Why I’m not going to talk to you about the election

If you were in the USA this past week, you probably noticed that the air around you felt like it was being set on fire. The social atmosphere seemed to speed up, as if every conversation was accelerating into a state of abject delirium. Even calm family conversations became tinged with a feverish pitch of obsessiveness, phone calls became excited shouting matches, and your phone blew up with tens, maybe hundreds of messages from people, all of whom are convinced that what they have to say about the matter is uniquely deserving of attention and thought.

Me and probably also you for the last 7 days

It isn’t unusual for elections to make people feel something like this, because in any democracy, a national election is of course supposed to be important. It’s normal for people to get excited, overwhelmed with joy, or even filled with grief, depending on whether the candidate they backed wins or loses. My experience visiting the bookies to collect the winnings I had gambled after a football match was largely the same – some people are cheerful, others are morose, yet life goes on. The problem with this week’s election isn’t necessarily the fact that these normal modalities of both positive and negative emotion seemed to be supercharged, as it were. Instead, the problem is that no-one seems to have noticed that it’s time to return to normality.

This week I chain-smoked the equivalent of hundreds of cigarettes, I drank ungodly amounts of coffee, and slept barely at all while stumbling through drunken election parties and rambunctious hangouts while getting barely anything done. And I’m not alone. A number of my friends and colleagues have attested to skipping out on sleep, work, or even their laundry while giving their attention singlemindedly to a political process that will not repay their temporal or emotional investment in kind. While many of us continue to spend time talking about the election, or chiming in with our own statistical observations, clickbaiting journalists are making more money – and more clicks – than ever before, selling speculations packaged as facts to a citizenry that is missing out on the events of real life that, ultimately, will matter more over the long haul.

Consider that among your friends and family, there is likely at least someone who had a birthday this last week. There may even be someone who had their first child, or suffered from the tragedy of bereavement or a deeply demoralizing life setback. All of these things should matter – and they do – but it seems for many of us that this election and its aftermath continues to hungrily consume all of our time and attention, as if this were not a standard democratic procedure but rather the new 9/11. With the legal challenges filed by the Trump campaign over the contested results and allegations of fraud in some states, we are now entering the second phase of this 9/11, or something like the political equivalent to the Iraq War. I have no intention of being a footsoldier in this war, and if you know what’s good for you, you won’t either.

Democracy, at its core, is nothing more than one of many political systems which aims to provide the solution to the following question: how should people live their lives in order for the best and most desirable outcomes to be achieved? Elections, being nothing but the means by which this process is conducted, must not become so disruptive that they actually detract from our quality of life and bring us further away from our own ambitions, hopes, dreams, and career successes. If we all continued to live our lives in the same manner as we’ve been living for the past week, then within half a year the United States would resemble the dystopian future Australia portrayed within Mad Max much more than it would any America we’d like to live in.

Admittedly, some of you reading this will find the advice herein does not apply to you. You are probably a journalist, or a political campaigner, or someone else whose career successes are fueled by unjustly stealing the attention and time of people whose unhealthy umbrage or delirious derangement means nothing to you but ‘profit’. For the rest of you, it might be a good idea to calibrate your daily activities in order to serve your own interests, not those of power hungry elites or parasitic journalists.

That doesn’t mean you need to become a hermit, or check out of social life completely. By all means, continue to connect with people at the end of a busy and productive workday, so you don’t lose contact with those who matter most. Continue to check the news to see what important things are happening in the world right now, both within and outside of the United States. Use your phone to check the weather, set your morning alarm, and listen to music while you’re on your way to work or at the gym, getting in some (probably much-needed) exercise. Anyone who cares about themselves more than an unrelated political process should be doing exactly that.

But if you’re not doing these things, and if you do continue to obsess over the election even at this point in time well after your ability to influence the outcome of events via voting has concluded, then you are demonstrating that you care less about yourself than you do a simple process. And if you let yourself become a tool of that process, or those who profit on it, at the expense of your wellbeing, then you are not being ‘politically aware’ or ‘informed’. You are being a cuck. And that is not something that most of us want to become.

Five reasons why our coronavirus guesstimations are dumb and wrong

For reasons that I struggle to understand, a lot of big-brained Twitter people feel the need to forecast the expected lifespan of this pandemic, and the death toll it is likely to incur over the next few months. Here are five reasons why, in most cases, this behavior is dumb and wrong, although with some exceptions that I’ll note below.

1. We don’t understand how the virus behaves

To construct a prediction about the future, we have to draw on evidence about the past and the present. We assume that the evidence we have at hand is accurate, and if we’re right about that then there’s at least some chance that our predictions will be accurate too. Unfortunately, in the case of coronavirus, this assumption has been false time and time again.

Yes, they actually tweeted this.

In January, we were told that the virus couldn’t spread from human-to-human contact. In February, progressive governments like Canada affirmed that there was no need to enforce border controls, and now Canada is closed to entry for all except citizens alone. We were told that coronavirus couldn’t be spread to or by animals, and now confirmed cases of corona infections among felines have been reported. In Britain, we were told that herd immunity was going to be the key to getting over corona, and now it is becoming evident that naturally acquired herd immunity may be functionally impossible in the short term due to antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) properties the virus is now known to possess.

Evidently, our governments failed to respond adequately to the risk imposed by coronavirus because they had faulty assumptions, and the short list of assumptions I’ve documented above is less than the tip of the iceberg. These short assumptions led to bad policy and got people killed. If you are trying to sell your models to policymakers based on your own flawed assumptions, then those deaths ought to be bearing very heavily on your conscience.

There is no reason to believe that our current global understanding of coronavirus is accurate either, so even at this stage models are still horrifically flawed. Only one country has issued a public advisory about the risks of “reactivation” in relation to coronavirus, whereas countries like the USA and UK are still strategizing as if getting the virus makes you immune. Models that are being drafted for use right now in government bureaus across the world are terribly flawed, and this will likely remain the case in the near future, because:

2. We don’t know how the virus will behave in the future

Viruses are not technically ‘alive’ under the generally agreed upon definitions used in biological science to describe lifeforms. But as with all life forms, mutation is a constant risk whenever replication at large scales is happening.

