Why people believe wrong things, pt 1/?

In our continuing quest to understand why people believe wrong things (and how to be better judges of information ourselves,) let’s take a look at this article: ‘I brainwashed myself with the internet’: Nearly 45 weeks pregnant, she wanted a “freebirth” with no doctors. Online groups convinced her it would be OK.

Not exactly the catchiest title, but still worth a read.

Long story short, Judith, a first time mom-to-be, started listening to homebirth and “freebirth” podcasts on her way to work and decided that giving birth at home, with just her husband and maybe a couple of friends (but no doctors, midwives, or other trained medical personnel,) sounded like a good idea.

Unsurprisingly, there were complications and the baby was stillborn, a month late.

Birth is hard. Childbirth has historically been one of the major killers of women (and their infants). Modern medical care does not remove all of the risks of childbirth, but you are still significantly less likely to die giving birth in a hospital than alone in your bathroom.

I don’t want to spend this post criticizing Judith (there’s enough of that already out there.) I want to examine what could possibly possess a woman intelligent enough to have a job and drive a car to trust her life and her infant’s to… nothing at all? What made her think this was a good idea?

The article blames three things. First, Judith blames herself (naturally). Second, the author blames “algorithms,” the modern scare-word for “the internet is run on code.” And third, the “freebirth” and similar communities themselves fall under scrutiny.

I think one more person deserves blame: Judith’s husband, who supported his wife’s decision to forgo medical care during childbirth and didn’t intervene on behalf of his child.

1. Let’s start with the algorithms. We’ve seen a lot of scaremongering lately about “algorithms.” Supposedly the dark magic of the internet can lure unsuspecting, innocent people deeper and deeper into the depths of political conspiracies, creepy kids’ videos on YouTube, or straight up flat-Earthers:

With a little help from algorithms that nudged increasingly questionable information and sources her way, Judith had become a part of the internet’s most extreme pregnancy communities. …

Social media has come under fire in recent years for amplifying extreme views and employing algorithms that connect users to these potentially dangerous echo chambers. Although much of this criticism has focused on political extremism, experts and lawmakers have also pointed to extremism fueled by health misinformation as a threat to individuals and the public health at large.

“Things can get a little dicey,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies the social media behavior of alternative health communities. “Not to demonize all of the groups, but when women start diagnosing and crowdsourcing health-related issues, they can end up getting bad medical advice that can be pretty dangerous.

“We’re in this weird time, like a new digital Wild, Wild West,” Koltai said.

Wow, “algorithms” sound really bad–except that all these algorithms actually do is recommend things similar to things you already like. It’s the same thing that happens on Amazon. If you search for slime, Amazon will show you a bunch of other slime-related products bought by other people who searched for slime. If you listen to your favorite folk band on YouTube, the suggestions bar will be filled with more folk bands listened to by people who also listened to your favorite band. Judith searched for freebirth, so she got recommendations related to freebirth.

A well-functioning algorithm does nothing more than try to recommend more of what you’re already interested in. If it works, you find something you want, like a new song or the perfect slime. If it doesn’t, you’re frustrated. 

If you join a bunch of Facebook communities about “natural birth” and “free birth,” you’ll get recommendations for more of the same. But there is nothing that compels people to click on these links, join these communities, and uncritically believe everything they read in them, any more than people are forced to buy “related items” advertised on Amazon. (And, by the way, no one is forcing you to watch weird porn on YouTube. “The algorithm made me do it” is the most pathetic 14-year-old-who-just-got-caught-watching-porn excuse I have ever heard.)

Judith didn’t just click recommended links–she actively sought out communities that would support her decision to ignore her doctor and midwife:

Judith also checked in with a local midwifery collective but ignored the gentle, constant advice that she induce.

Judith found a second opinion on Facebook. …

Searching the hashtag ‪#‎43weekspregnant‬ led her to a Facebook group called “Ten Month Mamas,” made up of a few hundred women who knew what she was going through. Judith joined.

Maybe, without the algorithms, she wouldn’t have known that there was more out there or thought to search for #43weekspregnant, but since she had just seen her doctor and midwife, she could have just as easily searched for information from doctors or real medical papers on the risks of being 43 weeks pregnant. Sweden did a whole study on this, but canceled it when 6 babies died at 42 weeks, so that information is definitely out there. (Thanks, Swedish friend, for the information.)

There’s been a push recently to blame “algorithms” for all of the bad stuff on the internet, whether it makes sense or not, as part of a wider push to make certain kinds of information more difficult to find. But the problem here is not the algorithms. (I, too, have been pregnant, and I have researched my options and even encountered freebirth advocates, but I didn’t try to give birth unassisted in a yurt because the idea never appealed to me.) The problem was the things Judith wanted.

You can’t change the overall algorithm to stop people like Judith from finding the information they want without breaking the algorithms for everyone. You might be able to build an algorithm that automatically detects certain types of behavior, like trolling or pornography, but “bad advice” is much harder to recognize (otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation). Communities like Judith’s would basically have to be shadowbanned or deleted on a case-by-case basis, which is both a lot of work for Facebook and an intrusive level of censorship. Yes, freebirth communities are clearly advocating something dangerous, but what about communities devoted to homebirth? Midwives? People who just really hate c-sections? Drawing a line between what is and isn’t “clearly dangerous” isn’t easy.

Finally, I would just like to note, in response to Mrs. Koltai’s comment, that millions of women (and men) have gotten excellent, life-saving medical advice online, much of it from non-professionals.

2. More credible blame lies, of course, with Judith and her husband. Judith chose her podcasts and sought out communities of like-minded people for support. She admits that she effectively “brainwashed” herself.

Why were these more appealing to Judith than regular medical advice?

Remember the old X-Files tagline: I want to believe?

