Why do People believe in Conspiracies?

What happens when one’s beliefs come in conflict with reality? Not a small conflict, like the shops closing earlier than expected, but a massive conflict, such as believing that a non-existent conspiracy is out to get you.

Both leftists and rightists have their pet conspiracies. I have conspiracy theories. Every now and then, a conspiracy theory turns out to be true, but usually they aren’t.

Here’s an interesting example of a non-political conspiracy theory: Obsessed Benedict Cumberbatch Fans Tried to Have Me Fired:

It started, as so many online flaps do, with a thoughtless tweet. A starstruck friend and I had bumped into the popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch and his pregnant wife, and I made a faintly ironic tweet about it. …

Then the replies started. “How do you know it was his wife?” “What’s his wife like?”

Then, “SHE’S NOT PREGNANT.“ …

Members of the self-named “Skeptics” (a group of exclusively female Cumberbatch fans who believe that his wife is, variously: a prostitute, a hired PR girlfriend, a blackmailer, a con artist, a domestic abuser, mentally ill, and apparently the most brilliant criminal mastermind of all time, and that the marriage, his wife’s pregnancy, and very existence of their child have all been faked in a wide-ranging international conspiracy orchestrated by a 30-something British opera director in an attempt to force a naïve and helpless movie star to pretend to be married to her) had discovered me, and they were not impressed.

These sorts of fans are probably either 14 years old or actually low-level mentally ill.

In a way, I suspect that mental illness is far more common than we generally acknowledge.

If we define mental illness in evolutionary terms as something that interferes with survival and reproduction, then it is relatively rare. For example, depression–one of the most common mental illnesses–doesn’t interfere with female fertility, and at least in some studies, neuroticism is positively associated with having more children.

By contrast, if we define mental illness as including any significant disconnect from reality, then large swaths of people may be ill. People who are convinced that movie stars’ wives are fake, for example, may be perfectly adept at getting pregnant, but they are still delusional.

Here is another conspiracy theory: The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”:

Last Thursday, I received the news that the HuffPost Opinion section—where I’d been opining on a weekly basis for a few months—had been axed in its entirety. … Dozens of jobs were slashed at HuffPost that day, following a round of layoffs at Gannett Media; further jobs were about to be disappeared at BuzzFeed. …

Then the responses started rolling in—some sympathy from fellow journalists and readers, then an irritating gush of near-identical responses: “Learn to code.” “Maybe learn to code?” “BETTER LEARN TO CODE THEN.” …

On its own, telling a laid-off journalist to “learn to code” is a profoundly annoying bit of “advice,” a nugget of condescension and antipathy. … the timing and ubiquity of the same phrase made me immediately suspect a brigade attack. My suspicions were confirmed when conservative figures like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. joined the pile-on, revealing the ways in which right-wing hordes have harnessed social media to discredit and harass their opponents.

So the journalist does some deep sleuthing, discovers that people on 4Chan are talking about telling journalists they should learn to code, and decides that the entire thing is some coordinated troll attack for no other reason than trolls are gonna troll. Just like some movie stars inexplicably have fake girlfriends, so people on 4Chan inexplicably hate journalists.

Related: The Death of a Dreamer:

The day before the conference, Heinz had apparently been told he would be on for ten minutes rather than the three he’d been planning. To fill some of the time at the end, he decided to speak briefly about some of companies he’d partnered with who’d be using Cambrian Genomics technology. Welcoming one of these partners onstage, Gilad Gome of Petomics, he talked about the idea of changing the smell of faeces and gastric wind and using it as an alert that a person was unwell. “When your farts change from wintergreen to banana maybe that means you have an infection in your gut,” he said. He introduced Sweet Peach as a similar project. “The idea is to get rid of UTIs and yeast infections and change the smell of the vagina through probiotics,” he said. …

“These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit” ran the headline at Inc.com later that day. … Soon, the Huffington Post picked it up: “Two Science Startup Dudes Introduced a New Product Idea this Week: A Probiotic Supplement that Will Make Women’s Vaginas Smell Like Peaches.” Gawker called it a “waste of science” and said Sweet Peach “sounds like a C-list rom-com with a similarly retrograde view on the priorities of the contemporary human female.” Then, Inc.com weighed in again: “Its mission, apparently hatched by a couple of 11-year-old boys still in the ‘ew, girl cooties’ stage, is to make sure women’s vaginas smell ‘pleasant.’” Similarly negative stories began appearing in major news sources such as SalonBuzzfeed, the Daily Mail and Business Insider.

Long story short, all of the negative publicity resulted in public ostracism in his real life; funding for his company dried up; the company crashed; and he committed suicide.

Shit like this is why so many people hate journalists at magazines like HuffPo.

HuffPo journalists apparently think it’s fine to lie about a guy’s company and drive him to suicide, but think it is very concerning that some assholes told them to “learn to code.” (That said, a bullying campaign targeted at a bunch of people who just lost their jobs might also push someone over the edge to suicide.)

Over in reality land, the learn-to-code meme is far bigger than 4Chan and stems from society’s generalized attempt to replace outsourced manufacturing and other blue-collar labor with white collar jobs like coding. Earning a degree in computer science is, however, outside both the cognitive and physical resources of most laid-off factory workers. Indeed, as the information revolution progresses and society grows more complex, it is not unreasonable to expect that many people will simply not be smart enough to keep up. These are the losers, and there is nothing to be done for them but eternal bread and circuses, welfare and soma.

They commit suicide a lot.

It’s tempting to claim that being so out of touch with mainstream culture that you believe the “learn to code” meme sprang up ex nihilo is part of why these journalists got fired, but it’s far more likely they were just the latest victims of the contraction of print media that’s been going on for two decades.

People believe many other things that defy logic. The QAnoners fall more into the non-functional loony category, but the also-fanciful Russia Conspiracy is widely believed by otherwise levelheaded and normal liberals. The usually not too insane NY Times just ran an article claiming that, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong.” Whew. There’s a lot implied in that statement.

(While I can’t tell you what people in New York think of black women wearing fur, I can tell you that around here, the only concern is for the fur.)

And there are many conservatives who believe an equal number of silly things about vast conspiracies–be they run by the Jews or the Gays or whomever–but in general, conservative conspiracy theories don’t get as much attention from reasonable people. Conservative conspiracies are low-class.

Take, for example, the way Alex Jones was deplatformed for getting the Sandy Hook students and their families harassed. Infowars is considered low-class and disreputable. But The New York Times did the exact same thing to the Covington students and their families, resulting in harassment and death threats for them, yet the NY Times has not been deplatformed.

What makes a conspiracy low or high status, published in the NY Times or on Infowars, believed by people who are otherwise kind of crazy or otherwise fairly sane?

