We ignorant, incompetent gods

May 21 JDN 2460086

A review of Homo Deus

The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.

E.O. Wilson

Homo Deus is a very good read—and despite its length, a quick one; as you can see, I read it cover to cover in a week. Yuval Noah Harari’s central point is surely correct: Our technology is reaching a threshold where it grants us unprecedented power and forces us to ask what it means to be human.

Biotechnology and artificial intelligence are now advancing so rapidly that advancements in other domains, such as aerospace and nuclear energy, seem positively mundane. Who cares about making flight or electricity a bit cleaner when we will soon have the power to modify ourselves or we’ll all be replaced by machines?

Indeed, we already have technology that would have seemed to ancient people like the powers of gods. We can fly; we can witness or even control events thousands of miles away; we can destroy mountains; we can wipeout entire armies in an instant; we can even travel into outer space.

Harari rightly warns us that our not-so-distant descendants are likely to have powers that we would see as godlike: Immortality, superior intelligence, self-modification, the power to create life.

And where it is scary to think about what they might do with that power if they think the way we do—as ignorant and foolish and tribal as we are—Harari points out that it is equally scary to think about what they might do if they don’t think the way we do—for then, how do they think? If their minds are genetically modified or even artificially created, who will they be? What values will they have, if not ours? Could they be better? What if they’re worse?

It is of course difficult to imagine values better than our own—if we thought those values were better, we’d presumably adopt them. But we should seriously consider the possibility, since presumably most of us believe that our values today are better than what most people’s values were 1000 years ago. If moral progress continues, does it not follow that people’s values will be better still 1000 years from now? Or at least that they could be?

I also think Harari overestimates just how difficult it is to anticipate the future. This may be a useful overcorrection; the world is positively infested with people making overprecise predictions about the future, often selling them for exorbitant fees (note that Harari was quite well-compensated for this book as well!). But our values are not so fundamentally alien from those of our forebears, and we have reason to suspect that our descendants’ values will be no more different from ours.

For instance, do you think that medieval people thought suffering and death were good? I assure you they did not. Nor did they believe that the supreme purpose in life is eating cheese. (They didn’t even believe the Earth was flat!) They did not have the concept of GDP, but they could surely appreciate the value of economic prosperity.

Indeed, our world today looks very much like a medieval peasant’s vision of paradise. Boundless food in endless variety. Near-perfect security against violence. Robust health, free from nearly all infectious disease. Freedom of movement. Representation in government! The land of milk and honey is here; there they are, milk and honey on the shelves at Walmart.

Of course, our paradise comes with caveats: Not least, we are by no means free of toil, but instead have invented whole new kinds of toil they could scarcely have imagined. If anything I would have to guess that coding a robot or recording a video lecture probably isn’t substantially more satisfying than harvesting wheat or smithing a sword; and reconciling receivables and formatting spreadsheets is surely less. Our tasks are physically much easier, but mentally much harder, and it’s not obvious which of those is preferable. And we are so very stressed! It’s honestly bizarre just how stressed we are, given the abudance in which we live; there is no reason for our lives to have stakes so high, and yet somehow they do. It is perhaps this stress and economic precarity that prevents us from feeling such joy as the medieval peasants would have imagined for us.

Of course, we don’t agree with our ancestors on everything. The medieval peasants were surely more religious, more ignorant, more misogynistic, more xenophobic, and more racist than we are. But projecting that trend forward mostly means less ignorance, less misogyny, less racism in the future; it means that future generations should see the world world catch up to what the best of us already believe and strive for—hardly something to fear. The values that I believe are surely not what we as a civilization act upon, and I sorely wish they were. Perhaps someday they will be.

I can even imagine something that I myself would recognize as better than me: Me, but less hypocritical. Strictly vegan rather than lacto-ovo-vegetarian, or at least more consistent about only buying free range organic animal products. More committed to ecological sustainability, more willing to sacrifice the conveniences of plastic and gasoline. Able to truly respect and appreciate all life, even humble insects. (Though perhaps still not mosquitoes; this is war. They kill more of us than any other animal, including us.) Not even casually or accidentally racist or sexist. More courageous, less burnt out and apathetic. I don’t always live up to my own ideals. Perhaps someday someone will.

Harari fears something much darker, that we will be forced to give up on humanist values and replace them with a new techno-religion he calls Dataism, in which the supreme value is efficient data processing. I see very little evidence of this. If it feels like data is worshipped these days, it is only because data is profitable. Amazon and Google constantly seek out ever richer datasets and ever faster processing because that is how they make money. The real subject of worship here is wealth, and that is nothing new. Maybe there are some die-hard techno-utopians out there who long for us all to join the unified oversoul of all optimized data processing, but I’ve never met one, and they are clearly not the majority. (Harari also uses the word ‘religion’ in an annoyingly overbroad sense; he refers to communism, liberalism, and fascism as ‘religions’. Ideologies, surely; but religions?)

Harari in fact seems to think that ideologies are strongly driven by economic structures, so maybe he would even agree that it’s about profit for now, but thinks it will become religion later. But I don’t really see history fitting this pattern all that well. If monotheism is directly tied to the formation of organized bureaucracy and national government, then how did Egypt and Rome last so long with polytheistic pantheons? If atheism is the natural outgrowth of industrialized capitalism, then why are Africa and South America taking so long to get the memo? I do think that economic circumstances can constrain culture and shift what sort of ideas become dominant, including religious ideas; but there clearly isn’t this one-to-one correspondence he imagines. Moreover, there was never Coalism or Oilism aside from the greedy acquisition of these commodities as part of a far more familiar ideology: capitalism.

He also claims that all of science is now, or is close to, following a united paradigm under which everything is a data processing algorithm, which suggests he has not met very many scientists. Our paradigms remain quite varied, thank you; and if they do all have certain features in common, it’s mainly things like rationality, naturalism and empiricism that are more or less inherent to science. It’s not even the case that all cognitive scientists believe in materialism (though it probably should be); there are still dualists out there.

Moreover, when it comes to values, most scientists believe in liberalism. This is especially true if we use Harari’s broad sense (on which mainline conservatives and libertarians are ‘liberal’ because they believe in liberty and human rights), but even in the narrow sense of center-left. We are by no means converging on a paradigm where human life has no value because it’s all just data processing; maybe some scientists believe that, but definitely not most of us. If scientists ran the world, I can’t promise everything would be better, but I can tell you that Bush and Trump would never have been elected and we’d have a much better climate policy in place by now.

I do share many of Harari’s fears of the rise of artificial intelligence. The world is clearly not ready for the massive economic disruption that AI is going to cause all too soon. We still define a person’s worth by their employment, and think of ourselves primarily as collection of skills; but AI is going to make many of those skills obsolete, and may make many of us unemployable. It would behoove us to think in advance about who we truly are and what we truly want before that day comes. I used to think that creative intellectual professions would be relatively secure; ChatGPT and Midjourney changed my mind. Even writers and artists may not be safe much longer.

Harari is so good at sympathetically explaining other views he takes it to a fault. At times it is actually difficult to know whether he himself believes something and wants you to, or if he is just steelmanning someone else’s worldview. There’s a whole section on ‘evolutionary humanism’ where he details a worldview that is at best Nietschean and at worst Nazi, but he makes it sound so seductive. I don’t think it’s what he believes, in part because he has similarly good things to say about liberalism and socialism—but it’s honestly hard to tell.

The weakest part of the book is when Harari talks about free will. Like most people, he just doesn’t get compatibilism. He spends a whole chapter talking about how science ‘proves we have no free will’, and it’s just the same old tired arguments hard determinists have always made.

