Inflated Bubbles

What makes people who hold an extreme opinion think that they represent the majority?

[After 3,000 words on statistics, I deserve a condescending politics / culture war post. I have put these posts under the “hedgehog alert” category because if that’s not your cup of bitter acid rain, you should enjoy this hedgehog instead.]

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Minority Retort

I made a claim in Climbing the Horseshoe that even Sarah Constantin misunderstood, which means that I wrote it poorly. I’ll try to spell it out again, and set it apart from other arguments.

My point was that it’s important to recognize when you’re holding an unpopular opinion and to change your tactics accordingly. Even if normatively you are right and everyone is wrong, instrumentally you should pursue your goals one way if 5% share your goals and worldview and another way if 80% do. For example, shaming others and calling them names (e.g. bigot or traitor) works (sometimes) if you’re part of the majority and doesn’t work if you’re part of the fringe.

Even if your entire social circle shares your views, you have to be cognizant of the amount of support your position has in the broad public. It’s not quite what outside view is, but it requires a similar mental process of stepping outside your immediate surroundings. Here are a couple of examples from my own life:

  1. I’m an atheist, and many of my friends are atheist, but I realize that on a national scale atheists are a tiny minority (~4%). If I want to promote atheism, I should be able to tell the difference between ardent religious zealots and the median American who believes in God and goes to church every other week but isn’t a talking snake-ist. When I talk with the latter about atheism, I politely explain for example how an atheist can share the intuition that murder is wrong with a holy book. I don’t tell anyone who believes in a deity that they’re a deluded fanatic.
  2. I’m a left-libertarian, and I engage intellectually with many left libertarians. For example, I think that regardless of how much welfare we have raising the minimum wage will hurt the poor because it dminishesthe employability of the 102 million adult Americans who don’t have a job and increases the prices they pay. I also think that regardless of where the minimum wage is, we should have more unconditional welfare to help the poor (whether food stamps or basic income). And yet, I’m aware that “abolish the minimum wage but raise taxes to implement basic income” is an extreme position. When I talk to liberals about the minimum wage or to conservatives about welfare I try to gently convince them with stats and numbers, I don’t call them heartless monsters who hate the poor.
  3. On the other hand, homophobia has finally become a minority position and it’s not counterproductive to shame homophobes.

This seems like common sense to me – you fight differently when you’re outnumbered than when you’re dominating. I thought it would be obvious for example to Jamelle Bouie that calling the NY Times racist for encouraging dialogue with Trump voters is a minority opinion.

It may not have been obvious at all.

No True Liberal

A Facebook friend of mine shared the NY Times op-ed “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump“.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion.” […] Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. […] Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.


Palestinians in fact do not demand a “right of return” to their pre-1967 homes, but to their pre-1948 homes. In other words, the issue isn’t the occupation, which many liberal Zionists agree is a crime, but Zionism itself. Opposition to the Palestinians’ “right of return” is a matter of consensus among left and right Zionists because also liberal Zionists insist that Israel has the right to ensure that Jews constitute the ethnic majority in their country.
The following years promise to present American Jewry with a decision that they have much preferred to avoid. Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism.

The article explicitly states that opposing the right of Palestinians to move to Israel proper (right of return) is beneath a minimum standard of liberal decency, and thus Zionism is incompatible with liberalism. I commented that regardless of your normative opinion on Zionism, the right of return, as a matter of fact, has very little support among Jews. The article itself agrees that this is a consensus. Israel has 4 million more Jewish citizens than Muslim citizens, allowing 5 million Palestinian refugees to immigrate will immediately end Jewish majority in Israel and the character of the country as we know it. Even if one thinks that it’s the moral thing to do, it’s a very unpopular opinion among Jews, on par with the percentage of Americans who would be in favor of allowing 300 million Muslim immigrants into the US.

I wrote that if you present Jews with the dilemma of accepting the right of return or not being a “liberal”, this sort of “liberalism” will not attract many Jews. This is the immediate response I got:

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So far, nothing out of the ordinary. The argument I make requires separating normative claims and factual claims which is an unusual and difficult exercise. It’s predictable that at least one person will try to insult me out of the conversation instead of trying to address the argument itself.

Then came the first warning sign:


This absurd accusation that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump is from the friend who originally defended me. The meme that the sun is a hummingbird is based on zero evidence. The meme that rationalists like Trump is based on negative evidence.

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Scott Alexander wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Julia Galef, Rob Wiblin and other prominent Effective Altruists debated back in the spring whether donating to Clinton’s campaign may be better than saving kids from malaria. Yes, many rationalists admire Peter Thiel. They were all pretty confused when Thiel endorsed Trump.

Truth seeking, charity and concern for the future of humanity are anathema to Donald Trump. He’s the rationalist Antichrist. So how could anyone believe that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump?


I’m not sure what to do when people straight up tell me I’m lying. I assumed they’re just confused by the math, so I explained the math: let’s imagine again that we put all Americans on a single axis from least liberal (1st percentile) to most liberal as defined by current political affiliation (100th percentile). The 50th percentile American barely chose Trump over Clinton, and I imagine that I’m about as far to the left of the marginal Trump voter as I am to the right of a 90th percentile leftist. Thus, 70th percentile liberal.

But people were not in the mood to do math.

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Hey, math is hard, I get it.

Inflated Bubbles

Why did these liberals react so venomously to the suggestion that I’m more liberal than the average American? Why do they think that rationalists, a group of strange but certainly left-of-center people, are enemies of liberalism?

My first hypothesis was that they’re trying to make their ideas unpopular on purpose, by insulting and bullying outsiders who try to engage with them. Collectively this makes “liberalism” lose, but individually they gain status by signalling the extremity of their faith in the true cause. I wondered if Mr. Bouie doesn’t mind that his tactics are counterproductive to fighting racism, I would wager that Slate‘s ratings are higher with Trump in office than they would have been had Clinton won.

I realized that this is too cynical. Organizations never solve the problem they were created to solve (as that would put the organization out of work), but it’s hard for people to be so explicitly hypocritical. It’s easier to convince others that you’re a fighter for liberalism / against racism if you actually believe this as well. I had to admit that these people really believed that they are helping the spread of liberalism as they see it.

My second hypothesis is this:

Theory of inflated bubbles – When your ideological bubble becomes small and tight enough, you start thinking that almost everyone outside the bubble agrees with you. In your mind, your bubble has inflated to encompass the entire world.

I work hard to make holes in the bubbles I live in. I have neoreactionary friends, Marxist friends, anti-Semitic friends and apparently a friend who thinks that rationalists are villainous freaks. I engage all the time with people who strongly disagree with me, I know that they’re out there in great numbers.

But once you slide down the horseshoe into extremism and attack anyone who disagrees with you, the heretics to your worldview evaporate out of your bubble. If you live in a very liberal city (these three guys are from D.C., New York and Silicon Valley), consume very liberal media, and tell everyone who isn’t very liberal to choke on a dick, your entire world becomes exclusively made up of very liberal people. All perspective is lost. Availability bias and confirmation bias will then work tirelessly to convince you that those who disagree with you are an extremist fringe minority.

If  you think that the NY Times or Bay Area rationalists are terribly bigoted, you will start thinking that the NY Times and the rationalists are part of the conservative minority even thought they’re both more liberal than the vast majority of the United States. No one can handle the cognitive dissonance of imagining that they live in a world that is 90% monster.

This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon: you think that those who disagree with you are a small minority and thus their views are extreme, and if their views are extreme they must be a  small minority.

This explains why so many leftists blame this election on the alt-right (who are a tiny minority on the right that most Trump voters don’t care about) and rightists blamed Obama on groups like liberal university professors (who are a tiny minority on the left that most Obama voters don’t care about). They believe that anyone who voted against them is part of a small cult that somehow got lucky. How can merely losing an election convince anyone that they’re a minority when three of the fiercest biases a brain can employ work to convince them otherwise?