Judith wanted a healthy pregnancy, uncomplicated labor, and a healthy baby–like almost all pregnant women–and if she’d had that, her freebirth would have gone off without a hitch. (Unfortunately, even the best of pregnancies can go wrong, rapidly and unexpectedly, once labor begins.) I think Judith wanted a healthy baby and uncomplicated labor so strongly that she refused to take seriously any information to the contrary. 

“43+1 today, politely declining hospital induction. … I really feel like this baby wants a home birth too but we are definitely being tested. What would you mamas do?”

This is a big red flag. Obviously fetuses cannot “want” anything. They are fetuses. Even babies do not “want” anything beyond the basics of infant care, like feeding, sleeping, and not being hot or cold. Do breech babies “want” to be born via c-section? Do ectopic pregnancies “want” to be implanted outside the uterus? No. This is magical thinking. You’re deluding yourself into thinking that “the baby wants” what you actually want, when it shouldn’t be about what anyone wants. It should be about what’s healthy.

When we want something to be true so much that we are willing to ignore evidence to the contrary, we experience cognitive dissonance. And we all do it. We all have things that we want to be true. Could our favorite politician really be a scumbag? Could our most cherished political solutions actually make things worse? Could our spouse cheat on us? Could we be not as smart as we think we are?

Sometimes I can feel cognitive dissonance–it’s this uncomfortable sensation in my head when trying to think about specific topics, like “presidents” and “people who are prettier than me.”

One sign that you are lying to yourself is that you have to hide what you are doing or thinking from the people who love you. Judith knew her relatives, aside from her husband, wouldn’t approve. She knew they would be afraid for her health or her baby’s health, but instead of listening, she hid what she was doing.

Unfortunately, merely wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, in politics or real life, but these birth communities Judith had joined focused on the kind of magical thinking that leads people to believe that they can influence reality just by wishing hard enough:

“Birth is not a medical event but a spontaneous function of biology,” Free Birth Society instructor Yolande Norris-Clark says in the welcome video. It isn’t luck, Norris-Clark, an artist and mother of eight in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, breathily offers, but education, mindset and love of your baby, that hold the keys to successful freebirthing.

Education, love, and mindset have nothing to do with it. There are completely uneducated sharks mindlessly having bunches of healthy babies they’ll never love or care for out in the ocean and deeply loving, educated women with degrees in obstetrics and midwifery who need emergency c-sections due to ruptured uteruses.

Young people, especially, are used to having a fair amount of control over their lives, especially their bodies. They aren’t old enough yet to have been betrayed by hips, backs, or failing memories. They know that if they exercise they can lose weight or gain muscle. If they drink coffee they can stay up all night. They are used to thinking that with enough willpower, they can make their bodies do whatever they want.

Then comes labor. Labor is out of your control. You can no more “willpower” your way out of a bad labor than out of a failing kidney, and anyone who tells you that you can is lying. It can be deeply shocking.

3. The freebirth podcasts sold Judith a story–literally. She paid $300 for the freebirth society’s guide to how to have a baby at home, even though the process is literally “Wait until you go into labor. Try to find a comfortable position. Keep doing this until the baby comes out.” It’s a beautiful story, full of candles and yurts and beautiful thoughts and soaring spirits, but it’s still just an extremely expensive story.

The doctor will get sued if you die in his care, so the doctor has some incentive not to let you die. The random lady on the internet who sold you a $300 video about using your dog as a midwife will not, because who the hell trusts a dog to be their midwife?

Beware of people selling you a beautiful story who will not be impacted if you are the one who dies. They have no skin in this game.

These people sold Judith the idea that the magic of wishful thinking would get her a healthy baby and uncomplicated labor, and Judith wanted that healthy baby so much that she bought into it.

The actual claims of the “freebirth” and “home birth” communities bear investigating.

The course paints expectant mothers as warriors — and experts, doctors and midwives as the enemy.

In the video, Norris-Clark warns against induction, calling any procedure to bring on labor an “eviction from the womb.” …

Judith said the podcasts fanned her unease with doctors and medicine into a hot distrust, a common refrain in the freebirth community, in which hospital births are largely spoken about as traumatic experiences — harried medical teams rushing, poking, strapping women down to beds and pumping them full of drugs that confuse the mind, strangle the hormones responsible for love and push them into procedures that they didn’t feel they needed. Terms like “industrial obstetric tyranny” and “rape culture” are often used.

In general, you shouldn’t trust anyone who uses the phrase “rape culture” for anything that doesn’t involve actual rape. Prisons? Rape culture. Epidurals? Not rape culture.

Many people talk about women having “more control” at home than at the hospital. This is true, in a sense: you certainly won’t get an epidural if you don’t want one. It is untrue, though, in an emergency: you have far fewer options at home. If you need a c-section, well, you’re out of luck.

Doctors are not always right. Doctors are human; they make mistakes. Certainly people need places to talk about medical issues, get second opinions, and discuss what they should do if they disagree with their doctors’ opinions. But this kind of emotional language (“enemies”) is ridiculous and should be a big tip-off if you encounter it.

4. Let’s talk about these communities themselves. Obviously some of the people running them are absolute scum, making money off of other women’s suffering and their dead babies, but most of the people in them are good-hearted and well-intentioned. They are people like Judith herself, who really do want healthy babies.

The problem with these communities–and as a mom, I have been in many parenting-related communities and seen these problems first hand–is that they are always structured as “A supportive community for [activity X]” rather than “A supportive community for moms.” Activity X–whether it’s freebirth, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, etc–becomes the the focus, not the actual humans involved in them, and saying anything negative about the activity is forbidden.

So if you’re in a breastfeeding support group, you can’t give anti-breastfeeding advice like “Hey, sounds like this is really not working for you, maybe your baby would be better off on formula,” even if that is actually what someone needs to hear.

