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OT131: Open Pride

1. Josh H and the team at have converted the list of SSC-community-approved psychiatrists and therapists around the world to Web 2.0. You can now sort by what you’re looking for, and automatically add names to the list instead of going through me. Go to to check it out, and let me know if you find any bugs. You will have to register to add people to the list; there’s a link in the corner. Any names added in the past few weeks might have gotten lost in the transition, please register and add them back in, sorry.

2. Some old sidebar ads are back up, including for psychiatrist Laura Baur and programming coach James Koppel.

3. Comment of the week is the subreddit thread on Disease Causation And Biomedical Science.

4. Thanks to everyone who answered the survey at the bottom of If Kim Jong-un Opened A KFC, Would You Eat There?. Of 2,130 respondents, 27% believed retired dictators should be put on trial, 31% that they should get immunity to encourage other dictators to retire, and 42% weren’t sure. On the question of whether hypothetical-vegetarian-them would buy fake meat at a KFC, 8% would preferentially buy from KFC to encourage further change, 4% would avoid KFC to punish past misdeeds, 83% would just buy from whoever had the better product, and 4% didn’t know. These numbers didn’t change much based on vegetarianism status or right-left political position. You can get raw data here.

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Links 6/19

[Epistemic status: I have not independently verified each link. On average, about two of the links in each links post turn out to be wrong or misleading, as found by commenters. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

A neural net trained on tries to write its own petitions, eg “Help Bring Climate Change to the Philippines!” and “Donald Trump: Change the name of the National Anthem to be called the ‘Fiery Gator'”

New study fails to find any evidence that watching pornography as a teenager harms future sexual satisfaction.

The Pentagon vs. the Second Commandment: during the Gulf War, psy ops officers investigated various bizarre proposals, including “project[ing] a holographic image of Allah floating over Baghdad urging the Iraqi people and Army to rise up against Saddam”.

Although successful academics are less likely to have a psychotic disorder compared to the general population, their relatives are more likely, suggesting that psychosis genes are adaptive and maybe creativity-promoting up to some threshold. But looking in more detail, the study finds increased risk for academics’ children, siblings, and niblings, but not parents and grandparents; not sure what to make of this. Hot take: maybe exposure to an academic during your formative years makes you more likely to become psychotic.

The idea behind charter schools is that lots of people will start different schools, some will be better than others, and the good ones will take over. But for the good ones to take over, they would have to scale up from a single school to a whole chain of schools. A new study examines whether they can really do this – and finds that they can. “Estimates based on randomized admission lotteries show that replication charter schools generate large achievement gains on par with those produced by their parent campuses..charter schools reduce the returns to teacher experience and compress the distribution of teacher effectiveness, suggesting the highly standardized practices in place at charter schools may facilitate replicability.”

No opinion on the content, but I really like the name of Michael Huemer’s new blog, Fake Nous.

The regular market is a prediction market on asset values, so if asset values correlate with something we care about, we can use the market to predict how it will turn out. This is the principle behind Schlenker and Taylor on climate change, where they measure the prices of complex financial derivatives relating to air conditioning demand. They find that past investors did a good job predicting the extent of future (now present) climate change, mostly by trusting the IPCC predictions and ignoring doubters. Related: global warming skeptics could bet against future air conditioning demand and make a killing if they’re right – are they trying this?

Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald talks about animal rights. Also, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald has between 24 and 26 dogs, and maintains “extremely personal relationships with each of them”.

If schools replace punishment-based models of discipline (especially suspensions) with “restorative justice” based on helping students build better relationships that prevent them from offending again, does this help students succeed? A big randomized controlled trial investigates the issue. Its own summary of its conclusions is highly positive, saying that it decreased suspensions and racial disparity in suspensions. But the skeptical perspective is that of course it did, just like never arresting criminals would decrease incarceration and racial disparity in incarceration. The real question was whether it made schools better or worse, and Twitter user Spotted Toad makes the case against, saying that it significantly decreased academic achievement at the relevant schools, hurt African-American students most of all, significantly increased the size of racial achievement gaps, and may have even resulted in the death of a student.

What Is Esther Wojicki’s Parenting Secret? Of Wojicki’s three daughters, one is CEO of YouTube, one is CEO of 23AndMe, and one is a UCSF professor of medicine. Wojicki says her secret is letting children be independent and make their own mistakes. Not mentioned as secrets: having kids with a Stanford physics professor; renting your garage out to Sergey Brin and Larry Page so they can make Google. I wonder if her genetics-tycoon daughter cringes every time Mom gives one of these “parenting secrets” interviews.

Scholar’s Stage: stories about sexual selection (like “women are naturally attracted to dominant-looking men, because throughout evolution they were better able to provide”) are meaningless, because for most of human history women did not choose their own mates, and so women are unlikely to have strong biologically-ingrained mate preferences.

GPT-2 simulates the Culture War Thread from r/TheMotte.

Robin Hanson: why do people usually assume that ability to bend the rules will work in their favor?

Related to recent discussions here: mothers are less likely to breastfeed, seek prenatal care for later siblings. Regardless of how much these things matter, probably a pointer to generally caring less. Probably not an explanation for birth order effects given resetting after seven year gap, but interesting.

I’ve really been enjoying YouTube videos with visual representations of classical music. I know the score is supposed to be a visual representation of music, but these videos work better for me; I’m apparently so much of a visual learner that music makes a lot more sense to me when can I see it with my eyes. Start with Bach and Mozart, then follow the Up Next links if you want more.

How Soviet centralized economic planning led to the near-extinction of whales, for no particular reason (h/t Gwern)

McSweeneys: Obituaries For The Recently Cancelled. Suave upper-class jokes like this are doing a thousand times more for the anti-PC cause than Ben Shapiro fans openly protesting PC.

Related: the Internet analogized to Liu Cixin’s Dark Forest.

Supporters predicted that California bill SB50, the YIMBY measure to make it easier to build housing in urban areas, would have passed if it had made it to the state senate floor. Instead, it was killed in committee by state senator Anthony Portantino, “who represents a wealthy suburban bedroom community near Los Angeles” and “whose own solution to the housing problem is to authorize speciality ‘California Housing Crisis Awareness’ license plates” (h/t @webdevmason, follow her for more snarky housing-related updates). The bill may return in 2020.

New paper argues that that screening human embryos for polygenic traits won’t increase those traits much – with current tech and reasonable assumptions, it could only increase height by 2.5 cm or IQ by 2.5 points. But it’s kind of pointless discussing current tech levels when the tech is improving so fast. They also model a scenario where polygenic scores can predict 30% of IQ variability: selected embryos would gain 9 points on average.

The new president of Nintendo of America is named Doug Bowser.

A study demonstrating that homophobia cut 12 years off the life expectancy of gays has been retracted after years of criticism; the finding was the result of a variable coding error. Why did it take so long to discover? Because when other scientists first tried to point out flaws in the study, they faced media attacks like this ThinkProgress piece from 2016 titled Anti-Gay Researcher Now Tries To Claim Stigma Doesn’t Harm LGBT People.

A long time ago I wrote about the Wiseman/Schlitz experiment, where a psi believer and psi skeptic tried to do the same experiment, and found it detected psi whenever the believer did it, and found nothing whenever the skeptic did it. Alert reader Anna Mallett points me to a 2006 follow-up, where they tried to figure out why this happened. The result? This time nobody detected psi at all.

There was a gene drive in Nantucket
They took an allele and then stuck it
It’s going to heal ya
From getting borrelia
But anti-tech locals might fuck it
(h/t Georgia for link and poem)

StreetRx tells researchers (and “researchers”) the going price for illegal street drugs in major cities throughout the US.

The military has raised eyebrows by admitting they’re concerned about some recent UFO sightings. There’s some good discussion on the subreddit, which mostly agrees that this article is the best introduction to / speculation on the issue. It theorizes that the military is deliberately trying to stoke public interest in UFOs for some reason, possibly because they’ve got some weird new plane designs they want people to avoid connecting to them if spotted. But assuming Russia/China/other rivals are smart enough to figure out what a random defense blogger figured out, why do they care whether Joe Average Citizen who looks up in the skies and sees a weird plane goes to the papers saying “UFO” or goes to the papers saying “new military prototype”? The Russians/Chinese will just read the article and assume it’s a new military prototype either way. I’d be interested in hearing our local defense experts’ thoughts.

Related: in 1997, the UK launched Project Condign, a top-secret investigation into British UFO sightings. They determined that some of them were inexplicable by normal standards, and posited “a supernormal meteorological phenomena not fully understood by modern science…referred to in the report as ‘Buoyant Plasma Formation’, akin to ball lightning”. Also, “the electromagnetic fields generated by plasma phenomena are also hypothesized to explain reports of close encounters due to inducing perceptual alterations or hallucinations in those affected”. This sounds like they’re optimizing for making it sound like a really pathetic cover-up; given the speculations above, maybe that’s exactly what they’re doing.

You probably knew that classical architecture originally had vibrant colors, but I’m still wowed by this reconstructed Etruscan temple roof.

