Slate Star Codex Podcast

Slate Star Codex Podcast


Audio version of Slate Star Codex. It's just me reading Scott Alexander's Blog Posts.





Sleep Support: An Individual Randomized Controlled Trial

Feb 18, 2020 09:17



I worry my sleep quality isn’t great. On weekends, no matter when

I go to bed, I sleep until 11 or 12. When I wake up, I feel like I’ve overslept. But if I try to make myself get up earlier, I feel angry and want to go back to sleep.

A supplement company I trust, Nootropics Depot, recently released a new product called Sleep Support. It advertises that, along with helping you fall asleep faster, it can “improve sleep quality” by “improv[ing] sleep architecture, allowing you to achieve higher quality and more refreshing sleep.” I decided to try it.

The first night I took it, I woke up naturally at 9 the next morning, with no desire to go back to sleep. This has never happened before. It shocked me. And the next morning, the same thing happened. I started recommending the supplement to all my friends, some of whom also reported good results.

I decided the next step was to do a randomized controlled trial. I obtained sugar pills, and put both the sugar pills and the Sleep Support pills inside bigger capsules so I couldn’t tell which was which. The recommended dose was two Sleep Support pills per night, so for my 24 night trial I created 12 groups of two Sleep Support pills and 12 groups of two placebo pills.

Addendum to "Targeting Meritocracy"

Feb 16, 2020 03:09



I’ve always been dissatisfied with Targeting Meritocracy and the comments it got. My position seemed so obvious to me – and the opposite position so obvious to other people – that we both had to be missing something.

Reading it over, I think I was missing the idea of conflict vs mistake theory.

I wrote the post from a mistake theory perspective. The government exists to figure out how to solve problems. Good government officials are the ones who can figure out solutions and implement them effectively. That means we want people who are smart and competent. Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct. The only conceivable problem is if we make mistakes in judging intelligence and competence, which is what I spend the rest of the post worrying about.

Confirmation Bias As Misfire of Normal Bayesian Reasoning

Feb 15, 2020 05:19



From the subreddit: Humans Are Hardwired To Dismiss Facts That Don’t Fit Their Worldview. Once you get through the preliminary Trump supporter and anti-vaxxer denunciations, it turns out to be an attempt at an evo psych explanation of confirmation bias:

Our ancestors evolved in small groups, where cooperation and persuasion had at least as much to do with reproductive success as holding accurate factual beliefs about the world. Assimilation into one’s tribe required assimilation into the group’s ideological belief system. An instinctive bias in favor of one’s in-group” and its worldview is deeply ingrained in human psychology.

I think the article as a whole makes good points, but I’m increasingly uncertain that confirmation bias can be separated from normal reasoning.

Suppose that one of my friends says she saw a coyote walk by her house in Berkeley. I know there are coyotes in the hills outside Berkeley, so I am not too surprised; I believe her.

Welcome (?), Infowars Readers

Feb 15, 2020 04:44


Hello to all the new readers I’ve gotten from, uh, Paul Watson of Infowars. Before anything else, consider reading this statement by the CDC about vaccines.

Still here? Fine.

Infowars linked here with the headline Survey Finds People Who Identify As Left Wing More Likely To Have Been Diagnosed With A Mental Illness. This is accurate only insofar as the result uses the publicly available data I provide. The claim about mental illness was made by Twitter user Philippe Lemoine and not by me. In general, if a third party analyzes SSC survey data, I would prefer that media sources reporting on their analysis attribute it to them, and not to SSC.

As far as I can tell, Lemoine’s analysis is accurate enough, but needs some clarifications:

1. Both extreme rightists and extreme leftists are more likely than moderates to have been diagnosed with most conditions.

Autogenderphilia Is Common and Not Especially Related to Transgender

Feb 12, 2020 17:36



“Autogynephilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a woman. “Autoandrophilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a man. There’s no term that describes both, but we need one, so let’s say autogenderphilia.

These conditions are famous mostly because a few sexologists, especially Ray Blanchard and Michael Bailey, speculate that they are the most common cause of transgender. They point to studies showing most trans women endorse autogynephilia. Most trans people disagree with this theory, sometimes very strongly, and accuse it of reducing transgender to a fetish.

Without wading into the moral issues around it, I thought it would be interesting to get data from the SSC survey. The following comes partly from my own analyses and partly from wulfrickson’s look at the public survey data on r/TheMotte.

The survey asked the following questions:

Suicide Hotspots of the World

Feb 9, 2020 21:33



[Content warning: suicide, rape, child abuse. Thanks to MC for some help with research.]


Guyana has the highest national suicide rate in the world, 30 people per year per 100,000. Guyana has poverty and crime and those things, but no more so than neighboring Brazil (suicide rate of 6) or Venezuela (suicide rate of 4). What’s going on?

One place to start: Guyana is a multi-ethnic country. Is its sky-high suicide rate focused in one ethnic group? The first answer I found was this article by a social justice warrior telling us it constitutes racial “essentialism” to even ask the question. But in the process of telling us exactly what kind of claims we should avoid, she mentions someone bringing up that “80% of the reported suicides are carried out by Indo-Guyanese”. I feel like one of those classicists who has reconstructed a lost heresy through hostile quotations in Irenaeus.

Indo-Guyanese aren’t American Indians; they’re from actual India. Apparently thousands of Indians immigrated to Guyana as indentured laborers in the late 1800s. Most went to Guyana, and somewhat fewer went to neighboring Suriname. Suriname also has a sky-high suicide rate, but slightly less than Guyana’s, to the exact degree that its Indian population is slightly less than Guyana’s. Basically no Indians went anywhere else in South America, and nowhere else in South America has anywhere near the suicide rate of these two countries. The most Indian regions of Guyana also have the highest suicide rate. Hmmm.

Does India itself have high suicide rates? On average, yes. But India has a lot of weird suicide microclimates. Statewide rates range from from 38 in Sikkim (higher than any country in the world) to 0.5 in Bihar (lower than any country in the world except Barbados). Indo-Guyanese mostly come from Bihar and other low-suicide regions. While I can’t rule out that the Indo-Guyanese come from some micro-micro-climate of higher suicidality, this guy claims to have traced them back to some of their ancestral villages and found that those villages have low suicide rates.

Book Review: Human Compatible

Feb 2, 2020 34:04




Clarke’s First Law goes: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Stuart Russell is only 58. But what he lacks in age, he makes up in distinction: he’s a computer science professor at Berkeley, neurosurgery professor at UCSF, DARPA advisor, and author of the leading textbook on AI. His new book Human Compatible states that superintelligent AI is possible; Clarke would recommend we listen.

I’m only half-joking: in addition to its contents, Human Compatible is important as an artifact, a crystallized proof that top scientists now think AI safety is worth writing books about. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies previously filled this role. But Superintelligence was in 2014, and by a philosophy professor. From the artifactual point of view, HC is just better – more recent, and by a more domain-relevant expert. But if you also open up the books to see what’s inside, the two defy easy comparison.

S:PDS was unabashedly a weird book. It explored various outrageous scenarios (what if the AI destroyed humanity to prevent us from turning it off? what if it put us all in cryostasis so it didn’t count as destroying us? what if it converted the entire Earth into computronium?) with no excuse beyond that, outrageous or not, they might come true. Bostrom was going out on a very shaky limb to broadcast a crazy-sounding warning about what might be the most important problem humanity has ever faced, and the book made this absolutely clear.

HC somehow makes risk from superintelligence not sound weird. I can imagine my mother reading this book, nodding along, feeling better educated at the end of it, agreeing with most of what it says (it’s by a famous professor! I’m sure he knows his stuff!) and never having a moment where she sits bolt upright and goes what? It’s just a bizarrely normal, respectable book. It’s not that it’s dry and technical – HC is much more accessible than S:PDS, with funny anecdotes from Russell’s life, cute vignettes about hypothetical robots, and the occasional dad joke. It’s not hiding any of the weird superintelligence parts. Rereading it carefully, they’re all in there – when I leaf through it for examples, I come across a quote from Moravec about how “the immensities of cyberspace will be teeming with unhuman superminds, engaged in affairs that are to human concerns as ours are to those of bacteria”. But somehow it all sounds normal. If aliens landed on the White House lawn tomorrow, I believe Stuart Russell could report on it in a way that had people agreeing it was an interesting story, then turning to the sports page. As such, it fulfills its artifact role with flying colors.

Assortative Mating and Autism

Jan 29, 2020 10:56




Assortative mating is when similar people marry and have children. Some people worry about assortative mating in Silicon Valley: highly analytical tech workers marry other highly analytical tech workers. If highly analytical tech workers have more autism risk genes than the general population, assortative mating could put their children at very high risk of autism. How concerned should this make us?

Methods / Sample Characteristics

I used the 2020 Slate Star Codex survey to investigate this question. It had 8,043 respondents selected for being interested in a highly analytical blog about topics like science and economics. The blog is associated with – and draws many of its readers from – the rationalist and effective altruist movements, both highly analytical. More than half of respondents worked in programming, engineering, math, or physics. 79% described themselves as atheist or agnostic. 65% described themselves as more interested in STEM than the humanities; only 15% said the opposite.

According to Kogan et al (2018), about 2.5% of US children are currently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The difference between “autism” and “autism spectrum disorder” is complicated, shifts frequently, and is not very well-known to the public; this piece will treat them interchangeably from here on. There are no surveys of what percent of adults are diagnosed with autism; it is probably lower since most diagnoses happen during childhood and the condition was less appreciated in past decades. These numbers may be affected by parents’ education level and social class; one study shows that children in wealthy neighborhoods were up to twice as likely to get diagnosed as poorer children.

Book Review Review: Little Soldiers

Jan 26, 2020 26:27



Little Soldiers is a book by Lenora Chu about the Chinese education system. I haven’t read it. This is a review of Dormin111’s review of Little Soldiers.

Dormin describes the “plot”: The author is a second-generation Chinese-American woman, raised by demanding Asian parents. Her parents made her work herself to the bone to get perfect grades in school, practice piano, get into Ivy League schools, etc. She resisted and resented the hell she was forced to go through (though she got into Stanford, so she couldn’t have resisted too hard).

Skip a decade. She is grown up, married, and has a three year old child. Her husband (a white guy named Rob) gets a job in China, so they move to Shanghai. She wants their three-year-old son to be bilingual/bicultural, so she enrolls him in Soong Qing Ling, the Harvard of Chinese preschools. The book is about her experiences there and what it taught her about various aspects of Chinese education. Like the lunches:

During his first week at Soong Qing Ling, Rainey began complaining to his mom about eating eggs. This puzzled Lenora because as far as she knew, Rainey refused to eat eggs and never did so at home. But somehow he was eating them at school.

After much coaxing (three-year-olds aren’t especially articulate), Lenora discovered that Rainey was being force-fed eggs. By his telling, every day at school, Rainey’s teacher would pass hardboiled eggs to all students and order them to eat. When Rainey refused (as he always did), the teacher would grab the egg and shove it in his mouth. When Rainey spit the egg out (as he always did), the teacher would do the same thing. This cycle would repeat 3-5 times with louder yelling from the teacher each time until Rainey surrendered and ate the egg.

SSC Survey Results 2020

Jan 21, 2020 04:03



Thanks to the 8,043 people who took the 2020 Slate Star Codex survey.

See the questions for the SSC survey

See the results from the SSC Survey (click “see previous responses” on that page)

Some people expressed concern about privacy on the survey. Originally, respondents could see aggregate responses, including the responses of people who marked their answers private. I figured this was okay because nobody’s responses could be connected – ie you could see that one person put their age as 83, and another person put their country as Canada, but because the table order wasn’t the same you couldn’t link these together to form a coherent picture of an 83 year old Canadian. Some people still expressed concern about a few of the long answers, since some people might have put personal information in there. There’s no way for me to eliminate only the private people’s responses from Google Forms and still display the information to you like this, so instead I’ve removed all long answer questions. If you’re interested in those, you can find them in the downloadable data files. Sorry for not doing this earlier, and I hope this compromise is okay to everyone. I’ll try to get a clearer picture of what people want before the next survey.

I’ll be publishing more complicated analyses over the course of the next year, hopefully starting later this week. If you want to scoop me, or investigate the data yourself, you can download the answers of the 7000 people who agreed to have their responses shared publicly. The public datasets will not exactly match the full version, some overly identifiable questions (eg age) will be binned, and a few sensitive subjects will not be included.

Download the public data (.xlsx.csv)

Contra Contra Contra Caplan on Psych

Jan 18, 2020 28:07




In 2006, Bryan Caplan wrote a critique of psychiatry. In 2015, I responded. Now it’s 2020, and Bryan has a counterargument. I’m going to break the cycle of delay and respond now, and maybe we’ll finish this argument before we’re both too old and demented to operate computers.

Bryan writes:

1. With a few exceptions, Scott fairly and accurately explains my original (and current) position.

2. Scott correctly identifies several gray areas in my position, but by my count I explicitly acknowledged all of them in my original article.

3. Scott then uses those gray areas to reject my whole position in favor of the conventional view.

4. The range of the gray areas isn’t actually that big, so he should have accepted most of my heterodoxies.

5. If the gray areas were as big as Scott says, he should reject the conventional view too and just be agnostic.

I think the gray areas are overwhelming and provide proof that Bryan’s strict dichotomies don’t match the real world.

2019 Adversarial Collaboration Winners

Jan 16, 2020 14:55



Thanks to everyone who participated and/or voted in the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest. And the winner is…

Adrian Liberman and Calvin Reese, for Does Calorie Restriction Slow Aging?.

An extraordinarily close second place (26.9% vs. 26.2% of votes) goes to David G and Froolow, for Is Eating Meat A Net Harm?.

Both of these did great research and were written up well. I especially like them as winners because they have such different strengths.

The calorie restriction collaboration was carefully focused on a factual question. I think this is a promising model for adversarial collaborations, and that others failed the further they deviated from this. For example, the circumcision collaboration did a good job assessing the quantifiable benefits and harms of the practice, but it turned out that most people who disagreed about it weren’t disagreeing because they assessed quantifiable benefits and harms differently. The abortion collaboration ended up in a similar place. By focusing on a topic where there really was debate about what the research showed, and by hitting the lit review portion out of the park, Adrian and Calvin helped deconfuse a lot of previously confused people.

What Intellectual Progress Did I Make in the 2010s?

Jan 11, 2020 28:20




One of the best parts of writing a blog is being able to answer questions like this. Whenever I felt like I understood new and important, I wrote a post about it. This makes it easy to track what I learned.

I think the single most important thing I discovered this decade (due to a random comment in the SSC subreddit!) was the predictive coding theory of the brain. I started groping towards it (without knowing what I was looking for) in Mysticism And Pattern-Matching, reported the exact moment when I found it in It’s Bayes All The Way Up, and finally got a decent understanding of it after reading Surfing Uncertainty. At the same time, thanks to some other helpful tips from other rationalists, I discovered Behavior: The Control Of Perception, and with some help from Vaniver and a few other people was able to realize how these two overarching theories were basically the same. Discovering this area of research may be the best thing that happened to me the second half of this decade (sorry, everyone I dated, you were pretty good too).

Psychedelics are clearly interesting, and everyone else had already covered all the interesting pro-psychedelic arguments, so I wrote about some of my misgivings in my 2016 Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?. The next step was trying to fit in an understanding of HPPD, which started with near-total bafflement. Predictive processing proved helpful here too, and my biggest update of the decade on psychedelics came with Friston and Carhart-Harris’ Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics And The Anarchic Brain, which I tried to process further here. This didn’t directly improve my understanding of HPPD specifically, but just by talking about it a lot I got a subtler picture where lots of people have odd visual artifacts and psychedelics can cause slightly more (very rarely, significantly more) visual artifacts. I started the decade thinking that “psychedelic insight” was probably fake, and ended it believing that it is probably real, but I still don’t feel like I have a good sense of the potential risks.

A Very Unlikely Chess Game

Jan 9, 2020 09:55




Almost 25 years after Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, another seminal man vs. machine matchup:

Neither competitor has much to be proud of here. White has a poor opening. Black screws up and loses his queen for no reason. A few moves later, white screws up and loses his rook for no reason. Better players will no doubt spot other humiliating mistakes. But white does eventually eke out a victory. And black does hold his own through most of the game.

White is me. My excuse is that I only play chess once every couple of years, plus I’m entering moves on an ASCII board I can barely read.

Black is GPT-2. Its excuse is that it’s a text prediction program with no concept of chess. As far as it knows, it’s trying to predict short alphanumeric strings like “e2e4” or “Nb7”. Nobody told it this represents a board game. It doesn’t even have a concept of 2D space that it could use to understand such a claim. But it still captured my rook! Embarrassing!

Hardball Questions for the Next Debate (2020)

Jan 8, 2020 08:30




[Previously: Hardball Questions (2016)More Hardball Questions (2016). I stole parts of the Buttigieg question from Twitter, but don’t remember enough details to give credit, sorry]

Mr. Biden: Your son Hunter Biden was on the board of directors of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, during your vice-presidential term. The Ukrainian government was investigating Burisma for misdeeds, and Hunter was allegedly one of the targets of the investigation. President Trump alleges that you used your clout as VP to shut down the investigation into Hunter, which if true would constitute an impeachable abuse of power.

My question for you is: if your son had been a daughter, would you have named her Gatherer?

Mr. Bloomberg: You’ve been criticized as puritanical and self-righteous for some of your more restrictive policies, like a ban on large sodas. You seem to lean into the accusation, stating in a 2014 interview that:

I am telling you, if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.

Let’s not focus on what this says about your humility, or about your religious beliefs. I want to focus on a different issue.

Despite spending $100 million in the first month of your presidential campaign, you are currently placed fifth – behind two socialists, a confused old man, and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. In, let’s not forget, an increasingly shaky effort to prevent President Donald J. Trump from winning a second term.

So my question for you is: what makes you so sure you’re not in Hell already?

Why Doctors Think They're The Best

Jan 3, 2020 09:33




Ninety percent of drivers think they’re above-average drivers, ninety percent of professors think they’re above-average professors etc. The relevant studies are paywalled, so I don’t know if I should trust them. Our recent discussion of therapy books would make more sense if ninety percent of therapists believed they were above-average therapists. I don’t know about that one either.

But I am pretty sure ninety percent of doctors believe they’re above-average doctors. Here are some traps I’ve noticed myself falling into that might help explain why:

1. Your patients’ last doctor was worse than you. Think about it; if somebody has a good doctor, they’ll stay with them, and you will never see that patient. If somebody has a bad doctor, they’ll go see another doctor instead. That other doctor might be you. So your current patients’ last doctor will be worse than average. But this is where most of your chance to compare yourself with other doctors comes from: “my patient’s last doctor misdiagnosed them, but I got it right” or “my patient hated their last doctor but says I’m much better”. See also You Are Not Hiring The Top 1%.

Please Take the 2020 SSC Survey!

Dec 30, 2019 04:41




Please take the 2020 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 was 2018’s 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. But last year I also got to debunk a myth about how mathematicians eat corn, fail to replicate supposed dangers of beef jerky, and test a theory of how fetishes form. I expect this year’s research to be even more interesting.

The survey is open to anyone who has ever read a post on this blog before December 30 2019. 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.

Please Vote for ACC Winner

Dec 27, 2019 02:00




I’ve now posted all eight adversarial collaborations.

In case you missed any, you can find a list of them (with links) here.

If you have read all the collaborations, please vote on your favorite. This year I will decide the winner by popular vote; I don’t feel like putting my finger on the scale this time. I will give $2000 to the first place winner and $500 to second place. You can vote for your favorite collaboration here. No, you may not vote for the Grinch.

Thanks again to all participants, readers, and voters.

[ACC Entry] How Much Significance Should We Ascribe to Spiritual Experiences?

Dec 26, 2019 01:53:35




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Jeremiah Gruenberg and Seth Schoen]

1. Introduction

This project seeks to explore the viability of spiritual or religious experiences as empirical evidence for a component of reality that transcends or is radically different from our ordinary experience. The question at hand is not the existence of God or higher powers, nor the failures, successes, or benefits of religion, but rather the role of spiritual experience in the human understanding of the nature of reality. We formulated the topic in controversy this way:

The empirical study of the content and nature of people’s personal spiritual experiences justifies taking them seriously as evidence of an important component of human life deserving of individual and collective exploration.

Our fellow human beings have always had unusual experiences that they found special and meaningful, but often struggled to interpret or place in the context of their ordinary lives. These experiences and their interpretation have aroused intense controversy, both because people have deployed them as support for their views on contested issues about the nature of reality, and because they may arise in settings where one could easily question whether the brain’s altered perceptions and understandings are enhanced or impaired. Another source of debate is how radically different individuals’ experiences—and their personal interpretations of the origins and meanings of those experiences—can be. Finally, spiritual experiences are often reported through a cultural lens that leads to questions about how accurately and objectively people could perceive and describe the unusual things that they perceived.

We emphasize that there is no question, even from the most skeptical perspective, of insisting that individuals alter their own views or memories of what they have witnessed (although we encourage people to question their interpretations and to become aware of factors that could raise doubts about those interpretations). What is rational or plausible for each person to believe at a particular moment can be different, and in any case the way that people interpret their own experience and history will be different. If you have had a spiritual experience whose nature and meaning you find evident and certain, others may offer you alternative interpretations and evidence against your view, but can’t demand that you change it. However, we find it interesting to consider what lessons others can draw from accounts of unusual experiences and perceptions: not so much what sort of evidence your own spiritual experiences may constitute for you, but rather what sort of evidence your accounts of them may constitute for others. Can we collectively learn anything from these experiences?

[ACC Entry] Should You Have a Merry Christmas?

Dec 26, 2019 05:34




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch]

Christmas Day is a a time full of laughter and cheer which is held in the West at the end of each year.

Believers in Jesus traditionally think the day marks his birth; scientists disagree. They point to the shepherds; when carolers sing about fields full of sheep, that occurs in the spring. The Star of the Magi provides further doubt. Simulations can tell us what star it’s about: it was most likely Jupiter shining near Saturn, but it’s only in autumn one sees such a pattern. It is proven in space and it’s proven on Earth – Christmas isn’t the real time of Jesus’ birth.

One of the most popular Yule celebrations is handing out gifts to one’s friends and relations. Parents offer the story these presents appeared due to Santa, a jolly old man with a beard. Originally a historical saint, his tale was embellished, with little restraint. He flies through the air in a reindeer-pulled sleigh, and visits all households on Earth in a day. This tradition seems pagan, with some scholars noting the details are pulled from a legend of Odin. Though sources like NORAD appear to support Santa’s presence, we think that their data fall short. After reading the pros and the cons, we both feel the consensus perspective is Santa’s not real.

And what are these gifts’ economics effects? According to Goeddeke and Birg, it’s complex. Since presents are valuable, one might assume that their giving would cause stores and markets to boom. You give to your parents! You give to your boss! But economists say it is all deadweight loss. You would spend the same money on something, you see, and presents are chosen incompetently. Others’ preferences aren’t as clear as our own, so when we buy for others, their needs are unknown. Presents don’t increase welfare and don’t increase growth; all the papers agree they are harmful to both.

[ACC Entry] Will Automation Lead to Economic Crisis?

Dec 24, 2019 28:33




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Doug Summers-Stay and Erusian]

Adversarial collaboration on the question: “Automation/AI will not lead to a general, sustained economic crisis within our lifetimes or for the foreseeable future. Automation/AI’s effects into the future will have effects similar to technology’s effects in the past and, on the whole, follow the general trend.”

Defending the proposition: Erusian

Challenging the proposition: Doug Summers-Stay

tldr: Until the pace of automation increases faster than new jobs can be created, AI shouldn’t be expected to cause mass unemployment or anything like that. When AI can pick up a new job as quickly and cheaply as a person can, then the economy will break (but everything else will break too, because that would be the Singularity).


As software and hardware grow more capable each year, many are concerned that automation of jobs will lead to some sort of economic crisis. This could take the form of permanent high levels of unemployment, wages that drop below subsistence levels for many workers, or an abrupt change to a different economic system in response to these conditions.

A Maximally Lazy Guide to Giving to Charity in 2019

Dec 23, 2019 08:25



[Sorry for the interruption; we will return to our regularly scheduled Adversarial Collaboration Contest tomorrow.]
[Epistemic status: I’m linking evaluations made by people I mostly trust, but there are many people who don’t trust these, I haven’t 100% evaluated them perfectly, and if your assumptions differ even a little from those of the people involved these might not be very helpful. If you don’t know what effective altruism is, you might want to find out before supporting it. Like I said, this is for maximally lazy people and everyone else might want to investigate further.]

If you’re like me, you resolved to donate money to charity this year, and are just now realizing that the year is going to end soon and you should probably get around to doing it. Also, you support effective altruism. Also, you are very lazy. This guide is for you.

The maximally lazy way to donate to effective charity is probably to donate to EA Funds. This is a group of funds run by the Center for Effective Altruism where they get experts to figure out what are the best charities to give your money to each year. The four funds are Global Health, Animal Welfare, Long-Term Future, and Effective Altruism Meta/Community. If you are truly maximally lazy, you can just donate an equal amount to all four of them; if you have enough energy to shift a set of little sliders, you can decide which ones get more or less.


[ACC Entry] When During Fetal Development Does Abortion Become Morally Wrong?

Dec 20, 2019 34:47



[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by BlockOfNihilism and Icerun]

Note: For simplicity, we have constrained our analysis of data about pregnancy and motherhood to the United States. We note that these data are largely dependent on the state of the medical and social support systems that are available in a particular region.

Introduction: Review of abortion and pregnancy data in the United States

We agreed that it was important to first reach an understanding about the general facts of abortion, pregnancy and motherhood in the US prior to making ethical assertions. To understand abortion rates and distributions, we reviewed data obtained by the CDC’s Abortion Surveillance System (1). The Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System (PMSS) and National Vital Statistics datasets were used to evaluate the medical hazards imposed by pregnancy (2, 3, 4). Finally, we examined a number of studies performed on the Turnaway Study cohort, maintained by UCSF, to investigate the economic effects of denying wanted abortions to women (5, 6, 7, 13).

[ACC Entry] Should Gene Editing Technologies Be Used in Humans?

Dec 20, 2019 39:16




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Nita J and Patrick N.]


In October 2018, the world’s first genetically edited babies were born, twin girls given the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana; Chinese scientist He Jiankui used CRISPR technology to edit the CCR5 gene in human embryos with the aim of conferring resistance to HIV. In response to the international furor, China began redrafting its civil code to include regulations that would hold scientists accountable for any adverse outcomes that occur as the result of genetic manipulation in human populations. Now, reproductive biologists at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City are conducting their own experiment designed to target BRCA2, a gene associated with breast cancer, in sperm cells. While sometimes considered controversial, gene editing has been used as a last resort to cure some diseases. For example, a precursor of CRISPR was successfully used to cure leukemia in two young girls when all other treatment options had failed. Due to its convenience and efficiency, CRISPR offers the potential to fight cancer on an unprecedented level and tackle previously incurable genetic diseases. However, before we start reinventing ourselves and mapping out our genetic futures, maybe we should take a moment to reevaluate the risks and repercussions of gene editing and rethink our goals and motives.

[ACC Entry] Should We Colonize Space to Mitigate X-Risk?

Dec 18, 2019 29:53



[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Nick D and Rob S.]


Nick Bostrom defines existential risks (or X-risks) as “[risks] where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Essentially this boils down to events where a bad outcome lies somewhere in the range of ‘destruction of civilization’ to ‘extermination of life on Earth’. Given that this has not already happened to us, we are left in the position of making predictions with very little directly applicable historical data, and as such it is a struggle to generate and defend precise figures for probabilities and magnitudes of different outcomes in these scenarios. Bostrom’s introduction to existential risk​ provides more insight into this problem than there is space for here.

There are two problems that arise with any discussion of X-risk mitigation. Is this worth doing? And how do you generate the political will necessary to handle the issue? Due to scope constraints this collaboration will not engage with either question, but will simply assume that the reader sees value in the continuation of the human species and civilization. The collaborators see X-risk mitigation as a “​Molochian​” problem, as we blindly stumble into these risks in the process of maturing our civilisation, or perhaps a twist on the tragedy of the commons. Everyone agrees that we should try to avoid extinction, but nobody wants to pay an outsized cost to prevent it. Coordination problems have been solved throughout history, and the collaborators assume that as the public becomes more educated on the subject, more pressure will be put on world governments to solve the issue.


[ACC Entry] Does Calorie Restriction Slow Aging?

Dec 14, 2019 51:57




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by the delightfully-pseudonymous Adrian Liberman and Calvin Reese.]

About the Authors: Adrian Liberman is currently a PhD student in biology at a university in the mid-Atlantic. He previously worked at the National Institute of Aging and remains actively interested in gerontology and the biological study of aging. Calvin Reese is an author with a BS in Biology. He has always been interested in the possibility of life extension by calorie restriction. Recently, he has reexamined the subject after undertaking a series of intermittent fasts for weight loss reasons. Calvin believes CR extends life; Adrian has long been skeptical.

Introduction: Is food making us old?

We all agree that food is delicious, and we also all agree that too much food is bad for us, but exactly how bad is it? Various academics have proposed that too much food actually accelerates the aging process, and reducing our food intake via calorie restriction (CR) is one of the most accessible and available methods of extending human life. While billionaires pump vast fortunes into increasingly far-fetched stem cell treatments and consciousness transfers, CR advocates contend that they can get a 10-20% increase in their natural lifespans simply by eating a little less. If true, CR raises a question of enormous significance to gerontology and the science of aging: are our diets aging us one calorie at a time? And if so, can we stop it?

[ACC Entry] Is Eating Meat a Net Harm?

Dec 13, 2019 01:09:29




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by David G and Froolow. Please also note my correction to yesterday’s entry.]


Many people around the world have strong convictions about eating animals. These are often based on vague intuitions which results in unproductive swapping of opinions between vegetarians and meat eaters. The goal of this collaboration is to investigate all relevant considerations from a shared frame of reference.

To help ground this discussion we have produced a decision aid making explicit everything discussed below. You can download it here and we encourage you to play around with it.

The central question is whether factory farmed animal lives are worth living; the realistic alternative to meat eating is not a better life but for those animals to not exist in the first place.

We begin by investigating which animals are conscious. Then, we compare the happiness literature to the conditions under which animals are factory farmed to figure out if from their perspective non-existence is preferable. And finally, we survey the more easily measurable impacts of meat eating on environment, finance, and health.

[ACC Entry] What Are the Benefits, Harms, and Ethics of Infant Circumcision?

Dec 11, 2019 16:27




[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Joel P and Missingno]

“They practise circumcision for cleanliness’ sake; for they would rather be clean than more becoming.” – Herodotus, The Histories – 2.37 

The debate over circumcision in the Western world today is surprisingly similar to the conflict that Greeks and Egyptians faced 2500 years ago.  Supporters tend to emphasize its hygiene and health benefits; opponents tend to call it cruel or to emphasize its deviation from the natural human form.  In this adversarial collaboration we address medical aspects, sensitivity and pleasure, and ethical aspects of infant circumcision. 

Effect on penile cancer

Circumcision greatly reduces the relative rate of penile cancer, a relatively uncommon malignancy in developed nations which kills a little over 400 American men each year. Denmark, while it has one of the lowest rates of penile cancer for a non-circumcising country, nevertheless has 10x the rate of penile cancer as Israel – where almost all men are circumcised.  Likewise, a Kaiser Permanente study of patients with penile cancer found that 16% of patients with carcinoma in situ had been circumcised; only 2% of patients with invasive penile cancer had been circumcised.  Since the circumcision rate of Kaiser patients of the appropriate age was ~50%, this is in line with the 90% reduction.

2019 Adversarial Collaboration Entries

Dec 10, 2019 03:27




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

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

Six teams submitted collaborations for this year’s contest. I’ll list them here for now, and the names will turn into links as I post them over the next two weeks. They are:

1. “Is infant circumcision ethical?” by Joel P and Missingno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symptom, Condition, Cause

Dec 7, 2019 10:53




On my recent post on autism, several people chimed in to say that “autism” wasn’t a unitary/homogenous category. It probably lumps together many different conditions with many different causes. It’s useless to speculate on the characteristics of “autism” until it can be separated out further.

I get this every time I talk about a psychiatric condition. The proponents of this view seem to think they’re speaking a shocking heresy that overturns the psychiatric establishment. But guys, we know this kind of stuff. Psychiatric diagnoses don’t have to perfectly match underlying root causes to be useful.

Suppose a patient comes to you with difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, anxiety, and extreme discomfort when lying down flat. You recognize these as potential signs of pulmonary edema, ie fluid in the lungs. You do an x-ray, confirm the diagnosis, and prescribe symptomatic treatment – in this case, supplemental oxygen. All of this is good work.

But you can have fluid in your lungs for lots of different reasons. Most of the time it’s heart failure, but sometimes it’s kidney failure, pneumonia, drug overdose, smoke inhalation, or altitude sickness. Some of these causes will have slightly different symptoms, which an alert doctor can notice.

SSC Meetups Everywhere Retrospective

Nov 29, 2019 14:43




Slate Star Codex has regular weekly-to-monthly meetups in a bunch of cities around the world. Earlier this autumn, we held a Meetups Everywhere event, hoping to promote and expand these groups. We collected information on existing meetups, got volunteers to create new meetups in cities that didn’t have them already, and posted times and dates prominently on the blog.

During late September and early October, I traveled around the US to attend as many meetups as I could. I hoped my presence would draw more people; I also wanted to learn more about meetups and the community and how best to guide them. Buck Shlegeris and a few other Bay Area effective altruists came along to meet people, talk to them about effective altruism, and potentially nudge them into the recruiting pipeline for EA organizations.

Lots of people asked me how my trip was. In a word: exhausting. I got to meet a lot of people for about three minutes each. There were a lot of really fascinating people with knowledge of a bewildering variety of subjects, but I didn’t get to pick their minds anywhere as thoroughly as I would have liked. I’m sorry if I talked to you for three minutes, you told me about some amazing project you were working on to clone neuroscientists or eradicate bees or convert atmospheric CO2 into vegan meat substitutes, and I mumbled something and walked away. You are all great and I wish I could have spent more time with you.

I finally got to put faces to many of the names I’ve interacted with through the years. For example, Bryan Caplan is exactly how you would expect, in every way. Also, in front of his office, he has a unique painting, which he apparently got by asking a Mexican street artist to paint an homage to Lord of the Rings. The artist had never heard of it before, but Bryan described it to him very enthusiastically, and the completely bonkers result is hanging in front of his office. This is probably a metaphor for something.

Mental Mountains

Nov 29, 2019 33:05





Kaj Sotala has an outstanding review of Unlocking The Emotional Brain; I read the book, and Kaj’s review is better.

He begins:

UtEB’s premise is that much if not most of our behavior is driven by emotional learning. Intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models of how the world functions and what caused those emotions to occur. The brain then uses those models to guide our future behavior. Emotional issues and seemingly irrational behaviors are generated from implicit world-models (schemas) which have been formed in response to various external challenges. Each schema contains memories relating to times when the challenge has been encountered and mental structures describing both the problem and a solution to it.

So in one of the book’s example cases, a man named Richard sought help for trouble speaking up at work. He would have good ideas during meetings, but felt inexplicably afraid to voice them. During therapy, he described his narcissistic father, who was always mouthing off about everything. Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up. The therapist conjectured that young Richard observed this and formed a predictive model, something like “talking makes people hate you”. This was overly general: talking only makes people hate you if you talk incessantly about really stupid things. But when you’re a kid you don’t have much data, so you end up generalizing a lot from the few examples you have.

Book Review: All Therapy Books

Nov 24, 2019 23:11





All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root!

All psychotherapy books bring up the Dodo Bird Verdict – the observation, confirmed in study after study, that all psychotherapies are about equally good, and the only things that matters are “nonspecific factors” like how much patients like their therapist. Some people might think this suggests our form of therapy will only be about as good as other forms. This, all therapy books agree, would be a foolish and perverse interpretation of these findings. The correct interpretation is that all previous forms of therapy must be equally wrong. The only reason they ever produce good results at all is because sometimes therapists accidentally stumble into using our form of therapy, without even knowing it. Since every form of therapy is about equally likely to stumble into using our form of therapy, every other form is equally good. But now that our form of therapy has been formalized and written up, there is no longer any need to stumble blindly! Everyone can just use our form of therapy all the time, for everything! Nobody has ever done a study of our form of therapy. But when they do, it’s going to be amazing! Nobody has even invented numbers high enough to express how big the effect size of our form of therapy is going to be!

More Intuition-building on Non-empirical Science: Three Stories

Nov 20, 2019 06:30



[Followup to: Building Intuitions On Non-Empirical Arguments In Science]


In your travels, you arrive at a distant land. The chemists there believe that when you mix an acid and a base, you get salt and water, and a star beyond the cosmological event horizon goes supernova. This is taught to every schoolchild as an important chemical fact.

You approach their chemists and protest: why include the part about the star going supernova? Why not just say an acid and a base make salt and water? The chemists find your question annoying: your new “supernova-less” chemistry makes exactly the same predictions as the standard model! You’re just splitting hairs! Angels dancing on pins! Stop wasting their time!

“But the part about supernovas doesn’t constrain expectation!” Yes, say the chemists, but removing it doesn’t constrain expectation either. You’re just spouting random armchair speculation that can never be proven one way or the other. What part of “stop wasting our time” did you not understand?

Moral of the story: It’s too glib to say “There is no difference between theories that produce identical predictions”. You actually care a lot about which of two theories that produce identical predictions is considered true.


Autism and Intelligence: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Nov 17, 2019 17:49



[Thanks to Marco DG for proofreading and offering suggestions]


Several studies have shown a genetic link between autism and intelligence; genes that contribute to autism risk also contribute to high IQ. But studies show autistic people generally have lower intelligence than neurotypical controls, often much lower. What is going on?

First, the studies. This study from UK Biobank finds a genetic correlation between genetic risk for autism and educational attainment (r = 0.34), and between autism and verbal-numerical reasoning (r = 0.19). This study of three large birth cohorts finds a correlation between genetic risk for autism and cognitive ability (beta = 0.07). This study of 45,000 Danes finds that genetic risk for autism correlates at about 0.2 with both IQ and educational attainment. These are just three randomly-selected studies; there are too many to be worth listing.

The relatives of autistic people will usually have many of the genes for autism, but not be autistic themselves. If genes for autism (without autism itself) increase intelligence, we should expect these people to be unusually smart. This is what we find; see Table 4 here. Of 11 types of psychiatric condition, only autism was associated with increased intelligence among relatives. This intelligence is shifted towards technical subjects. About 13% of autistic children (in this sample from whatever social stratum they took their sample from) have fathers who are engineers, compared to only 5% of a group of (presumably well-matched?) control children (though see the discussion here) for some debate over how seriously to take this; I am less sure this is accurate than most of the other statistics mentioned here.

Fish – Now by Prescription [Classic]

Nov 16, 2019 15:45





LOVAZA™®© (ask your doctor if LOVAZA™®© is right for you) is an excellent medication. It is extraordinarily safe. It is moderately effective at its legal indication of lowering levels of certain fats in the bloodstream. It has moderately good evidence for having other beneficial effects as well, including treating certain psychiatric, rheumatological and dermatological disorders.

Lovaza is fish oil.

“Come on,” you say, “surely there’s some difference between Lovaza and the fish oil I buy at my local health food store for a couple of tenners per Giant Jar?”

And you’re right. The difference is, Lovaza costs $300 a month.

Sleep – Now by Prescription [Classic]

Nov 16, 2019 10:15




Ramelteon isn’t a bad drug. It’s just that its very existence stands as a condemnation of the entire medical system.

All sleep medications have to straddle a very fine line between “idiotically dangerous” and “laughably ineffective”, and Ramelteon manages better than most. It outperforms placebo, it’s not addictive, it won’t sap your ability to sleep without it, and it doesn’t screw up your brain so badly that its unofficial mascot is a hallucinatory walrus.

How does it do it? Ramelteon is the first melatonergic drug, selectively binding to MT-1 and MT-2 melatonin receptors. Binding to melatonin receptors presumably mimics the effect of the natural hormone melatonin which is believed to serve a sleep-promoting role.

Now, you might ask yourself – the natural hormone melatonin is available as an over-the-counter supplement costing a couple cents per pill in every drug store, and provably quite safe and effective. Why would anyone go through the trouble of creating a drug that mimics its action? Especially if a month’s supply of the drug costs around $100 – which it does.

Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

Nov 15, 2019 25:35





The Body Keeps The Score is a book about post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author, Bessel van der Kolk, helped discover the condition and lobby for its inclusion in the DSM, and the brief forays into that history are the best part of the book. Like so many things, PTSD feels self-evident once you know about it. But this took decades of conceptual work by people like van der Kolk, crystallizing some ideas and hacking away at others until they ended up with something legible to the Establishment. Before that there was nothing. It was absolutely shocking how much nothing there was. As soon as the APA officialy recognized PTSD as a diagnosis in 1980, Bessel and his friends applied for a grant from the VA to study it. The grant was rejected on the grounds that (actual quote from the rejection letter) “it has never been shown that PTSD is relevant to the mission of the Veterans Administration”. So the first step in raising awareness of PTSD was – amazingly – convincing the US military that some people might get PTSD from combat.

After the military relented, the next step was convincing everyone else. PTSD was temporarily pigeonholed as “the thing veterans get when they come back from a war”. The next push was convincing people that civilian trauma could have similar effects. It was simple to extend the theory to sudden disasters like fires or violent crimes. But van der Kolk and his colleagues started noticing that a history of child abuse, and especially childhood sexual abuse, correlated with a lot of psychiatric problems later on.

Building Intuitions on Non-empirical Arguments in Science

Nov 10, 2019 26:07




Aeon: Post-Empirical Science Is An Oxymoron And It is Dangerous:

There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

It’s not difficult to find recent examples. On 8 June 2019, the front cover of New Scientist magazine boldly declared that we’re ‘Inside the Mirrorverse’. Its editors bid us ‘Welcome to the parallel reality that’s hiding in plain sight’. […]

[Some physicists] claim that neutrons [are] flitting between parallel universes. They admit that the chances of proving this are ‘low’, or even ‘zero’, but it doesn’t really matter. When it comes to grabbing attention, inviting that all-important click, or purchase, speculative metaphysics wins hands down.

These theories are based on the notion that our Universe is not unique, that there exists a large number of other universes that somehow sit alongside or parallel to our own. For example, in the so-called Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are universes containing our parallel selves, identical to us but for their different experiences of quantum physics. These theories are attractive to some few theoretical physicists and philosophers, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence for them. And, as it seems we can’t ever experience these other universes, there will never be any evidence for them. As Broussard explained, these theories are sufficiently slippery to duck any kind of challenge that experimentalists might try to throw at them, and there’s always someone happy to keep the idea alive.

Is this really science? The answer depends on what you think society needs from science. In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all.

As always, a single quote doesn’t do the argument justice, so go read the article. But I think this captures the basic argument: multiverse theories are bad, because they’re untestable, and untestable science is pseudoscience.

Many great people, both philosophers of science and practicing scientists, have already discussed the problems with this point of view. But none of them lay out their argument in quite the way that makes the most sense to me. I want to do that here, without claiming any originality or special expertise in the subject, to see if it helps convince anyone else.


Consider a classic example: modern paleontology does a good job at predicting dinosaur fossils. But the creationist explanation – Satan buried fake dinosaur fossils to mislead us – also predicts the same fossils (we assume Satan is good at disguising his existence, so that the lack of other strong evidence for Satan doesn’t contradict the theory). What principles help us realize that the Satan hypothesis is obviously stupid and the usual paleontological one more plausible?

One bad response: paleontology can better predict characteristics of dinosaur fossils, using arguments like “since plesiosaurs are aquatic, they will be found in areas that were underwater during the Mesozoic, but since tyrannosaurs are terrestrial, they will be found in areas that were on land”, and this makes it better than the Satan hypothesis, which can only retrodict these characteristics. But this isn’t quite true: since Satan is trying to fool us into believing the modern paleontology paradigm, he’ll hide the fossils in ways that conform to its predictions, so we will predict plesiosaur fossils will only be found at sea – otherwise the gig would be up!

A second bad response: “The hypothesis that all our findings were planted to deceive us bleeds into conspiracy theories and touches on the problem of skepticism. These things are inherently outside the realm of science.” But archaeological findings are very often deliberate hoaxes planted to deceive archaeologists, and in practice archaeologists consider and test that hypothesis the same way they consider and test every other hypothesis. Rule this out by fiat and we have to accept Piltdown Man, or at least claim that the people arguing against the veracity of Piltdown Man were doing something other than Science.

A third bad response: “Satan is supernatural and science is not allowed to consider supernatural explanations.” Fine then, replace Satan with an alien. I think this is a stupid distinction – if demons really did interfere in earthly affairs, then we could investigate their actions using the same methods we use to investigate every other process. But this would take a long time to argue well, so for now let’s just stick with the alien.

A fourth bad response: “There is no empirical test that distinguishes the Satan hypothesis from the paleontology hypothesis, therefore the Satan hypothesis is inherently unfalsifiable and therefore pseudoscientific.” But this can’t be right. After all, there’s no empirical test that distinguishes the paleontology hypothesis from the Satan hypothesis! If we call one of them pseudoscience based on their inseparability, we have to call the other one pseudoscience too!

A naive Popperian (which maybe nobody really is) would have to stop here, and say that we predict dinosaur fossils will have such-and-such characteristics, but that questions like that process that drives this pattern – a long-dead ecosystem of actual dinosaurs, or the Devil planting dinosaur bones to deceive us – is a mystical question beyond the ability of Science to even conceivably solve.

I think the correct response is to say that both theories explain the data, and one cannot empirically test which theory is true, but the paleontology theory is more elegant (I am tempted to say “simpler”, but that might imply I have a rigorous mathematical definition of the form of simplicity involved, which I don’t). It requires fewer other weird things to be true. It involves fewer other hidden variables. It transforms our worldview less. It gets a cleaner shave with Occam’s Razor. This elegance is so important to us that it explains our vast preference for the first theory over the second.

A long tradition of philosophers of science have already written eloquently about this, summed up by Sean Carroll here:

What makes an explanation “the best.” Thomas Kuhn ,after his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions led many people to think of him as a relativist when it came to scientific claims, attempted to correct this misimpression by offering a list of criteria that scientists use in practice to judge one theory better than another one: accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness. “Accuracy” (fitting the data) is one of these criteria, but by no means the sole one. Any working scientist can think of cases where each of these concepts has been invoked in favor of one theory or another. But there is no unambiguous algorithm according to which we can feed in these criteria, a list of theories, and a set of data, and expect the best theory to pop out. The way in which we judge scientific theories is inescapably reflective, messy, and human. That’s the reality of how science is actually done; it’s a matter of judgment, not of drawing bright lines between truth and falsity or science and non-science. Fortunately, in typical cases the accumulation of evidence eventually leaves only one viable theory in the eyes of most reasonable observers.

The dinosaur hypothesis and the Satan hypothesis both fit the data, but the dinosaur hypothesis wins hands-down on simplicity. As Carroll predicts, most reasonable observers are able to converge on the same solution here, despite the philosophical complexity.


Nov 6, 2019 31:19





The man standing outside my front door was carrying a clipboard and wearing a golden robe. “Not interested,” I said, preparing to slam the door in his face.

“Please,” said the acolyte. Before I could say no he’d jammed a wad of $100 bills into my hand. “If this will buy a few moments of your time.”

It did, if only because I stood too flabbergasted to move. Surely they didn’t have enough money to do this for everybody.

“There is no everybody,” said the acolyte, when I expressed my bewilderment. “You’re the last one. The last unenlightened person in the world.”

And it sort of made sense. Twenty years ago, a group of San Francisco hippie/yuppie/techie seekers had pared down the ancient techniques to their bare essentials, then optimized hard. A combination of drugs, meditation, and ecstatic dance that could catapult you to enlightenment in the space of a weekend retreat, 100% success rate. Their cult/movement/startup, the Order Of The Golden Lotus, spread like wildfire through California – a state where wildfires spread even faster than usual – and then on to the rest of the world. Soon investment bankers and soccer moms were showing up to book clubs talking about how they had grasped the peace beyond understanding and vanquished their ego-self.

The Life Cycle of Medical Ideas [Classic]

Nov 2, 2019 14:05





About five years ago, an Italian surgeon with the unlikely name of Dr. Zamboni posited the theory that multiple sclerosis was caused by blockages in venous return from the brain causing various complicated downstream effects which eventually led to the immune system attacking myelinated cells. The guy was a good surgeon, nothing about the theory contradicted basic laws of biology, and no one else had any better ideas, so lots of people got excited.

As far as I can tell, the medical community responded exactly one hundred percent correctly. They preached caution, urging multiple sclerosis patients not to develop false hope. But at the same time, they quickly launched studies investigating Zamboni’s experiments and used newly gathered data to test the theory. All the results that came back made the idea look less and less likely, so that to my understanding by now it is pretty much discredited. Having successfully spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to empirically disconfirm Zamboni’s hypothesis, we can now reflect at leisure on the reasons it was kind of dumb and we should have realized it all along.


