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K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

K: I’m fine with you mocking my understanding of history…

Me: I’m not mocking your understanding of history, I’m mocking your understanding of cahoots!

K: I understand you can be in cahoots now, it’s just historical cahoots.

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K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

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Posted by Scott Alexander


A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much. Suppose we learned that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all had the same childhood piano tutor. It sounds less like “ha ha, what a funny coincidence” and more like “wait, who was this guy, and how quickly can we make everyone else start doing what he did?”

In this case, the guy was Laszlo Ratz, legendary Budapest high school math teacher. I didn’t even know people told legends about high school math teachers, but apparently they do, and this guy features in a lot of them. There is apparently a Laszlo Ratz Memorial Congress for high school math teachers each year, and a Laszlo Ratz medal for services to the profession. There are plaques and statues to this guy. It’s pretty impressive.

A while ago I looked into the literature on teachers and concluded that they didn’t have much effect overall. Similarly, Freddie deBoer writes that most claims that certain schools or programs have transformative effects on their students are the result of selection bias.

On the other hand, we have a Hungarian academy producing like half the brainpower behind 20th century physics, and Nobel laureates who literally keep a picture of their high school math teacher on the wall of their office to inspire them. Perhaps even if teachers don’t explain much of the existing variability, there are heights of teacherdom so rare that they don’t show up in the statistics, but still exist to be aspired to?


I’ve heard this argument a few times, and I think it’s wrong.

Yes, two of Ratz’s students went on to become supergeniuses. But Edward Teller, another supergenius, went to the same high school but (as far as I know) was never taught by Ratz himself. That suggests that the school was good at producing supergeniuses regarldess of Ratz’s personal qualities. A further point in support of this: John Harsanyi also went to the school, also wasn’t directly taught by Ratz, and also went on to win a Nobel Prize and invent various important fields of mathematics. So this school – the Fasori Gymnasium – seems to have been about equally excellent for both its Ratz-taught and its non-Ratz-taught pupils.

Yet the Fasori Gymnasium might not have even been the best high school in its neighborhood. It competed with the Minta Gymnasium half a mile down the street, whose alumni include Manhattan Project physicists Nicholas Kurti and Theodore von Karman (von Karman went on to found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), brilliant chemist-philosopher Michael Polanyi, economists Thomas Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor (of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency fame), and Peter Lax, who once said “You don’t have to be Hungarian to be a mathematician – but it helps”. There are also some contradictory sources suggesting Teller attended this school and not Fasori; for all I know he might have attended both. Once again, most of these people were born in the 1890-1910 period when the Martian scouts were supposedly in Budapest.

Worse, I’m not even sure that the best high school in early 20th-century Hungary was either of the two mentioned above. The Berzsenyi Gymnasium, a two mile walk down Gyorgy Street from the others, boasts alumni including multizillionaire George Soros, Intel founder Andrew Grove, BASIC inventor John Kemeny, leading cancer biologist George Klein, great mathematician George Polya, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Dennis Gabor.

Given that the Fasori Gymnasium wasn’t obviously better than either of these others, is it possible that the excellence was at a higher level – neither excellent teachers nor excellent principals, but some kind of generally excellent Hungarian culture of education?

This is definitely what the Hungarians want us to think. According to Cultures of Creativity:

What’s so special about Budapest’s schools? A certain elitism and a spirit of competition partly explains the successes of their students. For example, annual competitions in mathematics and physics have been held since 1894. The instruction the students receive as well as these contests are an expression of a special pedagogy and a striving to encourage creativity. Mor Karman, founder of the Minta school, believed that everything should be taught by showing its relation to everyday life. Instead of learning rules by heart from books, students tried to formulate the rules themselves.

This paper on “The Hungarian Phenomenon” makes similar claims, but adds a few more details:

The Eotvos Contests were a powerful mean for the stimulation of mathematics on a large scale and were used to motivate mathematical culture in the society. It also provided a channel to search for talented youths. The contests, which have been open to Hungarian high school students in their last year since 1894, played a remarkable role in the development of mathematics.

Okay. But I want to challenge this. During this era, formal education in Hungary began at age 10. By age ten, John von Neumann, greatest of the Hungarian supergeniuses, already spoke English, French, German, Italian, and Ancient Greek, knew integral and differential calculus, and could multiply and divide 8-digit numbers in his head. Wikipedia notes that on his first meeting with his math teacher, the math teacher “was so astounded with the boy’s mathematical talent that he was brought to tears”. This doesn’t sound like a guy whose potential was kindled by formal education. This sounds like a guy who would have become one of history’s great mathematicians even if his teachers had slept through his entire high school career.

Likewise, the book above notes that Dennis Gabor, the Hungarian inventor of holography, “developed his passion for physics during his youth, but did so for the most part on his own”. His biography notes that “During his childhood in Budapest, Gabor and his brother would often duplicate the experiments they read about in scientific journals in their home laboratory.”

Likewise, consider Paul Erdos, a brilliant mathematician born in Budapest around this time. As per his Wikipedia page, “Left to his own devices, he taught himself to read through mathematics texts that his parents left around their home. By the age of four, given a person’s age, he could calculate, in his head, how many seconds they had lived.”

I have no knock-down proof that Hungary’s clearly excellent education system didn’t contribute to this phenomenon. A lot of child prodigies burn out, and maybe Hungary was unusually good at making sure that didn’t happen. But it sure seems like they had a lot of child prodigies to work with.

So what’s going on? Should we just accept the Manhattan Project consensus that there was a superintelligent Martian scout force in early 20th-century Budapest?


Here’s something interesting: every single person I mentioned above is of Jewish descent. Every single one. This isn’t some clever setup where I only selected Jewish-Hungarians in order to spring this on you later. I selected all the interesting Hungarians I could find, then went back and checked, and every one of them was Jewish.

This puts the excellence of the Hungarian education system in a different light. Hungarian schools totally failed to work their magic on Gentiles. You can talk all you want about “elitism and a spirit of competition” and “striving to encourage creativity”, yet for some reason this worked on exactly one of Hungary’s many ethnic groups.

This reduces the difficult question of Hungarian intellectual achievement to the easier question of Jewish intellectual achievement.

I say “easier question” because I find the solution by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending really compelling. Their paper is called A Natural History Of Ashkenazi Intelligence (“Ashkenazi” means Eastern European Jew) and they start by expressing the extent of the issue:

Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data. They score 0.75 to 1.0 standard deviations above the general European average, corresponding to an IQ 112 – 115. This fact has social significance because IQ (as measured by IQ tests) is the best predictor we have of success in academic subjects and most jobs. Ashkenazi Jews are just as successful as their tested IQ would predict, and they are hugely overrepresented in occupations and fields with the highest cognitive demands. During the 20th century, they made up about 3% of the US population but won 27% of the US Nobel science prizes and 25% of the Turing Awards [in computer science]. They account for more than half of world chess champions.

This doesn’t seem to be due to any advantage in material privilege; Ashkenazi Jews frequently did well even in countries where they were persecuted. Nor is it obviously linked to Jewish culture; Jews from other regions of the world show no such advantage. So what’s going on?

Doctors have long noted that Ashkenazi Jews are uniquely susceptible to various genetic diseases. For example, they’re about a hundred times more likely to have Gaucher’s Disease, a hundred times more likely to get Tay-Sachs Disease, ten times more likely to have torsion dystonia, et cetera. Genetic diseases are so common in this population that the are official recommendation is that all Ashkenazi Jewish couples get screened for genetic disease before marriage. I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, I got screened, and I turn out to be a carrier for Riley-Day syndrome – three hundred times as common in Ashkenazi Jews as in anyone else.

Evolution usually gets rid of genetic diseases pretty quickly. If they stick around, it’s because they’re doing something to earn their keep. One common pattern is “heterozygote advantage” – two copies of the gene cause a disease, but one copy does something good. For example, people with two copies of the sickle cell gene get sickle cell anaemia, but people with one copy get some protection against malaria. In Africa, where malaria is relatively common, the tradeoff is worth it – so people of African descent have high rates of the sickle cell gene and correspondingly high rates of sickle cell anaemia. In other places, where malaria is relatively uncommon, the tradeoff isn’t worth it and evolution eliminates the sickle cell gene. That’s why sickle cell is about a hundred times more common in US blacks than US whites.

