Month: <span>August 2021</span>

Eschatologist #8: If You’re Worried About the Future, Religion is Playing on Easy Mode

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As has frequently been the case with these newsletters, last time I left things on something of a cliff hanger. I had demonstrated the potential for technology to cause harm—up to and including the end of all humanity. And then, having painted this terrifying picture of doom, I ended without providing any suggestions for how to deal with this terror. Only the vague promise that such suggestions would be forthcoming. 

This newsletter is the beginning of those suggestions, but only the beginning. Protecting humanity from itself is a big topic, and I expect we’ll be grappling with it for several months, such are its difficulties. But before exploring this task on hard mode, it’s worthwhile to examine whether there might be an easy mode. I think there is. I would argue that faith in God with an accompanying religion is “easy mode”, not just at an individual level, but especially at a community level.

Despite being religious it has been my general intention to not make any arguments from an explicitly religious perspective, but in this case I’m making an exception. With that exception in mind, how does being religious equal a difficulty setting of easy?

To begin with, if one assumes there is a God, it’s natural to proceed from this assumption to the further assumption that He has a plan—one that does not involve us destroying ourselves. (Though, frequently, religions maintain that we will come very close.) Furthermore the existence of God explains the silence of the universe mentioned in the last newsletter without needing to consider the possibility that such silence is a natural consequence of intelligence being unavoidably self-destructive. 

As comforting as I might find such thoughts, most people do not spend much time thinking about God as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox, about x-risks and the death of civilizations. The future they worry about is their own, especially their eventual death. Religions solve this worry by promising that existence continues beyond death, and that this posthumous existence will be better. Or it at least promises that it can be better contingent on a wide variety of things far too lengthy to go into here.

All of this is just at the individual level. If we move up the scale, religions make communities more resilient. Not only do they provide meaning and purpose, and relationships with other believers, they also make communities better able to recover from natural disasters. Further examples of resilience will be a big part of the discussion going forward, but for now I will merely point out that there are two ways to deal with the future: prediction and resilience. Religion increases the latter.  

For those of you who continue to be skeptical, I urge you to view religion from the standpoint of cultural evolution: cultural practices that developed over time to increase the survivability of a society. This survivability is exactly what we’re trying to increase, and this is one of the reasons why I think religion is playing on easy mode. Rejecting all of the cultural practices which have been developed over the centuries and inventing new culture from scratch certainly seems like a harder way to go about things.

Despite all of the foregoing, some will argue that religion distorts incentives, especially in its promise of an afterlife. How can a religious perspective truly be as good at identifying and mitigating risks as a secular perspective, particularly given that religion would entirely deny the existence of certain risks? This is a fair point, but I’ve always been one of those (and I think there are many of us) who believe that you should work as if everything depends on you while praying as if everything depends on God. This is perhaps a cliche, but no less true, even so.

If you are still bothered by the last statement’s triteness, allow me to restate: I am not a bystander in the fight against the chaos of the universe, I am a participant. And I will use every weapon at my disposal as I wage this battle.


Wars are expensive. They take time and attention. This war is mostly one of words (so far) but money never hurts. If you’d like to contribute to the war effort consider donating


Chemicals, Controversy, and the Precautionary Principle

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I- The Precautionary Principle

Wikipedia’s article on the precautionary principle opens by describing it as:

…a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to innovations with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous. 

On its face this sounds like an ideal approach to new technologies and other forms of progress. As I have continually said in this space we’ve decided to do a lot of things which haven’t been done before. And these endeavors carry with them the potential for significant risk.

There’s a related metaphor from Nick Bostrom I’ve used a couple of times in this space, that technological progress is like a game of blindly drawing balls from a bag. Each new technology is a different ball, some are white and represent technology which is obviously beneficial, and some end up being dark grey—technology which has the potential for great harm. If we ever draw a pure black technology then the harm is so great it ends the game, and humanity has lost. With this metaphor in mind it would seem only prudent to pause before we draw these balls, and, once drawn, to exercise caution while we’re figuring out what color the ball is.

Certainly Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has also appeared a lot in this space, is a big fan of the precautionary principle. Among other places, he has referenced it in his fight against genetically modified crops, with his primary concern being the fragility introduced by monocultures. His definition is even more extreme than Wikipedia’s:

The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety.

“Scientific near-certainty” is a pretty high bar. Would that be 90% certain? 95%? 99%? That seems like it would be pretty onerous. Though to be fair he couples this extreme requirement for certainty with a presumed scale of harm in a way the Wikipedia definition doesn’t. He speaks of general health and the environment globally. But what are we to make of the phrase “suspected risk”. Certainly there has to be some threshold there, probably most innovations are suspected of being risky by someone somewhere. So I’m not sure that’s very limiting, and if it is limiting I’m not sure it should be. How many people suspected that social media would be dangerous. Lots of people suspect it now, but who looked at “TheFacebook” when it was still only accepting college students and said “This site will eventually swing presidential elections and result in the worst polarization since the Civil War.” My guess is nobody.

Beyond the questions I’ve brought up, there are more significant objections to the precautionary principle. The Wikipedia intro goes on to say:

Critics argue that it is vague, self-cancelling, unscientific and an obstacle to progress.

The idea of it impeding progress is especially relevant because I have also talked extensively in this space, particularly recently, about the smothering effects of regulation on things like nuclear power. I also had a whole post on how the safety knob has been turned to 11, where I discussed how vaccines were being taken out of circulation out of an “abundance of caution”, caution that, on net, was almost certainly killing more people than it was saving. But Taleb’s definition of the precautionary principle would appear to recommend the same caution I was decrying, that before doing anything potentially risky we should have “near-certainty about its safety”. 

