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Bay Area SSC Meetup 1/6

Join me at 3:30 PM on Sunday, 1/6 for the traditional once-every-three-months big SSC Bay Area meetup. Meet on the Berkeley campus at the open space beside the intersection of West Circle and Free Speech Bikeway at 3045 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, where we will be indoors and safe from the rain.

Special guest Professor Stephen Hsu, who among his other accomplishments is a scientific advisor to the Beijing Genomics Institute and a founder of Genomic Prediction, Inc. Come discuss embryo sequencing with him, and congratulate him on his recent demotion to second-craziest Chinese-affiliated mad scientist working on embryo genetics.

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What Happened To 90s Environmentalism?

0. Introduction

I grew up in the 90s, which meant watching movies about plucky children fighting Pollution Demons. Sometimes teachers would show them to us in class. None of us found that strange. We knew that when we grew up, this would be our fight: to take on the loggers and whalers and seal-clubbers who were destroying our planet and save the Earth for the next generation.

What happened to that? I don’t mean the Pollution Demons: they’re still around, I think one of them runs Trump’s EPA now. What happened to everything else? To those teachers, those movies, that whole worldview?

Save The Whales. Save The Rainforest. Save Endangered Species. Save The Earth. Stop Slash-And-Burn. Stop Acid Rain. Earth Day Every Day. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Twenty-five years ago, each of those would invoke a whole acrimonious debate; to some, a battle-cry; to others, a sign of a dangerous fanaticism that would destroy the economy. Today they sound about as relevant as “Fifty-four forty or fight” and “Remember the Maine”. Old slogans, emptied of their punch and fit only for bloodless historical study.

If you went back in time, turned off our Pollution Demon movie, and asked us to predict what would come of the environment twenty-five years, later, in 2018, I think we would imagine one of two scenarios. In the first, the world had become a renewable ecotopia where every child was taught to live in harmony with nature. In the second, we had failed in our struggle, the skies were grey, the rivers were brown, wild animals were a distant memory – but at least a few plucky children would still be telling us it wasn’t too late, that we could start the tough job of cleaning up after ourselves and changing paths to that other option.

The idea that things wouldn’t really change – that the environment would neither move noticeably forward or noticeably backwards – but that everyone would stop talking about environmentalism – that you could go years without hearing the words “endangered species” – that nobody would even know whether the rainforests were expanding or contracting – wouldn’t even be on the radar. It would sound like some kind of weird bizarro-world.

Just to prove I’m not imagining all this:

This is the volume of Google searches for “rainforests” over time. It goes up each year when school starts, and crashes again for summer vacation. But on average, there are only about 18% as many rainforest-related searches today as in 2004.

“Endangered species”, 25%

“Pollution”, 43%

And these are just since Google started tracking searches in 2004. The decline of 90s environmentalism must be even bigger.

So what happened?

Every so often you’ll hear someone mutter darkly “You never hear about the ozone hole these days, guess that was a big nothingburger.” This summons a horde of environmentalists competing to point out that you never hear about the ozone hole these days because environmentalists successfully fixed it. There was a big conference in 1989 where all the nations of the world met together and agreed to stop using ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, and the ozone hole is recovering according to schedule. When people use the ozone hole as an argument against alarmism, environmentalism is a victim of its own success.

So what about these other issues that have since fizzled out? Did environmentalists solve them? Did they never exist in the first place? Or are they still as bad as ever, and we’ve just stopped caring?

1. Air And Water Pollution

Have you seen what Chinese cities look like on a smoggy day? Trick question: neither have the Chinese. The US used to be like that. I grew up near Los Angeles during the 1990s. My mother tells the story of a time when I was very young and my grandparents came to visit from the Midwest. “It reminds us of home,” they said, “it’s so flat.” “We’re surrounded by mountains”, my mother told them. We were. You couldn’t see any of them.

Environmentalists crusaded against this. Here are the results:

A lot of the credit goes to the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963 and tightened in 1990. Along with its more visible (pun intended) effects, scientists suspect it has prevented about 200,000 deaths from lung disease and a host of other cases of asthma, bronchitis, and even heart attacks.

It’s hard to find great data on water because there are so many different kinds of water and so many different ways it can be polluted. But just to choose a random very bad thing, here’s mercury levels in Great Lakes fish:

I don’t know of anyone claiming this is anything other than a response to stricter environmental laws.

As a result of these victories, people are no longer as concerned about air and water pollution. From Gallup:

This seems like a clear case of good work.

Verdict: Environmental movement successfully solved this problem.

2. Acid Rain

Acid rain is a combination of rain and pollution which gets very acidic and destroys plants and structures. It was a staple of very early 90s environmentalism, and understandably so: the prospect of acid falling from the sky and dissolving everything is very attention-grabbing. I remember the discourse focusing on statues; George Washington’s marble face slowly melting under sizzling raindrops makes a heck of an image.

I am not the first person to notice that Washington’s face remains mercifully unmelted. In 2009, Slate asked Whatever Happened To Acid Rain?. EPA Blog, 2010: Whatever Happened To Acid Rain?. 2012, Mental Floss: What Ever Happened To Acid Rain? By 2018 the Internet had advanced, so here’s the Whatever Happened To Acid Rain Podcast. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica, itself a good candidate for a “Whatever Happened To…” piece, has a What Happened To Acid Rain article.

Most of these sources say environmentalists solved acid rain by cutting down on emission of sulfur dioxide, the main offending chemical. A Bush I era cap-and-trade policy gets a lot of the credit in the US, but it looks like it was a broader effort than that:

There’s less clear data on rain acidity, but all my sources agree it has modestly declined in the US, thought it is still “between 2.5 and eight times more acidic than it should be”. Lakes and rivers are slowly recovering. On the other hand, in newly-industrializing countries like China and India, rain is becoming more acidic and they’re going through some of the same issues we were in the 80s.

This picture is slightly complicated by some people who claim acid rain was always exaggerated and “we solved it” is a convenient retreat from acknowledging this (for what it’s worth, these people tend to be global warming skeptics too). Most of them point to the 1990 National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, a giant government investigation into the acid rain problem. I found a 1990 New York Times article on the report here:

A comprehensive Federal report that was supposed to resolve the issue of how much damage is caused to forests by acid rain has come under criticism from some distinguished scientists who are reviewing it.

The critics said that the report gave an incorrect impression that air pollution was not causing any large-scale problems for forest ecosystems. They also said that the report, still in draft form, ignored a number of studies suggesting serious air pollution problems.

But other experts contend that the general conclusion of the report is essentially right. The report concluded that with the exception of damage to red spruce at high elevations in the East, forests in the United States are not suffering serious damage from acid rain […]

The report now being reviewed is the final draft, completed at a cost of nearly $500 million. It examines the effects of other pollutants, like ozone, as well as acid deposits, and it concludes that air pollution causes far less environmental damage than has been feared.

An interim report issued by the study group in 1987, before Dr. Mahoney became director, was sharply criticized by many scientists. They contended that it tailored research findings into conclusions that matched the political goals of the Reagan Administration, which opposed new controls on air pollution. No such criticism has been leveled at the 28-volume final draft, which has been generally praised as a sound scientific document.

There is, however, some unhappiness among scientists with the volume dealing with forest health and productivity in the United States and Canada.

Dr. Ellis B. Cowling, associate for research at North Carolina State University’s College of Forest Resources, said in a telephone interview: ”The tone is that we don’t have a problem except in southern California, and with red spruce at high altitudes. That is not a fair statement of the state of scientific knowledge.” He added, ”Perhaps the authors were a bit too hasty in reaching conclusions.”

