… I am conceding that by the standards of today, my parents’ behavior would be considered irresponsible. Actually, “irresponsible” is not a strong enough word. By the standards of today, my parents and their friends were crazy. A great many activities they considered to be perfectly OK — hitchhiking; or driving without seat belts; or letting a child go trick-or-treating without a watchful parent hovering within 8 feet, ready to pounce if the child is given a potentially lethal item such as an apple; or engaging in any form of recreation more strenuous than belching without wearing a helmet — are now considered to be insanely dangerous. By the standards of today, the main purpose of human life is to eliminate all risk so that human life will last as long as humanly possible, no matter how tedious it gets.
And the list of things we’re not supposed to do anymore gets longer all the time. I recently encountered an article headlined:
IS YOUR HANDSHAKE AS DANGEROUS AS SMOKING?
The answer, in case you are a complete idiot, is: Of course your handshake is as dangerous as smoking. The article explains that handshakes transmit germs, which cause diseases such as MERS. MERS stands for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” a fatal disease that may have originated in camels. This is yet another argument, as if we needed one, against shaking hands with camels. But the article suggests that we should consider not shaking hands with anybody.
If you could travel back in time to one of my parents’ parties and interrupt the singing to announce to the guests that shaking hands could transmit germs and therefore they should stop doing it, they would laugh so hard they’d drop their cigarettes into their drinks. They were just not as into worrying as we are today.
And it wasn’t just cigarettes and alcohol they didn’t worry about. They also didn’t worry that there might be harmful chemicals in the water that they drank right from the tap. They didn’t worry that if they threw their trash into the wrong receptacle, they were killing baby polar bears and hastening the extinction of the human race. They didn’t worry about consuming trans fats, gluten, fructose, and all the other food components now considered so dangerous they could be used to rob a bank (“Give him the money! He’s got gluten!”).
Dave Barry, “The Greatest (Party) Generation”, Wall Street Journal, 2015-02-26.
September 21, 2016
September 15, 2016
Published on 23 Sep 2015
In this video, we discuss asymmetric information, adverse selection, and propitious selection in relation to the market for health insurance. Health insurance consumers come in a range of health, but to insurance companies, everyone has the same average health. Consumers have more information about their health than do insurers. How does this affect the price of health insurance? Why would some consumers prefer to not buy health insurance at all? And how does this all relate to the Affordable Care Act? Let’s dive in.
September 1, 2016
Scott Alexander explains why “the market” has very little to do with the outrageous price hike for EpiPens:
EpiPens, useful medical devices which reverse potentially fatal allergic reactions, have recently quadrupled in price, putting pressure on allergy sufferers and those who care for them. Vox writes that this “tells us a lot about what’s wrong with American health care” – namely that we don’t regulate it enough:
The story of Mylan’s giant EpiPen price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.
Let me ask Vox a question: when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot? And why do you think that is?
The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that they’re unregulated just like chairs and mugs. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that they’re part of a highly-regulated cronyist system that works completely differently from chairs and mugs.
If a chair company decided to charge $300 for their chairs, somebody else would set up a woodshop, sell their chairs for $250, and make a killing – and so on until chairs cost normal-chair-prices again. When Mylan decided to sell EpiPens for $300, in any normal system somebody would have made their own EpiPens and sold them for less. It wouldn’t have been hard. Its active ingredient, epinephrine, is off-patent, was being synthesized as early as 1906, and costs about ten cents per EpiPen-load.
Why don’t they? They keep trying, and the FDA keeps refusing to approve them for human use. For example, in 2009, a group called Teva Pharmaceuticals announced a plan to sell their own EpiPens in the US. The makers of the original EpiPen sued them, saying that they had patented the idea epinephrine-injecting devices. Teva successfully fended off the challenge and brought its product to the FDA, which rejected it because of “certain major deficiencies”. As far as I know, nobody has ever publicly said what the problem was – we can only hope they at least told Teva.
Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.
(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)
Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA spends millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you’ve got really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.
And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.
August 31, 2016
Besides making a bongo drum sound inexplicably magical and enhancing a person’s ability to talk nonsense for extended periods of time, generations of cannabis smokers will recognise the “munchies” as one of the drug’s most reliable side-effects.
Now scientists have shown that the insatiable urge to eat after smoking is caused by cannabinoids hijacking brain cells that normally suppress appetite. The study suggests that cannabis causes the brain to produce a different set of chemicals that transform the feeling of fullness into a hunger that is never quite satisfied.
Scientists believe the findings, which illuminate a previously unknown aspect of the brain’s feeding circuitry, could help design new drugs that would boost or suppress appetite at will.
