Tag: <span>Drugs</span>

The 13 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
  2. Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by: Helen Joyce
  3. The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup by: Evan Hughes
  4. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by: Adam M. Grant
  5. The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible by: Various
  6. Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by: Robert K. Massie
  7. Greenlights by: Matthew McConaughey 
  8. The Midnight Library by: Matt Haig
  9. Trouble on Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3.5 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Black Ops: Expeditionary Force, Book 4 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Zero Hour: Expeditionary Force, Book 5 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Mavericks: Expeditionary Force, Book 6 by: Craig Alanson
  13. Renegades: Expeditionary Force, Book 7 by: Craig Alanson

As you can see I read even more books in February than I did in January. I took a trip to Alaska, where I mostly did stuff like driving, walking and snowshoeing and those all combine well with audiobook listening. So I did a lot of it.

If you’re interested in more pictures you can email me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth 

By: Jonathan Rauch

280 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How both right and left have abandoned the reality-based community, with its constitution of knowledge, and how returning to, and strengthening that community is the solution to all our problems.

Who should read this book?

If you think the vast epistemological crisis we’re suffering is purely a feature of the right or the left, then it might be worth reading this book, though even in that case you should probably just skip to the chapters in question. (Chapter 6 is about the sins of the right and Chapter 7 is about the sins of the left.) Beyond that the book is a rehash of classical liberal arguments that have been made better elsewhere.

General Thoughts

In some of the press for his novel Termination Shock (see my review here), Neal Stephenson recommended this book, along with five others. I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and I’d heard good things about it from other sources as well, so I was surprised to find it to be unimpressive. Though perhaps calling it unimpressive is both too harsh and too kind. The amount of work that obviously went into it was definitely impressive. Rauch’s obvious passion was also impressive. Accordingly, calling it unimpressive is being too harsh. But on the other hand, to merely say that it’s unimpressive is to be far too kind to the book—to overlook its central and glaring flaw. To cut to the chase: the book is hopelessly naive. 

Despite “constitution of knowledge” being the book’s title, the book’s premise actually hinges on the idea that there is a “reality-based community” (RBC) that follows and maintains that constitution. It would be one thing if Rauch was claiming a constitution of knowledge is something we need, but have never had. Under those circumstances we might usefully aspire to acquire one, and furthermore optimistically assume that it will fix the problems he describes. But if we already have such a constitution and a group that reveres it, then our task becomes determining whether it ever fixed the problem, and if so what caused it to stop. Under the first scenario it’s permissible to imagine that the constitution will fix the problem, under the second scenario we know that it didn’t, and our whole task is to determine why.

This is where Rauch’s naiveté comes into play. We know the RBC failed, so arguing that we just need to strengthen it without understanding why it failed is just to double down on that failure. 

To be clear he spends a lot of time on what has happened, but it’s always happening outside of the RBC. I would almost say that this creates a book length version of the no true Scotsman fallacy but Rauch doesn’t even make it that far, because that would require him to concretely define the RBC and then to offer explanations for times when it failed. Instead Rauch’s RBC is an amorphous designation, something described in anecdotes, but also somehow concrete enough to provide the answers to all of our questions, and if this were not enough, the RBC is so flawless that it is the originator of none of our problems.

To the extent that Rauch does define the RBC it probably includes scientists and journalists. But already you can see where we have the beginnings of no true Scotsman, because he’s pretty selective in the scientists he profiles, and as you might imagine huge swaths of right-wing media have been excluded from being designated as journalists. But if scientists and journalists are part of the RBC, upon which Rauch pins all his hopes, then one would think it would be very important to examine instances where they failed. When discussing science it’s remarkable that he never mentions the replication crisis. And the journalistic profession, no matter how narrowly you want to define it, contains even more examples of times the constitution of knowledge was violated. One presumes that Rauch includes the NYT in his RBC designation, and yet he makes no mention of the egregious twisting of the historical record perpetrated by the 1619 Project, nor the changes made to its assertions without an accompanying formal retraction, a violation of one of the ironclad rules of the constitution of knowledge.

Rauch does mention the NYT, but only to illustrate the problems of left-wing cancel culture. For his example he uses the Tom Cotton editorial, where the younger members of the editorial staff freaked out because they disagreed with Tom Cotton’s viewpoint, but rather than rebutting it they tried to cancel it. 

To cut to the chase (and recall I still have 12 more books to review) Rauch’s criticism of the right is comprehensive and deep, while his criticism of the left is narrow and perfunctory. One gets the impression that to the extent the RBC can be identified, Rauch believes it resides with the left. And that if young people could just be weaned off their desire to cancel opinions they disagree with and learn to engage with them, the left could re-assume the role of the RBC and everything would turn out okay.

Even if I agreed with this narrow diagnosis I still think Rauch would be understating the difficulties involved in recovery. He points out that the underlying reason for canceling instead of engaging is the phenomenon of safetyism. In making this point he draws a lot on Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s Coddling of the American Mind (see my discussion of that here). I think there are other things that contributed to the creation of cancel culture, but even if safetyism was the only disease the left was grappling with, it still represents a huge and deeply embedded behavioral trend that goes back decades and has penetrated nearly everything. 

But of course I don’t agree with Rauch’s narrow diagnosis, I think the problems created by the left are just as consequential as the problems which originated on the right. Rauch makes much of the importance institutions play in maintaining the constitution of knowledge, and of all those institutions none is more critical than the university. There’s also no institution which is more heavily tilted to the left, and if we snapped our fingers and got rid of safetyism, the university would still be left with an enormous array of problems.

Eschatological Implications

What are these problems of which I speak? There are many, and one of the many purposes of my blog is to document them in all their variety, but for the moment let’s just focus on one:

The acquisition of truth and knowledge, regardless of how well designed your “constitution”, is neither as easy nor as certain as it once was. I know I say this a lot, but we have picked the low-hanging fruit.

Rauch mentions Newton and positions him as one of the very first members of the RBC, as he should. And while I would not say that Newton’s discovery was easy, it is very easy to replicate and beyond that ironclad in it’s predictions. Since his time science has only gotten more difficult and less ironclad, to the point where these days most findings can’t be replicated and even if they can, they mostly just suggest probabilities rather than laying down the law in the fashion of Newton. All of this means that those parts of “reality” people are inclined to fight about are hard to pin down. Science is unable to swoop in and grant either side a decisive victory, and so the war continues.

This is why the book is, at its core, hopelessly naive. Science is not powerful enough to provide a reality on which to base a community, and that is particularly the case when it comes to the issues that divide us. 