He talks about how we can make choices based on our desires, but we can’t choose our desires; well of course we can’t! What would that even mean? If you could choose your desires, what would you choose them based on, if not your desires? Your desire-desires? Well, then, can you choose your desire-desires? What about your desire-desire-desires?

What even is this ultimate uncaused freedom that libertarian free will is supposed to consist in? No one seems capable of even defining it. (I’d say Kant got the closest: He defined it as the capacity to act based upon what ought rather than what is. But of course what we believe about ‘ought’ is fundamentally stored in our brains as a particular state, a way things are—so in the end, it’s an ‘is’ we act on after all.)

Maybe before you lament that something doesn’t exist, you should at least be able to describe that thing as a coherent concept? Woe is me, that 2 plus 2 is not equal to 5!

It is true that as our technology advances, manipulating other people’s desires will become more and more feasible. Harari overstates the case on so-called robo-rats; they aren’t really mind-controlled, it’s more like they are rewarded and punished. The rat chooses to go left because she knows you’ll make her feel good if she does; she’s still freely choosing to go left. (Dangling a carrot in front of a horse is fundamentally the same thing—and frankly, paying a wage isn’t all that different.) The day may yet come where stronger forms of control become feasible, and woe betide us when it does. Yet this is no threat to the concept of free will; we already knew that coercion was possible, and mind control is simply a more precise form of coercion.

Harari reports on a lot of interesting findings in neuroscience, which are important for people to know about, but they do not actually show that free will is an illusion. What they do show is that free will is thornier than most people imagine. Our desires are not fully unified; we are often ‘of two minds’ in a surprisingly literal sense. We are often tempted by things we know are wrong. We often aren’t sure what we really want. Every individual is in fact quite divisible; we literally contain multitudes.

We do need a richer account of moral responsibility that can deal with the fact that human beings often feel multiple conflicting desires simultaneously, and often experience events differently than we later go on to remember them. But at the end of the day, human consciousness is mostly unified, our choices are mostly rational, and our basic account of moral responsibility is mostly valid.

I think for now we should perhaps be less worried about what may come in the distant future, what sort of godlike powers our descendants may have—and more worried about what we are doing with the godlike powers we already have. We have the power to feed the world; why aren’t we? We have the power to save millions from disease; why don’t we? I don’t see many people blindly following this ‘Dataism’, but I do see an awful lot blinding following a 19th-century vision of capitalism.

And perhaps if we straighten ourselves out, the future will be in better hands.

Why does democracy work?

May 14 JDN 2460079

A review of Democracy for Realists

I don’t think it can be seriously doubted that democracy does, in fact, work. Not perfectly, by any means; but the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that more democratic societies are better than more authoritarian societies by just about any measure you could care to use.

When I first started reading Democracy for Realists and saw their scathing, at times frothing criticism of mainstream ideas of democracy, I thought they were going to try to disagree with that; but in the end they don’t. Achen and Bartels do agree that democracy works; they simply think that why and how it works is radically different from what most people think.

For it is a very long-winded book, and in dire need of better editing. Most of the middle section of the book is taken up by a deluge of empirical analysis, most of which amounts to over-interpreting the highly ambiguous results of underpowered linear regressions on extremely noisy data. The sheer quantity of them seems intended to overwhelm any realization that no particular one is especially compelling. But a hundred weak arguments don’t add up to a single strong one.

To their credit, the authors often include the actual scatter plots; but when you look at those scatter plots, you find yourself wondering how anyone could be so convinced these effects are real and important. Many of them seem more prone to new constellations.

Their econometric techniques are a bit dubious, as well; at one point they said they “removed outliers” but then the examples they gave as “outliers” were the observations most distant from their regression line rather than the rest of the data. Removing the things furthest from your regression line will always—always—make your regression seem stronger. But that’s not what outliers are. Other times, they add weird controls or exclude parts of the sample for dubious reasons, and I get the impression that these are the cherry-picked results of a much larger exploration. (Why in the world would you exclude Catholics from a study of abortion attitudes? And this study on shark attacks seems awfully specific….) And of course if you try 20 regressions at random, you can expect that at least 1 of them will probably show up with p < 0.05. I think they are mainly just following the norms of their discipline—but those norms are quite questionable.

They don’t ever get into much detail as to what sort of practical institutional changes they would recommend, so it’s hard to know whether I would agree with those. Some of their suggestions, such as more stringent rules on campaign spending, I largely agree with. Others, such as their opposition to popular referenda and recommendation for longer term limits, I have more mixed feelings about. But none seem totally ridiculous or even particularly radical, and they really don’t offer much detail about any of them. I thought they were going to tell me that appointment of judges is better than election (which many experts widely agree), or that the Electoral College is a good system (which far fewer experts would assent to, at least since George W. Bush and Donald Trump). In fact they didn’t do that; they remain eerily silent on substantive questions like this.

Honestly, what little they have to say about institutional policy feels a bit tacked on at the end, as if they suddenly realized that they ought to say something useful rather than just spend the whole time tearing down another theory.

In fact, I came to wonder if they really were tearing down anyone’s actual theory, or if this whole book was really just battering a strawman. Does anyone really think that voters are completely rational? At one point they speak of an image of the ‘sovereign omnicompetent voter’; is that something anyone really believes in?

It does seem like many people believe in making government more responsive to the people, whereas Achen and Bartels seem to have the rather distinct goal of making government make better decisions. They were able to find at least a few examples—though I know not how far and wide they had to search—where it seemed like more popular control resulted in worse outcomes, such as water fluoridation and funding for fire departments. So maybe the real substantive disagreement here is over whether more or less direct democracy is a good idea. And that is indeed a reasonable question. But one need not believe that voters are superhuman geniuses to think that referenda are better than legislation. Simply showing that voters are limited in their capacity and bound to group identity is not enough to answer that question.

In fact, I think that Achen and Bartels seriously overestimate the irrationality of voters, because they don’t seem to appreciate that group identity is often a good proxy for policy—in fact, they don’t even really seem to see social policy as policy at all. Consider this section (p. 238):

“In this pre-Hitlerian age it must have seemed to most Jews that there were no crucial issues dividing the major parties” (Fuchs 1956, 63). Yet by 1923, a very substantial majority of Jews had abandoned their Republican loyalties and begun voting for the Democrats. What had changed was not foreign policy, but rather the social status of Jews within one of America’s major political parties. In a very visible way, the Democrats had become fully accepting and incorporating of religious minorities, both Catholics and Jews. The result was a durable Jewish partisan realignment grounded in “ethnic solidarity”, in Gamm’s characterization.

Gee, I wonder why Jews would suddenly care a great deal which party was more respectful toward people like them? Okay, the Holocaust hadn’t happened yet, but anti-Semitism is very old indeed, and it was visibly creeping upward during that era. And just in general, if one party is clearly more anti-Semitic than the other, why wouldn’t Jews prefer the one that is less hateful toward them? How utterly blinded by privilege do you need to be to not see that this is an important policy difference?

Perhaps because they are both upper-middle-class straight White cisgender men (I would also venture a guess nominally but not devoutly Protestant), Achens and Bartel seem to have no concept that social policy directly affects people of minority identity, that knowing that one party accepts people like you and the other doesn’t is a damn good reason to prefer one over the other. This is not a game where we are rooting for our home team. This directly affects our lives.

I know quite a few transgender people, and not a single one is a Republican. It’s not because all trans people hate low taxes. It’s because the Republican Party has declared war on trans people.

