Category: History

Hysteria Was Not Treated With Vibrators

You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators? It’s little more than an urban legend albeit one transmitted through academic books and articles. Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the authors of a shocking new paper, A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm, don’t quite use the word fraud but they come close.

Since its publication in 1999, The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines has become one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology (Maines, 1999). This slim book covers a lot of ground, but Maines’ core argument is quite simple. She argues that Victorian physicians routinely treated female hysteria patients by stimulating them to orgasm using electromechanical vibrators. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. She states that physicians did not perceive either the vibrator or manual massage as sexual, because neither method involved vaginal penetration.

This argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more. A few scholars have challenged various parts of the book. Yet no scholars have contested her central argument, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. Her argument even spread to popular culture, appearing in a Broadway play, a feature-length film, several documentaries, and many mainstream books and articles. This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.

But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.

… the 19-year success of Technology of Orgasm points to a fundamental failure of academic quality control. This failure occurred at every stage, starting with the assessment of the work at the Johns Hopkins University Press. But most glaring is the fact that not a single scholarly publication has pointed out the empirical flaws in the book’s core claims in the 19 years since its release.

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Chris Martin on twitter.

Why did witch trials dwindle?

In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

Here is the full story from The Economist.

My Conversation with Claire Lehmann of Quillette

Here is the transcript and audio, definitely recommended.  Here is part of the summary:

She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?

LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.

COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.

LEHMANN: Yeah. That’s when Camille Paglia was talking about PC, and Robert Hughes had a book, The Culture of Complaint.

I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.

That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.

Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.

I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.

COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.

LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.

COWEN: True or false?

LEHMANN: Probably true.

COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?


COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?

LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.

A question from me:

COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?

We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.

Immigration, smiling, and laughter

Do not infer causality, but here is what the data yield:

Recent findings demonstrate that heterogeneity of long-history migration predicts present-day emotion behaviors and norms. Residents of countries characterized by high ancestral diversity display emotion expressions that are easier to decode by observers, endorse norms of higher emotion expressivity, and smile more in response to certain stimuli than residents of countries that lack ancestral diversity. We build on the extant findings and investigate historical heterogeneity as a predictor of daily smiling, laughter, and positive emotion across the world’s countries and the states of the United States. Study 1 finds that historical heterogeneity is positively associated with self-reports of smiling, laughter, and positive emotions in the Gallup World Poll when controlling for GDP and present-day population diversity. Study 2 extends the findings to effects of long-history migration within the United States. We estimated the average percentage of foreign-born citizens in each state between 1850 and 2010 based on US Census information as an indicator of historical heterogeneity. Consistent with the world findings of Study 1, historical heterogeneity predicted smiling, laughter, and positive, but not negative, emotion. The relationships remained significant when controlling for per capita income and present-day population diversity of each state. Together, the findings further demonstrate the important role of long-history migration in shaping emotion cultures of countries and states, which persist beyond the original socio-ecological conditions, and open promising avenues for cross-cultural research.

That is from Paula N Niedenthal, et. al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Global Middle Class

Wash Post: The world is on the brink of a historic milestone: By 2020, more than half of the world’s population will be “middle class,” according to Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas.

Kharas defines the middle class as people who have enough money to cover basics needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, and still have enough left over for a few luxuries, such as fancy food, a television, a motorbike, home improvements or higher education.

It’s a critical juncture: After thousands of years of most people on the planet living as serfs, as slaves or in other destitute scenarios, half the population now has the financial means to be able to do more than just try to survive.

“There was almost no middle class before the Industrial Revolution began in the 1830s,” Kharas said. “It was just royalty and peasants. Now we are about to have a majority middle-class world.”

(Kharas’s definition of middle class takes into account differences in prices across countries.)

It’s interesting that middle class values are also expanding, especially in Asia, even as they may be declining in the United States:

According to the World Values Survey (2015), people in countries with burgeoning middle classes do not feel that governments are responsible for their
success, but rather that it is thrift, hard work, determination, and perseverance that count.

The Most Momentous Place?

The old city of Jerusalem is astonishingly small for a city with so many momentous places. One can walk from Christianity’s holiest site to the holiest site of Judaism, pausing to look at one of the holiest sites of Islam, in less time than it takes to walk from my office on the campus of George Mason University to the campus Starbucks. Jerusalem is actually smaller than the GMU campus. GMU has had a few big events to its credit–two Nobel Prizes, several presidential speeches and so forth–but few people come here on pilgrimage. GMU doesn’t compete with Jerusalem.

