Thoughts on Doxxing

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[content warning: quoted racist comments, brief mention of sexual harassment]

There was recently a kerfluffle about a member of the Internet right-wing named HanAssholeSolo, who made a gif that was retweeted by the president. CNN discovered his identity and did not out him, but made some statements that could be reasonably interpreted as threatening to out him if he didn’t stop being a horrible racist. I think The Intercept is probably correct that some executives decided to put in some lawyerese that happens to sound like CNN is threatening a critic with outing, and then didn’t explain themselves, because fucking executives. So I am going to blatantly ignore the kind of stupid and boring actual issue and instead discuss the much more interesting issue of whether CNN would be right to out horrible racists if this were actually a thing they were going to do.

–and let’s not mince our words here. I’ve seen a lot of people calling HanAssholeSolo a “CNN critic” or a “Trump supporter,” which seems unfairly insulting of both CNN critics and Trump supporters. To quote a Salon article on the subject:

At the same time he appears to have gone on a bit of an editing spree, knowing his posts would be under the microscope he started sanitizing some of his most offensive screeds, deleting the N-word and a comment about killing Muslims, for example. Quartz took screenshots of some of his posts before they were edited.

Despite the edits, there is still plenty of offensive material that HanAssholeSolo has posted that is still on the site (at least for now). The user, for example, posted a link to a meme that advocates running over Muslims with a tank. He or she also posted a meme that identified CNN contributors as Jews using a Star of David. The user also frequently posts racists comments that target African-Americans in particular, in one instance writing that Americans spend less on Father’s Day than Mother’s Day gifts because “most blacks don’t know who their fathers are.”

One might argue, as well, that eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth morality implies outing HanAssholeSolo is at least acceptable. After all, the r/The_Donald/Gamergate/alt-right cluster of the Internet shows no particular compunctions about sharing people’s private infomation, given that some of them are calling the journalist’s wife and parents at home with threatening messages. This is merely the latest in a long string of such incidents, which include getting a Nintendo employee fired for her history as a sex worker.

Nevertheless, I think it would be wrong to dox HanAssholeSolo, and this is why.

First, the eye-for-an-eye argument strikes me as pretty weak. When I have to give an account for my life, I hope I will have something better to say for myself than “I did not behave significantly worse than r/The_Donald.” Like, I am a better person than the average participant in r/The_Donald, that’s why I’m here defending their right not to be doxxed while they’re making unfunny memes about transgender people. (I’m too offended as a fan of comedy to be able to be offended as a trans person.) I promise there are plenty of ways we can punish the expression of horrible racism without using this particular one.

Second, when I think about doxxing, I always think about violentacrez.

Violentacrez was a vile person: among other sites, he moderated r/creepshots (which posted pictures of women’s breasts and asses taken in public without their consent) and r/jailbait (which posted sexualized pictures of women under the age of 18, many taken from their Facebook pages, again without their consent). But he also had a wife with fibromyalgia; when he was outed, he lost his job and his health insurance, putting her health in danger. While the Internet doesn’t seem to know what he’s up to now, Googling his legal name still brings up violentacrez; it seems quite likely that he has found it difficult or impossible to get a job since.

So that’s the question, isn’t it? Are you willing to sit down and endorse the statement “yes, I think a reasonable and appropriate punishment for this man’s actions is that his wife is deprived of the health care that helps keep her alive”?

And it’s not just people’s disabled partners (or, for that matter, disabled selves). It’s their elderly mother they’re taking care of and who has nowhere to go if they lose their home. Or their five-year-old who doesn’t understand anything about Reddit or CNN but does understand that Mommy and Daddy are fighting and there aren’t going to be any presents for Christmas this year. Or the better person they might be, someday, who will always be burdened by the corpse of the asshole they used to be.

It is much easier to judge people when the only thing you know about them is the worst thing they ever did.

In the case of violentacrez, yes, I am willing to bite that bullet. I am not sure that there was any other way to keep him from continuing to violate the privacy of literally thousands of girls, many of them underage. HanAssholeSolo, however, to his credit, has never been accused of harassing or threatening anyone. His comments about wanting to kill Muslims are obviously the same sort of thing as people saying “die cis scum” or “white genocide now” or “people who ship Reylo should be run over with a tank”: like, you obviously shouldn’t go around saying you want to kill people, but for every hundred thousand people who say that there’s maybe one person who actually, you know, means it. HanAssholeSolo’s racist comments were generally confined to r/The_Donald and other such places. It is not exactly a surprise to anyone that if you read r/The_Donald you will encounter racism there.

And– he would get fired. He would have a hard time finding another job. It would hurt anyone who depends on him financially. He would lose friendships and relationships. He would be harassed and sent death threats, because every time you unleash a mob on the Internet they’re going to harass you and send death threats. Maybe he would be a victim of swatting. Maybe he would be threatened or assaulted. And even if he changes, it won’t stop.

Even if you want to look at it from a practical standpoint, without any considerations of justice or mercy, presumably you (like me) want to reduce the number of horrible racists in the world. It seems to me that, to achieve this goal, it is very important that horrible racists continue to have connections with people who disapprove of horrible racism. If the people who aren’t horrible racists get you fired from your job and send you death threats, and the only place you find solace and comfort is with other horrible racists, and becoming less of a racist would not stop the non-horrible-racists from attacking you but would separate you from your source of support– would you stop being a horrible racist? Would anyone?

Those of us who have had the pleasure of having a small mob directed after them, as happens so often on the social justice Internet these days– did this get you to change your mind? Personally, I have sometimes experienced a mob where they were right and I was wrong and let me tell you at the time I would have sacrificed some of my less essential toes rather than admit that maybe the assholes had a point. I don’t know that making the mob be ten thousand people rather than a hundred would have any effect on increasing its persuasive power.

Mobbing doesn’t even consistently shut people up: I mean, sometimes it does, but there are plenty of people who get mobbed online and then respond by saying the same thing again but louder this time, and now they have sympathy including from people who weren’t on their side to start with. I mean, exactly how well has Gamergate done at shutting up Anita Sarkeesian?

Yes, yes, you should stop believing horrible things no matter how much it would personally harm you or how contrary to human nature it would be. I think it is a bit much to base your anti-racism plan on horrible racists universally being saints.

I’m not saying that anyone has a duty to spend time with horrible racists (although it’s a good thing to do if it’s something you’re personally capable of). But I am saying that at the very least one should not cause horrible racists harm in such a way that it increases their chance of continuing to be horrible racists. And that means no doxxing.

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Data on Campus Censorship Cases

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I’ve noticed that people tend to only hear about campus free speech cases which fit their particular narrative (either of conservatives censoring liberals or of liberals censoring conservatives). Apolitical cases (for instance, Valencia College’s censorship of students who protested forced transvaginal ultrasounds) tend to become less widely known, as do cases of liberal censorship among conservatives and conservative censorship among liberals. In addition, people hear more about cases of censorship at famous colleges (such as Harvard or Yale) than they do about the less famous colleges that most people actually go to.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a well-respected organization which specializes in campus free speech and other civil liberties. My sample was the list FIRE maintains on its website of cases it has worked on in the past (for instance, by sending the college a letter or engaging in litigation). I took every fifth case and coded it as censorship of conservative, censorship of liberal, or apolitical censorship. There were 88 cases in my sample. I dropped five for being FIRE suing about bad policies with no clear indication of whom they would be used against, four for being sexual misconduct policies (which are not instances of censorship), and two for being miscellaneous instances of inadequate college due process (which, again, are not censorship). This left me with 77 cases.

Of the 77 cases, I coded 20 (26%) as censorship of liberals, 40 (52%) as censorship of conservatives, and 17 (22%) as apolitical censorship. An example of censorship of conservatives is refusing to allow Christians to organize a student group; an example of censorship of liberals is not allowing PETA supporters to hand out flyers; an example of apolitical censorship is suspending a professor for saying, during a review session for a test, that the questions he was asking were so difficult he was on a killing spree.

I made a few judgment calls which I want to discuss. One instance of a hate speech code was coded as “censorship of liberals” because surrounding discussion suggested it was intended to censor pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protests. While some people would consider sexual harassment law to be inherently liberal, I classified (for instance) the censorship of a crew team’s shirts saying “check out our cox” as apolitical censorship, since lewd puns are not a political sentiment. (Of course, if sexual harassment law was used to censor a political statement, I classified it as “liberal” or “conservative.”) I classified socialists as liberal and libertarians as conservative, in spite of both groups’ probable objection to such a classification. “Nationwide disinvitation of speakers,” a single FIRE case, was classified as conservative because 9/10 of the most disinvited speakers are conservative, but note that Bill Ayers is also on the list. (It is also a judgment call that I (a) didn’t treat each disinvitation as a separate case and (b) included “nationwide disinvitations” at all.)

