Tag: <span>Transgender</span>

The Tails of the Cultural Bell Curve

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I.

As you probably all know, a significant number of inborn human traits, when plotted, turn out to form a bell curve, or something very close to that. This distribution is so common that it’s just called the “normal” distribution. Height is often used as the classic example, but it goes well beyond that to things like strength, shoe size and blood pressure. Nor is it limited to physical attributes. IQ and the big five personality traits can also be graphed as a bell curve. This list is by no means exhaustive, and in addition to things which are easy to plot, like height, there are probably things which are less amenable to measurement which are nevertheless normally distributed.

We’ve been talking a fair amount recently about culture, is there some sense in which it might also follow a normal distribution? Perhaps, but if so what would that mean? Or if it doesn’t follow a normal distribution, what sort of distribution does it follow? The reason I’m curious doesn’t have much to do with the peak (or peaks) of the distribution. The tails of a distribution is generally where all the action is, and you can see the beginnings of this idea scattered among my last few posts: What do these cultural “tails” look like for a culture that’s deep into involution? What does it look like if tail behavior is forbidden by super strong taboos? Finally, which behavior is in the middle of a distribution and which is tail behavior, dads or cads? Or are they on opposite ends? 

But of course, unlike the genetic traits we mentioned at the beginning, where the graphs move very slowly, culture can evolve quite quickly. What would that movement look like if you graphed it? Should we want it to move in some directions rather than others? If there is a peak how is it determined? Furthermore, inward behavioral preferences would seem to have different graphs and peaks than outward behavioral reality. The broader society would seem to have a reasonable chance of changing outward behavior through incentives, but a more difficult time altering preferences. Though, as a further complication, much of the focus on modernity has been on eliminating the differences between preferences and reality. Is that bad or good?

In order to get our head around these questions and the topic more generally let’s move on to an example:

II.

I’ve already alluded to my review of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, by Louise Perry, so let’s start there. In 1970, when the sexual revolution was just getting started, 80% of people aged 25-50 were married. Now it’s around 50%. I couldn’t find any post-pandemic figures, but the consensus appears to be that the pandemic would have driven it even lower. Clearly in 1970 if you drew a graph depicting the culture of marriage, you would have a large peak which represented monogamous marriage. But that’s a map of outward behavior. It’s unclear what a graph of inward preferences would look like, though one assumes it would be different from their outward behaviors, but that societal expectations and incentives caused people to act in ways that weren’t directly aligned with their individual preferences.

As we can already see, it’s obvious that some graphs are easy to draw because we have the data, while some are far more difficult to plot because all we have are anecdotes. Unfortunately those are the one’s we’re most interested in, and one of the goals of this post is to try to infer what those graphs might look like and how they might have changed. Perhaps gaining some insight in the process. Such an endeavor is necessarily very speculative, but in spite of this I hope it will be useful. 

In any case, while it’s straightforward to chart how many people were married, what’s less straightforward is charting inward preferences. And then there’s the question of whose preferences are we talking about? One of the central claims of Perry’s book is that men and women have different preferences. So when the sexual revolution came along and started eliminating the gap between behaviors and preferences, was it eliminating the gap between male behaviors and male preferences or between female behaviors and female preferences? Sex positive feminists argue that it was the latter, while Perry argues that it was the former. That in fact the 1970’s graph was closer to the preference of the majority of females than the current graph. 

There’s obviously a huge debate to be had there, and rather than go back down that rabbit hole, let’s examine something which is hopefully more straightforward: marital contentment. Yes, there are going to be some marriages where one spouse is far more or less content than the other. But my assumption is that it’s hard for one spouse to remain happy if the other is miserable and vice versa (though to a lesser extent), and as such we can meaningfully talk about the contentment of the couple rather than just the individuals. I’m going to make the further assumption that historically marital contentment was normally distributed, that most marriages clustered around the middle, with a few that were much less happy and a few that were much more happy than normal. In other words that previous to the sexual revolution, and indeed for most of history, marital contentment resembled a bell curve. 