Tamas Horvath, who led the work at Yale University, said: “By observing how the appetite centre of the brain responds to marijuana, we were able to see what drives the hunger brought about by cannabis and how that same mechanism that normally turns off feeding becomes a driver of eating. It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead.”
Hannah Devlin, “Reefer research: cannabis ‘munchies’ explained by new study”, The Guardian, 2015-02-18.
August 15, 2016
Amy Alkon on the reason men and women value different attributes in one another:
Why Does Feminism Mean “You Can’t Say That About Women!”?
Feminism, too often these days, means treating women like eggshells, not equals.
If you talk about a woman’s looks — and maybe criticize how much she cares about her looks — you are stomping on hallowed ground, and you’re in for a media reaming (if you make your criticism at all publicly).
By the way, we care about women’s looks — and women care about caring for and showing off their looks — because of our evolved sex differences. Women prioritize status and power in a man and men prioritize physical attractiveness.
This isn’t all we care about in a partner, and it isn’t all we use to judge another person, but these preferences evolved to promote our mating and survival, not out of nowhere. We are living in a modern world with pretty antique psychology — perfect for life in an ancestral environment — so these sex differences in our psychology remain.
I write about these differences in our preferences in my science-based book, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck:
Many women think men are pretty rude to care so much about a woman’s looks. In a just world, men would have the hots for women simply for the beautiful people they are on the inside. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is just not how male sexuality works. (The penis is not a philanthropic organization and will not get hard because a woman bought a homeless guy a sandwich.)
Because male sexuality is all about the visuals, men’s magazines are filled with pictures of naked women with freakishly large breasts and women’s magazines are filled with pictures of beauty products and ass-cantilevering $2,000 stilettos. Men evolved to go for signs of reproductively hot prospects — an hourglass figure, youth, clear skin, symmetrical faces and bodies, and long shiny hair: all indicators that a woman is a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man’s genes. Women co-evolved to try to make themselves look reproductively hot, though that’s not how we think of it.
July 22, 2016
Yes, you can have it all — a high-powered education, a high-powered career, and the perfect high-powered man to go with. Of course, it helps if you’re willing to relax your standards a little, like by widening your pool of acceptable male partners to include the recently deceased.
Some feminist academics claim that women only want big bucks/high status men because they lack those things themselves. But, a number of studies by evolutionary psychologists have found that women with big bucks and big jobs want men with bigger bucks and bigger jobs. Even women who are feminists. Dr. Bruce J. Ellis writes in The Adapted Mind that when 15 feminist leaders described their ideal man, they repeatedly used words like “very rich,” “brilliant,” and “genius” (and they didn’t mean “genius with a baby wipe!”).
So, if you’ve become the man you would’ve married in the ’50s, don’t be surprised if your mating pool starts to seem about the size of the one that comes with Barbie’s Dream House. Biology is neither fair nor kind. What those pushing feel-good sociology don’t want to believe or tell you is that you increase your options by being hot — or hotting yourself up the best you can. Obviously, looks aren’t all that matter, but while your female genes are urging you to blow past the hot pool boy to get to the moderately attractive captain of industry, men evolved to prioritize looks in women, so powerful men will date powerfully beautiful waitresses and baristas. As evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Buss writes, “Women’s physical attractiveness is the best known predictor of the occupational status of the man she marries and the best known predictor of hypergamy.”
Amy Alkon, “The Spinster Cycle”, The Advice Goddess, 2012-04-03.
June 14, 2016
It’s all about the encephalization, really. Millions of years ago our hominid ancestors stumbled onto a novel adaptive strategy: be smart, adaptable, and capable of learning rather than purely instinct-driven. Make tools; use fire; invent language.
This strategy required much, much more of our nervous systems. Because intelligence was in fact a winning strategy, we were selected for growing more complex brains capable of doing more information processing. But increasing the logic density of brains is hard; there probably isn’t a path to it through the design space that is rapidly exploitable by small point mutations. So selective pressure made our brains larger, instead.
The fossil record shows that the hominid line encephalized at a breakneck speed compared to the usual leisurely pace of evolutionary change. This had huge consequences; much of human biology is a series of hacks and kluges to support that encephalization, often in stupidly suboptimal ways.
The one that’s relevant here starts from the limited width of the birth canal. Limited, that is, by the pelvic girdle surrounding it. A skull that’s too large won’t fit through. Therefore, the genetic lines that survived were those in which babies are born with small skulls but the ability to grow them much larger by maturity. (And even so, the size of a baby’s skull pushes that limit pretty hard; this is why birth is so much more difficult and dangerous for human females than it is for other primates).