Of course everyone wants science to be able to decide such issues, and at the risk of overgeneralizing, the two sides have come at it from opposite directions. The left has adopted the tactic of weaponizing scientific authority, and in response the right has weaponized doubt. Rauch is definitely lined up on the left side of things and his book is replete with appeals to scientific authority rather than appeals to actual science. The difference can be subtle. But if you assert that the authority of institutions which conduct science is the same as science, as Rauch does, that only works if they have no other motivations, and no ideological biases, but these days everyone has both of those. 

Finally, a couple of very short points, points that I was going to expand on but ran out of space.

First, for all the problems I have with the rationalist community, and there are definitely more than a few, I think they are as close to an RBC as you’re likely to find these days. And of course the most common criticism I hear about this community is that it leans right. 

Second, I think Rauch’s definition of “reality” is fatally hampered by ignoring the is-ought problem. Science is at its most powerful when it’s telling us what is, it has no actual ability to tell us what ought to be. To the extent people try to use it in that fashion, bias enters into science. As an example of this bias, Rauch’s view of science-based reality ends up being a decidedly progressive one, even if he takes aim at some of its worst excesses.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if there’s any connection between the progressive “ought” bias and the many excesses Rauch takes aim at. Speaking of which: 


Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality

by: Helen Joyce

331 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

A comprehensive overview of the history of the transgender movement culminating with a discussion of it’s many manifestations in the present day, and their attendant overreach. 

Who should read this book?

Helen Joyce is one of the editors of The Economist. If you already think that magazine is horribly transphobic, then you’re probably not going to like this book, though it is also a book length defense of that position if you’re looking to steelman it. On the other hand, if you feel that The Economist is a moderate voice of reason when it comes to this controversy, then you’ll really appreciate this book, even as it horrifies you. 

General Thoughts

Let’s start with two personal observations:

One, I’ve never been much of a feminist. (I know you’re all very surprised.) I think that, particularly once you account for differences in interest, second wave feminism largely succeeded, and after that things get complicated. To the extent my feminism has a peak it was reached while reading this book. Joyce makes the claim that there are a lot of people who have been victimized by transgender ideology, the vast majority of these people are women. Reading their stories I have never felt more deeply the need for feminism, particular feminism centered on the needs of natal females.

Two, I am more and more convinced that, should we survive the next 50 years, that people will put transgenderism in the same category as eugenics. Something which seemed sensible, but actually caused enormous and numerous harms to some of the very most vulnerable people, all in the name of what, at the time, was considered the height of progressivism. I don’t expect to live 50 more years, but I’m confident enough in things that I’m willing to make this same bet with a 30 year time horizon.

As I’ve already repeatedly pointed out, I have a lot of books to cover this month, and I imagine that anyone reading this has already made up their mind one way or the other on the transgender issue, so I won’t spend much time in the weeds. Further complicating the discussion, much of the data is anecdotal, which is easy to be horrified by if that’s your inclination and alternatively easy to dismiss if you’re of the opposite inclination.

As an interesting side note, part of the reason why there isn’t better data (and this firmly relates to the previous book review) is that many institutions don’t track transwomen separately from women and transmen separately from men, hewing to the supposedly “reality” that there’s no reason to, they’re the same. 

In an attempt to tie all of these things together let’s talk briefly about Canadian prisons. Joyce points out that getting data from the relevant Canadian authorities on the number of transwomen housed in female prisons has proven to be exceptionally difficult. But it has happened that men who have done nothing to transition other than identifying as female have been transferred to women’s prisons. One of the best people working this beat is a female former inmate named Heather Mason. If you’re interested in what she has to say here’s one of her tweets:

We have Self-ID in Canada they started transferring males when I was still in. There have been sexual assaults, physical assaults, pregnancies, abortions, and HIV passed on. One of the males beat up the woman he impregnated and she miscarried his baby. Incarcerated women are silenced

And if you’re really interested in what she has to say my friend Stuart Parker interviewed her on his podcast. The anecdotes are horrifying, the question is how widespread is the problem. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

How you feel about the long term implications of this issue will depend on how you feel about the aforementioned anecdotes. The anecdotes are extensively sourced, so you can’t ignore them, but it’s certainly possible to argue that they are just inevitable speed bumps on the way to our glorious, completely authentic future. Alternatively you might argue that, yes, transgender identification and wokeism more generally has gone to far, but that it’s about to (or has already) peaked, so yes the pendulum has swung too far, but it’s about to swing back.

If you take either of those positions then you might be comfortable minimizing the anecdotes or at least delaying doing anything expansive or hasty based on them. But there are of course some who believe that these situations are not temporary, that they’re not going away, that in fact what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. 

I think as with so many things that we should hope that people are starting to realize things have gone too far, but act as if they’re not and it’s a crisis. Though with transgender issues there’s another problem: “people”, as in the majority, mostly aren’t aware of the excesses of gender self-id. As Joyce points out, transgender activists have mostly succeeded by flying under the radar. To the extent that gender self-id is the norm, it has mostly been accomplished through the courts, not national referendums. As a consequence, most voters have no idea that murderers and rapists are being transferred to women’s prisons based merely on self-id. Nor do they really understand what self-id entails, that merely declaring yourself to be a different gender makes it so, without any other efforts to transition.

To sum up here’s what I’m worried about:

  1. To reference the previous book: the surreality and Orwellian tactics of gender self-id is doing lasting and potentially irreversible harm to the RBC.
  2. Gender self-id is easy to abuse, and instances of it being abused are going to become more frequent.
  3. Transgender advocacy has not peaked and it will get worse before it gets better.
  4. Even if we do get rid of the craziness around the edges, it will still be mainstream to prescribe puberty blockers and practice unquestioned affirmation, which has a nearly a zero percent success rate, as opposed to waiting things out which has a 90% success rate. Success with what? Making people happy in the body they were born with.

It’s amazing how radical that last suggestion has become. The idea that the best option is not taking drugs or undergoing major, frequently sterilizing surgery.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup

by: Evan Hughes

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of Insys Therapeutics and in particular their drug Subsys, an under the tongue fentanyl spray, which was approved in 2012, when we were already well into the opioid crisis. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the opioid crisis this is a fascinating footnote. And the way Insys marketed Subsys is appalling, but if you’re familiar with the way Purdue marketed Oxycontin then you’ve already heard that story. 

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my eventual post (maybe my next one?) on the drug crisis. I don’t think it added much to my understanding of the subject, which is why I would only weakly recommend it. 