The mutations that have currently been documented for coronavirus are not guaranteed to transform it into a global black death that kills everyone it touches. But that doesn’t mean that such a scenario won’t happen – in truth, we simply cannot know. Projecting into the future about the likely death toll of coronavirus in Brazil based on the deaths in Germany, given that the reality of mutation makes it possible that the two countries will eventually end up with different strains of the virus that cannot be meaningfully compared in this way, is dangerous, dumb, and irresponsible.

3. We can’t compare the impact of corona in the first place

What counts as a coronavirus death? The official guidelines issued by the USA’s Center for Disease Control require that medical professionals report both confirmed and probable cases and deaths, and so the official statistics that get published are a confusing jumble of confirmation, conjecture, and comorbidity. A week ago, the implementation of these guidelines in New York State resulted in a 60% explosion in the total recorded death toll for coronavirus victims, even though people continued to die at the exact same rate as before. This exemplifies the significance of definitions and criteria in how we count the virus, and that matters for both the infected count and the death toll.

It turns out that the definitions make it utterly impossible to compare the impact of the virus internationally in any meaningful way. Since the ‘confirmed cases’ are understood to be widely underreported worldwide, as commonly only patients who are sick enough to require hospitalization get tested and counted, the death count is similarly subject to statistical distortion. A coronavirus death in the USA is not equal to a coronavirus death in Germany, and there are people dying right now at home from coronavirus whose deaths are neither confirmed nor counted. This is why critical information about the virus, like the total average case fatality rate that countries should plan to expect, remain widely disputed and unsettled. If your statistical model assumes the total average CFR is just below 1%, then perhaps opening up the economy might be a good idea. But if this assumption strays too far from the mark, a policy based on your model could feasibly kill tens of millions of people.

4. We are lying to ourselves about everything

In times like these, when precision and factual accuracy can impose unacceptable delays upon the primary task of saving lives, it is hard to say exactly what constitutes a lie. With that in mind, there are at least some cases where countries (i.e. China) blatantly distorted or even falsified statistical data relating to coronavirus – something the media decried as a ‘conspiracy theory’ until very recently. While the recent growth in recognition toward these deceptions is a good sign, China is very far from alone in this regard:

Note: I did not even mention corona in the search entry

But the lies don’t stop at deliberate underreporting – far from it. In February the US Surgeon General told Americans that masks are “NOT effective in preventing general public from catching” the coronavirus, and that they should neither buy nor wear them. As of now, many Western countries are beginning to step in line with East Asian countries like China and Korea, which encourage – and in some cases, legally demand – their citizens to wear masks. Germany has already done so, and compulsory masking laws will be enforced by police in multiple German regions by the end of April.  Hilariously, the US Surgeon General later backtracked on his initial lies about the inefficacy of masking by encouraging Americans to wear masks or ‘cloth face coverings‘ if they absolutely must go outside.

Most of you don’t need me to explain why these lies were broadcasted for months by both state and private media outlets in virtually every Western country. As you already know, this was the quintessential ‘noble lie’ – perhaps even the lie that will come to characterize this pandemic and the criminally incompetent response to it in the history books many years from now. Even in countries that pride themselves on having a ‘free press’ like the UK and USA, newspapers have to abide by governmentally issued reporting guidelines, or face serious repercussions. Without resorting to eccentric conspiracy theory explanations involving NWO or ‘depopulation’, it looks like Western governments simply panicked in the face of a public rush on masks, and facing the prospect of having an undersupply of masks for key frontline medical workers, they simply decided to lie. It’s distasteful, but ultimately rational, given that democratic governments are simply so incapable of ramping up the production of necessary medical supplies that they had no other choice. But yet again, the unfortunate truth is that the ‘Great Mask Conspiracy’ was only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not just ‘masks don’t work’ – it’s everything. It’s ‘pets cant get coronavirus’ – something we were told very confidently earlier this year, which is now known to be utterly false. It’s ‘maintaining a 2-meter distance will keep you safe’ – yet another item in a long string of lies. Overall I can’t even be bothered to count the long list of lies we’ve been told, or to talk about the countless occasions where the media has decried those who spoke out against these lies by castigating them as conspiracy theorists, Russian bots, or other defamatory terms. If by some miracle you aren’t already aware of this by now, then you should probably go read a more comforting blog.

First I was like…

But then I was like…

What this means for the statistical forecasts you see in the news every day is self-explanatory. None of the projections you are reading, no matter how well-intentioned the data scientists who crafted them are, will be free from lies, deception, distortion, or propaganda. Calculations that are forged upon a bedrock of lies are unlikely to be true. There’s really no way around it.

5 (Bonus): Since we’re inundated by uncertainty, we should plan in preparation for the worst case scenario, and we don’t need pandemic projections to do that

By this point, you will hopefully agree with me: neither you nor I have any clue at all about how our societies will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic over the coming months, which means we don’t know what our lives will look like in the near future. In situations of extreme uncertainty, planning for the worst and hoping for the best is the most sensible thing you can do. If you forego the daily news updates and laughable puppet show broadcasts put on by your local politicians, you can focus on keeping a low profile, stocking up on food, water, and other essential items, and staying inside unless it becomes absolutely necessary to do otherwise. If the truth lies on the side of the optimists, then you will only lose the time you spent in the grocery store buying bottled water and tinned sardines. If, on the other hand, the pessimists happen to be right, then you’ll not only lose nothing – you’ll have saved your life.

Exceptions

By necessity, policymaking requires us to simplify the impossibly complex world into a finite set of manipulable variables, and most of the time this is a good way of doing things. If you’re directly involved in the policymaking process, or if you need to make hard financial decisions in the context of your investment portfolio, your job, or your small business, then it’s obviously reasonable to survey the landscape of expert opinion and decide for yourself which forecasts seem most reliable. If those conditions don’t apply to you, and you don’t stand to make immediate financial gain from being right about this, then stop wasting your life.

127th Manchester Brigade

And all of this the dead have lost:
The sound of leaves
The touch of frost
The taste of mothers bedtime broth
And all of this the dead have lost.
The sight of her: the sound, the touch
A smile exchanged twixt lovers, often
Stealing kisses below the wreath
Wet grass at our backs, bright stars beneath
Her delight at market trinkets bought
Yea all of this, we shared and sought
Yet none of it now means a whit
The wise have judged; our lives remit
So all those things we had, and sought
My wife, our child, the joy she brought
The very things for which we fought
Yea, all of this, we dead have lost.