Dr. Cowling, who is highly regarded by colleagues as a conservative, solid scientist, wrote a memorandum to the authors of the forest health volume. He offered a series of suggestions for changing the wording of conclusions in ways that he said would reflect the state of science more accurately.

The first of those would change a finding that stated, ”The vast majority of forests in the United States and Canada are not affected by decline.” To be more consistent with the data, Dr. Cowling said, the conclusion should read: ”Most forests in the United States do not show unusual visible symptoms of stress, marked decreases in the rate of growth or significant increases in mortality.”

Just because symptoms of forest decline are not currently visible, Dr. Cowling argued, does not rule out the possibility that they are under way.

This article also provides a summary of contemporaneous responses to NAPAP, which quotes study director James Mahoney’s summary of his own report: “The sky is not falling, but there is a problem that needs addressing.”

I cannot find anyone really challenging the NAPAP report nowadays, so I provisionally accept that the damage from acid rain, while real, was exaggerated at the time.

There’s a related debate about how much the lakes and streams affected have recovered. Some lakes and streams are naturally acidic; there is some debate over what percent of lake/stream acidity is natural vs. acid-rain-related. In recent years this debate has focused on whether lakes/streams have recovered after the SO2 decline; if they haven’t, this might suggest their problems were never human-activity-related in the first place.

Global warming skeptic blog Watt’s Up With That claims they haven’t:

Possibly the greatest evidence against harmful effects of acid rain is the fact that acidic lakes have not “recovered” after most sulfur and nitrogen pollution was removed from the atmosphere. The 2011 NAPAP report to Congress stated that SO2 and NO2 emissions were down, that airborne concentrations were down, and that acid deposition from rainfall was down, but could not report that lake acidity was significantly reduced. The report states, “Scientists have observed delays in ecosystem recovery in the eastern United States despite decreases in emissions and deposition over the last 30 years.” In other words, the pollution was mostly eliminated, but the lakes are still acidic.

You can find the report here. Like all long government reports, the details are ten zillion different trends in different directions that don’t form a cohesive narrative, and the executive summary is “things are good in all the ways that suggest we deserve more money, but bad in all the ways that suggest we need more money”, It is complicated enough that you shouldn’t trust my excerpting, but at least to me the relevant excerpts seem to be:

Levels of acid neutralizing capacity (ANC), an indicator of the ability of a waterbody to neutralize acid deposition, have shown improvement from 1990 to 2008 at many lake and stream long-term monitoring sites in the eastern United States, including New England and the Adirondack Mountains. Many lakes and streams still have acidic conditions harmful to their biota even though the increases in ANC indicate that some recovery from acidification is occurring in sensitive aquatic ecosystems

And:

Despite the environmental improvements reported here, research over the past few years indicates that recovery from the effects of acidification is not likely for many sensitive areas without additional decreases in acid deposition. Many published articles, as well as the modeling presented in this report, show that the SO2 and NOx emission reductions achieved under Title IV from power plants are not recognized as insufficient to achieve full recovery or to prevent further acidification in some regions.

So Watts seems to be mostly wrong when they say lakes are not recovering, but mostly right when they say ecosystems are not recovering. But NAPAP has some explanations for why ecosystems are not recovering: first, if you poison a lake and kill everything, then even if you remove the poison later everything is still dead. Second, there are complicated natural cycles that gradually wash old deposited land-based pollution into lakes, and it will be a long time before all the pollution deposited on land gets fully washed away. Third, maybe we haven’t fought acid rain hard enough.

I think a lot of the epistemic work here is going to get done by people’s respective stereotypes about the trustworthiness of global warming denialists vs. big government agencies whose budget depends on there being a problem. But my impression is that Watts’ claim that poor recovery suggests acid rain was never a problem don’t hold up very well.

In any case, it’s undeniable that rain has become a lot less acid lately, and likely that this has at least modest positive effects on some ecosystems as well as on the built environment. Anti-Confederate protesters have replaced acid rain as the number one threat to our statues. Our precious, precious statues. Someday they will be safe.

Verdict: A little of everything: partly solved, partly alarmism, partly still going on.

3. The Rainforests

Maybe the most typical image of 90s environmentalism is men in bulldozers clear-cutting a rainforest, while tapirs and tree sloths gently weep.

Or maybe it was the declining-rainforest-coverage-over-time-maps. I feel like about one in every three posters I saw as a child looked something like this:

This is a fake example. Please stop asking me where I am getting the data from.

I thought surely nothing could be easier than digging up a few of them and seeing whether their 2020 predictions were right. But I can’t find them anywhere. According to the Internet, there is no such thing as 90s-era maps showing declining rainforest coverage over time. Can anyone else locate these?

Anyway:

Here’s a graph of the size of the Amazon over time (source, note that the y-axis is not at zero). At 90s levels of deforestation, the Amazon would have disappeared in about 200 years. At current levels, it will disappear in about 400 years.

Here’s the Congo (somewhat dubious source, same caveat). At the rates shown here it will be gone in 250 years – but it seems to have slowed after the period on the graph.

And here’s Southeast Asia (source, same caveat). At this rate, the southeast Asian forest will be gone in 150 years, though some new papers are suggesting we may be underestimating the deforestation rate.

Overall it looks like deforestation may have decreased modestly in the Amazon (and possibly the Congo) since the 1990s. It has not decreased significantly in Southeast Asia, and whatever decreases have happened are not relevant to the scale of the problem.

The only good news is that all those “rainforests will be gone by 2050” posters were just wrong; there is more rainforest than that. But not that much more.

Verdict: The problem still exists, and we are just ignoring it now.

4. Endangered Species

So just find how many species go extinct each year, and whether it’s a lot or a little, and then we’ll know what’s going on with this, right? Ha ha, as if.

On the one hand, the UN Environment Programme says that “150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours.”

On the other, nobody can name more than a single-digit number of species that go extinct in any given year. The 2017 list includes five: a bat, a cat, a flatworm, a lizard, and a snail. This matches longer-term surveys: Ceballos et al (2018) find that about 477 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1900 – again, about five per year. And a recent survey found only four to eight bird species had disappeared since the turn of the century.

I have no idea where the 150-200 number per day comes from, and neither does anyone else. The closest I can find to a justification is this WWF page, which reminds us that if there are 100 million animals species, and “the extinction rate is just 0.01% per year”, then at least 10,000 species go extinct every year (=200-300/day) – but all of these numbers are completely made up.

One could try to justify these estimates with something like “assume only one in a thousand species has been discovered and is monitored well enough to detect its extinction, so if we detect five extinctions per year then five thousand must be happening” – but I’ve never heard anyone actually say this. Also, with apologies to all the undiscovered species, if they’re so tiny and uncommon as to never get discovered, it doesn’t seem like their extinction is going to change very much.

Five known species going extinct per year may sound like a lot if you’re thinking it’s something like “rhinos, pandas, whales, spotted owls, and leopards”. But realistically there are 385 species of shrews. We could spend our entire yearly extinction budget on shrews for the next sixty years and still have more than enough kinds of shrews left to satisfy basically anybody.

I’m trying to think what the best counterargument to this would be – the best case that we really do need to consider species extinction a dire concern.

Maybe this is too vertebrate-centric, and there are lots of insects and plants and such going extinct all the time? But this List Of Recently Extinct Insects suggests that of about 6000 known insect species, only 50-100 have gone extinct in the past century. And one of those was this giant earwig which I really think the world is better without.