“43+1 today, politely declining hospital induction. They think I’m crazy,” Judith posted in Ten Month Mamas in January 2019, along with a list of the midwives’ concerns, including the baby’s larger size, her decreasing amniotic fluid and the integrity of her placenta, the organ that carries oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby. “… What would you mamas do?”

The comments rolled in, more than 50 per post.

“Trust your body.”

“Your baby isn’t ready to come out!”

“I would do exactly what you’re doing!”

“Keep going mumma, listen to your baby and your instincts — you got this.”

You only get positive comments on these sorts of posts because any negative comments get deleted and negative commentators get kicked out. Any time you are not getting at least some negative feedback, you have to ask why.

Yes, there is the argument (presented by one of the moderators) that these communities exist to allow discussion of a certain topic and if you want to discuss things that are not this topic, you can go literally anywhere else. The problem is that this is not how people actually operate. While you don’t want your group or message board to turn into 100% “Why this topic is wrong” posts, any discussion of a topic that doesn’t involve both sides is incomplete. Normal messageboards (take writers’ forums) have dedicated spaces for off-topic conversations, complaining, rants, and debates. Scientists and doctors welcome (at least in abstract) people who come up with new ways to test, falsify, and disprove theories, because this is how science and medicine advance.

If your advice is within the bounds of REALITY then you do not need to fear reality coming in and saying, “Hey, this is not for everyone. Some people need to do something different.”

If you can’t tell a woman in your community that maybe at 43 weeks she needs to get her ass to the doctor right away before her baby dies, then you have a PROBLEM.

I am not sure if this problem is specific to female-run communities, because I haven’t been in that many all-male ones, but I think it is. I think it is kind of a failure mode of how women prefer to interact, by removing points of view they don’t like from the conversation so they won’t have to interact with them rather than engaging directly.

So let’s try to summarize what went wrong:

  1. Algorithms: not that big a deal
  2. Wishful thinking: huge deal. We all do it, at least sometimes. Watch out for it.
  3. Sociopaths selling a beautiful dream: they want your money.
  4. Emotional language: interferes with logical thinking; big tip-off.
  5. Getting your information from communities that don’t allow for dissent or won’t tell you when you’re doing something dangerous.

Hyperstimulus

A hyperstimulus is a regular stimulus that has been cranked up to 11.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar, which we use to power our brains. Since fruits and veggies are part of the normal human diet, we crave sugar and find its taste pleasant.

Through selective breeding and technological refinement, we’ve produced artificially concentrated sugars that can be used to produce everything from candy to ice cream.

Fruit is a normal stimulus; ice cream is a hyperstimulus.

Running downhill is a normal stimulus; a roller coaster is a hyperstimulus.

Singing and dancing with your friends is a normal stimulus; a rave is a hyperstimulus.

Tea is a fairly normal stimulus; cocaine is a hyperstimulus.

TV and movies are both, obviously, hyperstimuli. Mediums like Twitter, with their endless supply of short bursts of opinion, are like the potato chips of the information world.

Even things that are not obviously hyperstimulating may be, because we humans are really good at producing more of what we like and more of what people buy. All domesticated foods have been selected for the traits we humans like in our food, not just sugarcane:

(Just look at that wild banana!)

Do people click more often on headlines that say “Doctors recommend avoiding this one food to lose weight?” or “Local Grandma invents miraculous weight loss cure!”? Whichever one they click, proliferates.

What are the most popular novels? Thrillers and romance. (If you want to break into publishing, write a romance–they’re shorter than thrillers and Harlequin needs a constant stream of them.) These genres are fundamentally about producing strong emotions (and as far as I know, barely existed before WWII). 

What’s wrong with hyperstimuli?

They aren’t inherently bad. One piece of candy will not kill you. Neither will one ride on a roller coaster. But a diet that consists entirely of candy will kill you. Even a diet that is merely 20% candy will probably kill you.

It is very difficult to avoid hyperstimuli because they excite stimulus pathways that we evolved to tell us when we have encountered something good, like fruit. It is very difficult to become addicted to something you are not already biologically predisposed to like: if some mad scientist invented jelly beans that taste like raw sewage, most people would have no problem avoiding them. By contrast, it is very easy to become addicted to something that excites all of the “this is good!” signals in your brain, even if that thing is actually nothing more than the specific chemical that signals “this is good.”

Normal stimuli, like fruit sugars, exist in a “whole package” of other things that are also good for you, like the rest of the fruit. Your desire for fruit sugars would normally lead you to eat the rest of the fruit, since most of us don’t have the required equipment for sugar extraction in our kitchens. Sugar, packaged and eaten with the rest of the fruit, is good for you. Your brain runs on the sugar, the fiber cleans your guts, the proteins build muscles, the fats can be burned for energy now or later, etc.

Refined sugar products contain much more sugar, per ounce, than your body is really designed to handle. You did not evolve to eat Froot Loops, no matter what your kids or the toucan on the box may tell you. And if you eat Froot Loops, you effectively crowd out other, more nutritious foods–or you have to eat twice as much to get the same nutrients.

Humans have gotten really good at eating twice as much, but not everything can be so easily doubled. If you watch TV instead of socializing, that time is lost. If you rack up wins in your favorite video game instead of challenging yourself to develop a skill in real life, that time is lost. If you do drugs, well, we all know how that ends.

And I think there is, similar to the tolerance people eventually build up to psychiatric medicines and alcohol, a kind of adjustment that we eventually make to stimuli. We get used to it. The noise we used to find chaotic and distracting, we just tune out. The music that used to excite us grows dull. Spicy salsa becomes bland as we seek the newer, hotter peppers.

I’m not sure the solution is to “cut the hyperstimulus out of your life.” We are basically stimulus-response machines that produce new stimulus-response machines; long-term stimulus deprivation drives us insane. But neither can we thrive, it seems, in high-stimulus environments (I define “thrive” here as an ecologist would, based on how many healthy offspring a community raises to adulthood. First world nations are basically dying by this standard.)

