2019 Adversarial Collaboration Entries

Thanks to everyone who sent in entries for the 2019 adversarial collaboration contest.

Remember, an adversarial collaboration is where two people with opposite views on a controversial issue work together to present a unified summary of the evidence and its implications. In theory it’s a good way to make sure you hear the strongest arguments and counterarguments for both sides – like hearing a debate between experts, except all the debate and rhetoric and disagreement have already been done by the time you start reading, so you’re just left with the end result. See the 2018 entries for examples.

Eight teams submitted collaborations for this year’s contest:

1. “What are the benefits, harms, and ethics of infant circumcision?” by Joel P and Missingno

2. “Is eating meat a net harm?” by David G and Froolow

3. “Does calorie restriction slow aging?” by Adrian L and Calvin R

4. “Should we colonize space to mitigate x-risk?” by Nick D and Rob S

5. “Should gene editing technologies be used in humans” by Nita J and Patrick N

6. “When during fetal development does abortion become morally wrong?” by BlockOfNihilism and Icerun

7. “Will automation lead to economic crisis?” by Doug S and Erusian

8. “How much significance should we ascribe to spiritual experiences?” by Seth S and Jeremiah G

(if any of you are unhappy with how I named you or titled your piece, let me know)

At the end of the two weeks, I’ll ask readers to vote for their favorite collaboration, so try to remember which ones impress you. I think we’re all winners by getting to read these – but the actual winners get that plus $2500 in prize money. Thanks again to everyone who donates to the Patreon for making that possible.

Please put any comments about the contest itself here, not on the individual entries.

151 thoughts on “2019 Adversarial Collaboration Entries

  1. courage

    Scott Alexander, I write to you here to call on you to do the right thing.

    This topic is very triggering to me, so takes lots of emotional energy to write about. I really wish I did not have this burden thrust on me during the holidays, but I also cannot constructively carry on with my days knowing I would be neglecting a huge population of yet-to-be-born baby boys out there, and I hope you take the time to read and consider what I have to say.

    Because of how triggering it is and my time constraints over the holidays, I cannot promise that I will have time to reply to you further before the contest is over, but (in addition to my post below) there are lots of people and resources out there from which you may learn more about the significance of your current actions with respect to this contest. I hope you will take this matter seriously and avail yourself of them to educate yourself and make the right decision before opening voting on this contest.

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of many of your posts — even referencing some of them in legal documents I write. I’m also impressed with your willingness to consider the other sides of an issue and change your mind when presented with new evidence and arguments. I think your opinion and analysis of the facts carries a lot of weight with people who may not have time to dig into the same level of analysis on every topic on their own. As such, your words (and by extension the things you promote in your contests) can be very powerful. By that, I mean that they can be very impactful: people who read them will go on to make decisions based on them that can have grave consequences both for themselves and for others. With this level of power comes, I think, at least a small amount of responsibility.

    Call To Action

    I will cut straight to the point: I think you should disqualify entry #1 from your contest.

    I understand that no one document will be perfect, that no argument will ever be 100% fleshed out to everyone’s satisfaction, and that not everything you post will ever be 100% correct.

    But, here, I think the errors and omissions are too large, and the consequences too dire to responsibly ignore.


    More on the errors and omissions later; I want to highlight the consequences first:


    I had swallowed the religious consensus that circumcision was Useless, but Good. This put me in an odd spot of feeling guilty for my religious beliefs, and not sure what I was going to do with my own children. I had expected pro-circumcision to be the more deontological side, and never guessed that utilitarian beliefs to suggest being pro-circumcision. I’m giving this high marks, just because it might have persuaded me to change a practice, which none of the old adversarial collaborations were able to do. Going from a guilty and tentative pro, to a full pro is impressive.


    This has moved me from mostly indifferent (opposed to a societal ban but mildly opposed to having my own future children circumcised) to strongly in favor. It seems like circumcision is a net benefit, however small, for a whole bundle of health concerns with few drawbacks. Thanks for the effort. I’d like to hear from the authors on what they each changed their minds about and what surprised them along the way.


    This also changed my mind from not really having an opinion to being in support.

    Evan Þ:

    Same with me.

    That’s at least 4 readers who had an open mind before who are now solidly supporting infant circumcision — and those are just the ones who wrote something in the comments. How many more came away with the same impression and didn’t bother writing anything? And how many of those, by virtue of not writing anything, don’t even have the benefit of being corrected by other commenters?

    The lone hope for reaching these non-commenting readers is probably for them to see another post from you retracting this entry.


    The #1 omission from the entry is any discussion at all about the emotional impact of infant circumcision. Without that consideration, no discussion of the benefits, harms, or ethics of infant circumcision can be taken seriously.

    It’s like reading a paper on the benefits, harms, and ethics of slavery that concludes that slavery is beneficial to a functional economy, yet makes no mention of the fact that slaves are humans with feelings. While it might make sense as an academic exercise for debate in a very narrow field of historical economic study, writing such a paper today for mass-consumption (outside that very narrow field of academic exploration) without a preface that slavery is clearly wrong would be extremly insensitive at best and more than horribly dangerous at worst — especially if it were up for consideration for an award in a contest that also doesn’t set any context!

    We know today that rape is wrong (though we are still trying to get all our society up to speed on this). Not too many decades ago, that conclusion itself was up for debate. But understanding why it is wrong comes down to recognizing that the victim is a human with feelings, and that the lack of the ability to consent can be as emotionally damaging, if not more so, than the physical aspects of the rape itself.

    The same holds for infant circumcision. Even if we assume that the entry is entirely correct on all it’s points (though, see Errors below), the fact that it misses any discussion of the fact that the victim of infant circumcision is a human being with feelings makes it simply part of “rape culture”.

    If this is too much to understand, try reading the mock entry I wrote below (see heading “What are the Benefits, Harms, and Ethics of Infant Rape”). Of course, there are some made up statistics in there, but there are some real ones, too, and others based on outdated research or widely-held superstition. For the purposes of this exercise, assume that all of them are, in fact, true. In that case, it reads kind of convincingly, yes, that infant rape is good? At least, you have no facts on which to disprove it. But, I’m sure you still think that infact rape is wrong. That’s because you’ve already come to recognize the victim as a human, entitled to a life free from rape.

    But don’t worry, the authors summarily addressed that in one sentence: “An ethical system that heavily values personal choice over cost-benefit analysis may reasonably reject infant rape – especially one that rejects currently-widespread societal assumptions about parents making medical decisions for their children.” Silly you, thinking that the violation of consent should be considered as a cost. Silly you, having ethics that reject currently-widespread societal assumptions. The sentence almost drips with sarcasm, taunting the reader, and has no place being considered for celebration through this contest.

    (Not to mention this loaded sentence includes the strawman that opponents “reject parents making medical decisions for their children.” It’s quite possible to think BOTH that parents should be able to make medical decisions for their children and ALSO that parents should not rape their children.)


    The flaws in the entry are too many for me to address fully in my current state with the time allotted, but many commenters were swift to point them out. For example, commenters graehl, algorizmi, and Steven readily pointed out some of them in the first, fourth, and tenth hours respectively.

    On the fourth day, Brian Earp gave a much more thorough treatment (for which I am extremely thankful) of many of the rest of them in his comments and in his links (which are definitely worth following as well and I include here by reference).

    After removing all the misleading information from entry #1, I don’t really even know what would be left.

    Perhaps it is possible to rewrite the entry in a much-larger form which only includes accurate information and actually includes ALL the relevant accurate information, but that would be a much different entry.

    The entry in it’s current form is grossly lopsided, hugely insensitive, and highly dangerous to lend even the slightest hint of your endorsement to. As an objective community trying to understand each other through rational discussion, this entry is not one we should even CONSIDER celebrating, as doing so threatens to alienate the very people whose views can help the community’s understanding on this topic.

    Help Understanding the Triggering Nature of this Entry’s Acceptance into this Contest

    I think this exchange in the comments in instructive, to help put in context how to think about this issue:


    I consider my mutilation as an infant to be rape, and I will never forgive my parents or the society that allowed it.


    Being uncircumcised myself as that is just “not a thing” in Germany and find the very idea recoiling, I nevertheless think your reaction against your parents and society is unjustified and immature.
    (unless your circumcision was botched somehow and you were literally left mutilated, then I could understand the resentment against your society)


    I don’t see why it is unjustified or immature.


    Yeah, I actually find the above comment representative of the kinds of social pressures militating against men admitting circumcision bothers them even if it does. We have a man who wasn’t circumcised himself, who finds the idea “recoiling,” and who nevertheless describes someone who feels traumatized about having had something “recoiling” done to him “immature.”

    Men who talk about or don’t minimize their “scars,” literal and metaphorical, are viewed as whiners, weaklings, malcontents, immature, etc. One can imagine all kinds of historical and evolutionary reasons this might be the case; though that doesn’t make it right, either.


    Indeed. All evidence for a lack of male suffering should be regarded wearily, IMO, given how strong this norm/bias is.

    Note that there also seems to be a feedback-loop: the very fact that men rarely complain is taken as strong evidence for the issue to be minor, which is taken as evidence that complaining men are complaining about minor or even non-existing things, which prevents men from complaining.

