fabians, like the original social-democratic movement (before it lost its original purpose circa 1980) wished to gradually achieve a socialist society (defined by common ownership/abolition of private property; their ultimate goal being essentially similar to orthodox Marxist communists) rather than to achieve one through total revolution. They favored various policies that were within the purview of left wing liberalism, and so they supported policies that were supported outside of strictly socialist circles, for the purpose of building a slow grinding path towards real socialism as defined by socialists. Hence, the name.

      If you, as a socialist choose the reformist path, rather than the revolutionary path, your reforms necessarily leading to socialism down the line is a theory not a fact. The point is that the Fabian Society was wildly successful, and most of their gradualist policy proposals were adopted, but this does not mean that socialism was necessarily also successful as a consequence. You could view them as victims of their own success in a sense. Reformism requires that your policies are also palatable to capitalists and can be amenable to bourgeois justifications, and so they were certainly successful at that at least, but nowadays it seems that apart from a fringe, we are mostly left with the bourgeois justifications. The hidden agenda has vanished itself.

  66. tvt35cwm says:

    The Fabians were successful by accident.

    After World War I, which was extremely traumatic for the political elites in the great powers because of the sheer scale of destruction and killing in it, there were both a push and a pull towards the policies advocated by the Fabians.

    The push was the example of communist Russia, which seemed to be working really well right up to the time of Krushchev. Elites realised, however dimly and grudgingly, that without offering a competitive alternative for their own people, they would sooner or later be up against the wall when the revolution came.

    The pull was the view that because modern warfare was so massively destructive of machinery and labour, elites needed an organised (biddable), capable (healthy), adaptable (literate and numerate to some degree) industrial workforce that could be quickly trained to do new jobs when the next war came–and a large reserve industrial workforce as well: women.

    (By a massive coincidence, the technologies to provide those things cheaply and en masse had just been invented: electric light, the electric motor, the flush toilet, indoor plumbing and water heating. Oh, and doctors had finally, grudgingly, accepted the microbe theory of infectious disease, so application of these inventions could be guided.)

    • tvt35cwm says:

      I think my point here is something about the historical contingency of both traditions and “rationality”, but I can’t articulate it properly.

    • The push was the example of communist Russia, which seemed to be working really well right up to the time of Krushchev.

      The Ukraine famine was under Stalin.

      The USSR “seemed to be working really well” from the perspective of people who wanted to believe that, not in terms of objective evidence of success.

  67. J says:

    The Hero’s Journey seems relevant to your last section: from time to time people find themselves incompatible with their culture. This is *deadly*, and so the hero flees into the wilderness – an empty place full of peril, where the hero’s cultural encumbrances are abraded away. Suitably purified to within an inch of his life, the hero is ready to meet God, who elevates him to the next level and sends him back to civilization, where the cycle begins anew. (The Prince of Egypt tells this story well, but the story of Elijah is the quintessential example IMO).

    This is one of the very oldest cultural traditions. Perhaps it’s trying to tell us something important about how societies act as organisms, with antibodies and spores that get expelled with great force to pollinate some other society.

  68. I think you hit the nail on the head with a blind spot for “liberals” (as defined in the next essay). We love our ideas too much. Take for example Universal Basic Income. I thought about it, don’t see any problem with it, and I hear a lot of smart people here talking it up. But honestly, if it was so awesome, why haven’t smaller countries tried it? Why don’t we use our “laboratories of democracy” and encourage just one American state to try it. Not Alaska, but maybe another state, one with a growing tech economy that can afford to be taxed?

    I don’t know how I arrived at this improved perspective on UBI. I’m simultaneously excited about it, but pragmatic about it. In politics, I keep talking about something other than third-way, which to me is just taking two lukewarm things and finding the average. The forth way, I think, is never losing your passion for great ideas, but also being completely sober about how those ideas get implemented.

    Maybe it’s respect for process? Yes, politicians should be paid more, but we have to respect that we all have to comfortably get to that place mentally, rather than just asserting it and that’s that.