Striking the right balance is tricky. Some things, like heroin, clearly should not be in your life. Others, like candy, are harmless in small quantities–maybe even good. TV/internet/video games are mixed–they’re probably okay in small quantities but unlike candy, it’s difficult to obtain them in limited quantities. At the very least, you probably shouldn’t get cable and should set hard limits to the time you and your kids spend staring at screens every day.

So stop reading this post and go outside.

The Tragedy of JBP

Jordan B. Peterson, darling of the right, punching bag of the left, has had an amazingly shitty year.

Peterson rocketed to fame after publishing a couple of books and making some fairly anodyne (as far as I can tell) statements about the encroachment of political correctness on college campuses and in Canadian Law.

Fame is bad for people: just look at the lives of movie stars. At this point, Hollywood has probably developed some protocols for dealing with some of the unpleasant parts of being famous–I doubt Johnny Depp reads all of the mail he receives; Lady Gaga probably has someone who manages her online presence, etc–but we know Peterson wasn’t doing this because his daughter is doing his press releases.

Authors don’t expect to become famous, much less reviled.

I should note that I haven’t actually read Peterson’s book (I’m not in the market for self-help), nor have a watched more than a smattering of podcasts/interviews, but I have spent enough time here on the internet to get the general flavor of things. Peterson has always struck me as a basically kind-hearted, well-intentioned person who was trying to help others, not tear them down, so even if I disagreed with this or that specific thing he said, he still seemed like a pretty decent guy.

In exchange for being basically decent and trying to help people, Peterson received an amazing amount of hate. The left reacted to him like a demon casting off its disguise and screaming in hysterical rage.

Most famous people get more love than hate; this level of hate isn’t good for anyone, much less someone who isn’t a sociopath or a murderer.

Despite the hysterics that JBP was going to destroy civilization, he has faded pretty quickly from view. His time in the spotlight ended with a speed that makes all of the hysteria look, in retrospect, absurd. He wasn’t a threat; he was just a guy who published a book and had his fifteen minutes of fame.

The benefit of hindsight makes the lunacy of it all the stranger. I can’t think of a similarly mid-profile leftist (Peterson is way below the fame level of Krugman or Ta Nehisi) who has received the same level of vitriol. Maybe David Hogg? (But maybe that’s just sampling bias due to the particular things I happen to read.)

Peterson faded from view in part because there isn’t very much for intellectual “right wingers” who aren’t insane and aren’t on TV to do. Books take a long time to write, and hosting a regular podcast gets old. The idea that JBP was part of the “Alt Right” was only ever correct in the vaguest sense of him not being part of the mainstream Republican right, which I wouldn’t really expect him to be since he’s not even an American. He doesn’t seem to be racist, think we should repeal the 19th amendment, or want to invade Poland. The idea that he is some sort of gateway to the Alt Right proper is the kind of fevered nonsense that comes of trying to smash all human existence into a single left-right axis with everything that is not explicitly trying to accelerate leftward labeled as “reactionary.”

But anyway, Peterson’s life since he dropped out of sight has apparently been absolutely awful. According to his daughter, “Dad was put on a low dose of a benzodiazepine a few years ago for anxiety following an extremely severe autoimmune reaction to food.”

This is maddeningly specific and unspecific at the same time. What sort of autoimmune reaction? What sort of food? Is he allergic to shellfish? I am familiar with some of the conditions that might get characterized this way, eg:

In a joint effort,  Ye Qian, PhD, professor of dermatology, and Timothy Moran, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, found that walnut allergen, in addition to inducing allergic diseases to certain individuals, could also promote autoantibody development in an autoimmune skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris. …

Two major outcomes of a dysfunctional immune system are allergy and autoimmunity. Growing evidence suggests there are some connections between the development of these two abnormalities.

Can autoimmune conditions cause anxiety? Presumably they can cause all sorts of things, especially if we play fast and lose with what we call “autoimmune.” People who are breaking out in hives and feel their throats constricting because they just ate a peanut presumably feel a lot of anxiety. Some people who are sensitive to wheat experience psychiatric symptoms (eg, celiac psychosis) that are caused by some sort of weird bodily reaction to the wheat.

So this is not a crazy thing to claim, but it might be garbled since some people use terms like “autoimmune” very loosely.

BUT, if the anxiety was caused by an autoimmune reaction to food, then the correct response shouldn’t have been psychiatric medication. It should have been treating the autoimmune disorder (and eliminating whatever food was triggering it from the diet). For that you probably need immune-suppressing drugs like infliximab or steroids like prednisone.

Anxiety is unpleasant and benzos can bring it down, especially in an emergency, but if the autoimmune condition is triggering the anxiety than you really aren’t making it go away. This is life if you have the flu and it’s causing a fever and you take an aspirin to bring down your fever, well, you still have the flu and you still feel shitty.

Except instead of aspirin, you’re taking something that is much stronger and has a much higher risk of side effects.

So at least from what she’s said (and I admit that this might be a highly compressed or slightly garbled account of things,) Peterson shouldn’t have been on benzos at all and had a different medical disorder that effectively went untreated.

According to his daughter, Peterson’s dose was increased when his wife developed cancer. Cancer is understandably extremely stressful and people need help getting through it, though I question the wisdom of giving psychiatric medication for people going through conditions which really ought to make you feel shitty. If your wife is dying and you don’t feel bad, I think there’s something wrong.

At this point, the bezos stopped doing their job (perhaps because of the untreated autoimmune disorder?):

It became apparent that he was suffering from both a physical dependency and a paradoxical reaction to the medication.

This is really interesting, at least from an abstract point of view.

