Category: Philosophy

Human Challenge Trials for vaccines

From an anonymous reader:

As you are of course aware, testing on vaccines for Covid-19 are beginning to be undertaken. The scientific community has seemingly decided that Human Challenge Trials (HCT) where test subjects are directly exposed to the virus following vaccination are unethical, instead using the typical protocol of vaccine/placebo inoculation followed by months of observation in order to observe effectiveness. This seems to me a grave moral error based on the following argument.

1) There exists a large cohort of young, healthy, fully informed, willing participants who would undergo HCT.

2) Given the mortality profile of this disease, these participants would be undertaking an exceptionally small mortality risk (perhaps 5-10 per 100k, based on data from Spain/Italy/NYC, assuming zero vaccine effectiveness).

3) Society deems acceptable other activities with much higher fatality risk (at least 5-10x) in both professional (soldiers, logging workers) and recreational (motorcycling, mountaineering) capacities.

4) HCT would speed up the vaccine testing process by many months, saving tens of thousands of lives and avoiding enormous economic damage.

5) HCT actually poses significantly less risk to participants in terms of allergic reaction or ADE risk compared to a standard testing protocol since the number of participants could be much smaller and they would be medically observed.

I fail to find any ethical justification for the current stance of the medical community, from either a utilitarian or deontological perspective, and believe a highly consequential error is being made. This error may be based on false analogies to past unethical testing practices in history where participants were not informed or willing and danger was significant. The current case bears no ethical resemblance, in my judgement, to these past cases.

The simplest model of such errors is that many members of the biomedical establishment do not wish to have bad feelings about any “sins of commission” and to see their status lowered as a result of “dirty hands,” and the readily criticized logistics of Human Challenge Trials.  Since HCTs do not “feel right” to them, they self-deceive into associating that feeling with a concern for the greater public good.

You should not be surprised to see grave moral errors committed in a crisis, however.  Our “mainstream” protection against grave moral errors, in normal circumstances, simply is that usually we are not given the opportunity to commit them.

I do understand that a Human Challenge Trial does not necessarily suffice to show that a given vaccine is safe.  Nonetheless it should be in the “armor of our discourse,” so to speak, as a morally acceptable alternative.  So if you are a biomedical professional, or a public intellectual, I hope you will speak up.

Here is a Matt Yglesias piece on the urgency of developing a vaccine as quickly as possible.  Eric Weinstein notes that women risk their lives every time they proceed with having children.

My Conversation with Philip Tetlock

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether the world as a whole is becoming harder to predict, whether Goldman Sachs traders can beat forecasters, what inferences we can draw from analyzing the speech of politicians, the importance of interdisciplinary teams, the qualities he looks for in leaders, the reasons he’s skeptical machine learning will outcompete his research team, the year he thinks the ascent of the West became inevitable, how research on counterfactuals can be applied to modern debates, why people with second cultures tend to make better forecasters, how to become more fox-like, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could take just a bit of time away from your research and play in your own tournaments, are you as good as your own best superforecasters?

TETLOCK: I don’t think so. I don’t think I have the patience or the temperament for doing it. I did give it a try in the second year of the first set of forecasting tournaments back in 2012, and I monitored the aggregates. We had an aggregation algorithm that was performing very well at the time, and it was outperforming 99.8 percent of the forecasters from whom the composite was derived.

If I simply had predicted what the composite said at each point in time in that tournament, I would have been a super superforecaster. I would have been better than 99.8 percent of the superforecasters. So, even though I knew that it was unlikely that I could outperform the composite, I did research some questions where I thought the composite was excessively aggressive, and I tried to second guess it.

The net result of my efforts — instead of finishing in the top 0.02 percent or whatever, I think I finished in the middle of the superforecaster pack. That doesn’t mean I’m a superforecaster. It just means that when I tried to make a forecast better than the composite, I degraded the accuracy significantly.

COWEN: But what do you think is the kind of patience you’re lacking? Because if I look at your career, you’ve been working on these databases on this topic for what? Over 30 years. That’s incredible patience, right? More patience than most of your superforecasters have shown. Is there some dis-aggregated notion of patience where they have it and you don’t?