Or maybe we can’t directly predict the future from the past. Imagine 1000 square miles of rainforest with a homogenous distribution of species. Clear-cut 50% of the rainforest, and no extinctions. Clear-cut 90% of the rainforest, still no extinctions. Clear-cut 99%, maybe a few extinctions if you’re unlucky. Then clear-cut the last remaining 1% and everything dies. It seems like something like that might be happening – see for example this report that global animal populations have declined 58% over the past forty years.

But any concept of endangered species that focuses on “many well-known species will be gone soon” doesn’t seem consistent with the evidence.

Verdict: Partly alarmism, partly still going on.

5. More And More Trash Piling Up Until The Whole World Is Just A Giant Mountain Of Trash

Wait, what? Was this really a concern? Did I really spend my primary school years being told that if I didn’t vigilantly recycle everything, one day I would be submerged beneath a sea of trash, breathing by means of a trash snorkel? Am I hallucinating all of this?

As usual, it turns out to be the Mafia’s fault. In the 1980s, mob boss Salvatore Avellino took over New York City’s landfill industry, and in a shocking development which nobody could have predicted, was corrupt. New York City soon ran out of landfill space. Somehow all of its excess trash ended up on a barge called the MOBRO-4000, because the Eighties, and this barge apparently sailed up and down the east coast of North America searching for a place to deposit its trash. In its many exciting adventures it reached the coast of Belize, got involved in a confrontation with the Mexican Navy, and finally went back to New York, where at some point landfill space was found and the crisis was over.

But a giant boat full of trash made a really memorable image, and it got nationwide news coverage, and environmentalists took advantage of this to tell everyone there was no more landfill space anywhere in the world and we all had to recycle right now. According to Wikipedia:

At the time, the Mobro 4000 incident was widely cited by environmentalists and the media as emblematic of the solid-waste disposal crisis in the United States due to a shortage of landfill space: almost 3,000 municipal landfills had closed between 1982 and 1987. It triggered much national public discussion about waste disposal, and may have been a factor in increased recycling rates in the late 1980s and after. It was this that caused it to be included in an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (season 2, episode 5) in which they debunk many recycling myths.

I’m even absolutely right in remembering primary school lessons centered around garbage covering the Earth and killing everybody. Here’s a New York Times article from 1996 – ie after the crisis had a little bit of time to fade – lightly mocking the new curricula that followed in its wake:

After the litter hunt in Ms. Aponte’s science classroom, it was time for a guest lecturer on garbage. A fifth-grade class was brought in to hear Joanne Dittersdorf, the director of environmental education for the Environmental Action Coalition, a nonprofit group based in New York. Her slide show began with a 19th-century photograph of a street in New York strewn with garbage.

“Why can’t we keep throwing out garbage that way?” Dittersdorf asked.

“It’ll keep piling up and we won’t have any place to put it.”

“The earth would be called the Trash Can.”

“The garbage will soon, like, take over the whole world and, like, kill everybody.”

Dittersdorf asked the children to examine their lives. “Does anyone here ever have takeout food?” A few students confessed, and Dittersdorf gently scolded them. “A lot of garbage there.”

She showed a slide illustrating New Yorkers’ total annual production of garbage: a pile big enough to fill 15 city blocks to a height of 20 stories. ‘There are a lot of landfills in New York City,” Dittersdorf said, “but we’ve run out of space.”

From the same beginning-of-the-backlash period we also get this 1995 Foundation for Economic Education piece, Are We Burying Ourselves In Garbage?:

A popular idea in public discourse today is that the United States produces an overwhelming amount of trash–so much that our landfills will not be able to handle the quantity. The most eloquent symbol of this viewpoint was the “garbage barge,” which in the late 1980s left Long Island and could not find a port or country willing to accept its 3.168 tons of refuse. [But] the actual data (such as they are) on the amount of municipal solid waste produced present us with more questions than answers.

This article also deserves note for hitting on a brilliant solution:

The crisis mentality has distorted judgment of waste disposal. The notion that modern America is especially wasteful is demonstrably wrong, both in terms of the last decades as well as the last 100 years. The idea that our landfills are literally “running out” is even less credible. If in the next century major portions of the United States really need to export their refuse to other states, a “gold mine” for refuse burial does exist: South Dakota. This state is geologically, economically, and politically almost ideal for massive municipal solid waste management.

None of this is a joke. This is how your parents did Discourse, people.

But it turns out capitalism works: if there’s a shortage of landfills, that incentivizes people to create new landfills. Also, the world is very large and it is hard to cover a significant portion of it in trash. There was a brief blip as cities figured out how to pay for more waste disposal, and then nobody ever worried about the problem again. Recycling remained inefficient and of dubious benefit, and never really caught on.

There is still an international problem as Third World countries struggle with infrastructure issues around trash disposal. You still see occasional articles like Huffington Post’s People Are Living In Landfills As The World Drowns In Its Own Trash, from earlier this year. But I think in general nobody in the First World still considers this a major problem.

Well, almost nobody:

Verdict: Alarmist. So, so, alarmist.

6. Peak Resource

Is the earth’s ballooning human population using up resources at an unsustainable rate?

Technically the answer must be “yes”, since by definition nonrenewable resources have to run out at some point. But when? Long after we have escaped to space and gotten access to shiny new resources? Or soon enough that we have to worry about it?

A big part of 90s environmentalism involved worrying that it was the latter. A particular concern was “peak oil”, the point at which we had exhausted so much of the world’s oil that production rates declined every year thereafter and oil started becoming gradually rarer and more expensive. Wikipedia has a helpful table of people’s peak oil predictions. I’ve highlighted the ones that have already passed in red.

Almost everyone working before 2000 thought we would have reached peak oil by now. But here’s world oil production over time:

And the price of oil:

What happened? People discovered fracking and other paradigm-shifting techniques to extract oil from shale, which opened up vast new previously-inaccessible oil fields. The peak oil predictors might call this unfair – they calculated correctly given the technology they knew about – but the whole argument of the people who say we don’t have to worry about peak resource (sometimes called “cornucopians”) is that technology will advance fast enough to satisfy our resource needs. In this case they were right.

What about non-oil resources?

In 1980, leading environmental scientist and peak-resource proponent Paul Ehrlich made a bet with cornucopian economist Julian Simon about how resource prices would change over the next decade. The Simon-Ehrlich Wager has become a famous example of futurology done right – two people with different theories implying different predictions coming together, agreeing on exactly what each of their theories implied, and then publicly committing to put them to the test. According to Reb Wiki:

Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager on the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990 as the payoff date. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.

Looks pretty good for Simon and the cornucopians. But the article continues:

Ehrlich could have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Ehrlich wrote that the five metals in question had increased in price between the years 1950 to 1975. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.” Economist Mark J. Perry noted that for an even longer period of time, from 1934 to 2013, the inflation-adjusted price of the Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index showed “an overall significant downward trend” and concluded that Simon was “more right than lucky”. Economist Tim Worstall wrote that “The end result of all of this is that yes, it is true that Ehrlich could have, would have, won the bet depending upon the starting date. … But the long term trend for metals at least is downwards.”

How about today? An econblogger is still keeping track of the Ehrlich-Simon wager, and finds that as of August 2017, Simon (who is now dead) is still winning; a basket of the five metals involved still costs less than it did in 1980.

Can we zoom out even further? There are a bunch of commodity indices that do for commodities what the Dow Jones does for stocks. I chose the Standard & Poor Goldman-Sachs Commodity Index kind of randomly because they were a familiar name and it was easy to find which goods they included. I’m not quite sure I’m doing this right, but this seems to be the most relevant graph:

The price of commodities in general is still lower than in 1980 (also, with this graph it becomes clear Ehrlich was really unlucky in which year he started his wager).