That design (be born with a small skull and upgrade it outside the womb) implied a long juvenile period between birth and physical maturity. In fact the human brain doesn’t completely finish configuring and rewiring itself until around age 25. And the long juvenile period probably also explains the exceptionally long human lifespan; whatever had to be altered in the development clock to defer stabilization into the final adult configuration probably also delayed the inset of senescence. (Direct evidence for this theory is the rare disease “progeria”).
And the dominoes kept falling. The long juvenile period implied offspring that would be incapable of fending for themselves for an unprecedently long time – on the order of decades rather than the few months to a year typical for other mammals. Consequently the selective value of extended cooperation between the parents went way, way up relative to even our nearest animal kin.
Romantic love works as an an evolved mechanism for keeping mated pairs cooperating long enough to raise multiple children. Here again, selection favors those who love more because they get to launch more offspring. We are, in fact, made to fall in love – and it would only be surprising if the mechanism for establishing it were not simple, robust, and easily triggered.
Eric S. Raymond, “Love is the simplest thing”, Armed and Dangerous, 2015-01-15.
June 10, 2016
Scott Alexander takes a quick look at a recent discovery in medication for depression:
A few weeks ago, Nature published a bombshell study showing that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were actually caused by a metabolite, 2S,6S;2R,6R-hydroxynorketamine (don’t worry about the name; within ten years it’ll be called JOYVIVA™®© and you’ll catch yourself humming advertising jingles about it in the shower). Unlike ketamine, which is addictive and produces scary dissociative experiences, the metabolite is pretty safe. This is a big deal clinically, because it makes it easier and safer to prescribe to depressed people.
It’s also a big deal scientifically. Ketamine is a strong NMDA receptor antagonist; the metabolite is an AMPA agonist – they have different mechanisms of action. Knowing the real story behind why ketamine works will hopefully speed efforts to understand the nature of depression.
But I’m also interested in it from another angle. For the last ten years, everyone has been excited about ketamine. In a field that gets mocked for not having any really useful clinical discoveries in the last thirty years, ketamine was proof that progress was possible. It was the Exciting New Thing that everybody wanted to do research about.
Given the whole replication crisis thing, I wondered. You’ve got a community of people who think that NMDA antagonism and dissociation are somehow related to depression. If the latest study is true, all that was false. This is good; science is supposed to be self-correcting. But what about before it self-corrected? Did researchers virtuously say “I know the paradigm says NMDA is essential to depression, and nobody’s come up with a better idea yet, but there are some troubling inconsistencies in that picture”? Or did they tinker with their studies until they got the results they expected, then triumphantly declare that they had confirmed the dominant paradigm was right about everything all along?
May 26, 2016
Don’t get too smug, fellow Canuckistanis, as I suspect the numbers might be just as bad if Canadians were surveyed in this way:
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That’s true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage — 80 percent—in the same survey said they’d also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes “did not contain genes” and 32 percent thought that “vegetables did not have DNA.” So there’s that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered [PDF] that “consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food.” In fact, the authors say, “the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food.”
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don’t know much, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they sure as heck aren’t letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
May 13, 2016
April 28, 2016
I’m on the road in Thailand, speaking at a U.N. conference on sustainable A development in the Third World. Earlier today I listened to a presentation on the effects of sex education for women. The presentation mentioned some cultural value conflicts about sex education, but it occurred to me that it didn’t touch the biggest one. To wit: worldwide, the teachers want the kids to learn abstinence, but what the kids [want] to learn is technique.
Eric S. Raymond, “That’s Why They Call It ‘Sex Education'”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-05-20.
April 26, 2016
If you’re a woman who wants to land a man, there’s this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you’re “beautiful on the inside,” that’s all that should count. Right. And I should have a flying car and a mansion in Bel Air with servants and a moat.
Welcome to Uglytopia — the world reimagined as a place where it’s the content of a woman’s character, not her pushup bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim. It just doesn’t seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages — whether it’s a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we’d best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.
It turns out that the real beauty myth is the damaging one Wolf and other feminists are perpetuating — the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty. Of course, looks aren’t all that matter (as I’m lectured by female readers of my newspaper column when I point out that male lust seems to have a weight limit). But looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it — it’s just heresy to say so.
Amy Alkon, “The Truth About Beauty”, Psychology Today, 2010-11-01.
April 20, 2016
I want to actually go into basic, object-level Nice Guy territory and say there is something very wrong here.
Barry is possibly the most feminist man who has ever existed, palpably exudes respect for women, and this is well-known in every circle feminists frequent. He is reduced to apophatic complaints about how sad he is that he doesn’t think he’ll ever have a real romantic relationship.
