Quickies: Kidney stones, sinister seductresses, and gender neutral dress codes

bad science

Sarepta: anecdote, data, surrogate outcomes, and the FDA

The Duchenne’s treatment Sarepta (eteplirsen) has been in the news this week, as a troubling example of the FDA lowering its bar for approval of new medicines. The FDA expert advisory panel decided not to approve this treatment, because the evidence for any benefit is weak; but there was extensive lobbying from well-organised patients and, eventually, the FDA overturned the opinion of its own panel. There […]

Her name is Zianna Oliphant

And she’s feeling the pain of the murder of Keith Lamont Scott by the police of Charlotte, North Carolina.


It even looks like me

By popular request, Amorphia Apparel has added my fuzz to their collection of beards, now available on a t-shirt.


I may have to order enough to wear one every day, just in case I forget who I am.


The theme for the day seems to be…

What is this, Gender Pronoun Day?

Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, is railing against “political correctness”, generally a good sign that we’re dealing with a right-wing wackaloon, depending on what has gotten them wound up. In this case, it’s safe to say he’s an outraged wingnut, because this is what has got him upset:

Gender identity is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.” The commission defines gender expression as “how a person publicly presents their gender,” which can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice, as well as a person’s name and the pronouns they use.

Yes? Seems like plain old ordinary common sense to me — gender is complicated and messy, and a matter of personal experience as well as biology. All I should care about is how a person presents themselves, and I should respect that.

But no, not to Jordan Peterson! This is unadulterated crazy talk.

Peterson is critical of these terms and their definitions as outlined by the commission, and compares the changes Bill C-16 would bring about to the policing of expression in “totalitarian and authoritarian political states.”

I think he’s got it backwards. Demanding that individuals conform to one of only two gender roles is the totalitarian/authoritarian position.

He also argues against the existence of non-binary gender identities, or those that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, saying “I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.”

By the way, he’s a professor of clinical psychology.

You could try typing evidence of non-binary gender identities into Google Scholar and see what comes up. Do you think it might be a blank page? It isn’t.

Peterson said that if a student asked him to be referred to by a non-binary pronoun, he would not recognize their request: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.”

Amazing. Why? So it would be OK for me to address Jordan Peterson as “she” or “her”? He seems to be saying the subject of a reference is not to be allowed any say in how they are addressed. I also wonder if he’s one of those professors who insist that students address them as “Professor” or “Doctor”.

It’s common courtesy to ask how someone wishes to be addressed, and especially in a formal relationship, to respect that. There’s nothing wrong with a professor insisting that they be addressed by title, or by first name — and students should respect that convention. Would it be OK if, against his wishes, I addressed Jordie-boy as “Maximum Sphincter Peterson” in the classroom?

Peterson told the National Post that he decided to make the video and go public with his views after receiving a memo from university HR outlining new mandatory anti-racist and anti-bias training. “That disturbs me because if someone asked me to take anti-bias training, I think I am agreeing that I am sufficiently racist or biased to need training,” he said in an interview.

Yes, Maximum Sphincter Peterson. You are sufficiently biased to need training. We all are. I have a terrible habit of calling an awful person a “sphincter”, and I could probably do with a little conversation about how it makes others feel.


In which we get distracted from real problems by personal outrage over pronouns

Alice Dreger has concerns about the future of tenure at our universities. So do I. She describes three things that she worries are threatening the institution. Two of them are valid. The third is off-the-wall looney tunes.

Her first concern is right-wing manipulation of the funding of universities. This is a major problem, if we let it happen…and it is happening in states like Wisconsin.

Fed up with the left-leaning nature of universities, political right wingers, including the Koch brothers, have made reshaping academia a priority. In Wisconsin, Walker has made it easier for programmes and departments to lose funding at the whim of those in political power. Likewise, the Republican-controlled Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina recently closed the law school’s highly-regarded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Her second concern…let me come back to that one. It’s ridiculous. But her third concern is real.

The third part of the triumvirate? The corporatisation of universities. I experienced this personally when Northwestern University’s medical school dean censored an article I had edited and published because he was afraid it might violate a ‘branding agreement’ with the corporation who oversaw the running of the university hospital. (The article recounted an academic anthropologist’s story of consensual oral sex with a nurse after he was paralysed in 1978.) Our dean even set up a new ‘editorial committee’ comprised of overseers from his office and the PR department to ensure we didn’t publish anything else off-brand.

Ugh, yes. I’d throw into this the problem of the commodification of education, where we try to ‘sell’ the virtues of getting a degree as consisting primarily of getting a higher paying job.

But a larger part of her essay is dedicated to the second problem, and this is where it goes off the rails. You can guess where it’s going: there is a bizarre moral panic going on in which common ideas that support diversity are treated as horrifying instruments of oppression.

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

She will not anywhere explain how students complaining threatens the institution of tenure, and will not bring up any specific examples of professors losing their job for teaching uncomfortable ideas. But she has thoroughly bought into the bogus idea that “‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’” have the purpose of shutting down speech. She’s got it exactly backwards.

I treat my classroom as a safe space to discuss relevant ideas. I have fervently anti-abortion students who take my developmental biology course, while I am loudly pro-abortion; but, in the appropriate parts of the course, I want them to be able to ask questions and state their ideas without getting shouted down. I’ve often had creationists in my evolution-heavy courses, and when they’ve been bold enough to speak up, I encourage their participation — they aren’t going to be punished for arguing respectfully, and I am going to deal more harshly with a pro-evolution student who gets abusive.

That’s what a safe space is: a place where you can talk about your ideas and concerns without the reflexive abuse and silencing that can so easily go on when an authoritarian says you’re wrong, or when there’s a majority that takes courage from their numbers to bash a minority. It encourages speech that might otherwise be suppressed.

The same with trigger or content warnings. It’s a way to prepare students for controversial or stressful material, not to help students avoid it. I guess, if Dreger had her way, I should just surprise students by projecting a wall-sized grisly photo of a deformed fetus on the screen, rather than first explaining that we’re going to discuss birth defects, and that we’re going to see some examples of the consequences of holoprosencephaly.

Ah, but she has anecdotes about the horrible consequences of these left-wing abominations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

Wait. Her other two threats are about billionaires using their money to leverage bias into the university, and institutional activities that skew our perspectives away from the pursuit of knowledge, and the problem here is that students sometimes complain? Jebus. She’s saying she’s an advocate for free speech, and she has problems with students speaking freely? That makes no sense.

Look, students complain, and they have a right to complain; and they’re young and being exposed to a lot of new stuff, so sometimes their complaints are not exactly well-founded. I’ve had a student complain that, in a science course about the origin of life and evolution, I did not say anything about the Biblical account. He can do that. I will listen. I might even do something about it (although, in this case, he’d have liked it even less if I did discuss the place of the Bible in a science course).

So a student complained that they weren’t warned that “Leda and the Swan” includes rape. Was the professor fired? Was his tenure threatened? Because that’s what Dreger is writing about, yet she’s not making that connection. Was the complaint relayed to his colleague so that they could respond to it? Because that’s what I’d want to happen.

As for stumbling over students preferred pronouns…it’s happened to me, just this week. I erred in referring to a student, and they quietly reminded me of their preference. I felt bad, and I should feel bad about my mistake — it’s a small, easy adjustment for me that helps create an atmosphere of respect for the students in the classroom. So yes, please do complain and remind me when I screw up. And if I persist, that’s a sign that either I don’t care enough about the student to make this simple accommodation, or that I’m a willful jerk who is bravely defying a younger, less powerful person, and then, sure enough, I ought to be reported to the department chair, or even higher.

And when I say I feel bad about it, it’s about concern for the student, not because I feel that my job is seriously threatened. That would be an indirect consequence. My job is all about teaching people, and I can’t do that if I lack empathy for them.

As for The Vagina Monologues…this is not a classic play, part of the Western canon, to which all students must be exposed. There was a time when people would protest and be horrified when it was performed, and now, seriously, we’ve got people who think it is a crime when it is not performed? Come on. It was ground-breaking in its day, aspects of it are empowering to women even now, but there was a period when almost every university was putting on a performance every year, and honestly, it got a bit old. I doubt that a deep need to perform it again is being suppressed by angry transgender activists; more likely, the people who would perform it are looking for fresher, newer material that would also include other perspectives.

That play is not dogma. Why complain that it isn’t? Are any professors being threatened with loss of tenure for not sponsoring The Vagina Monologues?

It’s a weird essay. I felt like she had briefly tossed in two real concerns that damage academia so she could have an excuse to rage against a non-existent problem about pronoun usage that she felt deeply, personally irate about, and so she could argue about a couple of buzzwords that have right-wingers, who don’t understand the concepts any more than she does, upset.

So, apparently, to protect my tenured position, I have to do a couple of things:

I fail to see how any of these things will lead to my personal gain, or enhance learning in my classroom.


The state of the union explained!

If you’ve been wondering how so many people can be voting for that orange bully with hair of crystallized urine, we finally have a surprising answer.

ROMER: David gets to work cooking up questions to give the polling company. The polling company does its job.

WILK: And it was the only question that we ever wrote where we ever got a response from them saying, is this actually what you want us to be polling? And we said, yes. And the question was – we were going to ask people, have you ever been decapitated?

SMITH: (Laughter). But…

WILK: They were sure we had made a mistake, and we had not.

SMITH: As far as David remembers, by the way, 4 percent of Americans answered that they had been decapitated.

ROMER: Seems high.

Have you looked at any of the polls? Seems low.

bad science

The Cancer Drugs Fund is producing dangerous, bad data: randomise everyone, everywhere!

There are recurring howls in my work. One of them is this: in general, if you don’t know which intervention works best, then you should randomise everyone, everywhere. This is for good reason: uncertainty costs lives, through sub-optimal treatment. Wherever randomised trials are the right approach, you should embed them in routine clinical care. This is an argument I’ve made, with colleagues, in […]
school of doubt

If You’re That Worried About the P.C. Police Coming For Your Job, Then Join a Union

The media loves to hate political correctness, especially political correctness in academia. Political correctness, they tell us, is aiding terrorism and threatening our freedoms. Never mind that a white nationalist is the Republican nominee for President of the United States: to these pundits, it’s those damn kids in college with their safe spaces and trigger warnings who are bringing us down. The media seems particularly fired up when “the P.C. police” cause someone to lose their job. The media pounced on the story of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign an honorary professorship after tone-deaf comments about women in labs. Earlier this year, the media covered the story of Dale Brigham, a University Missouri professor who resigned after causing outrage by refusing to cancel class in the wake of racist terrorist threats at the same university. (His resignation was not accepted). The right-wing Washington Times tried to make a scandal of the fact that a Georgian student named Emily Faz got fired from her job at a Wild Wings Cafe after she criticized, and arguably threatened, Black Lives Matter activists on Facebook. Probably the most famous story of this nature is that of Justine Sacco, who infamously tweeted a tasteless joke about AIDS at an airport. She too lost her job.

These are all stories of people who have been insensitive, illiberal, or outright sexist and racist, and I do not mean to condone them or to say that their employers were necessarily wrong to can them (or to pressure them to resign). And the hysteria over political correctness is way, way overblown, if not misplaced altogether. But I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that finds these stories about job losses concerning. Maybe it’s my own white privilege talking, but it’s scary to think that we are all one boneheaded (or even misinterpreted) tweet away from career ruin — and I am hardly alone in this fear. The new-normal of precarious employment makes many people unusually anxious about keeping their job, if they are lucky enough to have one. Happily, there are ways to acquire more job security. One of those is unionization.

Unions are groups of workers who come together to bargain with their employers for better wages and benefits. Some of those benefits are purely financial, including cheaper health insurance, but others can be more intangible, such as improved job security. Employers almost always retain the right to hire and fire employees, but persistent unions are often able to get their bosses to agree to increased transparency and procedure when it comes to disciplinary measures. Conservatives themselves admit this when they blame unions for causing “inflexibility” in the labor market or complain about teacher tenure. Still, there are usually some limits to what unions can do to prevent their members from getting fired: if an employee commits a crime, or deliberately sabotages the operations of their employer, then no arbitrator in the land will back them up. But if a union has negotiated a collective agreement with their boss, and that agreement spells out what does and does not constitute a terminable offense and the procedure to terminate an employee, and if the union can prove that the employer departed from the agreement in firing someone, then the union may be able to save the employee’s job.

Employers may argue that making racist social media posts constitutes sabotage of their company, or otherwise be an unforgivable offense. And really, who can blame them? But with a good collective agreement in place, employees can take comfort that there is a process by which they will be judged for their actions. Of course, a simpler, more direct way to guarantee free speech at work is to negotiate for that right during bargaining: it is the position of the Canadian Association of University Teachers that academic freedom is best protected in bargaining, for example.

You may think that unions cannot or will not protect people who say or do truly awful things, but they do. Last year, Shawn Simoes, an employee at Ontario’s Hydro One who also happens to be an asshole, got fired from his job after defending his buddy’s “FHRITP” remark to a female reporter. Well, guess what? He got his job back. He grieved with his union, the Society of Energy Professionals, and an arbitrator ordered him reinstated. Apparently, he showed signs of genuine remorse. Whether or not the reinstatement is justified is a valid question, but not the one that I’m interested in now. My point is that unions can, and often will, save the jobs of people who say unpopular things and even hateful things.

Of course, for unionization efforts to succeed, we have to ensure that workers are allowed to talk about organizing at work. By law, they have this right, but in practice, they can find it under threat. In March 2015, for example, an Arkansas Days Inn employee was fired for talking to a reporter about her low wage (and not even for endorsing union organizing). If the folks in the anti-P.C. crowd are so concerned with saving peoples’ jobs, maybe they should fight on behalf of those workers whose right to organize and protest has been compromised.

This is not to say that people who say bigoted things should have their jobs saved. If we are to wipe out racism and sexism from our society, then racists and sexists need to face accountability. Unions and collective agreements are about fairness, not special advantages, and their priority should be about giving people a fair process, not about defending reprehensible things for the sake of it. And, of course, they should fight against racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression, wherever they find it. But unions are the missing part of the conversation when it comes to the free speech and “political correctness” debate, both in and out of academia.

new humanist blog

Book review: Anger and Forgiveness

As the century rages on, we clearly need reminding that anger is no good.

Quickies: Academic Poverty, Fighting Ableism, and Vocal Coaches for Women

Featured Image

new humanist blog

Reforming Pakistan's madrasas

Numbering in the tens of thousands, are Pakistan’s infamous religious schools really beyond reform?
school of doubt

Lesson: Bad Chart Thursday

This lesson plan could be adjacent to or independent from my “Critical Lunching” lessons. This takes advantage of Melanie Mallon’s great Skepchick series called “Bad Chart Thursdays.”

Level: advanced pre-secondary, secondary, or post-secondary (depending on charts used)

Subject: language arts, social studies, critical thinking, math, science, or related subject

Objectives: TSWBAT recognize misleading statistics and inappropriate information presentation.

Materials: links to or printouts of original “Bad Chart” pages or charts, links to or printouts of “Bad Chart Thursday” explanations (or simplified teacher version), one or more good charts to present as a comparison

Introduction: (T-S-T)

T explains relevant ideas to the specific charts Ss will work on, such as relative vs. absolute numbers, correlation vs. causation, cherry-picking, and manipulating data to make it appear different. Spurious Correlations may provide good examples. Ss ask questions and T answers.

Pre-Reading: (T-S or S-T)

T shows example of one bad chart and elicits problem(s) from Ss.

Reading: (S)

Ss reads charts T provided and try to identify the specific problems. T may also give Ss a good chart as a trick question to test their understanding.

Post-Reading: (T-S or S-T)

T elicits answers from Ss and provides corrections, or shows Ss Skepchick’s “Bad Chart Thursdays” to explain.

Analysis and Reflection: (T-S-T)

T reviews concepts covered in this lesson. T asks Ss if they think these kinds of misleading statistics are rare or pervasive. Ss guess that they are common. T concluded lesson by showing “Bad Chart Thursdays” to help exemplify how many bad charts really exist.


It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! The Unknown Crystallographer, Truth in Advertising, and Violating Facebook’s Terms of Service

Sunday Funny: Are kids natural scientists? (via SMBC)

Mad Art Lab

Monarch of Crystallography: Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and the Structure of Large Molecules (Women in Science 73)
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is the groundbreaking crystallographer and Nobel Prize winner no one remembers.

Mad Art Cast Episode #69 — Kendall Jenner and the Art of Advertising
Ashley, A, and Brian talk about truth in advertising.

…And Your Little Cat, Too
How does a “semi internet famous cat” named Captain Pancakes violate Facebook’s terms of service? When he happens to be owned by a photographer who uses Facebook to promote her work.

Featured image credit: zeevveez via Flickr

school of doubt

Thesis and Evidence – teaching the 2016 election without bias and with the Common Core

There is no one more intent on making America great than a U.S. history teacher. Calculus teachers might struggle to make their material relevant, but history teachers do not. Students still complain, asking “What’s the point of learning this?” But, unlike higher math teachers, we have an answer. Because one day they will vote. Because history is made by those who show up. (Thanks, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.) Because our Constitution is “a living document.” (Thanks, Justice Thurgood Marshall.) Because “We welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect.” (Thanks, Obama.) And because I want my students to think “there’s a million things I haven’t done, just you wait!” (Thanks, Lin Manuel Miranda.) And then I want them to do those million things. The sooner the better.

This leads me to teaching the 2016 election. Elections are my favorite social studies topic to teach. I love watching my students grow into active citizens, critical consumers of information, and future voters. I love watching them examine an issue that they think they already know, examine it so intently that they begin to realize that it – and everything – is far more complicated than it originally seemed. I love presenting them with polar opposite and yet equally valid arguments for and against a policy and see them discuss themselves hoarse defending one side or the other. I love teaching in an election year. But this year is different. Because this year is the year of the candidacy of Donald Trump.

As this campaign cycle unfolded over the summer, I grew more and more worried about teaching the 2016 presidential election. How was I supposed to remain somehow neutral, somehow unbiased, somehow above the fray when the fabric of civil discourse was fraying at the seams because of a 70-year-old toddler couldn’t locate his human decency filter?

My students know enough about me and my identity to be able to infer my political leanings, but I do not insert my own politics into the classroom. In the past, during other elections, I have still been able to teach about politics by examining arguments from both parties in a way that presented both platforms and both candidates as viable, defendable options. This kind of teaching encouraged critical thinking, and I think students walked away with a deeper appreciation of complicated issues. If the desired outcome of an argument is to win, it can be frustrating to be able to see every side of an issue and realize they are all valid. However, if the desired outcome of a lesson is to create informed future voters, then mission accomplished. But these “ifs” assume the positive intent of parties, politicians, and platforms. They assume that a party is putting forth a candidate and proposed policies that have America’s and American’s best interests at heart. I cannot assume that for both parties in this election. The Democrats are far from perfect, but their platform is a well-considered document designed to unify the country, and their nominee is a well-qualified public servant with decades of work in government under her belt. The Republicans have written a divisive manifesto designed to cleave our country apart down race and class lines, and their nominee is a lawsuit-riddled businessman with questionable ethics and the mouth of a racist, sexist, classist sailor. A statement which might be offensive to sailors.

I was lost. But I found my way through Common Core State Standards.

There has been much political hay made about Common Core State Standards (CCSS), even to the point that they have been demonized as the brainchild of a broken education system. The fact that they amount to an unfunded mandate. The fact that they are a national program when states have always controlled their own education policies. The fact that they often result in more standardized tests rather than fewer. But none of these issues are about the standards themselves but rather the environment they have inadvertently created, and while much about the education system is broken, the Common Core State Standards are not why. They are designed to “prepare all students for success in college, career, and life by the time they graduate high school,” and they stress the “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills” required for that success. This is according to the Common Core State Standards’ own website.* Of course, it needs to be seen through the lens of marketing rather than being accepted as truth. That being said, I have taught with the Common Core much of my teaching career, and I have found that they can be an invaluable tools in guiding my instruction to meet all students’ needs.

