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Posted by Scott Alexander

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run – but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world….There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.

— Hunter S. Thompson

Effective altruism is the movement devoted to finding the highest-impact ways to help other people and the world. Philosopher William MacAskill described it as “doing for the pursuit of good what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth”. They have an annual global conference to touch base and discuss strategy. This year it was in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and I got a chance to check it out.
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The lake-fringed monumental neoclassical architecture represents ‘utilitiarian distribution of limited resources’

The official conference theme was “Doing Good Together”. The official conference interaction style was “earnest”. The official conference effectiveness level was “very”. And it was impossible to walk away from some of the talks without being impressed.

Saturday afternoon there was a talk by some senior research analysts at GiveWell, which researches global development charities. They’ve evaluated dozens of organizations and moved $110 million to the most effective, mostly ones fighting malaria and parasitic infections. Next were other senior research analysts from the Open Philanthropy Project, who have done even more detailed effectiveness investigations and moved about $200 million.

The parade went on. More senior research analysts. More nine-digit sums of money. More organizations, all with names that kind of blended together. The Center for Effective Altruism. The Center For Effective Global Action. Raising For Effective Giving. Effecting Effective Effectiveness. Or maybe not, I think I was hallucinating pretty hard by the end.
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I figured the speaker named “Cashdollar” was a hallucination, but she’s right there on the website

One of the breakout rooms had all-day career coaching sessions with 80,000 Hours (motto: “You have 80,000 hours in your career. Make the right career choices, and you can help solve the world’s most pressing problems”). A steady stream of confused altruistic college students went in, chatted with a group of coaches, and came out knowing that the latest analyses show that management consulting is a useful path to build charity-leading-relevant skills, but practicing law and donating the money to charity is probably less useful than previously believed. In their inevitable effectiveness self-report, they record having convinced 188 people to change their career plans as of April 2015.

(I had been avoiding the 80,000 Hours people out of embarassment after their career analyses discovered that being a doctor was low-impact, but by bad luck I ended up sharing a ride home with one of them. I sheepishly introduced myself as a doctor, and he said “Oh, so am I!” I felt relieved until he added that he had stopped practicing medicine after he learned how low-impact it was, and gone to work for 80,000 Hours instead.)

The theater hosted a “fireside chat” with Bruce Friedrich, director of the pro-vegetarian Good Food Institute. I’d heard he was a former vice-president of PETA, so I went in with some stereotypes. They were wrong. Friedrich started by admitting that realistically most people are going to keep eating meat, and that yelling at them isn’t a very effective way to help animals. His tactic was to advance research into plant-based and vat-grown meat alternatives, which he predicted would taste identical to regular meat at a fraction of the cost, and which would put all existing factory farms out of business. Afterwards a bunch of us walked to a restaurant a few blocks down the street to taste an Impossible Burger, the vanguard of this brave new meatless future.
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The people behind this ad are all PETA card-carrying vegetarians. And the future belongs to them, and they know it.

The whole conference was flawlessly managed, from laser-fast registration to polished-sounding speakers to friendly unobtrusive reminders to use the seventeen different apps that would keep track of your conference-related affairs for you. And the of course the venue, which really was amazing.
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The full-size model of the Apollo 11 lander represents ‘utilitiarian distribution of limited resources’

But walk a little bit outside of the perfectly-scheduled talks, or linger in the common areas a little bit after the colorfully-arranged vegetarian lunches, and you run into the shadow side of all of this, the hidden underbelly of the movement.

William MacAskill wanted a “scientific revolution in doing good”. But the Scientific Revolution progressed from “I wonder why apples fall down” to “huh, every particle is in an infinite number of places simultaneously, and also cats can be dead and alive at the same time”. The effective altruists’ revolution started with “I wonder if some charities work better than others”. But even at this early stage, it’s gotten to some pretty weird places.

I got to talk to some people from Wild Animal Suffering Research. They start with the standard EA animal rights argument – if you think animals have moral relevance, you can save zillions of them for almost no cost. A campaign for cage-free eggs, minimal in the grand scheme of things, got most major corporations to change their policies and gave two hundred million chickens an improved quality of life. But WASR points out that even this isn’t the most neglected cause. There are up to a trillion reptiles, ten quintillion insects, and maybe a sextillion zooplankton. And as nasty as factory farms are, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, short, and prone to having parasitic wasps paralyze you so that their larvae can eat your organs from the inside out while you are still alive. WASR researches ways we can alleviate wild animal suffering, from euthanizing elderly elephants (probably not high-impact) to using more humane insecticides (recommended as an ‘interim solution’) to neutralizing predator species in order to relieve the suffering of prey (still has some thorny issues that need to be resolved).

Wild Animal Suffering Research was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Altruism Global.

I got to talk to people from the Qualia Research Institute, who point out that everyone else is missing something big: the hedonic treadmill. People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is – unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others – and then add that on to every other mental state directly. This isn’t quite the dreaded wireheading, the widely-feared technology that will make everyone so doped up on techno-super-heroin (or direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers) that they never do anything else. It’s a rewiring of the brain that creates a “perpetual but varied bliss” that “reengineers the network of transition probabilities between emotions” while retaining the capability to do economically useful work. Partly this last criteria is to prevent society from collapsing, but the ultimate goal is:

…the possibility of a full-fledged qualia economy: when people have spare resources and are interested in new states of consciousness, anyone good at mining the state-space for precious gems will have an economic advantage. In principle the whole economy may eventually be entirely based on exploring the state-space of consciousness and trading information about the most valuable contents discovered doing so.

If you’re wondering whether these people’s research involves taking huge amounts of drugs – well, read their blog. My particular favorites are this essay on psychedelic cryptography ie creating messages that only people on certain drugs can read, and this essay on hyperbolic geometry in DMT experiences.
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The guy on the right also works for MealSquares, a likely beneficiary of technology that hacks directly into people’s brains and adds artificial positive valence to unpleasant experiences.

The Qualia Research Institute was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Altruism Global.

I got to talk to some people from the Foundational Research Institute. They do a lot of research, and a lot of it is very good, but they’re most infamous within the community for their particle work. It goes like this: the universe is really really big. So if suffering made up an important part of the structure of the universe, this would be so tremendously outrageously unconscionably bad that we can’t even conceive of how bad it could be. So the most important cause might be to worry about whether fundamental physical particles are capable of suffering – and, if so, how to destroy physics. From their writeup:

Speculative scenarios to change the long-run future of physics may dominate any concrete work to affect the welfare of intelligent computations — at least within the fraction of our brain’s moral parliament that cares about fundamental physics. The main value (or disvalue) of intelligence would be to explore physics further and seek out tricks by which its long-term character could be transformed. For instance, if false-vacuum decay did look beneficial with respect to reducing suffering in physics, civilization could wait until its lifetime was almost over anyway (letting those who want to create lots of happy and meaningful intelligent beings run their eudaimonic computations) and then try to ignite a false-vacuum decay for the benefit of the remainder of the universe (assuming this wouldn’t impinge on distant aliens whose time wasn’t yet up). Triggering such a decay might require extremely high-energy collisions — presumably more than a million times those found in current particle accelerators — but it might be possible. On the other hand, such decay may happen on its own within billions of years, suggesting little benefit to starting early relative to the cosmic scales at stake. In any case, I’m not suggesting vacuum decay as the solution — just that there may be many opportunities like it waiting to be found, and that these possibilities may dwarf anything else that happens with intelligent life.