To radically over-simplify the brain, think of it as having two potential directions, up and down. When you up regulate something, you get more of it. When you downregulate, you get less of it. The actual mechanics involved are obviously way more complicated. Sometimes a chemical has an exciting effect, so more of that chemical means more of the effect you want, and sometimes a chemical has a depressing effect, so more of that chemical means less of the effect you want. Brains also have receptors, which have to be present to actually use the chemicals, so it doesn’t matter how many chemicals you have if you don’t have any receptors to receive them.

Anti-anxiety drugs, like alcohol, are designed to depress the brain. Here’s a great video by ChubbyEmu explaining how alcohol dependence works:

I don’t know the exact mechanism of benzos, but the principle is likely the same. As you put in more and more depressants, trying to down-regulate the brain, the brain up-regulates something else to reassert homeostasis. This is how you build up tolerance to drugs and even become dependent on them: the physical architecture of your brain has been modified to deal with them. Take the drugs away, and suddenly the physical architecture of the brain no longer has the the right balance of chemicals to receptors that it needs. If you take out a depressant, suddenly your brain is massively up-reulated. If you’ve been chugging alcohol, all of that un-depressed brain activity is likely to massively up itself into a seizure as brain activity explodes.

In Peterson’s case, when he tried to go off benzos, he developed akathisia, a condition usually described as restlessness but described by people who’ve had it as an absolutely maddening compulsion to move endlessly for hours and hours and hours on end with no rest or stillness, no ability to turn off the racing thoughts in your brain or stop talking like you are a train hurling 300 miles an hour down the track until you fall asleep, exhausted, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again until you want to put a bullet in your brain.

I am pretty sure that you can recover from this as your brain eventually resets to its original balance, but that takes a very long time and in the meanwhile you are still dependent on the same drug/medication that caused the problem in the first place. (A hospital dealing with a patient going through acute alcohol withdrawal will give the patient alcohol to stop their seizure, for example.)

Here is where it seems that Mikhaila and her dad gave up on “North American” medicine and went off to Russia to detox Peterson cold turkey.

After several failed treatment attempts in North American hospitals, including attempts at tapering and micro-tapering, we had to seek an emergency medical benzodiazepine detox, which we were only able to find in Russia.

I understand where they’re coming from and their frustration, but once you’ve built a tolerance to drug, there is no safe way to detox without tapering, and tapering is just going to be shitty, because your brain is now designed to use that drug and you can’t get around that until you build new brain architecture.

Unfortunately, just as going cold turkey off an alcohol addition can cause seizures, so taking Peterson off the benzos seems to have had terrible effects, and he ended up in a COMA. Excuse me, a medically induced coma. I think they usually do that because someone has gone into uncontrollable seizures, but maybe there are other reasons for them:

She and her husband took him to Moscow last month, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and put into an induced coma for eight days. She said his withdrawal was “horrific,” worse than anything she had ever heard about. She said Russian doctors are not influenced by pharmaceutical companies to treat the side-effects of one drug with more drugs, and that they “have the guts to medically detox someone from benzodiazepines.”

There is just so much horrifying here; Peterson, please do not ever place your life in your daughter’s hands again. She does not understand addiction. Look, I undrserstand your reluctance to try to treat the akasithia with more medications, but that is not a good reason to go to Russia. Peterson could just have refused the prescription for anti-akasithia drugs while still continuing a controlled, tapered detox in a “North American” hospital. The fact that they apparently couldn’t find any doctors in all of “North America” who would sign off on this plan, not even a “naturopath”, is a huge red flag. Of course his withdrawal was “horrific”; that’s why the doctors kept telling you not to do this fucking thing but you had to go drag your dad to some second world country to find doctors willing to gamble with his life.

By the way, a “coma” shouldn’t be “horrific.” By nature, people in comas don’t really do anything. They’re asleep. Something is being left out of this story.

She continues:

Jordan Peterson has only just come out of an intensive care unit, Mikhaila said. He has neurological damage, and a long way to go to full recovery. He is taking anti-seizure medication and cannot type or walk unaided, but is “on the mend” and his sense of humour has returned.

Aha. Seizures. Looks like I was right. The “horrific” part of this ordeal was most likely her dad going status epilepticus. But let’s all admire the “guts” of Russian doctors to go along with this absolutely insane idea and give her dad permanent brain damage. Great job, Mikhaila.

Everything about this is horrifying. Peterson strikes me as a decent man who wanted to make people’s lives better. Whether his advice was good or not, most of it didn’t sound outright terrible. Hard to go wrong with “clean your room.” He’s been hit with a ton of hate, his wife had cancer, and he was, from the sounds of it, incorrectly put on very strong and dependency forming medications. Getting off the medication became its own hell, so his daughter gave up on “North American” medicine and went for the cold turkey method, which of course caused seizures and brain damage.

Bloody hell.

I know where people are coming from when they look at conventional medicine and say, “Gosh, that seems wrong.” Yes, putting Peterson on benzos on the first place may have been wrong. Increasing his dosage may have also been wrong. There may have been other wrong decisions in there. But that doesn’t make going off cold turkey the right decision.

There’s this awful place you end up when you have a medical condition that falls just on the edge of mapped medical territory. We are great at treating broken bones. Trauma medical care is amazing. We can transplant organs and save people from heart attacks. Antibiotics and vaccines are also amazing. And we have solved many long-term conditions, like type 1 diabetes.

Autoimmune conditions are much harder to treat and much less well-mapped territory. Sometimes doctors are wrong. Sometimes ordinary people have good ideas that medicine hasn’t recognized yet. Sometimes a specialized diet like eating just meat is exactly what someone needs. And sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the doctors are right. Finding the correct balance and knowing which information to trust (some peer-reviewed medical papers have turned out to be fraudulent, too,) can be hard. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma besides “Start with accepted medicine. Talk to doctors. Watch Chubby Emu or something similar. Get a basic idea of the land. Then move on to patient forums. See what patients say. Sometimes patients report side effects as being much more common or severe than medical studies indicate. Sometimes they indicate that certain medications are more effective than indicated. etc. Watch out for anyone touting a cure that sounds too good to be true or that could kill you (do NOT, under any circumstances, drink a gallon of soy sauce.) Watch out for rabbit holes where the relevant authors only cite each other. Watch out for “papers” that don’t seem to have come from anywhere. Watch out for people trying to sell you something. And just keep learning as much as you can.”