The moral of the story is: populations can have genetic diseases if they also provide a useful advantage to carriers. And if those genetic diseases are limited to a single group, we expect them to provide a useful advantage for that group, but not others. Might the Jewish genetic diseases provide some advantage? And why would that advantage be limited to Jews?

Most of the Jewish genetic diseases cluster into two biological systems – the sphingolipid system and the DNA repair system. This is suspicious. It suggests that they’re not just random. They’re doing something specific. Both of these systems are related to neural growth and neural branching. Might they be doing something to the brain?

Gaucher’s disease, one of the Ashkenazi genetic diseases, appears to increase IQ. CHH obtained a list of all of the Gaucher’s patients in Israel. They were about 15 times more likely than the Israeli average to be in high-IQ occupations like scientist or engineer; CHH calculate the probability that this is a coincidence to be 4×10^-19.

Torsion dystonia, another Ashkenazi genetic disease, shows a similar pattern. CHH find ten reports in the literature where doctors comment on unusual levels of intelligence in their torsion dystonia patients. Eldridge, Harlan, Cooper, and Riklan tested 14 torsion dystonia patients and found an average IQ of 121; another similar study found an average of 117. Torsion dystonia is pretty horrendous, but sufferers will at least get the consolation prize of being really, really smart.

Moving from medicine to history, we find that Ashkenazi Jews were persecuted for the better part of a millennium, and the particular form of this persecution was locking them out of various jobs until the main career opportunities open to them were things like banker, merchant, and doctor. CHH write:

For 800 to 900 years, from roughly 800 AD to 1650 or 1700 AD, the great majority of the Ashkenazi Jews had managerial and financial jobs, jobs of high complexity, and were neither farmers nor craftsmen. In this they differed from all other settled peoples of which we have knowledge.

They continue:

Jews who were particularly good at these jobs enjoyed increased reproductive success. Weinryb (1972, see also Hundert 1992) comments: “More children survived to adulthood in affluent families than in less affluent ones. A number of genealogies of business leaders, prominent rabbis, community leaders, and the like – generally belonging to the more affluent classes – show that such people often had four, six, sometimes even eight or nine children who reached adulthood. On the other hands, there are some indications that poorer families tended to be small ones…as an example, in a census of the town of Brody in 1764 homeowner households had 1.2 children per adult member while tenant households had 0.6.

Now we can start to sketch out the theory in full. Due to persecution, Jews were pushed into cognitively-demanding occupations like banker or merchant and forced to sink or swim. The ones who swam – people who were intellectually up to the challenge – had more kids than the ones who sank, producing an evolutionary pressure in favor of intelligence greater than that in any other ethnic group. Just as Africans experiencing evolutionary pressure for malaria resistance developed the sickle cell gene, so Ashkenazim experiencing evolutionary pressure for intelligence developed a bunch of genes which increased heterozygotes’ IQ but caused serious genetic disease in homozygotes. As a result, Ashkenazi ended up somewhat more intelligent – and somewhat more prone to genetic disease – than the rest of the European population.

If true, this would explain the 27% of Nobel Prizes and 50% of world chess champions thing. But one still has to ask – everywhere had Jews. Why Hungary in particular? What was so special about Budapest in the early 1900s?


Okay, sure, everywhere had Jews. But it’s surprising exactly how many Jews were in early 1900s Hungary.

The modern United States is about 2% Jewish. Hungary in 1900 was about 5%. The most Jewish city in America, New York, is about 15% Jewish. Budapest in 1900 was 25%. It was one of the most Jewish large cities anywhere in history, excepting only Israel itself. According to Wikipedia, the city’s late 19th-century nickname was “Judapest”.

So is it possible that all the Jews were winning Nobel Prizes, and Hungary just had more Jews and so more Nobelists?

No. This doesn’t seem right. The 1933 European Jewish Population By Country site lists the following size for each country’s Jewish communities:

Poland: 3 million
Russia: 2.5 million
Romania: 750,000
Germany: 500,000
Hungary: 500,000
Britain: 300,000
France: 250,000
Austria: 200,000

It’s hard to find a good list of all famous Manhattan Project physicists, but I tried this article and got the following number of famous Jewish Manhattan Project physicists per country of origin:

Hungary: 4
Germany: 2
Poland: 2
Austria: 2
Italy: 1
Netherlands: 1
Switzerland: 1

Here’s an alternative source with a different definition of “famous”, broken down the same way:

Germany: 5
Hungary: 4
Poland: 3
Italy: 2
Austria: 2

The main point seems to be disproportionately many people from Central European countries like Hungary and Germany, compared to either Eastern European countries like Poland and Russia or Western European countries like France and Britain.

The Central European advantage over Western Europe is unsurprising; the Western European Jews probably weren’t Ashkenazim, and so didn’t have the advantage mentioned in the CHH paper above. But is there any reason to think that Central European Jews were more intelligent than Polish and Russian Jews?

I’m not really sure what to think about this. This paper finds that the sphingolipidoses and other Jewish genetic diseases are about twice as common in Central European Jews as in Eastern European Jews, but I have very low confidence in these results. Intra-Jewish gossip points out the Lithuanians as the geniuses among world Jewry, but doesn’t have any similar suggestions about Hungarians. And torsion dystonia, maybe the most clearly IQ-linked disease, is unique to Lithuanians and absent in Hungarians.

Probably much more promising is just to focus on the obvious facts of the social situation. Early`1900s Hungary was a great nation and a prosperous center of learning. Remember, we’re talking about the age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the most industrialized and dynamic economies of the time. It might have had advantages that Poland, Romania, and Russia didn’t. My list of historical national GDPs per capita is very unimpressed by the difference between Hungarian and Polish GDPs in 1900, but maybe it’s wrong, or maybe Budapest was an especially modern part of Hungary, or maybe there’s something else I’m missing.

Also, there could have been a difference in the position of Jews in these countries. Russia was still experiencing frequent anti-Jewish pogroms in 1900; in Hungary, Jews were among the country’s most noble families. Actually, the extent of Jewish wealth and influence in Hungary sort of defies belief. According to Wikipedia, in 1920 Jews were 60% of Hungarian doctors, 50% of lawyers, 40% of engineers and chemists, and 90% of currency brokers and stock exchange members. “In interwar Hungary, more than half and perhaps as much as 90 percent of Hungarian industry was owned or operated by a few closely related Jewish banking families.”

So Central European Jews – the Jews in Hungary and Germany – had a unique combination of intellectual and financial advantages. This means Hungary’s only real rival here is Germany. Since they were rich, industrialized, and pretty liberal about Jewish rights at the beginning of the 20th century – and since they had just as many Jews as Hungary – we should expect to see the same phenomenon there too.

And we kind of do. Germany produced its share of Jewish geniuses. Hans Bethe worked for the Manhattan Project and won a Nobel Prize. Max Born helped develop quantum mechanics and also won a Nobel Prize. James Franck, more quantum physics, another Nobel Prize. Otto Stern, even more quantum physics, yet another Nobel Prize. John Polanyi, chemical kinetics, Nobel Prize (although he was half-Hungarian). And of course we probably shouldn’t forget about that Einstein guy. All of these people were born in the same 1880 – 1920 window as the Martians in Hungary.

I think what’s going on is this: Germany and Hungary had about the same Jewish population. And they produced about the same number of genius physicists in the same window. But we think of Germany as a big rich country, and Hungary as a small poor country. And the German Jews were spread over a bunch of different cities, whereas the Hungarian Jews were all crammed into Budapest. So when we hear “there were X Nobel Prize winning German physicists in the early 1900s”, it sounds only mildly impressive. But when we hear “there were X Nobel Prize winning physicists from Budapest in the early 1900s”, it sounds kind of shocking. But the denominator isn’t the number of Germans vs. Hungarians, it’s the number of German Jews vs. Hungarian Jews, which is about the same.


This still leaves one question: why the period 1880 to 1920?

On further reflection, this isn’t much of a mystery. The emancipation of the Jews in Eastern Europe was a difficult process that took place throughout the 19th century. Even when it happened, it took a while for the first generation of Jews to get rich enough that their children could afford to go to fancy schools and fritter away their lives on impractical subjects like physics and chemistry. In much of Eastern Europe, the Jews born around 1880 were the first generation that was free to pursue what they wanted and seek their own lot in the world.

