Freddie deBoer's Review: Ross Douthat's The Deep Places (Link)
My highlights here
- My quick takes:
- Greed always brings the sociopaths who force Moloch on us
- The narrow interpretations of science (scientism?) is a “not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured” problem
- Quote: The sacred is not there to make our lives better. It is not there to confirm our warped ideologies. It is there to shred us. It guides us to the depths of ourselves to find our own delusions and dispel them. Psychedelics were originally called ‘psychotomimetics’, because they were thought to temporarily induce insanity. It may be that going temporarily mad is the only way to see how mad we already are.
- I kept coming up against a paradox. It haunted me for months, and goes something like this: psychedelics can change our minds, but only if we’ve already changed our minds. They can transform culture, but only if culture has already been transformed. The real issue isn’t psychedelic capitalism, but the culture that selects for it. In the grips of a meaning crisis, consumer culture is adrift, purposeless, disconnected. The role religion used to play has been filled by alternatives that aren’t designed to fill its shoes. Wellness culture asks us to be well but doesn’t explain what we’re being well for. Tech utopianism bypasses the pain of existence by fantasising about transcendence. We can’t mix and match indigenous frameworks unless we come to terms with the indigenous narcissism of Western psychology. New Age thinking is a mess of self-deception and wish fulfillment. The religion of psychotherapy might bring us some peace, but it doesn’t give us an ontology. Scientific reductionism can measure our pain, but can’t help us to feel it and live with it.
Nihilist Nation by Garret Keizer
- Arguing with a nihilist is like intimidating a suicide bomber: The usual threats and enticement have no effect. I suspect that is part of the appeal for both: the facile transcendence of placing oneself beyond all powers of persuasion. A nihilist is above you and your persnickety arguments in the same way that Trump fancies himself above the law.
- If a Protestant ethic will make workers go more obediently into the factories, then capitalism will extol the Protestant ethic; but if blasphemy begins to move merchandise at the mall, then it will blaspheme to the point of making Beelzebub blush. If democracy furthers profit, then long live democracy; if democracy impedes profit, then long live Citizens United and private security forces flown in to beat back the disaster-riled mobs. In the capitalist bible, profit and loss always trump the Law and the Prophets.
- If there are no “grand narratives,” no self-evident truths, no straightforward texts, no criteria for determining artistic merit, then there is surely nothing to stop us from deconstructing such obsolete products as The New York Times and the Bill of Rights—or even, as so many academics seem obtusely unable to grasp, to deconstruct the self-evident merits of “diversity” itself? If you preach iconoclasm while dedicating a rainbow-colored stained-glass window, you shouldn’t be too surprised if somebody picks up a rock.
- Some will object that few people sporting a Make America Great Again baseball cap are going to have read postmodernist theory, so any claim of a cause-and-effect relationship here is ludicrous. No, the objection is ludicrous. It is like saying that a seabird cannot show up on a beach covered in petroleum since a seabird is obviously not an oil tanker. Culture is a highly permeable ecosystem. Mike Pence was influenced by Lady Gaga even if he couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.
- Steve Jobs’s claim of having “put a ding in the universe.” When the universe itself is fair game for dinging, can nihilism be far behind?
- This is where primal emotions and capitalist dynamism meet: in the moral deadening that comes of having few significant choices and infinite trivial ones.
- The same temptation can occur in less momentous deflations, whenever insincerity peeks from under a euphemism—whenever the “guest” turns out to be a customer. And it may be especially tempting when a culture suspicious of moral imperatives replaces them with the notion that sincerity is the highest virtue and hypocrisy the gravest fault.
- The corollary for the least capable statesmen is only too clear: In a moral universe where good and evil have been reduced to sincerity and hypocrisy, Donald Trump (the liar who believes his own lies) will always play the honest angel to Ben Franklin’s duplicitous imp.
- American nihilism is an oozing sore, but like an oozing sore it is evidence both of a malady and of a body’s desperate attempt to heal itself.
