Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

Israel and The Moral Condemnation Of The Left

Not Anti-Semetic But The Left Can't Say That

So there is a long-standing inclination on the left to morally condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. In response many jews allege this reflects anti-semetic prejudice which in turn is criticized by more moderate elements who argue that criticism of Israel should be seen as legitimate, e.g., this piece. Ultimately, I agree that the criticism of Israel isn’t a result of anti-semitism in that it doesn’t reflect a personal animosity towards jews or those of jewish descent but I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t a position the left-leaning groups responsible for the strident moral criticism can themselves adopt.

It very much is true that Israel is subject to strong moral condemnation disproportionate to it’s moral culpability and that the same people who call Israel (and often jews who support Israel) monstrous won’t even admit that much worse behavior by other nations is just as wrong much less call them out on it. The reason Israel is subjected to this kind of special criticism is easily explained by factors besides animosity towards jews. Unlike many muslim countries Israel is seen as part of the liberal western world and thus evaluated against higher standards (same way people go crazy on twitter about seeing anti-gay prejudice in the US even while Russia and Uganda have enshrined such prejudice into law). Also, the widespread awareness and outrage about the issue among Muslims worldwide (substantially facilitated by authoritarian regimes in Arab world for self-serving and anti-Semitic reasons) combined with the left-wing view of Muslims as a victimized minority (largely true in west even while Muslims are the oppressors of non-Muslim minorities through much of the world) explains why this issue is salient to many people on the left in a way that other kinds of bad behavior are not. So the individuals making the criticisms aren’t driven by any animosity of their own to Jews. Indeed, part of the reason Israel comes in for so much criticism is partly the fact that many people on the US left implicitly regard Jews as just another type of white person (while opinions are split on whether semites are white the stereotypical Jew looks like Seinfeld for most Americans).

So it is true that Jews and Israel come in for a degree of criticism similarly situated non-Jews and non-Jewish countries do not. Some of that is purely accidental (other western countries don’t live next to people committed to killing them and willing to resort to terrorism, existence of a US Muslim community), some is a result of arguably positive stereotypes of Jews as just another white person rather than a vulnerable minority and some is downstream of genuinely anti-Semitic attitudes prevalent in Arab countries and pushed by their governments. I personally don’t think that this makes those criticisms anti-Semitic simply because those offering them lack the animosity towards Jews that would make them particularly morally blameworthy.

However, I think it very much does matter that by the standards publicly accepted by the left this does render this criticism of Israel anti-semetic.. The left isn’t willing to accept a similar explanation of motives as exculpatory in other contexts, e.g., spouting (even accurate) critiques of black culture that you don’t apply to similar situated behavior by whites isn’t excused by pointing to the fact that it’s just the criticisms that were made salient to you growing up or being a teacher who gives Asian students lower effort grades because you assume they are inherently smarter even though it’s a positive stereotype. So at the very least those making the accusations of anti-semitism are on solid ground relative to the norms that are apparently endorsed in the contexts they usually live and work in.

I agree this, if accepted, has the unacceptable consequence of insulating Israel from deserved criticism. That’s why we need to abandon this absurd moral standard and just expect people to update without bias. That’s a world in which you aren’t anti-Semitic for not realizing many of the properties you critique Israel for are far more widely shared or for not being aware of the role the Arab states (or the UK and other WWII allies) played in the current quagmire nor even for focusing criticism where you think it will be most effective. However, you are expected to agree that other countries are equally morally culpable (and other people) when you discover they are similarly situated.

For instance, if you argue that the Israeli state is deeply unjust because the right of return applies only to Jews or because Hebrew is given a special status in Israel (though until 2018 Arabic was also an official language) then you should be expected to condemn countries like Japan or Latvia when you find out about the special status they give to either ethnic status or native language and how they treat their minorities. Similarly, when you hear about Egypt’s role in keeping trade out of Gaza or other Arab states interests in perpetuating, not solving, the conflict you should be furious with them. Reasonable people can disagree about where criticism would be more effectively directed or argue about the total level of suffering inflicted by each such policy. Unreasonable people can confuse the total degree of suffering the Palestinians are subject to with the degree of moral culpability without being anti-semitic (e.g. Japan’s treatment of people who aren’t ethnically Japanese is far more morally outrageous than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because it doesn’t even plausibly motivated by a desire to save lives even though the Palestinians surely endure much more unpleasant circumstances) but there is something at least pernicious about refusing to update on such information. It might not be anti-Semitic if your refusal is motivated just by a desire to culturally conform (then again I’m sure many German nazis weren’t anti-Semitic in this sense either…though I don’t mean this as a criticism merely a remark on the limitations of racist as a proxy for dangerous or harmful).