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This talk was called ‘Christians In Effective Altruism’. It recommended reaching out to churches, because deep down the EA movement and people of faith share the same core charitable values and beliefs.

The thing is, Lovecraft was right. He wrote:

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Morality wasn’t supposed to be like this. Most of the effective altruists I met were nonrealist utilitarians. They don’t believe in some objective moral law imposed by an outside Power. They just think that we should pursue our own human-parochial moral values effectively. If there was ever a recipe for a safe and milquetoast ethical system, that should be it. And yet once you start thinking about what morality is – really thinking, the kind where you try to use mathematical models and formal logic – it opens up into these dark eldritch vistas of infinities and contradictions. The effective altruists started out wanting to do good. And they did: whole nine-digit-sums worth of good, spreadsheets full of lives saved and diseases cured and disasters averted. But if you really want to understand what you’re doing – get past the point where you can catch falling apples, to the point where you have a complete theory of gravitation – you end up with something as remote from normal human tenderheartedness as the conference lunches were from normal human food.
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Born too late to eat meat guilt-free, born too early to get the technology that hacks directly into my brain and adds artificial positive valence to unpleasant experiences.

But I worry I’m painting a misleading picture here. It isn’t that effective altruism is divided into two types of people: the boring effective suits, and the wacky explorers of bizarre ethical theories. I mean, there’s always going to be some division. But by and large these were the same people, or at least you couldn’t predict who was who. They would go up and give a talk about curing river blindness in Nigeria, and then you’d catch them later and learn that they were worried that maybe the most effective thing was preventing synthetic biology from taking over the ecosystem. Or you would hear someone give their screed, think “what a weirdo”, and then learn they were a Harvard professor who served on a bunch of Fortune 500 company boards. Maybe the right analogy would be physics. A lot of physicists work on practical things like solar panels and rechargeable batteries. A tiny minority work on stranger things like wormholes and alternate universes. But it’s not like these are two different factions in physics that hate each other. And every so often a solar panel engineer might look into the math behind alternate universes, or a wormhole theorist might have opinions on battery design. They’re doing really different stuff, but it’s within the same tradition.

The movement’s unofficial leader is William MacAskill. He’s a pretty typical overachiever – became an Oxford philosophy professor at age 28 (!), founded three successful non-profits, and goes around hobnobbing with rich people trying to get them to donate money (he himself has pledged to give away everything he earns above $36,000). I had always assumed he was just a random dignified suit-wearing person who was slightly exasperated at having to put up with the rest of the movement. But I got a chance to talk to him – just for a few minutes, before he had to run off and achieve something – and I was shocked at how much he knew about all the weirdest aspects of the community, and how protective he felt of them. And in his closing speech, he urged the attendees to “keep EA weird”, giving examples of times when seemingly bizarre ideas won out and became accepted by the mainstream.
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His PowerPoint slide for this topic was this picture of Eliezer Yudkowsky. Really. I’m not joking about this part.

If it were just the senior research analysts at their spreadsheets, we could dismiss them as the usual Ivy League lizard people and move on. If it were just the fringes ranting about cyber-neuro-metaphilosophy, we could dismiss them as loonies and forget about it. And if it were just the two groups, separate and doing their own thing, we could end National Geographic-style, intoning in our best David Attenborough voice that “Effective Altruism truly is a land of contrasts”. But it’s more than that. Some animating spirit gives rise to the whole thing, some unifying aesthetic that can switch to either pole and back again on a whim. After a lot of thought, I have only one guess about what it might be.

I think the effective altruists are genuinely good people.

Over lunch, a friend told me about his meeting with an EA philosopher who hadn’t been able to make it to the conference. This friend had met the philosopher, and as they were walking, the philosopher had stopped to pick up worms writhing on the sidewalk and put them back in the moist dirt.

And this story struck me, because I had taken a walk with one of the speakers earlier, and seen her do the same thing. She had been apologetic, said she knew it was a waste of her time and mine. She’d wondered if it was pathological, whether maybe she needed to be checked for obsessive compulsive disorder. But when I asked her whether she wanted to stop doing it, she’d thought about it a little, and then – finally – saved the worm.

And there was a story about the late great moral philosopher Derek Parfit, himself a member of the effective altruist movement. This is from Larissa MacFarquhar:

As for his various eccentricities, I don’t think they add anything to an understanding of his philosophy, but I find him very moving as a person. When I was interviewing him for the first time, for instance, we were in the middle of a conversation and suddenly he burst into tears. It was completely unexpected, because we were not talking about anything emotional or personal, as I would define those things. I was quite startled, and as he cried I sat there rewinding our conversation in my head, trying to figure out what had upset him. Later, I asked him about it. It turned out that what had made him cry was the idea of suffering. We had been talking about suffering in the abstract. I found that very striking.

Now, I don’t think any professional philosopher is going to make this mistake, but nonprofessionals might think that utilitarianism, for instance (Parfit is a utilitarian), or certain other philosophical ways of think about morality, are quite unemotional, quite calculating, quite cold; and so because as I am writing mostly for nonphilosophers, it seemed like a good corrective to know that for someone like Parfit these issues are extremely emotional, even in the abstract.

The weird thing was that the same thing happened again with a philosophy graduate student whom I was interviewing some months later. Now you’re going to start thinking it’s me, but I was interviewing a philosophy graduate student who, like Parfit, had a very unemotional demeanor; we started talking about suffering in the abstract, and he burst into tears. I don’t quite know what to make of all this but I do think that insofar as one is interested in the relationship of ideas to people who think about them, and not just in the ideas themselves, those small events are moving and important.

I imagine some of those effective altruists, picking up worms, and I can see them here too. I can see them sitting down and crying at the idea of suffering, at allowing it to exist.

Larissa MacFarquhar says she doesn’t know what to make of this. I think I sort of do. I’m not much of an effective altruist – at least, I’ve managed to evade the 80,000 Hours coaches long enough to stay in medicine. But every so often, I can see the world as they have to. Where the very existence of suffering, any suffering at all, is an immense cosmic wrongness, an intolerable gash in the world, distressing and enraging. Where a single human lifetime seems frighteningly inadequate compared to the magnitude of the problem. Where all the normal interpersonal squabbles look trivial in the face of a colossal war against suffering itself, one that requires a soldier’s discipline and a general’s eye for strategy.

All of these Effecting Effective Effectiveness people don’t obsess over efficiency out of bloodlessness. They obsess because the struggle is so desperate, and the resources so few. Their efficiency is military efficiency. Their cooperation is military discipline. Their unity is the unity of people facing a common enemy. And they are winning. Very slowly, WWI trench-warfare-style. But they really are.
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Sources and commentary here

And I write this partly because…well, it hasn’t been a great couple of weeks. The culture wars are reaching a fever pitch, protesters are getting run over by neo-Nazis, North Korea is threatening nuclear catastrophe. The world is a shitshow, nobody’s going to argue with that – and the people who are supposed to be leading us and telling us what to do are just about the shittiest of all.

And this is usually a pretty cynical blog. I’m cynical about academia and I’m cynical about medicine and goodness knows I’m cynical about politics. But Byron wrote:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me
But let us part fair foes; I do believe,
Though I have found them not, that there may be
Words which are things,—hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful, nor weave
Snares for the failing: I would also deem
O’er others’ griefs that some sincerely grieve;
That two, or one, are almost what they seem,
That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.

This seems like a good time to remember that there are some really good people. And who knows? Maybe they’ll win.

And one more story.

I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him pretty much what I’ve said here: the effective altruists seemed like great people, and I felt kind of guilty for not doing more.