This is a half-baked hypothesis. I don’t know how likely it is to be true (that many extremists think the majority agrees with them) and how to precisely define the phenomenon. It’s not charitable and it’s not scientific and it’s very condescending. But, it really makes a lot of what I’ve been seeing since the election make a lot more sense.

The only question that remains is: what crazy ideas do hold that I deludedly think most people agree with? I hope it’s not my faith that every human has the capacity for reason and kindness.

Climbing the Horseshoe

“Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.” – Adam Smith

Exposition (plus an example exculpating exports)

Trump won the election, and people are blaming polarization. WSJ – Trump benefited from polarization, Global Research – polarization made Trump unavoidable, Reason – Trump won because of the PC culture war, Guardian – Did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?, Road and Track – polarized glasses don’t work with LCD screens. That last article makes a great point. The other ones miss it.

Trump most dangerous failing is that he sees every human interaction as a zero sum game, a contest with winners and losers. Trump has made a lot of his money by exploiting others, his gains were someone else’s loss. He operates as if he can’t imagine things being any other way. And yet: our society and our economy are based on cooperation and dealings with mutual benefit. As long as spiteful deities don’t interfere, every time humans have tried cooperating with each on larger scales the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Case in point: American trade with China is perhaps the greatest win-win game in human history by the pure number of winners. It helped lift 600 million Chinese out of poverty, reduced the risk of World War III, and saved American consumers hundreds of billions of dollars which they redirected to create American jobs in retail and in services. It also cost about 2 million American jobs in manufacturing. Bottom line: 1,000 million winners and 2 million losers. That’s a 99.8% win rate.

Smarter redistribution within the US could have made it a 100% win-win by helping those who were affected negatively, but polarized American politics prevent smart redistribution from happening. International trade can create winners and losers within a country, but it’s always a win-win for each country on aggregate. It makes no sense to talk about “beating someone” in trade, the same way you don’t “beat someone” at dating.

Of course, making sense is never high on Trump’s priority list:

We don’t win anymore. We don’t beat China in trade. […] I beat China all the time. All the time.

But this isn’t an essay about trade (so save your nitpicking about labor market theories). And this isn’t an essay about Trump (although he shall again prove unavoidable). This is an essay about cooperation versus polarization.

If Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war, the greatest damage he will do is to the norms that allow us to cooperate, globally and domestically, for the next four years. But polarization destroys these norms forever. Those who would sacrifice the norms of compromise, respect and democracy itself in order to fight Trump are doing the Devil’s work for him.

And by “Devil” I don’t mean Trump. I mean Moloch.


This essay was inspired, among many others, by the work of Jonathan Haidt, Arnold Kling, Sam Harris, Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky. You are encouraged to read them for more detail, better writing and superior wisdom on this topic. But since you’re here, you may as well read my essay first.

Content note: politics, culture wars, and everything that is wrong with human society. If you don’t want to read about everything that is wrong with human society, please enjoy this photo of my own hedgehog looking very fluffy af and come back next week.

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Disclaimer: you’re allowed to enjoy this photo even if you’re planning to read on

Everything that is wrong with human society

…mostly comes in two flavors: coercion and failures of coordination. Coercion is the bad things we can’t avoid: wars, slavery, exploitation. Coordination failures are the good things we can’t achieve: win-win free trade, nuclear disarmament, climate change control, eliminating poverty, universal love.

Coercion is a bigger threat to weak societies subjugated strong adversaries: a peasant village under the thumb of a despot, a European town in the path of the Mongol horde, an African community raided by slavers. Coordination failures are a bigger threat to strong societies being devoured from the inside. That’s us.

When people appoint governments to solve their problems, the government ideally tries to solve the most coordination failures using the least coercion. For example, a basic coordination problem is having everyone in a society agree to abide by a certain set of rules regarding violence and property. Governments solve this through coercive institutions like courts, jails and the police. There is a balance to be struck – the Soviet Union had lower crime rates than the USA, but most people wouldn’t be willing to accept secret police and gulags just to have less car theft.

But the government doesn’t really decide how to solve coordination problems. More often, it just implements the solutions people already live by, and codifies the social norms that naturally evolved among its citizens. For example, public acceptance of gay unions in the United States has been shifting for decades, and The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage many years after it became the plurality opinion. Politicians have their own incentives, they will not promote honesty, kindness and tolerance beyond what people already live by. Governments are often slower to react to changing norms than even corporation are.

Point is: it is up to us to live by the norms that we want our government to have.

Social norms are themselves a coordination problem: we would all prefer to live in a society in which everyone (including us) is always honest, kind and tolerant. Yet, we often have much to gain from occasionally being dishonest, selfish and intolerant. The harm that these behaviors do to social norms is often ignored when a personal struggle is more pressing.

And yet, social norms are the only way to achieve cooperation without coercion. In most interactions it is rational to cooperate if you expect your opponent to do the same, but only then. This means that the social norms that promote cooperation are the most valuable thing we have, they are the ones that allow us to even start addressing other problems. And this means that nothing is more harmful than the norms that promote polarization and hamper cooperation.

We may imagine that polarization is at its worst today in the era of social media, outrage clickbait and demagoguery. It’s not: polarization is the result of human weakness, and humans were humans long before Facebook. My favorite quote about political polarization predates the United States itself by two decades:

In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.

Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.

-Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments III.I.85, 1859

Horseshoes, bubbles and evaporation

The horsehoe theory holds that extremists on either side of a political/cultural divide share more similarities with each other than they do with centrists. It doesn’t apply to every single debate, but I noted the horseshoeness of the “gender wars” here and alluded to the similarities between the political extremes of left and right in my pre-election essay.

From the top of the horseshoe, society looks like a complex network of compromises and trade offs. On crime and terror, a compromise between liberty and security. On multiculturalism, a compromise between diversity and social cohesion. On trade, a compromise between growing the global pie and fairly dividing the domestic pie. On Nice Guys, a compromise between everyone’s personal desires to be safe, be respected and get laid.

This doesn’t mean that the horseshoe is always perfectly balanced – the moderate reasonable position on a topic depends on moderation and reason, not on its distance from the fanatics. The virtues of racial equality don’t depend on the number of white or black supremacists and their opinions.

From the ends of the horseshoe, the world looks completely different:

  1. A single sacred value defines the worth of every person and action, and cannot be traded off for anything.
  2. An eternal and eternalist conflict, in which every historical or novel issue is politicized to seem part of the same unending war.
  3. Zero sum game: any action that hurts the enemy is good, anything that helps the enemy is bad, regardless of other consequences.
  4. The outgroup is seen as a homogenous glob of menace, with no nuance or differentiation.
  5. The enemy is easily comprehended, seen clearly across the narrow gap. The enemy’s tactics (conformity for the in-group, condemnation for the rest) and the enemy’s worldview (same sacred value, just with a flipped polarity) are very familiar.
  6. The moderate centrists are utterly incomprehensible, hidden from view by the horseshoe curve of almost-sympathizers. To extremists of either end, the centrists are despised as traitors. “All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.”

You can see why people sliding down the horseshoe is worrying from the point of view of someone who believes in epistemic charity, the pursuit of truth, and that policy debates usually have two sides. You can see why this slide away from cooperation is the scariest thing in the world to someone who believes that we are facing massive and existential challenges that can only be solved by global cooperation.

At the very bottom of the horseshoe, where cooperation is unimaginable and win-win games turn into mutually assured destruction, sits Moloch and devours the souls of his zealots.

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I called the top of the horseshoe “normalizers”, I don’t mean that in the sense used commonly since the election just yet. We’ll talk about that “normalization” later. For now, it means – pulling people towards normalcy, and away from the eternal war and the soul-devouring demon. Most people try to nudge each other left and right on the horseshoe, but my goal is to pull everyone up.

Speaking of, how do smart people even find themselves slipping down towards the nasty edges of the horseshoe? The answer is bubbles and evaporation.