Bad politics in Nature: Bunce and McElreath (2019)

Today I read a paper in Nature by John Bunce and Richard McElreath, entitled “Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable.” As a staunch advocate for cultural pluralism, and a supporter of the theoretical autonomy of all cultures regardless of minority status (since history tells us that what is a majority today can quickly become a minority tomorrow, and vice versa; ask the Aztecs) I was enthused by the subject matter, and read the paper with great interest.

The paper opens strongly with some well-phrased descriptions of cultural shift and variation. Very quickly though, we start to see a political leaning emerge:

The highlighted sections, while not necessarily incorrect, give us a clear look at authorial intentions. Cultural displacement occurs when minority cultures are lost to a “powerful majority group.” The suggestion that preventing the loss of minority cultures may contribute to the richness of society is something I entirely agree with, but it is also inherently subjective and inappropriate for one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The citation (no. 12) used for the ‘richness’ claim is a dummy citation which refers only to language preservation activist Michael Krauss giving the same opinion. There’s more to criticize about the idea of “optimally distinct group identities” (optimizing for what, specifically?) but you get the idea.

What I think is truly inappropriate is this next part of the work:

We can now infer that this article is the brainchild of John Bunce (author 1) whereas McElreath (author 2) probably played the role of methodological consultant, which makes sense as his best received book is on coding and mathematics. I’m going to continue in reference to Bunce as the author.

Bunce’s description of ethnically Mestizo Peruvians – those of mixed Spanish and South American heritage – is an accusation that carries a moral charge far too great for his feeble implications to support. To describe these people as ‘colonists’ because some of their ancestors were indeed colonists is no different to describing Muslim minority communities in the Balkans as ‘invaders’ because many of their ancestors did indeed enter the Balkans as part of Muslim military invasions. I use this example, because ‘invaders’ is exactly the term used by Brenton Tarrant to describe his victims in Christchurch. I am sure that Bunce himself would be horrified by the Christchurch massacre, and would strongly protest the legitimacy of Tarrant’s terminology. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Bunce’s language isn’t intended to be used both ways; it’s a hypocritical, ideological accusation that lacks logical consistency.

The lack of consistency in moral standards is something that we see in the article’s conclusion as well. Toward the end of the article, Bunce finishes by concluding that minority cultures may be preserved by establishing interethnic barriers or boundaries which can be freely crossed by the minority culture, but not the majority culture. This isn’t particularly surprising or novel, insofar as this is something we’ve been implementing as a political solution to the problem of cultural preservation of ethnic minority cultures. In the UK, for instance, we have a Welsh Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, but not an English Parliament. I don’t think the legislators who enacted these parliaments would be surprised by the scientific revelation here, since they presumably already guessed it would be the case.

But to me there’s an issue beyond that which Bunce (and perhaps also McElreath) bear responsibility for missing. When proposing solutions to social problems, researchers are faced with a theoretically limitless number of ways in which to achieve their goals. I could just as easily publish a paper concluding ‘wholesale systematic genocide is a very effective way of eliminating minority cultures.’ It’s obviously true, but also obviously not worth publishing. Likewise in the case of this paper, it seems that author John Bunce is making statements which are obviously true, combining them with those that are logically incoherent, and packaging these into a ‘scientific paper’ hardly fit for purpose in order to promote his political ideology.

Angela Saini thinks about race like Richard Spencer

Quillette just published this essay by Drs. Bo Winegard and Noah Carl, who joined forces to review Angela Saini’s new pop science book, Superior.

For the unfamiliar, Saini is a Desi journalist and writer from Britain considered popular within her undergraduate and professional audiences. More specifically, her popularity appears relatively confined to the center-left and middling-high (+1 SD) openness portion of that audience. Her wikipedia page (which she probably wrote herself) emphasizes her two MA degrees from high-tier British universities (Ox and Imperial) and the two books she wrote prior to Superior seem like manifestos on behalf of perceived underdogs, whose true virtue she is compelled to explain. I’m going to let a page from her book on women, entitled Inferior, speak for itself:

Just one page alone tells us so much about the kind of person who succeeds in the industry of science journalism today.

In Saini’s worldview, the “early divisions” that appear and begin to distinguish male and female humans in childhood reflect only a belief about biology, not biology itself. Reproductive and sexual behavior by consenting adults is guided by a kind of zombie notion, fed by scientific research (which is thus implied to be unreliable). If we have an interpretation of the past that contradicts this, it is only because our visions are tainted by “myths.” Men are dominant, therefore women must be, and are, submissive.

Amidst this, we (meaning Angela Saini) have “this dark, niggling feeling that never seems to go away no matter how much equality legislation is passed: the feeling that we aren’t the same, that, in fact, our biology might explain the sexual inequality that has existed… across the world.” We don’t need Freud to point out how much closer this is to a childhood diary of shameful thoughts than a book about science. Yet Saini moves decisively to nip this ‘dark feeling’ in the bud, dispelling it with one phrase: ‘thoughts like these are dangerous.’

This, in a nutshell, is Angela Saini. Her motivation is to act against the very thought that anything biological could explain anything she views as sociological. If the science seems to suggest any differences that can be related to biology, this is only because, she tells us, the science is itself flawed:

You can probably guess what her latest book Superior: The Return of Race Science had to say about its subject matter. The Quillette article did a pretty good job evaluating Saini’s arguments, so I won’t repeat their rebuttal. Instead, I want to draw attention to Saini’s fundamental mistake that we see in both Superior and Inferior: she combines strawman ideas of race and gender into a Frankenstein belief system no-one actually holds. Let’s start with her definition of race from the prologue of Superior:

“No place or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.”

Winegard and Carl did a good job at picking up on what she actually means. In their words, Saini’s definition “inextricably binds up race with morality, making it an  affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality.” To Saini, race is the idea that these features on which any two randomly selected humans from the same society will differ (appearance, character, intellect) grants a metaphysically and morally superior status. Racism, then, is a Nietzschean view in which one’s group is a master, and others are slaves.