So far, my assumptions have been unremarkable, and my conclusions ordinary. But as I said at the beginning all the action is at the tails. What effect did the sexual revolution have on the tails of the contentment distribution? Well, the divorce rate skyrocketed, and given that marriages which end in divorce are almost exclusively located at the bottom of the distribution, it seems fair to say that the sexual revolution put more attention on the lower tail of the distribution. But why? I intend to argue that this shift in focus is one of the attributes of modernity, and it’s not limited to marital contentment.

(I actually think it put more attention on both ends of the distribution. That when more focus was placed on bad marriages, that it automatically generated more focus on trying to create really good marriages as well, articles, books, and behavioral changes. But in this post I’m going to restrict things to the lower tail of the distribution.)

This focus on the lower tail was a big change, I would argue that historically most of the attention was given to the middle of the marital contentment distribution. People expected marriages to be average (as indeed most of them were). If you had an average marriage you talked about it, if you had an unhappy marriage you didn’t. Average marriage was the assumed default. Average marriages were generally what got depicted in fiction. Beyond this societal forces pushed people towards the middle. For much of history people didn’t even consider getting a divorce. Men were expected to be dads not cads, regardless of their preference. Taboos existed against caddish behavior and against other behavior at the lower end of the distribution. If your marriage was unhappy you nevertheless pretended that it was normal or average. And as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, in his under-rated novel Mother Night. “We are what we pretend to be.” 

III. 

You may think that the Vonnegut quote is a weird tangent, but in reality it represents the crux of the issue. There’s every reason to believe that the graphs of inner preferences and outward behavior do not match, so for hundreds of years we decided to pretend to be something we’re not. In the “land of pretend” 80% of us are married. The divorce rate is 1 per 1,000 (or 0.3 per 1,000 if you go back far enough). And everyone pretends that their marriage is problem free. And as Vonnegut observed, if you pretend hard enough it becomes difficult to distinguish the pretense from the reality.

But at some point in our journey toward enlightenment and rationality we decided that it was wrong to pretend. That our outward behavior should match our inner preferences. And now we’re in the real world where only 50% of us are married. The divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000 (down from a peak of over 5, but that doesn’t mean much if the marriage rate doesn’t stay constant.) And no one has to pretend anything about their marriage anymore. Yes, people still do pretend, but it’s not expected. As a concrete example of what I mean, prefacing something with “I’m going to stop pretending,” justifies almost any statement. 

If pretending is so bad. If we’re well rid of it, why did we pretend in the first place? Here we return to the graph. Most of our pretenses, and our taboos, and our obfuscations were designed to push the distribution towards the middle, towards the average. And what was so special about this average? Presumably it was a point of stability; a point that the culture had arrived at after a great degree of trial and error, a point of safety. But even if this average represented a point of stability in an ocean of chaos. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bell curve also resembles an island.) And something that was beneficial to the society as a whole, it wasn’t something that all members of that society benefited from. All this pretending in order to coalesce around a mean masked a bunch of unhappiness, shame and guilt. 

In the past, when survival was more tenuous, the advantages of having a strong cultural center were probably so great that no one cared about the tails of the distribution. But as abundance of all sorts increased, and cohesion no longer spelled the difference between success and ruin, those on the bottom end, who had to pretend the most of all, demanded that they should no longer have to. At the same time as demands were flowing from the edges to the center, charitable impulses were flowing from the center to the edges. As the need to marry and reproduce lessened (say in order to have kids to work the farms)  then being unmarried becomes a harmless choice, not a matter for societal scorn. And surely everyone has friends and family who never managed to get married providing first hand knowledge which further inclines them to be charitable.

The combination of all these factors led to the focus moving from the center to the edges. And this applied to nearly all aspects of culture. Rather than worrying about whether the society was still centered on longstanding cultural practices it became more important to ensure that people weren’t excluded. That if someone would prefer not to get married, or prefer to only get married should everything go perfectly. Then they shouldn’t have to. 

At first glance this sounds like a good and charitable change. Why would we not want to allow people to express their preferences? Why would we want to make people pretend to be something they’re not? Also if our abundance allows us to accommodate all sorts of behavior why shouldn’t we let people behave in whatever fashion they choose.