  • Everyone has heard a million times by now that we live in echo-chamber bubbles that protect us from beliefs we disagree with. Yet people don’t appreciate that two of the most powerful forces in the universe conspire to keep us bubbled up: confirmation bias and the algorithm. The latter latches on to your slightest deviation from equanimity by feeding you content that nudges you ever so slightly further in that direction. The former keeps you blind to the fact that anything nefarious is happening at all. In combination, they make the slope very slippery.
  • Bubbles keep us from hearing those we disagree with, evaporative cooling keeps them from hearing us. When a social group begins to drift towards an extreme position, the sanest people are first to leave and the fanatics remain. The crazier the position becomes, the more devoted to it the remaining members are: anyone capable of doubt has long ago departed.

Evaporative cooling of group beliefs down to extremism happens to media outlets as well, especially as they chase a shrinking pool of revenue. is one of the very few media companies that publishes a poll of how their staffers vote in each election. In 2000, over 20% of Slatesters (their terminology) voted for Bush or Browne, the Libertarian candidate. By 2012, that number was down to 11% for Romney and Johnson. This year, as Slate’s centrist contributors evaporated along with their centrist readership – the number was 0.0%.

But I’m not picking on Slate because they disclose their voting patterns, I think this is commendable. And I’m not picking on them because they’re the worst, if you’ve noticed I already linked to a Slate article positively in this essay. I’m talking about Slate because its senior political editor, Jamelle Bouie, just wrote an article forged straight in Moloch’s furnace: There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.

There’s no such thing as a good hate article

Let’s run through the checklist.

A single sacred value – as Jonathan Haidt explains: “The new sacred values on the left are about anti-racism and fighting discrimination”. Bouie doesn’t entertain the notion that people could have voted for Trump because they care about terror, or abortion, or taxes, or they just think that Hillary Clinton is a horrible and corrupt person. To him, all voting is single-issue voting on racism: “People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy.”

Eternal conflict – Bouie sees everything as part of a perennial struggle against racism. Journalists who urge empathy for Trump voters in 2016 are compared to when “Between 1882 and 1964, nearly 3,500 black Americans were lynched. At the peak of this era, from 1890 to 1910, hundreds were killed in huge public spectacles of violence. And the people who watched these events, who brought their families to gawk and smile, were the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”

Zero sum – Can empathizing with Trump supporters actually increase tolerance and improve outcome for blacks? It doesn’t matter, any aid to the enemy is condemned as sin: “To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration. At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque.”

Homogenous outgroup – “Trump’s 59 million votes… Meanwhile, more than 300 incidents of harassment or intimidation have been reported in the aftermath of Trump’s election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.” To me, it sounds like 58,999,700 people voted for Trump and did not proceed to harass minorities the next day. To Bouie, all 59 million share the collective guilt.

The enemy’s tactics are familiar – Two paragraphs after condemning 59 million people for the actions of 300, Bouie writes: “[Trump’s] campaign indulged in hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and condemned Muslim Americans with the collective guilt of anyone who would commit terror.” You see, according to Bouie there’s nothing wrong per se with employing the tactic of collective condemnation. It’s only a problem if you condemn the wrong collective.

The moderates are incomprehensible – Who are these terrible racists who are compared to the people who cheered at lynchings? Who are these right-wing extremists that Bouie calls “morally grotesque”? The New York Times and the Washington Post. Reminder: these are the two media companies that Trump has personally threatened to sue while remarking of the former: “They don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman and others, they don’t — they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”

When you decide that even your enemies’ enemies are your bitter enemies, maybe you should consider making fewer enemies.

Intermission: why does everyone hate me?

I admit that it’s somewhat self-indulgent to position myself in Smith’s quote and assume that I’m “held in contempt and derision” because I’m the honest voice of calm reason. But I have a sneaking suspicion of reversed causality here. I mentioned some of the thinkers who inspired me: Haidt, Kling, Harris, Alexander, Yudkowsky. I noticed that we have one more thing in common besides fighting polarization and promoting rationality – we’re all (ethnically) Jewish.

For all our talents, Jews’ most remarkable ability is ending up equally hated by both sides of a polarized conflict. Naturally, whenever Sunni fight Shia they accuse each other of conspiring with Jews; so do Russia and Ukraine. In American culture wars, the SJ left hates Jews because they’re the rich and powerful oppressors. The alt-right accuses Jews of sacrificing babies to Moloch, which is very confusing to the Jews who try to use Moloch as a metaphor for cooperation failure.

Personally, I couldn’t find a home at the horseshoe’s tips even if I tried. I’m the worst kind of Jew you can imagine: an Israeli cosmopolitan liberal with an MBA. According to Malcolm X, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. According to the alt-right, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. The good news is that I’m bridging the gap between extremists just by existing. The bad news is that I’m only pushing this propaganda of tolerance and cooperation to further my Zionist-capitalist plot of global peace and prosperity (peace and prosperity increase stock prices).

I’m a bit worried that what led me to the center of the horseshoe isn’t cool rationality, but the fact that I was held in contempt and derision to start with. This shall be the new motto of the centrist moderates: “Does everyone hate you? You should try using reason, you have nothing to lose!”

Climbing the horseshoe

Ok, so you want to avoid being at the bottom of the horseshoe where everyone is your enemy and you’re destroying the social norms of cooperation that humanity depends on. How do you ascend to a more judicious position on the horseshoe?

Option 1 – convert to Judaism.

Option 2 – follow this simple, four-step plan:

  1. Find some you disagree with, but don’t hate.
  2. Figure out what they know that you don’t, and vice versa.
  3. Figure out what goals and values they hold that you don’t, and vice versa.
  4. Offer a compromise.

Let’s see if it works.

“Dear Mr. Bouie,

I have read your many articles regarding Trump supporters. I disagree with their content both factually and instrumentally. I don’t think they present the entire truth about racism in the United States, nor offer an effective way to fight it. But I admire your motivation in writing them, and I want to cooperate with you in our fight against racism.

There is no question that you know more than most about racism in the United States. From your writing I learned both about the historical cycles of racial integration and backlash, and about the present experience of being black in America. I don’t know much about either the past or the present of racism, all I know are bell curves.

Your article treats “attitudes about racism” as the only variable that mattered in the election, so that will be the bell curve’s axis. I will grant your implicit assumption that every Trump voter is more racist than every Clinton voter if you’ll grant me the mathematical assumptions needed for a Gaussian transformation. I want to “normalize” the racism of Trump’s voters, if you will.


If half the country voted for Trump, the median Trump voter is at the 75th percentile of racism. That’s 0.67 standard deviations more racist than the median American, and 1.33 SDs more racist than the median Clinton voter (and people like the New York Times). On the other hand, there are 6,000 registered KKK members out of 242 million American adults, that more than 4 SDs out on the racism axis. Even if we assume 100,000 white supremacists, a very pessimistic estimate, they occupy the area on the curve beyond 3.3 SDs. That’s twice as far from the median Trump voter as the latter is from the median Clinton voter.

Your main goal in opposing Donald Trump, Mr. Bouie, is fighting racism. I actually consider other issues more important. Yes, some Trump endorsers wonder if Jews are human (we’re actually dancer), but I am still more worried about nuclear war, the erosion of governance institutions and threats to global economic freedom. I know, I’m a weirdo. But for now, let’s put all that aside and concentrate solely on your goal: fighting racism.

Trump is especially worrying in regards to racism because he’ll be the first president to include the always-present minority of white supremacists in the government coalition. To combat that, we need to build an overwhelming anti-racist coalition. We can’t risk having just 51% of people on our side, we need at least three-quarters of the country. That means we need the “orange quarter” on my chart, the 25% of Americans who voted for Trump but are less racist than the median Trump voter.

Who are they? One of them is my old Jewish colleague who voted for Trump because of tax policy. One of them is my gay black friend who voted for Trump because he worries about illegal immigrants. Millions of them are the older rural whites in Pennsylvania and Michigan who swung the election Trump’s way. The same people whose great grandparents bled for the Union to end slavery a century and a half ago.