ETA: I’d also like to note that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is not a random sample of college censorship cases. Presumably they do not pursue every case brought to their attention, and there may be systematic biases in which students contact FIRE. For example, conservative students may trust FIRE more and be more likely to call them when campus censorship occurs, or conversely FIRE may pursue more cases of liberal censorship to combat its image as a defender of the right wing. These results should be taken with a grain of salt.

In conclusion: there is a definite tendency for censorship on college campuses to be censorship of conservative viewpoints, perhaps because conservative viewpoints tend to be underrepresented in academia. However, about a quarter of college censorship in this sample is of liberal viewpoints and a quarter is of apolitical viewpoints; this suggests it is a mistake to assume that censorship on college campuses is solely of conservative viewpoints. However, given the limitations of my data, I’d strongly advise against drawing any conclusion from it firmer than “censorship of both liberals and conservatives occurs on college campuses, and conservatives probably face more.”

Bridging the Inferential Distance on Desexualization

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[Related: Etiquette for People Who Aren’t Attracted To Trans Women]

I notice that conversations about desexualization are particularly prone to people misunderstanding each other. For instance, many people seem to round any conversation about desexualization off to telling people that they have to have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with, and then say something along the lines of “didn’t the gay rights movement prove that no one should have to have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with? Rapist!” Many other people assume that the first group’s concerns are a smokescreen for not wanting to deal with their own bigotry, and thus assume that they could not have any reasonable concerns about compulsory sexuality.

I don’t have a lot to say to the second group at this time (although theunitofcaring’s Meditation on Boundaries, which has been recently going around again, is excellent, and I endorse her statement that all conversations about desexualization need to begin from the baseline that people should promptly say “no” to intimate activities that they don’t want). But I recently found an article from a few years back that I think might help explain the second group’s position to my readers who are prone to the “rapist” thing. (Please note that the author of the article is pretty mean to techies, and if you don’t want to read that you may want to skip the quoted bit.)

Here’s an excerpt:

You might think an abundance of men is a great thing, but as a wise woman once said, “The odds may be good, but the goods are odd.”

“I’ve lived in Seattle for seven years, single most of them,” Annie Pardo, a 31-year-old freelance event and communications consultant in Seattle, wrote in an email. “The only thing that has changed is the increase in men I’d never want to go out on a date with.” She added, “Can’t believe they actually strap on those new employee book bags.”

For Reifman, the number of men versus women presents a challenge for guys like him—he can’t seem to get a date or hold the attention of the women he’s courting because, presumably, he’s got so much competition. But the reality is that all he has to do is have a personality. I’m serious.

The exact same scenario has been playing out in San Francisco for the last few years. One woman, Violet, a 33-year-old who has lived in the Bay Area for eight years, with one of those in the “belly of the beast,” Palo Alto, experienced many of the same things I and other women did. They had money, but they were boring. They had a lot to say about their job, but their development as a complete human being seemed to be stunted. And they exhibited little to no interest in the other person at the table.

“There were a lot of tech men. I could talk a blue streak about them. I don’t have much positive to say. The biggest thing, the thing that bothered me the most is I felt like my intelligence was greatly devalued,” she wrote. ”I am a smart woman. I have a master’s from Berkeley in philosophy. My brain is very abstract, though, the exact opposite of so many men in tech who have very concrete/literal brains. They interpreted information as intelligence. I constantly felt like I wasn’t seen or valued by them, even though I experienced a lot of them as having a very limited view of the world.”

Carla Swiryn, a matchmatcher for Three Day Rule, a start-up that offers curated online dating services in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, said that her female clients are often hit with a double whammy: “I often hear women say they either date A-holes or nerds—or if they’re really lucky, both in one,” she said. “They feel like they’re dealing with someone who has poor social skills, not a lot of style, and isn’t that attractive, or is decently good-looking, successful, or cool, but by default knows it and acts like it, with a huge ego and selfish mind-set in tow.”

One woman, Bridget Arlene, spent three years in Seattle for graduate school, and said that she actually moved out of the city, in part because of the type of available men—most of whom had computer science or engineering degrees and worked for Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. “The type of person who is attracted to these jobs and thus to the Seattle area seems to be a socially awkward, emotionally stunted, sheltered, strangely entitled, and/or a misogynistic individual,” she wrote in an email. Arlene said that she was once contacted by a Microsoft programmer on OKCupid who required that she read Neuromancer before “he would consider taking me out on a date. He was not joking.”

It goes on like that for a while, but you get the general idea.

So here’s my guess on the reaction of most of my readers to this article:

  • You are totally allowed to have a preference not to date nerds, but it is neither kind nor necessary to write thousands of words exploring exactly how undateable you find us.
  • There are lots of women who want to date nerds, actually? Maybe you shouldn’t assume your own particular sexual preferences apply to every fucking woman on the planet? Lots of women don’t find “socially awkward with a poor fashion sense” to be a dealbreaker. Lots of women are socially awkward and have terrible fashion sense themselves!
  • You are not actually entitled to a dating market that only has people you find attractive in it. People you don’t find attractive are allowed to try to find love too. “Asking you out while being incompatible” is not something people are doing to you.
  • Obviously everyone is allowed to have their own dealbreakers, even if some of their dealbreakers are kind of stupid. But god, maybe you could try being a little more open-minded? You might be swept off your feet by a really great guy who happens to wear a new employee book bag. Also, fashion sense is totally a solvable problem, you can say to your new boyfriend “give me a $500 budget and I will buy you clothes that fit.”
  • Good fucking riddance, lady, if you’re going to be this much of an asshole we don’t want to date you either.

In particular, that last point is something I want to highlight. It is desirable that the author of this article become less of an asshole, in the same way it’s desirable that any person become less of an asshole. Presumably, if she became less of an asshole, she’d be more open-minded about dating people that she currently considers to be emotionally stunted sheltered man-children with poor fashion sense and an aversion to spending money on messenger bags. But that doesn’t mean you want her to skip the “become less of an asshole” part and start dating techies right now. For one thing, then some innocent techie would be saddled with a girlfriend who hates him. For another thing, being open to dating techies is a predicted consequence of the thing you actually care about, which is her not being an asshole. If she kept her preferences once she became less of an asshole, but no longer wrote long articles about how horrible people she happens to not be attracted to are, then this would also be a fine outcome. “If you did X morally good thing, then you would probably also behave like Y” is a different claim from “you should behave like Y.” You don’t actually want people to date people they despise.

And in my experience those points are what most people who talk about desexualization in an anti-oppression context– whether it’s about race, transness, gender expression, disability, or size– are actually saying. There are legitimate complaints one can have about another person’s sex-related behavior, which are not the same thing as trying to make them have sex they don’t want.

Some Observations On Cis By Default Identification

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As the inventor of the word “cis by default” and a person who occasionally checks who’s linking to my blog, I get to see quite a lot of people using the word “cis by default.” My estimate is that about half are using it wrong.

There are two equal and opposite errors. First, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact gender dysphoric people who don’t want to transition. I certainly understand why gender dysphoric non-transitioning people relate to “there’s no part of their brain that says “I’m a guy!”, they just look around and people are calling them “he” and they go with the flow”, since there is in fact no part of their brain saying “I’m a guy” and they are in fact going with the flow of how other people refer to them. But not having a gender identity is a quite different thing from having a gender identity and choosing to present differently from what your gender identity is. I see people write things like “I really wish I was a woman. It would make me so happy to wake up one day and everyone is calling me ‘she’. It’s so weird to look at myself in the mirror and see a man. Female bodies are just inherently softer and better and more beautiful. I don’t like sex because having a dick disgusts me. I spend hours carefully removing all my facial hair because having a beard makes me want to cry. But I’m worried about facing transphobia and that I wouldn’t be attractive if I transitioned, so I guess I’m cis by default.”

In general, if you can write an entire paragraph about all your emotions about your gender, you are probably not cis by default.

Second, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact regular cisgender people who are bad at introspection. I suspect this is part of what’s up with the Less Wrong survey finding that half of cis people are cis by default (the other part is that rationalists are pretty genderweird in general). It makes sense that cisgender people, particularly ones with relatively weak gender identities, have a hard time noticing their gender identities: in most cases, cisgender people have a body that is aligned with their gender and are very rarely misgendered, so there’s no reason for the issue to come up.