The whole endeavor promises a better, happier world, but was that promise fulfilled? As time goes on, and we focus more and more on those who were previously shunned and looked down on, what happens? To return to Perry. She admits that in the beginning the sexual revolution and the introduction of the Pill, and all the rest of the changes did go a long way towards making people on the tails happier and more content, but these sorts of situations are never static, there are always trade-offs.

We can see this play out in the cads vs. dads situation. Historically there was always an oversupply of cads, such that we had to pretend that the demand was basically zero to just keep the supply manageable. Since we’ve opened up the floodgates to cads the supply has gotten so great that now women (according to Perry and others) are in the opposite situation. They have to pretend to demand cads (or at least tolerate them) just because the supply of dads is so low. We have clobbered the peak of the distribution and moved a huge amount of behavior to the tails. 

As I have already alluded to, this is not just taking place in the marriage market. This focus on the tail is taking place nearly everywhere:

  • We see it with depression and mental health. This is another area that used to look like a normal distribution with the bulk of people mentally healthy (or pretending to be so) and unmedicated. The situation has flipped, and now rather than hiding illnesses and pretending to be healthy we lean into them. As a result, the number of people in the lower tail of the distribution has skyrocketed. Now to be clear I am not saying that it’s all a matter of societal attitudes. Depression could be increasing for any number of reasons, modernity has brought with it a lot of strangeness. My argument would be that this change in focus from the center to the tail is one of these strange things.
  • In addition to mental illness we see it with physical illness. We have expanded the number of people who are sick and disabled, and significantly reduced the people who are considered to be healthy. Again I’m not claiming that all the new sick people are pretending. (Though some clearly are, for some definitions of the word “pretend”.) Rather, I’m saying that in the past these people would have pretended to be well. And that the distinction between being well and pretending to be well is not as clear as one would think.
  • Perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon is found in the area of gender identification. Up until very recently it’s hard to imagine something more normal, more in the center of the distribution than being cisgender. So much that the word didn’t even exist until 1994 and didn’t appear in any dictionaries until 2015. And yet now a staggering amount of attention is being paid to what was previously an invisible tail in the gender distribution.

If we allow ourselves to get more speculative there are a few other areas which are also worth considering:

  • Ideology and beliefs are becoming increasingly dominated by the tails. In times past the idea that a presidential election had been stolen would have been out there, but only the outermost fringes would have gotten really worked up about it. Now it’s practically a plank in the Republican platform. On the left I already mentioned gender identification, but things like defunding the police also fall into this category.
  • Closely related you can also see this in the area of practical politics. And here we actually have a graph. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It always has two peaks, but in 1994 the two parties were so close together that it just about looked like a classic bell curve. It was much the same in 2004, but by 2014 there were clearly two graphs and they were racing to the right and left. I can only imagine what it looks like now. (What’s interesting is that during times of crisis, the graph gets pushed back together, think back to my argument about safety.)
  • Gambling, and other addictions may initially seem like the opposite of what we’ve been talking about, but I think the dynamic is very similar. The vast majority of people do not develop a gambling addiction, so you might think that up until now we would have allowed everyone to gamble and written off the minority at the tails who ended up harmfully addicted. But recall that the center of the distribution got to be that way because it was an island of safety. A spot of low fragility. To do that societal norms create behaviors which are different from natural preferences. People like to gamble, but at some point we decided it was harmful enough that we placed it under significant restriction. Most people barely even cared, but some people decided that it was an unacceptable restriction on their freedoms. Perhaps in this case the focus is on the other tail of the distribution, those who really wanted to be able to gamble. In any case, there’s been an enormous expansion in the availability of gambling recently, particularly sports gambling. 

Having reached the end of this post, I’m not sure how convincing I was. I expect that some people are going to come away thinking. “Well that was a tortured path to saying something that was already entirely obvious.” While others may be thinking the exact opposite, that all I ended up doing was spouting a lot of nonsense. Ideally these reactions represent the two tails of the distribution. That actually most of you form a peak in the middle. The people who think that the idea was both novel and useful.


