Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

First they came for the Iranians

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Action Item: If you’re an American academic, please sign the petition against the Immigration Executive Order. (There are already more than eighteen thousand signatories, including Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, you name it, but it could use more!)

I don’t expect this petition to have the slightest effect on the regime, but at least we should demonstrate to the world and to history that American academia didn’t take this silently.

I’m sure there were weeks, in February or March 1933, when the educated, liberal Germans commiserated with each other over the latest outrages of their new Chancellor, but consoled themselves that at least none of it was going to affect them personally.

This time, it’s taken just five days, since the hostile takeover of the US by its worst elements, for edicts from above to have actually hurt my life and (much more directly) the lives of my students, friends, and colleagues.

Today, we learned that Trump is suspending the issuance of US visas to people from seven majority-Islamic countries, including Iran (but strangely not Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Wahhabist terrorism—not that that would be morally justified either).  This suspension might last just 30 days, but might also continue indefinitely—particularly if, as seems likely, the Iranian government thumbs its nose at whatever Trump demands that it do to get the suspension rescinded.

So the upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit PhD students from Iran—a country that, along with China, India, and a few others, has long been the source of some of our best talent.  This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway.  (If Canada and Australia have any brains, they’ll snatch these students, and make the loss America’s.)

But what about the thousands of Iranian students who are already here?  So far, no one’s rounding them up and deporting them.  But their futures have suddenly been thrown into jeopardy.

Right now, I have an Iranian PhD student who came to MIT on a student visa in 2013.  He started working with me two years ago, on the power of a rudimentary quantum computing model inspired by (1+1)-dimensional integrable quantum field theory.  You can read our paper about it, with Adam Bouland and Greg Kuperberg, here.  It so happens that this week, my student is visiting us in Austin and staying at our home.  He’s spent the whole day pacing around, terrified about his future.  His original plan, to do a postdoc in the US after he finishes his PhD, now seems impossible (since it would require a visa renewal).

Look: in the 11-year history of this blog, there have been only a few occasions when I felt so strongly about something that I stood my ground, even in the face of widespread attacks from people who I otherwise respected.  One, of course, was when I spoke out for shy nerdy males, and for a vision of feminism broad enough to recognize their suffering as a problem.  A second was when I was more blunt about D-Wave, and about its and its supporters’ quantum speedup claims, than some of my colleagues were comfortable with.  But the remaining occasions almost all involved my defending the values of the United States, Israel, Zionism, or “the West,” or condemning Islamic fundamentalism, radical leftism, or the worldviews of such individuals as Noam Chomsky or my “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Which is simply to say: I don’t think anyone on earth can accuse me of secret sympathies for the Iranian government.

But when it comes to student visas, I can’t see that my feelings about the mullahs have anything to do with the matter.  We’re talking about people who happen to have been born in Iran, who came to the US to do math and science.  Would we rather have these young scientists here, filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve given them, or back in Iran filled with justified anger over our having expelled them?

To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first.  I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department.  I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career.

And to those who cheered Trump’s campaign in the comments of this blog: go ahead, let me hear you defend this.

Update (Jan. 27, 2017): To everyone who’s praised the “courage” that it took me to say this, thank you so much—but to be perfectly honest, it takes orders of magnitude less courage to say this, than to say something that any of your friends or colleagues might actually disagree with! The support has been totally overwhelming, and has reaffirmed my sense that the United States is now effectively two countries, an open and a closed one, locked in a cold Civil War.

Some people have expressed surprise that I’d come out so strongly for Iranian students and researchers, “given that they don’t always agree with my politics,” or given my unapologetic support for the founding principles (if not always the actions) of the United States and of Israel. For my part, I’m surprised that they’re surprised! So let me say something that might be clarifying.

I care about the happiness, freedom, and welfare of all the men and women who are actually working to understand the universe and build the technologies of the future, and of all the bright young people who want to join these quests, whatever their backgrounds and wherever they might be found—whether it’s in Iran or Israel, in India or China or right here in the US.  The system of science is far from perfect, and we often discuss ways to improve it on this blog.  But I have not the slightest interest in tearing down what we have now, or destroying the world’s current pool of scientific talent in some cleansing fire, in order to pursue someone’s mental model of what the scientific community used to look like in Periclean Athens—or for that matter, their fantasy of what it would look like in a post-gender post-racial communist utopia.  I’m interested in the actual human beings doing actual science who I actually meet, or hope to meet.

Understand that, and a large fraction of all the political views that I’ve ever expressed on this blog, even ones that might seem to be in tension with each other, fall out as immediate corollaries.

(Related to that, some readers might be interested in a further explanation of my views about Zionism. See also my thoughts about liberal democracy, in response to numerous comments here by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug a.k.a. “Boldmug.”)

Update (Jan. 29) Here’s a moving statement from my student Saeed himself, which he asked me to share here.

This is not of my best interest to talk about politics. Not because I am scared but because I know little politics. I am emotionally affected like many other fellow human beings on this planet. But I am still in the US and hopefully I can pursue my degree at MIT. But many other talented friends of mine can’t. Simply because they came back to their hometowns to visit their parents. On this matter, I must say that like many of my friends in Iran I did not have a chance to see my parents in four years, my basic human right, just because I am from a particular nationality; something that I didn’t have any decision on, and that I decided to study in my favorite school, something that I decided when I was 15. When, like many other talented friends of mine, I was teaching myself mathematics and physics hoping to make big impacts in positive ways in the future. And I must say I am proud of my nationality – home is home wherever it is. I came to America to do science in the first place. I still don’t have any other intention, I am a free man, I can do science even in desert, if I have to. If you read history you’ll see scientists even from old ages have always been traveling.

As I said I know little about many things, so I just phrase my own standpoint. You should also talk to the ones who are really affected. A good friend of mine, Ahmad, who studies Mechanical engineering in UC Berkeley, came back to visit his parents in August. He is one of the most talented students I have ever seen in my life. He has been waiting for his student visa since then and now he is ultimately depressed because he cannot finish his degree. The very least the academic society can do is to help students like Ahmad finish their degrees even if it is from abroad. I can’t emphasize enough I know little about many things. But, from a business standpoint, this is a terrible deal for America. Just think about it. All international students in this country have been getting free education untill 22, in the American point of reference, and now they are using their knowledge to build technology in the USA. Just do a simple calculation and see how much money this would amount to. In any case my fellow international students should rethink this deal, and don’t take it unless at the least they are treated with respect. Having said all of this I must say I love the people of America, I have had many great friends here, great advisors specially Scott Aaronson and Aram Harrow, with whom I have been talking about life, religion, freedom and my favorite topic the foundations of the universe. I am grateful for the education I received at MIT and I think I have something I didn’t have before. I don’t even hate Mr Trump. I think he would feel different if we have a cup of coffee sometime.