I also think that people’s ability to notice their gender identity is affected by what community they’re in. For instance, evangelical Christian books are full of passages like this:

Sometime between the dreams of your youth and yesterday, something precious has been lost. And that treasure is your heart, your priceless feminine heart. God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.

And New-Agey books are full of passages like this:

To answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of sexual passion and spiritual openness. Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity, which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles. All natural forces flow between two poles. The North and South Poles of the Earth create a force of magnetism. The positive and negative poles of your electrical outlet or car battery create an electrical flow. In the same way, masculine and feminine poles between people create the flow of sexual feeling. This is sexual polarity.

This force of attraction, which flows between the two different poles of masculine and feminine, is the dynamism that often disappears in modern relationships. If you want real passion, you need a ravisher and a ravishee; otherwise, you just have two buddies who decide to rub genitals in bed.

Each of us, man or woman, possesses both inner masculine and inner feminine qualities. Men can wear earrings, tenderly hug each other, and dance ecstatically in the woods. Women can change the oil in the car, accumulate political and financial power, and box in the ring. Men can take care of their children. Women can fight for their country. We have proven these things. Just about anyone can animate either masculine or feminine energy in any particular moment. (Although they still might have a strong preference to do one or the other, which we will get to in a moment.)

The bottom line of today’s newly emerging 50/50, or “second stage,” relationship is this: If men and women are clinging to a politically correct sameness even in moments of intimacy, then sexual attraction disappears. I don’t mean just the desire for intercourse, but the juice of the entire relationship begins to dry up. The love may still be strong, the friendship may still be strong, but the sexual polarity fades, unless in moments of intimacy one partner is willing to play the masculine pole and one partner is willing to play the feminine. You have to animate the masculine and feminine differences if you want to play in the field of sexual passion.

(After having read The Way Of The Superior Man, I never want to hear complaints about trans people’s autogenderphilia again. At least we don’t claim that sexual attraction is literally impossible unless you’re an autogenderphile.)

There are lots of reasons to object to these passages! For one thing, they assume that everyone has a gender, which is not true: my guess is that a sizeable minority of cis people are cis by default. For another thing, they assume that the way that the author happens to feel gender is the way that every other person in the whole entire world happens to feel gender. If you’re a man who feels deeply affirmed in your masculinity by cherishing and loving your romantic partner and prioritizing him over your work, The Way of the Superior Man doesn’t want to hear from you. If you’re a woman who finds that being fought over by men makes you feel awkward and uncomfortable rather than assured in your femininity, Captivating has nothing to say to you. And they erase people who understand their genders in a nonbinary or gender-non-conforming way.

But I think it’s also possible to recognize the human experience described in those passages. For the author of Captivating, feeling feminine is a real thing and very important to her– a source of pleasure, a way of connection, an aspect of herself. For the author of The Way of the Superior Man, sexuality is fundamentally connected to gender. They might not frame their experiences in the same way I do, but I think in a certain sense they’re feeling the same thing I’m feeling.

However, I think a lot of liberal communities tend to stigmatize the open expression of cisgender people’s genders. Interestingly, feminists don’t. For instance, radical feminists have a framework for gender in the form of Adrienne Rich’s thoughts about lesbianism, Janice Raymond’s work on female friendship, or Mary Daly’s… Mary Daly-ness. Queers incessantly navel-gaze about gender.

But when you venture out from the weeds of feminist theory into the way normal liberals live their day-to-day lives, I can’t help but feel that a lot of liberals feel like the open expression of cisgender people’s genders is somewhat… déclassé. Not at all what our sort of people does.

(Transgender people’s genders don’t seem to be as stigmatized, because the popular sort of feminism that filters through liberal communities tends to believe that Trans Women Are Women. Consistency is not the strong point of shallow feminist analysis. That said, I think a large number of trans-exclusive radical feminists are not really radical feminists, but instead shallow pop libfems who are clever enough to notice that trans people’s existence contradicts their ideology.)

I want to emphasize that I’m not limiting this argument to people who actively identify as feminist, or even to people who don’t identify as anti-feminist. You can identify as anti-feminist and have a framework for gender which is influenced by your culture (as everyone’s is). If you grew up in any sort of vaguely liberal community, one of the things that influences it is the feminism– often oversimplified and misunderstood– which filters down to you.

But if you don’t read theory books, and your feminist thoughts are mostly along the lines of Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do and Feminism Is The Radical Notion That Women Are People and Look At This Badass Woman Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling, it’s easy to be leery about cis people’s gender identities. If you say that you have such-and-such a trait or do such-and-such a thing because you are a woman, isn’t that sort of like saying that women have to have that trait or do that thing? That is kind of suspicious! Men and women are the same except for their genitals! You can’t just go around saying you like wearing suits because you’re a man, I literally just posted on Facebook this Buzzfeed listicle of Fourteen Hottest Women In Suits.

And if you’re in that sort of situation, and you feel like it’s sort of shameful to go around having feelings about your gender, and you’re cisgender and don’t have particularly strong feelings about your gender in the first place… it’s easy to just sort of not notice them.

Like, that’s not even on the top twenty list of the weirdest contortions people get into about their gender.

And thus you get the situation that happened on one of the links into me, where a person said they were cis-by-default and then was asked whether they would crossdress if they knew that no one would think less of them for it and said “obviously not, I’m a man.”

Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to police these uses of the term, particularly since there’s no such thing as an objective measurement of whether or not someone has a gender identity. But this is why I am very skeptical about getting any sort of population estimate of how many people are cis-by-default.

Thoughts Concerning Homeschooling

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I.

I have much stronger opinions about the best way to educate the children I am likely to have than I do about the best way to educate children in general. However, I understand that an educational reform proposal is an important part of being a prospective homeschooling parent who also blogs, and luckily there do seem to be some obvious pieces of low-hanging fruit. Picking these can justify the effort of homeschooling in and of itself.

For instance, high schools, and to a lesser extent middle schools, should run on Silicon Valley time. There is absolutely no reason to start classes before 10, much less at 7am (!!!), as the public high school near where I grew up did. Teenagers like to go to sleep at 11am or midnight, this is an extremely predictable fact about teenagers, and you do not get millions of people to change their preferences by yelling at them to be more virtuous and have more willpower. Chronic sleep deprivation causes depression, anxiety, behavioral problems, poor memory, and poor concentration (interestingly, these are all common complaints about teenagers). And I shudder to think of the consequences of causing chronic sleep deprivation in such a crucial time for brain development. Please, for the love of god, homeschooling parents, let your teenagers sleep in.

Similarly, many schools have cut recess and physical education to create more time for academics, in spite of the evidence that exercise improves children’s academic outcomes (as well as, obviously, their physical health). Again, this is another easy fix: homeschooling parents can and should ensure that their children have sufficient time for physical activity, including plenty of time for unstructured free play. On a related note, play-based kindergartens appear to outperform academically oriented kindergartens.

The homeschooling parent may also be able to adopt some evidence-based learning techniques which are not necessarily common in the classroom. The two techniques with the most evidence are practice testing and distributed practice (also called spaced repetition). People seem to learn better if they regularly have to recall the information they’re supposed to be learning, such as by using flashcards, doing practice problems, or having to write a short essay without referencing your notes. Distributed practice/spaced repetition is spreading out what you’re learning over time: for instance, instead of teaching about the theory of evolution all in one week, spread out the lessons over several weeks, and regularly return to the concepts to review them. Promising techniques with less evidence include interleaved practice (mixing up problems of different kinds, such as having addition and subtraction problems on the same worksheet), elaborative interrogation (trying to explain to yourself why facts are true), and self-explanation (explaining to yourself why you solved a problem in a particular way or how a fact relates to other facts you already know).

While there’s not much the non-homeschooling parent can do about their teenager’s chronic sleep deprivation, non-homeschooling parents can also pick these low-hanging fruit, although with somewhat more difficulty. Prioritize physical activity and unstructured play in choosing your child’s after-school activities, flee any kindergarten which involves a worksheet, and teach your child to test themselves and spread out their studying over time. Also, if you find yourself interested in activism, please consider campaigning for your child’s high school to start at a reasonable hour.

II.

An interesting question is whether homeschooling tends to outperform non-homeschooling. Unfortunately, most of the data that purports to show that it does is selection bias hell, overrepresenting wealthy and college-educated homeschooling parents and underrepresenting educationally neglectful or just generally shitty homeschooling parents.

However, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education has done some very important– albeit preliminary– research with fewer selection bias issues. (Interested readers may fund less preliminary research here.) Poor homeschoolers tend to outperform poor publicly schooled children in reading and writing and slightly underperform them in math. Non-poor homeschoolers tend to slightly underperform in reading and writing and massively underperform in math.

We don’t have enough information to know for certain why homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers differ. However, my speculation is that poor homeschoolers tend to do better because poor homeschoolers are different from poor non-homeschoolers: for instance, they may be more likely to be culturally and educationally middle-class people who are poor because one parent quit their job to homeschool. The lower performance of children in math seems to me to be a result of the average American’s attitude towards math, namely, hatred, fear, and distrust. Many Americans can barely perform elementary-school-level math, such as simplifying fractions. No doubt this is due to American schools’ appalling math education, but one would not expect high-quality reading education from a parent who struggles reading Goosebumps, and one should not expect high-quality math education from a parent who does not know algebra.

For this reason, I would advise the homeschooling parent to put serious thought into how they’ll teach mathematics. In my case, I’m not particularly worried, because my local homeschooling coop is going to include an absurd number of physics majors, a former math tutor, and an Ivy League mathematics PhD. However, people who are less lucky should consider budgeting some money for math tutoring, perhaps from a local grad student, or a high-quality after-school math program.

III.

I currently favor unschooling as a method of homeschooling, but this is pretty much about traits of my child, rather than traits of children in general. It is pretty much inevitable– given genetics– that any children I have will have their own particular, passionate interests which they are extremely enthusiastic about learning about, and that they will respond to attempts to get them to learn about other topics with something between dutifulness and rebellion. This seems to me to imply that unschooling, which involves following the child’s interests, is an ideal choice: the children will be much happier and I won’t have to spend a bunch of time coercing them into doing well on tests on subjects they are uninterested in.

No doubt this will lead the child to have a remarkably unbalanced education: they may understand everything there is to know about sailing, or Broadway musicals, or ancient Greece, while remaining unclear on things like how molecules work or the Civil War. However, conventionally educated people are also generally unclear on these things: for instance, 19% of college students know what the Manhattan Project is, 16% know that the Raven in the poem of the same name says “Nevermore,” and 14% know that Mendel is the man who first studied genetic inheritance in plants. (In the interests of not presenting an unfairly biased list, I will add that college students are generally extremely accurate about the definitions of the words “zebra,” “hibernation,” “hockey puck,” “fossil,” and “ruby.” So science education at least is not a total failure.) It is a commonplace observation that most people go through twelve years of mathematical and scientific education, and graduate with no ability to do anything beyond arithmetic and only the vaguest understanding of Newton’s laws or the theory of evolution. If my children are ignorant about Edgar Allen Poe, at least they will have a firm understanding of ancient Greece, which is more than can be said for the general public.

In addition, one does not have unlimited time to educate children: you can either give them a broad overview of many topics or a deep understanding of a few topics. You can have a world history class which gives two days to Sumeria and one day to the Vietnam War, or you can have a Sumerian history class that doesn’t talk about anything else. It’s not obvious to me that the former is obviously better than the latter, and the difficulty of coercing children whose brains work the way mine does leads one inevitably to the latter.

Perhaps the most important part of unschooling is not what it does but what it doesn’t do: that is, unschooling does not crush the love of learning out of children. Peter Gray writes in Free to Learn that adults who attended Sudbury schools as children are often behind in academic knowledge, but they catch up quite quickly once they go to college. And they are routinely baffled by other college students: these college students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to learn from experts in the field, and yet their primary interest is doing the minimum they can to get an A. It was simply incomprehensible to them.

It seems to me that mandatory schooling is likely to reduce the love of learning, because you will regularly have to learn about things you don’t care about and aren’t interested in, and if you are interested in a subject you cannot explore it in as much depth as you would prefer. Extrinsic rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation: the more you’re working to get an A in the class, the less you’re working because you actually care about the subject. I’ve personally experienced this– there’s nothing that kills my motivation to write five-thousand word essays about feminism than getting a grade on it.

However, I do think there is a certain amount of wisdom in the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic, one that overcomes my objections to coercion. Reading, writing, and arithmetic (plus statistics) are unique among subjects in that they make it easier to learn everything else. While there are other subjects that make everything else easier to learn, they generally only require a few days’ worth of explicit education (the scientific method) or are related to so many different interests that there’s not much reason to explicitly teach it as its own thing (the ability to smell bullshit).

You could also add “a foreign language” to the list of things that make it easier to learn other things, and I certainly would if my children were not native English speakers. However, teaching a foreign language such that the child actually learns it is an enormous pain unless you happen to already have lots of friends who are fluent speakers, and there doesn’t seem to me to be much point in replicating the standard American four-years-of-high-school-Spanish-and-can’t-ask-where-the-bathroom-is. However, if you happen to know lots of people who fluently speak Spanish, Chinese, or a similarly useful language, it seems well-advised to ask them to babysit regularly and refuse to speak any language other than the one you want your child to learn.

Of reading, writing, arithmetic, and a useful foreign language, reading is the most important: while writing is primarily useful if you want to communicate something, and math is useful for the natural and social sciences but generally unnecessary for the humanities, literally everything you want to know– from cooking to woodworking to economics to the history of the Indus valley civilization– is easier to learn if you are capable of reading a reference text.

The good news is that all pretty much all unschooled children learn to read eventually, on average at the age of 8, which is only one year behind most children. (Note, however, the caveats above about self-reported data: this evidence is likely to massively overstate how early unschoolers are reading.) The bad news is that nearly a fifth of unschooling children learn to read after the age of 10, which means that they have at best three to four years of fundamentally impaired ability to learn, and perhaps almost a decade. Imagine what they could have accomplished in those three to four years with appropriate reading education!

Some unschooling advocates point to hunter-gatherer societies, in which children often learn solely through play. However, the games hunter-gatherer children play have undergone literal millennia of cultural evolution to make sure they teach the skills hunter-gatherer children need to learn. This is not true for modern children; our games are not generally optimized for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. For that reason, I suggest using Montessori methods in the early grades, which are play-based.

IV.

Both my family and my husband’s family have a disproportionate number of weird, awkward nerds. Having no social skills is deeply unpleasant: it feels like you are surrounded by incomprehensible monsters who hate you for no reason, perhaps because they are evil, perhaps because you are an inherently terrible person. For this reason, it makes sense to prioritize teaching social skills.

However, explicitly teaching social skills often goes poorly. For one thing, social skills classes are often based more on what parents and teachers want to be true than on what is actually true: for instance, students will be told to tell bullies firmly that they don’t like that, but will not be told to punch the bully or, failing that, befriend someone tough who can punch the bully for you, even though the latter are far more effective techniques. Sometimes students are even told that sitting quietly in class and doing your homework will make you friends. For this reason, I suggest avoiding social skills classes.

I am currently moderately socially competent. When I think about how I became moderately socially competent, two things stand out. One is that I began communicating online, which stripped away the incomprehensible tone and body language and allowed me to quietly observe interactions for months before I participated myself. For this reason, I plan to encourage my children to engage in online interaction.

The second is that online I could talk to people whose neurotypes (for lack of a better word) were similar to mine. (This is not about diagnoses: there are many autistic people I can’t relate to with anything other than polite incomprehension; weird awkward nerds can have a wide variety of different diagnoses and often do not qualify for any diagnosis at all, except perhaps recurring depression.) I don’t think people often think about how important the typical mind fallacy is in developing cognitive empathy, particularly when you are first learning. The first step to cognitive empathy is going “I would be sad if I lost my doll, she lost her doll, so she is probably sad.” Only once you have a firm grasp of that can you move onto “I would be sad if I lost something important to me, I don’t care about tea sets, she cares about her tea set, she lost her tea set, so she is probably sad.”

Interacting with people who are very different from you is interaction on hard mode. We normally place children with social-skills impairments in environments where reasoning based on their own minds is utterly useless. If you like listening to other people’s infodumps, you might infodump about your own interests and then be puzzled about why no one likes you. If you misunderstand subtext, you might politely decide to be blunt about whether you like another child’s haircut. If you don’t care about hygiene, you might be confused about why the other children make fun of you for wearing the same pants three days in a row. Weird awkward nerds are probably different from other children in other ways: for instance, they tend to have different interests, which makes it hard to bond over shared passions or hobbies. The situation is even worse for autistic children, who not only have all these difficulties but also have a characteristic affect (stimming, lack of eye contact) which is unpleasant for most neurotypicals. So you put children who are already bad at social interaction in a situation where they have to do very complicated social reasoning and they don’t share many interests with the children they’re talking to and the other children are already biased towards disliking them. This is a recipe for disaster.