Is there another parcel of land of similar size to the old city of Jerusalem that can lay claim to being similarly momentous? The signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia was pretty important but not much has happened there since. Cape Canaveral gets a nod but doesn’t span multiple fields of endeavor. Rome was important for a long time but its momentous events have faded compared to those that occurred in Jerusalem.

My best guess for a momentous parcel of land of similar size to old Jerusalem would be Cambridge University in the UK. Cambridge can lay claim to being the place of Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Babbage, Turing, Oppenheimer, and Crick and Watson and many others in the fields of politics, literature and the social sciences including economists such as Keynes, Marshall and Sen. Overall, Cambridge gives Jerusalem a run for its money. Jerusalem had its momentous period between say the building of the first temple in 957 BCE and Muhammad’s night journey around 621 CE, a period of roughly 1600 years, while Cambridge has had only an 800 year run since being built in 1231 so controlling for a time a case can be made that Cambridge beats Jerusalem. Perhaps you disagree but then Cambridge is still racking up momentous events while Jerusalem hasn’t had much in the past 1400 years so Cambridge is certainly catching up. Of course, one big event could put Jerusalem back on top.

Aside from Cambridge, cases can be made for other universities such as Oxford, Harvard and even newcomer Chicago. But it’s interesting that universities come to mind as perhaps the only places in real competition with Jerusalem. Are there others?

Would a multi-planet humanity be freer?

Kevin P. emails me:

Suppose humanity becomes a multi-planet species. Does the percentage of people living in autocratic societies decrease or increase relative to what we see on our planet today? How do the time and resources required to travel between inhabited planets affect this?

Do some people on “free” planets work to help the non-free? More or less than such countries today? Is there some scale that is reached so a free Federation comes to guaranty freedom everywhere? Or maybe a tyrant or tyrants, once they have a couple wealthy planets under their belt are unstoppable because of cooperation difficulties of the individual free planets?

When I think of settling other planets, my base case is one of extreme scarcity and fragility, at least at first and possibly for a long time.  Those are not the conditions that breed liberty, whether it is “the private sector” or “the public sector” in charge.

Maybe corporations will settle space for some economic reason.  Then you might expect space living to have the liberties of an oil platform in the sea, or perhaps a cruise ship.  Except there would be more of a “we are in this all together” attitude, which I think would favor a kind of corporate autocracy.

Another scenario involves a military settling space, possibly for military reasons, and that too is not much of a liberal or democratic scenario.

You might also have religiously-motivated settlements, which presumably would be governed by the laws and principles of the religion.  Over time, however, this scenario might give the greatest chance for subsequent liberalization.

America developed to be as free as it did (at least for some people) mostly there was so much free land.  Living standards were relatively high, and moving further westward was always an option.  It is hard for me to think of an interplanetary version of the same condition.  Easy exit and free resources don’t seem to go well together with the concept of space settlement.

Space stations and settlement will give the power to those who control the infrastructure, a bit like Wittvogel’s Oriental Despotism hypothesis, except with both air and water being scarce.

I thus expect that interplanetary settlements, whatever their other virtues, will not do much for liberalism or liberty.  Here is my earlier post on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

What went wrong in the West and with liberalism?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and the core of my answer is that liberalism and cooperativeness declined in the West, as WWI and the Cold War receded into historical distance (I am indebted to a much earlier conversation with Daniel Klein on these matters).  But I wish to excerpt from another point of the piece:

There is another explanation for the rise in anti-liberal sentiment: immigration. Through a series of historical accidents, it was kept off the table as a major issue for many decades. The U.S. had choked off immigration in 1920, and at first the liberalization of the 1960s did not have much of a visible impact on the American population. In those early decades after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, many poor nations were so poor and unfree that it wasn’t easy to leave them.

As for Europe, in-migration was too small to make much of a political impact. For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, the bigger story was emigration, due to high taxes, from countries such as the U.K. and Sweden. The presence of the Iron Curtain also blocked some of the routes and sources that enable some migration to Western Europe today.

In a democratic society where there simply isn’t much immigration, it is much harder for nationalists and populists to use it as an issue. But today much of the West has seen high immigration for 20 years or more, giving nationalist and populist forces a major talking point. Even if most of the population is broadly pro-immigration, perhaps a core of 15 to 20 percent will not be. With that base, a movement of counterreaction can have real political impact.

