Tag: <span>China</span>

Pandemic: The End of the Beginning

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When people in the US think of World War II, they think of Pearl Harbor, or Normandy or Hiroshima. What most people don’t realize is that the war had been already going on for two years when Pearl Harbor happened. During that time, the UK stood alone against Germany, and the situation looked grim. Even once the US had entered the war things still mostly went badly for them. They were just barely holding their own in North Africa against Rommel, and on the other side of the world there was the disastrous fall of Singapore. But finally nearly a year after the US had entered the war, and three years after it had started, the British finally got their first decisive win at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. (AL-a-main)

Shortly after this victory Churchill was giving a speech, and in reference to this battle and the turning point it represented he said:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I bring this quote up because it feels like a decent description of where we are with COVID. It is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but I think once the omicron surge passes that it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning. As a consequence I thought it might be time to do a post about the beginning of the pandemic, both because I think we’re at the end of that beginning, but also because it’s an opportunity bring together some insights about the pandemic I recently gleaned from three books:

Nightmare Scenario by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Premonition by: Michael Lewis

Viral by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

But first, before I forget, back on the 8th I made a prediction about when omicron would peak. I said that it would peak on the 15th, at around 2,500 new daily cases per million people. So how’d I do? 

It did in fact peak on the 15th at 2,409 cases per million. How’s that for an accurate prediction? 

Hopefully now that I’ve verified my expertise you’re ready to listen to me on all the other things I have to say about COVID. Speaking of other things, I obviously can’t cover everything from three books, or even everything I think is important and interesting. Instead I’ve picked five subjects where I think I have something important and interesting to add. Let’s get started with:

I- Schools

With the latest surge there was a lot of pushback from teachers unions, and even students on the fact that schools were not closing this time around. But it wasn’t just right wing governors that refused to close schools, Biden and democratic politicians were also emphatic that schools should remain open. 

For my own part I think going back to remote learning for a week during the very peak of omicron (which, as you may remember, I called) is fine, particularly if it’s a staffing issue rather than overactive risk management. The big question we’re grappling with now is not whether we should continue doing it, but whether we should have ever done it. Increasingly the answer seems to be that, outside of those first few weeks when information was scarce, it was always a mistake, and a huge mistake at that.

Recently shots were fired on this subject by Nate Silver, the noted statistician, who tweeted:

Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?

He later clarified that this was not merely a hypothetical, he did in fact think it was a mistake on the magnitude of invading Iraq. As you can imagine responses were all over the map, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s summation of the situation was on the money:

It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace… learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students…a million students functionally dropped out of school…caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage…will be irrecoverable.

 

It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic… 

 

By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

 

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions…

 

It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.

For me it mostly boils down to that last bit. If we’re faced with the horrible task of apportioning harm, and unfortunately we are. Then it seems logical to not apportion a greater share of it to the young. And not only is it logical, but viscerally I, and I think most people, recoil from the idea of sacrificing the boundless potential of the young for the limited potential of the old. (Which is harsh to say but ultimately true.)

So how did we end up doing just that?

Here’s where I can add something to the discussion, to do that I need to take you back to 2005. President Bush had just read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the Spanish Flu and decided the government needed to pursue pandemic preparedness. This was the first big effort taken by the federal government and they had to develop a lot of stuff from scratch. One of the things they lacked was a good model. The Premonition has a whole cute story about how the best model was developed by a child for a science fair project, which only starts to make sense when you realize her dad worked at Sandia National Labs. I don’t have the space to go into that story, the key point is once they started messing with this model they realized that they could significantly reduce transmission through non-pharmaceutical measures. This was the birth of social distancing. And if distance mattered for transmission, then the first places the model said you needed to shut down were schools. Nobody gets packed in tighter than school children.

I’m not sure how much this model drove school closures in the early days of the pandemic. I assume it had to have had some impact, but I don’t remember it ever getting mentioned. And of course even if the model was used to make this decision, it should have been updated as more information came in. Which is to say even if the model was used to justify closing schools I don’t think it could be used to justify keeping them closed.