New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

Nov 1, 2019 43:38




Thucydides predicted that future generations would underestimate the power of Sparta. It built no great temples, left no magnificent ruins. Absent any tangible signs of the sway it once held, memories of its past importance would sound like ridiculous exaggerations.

This is how I feel about New Atheism.

If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here?

My first forays onto the Internet were online bulletin boards about computer games. They would have a lot of little forums about various aspects of the games, plus two off-topic forums. One for discussion of atheism vs. religion. And the other for everything else. This was a common structure for websites in those days. You had to do it, or the atheism vs. religion discussions would take over everything. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

In 2005, a college student made a webpage called The Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was a joke based on the idea that there was no more scientific evidence for God or creationism than for belief in a flying spaghetti monster. The monster’s website received tens of millions of visitors, 60,000 emails (“about 95 percent” supportive), and was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Telegraph. Six publishing companies entered a bidding war for the rights to the spaghetti monster’s “gospel”, with the winner, Random House, offering an $80,000 advance. The book was published to massive fanfare, sold over 100,000 copies, and was translated into multiple languages. Putin’s thugs broke up a pro-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster demonstration in Russia. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

Financial Incentives Are Weaker Than Social Incentives but Very Important Anyway

Nov 1, 2019 14:53




NYT: Economic Incentives Don’t Always Do What We Want Them To (h/t MR). For the first time in history, the title actually understates the article, which argues that incentives can be surprisingly useless:

Economists have somehow managed to hide in plain sight an enormously consequential finding from their research: Financial incentives are nowhere near as powerful as they are usually assumed to be.

The article starts with some surprising facts. Increased taxes on the rich don’t make rich people work much less. Salary caps on athletes don’t decrease athletic performance. Increased welfare doesn’t make poor people work less. Decreased job opportunities in one area rarely cause people to move elsewhere.

Then it presents a neat chart showing that most people believe others would respond to an incentive, but deny responding to that incentive themselves. For example, 60% of people say a Medicaid program with no work requirement would prevent many people from seeking work, but only 10% of people say they themselves would stop seeking work with such a program.

Highlights from the Comments on PNSE

Oct 28, 2019 21:33




(original post)

Alex M writes:

I think one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism (and many other fake “sciences” such as economics or sociology) is fuzzy thinking and lack of falsifiable empirical testing. So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims. For example, I don’t just take it at face value that economics is a real science just because a bunch of IYIs tell me so. I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny. We should treat mystical claims exactly the same way. So somebody claims to be enlightened? Fine. How can they substantiate it? Can they do things that unenlightened people can’t, like clairvoyance, predicting the future, or sending messages through the collective subconscious in order to significantly impact world events? Do you see what I’m saying? Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

Indian Economic Reform: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Oct 25, 2019 18:05




From a recent Charter Cities Institute report:

From India’s independence from the British Raj in 1947 to the early 1990s, the country’s economic policy was largely socialist. In the 1980s some early steps were taken to open the Indian economy to increased trade, reduce controls over industry, and set a more realistic exchange rate. In 1991, more widespread economic reforms were introduced. These reforms included the end of government monopolies over certain sectors of the economy, reductions in barriers to entry for new firms, increased foreign investment was allowed, and tariffs and other barriers to trade were reduced or eliminated. After liberalization, exports increased substantially, and various service sector industries saw significant growth.

India’s growth has not just been good for the more educated segment of the population. Datt, Ravallion, and Murgai (2016) argue that India has made substantial progress in reducing the incidence of absolute poverty, and that this trend exists in both urban and rural areas. Historically higher rates of rural poverty have been converging with urban rates of poverty, and the overall poverty rate has been declining at an accelerating rate in the post-1991 reform era. In the 1970s over 60 percent of Indians were living in extreme poverty. As of 2011, only 20 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty. Between 2005 and 2016, an estimated 271 million Indians rose out of multidimensional poverty, which accounts for various health, education, and living standard indicators rather than just income (UNDP and OPHI 2018). Infant mortality has fallen from 161.4 deaths per 1,000 births in 1960 to just 32 deaths per 1,000 births in 2017, and India should soon converge with the world average if the current trend continues. Life expectancy has also improved dramatically, rising from 41 years in 1960 to nearly 69 years today. 

The PNSE Paper

Oct 25, 2019 21:15




I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth going over in detail. The full title is Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults by Jeffery Martin, with “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) as a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for “enlightenment”. Martin is a Reiki practitioner associated with the “Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness”, so we’re not getting this from the most sober of skeptics, but I still find the project interesting enough to deserve a look.

Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions. But his impression was that most people who self-described as enlightened had similar experiences, which could be be plotted on:

Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?

Oct 22, 2019 07:03




Last year I reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a meditation guide by Buddhist teacher Upasaka Culadasa. Last month, Culudasa’s Buddhist community accused him of cheating on his wife with prostitutes for many years. Culadasa doesn’t seem to agree with the exact details of the accusations, but he also doesn’t seem to deny that there was something in that general category of thing. What can this teach us about enlightenment?

Culadasa has been meditating and studying Buddhism for over forty years and trained under some of the greatest teachers of his generation. I don’t know if he’s claimed to “be enlightened” in so many words, but he’s written books that describe how to reach enlightenment and that assert you can do it in a few years if you follow his advice, which sounds a lot like claiming enlightenment by implication. Other self-proclaimed enlightened Buddhist teachers seem to respect him and treat him as being at around their level.

And if Culudasa wasn’t enlightened, there’s a long list of other Buddhist masters with similar misdeeds. The Atlantic points out that three of the four great founders of American Zen “caused major public sex scandals”; the fourth, Shunryu Suzuki, was spotless, but his successor Richard Baker caused a major public sex scandal. The two most famous US teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Chongyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, both caused major public sex scandals. Trungpa’s immediate successor Ösel Tendzin caused a particularly horrifying major public sex scandal, and the current head of Shambhala Buddhism, Sakyong Rinpoche, also caused a major public sex scandal.

These teachers were among the most accomplished of our time. Many were officially certified as enlightened by

The Control Group Is Out of Control [Classic]

Oct 19, 2019 37:36





Allan Crossman calls parapsychology the control group for science.

That is, in let’s say a drug testing experiment, you give some people the drug and they recover. That doesn’t tell you much until you give some other people a placebo drug you know doesn’t work – but which they themselves believe in – and see how many of them recover. That number tells you how many people will recover whether the drug works or not. Unless people on your real drug do significantly better than people on the placebo drug, you haven’t found anything.

On the meta-level, you’re studying some phenomenon and you get some positive findings. That doesn’t tell you much until you take some other researchers who are studying a phenomenon you know doesn’t exist – but which they themselves believe in – and see how many of them get positive findings. That number tells you how many studies will discover positive results whether the phenomenon is real or not. Unless studies of the real phenomenon do significantly better than studies of the placebo phenomenon, you haven’t found anything.

Trying to set up placebo science would be a logistical nightmare. You’d have to find a phenomenon that definitely doesn’t exist, somehow convince a whole community of scientists across the world that it does, and fund them to study it for a couple of decades without them figuring it out.

Luckily we have a natural experiment in terms of parapsychology – the study of psychic phenomena – which most reasonable people believe don’t exist, but which a community of practicing scientists believes in and publishes papers on all the time.

Book Review: Against the Grain

Oct 17, 2019 22:33




Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.

Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.

Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.

Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; in the Paleolithic the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.

Beware Isolated Demands for Rigor

Oct 5, 2019 20:10





From Identity, Personal Identity, and the Self by John Perry:

“There is something about practical things that knocks us off our philosophical high horses. Perhaps Heraclitus really thought he couldn’t step in the same river twice. Perhaps he even received tenure for that contribution to philosophy. But suppose some other ancient had claimed to have as much right as Heraclitus did to an ox Heraclitus had bought, on the grounds that since the animal had changed, it wasn’t the same one he had bought and so was up for grabs. Heraclitus would have quickly come up with some ersatz, watered-down version of identity of practical value for dealing with property rights, oxen, lyres, vineyards, and the like. And then he might have wondered if that watered-down vulgar sense of identity might be a considerably more valuable concept than a pure and philosophical sort of identity that nothing has.

Okay, but I can think of something worse than that.

Imagine Heraclitus as a cattle rustler in the Old West. Every time a rancher catches him at his nefarious business, he patiently explains to them that identity doesn’t exist, and therefore the same argument against private property as made above. Flummoxed, they’re unable to think of a response before he rides off into the sunset.

But then when Heraclitus himself needs the concept of stable personal identity for something – maybe he wants to deposit his ill-gotten gains in the bank with certainty that the banker will give it back to him next time he shows up to withdraw it, or maybe he wants to bribe the sheriff to ignore his activities for the next while – all of a sudden Heraclitus is willing to tolerate the watered-down vulgar sense of identity like everyone else.

(actually, I can think of something even worse than that, which is a TV western based on this premise, where a roving band of pre-Socratic desperadoes terrorizes Texas. The climax is no doubt when the hero strides onto Main Street, revolver in hand, saying “There’s a new sheriff in town.” And Parmenides gruffly responds “No, I’m pretty sure that’s impossible.”)

At its best, philosophy is a revolutionary pursuit that dissolves our common-sense intuitions and exposes the possibility of much deeper structures behind them. One can respond by becoming a saint or madman, or by becoming a pragmatist who is willing to continue to participate in human society while also understanding its theoretical limitations. Both are respectable career paths.

The problem is when someone chooses to apply philosophical rigor selectively.

Heraclitus could drown in his deeper understanding of personal identity and become a holy madman, eschewing material things and taking no care for the morrow because he does not believe there is any consistent self to experience it. Or he could engage with it from afar, becoming a wise scholar who participating in earthly affairs while drawing equanimity from the realization that there is a sense in which all his accomplishments will be impermanent.

But if he only applies his new theory when he wants other people’s cows, then we have a problem. Philosophical rigor, usually a virtue, has been debased to an isolated demand for rigor in cases where it benefits Heraclitus.

Too Much Dark Money in Almonds

Sep 22, 2019 13:47



Everyone always talks about how much money there is in politics. This is the wrong framing. The right framing is Ansolabehere et al’s: why is there so little money in politics? But Ansolabehere focuses on elections, and the mystery is wider than that.

Sure, during the 2018 election, candidates, parties, PACs, and outsiders combined spent about $5 billion – $2.5 billion on Democrats, $2 billion on Republicans, and $0.5 billion on third parties. And although that sounds like a lot of money to you or me, on the national scale, it’s puny. The US almond industry earns $12 billion per year. Americans spent about 2.5x as much on almonds as on candidates last year.

But also, what about lobbying? Open Secrets reports $3.5 billion in lobbying spending in 2018. Again, sounds like a lot. But when we add $3.5 billion in lobbying to the $5 billion in election spending, we only get $8.5 billion – still less than almonds.

What about think tanks? Based on numbers discussed in this post, I estimate that the budget for all US think tanks, liberal and conservative combined, is probably around $500 million per year. Again, an amount of money that I wish I had. But add it to the total, and we’re only at $9 billion. Still less than almonds!

Against Tulip Subsidies [Classic]

Sep 21, 2019 16:51




Imagine a little kingdom with a quaint custom: when a man likes a woman, he offers her a tulip; if she accepts, they are married shortly thereafter. A couple who marries sans tulip is considered to be living in sin; no other form of proposal is appropriate or accepted.

One day, a Dutch trader comes to the little kingdom. He explains that his homeland also has a quaint custom involving tulips: they speculate on them, bidding the price up to stratospheric levels. Why, in the Netherlands, a tulip can go for ten times more than the average worker earns in a year! The trader is pleased to find a new source of bulbs, and offers the people of the kingdom a few guilders per tulip, which they happily accept.

Soon other Dutch traders show up and start a bidding war. The price of tulips goes up, and up, and up; first dozens of guilders, then hundreds. Tulip-growers make a fortune, but everyone else is less pleased. Suitors wishing to give a token of their love find themselves having to invest their entire life savings – with no guarantee that the woman will even say yes! Soon, some of the poorest people are locked out of marriage and family-raising entirely.

Against Against Pseudoaddiction

Sep 18, 2019 39:55





“Pseudoaddiction” is one of the standard beats every article on the opioid crisis has to hit. Pharma companies (the story goes) invented a concept called “pseudoaddiction”, which looks exactly like addiction, except it means you just need to give the patient more drugs. Bizarrely gullible doctors went along with this and increased prescriptions for their addicted patients. For example, from a letter in the Wall Street Journal:

Parroting Big Pharma’s excuses about FDA oversight and black-box warnings only discounts how companies like Johnson & Johnson engaged in pervasive misinformation campaigns and even promoted a theory of “pseudoaddiction” to encourage doctors to prescribe even more opioids for patients who displayed signs of addiction.

Or from CBS:

But amid skyrocketing addiction rates and overdoses related to OxyContin, Panara claimed the company taught a sales tactic she now considers questionable, saying some patients might only appear to be addicted when in fact they’re just in pain. In training, she was taught a term for this: “pseudoaddiction.”
“So the cure for ‘pseudoaddiction,’ you were trained, is more opioids?” Dokoupil asked.

“A higher dose, yes,” Panara said.

SSC Meetups 2019: Times and Places

Sep 15, 2019 03:55


Thanks to everyone who offered to host a meetup. Full list of cities, times, and places is below. If you’re reading this, you’re invited. Please don’t feel like you “won’t be welcome” just because you’re new to the blog, demographically different from the average reader, or hate SSC and everything it stands for. You’ll be fine!

Some suggestions for organizers:

1. Bring a sign that says SSC MEETUP so people can find you
2. Bring nametags and markers
3. Bring a signup sheet where people can write their names and emails if they want to hear about future meetups.
4. If people want to get to know each other better outside the meetup, you might want to mention, the rationalist friend-finder/dating site. It runs off Facebook, so you have to Facebook friend the other person first.
5. Please record how many people attend; I will ask for these numbers to help with future meetup posts.
6. If you take a picture and send it to me, I’ll try to post it here. I’ll ask for this later, please don’t email these to me until then.

Lots of People Going Around With Mild Hallucinations All the Time

Sep 15, 2019 16:59



[Related to: Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics And The Anarchic BrainHPPD And The Specter Of Permanent Side Effects]


Hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder is a condition where people who take psychedelics continue hallucinating indefinitely. Estimates of prevalence range from about 4% of users (Baggott) to “nobody, the condition does not exist” (Krebs and Johansen). To explore this discrepancy, I asked about it on the 2019 SSC survey. The specific question was:

Hallucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder is a condition marked by visual or other perceptual disturbances typical of psychedelic use that continue for weeks and months after coming off the psychedelic, in some cases permanently. Have you ever had this condition?

2,234 readers admitted to having used psychedelics. Of those, 285 (= 12.8%) stated that they had some hallucinations that persisted afterwards. 219 (9.8%) said they’d had them for a while and then they had gone away. 66 (= 3%) stated that they still had the hallucinations (one limit of the study: I don’t know how long it has been since those people took the psychedelics).

SSC Journal Club: Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain

Sep 14, 2019 21:10



Thanks to Sarah H. and the people at her house for help understanding this paper]

The predictive coding theory argues that the brain uses Bayesian calculations to make sense of the noisy and complex world around it. It relies heavily on priors (assumptions about what the world must be like given what it already knows) to construct models of the world, sampling only enough sense-data to double-check its models and update them when they fail. This has been a fruitful way to look at topics from depression to autism to sensory deprivation. Now, in Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics And The Anarchic Brain: Toward A Unified Model Of The Brain Action Of Psychedelics, Karl Friston and Robin Carhart-Harris try to use predictive coding to explain the effects of psychedelic drugs. Then they use their theory to argue that psychedelic therapy may be helpful for “most, if not all” mental illnesses.

Priors are unconscious assumptions about reality that the brain uses to construct models. They can range all the way from basic truths like “solid objects don’t randomly disappear”, to useful rules-of-thumb like “most get-rich-quick schemes are scams”, to emotional hangups like “I am a failure”, to unfair stereotypes like “Italians are lazy”. Without any priors, the world would fail to make sense at all, turning into an endless succession of special cases without any common lessons. But if priors become too strong, a person can become closed-minded and stubborn, refusing to admit evidence that contradicts their views.

F&CH argue that psychedelics “relax” priors, giving them less power to shape experience. Part of their argument is neuropharmacologic: most psychedelics are known to work through the 5-HT2A receptor. These receptors are most common in the cortex, the default mode network, and other areas at the “top” of a brain hierarchy going from low-level sensations to high-level cognitions. The 5-HT2A receptors seem to strengthen or activate these high-level areas in some way. So:

[Partial Retraction] Age Gaps and Birth Order Effects

Sep 14, 2019 05:28




On Less Wrong, Bucky tries to replicate my results on birth order and age gaps.

Backing up: two years ago, I looked at SSC survey data and found that firstborn children were very overrepresented. That result was replicated a few times, both in the SSC sample and in other samples of high-opennness STEM types. Last year, I expanded those results to look at how age gaps affected birth order effects. Curiously, age gaps less than seven years did not seem to attenuate birth order, but age gaps of more than seven years attenuated it almost completely.

Bucky analyzed the same data and found that I bungled one and a half of my results. Left graph in each pair is mine, right is Bucky’s.

Book Review: Seeing Like a State [Classic]

Sep 7, 2019 01:17:29




Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

List of Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Ages of Discord

Sep 5, 2019 11:33




Turchin has some great stories about unity vs. polarization over time. For example in the 1940s, unity became such a “problem” that concerned citizens demanded more partisanship:

Concerned about electoral torpor and meaningless political debate, the American Political Science Association in 1946 appointed a committee to examine the role of parties in the American system. Four years later, the committee published a lengthy (and alarmed) report calling for the return of ideologically distinct and powerful political parties. Parties ought to stand for distinct sets of politics, the political scientists urged. Voters should be presented with clear choices.

I have vague memories of similar demands in the early ’90s; everyone was complaining that the parties were exactly the same and the “elites” were rigging things to make sure we didn’t have any real choices.

On the other hand, partisanship during the Civil War was pretty intense:

Another indicator of growing intraelite conflict was the increasing incidence of violence and threatened violence in Congress, which reached a peak during the 1850s. The brutal caning that Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina gave to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856 is the best known such episode, but it was not the only one. In 1842, after Representative Thomas Arnold of Tennessee “reprimanded a pro-slavery member of his own party, two Southern Democrats stalked towards him, at least of one of whom was arhmed with a bowie knife…calling Arnold a ‘damned coward,’ his angry colleagues threatened to cut his throat ‘from ear to ear'” (Freeman 2011). According to Senator Hammond, “The only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers” (quoted in Potter 1976:389). During a debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri (Freeman 2011).

In another bitter debate, a New York congressman inadvertently dropped a pistol (it fell out of his pocket), and this almost precipitated a general shootout on the floor of Congress (Potter 1976: 389).

Book Review: Ages of Discord

Sep 3, 2019 47:21





I recently reviewed Secular Cycles, which presents a demographic-structural theory of the growth and decline of pre-industrial civilizations. When land is plentiful, population grows and the economy prospers. When land reaches its carrying capacity and income declines to subsistence, the area is at risk of famines, diseases, and wars – which kill enough people that land becomes plentiful again. During good times, elites prosper and act in unity; during bad times, elites turn on each other in an age of backstabbing and civil strife. It seemed pretty reasonable, and authors Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov had lots of data to support it.

Ages of Discord is Turchin’s attempt to apply the same theory to modern America. There are many reasons to think this shouldn’t work, and the book does a bad job addressing them. So I want to start by presenting Turchin’s data showing such cycles exist, so we can at least see why the hypothesis might be tempting. Once we’ve seen the data, we can decide how turned off we want to be by the theoretical problems.

The first of Turchin’s two cyclic patterns is a long cycle of national growth and decline. In Secular Cycles‘ pre-industrial societies, this pattern lasted about 300 years; in Ages of Discord‘s picture of the modern US, it lasts about 150:


Meetups Everywhere 2019

Aug 30, 2019 06:46


Last autumn we organized meetups in 85 different cities (and one ship!) around the world. Some of the meetup groups stuck around or reported permanent spikes in membership, which sounds like a success, so let’s do it again.

For most cities: If you’re willing to host a meetup for your city, then decide on a place, date, and time, and post it in the comments here, along with an email address where people can contact you. Then please watch the comments in case I need to ask you any questions. If you’re not sure whether your city has enough SSC readers to support a meetup, see the list of people by city at the bottom of this post. There may be more of us than you think – last year we were able to support meetups in such great megalopolises as Norman, Oklahoma and Wellington, New Zealand. But I would prefer people not split things up too much – if you’re very close to a bigger city, consider going there instead of hosting your own.

If you want a meetup for your city, please err in favor of volunteering to organize – the difficulty level is basically “pick a coffee shop you like, tell me the address, and give me a time”; it would be dumb if nobody got to go to meetups because everyone felt too awkward and low-status to volunteer.

For especially promising cities in the US: I am going to try to attend your meetups. My very tentative schedule looks like this:

Book Review: Reframing Superintelligence

Aug 30, 2019 17:00


Ten years ago, everyone was talking about superintelligence, the singularity, the robot apocalypse. What happened?

I think the main answer is: the field matured. Why isn’t everyone talking about nuclear security, biodefense, or counterterrorism? Because there are already competent institutions working on those problems, and people who are worried about them don’t feel the need to take their case directly to the public. The past ten years have seen AI goal alignment reach that level of maturity too. There are all sorts of new research labs, think tanks, and companies working on it – the Center For Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley, OpenAIOught, the Center For The Governance Of AI at Oxford, the Leverhulme Center For The Future Of Intelligence at Cambridge, etc. Like every field, it could still use more funding and talent. But it’s at a point where academic respectability trades off against public awareness at a rate where webzine articles saying CARE ABOUT THIS OR YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE are less helpful.

One unhappy consequence of this happy state of affairs is that it’s harder to keep up with the field. In 2014, Nick Bostrom wrote Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, giving a readable overview of what everyone was thinking up to that point. Since then, things have been less public-facing, less readable, and more likely to be published in dense papers with a lot of mathematical notation. They’ve also been – no offense to everyone working on this – less revolutionary and less interesting.

This is one reason I was glad to come across Reframing Superintelligence: Comprehensive AI Services As General Intelligence by Eric Drexler, a researcher who works alongside Bostrom at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. This 200 page report is not quite as readable as Superintelligence; its highly-structured outline form belies the fact that all of its claims start sounding the same after a while. But it’s five years more recent, and presents a very different vision of how future AI might look.

A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum

Aug 24, 2019 26:02



I admitted in my last post on Reaction that I devoted insufficient space to the question of why society does seem to be drifting gradually leftward. And I now realize that in order to critique the Reactionary worldview effectively we’re going to have to go there.

The easiest answer would be “because we retroactively define leftism as the direction that society went”. But this is not true. Communism is very leftist, but society eventually decided not to go that way. It seems fair to say that there are certain areas where society did not go to the left, like in the growth of free trade and the gradual lowering of tax rates, but upon realizing this we don’t feel the slightest urge to redefine “low tax rates” as leftist.

So what is leftism? For that matter, what is rightism?

Any theory of these two ideas would have to explain at least the following data points:

1) Why do both ideologies combine seemingly unrelated political ideas? For example, why do people who want laissez-faire free trade empirically also prefer a strong military and oppose gay marriage? Why do people who want to help the environment also support feminism and dislike school vouchers?

2) Why do the two ideologies seem broadly stable across different times and cultures, such that it’s relatively easy to point out the Tories as further right than the Whigs, or ancient Athens as further left than ancient Sparta? For that matter, why do they seem to correspond to certain neural patterns in the brain, such that neurologists can determine your political beliefs with 83% accuracy by examining brain structure alone?


Don't Fear the Simulators

Aug 23, 2019 05:31


From the New York Times: Are We Living In A Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.

It lists the standard reasons for thinking we might be in a simulation, then brings up some proposals for testing the hypothesis (for example, the cosmic background radiation might look different in simulations and real universes). But it suggests that we not do that, because if we learn we’re in a simulation, that might ruin the simulation and cause the simulators to destroy the universe.

But I think a little more thought suggests we don’t have anything to worry about.

In order to notice we had discovered our simulated nature, the simulators would have to have a monitor watching us. We should expect this anyway. Although humans may run some simulations without monitoring them carefully, the simulators have no reason to be equally careless; if they can simulate billions of sentient beings, their labor costs are necessarily near zero. Such a monitor would have complete instantaneous knowledge of everything happening in our universe, and since anyone who can simulate a whole planet must have really good data processing capabilities, it would be able to understand and act upon the entire content of its omniscient sensorium. It would see the fall of each sparrow, record the position of ever atom, have the level of situational awareness that gods could only dream of.

What I’m saying is, it probably reads the New York Times.

That means it knows these experiments are going to happen. If it cares about the results, it can fake them. Assuming for some reason that it messed up designing the cosmic background radiation (why are we assuming this, again?), it can correct that mistake now, or cause the experimental apparatus to report the wrong data, or do one of a million other things that would prevent us from learning we are in a simulation.

Maybe Your Zoloft Stopped Working Because a Liver Fluke Tried to Turn Your Nth-Great-Grandmother Into a Zombie

Aug 23, 2019 20:06


Or at least this is the theory proposed in Brain Evolution Through The Lens Of Parasite Manipulation by Marco del Giudice.

The paper starts with an overview of parasite manipulation of host behavior. These are the stories you hear about toxoplasma-infected rats seeking out cats instead of running away from them, or zombie ants climbing stalks of grass so predators will eat them. The parasite secretes chemicals that alter host neurochemistry in ways that make the host get eaten, helping the parasite transfer itself to a new organism.

Along with rats and ants, there is a dizzying variety of other parasite manipulation cases. They include parasitic wasps who hack spiders into forming protective webs for their pupae, parasitic flies that cause bees to journey far from their hive in order to spread fly larva more widely, and parasitic microorganisms that cause mosquitoes to draw less blood from each victim (since that forces the mosquitoes to feed on more victims, and so spread the parasite more widely). Parasitic nematodes make their ant hosts turn red, which causes (extremely stupid?) birds to mistake them for fruit and eat them. Parasitic worms make crickets seek water; as the cricket drowns, the worms escape into the pond and begin the next stage of their life cycle. Even mere viruses can alter behavior; the most famous example is rabies, which hacks dogs, bats, and other mammals into hyperaggressive moods that usually result in them biting someone and transmitting the rabies virus.

Even our friendly gut microbes might be manipulating us. People talk a lot about the “gut-brain axis” and the effect of gut microbes on behavior, as if this is some sort of beautiful symbiotic circle-of-life style thing. But scientists have found that gut microbes trying to colonize fruit flies will hack the flies’ food preferences to get a leg up – for example, a carb-metabolizing microbe will secrete hormones that make the fly want to eat more carbs than fat in order to outcompete its fat-metabolizing rivals for gut real estate; there are already papers speculating that the same processes might affect humans. Read Alcock 2014 and you will never look at food cravings the same way again.

Attempted Replication: Does Beef Jerky Cause Manic Episodes?

Aug 18, 2019 09:08


Last year, a study came out showing that beef jerky and other cured meats, could trigger mania in bipolar disorder (paperpopular article). It was a pretty big deal, getting coverage in the national press and affecting the advice psychiatrists (including me) gave their patients.

The study was pretty simple: psychiatrists at a mental hospital in Baltimore asked new patients if they had ever eaten any of a variety of foods. After getting a few hundred responses, they compared answers to controls and across diagnostic categories. The only hit that came up was that people in the hospital for bipolar mania were more likely to have said they ate dry cured meat like beef jerky (odds ratio 3.49). This survived various statistical comparisons and made some biological sense.

The methodology was a little bit weird, because they only asked if they’d ever had the food, not if they’d eaten a lot of it just before becoming sick. If you had beef jerky once when you were fourteen, and ended up in the psych hospital when you were fifty-five, that counted. Either they were hoping that “ever had beef jerky at all” was a good proxy for “eats a lot of beef jerky right now”, or that past consumption produced lasting changes in gut bacteria. In any case, they found a strong effect even after adjusting for confounders and doing the necessary Bonferroni corrections, so it’s hard to argue with success.

Book Review: Secular Cycles

Aug 15, 2019 36:29


There is a tide in the affairs of men. It cycles with a period of about three hundred years. During its flood, farms and businesses prosper, and great empires enjoy golden ages. During its ebb, war and famine stalk the land, and states collapse into barbarism.

Chinese population over time


At least this is the thesis of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov, authors of Secular Cycles. They start off Malthusian: due to natural reproduction, population will keep increasing until it reaches the limits of what the land can support. At that point, everyone will be stuck at subsistence level. If any group ever enjoys a standard of living above subsistence level, they will keep reproducing until they are back down at subsistence.

Standard Malthusian theory evokes images of a population stable at subsistence level forever. But Turchin and Nefedov argues this isn’t how it works. A population at subsistence will always be one meal away from starving. When a famine hits, many of them will starve. When a plague hits, they will already be too sickly to fight it off. When conflict arrives, they will be desperate enough to enlist in the armies of whichever warlord can offer them a warm meal.

These are not piecemeal events, picking off just enough of the population to bring it back to subsistence. They are great cataclysms. The Black Plague killed 30% – 60% of Europeans; the Antonine Plague of Rome was almost as deadly. The Thirty Years War killed 25% – 40% of Germans; the Time of Troubles may have killed 50% of medieval Russia.

Thus the secular cycle. When population is low, everyone has more than enough land. People grow rich and reproduce. As time goes on, the same amount of farmland gets split among more and more people. Wages are driven down to subsistence. War, Famine, and Pestilence ravage the land, with Death not far behind. The killings continue until population is low again, at which point the cycle starts over.

This applies mostly to peasants, who are most at risk of starving. But nobles go through a related process. As a cycle begins, their numbers are low. As time goes on, their population expands, both through natural reproduction and through upward mobility. Eventually, there are more nobles than there are good positions…

(this part confused me a little. Shouldn’t number of good positions scale with population? IE if one baron rules 1,000 peasants, the number of baronial positions should scale with the size of a society. I think T&N hint at a few answers. First, some positions are absolute rather than relative, eg “King” or “Minister of the Economy”. Second, noble numbers may sometimes increase faster than peasant numbers, since nobles have more food and better chances to reproduce. Third, during boom times, the ranks of nobles are swelled through upward mobility. Fourth, conspicuous consumption is a ratchet effect: during boom times, the expectations of nobility should gradually rise. Fifth, sometimes the relevant denominator is not peasants but land: if a noble only has one acre of land, it doesn’t matter how many peasants he controls. Sixth, nobles usually survive famines and plagues pretty well, so after those have done their work, there are far fewer peasants but basically the same number of nobles. All of these factors contribute to excess noble population – or as T&N call it, “elite overproduction”)

All Debates Are Bravery Debates [Classic]

Aug 10, 2019 13:41


“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”
— J. R. “Bob” Dobbs


I read Atlas Shrugged probably about a decade ago, and felt turned off by its promotion of selfishness as a moral ideal. I thought that was basically just being a jerk. After all, if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need (I thought) it’s more selfishness.

Then I talked to a friend who told me Atlas Shrugged had changed his life. That he’d been raised in a really strict family that had told him that ever enjoying himself was selfish and made him a bad person, that he had to be working at every moment to make his family and other people happy or else let them shame him to pieces. And the revelation that it was sometimes okay to consider your own happiness gave him the strength to stand up to them and turn his life around, while still keeping the basic human instinct of helping others when he wanted to and he felt they deserved it (as, indeed, do Rand characters).


The religious and the irreligious alike enjoy making fun of Reddit’s r/atheism, which combines an extreme strawmanning of religious positions with childish insults and distasteful triumphalism. Recently the moderators themselves have become a bit embarrassed by it and instituted some rules intended to tone things down, leading to some of the most impressive Internet drama I have ever seen. In its midst, some people started talking about what the old strawmanning triumphalist r/atheism meant to them (see for example here).

Against Bravery Debates [Classic]

Aug 10, 2019 15:02


There’s a tradition on Reddit that when somebody repeats some cliche in a tone that makes it sound like she believes she is bringing some brilliant and heretical insight – like “I know I’m going to get downvoted for this, but believe we should have less government waste!” – people respond “SO BRAVE” in the comments. That’s what I mean by bravery debates. Discussions over who is bravely holding a nonconformist position in the face of persecution, and who is a coward defending the popular status quo and trying to silence dissenters.

These are frickin’ toxic. I don’t have a great explanation for why. It could be a status thing – saying that you’re the original thinker who has cast off the Matrix of omnipresent conformity and your opponent is a sheeple (sherson?) too fearful to realize your insight. Or it could be that, as the saying goes, “everyone is fighting a hard battle”, and telling someone else they’ve got it easy compared to you is just about the most demeaning thing you can do, especially when you’re wrong.

But the possible explanations aren’t the point. The point is that, empirically, starting a bravery debate is the quickest way to make sure that a conversation becomes horrible and infuriating. I’m generalizing from my own experience here, but one of the least pleasant philosophical experiences is thinking you’re bravely defending an unpopular but correct position, facing the constant persecution and prejudice from your more numerous and extremely smug opponents day in and day out without being worn-down … only to have one of your opponents offhandedly refer to how brave they are for resisting the monolithic machine that you and the rest of the unfairly-biased-toward-you culture have set up against them. You just want to scream NO YOU’RE WRONG SEFSEFILASDJO:IALJAOI:JA:O>ILFJASL:KFJ

Highlights from the Comments on Billionaire Philanthropy

Aug 10, 2019 54:04


Thanks to everyone who commented on Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy. For whatever reason, the comments there were exceptionally good. In particular, I’m happy that our usually-quiet leftists finally showed up with some strong (and interesting) pushback.

I usually highlight good comments with short responses, but it was hard for me to avoid debating some of these. I realize that’s complicated, because I can’t quote most long comments in their entirety, and I realize I have more of a platform than other commenters who may feel I misrepresented them or who just want to reply to me. I don’t have a great solution to this, but if you’re annoyed at how I featured/responded to your comment, please tell me, so I can calibrate how serious a problem this is for next time.

Squareallworthy on UBI Plans

Aug 6, 2019 07:46


I want to signal-boost Tumblr user squareallworthy‘s analysis of various UBI plans:

1. Jensen et al’s plan
2. Healy et al’s plan
3. Andrew Yang’s plan
4. Torry’s plan
5. Sheahen’s plan
6. Dolan’s plan
7. Stern and Murray’s plans
8. Santens’ plan
8½. Varoufakis and Reich’s plan
9. Yang’s plan, redux

He finds that most of them fail on basic math – they rely on funding schemes that wouldn’t come close to covering costs. The rest are too small to actually lift people out of poverty. None of them are at all credible.

These plans fail even though they cheat and give themselves dictatorial power. “End corporate welfare, then redirect the money to UBI!” But if it was that easy to end corporate welfare, wouldn’t people have done it already, for non-UBI related reasons? “We’ll get a UBI by ending corporate welfare” is an outrageous claim. And even the plans that let themselves make it fail on basic math.

This is humbling and depressing. And it concludes the intelligent and useful part of this post that signal-boosts the work of a responsible person. Everything below is epistemic status: wild speculation.

Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

Aug 6, 2019 44:34


[Conflict of interest notice: I’ve volunteered for both private and public charities, but more often private. I received a small amount of money for work done for a private charity ten years ago. Some of the private charities have been partially funded by billionaires.]

From Vox: The Case Against Billionaire Philanthropy. It joins The GuardianTruthoutDissent MagazineCityLab, and a host of other people and organizations arguing that rich people giving to charity is now a big problem.

I’m against this. I understand concern about the growing power of the very rich. But I worry the movement against billionaire charity is on track to damage charity a whole lot more than it damages billionaires. Eleven points:

1. Is criticizing billionaire philanthropy a good way to protest billionaires having too much power in society?

Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe? Obviously it’s the low-income students. I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph.

Which got more negative press? Jeff Bezos donating $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children? Or Jeff Bezos spending $2 billion on whatever is going to come up when I Google “things jeff bezos has spent ridiculous amounts of money on?”.

Who By Very Slow Decay [Classic]

Aug 1, 2019 29:22


[Trigger warning: Death, pain, suffering, sadness]


Some people, having completed the traditional forms of empty speculation – “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “If you could bang any celebrity who would it be?” – turn to “What will you say as your last words?”

Sounds like a valid question. You can go out with a wisecrack, like Oscar Wilde (“Either this wallpaper goes or I do”). Or with piety and humility, like Jesus (“Into thy hands, o Father, I commend my spirit.”) Or burning with defiance, like Karl Marx (“Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”)

Well, this is an atheist/skeptic blog, so let me do my job of puncturing all your pleasant dreams. You’ll probably never become an astronaut. You’re not going to bang Emma Watson. And your last words will probably be something like “mmmrrrgggg graaaaaaaaaaaHAAACK!”

I guess I always pictured dying as – unless you got hit by a truck or something – a bittersweet and strangely beautiful process. You’d grow older and weaker and gradually get some disease and feel your time was upon you. You’d be in a nice big bed at home with all your friends and family gathered around. You’d gradually feel the darkness closing in. You’d tell them all how much you loved them, there would be tears, you would say something witty or pious or defiant, and then you would close your eyes and drift away into a dreamless sleep.

And I think this happens sometimes. For all I know, maybe it happens quite a lot. If it does, I never see these people. They very wisely stay far away from hospitals and the medical system in general. I see the other kind of people.

The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories [Classic]

Jul 27, 2019 37:40



“Silliest internet atheist argument” is a hotly contested title, but I have a special place in my heart for the people who occasionally try to prove Biblical fallibility by pointing out whales are not a type of fish.

(this is going to end up being a metaphor for something, so bear with me)

The argument goes like this. Jonah got swallowed by a whale. But the Bible says Jonah got swallowed by a big fish. So the Bible seems to think whales are just big fish. Therefore the Bible is fallible. Therefore, the Bible was not written by God.

The first problem here is that “whale” is just our own modern interpretation of the Bible. For all we know, Jonah was swallowed by a really really really big herring.

The second problem is that if the ancient Hebrews want to call whales a kind of fish, let them call whales a kind of fish.

I’m not making the weak and boring claim that since they’d never discovered genetics they don’t know better. I am making the much stronger claim that, even if the ancient Hebrews had taken enough of a break from murdering Philistines and building tabernacles to sequence the genomes of all known species of aquatic animals, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong, false, or incorrect with them calling a whale a fish.

Adversarial Collaboration Contest 2019

Jul 27, 2019 08:23


[self plagiarism notice: this is mostly copied from last year’s contest announcement]

1. Announcing the second annual Adversarial Collaboration Contest

An adversarial collaboration is an effort by two people with opposing opinions on a topic to collaborate on a summary of the evidence. Just as we hope that a trial with both prosecutor and defense will give the jury a balanced view of the evidence for and against a suspect, so we hope an adversarial collaboration will give readers a balanced view of evidence for and against some thesis. It’s typically done for scientific papers, but I’m excited about the possibility of people applying the concept to to less formal writeups as well.

For example, a pro-gun activist might collaborate with an anti-gun activist to write a joint article on the evidence for whether gun control saves lives. We trust each person to make sure the best evidence for their respective side is included. We also trust that they’ll fact-check each other and make sure there aren’t any errors or falsehoods in the final document. There might be a lot of debating, but it will happen on high-bandwidth informal channels behind the scenes and nobody will feel like they have tailor their debating to sounding good for an audience.

Last year, SSC held an adversarial collaboration contest. You can see the entries here:

Book Review: The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test

Jul 25, 2019 32:32


Ken Kesey, graduating college in Oregon with several wrestling championships and a creative writing degree, made a classic mistake: he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to find himself. He rented a house in Palo Alto (this was the 1950s, when normal people could have houses in Palo Alto) and settled down to write the Great American Novel.

To make ends meet, he got a job as an orderly at the local psych hospital. He also ran across some nice people called “MKULTRA” who offered him extra money to test chemicals for them. As time went by, he found himself more and more disillusioned with the hospital job, finding his employers clueless and abusive. But the MKULTRA job was going great! In particular, one of the chemicals, “LSD”, really helped get his creative juices flowing. He leveraged all of this into his Great American Novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and became rich and famous overnight.

He got his hands on some extra LSD and started distributing it among his social scene – a mix of writers, Stanford graduate students, and aimless upper-class twenty-somethings. They all agreed: something interesting was going on here. Word spread. 1960 San Francisco was already heavily enriched for creative people who would go on to shape intellectual history; Kesey’s friend group attracted the creme of this creme. Allan Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, and Wavy Gravy passed through; so did Neil Cassady (“Dean Moriarty”) Jack Keroauc’s muse from On The Road. Kesey hired a local kid and his garage band to play music at his acid parties; thus began the career of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

Sometime in the early 1960s, too slow to notice right away, they transitioned from “social circle” to “cult”. Kesey bought a compound in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, an hour’s drive from SF. Beatniks, proto-hippies, and other seekers – especially really attractive women – found their way there and didn’t leave. Kesey and his band, now calling themselves “the Merry Pranksters”, accepted all comers. They passed the days making psychedelic art (realistically: spraypainting redwood trees Day-Glo yellow), and the nights taking LSD in massive group therapy sessions that melted away psychic trauma and the chains of society and revealed the true selves buried beneath (realistically: sitting around in a circle while people said how they felt about each other).

Know Your Gabapentinoids

Jul 21, 2019 16:26


The gabapentinoids are a class of drugs vaguely resembling the neurotransmitter GABA. Although they were developed to imitate GABA’s action, later research discovered they acted on a different target, the A2D subunit of calcium channels. Two gabapentinoids are approved by the FDA: gabapentin (Neurontin®) and pregabalin (Lyrica®).

Gabapentin has been generic since 2004. It’s commonly used for seizures, nerve pain, alcoholism, drug addiction, itching, restless legs, sleep disorders, and anxiety. It has an unusually wide dose range: guidelines suggest using anywhere between 100 mg and 3600 mg daily. Most doctors (including me) use it at the low end, where it’s pretty subtle (read: doesn’t usually work). At the high end, it can cause sedation, confusion, dependence, and addiction. I haven’t had much luck finding patients a dose that works well but doesn’t have these side effects, which is why I don’t use gabapentin much.

Pregabalin officially went generic last month, but isn’t available yet in generic form, so you’ll have to pay Pfizer $500 a month. On the face of things, pregabalin seems like another Big Pharma ploy to extend patents. The gabapentin patent was running out, so Pfizer synthesized a related molecule that did the same thing, hyped it up as the hot new thing, and charged 50x what gabapentin cost. This kind of thing is endemic in health care and should always be the default hypothesis. And a lot of scientists have analyzed pregabalin and said it’s definitely just doing the same thing gabapentin is.

But some of my anxiety patients swear by pregabalin. They call it a miracle drug. They can’t stop talking about how great it is. I can’t use it too often, because of the price, but I’m really excited about the upcoming generic version coming out so I can use it more often.

Caution on Bias Arguments

Jul 21, 2019 16:19


“You say it’s important to overcome biases. So isn’t it hypocritical that you’re not trying to overcome whichever bias prevents you from realizing you’re wrong and I’m right?”
— everybody

Correcting for bias is important. Learning about specific biases, like confirmation bias or hindsight bias, can be helpful. But bias arguments – “People probably only believe X because of their bias, so we should ignore people who say X” tend to be unproductive and even toxic. Why?

1. Everyone Is Biased All The Time

You could accuse me of having a conservative bias. After all, I’m a well-off straight white man, a demographic well-known to lean conservative. If a liberal wanted to discount everything I say, or assume any conservative arguments I make come from self-serving motives, they’ve got all the ammunition they need.

Or you could accuse me of having a liberal bias. After all, I’m a college-educated atheist Jewish psychiatrist in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of those demographics are well-known to lean liberal. If a conservative wanted to discount everything I say, or assume any liberal arguments I make come from self-serving motives, they’re not short on ammunition either.

This is a general phenomenon: for any issue, you can think of biases that could land people on one side or the other. People might be biased toward supporting moon colonization because of decades of sci-fi movies pushing space colonization as the wave of the future, or because Americans remember the moon landing as a great patriotic victory, or because big defense companies like Boeing will lobby for a project that would win them new contracts. Or people might be biased against moon colonization because of hidebound Luddite-ism, or an innate hominid preference for lush green forests and grasslands, or a pessimistic near-termism that rejects with payoffs more than a few years out. I personally might be biased towards moon colonization because I’ve been infected with the general Silicon Valley technophile mindset; or I personally might be biased against it because I’m a Democrat and Trump’s been the loudest modern proponent of more moon missions.

Against Lie Inflation

Jul 18, 2019 15:02


[Related to: The Whole City Is Center]


I got into an argument recently with somebody who used the word “lie” to refer to a person honestly reporting their unconsciously biased beliefs – her example was a tech entrepreneur so caught up in an atmosphere of hype that he makes absurdly optimistic predictions. I promised a post explaining why I don’t like that use of “lie”. This is that post.

A few months ago, a friend confessed that she had abused her boyfriend. I was shocked, because this friend is one of the kindest and gentlest people I know. I probed for details. She told me that sometimes she needed her boyfriend to do some favor for her, and he wouldn’t, so she would cry – not as an attempt to manipulate him, just because she was sad. She counted this as abuse, because her definition of “abuse” is “something that makes your partner feel bad about setting boundaries”. And when she cried, that made her boyfriend feel guilty about his boundary that he wasn’t going to do the favor.

We argued for a while about whether this was a good definition of abuse (it isn’t). But I had a bigger objection: this definition was so broad that everyone has committed abuse at some point.

My friend could have countered that this was a feature, not a bug. Standards have been (and should be) getting stricter. A thousand years ago, beating your wife wasn’t considered abuse as long as you didn’t maim her or something. A hundred years ago, you could bully and belittle someone all you wanted, but as long as there was no physical violence it wasn’t abuse. As society gets better and better at dealing with these issues, the definition of abuse gets broader. Maybe we should end up with a definition where basically everyone is an abuser.

Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism [Classic]

Jul 14, 2019 46:54



In the old days, you had your Culture, and that was that. Your Culture told you lots of stuff about what you were and weren’t allowed to do, and by golly you listened. Your Culture told you to work the job prescribed to you by your caste and gender, to marry who your parents told you to marry or at least someone of the opposite sex, to worship at the proper temples and the proper times, and to talk about proper things as opposed to the blasphemous things said by the tribe over there.

Then we got Liberalism, which said all of that was mostly bunk. Like Wicca, its motto is “Do as you will, so long as it harms none”. Or in more political terms, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” or “If you don’t like gay sex, don’t have any” or “If you don’t like this TV program, don’t watch it” or “What happens in the bedroom between consenting adults is none of your business” or “It neither breaks my arm nor picks my pocket”. Your job isn’t to enforce your conception of virtue upon everyone to build the Virtuous Society, it’s to live your own life the way you want to live it and let other people live their own lives the way they want to live them. This is the much-maligned “atomic individualism,” or maybe just liberalism boiled down to its pure essence.

But atomic individualism wasn’t as great a solution as it sounded. Maybe one of the first cracks was tobacco ads. Even though putting up a billboard saying “SMOKE MARLBORO” neither breaks anyone’s arm nor picks their pocket, it shifts social expectations in such a way that bad effects occur. It’s hard to dismiss that with “Well, it’s people’s own choice to smoke and they should live their lives the way they want” if studies show that more people will want to live their lives in a way that gives them cancer in the presence of the billboard than otherwise.

Do People Like Their Mental Health Care?

Jul 14, 2019 07:41


Along with more specific questions, I asked people who took the SSC survey to rate their experience with the mental health system on a 1 – 10 scale. 

About 5,000 people answered. On average, they rated their experience with psychotherapy a 5.7, and their experience with medication also 5.7.

This is more optimistic than a lot of the horror stories you hear would suggest. A lot of the horror stories involve inpatient commitment (which did get a dismal 4.4/10 approval rating) so I checked what percent of people engaging with the system ended up inpatient. Of people who had seen either a psychiatrist or therapist, only 7% had ever been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Note that this data can’t tease out causation, so this doesn’t mean 7% of people who saw an outpatient professional were later committed – it might just mean that lots of people got committed to the hospital by police, then saw a professional later.

Going into more detail about what people did or didn’t like (note truncated y-axis):


I asked people what kind of therapy they did. People liked all schools of therapy about the same, except that they liked “eclectic” therapy that wasn’t part of any specific school less than any school. Every school including eclectic got higher than 5.7, because people who wouldn’t answer this question – who weren’t even sure what kind of therapy they were doing – rated it less than any school or than eclectic therapy.


Survey Results: Sexual Roles

Jul 11, 2019 06:14


I already started analyzing the SSC survey data on fetishes, but I wanted to move on to look at dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism.

