Google, the Gender Pay Gap, and Markets

So you’ve probably seen this article making the rounds: Google Finds It’s Underpaying Many Men as It Addresses Wage Equity. It’s not hard to see why. The idea that a socially-aware megacorp tried to equalize women’s pay and ended up handing out raises is not only intrinsically funny, but offers a dose of schadenfreude for all the folks who still think James Damore was fundamentally right about the tech giants ideological echo chamber. Fair enough. But I want to talk about something different, and the real reason I’m deeply skeptical of the whole idea of a gender pay gap.

The first thing to realize is that the entire concept of a pay gap is actually philosophically tricky to define. From the NYT article:

When Google conducted a study recently to determine whether the company was underpaying women and members of minority groups, it found, to the surprise of just about everyone, that men were paid less money than women for doing similar work.

OK, but how does Google define “similar work”? Probably–I’m guessing, but a guess is good enough in this case–by looking at stuff like job title. Do you think everyone who works at your company with the same job title as you is working as hard / getting as much done as you do? No? Then this isn’t a very good basis for assessing “similar work” is it?

In fact, the problem is really bad because–even if a company paid men and women equally given that they had the same job title (in this case Google appears to have paid women more) they could still discriminate at an earlier stage in the process. Thus (another quote from the NYT article):

Critics said the results of the pay study could give a false impression. Company officials acknowledged that it did not address whether women were hired at a lower pay grade than men with similar qualifications.

In other words, maybe Google pays senior developers the same (or even pays female senior developers more), but at the same time it also stacks the deck against new hires so that female applicants are more likely to get hired as regular developers and then men are more likely to get hired as senior developers. In that case, it could be true that Google is biased towards paying women more within one job title, but also that it’s biased towards paying women less overall.

Not so simple, eh?

Now, I don’t actually know if Google used job title to define “similar work” and I made the bold claim that I didn’t really care if they did or not. The reason for that is that there is no good way to measure how much work a person does. If they used job title, then that’s a bad proxy. But if they used something else, then I am confident that they used another bad proxy. Because there’s absolutely no practical way that Google could have spent the time and resources required to actually assess all of their workers. There’s a name for this in economics, for the ides that it’s basically impossible to measure how much work an employee is doing. It’s called the principle-agent problem. And, believe it or not, that’s actually the easy part. Even if you could accurately, easily, and cheaply quantify how much work your employees do (you can’t), there’s still no accepted methodology for assessing how much value that work contributed to the company. If you’re the sales guy who closes a deal that earns your company $1,000,000 in revenue you might think the answer is simple: your effort just got the company a cool million. But you didn’t do that alone. You were selling a product that you didn’t make, for one thing. So the designers, the marketing guys, and the folks on the assembly line building the widgets all need a cut. How do you attribute the value you made–$1,000,000–among all the complex, networked, interconnected contributors? Good luck with that.

So far, all I’ve really said is that trying to detect a wage gap is going to be really, really hard because assessing “similar work” is basically impossible. But there’s good news! If you understand the way markets work, you will understand that you have very, very good reason to be skeptical that men and women are really being paid different amounts for similar work.

Now, before I explain this, let me just point out that there are a lot of people who will tell you that economic models of markets are over-simplified, flawed, and misleading. They’re right, but those criticisms don’t really apply. There’s this whole controversial literature over concepts like the efficient market hypothesis that, luckily, we don’t need to get into here and now. In a nutshell, economists like to pretend (for the sake of tractable theories) that humans are perfectly rational and statistical geniuses who take all possible information into account when making purchasing decisions. If that were true, then things like market bubbles would (probably) not be possible. (It depends on the specific of your model.) So let me just say: yeah, I concede all that. Precise, mathematical models of markets are basically all wrong. We can quibble about whether they are “perpetual motion machine”-wrong or just “spherical chicken”-wrong, but whatever.

Here’s the point: in a market (even a fairly messed-up, realistic one) you’ve got a lot of companies who are all competing. Although there’s a lot going on, one vital way that one of these companies can get a leg up over its competitors is if it finds a way to offer the same good or the same service for less cost. This isn’t rocket science, this is really, really obvious. If company A and company B are both selling more or less interchangeable widgets, but company A can make them for $1.00 / each and company B can make them for $0.90 / each, then company B has a huge advantage.

So here’s the thing: if there were any real indication that you could hire a woman, pay her 70% of what you pay a man, and get “similar work”, then what you’re saying is that there’s an easy, obvious way to go out there and make your widgets for $0.70 when everyone else has to pay $1.00 to make theirs.

We don’t need to take any derivatives here. We don’t need advanced theory. We don’t need to assume that human beings are perfectly rational, hyper-calculating machines. We just have to assume that companies generally want to find ways to reduce the cost of the goods and/or services they sell. If that humble, uncontroversial assumption is true, then any perceptible evidence of a real gender pay gap would immediately be identified and exploited by the market.

If anyone could find a real gender pay gap, it would be the mother of all arbitrage opportunities. And look, folks, if there’s one thing that every red-blooded capitalist wants to find, it’s an arbitrage opportunity. This isn’t hypothetical, by the way. You look at an industry like currency trading, and companies invest huge amounts of money hiring geniuses, buying them super-computers, and paying for access to network cables that give them millisecond advantages so that they can find and identify arbitrage opportunities before the market erases them.

Because that’s what markets do. They look for chances to make free money and then they exploit them until they disappear. If you find out that you can trade your dollars for yen, your yen for rubels, your rubels for pesos, and then your pesos back to dollars and end up with more than you started with: that’s arbitrage. And you will immediately pump as much money as you can into running through that cycle. As a result, the prices will go up and the arbitrage opportunity will close. This is what markets do.

And so if there is a way out there to hire women to do men’s work for 70% (or whatever) of their pay, companies would do that instantly. And the result? Well, the first company would offer women $0.70 on the dollar, but then a competitor would offer them $0.71, and then another competitor would offer them $0.72… and pretty soon no more arbitrage.

So what’s my point?

Trying to find out if there actually is an real wage-gap is very, very hard because measuring “similar work” is difficult. But, if there is ever a whiff of a reliable, objective, solid gender pay gap it will disappear as quickly as it is spotted as the market rushes to exploit the arbitrage opportunity.

Here’s what it all comes down to: if you believe in the gender pay gap, you believe that a bunch of cold-blooded, selfish capitalists are staring at a pile of money left on the table, and not one of them is trying to get their hands on it. This isn’t a completely open-and-shut case, but it’s a very, very strongly suggestive argument that capitalism and wage inequality–of any kind: gender-based, race-based, sexual orientation-based, etc–are fundamentally incompatible in the long run. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have laws against discrimination, because individual business owners might make stupid, bigoted decisions and we might decide not to wait around to let the market fix them. But it does mean that the idea of a real, persistent, ongoing gender pay-gap is like UFOs or Bigfoot or–even rarer than anything else–a free lunch.

It’s just probably not there.

Thoughts on Patriarchy Chicken

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook about a fun commuting game: patriarchy chicken. The idea is that you (a woman, of course) go about your commute as you ordinarily would do with one exception: you stop giving way to men. Because, you see,

Men have been socialised, for their entire lives, to take up space. Men who would never express these thoughts out loud have nevertheless been brought up to believe that their right to occupy space takes precedent over anyone else’s right to be there. They spread their legs on tubes and trains, they bellow across coffee shops and guffaw in pubs, and they never, ever give way.

New Statesman

The more I thought about this claim, the less sense it made. The article is written from the perspective of a Londoner, and so right away you have to ask: what’s the extent of this space-hogging socialization? Is it everywhere? Just the West? Just the Anglosphere? I mean, if this is really a think, then let’s take this seriously, right? Where are the cross-national studies? (Really, if you have any, send them my way.) It’s just odd that these new terms–mansplaining, manspsreading, etc.–crop out and then become part of the accepted wisdom with basically no analysis at all. Poof! They’re part of our (socially-constructed) reality.

Here’s the thing, though, I was certainly not socialized “to take up space”. As a man (that gives me some insight into how men are socialized, right?), my socialization included at least a couple of points contrary to the “take up space” model.