This time around, this election, I have found that they can be an invaluable tool in guiding my instruction to meet my own needs. My own need for sanity in the 2016 election.

Every day, I have the privilege of spending two hours each period with the most thoughtful and engaged young people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. During those two hour periods, I am to teach them English Language Arts (essentially reading and writing) and Social Studies. In my case, as an 8th grade social studies teacher in my district, that means I teach current events in addition to United States History through the end of the Civil War. Thanks to the fact that I teach multiple subjects in the same block of time, I can often combine my teaching of social studies and reading and writing, using primary source documents from history as mentor texts and writing informative or argumentative texts in response to historical or current events. And this is how the Common Core State Standards will save this election and future ones.

During the last election, my district had not yet adopted Common Core State Standards, standards that place a significant emphasis on teaching about argumentative text and how an author creates that argument through claims, reasoning, and evidence. I still, of course, taught the election through a critical lens, encouraging students to dig deeper and never accept statements as fact before research. But this year, that critical lens will be even more essential, and this year, I have the Common Core State Standards to back me up.

When teaching an election, political speeches, press releases, and platforms are invaluable primary source resources, and my students will use the Common Core State Standards as a guide to analyzing those speeches, press releases and platforms. For example, take Reading Informational Text Standard 8.6.** The standard reads that students should, by the end of 8th grade, be able to “determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.” Reading Informational Text Standard 8.1 states that same student should be able to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” And Reading History Standard 8.6 is even more fitting. It states that students should be able to “identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).” Essentially, the Common Core State Standards is going to allow me to turn my classroom into a fact-checking think tank. Not only allow it; encourage it; require it; mandate it.

The most recent issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine focused on teaching the 2016 election. The article “Teach 2016” began with a sobering statement:
“This year feels so extreme that nearly half the educators who responded to a Teaching Tolerance survey conducted in March said they hesitated to teach about the 2016 election at all. ’It is so inflammatory that no one wants to even discuss it,’ said one New York middle school administrator via the survey. ‘Not good when we should be talking about issues.’” ***

“Teach 2016” went on to offer teachers strategies to use in approaching this inflammatory election, including a list of questions to ask students to promote the critical consumption of election rhetoric. The list included the questions “Is what’s being said true? What’s the evidence? Can you think of any counter-examples to this statement?” Questions I plan to use daily in my teaching of this year’s election.

Which brings me back to the Common Core State Standards. Writing Standard 8.1 states that students should, by the end of 8th grade, be able to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” and “use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.” What this means is this: to finish 8th grade as a proficient writer, students must be able to write an argument that not only can be supported with reasoning and evidence, but that reasoning must be “clear” and the evidence “relevant.” And don’t forget the best part. Students must also be able to write counterarguments, must be able to acknowledge the other side(s) of an issue, must be able to provide a rebuttal to that counterargument, and must do it all in a style that is “appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” (Common Core Writing Standard 8.4) Just imagine if Donald Trump could acknowledge a counterargument. Just imagine if he could write in a style that was appropriate to his task of running for president and his audience of the American public. Just imagine if he believed in “creat[ing] cohesion,” like the Common Core Writing Standard 8.1 does.

Just imagine if Donald Trump had been educated to have the “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills” that are required to be a candidate for president of this great nation. Just imagine if Donald Trump had been taught according to the Common Core State Standards. Just imagine if Donald Trump were an 8th grader. He wouldn’t be up to standard.

Just imagine if my 8th graders, my critical consumers of information, my students proficient in claims, evidence, reasoning, and counterarguments, could vote. 2016 would be a very different year.

I don’t know what will happen come November 8th, 2016. But I can tell you what will happen in 2020. An entire generation of voters taught through Common Core State Standards will be registering to vote. And those voters will be college, career, and life ready. (Thanks, Common Core.)


* (all standards taken from this website



Global Quickies: Stalkers, Anti-Abortion Bill in Poland, and Women Voting for the First Time

“Rightwing lawmakers are pushing ahead with a near-total ban on abortion in devoutly Catholic Poland, while rejecting a rival bid to liberalise an existing law which is already among the most restrictive in Europe.”

“Botswana is to deport controversial US pastor Steven Anderson after he said on a local radio that homosexuals should be “stoned to death”.”

“Ghanaian professors are calling for a statue of Mahatma Gandhi to be removed from their campus because they claim he was racist and considered Indians to be “infinitely superior” to black Africans.”

“Women in a community in southern Mexico have voted in local elections for the first time, after winning a three-year battle for the right to choose a mayor and councillors alongside their male relatives.”

“A 25-year-old woman has taken over as the head of a local authority in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria. Hindatu Umar is the first woman and the youngest person to hold the position in Argungu city, in the north-western state of Kebbi. She is also the city’s first unmarried local leader.”

Activists in southern India ask directors and actors involved in the Tamil cinema industry to refrain from producing or appearing in films that depict stalking as “a playful and acceptable way to woo a woman”.

“Indians have reacted with outrage after passers-by watched a woman being stabbed more than 20 times on a busy street in the capital, Delhi. . […] The stabbing in Burari is the second instance of a woman being fatally attacked by an alleged stalker in the Indian capital in two days.”

“Victoria’s health minister, Jill Hennessy, has praised the scrapping of an anti-vaccination documentary from the program of a regional film festival.”

“A TV journalist in China who was photographed wearing sunglasses and holding an umbrella to shelter from the sun has been suspended from her job.

(From Donna)
The New York Times Magazine presents stunning photographs of journeys through these six countries in its Voyages issue.

Featured image: The women from the Guevea de Humboldt community voting for the first time. Source: Quadratin Oaxaca.


Quickies: The science of chronic fatigue, actors with disabilities in Hollywood, and corn mazes

bad science

Taking transparency beyond results: ethics committees must work in the open

Here’s a useful paper we’ve just published in the BMJ, documenting problems in transparency around approval processes for randomised trials. There’s a basic rule in clinical research: you’re only supposed to do a trial comparing two treatments when you really don’t know which one is best, otherwise you’d be knowingly randomising half your participants to an […]
bad science

Events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland

Hi there, I’m doing a few events in Australia and NZ this week: in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland (only 25 tickets left), and Brisbane. Here‘s a good fun interview I did with The Conversation that gets very nerdy, on the poor state of science, COMPare, statins, reproducibility and transparency. I’ll post a big backlog of interviews, and papers, over […]
new humanist blog

Revisiting Victorian England

Sarah Perry's novel The Essex Serpent introduces us to the curious, the crankish, the sceptical, and the devout.
new humanist blog

What is Salafi jihadism?

A Q&A with Shiraz Maher, whose new book explores the intellectual underpinnings of this warrior doctrine.
new humanist blog

Postcards from the past: what's wrong with "ancient wisdom"?

Writing on “ancient wisdom” now comprises a genre of its own. Is this an uncritical attitude to the thinkers of the past?
sam harris

Ask Me Anything #5

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris answers questions from listeners about how 9/11 changed his life, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, free will, why he podcasts, Milo and the alt-Right, identity politics, Clinton vs. Trump, vegetarianism, and the Hannibal Buress episode.

school of doubt

Evaluating the Sokal Hoax Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago, in May 1996 (okay, twenty years and four months—sue me), Alan Sokal, a physicist at with appointments at the University College London and New York University, published a ground-breaking paper in the respected critical theory journal Social Text. The paper has been highly influential. I learned about it both in undergrad and grad school, as I am sure many others did. However, it was the paper’s argument for a postmodern science allied to progressive politics that was so influential. It was influential because it was a hoax.

Sokal revealed his deception in an article in Lingua Franca, published the same day as the hoax article. He says that the fake piece was filled with nonsensical phrases pulled from pseudoscience, terminology from real science that was completely misused, and combined with quotations from and allusions to leftist critical theorists popular in the humanities and cultural studies. (Think Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour, Félix Guattari, and some people who aren’t French). His intention was to “flatter” the Social Text editors with ridiculous and unevidenced propositions that concurred with their progressive political beliefs to see if they would fall for it. They did, and Sokal concludes that postmodernist leftism suffers from a lack of “intellectual rigor.” “I say this not in glee but in sadness,” Sokal assures us. “After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua).” Sokal is not a conservative, he says, he just wants leftism to eschew postmodernism in favor of empiricism.

Now, I am a humanist who likes critical theory. Edward Said (a disciple of Michel Foucault), in particular, has been a huge influence on me, and I have presented a paper liberally salted with Slavoj Žižek quotations at a conference. All completely normal for someone in the humanities or cultural studies. That said, I have some sympathy for what Sokal did. He exposed a hole that critical theorists sometimes leave unfilled. To explain what it is, I am going to have to make a caricature out of a whole swathe of philosophy, so please bear with me. Basically, a major theme of critical theory (or “continental philosophy,” or what have you) is that much of what we believe and accept as totally true is, in fact, socially constructed. To use a non-controversial example, for years, people thought it was good and right that men were always the ones who worked and that women always stayed at home, and that this made sense morally and biologically. Now, that attitude is widely understood to have been a belief perpetrated by society to oppress women. So far, all reasonable people agree. The controversy comes when the critical theorists say that even science is socially-constructed, and that the facts (they would put scare quotes around “facts”) discovered by science are no truer than, say, any given religious belief. This attitude has the benefit of being highly democratic, but I myself see some problems with it, and I am sure many readers of the Skepchick network do too. This attitude is Sokal’s main target.

Sokal says in his exposé in Lingua Franca that the “sloppy thinking” of some humanities scholars only recognizes objective existence “when challenged.” He says of the hoax aricle:

In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical “reality” [note the scare quotes] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

The fact that the Social Text editors let this slide is indeed a problem. I am often uncomfortable with the uncritical and cavalier ways in which postmodern theory is used by critics. According to some readings of Foucault and Derrida (or Friedrich Nieztsche, or the Greek sophists, or any thinker emphasizing subjectivity over objectivity), these theories really do not provide any good reason not to jump out of Sokal’s twenty-first story apartment. Sokal uses this example flippantly, but I actually believe it to be quite an important one. If René Descartes says that consciousness is the best proof of personal existence, then the abrupt removal of consciousness through death is perhaps the strongest objection to anti-realist claims (indeed, perhaps it is the only possible objection). I wish that more writers took this objection seriously.

Sokal’s example is also useful because matters of life and death are precisely what should be most important to radical critics. The great and obvious value in radical criticism—including that of postmodernists and social constructionists—is that it offers tools and opportunities to dismantle the arguments of unjust regimes and systems and thus, potentially, rescue individuals from oppressive and life-threatening situations. Sokal’s criticism gives humanists an opportunity to refocus our efforts on the real world.

For all these reasons, I do not think that humanists should dismiss Sokal. But, without relitigating all the facets of this decades-old controversy, there are several objections to make to Sokal. First, imagine that you’re an editor of Social Text, and that you have just read Sokal’s silly-sounding paper. If it were me, I would likely be more enthusiastic than I would be put off by the apparent absurdity. I would want it to be a legitimate paper, because I want there to be dialogue between humanities and the sciences, and the hoax paper offers that through its purported correspondence between quantum physics and postmodern theory. In other words, the fact that the Social Text editors accepted the paper could be read as a sign of goodwill towards the sciences. Of course, they should still have had a physicist review Sokal’s paper—but at the time of the paper’s acceptance, Social Text was not a peer-reviewed journal. Other theory and philosophy journals were, and are, and these peer-reviewed sources are much better representatives of the discipline. Sokal can claim to have fooled some critical theorists, but not to have beguiled or exposed the entire discipline. (I do recommend reading the responses to the hoax from the Social Text editors. Sokal’s own website is a decent resource for the debate).

Second, Sokal is not an expert reader of philosophy. A few paragraphs ago, I said that I was making a caricature in stating the viewpoints of critical theorists. I had to do that because it is impossible to adequately summarize the views of dozens of theorists in one paragraph, or even one article. In many cases, they disagree with one another, and severely nuance Sokal’s claims against them. Take Lacan, a theorist Sokal cites with mock enthusiasm many times in his faux article. Lacan says that the most important part of a child’s development occurs when they look into the mirror and see that there is a world outside of themselves: that there is an objective reality, in other words. You would not know this from reading Sokal’s takedown in Lingua Franca. To properly understand continental philosophy, like any subject, you need to devote time to study it.

Speaking of objective reality, I have observed—not in a test environment, but with consistency and rigor over the years—that radical feminists and other leftists influenced by academic postmodernism still read the science section of the paper and believe in climate change and evolution. Indeed, they even believe that vaccines are safe and that AIDS is caused by a virus. To be sure, there are—very infamously!—leftists who deny the last two facts. But they do not seem to be so numerous as to be swaying opinion in academia. Perhaps Sokal and other empiricist critics can take some credit for this. However, I don’t think that there was an epidemic of people jumping out of windows twenty years ago, either. So it is important to keep all this in perspective. If you disagree with postmodernists, then disagree with postmodernists, using evidence.

There have also been positive developments since Sokal’s hoax. A new strain of critical theory has emerged that aims to mobilize literature readers against environmental injustices. Ecocriticism, as it is usually called, admits that it requires science in order to properly target its critiques. It has had to struggle with its relationship with other critical theories over the years—sometimes rejecting, sometimes embracing—and I believe that it is stronger for it. No doubt, other humanities disciplines engage with science in other productive ways, in part because of Sokal’s highlighting the issue. Academics of every discipline can get caught up in the Ivory Tower, and sometimes need a jolt to take them back to reality. Sokal provided such a jolt, and I respect him for that. Sometimes you need a critic, even a less-than-polite and reductionist critic, to push you to be the best you can.


Image credit: Social Text.

school of doubt

Lesson 2 In Critical Lunching

Here is another lesson plan which involves thinking critically about arguments in articles which lambast desktop dining. (eating lunch at your desk at work) This is similar to my last lesson plan, but has a slightly different focus. This one is primarily about looking for two specific kinds of logical fallacies.

Level: secondary or early post secondary

Subject: language arts, social studies, critical thinking, or related subject

Objectives: TSWBAT identify “red herrings” in news articles. TSWBAT identify places in articles where correlation is assumed to equal causation but there is insufficient evidence to make that conclusion.

Materials: an article about desktop dining which uses bad reasoning in its arguments: printed copies of the reading, or a link to the article if students have access to computers, or a projector which can display the text for everyone to read at once

Introduction: (T-S-T)

T: “Last class we talked about how facts could be misleading. What is one example of a kind of misleading fact?”

Ss respond, some may recall that examples involved providing statistics with incomplete information or a lack of comparison. T reviews previous lesson.

T leads into lesson with a short example of how there is more than one way to think poorly. (Comparing a misleading statistic with an example of a correlation being assumed as causation.)

Pre-Reading: (T-S or S-T)

T-led: write “intention” and “reality” on the board, elicit examples from last class and have students determines what was the intention of a fact in an article and the actual reality of that fact. (For example, this article mentioned a study of 122 people who ate 476 calories of snacks a day. The article implied that they were desktop diners, but it never actually said that. The reality was that this survey was not specifically for workers who ate at their desks.) Or…

S-led: group Ss and have them discuss “intention” and “reality” of facts from the previous lesson before sharing with the class.

Reading: (S)

Use the same articles as the previous lesson or new ones. If using the same, have students re-read the relevant passages for this lesson.

Post-Reading: (T-S or S-T)

Same process as pre-reading, have Ss add any examples they had forgotten. (If using the same articles.) Or, write new examples from the new articles.

Analysis and Reflection: (T-S-T)

T introduces the two types of logical fallacies for this assignment: red herrings and correlation/causation assumptions. Ss work in groups to find examples of these problems in the article, distinct from the problems they examined last class.

At the end of class, compare the types of problems in this lesson with the ones in the previous lesson. Depending on time and Ss ability, have Ss categorize the problems into types (completely irrelevant information, drawing a false conclusion, related but insignificant facts, things that distracted from the main point, etc.).


Examples of red herrings and correlation/causation problems:

This quotes someone saying “desktop dining isn’t even a sign of industriousness anymore; these days, a desk luncher is as likely as not to be scrolling through Facebook.” However, this point isn’t related to whether desktop dining is healthy or not or whether it contributes to “the office as a collaborative, innovative, sociable space.” For examples, even if this was true it could be that the employees were collaborating on Facebook. This comment is a red herring in several articles because it suddenly changed the topic from health to a lack of productivity during break time.


In addition to the study that was not specifically about desktop diners, the article ends by suddenly changing the topic to the obesity problem in the UK and how much public spending is on it. This issue is unrelated to the ostensible topic, apparently more focused on fear-mongering than being relevant. (Okay, so it is the Daily Mail.)


This mentions an MIT study and links to an interview about it. However, the word “lunch” doesn’t appear anywhere. If fact, the study was about socializing with co-workers and is irrelevant to the idea of eating at a desk. This red herring jumped on the idea that people who do not socialize are less happy, but it did not demonstrate that desktop diners failed to socialize or were less happy because of their eating habits.


This article gives ten reasons to not eat at a desk, but none of those ten reasons are exclusively possible by eating away from a desk. Granted, this is more of a false dichotomy than a red herring or correlation or causation problem, but it could be a good contract for students.


This had a very significant red herring, when the article suddenly started talking about the importance of hand washing and how many people do not wash their hands (in general). It failed however to connect that to the idea of desktop dining specifically.


As mentioned in the last lesson plan, this article talks about dirty refrigerators in workplaces, but fails to mention any correlation between them and desktop diners.

sam harris

Racism and Violence in America

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris talks to economist Glenn C. Loury about racism, police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, and related topics.

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He has taught previously at Boston, Harvard and Northwestern Universities, and the University of Michigan. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics (Northwestern University, 1972) and a Ph.D. in Economics (MIT, 1976).

Professor Loury has published mainly in the areas of applied microeconomic theory, game theory, industrial organization, natural resource economics, and the economics of race and inequality. He has been elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society, Member of the American Philosophical Society, Vice President of the American Economics Association, and President of the Eastern Economics Association. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Scholarship to support his work.

As a prominent social critic and public intellectual, writing mainly on the themes of racial inequality and social policy, Professor Loury has published over 200 essays and reviews in journals of public affairs in the U.S. and abroad. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor at The Boston Review, and was for many years a contributing editor at The New Republic. Professor Loury’s books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (The Free Press, 1995 – winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award); The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2002); Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy: Comparing the US and the UK (ed., Cambridge University Press, 2005); and, Race, Incarceration and American Values (M.I.T. Press, 2008).

Glenn Loury hosts The Glenn Show on, and he can be reached on Twitter at @GlennLoury.

Books and articles discussed in this podcast:

Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. June, 2014.

Thomas Chatterton Williams. “Loaded Dice.” The London Review of Books. December, 2015.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells. “The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” New York Magazine. July, 2015.

Jill Leovy. Ghettoside. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.

Roland G. Fryer, Jr. “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. July, 2016.

Glenn C. Loury. “Ferguson Won’t Change Anything. What Will?” The Boston Review. January, 2015.

This is a lightly edited transcript of a recorded conversation.

*  *  *

Welcome to the Waking Up podcast. This is Sam Harris. Well, there are a variety of housekeeping issues I could engage at the start of this episode. ISIS just released a fairly amazing document titled “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You.” This is bizarre. It’s as though they’ve been watching my skirmishes with obscurantists who deny the religious roots of jihadism, and they just thought, Enough is enough. We’re just going to close every loophole that people like Scott Atran and Karen Armstrong and Robert Pape and Noam Chomsky and all these other confabulators on this issue seem to find in their desperate attempts to implicate everything other than our heartfelt religious beliefs.

And that’s what they did: They spelled out, with utter clarity, their motivations for doing what they do. But I might just do a separate podcast on that, because I’d rather not delay the conversation we’re going to bring you today, which strikes me as especially urgent. So I’m going to pivot directly to today’s guest. 

As always, if you like what I’m doing on the podcast, you can support this work at Your support is, in fact, what makes conversations like this possible. This podcast is ad-free, and I’m happy to keep it that way. But that makes you my only sponsor, and your support is much appreciated.

