The Troubling Issue Of Masterpiece Cakes

Masterpiece Cakeshop Is In The Wrong But Anti-Discrimination Laws Based On Orientation May Be The Long Run Danger

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is the Supreme Court case about the religious baker who refused to sell any wedding cake for a gay wedding and is now challenging the Colorado anti-discrimination laws that bar him from doing this on both free speech grounds and religious liberty grounds.

Legal Considerations

The religious liberty challenge is pretty weak (both as a moral and legal matter). Essentially, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop is arguing that he shouldn’t have to comply with the same laws that everyone else does just because his religion disagrees. It used to be the case that in some situations the Supreme Court recognized a first amendment right to an exception to generally applicable laws when they conflicted with religious belief. However, in Employment Division v. Smith Scalia got rid of this nonsense. As long as a law is generally applicable and isn’t motivated by religious animus the fact that it requires you violate your religious beliefs is immaterial1. As a result Masterpiece Cakeshop really doesn’t have a leg to stand on as far as the free exercise claim goes.

The free speech arguments are a bit more hefty. There is a long ling of cases that hold the first amendment bars the government from compelling you to express views you disagree with. For instance, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston the Supreme Court held that the first amendment protected the right of march organizers to exclude groups from their demonstration (despite contrary anti-discrimination law) when it would compromise their message, e.g., you can’t force a march against homosexuality to allow gay groups to join or a white supremacist march to include blacks. In other cases the court has held that the government can’t force students to pledge allegiance, newspapers to carry political responses for balance or PG&E to include environmental fliers in its bills.

As such, if Masterpiece Cakeshop was about the baker refusing to decorate the cake with a message they disagreed with I’m inclined to think there is a plausible argument to be made. If Masterpiece Cakeshop was willing to sell blank or generic wedding cakes to gay couples getting married there would be a strong case that requiring them to distribute messages on the cakes that they find objectionable is analogous to requiring PG&E to distribute environmental fliers it disagrees with. However, that’s not the fact patter in this case. Masterpiece Cakeshop is refusing to sell any wedding cake for a homosexual wedding.

Now there have been some heroic attempts to argue that merely providing any wedding cake at all conveys a celebratory message. However, this argument just isn’t very plausible. Certainly, wedding cakes are used as part of an event which, as a whole, sends a celebratory message but so too are the plates, silverware and chairs used at such functions. Surely no one thinks that a vendor who rents chairs for events is somehow being compelled to speak (in the way the Supreme Court has deemed unacceptable) when the law requires they deliver chairs to both gay and straight weddings. Indeed, if we accept the argument that merely because a good sold by a business will be used for an expressive purpose the sale of that good is itself expressive and thus protected from compulsion we would have to conclude that a white supremacist who owned an art supply shop had a first amendment right to refuse to sell pens to blacks as they will be used in an expressive manner (and quite likely to disapprove of white supremacy).

More broadly, there is an expressive component to all business transactions. In some sense serving black customers at a dinner expresses approval of their presence in the same dinner as whites. However, this isn’t the kind of incidental compelled expression the supreme court has identified as deserving of special protection nor should it be. When the government mandates that newspapers carry articles they disagree with the newspaper’s ability to express its desired message is seriously burdened. In contrast, when the government requires business owners to serve customers at a dinner regardless of race or sexual orientation there isn’t the same burden place on the ability of the diner owner to clearly convey his bigotry (modulo certain issues about signs2). If these brief remarks haven’t convinced you on this point I urge you to read this piece.

Policy Considerations

Alright, so Masterpiece Cakeshop deserves to lose (and almost surely will lose) at the Supreme Court. Indeed, if SCOTUS found for Masterpiece Cakeshop it would raise serious issues about the continued practical applicability of anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Many of which still address compelling needs.

However, I’m far less convinced there is any similarly compelling need for protecting homosexuals access to public accomodations like bakeries. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that individuals like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop are deeply misguided and probably bigots3. However, such individuals are being overwhelmed by the remarkably rapid march towards greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Certainly, there are still pockets of homophobia in the country but by the time laws barring anti-homosexual discrimination in public accommodations can be enacted and have an effect in less progressive states than Colorado there will be more homosexuals than people who support discrimination against homosexuals. I don’t mean to in any way diminish just how hurtful it can be to be discriminated against but we need to balance that hurt against the burden such laws place on our freedoms. The judgement we’ve made in almost all cases is that just because something is hurtful or offensive isn’t a good enough reason to abridge people’s rights to choose whom to sell to. After all, its also quite hurtful to refuse to sell to someone because they are dumb, support abortion, or because their hipster beard looks stupid (though that may be more understandable). Those may not be quite at the same level but refusing to serve any ex-cons is closer as is any number of personal reasons for discrimination one sees in small towns.

