Category: Philosophy

The Harpers free speech letter and controversy

Many of you have been asking for a more detailed account of what I think.  Here is an NYT summary of the debate, in case you have been living under a rock.  Of course I side with those who signed the letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters, and I am very glad they took the trouble to move forward with this project.  I know many of the signers, and those individuals I like, admire, and respect, to a person.  But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world.

So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

Why I like Nate Silver

There are standard reasons to like Nate Silver, which I do not wish to deny.  But here is what I find striking: whenever he considers political or normative questions, he continues to use his full range of intellect and emotional maturity.

Many other commentators, once they run into normative or philosophical issues, or perhaps issues of political theory, or even political science, pull out arbitrary unsupported dogmatisms and partisan mood affiliation.  Or perhaps they will use correct but shallow truisms they heard on the radio or read in a magazine or newspaper, without realizing that deeper levels of analysis are possible.  Or they may use incorrect but shallow truisms from MSM.  Either way, at some point the analysis simply falls apart, even if many of its constituent parts are well-informed or perhaps even expert.

It seems to me that Nate avoids this.  I now consider this an increasingly important quality in commentators, especially if those commentators are active on social media.

And it is not that I agree with Nate all of the time on politics.  I’m not saying this “because he ends up where I am.”

I will try to think about who else is very good in this regard, and how we might nourish this quality in ourselves.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.


The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?


Simplicity itself

3. Academics almost never say things so offensive that they deserve to be fired.

I don’t ever recall hearing an academic saying things as offensive as the garbage Trump spews out. And yet 42% of Americans support Trump. I’m not comfortable with speech codes that say 42% of Americans cannot hold certain jobs unless they keep their mouths shut.

That is from Scott Sumner.  And here are further thoughts by Scott.

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?

The Spanish-language Kindle edition of *Stubborn Attachments*

The various subtleties of the title “Stubborn Attachments” do not translate well into Spanish, so here is “El imperativo moral del crecimiento económico: Una visión de una sociedad libre y próspera de individuos responsable.”

You can order it here, and I expect a print edition will be coming in due time.

I thank all of those involved for helping this project come to fruition, and thank Gonzalo Schwarz for doing the translation.

My (second) Conversation with Paul Romer

Interesting throughout, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspect of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.

I liked the parts about charter cities and the World Bank the best, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How optimistic are you more generally about the developmental trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa?

ROMER: There’s a saying I picked up from Gordon Brown, that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. I think some parts of this development process are just very slow. If you look around the world, all the efforts since World War II that’s gone into trying to build strong, effective states, to establish the rule of law in a functioning state, I think the external investments in building states have yielded very little.

So we need to think about ways to transfer the functioning of existing states rather than just build them from scratch in existing places. That’s a lot of the impetus behind this charter cities idea. It’s both — you select people coming in who have a particular set of norms that then become the dominant norms in this new place, but you also protect those norms by certain kinds of administrative structures, state functions that reinforce them.

And this:

COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?

ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.

And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.

That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.

So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.

And toward the end:

COWEN: Last question thread, what did you learn at Burning Man?

ROMER: Sometimes physical presence is necessary to appreciate something like scale. The scale of everything at Burning Man was just totally unexpected, a total surprise for me, even having looked at all of these pictures and so forth. That was one.

Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work.

For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.

How bad is Covid-19 risk compared to other risks?

I’ve had about five of you write me about this point in the last day.  Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide die from falls each year, what about car accidents, cancer, heart attacks, etc.?  Why is this new risk so special?

I think you need to keep clear monthly vs. yearly rates of death.  Covid-19 very likely has killed over 100,000 Americans over the last two months or so.

It either will continue at that pace or it won’t.  Let’s say that pace continues (unlikely in my view, but this is simply a scenario, at least until the second wave).  That is an ongoing risk higher than other causes of death, unless you are young.  You don’t have to be 77 for it to be your major risk worry.

Alternatively, let’s say the pace of those deaths will fall soon, and furthermore let’s say it will fall by a lot.  The near future will be a lot safer!  Which is all the more reason to play it very safe right now, because your per week risk currently is fairly high (in many not all parts of America).  Stay at home and wear a mask when you do go out.  If need be, make up for that behavior in the near future by indulging in excess.