(This is not to imply that Taleb was one of those who advocated for vaccine suspension, or felt the vaccines were released prematurely. I don’t think he did either, but I haven’t looked into it deeply.)

If you don’t like the vaccine example, I’ve also spent a lot of time talking about the regulations slowing down adoption of carbon-free nuclear power. But if you asked someone for the reason behind those regulations they might also reference the precautionary principle. So am I just a hypocrite, in favor of the precautionary principle when it’s applied to things I don’t like and not in favor of it when it slows down the things I do like? Or is there some way to thread this needle? What methodology can we use, what standard can we apply, to know when to be careful and when to be bold? 

II- Chemicals

As I mentioned in my book review post at the beginning of the month I recently finished Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan, which made the case that we are suffering from a crisis of chemically induced infertility. At the same time I became very engrossed in a series of posts over at Slime Mold Time Mold (SMTM), which made essentially the same case, except with respect to obesity rather than infertility.

I understand that there is a type of person who spends a lot of time being worried about “Toxins!” And in many cases this worry comes across less as a specific complaint…against a particular chemical…backed by science, and more of a generalized inchoate condemnation of modernity. But when you have two groups independently making claims about the negative effects of increased levels of specific chemicals in the environment, with evidence tied to those chemicals, that seems like something else. Something that deserves a closer look. The question is: what part deserves a closer look?

Most people want a closer look at the evidence. From my perspective there seems to be a lot of it. SMTM has come up with several candidate “chemicals”: livestock antibiotics, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), lithium, and glyphosate so far. The series is still ongoing and there is at least one more candidate to come, perhaps more. Swan’s list is somewhat less structured, but it includes, at a minimum, phthalates, BPA, flame retardants, and pesticides. In particular she’s looking for anything that might disrupt endocrine function. Having identified the culprits your next step would be taking a closer look at the evidence connecting them to the supposed harm. 

Starting with SMTM, they have individual posts dedicated to each of their candidates. In these posts they do a great job of walking through what evidence there is and pointing out where they wish there was better evidence. And even pointing out when they think a particular chemical is unlikely to be associated with the obesity epidemic, as was the case with glyphosate. For what it might look like when they believe there is a connection, let’s take lithium as an example. They would love to be able to tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater, and how much lithium we’re exposed to, but neither thing has been tracked. They can however point to a huge increase in lithium production, going from essentially zero in 1950 to 25,000 metric tons in 2007 (when the graph ends). They can also provide data showing that people who take lithium therapeutically nearly always gain weight, with about 70% gaining significant weight. Finally they point out that places which are known to have lots of obesity, for example Chile and Argentina, which are the most obese countries in South America (each has an obesity rate of 28%), are also two of the biggest exporters of lithium in the world.

In Count Down the evidence is a bit more scattered, and Swan is not as good at pointing out where she wishes there were more evidence, but there are numerous sections like the following:

Studies have shown that young men with higher levels of phthalate metabolites…have poorer sperm motility and morphology. This is bad news, since higher levels of phthalate metabolites also are associated with increased sperm apoptosis—a term for what is essentially cellular suicide. It’s safe to assume that no man wants to hear that his sperm are self-destructing.

Phthalates are bad news for women’s ovaries, too. High levels of phthalate exposure have been linked with anovulation (when ovaries don’t release an egg during a menstrual cycle) and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder involving abnormal ovarian function and elevated levels of androgens.

The sort of things I just went through are where and how most people would take a closer look. Such an approach is designed as a way to increase certainty, in one direction or another but for nearly everyone engaged in this approach, it’s entirely academic. One person could look at the evidence and decide that it’s compelling, another could look at it and decide they still prefer the supernormal stimuli explanation for the obesity epidemic. But in both cases neither person is very likely to have the ability to change the entire course of capitalism and mitigate these harms at a national or global level. In fact, regardless of the conclusion someone reaches in their investigation, it could even be difficult to change these things at the personal level, given how ubiquitous the problems are.

I too “took” that same “look”. I found both the SMTM and the Count Down arguments to be compelling, but to move the debate from the academic to the practical we have to discuss what I would do if I was somehow made dictator of the world (truly a scary thought). Do I find the arguments compelling enough that in this position I would immediately ban all of these chemicals using my dictatorial powers? Probably not, and the reasons would presumably be obvious. Reading one book and one blog post series is definitely not enough information for me to truly understand the harms and even if it was, I have no sense of the benefits provided by these chemicals. What kind of trade-offs would I be making if I banned these chemicals? In attempting to rectify the infertility and obesity problems, what other problems might I introduce? Beyond this there are issues of logistics, public opinion, potential backlash, and of course the general problems associated with exercising power in a dictatorial fashion.

Conversely doing nothing doesn’t seem appropriate either, at a minimum these issues would appear to deserve more study. But is that all we should do? Increase our data collection, so that in 10 years when SMTM does an update they can tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater? But otherwise report that nothing else has been done? That also seems insufficient.

There is a lot of space between data collection and a complete dictatorial ban, and somewhere in there is the ideal set of actions. This is the part I want to take a closer look at, not the evidence. The evidence is never going to be such that we can declare that these chemicals have no potential to cause harm and we’re definitely not going to get to Taleb’s standard of “near-certainty”. In fact at this point I would argue that fighting over the evidence is a distraction. That if the precautionary principle is to have any utility, this is a situation where it should be useful. But what that might be is not entirely clear. There is still the trade-off I mentioned in the beginning, between the problems we fear we will cause with technology and the problems we hope to solve with technology. 

This is a difficult problem, and I’m just a lowly blogger. Also despite the fact that this is an “essay”, I’m still mostly thinking out loud (see my last post for a deeper discussion of what I mean.) But I’ve found that one of the best ways to think through a problem is to look at examples, so let’s try that.