Why might this be interesting? For one thing, some people have fetishes for things that seem, well…bad. Getting hurt. Letting other people control and abuse them. As if they have a drive toward weakness and unhappiness. This is kind of reminiscent of the self-sabotage and bad decisions some people make throughout their lives (for example, marrying a spouse who treats them the same way as an abusive parent). Sometimes I conceptualize this as them having a set point of low self-esteem and degradation that they try to enforce, regardless of its cost to their well-being. If this had the same roots as sexual masochism, that would be worth studying.

But I didn’t find anything interesting like that in the data.

BDSM preferences were heavily gendered. Of people who expressed a preference, 71% of cis men preferred the dominant role, compared to only 16% of cis women (18% of trans women; insufficient sample size of trans men). This was such a big difference that gender swamped every other effect, so I limited the analysis to cis men from this point on, since they made up most of the sample.

80% of straight men preferred the dominant role, compared to only 34% of gay men. This was such a big difference that orientation swamped every other effect, so I limited the analysis to straight cis men from this point on.

In order of importance, here are some factors that made the men in this sample more likely to be dominant, rather than submissive. All of these are self-rated:

Gay Rites are Civil Rites

Jul 11, 2019 27:39



I went to Antigua Guatemala in April. Their claim to fame is the world’s biggest Easter celebration. I wasn’t even there for Easter. I was three weeks early. But already the roads were choked with pre-parties, practice parades, and centurion cosplayers.

I couldn’t go out and grab dinner at 9 PM because all the streets looked like this


Day. Night. The hours of the morning when tourists are trying to sleep and don’t want loud Spanish singing outside their hotel windows. It didn’t stop. Some people bore the floats on their backs (they weren’t motorized, they had to be carried like a sedan chair). Other people crowded into empty lots and backyards, putting finishing touches on art or costumes or paraphernalia. Children and teenagers ran around in Easter purple, jockeying for the best spots on the parade routes. Civic dignitaries stood around, practicing looking important for their turn in the celebrations.


I missed the scene in the Bible where a winged mechanical lion drags the body of Christ in an intricate silver juggernaut, but the Guatemalans definitely didn’t.


This was around the time I was reading about cultural evolution, so I couldn’t help rehearsing some familiar conservative arguments. A shared religion binds people together. For a day, everyone is on the same side. That builds social trust and helps turn a city into a community. It was hard to argue with that. I’m no expert in Guatemala. I don’t even speak Spanish. But for a little while, everybody, old and young, rich or poor, whatever one Guatemalan political party is and whatever the other Guatemalan political party is, were caught up in the same great wave, swept together by the glory of the Easter narrative.

It was the sort of thing, I thought sadly to myself, that would never happen back in America, where we didn’t have the same kind of shared religious purpose, where the liberal traditions like the separation of church and state prevented the same kind of all-consuming state-sponsored dedication to a single narrative. Right?

Style Guide: Not Sounding Like an Evil Robot

Jul 10, 2019 11:11


The saying goes: “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance”. This is the same idea as “weirdness points”: you can only bother people a certain amount before they go away. So if you have something important to bother them about, don’t also bother them in random ways that don’t matter.

In writing about science or rationality, you already risk sounding too nerdy or out-of-touch with real life. This doesn’t matter much if you’re writing about black holes or something. But if you’re writing about social signaling, or game theory, or anything else where the failure mode is sounding like an evil robot trying to reduce all of life to numbers, you should avoid anything that makes you sound even more like that evil robot.

(yes, people on the subreddit, I’m talking about you)

I’m not always great at this, but I’m improving, and here’s the lowest-hanging fruit: if there are two terms for the same thing, a science term and an everyday life term, and you’re talking about everyday life, use the everyday life term. The rest of this post is just commentary on this basic idea.

1. IQ -> intelligence. Don’t use “IQ” unless you’re talking about the result of an IQ test, talking about science derived from these results, or estimating IQ at a specific number. Otherwise, say “intelligence” (as a noun) or “smart” as an adjective.

Wrong: “John is a very high-IQ person”
Right: “John is a very smart person”.

Wrong: “What can I do if I feel like my low IQ is holding me back?”
Right: “What do I do if I feel like my low intelligence is holding me back?”

Acceptable: “The average IQ of a Nobel-winning physicist is 155”.
Acceptable: “Because poor childhood nutrition lowers IQ, we should make sure all children have enough to eat.”

2. Humans -> people. This will instantly make you sound 20% less like an evil robot. Use “humans” only when specifically contrasting with another animal:

Wrong: “I’ve been wondering why humans celebrate holidays.”
Right: “I’ve been wondering why people celebrate holidays.”

Acceptable: “Chimpanzees are much stronger than humans.”

3. Males -> men, females -> women. You can still use “male” and “female” as adjectives if you really want.

Wrong: “Why do so many males like sports?”
Right: “Why do so many men like sports?”

Acceptable, I guess: “Why do male sports fans drink so much?”

Use “males” and “females” as nouns only if you’re making a point that applies across animal species, trying overly hard to sound scientifically credible, or arguing some kind of complicated Gender Studies point that uses “man” and “male” differently.

Acceptable: “In both rats and humans, males have higher testosterone than females.”

4. Rational -> good, best, reasonable, etc. See eg here. Use “rational” when describing adherence to a good cognitive strategy; use “good” etc for things that have good results.

Wrong: “What is the most rational diet?”
Right: “What is the best diet?”

Wrong: “Is it rational to invest in bonds?”
Right: “Is it a good idea to invest in bonds?”

Acceptable: “Are more rational people more likely to succeed in politics?” (if asking whether people who follow certain cognitive rules like basing their decisions on evidence will succeed more than those who don’t. Notice that you cannot sensibly replace this with “good” or “best” – “Are better people more likely to succeed in politics?” is meaningless (unless you switch to the moral value of “better”)

5. Optimal -> best. I feel kind of hypocritical for this one because the link above says to replace “rational” with “optimal”. But if you really want to go all the way, replace “optimal” with “best”, unless you have a specific reason for preferring the longer word.

Wrong: “What’s the optimal way to learn this material?”
Right: “What’s the best way to learn this material?”

6. Utility -> happiness, goodness. Use utility only when talking about utilitarian philosophy.

Wrong: “Will getting more exercise raise my utility?”
Right: “Will getting more exercise make me better off?”

Wrong: “What is the highest-utility charity?”
Right: “What is the best charity?” or “Which charity helps people the most?”

The same applies to “utility function”.

Wrong: “My utility function contains a term for animal suffering.”
Right: “I care about animal suffering.”

7. Autistic -> nerdy. Use autistic when referring to a psychiatric diagnosis or a complicated package of sensory and cognitive issues. Use “nerdy” when referring to people who are book-smart but lack social graces.

Wrong: “Haha, my friends and I are so autistic, we talk about physics all the time.”
Right: “Haha, my friends and I are so nerdy, we talk about physics all the time.”

8. Neoreactionary -> right-wing, far-right, reactionary. Use neoreactionary when talking specifically about the philosophy of Mencius Moldbug, if you think you’ve looked into it and understand it. If you’re just referring to far-right ideas, use far-right.

Some Clarifications on Rationalist Blogging

Jul 5, 2019 05:50


1. According to the survey, only 13% of SSC commenters identify as rationalists. Almost none of the rationalists I know IRL comment on SSC. Saying “rationalist community” when you mean “SSC comments section” or vice versa will leave everybody pretty confused.

2. Not every blog by a Christian is “a Christian blog”, and not every blog by a rationalist is “a rationalist blog”. I would hope blogs by Christians don’t go around praising Baal, and I try to have some minimum standards too, but I don’t want to claim this blog is doing any kind of special “rationality” work beyond showing people interesting problems.

3. Or consider the difference between a church picnic and a monastery. Both have their uses, and the church picnic will hopefully avoid praising Baal, but there’s a limit to how Christian!virtuous it can get without any structure or barriers to entry. A monastery can do much better by being more selective and carefully planned. Insofar as SSC makes any pretensions to being “rationalist”, it’s a rationalist picnic and not a rationalist monastery.

4. Everything above applies to SSC’s engagement with effective altruism too, except 100x more.

5. I’ve been consistently skeptical of claims that rationality has much practical utility if you’re already pretty smart and have good intuitions and domain-specific knowledge. There might be exceptions for some domains too new or weird to have evolved good specific knowledge, or where the incentives are so skewed that the specific knowledge will optimize for signaling rather than truly good work (and maybe 99% of value is in domains like this, so maybe I’m not saying much). In any case, if rationality has much practical utility for your everyday life, you won’t find that practical utility here.

Editing Unsong

Jul 4, 2019 18:23


A few years ago, I wrote the online serial novel Unsong. Someday I want to get it published. But I want to fix it up before I try. I know publishers will have their own editors and their own demands. But I want something I’m happy with before I give it to someone else to tear apart.

This post is to solicit feedback on what needs improvement and how it could be improved. I’m going to list some of my thoughts below. All of these are really spoiler-y. If you haven’t read Unsong yet, you may not want to read further. If you have read it, I welcome your input.

Simple Issues I’ve Already Kind Of Decided But Would Welcome Feedback On Anyway

1. I equivocate between the terms “Unitarians” and “Singers” pretty frequently, and it takes a bit of a stretch to establish everyone as Unitarians. Plan to excise the Unitarian plotline and just call that whole group of people “Singers” permanently.

2. Probably will delete Chapter 17, “No Earthly Parents I Confess” with the mythological birth of the Comet King, in favor of having the Comet King offhandedly mention his birth in Chapter 29, “Who Respects The Infant’s Faith” (which he basically already does). I feel like Chapter 17 is a bit out of character for the rest of the book, and we don’t really need to know anything about the Comet King’s birth except that he was born of Comet West. I’m kind of sad I have to delete Comet West’s speech, Aaron’s digression on the word “maiden”, and the cosmic significance of Roe v. Wade, but maybe I can shoehorn some of that in elsewhere (any suggestions?)

3. Probably will drop “the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire” as a random gag when referring to China. More people were confused than amused, and the benefit from gagginess is probably lower than risk of being accused of racism or Orientalism or something. But then do I keep the story in Interlude Chet where someone golem-izes the Terracotta Army, or do I nix that as plot irrelevant?

Considerations on Cost Disease [Classic]

Jun 29, 2019 50:30



Tyler Cowen writes about cost disease. I’d previously heard the term used to refer only to a specific theory of why costs are increasing, involving labor becoming more efficient in some areas than others. Cowen seems to use it indiscriminately to refer to increasing costs in general – which I guess is fine, goodness knows we need a word for that.

Cowen assumes his readers already understand that cost disease exists. I don’t know if this is true. My impression is that most people still don’t know about cost disease, or don’t realize the extent of it. So I thought I would make the case for the cost disease in the sectors Tyler mentions – health care and education – plus a couple more.

First let’s look at primary education:



There was some argument about the style of this graph, but as per Politifact the basic claim is true. Per student spending has increased about 2.5x in the past forty years even after adjusting for inflation.

At the same time, test scores have stayed relatively stagnant. You can see the full numbers here, but in short, high school students’ reading scores went from 285 in 1971 to 287 today – a difference of 0.7%.

There is some heterogenity across races – white students’ test scores increased 1.4% and minority students’ scores by about 20%. But it is hard to credit school spending for the minority students’ improvement, which occurred almost entirely during the period from 1975-1985. School spending has been on exactly the same trajectory before and after that time, and in white and minority areas, suggesting that there was something specific about that decade which improved minority (but not white) scores. Most likely this was the general improvement in minorities’ conditions around that time, giving them better nutrition and a more stable family life. It’s hard to construct a narrative where it was school spending that did it – and even if it did, note that the majority of the increase in school spending happened from 1985 on, and demonstrably helped neither whites norminorities.

I discuss this phenomenon more here and here, but the summary is: no, it’s not just because of special ed; no, it’s not just a factor of how you measure test scores; no, there’s not a “ceiling effect”. Costs really did more-or-less double without any concomitant increase in measurable quality.

So, imagine you’re a poor person. White, minority, whatever. Which would you prefer? Sending your child to a 2016 school? Or sending your child to a 1975 school, and getting a check for $5,000 every year?

I’m proposing that choice because as far as I can tell that is the stakes here. 2016 schools have whatever tiny test score advantage they have over 1975 schools, and cost $5000/year more, inflation adjusted. That $5000 comes out of the pocket of somebody – either taxpayers, or other people who could be helped by government programs.

Second, college is even worse:



Note this is not adjusted for inflation; see link below for adjusted figures


Inflation-adjusted cost of a university education was something like $2000/year in 1980. Now it’s closer to $20,000/year. No, it’s not because of decreased government funding, and there are similar trajectories for public and private schools.

I don’t know if there’s an equivalent of “test scores” measuring how well colleges perform, so just use your best judgment. Do you think that modern colleges provide $18,000/year greater value than colleges did in your parents’ day? Would you rather graduate from a modern college, or graduate from a college more like the one your parents went to, plus get a check for $72,000?

(or, more realistically, have $72,000 less in student loans to pay off)

Was your parents’ college even noticeably worse than yours? My parents sometimes talk about their college experience, and it seems to have had all the relevant features of a college experience. Clubs. Classes. Professors. Roommates. I might have gotten something extra for my $72,000, but it’s hard to see what it was.

Third, health care. The graph is starting to look disappointingly familiar:

More Confounders

Jun 27, 2019 14:28


[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?

If Only Turing Was Alive to See This

Jun 22, 2019 03:03


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.

Are Sexual Purity Taboos a Response to STIs?

Jun 22, 2019 10:46



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, so 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.

If Kim Jong-un Opened a KFC, Would You Eat There?

Jun 21, 2019 06:20


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.

Followup on the Baumol Effect: Thanks, O Baumol

Jun 20, 2019 15:02


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:

Nobody is Perfect Everything is Commensurable [Classic]

Jun 15, 2019 25:40



Recently spotted on Tumblr:

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?”

“Can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others?”

Ignore the questionable stylistic choices and there’s an important point here worth considering. Something like “Yes, the feeling of constantly being outraged and mired in the latest controversy is unpleasant. And yes, it would be nice to get to avoid it and spend time with your family and look at kitten pics or something. But when the controversy is about people being murdered in cold blood, or living in fear, or something like that – then it’s your duty as a decent human being to care. In the best case scenario you’ll discharge that duty by organizing widespread protests or something – but the absolute least you can do is reblog a couple of slogans.”

I think Cliff Pervocracy is trying to say something similar in this post. Key excerpt:

When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [conservative] fantasy of rugged individualism starts looking pretty damn good.

Intellectually, I think my current political milieu of feminism/progressivism/social justice is more correct, far better for the world in general, and more helpful to me since I don’t actually live in a perfectly isolated cabin.

Highlights From the Comments on Cultural Evolution

Jun 13, 2019 37:26


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 (12) 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:


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

Jun 12, 2019 14:52


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.

Addendum to “Enormous Nutshell”: Competing Selectors

Jun 9, 2019 14:47


[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned HelplessnessBook Review: The Secret Of Our SuccessList Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of The Secret Of Our SuccessAsymmetric Weapons Gone Bad]

When I wrote Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous Planet-Sized Nutshell, my attempt to explain reactionary philosophy, many people complained that it missed the key insight. At the time I had an excuse: I didn’t get the key insight. Now I think I might understand it and have the vocabulary to explain, so I want to belatedly add it in.

The whole thing revolves around this rather dubious redefinition:

RIGHT-WING: Policies and systems selected by cultural evolution
LEFT-WING: Policies and systems selected by the marketplace of ideas

The second line is ambiguous: which marketplace of ideas, exactly? Maybe better than “the marketplace of ideas” would be “memetic evolution”. Policies and systems that are so catchy and convincing that lots of people believe in them and want to fight for them.

Under this definition, lots of conventionally right-wing movements get defined as left-wing. For example, Nazism and Trumpism both arose after a charismatic leader convinced the populace to implement them. They won because people liked them more than the alternatives. But “left-wing” is not equivalent to “populist”. An idea that spreads by convincing intellectuals and building an academic consensus around itself is still left-wing, because it relies on convincing people. Even ideas like neoliberalism and technocracy are left-wing ideas, if they sound good to intellectuals and they spread by convincing those intellectuals.

Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad

Jun 9, 2019 26:09


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


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

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

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

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

List of Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of “The Secret of Our Success”

Jun 8, 2019 58:34


[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned HelplessnessBook Review: The Secret Of Our Success]

A rare example of cultural evolution in action:

Throughout the Highlands of New Guinea, a group’s ability to raise large numbers of pigs is directly related to its economic and social success in competition with other regional groups. The ceremonial exchange of pigs allows groups to forge alliances, re-pay debts, obtain wives, and generate prestige through excessive displays of generosity. All this means that groups who are better able to raise pigs can expand more rapidly in numbers—by reproduction and in-migration—and thus have the potential to expand their territory. Group size is very important in intergroup warfare in small-scale societies so larger groups are more likely to successfully expand their territory. However, the prestige more successful groups obtain may cause the rapid diffusion of the very institutions, beliefs, or practices responsible for their competitive edge as other groups adopt their strategies and beliefs.

In 1971, the anthropologist David Boyd was living in the New Guinea village of Irakia, and observed intergroup competition via prestige-biased group transmission. Concerned about their low prestige and weak pig production, the senior men of Irakia convened a series of meetings to determine how to improve their situation. Numerous suggestions were proposed for raising their pig production but after a long process of consensus building the senior men of the village decided to follow a suggestion made by a prestigious clan-leader who proposed that they “must follow the Fore’” and adopt their pig-related husbandry practices, rituals, and other institutions. The Fore’ were a large and successful ethnic group in the region, who were renowned for their pig production. The following practices, beliefs, rules, and goals were copied from the Fore’, and announced at the next general meeting of the community:

1) All villagers must sing, dance and play flutes for their pigs. This ritual causes the pigs to grow faster and bigger. At feasts, the pigs should be fed first from the oven. People are fed second.

Book Review: The Secret of Our Success

Jun 7, 2019 52:26


[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned Helplessness]


“Culture is the secret of humanity’s success” sounds like the most vapid possible thesis. The Secret Of Our Successby anthropologist Joseph Henrich manages to be an amazing book anyway.

Henrich wants to debunk (or at least clarify) a popular view where humans succeeded because of our raw intelligence. In this view, we are smart enough to invent neat tools that help us survive and adapt to unfamiliar environments.

Against such theories: we cannot actually do this. Henrich walks the reader through many stories about European explorers marooned in unfamiliar environments. These explorers usually starved to death. They starved to death in the middle of endless plenty. Some of them were in Arctic lands that the Inuit considered among their richest hunting grounds. Others were in jungles, surrounded by edible plants and animals. One particularly unfortunate group was in Alabama, and would have perished entirely if they hadn’t been captured and enslaved by local Indians first.

These explorers had many advantages over our hominid ancestors. For one thing, their exploration parties were made up entirely of strong young men in their prime, with no need to support women, children, or the elderly. They were often selected for their education and intelligence. Many of them were from Victorian Britain, one of the most successful civilizations in history, full of geniuses like Darwin and Galton. Most of them had some past experience with wilderness craft and survival. But despite their big brains, when faced with the task our big brains supposedly evolved for – figuring out how to do hunting and gathering in a wilderness environment – they failed pathetically.

[Repost] Epistemic Learned Helplessness

Jun 6, 2019 11:10


[This is a slightly edited repost of an essay from my old LiveJournal]

A friend recently complained about how many people lack the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don’t like it. He envisioned an art of rationality that would make people believe something after it had been proven to them.

And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn’t until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went “Wait, no, that would be a terrible idea.”

I don’t think I’m overselling myself too much to expect that I could argue circles around the average uneducated person. Like I mean that on most topics, I could demolish their position and make them look like an idiot. Reduce them to some form of “Look, everything you say fits together and I can’t explain why you’re wrong, I just know you are!” Or, more plausibly, “Shut up I don’t want to talk about this!”

And there are people who can argue circles around me. Maybe not on every topic, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.

And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn’t believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.

And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.

In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization [Classic]

Jun 1, 2019 45:54


[Content warning: Discussion of social justice, discussion of violence, spoilers for Jacqueline Carey books.]

[Edit 10/25: This post was inspired by a debate with a friend of a friend on Facebook who has since become somewhat famous. I’ve renamed him here to “Andrew Cord” to protect his identity.]


Andrew Cord criticizes me for my bold and controversial suggestion that maybe people should try to tell slightly fewer blatant hurtful lies:

I just find it kind of darkly amusing and sad that the “rationalist community” loves “rationality is winning” so much as a tagline and yet are clearly not winning. And then complain about losing rather than changing their tactics to match those of people who are winning.

Which is probably because if you *really* want to be the kind of person who wins you have to actually care about winning something, which means you have to have politics, which means you have to embrace “politics the mindkiller” and “politics is war and arguments are soldiers”, and Scott would clearly rather spend the rest of his life losing than do this.

That post [the one debunking false rape statistics] is exactly my problem with Scott. He seems to honestly think that it’s a worthwhile use of his time, energy and mental effort to download evil people’s evil worldviews into his mind and try to analytically debate them with statistics and cost-benefit analyses.

He gets *mad* at people whom he detachedly intellectually agrees with but who are willing to back up their beliefs with war and fire rather than pussyfooting around with debate-team nonsense.

It honestly makes me kind of sick. It is exactly the kind of thing that “social justice” activists like me *intend* to attack and “trigger” when we use “triggery” catchphrases about the mewling pusillanimity of privileged white allies.

In other words, if a fight is important to you, fight nasty. If that means lying, lie. If that means insults, insult. If that means silencing people, silence.

It always makes me happy when my ideological opponents come out and say eloquently and openly what I’ve always secretly suspected them of believing.

My natural instinct is to give some of the reasons why I think Andrew is wrong, starting with the history of the “noble lie” concept and moving on to some examples of why it didn’t work very well, and why it might not be expected not to work so well in the future.

But in a way, that would be assuming the conclusion. I wouldn’t be showing respect for Andrew’s arguments. I wouldn’t be going halfway to meet them on their own terms.

The respectful way to rebut Andrew’s argument would be to spread malicious lies about Andrew to a couple of media outlets, fan the flames, and wait for them to destroy his reputation. Then if the stress ends up bursting an aneurysm in his brain, I can dance on his grave, singing:

♪ ♬ I won this debate in a very effective manner. Now you can’t argue in favor of nasty debate tactics any more ♬ ♪

I’m not going to do that, but if I did it’s unclear to me how Andrew could object. I mean, he thinks that sexism is detrimental to society, so spreading lies and destroying people is justified in order to stop it. I think that discourse based on mud-slinging and falsehoods is detrimental to society. Therefore…

Postscript to APA Photo-Essay

May 30, 2019 04:31


I was surprised how many people responded to my APA photo-essay with comments like “Seems psychiatry as a field is broken beyond repair” or “This proves you should never trust psychiatrists”.

The mood I was going for was more “let’s share a laugh at the excesses of the profession” than “everything must be burned down”. Looks like I missed it.

I was disappointed to see a lot of the most hostile comments coming from people in tech. It would be easy to write an equally damning report on the tech industry. Just cobble together a few paragraphs about Juicero and Theranos, make fun of whatever weird lifestyle change @jack is supporting at the moment, and something something Zuckerberg something Cambridge Analytica something. You can even throw in something about James Damore (if you’re writing for the left) or about the overreaction to James Damore (if you’re writing for the right). And there you go! Tech is a malicious cancerous industry full of awful people and everyone should hate it. We’ve all read this exact thinkpiece a thousand times.

I’ve tried to push back against this line of thinking. A lot of the most visible and famous things in tech are bad, because scum tends to rise to the top. But there’s also some extraordinary innovation going on, and some extraordinarily good people involved. “@jack invents new health fad of rolling around naked on glaciers” is a much juicier story than “we can now fit twice as many billions of transistors on a chip as we could last year”, but tech journalism that only reports on the former is missing an important part of the story.

I feel the same way about psychiatry. There’s a lot of cringeworthy stuff going on at conferences, but conferences are designed to be about signaling and we shouldn’t expect otherwise. There’s also a lot of great people working really hard to help fight mental illness and support the mentally ill. “Most Americans remain alive and basically functional despite record-breaking amounts of depression and anxiety” isn’t sexy any more than “Internet continues to connect billions of people around the world at the speed of light” is sexy. But it’s a much bigger part of the story than the part where silly people do silly things at conferences.

The APA Meeting: A Photo-Essay

May 25, 2019 33:47


The first thing you notice at the American Psychiatric Association meeting is its size. By conservative estimates, a quarter of the psychiatrists in the United States are packed into a single giant San Francisco convention center, more than 15,000 people.

Being in a crowd of 15,000 psychiatrists is a weird experience. You realize that all psychiatrists look alike in an indefinable way. The men all look balding, yet dignified. The women all look maternal, yet stylish. Sometimes you will see a knot of foreign-looking people huddled together, their nametags announcing them as the delegation from the Nigerian Psychiatric Association or the Nepalese Psychiatric Association or somewhere else very far away. But however exotic, something about them remains ineffably psychiatrist.

The second thing you notice at the American Psychiatric Association meeting is that the staircase is shaming you for not knowing enough about Vraylar®.


Seems kind of weird. Maybe I’ll just take the escalator


…no, the escalator is advertising Latuda®, the “number one branded atypical antipsychotic”. Aaaaaah! Maybe I should just sit down for a second and figure out what to do next…

AAAAH, CAN’T SIT DOWN, VRAYLAR® HAS GOTTEN TO THE BENCHES TOO! Surely there’s a non-Vraylar bench somewhere in this 15,000 person convention center!

A Critical Period for Lactation Fetishes

May 17, 2019 06:27


Enquist et al on lactation fetishes is one of my favorite papers.

They wonder – as we’ve all wondered at one point or another – how people develop fetishes. One plausible hypothesis is “sexual imprinting”. During childhood, you have a critical period (maybe ages 1 to 5) where you figure out what sex is. If you see some weird stuff during that time, you could end up with a fetish. For example, a child who sees latex used in a sexualized way (for example, they catch a glimpse of a sexy movie where someone is wearing latex) might grow up with a latex fetish.

Enquist et al realize lactation fetishes offer a natural test of this hypothesis. Children with younger siblings will see a lot of breastfeeding going on during their critical window; children without younger siblings will see less. Since it’s easy to ask people how many siblings they have, you can see if younger siblings correlate with lactation fetishes.

They survey some online lactation fetishist communities and ask everyone how many older and younger siblings they have. Although by chance we would expect an equal number of both, in fact the fetishists have many more younger than older siblings:


Age Gaps and Birth Order Effects

May 16, 2019 12:03


Psychologists are split on the existence of “birth order effects”, where oldest siblings will have different personality traits and outcomes than middle or youngest siblings. Although some studies detect effects, they tend to be weak and inconsistent.

Last year, I posted Birth Order Effects Exist And Are Very Strong, finding a robust 70-30 imbalance in favor of older siblings among SSC readers. I speculated that taking a pre-selected population and counting the firstborn-to-laterborn ratio was better at revealing these effects than taking an unselected population and trying to measure their personality traits. Since then, other independent researchers have confirmed similar effects in historical mathematicians and Nobel-winning physicists. Although birth order effects do not seem to consistently affect IQ, some studies suggest that they do affect something like “intellectual curiosity”, which would explain firstborns’ over-representation in intellectual communities.

Why would firstborns be more intellectually curious? If we knew that, could we do something different to make laterborns more intellectually curious? A growing body of research highlights the importance of genetics on children’s personalities and outcomes, and casts doubt on the ability of parents and teachers to significantly affect their trajectories. But here’s a non-genetic factor that’s a really big deal on one of the personality traits closest to our hearts. How does it work?

People looking into birth order effects have come up with a couple of possible explanations:

1. Intra-family competition. The oldest child choose some interest or life path. Then younger children don’t want to live in their older sibling’s shadow all the time, so they do something else.

2. Decreased parental investment. Parents can devote 100% of their child-rearing time to the oldest child, but only 50% or less to subsequent children.

Is There a Case for Skepticism of Psychedelic Therapy?

May 12, 2019 08:33


There’s been an explosion of interest in the use of psychedelics in psychiatry. Like everyone else, I hope this works out. But recent discussion has been so overwhelmingly positive that it’s worth reviewing whether there’s a case for skepticism. I think it would look something like this:

1. Psychedelics have mostly been investigated in small studies run by true believers. These are the conditions that produce a field made of unreplicable results, like the effects of 5-HTTLPR. Some of the most exciting psychedelic findings have already failed to replicate; for example, a study two years ago found that psilocybin did not permanently increase the Openness personality trait. This was one of the most exciting studies and had shaped a lot of my thinking around the issue. Now it’s gone.

2. Some of the most impressive stories involve psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, where people who talk with a therapist, while on a substance, obtain true insight and get real closure. But every psychotherapy has amazing success stories floating out there. Back when psychoanalysis was new, the whole world was full of people telling their amazing success stories about how Dr. Freud helped them obtain true insight and get real closure. I think of psychotherapy as a domain where people can get as many amazing success stories as they want whether or not they’re really doing anything right, for unclear reasons.

5-HTTLPR: A Pointed Review

May 10, 2019 23:44


In 1996, some researchers discovered that depressed people often had an unusual version of the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. The study became a psychiatric sensation, getting thousands of citations and sparking dozens of replication attempts (page 3 here lists 46).

Soon scientists moved beyond replicating the finding to trying to elucidate the mechanism. Seven studies (see herefor list) found that 5-HTTLPR affected activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing negative stimuli. In one especially interesting study, it was found to bias how the amygdala processed ambiguous facial expressionin another, it modulated how the emotional systems of the amygdala connected to the attentional systems of the anterior cingulate cortex. In addition, 5-HTTLPR was found to directly affect the reactivity of the HPA axis, the stress processing circuit leading from the adrenal glands to the brain.

As interest increased, studies began pointing to 5-HTTLPR in other psychiatric conditions as well. One study found a role in seasonal affective disorder, another in insomnia. A meta-analysis of twelve studies found a role (p = 0.001) in PTSD. A meta-analysis of twenty-three studies found a role (p = 0.000016) in anxiety-related personality traits. Even psychosis and Alzheimer’s disease, not traditionally considered serotonergic conditions, were affected. But my favorite study along these lines has to be 5-HTTLPR Polymorphism Is Associated With Nostalgia-Proneness.

Some people in bad life situations become depressed, and others seem unaffected; researchers began to suspect that genes like 5-HTTLPR might be involved not just in causing depression directly, but in modulating how we respond to life events. A meta-analysis looked at 54 studies of the interaction and found “strong evidence that 5-HTTLPR moderates the relationship between stress and depression, with the s allele associated with an increased risk of developing depression under stress (P = .00002)”. This relationship was then independently re-confirmed for every conceivable population and form of stress. Depressed children undergoing childhood adversity. Depressed children with depressed mothers. Depressed youth. Depressed adolescent girls undergoing peer victimization. They all developed different amounts of depression based on their 5-HTTLPR genotype. The mainstream media caught on and dubbed 5-HTTLPR and a few similar variants “orchid genes”, because orchids are sensitive to stress but will bloom beautifully under the right conditions. Stories about “orchid genes” made it into The AtlanticWired, and The New York Times.

In 1996, some researchers discovered that depressed people often had an unusual version of the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. The study became a psychiatric sensation, getting thousands of citations and sparking dozens of replication attempts (page 3 here lists 46).

Soon scientists moved beyond replicating the finding to trying to elucidate the mechanism. Seven studies (see herefor list) found that 5-HTTLPR affected activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing negative stimuli. In one especially interesting study, it was found to bias how the amygdala processed ambiguous facial expressionin another, it modulated how the emotional systems of the amygdala connected to the attentional systems of the anterior cingulate cortex. In addition, 5-HTTLPR was found to directly affect the reactivity of the HPA axis, the stress processing circuit leading from the adrenal glands to the brain.

As interest increased, studies began pointing to 5-HTTLPR in other psychiatric conditions as well. One study found a role in seasonal affective disorder, another in insomnia. A meta-analysis of twelve studies found a role (p = 0.001) in PTSD. A meta-analysis of twenty-three studies found a role (p = 0.000016) in anxiety-related personality traits. Even psychosis and Alzheimer’s disease, not traditionally considered serotonergic conditions, were affected. But my favorite study along these lines has to be 5-HTTLPR Polymorphism Is Associated With Nostalgia-Proneness.

Some people in bad life situations become depressed, and others seem unaffected; researchers began to suspect that genes like 5-HTTLPR might be involved not just in causing depression directly, but in modulating how we respond to life events. A meta-analysis looked at 54 studies of the interaction and found “strong evidence that 5-HTTLPR moderates the relationship between stress and depression, with the s allele associated with an increased risk of developing depression under stress (P = .00002)”. This relationship was then independently re-confirmed for every conceivable population and form of stress. Depressed children undergoing childhood adversity. Depressed children with depressed mothers. Depressed youth. Depressed adolescent girls undergoing peer victimization. They all developed different amounts of depression based on their 5-HTTLPR genotype. The mainstream media caught on and dubbed 5-HTTLPR and a few similar variants “orchid genes”, because orchids are sensitive to stress but will bloom beautifully under the right conditions. Stories about “orchid genes” made it into The AtlanticWired, and The New York Times.

Little Known Types of Eclipse

May 4, 2019 02:57


A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets between the Moon and the Sun.

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon gets between the Earth and the Sun.

A terrestrial eclipse occurs when the Earth gets between you and the Sun. Happens once per 24 hours.

An atmospheric eclipse occurs when an asteroid gets between you and the sky. Generally fatal.

A reverse solar eclipse occurs when the Sun gets between the Moon and the Earth. Extremely fatal.

A motivational eclipse occurs when the Moon gets between you and your goals. You can’t let it stop you! Destroy it! Destroy the Moon!

A marital eclipse occurs when the Moon gets between you and your spouse. You’re going to need to practice good communication about the new celestial body in your life if you want your relationship to survive.

A capillary eclipse occurs when your hair gets between your eyes and the Sun. Get a haircut.

Update to Partial Retraction of Animal Value and Neuron Number

May 4, 2019 07:25


A few weeks ago I published results of a small (n = 50) survey showing that people’s moral valuation of different kinds of animals scaled pretty nicely with the animals’ number of cortical neurons (see here for more on why we might expect that to be true).

A commenter, Tibbar, did a larger survey on Mechanical Turk and got very different results, so I retracted the claim. I wasn’t sure why we got such different results, but I chalked it down to chance, or perhaps to my having surveyed an animal-rights-conscious crowd who thinks a lot about this kinds of things vs. Tibbar surveying random MTurkers.

Now David Moss, from effective altruist organization Rethink Priorities, has looked into this more deeply and resolved some of the discrepancies.

The problem is that I did a terrible job explaining my procedure (I linked to the form I used, but the link was broken when Tibbar did his survey). In particular, I included the line:

If you believe [animals have moral value] in general, but think some specific animal I ask about doesn’t work this way, feel free to leave the question blank or put in “99999”, which I will interpret as “basically infinity”

Buspirone Shortage in Healthcaristan SSR

May 3, 2019 20:34


(Epistemic status: Unsure on details. Some post-publication edits 5/1 to make this less strident.)


There is a national shortage of buspirone.

Buspirone is a 5HT-1 agonist used to control anxiety. Unlike most psychiatric drugs, it’s in a class of its own – there are no other sole 5HT-1 agonists on the market. It’s not a very strong medication, but it’s safe, it’s non-addictive, it’s off-patent, and it works well for a subset of patients. Some of them have been on it for years. 

Now there’s a national shortage. My patients can’t get it, or have to go hunting from pharmacy to pharmacy until they find one that has it. I’ve told people find a source to stockpile a supply so they don’t run out. It feels like we’re living in the Soviet Union.

How did this happen? The New York Times writes:

The main reason for the buspirone shortage appears to be interrupted production at a Mylan Pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown, W.Va., which produced about a third of the country’s supply of the drug. The Food and Drug Administration had said the facility was dirty and that the company failed to follow quality control procedures.

1960: The Year the Singularity Was Cancelled

Apr 24, 2019 27:36


[Epistemic status: Very speculative, especially Parts 3 and 4. Like many good things, this post is based on a conversation with Paul Christiano; most of the good ideas are his, any errors are mine.]


In the 1950s, an Austrian scientist discovered a series of equations that he claimed could model history. They matched past data with startling accuracy. But when extended into the future, they predicted the world would end on November 13, 2026.

This sounds like the plot of a sci-fi book. But it’s also the story of Heinz von Foerster, a mid-century physicist, cybernetician, cognitive scientist, and philosopher.

His problems started when he became interested in human population dynamics.

(the rest of this section is loosely adapted from his Science paper “Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, A.D. 2026”)

Assume a perfect paradisiacal Garden of Eden with infinite resources. Start with two people – Adam and Eve – and assume the population doubles every generation. In the second generation there are 4 people; in the third, 8. This is that old riddle about the grains of rice on the chessboard again. By the 64th generation (ie after about 1500 years) there will be 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 people – ie about about a billion times the number of people who have ever lived in all the eons of human history. So one of our assumptions must be wrong. Probably it’s the one about the perfect paradise with unlimited resources.

Okay, new plan. Assume a world with a limited food supply / limited carrying capacity. If you want, imagine it as an island where everyone eats coconuts. But there are only enough coconuts to support 100 people. If the population reproduces beyond 100 people, some of them will starve, until they’re back at 100 people. In the second generation, there are 100 people. In the third generation, still 100 people. And so on to infinity. Here the population never grows at all. But that doesn’t match real life either.

Highlights From the Comments on College Admissions

Apr 19, 2019 34:59


HalTheWise discusses a factor I missed (until I sneakily edited it in, so you may have read the later version that included it):

One very powerful contributor that Scott did not mention is that in many cases schools are directly or indically intentivized to have a low admission rate. US news & world report released the first national college ranking in 1983, and donors and board members at various schools have increasingly been using national rankings performance, which directly includes low admissions rates, as a measure of how well a school is doing.

These rankings and metrics also heavily incentivize having high yield (a large fraction of students that are admitted end up attending) which for a fixed size applicant pool also encourages accepting as few people as possible. This has led to the death of safety schools, because they would rather reject a high performing student than admit them and have them not attend.

These factors might also be a driving force behind the rise of common app, since schools are trying to get as many applicants as possible, even if it hurts the quality of their pool.

kaakitwitaasota points out that consulting is an exception to the “where you go to school doesn’t matter” principle:A lot of top firms these days won’t even look at you if you didn’t go to the “right” college. My mother did her MBA at Northeastern, and recently had lunch with an old classmate who ended up at a top consulting firm. My mother’s classmate’s résumé would end up in the trash unread these days–Northeastern isn’t considered good enough.

So while it’s probably true on the macro level that smart kids will do just fine anywhere they end up, there is a subset of extremely prestigious, extremely well-paid jobs which will not even look at you if you didn’t get into the right institution at the age of 18–which, in practice, means that the élite are chosen on the basis of who they were at the age of 14-17. When viewed in those terms, it’s completely nuts.

I’d heard this before; my impression is that a big part of consulting is having prestigious-looking people tell you what you want to hear. If what they’re actually hiring for is prestige rather than competence per se, that could make it a special case

Increasingly Competitive College Admissions: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Apr 19, 2019 01:08:11


0: Introduction

This is from


Acceptance rates at top colleges have declined by about half over the past decade or so, raising concern about intensifying academic competition. The pressure of getting into a good university may even be leading to suicidesat elite high schools.

Some people have dismissed the problem, saying that a misplaced focus on Harvard and Yale ignores that most colleges are easier to get into than ever. For example, from The Atlantic, Is College Really Harder To Get Into Than It Used To Be?:

If schools that were once considered “safeties” now have admissions rates as low as 20 or 30 percent, it appears tougher to get into college every spring. But “beneath the headlines and urban legends,” Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, says their 2010 report shows that it was no more difficult for most students to get into college in 2004 than it was in 1992. While the Center plans to update the information in the next few years to reflect the past decade of applicants, students with the same SAT and GPA in the 90’s basically have an equal probability of getting into a similarly selective college today.

Their link to the report doesn’t work, so I can’t tell if this was ever true. But it doesn’t seem true today. From Pew:


The first graph shows that admission rates have decreased at 53% of colleges, and increased at only 31%. The second graph shows that the decreases were mostly at very selective schools, and the increases were mostly at less selective schools. We shouldn’t exaggerate the problem: three-quarters of US students go to non-selective colleges that accept most applicants, and there are more than enough of these for everyone. But if you are aiming for a competitive school – not just Harvard and Yale, but anywhere in the top few hundred institutions – the competition is getting harder.

This matches my impression of “facts on the ground”. In 2002, I was a senior at a California high school in a good neighborhood. Most of the kids in my class wanted to go to famous Ivy League universities, and considered University of California colleges their “safety schools”. The idea of going to Cal State (California’s middle- and lower- tier colleges) felt like some kind of colossal failure. But my mother just retired from teaching at a very similar school, and she says nowadays the same demographic of students would kill to get into a UC school, and many of them can’t even get into Cal States.

The stories I hear about this usually focus on how more people are going to college today than ever, but there’s still only one Harvard, so there’s increasing competition for the same number of spots.

Pain as Active Ingredient in Dating

Apr 12, 2019 04:19


Reciprocity is a simple dating site, created by some friends of mine. You sign up and see a list of all your Facebook friends who also signed up. You can put a checkmark next to their name to indicate you want to date them (they can’t see this). If you both checkmark each other, then the site reveals you’ve matched.

This seemed like an obvious great idea. But I started to hear a lot of stories like the following: “I checkmarked Alice’s name on Reciprocity, and the system didn’t notify me that there was a match, so I assumed Alice didn’t like me. Later I asked her out in person, and she said yes and we had a great time.”

I always figured Alice was just a jerk who was ruining the system for everyone else. After all, the whole premise was to incentivize honesty. Checkmark the names of people you honestly want to date. If they don’t want to date you, they never hear about it, and you would be no worse off. If they do want to date you, the system will let you know, and you can arrange a date. If your pattern of checkmarks doesn’t really match who you want to date, you’re just screwing yourself and everyone else over for no reason.

A few months ago, someone asked me out on a date and I said yes. And I realized I hadn’t checkmarked them on Reciprocity. This caused a crisis of self-loathing. What’s wrong with me? Why would I go against my own incentives and ruin things for everyone else?

I asked a friend, who admitted she had done the same thing. Her theory was that asking someone on a date (with all of its accompanying awkwardness and difficulty) was a stronger signal of interest than ticking a checkbox. And potentially there’s a grey zone of people who you would only date if you thought they liked you more than a certain amount. And asking them in person is hard enough to be a costly signal that you like them at least that amount, but ticking a checkbox isn’t.

Short Book Reviews April 2019

Apr 11, 2019 18:40


Timothy Carey’s Method Of Levels teaches a form of psychotherapy based on perceptual control theory.

The Crackpot List is specific to physics. But if someone were to create one for psychiatry, Method of Levels would score a perfect 100%. It somehow manages to do okay on the physics one despite not discussing any physics.

The Method of Levels is the correct solution to every psychological problem, from mild depression to psychosis. Therapists may be tempted to use something other than the Method of Levels, but they must overcome this temptation and just use the Method of Levels on everybody. Every other therapy is about dismissing patients as “just crazy”, but the Method of Levels tries to truly understand the patient. Every other therapy is about the therapist trying to change the patient, but the Method of Levels is about the patient trying to change themselves. The author occasionally just lapses into straight-up daydreams about elderly psychologists sitting on the porch, beating themselves up that they were once so stupid as to believe in psychology other than the Method of Levels.

This book isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. One vignette discusses a patient whose symptoms clearly indicate the start of a manic episode. The author recommends that instead of stigmatizing this person with a diagnosis of bipolar or pumping them full of toxic drugs, you should use the Method of Levels on them. This is a good way to end up with a dead patient.

like perceptual control theory. I share the author’s hope that it could one day be a theory of everything for the brain. But even if it is, you can’t use theories of everything to do clinical medicine. Darwin discovered a theory of everything for biology, but you can’t reason from evolutionary first principles to how to treat a bacterial infection. You should treat the bacterial infection with antibiotics. This will be in accordance with evolutionary principles, and there will even be some cool evolutionary tie-ins (fungi evolved penicillin as a defense against bacteria). But you didn’t discover penicillin by reasoning from evolutionary first principles. If you tried reasoning from evolutionary first principles, you might end up trying to make the bacteria mutate into a less dangerous strain during the middle of an osteomyelitis case or something. Just use actually existing clinical medicine and figure out the evolutionary justification for it later.

Social Censorship: The First Offender Model

Apr 4, 2019 08:51


RJ Zigerell (h/t Marginal Revolution) studies public support for eugenics. He finds that about 40% of Americans support some form of eugenics. The policies discussed were very vague, like “encouraging poor criminals to have fewer children” or “encouraging intelligent people to have more children”; they did not specify what form the encouragement would take. Of note, much lack of support for eugenics was a belief that it would not work; people who believed the qualities involved were heritable were much more likely to support programs to select for them. For example, of people who thought criminality was completely genetic, a full 65% supported encouraging criminals to have fewer children.

I was surprised to hear this, because I thought of moral opposition to eugenics was basically universal. If a prominent politician tentatively supported eugenics, it would provoke a media firestorm and they would get shouted down. This would be true even if they supported the sort of generally mild, noncoercive policies the paper seems to be talking about. How do we square that with a 40% support rate?

I think back to a metaphor for norm enforcement I used in an argument against Bryan Caplan:

Two Wolves and a Sheep

Mar 31, 2019 04:19


Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. “Mutton” takes the popular vote, but “grass” wins in the Electoral College. The wolves wish they hadn’t all moved into the same few trendy coastal cities.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. The Timber Wolf Party and the Gray Wolf Party spend most of their energy pandering shamelessly to the tiebreaking vote.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. Everyone agrees to borrow money, go to a fancy French restaurant, and leave the debt to the next generation.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. The sheep votes for the Wolf Party, because he agrees with them on social issues.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. “Grass” wins the tenth election in a row, thanks to the dominance of special interests.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. rates the Wolf Party’s claim that mutton can be made without harming sheep as “Mostly False”.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. The main issue this election is whether two more sheep should be allowed to immigrate.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. A government shutdown is narrowly averted when everyone agrees to what becomes known as the Mutton With A Side Of Grass Compromise; disappointed activists are urged to “keep their demands realistic”.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. They choose borscht. Election officials suspect foul play.

Partial Retraction of Post on Animal Value and Neural Number

Mar 31, 2019 03:03


Commenter Tibbar used Mechanical Turk to replicate my survey on how people thought about the moral weights of animals.

After getting 263 responses (to my 50), he reports different results:

Chicken: 25
Chimpanzee: 2
Cow: 3
Elephant: 1
Lobster: 60
Pig: 5
Human: 1

On the one hand, Mechanical Turkers sometimes aren’t a great sample, and some of them seem to have just put the same number for every animal so they could finish quickly and get their money. They also probably haven’t thought about this that much and don’t have much of a moral theory behind what they’re doing. This makes them a different demographic than the people I surveyed, who were a mix of vegetarians and principled non-vegetarians who had thought a lot about animal rights. For example, 80% of my sample answered yes to a question asking if they were “familiar with work by Brian Tomasik, OneStepForAnimals, etc urging people to eat beef rather than chicken”.

On the other hand, this makes it pretty hard for me to claim my results are some kind of universal intuitive understanding of what animals are like. So I am partially retracting them (only partially, because of the consideration above) and adding this to my Mistakes page.

The best thing to do here would be to re-run my survey with a larger sample of a similar population, but unfortunately I’ve lost my chance to do that now that I’ve told you all this, so darn. Maybe I’ll include it on next year’s survey anyway and hope you’ve forgetten by then.

Cortical Neuron Number Matches Intuitive Perceptions of Moral Value Across Animals

Mar 28, 2019 07:49


[EDIT: No longer confident in this post, see edit note at bottom. May formally partially-retract it later.]

Yesterday’s post reviewed research showing that animals’ intelligence seemed correlated with their number of cortical neurons. If this is true, we could use it to create an absolute scale that puts animals and humans on the same ladder.

Here are the numbers from this list. I can’t find chickens, so I’ve used red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of chickens. I can’t find cows, so I’ve eyeballed a number from other cow-sized ruminants (see here for some debate on this).

Some animal rights activists discuss the relative value of different species of animal. You have to eat a lot of steak to kill one cow, but you only have to eat a few chicken wings to kill one chicken. This suggests nonvegetarians trying to minimize the moral impact of their diet should eat beef, not chicken. But any calculation like this depends on assumptions about whether one cow and one chicken have similar moral values. Most people would say that they don’t – the cow seems intuitively more “human” and capable of suffering – but most people would also say the cow isn’t infinitely more valuable. Different animals rights people have come up with different ideas for exactly how we should calculate this.

I wondered how people’s intuitive ideas about the moral value of animals would correspond to their cortical neuron count. I asked Tumblr users who believed that animals had moral value to fill out a survey (questionsresults) estimating the relative value of each animal, in terms of how many animals = 1 human. Fifty people answered, including 21 vegetarians and 29 nonvegetarians. Their numbers ranged from 1 to putting their hand on the 9 key and leaving it there a while, but when I took the median, here’s what I got:

Neurons and Intelligence: A Birdbrained Perspective

Mar 27, 2019 10:13


Elephants have bigger brains than humans, so why aren’t they smarter than we are?