The end date around 1920 is more depressing: any Jew born after this time probably wasn’t old enough to escape the Nazis. Almost all the famous Hungarian Jews became physics professors in Europe, fled to America during WWII using channels open to famous physicists, and then made most of their achievements on this side of the Atlantic. There are a couple of stragglers born after 1920 who survived – George Soros’ family lived because they bought identity documents saying they were Christian; Andrew Grove lived because he was hidden by righteous Gentiles. But in general Jews born in Europe after 1920 didn’t have a great life expectancy.

All of this suggests a pretty reasonable explanation of the Martian phenomenon. For the reasons suggested by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, Ashkenazi Jews had the potential for very high intelligence. They were mostly too poor and discriminated against to take advantage of it. Around 1880, this changed in a few advanced Central European economies like Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Austria didn’t have many Jews. Germany had a lot of Jews, but it was a big country, so nobody really noticed. Hungary had a lot of Jews, all concentrated in Budapest, and so it was really surprising when all of a sudden everyone from Budapest started winning Nobel Prizes around the same time. This continued until World War II, and then all anyone remembered was “Hey, wasn’t it funny that so many smart people were born in Budapest between 1880 and 1920?”

And this story is really, really, gloomy.

For centuries, Europe was sitting on this vast untapped resource of potential geniuses. Around 1880, in a few countries only, economic and political conditions finally became ripe for the potential to be realized. The result was one of the greatest spurts of progress in scientific history, bringing us relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear bombs, dazzling new mathematical systems, the foundations of digital computing, and various other abstruse ideas I don’t even pretend to understand. This lasted for approximately one generation, after which a psychopath with a stupid mustache killed everyone involved.

I certainly can’t claim that the Jews were the only people being crazy smart in Central Europe around this time. This was the age of Bohr, Schrodinger, Planck, Curie, etc. But part of me wonders even here. If you have one physicist in a town, he sits in an armchair and thinks. If you have five physicists in a town, they meet and talk and try to help each other with their theories. If you have fifty physicists in a town, they can get funding and start a university department. If you have a hundred, maybe some of them can go into teaching or administration and help support the others. Having this extra concentration of talent in central Europe during this period might have helped Jews and Gentiles alike.

I wonder about this because of a sentiment I hear a lot, from people who know more about physics than I do, that we just don’t get people like John von Neumann or Leo Szilard anymore. That there was some weird magical productivity to the early 20th century, especially in Central Europe and Central European immigrants to the United States, that we’re no longer really able to match. This can’t be a pure numbers game – the Ashkenazi population has mostly recovered since the Holocaust, and people from all over the world are coming to American and European universities and providing more of a concentration of talent than ever. And even though it’s impossible to measure, there’s still a feeling that it’s not enough.

I started down this particular research rabbit hole because a friend challenged me to explain what was so magical about early 20th century Hungary. I think the Jewish population calculations above explain a lot of the story. I’m not sure whether there’s a missing ingredient, or, if so, what it might be. Maybe it really was better education. Maybe it really was math competitions and talent searches.

Or maybe it was superintelligent Martian scouts with an Earthling fetish.

Those Modern Pathologies

May. 25th, 2017 08:54 pm
[syndicated profile] slatestarcodex_feed

Posted by Scott Alexander

[Related to: The Fidget Spinner Is The Perfect Toy For The Trump Presidency, In Defense Of Liking Things, Open Marriage Is A Neoliberal Pathology]

That modern pathology, the Pyramid of Cheops

The final triumph of modern individualism is an afterlife ensconed in a giant stone structure, carefully segregated from any other souls, based entirely around stuff. No county churchyards here. No slow surrender to nature and the weeds. Just piles of golden goblets and jeweled necklaces, carefully guarded by snake-infested traps. And, of course the bones of dead servants, guaranteed to keep serving you in the great beyond. Of course Heaven is neoliberal. There is no alternative!

That modern pathology, heterosexual intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation

Sex can bring people together. It can cement relationships between people and families. It can pulse with celestial fire, it can shatter inner worlds, it can inspire transcendent art, it can remake souls. Of course moderns took one look at all of that and thought: you know what the only acceptable purpose of sex is? Making a smaller copy of myself.

But calling this narcissism would be missing half the picture. It’s equally related to a sort of productivity fetish, a mindset where anything that doesn’t leave a material token didn’t really happen. Enjoyed the company of your closest friends? Not real unless you put the pictures on Facebook, tagged #bestiesforever. Broadened your horizons with a trip to another culture? Not real without crushed pennies or some other gift-shop tchotchke. Met your soulmate? Not real unless you’ve got a lump of screaming flesh to show for it. This is what capitalism does – reduce experiences to souveniers, reduce relationships to commodities, demand that everything good be mediated by a material end product in order to model the laboring-for-others that workers are told is their only life purpose.

That modern pathology, Homer’s Odyssey

If Harry Potter wasn’t vapid enough for you, now we have a travelogue for the Instagram generation.

Odysseus’ only salient characteristic is being “polymetis”, Very Smart. This is enough to give him a raving fan club of front-row-kids and aspirational Ivy Leaguers, the same people who thought Hermione Granger’s straight A’s made her a symbol of an entire generation of womenhood. Odysseus proves his chops in his very first adventure, where he encounters Lotus-Eaters who convince most of his men to eat a magic fruit that leaves them drugged and listless; Odysseus nobly drags them back to the ship and forces them to keep on rowing for him.

Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives! It is only thanks to Odysseus that this catastrophe is averted. One might think a few readers would note that a few months later, the vast majority of sailors in Odysseus’ fleet died horribly, eaten by cannibals. One might think a few readers would wonder if, really, the guy who dragged galley slaves back to their galleys only to get them killed a few months later was really such a good guy. In fact, nobody asks this question, because Odysseus is Very Smart. It’s no coincidence that the Odyssey came out in the generation of the invasion of Iraq War – if Very Smart people declare that dying horribly was the right thing to do, and then it turns out it wasn’t, at least they were benevolent technocrats with your best interests in mind.

Odysseus then goes on to have sex with various sorceresses and sea-nymphs while protesting that he doesn’t want to have sex with them and is loyal to his far-off wife. This is portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. Also, his sailors get turned into pigs, eaten by sea monsters, and drowned in a giant whirlpool. This is not portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. In one scene, some starving sailors eat a sacred cow belonging to the Sun God; this is portrayed as clearly justifying their deaths.

We can start to sketch a psychological picture of the sort of person who could enjoy the Odyssey. They identify with Odysseus, that’s obvious. They want to feel like they’ve suffered – after all, suffering is ennobling! – but they don’t want to actually suffer. They imagine the “suffering” of having to have sex with lots of sea nymphs they’re not super-interested in, all while their friends and subordinates are massacred all around them (but only for good reasons, like them stealing cattle, or them not being Very Smart). At the end of all of it, much like the rich kids attending the Fyre Festival, they can show up on their front doorstep and say “Oh, what suffering I have seen – and I the only survivor!”

The Odyssey is a book for rich individualist aspirational Very Smart narcissists who simultaneously want to outsource their ennobling hardships to the lower classes, and remain so contemptuous of those lower classes that they imagine them literally getting turned into swine by a sorceress, and end up having sex with that sorceress, who is unable to resist them because they are Very Smart.

I weep for the modern generation.

That modern pathology, the Aristotelian theory of virtue

You see, perfect virtue in all things approaches the mean. The traditionalist who wants to make the system more conservative is unvirtuous. And the radical who wants to make the system more progressive is exactly equally unvirtuous. The virtuous person is the liberal intellectual who considers both positions, then places himself exactly in the middle.

Anybody who seems too fiery, too deep, or too sincere is automatically wrong. You can reject both the grandparents who urge clean and sober living, and the hippies who tell you that drugs are the only way to break outside the system and achieve true consciousness, in favor of having a joint or two whenever you feel like it. You can reject both the ascetic who urges simple water, and the aesthete who urges fine wine, in favor of the bottle of Diet Coke already in your fridge.