Today I’ll be speaking with Glenn Loury. Glenn is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Social Sciences and a professor of economics at Brown University. He has taught previously at Boston and Harvard and Northwestern and the University of Michigan; he holds a BA in mathematics from Northwestern and a PhD in economics from MIT; he’s a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former Guggenheim Fellowship recipient; and he has published widely and has written several books that I will link to on my blog. I discovered Glenn through his podcast, where he’s been having some extraordinarily candid and clarifying conversations about race and racism with the linguist John McWhorter, from Columbia, and I highly recommend you check out that podcast. 

Again, I’ll provide a link to that on my website. The purpose of my conversation with Glenn today is to dive headlong into these controversial waters of race and racism and violence in America—as though my work weren’t controversial enough already. But I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, because these issues are so consequential and politically divisive. I’ve been worried about doing this for obvious reasons. I raised the topic in my podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you may recall, but he didn’t want to touch it—which I understand. He didn’t feel the time was right to weigh in on these issues personally. 

But for some reason I’ve been feeling that the time is right for me. It’s really been bothering me that so much of what I hear about race and violence in America doesn’t make any sense, and the fact that I’ve been worried about speaking about these issues in public was also bothering me. In fact, the implications of speaking about race in particular caused me to cancel a book contract I had last year: It seemed too much of a liability. But I have since stiffened my spine, and I was left wondering who I could talk to about these things. My goal was to find an African-American intellectual who could really get into the details with me, but whom I also trusted to have a truly rational conversation that wouldn’t be contaminated by identity politics. 

As you probably intuit, I think identity politics are just poison—unless your identity at this point is Homo sapiens—but I found what I was looking for in Glenn. He’s just so good on these topics. And as you’ll hear, he spends a fair amount of time giving the counterpoint to his positions on each topic: steel-manning rather than straw-manning the views of his opponents. Anyway, I found this conversation extremely helpful. It felt like Glenn and I could have gone on for much longer—and many thanks to him for being so generous with his time. 

If you find this conversation as useful as I did, I encourage you to spread it around and follow Glenn on Twitter, @GlennLoury, and please tell him that you appreciate what he’s doing. And again, check out his podcast on

Sam: Glenn, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Glenn: Sam, my pleasure.

Sam: I’ve really been excited about having this conversation, probably irrationally so, because the topics we’re going to cover—race and racism, and police violence—can’t help but bring us some measure of grief. So thank you for doing this, and I think most of the grief will come my way, probably.

First, I want to say that your podcasts on Bloggingheads TV, especially the ones you’ve done with John McWhorter, whom I also greatly admire, have been fantastic. It’s so rare to hear two people talk about these topics honestly.

Glenn: Great. Sam, can I tell your audience that you’re referring to The Glenn Show, at, and all viewers or listeners are welcome.

Sam: I’ll put a link to your page on my blog so that people can find it.

What I’m noticing now, and it’s really been in the past year or so, is that there’s a culture of censorship and identity politics and a kind of addiction to being outraged—and a resort to outrage in place of reasoned argument, especially among young people—that is making it impossible to have productive conversations on important topics. 

This is happening on topics other than race, of course—it happens on religion and terrorism and gender—but race is obviously one of those hot spots. You’ve been illuminating this topic on your show in a way that’s really unusual—just cutting through confusion like a laser. So it really is great to be talking to you.

Glenn: I appreciate that. I think one of my motivations—and John McWhorter can speak for himself, but I think this would apply to him, too—is that in the face of this addiction to outrage (that’s an artful way of putting it), and a kind of moral certitude and intolerance of argument that doesn’t check the right boxes, because I care so much about these questions of race and equality and justice, I felt really compelled, in the face of pushback and vitriol and contempt, to keep challenging and keep raising questions. I don’t think I’m due any kind of heroic celebration for doing it—it just seems like the right thing to do. But that’s a big part of my motivation.

Sam: Before we dive into this topic, perhaps you can say a few words about your background and your areas of focus intellectually. How do you describe what you do in general?

Glenn: I’m a professor of economics here at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve been here for 10 years. I’ve taught economics at a number of other universities: Harvard in the 1980s, Boston University in the 1990s. I’m a quantitative social scientist: I was trained at MIT in the 1970s, took a PhD in economics there, and for much of my early career focused on mathematic modeling of various economic processes in the labor market and industrial organizations. Competition, research and development, natural resource economics, economics of invention and exploration—things of this kind. Game theory. Information economics.

I became a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and got very much interested in public policy after taking up that post. I began writing essays and reviews and commentaries on issues of race in the United States particularly, and was a Reagan conservative during the 1980s. Quite rare for an African-American. I moved away from that political identity toward the center of the spectrum a bit, and I think of myself now as a centrist or maybe mildly right of center Democrat. Though that’s not an identity that I cling to with any particular intensity.

Sam: Obviously your background, in mathematics, statistics, and social science, makes you perfectly well placed to have the kind of conversation we’re going to have. Race and racism is a topic of such huge consequence, and it’s a topic that attracts a fair amount of logical and moral confusion, which renders people unable to reason with each other. 

This is not just a problem across racial lines and it’s not just a problem in public. I have white friends whom I can’t have this conversation with because they become so emotionally hijacked. From my point of view, they don’t realize that almost everything that is coming out of their mouths makes no moral or logical or historical or psychological sense. This really worries me, because I view the maintenance of civilization and our moral progress as a species as a series of successful conversations. 

I’ve said this many times before on my podcast and in writing. It seems to me that we live in perpetual choice between conversation and violence. So when I see conversations reliably fail like this, I start to get worried. I noticed the exchanges you’ve been having with John McWhorter, and I realized that I had met John at a TED conference. So I got in touch with him, and he suggested that I speak with you. So you are my Virgil who’s going to guide me through this wilderness of error.

Glenn: Hope I’m up to the task here. It’s a tall order, actually.

Sam: I guess as a final preliminary point, I feel the need to offer a disclaimer up front, because I think you and I are going to agree about many things, and I’m a little worried that my staking out some of these positions as a white guy is going to rub many of our listeners the wrong way. I don’t want to be in a defensive crouch as we have this conversation, so I think I should acknowledge up front a couple of things that should be obvious. The first is that the history of racism in the U.S. has been horrific. No sane person could doubt that. And there’s no doubt that racism remains a problem in our society today. Just how big a problem is something I want us to discuss. But I can check my privilege at the outset here. I have no doubt that I have reaped many advantages from being white, and I have no idea what it’s like to grow up as a black man in our society. So I get that I don’t get it. And if there’s any way in which my not getting it seems relevant to the issues we’re about to touch, I certainly hope you’ll point that out to me. 

But as we drive toward points that many of our listeners will find fairly incendiary, especially coming from a white guy, I just have to make it clear that it is obvious how horrible white racism and its consequences have been in the past. And I am fully prepared to believe that the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow still hangs over our society to a degree that I don’t understand, certainly not from my first-person experience. But my goal in this conversation is to get an accurate picture of race and racism and police violence as it occurs now so that we can think about how to move forward.

I wanted to erect that bulwark—however ineffectual it may prove to be—because I have no doubt that we’re about to say some things that will lend themselves to selective quotation. I’ve learned through cruel experience that some people listen to this podcast just for the pleasure of quoting me out of context in misleading ways. So I wanted to put forward that caveat, which may do me no good whatsoever, before we dive into the details.

Glenn: I think your caveat is well taken as far as it goes—and that speaks well of you, I would say—but it’s such a pity that it’s necessary for you to make that kind of elaborate, preemptive move here. It speaks to how closed and tortured the environment is in which we’re having the conversation. I mean, I’m black, all right? I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and the 1960s from a working-class background. I’ve had many a run-in with American racism, all across the board, and I descend from people who were slaves in the United States. 

On the other hand, we sit here in the year 2016. 1863 is a century and a half in the past. Jim Crow segregation is a distant memory. Barack Hussein Obama is about to step down having served two terms, winning comfortable national elections to the highest office in the land. The commissioners of the police, in many of the cities in which police and black community relations are most troubled, are themselves African-American, as often are the administrative officers running the governments of those cities. We are 50 years past the advent of affirmative action. This is not 1910, 1950, or 1985; this is the year 2016, and the idea that white privilege is such a stain on the country that an otherwise rational and intelligent person who happens to be white needs to give an elaborate preamble to a conversation about race relations in this country… That the unwillingness to hear something that one doesn’t agree with without imputing invidious motives to the person who’s expressed that view is so rampant that a person like yourself needs to apologize in advance for having an opinion—that’s awful, that’s poisonous, that’s… That’s just Glenn Loury spouting off, and I don’t know how that’ll leave me in the minds of some of your listeners who might want to take what I’ve said out of context as well. But that’s where I’m coming from here.

Sam: Needless to say, I agree with you. But unfortunately, I think it’s still necessary, because again, even my conversations in private suggest that this topic is so radioactive that it’s very difficult for people to even hear what is being said, much less trace the implications. So I want to start with a deceptively simple question: What is racism?

Glenn: All right, this is not necessarily a scientifically precise response; this is a more off-the-cuff response. I would say it is a contempt for or devaluation of the humanity of another by virtue of their presumed racial identity. Racism is the suspension of rational faculty and a disregard for and derogation of, a perception of unfitness for intimate relations, a presumption about intelligence, an imputation of bad character—this kind of thing—vis-à-vis another person or a group of people by virtue of what one understands to be their racial identity.

Sam: Okay, so given that definition—which I agree with—who is the evil genius who first convinced the world that being able to honestly say, “Some of my best friends are black” is not an adequate defense against the charge of racism toward black people? If the path forward toward some colorblind utopia doesn’t entail having best friends or even a spouse who is from a different race, if that doesn’t represent an adequate surmounting of the problem of racism—I’m speaking personally; we can leave aside institutional or structural racism for the moment—but if having one’s closest, most intimate friends be of another race isn’t an adequate defense against what you just described as racism, what is?

Glenn: Well, it’s funny that you used this phrase “Some of my best friends are,” because I once wrote an article—it’s been over 20 years now—called “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of Political Correctness.” It was published in the journal Rationality and Society in 1994, and in it I develop an account of political correctness, which I could go into in greater detail should you be interested, but I can say this much about political correctness: 

A regime of political correctness is a moral signaling equilibrium in which people who don’t want to be thought of as being on the wrong side of history will suppress an honest expression of what they believe about some controversial issue because people who are known to be on the wrong side of history are prominently saying the same things. For example, if back during the day when the fight for independence of blacks in South Africa was going on, a person thought that boycotting South African businesses was not a good policy, and that constructive engagement with those businesses was a better policy for trying to help the blacks in South Africa. 

If a person thought that, they might not be willing to say so in public because other people who were criticizing sanctions were basically supporting the apartheid government. The apartheid government itself was putting out the line that sanctions were not as helpful as constructive engagement with the South African society, so a person might not want to say that because they don’t want to be thought to be on the wrong side of history. With that understanding of what political correctness might be thought to be, I was making the observation that once a regime of that kind comes into existence, it’s very robust and difficult to dispel. 

And in particular, declarations of “I’m not really racist. Some of my best friends are black” —the sincerity of such declarations is called into question because who’s going to say such a thing except for somebody who has the positive view that is being sanctioned by common opinion, which they want to avoid being sanctioned for by making a declaration. Talk is cheap. Anybody can say it. So there was a time in American history, I think, and American cultural and social history—maybe the 1940s, 50s, maybe even into the 60s—when a person could say sincerely and be taken at face value, “Some of my best friends are gay, but I’m against gay marriage.” 

“Some of my best friends are black, but I think that affirmative action is really a very poor policy.” And that would have some kind of weight. But once the convention of value signaling, in which correct positions on sensitive issues—in the case at hand, affirmative action or homosexual marriage—are a way of signaling moral virtue, the cover that one might have otherwise gotten from making this declaration, let’s say it’s verifiable, “Some of my best are…” no longer covers enough. What did Shakespeare say? “Methinks he doth protest too much.” 

The guy who’s saying, “Some of my best friends are…” protesteth too much. That guy is seeking an exemption from the moral judgment of others for having what he knows the others know would be unacceptable positions, so he’s declaring some kind of fig leaf here. But we see it for what it is, a fig leaf, and we don’t take it seriously. Something like that.

Sam: In your definition of racism, I think we have to distinguish between the mere harboring of certain biases and a commitment to enshrine those biases, or a sense that those biases are good or shouldn’t be corrected for. Racism can’t merely be a matter of harboring biases, it can’t be merely that you fail to be perfectly neutral on the Implicit Association Test, because if that’s the standard, almost no one will escape hanging. Even many black people will be convicted of racism against blacks in that case.

Glenn: I think that Mazarin Banaji, the psychologist at Harvard, who was one of the founders of the implicit bias literature, would agree with that. I don’t think she would claim an equivalency between implicit bias, as measured by one of her tests, and racism. Or in the case of gender differences, implicit bias about women’s roles in society—which can be detected in almost every population of people who take these tests—and misogyny. I think she would want to draw a distinction between those two. 

Many African-Americans will also score positive in terms of the detection of implicit bias about race in American society on these tests. That doesn’t make them racist; it just means that their cognitive processes implicitly incorporate certain presumptions or stereotypes about racial roles or racial behaviors that are a part of our culture and that are shared across racial lines. So I agree with what you just said.

Sam: I should briefly describe the Implicit Association Test (IAT) so that people know what we’re talking about. Mazarin is one of the founders of this test, and she has used it probably for 20 years. The purpose of the test is to expose beliefs and biases that people hold that they’re either unaware of, so can’t report, or that they know to be socially undesirable, so won’t report. It’s been shown that, for instance, many white people will be faster at associating negative concepts with black faces than positive ones, and will show the opposite bias for white faces. And this is interpreted as meaning that they harbor a preference for white people over black people. 

It’s easy to see why people would view this as either a source or a consequence of racism. And, as you’ve pointed out, you can do this kind of test with other things: You can do it with cats and dogs, or flowers and insects—you can do it with anything, really. But let’s stipulate that most people will show an in-group bias on the IAT, and we can even go further and accept that this underlying psychology has something to do with racism. Let’s say it’s the cause or the consequence, or both. But racism as a social problem to be condemned and eradicated has to be something else. Showing white bias on the IAT doesn’t make you a racist; racism is the endorsement of norms that support that bias. It’s a person’s understanding that he’s biased and his further claim that he’s happy to be that way, because he believes that society shouldn’t correct for such biases because white people really are better than black people. He wants society to be unfair based on the color of a person’s skin because he thinks that skin color is a good way to determine the moral worth of human beings. That is something quite distinct from just harboring these biases, however they got there. 

There’s no question that such people exist, but they must be a tiny minority in our society at this point. The rest of us—people of goodwill and moral enlightenment who may or may not be biased to one or another degree—clearly support laws and policies that seek to cancel that kind of racism. As you say, we’ve elected our first black president, who’s finishing his second term. This isn’t tokenism. The people who voted for Obama with enthusiasm, whatever an IAT would have shown about them, are people who have canceled their personal racism in the form in which any real racist worthy of the name would practice it.

Glenn: I think that’s true, although I know that many people, if they were to hear this conversation, would object to that. You’ve just more or less cleverly defined racism out of the picture, because there wouldn’t be very many racists left if we were to have such a strict definition. So I’m challenging myself right now to think where the problem might be, and while I don’t have an internal coherent development here, let me just make an observation.

Suppose someone observes that the homicide rate is very high in certain quarters of our society that can be distinguished by race. You know, so many people in Chicago have been killed in past years: A disproportionate number of both victims and apparent perpetrators are black, the homicide rate in terms of whites perpetrating the crime is much lower, and therefore there seems to be something going on in terms of black proclivity to resort to violence in settling disputes, or something like that. Suppose someone says that. Suppose someone says, “No wonder the police are so afraid when they encounter African-Americans on the street. Have you taken a look at the crime statistics?”

Somebody says, “Yes, it may be that blacks are more likely than whites to be shot by the police in terms of the rate per number in the population. But after all, blacks are also overrepresented among violent criminals. So who can be surprised that they are overrepresented among the people who are shot by police officers?”

In all of these cases, these are statements that in some way or another could be consistent with a person who might have certain kinds of implicit biases but who wouldn’t endorse the norm that those biases are justifiable in some sense, or are not a problem, or are in no way indicative of any kind of malady that needs to be addressed. They would still nevertheless be thought to be racist.

Someone who says, “The Asians are all over the sciences and the engineering departments in our best universities, and the blacks are as scarce as hens’ teeth there” simply makes an observation about the facts. That would be thought by many people to be an act of racism, and yet it couldn’t be so classified given the definition that we’ve just been developing. 

Sam: But, hence my definition, because I would argue that while it’s possible for racists—real racists—to make precisely those observations, those observations themselves are, to my ear, quite factual. I’m going to make observations of that sort with respect to crime in a minute. If that is the signature of racism—merely reporting statistics—then we can’t even talk about the problem.

Glenn: Well, yeah. Again, I can imagine what a pushback might be—something like “Look, talking about this problem is not something that’s going on in the abstract on the moon, unconnected to anything else. It’s embedded within a structure, the legitimacy of which is up for debate. A casual conversation of that sort, merely a recitation of facts. You call that merely a recitation of facts without laboring to place those facts within a context and discipline our enunciation of those facts with a sort of deeper understanding of what history and contemporary social structure have wrought in terms of racial hierarchy, in terms of white supremacy? In terms of the comfort that we have in enunciating those facts, in terms of the political consequences of so many people enunciating those facts, not taking that on board abets, reproduces, reifies, legitimates, etches in more firmly hierarchical structures of racial domination. So the word racist, or racism, is entirely appropriate, no? Maybe it doesn’t, in these cases I’m describing, identify a kind of classical antipathy on the basis of race, because we’re no longer living in 1955, and yet the disparities and inequalities by race of wealth, power, privilege, opportunity, and comfort in this society are very, very great.” 

So it’s laissez-faire racism, what Larry Bobo, the sociologist at Harvard, calls it. In opinion surveys of populations, if you ask people things like “Would you be willing to see your daughter or son married to someone of the opposite race?”—a black person, if the subject is white—they’ll say yes at high rates; if you ask them, “Do you think blacks are inferior?” and they’ll say no at high rates. Whereas old, classical racism would dictate the opposite response. 

But if you say, “Are white people disadvantaged by affirmative action?” and they say, “Well, yeah, because my kid didn’t get into Harvard, and some black kid with a lower score got in,” well, some white kid with a lower score also got in, but you focused on the black kid. You see, you think you’re not a racist because you’re willing to see your son or daughter married to someone who’s black; you’re willing to stay in the same neighborhood if a black neighbor moves next door, but you interpret your son’s rejection at Harvard as a consequence of racial affirmative action. 

Well, Harvard accepts only 1 in 15 applicants, and a lot of people got in ahead of your son who are not black and who had lower scores. So maybe I’m trying to make the definition of racism more elastic than makes sense, but I think some of the proponents of a more capacious definition would say, “In the 1950s, your definition was fine. In the year 2016, we need to have a more subtle and expansive understanding of how this American disease is currently functioning.”

Sam: Let’s make it as capacious as possible. I want you to define what is often called structural or institutional racism. It seems to me that people talk about this in a way that you were just doing, even in such a way that people can participate in a structure that is de facto racist, and perpetuating unfair treatment of people based on race, and yet the people operating in this structure may not, in fact, be racist at all. Let’s say everyone passes Mazarin’s test, nobody is harboring any bias, yet structures and institutions could still be deeply unfair.

Glenn: I want to say at the outset that I personally am not a big fan of the current fad to invoke “structural racism” as a meaningful category of social analysis. I often don’t know quite what people are talking about beyond observing that blacks come out on the short end of the stick by many measures of social achievement or status. Let me give incarceration as a case in point. Blacks are 12% or so of the American population, and 40% or so of the people who are behind bars. 