    • Spookykou says:

      Well personally UBI has a single clearly good factor, which is that it cuts out tons of bureaucracy. I am otherwise not sure how to evaluate the broader societal ramifications except to say that most of the complaints are also applicable to our current welfare system, where ‘abuse’ in the form of people getting money while not trying to work, seems to be possible. If the salient difference is that UBI would also allow people with low executive function to ‘abuse’ welfare also, then as a person with low executive function I am clearly biased here. Looking at UBI I see an idea with one seemingly clear advantage and lots of seemingly nebulous effects/disadvantages being stacked against another system made entirely of nebulous effects/disadvantages.

      • Looking at UBI I see an idea with one seemingly clear advantage and lots of seemingly nebulous effects/disadvantages being stacked against another system made entirely of nebulous effects/disadvantages.

        There is one huge disadvantage. You avoid the costs of deciding who to give money to by giving it to everyone. The result is that it takes a lot more money spent to get the same amount of money received by poor people. Consider that the simple version of the thousand dollars a month plan costs about as much as the entire federal budget—but is less than most people who support welfare spending want poor people to end up with.

        You then have to raise taxes a lot to finance it, at which point you replace problems of deciding how much money to give to whom with problems of deciding how much money to take from whom.

        • Spookykou says:

          True, I forget sometimes that UBI and my internal conception of a UBI are not the same thing and I should be clearer. I always just assume a form of UBI/Taxes interactions where only the bottom 5-25% of the bracket end up actually taking money home from the UBI, so more on the order of 50-100 million people actually making money, which is only 0.6-1.2 Trillion at 1000 a month. I, probably naively, assume that it should be a negative tax of some kind, which could still function as a few simple rules that wouldn’t rely so much on social workers, etc, while also being ‘targeted’ in a sense.

          • I always just assume a form of UBI/Taxes interactions where only the bottom 5-25% of the bracket end up actually taking money home from the UBI

            From the UBI or from the combination of the UBI and the higher taxes needed to pay for it?

            A UBI, which used to be called a demogrant, is “universal” by definition–it may or may not include kids but it can’t depend on income.

            Suppose you pay for it by increasing the individual income tax. That currently brings in about $1.8 trillion. A $12,000/year UBI going to 250,000,000 adults costs $3 trillion. So if reported income remains the same, funding the UBI requires you to multiply all tax rates by 2 2/3, giving a top rate of about 99%, a rate below that of about 93%. The lowest bracket, which starts at $9,700, would be taxed at about 27%.

          • Spookykou says:

            It is probable that I am using the wrong words, I first heard of a negative income tax as an alternative UBI, I guess I can see how it is technically not universal. It or something like it, that simply distributes welfare to the bottom 20% without all the bureaucratic oversight, in place of current welfare spending, is what I am actually advocating for. I’d prefer 12k a year to the poorest 100 million Americans (allowing for some granularity within that) in place of our current welfare programs(including social security). I don’t think this is very politically viable though.

  69. beleester says:

    You’re very worried about how when people try new traditions, they have a habit of blowing up in someone’s face and/or killing lots of people – communism being the most salient example. But I’m starting to wonder: What’s the alternative? As you point out, cultural evolution is like biological evolution – it doesn’t have any way to judge things other than by letting mutations happen and seeing what survives long enough to perpetuate itself. How do we know that there was a way for cultural evolution to discover that Communist revolutions are a bad idea without someone actually having a revolution?

    There’s a recurring online argument between capitalists and communists that goes something like this: “Communism gets blamed for X million deaths, but lots of people die under capitalism and we don’t blame capitalism. We assume the deaths under capitalism are a baseline, something there was no way to prevent, but that’s not the case.”

    In the specific case of Stalinism that’s a dumb argument for various reasons, but the question of “what is your baseline?” is an important one. When someone attempts to revolutionize their culture and fails, it’s easy to point a finger and say “This revolution caused X deaths.” But when people die from cultural evolution – from being the society that didn’t learn to nixtamalize corn or hunt seals or get really good at conquering people – we don’t blame cultural evolution. We don’t say X million people died of being too conservative. Those deaths are just the baseline.