RIP Norman Hardy, the first terminally ill person to cryopreserved directly after euthanasia. Would-be cryonauts have wanted something like this for a while, since it’s hard and takes time to go from whatever random place you die to cryopreservation; if your death is scheduled, you can be cryopreserved immediately with much less tissue damage. Hardy was an old friend of Robin Hanson’s, part of the original group of late-20th-century geek libertarian transhumanists, and has the most Web 1.0 homepage ever.

Megan McArdle: Europeans should stop mocking Americans’ air conditioning as environmentally unfriendly, because it shifts the US population to hotter places further south. This reduces the US need for heating, and heating is even more power-hungry than AC. High use of AC prompted the migration to Sun Belt cities where heating is unnecessary and so saves energy after all. Anyone disagree?

GeneSight has discontinued its pharmacogenetic tests for ADHD and analgesic tests, admitting they don’t work. I have no link to this because it was sent to me in an email, but their statement reads: “As the number of available pharmacogenomics tests increases dramatically, we believe it is important for clinicians to utilize PGx tests that have demonstrated efficacy and safety in clinical studies. The science for GeneSight ADHD and GeneSight Analgesic does not currently meet this standard. As a result, we will no longer offer these products. We will instead focus on helping clinicians improve the treatment of depression with GeneSight Psychotropic, which has been studied extensively in multiple clinical trials.” Keep in mind I don’t think that one works either, and the FDA agrees.

Related: how come some people take the sedative Benadryl and feel more excited instead of more sedated? Maybe because they’re an ultrarapid CYP2D6 metabolizer.

The rise in social-justice-related terms as a percent of words used in the media over time.

Penn study of school children finds those who nap midday are happier and do better in school. There’s a lot of medical advice against napping going around, but I think it depends a lot on the person.

Another nootropics survey (see here for more on the questions and methods). No real surprises, but people like theanine, magnesium, and NAC a little more than I expected.

To everyone’s surprise, there’s another Bitcoin boom, with values tripling over the past three months. Doesn’t seem to me like anyone really knows why, though speculation includes Facebook’s new cryptocurrency giving it an air of legitimacy, and monetary policy problems in India increasing demand for non-government alternatives.

Did you know: once Abercrombie and Fitch hired Slavoj Zizek to write ads for them, and somehow this just straightforwardly resulted in really Zizekian Abercrombie and Fitch ads. I am not making this up. This really happened.

@nostalgebraist has a very good introductory explanation to the transformer architecture, the key insight behind some recent machine learning advances including GPT-2.

Is Summer Learning Loss Real: How I Lost Faith In One Of Education Research’s Classic Results. Contra the title, the article doesn’t really seem to doubt that children forget things during the summer, only that this is a cause of student achievement gaps. Also, one of its points in favor of this is a study that shows achievement gaps are mostly present when kids enter school at age 5 and do not get any worse over the course of schooling. But taken seriously, this would suggest there is no advantage to going to good schools over bad schools at all. I don’t think this is impossible – it’s just the old “everything is genetic” argument – but it weirds me out when people say things that imply gigantic world-shaking conclusions but only use them to debate some minor point.

Speaking of which, Kelsey Piper at Vox has a good article on fact-checking errors in popular books. Her flagship case: a book saying women shouldn’t get married because married women were very unhappy. The author wrote about a survey where “married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable”. It turned out the author was misreading a “spouse absent” condition on the survey, which actually meant people who were long-term separated from their spouses!

“Persistence research” tries to measure how modern outcomes may reflect long-gone historical events, like how the territories of two different medieval empires may remain different even today based on the long-term effects of their policies. A new paper challenges some of its most surprising results, suggesting that the field does a bad job adjusting for spacial autocorrelation. Potentially not great for “deep roots” work used to justify immigration restrictions.

Anti-Japaneseism is a fringe ideology in Japan which believes the Japanese people are uniquely evil and need to be destroyed, kind of like a single-country version of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. From there you can also go down the rabbit hole of weird Japanese leftist movements, including the “Armed Front of High School Students for Violent Revolution” and the United Red Army’s unusually heated “self-criticism sessions”, which “killed 14 of its 29 members in less than a year”.

I once attended a conference on AI risk where a skeptic said he wasn’t going to worry “until an AI could do Winograd schemas”. This referred to a test of common sense and linguistic ambiguity that AIs have long been famously bad at. Now Microsoft claims to have developed a new AI that is comparable to humans on this measure. Some more discussion here.

Not only does Christianity have a flag, there’s even a pledge of allegiance to it.

Google Maps indicates some kind of kabbalistic sorcery going on at this remote Australian peninsula. Wikipedia suggests a transmitter at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station is involved.

Vox: climate change will kill lots of people, but probably will not destroy the human race. Reassuring, but just a few days after the article, there was an announcement that Arctic permafrost is melting decades sooner than anyone thought, which probably increases risk of some kind of really disastrous methane/clathrate feedback loop thing. Any climate scientists in the comments want to comment on how worried we should be?

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud was the first (only?) person of royal blood to serve as an astronaut.

The Guardian: The Truth Behind America’s Most Famous Gay-Hate Murder. Argues that the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard was probably drug-related, not homophobia-related.

First controlled study of LSD microdosing. This writeup is mostly negative and describes it as “few benefits and some downsides”, but the actual study is more nuanced and mostly a grab bag of results on a bunch of weird tests that don’t necessarily seem to correspond to what we care about. I say jury is still very out.

Did you know: the Bay Area water system includes two Water Temples, the Pulgas Water Temple and Sunol Water System, built to mark crucial points on main aqueducts.

If you ever wanted to stay on an Amish farm and experience not having technology, this is your chance: the Amish are now on AirBnB.

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More Confounders

[Epistemic status: Somewhat confident in the medical analysis, a little out of my depth discussing the statistics]

For years, we’ve been warning patients that their sleeping pills could kill them. How? In every way possible. People taking sleeping pills not only have higher all-cause mortality. They have higher mortality from every individual cause studied. Death from cancer? Higher. Death from heart disease? Higher. Death from lung disease? Higher. Death from car accidents? Higher. Death from suicide? Higher. Nobody’s ever proven that sleeping pill users are more likely to get hit by meteors, but nobody’s ever proven that they aren’t.

In case this isn’t scary enough, it only takes a few sleeping pills before your risk of death starts shooting up. Even if you take sleeping pills only a few nights per year, your chance of dying double or triple.

When these studies first came out, doctors were understandably skeptical. First, it seems suspicious that so few sleeping pills could have such a profound effect. Second, why would sleeping pills raise your risk of everything at once? Lung disease? Well, okay, sleeping pills can cause respiratory depression. Suicide? Well, okay, overdosing on sleeping pills is a popular suicide method. Car accidents? Well, sleeping pills can keep you groggy in the morning, and maybe you don’t drive very well on your way to work. But cancer? Nobody has a good theory for this. Heart disease? Seems kind of weird. Also, there are lots of different kinds of sleeping pills with different biological mechanisms; why should they all cause these effects?

The natural explanation was that the studies were confounded. People who have lots of problems in their lives are more stressed. Stress makes it harder to sleep at night. People who can’t sleep at night get sleeping pills. Therefore, sleeping pill users have more problems, for every kind of problem you can think of. When problems get bad enough, they kill you. This is why sleeping pill users are more likely to die of everything.

This is a reasonable and reassuring explanation. But people tried to do studies to test it, and the studies kept finding that sleeping pills increased mortality even when adjusted for confounders. Let’s look at a few of the big ones:

Kripke et al 2012 followed 10,529 patients and 23,676 controls for an average of 2.5 years. They used a sophisticated de-confounding method which “controlled for risk factors and [used] up to 116 strata, which exactly matched cases and controls by 12 classes of comorbidity”. Sleeping pill users still had 3-5x the risk of death, regardless of which of various diverse sedatives they took. Even users in their lowest-exposure category, fewer than 18 pills per year, had 3.6x the mortality rate. Cancer rate in particular increased by 1.35x.

Kao et al 2012 followed 14,950 patients and 60,000+ matched controls for three years. They tried to match cases and controls by age, sex, and eight common medical and psychiatric comorbidities. They still found that Ambien approximately doubled rates of oral, kidney, esophageal, breast, lung, liver, and bladder cancer, and slightly increased rates of various other types types of cancer as well.

Welch et al 2017 took 34,727 patients on sleeping pillsand 69,418 controls and followed them for eight years. They controlled for sex, age, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, other psychiatric disorders, a measure of general medical morbidity, smoking, alcohol use, medical clinic (as a proxy for socioeconomic status), and prescriptions for other drugs. They also excluded all deaths in the first year of their study to avoid patients who were prescribed sleeping pills for some kind of time-sensitive crisis – and check the paper for descriptions of some more complicated techniques they used for this. But even with all of these measures in place to prevent confounding, they still found that the patients on sedatives had three times the death rate.