My basic view is that treating different races or ethnic groups differently is far more common than we want to believe and we should calibrate our level of disapproval more appropriately but there is something really disturbing about applying the rules to one group that’s been treated really badly in the past and not another.

A Sad Day For Google

A Troubling Development For The Country

As a former google employee I was deeply saddened, but unsurprised, to learn that Google had released new rules discouraging political debates within the company. I always felt this was one of the things which made the company great and helped make the world better. This action represents a key step undermining an important that helped keep the company from being evil. However, the blame doesn’t lie with executives or most google employees but with the broader political climate and a small number of extremists.

The fundamental problem Google faced (as our country does) is that productive dialog of this kind requires a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints as valid and for belief in the system to persist even when you lose. Despite some idiotic news coverage this isn’t a victory of corporate greed over the policy of not being evil but reflects the inherent difficulty of figuring out what is evil. While some people might think that working with the government to develop some military application is evil others could quite reasonably believe that refusing to work with the military only costs more lives. As long as people understand there really are (in this case) good people on both sides and don’t see a loss as a fundamental failure of the system this kind of internal discussion is productive. Unfortunately, however, in recent years there has been an increasing willingness of some employees to appeal their losses to the media imposing huge PR risks (and probably making the discussions less open/frank). Ultimately, the net result isn’t that the people who want google to eschew military applications or work in China get their way but that now they don’t even get (as much of a) change to make their case and change minds.

To see why it’s essentially impossible for Google to encourage such frank discussion in the current political environment just consider the Damore affair. Damore didn’t get the science exactly right and offered speculations that fell short of full academic rigor but Google can’t possibly enforce a neutral rule that people who make claims about STEM gender differences without a fully footnoted bibliography get fired. They’d need to also fire every person who says that the paucity of female programmers reflects discrimination (or implies it by demands to rectify the situation). While I favor calling out both Damore and everyone who assumes, without strong evidentiary support, that the gender gap must be primarily caused by discrimination (without substantial evidence) that would draw even more fire. I don’t cheer Damore on but I also don’t see any way to formulate a neutral rule that merely specified a standard of evidence on the subject without disastrous consequences.

While I think one can say a lot in favor of discouraging any discussion on issues of race, gender etc.. at the office I’d note that this is incompatible with the oft-pushed idea that we should be having a conversation about these ideas and suggests that Google was misguided to encourage employees to discuss corporate policy regarding gender balance in the first place.

Human Subject Rules As A Violation Of Academic Freedom

Disapproving Of Tactics Isn't Grounds For University Discipline

I don’t know what I think of Boghossian’s hoax. I’m fully convinced these subjects fundamentally lack any truth-relevant standards. However, I haven’t actually read the papers in question and some of the rebuttals have claimed that the papers made observational claims. Peer review isn’t meant to challenge those kind of claims but it is meant to reject nonsense. So, before I settle on a view about the hoax I’d need to see if the papers themselves were obviously absurd even taking the factual claims for granted. However, how you feel about the underlying hoax doesn’t really matter here. There is no question that the hoax was undertaken as a rhetorical tactic to demonstrate the intellectual weakness of certain academic disciplines via the normal practice of submitting journal articles (even if there was dishonest intent). Moreover, many prominent academics praised it as an important contribution. Even if you think this was a pointless, dishonest and mean spirited attack on these disciplines it is well within the traditional academic role. This makes the use of human subject experimentation rules to punish Boghossian for his antics raises serious academic freedom concerns.

While Boghossian’s punishment was, in one sense, a slap on the wrist the particular form it took (essentially a complete ban on participating in human subject research) is very concerning. It is suggestive (though not conclusively) of a desire to bar him from doing further work on this question and not just a desire to see the niceties of IRB review followed. Regardless of the motives of his punishment the value laden choice to apply human subjects rules to a context where they are generally not applied raises concerning questions about academic freedom.