Interestingly, Saini’s attitude here is much closer to the ‘pro-race-ists’ such as Richard Spencer than any credible scientist working in biology or related fields. As far as I’m aware, Spencer – like Saini – believes that race does indeed confer some metaphysically superior status; he only disagrees with Saini on the small matter of its existence.

Saini Spencer
Race is real No Yes
Race is socially constructed Yes No
Race determines metaphysical value Yes Yes

Ignoring her inadvertent agreement with the alt-right, I’m going to throw a curveball into our discussion by arguing that both Spencer and Saini are wrong. In common English parlance, we use the word race to legitimately describe groups defined by shared cultural characteristics, but also those defined by shared patterns of biological descent and variation, and often we see a substantial degree of overlap between the two. Yet we do not (or, at least, cannot) use race as a marker of metaphysical value or worth, and it is for this reason that both Saini and Spencer are incorrect.

Saini counters throughout her book, most notably when she interviews David Reich in chapter 7, that racial categories are mere (i.e. imaginary) social constructions. Consider the following paragraph:  

There’s some truth to be found here: racial categories are indeed socially constructed. Consider the list of racial categories proposed below (from chapter 5 of Nicholas Wade’s book on the topic):

By definition, these are social constructions because they were assembled by a social community (scientists) and are subject to change and redefinition over time. But does this truly suggest, as Saini & Co. assume, that this makes them worthless and harmful? Don’t all categories of human knowledge, like fashion, physics, religion, and law operate the same way – being constructed by a social community and then applied for a specific purpose within a relevant domain? To her credit, the paragraph above does give the remarkable admission that “some categories may be useful” but discredits itself by making a full 180 to conclude that race is both useless (i.e. invalid; not fit for purpose) and pernicious, which is a synonym for wicked and malevolent.

A common-sense response might seek to look at some examples of what we often call ‘race’ in order to evaluate how harmful or inaccurate it really is. African Americans are a great place to start, because they are indeed genetically heterogeneous to a degree that makes the notion of biological homogeneity seem hard to defend. As we know, those considered racially ‘black’ in America include original AAs of West-African slave descent, recent arrivals from East African countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, or Khoisan immigrants from South Africa (who are described in Wade’s book as a separate racial category altogether). Therefore, it’s fairly unsurprising that AAs have among the highest levels of intragroup genetic diversity in the world, and are composed on average of roughly 79% African ancestry. In the case of individuals with 0% African ancestry like Sean King, it’s very clear that African/black American is a social identity or ethnic grouping, bearing little resemblance to the biological category Wade proposes.

For people like Saini, the definitional breadth of blackness in the American social context is the strongest possible case to support her argument. Yet if we concede that black is too broad to be useful, we tacitly accept that any trends, gaps, or disparities revealed by the adoption of ‘black’ are just as useless as the category itself. Prostate cancer, which remains the biggest killer of Western men today, has rates among black Americans that are “50–60 times higher than the rates in Shanghai, China.” Do we really think that pretending black and Asian Americans to be equally susceptible to prostate cancer will rid us of a “nonsense” and “wicked” category? Or would it worsen the already severe health disparities dividing America along racial lines today?

We don’t have to speculate – let’s check for common-sense by looking at a country overtly opposed to racial categories. France has a legal prohibition on collecting demographic statistics of ethnicity or race, which it has ardently enforced for many years. Yet despite this, the French government assiduously collects data on the proportion of newborns considered ‘at risk’ for sickle cell disease – a genetic disorder effectively limited to individuals of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. If France consistently avoided collecting statistics on racial demography altogether, then the life expectancy of its black population as well as the efficiency of its health service would obviously suffer as a result. How this would further the cause of justice, let alone science, is never explained by Saini – but it’s consistent with a set of policy measures her book strongly supports.

While Superior commendably admits that “understanding [medical] correlations is important” it never tells us why health disparities occupy a unique position among behavior, socioeconomic outcomes, social attitudes, or any other characteristic that will on average differ between groups; knowing one is important, but no harm will befall a society that ignores every other disparity that exists (???). When paraphrasing the section quoted above, we get: ‘no need or value to categorize people biologically, but understanding medical implications of biogeographic ancestry is important, but most categories are nonsense, but there are some physical differences, but most categories are useless, but some are useful, but race above all else is a wicked and insidious way to interpret the diversity we believe to characterize the human species in our world.’ While hyperbolic, this is no less extreme or radical than the claims and normative proposals found in Superior, particularly in its sections on cognitive ability.

You could counter that any concept of race which clumps Ethiopians, West Africans, Khosian, and Sean King in a single category is inherently silly, and should be removed or refined. This is a reasonable suggestion, but it fails to acknowledge the advantages of ‘fuzziness’ we’d trade off by enforcing a more strictly genetic interpretation on the general population. Saini is well-aware of this, rightly noting:

“…according to the rules laid out by the US government in its 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity, people who originate in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are automatically classified as white. Since Hefny arrived from Egypt, he is officially white.”

It’s certainly true that the ostensibly racial category of ‘white’, like ‘black’, is applied very openly in the United States – but why exactly is this a bad thing? After all, if our critique rests upon the divisiveness of race, then we should aim for racial categories that are open and inclusive to the utmost extent that doesn’t compromise the quality of information on health disparities or socioeconomic gaps in our societies. If we don’t bother with pragmatic utility and instead focus solely on the strict scientific accuracy of racial categories, we’re beginning to sound alarmingly close to actual 20th-century Nazis – something that should tell us we’re going in the wrong direction.

Stepping back into the safe territory of common sense, we might ask why on earth Saini gets it so wrong. After all, if categorizing humans into groups based on shared genetic ancestry can help people (which it can) and if these categories can be relatively inclusive (which they appear to be) then why oppose the effort? For our answer, we turn right back to Saini’s prologue, where she writes:

“We invent hierarchies, give meaning to our own racial categories…” “…once defined, these “races” rapidly became slotted into hierarchies based on the politics of the time, character being conflated with appearance, and political circumstance becoming a biological fact.”