Update (Jan. 31): See also this post by Terry Tao.

Update (Feb. 2): If you haven’t been checking the comments on this post, come have a look if you’d like to watch me and others doing our best to defend the foundations of Enlightenment and liberal democracy against a regiment of monarchists and neoreactionaries, including the notorious Mencius Moldbug, as well as a guy named Jim who explicitly advocates abolishing democracy and appointing Trump as “God-Emperor” with his sons to succeed him. (Incidentally, which son? Is Ivanka out of contention?)

I find these people to be simply articulating, more clearly and logically than most, the worldview that put Trump into office and where it inevitably leads. And any of us who are horrified by it had better get over our incredulity, fast, and pick up the case for modernity and Enlightenment where Spinoza and Paine and Mill and all the others left it off—because that’s what’s actually at stake here, and if we don’t understand that then we’ll continue to be blindsided.

“THE TALK”: My quantum computing cartoon with Zach Weinersmith

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

OK, here’s the big entrée that I promised you yesterday:

“THE TALK”: My joint cartoon about quantum comgputing with Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics.

Just to whet your appetite:

In case you’re wondering how this came about: after our mutual friend Sean Carroll introduced me and Zach for a different reason, the idea of a joint quantum computing comic just seemed too good to pass up.  The basic premise—“The Talk”—was all Zach.  I dutifully drafted some dialogue for him, which he then improved and illustrated.  I.e., he did almost all the work (despite having a newborn competing for his attention!).  Still, it was an honor for me to collaborate with one of the great visual artists of our time, and I hope you like the result.  Beyond that, I’ll let the work speak for itself.

A paper trail that’s never checked might as well not exist

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Update and Action Item: Just since late this afternoon, the Jill Stein campaign has already raised more than $1 million toward requesting hand recounts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their target is $6-7 million.  I just donated what I could; if you agree with this post, then please do the same.  It doesn’t matter at this point if you disagree with Stein, or even (like me) think she shouldn’t have run: the goal is just to get a recount to happen before the deadline expires.

Another Update (11/24): In an amazing demonstration of the power of online fundraising, the Stein campaign has already, in less than 24 hours, raised the $2.5 million needed to fund a recount in Wisconsin.  Now they’re working on Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Amusing that Stein seems finally to have found a winning cause: Hillary!  (“Fighting for Hillary even when Hillary won’t fight for herself.”)  Again: please donate here.

Third Update (11/25):  The recount is on is Wisconsin!  The Stein campaign hasn’t yet filed in Pennsylvania or Michigan, but will do so next.  So, all the commenters who came here to explain to me that this was a scam, no judge would it allow it to go forward, etc.: please update your priors.  And next time, if you won’t listen to me, at least listen to Alex Halderman…

This will probably be my last election-related post.  After this (assuming, of course, that the effort I’m writing about fails…), I plan to encase myself in a bubble, stop reading news, and go back to thinking about quantum lower bounds, as if we still lived in a world where it made sense to do so.  But this is important.

As many of you have probably seen, several of the US’s top computer security experts, including my former MIT colleague Ron Rivest and my childhood friend Alex Halderman, have publicly urged that an audit of the US election take place.  But time is quickly running out.  If, for example, the Clinton campaign were to request a hand recount, the deadlines would be this Friday in Wisconsin, Monday in Pennsylvania, and next Wednesday in Michigan.  So far, alas, the Clinton campaign seems to have shown little interest, which would leave it to one of the third-party candidates to request a recount (they have the legal right too, if they can come up with the money for it).  In the meantime, I urge everyone to sign a petition demanding an audit.

For me, the key point is this: given the proven insecurity of electronic voting machines, an audit of paper ballots ought to be completely routine, even if there weren’t the slightest grounds for suspicion.  In this particular case, of course, we know for a fact (!!) that Russian intelligence was engaging in cyber-warfare to influence the US election.  We also know that Russia has both the will and the technological ability to tamper with foreign elections using vote-stealing malware—indeed, it nearly succeeded in doing so in Ukraine’s 2014 election.  Finally, we know that Trump, despite losing the popular vote, surprised just about everyone by outperforming his polls in three crucial swing states—and that within those states, Trump did systematically better in counties that relied on electronic voting machines than in counties that used scanners and paper ballots.

Nate Silver has tweeted that he sees no evidence of foul play, since the discrepancy disappears once you control for the education level of the counties (for more, see this FiveThirtyEight article).

But that’s the thing.  In a sane world, skeptics wouldn’t need to present statistical proof of foul play in order to trigger a hand count.  For if enemy actors know that, in practice, hand counts are never going to happen, then they’re free to be completely brazen in tampering with the childishly-insecure electronic voting machines themselves.  If no one ever looks at them, then the paper records might as well not exist.

Would anyone in the 1950s or 60s have believed that, a half-century hence, Russia actually would acquire the terrifying power over the US that the right-wing Cold Warriors once hyperventilated about—sometimes choosing to exercise that power, sometimes not—and that 2016’s conservatives would either shrug or welcome the development, while the only people who wanted to take reasonable precautions were a few rabble-rousing professors and activists?

Fate has decided that we should live in a branch of the wavefunction where the worst triumph by flaunting their terribleness and where nothing makes sense.  But however infinitesimal the chances anyone will listen, we should still insist that the sensible things be done—if nothing else, then simply as a way to maintain our own mental connection to the world of sense.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Never, never, never normalize this

Friday, November 11th, 2016

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.

Given the refusal of so many people I respect to say anything like the above, it came as a relief to read a brilliant New York Review of Books piece by Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist who I’d previously known for her fine biography of Grisha Perelman (the recluse who proved the Poincaré Conjecture), and who’s repeatedly risked her life to criticize Vladimir Putin.  Gessen takes Clinton and Obama to task for their (no doubt well-intentioned) appeasement of a monstrous thug.  She then clearly explains why the United States is now headed for the kind of society Russians are intimately familiar with, and she shares the following rules for surviving an autocracy:

  1. Believe the autocrat.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  3. Institutions will not save you.
  4. Be outraged.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future.

