Archive for the ‘Obviously I’m Not Defending Aaronson’ Category

The Zeroth Commandment

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.” –Deuteronomy 30:19

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” –Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, 1955


I first met Robin Hanson, professor of economics at George Mason University, in 2005, after he and I had exchanged emails about Aumann’s agreement theorem.  I’d previously read Robin’s paper about that theorem with Tyler Cowen, which is called Are Disagreements Honest?, and which stands today as one of the most worldview-destabilizing documents I’ve ever read.  In it, Robin and Tyler develop the argument that you can’t (for example) assert that

  1. you believe that extraterrestrial life probably exists,
  2. your best friend believes it probably doesn’t, and
  3. you and your friend are both honest, rational people who understand Bayes’ Theorem; you just have a reasonable difference of opinion about the alien question, presumably rooted in differing life experiences or temperaments.

For if, to borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan, you “wish to pursue the question courageously,” then you need to consider “indexical hypotheticals”: possible worlds where you and your friend swapped identities.  As far as the Bayesian math is concerned, the fact that you’re you, and your friend is your friend, is just one more contingent fact to conditionalize on: something that might affect what private knowledge you have, but that has no bearing on whether extraterrestrial life exists or doesn’t.  Once you grasp this point, so the argument goes, you should be just as troubled by the fact that your friend disagrees with you, as you would be were the disagreement between two different aspects of your self.  To put it differently: there might be a billion flavors of irrationality, but insofar as people can talk to each other and are honest and rational, they should converge on exactly the same conclusions about every matter of fact, even ones as remote-sounding as the existence of extraterrestrial life.

When I read this, my first reaction was that it was absurdly wrong and laughable.  I confess that I was even angry, to see something so counter to everything I knew asserted with such blithe professorial confidence.  Yet, in a theme that will surely be familiar with anyone who’s engaged with Robin or his writing, I struggled to articulate exactly why the argument was wrong.  My first guess was that, just like typical straitjacketed economists, Robin and Tyler had simply forgotten that real humans lack unlimited time to think and converse with each other.  Putting those obvious limitations back into the theory, I felt, would surely reinstate the verdict of common sense, that of course two people can agree to disagree without violating any dictates of rationality.

Now, if only I’d had the benefit of a modern education on Twitter and Facebook, I would’ve known that I could’ve stopped right there, with the first counterargument that popped into my head.  I could’ve posted something like the following on all my social media accounts:

“Hanson and Cowen, typical narrow-minded economists, ludicrously claim that rational agents with common priors can’t agree to disagree. They stupidly ignore the immense communication and computation that reaching agreement would take.  Why are these clowns allowed to teach?  SAD!”

Alas, back in 2003, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the epistemological revolution wrought by the 280-character smackdown, so I got the idea into my head that I actually needed to prove my objection was as devastating as I thought.  So I sat down with pen and paper for some hours—and discovered, to my astonishment, that my objection didn’t work at all.  According to my complexity-theoretic refinement of Aumann’s agreement theorem, which I later published in STOC’2005, two Bayesian agents with a common prior can ensure that they agree to within ±ε about the value of a [0,1]-valued random variable, with probability at least 1-δ over their shared prior, by exchanging only O(1/(δε2)) bits of information—completely independent of how much knowledge the agents have.  My conclusion was that, if Aumann’s Nobel-prizewinning theorem fails to demonstrate the irrationality of real-life disagreements, then it’s not for reasons of computational or communication efficiency; it has to be for other reasons instead.  (See also my talk on this at the SPARC summer camp.)

In my and Robin’s conversations—first about Aumann’s theorem, then later about the foundations of quantum mechanics and AI and politics and everything else you can imagine—Robin was unbelievably generous with his time and insights, willing to spend days with me, then a totally unknown postdoc, to get to the bottom of whatever was the dispute at hand.  When I visited Robin at George Mason, I got to meet his wife and kids, and see for myself the almost comical contrast between the conventional nature of his family life and the destabilizing radicalism (some would say near-insanity) of his thinking.  But I’ll say this for Robin: I’ve met many eccentric intellectuals in my life, but I have yet to meet anyone whose curiosity is more genuine than Robin’s, or whose doggedness in following a chain of reasoning is more untouched by considerations of what all the cool people will say about him at the other end.

So if you believe that the life of the mind benefits from a true diversity of opinions, from thinkers who defend positions that actually differ in novel and interesting ways from what everyone else is saying—then no matter how vehemently you disagree with any of his views, Robin seems like the prototype of what you want more of in academia.  To anyone who claims that Robin’s apparent incomprehension of moral taboos, his puzzlement about social norms, are mere affectations masking some sinister Koch-brothers agenda, I reply: I’ve known Robin for years, and while I might be ignorant of many things, on this I know you’re mistaken.  Call him wrongheaded, naïve, tone-deaf, insensitive, even an asshole, but don’t ever accuse him of insincerity or hidden agendas.  Are his open, stated agendas not wild enough for you??

In my view, any assessment of Robin’s abrasive, tone-deaf, and sometimes even offensive intellectual style has to grapple with the fact that, over his career, Robin has originated not one but several hugely important ideas—and his ability to do so strikes me as clearly related to his style, not easily detachable from it.  Most famously, Robin is one of the major developers of prediction markets, and also the inventor of futarchy—a proposed system of government that would harness prediction markets to get well-calibrated assessments of the effects of various policies.  Robin also first articulated the concept of the Great Filter in the evolution of life in our universe.  It’s Great Filter reasoning that tells us, for example, that if we ever discover fossil microbial life on Mars (or worse yet, simple plants and animals on extrasolar planets), then we should be terrified, because it would mean that several solutions to the Fermi paradox that don’t involve civilizations like ours killing themselves off would have been eliminated.  Sure, once you say it, it sounds pretty obvious … but did you think of it?

Earlier this year, Robin published a book together with Kevin Simler, entitled The Elephant In The Brain: Hidden Motives In Everyday Life.  I was happy to provide feedback on the manuscript and then to offer a jacket blurb (though the publisher cut nearly everything I wrote, leaving only that I considered the book “a masterpiece”).  The book’s basic thesis is that a huge fraction of human behavior, possibly the majority of it, is less about its ostensible purpose than about signalling what kind of people we are—and that this has implications for healthcare and education spending, among many other topics.  (Thus, the book covers some of the same ground as The Case Against Education, by Robin’s GMU colleague Bryan Caplan, which I reviewed here.)

I view The Elephant In The Brain as Robin’s finest work so far, though a huge part of the credit surely goes to Kevin Simler.  Robin’s writing style tends to be … spare.  telegraphic.  He gives you the skeleton of an argument, but leaves it to you to add the flesh, the historical context and real-world examples and caveats.  And he never holds your hand by saying anything like: “I know this is going to sound weird, but…”  Robin doesn’t care how weird it sounds.  With EITB, you get the best of both worlds: Robin’s unique-on-this-planet trains of logic, and Kevin’s considerable gifts at engaging prose.  It’s a powerful combination.

I’m by no means an unqualified Hanson fan.  If you’ve ever felt completely infuriated by Robin—if you’ve ever thought, fine, maybe this guy turned out to be unpopularly right some other times, but this time he’s really just being willfully and even dangerously obtuse—then know that I’ve shared that feeling more than most over the past decade.  I recall in particular a lecture that Robin gave years ago in which he argued—and I apologize to Robin if I mangle a detail, but this was definitely the essence—that even if you grant that anthropogenic climate change will destroy human civilization and most complex ecosystems hundreds of years from now, that’s not necessarily something you should worry about, because if you apply the standard exponential time-discounting that economists apply to everything else, along with reasonable estimates for the monetary value of everything on earth, you discover that all life on earth centuries from now just isn’t worth very much in today’s dollars.

On hearing this, the familiar Hanson-emotions filled me: White-hot, righteous rage.  Zeal to cut Robin down, put him in his place, for the sake of all that’s decent in humanity.  And then … confusion about where exactly his argument fails.

For whatever it’s worth, I’d probably say today that Robin is wrong on this, because economists’ exponential discounting implicitly assumes that civilization’s remarkable progress of the last few centuries will continue unabated, which is the very point that the premise of the exercise denies.  But notice what I can’t say: “shut up Robin, we’ve all heard this right-wing libertarian nonsense before.”  Even when Robin spouts nonsense, it’s often nonsense that no one has heard before, brought back from intellectual continents that wouldn’t be on the map had Robin not existed.


So why am I writing about Robin now?  If you haven’t been living in a non-wifi-equipped cave, you probably know the answer.

A week ago, alas, Robin blogged his confusion about why the people most concerned about inequalities of wealth, never seem to be concerned about inequalities of romantic and sexual fulfillment—even though, in other contexts, those same people would probably affirm that relationships are much more important to their personal happiness than wealth is.  As a predictable result of his prodding this angriest hornet’s-nest on the planet, Robin has now been pilloried all over the Internet, in terms that make the attacks on me three years ago over the comment-171 affair look tender and kind by comparison.  The attacks included a Slate hit-piece entitled “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?” (though see also this in-depth followup interview), a Wonkette post entitled “This Week In Garbage Men: Incels Sympathizers [sic] Make Case for Redistribution of Vaginas,” and much more.  Particularly on Twitter, Robin’s attackers have tended to use floridly profane language, and to target his physical appearance and assumed sexual proclivities and frustrations; some call for his firing or death.  I won’t link to the stuff; you can find it.

Interestingly, many of the Twitter attacks assume that Robin himself must be an angry “incel” (short for “involuntary celibate”), since who else could treat that particular form of human suffering as worthy of reply?  Few seem to have done the 10-second research to learn that, in reality, Robin is a happily married father of two.

I noticed the same strange phenomenon during the comment-171 affair: commentators on both left and right wanted to make me the poster child for “incels,” with a few offering me advice, many swearing they would’ve guessed it immediately from my photograph.  People apparently didn’t read just a few paragraphs into my story—to the part where, once I finally acquired some of the norms that mainstream culture refuses to tell people, I enjoyed a normal or even good dating life, eventually marrying a brilliant fellow theoretical computer scientist, with whom I started raising a rambunctious daughter (who’s now 5, and who’s been joined by our 1-year-old son).  If not for this happy ending, I too might have entertained my critics’ elaborate theories about my refusal to accept my biological inferiority, my simply having lost the genetic lottery (ability to do quantum computing research notwithstanding).  But what can one do faced with the facts?


For the record: I think that Robin should never, ever have made this comparison, and I wish he’d apologize for it now.  Had he asked my advice, I would’ve screamed “DON’T DO IT” at the top of my lungs.  I once contemplated such a comparison myself—and even though it was many years ago, in the depths of a terrifying relapse of the suicidal depression that had characterized much of my life, I still count it among my greatest regrets.  I hereby renounce and disown the comparison forever.  And I beg forgiveness from anyone who was hurt or offended by it—or for that matter, by anything else I ever said, on this blog or elsewhere.

Indeed, let me go further: if you were ever hurt or offended by anything I said, and if I can make partial restitution to you by taking some time to field your questions about quantum computing and information, or math, CS, and physics more generally, or academic career advice, or anything else where I’m said to know something, please shoot me an email.  I’m also open to donating to your favorite charity.

My view is this: the world in which a comparison between the sufferings of the romantically and the monetarily impoverished could increase normal people’s understanding of the former, is so different from our world as to be nearly unrecognizable.  To say that this comparison is outside the Overton window is a comic understatement: it’s outside the Overton galaxy.  Trying to have the conversation that Robin wanted to have on social media, is a little like trying to have a conversation about microaggressions in 1830s Alabama.  At first, your listeners will simply be confused—but their confusion will be highly unstable, like a Higgs boson, and will decay in about 10-22 seconds into righteous rage.

For experience shows that, if you even breathe a phrase like “the inequality of romantic and sexual fulfillment,” no one who isn’t weird in certain ways common in the hard sciences (e.g., being on the autism spectrum) will be able to parse you as saying anything other than that sex ought to be “redistributed” by the government in the same way that money is redistributed, which in turn suggests a dystopian horror scenario where women are treated like property, married against their will, and raped.  And it won’t help if you shout from the rooftops that you want nothing of this kind, oppose it as vehemently as your listeners do.  For, not knowing what else you could mean, the average person will continue to impose the nightmare scenario on anything you say, and will add evasiveness and dishonesty to the already severe charges against you.

Before going any further in this post, let me now say that any male who wants to call himself my ideological ally ought to agree to the following statement.

I hold the bodily autonomy of women—the principle that women are freely-willed agents rather than the chattel they were treated as for too much of human history; that they, not their fathers or husbands or anyone else, are the sole rulers of their bodies; and that they must never under any circumstances be touched without their consent—to be my Zeroth Commandment, the foundation-stone of my moral worldview, the starting point of every action I take and every thought I think.  This principle of female bodily autonomy, for me, deserves to be chiseled onto tablets of sapphire, placed in a golden ark adorned with winged cherubim sitting atop a pedestal inside the Holy of Holies in a temple on Mount Moriah.

This, or something close to it, is really what I believe.  And I advise any lonely young male nerd who might be reading this blog to commit to the Zeroth Commandment as well, and to the precepts of feminism more broadly.