He responded with the official party line, the one I’ve so egregiously failed to push in this blog post. That effective altruism is a movement of ordinary people. That its yoke is mild and it accepts everyone. That not everyone has to be a vegan or a career researcher. That a commitment could be something more like just giving a couple of dollars to an effective-seeming charity, or taking the Giving What We Can pledge, or signing up for the online newsletter, or just going to an local effective altruism meetup group and contributing to discussions.

And I said yeah, but still, everyone here seems so committed to being a good person – and then here’s me, constantly looking over my shoulder to stay one step ahead of the 80,000 Hours coaching team, so I can stay in my low-impact career that I happen to like.

And he said – no, absolutely, stay in your career right now. In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about altruism at all, because eventually you’ll work through your own problems, and figure yourself out, and then you’ll just naturally become an effective altruist.

And I tried to convince him that no, people weren’t actually like that, practically nobody was like that, maybe he was like that but if so he might be the only person like that in the entire world. That there were billions of humans who just started selfish, and stayed selfish, and never declared total war against suffering itself at all.

And he didn’t believe me, and we argued about it for ten minutes, and then we had to stop because we were missing the “Developing Intuition For The Importance Of Causes” workshop.

Rationality means believing what is true, not what makes you feel good. But the world has been really shitty this week, so I am going to give myself a one-time exemption. I am going to believe that convention volunteer’s theory of humanity. Credo quia absurdum; certum est, quia impossibile. Everyone everywhere is just working through their problems. Once we figure ourselves out, we’ll all become bodhisattvas and/or senior research analysts.

OT82: Threado Quia Absurdum

Aug. 13th, 2017 04:42 pm
[syndicated profile] slatestarcodex_feed

Posted by Scott Alexander

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

1. Comments of the week: CatCube on how organizations change over time, Douglas Knight’s update on self-driving car progress, Tibor on gun laws in the Czech Republic. And Brad explains why comments are closed on some posts here better than I could.

2. I’m off social media for the time being to avoid Discourse. If you need to contact me, try email – on a related note, sorry for being terrible about responding to emails.

3. I’ll be at the Effective Altruism Global conference today. Come say hi. If nothing else, I’ll be at the Rationalist Tumblr Meetup (at least briefly) and Katja Grace’s 5:50 talk on AI.

4. Does anyone have strong feelings about who would make a good SSC moderator? Does anyone actually read all the comments here well enough to moderate them?

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Posted by Scott Alexander

I.

Taking nootropics is an inherently questionable decision. The risk isn’t zero, and the benefits are usually subtle at best.

On the other hand, mountain-climbing also has risks, and is so devoid of benefit that the only excuse mountaineers can come up with is “because it’s there”. So whatever. If someone wants to do either – well, it’s a free country, and we all have to amuse ourselves somehow.

But even within this context, special caution is warranted for branded combination nootropics.

I wanted to make up a caricatured fake name for these sorts of things, so I could make fun of them without pointing at any company in particular. But all of the caricatured fake names I can think of turn out to be real products. MegaMind? Real. SuperBrain? Real. UltraBrain? Real. Mr. Power Brain? Real, for some reason.

Even the ones that don’t make sense are real. NeuroBrain? Real, even though one hopes that brains are always at least a little neuro. NeuroMind? Real, with its own Indiegogo campaign. The only thing I haven’t been able to find is a nootropic called BrainMind, but it’s only a matter of time.

These usually combine ten or twenty different chemicals with potential nootropic properties, then make outrageous claims about the results. For example, Neuroxium says on its ridiculous webpage that:

Neuroxium is a revolutionary brain supplement formulated to give you ultimate brain power. Known in Scientific Terms as a “NOOTROPIC” or “GENIUS PILL” Neuroxium improves mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, concentration and therefore happiness and success.

Your first warning sign should have been when they said “genius pill” was a scientific term (or as they call it, Scientific Term). If you needed more warning signs, this is word-for-word the same claim made by several other nootropics like Synagen IQ, Nootrox, and Cerebral X. So either they can’t even be bothered not to plagiarize their ads, or they change their name about once a week to stay ahead of the law.

I was eventually able to find a list of the ingredients in this stuff:

DMAE (dimethylethanolamine bitartrate), GABA (?-Amino-butyric acid), Caffeine anhydrous, Bacopa monnieri leaf extract, NALT (N-acetyl-L-tyrosine), Centrophenoxine HCl, Alpha-GPC (a-glycerophosphocholine, Agmatine sulfate, Gingko biloba leaf extract, Pine (Pinus pinaster) bark extract, Phosphatidylserine, Aniracetam, CDC Choline (Citicoline), Sarcosine (N-methylglycine), Vincamine [Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) aerial extract], L-Theanine (?-glutamylethylamide), NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), TAU (triacetyluridine), Noopept, Adrafinil, Tianeptine, Piperine [Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) fruit extract 445mg.

And the weird thing is, a lot of these are decent choices. Everyone knows caffeine is a good stimulant. Adrafinil is the over-the-counter version of modafinil, an FDA-approved medication for sleep disorders; many of my patients have been very happy with it. Bacopa monnieri has been found to improve memory in so many studies I can’t even keep track of all of them. Noopept is an approved medication in Russia. Tianeptine is an approved medication in France. All of these are chemicals with at least some evidence base behind them, which are potentially good for certain people. If some nootropics user were to say they wanted to try adrafinil, or bacopa, or noopept, or any of the other stuff on that list, I would classify them with the mountain climber – doing something risky but not necessarily stupid.

But taking Neuroxium/Synagen/CerebralX is exactly as bad an idea as you would expect from the advertising copy.

For one thing, they don’t list the doses of any of these things – but they have to be getting them terribly wrong. A standard dose of adrafinil is 600 mg. A standard dose of bacopa is 300 mg. A standard dose of Alpha-GPC choline is about 600 mg. So combining standard doses of just these three ingredients means you need a 1.5 g pill. This is probably too big to swallow. The only pills I know of that get that big are those gigantic fish oil pills made of pure fish oil that everybody hates because they’re uncomfortably big. But this is just what you’d need to have three of the 22 ingredients listed in CerebralX at full doses. The pill is already unswallowably large, and you’ve only gotten a seventh of the way through the ingredient list.

I conclude that they’re just putting miniscule, irrelevant doses into this so they can say they’ve got exciting-sounding chemicals.

For another thing, all of these substances have unique profiles which have to be respected on their own terms. For example, lots of studies say bacopa improves memory – but only after you’ve taken it consistently for several months. If you just go “WOOO, CEREBRALX!” and swallow a bunch of pills and hope that you’ll do better on your test tomorrow, all you’re going to get are the short-term effects of bacopa – which include lethargy and amotivation.

Most sources discussing Noopept recommend starting very low – maybe as low as 5 mg – and then gradually increasing to a standard dose of 10 – 40 mg depending on how it works for you. Some people will apparently need higher doses, and some find it works best for them as high as 100 mg. Needless to say, none of this is possible if you’re taking CerebralX. You’ll take whatever dose is in the product – which they don’t tell you, and which is probably so low as to be meaningless – and stay at the same level for however long you’re taking the entire monstrosity.

Tianeptine has a short half-life and is typically dosed three times a day, unlike most of the other things on the list which are dosed once per day. CerebralX says you should take their whole abomination once a day, which means you’re getting the wrong dosing schedule of tianeptine.