The argument that there is a special need for public accommodation laws (as opposed to other instances of hurtful but appropriately legal behavior) stems, in the case of racial discrimination, from the claim that such discrimination is systematic, pervasive and makes it particularly difficult to dissolve bigoted attitudes. These all were, and perhaps would be again absent such laws, in the case of racial discrimination. It wasn’t just that blacks were excluded from a few venues run by marginalized bigots but systematically barred from whole classes of establishments — particularly high status establishments were power and influence get traded. The systematic exclusion of blacks from these establishments created a particularly formidable barrier to racial understanding and acceptance.

In contrast, homosexuals are only rarely discriminated against in public accommodations (I’m not suggesting that many people don’t remain closeted because of likely bigoted responses from friends and family but this is beyond governmental intervention) and usually have ample alternative venues. Those public accommodations which do discriminate against homosexuals tend to be low status enterprises run by socially marginalized assholes. The penetration of chain stores into virtually all parts of America provides high quality cheap products in a non-discriminatory fashion even in some of the most backwards regions. The opinion poll trend lines prove that even without such laws the cultural shift towards homosexual acceptance is both rapid and unstoppable. In short, virtually all the reasons for thinking that anti-discrimination laws serve a special need whose exceptional importance warrants prioritizing it over the individual freedoms of the business owner don’t seem to apply. Certainly, its awful and morally unacceptable but it doesn’t seem to be different in kind from the other awful morally unacceptable behaviors we don’t outlaw.

I certainly recognize that reasonable people can disagree on the relative value of the freedoms given to business owners as well as the substantial compliance costs, unintended harms and regulatory burdens imposed by anti-discrimination laws. However, the lack of any serious attempt to weigh the costs and benefits of such anti-discrimination laws makes me suspect that people support laws barring discrimination against homosexuals merely to signal their moral disapproval of such discrimination not based on any policy analysis.

Currently, many states as well as the federal government lack laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation (hiring is a harder question IMO) so given the fact that once an anti-discrimination law is passed it is virtually impossible to ever repeal (for fear of sending the message that discrimination is acceptable) now is the time to sit down and ask whether we really want the kind of laws that lead to Masterpiece Cakeshop. If I could choose to enact such laws for a ten year period I’d probably support them but when I balance 50 or 100 years of reduced freedoms, compliance costs and unintended harms against the rapidly fading benefits I find leaning against such laws.

In short, while Masterpiece Cakeshop is clearly in the wrong from both a moral and legal perspective in the long run I fear that the well-intentioned laws that lead to this case are what we should really fear. If only there was a good way to signal our moral disapproval with sufficient strength without actually creating expensive and invasive new torts and enforcement agencies.


  1. Of course, in some circumstances we do feel that religious groups deserve a special break on a generally applicable law such as when the law is merely a matter of enforcing some uniform standard and the costs of allowing sincere religious objection is small. For instance, the purpose of a law stipulating that city employees are barred from wearing any visible clothing besides their uniform isn’t substantially impeded by allowing Jewish employees to wear a kippah (aka yamaka) and the benefit to religious individuals pretty clearly outweighs the additional hassle of having to make individual determinations of appropriateness. Congress and state legislatures have adopted RFRA laws in a (deeply flawed) attempt to ensure that, in those cases where the societal cost is small and the individual benefit large, we make exceptions. Personally, I would prefer a legal regime that was religiously neutral and simply focused on strongly held views and applied a balancing test but that’s another conversation. 
  2. As Eugene Volokh has pointed out there is a serious tension between free speech rights and anti-discrimination laws which bar vendors from expressing bigoted/sexist messages in their workplace. While being forced to serve blacks doesn’t seriously burden the owner’s freedom of expression being barred from decorating the diner with news clippings praising white supremacy, denigrating blacks and arguing for the racial inferiority of minorities does. However, this is an issue for another time. 
  3. From afar animus is hard to distinguish from compassionate belief someone is making mistaken life choices combined with a desire not to encourage further mistakes. I honestly believe some very devout catholics who truly treat homosexuality as a mistake just like adultery or premarital sex fall into the second category but such people are rare. Animus is far more common. 