To such a nerd, I say: yes, throughout your life you’ll encounter many men and women who will despise you for being different, in ways that you’re either powerless to change, or could change only at the cost of renouncing everything you are.  Yet, far from excusing any moral lapses on your part, this hatred simply means that you need to adhere to a higher moral standard than most people.  For whenever you stray even slightly from the path of righteousness, the people who detest nerds will leap excitedly, seeing irrefutable proof of all their prejudices.  Do not grant them that victory.  Do not create a Shanda fur die Normies.

I wish I believed in a God who could grant you some kind of eternal salvation, in return for adhering to a higher moral standard throughout your life, and getting in return at best grudging toleration, as well as lectures about your feminist failings by guys who’ve obeyed the Zeroth Commandment about a thousandth as scrupulously as you have.  As an atheist, though, the most I can offer you is that you can probably understand the proof of Cantor’s theorem, while most of those who despise you probably can’t.  And also: as impossible as it might seem right now, there are ways that even you can pursue the ordinary, non-intellectual kinds of happiness in life, and there will be many individuals along the way ready to help you: the ones who remember their humanity and forget their ideology.  I wish you the best.


Amid the many vitriolic responses to Robin—fanned, it must be admitted, by Robin’s own refusal to cede any ground to his critics, or to modulate his style or tone in the slightest—the one striking outlier was a New York Times essay by Ross Douthat.  This essay, which has itself now been widely panned, uses Robin as an example of how, in Douthat’s words, “[s]ometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.  Douthat draws an interesting parallel between Robin and the leftist feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who recently published a beautifully-written essay in the London Review of Books entitled Does anyone have the right to sex?  In analyzing that question, Srinivasan begins by discussing male “incels,” but then shifts her attention to far more sympathetic cases: women and men suffering severe physical or mental disabilities (and who, in some countries, can already hire sexual surrogates with government support); who were disfigured by accidents; who are treated as undesirable for racist reasons.  Let me quote from her conclusion:

The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion … the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values … The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.

All over social media, there are howls of outrage that Douthat would dare to mention Srinivasan’s essay, which is wise and nuanced and humane, in the same breath as the gross, creepy, entitled rantings of Robin Hanson.  I would say: grant that Srinivasan and Hanson express themselves extremely differently, and also that Srinivasan is a trillion times better than Hanson at anticipating and managing her readers’ reactions.  Still, on the merits, is there any relevant difference between the two cases beyond: “undesirability” of the disabled, fat, and trans should be critically examined and interrogated, because those people are objects of progressive sympathy; whereas “undesirability” of nerdy white and Asian males should be taken as a brute fact or even celebrated, because those people are objects of progressive contempt?

To be fair, a Google search also turns up progressives who, dissenting from the above consensus, excoriate Srinivasan for her foray, however thoughtful, into taboo territory.  As best I can tell, the dissenters’ argument runs like so: as much as it might pain us, we must not show any compassion to women and men who are suicidally lonely and celibate by virtue of being severely disabled, disfigured, trans, or victims of racism.  For if we did, then consistency might eventually force us to show compassion to white male nerds as well.


Here’s the central point that I think Robin failed to understand: society, today, is not on board even with the minimal claim that the suicidal suffering of men left behind by the sexual revolution really exists—or, if it does, that it matters in the slightest or deserves any sympathy or acknowledgment whatsoever.  Indeed, the men in question pretty much need to be demonized as entitled losers and creeps, because if they weren’t, then sympathy for them—at least, for those among them who are friends, coworkers, children, siblings—might become hard to prevent.  In any event, it seems to me that until we as a society resolve the preliminary question, of whether to recognize a certain category of suffering as real, there’s no point even discussing how policy or culture might help to address the suffering, consistently with the Zeroth Commandment.

Seen in this light, Robin is a bit like the people who email me every week imagining they can prove P≠NP, yet who can’t even prove astronomically easier statements, even ones that are already known.  When trying to scale an intellectual Everest, you might as well start with the weakest statement that’s already unproven or non-obvious or controversial.

So where are we today?  Within the current Overton window, a perfectly appropriate response to suicidal loneliness and depression among the “privileged” (i.e., straight, able-bodied, well-educated white or Asian men) seems to be: “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum, and remove your garbage DNA from the gene pool.”  If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter.  I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted, by people who probably go to sleep every night congratulating themselves for their progressivism, their egalitarianism, and—of course—their burning hatred for anything that smacks of eugenics.

A few days ago, Ellen Pao, the influential former CEO of Reddit, tweeted:

CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?

Thankfully, even many leftists reacted with horror to Pao’s profoundly illiberal question.  They wondered about the logistics she had in mind: does she want tech companies to spy on their (straight, male) employees’ sex lives, or lack thereof?  If any are discovered who are (1) celibate and (2) bitter at the universe about it, then will it be an adequate defense against firing if they’re also feminists, who condemn misogyny and violence and affirm the Zeroth Commandment?  Is it not enough that these men were permanently denied the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the one right above physical safety); must they also be denied careers as a result?  And is this supposed to prevent their radicalization?

For me, the scariest part of Pao’s proposal is that, whatever in this field is on the leftmost fringe of the Overton window today, experience suggests we’ll find it smack in the center a decade from now.  So picture a future wherein, if you don’t support rounding up and firing your company’s romantically frustrated—i.e., the policy of “if you don’t get laid, you don’t get paid”—then that itself is a shockingly reactionary attitude, and grounds for your own dismissal.

Some people might defend Pao by pointing out that she was only asking a question, not proposing a specific policy.  But then, the same is true of Robin Hanson.


Why is it so politically difficult even to show empathy toward socially awkward, romantically challenged men—to say to them, “look, I don’t know what if anything can be done about your problem, but yeah, the sheer cosmic arbitrariness of it kind of sucks, and I sympathize with you”?  Why do enlightened progressives, if they do offer such words of comfort to their “incel” friends, seem to feel about it the same way Huck Finn did, at the pivotal moment in Western literature when he decides to help his friend Jim escape from slavery—i.e., not beaming with pride over his own moral courage, but ashamed of himself, and resigned that he’ll burn in hell for the sake of a mere personal friendship?

This is a puzzle, but I think I might know the answer.  We begin with the observation that virtually every news article, every thinkpiece, every blog post about “incels,” fronts contemptible mass murderers like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, who sought bloody revenge on a world that failed to provide them the women to whom they felt entitled; as well as various Internet forums (many recently shut down) where this subhuman scum was celebrated by other scum.

The question is: why don’t people look at the broader picture, as they’ve learned to do in so many other cases?  In other words, why don’t they say:

  • There really do exist extremist Muslims, who bomb schools and buses, or cheer and pass out candies when that happens, and who wish to put the entire world under Sharia on point of the sword.  Fortunately, the extremists are outnumbered by hundreds of millions of reasonable Muslims, with whom anyone, even a Zionist Jew like me, can have a friendly conversation in which we discuss our respective cultures’ grievances and how they might be addressed in a win-win manner.  (My conversations with Iranian friends sometimes end with us musing that, if only they made them Ayatollah and me Israeli Prime Minister, we could sign a peace accord next week, then go out for kebabs and babaganoush.)
  • There really are extremist leftists—Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-whateverists—who smash store windows, kill people (or did, in the 60s), and won’t be satisfied by anything short of the total abolition of private property and the heads of the capitalists lining the streets on pikes.  But they’re vastly outnumbered by the moderate progressives, like me, who are less about proletarian revolution than they are about universal healthcare, federal investment in science and technology, a carbon tax, separation of church and state, and stronger protection of national parks.
  • In exactly the same way, there are “incel extremists,” like Rodger or Minassian, spiteful losers who go on killing sprees because society didn’t give them the sex they were “owed.”  But they’re outnumbered by tens of millions of decent, peaceful people who could reasonably be called “incels”—those who desperately want romantic relationships but are unable to achieve them, because of extreme shyness, poor social skills, tics, autism-spectrum traits, lack of conventional attractiveness, bullying, childhood traumas, etc.—yet who’d never hurt a fly.  These moderates need not be “losers” in all aspects of life: many have fulfilling careers and volunteer and give to charity and love their nieces and nephews, some are world-renowned scientists and writers.  For many of the moderates, it might be true that recent cultural shifts exacerbated their problems; that an unlucky genetic dice-roll “optimized” them for a world that no longer exists.  These people deserve the sympathy and support of the more fortunate among us; they constitute a political bloc entitled to advocate for its interests, as other blocs do; and all decent people should care about how we might help them, consistently with the Zeroth Commandment.

The puzzle, again, is: why doesn’t anyone say this?

And I think the answer is simply that no one ever hears from “moderate incels.”  And the reason, in turn, becomes obvious the instant you think about it.  Would you volunteer to march at the front of the Lifelong Celibacy Awareness Parade?  Or to be identified by name as the Vice President of the League of Peaceful and Moderate Incels?  Would you accept such a social death warrant?  It takes an individual with extraordinary moral courage, such as Scott Alexander, even to write anything whatsoever about this issue that tries to understand or help the sufferers rather than condemn them.  For this reason—i.e., purely, 100% a selection effect, nothing more—the only times the wider world ever hears anything about “incels” is when some despicable lunatic like Rodger or Minassian snaps and murders the innocent.  You might call this the worst PR problem in the history of the world.


So what’s the solution?  While I’m not a Christian, I find that Jesus’ prescription of universal compassion has a great deal to recommend it here—applied liberally, like suntan lotion, to every corner of the bitter “SJW vs. incel” online debate.

The usual stereotype of nerds is that, while we might be good at memorizing facts or proving theorems or coding up filesystems, we’re horrendously deficient in empathy and compassion, constantly wanting to reduce human emotions to numbers in spreadsheets or something.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I’ve scarcely encountered any stereotype that rings falser to my experience.  In my younger, depressed phase, when I was metaphorically hanging on to life by my fingernails, it was nerds and social misfits who offered me their hands up, while many of the “normal, well-adjusted, socially competent” people gleefully stepped on my fingers.

But my aspiration is not merely that we nerds can do just as well at compassion as those who hate us.  Rather, I hope we can do better.  This isn’t actually such an ambitious goal.  To achieve it, all we need to do is show universal, Jesus-style compassion, to politically favored and disfavored groups alike.

To me that means: compassion for the woman facing sexual harassment, or simply quizzical glances that wonder what she thinks she’s doing pursuing a PhD in physics.  Compassion for the cancer patient, for the bereaved parent, for the victim of famine.  Compassion for the undocumented immigrant facing deportation.  Compassion for the LGBT man or woman dealing with self-doubts, ridicule, and abuse.  Compassion for the nerdy male facing suicidal depression because modern dating norms, combined with his own shyness and fear of rule-breaking, have left him unable to pursue romance or love.  Compassion for the woman who feels like an ugly, overweight, unlovable freak who no one will ask on dates.  Compassion for the African-American victim of police brutality.  Compassion even for the pedophile who’d sooner kill himself than hurt a child, but who’s been given no support for curing or managing his condition.  This is what I advocate.  This is my platform.

If I ever decided to believe the portrait of me painted by Arthur Chu, or the other anti-Aaronson Twitter warriors, then I hope I’d have the moral courage to complete their unstated modus ponens, by quietly swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills.  After all, Chu’s vision of the ideal future seems to have no more room for me in it than Eichmann’s did.  But the paradoxical corollary is that, every time I remind myself why I think Chu is wrong, it feels like a splendorous affirmation of life itself.  I affirm my love for my wife and children and parents and brother, my bonds with my friends around the world, the thrill of tackling a new research problem and sharing my progress with colleagues, the joy of mentoring students of every background and religion and gender identity, the smell of fresh-baked soft pretzels and the beauty of the full moon over the Mediterranean.  If I had to find pearls in manure, I’d say: with their every attack, the people who hate me give me a brand-new opportunity to choose life over death, and better yet to choose compassion over hatred—even compassion for the haters themselves.

(Far be it from me to psychoanalyze him, as he constantly does to me, but Chu’s unremitting viciousness doesn’t strike me as coming from a place of any great happiness with his life.  So I say: may even Mr. Chu find whatever he’s looking for.  And while his utopia might have no place for me, I’m determined that mine should have a place for him—even if it’s just playing Jeopardy! and jumping around to find the Daily Doubles.)

It’s a commonplace that sometimes, the only way you can get a transformative emotional experience—like awe at watching the first humans walk on the moon, or joy at reuniting with a loved one after a transatlantic flight—is on top of a mountain of coldly rational engineering and planning.  But the current Robin Hanson affair reminds us that the converse is true as well.  I.e., the only way we can have the sort of austere, logical, norm-flouting conversations about the social world that Robin has been seeking to have for decades, without the whole thing exploding in thermonuclear anger, is on top of a mountain of empathy and compassion.  So let’s start building that mountain.


Endnotes. Already, in my mind’s eye, I can see the Twitter warriors copying and sharing whichever sentence of this post angered them the most, using it as proof that I’m some lunatic who should never be listened to about anything. I’m practically on my hands and knees begging you here: show that my fears are unjustified.  Respond, by all means, but respond to the entirety of what I had to say.

I welcome comments, so long as they’re written in a spirit of kindness and mutual respect. But because writing this post was emotionally and spiritually draining for me–not to mention draining in, you know, time—I hope readers won’t mind if I spend a day or two away, with my wife and kids and my research, before participating in the comments myself.