I have never heard anyone claim that this represents an environmentalist victory: I don’t think there was any large-scale attempt to conserve or recycle chromium/tungsten/whatever that led to its current abundance. I think this was just a victory for resource extraction technology.

There are still theoretical reasons to think we have to run out of stuff eventually. But in terms of how the past 25 years have treated 90s-era concerns about resource depletion, it’s hard to answer anything other than “savagely”.

Verdict: Alarmist

7. Saving The Whales

I remember frequently being told we had to do this. Apparently it paid off, since a global moratorium on whaling was signed in 1982.

The ban is not perfect. Indigenous peoples are allowed to hunt whales in traditional ways. Japan pretends their whaling is for “scientific purposes” and has so far gotten away with it. Norway and Iceland never signed the moratorium and continue to whale.

But overall, things are going pretty well. There aren’t a lot of graphs, but the International Whaling Commission (which despite its name is against whaling) says blue whale populations are increasing at about 8%/year, humpback whales around 10%, and fin whales around 5%. Those sound pretty good, but they have to be taken in context:

Okay, fine. There’s one graph. But it’s really depressing. See that tiny micro-bump at the end? That represents progress.

Verdict: Environmental movement successfully solved this problem.

8. Concluding Thoughts

This was not a very conclusive exercise. When I add these up – as if that were at all an acceptable thing to do! – I get 2⅓ that were solved, 2⅚ that were alarmism, and 1⅚ that continue. So there is not much to be said about them as a group. Some were solved through heroic effort. Some turned out to be completely made up. Some of them are still out there but have stopped capturing the public’s attention.

Victories I can understand. It’s the latter two categories that confuse me.

How did the non-problems fade away? There was no moment when some brave iconoclast posted ninety-five theses to the door of the local recycling center and said “No! There is not a landfill crisis!” I mean, John Tierney wrote things along those lines, and did a great job of it. But he’s not a household name and there was never a time when everyone said “Oh, John Tierney is right, let’s stop worrying about this.” The people who stopped worrying about this never heard of John Tierney. At some point people just went from being very worried about the landfill crisis to shaking their heads and saying “The world getting full of trash? Sounds pretty stupid.”

And the story with peak resources seems entirely different. You will still occasionally see people saying “The Earth can’t support our greed, soon we will run out of everything”, and reasonable people will nod along with this and admit it is very wise. But you hear it like once a year now, as opposed to it being a constant refrain. This idea was never intellectually defeated at all, at least not on the popular level. It just faded away.

Was there some rarified level of intellectual debate where these ideas lost out? And then, denied their support from the commanding heights of the ivory tower, did journalists stop writing about them, schoolteachers stop teaching them, and then eventually the public – who have no will of their own and have to be told what matters – wander off and do something else?

Or was the change bottom-up? Did the public, after the millionth editorial on the trash crisis, say “Okay, whatever”, such that journalists realized this was no longer a good way to sell newspaper subscriptions? Is there a natural news mega-cycle of a decade or so, after which the public gets tired of hearing about a certain story, the intellectuals get tired of talking about it, every possible angle has been explored, and people move on, whether or not it was solved? Does this explain why the rainforests, a real problem that is still going on, similarly lost public attention?

Or maybe climate change took over everything, became so important that everything else faded into the background. This is certainly how it feels to me. Whenever I hear about the rainforests nowadays, it’s as a footnote to some global warming story where they add that we should save the rainforest as a carbon sink. Whenever I hear about landfills or recycling today, it’s in the context of trash giving off greenhouse gases. It feels almost like some primitive barter system has been converted to a modern economy, with tons of CO2 emission as the universal interchangeable currency that can be used to put a number value on all environmental issues. Can’t figure out a way to convert whales into a carbon sink? Guess they’ll have to go.

(I wrote that, then remembered I lived in 21st century America, did a Google search, and sure enough there are dozens of articles arguing that saving whales is an efficient way to neutralize greenhouse gases)

But as attractive as this picture is, it’s hard to find the supporting data. There’s just not hard evidence that we care more about global warming than we did fifteen or twenty years ago:

Here’s the Google Trends. There was a lot of interest in 2006, which I think gets attributed to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in that year, but not a lot of signs of increase today.

Here’s Gallup. It at least shows a spike starting in 2016 – but given its timing and the lack of obvious 2016 global-warming related events, I think it’s probably just another Trump backlash effect.

If global warming is eating all the other environmental issues, it doesn’t seem to be extracting that much nutrition from their corpses. And the ozone hole – probably the most global-warming-like issue of the last generation – managed to gather popular support at the same time that people were worried about a host of other things. I don’t know. Maybe given the public’s tendency to get bored of an issue after a decade or so, global warming has to cannibalize the rest of environmentalism just to survive at all. Depressing if true.

Or maybe it’s a zeitgeist thing. For some reason, it’s hard to imagine 2018 being the Year Of Rainforest Concern. There’s something very 90s Optimism about worrying about the rainforests, something where even the warnings of doom have a cheerful ring to them. I remember a Rainforest Charity Box at my local mall as a kid, promising that if you donated $10, you would save a brightly colored parrot, and if you donated $50, you might save a jaguar. Who thinks that way these days? Now if you donate some amount to stopping global warming, you will have won yourself a lecture from a bunch of people telling you that still doesn’t mean you have the right to feel good about yourself, and the world is going to fry regardless. Have we just passed the point where anybody can care about crisp mountain streams or frolicking snow leopards any more?

The most important thing I take away from the exercise is a sort of postmodern insight into the way environmental issues are constructed. This is definitely not me saying they are all made up; many of them are very real. But the mapping from real crisis to social panic is tenuous, contingent, and historical. Sometimes random things that shouldn’t matter get magnified into the issue du jour; other times giant world-threatening crises manage to slip everyone’s attention.

Imagine that twenty years from now, nobody cares or talks about global warming. It hasn’t been debunked. It’s still happening. People just stopped considering it interesting. Every so often some webzine or VR-holozine or whatever will publish a “Whatever Happened To Global Warming” story, and you’ll hear that global temperatures are up X degrees centigrade since 2000 and that explains Y percent of recent devastating hurricanes. Then everyone will go back to worrying about Robo-Trump or Mecha-Putin or whatever.

If this sounds absurd, I think it’s no weirder than what’s happened to 90s environmentalism and the issues it cared about.

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OT118: Threadgorian Calendar

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. Comment of the week is by Liskantope, who is not buying the story (the conspiracy theory?) that supercentenarian Jeanne Calment was a fraud.

2. Did you go to a secular Solstice celebration this year? Did you like the music? Raymond Arnold, the composer of most of the Solstice songs, has a crowdfunding campaign to get an album out. It’s finishing tomorrow, so if you’re interested make sure to take a look ASAP (sorry!) Campaign is over, you can still support/purchase at this link.

3. Somebody determined that the Report Comment button works on https but not http. If you have trouble using the button, try using it on https. And if you understand these things and have a good idea how to make it work on http, let me know.

4. If you’re hosting an SSC meetup and want it to show up in the Upcoming Meetups section of the sidebar here, remember to fill in this form (it’s linked on the sidebar) and to tag the meetup with “SSC”.

5. Some new ads up. One is for GiveDirectly, a charity which directly transfers money to needy people in Africa. The other is for Charity Entrepreneurship, a Y-combinator-esque incubator for people who want to start non-profits. Remember, I do give free advertising to EA charities and organizations – though you might want to wait a little while, right now I’ve got a higher free-to-paid ad ratio than I’m used to.