Above all, it’s these claims where I cannot help but dig my heels in. The idea that race is made meaningful by hierarchy is as absurd as gender being intrinsically hierarchical. The notion that categorizing people based on shared ancestry invariably conflates character with appearance suggests that well-intentioned scientists like David Reich are ultimately motivated by a sinister desire to determine moral goodness based on physical aspect. While Saini seems to acknowledge that although race can be medically useful and sociologically informative, such benefits are a mere coincidence of its true purpose: to rank order the moral importance of an individual life based on racial ancestry, so that we can treat them differently.

Perhaps importantly, I’d suggest that this would be serious cause for concern, were any of it true and not dramatic fiction. The idea of moral worth or value sounds abstract or arcane to many of us today, but it was very tangible for the passengers of the sinking Titanic, where men (being of lower moral value) resigned themselves to death while women and children descended to the safety of the lifeboats. The case of the Titanic shows that when push comes to shove, ‘moral value’ ultimately means ‘who gets to live and who has to die’ so it’s definitely a subject worth raising if and when we feel there is valid cause for concern. Nevertheless, the fact that military servicemen and first responders routinely give their lives for people of racial groups Saini considers ‘lower’ on her fictitious racial hierarchy should give you a sense of how valid this concern really is.

Ultimately, Superior is very much like Inferior in that both books rest upon a fictitious idea of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ that is always assumed, never justified, and shared only among her fellow ideologues liberally quoted in every chapter as if to hammer their bad and unpersuasive ideas right into your skull. Both of her books start not with their subject matter of race, or gender, but with her – with personal stories from her background and upbringing, and the various ways in which she was ‘unjustly’ and ‘inaccurately’ categorized while growing up as a brown girl in Britain. It could be that this writing style is popular in circles I’m unfamiliar with, or it could be that Saini – like so many others who simply assume the views of their ‘opponents’ – is projecting her ghosts and demons upon an audience that sorely deserves better.

Lies, damn lies, and academics on GWAS

A colleague of mine back at Cambridge (my good ol’ alma mater) studies the history and philosophy of science, and they recently told me about a lecture they had on GWAS. Or perhaps the lecture was on the problems with GWAS, because the impression of the lecture they transmitted would certainly support that interpretation.

One criticism that stuck out to me in particular was the claim that GWAS cannot be trusted because current and future GWAS are conducted upon the basis of databases compiled from results of previously published GWA studies, which can allow for false positives and mistakenly identified variants to proliferate as the research area continues to develop. This is of course why we should be very careful about relying on GWAS, especially for studies on intelligence differences – something the lecturer took pains to emphasize.

This situation interested me, because two things are going on at different levels. On the one level, the lecturer is completely correct – even a small margin of error will inevitably result in a small probability of false-positives that are compounded within future research, allowing for small mistakes to accumulate into big mistakes over time. In truth, this is a feature of human knowledge systems (to which the scientific method belongs) in a broader sense, because the validity of every next step in science depends upon the validity of previous steps, and there is always a non-zero chance that previous steps were wrong-footed. As Gregory (Role of Probability Theory in Science) states:

“Of course, any theory makes certain assumptions about nature which are assumed to be true and these assumptions form the axioms of the deductive inference process… For example, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity rests on two important assumptions; namely, that the vacuum speed of light is a constant in all inertial reference frames and that the laws of nature have the same form in all inertial frames”

This is a useful example because Einstein’s assumptions are not a priori; they are instead assumed based on other developments in physics or natural philosophy which preceded them. As any coder will know all-too well, this cascade of ‘potential errors’ means not only that you have a reasonable expectation of encountering an ‘actual error’ within the system of knowledge you’re dealing with, but that these could also be concealed within your current and future research projects conducted in alignment with that method.

So again, since GWAS is a highly technical application of the scientific method for specific purposes, and this cumulative error probability is indeed a common feature to all science, it could be described as a ‘pitfall’ of GWAS. But in accepting that GWAS is ‘sketchy’ or ‘unreliable’ because of this, we’re also forced to accept that all science – the science that drives our cars or powers our lights or cools our refrigerators – is equivalently imperiled. Have you ever been cautioned about the untrustworthiness of lightbulbs or refrigerators due to human epistemic constants? You can probably guess by now that something else is going on here.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine two men are having a conversation about a cute girl they both know. MAN-A is curious about the girl, and asks MAN-B for his opinion. Imagine that MAN-B excoriates the girl for the following reasons: “Oh hell no dude, that girl is disgusting. Do you realize she shits? Like, she actually goes to the bathroom? And what’s worse, I heard she gets periods constantly, and even sneezes in the springtime. I wouldn’t be caught dead with her.”

If MAN-B in our thought experiment seems stupid, misogynistic, or even totally detached from reality, it’s because he is. As unattractive as human bodily functions might be, they’re described in relation to the ‘human body’ for a reason; they’re universal. They are features, not flaws, of human physiology that all of us still alive are equally guilty of. If you ever find yourself interested in or curious about a nice girl you meet and you hear similar remarks reflected in a mutual friend’s opinion of her, he really shouldn’t be your friend.

The illogicality encapsulated within this highly vulgar and contemptible example, where MAN-B reveals his nasty attitudes through ridiculously discriminatory standards, is really the same thing you’re seeing in the GWAS example given above. It makes no sense to criticize a girl for having features common to all people or women, unless you’re an utter jerk with a grudge against them. In the very same way, it makes no sense to argue that GWAS are invalid or untrustworthy because of a feature common to literally all science. Yet if you are a hypocritical person who simply dislikes GWAS specifically, it makes perfect sense for you to use flawed reasoning and discriminatory standards to support your equally unjustifiable hostility.

