Tag: <span>Tradition</span>

Tribe by Sebastian Junger and the Strange Diseases of Progress

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The subject of unsolved mysteries is one of those topics which can be reliably counted on to spark people’s interest, making it ideal for clickbait lists, questionable cable programs, and, in our own case, blog introductions. Though the unsolved mystery I want to start with does not involve pyramids, or Atlantis, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, you’re probably not even aware that it is a mystery. But not only is it one of the most profound mysteries of our age, but unlike the pyramids, Atlantis, and Jack the Ripper this mystery has serious implications for the future of society.

I first encountered this mystery when I read a review of Empire of the Summer Moon. The review was written by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (though it appeared in his previous blog.) The review mentions a curious fact:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

This is the mystery. If modern society is so awesome why did it hold no appeal for the American Indians? At the time, I just filed this fact in the bin, unsure at the moment of what to do about it. Then, a couple of months ago I read the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. And he also mentioned this same mystery. Of course Alexander and Junger are not the first people to notice this, and both of them end up quoting from Benjamin Franklin who witnessed this phenomenon first hand:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Junger also quotes from a french émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur who was writing in 1782:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

What made the American Indian tribes so appealing to the Europeans, and made the Europeans so unappealing to the Indians? And does this imbalance hold any lessons for us today? Junger’s book tries to answer that question, and it ends up being one of the few books where I wish it had been longer, but what he did write about was so great that I immediately knew it deserved a post.

Before I get into the book, however, I want create a framework for things first. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the vast majority of people feel like 2017 is a lot better than 1917 or 1817 and it’s certainly a lot better than 1017. I would probably count myself among those people. But how do we know that the past was worse? And what standard are we using to decide that it was worse? We can use things like deaths, or disease, or caloric intake, or maybe percentage of people in slavery to estimate what things were like, but when it really comes down to it we don’t know. Especially as we begin to consider more subtle topics like life satisfaction or the ideal way to build a community.

As an example of what I mean, let’s go back to a book I frequently reference, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. One of the big themes of the book is that deaths from warfare have declined dramatically over the last few centuries. And that consequently the world is a better place. In support of this Pinker provides lots of graphs, one of which looks at various archaeological digs, and extrapolates the percentage of violent deaths in different eras. If you look at this graph you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of violent deaths was found at an archeological dig in South Dakota dating to the 1300s. This event has come to be known as the Crow Creek Massacre. And it might be an outlier, but even if it is, everyone pretty much agrees, Pinker especially, that American Indians experienced violent death at easily 10 times the rate  present in any modern society. But yet these are the same American Indians Benjamin Franklin and Crèvecoeur were talking about, whose society was so attractive that no one ever voluntarily left it. If violent death is a one to one proxy for unhappiness then this would have never been the case. We all assume that a lower chance of death leads to greater unhappiness, and yet this is evidence that that’s not the case. That we might not understand the past as well as we thought.

If American Indians provided the only example of this counterintuitive result, it would still be a mystery, and it would still be interesting, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. But as Junger shows in his book, this is not the only example of things being the opposite of what we might expect. And consequently the topic deserves a closer look because something similar is happening even today.

For a look at more recent examples of this Junger turns to his experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 90’s. As you can surely imagine the conditions were terrible. Junger described it thusly:

Over the course of the three-year siege almost 70,000 people were killed or wounded by Serb forces shooting into the city–roughly 20 percent of the population. The United Nations estimated that half of the children in the city had seen someone killed in front of them.

Violence on that scale is scarcely imaginable for most people in a developed country. And the natural assumption is that all of the people who lived through the siege must have been scarred for life, particularly the children, and yet when Junger returned there 20 years later he found that people missed the war, that “they longed for those days. More precisely they longed for who they’d been back then.”

Junger interviews one Bosnian journalist who was seventeen at the start of the siege. After being severely wounded by shrapnel, she was eventually evacuated to Italy. But she missed the wartime camaraderie so much that she went back to Sarajevo, crossing the lines to do so. Twenty years later when Junger talks to her he asks her if people had ultimately been happier during the war. Her response was, “We were the happiest, and we laughed more.”

Sarajevo is by no means the only example of this. At the beginning of World War II when the United Kingdom was preparing for inevitable aerial bombardment by Germany, or what came to be called the Blitz, the government assumed that it would cause mass hysteria among the population. But nothing of the sort happened. As Junger describes it:

On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people [roughly 10% of the population], but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

That last bit is particularly interesting. It’s not just that normal people pulled together during the Blitz, but more interestingly, the number of people suffering from mental illness and the severity of those illnesses actually declined. And, lest you think this was a particularly English, stiff upper lip response, the same thing happened in Germany which suffered far worse aerial bombardment than England. The Allies expected that this massive bombing campaign would destroy German resolve, and in the end it did the opposite. Industrial production actually rose during the war, and the cities in Germany which hadn’t been bombed ended up being where morale was the lowest.