Centrists and moderates tend not to champion political conspiracies, probably because they basically like society the way it is. “There is great big conspiracy to make society a nice place!” is not an argument most people will bother with. People who are further toward the political extremes, however, are dissatisfied with much of the way society is run. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.

“Satan” is the archetypal explanation. The Evil One leads people into evil, and thus there is sin in the world and we are fallen from our original state of utopian grace. Satan has the rhetorical advantage of generally not being associated with a real person, so people of even moderate persuasions can be convinced to rally against the abstraction of evil, but sometimes people get a bit too worked up and actual people are put in prison for witchcraft or devil worship. Our last serious witch-hunt was in the 1980s, when people became convinced that Satanists were operating an international daycare conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and torture people’s children.

Today’s Pizzagaters are disreputable, but the Satanic Daycare Conspiracy was pushed by completely respectable mainstream media outlets and supported by the actions of actual police, judges, prosecutors, etc. If you lived through the 80s, you’ve probably repressed your memory of this, but it was a totally real conspiracy that actually sent real people to prison.

Today’s atheists have had to invent less demonic adversaries. The far left believes that the world is run by a cabal of evil heterosexual patriarchal cis-gendered white male Christians. The alt-right believes the world is run by a cabal of scheming Jews. Both of these are conspiracy theories. (Moderates occasionally delve into non-political conspiracies, like the ones surrounding famous movie stars or vaccinations.)

These theories provide all-encompassing ways of understanding the world. People are inexplicably mean to you? It must be part of a conspiracy by “them” to “get” you. As people encounter new information, the ideology they already have shapes how they react, either incorporating it as corroborating evidence or discarding it as worthless propaganda put out by their enemies.

Unfortunately, this makes conspiracies difficult to disprove.

A conspiracy will be considered reputable and believed by otherwise sane and level-headed people if it comes from an already trusted source, like the New York Times or 60 Minutes. It is normal to trust a source you already trust. After all, humans, even intelligent ones, are incapable of knowing everything society needs to know to keep functioning. We therefore have systems of trust and verification set up–such as medical degrees–that let us know what other people know so we can draw on their knowledge. If a plumber says that my plumbing is busted, it is probably in my interest to believe them. So it goes all the way up society–so if trusted people on CNN or in the government think Trump colluded with the Russians, then a reasonable person concludes that Trump colluded with the Russians.

A conspiracy will be considered disreputable and will appeal more to mentally unstable people if it requires first rejecting an established, trusted source. It is easy to believe a false thing by accident if someone you trust states it first; it requires much more work to first justify why all of the trusted sources are saying an untrue thing. This is therefore much easier if you are already paranoid, and distrusting everyone around you is usually a bad idea. (But not always.)

Of course this does not tell us how a source becomes trusted in the first place, but it does suggest that a false idea, once spread by a trusted source, can become very pernicious. (Conversely, a true idea, spread by a false source, will struggle.) The dominance of Cultural Marxism in universities may simply be a side effect of leftist conspiracies being spread by people whom society (or universities) see as more trustworthy in the first place.

(I suppose the fact that I usually don’t believe in conspiracy theories and instead believe in the power of evolution–of species, ideas, cities, civilizations, the sexes, families, etc–to explain the world as it is, might be why I generally see myself as a moderate. However, this leaves me with the task of coming up with a conspiracy theory to explain why evolutionary theories are not more widely accepted. “Meta-conspiracy theorist” sounds about right.)

(My apologies if this post is disorganized; it’s late.)

The evolution of fraud

Much of evolutionary literature focuses on the straightforward relationship between predator and prey, or on competition between members of the same species for limited resources, mates, etc.

But today we’re going to focus on fraud.

Milk Snake
Milk Snake
Coral Snake
Coral Snake

Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend to Jack.

The Coral snake is deadly poisonous. (Or venomous, as they say.) The Milk snake is harmless, but by mimicking the coral’s red, black, and yellow bands, it tricks potential predators into believing that it, too, will kill them.

Eastern_Phoebe-nest-Brown-headed-Cowbird-eggThe milk snake is a fraud, benefiting from the coral’s venom without producing any of its own.

Nature has many frauds, from the famously brood-parasitic Cuckoos to the nightmare-fuel snail eyestalk-infecting flatworms, to the fascinating mimic octopus, who can change the colors and patterns on its skin in the blink of an eye.

But just as predator and prey evolve in tandem, the prey developing new strategies to outwit predators, and predators in turn developing new strategies to defeat the prey’s new strategies. So also with fraud; animals who detect frauds out-compete those who are successfully deceived.

Complex human systems depend enormously on trust–and thus are prime breeding grounds for fraud.

Let’s take the job market. Employers want to hire the best employees possible (at the lowest possible prices, of course.) So employers do their best to (efficiently) screen potential candidates for work-related qualities like diligence, honesty, intelligence, and competency.

Employees want to eat. Diligence, honesty, years spent learning how to do a particular job, etc., are not valued because they help the company, but because they result in eating (and, if you’re lucky, reproduction.)

When there are far more employees competing against each other for jobs than there are openings, not only do employers have a chance to ratchet up the qualifications they demand in applicants, they pretty much have to. No employer trying to fill a single position has time to read 10,000 resumes, nor would it be in their interest to do so. So employers come up with requirements–often totally arbitrary–to automatically cut down the number of applications.

“Must have 3-5 years work experience” = people with 6 years of experience automatically rejected.

“Must be currently employed with no gaps in resume” = no one who took time off to have children. (This is one of the reasons birthrates are so low.)

“Must have X degree” = person with 15 years experience in the field but no degree automatically rejected.

The result, of course, is that prospective employees begin lying, cheating, or finding other deceptive ways to trick employers into reading their resumes. Workers with 6 years of experience put down 5. Workers with 2 record 3. People who can’t get into American medical schools attend Caribbean ones. “Brought donuts to the meeting” is inflated to “facilitated cross-discipline network conversation.” Whites who believe employers are practicing AA tickybox “black” on their applications. And as more and more jobs that formerly required nothing more than graduating college start requiring college degrees, more and more colleges start offering bullshit degrees so that everyone can get one.

The higher the competition and more arbitrary the rules, the higher the incentives for cheating.

The problem is particularly bad (or at least blatant) in many developing countries, eg, The Mystery of India’s Deadly Exam Scam:

It began with a test-fixing scandal so massive that it led to 2,000 arrests, including top politicians, academics and doctors. Then suspects started turning up dead. What is the truth behind the Vyapam scam that has gripped India? …

For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping friends and relatives to cheat the exams. …

The list of top state officials placed under arrest reads like the telephone directory of the Madhya Pradesh secretariat. The most senior minister in the state government, Laxmikant Sharma – who had held the health, education and mining portfolios – was jailed, and remains in custody, along with his former aide, Sudhir Sharma, a former schoolteacher who parlayed his political connections into a vast mining fortune.