Algorithmic Gaydar

Machine Learning, Sensitive Information and Prenatal Hormones

So there’s been some media attention recently to this study which found they were able to accurately predict sexual orientation with 91% for men and 83% for women. Sadly, everyone is focusing on the misleading idea that we can somehow use this algorithm to decloak who is gay and who isn’t rather than the really interesting fact that this is suggestive of some kind of hormonal or developmental cause of homosexuality.

Rather, given 5 pictures of a gay man and 5 pictures of a straight man 91% of the time it is able to correctly pick out the straight man. Those of us who remember basic statistics with all those questions about false positive rates should realize that, given the low rate of homosexuality in the population, this algorithm doesn’t actually give very strong evidence of homosexuality at all. Indeed, one would expect that, if turned loose on a social network, the vast majority of individuals judged to be gay would be false positives. However, in combination with learning based on other signals like your friends on social media one could potentially do a much better job. But at the moment there isn’t much of a real danger this tech could be used by anti-gay governments to identity and persecute individuals.

Also, I wish the media would be more careful about their terms. This kind of algorithm doesn’t reveal private information it reveals sensitive information inadvertently exposed publicly.

However, what I found particularly interesting was the claim in the paper that they were able to achieve a similar level of accuracy for photographs taken in a neutral setting. This, along with other aspects of the algorithm, strongly suggest the algorithm isn’t picking up on some kind of gay/straight difference in what kind of poses people find appealing. The researchers also generated a heat map of what parts of the image the algorithm is focusing on and while some of them do suggest grooming based information about hair, eyebrows or beard play some role the strong role that the nose, checks and corners of the mouth play suggests that relatively immutable characteristics are pretty helpful in predicting orientation.

The authors acknowledge that personality has been found to affect facial features in the long run so this is far from conclusive. I’d also add my own qualification that there might be some effect of the selection procedure that plays a role, e.g., if homosexuals are less willing to use a facial closeup on dating sites/facebook if they are ugly the algorithm could be picking up on that. However, it is at least interestingly suggestive evidence for the prenatal hormone theory (or other developmental theory) of homosexuality.

Can Hurricanes Return Shot Bullets?

So online there have been some suggestions that shooting a bullet into a hurricane could send it back to you by wrapping it around the eye.

So based on the images presented on wikipedia area presented by a 7.62mm rifle bullet to a wind striking it from the side is less than 12mm x 30 mm but more than 1/2 that so at least .00018 m^2. The minimum hurricane wind speed is 33 m/s so plugging it into the wind load calculator giving us about .12 Newton. This compares to the force of gravity of about .01kg *9.8 ~ .1 Newton. Yet fired straight up a bullet will only travel on the order of a kilometer while the size of a hurricane eye is typically 30+ km in size.

So no, a bullet won’t wrap around the hurricane and come back to hit you. The wind effect simply whips it off course too quickly to do a full circuit but one could hit something unintended if one fires with a strong cross wind.

I strongly suspect that simple range limitations would be an easier way to figure this out but I found the calculation kinda fun.

Skepticism About Study Linking Trump Support To Racism

Or Dear God More Suspicious Statistical Analysis

So I see people posting this vox article suggesting Trump, but not Clinton, supporters are racist and I want to advise caution and urge people to actually read the original study.

Vox’s takeaway is,

All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Donald Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man.

Which they back up with the following description:

In a randomized survey experiment, the trio of researchers exposed respondents to images of either a white or black man. They found that when exposed to the image of a black man, white Trump supporters were less likely to back a federal mortgage aid program. Favorability toward Trump was a key measure for how strong this effect was.

If you look at the actual study its chock full of warning signs. They explicitly did not find any statistically significant difference between those Trump voters given the prompts showing black or white aid recipients degree of support for the program or degree of anger they felt or blame they assigned towards those recipients. Given that this is the natural reading of Vox’s initial description its already disappointing (Vox does elaborate to some extent but not in a meaningfully informative way).

What the authors of the study did is asked for a degree of Trump support (along with many other questions such as liberal/conservative identification, vote preference, racial resentment giving researchers a worryingly large range of potentially analysises they could have conducted). Then they regressed the conditional effect of the black/white prompt on the level of blame, support and anger against degree of Trump support controlling for a whole bunch of other crap (though they do claim ‘similar’ results without controls) and are using some dubious claims about this regression to justify their claims. This should already raise red flags about research degree of freedom especially given the pretty unimpressive R^2 values.