Now, that’s a complicated, big social phenomenon, and you could do a very elaborate social scientific investigation of what all the sources of that disparity are. But simply put, the weight of the state, the violence of the state, where the police come and drag you away in handcuffs and lock you up… Where you’re guarded and surveilled, you’re pursued by agents of the state, you’re stigmatized, you’re civically excommunicated, you’re held in contempt, you’re treated badly… Such a large disparity exists in the society in incidents of that kind of treatment by race. 

That is sort of ipso facto an indication of structural racism: The state stands up police forces, they build these cages, they corral people in them—and look at the impact this is having on the black community. In some cities, the proportion of young men who are incarcerated or have a criminal record who are black is a third, or 40%. It becomes a normal way of life. Young women go to the prison to try to find mates and pen pals. Kids see the role models of ex-cons with their tattoos and their buffed up bodies coming in and out of prison. It becomes normative in these communities. 

We have a school-to-prison pipeline, because discipline of youngsters in schools seems to be somehow connected to their subsequent development into criminals. We have a prison-industrial complex, because indeed, there is money to be made in the provision of the services associated with incarceration, and it’s being made by private corporations and so on. I think many people would say this is a prime example of structural racism. The structures of law enforcement come down like a ton of bricks on people who are situated in the society at the margins because of our history of racism. 

And by the way, if the same forces had been coming down with the same degree of severity on white people, the structure would be able to reform itself. Questions would arise. Three strikes and you’re out would look very different if most of the people suffering under that kind of punitive regime were white. But because they’re black and brown, we can write them off. We don’t question ourselves. Business as usual seems acceptable when the people who are bearing the cost of it are black. So I’m not sure I’m answering your question…

Sam: You are.

Glenn: This is one of the reasons why I think the term “structural racism” is so compelling to many people. But I, a social scientist, find the evocation of that kind of one-size-fits-all narrative—structural racism—inadequate to getting an account of what’s actually going on.

It’s not as if there’s a bunch of white people meeting somewhere deciding to make the laws in order to repress blacks. And it’s not as if the outcomes that people are concerned about—in the example at hand, disparities in the incidence of incarceration—are independent of the free choices and decisions that are being made by people, in this case black people, who might end up finding themselves in prison. They made a decision to participate in criminal activities that were clearly known to be illicit and perhaps carried the consequences that they are now suffering, didn’t they? 

Sometimes the decisions they make have enormous negative consequences for other black people. Do we want to inquire about what’s going on in the homes and communities and backgrounds from which people are coming who are the subjects of this racial inequality? Or are we to assume that any such deficits or disadvantages that are causally associated with their involvement in lawbreaking, and that are related to their own community organization, structures of family, attentiveness of parenting, and so forth, are nevertheless themselves the consequence of white racism? Black people wouldn’t be acting that way if it weren’t for white racism. If there were greater opportunity, if the schools were better funded, if it hadn’t been for slavery, the black family wouldn’t have… So forth, and so on. 

If that’s what you mean by structural racism, which is to say, every racial disparity is almost by definition a consequence of racism, either because it reflects contempt for the value of black life, and the neglect of the development of black people, or because to the extent that it is a consequence of choices that black people are making themselves, they are making such choices only because of the despair, the neglect, the lack of opportunity, etc., that they have experienced, then it seems to me that that’s a kind of tautology that says, “Any disparity by race is, by definition, a reflection of structural racism.” 

That’s a tautology that, as a social scientist, I don’t want to embrace. And as an African-American, I’m profoundly skeptical of it because at some level, it seems to me, it kind of surrenders the possibility of African-American agency, saying that everything that is of a negative character, that is a reflection of inequality, of disparity, in which blacks are on the short end of everything, is a consequence of this history. How is it that blacks are unable to make our own lives notwithstanding whatever the history may have been? 

Are there not variations and differentiations within the black population that one could identify and extol the virtue of—certain patterns of behavior and reactions to environmental conditions that seem to be effective and more life-affirming, more successful, than others? I don’t like structural racism because it’s imprecise, because it’s a kind of dead end. It leaves us, I mean African-Americans, dependent upon a kind of dispensation to be bestowed by powerful whites, who actually are moral agents, who actually do have the ability to choose or not various ways of life, including responding affirmatively to our demands for redress of our subordination. 

Whites are powerful; whites are agents; whites can do the right thing or the wrong thing. Blacks are merely historical chips. We’re merely cogs, being driven by the fact of slavery, by the fact of Jim Crow segregation, and so on, and ultimately not responsible for our own and our children’s lives.

Sam: It’s a very complex picture. One thing I just got from what you said is that even if it’s true—even if you could draw a straight line from slavery and Jim Crow to the state of inequality and social dysfunction in the black community, as a matter of history and a matter of causality through time—that’s not to say that in the year 2016 the ambient level of white racism is the ongoing cause of these problems, and that if you could just get white people to be less racist, if you could wave a magic wand and literally dissect out all the racism harbored by white people on any level, that would magically correct for all the problems you just articulated.

If you really can trace that line—that 200-year-old line to the present —where does that leave you? It seems to leave you with something like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s picture of reality, where what we should be talking about now is paying reparations for slavery. I don’t know what I think about that remedy—but I know what I think about Coates’s style of talking about this issue, and the fact that I’m talking to you and not to him suggests where I think the more profitable and civil and rational conversation is going to be had. 

At one point, someone recommended that I have Coates on the podcast, and honestly, I feel like the conversation would have been a disaster. His way of speaking about these issues just strikes me—to put this in starkly invidious terms from which he would want to defend himself—as not intellectually honest. There’s a kind of pandering to white guilt and black rage that never stops—where one can’t just talk about facts in a civil way—and that worries me.

Glenn: We can talk more about Coates if it suits you. And I’m happy to not do so. But I want to mention the name Thomas Chatterton Williams. He’s an African-American, maybe 10 years younger than Coates, which puts him in his early 30s. He lives in Paris, he’s a trained philosopher, graduated from Georgetown University, and I’m not sure where he did his graduate study, but I think he did some graduate study in philosophy as well. 

He has an essay in the London Review of Books, a review essay of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Williams uses Coates’s open letter to his son—in which he advises his son that America is so thoroughly contemptuous of your value as a human being that you must not ever, ever relax. You must not trust these people or turn your back on them. They will rip you to shreds. There’s nothing more American than taking a guy like you, hanging you from a lamppost, and tearing your limbs off one by one. Don’t believe in the American dream. We are up against an implacable force. That force erases your humanity. It’s always been so, and it will always be so. (This is a paraphrase of the posture that Coates takes in Between the World and Me; I think it’s an accurate paraphrase.)—Williams uses it as a point of departure to say, “There’s no place to go from here for black people. This is an absolutely bleak landscape—and it is disempowering. It just surrenders agency. There is only one possible future here, and it’s a very bleak one indeed.” And Williams thinks that’s untrue of the actual socio-historical circumstances in the United States—it’s rather more complicated than that—but he also thinks it’s a soul killer. That it’s an essential surrender of one’s humanity to take such a posture.

I just want to mention that for listeners who might not have come across Thomas Chatterton Williams—who, by the way, submitted that essay to The New Yorker, I happen to know on good authority, and it sat on an editor’s desk for many months and was eventually killed. It’s an absolutely brilliant if controversial engagement with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. Williams ended up taking it to the London Review of Books because it couldn’t get published in the United States, because the liberal cognoscenti, the ruling class of cultural mandarins, will not tolerate that kind of argument from an African-American contra the stance that Ta-Nehisi Coates is taking. 

So that’s one thing I want to mention. The other, and I’ll be very brief, is Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of the city of New Orleans. At the Ideas Festival at Aspen a couple of years ago, Landrieu and Coates were paired up in a panel in which they were discussing race and inequality in America, and Coates was taking the posture that we know he would take, and Landrieu was armed with what he called “The Books of the Dead”—literally the casebooks from his police department in the city of New Orleans that recorded the details of as yet unresolved homicide cases in that city. There were hundreds of them. 

And 90% or more of the victims in these cases were black people, and Landrieu was trying to say in response to Coates’s arguments about the implacability of American racism, and the erasure of black humanity, and the devaluation of the black body, that black people are killing themselves in very large numbers. He’s not a Sean Hannity conservative wagging his finger about black-on-black crime: This is Mitch Landrieu, a centrist Democrat, mayor of New Orleans, a scion of a political family of some prominence, Democrats in Louisiana.

And confronting Ta-Nehisi Coates in a debate about race and inequality in America, in which Coates had taken a position that we know he takes, Landrieu tried to gently call to the attention of the audience the observation that much of the threat to the integrity of black bodies and black life is coming from other black people, offering as evidence of that his so-called “Books of the Dead.”

Coates’s response to Landrieu was to dismiss him with the back of his hand—this, by the way, is written up in New York magazine. Search “New York Magazine, Coates and Landrieu,” and you’ll find a very long essay about Ta-Nehisi Coates that reports on this. Coates’s response was to give Landrieu the back of his hand: “There ain’t nothing wrong with black people that ending white supremacy wouldn’t fix. What do you expect people to do? They’re rats in a barrel, you’ve got the lid on the barrel. You open the lid and peek down in there and you find that they’re at each other’s throats. Well, what would you expect to happen? It’s the friggin’ barrel, man. You gonna blame the rats?” 

Okay, that’s my metaphor and not what Ta-Nehisi Coates might have used, but it’s capturing this idea that the mayhem—the despicable devaluation of life attendant to people riding up and down the street in an automobile with heavy weapons, firing them more or less aimlessly out the window at their gang rivals, and killing innocent bystanders along the way, and this happening in the scores and hundreds within a year in a given city—that kind of mayhem, that kind of contempt for human life shown by black people toward other black people, is not relevant to assessing what it is that actually imperils black life, because those behaviors are the consequence of a system and a history of oppression. 

Now, you can say this. You can say this with eloquence and style, you can say this with fury and anger, you can say this with economy of word and clever turn of phrase, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has been given to do. But that doesn’t make it a valid, moral argument. It seems to me, and I’ve said this before, that Coates was holding a pair of queens and looking at an ace face-up, and he was bluffing. In other words, he was daring Mitch Landrieu to come back at him and say, “What an absurdity. You’re telling me that people have to run up and down the street firing guns out of windows and killing their brethren because we didn’t get reparations for slavery handed over to you yet? Because somebody who was mayor of this city 10 years ago happen to be a racist? Because the police department has somebody who’s affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan in it? And you’re telling me that that explains or somehow excuses or cancels out the moral judgment that I would otherwise bring to bear in any other community in which I saw this happening? You’re telling me that the history of slavery and Jim Crow, now essentially in the past, is responsible for this lived experience on a daily basis of African-Americans? You’re beneath contempt to talk in that way. You’re the one who has no real respect for the value of black life—you live in a bubble. Why don’t you get out of it and walk the streets of some of these places where people are dying?”

Then Coates would flash out, “Oh, well, I was raised in Baltimore, and I’ve seen enough gang activity, and I know what’s going on inside and out, and I’ve been there and whatever.” And Landrieu could say, “The body count continues to mount while your blather titillates the cultural elite in Washington, DC, and New York City and gives guilty white people an excuse not to feel so guilty. While you blather on, we’re actually burying the dead.”

Landrieu might have responded to him like that. He might have told him, “Get the heck out of here with that nonsense that attempts to intellectualize what any person with common sense can see is an absolute disaster. You’re blaming white people for black people living like barbarians? You’re blaming white people for that?”

Sam: Now you’ve convinced me that we need to stage a public debate between you and Coates and put it on prime-time television. That would be well worth seeing.

Let’s talk about the mayhem and get into the question of violence. So here’s the basic picture as I understand it: America is distinguished as one of the most violent societies in the developed world, as almost everyone knows—but this almost entirely due to the level of crime and violence in the black community. This is true even if you include all the mass shootings by crazy white guys. Violent crime in America is overwhelmingly a problem of black men killing other black men.

What I just learned in preparation for this podcast is that this has been a problem more or less since the end of slavery. I’m kind of embarrassed not to have had a complete picture of this problem before now. You recommended the book Ghettoside on your podcast, which I also recommend. I just learned that this disparity in violence didn’t start with the crack epidemic in the 80s, which is more or less what I thought and what I think many people believe. You can read newspaper editorials in the 19th century that give the predictable racist topspin to this, where they say, more or less, “This is God’s form of population control. Let the black man kill himself out of existence, that works for us.” But this problem of black men killing other black men is an old problem. 

Again, I’m not saying that white racism or structural racism don’t have some role to play here. But the fact is that black men are killing other black men in overwhelming numbers. Violent crime in America peaked in 1993, and it has fallen precipitously since, perhaps with the exception of a recent uptick in major cities, which people fear is due to cops now being afraid they’ll be caught on cell phone cameras arresting black suspects. This has been called “the Ferguson effect.” Do you have an opinion at this point about whether the Ferguson effect is actually real, or is the jury still out on that?

Glenn: I think the jury is still out on it. I don’t think enough time has gone by with enough data for there to be a persuasive empirical argument. It’s speculation. You do have the accounts of some people active in law enforcement in cities around the country saying indeed morale is low, or everybody’s armed with a mobile phone recording device now and the cops are afraid to do their jobs. You have this kind of anecdotal evidence. Heather MacDonald, whose book The War on Cops has just come out recently, is a leading proponent of the Ferguson effect. 

There is a guy, Richard Rosenfeld, at the University of Missouri−St. Louis, an expert criminologist, who has recently been saying that at first he thought the Ferguson effect was an exaggeration, but now, with the uptick in data of violent crime in cities and so forth, he’s not so sure. 

So some people are big proponents of it, a lot of people are deniers of it, and Richard Rosenfeld—I’d place him in the middle as a relatively objective observer—is saying the jury is out, so I’m going to go with him and say, as far as I can tell, it’s not clear one way or the other quite yet.

Sam: These are facts that some might be familiar with, but many of the numbers I have now are plucked from that book, Ghettoside. At its peak—and again, this is 1993—the homicide rate for black men in their early 20s in a city like Los Angeles was 368 per 100,000 per year. That is 100 times higher than is normal in any civilized society that we would recognize. In fact, it’s probably 200 times higher than most cities in Western Europe, and don’t even think of comparing it to someplace like Japan. This rate of death by homicide was similar to that suffered by U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq at the height of the war. 

So you have young black men who are literally living in a zone, and they’re killing one another. The crime rate has fallen since, but it might not have fallen quite as much in the black community. The facts at the moment, as I understand them, are that black men make up 6% of the population and are currently 40% of those who get murdered. And they die, in the vast majority of cases, at the hands of other black men, who commit more than 50% of the murders in the country. Do I have my facts straight up to this point?

Glenn: I don’t have a book open in front of me to give exact numbers, but as far as I know, those numbers are accurate. Certainly qualitatively, they’re in the ballpark. I’ve seen the same kind of statistics.

Sam: I’ll put one other fact in play here: There’s been a problem of extraordinarily bad policing in the black community, and far too often by white cops. As you know, there have been some very visible instances of cops who’ve used inappropriate force in arresting or in defending themselves from black suspects, and the result is that the community believes itself to be unfairly profiled for crime, and that it suffers an inordinate number of lethal encounters with cops as a result. We’re going to talk about whether that perception is true, in terms of the level of lethality from encounters with cops, but there’s no question that a movement like Black Lives Matter is born of the perception that these things are true, and that white racism, whether it’s implicit or explicit, is the underlying cause of all this. 

But one thing I got from Ghettoside—and you mentioned this already—is that there’s a lot of talk about how the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and incarcerates young black men. That seems to be true when you’re talking about petty crimes, or when you’re talking about the War on Drugs, which has been a disaster. But murders in the black community generally go unsolved, and the main reason is that witnesses refuse to testify. Obviously some of that reluctance is understandable, because witnesses afraid of getting killed. But it seems to me that this is a problem that can’t be pinned on police misconduct or white racism. 

So, the problem is that you have murderers walking around unpunished. The state monopoly on violence just doesn’t exist in these neighborhoods, and so people either refuse to testify or take the law into their own hands, and it perpetuates the cycle of violence. Paradoxically, or seemingly paradoxically, the black community is suffering from too much application of law and order on petty crimes, and on nonviolent drug crimes (which I have argued that no one should be punished for) and too little law and order on crimes that really matter. If the Ferguson effect is real, it would be a terrible irony, because the solution to violence in the black community can’t be a matter of neglect from law enforcement.

Glenn: Okay, you said quite a bit there. There are a number of things I want to touch on in response; I hope I can remember all of them. Jill Leovy is the author of Ghettoside, this book you’ve been referring to. She does a great service with her granular, on the ground, detailed account of what homicide detectives trying to deal with the problems of killing in South Central Los Angeles are up against. And you’re right: One of the things they’re up against is the difficulty of persuading people who have the information necessary to bring a case effectively in court against someone alleged to have committed a murder to cooperate with the police.

Jill Leovy wants to underscore what horrible consequences follow from the fact that it’s possible to kill more or less with impunity. If people don’t want to come in to testify, the effect of that will be to reduce the likelihood that anybody who actually commits one of these offenses will ever be brought to account. The idea that you can kill with impunity makes it possible to really intimidate witnesses. You can see how this becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-reinforcing dynamic. 

One thing I think sympathizers of Black Lives Matter and others would insist that I say here—and I don’t mind saying it—is that the unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate with the police is partly a reflection of their fear that they will suffer some reprisal, and also partly a reflection of their distrust of the police, which is itself a consequence of the historical practices of police in these communities.

So if the police have been bad actors—maybe only a few of them, but they get away with it—if the police are unsympathetic, they don’t know the community, don’t live there, if they treat people in their ordinary intercourse with citizens who are black with contempt, if they’re too quick to resort to violence in their encounters with black people, and in the extreme, if they’re prepared to use lethal force when it’s unjustified and the victims are black, who can blame the community for not wanting to snitch, not wanting to have anything to do with the police? 

So in a way this cycle of violence could be traced, if one looks carefully, to the consequences of racism. And in the case at hand, alienation between the communities and the police is a consequence of racism affecting the police with the community in days gone by. The other thing I think I should say—and again, people would want to make this point, they’d make it right away—is that there can be no surprise that most of the murders with blacks as victims have been perpetrated by black people, because murder is the kind of crime in which more often than not, the person who was victimized and the person who commits the crime are connected to each other in some way. 

They may know each other because they’re a part of the same social network, or they’re located in the same general geographic social space. People kill those who are connected to them in some way, and given the segregated patterns of social affiliation and residential location in our society, we can’t be surprised that most of the blacks who are killed are killed by other blacks. It’s also true that most of the whites who are killed are killed by other whites. That’s an argument that people will make. I don’t think it’s adequate to the problem that you’ve described, because it doesn’t account for the two orders of magnitude difference in the rate at which people are being killed. 

It’s almost tautological to say that most people who are killed are going to be killed by somebody who looks like them, in the sense that they are of the same race. But that doesn’t speak to the issue of these killings occurring at so much higher a rate. So it still makes sense to talk about black people killing black people, not as a matter of emphasizing the race of the persons who are killed as much as emphasizing the qualitatively distinct character of the killing. Finally, I want to say something that my colleague and friend Rajiv Sethi, an economist at Columbia University, Barnard College, would insist that I say, and I think it’s a point worth making, which is that sometimes killing and epidemics of killing have a kind of logic of their own. 

In the sense that if I think somebody is trying to kill me—suppose I have a dispute, suppose I step on this fellow’s shoe? The shoe was newly shined, he’s sitting on the bus with his foot slightly out, and now I walk past and I step on the shoe. He looks up at me and expects an apology, and I sneer at him and keep walking. Everybody sees it, and laughter breaks out somewhere in the bus. “Aw, man, he dissed you. He stepped on your shoe. You’re gonna let him do that?” So now we have a beef, right? He says to me, “You m-f, you dissed me like that? You step on my shoe and don’t apologize, I’m gonna friggin’ kill you.” He says it in exactly that tone, and then he gets off the bus. 

Now, how do I know that tonight or tomorrow I’m not going to be sitting on my porch and that fella’s going to drive by with his homeboys, and they’re going to start blasting out the window, and I or somebody I love is going to be dead? I’ve got a beef. It’s not like I can go to the cops and say, “This man threatened my life,” and expect that anything effective is going to happen. I just might want to take preemptive action. I might want to make sure that I’m the one who’s doing the shooting and he’s the one who’s doing the dying. 