What’s most interesting is how Insys was basically able to re-run the same playbook as Purdue after Purdue had already gotten in trouble for it. Recall that Purdue’s first settlement was in 2007, but despite that Insys was still able to come along and do basically the same thing in 2012. Now to be fair it was on a much smaller scale, and Insys was more brazen than Purdue, but on the other side of the equation you have to consider that we’re talking about fentanyl. If that drug doesn’t make people pay close attention I don’t know what would.

Of course people did eventually pay attention, but it took five years, and probably would have taken longer if Insys had been just a little bit more careful. And in those five years the owner of Insys, John Kapoor became a billionaire, and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people died. One could say that the government eventually fixed things, but given that this all took place well into the crisis, why did it take so long? And perhaps the better question is why did they approve the drug in the first place?

If the government can’t be trusted to keep an eye on something with such a clear potential for abuse, perhaps we can turn to the market? Here again we’re going to be disappointed. In the two and a half years after the release of Subsys, Insys’s stock price increased by 1500% (which is how Kapoor became a billionaire). And it was still beating the performance of the S&P 500 even a couple of years after people started getting arrested.

If you can’t trust the government to manage this sort of thing, and you can’t trust the market, all that’s left is the individual and the community. Consider that a preview of my upcoming post.


Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

by: Adam M. Grant

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Questioning assumptions, deep thinking, examining the evidence, all the stuff recommended by the “constitution of knowledge”.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read Scout Mindset you probably don’t need to read this book as they cover very similar territory. But otherwise anyone interested in leveling up their critical thinking would probably benefit from this book.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case it feels like the books I read in a given month end up being connected. This one is definitely closely related to The Constitution of Knowledge and I might even argue that it gives a better description of what that constitution entails, particularly for the individual, than Rauch’s book. But as a consequence it also fails in similar ways. Though because Think Again is less ambitious its failures are both more subtle and more forgivable. 

The problem with both books is they promise if you dig deep enough that you will eventually strike bedrock, and unfortunately that’s just not the case. There is no bottom to the complexity of the modern world. It’s turtles all the way down. This is not to say that I think critical thinking is pointless. It’s tremendously important and Think Again is a great introduction to it. The problem comes when people assume/assert that critical thinking will solve our problems. That if we trained everyone to think critically that we would all end up on the same page and our disagreements would go away. That’s not what has happened, and despite the efforts of books like this it’s not what will happen. Critical thinking is not a method for achieving societal harmony. 


The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible

by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories originally told as part of The Moth Radio Hour, an NPR program featuring amazing stories.

Who should read this book?

If you’re already a fan of The Moth radio program you might like this handy “best off” collection. Otherwise if you like stories these are pretty good, though not as exceptional as I would have expected.

General Thoughts

I expected a truly extraordinary collection of stories, and in the end they were just good, with a couple that qualified as great. I think part of it is that (like many people) I’m weary of content where the primary point is to impart some lesson about social justice, and not to just be a good story. I didn’t keep track, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that 80% of the stories in the book had a very clear social justice message. Which is not to say the stories weren’t good, they were, it just made things repetitive, and ever so slightly preachy.


Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

by: Robert K. Massie

672 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The reign of Tsar Nicholas, in which he was strongly influenced by his wife Alexandra who in turn was strongly influenced by Rasputin. With particular emphasis on World War I and their tragic end.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves great history, particularly if you’re interested in the history of Russia.

General Thoughts

Massie is probably my favorite historian, and this is probably his masterpiece. I can’t possibly do a 672 page book justice in my short review, so I’ll just quickly list off a few things that stood out to me:

  • However bad you think Rasputin was, the truth is he was far worse.
  • Nicholas and Alexandra despite making nearly all the mistakes you could make as a leader were nevertheless good people who were basically doing their best.
  • This whole period is one of the most fertile for asking “What if?” What if Alexei hadn’t been a hemophiliac? What if Rasputin had never existed? What if World War I hadn’t happened or had happened two years later?
  • It was fascinating to hear about the immense difficulties they had in keeping Alexei from injuring himself by being rambunctious. You get the feeling that if anything he was less rambunctious than a normal boy of his age. But these days I can’t imagine there being any problem. Of all the things which have suffered over the last few decades I think the rambunctiousness of boys has to be very high on the list.

Greenlights 

by: Matthew McConaughey

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is both McConaughey’s memoir but also his book of life advice.

Who should read this book?

If you are a particular fan of McConaughey you will probably really enjoy this book. And in particular I would recommend listening to it as he also does the narration.

General Thoughts

I like McConaughey, and I liked the book. That said it wasn’t revelatory or anything like that. Also I think I had already heard the book’s best stories during his appearance on the Graham Norton show.

Also like so many memoirs written by successful people this book vastly understates the role of luck. McConaughey was lucky to be born fantastically good looking. And lucky to just happen to be around and looking for work when Dazed and Confused was being filmed. 

But as has often been said McConaughey is alright, and if you go in looking for some of that alright-ness you’ll find it. But it doesn’t break any new ground as either a memoir or as a self-help book.


The Midnight Library 

by: Matt Haig

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

After attempting suicide Nora Seed finds herself in a library where she can try out every possible life she might have lived, and choose the one that will actually make her happy.

Who should read this book?

Dolly Parton called this a “charming book”. If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for you’ll probably enjoy this book, and it’s short.

General Thoughts

One downside of reading books fast which I didn’t mention in my defense of the practice is that if a book is short enough there’s very little resistance to adding it to your library. So for a while there if I heard of a book that seemed interesting and it was less than 10 hours I would almost reflexively grab it. This book was from that period. Which is not to say it was a bad book, I quite enjoyed it, but it wasn’t so light as to be diversionary, and the areas in which it was serious were not areas in which I needed additional seriousness.

Beyond that a few rapid fire thoughts:

  • It reminded me of Short Stay in Hell which I read almost exactly a year ago, though where Stay was about as pessimistic as it’s possible to imagine, Library was pretty optimistic.
  • It’s always interesting for me that when people want to signal contentment and happiness it almost always involves being married and having children. I’m not sure if that’s because, on some deep level it’s true or if it’s just something that’s easy for people to grasp.
  • Minor spoiler: It kind of ends up in the same place as It’s a Wonderful Life. And to the extent that people criticize it, it’s for this, or more generally not being creative, but I find it hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.

I guess I also wonder how some 300 page books are 8 hours while some 300 page books are nearly 18 hours. Speaking of which:


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 3.5: Trouble on Paradise

98 Pages

Book 4: Black Ops

276 Pages

Book 5: Zero Hour

299 Pages

Book 6: Mavericks

289 Pages

Book 7: Renegades

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

As I mentioned last month this is a quick diverting series that goes down super easy. If you’re looking for a fun diversion and you enjoyed previous books in the series it’s probably worth it to continue.