6. The survey is still open, so if you haven’t done it yet and you’re reading this post, please take the 2019 Slate Star Codex survey. If you’ve already taken it and you want more surveys, user RavenclawPrefect has put together a supplemental survey of all the questions that didn’t make it in to the main one.

7. Happy New Year, everyone!

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Please Take The 2019 SSC Survey

Please take the 2019 Slate Star Codex Survey.

The survey helps me learn more about SSC readers and plan community events. But it also provides me with useful informal research data for questions I’m interested it, which I then turn into interesting posts. My favorite from last year was Fight Me, Psychologists: Birth Order Effects Exist And Are Very Strong, which I think made a real contribution to individual differences psychology and which could not have happened without your cooperation.

The survey is open to anyone who has ever read a post on this blog before December 27 2018. Please don’t avoid taking the survey just because you feel like you’re not enough of a “regular”. It will ask you how much of a “regular” you are, so there’s no risk you’ll “dilute” the results. The survey will stay open until mid-January, and I will probably be begging and harassing you to take it about once a week or so until then.

This year’s survey is in two parts. Part I asks the same basic questions as previous years and should take about ten minutes. Part II asks more questions on research topics I’m interested in and should take about fifteen minutes. It would be great if you could take both parts, but if 25 minutes sounds like too much surveying to you, you can also just take Part I.

As always, the survey is plagued by fundamental limitations, poor technology, and my own carelessness, but a couple of things to watch for:

– Once you click a box on a Google form, you cannot un-click it – i.e. you can change your answer but you can’t unanswer the question. If you click a box you didn’t mean to, please switch your answer to “Other” if available; if not, then choose the most boring inoffensive answer that is least likely to produce surprising results. I realize how bad this is but there is apparently no way around it.

– Some of the questions are America-centric, because I either have to learn everything about every culture or be something-centric, and America seemed like a good place to center around. Sorry to non-American readers. Feel free to skip any questions that don’t apply to you.

– By default, all responses will be included in a public dataset for anyone who wants to analyze them. Your responses will obviously not be attached to your name or any similarly blatant identifying information, but if you are the only 92 year old from Uruguay on SSC then someone could theoretically identify you. There is an option to make all your responses private; if identifiability bothers you, feel free to check it and you will not be included in the public dataset. There are a few sections of Part II, especially the ones on drugs and sex, which I figure need extra privacy protection; I will not be sharing these regardless of your answer to the privacy question.

– Due to poring over a 5000 entry spreadsheet not actually being that much fun, I am not up for changing your answers after you submit them. Please do not email me asking me to do this. This includes your answer to the privacy question. Please figure out whether you want privacy before taking the survey.

That having been said, you are all great, and I super-appreciate any survey-filling-out you are willing to do. If you can donate about a half-hour, I hope I can pay you back in interesting findings and useful crowd-sourced life advice. So:

Take the 2019 Slate Star Codex Survey here

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Links 12/18: Boughs Of Hollink

A Swedish news team went to Gotland to film a segment on the problem of amateur treasure-hunters disturbing archaeological sites. To collect footage, one of them borrowed a metal detector and went around an archaeological site in what they figured was a treasure-hunter-like way. Just after filming finished, the metal detector started beeping – and thus was made the largest discovery of Viking treasure in history, 148 lbs of silver worth millions of dollars.

Remittance men were the embarrassing or redundant children of wealthy European families, promised a regular income on the condition that they stay away from home. They ended up in American, Canada, and the British Empire, and were common enough to make up an outright majority of some Old Western towns.

Nintil takes a stab at explaining the constancy of the rate of GDP growth. Short version: GDP depends on population (which grows smoothly), capital (which accumulates smoothly), and productivity (which grows in fits and starts that are somewhere between random and autocorrelated but when averaged across all technologies approximates smooth). Also, processes driven by exponential growth are naturally smooth-looking.

Early 18th-century London looked a lot like the setting of the average superhero comic – plagued by crime, weak on policing, crying out for a charismatic figure to take matters into his own hands. Enter Jonathan Wild, the “Thief-Taker General”, who won public adoration by catching all the worst criminals and bringing them to justice. Spoiler: he was secretly a mob boss who arranged all the crimes, then arranged to “solve” whichever ones benefitted his reputation.

Great moments in censorship: In 1953, the USSR non-personned former spymaster Lavrentiy Beria. In response to “overwhelming popular demand”, the Soviet Encyclopedia sent its customers a supplement containing three pages of “expanded information” on Bergholtz, Berkeley, and the Bering Sea – to replace the three page article on Beria that book-owners were to tear out of their encyclopedias.

After a decade of stunning victories fighting malaria, progress against the disease has stalled over the past five years. Here’s a WHO report on the problem which doesn’t really give any satisfying explanations beyond a bunch of different trends in a bunch of different countries.

A Florida teenager was convicted of fraud after somehow convincing everyone he was a doctor, founding his own medical center, and treating a bunch of patients there. This ABC video interview with him doubles as a hilarious and fascinating psychological study into somebody who’s pathologically incapable of admitting wrongdoing.

Lanchester’s Laws are used to predict number of casualties based on the size of armies. In ancient times, casualties scaled linearly with army size; nowadays army size gets raised to an exponent of 1.5 or 2.

The Energy Desert is an area from about 10^12 to 10^25 electron-volts – eg between 20th century particle accelerators, and ones billions of times better than that – where many theories predict that nothing interesting happens. Offered as an explanation for current particple physics stagnation – the reason we haven’t discovered anything lately is because there’s nothing to see anywhere near our current technology level.

Game theoretic cooperation used to explain *spins Wheel O’ Phenomena* replication of primaeval RNA in hydrothermal vents. This is pretty neat.

Social policy bonds are non-interest bearing bonds, redeemable for a fixed sum only when a targeted social objective has been achieved.” A weird kind of prediction market on good outcomes that also incentivizes creating them.

LW user Larks gives his mega-summary of 2018 in AI safety research. Related: MIRI’s yearly update.

Some undercover cops decide to pose as drug dealers. Some other undercover cops decide to pose as drug buyers. One drug deal later, hilarity ensues.

The big genetics news this month was the claim that two babies born in China were CRISPRed to make them immune to AIDS. Leading US biologist George Church has seen the data and seems to think it’s for real. Most scientists condemned the action (though it’s hard to tell how organic that was, since several started out cautiously supportive, then switched to condemning it after they themselves were condemned for not condemning it enough). On the other hand an earlier survey shows that 60% of Americans, 70% of Chinese, and almost 100% of Chinese with AIDS believe that gene editing to prevent AIDS and other serious diseases is potentially (though not necessarily in this case) acceptable. Have not heard of any attempt to see how many other genes were damaged in editing attempt, but this seems like potential next step. After claim that the scientist involved went missing, he has since become un-missing and promised to say something in his own defense at some point. There’s some good debate about the ethics of this here.

How did restaurants get so loud? I SAID, HOW DID RESTAURANTS GET SO LOUD? Seems to be combination of minimalist design removing sound-absorbing stuff, plus sinister motive in preventing long conversations to get people out earlier and so increase throughput and profits.

Suicide is declining basically everywhere except the United States. Or at least this is how the article presents it – it doesn’t look at a lot of other western First World countries, and it seems to hint at a “there is a developmental stage where suicide rate plummets, the US had it fifty years ago, and China, India, etc are having it now”. Also, although looks at rising US death rates usually mention whites as uniquely affected, the second graph here suggests that whites and Native Americans follow one (worsening) pattern, and blacks/Asians/Hispanics another (improving) one. What do whites and Native Americans have in common? Ruralness?