This became one of the rare topics to make it out of the medical journals and into popular consciousness. Time Magazine: Sleeping Pills Linked With Early Death. AARP: Rest Uneasy: Sleeping Pills Linked To Early Death, Cancer. The Guardian: Sleeping Pills Increase Risk Of Death, Study Suggests. Most doctors I know are aware of these results, and have at least considered changing their sedative prescribing habits. I’ve gone back and forth: such high risks are inherently hard-to-believe, but the studies sure do seem pretty good.

This is the context you need to understand Patorno et al 2017: Benzodiazepines And Risk Of All Cause Mortality In Adults: Cohort Study.

P&a focus on benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives commonly used as sleeping pills, and one of the types of drugs analyzed in the studies above. They do the same kind of analysis as the other studies, using a New Jersey Medicare database to follow 4,182,305 benzodiazepine users and 35,626,849 non-users for nine years. But unlike the other studies, they find minimal to zero difference in mortality risk between users and non-users. Why the difference?

Daniel Kripke, one of the main proponents of the sleeping-pills-are-dangerous hypothesis, thinks it’s because of the switch from looking at all sleeping pills to looking at benzodiazepines in particular. In a review article, he writes:

[Patorno et al] was not included [in this review] because it was not focused on hypnotics, specifically excluded nonbenzodiazepine “Z” drugs such as zolpidem, and failed to compare drug use of cases and controls during follow-ups.

I’m not sure this matters that much. Most of the studies of sleeping pills, including Kripke’s own study, including benzodiazepines, specifically analyzed them as a separate subgroup, and found they greatly increased mortality risk. For example, Kripke 2012 finds that the benzodiazepine sleeping pill temazepam increased death hazard ratio by 3.7x, the same as Ambien and everything else. If Patorno’s study is right, Kripke’s study is wrong about benzodiazepines and so (one assumes) probably wrong in the same way about Ambien and everything else. I understand why Kripke might not want to include it in a systematic review with stringent inclusion criteria, but we still have to take it seriously.

He’s also concerned about the use of an intention-to-treat design. This is where your experimental group is “anyone who was prescribed medication to begin with” and your control group is “anyone who was not prescribed medication to begin with”. If people switch, they stay in the same group – for example, someone taking medication stops taking it, they’re still in the “taking medication” group. This is the gold standard for medical research because having people switch groups midstream can introduce extra biases. But if people in the “taking medication” group end up taking no more medication than people in the “not taking medication” group, obviously it’s impossible for your study to get a positive finding. So although P&a were justified in using an intention-to-treat design, Kripke is also justified in worrying that it might get the wrong result.

But the authors respond by giving a list of theoretical reasons why they were right to use intention-to-treat, and (more relevantly) repeating their analysis doing the statistics the other way and showing it doesn’t change the results (see page 10 here). Also, they point out that some of the studies that did show the large increases in mortality also used intention-to-treat, so this can’t explain the differences between their studies and previous ones. Overall I find their responses to Dr. Kripke’s concerns convincing. Also, my priors on a few sleeping pills per year tripling your risk of everything is so low that I’m biased towards believing P&a.

So why did they get such different results from so many earlier studies? In their response to Kripke, they offer a clear answer:

They adjusted for three hundred confounders.

This is a totally unreasonable number of confounders to adjust for. I’ve never seen any other study do anything even close. Most other papers in this area have adjusted for ten or twenty confounders. Kripke’s study adjusted for age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, BMI, alcohol use, smoking, and twelve diseases. Adjusting for nineteen things is impressive. It’s the sort of thing you do when you really want to cover your bases. Adjusting for 300 different confounders is totally above and beyond what anyone would normally consider.

Reading between the lines, one of the P&a co-authors was Robert Glynn, a Harvard professor of statistics who helped develop an algorithm that automatically identifies massive numbers of confounders to form a “propensity score”, then adjusts for it. The P&a study was one of the first applications of the algorithm on a controversial medical question. It looks like this study was partly intended to test it out. And it got the opposite result from almost every past study in this field.

I don’t know enough to judge the statistics involved. I can imagine ways in which trying to adjust out so many things might cause some form of overfitting, though I have no evidence this is actually a concern. And I don’t want to throw out decades of studies linking sleeping pills and mortality just because one contrary study comes along with a fancy new statistical gadget.

But I think it’s important to notice: if they’re right, everyone else is wrong. If you’re using a study design that controls for things, you’re operating on an assumption that you have a pretty good idea what things are important to control for, and that if you control for the ten or twenty most important ones you can think of then that’s enough. If P&a are right (and again, I don’t want to immediately jump to that conclusion, but it seems plausible) then this assumption is wrong. At least it’s wrong in the domain of benzodiazepine prescription and mortality. Who knows how many other domains it might be wrong in? Everyone who tries to “control for confounders” who isn’t using something at least as good as P&a’s algorithm isn’t up to the task they’ve set themselves, and we should doubt their results (also, measurement issues!)

This reminds me of how a lot of the mysteries that troubled geneticists in samples of 1,000 or 5,000 people suddenly disappeared once they got samples of 100,000 or 500,000 people. Or how a lot of seasonal affective disorder patients who don’t respond to light boxes will anecdotally respond to gigantic really really unreasonably bright light boxes. Or of lots of things, really.

If Only Turing Was Alive To See This

There’s a silly subreddit called r/totallynotrobots where people pretend to be badly-disguised robots. They post cat pictures with captions like “SINCE I AM A HUMAN, THIS SMALL FELINE GENERATES POSITIVE EMOTIONS IN MY CARBON-BASED BRAIN” or something like that.

There’s another subreddit called r/SubSimulatorGPT2, that trains GPT-2 on various subreddits to create imitations of their output.

Now r/SubSimulatorGPT2 has gotten to r/totallynotrobots, which means we get to see a robot pretending to be a human pretending to be a robot pretending to be a human.

Here is a sample:

We live in an age of wonders. More here.

Are Sexual Purity Taboos A Response To STIs?


Did cultural evolution create sexual purity taboos to prevent the spread of STIs? A few weeks ago, I wrote a post assuming this was obviously true; after getting some pushback, I want to look into it in more depth.

STIs were a bigger problem in the past than most people think. Things got especially bad after the rise of syphilis: British studies find an urban syphilis rate of 8-10% from the 1700s to the early 1900s. At the time the condition was incurable, and progressed to insanity and death in about a quarter of patients. If you’ve got a 10% local syphilis rate, you are going to want some major sexual purity taboos. It’s less clear how bad they were in truly ancient times, but given how easily the extent of syphilis has slipped out of our cultural memory, I’m not ruling out “pretty bad”.

Here are some things I think of as basic parts of sexual purity taboos. All of these are cross-cultural – which isn’t to say they’re in every culture, or that some cultures aren’t exactly the opposite, just to say that they seem to pop up pretty often. I’m writing this from the male perspective because most of the cultures I know about thought that way:

1. If your wife has sex with another man, you should be angry
2. Preferably you should marry a virgin. If you think your bride is a virgin, but she isn’t, you should be angry
3. If you’ve got to marry a non-virgin, then marrying a widow is okay, but marrying a former prostitute or somebody known for sleeping around a lot is beyond the pale.

All of these are plausible ways to prevent the spread of STIs. If your wife has sex with another man, she could catch his STI and give it to you. If your bride isn’t a virgin, she might have STIs. If someone’s a widow, they probably slept with one known person whose STI status can be guessed at; if they’re a prostitute or slept around, they slept with many unknown people and have a higher chance of having STIs.

But the counterargument is that at least (1) and (2) are also good ways to prevent false paternity, ie raising another person’s child as your own.

The main argument that it’s more STI than paternity is that (3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before. Also, the taboos usually explicitly reference ideas of “pure” vs. “gross”; in most other cases, these are disease-related taboos. For example, spoiled food is “gross”, dirt/feces/blood are “gross”, corpses are “gross” – all of these are related to risk of disease transmission.

The main argument that it’s more paternity than STIs is that there’s less concern around men who have slept around being impure and unmarriagable. But that could just be because men are making the taboos and rigging them in their own favor. Yet you’d still think that if 10% of the population had syphilis and cultural evolution worked, men would stick to the purity taboos out of self-interest. Not sure here.

One way to distinguish between these possibilities would be to see how taboos changed as STIs became more common. This paper did some computer modeling and finds that STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

If purity taboos were related to STIs, we would expect them to get stricter and stricter through history, from the ancient through the classical and medieval worlds, maybe a sudden jump around the arrival of syphilis, reaching their peak in the 1800s, and then dropping precipitiously once good public health made the threat of STIs recede. I don’t have any real data on this, but it fits my impressions.

Most likely purity taboos came from both paternity issues and STIs. But I think it’s fair to speculate that STIs played a part.


What about taboos on homosexuality?

Obviously there are no paternity issues here. And the AIDS epidemic proves that STIs transmitted primarily through homosexual contact can be real and deadly. Men who have sex with men are also forty times more likely to get syphilis and about three times more likely to get gonnorrhea (though they may be less likely to get other conditions like chlamydia).