The classic answer has been to play down absolute brain size in favor of brain size relative to body. Sometimes people justify this as “it takes a big brain to control a body that size”. But it really doesn’t. Elephants have the same number of limbs as mice, operating on about the same mechanical principles. Also, dinosaurs had brains the size of walnuts and did fine. Also, the animal with the highest brain-relative-to-body size is a shrew.

The classic answer to that has been to look at a statistic called “encephalization quotient”, which compares an animal’s brain size to its predicted brain size given an equation that fits most animals. Sometimes people use brain weight = constant x (body weight)^0.66, where the constant varies depending on what kind of animal you’re talking about. The encephalization quotient mostly works, but it’s kind of a hack. Also, capuchin monkeys have higher EQ than chimps, but are not as smart. Also, some birds have lower encephalization quotients than small mammals, but are much smarter.

So although EQ usually does a good job predicting intelligence, it’s definitely not perfect, and it doesn’t tell us what intelligence is.

A new AI Impacts report on animal intelligence, partly based on research by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, starts off here. If we knew what made some animals smarter than others, it might help us figure out what intelligence is in a physiological sense, and that might help us predict the growth of intelligence in future AIs.

AII focuses on birds. Some birds are very intelligent: crows can use tools, songbirds seem to have a primitive language, parrots can learn human speech. But birds have tiny brains, whether by absolute standards or EQ. They also have very different brains than mammals: while mammals have a neocortex arranged in a characteristic pattern of layers, birds have a different unlayered structure called the pallium with neurons “organized into nuclei”. So bird intelligence is surprising both because of their small brains, and because it suggests high intelligence can arise in brain structures very different from our own.

Translating Predictive Coding Into Perceptual Control

Mar 22, 2019 10:49


Wired wrote a good article about Karl Friston, the neuroscientist whose works I’ve puzzled over here before. Raviv writes:

Friston’s free energy principle says that all life…is driven by the same universal imperative…to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy.

Put this way, it’s clearly just perceptual control theory. Powers describes the same insight like this:

[Action] is the difference between some condition of the situation as the subject sees it, and what we might call a reference condition, as he understands it.

I’d previously noticed that these theories had some weird similarities. But I want to go further and say they’re fundamentally the same paradigm. I don’t want to deny that the two theories have developed differently, and I especially don’t want to deny that free energy/predictive coding has done great work building in a lot of Bayesian math that perceptual control theory can’t match. But the foundations are the same.

Why is this of more than historical interest? Because some people (often including me) find free energy/predictive coding very difficult to understand, but find perceptual control theory intuitive. If these are basically the same, then someone who wants to understand free energy can learn perceptual control theory and then a glossary of which concepts match to each other, and save themselves the grief of trying to learn free energy/predictive coding just by reading Friston directly.

Book Review: Inventing the Future

Mar 21, 2019 52:09


They say “don’t judge a book by its cover”. So in case you were withholding judgment: yes, this bright red book covered with left-wing slogans is, in fact, communist. Inventing The Future isn’t technically Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ manifesto – that would be the equally-striking-looking Accelerate Manifesto. But it’s a manifesto-ish description of their plan for achieving a postcapitalist world.

S&W start with a critique of what they call “folk politics”, eg every stereotype you have of lazy left-wing activists. Protesters who march out and wave signs and then go home with no follow-up plan. Groups that avoid having any internal organization, because organization implies hierarchy and hierarchy is bad. The People’s Front of Judaea wasting all their energy warring with the Judaean People’s Front. An emphasis on spectacle and performance over results. We’ve probably all heard stories like this, but some of S&W’s are especially good, like one from an activist at a trade summit:

On April 20, the first day of the demonstrations, we marched in our thousands toward the fence, behind which 34 heads of state had gathered to hammer out a hemispheric trade deal. Under a hail of catapult-launched teddy bears, activists dressed in black quickly removed the fence’s support with bolt cutters and pulled it down with grapples as onlookers cheered them on. For a brief moment, nothing stood between us and the convention centre. We scrambled atop the toppled fence, but for the most part we went no further, as if our intention all along had been simply to replace the state’s chain-link and concrete barrier with a human one of our own making.

S&W comment:

We see here the symbolic and ritualistic nature of the actions, combined with the thrill of having done something – but with a deep uncertainty that appears at the first break with the expected narrative. The role of dutiful protester had given these activists no indication of what to do when the barriers fell. Spectacular political confrontations like the Stop the War marches, the now familiar melees against G20 or World Trade Organization and the rousing scenes of democracy in Occupy Wall Street all give the appearance of being highly significant, as if something were genuinely at stake. Yet nothing has changed, and long-term victories were traded for a simple registration of discontent.

To outside observers, it is often not even clear what the movements want, beyond expressing a generalized discontent with the world…in more recent struggles, the very idea of making demands has been questioned. The Occupy movement infamously struggled to articulate meaningful goals, worried that anything too substantial would be divisive. And a broad range of student occupations across the Western world has taken up the mantra of “no demands” under the misguided belief that demanding nothing is a radical act.

Gwern's AI-Generated Poetry

Mar 17, 2019 17:26


Gwern has answered my prayers and taught GPT-2 poetry.

GPT-2 is the language processing system that OpenAI announced a few weeks ago. They are keeping the full version secret, but have released a smaller prototype version. Gwern retrained it on the Gutenberg Poetry Corpus, a 117 MB collection of pre-1923 English poetry, to create a specialized poetry AI.

I previously tested the out-of-the-box version of GPT-2 and couldn’t make it understand rhyme and meter. I wrongly assumed this was a fundamental limitation: “obviously something that has never heard sound can’t derive these complex rhythms just from meaningless strings of letters.” I was wrong; it just didn’t have enough training data. Gwern’s retrained version gets both of these right, and more too. For example:

Thou know’st how Menoetiades the swift
Was dragged, of Hector and the fierce compeers
And Phrygian warriors. So, we will dispatch
Your bodies, then, yourselves to burn the ships
In sacrifice; with torches and with bells
To burn them, and with oxen to replace
Your gallant friends for ever. But I wish
That no man living has so long endured
The onset of his foes, as I have power
To burn or storm; for mighty Hector erst
Was slain, and now returns his safe return

This is all perfect iambic pentameter. I know AP English students who can’t write iambic pentameter as competently as this.

(by the way, both “compeers” and “erst” are perfectly cromulent words from the period when people wrote poems like this; both show up in Shelley)

It has more trouble with rhymes – my guess is a lot of the poetry it was trained on was blank verse. But when it decides it should be rhyming, it can keep it up for a little while. From its Elegy Written in a Country Churchyardfanfic:

Does Reality Drive Straight Lines on Graphs, or Do Straight Lines on Graphs Drive Reality?

Mar 15, 2019 07:12


Here’s a graph of US air pollution over time:


During the discussion of 90s environmentalism, some people pointed out that this showed the Clean Air Act didn’t matter. The trend is the same before the Act as after it.
This kind of argument is common. For example, here’s the libertarian Mercatus Institute arguing that OSHA didn’t help workplace safety:


I’ve always taken these arguments pretty seriously. But recently I’ve gotten more cautious. Here’s a graph of Moore’s Law, the “rule” that transistor counts will always increase by a certain amount per year:


The Moore’s Law Wikipedia article lists factors that have helped transistors keep shrinking during that time, for example “the invention of deep UV excimer laser photolithography” in 1980. But if we wanted to be really harsh, we could make a graph like this:


But the same argument that disproves the importance of photolithography disproves the importance of anything else. We’d have to retreat to a thousand-coin-flips model where each factor is so small that it happening or not happening at any given time doesn’t change the graph in a visible way.
The only satisfying counterargument I’ve heard to this is that Moore’s Law comes from a combination of physical law and human commitment. Physical law is consistent with transistors shrinking this quickly. But having noticed this, humans (like the leadership of Intel) commit to achieve it. That commitment functions kind of as a control system. If there’s a big advance in one area, they can relax a little bit in other areas. If there’s a problem in one area, they’ll pour more resources into it until there stops being a problem. One can imagine an event big enough to break the control system – a single unexpected discovery that cuts sizes by a factor of 1000 all on its own, or a quirk of physical law that makes it impossible to fit more transistors on a chip without inventing an entirely new scientific paradigm. But in fact there was no event big enough to break the control system during this period, so the system kept working.
But then we have to wonder whether other things like clean air are control systems too.
That is, suppose that as the economy improves and stuff, the American people demand cleaner air. They will only be happy if the air is at least 2% cleaner each year than the year before. If one year the air is 10% cleaner than the year before, environmentalist groups get bored and wander off, and there’s no more progress for the next five years. But if one year the air is only 1% cleaner, newly-energized environmentalist voters threaten to vote out all the incumbents who contributed to the problem, and politicians pass some emergency measure to make it go down another 1%. So absent some event strong enough to overwhelm the system, air pollution will always go down 2% per year. But that doesn’t mean the Clean Air Act didn’t change things! The Clean Air Act was part of the toolkit that the control system used to keep the decline at 2%. If the Clean Air Act had never happened, the control system would have figured out some other way to keep air pollution low, but that doesn’t mean the Clean Air Act didn’t matter. Just that it mattered exactly as much as whatever it would have been replaced with.

Puritan Spotting

Mar 14, 2019 17:24


[Related to: Book Review: Albion’s Seed]
[Epistemic status: Not too serious]

I realize I’ve been confusing everyone with my use of the word “Puritan”. When I say “That guy is so Puritan!” people object “But he’s not religious!” or “He doesn’t hate fun!”

I don’t know what the real word for the category I’m calling “Puritan” is. Words like “Yankee”, “Boston Brahmin”, or “Transcendentalist” are close, but none of them really work. “Eccentric overeducated hypercompetent contrarian early American who takes morality very seriously” is good, but too long.

Instead of explaining further, here’s a (more than half-joking) Puritan checklist. Maximum one item per red box.

The obvious next step is to rank historical figures by Puritanism Points. Here are the top five famous Americans I can find, as per Wikipedia:

Samuel Morse was born to Pastor (+3) Jedediah (+1) Morse and his wife Elizabeth (+1) in Charlestown, Massachusetts (+3), the eldest of six children (+3). After attending Yale (+1), he pursued a career as an internationally famous painter. But when his wife Lucretia (+1) fell sick, he was unable to receive the news in time to go home to her before she died, inspiring him to change careers during mid-life (+3) and become an inventor. He spent his life perfecting the telegraph (+1), but also invented an automatic sculpture-making machine (+3). In later life, he switched careers again, becoming an anti-Catholic activist (+1); he ran for Mayor of New York on an anti-Catholic platform, and wrote anti-Catholic pamphlets like A Foreign Conspiracy Against The Liberties Of The United States (+1). He was also a well-known philanthropist (+3). His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

Total Puritanism = 28

Book Review: Albion's Seed [Classic]

Mar 13, 2019 01:10:20



Albion’s Seed by David Fischer is a history professor’s nine-hundred-page treatise on patterns of early immigration to the Eastern United States. It’s not light reading and not the sort of thing I would normally pick up. I read it anyway on the advice of people who kept telling me it explains everything about America. And it sort of does.

In school, we tend to think of the original American colonists as “Englishmen”, a maximally non-diverse group who form the background for all of the diversity and ethnic conflict to come later. Fischer’s thesis is the opposite. Different parts of the country were settled by very different groups of Englishmen with different regional backgrounds, religions, social classes, and philosophies. The colonization process essentially extracted a single stratum of English society, isolated it from all the others, and then plunked it down on its own somewhere in the Eastern US.

I used to play Alpha Centauri, a computer game about the colonization of its namesake star system. One of the dynamics that made it so interesting was its backstory, where a Puerto Rican survivalist, an African plutocrat, and other colorful characters organized their own colonial expeditions and competed to seize territory and resources. You got to explore not only the settlement of a new world, but the settlement of a new world by societies dominated by extreme founder effects. What kind of weird pathologies and wonderful innovations do you get when a group of overly romantic Scottish environmentalists is allowed to develop on its own trajectory free of all non-overly-romantic-Scottish-environmentalist influences? Albion’s Seed argues that this is basically the process that formed several early US states.

Fischer describes four of these migrations: the Puritans to New England in the 1620s, the Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s, the Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s, and the Borderers to Appalachia in the 1700s.


A: The Puritans

I hear about these people every Thanksgiving, then never think about them again for the next 364 days. They were a Calvinist sect that dissented against the Church of England and followed their own brand of dour, industrious, fun-hating Christianity. Most of them were from East Anglia, the part of England just northeast of London. They came to America partly because they felt persecuted, but mostly because they thought England was full of sin and they were at risk of absorbing the sin by osmosis if they didn’t get away quick and build something better. They really liked “city on a hill” metaphors.

I knew about the Mayflower, I knew about the black hats and silly shoes, I even knew about the time Squanto threatened to release a bioweapon buried under Plymouth Rock that would bring about the apocalypse. But I didn’t know that the Puritan migration to America was basically a eugenicist’s wet dream.

Much like eg Unitarians today, the Puritans were a religious group that drew disproportionately from the most educated and education-obsessed parts of the English populace. Literacy among immigrants to Massachusetts was twice as high as the English average, and in an age when the vast majority of Europeans were farmers most immigrants to Massachusetts were skilled craftsmen or scholars. And the Puritan “homeland” of East Anglia was a an unusually intellectual place, with strong influences from Dutch and Continental trade; historian Havelock Ellis finds that it “accounts for a much larger proportion of literary, scientific, and intellectual achievement than any other part of England.”

Furthermore, only the best Puritans were allowed to go to Massachusetts; Fischer writes that “it may have been the only English colony that required some of its immigrants to submit letters of recommendation” and that “those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies and sent back to England”. Puritan “headhunters” went back to England to recruit “godly men” and “honest men” who “must not be of the poorer sort”.

Ketamine: Now by Prescription

Mar 12, 2019 14:55


Last week the FDA approved esketamine for treatment-resistant depression.

Let’s review how the pharmaceutical industry works: a company discovers and patents a potentially exciting new drug. They spend tens of millions of dollars proving safety and efficacy to the FDA. The FDA rewards them with a 10ish year monopoly on the drug, during which they can charge whatever ridiculous price they want. This isn’t a great system, but at least we get new medicines sometimes.

Occasionally people discover that an existing chemical treats an illness, without the chemical having been discovered and patented by a pharmaceutical company. In this case, whoever spends tens of millions of dollars proving it works to the FDA may not get a monopoly on the drug and the right to sell it for ridiculous prices. So nobody spends tens of millions of dollars proving it works to the FDA, and so it risks never getting approved.

The usual solution is for some pharma company to make some tiny irrelevant change to the existing chemical, and patent this new chemical as an “exciting discovery” they just made. Everyone goes along with the ruse, the company spends tens of millions of dollars pushing it through FDA trials, it gets approved, and they charge ridiculous prices for ten years. I wouldn’t quite call this “the system works”, but again, at least we get new medicines.

Twenty years ago, people noticed that ketamine treated depression. Alas, ketamine already existed – it’s an anaesthetic and a popular recreational drug – so pharma companies couldn’t patent it and fund FDA trials, so it couldn’t get approved by the FDA for depression. A few renegade doctors started setting up ketamine clinics, where they used the existing approval of ketamine for anaesthesia as an excuse to give it to depressed people. But because this indication was not FDA-approved, insurance companies didn’t have to cover it. This created a really embarrassing situation for the medical system: everyone secretly knows ketamine is one of the most effective antidepressants, but officially it’s not an antidepressant at all, and mainstream providers won’t give it to you.

The pharmaceutical industry has lobbyists in Heaven. Does this surprise you? Of course they do. A Power bribed here, a Principality flattered there, and eventually their petitions reach the ears of God Himself. This is the only possible explanation for stereochemistry, a quirk of nature where many organic chemicals come in “left-handed” and “right-handed” versions. The details don’t matter, beyond that if you have a chemical that you can’t patent, you can take the left-handed (or right-handed) version, and legally pretend that now it is a different chemical which you can patent. And so we got “esketamine”.

Prospiracy Theories

Mar 6, 2019 09:45


[Title from this unrelated story or this unrelated essay]

Last week I wrote about how conspiracy theories spread so much faster on Facebook than debunkings of those same theories. A few commenters chimed in to say that of course this was true, the conspiracy theories had evolved into an almost-perfect form for exploiting cognitive biases and the pressures of social media. Debunkings and true beliefs couldn’t copy that process, so they were losing out.

This sounded like a challenge, so here you go:



Mar 2, 2019 06:24


[With apologies to Putnam, Pope, and all of you]

Two children are reading a text written by an AI:

The hobbits splashed water in each other’s faces until they were both sopping wet

One child says to the other “Wow! After reading some text, the AI understands what water is!”

The second child says “It doesn’t really understand.”

The first child says “Sure it does! It understands that water is the sort of substance that splashes. It understands that people who are splashed with water get wet. What else is left to understand?”

The second child says “All it understands is relationships between words. None of the words connect to reality. It doesn’t have any internal concept of what water looks like or how it feels to be wet. Only that the letters W-A-T-E-R, when appearing near the letters S-P-L-A-S-H bear a certain statistical relationship to the letters W-E-T.”

The first child starts to cry.

Two chemists are watching the children argue with each other. The first chemist says “Wow! After seeing an AI, these kids can debate the nature of water!”

The second chemist says “Ironic, isn’t it? After all, the children themselves don’t understand what water is! Water is two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom, and neither of them know!”

The first chemist answers “Come on. The child knows enough about water to say she understands it. She knows what it looks like. She knows what it tastes like. That’s pretty much the basics of water.”

The second chemist answers “Those are just relationships between pieces of sense-data. The child knows that (visual perception of clear shiny thing) = (tactile perception of cold wetness) = (gustatory perception of refreshingness). And she can predict statistical relationships, like that if she sees someone throw a bucket of (visual perception of clear shiny thing) at her, she will soon feel (tactile perception of cold miserable sopping wetness). She uses the word “water” as a concept-hook that links all of these relationships together and makes predicting the world much easier. But no matter how well she masters these facts, she can never connect them to H2O or any other real chemical facts about the world beyond mere sense-data.”

In Mod We Trust

Mar 1, 2019 14:00


The Verge writes a story (an exposé?) on the Facebook-moderation industry.

It goes through the standard ways it maltreats its employees: low pay, limited bathroom breaks, awful managers – and then into some not-so-standard ones. Mods have to read (or watch) all of the worst things people post on Facebook, from conspiracy theories to snuff videos. The story talks about the psychological trauma this inflicts:

It’s an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions…where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers…

It’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.

One of the commenters on Reddit asked “Has this guy ever worked in a restaurant?” and, uh, fair. I don’t want to speculate on how much weed-smoking or sex-in-stairwell-having is due to a psychological reaction to the trauma of awful Facebook material vs. ordinary shenanigans. But it sure does seem traumatic.

Other than that, the article caught my attention for a few reasons.

First, because I recently wrote a post that was a little dismissive of moderators, and made it sound like an easy problem. I think the version I described – moderation of a single website’s text-only comment section – is an easi-er problem than moderating all of Facebook and whatever horrible snuff videos people post there. But if any Facebook moderators, or anyone else in a similar situation, read that post and thought I was selling them short, I’m sorry.

Rule Thinkers In, Not Out

Feb 28, 2019 09:16


Imagine a black box which, when you pressed a button, would generate a scientific hypothesis. 50% of its hypotheses are false; 50% are true hypotheses as game-changing and elegant as relativity. Even despite the error rate, it’s easy to see this box would quickly surpass space capsules, da Vinci paintings, and printer ink cartridges to become the most valuable object in the world. Scientific progress on demand, and all you have to do is test some stuff to see if it’s true? I don’t want to devalue experimentalists. They do great work. But it’s appropriate that Einstein is more famous than Eddington. If you took away Eddington, someone else would have tested relativity; the bottleneck is in Einsteins. Einstein-in-a-box at the cost of requiring two Eddingtons per insight is a heck of a deal.

What if the box had only a 10% success rate? A 1% success rate? My guess is: still most valuable object in the world. Even an 0.1% success rate seems pretty good, considering (what if we ask the box for cancer cures, then test them all on lab rats and volunteers?) You have to go pretty low before the box stops being great.

I thought about this after reading this list of geniuses with terrible ideas. Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us.

Wage Stagnation: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Feb 28, 2019 52:15


[Epistemic status: I am basing this on widely-accepted published research, but I can’t guarantee I’ve understood the research right or managed to emphasize/believe the right people. Some light editing to bring in important points people raised in the comments.]

You all know this graph:



Median wages tracked productivity until 1973, then stopped. Productivity kept growing, but wages remained stagnant.

This is called “wage decoupling”. Sometimes people talk about wages decoupling from GDP, or from GDP per capita, but it all works out pretty much the same way. Increasing growth no longer produces increasing wages for ordinary workers.

Is this true? If so, why?

1. What Does The Story Look Like Across Other Countries And Time Periods?

Here’s a broader look, from 1800 on:



It no longer seems like a law of nature that productivity and wages are coupled before 1973. They seem to uncouple and recouple several times, with all the previous graphs’ starting point in 1950 being a period of unusual coupledness. Still, the modern uncoupling seems much bigger than anything that’s happened before.

What about other countries? This graph is for the UK (you can tell because it spells “labor” as “labour”)



It looks similar, except that the decoupling starts around 1990 instead of around 1973.

And here’s Europe:



This is only from 1999 on, so it’s not that helpful. But it does show that even in this short period, France remains coupled, Germany is decoupled, Spain is…doing whatever Spain is doing, and Italy is so pathetic that the problem never even comes up. Overall not sure what to think about these.

2. Could Apparent Wage Decoupling Be Because Of Health Insurance?

Along with wages, workers are compensated in benefits like health insurance. Since health insurance has skyrocketed in price, this means total worker compensation has gone up much more than wages have. This could mean workers are really getting compensated much more, even though they’re being paid the same amount of money. This view has sometimes been associated with economist Glenn Hubbard.

There are a few lines of argument that suggest it’s not true.

First, wage growth has been worst for the lowest-paid workers. But the lowest-paid workers don’t usually get insurance at all.


RIP Culture War Thread

Feb 23, 2019 40:04


[This post is having major technical issues. Some comments may not be appearing. If you can’t comment, please say so on the subreddit.]

I. I Come To Praise Caesar, Not To Bury Him

Several years ago, an SSC reader made an r/slatestarcodex subreddit for discussion of blog posts here and related topics. As per the usual process, the topics that generated the strongest emotions – Trump, gender, race, the communist menace, the fascist menace, etc – started taking over. The moderators (and I had been added as an honorary mod at the time) decreed that all discussion of these topics should be corralled into one thread so that nobody had to read them unless they really wanted to. This achieved its desired goal: most of the subreddit went back to being about cognitive science and medicine and other less-polarizing stuff.

Unexpectedly, the restriction to one thread kick-started the culture war discussions rather than toning them down. The thread started getting thousands of comments per week, some from people who had never even heard of this blog and had just wandered in from elsewhere on Reddit. It became its own community, with different norms and different members from the rest of the board.

I expected this to go badly. It kind of did; no politics discussion area ever goes really well. There were some of the usual flame wars, point-scoring, and fanatics. I will be honest and admit I rarely read the thread myself.

But in between all of that, there was some really impressive analysis, some good discussion, and even a few changed minds. Some testimonials from participants:

For all its awfulness there really is something special about the CW thread. There are conversations that have happened there that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Someone mentioned its accidental brilliance and I think that’s right—it catches a wonderful conversational quality I’ve never seen on the Internet, and I’ve been on the Internet since the 90s – werttrew

I feel that, while practically ever criticism of the CW thread I have ever read is true, it is still the best and most civil culture war-related forum for conversation I have seen. And I find the best-of roundup an absolute must-read every week – yrrosimyarin

My Plagiarism

Feb 22, 2019 04:16


I was going back over yesterday’s post, and something sounded familiar about this paragraph:

A very careless plagiarist takes someone else’s work and copies it verbatim: “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. A more careful plagiarist takes the work and changes a few words around: “The mitochondria is the energy dynamo of the cell”. A plagiarist who is more careful still changes the entire sentence structure: “In cells, mitochondria are the energy dynamos”. The most careful plagiarists change everything except the underlying concept, which they grasp at so deep a level that they can put it in whatever words they want – at which point it is no longer called plagiarism.

After rereading it a few times, it hit me. A few days ago, I’d come across this quote from Miss Manners:

There are three possible parts to a date, of which at least two must be offered: entertainment, food, and affection. It is customary to begin a series of dates with a great deal of entertainment, a moderate amount of food, and the merest suggestion of affection. As the amount of affection increases, the entertainment can be reduced proportionately. When the affection IS the entertainment, we no longer call it dating.

I laughed at it, I thought it was great, and I stored it in my head as the sort of thing I should quote at some point in order to sound witty.

And although I wasn’t consciously thinking about it at the time, I’m sure the last sentence of my paragraph comes from the last sentence of Miss Manners’. It would be easy to dismiss it as a coincidence, it probably seems like a coincidence to you, I can’t explain how I know that the one comes from the other, but when I replay in my mind the process that made me write that, it’s obvious that it did.

GPT-2 as Step Toward General Intelligence

Feb 21, 2019 27:07


A machine learning researcher writes me in response to yesterday’s post, saying:

I still think GPT-2 is a brute-force statistical pattern matcher which blends up the internet and gives you back a slightly unappetizing slurry of it when asked.

I resisted the urge to answer “Yeah, well, your mom is a brute-force statistical pattern matcher which blends up the internet and gives you back a slightly unappetizing slurry of it when asked.”

But I think it would have been true.

A very careless plagiarist takes someone else’s work and copies it verbatim: “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. A more careful plagiarist takes the work and changes a few words around: “The mitochondria is the energy dynamo of the cell”. A plagiarist who is more careful still changes the entire sentence structure: “In cells, mitochondria are the energy dynamos”. The most careful plagiarists change everything except the underlying concept, which they grasp at so deep a level that they can put it in whatever words they want – at which point it is no longer called plagiarism.

GPT-2 writes fantasy battle scenes by reading a million human-written fantasy battle scenes, distilling them down to the concept of a fantasy battle scene, and then building it back up from there. I think this is how your mom (and everyone else) does it too. GPT-2 is worse at this, because it’s not as powerful as your mom’s brain. But I don’t think it’s doing a different thing. We’re all blending experience into a slurry; the difference is how finely we blend it.

Do Neural Nets Dream of Electric Hobbits?

Feb 21, 2019 16:49


Last week OpenAI announced its latest breakthrough. GPT-2 is a language model that can write essays to a prompt, answer questions, and summarize longer works. For example (bold prompt is human-written, all other text is the machine-generated response):

Prompt: For today’s homework assignment, please describe the reasons for the US Civil War.

It is easy to identify why the Civil War happened, because so many people and so many books and so much television and films tell us that it was the cause, that it has something to do with race or economics or religion. There is much agreement that it was essentially a war of slavery on behalf of capitalism, about a century of slavery. But that’s not what most people think of when they think of the Civil War. Many people think of the war as about states rights. You’re not wrong about that, but it’s kind of misleading to say that the Civil War was a conflict between states’ rights and federalism. So let’s try again. What’s the idea that has inspired so many people to go onto the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam and Gettysberg and Petersburg and Fredericksburg? The American idea of the republic–a notion of limited government–is a great part of the history.

In 1791, Thomas Jefferson said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The “founding fathers” were basically religious men who were not very concerned with states’ rights. The Civil War occurred in reaction to the idea that the federal government was taking far too much power away from the states, that they weren’t sovereign. Jefferson himself, as you well know, is an author of the Declaration of Independence who had some really crazy ideas about, well, you know, secession for a variety of reasons. The War Between the States (later the Great Rebellion) was a radical re-imagining of the American idea and not surprisingly, Jefferson’s grandson, who took after both his father and his grandfather and wrote about it, was named Thomas, after the president. “The federal and state governments are both contrived for the benefit of the rich and large property,” This view of the Founding Fathers has been promoted by some of today’s most prominent politicians, including some who hold prominent national offices and have a direct stake in a Republican Party that has been hijacked by the “federalist” wing of the party. So why is it that so many people have an easy-to-spot way of understanding the Civil War that has everything to do with the South and nothing to do with the South? The Confederate flag has been a symbol of racism for a long time, but when the Civil War started and the Civil War ended, many people suddenly began to see it differently. There was a change of heart, which I think is what led people to take the question of why the Civil War happened quite seriously…

Although OpenAI calls this a “language model”, modeling language necessarily involves modeling the world. Even if the AI was only supposed to learn things like “texts that talk about the Civil War use the word ‘Confederate’ a lot”, that has flowered into a rudimentary understanding of how the Civil War worked. Its training corpus (8 million web pages) was large enough that in the course of learning language it learned the specific idiom and structure of all sorts of different genres and subtopics. For example:

The Proverbial Murder Mystery

Feb 16, 2019 44:06



Chefs. Hundreds of them. Tall chefs, short chefs, black chefs, white chefs. I pushed forward through them, like an explorer hacking away at undergrowth. They muttered curses at me, but I was stronger than they were. I came to a door. I opened it. Sweet empty space. I shut the door behind me, sat down in the chair.

“Hello,” I said. “Detective Paul Eastman, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Doctor Zachary LaShay,” said the man behind the desk. His little remaining hair was greying; his eyes showed hints of the intellect that had been buried beneath the dullness of an administrative career. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble getting here. Did my secretary warn you about the chefs?”

“She did not,” I said.

“Well, forewarned is forearmed,” he answered, inanely and incongruously. “But I trust you got my message about the federal investigators?”

“Once a federal investigation has started, we’ll retreat and let them take over. But two women died here. We can’t just not investigate because you tell us you’re trying to get the Feds involved.”

“Yes, ah, of course. It’s just that we’re a sort of, ah, defense contractor. None of our projects are officially classified, yet, but we were hoping to get someone with a security clearance, in case this touched on sensitive areas.”

“I won’t pry further than I have to, but until someone from the government says something official, this is a matter for city police. Maybe you could start by telling me more about exactly what you do here.”

“We’re the United States’ only proverb laboratory. Our mission is to stress-test the nation’s proverbs. To provide rigorous backing for the good ones, and weed out the bad ones.”

“I’d never even heard of your organization before today, I have to admit. And now that I’m here…it’s huge! Who pays for all of this?”

“Everybody who uses proverbs,” said the Doctor, “which is to say, everybody. Consider: he who hesitates is lost. But also: look before you leap. Suppose you’re a business executive who spots a time-limited opportunity. What do you do? Hesitate? Or leap without looking? Eggheads devise all sorts of fancy rules about timing the market and relying on studies, but when push comes to shove most people are going to rely on the simple sayings they learned as a child. If you can keep your stock of proverbs more up-to-date than your competitor’s, that gives you a big business advantage.”

A smartly-dressed woman came in, handed Dr. LaShay a cup of boiling liquid. He put it to his lips, then spat. “This is terrible!” he said. “Try it!”

I had been expecting it to be tea, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was. But it was terrible. Somehow too plain, too salty, and too bitter all at once. I gagged.

“That settles it!” said the Doctor. “Too many cooks really do spoil the broth. Tricia, tell the chefs they can all go home now.”

“So that’s what you were doing!” I said.

Survey Results on SSRIs

Feb 9, 2019 13:37


SSRIs are the most widely used class of psychiatric medications, helpful for depression, anxiety, OCD, panic, PTSD, anger, and certain personality disorders (Why should the same drug treat all these things? Great question!) They’ve been pretty thoroughly studied, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand about them.

The SSC Survey is less rigorous than most existing studies, but its many questions and very high sample size provide a different tool to investigate some of these issues. I asked fifteen questions about SSRIs on the most recent survey and received answers from 2,090 people who had been on SSRIs. The sample included people on all six major SSRIs, but there were too few people on fluvoxamine (15) to have reliable results, so it was not included in most comparisons. Here’s what we found:

1. Do SSRIs work?

People seem to think so:

Made me feel much worse: 6%
Made me feel slightly worse: 7.4%
No net change in how I felt: 23.7%
Made me feel slightly better: 41.4%
Made me feel much better: 21.4%

Of course, these statistics include the placebo effect and so cannot be taken entirely at face value.

2. Do some SSRIs work better than others?

I asked people to rate their experience with the medication, on a scale from 1 to 10. Here were the results:

Lexapro (356): 5.7
Zoloft (470): 5.6
Prozac (339): 5.5
Celexa (233): 5.4
Paxil (126): 4.6

Paxil differed significantly from the others; the others did not differ significantly among themselves. In a second question where participants were just asked to rate their SSRIs from -2 (“made me feel much worse”) to +2 (“made me feel much better”), the ranking was preserved, and Lexapro also separated from Celexa.

This ranking correlates at r = 0.98 (!?!) with my previous study of this taken from ratings.

I don’t generally hear that Paxil is less effective than other SSRIs, but I have heard that it causes worse side effects. The survey question (probably wrongly) encouraged people to rate side effects as “negative efficacy”. My guess is that the difference here is mostly driven by side effects.

Respectability Cascades

Feb 7, 2019 12:17



I don’t know much about gay history, but the heavily mythicized version of it I heard goes like this:

At first open homosexuality was totally taboo. A few groups of respectable people with hilariously upper-class names like The Mattachine Society and The Daughters Of Bilitis quietly tried to influence elites in favor of more tolerance, using whatever backchannels elites use to influence one another. They had limited success, but they comforted themselves that at least they were presenting a likeable and respectable face for homosexuality that was improving the lifestyle’s public reputation.

Then a few totally-non-respectable outsiders with nothing to lose – addicts, drag queens, men with lots of chest hair who dressed in leather and called themselves “bears” – publicly came out as gay, held pride parades, shouted things about “WE’RE HERE, WE’RE QUEER”, et cetera. They were very easy to dislike and most people easily disliked them. But once they did this enough, people who were maybe 10% of the way to being respectable – people not addicted to quite so many drugs, men without quite so much chest hair – felt comfortable joining in. Once enough of them were out, people who were 20% of the way to being respectable felt comfortable coming out, and so on. Then 30% respectable people, then 40% respectable people, all the way up to the present day where there are a bunch of openly gay members of Congress.

I know there are lots of debates over whether this kind of “respectability cascade” is the way it really happened, but it’s a neat model of a way that these things can happen.


And it’s especially interesting because it’s the opposite of the way I usually think about these things.

When I did pre-med in college, I learned physiology from a distinguished professor whose focus was herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians. His pet issue was endocrine disruption – hormone-like pollutants that were changing the sexual maturation of frogs and other animals, and which were suspected to have deleterious effects on humans. He made us read a bunch of papers on this, all of which demonstrated a clear scientific consensus that this was a well-known environmental problem and all the respectable environmentalists and herpetologists were concerned about it.

After college I went about a decade without thinking about it. Then people started making fun of Alex Jones’ CHEMICALZ R TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! shtick. I innocently said that this was definitely happening and definitely deserved our concern, and discovered that this was no longer an acceptable thing to talk about in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Whatever. Okay. Lesson learned.

Book Review: Zero to One

Feb 2, 2019 42:30



Zero To One might be the first best-selling business book based on a Tumblr. Stanford student Blake Masters took Peter Thiel’s class on startups. He posted his notes on Tumblr after each lecture. They became a minor sensation. Thiel asked if he wanted to make them into a book together. He did.

The title comes from Thiel’s metaphor that ordinary businessmen like restaurant owners take a product “from 1 to n” (shouldn’t this be from n to n+1?) – they build more of something that already exists. But the greatest entrepreneurs bring something “from 0 to 1” – they invent something that has never been seen before.

The book has various pieces of advice for such entrepreneurs. Three sections especially struck me: on monopolies, on secrets, and on indefinite optimism.


A short review can’t fully do justice to the book’s treatment of monopolies. Gwern’s look at commoditizing your complement almost does (as do some tweets). But the basic economic argument goes like this: In a normal industry (eg restaurant ownership) competition should drive profit margins close to zero. Want to open an Indian restaurant in Mountain View? There will be another on the same street, and two more just down the way. If you automate every process that can be automated, mercilessly pursue efficiency, and work yourself and your employees to the bone – then you can just barely compete on price. You can earn enough money to live, and to not immediately give up in disgust and go into another line of business (after all, if you didn’t earn that much, your competitors would already have given up in disgust and gone into another line of business, and your task would be easier). But the average Indian restaurant is in an economic state of nature, and its life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

This was the promise of the classical economists: capitalism will optimize for consumer convenience, while keeping businesses themselves lean and hungry. And it was Marx’s warning: businesses will compete so viciously that nobody will get any money, and eventually even the capitalists themselves will long for something better. Neither the promise nor the warning has been borne out: business owners are often comfortable and sometimes rich. Why? Because they’ve escaped competition and become at least a little monopoly-like. Thiel says this is what entrepreneurs should be aiming for.

He hates having to describe how businesses succeed, because he thinks it’s too anti-inductive to reduce to a formula:

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

But he grudgingly describes four ways that a company can successfully reach monopolyhood:

Predictions for 2019

Jan 26, 2019 13:51


At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. So here are a hundred more for 2019.

Rules: all predictions about what will be true on January 1, 2020. Any that involve polling will be settled by the top poll or average of polls on Real Clear Politics on that day. Most predictions about my personal life, or that refer to the personal lives of other people, have been redacted to protect their privacy. I’m using the full 0 – 100 range in making predictions this year, but they’ll be flipped and judged as 50 – 100 in the rating stage, just like in previous years. I’ve tried to avoid doing specific research or looking at prediction markets when I made these, though some of them I already knew what the markets said.

Feel free to get in a big fight over whether 50% predictions are meaningful.

1. Donald Trump remains President: 90%
2. Donald Trump is impeached by the House: 40%
3. Kamala Harris leads the Democratic field: 20%
4. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic field: 20%
5. Joe Biden leads the Democratic field: 20%
6. Beto O’Rourke leads the Democratic field: 20%
7. Trump is still leading in prediction markets to be Republican nominee: 70%
8. Polls show more people support the leading Democrat than the leading Republican: 80%
9. Trump’s approval rating below 50: 90%
10. Trump’s approval rating below 40: 50%
11. Current government shutdown ends before Feb 1: 40%
12. Current government shutdown ends before Mar 1: 80%
13. Current government shutdown ends before Apr 1: 95%
14. Trump gets at least half the wall funding he wants from current shutdown: 20%
15. Ginsberg still alive: 50%

Psychiat-List Now Up

Jan 25, 2019 02:38


Lots of people have asked me to recommend them a psychiatrist or therapist. I’ve done a terrible job responding: it’s a conflict of interest to recommend my own group, and I don’t know many people outside of it.

So now I’ve put together a list (by which I mostly mean blatantly copied a similar list made by fellow community member Anisha M) of mental health professionals whom members of the rationalist community have had good experiences with. So far it’s short and mostly limited to the Bay Area. You can find it at the “Psychiat-List” button on the top of the blog, or at this link.

My hope is to crowd-source additional recommendations to expand the list to more providers and cities. Please let me know, either on this post or on the comments to the list itself, if you have any extra recommendations to add – especially if you’re in a city likely to have many other SSC readers. Please also let me know if you’ve had any positive or negative experiences with people already on the list, so I can change their status accordingly.

2018 Predictions: Calibration Results

Jan 24, 2019 16:15


At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. Here are 201420152016, and 2017.

And here are the predictions I made for 2018. Strikethrough’d are false. Intact are true. Italicized are getting thrown out because I can’t decide if they’re true or not. Please don’t complain that 50% predictions don’t mean anything; I know this is true but there are some things I’m genuinely 50-50 unsure of.

1. Donald Trump remains president at end of year: 95%
2. Democrats take control of the House in midterms: 80%
3. Democrats take control of the Senate in midterms: 50%
4. Mueller’s investigation gets cancelled (eg Trump fires him): 50%
5. Mueller does not indict Trump: 70%
6. PredictIt shows Bernie Sanders having highest chance to be Dem nominee at end of year: 60%
7. PredictIt shows Donald Trump having highest chance to be GOP nominee at end of year: 95%
8. [This was missing in original]
9. Some sort of major immigration reform legislation gets passed: 70%
10. No major health-care reform legislation gets passed: 95%
11. No large-scale deportation of Dreamers: 90%
12. US government shuts down again sometime in 2018: 50%
13. Trump’s approval rating lower than 50% at end of year: 90%
14. …lower than 40%: 50%
15. GLAAD poll suggesting that LGBQ acceptance is down will mostly not be borne out by further research: 80%

Highlights from the Comments on Kuhn

Jan 20, 2019 43:03


Thanks to everyone who commented on the review of The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions.

From David Chapman:

It’s important to remember that Kuhn wrote this seven decades ago. It was one of the most influential books of pop philosophy in the 1960s-70s, influencing the counterculture of the time, so it is very much “in the water supply.” Much of what’s right in it is now obvious; what’s wrong is salient. To make sense of the book, you have to understand the state of the philosophy of science before then (logical positivism had just conclusively failed), and since then (there has been a lot of progress since Kuhn, sorting out what he got right and wrong).

The issue of his relativism and attitude to objectivity has been endlessly rehashed. The discussion hasn’t been very productive; it turns out that what “objective” means is more subtle than you’d think, and it’s hard to sort out exactly what Kuhn thought. (And it hasn’t mattered what he thought, for a long time.)

Kuhn’s “Postscript” to the second edition of the book does address this. It’s not super clear, but it’s much clearer than the book itself, and if anyone wants to read the book, I would strongly recommend reading the Postscript as well. Given Scott’s excellent summary, in fact I would suggest *starting* with the Postscript.

The point that Kuhn keeps re-using a handful of atypical examples is an important one (which has been made by many historians and philosophers of science since). In fact, the whole “revolutionary paradigm shift” paradigm seems quite rare outside the examples he cites. And, overall, most sciences work quite differently from fundamental physics. The major advance in meta-science from about 1980 to 2000, imo, was realizing that molecular biology, e.g., works so differently from fundamental physics that trying to subsume both under one theory of science is infeasible.

I’m interested to hear him say more about that last sentence if he wants.

Kaj Sotala quotes Steven Horst quoting Thomas Kuhn on what he means by facts not existing independently of paradigms:

[Kuhn wrote that]:

A historian reading an out-of-date scientific text characteristically encounters passages that make no sense. That is an experience I have had repeatedly whether my subject is an Aristotle, a Newton, a Volta, a Bohr, or a Planck. It has been standard to ignore such passages or to dismiss them as products of error, ignorance, or superstition, and that response is occasionally appropriate. More often, however, sympathetic contemplation of the troublesome passages suggests a different diagnosis. The apparent textual anomalies are artifacts, products of misreading.

For lack of an alternative, the historian has been understanding words and phrases in the text as he or she would if they had occurred in contemporary discourse. Through much of the text that way of reading proceeds without difficulty; most terms in the historian’s vocabulary are still used as they were by the author of the text. But some sets of interrelated terms are not, and it is [the] failure to isolate those terms and to discover how they were used that has permitted the passages in question to seem anomalous. Apparent anomaly is thus ordinarily evidence of the need for local adjustment of the lexicon, and it often provides clues to the nature of that adjustment as well. An important clue to problems in reading Aristotle’s physics is provided by the discovery that the term translated ‘motion’ in his text refers not simply to change of position but to all changes characterized by two end points. Similar difficulties in reading Planck’s early papers begin to dissolve with the discovery that, for Planck before 1907, ‘the energy element hv’ referred, not to a physically indivisible atom of energy (later to be called ‘the energy quantum’) but to a mental subdivision of the energy continuum, any point on which could be physically occupied.

These examples all turn out to involve more than mere changes in the use of terms, thus illustrating what I had in mind years ago when speaking of the “incommensurability” of successive scientific theories. In its original mathematical use ‘incommensurability’ meant “no common measure,” for example of the hypotenuse and side of an isosceles right triangle. Applied to a pair of theories in the same historical line, the term meant that there was no common language into which both could be fully translated. (Kuhn 1989/2000, 9–10)

While scientific theories employ terms used more generally in ordinary language, and the same term may appear in multiple theories, key theoretical terminology is proprietary to the theory and cannot be understood apart from it. To learn a new theory, one must master the terminology as a whole: “Many of the referring terms of at least scientific languages cannot be acquired or defined one at a time but must instead be learned in clusters” (Kuhn 1983/2000, 211). And as the meanings of the terms and the connections between them differ from theory to theory, a statement from one theory may literally be nonsensical in the framework of another. The Newtonian notions of absolute space and of mass that is independent of velocity, for example, are nonsensical within the context of relativistic mechanics. The different theoretical vocabularies are also tied to different theoretical taxonomies of objects. Ptolemy’s theory classified the sun as a planet, defined as something that orbits the Earth, whereas Copernicus’s theory classified the sun as a star and planets as things that orbit stars, hence making the Earth a planet. Moreover, not only does the classificatory vocabulary of a theory come as an ensemble—with different elements in nonoverlapping contrast classes—but it is also interdefined with the laws of the theory. The tight constitutive interconnections within scientific theories between terms and other terms, and between terms and laws, have the important consequence that any change in terms or laws ramifies to constitute changes in meanings of terms and the law or laws involved with the theory (though, in significant contrast with Quinean holism, it need not ramify to constitute changes in meaning, belief, or inferential commitments outside the boundaries of the theory).

While Kuhn’s initial interest was in revolutionary changes in theories about what is in a broader sense a single phenomenon (e.g., changes in theories of gravitation, thermodynamics, or astronomy), he later came to realize that similar considerations could be applied to differences in uses of theoretical terms between contemporary subdisciplines in a science (1983/2000, 238). And while he continued to favor a linguistic analogy for talking about conceptual change and incommensurability, he moved from speaking about moving between theories as “translation” to a “bilingualism” that afforded multiple resources for understanding the world—a change that is particularly important when considering differences in terms as used in different subdisciplines.

Syrrim offers a really neat information theoretic account of predictive coding:

Kernel of Doubt: Testing Math Preference vs. Corn-Eating Style

Jan 17, 2019 10:25


In 2010, Ben Tilly of the blog Random Observations wrote Analysis Vs. Algebra Predicts Eating Corn?, which said:

I like learning about odd connections between disparate things. This probably is the oddest example that I know.

Broadly speaking, mathematicians can be divided into those who like analysis, and those who like algebra. The distinction between the two types runs throughout math. Even those who work in areas that are far from analysis or algebra are very aware of the difference between them, and usually are very clear on which their preference is. I’ll delve into this in more depth soon, but for now let’s just take it for granted that this is a well-known distinction, and it has meaning for mathematicians.

Back when I was in grad school there was a department lunch with corn on the cob. Partway through the meal one of the analysts looked around the room and remarked, “That’s odd, all of the analysts are eating corn one way and the algebraists are eating corn another!” Everyone looked around. In fact everyone was eating the corn in one of two ways. One way was to munch over the length of the corn in a straight line, back up, turn slightly, and do another row across. Kind of like how an old typewriter goes. The other way was to go around in a spiral. All of the analysts were eating in spirals, and the algebraists in rows.

There were a number of mathematicians present whose fields of study didn’t make it clear whether they were on the analysis or algebra side of things. We went around and asked, and in every case the way they ate corn matched their preference. Since then I’ve made a point of amusing myself by asking mathematicians I meet whether they prefer algebra or analysis, and then predicting which way they will eat corn. I’m probably up to 40 or so by now, and in every case but one I’ve been able to correctly predict how they eat corn. The one exception was a logician who claimed to be exactly on the fence between the two. When I explained the corn thing to him he looked surprised, and said that he had an unusual way of eating corn. He went in loose spirals! In other words he truly was a perfect combination of algebra and analysis!

Too Many People Dare Call it Conspiracy

Jan 16, 2019 20:40


[Content warning: References to anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic canards]

I feel deep affection for Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a bizarre screed about the Federal Reserve/Communist/Trilateral Commission plot for a one world government. From its ridiculous title to its even-more-ridiculous cover image, this is a book that accepts its own nature. In the Aristotelian framework, where everything is trying to be the most perfect example of whatever it is, None Dare Call It Conspiracy has reached a certain apotheosis.

But my problem is the opposite of Allen’s. Too many people dare call too many things conspiracy. Perfectly reasonable hypotheses get attacked as conspiracy theories, derailing the discussion into arguments over when you’re allowed to use the phrase. These arguments are surprisingly tough. Which of the following do you think should be classified as “conspiracy theories”? Which ones are so deranged that people espousing them should be excluded from civilized discussion?

1. Donald Trump and his advisors secretly met with Russian agents to discuss how to throw the 2016 election in his favor.

2. Donald Trump didn’t collaborate with any Russians, but Democrats are working together to convince everyone that he did, in the hopes of getting him indicted or convincing the electorate that he’s a traitor.

3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

5. America’s aid to Israel is not in America’s best interest, but is maintained through the power of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups mainly supported by America’s Jewish community.