As one final point as long as we’re on the subject of what sort of things were recommended in the years before the pandemic. When the group President Bush put together went to the CDC and recommended closing down things as per the model the CDC pushed back and said it would never work, people wouldn’t tolerate it. And to a certain extent that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Also the period the group recommended for shutting things down was relatively short. Which is also something we haven’t exactly done (particularly with schools).

II- Republicans vs. Democrats

I’m already a third of the way through the expected length of this post and I’ve only covered 1 of the 5 items on my list. I guess I’ll need to exercise more brevity going forward.

Like so many things COVID became a tribal issue with the blue tribe on the left and the red tribe on the right. And members of each tribe want to know that their tribe was the righteous one, while the other tribe was the wicked one.

Nightmare Scenario was written with the goal of proving that the Republicans, and particularly Trump were the wicked ones. Having also read Premonition as well as countless blog posts and tweets, I think this fixation blinded the authors of Scenario to the even greater failings of the FDA and CDC, institutions which are supposed to be the ones preparing for and dealing with emergencies like this. Which is to say while it would have been nice to have a President who’s great at handling a global pandemic, it shouldn’t be too surprising when we don’t. The president has countless jobs, the CDC only has a couple and the most important of those is handling a global pandemic, and on this count they were abject failures.

This discussion of tribalism and the CDC takes us to the story of Charity Dean, one of the three stars of The Premonition. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Charity was a public health official, a very talented and dedicated one, exactly the kind of person you wanted in charge during a pandemic. The book relates numerous stories about her, but two are germane here.

First, in the months immediately before the pandemic Charity had risen to be the number two  person in the state of California for public health, and when the top position, Director of the California Department of Public Health, opened up in 2019, Charity assumed she would be appointed. She was not, and she discovered later that as a white woman with blond hair she wasn’t even in the running, despite being the number two person. Instead Dr. Sonia Angell was given the job. Her primary qualification appeared to be the fact that she was Latina. In other words it was an affirmative action hire. Had it been a successful example of affirmative action, raising someone with the necessary skills who had previously been overlooked, then we wouldn’t be talking about Dr. Angell, but that was not the case. Lewis described her as being “monstrously incompetent”, so much so that she ended up abruptly resigning in August of 2020.

Republican ideology gave us Trump, and he obviously made some big mistakes (more on that later) but the presidency is not our primary line of defense. The public health bureaucracy is, and Democratic ideology undermined that, and not merely in the case of Dr. Angell. I think one of the biggest hits the public health authorities took was when they backpedaled all their guidance on gatherings when people started to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The second reason I wanted to bring up Charity Dean was to highlight her views on the CDC, since you might need further convincing. Lewis describes how Dean, through her connection with other characters in the book, was finally given the opportunity to put together a plan for how to deal with the pandemic. Someone, in an effort to help, added a small role for the CDC in her plan. Charity wrote back:

No…The single most important part of this plan is IT IS NOT RUN BY THE CDC… The entity/agency/figurehead leading this must be a Churchill not a Chamberlain.”

III- The FDA and CDC

So what made the FDA and CDC so bad? What did they do that they shouldn’t have and what should they have done that they didn’t? 

To explain that I’ll first need to take you on a brief aside. Back in 2014 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex decided to take on the effects of marijuana legalization, in a post titled, Marijuana Much More Than You Wanted to Know. As is usual with his “Much More Than You Wanted to Know” posts he went really deep, looking at the issue from every angle you could imagine. But despite pot affecting everything from IQ to organized crime, one consideration overwhelmed everything else: traffic fatalities. Does pot increase the number of traffic fatalities because more people drive under the influence? Or does it decrease the number of traffic fatalities because people substitute pot for alcohol and while driving under the influence of pot is bad, it’s vastly better than driving drunk? In the final analysis death is so bad, and traffic fatalities are such a big cause of death that even changing it by a tiny percentage one way or the other overwhelms every other consequence the legalization of marijuana has on society.

This is the position the FDA and CDC were in. They probably did a lot of things right. There are probably many criticisms which are unjustified. But in the final analysis the consequences of the few bad things they did were so bad they overwhelmed all the rest.