It seems to me a better way would be to put weird awkward nerdy children in an environment of solely weird awkward nerdy children. As young children, they can learn empathy, confidence, and how to make friends around people like them. Once they’re a bit older, they can interact with ordinary children and children who are differently socially impaired, and learn how to expand their empathy to people who are more different from them: since they already have friends, their failures won’t make them feel like they are inherently unlikeable and alien, and perhaps they can compare notes with their friends and together learn to understand more normal people. Autistic children can learn to fake eye contact and to stim subtly in adolescence, after several years of being allowed to stim freely, and when they aren’t trying to learn all the other rules at the same time. (I do believe that being able to pass is, sadly, a useful skill.)

I guess this is partially an argument against inclusion, even though inclusion has been a big disability rights push for decades. I want to defend myself against this a little bit. A disabled-children-only classroom seems very silly: most disabled children don’t have any sort of social impairment, so this argument doesn’t apply to them. Not all socially impaired children should be put in the same classroom: there are lots of different ways children can be socially impaired, and a socially impaired child may have even more difficulties understanding a differently socially impaired child than they do understanding a child with ordinary social skills. And certainly there is no reason to separate disabled and nondisabled weird awkward nerds.

Like I said, I am not really capable of suggesting strategies for educational reform: I shudder at the idea of turning “weird awkward nerd” into a set of criteria that decides which classroom you get to go into. And I have zero evidence (other than my own personal experience) that suggests this is actually a better way to raise socially impaired children. That said, personally I plan on setting up my homeschooling so that my children mostly interact with similarly weird and awkward children in the elementary-school years, and to me this is the major advantage of being able to homeschool.

 

Why Is Harry Potter So Popular?

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[This post was requested by b, who wanted me to write about the enduring popularity of Harry Potter. If you back me on Patreon for $5 or more a month, you too may be randomly selected to tell me what to write.]

Because something had to be.

This paper is one I find absolutely fascinating. The authors created an artificial music market: participants could listen to an unknown song by an unknown band, rate it from one to five stars, and optionally download it. The fourteen thousand (!) participants were divided into two groups, one of which could see how often the song had been downloaded by other participants, and one of which could not. The first group was further divided into eight “worlds”: participants could only see the downloads from their own world.

The results are perhaps not surprising. In the social influence condition, there was more inequality in which songs were downloaded: the songs that were most popular tended to stay popular. (The effect was larger when the songs were ranked in order of how popular they are.) The social influence condition also caused more unpredictability: the distinct “worlds” were far more different from each other than randomly selected groups of participants from the independent condition were. Assuming that rank in the independent condition is an accurate measure of quality, then success in each of the worlds is positively correlated with quality, the best songs rarely do very poorly, and the worst songs rarely do very well. But it was quite common for an objectively mediocre song to shoot to the top of the charts, perhaps because an early participant happened to like it, and this snowballed.

Of course, in the real world, social influence is a far stronger force than it is in this study. You could pretty easily listen to all 48 songs in the study, and no doubt many people did, but it is impossible to read every book published in the course of a year. In fact, most of the ways we choose books to read– other than, of course, serendipitously stumbling across an excellent book in a bookstore or library– depend on social influence: recommendations from friends, book reviews, awards, bestseller lists.

Quality is an explanation of why a book has an ordinary amount of popularity: for instance, the popularity of George R R Martin’s Sandkings is no doubt because it is a wonderfully chilling horror novelette. (Seriously, check it out.) But I don’t think he improved that much as a writer between Armageddon Rag (which was an utter commercial disaster) and A Feast for Crows (his first bestselling novel). And it is certainly not because of any virtue of Martin’s that A Song of Ice and Fire got adapted into an HBO show while, say, the Lilith’s Brood series did not.

(I am so mad at HBO. When I was in high school, I quit reading ASOIAF until it was done, because I didn’t want to reread four thousand-page books every half-decade when the books came out so I could remind myself who the fuck the characters were. “All I have to do is avoid Martin fansites until the series is over,” I said to myself. “It’s not like it’s going to be turned into a wildly popular TV show and I will have to excuse myself from conversations at parties lest I have the ending spoiled.” Ha ha bloody fucking ha.)

(This is the TV show watchers’ revenge for all the gloating I did about the Red Wedding, isn’t it?)

Anyway, Harry Potter is not normal popular. It is stupidly, wildly, amazingly popular. It is a mistake to judge a children’s book by the same standards that you judge an adult’s book, but even as a children’s book Harry Potter is solidly good-but-not-great: I would put it roughly in the same class as A Series of Unfortunate Events or Animorphs, not as good as the Time Quintet. And yet there is only one of these book series where, despite not having reread the books since high school, I am familiar with the names of two dozen minor characters. (Marcus Flint, Lavender Brown, Terry Boot, Blaise Zambini…) Normal popularity is easily explicable by quality. Stupid, wild, amazing popularity is due to luck.

I am not sure what particular set of events caused Harry Potter to become more popular than A Series of Unfortunate Events, or if it was simply a lot of people’s individual decision to recommend this particular book. But it is easy to answer the question of why they’re so popular now, which is because they have been popular in the past, and therefore there exist many people who want to recommend the series to others and read it to their children, and even those who haven’t read the series know whether they’re a Gryffindor or a Ravenclaw.

Blog Housekeeping

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New secret blog post up, this one about mental illness and parenting.

I generally list where I’m donating in a donations post at the end of the year, but this donation is relatively time-sensitive and if I wait until December anyone who wants to copy me can’t. I have donated $100 to fund a randomized controlled trial of a sepsis treatment which my friend Sarah Constantin finds promising. I think thoughtful, independent research into potentially high-value places to donate is something that the effective altruism community doesn’t do enough of, and I have committed to donating $100 to each such opportunity I come across until I think enough such independent research is being done.

Book Post for April, Not About Parenting

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Eros and Thanatos: A pair of philosophical dialogues about love and sex, starring a family of Roman reconstructionist pagans. If this sounds like your sort of thing, it probably is. In the first, Catullus (a closeted gay man who believes that Love Conquers All) debates homosexuality with Germanicus (a Stoic who believes sex is only for procreation), Lydia (a Catholic), Sheila (a basically normal person), Ali (a postmodernist feminist) and Juvenal (the sort of edgelord who goes about saying that everything is violence and power). In the second, Juvenal, Germanicus, and Catullus debate whether murder is ever morally acceptable, along with Caligula (an atheist) and Brutus (a Buddhist).

Motel of the Mysteries: From the Body Ritual Among The Nacirema school of parody, the premise is that two thousand years from now an archaeologist finds a buried motel and concludes that this was a place of sacred mysteries. The book discusses The Great Altar (a television), the ceremonial burial cap (a shower cap), and the sacred collar (a toilet seat). Funny and pointed.

Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism: This is a very frustrating book. I thought I would really enjoy it because I love her blog– even when I disagree she’s always insightful– but this book occasionally veered towards something I agree with and then felt like it came from Cloudcuckooland. People who have casual sex are all sex addicts! You can tell, because they deny that they’re sex addicts, and addicts always deny their addiction. Obviously. Nevertheless, Selmys’s conversion story is really interesting. She gets catechized early on by a Druid.

Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections: I find this book much less frustrating than the former book, and even agree with it in some places.

Selmys uses the Roman emperors as a framing to talk about the etiology of homosexuality. Of the first fifteen Roman emperors, only one was completely heterosexual. Even assuming that some were slandered by their detractors, at least half the emperors had some level of same-sex attraction. This seems strange from a perspective in which only three percent of the population is LGB, and startling even if you assume Roman emperors carried the gay gene, since many early Emperors were not related. She uses it as a framework to talk about different causes of homosexuality: for instance, Julius Caesar might have been an opportunistic bisexual, Tiberius a sex addict, Caligula a sexual assault victim, Nero a very feminine man forced into an ultra-masculine role in an ultra-masculine society by an overbearing mother, Hadrian a normal well-balanced person who happened to be in love with a man, Elegabalus a trans woman. Even given the many similarities between Roman emperors, there’s a lot of diversity in sexual behavior and motivation and what it means to call someone gay or bisexual.