  1. Never intimidate. Men are not only generally physically stronger, but we (as a sex) are also overwhelmingly responsible for basically all violent crime. Which means that, as a man, you can intimidate women without even realizing that you’re doing it. As a result men (me, for one) have to constantly monitor their physical proximity relative to other people to ensure that a woman never feels in any way threatened. And look, there’s no way to go into detail on this without sounding at least a little crazy, but what I’m about to describe are largely unconscious rules that a lot of men (like me) follow every day. We’ll use elevator etiquette as our basic example. If you find yourself riding alone in the elevator with a woman you don’t know or have just met (at a work conference, for example) you don’t stand too close, don’t stand between her and the door, and don’t stand between her and the buttons. You allow for brief eye contact and a casual smile / head nod initially to show that you’re socialized and non-threatening, but then you generally leave her alone. If possible, you select your floor first (especially if its a hotel elevator) because if you happen to be on the same floor you don’t want to give the impression that you’re following her. Also, if you do end up going to the same floor, you ensure adequate distance so that she has her own personal space. These rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re just part of the everyday, ongoing monitoring that many men do to ensure that they don’t accidentally come across as threatening to anyone around them.
  2. Always serve. This is trickier now than it used to be. If you go overboard trying to play-act like a 15th century knight you’re just going to annoy people and make them uncomfortable, which isn’t truly gentlemanly. The default rule is to be polite to everyone and that the tie always goes to a woman. In other words–as it applies to patriarchy chicken–you always give way to a woman.

That’s how I was socialized. It’s not that I’m just ignorant of the “take up space” socialization, I was raised–in many ways–in the opposite school. And look, I’m not alone here. Most of the men I call friends act the same way. We don’t have to talk about it. We know. Because we apply the rules not only to ourselves individually, but also to ourselves in a group. If one man can be intimidating on accident, a group of two or three men have to be even more careful to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable.

Again, we don’t talk about it. It’s just a basic social rule that all guys know. Like the rule that you never, ever use a urinal adjacent to someone who’s already peeing if there are other free spots available. Never in my life growing up was I told that. It’s just basic man-code. So is giving way to women. Interested in more stuff like this? Check out the Art of Manliness website.

Alright, so if I–and a lot of men like me–have been socialized not to get in a woman’s way or expect her to move for us, then what gives? Is Charlotte Riley (who wrote the New Statesman article) lying? Hallucinating? No, I’m sure she’s not.

Here’s the thing, if every man out there expected women to get out of their way, then patriarchy chicken wouldn’t have sporadic run-ins, it would have a never-ending chain reaction of collisions. All it really takes is a small percentage–say, 5% off the top of my head–of men who expect women to get out of their way to be really, really noticeable. And here’s the thing, such men exist. We call them jerks. (If we’re being polite.) And they probably don’t see themselves as men who expect women to defer to them spatially. They see themselves as important people who expect everyone else to get out of their way.

In my experience, there are basically zero social justice concerns that can’t be reformulated without the political lens and be just as valid. This is just another example of that. Instead of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about male socialization that strain credulity, why not go with the simpler approach: some people are jerks?

And, hey, look: if you want to play “jerk chicken” (which sounds delicious) instead of patriarchy chicken, great! Go for it. I’m not telling Riley–or anyone else–to do anything any differently. You be you. I just think it’s kind of sad that, left to their own devices, people seem so eager to adopt what are basically the social science version of conspiracy theories. It’s like choosing to live your life in as dark and depressing a light as possible. Yeah, you can go around thinking that all (most?) men secretly hate you and want to oppress you… but, in the absence of really strong data, why would you want to? It just seems sad.

That’s how most conspiracies work, though. They are fundamentally un-empowering. Nobody is empowered by the idea that aliens can swoop down in a UFO whenever they want, kidnap them, probe them, and then release them to a world that treats the story with derision. That’s not empowering! Nobody is empowered by the idea that we’re all just pawns of mysterious forces like the Illuminati. Conspiracy theories are basically an exercise in cashing in real control (agency over your actions and attitude and believes) for fake control (made-up explanations that remove the uncertainty and ambiguity of life). This trade-off doesn’t make a lot of sense when you put it on those terms, but that’s really what’s going on with conspiracy theories. People would rather be impotent in a world that makes sense than potent in a world that doesn’t.

The whole “Men have been socialised, for their entire lives, to take up space.” thing is not exactly the same, but it’s pretty close. Which makes it understandable, but still sad.

Radical Ideology as Stupidity Enabler

I just finished reading A River in Darkness, the autobiography of a Korean-Japanese man who escaped from North Korea. It’s a tragic and engrossing read, but one detail that stuck out was the way that North Korean bureaucrats forced North Korean farmers to grow rice in ways that even a kid from urban Japan who had never studied agriculture knew were incorrect. (Basically, they planted the rice much too close together.)

It reminded me of another book, The Three-Body Problem, which depicted some of the real-life events of the Cultural Revolution in China, in particular “struggle sessions” in which Chinese professors were publicly humiliated and tortured by a mob in part for refusing to recant scientific principles that had been deemed incompatible with political doctrine.

Panchen Lama during the struggle session in 1964 (Wikipedia)

The communists in North Korea and China were in good company. Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue, recounts the Soviet Union’s own peculiar war on science:

Trofim Lysenko argued, and those who gainsaid him were shot, that wheat could be made more frost-hardy not by selection but by experience. Millions died hungry to prove him wrong. The inheritance of acquired characteristics remained in official doctrine of Soviet biology until 1964.

So in North Korea they insisted on disregarding ancient agricultural knowledge because the Party knew best, up to and including triggering massive starvation. In China they executed, exiled, and fired an entire generation of trained scientists because the Party knew best. And in the Soviet Union they insisted on trying to create frost-resistant wheat by freezing the seeds first and created even more massive starvation. Genetics, quantum mechanics, and common sense: why did the Party think they knew so much?

Let me tell you what got me thinking about this. A friend of mine posted a link to this article from Duke University’s The Chronicle detailing that a graduate program director who urged foreign students studying at Duke to speak English has been forced to step down as a result of her advice. Now, I don’t have enough information about the outrage du jour to have a strong opinion about it. As a matter of basic ethics and common sense, it’s rude and counterproductive to go to a foreign country to study and work and then hang around other people speaking your own language instead of adopting the language of the country you’ve moved to. Of course there are exceptions and I don’t generally think it’s a good idea to enforce every aspect of etiquette and common sense with formal policies, but that’s not really the point. I don’t want to take a strong position on the Duke case because I don’t know or care that much about it.

On the other hand, my friend who posted the article knew everything there is to know about it. I will not quote from the post (it was not shared publicly), but she interpreted everything through the standard lens or racism / colonialism / privilege / etc. and as a result she had zero doubts about anything. She spoke with absolute confidence and black-and-white judgment. Then all of her like-minded friends piled on, congratulating her. She knew and they knew that there was one and only explanation, one and only one answer, and that it was obvious.

I tried to engage in some discussion, leading with a simple question: have you ever lived in a foreign country and did you insist on speaking your language there? Do you even speak a foreign language? She hasn’t, so she couldn’t, and she doesn’t. (I have, I could but I did not, and I do.) Instead of considering that her view might be wrong, however, she just called for another friend to come in because they were a specialist in linguistic imperialism. So, as far as I know, this friend also has zero relevant experience but has a bigger ideological toolbox to whack people over the head with. Other commenters–even when they were polite–were just as clueless, sharing stories about growing up in bilingual homes or teaching English as a second language at the elementary school level. What do either of these things–interesting as they may be in themselves–have to do with speaking English in a graduate program? Not a single thing.

There are two things going on.

First, radical ideologies are incredibly dangerous things because they enable stupidity on a massive scale. People embrace radical ideologies because they are powerful explanation-machines. Life confronts all of us with ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. Also, disappointment and difficulty. Radical ideologies are a perfect antidote to the ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. They are, functionally speaking, fulfilling the same role that conspiracy theories do. They don’t improve your life, they aren’t meaningfully accurate, but they make your life explicable. They turn all of the randomness into order. This doesn’t actually make your situation objectively better, but it makes it feel better.