We need to compromise with these people because we need them. We need to tell them: ‘We don’t care as much about taxes and immigration and revitalizing the rural Midwest, and you don’t care as much about white supremacists, but we’ll help you out on all of the above if you help us kick the idiots shouting “Heil Trump” far outside the Overton window (and maybe out a physical window as well). Besides, what’s more embarrassing than pasty white dudes calling themselves Children of the sun? Are those the friends you want?

These “orange voters” don’t really care what the New York Times thinks of them, let alone what Slate does. If Breitbart accused you of being politically correct, you would wear that as a badge of honor. All we’re doing by calling everyone “racist” is redefining “racist” to mean “people who disagrees with Slate on anything”, the same way “politically correct” now means “people who disagree with Breitbart on anything”.

You know that dude Carl Higbie, the one who thinks that the WWII internment camps for Japanese were a good precedent? There are many ways to describe him. He’s a Navy SEAL who was honorably discharged and then had that honorable discharge revoked for writing a book about the war in Iraq. Quite a character, huh? And yet the only way anyone in the media describes Higbie talking about the interment camps is as a “Trump supporter”.

Look, we need these orange Trump supporters in our coalition to fight racism and we are telling them that internment camps are something on their agenda. Actually, forget the supporters. Trump himself has only one agenda: “winning”. Let’s not tell him that his policy is locking Muslims up.

Now let’s get to the N-word: normalization. You’re saying that this isn’t just another normal election, that this isn’t politics as usual. Look at that orange person in the middle of the bell curve, the 270th elector. He (or she) is the normal one. To them, it was a normal election, and they voted for Trump. We don’t get to decide what’s “normal” in America, America decided what’s normal on November 8th.

This doesn’t mean that what’s “normal” isn’t wrong, just that treating normal people as if they were evil mutants isn’t the way to make them right. I believe that “normal” is wrong on many things, like altruism, welfare, and football coaching. I try to persuade people to my position with friendly arguments, not by calling them names. We don’t decide whether to normalize the orange voters or not, they are normal. We decide if we’re going to polarize and radicalize these people, or if we work with them to achieve our goals.

And yes, if a bunch of people who aren’t evil mutants voted for someone, that should give us some evidence that this person also isn’t an evil mutant. This isn’t a political point, just a Bayesian one.

You know what this is reminiscent of? Obama’s refusal to associate jihadi terrorism with Islam to avoid radicalizing Muslims. We both agree that Obama is pretty smart, so let’s make a deal. We’ll both reach out to people close to us on the political horseshoe and ask them to adopt the anti-radicalization logic. You’ll tell the New York Times not to call Trump voters racist, and I’ll tell Sam Harris not to call terrorists Islamic. He’ll listen to me, we’re both in the Zionist-capitalist club together. Let’s build our coalition at the top of the horseshoe and at the middle of the bell curve.

Because when Jews and blacks cooperate, beautiful things happen.

Did you know that Drake is also a Zionist-capitalist Moloch worshipper?

Respectfully yours,


This is the way the world… is

Today isn’t strange, it’s how the world is. It didn’t become that way today, we just found out now. So let’s deal with this.

10% of the world’s countries experience violent regime change once a year on average. In middle income countries regimes last 12.5 years on average. 90% of the world’s countries could expect a political revolution, coup d’état or violent change in a human lifetime. Throughout history, that number has been even higher especially when you include the risk of foreign invasion.

Trump is not the Mongol hordes.

My great-grandparents fled the Nazis, my grandfather’s brother was sent to a Gulag, my parents grew up in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union. I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up in first-world democracies, but good things aren’t the default state of the world. Good people need to work hard for good things, and sometimes there are setbacks.

What struck me the most about today is how inevitable someone like Trump seems in retrospect. There was no jihadi terror attack this week, no freak blizzard in Detroit keeping democrat voters at home. And to be honest, the candidate was barely electable. And still, the people who wanted Trump got their wish. They were always the (electoral college) majority, now we just know that it so.

The world didn’t become worse today, we just found out that it was like this. If you were a naïve optimist like me and didn’t anticipate this seriously enough, you were wrong. I was wrong.

If you’re in shock that Trump won, I am writing this to help you confront the denial. Yesterday, I asked you to overcome your anger. If you want to bargain about the state of the world, I recommend doing so by donating to an effective charity and actually changing the world for the better.

It’s OK to be depressed for a while. I recommend gin and Civilization VI. For an extra challenge, try to win a cultural victory while maintaining open borders and free trade with all the other civs.

But, it would be nice if we could all get to the acceptance stage pronto, the world needs people who have their shit together. These aren’t the biggest stakes our generation will face in our lifetimes, and we should cast off naïve optimism if we are to do better in the future.

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Eugene Gendlin

Year 1 Redux – Friends and Rationalists

Welcome to day 14 of Putanumonit’s birthday week celebration! It’s time to wrap up the year-in-review and get ready for a couple of serious writing projects.



In Zero Agents and Plastic Men I tried to conjure up some new jargon, and it turned out kind of lame and confusing. My buddy Ryan and I came up with a better term for what I was talking about: the skunk whistle.

dog whistle is a phrase that sounds innocuous to the broad public but communicates a “secret” message to the intended audience, a message that outsiders would find objectionable . When Ted Cruz tells rural Texans he’s against “New York values” and they hear him saying “I hate Jews”, that’s a dog whistle. Of course, the people who assume that Cruz means “I hate Jews” when he talk about “New York” are mostly Jews from New York and not actual rural Texans. I guess “Ted Cruz uses anti-Semitic dog whistles” is a dog whistle for “I think all Republicans and their voters are bigots”. Everyone can play the dog whistle game!

A skunk  whistle is the parallel opposite: it’s a statement that sounds much worse to the broad public than the actual message it conveys to listeners “in the know”. Staying on the theme: when my Syrian acquaintance writes “I hate Jews” in the context of Assad being a Mossad spy it could be a skunk whistle for “I hate Bashar Assad” or simply “I am loyal to my country”.

The Trump example I gave, “Mexican immigrants are lazy and criminal”, could be either whistle:  it could be a skunk whistle for “I respect working class whites” or a dog whistle for “urban blacks are lazy and criminal”.

Point is: if you’re not the target audience for the secret message, don’t assume you know what the secret message is. And if you don’t know, give people the benefit of the doubt.

My calculation of how long it will take to catch each Pokemon didn’t address the four location specific Pokemon, like Mr. Mime in Europe and Farfetch’d in Japan. Last month, my girlfriend and I walked 120 miles on foot in Japan over 9 days. We saw a few robots, several cats, lots of monkeys, a throng of deer, and zero Farfetch’ds. So, overall, the trip was a disappointment.

kyoto monkey.jpg
Arashiyama Park, Kyoto

No one writes a blog for no reason, who are we doing this versus?

Despite being an arrogant, competitive, stubborn and tactless person, throughout my life I have mostly managed to avoid making enemies. When I criticize really abhorrent ideas I try to avoid mentioning people by name. When I do call out someone, it is always with the reasonable hope that they will redeem themselves. Some do, and some don’t.

And sometimes I get worked up in a blog post about the LessWrong Sequences and people think that David Chapman is my enemy.

First of all, I’m in-endorsing the “Postrationality” section of that post. A lot of it is not true (e.g. about Tim Urban), a lot of it is unnecessary, and it is definitely unkind and uncharitable – most of all to David.

I singled out David because he’s a friend of the rationalist community, and I was hoping that everyone will realize the harm that friendly fire does to a community’s credibility. My prediction of David’s possible reactions was as follows: 70% that he will never hear of Putanumonit, 20% that he’ll get annoyed and ignore me, 10% that he’ll comment on that post and we could have a discussion. I thought that 10% was worth it. Instead, David followed Putanumonit without commenting and likes a lot of my post. So, maybe it was OK to be mean and our shared community norms prevented a critical post from turning into a beef? I hope that’s the case.

David also keeps banging out great articles on at a blistering pace. Instead of making fun of Julia Galef, who’s in my in-group, these articles make fun of Baby Boomer hippies and Evangelicals, which are totally my out-group. I thus endorse them with no reservations 😉

But seriously: y’all should read the Sequences so y’all could join our awesome community with its epistemology-promoting norms.