Her important essay is well worth reading in full.

In the comments of my last post, an international student posted a heartbreaking question:

Should I think about Canada now before [it’s] too late?

As I said before, I have no doubt that many talented students will respond to America’s self-inflicted catastrophe by choosing to study in Canada, the EU, or elsewhere.  I wish they wouldn’t, but I don’t blame them.  At the same time, even in the darkest hour, human affairs are never completely exempt from the laws of supply and demand.  So for example, if Trump caused enough other foreign researchers to leave the US, then it’s possible that a spot at Harvard, Princeton, or MIT could become yours for the taking.

I can’t tell you what to do, but as you ponder your decision, please remember that slightly more than half of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of residents of the major cities and college towns—despise Trump, will always despise Trump, and will try to continue to build a society that upholds the values of the Enlightenment, one that welcomes people of every background.  Granted, the Union side of America has problems of its own, and I know some of those problems as well as anyone.  But at least it’s not the Confederacy, and it’s what you’d mostly be dealing with if you came here.

Finally, I wanted to share some Facebook postings about the election by my friend (and recent interviewer) Julia Galef.  In these posts, Julia sets out some of the same thoughts that I’ve had, but with an eloquence that I haven’t been able to muster.  It’s important to understand that these posts by Julia—whose day job is to run rationality seminars—are far and away the most emotional things I’ve ever seen her write, but they’re also less emotional than anything I could write at this time!

Naturally, my sharing of Julia’s posts shouldn’t be taken to imply that she agrees with everything I’ve said on this blog about the election, or conversely, that I agree with everything she says.  I simply wanted to give her an additional platform to speak for herself.

The rest of this post is Julia:

I’m seeing some well-intentioned posts insisting “See, this is proof we need to be listening to and empathizing with Trump supporters, not just calling them stupid.”

Generally I’m a fan of that kind of thing, but now… Jesus fucking Christ, we TRIED that. Did you not see how many journalists went to small towns and respectfully listened to people say stupid shit like “I can’t vote for Hillary because she’s the antichrist,” and then tried to figure out how that stupid shit was actually, maybe a reasonable argument about trade policy?

Sometimes the answer is not “People are astutely seeing things that I, inside my bubble, have missed.” Sometimes the answer is just “People are fucking morons whose brains are not built to see through bullshit.”

(To be clear, I think this applies to people in general, including Hillary voters. We just happen to have been a bit less moronic in this particular context.)

And fine, if you want to argue that it’s strategically *wise* for us to understand what makes Trump fans tick, so that we can prevent this from happening again — assuming we get the chance — then fine.

But if you keep insisting that we “just don’t understand” that Trump voters aren’t stupid, then I’m going to take a break from the blank look of horror I’ll be wearing all day, and flash you a look of withering incredulity. Maybe Trump voters aren’t stupid in other contexts, but this sure was a fucking stupid, destructive thing they did.

EDIT: Predictably, some people are interpreting my point as: Trump supporters are stupid and/or evil, Clinton supporters are not.

That’s not my point. My point is that humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.


I realized it’s not clear to many people exactly why I’m so upset about Trump winning, so let me elaborate.

What upsets me the most about Trump’s victory is not his policies (to the extent that he has coherent policy positions). It’s not even his racism or sexism, though those do upset me. It’s what his victory reveals about the fragility of our democracy.

Trump incites violence at rallies. He spreads lies and conspiracy theories (birtherism, rigged elections) that damage the long-term credibility of the political process, just for his own short-sighted gain. He’s ruined [EDIT: tried to ruin] journalists’ careers for criticizing him, and bragged about it. He’s talked explicitly about his intent to pursue “revenge” on people who crossed him, once he becomes president. He said he would try to jail Hillary. He clearly has little knowledge of, or respect for, the Constitution or international treaties.

And half of our country looked at all that, and either said “Awesome!” or simply shrugged.

Maybe you assume Congress or the courts won’t let Trump get away with anything undemocratic. But did you see the way the Republican leadership swallowed their objections to Trump once he became the nominee, in the name of party unity? Why should we expect them to stand up to him once he’s actually the most powerful man in the world, if they didn’t before (and see earlier points about his love of revenge)?

I really do hope the Trump presidency turns out, somehow, to be not as bad as it seems. But even if that’s the case… we’ve already learned that America cares so little about democratic norms and institutions that it’s happy to elect someone like Trump.

How can you NOT be worried and depressed by that?


OK, first off, this is a pretty sneering article for someone who’s condemning sneering.

Secondly… this is the kind of article I was responding to, in my angry post a couple of days ago.

(The point of that post got misinterpreted by a lot of people — which is understandable, because I was simultaneously trying to convey #1: a nuanced point AND #2: a lot of strong emotion at the same time. I still endorse both the point and the emotion, it’s just tricky to do both well at once. This post is an attempt to just focus on #1.)

What I was trying to say is that I think electing Trump was a very destructive and stupid thing to do. And that I reject the implication, from people like this columnist, that we have to pretend that Trump voters had sensible, well-thought out reasons for their choice, because I do not think that is the case.

I ALSO think that most voters in general, not just Trump voters, do not have sensible, well-thought out reasons for their voting choices, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. I think humans simply aren’t the kinds of creatures who are good at making sensible choices about complicated, ideologically-charged topics.

None of this means that we should give up on democracy, just that there are some serious risks that come with democracy. And I disagree with this columnist’s scorn for Andrew Sullivan’s suggestion that we should think about ways to mitigate those risks. Plenty of people over the centuries, including the Founders of the USA, have worried about the tyranny of the majority. That worry isn’t just an invention of the modern-day snotty liberal elites, as this columnist seems to think.

Finally, I just want to ask this guy: is there ANY candidate about whom he would allow us to say “Shit, the American voters really screwed this one up”, or is that not possible by definition?


Yesterday I argued that the worst thing about Trump was the harm he does to democratic norms and institutions.

From some of the responses, I don’t think I successfully conveyed why that kind of harm is *uniquely* bad — some people seem to think “harms democratic institutions” is just one item in the overall pro-con list, and it just gets tallied up with the other pros and cons, on equal footing.

Let me try to explain why I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

There’s this scene in the movie 300, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, feels insulted by the demands relayed by the Persian messenger, so he draws a sword on the man.