    I believe that in SJ, this is called the dismissal of the lived experience of the oppressed, where oppressive gender norms result in people dismissing the severity or even occurrence of lived experiences.

    Furthermore, due to internalized misandry, men may themselves not see their problems as being severe and may actually participate in the oppression of other men.

    What are the Benefits, Harms, and Ethics of Infant Rape (not real, for demo only, see above)

    “They practise infant virgin rape for cleanliness’ sake; for they would rather be free of STDs than have more becoming perineums.” – Eclectus, History of Infant Rape in Europe and South Africa

    The debate over infant rape in the Western world today is surprisingly similar to the conflict that Europeans and South Africans faced 100-500 years ago. Supporters tend to emphasize its hygiene and health benefits; opponents tend to call it cruel or to emphasize its possible scarring. In this adversarial collaboration we address medical aspects, sensitivity and pleasure, and ethical aspects of infant rape.

    Effect on perineal cancer

    Infant rape greatly reduces the relative rate of perineal cancer, a relatively uncommon malignancy in developed nations which kills a little over 400 American women each year. Denmark, while it has one of the lowest rates of perineal cancer for a non-infant-raping country, nevertheless has 10x the rate of perineal cancer as South Africa – where infant rape remains a widespread practice. Likewise, a Worldwide Health study of patients with perineal cancer found that 16% of patients with carcinoma in situ had been raped as infants; only 2% of patients with invasive perineal cancer had been raped as infants. Since the infant rape rate of Worldwide Health patients of the appropriate age was ~50%, this is in line with the 90% reduction.

    While these are observational rather than prospective trials, the magnitude of the reduction is quite high. It is unlikely to be simply due to class or race given that it exists when comparing countries and when comparing individuals within the same health care system. Additionally, there is some association of perineal cancer with HPV and a very strong association with syphilis, and infant rape reduces the rate of both of these. This provides a highly plausible theoretical explanation of how infant rape might lead to this risk reduction in perineal cancer. However, this does raise the question of whether more aggressive future treatment of syphilis, combined with HPV vaccination might reduce the rate of perineal cancer in non-infant-raped persons in the future somewhat. Of course, more aggressive treatment of syphilis would require more childhood rape, which carry higher risks than infant rape.

    Effect on transmission of HIV and STDs

    HIV: Three large randomized control trials have been performed in South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya, together comprising over 11,000 virgin women. These virgins were randomized to be raped or not at the start of the studies for primary HIV prevention. The reduction in male to female HIV transmission seen in these studies is about 50%. This is consistent with observational studies and is the highest quality evidence: three independent, large-scale randomized control trials with similar results scrutinized by the Cochrane Collaboration. The studies were terminated early due to positive results, and the remaining virgins promptly raped, which is appropriate ethical practice, but which can tend to overestimate positive effects. However, the data is consistent with observational data so this is less likely a concern. Some have expressed the concern that the two groups did not receive identical HIV counseling.

    It is true that the raped group felt much more comfortable having sex without condoms, and additional counseling was given to the raped group to tell them this was not adequate protection. Condom use was, despite the counseling, lower in the raped group than in the control. In one sense this means that the protective benefits of virgin rape vs HIV may be understated. In another sense, this creates a large concern with advertising virgin rape for the stated purpose of HIV prevention. Any such efforts must be careful not to oversell the benefits and thereby reduce condom usage. Additionally, the results are only applicable to heterosexual HIV transmission. Homosexual transmission has not been shown to be decreased by virgin rape, presumably because of the extremely high risk of unconventional sex. IV drug related transmission is almost certainly unaffected except via “herd immunity”.

    The data for other STIs is far less compelling than for HIV. Secondary endpoints of the African HIV studies were other STIs, and rates of HPV and HSV were reduced by virgin rape. This was only a secondary outcome, however, and other studies have had mixed results. The data for lower rates of STDs in male partners of virgin-raped women is somewhat stronger. However, none of these benefits are nearly as strongly supported or as high impact as the HIV reduction. Additionally, when considering the benefits and harms of an intervention such as virgin rape, there are strong reasons not to consider the benefits that accrue to the patient’s future partners, but instead to focus only on the individual in question.

    It is ironic that the evidence for reduction in other STIs is fairly weak, because as historian Randy Falseburger shows in Infant Rape: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Pleasure, this is the primary reason renaissance Europe adopted widespread infant rape. There had been very small-scale interest in infant rape due to religious ideas about masturbation and ideas about virginity causing systemic illness, but these ideas do not appear to have motivated a large number of infant rapes. Mainstream infant rape of healthy females caught on as a way to reduce STI rates – particularly syphilis. Physicians across renaissance Europe saw the far lower rates of STIs experienced by those who had been raped and attributed these primarily to rape. The time was just right for such STI reduction efforts – worries about infection were widespread and an increasing number of people were enjoying new knowledge and economic independence that allowed for ready access to relatives to perform an infant rape.

    Meanwhile, during wartime the military offered infant rape to many conscripts’ daughters to protect vs STIs (the wealthier officer class already having a much higher infant rape rate for their daughters than the enlisted men as more of them could afford homes to carry out the rapes). Other country’s experience of the wars was quite different. For one thing, STIs ranked far lower on the set of risks to their soldiers’ daughters. And rather than seeing an economic boom, their medical resources were strained during the war. Infant rape was seen as something of a waste compared to their more pressing needs.

    Effect on UTIs

    In the first year of life, the rate of UTIs is approximately 4% per year among unraped girls and 0.4%-0.8% among raped girls. Particularly in the first year of life, UTIs can be severe, causing fever and hospitalization, as well as permanent kidney damage. Infant rape is presumably protective against UTI primarily by early introduction of bacterial load around the urethra when the baby is best prepared to combat it. Some sources have suggested that the difference is primarily one of contamination during sampling. However, studies looking only at clean catch urine samples or suprapubic tap samples give similar reductions (90%). Unlike many of the other benefits listed above, UTI avoidance is specifically an immediate benefit of infant rape.

    Effect on Vaginal Problems

    Many vaginal problems such as vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina), imperferate hyman (inability to release menstrual blood), and foreign body distension (usually caused when a medical supply gets left in the infant’s vagina — and requires emergency treatment to preserve function) are prevented by infant rape. Others, including perineal injury, scarring, and bleeding are caused by infant rape. A New Zealand cohort study directly comparing the incidence of vaginal problems requiring intervention found a rate of 1.1% in raped children and 1.8% in unraped children when followed to age 8.

    Risks of infant rape

    The risks of rape include pain, bleeding, bruising, insufficient length and quantity of rape, excess skin removal, swelling, perineal injury, scarring, infection, and anesthetic complications. These are different based on age group; neonatal rape is associated with a much lower risk of complications than other age groups. However, studies show a wide range of rates of complications dependent on the experience of the rapist. Overall, the rate of minor complications (bleeding, bruising) is ~1.5% worldwide and the rate of major complications (scar, severe infection, perineal injury, or need for additional rape) is <0.2%. In comparison, the risk of complications in children past infancy and adults is approximately 6% with trained rapists – significantly higher than for infant rape. Indeed, the majority of cases of the most severe complications related to rape appear to occur in people who were not raped as infants. This would include both adults with perineal cancer as well as children becoming pregnant.

    Sensitivity and Sexual satisfaction

    There is a highly plausible mechanism by which unwanted sex could reduce sexual sensitivity: unwanted sex could trigger sensations and make later sensations more dull, just as you can get accustomed to smells over time.

    Sexual satisfaction, particularly in sexually active heterosexual women, seems to be unchanged with adult consensual sex. During studies of adult consensual sex for HIV prevention, in which large numbers of women were randomized to receive additional consensual sex at the time of the study or after, sexual satisfaction did not significantly differ between the two groups. On the other hand, a South Korean study of women who had sex for the first time as adults (as has become traditional there) found decreased pleasure from masturbation after having sex. It is certainly possible that both these things are true – that masturbation is impaired by adult consensual sex while intercourse is not. It is also possible that the Korean study (retrospective, smaller than the African studies, and with much higher rates of scarring than are observed in the US) was unrepresentative. There are two European studies which are frequently cited: cohort studies look at raped and unraped women in Denmark and Belgium. However, rape is quite rare in these countries, and the majority of the rapes in the study groups were performed to correct problems such as imperforate hymens. They are thus comparing women who had problems requiring correction to women who did not; it is therefore unclear why they are frequently cited in discussions of elective sex.

    No available studies actually measure sensitivity to sexual stimulation, which is of course an important topic – but one requiring consummate professionalism on the part of the researcher. We are left waiting for such a study, but in the meantime may reasonably fear that there is some decrease in at least masturbatory pleasure due to sex even though the evidence for this is weak. The evidence does not support any change in sexual pleasure otherwise.

    Infant intercourse may be different than adult intercourse, in addition. If intercourse dulls important nerves, due to brain plasticity infants are likely better able than adults to reassign the portions of the brain processing these nerves to nerves in other areas of the vagina. A large survey of infant raped and unraped women found similar sensation in infant raped and unraped women. The unraped women appear to have had slightly higher incidences of sexual dysfunction. Also of interest, raped women appear to have an easier time obtaining oral sex, which may relate to subtle aspects of class or may have to do with the perceived cleanliness of the raped vagina.