One of the things I find amusing (and, occasionally, frustrating) about Americans is that many of us are still so trusting. What we call “corruption”–what we imagine as an infection in an otherwise healthy entity–is the completely normal way of doing business throughout most of the world. (I still run into people who are surprised to discover that there are a lot of scams being run out of Nigeria. Nigerian scammers? Really? You don’t say.)

It’s good to get out of your bubble once in a while. Go hang out on international forums with people from the third world, and listen in on some of the conversations between Indians and Pakistanis or Indians and Chinese. Chinese and Indians constantly accuse each other’s countries of engaging in massive educational cheating.

Maybe they know something we don’t.

People want jobs because jobs mean eating; a good job means good eating, ergo every family worth its salt wants their children to get good jobs. But in a nation with 1.2 billion people and only a few good jobs, competition is ferocious:

In 2013, the year the scam was first revealed, two million young people in Madhya Pradesh – a state the size of Poland, with a population greater than the UK – sat for 27 different examinations conducted by Vyapam. Many of these exams are intensely competitive. In 2013, the prestigious Pre-Medical Test (PMT), which determines admission to medical school, had 40,086 applicants competing for just 1,659 seats; the unfortunately named Drug Inspector Recruitment Test (DIRT), had 9,982 candidates striving for 16 vacancies in the state department of public health.

For most applicants, the likelihood of attaining even low-ranking government jobs, with their promise of long-term employment and state pensions, is incredibly remote. In 2013, almost 450,000 young men and women took the exam to become one of the 7,276 police constables recruited that year – a post with a starting salary of 9,300 rupees (£91) per month. Another 270,000 appeared for the recruitment examination to fill slightly more than 2,000 positions at the lowest rank in the state forest service.

Since no one wants to spend their life picking up trash or doing back-breaking manual labor in the hot sun, the obvious solution is to cheat:

The impersonators led the police to Jagdish Sagar, a crooked Indore doctor who had set up a lucrative business that charged up to 200,000 rupees (£2,000) to arrange for intelligent but financially needy medical students to sit examinations on behalf of applicants who could afford to pay.

The families of dumb kids pay for smart kids to take tests for them.

In 2009, police claim, Sagar and Mohindra [Vypam’s systems analyst/data entry guy] had a meeting in Sagar’s car in Bhopal’s New Market bazaar, where the doctor made an unusual proposition: he would give Mohindra the application forms of groups of test-takers, and Mohindra would alter their “roll numbers” to ensure they were seated together so they could cheat from each other. According to Mohindra’s statement to the police, Sagar “offered to pay me 25,000 rupees (£250) for each roll number I changed.”

This came to be known as the “engine-bogie” system. The “engine” would be one of Sagar’s impostors – a bright student from a medical college, taking the exam on behalf of a paying customer – who would also pull along the lower-paying clients sitting next to him by supplying them with answers. … From 2009 to 2013, the police claim, Mohindra tampered with seating assignment for at least 737 of Sagar’s clients taking the state medical exam. …

Mohinda also began just straight-up filling in the bubbles and altering exam scores in the computer for rich kids whose parents had paid him off.

Over the course of only two years, police allege, Mohindra and Trivedi conspired to fix the results of 13 different examinations – for doctors, food inspectors, transport constables, police constables and police sub-inspectors, two different kinds of school teachers, dairy supply officers and forest guards – which had been taken by a total of 3.2 million students.

Remember this if you ever travel to India.

But merely uncovering the scam does not make it go away; witnesses begin dying:

In July 2014, the dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Dr SK Sakalle – who was not implicated in the scandal, but had reportedly investigated fraudulent medical admissions and expelled students accused of obtaining their seats by cheating – was found burned to death on the front lawn of his own home. …

In an interview with the Hindustan Times earlier this year, a policeman, whose own son was accused in the scam and died in a road accident, advanced an unlikely yet tantalising theory. He argued that the Vyapam taskforce – under pressure to conduct a credible probe that nevertheless absolved top government officials – had falsely named suspects who were already deceased in order to shield the real culprits.

A competing theory, voiced by journalists covering the scandal in Bhopal, proposes that it will be all but impossible to determine whether the deaths are connected to Vyapam, because the families of many of the dead refuse to admit that their children paid money to cheat on their exams – for fear that the police might arrest the bereaved parents as well.

For India’s poor (and middle class,) scamming is a dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t affair:

“My brother was arrested four months ago for paying someone to ensure he cleared the police constable exam in 2012,” the man told me. “Some people in our village said, ‘This is Madhya Pradesh, nothing happens without money.’ My brother sold his land and paid them 600,000 rupees.”

In August that year, he was one of 403,253 people who appeared for the recruitment test to become a police constable. … Four months after his marriage, his name popped up in the scam, he lost his job and he was hauled off to prison.

“So now my brother has a wife and his first child, but no job, no land, no money, no prospects and a court case to fight,” the man said. “You can write your story, but write that this is a state of 75 million corrupt people, where there is nothing in the villages and if a man comes to the city in search of an honest day’s work, the politicians and their touts demand money and then throw him into jail for paying.”

Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. -- Deuteronomy 24:15
“Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” — Deuteronomy 24:15

India is not the only place with such scandals:

China Catches 2,440 Students Cheating in High-Tech Scam

Behind Fake Degrees From Pakistan, a Maze of Deceit

2012 Harvard Cheating Scandal

Or, you know, pretty much the entire US economy, especially finance, insurance, and real estate.

I would like to note that in many of these cases, the little guys in the scam, while arguably acting dishonestly and cheating against their neighbors, are basically well-intentioned people who don’t see any other options besides bribing their way into jobs. In the end, these guys often get screwed (or end up dead.)

It’s the people who are taking the bribes and fixing the tests and creating bullshit degrees and profiting off people’s houses burning down who are getting rich off everyone else and ensuring that cheating is the only way to get ahead.

These people are parasites.

Parasitism increases complexity in the host organism, which increases complexity in the parasite in turn:

With selection, evolution can also produce more complex organisms. Complexity often arises in the co-evolution of hosts and pathogens,[7] with each side developing ever more sophisticated adaptations, such as the immune system and the many techniques pathogens have developed to evade it. For example, the parasite Trypanosoma brucei, which causes sleeping sickness, has evolved so many copies of its major surface antigen that about 10% of its genome is devoted to different versions of this one gene. This tremendous complexity allows the parasite to constantly change its surface and thus evade the immune system through antigenic variation.[8]

Animals detect and expel parasites; parasites adapt to avoid detection.

So, too, with human scams.

We tend to increase complexity by adding paperwork.

A few people cheat on their taxes, so the IRS begins randomly auditing people to make sure everyone is complying. A few people refuse to hire African Americans, so companies must keep records on the ethnic/racial identities of everyone they interview for a job. An apartment complex fears it could get sued if a car hits a bicyclist in the parking lot, so it forbids all of the children there from riding their bikes. A college gets sued after a mentally ill student commits suicide on campus, so the college starts expelling all mentally ill students.