Speaking of the community, now that is frozen in time a lot of really cool rationalists are group-blogging over at Map and Territory. They even invited me to the party! My first post will be a re-edit of the call against relying on empathy. I want to add a deeper exploration of the evolutionary psychology of empathy, tribalism and reciprocity based on reading Jonathan Haidt and some others.

My second writing project is a bit scary because of the subject. I wrote about subverting democracy, setting fire to the FDA, racial differences, gender wars, and God without Putanumonit erupting into flames. I’m going to push my luck and write about the one subject you’re really not allowed to write rationally about online. I’m going to take the time to make sure it’s good, and I reserve the right to chicken out on this post in the middle.

See y’all in year 2.

Theory of an Immoral Sentiment

When economics became impersonal, humanity rose from ragged tribes to a prosperous civilization. It’s time for a similar revolution in our morals.


Hey, did you hear the news about the descolada virus outbreak in Tajikistan?

“No,” you say, “is it bad?”

I confirm that it is bad indeed. 15,000 people have succumbed to the illness, many more cases unconfirmed, doctors are scrambling for a cure. Fortunately, the disease is localized and there’s practically no risk of anyone in this part of the world catching the virus.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” you sigh, “I wish we could do something for the poor souls.”

Your conversational duties fulfilled, you are now free to revert your attention to whatever you were doing before and not give another thought to the poor Tajiks. What was that virus called? You already forgot. It’s not that you’re indifferent to the Tajik plight, it’s just… it’s just that descolada in Tajikistan doesn’t really make a difference to you.

Now imagine instead that you get a call from your doctor: a test came back showing that your appendix is about to get inflamed, you’re scheduled for an appendectomy tomorrow afternoon. Someone’s going to cut open your abdomen with sharp instruments. You really shouldn’t worry though, it’s a routine procedure and most appendectomy patients are out of the hospital by the second day.

But you do worry, and probably have trouble sleeping tonight. It’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking of anything at all for the next day other than your imminent surgery.


Adam Smith is most known for his Wealth of Nations being quoted out of context in 57% of dumb Facebook debates about economics. But that’s only half of his bibliography, Smith also wrote a remarkable book on virtue, wisdom and the life worth living in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If you want the same ideas in modern English and with a snazzy cover, Russ Roberts of EconTalk fame covers TToMS in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

The original, published in 1759, remarks on the fact that people are more preoccupied with the smallest inconvenience to themselves than with the greatest tragedies occurring half the world away:

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

People are self-interested, is that all Adam Smith want to tell us?

Back to your looming appendectomy. Your phone suddenly rings, it’s the famous Dr. Wiggin. He can drop by tomorrow with a marvelous new pill he developed, it will placate your appendix forever with no need for surgery and no discomfort. Of course, if he comes to visit you he won’t be able to make his trip to Tajikistan where he was planning to administer the descolada cure that only he is in possession of. Will you sacrifice the suffering Tajiks to avoid an unpleasant surgery?

Adam Smith thinks that not a single person on Earth will make that trade-off:

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.

But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?

Smith credits our selflessness to pity, compassion and sympathy; he combines all three under the category of “fellow-feeling”. Today we would more specifically refer to it as empathy, the capacity to share the feelings of others, particularly their sorrow.

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it…

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.

Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.

250 years later, most people agree that empathy is at the root of altruism. Barack Obama sees empathy as the opposite of selfishness:

There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit.  But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.

Not only that – we live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.  A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

Psychologists researching altruism and morality agree with the president, and break empathy into two components:

The ability to respond with emotional and cognitive empathy is necessary for attachment and caregiving, a fundamental mammalian behavior and cornerstone of altruism.

Roughly, emotional empathy is feeling with the suffering of others, cognitive empathy is feeling for others’ pain without mirroring it. Here are two more psychology researchers, explaining that both are equally critical:

The cognitive and affective components of empathy cannot be cleanly separated.

Indeed, an emerging body of research finds that neural systems for affective and cognitive empathy heavily influence each other. In our work, for example, we have shown that the brain systems involved in affective empathy correlate with those at work in a pro-social decision-making task. The cognitive, in short, is not sealed off from the affective.

Breaking news! Scientists say that emotional empathy makes you a good person! Next they will publish a paper on the discovery that water is wet. Isn’t the value of empathy plainly obvious, even to psychologists?

Well, it’s not obvious to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. In fact, the latter two excerpts are from written responses to his essay that he titled: Against Empathy. Why would someone be against the cornerstone of moral sentiment, in contradiction of Adam Smith, Obama and his fellow scientists?

One reason is: he’s got a point.


Let’s define exactly what we’re talking about: emotional empathy refers to the ability and the inclination of humans to feel the emotions that others are feeling. These others may be human or animal, present or distant, real or fictional. To clarify: feeling angry that Cecil the Lion was killed is not emotional empathy, because Cecil is not feeling anger, he’s in lion heaven sharing drinks with Mufasa. However, joining the anger of a Twitter mob is empathy, insofar as your anger reflects the predominant emotion of the crowd. Even if every single Twitterer is feigning their outrage, if you imagine the crowd to be angry and feel angry in response, that is empathy.

So what’s wrong with emotional empathy? The fact that it’s self-serving, biased, tribal, and concerned with what’s immediately adjacent. Conversely, we have the power to do good when we are altruistic, objective, think globally and aid those who are most distant. I’ll argue that emotional empathy is separable from cognitive empathy (to a point), and that we have a moral imperative to do so.

Don’t worry, in the end it will turn out that Adam Smith was right about everything all along.


Let’s go back to the 15,000 sick Tajiks. Was it emotional empathy that made you willing to help them, even at the cost of undergoing surgery yourself? Since blogging is a one-way medium of communication, instead of hearing your reply I’ll have to look at the scientific evidence on emotional empathy instead.

First, emotional empathy is innumerate. People are subject to the identifiable victim effectwilling to give more to a single familiar victim than to many. This is true even if the original victim is included in the many, telling people about additional victims can reduce their willingness to help. Our brains simply cannot share the emotion of more than one or two people at a time, let alone 15,000. If both Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on something then it must be true: innumeracy is a feature (or a bug) of emotional empathy.

Second, emotional empathy is biased. We empathize with the attractive, the famous, and with those who are like us. The Tajiks are certainly none of these things: most of my readers will not be able to name a single one of the 8.2 million citizens of Tajikistan. Few of my readers look like they could be from Tajikistan, and we empathize more with those who look like us. Emotional empathy is racist.

Third, empathy is founded on shared experiences. The descolada virus unglues the victim’s DNA and scrambles the proteins, preventing cell repair. Do you know what that feels like? I’d be quite shocked if you do, given that the disease is entirely fictional.

Descolada in Tajikistan is a made up example, but it’s illustrative of the insignificant role emotional empathy really plays in our response to tragedies that befall others. There isn’t a lot more empathy to be found in real life disasters.

One of the best known researchers of the psychology of empathy is Simon Baron-Cohen (not to be confused with famous researcher of American cultural learnings Sasha Baron Cohen). In his reply to Paul Bloom, this is the best example of empathy-driven altruism he managed to come up with:

When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, for example, charitable donations flooded in from countries from around the world, fuelled by empathy for victims, not based on how attractive they were, and not just for those from the same ethnic or national groups.

Talking about donations “flooding” the tsunami victims is not just an unfortunate choice of words, it’s also grossly inaccurate. Reacting to the worst natural disaster in decades “other ethnic or national groups”, both public and private, contributed a tiny amount compared to what they spend on themselves. There’s scant evidence that the little that was given was driven by emotional empathy. The US government originally pledged a measly $15 million. A week later, this amount was increased to $350 and finally $950. Did the increase happen because president Bush spent a week imagining how it feels like to be swept away by giant waves? I bet it’s because he spent a week facing harsh criticism from other world leader on his “stinginess”.