GABA, taken orally, doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and has no effect. The only way it could possibly make a difference – and even this is debatable – is if you join it to niacin to create the N-nicotinoyl-GABA molecule, which these people did not do. As a result, their GABA will be totally inert. This is probably for the best, because most of the things on their list are stimulants, and GABA is a depressant, so it would probably all just cancel out.

Piperine is a chemical usually used to inhibit normal drug-metabolizing enzymes and enhance the effect of other substances. This is very occasionally a good idea, when you know exactly what drug you’re trying to enhance and you’re not taking anything else concurrently. But I can’t figure out which drug they’re trying to enhance the activity of here, or even whether they’re trying to enhance the activity of anything at all, or if they just heard that piperine could enhance things and thought “Okay, it’s in”. And if I were giving someone a concoction of twenty-one different random psychoactive drugs, which I was dosing wrong and giving at the wrong schedule, the last thing I would want to do is inhibit the body’s normal drug metabolism. The entire reason God gave people drug-metabolizing enzymes is because He knew, in His wisdom, that some of them were going to be idiots who would take a concoction of twenty-one different random psychoactive drugs because a website said it was, in Scientific Terms, a “GENIUS PILL”. Turning them off is a terrible idea and the only saving grace is that the dose of everything in this monstrosity is probably too small for it to do anything anyway.

Taking any of the ingredients in CerebralX on its own is a potentially risky affair. But if you study up on it and make sure to take it correctly, then maybe it’s a calculated risk, like mountain climbing. Taking everything in CerebralX together is more like trying to mountain-climb in a t-shirt and sandals. You’re not taking a calculated risk as part of a potentially interesting hobby. You’re just being an idiot.

II.

But that’s too easy. I have a larger point here, which is that these sorts of branded combos are bad ideas even if they’re by smart, well-intentioned people who are doing everything right.

Tru-Brain is undeniably in a class above CerebralX. It has a team including neuroscience PhDs. It seems to be a real company that can keep the same name for more than a week. Instead of promising a GENIUS PILL, it makes comparatively modest claims to be able to “perform at your peak” and “stay sharp all day long”.

Correspondingly, its special nootropics combo makes a lot more pharmacological sense. For one thing, it’s a packet rather than a single pill – a concession to the impossibility of combining correct doses of many substances into a single capsule. For another, it limits itself to mostly things that some sane person could conceivably in some universe want to dose on the schedule they recommend. And it’s only got seven ingredients, none of which counteract any of the others or turn off important metabolic systems that God created to protect you from your own stupidity. This is probably about as well-designed a branded nootropics combo as it’s possible to make.

But I would still caution people away from it. Why?

Last year, I surveyed people’s reactions to various nootropics. I got 870 responses total, slightly fewer for each individual substance. Here are the response curves for two of the substances in TruBrain – piracetam and theanine:

These are on a 1-10 scale, where I directed responders to:

Please rate your subjective experience on a scale of 0 to 10. 0 means a substance was totally useless, or had so many side effects you couldn’t continue taking it. 1 – 4 means for subtle effects, maybe placebo but still useful. 5 – 9 means strong effects, definitely not placebo. 10 means life-changing.

Some substances known to be pretty inert averaged scores of around 4. Piracetam and theanine averaged around 5, so maybe a little better than that. But the most dramatic finding was the range. Almost 20% of people rated theanine a two or lower; almost 20% rated it a nine or higher. More than a third placed it in the “probably placebo” range, but 5% found its effects “life-changing”.

The effect of nootropics seems to vary widely among different people. This shouldn’t be surprising: so do the effects of real drugs. Gueorguieva and Mallinckrodt do an unusually thorough job modeling differences in response to the antidepressant duloxetine, and find a clear dichotomy between responders and nonresponders. This matches psychiatric lore – some medications work on some people, other medications work on others. I particularly remember one depressed patient who had no response at all to any SSRI, but whose depression shut off almost like a lightswitch once we tried bupropion. Other people fail bupropion treatment but do well on SSRIs. Probably this has something to do with underlying differences in their condition or metabolism that we just don’t know how to identify at this point (sample simplified toy model: what we call “depression” is actually two diseases with identical symptoms, one of which responds to SSRIs and one of which responds to bupropion).

I think this is why there are no multidrug combo packs. Your psychiatrist never treats your depression with a pill called “MegaMood”, boasting combination doses of Prozac, Wellbutrin, Remeron, and Desyrel. For one thing, either you’re giving an insufficient dose of each drug, or you’re giving full doses of four different drugs – neither is well-tested or advisable. For another, you’re getting four times the side effect risk. For a third thing, if one of the four drugs gives you a side effect, you’ve got to throw out the whole combo. For a fourth, if the combo happens to work, you don’t know whether it’s only one of the four drugs working and the others are just giving you side effects and making you worse. And if it sort of works, you don’t know which of the four drugs to increase, or else you just have to increase all four at once and hope for the best.

All these considerations are even stronger with nootropics. There shouldn’t be universally effective nootropics, for the same reason there’s no chemical you can pour on your computer to double its processing speed: evolution put a lot of work into making your brain as good as possible, and it would be silly if some random molecule could make it much better. Sure, there are exceptions – I think stimulants get a pass because evolution never expected people to have to pay attention to stimuli as boring as the modern world provides us with all the time – but in general the law holds. If you find a drug does significantly help you, it’s probably because your brain is broken in some particular idiosyncratic way (cf. mutational load), the same way you can double a computer’s processing speed with duct tape if one of the processors was broken.

If everyone’s brain is broken in a different way, then not only will no drug be universally effective, but drugs with positive effects for some people are likely to have negative effects for others. If (to oversimplify) your particular brain problem is not having enough serotonin, a serotonin agonist might help you. But by the same token, if you have too much serotonin, a serotonin agonist will make your life worse. Even if you have normal serotonin, maybe the serotonin agonist will push you out of the normal range and screw things up.

Most effective psychiatric drugs hurt some people. I mean, a lot of them hurt the people they’re supposed to be used for – even the psychotic people hate antipsychotics – but once you’ve brushed those aside, there are a lot of others that help a lot of people, but make other people feel worse. There are hordes of people who feel tired on stimulants, or sleepy on caffeine, or suicidal on antidepressants, or any other crazy thing. You rarely hear about these, because usually if someone’s taking a drug and it makes them feel worse, they stop. But psychiatrists hear about it all the time. “That antidepressant you gave me just made me feel awful!” Oh, well, try a different one. “That’s it? Try a different one? Aren’t you embarassed that your so-called antidepressant made me more depressed?” You’re pretty new to this ‘psychopharmacology’ thing, aren’t you?

Thus the tactic used by every good psychiatrist: try a patient on a drug that you think might work, make them report back to you on whether it does. If so, keep it; if not, switch.

If you take a seven-drug combo pack, you lose this opportunity for experiment. Suppose that two of the drugs make you feel +1 unit better, two others have no effect, and three of the drugs make you feel -0.5 units worse, so in the end you feel +0.5 units better. Maybe that seems good to you so you keep taking it. Now you’re taking five more drugs than you need to, including three making you actively worse, and you’re missing the chance to be a full +2 units better by just taking the drugs that are helping and not hurting.

You’re also missing the opportunity to play with the doses or the schedules of things. Maybe if you doubled the dose of one of the drugs making you +1 better, you could be +2 better, but if you double the dose of the other, you start getting side effects and the drug only breaks even. If you experiment, you can figure this out and take twice the dose of the first and the starting dose of the second, for +3 better. Taking them all as part of a combo ruins this: if you try taking twice the dose of the combo, nothing happens.