There’s a lot you could take from this post, but if you were only going to take one thing it should be this. We should all be reading more Vonnegut. So in lieu of a donation check out some Vonnegut from the library. And if you don’t like Vonnegut then you should definitely donate, as penance for your poor taste. 


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.


LGBT Youth and Suicide

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This is one of those posts where I’m sure I’m walking into a minefield. Well you only live once, so lets do this…

When people want to talk about the harm caused to LGBT youth by the intolerance of the Church, the first place they go is to a discussion of suicide. This makes sense. When someone takes their own life it’s tragic. There’s no way to sugar coat a suicide. It’s obviously a bad thing.

This discussion has been going on for awhile, but it seemed to really explode earlier this year with the publication of a report which claimed that 32 young LGBT Mormons aged 14-20 have committed suicide since the Church changed its policies on same sex marriage (SSM), labeling people in a SSM as apostates and forbidding their children from being baptized.

The connection to be drawn was clear. Through their policy the Church had indirectly killed people. This shouldn’t be a surprise. I have all the sympathy in the world for the parents, family members and friends of those individuals, and if they’re mad at the Church that’s understandable. I’d be upset as well and as part of that I’d certainly want something and someone to blame. And connecting these suicides to the policies of the Church and the attitudes of its members seems obvious.

That said, the more emotional the subject, the more difficult it is too really look at things rationally. And yet in a situation as consequential as this one, understanding what is really going on becomes more important than ever. I agree that the explanation offered by the article seems the obvious one, but so many times the obvious explanation is not the correct one. And there have been thousands of times when people thought they were helping when in fact they were doing exactly the opposite. And unfortunately as much as it pains me to say this, that may in fact be what’s happening here.

I mentioned the article from the beginning of the year, and as you can probably imagine, the issue hasn’t gone away. At the first of this month a piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune once again talking about LGBT suicide and once again pushing the Church to do more about it. It should be noted that this op-ed was written by one of leaders of the organization who supplied the data on the 32 suicides featured in the initial article. I don’t think this undermines the claims or anything of that sort, but if you’re trying to get to the truth these sorts of details are important. But at this point I’m fine granting the LGBT Mormon Youth are committing suicide and that the numbers of youth committing suicide are in fact increasing. This idea is strengthened by an article linked to from the same page as the op-ed which reported that youth suicides have tripled since 2007.

Looking at the comments on the second article it appears that most people agree with the position of the op-ed, so the overall theory that the Church is causing suicides has considerable traction. But does it make sense? Is the connection really that clear? Let’s start by looking at the time line. First let’s look at the Church’s position on LGBT issues. Here are few milestones:

1995: LDS leaders issue the Proclamation on the Family which declares that “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan” and that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

2008: LDS Church campaigns heavily for Proposition 8. Which passes, reversing the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize SSM.

2010: In a tearful meeting in Oakland Elder Marlin K. Jensen apologized to those affected by Proposition 8 for the Church’s part in passing it.

2012: The Church creates the website www.mormonsandgays.org in an attempt to reach out to members who experience same sex attraction (SSA).

2015, November: Church labels people in an SSM as apostates and forbids children of those couples from baptism.

I’m sure I’ve left out some milestones. But I think it’s clear that since 2007 the Church’s engagement with the LGBT community has not been a series of escalations, with each step worse than the last. There have been some real attempts to reach out to the LGBT community. And while you may disagree with the effectiveness or even the sincerity of these efforts, I have a hard time seeing how the Church’s treatment of LGBT individuals is getting worse. The outreach of the website, or the Proposition 8 apology would have been unthinkable during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And, while I was not alive for the decades before that I am reliably informed that attitudes towards LGBT individuals were even worse before then.

Taken together, the evidence strongly suggests that the Church and its leadership are making real attempts to be more loving and understanding. I can point you towards stories of transgender Mormons showing up in dresses to Church and being treated as women and gay bishops who publically talk about their struggle with same sex attraction. Yes, there are certainly lines that the Church has decided should not be crossed, but beyond that they’ve been unusually accommodating. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Perhaps the Mormon Church has become more draconian. Maybe there are elements, perhaps individual members, who are being horribly repressive and intolerant. Even if this is the case (and I don’t think it is) they are not the only factor in play. We also have to look at what things have been like outside of the Church with respect to LGBT acceptance. Some milestones there:

1999-2000: Domestic partnerships and civil unions become legal in California and Vermont respectively.