Mic.com is dead. This may seem like a small thing, but now all the terrible social justice clickbait websites have to journey all the way back to Mongolia to elect a new Khan. We’re saved! Everyone is saved! Related: BoingBoing discusses the sinister side of Facebook’s pivot to video.

Noah Smith and Random Critical Analysis debate health care – specifically, Noah subscribes to the popular belief that US health care is uniquely expensive because it is uniquely inefficient, vs. RCA’s believes that richer countries have more expensive health care, and once you measure this more accurately the US is exactly where you would expect on the trend line. Noah starts with a Bloomberg article that offhandedly calls RCA “unconvincing”. RCA responds with a gargantuo-mega-post containing almost 300 graphs proving himself right, to which Noah tweets a 23 word response. See also the discussion on the SSC subreddit.

This month in free speech: Marc Lamont Hill was fired as a CNN commentator – and almost lost his tenured professorship at Temple University – for giving a pro-Palestine speech at the United Nations. Opponents claimed that his call for a Palestinian state “from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea” was a “dog-whistle” calling for the extermination of Jews. I think it’s important that everyone remember free speech for everyone stands or falls together – so I’m happy that some rightist defenders of free speech have expressed concern about this, and also disappointed that some leftists tried to exploit the severity of this case to trivialize right-wing free speech concerns.

Catherine Olsson on Twitter explains an experiment that takes advantage of Pokemon-addicted children to solve a long-running debate about how the brain processes visual information.

The world’s most-traveled sailing vessel is the Spanish navy’s training ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano, which has voyaged more than two million nautical miles over ninety years.

Seen on Reddit: “TIL there was an early 1900s act named ‘Sober Sue’, whose draw was she never smiled. A theater offered $1000 to any one who could make her laugh, attracting big comedians. Crowds came out to watch them try, and fail, giving them a free show. Later it came out that Sue suffered from facial paralysis.”

As far as I know not actually done as a gimmick by anti-transgender activists but sounds like the sort of thing they would think up: 69 year old Dutch man says he identifies as a 49-year-old, asks court to change his legal age.

Strong evidence that increased school spending can improve school outcomes. My argument against this has always been secular doubling or tripling of spending that hasn’t done much, but I guess there could be two causes of school spending – secular cost increases, and actually useful stuff, and the second one is actually useful.

In 2012, English royal Kate Middleton was in the hospital recovering from severe morning sickness. Some Australian radio comedians called the hospital doing an outrageous Queen Elizabeth impression, and the hospital fell for it and talked to them as if they were the real Queen. Then one of the nurses involved committed suicide, leading to a closer look at the ethics of radio comedy.

Although NYC leads the country in anti-Semitic hate crimes, none in the past two years has been affiliated with any kind of far-right group; they are mostly perpetrated by anti-gentrification activists who see Jews as “hyper-white”. No data about how nationally representative this is compared to far-right anti-Semitic crimes like the recent Pittsburgh shooting. Suppose it were representative: given that we frequently hear calls to crack down on far-right ideas out of fear of inflaming anti-Semitism, and that we never hear calls to crack down on anti-gentrification speech or the discourse around whiteness out of fears of inflaming anti-Semitism (and most people would be horrified by the idea that we should), should this challenge the way we think about hate-crime-incitement as an exception to free speech?

Scott Weiner’s SB-827, the California bill that would have upzoned huge swathes of the state and marked a major victory against the housing crisis, failed to make it out of committee last year. Now a modified version is back, and already has high-up supporters including the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and LA.

Some commenters reading my post on science slowing down referred me to Growth Econ’s post of the modelling of economic regimes where idea productivity remains constant as you add more researchers.

Quebecois locals commemorated the 1996 Sagueney flood, which killed ten people and displaced thousands, with the insensitively-named Ha! Ha! Pyramid

How Different Studies Measure Income Inequality is a good article on how most ways of measuring inequality find less dramatic results than the famous studies by Piketty et al. It also argues that real median incomes have increased about 40% since the 1970s (contra the common argument that they have been basically flat as all growth goes to the top 1%). Related: Today’s young adults are earning much more than their parents did at the same age. File this under “I keep hearing different things about economics statistics and have no idea who’s right, aaaaaaaah”.

If you blog about effective altruism, you can now semi-automatically cross-post posts from your blog to the EA Forum. And if you’re trying to figure out where to send your end-of-year charitable donations, you can find donation guides from 80,000 Hours and the Open Philanthropy Project.

“Popular” social media site Tumblr bans most porn, leading to an attempted exodus and also suddenly a bunch of people care about corporate threats to free speech online for the first time. @sknthla on Twitter has an interesting perspective.

City Journal makes the case that that California high-speed rail project that everyone knew was going to be an expensive boondoggle has already started being an expensive boondoggle – before any construction has even started, projected costs have tripled and the finish date has been pushed back a decade.

Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke once held the world record for beer drinking, and “suggested that this single feat may have contributed to his political success more than any other, by endearing him to an electorate with a strong beer culture”.

Tiny brain: “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a beloved holiday song everyone can guiltlessly enjoy. Glowing brain: “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a misogynistic hymn to rape culture. Galaxy brain: “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Also, this joke.

New review suggests sex hormones do not significantly affect decision-making; has anyone looked into this enough to have good opinions?

Do proton pump inhibitors, a popular heartburn medication, affect cognition?

Did you know: the Punic Wars officially ended in 1985.

For a long time, Bangladesh – whose garment industry has become almost synonymous with sweatshops – has been used as a critique of capitalism. And for an equally long time, capitalists have said this is a process countries have to go through and in a few years Bangladesh will reap a reward of economic growth and development. So it’s relevant to hear that Bangladesh is booming, with per capita income tripling in a decade, poverty rates cut in half, near food self-sufficiency, and the UN graduating them out of “least developed country” status.

Dylan Matthews’ Vox article about why it’s not worth trying to get along with political enemies, and kbog’s critique of same. Linking this not because I think the article is good and want you to read it, or because I think the article is especially bad and have forgotten that hate-linking incentivizes bad behavior. I’m linking it because it makes basically the argument I warn is driving people’s behavior in the last part of Against Murderism, and people kept objecting that I was straw-manning and nobody really thought that. I argue against these things because it’s what lots of people actually believe, and although sometimes it’s said quietly and scattered across a lot of places, if you wait long enough someone will just turn the whole thing into a Voxsplainer.

Sarah Constantin writes up some interesting work on advanced tit-for-tat-style strategies (1, 2)

Here, have a neat animated gif about how the same facts are compatible with multiple different interpretations (but see also this thread).

Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, is widely believed to be the oldest person ever. Scientists were puzzled by her health and long life, which was an extreme outlier even among record-holding supercentanarians. Now a Russian gerontologist presents evidence that Calment was a fraud – she died at a normal age, and her daughter assumed her identity for financial reasons. This was great to see a few days after reading Gwern’s list of open questions, where he expresses bafflement on how Calment lived so much longer than theory would predict possible. Remember, your strength as a rationalist depends on your ability to notice your own confusion

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Seattle Meetup This Sunday

Why: Because I’m in Seattle this weekend

Where: 5238 11th Ave NE, Seattle WA (private residence). If there are too many people we’ll figure something out.

When: 4 PM on Sunday 12/23

Who: Anyone who wants. Please feel free to come even if you feel awkward about it, even if you’re not “the typical SSC reader”, even if you’re worried people won’t like you, etc. People who fit those descriptions who decided to come to previous meetups have mostly enjoyed them.