But of course, as I said in the beginning this sort of thing is the opposite of what we’re lead to expect. We expect war to be psychologically damaging in a way that nothing else is. This expectation certainly didn’t start with Vietnam, but it was arguably popularized by it. Everyone has seen movies depicting Vietnam vets as broken individuals, who were never quite the same after their experiences, and this trend has continued through to the present wars. But how do we reconcile this idea with the stories and examples I’ve already related?

You might not think that it needs to be squared, that everything I’ve said thus far can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but this is an issue that has been studied and the results are unequivocal: Large scale disasters improve mental health. The only question is why. For Junger the answer that it re-establishes the tribal societies of the past. This is the link between Sarajevo and the American Indian, between the English and the Germans, and this is where the title of the book comes from. But unlike Junger I’d like to focus more on the disease than on the cure.

If psychological damage due to war and disaster is part of the disease, then the most common symptom of that disease is PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  And indeed the rates of PTSD among returning veterans has reached an historic high, and yet, combat deaths are as low as they’ve ever been. Junger compares the various wars:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets! You may or may not have noticed that I engaged in a subtle flip. We were talking about how warfare improves mental health and suddenly we’re talking about how modern wars appear to do the opposite. But of course these two things are just opposite sides of the same coin. All of things we talked about leading up to this involved intense bonding experiences, which affected an entire community all at once. Creating what one of the people who’s studied this issue called a “community of sufferers”. With that in mind the difference between World War II and Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan becomes obvious. At each step war become less of a community effort and more something that some people do in a far away place that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

In fact people who do more fighting end up with fewer psychological issues. As illustrated by the following statistics:

  • During the Yom Kippur War Israeli rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of the frontline troops.
  • 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties in the US Army’s VII Corps came from support units which were never under fire.
  • During World War II, American airborne units, which saw the most intense fighting had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates.
  • Returning to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate but had only one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown.

It appears that the more modern and safe the war experience is, the more likely someone is to develop some form of disability. As the final example, Junger reports that, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, but only 10 percent experienced any actual combat. Obviously one possibility for explaining this is that people may be imagining, exaggerating or even faking their symptoms. Junger mentions that possibility, of course, but even after accounting for that the increases in psychological disability remain. Additionally there is another statistic which is also going up and is unlikely to be faked, and that’s veteran suicides.

If PTSD is the most common symptom of the disease then the worst symptom is suicide, and here again the situation is counterintuitive. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post much of what we know about suicide runs contrary to expectations regardless of whether it’s the suicides of veterans or the suicides of teens. Though this observation does nothing to make it less tragic.

Suicide is another area where the comparison between modern society and tribal societies is illuminating. Among the American Indians depression based suicide was essentially unknown. And when the Piraha, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon, were told about suicide they laughed because the idea was so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I don’t think we’re any closer than the Piraha to comprehending suicide, but despite that, no one is laughing.

When examining veteran suicides we see the same things that we saw with PTSD. Specifically that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. Veterans who were never under fire are just as likely to commit suicide as veterans who were under fire, and in fact among recent veterans, “deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan actually lowers the risk of suicide.” As I said at the start this is one of the great unsolved mysteries.

Having spent most of our time looking at the disease through the lens of war and the military it’s time to ask if it’s present in society at large. And the answer to that would have to be yes. In fact the evidence is all around us. If suicide and depression are its symptoms then there is no shortage of examples.

The question we then have to ask is whether these symptoms are getting worse or better, and this is where we come back to one of the subjects I started with. The idea that we can’t, or in any case don’t, know what the past was like. This is particularly true when it comes to a condition like PTSD, which wasn’t even added to the psychological lexicon until 1980 (though there were precursors as early as 1952). Thus, we don’t know if Roman centurions had PTSD, we don’t know if survivors of the Black Death, or of the Lisbon Earthquake had PTSD. And when it comes down to it, we don’t even know much about PTSD outside of richer countries. But as I pointed out what we do know seems to indicate that it might in fact be a modern phenomenon

If Junger is right and the disease stems from not having to struggle, and feeling isolated, then it makes sense that lots of people should be grappling with this disease, since the modern world abounds in both those qualities, in fact you would expect it to be getting worse. But is there any evidence for that?

You may have recently heard that recently there has been a big increase in deaths among the white working class. This was first pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case when they published a paper showing that while every other group was experiencing a decrease in mortality, for white working class individuals the death rate was going up. It’s unclear why it took so long to notice this, but now that it’s been pointed out the trend is an obvious one and it meshes very well into the opiate epidemic which I wrote about previously. As more information has come out about the nature of these deaths and as the phenomenon get’s more attention it’s acquired a label: Deaths of Despair.