The reason these things were so bad is that when you’re talking about exponential growth, what happens at the very beginning of that curve has a far more dramatic impact than anything that happens later on, after the curve is established. I’ve seen evidence that they did lots of things wrong at pivotal points where speed was essential, but here are the two biggest examples in my opinion, one from each agency:

For the CDC it was obviously creating the initial test. If you haven’t heard this story Buzzfeed actually has a great investigative piece on it. But basically they refused to rely on tests that had already been created in other countries, they refused to let private companies market tests they had developed, the supply of their test was horribly limited and to top it all off it didn’t work! Certainly even with good testing there was no way for the US to avoid the pandemic, but we seeded it far more deeply and more broadly than necessary because in the very earliest days we couldn’t test for it.

For the FDA it was the vaccine, and in some respects this is less forgivable. The CDC might plausibly claim that, early on, it wasn’t really clear how important the test was going to be, the FDA had no such excuse when it came to the vaccine, everyone knew exactly how important it was. And yet the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee seemed almost leisurely in their approval approach. The vaccine was ready for approval by November 20th, but they didn’t meet until December 10th, nearly three weeks later. What possible reason could there be for not meeting on November 21st or the evening of November 20th? 

As I said, I think these are the biggest mistakes, but they are by no means the only mistakes made by the FDA and CDC. In fact when it comes to the vaccines there may be an even bigger scandal, but for discussing that, let’s turn to: 

IV- Trump and the Vaccine

The same thing I said about the CDC and the FDA could be applied in reverse to Trump, and his team. However many mistakes they may have made, in the final analysis, the speed of vaccine development was going to be the measurement that mattered the most. And in this respect everyone basically agrees that Operation Warp Speed did an amazing job. The obvious objection for those not inclined to give Trump any credit is that he played only a very small part in the operation. That’s a fair point, but in considering it we should remember what Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs, “Victory has 100 fathers while defeat is an orphan.” Lots of people now want to take credit for starting or managing or having the idea for Operation Warp Speed, but if it had failed everyone would have blamed Trump. This being the case, should he not therefore get some of the credit?

Even Nightmare Scenario which was written specifically to savage Trump, admitted that this sort of “hail mary” approach was something the Trump administration was actually pretty good at. The book’s chief criticism of such efforts was not that they were ineffective, but rather that by routing around the normal procurement process, such efforts wasted money. This complaint about the government wasting money made me laugh, a lot.  Other more serious criticisms include duplication and a lack of focus, and there was certainly a lot of that, but in the end we got the vaccine months and months sooner than anyone thought possible. Though we could have gotten it even sooner and therein lies the potential scandal. 

There’s lots of evidence of people working to move the announcement of a successful vaccine from October to November, enough that the fact of it happening really isn’t in question, what’s in question is why?

The most benign explanation is these people were worried about anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitancy, and they wanted to make sure the safety data was ironclad. 

However, lots of people (including the aforementioned Nate Silver) find the timing to be very suspicious. The fact that moving it from October to November happened to move it from before the election to after the election makes it look like it was largely motivated by a chance to hurt Trump’s reelection efforts.

Other people don’t care about the motivation, they just think that it was a bad trade off, that the delay was never going to have that much of an impact on vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers, but it was always going to have a huge effect on the number of people who died. Who cares what the motivation was, the decision to delay ended up killing thousands of people.

The problem with much of the discussion is that it ends up being broken into a binary. Either it was totally reasonable for the FDA to wait 60 days to see about side effects or it was monstrous and politically motivated. And what’s lacking in both the current discussion and the toolkit of bureaucratic capabilities is any capacity for nuance. Could we have authorized it for high risk old people in October? People who felt that the protection from not dying was worth the potential that there might be unknown side effects?

V- The True Beginnings of the Pandemic 

Here we arrive at the ultimate example of the “traffic fatality effect”. Despite everything that has been said so far, when it comes to the pandemic all other considerations are secondary to the question of where the virus came from, because if it didn’t happen in the first place every other issue is moot. Thus far I have mostly drawn from The Premonition and Nightmare Scenario. This section is going to draw almost entirely from Viral. With a few other quotes here and there. Speaking of which, here’s Matthew Yglesias to start us off with a quote saying essentially the same thing:

I’m not saying it was definitely a lab leak. I’m saying that answering that question is one of the most important tasks of the post-mortem, and anyone who says it definitely wasn’t a lab leak is not trying to answer it they’re engaged in the culture war.