Update (May 7). Numerous commenters have successfully convinced me that the word “incel,” though it literally just means “involuntary celibate,” and was in fact coined by a woman to describe her own experience, has been permanently disgraced by its association with violent misogynists and their online fan clubs.  It will never again regain its original meaning, any more than “Adolf” will ever again be just a name; nor will one be able to discuss “moderate incels” as distinct from the extremist kind.  People of conscience will need to be extremely vigilant against motte-and-bailey tactics—wherein society’s opinion-makers will express their desire for all “incels” to be silenced or fired or removed from the gene pool or whatever, obviously having in mind all romantically frustrated male nerds (all of whom they despise), and will fall back when challenged (and only when challenged) on the defense that they only meant the violence-loving misogynists.  For those of us motivated by compassion rather than hatred, though, we need another word.  I suggest the older term “love-shy,” coined by Brian Gilmartin in his book on the subject.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out this comment by “Sniffnoy” for many insightful criticisms of this post, most of which I endorse.

What I believe II (ft. Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery)

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Unrelated Update: To everyone who keeps asking me about the “new” P≠NP proof: I’d again bet $200,000 that the paper won’t stand, except that the last time I tried that, it didn’t achieve its purpose, which was to get people to stop asking me about it. So: please stop asking, and if the thing hasn’t been refuted by the end of the week, you can come back and tell me I was a closed-minded fool.


In my post “The Kolmogorov Option,” I tried to step back from current controversies, and use history to reflect on the broader question of how nerds should behave when their penchant for speaking unpopular truths collides head-on with their desire to be kind and decent and charitable, and to be judged as such by their culture.  I was gratified to get positive feedback about this approach from men and women all over the ideological spectrum.

However, a few people who I like and respect accused me of “dogwhistling.” They warned, in particular, that if I wouldn’t just come out and say what I thought about the James Damore Google memo thing, then people would assume the very worst—even though, of course, my friends themselves knew better.

So in this post, I’ll come out and say what I think.  But first, I’ll do something even better: I’ll hand the podium over to two friends, Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery, both of whom were kind enough to email me detailed thoughts in response to my Kolmogorov post.


Sarah Constantin completed her PhD in math at Yale. I don’t think I’ve met her in person yet, but we have a huge number of mutual friends in the so-called “rationalist community.”  Whenever Sarah emails me about something I’ve written, I pay extremely close attention, because I have yet to read a single thing by her that wasn’t full of insight and good sense.  I strongly urge anyone who likes her beautiful essay below to check out her blog, which is called Otium.

Sarah Constantin’s Commentary:

I’ve had a women-in-STEM essay brewing in me for years, but I’ve been reluctant to actually write publicly on the topic for fear of stirring up a firestorm of controversy.  On the other hand, we seem to be at a cultural inflection point on the issue, especially in the wake of the leaked Google memo, and other people are already scared to speak out, so I think it’s past time for me to put my name on the line, and Scott has graciously provided me a platform to do so.

I’m a woman in tech myself. I’m a data scientist doing machine learning for drug discovery at Recursion Pharmaceuticals, and before that I was a data scientist at Palantir. Before that I was a woman in math — I got my PhD from Yale, studying applied harmonic analysis. I’ve been in this world all my adult life, and I obviously don’t believe my gender makes me unfit to do the work.

I’m also not under any misapprehension that I’m some sort of exception. I’ve been mentored by Ingrid Daubechies and Maryam Mirzakhani (the first female Fields Medalist, who died tragically young last month).  I’ve been lucky enough to work with women who are far, far better than me.  There are a lot of remarkable women in math and computer science — women just aren’t the majority in those fields. But “not the majority” doesn’t mean “rare” or “unknown.”

I even think diversity programs can be worthwhile. I went to the Institute for Advanced Studies’ Women and Math Program, which would be an excellent graduate summer school even if it weren’t all-female, and taught at its sister program for high school girls, which likewise is a great math camp independent of the gender angle. There’s a certain magic, if you’re in a male-dominated field, of once in a while being in a room full of women doing math, and I hope that everybody gets to have that experience once.  

But (you knew the “but” was coming), I think the Google memo was largely correct, and the way people conventionally talk about women in tech is wrong.

Let’s look at some of his claims. From the beginning of the memo:

  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression

Okay, so there’s a pervasive assumption that any deviation from 50% representation of women in technical jobs is a.) due to oppression, and b.) ought to be corrected by differential hiring practices. I think it is basically true that people widely believe this, and that people can lose their jobs for openly contradicting it (as James Damore, the author of the memo, did).  I have heard people I work with advocating hiring quotas for women (i.e. explicitly earmarking a number of jobs for women candidates only).  It’s not a strawman.

Then, Damore disagrees with this assumption:

  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

Again, I agree with Damore. Note that this doesn’t mean that I must believe that sexism against women isn’t real and important (I’ve heard enough horror stories to be confident that some work environments are toxic to women).  It doesn’t even mean that I must be certain that the different rates of men and women in technical fields are due to genetics.  I’m very far from certain, and I’m not an expert in psychology. I don’t think I can do justice to the science in this post, so I’m not going to cover the research literature.

But I do think it’s irresponsible to assume a priori that there are no innate sex differences that might explain what we see.  It’s an empirical matter, and a topic for research, not dogma.

Moreover, I think discrimination on the basis of sex to reach equal representation is unfair and unproductive.  It’s unfair, because it’s not meritocratic.  You’re not choosing the best human for the job regardless of gender.

I think women might actually benefit from companies giving genuine meritocracy a chance. “Blind” auditions (in which the evaluator doesn’t see the performer) gave women a better chance of landing orchestra jobs; apparently, orchestras were prejudiced against female musicians, and the blinding canceled out that prejudice. Google’s own research has actually shown that the single best predictor of work performance is a work sample — testing candidates with a small project similar to what they’d do on the job. Work samples are easy to anonymize to reduce gender bias, and they’re more effective than traditional interviews, where split-second first impressions usually decide who gets hired, but don’t correlate at all with job performance. A number of tech companies have switched to work samples as part of their interview process.  I used work samples myself when I was hiring for a startup, just because they seemed more accurate at predicting who’d be good at the job; entirely without intending to, I got a 50% gender ratio.  If you want to reduce gender bias in tech, it’s worth at least considering blinded hiring via work samples.

Moreover, thinking about “representation” in science and technology reflects underlying assumptions that I think are quite dangerous.

You expect interest groups to squabble over who gets a piece of the federal budget. In politics, people will band together in blocs, and try to get the biggest piece of the spoils they can.  “Women should get such-and-such a percent of tech jobs” sounds precisely like this kind of politicking; women are assumed to be a unified bloc who will vote together, and the focus is on what size chunk they can negotiate for themselves. If a tech job (or a university position) were a cushy sinecure, a ticket to privilege, and nothing more, you might reasonably ask “how come some people get more goodies than others? Isn’t meritocracy just an excuse to restrict the goodies to your preferred group?”

Again, this is not a strawman. Here’s one Vox response to the memo stating explicitly that she believes women are a unified bloc:

The manifesto’s sleight-of-hand delineation between “women, on average” and the actual living, breathing women who have had to work alongside this guy failed to reassure many of those women — and failed to reassure me. That’s because the manifesto’s author overestimated the extent to which women are willing to be turned against their own gender.

Speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me how soothingly a man coos that I’m not like most women, when those coos are accompanied by misogyny against most women. I am a woman. I do not stop being one during the parts of the day when I am practicing my craft. There can be no realistic chance of individual comfort for me in an environment where others in my demographic categories (or, really, any protected demographic categories) are subjected to skepticism and condescension.

She can’t be comfortable unless everybody in any protected demographic category — note that this is a legal, governmental category — is given the benefit of the doubt?  That’s a pretty collectivist commitment!

Or, look at Piper Harron, an assistant professor in math who blogged on the American Mathematical Society’s website that universities should simply “stop hiring white cis men”, and explicitly says “If you are on a hiring committee, and you are looking at applicants and you see a stellar white male applicant, think long and hard about whether your department needs another white man. You are not hiring a researching robot who will output papers from a dark closet. You are hiring an educator, a role model, a spokesperson, an advisor, a committee person … There is no objectivity. There is no meritocracy.”

Piper Harron reflects an extreme, of course, but she’s explicitly saying, on America’s major communication channel for and by mathematicians, that whether you get to work in math should not be based on whether you’re actually good at math. For her, it’s all politics.  Life itself is political, and therefore a zero-sum power struggle between groups.  

But most of us, male or female, didn’t fall in love with science and technology for that. Science is the mission to explore and understand our universe. Technology is the project of expanding human power to shape that universe. What we do towards those goals will live longer than any “protected demographic category”, any nation, any civilization.  We know how the Babylonians mapped the stars.

Women deserve an equal chance at a berth on the journey of exploration not because they form a political bloc but because some of them are discoverers and can contribute to the human mission.

Maybe, in a world corrupted by rent-seeking, the majority of well-paying jobs have some element of unearned privilege; perhaps almost all of us got at least part of our salaries by indirectly expropriating someone who had as good a right to it as us.

But that’s not a good thing, and that’s not what we hope for science and engineering to be, and I truly believe that this is not the inevitable fate of the human race — that we can only squabble over scraps, and never create.  

I’ve seen creation, and I’ve seen discovery. I know they’re real.

I care a lot more about whether my company achieves its goal of curing 100 rare diseases in 10 years than about the demographic makeup of our team.  We have an actual mission; we are trying to do something beyond collecting spoils.  

Do I rely on brilliant work by other women every day? I do. My respect for myself and my female colleagues is not incompatible with primarily caring about the mission.

Am I “turning against my own gender” because I see women as individuals first? I don’t think so. We’re half the human race, for Pete’s sake! We’re diverse. We disagree. We’re human.

When you think of “women-in-STEM” as a talking point on a political agenda, you mention Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper in passing, and move on to talking about quotas.  When you think of women as individuals, you start to notice how many genuinely foundational advances were made by women — just in my own field of machine learning, Adele Cutler co-invented random forests, Corrina Cortes co-invented support vector machines, and Fei Fei Li created the famous ImageNet benchmark dataset that started a revolution in image recognition.

As a child, my favorite book was Carl Sagan’s Contact, a novel about Ellie Arroway, an astronomer loosely based on his wife Ann Druyan. The name is not an accident; like the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Ellie is a truth-seeking scientist who battles corruption, anti-intellectualism, and blind prejudice.  Sexism is one of the challenges she faces, but the essence of her life is about wonder and curiosity. She’s what I’ve always tried to become.

I hope that, in seeking to encourage the world’s Ellies in science and technology, we remember why we’re doing that in the first place. I hope we remember humans are explorers.


Now let’s hear from another friend who wrote to me recently, and who has a slightly different take.  Stacey Jeffery is a quantum computing theorist at one of my favorite research centers, CWI in Amsterdam.  She completed her PhD at University of Waterloo, and has done wonderful work on quantum query complexity and other topics close to my heart.  When I was being viciously attacked in the comment-171 affair, Stacey was one of the first people to send me a note of support, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Stacey Jeffery’s Commentary

I don’t think Google was right to fire Damore. This makes me a minority among people with whom I have discussed this issue.  Hopefully some people come out in the comments in support of the other position, so it’s not just me presenting that view, but the main argument I encountered was that what he said just sounded way too sexist for Google to put up with.  I agree with part of that, it did sound sexist to me.  In fact it also sounded racist to me. But that’s not because he necessarily said anything actually sexist or actually racist, but because he said the kinds of things that you usually only hear from sexist people, and in particular, the kind of sexist people who are also racist.  I’m very unlikely to try to pursue further interaction with a person who says these kinds of things for those reasons, but I think firing him for what he said between the lines sets a very bad precedent.  It seems to me he was fired for associating himself with the wrong ideas, and it does feel a bit like certain subjects are not up for rational discussion.  If Google wants an open environment, where employees can feel safe discussing company policy, I don’t think this contributes to that.  If they want their employees, and the world, to think that they aim for diversity because it’s the most rational course of action to achieve their overall objectives, rather than because it serves some secret agenda, like maintaining a PC public image, then I don’t think they’ve served that cause either.  Personally, this irritates me the most, because I feel they have damaged the image for a cause I feel strongly about.

My position is independent of the validity of Damore’s attempt at scientific argument, which is outside my area of expertise.  I personally don’t think it’s very productive for non-social-scientists to take authoritative positions on social science issues, especially ones that appear to be controversial within the field (but I say this as a layperson).  This may include some of the other commentary in this blog post, which I have not yet read, and might even extend to Scott’s decision to comment on this issue at all (but this bridge was crossed in the previous blog post).  However, I think one of the reasons that many of us do this is that the burden of solving the problem of too few women in STEM is often placed on us.  Some people in STEM feel they are blamed for not being welcoming enough to women (in fact, in my specific field, it’s my experience that the majority of people are very sympathetic).  Many scientific funding applications even ask applicants how they plan to address the issue of diversity, as if they should be the ones to come up with a solution for this difficult problem that nobody knows the answer to, and is not even within their expertise.  So it’s not surprising when these same people start to think about and form opinions on these social science issues.  Obviously, we working in STEM have valuable insight into how we might encourage women to pursue STEM careers, and we should be pushed to think about this, but we don’t have all the answers (and maybe we should remember that the next time we consider authoring an authoritative memo on the subject).


Scott’s Mansplaining Commentary

I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah and Stacey for sharing their views.  Now it’s time for me to mansplain my own thoughts in light of what they said.  Let me start with a seven-point creed.

1. I believe that science and engineering, both in academia and in industry, benefit enormously from contributions from people of every ethnic background and gender identity.  This sort of university-president-style banality shouldn’t even need to be said, but in a world where the President of the US criticizes neo-Nazis only under extreme pressure from his own party, I suppose it does.