I’m going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and engage in some speculation, as well, by declaring that rising levels of PTSD and deaths of despair are just the tip of the iceberg. That we have a real and growing problem and that progress is making it worse. Most people are going to find that hard to believe, and it’s easy to talk about the benefits of progress and modernity if you’re not one of those that progress has left behind. And to be clear its beneficiaries get to do most of the talking, while it’s victims have been largely silent. Thus you end up in a situation where when the half of the country that hasn’t gotten quite as good deal elects someone which, at one point, was declared to have a better chance of playing in the NBA Finals than winning the presidency, it’s doubly shocking. First, that it happened at all, and second that no one saw it coming. But that’s the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We may notice the deaths (eventually) but they sit on top of a huge number of people who are experiencing all of the things that Junger was talking about: They don’t have anything left to struggle for, and they certainly don’t have a community to struggle with.

The drug overdoses, the alcoholism and the suicides all sit on top of a large group of people suffering from the disease, whose symptoms are largely invisible. These sufferers include males who don’t have a single close friend or spouse to say nothing of a community. It includes the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work. It includes some of the 1 in 3 millennials who live at home with their parents, 25% of whom are not working or going to school. And it probably includes the people who have decided that it’s easier to sit at home and play video games all day.

Normally it’s easy to dismiss stuff like this by saying that things are getting better, the world is getting richer, technology is getting cooler, everything is getting easier. But those arguments don’t work in this case, because all of those things are very probably making the situation worse. And if they are making it worse how much worse is it going to get?

Our world is full of assumptions. We assume that eliminating struggle is a worthwhile goal. We assume that an eventual life of leisure is what everyone needs. We assume the past was worse than the present. We assume we know what we’re doing. And we assume that peace is always good and war is always bad. And when we make an assumption with disastrous consequences, we correct it, but what about when we make assumptions that have subtle negative consequences, creating diseases of society that only turn up only years or decades later?  If this is what’s happening, will we be wise enough to examine all of these assumptions and admit that maybe we’re wrong?

If you’re one of those who’ve benefited from progress than surely you can spare a buck a month and donate to this blog. And if you’re one of those who’s been on the losing side, keep your money. You may need it.

What’s the Best Way to Reduce Sexual Violence?

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I was riding in a car with my sister the other day and she mentioned that she had just listened to the But What If We’re Wrong? episode (from the podcast version of the blog) where I talked about women in the military. And she expressed her annoyance with the section where I talked about an integrated military possibly leading to more sexual violence (i.e. sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape). The section in question ran as follows:

The stories and numbers I do see mostly concern harassment. The most recent story making the rounds is of a vast network among the marines for sharing nude photos of female soldiers. Less publicized, are stories of the Navy having a growing problem with pregnancy among women who’ve been deployed. Apparently rising from 2% of women in 2015 to 16% currently. Both of these stories come on top of persistent stories of sexual harassment in the military going back to at least the Tailhook Scandal in 1991. (It’s certainly possible that there were reasons other than combat effectiveness for historically not having women in the military.)…Are we enabling a large amount of sexual harassment that might not otherwise happen?

My sister’s position was that we shouldn’t forbid women from doing certain things because it opens them up to sexual violence. That if a man sexually harasses, assaults, or rapes a woman that the fault lies completely with the man who committed the crime. That women aren’t asking for it by wearing revealing clothing, or because they were drinking and they especially weren’t asking for it by joining the military. That essentially, if a man harrasses a woman the man is 100% at fault and talking about the woman’s role in any context risks opening up the idea that some part of it was the woman’s fault.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with my sister on this point. Everything she said is correct. I’m reasonably certain that this is another post which might get me in trouble (at this point maybe it’s easier to identify the posts that won’t get me in trouble) and before you get mad I want you to absorb the fact that I agree with everything my sister said. But, (you knew there was a “but” coming) I do have to clarify some things.

First, we need to differentiate between sexual violence and claims of sexual violence, which is to say that the US has an adversarial justice system and the process of investigating claims of sexual violence can often create a situation where the victim (who knows the violence was actual, not merely alleged) feels that they’re the ones on trial. Unfortunately this is inherent to the adversarial process, which is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.

The second clarification I need to make, and the point of this post, is that discussing the role of society or of policy or of education or of alcohol is different than discussing what a woman should or shouldn’t have done after the harassment or the assault or in the worst cases, the rape, has already happened. I can totally agree that second-guessing or picking apart someone’s actions after they’ve been the victim of a crime is not only unproductive, it’s cruel. But telling someone in advance that they shouldn’t get really drunk at a frat party is different than telling a rape victim it’s all their fault because they got really drunk at a frat party. In other words there may be some common sense changes to policy and education that should be made, which have nothing to do with blaming the victim.