Before we get to a discussion of the actual evidence, this is a perfect example of what I talk about over and over again in this space. You might think that in a situation where something only has a 5% chance of happening that you should act as if it won’t or if it didn’t. But my argument has always been if the consequences of it happening are bad enough, you should act as if it will or that it did. Applying this the lab leak hypothesis they should have never been conducting coronavirus research in a biosafety level 2 lab (4 is the highest) and going forward we should probably stop such research all together, certainly anything that involves gain of function. But that’s precisely what we’re NOT doing. To quote from Yglesias again:

By contrast, on something like Covid-19’s origins, we’ve had a decent amount of coverage of the lab leak controversy but essentially no coverage of what is being done to prevent future lab leaks (basically nothing) or to prevent future zoonotic crossover events (again, nothing). But the reason these are our two contenders is that as far as we know, these are the routes through which new viruses emerge…either way, we’re not doing anything to counter either route for transmission, and that (shocking! alarming! insane!) fact gets way less attention than the latest round of “who’s yelling at whom about masks?”

We should be taking all of these measures even if the chance is only 5%, but having read Viral I would argue that the chance is far higher than 5%. In fact it might be the inverse of that, I might put the odds at 95% lab leak, 5% zoonotic origin. I’m sure you’re interested in the evidence backing up that assertion. As this post is already running long I’m going to steal Scott Aaronson’s list, and briefly offer my own commentary. And if you’re interested in going deeper you should read his whole review. But this is his list of things Viral proved beyond reasonable doubt, a list I entirely agree with:

Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work. 

This gets to the point I was making previously. We were already taking risks we shouldn’t have been. Lab leaks happen all the time, and rather than focusing on the huge negative black swan of potentially creating and releasing a viral pandemic, they were focused on the small gains of having a better viral database. The claim was it would help us fight future pandemics, but:

Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to… useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.

Another point I make all the time, the benefits of technology are almost always oversold while the potential harms are generally entirely invisible. Particularly once we have done all the obviously beneficial things (modern sanitation) and we’re moving on to things of more dubious value (harvesting exotic viruses and studying them).

There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I had to quote this point in full. It really elegantly encapsulates the whole argument. And what about the wet market?

The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.

My sense is that those who hold on to the zoonotic origin idea, imagine that the wet market was this crazy lawless area where anything could have happened. Actually it was closely monitored, and because of other diseases they were carefully tracking what was sold and when, and as Aaronsson says, none of the potential carriers were even sold at that market.

Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists… They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. 

If that database had been taken offline in November of 2019, this would be the smoking gun, but even September seems very, very strange. But of course the most inexplicable thing is why it has never been made available since the pandemic started. The whole point of the database was to assist people in fighting pandemics, and when an actual pandemic comes along it’s permanently made unavailable. The list of other strange oversights and evasions is nearly as baffling. And of course on top of it all:

The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine.

Sometimes people imagine coverups where there probably aren’t any. Or there is a coverup, but they’re covering for something different than what you imagine. Consequently I try to be somewhat skeptical when an organization or a person is accused of acting in bad faith. The world is complicated, and incompetence is ubiquitious, but for this particular issue there are so many obvious good faiths steps would could be taken but haven’t been:

  • WIV could restore access to the database.
  • China could allow an international team to investigate the cave.
  • Daszak could confirm and explain facts that are already out there.
  • They could stop any remotely dangerous viral research now that it’s been shown that it may have caused significant harm, and it didn’t provide any significant help.

Of course this lack of good faith engagement illustrates the entire problem, not just with finding the actual source of the pandemic, but with everything about the pandemic, and indeed everything about the modern world. We have turned everything into tribal warfare, and the only thing that’s important is that our tribe wins.