General Thoughts

One of the reasons why this series is so easy and quick to read is that the number of characters is very limited. However, by the time you get to book seven that strength can become a weakness, as the characters start to become caricatures. This happens with all long running sitcoms and maybe that’s the best way to describe this series, a military sci-fi sitcom. Another weakness of sitcoms is repetitive plots, which is also a weakness of these books. And I will admit that by book seven I was starting to get annoyed. I have various reasons for believing that he might turn a corner in book eight, so I’m going to keep reading. Also I continue to enjoy his world building and the mysteries he’s introduced and seeing how those mysteries resolve would be almost enough on it’s own to keep me reading, though probably not at quite the blistering pace I’ve maintained thus far. 


For all the criticisms I have of a reality based community, I hope that you consider me part of it. Even if or especially if my version of reality is uniquely eccentric. If it is, as they say, just crazy enough to work then consider donating. Craziness isn’t as cheap as it’s made out to be.


The 12 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by: Patrick Radden Keefe
  2. Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan
  3. Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by: Karl Sigmund
  4. Columbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by: Craig Alanson
  5. SpecOps: Expeditionary Force, Book 2 by: Craig Alanson
  6. Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3 by: Craig Alanson
  7. Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise by: Dustin Ordway
  8. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by: Nir Eyal
  9. What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics by: Andrew Vickers
  10. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by: Sam Quinones
  11. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by: S. C. Gwynne
  12. Heart: The City Beneath by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

As you can see I read more than the average number of books this month. I was supposed to go on a mini vacation to Vegas with a friend, but a couple of days beforehand he came down with COVID and consequently they wouldn’t let him out of Canada. As such I had some extra time on my hands.

This is not the most books I’ve ever finished in a month, but it is the second most. As such I’m going to try and keep both the intro and the reviews short.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty 

by: Patrick Radden Keefe

560 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Sackler family, their philanthropy, their wealth, but mostly the radical changes they made to pharmaceutical marketing.

Who should read this book?

If you don’t feel that you’re angry enough about the Sackler’s role in the opioid crisis, and you want to be angrier, this is the book for you. Beyond that it’s a fascinating book about the history of selling drugs, and how Arthur Sackler, the oldest brother in the Sackler clan, changed it forever. That part will also make you angry. 

General Thoughts

It has been said that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I’m inclined to believe that this is not true in all cases, but it’s definitely more true than fans of Ayn Rand would have you believe. Regardless of whether it’s true in general, it is definitely true in the case of the Sackler fortune. The Sacklers were the owners of Purdue Pharma, and Purdue Pharma had/has essentially one product: OxyContin. Perhaps you know the crime of which I’m speaking? This crime—kickstarting the opioid crisis—which might plausibly encompass the deaths of hundreds of thousands, is made all the worse by the fact that thus far the Sacklers have entirely escaped any sort of liability or punishment. At least Bernie Madoff went to jail for his crimes, which were less severe by basically any measure.

Should I make this point to certain friends of mine, they would say that the reason Madoff was punished, while the Sacklers will probably escape punishment, is that Madoff took money from rich people, while the Sacklers just killed poor people. And that this is the case because of the wickedness of capitalism.  I would probably argue that there’s more to the disparity than that, but I will say that capitalism does not come out of this book looking good. And neither does the FDA, Rudy Giuliani, McKinsey, or high-powered attorneys. 

Beyond the story of the Sacklers, which is truly appalling, there’s the story of corruption more broadly. There’s a good argument to be made that the crisis would not have been nearly as bad if a sympathetic FDA official (who later went to work for Purdue) hadn’t let the Sacklers turn the insert for OxyContin into essentially a marketing brochure. One which included the infamous line, “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” A line which the Purdue sales reps spun into the idea that prescribing the drug was nearly risk free.

I could go on listing crimes and corruption, but I’m planning on taking this book and The Least of Us (also reviewed in this post) and maybe one other book, if I find one that looks good, and doing a post on the current state of the drug crisis. 

Eschatological Implications

Going into the book I had heard that of the three Sackler brothers and their descendents, only two of the branches were involved with Purdue, and that the descendents of Arthur Sackler were upset because despite having no involvement they too had been caught up in the scandal. Before reading the book this seemed obviously unfair, why should Arthur’s descendents suffer for what their uncles and cousins did? 

After reading the book, I would agree that there’s probably still a little bit of unfairness in play, but less than you would think, because the success of OxyContin was entirely based on techniques of pharmaceutical marketing that had been pioneered by Arthur. As one of his employees said, “When it came to the marketing of pharmaceuticals, Arthur invented the wheel.”

What was this wheel? Arthur weaponized science in the service of marketing. And as a byproduct he probably permanently perverted science as well. This great innovation would later be applied to OxyContin, but it was initially applied to Valium. Valium was said to be a mild tranquilizer, completely without any potential for addiction, so safe that it could be given to children, and useful for just about anything. In fact, according to the book, it was prescribed for “such a comical range of conditions that one physician, writing about Valium in a medical journal, asked, ‘When do we not use this drug?’” All of this was a reflection of Arthur’s ability to bend “science” into saying exactly what the marketing needed it to say. In particular it needed to show that Valium was safe. That if it was used properly people wouldn’t become addicted. Decades later Arthur’s brothers and their descendents would be making the same claims about OxyContin.  It’s scary how much the debate about Valium is nearly identical to the debate decades later about Oxycontin. From the book:

Even so, there were actual cases, increasingly, of real consumers becoming hopelessly dependent on tranquilizers. Confronted with this sort of evidence, Roche offered a different interpretation: while it might be true that some patients appeared to be abusing Librium and Valium, these were people who were using the drug in a nontherapeutic manner. Some individuals just have addictive personalities and are prone to abuse any substance you make available to them. This attitude was typical in the pharmaceutical industry: it’s not the drugs that are bad; it’s the people who abuse them. “There are some people who just get addicted to things—almost anything. I read the other day about a man who died from drinking too many cola drinks,” Frank Berger, who was president of Wallace Laboratories, the maker of Miltown, told Vogue. “In spite of all the horror stories you read in the media, addiction to tranquilizers occurs very rarely.” In 1957, a syndicated ask-the-doctor column that appeared in a Pittsburgh newspaper wondered whether “patients become addicted to tranquilizers.” The answer assured readers that contrary to any fears they might harbor, “the use of tranquilizers is not making us a nation of drug addicts.” The newspaper identified the author of this particular piece of advice as “Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler.”