But what should really cause one to be skeptical is that the regression of Hillary support with conditional effect of black/white prompt shows a similar upward slope (visually the slope appears on slightly less for Hillary support than it did for Trump) though at the extreme high end of Hillary support the 95% confidence interval just barely includes 0 while for Trump it just barely excludes it. Remember, as Andrew Gelman would remind us the difference between significant and non-significant results isn’t significant and indeed the study didn’t find a significant difference between how Hillary and Trump support interacted with the prompt in terms of degree of support for the program. In other words if we take the study at face value it suggests at only a slightly lower confidence level that increasing support for Hillary makes one more racist.

So what should we make of this strange seeming result? Is it really the case that Hillary support also makes one more racist but just couldn’t be captured by this survey? No, I think there is a more plausible explanation: the primary effect this study is really capturing is how willing one is to pick larger numbers to describe one’s feelings. Yes, there is a real effect of showing a black person rather than a white person on support for the program (though showing up as not significant on its own in this study) but if you are more willing to pick large numbers on the survey this effect looks larger for you and thus correlates with degree of support for both Hillary and Trump.

To put this another way imagine there are two kinds of people who answer the survey. Emoters and non-emoters. Non-emoters keep all their answers away from the extremes and so the effect of the black-white prompt on them is numerically pretty small and they avoid expressing strong support for either candidate (support is only a positive variable) while Emoters will show both a large effect of the black-white prompt (because changes in their opinion result in larger numerical differences) and a greater likelihood of being a strong Trump or Hillary supporter.

This seems to me to be a far more plausible explanation than thinking that increasing Hillary support correlates with increasing racism and I’m sure there are any number of other plausible alternative interpretations like this. Yes, the study did seem to suggest some difference between Trump and Hillary voters on the slopes of the blame and anger regressions (but not support for the program) but this may reflect nothing more pernicious than the unsurprising fact that conservative voters are more willing to express high levels of blame and anger toward recipients of government aid.

However, even if you don’t accept my alternative interpretation the whole thing is sketchy as hell. Not only do the researchers have far too many degrees of freedom (both in terms of the choice of regression to run but also in criteria for inclusion of subjects in the study) for my comfort but the data itself was gathered via a super lossy survey process creating the opportunity for all kinds of bias to enter into the process not to mention. Moreover, the fact that all the results are about regressions is already pretty worrisome as it is often far too easy to make strong seeming statistical claims about regressions, a worry which is amplified by the fact that they don’t actually plot the data. I suspect that there is far more wrong with this analysis than I’m covering here so I’m hoping someone with more serious statistical chops than I have such as Andrew Gelman will analyze these claims.

But even if we take the study’s claims at face value the most you could infer (and technically not even this) is that there are some more people who are racist among strong Trump supporters than among those who have low support for Trump which is a claim so unimpressive it certainly doesn’t deserve a Vox article much less support the description given. Indeed, I think it boarders on journalistically unethical to show the graphs showing the correlation between increasing support for Trump and prompt effect but not the ones showing similar effects for support of Hillary. However, I’m willing to believe this is the result of the general low standards for science literacy in journalism and the unfortunate impression that statistical significance is some magical threshold.

Study: Trump fans are much angrier about housing assistance when they see an image of a black man

All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man. That’s the takeaway from a new study by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, set to be published in Research & Politics.

What Does It Mean To Assign Babies A Gender?

More Philosophical Difficulties With The Concept Of Gender

I’m posting this because I think it raises some interesting philosophical issues about what it even means to assign a child a gender at birth as opposed to merely assigning them a sex. I mean surely the article isn’t advocating that we stop observing which genitalia a child has at birth or even that we stop using those facts to make decisions1. So then what even does it consist of to assign a child a gender at birth?

It seems to have something to do with assuming they will fill a certain kind of societal role, i.e., will comply with the societal expectations we have for men or women. So, for example, merely having a doctor note the genitalia expressed by the child or passing that information on to others wouldn’t count but having a “It’s a boy” party, and thereby encouraging guests to give boy appropriate presents, would.