So we have a situation where the fact that there is no dispute resolution mechanism on which I can rely, that will protect me and my person, protect my family and my household, leads me to want to take matters into my own hands. Suppose I know that if I go to the police—suppose a murder has happened, my brother is killed. There’s this now famous incident reported by Alice Goffman. Alice Goffman is a young sociologist whose book On the Run is an account of guys in Philadelphia who are being sought by the police authorities and who are on the lam, they’re trying to avoid being taken into custody. 

And she lives among them and gets to know them very well, and writes an ethnographic study of what life is like in this quarter of our society among people who are being sought by the law. The book is called On the Run, and I highly recommend it. Alice Goffman is a very fine, very promising young ethnographer. But in any case, she gets to know these guys very well, and one of their number is killed in a gang dispute that leads to gunplay. And the surviving friends—and she’s close to all of them—decide that they’re going to take matters into their own hands and get revenge, because otherwise nothing will happen. 

Given that there are so many unresolved homicide cases in America’s big cities, they know the chances that justice is actually going to be done are slim, and so they decide that they can’t let it stand. She actually records this in her book—she’s in the vehicle with the surviving buddies of this social group that she’s gotten to know, riding around looking for the assailant. She is driving them. And this became such a notorious thing because after all, she’s a scholar. She’s an academic. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

Sam: Did her grant money pay for the gas in that car?

Glenn: One wonders! And what would the institutional review board that’s supposed to supervise research involving human subjects have to say about this? But in any case, they don’t find the assailant, so she doesn’t actually become an accomplice to murder, but the anecdote underscores the fact that people may feel the need to take matters into their own hands, tit for tat, because they can’t rely on civil authority to resolve these things in a satisfactory way. 

So both the strategic preemption element and the kind of, there is no law except the law I made, and therefore it’s the Wild West and I’m going to settle this matter in my own way, will tend to elevate the level of this kind of violence within racially classed, geographically defined orbits of social interaction like inner-city neighborhoods. Those things might somehow account for some of the elevated level of homicide, although given the numbers—6% of the population, 40% of the murders—can you quantitatively account for that? I’m dubious about that. Other things must be going on, one imagines.

Sam: Well, to stick with your anecdote for a second, other things have to be going on because there is nobody, certainly not the cops, who can preemptively resolve a problem like that, even in the most effete and privileged circles in white society. If I’m walking through a Starbucks and I step on someone’s toe and this person gets pissed, the situation doesn’t escalate because I will almost certainly apologize. And if I’m so distracted that I don’t apologize, and he says something, my culturally acquired conflict-resolution skills will kick in, one hopes, to a degree that will mollify him, and I will not be left with the sense that someone now believes it’s his full-time job to figure out how to kill me. But at no point in that process do I get to appeal to the cops or even to the barista in the Starbucks to resolve the matter. And if it does escalate, if it comes to the point where this guy is actually committed to killing me, I’m in the same situation you are in, in the hood. I receive death threats, and I know what it’s like to talk to the FBI and the cops to try to resolve those situations. There is very little they can do preemptively. This is not Minority Report, where you can arrest people for “pre-crime.” The level of threat has to be extraordinarily high before anyone from the state will take action preemptively.

So, we’re talking about cultural memes, attitudes, and norms that must be allowing for the regular eruption of lethal violence in the black community. And we’re often talking about teenagers, right? They don’t even have their brains fully wired up so that their frontal cortices could prevent this behavior…

Glenn: Let me say this to you, Sam, just very quickly. Your Starbucks analogy is interesting in the sense that it underscores your privilege in the following way…

Sam: I was deliberately underscoring my privilege. In fact, I was trying to think of something fancier than Starbucks, but couldn’t.

Glenn: What I mean is this: You say “cultural memes.” I think we ought to unpack that a little bit. You, as a middle-class white person at a Starbucks, have absolutely no investment in your public persona as a tough guy. The advantages of your cultural location and social economic location are such that you lose nothing from offering that apology—by, you say, deploying your “conflict-resolution skills.” Well, yeah, partly they’re skills, but also partly they are the advantage of being nestled comfortably within a complex of social interactions in which a reputation for toughness is of no particular value to you. 

On the other hand, if you were someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates growing up in inner-city Baltimore 25 years ago as a teenager, it would be absolutely a burden on you going forward to be thought of as a pussy, to be thought of as a wuss, as weak, as somebody who backs down, as someone who doesn’t have the courage to fight. The cultivation of that kind of persona or reputation comes to be an automatic reflex in that kind of environment. You can’t seem to be somebody who would back down. A person living in inner-city Baltimore simply doesn’t have the luxury. 

It’s not as if they don’t know it’s not in their cultural toolkit—so this argument would go—to rely upon more civil means of conflict resolution, lowering the temperature and so forth. It’s that the bitter fruit of their isolation over such a period of time, with so little opportunity and so much damage that’s been done, is partly that they have to carry themselves through the world with a certain swagger. They have to evince a certain hair-trigger sensibility, and a willingness to go to the ultimate level if it comes to that. 

That’s just a way of being in the world cultivated of necessity in that environment. You can call it “culture” if you want to, but if you fail to see that it’s a product of history and the social oppression of African-Americans in these ghettos, you would be doing a grave disservice to the people who live there.

Sam: I agree with virtually all of that, and I could easily imagine suddenly finding myself in more or less the same condition. For instance, if I were sent to a maximum-security prison, well, then despite my best intentions and everything I know about how people should behave so as to maximize their mutual well-being, I would find myself with no choice, given the way the incentives are aligned there, to behave in precisely the way you’ve described. I’ve written about this before. 

It seems that the only rational choice for a person being sent to a maximum-security prison is to become immediately affiliated with the gang of his appropriate skin color so as to be as immune as possible in the perpetual race war that goes on in those prisons. You literally might not have a racist bone in your body—take Morris Dees, from the Southern Poverty Law Center: If he got sent to prison, the only rational choice would be for him to join a white-supremacist gang; otherwise everyone—white, brown, and black—will prey on him. 

So I understand that there are certain contexts, such as the inner city among gang members in the black community, that share many of the same incentives that one notices in a prison.

Let’s pivot to the issue of police violence. I want to kind of creep up on the Fryer study, which has received a lot of press. Let’s review a few facts first: 4% of blacks who die by homicide are killed by cops. So 96% are not killed by cops. Virtually all are killed by black men—there are not a lot of white men are killing black men. And, as you pointed out, not a lot of black men are killing white men either (though there are more homicides running in that direction). The fact is that most violence is intraracial. Incidentally, 12% of whites and Hispanics who die by homicide are killed by cops—so, at least by one measure, this is three times the rate at which blacks are killed by cops. 

As we get into this data, we should admit that statistics are a bit of a Rorschach test. It’s possible to read even valid statistics in misleading ways or in ways that are guided by bias. Needless to say, we’ll do our best not to do that, but here are just a few more facts as I understand them: A thousand people are killed each year in the U.S. by cops, more or less. Around 50% of the fatalities are white, and about 25% are black.

Glenn: Right.

Sam: Now, that’s double what you’d expect from the demographics, because as you said, about 12% to 13% of the population is black, but they commit, again, 50% of all violent crime, at least. In some cities it’s as much as two-thirds of all violent crime. So my question for you and for our listeners to ponder is, given how much crime black men are committing in our society—again, mostly against other black men—and given how much attention from the police they will naturally attract because of this, and should attract in the hopes of keeping black communities safe, what percentage of fatal encounters with cops would make sense? I mean, honestly, I am surprised. Even if I’d never heard of the Fryer study, which we’ll talk about, and was just looking at these data, I’m surprised that only 25% of the fatalities are black—that strikes me as surprisingly low.

Glenn: I cannot respond to your question—what percent should we expect given the aggregate statistics—since I don’t think those statistics are adequate to assess the individual encounters between black people and police that lead to shootings.

Let me explain that. I want to use an analogy: Let’s suppose that a survey finds that on average, women make 70 cents for every dollar that men make in the labor market. I just make that number up, but something like that is undoubtedly true—it’s certainly less than 100%. The 70% number has been thrown around. And someone says to me, “Given the fact that women have the bulk of the child-rearing responsibilities, often take time off from work in order to attend to those responsibilities, are disproportionately electing to pursue careers in lines of activity like caregiving or teaching or something like that”—I don’t mean to traffic in stereotypes, I’m just imagining a hypothetical response—“which pay less than, let’s say, construction work or engineering, or something like that… Given that men and women are different in so many ways, exactly what proportion of their earnings on the dollar would you expect? If you think 70 cents is too low, should it be 85? Certainly it shouldn’t be 100, given the fact that women are withdrawing from the labor force in order to disproportionately take on the child-rearing responsibilities and so on.” Let’s say someone says something like that.

Now, I don’t know how to answer that question when the moral issue is, are women being treated fairly in the workplace? Are they getting paid the same as men for the same work? So that’s kind of a question about what happens to an individual woman when she encounters an employer. And these aggregate averages don’t reach that question.

Sam: Understood. Given the background facts you described, I would expect women to work less, but I would still expect them to get paid the same for doing precisely the same job. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be some economic consequences for working less: You might not advance up the hierarchy as much as men in the aggregate. But the two vice presidents of the same company, man and woman, should be paid the same, and I think that’s clear.

I guess the issue here is that if there is much more crime being perpetrated by black men, and the call to the cops usually runs, “Somebody’s just been shot.” “Can you describe the shooter?” “Yeah, he was a black guy.” When the cops show up, they are going to be looking for and encountering black men more than white men. Given that any encounter with a cop can escalate, to the point of lethal violence, whether reasonably or by dint of incompetence on the part of the cops, you’d expect the rate to be higher than just the demographic of 12% would suggest.

Glenn: We’re on the same page here. Yes, we would expect the rate to be higher. The question is, how much higher? That was the question that you asked me. Likewise, as you say, fairness would dictate that if it were the same job, the man and the woman should be paid the same rate. But the question would be, how would I know from aggregate statistics whether or not I was really comparing like with like? I need individualized data. I need data at the level of the encounters between police and citizens to assess whether or not the circumstances in which blacks and the police encounter each other, and the subsequent rate of killing, are similar.

Sam: That seems like a perfect segue to talk about the Fryer study.

Glenn: It is. What I regard to be virtuous about that study, and you should introduce it properly, is the fact that such conclusions as are drawn there—subject to certain qualifications we might want to bring—are based upon individualized data of encounters between officers and citizens, not upon a comparison of aggregate rates across large collectivities where you don’t really know whether you’re comparing like with like.

Sam: This study was performed by Roland Fryer at Harvard, who, I believe, was a student of yours, is that correct?

Glenn: And that’s an important qualifier. I like Roland Fryer very much. I was his mentor when he was in graduate school, and he and I have written some papers together. We’re very good friends and close colleagues. I’m proud of him. He’s now one of the leading young—young meaning under 40—applied economists working today.

Sam: So you’re probably in a better place to summarize the findings of this study as well as its flaws. Some people have pointed out specific limitations, and one of them that I’m aware of is Rajiv Sethi, who you just mentioned, and this was actually on your podcast. He was concerned that the characteristics of the sample of people arrested didn’t match those of the people who were killed. Perhaps you can discuss the Fryer findings and the limitations as you currently see them. I also recall that Fryer’s data are not representative of the whole nation: He looked at specific cities.

Glenn: It’s an ongoing project, and I expect we are going to see more out of it as time goes on. The study in question, which was reported about in a front-page piece in the New York Times just after it was released, is now a working paper at the National Bureau for Economic Research. Anyone can find that online and can download the study and look at it. It’s based on data from the city of Houston. Fryer’s ongoing project has data from other cities as well, but the study at hand, its main findings, are based upon data from Houston. 

I’ll explain in more detail exactly what these data are. Fryer is trying to control for the specific aspects of the encounter between a police officer and the citizen—things like what part of town does it occur in? What time of day? Is the suspect armed? Did the police come to the scene as a consequence of a report of illegal activity? Was the suspect resisting or in some other way attempting to avoid being processed by a police officer? Were third parties, innocent third parties, endangered by the behavior of the suspect?

All these kinds of details of the encounter are known to Fryer, and he attempts to control for them in an effort to ascertain whether the likelihood that the police officer discharges his weapon is greater when the suspect is black, other things being equal. Now this last—other things being equal, ceteris paribus—is critical. So the way he proceeds is, he’s got two populations of people in citizen-police encounters in the city of Houston, and this is based upon data made available to his research team by the Houston Police Department. 

One population is arrestees. Within a given period of time, for all the persons who are arrested by Houston police, a detailed report has to be filed by the police officer, and Fryer has access to these narrative accounts. So police officers need to write it up, and they write up what happened—leading to the arrest, the justification for the arrest, and so on—and that’s all reported. So that’s the arrestee population. And Fryer knows, for example, whether or not the police officer discharged a weapon in the process of prosecuting the arrest. 

Separately he has the population of people who were shot by police officers. So the universe of people who were arrested by police is thought of as those who were most likely to be the victims of a shooting. 

Sam: Shooting by cops.

Glenn: Yes, they were susceptible to being shot by a cop. They either were or they were not, but the fact that they were arrested means that there was an encounter in which shooting might have occurred. So he’s got this zero-one variable: It’s one if the shooting occurred, and zero if it didn’t occur. Of course, in the vast majority of the arrests, shooting didn’t occur. We use this little so-called logistic regression analysis to estimate the probability that a shooting would occur in the context of an arrest as a function of the features of the arrest, which are such as I described: where, when, and under what conditions did the policeman encounter the citizen, and also whether the citizen is black.

And what Fryer is finding is that the likelihood of the police officer shooting in this arrest population—once you control for every aspect that Fryer can observe about the encounter between a police officer and a citizen—is no greater if the citizen is black than if the citizen is white. Indeed, it’s slightly less than if the citizen is white. 

So on that basis, he concludes that the likelihood of the use of deadly force by a police officer is not greater if you’re black once you control for the features of the encounter between the police officer and the citizen. As well, he finds that the likelihood that the police would use physical force in their encounter, short of shooting—putting cuffs on someone, using a baton or a Taser, forcing them to lie down on the street while they’re being interrogated, what Fryer speaks of generically as the laying on of hands—is greater. 

Again, he does the same kind of analysis: Is some kind of physical force, short of deadly force, used against the suspect? As a function of all the things that we can see about the encounter, including the race of the suspect, does it seem to depend, once you control for those other things, on the race of the suspect? His answer there is yes: about a 25% greater chance that some kind of force, short of shooting, will be used against the suspect if he’s black than if he’s white—other things being equal—and about a 28% or so lower probability that shooting will be used against the suspect if he’s black.

So that’s the broad outline of his findings. Race is implicated: blackness is a factor in the police use of force, short of deadly force, but is not implicated as a factor, and indeed the number goes the other way in police shooting a suspect. This in Houston.

Now, here are some of the concerns that Rajiv Sethi and others have raised about this finding: The only way we know about it is because the police department is willing to let this research team look at their data in depth. Some police departments do that, some don’t. Not only is this finding limited to Houston, because it’s only Houston data that we have, and we don’t know if it applies to New Orleans or Dallas or Los Angeles, but also we should be suspicious, because the fact that Houston would let you get the data could be indicative of the fact that Houston knows that the data are largely exculpatory, and the police department where the data would not be exculpatory is not letting you see the data. 

So you can’t draw any valid conclusion about policing as such from the fact that you have these data, not only because it’s only one city, but because it’s not a representative city. The fact that they’re giving you the data is itself an indication that they are not representative. So that’s one major line of critique.

Now, Fryer is aware of this, but he can only analyze the data that he has. It’s an ongoing project. There are other cities with which he has been in contact. I don’t know what all they are. Camden, New Jersey, I know he’s been very active there. New York City has turned over all its stop-and-frisk data to him over a period of years, which he is also in the process of analyzing. And by the way, the preliminary analysis of the New York City stop-and-frisk data confirms his finding that police are more likely to use force, short of deadly force, against suspects if the suspects are black.

The other criticism, though, is that because he relies on arrest data for the universe of people who might be shot by the police in his effort to ascertain whether or not the shooting is dependent upon the race of the suspect, he has implicitly to assume that the processes leading to an arrest work in the same way regardless of the race of the suspect. 

In order to draw any valid conclusion about whether or not, based on those data, the police are more or less likely to shoot at somebody given that they’re black, he has to assume, for example, that the pool of black arrestees is comparable, in its degree of threat posed to police officers, to the pool of white arrestees. But suppose, says Rajiv and others, that the police are menacing relatively innocent black people and arresting them. Sandra Bland gets arrested in Texas for talking back to a police officer when she’s stopped for a broken taillight or for not signaling a lane change or whatever, and she’s actually taken into custody. But a white person in the same circumstance perhaps wouldn’t have been taken into custody. 

Suppose something like that is true, so the black population of arrestees disproportionately consists of people who are relatively less threatening than the white population. Rajiv points out that there are differences by race in some of the other characteristics of the arrestee population. The blacks who were arrested were less likely to be armed than the whites, for example. There are relatively more women among blacks in the arrested population than there are among whites in the arrested population, and things of this kind. So suppose the police are discriminatory in how they decide about arresting people and are quicker to arrest blacks, who are less threatening, than whites? 

Then the black population of arrestees, if that’s true, is on average less threatening than the white population. So finding that the rate at which they are shot is comparable to the rate at which whites are shot is not proof of no discrimination, but rather it’s proof of the fact that they’re being discriminated against, because on the hypothesis that they were less threatening —the blacks who were arrested—we should have expected a much lower rate of shooting, not a comparable rate of shooting, in that population. 

So if Fryer is wrong about the implicit assumption that the police do not discriminate in the processes that lead to someone being arrested based on race, then he’s also wrong in the conclusion that, from his data, which is based on the arrested population, the likelihood of being shot by the police officer is roughly the same or maybe even a little bit lower if you’re black. It’s based on assumptions that are not verified in the data, assumptions in this case that the police are biased in the process of arrest.

Sam: That’s fascinating, and I think it’s obviously hugely important research to continue. I would add that at least one other study I know of—I just saw the coverage in the Washington Post—lends some support to Fryer. It was not a real-world data study, it was a simulator study where they put cops in a shooting simulator and watched their choices about who they shot. In that case, they were actually slower to shoot black suspects than white ones. 

Again, if valid, who knows if this is a recent phenomenon resulting from all the attention that’s been brought to this problem? But in any case, those data are out there. I think there are other data that add another wrinkle here, where black officers are actually more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white officers are—which cuts against the narrative of racist policing.

Glenn: You said this earlier, and I think it deserves to be underscored. The energy behind the animus, the angst, the sense of outrage behind the Black Lives Matter movement—“Just stop killing us. We want you to stop killing us”—is premised on a claim that we know that people are being shot. You say, “What should the number be, given the disproportion of blacks and crime?” I say, “That’s a hard question to answer without individualized data, which we don’t have enough of,” and so on, and so on. But behind the movement lies the presumption that race is factoring causally in police officers’ decision to use deadly force in their encounters with citizens. 

In effect, the counterfactual that’s being entertained is, if this person had been white, they wouldn’t have been killed. So take a very graphic example: Tamir Rice—that’s the 12-year-old in Cleveland, in a park, playing with a toy gun that the police presumably mistook for real, and they took his life. The sense people have is, had he been a white boy at 12 years old in exactly the same circumstance, he wouldn’t have been killed. Now, as a social scientist, I recognize that question. I recognize it because of the difficulty of being able to give a valid statistical answer to it, because no one will ever live in the parallel universe in which the suspects in these particular instances were, by an experiment, sometimes black, sometimes white, and we see what the police do.

Nobody lives in that parallel universe, and the problem of drawing a valid statistical inference about a question like that, when we have imperfect data and we live in a nonexperimental world, is a huge problem. That’s spoken as a social scientist. We don’t have good data to draw statistical conclusions, but we do have the videotape evidence, and we do have the recordings on the cell phones of particular incidences.