III- Silent Spring

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962 and while it’s debatable whether it started the environmental movement, it definitely turbocharged it. For those who might somehow be unfamiliar with the book, its main focus was a claim that pesticides were causing widespread environmental damage. Carson took particular aim at DDT which was largely used for mosquito abatement, this abatement was very important because of the mosquitos role in transmitting malaria. Her best known claim is that DDT thinned the shells of eggs. This resulted in birds being unable to incubate those eggs. And this led to a massive decline in the population of these birds. As I recall she singled out bald eagles as a species that was especially endangered.

Viewed from the standpoint of the precautionary principle, Silent Spring could be seen as a notice, or perhaps it was just a strong reminder. We have never had any way of knowing in advance what the environmental effects of widespread chemical use would be. Nor is it unreasonable to default to the assumption that they would be harmful. These chemicals could decimate bird populations. They could cause obesity and infertility. They could cause a host of other things we’ve yet to detect. And they could cause none of those things. But again it’s impossible to know in advance, and it’s even difficult to know that now.

As I said Silent Spring put the world on notice. Before that perhaps we shouldn’t blame people for not being concerned about man made chemicals being dumped into the environment. But after it was published, such lack of concern is less excusable. Rather it seems more reasonable to assume, based on the attention it received, that some form of the precautionary principle should have kicked in. But what form should that have taken? Certainly now that we’re also seeing evidence that chemicals cause obesity and infertility, we imagine that it should have taken a fairly broad form. If nothing else it would be nice to have more data about these things than we currently have. 

Beyond that, what should the invocation of the precautionary principle have entailed? We have a “when” for that invocation, and a sense that it should have been broader, but what else? It’s easy to say we should have banned DDT immediately as soon as Carson brought it to our attention, but, as mentioned, it was mostly being used to fight malaria. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, mostly in Africa, mostly below the age of 5. Since large-scale use of DDT was restricted in 2004, at least 11 million people have died of malaria. I couldn’t find numbers going all the way back to 1962, but even a very conservative estimate of DDT’s impact on the spread and transmission of malaria gives us an impact of millions of lives. Despite this number I feel confident in saying that on balance restricting the use of DDT in 2004 was a good thing, mosquitos were developing resistance, and at this point it’s hard to find anyone defending widespread use of DDT. Though to be clear, in 2004 the debate still raged. Back then even the New York Times was publishing articles titled, “What the World Needs Now is DDT”. 

This brings up the legitimate question, would it have been possible to ban DDT any sooner? And when we consider the millions of deaths would it have been wise to do it any sooner? If we agree that the 2004 ban was a good thing would it have been a good thing in 1994 or 1984, or if we had banned it worldwide in 1974 shortly after it was banned in the U.S.? Given the number of malaria deaths I suspect not, but as you can see it’s a difficult question. Also we have thus far only been talking about malaria, what about other chemicals we’ve been pumping into the environment? We have a sense that we should have taken more precautions, but as we see from the example it’s still not entirely clear what those precautions should have been. 

As something of an aside before we move on, looking into this topic not only involved a lot of research about malaria, but also the history of environmentalism, green parties, and antiwar activism. Some of which seems worth including.

As far as malaria goes, I thought this article from the Yale School of the Environment was a pretty good summation. It sets out to answer two questions:

[W]hat actually happened with DDT? And why is malaria, which seemed to be en route to eradication in the 1950s, still killing 584,000 people a year?

The answer to the latter question is the more interesting one, and it seems to boil down to “less-developed countries don’t have sufficiently non-corrupt governments which can successfully execute on public health initiatives.” 

As to the rest of it, environmentalism and everything adjacent, I quickly realized that I was well outside even my pretended areas of expertise. As such I am indebted to my friend Stuart Parker and his podcast series, A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View. I have mentioned him before in this space, but never by name. I didn’t want him to be tarred by association with me, on top of all the other tarring that he’s had to endure. But I really enjoyed that series, there is some great stuff in there. Also in this case I’m particularly indebted because my ignorance was so deep. Accordingly I wanted to at least make sure he gets credit. And to the extent I have any influence with you, I would recommend that you give it a listen.

I can’t really do it justice, but the history of environmentalism, like so many other things, is horribly complex, and it brought home to me again how complicated it is to get anything done. Everything you might want to do gets tied up in the larger and more narrow political narrative. (Environmentalism frequently succeeded or failed based on how it could be deployed as a weapon in the cold war.) On top of that people have a limited ability to focus, even if you’re working in an area they care about. Add to that infighting, tactics, personalities, and priorities and you can see it’s difficult to even get agreement as to what should be done. But if by some miracle you can get a broad agreement internally you still have to contend with external opposition. Environmentalism has always had a whole host of enemies. Even if these enemies merely thought that the trade-offs went the other way. 

Out of all of this we can see that in addition to the questions of “When?” and “What?” we need to add the question of “How?” We can decide it’s time to be cautious, we can decide what that caution should entail, but we still have to enact that caution in some concrete fashion. 

This example seems to have given us more questions than answers. I don’t think the second example is going to be any better, but let’s proceed anyway.

IV- Gender Dysphoria and Same Sex Attraction

I debated making this section into its own post, so I could cordon it off, given how controversial the topic is. But if you’re going to examine an issue you really need to consider it from every angle and at every level of difficulty. I would say that the DDT example would be considered easy mode. We’ve known about it for a long time. We took steps. We can imagine that the steps we took should have been more extreme and sooner, but it’s also possible to argue that it went as well as it could have given the competing interests, the various tradeoffs in human lives and environmental damage, and of course the political reality.