For the purposes of our discussion we’ll mostly be focusing on colleges and the military, both because that seems to be where the biggest perceived problem is, where we have the most information at our disposal, and finally where we can talk about specific policies.

But before we can discuss what we should change, we should talk about the status quo. What are we doing now to decrease sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape at colleges and in the military? As far as I can tell, currently, the vast majority of our effort is put into education. Teaching people (men especially) what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. As I look around I see some minor procedural changes, most of which involve making it easier to report and prosecute sexual offences after they already happen, but as far as prevention, almost all of it falls under the general heading of education. In essence we’re just telling people to not do it. Not do what? Well as far as I can tell the curriculum for this education at the college level, at least goes something like this:

Any kind of sex you can think of is great, healthy and completely natural. Except sex where your partner isn’t completely 100% on board and then that’s full on rape, and that’s the worst thing ever.

If that definition seems over the top, you are free to suggest your own form of the “modern day sexual curriculum”, as it is taught at colleges and in the military. But I think, based on the current atmosphere at colleges and universities that you’ll agree that however it’s phrased, it’s targeting a very small slice of all sexual behavior. While at the same time anything that’s not forbidden is encouraged and even celebrated. For example, as part of this education, they’re not telling people to practice abstinence. Or to not make out or to not do any of the hundreds of things which lie somewhere between a chaste peck on the check and actual intercourse. As far as I can tell they’re not advocating waiting until a certain age. And they’re certainly not telling them to avoid pornography or to wait until marriage.  In other words they’re trying to bridle one of the strongest desires a human being can have by giving it full rein except for in a few, sometimes not entirely obvious situations.

The military is a little bit different and as far as I can tell, you’re not supposed to have sex while out at sea if you’re in the Navy, or during actual deployment, if you’re in, say, the Army, but beyond that it’s similarly anything goes. Also there’s ample proof (the pregnancy statistic I cited earlier) along with anecdotal evidence, that despite this prohibition that people still have plenty of sex both on ships and while deployed. Once again they’re targeting very specific circumstances, and once again there’s evidence that it’s not working. Of course sex isn’t sexual violence, but you’re still looking at a situation where proximity and availability overwhelm rules and education.

As an aside, speaking of human sexual desire. I’d be fascinated in knowing from what framework the current ideology operates. If they’re basing their policy on science wouldn’t they have to admit that an overwhelmingly powerful sex drive is basically mandated by evolution? I can see speaking about men as inherently good people who should know better and just need be reminded, if you’re operating from a religious framework, but I’ve seen no evidence that they are operating from a religious framework, and if they were, why aren’t they also pushing chastity or marriage?

In any event by trying to limit just a small slice of sexual behavior while encouraging everything else, it’s as if they pointed to a giant wall of soda and said “You should grab a can and drink some it’s great. Oh, but there are some cans of poison in there as well, but those cans are clearly marked, normal cans are red, the poison cans are orange. Of course sometimes you’re going to be picking these cans while you’re drunk or tired and other times you’re going to be in a situation where you’re really, really thirsty. And sometimes you’ll be picking a can when you’re all three.”

Of course sex isn’t the only human desire we try and put limits on, but I can’t think of any other desire where a similar strategy is employed. We don’t go up to people who are overweight and tell them. “Well, evidently you haven’t heard this already because if you had I’m sure you would have acted on it, but you should really eat less and exercise.” We don’t put shots of whiskey in front of alcoholics and tell them to just pretend those shots aren’t there. We don’t take our kid who has a D average and mountains of homework and buy him a new video game. So why do we take libidinous young adults, put them in stressful situations, perhaps with copious alcohol and tell them to have all the sex they want, but just make sure that they can completely turn it off the minute there’s any hesitation on the part of the other party or the minute they board a ship.

Perhaps you disagree with all of these analogies. Perhaps you don’t think that sexual violence has anything to do with dieting or video games or alcohol. Maybe you’re right. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape all involve more than one person, but at it’s core you’re still saying that if you just tell people to stop doing something that it should just work. That if someone tells me to stop procrastinating that I’ll never procrastinate again. If only….

Also as long as we’re still exploring the effectiveness of just telling someone to stop doing something, how is it that the people most dismissive of abstinence only education feel that in this case just telling men to stop is going to work when telling teenagers to not have sex apparently doesn’t work? Isn’t the failure of preaching just abstinence alone another giant piece of evidence in favor of the idea that you can’t just tell someone to not do something and think that it is going to be effective?

Later on I want to look at the kind of tradeoffs we’re making, but for now let’s stick with the idea of education. Imagine that for whatever reason that education was the only tool you had. (Which is apparently exactly the position we’re in). You couldn’t segregate the sexes, or make women wear burkas. You can’t disown your daughter if she had a baby out of wedlock. All you can do is educate people. If that was the only tool available and you were really serious about stopping sexual violence, how would you go about it?