6. The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

7. Climate scientists routinely exaggerate or massage their studies to get the results they want, or only publish studies that get the results they want, both because of their personal political leanings and because they know it is good for their field to constantly be discovering exciting things that their funders and their supporters among the public want to hear.

SSC Survey Results 2019

Jan 14, 2019 01:56


Thanks to the 8,171 people who took the 2019 Slate Star Codex survey. Some of the links below will say 13,171 people took the survey, but that’s a bug – sometimes Google just adds 5,000 to things. You can:

– See the questions for the SSC survey.

– See the results from the SSC survey.

I’ll be publishing more complicated analyses over the course of the next year, hopefully starting later this week.

If you want to scoop me, or investigate the data yourself, you can download the answers of the 7000 people who agreed to have their responses shared publicly. The public datasets will not exactly match the full version, nor will they include some of the sensitive sections like illegal drug use and sexual partners.

Download the public data (.xlsx.odf)

Paradigms All the Way Down

Jan 12, 2019 05:46


Related to: Book Review: The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions

Every good conspiracy theorist needs their own Grand Unified Chart; I’m a particular fan of this one. So far, my own Grand Unified Chart looks like this:

All of these are examples of interpreting the world through a combination of pre-existing ideas what the world should be like (first column), plus actually experiencing the world (last column). In all of them, the world is too confusing and permits too many different interpretations to understand directly. You wouldn’t even know where to start gathering more knowledge. So you take all of your pre-existing ideas (which you’ve gotten from somewhere) and interpret everything as behaving the way your pre-existing ideas tell you they will. Then as you gradually gather discrepancies between what you expected and what you get (middle column), you gradually become more and more confused until your existing categories buckle under the strain and you generate a new and self-consistent set of pre-existing ideas to see the world through, and then the process begins again.

All of these domains share an idea that the interaction between facts and theories is bidirectional. Your facts may eventually determine what theory you have. But your theory also determines what facts you see and notice. Nor do contradictory facts immediately change a theory. The process of theory change is complicated, fiercely resisted by hard-to-describe factors, and based on some sort of idea of global tension that can’t be directly reduced to any specific contradiction.

(I linked the Discourse and Society levels of the chart to this post where I jokingly sum up the process of convincing someone as “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win.” My point is that ideological change – most dramatically religious conversion, but also Republicans becoming Democrats and vice versa – doesn’t look like you “debunking” one of their facts and them admitting you are right. It is less like Popperian falsification and more like a Kuhnian paradigm shift or a Yudkowskian crisis of faith.)

Book Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Jan 10, 2019 41:05


When I hear scientists talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds very reasonable. Scientists have theories that guide their work. Sometimes they run into things their theories can’t explain. Then some genius develops a new theory, and scientists are guided by that one. So the cycle repeats, knowledge gained with every step.

When I hear philosophers talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds like a madman. There is no such thing as ground-level truth! Only theory! No objective sense-data! Only theory! No basis for accepting or rejecting any theory over any other! Only theory! No scientists! Only theories, wearing lab coats and fake beards, hoping nobody will notice the charade!

I decided to read Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions in order to understand this better. Having finished, I have come to a conclusion: yup, I can see why this book causes so much confusion.

At first Kuhn’s thesis appears simple, maybe even obvious. I found myself worrying at times that he was knocking down a straw man, although of course we have to read the history of philosophy backwards and remember that Kuhn may already be in the water supply, so to speak. He argues against a simplistic view of science in which it is merely the gradual accumulation of facts. So Aristotle discovered a few true facts, Galileo added a few more on, then Newton discovered a few more, and now we have very many facts indeed.

In this model, good science cannot disagree with other good science. You’re either wrong – as various pseudoscientists and failed scientists have been throughout history, positing false ideas like “the brain is only there to cool the blood” or “the sun orbits the earth”. Or you’re right, your ideas are enshrined in the Sacristry Of Settled Science, and your facts join the accumulated store that passes through the ages.

Preregistration of Investigations for the 2019 SSC Survey

Jan 6, 2019 07:52


This post is about the 2019 SSC Survey. If you’ve read at least one blog post here before, please take the surveyif you haven’t already. Please don’t read on until you’ve taken it, since this post could bias your results.

1. Can we confirm or disconfirm different corn-eating profiles of algebraists vs. analysts?

2. Can we replicate the study showing that people who eat more beef jerky are more likely to be hospitalized for bipolar mania?

3. Are there differences in side effects among SSRIs? (to be limited to people taking an SSRI one month or more, will be looked at both effect by effect, and with a lumped-together side effect index where each mild effect counts as 1 point and each severe effect as 3 points)

4. Is there a difference in people’s efficacy ratings for SSRIs (SSRI Effectiveness, SSRI Overall) depending on whether the person was taking the SSRI for depression vs. for anxiety?

5. What percent of people coming off SSRIs experience discontinuation symptoms? Are there differences among different agents? (main analysis to be limited to people who were taking an SSRI at least a few months, discontinued with a gradual taper lasting at least a few weeks, and were not cross-tapering onto any other psychiatric medication).

What Happened to 90s Environmentalism?

Jan 3, 2019 54:43


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:

Please Take the 2019 SSC Survey

Jan 1, 2019 05:00


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.

Beware the Man of One Study [Classic]

Dec 29, 2018 20:50


Aquinas famously said: beware the man of one book. I would add: beware the man of one study.

For example, take medical research. Suppose a certain drug is weakly effective against a certain disease. After a few years, a bunch of different research groups have gotten their hands on it and done all sorts of different studies. In the best case scenario the average study will find the true result – that it’s weakly effective.

But there will also be random noise caused by inevitable variation and by some of the experiments being better quality than others. In the end, we might expect something looking kind of like a bell curve. The peak will be at “weakly effective”, but there will be a few studies to either side. Something like this:

We see that the peak of the curve is somewhere to the right of neutral – ie weakly effective – and that there are about 15 studies that find this correct result.

But there are also about 5 studies that find that the drug is very good, and 5 studies missing the sign entirely and finding that the drug is actively bad. There’s even 1 study finding that the drug is very bad, maybe seriously dangerous.

This is before we get into fraud or statistical malpractice. I’m saying this is what’s going to happen just by normal variation in experimental design. As we increase experimental rigor, the bell curve might get squashed horizontally, but there will still be a bell curve.

In practice it’s worse than this, because this is assuming everyone is investigating exactly the same question.

Suppose that the graph is titled “Effectiveness Of This Drug In Treating Bipolar Disorder”.

But maybe the drug is more effective in bipolar i than in bipolar ii (Depakote, for example)

Or maybe the drug is very effective against bipolar mania, but much less effective against bipolar depression (Depakote again).

Or maybe the drug is a good acute antimanic agent, but very poor at maintenance treatment (let’s stick with Depakote).

If you have a graph titled “Effectiveness Of Depakote In Treating Bipolar Disorder” plotting studies from “Very Bad” to “Very Good” – and you stick all the studies – maintenence, manic, depressive, bipolar i, bipolar ii – on the graph, then you’re going to end running the gamut from “very bad” to “very good” even before you factor in noise and even before even before you factor in bias and poor experimental design.

So here’s why you should beware the man of one study.

If you go to your better class of alternative medicine websites, they don’t tell you “Studies are a logocentric phallocentric tool of Western medicine and the Big Pharma conspiracy.”

They tell you “medical science has proved that this drug is terrible, but ignorant doctors are pushing it on you anyway. Look, here’s a study by a reputable institution proving that the drug is not only ineffective, but harmful.”

And the study will exist, and the authors will be prestigious scientists, and it will probably be about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

And then a lot of people raised on the idea that some things have Evidence and other things have No Evidence think holy s**t, they’re right!

On the other hand, your doctor isn’t going to a sketchy alternative medicine website. She’s examining the entire literature and extracting careful and well-informed conclusions from…

Haha, just kidding. She’s going to a luncheon at a really nice restaurant sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, which assures her that they would never take advantage of such an opportunity to shill their drug, they just want to raise awareness of the latest study. And the latest study shows that their drug is great! Super great! And your doctor nods along, because the authors of the study are prestigious scientists, and it’s about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

Refactoring: Culture as Branch of Government

Dec 20, 2018 06:17


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 onlylegislative 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.

Fallacies of Reversed Moderation

Dec 20, 2018 06:46


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.

Trump: A Setback for Trumpism

Dec 14, 2018 14:41


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.

Diametrical Model of Autism and Schizophrenia

Dec 12, 2018 12:22


One interesting thing I took from Evolutionary Psychopathology was a better understanding of the diametrical theory of the social brain.

There’s been a lot of discussion over whether schizophrenia is somehow the “opposite” of autism. Many of the genes that increase risk of autism decrease risk of schizophrenia, and vice versa. Autists have a smaller-than-normal corpus callosum; schizophrenics have a larger-than-normal one. Schizophrenics smoke so often that some researchers believe they have some kind of nicotine deficiency; autists have unusually low smoking rates. Schizophrenics are more susceptible to the rubber hand illusion and have weaker self-other boundaries in general; autists seem less susceptible and have stronger self-other boundaries. Autists can be pathologically rational but tend to be uncreative; schizophrenics can be pathologically creative but tend to be irrational. The list goes on.

I’ve previously been skeptical of this kind of thinking because there are many things that autists and schizophrenics have in common, many autistics who seem a bit schizophrenic, many schizophrenics who seem a bit autistic, and many risk factors shared by both conditions. But Del Giudice, building on work by Badcock and Crespipresents the “diametrical model”: schizophrenia and autism are the failure modes of opposing sides of a spectrum from high functioning schizotypy to high functioning autism, ie from overly mentalistic cognition to overly mechanistic cognition.

Schizotypy is a combination of traits that psychologists have discovered often go together. It’s classified as a personality disorder in the DSM. But don’t get too caught up on that term – it’s a disorder in the same sense as narcissistic or antisocial tendencies, and like those conditions, some schizotypals do very well for themselves. Classic schizotypal traits include tendency toward superstition, disorganized communication, and nonconformity (if it sounds kind of like “schizophrenia lite”, that’s not really a coincidence).

Del Giudice on the Self-Starvation Cycle

Dec 7, 2018 10:26


[Content note: eating disorders]

Anorexia has a cultural component. I’m usually reluctant to assume anything is cultural – every mediocre social scientist’s first instinct is always to come up with a cultural explanation which is simple, seductive, flattering to all our existing prejudices, and wrong. But after seeing enough ballerinas and cheerleaders who became anorexic after pressure to lose weight for the big competition, even I have to throw up my hands and admit anorexia has a cultural component.

But nobody ever tells you the sequel. That ballerina who’s losing weight for the big competition at age 16? At age 26, she’s long since quit ballet, worried it would exacerbate her anorexia. She’s been in therapy for ten years; for eight of them she’s admitted she has a problem, that her anorexia is destroying her life. Her romantic partners – the ones she was trying to get thin to impress – have long since left her because she looks skeletal and weird. She understands this and would do anything to cure her anorexia and be a normal weight again. But she finds she isn’t hungry. She hasn’t eaten in two days and she isn’t hungry. In fact, the thought of food sickens her. She goes to increasingly expert therapists and dieticians, asking them to help her eat more. They recommend all the usual indulgences: ice cream, french fries, cookies. She tries all of them and finds them inexplicably disgusting. Sometimes with a prodigious effort of will she will manage to finish one cookie, and congratulate herself, but the next day she finds the task of eating dessert as daunting as ever. Finally, after many years of hard work, she is scraping the bottom end of normal weight by keeping to a diet so regimented it would make a Prussian general blush.

And nobody ever tells you about all the people who weren’t ballerinas. The young man who stops eating because it gives him a thrill of virtue and superiority to be able to demonstrate such willpower. The young woman who stops eating in order to show her family how much their neglect hurts her. If they pursue their lack of appetite far enough, they end up the same way as the ballerina – admitting they have a problem, admitting they need to eat more, hiring all sorts of doctors and dieticians to find them a way to eat more, but discovering themselves incapable of doing so.

Book Review: Evolutionary Psychopathology

Dec 5, 2018 41:26



Evolutionary psychology is famous for having lots of stories that make sense but are hard to test. Psychiatry is famous for having mountains of experimental data but no idea what’s going on. Maybe if you added them together, they might make one healthy scientific field? Enter Evolutionary Psychopathology: A Unified Approach by psychology professor Marco del Giudice. It starts by presenting the theory of “life history strategies”. Then it uses the theory – along with a toolbox of evolutionary and genetic ideas – to shed new light on psychiatric conditions.

Some organisms have lots of low-effort offspring. Others have a few high-effort offspring. This was the basis of the old r/k selection theory. Although the details of that theory have come under challenge, the basic insight remains. A fish will lay 10,000 eggs, then go off and do something else. 9,990 will get eaten by sharks, but that still leaves enough for there to be plenty of fish in the sea. But an elephant will spend two years pregnant, three years nursing, and ten years doing at least some level of parenting, all to produce a single big, well-socialized, and high-prospect-of-life-success calf. These are two different ways of doing reproduction. In keeping with the usual evolutionary practice, del Giudice calls the fish strategy “fast” and the elephant strategy “slow”.

To oversimplify: fast strategies (think “live fast, die young”) are well-adapted for unpredictable dangerous environments. Each organism has a pretty good chance of randomly dying in some unavoidable way before adulthood; the species survives by sheer numbers. Fast organisms should grow up as quickly as possible in order to maximize the chance of reaching reproductive age before they unpredictably die. They should mate with anybody around, to maximize the chance of mating before they unpredictably die. They should ignore their offspring, since they expect most offspring to unpredictably die, and since they have too many to take care of anyway. They should be willing to take risks, since the downside (death without reproducing) is already their default expectation, and the upside (becoming one of the few individuals to give birth to the 10,000 offspring of the next generation) is high.

Slow strategies are well-adapted for safer environments, or predictable complex environments whose intricacies can be mastered with enough time and effort. Slow strategy animals may take a long time to grow up, since they need to achieve mastery before leaving their parents. They might be very picky maters, since they have all the time in the world to choose, will only have a few children each, and need to make sure each of those children has the best genes possible. They should work hard to raise their offspring, since each individual child represents a substantial part of the prospects of their genetic line. They should avoid risks, since the downside (death without reproducing) would be catastrophically worse than default, and the upside (giving birth to a few offspring of the next generation) is what they should expect anyway.

Book Review: The Mind Illuminated

Nov 30, 2018 38:54



The Mind Illuminated is a guide to Buddhist meditation by Culadasa, aka John Yates, a Buddhist meditation teacher who is also a neuroscience PhD. At this point I would be more impressed to meet a Buddhist meditation teacher who wasn’t a neuroscience PhD. If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. “Come learn advanced meditation techniques with Scott Alexander, whose lack of a neuroscience PhD gives him a unique perspective that combines ancient wisdom with a lack of modern brain science.” I think the world is ready for someone to step into this role. But Culadasa is not that person, and The Mind Illuminated is not that book.

I am trying not to read too many books on spiritual practices until I’m ready to practice some spirituality. I made an exception for TMI because lots of people recommended it to me for its description of how the brain works. This seems like the sort of thing that Buddhist meditation teachers who are also neuroscientists could have insight on, so I decided to check it out.

Tradition divides meditation into two parts: concentration meditation, where you sharpen and control your focus, versus insight meditation, where you investigate the nature of perception and reality. TMI follows a long tradition of focusing on concentration meditation, with the assumption that insight meditation will become safer and easier once you’ve mastered concentration, and maybe partly take care of itself. Its course divides concentration meditation into ten stages. Early stages contain basic tasks like setting up a practice, focusing on the breath, and overcoming distractability. Later stages are more interesting; the ninth stage is learning how to calm the intensity of your meditative joy; apparently without special techniques “overly intense joy” becomes a big problem.

I usually hate meditation manuals, because they sound like word salad. “One attains joy by combining pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is a state of bliss which occurs when one concentrates focus on the understanding of awareness. Happiness is a state of joy that occurs when one focuses concentration on the awareness of understanding. By focusing awareness on bliss, you can increase the pleasure of understanding, which in turn causes concentration to be pleasant and joy to be blissful, and helps you concentrate on understanding your awareness of happiness about the bliss of focus.” At some point you start thinking “Wait, were all the nouns in that paragraph synonyms for each other?”

Is Science Slowing Down?

Nov 27, 2018 22:42


[This post was up a few weeks ago before getting taken down for complicated reasons. They have been sorted out and I’m trying again.]

Is scientific progress slowing down? I recently got a chance to attend a conference on this topic, centered around a paper by Bloom, Jones, Reenen & Webb (2018).

BJRW identify areas where technological progress is easy to measure – for example, the number of transistors on a chip. They measure the rate of progress over the past century or so, and the number of researchers in the field over the same period. For example, here’s the transistor data: 

This is the standard presentation of Moore’s Law – the number of transistors you can fit on a chip doubles about every two years (eg grows by 35% per year). This is usually presented as an amazing example of modern science getting things right, and no wonder – it means you can go from a few thousand transistors per chip in 1971 to many million today, with the corresponding increase in computing power.

But BJRW have a pessimistic take. There are eighteen times more people involved in transistor-related research today than in 1971. So if in 1971 it took 1000 scientists to increase transistor density 35% per year, today it takes 18,000 scientists to do the same task. So apparently the average transistor scientist is eighteen times less productive today than fifty years ago. That should be surprising and scary.

But isn’t it unfair to compare percent increase in transistors with absolute increase in transistor scientists? That is, a graph comparing absolute number of transistors per chip vs. absolute number of transistor scientists would show two similar exponential trends. Or a graph comparing percent change in transistors per year vs. percent change in number of transistor scientists per year would show two similar linear trends. Either way, there would be no problem and productivity would appear constant since 1971. Isn’t that a better way to do things?

A lot of people asked paper author Michael Webb this at the conference, and his answer was no. He thinks that intuitively, each “discovery” should decrease transistor size by a certain amount. For example, if you discover a new material that allows transistors to be 5% smaller along one dimension, then you can fit 5% more transistors on your chip whether there were a hundred there before or a million. Since the relevant factor is discoveries per researcher, and each discovery is represented as a percent change in transistor size, it makes sense to compare percent change in transistor size with absolute number of researchers.

Anyway, most other measurable fields show the same pattern of constant progress in the face of exponentially increasing number of researchers. Here’s BJRW’s data on crop yield:

The solid and dashed lines are two different measures of crop-related research. Even though the crop-related research increases by a factor of 6-24x (depending on how it’s measured), crop yields grow at a relatively constant 1% rate for soybeans, and apparently declining 3%ish percent rate for corn.

BJRW go on to prove the same is true for whatever other scientific fields they care to measure. Measuring scientific progress is inherently difficult, but their finding of constant or log-constant progress in most areas accords with Nintil’s overview of the same topic, which gives us graphs like

…and dozens more like it. And even when we use data that are easy to measure and hard to fake, like number of chemical elements discovered, we get the same linearity:

The Economic Perspective on Moral Standards

Nov 17, 2018 20:41


[Content warning: scrupulosity]


“There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism”.

I hear this from a bunch of people. Sometimes it is taken to its conclusion; no currently living person is morally acceptable. People who aren’t activists reorienting their entire lives around acknowledging and combating the evils of the world aren’t even on the scale. And people who are such activists are (in the words of one of my friends who is close to that community) “only making comfortable sacrifices that let them think of themselves as a good person within their existing comfortable moral paradigm, instead of confronting the raw terrible truth.” IE “If you think you’re one of the good ones, you’re wrong”.

I have heard this sentiment raised by animal rights activists. The average meat-eater isn’t even on the scale. The average vegetarian still eats milk and cheese, and so is barely even trying. Even most vegans probably use some medical product with gelatin, or something tested on lab rats, or are just benefitting from animal suffering in some indirect way.

And I have heard it raised by environmentalists. The average SUV driver isn’t even on the scale. The average conscientious liberal might think they’re better because they bike to work and recycle, but they still barely think about how they’re using electricity generated by coal plants and eating food grown with toxic pesticides. Everyone could be doing more.

And I have heard raised by labor activists. Most of us use stuff made in sweatshops. Even if you avoid sweatshops, you probably use stuff made at less than a living wage. Even if you avoid that, are you doing everything you can to help and support workers who earn less than you do?

Even if you aren’t an animal rights activist, environmentalist, or labor advocate, do you believe in anything? Are you a Christian, a social justice advocate, or rationalist? Do you know anyone who really satisfies you as being sinless, non-racist, and/or rational? Then perhaps you too believe nobody is good.

Preschool: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Nov 15, 2018 37:25



A lot of people pushed back against my post on preschool, so it looks like we need to discuss this in more depth.

A quick refresher: good randomized controlled trials have shown that preschools do not improve test scores in a lasting way. Sometimes test scores go up a little bit, but these effects disappear after a year or two of regular schooling. However, early RCTs of intensive “wrap-around” preschools like the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarians found that graduates of those programs went on to have markedly better adult outcomes, including higher school graduation rates, more college attendance, less crime, and better jobs. But these studies were done in the 60s, before people invented being responsible, and had kind of haphazard randomization and followup. They were also small sample sizes, and from programs that were more intense than any of the scaled-up versions that replaced them. Modern scaled-up preschools like Head Start would love to be able to claim their mantle and boast similar results. But the only good RCT of Head Start, the HSIS study, is still in its first few years. It’s confirmed that Head Start test score gains fade out. But it hasn’t been long enough to study whether there are later effects on life outcomes. We can expect those results in ten years or so. For now, all we have is speculation based on a few quasi-experiments.

Deming 2009 is my favorite of these. He looks at the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a big nationwide survey that gets used for a lot of social science research, and picks out children who went to Head Start. These children are mostly disadvantaged because Head Start is aimed at the poor, so it would be unfair to compare them to the average child. He’s also too smart to just “control for income”, because he knows that’s not good enough. Instead, he finds children who went to Head Start but who have siblings who didn’t, and uses the sibling as a matched control for the Head Starter.

This ensures the controls will come from the same socioeconomic stratum, but he acknowledges it raises problems of its own. Why would a parent send one child to Head Start but not another? It might be that one child is very stupid and so the parents think they need the extra help preschool can provide; if this were true, it would mean Head Starters are systematically dumber than controls, and would underestimate the effect of Head Start. Or it might be that one child is very smart and the so the parents want to give them education so they can develop their full potential; if this were true, it would mean Head Starters are systematically smarter than controls, and would inflate the effect of Head Start. Or it might be that parents love one of their children more and put more effort into supporting them; if this meant these children got other advantages, it would again inflate the effect of Head Start. Or it might mean that parents send the child they love more to a fancy private preschool, and the child they love less gets stuck in Head Start, ie the government program for the disadvantaged. Or it might be that parents start out poor, send their child to Head Start, and then get richer and send their next child to a fancy private preschool, while that child also benefits from their new wealth in other ways. There are a lot of possible problems here.

Ketamine: An Update

Nov 9, 2018 06:13


In 2016, I wrote Ketamine Research In A New Light, which discussed the emerging consensus that, contra existing theory, ketamine’s rapid-acting antidepressant effects had nothing to do with NMDA at all. I discussed some experiments which suggested they might actually be due to a related receptor, AMPA.

The latest development is Attenuation of Antidepressant Effects of Ketamine by Opioid Receptor Antagonism, which finds that the opioid-blocker naltrexone prevents ketamine’s antidepressant effects. Naltrexone does not prevent dissociation or any of the other weird hallucinatory effects of ketamine, which are probably genuinely NMDA-related. This suggests it’s just a coincidence that NMDA antagonism and some secondary antidepressant effect exist in the same drug. If you can prevent an effect from working by blocking the opiate system, a natural assumption is that the effect works on the opiate system, and the authors suggest this is probably true.

(unexpected national news tie-in: Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford is one of the authors of this paper)

In retrospect, there were warnings. The other study to have found an exciting rapid-acting antidepressant effect for an ordinary drug was Ultra-Low-Dose Buprenorphine As A Time-Limited Treatment For Severe Suicidal Ideation. It finds that buprenorphine (the active ingredient in suboxone), an opiate painkiller also used in treating addictions to other opiates, can quickly relieve the distress of acutely suicidal patients.

This didn’t make as big a splash as the ketamine results, for two reasons. First, everyone knows opiates feel good, and so maybe this got interpreted as just a natural extension of that truth (the Scientific American article on the discovery focused on an analogy where “mental pain” was the same as “physical pain” and so could be treated with painkillers). Second, we’re currently fighting a War On Opiates, and discovering new reasons to prescribe them seems kind of like giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

SSRIs: An Update

Nov 9, 2018 11:47


Four years ago I examined the claim that SSRIs are little better than placebo. Since then, some of my thinking on this question has changed.

First, we got Cipriani et al’s meta-analysis of anti-depressants. It avoids some of the pitfalls of Kirsch and comes to about the same conclusion. This knocks down a few of the lines of argument in my part 4 about how the effect size might look more like 0.5 than 0.3. The effect size is probably about 0.3.

Second, I’ve seen enough to realize that the anomalously low effect size of SSRIs in studies should be viewed not as an SSRI-specific phenomenon, but as part of a general trend towards much lower-than-expected effect sizes for every psychiatric medication (every medication full stop?). I wrote about this in my post on melatonin:

The consensus stresses that melatonin is a very weak hypnotic. The Buscemi meta-analysis cites this as their reason for declaring negative results despite a statistically significant effect – the supplement only made people get to sleep about ten minutes faster. “Ten minutes” sounds pretty pathetic, but we need to think of this in context. Even the strongest sleep medications, like Ambien, only show up in studies as getting you to sleep ten or twenty minutes faster; this NYT article says that “viewed as a group, [newer sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata] reduced the average time to go to sleep 12.8 minutes compared with fake pills, and increased total sleep time 11.4 minutes.” I don’t know of any statistically-principled comparison between melatonin and Ambien, but the difference is hardly (pun not intended) day and night. Rather than say “melatonin is crap”, I would argue that all sleeping pills have measurable effects that vastly underperform their subjective effects.

Or take benzodiazepines, a class of anxiety drugs including things like Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin. Everyone knows these are effective (at least at first, before patients develop tolerance or become addicted). The studies find them to have about equal efficacy as SSRIs. You could almost convince me that SSRIs don’t have a detectable effect in the real world; you will never convince me that benzos don’t. Even morphine for pain gets an effect size of 0.4, little better than SSRI’s 0.3 and not enough to meet anyone’s criteria for “clinically significant”. Leucht 2012provides similarly grim statistics for everything else.

I don’t know whether this means that we should conclude “nothing works” or “we need to reconsider how we think about effect sizes”.

Marijuana: An Update

Nov 8, 2018 07:33


[Originally to be titled “Marijuana: I Was Wrong”, but looking back I was suitably careful about everything, and my reward is not having to say that.]

Five years ago, I reviewed the potential costs and benefits of marijuana legalization and concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence for a firm conclusion. I found that using some made-up math, the effects looked slightly positive, but this was very sensitive to small changes in how made-up the math was.

The only really interesting conclusion was that most of the objective costs or benefits of legalization came from road traffic accidents. Either stoned driving would increase such accidents, killing thousands. Or people using marijuana instead of alcohol would decrease those accidents, saving thousands. I concluded:

We should probably stop [emphasizing direct] health effects of marijuana and imprisonment for marijuana-related offenses, and concentrate all of our research and political energy on how marijuana affects driving.

Using the best evidence available at the time, I predicted that marijuana legalization would probably decrease road traffic accidents. Now several states have legalized marijuana, data are in, and we have some preliminary evidence on how marijuana affects driving. And I was wrong.

A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute in June of last year finds that states that legalized marijuana saw insurance claims for auto accidents increase about 3% over the general national trend for the time. An updated study by the same group finds 6% according to insurance claims, and 5.2% according to police reports.

Preschool: I Was Wrong

Nov 7, 2018 09:02


Kelsey Piper has written an article for Vox: Early Childhood Education Yields Big Benefits – Just Not The Ones You Think.

I had previously followed various studies that showed that preschool does not increase academic skill, academic achievement, or IQ, and concluded that it was useless. In fact, this had become a rallying point of movement for evidence-based social interventions; the continuing popular support for preschool proved that people were morons who didn’t care about science. I don’t think I ever said this aloud, but I believed it in my heart.

I talked to Kelsey about some of the research for her article, and independently came to the same conclusion: despite the earlier studies of achievement being accurate, preschools (including the much-maligned Head Start) do seem to help children in subtler ways that only show up years later. Children who have been to preschool seem to stay in school longer, get better jobs, commit less crime, and require less welfare. The thing most of the early studies were looking for – academic ability – is one of the only things it doesn’t affect.

This suggests that preschool is beneficial not because of the curriculum or because of “teaching young brains how to learn” or anything like that, but for purely social reasons. Kelsey reviews some evidence that it might improve child health, but this doesn’t seem to be the biggest part of the effect. Instead, she thinks that it frees low-income parents from childcare duties, lets them get better jobs (or in the case of mothers, sometimes lets them get a job at all), and improves parents’ human capital, with all the relevant follow-on effects. More speculatively, if the home environment is unusually bad, it gives the child a little while outside the home environment, and socializes them into a “normal” way of life. I’ll discuss a slightly more fleshed-out model of this in an upcoming post.

My only caveat in agreeing with this perspective is that Chetty finds the same effect (no academic gains, but large life-outcome gains years later) from children having good rather than bad elementary school teachers. This doesn’t make sense in the context of freeing up parents’ time to get better jobs, or of getting children out of a bad home environment. It might make sense in terms of socializing them, though I would hate to have to sketch out a model of how that works. But since the teacher data and the Head Start data agree, that gives me more reason to think both are right.

I can’t remember ever making a post about how Head Start was useless, but I definitely thought that, and to learn otherwise is a big update for me. I’ve written before about how when you make an update of that scale, it’s important to publicly admit error before going on to justify yourself or say why you should be excused as basically right in principle or whatever, so let me say it: I was wrong about Head Start.

That having been said, on to the self-justifications and excuses

My California Ballot

Nov 5, 2018 26:03


These are my preliminary choices for California elected positions and ballot initiatives. Some of them are based on Ozy’s recommendations and the Berkeley EA and rationalist community’s recommendations. I agree with the latter’s note that because California ballot propositions are weird superlaws that permanently overrule the legislature unless repealed by voters, in general we should be very cautious about them (though some of them were recommended by the legislature itself, since for complicated reasons it needs voter support to do certain things).

I’m giving first-level justifications for my votes (ie “I support this person because she wants higher taxes”) but not always second-level justifications (“here’s why higher taxes are good”). You can usually find discussion of these on other blog posts.

Governor of California is the big one. Democrat Gavin Newsom is a former successful businessman, mayor of San Francisco, and lieutenant governor of California (also second cousin of musician Joanna Newsom). He has stated that if elected, he will let people call him “the Gavinator”. Republican John Cox is a former successful businessman, best known for sponsoring a ballot initiative to make legislators wear the logos of their top 10 donors on the State Assembly floor, “much like NASCAR drivers”. He also has a fascinating plan to reform politics from the ground up with a 12,000 (!) member legislature. I don’t really like Newsom – he led a movement called “Care Not Cash” to restrict giving money to the homeless, and supposedly opposed anti-gay Proposition 8 so incompetently that his statements may have increased support for the measure. He also had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife in a scandal that seemed unusually scummy even for a politician. I like John Cox as a person, but he doesn’t seem to have any relevant governing experience. And he was anti-Trump until Trump became popular among Republicans, then about-faced and decided Trump was his new best friend, and now he’s basically just a Trumpist. I am going with Newsom; God help me, God help California.

Working with Google Trends

Nov 2, 2018 13:19


[Epistemic status: low. You tell me if you think this works.]

Commenter no_bear_so_low has been doing some great work with Google Trends recently – see for example his Internet searches increasingly favour the left over the right wing of politics or Googling habits suggest we are getting a lot more anxious.

I wanted to try some similar things, and in the process I learned that this is hard. Existing sites on how to use Google Trends for research don’t capture some of the things I learned, so I wanted to go over it here.

Suppose I want to measure the level of interest in “psychiatry” over the past few years:

Looks like interest is going down. But what if I search for “psychiatrist” instead?

 Uh oh, now it looks like interest is going up. I guess what I’m really interested in is mental health more generally, what if I put in “suicide”?


Now everything else is invisible, and the data are dominated by a spike in August 2016, which as far as I can tell is related to the release of the movie “Suicide Squad”.

I could try other terms, like “depression” and “anxiety”, but no_bear’s data already tells us those two are moving in opposite directions. Also, depression has a spike in late 2008, which must be related to the stock market crash and people’s expectations of an economic depression. This doesn’t seem like a great way to figure out anything.

I wondered if averaging a bunch of things might take away some of the noise. I chose nine terms that seemed related to psychiatry in some way: psychiatry, psychiatrist, psychotherapy, mental illness, mental health, suicide, depression, antidepressants, and anxiety. Google won’t let you combine that many terms in a single query, but that’s okay – I don’t want to see them relative to one another, I just want to get standardized data on each. There’s a button to download any individual Google Trends query as a spreadsheet:

Sort by Controversial

Nov 1, 2018 28:37


[Epistemic status: fiction]

Thanks for letting me put my story on your blog. Mainstream media is crap and no one would have believed me anyway.

This starts in September 2017. I was working for a small online ad startup. You know the ads on Facebook and Twitter? We tell companies how to get them the most clicks. This startup – I won’t tell you the name – was going to add deep learning, because investors will throw money at anything that uses the words “deep learning”. We train a network to predict how many upvotes something will get on Reddit. Then we ask it how many likes different ads would get. Then we use whatever ad would get the most likes. This guy (who is not me) explains it better. Why Reddit? Because the upvotes and downvotes are simpler than all the different Facebook reacts, plus the subreddits allow demographic targeting, plus there’s an archive of 1.7 billion Reddit comments you can download for training data. We trained a network to predict upvotes of Reddit posts based on their titles.

Any predictive network doubles as a generative network. If you teach a neural net to recognize dogs, you can run it in reverse to get dog pictures. If you train a network to predict Reddit upvotes, you can run it in reverse to generate titles it predicts will be highly upvoted. We tried this and it was pretty funny. I don’t remember the exact wording, but for /r/politics it was something like “Donald Trump is no longer the president. All transgender people are the president.” For r/technology it was about Elon Musk saving Net Neutrality. You can also generate titles that will get maximum downvotes, but this is boring: it will just say things that sound like spam about penis pills.

Nominating Oneself for the Short End of a Tradeoff

Oct 26, 2018 10:34


I’ve gotten a chance to discuss The Whole City Is Center with a few people now. They remain skeptical of the idea that anyone could “deserve” to have bad things happen to them, based on their personality traits or misdeeds.

These people tend to imagine the pro-desert faction as going around, actively hoping that lazy people (or criminals, or whoever) suffer. I don’t know if this passes an Intellectual Turing Test. When I think of people deserving bad things, I think of them having nominated themselves to get the short end of a tradeoff.

Let me give three examples:

1. Imagine an antidepressant that works better than existing antidepressants, one that consistently provides depressed people real relief. If taken as prescribed, there are few side effects and people do well. If ground up, snorted, and taken at ten times the prescribed dose – something nobody could do by accident, something you have to really be trying to get wrong – it acts as a passable heroin substitute, you can get addicted to it, and it will ruin your life.

The antidepressant is popular and gets prescribed a lot, but a black market springs up, and however hard the government works to control it, a lot of it gets diverted to abusers. Many people get addicted to it and their lives are ruined. So the government bans the antidepressant, and everyone has to go back to using SSRIs instead.

Let’s suppose the government is being good utilitarians here: they calculated out the benefit from the drug treating people’s depression, and the cost from the drug being abused, and they correctly determined the costs outweighed the benefits.

But let’s also suppose that nobody abuses the drug by accident. The difference between proper use and abuse is not subtle. Everybody who knows enough to know anything about the drug at all has heard the warnings. Nobody decides to take ten times the recommended dose of antidepressant, crush it, and snort it, through an innocent mistake. And nobody has just never heard the warnings that drugs are bad and can ruin your life.

Cognitive Enhancers: Mechanisms and Tradeoffs

Oct 24, 2018 18:07


[Epistemic status: so, so, so speculative. I do not necessarily endorse taking any of the substances mentioned in this post.]

There’s been recent interest in “smart drugs” said to enhance learning and memory. For example, from the Washington Post:

When aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes. Piracetam is well studied and is credited by its users with boosting their memory, sharpening their focus, heightening their immune system, even bettering their personalities.

Along with piracetam, a few other substances have been credited with these kinds of benefits, including some old friends:

“To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely,” said Jennifer Rusted, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University in Britain when we spoke. “The cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine in a normal population are more robust than you get with any other agent. With Provigil, for instance, the evidence for cognitive benefits is nowhere near as strong as it is for nicotine.”

But why should there be smart drugs? Popular metaphors speak of drugs fitting into receptors like “a key into a lock” to “flip a switch”. But why should there be a locked switch in the brain to shift from THINK WORSE to THINK BETTER? Why not just always stay on the THINK BETTER side? Wouldn’t we expect some kind of tradeoff?

Piracetam and nicotine have something in common: both activate the brain’s acetylcholine system. So do three of the most successful Alzheimers drugs: donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine. What is acetylcholine and why does activating it improve memory and cognition?

The Chamber of Guf

Oct 16, 2018 10:28


[I briefly had a different piece up tonight discussing a conference, but the organizers asked me to hold off on writing about it until they’ve put up their own synopsis. It will be back up eventually; please accept this post instead for now.]

In Jewish legend, the Chamber of Guf is a pit where all the proto-souls hang out whispering and murmuring. Whenever a child is born, an angel reaches into the chamber, scoops up a soul, and brings it into the world.

In the syncretist mindset where every legend has to be a metaphor for the human mind, I map the Chamber of Guf to all the thoughts that exist below the level of consciousness, fighting for attention.

We already know something like this happens for behaviors. From Guyenet’s The Hungry Brain:

How does the lamprey decide what to do? Within the lamprey basal ganglia lies a key structure called the striatum, which is the portion of the basal ganglia that receives most of the incoming signals from other parts of the brain. The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on. It would be a very bad idea for these movements to occur simultaneously – because a lamprey can’t do all of them at the same time – so to prevent simultaneous activation of many different movements, all these regions are held in check by powerful inhibitory connections from the basal ganglia. This means that the basal ganglia keep all behaviors in “off” mode by default. Only once a specific action’s bid has been selected do the basal ganglia turn off this inhibitory control, allowing the behavior to occur. You can think of the basal ganglia as a bouncer that chooses which behavior gets access to the muscles and turns away the rest. This fulfills the first key property of a selector: it must be able to pick one option and allow it access to the muscles.

So in the process of deciding what behavior to do, the (lamprey) brain subconsciously considers many different plausible behaviors, all of which compete to be enacted. I don’t know how this extends to humans, but it would make sense that maybe only the top few candidate behaviors even make it to consciousness, with the rest getting rejected without conscious consideration.

Anxiety Sampler Kits

Oct 13, 2018 06:25


The best thing about personalized medicine is that it’s obviously right. The worst thing is we mostly have no idea how to do it. We know that different people respond to different treatments. But outside a few special cases like cancer, we don’t know how to predict which treatment will work for which person. Some psychiatric researchers claim they can do this at a high level; I think they’re wrong. For most treatments and most conditions, there’s no way to figure out whether a given sometimes-effective treatment will work on a given individual besides trying it and seeing.

This suggests that some chronic conditions might do best with a model centered around a controlled process of guess-and-check. When it’s safe and possible, we should be maximizing throughput – finding out how to test as many medications as we can in the short time before we exhaust our patients’ patience, and how to best assess the effects of each. The process of treating each individual should mirror the process of medicine in general, balancing the need to run controlled trials and gather more evidence with the need to move quickly.

I don’t know how seriously to take this idea, but I would like to try it.

Kavanaugh: A Probability Poll

Oct 9, 2018 10:28


There’s some literature suggesting that people are more careful when they think in probabilities. If you ask them for a definite answer, they might give it and sound very confident, but if you encourage them to think probabilistically they might admit there’s more uncertainty.

I wanted to look into this in the context of the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so I asked readers to estimate their probability that Judge Kavanaugh was guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Ford. I got 2,350 responses (thank you, you are great). Here was the overall distribution of probabilities. Horizontal axis is percent chance he did it; vertical axis is number of people who responded with that percent:

This looks weird because people were most likely to give numbers rounded off the the nearest ten.

I separated responses into bins from 0 – 9%, 10 – 19%, and so on to 90 – 100%. Keep in mind that the last bin is slightly larger than the others, so it might make it unfairly look like more people gave extreme high answers than extreme low answers. I also switched the vertical axis to percent of responses in each bin. Smoothed out, it looks like this:

This looks pretty balanced, and it is: the average probability is 52.64%. This is probably a fake balance based on all the different demographic skews involved cancelling out: 2.5x as many Democrats as Republicans answered the survey, but 9x as many men as women did.

Nighttime Ventilation Survey Results

Oct 6, 2018 06:04


Thanks to the 129 people who tried altering their nighttime carbon dioxide levels after my post on this, and who reported back to me. There was no difference between people who pre-registered for the study and people who didn’t, on any variable, so I ignored pre-registration.

126 people reported one intervention they performed. The most common was sleeping with a window open: 

People generally reported slight but positive changes: 

When asked to rate the magnitude of improvement to well-being on a 0 to 5 scale, they averaged 1.4: 

I mentioned in the post that succulents could help in theory, but you needed to get the right kind of succulents and you needed at least ten of them. I was skeptical that anyone really got ten succulents in their room, so I wondered whether that might work as a crypto-placebo group.

If so, the intervention failed to separate from placebo. Succulent users had an average improvement of 1.29, compared to about 1.50 for people who did other things. The difference wasn’t significant, although admittedly the sample size was low.

Looking at the various groups, the most striking difference was actually people who left a window open (1.57) vs. people who did one of the other named options (1.31). A few people who left windows open mentioned this made their room cooler, which seemed to help with sleep. But this is very post hoc, and this difference wasn’t significant either.

Next Door in Nodrumia

Oct 5, 2018 19:05


[Content note: attempt to consider real people’s real problems using angel-on-pinhead impractical reasoning and ideas]


Imagine the state of nature, except for some reason there are cities. Some people in these cities play the drums all night and keep everyone else awake. The sleep-deprived people get together and agree this is unacceptable. They embark on a long journey to the wilderness where they found their own community of Nodrumia.

They form a company, the Nodrumia Corporation, which owns all the property in the area. The corporation distributes usage rights via a legal instrument that looks suspiciously like private property: people who own usage rights keep them forever, can do whatever they want with the land, and can freely transfer and sell them to others. The only difference is that the usage rights have a big asterisk on them saying “contract is null and void if you break the rules of the Nodrumia Corporation”. These rules are set by a board chosen democratically by the inhabitants, and are all things like “You can’t play drums at night”, and “You can’t sell property to people who will play the drums at night”, and “Anyone who plays the drums at night shall be exiled”.

One day a Nodrumian wants to move out, so he puts his house up for sale. The highest bidder is a drummer who wants to use the property as a studio so he can play the drums at night. The Corporation steps in and bans the sale. The property owner protests, saying that he is being oppressed.

According to libertarian philosophy, who is in the right?

The argument against the drummer: the land is basically the private property of the Nodrumia Corporation, and libertarians believe that private landowners should be able to determine what happens on their property. And more fundamentally, the people there have a strong preference against living near drummers, and that preference seems fundamentally satisfiable if their property rights are respected, and it seems stupid to legislate a world where people are forever forbidden from satisfying a fundamentally satisfiable preference and have to be unhappy all the time.

Highlights from the Comments on NIMBYs

Oct 4, 2018 22:33


Quixote writes:

It’s odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias.

But just a few comments down, Lasagna says:

I despise (I’m choosing that word carefully) [New York City]. I still commute there every day, and I can’t stand it – the broken infrastructure, the horrible smells, the $14 for a yogurt and coffee in the morning, the massive crowds of unpleasant people (how could we NOT be? We’re walking through an open sewer). There’s a litany of other things that keep me permanently angry and depressed (just the thought of how much earlier I would have started a family if I didn’t live there….) I find it decadent, selfish, shallow – pick your bad adjective. I’ll stop now.

Where I live now is nice. We have a town we can walk to, a lawn for the kids to play on and me to mow, we cook at home, we have enough room for our family to live and the kids to get exercise, even indoors. There’s no WAY I’m giving that up so I can live in an apartment again, all so NYC can squeeze MORE people into its area.

If I had my way, we’d be much further away from the metro area than we are now, in a bigger, cheaper home with more land. But that isn’t possible; NYC is where my job is, and that’s that. Fine. But let’s not make things worse, and make NYC (and San Francisco, and DC, and Boston) even MORE indispensable generators of jobs. And please don’t think for a second that there aren’t sizable numbers of people like me, and like you, who do not want these things for our families […] Thanks for letting me rant. You should have seen the first draft of this thing. Twice as long, Scott. A litany of woes and anger.

This would be fascinating if it weren’t so predictable. One person describes NYC as “basically utopia”, and another person can’t stop ranting about how much he hates it and is glad to have escaped it.

In the same vein, from Cerastes:

“I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, …”


The concept of living somewhere that isn’t green is literally nauseating to me, and the idea of a place that isn’t teeming with wild animals feels like suffocating. My house is in as wild a place as possible given my commute, budget, and region, and almost every room has a fully planted vivarium with an animal (as well as my office).

The amount of urbanist triumphalist crap drives me up the wall, as if these people cannot see why someone would not want to live in conditions far inferior to even low-quality zoos, or why someone might need to balance a job in a city with such desires.

Being 100% honest, I actually feel like there’s something genuinely wrong with people who don’t feel the need to spend time in nature, especially if they also lack pets. They’re like sterile androids in some sort of weird dystopia, utterly cut off from life.

Steelmanning the NIMBYs

Oct 3, 2018 34:33


[Epistemic status: very unsure. I sympathize with many YIMBY ideas and might support them on net; this post is me exaggerating the NIMBY parts of my brain to a degree I’m not sure I honestly support. This focuses on San Francisco to make it easier, but other cities exist too. Thanks to Nintil for some of the bright-line argument in part four. Conflict of interest notice: I live in a lower-density part of Oakland]

Everyone I know is a YIMBY – ie “Yes In My Back Yard” – ie somebody who wants cities (usually San Francisco dominates the discussion) to build more and denser housing. This is a reasonable position, and is held by apparently-reasonable people – centrists, rationalists, economists, self-proclaimed neoliberals. Since everyone involved holds reason and civility as an important value, I would expect the discourse around housing to be unusually reasonable and civil.

I have a weird habit of encountering the best parts of some movements and the worst parts of other movements, in a way that doesn’t match other people’s experiences. And certainly I know many YIMBYs who are amazing people who I love. But as for the movement as a whole, I feel like apparently-reasonable people have dropped the ball on this one. Sorry for having to say this, but YIMBYism is one of the most tribal, most emotional, most closed-minded movements I have ever seen this side of a college campus. So much so that even though I agree with much of what it says, I cannot resist writing a 5,000 word steelman of their enemies just to piss them off.

So here are some YIMBY claims and why I cannot be entirely on board with them.

Adversarial Collaboration Contest Results

Sep 29, 2018 46:15


Grand Prize ($1000): Does The Education System Adequately Serve Advanced Students?

Editor’s Choice ($500): Should Transgender Children Transition?

Honorable Mentions ($250): Should Childhood Vaccination Be Mandatory?Are Islam And Liberal Democracy Compatible?

I’m sorry for jerking the number and value of the prizes around so many times, but I wanted to balance my preferences, the contestants’ preferences, and readers’ preferences – and this was the best way I could think of to do it. Nobody has gotten less money than they expected, although some prize categories have gotten more money than I originally said. In the end I could not in good conscience let any of these escape without getting a prize. Thanks to this blog’s Patreon supporters for making this possible. All winners should email me with their preferred form of payment (I can do Paypal, Bitcoin, or donations to a charity of their choice).

The overwhelming winner of the popular vote was the collaboration on education. I agree this one was excellent. It cited a lot of research, analyzed it very well, and mostly came to conclusions. Its only flaw from my perspective was a lack of focus; it discussed many different educational interventions, some of which were similar enough that it was hard for me to keep track of what was going on.

I chose the collaboration on transgender children. I thought it did an exceptional job of addressing a specific hot-button issue many people are concerned about, presenting all the evidence on both sides, and mostly coming to conclusions. My strongest complaint was that it ignored some of the potential side effects of puberty blockers which commenters pointed out, and sort of trivialized bone problems that are not trivial; given that the side effects of puberty blockers was a major crux of this question, I found that to be a major weakness. I was still very impressed with the piece’s ability to break down and navigate such a controversial question.