Chemically induced infertility and obesity might be this subject at a medium level of difficulty. It’s only now entering mainstream awareness, even though it might have been going on for decades. (Swan makes the claim that chemically induced infertility is where global warming was 40 years ago.) Those who profit from these chemicals are deeply entrenched and the public have long ago been persuaded to other explanations for the phenomenon, making them particularly difficult to persuade. This means that there is a significant contingent already dedicated to defending the status quo, with only a very small contingent in favor of overturning it, or at least examining it. Furthermore the evidence you might use to change that imbalance is interesting, but certainly not ironclad. On the other hand the issue does have a few things going for it. For one thing it hasn’t yet become horribly partisan. Nearly everyone agrees that infertility and obesity are bad things. You could imagine that a narrowly crafted bill banning or restricting certain chemicals might even receive bipartisan support. Of course as battle lines are drawn things would certainly change, but that’s the case with everything at this point.

The idea that chemicals may be causing an increase in gender dysphoria and same sex attraction (SSA) is definitely hard mode. The subject is already a political and cultural minefield where reasonable discussion is impossible. And while I don’t think the evidence for this connection is any weaker than the connection between chemicals and infertility, it’s hard to imagine it not being scrutinized a hundred times more closely. And the biggest factor of all, those afflicted by infertility or obesity largely desire to be rid of the condition and consider it an affliction, while many who experience gender dysphoria and SSA consider it part of their identity, and violently reject any attempts to pathologize it. It’s hard to tell whether this contingent is the more numerous, but they are certainly the loudest.

Of course, the argument that some amount of SSA and gender dysphoria can be explained by environmental chemicals definitely counts as pathologizing the condition. Once again I think arguing about the evidence can end up being a distraction, because there’s no amount that is going to be convincing to all parties. And if we’re working on the basis of the precautionary principle, we’re really just looking for enough evidence to suspect risk, or (in the case of Taleb’s definition) rule out a “near-certainty” of safety. To that end I will spend some space laying out the case, but of course if you want to go deeper you should read the book:

In a 2019 article in Psychology Today, Robert Hedaya, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, wrote, “It is nothing short of astounding that after hundreds of thousands of years of human history, the fundamental facts of human gender are becoming blurry. There are many reasons for this, but one, which I have not seen discussed as a likely cause, is the influence of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”

Many other clinicians and researchers are wondering about this, too. The question of whether chemicals in our midst are affecting gender identity is a bit like the metaphorical elephant in the room—obvious and significant but uncomfortable and difficult to address. 

Swan goes on to list several mechanisms through which this might happen, and studies that show correlations between chemical exposure and gender development. She also has a section on rapid onset gender dysphoria, which covers much the same territory as Irreversible Damage. (Which I talked about in a previous post.) Also, I should mention that I put forth the theory that environmental chemicals might be causing the rise in gender dysphoria all the way back in 2018, as one of seven possibilities for the increase. So in some sense I was ahead of the curve.

As far as SSA, Swan spends less time on this, though she does make mention of the usual evidence from animals. 

Meanwhile, some environmental contaminants have been found to alter the mating and reproductive behavior of certain species. We’ve seen alterations in courtship and pairing behavior in white ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, in Florida. One study found a significant increase in homosexuality in male ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, a result the researchers attribute to a demasculinizing pattern of estrogen and testosterone expression in the males; sexual behavior in birds (as in humans) is strongly influenced by circulating levels of steroid hormones including testosterone.

Again the evidence is suggestive, but inconclusive, but to repeat my point I’m not trying to reach a conclusion. What I want to know is what precautions do we take when there’s suspicion of harm and the evidence is incomplete? It’s difficult enough to act when the evidence is overwhelming (see the global warming issue, and also all previous discussions about nuclear power.) But what possible precautions can we take on an issue like gender dysphoria where the harms are hotly disputed, it’s right in the middle of a culture war, and the evidence is never going to be ironclad? 

V- Solutions

This post has gone on longer than I intended, so it might be worthwhile to briefly review what we’re trying to do here. One of the best ways to look at the situation is using the analogy offered by Nick Bostrom. We’re drawing balls from the bag of technology. Some are white and beneficial, some are gray and harmful. If we ever draw a black ball the game is over and we’ve lost. 

As to the last point, I am not claiming that any of the things we’ve discussed represents a black ball. Rather I think something else is going on, something which Bostrom doesn’t consider in his original analogy, rather it’s something I came up with as an addition to his analogy: some of the balls will get darker after being drawn. Initially DDT’s effect on malaria transmitting mosquitoes seemed nothing short of miraculous. And plastics and other chemicals have been put to millions of uses in nearly everything. It’s only in the intervening years that DDT was shown to cause deep ecological harm, and plastics and other chemicals are now suspected to be causing infertility and obesity. 

So, how are we supposed to handle the possibility that the “balls” of technology may change color? That something which initially seemed entirely beneficial will end up having profound, but unpredicted harms? Obviously this is a difficult topic, made more difficult by the fact that nearly any solution you can imagine would impact beneficial technologies at least as much as the harmful ones. That said, I think there are some principles that could be useful as we move forward. Clearly there is no simple solution which can be applied in all cases—something obvious and straightforward. We can’t suddenly stop introducing new technologies, nor can we unwind the last few decades of technology. (Which is what would be required to be certain of reversing the effects I’ve mentioned above.) But rather each technology requires precautions carefully crafted to the specific nature of the technology.