This can be relatively harmless. Radical ideology, conspiracy theories, and superstition have harmless manifestations where they don’t really do anything except waste time in exchange for a false feeling of control. Sure, you might be throwing away money to get your palm read, but it’s not really hurting anyone, right?

Sure, but things get dicier when your kooky explanation-machine happens to target, say, vaccines. Or all of modern psychiatry. Or, heck, modern medicine from start to finish. Even in these cases, the damage is limited to mostly yourself and, in particularly tragic cases, maybe your kids.

But when the explanation-machine that you’ve adopted is a political ideology, we go through a kind of phase-change and things get much, much worse.

Unlike micro explanation machines–superstition and conspiracy theories, for example–political ideologies are macro explanation machines. They have two functions. The first is the same as micro explanation machines: to quickly and easily make your life experiences intelligible. But they don’t stop there. They have a second function, and that function is to accumulate power. And that’s where things go off the rails and we get industrial-scale stupidity enabling.

To illustrate this, we have to understand why it was that Marxists in North Korea planted rice too close together, or Marxists in China executed physicists, or Marxists in the USSR kept using psuedo-science to try and grow frost-resistant wheat. You see, it wasn’t just some kind of weird accident that happened to be harmful, in the way that some people cling to harmless conspiracy theories like Bigfoot and others cling to harmful ones like the anti-vax crowd. Nope, the Marxists in North Korea, China, and the USSR were following a script laid down intentionally and inevitably by Lenin and Stalin.

Here’s philosopher Steven L. Goldman’s recounting:

This imperialism of the scientific world view—that there is such an imperialism—has a kind of, let’s call it, acute support that one doesn’t ordinarily encounter from an odd quarter, and that is from V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Before he was preoccupied with becoming the head of the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin wrote a book called Materialism and Imperio-Criticism in which he harshly criticized Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science, and other philosophies of science influenced by Mach, that denied that the object of scientific knowledge was reality—that denied that scientific knowledge was knowledge of what is real and what is true.

Lenin strongly defended a traditional—not a revolutionary—but a traditional conception of scientific knowledge, because otherwise Marxism itself becomes merely convention. In order to protect the truth of Marxist philosophy of history and of society—in order to protect to the idea that Marxist scientific materialism is “True” with a capital “T,” Lenin attacked these phenomenalistic theories, these conventionalistic theories—that we have seen defended by not just Mach, but also by Pierre Duhem, Heinrich Hertz, Henri Poincare, at about the same time that Lenin was writing Materialism and Imperio-Criticism.

Stalin in the 1930s made it clear that the theory of relativity and quantum theory, with its probability distributions as descriptions of nature—”merely” probabilistic descriptions of nature—”merely” I always say in quotation marks—that these were unacceptable in a Communist environment. Again, this is for the same reasons, because Marxist scientific materialism must be true. So, scientific theories that settle for probabilities and that are relative, are misunderstanding that special and general theories of relativity are in fact absolute and deterministic theories.


The willful stupidity of Marxist-Leninist ideology is not an accidental byproduct. It is a direct consequence of the fact that radical political ideologies are not content to be one explanation-machine among many but–as organized political movements in a battle for power–have to fight to be the explanation machine. This leads directly towards conflict between Marxist-Leninist ideology and any other contender, including both science and religion.

When these macro explanation machines aren’t killing millions of people, the absurdity can be hilarious. Here’s Goldman again:

A curious thing happened, namely that Russian physicists of the 1930s, 1940s and even into the 1950s, in books that they published on relativity and quantum theory, had to have a preface in which they made it clear that this book was not about reality—that these theories were not true, but they were very interesting and useful. It was okay to explore, but of course they’re not true because if they were, they would contradict Marxist scientific materialism.

This is quite funny because back in the 16th century, when Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543, it was accompanied—unbeknownst to Copernicus, who was dying at the time—that the man who saw it through publication was a Protestant named Andreas Osiander—who stuck in a preface in order to protect Copernicus, because he knew that the Church would be upset if this theory of the heavens were taken literally. We know Galileo was in trouble for that. We talked a lot about that. So Osiander stuck in a preface saying, “You know, I don’t mean that the Earth really moves, but if you assume that it does, then look how nice and less complicated astronomy is.”

Now, I’m a religious person. I don’t think there’s any unavoidable conflict between religion and science. But when religion becomes a political ideology–as it was in the days of Copernicus and Galileo–then it is functionally equivalent to any other macro explanation machine (like Marxist-Leninism) and you will get the same absurd results (and, more often than not, the same horrific death tolls).

So here’s what I’ve learned. Human evil is never dangerous when it’s obvious. All of the great evils that we recognize today–fascism, slavery, Marxist-Leninism–were attractive in their day. And not to cackling, sinister villains rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of inflicting evil misery on the world. Ordinary people thought that each of these monstrous evils was reasonable and, in many cases, even preferable.

If you roll that logic forward, it implies that the greatest evils of our time will be non-obvious. The movement that in 40 or 50 years from now we will revile and disavow is a movement that seems respectable and even attractive to many decent and intelligent people today. It is a macro explanation engine that appeals to people individually because it brings order to their personal narratives and–because it is functioning in the political realm–it is a macro explanation engine that will seek to crowd out all competitors and will therefore be hostile not only to alternative political ideologies but also to micro explanation engines that function in totally disparate realms like religion in science.

And, precisely because it seeks to undermine all other explanation engines even when operating in domains where it has zero utility or applicability, it will be most easily recognized in one way: as a massive enabler of stupidity.

Because that’s what happens when you have a mighty hammer. You start to see nothing but nails.

Gillette, Culture, and Class

I didn’t really want to write about the infamous Gilette #MeToo advertisement, because I didn’t really care about it. I still don’t, personally. But then a Glenn Reynolds piece at USA Today showed me the controversy in a new light.

In his article, Reynolds made the observation that:

… in America class warfare is usually disguised as cultural warfare. But underneath the surface, talk is a battle between the New Class and what used to be the middle class.

This is definitely something that I’ve noticed. It was one of the things I learned when I did the research for the most frequently-read post here at Difficult Run: When Social Justice Isn’t about Justice. And it totally fits with the fallout I’ve seen on my Facebook feed. Pretty much every single person I’ve seen angry or opposed to the ad comes from a blue collar and/or rural background. Why are they mad? Not because they object with the message of the ad per se (who objects to “hey, stop bullying”?) but because they know they are being talked down to, patronized, and scolded. And they’re right.

And all the folks I’ve seen making fun of them and mocking anyone who has a problem with the ad? College educated, often with a graduate degree, and frequently working as a professional intellectuals. They see it as a culture war issue instead of class war issue because that’s one of the most important functions of social justice activism: to cloak class interest in progressive ideals.

Also, the silliness of anti-capitalists celebrating ad campaigns, no matter how superficially idealistic, is pretty amusing.

But, while we’re admiring the nimble messaging of capitalism, here’s a message that might actually contribute to men being good men.

DREditors’ Best Books of 2018

Due to a long-term and acute case of lameness, I never published the DREditors’ best books of 2017. As part of my recover from this lameness-attack, I’m making sure that we get 2019 started off right with a review of the top-5 best books from each of our DREditors. Each who replied, at least. So, here we go!

Ro Givens

The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Many books like this one have a lot more science in them. This is more of a memoir/biography mixed with some science and medical law. So if you’re looking for a science-focused book, this is not the one, although if you’re looking for a book with no science, this is also not the one. This book tells the story of Henrietta and her family, interwoven with the medical industry’s use of her cervical cancer cells (HeLa), the author’s journey to uncover the family and medical history, and the legal precedents (or lack thereof) involving the consent for and use of human tissue sampled from patients and research subjects. One of the biggest legal takeaways is that if you have tissue separated from you (especially by a medical professional), you likely have no legal claim to it, the medical establishment can do whatever research they want on it, and, in most cases, they can profit from its use.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

This book really touches on the cultural aspects of “hillbilly” America that have resulted in poverty throughout much of middle and southern America. It’s not all encompassing, as the author grew up white lower class, and not black, lower class (which brings a host of other issues, but which also has some overlap). Vance often talks about the pervasive feeling that “nothing I do matters” which results in people not trying hard and then blaming everyone else for their problems. He also discusses the feeling that “only other people can be successful”, the inherent tribalism among those who grow up in poverty, and thus the fear of admitting and showing success if you do end up successful. Ultimately Vance believes he “escaped” the poverty cycle because his grandparents didn’t let him hold on to these feelings and provided a safe and stabilizing home – even if he didn’t always live there. But he also benefited from getting into Yale law school – which gives some of the best social capital you can have in America.