This may also lead to trans people being more left-wing generally, as once you’re in a group you tend to absorb some views from others in that group (and, I’ll admit, Marxists and anarcho-communists seem overrepresented among LGBT people). But I absolutely know some LGBT people who would like to vote conservative for economic policy reasons, but realize they can’t, because it means voting for bigots who hate them and want to actively discriminate against them. There is nothing irrational or even particularly surprising about this choice. It would take a very powerful overriding reason for anyone to want to vote for someone who publicly announces hatred toward them.

Indeed, for me the really baffling thing is that there are political parties that publicly announce hatred toward particular groups. It seems like a really weird strategy for winning elections. That is the thing that needs to be explained here; why isn’t inclusiveness—at least a smarmy lip-service toward inclusiveness, like ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ offices at universities—the default behavior of all successful politicians? Why don’t they all hug a Latina trans woman after kissing a baby and taking a selfie with the giant butter cow? Why is not being an obvious bigot considered a left-wing position?

Since it obviously is the case that many voters don’t want this hatred (at the very least, its targets!), in order for it not to damage electoral changes, it must be that some other voters do want this hatred. Perhaps they themselves define their own identity in opposition to other people’s identities. They certainly talk that way a lot: We hear White people fearing ‘replacement‘ by shifting racial demographics, when no sane forecaster thinks that European haplotypes are in any danger of disappearing any time soon. The central argument against gay marriage was always that it would somehow destroy straight marriage, by some mechanism never explained.

Indeed, perhaps it is this very blindness toward social policy that makes Achen and Bartels unable to see the benefits of more direct democracy. When you are laser-focused on economic policy, as they are, then it seems to you as though policy questions are mainly technical matters of fact, and thus what we need are qualified experts. (Though even then, it is not purely a matter of fact whether we should care more about inequality than growth, or more about unemployment than inflation.)

But once you include social policy, you see that politics often involves very real, direct struggles between conflicting interests and differing moral views, and that by the time you’ve decided which view is the correct one, you already have your answer for what must be done. There is no technical question of gay marriage; there is only a moral one. We don’t need expertise on such questions; we need representation. (Then again, it’s worth noting that courts have sometimes advanced rights more effectively than direct democratic votes; so having your interests represented isn’t as simple as getting an equal vote.)

Achen and Bartels even include a model in the appendix where politicians are modeled as either varying in competence or controlled by incentives; never once does it consider that they might differ in whose interests they represent. Yet I don’t vote for a particular politician just because I think they are more intelligent, or as part of some kind of deterrence mechanism to keep them from misbehaving (I certainly hope the courts do a better job of that!); I vote for them because I think they represent the goals and interests I care about. We aren’t asking who is smarter, we are asking who is on our side.

The central question that I think the book raises is one that the authors don’t seem to have much to offer on: If voters are so irrational, why does democracy work? I do think there is strong evidence that voters are irrational, though maybe not as irrational as Achen and Bartels seem to think. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone can watch Donald Trump get elected President of the United States and not think that voters are irrational. (The book was written before that; apparently there’s a new edition with a preface about Trump, but my copy doesn’t have that.) But it isn’t at all obvious to me what to do with that information, because even if so-called elites are in fact more competent than average citizens—which may or may not be true—the fact remains that their interests are never completely aligned. Thus far, representative democracy of one stripe or another seems to be the best mechanism we have for finding people who have sufficient competence while also keeping them on a short enough leash.

And perhaps that’s why democracy works as well as it does; it gives our leaders enough autonomy to let them generally advance their goals, but also places limits on how badly misaligned our leaders’ goals can be from our own.

The role of police in society

Feb12 JDN 2459988

What do the police do? Not in theory, in practice. Not what are they supposed to do—what do they actually do?

Ask someone right-wing and they’ll say something like “uphold the law”. Ask someone left-wing and they’ll say something like “protect the interests of the rich”. Both of these are clearly inaccurate. They don’t fit the pattern of how the police actually behave.

What is that pattern? Well, let’s consider some examples.

If you rob a bank, the police will definitely arrest you. That would be consistent with either upholding the law or protecting the interests of the rich, so it’s not a very useful example.

If you run a business with unsafe, illegal working conditions, and someone tells the police about it, the police will basically ignore it and do nothing. At best they might forward it to some regulatory agency who might at some point get around to issuing a fine.

If you strike against your unsafe working conditions and someone calls the police to break up your picket line, they’ll immediately come in force and break up your picket line.

So that definitively refutes the “uphold the law” theory; by ignoring OSHA violations and breaking up legal strikes, the police are actively making it harder to enforce the law. It seems to fit the “protect the interests of the rich” theory. Let’s try some other examples.

If you run a fraudulent business that cons people out of millions of dollars, the police might arrest you, eventually, if they ever actually bother to get around to investigating the fraud. That certainly doesn’t look like upholding the law—but you can get very rich and they’ll still arrest you, as Bernie Madoff discovered. So being rich doesn’t grant absolute immunity from the police.

If your negligence in managing the safety systems of your factory or oil rig kills a dozen people, the police will do absolutely nothing. Some regulatory agency may eventually get around to issuing you a fine. That also looks like protecting the interests of the rich. So far the left-wing theory is holding up.

If you are homeless and camping out on city property, the police will often come to remove you. Sometimes there’s a law against such camping, but there isn’t always; and even when there is, the level of force used often seems wildly disproportionate to the infraction. This also seems to support the left-wing account.

But now suppose you go out and murder several homeless people. That is, if anything, advancing the interests of the rich; it’s certainly not harming them. Yet the police would in fact investigate. It might be low on their priorities, especially if they have a lot of other homicides; but they would, in fact, investigate it and ultimately arrest you. That doesn’t look like advancing the interests of the rich. It looks a lot more like upholding the law, in fact.

Or suppose you are the CEO of a fraudulent company that is about to be revealed and thus collapse, and instead of accepting the outcome or absconding to the Carribbean (as any sane rich psychopath would), you decide to take some SEC officials hostage and demand that they certify your business as legitimate. Are the police going to take that lying down? No. They’re going to consider you a terrorist, and go in guns blazing. So they don’t just protect the interests of the rich after all; that also looks a lot like they’re upholding the law.

I didn’t even express this as the left-wing view earlier, because I’m trying to use the woodman argument; but there are also those on the left who would say that the primary function of the police is to uphold White supremacy. I’d be a fool to deny that there are a lot of White supremacist cops; but notice that in the above scenarios I didn’t even specify the race of the people involved, and didn’t have to. The cops are no more likely to arrest a fraudulent banker because he’s Black, and no more likely to let a hostage-taker go free because he’s White. (They might be less likely to shoot the White hostage-taker—maybe, the data on that actually isn’t as clear-cut as people think—but they’d definitely still arrest him.) While racism is a widespread problem in the police, it doesn’t dictate their behavior all the time—and it certainly isn’t their core function.

What does categorically explain how the police react in all these scenarios?

The police uphold order.

Not law. Order. They don’t actually much seem to care whether what you’re doing is illegal or harmful or even deadly. They care whether it violates civil order.

This is how we can explain the fact that police would investigate murders, but ignore oil rig disasters—even if the latter causes more deaths. The former is a violation of civil order, the latter is not.

It also explains why they would be so willing to tear apart homeless camps and break up protests and strikes. Those are actually often legal, or at worst involve minor infractions; but they’re also disruptive and disorderly.

The police seem to see their core mission as keeping the peace. It could be an unequal, unjust peace full of illegal policies that cause grievous harm and death—but what matters to them is that it’s peace. They will stomp out any violence they see with even greater violence of their own. They have a monopoly on the use of force, and they intend to defend it.