To illustrate the fact that we don’t normally think of human subject rules as being applicable to interactions with other academics in anything resembling normal practice consider the following examples.

Consider the case of Professor Wood debunking N-rays by surreptitiously removing part of the apparatus (without effect) to show it was a hoax. If this episode happened today should we punish Wood for performing an experiment on professor Blondlot without his knowledge? As this episode illustrates, misrepresentations in academic discussion have a long history and as such shouldn’t just be pushed outside the protections of academic freedom.

But maybe you’d object that Boghossian’s research was systematic in a way that Professor Wood’s was not. In that case consider Nosek’s Open science Collaboration. This collaboration literally asked people (other researchers) to perform a task (replicate these existing results) and published papers evaluating the percentage of those tasks that succeeded (successful replications). The project was expressly designed both to prompt researchers in the field to engage in these representations (so wasn’t merely observational) and then to do a systemic evaluation of how the researchers performed (successful replications or not). That’s the archetypal structure of research that requires IRB approval in other contexts.

Or what about going to a philosophy conference and asking your colleagues how they feel about some interesting moral dilemma you thought up. Is it human subjects research to write a philosophy paper noting that this dilemma seems to divide philosophers in such and such a fashion? Does making sure you ask a wide range of colleagues mean it suddenly qualifies? What if your goal is to write a paper arguing that other philosophers are deeply confused about some issue? Surely we don’t want to be running to an IRB every time we get a gestalt sense of what our colleagues believe or accept as evidence. Is it somehow that one is being inexact and summarizing a gestalt sense one’s colleagues believe that saves ones from needing IRB approval?

In that case consider all the conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union meeting, which have taken to releasing the race/gender breakdown of submitted/accepted papers to facilitate analysis and publication. That’s an archetypal experiment which any IRB would deny in another context. The reviewers (subjects) surely didn’t give meaningful consent as they risked professional consequences if they tried to back out after being informed the data summarizing their behavior would be released, if they were informed at all. I mean imagine what your colleagues would think of you if you backed out after finding out that your work would be statistically analyzed to determine racial and gender fairness. Worse, the research would convey potentially highly disturbing information directly to friends and colleagues aware of your status as a subject (perhaps even able to infer how you affected the data if conference organizers gossip).

I’m not saying that any of these behaviors is comparable to Boghossian’s misrepresentations. But I think they show that the choice to apply the human subject rules to Boghossian was highly value laden. Indeed the case with Wood shows we approve of this behavior when we believe the victims truly are charlatans suggesting it’s the belief that grievance studies researchers aren’t charlatan that is driving this application. No matter how wrong you may think that conclusion may be, not being punished for advocating (even in a mean, disrespectful and unpleasant way) for an incorrect view is at the heart of academic freedom.

I mean if universities can use human subjects research ethics as an excuse for condemning Boghossian in this situation I see no reason why they couldn’t do the same next time a philosopher talks to a bunch of colleagues at the APA to get a sense of their view on some controversial topic, e.g., the argument that we have a moral obligation to abort the disabled. I happen to be a fan of what Boghossian was trying to do (even f I might quibble with his implementation) but even if you aren’t you should recognize the potential to apply human subjects rules to do an end run around academic freedom guarantees and use their interactions with other academics, attempts to achieve more transparently on racial/gender fairness and other normal aspects of academic life as an excuse to apply them to controversial academics.

For instance, even though it’s a normal practice to get widespread feedback on a philosophical puzzle or argument from colleagues and reference the overall nature of those opinions in subsequent papers one can easily imagine that in the face of a public controversy about a philosopher advancing a a version of the (very philosophically reputable) argument that women have a moral duty to abort a disabled fetus the same excuse might be used. Just gather evidence that they had indicated their intent to poll colleagues about this argument at the conference (say because they planned to write a paper arguing that philosophers are insufficiently responsive to unpopular moral views) and use that to claim it was a systematic investigation of human subjects.

Peter Boghossian on Twitter

Attached is the outcome of Portland State University’s disciplinary investigation into my Grievance Studies probe. (1)

College As Education

Shouldn't Harvard Believe In Educating Misbehaving Children?