Vance’s grandparents were amazing (in both great and crazy ways). I felt a connection to this book having grown up in a broken home (though my mom was the best) with economic difficulties (though not as extreme), with several last names in the household resulting from a complicated family tree, and with my grandfather being the most present father figure in my life. I also connected with the idea of growing up poor and unfamiliar with the academic and business world (my mom never went to college) and then trying to navigate that world all the way through graduate school and beyond. I think the book has the potential to bring empathy, understanding, and laughter to those who have grown up in stable, nuclear families and to bring a feeling of connection to those who have a family skeleton or two in their closets.

When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery by Frank T. Vertosick Jr.

Great read. Not for people who dislike gory details and sad endings, or anyone who needs to avoid webMD-like information for their emotional well-being.

I thought his description of cancer was super interesting.

Cancers and embryos are kindred spirits, both composed of highly mobile cells dividing at full throttle.  A fertilized ovum changes from a single cell to a miniature human body in a matter of weeks.  During this period of high speed construction, cells migrate freely from one region of the embryo to another, as complex organs are assembled from amorphous cell clusters.  The ability of cancerous cells to metastasize to distant sites is a throwback to the migratory  properties of embryonic cells.  The similarity of cancer cells to embryonic cells goes deeper than a simple capacity to migrate.  Proteins and hormones produced in fetal tissues suddenly reappear in cancerous tissues of adults… Mechanistically, cancer results not from the degeneration of adult tissue into decrepit forms, but from their regression into juvenile forms.  Cancer cells relive the heyday of their fetal youth… While adult tumors arise from differentiated cells lapsing retrograde into prenatal behavior, pediatric tumors arise from islands of embryonic tissue which never matured in the first place.  These “Peter Pan” cells won’t grow up, acting like embryonic tissue even after birth… The fetal nature of these tumors explains why they are so refractory to treatment.  Fetal cells have a mission: to create a child.  Their drive to complete this mission is so strong that only killing the patient will stop them.

Dr. Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

Honorable Mention / Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline aka 1980s Nerd Sci-Fi Explosion

The Martian by Andy Weir aka Space MacGyver

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness aka An Academic Writes a Vampire Novel

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller aka Young Female Pirate Captain is the YA Heroine We Need

Walker Wright

In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty by Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan

With populism on the rise, an empirical and philosophical defense of liberal trade and immigration are both needed. Brennan and van der Vossen give the best case I’ve seen in favor of an open economy, challenging both right-wing and left-wing populists. Perhaps even more important, they defend the notion of productive human rights: the ability to produce, work, build, create, etc. “To leave out productive rights,” they write, “…is not just to distort our picture of human rights and global justice. It’s to distort our picture of people—including the world’s poor. To fully respect people, we must not just make sure that they have enough welfare, happiness, or utility…We must treat them as active and productive agents, as contributors to their own lives and those around them, and no just as consumers or receptacles of goods” (pg. 111).

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

In the era of social media, I have become extremely skeptical of people’s public moral grandstanding. Through a wide-ranging empirical investigation, Simler and Hanson demonstrate that I’m right to be skeptical: many of our motives are in fact selfish in nature (color me shocked…). We often seek to gain power and status through the accumulation of social and moral capital. And we do this through various mediums: consumption, charity, politics, religion, and so on. Of course, we are a mixed bag of motivations. But sweeping the selfish ones under the rug for fear of being called cynical does no one any good.

Sex & World Peace by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett

The impressive datasets and empirical research found in this book demonstrate the interdependence of macro and microlevel institutions. The authors find that the physical security of women and various factors of gender inequality (e.g., polygyny, inequitable family law) are strongly associated with state-level peacefulness. In sum, gender inequality in customs and law perpetuates state insecurity and war. This is likely why Hudson elsewhere has described companionate heterosexual monogamous marriage as human peace incarnate.

The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology by Jonathan A. Stapley

Priesthood has been a hot button issue in contemporary Latter-day Saint discourse, largely due to debates over gender and ecclesiastical authority. In Stapley’s historical construction, priesthood in the early Church was cosmologically identified with the eternal kinship bonds created and concretized through temple rituals. The eclipse of this understanding and its conflation with ecclesiastical priesthood offices had major effects on future interpretations of both scriptures and ordinances. Stapley’s recovery of this earlier meaning enriches our already temple-oriented theology.

Death (The Art of Living) by Todd May

May is a philosophical advisor for the show The Good Place and it was there that I saw this book briefly mentioned. May argues that death is the most defining feature of human beings since it permeates throughout everything we think, feel, and do. What’s more, he argues that immortality in some ways would undermine meaning by eliminating the sacrifice and urgency associated with time scarcity. As a Latter-day Saint, my theology views mortality as a necessary step in eternal progression toward divinity. Despite the author coming from an atheistic angle, this book offers possible answers as to what role death plays in this training ground for godhood.

Honorable Mention

Nathaniel Givens

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore

It’s like I said in my Goodreads review: if I could give this book 6 stars, I would. I started listening to Lecrae after hearing “Just Like You” on a campus bus in Michigan. I memorized enough of the lyrics to look it up when I got home, and from then on I was hooked. Lecrae is one of my heroes with folks like Dustin Kensrue and Josh Garrels: artists who refuse to pick and choose between their faith and their art. Between the world and the kingdom.

This book is Lecrae’s autobiography. It’s an awesom story. It’s well-written. A lot of Lecrae’s excellent lyricism translates from verse to prose just fine. And it’s also full of really insightful Christian theology. I’m pretty sure Lecrae is reformed Calvinist which is pretty different from my ow faith, but it’s OK. It’s OK with me, anyway. What we have in common is much more than what separates us, and I learned–and continue to learn–a lot from Lecrae.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” The word for “workmanship” is “poema”. We are God’s poem to the world. A poem articulates the heart, the mind, and the character of the poet. Your calling may not be to write music or produce music or sing music but that’s OK. You are music. You’re God’s music. And God doesn’t just want to break records and top charts with you. He wants to change lives and industries and society. By God’s grace, I’m going to keep making the music as long as I have air in my lungs. But my prayer is that you’ll make music too. Maybe not with your voice. Maybe not on a stage. But hopefully with your life. And may God get the glory from the music we create. 

Keep on creating.

Lecrae in “Unashamed”

Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

I grew up with friends who were Muslim. I learned about Islam in school. I studied Islam a little bit more on my own. But reading Destiny Disrupted was the first time I felt like I really started to get it. The most important insight for me was understanding the extent to which Islam is–and always was–a communal project. I also really enjoyed learning about the stories of the lives of the early successors of Mohammad. Hearing those stories made me think that to understand where someone comes from, you really have to know the stories that they heard as kids. Finally, it’s a tragic story of how the forces of fundamentalism won out over other branches of Islam and sidelined their progress. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in Islam or just wants to read great history.

The moment Mohammed died, the community faced an overwhelming problem. It wasn’t just “Who is our next leader?” but “What is our next leader?” When a saint dies, people can’t simply name some other saint in his placed, because such figures aren’t created by election or appointment, they just emerge; and if they don’t, oh well; people may be disappointed but life goes on. When a king dies, by contrast, no one says, “Wouldn’t it be nice of someday we had another king?” The gap must be plugged at once.

When Prophet Mohammed died, it was like a saint dying but it was also like a king dying. He was irreplaceable, yet someone had to take his place. Without a leader, the Umma could not hold together.

Tamim Ansary in “Destiny Disrupted”

When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick, Jr.

I know that Ro already picked this one for her list, but I have to add it to mine, too. I’ve read several medical or scientific autobiographies, but this one is probably the most touching that I’ve ever encountered. It is a book defined by one term that you don’t ordinarily associate with the medical profession, and especially not with neurosurgeons: humility. This book will touch you, and it will also enlighten you. Read it.