Mortimer was Arthur’s brother. 

This general idea of science being weaponized is an enormous subject, which is right in the center of the debates being had about the pandemic, and it is to do it a severe injustice to treat it so briefly. But it’s one of the huge tragedies of our current situation that we had such high hopes for science, that by doing it correctly it would save us from making the tragic mistakes of the past. Instead, it proved far too easy to misuse, and ended up empowering a whole new class of tragedies. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

416 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Investigative journalism into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ends up concluding that it was most likely a lab leak.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is curious about the origin of the pandemic, or who, more importantly, is interested in preventing future pandemics.

General Thoughts

I already covered this book in my pandemic retrospective, as such I’ll only briefly discuss it here. In fact this is a good opportunity to have something of a meta discussion about the role of books like these. 

To start with, imagine that you’re pursuing a PhD in philosophy, and you have selected Greek Metaphysics as your dissertation topic. In this scenario it’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t read everything Plato and Aristotle had ever written. Should it ever come out that you hadn’t, people would immediately stop taking you or your dissertation seriously. 

It’s completely understandable for this standard to be applied at the highest levels of academia, but to what extent should we apply that standard to commentary more broadly? Certainly if someone was going to do their dissertation on the origins of the pandemic we would have good reason to believe that they would read this book, in the same fashion that a philosophy PhD is expected to read Aristotle. But what if they just want to tweet about the origins of COVID? Should we ignore such tweets unless we have good reason to believe that they read this book first?

I think there’s various ways of answering that question, but for me the primary standard would be to consider the importance of the topic. You can imagine that opining about Kim Kardashian’s latest divorce should not require the same level of familiarity with “the literature” as claiming that Russia will definitely not invade Ukraine, or that COVID indisputably had a zoonotic origin.  

However, this standard of importance presents a problem. The more important something is, the more people feel that offering their opinion is not only a right, it’s a necessity. But what is this opinion based on? How strong should that foundation be before it’s worthwhile for someone to add their own spin on it? 

This takes us to a second standard. I think before commenting you need to have a sense of what sort of fight you’re taking sides in. To get more concrete, I don’t think you necessarily have to read Viral before commenting on the lab leak, but it’d be nice if you had read a review of Viral, or something which fairly presented the argument it was making. Presumably, not having read the book yourself, your own comments would not stray very far from the condensed information you found in the review. For example, you’re allowed to disparage the lab leak hypothesis if you’ve read a review of Viral which presents a credible argument against the hypothesis, and you can fairly represent that argument. This is certainly not as good as reading the book yourself, but I would say it’s definitely a level at which comments are allowed.

Down still further is the standard picking a set of authorities and just parroting their comments. The problem here is that if the authorities have read all the books, they would have read Viral and they wouldn’t be in this category, they’d be in the previous category. Also the ideological fractures which appear to have penetrated every nook and cranny of our world makes finding true authorities, people who are genuinely unbiased and objective, and trusting them that much harder. And remember we’re not talking about what you should believe personally, we’re talking about what you’re trying to convince others of. We’re talking about commenting and opining on the issue. In that respect I think we’ve crossed the line, at this point you shouldn’t be commenting. That at most you should be linking or retweeting these authorities, but that you are too far removed from the actual debate to get to weigh in.

I could go on, but I’ve already spent a lot of space in this review not talking about the book. So to return to that, my point is much the same now as it was in my previous post. The origin of COVID is an enormously complicated, but also an enormously important subject, and it deserves the most informed discussion possible, rather than being dismissed out of hand. This is a great book if you want to be informed enough to participate in that discussion.


Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science 

by: Karl Sigmund

480 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The Vienna Circle, which ends up being at the center of modern philosophy. The list of names in the circle’s orbit includes Einstein, Gödel, Mach, Boltzmann, Popper, and Wittgenstein, and those are just the ones you might have heard of. There are many more who are only slightly less impressive. 

Who should read this book?

I think anyone who enjoys great history would love this book. It’s very well written. It’s also interesting for its insights into philosophy, ideology, math, politics and the interwar period.

General Thoughts

Several years ago I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, which was all about Vienna before World War II and during the interwar period. I remember being struck by the difference between Vienna before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna after. But Zweig was mostly talking about literature and culture. From Exact Thinking I discovered that Vienna still had a lot of math and philosophy magic left in it during the interwar years—that is until the Anschluss, which spelled the final doom of what was once one of the premier cities in Europe.

Sigmund ends up being the perfect person to chronicle the Circle. He got his PhD in Vienna in the late 60s which was still close enough to the time of the events that he knew quite a few people from the era, who could give him first hand accounts. After getting his PhD he was only away from Vienna for six years before he returned as a professor. As a consequence of his close association with the people and the place his familiarity with the subject is very apparent. This is one of the better history books I’ve read, and there’s so much else in it about the development of math and philosophy that you’re really getting a lot for the time invested in reading it.

Of course as interesting as the Vienna Circle was its brand of philosophy, logical positivism, is basically dead and buried. Karl Popper takes credit for killing it, though I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have survived even without his intervention. And it’s the same problem we see over and over again, starting with Plato and probably going all the way down to the current rationalist movement. Science and rationality end up being unable to carry all of the ambitions people place upon them. We saw this in Plato and we saw it in the Vienna Circle. (Who incidentally mostly hated Plato, while loving Wittgenstein.) And when those ambitions eventually grow too heavy, they end up crushing the foundation, no matter how much science was poured into it. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 1: Columbus Day

305 Pages

Book 2: SpecOps

277 Pages

Book 3: Paradise

283 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read this book?

If you like pulpy, kind of silly military sci fi, I think you’ll really like this series. (At least the three books I’ve read so far.)

General Thoughts

Something about this series reminds me of Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The premise of that book was that in the near future we find a dead guy in a spacesuit on the Moon. That’s not the weird part, the weird part is that he’s been dead for 50,000 years. When I first picked up Inherit the Stars, the mystery of how someone ended up on the moon 50,000 years ago was so enthralling that I read the book in a single sitting. I’m not sure if it’s the first time I did that, but it’s the time that sticks in my memory.

I was similarly hooked by the Expeditionary Force series. I didn’t listen to it all in one go, but it was pretty close to that, as you can see by the fact that I’ve already burned through three books (though there are 10-12 more books depending on how you count). I think it’s once again the mystery part that I find so compelling. In this case you’ve got the typical setup of an advanced progenitor race who has mysteriously disappeared, and despite the galaxy crawling with other alien species, the people in the eponymous expeditionary force end up on the forefront of the investigation into what has happened to them. All while trying to fulfill their primary mission of protecting humanity from aliens with vastly superior technology. 