(And a special word of warning: if some stimulant product combines caffeine with something else, and you feel an effect, your first theory should be that the effect is 100% caffeine – unless the “something else” is amphetamine. There are like a million products which bill themselves as “organic energy cocktails” by combining caffeine with some rare herb from Burma. People drink these and say “Oh, this high feels so much more intense than just drinking caffeine”. Yeah, that’s because it’s much more caffeine. Seriously. Check the doses on those things. I will grudgingly make an exception for some chemicals that are supposed to decrease caffeine jitters, like theanine, which might have a real effect. But the stimulation is from caffeine. Go get an espresso instead.)

III.

But don’t drugs interact? Instead of viewing these seven drugs as seven different variables, shouldn’t we view them as coming together in a seven-color beautiful rainbow of happiness, or whatever?

Once again, I can only appeal to psychiatry, which is still unsure whether there are any useful interactions between its various super-well-studied drugs which it’s been using for decades and prescribing to millions of people. Take the CO-MED study, which combined the popular SSRI escitalopram with the popular NDRI bupropion. Since depression seems to involve abnormalities in the three major catecholamine systems, and escitalopram hits one of these and bupropion hits the other two, this seems like exactly the sort of synergistic interaction we should expect to work. It doesn’t. CO-MED found that the two antidepressants together didn’t treat depression any better than either one alone, let alone produce some synergy that made them more than the sum of their parts. They did, however, have about twice as many side effects.

Other smaller studies say the opposite, so I’m not saying never try escitalopram and bupropion together. I’m saying we don’t know. These are intensely-studied drugs, the whole power of the existing system has been focused on the question of whether they synergize or antisynergize or what, and we’re still not sure.

Also from psychiatry: we know a lot less about the mechanisms of action of drugs than we like to think. Ketamine has been intensively studied for depression for a decade or so, and we only just learned last year that it probably worked on a different receptor than we thought. SSRIs might be the most carefully studied drug class of all time, and we still don’t really know exactly what’s up with them – it can’t just be serotonin; they increase serotonin within a day of ingestion, but take a month to work.

So when people take these incredibly weird substances that have barely been studied at all, where we have only the faintest clue how they work, and then say from their armchair “And therefore, drug A will enhance the effects of drug B and C” – this is more than a little arrogant. Is it all made up? I can’t say “all” with surety. But it might be.

The best-known and most-discussed interaction in nootropics is piracetam-choline. Piracetam increases levels of acetylcholine, which is formed from choline, so it makes sense that these two substances would go well together. Most sites on piracetam urge you to take them together. TruBrain, which predictably is on top of this kind of stuff, combines them together in its combo pack.

But there’s never been a human study showing that this helps. Examine.com, another group which is usually on top of stuff, summarizes (emphasis carried over from original):

[Choline] may augment the relatively poor memory enhancing effects of Piracetam in otherwise healthy animals, but administration of choline alongside Piracetam is not a prerequisite to its efficacy and has not been tested in humans

I surveyed a bunch of choline users, using a little gimmick. Some of the forms of choline sold these days don’t cross the blood-brain barrier and shouldn’t have an effect, so they provide a sort of placebo control for more active forms of choline. In my survey, people who took piracetam with inactive forms of choline didn’t report any worse an experience than those who took the real thing.

This is the most famous and best-discussed interaction in the entire field of nootropics, and it’s on super-shaky ground. So trust me, the CerebralX people don’t have good evidence about the interactions of all twenty-one of their ridiculous substances.

I have to admit, I’m not confident in this part. Maybe psychiatry is wrong. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we just throw five different antidepressants with five different mechanisms of action at somebody at once. Realistically, maybe this would involve some supplements: l-methylfolate, SAMe, tryptophan, turmeric, and a traditional SSRI. One day I want to try this on someone I know well enough to let me test things on them, but not so well I don’t mind losing a friend when it all blows up in my face. Until then, keep in mind that anyone who says they bet a certain combination of things will produce a synergistic interaction is engaging in the wildest sort of speculation.

IV.

One more piece of evidence. The 2016 nootropics survey asked people to rate their experiences with 35 different individual substances, plus a branded combo pack (“AlphaBrain”) of pretty good reputation. The AlphaBrain performed worse than any of the individual substances, including substances that were part of AlphaBrain!

This is of course a very weak result – it wasn’t blinded, and maybe the survey responders have the same anti-branded-combo prejudice I do. But it at least suggests knowledgeable people in the nootropics community are really uncomfortable with this stuff.

90% of the people making branded combo nootropics are lying scum. A few, like TruBrain, seem like probably decent people trying to get it right – but are you confident you can tell them apart? And if you do manage to beat the odds and get something that’s not a complete pharmacological mess, aren’t you still just going to end up with an overpriced bundle of black boxes that won’t provide you with useful information, and which, empirically, everyone hates?

If you’re interested in nootropics, consider trying one substance at a time, very carefully, using something like examine.com to learn how to take it and what the possible side effects are. If you can, do what people like Gwern do and try it blind, mixing real pills with placebo pills over the space of a few weeks, so you can make sure it’s a real effect. If you find something that does have a real effect on you, treat that knowledge as a hard-won victory. Then, if you want to go from there, tentatively add a second chemical and test that one in the same way. Do this, and you have some small sliver of a chance of doing more good than harm, at least in the short term.

But if you’re going to order a combination of twenty different things at homeopathic doses from somebody who thinks “GENIUS PILL” is a Scientific Term – well, I hope it works, because you need it.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

I.

The lizard people of Alpha Draconis 1 decided to build an ansible.

The transmitter was a colossal tower of silksteel, doorless and windowless. Inside were millions of modular silksteel cubes, each filled with beetles, a different species in every cube. Big beetles, small beetles, red beetles, blue beetles, friendly beetles, venomous beetles. There hadn’t been a million beetle species on Alpha Draconis I before the ansible. The lizard people had genetically engineered them, carefully, lovingly, making each one just different enough from all the others. Atop each beetle colony was a heat lamp. When the heat lamp was on, the beetles crawled up to the top of the cage, sunning themselves, basking in the glorious glow. When it turned off, they huddled together to warmth, chittering out their anger in little infrasonic groans only they could hear.

The receiver stood on 11845 Nochtli, eighty-five light years from Alpha Draconis, toward the galactic rim. It was also made of beetles, a million beetle colonies of the same million species that made up the transmitter. In each beetle colony was a pheromone dispenser. When it was on, the beetles would multiply until the whole cage was covered in them. When it was off, they would gradually die out until only a few were left.

Atop each beetle cage was a mouse cage, filled with a mix of white and grey mice. The white mice had been genetically engineered to want all levers in the “up” position, a desire beyond even food or sex in its intensity. The grey mice had been engineered to want levers in the “down” position, with equal ferocity. The lizard people had uplifted both strains to full sapience. In each of a million cages, the grey and white mice would argue whether levers should be up or down – sometimes through philosophical debate, sometimes through outright wars of extermination.

There was one lever in each mouse cage. It controlled the pheromone dispenser in the beetle cage just below.

This was all the lizard people of Alpha Draconis 1 needed to construct their ansible.

They had mastered every field of science. Physics, mathematics, astronomy, cosmology. It had been for nothing. There was no way to communicate faster-than-light. Tachyons didn’t exist. Hyperspace didn’t exist. Wormholes didn’t exist. The light speed barrier was absolute – if you limited yourself to physics, mathematics, astronomy, and cosmology.

The lizard people of Alpha Draconis I weren’t going to use any of those things. They were going to build their ansible out of negative average preference utilitarianism.