Do read the whole thing.

Baku bits, what to see in Baku

The vertigo starts, as upon arrival in the airport there are few direct clues as to which country you might be in.  You will see people from every part of this hemisphere, and furthermore the Azerbaijanis won’t stand out as such.  The facility itself looks like an average of five or six other airports, like how some TV shows film in Canada to get that generically American look.

Matters seem to go downhill as one rides into town — “Dubai, yet without the charm” is how I described it to Yana in an early, premature email.  Yet this petro-city grows on you quickly, and I don’t just mean the cherry jam.  Closer to town center there are interesting buildings in every direction, and of three sorts: the medieval Old City with walls, a blossoming of late 19th century European architecture (and they are still doing contemporary copies of it), and the Brasilia-Dubai like modern buildings.

In 1905 about half of the world’s oil was produced in or near Baku.  In 1942, it was Stalingrad that stopped Hitler from taking the place over and perhaps changing the course of history.  Not long ago, oil and gas were estimated to account for sixty percent of the gdp of Azerbaijan.

And you can see that money being spent, to the benefit of the tourist I might add.  Baku has perhaps the most attractive and walkable seaside promenade.  The walker has views of the Caspian, of spectacular buildings, of the port, and there are multiple paths with beautiful gardens and cactuses and baobab trees, benches everywhere, Eurasians in abundance, and in August the weather is perfect for a long stroll every night.

Baku is reputed to be the world’s lowest capital city, standing about 28 meters below sea level.

It is the first Shiite country I have visited, and it seems less conservative than say the Turkey of ten years ago, for instance in terms of dress and demeanor.  A small percentage of women wear burkhas, most of all by the seaside walk, but the look of their companions suggests most are tourists or expats.

In short, several generations of communist-enforced atheism do have a persistent effect.  One Azerbaijani, with whom I had an extended dialogue through a translator, stressed to me how much universal Soviet education elevated the region (and she was not pro-Soviet or pro-communist by any means).  The Azerbaijanis address me in Russian, as few can converse with ease in English.

The police go to great lengths to limit jaywalking, which is in any case dangerous.  The city roads are wide, and like some parts of central Brasilia have few traffic lights.  Never have I wished so often that I was on the other side of the street as in Baku.

Baku has three working synagogues, and, unlike in almost every other country in the world, they do not require police protection.  It is a remarkably safe city.

There is strong sentiment here that Nagorno-Karabakh, technically a part of Azerbaijan but not controlled by the government in over twenty years, is ruled by “Armenian terrorists,” backed by Putin. This issue, largely neglected outside the region, is likely to flare up again.  When I applied for a visa, I had to answer whether I come from Armenian blood (no).  It seems like a much less friendly conflict than say between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Baku was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire — does that make it European?

“Relatives may eat your flesh but they won’t throw away your bones” is an old Azerbaijani saying.

Newborns are washed in salt water, to make them truthful and bold.

As a vacation spot, I recommend three to four days here for anyone looking for something off the beaten path, but without logistical difficulties.  Here is Wikipedia on Baku.

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.


COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

My favorite things Azerbaijan

I am arrived in Baku!  Here goes:

1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov.  Maybe the greatest player of all time?  He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.

Teimour Radjabov.  It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen.  His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.

Vugar Gashimov.  He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.

Cellist and conductorMstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku.  His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings.  Here is one (different) YouTube version.  As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.

Pianist: Bella Davidovich, born in Baku, especially her Chopin.

Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku.  He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.

Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.

10 Things I Learned: Tyler Cowen

That is a short interview with me from Northern Virginia magazine, here is one excerpt:

When did you feel you had “made it”?

Jan. 21, 1962 (his birthday). That was a turning point of sorts for me.

How do you define success?

Learning something new all the time, and staying healthy. Getting paid. Interacting with smart people. Having the chance to pass something along to others.


What do you do after a disappointment?

Bid higher next time.

Give us an idea of your work/life balance philosophy.

Do I even try to do balance? For me they are more or less the same. I know that makes me difficult. But I’ve ended up writing about what were once hobbies, and using so-called “leisure” time to prepare for research, writing, speaking and so on. My social life is pretty closely tied to my work life.

And at the end:

Any advice for those who are going into your field?

Listen also to the advice of people who are not in your field. A lot of budding academics listen too much to their advisor and don’t receive enough feedback and mentoring from a broader set of sources.