A few of you also have asked me how all this Covid history has changed my view of the world.  If nothing else, I am realizing that people are worse at intertemporal substitution than I had thought.

Why aren’t we talking about forcible quarantine more?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

There has been surprisingly little debate in America about one strategy often cited as crucial for preventing and controlling the spread of Covid-19: coercive isolation and quarantine, even for mild cases. China, Singapore and South Korea separate people from their families if they test positive, typically sending them to dorms, makeshift hospitals or hotels. Vietnam and Hong Kong have gone further, sometimes isolating the close contacts of patients.

I am here to tell you that those practices are wrong, at least for the U.S. They are a form of detainment without due process, contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and, more important, to American notions of individual rights. Yes, those who test positive should have greater options for self-isolation than they currently do. But if a family wishes to stick together and care for each other, it is not the province of the government to tell them otherwise.

What I observe is people citing those other countries as successes, wishing to “score points,” but without either affirming or denying their willingness to engage in coercive quarantine.  Here is another bit:

Furthermore, all tests have false positives, not just medically but administratively (who else has experienced the government making mistakes on your tax returns?). Fortunately, current Covid-19 tests do not have a high rate of false positives. But even a 1% net false positive rate would mean — in a world where all Americans get tested — that more than 1 million innocent, non-sick Americans are forcibly detained and exposed to further Covid-19 risk.

And this:

Coercive containment was tried during one recent pandemic — in Castro’s Cuba, from 1986 to 1994, for those with HIV-AIDS. It is not generally a policy that is endorsed in polite society, and not because everyone is such an expert in Cuban public health data and epidemiological calculations. People oppose the policy because it was morally wrong.

And what about uncertainty? Is it really a safe bet that America’s quarantine policy would be executed successfully and save many lives? What if scientists are on the verge of discovering a cure or treatment that will lower the Covid-19 death rate significantly? Individual rights also protect society from the possibly disastrous consequences of its own ignorance.

Here are a few points that did not fit into the column:

1. I am not opposed to all small number, limited duration quarantine procedures, such as say holding Typhoid Mary out of socializing.  This same point also means that a society that starts coercive quarantine very early might be able to stamp out the virus by coercing relatively small numbers of people.  (It is not yet clear that the supposed successes have achieved this, by the way.)  That is very different from the “mass dragnet” to be directed against American society under current proposals.

2. I am familiar with the broad outlines of American quarantine law and past practice.  I don’t see that history as necessarily authorizing how a current proposal would have to operate, and on such a scale.  In any case, I am saying that such coercive quarantines would be wrong, not that they would be illegal.  I believe it is a genuinely open question how current courts would rule on these matters.

3. From my perch from a distance, it seems to me that Human Challenge Trials for vaccines are more controversial than is mass forced quarantine.  I could be wrong, and I would gladly pursue any leads on the current debate you might have for me.  Who are the philosophers or biomedical ethicists or legal scholars who have spoken out against such policies?

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

Why is child abuse not opposed more passionately on the Right

From an email from Paul Foster:

From my perch, there are two primary reasons the right doesn’t more passionately oppose child abuse. The first has to do with parents’ rights. The general conservative view of the child welfare system is of a group of liberal ladies who think they know better than parents and who are especially skeptical of religious parenting, especially conservative Christian parenting. (The NYT op-ed opposing home schooling was an almost-too-perfect totem in that regard.) As a result, while many on the right will say “sure, flat-out abuse is bad,” they’ll assume that “abuse” will be defined eventually to include homeschooling, imparting religious views (especially on traditional gender roles), and the like. The early 20th-century attempt to eradicate the German language and culture through the public schools is often pointed to, as is (at least among the hipper conservatives (I swear we exist!)) that one Simpsons episode where a social worker gives demerits to Marge and Homer’s household for “toilet paper hung in improper overhand fashion.”

The second reason–and this is probably true for both the right and the left–is that you can’t even think of a solution by reasoning from your political views. “Adults shouldn’t beat kids” is universally accepted, but your views on taxes or your reading of Ayn Rand or that latest anti-Pelosi meme doesn’t give you anything helpful in actually stopping adults from beating kids. Without a political solution, it tends to fall by the political wayside.

Here are my previous recent posts on related questions concerning child abuse.

Who wants to take UFO sightings more seriously?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.

The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.

The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.

Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.

Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.