Beyond the mystery other positives include: Alanson’s solution to Fermi’s Paradox, and I like his solution to the inevitable tech disparities between humans and aliens, and I really like the world building. 

On the negative side, you’re going to need to get really comfortable with deus ex machina because there’s a lot of it. Also there is a certain repetitiveness to things. Imagine it’s a sitcom where each episode has a similar format and each character makes the same kind of jokes in each of those episodes. We’ll see if that begins to get old, but it’s been just the mindless pulpy break I need.


Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise

by: Dustin Ordway

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The advantages of developing a daily rowing habit.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a new low impact exercise, and you’re curious about rowing this is a good introduction.

General Thoughts

I really need to start paying closer attention to a book’s rating before I pick it up. Both this book and the next two have less than 4 stars on Good Reads, which may not sound bad, but given that the average rating appears to be 4 anything less than 4 is below average. This was a perfectly fine book. It assumes the reader has zero rowing experience and if that’s actually the case then it’s a great book. On the other hand if you do have even a little experience, and you don’t need any motivation to row daily, then the book has very little to add to what you probably already know.  


Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life 

by: Nir Eyal (A-all)

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Making yourself immune to distraction. 

Who should read this book?

Those who will read any book on personal improvement no matter how niche. Also anyone who thinks that distractions are ruining their life.

General Thoughts

In some respects the majority of current advice on personal productivity revolves around eliminating distractions, so this is not new territory. Consequently if you’ve already read a lot in this space then much of Eyal’s advice will not be new. Where he does break slightly new ground is in his answer on where the problem lies. Since I’ve already reviewed one book on drugs and I’m about to review another, let’s pretend being distracted is like being addicted. 

There are various theories why some people get addicted while others don’t, and why some people can break their addiction while others can’t. Some say it’s genetic, others admit that they’re not sure, and still others say it all has to do with whether a person has a strong network of support, and is generally happy otherwise, that if that’s the case addiction is not a problem. Applying this framework to technological distractions, Eyal is in the latter camp. That being distracted is entirely under our control, and that it’s just a matter of mastering our internal motivations, and being content. I’m not sure if he feels the same way about actual drugs, I just thought the comparison was useful and germane to the post as a whole, because…

Just like I don’t think we should let the Sacklers off the hook (see my first review) I don’t think we should let the tech companies off the hook either. To see why I might say this, let’s take one of the stories from the book. This particular story concerns a female professor who got some kind of fitness band which tracked her steps and other activity. The company making the band did everything in their power to “gamify” this device. You could compete with friends, there were daily challenges, there was a point system with rewards and a leaderboard. So one night around midnight, she’s getting ready for bed and it flashes an alert telling her that she can get triple points if she just climbs 20 stairs, which seems so easy that even though she was just about to go to bed she decided to do it, but as soon as she finished it flashed another offer for triple points if she would do another 40 stairs. And then she got yet another offer. I’ll let the book describe what happened next:

For the next two hours—from midnight until two in the morning—the professor treaded up and down her basement staircase as if possessed by some strange mind-controlling power. When she finally did come to a standstill, she realized she had climbed over two thousand stairs. That’s more than the 1,872 required to climb the Empire State Building.

Eyal goes on to explain that this seemingly ridiculous behavior corresponded to an incredibly stressful time in the professor’s life, and that’s why it happened. Eyal’s theory is that all behavior is an attempt to resolve discomfort, and that if she hadn’t had the discomfort of the stress she would have never found herself climbing the Empire State Building in the middle of the night.

Sure that’s obviously part of it, but let’s imagine that she had exactly the same level of stress but without the fitness tracker. I’m guessing that she would have just gone to bed at midnight. And yes, one imagines that she might have tossed and turned for a half hour or even an hour, but she still would have been better off than mindlessly walking the stairs for two hours. The point is that even if discomfort is a necessary element, tech companies prey on this discomfort, and more than that, they amplify create and amplify discomfort as well.


What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics

by: Andrew Vickers

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Statistics and the many ways they can be abused.

Who should read this book?

If you have a basic understanding of statistics and math, and you’re looking to go a little bit deeper this book might be worthwhile.

General Thoughts

I was underwhelmed by this book. For concepts where I did have a pretty good understanding the book was fine, but didn’t add much, and where he was introducing something I hadn’t come across, the book was generally too dry to be engaging. On the latter point, I think the title is misleading. I went in expecting 34 interesting extended metaphors for statistical principles, but instead the “stories” generally consisted of a short self-deprecating joke at the beginning of the chapter—yeah, we get it, you’re the cool statistician!—with the remainder of the chapter being more akin to a text book. If I had really been interested in getting into the meat of statistics the book could have been good. But I was looking for something a little lighter.

Additionally, I think Taleb may have permanently turned me against “normal” statistics, and I mean that in a formal sense, as in statistics which focus on a normal/Gaussian/bell curve. As near as I can tell Vickers’ discussion of statistics never really steps outside of assuming some degree of “normality”. The closest he appears to come is in a chapter which describes calculating the “average” salary of everyone in a diner. Most of the time you would use the mean, but if Bill Gates walks in, then the mean becomes meaningless. (Ha! Get it?) Vickers says in that case all you need to do is switch to using the median instead. Which seems to oversimplify the situation to the point of ridiculousness. Taleb would point out that the diner (and the world) have become very different places when billionaires arrive on the scene.

Now, I may be exaggerating a little bit, and as I previously said I wouldn’t claim that I brought my A-game when I read the book, but nowhere in it did I detect any acknowledgement of the difference between what Taleb calls mediocristan and extremistan. A difference that’s very, very important.


The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

by: Sam Quinones

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is something of a sequel to Quinones’ book Dreamland. (Which I talked about here.) [POST] Dreamland was about OxyContin and heroin, this brings the story to the present day by talking about fentanyl and meth.

Who should read this book?