    • Spookykou says:

      Action vs inaction strikes again.

    • 10240 says:

      But when people die from cultural evolution – from being the society that didn’t learn to nixtamalize corn or hunt seals or get really good at conquering people – we don’t blame cultural evolution.

      In that story, conservatives would be the ones who nixtamalized corn. Not-sufficiently-conservative people would be ones who would abandon their culture’s practice of nixtamalizing corn. Or people who adopt corn as a new crop, rather than stick to the crops they are used to, or make sure they learn all the traditions associated with growing or eating corn. A better example of your point would be one where the sticking to the original tradition itself caused deaths, compared to abandoning the tradition.

  70. Norman says:

    In effect, you’re arguing, correctly, in my view, that the theory of cultural evolution supports Burkean conservatism. By that I mean that we should have a strong, but not unshakeable, Bayesian prior that traditional practices are good. Exactly how strong the prior should be is a matter for debate. The disposition of conservatives is different from that of progressives. When they look at society, progressives (a) tend to focus on what seems is wrong and (b) think “I know how to fix that.” Burkean conservatism is characterized by intellectual humility. Burke’s argument was that we don’t really know anything about how the world, works; all we really know is that our traditions got us this far, and that is quite an accomplishment in itself. So, when Burkean conservatives look at society, they (b) doubt their ability to fix the things that are going wrong, and, (a) perhaps as a consequence tend to focus on what seems to be going right.

  71. teageegeepea says:

    because most people have fetishes

    I was under the impression that psychologists consider fetishes to be a paraphilia, and that only a minority of people (mostly men) have paraphilias, and that paraphilias are correlated with each other. So perhaps your reference pool disproportionately consists of these atypical men.

  72. Involuntary Marxist says:

    You’re arguing that cultural evolution developed an immune system to defend capitalism, meaning that people’s sense of tradition and common sense would not allow for a transition towards socialism. But shouldn’t this also have been true for the transition from feudalism to capitalism? Shouldn’t “cultural evolution” have developed an immune system to defend feudalism against capitalism? Human history and “cultural evolution” did not start with capitalism.

    I mean, after all, there has never been a more revolutionary force in human history than capitalism itself. Capitalism completely wrecked most of the traditions, political systems, world views and lifestyles which had developed in the prior centuries and millennia – and it did so in the course of just a few generations. So, if the transition from feudalism to capitalism was somehow in line with “cultural evolution”, why shouldn’t the transition to socialism be?

    I am afraid, your conviction that socialism is impossible and capitalism constitutes the final stage of human development, might age just as well as 18th century aristocrats arguing that republicanism and democracy are impossible (“evidence” being the countless Italian or ancient Greek city states, which had already “failed” at the time) and that feudal monarchism constitutes the final stage of human development.

    The end of history has not yet been reached and a socialism of the future may look very differently from the totalitarian hell of Stalinism. Maybe, 500 years from now, our descendants will amuse themselves by reading clever essays on how their contemporary socialist system clearly is the chosen destination of “cultural evolution” and that nothing could ever possibly come afterwards.

    • teageegeepea says:

      Maybe the immune system did try to defend itself against the transition from socialism to capitalism, but (as evidenced by the victory of communism in some places) that immune system doesn’t always succeed?

    • The end of history has not yet been reached and a socialism of the future may look very differently from the totalitarian hell of Stalinism.

      Alternatively, and I think more plausibly, the capitalism of the future may look very different than the cludge we now call capitalism.

      The present system clumsily combines a market system for producing and distributing goods with a political system for ways modifying the functioning and results of the market system. The logic of the market system we understand pretty well, in what ways and why it does or does not produce the results we want. The political system much less so.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      The thing is, by all reasonable accounts capitalism is a product of reason forced upon an unsuspecting population and the immune system at work is everything that has happened since – every proletarian self-organization, every government intervention, every law that got passed – which took less than a century to make pretty much every object-level demand of mid-XIX century communist parties a reality.