The first and most obvious principle is that of trade-offs. None of the things we’re considering have zero benefits and neither do any of them have zero harms. Whether it’s chemicals or nuclear power or vaccines everything has advantages and disadvantages. I have argued that the downsides of vaccines are vastly outweighed by its benefits, and I maintain a similar position when it comes to nuclear power, though the case is not quite so clear. When it comes to chemicals, the situation is even more complicated, but to have any chance of making a decision we need to know what sort of decision we’re making, and which benefits we’re foregoing in order to prevent which harms.

This takes us to the second principle. We need to have the data necessary to make these decisions. The SMTM guys would have had a much easier time making their case (or being refuted) if data collection had been better. As one example of many from their posts:

Glyphosate was patented in 1971 and first sold in 1974, but the FDA didn’t test for glyphosate in food until 2016, which seems pretty weird.

I am not an expert on which sorts of data are already being collected, who’s collecting them, what sort of costs are associated with the collection etc. But I have a hard time imagining that any reasonable level of data collection would be more expensive than trying to rip a harmful technology out of society after it’s spent decades putting down roots.

Of course this is yet another principle: Earlier is better. The sooner we can detect possible harms the easier and less complicated it is to deal with them. Lithium extraction has been going on for decades, but the oldest paper I could find linking it to obesity is from 2018. Presumably we might have been able to take more effective precautions if we had known about this link before lithium took on it’s critical role in the modern world, most notably in the form of lithium ion batteries. 

It should be pointed out that the only way we can do all of these things is if we establish awareness of suspected harms in the first place. We’re unlikely to collect data on something when there’s no suspicion of risk. Or if the suspicion of risk has not risen to become part of the awareness of those empowered to collect data. That, more than anything else, is the point of this post, and of my blogging in general. Convincing people of some particular harm is secondary to making people aware of its potential for harm in the first place.

I am well aware that awareness can easily morph from familiarity into fear. To a degree that’s what I think happened with nuclear power. Preventing this from happening presents one of the greatest difficulties to the whole endeavor. One where I don’t think there’s a good answer. But I will offer up the somewhat counterintuitive opinion that the more potential harms we identify the better it will be. I think if people understand that nearly everything has the potential for harm, that this knowledge might help them not to overreact when some new harm is added to their already long list.

Thus far what we have mostly described is a process of observation not of intervention. While one assumes that intervention will ultimately be necessary, our usual tactic for such interventions is to enact them at the highest level possible. International treaties, federal regulations, etc. This results in interventions which are both crude, and ineffective, if not outright harmful. A great example of this would be environmental impact statements, which seem to be hated by just about everyone.

Here we arrive at what I consider the most important principle of all. The principle of scale. I’ve talked about scale before, and in a similar context, but in the limited space I have remaining I’d like to approach it from a different angle.

One of the things that jumped out to me as I was reading both Count Down and the SMTM stuff was how useful it was for their endeavors to have groups which provided natural experiments. Groups which had a greater than average exposure to the chemicals in question, or happened to have entirely avoided it either through chance, some system of belief, or a different regulatory system. It’s helpful to have lots of different people trying lots of different things.

This idea, depending on its context, can be labeled federalism, subsidiarity, or libertarianism. But in another sense it’s also a religious issue, nor is it certain that the two don’t bleed together. People offer religious objections to vaccines, could they go the opposite way and assert that their religion demands that they use nuclear power? As another example, what if there was a religion which demanded that their food be free of certain chemicals? Considering the wide availability of kosher and halal food, this tactic seems worth pursuing. I understand that some people already do this with organic food, and to an extent there is an associated ideology. Is there any reason not to lean into this?

The point I’m trying to make is not that we should encourage religions to do such things but rather we shouldn’t discourage them. If someone wants to try something, like intentionally infecting themselves with COVID as part of a human challenge trial. Whatever they want to label it—and it’s possible the most effective label would be the religious label—we should allow it. 

In this way we can do all the things I mentioned—assess trade-offs, gather data, raise awareness—at a scale that limits the harm. Of course this is not to say that there is no harm. I realize this opens the door to having even more people refuse to get vaccinated. I disagree with people who are opposed to getting vaccinated and I understand how having such unvaccinated people endangers the rest of the population. And I realize this proposal might make it easier to refuse a vaccine. I also understand people who are opposed to nuclear power, despite my strong advocacy of it. They believe they will suffer the harmful effects of radiation despite not being part of the community that uses nuclear power just as vaccinated people think they are more likely to get breakthrough COVID despite not being part of the anti-vax community. Unfortunately one of the few ways available to us to figure out whether a technology is dangerous or not is for some people to use it and for some people not to use it. 

It would be nice if we could instantly discern whether a technology was going to be beneficial or harmful, on net, but we can’t. And I think our record of deciding such a thing in one fell swoop for all time and all people shows that we’re wrong at least as often as we’re right, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re actually wrong more often.

If you take nothing else from this very long post, it should be this. The precautionary principle is important, and as new technologies come along and as the harms of old technologies become more apparent we need to figure out some way of being more cautious—to neither blindly embrace nor impulsively reject technology. We need to be brave and careful. We need to gather data, but also act on hunches. The dangers are subtle and if we’re going to survive them we need cleverness equal to this subtlety. Put simply we need to look before we leap.


I’m not sure if this is my longest post, I’m too lazy to check. If it’s not it’s close. If you made it this far let me know. I’ll randomly select one of you for a $20 Amazon gift card. Let’s be honest you earned it. If alternatively you want to fund the gift card consider donating


Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


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The 10 Books I Finished in July

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  1. Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by: Shanna H. Swan
  2. End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) by: Katie Mack
  3. Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America by: Charles Murray
  4. Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness by: Tim Grover
  5. Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs
  6. Red Rising by: Pierce Brown
  7. Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas by: Spike Walker
  8. Freedom by: Sebastian Junger
  9. Faust by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  10. Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by: Thomas Jay Oord

I’m back. Hopefully my absence was not too distressing… 

The older I get the more I hate the heat, and as July is the hottest month of the year, lately I’ve been trying to get out of Utah, or at least up into the mountains. This July I went to the Open and Relational Theology Conference which was at a ski resort near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Shortly after getting back from that I took a trip with my wife to a condo in the mountains. Both trips were nice, and I will talk more about the theology conference when I get to the associated review.