I think that realizing this can help us take a nuanced view of the police. They aren’t monsters or tools of oppression. But they also aren’t brave heroes who uphold the law and keep us safe. They are instruments of civil order.

We do need civil order; there are a lot of very important things in society that simply can’t function if civil order collapses. In places where civil order does fall apart, life becomes entirely about survival; the security that civil order provides is necessary not only for economic activity, but also for much of what gives our lives value.

But nor is civil order all that matters. And sometimes injustice truly does become so grave that it’s worth sacrificing some order in order to redress it. Strikes and protests genuinely are disruptive; society couldn’t function if they were happening everywhere all the time. But sometimes we need to disrupt the way things are going in order to get people to clearly see the injustice around them and do something about it.

I hope that this more realistic, nuanced assessment of the role police play in society may help to pull people away from both harmful political extremes.We can’t simply abolish the police; we need some system for maintaining civil order, and whatever system we have is probably going to end up looking a lot like police. (#ScandinaviaIsBetter, truly, but there are still cops in Norway.) But we also can’t afford to lionize the police or ignore their failures and excesses. When they fight to maintain civil order at the expense of social justice, they become part of the problem.

The mythology mindset

Feb 5 JDN 2459981

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s latest book Rationality. It’s refreshing, well-written, enjoyable, and basically correct with some small but notable errors that seem sloppy—but then you could have guessed all that from the fact that it was written by Steven Pinker.

What really makes the book interesting is an insight Pinker presents near the end, regarding the difference between the “reality mindset” and the “mythology mindset”.

It’s a pretty simple notion, but a surprisingly powerful one.

In the reality mindset, a belief is a model of how the world actually functions. It must be linked to the available evidence and integrated into a coherent framework of other beliefs. You can logically infer from how some parts work to how other parts must work. You can predict the outcomes of various actions. You live your daily life in the reality mindset; you couldn’t function otherwise.

In the mythology mindset, a belief is a narrative that fulfills some moral, emotional, or social function. It’s almost certainly untrue or even incoherent, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it sends the right messages. It has the right moral overtones. It shows you’re a member of the right tribe.

The idea is similar to Dennett’s “belief in belief”, which I’ve written about before; but I think this characterization may actually be a better one, not least because people would be more willing to use it as a self-description. If you tell someone “You don’t really believe in God, you believe in believing in God”, they will object vociferously (which is, admittedly, what the theory would predict). But if you tell them, “Your belief in God is a form of the mythology mindset”, I think they are at least less likely to immediately reject your claim out of hand. “You believe in God a different way than you believe in cyanide” isn’t as obviously threatening to their identity.

A similar notion came up in a Psychology of Religion course I took, in which the professor discussed “anomalous beliefs” linked to various world religions. He picked on a bunch of obscure religions, often held by various small tribes. He asked for more examples from the class. Knowing he was nominally Catholic and not wanting to let mainstream religion off the hook, I presented my example: “This bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.” To his credit, he immediately acknowledged it as a very good example.

It’s also not quite the same thing as saying that religion is a “metaphor”; that’s not a good answer for a lot of reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that people don’t say they believe metaphors. If I say something metaphorical and then you ask me, “Hang on; is that really true?” I will immediately acknowledge that it is not, in fact, literally true. Love is a rose with all its sweetness and all its thorns—but no, love isn’t really a rose. And when it comes to religious belief, saying that you think it’s a metaphor is basically a roundabout way of saying you’re an atheist.

From all these different directions, we seem to be converging on a single deeper insight: when people say they believe something, quite often, they clearly mean something very different by “believe” than what I would ordinarily mean.

I’m tempted even to say that they don’t really believe it—but in common usage, the word “belief” is used at least as often to refer to the mythology mindset as the reality mindset. (In fact, it sounds less weird to say “I believe in transsubstantiation” than to say “I believe in gravity”.) So if they don’t really believe it, then they at least mythologically believe it.

Both mindsets seem to come very naturally to human beings, in particular contexts. And not just modern people, either. Humans have always been like this.

Ask that psychology professor about Jesus, and he’ll tell you a tall tale of life, death, and resurrection by a demigod. But ask him about the Stroop effect, and he’ll provide a detailed explanation of rigorous experimental protocol. He believes something about God; but he knows something about psychology.

Ask a hunter-gatherer how the world began, and he’ll surely spin you a similarly tall tale about some combination of gods and spirits and whatever else, and it will all be peculiarly particular to his own tribe and no other. But ask him how to gut a fish, and he’ll explain every detail with meticulous accuracy, with almost the same rigor as that scientific experiment. He believes something about the sky-god; but he knows something about fish.

To be a rationalist, then, is to aspire to live your whole life in the reality mindset. To seek to know rather than believe.

This isn’t about certainty. A rationalist can be uncertain about many things—in fact, it’s rationalists of all people who are most willing to admit and quantify their uncertainty.

This is about whether you allow your beliefs to float free as bare, almost meaningless assertions that you profess to show you are a member of the tribe, or you make them pay rent, directly linked to other beliefs and your own experience.

As long as I can remember, I have always aspired to do this. But not everyone does. In fact, I dare say most people don’t. And that raises a very important question: Should they? Is it better to live the rationalist way?

I believe that it is. I suppose I would, temperamentally. But say what you will about the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, they have clearly revolutionized human civilization and made life much better today than it was for most of human existence. We are peaceful, safe, and well-fed in a way that our not-so-distant ancestors could only dream of, and it’s largely thanks to systems built under the principles of reason and rationality—that is, the reality mindset.

We would never have industrialized agriculture if we still thought in terms of plant spirits and sky gods. We would never have invented vaccines and antibiotics if we still believed disease was caused by curses and witchcraft. We would never have built power grids and the Internet if we still saw energy as a mysterious force permeating the world and not as a measurable, manipulable quantity.

This doesn’t mean that ancient people who saw the world in a mythological way were stupid. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that people today who still think this way are stupid. This is not about some innate, immutable mental capacity. It’s about a technology—or perhaps the technology, the meta-technology that makes all other technology possible. It’s about learning to think the same way about the mysterious and the familiar, using the same kind of reasoning about energy and death and sunlight as we already did about rocks and trees and fish. When encountering something new and mysterious, someone in the mythology mindset quickly concocts a fanciful tale about magical beings that inevitably serves to reinforce their existing beliefs and attitudes, without the slightest shred of evidence for any of it. In their place, someone in the reality mindset looks closer and tries to figure it out.

Still, this gives me some compassion for people with weird, crazy ideas. I can better make sense of how someone living in the modern world could believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that the world is ruled by lizard-people. Because they probably don’t really believe it, they just mythologically believe it—and they don’t understand the difference.

In defense of civility

Dec 18 JDN 2459932

Civility is in short supply these days. Perhaps it has always been in short supply; certainly much of the nostalgia for past halcyon days of civility is ill-founded. Wikipedia has an entire article on hundreds of recorded incidents of violence in legislative assemblies, in dozens of countries, dating all the way from to the Roman Senate in 44 BC to Bosnia in 2019. But the Internet seems to bring about its own special kind of incivility, one which exposes nearly everyone to some of the worst vitriol the entire world has to offer. I think it’s worth talking about why this is bad, and perhaps what we might do about it.

For some, the benefits of civility seem so self-evident that they don’t even bear mentioning. For others, the idea of defending civility may come across as tone-deaf or even offensive. I would like to speak to both of those camps today: If you think the benefits of civility are obvious, I assure you, they aren’t to everyone. And if you think that civility is just a tool of the oppressive status quo, I hope I can make you think again.