You have to care about the patients, but not too much. It’s unethical to operate on our wives. Why? Because we’d be too likely to choke. To get nervous and f–k up if its our own family on the chopping block. The very fact that medical ethics forbids treating your immediate family is proof that we shouldn’t get so involved with a patient that we are made nervous by the possibility of failure. Patients want us to care about them, but they want us to perform with the nerveless demeanor of someone slicing baloney in a deli at the same time. It’s one of those unexplained paradoxes we just accept.

Doctor Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

The Destroyermen Series by Taylor Anderson

I have had so much fun with this series this year! There are thirteen books in the series, and I read every single one of them. (OK, I listened to them.) The premise is pretty simple. The USS Walker, a World War I-era destroyer that was sent to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor (Walker was a real-life ship) is caught up in a mysterious storm that transports it to an alternate-history version of the Earth where humans never evolved, but other intelligent life forms did. And those other species? They’re at war. Also: dinosaurs. It’s so, so good, and it has grown so, so far from that initial premise. There’s no way that I can summarize 13 books, so just trust me: they’re great.

“Wherever we go, whatever we do in this goofed-up world, somebody or something always needs killing.”

– Jim Ellis, in Taylor Anderson’s novel “Firestorm”

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 – 1918 by G. J. Meyer

This is the best history of World War I I’ve read since Guns of August, and I’d even say it’s better than Guns of August. It’s always amazing to me how badly wrong everything I learned about history in high school was, and this is no exception. A lot of that is on me. What can you really teach a sheltered teenager about the Great War? Not much. So, yeah, a lot of what I learned about trench warfare was wrong. The combat in World War I was much more dynamic, even on the Western Front, than what I was taught. But the utter, monumental, tragic senselessness of it all? I was told about it, but it didn’t sink in. Of course I don’t believe I cna understand it now like someone who lived through it then, but at least a glimmer of it finally got through to me while reading this sweeping, majestic, terrible history.

“Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.”


Excerpt from a letter by Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain in August 1915 as quoted by G. J. Meyer in “A World Undone”

Honorable Mention

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.”

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham, want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you, the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

The Post-Meritocracy Comes to Linux

This is a developing and highly-controversial story, so I’ve got to give y’all a warning that this quick post is based on provisional research. There’s probably a lot more to the story than I know, and I’m going to try and follow it and update folks. But it definitely seems important enough to warrant this early note.

About a week ago I noticed a kind of weird story about Linus Torvalds (creator and leader of the Linux kernel projectapologizing for his infamously abrasive personality and promising to get better. What I didn’t notice at the time was that, simultaneous with his temporary departure, he also implemented a “Code of Conduct” for the Linux kernel project. Then, people’s heads started exploding. Why? Because many people believe that the Code of Conduct is basically a SJW take-over of Linux.

The best article I’ve found so far to explain that rationale is this one, which points out that the Code of Conduct was written by  Coraline Ada Ehmke, an LGBT activist who has a history of using her Contributor Covenant to go after people she thinks are bigots.

For example, she tried to have a core contributor to the Opal project expelled because–in an unrelated Tweet–he stated that “(trans people) not accepting reality is the problem here.” Although Ehmke wasn’t involved in the project or the conversation, she campaigned to have Elia removed. She failed in that regard, but got Opal to adopt her Contributor Covenant, and she then tried to modify Opal’s version of the Covenant in a way that would give her new ammunition to take on Elia.

The obvious threat is that activists like Ehmke will use the Linux kernel Code of Conduct to go after Linux developers the same way Ehmke went after Elia, and there are early signs that that is exactly what will happen. A “diversity and inclusion consultant” named Sage Sharp called out Linux developer Ted Tso in a Tweet:

Sharp subsequently backed off and claimed that “I don’t want Ted Tso reviewing Code of Conduct cases involving sexual assault or sexism” and that they “did not make a statement asking for him to be removed from the board.” Yeah, sure. Because it’s totally believable that Sharp is content with having a rape apologist on the board. They kicked Brandon Eich out of his own company for much less than this, and the only reason they’re not doing a full-court press on Tso (yet) is that the Linux community is both hostile and well-armed, up to and including a potential nuclear response. 

The nuclear deterrent was described in this (slightly sensational) article. Basically, some anonymous person posted to the Linux Kernel Mailing List with a suggestion that anybody kicked off the project for Code of Conduct violations could revoke permission to use their contributions to the Linux kernel. The legal case here is complex and hypothetical, but folks like Eric S. Raymond believe the threat has enough legitimacy to be taken seriously. If they can really revoke permission to use their code, then it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux, and if it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux then the Internet pretty much dies, because a vast swathe of the servers that power the Internet run the Linux operating system, to say nothing of all the Android phones and various embedded systems out there. 

I don’t think this is very likely for two reasons. First, the social justice activists don’t want to overplay their hand, and you can see that in how Sharp walked back their original claim. Second, the legality of withdrawing code from the Linux kernel is complicated and untried; it’s never been tested in court and nobody knows for sure what would happen. 

The nuclear deterrent may be grabbing all the headlines, but it’s not my long-run concern. I’m more worried about a subtler problem, the infiltration of post-meritocratic thinking into software that runs so much of the hardware that we all depend on. Linux is critical to our infrastructure. It’s not just powering the Internet. Linux is also the basis of Android, for example, so it’s the foundation for a big chunk of our smartphone ecosystem. It’s also in a lot of embedded hardware from cash registers to medical devices. Even if we avoid the nuclear option, you have to ask yourself: do you want potentially life-saving hardware to be developed and maintained by a community that has rejected merit as their guiding criteria?

It’s not an exaggeration or a conspiracy theory to assert either (a) that up until now Linux and the open source community had embraced merit as their ultimate guiding principle or that (b) the Code of Conduct is the spearhead of a philosophy that emphatically and explicitly rejects that position. In the past, I would have had to cite a definition of critical race theory from the UCLA School of Public Affairs and then link critical race theory to wider social justice theory, and basically you’d have had to trust me. But Ehmke has made my job much, much easier in this regard. Not only did she write the Code of Conduct, but she also wrote the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto. The manifesto begins:

Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued.

But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology…

It is time that we as an industry abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.

The manifesto goes on to embrace ominous values such as the belief that “working in our field is a privilege, not a right,” a clear statement of intent to “no platform” all those who fail to affirm the dogma of the social justice activists. It’s just that in this case we’re not only preventing the undesirables from spreading their opinions, but also from contributing code to open-source projects.

Obviously there are political dimensions here. Ehmke has stated that the Contributor Covenent–the basis for the Code of Conduct–is a political document.

The politics are problematic, in my view, to say the least. But while the politics can be complicated and ambiguous, the practical considerations seem a lot less murky. Let me ask you this: how comfortable would you be if your airline pilot or cardiac surgeon was trained by a post-meritocratic institution?

Don’t get me wrong: obviously software developers don’t have an immediate, life-or-death impact the way airline pilots or surgeons do. But that just means the degradation in quality from rejecting merit as the ultimate guiding principle will be more subtle and diffuse, but also have a correspondingly broader impact. Instead of diluting merit in the evaluation of pilots and surgeons, we’re going to dilute merit from the evaluation of software developers who write the code for air traffic control and teleoperated surgical robots. That still seems like cause for concern.

I always sort of resent having to add this caveat, because I think it should be obvious, but I emphatically support the purported goal of equality and fairness. What I don’t support is the willingness to sacrifice merit to get there, much less the assumption implied by the belief that we need to do so. I don’t think we need to reject meritocratic ideals to accept women, gays, blacks, or any other minority as coders for the simple reason that I think women, gays, blacks and all other minorities are just as capable–given equal opportunity–of contributing equally meritorious code. If they cannot due to unequal opportunity, then it seems more like a betrayal than a helping hand to jettison merit as a benchmark instead of undertaking the much harder work of rectifying unequal opportunity to ensure that everyone has the same chance to develop their skills and talents. Equality and merit are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is only in the context of a meritocracy that we can ultimately have equality. Not only should we be unwilling to accept anything less than a meritocracy for vitally important infrastructure, but also for a just society.

Woodward’s “Fear” Made Me Fear Trump Less

This post is adapted from my original Goodreads review.