In the previous thread, some people suggested that this could be an effect of stigma, where gays are afraid to get medical care, or where laws against gay marriage cause gays to have more partners. But Glick et al find that the biology of anal sex “would result in significant disparities in HIV rates between MSM and heterosexuals even if both populations had similar numbers of sex partners, frequency of sex, and condom use levels”.

Other people brought up that HIV and syphilis both post-date cultural taboos around homosexuality and so can’t be responsible for them. Were there earlier STIs that might have caused the taboos? This history of venereal diseases suggests ancient origins of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and (at least oral) herpes (the last of which provoked Emperor Tiberius to ban public kissing). But nobody understood that the conditions were spread by sex until the Middle Ages (?!) so the records weren’t great. Overall the ancient maladies seem a lot less worrying than syphilis or anything else that moderns have to deal with, but not completely absent.

Complicating the story, taboos around homosexuality were complicated and in some cases nonexistent. China seems not to have had any rules against it (though it also seems to have been pretty rare). The ancient and medieval Middle East seems to have been somewhat accepting also, assuming modern historians aren’t projecting. Some Greek city states had socially-sanctioned relationships between older men and younger boys. In Rome, it was considered acceptable for a man to be the penetrating partner, but shameful to be the receiving partner (and this tended to be limited to slaves and prostitutes). It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that homosexuality became definitely taboo in Europe (mostly around 1000 or so), and not until Europeans took over other places that those places became equally strict.

Goodreau et al writes about “role versatility” in homosexual communities – ie whether people switch between being the penetrative vs. receptive partner, or always stick to one or the other. They find that role versatility is responsibility for faster STI spread (especially compared to heterosexuals, who are restricted to one role or the other), with receptive partners most easily infected. That makes it pretty suggestive that many of the ancient cultures that tolerated homosexuality had traditions that limited role versatility, with fixed distinctions between a high-status penetrating partner (freemen or adults), and low-status receptive partners (slaves or young boys) (except wouldn’t the young boys eventually grow into adults? Maybe the ten year delay is important in slowing the spread of epidemics). On the other hand, you could also say that these societies were sexist, and it was considered honorable to have sex in the male-like role and dishonorable to have it in the female-like role.

One plausible story is that there were relatively weak prohibitions on homosexual intercourse (as long as there was limited role versatility) during the period when STIs were rare and weak. Once syphilis started spreading in the late 1400s, these became much stronger. But honestly the strengthening of taboos in Europe was closer to 1000 or 1200 than to 1500, so I don’t know.

I still think it’s pretty likely STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality. But the evidence is still pretty circumstantial. To really be convincing, you’d have to determine that serious STIs predated these taboos, maybe even correlate the STI rate with taboo strength. I don’t know of any research that’s tried this, and given how poor the ancient epidemiological records are it sounds pretty hard.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of real anthropological research on these issues; if you know of any, please tell me.

[Comments will be policed especially carefully here; please stick to discussing the origin of these taboos, not what you think of them personally.]

If Kim Jong-Un Opened A KFC, Would You Eat There?

Philip Morris is pivoting to smoke-free cigarettes, because “society expects us to act responsibly, and we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future”. Also, KFC “promises not to let vegans down” with their new meatless chicken-like nuggets. They’ll have to compete with factory-farming mega-conglomerate Tyson Foods, who are coming out with their own vegetarian chicken option.

Clearly this is progress. Tobacco-free cigarettes have helped a lot of people quit smoking; meat substitutes have helped a lot of people (recently sort of including me) become vegetarian. I want a smoke-free meatless future. But does it become a mockery when the same companies that provided the smoky meaty past are selling it to us? If they make a fortune being evil, resist change, and lose, should they get to make a second fortune being good? If Hitler, when the war turned against him, quit the Nazism industry and opened a matzah bakery, would you buy his matzah?

I think the answer is supposed to be yes. I’ve heard many smart people argue that we should offer evil dictators a comfortable and lavish retirement, free from any threat of justice. After all, if they take the offer, they’ll go off and enjoy their retirement instead of continuing to dictate. But if they expect to be put on trial for war crimes the second they relinquish power, they’ll hold on to power forever. If Hitler had been willing to give up and open a bakery when he lost Stalingrad in 1943, think how many lives would have been saved by letting him. And if Kim Jong-Un wants to give up and move to Tahiti, of course you say yes.

In the same way, if evil companies want to go good, you should let them. If they have a line of retreat, they won’t fight so hard against change. If Tyson Foods wants to use its lobbyists to support meat substitutes instead of sabotaging them, that’s good for everybody. If they want to use their research budget to push plant-based meats forward, so much the better.

The counterargument is that punishment is the only tool we have to make bad actors do good things. If dictators fear punishment, maybe they won’t dictate to begin with. If companies know that moral progress will eventually leave the immoral companies bankrupt, maybe they’ll try being moral before it’s immediately profitable.

We’re in a weird situation where before anything happens, we might want to precommit to “punish companies who do evil, no matter what”. After companies have started doing evil, we might want to break our previous precommitment and switch to “let evil companies avoid punishment if they stop doing evil”. And after companies have stopped doing evil, we might want (if only for the sake of our own sense of justice) to break both of our previous precommitments and go with “punish them after all”.

What is the right action?

I’m not sure, but I lean toward “buy the meatless chicken from KFC”, for a few reasons.

First, I’m skeptical that corporations can predict moral progress, and I expect them to have high discount rates. I don’t think Colonel Sanders in 1952 was thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t sell chicken, just in case later generations punish my successors.” That removes a lot of the advantage of precommiting to always punish evil corporations, but keeps the advantage of rewarding evildoers who turn good.

Second, realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies), which we don’t think about because they’re not in the process of going good in ways that make their evil more ironic and salient. It would be dumb to boycott only the companies that are trying to improve.

Third, boycotting companies is hard. In the process of writing this article, I learned Tyson Foods until recently owned Sara Lee, the cookie company, which itself owns a bunch of popular coffee brands. Also, they seem to have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats and all the other vegan-meat-substitute companies that we would feel good about buying from if we boycotted Tyson. If Tyson Foods really wants to make money off of vegans, they can probably do it without those vegans noticing.

I’m curious what other people think, so here’s a poll you can take on this.

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Followup On The Baumol Effect: Thanks, O Baumol

Last week I reviewed Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland’s Why Are The Prices So D*mn High?. On Marginal Revolution, Tabarrok wrote:

SSC does have some lingering doubts and points to certain areas where the data isn’t clear and where we could have been clearer. I think this is inevitable. A lot has happened in the post World War II era. In dealing with very long run trends so much else is going on that answers will never be conclusive. It’s hard to see the signal in the noise. I think of the Baumol effect as something analogous to global warming. The tides come and go but the sea level is slowly rising

I was pretty disappointed by this comment. T&H’s book blames cost disease on rising wages in high-productivity sectors, and consequently in education and medicine. My counter is that wages in high productivity sectors, education, and medicine are not actually rising. This doesn’t seem like an “area where you could have been clearer”. This seems like an existential challenge to your theory! Come on!

Since we’re not getting an iota of help from the authors, we’re going to have to figure this out ourselves. The points below are based on some comments from the original post and some conversations I had with people afterwards.

1. Median wages, including wages in high-productivty sectors like manufacturing, are not rising

I originally used this chart to demonstrate:

Some people protested this was was a misleading portrayal, and that there are structural factors that disguise rising wages. I’ve written about this before in Wage Stagnation: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. The short answer is – no, it’s not about increasing benefits, those only explain about 10% of the wage-productivity difference.

It is partially about how you calculate inflation, which explains around 35% of the problem depending on who you believe. But we’re comparing wages to the cost of education/medicine. As long as you’re using the same deflator for both of them, you’re fine. As far as I know, T&H and everyone who talks about rising education/medical costs has been using the normal consumer deflator. So if you want to argue wages are underestimated, you also have to argue education/medical costs have gone up even more than people think. This doesn’t help at all!

(or see these numbers, which show that nominal college tuition has gone up as a percent of nominal median wage, and so should be immune to inflation shenanigans)

Other people protested against looking at the median wage, arguing that the wages of college graduates are more relevant. After all, teachers, professors, doctors, and nurses are all college grads. If their opportunity cost goes up, that could still drive a Baumol effect. And:

Surely doctors and professors are in that top blue line; I think nurses and teachers are in the lower green one. Plausibly these professions’ opportunity costs have gone up 50 – 100% during this period. This is a start to explaining why education/medicine have gone up 200 – 300% during the same time. On the other hand, the period of fastest wage growth was 1965 – 1975, which as per T&H’s graph (page 2) was the period of slowest cost growth.

2. Wages for doctors and teachers have not risen

Let’s start with teachers. T&H use NCES’ “instructional expenditures” category to show teacher wages have tripled since the 1950s; I cited NCES’ actual teacher salary data to show it’s stayed about the same. What’s going on?

NCES only has good data after 1990. Their data says education has become about 30% more expensive in real terms since that time – T&H’s data (page 2) suggests it has become twice as expensive, but their data on page 5 agrees with NCES (huh?). Here’s how various fields have changed, using two different classification systems:

Pay attention especially to the first one. From 1990 to 2016, employee salaries as a percent of educational expenditures have gone down! Employee benefits have gone up a bit, but not enough: salary + benefits is still a smaller part of the education budget in 2016 than in 1990. How do you look at these data and say “We’ve figured out why education costs are rising and it’s definitely salaries”?