Now, while I appreciate certain kinds of complexity (like the sort that results in me having a computer to write on and an internet to post on,) the variety that arises due to a constant war between parasites and prey doesn’t seem to have much in the way of useful side effects. Perhaps I am missing something, but it does not seems like increasing layers of oversight and bureaucracy in an attempt to cut down cheating makes the world any better–rather the opposite, in fact.

Interestingly, fevers are not diseases nor even directly caused by disease, but by your own immune system responding to disease. By increasing your internal temperature, your body aims to kill off the infection or at least make things too inhospitable for it to breed. Fevers (within a moderate range) are your friends.

They are still unpleasant and have a seriously negative effect on your ability to get anything else done.

An ill patient can do little more than lie in bed and hope for recovery; a sick society does nothing but paperwork.

Certainly the correct response to parasitism is to root it out–paperwork, fever, and all. But the long-term response should focus on restructuring institutions so they don’t become infected in the first place.

In human systems, interdependence in close-knit communities is probably the most reliable guard against fraud. You are unlikely to prosper by cheating your brother (genetically, after all, his success is also half your success,) and people who interact with you often will notice if you do not treat them fairly.

Tribal societies have plenty of problems, but at least you know everyone you’re dealing with.

Modern society, by contrast, forces people to interact with and dependent upon thousands of people they don’t know, many they’ve met only once and far more they’ve never met at all. When I sit down to dinner, I must simply trust that the food I bought at the grocery store is clean, healthy, and unadultarated; that no one has contaminated the milk, shoved downer cows into the chute, or failed to properly wash the tomatoes. When I drive I depend on other drivers to not be drunk or impaired, and upon the city to properly maintain the roads and direct traffic. When I apply for jobs I hope employers will actually read my resume and not just hire the boss’s nephew; when I go for a walk in the park, I hope that no one will mug me.

With so many anonymous or near-anonymous interactions, it is very easy for people to defraud others and then slip away, never to be seen again. A mugger melts into a crowd; the neighbor whose dog shat all over your yard moves and disappears. Twitter mobs strike out of the blue and then disperse.

So how do we get, successfully, from tight-knit tribes to million+ people societies with open markets?

How do modern countries exist at all?

I suspect that religion–Christianity in the West, probably others elsewhere–has played a major role in encouraging everyone to cooperate with their neighbors by threatening them with eternal damnation if they don’t.

To return to Deuteronomy 24:

Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security.

If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. …

10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. 13 Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord your God.

14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. …

17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

To be fair, we have to credit Judaism for Deuteronomy.

Here we have organized religion attempting to bridge the gap between tribalism and universal morality. Enslaving one of your own is an offense punishable by death, but there is no command to rescue the enslaved of other nations. You must treat your own employees well, whether they come from your own tribe or other tribes.

In tribal societies, justice is run through the tribe. People with no families or clans–like orphans and foreigners–therefore cannot access the normal routes to justice.

As Peter Frost notes of the German societies of the early Dark Ages:

The new barbarian rulers also disliked the death penalty, but for different reasons. There was a strong feeling that every adult male had a right to use violence and to kill, if need be. This right was of course reciprocal. If you killed a man, his death could be avenged by his brothers and other male kinsmen. The prospect of a vendetta thus created a ‘balance of terror’ that kept violence within limits. So, initially, the barbarians allowed capital punishment only for treason, desertion, and cowardice in combat (Carbasse, 2011, p. 35). [bold mine]

Frost quotes:

[The Salic Law] is a pact (pactus) “concluded between the Franks and their chiefs,” for the specific purpose of ensuring peace among the people by “cutting short the development of brawls.” This term evidently means private acts of vengeance, the traditional vendettas that went on from generation to generation. In place of the vengeance henceforth forbidden, the law obliged the guilty party to pay the victim (or, in the case of murder, his family) compensation. This was an indemnity whose amount was very precisely set by the law, which described with much detail all of the possible damages, this being to avoid any discussion between the parties and make [murder] settlements as rapid, easy, and peaceful as possible. […] This amount was called the wergild, the “price of a man.” The victim’s family could not refuse the wergild, and once it was paid, the family had to be satisfied. They no longer had the right to avenge themselves (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 33-34).

(The Wikipedia notes that, “The same concept outside Germanic culture is known as blood money. Words include ericfine in Ireland, galanas in Wales, veriraha in Finnish, vira (“вира“) in Russia and główszczyzna in Poland. In the Arab world, the very similar institution of diyya is maintained into the present day.”)

Frost continues:

This situation began to change in the 12th century. One reason was that the State had become stronger. But there also had been an ideological change. The State no longer saw itself as an honest broker for violent disputes that did not challenge its existence. Jurists were now arguing that the king must punish the wicked to ensure that the good may live in peace.

In a tribal system, a victim with no family has no one to bring a suit on their behalf, if they are murdered, there is no one to pay weregild to. This leaves orphans and “foreigners” without any access to justice.

Thus Deuteronomy’s command not to mistreat them (or widows.) They aren’t protected under tribal law, but they are under Yahweh’s.

The threat of divine punishment (and promise of rewards for good behavior,) may have encouraged early Christians to cooperate with strangers. People who would cheat others now have both their own consciences and the moral standards of their Christian neighbors to answer to. The ability to do business with people outside of one’s own family or clan without constant fear of getting ripped off is a necessary prerequisite for the development of free markets, modern economies, and million+ nations. (In short, universalism.)

In the absence of universalist societies that effectively discourage cheating, groups that protect their own will out-compete groups that do not. The Amish, for example, have grown from 5,000 to 300,000 people over the past century (despite significant numbers of Amish children choosing to leave the society every generation.)

(By contrast, my own family has largely failed to reproduce itself–my cousins are all childless, and I have no second cousins.)

The Amish avoid outsiders, keeping their wealth within their own communities. This probably also allows them to steer clear of cheaters and scammers (unlike everyone who lost money in the 2008 housing crash or the 2001 stock market crash.) As insular groups go, the Amish don’t seem too bad–I haven’t heard any reports of them stealing people’s chickens or scamming elderly widows out of their life’s savings.

Cathedral Round Up #3

stanford cover

From Stanford Magazine’s feature article, A Hard Look at How We See Race:

“Jennifer Eberhardt’s research shows subconscious connections in people’s minds between black faces and crime, and how those links may pervert justice. Law enforcement officers across the country are taking note.

The first time Jennifer Eberhardt presented her research at a law enforcement conference, she braced for a cold shoulder. How much would streetwise cops care what a social psychology professor had to say about the hidden reaches of racial bias?

Instead, she heard gasps, the loudest after she described an experiment that showed how quickly people link black faces with crime or danger at a subconscious level. In the experiment, students looking at a screen were exposed to a subliminal flurry of black or white faces. The subjects were then asked to identify blurry images as they came into focus frame by frame.