Well first, you might start by educating them to stay away from all of the soda, not just the orange cans. In other words you might teach them that sex is serious business, regardless of who it’s with. And since you would want them to exercise good judgement you might also teach them to avoid alcohol and drugs. And it wouldn’t be enough to teach them these things at the last minute just before they’re presented with the temptation to have soda, you’d want to start teaching them these things as soon as possible. You might also want to put together a whole moral system which teaches not only the dangers of sex and drugs and alcohol but, which ties in with other bad things like lying and stealing. In fact you might want to actually start with education on lying and stealing and then once they have a firm understanding that some things are right and some things are wrong, you can add in whatever commandments you have about sex. And, finally, since consent seems to be at the heart of the problem, you might teach them that the best way to go about it, is to have a very public declaration of consent. Maybe even turn it into a ceremony, and bring witnesses.

Does any of that ring a bell? Does it sound like any organization you might already be familiar with? As it turns out the LDS Church is a big believer in education as well, but rather than focusing on a very narrow definition of improper sexual conduct, the Church focuses on avoiding all sex outside of marriage. And rather than starting the education when someone joins the military or enters college, our education begins the moment a child enters Primary at the age three when they join Sunbeams. And yes there are no chastity lessons in Sunbeams, (at least not that I’m aware of) but they are taught that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. Thus when they’re later taught, sometime in their teens, the Church’s commandments with respect to sex. These commandments fit right into the framework of right and wrong the Church has been talking about since they were three years old.

In other words if people only cared about reducing the incidence of sexual violence, and even if they only had access to education there is a lot more they could be doing. I suppose that some people might argue that this approach makes the problem worse. The claim wouldn’t surprise me, but I honestly can’t imagine on what basis they would make it. But if you want to make the claim that a long term emphasis on chastity and morality makes the problem of sexual violence. worse, I’m happy to examine whatever evidence you might have.

So why doesn’t everyone adopt the same approach as the LDS Church? (Note I said the LDS Church, not BYU.) First, I doubt the idea has crossed anyone’s mind. Not only that, I assume that if I did go to someplace like Baylor University (or another college with a recent scandal) and pitched the idea of implementing LDS religious standards across the entire campus that I would not get very far. (I think the real bet would be whether I would literally be laughed off of campus or not.) Second it requires starting very young, it requires organization, it requires an entire moral framework, in short it requires a religion.

But, in what can only be a complete coincidence, the role of religion in America is at an all time low. Surely this decrease in the number of active believers couldn’t have anything to do with the increase in sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape? That would be inconceivable!

Despite it being inconceivable, as far as I can tell this is in fact the conventional wisdom, that there is no connection between the diminished role of religion and the current sexual violence crisis on campuses and in the military. In fact generally when people mention the crisis and religion together it’s in part to blame religion, for example the abstinence only education mentioned above, or they might claim that religion empowers the patriarchy. Certainly it’s possible that religion has no effect on the rates sexual violence. It’s even possible that religion causes more harassment, but less rape, or vice versa. Just as it’s possible that long term education on chastity is less effective than a two hour lecture on consent, but I find claims like this very hard to believe.

The fact is that in addition to religion, there is a whole host of options that modern culture has ruled to be inadmissible, despite the seriousness of sexual violence. Not only can I not find any one (outside of people who are explicitly religious) making any kind of connection between a decrease in religion and an increase in these sorts of crimes, but it’s equally rare to find people who are willing to suggest things like segregation by sexes or limiting alcohol or heaven forbid anything resembling a chaperon. And yet all of these things were very common historically.

We are so prone to dismiss historical norms and morals, including religion, as retrograde and primitive superstitions; which we’ve not only grown out of, but were silly even at the time they were being practiced, that despite the increase of something truly awful (how else can you describe sexual violence) it’s still unthinkable that maybe our ancestors had a point. That maybe having, at a minimum, a separate men’s dorm and women’s dorm wasn’t a crazy idea? As an example of what I mean here’s an article explaining that the vast majority of sexual assault happens in on-campus housing. And here’s another article mocking the GOP for objecting to coed dorms. Are we really serious about this problem or not? If we are, should we maybe consider some radical options? (Or not so radical if viewed historically.)

Are there downsides to having separate dorms or a less integrated military? Are there downsides to not allowing alcohol? Are there downsides to religion? Are there downsides to the BYU Honor code? Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes. Of course there are. I would never deny that there aren’t trade-offs to all of those things, but are we sure we know the trade-offs we’re making? To just take the most basic adjustment, is the incidence of sexual violence less in sex segregated dorms? What about sexual violence in the military if you have completely segregated units (all female or all male)? Perhaps it’s fine to have women in combat, but should women combat units be separate from male combat units? Is there any data on that? Has anyone even thought to do the experiment? If there are differences then what benefits does the current set up provide? If the current way of doing things leads to demonstrably more sexual violence then what is the fantastic upside that balances that out? If it turns out that coed dorms and integrated military units experience the same amount of sexual violence as segregated dorms and segregated military units I’d love to see the evidence. And even if there is evidence for that, which I seriously doubt, what about alcohol, what about encouraging promiscuity in general?