To clarify, I am not saying (nor have I ever said) that GWAS is or should be free of criticism. One of the most important criticisms of GWAS is the distinctly WWEIRD (White, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) shade of GWA study participants, which precludes people lacking these characteristics in other parts of the world from sharing in the undeniable benefits that GWAS have brought to healthcare and family planning. Consider how fundamentally different this is to previous eras, where new innovations (e.g. the railway, 3D printing) could bring benefit on a global scale regardless of where or by what demic group (whites and the Japanese, respectively) they were pioneered. Today, cutting edge GWAS results in educational attainment, disease risk, and psychopathology continue to expand the scope of informed options available to white prospective parents or healthcare recipients, for whom these results are applicable. But if by chance you happen to be Desi, or Asian, or Sub-Saharan African, or of any other genetically distinct grouping, these benefits are often unavailable. Razib Khan wrote about this recently:

Because most GWAS are performed in European populations, PRS values for individuals not of European ancestry are far less accurate. This phenomenon is caused by several factors. One of the major ones is that each population has genetic variations that cause diseases special and unique to a given population (“private alleles” in the jargon). Studies which use only Europeans cannot detect unique variation in non-European populations by definition. Those variants are not found in Europeans! Additionally, sometimes genetic variants even give different risks in Europeans than non-Europeans because of interactions of genes. The predictions in one population do not transfer to another.

This is a serious problem with current GWAS research that I would expect any decent person to express concern about. It becomes especially relevant for family planning, because in a number of non-Western societies infanticide remains a common method for dealing with children with unwanted genetic diseases – something that embryo selection, for instance, would render obsolete.

Clearly, this is not what the lecturer said. The lecturer attacked GWAS on the basis of ‘muh cumulative error probability’ despite this being a feature inherent to the scientific method itself. All before an audience of philosophy of science students, no less.

I am not in favor of arbitrarily attributing ulterior motives, particularly bad faith, to others with whom I disagree. But in cases with fallacies so obvious, and discrimination so blatant, it’s almost unreasonable to think that underlying hostility isn’t at play. While it would be completely fine to give a lecture on epistemic issues in science in which you discuss the example of cumulative error probability in relevant GWAS cases, to selectively apply this principle to undermine GWAS as a whole is a logically invalid weaponization that says more about you as a lecturer than it does about GWAS itself. Perhaps if you had actually done your research into the topic you claim to know so much about, you would be lecturing instead on real issues specific to GWAS, such as the lack of diversity mentioned earlier. By neglecting to do so, you actually reveal yourself to be ignorant of the discussions within relevant disciplinary communities (e.g. BehavGen) regarding the limitations or flaws of GWAS that aren’t simply universal features of the scientific method.

Again: if a friend badmouths a girl because she has a feature literally everyone else has, he probably shouldn’t be your friend. If a lecturer badmouths GWAS because it shares features common to all applied scientific fields, well…

…You’re probably in college.

In east as in west, Anti-Arab bigotry is historically ignorant and anti-Christian

The fact that ‘Arab’ as a word invokes negative connotations to certain people would likely be unsurprising to most Westerners. Yet it would probably come as a highly surprising fact that this antipathy also comes from the Middle-East.

No, I’m not making a point about Israeli Jews and anti-Arab bigotry. I’m talking about native Arabic speakers, born in Arab countries, who dismissively reject the term ‘Arab’ as a vulgar term at the same time they are identified as Arabs by the majority of the non-Arab world.

https://twitter.com/AbuUrdon/status/1087511370600460294

Perhaps the main reason for this can be found in the connotations invoked by the very word ‘Arab.’ To many native speakers in the Levant, the word ‘Arab’ is associated with Bedouin people and lifestyle for a plethora of historical reasons. Most people don’t realize, but the Qur’an itself even participates in slander against Arabs, as in the following passage (adapted from the Talil Itani translation: note that the literal translation is just “the Arabs” (العراب) not “the Desert-Arabs” or “Bedouins” or anything else):

(9:97) “The Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.”

Seems Muhammad didn’t know how to play his audience!

Although most Westerners today don’t need to be told not to say bad things about other groups, recent developments in some parts of the Arab world have gone the opposite direction. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, Arabic-speakers in historically Christian Levantine countries such as Lebanon and Syria have sought to re-assert old identities, rebranding themselves as Phoenicians, Assyrians, or Greeks whose ties to the Arab identity exist in language alone. Nassim Taleb, for instance, Taleb proudly refers to himself as a descendant of the Greek colonists in Syria, who intermixed with the Levantine population to form a unique and flourishing Greco-Semitic Christian culture, and many others engage in similar acts of historical reclamation.

While this itself is innocuous and widespread, some people take it too far. Taleb, for instance, has actually suggested that the Lebanese dialect of Arabic is rather an entirely different language – not Arabic, but a direct descendant from the Phoenician/North Canaanite language, which he asserts developed independently, but under heavy Arabic influence. Okay. Now things are starting to get a bit weird.

Now again, I have no problem with the appropriation of distant history to create newfound identities. If Levantines like Nassim Taleb wish to brand themselves as Phoenicians, or as relics of Byzantine glory, then so be it. What I do not accept on any terms is the para-racist bigotry against the Arab identity that so frequently accompanies these recent developments of self-expression. For instance, see stuff like this:

Sure, it is an old tweet – but if you’re in the right circles, you hear this sort of stuff much more commonly. The Lebanese intellectual Said Akl, for instance, famously said “I would cut off my right hand just not to be an Arab.” Among other persecuted minority communities of the Middle-East, such as Kurds (particularly Yazidis), Assyrians, and Armenians, such remarks are even more often heard.

Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of this crap comes from Arabic-speaking Christians, who are unaware of the valuable and enriching role Arabs actually played in Christian history. For instance, look at this map from 565 AD:

Substantial Christian communities likely existed in the Hejaz and in Yemen (contested between Persians and Axumites)

As you can see, the picture of Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of Christian East African kingdoms around Ethiopia) is very unclear, and Britain is a veritable clusterfuck of Celts, Latins, and Germanics bashing each others’ heads in. But what about the (very foreign sounding) kingdoms at the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula? It might surprise you to know that both of these were not only Christian – but Arab, too.

The war banner of the Ghassanid kingdom

The Ghassanids (ar: الغسانية) were a foederatus of the Roman Empire, who played a critical role in securing the empire’s southern border against incursions from Pagan Arab raiders (who themselves formed the main body of the Islamic converts that overran this border in the 620s). While they mostly stayed true to Rome during the initial Islamic invasion, many were forced to convert sometime before the year 900, though others fled as refugees to Byzantium. Incredibly, the Christian influence remained so powerful that the surname ‘al-Ghassani’ still signifies Christian heritage today. One of the oldest surviving Orthodox Christian schools in the Levant bears the name ‘Al-Ghassaniyyah‘ for instance, and while Muslim Ghassanids can be found today. Perhaps most important of all, at least one Roman emperor – Nikephoros the First – was of probable Ghassanid descent.