      Sure, there are some of us who use our reason to entertain the possibilities of entirely new socioeconomic systems (quite a few more ever since the capitalism relapse of the 1980s caused a global economic slowdown and initiated the cession of global economic leadership from its main carriers in the northwest to east Asia, but still a vast minority). But aside from that, there’s a non-ideological majority that just wishes to make the best out of what they’ve got, and these people have, in general, been widely supportive of each of the many successful attempts to restrain capitalism across the years.

      Note that we’re long past the point when the capitalism proponents claimed we should starve the poor lest they overpopulate the earth. We’re at the point where most of them enthusiastically support social transfers and services (at most suggesting they should be privatized so businesses can leech off government money by operating them, because of course they would). Unless we get ourselves into a crisis bad enough to cause civilizational collapse, I am fully expecting the capitalism of the future to look exactly like the monarchism of the present, with UK never becoming “socialist” for the same reason it never became a republic.

  73. Robert Jones says:

    I notice with some surprise that I’ve disagreed with most of this sequence but find points 1-7 in your conclusion to be spot on.

  74. Yosarian2 says:

    It’s a really interesting idea, but I wonder if it will matter as much in the future with technology changing as quickly as it does. It likely would take decades or even centuries for cultural evolution to work through twenty or thirty permutations of “what’s the most culturally adaptive way to use Facebook” via trial and error (with “error” looking like “someone who does X on Facebook often years later regrets giving up their privacy” or maybe “people who fail to do Y on Facebook end up with fewer friends, allies, and potential mates over a lifetime”). And I don’t expect Facebook in it’s current form to exist long enough for that kind of cultural evolution to happen.

    I expect things like that across the board as technology and accelerating memeatic changes rapidly change things faster than culture can keep up.

  75. carvenvisage says:

    And there are all sorts of phrases like “I don’t like it”, or “It’s a free country” or “Because it makes me happy” that sort of relieve us of the difficult work of maintaining legibility for all of our decisions.

    How does this not win you the argument about working in the same room?

    I can’t remember the last time I lost an argument where the position I was defending was “I should do things that work for me”.

  76. carvenvisage says:

    Could the phone thing just be that you haven’t had as much practice in that environment? Like if someone took a long time to learn to drive, they might have a stronger preference to sticking to their regular car than someone who picked it up quickly, similarly someone with weaker social skills might prefer to engage in social reactions in the familar environment they practiced in, where you know where to put the seat, how far the gearbox is, movement of the pedals etc.

    -It’s a little different, because all of the changes are removals; no body language outgoing or in, no live visual feedback, etc, but it is a case of going from an familiar environment with a lot of usable context queue in which one has practiced, to an unfamiliar one where those things are less the case.

  77. vV_Vv says:

    1. Guys – do you have trouble asking girls out? Why? The worst that can happen is they’ll say no, right?

    2. Girls – do you something get upset and flustered when a guy you don’t like asks you out, even in a situation where you don’t fear any violence or coercion from the other person? Do you sometimes agree to things you don’t want because you feel pressured? Why? All you have to do is say “I’m flattered, but no thanks”.

    Point 2 provides the answer to point 1: if you are a guy and you ask a girl out and she doesn’t like you, the worst that can happen is not that she’ll say “I’m flattered, but no thanks”. She may get mad at you, badmouth you and damage your reputation, or in some settings even file a sexual harassment complaint against you and destroy your academic or professional career. I don’t think this is illegible, I guess that most men who hesitate to approach women have this explanation in mind.

    The worst failure mode is where illegible actions by an outgroup are naturally rounded off to “they are evil and just hiding it”.

    Isn’t this true in some cases, however? In fact:

    I remember feeling pretty bad once after hearing a feminist explain that the only reason men stared at attractive women was to intimidate them, make them feel like their body existed for other people’s pleasure, and cement male privilege. I myself sometimes stared at attractive women, and I couldn’t verbalize a coherent reason – was I just trying to hurt and intimidate them? I think a real answer to this question would involve the way we process salience – we naturally stare at the most salient part of a scene, and an attractive person will naturally be salient to us. But this was beyond teenaged me’s ability to come up with, so I ended up feeling bad and guilty.