If not emotional empathy for the victims, what drives our responses, such as they are, to the suffering of others? Instead of psychology, we can ask economists: I think that both Adam Smith and Robin Hanson will say that our responses are driven by something like a culturally learned sense of propriety.

You know, without thinking about it explicitly, that tying underwear around your head to keep your ears warm is improper. You may still choose to do it, but you’re aware that it’s transgressive. You know that “four delicious tiny round brown glazed Italian chocolate cookies” is the only proper way to order these adjectives.

The society you live in taught you to feel bad for the tsunami victims and maybe donate a few dollars, but it doesn’t expect you to give your life’s savings to the Red Cross. Yet with your appendectomy weighed against a thousand Tajiks, you know that letting a thousand people die for the sake of your own comfort is improper, and that sense of propriety is strong enough to override every person’s natural selfish inclinations.

As for empathy, it doesn’t override your selfish inclinations, it is one. At least by the evolutionary definitions of selfishness.

The desire for our emotions to be in harmony with those around us has been bred into us by eons of evolution in small tribes. When the difference between life and death every day is the ability to trust, predict and depend on the few members of your hunter-gatherer band, the skill of harmonizing emotions with them is indispensable. I was going to quote an evolutionary psychologist here, but I’ll go with Adam Smith again simply because his writing is delightful:

The person [who suffers] is sensible of this [that others don’t share his full experience], and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy. He longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation.

But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him.

Even when we grieve, we will “tone down” our grief, whatever it takes to be in sync with how those around us feel.


People differ in their capability for emotional empathy. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul Bloom admitted on Julia Galef’s podcast that he doesn’t feel emotional empathy as strongly as others (or as strongly as others claim to, reminds the little Robin Hanson on my shoulder). From hearing a dozen people weigh in on the empathy debate it seems that one’s capacity for emotional empathy correlates strongly with one’s inclination to defend empathy on moral grounds. For what it’s worth, I’m in Paul Bloom’s boat.

I have several female friends. The upshot of this is that I hear a lot of complaints about painful menstrual cramps. I lack both the emotional capacity and the necessary anatomy to properly empathize with my friend’s pain. What I feel instead is a sense of “the world is wrong” and a compulsion to make it better. I can help my friend by inviting her for ice cream, or sending her links to mystical artifacts of great power, or by hanging around and letting her empathy improve her mood by aligning with my generally upbeat emotional baseline.

Is that more valuable to my friend than “to see the emotions of my heart beat time to her own”? Perhaps it is and perhaps not, I will not argue against the importance of empathy in personal relationship. However, I get the same “world is wrong and I should help” feeling when I read about Kenyans suffering in poverty, and I am moved to research their plight and raise donations on my blog. I doubt that if instead I fully empathized with being a hungry subsistence farmer I would have done more for them than $8,000. When a man can’t afford food, I bet he desires food money more than “a complete sympathy”.

And yet, I love the feeling of emotional empathy. I enjoy losing myself in a work of fiction that makes me share every tilt and shift of the protagonist’s passions. I wrote about staring into the eyes of someone experiencing strong emotions, it’s a breathtaking and wonderful experience. I go to live sports events whenever I can for the exhilaration of knowing I share every emotion with 20,000 fans around me.

But I don’t fool myself: empathy feels good because it’s good for me, it has little to do with doing good and making the world better.


In the best part of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life Russ Roberts addresses the seeming paradox of Smith’s career: his life was dedicated to the writing of two books, yet the books have seemingly nothing to do with each other.

In Wealth of Nations Smith talks about societies becoming prosperous through trade and specialization. When two people can trade with each other, each is incentivized to focus on what they do best and barter for what they cannot produce. The more people specialize, the more wealth they create, the more they seek trading partners, the more they need to specialize, and so on and so on until our species went from roaming a patch of savanna to roaming the solar system.

Our wealth is generated by countless strangers – even a simple pencil is delivered by an immensely complex, globe-spanning supply chain. These pencil-making strangers have no concern for us, they are operating solely from their own self-interest. Yet they are responsible for everything from the food we eat to the blogs we read. (Little known fact: Putanumonit is produced in a sweatshop outside Kuala Lumpur by middle-school dropouts).

In contrast, the endlessly quotable Theory of Moral Sentiments makes no mention of trade and commerce, except to remark that the pursuit of riches leads neither to virtue nor to happiness. But when considered as a whole body of work, it becomes clear that the two books aren’t contradictory: they are complementary. Our happiness depends on our relationships with those closest to us, and our character is measured by how we treat them. In these relationships, empathy is paramount. On the other hand, the prosperity of our societies lies in the trade we conduct with faraway strangers, an interaction in which empathy plays no role. A person who keeps these worlds separate and navigates both adroitly will be both successful and loved. A person who mixes in one world with the other will find the mixture noxious and combustible.

The governance of a nation clearly belongs to the world of economic interactions between strangers, not to the world of empathy and intimate relationships. In his essay and in podcasts, Paul Bloom gives many examples of the perils and perversities caused by empathy-driven public policy, I won’t elaborate on that. Instead, I’ll consider a more personal question:

Should a person who seeks to make the world a better place follow empathy or discard it?


If you’re reading this blog, you are probably very prosperous by global and historical standards. A single person making minimum wage in the United States is in the top 5% of earners in the world in 2016. For all the fun we make of it, 2016 is the most advanced, peaceful, healthy and rich year in human history so far and there’s no reason to think that 2017 won’t be ever better. You live in the very best of times, in the very best of places. Almost certainly, the people closest to you are also among the luckiest and richest in the history of the world. These are the people you empathize with.

Empathy will push you to aid those like you, but whatever problems those like you face are neither neglected, nor easily tractable, nor particularly acute. Conversely, those who are strangest to you need your help the most: the third-world poor, the factory farmed animals, and the people who are not yet born. Perhaps others who are even farther from us, whom we haven’t thought of in our empathic provinciality. Those you can empathize the least with, you can do the most to help.

People talk about expanding the “circle of empathy”, and it seems to me that the only way to do it is with cognitive empathy. Your heart will not harmonize with faraway strangers, but your mind can learn to include them in your circle of concern.


In conclusion let me say this: emotional empathy is a wonderful human capacity. It expands our emotional universe and makes us enjoy caring for others. So why do I argue against it? Because of a fundamental asymmetry: emotional empathy feels too good, we are ever likelier to overdo it rather than neglect it.

No one can or should turn off their empathy switch completely. Rationality consists of learning about the biases that distort your thinking, and correcting for them little bit by little bit when making important decisions. When choosing a course of action that will make the world a better place, the strength of your empathy for victims is more likely to lead you astray that to lead you truly.

A prehistoric hunter-gatherer couldn’t fathom the mere concept of getting things from strangers. Every morsel she owned was either self-procured or given by a friend or relative with whom she has built trust over years and decades. Once humans let go of the need for personal confidence and familiarity in barter, humanity flourished and grew in power a million times.

With our newfound power we face newfound challenges: from malaria to global warming to spreading freedom and controlling artificial intelligence. Like our economy, these challenges are no longer in the domain of interpersonal relationship. These challenges are global, and the solutions to them must be global, and it is our imperative as the richest and most powerful humans who have ever lived to solved them. And to do that, we need to let go of one more innate and tribal emotion: empathy.


Zero Agents and Plastic Men

Can you judge what people believe in based on the tribes they belong to? What if they explicitly tell you? And what does this have to do with the fact that only 2% of blacks support Trump?

[Note: this post is mainly anecdata and speculation, so don’t expect academic citations and regression models. My epistemic status on this is, accordingly, speculative. I’m sure that many people discussed similar themes, but I arrived at these conclusions independently. Also, since the anecdotes are personal, the names and identifying details of all people in this post have been changed. ]

This post is about sociology. I never actually studied sociology.

