Links: Threatened democracies, “Friends” and Western Civ, Robin Hanson, campus zealots, and more!

* Actually, American democracy has faced worse threats than Donald Trump: The golden age of American politics was illiberal, undemocratic, and bloody. Still, success in the past is not a good reason for complacency in the present. There is a good essay collection Tyler Cowen contributed to, Can it happen here?, that I’ll write about at some point.

* How Friends Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization; I think this essay is satire.

* “Jordan Peterson Is Not the Second Coming.” Seemingly everyone now has a Jordan Peterson thinkpiece and this is Reason‘s.

* Excellent NYT reporting on why NYC’s subway is so terrible.

* Scott Aaronson on the Robin Hanson brouhaha that ought not to be a brouhaha. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s principle that we ought to look “at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue.” If someone calls an idea or person something other than “untrue” or “mistaken,” the person or idea labeled is often worth a second look (“often” is not always!).

* “‘It Was Cataclysmic’: Can Snapchat Survive Its Redesign?

* “The Lights Have Gone Out in Caracas.” #socialism.

* How the 50mm lens became normal. Almost anyone who becomes interested in photography buys a cheap-but-good “nifty 50.”

* Is the United States becoming too big to govern? Related to link #1.

* “How my lame joke saw me fall foul of the campus zealots.”

* “College may not be worth it anymore,” a point that I’m amazed it’s taken so long to propagate.

SoHo Forum debate: “All government support of higher education should be abolished?”

Last night I went to a SoHo Forum debate on education, with Ed Glaeser supporting government-funded education and Bryan Caplan opposing; I already knew most of Caplan’s case, from reading The Case Against Education.

By far the most interesting piece of (then unknown to me) data came from Glaeser, citing a paper or set of papers the examine national income growth from 1960 to the present (or 2010 or thereabouts) that find education seems to explain income growth but income growth doesn’t seem to explain education. I didn’t catch the names of the authors, but that sounds like one of the better pieces of evidence against The Case Against Education. I’ve been following reviews of the book and so far the critical arguments haven’t been good; most have already been addressed in the book, and the authors just missed them—or their pro-education worldview prevents them from reading and understanding.

To be sure, I’m sympathetic to criticism of Case; having worked for a long time in education I want Case to be wrong. But I cannot find any good arguments against it, either on my own or that others have put forth. Many people don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, despite the way that particular skill is fetishized in the education system. At the very least, putting forth more intelligent apprenticeship options is a good place to start.

Furthermore, I’ve long complained to friends that most of school is tedious and boring. For a while I’ve thought it’s boring because of whining risk:

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

But if education is really about signaling regarding conformity and conscientiousness, then boredom almost becomes a feature, rather than a bug. If one is willing to conscientiously do even very boring work, that’s a great labor market signal. If Caplan is correct school has been boring and will continue to be boring because no force pushes it not to be, except perhaps for the occasional idealistic teacher.

Still, I have a pet theory that education may really be about very high achievement among elites (who become scientific or artistic innovators) more than about mass education, the intellectual results of which Caplan does show to be… dubious. I don’t know how to test this theory and it is not original to me, although it takes new salience in light of Case. There’s an analogue to research here: most research is “wasteful,” but that’s because no one knows the answer till after it’s conducted; that’s why it’s called “research.” Most education may also be wasteful, but no one knows who is a waste to educate until it’s too late (up until I hit age 16 or so, I probably looked like a waste of scarce educational resources).

It’s always of interest to see someone in person who is only known on the page; I love, and often cite in propsals, Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City, and in person he seems like one of those dapper titans of industry or now-extinct northeast, country-club Republicans of the ’50s.

Caplan posted his debate opening statement.

I didn’t think going in (and don’t think going out) that all forms of government support for education, higher or otherwise, ought to be abolished.

bryan-caplan-ed-glaeser

Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Stephens-Davidowitz is right:

One more important point that becomes clear when we zoom in: the world is complicated. Actions we take today can have distant effects, most of them unintended. Ideas spread—sometimes slowly; other times exponentially, like viruses. People respond in unpredictable ways to incentives.