2003: SSM legal in Massachusetts.

2009: Numerous states make SSM legal (with lots of fights back and forth at the ballot box).

2011: Obama administration declares they will no longer defend DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act

2013: SSM made legal in Utah.

2015: SSM made legal everywhere in the US.

And this list doesn’t even include the increased acceptance of LGBT’s on TV and movies and in the media. For the last decade or more LGBT people have gone from one victory to another. By any conceivable measurement things are as good as they have ever been. If that’s the case why are so many of them committing suicide? Even if you want to claim that the LDS Church has been unusually repressive. It’s not that hard to leave the Church and reject its teachings. People do it all the time, and by all accounts there’s a large community willing to embrace them and celebrate their decision. Outside of the Church the argument that intolerance and bigotry are causing suicides just doesn’t hold any water. And even if you restrict your examination to what’s happening within the church, the evidence is weak to nonexistent.

To be clear, the suicide of anyone is tragic. And I would never want people to think I am minimizing the  suffering of those involved. But given how tragic it is, isn’t it that much more important to make sure that we correctly understand the causes? It’s easy to point the finger at the Church and declare that it’s all being caused by Mormon bigotry. But being blinded by animosity towards the Church could easily lead someone to overlook other issues. Once again, Youth suicides have tripled! The consequences of incorrectly diagnosing the problem are huge. And blaming it all on the Church looks like it might just be an example of an incorrect diagnosis. Or at a minimum not the whole story.

If the LGBT community is objectively being treated with more tolerance than ever why are suicides increasing? As I have said, he conventional wisdom is that we just need to be even more tolerant. But it’s worth examining the causes of suicide, because they don’t always map to one’s expectations. Interestingly enough one of the latest episodes of the Freakonomics podcast was a rebroadcast of an episode they did on suicide from 2011. It brings up a lot of points that are worth considering.

Before I jump into the Freakonomics podcast I want to make it clear, that I’m not saying I know why the suicide rate has increased or why LGBT youth are committing suicide. It would be ridiculous of me to take a podcast and a couple of articles from the internet and use them to pass judgment about what should be done. Instead, rather than saying why it is happening, I’m

offering up the opinion that it might not be happening because of the Church and its members. I intend to offer some alternative theories, mostly to show that there are other potential explanations, not to advance any of the explanations as THE explanation.

The first thing we notice when we listen to the podcast is the title, “The Suicide Paradox.” It’s called that because a lot of things about suicide don’t make sense, and can be downright paradoxical. For example it turns out that blacks commit suicide at only half the rate of whites. If your theory is that oppression and intolerance causes suicide you would expect their rate to be higher than the white rate. Another example (not from the podcast) is Syria, which one year into its civil war was tied for the lowest national suicide rate (now there may be all kinds of problems with that number, but it’s borne out by other surveys conducted before the war.) One of the best statements about the difficulty of understanding suicide comes from David Lester who was interviewed as part of the podcast. Lester has written over 2,500 academic papers, more than half of which concern suicide. And his conclusion is:

First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea why people kill themselves.

Despite this statement there are some general things that can be said about suicide. For instance suicide is contagious. If someone hears about a suicide or sees a suicide, say on TV, particularly if the person committing the suicide bears some resemblance to the person hearing about it, it can trigger a copycat suicide. This is called the Werther Effect after a novel by Goethe where he described someone committing suicide in a sympathetic fashion. Thus it’s possible that in the process of publicizing the suicide of LGBT Mormon youth that the people trying to prevent it are actually contributing to the problem. If so it that would be terrible, and as I said, I take no stand on what is actually happening, I’m only urging that a problem this serious deserves all the knowledge and resources at our disposal.