The closest I got was a sociology book I once received as a birthday gift from Maya, my Israeli ex-girlfriend who majored in sociology. She told me the book was about patience. I read the first three pages: the book turned out to be about gift-giving. Coincidentally, the two words are spelled the same in Hebrew (המתנה). Maya admitted that she never actually read it, but it was recommended by her sociology professor. And besides, she hinted, I could use to learn about patience anyway. I wasn’t sure how to learn patience from a book about gifts, so I never opened it again.

As for Maya, after we broke up I introduced her to a very patient friend of mine. They recently got married after eight years of patient dating.

So what do I know of sociology? All I know comes mainly from three sources. The first is the video of Stanley Milgram’s experiments on authority and obedience. The second is Scott’s post about the outgroup. And the third is Scott’s post about the ingroup.

The ingroup post is titled “The Ideology Is not the Movement”. It explains that extant tribes of people rarely stay concerned for long with the official reason for the tribe’s formation. Whatever else Sunni and Shia Muslims are killing each other over in 2016, the choice of rightful caliph to succeed Muhammad in 632 AD ain’t it. “Gamergate” isn’t the movement of people who think that “Depression Quest” is a crappy game that got unfairly positive reviews. Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Depression Quest were just rallying flags, the nuclei around which people with preexisting similarities coalesced. Once a tribe is established, the ideological rallying flag can be discarded or even controverted. Did you know that the US Democratic Party started as the small-government opposition to federalism, and drew its support from Southern planters?

Sometimes, a movement does have an obvious uniting ideology. For example, the Hasidic Jews who live in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights and attend the Hasidic synagogues there would seem, if nothing else, to be united by the ideology of Hasidic Judaism.

An old colleague of mine, Shmuel, lives in Crown Heights around the corner from establishments with names plucked from a shtetl like “Raskin’s Fish Market” and “Getzel’s Shul”. He wears a black coat and black kippa. Shmuel’s four kids go to Jewish schools.

I ran into Shmuel a couple of weeks ago, he told me that he enjoys reading Putanumonit. He particularly enjoyed reading A Conversation With GoD. I asked him what he thought of my 1:1,000,000 credence for the existence of God as described in the Old Testament. He said that number seemed a bit low. When he worked through the numbers himself some years ago, he arrived at 1:10,000.

I remarked that 0.01% is a rather low God-credence for a religious man, perhaps Shmuel took the divine bet with Pascal’s wager? No, Shmuel said, he did some math on Pascal’s Wager too and decided to reject it. He showed me a comprehensive document of arguments and calculation in support of atheism and rejection of Pascal’s wager. The document reads like a Putanumonit post, except less arrogant and better researched.


So why does Shmuel appear outwardly to live a pious Hasidic life? Crown Heights is close to Manhattan but the rent is still cheap, the schools are fine and the streets are safe. His wife is happy with the lifestyle and his parents are happy with their social standing. The price to pay for this comfort is a limited choice of wardrobe and having to show up in synagogue for prayer, 45 minutes during which Shmuel zones out and thinks about math.

“It sound like a great bargain”, I said. “I wonder how many men praying in the seats alongside you zone out as well.”

“Probably a lot of them”, Shmuel replied. “But unlike most of these guys, I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”

According to Scott, the rallying flag of the rationalist community was the belief that Eliezer Yudkowsky is the rightful caliph. As the Muslim caliphs stood against the infidels, so does Eliezer stand against the fidels. It’s not even that LessWrong spends that much time arguing for atheism, atheism is almost assumed as a precursor to studying rationality the same way arithmetics is required for calculus.

With that in mind, it’s a bit of a surprise that over 11% of LessWrongers are theist, up from 8% in 2014. And when these 11% show up at Solstice, or a CFAR workshop, or any rationalist hangout, you mostly wouldn’t be able to tell who it is.

So: forget about the ideology not being the movement. Even when the movement has a clear ideology, a bunch of people will reject that ideology outright while happily hanging out with the movement and broadcasting their movement loyalty for all to see. These aren’t saboteurs looking to undermine the tribe, they love the tribe. They’re not double agents either, they’re zero agents. I would bet that at least 10% of every tribe is made up of zero agents who reject the tribe’s stated beliefs but enjoy the company and the snacks too much to say anything.

The man taking his family to Sunday mass? I’d give a 10% chance that he isn’t Catholic but just thinks it’s a good experience for the kids. The woman in the Cowboys (Barcelona) jersey? I’d give 10% she can’t name a single football player but has friends that do and she thinks the jersey fits her hair color. You really can’t be sure what people believe in until they say it.

And even when they say what they believe, don’t be so quick to believe them.

At first, I thought that Hadia hates the Israelis. I didn’t think so just because she’s Syrian. I thought so because when we met at a mutual friend’s party in North Carolina, she said “I hate the Israelis”. After we bacame Facebook friends (I don’t entirely remember what happened at that party and how much we drank), Hadia shared a “news” story claiming that Bashar Assad was revealed as a Mossad agent sent to kill Syrian children. Hadia’s comment on the link was “Ugh, I hate the Israelis”.

As an Israeli, my curiosty was piqued.

Not everyone can handle a cleanse

Surely, I inquired of Hadia, she didn’t really believe that Assad is literally a Mossad spy. She didn’t, Hadia admitted, she just thought it was a good article detailing all the atrocities commited by Assad against the Syrian people. Why then muddle the issue with Mossad conspiracy theories and comments about Israelis? “Mossad” is more of a literary device, Hadia replied, like saying that something is “from the Devil” but it sounds hip to Arab ears. And mentioning how much she hates Israelis always gets more “likes” on Facebook, so why not? Any more than an American hates some distant bogeymen like North Korea, Hadia doesn’t hate hate Israelis. Mostly, she likes “likes”.

I came to two realizations. First, that I have no idea what Hadia’s social group is like, what signals and codes they share, how loyalty is measured and status is regulated. Perhaps, as a Syrian living in the US, Hadia is facing extra pressure to prove her loyalty to the Syrian people by constantly mentioning the Mossad and her hatred of Israelis in casual conversation. If Hadia had heard my friends and I discussing paperclip-maximizing computers she would likewise conclude that we are insane.

My second realization was that this isn’t a unique case, and that a lot of arguments that I hear that sound crazy can only be understood in the context of signalling within groups that I’m blind to. For any tribe whose “secret language” we don’t speak we can’t presume anything about their actual beliefs with certainty.

In Rationality, to steel man an argument is to come up with the most sensible version of it, the interpretation that could reasonably be held by an intelligent arguer. Steel manning is achieved only rarely, by the wise Bayesian sages in their secret mountain dojo. Steel manning stands in opposition to straw manning, taking a weak and distorted version of your opponent’s argument that is fun to be outraged about. That is achieved by 99% of media and your Facebook wall.

To these two I would add: plastic-manning. A plastic man isn’t genuine. It stands for something, but you’re not sure what. It’s a mannequin, advertising something to someone, but not to everyone. A plastic argument isn’t there to be dealt with on literal terms, strengthened or weakened. It’s signalling, you either get it or shrug and move on.

Example: people involved in Social Justice talk a lot about oppressors and the oppressed, and there’s a case that SJ people and liberals in general see every social issue as a conflict on the oppression axis.

The strawman version of the “oppression axis” is that “oppression” is a vacuous slogan used to attack white men and grasp at political power. The steelman version is that “oppression” means structural imbalances of power that let some groups profit at the expense of others, and that fighting oppression is the best (although not unique) way to achieve equality.

I’ll let my friend, much deeper steeped in SJ discourse than I am, explain the plastic man version of talking about oppression:



Basically, the plastic-man version of most arguments is “I said it for the likes”.

It’s hard to know if an argument is plastic or not, but you can look for hints in how the intended audience react to it. If my SJ friend has posted something contrarian that his SJ friends disagreed with, that could be a true belief. But no one did, they reacted as they would to an applause light, which is itself a narrower category of plastic man arguments.

Why is noticing a plastic argument important? Because it will never make sense to you. There’s no way to logically steelman “Assad is an Israeli spy”. Any engagement with such an argument makes you stupider by the minute, and inoculates you against respecting better arguments from the same people via the cowpox of doubt.