Book Review: San Fransicko by Slatestarcodex
Enjoyed watching Slatestar’s mind work thru the claims. Just some excerpts I liked, just a matter of personal taste in the writing.
- It makes enough different claims to leave the reader feeling kind of overwhelmed. If the claims are true, then the book is great and important. If they’re false, it’s bad and damaging. I felt that the fairest way to review this book was to meet it on its own terms with deep dives into ten of its key claims.
- Overall, I’m disappointed in most of the published research on this question, which seems more interested in producing glossy brochures about funding disparities than in informing anybody what any of their numbers mean.
- Still, everyone is sure that the reason there are still homeless people must be that some Housing First opponent still exists somewhere, ruining everything with their purity-testing ways. But actually these people have already been relegated to the conservative think tanks where moribund ideas go to die.
- San Fransicko is right to call out all the people promoting it beyond what the evidence supports, but then goes on to attack it beyond what the evidence supports.
- Its claim that it saw increased drug use depends on your definition, but is misleading and not the most natural way to sum up the evidence.
- How suspicious should we be of each type of story? There will always be an extreme right tail of overly harsh sentences, and an extreme left tail of overly lenient ones. Were the 2000s really as draconian as they felt? Is the modern era really as pathetic? Or is it all just a function of who you read and what agenda they’re pushing?
- Maybe a better argument against this being true is how stable the shoplifting rates have been over time. Wouldn’t it be weird if (let’s say) a tripling of the real shoplifting rates was matched by a third-ing of the reporting rates (rather than a halving or a quartering or whatever)?
- I accept that the data don’t consistently show a spike in shoplifting. But what’s the alternative? My patient who works in loss prevention in SF stores is lying to me? The nice elderly Chinese man who sold me my last pair of glasses and chatted to me about the rampant shoplifting in his mall was lying? The San Francisco police are lying? Walgreens pretends to be concerned about shoplifting as part of a dastardly plot to close a bunch of stores for no reason? Target and CVS pretend to care about shoplifting as part of a plot to restrict their stores’ opening hours for no reason? Every big store near me has suddenly gotten a security guard at the front as part of some corporate-sponsored jobs program?
- Maybe the conservative narrative that soft-on-crime San Francisco must be experiencing rising crime rates took on a life of its own. Maybe it infiltrated not just the usual suspects like the SF police unions, but even such supposedly-liberal bastions as the New York Times. Maybe lots of big corporations took advantage of the fake narrative to make unpopular business decisions they were planning on making anyway. And maybe ordinary San Franciscans, confronted with everyone telling them they were in a shoplifting epidemic, started paying more attention to security guards and petty criminals who had always been there, a sort of mass hallucination that gripped everyone in the city. I can’t rule this out. Americans thought crime was rising all throughout the early 2000s, when it was in fact way down. Or maybe some statistics that we already know are off by several orders of magnitude got off by an additional factor of two or so. I think this one is more likely, but I’m genuinely not sure.
- If they do it with perfect rationalist virtue, it tends to look like a long list of contradictory studies and statistics. The media says “every human being who has ever lived except for Hitler agrees that Housing First solves all problems!” Suppose you write a book saying something like “actually, five studies say Housing First had a small positive effect on this problem, three studies say it had a small negative effect, and two studies say it was neutral”. The average citizen reads the media and concludes Housing First is perfect and amazing, then reads you and concludes that something something studies whatever. In the end they settle on something like “it’s perfect and amazing, but there’s some kind of asterisk after this and maybe more studies are needed”. If you want to actually shake them out of the propaganda, you need to go further and declare confidently that Housing First is actually bad. Michael Shellenberger does this, and in a moment I’ll blame him, but I want to stress that he’s less bad than the mainstream media he’s criticizing. He is taking swings at an omnipresent orthodoxy of creepily consistent spin and bias, while also sometimes stretching the truth himself. So now, having given all those caveats - this book is not a good guide to the truth on complicated social science questions. It avoids actual lies, while presenting one side of a two-sided case, sometimes so much so that I feel comfortable characterizing it as misrepresentation. As long as there are two scientists in the world who agree with San Fransicko, it’s “Here’s what scientists say…”. If there is one statistic that supports a point and five that oppose it, you can guess which one the book brings up.