2. I believe that there’s no noticeable difference in average ability between men and women in STEM fields—or if there’s some small disparity, for all I know the advantage goes to women. I have enough Sheldon Cooper in me that, if this hadn’t been my experience, I’d probably let it slip that it hadn’t been, but it has been.  When I taught 6.045 (undergrad computability and complexity) at MIT, women were only 20% or so of the students, but for whatever reasons they were wildly overrepresented among the top students.

3. I believe that women in STEM face obstacles that men don’t.  These range from the sheer awkwardness of sometimes being the only woman in a room full of guys, to challenges related to pregnancy and childcare, to actual belittlement and harassment.  Note that, even if men in STEM fields are no more sexist on average than men in other fields—or are less sexist, as one might expect from their generally socially liberal views and attitudes—the mere fact of the gender imbalance means that women in STEM will have many more opportunities to be exposed to whatever sexists there are.  This puts a special burden on us to create a welcoming environment for women.

4. Given that we know that gender gaps in interest and inclination appear early in life, I believe in doing anything we can to encourage girls’ interest in STEM fields.  Trust me, my four-year-old daughter Lily wishes I didn’t believe so fervently in working with her every day on her math skills.

5. I believe that gender diversity is valuable in itself.  It’s just nicer, for men and women alike, to have a work environment with many people of both sexes—especially if (as is often the case in STEM) so much of our lives revolves around our work.  I think that affirmative action for women, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other current efforts to improve gender diversity can all be defended and supported on that ground alone.

6. I believe that John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women is one of the masterpieces of history, possibly the highest pinnacle that moral philosophy has ever reached.  Everyone should read it carefully and reflect on it if they haven’t already.

7. I believe it’s a tragedy that the current holder of the US presidency is a confessed sexual predator, who’s full of contempt not merely for feminism, but for essentially every worthwhile human value. I believe those of us on the “pro-Enlightenment side” now face the historic burden of banding together to stop this thug by every legal and peaceful means available. I believe that, whenever the “good guys” tear each other down in internecine warfare—e.g. “nerds vs. feminists”—it represents a wasted opportunity and an unearned victory for the enemies of progress.

OK, now for the part that might blow some people’s minds.  I hold that every single belief above is compatible with what James Damore wrote in his now-infamous memo—at least, if we’re talking about the actual words in it.  In some cases, Damore even makes the above points himself.  In particular, there’s nothing in what he wrote about female Googlers being less qualified on average than male Googlers, or being too neurotic to code, or anything like that: the question at hand is just why there are fewer women in these positions, and that in turn becomes a question about why there are fewer women earlier in the CS pipeline.  Reasonable people need not agree about the answers to those questions, or regard them as known or obvious, to see that the failure to make this one elementary distinction, between quality and quantity, already condemns 95% of Damore’s attackers as not having read or understood what he wrote.

Let that be the measure of just how terrifyingly efficient the social-media outrage machine has become at twisting its victims’ words to fit a clickbait narrative—a phenomenon with which I happen to be personally acquainted.  Strikingly, it seems not to make the slightest difference if (as in this case) the original source text is easily available to everyone.

Still, while most coverage of Damore’s memo was depressing in its monotonous incomprehension, dissent was by no means confined to the right-wingers eager to recruit Damore to their side.  Peter Singer—the legendary leftist moral philosopher, and someone whose fearlessness and consistency I’ve always admired whether I’ve agreed with him or not—wrote a powerful condemnation of Google’s decision to fire Damore.  Scott Alexander was brilliant as usual in picking apart bad arguments.  Megan McArdle drew on her experiences to illustrate some of Damore’s contentions.  Steven Pinker tweeted that Damore’s firing “makes [the] job of anti-Trumpists harder.”

Like Peter Singer, and also like Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery above, I have no plans to take any position on biological differences in male and female inclinations and cognitive styles, and what role (if any) such differences might play in 80% of Google engineers being male—or, for that matter, what role they might play in 80% of graduating veterinarians now being female, or other striking gender gaps.  I decline to take a position not only because I’m not an expert, but also because, as Singer says, doing so isn’t necessary to reach the right verdict about Damore’s firing.  It suffices to note that the basic thesis being discussed—namely, that natural selection doesn’t stop at the neck, and that it’s perfectly plausible that it acted differently on women and men in ways that might help explain many of the population-level differences that we see today—can also be found in, for example, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and other mainstream works by some of the greatest thinkers alive.

And therefore I say: if James Damore deserves to be fired from Google, for treating evolutionary psychology as potentially relevant to social issues, then Steven Pinker deserves to be fired from Harvard for the same offense.

Yes, I realize that an employee of a private company is different from a tenured professor.  But I don’t see why it’s relevant here.  For if someone really believes that mooting the hypothesis of an evolutionary reason for average differences in cognitive styles between men and women, is enough by itself to create a hostile environment for women—well then, why should tenure be a bar to firing, any more than it is in cases of sexual harassment?

But the reductio needn’t stop there.  It seems to me that, if Damore deserves to be fired, then so do the 56% of Googlers who said in a poll that they opposed his firing.  For isn’t that 56% just as responsible for maintaining a hostile environment as Damore himself was? (And how would Google find out which employees opposed the firing? Well, if there’s any company on earth that could…)  Furthermore, after those 56% of Googlers are fired, any of the remaining 44% who think the 56% shouldn’t have been fired should be fired as well!  And so on iteratively, until only an ideologically reliable core remains, which might or might not be the empty set.

OK, but while the wider implications of Damore’s firing have frightened and depressed me all week, as I said, I depart from Damore on the question of affirmative action and other diversity policies.  Fundamentally, what I want is a sort of negotiated agreement or bargain, between STEM nerds and the wider culture in which they live.  The agreement would work like this: STEM nerds do everything they can to foster diversity, including by creating environments that are welcoming for women, and by supporting affirmative action, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other diversity policies.  The STEM nerds also agree never to talk in public about possible cognitive-science explanations for gender disparities in which careers people choose, or overlapping bell curves,  or anything else potentially inflammatory.  In return, just two things:

  1. Male STEM nerds don’t regularly get libelled as misogynist monsters, who must be scaring all the women away with their inherently gross, icky, creepy, discriminatory brogrammer maleness.
  2. The fields beloved by STEM nerds are suffered to continue to exist, rather than getting destroyed and rebuilt along explicitly ideological lines, as already happened with many humanities and social science fields.

So in summary, neither side advances its theories about the causes of gender gaps; both sides simply agree that there are more interesting topics to explore.  In concrete terms, the social-justice side gets to retain 100% of what it has now, or maybe even expand it.  And all it has to offer in exchange is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T“!  Like, don’t smear and shame male nerds as a class, or nerdy disciplines themselves, for gender gaps that the male nerds would be as happy as anybody to see eradicated.

The trouble is that, fueled by outrage-fests on social media, I think the social-justice side is currently failing to uphold its end of this imagined bargain.  Nearly every day the sun rises to yet another thinkpiece about the toxic “bro culture” of Silicon Valley: a culture so uniquely and incorrigibly misogynist, it seems, that it still intentionally keeps women out, even after law and biology and most other white-collar fields have achieved or exceeded gender parity, their own “bro cultures” notwithstanding.  The trouble with this slander against male STEM nerds, besides its fundamental falsity (which Scott Alexander documented), is that puts the male nerds into an impossible position.  For how can they refute the slander without talking about other possible explanations for fields like CS being 80% male, which is the very thing we all know they’re not supposed to talk about?

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the Church would sometimes enjoy forcing the local Jews into “disputations” about whose religion was the true one.  At these events, a popular tactic on the Church’s side was to make statements that the Jews couldn’t possibly answer without blaspheming the name of Christ—which, of course, could lead to the Jews’ expulsion or execution if they dared it.

Maybe I have weird moral intuitions, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more contemptible act of intellectual treason, than deliberately trapping your opponents between surrender and blasphemy.  I’d actually rather have someone force me into one or the other, than make me choose, and thereby make me responsible for whichever choice I made.  So I believe the social-justice left would do well to forswear this trapping tactic forever.

Ironically, I suspect that in the long term, doing so would benefit no entity more than the social-justice left itself.  If I had to steelman, in one sentence, the argument that in the space of one year propelled the “alt-right” from obscurity in dark and hateful corners of the Internet, to the improbable and ghastly ascent of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist brigade to the most powerful office on earth, the argument would be this:

If the elites, the technocrats, the “Cathedral”-dwellers, were willing to lie to the masses about humans being blank slates—and they obviously were—then why shouldn’t we assume that they also lied to us about healthcare and free trade and guns and climate change and everything else?

We progressives deluded ourselves that we could permanently shame our enemies into silence, on pain of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other blasphemies.  But the “victories” won that way were hollow and illusory, and the crumbling of the illusion brings us to where we are now: with a vindictive, delusional madman in the White House who has a non-negligible chance of starting a nuclear war this week.

The Enlightenment was a specific historical period in 18th-century Europe.  But the term can also be used much more broadly, to refer to every trend in human history that’s other than horrible.  Seen that way, the Enlightenment encompasses the scientific revolution, the abolition of slavery, the decline of all forms of violence, the spread of democracy and literacy, and the liberation of women from domestic drudgery to careers of their own choosing.  The invention of Google, which made the entire world’s knowledge just a search bar away, is now also a permanent part of the story of the Enlightenment.

I fantasize that, within my lifetime, the Enlightenment will expand further to tolerate a diversity of cognitive styles—including people on the Asperger’s and autism spectrum, with their penchant for speaking uncomfortable truths—as well as a diversity of natural abilities and inclinations.  Society might or might not get the “demographically correct” percentage of Ellie Arroways—Ellie might decide to become a doctor or musician rather than an astronomer, and that’s fine too—but most important, it will nurture all the Ellie Arroways that it gets, all the misfits and explorers of every background.  I wonder whether, while disagreeing on exactly what’s meant by it, all parties to this debate could agree that diversity represents a next frontier for the Enlightenment.


Comment Policy: Any comment, from any side, that attacks people rather than propositions will be deleted.  I don’t care if the comment also makes useful points: if it contains a single ad hominem, it’s out.

As it happens, I’m at a quantum supremacy workshop in Bristol, UK right now—yeah, yeah, I’m a closet supremacist after all, hur hur—so I probably won’t participate in the comments until later.

The Social Justice Warriors are right

Monday, May 29th, 2017

As you might know, I haven’t been exactly the world’s most consistent fan of the Social Justice movement, nor has it been the most consistent fan of me.

I cringe when I read about yet another conservative college lecture shut down by mob violence; or student protesters demanding the firing of a professor for trying gently to argue and reason with them; or an editor forced from his position for writing a (progressive) defense of “cultural appropriation”—a practice that I take to have been ubiquitous for all of recorded history, and without which there wouldn’t be any culture at all.  I cringe not only because I know that I was in the crosshairs once before and could easily be again, but also because, it seems to me, the Social Justice scalp-hunters are so astoundingly oblivious to the misdirection of their energies, to the power of their message for losing elections and neutering the progressive cause, to the massive gift their every absurdity provides to the world’s Fox Newses and Breitbarts and Trumps.

Yet there’s at least one issue where it seems to me that the Social Justice Warriors are 100% right, and their opponents 100% wrong. This is the moral imperative to take down every monument to Confederate “war heroes,” and to rename every street and school and college named after individuals whose primary contribution to the world was to defend chattel slavery.  As a now-Southerner, I have a greater personal stake here than I did before: UT Austin just recently removed its statue of Jefferson Davis, while keeping up its statue of Robert E. Lee.  My kids will likely attend what until very recently was called Robert E. Lee Elementary—this summer renamed Russell Lee Elementary.  (My suggestion, that the school be called T. D. Lee Parity Violation Elementary, was sadly never considered.)

So I was gratified that last week, New Orleans finally took down its monuments to slavers.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, setting out the reasons for the removal, is worth reading.

I used to have little patience for “merely symbolic” issues: would that offensive statues and flags were the worst problems!  But it now seems to me that the fight over Confederate symbols is just a thinly-veiled proxy for the biggest moral question that’s faced the United States through its history, and also the most urgent question facing it in 2017.  Namely: Did the Union actually win the Civil War? Were the anti-Enlightenment forces—the slavers, the worshippers of blood and land and race and hierarchy—truly defeated? Do those forces acknowledge the finality and the rightness of their defeat?

For those who say that, sure, slavery was bad and all, but we need to keep statues to slavers up so as not to “erase history,” we need only change the example. Would we similarly defend statues of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, looming over Berlin in heroic poses?  Yes, let Germans reflect somberly and often on this aspect of their heritage—but not by hoisting a swastika over City Hall.

For those who say the Civil War wasn’t “really” about slavery, I reply: this is the canonical example of a “Mount Stupid” belief, the sort of thing you can say only if you’ve learned enough to be wrong but not enough to be unwrong.  In 1861, the Confederate ringleaders themselves loudly proclaimed to future generations that, indeed, their desire to preserve slavery was their overriding reason to secede. Here’s CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens, in his famous Cornerstone Speech:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Here’s Texas’ Declaration of Secession:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

It was only when defeat looked inevitable that the slavers started changing their story, claiming that their real grievance was never about slavery per se, but only “states’ rights” (states’ right to do what, exactly?). So again, why should we take the slavers’ rationalizations any more seriously than we take the postwar epiphanies of jailed Nazis that actually, they’d never felt any personal animus toward Jews, that the Final Solution was just the world’s biggest bureaucratic mishap?  Of course there’s a difference: when the Allies occupied Germany, they insisted on de-Nazification.  They didn’t suffer streets to be named after Hitler. And today, incredibly, fascism and white nationalism are greater threats here in the US than they are in Germany.  One reads about the historic irony of some American Jews, who are eligible for German citizenship because of grandparents expelled from there, now seeking to move there because they’re terrified about Trump.