You may think from this that I’m advocating that every college be just like BYU, or some Amish equivalent. I’m not. What I want to know is, are there small common sense changes which could be made that have minimal disadvantages, but huge payoffs in reducing sexual violence?  Are we not making those changes because they seem prudish, or too much like what those religious fanatics are advocating? Would keeping men and women in separate military units give women all the benefits of being in the military with less sexual violence to boot? If it would why aren’t we doing it?

At this point many people are going to argue that we shouldn’t have to do any of that. It shouldn’t be that hard to just train men (and everyone) to not engage in sexual violence. Again, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of education, particularly education that’s so narrowly focused, and so limited to such a small behavioral slice. But even if it is effective, unless it’s 100% effective we’re still trading some level of sexual violence for benefits which still seem pretty vague to me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a different tack. Perhaps rather than deriding everything that happened before the Sexual Revolution as barbaric and misguided. We might want to take a closer look at the customs and religions that have served humanity for hundreds of years, and see if perhaps whether those who came before us, might have had to solve the same problems we’re currently grappling with, and whether if somewhere in those customs and religions there might be a better way.

If like me, you’re not a big fan of BYU (GO UTES!) then consider donating to a fellow contrarian. If on the other hand you’re a big fan of BYU, well I basically just did an entire post defending the honor code, so you should also donate.

Not Intellectuals Yet Not Idiots

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Back at the time of the Second Gulf War I made a real attempt to up my political engagement. I wanted to understand what was really going on. History was being made and I didn’t want to miss it.

It wasn’t as if before then I had been completely disengaged. I had certainly spent quite a bit of time digging into things during the 2000 election and its aftermath, but I wanted to go a step beyond that. I started watching the Sunday morning talk shows. I began reading Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be fair to say that I immersed myself in the the arguments for and against the war in the months leading up to it. (When it was pretty obvious it was going to happen, but hadn’t yet.)

In the midst of all this I remember repeatedly coming across the term neocon, used in such a way that you were assumed to know what it meant. I mean doesn’t everybody? I confess I didn’t. I had an idea from the context, but it was also clear that I was missing most of the nuance. I asked my father what a neocon was and he mumbled something about them being generally in favor of the invasion, and then, perhaps realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t 100% sure either, said Bill Kristol is definitely a neocon, listen to him if you want to know.

Now, many years later, I have a pretty good handle on what a neocon is, which I would explain to you if that what this post were about. It’s not. It’s about how sometimes a single word or short phrase can encapsulate a fairly complicated ideology. There are frequently bundles of traits, attitudes and even behavior that can resist an easy definition, but are nevertheless easy to label. Similar to the definition of pornography used by Justice Stewart when the Supreme Court was considering an obscenity case,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it(my emphasis)

It may be hard to define what a neocon is exactly, but I know one when I see it. Of course, as you have already surmised, neocon is not the only example of this. Other examples include, hipster, or social justice warrior, and lest I appear too biased towards the college millennial set, you could also add the term “red neck” or perhaps even Walmart shopper.

To those terms that already exist, it’s time to add another one: “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI for short. This new label was coined by Taleb in just the last few days. As you may already be aware, I’m a big fan of Taleb, and I try to read just about everything he writes. Sometimes what he writes makes a fairly big splash, and this was one of those times. In the same way that people recognized that there was a group of mostly Jewish, pro-israel, idealistic, unilateralists, with a strong urge to intervene who could be labeled as neocons, it was immediately obvious that there was an analogous bundle of attitudes and behavior that is currently common in academia and government and it also needed a label. Consequently when Taleb provided one it fit into a hole that lots of people had recognized, but no one had gotten around to filling until then. Of course now that it has been filled it immediately becomes difficult to imagine how we ever got along without it before.

Having spent a lot of space just to introduce an article by Taleb, you would naturally expect that the next step would be for me to comment on the article, point out any trenchant phrasing, remark on anything that seemed particularly interesting, and offer amendments to any points where he missed the mark. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to approach things from an entirely different perspective, with a view towards ending up in the same place Taleb did, and only then will I return to Taleb’s article.

I’m going to start my approach with a very broad question. What do we do with history? And to broaden that even further, I’m not only talking about HISTORY! As in wars and rulers, nations and disasters, I’m also talking about historical behaviors, marriage customs, dietary norms, traditional conduct, etc. In other words if everyone from Australian Aborigines to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the Romans had marriage in some form or another, what use should we make of that knowledge? Now, if you’ve actually been reading me from the beginning you will know that I already touched on this, but that’s okay, because it’s a topic that deserves as much attention as I can give it.