Harvard’s recent decision to rescind it’s offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv really bothers me for a number of reasons. The fact that adolescent boys will egg each other on to do stupid shit shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, any guy who tells you that they are sure they wouldn’t have done something equally offensive (though perhaps not online) at that age in the right circumstances (deliberately being extreme in what was foolishly assumed to be a private context) isn’t telling the truth. The admissions department at Harvard knows this and deliberately chose to put headlines over their supposed goal of educating admitted students. There isn’t any actual evidence this student is racist. Just someone who showed bad judgement like other adolescents. Harvard is willing to admit confessed violent criminals so the idea that this conduct was just too extreme is absurd.

No, he isn’t being sent to prison and his life is surely not ruined because he has to go to state school but it is a serious consequence and even if it wasn’t that just changes the extent of the damage and isn’t a justification for Harvard’s actions. Though, I’ll grant that if Harvard came back around after the controversy died down and offered to let him into the next year’s class that might make for an overall sound response. But I doubt they will do that.

Second, this further contributes to the troubling social narrative that not getting caught using bad words and otherwise signalling a certain kind of social virtue is more important than actually being good to other people. Yes, racist words can be quite hurtful but compare using the n-word in this context to making fun of a socially awkward classmate or even cheating on your significant other. If Harvard wants to condition admission on being a good person how about they start by kicking out students who were mean to their fellow classmates or their significant others. If the worst that kids do in highschool is use racist/sexist/whatever language in a context they believe won’t be seen by anyone likely to be offended that would be an infinitely better world than the one we live in now.

Third, one can reasonably infer that this past conduct surfaced as a result of Kyle’s public political positions. Using someone’s own words to counter their public arguments is certainly justified but the net effect of punishing kids for engaging in political advocacy. The exact opposite of the position that Harvard seemingly advocates. Moreover, one has to wonder if these documents would have come out (and if Harvard would have reacted as it did) if he wasn’t publicly known as the Parkland survivor with a conservative viewpoint. Moreover, the absence of any similar stories about the other contributors to that google doc having their admission to college rescinded suggests that either other schools don’t see things the same way Harvard does or raises questions of selective enforcement based on public visibility.

Fourth, it suggests that Harvard really does see it’s own admissions system as a kind of prize to be doled out for good behavior rather than a scarce resource that is allocated based on perceived benefit. If Harvard was interested in taking the best, brightest and likely future influencers and molding them for the benefit of the country this is the last thing they should do. Yes, make it clear this behavior is bad but then admit the student and mold him into a better person. Rescinding the admission just engenders bitterness and the kind of ugly emotions that led to Trump’s election.

Social Justice Extremism Comes To Mathematics

Math Isn't Immune To Ideological Censorship

Even after reading the counterarguments it seems clear that part of the mathematical community suppressed a mathematical [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) because it was ideologically inconvenient. As detailed in the quillette piece a paper accepted for publication (and actually published online) at the Mathematical Intelligencer was yanked from publication because some mathematicians felt it’s mathematical modeling of the greater male variability hypothesis might be discouraging to prospective female mathematicians and/or be picked up by conservative media.

Obviously (if the account is close to accurate) this is a horrific violation of academic norms. If there is anything that academic freedom means it’s that ideas can’t be suppressed because they might support politically inconvenient conclusions and it appears that is exactly what happened. What makes the whole situation truly absurd is that the people complaining about the paper were the ones doing the real damage to gender equality. Obviously, one unheralded paper entertaining a greater male variability hypothesis will have a lot less of a harmful effect than even the chance of a controversy over pulling it and the subsequent attention and overreactions1. Not to mention that explaining the gender imbalance via bias and harassment is far more discouraging to potential female mathematicians than invoking a biological difference in male/female variability2.

Some mathematical blogs critisize the argument in the paper (see back and forth in comments) but don’t allege it’s absurd or incoherent. A more substantial counterargument is made in the comments at ycombinator where it is suggested that a rogue editor deliberately pushed the piece through and directed changes to make it an overtly political piece supporting his own views. However, looking at the actual [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) reveals a piece perfectly appropriate to the Intelligencer or indeed many peer reviewed journals (perhaps excepting the relatively unspecialized nature of the content)3:. Moreover, if the editor had truly gone rogue rather than just having made a decision the board disagreed with she would have been summarily fired.