The makeup of the facial prompts had little effect on how quickly people recognized mundane items like staplers or books. But with images of weapons, the difference was stark—subjects who had unknowingly seen black faces needed far fewer frames to identify a gun or a knife than those who had been shown white faces. For a profession dealing in split-second decisions, the implications were powerful. … “

This is actually quite interesting research, but it does not investigate why people might have become hyper-vigilant about danger around black people to start with. Given that crime victimization surveys consistently show that blacks actually commit crimes at rates similar to their rates of incarceration, Professor Eberhardt is capturing, at best, a miniscule effect. The effect of black people actually committing real crimes explains the vast, vast majority of black incarceration, and any research on the subject that doesn’t take this into account is ignorant at best.

Keep in mind:

shootinggraph

The police disproportionately shoot whites and Hispanics, not blacks, and even when they do shoot at blacks, they are mysteriously less likely to kill them. Police officers are actually less likely to use force against black suspects because they fear backlash:

Pistol-whipped detective says he didn’t shoot attacker because of headlines (article NOT from a university):

“A Birmingham, Alabama, police detective who was pistol-whipped unconscious said Friday that he hesitated to use force because he didn’t want to be accused of needlessly killing an unarmed man. …

“”We don’t want to be in the media,” he said. “It’s hard times right now for us.” …

“Adding insult to injury: several bystanders, instead of helping, took pictures of the bloodied officer as he was facedown on the concrete and posted the images on social media, where the officer was mocked. …

“”Pistol whipped his ass to sleep,” one user wrote, employing the hashtag #FckDaPolice. Another mockingly offered the officer milk and cookies for his “nap time.””

And it’s not just anecdote–here’s a study: Cops hesitate more, err less when shooting black suspects.

• Officers were less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites — 25 times less likely, in fact
• And officers hesitated significantly longer before shooting armed suspects who were black, compared to armed subjects who were white or Hispanic

“In sum,” writes Dr. Lois James, a research assistant professor with the university’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology who headed the study, “this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions.

Stanford Magazine closes with Ghosts of Mascots Past: Respect should transcend nostalgia:

“… I, too, am a Stanford Indian. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a proud Stanford alumna. But nothing about the caricature on that shirt represents me, my family, my community, or the hundreds of other Native students and alumni of the university.

Whenever the Stanford Indian resurfaces, I’m reminded that the Native members of the Stanford community still aren’t viewed as equals. …

Adrienne Keene, ’07, is a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She writes about Native representations on her blog, Native Appropriations.

If Indians don’t like being used as mascots, politeness dictates not using them as mascots.

However, the idea that you aren’t viewed as an equal at a university that is at least 50% non-white is really quite a stretch; the idea that the mascot has anything to do with it makes about as much sense as saying that the Irish aren’t viewed as equals at Notre Dame.

WOW JUST WOW THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT OKAY
WOW JUST WOW. THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT OKAY.

If anything, I’d think that attending a place like Stanford is rather akin to having the world handed to you on a big silver platter, and so maybe it looks bad to complain too much that your platter isn’t shiny enough or it wasn’t handed over with sufficient deference.

Next up, Harvard:

HARVxCV1x0915_1x

The text says, “From the Ground Up: Doing Business at the base of the pyramid

Let’s take a moment to look at these two covers. Stanford recently had a “Protest” cover, showing Stanford students shutting down a highway in support of Black Lives Matter; today’s cover is even starker.

Harvard’s cover also features black people, but more subtly, and these are black people who actually live in Africa, rather than America. The overall feeling I get when reading official (non-student run) Harvard publications is one of internationalism–here are pictures of our Ugandan law students, here’s what up with our European investments, here a story about a professor in China–while Stanford’s publications feels decidedly mired in common American problems.

This is not to say that Harvard students aren’t protesting in favor of Black Lives Matter–they definitely are. But the university’s official publications chose not to highlight this the way Stanford’s do. Harvard’s vision of itself is global; Standford’s is national.

Anyway, back to the article, a discussion of how difficult it is to be economically successful in Africa, because even though food grows perfectly well there, people haven’t figured out how to get it all to market before it rots. A country like Nigeria, therefore, is reduced to importing tomato paste while millions of tomatoes rot in the countryside. So some Harvard guys are trying to teach Nigerians how to efficiently preserve their tomatoes so they can actually get them to market before they rot. (Wouldn’t the most efficient solution be sun-dried tomatoes? I know plenty of African fishermen sun-dry their catches because it’s an easy and free way to preserve food in their environment.)

Unfortunately the whole process is impeded by Fulani tribesmen who like to herd their cattle through the tomato fields.

Open borders rule!

Then we get to the meat of the article:

Imagine a simple triangle diagram of the planet’s population. A fortunate couple of billion upper-income people—in the United States and Canada, much of Europe, Japan, Australia, and prospering urban centers in parts of Asia and Latin America—occupy the apex. The invisible hand of market capitalism supplies this prominent minority with bountiful goods and services. But that leaves a lot of people out. At the very bottom of the pyramid, a billion or more humans live in poverty (on less than $1.25 per person per day), often depending on government programs and charitable aid to subsist.

” … In a conversation, he compared the lives of these people, the base of the pyramid, with those at the top. Because they likely do not own property, and lack rent or tax receipts, they are not bankable, so they turn to exploitative money lenders for credit to stock a shop or start a small business. For medical care, they choose among local healers, vendors of patent nostrums, or queues at public clinics (where it may take a bribe to advance in line). Their labor, often interrupted by those queues or long bus trips to remit cash to a rural family, may be seasonal, itinerant, and legally unprotected. Functioning markets, he noted, imply a level playing field between consumers and producers, but most of these people aren’t getting a remotely fair deal. It is as if the broad base of the pyramid were an alternate universe where familiar rules don’t apply.

“Rangan quickly credited the late corporate strategist C.K. Prahalad, D.B.A. ’75, of the University of Michigan, for saying (most prominently in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits, published in 2004) that the same rules ought to apply.”

As I have said over and over, societies are built by the people in them. At this point, invoking the Invisible Hand is tantamount to invoking Voodoo or the influence of Mercury retrograde in Taurus.

Countries where the people have high levels of trust, low levels of aggression, and low time-discounting end up with efficient, complex markets where they can do business with strangers without fear of being cheated or killed. In nice countries, like Japan, Finland, and even the US, the people depending on government aid and charitable programs to subsist do not have to bribe their way into medical care because people in those countries believe that bribery and line-jumping are immoral.

Nice countries are places where everyone agrees to cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Shitty ones are places where everyone is looking for a chance to defect–say, by running their cattle through a neighbor’s tomato fields.