It’s also worth mentioning that Utah is squarely inside the suicide belt, that area of the country with the highest suicide rates. Explanations for the high suicide rates in the Mountain West have ranged from residential instability, to access to guns, to the thin air. This is a great site for comparing suicide rates among states, and it’s worth noting that the site doesn’t show a 3x increase in the number of suicides in Utah since 2007. If you follow the link and select states to compare, Utah looks very similar to Colorado and New Mexico. States which are not known for having a huge population of Mormons. Of course the original article talked about youth, and it’s not my intention to dig into the numbers (at least not now) though they could very well be suspect. The point I want to bring up is that Utah is already has an above average suicide rate and it appears to have nothing to do with the Church.

Finally you would expect that suicide to be more rare among wealthy people, and to an extent that’s true, but less than you would think. There is no strong correlation between wealth and suicide. Having more money doesn’t do much to lower your risk of suicide and may in certain cases increase it. Additionally some of the very highest rates of suicide are among older white males. Hardly the group you think of when you think of an unhappy minority. And indeed rich and famous people commit suicide all the time. The effect is even more pronounced if you look at the difference in suicide rates between rich and poor countries. Not only is this another mark against the theory that bigotry and intolerance cause suicide, but it leads us to another alternate theory for suicide.

According to this theory, people who are impoverished, discriminated against, or otherwise dealing with difficult circumstances can always point to these circumstances as the reason why they’re unhappy. When those circumstances go away, if the person is still unhappy, then it must mean that they’re broken in some fundamental way, and their unhappiness is therefore a permanent condition. If everything you think is making you unhappy goes away and you’re still unhappy what’s left?

This could be what we’re seeing with the LGBT community. In the “bad old days” the reasons for their misery were obvious, the world didn’t accept them and never would. Now they’re accepted everywhere. They can join the military, they can get married, companies come to their aid. What’s left? And yet, the suicide rate remains tragically high.

Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning before transitioning, attempted to commit suicide recently. And it is among transgendered that the evidence for this effect is strongest. If on the one hand we just need more tolerance to solve the problem, than those individuals who have successfully undergone gender reassignment surgery and can pass as the opposite sex should have the lowest suicide rate. Instead individuals who’ve undergone the surgery experience a suicide mortality rate 20 times greater than a comparable non-transgender population. Even transgender individuals have taken these numbers and used them to argue vigorously against surgery.

Sticking with just transgendered individuals there are still well-respected doctors who argue that transgendered individuals suffer from a version of body dysmorphic disorder. In other words being transgendered is similar to having anorexia or bulimia. Thus we should be treating them like people with a mental illness, not as people who have a different but completely valid lifestyle. Obviously this is a very unpopular theory, but that should not be a factor in determining what’s really going on.

I know that the current orthodoxy is that we just need to allow people to do whatever they want and happiness will follow, but at some point don’t we need to look at the data? Is it in fact possible that telling people to pursue personal gratification at the expense of everything else is contributing to the problem?

I know people are convinced that the intolerance of the church and it’s members are indirectly killing people. And I can understand the reasons why they think this, but it just doesn’t add up. At some point you have to admit the possibility that some people are more interested in finding a club to beat the Church with than they are in getting to the truth, and by extension really helping these kids.

I’ll tell you what I thought when I heard the announcement that the Church would not baptize the children of same sex couples and were declaring anyone in a same sex marriage as apostate. I was relieved and excited, and I’ll tell you why. The Church had backed down on a lot of things, as I mentioned above they had apologized, they had put up websites, and all of these were probably even good things, but we can be so accommodating that we lose sight of the doctrine. And as I have attempted to point out here, we can be so accommodating that we are no longer able to think deeply about a topic. Our dialogue becomes nothing but accusations and apologies. Obviously I’m just a bit player in all of this. The leaders of the church know what they’re doing and along those linesl think Dallin H. Oaks said it best when he was speaking about this very issue of LGBT suicide:

I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another…beyond that, the rightness the wrongness, I will be accountable to higher authority for that…

In all of this that’s what we have to remember. We are accountable to a higher authority. As much as we might want to bring our own strong sense of right and wrong and justice to things, there is a greater hand than ours guiding the affairs of the Church. And it’s our responsibility to be obedient and accountable to that authority, even if it’s difficult.