However, this raises interesting questions about whether it is meaningful to claim to have a certain gender (say one different than the usual one for your sex) but be non-conformist to the usual social stereotypes. Or, indeed, what it would even mean to claim a given gender identity in the absence of such gender stereotypes and whether one can coherently support the idea of someone being transgender (as opposed to simply gender non-conforming) while opposing the idea of expectations of gendered behavior, i.e., in order to support the idea of someone claiming a different gender must one in some sense assent to the idea that it is appropriate to have certain gender specific expectations of behavior?

Interestingly, if on accepts the analysis I offer below, on which gender identity is ultimately about a preference between various gendered societal roles it may be that the suggestion in this article is in a sense conceptually self-defeating since if society ever got close to the point of adopting this solution the very concept of gender as distinct from sex would dissolve.

Why we should stop giving babies a gender when they are born

Trans rights have burst into the spotlight in the past few years thanks to high-profile figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, with the former’s 2014 Time cover seen as a watershed moment for the movement. Now, the debate has turned to children and gender.

Before I go one I’d like to impress the importance of distinguishing theoretical considerations from more practical ones. For instance, one could believe that gender identity doesn’t really make sense because it rests on the inappropriate idea that we should have different expectations and social roles for men and women while believing that since, in the near term there is no practical means of eliminating those expectations/roles the best thing to do is to support people’s ability to change which set of expectations/roles apply to them (or make the effort of opting out). This isn’t quite the position I hold but I would like to stress that however the theoretical discussion turns out I firmly believe that, as a matter of simple human compassion and empathy, we should respect people’s requests to be referred to and treated as the gender they identify with. Regardless of whether the notion of gender is philosophically suspect or not it causes people real pain to be misgendered and doing so benefits no one. Even if you believe transgender identification is a mental disorder2 which doctors should try to cure rather than accede to refusing to gender colleagues as they request or let them use the restroom of their choice, like screaming at someone whose religious beliefs you disagree with, accomplishes nothing but making more people miserable.

Tentative Thoughts

These kind of questions push me towards the view that the only sense in which one can claim to have a certain gender (as distinct from sex) is insofar as one is announcing an intention to comply more with the social expectations of and fulfill the social role of your chosen gender and requesting others apply those expectations to you. Obviously, one need not intend to comply with all the stereotypes and expectations society has of your chosen gender or request they all be applied to you but by announcing a particular gender identity one is suggesting that in the main you intend to comply with or wish to be treated according to the stereotypes for your chosen gender more so than the other gender. Or in the case of a declaration of a non-binary gender identity that one doesn’t intend to fill either social role and doesn’t wish to be treated as if one belongs in either.

Ultimately, this means that there is a certain sense in which I don’t think it makes sense to ‘really’ be intrinsically male (female) despite being biologically female (male). There is no societally independent objective notion of gender relative to which one is really male or female. There are only certain societal roles, expectations and stereotypes about men and women and attitudes people have about how they wish to relate to those roles, expectations and stereotypes. Thus, its simply incoherent to claim that one’s gender is really female but that one doesn’t intend to play more of the stereotypical female role in social interactions nor does one want others to treat you more according to the usual social expectations we have of women. In other words, the only real concept of gender (as distinct from sex) which we have recourse to is the operational concept defined by way of society’s gendered expectations. As such, the common implicit assumption in discussions of gender identity that gender is some kind of intrinsic property of the individual must be rejected.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that talk of gender identity is misguided or can’t be made sense of. The operational definition (or a precisification thereof) I gave above works perfectly well and makes sense of what is going on when someone makes a male or female gender identity claim. However, it does suggest a certain skepticism about claims of gender identities other than male, female and none of the above (if gender is understood as a desire to be treated as if you belong/don’t belong to certain societal categories it doesn’t really make sense to call categories that society doesn’t have gender identities) and suggests a certain degree of skepticism regarding the implicit assumption of intrinsicness often made about gender. Accepting this view, however, does limit one’s ability to simultaneously claim to have a male/female gender identity while resisting the idea that gender specific social norms and stereotypes should be applied to you.

Gender As Personal Identification

I suspect a common response to my suggestion above is that I’m ignoring the very real sense in which some individuals strongly identify as a given gender. I fully accept the fact that some people simply feel male or female and are more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way. For those of us, like myself, who are cis by default such feelings certainly seem puzzling but I’m very much convinced they are real. But if I’m convinced these feelings are real why not just accept that the concept of gender merely refers to the sense of personal identification as male or female?