Of course, at this point it’s just one isolated incident (and new facts could always emerge to change the narrative) but it’s critical to express our disapproval now so this doesn’t become acceptable behavior. Ideally, I’d like to see some kind of resolution or statement of principles at an AMA meeting so hopefully we don’t need to move to a boycott or anything. Of course, political and ideological considerations do affect what gets published all the time but it’s critical to reinforce the norm that such considerations shouldn’t matter which makes our response in the few clear cut cases like this all the more important.

What to do about the original paper is more of a puzzle. I’m tempted to say that some other periodical should publish it merely to avoid giving even an apparent victory to the forces of censorship. However, there aren’t many equivalents to the Intelligencier and maybe it really isn’t a great model (though hopefully peer review could tell us). Also, at this point publishing the paper really would send a very different politicized message that other periodicals would be understandably reluctant to send. So other than moving quickly to the end of the journal format I don’t really know what should be done about the paper.


  1. I do not expect many women inclined to fight through group theory and differential geometry (as well as any gender specific barriers) to be deterred because some mathematicians aired an idea about gender differences in a journal. 
  2. Moreover, prospective female mathematicians have no reason to believe that conditional on being the sort of woman even considering going into math they are any less likely to be good than their male colleagues. Indeed, after conditioning they might expect to be better if it is true boys are more encouraged to enter these fields as well. 
  3. Indeed, the inclusion of the appendix citing support for the greater male variability hypothesis seems necessary to insulate against criticisms that it’s perpetuating an unacademic, unsupported talking point. 

Definitional Creep and Psychological Salient

Recognizing Harms Without Eroding Our Terms

This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.

There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.

Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.

Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.

This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.

For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.

When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.

Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.


  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Wrong About Me Too

Not Ideal But I Was Way Off

In an earlier post I was very critical of the form the me too movement took predicting that simply conveying me too in the absence of any clear agreement on what was being claimed (did someone once ask you out in a way you found creepy or did your boss threaten to have you blacklisted from the industry if you didn’t sleep with him) would do more harm than good. I didn’t believe that merely expressing vague pro-social feelings of unknown intensity on social media would do much to persuade anyone to change their ways nor would it do much to change anyone’s justified belief in the prevalence of any particular kind of behavior. To be clear, I always supported the goal of eliminating the impunity with which many powerful men harassed I just thought it would require sharing emotionally detailed accounts of actual harassment to shift people’s beliefs.

Now I still believe I was right about many of the unimportant issues. MeToo didn’t directly do much to change people’s estimates of the incidence of harassment and I do think that the temptation for those who wouldn’t have otherwise judged their experiences as qualifying to participate (with the best of motives) might have lead some people to see harassment as less serious1 but all these effects were trivially small if real at all and I totally missed the real importance of the movement it created common knowledge that there was widespread condemnation of sexual harassment and that many people were finally willing to take accusations against powerful and admired figures seriously. Note, that conveying common knowledge didn’t require shifting belief in any particular frequency (of incidence or of people willing to stand up) and I totally missed this possibility[^facebook].

Was MeToo the optimal vehicle to accomplish this? I don’t know but it seems to have worked quite well and there is a good chance any little tweak I might have preferred would have undermined it. So I was totally, extremely wrong about all the parts that mattered and I believe in owning up to that. Indeed, I even vaguely remember someone mentioning the theory I endorse here on facebook at the time but I wasn’t convinced.

In retrospect I let my annoyance that people seemed to be just doing things because they felt emotionally satisfying rather than having any particularly good justification biased me so even when someone made the right argument I missed it.


  1. For instance, someone assumed that those posting mostly just to be supportive were the extent of harrassment with rare exceptions. 

Social Control and The Principle Agent Problem

The Chinese Example And The Dangers Of Restricting Free Speech

This interesting post reminded me of my suspicion that a lot of the censorship in China isn’t the result of Xi Jinping’s crazed desire to be repressive. Almost certainly Xi would benefit from far less censorship and may indeed benefit from reports in the media exposing misbehavior by low level party officials but the incentives of those with the power to control expression (both to show off their loyalty and hide embarrassing events) means that far more censorship gets implemented than Xi would ideally want.

I think this is an important lesson for those who want to limit our free speech (or academic freedoms) when it comes to issues of race, gender harassment and the like. Even though the speech that one intends to ban may not have much value and impose great harms one needs to keep in mind the risks posed in delegating the practical authority to determine what speech qualifies.

Ambiguity, Silence and Complicity

How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion

Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?

Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.

The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.

In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.