These two trips meant that I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped but I did quite a bit done with the time freed up by not writing two essays last month. I’m hoping some of my efforts will bear fruit, but only time will tell. As you can tell whatever else I may have been doing in July I did get quite a bit of reading done, so I’m going to try to keep things tight. Thus, without further ado:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race

by: Shanna H. Swan

292 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

That modern world is suffering from a severe chemically induced fertility crisis.

Who should read this book?

If news about decreased sperm counts fills you with curiosity or dread, this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

Growing up my experience was that kids were everywhere and they arrived fairly effortlessly. I’m the oldest of seven kids. In the house across the street was another family with seven kids and one of my best friends had 11 brothers and sisters. Now admittedly Mormons have always been at the higher end of the total fertility rate (TFR) curve, but the larger point I’m trying to get at is that when I was a child I saw no evidence of any fertility problems. 

These days it seems like we’re in exactly the opposite situation. It feels harder to come up with couples who don’t have any fertility problems than those which do. If I’m trying to be objective I don’t think this is literally the case, nor do I put much stock in my childhood impressions, but I know an awful lot of couples who are having a devil of a time conceiving. 

I hadn’t really given that much thought to this dichotomy until I started reading this book. Certainly I had heard that male sperm counts had been falling, but even with my focus on technologically induced crises, it only dimly registered. If someone had asked me for my opinion on the subject before reading this book, I probably would have said that the science on the phenomenon was still unclear. I would have been wrong.

Perhaps this subject was just a blind spot for me and everyone else knew it was a crisis, but my sense is that we’ve spent so much time focusing on why people might have fewer children, that the crisis of being unable to have kids has slipped under the radar. But make no mistake, it is a crisis. Here are just a handful of the statistics Swan provides in the book:

  • Miscarriages are increasing by 1% per year
  • Between 1973 and 2011 sperm concentration dropped 52% in western countries. This study involved 42,935 men.
  • The average twenty something woman is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35. 
  • In China eligible sperm donors dropped from 56 percent to 18 percent. (So it’s not just the west.)
  • Standards for infertility have been lowered. In the 40s it was 60 million sperm/mL, now the standard is 15.
  • 26% of men who present with some degree of erectile dysfunction are under 40.
  • Impaired Fecundity is actually worse among young women, relatively speaking. There was a 42% increase in impairment among women aged 14-24. While there was only a 6% increase in impairment among women aged 35-44.

About half the book is composed of statistics and a general overview of chemically induced infertility and about half is advice for what individuals can do to increase their personal fertility. I find the advice for individuals less interesting, but I was curious how efficacious it was. Swan gave lots of pointers but not much guidance on how much impact each, or even all of these changes would make. For example, with age having such an effect, which cohort has greater fertility: 20 year olds who follow none of Swan’s advice or 35 year olds who follow all of it? I suspect the former. If that’s the case, which is easier? Convincing people to have children earlier or completely eliminating harmful chemicals from every corner of the environment, and from everyone’s bodies? 

We might hope that there’s some simple fix, that perhaps we can fight chemicals with chemicals. That if these chemicals mess with fertility, perhaps by throwing off the proper function of estrogen or testosterone we can just add more. Unfortunately the body is more complicated that, as one example, testosterone replacement therapy causes 90% of men to drop to a sperm count of zero!

Eschatological Implications

Shortly after finishing Count Down I came across another piece claiming that chemicals were also causing the obesity epidemic. So I intend to do a separate post looking at both claims, and the ways in which they interact. Instead I’m going to use this space to have a higher level discussion.

There are many people who wish to claim that everything is going great, and that the future is going to be awesome. In order to do this they have to explain how the dangers people currently fixate on are overblown or soluble. I am most familiar with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and while he talked directly about climate change and AI risk, as well speaking about pollution generally, he did not cover chemically induced infertility. This was not a danger that was on his radar, not a problem of modernity he considered.

As I said I am not familiar with every work in this genre, and perhaps some of them have a compelling answer for why this potential catastrophe should not trouble us, but Pinker entirely ignores it. In drawing attention to this, my point is not that it’s unanswerable, my point is that it illustrates just how many potential technological catastrophes there are. 

It’s not as if this problem is difficult to foresee or get a handle on. It’s easy to measure, it’s central to human flourishing, and the evidence has been available for decades. It didn’t make my list, or Pinker’s list, or really any list because there are just so many things for us to worry about. (Pinker also completely missed the corrosive effects of social media, because his book was written in 2018 rather than 2020.) There are just so many things that can go wrong. So many unintended consequences to our large-scale tampering. If we can’t even adequately deal with problems which should be obvious, how are we going to deal with the subtle problems, the ones that sneak up on us?


End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) 

by: Katie Mack

240 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

An exploration of theories on how the universe will end.

Who should read this book?

People who like astrophysics, or thinking in time horizons of trillions of years.

General Thoughts

I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time back in the day. This book has a similar feel, though it was more irreverent and humorous than Hawking’s. (Though, to be clear, Hawking could be quite funny.) Labelling this book “A Brief History of the End of Time” would not have been misleading.