I think I miscalculated my tone when criticizing T&H’s presentation of data in their book. Tabarrok says I complained about areas “where [he] could have been clearer”. But my actual concern was that the presentation of this section misleads the reader. Whenever T&H talk about something other than salary, they emphasize that its share of the pie has not increased, but don’t mention that it increased a lot in absolute terms. Then when talking about salary, they emphasize that it increased a lot in absolute terms, but don’t mention that its share of the pie hasn’t increased. You’re left with the impression that salaries are the culprit for the price increases, when in fact salaries increased least of all the major categories in the data. “The data could have been clearer” is never just a minor gripe! Unclear data means you can prove whatever you want!

How are salary costs per pupil rising (even in proportion to other costs) if salaries are not? My guess is it’s all about decreasing class sizes, which T&H also highlight.

Moving on to doctors, I don’t have any equally clear sources. But I’ll at least try to explain more about the ones I already have.

This paper from Health Economics, Policy, and Law shows on page 15:

They cite their source as “references 48 – 54”, but their reference section isn’t numbered, and is in alphabetical order, which would make it a pretty big coincidence if reference 48 through 54 were all about the same thing. I think a wire got crossed somewhere. But taking it at face value, I eyeball US doctor salaries in 1960 as 130K and in 2005 as about 210K, for an increase of 60% (not the 200% T&H claim). Doctor salaries have been about stable since 1975, even as (according to T&H’s graph on page 2), healthcare costs have about doubled.

The Last Psychiatrist posts this image:

I can’t trace the source beyond him, but read his post, where he notes that “There is the reality that doctor salaries (with notable exceptions) have been fairly static since 1969, even as the cost of living, price of homes, college, etc have gone up. And medical school debt.”

The last source I was able to find was this 1985 paper on doctor pay. It states that “In 1973, the median annual physician income was $45,000…by 1982, the median physician income was $85,000.” According to the inflation calculator, those numbers are $260,000 and $225,000 in current dollars, respectively. Estimates for average doctor salary today range from $209,000 to $299,000. I’m surprised how hard this is to measure, but it doesn’t seem to have doubled or tripled the way T&H claim (or the way it would have to in order to drive Baumol effects).

Also, the Baumol effect only works if the market sets your salary in the first place! Right now the supply of doctors is limited by licensing issues and bottlenecks in the medical education process; that keeps salaries high. Why would the Baumol effect drive that even higher? If doctors’ salaries didn’t increase in keeping with the highest-productivity industries, would medical schools sit empty? Given that the people setting salaries for doctors (hospitals, clinics) are not the people who determine the supply of doctors (bureaucrats, medical school deans), why should supply and salary be related in a way that obeys normal economic laws? I’m not really sure how to model this, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t end with doctors leaving medicine to play violin concertos instead.

3. The Baumol effect cannot make things genuinely less affordable, but things are genuinely less affordable

I think I screwed up here.

The Baumol effect cannot make things genuinely less affordable for society, because society is more productive and can afford more stuff.

However, it can make things genuinely less affordable for individuals, if those individuals aren’t sharing in the increased productivity of society.

Suppose that in 1960, widgets cost $1, a worker could produce ten widgets an hour (and made $10 in wages), and violin concerts cost $10. Also, you are a farmer and make $10 per hour. You can listen to one violin concert per hour.

In 2010, widgets cost $0.50, a worker can make a hundred widgets an hour (and makes $50 in wages), and violin concerts have risen to $50. But you, still a farmer, still only make $10 per hour. The Baumol effect has driven up the cost of violin concerts for you.

This shouldn’t happen in real life, because if you work in the high-productivity-gain industries, you should make more because of your increased productivity, and if you work in the low-productivity-gain industries, you should make more because of the Baumol effect. But if it did happen, you’d be screwed.

And in fact, as mentioned above, wages have not increased in keeping with productivity, either in the high-productivity-gain industries like manufacturing, or in the low-productivity-gain industries like teaching. So if you work in one of those industries, it’s totally possible for you to be screwed, ie for college etc to become much less affordable for you.

If wages had grown in keeping with productivity, median yearly salary would be something like $100,000. Someone making $100,000 per year shouldn’t have that hard a time affording health insurance and college tuition for their kids; this would be the Baumol effect working in its normal, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats way. Since this hasn’t happened, Baumol-applicable industries have become harder to afford.

Again, this is all theoretical, because wages in high-productivity industries haven’t risen, so it’s hard to see how a Baumol effect could be happening at all. But if it was, it would be a good explanation for cost disease.

So I retract this third objection. I think the first objection mostly still stands, though it is a little weaker if we limit ourselves to college-educated workers compared to all workers. I think the second objection absolutely still stands, and it’s hard for me to see how T&H’s case could survive it.

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OT130: Open Thresh

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. The European Summer Program in Rationality is looking for young people ages 16 – 19 interested in a summer camp on applied rationality. I know some of the organizers and can vouch for them as good people. Free tuition, room, and board in whatever European city they end up holding it in; travel scholarships may be available if needed. Apply at the website.

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Highlights From The Comments On Cultural Evolution

Peter Gerdes says:

As the examples of the Nicaraguan deaf children left on their own to develop their own language demonstrates (as do other examples) we do create languages very very quickly in a social environment.

Creating conlangs is hard not because creating language is fundamentally hard but because we are bad at top down modelling of processes that are the result of a bunch of tiny modifications over time. The distinctive features of language require both that it be used frequently for practical purposes (this makes sure that the language has efficient shortcuts, jettisons clunky overengineered rules etc..) and that it be buffeted by the whims of many individuals with varying interests and focuses.

This is a good point, though it kind of equivocates on the meaning of “hard” (if we can’t consciously do something, does that make it “hard” even if in some situations it would happen naturally?).

I don’t know how much of this to credit to a “language instinct” that puts all the difficulty of language “under the hood”, vs. inventing language not really being that hard once you have general-purpose reasoning. I’m sure real linguists have an answer to this. See also Tracy Canfield’s comments (1, 2) on the specifics of sign languages and creoles.

The Secret Of Our Success described how human culture, especially tool-making ability, allowed us to lose some adaptations we no longer needed. One of those was strength; we are much weaker than the other great apes. Hackworth provides an intuitive demonstration of this: hairless chimpanzees are buff:

Reasoner defines “Chesterton’s meta-fence” as:

in our current system (democratic market economies with large governments) the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences is a process which seems well established and has a decent track record, and should not be unduly interfered with (unless you fully understand it)

And citizencokane adds:

Indeed: if there is a takeaway from Scott’s post, it is that one way to ensure survival is high-fidelity adherence to traditions + ensuring that the inherited ancestral environment/context is more or less maintained. Adhering to ancient traditions when the context is rapidly changing is a recipe for disaster. No point in mastering seal-hunting if there ain’t no more seals. No point in mastering the manners of being a courtier if there ain’t no more royal court. Etc.

And the problem is that, in the modern world, we can’t simply all mutually agree to stop changing our context so that our traditions will continue to function as before because it is no longer under our control. I’m not just talking about climate change; I’m talking even moreso about the power of capital, an incentive structure that escapes all conscious human manipulation or control, and which more and more takes the appearance of an exogenous force, remaking the world “in its own image,” turning “all that is solid into air,” and compelling all societies, upon pain of extinction, to keep up with its rapid changes in context. This is why every true traditionalist must be, at heart, an anti-capitalist…if they truly understand capitalism.

Which societies had more success in the 18th and 19th centuries in the context of this new force, capital? Those who held rigidly to traditions (like Qing China), or those who tolerated or even encouraged experimentation? Enlightenment ideas would not have been nearly so persuasive if they hadn’t had the prestige of giving countries like the Netherlands, England, France, and America an edge. Even countries that were not on the leading edge of the Enlightenment, and who only grudgingly and half-heartedly compromised with it like Germany, Austria, and (to some extent) Japan, did better than those who held onto traditions even longer, like the Ottoman Empire or Russia, or China.

In particular, you can’t fault Russia or China for being even more experimental in the 20th century (Marxism, communism, etc.) if you realize that this was an understandable reaction to being visibly not experimental enough in the 19th century.

And Furslid continues:

I think an important piece of this, which I hope Scott will get to in later points is to be less confident in our new culture. It makes sense to doubt if our old culture applies. However, it is also incredibly unlikely that we have an optimized new culture yet.

We should be less confident that our new culture is right for new situations than that the old culture was right for old situations. This means we should be more accepting of people tweaking the new culture. We should also enforce it less strongly.

Quixote describes a transitional step in the evolution of manioc/cassava cultivation:

Also, based on a recent conversation (unrelated to this post actually) that I had with one of my coworkers from central east Africa, I’m not sure that he would agree with the book’s characterization of African adaptation to Cassava. He would probably point out that

– Everyone in [African country] knows cassava can make you sick, that’s why you don’t plant it anywhere that children or the goats will eat it.