By contrast, after a brief Reconstruction, the United States lost its will to continue de-Confederatizing the South.  The leaders were left free to write book after book whitewashing their cause, even to hold political office again.  And probably not by coincidence, we then got nearly a hundred years of Jim Crow—and still today, a half-century after the civil rights movement, southern governors and legislatures that do everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters.

For those who ask: but wasn’t Robert E. Lee a great general who was admired by millions? Didn’t he fight bravely for a cause he believed in?  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m allergic to granting undue respect to history’s villains just because they managed to amass power and get others to go along with them.  I remember reading once in some magazine that, yes, Genghis Khan might have raped thousands and murdered millions, but since DNA tests suggest that ~1% of humanity is now descended from him, we should also celebrate Khan’s positive contribution to “peopling the world.” Likewise, Hegel and Marx and Freud and Heidegger might have been wrong in nearly everything they said, sometimes with horrific consequences, but their ideas still need to be studied reverently, because of the number of other intellectuals who took them seriously.  As I reject those special pleas, so I reject the analogous ones for Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and Robert E. Lee, who as far as I can tell, should all (along with the rest of the Confederate leadership) have been sentenced for treason.

This has nothing to do with judging the past by standards of the present. By all means, build statues to Washington and Jefferson even though they held slaves, to Lincoln even though he called blacks inferior even while he freed them, to Churchill even though he fought the independence of India.  But don’t look for moral complexity where there isn’t any.  Don’t celebrate people who were terrible even for their own time, whose public life was devoted entirely to what we now know to be evil.

And if, after the last Confederate general comes down, the public spaces are too empty, fill them with monuments to Alan Turing, Marian Rejewski, Bertrand Russell, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner, Mark Twain, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Frederick Douglass, Vasili Arkhipov, Stanislav Petrov, Raoul Wallenberg, even the inventors of saltwater taffy or Gatorade or the intermittent windshield wiper.  There are, I think, enough people who added value to the world to fill every city square and street sign.

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.

If I can’t do math, I don’t want to be part of your revolution

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

1. Emma Goldman, the fiery early-20th-century anarchist, is credited for giving the world the immortal refrain “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” (actually it’s not clear that she ever said it so pithily, but she did express such a thought).  Admittedly, no one would mistake me for either a dancer or an anarchist, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Goldman over her terpsichorean line in the sand.  The other day, it occurred to me that there’s a parallel sentence that sums up my entire political philosophy—on the one hand, my default instinct to side with the downtrodden and with the progressive left, but on the other, my dissent from any even vaguely anti-STEM, anti-rationality, or anti-nerd undercurrents, and my refusal to join any popular uprising that seems liable (for example) to delay the discovery of a P≠NP proof, by inconveniencing the people working on one.

So, here’s my sentence, which you should feel free to reprint on t-shirts and coffee mugs as desired:

If I can’t do math, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

2. Over at Scientific American‘s website, John Horgan posted an account of a workshop on Integrated Information Theory, which I attended a couple weeks ago at NYU (along with David Chalmers, Giulio Tononi, Christof Koch, Max Tegmark, and a dozen or so others).  I was the “official skeptic” of the workshop, and gave a talk based on my blog post The Unconscious Expander.  I don’t really agree with what Horgan says about physics and information in general, but I do (of course) join him in his skepticism of IIT, and he gives a pretty accurate summary of what people said at the workshop.  (Alas, my joke about my lunch not being poisoned completely bombed with the IIT crowd … as I should’ve predicted!)  The workshop itself was lots of fun; thanks so much to David, Giulio, and Hedda Hassel Morch for organizing it.

3. As you might have noticed, I’ve created a new category on this blog: “Obviously I’m Not Defending Aaronson.”  This category—reserved for posts that caused at least a hundred people to hate me—refers to a peculiar phrase I encountered over and over, in the social media threads denouncing me as a horrible person.  The phrase tends to occur in passages like: “look, obviously I’m not defending Aaronson, but it’s worth pointing out that, if you carefully reread everything he wrote, he never actually said that war orphans should be roasted alive and then eaten for fun.  That’s just something we all know that a clueless, arrogant nerd like him would think.”

4. Right now I’m at the “ThinkQ” conference at IBM in Yorktown Heights.  Here are the PowerPoint slides from my talk yesterday, entitled “The Largest Possible Quantum Speedups.”  Regular readers of this blog will find a lot that’s old and a little that’s new.

Talk, be merry, and be rational

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Yesterday I wrote a statement on behalf of a Scott Alexander SlateStarCodex/rationalist meetup, which happened last night at MIT (in the same room where I teach my graduate class), and which I’d really wanted to attend but couldn’t.  I figured I’d share the statement here:

I had been looking forward to attending tonight’s MIT SlateStarCodex meetup as I hardly ever look forward to anything. Alas, I’m now stuck in Chicago, with my flight cancelled due to snow, and with all flights for the next day booked up. But instead of continuing to be depressed about it, I’ve decided to be happy that this meetup is even happening at all—that there’s a community of people who can read, let’s say, a hypothetical debate moderator questioning Ben Carson about what it’s like to be a severed half-brain, and simply be amused, instead of silently trying to figure out who benefits from the post and which tribe the writer belongs to. (And yes, I know: the answer is the gray tribe.) And you can find this community anywhere—even in Cambridge, Massachusetts! Look, I spend a lot of time online, just getting more and more upset reading social justice debates that are full of people calling each other douchebags without even being able to state anything in the same galactic supercluster as the other side’s case. And then what gives me hope for humanity is to click over to the slatestarcodex tab, and to see all the hundreds of comments (way more than my blog gets) by people who disagree with each other but who all basically get it, who all have minds that don’t make me despair. And to realize that, when Scott Alexander calls an SSC meetup, he can fill a room just about anywhere … well, at least anywhere I would visit. So talk, be merry, and be rational.

I’m now back in town, and told by people who attended the meetup that it was crowded, disorganized, and great.  And now I’m off to Harvard, to attend the other Scott A.’s talk “How To Ruin A Perfectly Good Randomized Controlled Trial.”


Update (Nov. 24) Scott Alexander’s talk at Harvard last night was one of the finest talks I’ve ever attended. He was introduced to rapturous applause as simply “the best blogger on the Internet,” and as finally an important speaker, in a talk series that had previously wasted everyone’s time with the likes of Steven Pinker and Peter Singer. (Scott demurred that his most notable accomplishment in life was giving the talk at Harvard that he was just now giving.) The actual content, as Scott warned from the outset, was “just” a small subset of a basic statistics course, but Scott brought each point alive with numerous recent examples, from psychiatry, pharmacology, and social sciences, where bad statistics or misinterpretations of statistics were accepted by nearly everyone and used to set policy. (E.g., Alcoholics Anonymous groups that claimed an “over 95%” success rate, because the people who relapsed were kicked out partway through and not counted toward the total.) Most impressively, Scott leapt immediately into the meat, ended after 20 minutes, and then spent the next two hours just taking questions. Scott is publicity-shy, but I hope for others’ sake that video of the talk will eventually make its way online.

Then, after the talk, I had the honor of meeting two fellow Boston-area rationalist bloggers, Kate Donovan and Jesse Galef. Yes, I said “fellow”: for almost a decade, I’ve considered myself on the fringes of the “rationalist movement.” I’d hang out a lot with skeptic/effective-altruist/transhumanist/LessWrong/OvercomingBias people (who are increasingly now SlateStarCodex people), read their blogs, listen and respond to their arguments, answer their CS theory questions. But I was always vaguely uncomfortable identifying myself with any group that even seemed to define itself by how rational it was compared to everyone else (even if the rationalists constantly qualified their self-designation with “aspiring”!). Also, my rationalist friends seemed overly interested in questions like how to prevent malevolent AIs from taking over the world, which I tend to think we lack the tools to make much progress on right now (though, like with many other remote possibilities, I’m happy for some people to work on them and see if they find anything interesting).

So, what changed? Well, in the debates about social justice, public shaming, etc. that have swept across the Internet these past few years, it seems to me that my rationalist friends have proven themselves able to weigh opposing arguments, examine their own shortcomings, resist groupthink and hysteria from both sides, and attack ideas rather than people, in a way that the wider society—and most depressingly to me, the “enlightened, liberal” part of society—has often failed. In a real-world test (“real-world,” in this context, meaning social media…), the rationalists have walked the walk and rationaled the rational, and thus they’ve given me no choice but to stand up and be counted as one of them.

Have a great Thanksgiving, those of you in the US!


Another Update: Dana, Lily, and I had the honor of having Scott Alexander over for dinner tonight. I found this genius of human nature, who took so much flak last year for defending me, to be completely uninterested in discussing anything related to social justice or online shaming. Instead, his gaze was fixed on the eternal: he just wanted to grill me all evening about physics and math and epistemology. Having recently read this Nature News article by Ron Cowen, he kept asking me things like: “you say that in quantum gravity, spacetime itself is supposed to dissolve into some sort of network of qubits. Well then, how does each qubit know which other qubits it’s supposed to be connected to? Are there additional qubits to specify the connectivity pattern? If so, then doesn’t that cause an infinite regress?” I handwaved something about AdS/CFT, where a dynamic spacetime is supposed to emerge from an ordinary quantum theory on a fixed background specified in advance. But I added that, in some sense, he had rediscovered the whole problem of quantum gravity that’s confused everyone for almost a century: if quantum mechanics presupposes a causal structure on the qubits or whatever other objects it talks about, then how do you write down a quantum theory of the causal structures themselves?

I’m sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere about what I should spend my time on.

Ordinary Words Will Do

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Izabella Laba, a noted mathematician at the University of British Columbia, recently posted some tweets that used me as a bad, cautionary example for how “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.”  Here was the offending comment of mine, from the epic Walter Lewin thread last fall:

[W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people?  If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language.  Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil.  It’s bad writing.  More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse.  This isn’t quantum field theory.  Ordinary words will do.

Prof. Laba derisively commented:

Might as well ask you to explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous.”  Simple number arithmetic will do.

Prof. Laba’s tweets were favorited by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician who wrote the excellent popular book How Not to Be Wrong.  (Ellenberg had also criticized me last year for my strange, naïve idea that human relations can be thought about using logic.)

Given my respect for the critics, I guess I’m honor-bound to respond.

For the record, I tend not to think about the social sciences—or for that matter, the natural sciences—as monolithic entities at all.  I admire any honest attempt to discover the truth about anything.  And not being a postmodern relativist, I believe there are deep truths worth discovering in history, psychology, economics, linguistics, possibly even sociology.  Reading the books of Steven Pinker underscored for me how much is actually understood nowadays about human nature—much of it only figured out within the last half-century.  Likewise, reading the voluminous profundities of Scott Alexander taught me that even in psychiatry, there are truths (and even a few definite cures) to be had for those who seek.

I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS.  They’re harder because of the tenuousness of the correlations, because of the complexity of each individual human brain (let alone 7 billion of them on the same planet), but most of all, because politics and ideology and the scientist’s own biases place such powerful thumbs on the scale.  This makes it all the more impressive when a social scientist, like (say) Stanley Milgram or Judith Rich Harris or Napoleon Chagnon, teaches the world something important and new.

I will confess to contempt for anything that I regard as pompous obscurantism—for self-referential systems of jargon whose main purposes are to bar outsiders, to mask a lack of actual understanding, and to confer power on certain favored groups.  And I regard the need to be alert to such systems, to nip them in the bud before they grow into Lysenkoism, as in some sense the problem of intellectual life.  Which brings me to the most fundamental asymmetry between the hard and soft sciences.  Namely, the very fact that it’s so much harder to nurture new truths to maturity in the social sciences than it is in math or physics, means that in the former, the jargon-weeds have an easier time filling the void—and we know they’ve done it again and again, even in the post-Enlightenment West.

Time for a thought experiment.  Suppose you showed up at a university anytime between, let’s say, 1910 and 1970, and went from department to department asking (in so many words): what are you excited about this century?  Where are your new continents, what’s the future of your field?  Who should I read to learn about that future?

In physics, the consensus answer would’ve been something like: Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac.

In psychology, it would’ve been: Freud and Jung (with another faction for B. F. Skinner).

In politics and social sciences, over an enormous swath of academia (including in the West), it would’ve been: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin.

With hindsight, we now know that the physics advice would’ve been absolute perfection, the psychology and politics advice an unmitigated disaster.  Yes, physicists today know more than Einstein, can even correct him on some points, but the continents he revealed to us actually existed—indeed, have only become more important since Einstein’s time.

But Marx and Freud?  You would’ve done better to leave the campus, and ask a random person on the street what she or he thought about economics and psychology.  In high school, I remember cringing through a unit on the 1920s, when we learned about how “two European professors upset a war-weary civilization’s established certainties—with Einstein overturning received wisdom about space and time, and Freud doing just the same for the world of the mind.”  It was never thought important to add that Einstein’s theories turned out to be true while Freud’s turned out to be false.  Still, at least Freud’s ideas led “only” to decades of bad psychology and hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis, rather than to tens of millions of dead, as with the other social-scientific theory that reigned supreme among 20th-century academics.