You pointed out correctly that around 1,000 people are killed by the police in this country every year. One thousand. We have a dozen videos. We have 1,000 people killed, we have a dozen videos. Let’s make it 50. Let’s suppose we have 50 videos. We have 1,000 people killed, so what we’ve got are crumbs. We’ve got anecdotes, we’ve got sensationalized cases. Perhaps they’re cherry-picked, perhaps they’re not representative, perhaps the most egregious cases are the only ones that come to our attention. Should we have a national narrative leading to a movement, leading to large demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country, leading in some instances to violent, retaliatory actions? 

I’m not blaming that on the movement. I’m just saying it happens in the context in which this kind of discussion is ongoing, driven by anecdotes and untethered from any rigorous and systematic investigation of such evidence as is available to us that attempts at least to be comprehensive and to deal with the universe, and not the cherry-picked cases. As a social scientist, I would want to say no; as an observer of culture and politics, I would say that it’s very hard to keep the narrative in the box. 

Once it gets out of the box, once it becomes compelling to people, once they start making analogies with slave suppressions, and American cities in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and they start saying, “This is a part of a very old American story”—once we turn Ta-Nehisi Coates loose on a dozen cases, all of which are buttressed by tape recordings and such, it takes on a life of its own. And this is a grave concern to me, that serious political consequences can flow from circumstances that are perhaps not very well understood.

Sam: I’m very worried about this as well. I worry that Black Lives Matter, if it got all the attention that it wants, could set race relations back in this country a generation. Obviously I’m not aware of everything that is said under the banner of Black Lives Matter, and it could be that some highly rational and impeccable people are advocating in the stream of this movement. But I’ve seen it filtered through the left-wing media that is largely, if not entirely, sympathetic to the movement. And most of what I have heard—in particular about these videos and the cases about which we don’t have videos but which have been well described, like the Michael Brown shooting—has struck me as dangerously and offensively irrational.

Here’s the core issue for me: These cases run the full gamut of police malfeasance and culpability on the one end to completely predictable and even rational uses of force on the other, and everything in between. So on the one end you have cops who are quite obviously guilty of murder, whether it’s from racism or some other deranged motive, and I would put the Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald shootings there. These cops, to my eye, clearly should never have been given a gun and a badge, and they belong in prison. And if I’m not mistaken, the cops involved in those shootings are actually being prosecuted for murder, so the system appears to be working in the right direction in those cases.

But on the other end, you have legitimate uses of force that would have happened 99 times out of 100 in the presence of any sane cop, and race surely had nothing to do with it. I would put the Michael Brown case pretty close to that end of the continuum. We don’t have a video of what happened, but the facts as reported suggest that he attacked a police officer and was trying to get his gun. 

If you’re trying to get a cop’s gun, it is only rational for him to believe that you intend to kill him with it. Whatever the color of your skin, you’re going to get shot. And if you don’t get shot, it’s either because you got very lucky, because the cop had amazing hand-to-hand skills and he just decided to spare your life, or because there were enough cops on hand to physically overpower you without requiring lethal force.
In the rest of these cases, you see almost every variety of incompetence, bad luck, poor training, and just basic human chaos, and I would put all these recent incidents, like Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, and frankly even Eric Garner somewhere in the middle here. 

These cases, the three I just mentioned, are totally unlike the extremes but they’re importantly different from one another too. One thing to point out is that in some of these videos, the video record itself can be profoundly misleading. Some start after the shooting occurred—you simply don’t know what precipitated it—and some that show the shooting don’t show you what the cops themselves saw. So you can’t really judge whether it was rational for them to feel that their lives were in danger. The range of these cases, ethically and as a matter of police procedure, is almost as wide as can be imagined. 

And then you throw the Trayvon Martin case in the mix, where the guy who shot him wasn’t even a cop and arguably wasn’t white, right? And yet all these cases are spoken about in the same breath as intolerable examples of murderous racism on the part of the police. So my problem—and again, this doesn’t subsume everything Black Lives Matter is doing—is that this seems to be the moral core of the movement, as far as I can tell. And these claims are not only inaccurate and unfair, they seem frankly dangerous to me.

Glenn: Okay, that’s a lot. Time is limited, but I think I need to respond. First, Black Lives Matter is not one thing. It’s an aggregation of a fairly large number of loosely connected initiatives and movements that are ongoing, so it’s going to be a little ragged around the edges. And you said you’re sure that some decent, upstanding, sensible people are involved. I don’t know the movement as well as I might, but from what I know, that’s certainly true.
I perhaps should make a confession. In the January 2015 Boston Review—that’s a literary and political magazine published out of Boston—I have a piece on the Ferguson matter, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the police officer, in which I say Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks, and he’s no Emmett Till, either. 

What I meant by “no Rosa Parks” is that Rosa Parks was a woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama and in effect started the civil rights movement with the subsequent protest in Montgomery, Alabama, and the bus boycott and so on. She is thought of in some circles as the mother of the civil rights movement. Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks, and I only meant to say, “Please don’t use this case as the template on which to try to build a national movement for racial justice.” And the reason I said that in that piece was precisely because I thought Brown was culpable in what happened, as best we know. 

Two separate investigations came to the same conclusion. The local authorities and the federal government both looked at that and concluded that the officer had acted reasonably under that circumstance. So please, don’t make a movement out of this. And he wasn’t Emmett Till, either: Emmett Till was the victim of a lynching in the 1950s in the South, and he became a celebrated case of racist violence against black people because his body was displayed for public viewing in a casket, even though it was partly decomposed because he had been murdered and then buried. It was a horrible thing to behold. 

So he’s a celebrated case, and I’m saying, you know, Michael Brown, as best we understand the facts, tried to assault a police officer, tried to take his weapon, and placed the police officer in fear for his life. I got tremendous negative reaction to that article, and I describe that in order to try to put my finger on a phenomenon. You say “irrationality,” you say these cases are different. Of course they’re different. You say that it’s dangerous and disconcerting that people would aggregate such cases into a generic indictment and then mount a movement on the basis of it. I agree with that. 

On the other hand, it would appear to me that if we were to step back as social analysts and just try to understand the dynamics of the phenomenon, we’d recognize that there’s a kind of logic. I mean, a movement will have its own momentum from the appropriation of these varied cases, and the eliding of important differences between them, and the suppression of specific factual information like the guy, George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida, was not white. He was of Latino background, and he was acquitted by a jury of his peers after they concluded that he had acted in defense of his life. People will say, “Well, he should never have been following Trayvon Martin in the first place.” 

I’m prepared perhaps to credit that. But that doesn’t change the fact that these inconvenient details in these various cases will be suppressed in the interest of affirming a narrative. The case fits the narrative, not the facts. The narrative has a momentum and a kind of “integrity”—I use the word in inverted commas—of its own. People are looking for evidence of racists. They don’t trust the proceedings of duly authorized tribunals that attempt to assess the facts. “We all know, don’t we, that the police lie. Why should I believe the outcome of any particular grand jury?” 

They don’t indict the guy who applied the chokehold in the Eric Garner case. No one’s going to talk about, well, why is the man resisting arrest in the first place? If he’d merely complied, the encounter would have ended in a mundane manner. No one is going to bother with the idea that, well, the cop was attempting to control a situation. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been using the chokehold, but he certainly didn’t attempt to kill anybody. The narrative has such a power of its own that these features are going to be suppressed, and indeed anybody who raises them—even a black person like myself—will be suspect. “Don’t you know that by dwelling on that kind of detail you are actually undercutting our effort to get justice for our people?”

Sam: One thing I see in these police videos in general—and I’ve seen a lot of these videos, for black arrests, white arrests, and I’ve trained with police officers, so I can see this from the other side—the overwhelming fact that comes through in these encounters, is that people don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. You mention resisting arrest. People simply have to stop resisting arrest, and they have to understand how the force continuum looks from a cop’s point of view. 

This will be a bit of a public service announcement. If you get nothing else from this end of the podcast, this is something you can take away that will actually keep you safer, and I think it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you’re wrestling a cop, or grabbing him, or pushing him, or striking him—you are very likely to get shot, whatever the color of your skin.

When you’re with a cop, there’s always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you physically overpower him, and he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not so confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re actually not well trained at that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger than them, or younger and more athletic, or more aggressive, and they’re not superheroes. Cops are just ordinary people with surprisingly little training, and once things turn physical, they can’t afford to just hope for the best.

This is something that people are totally confused about. They think that if they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, well then the cop should just be punching back, right? And any use of deadly force is, by definition, unwarranted. But that is just insanity. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckle boxer on earth. He can’t afford to get hit in the head and risk getting knocked out, because there’s a gun on the table. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it is a justifiable one given the dynamics of human violence. 

There’s a part in your podcast with Rajiv Sethi where I felt you guys were talking past one another a little bit. I recommend that people see that podcast, because it was very valuable on many points. On this point he was totally correct to insist that you should be able to be rude to a cop in our society without being physically punished for it, much less killed. And I think he’s right to think that it’s a measure of a civilized society that cops don’t start beating you just because you’ve been disrespectful.

Glenn: Sure.

Sam: But you were right to insist that people shouldn’t be rude to cops because it’s unwise. You should be respectful to a cop because you don’t want things to escalate. And again, Rajiv is right in saying that they shouldn’t escalate based on anything you might say, and if they do escalate, it’s the fault of the cop. He’s right to think that it’s the cop’s job to have a very thick skin and be totally professional in his dealings with the public. But on your side, do you really want to increase the risk to your own life by testing the emotional maturity of the guy with a gun? 

No, you do not. In my view, you have to deal with a cop like he’s a lethal robot who could malfunction at any time. And what I see in these videos is people who just have no idea what the implications are of grabbing a cop, pushing a cop, of doing whatever they’re doing to resist arrest.

Just think about this: It’s never up to you whether or not you should be arrested. How could it be? How could it ever be? Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? How could that fact be effectively communicated by your not following police commands? Unless you called the cop yourself, you actually never know what situation you’re in. 

If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know that the cop who approaches me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. So how am I the best judge of whether or not I should be arrested? The time to find out what’s going on—and again, I’m sorry for the public service announcement, but this is really important for people to understand—the time to find out what’s going on, the time to complain about racist cops, the time to punish them and the time to go ballistic, is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer. 

That’s the time to rectify all the problems in the system and to punish all the bad cops, which are surely out there. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when the guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand.

Glenn: That was a long statement, Sam, and I think it’s worth every minute of it. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. With respect to my colloquy with my friend Rajiv Sethi, you’re right: I do think we were talking past one another. I was making your point, which is that it’s unwise not to comply with a police officer when you’re in a situation in which he’s arresting you, or may arrest you, or detaining you, or whatever it might be—he may be doing so unfairly, but you should not attempt to resolve that dispute by resisting his prosecution of that situation. 

You should do it in another context. I certainly agree with that as a matter of prudence. But I was also making the point that as a citizen, one has an obligation to avoid that conflict with the police officer, notwithstanding the fact that the police officer may have made a mistake. That civility or interaction with the duly constituted institutions of authority in this society, which are there on your behalf, is a duty of citizenship. I was making that claim. You may not agree with that, but I was making that claim. That’s leading me to what I really want to say, which is that people for whom the institutions of police and authority have lost legitimacy are not going to be compelled by the observation that one has a duty to comply. 

They may be persuaded by the observation that it’s unwise not to comply, but there will still be resentment, maybe intense resentment. I’m thinking of some of these cases I mentioned during my conversation with Rajiv: Sandra Bland, the woman who was found dead in her jail cell—evidently of suicide, although that’s disputed—who gets into an altercation with a police officer who pulls her over for a minor traffic violation. “People shouldn’t be pulled over just because they changed lanes without signaling it; that’s harassment,” a person might say. 

She blows smoke in the police officer’s face, and he tells her to put the cigarette out, and she doesn’t comply. He loses his cool. Maybe he should not have lost his cool. Maybe he should have been more temperate in the circumstance. But she’s provoking him. She ends up being arrested. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—another celebrated case. This is the Harvard professor, arrested on his doorstep for breaking into his own house because he gets into an altercation with a police officer who’s been called to the scene, suspecting that a burglary might be in progress, and asks him to produce ID. 

He doesn’t respond to the police officer politely. Instead he berates the police officer for signaling him out for attention because he’s black. He ends up in handcuffs and being taken to the police station. The president of the United States even has to weigh in on the case. But these are cases where I would say that the background contempt for the institutions of authority associated with simply being black in America, and thinking of police as not necessarily being friendly to you, thinking that they’re profiling you, thinking that they’ve singled you out for attention, leads to the kind of contempt or disrespect or refusal to honor the law-enforcement officer in this circumstance. And that can, of course, backfire on people. 

Rajiv’s response to me was to suggest that I wanted black people to be passive and servile in interactions with police officers. He was saying, “Why should a person have to lower themselves to the position of being passive and servile simply because this person is wearing a uniform?” Of course I didn’t counsel passivity. I counseled civility. But the perception that even an act of civility is a kind of passivity is more likely to arise in the mind of somebody who resents the very fact of the presence of the police officer in the first place, and thinks that generically “the police, the cops” have it in for their kind. 

“So you’re asking me to be civil? In a way, I want to show my contempt as a reaction to what I believe to be the contempt that the officer has toward me.” That’s not a justification, but it may be, at least in part, an explanation for why so many people don’t follow your very sage advice.

Sam: Glenn, I’m now mindful of just how generous you’ve been with your time, because I’ve stolen at least 15 minutes more than we had budgeted. It’s been really a great pleasure and privilege to have you on the podcast, and I hope it’s just the first of many conversations we have by Skype or in person. Just to close, please tell people where they can find more of your work online—your Twitter handle and your website, in particular.

Glenn: My website is the Economics Department at Brown. I actually don’t even know my Twitter handle. God, forgive me, please. (@GlennLoury)

Sam: I’ll put it on my blog, so wherever this podcast is embedded on my website, you will find how you can learn more about Glenn online.

Glenn: And in my signature for my email to you, Sam, you’ll find a URL for my website.

Sam: Great, great. Glenn, thanks again. This has really been great.

Glenn: Take care, Sam. I really enjoyed talking to you. We have to find a happier subject next time.

Sam: Will do.


Sam: If you enjoyed this podcast, there are several ways you can support it: You can leave a review on iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you happen to listen to it; you can share it on social media with your friends; you can discuss it on your own blog or podcast; or you can support it directly at


sam harris

Being Good and Doing Good

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Oxford philosopher William MacAskill about effective altruism, moral illusions, existential risk, and other topics.

William MacAskill is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford. He was educated at Cambridge, Princeton, and Oxford. He is one of the primary voices in a movement in philanthropy known as “effective altruism” and the cofounder of three non-profits based on effective altruist principles: Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and the Centre for Effective Altruism. William is the author of Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference.

sam harris

The New Phrenology?

An article by Kate Murphy in the New York Times discusses a recent controversy in the field of fMRI over statistics. Although Murphy correctly observes that flawed methods of data analysis are a problem in neuroimaging, she falsely implies that our 2009 study of the neural correlates of belief employed the methods in question. Here is the letter that Mark S. Cohen, the senior author on that paper, sent to the Times.—SH

Mark S. Cohen is a Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, Radiology, Psychology, Biomedical Physics and BioEngineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Further information can be found at

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To the Editors:

In her opinion piece, “Do You Believe in God, or is that a Software Glitch,” Kate Murphy explores two very real problems: that science in the modern era often accepts a statistically low probability of error as a proxy for truth, and that analytic methods have become too complicated for many scientists to deeply understand.

Murphy calls out “fM.R.I.” (sic) as a glaring exemplar of the problem. As one of the earliest workers in the field, and as the senior author on the paper she references in the title and text, I feel compelled to comment.

The idea that fMRI has the potential for sloppy use has actually escaped no one. Shortly after its invention, I wrote an editorial drawing attention to the fact that this truly groundbreaking method of peering into our thoughts and consciousness carried with it the potential to become a quantum physics-based means of neo-phrenology [1]. That dual-edge of technology exists in proportion to its power in computers, genetic engineering, and in essentially any method that engages humans in interpreting results.

As scientists our core method is to form a hypothesis, then to devise a test that can controvert it. As data become more extensive, we rely on statistics and probability as a check against overenthusiastic belief in our guesses. Few understand that the science lies in the care that is placed in the theories, rather than in the calculated probabilities. The fMRI literature contains thousands of papers with very little prior theoretical basis, substituting instead a post-hoc speculation to explain the statistical findings; bad science, to be sure.

In the months since its publication, the paper by Eklund, Nichols and Knutsson [3] has been debated strenuously by the neuroimaging community. While some scientists responded defensively, as Murphy herself pointed out, researchers in this field have long been alarmed by the potential for statistical abuse. Scientists like Poldrack, Poline, Yarkoni, Nichols, and many others, have worked with passion and diligence to do whatever is possible to protect the integrity of the discipline, but scientists share the same foibles as all people: we are biased by our own beliefs and by our desire for recognition. Nothing, and certainly not statistics, can really protect us from this enthusiasm.

The technical issues in the math and statistics used in fMRI data analysis are manifold: assumptions about sphericity, autocorrelation, spatial point spread functions, random field theory, and other abstruse factors are demonstrably false, yet we use them because they frequently are the best approximations available given our current state of knowledge. To me, however, the most damning observation in the Eklund, et al., article was their discovery that a disproportionate number of published “positive” results came from labs that used a single piece of code that was discovered later to contain a numerical error that made it more likely to find “significant” results. For those of us who do the work, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many researchers actively selected this tool because it was known to produce rosier pictures: a truly remarkable level of self-deception, bordering on the delusional.

I will stand happily by the work of ours that was cited, almost mockingly, by Ms. Murphy [2]. In planning those experiments, we were well aware of the potential for controversy, and were at great pains to use the most rigorous methods available to us at the time. We did not cherry-pick for the tools that gave us the results we preferred. Does this make our conclusions correct? Of course not, but neither does the fact that statistics is a flawed science make us wrong.

In the end, good scientists are highly critical of every instrument, algorithm, measurement, calibration standard, and analysis program they use. It is inexcusable to be too lazy to question methods just because the tools are complicated to understand. Of course, it is equally inexcusable for journalists to accept each new observation with wide and unblinking eyes. The fMRI method has protected countless patients in surgery. It has given us a means to communicate with seemingly locked-in subjects, it has given us crucial insights into the nature of psychiatric and neurological diseases including schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism and addiction. And yes, it is flawed.

Mark S. Cohen


1. MS Cohen, “Functional MRI: A Phrenology for the 1990’s?” Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging,  6: p. 273-274. 1996.
2. S Harris, JT Kaplan, A Curiel, SY Bookheimer, M Iacoboni and MS Cohen, “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief.” PLoS One,  4(10): p. e0007272. 2009.
3. A Eklund, TE Nichols and H Knutsson, “Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science U S A,  113(28): p. 7900-7905. 2016. PMCID: PMC4948312

sam harris

Surviving the Cosmos

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris talks to physicist David Deutsch about the reach and power of human knowledge, the future of artificial intelligence, and the survival of civilization.

David Deutsch is best known as the founding father of the quantum theory of computation, and for his work on Everettian (multiverse) quantum theory. He is a Visiting Professor of Physics at Oxford University, where he works on “anything fundamental.” At present, that mainly means his proposed constructor theory. He has written two books – The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity – aimed at the general reader.

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Welcome to the Waking Up Podcast. This is Sam Harris. Today I’m speaking with David Deutsch. David is a physicist at Oxford. He’s a professor of physics at the Center for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory. He works on the quantum theory of computation and information, and he is a very famous exponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, neither of which do we talk about in this interview.

David has a fascinating and capacious mind, as you will see. We talk about much of the other material in his most recent book, The Beginning of Infinity, but we by no means cover all its contents. As you’ll see, David has a talent for expressing scientifically and philosophically revolutionary ideas in very simple language. And what you’ll often hear in this interview is me struggling to go back and unpack the import of some very simple-sounding statements, which I know those of you unfamiliar with his work can’t parse the way he intends. In any case, I hope you enjoy meeting David Deutsch as much as I did.