Speaking of fracturing into tribes, sometimes I feel like Treebeard, from the Lord of the Rings, when he was asked by Pippin whose side he was on, “Side? I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side…” If you’d like to be on my side with things like the pandemic, and the fragility of modernity more broadly. Consider donating


The Value of Free Speech

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


Taboos and Antifragility

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As I mentioned in my initial post, this blog will be at least as much as about me being a disciple of Taleb as it is about me being a disciple of Christ. That probably overstates things a little bit, but I am a huge admirer of Taleb. And it is to his idea of antifragility that I’d like to turn now. My last post was all about the limitations of science. And as I pointed out, there are many ways in which people have placed too much faith in the power of science. True science is fantastic, but also very rare, and thus we end up with many things being labeled as science which are only partially scientific. Of course as I also pointed out much of the problem comes from using science to minimize the utility of religion. This does not merely take the form of atheists who believe that there is no God it also takes the form of people who feel that the principles of religion and more broadly traditions in general are nothing more than superstitions which have been banished by the light of progress and modernity. These people may believe that there is “more to this life” or that life has a spiritual side, or in the universal and unseen power of love. But what they don’t believe in is organized religion. In fact it seems fairly clear, that at least in the U.S., that support for organized religion is as low as it’s ever been. But I’m here to defend organized religion, and not just the Mormon version of it.

So what is the value of religion and more broadly traditions in general? In short it promotes antifragility.

Let’s examine one very common religious tradition: forbidding pre-marital sex. These days the idea of some kind of generalized taboo on sex before marriage is considered at best quaint and at worst a misogynistic relic of our inhumane and immoral past, at least in all the developed countries. As you might have guessed I’m going to take the opposite stance.  I’m going to argue that the taboo was universal for a reason, it served a purpose and that we abandon it, and other religious principles, at our peril. In this I am no different than many people, but I am going to give a different rationale. My argument will be that regardless of your opinion on the existence of a supreme being, there is significant evidence that religion and other traditions make us less fragile.

Before we get into the actual discussion of religion and antifragility there might be people who question the part of my argument where I assert that the taboo against premarital sex was universal and served a purpose. Let’s start with the first point, was the taboo against premarital sex widespread? For me, and probably most people, the existence of a broad and long-lasting taboo seems self evident, but when you get into discussions like these, there are people who will argue every point of minutia, no matter how obvious it may seem to the average person. To those people, yes there are almost certainly cultures and points in history before modern times where sex before marriage was no big deal, where in fact the concept of marriage itself might be unrecognizable to us, but examples such of these are few in number, and limited in scope. But rather than just hand waving the whole thing (which is tempting) let’s actually look at a couple of very large examples: Western Christianity (the term Judeo-Christianity would also apply) and China. Both of these cultures are successful both in longevity and influence and, as it turns out both cultures, though very different on a whole host of issues, both had taboos against premarital sex. Hopefully the Christian taboo against premarital sex is obvious to readers of this blog, but if you need more information on the Chinese taboo you can go here, here or here.

How is it then that these two cultures, so very different in other respects, both arrived at the same taboo? This takes us to our next point, whether the taboo served a purpose. A few people, somewhat mystifyingly, will claim that two cultures, widely separated in both space and time, just happened to arrive at the same terrible superstition, that it benefited no one and that it arrived and flourished independently in both cultures for thousands of years. This argument is ridiculous on it’s face, and I think we can safely dismiss it.

Other people will argue that both cultures had a reason, and they may in fact have had the same reason, but they will argue that it was a bad one. This explanation generally brings in the evils of patriarchy at some point, and the fact that it was a taboo in both cultures (actually far more than that, but we’ll just stick with those two for now) just means that male domination was widespread. Furthermore, because of our much greater understanding of biology, psychology and anthropology we can now, with the backing of science, declare that it was a bad reason. (Unless of course the science turns out to be flawed…) Furthermore we can not only do away with the taboo against premarital sex but we can also safely declare that it was evil and repressive.

The final possibility, for those who consider the taboo a quaint relic of the past, is to acknowledge it did exist, it was widespread, and there actually was a good reason for it, but that reason doesn’t exist anymore. They might go on to explain that yes, perhaps in the past, having a taboo against premarital sex did make sense, but it doesn’t make sense in 2016 or even in 1970. Historically people weren’t evil or superstitious they just didn’t know everything we know and have access to all of the technology we have access to. Things like birth control, and the social safety net, etc have done away with the need for the taboo. While this explanation sounds more reasonable than the others, at it’s core it’s very similar to those other two views. All three still eventually boil down to an assertion that we’re smarter and more advanced than people in the past. It’s just a discussion of how and by what degree that we’re smarter and more advanced.