- I still feel conflicted on this without really being able to verbalize why. Maybe something like: these are profound psychological truths, but their failure mode is to be reduced to preachiness and haranguing. And in a book called San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, there’s almost no way not to have them sound like preachiness and haranguing. It’s like how calling out injustice and highlighting the cruelty of those who ignore the less fortunate is all nice and well when Victor Hugo does it - but if the book is by Rachel Maddow, I am just going to skip those parts.
- I’m even more torn on the other civil rights question the book confronts, whether homeless people who don’t like shelters should be allowed to camp in tents. The libertarian reluctance to provide free health care has a very understandable justification: it wasn’t the government or the taxpayers who made you sick, so they have no obligation to make you healthy again. But ten thousand years ago , before there were governments or private property at all, anyone could sleep wherever they wanted, without having to work forty hour weeks to pay money to landlords, or limiting themselves to a few shelters. If the government bans people from sleeping on land, that’s making them worse than if the government didn’t exist at all; it’s a violation of their pre-existing rights. Some amount of this is unavoidable if you accept private property. But the idea that people can’t be anywhere at all, and must agree to be warehoused in a crowded and unpleasant shelter, seems like another, much higher level of imposition. The way I cut through both these problems is to have a high tolerance for people doing what they want, but a low tolerance for them impinging on the rights of others. I’m fine with a compromise where people can camp on public land, but if they start harassing people or piling up trash, the government can take action. This probably means Shellenberger and I agree on most real-world cases, but I remain invested in the tiny sliver of moral difference between our positions.
- The average person isn’t victimized by crime very often. There are about 1000 robberies a year in San Francisco (I think this is like mugging?), and another 1000 assaults. There are about 7000 homeless people - not all of them are criminals or addicts, but presumably there are a lot of criminals/addicts with houses, so let’s say a total of 20,000 people in this group. For the sake of argument, stricter policies will make half of them find God, and the other half will need to be forced into shelters/prisons/hospitals. And for the sake of argument, let’s say this ends all violent crime in San Francisco. You’d be institutionalizing 10,000 people a year, to prevent 2000 violent crimes a year. Even accepting that violent crimes are traumatizing and really bad, this doesn’t seem very utilitarian - being the victim of a violent crime would have to be 5x as bad as being forced to spend a year in an institution.
- Maybe this is thinking about it wrong. Being in crime-filled scary ghettos really negatively affects people’s quality of life. If “cleaning up the city” removed half of the quality-of-life difference between poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, that would be a really big deal for a lot of poor people. I think this would matter a lot - that most of the damage from urban dysfunction isn’t overt crime. It’s litter, graffiti, literal broken windows, parks that smell like marijuana and are strewn with used needles. People blasting loud music in public places or residential streets at all hours of the night. People staying away from mass transit transportation or public parks or any public spaces at all because they know they’ll be yelled at and harassed or just have to deal with a low-grade miasma of disgust over everything, preventing a real Jane-Jacobs-style civic life from ever taking shape. Class segregation, because anyone who can get out of the dysfunctional areas is desperate to do that. The fall of civic pride, because cities get hard to be proud of. If there are 100,000 San Franciscans who live in bad areas, and “cleaning up the cities” improved their quality of life 10%, and institutionalization lowers 10,000 people’s quality of life by 50%, that could . . . potentially work out? (I think the big assumption here that worries me the most is that homeless/hardened criminals/addicts are responsible for most of the noise/litter/graffiti/minor crime/quality-of-life decrease, as opposed to just ordinary people who are jerks. I’m not sure how much institutionalizing the worst 10,000 people would or wouldn’t improve the inner cities.)