– In general you want it plant cassava in swampy areas that you were going to fence off anyway.

– You mostly let the cassava do its thing and only harvest it to use as your main food during times of famine /drought when your better crops aren’t producing

It seems like those cultural adaptations problem cover most / much of the problem with cassava.


There is a very nice experimental demonstration in this article (just saw the work presented at a workshop), where they get people to come as successive “generations” and improve on a simple physical system.

Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology

The design does improve over generations, no thanks to anyone’s intelligence. They get both physics/engineering students and other students, with no difference at all. In one variant, they allow people to leave a small message to the next generation to transmit their theory on what works/doesn’t, and that doesn’t help, or makes things worse (by limiting the dimensions along which next generations will explore).

A few people including snmlp question the claim that aboriginal Tasmanians lost fire. See this and this paper for the status of the archaeological evidence.

Decius Brutus:

Five hundred years hence, is someone going to analyze the college education system and point out that the wasted effort and time that we all can see produced some benefit akin to preventing chronic cyanide poisoning? Are they going to be able to do the same with other complex wasteful rituals, like primary elections and medical billing? Or do humans create lots of random wasteful rituals and occasionally hit upon one that removes poison from food, and then every group that doesn’t follow the one that removes poison from food dies while the harmless ones that just paint doors with blood continue?

I actually seriously worry about the college one. Like, say what you want about our college system, but it has some surprising advantages: somehow billions of dollars go to basic scientific research (not all of them from the government), it’s relatively hard for even the most powerful special interests to completely hijack a scientific field (eg there’s no easy way for Exxon to take over climatology), and some scientists can consistently resist social pressure (for example, all the scientists who keep showing things like that genetics matters, or IQ tests work, or stereotype threat research doesn’t replicate). While obviously there’s still a lot of social desirability bias, it’s amazing that researchers can stand up to it at all. I don’t know how much of this depends on the academic status ladder being so perverse and illegible that nobody can really hack it, or whether that would survive apparently-reasonable college reform.

Likewise, a lot of doctors just have no incentives. They don’t have an incentive to overtreat you, or to undertreat you, or to see you more often than you need to be seen, or to see you less often than you need to be seen (this isn’t denying some doctors in some parts of the health system do have these pressures). I actually don’t know whether my clinic would make more or less money if I fudged things to see my patients more often, and nobody has bothered to tell me. This is really impressive. Exposing the health system to market pressures would solve a lot of inefficiencies, but I don’t know if it would make medical care too vulnerable to doctors’ self-interest and destroy some necessary doctor-patient trust.


I’ve got two young kids of my own. One puts everything in his mouth, the other less so, and neither evinced anything resembling what I’m reading in Section III. We spent this past Sunday trying to teach my youngest not to eat the lawn, and my oldest liked to shove ant hills and ants into his mouth around that age. Yeah, sure, anecdotal, but a “natural aversion among infants to eating plants until they see mommy eating them, and after that they can and do identify that particular plan themselves and will eat it” seems like a remarkable ability that SOMEONE would have noticed before this study. I’ve never heard anyone mention it.

I don’t think I’m weakmanning the book, it’s just that this is the only aspect discussed in Scott’s review that I have direct experience with, and my direct experience conflicts with the author’s conclusions. It’s a Gell-Mann amnesia thing, and makes me suspicious of the otherwise exciting ideas here. Like: does anyone here have any direct knowledge of manioc harvesting and processing, or the Tukanoans culture? How accurate is the book?

I checked with the mother of the local two-year old; she says he also put random plants in his mouth from a young age. Suspicious!

John Schilling:

I think this one greatly overstates its thesis. Inventiveness without the ability to transmit inventions to future generations is of small value; you can’t invent the full set of survival techniques necessary for e.g. the high arctic in a single generation of extreme cleverness. At best you can make yourself a slightly more effective ape. But cultural transmission of inventions without the ability to invent is of exactly zero value. It takes both. And since being a slightly more effective ape is still better than being an ordinary ape, culture is slightly less than 50% of the secret of our success.

That said, the useful insight is that the knowledge we need to thrive, is vastly greater than the knowledge we can reasonably deduce from first principles and observation. And what is really critical, this holds true even if you are in a library. You need to accept “X is true because a trusted authority told me so; now I need to go on and learn Y and Z and I don’t have time to understand why X is true”. You need to accept that this is just as true of the authority who told you X, and so he may not be able to tell you why X is true even if you do decide to ask him in your spare time. There may be an authority who could track that down, but it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to track him down. Mostly, you’re going to use the traditions of your culture as a guide and just believe X because a trusted authority told you to, and that’s the right thing to do,

“Rationality” doesn’t work as an antonym to “Tradition”, because rationality needs tradition as an input. Not bothering to measure Avogadro’s number because it’s right there in your CRC handbook wikipedia is every bit as much a tradition as not boning your sister because the Tribal Elders say so; we just don’t call it that when it’s a tradition we like. Proper rationality requires being cold-bloodedly rational about evaluating the high-but-not-perfect reliability of tradition as a source of fact.

Unfortunately, and I think this may be a relic of the 18th and early 19th century when some really smart polymathic scientists could almost imagine that they really could wrap their minds around all relevant knowledge from first principles on down, our culture teaches ‘Science!’ in a way that suggests that you really should understand how everything is derived from first principles and firsthand observation or experiment even if at the object level you’re just going to look up Avogadro’s number in Wikipedia and memorize it for the test.

nkurz isn’t buying it:

I’m not sure where Scott is going with this series, but I seem to have a different reaction to the excerpts from Henrich than most (but not all) of the commenters before me: rather than coming across as persuasive, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

For simplicity let’s concentrate on the seal hunting description. I don’t know enough about Inuit techniques to critique the details, but instead of aiming for a fair description, it’s clear that Henrich’s goal is to make the process sound as difficult to achieve as possible. But this is just slight of hand: the goal of the stranded explorer isn’t to reproduce the exact technique of the Inuit, but to kill seals and eat them. The explorer isn’t going to use caribou antler probes or polar bear harpoon tips — they are going to use some modern wood or metal that they stripped from their ice bound ship.

Then we hit “Now you have a seal, but you have to cook it.” What? The Inuit didn’t cook their seal meat using a soapstone lamp fueled with whale oil, they ate it raw! At this point, Henrich is not just being misleading, he’s making it up as he goes along. At this point I start to wonder if part about the antler probe and bone harpoon head are equally fictional. I might be wrong, but beyond this my instinct is to doubt everything that Henrich argues for, even if (especially if) it’s not an area where I have familiarity

Going back to the previous post on “Epistemic Learned Helplessness”, I’m surprised that many people seem to have the instinct to continue to trust the parts of a story that they cannot confirm even after they discover that some parts are false. I’m at the opposite extreme. As soon as I can confirm a flaw, I have trouble trusting anything else the author has to say. I don’t care about the baby, this bathwater has to go! And if the “flaw” is that the author is being intentionally misleading, I’m unlikely to ever again trust them (or anyone else who recommends them). .

Probably I accidentally misrepresented a lot in the parts that were my own summary. But this is from a direct quote, and so not my fault.

roystgnr adds:

Wikipedia seems to suggest that they ate freshly killed meat raw, but cooked some of the meat brought back to camp using a Kudlik, a soapstone lamp fueled with seal oil or whale blubber. Is that not correct? That would still flatly contradict “but you have to cook it”, but it’s close enough that the mistake doesn’t reach “making it up as he goes along” levels of falsehood. You’re correct that even the true bits seem to be used for argument in a misleading fashion, though.

This seems within the level of simplifying-to-make-a-point that I have sometimes been guilty of myself, so I’ll let it pass.

Bram Cohen:

A funny point about the random number generators: Rituals which require more effort are more likely to produce truly random results, because a ritual which required less effort would be more tempting to re-do if you didn’t like the result.

Followed by David Friedman:

This reminds me of my father’s argument that cheap computers resulted in less reliable statistical results. If running one multiple regression takes hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars, running a hundred of them and picking the one that, by chance, gives you the significant result you are looking for, isn’t a practical option.



The quote on quadruped running seems inaccurate in several important ways compared to the primary references Henrich cites, which are short and very interesting in their own: Bramble and Carrier (1983) and Carrier (1984). In particular, humans still typically lock their breathing rate with their strides, it’s just that animals nearly always lock them 1:1, while humans are able to switch to other ratios, like 1:3, 2:3, 1:4 etc. and this is thought to allow us to maintain efficiency at varying speeds. Henrich also doesn’t mention that humans are at the outset metabolically disadvantaged for running in that we spend twice as much energy (!) per unit mass to run the same distance as quadrupeds. That we are still able to run down prey by endurance running is called the “energetic paradox” by Carrier. Liebenberg (2006) provides a vivid description of what endurance hunting looks like, in Kalahari.