Henry has four domestic violence charges against him by his four ex-wives and is cheating on his current wife with one of those ex-wives. And as soon as he gets out of the psychiatric hospital where he was committed for violent behavior against women and maybe serves the jail sentence he has pending for said behavior, he is going to find another girlfriend approximately instantaneously.
And this seems unfair. I don’t know how to put the basic insight behind niceguyhood any clearer than that. There are a lot of statistics backing up the point, but the statistics only corroborate the obvious intuitive insight that this seems unfair.
And suppose, in the depths of your Forever Alone misery, you make the mistake of asking why things are so unfair.
Well, then Jezebel says you are “a lonely dickwad who believes in a perverse social/sexual contract that promises access to women’s bodies”. XOJane says you are “an adult baby” who will “go into a school or a gym or another space heavily populated by women and open fire”. Feminspire just says you are “an arrogant, egotistical, selfish douche bag”.
And the manosphere says: “Excellent question, we’ve actually been wondering that ourselves, why don’t you come over here and sit down with us and hear some of our convincing-sounding answers, which, incidentally, will also help solve your personal problems?”
And feminists still insist the only reason anyone ever joins the manosphere is “distress of the privileged”!
I do not think men should be entitled to sex, I do not think women should be “blamed” for men not having sex, I do not think anyone owes sex to anyone else, I do not think women are idiots who don’t know what’s good for them, I do not think anybody has the right to take it into their own hands to “correct” this unsettling trend singlehandedly.
But when you deny everything and abuse anyone who brings it up, you cede this issue to people who sometimes do think all of these things. And then you have no right to be surprised when all the most frequently offered answers are super toxic.
There is a very simple reply to the question which is better than anything feminists are now doing. It is the answer I gave to my patient Dan: “Yeah, things are unfair. I can’t do anything about it, but I’m sorry for your pain. Here is a list of resources that might be able to help you.”
Scott Alexander, “Radicalizing the Romanceless”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-08-31.
April 19, 2016
Published on 18 Apr 2016
The traumata of warfare were certainly nothing new when World War 1 broke out. But the extreme and prolonged exposure to machine gun fire, artillery bombardments and trench warfare led to a new kind of psychological disorder: Shell Shock. Soldiers who were perfectly fine on the outside, were incapable of fighting or living a normal life anymore.
March 19, 2016
A current New York Times news story, What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie, entertainingly chronicles the discovery that low-fat diets are bad for people. More specifically, that the substitution of carbohydrates like bread and pasta and potatoes for meat that we’ve all had urged on us since the early 1980s is probably the cause of the modern epidemic of obesity and the sharp rise in diabetes incidence.
I have long believed that most of the healthy-eating advice we get is stone crazy, and the story does tend to confirm it. One of my reasons for believing this is touched on in the article; what we’re told is good for us doesn’t match what humans “in the wild” (during the 99% of our species history that predated agriculture) ate. The diet our bodies evolved to process doesn’t include things like large amounts of milled grain or other starches. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild vegetables (especially tubers) and meat whenever they could get it.
But the evolutionary analysis only tells us what we probably should be eating. It doesn’t explain how the modern diet has come to be as severely messed up as it is — nor why the advice we’ve been getting on healthy eating over the last twenty years has been not merely bad but perversely wrong.
The answer is, I think, implicit in the fact that “health food” has a strong tendency to be bland, fibrous, and nasty — a kind of filboid studge that we have to work at convincing ourselves we like rather than actually liking. Which is, if you think about it, nuts. Human food tropisms represent two million years of selective knowledge about what’s good for our bodies. Eating a lot of what we don’t like is far more likely to be a mistake than eating things we do like, even to excess.
Why do we tend to treat our natural cravings for red meat and fat as sins, then? Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of diet books and religious evangelism and you have your answer. Dietary mortification of the flesh has become a kind of secular asceticism, a way for wealthy white people with guilt feelings about their affluence to demonstrate virtue and expiate their imagined transgressions.
Once you realize that dieting is a religion, the irrationality and mutual contradictions become easier to understand. It’s not about what’s actually good for you, it’s about suffering and self-denial and the state of your soul. People who constantly break and re-adopt diets are experiencing exactly the same cycle of secondary rewards as the sinner who repeatedly backslides and reforms.
This model explains the social fact that the modern flavor of “health”-based dietary piety is most likely to be found in people who don’t have the same psychological needs satisfied by an actual religion. Quick now: who’s more likely to be a vegetarian or profess a horror of “junk food” — a conservative Christian heartlander or a secular politically-correct leftist from the urban coasts?
Eric S. Raymond, “Diet Considered as a Bad Religion”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-17.