    The ethics of infant rape is a complex topic, and the answers likely depend on one’s ethical system. The benefits of infant rape appear to outweigh the risks and harms. Additionally, it is safer to be raped as an infant than as an adult, and a significant portion of the benefits of rape accrue to infants and children. From a strictly utilitarian perspective, infant rape should therefore be encouraged – whether we consider society as a whole or only the girl in question. However, autonomy is an important value, and while a woman can lose her virginity later in life (missing only some of the benefits of having been raped as an infant), it is impossible to effectively restore her virginity. An ethical system that heavily values personal choice over cost-benefit analysis may reasonably reject infant rape – especially one that rejects currently-widespread societal assumptions about parents making medical decisions for their children. Furthermore, many of the benefits of infant rape accrue only to women who have sex with men. For women who exclusively have sex with women and for women who do not have sex, the benefits and risks are close to equipose. There is a moral concern with performing a procedure that can thus tend to reinforce heteronormativity and sex-normativity.

    1. NoRandomWalk

      Thanks for writing this. Will think on it, just wanted you to know someone read it. Happy holidays.

    2. disposablecat

      Thanks for the detailed commentary. I’d like to disagree. That ACC is the first work I have read in several years of lurking around rationalist internet spaces which, when taking into account the total dialog of the article and the discussion in the comments, provoked me to make an immediate and significant change in how I live my life.

      Specifically, I am a gay male who was circumcised at birth, and after two decades of being generally pro, and definitely preferring circumcised penises aesthetically, I now intend to attempt foreskin restoration.

      This is because the lively discussion in the comments caused me to realize that some persistent but not crippling issues I have with my own sexual function – primarily difficulty reaching orgasm via penetration – may be the result of circumcision rather than damaging teenage masturbation technique as I have always assumed, and may in fact be largely resolvable with a few hundred bucks of gear and some persistence. Should this effort be successful it would likely persuade me not to circumcise the male children I do intend to have in the future.

      If a norm was established that ACC entries on this topic or of a similarly sensitive nature were ineligible, fewer of them would be written. Had this one not been written, the discussion in the comments would not have occurred and I would likely continue on oblivious (I am far from unfamiliar with intactivism and intactivist argument and theory, but I had never before seen anything to suggest a significant sensitivity effect, let alone one that matched my own experience – so I find it likely that an SSC quality conversation was better able to reach informative coherence than the many circumcision flame wars I have read in the last 15 years or so).

      Thus, I believe controversial/triggering/contentious ACC entries should not only not be discouraged, but in fact should be encouraged – as long as the commentariat remains at its current quality and diligence, either the entries or their comments may continue to provide insights about these topics which cannot be reached in most other spaces, and I think it would be a damned shame to remove that possibility.

      I may actually vote for that ACC as the winner, based on the potential future hedons its existence seems likely to semi-directly provide me.

      1. courage

        Thank you for your reply, disposablecat. I am happy that you were able to read all the comments and benefit from them. Judging by some of the comments in the voting thread, many others weren’t.

        I agree that the initial take and the dialog in the comments are useful discussions to have. My concern is not with the right of the article to exist, nor with the right of that discussion to follow. My concern is squarely with us celebrating the article absent any context of what that celebration means.

        If we were voting on which conversation were the most valuable, I think my opinion would be more toward allowing the conversation in (though I’d feel better if it were structured in a way that didn’t alienate many of the voices that should be heard from).

        If we were voting on which initial post sparked the best conversation, that’s also a much different story.

        But the vote has none of this context.

        Unfortunately, the way the contest is worded (which is actually very brief) is entirely ambiguous and the voting post just says to vote for your favorite. My worries are threefold:
        (a) that the initial draft is all that will be read and passed around in the future, should it be declared the winner (or even just a runner-up),
        (b) that considering the initial draft for some ambiguous celebration alienates (alienated) the voices that should be heard from in the comments, and
        (c) that the celebration of the initial draft (due to it’s ambiguous nature) could be interpreted as celebrating it as the one best capturing all the relevant issues in the initial draft (which is the only objective criteria I think I would vote for — but is decidedly not applicable to entry #1, nor is that criteria advanced as what people should make their decisions based on).

        If everyone is left to select according to their own personal “best” the voting doesn’t really mean anything, but people will dangerously ascribe their own erroneous meaning to the outcome of the vote.

  2. Atlas

    At the risk of being a dour, negative fellow to everyone else’s consternation: Am I the only one who finds these questions generally uninteresting, despite finding this blog generally extremely interesting? (I also found last year’s questions and entries uninteresting.)

    I’m also still fairly skeptical of the premise behind adversarial collaboration. (I wrote about this previously here—thanks again to The Nybbler for the comment search engine.) Scott wrote:

    Remember, an adversarial collaboration is where two people with opposite views on a controversial issue work together to present a unified summary of the evidence and its implications. In theory it’s a good way to make sure you hear the strongest arguments and counterarguments for both sides – like hearing a debate between experts, except all the debate and rhetoric and disagreement have already been done by the time you start reading, so you’re just left with the end result.

    I don’t know that this view is wrong, but it’s not the one I currently hold. It seems like Scott is saying that the important thing in a controversial issue is the set of evidence and arguments that people on both sides of the debate can agree on, and the less important thing is the stuff they don’t agree on.

    But I have the opposite view: the “debate and rhetoric and disagreement” over the theoretically same underlying evidence is the centrally important thing to me. Of course you can get people who disagree to write an essay together, but it seems like they’ll probably have to moderate, elide and circumcise (pun/joke slightly intended) a lot of their arguments in order to do so.

    And that might be a valuable and informative exercise in some ways, but I find it very hard to believe that it will present “the strongest arguments and counter-arguments for both sides.” The strongest arguments and counter-arguments on most controversial issues would seem to me to at least to seem to require degrees of freedom, conjecture, speculation, discretion, emphasis and so on. The strongest argument for one side requires making different decisions in these regards than the strongest argument for the other side. Because if everyone could agree on what the evidence says and what the best conclusions to draw from it are, it wouldn’t be a controversial issue in the first place!

    Or: It seems to me that adversarial collaboration isn’t the “end result” so much as the starting line. You start with what the experts agree on, and then they have a debate. (Randy M said something like this in a reply to my previous post, and, as is often the case, I’ve realized that he was right. However, I think that Scott framed adversarial collaboration differently in the paragraph I quoted, which is why I feel justified in reiterating my arguments.)

    So, to me, it sounds like adversarial collaboration is indeed like a debate between experts minus something…except that something is all the interesting and valuable stuff I want to hear in the debate. We’re all adults here, right? We can read competing accounts of the evidence and make up our own minds about how convincing each one is, and freely acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of uncertainty in doing that. I’d much rather read (civil, expert) debates about complex, controversial issues than adversarial collaborations about them. (Even if both may be valuable.)

    (Darn it, maybe I should have done an adversarial collaboration about whether adversarial collaborations or debates are better.)

    A quote from The Black Swan that I think is relevant here:

    In a famous argument, the logician W. V. Quine showed that there exist families of logically consistent interpretations and theories that can match a given series of facts. Such insight should warn us that mere absence of nonsense may not be sufficient to make something true.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I have a frequent experience of reading a “take” by someone on one side and thinking there are obvious flaws in it. Then sometimes I see someone else point out the obvious flaws, and the first person never responds, or misses the point, or something like that. I find myself wishing that they would just hold a really long conversation off screen until both of them fully understood the other’s points, then report back to us.

      I agree it’s possible that even after doing that they would still disagree, but maybe they wouldn’t disagree quite as stupidly.

  3. thevoiceofthevoid

    @Scott Alexander
    I think this time you should conduct the vote via approval voting rather than plurality vote (i.e. checkbox select rather than radio select). I suspect that I’ll find more than one of the entries potentially worthy of the prize, and approval voting gives a better way to express that, while still being simple and intuitively understandable.

    1. Pablo

      I came here just to ask Scott to use approval voting next time, only to see that someone had made that request for the current round of entries.

      Scott, there’s near-universal consensus among voting theorists that plurality voting is a terrible voting system. If you don’t like approval voting for some reason, feel free to use some other system, as long as it’s not plurality. Here’s an excellent overview of voting theory, with discussion of all the main voting systems.

  4. Bram Cohen

    A bunch of really interesting topics there, some of which I don’t know my thoughts on and very much want to see what the authors say

  5. Forward Synthesis

    Very much want to see what happens with number 6, as much of my political beliefs hinge on it being true. 4 is also really interesting to me, because I can’t think of a good argument that we shouldn’t colonize space, but I assume that the inverse would be that colonizing space actually increases X-risk, contrary to what you’d expect.

    1. Randy M

      I can’t think of a good argument that we shouldn’t colonize space

      I’d agree that there’s no good reason not to, other than the cost and (presumably) low probability of success.

      1. DragonMilk

        Opportunity cost.

        Why invest money into relocating to another world that’s uninhabitable or in the nether when you at the very least save the immense relocation costs of fighting gravity and look into colonizing say, the desert, tundra, or ocean?