“Philanthropic and development agencies tend not to scale or sustain themselves, he found, and public entities often fail to assure efficacy and efficiency. In contrast, “Through the ages, one actor has proven consistently able” to satisfy these criteria: competitive private industries.

“… Rangan applied his scholarly perspective to suggest inverting the telescope through which companies view prospective lower-income markets. “Typical marketing sells the organization to the customer,” he and research associate Arthur McCaffrey wrote a decade ago. (Need a car? We at GM/Mercedes/Toyota make good ones.) Within the base of the pyramid—devoid as it is of cash, roads, and gas stations—there are no such customers. But enormous demand exists for carts to ease the burden of hauling loads along muddy paths or cheap pumps to irrigate fields. Here, the proper paradigm is to “sell the customer to the organization.”

Long-term, I think making the opportunities to become successful available to people is actually a good strategy. The article is too long to continue quoting, but you can read it there if you’re interested in the opportunities/difficulties of investing in developing markets.

In Shedding Light through Social Science, Harvard’s President Faust, rated by Forbes as the 33rd most powerful woman in the world, descendant of Puritans, IVY league grads, Senators, and thoroughbred horse breeders, talks about the opportunities for Harvard to use its computing power to comb through Big Data in pursuit of the Great Informationing (my term, not hers):

“The nature of censorship in China, to give just one example, can be explored by monitoring the types of communication suppressed by the government, a project that relies on sifting through millions of social media posts.

“At the same time, real-world experiments can inform economic, political, and social theory. Are people more likely to save for retirement with the help of targeted brain stimulation? Can gender bias in hiring, promotions, and work assignments be overcome by evaluating candidates jointly rather than individually? How do malnutrition and sleep deprivation among low-income individuals influence economic outcomes? Faculty supported by cross-school research programs such as the Behavioral Insights Group and the Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative are answering these and other questions by undertaking discipline-spanning research that can shape everything from the decisions we make at the grocery store to the votes we cast in the ballot box.”

Personally, I think trying to electrocute people into having lower time preference is really scraping the bottom of the idea barrel; you might as well just throw in the towel and say that some people just aren’t very good at delaying gratification and there’s not much you can do about it. Faust continues:

“This is a time of remarkable promise for the social sciences. Yet short-sighted federal funding cuts are threatening our ability to answer questions that have the potential to inform and shape all of our lives. The last 51 of the United States’ recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics were supported by the research divisions of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, which may soon face a more than 50 percent reduction from current federal funding. If we hope to address complex and consequential issues such as climate change, global pandemics, and inequality and human rights, we cannot ignore unique insights into the human and behavioral that the social sciences alone can provide.”

Harvard has more money than god and could send a mission to Mars if it felt like, but more taxpayer dollars to investigate whether or not we can alter people’s brains to get them to save money is critical.

Harvard then turns to women’s issues, with a spotlight portrait of history Professor Catherine Brekus:

Catherine Brekus ’85 specializes in hearing the voices of America’s early female religious leaders, nearly lost to history …

” “I did not like studying history in high school,” the Warren professor of the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School confesses, smiling. “I was always good at it…but the idea is that you memorize a lot of facts, mostly about political history, and what happened when.” When she taught the subject to high-school students for two years, Brekus noticed that textbooks “have this narrative of political events…and then you have this little human-interest thing in a box. That was where the women would appear. My goal as a historian,” she adds, “is to get women out of those boxes and into the main texts.””

And she’s going to fix this by studying the lives of women whom no one cares about?

If you want more women in the history books, do (or encourage them to do) something worth recording in a history book.

In A Case for Women:

“When Nitin Nohria became Harvard Business School (HBS) dean in mid 2010, he detailed five priorities, ranging from innovation in education and internationalization to inclusion. In setting out the latter goal, he said in a recent conversation, he aimed not at numerical diversity, but at a broader objective: that every HBS student and teacher be enabled to thrive within the community.”

If you can’t “thrive” at HBS without the faculty making special sure to pander to your needs, you do not belong in business. The idea that women are special little wilting flowers who have to be coddled at every turn because they can’t take care of themselves, even at the highest levels of intelligence and achievement, is absolutely repulsive.

““I have launched an initiative that will focus…on the challenges facing women at the school,” Nohria wrote. He created an institutional home for the work—a senior associate deanship for culture and community—and appointed Wilson professor of business administration Robin J. Ely to the post: a logical choice, given her research on race and gender relations in organizations. …

“Just as M.B.A. cases have become increasingly global in the past decade, he aims for at least 20 percent to “feature a female” leader within the next three years. (And because HBS sells cases to schools worldwide, that shift will radiate far beyond Allston.) …

Ely recently recalled the concerns that prompted Nohria’s initial interest, including persistent underrepresentation of women among M.B.A. students earning highest academic honors.”

In other words, Nohria is making pity-jobs for women because they can’t hack it at HBS. Next time you look at the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, remember that college is now a make-work program for unemployable women.

Continuing the theme, “Not Holding out for a Hero” features an interview with the Asian Man now drawing Wonder Woman.

In Empathy and Imagination, author Ceridwen Dovey (now there’ a British name for you!) talks about how guilty she feels over apartheid in her childhood home of South Africa, a place she doesn’t actually bother to live in anymore, now that her political activist parents’ goal of racial harmony and integration have been achieved.

“Motherhood also played a role [in the writing of her new novel]: “It made me more grateful for the time I have to write,” she adds—and ultimately more creative, especially while finishing Only the Animals in 2013. The nature of pregnancy, nursing, and caring for a newborn intensified her kinship with “the whole family of mammals.”

“… Like Coetzee, Sax, an author and academic best known for his writings on animal-human relations, has influenced Dovey, who also admits to feeling “bewildered to the point of inaction in terms of the ethical responsibilities we have toward animals and the obligations we owe them as the dominant species on earth. We treat animals in the most appalling ways right now.” …

““I am very aware that we are all creatures who suffer together, and that existence is hard for us all,” Dovey reflects. “There is something, also, about the bond we have with animals, the care and connection that we don’t appreciate or see the magic in as much as we should.””

As Staffan points out, vegetarianism and Englishness (in this case, perhaps Welshness) are extremely correlated:

Map of self-reported English ancestry
Map of self-reported English ancestry (green)
Map showing the per capita distribution of vegetarian restaurants
Map of per capita distribution of vegetarian restaurants (green)
Graph of the correlation between vegetarianism and English ancestry
Graph of the correlation between vegetarianism and English ancestry

The English and their near kin are probably unique in the world in their ability to consistently extend their circle of concern not only to non-tribally related humans, but even to animals–even other whites do not share this trait:

Graph showing the much lower correlation between
Graph showing the much lower correlation between “whites” and vegetarianism

Since the English are included in whites, removing them from the graph would result in an even lower correlation.