The Lakhmids (ar: المناذرة) have a similarly impressive history. Although suzerains to the Sassanid Empire, they resisted the influence of state Zoroastrianism for centuries, holding stubbornly to their Christian heritage. They played a similar role to the Ghassanids as borderguards against the nomadic raiders to the southern deserts, although relations with their overlord were far less positive. The Sassanid overthrow and execution of the last independent Lakhmid king Nu3maan may have caused an Arab uprising which left this southern border effectively unguarded, allowing for the early Muslims to stage a bold and sweeping invasion of the Sassanid heartland of Asoristan just decades later, by which time the Persians were critically weakened due to infighting and war exhaustion. Despite repeated betrayals and oppression, some Arab Christians still rallied to the defense:

Pourshariati 2008 pp201

So what have we learned from all this?

Clearly, the moral matrix of the modern West has internalized – along with a great many other things – the notion that discrimination on the basis of group identity, or attacks against entire ethnic groups, is uncool. There isn’t so much of a ‘lesson’ for Westerners here as much as a reminder – yes, Arab Christians existed, yes, they still exist today, and yes, it’s wrong to draw an equivalence between the Arabic language or identity, and Islam or Islamism. Yet perhaps many Arabic-speakers in the Middle-East too could do with a reminder that anti-Arab bigotry is not only wrong, but historically ignorant and anti-Christian.

Evil as entertainment

You may be aware that Netflix has a new documentary series on infamous 20th century serial killer Ted Bundy. The Ted Bundy Tapes, as the series is entitled, utilizes ostensibly unknown footage to produce a new, more detailed portrait of the killer and his actions.

I watched the first episode of Netflix’s with my partner and a roommate. As I test relatively low in disgust sensitivity (20-50th percentile on the disgust scale) and extremely high in openness to experience (99th percentile BFI) I did not expect to be particularly unnerved or unsettled. I also have no problem with representations of violence or evil in film – Upgrade, one of my favorite films of all time, features brutal violence that ends with the bad guy getting away with it.

Yet to my immense surprise, this doc completely shut me down.

The Tapes begins with Bundy’s childhood, and sketches the chronological progression of his transformation into America’s most infamous serial killer. No violence is shown onscreen; the relatively tame crime scene photographs constitute the only PG-13 material on screen. Scene-by-scene, the content left nothing to be disturbed by.

Yet what both grips and horrifies the viewer at the same time is the interplay between the atrocious violence of Ted Bundy, retold with consistently palpable glee on audio, and the helpless, frustrated horror it caused, as retold by whose who knew his victims. The constant back-and-forth tennis match between Bundy’s reveling in his murders and the tortured confusion of the communities and families gives way to an emergent property of abject horror that by far outstrips anything one might expect to see in even the worst of horror films.

As a curious teen with an internet connection, I recall many times stumbling across grotesque shock videos on the dark corners of the internet. Images and videos of women in high-heels stepping on cats, among other unspeakably sick things involving children or animals. I recall struggling to analyze my own disgusted emotions at the time, and realizing that a key factor lay in the helplessness of the victims depicted. Obviously, it isn’t hard to step on a cat because a cat can’t defend itself; what keeps us from abusing animals and people isn’t the difficulty of the act, but the fact that every moral sensibility, innate or acquired, tells us not to do so.

Upon analysis, the actions of Ted Bundy seem strikingly similar. It was not hard, in the overwhelmingly white areas of 1970s America that Bundy victimized, to gain someone’s trust – but to abuse that trust, and the person offering it, would have been unthinkable.

Bundy reveled in that unthinkability. In the documentary, we see him boasting about gaining the trust of women whom he later violates and brutally murders. The shock value derived from his unspeakable crimes is precisely what motivates him to retell them to the recording interviewer.

It’s not particularly surprising that this experience left me as shocked and disgusted as it likely did his interviewer. But by feeling the reaction he intended, I gave him – even in death – exactly what he wanted. The entire audiovisual experience of this Netflix series inadvertently validates the motive behind Bundy’s psychopathic crimes in the first place.

Is it good that we make documentaries designed to give serial killers what they want, even in death? Probably not. Many news sites have already started anonymizing school shooters to address this very problem. Netflix’s commercialization of it is thus something I want nothing more to do with.

The Crafting of History: Christianity, Pakistan, and colonial narratives

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was created in 1947, but its foundation has roots in the pro-segregationist stance of the British colonial administration, which generally viewed Muslims and Hindus (including also Jains, Buddhists, Animists, Christians etc) as incapable of coexistence. In part, such views motivated the many maps of the subcontinent divided by ethnic or religious minority that were drawn up under British rule, although these are mostly as meticulous as they are hopelessly inaccurate.

Nevertheless, the Wiki page for ‘History of Pakistan’ takes you back to the Neolithic period, telling the story of its people through their vibrant past well before Pakistan was conceptualized, and well before Islam was invented/revealed (whichever your preference). It describes the brilliant achievements of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Buddhist and Hindu dynasties which once ruled the area, and their positive contributions to what is now Pakistan.

A map of ‘prevailing religions’ within British India in the year of 1909. The mapping should be seen as highly speculative at best, since many regions depicted consisted of only slight majorities

By contrast, the Wiki page for ‘Christianity in Pakistan’ starts in the 1800s, and does not go further back than the Jesuit missions in the 1500s. In doing so, it casts Christianity as a foreign and alien import – sometimes explicitly with sentences like this: “The Europeans won small numbers of converts to [Christianity]… from the native populations.”

You will find zero mention of the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew, who were sent to India through the Parthian Empire, and established Orthodox Christian communities that still exist today (see St. Thomas Christians). Nor will you find reference to any of the role played by ancient Pakistan as the heartland of Nestorian Christianity in the Indian subcontinent, or the ecclesiastical province (headquartered in Herat, but comprising most of modern Pakistan) which was elevated to the highest rank under Nestorian Patriarch Sliba-zkha in order to meet the needs of the local population after they fell to the advances of Islam in the mid-late 600s.