Marx and Freud built impressive intellectual edifices—sufficiently impressive for a large fraction of intellectuals to have accepted those men as gurus on par with Darwin and Einstein for almost a century.  Yet on nearly every topic they wrote about, we now know that Marx and Freud couldn’t have been any more catastrophically wrong.  Moreover, their wrongness was knowable at the time—and was known to many, though the ones who knew were typically the ones who the intellectual leaders sneered at, as deluded reactionaries.

Which raises a question: suppose that, in the 1920s, I’d taken the social experts’ advice to study Marx and Freud, didn’t understand much of what they said (and found nonsensical much of what I did understand), and eventually rejected them as pretentious charlatans.  Then why wouldn’t I have been just like Prof. Laba’s ignorant rube, who dismisses calculus because he doesn’t understand technical terms like “continuous” and “derivative”?

On reflection, I don’t think that the two cases are comparable at all.

The hard sciences need technical vocabularies for a simple reason: because they’re about things that normal people don’t spend their hours obsessively worrying about.  Yes, I’d have a hard time understanding organic chemists or differential geometers, but largely for the same reasons I’d have a hard time understanding football fans or pirates.  It’s not just that I don’t understand the arguments; it’s that the arguments are about a world that’s alien to me (and that, to be honest, I don’t care about as much as I do my world).

Suppose, by contrast, that you’re writing about the topics everyone spends their time obsessively worrying about: politics, society, the human mind, the relations between the races and sexes.  In other words, suppose you’re writing about precisely the topics for which the ordinary English language has been honed over centuries—for which Shakespeare and Twain and Dr. King and so many others deployed the language to such spectacular effect.  In that case, what excuse could you possibly have to write in academese, to pepper your prose with undefined in-group neologisms?

Well, let’s be charitable; maybe you have a reason.  For example, maybe you’re doing a complicated meta-analysis of psychology papers, so you need to talk about r-values and kurtosis and heteroskedasticity.  Or maybe you’re putting people in an fMRI machine while you ask them questions, so you need to talk about the temporal resolution in the anterior cingulate cortex.  Or maybe you’re analyzing sibling rivalries using game theory, so you need Nash equilibria.  Or you’re picking apart sentences using Chomskyan formal grammar.  In all these cases, armchair language doesn’t suffice because you’re not just sitting in your armchair: you’re using a new tool to examine the everyday from a different perspective.  For present purposes, you might as well be doing algebraic geometry.

The Freudians and Marxists would, of course, claim that they’re doing the exact same thing.  Yes, they’d say, you thought you had the words to discuss your own mind or the power structure of society, but really you didn’t, because you lacked the revolutionary theoretical framework that we now possess.  (Trotsky’s writings  are suffused with this brand of arrogance in nearly every sentence: for example, when he ridicules the bourgeoisie liberals who whine about “human rights violations” in the early USSR, yet who are too dense to phrase their objections within the framework of dialectical materialism.)

I submit that, even without the hindsight of 2015, there would’ve been excellent reasons to be skeptical of these claims.  Has it ever happened, you might ask yourself, that someone sat in their study and mused about the same human questions that occupied Plato and Shakespeare and Hume, in the same human way they did, and then came up with a new, scientific conclusion that was as rigorous and secure as relativity or evolution?

Let me know if I missed something, but I can’t think of a single example.  Sure, it seems to me, there have been geniuses of human nature, who enlarged our vision without any recourse to the quantitative methods of science.  But even those geniuses “only” contributed melodies for other geniuses to answer in counterpoint, rather than stones for everyone who came later to build upon.  Also, the geniuses usually wrote well.

Am I claiming that progress is impossible in the social realm?  Not at all.  The emancipation of slaves, the end of dueling and blasphemy laws and the divine right of kings, women’s suffrage and participation in the workforce, gay marriage—all these strike me as crystal-clear examples of moral progress, as advances that will still be considered progress a thousand years from now, if there’s anyone around then to discuss such things.  Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, reciprocal altruism, and countless other developments likewise strike me as intellectual progress within the sciences of human nature.  But none of these advances needed recondite language!  Ordinary words sufficed for Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill, as they sufficed for Robert Axelrod and for Kahneman and Tversky.  So forgive me for thinking that whatever is true and important in the social world today, should likewise be defensible to every smart person in ordinary words, and that this represents a genuine difference between the social sciences and physics.

Which brings us to the central point that Prof. Laba disputed in that comment of mine.  I believe there are countless moral heroes in our time, as well as social scientists who struggle heroically to get the right answers.  But as far as I can tell, the people who build complex intellectual edifices around words like “privilege” and “delegitimation” and “entitlement” and “marginalized” are very much the same sort of people who, a few generations ago, built similar edifices around “bourgeoisie” and “dialectical” and “false consciousness.”  In both cases, there’s an impressive body of theory that’s held up as the equivalent in its domain of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Darwinism, with any skeptics denounced as science-deniers.  In both cases, enlightened liberals are tempted to side with the theorists, since the theorists believe in so many of the same causes that the enlightened liberals believe in, and hate so many of the same people who the enlightened liberals hate.  But in both cases, the theorists’ language seems to alternate between incomprehensible word-salad and fervid, often profanity-laced denunciations, skipping entirely over calm clarity.  And in both cases, the only thing that the impressive theoretical edifice ever seems to get used for, is to prove over and over that certain favored groups should get more power while disfavored ones should get less.

So I’m led to the view that, if you want to rouse people’s anger about injustice or their pity about preventable suffering, or end arbitrary discrimination codified into law, or give individuals more freedom to pursue their own happiness, or come up with a new insight about human nature, or simply describe the human realities that you see around you—for all these purposes, the words that sufficed for every previous generation’s great humanists will also suffice for you.

On the other hand, to restrict freedom and invent new forms of discrimination—and to do it in the name of equality and justice—that takes theory.  You’ll need a sophisticated framework, for example, to prove that even if two adults both insist they’re consenting to a relationship, really they might not be, because of power structures in the wider society that your superior insight lets you see.  You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?).  Finally, you’ll need oodles of theory (bring out the Marcuse) to explain why the neoliberal fanaticism about “free speech” and “tolerance” and “due process” and “the presumption of innocence” is too abstract and simplistic—for those concepts, too, fail to distinguish between a marginalized group that deserves society’s protection and a dominant group that doesn’t.

So I concede to Prof. Laba that the complicated discourse of privilege, hegemony, etc. serves a definite purpose for the people who wield it, just as much as the complicated discourse of quantum field theory serves a purpose for physicists.  It’s just that the purposes of the privilege-warriors aren’t my purposes.  For my purposes—which include fighting injustice, advancing every social and natural science as quickly as possible, and helping all well-meaning women and men see each other’s common humanity—I said last year and I say again that ordinary words will do.


Update (Oct. 26): Izabella Laba has written a response to this post, for which I’m extremely grateful. Her reply reveals that she and I have a great deal of common ground, and also a few clear areas of disagreement (e.g., what’s wrong with Steven Pinker?). But my most important objection is simply that, the first time I loaded her blog, the text went directly over the rock image in the background, making it impossible to read without highlighting it.

Celebrate gay marriage—and its 2065 equivalent

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

Yesterday was a historic day for the United States, and I was as delighted as everyone else I know.  I’ve supported gay marriage since the mid-1990s, when as a teenager, I read Andrew Hodges’ classic biography of Alan Turing, and burned with white-hot rage at Turing’s treatment.  In the world he was born into—our world, until fairly recently—Turing was “free”: free to prove the unsolvability of the halting problem, free to help save civilization from the Nazis, just not free to pursue the sexual and romantic fulfillment that nearly everyone else took for granted.  I resolved then that, if I was against anything in life, I was against the worldview that had hounded Turing to his death, or anything that even vaguely resembled it.

So I’m proud for my country, and I’m thrilled for my gay friends and colleagues and relatives.  At the same time, seeing my Facebook page light up with an endless sea of rainbow flags and jeers at Antonin Scalia, there’s something that gnaws at me.  To stand up for Alan Turing in 1952 would’ve taken genuine courage.  To support gay rights in the 60s, 70s, 80s, even the 90s, took courage.  But celebrating a social change when you know all your friends will upvote you, more than a decade after the tide of history has made the change unstoppable?  It’s fun, it’s righteous, it’s justified, I’m doing it myself.  But let’s not kid ourselves by calling it courageous.

Do you want to impress me with your moral backbone?  Then go and find a group that almost all of your Facebook friends still consider it okay, even praiseworthy, to despise and mock, for moral failings that either aren’t failings at all or are no worse than the rest of humanity’s.  (I promise: once you start looking, it shouldn’t be hard to find.)  Then take a public stand for that group.

How can we fight online shaming campaigns?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Longtime friend and colleague Boaz Barak sent me a fascinating New York Times Magazine article that profiles people who lost their jobs or otherwise had their lives ruined, because of a single remark that then got amplified a trillionfold in importance by social media.  (The author, Jon Ronson, also has a forthcoming book on the topic.)  The article opens with Justine Sacco: a woman who, about to board a flight to Cape Town, tweeted “Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m white!”

To the few friends who read Sacco’s Twitter feed, it would’ve been obvious that she was trying to mock the belief of many well-off white people that they live in a bubble, insulated from the problems of the Third World; she wasn’t actually mocking black Africans who suffer from AIDS.  In a just world, maybe Sacco deserved someone to take her aside and quietly explain that her tweet might be read the wrong way, that she should be more careful next time.  Instead, by the time she landed in Cape Town, she learned that she’d become the #1 worldwide Twitter trend and a global symbol of racism.  She lost her career, she lost her entire previous life, and tens of thousands of people expressed glee about it.  The article rather heartbreakingly describes Sacco’s attempts to start over.

There are many more stories like the above.  Some I’d already heard about: the father of three who lost his job after he whispered a silly joke involving “dongles” to the person next to him at a conference, whereupon Adria Richards, a woman in front of him, snapped his photo and posted it to social media, to make an example of him as a sexist pig.  (Afterwards, a counter-reaction formed, which successfully got Richards fired from her job: justice??)  Other stories I hadn’t heard.

Reading this article made it clear to me just how easily I got off, in my own recent brush with the online shaming-mobs.  Yes, I made the ‘mistake’ of writing too openly about my experiences as a nerdy male teenager, and the impact that one specific aspect of feminist thought (not all of feminism!) had had on me.  Within the context of the conversation that a few nerdy men and women were having on this blog, my opening up led to exactly the results I was hoping for: readers thoughtfully sharing their own experiences, a meaningful exchange of ideas, even (dare I say it?) glimmers of understanding and empathy.

Alas, once the comment was wrested from its original setting into the clickbait bazaar, the story became “MIT professor explains: the real oppression is having to learn to talk to women” (the title of Amanda Marcotte’s hit-piece, something even some in Marcotte’s ideological camp called sickeningly cruel).  My photo was on the front page of Salon, next to the headline “The plight of the bitter nerd.”  I was subjected to hostile psychoanalysis not once but twice on ‘Dr. Nerdlove,’ a nerd-bashing site whose very name drips with irony, rather like the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’  There were tweets and blog comments that urged MIT to fire me, that compared me to a mass-murderer, and that “deduced” (from first principles!) all the ways in which my parents screwed up in raising me and my female students cower in fear of me.   And yes, when you Google me, this affair now more-or-less overshadows everything else I’ve done in my life.

But then … there were also hundreds of men and women who rose to my defense, and they were heavily concentrated among the people I most admire and respect.  My supporters ranged from the actual female students who took my classes or worked with me or who I encouraged in their careers, from whom there was only kindness, not a single negative word; to the shy nerds who thanked me for being one of the only people to acknowledge their reality; to the lesbians and bisexual women who told me my experience also resonated with them; to the female friends and colleagues who sent me notes urging me to ignore the nonsense.  In the end, not only have I not lost any friends over this, I’ve gained new ones, and I’ve learned new sides of the friends I had.

Oh, and I didn’t get any death threats: I guess that’s good!  (Once in my life I did get death threats—graphic, explicit threats, about which I had to contact the police—but it was because I refused to publicize someone’s P=NP proof.)

Since I was away from campus when this blew up, I did feel some fear about the professional backlash that would await me on my return.  Would my office be vandalized?  Would activist groups be protesting my classes?  Would MIT police be there to escort me from campus?

Well, you want to know what happened instead?  Students and colleagues have stopped me in the hall, or come by my office, just to say they support me.  My class has record enrollment this term.  I was invited to participate in MIT’s Diversity Summit, since the organizers felt it would mean a lot to the students to see someone there who had opened up about diversity issues in STEM in such a powerful way.  (I regretfully had to decline, since the summit conflicted with a trip to Stanford.)  And an MIT graduate women’s reading group invited me for a dinner discussion (at my suggestion, Laurie Penny participated as well).  Imagine that: not only are MIT’s women’s groups not picketing me, they’re inviting me over for dinner!  Is there any better answer to the claim, urged on me by some of my overzealous supporters, that the bile of Amanda Marcotte represents all of feminism these days?