The immediate question is how can you be so sure? What makes us better than the people that came before us? And how can you be confident that there was no reason for the taboo, or that there was a reason, but that it was bad?  The most reasonable of the explanations requires us to be confident that whatever purpose a taboo against premarital sex served, that progress and technology have eliminated that purpose. Not only does this throw us back into a discussion of the limits of science, but this also requires us to put an awful lot of weight on the last 50-60 years. By this I mean that if we have eliminated the need for the taboo we’ve done it only fairly recently. The sexual revolution is at most 60-70 years old in the US, and it’s even more recent in China (continuing to stick with two cultures we’ve already examined.) Which means that in that short time frame we would’ve had developed enough either technologically or morally to eliminate the wisdom of centuries if not millennia. And this is what I mean by putting a lot of weight on the last 60-70 years.

To review, as you might have already gathered, I have a hard time believing that there was no reason for the taboo. For that to be the case multiple cultures would have to independently arrive at the same taboo, just by chance. I also have a hard time believing that the reasons for the taboo were strictly or even mostly selfish or misogynist. That discussion is a whole rabbit hole all by itself, so let me just reframe it. If the taboo against premarital sex was bad for a civilization than other civilizations which didn’t have that taboo should have outcompeted the civilizations which did have it. In other words at best the belief had to have no negative impact on a civilization, regardless of the reasons for the taboo, and more likely in an evolutionary sense (if you want to pull in science) it had to have a positive effect. Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.

And then there’s possibility number three. The taboo was good and necessary up until a few decades ago when it was eliminated with the Power of Science!™ There are in fact some strong candidates for this honor, the pill being the chief among them. And if this is your answer for why pre-marital sex no longer has to be taboo, then at least you’ve done your homework. But I still think you’re being overconfident and myopic. And here, at last, is where I’d like to turn to the idea of antifragility, in particular the antifragility of religion.  Taleb arrives at his categories by placing everything into three groups:

  1. Fragile: Things that are harmed by chaos. Think of your mother’s crystal, or a weak government.
  2. Robust: Things that are neither harmed nor helped by chaos.
  3. Antifragile: Things that are helped by chaos. Think about the prepper with a basement full of food and guns. Normally speaking he’s just wasted a lot of money, but if the zombie apocalypse comes, he’s the king of the world. It should be pointed out that often things are antifragile only relatively. In other words everyone’s life might get worse during the zombie apocalypse, but the prepper is much better positioned in the new world than he was in the old relative to all of the other survivors.

Like Taleb, we’ll largely ignore the robust category since very few things are truly robust. Though as you can see it’s a good place to be. What remains is either fragile or antifragile. For our purposes time is essentially equal to chaos, since the longer you go the more likely some random bad thing is going to happen. Thus anything that is fragile is just not going to exist after enough time has passed. A weak government will eventually be overthrown, and your mother’s crystal will eventually get dropped. Accordingly anything that has been around for long enough must be antifragile (or at least robust), particularly if it has survived catastrophes fatal to other, similar things. Religion fits into this category. Government’s may fall, languages may pass away, nations and people may be lost to history, but religion persists.

Returning to look specifically at the taboo against premarital sex, I would argue that it’s been around for so long and is so widely spread because it promotes antifragility. How? Well I think it’s longevity is a powerful argument all on it’s own, but beyond that there are dozens of potential ways a taboo against premarital sex might make a culture less fragile. It might decrease infant mortality, better establish property rights, create stronger marriages with all the attendant benefits, increase physical security for women, promote better organized communities, or create better citizens. (That’s six, I’ll leave the other six as an exercise for the reader.)

If the taboo does make the culture which adopts it less fragile, then have we really eliminated the need for that it in the last 50 years? Or to put it another way is our culture and society really that much less fragile than the society of 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? I’m sure there are people who would argue that in fact that it is, but this mostly stems from a misunderstanding of what fragility is, assuming they’ve even given much thought to the matter. As I said in the last post so much of what passes for thinking these days is just a means for people to feel justified in doing whatever they feel like, and they haven’t given any thought to the impact on society, or consequences outside of whether their beliefs allow them to do what they feel like. That said, if pressed, they would probably assert that the world is less fragile, particularly if doing so gives them more cover for ignoring things like religion and tradition. But is it true? Taleb asserts that the world isn’t less fragile, it’s less volatile. Which can be mistaken for a reduction of fragility, particularly in the short term. Allow me to give an example of what I mean, continuing with the example of premarital sex.