Good luck, try to stay healthy and well. Get your sunshine.

I hope poor Peterson recovers.

Eugenics!

Everyone is talking about eugenics, so I thought I’d dive into the mix.

The first difficulty in discussing eugenics lies in the fact that different people use the word to mean different things. It does no good to use one sense of the term when replying to someone who meant something completely different, so we’re going to have to start with a range of definitions:

  1. Selective breeding to positively influence the distribution of traits in the gene pool
  2. Anything that positively influences the distribution of traits in the gene pool
  3. Purposefully removing specific negative traits from the population
  4. Anything undertaken to increase desirable traits in the population
  5. Valuing one human life over another
  6. Killing off “undesirable” people
  7. Genocide
  8. etc.

Although the dictionary definition is closer to number 1 or 2, most of the time when people use the word “eugenics”, they mean it in the sense of something coercive and unpleasant. When someone decides that they would rather marry and have children with someone they find attractive than someone they find unattractive, they don’t regard themselves as practicing “eugenics,” though they are making a decision about which traits they are passing on to the next generation.

Even aside from disagreements over definitions, people become emotional about eugenics. Many people are incredibly bad at separating moral and factual statements. Much of the opposition to Dawkin’s suggestion that eugenics works is not actually about whether it works so much as moral outrage over the idea of harming innocent people. They hear “eugenics,” and their brains jump to “gas chambers.” In contrast, when people hear of ways to improve traits that don’t involve harming specific people, they tend not to call it “eugenics.”

For example, suppose we found a vitamin that could reliably make people smarter, so the government decided to use tax dollars (personal sacrifice) to provide vitamins to everyone, even the poor. Most people would think this was fine because it’s a net positive.

Yes, this example doesn’t involve genetics, but it would change the distribution of traits in the population and it would make everyone smarter. It’s also something we already do: we put iodine in the salt, vitamin D in the milk, etc.

Now suppose we could use magic CRISPR bots to remove a person’s propensity to develop Alzheimer’s, fix heart disease, decrease their chance of cancer, etc. Maybe the CRISPR bots are delivered in pill form. If these pills fixed problems like trisomy 21, genetic mental retardation, genetic vision and hearing loss*, etc., most people suffering from these conditions would freely chose to take the pills and would consider them a miracle. If they couldn’t afford them, I think most people would support using tax dollars to fund these treatments in the same way that we pay for normal medical care. Access to CRISPR bots to correct severe genetic defects would soon be considered a basic human right.

These treatments would be true eugenics, but likely wouldn’t be controversial because they wouldn’t directly harm anyone (at least until athletes started using them in the same way they currently use steroids).

By contrast, people would object strongly to something like a government board that gets veto power over who you get to marry–or that decrees whom you must marry. This would be a significant personal sacrifice with a very nebulous promise of social benefit. This is the sort of thing people are actually objecting to. 

*There is some pushback against mechanical (surgical, etc) attempts to fix certain disabilities. Some people in the deaf community, for example, do not think there is anything “wrong” with them and have complained that giving people implants to fix deafness is “genocide” against their community. While this does nothing to the genetics of the population, they clearly feel like it falls under the general category of trying to get rid of deaf people, at least as a culture. This objection is fairly rare, however.

The question of whether “eugenics works” depends on both how you define eugenics and “works”. Certainly if I had supervillain-like powers and an island full of captive humans, I could selectively breed them to be taller, shorter, prettier (by my standards,) etc. Could I breed for personality? Absolutely. We’ve bred for golden retrievers, after all. I wouldn’t be able to breed for anything I wanted: X ray vision probably isn’t possible.

But we live in the real world, where I don’t have god-like superpowers. In the real world, it’d be governments doing the eugenics, and I have some serious doubts about the abilities of real-world governments in this regard.

The Germans are trying, though:

Closing EU borders will lead to inbreeding, German finance minister warns:

In an interview with weekly paper Die Zeit, Mr Schäuble rejected the idea Europe could close its borders to immigrants, and said: “Isolation is what would ruin us – it would lead us into inbreeding.”

Taking aim at opponents of Germany’s border policies, he said: “Muslims are an enrichment of our openness and our diversity.”

Global Warming Poll

I noticed a while back that many of the people who fit roughly into the “global warming skeptic” category don’t disagree entirely with the idea, so I wanted to investigate more deeply. Here are the preliminary results of my poll:

If you don’t believe in Global Warming, why?

A. I do believe, but I don’t admit it because I think libs are trying to use GW for political ends I disagree with
B. I believe, but I want the Earth to get warmer because winter sucks
C. I believe, but I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal/there’s nothing I can do about it
D. I stopped paying attention to environmentalists sometime around 1995 because their predictions always fail to come true
E. People who claim to believe in global warming don’t actually act like they believe it, so I don’t, either
F. I don’t find the science/evidence I’ve seen convincing
G. The Earth is too big for humans to have an effect
H. Something else I will explain in the comments

Thanks to everyone who participated. Many people went into detail about their opinions rather than pick any of the given options, which was great because it helped me see flaws in the poll and get a deeper insight into what people are thinking. In retrospect, C should have been broken into two options and there should have been another option similar to A but is “I don’t believe it because I think libs are just using it to push a political agenda.”

That said, here are the rough results after smooshing people’s responses into the closest categories:

A. Disagree w/ politics: 27
B. Winter sucks: 14
C. No big deal/can’t change: 32
D. Lost credibility: 10
E. Don’t act like they believe it: 11
F. Science: 17
G: Earth too big: 3

Other:
H. Cult: 7
I. Real but not caused by humans: 3
J. It’s real: 4

Qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, I think results broke down into three main categories: 1. disagreement with libs about politics/solutions, 2. personal credibility of the global warming advocates, 3. science.