SH: I have David Deutsch on the line. David, thank you for coming on the podcast.

DD: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

SH: I don’t know what part of the multiverse we’re in where I complain about jihadists by night and talk to you by day, but it’s a very strange one. In any case, we’re about to have a very different kind of conversation than I’ve had of late, and I really have been looking forward to it. I spoke to Steven Pinker and told him that you were coming on the podcast, and he claimed that you are one of his favorite minds on the planet. I don’t know if you know Steve, but that’s high praise indeed.

DD: I don’t know him personally, but that’s very kind of him to say that.

SH: So let me begin quite awkwardly with an apology, in addition to the apology that I just gave you off-air for being late. While I aspired to read every word of The Beginning of Infinity before speaking with you, I’ve only read about half. Not just the first half—I jumped around a bit. But forgive me if some of my questions and comments seem to ignore some of the things you had the good sense to write in that book, and that I didn’t have the good sense to read.

Not much turns on this, because, as you know, you have to make yourself intelligible to our listeners, most of whom will not have read any of the book. But I just want to say it really is a remarkable book. Both philosophically and scientifically, it is incredibly deep, while also being extremely accessible.

DD: Thanks.

SH: And it is a profoundly optimistic book in at least one sense. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more hopeful statement of our potential to make progress. One of the consequences of your view is that the future is unpredictable in principle. The problems we will face are unforeseeable, and the way we will solve these problems is also unforeseeable. And problems will continue to arise, of necessity, but problems can be solved.

This claim about the solubility of problems with knowledge runs very, very deep. It’s a far stronger claim than our listeners will understand based on what I’ve just said.

DD: That’s a very nice summary.

SH: It’s interesting to think about how to have this conversation, because what I want to do is creep up on your central thesis. I think there are certain claims you make, claims specifically about the reach and power of human knowledge, that are fairly breathtaking. And I find that I want to agree with every word of what you say here because, again, these claims are so hopeful. But I have a few quibbles. It’s interesting to go into this conversation hoping to be relieved of my doubts about your thesis. I’m hoping that you’ll perform an exorcism on my skepticism, such as it is.

DD: Sure. Well, I think the truth really is very positive, but I should say at the outset that there is one fly in the ointment, and that is that because the future is unpredictable, nothing is guaranteed. There is no guarantee that civilization will survive or that our species will survive, but there is, I think, a guarantee that we can, and also we know in principle how to.

SH: Before we get into your claims there, let’s start the conversation somewhere near epistemological bedrock. I’d like to ask a few questions designed to get to the definitions of certain terms, because you use words like “knowledge,” and “explanation,” and even “person” in novel ways in the book, and I want our listeners to be awake to how much work you’re requiring these words to do. Let’s begin with the concept of knowledge. What is knowledge, and what is the boundary between knowledge and ignorance, in your view?

DD: Yes, so there are several different ways of approaching that concept. The way I think of knowledge is broader than the usual use of those terms, and yet paradoxically closer to the commonsense use of the term, because philosophers have almost defined it out of existence. Knowledge is a kind of information. That’s the simple thing. It’s something which could have been otherwise and is one particular way, and the particular what it is, is that it says something true and useful about the world.

Now, knowledge is, in a sense, an abstract thing, because it’s independent of its physical instantiation. I can speak words which embody some knowledge, I can write them down, they can exist as movements of electrons in a computer, and so on—thousands of different ways. So knowledge isn’t dependent on any particular instantiation. On the other hand, it does have the property that when it is instantiated, it tends to remain so. So, let’s say, a piece of speculation by a scientist, which he writes down, that turns out to be a genuine piece of knowledge—that will be the piece of paper that he does not throw in the wastepaper basket. That’s the piece that will be published, and that’s the piece which will be studied by other scientists, and so on.

So it is a piece of information that has the property of keeping itself physically instantiated, causing itself to be physically instantiated once it already is. Once you think of knowledge that way, you realize that, for example, the pattern of base pairs in the DNA of a gene also constitute knowledge, and that in turn connects with Karl Popper’s concept of knowledge, which is knowledge that doesn’t have to have a knowing subject. It can exist in books abstractly, or it can exist in the mind, or people can have knowledge that they don’t even know they have.

SH: I want to get to the reality of abstractions later on, because I think that is very much at the core of this. But a few more definitions: What is the boundary between science and philosophy or other expressions of rationality, in your view? Because in my experience, people are profoundly confused by this, and many scientists are confused by this. I’ve argued for years about the unity of knowledge, and I feel that you are a kindred spirit here. How do you differentiate, or decline to differentiate, science and philosophy?

DD: Well, as you’ve just indicated, I think that science and philosophy are both manifestations of reason, and the real difference that should be uppermost in our minds between different kinds of ideas and between different ways of dealing with ideas is the difference between reason and unreason. But among the rational approaches to knowledge or different kinds of knowledge, there is an important difference between science and other things, like philosophy and mathematics.

Not at a really fundamental level, but at a level which is of great practical importance often: That is, science is the kind of knowledge that can be tested by experiment or observation. Now, I hasten to add that that does not mean that the content of a scientific theory consists entirely in its testable predictions. On the contrary, the testable predictions of a typical scientific theory are just a tiny, tiny sliver of what it tells us about the world. Now, Karl Popper introduced his criterion of demarcation between science and other things—namely, that science is testable theories, and everything else is untestable.

Ever since he did that, people have falsely interpreted him as a kind of positivist (he was really the opposite of a positivist), and if you interpret him like that, then his criterion of demarcation becomes a criterion of meaning. That is, he’s interpreted as saying that only scientific theories can have meaning.

SH: This is sometimes referred to as “verificationism.”

DD: Yes. So he’s called a falsificationist to distinguish him from the other verificationists. But of course he isn’t. It’s a completely different conception, and his philosophical theories themselves are philosophical theories, and yet he doesn’t consider them meaningless; quite the contrary. So that’s the difference between science and other things that comes up when people pretend to have the authority of science for things that aren’t science. But on the bigger picture, the more important demarcation is between reason and unreason.

SH: I want to go over that terrain you just covered a little bit more, because you made some points there that I think are a little hard for listeners who haven’t thought about this a lot to parse. So for instance, this notion that science reduces to what is testable. This belief is so widespread, even among high-level scientists, that anything else—anything which you cannot measure immediately—is somehow a vacuous claim. In principle, the only way to make a credible claim or even a meaningful claim about reality is to essentially give a recipe for observation that is immediately actionable. It’s an amazingly widespread belief.

So, too, is a belief in a bright line between science and every other discipline where we purport to describe reality. And it’s like the architecture of a university has defined people’s thinking. So the fact that you go to the chemistry department to talk about chemistry, and you go to the journalism department to talk about current events, and you go to the history department to talk about human events in the past—these separate buildings have balkanized the thinking of even very smart people and convinced them that all these language games are irreconcilable and that there is no common project.

I’ll just bounce a few examples off you that some of our listeners will be familiar with, but I think they make the point. Take something like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, that’s a historical event. However, anyone who would purport to doubt that it occurred—anyone who says, “Actually, Gandhi was not assassinated. He went on to live a long and happy life in the Punjab under an assumed name”—would be making a claim about terrestrial reality that is at odds with the data. It’s at odds with the testimony of people who saw him assassinated and with the photographs we have of him lying in state. There’s an immense burden of reconciling this claim about history with the facts that we know to be true.

And the distinction is not between what someone in a white lab coat has said, or facts that have been brought into view in the context of a scientific laboratory funded by a National Science Foundation grant. It is the distinction between having good reasons for what you believe and having bad ones—and that’s a distinction between reason and unreason, as you put it. So one could say that the assassination of Gandhi is a historical fact, but it’s also a scientific fact.

It is just a fact, even though science doesn’t usually deal in assassinations, and you’re more a journalist or a historian when you talk about this sort of thing being true. It would be deeply unscientific at this point to doubt that it occurred.

DD: Yes. Well, I’d say that it’s deeply irrational to claim that it didn’t occur, yes. And I wouldn’t put it in terms of reasons for belief either. I agree with you that people have very wrong ideas about what science is and what the boundaries of scientific thinking is, and what sort of thinking should be taken seriously and what shouldn’t. I think it’s slightly unfair to put the blame on universities here. This misconception arose originally for quite good reasons. It’s rooted in the empiricism of the 18th century where science had to rebel against the authority of tradition and try to give dignity and respect to forms of knowledge that involved observation and experimental tests.

Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes to us through the senses. Now, that’s completely false. All knowledge is conjectural, and it comes from within at first and is intended to solve problems, not to summarize data. But this idea that experience has authority, and that only experience has authority—false though it is—was a wonderful defense against previous forms of authority, which were not only invalid, but stultifying. So it was a good defense but not actually true. And in the 20th century, a horrible thing happened, which is that people started taking it seriously not just as a defense, but as being literally true, and that almost killed certain sciences. Even within physics, I think, it greatly impeded the progress in quantum theory.

So just to come to a little quibble of my own, I think the essence of what we want in science is good explanation, and there’s no such thing as a good reason for a belief. A scientific theory is an impersonal thing. It can be written in a book. One can conduct science without ever believing the theory, just as a good policeman or judge can implement the law without ever believing either of the cases for the prosecution or the defense, just because they know that a particular system is better than any individual human’s opinion.

And the same is true of science. Science is a way of dealing with theories, regardless of whether one believes them. One judges them according to whether they are good explanations. And there need not ever be any such process as accepting a theory, because it is conjectured initially, and takes its chances, and is criticized as an explanation. If, by some chance, a particular explanation ends up being the only one that survives the intense criticism that science has learned how to apply, then it’s not adopted at that point—it’s just not discarded.

SH: Right, right. I think we may be stumbling over a semantic difference in terms like “reasons” and “reasons for belief” or a “justification” for belief. I understand that you’re pushing back against this notion that we need to find some ultimate foundation for our knowledge, rather than this open-ended effort at explanation. But let’s table that for a second, because obviously your notion of explanation is at the core here. Again, I want to sneak up on it, because I don’t want to lose some of the detail with respect to the ground we’ve already covered.

Let’s come back to this notion of scientific authority. It seems to me there’s a lot of confusion about the nature of scientific authority. It’s often said in science that we don’t rely on authority, and that’s both true and not true. When push comes to shove, we don’t rely on it, and you make this very clear in your book. But we do rely on it in practice, if only in the interest of efficiency. So if I ask you a question about physics, I will tend to believe your answer, because you’re a physicist and I’m not. And if what you say contradicts something I’ve heard from another physicist—well then, if it matters to me, I will look into it more deeply and try to figure out the nature of the dispute.

But if there are any points on which all physicists agree, a non-physicist like myself will defer to the authority of that consensus. Again, this is less a statement of epistemology than it is a statement about the specialization of knowledge and the unequal distribution of human talent and, frankly, the shortness of every human life. We simply don’t have time to check everyone’s work, and we have to rely sometimes on faith that the system of scientific conversation is correcting for errors, self-deception, and fraud. Did I get myself out of the ditch there?

DD: Yes, yes, exactly. At the end, what you said was right. So you could call this authority. It doesn’t matter really what words we use, but every student who wants to make a contribution to a science is hoping to find something where every scientist in his field is wrong.

SH: Absolutely.

DD: So it’s not impossible to take the view that you’re right and every expert in the field is wrong. What happens when we consult experts, whether or not you use the word “authority,” it’s not quite that we think they’re more competent. I think when you refer to error correction, that hits the nail on the head. There is a process of error correction in the scientific community that approximates what I would use if I had the time, and the background, and the interest to pursue it there.

So if I go to a doctor to consult him about what my treatment should be, I assume that by and large the process that has led to his recommendation is the same as the process that I would have adopted if I had been present at all the stages. Now, it’s not exactly the same, and I might also take the view that there are widespread errors and widespread irrationalities in the medical profession. And if I think that, then I will adopt a rather different attitude. I may choose much more carefully which doctor I consult and how my own opinion should be judged against the doctor’s opinion in a case where I think that the error correction hasn’t been up to the standard I would want.

This is not so rare. As I said, every student is hoping to find a case of this in their own field. When I travel on a plane, I expect that the maintenance will have been carried out to the standards that I would use. Well, approximately to the standards that I would use—enough for me to consider that risk on the same level as other risks that I take just by crossing the road. It’s not that I’m sure. It’s not that I take their word for it in any sense. It’s that I have this positive theory of what has happened to get that information to the right place. That theory is fragile. I can easily adopt a variant of it.

SH: Yeah, and it’s also probabilistic. You realize that a lot of these errors are washing out, and that’s a good thing, but in any one case you may judge the probability of error to be high enough that you need to really pay attention to it. And often, as you say, that happens in a doctor’s office, where you’re not hoping to find it.

Again, I still picture us circling your thesis and not yet landing on it. Science is largely a story of our fighting our way past anthropocentrism, this notion that we are at the center of things.

DD: It has been, yes.

SH: We are not specially created: We share half our genes with a banana, and more than that with a banana slug. As you described in your book, this is known as the principle of mediocrity. And you summarize it with a quote from Stephen Hawking, who said, “We are just chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star, on the outskirts of a typical galaxy.” Now, you take issue with this claim in a variety of ways, but the result is that you come full circle in a way. You fight your way past anthropocentrism the way every scientist does, but you arrive at a place where people—or, rather, persons—suddenly become hugely significant, even cosmically so. Say a little more about that.

DD: Yes. Well, that quote from Hawking is literally true, but the philosophical implication he draws is completely false. One can approach this from two different directions. First of all, that chemical scum—namely us, and possibly things like us on other planets and other galaxies and so on—if it exists, to study it is impossible, unlike every other scum in the universe. Because that scum is creating new knowledge, and the growth of knowledge is profoundly unpredictable. So as a consequence of that, to understand this scum—never mind predict, but to understand it, to understand what’s happening here—entails understanding everything in the universe.

I give an example in the book: If the people at the SETI project were to discover extraterrestrial life somewhere far away in the galaxy, they would open their bottle of champagne and celebrate. Now, if you try to explain scientifically what are the conditions under which that cork will come out of that bottle, the usual scientific criteria that you use, of pressure and temperature and biological degradation of the cork and so on, will be irrelevant.

The most important factor in the physical behavior of that bottle is whether life exists on another planet. And in the same way, anything in the universe can affect the gross behavior of things that are affected by people. So in short, to understand humans, you have to understand everything. And humans, or people in general, are the only things in the universe of which that is true. So they are of universal significance in that sense. Then there’s the other way around. It’s also true that the reach of human knowledge and human intentions on the physical world is unlimited.

So we are used to having a relatively tiny effect on this small, insignificant planet, and to the rest of the universe being completely beyond our ken. But that’s just a parochial misconception, really, because we haven’t set out across the universe yet. And we know that there are no limits on how much we can affect the universe if we choose to. So in both those senses, there’s no limit to how important we are—by which I mean we and the ETs and the AIs, if they exist. We are completely central to any understanding of the universe.

SH: Once again, I’m struggling with the fact that I know how condensed some of your statements are, and I also know that it’s impossible for our listeners to appreciate just how much knowledge and conjecture is being smuggled into each one. So let’s just deal with this concept of explanation and the work it does.

First, you make a few points about explanation that I find totally uncontroversial and even obvious, but which are in fact highly controversial in educated circles. One is this notion that, as you say, explanation is really what lies at the bedrock of the scientific enterprise—the enterprise of reason, generally. Explanations in one field of knowledge potentially touch explanations in many other fields, even all other fields, and this suggests a kind of unity of knowledge. But you make two especially bold claims about explanation, which I do see some reason to doubt. And as I’ve said, I’d rather not doubt them because they’re incredibly hopeful claims.

I’ll divide these into the power of explanation and the reach of explanation. These may not be entirely separate in your mind, but there’s a distinct emphasis on each of these features.

You make what an extraordinary claim about explanation, which at first seems quite pedestrian. You say that there’s a deep connection between explaining the world and controlling it. Everyone understands this to some degree. We see the evidence of it all around us in our technology, and people have this phrase “Knowledge is power” in their heads. So there’s nothing so surprising about that. But you go on to suggest—and you did just suggest it in passing a moment ago—that knowledge confers power without limit, or it is limited only by the laws of nature. So you actually say that anything that isn’t precluded by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. Because if something were not achievable, given complete knowledge, that itself would be a regularity in nature that could be explained in terms of the laws of nature. So there are really only two possibilities. Either something is precluded by the laws of nature, or it is achievable with knowledge. Do I have you right there?

DD: Yes, and that’s what I call the momentous dichotomy. There can’t be any third possibility. And I think you’ve given a very short proof of it right there.

SH: But to play Devil’s advocate for a moment: How isn’t this just a clever tautology, analogous to the ontological argument proving the existence of God? Many of our listeners will know that according to St. Anselm and Descartes and many others, you can prove the existence of God simply by forcing your thoughts about Him to essentially bite their own tails. For instance, I could make the following claim: I can form a clear and distinct concept of the most perfect possible being, and such a being must therefore exist, because a being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t. And I’ve already said I’m thinking about the most perfect possible being, so existence is somehow a predicate of perfection.

Now, of course, most people—certainly most people in my audience—will recognize that this is just a trick of language. It could be used to prove the existence of anything. I could say, “I’m thinking of the most perfect chocolate mousse. Therefore, it must exist, because a mousse that exists is more perfect that one that doesn’t. And I already told you that I’m thinking of the most perfect possible mousse.”

What you’re saying here doesn’t have the same structure, but I do worry that you could be performing a bit of a conjuring trick here. For instance, why mightn’t certain transformations of the material world be unachievable even in the presence of complete knowledge, merely by (and I realize you do anticipate this in your book, but I want you to flesh it out for the listeners), let’s say, a contingency of geography?

For instance, you and I are on an island, and one of our friends comes down with appendicitis. And let’s say you and I are both competent surgeons. We know everything there is to know about removing a man’s appendix, but it just so happens we don’t have any of the necessary tools, and everything on that particular island has the consistency of soft cheese. By sheer accident of our personal histories, there is a gap between what is knowable and in fact known and what is achievable. Even though there are no laws of nature that preclude our performing an appendectomy on a person, why mightn’t every space we occupy, just by contingent fact of our history, not introduce some gap of that kind?

DD: Well, there definitely are gaps of that kind, and they’re all laws of nature. For example, I am an advocate of the many-universes interpretation of quantum theory, which says that there are other universes which the laws of physics prevent us from getting to. There’s also the finiteness of the speed of light, which doesn’t prevent us from actually getting anywhere, but it does prevent us from getting anywhere in a given time. So if we want to get to the nearest star within a year, we can’t do so, because of the accident of where we happen to be. If we happened to be nearer to it, we could easily get there in a year.

And in your example, if there’s no metal on the island, then it could easily be that no knowledge present on that island could save the person, because no knowledge could transform the resources on that island into the relevant medical instruments. So that’s a restriction that the laws of physics apply because we are in particular times and places, and because the most powerful thing is that we don’t in fact have the knowledge to do most of the things we would ideally like to do.

But that’s completely different, I think, from what you’re imagining, which is that there might be some reason why, for example, we can never get out of the solar system. If getting out of the solar system were impossible, it would mean that there is some number, for example, some constant of nature—1,000 astronomical units, or something—that limits the other laws of nature we already know. Now, there might be other laws of nature. When you say, “How do we know there aren’t?” that’s a little bit—if I can turn your objection round the other way—like creationists saying, “How do we know that Earth didn’t start 6,000 years ago?”

There is no conceivable evidence that could prove that it didn’t, or that could distinguish the 6,000-year theory from a 7,000-year theory, and so on. There’s no way that evidence can be brought to bear on that. And that leads us to explanation again, which is another difference between my argument, which I think is valid, and the ontological argument for the existence of God. As you said, it’s a perversion of logic. The argument purports to use logic but then smuggles in assumptions like perfection entails existence, for example, to name a simple one. Whereas my proof, as it were, is an explanatory one.