    2. Sandpaper26

      With regards to X-risk, consider the opportunity cost: if there is something we can do to reduce X-risk that has a higher chance of succeeding, then we should do that instead (assuming a limited pool of reduce-X-risk resources).
      This would definitely be the case if you can demonstrate that space colonization has a particularly low chance of succeeding — one reason I can think this is true is because we don’t yet fully understand the technology we would require for humans to perform healthy reproduction in a microgravity environment, and we don’t have the ability to create artificial gravity environments yet. Not to mention trying to round up sufficiently smart people who are also willing to go die on a space trip so that future generations can land on another planet (required, depending on X-risk).

      1. Forward Synthesis

        I can think this is true is because we don’t yet fully understand the technology we would require for humans to perform healthy reproduction in a microgravity environment, and we don’t have the ability to create artificial gravity environments yet.

        Humans being unfit for space environments is one reason 6 ties in with 4; machines are hypothetically better able to carry on the colonizing mantle of our species than we are, and it seems likely that we’ll have equivalently capable machines before we’ve fully cracked human biology.

    1. Robert_Barlow

      Economic crisis is different from perpetual human obsolescence. I could imagine a crisis scenario caused by mass temporary unemployment, because it’s impossible for x% of the workforce to re-specialize when self-driving cars or something are adopted.

  6. J.D. Sockinger

    I wish that the collaboration on eating meat would be broader in scope to encompass all animal products, instead of just flesh. As lawyer/philosopher Gary Francione argues (convincingly, in my opinion), there is no moral difference between eating meat vs. eating fish, eggs, or dairy products.

    1. acymetric

      I would think those topics would almost have to come up as part of the discussion, so I would guess you’ll see at least some of that in the collaboration (presumably part of it will be discussing alternatives to meat, and those would either be lumped in with meat-eating, or offered as alternatives).

    2. HomarusSimpson

      there is no moral difference between eating meat vs. eating fish, eggs, or dairy products.

      meat & fish involve the killing of an animal, eggs & diary merely it’s enslavement*. Whilst both may be immoral (open to debate) they are demonstrably of different orders of magnitude.

      * in actuality modern farming of eggs & diary entails the killing of male animals, but it is not unavoidable in theory.

      1. J.D. Sockinger

        I disagree, but perhaps we should postpone further debate until we see the results of the collaboration.

      2. algorizmi

        This is becoming avoidable in practice as well. using sexed sperm for artificial insemination in diary has been gaining traction for more than a decade. Pre-hatch sexing is not quite economical for chickens yet, but getting very close.

  7. TracingWoodgrains

    Astute observers will notice that I initially had two entries for this contest, neither of which panned out in the end. I’m afraid my heart wasn’t in it this year quite as much as last, and both entries ended up cut rather short (through no fault of my excellent collaborators). For those interested, I’ll provide a brief summary of my conclusions and why the projects fell apart.

    1. We examined the existence or non-existence of critical periods for learning in early childhood. I was proceeding from a limited understanding of the topic, with my primary goal being “learn more about this topic.” Both of us agreed fairly quickly that there was a critical period specifically in parts of language acquisition, which made things trickier since that was the area I was most certain of. I also brought in studies I was aware of pre-collaboration indicating that several physical traits depended on early exposure: most specifically, the ability to do a classic turnout in ballet and bone thickness in your hitting arm in tennis, both referenced in K. Anders Ericsson’s book Peak.

    From there, we were going to move through a variety of fields to examine them, notably music and mathematics. For music, there’s clear evidence that absolute pitch is trainable in early childhood (eg), some evidence that it’s weakly trainable as an adult, and a recent study indicating that valproate may reopen critical period learning of absolute pitch. We examined a study indicating a larger corpus callosum in children who started learning music before the age of seven, but the reasons for the age cutoff were unclear and the matching between children and adults was imperfect, so we avoided concluding too much from that. Finally, we examined a couple of studies comparing early and late-trained musicians claiming to show early-trained ones outperforming later ones, but they had small sample sizes and imperfect matching making it difficult to know that much.

    There are some animal studies involving critical periods for development of various senses that involve odd things like cats not seeing vertical or horizontal lines for the first few weeks of life, then bumping into chair legs or not seeing higher horizontal surfaces. Or like exposing rats to only certain tones in their first few days, then the rats being unable to hear other tones.

    Ultimately, though, what was most striking for me is that almost all studies of critical/sensitive periods cluster around those topics (language, music, basic sensory input in animals). As far as I can tell, there simply isn’t research about critical periods in math learning or, really, much of anything else. I’m not talking about “limited sample size, flawed studies, restricted subtopics” or anything like that–there simply is virtually no academic discussion of it. This is the primary culprit in making the collaboration fall apart, incidentally. We just couldn’t find much of anything either way outside a few narrow areas, and even what we found in those narrow areas wasn’t super high-quality.

    I’m still fascinated by the topic and frustrated that there isn’t more. My intermediate conclusion is that early training is likely to help with very specific skills, but the broader a field is and the more dependent it is on higher-level reasoning, the less likely it is to matter. Ensuring exposure to a wide range of topics and enabling kids to explore what interests them as deeply as they can is likely the best early bet, but there may still be relatively untapped potential in early exposure. The available body of research is sparse and inconclusive.

    2. We examined whether conservative or liberal policies and culture were more effective in reducing abortion rate. Not much happened with this one after the initial burst. It’s a topic I find somewhat draining, so without a lot of pushing I get distracted from it easily. My conclusions have not changed, but they also haven’t been tested in particular depth. Recently, my interest in this topic has broadened after I found a deceptive sociology study on divorce (discussed in part here). If you’re strongly interested in making the case that liberal culture/policies are more effective than conservative ones at reducing abortion rate, divorce and single parenthood rate, or similar metrics, I am interested in hearing from you either on reddit or at tracingwoodgrains at gmail.

    I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to pull together anything worthy of submitting this year, but was happy to work with my collaborators and eager to read the papers that actually made it through. Cheers!

    1. NoRandomWalk

      I was wondering what happened, since your work was such high quality last time.
      Thanks for the update. “This question doesn’t have enough information to answer conclusively” is valuable knowledge as well.

    2. Itai Bar-Natan

      I vaguely recall once hearing about research that chess-players improve more quickly at a young age than when they’re older. Have you looked for anything like that?

      1. TracingWoodgrains

        I’ve looked for some of that. Probably the most interesting paper I know of on it is Gobet and Campitelli (2007) investigating the roles of handedness, starting age, and deliberate practice on a sample of 104 Argentinian chess players. Within their sample, the probability of becoming a GM or IM was 1 in 4 when starting serious play at or before age 12, and 1 in 55 when starting afterwards. The same cutoff did not appear nearly as drastically for national-level play (2000 Elo points), where 54.5% of their >age 12 sample reached that rank (compared to 75.6% of their <12 sample).

        I'm not satisfied with the sample size, and it's just a retrospective study, but it's a useful beginning. I think there may be more interesting stuff to find with critical periods and chess–I haven't dived into it in-depth yet.

  8. Cerby

    I’m very curious as to what argument could possibly exist in favor of the ethicality of infant circumcision.

    1. Sandpaper26

      Forewarning — I am not an advocate for infant circumcision.

      I would imagine a strong argument might fall along the lines of: there is already a cultural understanding/expectation that all males (in the US) will be circumcised. By not circumcising an infant, he may grow up with fewer mate options because women/other men may view circumcision as the expected normal, and would require a painful procedure he will definitely remember to correct this problem.

      1. Cerby

        The counterpoint here is that that last sentence is heavily reliant on those two “may”s.

        This argument also seems very close to the “we have to electrocute ourselves 8 hours a day or be killed by everyone else” hypothetical I’ve seen Scott discuss on the blog. While not as extreme, the solution remains the same – everyone stops doing it – only since the punishment for doing so out of sync would be “potential celibacy” rather than “death”, it’s a lot easier to enact.

        1. Anonymous McPseudonym

          Exactly this. If you find your philosophy committing you to mutilating children, it might be time to reevaluate that philosophy!

      2. Lambert

        > a painful procedure he will definitely remember

        Which is why tatoos and peircings (genus reassignment surgery) should never be done to people older than 3 years.

    2. acymetric

      I certainly haven’t read a lot of literature on the subject and certainly haven’t evaluated any studies directly, but my understanding is that there are some generally accepted, small health benefits (slightly decreased risk for several things). I’ve never understood why people care so much about this, though, always seemed like mostly much ado about nothing to me (I mean I understand why religious people care to continue their religious traditions, I don’t understand why anybody else cares). People sometimes try to put it in the same category as FGM, but those are quite different things.

      1. ksdale

        I’ve always thought about it like cutting off a baby’s earlobe or some other relatively worthless piece of skin. Even if there are small health benefits (I thought the health benefits were mostly present where people practice a lot of unsafe sex, so the benefits could be had by education just as easily, though I may be misremembering), it seems like a choice that should be left to the child and certainly not a thing that should be done lightly, in any case.

        I also don’t mind it too much when it’s done for religious reasons, because it’s relatively harmless (especially compared to FGM, as you say), but I don’t think the vast majority of circumcision in the US is done for religious reasons.

        And in the abstract, it strikes me as something that Americans are perhaps too close to to evaluate accurately. Like, there’s an actual debate about chopping off a piece of a baby’s skin, for the most part without religious justification, and for health benefits that I would guess a majority of people don’t even know exist. It just seems like a thing that definitely should not happen by default, and it seems odd to me that there even really needs to be an argument against…. because it’s chopping off a piece of baby skin for the sake of tradition.