Under disagreements, many people noted that global warming gets used to advocate almost solely for leftist causes like socialism, while other important solutions are ignored, eg, @CamperWatcher27′s take:

It’s a true scientifically proven crisis, the solution for which just happens to be implementation of every left wing wishlist item. It mandates no policy sacrifice by the left whatsoever, it’s almost too good to be true.

A couple of people noted that often the solutions, like shipping plastic trash to China so it can be burned under the guise of “recycling”, do more harm than good, and many people noted that there is effectively nothing they can do about China’s pollution, eg @laikasrefectory’s opinion:

I do, and I find the evidence convincing, but find fault in where fingers are pointed, and agree that the topic is weaponised. The West could stop all emissions tomorrow and we’d still be fucked thanks to China and India.

Many readers complained that environmentalists aren’t in favor of building more nuclear power plants, limiting immigration, or virtually any other “right wing” position that would also help the environment.

Personal credibility of environmentalists turned out to be more important than I expected. People didn’t just object that global warming advocates don’t actually act like they believe in global warming (I just finished talking to a relative who is both concerned about global warming wiping Florida off the map and preparing to fly around the world for an international vacation), but they also objected on the grounds that global warming is a “cult” or “religion.” (This was a little annoying from the coding perspective because it doesn’t answer the question–believing that Christianity is a religion doesn’t stop Christians from believing in it.) I interpreted these responses, therefore, as “this is a belief system that those people hold an I don’t happen to hold it,” just as I might respond if suddenly put on the spot and asked why I don’t believe in shamanism.

There were also people who remembered fears of “global cooling” in the 70s or had grown weary of the media habit of attributing practically everything bad that happens to “climate change,” even when there’s no way to prove it causally. A good example from @punishedkomrade:

The exaggerated predictions of doom, combined with the unseriousness of “solutions” (eg We need socialism to save the Climate! Ew, not nuclear!) leads me to ignore the issue

Then there’s the science:

This is quite remarkable. You might think that more intelligent people would hold more similar opinions, since we all have access to the same scientific material (more or less). Instead, dumb people take more moderate stances while intelligent people throw themselves toward their tribe’s extreme.

For example, here is @billkristolmeth‘s take on the science:

Explain how a ~400ppm (0.04%) trace gas acts as a “control knob” on global temperature. Explain why CO2 has a greater effect than water vapor.
Explain why models that do not factor in cloud albedo can be considered reliable in long-term prediction of climate.
Explain why solar output is considered generally irrelevant by the model makers despite being measurably variable.
Explain why substantially higher CO2 in the past on Earth did not cause Earth to become a Venus-like hothouse as predicted by some models.
These are the sorts of questions that I eventually started asking as the time to DOOM compressed. Sure the climate changes, it always has. The CO2 hypothesis however is based almost entirely on vastly incomplete models and I find it unconvincing on a basic thermodynamics level.

I believe in global warming (specifically, I believe the claims of climate scientists that the Earth is getting warmer and it is caused by humans), but I can’t answer these questions. I believe because scientists I know in real life respect other scientists who think global warming is real. By contrast, none of the astronomers I know in real life have ever mentioned the sun causing global warming. This is a chain of trust (or authority), not first-hand knowledge and understanding of climate data. I suspect something similar is going on for other people–which science they find credible is determined by which scientists they find credible.

This chain of trust is interesting, because it relates back to different groups of people being, essentially, separate. There are other cases where different groups have different chains of trust–obviously Israelis and Palestinians believe different news sources about the region. There are black communities on the internet that also have their own “science” with its own separate chain of trust, usually centering around claims that melanin has fantastic powers and that white people kidnap black children to harvest their melanin (I think this claim was motivated by confusion about the difference between melanin and melatonin, which you can buy at the store). Native Americans also distrust mainstream science (especially genetics) and don’t include it in their chain of authority, though they don’t tend to replace it with anything in particular.

If you happen not to find any scientists credible (or you just aren’t into science), then your next fallback is judging the kinds of people who advocate for global warming (well, advocate for doing something about it,) and their policy solutions. If the upshot of global warming advocacy in your real life is an “energy and water efficient” clothes washer that has to be run twice for every load of laundry because it doesn’t use enough water to get the soap off, you’re going to be pretty darn skeptical of this whole deal.

Obviously my poll isn’t terribly scientific or accurate, but I think it’s close enough to capture the zeitgeist. So if anyone reading this actually wants to save the planet, then I think the first thing you (and others) should do is disentangle global warming and politics. Don’t make global warming a reason to vote left–this is making the survival of our planet dependent on irrelevant questions like “Do you like gays?” Come up with ideas that appeal to people from both sides of the political aisle, like using nuclear power to achieve energy independence. Second, you need to act like you actually believe it. Stop flying. Stop buying products made in China and shipped across the ocean in great big carbon-belching container ships. Ride your bike to work. Then, maybe, people will take you seriously.

 

Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

The Best of Egyptian art?

egypt
Typical Egyptian painting

If you’ve ever spent a few minutes looking at Egyptian art, you’ve probably noticed something odd: their human figures are remarkably stiff. In paintings and relief carvings, all of the figures strike the same awkward pose: shoulders toward the viewer, hips forward. Here is a typical example:

Statue after statue stands rigidly still, hands at its sides, feet together. (Some sit rigidly.) Walk into the Greek gallery next door and the contrast is remarkable. Greek statues don’t sit, they sprawl. They don’t just stand, they lean. They run. They saunter. They struggle. Greek statues feel alive.