- Beware What Sounds Insightful by Cedric Chin
- Ads Don’t Work That Way By Kevin Simler
- Axiology, Morality, Law by Slatestar
- Original Position (Wikipedia)
- Acceptance Parenting by Agnes Callard
- Why I Changed My Mind About The Caster Semenya Case by David Epstein
- You're Probably Using The Wrong Dictionary by J Somers
- The Most Interesting Thing I’ve Ever Read by Tom Morgan
Everything in Your Fridge Causes and Prevents Cancer by David Epstein
It wasn’t every sauna enthusiast who reaped the supposed protective effect against dementia; it was specifically those who used a sauna 9-12 times a month. Sauna bathers who hit the wooden bench 5-8 times a month — sorry, no effect. And those who went more than 12 times a month — again, no luck.
That should raise a caution flag in your head. When only a very specific subpopulation in a study experiences a benefit, it may indeed be that there is some extremely nuanced sweet spot. But it is more likely that the researchers collected a lot of data, which in turn allowed them to analyze many different correlations between sauna use and dementia; the more different analyses they can do, the more likely some of those analyses will generate false positives, just by statistical chance. And then, of course, those titillating positive results are the ones that end up at the top of the paper, and in the press release.
Here’s the point I want to hammer home: when you see a tantalizing health headline — like that saunas prevent dementia — keep an eye out for indications that the effect only applies to specific subgroups of the study population. Even if the headline is very authoritative, revealing nuggets are often buried lower in the story.
I want to stress that you shouldn’t assume the sauna results can’t possibly be true. But when you see Bears-undefeated-in-alternate-jerseys type conclusions — and someone is claiming one thing causes the other — you should hold out for more evidence.
Epstein also describes how “pre-registration” is used to combat multiple comparisons, data mining, and the high degree of freedom researchers have which when combined with bad incentives lead to the trope that “studies show...” is almost always a phrase followed by bs.
Education Doesn’t Work 2.0 by Freddie deBoer
- Relative position is mostly fixed even if on an absolute basis learning happens
- The present study shows that individual differences in educational achievement are highly stable across the years of compulsory schooling from primary through secondary school. Children who do well at the beginning of primary school also tend to do well at the end of compulsory education for much the same reasons. This is the finding of all such research.
- The kids in the top reading group at age 8 are probably going to college. The kids in the bottom reading group probably aren’t. This offends people’s sense of freedom and justice, but it is the reality in which we live.
- Within a cohort such as race, variation comes from an individual intrinsic qualities. Environmental reasons explain variation between cohorts
- absolute learning can happen. Formal education in and of itself does have durable and real improvements to intelligence. (The child care function of public schooling has also been transformative and progressive.) Doesn’t that disprove the point of this piece? Look at learning loss from Covid. Doesn’t that prove education works? Not in the sense I mean, no. Again, the question is not whether schooling helps individuals gain absolute knowledge or skills, but whether it can close relative gaps. If school works generically well across ability levels, it can’t. Formal education has real benefits. The trouble is that most everybody goes to school and enjoys those benefits, so the power of schooling to establish durable changes in relative position on the ability spectrum is limited. (And lower-performing people self-select out of higher education, which accelerates their being left behind.)
- And, yes, to repeat myself, absolute learning can happen. Formal education in and of itself does have durable and real improvements to intelligence. (The child care function of public schooling has also been transformative and progressive.) Doesn’t that disprove the point of this piece? Look at learning loss from Covid. Doesn’t that prove education works? Not in the sense I mean, no. Again, the question is not whether schooling helps individuals gain absolute knowledge or skills, but whether it can close relative gaps. If school works generically well across ability levels, it can’t. Formal education has real benefits. The trouble is that most everybody goes to school and enjoys those benefits, so the power of schooling to establish durable changes in relative position on the ability spectrum is limited. (And lower-performing people self-select out of higher education, which accelerates their being left behind.) Compulsory education is a double-edged sword if you’re interested in shaking up who’s on top and who’s on the bottom. As I suggested above, if you were really maniacally focused on closing relative gaps, you’d just prevent the higher achievers from attending school at all.
All of this suggests that there is something innate or inherent to academic ability. (Which again does not necessarily imply that this factor is genetic.) Many will reply to this essay by saying that just because something is innate does not mean that it is unchangeable. This is true, and I haven’t and wouldn’t say educational outcomes are permanently immutable. The question is, what can we do from the perspective of the system that would work to “fix our schools,” to achieve the (remarkably vague) education-driven social outcomes politicians and policy types want? How would we close the gaps?