Yet we seem to like simple stories and seem to believe that our actions will have simple, easy-to-understand consequences. Data complicates or invalidates many of those stories, so we ought to seek it whenever we can. Stephens-Davidowitz does just this in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. An alternate sub-title could be, “Why most of us are full of shit.” You may suspect, intuitively, that most of us are full of shit, but it’s nice seeing it confirmed. The miracle of aggregation gives us a lot of new tools to look at human nature.

This book can be read as part of a series, as it’s congruent with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and especially Jon Birger’s Date-onomics, which doesn’t discuss data from porn, as Stephens-Davidowitz does, but it could have (albeit at the risk of making it longer and perhaps turning off some of its readers). We’re going to see a lot more books like Everybody Lies as the Internet allows us to aggregate huge amounts of data that tell us something about what we do—as opposed to what we say. What we say seems to be a very poor guide to understanding what we really think; while this has been obvious on some level for a long time, it’s useful to see the specific ways action and speech are mismatched.

Take one sensitive area:

Somewhat surprisingly, porn data is rarely utilized by sociologists, most of whom are comfortable relying on the traditional survey datasets they have built their careers on. But a moment’s reflection shows that the widespread use of porn—and the search and view data that comes with it—is the most important development in our ability to understand human sexuality in, well . . . Actually, it’s probably the most important data ever.

“Ever” might be an overstatement (what about Masters and Johnson’s live observations?), but calling it “very important” and perhaps most importantly “novel” is legitimate. While the observation is useful, it’s also useful to remember that what people want in a fantasy setting may be different from what they, or we, want in a reality setting. Many people like watching people get shot in movies without thinking we should shoot more people in real life.

Or, in the same domain, there is this, with the data from the General Social Survey:

when it comes to heterosexual sex, women say they have sex, on average, fifty-five times per year, using a condom 15 percent of the time. This adds up to about 1.1 billion condoms per year. But heterosexual men say they use 1.6 billion condoms every year. Those numbers, by definition, would have to be the same. So who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither, it turns out. According to Nielsen, the global information and measurement company that tracks consumer behavior, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. So everyone is lying; the only question is by how much.

A meta lesson may be, be very wary of survey data.

(If you recognize some of these ideas, you’ve probably read A Billion Wicked Thoughts or my essay on it.)

Other problems, this time outside the realm of sexuality, include estimation:

When relying on our gut, we can also be thrown off by the basic human fascination with the dramatic. We tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything that makes for a memorable story. For example, when asked in a survey, people consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma. In fact, asthma causes about seventy times more death. Deaths by asthma don’t stand out—and don’t make the news.

Still, I wonder what would happen if researchers paid survey respondents for right answers. In surveys, people have little incentive to try to be right. In some other parts of life, they do.

Much of the data comes from Google, and we should remember something important: “Google can display a bias toward unseemly thoughts, thoughts people feel they can’t discuss with anyone else.” Which makes sense: before Google or the Internet more generally, many of those thoughts would never have left the mind in a way that in turn left a residue on the rest of the world. Now they do. Perhaps one lesson of Everybody Lies is that more of us should use Duck Duck Go, the search engine that famously doesn’t record its users’ search terms. I infer, from the prevalence of Google search and Gmail, that most people don’t give a damn about privacy—regardless of the numerous article about privacy one sees in the media. People’s revealed preferences seem to indicate they want convenience and familiarity far more than privacy.

Then there is this, which may be most useful for people doing Internet marketing:

The lesson of A/B testing, to a large degree, is to be wary of general lessons. Clark Benson is the CEO of ranker.com, a news and entertainment site that relies heavily on A/B testing to choose headlines and site designs. “At the end of the day, you can’t assume anything,” Benson says. “Test literally everything.”

By the way, the school(s) you attend also seems to matter little for any measurable life outcomes. The money spent on expensive private schools seems to be largely wasted, or, if not wasted, then at least should be considered a consumption expense, rather than an investment expense. The entire education industry has worked hard to convince you otherwise, but the papers Stephens-Davidowitz cites are convincing and congruent with similar research I’ve seen on the issue.

Stephens-Davidowitz ends by saying that data from the Amazon Kindle indicates that few people read to the end of books. This one is worth reading in full.