    It’s not like staring at attractive women was illegible to that feminist, that feminist said that thing because they wanted to make young men like you fell bad and guilty, because this gives them power. When you encounter something a SJW says that does not make any sense, chances are it does not actually make any sense, they are just saying it because it’s a weapon to use against people they don’t like.

    • Matt M says:

      Point 2 provides the answer to point 1

      Indeed. These two issues operate in something of a feedback loop.

      If every man were 100% certain that any woman he asked out would either say yes, or would politely say “no thanks” and that would be all, men would be asking out women a hell of a lot more. In fact, they’d probably “ask out” virtually every semi-attractive woman they encounter. The attractive women would be propositioned constantly. (Don’t believe me? Observe male behavior on Tinder where most men swipe right on all women, because there is no fear of rejection whatsoever… the worst that can happen is that she doesn’t swipe back).

      That’s not a world that women want to live in, so they have to provide additional barriers to being asked out, mainly in the form of making failure costly, particularly for low-status men, but even occasionally for high status ones. It’s not that every woman has to publicly shame or file harassment charges against every man who asks them out that they don’t want to date. But enough women have to do those sorts of things enough times such that men, in general, keep up a healthy fear of rejection, so as to keep the overall situation in equilibrium.

      This is why, in general, “be more bold and lose your fear of rejection” is sound advice for any individual man, but would be an absolutely untenable situation for women if adapted on a mass scale. Which is probably why women tend to react with overwhelmingly negative venom and animosity towards the people out there who are actively encouraging men to actually adopt it on a mass scale (PUAs mostly)

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      The worst likely outcome is that she says no in a way which reveals that she regards you as the pitiable specimen you already suspect yourself of being. And there’s my answer to question 1.

  78. armot says:

    It’s not necesary to migrate to another country to make government systems to compete. Just the information (trustable data plus trustable anecdotes of travelers) about what they do in other countries and how it resulted may be enough, or at least of great help, to make other countries evolve. See Meiji Japan.
    On the United States: it amazes me how fixated the concept of “race” is in Americans. In South America, I’d argue that racism is just as disgusting as everywhere, but arguing obsessively about it is just as disgusting too, people say something like “what the hell is going on with that guy, only a racist can be THAT race-obsessed”.
    Also the electoral college. I can see the American people accepting forcing the electoral college to vote for the winner of the popular election rather than abolishing the electoral college once and for all. I’m not talking about which way it’s easier politically or legally, but about the public perception of the American people on those two ways.

  79. harzerkatze says:

    A very boring, trivial example of this: I think we should increase salaries for Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and other high officials. There are so few of this that it would be very cheap: quintupling every Representative, Senator, and Cabinet Secretary’s salary to $1 million/year would involve raising taxes by only $2 per person. And if it attracted even a slightly better caliber of candidate – the type who made even 1% better decisions on the trillion-dollar questions such leaders face – it would pay for itself hundreds of times over. Or if it prevented just a tiny bit of corruption – an already rich Defense Secretary deciding from his gold-plated mansion that there was no point in going for a “consulting job” with a substandard defense contractor – again, hundreds of times over. This isn’t just me being a elitist shill: even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agrees with me here. This is as close to a no-brainer as policies come.
    I believe this example to be not only a no-no-brainer, but simply wrong. It is not that you are shouted down with me before I can understand your explanation. Your explanation does not convince me.

    This seems to me to be an example of “No Schelling point” (thanks for teaching me about Schelling points, by the way). The argument that more money for deciders makes better decisions has none: Should we give them +100.000$, or +1.000.000$, or +10.000.000$? Seeing that the political decisions of the US impact the whole world and, in cases like nuclear war, all of future humanity, it is hard to argue how many $ per person would be the highest sensible amount. As long as someone somewhere earns more than a major politician: Should that obviously very capable person not better use his obvious expertise for the good of all? Let’s make him a better offer than what he gets now.
    I am sure every ruling class in history has reasoned along those lines.