The existence of plastic men doesn’t mean that you should never take people at their word when they say weird shit. It just means that you need to keep the plastic possibility in mind, especially when the argument may involve layers of group signalling you’re unaware of.

A social group whose layers of signalling I’m really unaware of are Trump supporters. But I think I can plastic man one of Trump’s main arguments, namely his argument that immigrants, particulary those from Mexico, are a danger to America.

Mexican immigrants, Trump says, are criminals. And when they’re not commiting crimes, they’re lazily idling on welfare instead of building American business. And when they’re not being lazy, they’re destroying conservative American culture. And when they take breaks from subverting America culturally they go to the polls to vote Democrat, which is why Democrats keep hauling them in by the truckload over the Rio Grande.

Coincidentally, every single part of it is factually wrong.

Immigrants, including Hispanics, are less likely than natives to commit violent crimes or be in jail. Hispanics have 4% higher labor participation rate than non Hispanics. Immigrants are more likely to start a business. Latinos are more religious and socially conservative that the average American. Finally, the rate of net immigration from Mexico has nearly halted under Barack Obama after exploding under George W Bush.

Even without researching statistics, are Trump supporters so clueless that they don’t notice any of the above?

Yes, 71% of Hispanics did vote for Obama over Romney but Asians and blacks voted for Obama at higher rates than that. In places like the Bronx, Obama won by a 92%-8% margin. Speaking of the Bronx, did you know that it suffers from remarkably high crime rates and that a large portion of Bronx residents receive government welfare? It seems quite remarkable that Trump never mentions the Bronx, his contempt is almost exclusively reserved for immigrants and foreigners.


Strawman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who spews malicious slander regarding immigrants. Steelman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who raises legitimate concerns regarding immigrants. Plasticman Trump isn’t talking about immigrants at all: he’s talking about blacks in the Bronx. After all, Trump had undocumented immigrants building his towers, but none of these towers were built north of the Harlem River. His mouth says “immigrants” because in the US media it’s more acceptable to be racist towards immigrants than towards African Americans.

If it’s true that Trump riles against blacks and doesn’t mind immigrants, I suspect that most of his supporters are aware of this while most big city-based liberal media is ignorant. A glance at the New York Times confirms that, although to be fair the New York Times is ignorant of most things.

One group that clearly isn’t fooled are blacks, a mere 2% of whom support Trump compared to 20%-30% of Hispanics. 2% is unprecedented. It’s unfathomable. Trump is polling fourth among blacks, behind not just Hillary but also Johnson and Stein. If someone had added “shape-shifting reptilian people” to the list of candidates, Trump would be polling fifth, behind the lizardmen’s 4%.

You can never be confident when plasticmanning an argument, it requires guessing the secret signals of a group you’re not a part of and that’s hard. But you have to admit, Trump’s talk about immigrants makes much more sense if he isn’t actually talking about immigrants at all.

A Conversation with GoD

Can Putanumonit put a number on the divine itself?

The following is an inexact transcript of a conversation that happened exactly like this. The scene: a wine bar in Manhattan, on my second (and final) date with a Jewish girl. We’ll call her “Jewish Girl on Date”, or J-GoD for short.

J-GoD: You’ve changed your OKCupid religion status from “Jewish” to “atheist” since last week. What happened this weekend that proved to you that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob’s inner voice: Actually, I switched it to optimize my dating profile and avoid Jewish girls that give me grief about not being as Jewish as their moms expect me to be.

Jacob’s mouth: I don’t think that anything can really prove that God doesn’t exist. That’s partly because the definition of God will usually shift to accommodate any evidence.

J-GoD: So why do you call yourself an atheist if you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob: I give the existence of any specific god a low enough probability that I functionally behave as if I was sure no god existed.

J-GoD: Probability?!

Jacob: I give about a 1 in 10 chance for the existence of any popularly conceived supernatural beings, including humanity’s descendants simulating our reality. For some specific religion’s god, like the Old Testament Jewish God (we’ll call him J-God for short), something like 1 in 1,000,000.

J-GoD: How can you put a number on the existence of J-God?

Jacob: Umm, I have this blog about how you can put a number on almost anything… Anyway, probability numbers are how I represent how confident I am that something is true or not.

J-GoD: How the hell can you be exactly one in a million confident that God exists?

Jacob: I wish I could say that I calculated the prior of the Kolmogorov complexity implied by the description of J-God and updated on all available evidence. In reality, I just picked a really low number that matches how confident I allow myself to be on complex metaphysical questions.

J-GoD: So you’re just making up a number to say that you think that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob: No, no, the exact number is important. For example, if I was walking down the street and suddenly saw a bush burst in flames, and the bush burned but wasn’t consumed, and I heard a voice from the sky saying: “I am the God of your father, God of Abraham of Isaac and of Jacob“, I would definitely update my belief.

It’s possible that I could see a divine bush in a godless world as the result of hallucinogenic drugs or a convoluted prank involving VR, but I’m much more likely to see it in a universe in which J-God exists. In J-God’s universe pranksters and drugs still exist, but so does a divinity that is known for using burning bushes to impress people. Let’s say that a burning bush is one hundred times more likely in a J-God universe. So, I would update my belief in J-God by a factor of one hundred, from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 10,000. That’s a high enough probability of J-God watching over me that I would at least make sure to never again boil a goat in its mother’s milk.

A second miracle would bring my posterior belief in J-God from 1/10,000 to 1/100, far above any other single supernatural being and high enough to give some real bite to Pascal’s wager. At three independently observed miracles, I will switch to living a life of humble devotion to J-God.

J-GoD: You think that people should only believe in a God after they see him perform exactly three miracles? That’s a perverse notion of belief! Belief in God has nothing to do with seeing miracles!

Jacob: Actually, the great medieval rationalist rabbi Moses Maimonides discusses in great detail the question of miracle-based belief in God. In Guide for the Perplexed, chapter LXIII he says:

You know how widespread were in those days the opinions of the Sabeans: all men, except a few individuals, were idolaters, that is to say, they believed in spirits, in man’s power to direct the influences of the heavenly bodies, and in the effect of talismans. Any one who in those days laid claim to authority, based it either [on reasoning and proof] or that some spiritual power was conferred upon him by a star, by an angel, or by a similar agency.

He basically says that for people who see magic in every charlatan and miracles every other Tuesday, a miracle should not constitute strong evidence. This is sound Bayesian reasoning. However, we are no longer “in those days”. As an educated rationalist in 2016, I don’t believe that supernatural wonders are common at all. Seeing a true miracle with my own eyes would provide solid grounds for changing my belief.

In Mishne Torah, Maimonides agrees that the performance of miracles should at least make you consider that you’re dealing with a genuine, Twitter-verified, message from the divine, i.e. a prophet:

Just as we are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a mitzvah to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

By “magic and sorcery” Maimonides means illusions and tricks, as opposed to true divine intervention. For example, hallucinogenic drugs and VR count as “magic and sorcery”. Now of course, Maimonides knows that 0 and 1 aren’t probabilities, so Bayesian updating on evidence cannot bring a man to absolute and total belief. As long as drugs or VR are a possibility, they cannot be completely discounted as the source of the observed miracle.

From Mishne Torah again:

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, the commitment of his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

Here’s a great (atheist) Jew explaining how a great (deeply religious) Jew proved that two smart Jews shouldn’t disagree on their picture of reality. Maimonides and I don’t have the shared knowledge required to reach consensus, but we are in complete agreement regarding the proper epistemology of miracle-based belief in J-God.

We differ in our moral value judgment on less-than-absolute belief: I believe that it is a virtue, Maimonides that it is a shortcoming. However, I am a moral anti-realist: I believe that moral value judgments are a fact about (my and Maimonides’) minds, not about external reality. Thus, our moral disagreement isn’t cause for concern for me that I am irrational on the subject.

J-GoD: What kind of atheist are you that you analyze in minute detail the biblical commentary of medieval rabbis?

Jacob: What kind of Jew would I be if I didn’t?