        1. acymetric

          it seems like a choice that should be left to the child

          I think your points are pretty reasonable (like I said, I do not feel strongly about it nor do I understand why anyone other than religious people would in either direction), but I did want to note that risk of complications are significantly higher for children/adults than for newborns, and the memory of the pain/discomfort is 100% higher, so I think there is a pretty reasonable case that if it is going to be done, it should be done when the child is born (or however long after is standard practice).

          1. ksdale

            I agree with this, but I guess I see it as yet more reason to not do it at all. There are a lot of things we could justify doing to babies on the grounds that they won’t remember the pain, but that… isn’t generally a good enough reason to cause basically any harm to babies?

        2. meh

          1. no child would live to 3 years old without someone making a whole host of decisions for them.

          2. where is the same scrutiny for say the tongue tie procedure?

          i’m not a proponent, it just seems like a big noop to me.

          1. ksdale

            Your first point is obviously true, but seems like it could be used to justify literally anything.

            On the second point, babies who don’t get the tongue tie procedure will end up with a speech impediment, if I’m not mistaken, so it seems like a harmless procedure with very real benefits.

            I’m not opposed at all to positive medical interventions, especially when they can be done to a baby who won’t remember. But I feel like circumcision is closer to aesthetic than anything and it feels like the presumption should be in favor of not unnecessarily cutting off body parts.

          2. Cerby

            First time I’ve heard of the tongue tie procedure, and after looking it up there are a number of relevant differences, the big one being that it’s done in case of a malformation that could lead to difficulty eating/drinking/learning to speak instead of just by default removing a perfectly normal body part. After all, I’m not arguing against all circumcision, as a cousin of mine had his foreskin removed during his early teens because it was malformed and caused actual pain when erect. Even then, regarding TTP, I understand that it’s a controversial topic among doctors; I imagine the severity of the malformation is the primary factor in deciding whether or not to go through with it so early. Like I said in a previous comment in a lower chain, a key problem with universal circumcision is that it is non-essential.

          3. meh

            its not trying to justify everything, only to not unjustify anything.

            its not an argument in favor, only a refutation of that argument against.

            also, i think we should be concerned about the procedure being ‘not traumatic’ rather than if it can be remembered

          4. viVI_IViv

            1. no child would live to 3 years old without someone making a whole host of decisions for them.

            So, let’s do FGM as well, if the parents say so?

            2. where is the same scrutiny for say the tongue tie procedure?

            That’s a therapeutic procedure.

          5. meh


            Alice: X is bad and should not be allowed because it has Y
            Bob: maybe X is bad, but having ‘Y’ can’t be the reason it is bad. A,B,C have Y and are fine.
            Alice: So you’re saying everything with Y should be allowed? Z has Y, so it should be allowed?
            Bob: wut?

            Nowhere is Bob saying that ‘X’ is good, or that everything with ‘Y’ is good. He is merely saying that ‘X’ being bad does not follow from its having the ‘Y’ property alone.

            or to godwin it…

            Alice: Communists shouldn’t be in power because it is a political party.
            Bob: A political party has always been in power.
            Alice: So lets just have Nazis in power, since they are a political party?

        3. Alexander Turok

          I thought the health benefits were mostly present where people practice a lot of unsafe sex, so the benefits could be had by education just as easily

          “Assume everyone’s going to listen to you and do what you say,” is kinda naive.

          1. Aapje

            The supposed health benefits are based on African sex studies, even though:
            1. African sex culture is different to Western sex culture
            2. The risk of getting HIV from sex is much higher in Africa, in particular for hetero sex (see point 1)

            Western people are to a large extent already listening, so while circumcising African men might be defensible for medical reasons, the health benefits for Western men seem minimal.

            Note that transmission of HIV in the West is primarily from men to men, with studies showing no reduction in HIV transmissions for circumcised gay men. The second most common transmission is from (often bisexual) men to women, which circumcision also doesn’t seem to reduce (the working mechanism seems to be that the removal of sensitive skin from the penis reduces female -> male transmission during vaginal sex).

      2. Cerby

        People care because it represents a complete violation of bodily autonomy on par with, yes, FGM. Both are forced removal of an erogenous zone without the consent of the person for anti-sexual reasons.

        Also, the “health benefits” of not having to rince the glans during showers are heavily outweighed by the damage done to an unprotected, dry glans constantly exposed to the friction and grime of underwear.

        1. NoRandomWalk

          Um, call it false consciousness or whatever, but I like mine as it is. I don’t remember getting circumcised, I think I’ve been successfully socialized into thinking it’s normal, and so prefer porn depicting the same. I’ll likely do the same to my sons by default, if not actively persuaded otherwise.

          Violation of X is only bad insofar as we have been socialized to consider X a sacred value. Obviously I will agree to fight wars over all of my sacred values.
          I am perfectly okay with any ‘tensions’ implied by believing both of these things at the same time.

          If you don’t find the above persuasive, I think my best counterargument is that babies don’t think of it as a violation, and haven’t been socialized/hormonized into sexual beings yet, and well, evolution gave them genitals without their consent, so there!

          1. ksdale

            I think these are all excellent points, but I think these exact arguments could be applied to cutting off literally any relatively useless piece of a baby’s skin, but basically all the other cutting would be generally considered an egregious crime. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but that feels to me like an odd position to take by default.

            I’ve never really had a strong opinion about it one way or another, but it’s always just seemed surreal to me that I’ve felt like the outlier for NOT having had a piece of my body removed shortly after birth. None of my friends growing up were circumcised for religious reasons, but rather by default.

            You mentioned that you’ll do it to your sons by default, and I think that’s what all of my friends will do as well. I suppose it goes in the same bucket as ear lobe stretching or some other relatively harmless thing that people find attractive because that’s what they’re familiar with.

          2. Cerby

            “I have been successfully persuaded that X is good, therefore X is good.” is a ridiculous argument, no matter the subject. False concsciousness is putting it mildly.

            As for the other arguments:
            – whether or not babies see it as a violation is irrelevant, the point of laws and rights is that they apply independant of people understanding them
            – whether or not they’re sexual beings is also irrelevant, as the core problem is that a lump of flesh is being removed; I simply mentioned it being anti-sexual because the reason circumcision is widespread in the US is because Kellogg wanted men to stop masturbating
            – consent obviously only applies after someone is born, otherwise one could use your argument to state that since life is given without consent, it can be taken just as easily.

          3. viVI_IViv

            Um, call it false consciousness or whatever, but I like mine as it is. I don’t remember getting infibulated, I think I’ve been successfully socialized into thinking it’s normal, and I don’t care how pornstars are because porn is zina. I’ll likely do the same to my daughters by default, if not actively persuaded otherwise.

          4. eyeballfrog

            Counterpoint: I am also circumcised and greatly wish I was not. I have no way to change this, and it sucks. Are you sure your sons won’t feel the same way?

          5. eyeballfrog

            Not inflicting mental anguish on people is something I care about. Perhaps you dont consider that risk to outweigh the benefits, but you should at least know the risk is there.

            I should probably save further argument for the actual post.

          6. acymetric

            This is obviously pretty personal, so I don’t feel obligated to expand, but I think he was asking specifically why you care that you were circumcised (in other words, why would you prefer to not have been).

      3. HomarusSimpson

        People sometimes try to put it in the same category as FGM, but those are quite different things.

        An understatement to say the least.

        1. Aapje

          Note that this is partly because people tend to equate FGM to the most serious variants. The very name of the catch-all term seems designed to do so.

      1. Cerby

        A) It is a non-essential surgical procedure done without the patient’s consent. This alone should be enough, but there’s more.
        B) The foreskin’s primary purpose is protection and lubrification of the glans. Removing it exposes the glans to abrasions, microcuts and infections.
        C) Until the onset of puberty, the foreskin is welded to the glans, much like the nails are to the fingers. Tearing the two apart produces comparable amounts of pain.
        D) “It’s fine, baby won’t remember it” sounds good until you apply it to literally anything else, from a slap to the face to rape.

        1. Sanchez

          I’d never heard of C. Is this not a problem for erections? Is there an inevitable painful moment in a male’s life where these two are first pulled apart?

          1. Cerby

            No it isn’t, the glans and foreskin separate at the beginning of puberty, before erections start happening.
            It isn’t painful either, you just find out one day that the two aren’t as stuck together as they were and you can pull the foreskin back.

          2. viVI_IViv

            I remember as a kid (maybe 4 or 5) my mother decided that for some reason I needed a medical examination down there, hence she took me to doctor who pulled back my foreskin. I still remember the pain.

          3. Michael Watts

            Until the onset of puberty, the foreskin is welded to the glans, much like the nails are to the fingers. Tearing the two apart produces comparable amounts of pain.

            Cerby is overstating this. I experienced phimosis at some point when I would have been somewhere between 5 and 11 years old (more towards the 5 end). I alerted my mother to the problem — because it was new. And she spent a night pulling the foreskin back, which was indeed very painful.

            But I know it isn’t true that the foreskin is welded to the glans until puberty in general, because mine was not welded to the glans before I was 5.

            Wikipedia is much less definite about this than Cerby would like to be:

            The foreskin is usually non-retractable in early childhood

            Physiologic phimosis, common in males 10 years of age and younger, is normal

            I also have to comment on this:

            the glans and foreskin separate at the beginning of puberty, before erections start happening.