MESSENGER (shocked): “This is blasphemy, this is madness! No man threatens a messenger!”
LEONIDAS: “Madness? This is Sparta!!!”
… and he shoves the messenger off a cliff.

I think Leonidas is meant to come off as some kind of heroic, rule-breaking badass. But I watched that and thought, “Jesus, what a shitty thing to do.”

Not just because murder is shitty in general, or because murder is a disproportionate punishment for a perceived slight.

No, it’s because the “don’t harm a messenger” norm is what makes it possible for armies to send messengers to negotiate with each other, to avert or end wars. Defecting on that norm is so much worse than harming a particular person, or army, or country. It’s harming our *ability to limit harm to each other* — a meta-harm.

Our species has worked SO. DAMN. HARD. to build up enough collective trust to be able to have working institutions like constitutions, and treaties, and elections, and a free press, and peaceful transitions. And basically everything good in our lives depends on us collectively agreeing to treat those institutions seriously. I don’t care what party you’re in, or what policies you support — that should all come second to warding off meta-harms that undermine our ability to cooperate with each other enough to have a working society.

I’m not going to claim that politicians were perfect at respecting norms before Trump came along. But Trump is unprecedented. Partly in how blatant he is about his lack of respect for norms in general.

But also in how *discrete* his defections are — he’s not just incrementally bending norms that lots of other people before him have already bent.

We used to be able to say “In America, presidents don’t threaten to jail their political rivals.” Now we can’t.

We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t sow doubts about the legitimacy of elections.” Now we can’t.

We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t encourage violence against protesters.” Now we can’t.

Even joking about those norms, from someone in a position of power, undermines them. If Trump was actually joking about jailing Hillary, I suppose that’s better than if he was serious, but it still deals a blow to the norm. The health of the norm depends on us showing each other that we understand it’s important.

And I just feel despairing that so many Americans don’t seem to feel the same. Like, I don’t expect everyone to have thought through the game theory, but I just assumed people at least had an intuitive sense of these norms being sacred.

… And most of all, I’m worried that those of us who *do* feel shock at those norms being violated will gradually lose our sense of shock, as the post-Trump era wears on.

Update (Nov. 12) Since I apparently wasn’t, let me be perfectly clear. The fact that Trump’s voters unleashed a monster on the world does not make them evil or idiots. It “merely” makes them catastrophically mistaken. Just as I did (and took a lot flak for doing!) before the election, I will continue to oppose any efforts to harass individual Trump supporters, get them fired from their jobs, punish other people for associating with them, etc. To do that, while also militantly refusing to normalize Trump’s autocratic rule over the US, is admittedly to walk an incredibly narrow tightrope—and yet I don’t see anything on either side of the tightrope that’s consistent with my beliefs.

Some readers might also be interested in my reflections on being on the “same side” as Amanda Marcotte.

What is there to say?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Update (Nov. 10): In the wake of the US’s authoritarian takeover, I will sadly understand if foreign students and postdocs no longer wish to study in the US, or if foreign researchers no longer wish to enter the US even for conferences and visits. After all, I wouldn’t feel safe in Erdogan’s Turkey or the Mullahs’ Iran. In any case, I predict that the US’s scientific influence will now start to wane, as top researchers from elsewhere find ways to route around us.

I make just one request: if you do come to the US (as I selfishly hope you will), please don’t avoid places like Austin just because they look on the map like they’re in a sea of red. To understand what’s going on, you need to look at the detailed county-by-county results, which show that even in “red” states, most cities went overwhelmingly for Clinton, while even in “blue” states like New York, most rural areas went for Trump. Here’s Texas, for example (Austin was 66% Clinton, 27% Trump).

I’m ashamed of my country and terrified about the future.  When Bush took power in 2000, I was depressed for weeks, but I didn’t feel like I do now, like a fourth-generation refugee in the United States—like someone who happens to have been born here and will presumably continue to live here, unless and until it starts to become unsafe for academics, or Jews, or people who publicly criticize Trump, at which time I guess we’ll pack up and go somewhere else (assuming there still is a somewhere else).

If I ever missed the danger and excitement that so many European scientists and mathematicians felt in the 1930s, that sense of trying to pursue the truth even in the shadow of an aggressive and unironic evil—OK, I can cross that off the list.  Since I was seven years old or so, I’ve been obsessed by the realization that there are no guardrails that prevent human beings from choosing the worst, that all the adults who soothingly reassure you that “everything always works out okay in the end” are full of it.  Now I get to live through it instead of just reading about it in history books and having nightmares.

If James Comey hadn’t cast what turned out to be utterly unfounded suspicion over Hillary during the height of early voting, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  If young and poor and minority voters in Wisconsin and North Carolina and elsewhere hadn’t been effectively disenfranchised through huge lines and strategic voter ID laws and closures of polling places, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  If Russia and WikiLeaks hadn’t interfered by hacking one side and not the other, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  For that matter, if Russia or some other power hacked the trivially-hackable electronic voting machines that lack paper trails—machines that something like a third of American voters still used this election—there’s an excellent chance we’d never find out.

But in some sense, all of that is beside the point.  For take all of it away, and Trump still would’ve at least come within a few terrifying points of winning—and as Scott Alexander rightly stresses, whatever horrible things are true about the American electorate today, would still have been true had Hillary eked out a narrow win.  It’s just that now we all get to enjoy the consequences of ½±ε of the country’s horrible values.

There is no silver lining.  There’s nothing good about this.

My immediate problem is that, this afternoon, I’m supposed to give a major physics colloquium at UT.  The title?  “Quantum Supremacy.”  That term, which had given me so much comedic mileage through the long campaign season (“will I disavow support from quantum supremacists?  I’ll keep you in suspense about it…” ), now just seems dark and horrible, a weight around my neck.  Yet, distracted and sleep-deprived and humor-deprived though I am, I’ve decided to power through and give the talk.  Why?  Because Steven Weinberg says he still wants to hear it.

I see no particular reason to revise anything I’ve said on this blog about the election, except perhaps for my uncritical quoting of all the analyses and prediction markets that gave Trump a small (but still, I stressed, much too high) probability of winning.

I stand by my contempt for the Electoral College, and my advocacy for vote-swapping.  The fact that vote-swapping once again failed doesn’t mean it was a bad idea; on the contrary, it means that we didn’t do enough.

I stand by my criticism of some of the excesses of the social justice movement, which seem to me to have played some role in spawning the predictable backlash whose horrific results the world now sees.