Aristotle reduces virtue to abandoning the highs of ecstasy and the lows of misery in favor of the comfortable neoliberal plateau of watching Mad Men on TV and ordering off Amazon Echo. No wonder his message resonates so well with millennials.

That modern pathology, Catholicism

The Old Testament God demanded adherence to hundreds of rules and rained down collective punishment on entire nations for breaking them. But you are a yuppie with an hour a week for religion, tops, and consider yourself part of a different species from anyone who doesn’t go to a Starbucks at least twice a week. You get your coffee in packets from Keurig, your razors in packets from Dollar Shave Club, and your juice in packets from Juicero. If only there were some large corporation that would package religion and send it to your doorstep for one low price.

Enter Catholicism. God loves you, just for being you. He suffered and died for you two thousand years ago, granting you redemption. All you have to do to pick it up is sign on the dotted line and pay ten percent of your income.

Consider eg the ritual of confession. You eliminate your sin in a standardized dyadic interaction no harder than eliminating your muscle tension at the massage parlor, or eliminating your back pain with a chiropractor. It’s quick, impersonal, and completely tailored to your individual sinner profile.

Or consider the Eucharist. The Prozac generation has already had personal change reduced to the process of swallowing a pill, and the Catholic Church is eager to comply, reducing finitude to a DSM-V ailment curable with correctly prepared bread products. The Church is a corporation the same as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and we already know the sacred ritual for interacting with corporations. And so our consumer culture reduces the human relationship with the Divine to literally consuming God.

And like all good corporations, you can rest assured that the whole thing is organized in a very logical top-down chain under the absolute command of an incredibly rich guy who lives in a house covered in gold. “Father, am I forgiven now?” “Um, one second, let me check with the manager in branch headquarters”. And why shouldn’t he? The word “Catholic” means “universal”; we’re so separated from our own neighbors that we’d rather our religion come in the form of Standardized Religion Product shipped in from Rome than anything which forces us to confront people near us as individuals, or trust our local communities for anything more than naming the parish church.

Let’s be honest: the recent success of Catholicism is the ultimate sign of our inability to deal with the world through anything other than a late capitalist lens of standardizaton, corporatism, and carefully-packaged pablum. It’s the perfect religion for the Age of Trump.

The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

May. 23rd, 2017 06:35 pm
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Posted by readerofelse

55ea1e9fa15d1-imageIt has been nearly a month since my last post. And do you know why that is? Because this book was a SLOG. It was a CHORE. I HATED it.

And I still have to* read the sequel for the Hugothon… *facedesk*.

I’m going to say this right now, I’m not keeping this post spoiler free. I have a lot of ground to cover in “why this is objectionable and also shit” and it’s going to require drawing direct explanation from the book. If you want the tl;dr and no more, stop after the bullet points.

So there are a few things which will piss me right off if they crop up in my SFF, regardless of context or execution. They’re just things I don’t think can ever be done well or with sufficient artistry/ingenuity/value for me to get over the innate “ugh no” that I experience with them. A few of these include:

  • Misogyny clearly sitting with the author/tone/authorial voice, not as a viewpoint of a character.
  • Humans following a few simple rules and thus being completely predictable by someone with sufficient Science!TM.
  • An extension of which, humanities/social sciences being suddenly magically simple because they’re being done by a sciencey scientist.
  • Humans being special because they can love.
  • Love saving the day/being the magic special thing that solves the problem.
  • Lagrange points**.

And guess what? Yep, this book does all of them. GOODY.

So the misogyny thing was the one that overwhelmed me for the majority of the first part of the book. The viewpoint character is a somewhat jaded astronomer, whose lovelife at present is casual flings whose names he can’t even remember when he wakes up. He then reveals (when one of them gets killed, spurring on some of the action, kinda) that he has only truly been in love once. An old girlfriend asked him to try to write a story for her, and in learning how to write a believable fictional character, he fell in love with his own creation, leading to a break up with his irl girlfriend and a long-lasting obsession. Things then happen, and he gains a mandate from the UN that gives him a lot of power with very little answerability as a “Wallfacer”, and he uses this to get his police/security liaison to find him a woman who perfectly fits his idea of this woman he invented. Ew.

Then we find out what she’s like: beautiful, delicate-looking, young, naive, educated but not too much so it doesn’t make her jaded, simpler than all the fussy women of her age, an artist who likes the Renaissance, who passionately cares about finding beauty, gentle… you get where I’m going with this. It’s horrible. He has her brought to work for him doing his unsupervised thing in his perfect house he’s used his power to get, then uses his power to take her on a nighttime tour of the Louvre, where they fall in love as they develop the language where people communicate only with their eyes. Cue some horrendously florid description of people falling in love.

And I’m gonna quote it for you:

The Mona Lisa was deforming. The walls were deforming, melting like ice as the Louvre collapsed, its stones turning to red-hot magma as they fell. When the magma passed over their bodies, it felt cool as a clear spring. They fell with the Louvre, passing through a melted Europe toward the center of the Earth, and when they reached it, the world around them exploded in a shower of gorgeous cosmic fireworks. Then the sparks extinguished, and in the twinkling of an eye, space became crystal clear. The stars wove crystal beams into a giant silver blanket, and the planets vibrated, emitting beautiful music. The starfield grew dense, like a surging tide. The universe contracted and collapsed, until at last everything was annihilated in the creative light of love.

Dear. God. I’ll be the first to admit I have no poetry in my soul, but this is taking the piss, it really is.

But it gets better. So they fall in love, and five years pass. They have a daughter. Then the UN gets wise to the fact that he’s not doing his important job, and instead pootling about being in happy happy love. So they decide to make him get on with it. And the best way to do this? Take the woman he loves and the child he adores, get them away in the middle of the night, and put them in cryogenic hibernation until he gets shit done.

Yep, literally fridged.

And this is frankly leaving aside that she explicitly asks him if her being with him is part of his super plan to save humanity, and he lies to her to tell her that it is, because he knows it’s the only thing that’ll keep her happy living with him. Fucking creepy.

We also have another Wallfacer (they’re all men, by the way), whose enemy trying to undermine him (Wallbreaker) turns out to be his wife. Now, this could have been really cool and important and a lot could have been done with it. But do you know what the last we hear of her is? A throwaway line by the Wallfacer that, oh yeah, she committed seppuku some time ago. No emotion. Just, oh yeah and she died.

And the whole book is like this. Women are constantly relegated to the sidelines, ignored or simply forgotten. The last third of the book is less misogynist, simply because it drops any pretence of having women in the story at all. They’re props, and the only time they’re useful is when we need someone to feel a little bit of sorrow, then we shove them back in the box. It’s horrendous. If everything else about the book was good, this would be enough for me to hate it.

But nope, there had to be more.

Love is magic, for instance. Possibly my least favourite trope of all. As I say, no poetry in my soul, and not an ounce of romance, so I am for sure not the target audience for this crap, but my god is it trite bullshit. Especially when you try to claim that humans are special because of it. There is something so contemptibly smug about this and I just can’t stand it. I suppose it fits in with my whole “can we just have some books without romance in? No?” thing and then elevates it to an art form. I’m not saying love isn’t nice and all, and the warm fuzzies are great, but it’s not… *waves hands awkwardly around face to make a point*… everything. If I had to explain why I thought humanity was so awesome… god, it wouldn’t even make the top ten. Civilisation, people, everything is so much more than this and it would make me so happy to read more stuff that just got over it. And this is a book that’s trying to be about philosophical ideals, and the deep understanding of what humanity truly is.

Which brings me neatly to my next issue: humanity boiled down to simple axioms.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be why I dislike the Foundation books until today, but I think it is. I really can’t get on with the idea that people can be boiled down to a few rules and then flawlessly predicted, either on an individual or a massed basis. And yet, part of the entire notion of this book is that not just humanity but the whole of galactic “sociology” can be encompassed and then built upon two axioms.

Fellow people what did an arts or humanities degree, you know that feeling when someone in STEM tries to “solve” your subject for you? Them feels.

But it’s something that runs through the whole book, and makes it feel so implausible. Leaving aside galactic “sociology” for a moment, there’s a bit where several space ships are flying away from earth and realise they can never go back. Between them, we have a crew of thousands. And yet, somehow, they all come not only to the same conclusion about their situation, their feelings on their situation and what they should do about it in roughly the same amount of time, but they all couch it in the same metaphor. People just… aren’t that samey.