TETLOCK: [laughs] Yeah, they have a skill set. In the most recent tournaments, we’ve been working on with them, this becomes even more evident — their willingness to delve into the details of really pretty obscure problems for very minimal compensation is quite extraordinary. They are intrinsically cognitively motivated in a way that is quite remarkable. How am I different from that?

I guess I have a little bit of attention deficit disorder, and my attention tends to roam. I’ve not just worked on forecasting tournaments. I’ve been fairly persistent in pursuing this topic since the mid 1980s. Even before Gorbachev became general party secretary, I was doing a little bit of this. But I’ve been doing a lot of other things as well on the side. My attention tends to roam. I’m interested in taboo tradeoffs. I’m interested in accountability. There’re various things I’ve studied that don’t quite fall in this rubric.

COWEN: Doesn’t that make you more of a though? You know something about many different areas. I could ask you about antebellum American discourse before the Civil War, and you would know who had the smart arguments and who didn’t. Right?

And another:

TETLOCK:

…I had a very interesting correspondence with in the 1980s about forecasting tournaments. We could talk a little about it later. The upshot of this is that young people who are upwardly mobile see forecasting tournaments as an opportunity to rise. Old people like me and aging baby-boomer types who occupy relatively high status inside organizations see forecasting tournaments as a way to lose.

If I’m a senior analyst inside an intelligence agency, and say I’m on the National Intelligence Council, and I’m an expert on China and the go-to guy for the president on China, and some upstart R&D operation called IARPA says, “Hey, we’re going to run these forecasting tournaments in which we assess how well the analytic community can put probabilities on what Xi Jinping is going to do next.”

And I’ll be on a level playing field, competing against 25-year-olds, and I’m a 65-year-old, how am I likely to react to this proposal, to this new method of doing business? It doesn’t take a lot of empathy or bureaucratic imagination to suppose I’m going to try to nix this thing.

COWEN: Which nation’s government in the world do you think listens to you the most? You may not know, right?

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.

Lydia Laurenson interviews me

Here is the link, from a few weeks ago, far-ranging, but includes cultural predictions about the coronavirus.  And this:

I’d love to see a study measuring the decisions people who identify as rationalist make in their romantic personal lives, for example — how rational those decisions are, compared to other individuals. I suspect they’d come out slightly below average.

And this:

Some people will say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I would sooner say, “I’m religious but not spiritual.” My cosmology is maybe agnostic, tending not to believe that there’s a God as commonly understood, but I have this core American idea that you have values, you go out, you build things, you do things. You take on projects, and those projects should help other people. You’re very committed to this, you see it through. I’m a big believer in that…

Obviously each religion is different and contains many strands, but it’s not an accident that those are the stickiest ideas, right? Those are what carry culture more effectively than, say, political philosophy or the great books of the ancients.

There is much more at the link, and at the end I make the case for optimism.

The Coronavirus Killed the Progressive Left

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Yes trolling, but trolling with the truth.  Here are scattered excerpts:

— The egalitarianism of the progressive left also will seem like a faint memory. Elites are most likely to support wealth redistribution when they feel comfortable themselves, and indeed well-off coastal elites in California and the Northeast are a backbone of the progressive movement. But when these people feel threatened in their lives or occupations, or when the futures of their children suddenly seem less secure, redistribution will not be such a compelling ideal…

— The case for mass transit also will seem weaker, because subways and buses will be associated with the fear of Covid-19 transmission. In a similar fashion, the forces of NIMBY will become stronger, relative to those of YIMBY, because people secure in their isolated suburban homes will feel less stressed than those in densely packed urban apartment buildings.

— There is likely to be much more government intervention in some parts of the health-care sector, but it will focus on scarce hospital beds and ventilators, and enforce nasty triage, rather than being a benevolent move toward universal coverage. If anything, it will drive home the message that supply constraints are binding and America can’t have everything — hardly the traditional progressive message.