Fear Book CoverWhen the first sensational excerpts of Bob Woodward’s Trump book came out, I knew that I had to read it as quickly as I could. But I also wanted to have some perspective, given how controversial Trump is, and so first I read All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars to calibrate my response. So, in the past few days, I’ve gone through all of these books, and here are my thoughts.

First–strictly speaking about the book as a book and ignoring the politics for a second–Fear is much better All the President’s Men or Obama’s Wars, both of which were basically nothing-burgers. In contrast, Fear was much more interesting and I felt like I really had learned a lot at the end of it.

OK, so now let’s switch to the politics. What did Fear teach me about Trump? In a nutshell, it taught me that the anti-Trump case is pretty weak, he’s probably not going to be impeached, and there isn’t anything worthy of impeaching him for. I’m not happy with any of those conclusions. I consider Trump unqualified by moral character to be President, and on the few issues where he has a genuine conviction I disagree vehemently with those positions. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that Woodward himself uses to close the book:

Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap. And in a brutally honest self-evaluation, he believed that Mueller had played him and the President for suckers in order to get their cooperation on witnesses and documents. Dowd was disappointed in Mueller pulling such a sleight of hand… Dowd believed that the President had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. But, in the man in the and his Presidency, Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the Tweeting, the obscuring, crying “fake news”, the indignation Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: “You’re a f—ing liar.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

Although it’s hardly flattering, calling a politician a liar is not even newsworthy and if that’s the worst accusation you can throw at Trump, then we might as well settle in for his second term. That’s not to say that Trump’s dishonesty isn’t on a new level compared to other politicians, but Americans are too jaded from past accommodations with immoral behavior for an accusation of dishonesty to have any real traction, no matter how pathological. If you’re hoping for a smoking gun or something that will bring down the Trump presidency, this book not only isn’t it; it throws water on the whole prospect.

In fact, my overall impression of the book–especially in contrast to the early excerpts everyone talked about before the book was released–is that it humanizes and explains Trump. It doesn’t make me like him any more, but I do feel like I understand him more and that understanding isn’t always bad. For example:

Afterward, when Trump had phone calls with others from the military who had been killed, the White House staff noticed how hard and tough it seemed for him. “He’s not that guy,” Bannon said. “He’s never really been around the military. He’s never been around military family. Never been around death.” The deaths of parents of small kids struck him particularly hard. “That had a big impact on him, and it’s seen throughout everything.”

A staffer who sat in on several calls made to gold star families was struck by how much time and emotional energy devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file. “I’m looking at his picture. Such a beautiful boy,” said in one call to family members. “Where did he grow up? Where did he grow to school? Why did he join the service?” 

“I’ve got the record here. There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

Fear by Bob Woodward

That’s definitely not a description of a great president, but it’s not really a description of a monster, either. Woodward also finds some reason for the chaos in his administration:

Trump heard about the conflicts [among his staff]. He liked aggressive disagreements. They smoked out a wide variety of opinions. Harmony could lead to groupthink. He embraced the chaos and churn beneath him.

Fear by Bob Woodward

He also recounts Trump graciously thanking attorney John Dowd after Dowd had given Trump some really harsh criticism and advice Trump didn’t want to hear, recounting that “in a lifetime of law, Dowd maybe had only five clients who had so graciously expressed their thanks.”

Finally, Woodward revealed that Trump reads newspapers “more thoroughly than the public generally [knows],” which you have to contrast with allegations that Trump is only semi-literate. Sample:

This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning.

“What on earth is Trump saying?” by Max Boot

This kind of reckless exaggeration from the press explains, to a great extent, why Trump seems invincible. As White House Communications Director Hope Hicks put it, “the media had ‘Oppositional Defiance Syndrome’,”:

Oppositional Defiance Syndrome is characterized by excessive anger against authority, vindictiveness, and temper-tantrums. As far as she was concerned, that described the press.

Fear by Bob Woodward

She’s not wrong, and Woodward deserves credit for avoiding that pitfall. I wish more journalists did, because if they hadn’t been so hysterical maybe they could have stopped him. The saddest part of the whole book for me was the revelation that–at the height of the Access Hollywood scandal–the plan was to have Trump step down and Pence run instead with Condoleeza Rice as VP. I don’t love Pence, necessarily, but I <3 Condi Rice.

The whole Access Hollywood thing is also a tragically ironic example of Trump’s resilience and the media’s complicity–intentionally or not–with that resilience. Here’s what happened:

By fall, the intelligence reports showed that Moscow, like almost every one else, believed that Clinton was likely to win. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s influence campaign shifted strategy to focus on undermining her coming presidency. Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson were the most anxious to alert the public to the Russian interference. At 3pm, on Friday October 7th, the released a joint statement officially accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the US election, although they didn’t name Putin in the public release. 

“The US intelligence community is confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of emails from US persons and institutions. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Russia’s senior most officials are the only ones who could have authorized the activities.”

Clapper, Johnson and the Clinton campaign expected this to be the big news of the weekend, as did the reporters who began working on the story. But one hour later, at 4:05pm, David Farenthold at the Washington Post released a story headlined, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

So, instead of a major headline about Russian meddling before the election we got the Access Hollywood story. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been a story, but I do think it’s less important than the Russian story for the simple reason that nothing in the Access Hollywood story was actually news. We all knew Trump was a pretty awful misogynist. Just one more example of that didn’t actually change anything, but it sure distracted people from the Russia story, which actually would have been news to the American public at that time. The press went with the sensational over the important, and here we are.

Oh, and one more thing: in addition to the dim view of Mueller, Woodward recounted a pretty devious play by the FBI that explains a lot Trump’s animosity. After an NYT article about Trump aids having contact with Russian intelligence officials, Andrew McCabe came to Reince Priebus to tell him the story was wrong. He even promised that the FBI would publicly reveal the info, a huge win for the White House. But then… he didn’t. Preibus called and tried to get McCabe to reveal the info he had and that he’d said they would reveal, but he refused. And then CNN reported an exclusive story with the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia story.”

So not only did the FBI not come through like they said they would, but they setup the Trump administration to make it look like they were trying to pressure the FBI dishonestly, when all they were doing was asking the FBI to reveal facts the FBI had first come to the Trump administration with. Only months later did the truth come out–far after everyone quit paying attention–when Comey public testified under oath that the original NYT story was “in the main… not true.” I’m not sure exactly what happened there–and Woodward doesn’t explain it either–but if the FBI did that to me, I’d be furious and suspicious, too.

What I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, this book made me–a committed #NeverTrumper–dislike Trump less than before I read it. This is mostly just a question of expectations. My opinion of Trump was so low that even a really damning, negative book is actually not as bad as my worst suspicions. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty negative quotes from Trump officials, like Mattis saying Trump had the intellectual capacity of “a 5th or 6th grader” or Bannon saying adult logic didn’t work on Trump, and you had to use teenage logic instead, but (1) that’s not news and (2) these are insults hurled immediately after angry confrontations.

Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them. I still think President Trump has no business being President, and I’m disappointed that so many Americans voted for him (especially primary voters!). But understanding does make it harder to casually hate a person. 

There’s still a lot left to understand, of course. The book isn’t a comprehensive biography of Trump, and so there’s still a lot left that I don’t get. Mostly: W=why did he run in the first place? Was it just outright egoism? Just an opportunistic grab for the biggest spotlight he could find? That’s my best theory, but it’s outside the scope of this book and so I don’t know.

I will say that the most interesting person in the book is Steve Bannon. He understands Trumpism better than Trump ever did, and I’m surprised he got the boot. Then again, that might be the problem. Trump seems to be a basically empty vessel that happens to be anti-trade, anti-immigration, and isolationist without any discernible foundation of principle that would explain these views. Steve Bannon has the same views, but he also has a brain and conviction. It’s like Trump is a cardboard cutout and Bannon is the 3d version. From that perspective, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want him around forever.

Here’s how Bannon outlined Trumpism before coming on board to lead the campaign to victory:

The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline, right?… And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You are the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again, and we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes. Number one… we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, we are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, and number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.