            At this point, I’m just going to say Cerby is dangerously misinformed. Erections do not start happening at puberty. They start long before.

          4. Cerby

            I was basing my answer on my own experience with the subject, evidently it’s more varied than I thought.
            Why did your mother feel the need to peel it off despite your pain, though ? That also seems like a misinformed action to me.

        2. TDB

          Although I agree in general, we can’t say that this procedure is done without the patient’s consent. Infants are incapable of consenting to anything and must depend upon a parent or guardian to make informed medical decisions on their behalf. Perhaps parents have been misinformed or tend to be under informed on this issue, preventing true informed consent, but at least in principle, consent is possible.

          1. Cerby

            Counterargument: delegated consent should only happen in the case of life-saving/quality-of-life operations. Anything cosmetic should not be consented to by anyone except the patient themself.

    3. meh

      i dont think ‘ethical’ and ‘beneficial’ will be synonymous here. i imagine the argument would just be that it is not unethical

    4. Alexander Turok

      You can argue based on its utility in preserving groups. You could object that a group based on pointless rituals isn’t worth preserving anyway. You occasionally hear racialism critiqued this way, it’s argued that even if the racialists are right that one group behaves better than another group, the answer is to discriminate on the basis of those behaviors rather than group origin. But one must look at what actually works in the real world. Look at Orthodox vs. secular Jews in America. Which group has had greater success in preventing intermarriage and low fertility rates? The rationalist wants to dismiss the funny hat stuff as obviously unrelated to anything good in the real world, he wants to dissolve groups into a cosmopolitan stew and let the market sort people and … well look at that, people aren’t having any kids. How’d that happen? Even in Germany, with Merkel’s inanity, you can’t blame the Muslims for the fact that native Germans stopped having kids.

    5. JohnBuridan

      If you accept that the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, which the American Academy of Pediatrics states is the case, then it follows that circumcision is a procedure on par with a tongue tie fixing.
      The remaining objections are 1) Natural Integrity of the Body Argument: Tongue tie fixes an unnatural deformity, but foreskin is not a deformity, therefore circumcision is wrong. 2) The benefits outweigh the risks to such a small degree that there is no moral obligation to circumcise.

      To 1) I would ask you to employ this principle consistently and see if you still like it. To 2) the claim is not that there a moral obligation to do it, but that there is a valid and sound reason to do it for health reasons.

      Circumcision at my local hospital is usually performed within the first 5 hours of the baby’s birth, provided that the parents sign-off on a shot of Vitamin K to help the baby’s blood coagulate, otherwise they will not perform the procedure.

      Some of Europeans I know have also claimed that circumcision is a religious imposition on Americans, which while to my knowledge inaccurate, might explain some of the anti-circumcision sentiment in Europe, i.e. religious associations of the practice?

    6. Mark V Anderson

      My wife was a urology nurse for several years and she was definitely in favor of circumcision. She saw the issues that occurred with non-circumcised men. I think the problems occurred because men didn’t do the proper hygiene down there. Nevertheless, losing the foreskin seemed to be a net benefit. I think the benefit of keeping the foreskin is there is less danger of damage when running naked through underbrush? Not real common these days.

      When we adopted a two year old boy from India, we had him circumcised to avoid these issues, although also to make him more like the other boys, the latter of which isn’t a real argument for circumcision. But my wife did say that these babies should definitely get anesthesia before the procedure. Here she was going against most OB doctors, who claim pain sensitivity is much lower in newborns. She said that didn’t explain the wailing she heard from these boys when she used to work in OB.

      1. Ceinti

        Anesthetics have a bunch of risks associated with them, as severe as death. The risks are somewhat small for any individual procedure but if you start talking about applying them to entire population in order to facillitate a non-necessary procedure then the numbers start adding up and it’s worth taking those additional bad outcomes into account when comparing against not doing so. Not to mention the costs associated with providing the anaesthetics and the costs and time of the medical specialists who need to be extremely competent in order to minimize those risks. The opportunity costs here really add up.

        The choice of course isn’t just between eating all of those additonal costs or allowing the babies to just deal with the pain. The third option is to not circumcise, which considering the risks and costs of circumcision which exist independently of the risks and costs of anesthetics starts to look very good. In particular universal circumcision instead of just doing it for people who might eventually need it results again in very similar problems: all of the extra time and resources in doing it for 100% of the population instead of a much smaller fraction, and the massive increase in bad outcomes even if the individual risk is small due to doing it for 100% of the population instead of a very small fraction of that etc.

  9. the verbiage ecstatic

    I think it’d be fun / illuminating if the paper names expressed the polarity, not just the thesis. For instance, these three papers would be very different reads:

    We should colonize the galaxy to prevent x-risk — no, space colonization is too impractical

    We should colonize the galaxy to prevent x-risk — no, space colonization increases x-risk rather than reducing it

    We should colonize the galaxy to prevent x-risk — no, humanity’s survival is less important than the galaxy’s ecological sanctity

    1. souleater

      I happened to see your comment, I was arguing against X-risk on that paper. My position was

      We should colonize the galaxy to prevent x-risk — no, space colonization is too impractical

  10. James Green

    Four of these look quite interesting to me, much higher than I expected.

    Not this one though: “Is eating meat a net harm?”

    Huh. Maybe I’m misunderstanding but I don’t see how you could say it isn’t a net harm. I say this even as someone who doesn’t plan on stopping eating meat. I’ll be interested to see what the scope of this question is.

    1. DragonMilk

      Harm seems pretty ill-defined.

      Eating meat is definitely a net positive for humans as well as all carnivores/omnivores. Nutritionally, carnivores have all sorts of health issues were they to go veggie.

      Harm to the eaten? Well that’s just tautological.

      Would rather it be a well-defined question like, “Is eating meat sustainable?” “Which meats, if any, are the most sustainable?” and look into chickens/pigs/cows killed each year per capita and evaluate the production needed to sustain this, and then expand it to the entire world’s population.

      1. acymetric

        I would guess they will define “harm” as part of the collaboration. The titles listed (as I understand it) are just Scott’s summary of the topic and didn’t come from the collaborators anyway.

      2. Freddie deBoer

        Meat is a huge part of global warming and thus not “definitely” a net positive for humans.

          1. DragonMilk

            Well wouldn’t that be solved by taking Chic Fil A’s advice of, “eat moar chikn”?

            Domestication of animals is its own topic, I think. Carnivores are usually hunters that thin the herd. Many population dynamics rely on the S-shape carrying capacities and such…business distorts those dynamics.

          2. zzzzort

            Domestication is inseparable from the social practice of eating meat. The biomass of livestock is more than 10 times all wild mammals and birds combined. Most carnivores might hunt for meat in the wild, but most meat is consumed by humans who have raised it for that purpose.

          3. Aapje

            I like big butts and I can not lie
            You other brothers can’t deny
            That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
            And a round thing in your face
            You get sprung

    2. meh

      i think the argument would be it makes the species successful, at the cost of making the animal miserable

  11. BlindKungFuMaster

    All sound interesting.

    I wonder whether “Should gene editing technologies be used in humans” is going to come up with any sensible arguments against.

    1. souleater

      I would think that the low hanging fruit for gene editing is, unless its free or accessible to everyone, your going to end up with the wealthy being smarter/healthier/more energetic/more attractive

      literally Übermensch which I could imagine causes problems long term. especially when you couple it with society not actually asking “have you had gene enhancement?” and instead, trying to figure out if you come from money and going from their.

      Its taking people with the most advantages, and giving them more, which cuts against the wests conceit of an even playing field.

      1. acymetric

        I would also imagine risks (of outright mistakes, or unintended consequences/side effects if we don’t fully understand the interactions of all the genes involved) would come into play.

      2. gkai

        Well, not really that special: if you buy the “education is important”, you can already invest in your children by educating them as best as you can, and the “as you can” depend on money, time you can invest, talent as educator, and so on. Sometime it’s considered as an unfair advantage (good school are too expensive…), sometimes as good planning or good parenting. But it’s never considered “evil” like gene-editing often is.

        Depending on your position in the nurture/nature debate, you may consider education/parenting similar, possibly even more sensitive, than gene editing, but somehow, even the most fervent believer of nurture first do not seems to fear education imbalance more than gene-editing.

        So maybe
        -gene editing will be accepted once common, it’s just fear of the unknown
        -everybody knows that education is not important and that genetic is destiny, the nurture proponent pretend education is a game-changer but do not really believe it…

        I believe it’s a combination of the two, with more of the second: the real fear is that gene editing will work really well and can be real differentiator for children and a huge initial control given to parents (or the entity deciding about gene-editing) on the children.

        Maybe it’s more subtle, a fear of too much choice and control: removing or reducing the initial genetic lottery change the certainty/luck ratio in one existence, and this kind of thing is extremely complex: too much and too little luck are both causes of existential fear…

        1. albatross11

          Just a nitpick: There’s a big difference between “Education is not important” and the sort of thing that seems more commonly argued (and more defensible, IMO) , which is something more like “There’s not much practical difference between public school and expensive private school” or “It doesn’t much matter whether you go to State U or Ivy U” or “Education matters more for the credentials than for the learning.”