Just like evolution, history selects and rejects.

No, that’s not polygyny… comments on Ross et al. (2018)

Royal Society recently put out a massive paper by Ross et al. with over 9000 authors (you know, one of those ones) on polygyny and wealth inequality. The title, “Greater wealth inequality, less polygyny: rethinking the polygyny threshold model” would have you thinking that the authors were able to refute or quantitatively disprove the polygyny threshold model with some sophisticated mathematics, but unfortunately this is not the case. Instead, the paper uses a strange mixed sample of hunter gatherer and highly developed industrial populations to argue that the transition to agriculture increases socioeconomic inequality, and additionally results in conditions of subsistence living that for most make polygyny effectively impossible.

Don’t you love it when the author and affiliation list is so big you can’t even screencap it? Maybe it’s deliberate!

Firstly, we should realize that this doesn’t amount to either a refutation or even the titular ‘rethinking’ of the polygyny threshold model. While results from their quant analysis are basically legit, it doesn’t change the fact that the authors have effectively based their study on a tautological proposition; subsistence living results in no surplus wealth (also tautological) which means that it is exceedingly rare for polygyny to be mutually beneficial. Alright. So where’s the challenge to the polygyny threshold model?

I have read a lot about polygyny, but I have never encountered any claim that polygyny ipso facto increases linearly with socioeconomic inequality per se. Rather, claims are made that conditions of high socioeconomic inequality will guarantee polygyny, as male reproductive success is subject to greater resource-dependent elasticity than female fitness due to inherent biological features (i.e. 9 months of pregnancy). This great presentation has more details, but for those with little time:

I had to screenshot this in word since I don’t have LaTeX on my WordPress acc ;_;

Or if you prefer (from the presentation linked above; this contains an error, as the 1948 paper cited is by A.J. Bateman, not Bateson):

To be fair, the authors recognize this by stating their intention to merely “extend” the polygyny threshold model, but I’d argue they haven’t done so in a way that’s significant enough to merit the “rethinking” boast. But this is not to suggest the paper has no value. Instead, what the authors have actually done is modeled the conditions for polygyny to take place in a largely monogamous society at subsistence-level conditions – unironically a notable achievement. This is a far more interesting result, and one that would merit wider recognition than the paper has currently received.

There are still some problems though. For instance, the paper notes:

“Sequential marriage can be considered a form of polygyny insofar as men typically replace divorced wives with younger women, allowing a subset of males in the population to increase their lifetime reproductive success relative to less wealthy males in the population, as has been shown in many of the populations sampled…”

Now this actually is a problem, since the definition of polygyny that the authors are using is not actually “polygyny” but “effective polygyny” so defined. I hate it when researchers redefine constructs in this ad-hoc fashion (especially when it’s not highlighted in the abstract) because it can mislead people who don’t read the full paper, and most of the postdocs I know don’t. Luckily, I did.

I think the problem with including sequential marriage into a working definition for polygyny is that there are substantial qualitative differences that distinguish these behaviors. For instance, technical polygyny (one man, multiple women at the same time, in a sexually exclusive [typically marital] arrangement) actually alters the operational sex ratio, among other things. Sequential marriage, by contrast, only means that the available pool of females includes larger numbers of women who already have children – that is, single mothers. Of course this may change the calculus for male satisfaction or some other outcomes, but these are not equivalent to the social effects we expect from a normatively polygynous mating equilibrium. For example, they completely negate some of the reported correlates for polygynous mating, such as female suffering and self-reported detriment to well-being noted amongst women in polygynous marriages (source from observational study in Cameroon). I understand that well-being wasn’t strictly a feature of relevance to Ross et al.’s analysis, but it DOES have implications for the precise ‘leveling’ of the polygyny threshold. A situation where a woman is going to be a second or third-order co-wife is very different to one in which she’s merely a second or third-order sequential wife. These differences matter quite a lot if we’re paying any attention to the implications for (1) the OSR (2) female well-being and gender inequality (3) male violence and intrasexual competition, among many other things.

Sourcing locations for data used in the paper. Does this look representative to you?

Now look, I’m not trying to be an ass and negate all the hard work the forty-thousand authors of this study did. But I do find it somewhat annoying when people publish work under “GOTCHA!” titles like “rethinking XYZ” despite nothing comparable to this having actually taken place. Far from rethinking, the authors actually RELIED ON the polygyny threshold model for their analysis, and came to the result that the agricultural transition killed incentive for polygyny amongst most normal people living in subsistence-level conditions. Fair enough. But why not just say so?

IMHO, the far more interesting result we get from the paper is this: we know that transition to monogamy occurred around the transition to agriculture in some societies, and this paper provides some really awesome and useful analysis to explain why that might have happened. But what it DOESN’T do is explain why monogamy actually became a social institution to the exclusion of plural marriage. Just because it isn’t worth it to have 2+ wives doesn’t mean that your society will necessarily ban having 2+ wives. We still don’t have an answer for why polygyny becomes legally and socially prohibited in these agricultural societies. However, I think that primate inequality aversion (as exhibited by this outraged capuchin monkey) might be a good place to start.

I don’t have the data to hand, but I do have a hypothesis. Agricultural transition makes polygyny functionally impossible for overwhelming majority of people, who are living at subsistence. But it DOES NOT affect the ability of men with sufficient social standing and resources to obtain and retain multiple wives. Historically, such men were stratified into classes or castes – merchants or Japanese 商 etc. It seems plausible to suggest that the impoverished majority of monogamous males (and perhaps their wives!) would have expressed strong opposition to their rich rulers taking multiple wives, and rallied to condemn this behavior. Others have articulated this hypothesis before (e.g. Henrich, Boyd, and Richerdson, 2012) but this study provides some useful background evidence for its plausibility. If you’re a man farming away in a Neolithic village under fairly awful living conditions, you might be able to tolerate paying taxes to your overlord despite his nice villa on top of the hill. But what if he has 6 wives and your daughter is one of them? Perhaps there might be an ‘outrage threshold’ we need to think about alongside the polygyny threshold model.

God, why does Gurlockk get to have the biggest rocks, the shiniest gems, and 12 wives when I can’t even count past ten?