For one thing, the discussion of personal identification (driven by a noble desire to be inclusive) elides the fact that this can mean very different things to different people. I found the answers to this question I asked on quora about the experience of gender dysphoria quite illuminating. In particularly, it suggests that while some people’s experience of gender dysphoria is best described as a desire to be socially treated as a member of the other gender other individuals feelings were directly related to a feeling of discomfort with the genitalia they were born with. However, the focus on social role seems both more common and more faithful to the idea that gender is something distinct from biological sex (or even desired biological sex) and the operational definition above seems to capture the primary ways people want to use the term.

But why not go further and simply accept the claims of strong personal identification with a gender as defining the concept of gender? This, after all, seems to be what most transactivists seem to favor and would allow one to make sense of both the variety of non-binary gender identification and those individuals who want to both claim a given male/female gender identity while rejecting the operational aspects, i.e., the request to be treated according to gendered societal expectations or desire to fit into gendered roles.

Unfortunately, this approach has several serious flaws. First, it seems unable to cope with the phenomena of cis by default as such individuals lack any particular feeling of personal identification but we don’t want to deny they have the default cis gender. One could offer a disjunctive definition of gender but such unwieldy theoretical constructs should generally be avoided. Even more problematic is that such an approach fails to pick out a clear concept as what feelings count as identifying as a particular gender will vary from person to person. Of course, one might try and offer some kind of objective yardstick of male/female identifying against which various feelings can be measured but that just pushes the problem of choosing a conception of gender back a level. More broadly, it still leaves us in want of any sense in which we should regard a particular kind of feeling of identification to be a feeling of gender identification rather than some other kind of psycho-sexual identification.

Besides, as a purely practical matter it might be best if the transrights movement, at least temporarily, disassociated themselves from the idea that one can simply choose a word that describes how you feel about your `gender’ and call that a gender-identity. Even if you don’t share my conceptual concerns about calling such identifications, no matter how sincerely felt, gender identities it may be a necessary tactical move just as it was tactically necessary for gays to disassociate themselves from other non-traditional relationships like polyamory in the pursuit of gay rights.

Philosophical Work

Yes, I’m aware that there is some philosophical work on this subject. Unfortunately, while there are a few interesting papers in the analytic tradition far too many are nothing but ideologically driven continentalesque concept association. Of the papers that are worth reading the only one that I’ve found which directly tackles these hard conceptual issues is “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” but even this paper doesn’t, to my mind, give enough weight to how these terms are actually used and (perhaps motivated by understandable3 concerns about harmful effects on the trans rights movement or perhaps the authors simply don’t share these intuitions) avoids bullet biting when such bullets would conflict with transpositive ideology. However, It’s quite likely I’m unaware of some good work on this subject and would appreciate being pointed in the direction of other good analytic philosophy papers dealing with this subject.


  1. For example, parents who are perfectly balanced between choosing to relocate to an area with far more boys than girls or an area with far more girls than boys could presumably consider the fact that the balance of probabilities favors their child being attracted to individuals with the other kind of genitals when they grow up. 
  2. Personally, I think even phrasing it this way is to miss the point. Of course transgender individuals are suffering from a mental disorder as is anyone experiencing mental anguish. The only relevant question is whether things like gender reassignment surgery or claiming a different gender identity are effective means to reduce that suffering and I believe the evidence suggests they are. 
  3. Understandable and well-intentioned perhaps but still, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s my view that people can sense when certain conclusions or arguments are being avoided out of concern for their harmful impact and this works to push many readers towards a generalized skepticism of such work. At least in the context of an academic philosophy paper where there is little risk of being quoted out of context in the mainstream media, far better to defang the best arguments that can be raised against a position (or at least the public rhetoric associated with a position) and bite any required bullets while showing that need not force one to take an unsupportive or uncompassionate position regarding the vulnerable group in question. 

Gender Neutral School Uniforms

Leave Schoolgirl Outfits To The Adults

Regardless of your views on transgender children how is this not a no brainer? The competing interest in allowing girls to wear skirts is only that it lets them express themselves as identifying as female but if you believe that self-expression is more important than the uniformity and equality conveyed by having all students wear the same outfit you shouldn’t be having students wear a uniform in the first place.

I mean something is seriously weird about a policy which tells children that generally conformity and equality are more important than expressing your individual features except for your gender. At best it suggests that gender is a particularly important division, more important than interests, abilities or other personal characteristics. At worst it encourages teachers to apply gender based stereotypes.