And likewise, people on earth are treated as a homogenous mass that’ll all behave the same (or when we’re really lucky at one point, in one of two) ways when when faced with whatever crises. And that’s just not how people work. And once you’ve got that undercutting everything, nothing has even the whiff of realism about it, which I think the book is heavily relying on. Because for all hard SF can sometimes be a bit cold on the emotional front, it mostly manages to treat people in a way that makes them feel plausible and individual, not a bunch of automata programmed to respond the same way to stimuli. This has pushed further into that, and it feels horribly reductivist and just… yeah, unreal. It’s not a question of suspending my disbelief, it’s about creating a world that even remotely facilitates that. Because if you have to force it, if you have to keep finding issues and deliberately dismissing them time and again in order to force your immersion in the world the author is creating? That’s a real problem.

Now, I had a lot of issues with the first book, some of which I wasn’t sure if they were because of the translator, inherent to the story or a bit of both. I have to say I suspect it’s the latter, as this one has a different translator, and while some of the issues are definitely worse, they’re the same issues. The story feels incredibly dry, like the worst hard sci-fi often is, and none of the characters has any sort of human depth to them. I kept mixing up who was whom because they all sound exactly the same, they’re just mouthpieces for the author. And as such they’re all horribly didactic. You know how in not-very-good books there’s that one character that clearly exists only to give exposition? They’re all that character. And some of the stiltedness surely does come from the divide between the language of writing and the English translation, sure. But some of it must come from the story itself, I can’t blame it all on translation. Despite the mush and the floridly described love, there’s no human warmth to it at all. It’s just a list of events, sometimes described through the medium of speech, and it’s so bloody dreary. I had to push myself so hard to get through it.

And again in my review of the first book, we came upon the issue of whether there’s a fundamental difference in how Chinese literature tells stories, compared to what I’m used to. Now, further input from various sources since then has emphasised the theme of the inevitability of things, and the sense of people not being actors but merely dragged along by the inexorable current of fate. It does seem to be a Thing***. And it’s definitely present and obvious in this book. So to some extent, I’m going to have to claim that a lot of my issues with it come from a position outside the cultural context in which it is written. I’m not the target audience because on some level I just do not Get what it’s trying to do. Which is fine. But I can’t give it an entirely free pass either; I’m going to honestly critique the novel in English that I read, just with an understanding that it’s not a novel written in English, and it comes from somewhere where it is very much aiming for a thing that I’m not looking for. So instead, let’s say I’m critiquing it in its position as a Hugo nominee. And for that, I can only go in on what I enjoy, and what I can Get, and what I think is worthwhile. And I frankly don’t think this is it. There are things which bother me and which are the familiar – the misogyny, the triteness – that I can connect with and dislike, and to some extent that’s why I’ve been focussing on them rather than the language.

But the language was something that I struggled with throughout too. It’s not so much that you can tell it’s translated, just that it doesn’t flow like good English prose might. The conglomerate entity of author and translator do not have a way with words, and even go as far as rendering things in a way that was often downright clunky. It clearly tries to be poetic, and I don’t know if it achieves that in Chinese, but it’s not achieving it for me. And it lacks nuance. Part of what makes the characters feel like identical automata is the fact that none of them have any of the individuality of voice you find in real people or in most story characters. And more than that, they don’t speak like people at all. Everything is perfectly laid out, like a planned speech, with explanatory notes, in every conversation. Nothing seems spontaneous or ill-thought-out or unfinished or natural. Everything is perfect and precise. And it doesn’t read as human.

I should probably comment on the actual story at this point.

In a word, ridiculous. So many of the notions in the book – the Wallfacers, the Battle of Darkness – are just completely implausible. The idea that a near future world would decide that the best defence against an alien invasion was to give four men, one of whom basically a random pick, unquestioned power to do pretty much whatever they want to save humanity? It just… no. And then of course everything is clunkily named (though I’m guessing this is an artefact of translation). SF is supposed to be about a realistic view of the distant, the implausible and the unknowable. This just isn’t that.

But it does get better. About two thirds of the way through, we get onto just pure space battles and fate of the world stuff. We stop really paying much attention to any actual people doing things, and the story becomes a whole lot better. Which is a pretty damning indictment.

Liu can write a pleasingly horrifying unknowable enemy, and some solid space-battle imagery. Which is pretty much the only praise I have, at this point.

Thus far, I will put this down as my worst book of 2017. It was hard to read, harder to care about, and in many ways fundamentally objectionable. There’s little I can find that I would consider to redeem it, and it fails to pass a lot of my basic tests for “is this a decent novel?”. It is vastly worse than its predecessor, and for all that it gets better in the last third, that’s only because it abandons all pretense at really dealing with humans much at all. When the author just talks about his space axioms and space battles, he does ok… I think in part because it feels like this is the only thing he ever really wanted to talk about in the first place. Ok, no, that’s a lie. He clearly wants to talk about his didactic philosophising too, but that’s just obnoxious.

In short, I hated it, and the fact that I have to read the sequel is really getting up my nose.

Up next, A Closed and Common Orbit, sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, followed by The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and the third installment in this series, Death’s End. However, in contrast to what is mounting into a daunting and unremitting pile of NOPE, I do have the last in my Nebula Nominees to read, Borderline, by Mishell Baker, which looks genuinely fascinating, and to which I am looking forward immensely. It’s pulling me through.


*Any comments reminding me I don’t “have to” read it will be ignored. I committed to a thing, which includes the shitty parts of the thing. To complete the thing, I have to read the sequel. It’s “have to” vs my stupid pride and my stupid pride wins.
**I may be being sarcastic on this one. Maybe.
***Correction or elaboration on this point much appreciated by those in the know.

Classified Ads Thread

May. 22nd, 2017 06:55 pm
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Posted by Scott Alexander

I’m away at a conference, so no blogging today.

Instead, let’s try having people post ads. Jobs, housing, products, websites, etc.

(Personal ads okay from women and gay people; given the demographics here I don’t think it’s worth it for straight men)

OT76: Extropenism

May. 22nd, 2017 04:50 am
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Posted by Scott Alexander

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

1. San Diego meetup still planned for today, Irvine meetup still planned for next weekend. Details here.

2. In Silicon Valley: A Reality Check, I included Vox in a list of publications that were overly harsh on Silicon Valley because of the Juicero incident. Vox requests a correction that their article, although somewhat harsh at points, also did note that there was lots of good research and development going on too, and doesn’t deserve to be pilloried in the same way as the others. You can read their article here and judge for yourself.

3. There were a lot of complaints about Polyamory Is Not Polygyny, so let me clarify. The articles I cited were generally criticizing polyamory as it actually exists, ie in a few weird communities. I presented data from one weird community showing that it didn’t look like their criticisms were true. Some other people in the comments presented data from other weird communities showing the same thing. I don’t claim this is necessarily an accurate representation of what a future hypothetical worldwide polyamorous society would be like. For all I know maybe it would be exactly the opposite, the same way we expect a future hypothetical worldwide socialist society to have the exact opposite results as every time socialism has ever been tried in real life.

4. Mingyuan has been doing a lot of work aggregating data and comments from all of the SSC meetups that have been going on lately. See her writeup here. She’s also got a frequently-updated list of where and when the next SSC meetup close to you is here. I’m going to add that somewhere more prominent when I get around to it.

5. My serial novel Unsong is now complete. If you were waiting to read it until it was finished, now’s the time.

6. The Report Comments button is broken and seems to have been so for a while. If you posted something terrible in the past few months, you’re probably off the hook. My normal tech support has given up on this one, but if you want to try fixing it, let me know.

7. Cafe Chesscourt has agreed to serve as an unofficial (official?) SSC forum, so if you prefer bulletin boards to all the other methods of communication we’ve got around here, head on over.

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Posted by angrysampoetry

Finally we have found a topic about which it is as hard to have a sensible, reasoned debate as the issue of Israel-Palestine. Over Christmas, I spent two weeks with my good friends Becca and Joey in Cape Town. On most topics – artistic, emotional, political – we are in broad agreement and differences are […]
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Reenactor throws a spear at a drone

What a time to be alive.