Links: On Chesil Beach, the nature of teaching, the nature of progress, the lack of progress in the humanities, and more!

* “Karley Sciortino: the sex blogger and Slutever presenter redefining sexuality.” My read of the book here.

* “Steven Marcus, Columbia Scholar and Literary Critic, Dies at 89.”

* “Student-Led Classrooms Waste Teacher Skill.” And learning styles seem to be a myth and “direct instruction” is effective.

* “Equality Is a Mediocre Goal. Aim for Progress.” It’s also striking to me how often “inequality” refers to a single metric, when many others also matter.

* “The Redistribution of Sex,” from Ross Douthat, and one of (many) pieces that show the weakness of the Twitter model: there just aren’t enough characters for nuance and development. Which is an old criticism but still true.

* “A Dying Scientist and His Rogue Vaccine Trial.” Cool.

* “The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities.” This is congruent with my experience but I also have to ask, awkwardly: Where’s the evidence??

* 50 Pulp Cover Treatments of Classic Books.

* “New York City Street Parking Is Preposterously Corrupt.” Parking in general is crazy: everyone ought to read the high cost of free parking.

* An interesting comment on The Case Against Education.

* The Passion of Jordan Peterson.

* 24,000 Liters of Wine in the Hold: 40 Years of Globalization.”

* The Hyperfragmentation of Retail and Why the Biggest Winners are Digital Ad Platforms. I think of companies like Outlier, which solve specific problems (in this case bike pants) that others don’t or can’t or don’t notice.

* “Sweetgreen Has a Damage-Control Plan for Its New Salads.” Another new (ish?) company that’s underrated.

* “The First Porn President,” which is better than the usual but still about half is incorrect or at least not my view.

* From the NYT, “‘Who Gets to Be Sexy?’ Technology has made it possible for just about anyone to shoot, direct and star in their own porn films. Women are leading the new guard.” Well, it is the NYT, but also the Sunday Styles section.

* Are kids the enemy of writing? Probably not.

* Ian McEwan on On Chesil Beach, the movie version, but most interesting may be this, about his son finding one of McEwan’s books in the school curriculum: “Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy . . . I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said. I think he ended up with a C+.”

Links: The Virgin Suicides, UBI isn’t feasible, Alan Jacobs, and more!

* Why The Virgin Suicides Is Still So Resonant Today.

* Universal basic income is not feasible. I think it’s a cool idea and it could one day be feasible but isn’t now.

* Alan Jacobs: a Christian intellectual for the internet age.

* Bill Gates wants to make a universal flu vaccine.

* California and liberalism’s golden dream. Note especially the part about middle-income people fleeing California, which has largely become a state devoted to the very rich and very poor. And the state is busily pursuing land-use policies that reinforce this divide.

* No, teachers are not underpaid.

* In “What happened to the academic novel?” I quoted the original author as saying, “what happens when reality outpaces satire, or at least grows so outlandish that a would-be jester has to sprint just to keep up?” Now, in “State of Conflict,” we get an absurd story that shows how academic reality outruns academic satire. In it, a nineteen-year-old Nebraska student “set up a folding table on a plaza outside the student union and covered it in pamphlets, stickers, and buttons that said ‘Big Government Sucks!'” In return, “Lawton, a 46-year-old graduate student in the English department… left to make a sign: ‘Just say NO! to neo-Fascism.’ She was so agitated that she misspelled ‘fascism’ and had to start over.” If you are a 46-year old grad student, chances are that something is very wrong. The correct response to a sign one doesn’t like is the typical response: “Most people walked by without a second look.” Lawton didn’t do what typical people do and evidently doesn’t know what fascism is, either, apart from a slur.

* “Learn to Ride: E-bikes are great—as long as people know how to ride them. Here’s how to make sure they’re safe.”

* “Pimps Are Preying on Sex Workers Pushed Off the Web Because of FOSTA-SESTA.” Likely SFW.

* “Why doesn’t the federal government protect access to affordable housing the way it does access to TV?” A great point I’d never really thought about.

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library. . . . They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same. Replace “transistor radio” with “iPhone” or similar. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984. I think some version of the clerisy will always exist, and, fortunately, membership is not restricted to the degreed; it is open to anyone who wishes to read and think.

Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

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