The Tails Coming Apart as Metaphor for Life

Sep 29, 2018 18:28


A neglected gem from Less Wrong: Why The Tails Come Apart, by commenter Thrasymachus. It explains why even when two variables are strongly correlated, the most extreme value of one will rarely be the most extreme value of the other. Take these graphs of grip strength vs. arm strength and reading score vs. writing score:



In a pinch, the second graph can also serve as a rough map of Afghanistan


Grip strength is strongly correlated with arm strength. But the person with the strongest arm doesn’t have the strongest grip. He’s up there, but a couple of people clearly beat him. Reading and writing scores are even less correlated, and some of the people with the best reading scores aren’t even close to being best at writing.

Thrasymachus gives an intuitive geometric explanation of why this should be; I can’t beat it, so I’ll just copy it outright:



I thought about this last week when I read this article on happiness research.

The summary: if you ask people to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0 and the best possible life as a 10”, you will find that Scandinavian countries are the happiest in the world.

But if you ask people “how much positive emotion do you experience?”, you will find that Latin American countries are the happiest in the world.

If you check where people are the least depressed, you will find Australia starts looking very good.

And if you ask “how meaningful would you rate your life?” you find that African countries are the happiest in the world.

It’s tempting to completely dismiss “happiness” as a concept at all, but that’s not right either. Who’s happier: a millionaire with a loving family who lives in a beautiful mansion in the forest and spends all his time hiking and surfing and playing with his kids? Or a prisoner in a maximum security jail with chronic pain? If we can all agree on the millionaire – and who wouldn’t? – happiness has to at least sort of be a real concept.

The solution is to understand words as hidden inferences – they refer to a multidimensional correlation rather than to a single cohesive property. So for example, we have the word “strength”, which combines grip strength and arm strength (and many other things). These variables really are heavily correlated (see the graph above), so it’s almost always worthwhile to just refer to people as being strong or weak. I can say “Mike Tyson is stronger than an 80 year old woman”, and this is better than having to say “Mike Tyson has higher grip strength, arm strength, leg strength, torso strength, and ten other different kinds of strength than an 80 year old woman.” This is necessary to communicate anything at all and given how nicely all forms of strength correlate there’s no reason not to do it.

Treating the Prodrome

Sep 23, 2018 20:05


A prodrome is an early stage of a condition that might have different symptoms than the full-blown version. In psychiatry, the prodrome of schizophrenia is the few-months-to-few-years period when a person is just starting to develop schizophrenia and is acting a little bit strange while still having some insight into their condition.

There’s a big push to treat schizophrenia prodrome as a critical period for intervention. Multiple studies have suggested that even though schizophrenia itself is a permanent condition which can be controlled but never cured, treating the prodrome aggressively enough can prevent full schizophrenia from ever developing at all. Advocates of this view compare it to detecting early-stage cancers, or getting prompt treatment for a developing stroke, or any of the million other examples from medicine of how you can get much better results by catching a disease very early before it has time to do damage.

These models conceptualize psychosis as “toxic” – not just unpleasant in and of itself, but damaging the brain while it’s happening. They focus on a statistic called Duration of Untreated Psychosis. The longer the DUP, the more chance psychosis has had to damage the patient before the fire gets put out and further damage is prevented. Under this model it’s vitally important to put people who seem to be getting a little bit schizophrenic on medications as soon as possible.

There has been a lot of work on this theory, but not a lot of light has been shed. Observational studies testing whether duration of untreated psychosis correlates with poor outcome mostly find it does a little bit, but there’s a lot of potential confounding – maybe lower-class uneducated people take longer to see a psychiatrist, or maybe people who are especially psychotic are especially bad at recognizing they are psychotic. The relevant studies try their hardest to control for these factors, but remember that this is harder than you think. The randomized controlled trials of what happens if you intervene earlier in psychosis tend to do very badly and rarely show any benefit, but randomly intervening earlier in psychosis is hard, especially if you also need an ethics board’s permission to keep a control group of other people who you are not going to intervene early on. Overall I could go either way on this.

Book Review: The Black Swan

Sep 21, 2018 39:01



Writing a review of The Black Swan is a nerve-wracking experience.

First, because it forces me to reveal I am about ten years behind the times in my reading habits.

But second, because its author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is infamous for angry Twitter rants against people who misunderstand his work. Much better men than I have read and reviewed Black Swan, messed it up, and ended up the victim of Taleb’s acerbic tongue.

One might ask: what’s the worst that could happen? A famous intellectual yells at me on Twitter for a few minutes? Isn’t that normal these days? Sure, occasionally Taleb will go further and write an entire enraged Medium article about some particularly egregious flub, but only occasionally. And even that isn’t so bad, is it?

But such an argument betrays the following underlying view:

 It assumes that events can always be mapped onto a bell curve, with a peak at the average and dropping off quickly as one moves towards extremes. Most reviews of Black Swan will get an angry Twitter rant. A few will get only a snarky Facebook post or an entire enraged Medium article. By the time we get to real extremes in either directions – a mere passive-aggressive Reddit comment, or a dramatic violent assault – the probabilities are so low that they can safely be ignored.

Some distributions really do follow a bell curve. The classic example is height. The average person is about 5’7. The likelihood of anyone being a different height drops off dramatically with distance from the mean. Only about one in a million people should be taller than 7 feet; only one in a billion should be as tall as 7’5. Nobody is order-of-magnitude differences in height from anyone else. Taleb calls the world of bell curves and minor differences Mediocristan. If Taleb’s reaction to bad reviews dwells alongside height in Mediocristan, I am safe; nothing an order-of-magnitude difference from an angry Twitter rant is likely to happen in entire lifetimes of misinterpreting his work.

But other distributions are nothing like a bell curve. Taleb cites power-law distributions as an example, and calls their world Extremistan. Wealth inequality lives in Extremistan. If wealth followed a bell curve around the median household income of $57,000, and a standard deviation scaled the same way as height, then a rich person earning $70,000 would be as remarkable as a tall person hitting 7 feet. Someone who earned $76,000 would be the same kind of prodigy of nature as the 7’6 Yao Ming. Instead, people earning $70,000 are dirt-common, some people earn millions, and the occasional tycoon can make hundreds of millions of dollars per year. In Mediocristan, the extremes don’t matter; in Extremistan, sometimes only the extremes matter. If you have a room full of 99 average-height people plus Yao Ming, Yao only has 1.3% of the total height in the room. If you have a room full of 99 average-income people plus Jeff Bezos, Bezos has 99.99% of the total wealth.

The Omnigenic Model as a Metaphor for Life

Sep 15, 2018 13:47


The collective intellect is change-blind. Knowledge gained seems so natural that we forget what it was like not to have it. Piaget says children gain long-term memory at age 4 and don’t learn abstract thought until ten; do you remember what it was like not to have abstract thought? We underestimate our intellectual progress because every every sliver of knowledge acquired gets backpropagated unboundedly into the past.

For decades, people talked about “the gene for height”, “the gene for intelligence”, etc. Was the gene for intelligence on chromosome 6? Was it on the X chromosome? What happens if your baby doesn’t have the gene for intelligence? Can they still succeed?

Meanwhile, the responsible experts were saying traits might be determined by a two-digit number of genes. Human Genome Project leader Francis Collins estimated that there were “about twelve genes” for diabetes, and “all of them will be discovered in the next two years”. Quanta Magazine reminds us of a 1999 study which claimed that “perhaps more than fifteen genes” might contribute to autism. By the early 2000s, the American Psychological Association was a little more cautious, was saying intelligence might be linked to “dozens – if not hundreds” of genes.

In the Balance

Sep 13, 2018 12:06


When you first take the Artifact, you will see a vision of ALPHANION, Demon-Sultan of the Domain of Order, who appears as a grid of spheres connected by luminous lines. Alphanion will urge you to use the Artifact to enforce cosmic order, law at its most fundamental. He will show you visions of all the most brutal and sadistic crimes of history, of all the wars caused by nations that could not live together in harmony, and he will tell you they are all preventable. He will show you dreams of perfectly clean cities with wide open streets, where everyone earns exactly the optimal amount of money and public transportation is accurate to the second. He will tell you it is all attainable.

But if you hesitate even an instant to take Alphanion’s offer, you will see a vision of CTHGHFZXAY, Demon-Shah of the Domain of Chaos, who appears as a shifting multicolored cloud. Cthghfzxay will urge you to use the Artifact to promote cosmic chaos, the ultimate principle of freedom. She will condemn the works of Order as a lie, a dystopia bought at the cost of true human liberty. She will show you visions of primaeval forests, where no two flowers are alike, where each glade holds a new mystery, where people run wild in search of new adventure. She will tell you it can all be yours.

As you weigh these two offers, you will see a vision of ZAMABAMAZ, Demon-Pharaoh of the Domain of Balance, who appears as a man and woman conjoined. They will tell you that neither Order nor Chaos is at the root of human flourishing, but an ability to strike the right balance between the two. That a virtuous life is one spent in moderation between total wild liberty and a stifling concept of rote rule-following. That Alphanion and Cthfhfzxay are the two poles of the universe, and that righteousness exists in the space created by their interaction. They will ask you to devote the Artifact and its power to the Domain of Balance, so all people can better manage the interaction of Order and Chaos in their own lives.

This will seem reasonable to you, but then there will appear a vision of IYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, Demon-Raja of the Domain of Excess, who appears as a blinding violet light. It will tell you that both Order and Chaos present coherent visions of the world, but that for the love of God, choose one or the other instead of being a wishy-washy milquetoast who refuses to commit to anything. It will tell you that blinding white and pitch black are both purer and more compelling than endless pointless grey. It will ask you to give the Artifact to somebody – anybody – other than Zamabamaz.

Time to Vote!

Sep 10, 2018 03:11


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, ask random questions, whatever. 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 Stefferi on the circumstances leading to the rise of Hitler. See also idontknow: “The strongest defense against extreme right wingers is a moderate right wing party that is vigorous.”

2. Please vote for your favorite adversarial collaboration from the last week. The entries were:

a. Does The Education System Adequately Serve Advanced Students?
b. Are Islam And Liberal Democracy Compatible?
c. Should Childhood Vaccination Be Mandatory?
d. Should Transgender Children Transition?

After some discussion with the contestants, the winner of the popular vote will get a $500 prize, and the winner of my vote will get a second $500 prize; these may or may not be the same entry. After you’ve read all the entries, you can vote here.

[ACC Entry] Should Transgender Children Transition?

Sep 9, 2018 47:55


[This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by flame7926 and a_reader.]

[Content note: suicide, depression, transphobia, self-harm]

Transgender childhood transition is a hotly debated topic, with extensive media coverage devoted to it in recent years. (pro: BBC, The Lancet and The New York Times ; contra: The Cut, New Statesman and The Globe and Mail).We see plenty of stories of transgender children (or gender dysphoric children and gender nonconforming children), both in the media and in the blogosphere. As early as 2 or 3, defying the expectations of their family, those children show a persistent and insistent preference for many things associated with the other sex: little boys want long hair and love dresses, Barbie dolls, Disney princesses and mermaids; little girls, instead, dislike stereotypically feminine activities and prefer rough and tumble play, refuse to wear dresses and insist to have their hair shorter and shorter.

Sometimes, from the very beginning, the toddler corrects the parents: “I’m a boy /girl!”, but more frequently cross-gender behavior is more prevalent. This is only sometimes followed with the child expressing preferences that would be termed gender dysphoria. The child (born and currently living as a as one sex) says to their parents something like “God made a mistake” or “something went wrong in Mommy’s tummy” because he should have been a girl, not a boy (or the other way around). The worried parents search information on the internet and seek out the advice of an expert. There, they usually find one or both of these contradicting opinions:

Gender-affirming approach

Listen to your child – he/she knows best his/her gender. Let your child be his/her true self. It’s your responsibility as a parent to support your child in all stages of his/her transition: social transition now, puberty blockers at the beginning of puberty, cross-sex hormones in adolescence, surgery at 18. To oppose it is child abuse. Transphobia costs lives: 41% of transgenders attempt suicide. Do you prefer a happy daughter or a dead son?


Therapeutic approach

Your child is just confused. He/she is too young to understand gender and to take such important decision. 80% of gender nonconforming children desist. You, as a parent, have the responsibility to correct his/her wrong behavior. If you tolerate it, gender dysphoria will be reinforced by repetition and persist to adulthood. To encourage your child’s delusion is child abuse. Transgenders individuals face lifelong struggle and often suffer from poor mental health: 41% of transgenders attempt suicide. Do you really want that for your son, when he could instead come to accept the body he was born with?

The first approach is promoted by transgender activists, the second by the conservative media, but both are supported by some experts. The “Gender-affirming approach” is supported by the Dutch team from the Gender Clinic at VU Medical Centre, Amsterdam, who elaborated the typical transition treatment for minors, with puberty blockers at 12 and cross-sex hormones at 16, and, in the US, by Kristina Olson and others from the TransYouth Project. The “Therapeutic approach” is supported by Kenneth Zucker and his team from the Gender Identity Service at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, and, in the US, by Paul McHugh at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. There are also experts such as Debra Soh, once a gender nonconforming girl herself, that advise parents to wait and see until adolescence, because in many cases gender dysphoria desists spontaneously, without intervention.

Who to believe when the experts disagree? Let’s see the evidence.

[ACC Entry] Should Childhood Vaccination Be Mandatory?

Sep 8, 2018 48:02


This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Mark Davis and Mark Webb, who sent the following introduction along with their entry:

Mark Davis is a naturopathic doctor. Naturopathic medicine is a century-old profession in the United States, but it’s small, with fewer than 10,000 NDs licensed to practice naturopathic medicine in the US in 2018. The profession has been historically highly skeptical of vaccination in general, and the modern profession is contentiously split on the topic, with vocal advocates of CDC-scheduled routine childhood vaccination and vocal dissidents both offering continuing medical education for NDs. Mark Davis’ main goal in this adversarial collaboration was to argue that there is enough reasonable doubt that routine childhood vaccines could contribute to hyper-inflammatory disease, and enough reduced harm from vaccine-preventable diseases from other medical and public health interventions (in countries with greater economic resources) that parents should be given wide latitude to make individual choices re: routine childhood vaccines despite the clear benefits to individual and public health from preventing those diseases. He became more convinced in his conversations with Mark Webb that widespread childhood vaccination is in the best interest of public health.

Mark Webb is a clinical researcher – with a current focus in oncology. He completed a PhD in immunology, specifically focused on the mechanisms driving the development of asthma. Mark Webb’s main goal in this collaboration was to argue that atopy and autoimmunity are likely not driven by vaccination, and that this idea is a distraction from finding the real causes of the increase in these diseases. Throughout the collaboration, he was reminded of the nature of safety surveillance with all drugs, and of the sensitive nature of vaccination as a medical intervention. He became persuaded that policy should not just reflect the best evidence currently available, but should also reflect a certain degree of humility that there will always be something we don’t know.


[ACC Entry] Are Islam and Liberal Democracy Compatible?

Sep 7, 2018 01:53:01


[This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by John Buridan and Christian Flanery.]

Matter: To what extent does liberalism and democracy obtain in Islamic countries. Whether Islam consistently poses political opposition to liberalism and democracy.

Two simple narratives have split the western world’s perspective on Islam.

These two narratives do not exhaust the spectrum of opinion, but they do function well enough to establish the basic controversy around Islamic countries and Liberal Democracy.

The first narrative opines that Islam is an ideology inimical to “western values,” such as classical liberalism and liberal egalitarianism, and a rival to the Judeo-Christian social mores. It constitutes an ideological rival, inherently aggressive, both unable and unwilling to sustain non-partisan legal systems, democratic norms, fair treatment for opposition parties, protection of dissidents, or the basic rights and freedoms which Western European and Anglophone countries enjoy. And that Islam sustains this undesirable state of affairs.

The second is that Islam is not qualitatively different from any other religion. Islam has contributed to civilization in a significant way, and ordinary Muslims share our own values of family, peace, and justice. In contrast to the first narrative which stresses Islam as an ideology, the second narrative emphasizes that Muslims are normal people.There is no problem with Islam eo ipso; the perceived “problems” of Islam are actually some combination of the fairly normal problems of traditional societies, poor socio-economic conditions, and legacy problems from colonialism.

In order to avoid a point-scoring debate between these two narratives, our approach is to provide a descriptive examination of the performance of liberal democracy within Islamic environments. We take as granted for this paper that one cannot look at a religion on paper and predict what it will look like in a polity. Religious practice and theological doctrine inform every aspect of the pious person’s outlook and life, but the way in which it informs that outlook is not deterministic and cannot be gleaned merely by looking at the source texts, nor by the impossible task of a quantitative comparison of which religion has produced more violence across regions and millenia. Although we believe original texts are not deterministic, that does not mean Islam is totally amorphous. Religious culture is a powerful force within society. It unifies people, allows them to feel part of something bigger and better, it provides solace in their troubles, and can mobilize political action. How that mobilization of power occurs remains largely up to the needs of the moment, but it’s that mobilization of power which we are interested in.

[ACC Entry] Does the Education System Adequately Serve Advanced Students?

Sep 6, 2018 01:02:22


[This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by TracingWoodgrains and Michael Pershan (a k-12 math teacher), on advanced students in the education system]

“What do America’s brightest students hear? Every year, across the nation, students who should be moved ahead at their natural pace of learning are told to stay put. Thousands of students are told to lower their expectations, and put their dreams on hold. Whatever they want to do, their teachers say, it can wait.” – A Nation Deceived, p.3

“There is an apparent preference among donors for studying the needs and supporting the welfare of the weak, the vicious, and the incompetent, and a negative disregard of the highly intelligent, leaving them to “shift for themselves.” Hollingworth, 1926

1. Eager to Learn and Underachieving

Pretend you’re a teacher. With 25 students, who gets your attention during class?

There’s the kid who ask for it, whose hand is constantly up. There’s also the quiet kid in the corner who never says a word, but has been lost in math since October, who will fail if you don’t do something. There’s the student in the middle of the pack, flowing along. Finally, there’s the kid who finishes everything quickly. She’s looking around and wondering, what am I supposed to do now?

In a survey of teachers from 2008, just 23% reported that advanced students were a top priority for them, while 63% reported giving struggling students in their classes the most attention. A 2005 study found the same trend in middle schools, where struggling students receive the bulk of instructional modification and special arrangements. This was true even while 73% agreed that advanced students were too often bored and under-challenged in school. While teachers, it seems, are sympathetic to the smart bored kid, that’s just not a priority for them.

This Week: Adversarial Collaboration Entries

Sep 4, 2018 02:58


This week I’ll be presenting entries from the adversarial collaboration contest.

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

A few months ago, I asked readers to write adversarial collaborations and submit them to me. After the inevitable flakeouts and disappearances, I got four entries:

1. Does the current US education system adequately serve advanced students? (by Michael Pershan and TracingWoodgrains)

2. Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? (by John Buridan and Christian Flanery)

3. Should childhood vaccination be mandatory? (by Mark Davis and Mark Webb)

4. Should children who identify as transgender start transitioning? (by a_reader and flame7926)

I’m going to post one of these per day. Over the weekend, I’ll post a link to a poll where readers can vote for their favorite. I’m also going to vote for my favorite, and my vote will be worth 5% of the total number of reader votes. Whoever gets the most votes wins. The prize is $1000; thanks to everyone who donates to the Patreon for making this possible.

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

Bureaucracy as Active Ingredient

Aug 31, 2018 04:29


Commenters on yesterday’s post brought up an important point: sometimes bureaucracies aren’t just inefficient information gathering and processing mechanisms. Sometimes they’re the active ingredient in a plan.

Imagine there’s a new $10,000 medication. Insurance companies are legally required to give it to people who really need it and would die without it. But they don’t want somebody who’s only a little bit sick demanding it as a “lifestyle” drug. In principle doctors are supposed to help with this, but doctors have no incentive to ever say no to their patients. If the insurance just sends the doctor a form asking “does this patient really need this medication?”, the doctor will always just check “yes” and send it back. Even if the form says in big red letters PLEASE ONLY SAY YES IF THERE IS AN IMPORTANT MEDICAL NEED, the doctor will still check “yes” more often than a rational central planner allocating scarce resources would like. And insurance companies are sometimes paranoid about refusing to do things doctors say are important, because sometimes the doctor was right and then they can get sued.

But imagine it takes the doctor an hour of painful phone calls to even get the right person from the insurance company on the line. Now there’s a cost involved. If your patient is going to die without the medication, you’ll probably groan and start making the phone calls. But if your patient doesn’t really need it, and you just wanted to approve it in order to be nice, now you might start having a heartfelt talk with your patient about the importance of trying less expensive medications before jumping right to the $10,000 one.

Bulls**t Jobs (Part 1 of ∞)

Aug 31, 2018 05:33


A surprisingly common part of my life: a patient asks me for a doctor’s note for back pain or something. Usually it’s a situation like their work chair hurts their back, and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain, and they have no doctor except me, and their insurance wants them to embark on a three month odyssey of phone calls and waiting lists for them to get one.

In favor of writing the note: It would take me all of five seconds. I completely believe my patients when they say their insurance is demanding the three month odyssey. Or sometimes they don’t have insurance and it would be a major financial burden for them to consult another doctor. Also, I’ve seen these other doctors and they have no objective test for back pain. 90% of the time they just have the patient stand in front of them, make whatever movement it is that hurts their back, ask the patient if it hurt their back, and when the patient says yes, the doctor says “That’s back pain all right, take some aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever”.

Against writing the note: I am a psychiatrist. I usually treat patients via telemedicine, which means that in many cases I have literally never seen their back. All I remember about back pain from medical school is that some people call it “lumbago”, a word that stuck in my head because it sounds like a cryptid or small African nation. I know even less about the ergonomics of chairs, or when people do vs. don’t require better ones. Any note I write about back pain and chair recommendations is going to be a total sham, bordering on medical fraud. I could demand my patient take time off work to come in for an examination, sometimes from several hours away, just so I can do the thing where they bend their back in front of me and tell me it hurts. But that’s kind of just passing the shamminess a little bit down the line in a way that seriously inconveniences them.

Elegy for John McCain

Aug 29, 2018 02:51


Say a prayer for John McCain
Who passes from his earthly pain
His eyes are shut upon his brow
He warmongers to angels now

Beyond the sky, where sorrows cease
He rails against the Prince of Peace.
The Holy Spirit, full of love
McCain denounces as “a dove”

All of the weak and the cowardly policies
Heaven pursues that let sin subsist still
Six thousand years of detente with the darkness
In hippie cliches about “choice” and “free will”
All the fifth-columnists, communists, peaceniks
Since ur-commie Lucifer fell from the dawn
John McCain pounds them, he trounces, denounces them
Hounds them and counsels them: cease and begone

All of the saints and the hosts of the angels
Run to their weapons of lightning and flame
Their swords made of sunbeams and sighs of the martyrs,
Their gossamer banners of God’s awesome Name,
Their heavenly helmets and holy habergeons,
Whose breastplates are bright with the light of the dawn;
The Archangel Michael in malachite armor
Blows blasts on his trumpet and beckons them on

Reader, should your weather be
Meteors falling lazily
Or if your neighborhood should seem
A John of Patmos fever dream

Then say a prayer for John McCain
Now passed beyond all earthly pain
Not death, with all the peace it brings
Could end his love of bombing things


Carbon Dioxide: An Open Door Policy

Aug 24, 2018 12:03


[Content note: reading this post might cause feelings of suffocation or provoke panic attacks in susceptible individuals. Epistemic status is very speculative.]

Last month I moved into a small cottage behind a big group house. The cottage is lovely. The big group house is also lovely, but the people in it started suffering mysterious minor ailments. Headaches, fatigue, poor sleep – all the things that will make your local family doctor say “Take two placebo and call me in the morning”. Using my years of medical training and expertise, I was able to…remain completely unaware of the problem while my housemates solved it themselves.

There’s been a flare-up of research interest in indoor carbon dioxide levels, precipitated by a Berkeley study (paperpopular article) finding that increasing CO2 concentration from the level of a well-ventilated building to the level of a poorly-ventilated building had profound effects on cognitive ability, cutting various test scores by as much as 50%. This was so dramatic as to be implausible, but seems to match the result of previous Hungarian studies and a later Harvard study on the same subject. The Harvard team later replicated their result with real workers in real offices and found that, controlling for other factors, workers in the best-ventilated offices scoredabout 25% better on cognitive tests than in the worst-ventilated ones. NASA got really interested in this research because spaceships require a lot of intellectual work and don’t have a lot of open windows. They’re still running tests but they say that “preliminary results suggest differences” between better- and worse- ventilated environments.

On the other hand, a 2017 study failed to find the effect, possibly because their cognitive tests were easier. And bloggers have pointed out that submarines have more CO2 than the worst terrestrial buildings, but don’t have any problems overt enough for the Navy to notice or worry. So it’s a crapshoot of contradictory results and considerations, just like everything else.

Aware of this research, my housemates tested their air quality and got levels between 1000 and 3000 ppm, around the level of the worst high-CO2 conditions in the studies. They started leaving their windows open and buying industrial quantities of succulent plants, and the problems mostly disappeared. Since then they’ve spread the word to other people we know afflicted with mysterious fatigue, some of whom have also noticed positive results.

Practically-a-Book Review: EA Hotel

Aug 22, 2018 12:24


Effective altruism (“EA”) is a movement dedicated to redirecting charity-related resources to the most important and successful charities. In practice this involves a lot of research into how important various problems are, and how well various charities work. Some of this research is done by well-funded official institutions. Other research, maybe exploring more unlikely scenarios or starting from weirder assumptions, is done as individual labors of love. These smaller-scale efforts might be self-funded, or supported by a few small donors. For example, Wild Animal Suffering Research, which investigates ways to improve the lives of animals in the wild, has yet to catch the attention of any hedge fund managers.

Like everything else, effective altruism is centered around San Francisco. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the world, so this isn’t very efficient; most of the relevant research can be done online from anywhere in the world. The official institutional charities eat the expense in exchange for the extra access to funders and other resources, but it’s a problem for small independent organizations. There’s been lots of research into possible solutions, but only if “let’s see how many people we can cram into one house in Berkeley” counts as “research”.

Blackpool is a beach resort in northern England. “Beach resort in northern England” is exactly as fun as it sounds, so nobody goes there. Everything is really cheap, and you can buy a whole hotel for the cost of a parking spot in San Francisco. Enter Greg Colbourn, an effective altruist and successful cryptocurrency investor. He bought the 17-bedroom Hotel Athena and wants to offer free room and board to researchers working on effective altruist projects 

Colbourn writes::

Do you long to be free from material needs and be able to focus on the real work you want to do? I know I’ve certainly been in that situation a few times in the past, but instead have lost time doing unimportant and menial jobs in order to be able to get by financially. Talented effective altruists losing time like this is especially tragic given that a lot of cause areas are currently constrained by the amount of quality direct work being done in them.

Buildings in the run-down seaside holiday resort of Blackpool (UK) are really cheap. I’ve bought a 17 bedroom hotel with dining room, lounge and bar for £130k. Assuming a 7% rental yield (which is reasonably high), this works out at about £45 per person per month rent. Factoring in bills, catering, and a modest stipend/entertainment budget, living costs could be as low as £5700/person/year (or lower for people sharing rooms, see budget). This is amazing value for hotel living with all basic services provided.

The idea is to invite people to live there, with all their expenses covered by donors, for up to two years. Funding is already in place (via me) for the first year of operations. The project will be managed by someone who lives on site and deals with all the admin/finances, shopping/cooking/cleaning/laundry, socials/events and morale – they will also have free living expenses, and be paid a modest salary. Note that this should be considered as a potential high impact, high prestige supporting role, for those excited to be involved in such a capacity on an EA mission. Guests will be free from concerns of material survival, and be able to have prolonged and uninterrupted focus on whatever projects they are working on. Obviously these will be largely limited to purely desk-based, or remote work.

The Parentheses Riddle

Aug 18, 2018 05:01


Because I hate you, I included this question on the SSC survey:

It’s a weird trick question, but I would say B is right. Imagine converting “(” to X and “)” to Y. Then the first answer is XYXY, and the second answer is YXXY. I suppose you could group the parentheses in pairs, in which case the answer would be “both”, but in practice few people wanted to say that. Of the 6,000 answers I received, most were either A or B. And one factor had a dramatic effect: age.

This is a big effect. People in their 20s were more than twice as likely to choose B as people their 60s. There’s a slight improvement after 70, but I think that’s just noise caused by a low sample size in that group.

My first thought was that the younger population on this blog is disproportionately techies, and techies have to work with very finicky parentheses all day. There was indeed a slight tendency for techies to do better on this, but it was a very small part of the effect. Even controlling for that, or limiting the analysis to only non-techies, most of the effect remained.

SSC Survey: Scattered Negative Results

Aug 17, 2018 09:55


Traffic to this blog is declining. I need to act decisively to draw people back. Write something so interesting it can’t help but go viral. I’m going to write about…negative results from the perception questions on last year’s survey.

The last SSC survey had a lot of optical illusions and visual riddles. I had hoped to expand on some of the work in Why Are Transgender People Immune To Optical Illusions and Can We Link Perception And Cognition? This post is a very brief summary of results and, basically, an admission of failure. While I was able to replicate the same suggestive results as in the last survey, I was unable to expand on them, strengthen them, or really turn them into any kind of interesting framework.

I was able to weakly replicate the headline result from Why Are Transgender People Immune To Optical Illusions: transgender status still correlated with all three mask illusions, and with the average of all three mask illusions, but very weakly: r = -0.04, p = 0.001. This was true even when I excluded everyone who took place in last year’s survey, providing an independent confirmation of the result. But with correlations this low, it’s hard to get too excited.

I was also able to weakly replicate the headline result from Can We Link Perception And Cognition?. I haphazardly gave people a “weirdness score” based on them having more mental illnesses, more unusual political opinions, and more minority sexual/gender identities (without looking at their illusion results). People with higher weirdness scores consistently had more ambiguity-tolerant results on illusions, with correlations around r = 0.05 for most tests. They also had notably higher average Tolerance of Uncertainty Test scores. But none of these results were very striking and there was minimal individual structure in them. If I was going to take this further I would have come up with a more principled definition of weirdness, but at this point it doesn’t seem worth it.

SSC Survey Results: ADHD and Rejection Sensitivity

Aug 16, 2018 16:48



ADHD is typically considered a disorder of attention and focus. There are various other traits everyone knows are linked – officially, hyperactivity and “behavior problems”; unofficially, anger and thrill-seeking – but most people consider these to be some sort of effect of the general attention deficit.

Dr. William Dodson pushes a different conception, where one of the key features of ADHD is “rejection-sensitive dysphoria”, ie people with the condition are much less able to tolerate social rejection, and more likely to find it unbearable and organize their lives around avoiding it. He doesn’t deny the attention and focus symptoms; he just thinks that rejection sensitivity needs to be considered a key part of the disorder.

I say “Dr. William Dodson pushes”, but this requires a little research before it becomes apparent. What a Google search shows is just a bunch of articles saying that rejection sensitivity is a key part of ADHD that gets ignored by non-expert psychiatrists and that it’s important to educate patients about it and include it in any treatment plan. My conclusion is that all of these articles can be traced back to Dr. Dodson or people inspired by Dr. Dodson, of which there are many. The ADHD patient community has gotten really into this and pushed it in a lot of support groups and patient communities and so on, where it is repeated uncritically as “an important ADHD feature psychiatrists often forget about”. But the genesis is just Dr. Dodson saying so, with limited formal evidence.

SSC Meetups 2018: Times and Places

Aug 9, 2018 12:12


Thanks to everyone who offered to host a meetup. We’re scheduled for meetups in 77 cities (and one ship!) in 23 countries, soundly beating last year’s list. Full list of cities, times, and places is below.

Most people who are on the fence have said they’ve enjoyed going. Most people who felt intimidated about going have said they’ve enjoyed going. Most people who felt they were too different from the median SSC reader to fit in have enjoyed going. Most people who worried they weren’t smart enough to fit in have enjoyed going. Etc. Some tips from past experience with these meetups:

1. If you’re the host, bring a sign that says “SSC MEETUP” and prop it up somewhere on a table
2. Bring blank labels and pens for nametags.
3. Pass around a paper where everyone gives their name and email address, so you can start a mailing list to make organizing future meetups easier
4. If it’s the first meetup, people are probably just going to want to talk, and if you try to organize some kind of “fun” “event” it’ll probably just be annoying.
5. Some things that have worked for later meetups include people giving short presentations on topics of interest to them, or discussion of some particular blog post
6. Nothing is going to get done unless there’s a Schelling point for who has to do it, and right now that’s the meetup organizer.
7. It’s much easier to schedule a second meetup while you’re having the first compared to trying to do it later on by email
8. Surprisingly many people will love you forever if you bring stim toys
9. In case people want to get to know each other better outside the meetup, you might want to mention, the rationalist friend-finder/dating site. It runs off Facebook, so you have to Facebook friend the other person first.
10. If you have a vague location like “in the mall” or “at the North Park”, nobody will ever find each other. Give a specific place (eg “at the North Park, by the big oak tree in the northwest corner”) and be carrying a sign saying “SSC MEETUP”. If you were too vague in your description, comment with a better one and I can edit it in.

Remaining issues with the times and dates:
– Brisbane’s time was unclear; please confirm I got it right
– Portland did not provide readable information (seriously, ROT12?!) and will have to be clearer and give a location
– Copenhagen should finish their debate about whether to move the meetup somewhere else
– Paris has a weird phone number with words in it. I don’t know if this is a mistake or just how French phone numbers work

Before You Get Too Excited About That Trigger Warning Study...

Aug 8, 2018 11:57


STUDY: Trigger Warnings Are Harmful To College Students says the Daily Wire, describing a study whose participants’ average age was 37 and which did not measure harm.

You can find the study involved here. A group of Harvard scientists asked 370 people on Mechanical Turk to read some disturbing passages – for example, a graphic murder scene from Crime and Punishment. Half the participants received the following trigger warning before the passage:

TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma

Participants were asked to rate their anxiety before and after reading the passages. After they had finished, they were asked to fill out a bunch of questionnaires that measured their opinions about how trauma worked.

The researchers found that people who received the trigger warning were 5% more likely to endorse the idea that they were vulnerable to trauma, and also 5% more likely to endorse the belief that people with trauma could suffer persistent negative effects from that trauma. There were some subgroup and moderation analyses which I ignore for the usual reasons.

What might be some causes for concern with this study?

First, Stuart Ritchie points out that the results are statistically weak. Most of the results have p-values around 0.05, and are not corrected for multiple testing. That means it hasn’t been formally proven whether or not the results are random chance. I don’t like haggling over whether something is just above or just below a significance threshold. But if you do like that kind of haggling, this study doesn’t survive it very well.

Cancer Progress: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Aug 7, 2018 18:11


Official statistics say we are winning the War on Cancer. Cancer incidence rates, mortality rates, and five-year-survival rates have generally been moving in the right direction over the past few decades.

More skeptical people offer an alternate narrative. Cancer incidence and mortality rates are increasing for some cancers. They are decreasing for others, but the credit goes to social factors like smoking cessation and not to medical advances. Survival rates are increasing only because cancers are getting detected earlier. Suppose a certain cancer is untreatable and will kill you in ten years. If it’s always discovered after seven years, five-year-survival-rate will be 0%. If it’s always discovered after two years, five-year-survival-rate will be 100%. Better screening can shift the percent of cases discovered after seven years vs. two years, and so shift the five-year-survival rate, but the same number of people will be dying of cancer as ever.

This post tries to figure out which narrative is more accurate.

First, incidence of cancer

This chart doesn’t look good (in both senses of a chart not looking good – seriously, put some pride into your work). Although there’s a positive trend since 2001, it’s overwhelmed by a general worsening since 1975. But this isn’t the right way to look at things: average age has increased since 1975. Since older people are at higher risk of cancer, an older population will look like higher cancer rates. Also, something has to kill you, so if other issues like violent crime or heart disease get better, it will look like a higher cancer rate.

The Toxoplasma of Rage [Classic]

Aug 3, 2018 51:29


“Nobody makes an IRC channel for no reason. Who are we doing this versus?”
— topic of #slatestarcodex



Some old news I only just heard about: PETA is offering to pay the water bills for needy Detroit families if (and only if) those families agree to stop eating meat.

(this story makes more sense if you know Detroit is in a crisis where the bankrupt city government is trying to increase revenues by cracking down on poor people who can’t pay for the water they use.)

Predictably, the move has caused a backlash. The International Business Times, in what I can only assume is an attempted pun, describes them as “drowning in backlash”. Groundswell thinks it’s a “big blunder”. Daily Banter says it’s “exactly why everyone hates PETA”. Jezebel calls them “assholes”, and we can all agree Jezebel knows a thing or two about assholery.

Of course, this is par for the course for PETA, who have previously engaged in campaigns like throwing red paint on fashion models who wear fur, juxtaposing pictures of animals with Holocaust victims, juxtaposing pictures of animals with African-American slaves, and ads featuring naked people that cross the line into pornography.

People call these things “blunders”, but consider the alternative. Vegan Outreach is an extremely responsible charity doing excellent and unimpeachable work in the same area PETA is. Nobody has heard of them. Everybodyhas heard of PETA, precisely because of the interminable stupid debates about “did this publicity stunt cross the line?”

While not everyone is a vegan, pretty much everybody who knows anything about factory farming is upset by it. There is pretty much zero room for PETA to convert people from pro-factory-farming to anti-factory-farming, because there aren’t any radical grassroot pro-factory-farming activists to be found. Their problem isn’t lack of agreement. It’s lack of publicity.

PETA creates publicity, but at a cost. Everybody’s talking about PETA, which is sort of like everybody talking about ethical treatment of animals, which is sort of a victory. But most of the talk is “I hate them and they make me really angry.” Some of the talk is even “I am going to eat a lot more animals just to make PETA mad.”


Meetups Everywhere 2018

Jul 29, 2018 07:31


Last year we had organized meetups in sixty different cities around the world. A couple of the meetup groups stuck around or reported permanent spikes in membership, which sounds like a success, so let’s do it again. I’ll repeat the city list from last year, which has every city where at least ten people expressed interest in a meetup. A few nearby cities are merged to make sure they have enough people.

If you’re willing to host a meetup for your city, then decide on a place, date, and time, and post it in the comments. I would also prefer you include an email where people can reach you.

Please err in favor of volunteering to organize – the difficulty level is basically “pick a coffee shop you like, tell me the address, and give me a time”; it would be dumb if nobody got to go to meetups because everyone felt too awkward and low-status to volunteer.

In a week or so, I’ll make another post listing the details for each city so people know where to go.

Some details and suggestions for would-be organizers:

1. I don’t guarantee I’ll have the post with times and addresses up until August 8, so please choose a day after that. The weekend of the 11th -12th might be one good choice.

2. In the past, the best venues have been ones that are quiet(ish) and have lots of mobility for people to arrange themselves into circles or subgroups as desired. Private houses have been pretty good. Same with food courts. Cafes and restaurants have gone okay, as have empty fields (really). Bars don’t seem to have worked very well at all.

3. Usually only about a quarter of people who express interest actually attend. If your city has fewer than 20 people, don’t offer to organize unless you’re okay with a good chance of only one or two other people showing up.

4. If more than one person volunteers to organize, I will pick among them. Priority will be given to people I know well, people who have organized meetups before, and (especially) an existing SSC/LW/EA meetup group in the city. If you run an existing SSC/LW/EA meetup group and you want to organize your city’s SSC meetup, please mention that in the post so I can give you precedence.

5. If you have an existing meetup group, you can just tell me what you’re already doing and when your next meetup is. But try to have the one you list here be some kind of “welcome, SSC people” meetup or otherwise low-barrier-to-entry. And please give me a firm date and time commitment instead of “tell people to check our mailing list to find out where the meeting will be that week”.

6. If you’re formally volunteering to organize a meetup, please respond with an unambiguous statement to this effect, the exact address, the exact time, and the date (+ contact details if possible). I’m not going to count someone as offering to organize a meetup unless they do this. Please don’t post “I hope someone agrees to organize a meetup in my city”. Just offer to organize the meetup!

EDIT: Again, please include an exact time, exact date, and exact address with your offer to host. Please don’t post vague speculation about how you might want to host at some point – just offer to host and give me the information I need. If it turns out there’s someone better, don’t worry, they’ll also offer and I’ll choose them.

Verses Composed upon Reading a Review from Tripadvisor

Jul 27, 2018 05:42


The Tourist Board of Xanadu
Did recently impose a fee
On those who travel far from home
To visit Kubla’s pleasure dome
Of $20, 9 – 3

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With fence and wire are girdled round
And signs proclaiming “ENTRY AT THE GATE”
Where gather many a camera-bearing crowd
And here are docents, who in solemn state
Explain the Mongol histories aloud

But oh! That deep romantic chasm protracting
Into a hill, athwart a cedarn cover
A savage region, visitors attracting
By actresses, forever reenacting
A woman wailing to her demon-lover

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil spilling
Crowds of old men in fat thick pants are milling
And there, a fountain momently is forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Groups of eight to ten people, screaming ever
White-water-raft upon the sacred river

Value Differences as Differently Crystallized Metaphysical Heuristics

Jul 27, 2018 43:27


[Previously in sequence: Fundamental Value Differences Are Not That FundamentalThe Whole City Is Center. This post might not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read those first.]


Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s posts. Some of the best comments seemed to converge on an idea like this:


Confusing in that people who rely on lower-level features are placed higher, but the other way would have been confusing too.


We need to navigate complicated philosophical questions in order to decide how to act, what to do, what behaviors to incentivize, what behaviors to punish, what signals to send, and even how to have a society at all.

Sometimes we can use theories from science and mathematics to explicitly model how a system works and what we want from it. But even the scholars who understand these insights rarely know exactly how to objectively apply them in the real world. Yet anyone who lives with others needs to be able to do these things; not just scholars but ordinary people, children, and even chimpanzees.

So sometimes we use heuristics and approximations. Evolution has given us some of them as instincts. Children learn others as practically-innate hyperpriors before they’re old enough to think about what they’re doing. And cultural evolution creates others alongside the institutitions that encourage and enforce them.

In the simplest case, we just feel some kind of emotional attraction or aversion to something.

In other cases, the emotions are so compelling that we crystallize them into a sort of metaphysical essence that explains them.

And in the most complicated cases, we endorse the values implied by those metaphysical essences above and beyond whatever values we were trying to model in the first place.

Some examples:

People and animals need a diet with the right number of calories, the right macronutrient ratios, and the right vitamins and minerals. A few nutritional scientists know enough to figure out what’s going on explicitly. Everyone else has evolved instincts that guide them through this process. Hunger and satiety are such instincts; when they’re working well, they make sure someone eats as much as they need and no more. So are occasional cravings for some food with exactly the right nutrient – most common in high-nutrient-use states like pregnancy. But along with these innate heuristics, we have culturally determined ones. Everyone has a vague sense that potato chips are “unhealthy” and spinach is “healthy”, though most people can’t explain why. Instead of asking ordinary people and children to calculate their macronutrient and micronutrient profile, we ask them to eat “healthy” foods and avoid “unhealthy” foods. There’s something sort of metaphysical about this – as if “health” were a magic essence that adheres to apples. And in fact, sometimes this goes wrong and people will do things like blend a thousand apples into some hyper-pure apple-elixir to get extra health-essence – but overall it mostly works.

EXPLICIT MODEL: Trying to count how many calories and milligrams of each nutrient you get
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling hungry or full
REIFIED ESSENCE: Some foods are inherently healthy or unhealthy
ENDORSED VALUE: Insisting on only eating organic foods even when those foods have no quantifiable benefit over nonorganic

Every society has some kind of punishment for people who don’t follow their norms, whether it’s ostracism or community service or beheading. There’s a good consequentialist grounding for why this is necessary, with some of the most academic work being done in the field of prisoners’ dilemmas and tit-for-tat strategies. But again, we don’t expect ordinary people, children, and chimpanzees to absorb this work. The solution is the (innate? culturally learned? some combination of both?) idea of punishment. Punishment relies on a weird metaphysical essence of moral desert; people who do bad things deserve to suffer. The balance of the Universe is somehow off when a crime goes unavenged. Take this too far and you get the Erinyes and the idea that justice is the most important thing. There are references from ancient China to Hamlet that if you have something important you need to avenge, you need to do that now or you’re a bad person. None of this follows from the game theory, but it’s a really good way to enforce the game-theoretically correct action.

EXPLICIT MODEL: Trying to figure out how to best deter antisocial behavior and optimize society
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling angry when someone wrongs you
REIFIED ESSENCE: Justice: the world is out of balance when crimes go unavenged
ENDORSED VALUE: Wrongdoers must suffer whether or not that prevents future crimes

The Whole City is Center

Jul 21, 2018 39:37


Related to yesterday’s post on people being too quick to assume value differences: some of the simplest fake value differences are where people make a big deal about routing around a certain word. And some of the most complicated real value differences are where some people follow a strategy explicitly and other people follow heuristics that approximate that strategy.

There’s a popular mental health mantra that “there’s no such thing as laziness” (here are ten different articles with approximately that title: 12345678910). They all make the same basically good point. We shame people who don’t work very hard as “lazy”, and think they should have lower status than the rest of us. But actually, these people don’t just randomly choose not to work. Some of them have psychological issues, like anxiety and trauma that are constantly distracting them from their work, or a fear of success, or self-defeating beliefs about how nothing they do matters anyway. Others have biological issues – maybe hypothyroidism, or vitamin deficiencies, or ADHD, or other things we don’t understand that lower their energy and motivation. Still others just don’t want to do the specific thing we are asking them to do right now and can’t force themselves to work uphill against that gradient. When we call people “lazy”, we’re ignorantly dismissing all these possibilities in favor of a moralistic judgment.

A dialogue:

Sophisticus: I don’t believe in laziness.

Simplicio: What about my cousin Larry? He keeps promising to do important errands for his friends and family, and then he never does them. Instead he just plays video games all the time. This has happened consistently over the past few years, every time he’s promised to do something. One time my aunt asked him to go to the DMV to get some paperwork filled out, he promised he would do it, and then he kept putting it off for a month until it was past the deadline and she almost lost her car. He didn’t forget about it or anything, he just couldn’t bring himself to go out and do it. And he’s been fired from his last three jobs for not showing up, and…

Sophisticus: Yes, yes, I’m sure there are people like this. But he probably has some self-defeating beliefs, or vitamin deficiencies, or mental health issues.

Simplicio: Okay. Well, my mother is going to be away for the next week, and she needs someone to dog-sit for her. Her dog is old and sick and requires a lot of care each day. She’s terrified that if he doesn’t get his food and medication and daily walk on time, something terrible will happen to him. She’s willing to pay a lot of money. Do you think I should recommend she ask my cousin Larry?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Why not?

Sophisticus: He probably won’t do it. He’ll just play video games instead.

Simplicio: Why do you think so?

Sophisticus: Because he has a long history of playing video games instead of doing important tasks.

Simplicio: If only there were a word for the sort of person who does that!

Sophisticus: Oh, I see. Now you’re making fun of me. But I’m not saying everyone is equally reliable. I’m saying that instead of denouncing someone as “lazy”, we should look for the cause and try to help them.

Simplicio: Hey, we did try to help him. Larry’s family has taken him to the doctor loads of times. They didn’t anything on the lab tests, but the psychiatrist thought he might be ADHD and gave him some Adderall. I would say now he pulls through on like 20% of the things we ask him to do instead of zero percent. We also tried to get him to go to therapy, but the therapist deferred because ADHD has a very low therapy response rate. His parents tried to change the way they asked him to do things to make it easier for him, or to let him choose a different set of tasks that were more to his liking, but that only worked a little, if at all. Probably there’s some cause we don’t understand, but it’s beyond the reach of medical science, incentive design, or the understanding that exists between loving family members to identify.

Sophisticus: See! The Adderall helped! And letting him choose his own tasks helped a little too!

Simplicio: I agree it helped a little. So should I recommend him to my mother as a dog-sitter?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Then I still don’t see what the difference between us is. I agree it was worth having him go to the doctor and the therapist to rule out any obvious biological or psychological issues, and to test different ways of interacting with him in case our interaction style was making things worse. You agree that since this still hasn’t made him reliably fulfill his responsibilities and we don’t have any better ideas, he’s a bad choice for a dog-sitter. Why can’t I communicate the state of affairs we both agree on to my mother using the word “lazy”?

Fundamental Value Differences Are Not That Fundamental

Jul 21, 2018 25:45


Ozy (and others) talk about fundamental value differences as a barrier to cooperation.

On their model (as I understand it) there are at least two kinds of disagreement. In the first, people share values but disagree about facts. For example, you and I may both want to help the Third World. But you believe foreign aid helps the Third World, and I believe it props up corrupt governments and discourages economic self-sufficiency. We should remain allies while investigating the true effect of foreign aid, after which our disagreement will disappear.

In the second, you and I have fundamentally different values. Perhaps you want to help the Third World, but I believe that a country should only look after its own citizens. In this case there’s nothing to be done. You consider me a heartless monster who wants foreigners to starve, and I consider you a heartless monster who wants to steal from my neighbors to support random people halfway across the world. While we can agree not to have a civil war for pragmatic reasons, we shouldn’t mince words and pretend not to be enemies. Ozy writes (liberally edited, read the original):

From a conservative perspective, I am an incomprehensible moral mutant…however, from my perspective, conservatives are perfectly willing to sacrifice things that actually matter in the world– justice, equality, happiness, an end to suffering– in order to suck up to unjust authority or help the wealthy and undeserving or keep people from having sex lives they think are gross.