In the book Mack covers six possibilities for the end of everything: Heat Death, Big Crunch, Big Rip, Vacuum Decay or Bouncing Branes. Two of these explanations (crunch and bounce) posit a universe that cycles with the death of one universe leading to the birth of the next. The rest of the explanations posit a universe that dead ends. Cycles have always made more sense to me, otherwise you need a whole separate endeavor for explaining how universes begin. That said, dead end explanations currently seem to be favored by astrophysicists. And if that’s the way the data points, that’s the way it points. But my bet is on cycles, or some other stable state (And my personal bet is that God will reveal this to me in the hereafter. Should we run into each other in the next life I want you to remember this prediction and give me credit accordingly.)

Eschatological Implications

This book is primarily about eschatology, so obviously I had to include it in this section. Though it is an eschatology much different than what I normally write about, and much different than what most people care about. Mack largely writes about things that will happen long after we are gone, and by long I mean, for example, 10^1000 years from now. And while it’s good that some people are thinking about it, I will still contend that my eschatological focus is more useful than Mack’s. 

This is not to say the book wasn’t useful or interesting. It was fascinating. I particularly liked the Vacuum Decay possibility. This holds that the Higgs Field/Potential is at a local minimum, but not a global minimum. Some incredibly energetic event could locally knock it out of its current minimum and into the global minimum, when that happened the nearby space would follow suit and a bubble of this new universe would expand out at the speed of light. Since it’s expanding as fast as information can travel we wouldn’t know about it until it hit us. One day everything’s fine and the next day the universe is unrecognizable. If you’ve ever read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut this is similar to what happens with ice-9.

Finally, this book was also a great reminder about how little we know about things. Mack points out that of the four things that determine how the universe behaves—matter, dark matter, dark energy, and time—we really only understand matter and it’s the smallest contributor to that behavior.


II- Capsule Reviews

Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America

by: Charles Murray

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The two truths that there are racial differences in cognitive ability and criminality. 

Who should read this book?

Possibly no one. I think Murray’s arguments are important, but the issue is so polarized that there is no one left who does not already have a position which is unalterable.

General Thoughts

Murray is best known as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve which makes the case that intelligence is important and partially heritable. As a result of this heritability they go on to say that intelligence has different means and distributions among the various racial groups. In this book Murray again makes the case for racial differences in cognitive ability, and to that he adds data making the case for racial differences in criminality. He doesn’t speculate on a root cause for these differences, but he does assert that they will be with us “indefinitely”. And indeed, according to his data the difference was shrinking until the late 80’s, but since then it’s been remarkably stable. 

As you might imagine we’re already in dangerous territory. The Bell Curve is still taboo, and Murray, despite being unfailingly civil, is also basically taboo. And while Murray avoids mentioning genetic racial differences in this book, it’s impossible for the mind not to go there, so perhaps you want me to offer some opinion.

This reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets a couple of women to agree to a ménage à trois, but in the end decides that he can’t go through with it because he’s not an orgy guy. If he were going to do that he would have to get new clothes, new decor, new friends—he’d have to grow a mustache. Which is to say diving into racial differences in IQ is a whole lifestyle, really on both sides of the argument. And I’m not going to do it. 

However I will say this, and I’ll probably end up regretting it. In the rationalist community, which I am adjacent to in a very vague sense, these sorts of ideas are generally viewed as having some truth to them. And I don’t think it’s because rationalists are just unforgivably hateful and racist, I think it’s because that’s what the data seems to say. If you’re interested in a brief overview of that data you could do worse than read Murray’s book.


Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness 

by: Tim Grover

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the true pursuit of winning requires an absolute single-minded devotion.

Who should read this book?

If you want to be inspired to try harder and to be tougher this is your book.

General Thoughts

Grover trained Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (among others) two of the most relentless competitors who have ever walked the Earth. This is a book about how if you really want to win, there is no work/life balance, there is no pausing to rest. That all the cliches we tell ourselves are wrong. Showing up is NOT half the battle. Winning is selfish, there is an “I” in team. And you don’t need to make time for yourself or others. The only thing you should be making time for are things that take you closer to victory.

I found this book a useful wake-up call, and something of a corrective to so much of the current self-help landscape. I think I had mostly slid into a certain routine which was more focused on the perfecting of the routine than getting to a certain outcome. If it never gets me the outcome I want, what use was the routine? 

However, while I think the world in general needs more focus on “Winning!” and less focus on small incremental improvements. I would argue that the absolute fixation Grover advocates for is dangerous. I do think balance is important, but more than that I’m worried that Grover doesn’t draw any lines. As an example consider Lance Armstrong. Grover didn’t coach Armstrong, but Armstrong is another example of a relentless competitor, so relentless that he didn’t give a second thought to doping (i.e. performance enhancing drugs). Grover doesn’t ever mention doping but the impression one gets is that he would be in favor of it. Particularly given that all of Armstrong’s competitors were doping. How else would Armstrong win if he didn’t do the same?

If Grover is against doping, this book gives no hint of it, and nothing in the book could be used to derive that conclusion. But of course the real question is: did Jordan or Bryant ever use performance enhancing drugs while Grover was training them?


Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results

by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Creating “streaks”, i.e. doing an activity every day in an uninterrupted fashion as a way of self improvement.

Who should read this book?

If the previous book didn’t appeal to you, maybe this one will. This is self-improvement at its easiest and most basic.

General Thoughts

This book is basically the inverse of the previous book. Rather than looking at improvement or winning as a total endeavor, this book puts forth the smallest and easiest possible methodology for improvement. The “streaks” methodology involves picking some activity that would be a part of your ideal life, and then making sure that you do that activity every day, keeping track of your “streak” of days. This activity should not be big, in fact they recommend the criteria of “laughably easy” when deciding what the activity should be. They also don’t recommend starting several streaks all at once, but rather suggest that you should go 100 days with your first streak before adding another one.