Returning to the question. While I want “history” to be considered as broadly as possible, I want the term “we” to be considered more narrowly. By “we” I’m not referring to everyone, I’m specifically referring to the decision makers, the pundits, the academics, the politicians, etc. And as long as we’re applying labels, you might label these people the “movers and shakers” or less colloquially the ruling class, and in answer to the original question, I would say that they do very little with history.

I would think claiming that the current ruling class pays very little attention to history, particularly history from more than 100 years ago (and even that might be stretching it), is not an idea which needs very much support. But if you remain unconvinced allow me to offer up the following examples of historically unprecedented things:

1- The financial system – The idea of floating currency, without the backing of gold or silver (or land) has only been around for, under the most optimistic estimate, 100 or so years, and our current run only dates from 1971.

2- The deemphasis of marriage – Refer to the post I already mentioned to see how widespread even the taboo against pre-marital sex was. But also look at the gigantic rise in single parent households. (And of course most of these graphs start around 1960, what was the single parent household percentage in the 1800s? Particularly if you filtered out widows?)

3- Government stability – So much of our thinking is based on the idea that 10 years from now will almost certainly look very similar to right now, when any look at history would declare that to be profoundly, and almost certainly, naive.

4- Constant growth rate – I covered this at great length previously, but once again we are counting on something continuing that is otherwise without precedent.

5- Pornography – While the demand for pornography has probably been fairly steady, the supply of it has, by any estimate, increased a thousand fold in just the last 20 years. Do we have any idea of the long term effect of messing with something as fundamental as reproduction and sex?

Obviously not all of these things are being ignored by all people. Some people are genuinely concerned about issue 1, and possibly issue 2. And I guess Utah (and Russia) is concerned with issue 5, but apparently no one else is, and in fact when Utah recently declared pornography to be a public health crisis, reactions ranged from skeptical to wrong all the way up to hypocritical and, the capper, labeled it pure pseudoscience. In my experience you’ll find similar reactions to those people expressing concerns about issues 1 and 2. They won’t be quite so extreme as the reactions to Utah’s recent actions, but they will be similar.

As a personal example, I once emailed Matt Yglesias about the national debt and while he was gracious enough to respond that response couldn’t have been more patronizing. (I’d dig it up but it was in an old account, but you can find similar stuff from him if you look.) In fact, rather than ignoring history, as you can see from Yglesias’ response, the ruling case often actively disdains it.

Everywhere you turn these days you can see and hear condemnation of our stupid and uptight ancestors and their ridiculous traditions and beliefs. We hear from the atheists that all wars were caused by the superstitions of religions (not true by the way). We hear from the libertines that premarital sex is good for both you and society, and any attempt to suppress it is primitive and tyrannical. We hear from economists that we need to spend more and save less. We heard from doctors and healthcare professionals that narcotics could be taken without risk of addiction. This list goes on and on.

For a moment I’d like to focus on that last one. As I already mentioned I recently read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The book was fascinating on a number of levels, but he mentioned one thing near the start of the book that really stuck with me.

The book as a whole was largely concerned with the opioid epidemic in America, but this particular passage had to do with the developing world, specifically Kenya. In 1980 Jan Stjernsward was made chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer program. As he approached this job he drew upon his time in Kenya years before being appointed to his new position. In particular he remembered the unnecessary pain experienced by people in Kenya who were dying of cancer. Pain that could have been completely alleviated by morphine. He was now in a position to do something about that, and, what’s more morphine is incredibly cheap, so there was no financial barrier. Accordingly, taking advantage of his role at the WHO he established some norms for treating dying cancer patients with opiates, particularly morphine. I’ll turn to Quinones’ excellent book to pick up the story:

But then a strange thing happened. Use didn’t rise in the developing world, which might reasonably be viewed as the region in the most acute pain. Instead, the wealthiest countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population came to consume almost all–more than 90 percent–of the world’s morphine. This was due to prejudice against opiates and regulations on their use in poor countries, on which the WHO ladder apparently had little effect. An opiophobia ruled these countries and still does, as patients are allowed to die in grotesque agony rather than be provided the relief that opium-based painkillers offer.

I agree with the facts, as Quinones lays them out, but I disagree with his interpretation. He claims that prejudice kept the poorer countries from using morphine and other opiates, that they suffered from opiophobia, implying that their fear was irrational. Could it be instead, that they just weren’t idiots

In fact the question should not be why the developing countries had problems with widespread opioid use, but rather why America and the rest of the developing world didn’t. I mean any idiot can tell you that heroin is insanely addictive, but somehow (and Quinones goes into great detail on how this happened) doctors, pain management specialists, pharmaceutical companies, scientist, etc. all convinced themselves that things very much like heroin weren’t that addictive. The people Stjernsward worked with in Kenya didn’t fall into this trap because basically they’re not idiots.