The kind of intervention we would need has to
- Have a meaningful influence on academic outcomes where so many others have failed
- Be reliable, replicable, and scalable to a vast degree
- Cost little enough that the administration of this intervention is economically and politically feasible
- Somehow apply only to the students who are struggling or any subset thereof, and not to the students who are already flourishing, or else allow for us to prevent the parents of flourishing students from accessing this intervention for their own kids, lest we merely advance the whole student population forward but preserve the current relative distribution that determines professional and monetary rewards under meritocracy.
I quote James Heckman, the same James Heckman who co-authored the Denmark paper and the problematic pre-K health outcomes paper. Ten years ago he wrote
Gaps arise early and persist. Schools do little to budge these gaps even though the [perceived -ed.] quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes…. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps.
I would argue that, in the years since, the evidence that academic hierarchies are essentially static has only grown.
I will not attempt to spell out the political and policy repercussions of this reality here. The Cult of Smart is a book-length version of this argument that includes long sections describing both more practical educational reforms and broader society-level changes that could better protect those who are on the bottom of the academic performance spectrum. You may disagree with some or all of those proposals as you like. But they are an honest attempt to wrestle with a basic reality of education and society that politicians and wonks are not allowed to address plainly because of misguided fears about the consequences of this thinking. The evidence is clear: immense efforts in educational interventions have utterly failed to close performance gaps, and vast expenditures in education have failed to close socioeconomic gaps. It’s time to try dramatically different approaches, and it’s time to demand that people in the policy world accept reality.
Education is a good in and of itself, but the impact of education on the economy will always be most salient in political debates. By some metrics, the fastest-growing occupation in America is not programmer or microbiologist but home health aid. The job doesn’t require a college education. The median wage is $27,000 a year. Our system’s message to all of those people who will spend their days helping keep our elderly alive for poverty wages is, well, hey. Should have done better in school. Maybe the first step in doing better for them is recognizing that most of them never had a choice. But if you’re really dead set on education as the key to improving the economic fortunes of the disadvantaged, and you don’t think we can or should redistribute our way to a more just and equal society, and you’re fixated on moving kids from the bottom of the academic performance spectrum to the top, what can we do? What works? Nothing
Hard Work For My Kid, Not for Yours by Freddie deBoer
But there’s something profoundly disquieting about the vast divide between the political ideals articulated by our liberal educated class and the way they live their own lives, the way they teach their children to live theirs. In any other context, white people conspiring to deny children of color the same tools that they used to succeed themselves would be seen as flatly racist. Wouldn’t it?
Yes, we must recognize that we are dealt unequal hands in life, and advocate for using political tools to help account for this inequality. We could all stand to be more aware of the influence of structures of oppression and chance in our lives. But there’ no conflict between doing so and teaching our children to maximize their position within the broken old system while we labor to build the new. Even if we each have a certain level of potential in any given field, we can rise to meet that potential or not based in part on our environment and yes, our choices. To which degree, who can say? None of us knows the degree to which we are really in control of our destiny. But maybe we should ask ourselves how we might be hurting the futures of underprivileged children when we convince them that they have no control over theirs.
Pairs well with the Success Paradox:
I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup by Slatestarcodex
We started by asking: millions of people are conspicuously praising every outgroup they can think of, while conspicuously condemning their own in-group. This seems contrary to what we know about social psychology. What’s up? We noted that outgroups are rarely literally “the group most different from you”, and in fact far more likely to be groups very similar to you sharing almost all your characteristics and living in the same area. We then noted that although liberals and conservatives live in the same area, they might as well be two totally different countries or universe as far as level of interaction were concerned. Research suggests Blue Tribe / Red Tribe prejudice to be much stronger than better-known types of prejudice like racism…Spending your entire life insulting the other tribe and talking about how terrible they are makes you look, well, tribalistic. It is definitely not high class. So when members of the Blue Tribe decide to dedicate their entire life to yelling about how terrible the Red Tribe is, they make sure that instead of saying “the Red Tribe”, they say “America”, or “white people”, or “straight white men”. That way it’s humble self-criticism. . They are so interested in justice that they are willing to critique their own beloved side much as it pains them to do so.