Perhaps you are skeptical that the mere symbolic differentiation between boys and girls would have any real effect. Maybe not. But if you don’t believe these kinds of symbolic distinctions make real differences what are you doing insisting on uniforms in the first place1? If you don’t believe that uniformity sends any important message but are willing to suppress the full range of individual student expression just for disciplinary convenience then surely the issues raised by girls wearing shorts (skirt length etc..) alone are enough to justify eliminating this last, much less valuable, irregularity even ignoring the extra concerns raised about gender.

School bans skirts to make uniform gender neutral for transgender students

“But when it was explained to us, it was about inappropriate dressing, I think it was the right decision to make.” The new uniform only applies for Year 7s but students in Year 8 to Year 11 are welcome to adopt the new uniform.


  1. One might try and suggest that uniforms are important to disguise income differences between parents but that this concern doesn’t implicate any strong symbolic value to the uniformity of the outfit. However, it certainly acknowledges that wealth differentiation based on student outfits make a big difference. Moreover, as someone who had to wear uniforms at school growing up I’m skeptical of this justification. It is still easy to tell who has money as expressed through haircuts, backpacks and other accessories (and tailored higher quality uniforms at some schools) and the uniforms themselves must be purchased in addition to casual outfits (except perhaps at some boarding schools) and differentiation based on parental income is generally less intense than differentiation based on style/interest. 

Does Predictive Processing Explain Too Much?

A Request For Clarification On What Predictive Processing Rules Out

So Scott Alexander has an interesting book review up about Surfing Uncertainty which I encourage everyone to read themselves. However, most of the post is really an exploration of the “predictive processing” model for brain function. I’ll leave a more in depth explanation of what this model is to Scott and just offer the following excerpt for those readers to lazy to click through.

Predictive processing begins by asking: how does this happen? By what process do our incomprehensible sense-data get turned into a meaningful picture of the world.

The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.
….
As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.

The upshot of these different ways is that when everything happens as predicted the higher levels remain unnotified of any change but that when there is a mismatch it draws attention from these higher layers. However, in some circumstances a strong prediction from a higher layer can cause lower layers to “rewrite the sense data to make it look as predicted.”

I admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of predictive processing, especially the suggestion that our muscle control is actually effectuated merely by `predicting’ our arm will be in a certain state and acting to minimize prediction error. However, my first reaction is to wonder how much content there is in this model.

Describing some kind of processing or control task in terms of predictions has a certain universality kind of feel to it. This is only a vague sense based on a book review but I worry that invoking the predictive processing model to describe how our brains work is much like invoking the lambda calculus model to describe how a particular computer functions. Namely, I worry that predictive processing is such a powerful model that virtually anything remotely plausible as a mechanism for processing sense data and effectuating control over our limbs could be fit into the model — meaning it offers no real insight.

I mean it was already apparent before this model came on to the scene that how we see even low level visual data is affected by high level classifications. The various figure-ground illusions make this point quite clearly. It was also already apparent that attention to one task (counting passes) could limit our ability to notice some other kind of oddity (a guy in a gorilla suit). However, its far from clear that the predictive processing model really adds anything to our understanding here.

Indeed, to even make sense of these examples we have to understand the relevant predictions to happen at a very abstract level that is highly context dependent so that by focusing on the number of basketball passes in a game it no longer counts as a sufficiently unpredicted event when a man in a gorilla suit walks past (or allows some other story about why paying one sort of attention suppresses this kind of notice). That’s fine but allowing this level of abstraction/freedom in describing the thing to be predicted makes me wonder what couldn’t be suitably described in terms of this model.

The attempt to describe our imagination, e.g., our ability to picture a generic police officer in our minds, as utilizing the mental machinery that would generate a sense-data stream as a prediction to match against reality raises more questions. Obviously, the notion of matching must be a very high level one quite removed from the actual pictorial representation if the mental image we conjure when we think of policemen is to be seen as matching the sense-data stream experienced when we encounter a policeman. Yet if the level at which we are evaluating a predictive match is so abstract why do we imagine a particular image when we think of a policeman and not merely whatever vague high level abstracta we will judge to match when we actually view a policeman. I’m sure there is a plausible theory to tell here about invoking the same lower level machinery we use to process sense-data when we imagine and leveraging that same feedback but, again, I’m left wondering what work predictive processing is really doing here.