II.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory claiming that an action is moral if it makes the world a better place. But what do we mean by “a better place”?

Suppose you decide (as Jeremy Bentham did) that it means increasing the total amount of happiness in the universe as much as possible – the greatest good for the greatest number. Then you run into a so-called “repugnant conclusion”. The philosophers quantify happiness into “utils”, some arbitrary small unit of happiness. Suppose your current happiness level is 100 utils. And suppose you could sacrifice one util of happiness to create another person whose total happiness is two utils: they are only 1/50th as happy as you are. This person seems quite unhappy by our standards. But crucially, their total happiness is positive; they would (weakly) prefer living to dying. Maybe we can imagine this as a very poor person in a war-torn Third World country who is (for now) not actively suicidal.

It would seem morally correct to make this sacrifice. After all, you are losing one unit of happiness to create two units, increasing the total happiness in the universe. In fact, it would seem morally correct to keep making the sacrifice as many times as you get the opportunity. The end result is that you end up with a happiness of 1 util – barely above suicidality – and also there are 99 extra barely-not-suicidal people in war-torn Third World countries.

And the same moral principles that lead you to make the sacrifice bind everyone else alike. So the end result is everyone in the world ends up with the lowest possible positive amount of happiness, plus there are billions of extra near-suicidal people in war-torn Third World countries.

This seems abstract, but in some sense it might be the choice on offer if we have to decide whether to control population growth (thus preserving enough resources to give everyone a good standard of living), or continue explosive growth so that there are many more people but not enough resources for any of them to live comfortably.

The so-called “repugnant conclusion” led many philosophers away from “total utilitarianism” to “average utilitarianism”. Here the goal is still to make the world a better place, but it gets operationalized as “increase the average happiness level per person”. The repugnant conclusion clearly fails at this, so we avoid that particular trap.

But here we fall into another ambush: wouldn’t it be morally correct to kill unhappy people? This raises average happiness very effectively!

So we make another amendment. We’re not in the business of raising happiness, per se. We’re in the business of satisfying preferences. People strongly prefer not to die, so you can’t just kill them. Killing them actively lowers the average number of satisfied preferences.

Philosopher Roger Chao combines these and other refinements of the utilitarian method into a moral theory he calls negative average preference utilitarianism, which he considers the first system of ethics to avoid all the various traps and pitfalls. It says: an act is good if it decreases the average number of frustrated preferences per person.

This doesn’t imply we should create miserable people ad nauseum until the whole world is a Third World slum. It doesn’t imply that we should kill everyone who cracks a frown. It doesn’t imply we should murder people for their organs, or never have children again, or replace everybody with identical copies of themselves, or anything like that.

It just implies faster-than-light transmission of moral information.

III.

The ansible worked like this:

Each colony of beetles represented a bit of information. In the transmitter on Alpha Draconis I, the sender would turn the various colonies’ heat lamps on or off, increasing or decreasing the average utility of the beetles.

In the receiver on 11845 Nochtli, the beetles would be in a constant state of half-light: warmer than the Draconis beetles if their heat lamp was turned off, but colder than them if their heat lamp was turned on. So increasing the population of a certain beetle species on 11845 Nochtli would be morally good if the heat lamp for that species on Alpha Draconis were off, but morally evil otherwise.

The philosophers among the lizard people of Alpha Draconis 1 had realized that this was true regardless of intervening distance; morality was the only force that transcended the speed of light. The question was how to detect it. Yes, a change in the heat lamps on their homeworld would instantly change the moral valence of pulling a lever on a colony 85 light-years away, but how to detect the morality of an action?

The answer was: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Over time, as the great debates of history ebb and sway, evil may not be conquered completely, but it will lessen. Our own generation isn’t perfect, but we have left behind much of the slavery, bigotry, war and torture, of the past; perhaps our descendants will be wiser still. And how could this be, if not for some benevolent general rule, some principle that tomorrow must be brighter than today, and the march of moral progress slow but inevitable?

Thus the white and grey rats. They would debate, they would argue, they would even fight – but in the end, moral progress would have its way. If raising the lever and causing an increase in the beetle population was the right thing to do, then the white rats would eventually triumph; if lowering the lever and causing the beetle population to fall was right, then the victory would eventually go to the grey. All of this would be recorded by a camera watching the mouse colony, and – lo – a bit of information would have been transmitted.

The ansible of the lizard people of Alpha Draconis 1 was a flop.

They spent a century working on it: ninety years on near-light-speed starships just transporting the materials, and a decade constructing the receiver according to meticulous plans. With great fanfare, the Lizard Emperor himself sent the first message from Alpha Draconis I. And it was a total flop.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends to justice. But nobody had ever thought to ask how long, and why. When everyone alike ought to love the good, why does it take so many years of debate and strife for virtue to triumph over wickedness? Why do war and slavery and torture persist for century after century, so that only endless grinding of the wheels of progress can do them any damage at all?

After eighty-five years of civilizational debate, the grey and white mice in each cage finally overcame their differences and agreed on the right position to put the lever, just as the mundane lightspeed version of the message from Alpha Draconis reached 11845 Nochtli’s radio telescopes. And the lizard people of Alpha Draconis 1 realized that one can be more precise than simply defining the arc of moral progress as “long”. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be to prevent faster-than-light transmission of moral information.

Fundamental physical limits are a harsh master.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

Benjamin Lay was a four-foot-tall Quaker abolitionist who, among other unusual forms of activism, kidnapped a slaveowner’s child to give them a taste of what slaves had to go through.

ProPublica: The Myth Of Drug Expiration Dates. Most drugs (strong exception for tetracyclines) are neither dangerous nor ineffective once expired. The idea of “drug expiration dates” is just bureaucratic boilerplate. It also costs health systems billions of dollars per year. And key quote: “ProPublica has been researching why the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world. One answer, broadly, is waste — some of it buried in practices that the medical establishment and the rest of us take for granted. We’ve documented how hospitals often discard pricey new supplies, how nursing homes trash valuable medications after patients pass away or move out, and how drug companies create expensive combinations of cheap drugs. Experts estimate such squandering eats up about $765 billion a year — as much as a quarter of all the country’s health care spending.”

xhxhxhxh: the research on what leads to intrastate conflict and rebellion. No effect for traditional worries like income inequality or ethnic polarization, etc. Mostly just bad economy and slow growth.

Vice: Everyone Hates Neoliberals, So We Talked To Some. What do self-described neoliberals identify as the core of their philosophy? Key quote from Samuel Hammond: “We are free market globalists, and evangelists of the amazing power of trade liberalization to create wealth, eliminate disease, lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and end the pre-conditions for war. At the same time, we are more pragmatic and consequentialist than our utopian and deontological libertarian counterparts… We believe free markets and commercial capitalism are the tools of social justice, rather than the enemy.”

Tengrism, the religion of Genghis Khan and other steppe nomads, is making a comeback in Central Asian republics looking for a suitably nationalist alternative to Islam.

Study: “Across four samples (including a nationally representative sample), we find that stronger obsessive-compulsive symptoms are associated with more right-wing ideological preferences, particularly for social issues.” This should probably be considered in context of Haidt’s work on the Purity foundation, and the Germ Theory Of Democracy.

How Class In China Became Politically Incorrect. Key quote: “Research by the University of Sydney’s David Goodman has found that around 84% of today’s elite are direct descendants of the elite from pre-1949. This suggests that six decades of Communism may not have a dramatic impact upon the elites”. Seen on Twitter with the commentary “Darwin beats Marx every time”.