Fear by Bob Woodward

I disagree with all of that, but at least it’s comprehensible. And for the first time, the expression “make America great again” made sense to me. It’s not about restoring America’s place in the world or in the eyes of others, it’s a reaction to decades of America’s elites–with liberal academics as the point of this particular spear–deliberately attacking the myth of America and leaving nothing in its place. And yeah, America as a virtuous country is a myth, but it’s an important myth and (I would argue) one that is worth keeping in a conditional and aspirational sense. And maybe that’s what liberal academics intended, but that message got lost in translation and all everyday Americans heard was a constant, sneering repudiation of everything they loved. They’ve had enough. And now the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction.

My last thoughts are about the folks in the Trump administration who are actively working to thwart Trump’s plans, like the infamous anonymous staffer who wrote that NYT op-ed piece: I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.

I think they thought that America would be grateful for all they do, but the response has been pretty negative, with many accusing the resistance within the Trump administration of basically committing a soft-coup. It’s a tough decision. What do you do, allow Trump to do absolutely asinine and genuinely dangerous things like try to kill NATO or unilaterally end a trade deal with South Korea that is vital to our national security? Or actively undermine the democratic process by preventing the President from doing the very things that he campaigned and was elected to do, like pull out of free-trade deals? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Some of what Trump wants to do is flat-out illegal. The Administration has a right and a responsibility to thwart that. But, on top of the coup-argument, I also feel like a lot of ignorant people in America voted for a President who shared their ignorance, and to the extent that we prevent Trump from getting us into ruinous trade wars we’re effectively enabling the people who voted for him to maintain their sense of grievance without paying the very real and very high cost for the idiotic policies they love so dearly. 

I’m conflicted, because I’m angry enough that it’s hard to separate arguments about democratic accountability from a desire to have people reap what they sow. Free trade deals like NAFTA and mutual defense pacts like NATO are a bedrock part of American and even global prosperity. I’d dearly, dearly like to see them preserved and–when it comes to the free-trade deals–expanded. We depend on immigrants to bring in fresh ideas and fresh patriotism and contribute to ensuring America stays true to its legacy as a country defined by ideas and principles and not by ethnicities or tribes. Being white should never be relevant to being an American. Supporting ideals like freedom should always be relevant. But if we’re going to have a large section of the American public repudiate things like free-trade and immigration and pluralism, then a part of me wants to see them get exactly what they’re asking for rather than be protected from the consequences of their actions. The electorate may have behaved like children, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like children. That paternalism is probably counter-productive in the long-run, not to mention corrosive to the very idea of democracy. On the other hand, nuclear war…

At the end of the day, I don’t really see any good options and I don’t really see any good guys. Thwarting Trump is vital to national security, but also further strains the very legitimacy of our system of government. Trump and his most fervent supporters are a dysfunctional, amoral disaster and his harshest critics aren’t opposing him, they’re codependent with him. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

Hey, at least we had a good run.

On Contraceptives vs. Abortifacients

The political outrage of the moment is the assertion that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh thinks that contraceptives and abortifacients are the same thing. HuffPost provides a sample article with the contention that “Kavanaugh] referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs.'” and then a quote from the EVP of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

Kavanaugh referred to birth control ― something more than 95 percent of women use in their lifetime ― as an ‘abortion-inducing drug,’ which is not just flat-out wrong, but is anti-woman, anti-science propaganda.

This is a convenient narrative for pro-choice activists, who routinely smear the pro-life movement as being motivated by regressive prudery or just an outright “War on Women.” They would have you believe that pro-lifers are out to control women’s reproduction, and therefore pro-lifers oppose contraception and abortion as one and the same thing.

None of this is true.

First, it’s not true that the pro-life movement conflates contraceptives and abortifacients. These are two very different things. Abortifacients act after fertilization to cause the death of an innocent human being. Opposition to this–at least, in elective cases–is the core of the pro-life cause.

Contraceptives, on the other hand, act to prevent fertilization. If there’s no fertilization then no human life is at stake. So the pro-life movement has no relevance here.

It’s true that some pro-life people view contraception as immoral. It’s also true that some pro-life people would like to bring school prayer back. But just because they do, it doesn’t make school prayer a pro-life issue. It just shows that there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who like school prayer. Same concept here: there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who view contraceptives as immoral, but opposition to contraceptives (morally or legally) has nothing to do with the pro-life cause because there isn’t a human life directly at stake. 

Second, returning to Kavanuagh specifically: he knows this. Much as Planned Parenthood would like to scare up some more donor dollars by terrifying people with the specter of a crazed misogynist who can’t tell the difference between contraception and abortion, Kavanaugh’s dissent in Priests for Life vs. HHS (which is what Ted Cruz was asking Kavanugh about) makes clear that he is perfectly aware of the difference:

By regulation, that insurance must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including certain methods of birth control that, some believe, operate as abortifacients and result in the destruction of embryos.

Page 1 of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

The drug that Kavanugh is talking about is levonorgestrel. In low doses, levonorgestrel is a contraceptive that acts by preventing fertilization. This raises no pro-life concerns. But levonorgestrel is also available in a much higher dosage as the emergency contraceptive Plan B. In this higher dosage–and taken after sex (which is the whole point of an emergency contraceptive)–levonorgestrel may kick in after fertilization has already occurred and prevent an embryo from implanting. This is the scenario that concerns pro-lifers, because once fertilization takes place we have a new, living human being and the entire point of the pro-life movement is that it shouldn’t be legally permissible to electively kill human beings.

So, contrary to Planned Parenthood propaganda, Kavanaugh isn’t attacking all contraceptives. He’s not even attacking all uses of levonorgestrel. In fact, he’s not attacking anything at all.  He’s merely pointing out that “some believe” (i.e. Priests for Life believe) that in this particular case, levonorgestrel may act as an abortifacient and not as a contraceptive.

Is the concern reasonable? Probably.

The question of whether or not Plan B can act as an abortifacient is incredibly controversial because it has to do with abortion, but Wikipedia (with a citation) concludes that “While it is unlikely that emergency contraception affects implantation it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of post-fertilization effect.”

One last important thing before we wrap up. There’s a lot of sophistry surrounding the issue of whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient. WebMD is a case-in-point:

Plan B One-Step is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill. It does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a fetus once the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

This is misleading because they’re relying on a technical definition of pregnancy that doesn’t have anything to do with the moral issue at hand. Their argument is that pregnancy starts at implantation rather than fertilization. If Plan B stops an embryo from implanting, then it hasn’t interrupted a pregnancy because technically the pregnancy hasn’t started yet. Therefore it can’t be an abortion, because there is no pregnancy to abort. This is all technically true and yet at the same time ethically irrelevant, since the germane issue is not whether a pregnancy has ended but whether or not a human life has ended. 

Other sources, like NPR, have covered the issue much more responsibly and still conclude that Plan B is not an abortifacient because it doesn’t block implantation, only fertilization. If that is demonstrably proven (my understanding is that the jury is still out) then Plan B will no longer be a pro-life concern.

Ultimately none of this will be persuasive to people who are pro-choice because it seems self-evident that an embryo only a day or so old is not really what we mean by “a human life” even if, speaking scientifically, it is in fact a distinct, living human organism. I understand that, and I’m not going to address that aspect of the debate today.

My point is simply this: Kavanaugh in particular did not conflate all contraceptives with abortifacients and the pro-life movement in general is similarly able to tell the difference between these two very distinct things.

Weaponized Opinions and Ideological DMZs

When David Hume said that “reason is…the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”, he thought it would “appear somewhat extraordinary.” Maybe it did in the mid-18th century, but a 21st century audience takes this assertion in stride. It’s not that human nature has changed. Humans have always held opinions and they’ve always been held for non-rational reasons. What’s changed is that we’re more aware of the extent of our opinions and of their frequently irrational nature.

We’re more aware of this for two reasons. First, the narcissism of social media and the tribally partisan nature of our society make us painful aware of everybody else’s opinions. As a group, we can’t shut up about the things we think are obviously true, even though things that really are obviously true (like the sky being blue) don’t generally require frequent reminders in the form of snarky memes.