Off-topic, here is a quick excerpt from an interesting letter to the editor:

“In those distant days, every Harvard and Radcliffe first- and second-year student was required to complete one full Gen Ed course in each of three broad areas: only 18 (not 574) two-semester courses qualified for “Humanities,” “Social Science,” or “Natural Science” credit, plus a two-semester Gen Ed A writing course required of virtually all entering freshmen.”

Hopefully I can get back to this in more depth later, but I suspect the massive increase in the sheer amount of media (books, movies, TV shows, etc.,) available to everyone over the past hundred years, while in many ways quite wonderful, has contributed to an intellectual fracturing where we no longer have a common set of ideas and metaphors at our disposal with which to communicate with others.

I was going to do Princeton and Yale, but Harvard gave me so much material that I’m just going to save them for next month.

I’m Sick of False Empathy

Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

False empathy is claiming empathy with people one has never met/has no connection with, for the purpose of harming/denying empathy to someone right in front of oneself, someone with whom you ought to have some sort of connection.

It is generally expressed as, “yes, I see you are hurting terribly, but I do not care because of your opinion on X”, or even, “No, you cannot actually be hurting, because of your opinion on X.”
This is not empathy. It’s a form of bullying; it drives people apart and decreases trust.

(Another form of false empathy is identifying with the suffering of others, but being completely clueless about their hopes, joys, angers, humor, or basically the vast majority of emotions and motivations they feel.)

The Police

The flipside of criminals is, obviously, the police. No consideration of criminality can be complete without some consideration of the folks making the technical determination.

That involves more people than just the police, of course.

Much of the time, the police do a decent job. But the Legal/Justice System is out of whack. Has been for as long as I’ve been paying attention.

Some major issues:
1. Major corporations use lawsuits to destroy their competition. Maybe good for them; definitely bad for humanity.
2. Corporations and the wealthy pass laws that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.
3. The wealthy have way more ability to use the system to their advantage.
4. Politicians pass a lot of laws just to sound good, with terrible effects.

5. Prosecutors pursue convictions even when they know they probably have the wrong guy; judges are complicit. (This is a biggie.)
6. Plea bargaining.
7. Prisons are shitty.

It is fairly easy to imagine the police (and related folks,) after dealing day in and day out with criminals, begin to think less in terms of specific crimes, and more in terms of making sure that dangerous “criminal types” stay behind bars for a good, long time. So what if the guy didn’t commit this particular crime? He looks like a criminal; he probably did something.

Statistically speaking, they’d probably be correct. Take recidivism rates; knowing that 84% of carjackers will commit another crime, how eager would you be to let a carjacker out of prison? Would you try to find some reason to keep them in?

But what about the 16% who never commit another crime again in their lives? (Or at least, don’t get caught). It is unfair to imprison them for the rest of their days for the sins of others, after all. Next we’ll be imprisoning people for pre-crime.

The Justice System involves a lot of people who have to deal with a lot of very dangerous people in stressful situations; mistakes will be made. To be clear: this is a hard job, and one mistake can have quite disastrous consequences. In a nation of >300 million people, you will hear horrible stories of things gone horribly wrong no matter how great things are overall. Thus the importance of determining whether we are just hearing about tragic but basically random accidents, or regular, systematic abuses that we can actually do something about.

Unfortunately, I suspect we tend to focus on the former, rather than the latter–probably because the latter involves reading things like DOJ statistics, which appeals to most people like moldy pie.

In a good world, people can trust the police. Our justice system, unfortunately, does not inspire trust. This really needs to be changed, or else I just don’t see how the country can function.

Microaggressions and Isolation

The first time I heard the term, “micoaggression,” I thought it was brilliant. Here was a concept that succinctly encapsulated so much of my life.

Since then, the term has been worked to death in the salt mines of political whining.

I kinda hate it when particular terminology ceases to be useful because it has accreted layers of political and social signaling, such that just trying to use the term in a technical sense activates everyone’s “Oh now we’re talking about politics; let’s fight!” sub-routine.

I’m pretty sure a lot of dry, technical, long-winded language is really just an attempt to talk about stuff without triggering that sub-routine.

I seem to have said, “triggering.”

Anyway.

I understand what it is like to be one tiny person in a sea of humanity with whom you have little in common, with whom you struggle to connect on a basic level. People who make no damn sense; people who are too aggressive or too passive; people who might as well be speaking another language for all you can understand them.

I understand immigrants, hoping for a better life but stuck in a community full of people who aren’t like them. I understand adoptees, removed from the families and communities that would have made intuitive sense to them–people who perhaps couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of them, more’s the hurt. I imagine this is what it feels like to be interracial, inter-cultural, or transnational–to feel like nowhere is exactly right for you.

I understand because this is my life, too.

When I feel like I fit in, it is such a relief. My people! My kind! It doesn’t happen often.

I was not raised around most of my family. I like them, but they are still alien to me. What is it like to be raised in one culture and then go back to the culture where you were born, where your family lives, and have no idea how to interact with it? What if you have been raised with prejudices (from your adopted family or society at large) against your birth culture? What if you yourself don’t like your birth culture? How would you know the difference? How do you deal with that?

I feel more comfortable around Asian immigrants than around members of my biological family’s culture.

I took the term microaggression seriously when people first started bandying it about. At the very least, I desire to be polite to people and not annoying.

But eventually I started to wonder, if people hate being around each other so much, if people are constantly hurting each other, annoying each other, or otherwise offending them, then why be around each other?

People should be with the people they like, people they feel comfortable with. People they trust and who make them feel normal and happy. That’s what I want for myself, anyway. I assume it’s what you want for yourself. So why don’t we just let people live, work, and associate among people who make them happy, instead of forcing people among groups of people who are radically different and then yell at them for not spontaneously all acting the same?

The source of most microaggressions, in my experience, is not a conscious desire to be a jerkface to the other person, but differences in personality that cause endless friction. For example, a shy, introverted person may have difficulty dealing with loud, friendly, aggressive extroverts. The shy person finds these interactions excessively antagonistic, overwhelming, and retreats from them. The shy person does not enjoy taking to these people. The shy person who lives among a great many introverts ends up lonely, anxious, and stressed.

By contrast, an extrovert in the land of introverts finds themself constantly shut out of social events and dumped by friends for being “too loud,” “too emotional,” just too intense. Even people they like get suddenly freaked out by them and stop returning their calls. To the extrovert, these people are unfriendly and rude. The extrovert surrounded by introverts is miserable, confused, and lonely.

People who have simply moved from one part of the country to another feel this all the time. It is quite easy to find someone who would be happy in type-A, aggressive NYC, but miserable in laid-back Seattle, or vice versa. It is easy to find people who hate homogeneity and would die of boredom in a rural town, and easy to find people who can’t stand heterogeneity and just want to have simple, familiar people and things in life.

These are fundamental differences in people that I doubt can really be changed. I don’t think a shy person (over the age of 22, anyway,) is likely to transform into a loud, aggressive one. Aggressive people I know have tried to make themselves less aggressive, but just can’t. Deep down, you can’t really change who you are.