— — The climate change movement is likely to be another victim. How much have you heard about Greta Thunberg lately? Concern over the climate will seem like another luxury from safer and more normal times. In addition, the course of anti-Covid-19 efforts may not prove propitious for the climate change movement. If the fight against Covid-19 suddenly improves (perhaps a vaccine working very quickly?), Americans may come to expect the same in the fight against climate change.

There is much more at the link, of course some of you will hate it.  And of course Sanders and Warren did not exactly dominate voter sentiment, and that was largely pre-Covid.

My Conversation with John McWhorter

This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days!  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.

John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?

MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?

COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.

MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.

COWEN: You think it’s just as good?

MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?

COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”

But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.

And:

COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?

MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.

Recommended.

Tim Ferriss did a podcast with me

Mostly he interviews me, the final segment is me interviewing him, the best part in my view. And they sent me this:

Transcript of my Stanford talk on *Stubborn Attachments*

You will find it here, along with the video link, previously covered on MR without the transcript.  Recommended, this was an almost entirely fresh talk.  Here is my beginning paragraph:

I’d like to do something a little different in this talk from what is usually done. Typically, someone comes and they present their book. My book here, Stubborn Attachments. But rather than present it or argue for it, I’d like to try to give you all of the arguments against my thesis. I want to invite you into my internal monologue of how I think about what are the problems. It’s an unusual talk. I mean, I think talks are quite inefficient. Most of them I go to, I’m bored. Why are you all here? I wonder. I feel we should experiment more with how talks are presented, and this is one of my attempts to do that.

In the Q&A I also discuss how to eat well in the Bay Area.

Maybe they are the ones who know?

The top 1% are the only affluent group consistently more inclined than the general population to attribute variation in drive and IQ to both internal causes, particularly to innate causes (the top 1% also differ from the other affluent, at p < .01).  This said, the affluent are not more dismissive than others of environmental causal explanations.  Interestingly, across all income groups, “environmental” explanations for drive and IQ are more popular than the two internal explanations.

That is from a new paper (and here) by Elizabeth Suhay, Marko Klašnja, and Gonzalo Rivero.

“Boring Friends”

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

That is a Lydia Davis short story (yes, the whole thing) from her excellent book Samuel Johnson is Indignant.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.

HARFORD: A hat?

COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

And:

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

The importance of family structure — was the nuclear family a mistake?

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

That is from David Brooks writing in The Atlantic, do read the whole thing, so far the best essay of the year with many fine and subtle points.

How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Scholar’s Stage has a long post on why public intellectuals often have such short careers in terms of quality output.  Here are my tips for extending your shelf life, noting that I am not myself suggesting I have managed all of these, do as I say not necessarily as I do:

1. Take a cue from Kobe Bryant.  As you get older, you have to practice critical thinking more, and harder, compared to when you were young.  Most people let up on their practice habits over time.

2. Avoid criticizing other public intellectuals.  In fact, avoid the negative as much as possible.  However pressing a social or economic issue may be, there is almost always a positive and constructive way to reframe your potential contribution.  This also will force you to keep on thinking harder, because it is easier to take apparently justified negative slaps at the wrongdoers.

3. You probably don’t have as much actual influence as you like to think, and besides fame is a mix of benefits and costs.  So write to meet your own standards of quality, and no I don’t mean your standards for how much influence you think you ought to have.

4. In your copious spare time, keep on picking up and learning new areas of study.

5. Go to some travel locations you never would have gone to before, and without too many firm plans, so for instance avoid having a full schedule of public lectures.

6. Interact with students, and not just in a “famous person interacting with students” kind of way.  The value of having to motivate and explain things to people who don’t necessarily care who you are is high.

7. Shy away from discussion of political candidates as much as possible.  “Run away” is better yet.

8. Try not to write things, including tweets, a less analytical and intelligent person also could have written.

9. Do not press the button.

10. Hang around happy, cheery people.  That said, also have some ornery friends determined to make (intellectual) life difficult for you.  You need both.

11. Continue to read some serious fiction, always.  Genre fiction has other uses, but most of it doesn’t satisfy this stricture.

12. Be very reluctant to purge your friends and acquaintances for perceived intellectual or political wrongdoings.

What else?

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.