“The medieval warrior, realizing the consequences of his impulsive act, immediately approached the owner of the drone and offered to pay for the damage.

The owner of the drone was so impressed by the brilliant attack that he suggested organizing a competition for bringing down “dragons” with short spears next year.

Drone owners have another year to develop a unique “dragon-like” design for their flying machines.” (x)

I am 100% cooler with this knowing that the spear-thrower realized “oops maybe I shouldn’t have done that” and tried to make it right, and that the guy who the drone belonged to was cool with it

just so everyone knows, this has already been memorialized in a runestone

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Posted by Scott Alexander


Scientific American notes a recent study saying that a third of drugs approved by the FDA over the past ten years have since been recalled, been given new boxed warnings, or been given new “safety communications”.

A few people have asked me whether this means the FDA is too lax and needs to tighten its standards. Let’s look at this in more detail.

What the study actually says: of 222 drugs approved by the FDA in the last ten years, only 3 (1.3%) were taken off the market. Another 30% or so received “boxed warnings” or “safety communications”, basically the FDA’s way of adding new rules to their safety information. For example, the FDA might approve a drug for the general population, then issue a boxed warning saying “actually, we noticed that this drug can cause seizures as a side effect, don’t take it if you have a history of seizure disorder”.

The most serious category are the drugs taken off the market. As mentioned above, these are about 1% of the total. This doesn’t sound like the story of a weak regulatory agency failing to do its job. This sounds like a really impressive success rate. In fact, if our standards are so stringent that we’re insisting on a 1% false positive rate, I’m kind of horrified thinking of all the false negatives we must be throwing out.

But doesn’t even a 1% false positive rate mean the FDA failed in some way?

No. Let’s consider the most recent psychiatric drug to be withdrawn. This is nefazodone, an antidepressant withdrawn after the discovery that it causes liver failure once every 300,000 patient-years. That is, if 300,000 patients took it for one year, there would be one extra case of liver failure.

How, exactly, do you want to discover this in pre-approval studies? An average drug study has maybe 500 patients. Do you want to run an average drug study for six hundred years? Or do you want to figure out how to run a drug study that’s six hundred times bigger than average? And these numbers are underestimates – one extra liver failure might be a coincidence. You’d want to see two or three extra liver failures before you start thinking the drug might be involved. The average clinical trial costs something like $50 million. Are you sure you want to multiply this number by six hundred to catch a side effect that will affect one out of hundreds of thousands of people?

So what we actually do is post-marketing surveillance. The FDA demands an average drug study on 500 people to make sure that there aren’t any common problems. Then over hundreds of thousands of patients over the space of decades (nefazodone was out almost ten years before it got withdrawn) people collect records and see if there’s any unusual disorder that happens more often when people are on the drug.

Here’s another example from earlier this year: the FDA issued a safety communication that a new drug called Viberzi can cause pancreatitis in people who don’t have a gall bladder. I’m not sure how many patients in the original approval study didn’t have gall bladders, but I bet it wasn’t enough to draw any useful conclusions from. Should all drugs be delayed until they can do separate studies in the gall-bladder-less population? And how would we know beforehand that gall bladders were the problem? Why not separate studies in people with one kidney? People taking antidepressants? Red-haired people? Chinese people? Don’t laugh, Tegretol has a fatal side effect that’s only been observed in Han Chinese.

And then you do the kidney study, the antidepressant study, the red-haired study, and the Chinese study, and darnit, you forgot to look at people who eat way more sauerkraut than any normal person. There you go, linezolid just killed your patient.

You are never going to be able to figure out everything pre-approval. At best, you can prove that the drug is reasonably safe for the vast majority of people. Then later you find something that only happens once in a hundred thousand years, or only to people without gall bladders, or only to Han Chinese, or only if you eat too much sauerkraut. And then the FDA issues a safety communication about it. That’s what it looks like when the system works.


Except I want to look a little further into FDA safety communications and boxed warnings, the large majority of the events found in the study. Some of these are important updates about things like the drug being dangerous to people without gallbladders. Others are…well, the FDA really likes warning people about stuff.

This February, the FDA issued a safety communication about chlorhexidine, aka antiseptic soap. This has been used since the 1950s by loads of surgeons, doctors, and random people who need antiseptic soap for something, and it’s currently a WHO Essential Medication. The FDA wanted us to know that, during fifty years of worldwide use of this product, about one person a year had experienced a severe allergic reaction (by comparison, there are 200 deaths a year from peanut allergies). The safety communication said that if you found yourself having a severe allergic reaction to antiseptic soap, you should call 911.

Last summer, the FDA added a boxed warning to all benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Librium, etc) and all opiates (morphine, Norco, Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin, etc) warning doctors that it could be dangerous to prescribe those two classes of drugs together. Doctors, who had been warned against prescribing those two classes of drugs together for fifty years, collectively said “well, duh”, and then continued prescribing those two classes of drugs together the same as always, because dealing with anxious people who have chronic pain is really hard.

In 2006, the FDA added a boxed warning to warfarin, saying it could cause major bleeding. Warfarin is a 50-year old medication taken by millions of people each year, which has probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the past half-century. It’s an anticoagulant, which means the whole point is to make your blood clot less and bleed more. Mentioning that warfarin can cause major bleeding is a lot like mentioning that sleeping pills might cause tiredness, or weight gain pills could make you fat. Nevertheless, after fifty years and tens of millions of patients, the FDA decided to issue a boxed warning about this. The medical community collectively say “Well, duh” again and got on with their lives.

Also in 2006, the FDA added a boxed warning to Ritalin, saying it might slightly increase the risk of heart disease in children. Everyone kept prescribing it anyway, and later on some better studies showed that it might not slightly increase the risk of heart disease in children. I’m not sure what the current status of this debate is, but it sure hasn’t stopped like half the children I meet from being on Ritalin.

In 2004, the FDA added a boxed warning to every single antidepressant – yes, every single one – warning that they might increase suicide risk in teens. There is still a heated debate about this, with some recent review articles seeming to confirm, and other people pointing out that, when the FDA warning discouraged people from giving antidepressants to teens, teen suicide attempts suddenly went way up. Anyway, antidepressants are hardly alone here – other psychiatric drugs that received boxed warnings include all typical antipsychotics, all atypical antipsychotics, all benzodiazepines, all stimulants, lithium, Depakote, Lamictal, and I think literally every single psychiatric drug except buspirone.

What I’m saying is – the FDA issuing a safety communication or boxed warning doesn’t mean the drug was a mistake, or you should be scared that something went wrong. It’s a routine part of the pharmacological monitoring system. This doesn’t mean it should feel routine to your doctor – they should get worried every time a new one comes out and make sure they’re not inadvertantly harming their patients without gall bladders – but it should feel routine to somebody looking at this on the institutional/systems level.


So does this study mean that the FDA is too lax and needs to tighten its standards?

I’m not sure. Maybe the best answer is “not necessarily“. We definitely shouldn’t be aiming for a 0% post-marketing event rate. Is a 33% post-marketing event rate too high?

I’ve seen a lot of discussion on this recently which I think takes shortcuts. It points out that the FDA has a higher/lower post-marketing event rate than European agencies. Or that the FDA takes longer/shorter to approve drugs than it did a couple of years ago. Or that its standards are stricter/looser than some comparable area of the federal bureaucracy.

None of this matters. What actually matters is the number of people helped by incentivizing new drug development and getting it to market quickly, versus the number of people harmed by the safety problems that slip through the cracks.

It looks like some of the post-marketing surveillance events here were pretty silly, while others were pretty serious – two people died from that drug that causes pancreatitis in people without gall bladders. Are those two deaths justified in the context of saving thousands of other people who had whatever condition that drug cures? I don’t know without a lot more work. The only study I’ve ever seen on this is stuff in the vein of Isakov, Lo, and Motazerhodjat, which always finds the FDA is too conservative. Maybe they’re wrong, but if someone wants to prove they’re wrong, they should do the same kind of cost-benefit analysis and let us know that they came to a different result.

The finding that 33% of approved drugs get post-marketing safety events may factor into such a calculation. But without the rest of the calculation, it’s just a meaningless number.