Second, there’s a growing body of research into the reasons and mechanisms by which humans acquire and maintain their beliefs. It’s become so trendy to talk about cognitive biases, for example, that the Wikipedia list of them is becoming a bit of a joke. Still, the underlying premise–that human reason is about convenience and utility rather than about truth–is increasingly undeniable and books like Thinking, Fast and Slow or Predictably Irrational make that undeniable reality common knowledge.

In fact, we can now go farther than Hume and say that not only is reason the slave of the passions, but that it is only thanks to the passions that humans evolved the capacity for reason at all. This is known as the Argumentative Theory, which researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber summarized like this:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Oddly enough, I can’t find a Wikipedia article to summarize this theory, but it’s been cited approvingly by researchers I respect like Frans de Waal and Jonathan Haidt, who summarized it this way: “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”

If the theory is right, then the human tendency to believe what is useful and then to express those beliefs in ways that are farther useful is part of the story of how humanity came to be. This might have been deniable in Hume’s day, requiring an iconoclastic genius to spot it, but it’s becoming a humdrum fact of life in our day.

Our beliefs are instrumental. That is, we believe things because of the usefulness of holding that belief, and that usefulness is only occasionally related to truth. If the belief is about something that’s going to have a frequent and direct effect on our lives–like whether cars go or stop when the light is red–then it is very useful to have accurate beliefs and so our beliefs rapidly converge to reality. But if the belief is about something that is going to have a vague or indeterminate effect on our lives–and almost all political beliefs fall into this category–then there is no longer any powerful, external incentive to corral our beliefs to match reality. What’s more, in many cases it would be impossible to reconcile our beliefs with reality even if we really wanted to because the questions at play are too complicated for anyone to answer with certainty. In those cases, there is nothing to stop us from believing whatever is convenient.

And it’s not just privately-held beliefs that are instrumental. Opinions–the expression of these beliefs–add an additional layer of instrumentality. Not only do we believe what we find convenient to believe, but we also express those beliefs in ways that are convenient. We choose how, when, and where to express our opinions so as to derive the most benefit for the least amount of effort. Benefits of opinions include:

  • maintaining positive self-image: “I have such smart, benevolent political opinions. I’m such a good person!”
  • reinforcing community ties: “Look at these smart, benevolent political opinions we have in common!”
  • defining community boundaries: “These are the smart, benevolent political opinions you have affirm if you want to be one of us!”
  • the buzz of moral superiority: “We have such smart, benevolent political opinions. Not like those reprehensible morons over there!”

Opinions aren’t just tools, however. They are also weapons. If you want to understand what I’m talking about, just think of all the political memes you see on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. They are almost always focused on ridiculing and delegitimizing other people. This is about reinforcing community ties and getting high off of moral superiority, but it is also about intimidating the targets of our (ever so righteous) contempt and disdain. We live in an age of weaponized opinion.

Which brings me to the idea of a demilitarized zone.

A demilitarized zone is an “is an area in which treaties or agreements between nations, military powers or contending groups forbid military installations, activities or personnel.” The term is also used in the context of computers and networking. In that case, a DMZ is a part of a private network that is publicly accessible to other networks, usually the Internet. It’s a tradeoff between accessibility and security, allowing interaction with anonymous, untrusted computers but restricting that access to only specially designated computers in your network that are placed in the DMZ, while the rest of your computers are stored behind a defensive firewall.

The same concepts make sense in an ideological framework.

A typical partisan might have a range of beliefs that looks something like this:

The green section doesn’t represent what is actually good / correct. It represents what a person asserts to be correct / good. The same applies for the red portion. So, these will be different for different people. If you are, for example, someone who is pro-life then the green category will include beliefs like “all living human beings deserve equal rights” and the red portion will include beliefs like “consciousness and self-awareness are required for personhood”. If you are pro-choice, then the chart will look the same but the beliefs will be located in the opposite regions.

And here’s what it looks like if you introduce an ideological DMZ:

The difference here is that we have this whole new region where we are refusing to categorize something as correct / good or incorrect / bad. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. If, for example, you hear a new fact for the first time and you don’t know anything about it, then naturally you should not have an opinion about it until you find out more, right? Well, if humans were rational that would be right. But humans are not rational. We use rationality as a tool when we want to, but we’re just as happy to set it aside when it’s convenient to do so.

And so what actually happens is that when you hear a new proposition, you (automatically and without thinking about it consciously) determine if the new proposition is relevant to any of your strongly-held political opinions. If it is, you identify if it helps or hurts. If it helps, then you accept it as true. Maybe you use the same “fact” in your next debate, or share the article on your timeline, or forward it to your friends. In other words, you stick it into the green bucket. If it hurts, you reject it as false. You attack the credibility of the person who shared the fact or thrust the burden of proof on them or even jump straight to attacking their motives for sharing it in the first place. You stick it in the red bucket.

If you’re following along so far, you might notice that what we’re talking about is certainty. One of the popular and increasingly well-known facts about human beings and certainty is that certainty and ignorance go hand in hand. The technical term for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” Even if you’ve never heard that term, however, you’ve probably seen webcomics like this one from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Or maybe this one from xkcd:

The idea of a DMZ is related to these concepts, but it’s not the same. These comics are about the vertical ignorance/certainty problem. Lack of knowledge combined with instrumental beliefs cause people to double-down on convenient beliefs they already have. That’s a real problem, but it’s not the one I’m tackling. I’m talking about a horizontal ignorance/certainty problem. Instead of pouring more and more certainty into (ignorant, but convenient) beliefs that we already have, this problem is about spreading certainty around to different, neighboring beliefs that are new to us.

How does that play out in practice? Well, as a famous study revealed recently, “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” That’s because–without a consciously defined and maintained DMZ–they immediately categorize new information into the red or green region even if it means magically becoming bad at math. That’s how strong the temptation is to sort all new information into friend/foe categories is, and it’s the reason we need a DMZ.

So what does having a DMZ mean? It means, as I mentioned earlier, that you can easily list of several arguments or propositions which might work against your beliefs, but that you don’t reject out of hand because you simply don’t know enough about them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them. It doesn’t mean you have to reject the belief that they threaten. It doesn’t even mean you have investigate them right away.. It just means you refrain from categorizing them in the red bucket. And you do the same with new information that helps your cause. If it is about a topic you know little about, then you go ahead and put it in that blue bucket. You say, “That sounds good. I hope it’s true. But i’m not sure yet.”

There’s another aspect to this as well. So far I’ve been talking about salient propositions, that is: propositions that directly relate to some of your political beliefs. I’ve been leaving aside irrelevant facts. That’s because–although it’s easy for anyone to stick irrelevant facts in the blue bucket–the distinction between relevant and irrelevant facts is not actually stable or clear cut.

One of the problems with our increasingly political world is that more and more apparently unrelated facts are being incorporated into political paradigms. There’s a cottage industry for journalists to fill quotas by describing apparently innocuous things as racist. A list of Things college professors called ‘racist’ in 2017 includes math, Jingle Bells (the song), and punctuality. This is a controversial topic. Sometimes, articles like this really do reveal incisive critiques of racial inequality that’s not obvious at first. Sometimes conservatives misrepresent or dumb-down these arguments just to make fun of them. But sometimes–like when a kid in my high school class complained that it was sexist to use the term for a female hero (heroine) as the name for a drug (heroin)–the contention really is silly. And so part of the DMZ is also just being a little slower to see new information in a political light. Everything can be political–with a little bit of rhetorical ingenuity–but there’s a big difference between “can” and “should”.

If you don’t have an ideological DMZ yet, I encourage you to start building one today. In networking, a DMZ is a useful way to allow new information to come into your network. An ideological DMZ can fill the same function. It’s a great way to start to start to dig your way out of an echo chamber or avoid getting trapped in one in the first place. In geopolitics, a DMZ is a great way to deescalate conflict. Once again, an ideological DMZ can fill a similar role. It’s a useful habit to reduce the number of and lower the stakes in the political disagreements that you have.

Even after all these years, North and South Korea are technically still at war. A DMZ is not nearly as good as a nice, long, non-militarized border (like between the US and Canada). And so I have to admit that calling for an ideological DMZ feels a little bit like aiming low. It’s not asking for mutual understanding or a peace treaty, let alone an alliance.

But it’s a start.