Lastly, I stand by what I said about the centrality of Enlightenment norms and values, and of civil discourse even with those with whom we disagree, to my own rejection of Trumpism.

On the other hand, the Trump supporters who are leaving me anonymous taunting comments can go elsewhere.  On this day, I think a wholly appropriate Enlightenment response to them is “fuck you.”

May reason trump the Trump in all of us

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Two years ago, when I was the target of an online shaming campaign, what helped me through it were hundreds of messages of support from friends, slight acquaintances, and strangers of every background.  I vowed then to return the favor, by standing up when I saw decent people unfairly shamed.  Today I have an opportunity to make good.

Some time ago I had the privilege of interacting a bit with Sam Altman, president of the famed startup incubator Y Combinator (and a guy who’s thanked in pretty much everything Paul Graham writes).  By way of our mutual friend, the renowned former quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen, Sam got in touch with me to solicit suggestions for “outside-the-box” scientists and writers, for a new grant program that Y Combinator was starting. I found Sam eager to delve into the merits of any suggestion, however outlandish, and was delighted to be able to make a difference for a few talented people who needed support.

Sam has also been one of the Silicon Valley leaders who’s written most clearly and openly about the threat to America posed by Donald Trump and the need to stop him, and he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to anti-Trump causes.  Needless to say, I supported Sam on that as well.

Now Sam is under attack on social media, and there are even calls for him to resign as the president of Y Combinator.  Like me two years ago, Sam has instantly become the corporeal embodiment of the “nerd privilege” that keeps the marginalized out of Silicon Valley.

Why? Because, despite his own emphatic anti-Trump views, Sam rejected demands to fire Peter Thiel (who has an advisory role at Y Combinator) because of Thiel’s support for Trump.  Sam explained his reasoning at some length:

[A]s repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate.  As far as we know, that would be unprecedented for supporting a major party nominee, and a dangerous path to start down (of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator) … The way we got into a situation with Trump as a major party nominee in the first place was by not talking to people who are very different than we are … I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump.  But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward.  If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we’ll be facing this whole situation again in 2020.

The usual criticism of nerds is that we might have narrow technical abilities, but we lack wisdom about human affairs.  It’s ironic, then, that it appears to have fallen to Silicon Valley nerds to guard some of the most important human wisdom our sorry species ever came across—namely, the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment.  Like Sam, I despise pretty much everything Trump stands for, and I’ve been far from silent about it: I’ve blogged, donated money, advocated vote swapping, endured anonymous comments like “kill yourself kike”—whatever seemed like it might help even infinitesimally to ensure the richly-deserved electoral thrashing that Trump mercifully seems to be headed for in a few weeks.

But I also, I confess, oppose the forces that apparently see Trump less as a global calamity to be averted, than as a golden opportunity to take down anything they don’t like that’s ever been spotted within a thousand-mile radius of Trump Tower.  (Where does this Kevin Bacon game end, anyway?  Do “six degrees of Trump” suffice to contaminate you?)

And not only do I not feel a shadow of a hint of a moral conflict here, but it seems to me that precisely the same liberal Enlightenment principles are behind both of these stances.

But I’d go yet further.  It sort of flabbergasts me when social-justice activists don’t understand that, if we condemn not only Trump, not only his supporters, but even vociferous Trump opponents who associate with Trump supporters (!), all we’ll do is feed the narrative that got Trumpism as far as it has—namely, that of a smug, bubble-encased, virtue-signalling leftist elite subject to runaway political correctness spirals.  Like, a hundred million Americans’ worldviews revolve around the fear of liberal persecution, and we’re going to change their minds by firing anyone who refuses to fire them?  As a recent Washington Post story illustrates, the opposite approach is harder but can bear spectacular results.

Now, as for Peter Thiel: three years ago, he funded a small interdisciplinary workshop on the coast of France that I attended.  With me there were a bunch of honest-to-goodness conservative Christians, a Freudian psychoanalyst, a novelist, a right-wing radio host, some scientists and Silicon Valley executives, and of course Thiel himself.  Each, I found, offered tons to disagree about but also some morsels to learn.

Thiel’s worldview, focused on the technological and organizational greatness that (in his view) Western civilization used to have and has subsequently lost, was a bit too dark and pessimistic for me, and I’m a pretty dark and pessimistic person.  Thiel gave a complicated, meandering lecture that involved comparing modern narratives about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs against myths of gods, heroes, and martyrs throughout history, such as Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome).  The talk might have made more sense to Thiel than to his listeners.

At the same time, Thiel’s range of knowledge and curiosity was pretty awesome.  He avidly followed all the talks (including mine, on P vs. NP and quantum complexity theory) and asked pertinent questions. When the conversation turned to D-Wave, and Thiel’s own decision not to invest in it, he laid out the conclusions he’d come to from an extremely quick look at the question, then quizzed me as to whether he’d gotten anything wrong.  He hadn’t.

From that conversation among others, I formed the impression that Thiel’s success as an investor is, at least in part, down neither to luck nor to connections, but to a module in his brain that most people lack, which makes blazingly fast and accurate judgments about tech startups.  No wonder Y Combinator would want to keep him as an adviser.

But, OK, I’m so used to the same person being spectacularly right on some things and spectacularly wrong on others, that it no longer causes even slight cognitive dissonance.  You just take the issues one by one.

I was happy, on balance, when it came out that Thiel had financed the lawsuit that brought down Gawker Media.  Gawker really had used its power to bully the innocent, and it had broken the law to do it.  And if it’s an unaccountable, anti-egalitarian, billionaire Godzilla against a vicious, privacy-violating, nerd-baiting King Kong—well then, I guess I’m with Godzilla.

More recently, I was appalled when Thiel spoke at the Republican convention, pandering to the crowd with Fox-News-style attack lines that were unworthy of a mind of his caliber.  I lost a lot of respect for Thiel that day.  But that’s the thing: unlike with literally every other speaker at the GOP convention, my respect for Thiel had started from a point that made a decrease possible.

I reject huge parts of Thiel’s worldview.  I also reject any worldview that would threaten me with ostracism for talking to Thiel, attending a workshop he sponsors, or saying anything good about him.  This is not actually a difficult balance.