Polyamory Is Not Polygyny

May. 18th, 2017 12:30 am
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Posted by Scott Alexander

[Content warning: polyamory, brief quote of weird Heartiste stuff]

The objections I hear to polyamory tend to separate into two narratives sharing a common thread.

The first narrative is supposedly concerned about women, and typified by National Review’s Polyamory Is A Modern Name For A Backward Practice. It asks:

What happens to women in a world where we scrap the “binary axis” of monogamy? Women suffer, that’s what. Nobody is asking for a show called “Brother Husbands.” Nine of ten pictures for polyamory involve one man with multiple women. The other one in ten is usually just a crowd of people. Men may sleep around, but they don’t tolerate the degradation of being a part of a modern male harem, nor have they ever, really. Polygamy uniquely subjugates one sex; it’s like an institutionalized form of the hookup culture — with women on call for male pleasure, just with some boundaries and a relationship status.

The second narrative is supposedly concerned about men, and typified by Heartiste’s Polyamory Is Disguised Polygamy:

Polyamory — multiple and simultaneous sexual relationships — means, in practice, a few high value dudes hording all the pussy. Multitudinously and concurrently. Polyamory cheerleaders, like Christopher Ryan, note the shape of our penis heads and go on to weave a happy utopia of free love where all the men and all the women get their rocks off whenever and however they wish, like the bonobos (who, by the way, are territorially squeezed compared to their more prodigiously successful chimp cousins). But he has to ignore female hypergamous mate choice and male jealousy to concoct this vision of a peaceful hedonist paradise. The reality would be considerably darker; women would still want to bang the alpha, leaving the beta male out in the cold, clawing and scratching for rode-worn scraps, but now shackled with the obligation to help provide for kids that are likely not his own.

Despite the different focuses, they both have the same theory. Men – especially high-status men – are going to date lots of women. But women aren’t going to date lots of men, so all the women will end up dating the same few high-status men and ignore the low-status men. Therefore, women (NRO’s concern) and low-status men (Heartiste’s concern) will lose out.

I got so tired of trying to explain that this doesn’t match reality that I started digging back in old survey data to see if I could just disprove it. The latest SSC survey didn’t have enough questions on relationships, but the 2014 LW survey did. I got a sample of 53 poly women, 164 poly men, and 70 monogamous women, and 690 monogamous men.

I interpret NRO and Heartiste’s theories to predict that more poly men than mono men would be single, that the median poly woman would have more partners than the median poly man, but that there would be more poly men with very high numbers of partners than poly women with the same. Neither of these hypotheses were confirmed.

For poly men, 29% were single, 47% had one partner, 17% had two partners, 4% had three, 2% had four, and only 0.5% had five or more.

For poly women, 8% were single, 44% had one partner, 23% had two partners, 15% had three partners, 8% had four, and 4% had five or more.

For both sexes, the median person had one partner. But the average number of partners was higher for women, and there were more women with very high numbers of partners than men with the same.

Poly men were more likely than poly women to be single. However, poly men were still less likely to be single than mono men. 45% of the mono men in the sample were single, suggesting polyamory doesn’t hurt low-status men’s chances of getting a date.

This sample is pretty skewed since it has three times more poly men than poly women. This at least partly corresponds to there being many more men than women in the community it was sampling. Poly men might either date women from outside the community, or have one poly woman date multiple poly men in order to even the odds. I think this second factor probably explains some of poly women’s higher number of partners.

There’s another possible skew: I’m not sure how people decided to identify as poly or monogamous (the question itself asked whether you “prefer polyamory” or “prefer monogamy”). If single people defaulted to monogamy, and some people only claimed to be polyamorous insofar as they were actually dating somebody, that might skew the percent of single people in each style. People who said they were “unsure” whether they were poly or mono were more likely to be single than people with either style (70% of unsure men and 58% of unsure women).

This doesn’t seem compatible with NRO and Heartiste’s theory, but it’s also not great data. If some supporter of theirs wants to tell me what I have to do in the next SSC survey to get results that they’ll be willing to believe, then let’s talk.

[EDIT: Many people are pointing out I’m looking at actually-existing-polyamory, not polyamory as it would be practiced if it hypothetically took over all of society. But actually-existing-polyamory is the thing at issue here, and the practice that has to defend itself. I consider the idea of polyamory taking over all of society maybe somewhat more probable than the idea of homosexuality or transgender doing so, but not probable enough to be very likely.]

Bail Out

May. 16th, 2017 11:19 pm
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Posted by Scott Alexander

Nobody likes that the US has the highest (second-highest after Seychelles?) incarceration rate in the world. But attempts to do something about it tend to founder on questions like “So, who do you want to release? The robbers, or the murderers?” Ending the drug war would be a marginal improvement but wouldn’t solve the problem on its own. And I’ve had trouble finding other ideas that engage with the reality that people are going to prioritize safety over reform and anything that significantly increases violent crime is a likely non-starter.

This was why I was interested to read the scattered thoughts in the effective-altruism-sphere about bail reform.


About a fifth of the incarcerated population – the top of the orange slice, in this graph – are listed as “not convicted”. These are mostly people who haven’t gotten bail. Some are too much of a risk. But about 40% just can’t afford to pay. They are stuck in jail until their trial, which could take a long time:

Length of time that defendants spend in jail before trial (source). Although 50% are out by day 7, 25% are still in by day 50, 10% are still in by day 150, and one was still in after three years

I talked to a correctional psychiatrist a few weeks ago who was telling me that conditions for inmates awaiting trial were worse than conditions for already-convicted inmates. The convicted inmates get officially integrated into whatever prison they’re in and receive various jobs and privileges. The inmates awaiting trial just sit in their cells doing nothing.

People who commit serious crimes might be looking at years or decades in prison. Do the few months they gain or lose because of bail really make that big a difference?

Yes. First, because most people aren’t looking at decades in prison. This article tells the story of a man accused of attacking some police officers; he claimed innocence and expected to be vindicated at trial. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain of sixty days in jail, which he refused. But he ended up spending more than sixty days in jail waiting for trial, which kind of defeated the point.

Second, because much of the time this ends in people just taking the plea bargain. For example, the man in the article above almost took the plea bargain after serving sixty days in jail – an understandable choice, since it let him walk free immediately with time served. But this would put a guilty plea on his record, which would make it harder for him to get jobs in the future and reframe any further crimes he might commit as “repeat offenses”. If his case goes to trial, he might have been be found not guilty and avoid the black mark.

Third, because people who are detained pretrial end up getting longer sentences. Some of this seems to be because they’re less able to contact their lawyer and prepare a good defense. Some more seems to be related to prosecutors setting harsher plea bargains for imprisoned defendants because they have a worse bargaining position. And some more might be related to psychological factors where judges think of people who just showed up from jail as “more criminal” than someone who came to the court from their home.

This legal advice site advises suspects not to stay in jail before trial even if they don’t mind the environment and just want to get it over with. It confirms my friend’s suspicion that jails are worse for people awaiting trial than for convicted offenders, but also notes some other interesting aspects. People in jail have a bad habit of making incriminating statements that get reported and used against them on trial. Suspects out on bail can rack up prosocial accomplishments to list off at their trial – they give the example of going to a counselor and making restitution to victims. And they get the option to delay their case until the trail grows cold and prosecutors get bored and everyone just agrees to a lesser sentence.

(something I didn’t realize which is relevant here: 96% of felony convictions involve guilty pleas. Plea bargaining is the rule, not the exception, and anything which makes it easier or harder is going to impact the large majority of cases)

There have been a bunch of studies trying to determine to what degree bail vs. pretrial detention affects case outcome. Some early studies like this found that it could alter sentence length by about ten percent, but the data were necessarily not very good – there’s no way to randomize suspects, and the sort of hardened criminals who don’t get bail are the same sort of hardened criminals who maybe deserve tougher sentences. People tried their best to control for all observable factors, but this never works. Better is Gupta, Hansman & Frenchman, which tries a quasi-experimental design based on suspects’ random assignment to more or less strict judges who are more or less likely to demand lots of money for bail. Suspects who are assessed bail are 6% more likely to be convicted (they’re also 4% more likely to reoffend, which is weird but might be related to imprisonment hardening criminals and increasing recidivism). Stevenson tries a similar method and finds that inability to make bail produces a 13% increase in convictions, mostly through more guilty pleas.