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Refactoring: Culture As Branch Of Government

Ribbonfarm likes to talk about refactoring, a conceptual change in how you see the world. I’m not totally sure I understand it, but I think it means things like memetics – where you go from the usual model of people deciding what ideas they want, to a weird and inside-out (but not objectively wrong) model of ideas competing to colonize people.

Here is a refactoring I think about a lot: imagine a world where people considered culture the fourth branch of government. Imagine that civics textbook writers taught high school students that the US government had four branches: executive, legislative, judicial, and cultural.

I think about this because I have a bias to ignore anything that isn’t nailed down and explicit. Culture isn’t nailed down. But if it were in the Constitution in nice calligraphy right beside the Presidency and the Supreme Court, why, then it would be as explicit as it gets.

Like many other people, I was hopeful that nation-building Iraq (or Afghanistan, or…) would quickly turn it into a liberal democracy (in my defense, I was eighteen at the time). Like many other people, I was disappointed and confused when it didn’t. The people in the world that considers culture the fourth branch of government weren’t confused. Bush forgot to nation-build an entire branch of government. If he’d given Iraq a western-style Supreme Court, marble facade and all, but left their executive and legislature exactly how they were before, that would be a recipe for conflict, confusion, and eventually nothing getting done. So why should westernizing their executive, legislature, and courts – but not their culture – work any better?

The world that considers culture the fourth branch of government doesn’t get all confused calling hunter-gatherers or peasant villagers “primitive communism” or “anarchism” or “ruled by elders” or things like that. Those people’s governments have a cultural branch but not much else. Why should we be surprised? Medieval Iceland had only legislative and judicial branches; medieval Somalia only had a judiciary; some dictatorships run off just an executive.

Each branch of government enforces rules in its own way. The legislature passes laws. The executive makes executive orders. The judiciary rules on cases. And the culture sets norms. In our hypothetical world, true libertarians are people who want less of all of these. There are people who want less of the first three branches but want to keep strong cultural norms about what is or isn’t acceptable – think Lew Rockwell and other paleoconservatives who hope that the retreat of central government will create strong church-based communities of virtuous citizens. These people aren’t considered libertarians. They might be considered principled constitutionalists, the same way as people who worry about the “imperial presidency” and its use of executive orders. But in the end, what they want to strengthen some branches of government at the expense of others. The real libertarians also believe that cultural norms enforced by shame and ostracism are impositions on freedom, and fight to make these as circumscribed as possible.

Debates about primaries and the Electoral College are understood to be about how to determine who controls the executive branch. Debates about gerrymandering and voter suppression are understood to be about how to determine who controls the legislative branch. And debates about censorship, the media, and – yes – immigration – are understood to be about how to determine who controls the cultural branch.

In our hypothetical world, the First Amendment specifies “This shall apply to the first three branches of government, but not the fourth”. Still, debate goes on. Some people are happy the first three branches are kept out of it, but glad that the culture censors the speech of people who shouldn’t be talking. These people are another set of principled constitutionalists, the same as people who want to make sure only Congress (and not the President) can declare war, but don’t mind war in and of itself. Other people really are free speech purists, and think that no branch of government should be able to restrict the marketplace of ideas.

I admit this is kind of a silly hypothetical. Culture is much more different from the three branches of government than they are from each other; a civics textbook writer would have to be pretty strange to think it was worth tacking it on. Still, it’s a useful (if extreme) counter to forgetting to ever think about culture at all.

Fallacies Of Reversed Moderation

A recent discussion: somebody asked why people in Silicon Valley thought that only high-tech solutions to climate change (like carbon capture or geoengineering) mattered, and why they dismissed more typical solutions like international cooperation and political activism.

Another person cited statements from the relevant Silicon Valley people, who mostly say that they think political solutions and environmental activism were central to the fight against climate change, but that we should look into high-tech solutions too.

This is a pattern I see again and again.

Popular consensus believes 100% X, and absolutely 0% Y.

A few iconoclasts say that X is definitely right and important, but maybe we should also think about Y sometimes.

The popular consensus reacts “How can you think that it’s 100% Y, and that X is completely irrelevant? That’s so extremist!”

Some common forms of this:

Reversed moderation of planning, like in the geoengineering example. One group wants to solve the problem 100% through political solutions, another group wants 90% political and 10% technological, and the first group thinks the second only cares about technological solutions.

Reversed moderation of importance. For example, a lot of psychologists talk as if all human behavior is learned. Then when geneticists point to experiments showing behavior is about 50% genetic, they get accused of saying that “only genes matter” and lectured on how the world is more complex and subtle than that.

Reversed moderation of interest. For example, if a vegetarian shows any concern about animal rights, they might get told they’re “obsessed with animals” or they “care about animals more than humans”.

Reversed moderation of certainty. See for example my previous article Two Kinds Of Caution. Some researcher points out a possibility that superintelligent AI might be dangerous, and suggests looking into this possibility. Then people say it doesn’t matter, and we don’t have to worry about it, and criticize the researcher for believing he can “predict the future” or thinking “we can see decades ahead”. But “here is a possibility we need to investigate” is a much less certain claim than “no, that possibility definitely will not happen”.

I can see why this pattern is tempting. If somebody said the US should allocate 50% of its defense budget to the usual global threats, and 50% to the threat of reptilian space invaders, then even though the plan contains the number “50-50” it would not be a “moderate” proposal. You would think of it as “that crazy plan about fighting space reptiles”, and you would be right to do so. But in this case the proper counterargument is to say “there is no reason to spend any money fighting space reptiles”, not “it’s so immoderate to spend literally 100% of our budget breeding space mongooses”. “Moderate” is not the same as “50-50” is not the same as “good”. Just say “Even though this program leaves some money for normal defense purposes, it’s stupid”. You don’t have to deny that it leaves anything at all.

Or if someone says there’s a 10% chance space reptiles will invade, just say “No, the number is basically zero”. Don’t say “I can’t believe you’re certain there will be an alien invasion, don’t you know there’s never any certainty in this world?”

But I can see why this happens. Imagine the US currently devotes 100% of its defense budget to countering Russia. Some analyst determines that although Russia deserves 90% of resources, the Pentagon should also use 10% to counter China. Since no one person can shift very much of the defense budget, this analyst might spend all her time arguing we need to counter China more, trying to convince everyone that China is really very dangerous; if she succeeds, maybe the budget will shift to 99-to-1 and she’ll have done the best she can. But if she really spends all her time talking about China, this might look to other people like she’s an extremist – that crazy single-issue China person – “Why are you spending all your time talking about China? Don’t you realize Russia is important too?” Still, she’s taking the right strategy, and it’s hard to figure out what she could do better.

I am nervous titling this “reversed moderation fallacy” because any time someone brings up fallacies, people accuse them of thinking all discussion consists of identifying and jumping on Officially Designated Fallacies in someone else’s work. But I’ve gone years without talking about fallacies at all, so when this inevitably happens it’s going here as Exhibit A.

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OT117: Ho Ho Hopen Thread

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. Although I’m very happy with the quality of discussion here most of the time, I was disappointed with some comments on the Trump post. Part of this was my fault for going for a few jokes that made it more inflammatory than it had to be – but enough of it was your faults that I banned six people and probably should have banned more. Remember, if you see an immoderate comment that needs moderating, please report it using the report button in the corner.