Speaking of which, I met Laurie Penny for coffee last month, and she and I quickly hit it off.  We’ve even agreed to write a joint blog post about our advice for shy nerds.  (In my What I Believe post, I had promised a post of advice for shy female nerds—but at Laurie’s urging, we’re broadening the focus to shy nerds of both sexes.)  Even though Laurie’s essay is the thing that brought me to the attention of the Twitter-mobs (which wasn’t Laurie’s intent!), and even though I disagreed with several points in her essay, I knew on reading it that Laurie was someone I’d enjoy talking to.  Unlike so much writing by online social justice activists, which tends to be encrusted with the specialized technical terms of that field—you know, terms like “asshat,” “shitlord,” “douchecanoe,” and “precious feefees of entitled white dudes”—Laurie’s prose shone with humanity and vulnerability: her own, which she freely shared, and mine, which she generously acknowledged.

Overall, the response to my comment has never made me happier or more grateful to be part of the STEM community (I never liked the bureaucratic acronym “STEM,” but fine, I’ll own it).  To many outsiders, we STEM nerds are a sorry lot: we’re “sperglords” (yes, slurs are fine, as long as they’re directed against the right targets!) who might be competent in certain narrow domains, but who lack empathy and emotional depth, and are basically narcissistic children.  Yet somehow when the chips were down, it’s my fellow STEM nerds, and people who hang out with STEM nerds a lot, who showed me far more empathy and compassion than many of the “normals” did.  So if STEM nerds are psychologically broken, then I say: may I surround myself, for the rest of my life, with men and women who are psychologically broken like I am.  May I raise Lily, and any future children I have, to be as psychologically broken as they can be.  And may I stay as far as possible from anyone who’s too well-adjusted.

I reserve my ultimate gratitude for the many women in STEM, friends and strangers alike, who sent me messages of support these past two months.  I’m not ashamed to say it: witnessing how so many STEM women stood up for me has made me want to stand up for them, even more than I did before.  If they’re not called on often enough in class, I’ll call on them more.  If they’re subtly discouraged from careers in science, I’ll blatantly encourage them back.  If they’re sexually harassed, I’ll confront their harassers myself (well, if asked to).  I will listen to them, and I will try to improve.

Is it selfish that I want to help female STEM nerds partly because they helped me?  Here’s the thing: one of my deepest moral beliefs is in the obligation to fight for those among the disadvantaged who don’t despise you, and who wouldn’t gladly rid the planet of everyone like you if they could.  (As I’ve written before, on issue after issue, this belief makes me a left-winger by American standards, and a right-winger by academic ones.)  In the present context, I’d say I have a massive moral obligation toward female STEM nerds and toward Laurie Penny’s version of feminism, and none at all toward Marcotte’s version.

All this is just to say that I’m unbelievably lucky—privileged (!)—to have had so many at MIT and elsewhere willing to stand up for me, and to have reached in a stage in life where I’m strong enough to say what I think and to weather anything the Internet says back.  What worries me is that others, more vulnerable, didn’t and won’t have it as easy when the Twitter hate-machine turns its barrel on them.  So in the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss the problem of what to do about social-media shaming campaigns that aim to, and do, destroy the lives of individuals.  I’m convinced that this is a phenomenon that’s only going to get more and more common: something sprung on us faster than our social norms have evolved to deal with it.  And it would be nice if we could solve it without having to wait for a few high-profile suicides.

But first, let me address a few obvious questions about why this problem is even a problem at all.

Isn’t social shaming as old as society itself—and permanent records of the shaming as old as print media?

Yes, but there’s also something fundamentally new about the problem of the Twitter-mobs.  Before, it would take someone—say, a newspaper editor—to make a conscious decision to the effect, “this comment is worth destroying someone’s life over.”  Today, there might be such an individual, but it’s also possible for lives to be destroyed in a decentralized, distributed fashion, with thousands of Twitterers collaborating to push a non-story past the point of no return.  And among the people who “break” the story, not one has to intend to ruin the victim’s life, or accept responsibility for it afterward: after all, each one made the story only ε bigger than it already was.  (Incidentally, this is one reason why I haven’t gotten a Twitter account: while it has many worthwhile uses, it’s also a medium that might as well have been designed for mobs, for ganging up, for status-seeking among allies stripped of rational arguments.  It’s like the world’s biggest high school.)

Don’t some targets of online shaming campaigns, y’know, deserve it?

Of course!  Some are genuine racists or misogynists or homophobes, who once would’ve been able to inflict hatred their entire lives without consequence, and were only brought down thanks to social media.  The trouble is, the participants in online shaming campaigns will always think they’re meting out righteous justice, whether they are or aren’t.  But there’s an excellent reason why we’ve learned in modern societies not to avenge even the worst crimes via lynch mobs.  There’s a reason why we have trials and lawyers and the opportunity for the accused to show their innocence.

Some might say that no safeguards are possible or necessary here, since we’re not talking about state violence, just individuals exercising their free speech right to vilify someone, demand their firing, that sort of thing.  Yet in today’s world, trial-by-Internet can be more consequential than the old kind of trial: would you rather spend a year in jail, but then be free to move to another town where no one knew about it, or have your Google search results tarnished with lurid accusations (let’s say, that you molested children) for the rest of your life—to have that forever prevent you from getting a job or a relationship, and have no way to correct the record?  With trial by Twitter, there’s no presumption of innocence, no requirement to prove that any other party was harmed, just the law of the schoolyard.

Whether shaming is justified in a particular case is a complicated question, but for whatever it’s worth, here are a few of the questions I would ask:

  • Did the person express a wish for anyone (or any group of people) to come to harm, or for anyone’s rights to be infringed?
  • Did the person express glee or mockery about anyone else’s suffering?
  • Did the person perpetrate a grievous factual falsehood—like, something one could prove was a falsehood in a court of law?
  • Did the person violate anyone else’s confidence?
  • How much does the speaker’s identity matter?  If it had been a man rather than a woman (or vice versa) saying parallel things, would we have taken equal offense?
  • Does the comment have what obscenity law calls “redeeming social value”?  E.g., does it express an unusual viewpoint, or lead to an interesting discussion?

Of course, even in those cases where shaming campaigns are justified, they’ll sometimes be unproductive and ill-advised.

Aren’t society’s most powerful fair targets for public criticism, even mocking or vicious criticism?

Of course.  Few would claim, for example, that we have an ethical obligation to ease up on Todd Akin over his “legitimate rape” remarks, since all the rage might give Akin an anxiety attack.  Completely apart from the (de)merits of the remarks, we accept that, when you become (let’s say) an elected official, a CEO, or a university president, part of the bargain is that you no longer get to complain if people organize to express their hatred of you.

But what’s striking about the cases in the NYT article is that it’s not public figures being gleefully destroyed: just ordinary people who in most cases, made one ill-advised joke or tweet, no worse than countless things you or I have probably said in private among friends.  The social justice warriors try to justify what would otherwise look like bullying by shifting attention away from individuals: sure, Justine Sacco might be a decent person, but she stands for the entire category of upper-middle-class, entitled white women, a powerful structural force against whom the underclass is engaged in a righteous struggle.  Like in a war, the enemy must be fought by any means necessary, even if it means picking off one hapless enemy foot-soldier to make an example to the rest.  And anyway, why do you care more about this one professional white woman, than about the millions of victims of racism?  Is it because you’re a racist yourself?

I find this line of thinking repugnant.  For it perverts worthy struggles for social equality into something callous and inhuman, and thereby undermines the struggles themselves.  It seems to me to have roughly the same relation to real human rights activism as the Inquisition did to the ethical teachings of Jesus.  It’s also repugnant because of its massive chilling effect: watching a few shaming campaigns is enough to make even the most well-intentioned writer want to hide behind a pseudonym, or only offer those ideas and experiences that are sure to win approval.  And the chilling effect is not some accidental byproduct; it’s the goal.  This negates what, for me, is a large part of the promise of the Internet: that if people from all walks of life can just communicate openly, everything made common knowledge, nothing whispered or secondhand, then all the well-intentioned people will eventually come to understand each other.


If I’m right that online shaming of decent people is a real problem that’s only going to get worse, what’s the solution?  Let’s examine five possibilities.

(1) Libel law.  For generations, libel has been recognized as one of the rare types of speech that even a liberal, democratic society can legitimately censor (along with fraud, incitement to imminent violence, national secrets, child porn, and a few others).  That libel is illegal reflects a realistic understanding of the importance of reputation: if, for example, CNN falsely reports that you raped your children, then it doesn’t really matter if MSNBC later corrects the record; your life as you knew it is done.

The trouble is, it’s not clear how to apply libel law in the age of social media.  In the cases we’re talking about, an innocent person’s life gets ruined because of the collective effect of thousands of people piling on to make nasty comments, and it’s neither possible nor desirable to prosecute all of them.  Furthermore, in many cases the problem is not that the shamers said anything untrue: rather, it’s that they “merely” took something true and spitefully misunderstood it, or blew it wildly, viciously, astronomically out of proportion.  I don’t see any legal remedies here.

(2) “Shame the shamers.”  Some people will say the only answer is to hit the shamers with their own weapons.  If an overzealous activist gets an innocent jokester fired from his job, shame the activist until she’s fired from her job.  If vigilantes post the jokester’s home address on the Internet with crosshairs overlaid, find the vigilantes’ home addresses and post those.  It probably won’t surprise many people that I’m not a fan of this solution.  For it only exacerbates the real problem: that of mob justice overwhelming reasoned debate.  The most I can say in favor of vigilantism is this: you probably don’t get to complain about online shaming, if what you’re being shamed for is itself a shaming campaign that you prosecuted against a specific person.

(In a decade writing this blog, I can think of exactly one case where I engaged in what might be called a shaming campaign: namely, against the Bell’s inequality denier Joy Christian.  Christian had provoked me over six years, not merely by being forehead-bangingly wrong about Bell’s theorem, but by insulting me and others when we tried to reason with him, and by demanding prize money from me because he had ‘proved’ that quantum computing was a fraud.  Despite that, I still regret the shaming aspects of my Joy Christian posts, and will strive not to repeat them.)

(3) Technological solutions.  We could try to change the functioning of the Internet, to make it harder to use it to ruin people’s lives.  This, more-or-less, is what the European Court of Justice was going for, with its much-discussed recent ruling upholding a “right to be forgotten” (more precisely, a right for individuals to petition for embarrassing information about them to be de-listed from search engines).  Alas, I fear that the Streisand effect, the Internet’s eternal memory, and the existence of different countries with different legal systems will forever make a mockery of all such technological solutions.  But, OK, given that Google is constantly tweaking its ranking algorithms anyway, maybe it could give less weight to cruel attacks against non-public-figures?  Or more weight (or even special placement) to sites explaining how the individual was cleared of the accusations?  There might be scope for such things, but I have the strong feeling that they should be done, if at all, on a voluntary basis.

(4) Self-censorship.  We could simply train people not to express any views online that might jeopardize their lives or careers, or at any rate, not to express those views under their real names.  Many people I’ve talked to seem to favor this solution, but I can’t get behind it.  For it effectively cedes to the most militant activists the right to decide what is or isn’t acceptable online discourse.  It tells them that they can use social shame as a weapon to get what they want.  When women are ridiculed for sharing stories of anorexia or being sexually assaulted or being discouraged from careers in science, it’s reprehensible to say that the solution is to teach those women to shut up about it.  I not only agree with that but go further: privacy is sometimes important, but is also an overrated value.  The respect that one rational person affords another for openly sharing the truth (or his or her understanding of the truth), in a spirit of sympathy and goodwill, is a higher value than privacy.  And the Internet’s ability to foster that respect (sometimes!) is worth defending.

(5) Standing up.  And so we come to the only solution that I can wholeheartedly stand behind.  This is for people who abhor shaming campaigns to speak out, loudly, for those who are unfairly shamed.

At the nadir of my own Twitter episode, when it felt like my life was now finished, throw in the towel, the psychiatrist Scott Alexander wrote a 10,000-word essay in my defense, which also ranged controversially into numerous other issues.  In a comment on his girlfriend Ozy’s blog, Alexander now says that he regrets aspects of Untitled (then again, it was already tagged “Things I Will Regret Writing” when he posted it!).  In particular, he now feels that the piece was too broad in its critique of feminism.  However, he then explains as follows what motivated him to write it:

Scott Aaronson is one of the nicest and most decent people in the world, who does nothing but try to expand human knowledge and support and mentor other people working on the same in a bunch of incredible ways. After a lot of prompting he exposed his deepest personal insecurities, something I as a psychiatrist have to really respect. Amanda Marcotte tried to use that to make mincemeat of him, casually, as if destroying him was barely worth her time. She did it on a site where she gets more pageviews than he ever will, among people who don’t know him, and probably stained his reputation among nonphysicists permanently. I know I have weird moral intuitions, but this is about as close to pure evil punching pure good in the face just because it can as I’ve ever seen in my life. It made me physically ill, and I mentioned the comments of the post that I lost a couple pounds pacing back and forth and shaking and not sleeping after I read it. That was the place I was writing from. And it was part of what seemed to me to be an obvious trend, and although “feminists vs. nerds” is a really crude way of framing it, I couldn’t think of a better one in that mental state and I couldn’t let it pass.