A lot of the argument against civility seems to be founded in the notion that these issues are important, lives are at stake, and so we shouldn’t waste time and effort being careful how we speak to each other. How dare you concern yourself with the formalities of argumentation when people are dying?

But this is totally wrongheaded. It is precisely because these issues are important that civility is vital. It is precisely because lives are at stake that we must make the right decisions. And shouting and name-calling (let alone actual fistfights or drawn daggers—which have happened!) are not conducive to good decision-making.

If you shout someone down when choosing what restaurant to have dinner at, you have been very rude and people may end up unhappy with their dining experience—but very little of real value has been lost. But if you shout someone down when making national legislation, you may cause the wrong policy to be enacted, and this could lead to the suffering or death of thousands of people.

Think about how court proceedings work. Why are they so rigid and formal, with rules upon rules upon rules? Because the alternative was capricious violence. In the absence of the formal structure of a court system, so-called ‘justice’ was handed out arbitrarily, by whoever was in power, or by mobs of vigilantes. All those seemingly-overcomplicated rules were made in order to resolve various conflicts of interest and hopefully lead toward more fair, consistent results in the justice system. (And don’t get me wrong; they still could stand to be greatly improved!)

Legislatures have complex rules of civility for the same reason: Because the outcome is so important, we need to make sure that the decision process is as reliable as possible. And as flawed as existing legislatures still are, and as silly as it may seem to insist upon addressing ‘the Honorable Representative from the Great State of Vermont’, it’s clearly a better system than simply letting them duke it out with their fists.

A related argument I would like to address is that of ‘tone policing‘. If someone objects, not to the content of what you are saying, but to the tone in which you have delivered it, are they arguing in bad faith?

Well, possibly. Certainly, arguments about tone can be used that way. In particular I remember that this was basically the only coherent objection anyone could come up with against the New Atheism movement: “Well, sure, obviously, God isn’t real and religion is ridiculous; but why do you have to be so mean about it!?”

But it’s also quite possible for tone to be itself a problem. If your tone is overly aggressive and you don’t give people a chance to even seriously consider your ideas before you accuse them of being immoral for not agreeing with you—which happens all the time—then your tone really is the problem.

So, how can we tell which is which? I think a good way to reply to what you think might be bad-faith tone policing is this: “What sort of tone do you think would be better?”

I think there are basically three possible responses:

1. They can’t offer one, because there is actually no tone in which they would accept the substance of your argument. In that case, the tone policing really is in bad faith; they don’t want you to be nicer, they want you to shut up. This was clearly the case for New Atheism: As Daniel Dennett aptly remarked, “There’s simply no polite way to tell someone they have dedicated their lives to an illusion.” But sometimes, such things need to be said all the same.

2. They offer an alternative argument you could make, but it isn’t actually expressing your core message. Either they have misunderstood your core message, or they actually disagree with the substance of your argument and should be addressing it on those terms.

3. They offer an alternative way of expressing your core message in a milder, friendlier tone. This means that they are arguing in good faith and actually trying to help you be more persuasive!

I don’t know how common each of these three possibilities is; it could well be that the first one is the most frequent occurrence. That doesn’t change the fact that I have definitely been at the other end of the third one, where I absolutely agree with your core message and want your activism to succeed, but I can see that you’re acting like a jerk and nobody will want to listen to you.

Here, let me give some examples of the type of argument I’m talking about:

1. “Defund the police”: This slogan polls really badly. Probably because most people have genuine concerns about crime and want the police to protect them. Also, as more and more social services (like for mental health and homelessness) get co-opted into policing, this slogan makes it sound like you’re just going to abandon those people. But do we need serious, radical police reform? Absolutely. So how about “Reform the police”, “Put police money back into the community”, or even “Replace the police”?

2. “All Cops Are Bastards”: Speaking of police reform, did I mention we need it? A lot of it? Okay. Now, let me ask you: All cops? Every single one of them? There is not a single one out of the literally millions of police officers on this planet who is a good person? Not one who is fighting to take down police corruption from within? Not a single individual who is trying to fix the system while preserving public safety? Now, clearly, it’s worth pointing out, some cops are bastards—but hey, that even makes a better acronym: SCAB. In fact, it really is largely a few bad apples—the key point here is that you need to finish the aphorism: “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” The number of police who are brutal and corrupt is relatively small, but as long as the other police continue to protect them, the system will be broken. Either you get those bad apples out pronto, or your whole barrel is bad. But demonizing the very people who are in the best position to implement those reforms—good police officers—is not helping.

3. “Be gay, do crime”: I know it’s tongue-in-cheek and ironic. I get that. It’s still a really dumb message. I am absolutely on board with LGBT rights. Even aside from being queer myself, I probably have more queer and trans friends than straight friends at this point. But why in the world would you want to associate us with petty crime? Why are you lumping us in with people who harm others at best out of desperation and at worst out of sheer greed? Even if you are literally an anarchist—which I absolutely am not—you’re really not selling anarchism well if the vision you present of it is a world of unfettered crime! There are dozens of better pro-LGBT slogans out there; pick one. Frankly even “do gay, be crime” is better, because it’s more clearly ironic. (Also, you can take it to mean something like this: Don’t just be gay, do gay—live your fullest gay life. And if you can be crime, that means that the system is fundamentally unjust: You can be criminalized just for who you are. And this is precisely what life is like for millions of LGBT people on this planet.)

A lot of people seem to think that if you aren’t immediately convinced by the most vitriolic, aggressive form of an argument, then you were never going to be convinced anyway and we should just write you off as a potential ally. This isn’t just obviously false; it’s incredibly dangerous.

The whole point of activism is that not everyone already agrees with you. You are trying to change minds. If it were really true that all reasonable, ethical people already agreed with your view, you wouldn’t need to be an activist. The whole point of making political arguments is that people can be reasonable and ethical and still be mistaken about things, and when we work hard to persuade them, we can eventually win them over. In fact, on some things we’ve actually done spectacularly well.

And what about the people who aren’t reasonable and ethical? They surely exist. But fortunately, they aren’t the majority. They don’t rule the whole world. If they did, we’d basically be screwed: If violence is really the only solution, then it’s basically a coin flip whether things get better or worse over time. But in fact, unreasonable people are outnumbered by reasonable people. Most of the things that are wrong with the world are mistakes, errors that can be fixed—not conflicts between irreconcilable factions. Our goal should be to fix those mistakes wherever we can, and that means being patient, compassionate educators—not angry, argumentative bullies.

The United Kingdom in transition

Oct 30 JDN 2459883

When I first decided to move to Edinburgh, I certainly did not expect it to be such a historic time. The pandemic was already in full swing, but I thought that would be all. But this year I was living in the UK when its leadership changed in two historic ways:

First, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

Second, there was the resignation of Boris Johnson, the appointment of Elizabeth Truss, and then, so rapidly I feel like I have whiplash, the resignation of Elizabeth Truss.

In other words, I have seen the end of the longest-reigning monarch and the rise and fall of the shortest-reigning prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. The three hundred-year history of the United Kingdom.

The prior probability of such a 300-year-historic event happening during my own 3-year term in the UK is approximately 1%. Yet, here we are. A new king, one of a handful of genuine First World monarchs to be coronated in the 21st century. The others are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg; none of these have even a third the population of the UK, and if we include every Commonwealth Realm (believe it or not, “realm” is in fact still the official term), Charles III is now king of a supranational union with a population of over 150 million people—half the size of the United States. (Yes, he’s your king too, Canada!) Note that Charles III is not king of the entire Commonwealth of Nations, which includes now-independent nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Africa; that successor to the British Empire contains 54 nations and has a population of over 2 billion.