Today, when it sometimes seems like much of the world has united in salivating for a cataclysmic showdown between whites and non-whites, Christians and Muslims, “dudebros” and feminists, etc., and that the salivators differ mostly just in who they want to see victorious in the coming battle and who humiliated, it can feel lonely to stick up for naïve, outdated values like the free exchange of ideas, friendly disagreement, the presumption of innocence, and the primacy of the individual over the tribe.  But those are the values that took us all the way from a bronze spear through the enemy’s heart to a snarky rebuttal on the arXiv, and they’ll continue to build anything worth building.

And now to watch the third debate (I’ll check the comments afterward)…

Update (Oct. 20): See also this post from a blog called TheMoneyIllusion. My favorite excerpt:

So let’s see. Not only should Trump be shunned for his appalling political views, an otherwise highly respected Silicon Valley entrepreneur who just happens to support Trump (along with 80 million other Americans) should also be shunned. And a person who despises Trump and works against him but who defends Thiel’s right to his own political views should also resign. Does that mean I should be shunned too? After all, I’m a guy who hates Trump, writing a post that defends a guy who hates Trump, who wrote a post defending a guy’s freedom to support Trump, who in turn supports Trump. And suppose my mother sticks up for me? Should she also be shunned?

It’s almost enough to make me vote . . . no, just kidding.

Question … Which people on the left are beyond the pale? Suppose Thiel had supported Hugo Chavez? How about Castro? Mao? Pol Pot? Perhaps the degrees of separation could be calibrated to the awfulness of the left-winger:

Chavez: One degree of separation. (Corbyn, Sean Penn, etc.)

Castro: Two degrees of separation is still toxic.

Lenin: Three degrees of separation.

Mao: Four degrees of separation.

Pol Pot: Five degrees of separation.

Kuperberg’s parable

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Recently, longtime friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg wrote a Facebook post that, with Greg’s kind permission, I’m sharing here.

A parable about pseudo-skepticism in response to climate science, and science in general.

Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
D: Yes, the science is settled.
P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?
D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.
P: Do you know that I will get lung cancer at all no matter how much I smoke?
D: No, it’s a statistical risk. But smoking also causes heart disease.
P: I certainly know smokers with heart disease, but I also know non-smokers with heart disease. Even if I do get heart disease, would you really know that it’s because I smoke?
D: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
P: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
D: Yes, but you can also see the direct effect of smoking on lungs of smokers in autopsies.
P: Some of whom lived a long time, you already admitted.
D: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
P: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in my case. You have an extended medical record for me with X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, you name it. You can gather more data about me if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
D: Of course, there’s always more to learn about the human body. But it’s a settled recommendation that smoking is bad for you.
P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to smoke, because as I said, I enjoy it. And by the way, since you’re so concerned about my health, I believe in healthy skepticism.

My Conversation with “Eugene Goostman,” the Chatbot that’s All Over the News for Allegedly Passing the Turing Test

Monday, June 9th, 2014

If you haven’t read about it yet, “Eugene Goostman” is a chatbot that’s being heavily promoted by the University of Reading’s Kevin Warwick, for fooling 33% of judges in a recent Turing Test competition into thinking it was human, and thereby supposedly becoming “the first program to pass the Turing Test” as Turing defined it in his 1950 paper.  See for example here, here, here, here.  In reality, while Turing did venture a prediction involving AIs fooling humans 30% of the time by the year 2000, he never set such a numerical milestone as the condition for “passing his test.”  Much more importantly, Turing’s famous example dialogue, involving Mr. Pickwick and Christmas, clearly shows that the kind of conversation Turing had in mind was at a vastly higher level than what any chatbot, including Goostman, has ever been able to achieve.

This morning, National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani interviewed me about Eugene Goostman and the Turing Test; the interview should air later today.

Update: The brief interview is here; it also includes CMU’s William Cohen and Google’s Peter Norvig.

I tried to redirect Ms. Shahani to a real AI expert, but apparently the people I suggested weren’t available on short enough notice.  Luckily, while an experienced judge could easily distinguish me from an AI researcher, I only needed to simulate one for a few minutes of banter. 🙂

Prompted by Ms. Shahani’s inquiries, I had the “conversation” below with the version of Eugene Goostman available at  It’s possible that there’s a more recent version somewhere else, but this is the only version I was able to access.  Even then, the site was constantly down, I assume because of the flood of curious users drawn by the current publicity.

Scott: Which is bigger, a shoebox or Mount Everest?

Eugene: I can’t make a choice right now. I should think it out later. And I forgot to ask you where you are from…

Scott: How many legs does a camel have?

Eugene: Something between 2 and 4. Maybe, three? :-))) By the way, I still don’t know your specialty – or, possibly, I’ve missed it?

Scott: How many legs does a millipede have?

Eugene: Just two, but Chernobyl mutants may have them up to five. I know you are supposed to trick me.

Scott: No, I need to know that you’re not a chatbot. Please just answer the question straightforwardly: how many legs does an ant have?

Eugene: Something between 2 and 4. Maybe, three? :-))) Oh, what a fruitful conversation;-)

Scott: Do you understand why I’m asking such basic questions?  Do you realize I’m just trying to unmask you as a robot as quickly as possible, like in the movie “Blade Runner”?

Eugene: …wait

Scott: Do you think your ability to fool unsophisticated judges indicates a flaw with the Turing Test itself, or merely with the way people have interpreted the test?

Eugene: The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

Scott: Do you think Alan Turing, brilliant though he was, had trouble imagining that the judges of his “imitation game” wouldn’t think to ask commonsense questions like the ones above—or that, if they did, they’d actually accept evasion or irrelevant banter as answers?

Eugene: No, not really. I don’t think alan turing brilliant although this guy was had trouble imagining that the judges of his imitation game would not consider to Oooh. Anything else?

Scott: In your opinion, does your existence demonstrate any idea or principle that wasn’t demonstrated just as convincingly by ELIZA, Joseph Weizenbaum’s chatbot from the 1960s?

Eugene: Eliza was a break-thru. All the bots after it were nothing but weak parodies, claiming to have “revolutionary improvements”.

Scott: Hey, that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said!

Eugene: Did I really say so? Well, I must have forgotten about it. Could you tell me about your job, by the way?

Scott: OK, don’t push your luck.  Why do you think journalists are now hyping you?  Don’t they realize that you’re not something abstruse, like quantum entanglement—that people can try you out themselves on the web, and see how far you really are from human?

Eugene: Ask the Creator about it (call Him by phone, for example:-). He knows all hidden reasons of human-beings’ life and behavior.