From Rationalist Tumblr: those claims that medical error is the third-leading cause of death, kills 200,000 people every year, etc? Totally exaggerated. And most people interpret it as ‘number of stupid mistakes by doctors’ when it really means more like “the number of bad health outcomes that could be prevented with perfect god-like-omniscient understanding of all patents’ health situation”.

Andrew Gelman takes on James Heckman; read the comments for some good debate around Perry-Preschool-style interventions.

2016 election margin by district by population. Make sure to spin it around to get the full 3-D effect. This is the first graph I’ve seen that manages to combine two dimensions of space plus two extra variables in a really good instantly-readable way.

72 top researchers and statisticians (SSC readers might recognize Ioannidis, Wagenmakers, Nyhan, & Vazire) sign their names to a paper recommending the threshold for statistical significance be raised from p = 0.05 to p = 0.005 to decrease false positives and improve replicability. Some pushback from other statisticians involved in the replicability movement including Timothy Bates and (preemptively) Daniel Lakens. Both groups agree that it’s a hackish solution that ignores all the important subtleties around the question, but disagree on whether having something easy is at least better than nothing.

US Court Grants Journals Millions Of Dollars In Damages From Sci-Hub. It sure would be a shame if this caused a Streisand Effect where many more people became aware of the existence of Sci-Hub, a free and easy-to-use source for almost all otherwise-paywalled scientific papers, which by the way depends on reader donations to stay online.

Related study: Sci-Hub Provides Access To Nearly All Scholarly Literature. “As of March 2017, we find that Sci-Hub’s database contains 68.9% of all 81.6 million scholarly articles, which rises to 85.2% for those published in closed access journals….we estimate that over a six-month period in 2015–2016, Sci-Hub provided access for 99.3% of valid incoming requests. Hence, the scope of this resource suggests the subscription publishing model is becoming unsustainable.”

The Intercept: US Lawmakers Seek To Criminally Outlaw Support For Boycott Campaign Against Israel vs. Volokh Conspiracy: Israel Anti-Boycott Does Not Violate Free Speech. Some people on Rationalist Tumblr explained this to me: the bill says that Americans can’t join foreign anti-Israel boycotts, but doesn’t prevent them from starting their own, including ones that are exactly like the foreign ones and can’t be distinguished from them in any way. The bill’s proponents say that the only thing it does is prevent foreign countries from demanding American companies boycott Israel as a precondition to doing business there. I think the opposing argument is mostly that laws often get overapplied, and this one seems more overapplicable than most.

Machine Learning Applied To Initial Romantic Attraction: “Crucially [machine learning techniques] were unable to predict relationship variance using any combination of traits and preferences reported beforehand.” See also my previous post on this topic.

Study by Amir Sariaslan and others: after adjusting for unobserved familial risk factors, no link between poverty and crime.

Edge conversation on various things with Rory Sutherland. Starts with why art prices are so much more responsive to fame than architecture prices (a Picasso might cost a thousand times more than a less painter’s work; a Frank Lloyd Wright house costs 1-3% more than a house built by a nobody) and only gets better from there.

Hypermagical Ultraomnipotence: Why the tradeoffs constraining human cognition do not limit artificial superintelligences.

I was really excited about an upcoming depression treatment called NSI-189 that seemed to do everything right and had the potential to revolutionize the field. Well, it just failed its clinical trial.

First genetically-engineered human embryos in the US. Found it was possible to safely correct a defective gene without damaging the rest of the genome (and here’s the paper). The embryos were destroyed and not carried to term.

Freddie deBoer: Bernie Sanders Is A Socialist In Name Only. I really like this piece, and I was going to write it if nobody else did. Most of the policies being mooted by the supposedly socialist left today – Medicare-for-all, better social safety nets, et cetera – are well within the bounds of neoliberalism – ie private property and capitalist economies should exist, but the state should help poor people. “Socialism” should be reserved for systems that end private property and nationalize practically everything. I’m worried that people will use the success of neoliberal systems in eg Sweden to justify socialism, and then, socialism having been justified, promote actual-dictionary-definition socialism. To a first approximation, Sweden is an example of capitalists proving socialism isn’t necessary; Maoist China is an example of socialism actually happening.

Did you know: the first recorded evidence of Sanskrit comes from Syria, not India.

American Runners Are Getting Slower. Definitely see the r/slatestarcodex comment thread. A good example of ruling out a lot of possible confounding factors for a seemingly bizarre result – but I find the argument that the best athletes are moving into other sports more convincing than the article’s own nutritional theory.

Retailer apologizes after accidentally selling product saying “MY FAVORITE COLOR IS HITLER”.

Remember how everyone thought that, if we legalized euthanasia, it would be used as a tool to kill marginalized and oppressed people who couldn’t say no to it? Data after a year of California’s right-to-die law finds it’s disproportionately used by college-educated white men and concludes that Death Is A Social Privilege.

What jobs have the highest and lowest divorce rates? (conditional on being married in the first place). Key finding: everything math- and computer-related has much lower divorce rates than everything else.

Widespread Selection Of Positive Selection In Common Risk Alleles Associated With Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is pretty complicated, but I think what it’s saying is that in general, having autism risk genes increases your intelligence up until the point when you actually have autism, when you become vulnerable to all of the normal autism-related-cognitive-deficits. But this is probably very heterogenous across risk genes and other risk factors.

Israel working to shut down Al-Jazeera out of concerns about “encouraging terrorism”; pretty good example of how anything less than free-speech-absolutism can be circumvented by a sufficiently urgent-sounding plea. [EDIT: But see here]

Facebook shuts down an experimental language AI project, and the media goes crazy.Everyone on every side of the AI risk debate, from Eliezer Yudkowsky to Yann LeCun, wants to make it clear they think this is stupid and it has nothing to do with the position of any reasonable person.

An academic study into horseshoe theory? Authoritarianism and Affective Polarization: A New View on the Origins of Partisan Extremism finds that “strong Republicans and Democrats are psychologically similar, at least with respect to authoritarianism…these findings support a view of mass polarization as nonsubstantive and group-centric, not driven by competing ideological values or clashing psychological worldviews.” Okay, but you still need some explanation of how people choose which group to be in, right?

Single Dose Testosterone Administration Impairs Cognitive Reflection In Men. Note that “single dose testosterone” is very different from “having lots of testosterone chronically”, “being fetally exposed to testosterone”, “being genetically male”, and five million other things it would be easy to confuse this with.

The Hyderabad office of India’s Department of Fisheries.

British Medical Journal Global Health: new data available after the US invasion of Iraq conclusively determines that the claim that US sanctions starved thousands of Iraqi children was a lie deliberately spread by Saddam Hussein.

Congress passes “right to try” bill allowing terminally ill people to access not-yet-FDA-approved medications. Someone in the comments noted that there’s already a procedure for terminally ill individuals to appeal to the FDA to do this, and FDA approves 99% of such requests already. So not only is this mostly a symbolic victory, but one worries that the 1% of requests that aren’t approved might be pretty bad ideas. [EDIT: But see here]

j9461701 on the subreddit posts about the extreme male brain theory of autism, finding it mostly unconvincing. I mostly agree, though it’s important to remember that hormone differences can have varying and seemingly paradoxical effects depending on what level of the various metabolic processes they come in at.

In response to my question about why prediction markets aren’t used more, Daniel Reeves links me to a study of his offering a pretty simple response: yeah, they’re better than other things, but not much better, and they’re a lot more annoying to use.