Selmys’s observations on ex-gays seem to match up with my own observations of bihacking. Some people experience a sudden change in sexuality, but it’s not common and there’s no way to cause it; most people can, with a lot of hard work, transform themselves from Kinsey 0s and 6s to Kinsey 1s and 5s, but this does not actually offer a realistic hope of a relationship. Selmys claims that sudden orientation shifts are often caused by falling in love, which isn’t true in my experience, and I am curious what the difference is.

Selmys had a really interesting perspective on how having a lot of kids affects the experience of a parent of a disabled child. If you have one kid, all your hopes and dreams are on that kid. When your child is diagnosed with a disability, you have to grieve all the experiences you won’t have: if your child uses a wheelchair, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to play football; if your child is intellectually disabled, it’s harder to share the pleasures of science with them. But if you have more than one kid, then you can still have those experiences with your other kids, and it’s easier to recognize how good your disabled child is as themselves. I am not sure if I agree, but I think it’s interesting to think about.

Interim Errantry: Three Tales of the Young Wizards: An excellent three-novella collection. It’s nice to get a little breather and see what Kit and Nita are up to when they aren’t saving Earth. Interim Errantry is as weird as any other Young Wizards book: my attempts to explain the plots to Topher involved a lot of “Jack O’Lanterns are apparently sapient”, “and then the tree alien decides to become a Christmas tree”, and “and then through a series of misunderstandings an alien concludes that Nita and Kit are going to engage in the Impregnation Ritual on Valentine’s Day and the prelude to this involves eating one candy heart each day.”

Science fantasy is a genre close to my heart. I love urban fantasy that takes full advantage of the fact that it takes place in our reality and therefore has moons and aliens.

Also, I’m not sure if this is just me, but there were definitely more references to boners and porn than I’m used to in the Young Wizards series. The freedom of self-publishing? Changing standards in YA books?

Borderline (The Arcadia Project Book 1): The fey exist. All genius artwork comes from collaborations between humans and their fey soulmates, called “Echoes”. (The soulmate does not have to be a romantic soulmate.) The Arcadia Project, which employs solely crazy people, manages the fey/human interactions.

Our protagonist has borderline personality disorder and it’s amazing. Nothing I love more than a book about a borderline who totally has insight into the awful things she does and keeps doing them anyway. I liked how it realistically wrote her both as sympathetic and as kind of an awful person, but not as some kind of chaotic evil monster– just someone who has the same empathy and compassion as anyone else, but who sometimes does bad things on impulse. I really liked how the protagonist had recovered from suicidality but was still obviously mentally ill and had a life that sucked because, yeah, not being suicidal anymore doesn’t necessarily mean your life is great. And there was DBT in the book! The protagonist talks about her reason mind and her emotion mind, and one of the other characters is someone who literally severed her reason mind from her emotion mind with magic! I would have appreciated more use of skills, but then the protagonist is (canonically) not very cooperative with therapy. So I guess it makes sense.

 

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High: Wow, it’s like the book Nonviolent Communication, but without the weird and creepy implication that if you do everything right then people will do what you want.

The key piece of advice is that you should focus on what you actually want and doing things that will achieve the goal you actually want, instead of giving into the temptation to instead achieve the goals “no one ever criticizes me” or “the person I’m talking to is punished” or “my sense of self-righteousness is justified” or similar. Do not assume that it’s impossible to get a deal both sides will be okay with: this is often possible!

Before you can succeed at a crucial conversation, you have to separate out what’s actually going on from the story you’re telling yourself is going on about how you are an innocent victim, or the other person is a horrible monster, or you are completely incapable of improving the situation. Try looking at the objective facts of the situation and separating them from your interpretations of what’s going on. Ask yourself about your role in the problem, why a reasonable and rational person would do what the other person is doing, and what you should do to move towards what you want.

The first step in a crucial conversation is to notice when people feel unsafe. When people feel unsafe, they will usually turn to silence or violence: on one hand, selectively showing your true opinions, avoiding important issues, or even withdrawing from the conversation altogether; on the other hand, forcing your views on others, labeling and stereotyping people, or insulting and threatening people. When these happen, the conversation has gone off the rails. Even noticing unsafe conversations can be a huge step towards improving conversations, but you can also work on making it safer. You do that through: apologizing when appropriate; using a contrast statement which addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or have a malicious intent and then clarifies your respectfulness and intent; and finding a mutual purpose, a goal both sides share. You do that through CRIB (this book is as fond of acronyms as DBT is): committing to find a mutual purpose; recognizing why the person you’re talking to wants the things they want; inventing a mutual purpose, perhaps by agreeing that everyone wants the relationship to be strong or the business to succeed; and brainstorming new strategies that serve everyone.

Once everyone is safe, you want to find out other people’s perspectives and share your own. To share your own perspectives, use STATE: share a factual description of the situation from your perspective; tell the story you’ve told yourself about those facts; and ask for the other person’s perspective. While doing this, talk tentatively, saying things softly and in a way that implies you want other people to correct you, and encourage other people to share their own views, no matter how controversial. To encourage other people to share their perspectives, use AMPP: ask to hear people’s concerns; mirror other people’s feelings; paraphrase what you’re hearing; and if they really won’t share their opinions with you at all, prime by saying tentatively what you think the other person’s perspective might be. If it turns out you and the other person disagree, start with an area of agreementbuild on what the other person is saying by suggesting that they might have overlooked something; and compare positions, suggesting that you differ and not that one of you is wrong, when you really can’t reach consensus.

When it comes time to make the decision, you should follow an appropriate decision-making procedure: for instance, the boss has the final say in a corporation, but in most marriages decisions are made by consensus. When decisions are made, you should always be clear about who is responsible, what exactly they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it by, and what the followup will be.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Voters are systematically biased: for instance, compared to the consensus of economists, they tend to underestimate the usefulness of markets and the economic benefits of trade with foreigners. Voters are wrong even about obvious empirical issues: for instance, voters tend to vastly overestimate the percentage of the budget devoted to foreign aid. Voters care about trivia about politicians (Dan Quayle’s feud with a television character) at the expense of practical issues (who is their senator); while voters swiftly punish transgressions they hear about, these transgressions are generally things like “said a racist slur” or “cheated on his dying wife” rather than things like “caused the incarceration of millions of people for relatively small crimes” or “destroyed the entire economy”. The worst part is that voters are altruistic, so instead of voting based on their pocketbooks (which, presumably, would incentivize politicians to have a good economy for most of their voters) they vote based on what they think is good for the country (which incentivizes politicians to give voters things the voters think are a good idea, whether it is or not).  All this means that voters vote for and receive terrible policy.

Honestly, it’s kind of remarkable to me how democratic governments wind up with their current level of low-variance mediocrity. This happens every time I read something about society. Like, it’s really remarkable how well our society works given that every individual element of it is a constantly-falling-apart shitshow. I have no explanation for this state of affairs.

Weirdly, Caplan models the situation as “there are benefits to having biased opinions (less effort researching right opinions, signalling group membership, not having to admit you’re wrong), there are costs to having biased opinions (you are wrong about things and that hurts you), since any voter has an astronomically small chance of flipping the election it is rational for them to buy way more bias than they would for things affecting their personal life.” While I think that’s correct for some situations, other biases, such as the availability heuristic, clearly don’t seem to fit this model. Like, I really don’t think parents are hysterical about children playing outside because they’re obtaining a certain amount of signalling that they’re good parents at the cost of a certain amount of parenting effort, I think they’re legitimately just mistaken about the chance their children will be kidnapped. And I suspect similar arguments apply to voters as well.

Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction: I am impressed by the consistent high quality of the “very short introduction” series and wish I could subscribe to a program where they mail me a random one each month and then I get to learn about mathematics or nothingness or logic or something each month.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is that some people, including Flynn himself, believe the Flynn effect is due to increased familiarity with standardized tests in general and intelligence tests in specific. For instance, in the 1930s, an IQ test was probably the first standardized test a person had ever taken, while I took about two standardized tests a year for twelve years while attending a school system which was widely criticized for primarily teaching me how to be good at taking tests. It’s no wonder that I’d have a higher IQ score. In this case, the Flynn effect means that changing IQ scores provide us little to no information about whether and how people’s IQ scores are changing over time.