And that’s without throwing major racial, ethnic, or gender differences into the mix. (Whites from different parts of the US are genetically/ethnically different from each other; the differences are just a little more subtle.)

The modern world seems bent on forcing people together whether it makes them happy or not. Then we complain about how unhappy we are.

We should all be with the people who make us happy.

Vaccines

I’ll cut to the very predictable chase and say that I am pro-vaccines. Quite pro-vaccines. My dad had fucking Polio as a kid, and it gave him permanent nerve damage. Heck, I know people in wheelchairs from Polio. And people who’ve had other lovely diseases we now vaccinate against.

Did you know the mumps can make you infertile?

Needless to say, my kids are vaccinated.

But I also understand the anti-vax perspective. I mean, I think it’s wrong, but I understand where these folks are coming from: it is difficult to trust a medical establishment that has treated you crappily in the past.

Doctors get plenty of stuff wrong. Doctors are human, and humans make mistakes. But when your doctor makes a mistake, it can have rather severe consequences.

And somewhere around the 50s, despite some wonderful, astoundingly great advances in medicine –actually, perhaps because of those astounding advances–doctors started doing some really dumb stuff to pregnant women. Thalidomide comes immediately to mind, but we can throw in unnecessary c-sections and encouraging them to use baby formula. Maybe this all started before the 50s. Behavioralists in the 20s were writing best-selling baby care books that advised parents to never kiss their children, keep their babies on a feeding schedule, and other such crap. (We here at EvolutionistX would especially like to point out that this advice is very evolutionarily unsound.)

Well, guess what. Having an unnecessary c-section is really fucking shitty. Taking a medication that gives you a deformed kid is really fucking shitty. Baby formula is not shitty, (unless you are in the third world, and then mixing it with the local water supply is may be a really bad idea,) but it is kind of pricy.

So I understand how people can come away from all of that and say, “my god, the medical establishment is completely full of horrible, unethical, hideously painful and unnecessary interventions!” and then might look at vaccines and say, “No fucking way.” When you lose peoples’ trust, you lose their trust.

Before we go any further, I would also like to note that, IMO, epidurals are awesome. EvolutionistX does not have it out for any currently practicing doctors. A lot of the bad stuff, as I noted, was going on in the fifties. Hospital practices related to maternity and childbirth have changed a lot since then. Please, do not make any kind of medical decisions based on “well, I heard some horror stories from the 70s.”

For that matter, don’t make your vaccine decisions based on horror stories from the 70s. And for the love of god, don’t read a bunch of junk science. That shit makes my head hurt. Find a doctor or medical information you really trust, and ask them.

But please, people, let’s not have a return of Polio. Polio fucking sucks.

A Structural Proposal

I have read that people are capable of maintaining about 150 relationships with other humans. This therefore seems like a reasonable maximum size for human organizations — churches, businesses, towns, etc. For maximum trustiness, perhaps all humans should live in communities of 150, which could then reasonably organize for their own self-interest, well-being and happiness.

But humans seem to desire to live in slightly bigger communities, and to network between much larger groups of people. So how to manage it?

First, each community of 150 could appoint one person to go to a meta-council of 150 people from 150 other communities.

That would be kind of pressing our meta-council members, but they would probably be able to maintain close relationships with enough of their constituents and enough of their fellow meta-council members to effectively represent their areas and cooperate with each other for regional benefits. This allows for the governing of 22,500 people, or a small city. (For comparison, the island of Palau has about 21,000 people; a few other small island nations have similar population sizes.)

The meta-meta level seems difficult to achieve, as we’re already asking people to effectively have 300 contacts, and anyone appointed to a meta-meta council would really have their primary interests back in their 150 member community, and so would do a bad job of representing the interests of everyone else in their 22,500 meta-community. (This is precisely the problem of Congress.)

The meta-meta level might be doable on a basic referendum level–that is, if the meta-meta councilors simply represent the majority views of their meta-regions in a system that does not require them to interact with or convince each other. This would allow for the administration of about 3.4 million people–a large city or small country. (By comparison, Iceland has 330,000 people; Lithuania has 2.9 million, and New Zealand has 4.6 million.)

However, we might be able to organize a few more people into our system by taking advantage of some sort of network effects at the bottom level. Perhaps instead of including all 150 people in our community in a community council, we utilize 150 heads of households (each household can appoint whoever it wants to the council). If we estimate about 4 people per household, then the basic community has 600 people, the meta-community has 90,000, and the meta-meta community has 13.5 million. (Belgium has 11.2 million people.)

Effective, long-term organization beyond this size probably becomes very difficult (unless you are okay with dictatorship, and even that can fail miserably at organizing things).

Predictive value: If my train of thought is correct, communities of <14 million should generally be stable, high-trust, efficient, and effectively democratic in nature. Communities of >14 million should generally be low trust, unstable, inefficient, or undemocratic.

 

A quick glance at a list of countries by size indicates that there are a bunch of small, poorly-run countries, which may contradict the theory. Perhaps badly run countries break up into pieces until they find an organizational level they can function on.

Here is a list of countries by interpersonal trust. (Unfortunately, this dataset seems to lack many of the tiny countries. Anyone else got a better dataset?) The top scorers–countries where most people reported trusting most of their neighbors, were:

New Zealand: trust level 102.2, population 4.6 mill

Vietnam: trust level 104.1, population 91.5 mill, not democratic

Saudi Arabia: trust level 105.8, population 31.5 mill, not democratic

Switzerland: trust level 107.4, population 8.2 mill

Finland: trust level 117.5, population 5.5 mill

China: trust level 120.9, population 1.4 billion, not democratic

Denmark: trust level 131.9, population 5.7 mill

Sweden: trust level 134.5, population 9.8 mill

Norway: trust level 148, population 5.2 mill

So, it’s a small set of countries and the small ones generally aren’t in the dataset, but the democratic, high-trust countries are all between 4 and 10 million people. The larger high-trust countries are all not democracies.

The worst scorers (countries where fewer than 1 in 10 people said they thought most people were trustworthy):

Trinidad and Tobago: trust level 7.9, population 1.3 mill

Cape Verde: trust level 9, population 500 thousand

Rwanda: trust level 10.2, population 11 mill

Turkey: trust level 10.2, population 78 mill

Botswana: trust level 12.3, population 2 mill

Malawi: trust level 14.9, population 16 mill

Cambodia: trust level 15.6, population 15.4 mill

Indonesia: trust level 16.9, population 255 mill

Brazil: trust level 17.5, population 204.3 mill

Malaysia: trust level 17.7, population 30.6 mill

Looks like unpleasant countries can come in any size.

 

I’d love it if someone made a scaterplot of size vs. trust, with democracies in blue and non-democracies in red. :D