      3. HomarusSimpson

        I would think that the low hanging fruit for gene editing is, unless its free or accessible to everyone, your going to end up with the wealthy being smarter/healthier/more energetic/more attractive

        As a first approximation, we can divide commercial goods/ services into those that are finite/ excludable (beach front property) and those that are infinitely replicable (data). Gene editing looks much more like the second. It might start expensive but as free market forces come into play it will tend towards many providers competing perfectly at asymptotically zero profit, and get increasingly cheap. Arguably given that it is the ultimate personal data, maybe your DNA profile will be saleable.

        1. Freddie deBoer

          It might start expensive but as free market forces come into play it will tend towards many providers competing perfectly at asymptotically zero profit, and get increasingly cheap.

          And is that what has happened with elite education and their credentials? Of course not, because the people behind those institutions know that the value of their product lies precisely in its rarity. So too with genetic engineering. And no matter what, if regular people access it they’ll be getting the bargain barrel version, not the white gloves version.

          1. Scott Alexander Post author

            Is “elite education” the right category here? Elite education can never be common, or we would stop defining it as “elite education”. Things that were elite education 100 years ago (like going to college, or having access to a library of books) have definitely become common.

            College education becoming common doesn’t seem to have driven the price down much (maybe? you could make an argument community college is cheap, but I don’t know how much of that is subsidies and what it would cost without them). But maybe a better distinction here would be Baumol-ish vs. non-Baumolish goods, and genetic engineering seems non-Baumol-ish enough to work.

          2. Alexander Turok

            Of course not, because the people behind those institutions know that the value of their product lies precisely in its rarity. So too with genetic engineering.

            Even if this is true, competitors have an incentive to expand the market from 20% to 21% to capture that extra 1% for themselves. To give an extreme example, aluminum was initially a precious metal. And it’s certainly not true that it can be modeled as a Veblen good: make everyone several SDs smarter and society as a whole becomes considerably richer.

            they’ll be getting the bargain barrel version, not the white gloves version.

            Is there a white gloves version of vaccines?

          3. acymetric

            I know you were just making up numbers, but creating a business to capture an extra 1% of uncaptured market isn’t necessarily viable. I would suggest it is probably rarely viable, which is one of the reasons that markets aren’t perfectly efficient.

          4. Aapje

            @Freddie deBoer

            Isn’t elite education primarily about networking, rather than actually being a much better education? If so, a quality education is not really rare, but having tons of elite people together, with a few token black people so they can pretend that they are not isolating themselves into an elite bubble.

            You can compare it to cars. A Bentley is not really any better at getting you from A to B than a Toyota. The main value of the former is the signalling.

            I really think that you have a very ideologically driven perception of how markets work, as something that denies things to the poor, while reality is a lot more nuanced than that.

      4. Anonymous McPseudonym

        @souleater Very true. But if we decide to forbid helping people, not because of any direct harm it causes but simply because of fear that their good fortune might hurt others in zero-sum games, or because of simple jealousy, that makes a mockery of ethics. The same argument would ban education, as gkai pointed out, or indeed any possible beneficial action, unless it was possible to direct that action to never go disproportionally to the rich or powerful.

        Is that what we want? To tear others down without any thought of the costs, simply so no one gets ahead of us?

        Because when people bring up inequality as an argument against genetic engineering of humans, one almost never hears an attempt to estimate harms (perhaps a permanently-healthy elite would no longer be willing to fund healthcare for the rest of us?), or balance them against benefits; the argument is simply: it’s unequal, therefore it’s wrong. That’s a mindset that would ban music lest we be unfair to the deaf, or even seek to deafen the whole world. That’s a mindset that looks at any good, purely because it is good, and hates it unless literally everyone can share in it right now. Is there a better definition of evil?

        1. albatross11

          One argument which assumes an extreme level of gene editing is that we might create our own successor species–we make a human variant that almost never gets sick, doesn’t get old, is much smarter, stronger, and more robust than normal humans, etc., and the new variant basically takes over and pushes almost all normal humans out of doing anything but living on their UBI. This seems very far away, but it’s not impossible.

          1. Aapje

            Or the new variant starts to regard Humans 1.0 as being more like the great apes in their rights than like Humans 2.0.

          2. TricksterPrinter

            Extreme levels of gene editing are inevitable. People that gene edit their children will be better in every way, therefore increasing the likelihood of the next generation to gene edit.
            Every generation, the proportion of gene edited babies will increase until there are no humans left that don’t gene edit. Those who gene edit the most will be most successful and therefore this leads to a spiral of extreme gene-editing.

        2. souleater

          Good points, To be clear, I’m not actually declaring opposition for gene editing, I’m just saying I think there are reasonable concerns.

          For the sake of argument, I think there is a difference between saying ban everything where where there is an unfair advantage and saying that a particular treatment will make you better at everything, but only if you’re wealthy enough will cause a lot of problems.

          1. Anonymous McPseudonym

            @albatross11 and souleater:

            Both of these are good points. Gene editing will likely create our successor species, and the resulting changes and increased inequality could produce serious problems. The Industrial Revolution created horrific problems for the artisans put out of work, and for the miners and factory workers forced into atrocious conditions. It is perfectly reasonable to expect an analogous disruption. Hopefully it will be less dire, given that the modern world is much richer, yet the changes could be even more profound, and possibly devastating. Concerns are absolutely valid and reasonable.

            On the other hand, without the Industrial Revolution, our current standard of living would be far lower, and due to reduced agricultural productivity, the vast majority of us would never have been born. Interest in maximizing the benefits of gene editing and minimizing the harms is sensible. Even opposing it on the grounds that the harms will exceed the benefits… well, I certainly don’t agree, but it’s not an obviously absurd position. But opposing it on the grounds of equality makes no sense morally or practically (and I recognize you’re not doing so, and just raising potential arguments).

      5. Michael Watts

        unless its free or accessible to everyone, your going to end up with the wealthy being smarter/healthier/more energetic/more attractive

        literally Übermensch which I could imagine causes problems long term.

        But the wealthy are already smarter, healthier, more energetic, and more attractive right now.

        1. Aapje

          We do have a lot of wealthy(ish) programmers here, many of whom presumably are not near the ceiling of health, energy and attractiveness. 😉

          1. acymetric

            I don’t see any reason to single out programmers…the accountants, lawyers, and various other miscellaneous are probably just as bad 😉

          2. Aapje

            If I remember the survey results correctly, programmers are a lot more common here than any other profession.

        2. souleater

          True, but my point is that the causality is inverted,

          Right now, people who win the genetic lottery tend to become rich(er),
          With Gene Editing, People who are rich win the genetic lottery.

          I feel like that would create a runaway effect of wealth begets genetic superiority begets more wealth.

          1. Aapje

            It all depends on the accessibility of the genetic editing. In the short term it will be for the rich only, but it may actually be more egalitarian than the current situation, if the price gets low enough, so as a society we’d fund it for everyone, just like we do for vaccines today.

            After all, if a 10 point boost in IQ costs $1000, it would be the best cost/benefit intervention for anti-crime, welfare, economic growth, improving education levels, etc just for each of these on their own, let alone the combination. The rich/middle class would be mad to not ensure that anyone can afford this, just for their own self-interest, let alone altruism.

            Similarly, it would be the best way to spend money for third world charity, in most cases.

          2. Lambert

            Also it depends how marginal returns diminish.
            If it’s far easier to take someone form IQ 70-80 than from 120-130, there’s not as much of an issue.

    2. zzzzort

      My argument against is that changing genes could have unforeseeable risks, and being able to make those changes over a substantial fraction of the population at once will result in large correlated risks.

      My guess is most early gene editing will be about curing disease, just because it’s easier and has bigger payoff. Say a therapy comes out that prevents the flu, gets large adoption, but results in vulnerability to some rare strains of the disease. Instead of some people getting really sick and some people not, or even most people getting sick and a lucky few being resistant, you could have a situation where nearly everyone is susceptible. A more uniform genetic landscape is in many ways more fragile, and this is especially important with regards to infectious disease.

      1. Mary

        The simplest ones are fix sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, etc.

        Those have the advantage that we know what we are doing.

        But an immune system boosting one could lead to auto-immune disorders.

      2. nitajain

        I agree that genetic diversity imparts resilience. Consider the fact that over half of all hepatocytes in humans exhibit polyploidy, meaning that instead of having two copies of each chromosome, they have four, eight, or even 16. Cells that contain an abnormal copy number of chromosomes are often seen as aberrant, but considering the liver’s role as a waste-processing plant, this type of built-in redundancy likely comes in handy upon exposure to DNA-denaturing substances. If a toxic substance damages a gene on one chromosome in a liver cell, the backup copies of that chromosome can ensure the gene will still function properly.

        In regard to infectious disease, reduction in gut microbiome diversity, such as that induced by antibiotics, leaves the host vulnerable to infection, C. difficile infection being one of the most well-characterized example of this phenomenon. In fact, loss of microbial gene diversity is observed not only in gastrointestinal conditions such as C. difficile infection, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome but also autism, allergies, autoimmunity, skin and atopic conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, diabetes, obesity, and neurologic disorders.