If you read and enjoyed Dreamland, then I think this is a valuable sequel. If you’re looking for a book on the drug crisis and you’re trying to choose between this book and Dreamland, I would probably recommend Dreamland. This is because without understanding how the crisis started it would be difficult to understand how it got so bad.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in a previous review it is my intention to do a full post on the current drug crisis. So some of the juicy stuff will have to wait until then, in this space I’m going to talk about homelessness. I’ve been curious about homelessness for a while (here’s a post I did back in 2018) and just based on the number of homeless people I see and encounter, the problem seems to be getting worse. Quinones agrees with this assessment and his book has passages like this:

In 2018, when the Los Angeles Times reported that “L.A.’s Homelessness Surged 75% in Six Years,” this made a lot of sense to Eric Barrera. Those were exactly the years when supplies of Mexican “weirdo” meth really got out of hand. “It all began to change in 2009 and got worse after that,” he told me as we walked through a homeless encampment in Echo Park, west of downtown Los Angeles. “The way I saw myself deteriorating, tripping out and ending up homeless, that’s what I see out here. They’re hallucinating, talking to themselves. Now, it’s people on the street screaming. Terrified by paranoia. These are people who had normal lives.”

The “weirdo” meth is meth made using the P2P method rather than the old method of using ephedrine. We’ll be talking a lot more about weirdo meth in the eventual drug post, but this book makes the argument (as you can tell from the excerpt) that homelessness is increasing and that P2P meth is a major driver of that. And as I said this increase mostly matches my experience, though I was unaware of a possible connection to a change in the way meth was manufactured. But then just in the last few days, Matthew Yglesias was asked whether he thought there was a connection between drug use and homelessness, and he said:

Homelessness fell pretty steadily from 2007-2017 even while the opioid problem was getting worse and worse, so I don’t think the rebound since then can plausibly be attributed to drugs.

And then he provided this graph:

This of course doesn’t match the LA Times statistic Quinones mentions, nor my experience. Nor does Yglesias provide a source for these numbers, nor does he appear to be aware of the meth connection. And he offers all of this up in support of his argument homelessness is primarily driven by a lack of affordable housing. I’ll allow Quinones a chance to retort:

When asked how many of the people he met in those encampments had lost housing due to high rents or health insurance, Eric could not remember one. Meth was the reason they were there and couldn’t leave. Of the hundred or so vets he had brought out of the encampments and into housing, all but three returned.

I’m hoping to be able to get to the bottom of this before I do my post on the drug crisis, but Quinones makes a pretty persuasive case, so for the moment count me as a member of Team Meth. (A phrase I never thought I’d say…)


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History 

by: S. C. Gwynne

384 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Texan and federal government’s battles against the Comanches.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in the history of Texas, or the Indians, or who’s interested in history period.

General Thoughts

I can’t think of many books I’ve seen recommended in more places and by more people than this one. As such I am long overdue for reading it. It was indeed a fantastic book, well written with amazing stories and engaging characters. As such, I would add my recommendation to the others. That said, it wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I was expecting based on the effusive reviews. And it’s possible that I came into the book with impossible expectations, but it’s also possible that at least some of the people reviewing it have not read any other truly great history books, and so when they encountered one it was revelatory. Certainly Empire of the Summer Moon belongs in the category of great history books, it’s just not alone in that category.

As far as the actual content of the book, my favorite chapter was chapter 10 about John Coffee Hays and the creation of the Colt Revolver. The way the US ended up forgetting how to fight the Indians reminded me of the way that we forgot the cure for scurvy (but maybe that’s just me.) Other than that, the book is about what you’d expect, but it gave me new respect and interest for both the history of the Plains Indians and the history of Texas. 


Heart: The City Beneath

by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

220 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s the sourcebook for an independently published role-playing game.

Who should read this book?

If you like Dungeons and Dragons or role-playing in general you’ll probably like this book. The setting is great and the system is inventive.

General Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a role-playing sourcebook, which is not to say I haven’t been reading them, just that I normally skim them, as opposed to finishing them (see title of post). Heart was the exception. In part this is because it’s just a great system and beautiful book, but the bigger part is that I’m going to be running a campaign in the setting. The first session was actually this last Saturday. Obviously if I’m going to run it, it’s important to know my stuff. I won’t bore non-gamers out there with any further minutia other than to say that I’m really intrigued by the system, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out in practice.


Should you end up reading and enjoying any of these books let me know. Emails are always appreciated, but of course the best way to let me know you enjoy this stuff is by donating. These books don’t buy themselves.


On The Limitations of Science

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


There are lots of people out there condemning the debauchery of our modern world, and generally with more eloquence than I can muster. Additionally there are prophets, both ancient and modern who have already offered up rousing sermons and trenchant observations (one of which I took as the theme of this blog) and I would urge you to study the writings of those prophets before reading anything I write. So, if there’s better stuff out there why do I bother to blog? I believe there is a gap in the commentary. A hole in the discourse that I can fill. It doesn’t need to be filled. What I write is not critical to anyone’s salvation. I am not uncovering any lost principles of Christ’s gospel, nor am I speaking in a more timely manner than what you hear at the semiannual General Conferences. If that’s so, what niche do I fill? What unique insights do I provide?

If you read my very first post, then you’ll remember that I already touched on this. This blog will specifically focus on comparing the LDS Religion to the Religion of Progress and examining how the Religion of Progress has failed. The sacrament of the Religion of Progress is science. And it is appropriate that it be so. I myself am a believer in science. But like all sacraments, the sacrament of science can be partaken of unworthily. It can be misunderstood, and distorted. Just as partaking of the actual sacrament every week doesn’t immediately absolve you of all your sins if you’re not also actively exercising faith, repenting of those sins and seeking forgiveness; partaking in the sacrament of science doesn’t immediately make what you do and what you believe scientific, no matter how much you proclaim your love for it. Science has serious limitations, even if one is doing everything right, which most of the time they’re not. And many of the failures of the Religion of Progress comes when it ignores those limitations (or in the case of the last post, trades science for emotion.) Consequently, this post is all about examining those limitations.

Let’s start by examining the limits of science even if everything is done correctly. To begin with it’s really hard to do it correctly, and 90% of the time what passes for quality science are efforts which leave out a lot of the rigor necessary for truly conclusive results. This was not always the case at the beginning of the scientific revolution there was a lot low hanging fruit. Scientific results of surpassing clarity and rigor that could be obtained with only moderate effort (the gentleman scientist working nearly alone was a fixture of the time.) All that low-hanging fruit is gone, but people still expect science to come up with similarly ironclad results even though the window during which that was possible is long past. Also most of the really solid science involves physics, and the farther you get away from that, the less amenable things are to experimentation in general because there are too many variables.

Thus you’re left in a situation where if you want to do solid, incontrovertible science your best bet is to do more physics, and that’s going to cost billions of dollars, or you can use pieces of the scientific method and take a stab at the questions which remain after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I say pieces of the scientific method because, for example, there are all manner of subjects which can’t be subjected to an experiment with a control. This is a limitation in many fields, but one of the best examples is economics, particularly macroeconomics. You can’t create a copy of the world and have one world where the global economy stays on the gold standard and the control, a world where everyone moves to floating currency. You will still have economist who will tell you that one is better than the other, but this is based off bits of data they’ve gathered from a very messy environment. Not any kind of conclusive, replicable experiment.