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Typical Greek painting of a woman

The ancient Egyptians were not bad artists. This ring decorated with tiny horse statues is exquisite. The faces on their best statues rival the Greeks, and they outshine the Greeks in rendering women, whom the Greeks oddly could not draw. Paintings of Greek men look like actual humans; paintings of Greek women, however, are stylized–here is an example, because otherwise you won’t believe me. Take a good look at her face. Note the way her forehead descends directly to the tip of her nose in a straight line, without curving as it passes the eyes, nor out along the nose. It would be quite disconcerting if you saw such a profile on a real person; to make it work, they would need a pointed forehead that juts out considerably and “curves” into the skull in a box-like straight edge beneath their hair. 

(By contrast, Greek men were sometimes allowed a normal nasal bridge.)

Their renderings of non-human subjects, like scarabs and hippos, are also excellent. All in all, the Egyptians were clearly skilled artists who for some reason did not draw human movement.

One theory I have seen is that the Egyptians simply did not know how to draw humans in different poses. They could look at people, they could copy various details about people, like their faces and clothes, but they couldn’t come up with the mental idea of drawing a figure that didn’t have its shoulders facing the audience.

This is essentially the ratchet theory of culture. It proposes that talent is common, but true innovators are rare. Once an innovation occurs, however, it enters the cultural lexicon and talented people can copy it.

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Terra cotta figurine, predynastic period, about 3500 BC through 3400 BC. From the Brooklyn Museum

But this theory depends on the assumption that the Egyptians couldn’t do any better. What if their style was a choice?

So I went looking for ancient Egyptian art that didn’t fit the mold, pieces that aren’t stereotypically Egyptian, and I found them pretty quickly. Take this statuette from the Brooklyn Museum. Their website states:

Based on images painted on jars of the same date, the female figure with upraised arms appears to be celebrating a ritual. The bird-like face probably represents her nose, the source of the breath of life. The dark patch on her head represents hair, also a human trait. Her white skirt indicates a high-status individual.

Now, this is a very primitive piece, and very old. The sculptor did not bother with fiddly details like “a face”. But it clearly expresses movement, and it is not an isolated piece–as the museum notes, similar figures were painted on jars at the time. Clearly the Egyptians of circa 3,450 BC understood “movement” and could express it in art.

Here is a painting of two Egyptian dancing girls (and flute players). Given the technical limitations of paint and surfaces, they are as well drawn as a great many Greek works.

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Battle scene from King Tut’s tomb

Here is one of my favorite Egyptian pieces, a battle scene from King Tut’s tomb.

Yes, the figures are mostly placed in the typical Egyptian posture, shoulders toward us, hips away, but their usual stasis is gone. The painting is a riot; people are everywhere.

Here is a much older depiction of the aftermath of an Egyptian battle, showing a lion and carrion birds feasting on corpses:

It is obviously a more primitive piece, carved before Egyptian style had been completely standardized. But we still see that the figures are allowed to lie every which way; some are in the typical pose, but others, like the captives at the top, are not.

In general, Egyptian art is more expressive when the figures involved have lower social status. Pharaohs are grandiose statues with chiseled pecs, staring quietly into the middle distance; captured slaves are allowed to look around.

One of my favorite pieces I found during this search is this statuette of a boy (warning, nudity.) It is not actually exceptional, but it made me laugh. Children were often depicted without clothes in Egyptian art, and he’s not flipping us off (my first reaction), but putting a finger to his lips in a “childlike” pose. This stele of Ramasses II as a child also features the finer to the lips pose; here is another child with his finger to his lips, in the statue of Nykara and his family.

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Akhenaten and Aten, the sun

We do have some records of what the Egyptians thought of their art. Akhenaten, a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who died around 1335 BC introduced a radical suite of reforms, including an attempt to convert Egypt to monotheism and demands that his artists sculpt his potbelly and scrawny arms rather than make him super buff. He was also depicted in more natural settings than other pharaohs, like this carving of the royal family playing with their children. (Though the artist seems to have never seen a child.)

This artistic shift produced a few statues that are so strange looking that they have inspired theories that he was part alien. I think it more likely that he was an ordinary guy who didn’t exercise and ate too much, maybe with a bit of inbreeding in his family tree. (I don’t know about his parents, but Akhenaten himself married his half-sister, Nefertiti.) I find speculation that he had Marfan’s syndrome more credible than the alien hypothesis.

After Akhenaten’s death, not only were his reforms rolled back, but many of his statues were defaced and subsequent rulers basically tried to make everyone forget about him.

At any rate, Akehnaten’s demand that artists change their style to depict him more realistically gives it away: artists were depicting their subjects unnaturally on purpose. Clearly at least some ancient Egyptian artists could depict people in realistic poses, but they chose not to develop this style because it didn’t fit with the (usual) purpose of their art. Most pharaohs did not want their statues to be realistic; they wanted them to command the fear and awe of the masses.

If someone were judging the quality of American artists based on portraits of our presidents, they would also note an absence of naturalistic posing or movement. They’re all standing or sitting, even that rather unusual one with Obama. Few of our monuments–take the Lincoln Memorial–feature dynamic sculptures.

Formal portraits tend to be quite static, and the Egyptians made a lot of formal portraits.

And since the Egyptians generally didn’t bother making realistic looking portraits, they didn’t develop the talent.

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From the MFA

Once the Greeks and Romans show up, Egyptian art changes quite a bit. Take this mummy mask of a young woman, from about 100-130 AD. The Greek influence is particularly noticeable in her hairstyle and in the side view, available on the MFA website, which reveals the sharp, Greek-style edge where her forehead ought to curve smoothly into her skull.

This statue from the same era also looks very Greek-inspired.

Of course, the fact that the Egyptians could pick up an art style once they were exposed to it doesn’t tell us whether they could have developed it on their own. Perhaps they could have, with a few more rulers like Akhenaten, brave (or brazen) enough to break the mold, or if art had become a more mass-market phenomenon.