    3. TricksterPrinter

      The best argument against gene editing in humans is found in the last chapter of the book “The Revolutionary Phenotype”.
      The hypothesis is that gene editing will end DNA based life in the same way that DNA erased all RNA life-forms after DNA’s phenotypic revolution against RNA. By entrusting another replicator to the storage of our genes, we will engage in a replicator tango with the computers ending with the ‘victory’ of the computers.

      I hope the authors address these arguments.

      1. nitajain

        An interesting hypothesis, but I disagree with the premise that DNA erased all RNA life-forms. Retroviruses, such as HIV, still use RNA as their genetic repository. Additionally, much of the human genome is retroviral in nature through the incorporation of transposons. DNA has not replaced RNA; rather, DNA and RNA have amalgamated over the course of our evolutionary history. Additionally, gene editing will not create a novel genetic repository but will make changes in existing sequences. In regards to computer applications, DNA-based data storage solutions do indeed hold a great deal of potential from an efficiency standpoint. link text

        1. TricksterPrinter

          The existence of the RNA-viruses is actually used as evidence for the theory. I encourage you to read the book as it lays out the argument much better than i ever could and it addresses all your points.

    4. Sniffnoy

      Here are two arguments against (I don’t count the commonly-repeated inequality argument as a sensible argument). Not sure how much I believe either of these, but I’d consider them sensible arguments.

      The first was made by Ozy over at Thing of Things, so I’ll link it, but in short, the worry is that genetic engineering could go the way of selective breeding of animals — cranking up desired traits without regard for the welfare of those being engineered. That seems pretty unlikely to me, but it is at least an argument.

      The second — and this is the one that actually kind of scares me — is, well, what do we expect most people to use such a power to select for? I mean, ideally we make people who are smarter, stronger, etc, and get a more capable human race. But is intelligence what most people want from their children? I don’t have any sources on hand, but I recall seeing surveys to the effect that no, what most people want are children who are more agreeable or more obedient. So my worry is, you let the general population get their hands on this technology, that’s what they’re going to use it for. And, well, that’s basically game over for humanity as we know it, isn’t it?

      The counterargument, of course, is that, hey, being smart can get you money, disincentivizing this. But if things go too far, if things get too tribal, that may not be able to save you…

  12. Michael Watts

    Some of these remind me of a comment I saw Razib Khan make, along the lines of

    This is like holding a big, fraught ethical debate over the question ‘Should men have sex with women?’. It doesn’t matter what conclusion you come to; it’s going to happen.

    If I recall correctly, the ethical question he was making fun of was “Should religious views influence the law?”.

    I look forward to 6 not so much because I think the question is interesting in itself as because I think a lot of the relevant research will be interesting for other reasons.

    1. HarmlessFrog

      I will greatly enjoy picking apart the argument against meat, and possibly the particulars of caloric restriction.

  13. Jliw

    I’m very excited to read the one about calorie restriction. This is a topic I’ve often wondered about, with potentially life-changing consequences (at least, certainly for me!).

    (Too, I think less emotionally-charged topics like calorie restriction and space-based x-risk mitigation might result in better collaborations — as much as I might try to be objective, I think a topic I have strong emotions about would lead me to evaluate evidence less fairly, use sneakier debating tactics, etc. With a topic I have an opinion on but haven’t staked my identity to, I could approach the Adverboration in much more of a spirit of “hey let’s figure this out together”.)

    (Therefore, without knowing anything about any of the participants, and recklessly extrapolating my failings and obsessions to everyone else, I predict that 3 and 4 will be judged as better than 1 and 2.)

    1. DragonMilk

      For what it’s worth, even if you don’t live longer, it’s good to try a fast (where you drink only water) when you’re healthy.

      If I ever get the time, I’m going to try for two weeks (I’ve only ever done weekends for now, given…work)

      1. mika

        Any particular reason why you think even healthy people should fast? From what I’ve heard the studies seem to show you get most of the benefits of fasting by just being slim in the first place.

        1. NoRandomWalk

          My understanding (mostly from reading victor longo’s book the longevity diet), is that when you fast, it kills off some cells as your body goes into fasting mode, and the cells it kills off are the least healthy ones. Triggering this process (say by fasting for 2 weeks every year) is claimed to be beneficial.

          Re. your point about being skinny vs. fasting, my understanding is that the randomized controlled studies on rheesus monkies found that fasting helped no matter their diet, and calorie restriction only helped those that had an unhealthy diet, suggesting calorie restriction only good for unhealthy people, fasting good for all people

          1. NoRandomWalk

            I don’t know the science well enough to comment.

            Victor Longo’s recommended method is to XX for 2 weeks consecutively every year, where XX is ‘eat about 500 calories daily of mostly low-carb vegetables, and a little bit of animal protein ideally fish’

          2. DNM

            Randy M, that sounds suspiciously to me like the diet used to treat SIBO, which doesn’t care about calories but cares a lot about calorie sources and timing. Coincidence?

  14. robirahman

    Can’t wait to read these!

    niko and I haven’t finished ours yet; would it be permissible to keep working on it and submit it as an entry into next year’s contest? I think our topic (What is the optimal diet?) is just too broad to write about exhaustively in three months.

    1. Jake Abdalla

      ^^ this should be allowed I think, encourages good/more work overall which seems more important that perfect fairness in the contest?

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      You can still submit for this year until the contest is over (probably two weeks). If you want to wait until next year, that’s fine, but I’m split on whether I’m going to hold another one next year, so don’t take that as a promise.

        1. lunawarrior

          I’d imagine this is a lot of work. And he is putting up $2,500, which while it comes from Patreon, he could just use or donate that money to bed nets.

        2. Scott Alexander Post author

          I think I was hoping adversarial collaborations would be an amazing new truthseeking tool that would catch on once I primed the pump. Although they are pretty good, I don’t see anyone other than me leaping to do something like this, and I have to fight really hard to get entries to the contest on time or at all, and it seems like it usually causes a big mess (lots of teams where people drop out or disappear or give up). I was thinking of switching to a book review contest next year, since lots of people around this community post amazing book reviews even without being asked.

          1. Randy M

            Keep in mind, when thinking about response to your contest, that you are trying to get people to write research papers basically as passion projects (sure, with a shot at nice compensation) in their spare time. It would be more useful if the norm spread among people whose job it was to do research or reporting.

          2. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie

            To follow up on Randy’s point, these are always interesting and useful but in order to really provide a lot of value added they would need to be done by credentialed experts on both sides with years of study under their belts rather than smart people with a layman’s knowledge and a few months of reading studies in their spare time. Not only are experts better able to select the most important data and arguments, but non-expert participants are highly likely to wind up in asymmetric pairs, where for whatever reason one side ends up better researched or more persuasively synthesized than the other.

          3. Itai Bar-Natan

            Response to Randy and RC: Alas, I don’t think Scott has the funding or connections to encourage more time and expertise-intensive adversarial collaborations, so these caveats do not really affect Scott’s decision whether or not to set up more adversarial collaboration contests in the future. I don’t think your comments were intended to change Scott’s mind, and you are right to point out that even if Scott’s experiment doesn’t work out as spectacularly well as he hoped the concept is not exhausted and a more intensive version is still an interesting experiment.

          4. Aapje


            There are some influential people who read this blog and who refer to this blog in prominent places. So it seems possible that one of the adversarial collaborations triggers such a person to signal boost this endeavor, which in turn might result in prominent copycats (like the NYT or WaPo trying this out*).

            Assuming that it takes an adversarial collaboration that truly resonates with people, this may be a matter of endurance to luckily stumble upon a topic that ‘goes viral,’ as the kids say.

            It is even possible that an adversarial collaboration will ‘touch’ an influential person long after it is published.

            Assuming that this works like a shotgun, where it is hard to predict where the pellets will go, but some might hit the target by chance, there is something to be said for firing more shot.

            * Although this would likely be of lesser quality than SSC adversarial collaborations, since the standard at the NYT and WaPo is not as high. Also, it is quite challenging for the media to get a serious collaboration between two (prominent and busy) people going, so they might not consider it practical.

          5. aristides

            For what it is worth, a book review contest sounds like a great idea, that will generate a lot of content for lower cost. I registered for your first adversarial collaboration, but dropped out due to coordination difficulties. A book review wouldn’t have the coordination difficulties, so I would expect you to get many more contestants, with the same reward.

            It would also be interesting to have a requirement that the reviewer fundamentally disagrees with the books thesis. It might be hard to verify, but even if lying they would have a steep ideological Turing test.

          6. whereamigoing

            If book reviews are already a thing, but adversarial collaborations tend not to happen without encouragement, that seems precisely a good reason to keep holding these contests to try to make the idea catch on. Though I guess making a detailed review of a book you disagree with might count as sort of an adversarial collaboration with the author.

          7. Hummingbird

            I consider the value that adversarial collaborations present, in their current form, worthwhile for their continuance. Primarily for two reasons:
            1. relatively well-researched topics provide relatively well-informed opinions for a great many readers, especially in a community of cooperative collaborators and earnest readers.
            2. The format itself may take more than two iterations over two years to demonstrate to gain more widespread appeal.

            Furthermore, if the reason for discontinuing the collaborations is due to the effort of coordination I would consider taking up the coordination only (responsibility for the prize, hosting, posting, etc. would be elsewhere). Let me know if this sounds of interest.

      1. robirahman

        If we finish it next year but you decide not to do a contest, would you still post it just for fun?

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