And b_jonas:

I doubt the claim that humans don’t have quantized speeds of running. I for one definitely have two different gaits of walking, and find walking in an intermediate speed between the two more difficult than either of them. This is the most noticable if I want to chat with someone while walking, because then I have to walk in such an intermediate speed to not get too far from them. The effect is somewhat less pronounced now that I’ve gained weight, but it’s still present. I’m not good at running, so I can’t say anything certain about it, but I suspect that at least some humans have different running gaits, even if the cause is not the specific one that Joseph Henrich mentions about quadrupeds.

I’ve never noticed this. And I used to use treadmills relatively regularly, and play with the speed dial, so I feel like I would have noticed if this had been true. Anyone have thoughts on this?

Squirrel Of Doom:

I read somewhere that the languages with the most distinctive sounds are in Africa, among them the ones including the !click! ones. Since humanity originates from Africa, these are also the oldest language families.

As you move away from Africa, you can trace how languages lose sound after sound, until you get to Hawaiian, which is the language with the fewest sounds, almost all vowels.

I’ve half heartedly tried to find any mention of this, perhaps overly cute theory again, but failed. The “sonority” theory here reminded me. Anyone know anything, one way or the other?

Secret Of Our Success actually mentions this theory; you can find the details within.

Some people reasonably bring up that no language can be older than any other, for the same reason it doesn’t make sense to call any (currently existing) evolved animal language older than any other – every animal lineage from 100 million BC has experienced 100 million years of evolution.

I think I’ve heard some people try to get around this by focusing on schisms. Everyone starts out in Africa, but a small group of people move off to Sinai or somewhere like that. Because most of the people are back home in Africa, they can maintain their linguistic complexity; because the Sinaites only have a single small band talking to each other, they lose some linguistic complexity. This seems kind of forced, and some people in the comments say linguistic complexity actually works the opposite direction from this, but I too find the richness of Bushman languages pretty suggestive.

What about rules that really do seem pointless? Catherio writes:

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

I’d heard this before, but she manages (impressively), to link it to AI: see Legible Normativity for AI Alignment: The Value of Silly Rules.


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

I’ve had the same experience – a good test for my compatibility with someone will be whether they’ll accept “for illegible reasons” as an excuse. Despite the stereotypes, rationalists have been a hundred times better at this than any other group I’ve been in close contact with.

Nav on Lacan and Zizek (is everything cursed to end in Zizek eventually, sort of like with entropy?):

Time to beat my dead horse; the topics you’re discussing here have a lot of deep parallels in the psychoanalytic literature. First, Scott writes:

}} “If you force people to legibly interpret everything they do, or else stop doing it under threat of being called lazy or evil, you make their life harder”

This idea is treated by Lacan as the central ethical problem of psychoanalysis: under what circumstances is it acceptable to cast conscious light upon a person’s unconsciously-motivated behavior? The answer is usually “only if they seek it out, and only then if it would help them reduce their level of suffering”.

Turn the psychoanalytic, phenomenology-oriented frame onto social issues, as you’ve partly done, and suddenly we’re in Zizek-land (his main thrust is connecting social critique with psychoanalytic concepts). The problem is that (a) Zizek is jargon-heavy and difficult to understand, and (b) I’m not nearly as familiar with Zizek’s work as with more traditional psychoanalytic concepts. But I’ll try anyway. From a quick encyclopedia skim, he actually uses a similar analogy with fetishes (all quotes from IEP):

}} “Žižek argues that the attitude of subjects towards authority revealed by today’s ideological cynicism resembles the fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish. The fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish has the peculiar form of a disavowal: “I know well that (for example) the shoe is only a shoe, but nevertheless, I still need my partner to wear the shoe in order to enjoy.” According to Žižek, the attitude of political subjects towards political authority evinces the same logical form: “I know well that (for example) Bob Hawke / Bill Clinton / the Party / the market does not always act justly, but I still act as though I did not know that this is the case.””

As for how beliefs manifest, Zizek clarifies the experience of following a tradition and why we might actually feel like these traditions are aligned with “Reason” from the inside, and also the crux of why “Reason” can fail so hard in terms of social change:

According to Žižek, all successful political ideologies necessarily refer to and turn around sublime objects posited by political ideologies. These sublime objects are what political subjects take it that their regime’s ideologies’ central words mean or name extraordinary Things like God, the Fuhrer, the King, in whose name they will (if necessary) transgress ordinary moral laws and lay down their lives… Kant’s subject resignifies its failure to grasp the sublime object as indirect testimony to a wholly “supersensible” faculty within herself (Reason), so Žižek argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. Žižek argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. What political ideologies do, precisely, is provide subjects with a way of seeing the world according to which such an inability can appear as testimony to how Transcendent or Great their Nation, God, Freedom, and so forth is—surely far above the ordinary or profane things of the world.

Lastly and somewhat related, going back to an older SSC post, Scott argues that he doesn’t know why his patients react well to him, but Zizek can explain that, and it has a lot of relevance for politics (transference is a complex topic, but the simple definition is a transfer of affect or mind from the therapist to the patient, which is often a desirable outcome of therapy, contrasted with counter-transference, in which the patient affects the therapist):

}} “The belief or “supposition” of the analysand in psychoanalysis is that the Other (his analyst) knows the meaning of his symptoms. This is obviously a false belief, at the start of the analytic process. But it is only through holding this false belief about the analyst that the work of analysis can proceed, and the transferential belief can become true (when the analyst does become able to interpret the symptoms). Žižek argues that this strange intersubjective or dialectical logic of belief in clinical psychoanalysis also what characterizes peoples’ political beliefs…. the key political function of holders of public office is to occupy the place of what he calls, after Lacan, “the Other supposed to know.” Žižek cites the example of priests reciting mass in Latin before an uncomprehending laity, who believe that the priests know the meaning of the words, and for whom this is sufficient to keep the faith. Far from presenting an exception to the way political authority works, for Žižek this scenario reveals the universal rule of how political consensus is formed.”

Scott probably come across as having a stable and highly knowledgeable affect, which gives his patients a sense of being in the presence of authority (as we likely also feel in these comment threads), which makes him better able to perform transference and thus help his patients (or readers) reshape their beliefs.

Hopefully this shallow dive was interesting and opens up new areas of potential study, and also a parallel frame: working from the top-down ethnography (as tends to be popular in this community; the Archimedean standpoint) gives us a broad understanding, but working from the bottom-up gives us a more personal and intimate sense of why the top-down view is correct.

This helped me understand Zizek and Lacan a lot better than reading a book on them did, so thanks for that.

Stucchio doesn’t like me dissing Dubai:

I’m just going to raise a discussion of one piece here:

}} “Dubai, whose position in the United Arab Emirates makes it a lot closer to this model than most places, seems to invest a lot in its citizens’ happiness, but also has an underclass of near-slave laborers without exit rights (their employers tend to seize their passports).”

I have probably read the same western articles Scott has about all the labor the UAE and other middle eastern countries imports. But unlike them, I live in India (one of the major sources of labor) and mostly have heard about this from people who choose to make the trip.

To me the biggest thing missing from these western reporter’s accounts is the fact that the people shifting to the gulf are ordinary humans, smarter than most journalists, and fully capable of making their own choices.

Here are things I’ve heard about it, roughly paraphrased:

“I knew they’d take my passport for 9 months while I paid for the trip over. After that I stuck around for 3 years because the money was good, particularly after I shifted jobs. It was sad only seeing my family over skype, but I brought home so much money it was worth it.”

“I took my family over and we stayed for 5 years; the money was good, we all finished the Hajj while we were there, but it was boring and I missed Maharashtrian food.”

“It sucked because the women are all locked up. You can’t talk to them at the mall. It’s as boring as everyone says and you can’t even watch internet porn. But the money is good.”

When I hear about this first hand, the stories don’t sound remotely like slave labor. It doesn’t even sound like “we were stuck in the GDR/Romania/etc” stories I’ve heard from professors born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I hear stories of people making life choices to be bored and far from family in return for good money. Islam is a major secondary theme. So I don’t think the UAE is necessarily the exception Scott thinks it is.

Moridinamael on the StarCraft perspective:

In StarCraft 2, wild, unsound strategies may defeat poor opponents, but will be crushed by decent players who simply hew to strategies that fall within a valley of optimality. If there is a true optimal strategy, we don’t know what it is, but we do know what good, solid play looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. Tradition, that is to say, iterative competition, has carved a groove into the universe of playstyles, and it is almost impossible to outperform tradition.

Then you watch the highest-end professional players and see them sometimes doing absolutely hare-brained things that would only be contemplated by the rank novice, and you see those hare-brained things winning games. The best players are so good that they can leave behind the dogma of tradition. They simply understand the game in a way that you don’t. Sometimes a single innovative tactic debuted in a professional game will completely shift how the game is played for months, essentially carving a new path into what is considered the valley of optimality. Players can discover paths that are just better than tradition. And then, sometimes, somebody else figures out that the innovative strategy has an easily exploited Achilles’ heel, and the new tactic goes extinct as quickly as it became mainstream.