Related the problem of creating a control group is the difficulty of isolating the variable you hope to study. Even if we were somehow able to create two versions of Earth, and create a control, how do we know that all the differences between 2016 gold-standard Earth and 2016 floating-currency Earth are due to the different currency systems and not other random fluctuations? Obviously this is already a fairly ridiculous example, but it illustrates the impossible hurdles necessary to even approach true experimentation on something like the economy.

Now you should not assume from this that I’m anti-science, far from it. I have a deep respect for science. And I think that, if anything, the world needs more science not less, but as part of that, we need, particularly if we’re piling up more science, to recognize the limitations of science, especially as it’s actually put into practice. Science isn’t conducted by perfectly objective robots, it’s conducted by scientists who have careers to think of, biases which blind them and limitations of time and money to contend with. All of which takes us to the next way that science can go wrong.

When I say the next way, there are literally hundreds of ways that scientific efforts can go wrong, but rather than try to focus on all of them we’re just going to look at something that has been in the news a lot lately, the replication crisis.

What’s interesting about the replication crisis is that it happened even in cases where it truly appeared that people were doing everything correctly. Trained scientists were conducting ground-breaking experiments, designed according to the best thinking in their field, the results were passed through a process of peer-review and then the results were published in a respected journal. Obviously this is not to say that there weren’t papers published where everything was not being done correctly, even some examples of outright fraud, but even if we exclude those there were still a lot of results which got published which later turned out to be impossible to reproduce. The biggest contributor to this appears to have been publication bias, or what is sometimes called the file-drawer effect because people only submit positive, exciting results and the rest get put in the file-drawer with all of the other experiments that didn’t show anything. This is a problem not only with the people doing the experiments but with the publications themselves, which are far more likely to publish positive results (or to be technical, statistically significant results) than a paper which didn’t have any results (or a null result). And as you’ve probably heard, for most scientists it’s publish or perish. Another factor which almost certainly contributed to the crisis..

You may think that a positive result is a positive result regardless of whether there were 100 other, negative results which got put in the file cabinet. The problem is that it’s not. If you take 100 coins and flip each of them 7 times you’ve got better than even odds that one of them will come up 7 heads in a row. You might then decide that that coin is unfair, and publish a paper, “On the Unfairness of the 1947 Nickel”, but in reality you just started with a big sample size. Doing 100 experiments works very similarly. (For a really in depth discussion including p-values and lots of statistics go here.) The problem of course becomes that people reading or citing your paper don’t know that you have 99 failed experiments which never saw the light of day they only know about the one successful experiment that actually got published.

Thus far I haven’t mentioned how often a study fails to be replicated, and you may think that it’s no big deal. A few here and there, but nothing to worry about. Well as it turns out in general less than half of studies can be reproduced and sometimes less than 15%! This would mean that six out of every seven studies put forth conclusions which later turned out to be untrue.

Once again it’s important to recognize that there is a continuum of scientific results. There’s not a 50% chance that the theory of gravity is wrong, or that protons don’t exist. But when it comes to the softer sciences (and they’re labeled that way for a reason) there is a better than even chance that their conclusions will turn out to be untrue.

Of course when the average person talks about scientific discoveries, ignoring for the moment whether the results can be reproduced, they’re generally not talking about what the scientist actually found. To a first approximation no one reads the actual scientific paper, and probably only 1 in 10,000 people even read the abstract. If you hear about a scientific result you’re hearing about it through the media, which further undermines the utility of science by distorting results in an effort to make them appear more interesting. In short when people think of science they think of gravity, but what they’re actually getting is a Buzzfeed article written based on a press release from a conversation with a scientist who shelves most of his work, is desperate for tenure, describing a conclusion that is more than likely irreproducible. That’s like five layers of spin on top of a result that’s most likely false!

If the kind of “science” I’m talking about were framed as an amusing hobby and an article about bacon prolonging life was treated in the same fashion as a movie review then it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for many people science has taken the place of religion. And more than just religion, it has taken the place of deep thinking about the fundamental questions of life in general. People have replaced virtue with a sort of sloppy rationality which cloaks itself in science and is therefore considered progressive, but is really just the idea of doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in a bunch of pseudo scientific babble. And decisions are being made which can cost people their lives.

As an example of this, I just finished the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. It’s an in depth look at the opiate epidemic in America, and a stunning indictment of what passes for science these days. You’ve probably heard about the opiate epidemic, if not follow the link. The effects of the epidemic are so bad that as to be baffling and a whole host of factors combined to make the problem so terrible, but the misuse of science was one of the bigger factors, possibly the biggest. It’s not possible to go into a complete description of what happened (I highly recommend the book) but in essence using a combination of poor science and a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition, doctors decided that people could essentially have unlimited opiates, the best known of which is oxycontin. Exactly what I mean by doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in pseudo scientific babble.

The first part, the misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found the it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least to pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

I mentioned that one of the other factors was a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition. I’m not going to say that any religion specifically forbids overprescription of opiates, but most of them have some broad caution about drugs in general. And even if you want to set religion aside there is a strong traditional distaste for opium. And here is where the limits of science are most stark.

Frequently, people use science to declare any belief or practice or tradition or religion which is insufficiently scientific (which of course includes all religions, most traditions, and a majority of practices and beliefs over a few decades old) as nothing more than baseless superstitions. And while it was not labeled as such this is precisely what happened with opiates. All religions I’m aware of recognize that a certain amount of suffering is part of existence, but in 1980, doctors more or less decided it wasn’t. Sure they couched in the language of science with lots of caveats, but this is precisely the problem. The science turned out to be wrong and the caveats turned out to be insufficient barriers to abuse and somewhere north of 100,000 people died.

As I have repeatedly said, I’m not anti-science, but science without tradition, without morality, and without religion is prone to huge abuses. This blog will attempt to unite religion and science, but in doing so, religion is always going to hold primacy over science. And it’s not even necessarily because religion is backed by divine infallibility. Forget about that. Set that aside. While, I certainly believe that that’s the case, in these circumstances it doesn’t matter. The problem with science is that it hasn’t been around very long, and it assumes a sterile, rational world which bears no resemblance to the world we actually live in. Setting aside whether God exists, religion and tradition has been tested in the crucible of history. And have provided insights, particularly in the realm of morality that people ignore at their peril. Which will be the subject of my next blog post.