I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this idea of having a king. It feels even more ancient and anachronistic than the 400-year-old university I work at. Of course I knew that we had a queen before, and that she was old and would presumably die at some point and probably be replaced; but that wasn’t really salient information to me until she actually did die and then there was a ten-mile-long queue to see her body and now next spring they will be swearing in this new guy as the monarch of the fourteen realms. It now feels like I’m living in one of those gritty satirical fractured fairy tales. Maybe it’s an urban fantasy setting; it feels a lot like Shrek, to be honest.

Yet other than feeling surreal, none of this has affected my life all that much. I haven’t even really felt the effects of inflation: Groceries and restaurant meals seem a bit more expensive than they were when we arrived, but it’s well within what our budget can absorb; we don’t have a car here, so we don’t care about petrol prices; and we haven’t even been paying more than usual in natural gas because of the subsidy programs. Actually it’s probably been good for our household finances that the pound is so weak and the dollar is so strong. I have been much more directly affected by the university union strikes: being temporary contract junior faculty (read: expendable), I am ineligible to strike and hence had to cross a picket line at one point.

Perhaps this is what history has always felt like for most people: The kings and queens come and go, but life doesn’t really change. But I honestly felt more directly affected by Trump living in the US than I did by Truss living in the UK.

This may be in part because Elizabeth Truss was a very unusual politician; she combined crazy far-right economic policy with generally fairly progressive liberal social policy. A right-wing libertarian, one might say. (As Krugman notes, such people are astonishingly rare in the electorate.) Her socially-liberal stance meant that she wasn’t trying to implement horrific hateful policies against racial minorities or LGBT people the way that Trump was, and for once her horrible economic policies were recognized immediately as such and quickly rescinded. Unlike Trump, Truss did not get the chance to appoint any supreme court justices who could go on to repeal abortion rights.

Then again, Truss couldn’t have appointed any judges if she’d wanted to. The UK Supreme Court is really complicated, and I honestly don’t understand how it works; but from what I do understand, the Prime Minister appoints the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor forms a commission to appoint the President of the Supreme Court, and the President of the Supreme Court forms a commission to appoint new Supreme Court judges. But I think the monarch is considered the ultimate authority and can veto any appointment along the way. (Or something. Sometimes I get the impression that no one truly understands the UK system, and they just sort of go with doing things as they’ve always been done.) This convoluted arrangement seems to grant the court considerably more political independence than its American counterpart; also, unlike the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is not allowed to explicitly overturn primary legislation. (Fun fact: The Lord Chancellor is also the Keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, because Great Britain hasn’t quite figured out that the 13th century ended yet.)

It’s sad and ironic that it was precisely by not being bigoted and racist that Truss ensured she would not have sufficient public support for her absurd economic policies. There’s a large segment of the population of both the US and UK—aptly, if ill-advisedly, referred to by Clinton as “deplorables”—who will accept any terrible policy as long as it hurts the right people. But Truss failed to appeal to that crucial demographic, and so could find no one to support her. Hence, her approval rating fell to a dismal 10%, and she was outlasted by a head of lettuce.

At the time of writing, the new prime minister has not yet been announced, but the smart money is on Rishi Sunak. (I mean that quite literally; he’s leading in prediction markets.) He’s also socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but unlike Truss he seems to have at least some vague understanding of how economics works. Sunak is also popular in a way Truss never was (though that popularity has been declining recently). So I think we can expect to get new policies which are in the same general direction as what Truss wanted—lower taxes on the rich, more privatization, less spent on social services—but at least Sunak is likely to do so in a way that makes the math(s?) actually add up.

All of this is unfortunate, but largely par for the course for the last few decades. It compares quite favorably to the situation in the US, where somehow a large chunk of Americans either don’t believe that an insurrection attempt occurred, are fine with it, or blame the other side, and as the guardrails of democracy continue breaking, somehow gasoline prices appear to be one of the most important issues in the midterm election.

You know what? Living through history sucks. I don’t want to live in “interesting times” anymore.

Updating your moral software

Oct 23 JDN 2459876

I’ve noticed an odd tendency among politically active people, particular social media slacktivists (a term I do not use pejoratively: slacktivism is highly cost-effective). They adopt new ideas very rapidly, trying to stay on the cutting edge of moral and political discourse—and then they denigrate and disparage anyone who fails to do the same as an irredeemable monster.

This can take many forms, such as “if you don’t buy into my specific take on Critical Race Theory, you are a racist”, “if you have any uncertainty about the widespread use of puberty blockers you are a transphobic bigot”, “if you give any credence to the medical consensus on risks of obesity you are fatphobic“, “if you think disabilities should be cured you’re an ableist”, and “if you don’t support legalizing abortion in all circumstances you are a misogynist”.

My intention here is not to evaluate any particular moral belief, though I’ll say the following: I am skeptical of Critical Race Theory, especially the 1619 project which seems to be to include substantial distortions of history. I am cautiously supportive of puberty blockers, because the medical data on their risks are ambiguous—while the sociological data on how much happier trans kids are when accepted are totally unambiguous. I am well aware of the medical data saying that the risks of obesity are overblown (but also not negligible, particular for those who are very obese). Speaking as someone with a disability that causes me frequent, agonizing pain, yes, I want disabilities to be cured, thank you very much; accommodations are nice in the meantime, but the best long-term solution is to not need accommodations. (I’ll admit to some grey areas regarding certain neurodivergences such as autism and ADHD, and I would never want to force cures on people who don’t want them; but paralysis, deafness, blindness, diabetes, depression, and migraine are all absolutely worth finding cures for—the QALY at stake here are massive—and it’s silly to say otherwise.) I think abortion should generally be legal and readily available in the first trimester (which is when most abortions happen anyway), but much more strictly regulated thereafter—but denying it to children and rape victims is a human rights violation.

What I really want to talk about today is not the details of the moral belief, but the attitude toward those who don’t share it. There are genuine racists, transphobes, fatphobes, ableists, and misogynists in the world. There are also structural institutions that can lead to discrimination despite most of the people involved having no particular intention to discriminate. It’s worthwhile to talk about these things, and to try to find ways to fix them. But does calling anyone who disagrees with you a monster accomplish that goal?

This seems particularly bad precisely when your own beliefs are so cutting-edge. If you have a really basic, well-established sort of progressive belief like “hiring based on race should be illegal”, “women should be allowed to work outside the home” or “sodomy should be legal”, then people who disagree with you pretty much are bigots. But when you’re talking about new, controversial ideas, there is bound to be some lag; people who adopted the last generation’s—or even the last year’s—progressive beliefs may not yet be ready to accept the new beliefs, and that doesn’t make them bigots.

Consider this: Were you born believing in your current moral and political beliefs?

I contend that you were not. You may have been born intelligent, open-minded, and empathetic. You may have been born into a progressive, politically-savvy family. But the fact remains that any particular belief you hold about race, or gender, or ethics was something you had to learn. And if you learned it, that means that at some point you didn’t already know it. How would you have felt back then, if, instead of calmly explaining it to you, people called you names for not believing in it?

Now, perhaps it is true that as soon as you heard your current ideas, you immediately adopted them. But that may not be the case—it may have taken you some time to learn or change your mind—and even if it was, it’s still not fair to denigrate anyone who takes a bit longer to come around. There are many reasons why someone might not be willing to change their beliefs immediately, and most of them are not indicative of bigotry or deep moral failings.