    But I am neither convinced that
    a) there is a point where people earn so much money they do not need to engage in corruption, and so they don’t. At the risk of being divisive, the life of your head of state tells a different story.
    b) the qualifications for becoming a politicians and the qualifications for making good political decisions are the same, and thus attracting people more incentivised by money is a no-brainer, or
    c) a comparison between states with e.g. income of the head of state on the one axis and e.g. average quality of life of the citizens on the others will give us a clear upward trend.

  80. Harkonnendog says:

    Society didn’t look like everyone wanting to revolt but being afraid of the rich. It looked like large parts of the poor and middle class being very anti-communist for kind of illegible reasons like “king” and “country” and “God” and “tradition” or “just because”.

    I was giving an alternative explanation to Scott’s guess, above. I don’t have any figures to back the assertion.

  81. Null42 says:

    If he keeps this up, he’ll be one of the great conservative thinkers of our age.

  82. Lillian says:

    Illegibility is complicated and context-dependent. Fetishes are pretty illegible, but because we have a shared idea of a fetish, because most people have fetishes, and because even the people who don’t have fetishes have the weird-if-you-think-about-it habit of being sexually attracted to other human beings – people can just say “That’s my fetish” and it becomes kind of legible. We don’t question it. And there are all sorts of phrases like “I don’t like it”, or “It’s a free country” or “Because it makes me happy” that sort of relieve us of the difficult work of maintaining legibility for all of our decisions.

    Another way to make illegible preferences legible is for them to be part of your religion. If you hate the taste of pork and pork products, you’d probably have an easier time explaining it if you converted to Islam than just trying to convince people that you genuinely hate bacon. Similarly if you decide that for mental health reasons you need one day a week where you don’t do anything, and you want to convey to people that you are absolutely serious about that one day being your rest day, telling people you’re a Jew who observes the Sabbath is going to give you way more credibility than, “Saturday is my day off, no exceptions.” Of course this does limit legibility to established religions, so Scott probably can’t get away with claiming his church doesn’t let him talk on the phone except for emergencies, but nonetheless religion is a traditional way to codify otherwise illegible advice and preferences.

  83. Lillian says:

    It’s often easy to get patients to admit they don’t have a good reason for what they’re doing; for example, autistic people usually can’t explain why they “stim”, ie make unusual flapping movements. These movements are distracting and probably creep out the people around them. It’s very easy to argue an autistic person into admitting they stimming is a net negative for them. Yet somehow autistic people always end up hating the psychiatrists who win this argument, and going somewhere far away from them so they can stim in peace.

    This is late and few people will see it, but allistic people stim, usually when they’re anxious. They just tend to do it less frequently, and are comfortable keeping their stimming within a range of culturally accepted behaviours, rather than having to do weird shit like flapping their arms or touching something soft and smooth. Here’s a list of some culturally accepted stims: Taping with finger or pen, rapping fingers or knuckles, shaking leg, chewing on pencil, massaging stress ball, playing with hair, rubbing eyes or temples, rocking or swinging you chair, and others.

  84. Harkonnendog says:

    I don’t have any data, I was just responding to Scott’s claim of illegible reasons:

    But another school of thought says that cultural evolution created both capitalism, and an immune system to defend capitalism. This is more complicated, and requires a lot of the previous discussion here before it makes sense. But it seems to match some of what was going on. Society didn’t look like everyone wanting to revolt but being afraid of the rich. It looked like large parts of the poor and middle class being very anti-communist for kind of illegible reasons like “king” and “country” and “God” and “tradition” or “just because”.

    The idea being that maybe it looked like illegible reasons were the cause, but there was another reason.

  85. Carlos Serrano says:

    I find it extremely dubious that increased tolerance for homosexuality fueled the AIDS epidemic. The 80s were marked by a conservative backlash against hippie culture, and cultural stigma still kept many gay men from seeking medical care. Doctors at the time realized quickly that it wasn’t accurate to link the disease to homosexuality, but the association was already embedded in public consciousness, strongly enough for Reagan to be initially negligent precisely because it bolstered his moralistic discourse.

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