I had three reactions on reading this.  First, if there is a Scott in this discussion who’s “pure good,” then it’s not I.  Second, maybe the ultimate solution to the problem of online shaming mobs is to make a thousand copies of Alexander, and give each one a laptop with an Internet connection.  But third, as long as we have only one of him, the rest of us have a lot of work cut out for us.  I know, without having to ask, that the only real way I can thank Alexander for coming to my defense, is to use this blog to defend other people (anywhere on the ideological spectrum) who are attacked online for sharing in a spirit of honesty and goodwill.  So if you encounter such a person, let me know—I’d much prefer that to letting me know about the latest attempt to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time with some analog contraption.


Unrelated Update: Since I started this post with Boaz Barak, let me also point to his recent blog post on why theoretical computer scientists care so much about asymptotics, despite understanding full well that the constants can overwhelm them in practice.  Boaz articulates something that I’ve tried to say many times, but he’s crisper and more eloquent.


Update (Feb. 27): Since a couple people asked, I explain here what I see as the basic problems with the “Dr. Nerdlove” site.


Update (Feb. 28): In the middle of this affair, perhaps the one thing that depressed me the most was Salon‘s “Plight of the bitter nerd” headline. Random idiots on the Internet were one thing, but how could a “serious,” “respectable” magazine lend its legitimacy to such casual meanness? I’ve now figured out the answer: I used to read Salon sometimes in the late 90s and early 2000s, but not since then, and I simply hadn’t appreciated how far the magazine had descended into clickbait trash. There’s an amusing fake Salon Twitter account that skewers the magazine with made-up headlines (“Ten signs your cat might be racist” / “Nerd supremacism: should we have affirmative action to get cool people into engineering?”), mixed with actual Salon headlines, in such a way that it would be difficult to tell many of them apart were they not marked. (Indeed, someone should write a web app where you get quizzed to see how well you can distinguish them.) “The plight of the bitter nerd” is offered there as one of the real headlines that’s indistinguishable from the parodies.

What I believe

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

Two weeks ago, prompted by a commenter named Amy, I wrote by far the most personal thing I’ve ever made public—what’s now being referred to in some places as just “comment 171.”  My thinking was: I’m giving up a privacy that I won’t regain for as long as I live, opening myself to ridicule, doing the blog equivalent of a queen-and-two-rook sacrifice.  But at least—and this is what matters—no one will ever again be able to question the depth of my feminist ideals.  Not after they understand how I clung to those ideals through a decade when I wanted to die.  And any teenage male nerds who read this blog, and who find themselves in a similar hole, will know that they too can get out without giving up on feminism. Surely that’s a message any decent person could get behind?

Alas, I was overoptimistic.  Twitter is now abuzz with people accusing me of holding precisely the barbaric attitudes that my story was all about resisting, defeating, and escaping, even when life throws you into those nasty attitudes’ gravity well, even when it tests you as most of your critics will never be tested.  Many of the tweets are full of the courageous clucks of those who speak for justice as long as they’re pretty sure their friends will agree with them: wow just wow, so sad how he totes doesn’t get it, expletives in place of arguments.  This whole affair makes me despair of the power of language to convey human reality—or at least, of my own ability to use language for that end.  I took the most dramatic, almost self-immolating step I could to get people to see me as I was, rather than according to some preexisting mental template of a “privileged, entitled, elite male scientist.”  And many responded by pressing down the template all the more firmly, twisting my words until they fit, and then congratulating each other for their bravery in doing so.

Here, of course, these twitterers (and redditors and facebookers) inadvertently helped make my argument for me.  Does anyone still not understand the sort of paralyzing fear that I endured as a teenager, that millions of other nerds endure, and that I tried to explain in the comment—the fear that civilized people will condemn you as soon as they find out who you really are (even if the truth seems far from uncommonly bad), that your only escape is to hide or lie?

Thankfully, not everyone responded with snarls.  Throughout the past two weeks, I’ve been getting regular emails from shy nerds who thanked me profusely for sharing as I did, for giving them hope for their own lives, and for articulating a life-crushing problem that anyone who’s spent a day among STEM nerds knows perfectly well, but that no one acknowledges in polite company.  I owe the writers of those emails more than they owe me, since they’re the ones who convinced me that on balance, I did the right thing.

I’m equally grateful to have gotten interesting, compassionate responses from feminist women.  The most striking was that of Laurie Penny in the New Statesman—a response that others of Penny’s views should study, if they want to understand how to win hearts and change minds.

I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson’s suffering. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of ‘being bullied at school doesn’t make you oppressed.’ Maybe it’s not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal.

Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men.’ Patriarchy is to blame for that. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame- male, female or other- has no place in any feminism I subscribe to. Ironically, Aronson [sic] actually writes a lot like Dworkin- he writes from pain felt and relived and wrenched from the intimate core of himself, and because of that his writing is powerfully honest, but also flawed …

What fascinates me about Aaronson’s piece, in which there was such raw, honest suffering, was that there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently. And Aaronson is not a misogynist. Aaronson is obviously a compassionate, well-meaning and highly intelligent man [damn straight—SA]

I’ll have more to say about Penny’s arguments in a later post—where I agree and where I part ways from her—but there’s one factual point I should clear up now.  When I started writing comment 171, I filled it with anecdotes from the happier part of my life (roughly, from age 24 onward): the part where I finally became able to ask; where women, with a frequency that I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, actually answered ‘yes’; and where I got to learn about their own fears and insecurities and quirks.  In the earlier draft, I also wrote about my wife’s experiences as a woman in computer science, which differed from Amy’s in some crucial ways.  But then I removed it all, for a simple reason: because while I have the right to bare my own soul on my blog, I don’t have the right to bare other people’s unless they want me to.

Without further ado, and for the benefit of the world’s Twitterariat, I’m now just going to state nine of my core beliefs.

1. I believe that women are authors of their own stories, that they don’t exist merely to please men, that they are not homogeneous, that they’re not slot machines that ‘pay out’ but only if you say the right things.  I don’t want my two-year-old daughter to grow up to be anyone else’s property, and I’m happy that she won’t.  And I’d hope all this would no more need to be said, than (say) that Gentiles shouldn’t be slaughtered to use their blood in making matzo.

2. I believe everyone’s story should be listened to—and concretely, that everyone should feel 300% welcome to participate in my comments section.  I don’t promise to agree with you, but I promise to try to engage your ideas thoughtfully, whether you’re a man, woman, child, AI-bot, or unusually-bright keyboard-pecking chicken.  Indeed, I spend a nontrivial fraction of my life doing exactly that (well, not so much with chickens).

3. I believe no one has the right to anyone else’s sexual affections.  I believe establishing this principle was one of the triumphs of modern civilization.

4. I believe women who go into male-dominated fields like math, CS, and physics deserve praise, encouragement, and support.  But that’s putting the point too tepidly: if I get to pick 100 people (unrelated to me) to put onto a spaceship as the earth is being destroyed, I start thinking immediately about six or seven of my female colleagues in complexity and quantum computing.  And no, Twitter: not because being female, they could help repopulate the species.  Just because they’re great people.

5. I believe there still exist men who think women are inferior, that they have no business in science, that they’re good only for sandwich-making and sex.  Though I don’t consider it legally practicable, as a moral matter I’d be fine if every such man were thrown in prison for life.

6. I believe that even if they don’t hold views anything like the above (as, overwhelmingly, they don’t), there might be nerdy males who unintentionally behave in ways that tend to drive some women away from science.  I believe this is a complicated problem best approached with charity: we want win-win solutions, where no one is made to feel despised because of who they are.  Toward that end, I believe open, honest communication (as I’ve been trying to foster on this blog) is essential.

7. I believe that no one should be ashamed of inborn sexual desires: not straight men, not straight women, not gays, not lesbians, not even pedophiles (though in the last case, there might really be no moral solution other than a lifetime of unfulfilled longing).  Indeed, I’ve always felt a special kinship with gays and lesbians, precisely because the sense of having to hide from the world, of being hissed at for a sexual makeup that you never chose, is one that I can relate to on a visceral level.  This is one reason why I’ve staunchly supported gay marriage since adolescence, when it was still radical.  It’s also why the tragedy of Alan Turing, of his court-ordered chemical castration and subsequent suicide, was one of the formative influences of my life.

8. I believe that “the problem of the nerdy heterosexual male” is surely one of the worst social problems today that you can’t even acknowledge as being a problem—the more so, if you weight the problems by how likely academics like me are to know the sufferers and to feel a personal stake in helping them. How to help all the young male nerds I meet who suffer from this problem, in a way that passes feminist muster, and that triggers the world’s sympathy rather than outrage, is a problem that interests me as much as P vs. NP, and that right now seems about equally hard.

9. I believe that, just as there are shy, nerdy men, there are also shy, nerdy women, who likewise suffer from feeling unwanted, sexually invisible, or ashamed to express their desires.  On top of that, these women also have additional difficulties that come with being women!  At the same time, I also think there are crucial differences between the two cases—at least in the world as it currently exists—which might make the shy-nerdy-male problem vastly harder to solve than the shy-nerdy-female one.  Those differences, and my advice for shy nerdy females, will be the subject of another post.  (That’s the thing about blogging: in for a penny, in for a post.)


Update (Dec. 31): I struggle always to be ready to change my views in light of new arguments and evidence. After reflecting on the many thoughtful comments here, there are two concessions that I’m now willing to make.

The first concession is that, as Laurie Penny maintained, my problems weren’t caused by feminism, but rather by the Patriarchy. One thing I’ve learned these last few days is that, as many people use it, the notion of “Patriarchy” is sufficiently elastic as to encompass almost anything about the relations between the sexes that is, or has ever been, bad or messed up—regardless of who benefits, who’s hurt, or who instigated it. So if you tell such a person that your problem was not caused by the Patriarchy, it’s as if you’ve told a pious person that a certain evil wasn’t the Devil’s handiwork: the person has trouble even parsing what you said, since within her framework, “evil” and “Devil-caused” are close to synonymous. If you want to be understood, far better just to agree that it was Beelzebub and be done with it. This might sound facetious, but it’s really not: I believe in the principle of always adopting the other side’s terms of reference, whenever doing so will facilitate understanding and not sacrifice what actually matters to you.

Smash the Patriarchy!

The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?

However, I now understand why so many people became so attached to that word: if I won’t use it, they think it means I think that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist, rather than just that I think people fixated on a really bad way to talk about these problems.


Update (Jan. 1): Yesterday I gave a seminar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since I’d been spending all my time dealing with comment-171-gate, I showed up with no slides, no notes, no anything—just me and the whiteboard. But for an hour and a half, I got to forget entirely about the thousands of people on the Internet I’d never met who were now calling me an asshole because of wild, “postmodernist” misreadings of a blog comment, which twisted what I said (and meant) into its exact opposite, building up a fake-Scott-Aaronson onto whom the ax-grinders could project all of their own bogeymen. For 90 minutes I got to forget all that, and just throw myself into separations between randomized and quantum query complexity. It was the most cathartic lecture of my life. And in the near future, I’d like more such catharses. Someday I’ll say more about the inexhaustibly-fascinating topic of nerds and sex—and in particular, I’ll write the promised post about shy female nerds—but not now. This will be my last post on the subject for a while.

On balance, I don’t regret having shared my story—because it prompted an epic discussion; because I learned so much from the dozens of other nerd coming-of-age stories that it drew out, similar to mine but also different; because what I learned will change the way I talk about these issues in the future; and most of all, because so many people, men and women, emailed me to say how my speaking out gave them hope for their own lives. But I do regret a few rhetorical flourishes, which I should have known might be misread maliciously, though I could never have guessed how maliciously. I never meant to minimize the suffering of other people, nor to deny that many others have had things as bad or worse than I did (again, how does one even compare?). I meant only that, if we’re going to discuss how to change the culture of STEM fields, or design sexual-conduct policies to minimize suffering, then I request a seat at the table not as the “white male powerful oppressor figure,” but as someone who also suffered something atypically extreme, overcame it, and gained relevant knowledge that way. I never meant to suggest that anyone else should leave the table.

To the people who tweeted that female MIT students should now be afraid to take classes with me: please check out the beautiful blog post by Yan, a female student who did take 6.045 with me. See also this by Lisa Danz and this by Chelsea Voss.

More broadly: thank you to everyone who sent me messages of support, but especially to all the female mathematicians and scientists who did so.  I take great solace from the fact that, of all the women and men whose contributions to the world I had respected beforehand, not one (to my knowledge) reacted to this affair in a mean-spirited way.

Happy New Year, everyone. May 2015 be a year of compassion and understanding.


Update (Jan. 2): If you’ve been following this at all, then please, please, please read Scott Alexander’s tour-de-force post. To understand what it was like for me to read this, after all I’ve been through the past few days, try to imagine Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the American Declaration of Independence, John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, and Clarence Darrow’s closing arguments in the Scopes trial all rolled into one, except with you as the protagonist. Reason and emotion are traditionally imagined as opposites, but that’s never seemed entirely right to me: while, yes, part of reason is learning how to separate out emotion, I never experience such intense emotion as when, like with Alexander’s piece, I see reason finally taking a stand, reason used to face down a thousand bullies and as a fulcrum to move the world.


Update (Jan. 13): Please check out this beautiful Quora answer by Jean Yang, a PhD student in MIT CSAIL. She’s answering the question: “What do you think of Scott Aaronson’s comment #171 and the subsequent posts?”

More generally, I’ve been thrilled by the almost-unanimously positive reactions that I’ve been getting these past two weeks from women in STEM fields, even as so many people outside STEM have responded with incomprehension and cruelty.  Witnessing that pattern has—if possible—made me even more of a supporter and admirer of STEM women than I was before this thing started.