More generally, I wonder to what extent all these predictions wouldn’t result from just assuming, as we know to be true, that the brain processes information in ‘layers’, there can be feedback between these layers and frequently the goal of our mental tasks is to predict events or control actions. Its not even obvious to me that the claimed predictions of the theory like the placebo effect couldn’t have equally well been spun the other way if the effect had been different, e.g., when your high level processes predict that you won’t feel pain it will be particularly salient when you nevertheless do feel pain so placebo pain meds should result in more people reporting pain.

But I haven’t read the book myself yet so maybe predictive processing has been suitably preciscified in the book so as to rule out many plausible ways the brain might have behaved and to clearly predict outcomes like the placebo effect. However, I wrote this post merely to raise the possibility that a paradigm like this can fail precisely because it is too good at describing phenomena. Hopefully, my worries are misplaced and someone can explain to me in the comments just what kind of plausible models of brain function this paradigm rules out.

Silicon Valley Politics

This is an interesting piece but I couldn’t disagree more with the title or the author’s obvious feeling that there must be a cynical explanation for techie’s distrust of government regulation.

Silicon valley types are simply classical pragmatic libertarians. They aren’t Ayn Rand quoting objectivists who believe government intervention is in principle unacceptable. Rather, they, like most academic economists, simply tend to feel that well-intentioned government regulation often has serious harmful side effects and isn’t particularly likely to accomplish the desired goals.

I think this kind of skepticism flows naturally from a certain kind of quantitative results oriented mindset and I expect you would find the same kind of beliefs (to varying degrees) among the academic physicists, civil engineers and others who share the same educational background and quantitative inclination as silicon valley techies. I’m sure that the particular history of poorly understood tech regulation like the original crypto wars in the 90s plays a role but I suspect it just amplified existing tendencies.

Silicon Valley’s Politics Revealed: Mostly Far Left (With a Twist)

But by the 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the beginning of the tech industry’s march to the apex of the world’s economy, another Silicon Valley political narrative took root: techies as unapologetic libertarians, for whom the best government is a nearly nonexistent one.

Reevaluating Police Shootings

Racial Justice By Universal Justice

Anyone who has been paying attention to US media should be aware of the problem of police shooting unarmed black men. There is no doubt these shootings are unacceptable and reveal deep problems in the way police function in the US but stories like that linked below raise the question of whether the most pressing problem is really racial bias or the way we’ve trained our police to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, we want a society in which whites and blacks can expect equal treatment from the police. However, given the deep racial differences in socioeconomic status (exacerbated by the rural/urban divide in where poor whites and blacks live) and the human psychological vulnerability to stereotypes it’s not obvious that there is anything we can do to ensure police don’t develop an unconscious perception of minorities as more threatening. Studies, such as this, suggest that the different treatment that whites and blacks can expect from police aren’t the result of animus as black officers are equally guilty of it. That points to other effects such as stereotypes developed as a result of policing economically disadvantaged minority communities as the cause.

Hopefully, there are strategies we can implement to counteract these stereotypes. Maybe rotating officers into positions where they interact with more high socioeconomic status minorities (or low socioeconomic status whites) would be helpful. I don’t know. This is an area in which more research is desperately needed. However, in the near term, rather than focusing on race and racial bias, we may want to instead focus on the kind of police culture and training that leads to incidents like the one described below. Even if our only concern was racial justice reducing the number of unjust shootings may be the most effective way to reduce the unfair burden of extra risk that minorities bear.

Good Friends And Bullets, A Grimm Tale

What are friends for? Shooting, when the cop brain goes into survival mode. Andy Grimm, who knows Shaw, said he does not want the officer to be fired, the paper reported. “I know Jake,” he said. “I like Jake.” And Deputy Jake Shaw likes Andy Grimm too. “We know the deputy.

Galef’s Unpopular Ideas About Crime And Punishment

Missing from this list is the suggestion that we should be maximizing the economic value of convicted felons by making them use their skills to earn money to be paid to the state and the victim. There was an interesting post about this on econolog not too long ago and while practical considerations may limit the application of this idea I think it is something we should more seriously consider.

I mean a large amount of support for increasingly harsher punishments seems driven not by the idea that it is necessary for ideal punishment but by horror at what happened to the victim. But, to the extent that is true, maybe the victim should get the choice between longer/more extreme punishment and letting the perpetrator work in a more lucrative fashion to better compensate them. True, this would mean that less skilled/educated criminals might get the worse end of the stick but criminal justice is about making the best choice from bad alternatives and if we can better compensate some victims by letting the perpetrator work for more money maybe we should consider it.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best). Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories.