Poly ITT: Results

This year, we have an unprecedented number of winners of the Intellectual Turing Test.

The Ideological Turing Test, invented by Bryan Caplan, is a test of how well people understand other people’s viewpoints. The regular Turing test is a test for programmers: can you write a computer program which a human being cannot tell apart from another human being? The Intellectual Turing Test is a test for people who believe things: can you explain your opponent’s viewpoints in such a way that your opponent cannot tell it apart from someone who legitimately believes the opinion? If you can, it shows you understand your opponent’s positions on a deep level.

I asked some people who are pro-polyamory and some people who are anti-polyamory to write essays: one from the point of view of a pro-poly person and one from the point of view of an anti-poly person. Then, my readers voted about whether each essay was written by someone who genuinely held those beliefs, or someone who was pretending. If more than half of voters believed that someone was espousing their true beliefs, when really they were pretending, they would win.

On the anti side, we have:

  • Trace, #11, 86% (!) of the vote
  • Jonathan, #13, 63% of the vote
  • Liam, author of #12, 59% of the vote
  • Joel, author of #2, 58% of the vote
  • Insufferable_Bore, #1, 57% of the vote

On the pro side, we have:

  • Leona, #9, 78% of the vote
  • Tulip, #4, 73% of the vote
  • Deluks, #1, 65% of the vote
  • Tcheasdfjkl, #15, 65% of the vote
  • blacktrance, #2, 64% of the vote

Trace is the overall winner of the Intellectual Turing Test. Congratulations Trace! Accept your adulations in the comment section down below.

I would also like to congratulate the following participants on winning the Strawman Award for Poorly Representing Your Own Side:

  • 58% of voters thought that Deluks, author of ITT Pro #14, was anti-poly when in fact they are pro-poly.
  • 73% of voters thought that Liam, author of ITT Anti #7, was pro-poly when in fact he is anti-poly.
  • 59% of voters thought that Bill, author of ITT Anti #13, was pro-poly when in fact he was anti-poly

I would also like to announce an additional loser: the voters, who misidentified thirteen out of thirty-two entries, only slightly better than chance and a noticeably worse performance than previous years. My suspicion is that, because we rarely see arguments about polyamory, the voters had an incorrect idea of what pro-poly and anti-poly people believe and so underperformed compared to previous years.

Full Results:

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About What Americans Believe About Animal Rights?

Saulius recently published an excellent post about the results of certain opinion surveys relevant to animal advocates.

He suggested that to internalize the results you could guess the result of a question before reading what it was. I thought that we could do this one better by turning it into a quiz!

Click here for a fourteen-question quiz! When you’re done, you can compare how well you did to everyone else who took the quiz.

Poly ITT: Anti #16

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

The funny thing is that I actually wish that more people being poly was great. Monogamous relationships have so many problems and it would be great if being poly was the magical solution. Unfortunately, in my experience, watching friends/acquaintances, and reading relevant (admittedly sparse) research as well as more anecdotal accounts, I become more and confident that polyamory is actively damaging in the (vast) majority of cases. On the individual level, the main problem is that polyamory relies on a hugely idealistic view of people’s capacity for communication and growth. I’m sure pro-poly people would say things like “Yes poly is hard and takes work, but it’s work that you can do, and being monogamous takes work too.” or “Poly’s not for everyone, but it works great for a lot of people.” However I simply don’t see this being vindicated in reality, and additionally I think that poly demands more from people than these dismissive remarks acknowledge. Humans are imperfect, and almost every relationship will have a partner who is more invested and/or anxiously attached than the other(s). This person will experience their partner having other partners as loss and abandonment. They can learn to hide that, or learn to share these feelings in a ‘healthy’ way, or learn to distract themselves, or any one of a number of other coping mechanisms, but at the end of the day they are gong to be less happy than they would be if they could genuinely know that they are their partner’s only romantic priority. I’ve personally seen this happen at least twelve times, including in my own life when I was still trying to ‘be’ poly.

To change my mind I guess I’d want to see very rigorous large sample size longitudinal studies to convince me that everything I’ve just described is some kind of weird anomaly or something.

2. A polyamorous person has a date scheduled with their primary partner, but their secondary partner is in the hospital with an emergency and needs support. what typically happens next?

Most likely, the poly person has rigid ideas about the importance of ‘boundaries’ and ‘not taking responsibility for other people’s issues’, and so goes to the date with the primary, while telling the secondary that they care for them very much and are always there for them. The secondary partner feels abandoned and does not have the support they need, but they stop themselves from speaking up about this because they are a ‘secondary’ partner, and they ‘knew this was the deal going in.’. Probably over the next few months this turns into a fermenting resentment which eventually leads to a blowup and the end of that relationship with the secondary, and possibly with the primary as well, as a knock-on effect, though for some couples they’ve been through this multiple times before with secondaries and will simply brush it off as another person not respecting their boundaries.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

Well if we talk about styles of polyamory common today in Western countries, we don’t really have good data on what would happen so we have to take our best guess. I think this is actually a very important point: We have not tried this and don’t know what would happen, which makes it hugely risk to attempt and thus a bad idea. Obviously most poly people will say explicitly, when pressed, that they’re ‘not trying to make other people poly’, and that ‘polyamory works for some people, monogamy works for others, people are just different’, but this is a motte-and-bailey situation where most of the actual dialogue in poly communities does implicitly assume that polyamory is superior and that the world would be better of everyone was poly. So I think we need to be concerned about this as the popularity of the movement grows. The potential upside to 90% of people being poly is small, even if you take a very optimistic view when comparing poly relationships to monogamous relationships I don’t think any reasonable poly advocates would claim a more than say 10% increase in happiness for poly people, even just going by the prior that single changes in personal circumstances don’t affect people’s happiness very much. On the other hand, the downside is potentially huge, as it could destabilise the underlying structures of Western society in unpredictable ways, and an even partial collapse of Western society could easily decrease people’s quality of life far more than ten percent.

If 90% of people were poly I think it would likely lead to, in brief, chaos. It’s ridiculous to assume that we can create an entirely new social order just by thinking one up, when the current one we have took hundreds of thousands of years of trial-and-error. In addition, going by the (implicit) attitudes of poly people towards monogamy, the 10% monogamous people in this scenario would likely be persecuted in the precise ways poly people feel they are persecuted today. (I agree that there is persecution of poly people as I think people should have leeway in how they live their lives even if it’s worse for them, but a lot of what poly people describe as ‘persecution’ is not that, e.g. when it comes to raising children.)

Poly ITT: Pro #16

[Apologies! When I was writing the results post for the ITT, I discovered I’d somehow failed to run two posts. This is why you do not let people with brainfog organize ITTs. 🙂 The last two posts will run today and tomorrow; Wednesday’s previously scheduled post will be on Thursday, and the results will be on Friday.]

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?
The evidence that monogamy is a poor fit for many people is all around us in the affairs that many supposedly monogamous people have. I do believe that polyamory would work better for many people who are practicing monogamy simply because it is the socially accepted default. But what I’m even more certain of is I know it works for me. It’s possible that not everyone is like me in this regard, but I know I’m not alone. As for what would change my mind, I suppose if I experienced a series of relationship problems that seem endemic to polyamory that might do it, but I haven’t noticed poly relationships having problems that monogamous relationships don’t also have. What I can’t imagine is being argued out of polyamory. Who is argued out of love? Your time would be better spent convincing my partners that Fight Club was a great movie that they should constantly talk to me about than convincing me that it is bad for me to have a relationship with the people I love.
2. A polyamorous person gets an STI. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
In a healthy relationship, the next thing is they talk about it. Perhaps others in the polycule decide that properly treated herpes isn’t a big deal, or perhaps they decide to take action to contain it. Containment works a lot like it does for COVID — lots of testing, and cover up (but with condoms instead of face masks). Everyone switches to condom only with every partner until it is clear who has it and who doesn’t. (Hopefully you were already using condoms with most partners and getting tested regularly. In my experience poly people are better about this than monogamous people.)
What others don’t do is freak out about the news and treat the person with the STI like a dirty untouchable who needs to be cast out of the group. That’s how you create an environment where the next person with an STI is reluctant to talk about it, and that’s what an unhealthy relationship looks like.
3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous?
You mean after we’re done with the nationwide non-stop orgy Fox News has been promising us all these years? Things wouldn’t be all that different. There are still single people, but they are still polyamorous in that they are open to relationships with non-single people, and this improves their options. There is no pressure to settle down before everyone else does. Likewise, there are polycules of size two, but they are still poly in that they openly talk about their interests in other people and may try dating others from time to time. More kids grow up with three parents and it turns out it is easier to raise them when there are more adults around. There are frequently still rules, but they are individually negotiated rather than dictated by society. For example polycules with children tend to have stricter rules about bringing new adults into the relationship, sometimes outright forbidding it. And where there are still rules, there are still rule breakers, there are still affairs and they can still be destructive to existing relationships. But there are few affairs when people have more flexibility to find what they want in their relationships. It’s not utopia, but it’s nicer this way.

Cool Stuff Theory of GMing


Steven Brust’s Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows:

All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.

While obviously incomplete, I think the Cool Stuff Theory of Literature does capture something important about art. And, equally, it captures something important about GMing. 

Your game should be full of things you and your players think are really cool.

Now, I’m not saying that everything has to be D&D hack-and-slash (unless, of course, that’s what you think is cool). You can play Good Society if your thing is complicated romantic entanglements and Regency dresses. You can play Polaris if you’re into tragedies, knights, and inevitable doom. You can play Shock if your thing is really interesting societal worldbuilding. But you have to play what you think is cool.

I think the Cool Stuff Theory of GMing is even truer than the Cool Stuff Theory of Literature. After all, people sometimes read books for personal improvement or because of their historical importance or to show off at parties. And you can write a book you don’t think is cool if you want to make money or win awards. (Although in my opinion when an author is writing a book they don’t think is cool, you can sort of tell.) But there is absolutely no reason to run a game you don’t think is cool. You’re not going to win the Pulitzer for Excellence in Tabletop GMing. If there is one kind of story that should be maximally self-indulgent, it’s RPGs.

The Fun Now Manifesto says that a tabletop game should contain “fun stuff every ten minutes,” and I think that’s a good guideline. Think about your last game: did something cool, fun, or nifty happen at least once every ten minutes? Think broadly. It doesn’t have to be a Crowning Moment of Awesome: a cool piece of character development, a cruel piece of dramatic irony, a devilishly hard puzzle, or even a suspenseful dice roll can be Cool Stuff depending on the group. If you do not have cool stuff at least once every ten minutes, your game needs to be more self-indulgent and have more cool stuff in it. 

A tabletop RPG is a collaborative effort between GM and players. When I say “cool stuff every ten minutes,” I don’t just mean stuff that’s fun to the GM; I mean that from every single player‘s perspective something cool should happen every ten minutes.

That might seem like an impossible amount of cool stuff. There might be five people at your table, are you supposed to have six cool events happen every ten minutes? That’s too many! Sometimes you have to roll dice!

But it is actually a totally attainable amount of cool stuff as long as everyone is on the same page. Let’s say you’re playing Call of Cthulhu. You filter for players who are into solving mysteries, blasphemous tomes, elder gods, slow descent into insanity, traumatized characters, tragedy, the pitiless neutrality of the universe, the 1920s, and unusually high-stakes humanities research. Now, you can reveal the secrets of the Necronomicon and all your players are like “Woo! Awesome!”

Imagine a different game. One of your players wants to be a bag of skills that solves mysteries. One of your players is a huge horror aficionado: what they want is to be terrified. One of your players loves the sanity mechanics and is exclusively interested in playing the tragedy of their character’s gradually increasing insanity in the face of an uncaring cosmos. One of your players wants to ram Cthulhu with a boat and throw dynamite into Yig’s snakey mouth. And one of your players is only there because it’s the only RPG with open slots, and they really want to play GURPS Discworld. 

Now you have a problem. The slow-paced puzzles that fascinate your mystery-loving player frustrate the player who wants to make things go boom. The jokes that appeal to your player who would really rather be playing GURPS Discworld break immersion for your player who wants to be scared. And the sanity-mechanics-loving player is going to complain constantly that everyone else is rollplaying instead of roleplaying: why are you even bothering to play if you don’t care about what your character would really do?

The problem here is not the Cool Stuff Theory of GMing. The problem is that none of your players agree on what cool stuff is.  

Now, you’re never going to find two people who agree 100% on what stuff is cool and what stuff is not. A lot of RPGs are actually designed around this: in D&D you need both a wizard and a fighter in your party, because some people think that shooting fireballs is cool and some people think hacking at people with swords is cool, and if both play equal and complementary roles both players can be happy in the same game. If one player is kind of meh on blasphemous tomes while all your other players think they’re wonderful, this is not necessarily a problem. But overall your game needs to be something that will regularly give every player the things they think are cool; if not, they need to find a different group. 

Once you’re broadly on the same page, making sure that players get their cool stuff is often pretty easy. Most players– if they’re allowed to– will pursue things they think are cool and avoid things they think are boring. Sometimes you get a player who is used to being railroaded and sits around waiting for the plot to show up, sometimes you get a player who thinks that doing boring shit is what makes them a good player, but most of the time players provide their own cool stuff without you having to worry about it, if you aren’t fucking up. 

But man is it easy to fuck up. 

There are two issues you can run into: players that aren’t making it fun for other players and GMs that aren’t making it fun for the players.

Players pursue shit that they think is cool. But a lot of players won’t think about whether the shit they’re pursuing is interfering with the cool shit for other players. As a GM, it’s important to keep an eye on the group dynamic. Is one person hogging all the attention? Do some players seem bored or disengaged? Do some seem more reluctant about a particular plan? It’s important not just for the GM to be on the same page as the players but for the players to be on the same page as each other. As the GM, you may need to mediate between players or even veto certain decisions on the part of the players.

In general, however, this is the easier problem to avoid as long as all of your players agree on what sort of game is being played. GM-related problems are much harder to solve. 

In most games, the GM controls the world and the majority of the characters and is the primary and final arbiter of mechanics. You can have a game that isn’t full of cool stuff for the GM, but this is mostly a GM fuckup. If you decided to leave out the lesbian selkies or the cackling scenery-chewing villains that make the story fun for you, that’s your fault. 

On the other hand, a player controls exactly one thing: their character. And they don’t even fully control their character, the way the GM fully controls the NPCs. The GM usually decides what happens after a bad dice roll: the GM can break the character’s precious sword, cripple the character, or kill them. The GM controls the other NPCs: the GM decides how to play the character’s loving father, whether the player gets obnoxious orders from their boss, and whether the character actually wins the heart of the fair maiden. In some games, the GM can even play the player’s character in certain circumstances, such as mind control or Call of Cthulhu’s insanity rules.

For that matter, a player is not usually allowed to look down the list of NPCs a GM includes and veto any they don’t like, but a GM is absolutely allowed to veto a player’s idea. 

So it is really easy for a bad GM to keep a player from having cool stuff. 

One strategy is to default to yes. Is there an actual reason for you to turn down your player having a pet monkey? Or is it just not what you expected from the game? Is there a reason your player can’t have that suboptimal build, or do you just have a set idea of how you’re “supposed” to play the game? Within the rules of the game and as long as it isn’t fucking up anyone else’s fun, let your players have the characters they want to have.

In the actual game, it’s more complicated, because your players almost always want you to provide conflict and opposition. But let them do things and face conflict and opposition; don’t just rule them out because they weren’t part of your plan. Your players want to pause their investigation to rescue an NPC from an asylum? Sure! Your players want to run away from the dragon instead of fighting it? Cool, why not? Your players want to try to shoot the Big Bad Evil Guy in the head in the first scene they meet him? Roll for it. 

(Of course, if you’re playing Star Wars and your players have decided to ignore the Empire in order to concentrate on building up their intragalactic water trading empire, you are allowed to stop and say “guys, we agreed upon playing a Star Wars game where you battled the Empire. This is not battling the Empire. Do you want to play a different game?” I find this is rarely an issue if everyone is on the same page about what the game is.)

It is also important not to take away your character’s cool stuff. In some ways, taking away a player’s cool stuff is tempting. A good story involves raising the stakes, right? If your player thinks cloaks and rapiers are cool, then what is more suspenseful than their character losing their ability to swordfight ever again? But if the stakes of a game are “it won’t be fun for me to play anymore,” that’s not fun suspense. It’s just dickishness.

I think there is one major guideline about taking away a character’s cool stuff, at least from a Narrativist or Simulationist perspective. (Gamist play has different concerns, which I’m not qualified to speak to, as someone who has essentially zero interest in it.)

Every Cool Thing has a set of cool actions associated with it. For example, if you read a blasphemous tome, you could find out secret forbidden knowledge, or go insane, or be misled by false information, or disbelieve it only to find out at the worst possible moment that it’s all true. All of that is cool. If the blasphemous tome instead contains nothing but a really good recipe for chicken korma, that is not cool.

(On the other hand, a different set of players– your GURPS Discworld player from earlier– would think it’s really cool.)

More conceptually, let’s say your players are into Regency-style romance arcs. They love marriages of convenience that turn into something more, the strictures of etiquette, subtext-y conversations, anguished proposals of marriage, rakish and untrustworthy seducers, all that stuff. All of those are ways that you, the GM, can interact with the players’ interest in Regency romances. You cannot, however, declare that there are no eligible bachelors in the entirety of Stratfordshire and, no, all the carriages have broken and you can’t go to London. You can’t have Napoleon invade England and suddenly everyone has much more important things on their mind than romance. You can’t say there’s a plague that means that all the balls have been canceled.

Now, for many cool things, taking it away– in the right way— can be cool. The heirloom sword passed down by generations of your character’s family? You can have the major villain steal it and then the hero has to go on a quest to get it back. Their role as a quest object is one of the things that’s cool about heirloom swords (for many people). Conversely, if the player fumbles a roll and the character accidentally drops the heirloom sword into the volcano, it’s not cool.

Or consider Call of Cthulhu. In Call of Cthulhu, one of the fundamental cool things is the gradual corruption of everything your character cares about and loves: they lose their faith, their relationship with their wife is strained, the locket their childhood best friend got them is smashed by an eldritch horror, and when they visit the library that always cheered them up they feel nothing. So you do get to take away all your characters’ cool things because Call of Cthulhu is a tragedy. And for the right players, tragedy is cool as fuck. 

A corollary of this is that you can take away a player’s cool stuff if the replacement is cooler to the player (not to you). This is always risky, of course, because you’re substituting your judgment for the player’s; if the player thought it was cool they would have asked for it in the first place. But in general it is okay to blind your player’s swordsman, as long as the player then gets a blind swordsman. Blind swordsmen are awesome. And it is okay to do a lot of things to an investigator in Call of Cthulhu that you wouldn’t do in D&D, because you wouldn’t play Call of Cthulhu if you didn’t want to play a traumatized character desperately holding onto the last shreds of their sanity.

The flipside of not taking away a character’s cool stuff is giving them the opportunity to shine. These are basically the same thing, framed in different ways: if you never have combat and your player thinks swordfighting is cool, you’ve taken away her swordfighting as sure as if you had her character accidentally drop her rapier in a volcano. If you present the opportunity to do cool shit, players will take advantage of it. 

What I’m saying here has a lot of overlap with what Powered By The Apocalypse games call “being a fan of your players’ characters.” If you’re a fan of the characters, you want to give them opportunities to show off their cool shit. You don’t take away the things that make the characters awesome. And you make a game that is fun for everyone.

Thing of Things Social Media

After several years of procrastinating, I have made a Facebook page for Thing of Things. Like it on Facebook to have my posts show up in your Facebook feed and to conveniently be able to share it. The page will contain absolutely nothing except notifications of new posts.

You may also follow me on Twitter, where notifications of new posts are interspersed with retweets of people saying important things, opinions on dumb Internet drama, the adventures of my Call of Cthulhu group, and cute stories about my two-year-old. (Last night we put all of his books away on shelves and he spent ten minutes carefully picking up each of the books and moving it to his bedroom floor where it belongs.)

Petrov Day Ritual: Coronavirus Edition

This is the text of the Petrov Day ritual I will be using this year. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. I hope this provides inspiration for how other people’s Petrov Day rituals can incorporate the coronavirus pandemic.

This day, September 26, is Petrov Day. In 1983, the story of humanity nearly ended. We’re gathered here to remember that moment, and others like it. 

When I wrote this ritual last year, I said to myself, “I’m really happy with this! Next year I am not going to have to spend the month of September hastily rewriting it on deadline.” So, uh, that worked out well. 

Today, there are no candles. Today, there are no songs. Today, instead of meeting in my house, we are meeting over Google Hangouts, and there is going to be at least one technological snafu before it ends– hopefully a less fatal one than Stanislav Petrov’s. And today, instead of taking a moment to reflect on something we far too often forget, we are taking a moment to join in community about something which has affected us all. 

In some ways, this ritual may seem unnecessary this year. Most years, we celebrate Petrov Day to remember that, in spite of our great prosperity and the many reasons for hope, we balance on the edge of a knife. This year, there has been no shortage of apocalyptic signs and portents. A pandemic. Massive lockdowns. Protests of long-standing racial injustice which sometimes erupt into riots. Air that’s not safe to breathe. A sepia-toned world under an orange sky. Murder hornets.

The last thing we need is another reminder of the apocalypse.

But Petrov Day is not just about the apocalypse. Petrov Day is about hope.

Petrov Day is not just about the fear that someone someday might press a button and destroy the world. Petrov Day is about remembering the time that someone didn’t. 

As always, let us begin at the beginning.

“By the aid of a telescope any one may behold this in a manner which so distinctly appeals to the senses that all the disputes which have tormented philosophers through so many ages are exploded at once by the indisputable evidence of our eyes, and we are freed from wordy disputes upon this subject, for the Galaxy is nothing else but a mass of innumerable stars planted together in clusters.” — Galileo, The Starry Messenger (1610)

“Matters that vexed the minds of ancient seers,
And for our learned doctors often led
To loud and vain contention, now are seen
In reason’s light, the clouds of ignorance
Dispelled at last by science. Those on whom
Delusion cast its gloomy pall of doubt,
Upborne now on the wings that genius lends,
May penetrate the mansions of the gods
And scale the heights of heaven. O mortal men,
Arise! And, casting off your earthly cares,
Learn ye the potency of heaven-born mind,
Its thought and life far from the herd withdrawn!” 

— Edmund Halley, preface to Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687)

“By calculations similar to these may be determined universally, what expectations are warranted by any experiments, according to the different number of times in which they have succeeded and failed; or what should be thought of the probability that any particular cause in nature, with which we have any acquaintance, will or will not, in any single trial, produce an effect that has been conjoined with it.” — Rev. Thomas Bayes, An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances (1763)

“I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection-water if I used a jet as in Newcomen’s engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. … I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.” — James Watt (1765)

“I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” — Dmitri Mendeleev (1864)

“I then shouted into the mouthpiece the following sentence: Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you. To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said. I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said, Mr. Watson come here I want to see you.”” — Alexander Graham Bell (1876)

“I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament. … Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.” — Thomas Edison (1890)

Understanding the world gave us the power to change it.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the first commercially successful steam engine. It was the first significant power source other than wind, water, and life. In 1769, James Watt designed a more efficient steam engine, paving the way for its use in trains, steamboats, and factories. The Industrial Revolution began.

“Modern economic growth is the increase of income per head by a factor of 15 or 20 since the 18th century in places like Britain—and a factor of 8.5 worldwide even including the places that have not had the luck or skill to let it happen fully. It is certainly the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants, perhaps the most important since the invention of language.” –Deirdre McCloskey (2004)

“If we continually sample from the urn of possible technological discoveries before implementing effective means of global coordination, surveillance, and/or restriction of potentially hazardous information, then we risk eventually drawing a black ball: an easy-to-make intervention that causes extremely widespread harm and against which effective defense is infeasible” — Nick Bostrom (2013)

“Moore’s Law of Mad Science: Every 18 months, the IQ required to destroy the world drops by 1 point.”
— Source unknown (2005)

The story of how humanity gained the ability to destroy itself begins a little more than a third of the way through the twentieth century. 

Starting in 1939 and continuing until 1945, World War II killed about 60 million people. Seventeen million people died in the Holocaust, including a third of the world’s Jews. The Japanese government perpetrated the Nanking Massacre, the Bataan Death March, the Manila Massacre, and many other atrocities. 

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” –Hannah Arendt

And so the world’s greatest minds believed they had no choice. They had to gather in secret, and create the atomic bomb – a weapon to destroy cities, or the whole world.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” –J. Robert Oppenheimer

“I shall write peace upon your wings, and you shall fly around the world so that children will no longer have to die this way.” –Sadako Sasaki, victim of the bombing at Hiroshima

Pause for a moment of silence.

In 1962, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a crisis. US destroyers under orders to enforce a naval quarantine off Cuba did not know that the submarines the Soviets had sent to protect their ships were carrying nuclear weapons. So the Americans began firing depth charges to force the submarines to the surface, a move the Soviets on board interpreted as the start of World War III. 

“[Savitsky, a submarine captain,] summoned the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to assemble it to battle readiness. ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ – screamed agitated [Savitsky, justifying his order. ‘We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet’. But we did not fire the nuclear torpedo – Savitsky was able to rein in his wrath. After consulting with Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and his deputy political officer Ivan Semenovich Maslennikov, he made the decision to come to the surface.” –Vadim Orlov (2007)

We now reach the historical event that is today’s namesake: the Petrov incident. On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early warning system.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock. Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems – on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct; the probability factor is two. … The highest.” — Stanislav Petrov

“I imagined if I’d assume the responsibility for unleashing the third World War – and I said, no, I wouldn’t. … I always thought of it. Whenever I came on duty, I always refreshed it in my memory.” — Stanislav Petrov

Had he followed procedure, and reported up the chain of command that the Americans had launched missiles, this could have set off a nuclear war. So instead of telling his superiors what the system was saying, Petrov told his superiors that it was a false alarm – despite not really knowing this was the case.

At the time, he received no award. The incident embarrassed his superiors and the scientists responsible for the system, so if he had been rewarded, they would have to be punished. (He received the International Peace Price thirty years later, in 2013.) 

Things eventually calmed down. The Soviet Union dissolved. Safeguards were put on most of the bombs, to prevent the risk of accidental (or deliberate but unauthorized) detonation.

The story of Stanislav Petrov is a story of individual heroism, but it is also a story of institutional failure. 

Petrov was a hero, but Petrov never should have had to be a hero. Mistake after mistake, piece of reckless negligence after piece of reckless negligence, on the part of both the USA and the USSR, for decades, caused humanity’s fate to be decided by a single finger on a single button. 

2020 is the year where we learned that, instead of trusting non-credible sources about epidemiology such as the WHO and the CDC, we should only trust reliable sources, like random people with anime avatars on Twitter.

The level of institutional failure related to coronavirus on every level and from every major institution of the United States is staggering. Prominent journalists told people it made more sense to worry about the flu. Major health organizations lied about whether masks made you less safe. Local governments reopened restaurants even while the coronavirus raged. 

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have controlled the pandemic. We didn’t.

This is not the first pandemic that, for assorted political reasons, the US government failed to control.

We have not yet reached the stage of the coronavirus pandemic where we grieve, so I am letting their words stand in for ours.

The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that when a 36-year-old writer is asked on a network news show about the Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community particularly in regard to the Well-Known Preponderance of Homosexuals in the Arts she replies that if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with ”Let’s Make a Deal.”

The interviewer’s lack of response compels her to conclude that he has no idea what she is talking about and she realizes that soon many of those who do know what she is talking about will be what is generally regarded as dead…

The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that an aspiring little avant-garde movie director approaches a fairly famous actor in a restaurant and attempts to make social hay out of the fact that they met each other at Antonio’s and will undoubtedly see each other at Charles’s and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not parties and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not bars and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not summer houses in chic Tuscan towns– Antonio’s and Charles’s are funerals…

The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer is on the phone with a 38-year-old art director making arrangements to go together to the funeral of a 27-year-old architect and the art director says to the writer, “If you get there first, sit near the front where you usually sit, and save me the seat on the aisle”…

The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer runs into a 34-year-old painter at a party and the painter says to the writer that he’s just back from Los Angeles and he says with some surprise that he had a really good time there and he asks why does she think that happened and says it’s because New York is so boring now that Los Angeles is fun in comparison and that’s true and it’s one reason but the real reason is that they don’t know the people who are dying there…

The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer trying to make plans to go out of town flips through her appointment book and hears herself say “well, I have a funeral on Tuesday, lunch with my editor on Wednesday, a memorial service on Thursday, so I guess I could come on Friday, unless of course Robert dies.” — The Impact of Aids on the Artistic Community, Fran Lebowitz, 1987

Unfinished Painting, by Keith Haring, completed a few months before he died of HIV.

Every year, this Petrov day ritual has three readings about the three existential risks that currently pose the greatest threat to humanity: nuclear war, AI, and biological threats. Every year, I have been unhappy about my reading about biological threat. I had a very vivid quote about AI risk, and I had a very vivid quote about nuclear war, but my quote about biorisk was boring. 

I don’t think it’s boring this year. 

“The biological threat carries with it the possibility of millions of fatalities and billions of dollars in economic losses. The federal government has acknowledged the seriousness of this threat and provided billions in funding for a wide spectrum of activities across many departments and agencies to meet it. These efforts demonstrate recognition of the problem and a distributed attempt to find solutions. Still, the Nation does not afford the biological threat the same level of attention as it does other threats: There is no centralized leader for biodefense. There is no comprehensive national strategic plan for biodefense. There is no all-inclusive dedicated budget for biodefense… 

The biological threat has not abated. At some point, we will likely be attacked with a biological weapon, and will certainly be subjected to deadly naturally occurring infectious diseases and accidental exposures, for which our response will likely be insufficient.”– Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (2004)

We knew sixteen years ago that covid could happen. Coronavirus was a predictable disease that was at the top of biosecurity people’s list of things to worry about. We were warned that we were unprepared. We had time to prepare for it. 

We failed.


Nine hundred and thirty-six thousand, nine hundred and five people are dead because we failed.

Coronavirus was a test run. It was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people; it was never going to wipe out humanity. It was a way to figure out in a lower-stakes way, whether we have the ability to prepare for biological and perhaps other threats.

We don’t. 

Think, for a moment, about other subjects for which our response will likely be insufficient.

Pause for a moment of silence. 

Many of the people here live in San Francisco. This is a particularly appropriate place, given our next topic, as San Francisco is the place where two of the most iconic institutions related to human coordination were founded: the United Nations and Starfleet. 

It is easy to think of human coordination as a thing that happens between governments and big institutions, something extraordinarily difficult and rare. As rationalists, we often think about coordination problems: about defection on Prisoner’s Dilemmas, the tragedy of the commons, inadequate equilibria. 

But now we will think about the many times when we succeed.

I am a lead pencil…

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black?

My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain…

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me? 

–Leonard Read, I, Pencil

It is often easy to miss the signs of a solved coordination problem. 

It is easy to miss the rivers that don’t catch on fire, the fish species on our plate that aren’t extinct, the medical waste that doesn’t wash up on a beach, the ozone layer that isn’t destroyed. It is easy to forget about smallpox and hookworm, polio and congenital iodine deficiency syndrome. It is easy to get used to pencils and laptop computers, blueberries and Avengers: Endgame, without thinking about the extraordinary human effort that brings these items into being. 

On any given day, about forty percent of Americans mostly or completely isolated themselves from nonhousehold members. 

On any given day, about three-quarters of Americans always or very often practiced social distancing.

We cannot let the institutional failures blind us to the success of individual coordination. As weeks of lockdown stretched into months, people– not everyone all of the time, but most people most of the time– continued to be locked down. Corporations shifted all their employees to work-from-home. Parents formed pods to share childcare. People spent hours in stressful negotiations about risk levels with their housemates and friends. 

We stopped going to theaters and movies, restaurants and bars, libraries and church, classes and the gym. We went months without seeing our friends. We rescheduled weddings. We held birthday parties over Zoom. We put on masks and spent time together in parks six feet apart.

We made sacrifice after thankless sacrifice, in situations where no one except us would know whether we cheated. In the great prisoner’s dilemma of covid, we pressed “cooperate.”

We never should have been in this position. But we rose to the occasion. 

In the early days of the pandemic, people hoarded food, because they were afraid that the supply lines would fall through and we wouldn’t have enough to eat. 

But they never did. After the initial hoarding was over, there were occasional shortages of some items, but no one in the United States went hungry because coronavirus had disrupted the factories and ships and trucks that brought them food.

No one person knows how to make a pencil. But even a pandemic can’t stop them from getting made. 

Health organizations lied about masks for fear of shortages. But once people knew that masks prevented the coronavirus, hundreds of Etsy stores sprung up with handmade fabric masks to cater to the demand. In the longer term, production of surgical masks rose, and now I can get a pack of fifty on Amazon for fourteen dollars. 

In the United States today, there are tens of millions of quiet heroes. Tens of millions of people risked their lives, often for very little money, to make sure we have food and water and electricity, to take care of the elderly and the sick, to take away our garbage and our sewage, to bring us the packages we order online that enable us to stay locked down.

Many of them did not choose to be heroes. Many of them would very much prefer not to be. Heroism is always much more appealing when you’re not the one who might end up in the hospital. But our society is functioning because, in the face of apocalypse, millions of ordinary people got up and went to their ordinary jobs and carried out their ordinary tasks. 

Because it is so ordinary, it is often easy to miss courage. 

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children…

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

— Jai Dhyani, 500 Million, But Not A Single One More

In 1976, scientific consensus first arose that chlorofluorocarbon pollution depleted atmospheric ozone. If it led to a “hole in the ozone layer”, the effects on human and animal health and food production would likely be severe.

By 1978, when a law was passed in the US banning CFCs in aerosol cans, sales of aerosols had dropped fifty percent. 

The hole in the ozone layer was proven to exist in 1985. Just two years later a treaty was written to ban the use of CFCs worldwide, and two years after that, in 1989, it was in effect. As of today, every country in the United Nations has ratified the Montreal protocol.

“The hole in the ozone layer is a kind of skywriting. At first it seemed to spell out our continuing complacency before a witch’s brew of deadly perils. But perhaps it really tells of a newfound talent to work together to protect the global environment.” –Carl Sagan (1998)

Today, the hole in the ozone layer is the smallest it’s been since 1982. By 2075, if current trends continue, the Earth’s ozone layer will have repaired itself completely. 

Our response was sufficient. 

We won.

“Everybody lives! Just this once– everybody lives!”– The Doctor

Five hundred million but not a single one more.

Read three paragraphs, then pass to the next person.

There is a button. Bright red.

The button is on a phone.

There is a screen.

There are rules.

Everyone knows them.

You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.

You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.

Time refuses to stop.

You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?

Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.

But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.

You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.


Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?

You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.

The button waits.

Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.

Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.

You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.

You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.

You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.

Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.

You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.

You do not live in a sane world.

Five lights, glowing in the night.

One button.

Five billion people.

All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.

There are procedures in place.

There are children in bed.

The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.

Could be a glitch.

Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.

You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.

You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”

You decide.

You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.

You don’t press the button.

The world doesn’t end that night.

It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.

The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.

Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.

You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.

The world keeps going. For now.

–Jai Dhyani, There Is A Button

Open Thread: Stupid Treatments for Chronic Illness


A few days ago I read Chronic Tension Headaches: a detailed self-help guide (I highly recommend his site for anyone struggling with chronic pain). In it, the author mentions that one cause of chronic headaches is wearing glasses that don’t fit your prescription.

Since I haven’t had an eye exam in five years, this instantly shot up my list of possible causes of chronic headache. And let me tell you, if I have had daily painful headaches for over a year because I’ve been wearing glasses that don’t fit, I will be overjoyed and will also feel like a complete moron.

I will also be extremely irritated at all my doctors, who saw I was wearing glasses and did not any point go “hey, did you have a recent eye exam? Out-of-date glasses prescriptions can cause daily chronic headache.”

This is not the first such stupid cause of chronic illness I’ve learned about. For example:

  • If you have anxiety, and you drink a lot of coffee, the coffee might be causing your anxiety. It’s a stimulant and stimulants cause anxiety.
  • If you are depressed and you live in a place that doesn’t get a lot of light part of the year, try sitting in front of a light box.
  • If you are depressed and no antidepressant is working, ask politely if you’ve been screened for hypothyroidism, anemia, and vitamin deficiencies, all of which are known to cause depression.
    • If you’re depressed and you can’t see a doctor, and you are pale, weak, and tired, and experience the compulsion to eat ice or dirt or something else that isn’t food (pica), take an iron supplement and see if it helps.
    • Similarly, try taking a multivitamin and see if it helps.

So I thought this open thread might be a good idea. What are some stupid treatments for chronic illness? When I say “stupid treatments”, I mean:

  • It is little-known and medical professionals might not tell you about it (so not medication, therapy for mental illness, etc).
  • It is relatively easily testable (so not “try this extremely complicated routine for six months and if it doesn’t work it’s your fault for not adhering to it”).
  • It is a treatment, not a thing you should have done three years ago to prevent your chronic illness.
  • When you hear about it, it makes you slap yourself on the head and go “duh.”

Since this topic is particularly likely to attract pseudoscience, I would like to lay out the following commenting guidelines:

  1. All suggested treatments must fit the definition of “stupid treatment” above.
  2. Your suggested treatment can treat at most three things. I will delete all comments about how a particular supplement, diet, or Traditional Chinese Medicine practice can cure everything from low back pain to diabetes to hair loss to insufficiently attractive feet.
  3. When talking about diets, all links should be to peer-reviewed scientific studies and not to websites of people advocating for the diet. If weight loss is recommended, you must provide a specific reason to believe that losing weight specifically will help, which is not “everyone knows that being fat is bad for you.”
  4. Known pseudoscience and quackery will be deleted at my discretion, unless the commenter both (a) acknowledges that this is pseudoscience and (b) either:
    1. Provides a plausible biological mechanism based on what we know of how the human body works
    2. Links to a systemic review or meta-analysis from a reasonably reputable journal (not The Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies or The Journal of Poetry Therapy) that suggests the treatment will work.

Rapid Onset Gender Denial


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Recently, some transgender adolescents and young adults have begun reporting a disturbing new trend.

In recent years, a number of transgender adolescents have been reporting in online discussion groups that their parents suddenly have begun misgendering their children, disrespecting their children’s self-identified gender, and espousing anti-trans beliefs. We believe this may reflect a new clinical condition: rapid onset gender denial (ROGD).

Adolescents have described clusters of these beliefs occurring in pre-existing friend groups, such as the popular parenting website Mumsnet. Adolescents typically notice a process of immersion in social media immediately preceding their parent’s lack of acceptance: “binge-watching” trans-exclusionary feminist YouTube channels, excessive use of websites such as FourthWaveNow and TransgenderTrend, and accounts on self-identified “gender critical” subreddits. These descriptions raise the question of whether social influences may be contributing to or even driving this lack of acceptance in some populations of parents.

The adolescents and young adults that report this disturbing behavior are not in any way bigoted against anti-trans people. The vast majority of adolescents and young adults whose parents have ROGD support the right of radical feminists to found organizations that reflect their beliefs and believe that anti-trans individuals deserve the same rights and protections as other individuals in their country.

In proposing the existence of rapid onset gender denial, we by no means intend to disrespect people with real, valid anti-trans beliefs. We recognize that a small minority of people struggle with a crippling inability to accept trans people for religious or political reasons, and we support tolerance and accommodation of these uncommon beliefs. But this minority have had anti-trans beliefs for their entire lives. Parents with rapid onset gender denial are no hairy-legged bra-burning radical feminists or church-going anti-gay Christians. Even parent-affirming clinicians agree that most ROGD parents favor gay marriage— hardly what you would expect from someone genuinely anti-LGBT! On online fora, parents regularly discuss their “peak trans” moment: the moment when they “realized” that they were anti-trans. Most of these “peak trans” moments are inspired by stories spread by other ROGD parents– proof positive that it is a social contagion.

We recognize that parents with ROGD face real problems. Their children report that parents with ROGD are sensitive, intelligent people who often struggle with anxiety and depression. ROGD is a way of expressing very real distress. Many parents with ROGD are trying to cope with the stress of their child individuating, a difficult time for any parent. It may be particularly difficult for parents who put psychological weight on their children growing up to be a particular kind of person or who invest much of their self-worth in their child agreeing with them. Many other parents may simply be seeking attention: after all, their children are developing lives separate from them, which can be a difficult adjustment, and it’s perfectly normal for parents to be attention-seeking in this developmental stage. Still others may be using ROGD as a coping mechanism for other stresses in their life, such as depression or divorce. After all, it can be easier to blame these stressors on a child’s transition than to accept the harsh reality. Many ROGD parents engage in magical thinking: if their child simply detransitions, then all of the depression and anxiety the parents experience will go away.

Several children have noticed that their parents with ROGD have autism or “autistic traits.” Could ROGD be caused by autism? The rigid, black-and-white thinking associated with autism may lead parents to struggle with the idea of gender fluidity or the concept that someone they previously thought of as a girl might in fact be a boy. And people with autism often struggle with finding friends: the social acceptance they find in ROGD communities may have been the first social acceptance they’ve found in their entire lives.

Supporters of parents with ROGD say that recognizing that transness “isn’t real” improves parents’ lives. But the evidence from their children says otherwise. Many parents with ROGD appear angry, sullen, and withdrawn: they yell at their children, dish out unreasonable punishments, and petulantly refuse to call their children by the correct name and pronouns. It can be impossible for adolescents to have a civil, open conversation with their parents without their parents indignantly spewing insults or accusing them of making up their gender. Many others are depressed. Not only do ROGD parents openly admit their despair about their children’s transition, they have the distorted thoughts characteristic of a struggle with depression: for example, many grieve the “mutilation” and “death” of their children, who are in fact still alive and trying to talk to them. Worst of all, ROGD typically ruins parent-child relationships, with many parents alienating their children so much that a normal-parent child relationship is impossible and the child must go low- or no-contact to preserve their sanity. To any parent, their children are one of the most important things in their lives; this pernicious ideology destroys the precious parent-child relationship, one of the foundations of society and a bond any parent cherishes.

It makes sense that ROGD would cause such difficulty in parent-child relationships, because of the nature of the ideology itself. Parents with ROGD are known for their irrational and science-denying beliefs, such as that a twenty-two-year-old is a child if the parent identifies them as such. Unfortunately, you can’t identify out of biological reality. These beliefs will likely lead them to great distress if they don’t learn to accept and work with the reality that, whatever their friends say, some things– such as the fact that their adult children are fully competent to make their own medical decisions without parental input– won’t change.

Fortunately, treatment is available for ROGD. Several therapists have begun to specialize in the treatment of parents with ROGD. Unlike ROGD parents, we believe in scientific and biological reality, which is why our therapists practice CBT and other evidence-based therapies instead of Jungian psychoanalysis. It is a nonjudgmental course of therapy intended to explore the reasons that parents have ROGD. If, after a long course of therapy, it turns out that the parent genuinely has anti-trans beliefs, of course we will accept this. But it’s simply irresponsible to think that these parents might genuinely be anti-trans– making possibly irreversible decisions such as destroying their relationship with their children– unless we have explored all the other options.

Some Observations Concerning Medication Side Effects, And A Warning About Cognitive Impairment

[Note: this blog post was edited after publication because I realized I’d accidentally published an early draft.]

Often, doctors can only find out about side effects of medications if patients tell them. While some side effects are easily observed (like tremors) or visible on blood tests (like poor kidney function), many are only known to the patient (such as pain or nausea) or only easy to observe if you are with the patient for more than an hour every few months (such as emotional changes or fatigue). I only have anecdotes– so take this post with a grain of salt– but I think this systematically distorts the information people receive from their doctors about the side effects of medications.

Doctors love telling people about weight gain as a side effect of medication. It doesn’t matter if you are underweight, have unintentionally lost a seventh of your body weight in the past three weeks, or are literally dying, doctors will warn you that weight gain is a side effect of your medication so you must diet and exercise. In my experience, doctors are not nearly as assiduous about warning people about side effects that are a good deal more life-ruining than weight gain: fatigue, insomnia, suicidal ideation, or even addiction risk. (Of course, doctors being terrible about drugs with addiction risk goes both ways; for every person who is prescribed benzos without an appropriate warning there’s someone else taken off a medication that works well for them.)

Some of this, of course, is medical fatphobia. But I suspect a lot of it is that weight gain is one of only a small number of very common medication side effects that are completely visible to the doctor. You can see whether a patient has gained weight; it is not dependent on the patient noticing the weight gain, connecting it to the medication, and deciding to complain to the doctor about it. Naturally, weight gain is more salient.

The flipside of this is also true: if a medication has a side effect that is not visible to doctors, and patients don’t tell their doctors about it, it will be much much much less salient to doctors. The well-known example of this is sexual side effects with antidepressants. In the sixties and seventies, it was believed that sexual side effects with antidepressants were rare. Today we know that about forty percent of people treated with an antidepressant will have sexual side effects; for drugs that have a particularly high rate of sexual side effects, as many as seventy percent of people may experience side effects. Why did doctors fail to notice something forty percent of their patients experienced? Probably because– since sexual side effects are a very personal and embarrassing issue– their patients were too embarrassed to tell them.

But the more serious issue is cognitive impairment.

I personally have met at least five different people who experienced serious cognitive impairment when they took a medication, were not warned that this was a side effect, and did not realize that they were experiencing cognitive impairment until they stopped taking it. In no case did their doctors realize they were experiencing cognitive impairment.

A doctor talks to you, at most, for an hour or so once every couple of months. Many people can appear normal in a relatively scripted conversation for an hour, even if they have very serious cognitive issues. I know people who lost the ability to read books or to focus on a television show, people whose emotions were so deadened that they felt like they were p-zombies, people who couldn’t remember what had happened to them yesterday, people who could no longer connect effects with causes.

(All of my friends are quite young. A terrifying reality is that a doctor might notice medication-induced cognitive impairment in an elderly person and attribute it to the natural decline of old age. Doctors are aware of this, but as far as I know no one has a great solution to the problem.)

A friend of mine, Nicholas Rabinowicz, writes about his experience on antipsychotics:

A few years ago, I spent a week in a psych ward. While I was there, I was put on Risperdal. I was not told that it was an antipsychotic, or really anything else about it.
Within a couple days I started having near-constant headaches, but was told to stay on the medication and this side effect would eventually pass. (It stayed for the entire time I was on Risperdal.)

When I was discharged, I was able to look up Risperdal… and that was it. I could not read so much as a sentence at a time of the Wikipedia article on it. Someone else had to break it into smaller chunks for me, and this is how I finally learned that I was taking an antipsychotic.

I want to say that I then decided I had to stop taking it, but the truth is that I had already decided that when the headaches started. And I’m very lucky that I did, because without that I would not have been able to take actions to get off them. I was no longer capable of conceptualizing the idea that I could just stop taking them. I spent multiple months begging doctors to take me off them, and I was only able to do this because I had already been doing so when the cognitive effects started. Simply put, all I had on my side was inertia.

It was not until after I got off the medication that I was horrified at what had been done to me. I had not been capable of understanding until then. Everything except the headaches had seemed so normal.

This is a fairly typical example of what antipsychotic-induced cognitive impairment feels like from the inside.

And this is the real difficulty with cognitive impairment. Sexual side effects are embarrassing and uncomfortable to bring up, but they don’t make it impossible for you to notice the existence of sexual side effects. Cognitive impairment can and does disrupt the skills required to notice and take action about cognitive impairment: the memory that lets you realize that today isn’t just a particularly slow day; the meta-cognition that lets you notice that you’re not thinking the way you used to; the causal reasoning that allows you to connect it to your medication; the planning abilities that let you schedule an appointment with your doctor and complain; the feelings that make you believe that feeling like this is a bad thing.

I wish I had some recommendations for best practices to avoid this extremely terrifying outcome. Unfortunately, all I have is anecdotes, and I do not have an anecdote of someone who tried to notice cognitive impairment and succeeded. However, I would like to urge everyone– doctors and patients– to be more aware of the possibility of undetected cognitive impairment when people are taking drugs known to cause cognitive impairment.

Patients and loved ones of patients, be aware that the doctor may not tell you whether drugs cause cognitive impairment. Read the information that comes from the pharmacy carefully to see if there are any side effects that might disrupt your ability to notice side effects. If they do, ask your friends and loved ones to keep an eye out for uncharacteristic changes in behavior that might be a sign that you can’t notice whether your brain is working right.

If you are on antipsychotics, please send this article to a friend of yours right now, in case you fail to process your conclusions from the article.

Medical professionals, you are very plausibly missing a lot of very bad side effects of drugs! I am not sure what to do about this but I feel like it is worth trying to make you aware of this possibility.