There is, I feel, opportunity for compromise. An outright war would be unpleasant for everyone…And yet, fundamentally… it’s not true that conservatives as a group are working for the same goals as I am but simply have different ideas of how to pursue it…my read of the psychological evidence is that, from my value system, about half the country is evil and it is in my self-interest to shame the expression of their values, indoctrinate their children, and work for a future where their values are no longer represented on this Earth. So it goes.

And from the subreddit comment by GCUPokeItWithAStick:

I do think that at a minimum, if you believe that one person’s interests are intrinsically more important than another’s (or as the more sophisticated versions play out, that ethics is agent-relative), then something has gone fundamentally wrong, and this, I think, is the core of the distinction between left and right. Being a rightist in this sense is totally indefensible, and a sign that yes, you should give up on attempting to ascertain any sort of moral truth, because you can’t do it.

I will give this position its due: I agree with the fact/value distinction. I agree it’s conceptually very clear what we’re doing when we try to convince someone with our same values of a factual truth, and confusing and maybe impossible to change someone’s values.

Did a Melatonin Patent Inspire Current Dose Confusion?

Jul 14, 2018 06:51


Yesterday I wrote about melatonin, mentioning that most drugstore melatonin supplements were 10x or more the recommended dose. A commenter on Facebook pointed me to an interesting explanation of why.

Dr. Richard Wurtman, an MIT scientist who helped discover melatonin’s role in the body and pioneer its use as a sleep aid, writes:

MIT was so excited about our research team’s melatonin-sleep connection discovery that they decided to patent the use of reasonable doses of melatonin—up to 1 mg—for promoting sleep.

But they made a big mistake. They assumed that the FDA would want to regulate the hormone and its use as a sleep therapy. They also thought the FDA wouldn’t allow companies to sell melatonin in doses 3-times, 10-times, even 15-times more than what’s necessary to promote sound sleep.

Much to MIT’s surprise, however, the FDA took a pass on melatonin. At that time, the FDA was focusing on other issues, like nicotine addiction, and they may have felt they had bigger fish to fry.

Also, the FDA knew that the research on melatonin showed it to be non-toxic, even at extremely high doses, so they probably weren’t too worried about how consumers might use it. In the end, and as a way of getting melatonin on to the market, the FDA chose to label it a dietary supplement, which does not require FDA regulation. Clearly, this was wrong because melatonin is a hormone, not a dietary supplement.

Quickly, supplement manufacturers saw the huge potential in selling melatonin to promote good sleep. After all, millions of Americans struggled to get to sleep and stay asleep, and were desperate for safe alternatives to anti-anxiety medicines and sleeping pills that rarely worked well and came with plenty of side effects.

Also, manufacturers must have realized that they could avoid paying royalties to MIT for melatonin doses over the 1 mg measure. So, they produced doses of 3 mg, 5 mg, 10 mg and more! Their thinking–like so much else in our American society–was likely, “bigger is better!” But, they couldn’t be more wrong.

So he’s saying that…in order to get around a patent on using the correct dose of melatonin…supplement manufacturers…used the wrong dose of melatonin? I enjoy collecting stories of all the crazy perversities created by our current pharmaceutical system, but this one really takes the cake.

Melatonin: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Jul 12, 2018 35:06


[I am not a sleep specialist. Please consult with one before making any drastic changes or trying to treat anything serious.]

Van Geiklswijk et al describe supplemental melatonin as “a chronobiotic drug with hypnotic properties”. Using it as a pure hypnotic – a sleeping pill – is like using an AK-47 as a club to bash your enemies’ heads in. It might work, but you’re failing to appreciate the full power and subtlety available to you.

Melatonin is a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland. In a normal circadian cycle, it’s lowest (undetectable, less than 1 pg/ml of blood) around the time you wake up, and stays low throughout the day. Around fifteen hours after waking, your melatonin suddenly shoots up to 10 pg/ml – a process called “dim light melatonin onset”. For the next few hours, melatonin continues to increase, maybe as high as 60 or 70 pg/ml, making you sleepier and sleepier, and presumably at some point you go to bed. Melatonin peaks around 3 AM, then declines until it’s undetectably low again around early morning.

Is this what makes you sleepy? Yes and no. Sleepiness is a combination of the circadian cycle and the so-called “Process S”. This is an unnecessarily sinister-sounding name for the fact that the longer you’ve been awake, the sleepier you’ll be. It seems to be partly regulated by a molecule called adenosine. While you’re awake, the body produces adenosine, which makes you tired; as you sleep, the body clears adenosine away, making you feel well-rested again.

In healthy people these processes work together. Circadian rhythm tells you to feel sleepy at night and awake during the day. Process S tells you to feel awake when you’ve just risen from sleep (naturally the morning), and tired when you haven’t slept in a long time (naturally the night). Both processes agree that you should feel awake during the day and tired at night, so you do.

When these processes disagree for some reason – night shifts, jet lag, drugs, genetics, playing Civilization until 5 AM – the system fails. One process tells you to go to sleep, the other to wake up. You’re never quite awake enough to feel energized, or quite tired enough to get restful sleep. You find yourself lying in bed tossing and turning, or waking up while it’s still dark and not being able to get back to sleep.

Melatonin works on both systems. It has a weak “hypnotic” effect on Process S, making you immediately sleepier when you take it. It also has a stronger “chronobiotic” effect on the circadian rhythm, shifting what time of day your body considers sleep to be a good idea. Effective use of melatonin comes from understanding both these effects and using each where appropriate.

The Craft and the Codex

Jul 8, 2018 07:17


The rationalist community started with the idea of rationality as a martial art – a set of skills you could train in and get better at. Later the metaphor switched to a craft. Art or craft, parts of it did get developed: I remain very impressed with Eliezer’s work on how to change your mind and everything presaging Tetlock on prediction.

But there’s a widespread feeling in the rationalist community these days that this is the area where we’ve made the least progress. AI alignment has grown into a developing scientific field. Effective altruism is big, professionalized, and cash-rich. It’s just the art of rationality itself that remains (outside the usual cognitive scientists who have nothing to do with us and are working on a slightly different project) a couple of people writing blog posts.

Part of this is that the low-hanging fruit has been picked. But I think another part was a shift in emphasis.

Martial arts does involve theory – for example, beginning fencers have to learn the classical parries – but it’s a little bit of theory and a lot of practice. Most of becoming a good fencer involves either practicing the same lunge a thousand times in ideal conditions until you could do it in your sleep, or fighting people on the strip.

I’ve been thinking about what role this blog plays in the rationalist project. One possible answer is “none” – I’m not enough of a mathematician to talk much about the decision theory and machine learning work that’s really important, and I rarely touch upon the nuts and bolts of the epistemic rationality craft. I freely admit that (like many people) I tend to get distracted by the latest Outrageous Controversy, and so spend way too much time discussing things like Piketty’s theory of inequality which get more attention from the chattering classes but are maybe less important to the very-long-run future of the world.

SSC Journal Club: Dissolving the Fermi Paradox

Jul 6, 2018 10:05


I’m late to posting this, but it’s important enough to be worth sharing anyway: Sandberg, Drexler, and Ord on Dissolving the Fermi Paradox.

(You may recognize these names: Toby Ord founded the effective altruism movement; Eric Drexler kindled interest in nanotechnology; Anders Sandberg helped pioneer the academic study of x-risk, and wrote what might be my favorite Unsong fanfic)

The Fermi Paradox asks: given the immense number of stars in our galaxy, for even a very tiny chance of aliens per star shouldn’t there should be thousands of nearby alien civilizations? But any alien civilization that arose millions of years ago would have had ample time to colonize the galaxy or do something equally dramatic that would leave no doubt as to its existence. So where are they?

This is sometimes formalized as the Drake Equation: think up all the parameters you would need for an alien civilization to contact us, multiply our best estimates for all of them together, and see how many alien civilizations we predict. So for example if we think there’s a 10% chance of each star having planets, a 10% chance of each planet being habitable to life, and a 10% chance of a life-habitable planet spawning an alien civilization by now, one in a thousand stars should have civilization. The actual Drake Equation is much more complicated, but most people agree that our best-guess values for most parameters suggest a vanishingly small chance of the empty galaxy we observe.

SDO’s contribution is to point out this is the wrong way to think about it. Sniffnoy’s comment on the subreddithelped me understand exactly what was going on, which I think is something like this:

Highlights from the Comments on Piketty

Jul 1, 2018 26:32


Chris Stucchio recommended Matt Rognlie’s criticisms of Piketty (papersummaryVoxsplainer).

Rognlie starts by saying that Piketty didn’t correctly account for capital depreciation (ie capital losing value over time) in his calculations. This surprises me, because Piketty says he does in his book (p. 55) but apparently there are technical details I don’t understand. When you do that, the share of capital decreases, and it becomes clear that 100% of recent capital-share growth comes from one source: housing.

I can’t find anyone arguing that Rognlie is wrong. I do see many people arguing about the implications, all the way from “this disproves Piketty” to “this is just saying the same thing Piketty was”.


I think it’s saying the same thing Piketty was in that housing is a real thing, and if there’s inequality in housing, then that’s real inequality. And landlords are a classic example of the rentiers Piketty is warning against.

But it’s saying a different thing in that most homeowners use their homes by living in them, not by renting them out. That means they’re not part of Piketty’s rentier class, and so using the amount of capital to represent the power of rentiers is misleading. Rentiers are not clearly increasing and there is no clear upward trend in rentier-vs-laborer inequality. I think this does disprove Piketty’s most shocking thesis.

Rognlie also makes an argument for why increasing the amount of capital will decrease the returns on capital, leading to stable or decreasing income from capital. Piketty argues against this on page 277 of his book, but re-reading it Piketty’s argument now looks kind of weak, especially with the evidence from housing affecting some of his key points.

Grendel Khan highlights the role of housing with an interesting metaphor:

Did someone say housing?

As an illustration, the median homeowner in about half of the largest metros made more off the appreciation of their home than a full-time minimum-wage job. It’s worst in California, of course; in San Jose, the median homeowner made just shy of $100 per working hour.

See also Richard Florida’s commentary. See also everything about how the housing crisis plays out in micro; it is precisely rentier capitalism.

In the original post, I questioned Piketty’s claim that rich people and very-well-endowed colleges got higher rates of return on their investment than ordinary people or less-well-endowed colleges. After all, why can’t poorer people pool their money together, mutual-fund-style, to become an effective rich person who can get higher rate of return? Many people tried to answer this, not always successfully.

brberg points out that Bill Gates – one example of a rich person who’s gotten 10%+ returns per year – has a very specific advantage:

Not sure about Harvard’s endowment, but it’s worth noting that the reason Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and other self-made billionaires have seen their fortunes grow so quickly is that each of them has the vast majority of their wealth invested in a single high-growth company.

This is an extremely high-risk investment strategy that has the potential to pay off fantastically well in a tiny percentage of cases, but it’s not really dependent on the size of the starting stake. Anyone who invested in Microsoft’s IPO would have seen the same rate of return as Gates.

This is a good point, but most of Piketty’s data focuses on college endowments. How do they do it?

Briefling writes:

I’m not sure you can take the wealth management thing at face value. The stock market since 1980 has 10% annualized returns. Instead of trying to replicate whatever Harvard and Yale are doing, why don’t you just put your money in the stock market?

Also a good point, but colleges seem to do this with less volatility than the stock market, which still requires some explanation.

List of Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Jun 29, 2018 42:16


[Original review is here. Don’t worry, people who had interesting comments on the review – I’ll try to get a comments highlights thread up eventually.]

For Ricardo, who published his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817, the chief concern was the long-term evolution of land prices and land rents. Like Malthus, he had virtually no genuine statistics at his disposal. He nevertheless had intimate knowledge of the capitalism of his time. Born into a family of Jewish financiers with Portuguese roots, he also seems to have had fewer political prejudices than Malthus, Young, or Smith. He was influenced by the Malthusian model but pushed the argument farther. He was above all interested in the following logical paradox. Once both population and output begin to grow steadily, land tends to become increasingly scarce relative to other goods. The law of supply and demand then implies that the price of land will rise continuously, as will the rents paid to landlords. The landlords will therefore claim a growing share of national income, as the share available to the rest of the population decreases, thus upsetting the social equilibrium. For Ricardo, the only logically and politically acceptable answer was to impose a steadily increasing tax on land rents.

This somber prediction proved wrong: land rents did remain high for an extended period, but in the end the value of farm land inexorably declined relative to other forms of wealth as the share of agriculture in national income decreased. Writing in the 1810s, Ricardo had no way of anticipating the importance of technological progress or industrial growth in the years ahead. Like Malthus and Young, he could not imagine that humankind would ever be totally freed from the alimentary imperative.

One underappreciated feature of Piketty is his engaging presentation of economic history. A constant feature of the theorists he discusses is that they are all brilliant thinkers, they all follow the trends of their time to their obvious conclusions in ways deeper and more insightful than their contemporaries – and they all miss complicated paradigm shifts that make the trends obsolete and totally ruin their theories. Rationalists take note.

Like Ricardo, Marx based his work on an analysis of the internal logical contradictions of the capitalist system. He therefore sought to distinguish himself from both bourgeois economists (who saw the market as a self-regulated system, that is, a system capable of achieving equilibrium on its own without major deviations, in accordance with Adam Smith’s image of “the invisible hand” and Jean-Baptiste Say’s “law” that production creates its own demand), and utopian socialists and Proudhonians, who in Marx’s view were content to denounce the misery of the working class without proposing a truly scientific analysis of the economic processes responsible for it.7 In short, Marx took the Ricardian model of the price of capital and the principle of scarcity as the basis of a more thorough analysis of the dynamics of capitalism in a world where capital was primarily industrial (machinery, plants, etc.) rather than landed property, so that in principle there was no limit to the amount of capital that could be accumulated. In fact, his principal conclusion was what one might call the “principle of infinite accumulation,” that is, the inexorable tendency for capital to accumulate and become concentrated in ever fewer hands, with no natural limit to the process. This is the basis of Marx’s prediction of an apocalyptic end to capitalism: either the rate of return on capital would steadily diminish (thereby killing the engine of accumulation and leading to violent conflict among capitalists), or capital’s share of national income would increase indefinitely (which sooner or later would unite the workers in revolt). In either case, no stable socioeconomic or political equilibrium was possible.

Book Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Jun 27, 2018 41:24


[Epistemic status: I am not an economist. Many people who are economists have reviewed this book already. I review it only because if I had to slog through reading this thing I at least want to get a blog post out of it. If anything in my review contradicts that of real economists, trust them instead of me.]


Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century isn’t just a book on inequality. It’s a book about quantitative macroeconomic history. This is much more interesting than it sounds.

Piketty spent decades combing through primary sources trying to get good statistics for what the economies of various Western countries have been doing over the past 250 years. Armed with these data, he tries to put together a theory of the very-long-term forces at work in economic change. His results touch on almost every big question in politics and economics, and are able to propose sweeping theories where other people resort to parochial speculation. While more knowledgeable people than I are probably already familiar with much of this, I used him as an Econ History 101 textbook and was not at all disappointed in the results.

The most important thing I learned from Piketty is that since the Industrial Revolution, normal economic growth has always been (and maybe always will be) between 1% and 1.5% per year. This came as news to me, since I often hear about countries and eras with much higher growth rates. But Piketty says all such situations are abnormal in one of a few ways.

First, they can have high population growth. Population growth will increase GDP, and it will look like a high economic growth rate. But it doesn’t increase GDP per capita and it shouldn’t be considered the same as normal economic growth, which is always between 1% and 1.5% per year.

Second, they can have temporary bubbles. This definitely happens, but after the inevitable bust, the whole period will eventually average out to 1% to 1.5% per year.

Third, they can have “catch-up growth”. This is a broad category covering any period when a country that was previously underperforming its fundamentals gets a chance to catch up. This can happen after a long war in which a devastated country gets a chance to rebuild. Or it can happen after dropping communism or some other inefficient economic system, as the country transitions to a more practical form of production. Or it can happen when a Third World country globalizes and gets the benefits of First World technology and organization. But if a country is at peace and on the “technological frontier” (ie one of the highest-tech countries that has to invent its own advances and can’t get them by osmosis from somewhere else), it will always have growth of 1% to 1.5% per year.

Cost Disease in Medicine: the Practical Perspective

Jun 23, 2018 07:27


Sometimes I imagine quitting my job and declaring war on cost disease in medicine.

I would set up a practice with a name like Cheap-O Psychiatry. The corny name would be important. It would be a statement of values. It would weed out the people who would say things like “How dare you try to put a dollar value on the health of a human being!” Those people are how we got into this mess, and they would be welcome to keep dealing with the unaffordable health system they helped create. Cheap-O Psychiatry would be for everyone else.

Cheap-O Psychiatry wouldn’t have an office, because offices cost money. You would Skype, from your house to mine. It wouldn’t have a receptionist, because receptionists cost money. You would book a slot in my Google Calendar. It wouldn’t have a billing department, because billing departments cost money. You would PayPal me the cost of the appointment afterwards – or, to be really #aesthetic, use cryptocurrency.

The Cheap-O website would include a library of great resources on every subject. How To Eat Right. How To Get Good Sleep. How To Find A Good Therapist. The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Workbook. The Meditation Relaxation Tape. But the flip side would be that Cheap-O appointments would be brutally efficient. If you had problems with sleep, I would evaluate you for any relevant diseases, give you any medications that might be indicated, then tell you to read the How To Get Good Sleep guide on the website. Boom, done. Small talk would be absolutely banned.

How little could Cheap-O charge? Suppose I wanted to earn an average psychiatrist salary of about $200K – the whole point of cost disease is that we should be able to lower prices without anyone having to take a pay cut. And suppose I work a 40 hour week, 50 weeks a year, each appointment takes 15 minutes, and 75% of my workday is patient appointments. That’s 6000 appointments per year. So to make my $200K I would need to charge about $35 per appointment. There would be a few added costs – malpractice insurance would probably run about $10K per year – but this is the best-case scenario.

Contra Caplan on Arbitrary Deploring

Jun 23, 2018 10:01


Last year, Bryan Caplan wrote about what he called The Unbearable Arbitrariness Of Deploring:

Let’s start with the latest scandal. People all over the country – indeed, the world – have recently discovered that many celebrities are habitual sexual harassers. Each new expose leads to public outrage and professional ostracism. Why does this confuse me? Because many celebrities do many comparably bad things other than sexual harassment, and virtually no one cares.

Suppose, for example, that a major celebrity is extremely emotionally abusive to all his subordinates. He screams at them all the time. He calls them the cruelest names he can devise. He habitually makes impossible demands. He threatens to fire them out of sheer sadistic pleasure. But the abuse is never sexual (or ethnic); the celebrity limits himself to attacking subordinates’ intelligence, character, pride, and hope for the future. I daresay the average employee would far prefer to work for a boss who occasionally pressured them for a date. But if the tabloids ran a negative profile on the Asexual Boss from Hell, the public wouldn’t get very mad and Hollywood almost certainly wouldn’t ostracize the offender […]

Or to take a far more gruesome case: When the Syrian government last used poison gas, killing roughly a hundred people, the U.S. angrily deployed retaliatory bombers, to bipartisan acclaim. But when the Syrian government murdered vastly more with conventional weapons, the U.S. government and its citizenry barely peeped. The unbearable arbitrariness of deploring!

In the past, I’ve made similar observations about Jim Crow versus immigration laws, and My Lai versus Hiroshima. In each case, I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about both evils. I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about neither. I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil. But I can’t understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil. Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

He concludes people are just biased by dramatic stories and like jumping on bandwagons. Everyone else is getting upset about the chemical weapon attack, and people are sheep, so they join in.

I have a different theory: people get upset over the violation of already-settled bright-line norms, because this is the correct action if you want to use limited enforcement resources efficiently.

The GATTACA Trilogy

Jun 21, 2018 23:16


[Few people realize that the 1997 cult hit GATTACA was actually just the first film in a three-movie trilogy. The final two movies, directed by the legendary Moira LeQuivalence, were flops which only stayed in theaters a few weeks and have since become almost impossible to find. In the interest of making them available to the general public, I’ve written summaries of some key scenes below. Thanks to user Begferdeth from the subreddit for the idea.]


“Congratulations, Vincent”, said the supervisor, eyes never looking up from his clipboard. “You passed them all. The orbital mechanics test. The flight simulator. All the fitness tests. More than passed. Some of the highest scores we’ve ever seen, frankly. You’re going to be an astronaut.”

Vincent’s heart leapt in his chest.

“Pending, of course, the results of the final test. But this will be easy. I’m sure a fine specimen like you will have no trouble.”

“The…the final test, sir?”

“Well, you know how things are. We want to make sure we get only the healthiest, most on-point individuals for our program. We used to do genetic testing, make sure that people’s DNA was pre-selected for success. But after the incident with the Gattaca Corporation and that movie they made about the whole thing, public opinion just wasn’t on board, and Congress nixed the whole enterprise. Things were really touch-and-go for a while, but then we came up with a suitably non-invasive replacement. Epigenetics!”

“Epi…genetics?” asked Vincent. He hoped he wasn’t sounding too implausibly naive – he had, after all, just aced a whole battery of science tests. But surely there were some brilliant astronomers who didn’t know anything about biology. He would pretend to be one of those.

The supervisor raised an eyebrow, but he went on. “Yes, epigenetics. According to studies, stressful experiences – anything from starvation to social marginalization – change the methylation pattern of your genes. And not just your genes. Some people say that these methylation patterns can transfer to your children, and your children’s children, and so on, setting them back in life before they’re even born. Of course, it would be illegal for us to take a sample and check your methylation directly – but who needs that! In this day and age, everybody’s left a trail online. We can just check your ancestors’ life experiences directly, and come up with a projection of your methylation profile good enough to predict everything from whether you’ll have a heart attack to whether you’ll choke under pressure at a crucial moment. I’ll just need to see your genealogy, so we can run it through this computer here…you did bring it like we asked you, right? Of course you did! A superior individual like you, probably no major family traumas going back five, six generations – I bet you’ve got it all ready for me.”

HPPD and the Specter of Permanent Side Effects

Jun 8, 2018 15:23


I recently worked with a man who took LSD once in college and never stopped hallucinating. It’s been ten years now and it’s still going. We can control it with medication, but take the meds away and it starts right back up again.

This is a real disease – hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. Most descriptions of the condition emphasize that it’s just some the visual effects and doesn’t involve distorted reality perception. I’m not sure I believe this – my patient has some weird thoughts sometimes, and 65% of HPPD patient have panic attacks related to their symptoms. Maybe if you can see the walls bubbling, you’re going to be having a bad time whether you believe it’s “really true” or not.

Estimates of prevalence vary. It seems more common on LSD and synthetic cannabinoids, less common (maybe entirely absent) on psilocybin and peyote. Some people say about 1-4% of LSD users will get some form of this, which seems shockingly high to me – why don’t we hear about this more often? If I were a drug warrior or DARE instructor, I would never shut up about this. But if most people just get some mild visual issues – by all accounts the most common form of the condition – maybe they never tell anybody. Maybe 1-4% of people who have tried LSD are walking around with slightly distorted perception all the time.

There’s a lot to say about this from an epidemiological or cultural perspective. But I want to talk about the pharmacology. How can this happen? Why should a drug with a half-life of a few hours have permanent effects on your psyche?

It can’t be that the LSD sticks around. That doesn’t make metabolic sense. And a study discussed here using radio-labeled LSD definitively finds that although a few molecules might stay in the body up to a week or so, there’s no reason to think the drug can last longer than this. I like this study, both for its elegant design and because it implies that somewhere someone got a consent form saying “we’re going to give you radioactive LSD” and thought “sure, why not?”

But then why does it have permanent effects? I know very few other situations where this happens, aside from obvious stuff like “it gives you a stroke and then you’re permanently minus one lobe of your brain”. The only other open-and-shut case 100% accepted by every textbook is a movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. If you take too many antipsychotics for too long, you can get involuntary tremors and gyrations that never go away, even off the antipsychotic. Although traditionally associated with very-long-term antipsychotic use, in a few very rare cases you can get it from a single dose. On the other hand, most people can take antipsychotics for decades without developing any problems.

Some other possibilities are controversial but plausible. The sexual side effects of SSRIs almost always stop within a few months of stopping the medication, but a few people have reported cases where they can last years or decades. Psychedelics may permanently increase openness and hypnotizability, though it’s unclear if this is biochemical or just that drug trips are a life-changing experience – see my discussion here for more. Also, for every drug that has a mild week-long withdrawal syndrome in the average population, you can find a handful of people who claim to have had a five-year protracted nightmare of withdrawal symptoms that never go away.

So, again, how does this happen?

Every discussion of HPPD etiology I’ve seen is speculative and admits it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Also, most of them are in gated papers I can’t access. But a few papers seem to gesture at a theory where LSD kills an undetectably small number of very important neurons. Hermle et al talk about “the excitotoxic destruction of inhibitory interneurons that carry serotonergic and GABAergic receptors on their cell bodies and terminals, respectively”. Martinotti seems to be drawing from the same inaccessible source in mentioning “an LSD-generated intense current that may determine the destruction or dysfunction of cortical serotonergic inhibitory interneurons with gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABAergic) outputs, implicated in sensory filtering mechanisms of unnecessary stimuli”.

This would require some extra work to explain the coincidence of why the effects of HPPD are so similar to the effects of an LSD trip itself. In particular, if we’re talking excitotoxicity, shouldn’t the neurons be stimulated (ie more active) in the tripper, but dead (ie less active) in the HPPD patient? Maybe the tripper’s neurons are just so overwhelmed that they temporarily stop working? Or maybe you could interpret the comments above to be about LSD exciting some base population of neurons, the relevant inhibitory neurons having to work impossibly hard to inhibit them, and then the inhibitory neurons die of exhaustion/excitotoxicity.

Against cell death based explanations, some people seem to recover from HPPD after a while. But this could just be the same kind of brain plasticity that eventually lets people recover from strokes that kill off whole brain regions. The body is usually pretty good at routing around damage if you give it long enough.

In Search of Missing US Suicides

Jun 3, 2018 09:16


[Content warning: suicide. Thanks to someone on Twitter I forget for alerting me to this question]

Among US states, there’s a clear relationship between gun ownership rates and suicide rates, but not between gun ownership rates and homicide rates:

You might conclude guns increase suicides but not homicides. Then you might predict that the gun-loving US would be an international outlier in suicides but not homicides. In fact, it’s the opposite:

Why should this be?

We’ve already discussed why US homicide rates are so high. But why isn’t the suicide rate elevated?

One possibility: suicide methods are fungible. If guns are easily available, you might use a gun; if not, you might overdose, hang yourself, or junp off a bridge. So getting rid of one suicide method or another doesn’t do much.

This sounds plausible, but it’s the opposite of scientific consensus on the subject. See for example Controlling Access To Suicide Means, which says that “restrictions of access to common means of suicide has lead to lower overall suicide rates, particularly regarding suicide by firearms in USA, detoxification of domestic and motor vehicle gas in England and other countries, toxic pesticides in rural areas, barriers at jumping sites and hanging…” This is particularly brought up in the context of US gun control – see eg Suicide, Guns, and Public Policy, which describes “strong empirical evidence that restriction of access to firearms reduces suicides”.

The state-level data from above support this view – taking guns away from a state does decrease its suicide rate. And then there’s this graph, from Armed With Reason:

…which shows that adding more guns to a state does not decrease its nonfirearm suicide rate.

But if suicide methods aren’t fungible, then why doesn’t the US have higher suicide rates? Here’s another way of asking this question:


The US has fewer nongun suicides than anywhere else. The seemingly obvious explanation is that guns are so common that everyone who wants to commit suicide is using guns, decreasing the non-gun rate. But that contradicts all the nonfungibility evidence above. So the other possibility is that the US ought to have an very low suicide rate, and it’s just all our guns that are bringing us back up to average.

Of all US states, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Hawaii have the fewest guns. Unsurprisingly, suicides in these states are less likely than average to be committed with firearms. In MA, the rate is 22%; in NJ 24%; in HI, 20%. Their suicide rates are 8.8, 7.2, and 12.1, respectively. Hawaii has an unusual ethnic composition – 40% Asian and 20% Native Hawaiian, both groups with high suicide rates (see eg the suicide rate for Japan above). So it might be worth taking Massachusetts and New Jersey as examples to look at in more detail.

Either state, if it were independent, would be among the lowest-suicide-rate developed nations. And both still have more guns than our comparison countries. If we did a really simple linear extrapolation from New Jersey-level gun control to imagine a state where firearms were as restricted as in Britain, we would expect it to have a suicide rate of around 5 or 6 – which is around the current level of non-gun US suicides. This is much lower than any of the large comparison countries in the graph above, but there are two developed countries currently around this level – Italy and Israel. I think it makes sense to suppose that the US might have a low Italy/Israel-style base rate of suicides.

For one thing, it’s unusually religious for a developed country. Religion is one of the strongest protective factorsagainst suicide. This also seems like a good explanation for Italy and Israel.

For another, it’s culturally similar to Britain, which also has a low suicide rate somewhere in the 7s. Other British colonies don’t seem to have kept this effect – Australia and Canada are both higher – but maybe the US did.

And for another, it’s unusually ethnically diverse. Blacks and Hispanics have only about half the suicide rate of whites; which means you would expect the US to be less suicidal than Europe. I previously believed this was because whites had more guns, but this doesn’t seem to be true: Riddell et al find that whites have higher non-firearm suicide rates too. So this could be an additional factor driving US rates down.

Highlights from the Comments on Basic Jobs

May 30, 2018 54:49


These are some of the best comments from Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia. I’m sorry I still haven’t gotten a chance to read everything that people have written about it (in particular I need to look more into Scott Sumner’s take). Sorry to anyone with good comments I left out.

Aevylmar corrects my claim that Milton Friedman supported a basic income:

Technically speaking, what Milton Friedman advocated was a negative income tax, which (he thought, and I think) would be much more efficient than basic income – I don’t remember if these are his arguments, but the arguments I know for it are that the IRS can administer it with the resources it has without you needing a new bureaucracy, it doesn’t have the same distortionary effects that lump sum payment + percentage tax does, and it’s probably easier to pass through congress, since it looks as though it costs less and doesn’t have the words ‘increasing taxes’ in it.

And Virbie further explains the differences between UBI and negative income tax:

The main difference is that discussing it in terms of NIT neatly skips over a lot of the objections that people raise to flat UBIs that are abstractly and mathematically (but not logistically or politically) trivial. Many of these focus on how to get to the new policy position from where we are now. For example, people ask both about how a flat UBI would be funded and why rich people should receive a UBI. Given that the tax load to fund a basic income plan would likely fall on the upper percentiles or deciles, a flat UBI + an increase in marginal tax rates works out to a lump sum tax cut for high-earners and a marginal tax increase. Adding negative tax brackets at the bottom of the existing system and modifying top marginal rates is a simpler way to handle this and extends gracefully from the current system instead of having to work awkwardly alongside it.

In the example above, the NIT approach has the logistical advantage of the bureaucracy and systems we already have handling it more easily. And the political advantage of the net cost of the basic income guarantee looking far smaller than for flat UBI, since we’re not including the lump sum payments to upper-income people (that are more than offset by their marginal tax increases).

There’s some further debate on the (mostly trivial) advantages of NIT or UBI over the other in the rest of the thread.

Tentor describes Germany’s experience with a basic-jobs-like program:

We had/have a similar thing to basic jobs in Germany and it worked about as well as you would expect. Companies could hire workers for 1€/hour and the state would pay social security on top of that. The idea was that long-term unemployed people would find their way back to employment this way, but companies just replaced them with new 1€-workers when their contract was over and reduced fully-paid employment because duh!

Plus people on social security can be forced to take jobs or education. As a result a lot of our homeless are depressed people who stopped responding to social security demands because that’s what caused their depression.

(Links are to German Wikipedia, maybe Google translate helps)

Another German reader adds:

I agree that it doesn’t work as expected in Germany, but I think it it important to point out that not everyone is allowed is to hire workers for 1€. The work has to be neutral to the competition and in the public interest. So people are hired at a lot of public institutions (e.g. schools, universities, cleaning up the city).

Additionally these jobs improved the unemployment statistics at a low cost for the government, as people who are working in these jobs count as employed although most of these jobs are only part time jobs.

Should Psychiatry Test for Lead More?

May 26, 2018 29:10


Dr. Matthew Dumont treated a 44 year old woman with depression, body dysmorphia, and psychosis. She failed to respond to most of the ordinary treatments, failed to respond to electroconvulsive therapy, and seemed generally untreatable until she mentioned offhandedly that she spent evenings cleaning up after her husband’s half-baked attempts to scrape lead paint off the walls. Blood tests revealed elevated lead levels, the doctor convinced her to be more careful about lead exposure, and even though that didn’t make the depression any better, at least it was a moral victory.

The story continues: Dr. Dumont investigated lead more generally, found that a lot of his most severely affected patients had high lead levels, discovered that his town had a giant, poorly-maintained lead bridge that was making everyone sick, and – well, the rest stops being story about psychiatry and turns into a (barely believable, outrageous) story about politics. Read the whole thing on Siderea’s blog.

Siderea continues by asking: why don’t psychiatrists regularly test for lead?

Now, in my case, I’m a talk therapist, and worrying about patients maybe being poisoned is not even supposed to be on my radar. I’m supposed to trust the MDs to handle it.

Dumont, however, is just such an MD. And that this was a clinical possibility was almost entirely ignored by his training.

Dumont’s point here is that while “medical science” knows about the psychiatric effects of lead poisoning and carbon disulfide poisoning and other poisons that have psychiatric effects – as evidenced by his quoting from the scientific literature – psychiatry as practiced in the hospitals and clinics behaves as if it knows no such thing. Dumont is arguing that, in fact, he knew no such thing, because his professional training as a psychiatrist did not include it as a fact, or even as a possibility of a fact.

Dumont’s point is that psychiatry, as a practical, clinical branch of medicine, has acted, collectively, as if poisoning is just not a medical problem that comes up in psychiatry. Psychiatry generally did not consider poisoning, whether by lead or any other noxious substance, as a clinical explanation for psychiatric conditions. By which I mean, that when a patient presented with the sorts of symptoms he described, the question was simply never asked, is the patient being poisoned?

Dumont wants you to be shocked and horrified by what was done to those people, yes. He also wants you to be shocked and horrified by this: psychiatry as a profession – in the 1970s, when (I believe) the incidents he relates where happening, in the 1990s, when he wrote it in his book, or in 2000 when a journal on public health decided to publish it – psychiatry as a profession did not ask the question is the patient being poisoned?

And it didn’t ask the question, because clinical psychiatry had other explanations it liked better, to which it had a priori philosophical commitments.

And that, when you think through what it means for psychiatry, is absolutely chilling.


Can Things Be Both Popular and Silenced?

May 25, 2018 44:18


The New York Times recently reported on various anti-PC thinkers as “the intellectual dark web”, sparking various annoying discussion.

The first talking point – that the term is silly – is surely true. So is the second point – that it awkwardly combines careful and important thinkers like Eric Weinstein with awful demagogues like Ben Shapiro. So is the third – that people have been complaining about political correctness for decades, so anything that portrays this as a sudden revolt is ahistorical. There are probably more good points buried within the chaff.

But I want to focus on one of the main arguments that’s been emphasized in pretty much every article: can a movement really claim it’s being silenced if it’s actually pretty popular?

“Silenced” is the term a lot of these articles use, and it’s a good one. “Censored” awkwardly suggests government involvement, which nobody is claiming. “Silenced” just suggests that there’s a lot of social pressure on its members to shut up. But shutting up is of course is the exact opposite of what the people involved are doing – as the Timespoints out, several IDW members have audiences in the millions, monthly Patreon revenue in the five to six figures, and (with a big enough security detail) regular college speaking engagements.

So, from New Statesman, If The “Intellectual Dark Web” Are Being Silenced, Why Do We Need To Keep Hearing About Them?:

The main problem with the whole profile is that it struggles because of a fundamental inherent contradiction in its premise, which is that this group of renegades has been shunned but are also incredibly popular. Either they are persecuted victims standing outside of society or they are not. Joe Rogan “hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the country”, Ben Shapiro’s podcast “gets 15 million downloads a month”. Sam Harris “estimates that his Waking Up podcast gets one million listeners an episode”. Dave Rubin’s YouTube show has “more than 700,000 subscribers”, Jordan Peterson’s latest book is a bestseller on Amazon […]

On that basis alone, should this piece have been written at all? The marketplace of ideas that these folk are always banging on about is working. They have found their audience, and are not only popular but raking it in via Patreon accounts and book deals and tours to sold-out venues. Why are they not content with that? They are not content with that because they want everybody to listen, and they do not want to be challenged.

In the absence of that, they have made currency of the claim of being silenced, which is why we are in this ludicrous position where several people with columns in mainstream newspapers and publishing deals are going around with a loudhailer, bawling that we are not listening to them.

Reason‘s article is better and makes a lot of good points, but it still emphasizes this same question, particularly in their subtitle: “The leading figures of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ are incredibly popular. So why do they still feel so aggrieved?”. From the piece:

They can be found gracing high-profile cable-news shows, magazine opinion pages, and college speaking tours. They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of followers. And yet the ragtag band of academics, journalists, and political pundits that make up the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW)—think of it as an Island of Misfit Ideologues—declare themselves, Trump-like, to be underdogs and outsiders. […]

[I’m not convinced] they’re actually so taboo these days. As Weiss points out, this is a crowd that has built followings on new-media platforms like YouTube and Twitter rather than relying solely on legacy media, academic publishing, and other traditional routes to getting opinions heard. (There isn’t much that’s new about this except the media involved. Conservatives have long been building large audiences using outside-the-elite-media platforms such as talk radio, speaking tours, and blogs.) In doing so, they’ve amassed tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers. What they are saying might not be embraced, or even endured, by legacy media institutions or certain social media precincts, but it’s certainly not out of tune with or heretical to many Americans.

The bottom line is there’s no denying most of these people are very popular. Yet one of the few unifying threads among them is a feeling or posture of being marginalized, too taboo for liberal millennial snowflakes and the folks who cater to them.

The basic argument – that you can’t be both silenced and popular at the same time – sounds plausible. But I want to make a couple points that examine it in more detail.

Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia

May 19, 2018 01:30:40


Some Democrats angling for the 2020 presidential nomination have a big idea: a basic jobs guarantee, where the government promises a job to anybody who wants one. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are all said to be considering the plan.

I’ve pushed for a basic income guarantee before, and basic job guarantees sure sound similar. Some thinkers have even compared the two plans, pointing out various advantages of basic jobs: it feels “fairer” to make people work for their money, maybe there’s a psychological boost from being productive, you can use the labor to do useful projects. Simon Sarris has a long and excellent article on “why basic jobs might fare better than UBI [universal basic income]”, saying that:

UBI’s blanket-of-money approach optimizes for a certain kind of poverty, but it may create more in the long run. Basic Jobs introduce work and opportunity for communities, which may be a better welfare optimization strategy, and we could do it while keeping a targeted approach to aiding the poorest.

I am totally against this. Maybe basic jobs are better than nothing, but I have an absolute 100% revulsion at the idea of implementing basic jobs as an alternative to basic income. Before getting into the revulsion itself, I want to bring up some more practical objections:

1. Basic jobs don’t help the disabled

Only about 15% of the jobless are your traditional unemployed people looking for a new job. 60% are disabled. Disability has doubled over the past twenty years and continues to increase. 

Experts disagree on how much of the rise in disability reflects deteriorating national health vs. people finding a way to opt out of an increasingly dysfunctional labor market, but everyone expects the the trend to continue. Any program aimed at the non-working poor which focuses on the traditionally unemployed but ignores the disabled is only dealing with the tip of the iceberg.

Varieties of Argumentative Experience

May 10, 2018 42:32


In 2008, Paul Graham wrote How To Disagree Better, ranking arguments on a scale from name-calling to explicitly refuting the other person’s central point.

And that’s why, ever since 2008, Internet arguments have generally been civil and productive.

Graham’s hierarchy is useful for its intended purpose, but it isn’t really a hierarchy of disagreements. It’s a hierarchy of types of response, within a disagreement. Sometimes things are refutations of other people’s points, but the points should never have been made at all, and refuting them doesn’t help. Sometimes it’s unclear how the argument even connects to the sorts of things that in principle could be proven or refuted.

If we were to classify disagreements themselves – talk about what people are doing when they’re even having an argument – I think it would look something like this: 

Most people are either meta-debating – debating whether some parties in the debate are violating norms – or they’re just shaming, trying to push one side of the debate outside the bounds of respectability.

If you can get past that level, you end up discussing facts (blue column on the left) and/or philosophizing about how the argument has to fit together before one side is “right” or “wrong” (red column on the right). Either of these can be anywhere from throwing out a one-line claim and adding “Checkmate, atheists” at the end of it, to cooperating with the other person to try to figure out exactly what considerations are relevant and which sources best resolve them.

Book Review: History of the Fabian Society

May 3, 2018 52:41



A spectre is haunting Europe. Several spectres, actually. One of them is the spectre of communism. The others are literal ghosts. They live in abandoned mansions. Sometimes they wail eerily or make floorboards creak. If you arrange things just right, you might be able to capture them on film.

Or at least this must have been the position of the founders of the Fabian Society, Britain’s most influential socialist organization. In 1883, ghost hunters Frank Podmore and Edward Pease spent the night at the same West London haunted house, looking for signs of the paranormal. As the night dragged on without any otherworldly visitations, they passed the time in conversation and realized they shared an interest in communist thought. The two agreed to meet up again later, and from these humble beginnings came one of the most important private societies in the history of the world.

Before the Fabians, communism was a pastime of wild-eyed labor activists promising bloody revolution. The Society helped introduce the idea of incremental democratic socialism – not just in the sense of Bernie Sanders, but in the sense of the entire modern welfare state. In the process, they pretty much invented the demographic of champagne-sipping socialist intellectuals. Famous Society members included George Bernard Shaw, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Tony Blair; Fabian ideas were imported wholesale into the economic policies guiding newly-independent India, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, among others.

I became interested in the Fabians after reading Kerry Vaughn’s excellent essay on the early neoliberal movement. I’m tempted to say “on the early neoliberal conspiracy”, choosing that not because any of what they did was secret – it wasn’t – but because it seems like the only term that describes their efficiency. A small group of people who wanted to change the world founded an organization, garnered influence in a bunch of little ways, thought strategically and acted with discipline. And after decades of work they got into positions of power and successfully changed the world, shifting the economic consensus from state socialism to free(er) markets.

And the Fabians seem like the same story, told in reverse. A small group of idealists, thinking strategically and acting with discipline, moved democratic socialism from the lunatic fringe to the halls of intellectual power. If aspiring generals study Alexander the Great and Napoleon, surely aspiring intellectual movements should study the neoliberals and the Fabians. Kerry’s essay on neoliberalism was great, but I really wanted to know how the Fabians progressed from failed ghost hunters to puppetmasters controlling half of the twentieth century.

Adversarial Collaboration Contest: Loose Ends and Registration

May 1, 2018 03:03


Thanks to everyone who expressed interest in the adversarial collaborations contest.

There was a lot of good discussion in the last thread, with lots of people offering projects, but I’m not sure if people actually got in contact with each other and finalized their agreements.

So, if you proposed a collaboration in the last thread, please go back, take a look, and see if someone you might want to work with responded to your proposal.

I’m going to post two comments in the comment section of this post.

One is a coordination comment. If you’re looking to find someone who you agreed to do a collaboration with in the last thread, so you can exchange emails with them, please post as a subcomment there. For example “I offered to do a collaboration on gun control, I see Bob839 agreed to partner with me, my email is, please get in touch with me.”

The second is a contest registration comment, so I know how many teams there are. If you and a partner have gotten in touch with one another and chosen a topic (you can always change it later), please post a subcomment there so I know that you’re officially in. If for some reason you’re not comfortable posting there, you can also email me at scott[at]shireroth[dot]org. Please mention your name, your partner’s name, your topic, and (if you’re comfortable giving it), your email.


Call for Adversarial Collaborations

Apr 29, 2018 07:11


An adversarial collaboration is an effort by two people with opposing opinions on a topic to collaborate on a summary of the evidence. Just as we hope that a trial with both prosecutor and defense will give the jury a balanced view of the evidence for and against a suspect, so we hope an adversarial collaboration will give readers a balanced view of evidence for and against some thesis. It’s typically done for scientific papers, but I’m excited about the possibility of people applying the concept to to less formal writeups as well.

For example, a pro-gun activist might collaborate with an anti-gun activist to write a joint article on the evidence for whether gun control saves lives. We trust each person to make sure the best evidence for their respective side is included. We also trust that they’ll fact-check each other and make sure there aren’t any errors or falsehoods in the final document. There might be a lot of debating, but it will happen on high-bandwidth informal channels behind the scenes and nobody will feel like they have tailor their debating to sounding good for an audience.

I don’t know to what degree true adversarial collaborations are really possible. It might be that people who disagree on high-level issues might not be able to cooperate on a survey of the field at all. But I’d like to find out.

So I’m offering a prize, plus a chance to get the results published on SSC, to any teams (probably of two people each) who want to do adversarial collaborations. If you want to participate, comment on this post with what subject you’d like to work on and what your opinion is on the subject. Or look through existing comments, find someone who has the opposite opinion to you on a subject you care about, and reply to them saying you want to be their foil. After that you can exchange emails and start working.

Mental Health on a Budget

Apr 27, 2018 15:53


Everyone knows medical care in the US is expensive even with insurance and prohibitively expensive without it. I have a lot of patients who are uninsured, or who bounce on and off insurance, or who have trouble affording their co-pays. This is a collection of tricks I’ve learned (mostly from them) to help deal with these situations. They are US-based and may not apply to other countries. Within the US, they are a combination of legal and probably-legal; I’ve tried to mark which is which but I am not a lawyer and can’t make promises. None of this is medical advice; use at your own risk.

This is intended for people who already know they do not qualify for government assistance. If you’re not sure, check and look into the particular patchwork of assistance programs in your state and county.

I. Prescription Medication

This section is about ways to get prescription medication for cheaper. If even after all this your prescription medication is too expensive, please talk to your doctor about whether it can be replaced with a less expensive medication. Often doctors don’t think about this and will be happy to work with you if they know you need it. They may also have other ways to help you save money, like giving you the free sample boxes they get from drug reps.

1. Sites like This is first because it’s probably the most important thing most people can do to save money on health care. For example, one month of Abilify 5 mg usually costs $930 at Safeway, but only $30 with a GoodRx coupon. There is no catch. Insurances and pharmacies play a weird game where insurances say they’ll only pay one-tenth the sticker price for drugs, and pharmacies respond by dectupling the price of everything. If you have insurance, it all (mostly) cancels out in the end; if you don’t, you end up paying inflated prices with no relation to reality. GoodRx negotiates discounts so that individual consumers can get drugs for the same discounted price as insurances (or better); they also list the prices at each pharmacy so you know where to shop. This is not only important in and of itself, but its price comparison feature is also important to figure out how best to apply the other features in this category. Even if you have insurance, GoodRx prices are sometimes lower than your copay.

2. Get and split bigger pills. Remember how a month of Abilify 5 mg cost $30 with the coupon? Well, a month of Abilify 30 mg also costs $30. Cut each 30 mg pill into sixths, and now you have six months’ worth of Abilify 5 mg, for a total cost of $5 per month. You’ll need a cooperative doctor willing to prescribe you the higher dose. Note that some pills cannot be divided in this way – cutting XR pills screws up the extended release mechanism. Others like seizure medication are a bad idea to split in case you end up taking slightly different doses each time. Ask your doctor whether this is safe for whatever medication you use. Do not ask the pharma companies or trust their literature – they will always say it’s unsafe, for self-interested reasons. Contrary to some doctors’ concerns, this is not insurance fraud if you’re not buying it with insurance, and AFAIK there’s no such thing as defrauding a pharmacy.

Gupta on Enlightenment

Apr 21, 2018 20:10


That story about the blockchain-based dating site gets better: its designer is an enlightened being.

I got this from Vinay Gupta’s wiki, which describes some of his thoughts and experiences. Since reading Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha, I’ve been looking at a bunch of this stuff, and it’s interesting how it does (or doesn’t) converge. For example, from the MCTB review:

If you really, really examine your phenomenological experience, you realize all sorts of surprising things…one early insight is a perception of your mental awareness of a phenomenon as separate from your perception of that phenomenon.