Did the Kenyan doctors make this decision by comparing historical addiction rates? Did they run double-blind studies? Did they peruse back issues of the JAMA and Lancet? Maybe, but probably not. In any case whatever their method for arriving at the decision (and I strongly suspect it was less intellectual than the approach used by western doctors) in hindsight they arrived at the correct decision, while the intellectual decision, backed up by data and a modern progressive morality ended up resulting in  exactly the wrong decision when it came time to decide whether to expand access to opioids. This is what Taleb means by intellectual yet idiot.

To give you a sense of how bad the decision was, in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available 47,000 people died from overdosing on drugs. That’s more than annual automobile deaths, gun deaths, or the number of people that died during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. You might be wondering what kind of an increase that represents. Switching gears slightly to look just at prescription opioid deaths they’ve increased by 3.4 times since 2000. A net increase of around 13,000 deaths a year. If you add up the net increase over all the years you come up with an additional 100,00 deaths. No matter how you slice it or how you apportion blame, it was a spectacularly bad decision. Intellectual yet idiot.

And sure, we can wish for a world where morphine is available so people don’t die in grotesque agony, but also is simultaneously never abused. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We may in fact have to choose between serious restrictions on opiates and letting some people experience a lot of pain or fewer restrictions on opiates and watching young healthy people die from overdosing. And while developing countries might arguably do a better job with pain relief for the dying, when we consider the staggering number of deaths, when it came to the big question they undoubtedly made the right decision. Not intellectual yet not an idiot.

It should be clear now that the opiate epidemic is a prime example of the IYI mindset. The smallest degree of wisdom would have told the US decision makers that heroin is bad. I can hear some people already saying, “But it’s not heroin it’s time released oxycodone.” And that is where the battle was lost, that is precisely what Taleb is talking about, that’s the intellectual response which allowed the idiocy to happen. Yes, it is a different molecular structure (though not as different as most people think) but this is precisely the kind of missing the forest for the trees that the IYI mindset specializes in.

Having arrived back at Taleb’s subject by a different route, let’s finally turn to his article and see what he had to say. I’ve already talked about paying attention to history. And in the case of the opiate epidemic we’re not even talking about that much history. Just enough historical awareness to have been more cautious about stuff that is closely related to heroin. But of course I also talked about the developing countries and how they didn’t make that mistake. But I’ve somewhat undercut my point. When you picture doctors in Kenya you don’t picture somehow who knows in intimate detail the history of Bayer’s introduction of heroin in 1898 as a cough suppressant and the later complete ban of heroin in 1924 because it was monstrously addictive.

In other words, I’ve been making the case for greater historical awareness, and yet the people I’ve used as examples are not the first people you think of when the term historical awareness starts being tossed around. However, there are two ways to have historical awareness. The first involves reading Virgil or at least Stephen Ambrose, and is the kind we most commonly think of. But the second is far more prevalent and arguably far more effective. These are people who don’t think about history at all, but nevertheless continue to follow the traditions, customs, and prohibitions which have been passed down to them through countless generations back into the historical depths. This second group doesn’t think about history, but they definitely live history.

I mentioned “red necks” earlier as an example of one of those labels which cover a cluster of attitudes and behaviors. They are also an example of this second group. And further, I would argue, that they should be classified in the not intellectual yet not idiots group.

As Taleb points there is a tension between this group and the IYI’s. From the article:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.

The story of the developing countries refusal to make opiates more widely available is a perfect example of the IYI’s thinking that they know what someone’s best interests are better than they themselves. And yet what we saw is that despite, not even being able to explain their prejudice against opiates, that the doctors in these countries, instinctively, protected their interests better than the IYIs. They were not intellectuals, yet they were also not idiots.

Now this is not to say, that “red necks” and the people who voted for the Brexit are never wrong (though I think they got that right) or that the IYI’s are never right. The question which we have to consider is who is more right on balance, and this is where we return to a consideration of history. Are historical behaviors, traditional conduct, religious norms and long-standing attitudes always correct? No. But they have survived the crucible of time, which is no mean feat. The same cannot be said of the proposals of the IYI. They will counter that their ideas are based on the sure foundation of science, without taking into account the many limitations of science. Or as Taleb explains:

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

With a record like that which horse do you want to back? Is it more important to sound right or to be right? Is it more important to be an intellectual or more important to not be an idiot? Has technology and progress saved us? Maybe, but if it has then it has done so only by abandoning what has got us this far: history and tradition, and there are strong reasons to suspect both that it hasn’t saved us (see all previous blog posts) and that we have abandoned tradition and history to our detriment.

In the contest between the the intellectual idiots and the non-intellectual non-idiots. I choose to not be an idiot.