The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think: This is a pretty good introduction to the YIMBY position on housing. Various regulations– including rent control and zoning– make it more difficult and less profitable to build more homes, so we have fewer homes than we need. The idea that homes are an “investment” which always increases in price also increases the price of housing for people who don’t own their own homes. As a result, people live further from work (leading to unpleasant commutes and lots of pollution) or move to cities with cheaper housing but fewer jobs. This is bad, because dense locations provide a lot of benefits to people– ranging from higher productivity to a cleaner environment to better restaurants.

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How The Law Is Used To Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful: I originally thought I was a ooey-gooey soft-on-crime liberal, and then I read this book, and discovered I was an ooey-gooey soft-on-crime liberal except for crimes committed by presidents. When Glenn Greenwald remarked that under international law torture is punished with the death penalty, I thought “yep, actually, I totally support executing George W Bush.”

Unfortunately, my tough-on-crime stance is not shared by most people. In fact, under the name of “unifying the country” and “looking forward not backward”, presidents have managed to get away with absurd violations of national and international law: from Nixon’s multiple felonies to Bush’s surveillance and torture. Of course, this is not actually how the rule of law ought to work: the most basic principle of our government is that it is a government of laws not men, which is to say that if you commit a crime you should be punished, even if you are the president. (Especially if you are the president!) Claims that “public policy takes precedence over the rule of law”. Of course, there are many incentives for any given president to pull this shit: if they punish their predecessors for felonies and war crimes, maybe they’ll be punished for their own felonies and war crimes! All this is combined with a massive expansion of incarceration, meaning a poor black person gets more time in jail for smoking pot than a president does for violating international law.

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk: The real lesson of this book is that Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE and the St. James Infirmary, is a stone-cold badass. Margo St. James became a sex worker after she was accused of doing sex work because she was a beatnik and hosted lots of different men in her apartment, and obviously the only reason one would have men stay over is doing sex work. Her conviction meant that she couldn’t find a job other than doing sex work. She founded COYOTE, one of the first sex workers’ rights organizations, a year after J Edgar Hoover died “because we wanted to make sure he was really dead”. COYOTE’s shenanigans included awarding a giant keyhole to the Vice Cop of the Year and holding loiter-ins at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Their largest victory was when Judge Marie-Victoire dismissed almost forty sex workers’ cases on the grounds of sex discrimination, since the police had not arrested the clients. (The assistant district attorney for vice crimes said there was no reason to arrest men because “the customer is not involved with the commercial exploitation of sex, at least not on an ongoing basis.”) St. James also climbed Pike’s Peak to prove that sex workers aren’t diseased. Today, he St. James Infirmary commits to doing research that sex workers feel matters to them: for instance, it performed the first medical research on the foot problems caused by working all night in hooker heels.

I also appreciated the following slogans from a protest of Playboy Bunny clubs which only paid their workers in tips, without any salary: “don’t be a bunny, work for money” and “women should be obscene and not heard.”

In 34 states, doing full service sex work while being HIV positive is a felony, regardless of whether transmission occurred or what the actual risk profile of the sex act is. No HIV-positive client has ever been prosecuted.

The unsung heroes of this book are public health workers and activists, many of whom regularly break laws to help their sex worker clients: from giving out clean needles and crack kits, breaking trafficking laws to help underage sex workers find shelter and necessities, giving out birth control and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV without prescriptions, or letting people know when the police are a few blocks away.

[content warning: rape]

Bang: The advice in this book is mostly reasonable. The author, however, is a goddamn misogynist.

As an example: Roosh says that you should do things because you want to do them, not in a desperate attempt to please a particular woman. This is great advice; I agree that if you’re buying someone a drink, it should be because you like them and want them to be happy, not because you’re desperately seeking their approval. His next sentence says that if he buys women drinks, it’s not a form of supplication, it’s to loosen them up so they’ll fuck him.

This is merely one example of a larger problem. Roosh seems to view sex not as something that people do together because it’s fun but as a competition between men and women in which men try to obtain sex and women try to deny it. He views a woman saying no to sex as an ordinary, normal part of the process of having sex with her; his writing clearly seems to imply that he expects a woman to say “no” to sex three or four times the first time he has sex with her. It is nice that he does not suggest physically forcing a woman into sex. He does, however, suggest ignoring her nos (for instance, responding to “we’re going too fast” with “yeah, I agree” but continuing to do whatever you’re doing) and responding to an outright “no” by stopping for a few minutes and then doing the thing again.

Of course, perhaps some women are saying “no” in the hopes that Roosh will override her “no”. (As I’ve always said, I think such ridiculous behavior should be punished by those women not getting to have sex until they learn better.) And of course some people say no to sex and then change their mind and say yes, although early on in a relationship you should probably check in and see if they’re sure. But a lot of the women he’d be using that strategy on are people who are scared, inexperienced, unsure, not good at setting boundaries. They might be frightened that if they don’t comply he will hurt them; he’s given them no reason to think otherwise. It is scary to be alone and naked, often in a house that isn’t your own, with a person who is larger and stronger than you. Is this the sort of thing you’re comfortable doing with a sexual partner?

Even from a purely selfish level, I can’t imagine that this is a great way to obtain sex. Like… surely you want to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you? What benefit does having sex with a reluctant person have over masturbation? They make very good Fleshlights these days, you know. And it certainly makes the rest of Roosh’s pickup advice questionable. If he’s so good at seducing women, how come he has to pressure people who don’t want sex with him into sex? Surely they should be throwing their dripping panties at his head?

I think a lot of pickup stuff can be really useful for shy men. It can be hard to think of something to say to strangers, so knowing basically what you’re going to say can make it easier to break the ice and come off as charming and fun. A lot of pickup stuff isn’t the Magic Secret To Obtaining Sex, it’s just a basically reasonable thing to say while flirting, and that can serve as a magic feather to build confidence so you actually hit on people. And by relying on other people’s lines for a while you can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t and eventually learn to flirt without the lines. But there has got to be a book written by a man with less awful and disgusting views about sexuality.

[content warning: rape, suicide]

The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom: A depressing amount of this book is based on word games about the meaning of the word “persecution”. You see, it only counts as persecution if the government intended to oppress Christians. The actual state of affairs was that Christians were widely thought of as very strange and rumored to be incestuous and cannibals, were occasionally oppressed by local governors, and sometimes were executed because the Emperor passed a law that said that everyone had to sacrifice to him or be executed, intended to figure out who his political enemies were, but that accidentally harmed Christians. I found this sort of argument-by-definition extremely pedantic. I also found the tie-ins to current culture war stuff really annoying: I can figure out for myself the connections between Christian ideals of martyrdom and Rick Santorum’s idea that Christians are persecuted today, thank you.

That said, it’s still an interesting read for the historical facts. Many so-called martyrdom stories are, in fact, fiction: there are historical inaccuracies and lurid plotlines that make the most sense if they were popular novels intended to amuse the reader. Many bear a striking similarity to Greek romance novels popular at the time. They have plots like “a Christian who has taken a vow of celibacy is forced to marry a vestal virgin, whom he converts to Christianity; they are arrested for trying to convert people, where the vestal virgin is sentenced to work at a brothel; an escaped lion does not harm her but instead kills the men attempting to rape her.” This is salacious enough that it is probably fiction and not a thing that actually happened.

Voluntary martyrdom was apparently quite common in the early church. We have several early Christian writers condemning it as heresy and the sin of suicide; this was probably political, because the Christians we would today consider non-heretical often escaped or recanted their Christianity, and there was a group of heretics, the Donatists, who had confessed to being Christian but were not executed for one reason or another. The non-Donatists have an obvious reason to condemn voluntary martyrdom. One of the stories we have about early Christians is that they went to a regional governor to try to be martyred, except the governor refused and instead told them that if they wanted to die there were cliffs to throw themselves off and ropes to hang themselves on.

The Christians were really confusing to the Romans. Roman polytheism was syncretic; it literally did not make sense to them that worshipping one god meant not being allowed to worship the emperor either. Many Christians were deliberately stubborn and difficult: for instance, one Christian responded to all questions, including his name, with “I am a Christian.” Many Christians said they respected God alone, which was both incomprehensible and probably seditious from a Roman perspective, since Roman society was based on hierarchies of respect.

 

The Cluster Structure of Genderspace

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Categories are usually fuzzy. That is, when humans use a category, there are usually some members of the category who have all the traits you associate with that category, some members that have many of the traits, and some members where you have to make a judgment call about whether it counts or not.