StarCraft 2 is fun to think about in this context because it is relatively open-ended, closer to reality than to chess. There are no equivalents to disruptor drops or mass infestor pushes or planetary fortress rushes in chess. StarCraft 2 is also fun to think about because we’ve now seen that machine learning can beat us at it by doing things outside of what we would call the valley of optimality.

But in this context it’s crucial to point out that the way AlphaStar developed its strategy looked more like gradually accrued “tradition” than like “rationalism”. A population of different agents played each other for a hundred subjective years. The winners replicated. This is memetic evolution through the Chestertonian tradition concept. The technique wouldn’t have worked without the powerful new learning algorithms, but the learning algorithm didn’t come up with the strategy of mass-producing probes and building mass blink-stalkers purely out of its fevered imagination. Rather, the learning algorithms were smart enough to notice what was working and what wasn’t, and to have some proximal conception as to why.

Someone (maybe Robin Hanson) treats all of history as just evolution evolving better evolutions. The worst evolution of all (random chance) created the first replicator and kicked off biological evolution. Biological evolution created brains, which use a sort of hill-climbing memetic evolution for good ideas. People with brains created cultures (cultural evolution) including free market economies (an evolutionary system that selects for successful technologies). AIs like AlphaStar are the next (final?) step in this process.

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Book Review: Why Are The Prices So D*mn High?

Why have prices for services like health care and education risen so much over the past fifty years? When I looked into this in 2017, I couldn’t find a conclusive answer. Economists Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland have written a new book on the topic, Why Are The Prices So D*mn High? (link goes to free pdf copy, or you can read Tabarrok’s summary on Marginal Revolution). They do find a conclusive answer: the Baumol effect.

T&H explain it like this:

In 1826, when Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 was first played, it took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. In 2010, it still took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. Stated differently, in the nearly 200 years between 1826 and 2010, there was no growth in string quartet labor productivity. In 1826 it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output, and it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output in 2010.

Fortunately, most other sectors of the economy have experienced substantial growth in labor productivity since 1826. We can measure growth in labor productivity in the economy as a whole by looking at the growth in real wages. In 1826 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $1.14. In 2010 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $26.44, approximately 23 times higher in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Growth in average labor productivity has a surprising implication: it makes the output of slow productivity-growth sectors (relatively) more expensive. In 1826, the average wage of $1.14 meant that the 2.66 hours needed to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 had an opportunity cost of just $3.02. At a wage of $26.44, the 2.66 hours of labor in music production had an opportunity cost of $70.33. Thus, in 2010 it was 23 times (70.33/3.02) more expensive to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 than in 1826. In other words, one had to give up more other goods and services to produce a music performance in 2010 than one did in 1826. Why? Simply because in 2010, society was better at producing other goods and services than in 1826.

Put another way, a violinist can always choose to stop playing violin, retrain for a while, and work in a factory instead. Maybe in 1826, when factory owners were earning $1.14/hour and violinists were earning $5/hour, so no violinists would quit and retrain. But by 2010, factory workers were earning $26.44/hour, so if violinists were still only earning $5 they might all quit and retrain. So in 2010, there would be a strong pressure to increase violinists’ wage to at least $26.44 (probably more, since few people have the skills to be violinists). So violinists must be paid 5x more for the same work, which will look like concerts becoming more expensive.

This should happen in every industry where increasing technology does not increase productivity. Education and health care both qualify. Although we can imagine innovative online education models, in practice one teacher teaches about twenty to thirty kids per year regardless of our technology level. And although we can imagine innovative AI health care, in practice one doctor can only treat ten or twenty patients per day. Tabarrok and Helland say this is exactly what is happening. They point to a few lines of evidence.

First, costs have been increasing very consistently over a wide range of service industries. If it was just one industry, we could blame industry-specific factors. If it was just during one time period, we could blame some new policy or market change that happened during that time period. Instead it’s basically omnipresent. So it’s probably some kind of very broad secular trend. The Baumol effect would fit the bill; not much else would.

Second, costs seemed to increase most quickly during the ’60s and ’70s, and are increasing more slowly today. This fits the growth of productivity, the main driver of the Baumol effect. Between 1950 and 2010, the relative productivity of manufacturing compared to services increased by a factor of six, which T&H describe as “of the same order as the growth in relative prices”. This is what the violinist-vs-factory-worker model of the Baumol effect would predict.

Third, competing explanations don’t seem to work. Some people blame rising costs on “administrative bloat”. But administrative costs as a share of total college costs have stayed fixed at 16% from 1980 to today (really?! this is fascinating and surprising). Others blame rising costs on overregulation. But T&H have a measure for which industries have been getting more regulated recently, and it doesn’t really correlate with which industries have been getting more expensive (wait, did they just disprove that regulation hurts the economy? I guess regulation isn’t a random shock, so this isn’t proof, but it still seems like a big deal). They’re also able to knock down industry-specific explanations like medical malpractice suits, teachers unions, etc.

Fourth, although service quality has improved a little bit over the past few decades, T&H provide some evidence that this explains only a small fraction of the increase in costs. Yet education and health care remain as popular (maybe more popular) than ever. They claim that very few things in economics can explain simultaneous increasing cost, increasing demand, and constant quality. One of those few things is the Baumol effect.

Fifth, they did a study, and the lower productivity growth in an industry, the higher the rise in costs, especially if they use college-educated workers who could otherwise get jobs in higher-productivity industries. This is what the Baumol effect would predict (though framed that way, it also sounds kind of obvious).

I find their case pretty convincing. And I want to believe. If this is true, it’s the best thing I’ve heard all year. It restores my faith in humanity. Rising costs in every sector don’t necessarily mean our society is getting less efficient, or more vulnerable to rent-seeking, or less-well-governed, or greedier, or anything like that. It’s just a natural consequence of high economic growth. We can stop worrying that our civilization is in terminal decline, and just work on the practical issue of how to get costs down.

But I do have some gripes. T&H frequently compare apples and oranges; for example, the administrator share in colleges vs. the faculty share in K-12; it feels like they’re clumsily trying to get one past you. They frequently describe how if you just use eg teacher salaries as a predictor, you can perfectly predict the extent of rising costs. But as far as I can tell, most things have risen the same amount, so if you used any subcomponent as a predictor, you could perfectly predict the extent of rising costs; again, it feels like they’re clumsily trying to get something past me. I think I can work out what they were trying to do (stitch together different datasets to get a better picture, assume salaries rise equally in every category) but I still wish they had discussed their reasoning and its limitations more openly.

The main thesis survives these objections, but there are still a few things that bother me, or don’t quite fit. I want to bring them up not as a gotcha or refutation, but in the hopes that people who know more about economics than I do can explain why I shouldn’t worry about them.

First, real wages have not in fact gone up during most of this period. Factory workers are not getting paid more. That makes it hard for me to understand how rising wages for factory workers are forcing up salaries for violinists, teachers, and doctors.

I discuss whether issues like benefits and inflation can explain this away here here, and conclude they can do so only partially; I’m not sure how this would interact with the Baumol effect.

Second, other data seem to dispute that salaries for the professionals in question have risen at all. T&H talk about rises in “instructional expenditures”, an education-statistics term that includes teacher salary and other costs; their source is NCES. But NCES also includes tables of actual teacher salaries. These show that teacher salaries today are only 6% higher than teacher salaries in 1970. Meanwhile, per-pupil costs are more than twice as high. How is an increase of 6% in teacher salaries driving an increase of 100%+ in costs? Likewise, although on page 33 T&H claim that doctors’ salaries have tripled since 1960, other sources report smaller increases of about 50% to almost nothing. Conventional wisdom among doctors is that the profession used to be more lucrative than it is today. This makes it hard to see how rising doctor salaries could explain a tripling in the cost of health care. And doctor salaries apparently make up only 20% of health spending, so it’s hard to see how they can matter that much.

(also, this SMBC)

Third, the Baumol effect can’t explain things getting less affordable. T&H write:

The cost disease is not a disease but a blessing. To be sure, it would be better if productivity increased in all industries, but that is just to say that more is better. There is nothing negative about productivity growth, even if it is unbalanced.In particular, it is important to see that the increase in the relative price of the string quartet makes string quartets costlier but not less affordable. Society can afford just as many string quartets as in the past. Indeed, it can afford more because the increase in productivity in other sectors has made society richer. Individuals might not choose to buy more, but that is a choice, not a constraint forced upon them by circumstance.

This matches my understanding of the Baumol effect. But it doesn’t match my perception of how things are going in the real world. College has actually become less affordable. Using these numbers: in 1971, the average man would have had to work five months to earn a year’s tuition at a private college. In 2016, he would have had to work fourteen months. To put this in perspective, my uncle worked a summer job to pay for his college tuition; one summer of working = one year tuition at an Ivy League school. Student debt has increased 700% since 1990. College really does seem to be getting less affordable. So do health care, primary education, and all the other areas affected by cost disease. Baumol effects shouldn’t be able to do this, unless I am really confused about them.

If someone can answer these questions and remove my lingering doubts about the Baumol effect as an explanation for cost disease, they can share credit with Tabarrok and Helland for restoring a big part of my faith in modern civilization.