As you can see this is basically the opposite of what Grover is recommending, and I think both points of view are valuable, but my guess is that Downs’ recommendation will be more useful for more people. Still, you should never forget the need to actually win on occasion.


Red Rising 

by: Pierce Brown

382 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the first book of a dystopian science fiction series set ~700 years in the future where humanity has been divided into colors, each color has a specific role. Golds are on top and Reds are on the bottom.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a good sci fi series, I’ve heard good things about this one, and the first book was very enjoyable.

General Thoughts

There are lots of elements that go into a good science fiction book. Plot, characters, setting, world building, etc. Pierce is pretty strong with nearly all of them. In part this is because he uses the increasingly common technique, one which I’ve kind of decided is cheating, of setting his book in a school. It’s a very strange school, and I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense, but it is a school, and with that setting comes all sorts of things you don’t have to worry about. You only have to deal with basically one location. The plot is naturally driven by the pedagogy of the school. And, If you only focus on a few characters that feels entirely natural. 

However, as I said, I’m not sure it makes sense. *Incredibly mild spoiler* The school is composed entirely of Golds, the very highest caste, and they die like flies. Which is a world very different from ours, and I don’t know that his world-building is deep enough to make it believable. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t entirely cohere. But as criticism goes, that’s a pretty mild one. It’d be pretty hard to find a book that doesn’t have some flaw at least as egregious. 

As I write this I’m a third of the way done with the second book, and it occurs to me that the part Red Rising does poorly is what Dune does so masterfully. And there are definitely echos of Dune in the book, but that’s a very hard act to follow.

In the final analysis, Red Rising is not a classic, but it’s still quite good.


Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas 

by: Spike Walker

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Amazing Coast Guard rescues off the coast of Alaska.

Who should read this book?

People who appreciate shows like “Deadliest Catch” or general stories of man against nature.

General Thoughts

I’ve read a lot of these stories and this collection is as good as any of them, in particular the story of the most prominent rescue has a horrible twist that makes it all the more dramatic. 


Freedom

by: Sebastian Junger

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A meditative book that’s half autobiographical narrative of a walking trip Junger took and half narrative of the way freedom was understood during the early history of the country. 

Who should read this book?

People who enjoy long, discursive podcasts, or Junger’s other stuff.

General Thoughts

Freedom was not as good as Tribe (few books are), though it is probably more personal. After getting divorced Junger decided to start walking the rails with three companions. Walking the rails is illegal, and as such it provides the setting for numerous anecdotes on freedom. About half the anecdotes come from his trip and about half the anecdotes are historical.

I listened to the audiobook, which is only three hours long, and I think if you approach the book as just a long episode of a good podcast it’s amazing.


Faust 

by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

158 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The original Faustian bargain.

Who should read this book?

It’s a classic and it’s short, so maybe everyone?

General Thoughts

Sometimes when you read an acknowledged classic you immediately recognize why it’s a classic, sometimes you kind of have to take it on faith. Faust is split into two parts and I think the first part fell into the “immediate recognition” bucket, while the second part was in the “take it on faith” bucket.

Though Faust isn’t just an acknowledged classic, it’s frequently named as the greatest work of German literature, which would appear to be a level beyond that. I definitely didn’t get that sense, even out of Part 1, but perhaps I should try reading it in the original German. I mostly know Dutch and it feels like with a moderate amount of effort I could pick up German literacy. Though it kind of feels like I’m at a point in my life when I should be cutting back on things rather than being ambitious. 

As a final note I should mention that in the past I have found full cast audiobooks to be less enjoyable than those with a single great narrator. I listened to a full cast version of this book and it was quite good. So perhaps I just had a few bad experiences. I’ll keep you posted.


III- Religious Reviews

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas

by: Thomas Jay Oord

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A new take on how God operates, very different from traditional religious ideas.

Who should read this book?

If you like plumbing the depths of theology, but find some of it far too dry, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I went to a conference on open and relational theology (ORT) last month, but this was not because I subscribe to it. My biggest reason was that I was acquainted with Oord, who organized the conference. Also, it didn’t appear any more expensive than taking a vacation of similar duration, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. 

ORT does have a lot of overlap with LDS theology, in particular they’re very big on the idea of free will and agency. Something that’s also pretty foundational for Mormons. ORT uses it to answer the questions of evil and suffering.  Basically God can’t do anything which interferes with our free will. More broadly, God has only a limited ability to interfere with anything.

As I said this is not my theology and so I don’t want to get too deep into things lest I misrepresent it, but one of the interesting outgrowths of this focus on free will is that God can’t know the future. If he knows with absolute certainty what’s going to happen then we don’t really have free will. This is the “open” part of ORT, it describes the idea that the future is open, that both we and God move through time in the same way at the same rate. So God doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow anymore than we do. (One assumes his predictions are better, but they are still just predictions, there is no certainty.)

As a result of this God experiences things, again much the same way we do, and he experiences our actions while we experience his. This is the “relational” part. God is not a fixed unmovable being unchanging through all the eternities, in ORT God develops in harmony with the rest of creation. His essence is unchanging, but what he has experienced is constantly being added to.

It’s a very interesting idea, and I met a lot of very cool people. As a theology I think it’s something of a statement on the ongoing developments in Christianity and religion, but I’m still not 100% sure what that statement is.

Winning for me is getting people to pay me to write. I have an ongoing “streak” where I ask for money at the end of every post. But perhaps I’ve been looking at it all wrong, and if I really want to “Win!” I need to pass the bank teller a note demanding all the money. Wouldn’t that count as getting paid for my writing? And the rate per word would be huge! Perhaps that should be my plan B. If you want to help me with plan A, consider donating.