2. Related: I am going to be stricter on the “necessary” prong of the comment policy. If it’s a thread about the poll numbers for some right-wing policies going down, and you post “The reason Trump won was because everyone knows all liberals are…”, you are probably getting banned. I’ve been reluctant to do this before because it’s the sort of thing that could be true and I don’t want to make it impossible to say certain true things. But now I’m thinking it’s so irrelevant to the topic that it will have to fit both the “true” and “kind” prongs to stay up without getting you banned. If you really can’t figure out whether something you want to post is like this, imagine someone on the opposite side said it about you, and see whether it feels more like a reasonable critique or like they’re trying to start a fight. I like the way Vorkon talks about this here.

3. In early October, I asked people to pick up anxiety sampler kits, try to use them at least twice a week, and send me the results. I gave out thirty kits and so far I have gotten valid results back from two of them (though it hasn’t quite been 10.5 weeks, so don’t worry, you’re not late). If you have a kit, please don’t forget to try it; if you’ve tried it, please don’t forget to send me your numbers.

4. Comments of the week are this discussion of “rods from God” as a nuke alternative; see especially Bean and John Schilling’s responses. Aside from everyone’s erudition, I also appreciate their ability to turn some good phrases – “like playing hide-and-seek while the seeker’s head is wrapped in a burning towel” is going to stick with me for a while.

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Trump: A Setback For Trumpism

Donald Trump has been called a setback for many things. America. The global community. The environment. Civil service. Civil society. Civility. Civilization. The list goes on.

One might think he has at least been useful to his own cause. That he could at least claim to have benefited the ideas of populism, nationalism, immigration control, and protectionism. That if anything could avoid being devastated by Trump, it would be Trumpism.

But here are some polls from the past few years. They’re all on slightly different things, but I think together they tell an interesting story:

Support for global free trade mysteriously spiked around 2016.

So did moral support for immigrants.

…and, less clearly but still there, support for increasing the number of immigrants (though see here for an apparently contrary source).

…and opposition to deporting illegal immigrants.

So did belief in racial discrimination as a major cause of inequality, according to this chart with a completely unbiased title which is willing to let readers decide how to think about this issue for themselves.

And so did trust in the New York Times and other mainstream media sources.

The clearest example I can find of this effect doesn’t come from the US at all. It’s Minkus, Deutschmann & Delhey (2018). They find that a large European poll asked the same question about support for the EU the week before and after Trump’s election. Just after the election, there was a giant spike in support for the EU, “considerable in size, roughly equivalent to three years of education”. They conclude that:

The election of Trump as a right-wing nationalist with a declared aversion to supranational institutions including the EU — did not trigger a domino effect in the same direction in Europe. To the contrary, a rally effect occurred, in which Europe moved closer together, rallying around the EU’s “flag.” This indicates that an event that may at first sight appear to be a global victory for nationalism can immediately trigger measurable sentiments of resistance in another part of the world, actually leading to new impetus for supranationalism.

This kind of analysis is inherently vulnerable to cherry-picking, and I admit I’ve chosen some especially dramatic results. And polls naturally have a lot of variability, and none of these on their own constitute proof of anything. But I think when you put everything together you do get a trend. Some things have stayed the same, or are inconclusive. But there do seem to be a lot of cases where support for Trumpist positions show a sudden and lasting decrease as soon as Trump enters the national stage.

I want credit for predicting this. In my endorsement of anyone except Trump, I told progressives not to vote Trump because they opposed his policy, and conservatives not to vote Trump because he would cause a backlash that was worse than anything they might get from him. I said that the left thrives by imagining themselves as brave rebels fighting an ignorant, regressive, hateful authority, and that “bringing their straw man to life and putting him in the Oval Office” would be “the biggest gift” they could give the Democrats, and would end up pushing an entire generation further to the left.

I think this is a good broad theory of what’s happening, but it might be worth digging deeper to try to distinguish possible mechanisms.

First, maybe Trump is just such an offensive and aversive figure that people switch sides in disgust. This is a little weird; if you were anti-immigration before Trump, can’t you just say “I hate Trump, but I’m still against immigration”? But maybe people’s minds don’t work that way.

Second, maybe Trump made causes like protectionism and nativism so central to the Republican narrative that they became untenable for Democrats. That is, in 2010, it might have been possible to be an anti-illegal-immigration Democrat (remember, in the early 2000s Hillary supported a border fence), but in 2018, that would signal being a Republican, or at least someone of questionable loyalty to the Democratic Party. In order to fit in, moderate Democrats abandoned their anti-illegal-immigration stances. The graphs above seem to provide some evidence for this: they usually show the largest shift among Democrats, with Republicans merely staying where they are.

Third, and kind of opposite that, maybe Trump is such an offensive and aversive figure that conservatives feel a need to maintain their reputation by distancing themselves from him. Maybe in 2010, being anti-illegal-immigration signaled things that you wanted to signal, like patriotism and support for low-paid workers. And now, being anti-immigration signals things you don’t want to signal, like Trump’s particular brand of inflammatory divisiveness. This doesn’t fit the evidence from the graphs above, but it does sort of fit the European study, where further-right Europeans were more likely to switch opinions after the election than further-left ones.

Fourth, maybe Trump’s focus on certain causes shifted the focus of Democrats and the mainstream media to those causes, and Democrats and the mainstream media were better at opposing them than Trump was at supporting them. For example, since Trump the media has been focusing more intensely on negative aspects of ICE and Border Control practices which were less well-covered before his presidency. If this focus has successfully changed minds, that would explain a shift away from Trump.

Fifth, maybe Trump has shifted the goalposts. Maybe identifying as anti-illegal-immigrant before Trump just meant you thought there should be a little better border control, but now you think it means you want a wall and mass deportations, plus you think all Mexicans are rapists. If you felt like the anti-illegal-immigrant cause was getting more extreme, but your positions stayed the same, then you might stop identifying as anti-illegal-immigrant.

Sixth, there have been a lot of studies showing that peaceful protests may increase support for a cause, but violent or disruptive protests usually decrease it (1, 2, 3). It’s easy enough to analogize Trump to a “disruptive protest” – in the sense of an ideological cause getting associated with an unsympathetic proponent – and this would be compatible with any of the explanations above. But I notice that most of the research in this area was done on whites reacting to civil rights protests, adding an identity dimension: maybe disruptive racially charged protests by blacks increase the salience of race as a category for whites, causing them to shift their opinions more towards ones based on their race rather than based on other values. This would also explain the paradoxical Ferguson effect mentioned in Part III here. In the same way, we can think of Trump’s election as a disruptive Republican move that makes Democrats feel threatened and increases the salience of partisanship for them. This would cause a sort of unilateral polarization, where Democrats become more progressive but Republicans don’t necessarily become more conservative, and so the country as a whole shifts to the left. Like the second explanation, this is compatible with the party breakdown on the graphs above. It’s also compatible with this:

These show the familiar 2016 spike. But although Trump has taken positions against fighting climate change or regulating guns, I don’t think of these two issues as “Trumpist” in the same way as illegal immigration, and I’m surprised they seem to show a Trump-related change. This would make more sense if Trump caused a wider-reaching closing of ranks among Democrats rather than just a shift away from his personal hobbyhorses.

I think all of this should increase people’s concern about backlash effects. Contrary to what some of my conflict theorist friends seem to think, civility and honesty are not always pointless own-goals in politics. If you’re sufficiently repulsive and offensive, you can also end up damaging your own cause.

As I’ve pointed out before, backlash can sometimes be a necessary trade-off to energize your base. But as I’ve also pointed out before, people tend to overestimate the importance of turning out the base, and to underestimate the importance of not having everyone hate you. So if I were a Trumpist, I would be very worried right now.