This study also finds that size of bail was less important than whether there was bail at all, which confused me until they pointed out that most suspects are really, really poor. As per the Stevenson paper:

Some of these defendants are facing very serious charges, and accordingly, have very high bail. But many have bail set at amounts that would be affordable for the middle or upper-middle class but are simply beyond the reach of the poor. In Philadelphia, the site of this study, more than half of pretrial detainees would be able to secure their release by paying a deposit of $1000 or less, most of which would be reimbursed if they appear at all court dates. Many defendants remain incarcerated even at extremely low amounts of bail, where the deposit necessary to secure release is only $50 or $100.

The New York Times notes that

Even when bail is set comparatively low – at $500 or less, as it is in one-third of nonfelony cases = only 15% of defendants are able to come up with the money to avoid jail.

And from here:

The guy in the NPR article above – the one who might or might not have attacked some cops – was in jail for 60 days because he couldn’t make bail of $1000.

So bail causes people to be stuck in jail for months, increases guilty pleas independent of defendants’ actual guilt, and causes more convictions and longer sentences. Since many of the people harmed by this are innocent, or deserve less punishment than they end up receiving, this seems like an important point of leverage at which to try to fight incarceration. On the other hand, bail is supposed to serve a useful purpose in preventing suspects from running away. It is possible to do without?

Maybe. Washington DC is one of the highest-crime areas of the country, but it uses an alternative system without monetary bail which uses an algorithm to calculate risk, releases low-risk people, and keeps high-risk people imprisoned without bail. It looks like about 10% of Washingtonians, versus 47% of other Americans, are detained in jail pre-trial. Of Washingtonians released without bail, 87% show up for all court dates, and 98% avoid committing violent crimes while free.

I’m not able to find a good comparison between Washington and other jurisdictions, but this page on bounty hunters gives the unsourced statistic that 20% of people on bail fail to show up for court anyway. This equally-credible-looking site gives an equally unsourced statistic of 10%, and notes that these people are more likely to be flakes who forgot their court date than supercriminals who have donned a fake mustache and are on their way to the Cayman Islands. These numbers suggests that Washington’s no-show rate is about the same as everywhere else’s.

Bronx Freedom Fund is a charity that helps people pay bail. They claim that 96% of the people whose bail they pay show up to trial, which matches the numbers from Washington and the numbers from normal places where people have to pay their own bail. I am sure they select their beneficiaries very carefully, but if it’s possible to select a group of people who are definitely going to show up to their trial whether they can make bail or not, why are those people still in jail?

I can’t find any studies clearly proving this, but it looks like there’s no obvious and proven tendency for bail to improve show-up-at-trial rates, and some evidence that with good risk assessment and selection 90% of people released without bail will show up to trial, which may be around the same as the rate for people who do get bail. This would make all of the problems with bail not only outrageous but pointless, not even the unfortunate side effects of a generally-reasonable policy.

It looks like there are two possible solutions – one small and short-term, the other systemic and long-term.

In the short term, there are some great charities – like the aforementioned Bronx Freedom Fund – that pay people’s bail. If the people show up to trial (which, again, 90% or so do), then the charity gets its money back and can use it to pay more people’s bail, ad infinitum. This makes them very high-value per dollar.

I’m not sure how much to trust BFF’s self-reported statistics. I see that on their front page they mention that “defendants who await trial in jail are 4x more likely to be sentenced to time in prison”, which is much more than any of the studies above report and which is probably a misleading uncorrected raw estimate. I see they say that “$39 can help us secure someone’s freedom”, which since average bail is something like $500 and only 2.8% of bails are less than $50 might be more of a “this is the lowest bail that has ever occurred in history” than any kind of representative estimate. But I don’t really hold it against them to give technically correct but misleading numbers in an advertising pitch. The question is – what are the real numbers? GiveWell and Open Philanthropy Project have been looking at them, but I can’t find a complete writeup, so let me do a terrible and very approximate job of trying to estimate them myself.

They note that their average bail is $790. Supposing that their 96% success rate is true, the average case costs them $30 – they cite a similar figure in their own literature. If, as they say, the average pretrial detention period is 15 days (which more or less matches the chart above), they can keep someone out of jail for $2/day even without selecting the worst cases.

They also note that their clients get cleared of all charges about half the time, compared to only 10% of the time for people in jail. I don’t know how much of this is selection effects, but suppose we take it at face value. And suppose that an average prison sentence for whatever kinds of petty crimes these people commit is two months. That means they’re saving the average suspect about 25 days worth of prison sentence, and improves their cost-effectiveness. I’d say this comes out to about $0.75 per jail day prevented, but that might be double-counting some people who, had they been in jail, would have had the time deducted from their sentence. Let’s say somewhere between $0.75 and $2.

A confusion: their 2014 annual report notes that they received $53,000 in donations and helped 140 people, suggesting a cost of $380 (not $30) per person helped. In 2015 they helped 160 people with $120,000, suggesting a cost of $750 per person that doesn’t seem to improve with scale. A similar organization, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, got $404,800 from Good Ventures, and boasts of helping 1,100 people, for $367/person (this is a very rough estimate; it assumes this is all in the same year and they got no other donations).

I’m not sure why these numbers are so much bigger than the ones derived from first principles, but taken seriously, if we continue to assume that each successful case saves an average of forty days in jail, they prevent a jail day for about $10.

We compare to other efficient charities. GiveWell thinks it takes antimalaria charities about $7500 to save a human life. If that person lives another 20 years, that’s about $1/day.

So using their own numbers, these bail-related charities might be able to prevent imprisonment at the same cost-per-day as other charities can save lives. Using less optimistic numbers, they might be able to prevent imprisonment at about ten times the rate. Depending on where you fall on the death vs suffering philosophical tradeoff, this might be attractive. I’m confused these charities haven’t received more attention, if only to debunk them properly.

And even though everyone likes to talk about how individual charity doesn’t work and only systemic change can make a real difference, paying the bail of 50% of the people in the United States currently awaiting trial would be well within the abilities of one philanthropic-feeling billionaire, after which the money could be recycled again and again for the same purpose. I agree this is a kind of hokey calculation since it doesn’t include the overhead cost of getting the money to the suspects, but it’s still shocking how small the amounts involved are compared to other social problems.

In the long-term, we probably need some kind of criminal justice reform. The Obama administration seemed to be pursuing some kind of fourteenth amendment argument to get a court ruling that monetary bail was illegal. Some libertarian groups like Reason and the Cato Institute are on board. Some charities, like Equal Justice Under Law, are supporting the same cause.

I don’t think that bail reform is the largest or most important change that could be made to the US criminal justice system. But I think it might be tied with drug reform for the easiest. And given how well politics has been going lately, this might be a good time for lowered ambitions.

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If you’re scrolling through tumblr trying to distract yourself from something you don’t want to think about or you’re looking for a sign that everything will be okay, this is it. So, breathe. Relax into this moment. You’re alive & that’s all that matters.


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TIL: JRR Tolkien’s great granddaughter, Ruth Tolkien, is the only blind person in the UK to be a competitive fencer. She is currently ranked the #186th best fencer in the country.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

I’m in California for the next few weeks and want to catch up with people I know. I’ve got some meetups planned, but these are all preliminary, so check back there before the meetup to see if I’ve edited the time and date:

1. Unsong wrap party in Berkeley on Sunday, May 14, at 4:30, in the Cal Alumni Student Association. See here for more details.

2. SSC Berkeley Meetup on Tuesday, May 16th at 7PM at the 7th floor of 2030 Addison St. I am a little worried about space here, so be prepared for it to be cramped or us to have to relocate or something.

3. San Diego meetup on Monday, May 22nd, 7:30PM at Lestat’s Hillcrest coffee, 1041 University Ave. Psychiatrists in town for APA welcome!

4. Irvine meetup on Saturday, May 27th, 7PM at Peet’s Coffee at 4213 Campus Dr.

And if anyone’s at the American Psychiatric Association conference, say hi to me. I’ll be presenting a poster on patient ratings of antidepressants at Resident Poster Competition 3 at 10 AM Sunday, plus wandering around the rest of the week. I’ll probably be in a black hospital jacket with my real name (Scott S______) on it.