The Cluster Structure of Thingspace provides several excellent and uncontroversial examples. For instance, think about birds. Robins and sparrows are very typical birds. Eagles are less typical than robins, but still very typical. Penguins are really fucking weird birds. And you have to make a judgment call about bats: for purposes of biology, a bat is not a bird, whereas for purposes of trying to decide which animals are kosher, a bat is a bird. You make the decision based on whether the more important bird trait is “related to dinosaurs” or “flies.”

Or think about mothers. A typical mother gives birth to and raises a baby who is genetically related to her. Less typical mothers include birth mothers, adoptive mothers, surrogate mothers, genetic mothers, lesbian partners of the mother who gave birth, and so on. A baby’s egg donor is still her mother in some ways– for instance, you’d want to look at the egg donor rather than the adoptive mother to figure out what the baby’s risk of getting a rare disease is– but she’s missing some very common mother traits like being pregnant with the child or raising it.

Gender is a very politicized topic. So it makes sense that while some people agree that whether bats are birds depends on whether you’re doing biology or theology, and that while penguins are birds you shouldn’t assume that they’re able to fly, this common sense goes out the window when you’re talking about gender. I am going to address two issues where poor reasoning about more and less central members of categories makes people deeply confused: biological sex and gender differences.

Biological Sex

Biological sex is actually a remarkably good classification system: something like 98% of humanity can be easily and unambiguously placed into one of two discrete categories, which has to be some kind of record. Of course, not everyone is a metaphorical robin. Eagles are quite common: men with gynecomastia and noticeable hip fat; women who can grow beards; women who have had hysterectomies; men who have had their testicles removed.

However, it all runs into trouble when we’re talking about transgender people (as well as intersex people, but I’m mostly going to focus on transness). People really, really want to insist that there is a single biological sex that we really are. They usually pick chromosomes as the deciding factor, perhaps because medical science is not currently able to change a person’s chromosomes. (I have seen people attempt to be intersex-inclusive by declaring “males” to be the ones with at least one Y chromosome and “females” the ones with no Y chromosome.) They then point out that you have to know what a person’s biological sex is for medical reasons and therefore we trans people are running around being special snowflakes by putting down our identified genders on medical forms.

Except there are actually a very small number of medical problems that are affected by sex chromosomes: for instance, whether you are XX or XY affects your risk of hemophilia or colorblindness; if your sex chromosomes are something other than XX or XY, you may be at risk of various health problems, depending on what your sex chromosomes are. It is usually possible to infer many traits from the fact that a person has XX chromosomes (well, in reality, we usually infer the fact that a person has XX chromosomes from their traits, because most people are not karyotyped). But trans people get biomedical interventions all the time.

For instance, a doctor might be concerned about prescribing a teratogen to someone who might be pregnant. In that case, what matters is whether the person is capable of getting pregnant (many trans men and some cis women are not). A doctor may need to decide whether to screen someone for breast cancer, in which case what matters is whether a person has breasts. Testosterone increases a trans man’s risk of high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, although probably not to the level that cisgender men have. And, of course, our unusual sexes present unique health issues: for instance, testosterone is a teratogen, which means that trans men who take testosterone have to be particularly careful about birth control use.

These are not theoretical issues. Trans people have been routinely denied sex-specific medical care, because insurance companies believe that there are men and there are women, and therefore there don’t exist any people who need both a prostate screening and breast cancer screenings. Intersex people even today receive cosmetic genital surgery as infants so that people don’t have to be disturbed by a person who doesn’t fit the categories very well.

The obvious solution to this issue is to say that whether a trans person’s sex is male or female depends on what question you’re asking. A trans woman on estrogen is male for the purpose of whether she should get prostate cancer screenings and female for the purpose of whether she should get breast cancer screenings. When thinking about his risk of high cholesterol, a trans man is probably best considered neither male nor female. We are bats, and you don’t have to have a firm position on whether or not we are birds.

Gender Differences

Men are more likely to use an ethic of justice, which emphasizes universal standards and impartiality. Women are more likely to use an ethic of care, which emphasizes a specific obligation to those you have interpersonal relationships with or those who are vulnerable to the consequences of your choices. The Cohen’s d of this difference (which is a measure of how different the two groups are from each other) is about 0.2.

This is a picture of a Cohen’s d of 0.2. (Picture comes from this excellent website.) It is genuinely difficult to tell that this is a picture of two bell curves instead of one. If you know someone is a man or a woman, it doesn’t tell you much of anything about whether they use an ethic of justice or an ethic of care.

Has that stopped anyone? No, it has not.

For instance, look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page on feminist ethics, which includes an entire section on care-focused ethics which includes paragraphs like this:

Gilligan believes that Kohlberg’s methodology is male-biased. Its ears are tuned to male, not female, moral voices. Thus, it fails to register the different voice Gilligan claims to have heard in her study of twenty-nine women reflecting on their abortion decisions. This distinctive moral voice, says Gilligan, speaks a language of care that emphasizes relationships and responsibilities. Seemingly, this language is largely unintelligible to Kohlbergian researchers who speak the dominant moral language of traditional ethics—namely, a language of justice that stresses rights and rules.

Ah, yes, the distinctive moral voice of women. The one that sounds almost fucking exactly like the voice of men. That distinctive moral voice of women?

Putting known gender differences into the Cohen’s d chart generator is an instructive experience. For instance, here’s gender differences in masturbation and casual sex, respectively:

And here’s neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness/extroversion (the latter two have the same effect size), again in the order I listed:

Now, there are in fact some effect size charts that look like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Here’s an example:

This is a picture of the difference in toy preferences at age three. I am not sure how useful this is for anyone who isn’t a toy marketer, but there you go. (Note that one-year-olds and five-year-olds both have less stark gendered toy preferences. Presumably male toddlers are from Mars, female toddlers are from Venus, and everyone else is from Earth.)

So what’s the takeaway here? (Besides “Ozy is fascinated with their new stats discovery,” of course.) The answer is that people are bad at categories. We learn facts about the typical man: for instance, he uses an ethic of justice, masturbates more, is okay with casual sex, is more introverted, is less neurotic, is more disagreeable, is less conscientious, and played with trucks but not dolls as a child. We then conclude from this that everyone we stick in the category “man” uses an ethic of justice and therefore we are perfectly justified in creating an entire subfield of ethics complaining about how the ethics of care is excluded because of sexism.

But that isn’t true! It is possible that people in a category are more likely to have a particular trait, but the size of this effect is not actually large enough for this to be useful information. In fact, in studies of gender differences, this is quite common!

While I’ve been picking on Carol Gilligan (and god is she an easy target to pick on), I think this kind of thought is actually more common among anti-feminists than it is among feminists.

Think about gender differences in permissive attitudes about casual sex. This is actually a fairly striking difference: about four-fifths of men have a more permissive attitude towards casual sex than the average woman does. (Of course, this might be caused by inborn tendencies, by cultural influence, or by a combination of both; you shouldn’t assume that a difference existing means it is biological.) You can see the effects of this difference clearly: for instance, it is generally easier for heterosexual women to have casual sex than it is for heterosexual men to have casual sex; gay men are more likely to have casual sex than lesbians are; there are essentially no full-service sex workers who target a solely female audience, presumably because women who want no-strings-attached casual sex rarely have to pay for it.

But there’s also a considerable amount of overlap: about seven-tenths of the two groups overlap. And that matters too! For instance, many people assume that casual sex must be a rapacious man taking advantage of an innocent woman who just wants love. But there are lots of women who like casual sex. Perhaps the women who have casual sex disproportionately come from the 20% of the female population who have more permissive attitudes about casual sex than the average man. In that case, we don’t have to be worried that hookup culture is harming women; it is merely catering to the desires of women who are a little unusual (eagles, not robins).

And I’m using a relatively stark gender difference, which would bias my case. Looking at something like neuroticism– where 65% of men are above the female mean, and there’s an 84% overlap– it’s hard to see much justification for an “essential masculine nature” or an “essential feminine nature.” Such reason is merely looking at robins and then assuming, in defiance of all the evidence, that they are the only kind of bird.

Secret Blog Post on Patreon

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People who have subscribed to my Patreon at the $3 and up level, there is a new secret blog post about parenting. Check it out.

Secret blog posts will probably be disproportionately about parenting for the near future, so if that sounds up your alley, $3/month will get you the thing.

You may also notice on the sidebar that you now have the ability to buy my time. Base cost is $20/hour. Tasks people have hired me for so far include getting me to read and critique their writing, hear about their crackpot ideas, give them advice about whether they’re trans, or read a book and write a review of it.