It may be helpful to think about this in terms of updating your moral software. You were born with a very minimal moral operating system (emotions such as love and guilt, the capacity for empathy), and over time you have gradually installed more and more sophisticated software on top of that OS. If someone literally wasn’t born with the right OS—we call these people psychopaths—then, yes, you have every right to hate, fear, and denigrate them. But most of the people we’re talking about do have that underlying operating system, they just haven’t updated all their software to the same version as yours. It’s both unfair and counterproductive to treat them as irredeemably defective simply because they haven’t updated to the newest version yet. They have the hardware, they have the operating system; maybe their download is just a little slower than yours.

In fact, if you are very fast to adopt new, trendy moral beliefs, you may in fact be adopting them too quickly—they haven’t been properly vetted by human experience just yet. You can think of this as like a beta version: The newest update has some great new features, but it’s also buggy and unstable. It may need to be fixed before it is really ready for widespread release. If that’s the case, then people aren’t even wrong not to adopt them yet! It isn’t necessarily bad that you have adopted the new beliefs; we need beta testers. But you should be aware of your status as a beta tester and be prepared both to revise your own beliefs if needed, and also to cut other people slack if they disagree with you.

I understand that it can be immensely frustrating to be thoroughly convinced that something is true and important and yet see so many people disagreeing with it. (I am an atheist activist after all, so I absolutely know what that feels like.) I understand that it can be immensely painful to watch innocent people suffer because they have to live in a world where other people have harmful beliefs. But you aren’t changing anyone’s mind or saving anyone from harm by calling people names. Patience, tact, and persuasion will win the long game, and the long game is really all we have.

And if it makes you feel any better, the long game may not be as long as it seems. The arc of history may have tighter curvature than we imagine. We certainly managed a complete flip of the First World consensus on gay marriage in just a single generation. We may be able to achieve similarly fast social changes in other areas too. But we haven’t accomplished the progress we have so far by being uncharitable or aggressive toward those who disagree.

I am emphatically not saying you should stop arguing for your beliefs. We need you to argue for your beliefs. We need you to argue forcefully and passionately. But when doing so, try not to attack the people who don’t yet agree with you—for they are precisely the people we need to listen to you.

On (gay) marriage

Oct 9 JDN 2459862

This post goes live on my first wedding anniversary. Thus, as you read this, I will have been married for one full year.

Honestly, being married hasn’t felt that different to me. This is likely because we’d been dating since 2012 and lived together for several years before actually getting married. It has made some official paperwork more convenient, and I’ve reached the point where I feel naked without my wedding band; but for the most part our lives have not really changed.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the best way to really know that you should get married is to already feel as though you are married, and just finally get around to making it official. Perhaps people for whom getting married is a momentous change in their lives (as opposed to simply a formal announcement followed by a celebration) are people who really shouldn’t be getting married just yet.

A lot of things in my life—my health, my career—have not gone very well in this past year. But my marriage has been only a source of stability and happiness. I wouldn’t say we never have conflict, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more challenges and conflicts from the way I’d heard other people talk about marriage in the past. All of my friends who have kids seem to be going through a lot of struggles as a result of that (which is one of several reasons we keep procrastinating on looking into adoption), but marriage itself does not appear to be any more difficult than friendship—in fact, maybe easier.

I have found myself oddly struck by how un-important it has been that my marriage is to a same-sex partner. I keep expecting people to care—to seem uncomfortable, to be resistant, or simply to be surprised—and it so rarely happens.

I think this is probably generational: We Millennials grew up at the precise point in history when the First World suddenly decided, all at once, that gay marriage was okay.

Seriously, look at this graph. I’ve made it combining this article using data from the General Social Survey, and this article from Pew:

Until around 1990—when I was 2 years old—support for same-sex marriage was stable and extremely low: About 10% of Americans supported it (presumably most of them LGBT!), and over 70% opposed it. Then, quite suddenly, attitudes began changing, and by 2019, over 60% of Americans supported it and only 31% opposed it.

That is, within a generation, we went from a country where almost no one supported gay marriage to a country where same-sex marriage is so popular that any major candidate who opposed it would almost certainly lose a general election. (They might be able to survive a Republican primary, as Republican support for same-sex marriage is only about 44%—about where it was among Democrats in the early 2000s.)

This is a staggering rate of social change. If development economics is the study of what happened in South Korea from 1950-2000, I think political science should be the study of what happened to attitudes on same-sex marriage in the US from 1990-2020.

And of course it isn’t just the US. Similar patterns can be found across Western Europe, with astonishingly rapid shifts from near-universal opposition to near-universal support within a generation.

I don’t think I have been able to fully emotionally internalize this shift. I grew up in a world where homophobia was mainstream, where only the most radical left-wing candidates were serious about supporting equal rights and representation for LGBT people. And suddenly I find myself in a world where we are actually accepted and respected as equals, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Aren’t you the same people who told me as a teenager that I was a sexual deviant who deserved to burn in Hell? But now you’re attending my wedding? And offering me joint life insurance policies? My own extended family members treat me differently now than they did when I was a teenager, and I don’t quite know how to trust that the new way is the true way and not some kind of facade that could rapidly disappear.

I think this sort of generational trauma may never fully heal, in which case it will be the generation after us—the Zoomers, I believe we’re calling them now—who will actually live in this new world we created, while the rest of us forever struggle to accept that things are not as we remember them. Once bitten, we remain forever twice shy, lest attitudes regress as suddenly as they advanced.

Then again, it seems that Zoomers may be turning against the institution of marriage in general. As the meme says: “Boomers: No gay marriage. Millennials: Yes gay marriage. Gen Z: Yes gay, no marriage.” Maybe that’s for the best; maybe the future of humanity is for personal relationships to be considered no business of the government at all. But for now at least, equal marriage is clearly much better than unequal marriage, and the First World seems to have figured that out blazing fast.

And of course the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up. While trends are generally in a positive direction, there are large swaths of the world where even very basic rights for LGBT people are opposed by most of the population. As usual, #ScandinaviaIsBetter, with over 90% support for LGBT rights; and, as usual, Sub-Saharan Africa is awful, with support in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria not even hitting 20%.

The War on Terror has been a total failure.

Sep 11 JDN 2459834

Since today happens to be September 11, I thought I’d spend this week’s post reflecting on the last 21 years (!) of the War on Terror.

At this point, I can safely say that the War on Terror has been a complete, total, utter failure. It has cost over $8 trillion and nearly a million lives, and not only didn’t reduce terrorism, it actually appears to have substantially increased it.

Take a look at this graph from Our World in Data:

Up until the the 1980s, terrorism worldwide was a slow smoldering, killing rarely more than a few hundred people each year. Obviously it’s terrible if you or one of your loved ones happen to be among those few hundred, but in terms of its overall chance of killing you or your children, terrorism used to be less dangerous than kiddie pools.

Then terrorism began to rise, until it was killing several thousand people a year. I was surprised to learn that most of these were not in the Middle East, but in fact spread all over the world, with the highest concentrations actually being in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Notably, almost none of these deaths were in First World countries, and as a result most First World governments largely ignored them. Terrorism was something that happened “over there”, to other people.

Then of course came 2001, and 9/11/2001, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in a single day. And suddenly the First World took notice, and decided to respond with overwhelming force.

We have been at war basically ever since. All this war has accomplished… approximately nothing.

The deadliest year of terrorism in the 21st century was not 2001; it was 2014, after the US had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fact withdrawn from Iraq (but not yet Afghanistan). This was largely the result of the rise of Daesh (which is what you should call them by the way), which seems to be the most fanatical and violent Islamist terrorist organization the world has seen in decades if not centuries.

Even First World terrorism is no better today than it was in the 1990s—though also no worse. It’s back to a slow smolder, and once again First World societies can feel that terrorism is something that happens to someone else. But terrorism in the Middle East is the worst it has been in decades.