One of the problems of premarital sex is that it leads to out of wedlock babies and single mothers. In a time before public assistance (or what a lot of people call welfare) having a baby out of wedlock could effectively end a woman’s life, or at least her “prospects”. On the other hand it could be handled quietly and have little actual impact. The child could be adopted by a rich relative, or it could die in the street shortly after being born.

A great example of what I’m talking about is Fantine and Cosette from Les Miserables. Initially the two of them have a horrible time, Fantine has to spend all her money getting the horrible Thénardiers to take care of Cosette, and instead they mostly abuse Cosette. Fantine eventually has to prostitute herself and dies from tuberculosis, but not before Jean Valjean agrees to take responsibility for Cosette, which he does and while it’s not a perfect life, Jean Valjean treats Cosette quite well. This is volatility. You get the lowest lows one one hand or potentially a great life on the other hand. In this case the outcome for a child is all over the place, and individuals are fragile, but society is largely unaffected, in large part by having taboos and other systems in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place.

That was then, now we have far more single mothers and absent some angry old white men, most people think that it’s not a problem, or that if it is we’re dealing with it. Certainly very few single mothers are forced to the drastic steps Fantine had to take. While I’m sure there are single mothers who resort to prostitution I think that if you were to examine those cases there is something else going on, like drugs. There are also probably fewer children being taken in by wealthy relatives. Most single mothers do okay, not fantastic, but okay. In other words you have a decrease in volatility. As I said, many people mistake this for a decrease in fragility, and indeed the individual is less fragile, but society as a whole is more fragile, because a huge number of those single mothers rely on a single entity for support, the government.

At first glance this seems to be okay. The government isn’t going anywhere, and if EBT and other programs can prevent the abject poverty that characterized previous times, that’s great. But whether you want to admit it or not the whole setup is very fragile. If the government has to make any change to welfare then the number of people affect is astronomical. If Jean Valjean had not come along it would have continued to be horrible for Cosette, but it would only have affected Cosette. If welfare went away literally millions of mothers and children would be destitute. And of course they would overwhelm any other system that might be trying to help. Like religious welfare, or family help, etc.

There’s no reason to expect that welfare will go away suddenly, but it is a single point of failure. I’m guessing that very few people in the Soviet Union expected it to disintegrate as precipitously as it did. Of course there are people who think that welfare should go away, and it may seem like that’s what I’m advocating for, but that’s a discussion for a different time. (Spoiler alert: unwinding it now would be politically infeasible.) That said it’s indisputable that if congress decided to get rid of welfare legislatively it would be less of a shock then if one day EBT cards just stopped working. Which is possibly less far fetched than you think. The EBT system goes down all the time, and people can get pretty upset, but so far these outages have been temporary, what happens if it’s down for a month? Or what happens if it becomes the casualty of a political battle. Thus far when government shutdowns have been threatened there has been no move to mess with welfare, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The point is not to predict what will happen, even less when it might happen, but to draw your attention to the fact that as one of the prices for getting rid of this taboo we’ve created a system with a single point of failure, the very definition of fragility.

In the short term if often seems like a good idea to increase fragility, because the profits are immediate and the costs are always far in the future (until they’re not). We’ll talk in more detail about antifragility, but the point I’m trying to get at is that in the long run, which is where religion operates, antifragility will always triumph. Does the a taboo against premarital sex make society less fragile? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else.

Is our current civilization more fragile than people think? On this I can unequivocally say that it is. I know people like to think it’s not, because the volatility is lower, but that’s a major cognitive bias. The fact is, as I have pointed out from the beginning, technology and progress have not saved us. Religion and tradition have guided people through the worst the world has to offer for thousands of years, and we turn our backs on it at our peril.

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and bejudged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!

Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!

Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!

2 Nephi 28:20-26