Scott: OK, I’ll count that as the second sensible thing you’ve said (grading generously).  Don’t you think that a more convincing chatbot could be created, by using Google to trawl the entire web for plausible-sounding answers (analogous to what IBM’s Watson did)?

Eugene: Yes, I do think that a more convincing chatbot can be built by using google to trawl the all web for plausible – sounding – I hope I have right to have my own opinion. Maybe, let’s talk about something else? What would you like to discuss?

Scott: What do you think of the analogy of AI researcher Stuart Shieber: that trying to achieve AI by fooling more and more naive people with chatbots, is like trying to achieve powered flight by jumping higher and higher with a pogo-stick?

Eugene: “Artificial Intelligence”? I guess you mean that stupid joke about a blonde who dyed her hair!

Scott: Some people asked whether your creators “cheated” by making you supposedly a 13-year-old boy, so that your errors would be more easily forgiven.  Do people actually have that low an opinion of 13-year-old boys?  I mean, I knew when I was 13 that camels have four legs!

Eugene: I wasn’t created by anyone. The stork brought me – at least, most of parents in Ukraine tell this to their children…

Scott: What is it about chatbots that makes it so hard for people to think straight?  Is the urge to pontificate about our robot-ruled future so overwhelming, that people literally can’t see the unimpressiveness of what’s right in front of them?

Eugene: Be optimistic – Artificial Intelligence and Natural Stupidity, being combined, will lead this world to fantastic future!

Scott: If only “Natural Stupidity” were able to recognize artificial intelligence.  Speaking of which, did you see the movie “Her”?  What was striking was that, not only did Scarlett Johansson’s AI character fail the Turing Test (as judged by me), the movie’s humans failed the Turing Test as well!

Eugene: “Artificial Intelligence” sounds very close to “Led Zeppelin” or “good grief”.

Scott: Let’s end our conversation on that thought-provoking note.  Thanks for chatting, Eugene!

Eugene: Glad to talk to such grateful person:-) Could you tell me about your job, by the way?

Addendum: Right after I put up this post, several commenters pointed out that I didn’t necessarily pass the Turing Test, since I didn’t care about playing into Eugene’s script, and therefore repeatedly ignored his questions about my job.  Well, Turing didn’t say anything in his paper about the interrogator also being tested!  I was trying to illustrate how to unmask a robot as quickly as possible, not how to distinguish yourself from one.  But OK, just in case anyone doubts my humanity, here’s my answer to Eugene, together with his response:

Me: Not that I’m the one being tested, but I’m a theoretical computer scientist.

Eugene: I have nice Celeron-667, by the way. I play games on it!

Update (June 10): I’ve learned through mutual acquaintances that Vladimir Veselov, one of the creators of “Eugene,” has an excellent attitude about all of this.  He’s under no delusions whatsoever about his fun and entertaining creation standing any chance against a serious interrogator.  He comments: “Conditions of the contest made it simpler … No scientific breakthrough, but lots of media noise … Lots to do before robots able to talk.”  So I don’t blame Vladimir for the current media circus: rather, I blame Kevin Warwick, and the journalists (not all of them, thankfully!) who uncritically repeated Warwick’s pronouncements.

Incidentally, I strongly encourage people to read Stuart Shieber’s classic paper, Lessons from a Restricted Turing Test (about Shieber’s experiences with the Loebner Prize competition).  This is the paper where Shieber introduces the pogo-stick analogy, and where he crisply explains why AI researchers don’t currently focus their energies on chatbot competitions.

Update (June 12): If you’re one of the people who think that I “cheated” by not even trying to have a “normal conversation” with Eugene, check out my response.

23, Me, and the Right to Misinterpret Probabilities

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you may have heard that 23andMe—the company that (until recently) let anyone spit into a capsule, send it away to a DNA lab, and then learn basic information about their ancestry, disease risks, etc.—has suspended much of its service, on orders from the US Food and Drug Administration.  As I understand it, on Nov. 25, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop marketing to new customers (though it can still serve existing customers), and on Dec. 5, the company stopped offering new health-related information to any customers (though you can still access the health information you had before, and ancestry and other non-health information is unaffected).

Of course, the impact of these developments is broader: within a couple weeks, “do-it-yourself genomics” has gone from an industry whose explosive growth lots of commentators took as a given, to one whose future looks severely in doubt (at least in the US).

The FDA gave the reasons for its order in a letter to Ann Wojcicki, 23andMe’s CEO.  Excerpts:

For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.  Assessments for drug responses carry the risks that patients relying on such tests may begin to self-manage their treatments through dose changes or even abandon certain therapies depending on the outcome of the assessment.  For example, false genotype results for your warfarin drug response test could have significant unreasonable risk of illness, injury, or death to the patient due to thrombosis or bleeding events that occur from treatment with a drug at a dose that does not provide the appropriately calibrated anticoagulant effect …  The risk of serious injury or death is known to be high when patients are either non-compliant or not properly dosed; combined with the risk that a direct-to-consumer test result may be used by a patient to self-manage, serious concerns are raised if test results are not adequately understood by patients or if incorrect test results are reported.

To clarify, the DNA labs that 23andMe uses are already government-regulated.  Thus, the question at issue here is not whether, if 23andMe claims (say) that you have CG instead of CC at some particular locus, the information is reliable.  Rather, the question is whether 23andMe should be allowed to tell you that fact, while also telling you that a recent research paper found that people with CG have a 10.4% probability of developing Alzheimer’s disease, as compared to a 7.2% base rate.  More bluntly, the question is whether ordinary schmoes ought to be trusted to learn such facts about themselves, without a doctor as an intermediary to interpret the results for them, or perhaps to decide that there’s no good reason for the patient to know at all.

Among medical experts, a common attitude seems to be something like this: sure, getting access to your own genetic data is harmless fun, as long as you’re an overeducated nerd who just wants to satisfy his or her intellectual curiosity (or perhaps narcissism).  But 23andMe crossed a crucial line when it started marketing its service to the hoi polloi, as something that could genuinely tell them about health risks.  Most people don’t understand probability, and are incapable of parsing “based on certain gene variants we found, your chances of developing diabetes are about 6 times higher than the baseline” as anything other than “you will develop diabetes.”  Nor, just as worryingly, are they able to parse “your chances are lower than the baseline” as anything other than “you won’t develop diabetes.”