Would Daesh not have appeared if the US had never invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? It’s difficult to say. Maybe their rise was inevitable. Or maybe having a strong, relatively secular government in the region under Saddam Hussein would have prevented them from becoming so powerful. We can at least say this: Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control, the Taliban and Daesh have been fighting each other quite heavily. Presumably that would have been happening all along if the US had not intervened to suppress the Taliban.

Don’t get me wrong: The Taliban were, and are, a terrible regime, and Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator. But Daesh is clearly worse than either, and sometimes in geopolitics you have to accept the lesser evil.

If we’d actually had a way to take over Afghanistan and Iraq and rebuild them as secular liberal democracies as the US government intended, that would have been a good thing, and might even have been worth all that blood and treasure. But that project utterly failed, and we should have expected it to fail, as never in history has anyone successfully imposed liberal democracy by outside force like that.

When democracy spreads, it usually does so slowly, through the cultural influence of trade and media. Sometimes it springs up in violent revolution—as we hoped it would in the Arab Spring but were sadly disappointed. But there are really no clear examples of a democratic country invading an undemocratic country and rapidly turning it democratic.

British colonialism was spread by the sword (and especially the machine gun), and did sometimes ultimately lead to democratic outcomes, as in the US, Australia, and Canada, and more recently in India, South Africa, and Botswana. But that process was never fast, never smooth, and rarely without bloodshed—and only succeeded when the local population was willing to fight for it. Britain didn’t simply take over countries and convert them to liberal democracies in a generation. No one has ever done that, and trying to was always wishful thinking.

I don’t know, maybe in the very long run, we’ll look back on all this as the first, bloody step toward something better for the Middle East. Maybe the generation of women who got a taste of freedom and education in Afghanistan under US occupation will decide to rise up and refuse to relinquish those rights under the new Taliban. Daesh will surely die sooner or later; fanaticism can rarely sustain organizations in the long term.

But it’s been 20 years now, and things look no better than they did at the start. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses?

On the Overton Window

Jul 24 JDN 2459786

As you are no doubt aware, a lot of people on the Internet like to loudly proclaim support for really crazy, extreme ideas. Some of these people actually believe in those ideas, and if you challenge them, will do their best to defend them. Those people are wrong at the level of substantive policy, but there’s nothing wrong with their general approach: If you really think that anarchism or communism is a good thing, it only makes sense that you’d try to convince other people. You might have a hard time of it (in part because you are clearly wrong), but it makes sense that you’d try.

But there is another class of people who argue for crazy, extreme ideas. When pressed, they will admit they don’t really believe in abolishing the police or collectivizing all wealth, but they believe in something else that’s sort of vaguely in that direction, and they think that advocating for the extreme idea will make people more likely to accept what they actually want.

They often refer to this as “shifting the Overton Window”. As Matt Yglesias explained quite well a year ago, this is not actually what Overton was talking about.

But, in principle, it could still be a thing that works. There is a cognitive bias known as anchoring which is often used in marketing: If I only offered a $5 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine, you might think the $20 bottle is too expensive. But if I also include a $50 bottle, that makes you adjust your perceptions of what constitutes a “reasonable” price for wine, and may make you more likely to buy the $20 bottle after all.

It could be, therefore, that an extreme policy demand makes people more willing to accept moderate views, as a sort of compromise. Maybe demanding the abolition of police is a way of making other kinds of police reform seem more reasonable. Maybe showing pictures of Marx and chanting “eat the rich” could make people more willing to accept higher capital gains taxes. Maybe declaring that we are on the verge of apocalyptic climate disaster will make people more willing to accept tighter regulations on carbon emissions and subsidies for solar energy.

Then again—does it actually seem to do that? I see very little evidence that it does. All those demands for police abolition haven’t changed the fact that defunding the police is unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but it has been for awhile now (and never was with, well, the rich). And decades of constantly shouting about imminent climate catastrophe is really starting to look like crying wolf.

To see why this strategy seems to be failing, I think it’s helpful to consider how it feels from the other side. Take a look at some issues where someone else is trying to get you to accept a particular view, and consider whether someone advocating a more extreme view would make you more likely to compromise.

Your particular opinions may vary, but here are some examples that would apply to me, and, I suspect, many of you.

If someone says they want tighter border security, I’m skeptical—it’s pretty tight already. But in and of itself, this would not be such a crazy idea. Certainly I agree that it is possible to have too little border security, and so maybe that turns out to be the state we’re in.

But then, suppose that same person, or someone closely allied to them, starts demanding the immediate deportation of everyone who was not born in the United States, even those who immigrated legally and are naturalized or here on green cards. This is a crazy, extreme idea that’s further in the same direction, so on this anchoring theory, it should make me more willing to accept the idea of tighter border security. And yet, I can say with some confidence that it has no such effect.

Indeed, if anything I think it would make me less likely to accept tighter border security, in proportion to how closely aligned those two arguments are. If they are coming from the same person, or the same political party, it would cause me to suspect that the crazy, extreme policy is the true objective, and the milder, compromise policy is just a means toward that end. It also suggests certain beliefs and attitudes about immigration in general—xenophobia, racism, ultranationalism—that I oppose even more strongly. If you’re talking about deporting all immigrants, you make me suspect that your reasons for wanting tighter border security are not good ones.

Let’s try another example. Suppose someone wants to cut taxes on upper income brackets. In our current state, I think that would be a bad idea. But there was a time not so long ago when I would have agreed with it: Even I have to admit that a top bracket of 94% (as we had in 1943) sounds a little ridiculous, and is surely on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. So the basic idea of cutting top tax rates is not inherently crazy or ridiculous.

Now, suppose that same idea came from the same person, or the same party, or the same political movement, as one that was arguing for the total abolition of all taxation. This is a crazy, extreme idea; it would amount to either total anarcho-capitalism with no government at all, or some sort of bizarre system where the government is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. I think it’s pretty obvious that such a system would be terrible, if not outright impossible; and anyone whose understanding of political economy is sufficiently poor that they would fail to see this is someone whose overall judgment on questions of policy I must consider dubious. Once again, the presence of the extreme view does nothing to make me want to consider the moderate view, and may even make me less willing to do so.

Perhaps I am an unusually rational person, not so greatly affected by anchoring biases? Perhaps. But whereas I do feel briefly tempted by to buy the $20 wine bottle by the effect of the $50 wine bottle, and must correct myself with knowledge I have about anchoring bias, the presentation of an extreme political view never even makes me feel any temptation to accept some kind of compromise with it. Learning that someone supports something crazy or ridiculous—or is willing to say they do, even if deep down they don’t—makes me automatically lower my assessment of their overall credibility. If anything, I think I am tempted to overreact in that direction, and have to remind myself of the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and someone can have both bad ideas and good ones.

Moreover, the empirical data, while sketchy, doesn’t seem to support this either; where the Overton Window (in the originally intended sense) has shifted, as on LGBT rights, it was because people convincingly argued that the “extreme” position was in fact an entirely reasonable and correct view. There was a time not so long ago that same-sex marriage was deemed unthinkable, and the “moderate” view was merely decriminalizing sodomy; but we demanded, and got, same-sex marriage, not as a strategy to compromise on decriminalizing sodomy, but because we actually wanted same-sex marriage and had good arguments for it. I highly doubt we would have been any more successful if we had demanded something ridiculous and extreme, like banning opposite-sex marriage.

The resulting conclusion seems obvious and banal: Only argue for things you actually believe in.

Yet, somehow, that seems to be a controversial view these days.