So how virtuous, how noble the Blue Tribe! Perfectly tolerant of all of the different groups that just so happen to be allied with them, never intolerant unless it happen to be against intolerance itself. Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that awful Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing their own culture and striving to make it better! Sorry. But I hope this is at least a little convincing. The weird dynamic of outgroup-philia and ingroup-phobia isn’t anything of the sort. It’s just good old-fashioned in-group-favoritism and outgroup bashing, a little more sophisticated and a little more sneaky.
I can think of criticisms of my own tribe. Important criticisms, true ones. But the thought of writing them makes my blood boil. If you think you’re criticizing your own tribe, and your blood is not at that temperature, consider the possibility that you aren’t. But if I want Self-Criticism Virtue Points, criticizing the Grey Tribe is the only honest way to get them. The best thing that could happen to this post is that it makes a lot of people, especially myself, figure out how to be more tolerant. Not in the “of course I’m tolerant, why shouldn’t I be?” sense of the Emperor in Part I. But in the sense of “being tolerant makes me see red, makes me sweat blood, but darn it I am going to be tolerant anyway .”
- Gwern bit about being against witches is easy if you don't believe in witches.
- CS Lewis quote CS Lewis: You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.
An Interview with Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Playbook by David Epstein
All our lives, we’re taught that you have to build up trust before you can be vulnerable. Icebreakers are proof that we’ve got it exactly backwards. Moments of vulnerability, when shared, ignite connection.
- “Fear in a Hat” exercise: a group of incoming students write down their fears anonymously on slips of paper, and then take turns pulling each fear out and reading them aloud.
- 4 Hs Exercies: In groups of 4-6, and ask everybody to take a few minutes to reflect silently on four questions: 1) Who is your biggest hero? 2) What was your biggest heartbreak? 3) What is your family history? 4) What is your hope for the coming year?
“Belonging cues” are the connective tissue for the group brain
You know that warm, energizing feeling you get when you’re in a good group? That buzz of connection, creativity, and possibility? What you’re actually feeling is psychological safety. And psychological safety doesn’t just happen — it’s built through the continual exchange of belonging cues. Belonging cues are small, repeated behaviors that send a clear signal: You matter. I hear you. We care. We share a future. [This is an important precursor to honest debate or what Todd Simkin called a culture of truth-seeking]
Safety is not about wrapping people in fleece and making them comfortable. Rather it’s about creating conditions where you can be uncomfortable together. Where minority viewpoints are unafraid to speak up and be heard. So on a deeper level it’s really about curiosity and humility. In great groups, people aren’t behaving like rugged individualists; to the contrary, they’re always looking for opportunities to give and receive help.
Great cultures actually contain more tension. Because people aren’t afraid to disagree, to argue energetically about big issues — then go out for a beer. Because the relationships are strong enough to explore hard problems together. In weak cultures, you get what I call Smoothness Disease — that tendency to want to pretend that everything is good. To walk past disagreements. To pretend that everything is good when it really isn’t.
The feeling of being in a great culture isn’t smoothness — it’s the feeling of solving hard problems with people you admire. That’s a special feeling, and it’s the reason that people inside great cultures love it so much.
No silver bullet but some ideas:
- Toggling approach: alternate between remote and in-person, treating in-person work as a booster shot. Toggling keeps the relationships real.
- Bucketing: Divide your work into two buckets: productive and creative. For productive work, it’s fine to work remotely. After all, you’re just cranking away. For creative work, however, studies show that it’s more effective to be in person.
The most magical culture-building words ever invented: TELL ME MORE
When a colleague brings you a problem resist that overwhelming temptation to add value, to share wisdom, to fix things. Then, say the most magical culture-building words ever invented: TELL ME MORE.