I understand this argument.  Nevertheless, I find it completely inconsistent with a free society.  Moreover, I predict that in the future, the FDA’s current stance will be looked back upon as an outrage, with the subtleties in the FDA’s position mattering about as much as the subtleties in the Church’s position toward Galileo (“look, Mr. G., it’s fine to discuss heliocentrism among your fellow astronomers, as a hypothesis or a calculational tool—just don’t write books telling the general public that heliocentrism is literally true, and that they should change their worldviews as a result!”).  That’s why I signed this petition asking the FDA to reconsider its decision, and I encourage you to sign it too.

Here are some comments that might help clarify my views:

(1) I signed up for 23andMe a few years ago, as did the rest of my family.  The information I gained from it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering: I learned, for example, that my eyes are probably blue, that my ancestry is mostly Ashkenazi, that there’s a risk my eyesight will further deteriorate as I age (the same thing a succession of ophthalmologists told me), that I can’t taste the bitter flavor in brussels sprouts, and that I’m an “unlikely sprinter.”  On the other hand, seeing exactly which gene variants correlate with these things, and how they compare to the variants my parents and brother have, was … cool.  It felt like I imagine it must have felt to buy a personal computer in 1975.  In addition, I found nothing the slightest bit dishonest about the way the results were reported.  Each result was stated explicitly in terms of probabilities—giving both the baseline rate for each condition, and the rate conditioned on having such-and-such gene variant—and there were even links to the original research papers if I wanted to read them myself.  I only wish that I got half as much context and detail from conventional doctor visits—or for that matter, from most materials I’ve read from the FDA itself.  (When Dana was pregnant, I was pleasantly surprised when some of the tests she underwent came back with explicit probabilities and base rates.  I remember wishing doctors would give me that kind of information more often.)

(2) From my limited reading and experience, I think it’s entirely possible that do-it-yourself genetic testing is overhyped; that it won’t live up to its most fervent advocates’ promises; that for most interesting traits there are just too many genes involved, via too many labyrinthine pathways, to make terribly useful predictions about individuals, etc.  So it’s important to me that, in deciding whether what 23andMe does should be legal, we’re not being asked to decide any of these complicated questions!  We’re only being asked whether the FDA should get to decide the answers in advance.

(3) As regular readers will know, I’m far from a doctrinaire libertarian.  Thus, my opposition to shutting down 23andMe is not at all a corollary of reflexive opposition to any government regulation of anything.  In fact, I’d be fine if the FDA wanted to insert a warning message on 23andMe (in addition to the warnings 23andMe already provides), emphasizing that genetic tests only provide crude statistical information, that they need to be interpreted with care, consult your doctor before doing anything based on these results, etc.  But when it comes to banning access to the results, I have trouble with some of the obvious slippery slopes.  E.g., what happens when some Chinese or Russian company launches a competing service?  Do we ban Americans from mailing their saliva overseas?  What happens when individuals become able just to sequence their entire genomes, and store and analyze them on their laptops?  Do we ban the sequencing technology?  Or do we just ban software that makes it easy enough to analyze the results?  If the software is hard enough to use, so only professional biologists use it, does that make it OK again?  Also, if the FDA will be in the business of banning genomic data analysis tools, then what about medical books?  For that matter, what about any books or websites, of any kind, that might cause someone to make a poor medical decision?  What would such a policy, if applied consistently, do to the multibillion-dollar alternative medicine industry?

(4) I don’t understand the history of 23andMe’s interactions with the FDA.  From what I’ve read, though, they have been communicating for five years, with everything 23andMe has said in public sounding conciliatory rather than defiant (though the FDA has accused 23andMe of being tardy with its responses).  Apparently, the key problem is simply that the FDA hasn’t yet developed a regulatory policy specifically for direct-to-consumer genetic tests.  It’s been considering such a policy for years—but in the meantime, it believes no one should be marketing such tests for health purposes before a policy exists.  Alas, there are very few cases where I’d feel inclined to support a government in saying: “X is a new technology that lots of people are excited about.  However, our regulatory policies haven’t yet caught up to X.  Therefore, our decision is that X is banned, until and unless we figure out how to regulate it.”  Maybe I could support such a policy, if X had the potential to level cities and kill millions.  But when it comes to consumer DNA tests, this sort of preemptive banning seems purposefully designed to give wet dreams to Ayn Rand fans.

(5) I confess that, despite everything I’ve said, my moral intuitions might be different if dead bodies were piling up because of terrible 23andMe-inspired medical decisions.  But as far as I know, there’s no evidence so far that even a single person was harmed.  Which isn’t so surprising: after all, people might run to their doctor terrified about something they learned on 23onMe, but no sane doctor would ever make a decision solely on that basis, without ordering further tests.

I was right: Congress’s attack on the NSF widens

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Last month, I blogged about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) passing an amendment blocking the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research.  I wrote:

This sort of political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline.  (What’s next, an amendment banning computer science research, unless it has applications to scheduling baseball games or slicing apple pies?)

In the comments section of that post, I was pilloried by critics, who ridiculed my delusional fears about an anti-science witch hunt.  Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about, and that everyone agrees are worthy.  Well, today I write to inform you that I was right, and my critics were wrong.  For the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time, let me repeat that:

I was right, and my critics were wrong.

In this case, like in countless others, my “paranoid fears” about what could happen turned out to be preternaturally well-attuned to what would happen.

According to an article in Science, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the ironically-named House Science Committee, held two hearings in which he “floated the idea of having every NSF grant application [in every field] include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people.’ ”  Connoisseurs of NSF proposals will know that every proposal already includes a “Broader Impacts” section, and that that section often borders on comic farce.  (“We expect further progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem to enthrall middle-school students and other members of the local community, especially if they happen to belong to underrepresented groups.”)  Now progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem also has to directly—directly—“benefit the American people.”  It’s not enough for such research to benefit science—arguably the least bad, least wasteful enterprise our sorry species has ever managed—and for science, in turn, to be a principal engine of the country’s economic and military strength, something that generally can’t be privatized because of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, and something that economists say has repaid public investments many, many times over.  No, the benefit now needs to be “direct.”

The truth is, I find myself strangely indifferent to whether Smith gets his way or not.  On the negative side, sure, a pessimist might worry that this could spell the beginning of the end for American science.  But on the positive side, I would have been proven so massively right that, even as I held up my “Will Prove Quantum Complexity Theorems For Food” sign on a street corner or whatever, I’d have something to crow about until the end of my life.