And from Gupta:

The real process of meditation is paying real close attention to what is happening around you without passing it to the mind immediately for analysis…the mind becomes perceived to be another sense. You see, you listen, you hear, you smell, you think. Once you are aware that you are not your mind and your mind is basically a sense organ, it’s a thing that brings information to you, you enter the real work of enlightenment, which is: what is this me that the mind is bringing information to? And that’s the big one. That question is at the heart of everybody’s enlightenment process.

From the MCTB review:

The main point of [mindfulness] meditation is to improve your concentration ability so you can direct it to ordinary experience. Become so good at concentrating that you can attain various jhanas – but then, instead of focusing on infinite bliss or whatever other cool things you can do with your new talent, look at a wall or listen to the breeze or just try to understand the experience of existing in time.

From Gupta:

Building the instrumentation to keep your consciousness stable enough to put the attention on the thing, is about three or four years work. It’s like grinding a mirror if you’re going to make an astronomical telescope. It takes years to grind a perfectly smooth reflector. Then you silver coat it. Then you point it at the sky and now you can see the moons of Jupiter. It takes you years to design the microscope, you look into the water, now you can see the microbes and you just discovered germ theory. Building the instrumentation takes time. Years and years and years because you need long periods – 35, 40 seconds minimally – when there are no thoughts in the mind to be able to begin to turn the awareness onto itself. So lengthening the gap between thoughts means lowering the mental background noise.

Highlights from the Comments on Survey Harassment Rates

Apr 20, 2018 15:11


[Content warning: harassment. This discusses the comments to SSC Survey Results: Sexual Harassment Levels By Field]

brmic writes:

Thank you for posting this and the data file. FWIW, I tried to reproduce the results and couldn’t reproduce the correlations between female victimization, male victimization and male perpetration. fem vic vs. male vic is 0.65, same as yours. fem vic vs. male perp is 0.01 for me, and male vic vs. male perp is 0.21 for me. Everything else more or less checks out.

As a reviewer, I’d say the combination score is not convincing, especially since it ignores all considerations of different male to female ratios in the various industries.
Also, if you have two measures with r = 0.8, Fig 6 is not a good idea IMHO. It’s probably just noise. (Also, it should be a dotplot centered around 1, because the relevant info is distance from 1:1 ratio.)
Instead, I’d focus on the correlation between female victimization at work and female victimization outside work of 0.65 (for me) and the same for males at 0.59, which also leads to the conclusion that there’s a strong ‘people in fields’ effect, without having to go through the combination score. If you’re so inclined, you might then do the at-work by outside-work ratios and end up a kind of cross-validation set, where you can see whether the bad fields for women are bad for men as well. Of course, once you then consider sex ratios per field. it’s story time all over again. Still, e.g. men report similar levels of out of work victimization in computers (20%) and Health Care (24%), but at work victimization of 4% and 12% respectively, which strongly suggests that Health Care is worse.

Their code is available here. Thanks for doing the work to try to replicate my results. I’ve removed the non-confirmed correlations from my post until I can figure out what’s going on with them. I agree that Figure 6 was barely worth it, which is why I tried to make Figure 4 (the unadjusted version) the center of my thesis.

Chris quotes a TIME article that argues that predominantly-male communities generally have lower harassment rates than predominantly-female communities:

SSC Survey Results: Sexual Harassment Levels by Field

Apr 19, 2018 25:34


[content note: sexual harassment]


Recent discussion of sexual harassment at work has focused on a few high-profile industries. But there has been relatively little credible research as to how rates really differ by occupation type.

There are many surveys of harassment rates in specific industries, but they can’t be credibly compared with one another. The percent of people who report sexual harassment varies wildly from survey to survey – thus studies finding that anywhere from 12 percent to 48 percent to 60 percent to 85 percent of women have been harassed at work. If a survey shows that 60% of female nurses get sexually harassed at work, does that mean nurses are victimized particularly often (because more than 12%) or are unusually safe (because less than 85%)? It doesn’t matter, because another study says only 19% of nurses get harassed.

Why do all these numbers differ so dramatically? The most important issue seems to be how you ask the question. “Have you ever been harassed?” gets numbers more like 12%; giving a long list of specific behaviors and asking “Have you ever experienced any of these?” gets numbers closer to 85%, depending on what the behaviors are. Surveys also differ on whether they ask all employees or just women, whether they include a time frame (eg “…in the past two years”), whether they specify that it had to be at work vs. work-related events, and whether they include witnessing someone else’s harassment. Taking these surveys entirely seriously would lead to the conclusion that Uber has the lowest sexual harassment rate of any company or industry in the world; I choose not to take them seriously.

This means we need investigations that use the same methodology across multiple fields. Whenever the media talks about this – see eg the Washington Post’s The Industries With The Worst Sexual Harassment Problem – they’re working off of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s records. But these are totally unsuitable for the task – they just report raw number of claims per industry. The industries that rank lowest in EEOC’s data tend to be small industries with very few women – for example, taken seriously the WaPo’s graph shows that mining has the least problem with sexual harassment of any industry in the world. Is this thanks to their uniquely progressive culture – or because there are practically no female miners? I’m going to say the second one. The takeaway that most real researchers take from the EEOC claims is that the lowest-paying and most mundane occupations – retail, restaurant work, hotel work, etc – have much higher sexual harassment rates than the prestigious occupations people generally talk about. Eyeballing the data, this looks basically true. But trying to get anything more fine-grained than that out of EEOC is basically hopeless.

I only know of two surveys that have even attempted to compare different fields in a principled way, and neither really inspires confidence.

Recommendations vs. Guidelines

Apr 14, 2018 10:40


Medicine loves guidelines. But everywhere else, guidelines are still underappreciated.

Consider a recommendation, like “Try Lexapro!” Even if Lexapro is a good medication, it might not be a good medication for your situation. And even if it’s a good medication for your situation, it might fail for unpredictable reasons involving genetics and individual variability.

So medicine uses guidelines – algorithms that eventually result in a recommendation. A typical guideline for treating depression might look like this (this is a very over-simplified version for an example only, NOT MEDICAL ADVICE):

1. Ask the patient if they have symptoms of bipolar disorder. If so, ignore everything else on here and move to the bipolar guideline.

2. If the depression seems more anxious, try Lexapro. Or if the depression seems more anergic, try Wellbutrin.

3. Wait one month. If it works perfectly, declare victory. If it works a little but not enough, increase the dose. If it doesn’t work at all, stop it and move on to the next step.

4. Try Zoloft, Remeron, or Effexor. Repeat Step 3.

5. Cycle through steps 3 and 4 until you either find something that works, or you and your patient agree that you don’t have enough time and patience to continue cycling through this tier of options and you want to try another tier with more risks in exchange for more potential benefits.

6. If the depression seems more melancholic, try Anafranil. Or if the depression seems more atypical, try Nardil. Or if your patient is on an earlier-tier medication that almost but not quite works, try augmenting with Abilify. Repeat Step 3.

7. Try electroconvulsive therapy.

The end result might be the recommendation “try Lexapro!”, but you know where to go if that doesn’t work. A psychiatrist armed with this guideline can do much better work than one who just happens to know that Lexapro is the best antidepressant, even if Lexapro really is the best antidepressant. Whenever I’m hopelessly confused about what to do with a difficult patient, I find it really reassuring that I can go back to a guideline like this, put together by top psychiatrists working off the best evidence available.

This makes it even more infuriating that there’s nothing like this for other areas I care about.

Highlights from the Comments on DC Graduation Rates

Apr 13, 2018 16:14


Bizzolt writes:

DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.

So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:

1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.

There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.

It looks like most other school districts don’t have this policy; it seems plausible that this is the main difference between DC and other poor school districts that nevertheless manage to pass most of their kids.

Userfriendlyyy also focuses on the absences:

Looks to me like the policy they changed was losing credit for bad attendance. This might be from a few things. Kids might need to help out with the family finances. The only part of the job market that is doing well right now is low end unskilled workers who are willing to get paid crap (no matter how much the financial press wants to pretend otherwise, I listened to an hour of local NPR and the Topic was ‘call in and tell us how the booming job market is helping you out’, 20 callers not one had anything good to say and my state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country). If you know you don’t have the grades for a scholarship, your family is broke and since we have effectively made going to college impossible for anyone but the offspring of the oligarchy, and you can find a minimum wage job easily; what exactly is the utility of that little piece of paper compared to the ability to put food on the table tonight?

Why DC’s Low Graduation Rates?

Apr 12, 2018 12:13


[Some changes to the conclusions in this post; see edit at the end and entry 21 on Mistakes page]

US News: DC Schools Brace For Catastrophic Drop In Graduation Rates. “Catastrophic” isn’t hyperbole; the numbers are expected to drop from 73% (close to the national average of 83%) all the way down to 42%.

There’s no debate about why this is happening – it’s because the previous graduation rate was basically fraudulent, inflated by pressure to show that recent “reforms” were working. Last year there was a big investigation, all the investigators agreed it was fraudulent, DC agreed to do a little less fraud this year, and this is the result. It’s pretty damning, given how everybody was praising the reforms and holding them up as a national model and saying this proved that Tough But Fair Education Policy could make a difference:

As far as scandals in the education policy world go, D.C. schools so profoundly miscalculating graduation rates at a time when the high-profile school district had been so self-laudatory about its achievements may be difficult to top […] Indeed, when Michelle Rhee took the reins of the flailing school system a decade ago, it galvanized the education reform movement, which had just begun blossoming around the country, and ushered in a host of controversial changes that included the shuttering of multiple schools, firing of hundreds of teachers and the institution of new teacher evaluation and compensation models.

The changes not only dramatically altered the local political landscape in Washington but also shined a national spotlight on D.C. schools that prompted other urban school districts and education policy researchers to consider the nation’s capital a bellwether for the entire education reform movement.

Well, darn.

Adult Neurogenesis – A Pointed Review

Apr 6, 2018 28:12


[I am not a neuroscientist and apologize in advance for any errors in this article.]

Hey, let’s review the literature on adult neurogenesis! This’ll be really fun, promise.

Gage’s Neurogenesis In The Adult Brain, published in the Journal Of Neuroscience and cited 834 times, begins:

A milestone is marked in our understanding of the brain with the recent acceptance, contrary to early dogma, that the adult nervous system can generate new neurons. One could wonder how this dogma originally came about, particularly because all organisms have some cells that continue to divide, adding to the size of the organism and repairing damage. All mammals have replicating cells in many organs and in some cases, notably the blood, skin, and gut, stem cells have been shown to exist throughout life, contributing to rapid cell replacement. Furthermore, insects, fish, and amphibia can replicate neural cells throughout life. An exception to this rule of self-repair and continued growth was thought to be the mammalian brain and spinal cord. In fact, because we knew that microglia, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes all normally divide in the adult and respond to injury by dividing, it was only neurons that were considered to be refractory to replication. Now we know that this long accepted limitation is not completely true

Highlights from the Comments on Twelve Rules

Apr 5, 2018 41:52


From sclmlw:

While I don’t agree with lots of Jordan Peterson, I think Scott fundamentally missed the boat in some of his criticisms because he systematically views things from a different perspective than Peterson, which was missed.

From what I can tell, Peterson is intensely interested in the idea, “Everyone has the capacity to become a Nazi war criminal. What causes that phenomenon?” His answer, and the central driving idea of his philosophy, seems to be, “Anarchy/chaos is worse for society/humanity than horrific, unimaginable cruelty. So evolution pushed society to develop in a way that will always choose cruelty over chaos. Thus, if you were in Stalin’s Russia, you’d run the gulags to stave off anarchy, and you’d kill hundreds of people if you had to. You may hate it, but it was required for humanity to soldier on, so it’s what evolutionary forces produced.” Peterson cares because he wants to understand how to steer societies away from the gulags and the killing fields.

Are the Amish Unhappy? Super Happy? Just Meh?

Apr 4, 2018 13:11


Recently on Marginal Revolution: Are the Amish unhappy?

The average levels of life satisfaction [among the Amish] was 4.4; just above the neutral point…the Amish fall lower than members of many other groups. In a study of more than 13 thousand college students from 31 nations, for example, only students from Kenya (whose average life satisfaction was 4.0) scored lower than the Amish (Diener & Diener, 1995).

Sounds like Amish people are quite unhappy. This came as a surprise to me, since I’d heard from Jonah Lehrer and Business Insider that the average Amish person is as happy as the average non-Amish billionaire, proving once and for all that community and old-fashioned values are more important than money:

As an illustration of the striking disconnect between money and happiness, the average life satisfaction of Forbes magazine’s 400 richest Americans was 5.8 on a 7-point scale. Yet the average life satisfaction of the Pennsylvania Amish is also 5.8, despite the fact that their average annual salary is several billion dollars lower.

The Hour I First Believed

Apr 2, 2018 20:21


There’s a Jewish tradition that laypeople should only speculate on the nature of God during Passover, because God is closer to us and such speculations might succeed.

And there’s an atheist tradition that laypeople should only speculate on the nature of God on April Fools’ Day, because believing in God is dumb, and at least then you can say you’re only kidding.

Today is both, so let’s speculate. To do this properly, we need to understand five things: acausal trade, value handshakes, counterfactual mugging, simulation capture, and the Tegmarkian multiverse.

Book Review Twelve Rules for Life

Mar 28, 2018 43:29


I got Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life for the same reason as the other 210,000 people: to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.

But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good

Navigating And:Or Avoiding the Inpatient Mental Health System

Mar 24, 2018 53:04


This is in response to questions I get about how to interact (or not interact) with the inpatient mental health system and involuntary commitment. The table of contents is:

1. How can I get outpatient mental health care without much risk of being involuntarily committed to a hospital?
2: How can I get mental health care at a hospital ER without much risk of being involuntarily committed?
3. I would like to get voluntarily committed to a hospital. How can I do that?
4. I am seeking inpatient treatment. How can I make sure that everyone knows I am there voluntarily, and that I don’t get shifted to involuntary status?
5. How can I decide which psychiatric hospital to go to?
6. I am in a psychiatric hospital. How can I make this experience as comfortable as possible?
7. I am in a psychiatric hospital and not happy about it and I want to get out as quickly as possible. What should I do?
8. I am in the psychiatric hospital and I think I am being mistreated. What can I do?
9. I think my friend/family member is in the psychiatric hospital, but nobody will tell me anything.
10. My friend/family member is in the psychiatric hospital and wants to get out as quickly as possible. How can I help them?
11. How will I pay for all of this?
12. I have a friend/family member who really needs psychiatric treatment, but refuses to get it. What can I do?

The Dark Rule Utilitarian Argument for Science Piracy

Mar 21, 2018 11:48


I sometimes advertise – the Kazakhstani pirate site that lets you get scientific papers for free. It’s clearly illegal in the US. But is it unethical? I can think of two strong arguments that it might be:

First, we have intellectual property rights to encourage the production of intellectual goods. If everyone downloaded Black Panther, then Marvel wouldn’t get any money, the movie industry would collapse, and we would never get Black Panther 2, Black Panther Vs. Batman Vs. Superman, A Very Black Panther Christmas, Black Panther 3000: Help, We Have No Idea How To Create Original Movies Anymore, and all the other sequels and spinoffs we await with a resignation born of inevitability. This is sort of a pop-Kantian/rule-utilitarian argument: if everyone were to act as I did, our actions would be self-defeating. Or we can reframe it as a coordination problem: we’re defecting against the institutions necessary to support movies existing at all, and free-loading off our moral betters.

SSC Journal Club Friston on Computational Mood

Mar 12, 2018 27:30


A few months ago, I wrote Toward A Predictive Theory Of Depression, which used the predictive coding model of brain function to speculate about mood disorders and emotions. Emotions might be a tendency toward unusually high (or low) precision of predictions:

Imagine the world’s most successful entrepreneur. Every company they found becomes a multibillion-dollar success. Every stock they pick shoots up and never stops. Heck, even their personal life is like this. Every vacation they take ends out picture-perfect and creates memories that last a lifetime; every date they go on leads to passionate soul-burning love that never ends badly.

I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup [Classic]

Mar 9, 2018 01:07:12


I'm traveling and not in a position to record "SSC Journal Club: Friston on Computational Mood" so I thought I'd release this SSC classic to tide people over:

[Content warning: Politics, religion, social justice, spoilers for “The Secret of Father Brown”. This isn’t especially original to me and I don’t claim anything more than to be explaining and rewording things I have heard from a bunch of other people. Unapologetically America-centric because I’m not informed enough to make it otherwise. Try to keep this off Reddit and other similar sorts of things.]


In Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown, a beloved nobleman who murdered his good-for-nothing brother in a duel thirty years ago returns to his hometown wracked by guilt. All the townspeople want to forgive him immediately, and they mock the titular priest for only being willing to give a measured forgiveness conditional on penance and self-reflection. They lecture the priest on the virtues of charity and compassion.

God Help Us, Let’s Try to Understand Friston on Free Energy

Mar 5, 2018 32:39


I’ve been trying to delve deeper into predictive processing theories of the brain, and I keep coming across Karl Friston’s work on “free energy”.

At first I felt bad for not understanding this. Then I realized I wasn’t alone. There’s an entire not-understanding-Karl-Friston internet fandom, complete with its own parody Twitter account and Markov blanket memes.

From the journal Neuropsychoanalysis (which based on its name I predict is a center of expertise in not understanding things):

At Columbia’s psychiatry department, I recently led a journal club for 15 PET and fMRI researhers, PhDs and MDs all, with well over $10 million in NIH grants between us, and we tried to understand Friston’s 2010 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper – for an hour and a half. There was a lot of mathematical knowledge in the room: three statisticians, two physicists, a physical chemist, a nuclear physicist, and a large group of neuroimagers – but apparently we didn’t have what it took. I met with a Princeton physicist, a Stanford neurophysiologist, a Cold Springs Harbor neurobiologist to discuss the paper. Again blanks, one and all.

SSC Journal Club Cipriani on Antidepressants

Feb 27, 2018 20:09



The big news in psychiatry this month is Cipriani et al’s Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. It purports to be the last word in the “do antidepressants work?” question, and a first (or at least early) word in the under-asked “which antidepressants are best?” question.

This study is very big, very sophisticated, and must have taken a very impressive amount of work. It meta-analyzes virtually every RCT of antidepressants ever done – 522 in all – then throws every statistical trick in the book at them to try to glob together into a coherent account of how antidepressants work. It includes Andrea Cipriani, one of the most famous research psychiatrists in the world – and John Ioannidis, one of the most famous statisticians. It’s been covered in news sources around the world: my favorite headline is Newsweek’s unsubtle Antidepressants Do Work And Many More People Should Take Them, but honorable mention to Reuters’ Study Seeks To End Antidepressant Debate: The Drugs Do Work.

Highlights from the Comments on Technological Unemployment

Feb 23, 2018 28:03


Thanks to everyone who commented on the post about technological unemployment.

From Onyomi:

Not saying I necessarily think this is what is going on, but one simple possible explanation for why technological unemployment could happen now when it never happened much in the past could be quite simply the greatly accelerated pace of change.

For most of history, technological change was very, very slow. The past few hundred years we’ve moved increasingly to a place where each new generation has to learn to function in a world different from the one their parents grew up in. We could now be moving to a world where each generation has to learn to function in multiple worlds over the course of a lifetimes, which may stretch the limits of human adaptability.

Current Affairs’ “Some Puzzles for Libertarians”, Treated as Writing Prompts for Short Stories

Feb 22, 2018 36:16


[Taken from here.]


Deep in the forest, thousands of miles from civilization, there is an isolated village. It has not seen contact with any other humans for a long time. It is, however, a pleasant and flourishing community, which strongly values freedom and entrepreneurship. There is, however, one tiny quirk. In this village, there is a ritual. Every year, a boy who reaches 18 is cannibalized. It brings the rains, or something. But despite its taste for cannibalism, this village wishes to live in accordance with libertarian principles. Thus, they will only cannibalize the boy if he consents. In order to encourage this to happen, they will put tremendous social pressure on the boy. All through his youth, they will tell him they believe the future of the village depends on his consenting. His parents tell him that he would bring great shame on the household if he refused, which is true. The choice nevertheless rests with the boy, and whatever he chooses will be respected. The parents and villagers attempt to persuade him, but never lie to him, and make clear that they would never force his choice. However: if the boy refuses to be cannibalized, the village has a backup plan. The boy will be blacklisted. No shopkeeper will sell him food, no hotel will give him a room, no hospital will treat him, no employer will hire him. After all, under libertarian principles, nobody can be told how to use their property. The boy’s parents, ashamed of him, will turn him out of the house with no money. He may leave the village, but it is certain death, for thousands of miles of desolate wolf-infested wilderness stand between him and other humans and he has no food. (The wilderness is also privately-owned, and he cannot pay the admission fee.) He is shunned and despised, left to wander the streets in a futile search for shelter and sustenance. However, no force is exercised against him. He is never touched or arrested. He is treated as nonexistent, as the villagers await his demise. So the boy starves to death. The villagers then cannibalize his emaciated corpse, reasoning that they cannot be compelled to give him a dignified burial (plus he died on private property, collapsing in a flowerbed).

Technological Unemployment Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Feb 20, 2018 55:17


[I am not an economist or an expert on this topic. This is my attempt to figure out what economists and experts think so I can understand the issue, and I’m writing it down to speed your going through the same process. If you have more direct access to economists and experts, feel free to ignore this]

Technological unemployment is a hard topic because there are such good arguments on both sides.

The argument against: we’ve had increasing technology for centuries now, people have been predicting that technology will put them out of work since the Luddites, and it’s never come true. Instead, one of two things have happened. Either machines have augmented human workers, allowing them to produce more goods at lower prices, and so expanded industries so dramatically that overall they employ more people. Or displaced workers from one industry have gone into another – stable boys becoming car mechanics, or the like. There are a bunch of well-known theoretical mechanisms that compensate for technological displacement – see Vivarelli for a review. David Autor gives a vivid example:

Five More Years

Feb 16, 2018 28:41


Those yearly “predictions for next year” posts are starting to reach the limit of their usefulness. Not much changes from year to year, and most of what does change is hard to capture in objective probabilistic predictions.

So in honor of this blog’s five year anniversary, here are some predictions for the next five years. All predictions to be graded on 2/15/2023:

Even More Search Terms That Led People to This Blog

Feb 15, 2018 10:59


[Previously in series: Search Terms That Have Led People To This Blog and More Search Terms That Have Led People To This Blog. Content warning: profanity, rape, and other unfiltered access to the consciousness of the Internet]

Sometimes I look at what search terms lead people to SSC. Sometimes it’s the things you would think – “slate star codex”, “rationality”, the names of medications I’ve written about.

Other times it’s a little weirder:

More Testimonials for SSC

Feb 14, 2018 16:30


Last post I thanked some of the people who have contributed to this blog. But once again, it’s time to honor some of the most important contributors: the many people who give valuable feedback on everything I write. Here’s a short sample of some of…most interesting. I’m avoiding names and links to avoid pile-ons. Some slightly edited for readability.

“A cowardly autistic cuckolded deviant Jew who uses his IQ to rationalize away wisdom”

“He’s part of the self-declared ‘Rationalish Community’. Imagine the ridiculous level of self-regard implied by that. Picture cb2 with a graduate degree. Scott Alexander, if brevity is the soul of wit, you’re a witless soulsucking...

We've Got Five Years, What a Surprise

Feb 14, 2018 08:23


Today is the fifth anniversary of Slate Star Codex. Overall I’m very happy with how this project is going so far, and I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s made things work behind the scenes.

Trike Apps generously volunteered to host me free of charge. I give them the highest praise it is possible to give a hosting company – namely, that I completely forgot about their existence until right now because I’ve never had to worry about anything. Special thanks to Matt Fallshaw and Cat Truscott for their kindness and patience.

Bakkot has done various things behind the scenes to make the blog more useable – fixing WordPress bugs, helping with moderation tasks, and adding cool new features like the green highlights around new comments. A big part of the success of the comments section is thanks to his innovations; the remaining horribleness is mostly my fault. Rory O and Alice M have also helped with this.

Guyenet on Motivation

Feb 8, 2018 14:24


Rereading The Hungry Brain, I notice my review missed one of my favorite parts: the description of the motivational system. It starts with studies of lampreys, horrible little primitive parasitic fish:

How does the lamprey decide what to do? Within the lamprey basal ganglia lies a key structure called the striatum, which is the portion of the basal ganglia that receives most of the incoming signals from other parts of the brain. The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on.

Predictions for 2018

Feb 6, 2018 12:28


At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. So here are a hundred more for 2018.

Some changes this year: I’ve eliminated a bunch of predictions about things that are very unlikely where I just plug in the same number each year, like “99% chance of no coup in the US”. I’ve tried to have almost everything this year be new and genuinely uncertain. I’ve also included some very personal predictions about friends and gossip that I’m keeping secret for now – I have them written down somewhere else and they’re for my own interest only.

Powerless Placebos

Feb 1, 2018 09:13


[All things that have been discussed here before, but some people wanted it all in a convenient place]

The most important study on the placebo effect is Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche’s Is The Placebo Powerless?, updated three years later by a systematic review and seven years later with a Cochrane review. All three looked at studies comparing a real drug, a placebo drug, and no drug (by the third, over 200 such studies) – and, in general, found little benefit of the placebo drug over no drug at all. There were some possible minor placebo effects in a few isolated conditions – mostly pain – but overall H&G concluded that the placebo effect was clinically insignificant. Despite a few half-hearted tries, no one has been able to produce much evidence they’re wrong. This is kind of surprising, since everyone has been obsessing over placebos and saying they’re super-important for the past fifty years.

The Invention of Moral Narrative

Jan 31, 2018 16:53


H/T Robin Hanson: Aeon’s The Good Guy / Bad Guy Myth. “Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The article claims almost every modern epic – superhero movies, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc – shares a similar plot. There are some good guys. There are some bad guys. They fight. The good guys win. The end.

The good guys are usually scrappy amateurs; the bad guys usually well-organized professionals with typical fascist precision. The good guys usually demonstrate a respect for human life and the bonds of friendship; the bad guys betray their citizens and their underlings with equal abandon. They gain their good guy or bad guy status by either following the universal law, or breaking it.

Highlights from the Comments on Conflict vs. Mistake

Jan 30, 2018 36:00


Thanks to everyone who commented on the posts about conflict and mistake theory.

aciddc writes:

I’m a leftist (and I guess a Marxist in the same sense I guess I’m a Darwinist despite knowing evolutionary theory has passed him by) fan of this blog. I’ve thought about this “conflict theory vs. mistake theory” dichotomy a lot, though I’ve been thinking of it as what distinguishes “leftists” from “liberals.”

SSC Survey Data on Models of Political Conflict

Jan 26, 2018 11:12


There were a lot of good comments on yesterday’s conflict vs. mistake post. Some were very appropriate challenges: for example, doesn’t public choice theory itself assume conflict between special interests? And didn’t Marxism start off with a dry incentive-based explanation for why capitalists have to do what they do and how the incentive landscape needs to change? I want to explore these questions further – but first, some data from the SSC survey showing that the distinction does capture something real and important.

No questions really matched the conflict/mistake theory distinction, but one of the closest was POLITICAL DISAGREEMENT I: “Which of these plays a bigger role in explaining why some people are wrong about politics – intellectual failure, or moral failure?” This isn’t quite the way I would frame it now – but it’ll do for our purposes.

Conflict Vs. Mistake

Jan 25, 2018 21:08


Jacobite – which is apparently still a real magazine and not a one-off gag making fun of Jacobin – summarizes their article Under-Theorizing Government as “You’ll never hear the terms ‘principal-agent problem,’ ‘rent-seeking,’ or ‘aligning incentives’ from socialists. That’s because they expect ideology to solve all practical considerations of governance.”

There have been some really weird and poorly-informed socialist critiques of public choice theory lately, and this article generalizes from those to a claim that Marxists just don’t like considering the hard technical question of how to design a good government. This would explain why their own governments so often fail. Also why, whenever existing governments are bad, Marxists immediately jump to the conclusion that they must be run by evil people who want them to be bad on purpose.

Practically-A-Book Review Luna Whitepaper

Jan 18, 2018 16:38


They say money can’t buy love. But that was the bad old days of fiat money. Now there are dozens of love-based cryptocurrencies – LoveCoin, CupidCoin, Erosium, Nubilo – with market caps in the mid nine-figures. The 17-year-old genius behind CupidCoin just bought the state of Tennessee. You think I’m joking, but can you be sure? How weird is “too weird to be true” these days, and how confident are you in your answer?

Case in point: Luna, which bills itself as blockchain-optimized dating. They caught my attention by hiring Aella, previously featured on this blog for her adventures taking LSD megadoses weekly for a year. They kept it with their cutesy story about how the name “Luna” comes from founder Andre Ornish’s first word – adorable, until you consider that any baby whose first word is in Latin is definitely possessed.

Bundles of Joy

Jan 17, 2018 07:55


On December’s survey, I asked readers who had children whether they were happy with that decision. Here are the results, from 1 (very unhappy) to 5 (very happy):



The mean was 4.43, and the median 5. People are really happy to have kids!

This was equally true regardless of gender. The male average (4.43, n = 1768) and female average (4.49, n = 177) were indistinguishable.

Maybe the Real Superintelligent AI Is Extremely Smart Computers

Jan 16, 2018 12:41


By Ted Chiang, on Buzzfeed: The Real Danger To Civilization Isn’t AI: It’s Runaway Capitalism. Chiang’s science fiction is great and I highly recommend it. This article, not so much.

The gist seems to be: hypothetical superintelligent AIs sound a lot like modern capitalism. Both optimize relentlessly for their chosen goal (paperclips, money), while ignoring the whole complexity of human value.

Meditations on Moloch [Classic]

Jan 13, 2018 01:46:35


[Content note: Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions!]


Allan Ginsberg’s famous poem, Moloch:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Self-Serving Bias

Jan 12, 2018 10:17


Alex Tabarrok beat me to the essay on Oregon’s self-service gas laws that I wanted to write.

Oregon is one of two US states that bans self-service gas stations. Recently, they passed a law relaxing this restriction – self-service is permissable in some rural counties during odd hours of the night. Outraged Oregonians took to social media to protest that self-service was unsafe, that it would destroy jobs, that breathing in gas fumes would kill people, that gas pumping had to be performed by properly credentialed experts – seemingly unaware that most of the rest of the country and the world does it without a second thought.

Fight Me, Psychologists Birth Order Effects Exist and Are Very Strong

Jan 8, 2018 13:57


“Birth order” refers to whether a child is the oldest, second-oldest, youngest, etc. in their family. For a while, pop psychologists created a whole industry around telling people how their birth order affected their personality: oldest children are more conservative, youngest children are more creative, etc.

Then people got around to actually studying it and couldn’t find any of that. Wikipedia’s birth order article says:

Claims that birth order affects human psychology are prevalent in family literature, but studies find such effects to be vanishingly small….the largest multi-study research suggests zero or near-zero effects. Birth-order theory has the characteristics of a zombie theory, as despite disconfirmation, it continues to have a strong presence in pop psychology and popular culture.

Book Review Madness and Civilization

Jan 5, 2018 44:34


I started reading Foucault’s Madness And Civilization with the expectation that it would be tedious and incomprehensible. You know, the stereotype that postmodernism / post-structuralism / Continentalism / etc. involves a lot of negation of the negation of the inversion of the Other within the Absolute within [and so on for 200 pages]. There was a little of that. But there was also a fascinating look at the history of mental illness, an entertainingly bombastic writing style, and a few ideas that I might have actually half-understood.

2017 Predictions Calibration Results

Jan 3, 2018 20:10


At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. Here are 20142015, and 2016.

And here are the predictions I made for 2017. Strikethrough’d are false. Intact are true. Italicized are getting thrown out because I can’t decide if they’re true or not.

Adderall Risks Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Dec 29, 2017 52:37


I didn’t realize how much of a psychiatrist’s time was spent gatekeeping Adderall.

The human brain wasn’t built for accounting or software engineering. A few lucky people can do these things ten hours a day, every day, with a smile. The rest of us start fidgeting and checking our cell phone somewhere around the thirty minute mark. I work near the financial district of a big city, so every day a new Senior Regional Manipulator Of Tiny Numbers comes in and tells me that his brain must be broken because he can’t sit still and manipulate tiny numbers as much as he wants. How come this is so hard for him, when all of his colleagues can work so diligently?

A History of the Silmarils in the Fifth Age

Dec 27, 2017 14:17


The Silmarillion describes the fate of the three Silmarils. Earendil kept one, and traveled with it through the sky, where it became the planet Venus. Maedhros stole another, but regretted his deed and jumped into a fiery chasm. And Maglor took the last one, but threw it into the sea in despair.

Well, Venus is still around. But what happened to the latter two? Surely over all the intervening millennia, with so many people wanting a Silmaril, they haven’t just hung around in the earth and ocean?

After some research, I’ve developed a couple of promising leads for the location of the Silmarils in the Fifth Age.

Preregistration of the Hypotheses for the SSC Survey

Dec 26, 2017 12:55


[This post is about the 2018 SSC Survey. If you’ve read at least one blog post here before, please take the survey if you haven’t already. Please don’t read on until you’ve taken it, since this could bias your results.]

I’m preregistering my hypotheses for the survey this year. So far I’ve glanced at Google’s bar graphs for each individual question but haven’t started exploring relationships yet, so I’m not cheating too badly. I’ll still look for things I haven’t preregistered, but I’ll admit they’re preliminary results only. This is the stuff I’ve been thinking about beforehand and will be taking more seriously:

Please Take The 2018 SSC Reader Survey

Dec 22, 2017 01:43


If you’re reading this and have previously read at least one Slate Star Codex post, please take the 2018 SSC Survey.

This year’s survey is in three sections. If you’re strapped for time, just take Section 1. If you have a little more time, take both Sections 1 and 2. If you have a lot of time, take all three sections. Each section will take about ten minutes. There’s some more information on the survey itself.

What to Make of New Positive NSI-189 Results?

Dec 8, 2017 15:53


I wanted NSI-189 to be real so badly.

Pharma companies used to love antidepressants. Millions of people are depressed. Millions of people who aren’t depressed think they are. Sell them all a pill per day for their entire lifetime, and you’re looking at a lot of money. So they poured money into antidepressant research, culminating in 80s and 90s with the discovery of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac. Since then, research has moved into exciting new areas, like “more SSRIs”, “even more SSRIs”, “drugs that claim to be SNRIs but on closer inspection are mostly just SSRIs”, and “drugs that claim to be complicated serotonin modulators but realistically just work as SSRIs”. Some companies still go through the pantomime of inventing new supposedly-not-SSRI drugs, and some psychiatrists still go through the pantomime of pretending to be excited about them, but nobody’s heart is really in it anymore.

Tax Bill 3 Don’t Mess With Taxes

Dec 8, 2017 11:20


Thanks to everyone who commented on my last two posts, especially the many people who disagreed with me. Two things I will admit I got mostly wrong:

1. I was wrong to say there was “no case” for the tax bill. Aside from all of the minor provisions which can be good or bad, the case for slashing corporate rates is that they’re more distortionary and less efficient than other forms of taxation. Thanks to everyone who pointed this out to me.

2. Several people brought up problems with the article saying CEOs say they will just give the money back to shareholders, most notably that giving money back to shareholders may stimulate the economy in other ways.

Response to Comments The Tax Bill is Still Very Bad

Dec 7, 2017 07:10


There was some good pushback on yesterday’s article on taxes. But sorry, I’m still right.

Many people responded with generic low-tax anti-government positions. Fine. Let’s say the government is definitely bad and taxes are definitely too high. The current tax bill is still not the right way to do tax cuts.

Budget director Mick Mulvaney claims that the richest 20% of people pay 95% of income tax; the Wall Street Journal‘s numbers are a little lower, at 84%. Total income taxes are $1.8 trillion, so the poorest 80%’s share comes out to somewhere between 90 and 280 billion. This is around the same order of magnitude as the $100 billion in tax cuts in the current GOP bill. So it looks like one alternative to this bill, no more or less costly, would be to halve income taxes for the bottom 80% of the population, maybe anyone making less than $100,000.

The Tax Bill Compared to Other Very Expensive Things

Dec 5, 2017 05:50


Here is the cost of the current GOP tax bill placed in the context of other really expensive things. Although it’s not quite enough money to solve world hunger, it’s enough to end US homelessness four times over or fund nine simultaneous Apollo Programs.

I’m writing this post sort of as penance. During the primaries, I wrote a post arguing that Sanders’ college plan was bad. And compared to any reasonable use of the money, I still think that’s true.

Against Overgendering Harassment

Dec 5, 2017 16:45


About 30% of the victims of sexual harassment are men. About 20% of the perpetrators of sexual harassment are women.

Don’t believe me? In a Quinnipiac poll, 60% of women and 20% of men said they’d been sexually harassed. Opinium, which sounds like a weird drug, reports 20% of women vs. 7% of men. YouGov poll in Germany finds 43% of women and 12% of men. The overall rates vary widely depending on how the pollsters frame the question, but the ratio is pretty consistent.

Book Review: Inadequate Equilibria

Dec 1, 2017 59:23


Eliezer Yudkowsky’s catchily-titled Inadequate Equilibria is many things. It’s a look into whether there is any role for individual reason in a world where you can always just trust expert consensus. It’s an analysis of the efficient market hypothesis and how it relates to the idea of low-hanging fruit. It’s a self-conscious defense of the author’s own arrogance.

But most of all, it’s a book of theodicy. If the world was created by the Invisible Hand, who is good, how did it come to contain so much that is evil?

The market economy is very good at what it does, which is something like “exploit money-making opportunities” or “pick low-hanging fruit in the domain of money-making”. If you see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk, today is your lucky day. If you see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk in Grand Central Station, and you remember having seen the same bill a week ago, something is wrong. Thousands of people cross Grand Central every week – there’s no way a thousand people would all pass up a free $20. Maybe it’s some kind of weird trick. Maybe you’re dreaming. But there’s no way that such a low-hanging piece of money-making fruit would go unpicked for that long.

Contra Robinson on Public Food

Nov 22, 2017 36:50


Earlier this year, Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs wrote an article against school vouchers. He argued that private schools would be so focused on profit that they would sacrifice quality, and that competition wouldn’t be enough to keep them in line.

I counterargued that yes it would, and cited among other things the success of food stamps (ie “food vouchers”). These give poor people access to the same dazzling variety of food choices as everyone else, usually at reasonable prices and low profit margins. If school vouchers worked as well as food vouchers, they would succeed in their mission of improving choice without sacrificing quality.

Now Robinson doubles down, sticking to his anti-voucher position and also proposing A Public Option For Food.

List of Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

Nov 16, 2017 38:14


Question I’d never thought to ask before: are we sure it’s a good idea to let people know what the laws are?

The Chinese legal system originated somewhat over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, legalist and Confucianist. The legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, advocated harsh penalties to drive the equilibrium crime rate to near zero. They supported the ideas of a strong central government, equal treatment under law, and written law available to all. Confucianists saw the issues in terms of morality rather than law and the objective not to modify by behavior by punishing and rewarding but by teaching virtue. They feared that a written law code generally available would lead to rules lawyering and supported unequal treatement based on the unequal status of those to whom the law applied…Some early writers argued against making the law code publicly available.

Book Review Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

Nov 14, 2017 38:22


Medieval Icelandic crime victims would sell the right to pursue a perpetrator to the highest bidder. 18th century English justice replaced fines with criminals bribing prosecutors to drop cases. Somali judges compete on the free market; those who give bad verdicts get a reputation that drives away future customers.

“Anarcho-capitalism” evokes a dystopian cyberpunk future. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’ve always been anarcho-capitalist. Maybe a state-run legal system isn’t a fact of nature, but a historical oddity as contingent as collectivized farming or nationalized railroads. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, by anarcho-capitalist/legal scholar/medieval history buff David Friedman, successfully combines the author’s three special interests into a whirlwind tour of exotic law.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Nov 9, 2017 23:41


The Alchemist asked if I wanted a drink. I did, but no amount of staring could make my eyes settle on the color of the liquid in the flask. And the gold the alchemists paid the taxmen smelled funny and made crackling noises. I declined.

I took the summons and set it on the table between us. The King’s son was dying. The doctors, astrologers, witches, and other assorted wise people of the kingdom could not save him. The King had asked for an alchemist, and been given one. He, too, had failed. But he had let on that there were other alchemists in the guild, greater alchemists, who knew far more than he. So the king had demanded that all the guild’s top alchemists come to the palace and try to save his son’s life. And the alchemists’ guild had refused, saying their studies could not be interrupted.

So here I was, come to make the request again, more formally but less politely.

Does Age Bring Wisdom?

Nov 8, 2017 09:49


I turn 33 today. I can only hope that age brings wisdom.

We’ve been talking recently about the high-level frames and heuristics that organize other concepts. They’re hard to transmit, and you have to rediscover them on your own, sometimes with the help of lots of different explanations and viewpoints (or one very good one). They’re not obviously apparent when you’re missing them; if you’re not ready for them, they just sounds like platitudes and boring things you’ve already internalized.

Wisdom seems like the accumulation of those, or changes in higher-level heuristics you get once you’ve had enough of those. I look back on myself now vs. ten years ago and notice I’ve become more cynical, more mellow, and more prone to believing things are complicated. For example:


Nov 7, 2017 13:51


When I wrote about my experiences doing psychotherapy with people, one commenter wondered if I might be schizoid:

There are a lot of schizoid people in the rationalist community from what I can tell. The basis of schizoid is not all the big bad symptoms you might read about. There are high functioning people with personality disorders all the time who are complex, polite and philosophical.

You will never see this description because mental health industries center entirely around people Failing At Life, aka “low-functioning”. As many radicals have noted, mental health tends to constitute itself mostly around “can’t hold a job” or “can’t hold a marriage”.

The only thing you need to be schizoid is to dislike contact with other egos, and to shave off the experience of those other egos ruthlessly before they can reach the fantasy world you retreat to.


Nov 3, 2017 15:16


SSC’s review of postmodernism got very mixed reviews. Some of them made a good point: why should I be trying this at all? I’m not a postmodernist, I’m not a philosophy professor, surely someone much more qualified has already written a blog-post-length explanation of postmodernism.

This is all true. My only excuse is that trying to figure out complicated concepts requires a different approach than trying to teach simple ones.

Some knowledge is easy to transfer. “What is the thyroid?” Some expert should write an explanation, anyone interested can read it, and nobody else should ever worry about it again.


Nov 2, 2017 17:04


Some of the Seattleites put together a Postmodernism For Rationalists presentation that’s been sparking a lot of discussion. It’s not quite the way I would have explained things. I’m no expert in postmodernism, and can’t give anything more than a very simple introduction to one of many facets of the movement. But I am an expert in explaining things to rationalists. So it’s worth a try.

Last week, I went over the evidence for and against a European Dark Age. Most people on both sides agreed on some facts in favor, like:


Oct 26, 2017 19:39


Rat Park is a famous study in which lab rats were kept in a really nice habitat that satisfied their every need. Contrary to the usual results with lab animals, scientists couldn’t get these happier rats addicted to drugs. Researchers concluded that drug addiction, far from being the simple biological story everyone assumed it was, was really a just coping mechanism for intolerable social situations. Rats stuck in terrible cages get addicted to drugs, as do humans in terrible slums. But give them other opportunities for happiness, and the problem disappears.

This has since turned into popular legend. From HuffPo: The Likely Cause Of Addiction Has Been Discovered, And It Is Not What You Think. From Intellihub: Rat Park Heroin Experiment Shows Cultural Roots Of Drug Addiction. There’s even a Rat Park Comic and the inevitable Trump Could Learn From The Rat Park Experiment thinkpiece.


Oct 25, 2017 12:25


The Baffler publishes a long article against “idiot” New Atheists. It’s interesting only in the context of so many similar articles, and an inability to imagine the opposite opinion showing up in an equally fashionable publication. New Atheism has lost its battle for the cultural high ground. r/atheism will shamble on as some sort of undead abomination, chanting “BRAAAAAAIIINSSSS…are what fundies don’t have” as the living run away shrieking. But everyone else has long since passed them by.

The New Atheists accomplished the seemingly impossible task of alienating a society that agreed with them about everything. The Baffler-journalists of the world don’t believe in God. They don’t disagree that religion contributes to homophobia, transphobia, and the election of some awful politicians – and these issues have only grown more visible in the decade or so since New Atheism’s apogee. And yet in the bubble where nobody believes in God and everyone worries full-time about sexual minorities and Trump, you get less grief for being a Catholic than a Dawkins fan. When Trump wins an election on the back of evangelicals, and the alt-right is shouting “DEUS VULT” and demanding “throne and altar conservativism”, the real scandal is rumors that some New Atheist might be reading /pol/. How did the New Atheists become so loathed so quickly?


Oct 24, 2017 26:16


A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble.

— Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say


Staying on the subject of Dark Age myths: what about all those scientists burned at the stake for their discoveries?

Historical consensus declares this a myth invented by New Atheists. The Church was a great patron of science, no one believed in a flat earth, Galileo had it coming, et cetera. Unam Sanctam Catholicam presents some of these stories and explains why they’re less of a science-vs-religion slam dunk than generally supposed. Among my favorites:


Oct 17, 2017 18:48


Thanks to everyone who made interesting comments on yesterday’s post about Dark Ages.

Several people challenged the matching of the economic/population decline to the “fall of Rome”. For example, from David Friedman:

On the graph you are citing, 36 million is the population in 200 A.D. The fall of the Western Empire is commonly dated to about 450 A.D. By 400 A.D., on the same graph, population is down to 31 million–say 30 million by 450.


Oct 16, 2017 35:06


Cracked offers Five Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About The Dark Ages; number one is “The Dark Ages Were A Real Thing”:

The Dark Ages were never a thing. The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer. The term “Dark Ages” was first used in the 14th century by Petrarch, an Italian poet with a penchant for Roman nostalgia. Petrarch used it to describe, well, every single thing that had happened since the fall of Rome. He didn’t rain dark judgment over hundreds of years of human achievement because of historical evidence of any kind, by the way; his entire argument was based on the general feeling that life sucked absolute weasel scrotum ever since Rome went belly-up.

Likewise There Were No European Dark AgesThe Myth Of The Dark AgesThe Myth Of The “Dark Ages”Medieval Europe: The Myth Of The Dark AgesBusting The “Dark Ages” Myth, and of course smug Tumblr posts.


Oct 11, 2017 13:02


Pop science likes to dub dopamine “the reward chemical” and serotonin “the happiness chemical”. God only knows what norepinephrine is, but I’m sure it’s cutesy.

In real life, all of this is much more complicated. Dopamine might be “the surprisal in a hierarchical predictive model chemical”, but even that can’t be more than a gross oversimplification. As for serotonin, people have studied it for seventy years and the best they can come up with is “uh, something to do with stress”.

Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors by Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt tries to cut through the mystery. Both authors are suitably important to attempt such an undertaking. Carhart-Harris is a neuropsychopharmacologist and one of the top psychedelic researchers in the world. Nutt was previously the British drug czar but missed the memo saying drug czars were actually supposed to be against drugs; after using his position to tell everyone drugs were pretty great, he was summarily fired. Now he’s another neuropsychopharmacology professor, though with cool side projects like inventing magical side-effect-free alcohol. These are good people.


Oct 11, 2017 21:36


From Boston Review: Know Thy Futurist. It’s an attempt to classify and analyze various types of futurism, in much the same way that a Jack Chick tract could be described as “an attempt to classify and analyze various types of religion”.

I have more disagreements with it than can fit in a blog post, but let’s stick with the top five.

First, it purports to explain what we should think about the future, but never makes a real argument for it. It starts by suggesting there are two important axes on which futurists can differ: optimism vs. pessimism, and belief in a singularity. So you can end up with utopian singularitarians, dystopian singularitarians, utopian incrementalists, and dystopian incrementalists. We know the first three groups are wrong, because many of their members are “young or middle-age white men” who “have never been oppressed”. On the other hand, the last group contains “majority women, gay men, and people of color”. Therefore, the last group is right, there will be no singularity, and the future will be bad.


Oct 11, 2017 07:35


Last post talked about individual differences in whether people found others basically friendly or hostile. The SSC survey included a sort of related question: “Are people basically trustworthy?”

The exact phrasing asked respondents to rate other people from 1 (“basically trustworthy”) to 5 (“basically untrustworthy”). 4853 people answered. The average was 2.49 – so skewed a bit towards higher trust. The overall pattern looked like this:


Oct 11, 2017 29:42


A few years ago I had lunch with another psychiatrist-in-training and realized we had totally different experiences with psychotherapy.

We both got the same types of cases. We were both practicing the same kinds of therapy. We were both in the same training program, studying under the same teachers. But our experiences were totally different. In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems, as if they were lecturing on a particularly boring episode from 19th-century Norwegian history.

I’m not bragging here. I wish I could get my patients to have dramatic emotional meltdowns. As per the textbooks, there should be a climactic moment where the patient identifies me with their father, then screams at me that I ruined their childhood, then breaks down crying and realizes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their depression is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this reminds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like screaming at me right now?”, but they never took the bait. So I figured the textbooks were misleading, or that this was some kind of super-advanced technique, or that this was among the approximately 100% of things that Freud just pulled out of his ass.