Paper on empathy (via Rolf Degen): people with born with a condition that makes them unable to feel pain feel like other people are just weaklings who exaggerate their problems. Classify under “metaphors for life”.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

I.

An article by Adam Grant called Differences Between Men And Women Are Vastly Exaggerated is going viral, thanks in part to a share by Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg. It’s a response to an email by a Google employee saying that he thought Google’s low female representation wasn’t a result of sexism, but a result of men and women having different interests long before either gender thinks about joining Google. Grant says that gender differences are small and irrelevant to the current issue. I disagree.

Grant writes:

It’s always precarious to make claims about how one half of the population differs from the other half—especially on something as complicated as technical skills and interests. But I think it’s a travesty when discussions about data devolve into name-calling and threats. As a social scientist, I prefer to look at the evidence.

The gold standard is a meta-analysis: a study of studies, correcting for biases in particular samples and measures. Here’s what meta-analyses tell us about gender differences:

When it comes to abilities, attitudes, and actions, sex differences are few and small.

Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.

There are only a handful of areas with large sex differences: men are physically stronger and more physically aggressive, masturbate more, and are more positive on casual sex. So you can make a case for having more men than women… if you’re fielding a sports team or collecting semen.

The meta-analysis Grant cites is Hyde’s, available here. I’ve looked into it before, and I don’t think it shows what he wants it to show.

Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.

Then I go back to the person who says women have larger breasts and men are more likely to have penises, and I say “Ha, actually studies prove men and women are mostly physically identical! I sure showed you, you sexist!”

I worry that Hyde’s analysis plays the same trick. She does a wonderful job finding that men and women have minimal differences in eg “likelihood of smiling when not being observed”, “interpersonal leadership style”, et cetera. But if you ask the man on the street “Are men and women different?”, he’s likely to say something like “Yeah, men are more aggressive and women are more sensitive”. And in fact, Hyde found that men were indeed definitely more aggressive, and women indeed definitely more sensitive. But throw in a hundred other effects nobody cares about like “likelihood of smiling when not observed”, and you can report that “78% of gender differences are small or zero”.

Hyde found moderate or large gender differences in (and here I’m paraphrasing very scientific-sounding constructs into more understandable terms) aggressiveness, horniness, language abilities, mechanical abilities, visuospatial skills, mechanical ability, tendermindness, assertiveness, comfort with body, various physical abilities, and computer skills.

Perhaps some peeople might think that finding moderate-to-large-differences in mechanical abilities, computer skills, etc supports the idea that gender differences might play a role in gender balance in the tech industry. But because Hyde’s meta-analysis drowns all of this out with stuff about smiling-when-not-observed, Grant is able to make it sound like Hyde proves his point.

It’s actually worse than this, because Grant misreports the study findings in various ways [EDIT: Or possibly not, see here]. For example, he states that the sex differences in physical aggression and physical strength are “large”. The study very specifically says the opposite of this. Its three different numbers for physical aggression (from three different studies) are 0.4, 0.59, and 0.6, and it sets a cutoff for “large” effects at 0.66 or more.

On the other hand, Grant fails to report an effect that actually is large: mechanical reasoning ability (in the paper as Feingold 1998 DAT mechanical reasoning). There is a large gender difference on this, d = 0.76.

And although Hyde doesn’t look into it in her meta-analysis, other meta-analyses like this one find a large effect size (d = 1.18) for thing-oriented vs. people-oriented interest, the very claim that the argument that Grant is trying to argue against centers around.

So Grant tries to argue against large thing-oriented vs. people-oriented differences by citing a meta-analysis that doesn’t look into them at all. He then misreports the findings of that meta-analysis, exaggerating effects that fit his thesis and failing to report the ones that don’t. Finally, he cites a “summary statistic” that averages away the variation we’re looking for out by combining it with a bunch of noise, and claims the noise proves his point even though the variation is as big as ever.

II.

Next, Grant claims that there are no sex differences in mathematical ability, and also that the sex differences in mathematical ability are culturally determined. I’m not really sure what he means [EDIT: He means sex differences that exist in other countries] but I agree with his first argument – at the levels we’re looking at, there’s no gender difference in math ability.

Grant says that these foreign differences in math ability exist but are due to stereotypes, and so are less noticeable in more progressive, gender-equitable nations:

Girls do as well as boys—or slightly better—in math in elementary, but boys have an edge by high school. Male advantages are more likely to exist in countries that lack gender equity in school enrollment, women in research jobs, and women in parliament—and that have stereotypes associating science with males.

Again, my research suggests no average gender difference in ability, so I can’t speak to whether these differences are caused by stereotypes or not. But I want to go back to the original question: why is there a gender difference in tech-industry-representation [in the US]? Is this also due to stereotypes and the effect of an insufficiently gender-equitable society? Do we find that “countries that lack gender equity in school enrollment” and “stereotypes associating science with males” have fewer women in tech?

No. Galpin investigated the percent of women in computer classes all around the world. Her number of 26% for the US is slightly higher than I usually hear, probably because it’s older (the percent women in computing has actually gone down over time!). The least sexist countries I can think of – Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, etc – all have somewhere around the same number (30%, 20%, and 24%, respectively). The most sexist countries do extremely well on this metric! The highest numbers on the chart are all from non-Western, non-First-World countries that do middling-to-poor on the Gender Development Index: Thailand with 55%, Guyana with 54%, Malaysia with 51%, Iran with 41%, Zimbabwe with 41%, and Mexico with 39%. Needless to say, Zimbabwe is not exactly famous for its deep commitment to gender equality.

Why is this? It’s a very common and well-replicated finding that the more progressive and gender-equal a country, the larger gender differences in personality of the sort Hyde found become. I agree this is a very strange finding, but it’s definitely true. See eg Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sex Differences In Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures:

Previous research suggested that sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men. In this article, the authors report cross-cultural findings in which this unintuitive result was replicated across samples from 55 nations (n = 17,637).

In case you’re wondering, the countries with the highest gender differences in personality are France, Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. The countries with the lowest sex differences are Indonesia, Fiji, and the Congo.

I conclude that whatever gender-equality-stereotype-related differences Grant has found in the nonexistent math ability difference between men and women, they are more than swamped by the large opposite effects in gender differences in personality. This meshes with what I’ve been saying all along: at the level we’re talking about here, it’s not about ability, it’s about interest.

III.

We know that interests are highly malleable. Female students become significantly more interested in science careers after having a teacher who discusses the problem of underrepresentation. And at Harvey Mudd College, computer science majors were around 10% women a decade ago. Today they’re 55%.

I highly recommend Freddie deBoer’s Why Selection Bias Is The Most Powerful Force In Education. If an educational program shows amazing results, and there’s any possible way it’s selection bias – then it’s selection bias.

I looked into Harvey Mudd’s STEM admission numbers, and, sure enough, they admit women at 2.5x the rate as men. So, yeah, it’s selection bias.

I don’t blame them. All they have to do is cultivate a reputation as a place to go if you’re a woman interested in computer science, attract lots of female CS applicants, then make sure to admit all the CS-interested female applicants they get. In exchange, they get constant glowing praise from every newspaper in the country (1, 2,
3,

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A universe of unmapped grief and love
And new master light is beyond
The pleiades and plow and southern stars.

O soaring
Icarus of outworld, burn bright
The traceries of known skymarks,
Slide the highway planets behind
Your clear waxed wings.

Go conquer the everywhere left
Beyond your sad confinement
In a predicted bonehouse,
Witch thrown riddle of flesh
And water.

O soar until nothing
remains but great glittering holes
In the black godspun shirt over your head.

- John Fairfax