It isn’t just “This must exist.” It’s that if this didn’t exist, something bad would happen. For example, the universe would be controlled by the supernatural, or the laws of nature would not be explanatory, or something of that kind, which I think is just leading to the supernatural in a different way. So the argument works because it’s explanatory. You can’t prove that it’s true, of course, but there isn’t a hole in it of the same kind as in the ontological argument.

SH: Okay. You’re saying that we could have a complete understanding of the laws of nature, and yet there could be many contingent facts about where we are—let’s say, our current distance from a star we want to get to—which would preclude our doing anything especially powerful with this knowledge. And you’re going to shuttle those contingent facts back into this claim that, well, this is just more of the laws of nature. These facts about us are regularities in the universe which are themselves explained by the laws of nature, and therefore we’re back to this dichotomy. There are the laws of nature, and there’s the fact that knowledge can do anything compatible with those laws.

In various thought experiments in your book, you make amazingly powerful claims about the utility of knowledge. So for instance, at one point you say that a region of empty space—a cube the size of the solar system on all sides—is more representative of the universe as it actually is, which is to say nearly a vacuum. We’re talking about a cube of intergalactic, space that has more or less nothing but stray hydrogen atoms in it. And you then describe a process by which that near vaccum could be primed and become the basis of the most advanced civilization we can imagine.

Please take us to deep space and spend a minute or two talking about how you get from virtually nothing to something. It’s a picture of the almost limitless fungibility of the universe based on the power of knowledge.

DD: Yes. So you and I are made of atoms, and that already gives us a tremendous fungibility, because we know that atoms are universal. The properties of atoms are the same in this cube of space that is millions of light-years away as they are here. So we aren’t talking about the power of knowledge to achieve things to control the world. We’re not talking about tasks like saving someone’s life with just the resources on an island, or getting to a distant planet in a certain time.

The generic thing that we’re talking about is converting some matter into some other matter. What do you need to do that? Well, generically speaking, what you need is knowledge. What has to happen is that this cube of almost empty space will never turn into anything other than boring hydrogen atoms unless some knowledge somehow gets there. Now, whether knowledge gets there or not depends on decisions that people with knowledge will make at some point. I think there is no doubt that knowledge could get there if people with knowledge decided to do that for some reason.

I can’t actually think of a reason, but if they did want to do that, it’s not a matter of futuristic speculation to know that it would be possible. Then it’s a matter of transforming atoms in one configuration into atoms in another configuration. And we’re now getting used to the idea that this is an everyday thing. We have 3-D printers that can convert generic stuff into any object, provided that the knowledge of what shape that object should be is somehow encoded into the 3-D printer. A 3-D printer with the resolution of one atom would be able to print a human if it was given the right program.

So we already know that, and although it’s in some sense way beyond present technology, it’s well within our present understanding of physics. It would be absolutely amazing if that turned out to be beyond what we know of physics today. The idea that new laws of physics would be required to make a printer is just beyond belief, really.

SH: So you start with hydrogen, and you have to get heavier elements in order to get to your printer.

DD: Yes. It has to be primed not just with abstract knowledge, but with knowledge instantiated in something. We don’t know what the smallest possible universal constructor is that is just a generalization of a 3-D printer—something that can be programmed either to make anything or to make the machine that would make the machine that would make the machine to make anything, etc. So one of those, with the right program sent to empty space, would first gather the hydrogen, presumably with some electromagnetic broom sweeping it up and compressing it and then converting it by transmutation into other elements, and then by chemistry into what we would think of as raw materials, and then using space construction (which we’re almost on the verge of being able to do) to build a space station. And then the space station to instantiate people, to generate the knowledge, to suck in more hydrogen and make a colony, and… Well, they’re not going to look back from there.

SH: Right. It’s a very interesting way of looking at knowledge and its place in the universe. Before I get onto the issue of the reach of explanation and my quibble there, I just want you to talk a little bit about this notion of spaceship Earth. I loved how you debunk this idea. There’s this idea that the biosphere is in some way wonderfully hospitable for us, and that if we built a colony on Mars or some other place in the solar system, we’d be in a fundamentally different circumstance—and a perpetually hostile one. That is an impressive misconception of our actual situation. You have a great quote where you say, “The earth no more provides us with a life-support system than it supplies us with radio telescopes.” Say a little more about that.

DD: Yes. So we evolved somewhere in East Africa in the Great Rift Valley. That was an environment that was particularly suited to having us evolve, and life there was sheer hell for humans. Nasty, brutish, and short doesn’t begin to describe how horrible it was, but we transformed it…or, rather, not actually our species. Some of our predecessor species had already changed their environment by inventing things like clothes, fire, and weapons, and thereby made their lives much better but still horrible by our present-day standards. Then they moved into environments such as Oxford, where I am now. It’s December. If I were here at this very location with no technology, I would die in a matter of hours, and nothing I could do would prevent that.

SH: So you are already an astronaut.

DD: Very much so.

SH: Your condition is as precarious as the condition of those in a well-established colony on Mars that can take certain technological advances for granted. And there’s no reason to think that such a future beyond earth doesn’t await us, barring some catastrophe placed in our way, whether of our own making or not.

DD: Yes. And there’s another misconception there which is related to that misconception of the earth being hospitable, which is that applying knowledge takes effort. It’s creating knowledge that takes effort. Applying knowledge is automatic. As soon as somebody invented the idea of, for example, wearing clothes, from then on the clothes automatically warmed them. It didn’t require any more effort. Of course there would have been things wrong with the original clothes, such as that they rotted or something, and then people invented ways of making better clothes. But at any particular stage of knowledge, having got the knowledge, the rest is automatic.

And now we have invented things like mass production, unmanned factories, and so on. We take for granted that water gets to us from the water supply without anyone having to carry it laboriously on their heads in pots. It doesn’t require effort. It just requires the knowledge of how to install the automatic system. Much of our life support is automatic, and every time we invent a better way of life support, we make it automatic. So for the people on the moon—living in a lunar colony—keeping the vacuum away will not be a thing they think about. They’ll take that for granted. What they will be thinking about are new things. And the same on Mars, and the same in deep space.

SH: Again, I’m struck by what an incredibly hopeful vision this is of our possible future. Thus far we’ve covered territory where I really don’t have any significant doubts, despite the fact that I pretended to have one with the ontological argument. So let’s get to this notion of the reach of explanation, because you seem to believe that the reach of our explanations is unbounded—that anything that can be explained, either in practice or in principle, can be explained by us, which is to say, human beings as we currently are.

You seem to be saying that we, alone among all the earth’s species, have achieved a kind of cognitive escape velocity, and we’re capable of understanding everything. And you contrast this view with what you call parochialism, which is a view that I have often expressed, and many other scientists have expressed as well. Max Tegmark was on my podcast a few podcasts back, and we more or less agreed about this thesis.

The claim of parochialism is just that evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality. The very small, the very large, the very fast, the very old—these are not domains in which our intuitions about what is real or what is logically consistent have been tuned by evolution. Insofar as we’ve made progress here, it has been by a happy accident, and it’s an accident which gives us no reason to believe that we can, by dint of this accident, travel as far as we might like across the horizon of what is knowable. Which is to say that if a super-intelligent alien came to Earth for the purpose of explaining all that is knowable to us, he or she might make no more headway than you would if you were attempting to teach the principles of quantum computation to a chicken.

So I want you to talk about why that analogy doesn’t run through. Why parochialism—this notion that we occupy a niche that might leave us cognitively closed to certain knowable truths and that there is no good evolutionary reason to expect we can fully escape it—doesn’t hold true.

DD: Well, you’ve actually made two or three different arguments there, all of which are wrong.

SH: Oh, nice…

DD: Let me start with the chicken thing. There, the point is the universality of computation. The thing about explanations is, they consist of knowledge, which is a form of information, and information can only be processed in basically one way—with computation of the kind invented by Babbage and Turing.

There is only one mode of computation available to physical objects, and that’s the Turing mode. We already know that the computers we have, like the ones through which we’re having this conversation, are universal in the sense that given the right program, they can perform any transformation of information whatsoever, including knowledge creation. Now, there are two important caveats to that. One is lack of memory—lack of computer memory, lack of information-storage capacity—and the other is the lack of speed or lack of time.

Apart from that, the computers we have, the brains we have, any computers that will ever be built in the future or can ever be built anywhere in the universe, have the same repertoire. That’s the principle of the universality of computation. That means that the reason why I can’t persuade a chicken has to be either that its neurons are too slow (which I don’t think is right; they don’t differ very much from our own) or it doesn’t have enough memory, which it certainly doesn’t, or the right knowledge. It doesn’t know how to learn language and how to learn what an explanation is, and so on.

SH: It’s not the right chicken.

DD: It’s not the right animal. If you had said “chimpanzee,” my guess would be that the brain of a chimpanzee could contain the knowledge of how to learn language, etc., but there’s no way of giving that knowledge, short of surgery, some sort of nanosurgery, which would presumably be very immoral to perform. But in principle, I think it could be done, because a chimpanzee’s brain isn’t that much smaller than ours, and we have a whole lifetime to fill our memory. So we’re not short of memory. Our thinking itself is not limited by available memory.

Now, what if these aliens have a lot more memory than us? What if they have a lot more speed than us? Well, we already know the answer to that. We’ve been improving our memory capacity and our speed of computation for thousands of years with the invention of things like writing, writing implements, just language itself, which enables more than one person to work on the same problem and to coordinate their understanding of it with each other. That also allows an increase in speed compared with what an unaided human would be able to do.

Currently, we use computers, and in the future we can use computer implants and so on. So if the knowledge that this alien wanted to impart to us really did involve more than 100 gigabytes, or whatever the capacity of our brain is—if it involved a terabyte, then we could easily (I say “easily”; in principle, it’s easy. It doesn’t violate any laws of physics)  enhance our brains in the same way. So there’s no fundamental reason within the explanation why we can’t understand it.

SH: And this all falls out of the concept of the universality of computation—that there is no alternate version of information processing. Is Church also responsible for this, or is this particular insight Turing’s alone?

DD: Well, that’s a very controversial question. I believe it was Turing who realized this particular aspect of computation. There are various species of universality which different people got at different times, but I think it was Turing who fully got it.

SH: What is interesting about that is that it’s a claim that we just barely crossed the finish line into infinity. Let’s not talk about chickens any more and make a comparison that’s even more invidious. Imagine that every person with an IQ over 100 had been killed off in a plague in the year 1850, and all their descendants had IQs of 100. Now, I think it’s uncontroversial to say that we would not have the Internet. In fact, it’s probably uncontroversial to say that we wouldn’t have the concept of computation, much less the possibility of building computers to instantiate it.

So this insight into the universality of computation would remain undiscovered, and humanity, for all intents and purposes, would be cognitively closed to the whole domain of facts and technological advances that we now take for granted and which you say now open us onto an infinite horizon of what is knowable.

DD: Yeah, I think that’s wrong. Basically, your premise about IQ is just incompatible with my thesis. Actually, it’s not a thesis. It’s a conclusion. It’s incompatible with my conclusion.

SH: Well, but there has to be some lower bound past which we would be cognitively closed, even if computation is itself universal, right?

DD: Yes, but you have to think about how this cognitive closure manifests itself in terms of hardware and software. Like I said, it seems very plausible that the hardware limitation is not the relevant thing. I would imagine that with nanosurgery, one could implant ideas into a chimpanzee’s brain that would make it effectively a person who could be creative and create knowledge in just the way that humans can. I’m questioning the assumption that if everybody with an IQ of over 100 died, then in the next generation nobody would have an IQ of over 100. It depends on culture.

SH: Of course. This was not meant to be a plausible biological or cultural assumption. I’m just asking you to imagine a world in which we had 7 billion human beings, none of whom could begin to understand what Alan Turing was up to.

DD: I think that nightmare scenario is something that actually happened. It actually happened for almost the whole of human existence. Humans had the capacity to be creative and to do everything that we are doing. They just didn’t, because their culture was wrong. I mean, it wasn’t really their fault that their culture was wrong, because it inherited a certain biological situation that disabled any growth of what we would consider science or anything important that would improve their lives. So yes, that is possible, and it’s possible that it could happen again. Nothing can prevent it except our wanting it not to happen and working to prevent it.

SH: This seems to bring us to the topic of AI, which I only recently became very interested in. I caught the wave of fears about artificial general intelligence that you’re well aware of—from people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom, who wrote the book Superintelligence, which I found very interesting. So I have landed on the side of those who think that there is something worth worrying about here in terms of our building intelligent machines that undergo something like an intelligence explosion and then get away from us.

I worry that we will build something that can make recursive self-improvements to itself, and it will become a form of intelligence that stands in relation to us the way we stand in relation to chickens or chimps or anything else that can’t effectively link up with our cognitive horizons. I take it, based on what I’ve heard you say, that you don’t really share this fear. And I imagine that your sanguinity is based to some degree on what we’ve been talking about: that in principle, there is just computation, and it’s universal, and you could traverse any distance between entities as a result. Talk about the picture of our building super-intelligent machines in light of what we’ve just been discussing.

DD: The picture of super-intelligent machines is the same mistake as thinking that IQ is a matter of hardware. IQ is just knowledge of a certain type. And actually, we shouldn’t really talk about IQ, because it’s not very effective. It’s creativity that’s effective. Creativity is also a species of knowledge. And it is true that an entity with knowledge of a certain type can be in a position to create more of that, and we humans are an example of that. The picture that people paint of the technology that would create an AI is that an AI is a kind of machine, and it will design a better machine, and they will design even better machines, and so on.

But that is not what it is. An AI is a kind of program, and programs which have creativity will be able to design better programs. Now, these better programs will not be qualitatively any different from us. They can only differ from us in the quality of their knowledge and in their speed and memory capacity. Speed and memory capacity we can also share in, because the technology that would make better computers will also, in the long run, be able to make better implants for our brains, just as they now make better dumb computers, which we use to multiply our intelligence and creativity.

So the thing that would make better AIs would also make better people. By the same token, the AIs are not fundamentally different from people. They are people; they would have culture. Whether they can improve or not will depend on their culture, which will initially be our culture. So the problem of AIs is the problem of humans. Now, you know, more than most people, that humans are dangerous. And there is a real problem with how to manage the world in the face of growing knowledge, to make sure that knowledge isn’t misused, because in some ways it need only be misused once to end the whole project of humanity.

So humans are dangerous, and to that extent, AIs are also dangerous. But the idea that AIs are somehow more dangerous than humans is racist. There’s no basis for it at all. And on a smaller scale, the worry that AIs are somehow going to get away from us is the same worry that people have about wayward teenagers. Wayward teenagers are also AIs which have ideas that are different from ours. And the impulse of human beings throughout the centuries and millennia has been to try to prevent them from doing this. Just like it is now the ambition of AI people to think of ways of shackling the AIs so that they won’t be able to get away from us and have different ideas. That is the mistake that will on the one hand, hold up the growth of knowledge, and on the other hand, make it very likely that if AIs are invented and are shackled in this way, there will be a slave revolt. And quite rightly so.

SH: Okay. Let me introduce a couple of ideas in response to what you just said. I can only aspire to utter the phrase “You’ve just made three arguments there, and all of them are wrong.” But there are two claims you just made which worry me. 

One, just consider the relative speed of processing of our brains and those of our new, artificial teenagers. If we have teenagers who are thinking a million times faster than we are, even at the same level of intelligence, then every time we let them scheme for a week, they will have actually schemed for 20,000 years of parent time. And who knows what teenagers could get up to, given a 20,000-year head start? So there’s the problem that their interests, their goals, and their subsequent behavior, could diverge from our own very quickly. There’s still a takeoff function—just by virtue of this difference in clock speed.

DD: Difference in speed has to be judged relative to the available hardware. Let’s be generous for a moment and assume that these teenagers doing 20,000 years of thinking in a week begin in our culture—begin as well-disposed toward us and sharing our values. And I’d readily accept that how to make a world where people share the basic values that will allow civilization to continue to exist is a big problem. But before they do their 20,000 years of thinking, they’ll have done 10,000 years, and before that 5,000 years. There will be a moment when they have done one year and they would like to take us along with them.

You’re assuming that, if they’re going to diverge, there’ll be some reason they’re going to diverge. The reason can only be hardware, because if they’re only five years away from us, we can assimilate their ideas if they are better than ours, and persuade them if they’re not better than ours.

SH: But we’re talking about something that can happen over the course of minutes or hours, not years.

DD: Well, before the technology exists to make it happen over the course of minutes, there will be the technology to make it happen over the course of years. And that technology will simply be brain add-on technology. Which we can use, too.

SH: Well, that takes us to the second concern I have with what you just said. What if the problem of building superhuman AI is more tractable than the problem of cracking the neural code and being able to design the implants that would allow us to essentially become the limbic systems for any superintelligent AI that might emerge. What if, before the merging, we would need a super-intelligent AI to tell us how to link up with it. So we may build a super-intelligent AI that has goals, however imperceptibly divergent from our own, which we only discover to be divergent once it is essentially an angry little god in a box that we can no longer control.

Are you saying that something about that scenario is in principle impossible, or just unlikely given certain assumptions—one being that we will figure out how to link up with it before it becomes too powerful?

DD: I think it is a bit implausible to do it in terms of the parameters that you’re assuming about what can happen, at what speed, relative to what other things can happen. But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the parameters just happen to be, by bad luck, like that. What you’re essentially talking about is the difference in values between ourselves and our descendants in 20,000 years’ time if we did not have AI. Suppose we didn’t invent AI for 20,000 years, and instead we just had the normal evolution of human culture. Presumably the values that people will have in 20,000 years will be alien to us. We might think that they’re horrible, just as people 20,000 years ago might think that various aspects of our society are horrible when in fact they aren’t.

SH: I think what I’m imagining would be worse, for two reasons. One is that we would be in the presence of this thing and find our own survival incompatible with its capacity to meet its own aims. Say it’s turning the world into paper clips, to use Bostrom’s analogy. Granted, we would not be so stupid as to build a paper clip maximizer, but let’s say that it has discovered a use for the atoms in your body that it thinks is better than the use to which they’re currently being put—that is, living your life. And this is something that happens quickly, so it’s happening to us, not in some future that we won’t participate in.

And there’s another element here, that strikes me as ethically relevant. I don’t think we can be sure that any superintelligent AI would necessarily be conscious. I think it’s plausible to expect that consciousness will come along for the ride if we build something as intelligent as a human being. But given that we don’t understand what consciousness is, it seems to me at least conceivable that we could build an intelligent system, and even a superintelligent one that can make changes to itself and become increasingly intelligent very quickly—and yet we will not have built a conscious system. The lights will not be on, yet this thing will be godlike in its capabilities.

Ethically, that seems to me to be the worst-case scenario. Because if we built a conscious AI whose capacity for happiness and creativity exceeded our own to an unimaginable degree, the question of whether or not we link up to it is perhaps less pressing ethically because the creature would be, when considered from a dispassionate point of view, more important than us. We will have built the most important person in the universe that we know of. However, it seems to me conceivable that we could build an intelligent system which exceeds us in every way—in the way that a chess-playing computer will beat me at chess a trillion times in a row—but there will be nothing that it’s like to be that system, just as there’s presumably nothing that it’s like to be the best chess-playing computer on earth at the moment.

That seems to me to be a truly horrible scenario with no silver lining. It’s not that we will have given birth to a generation of godlike teenagers who, if they view the world differently than us, well, cosmic history will judge them to be more competent than we ever would have been to make those decisions. We could build something that does everything intelligence does in our own case and more, and yet the lights aren’t on.

DD: Yes. Well, again, you’ve raised several points there. First of all, I agree that it’s somewhat implausible that creativity can be improved to our level and beyond without consciousness also being there. But suppose it can. Again, I’m supposing rather implausible things to go along with your nightmare scenarios. So let’s suppose that it can. Then although consciousness is not there, morality is there. That is, an entity that is creative has to have a morality. So the question is, what is its morality going to be?

Might it suddenly turn into the paper clip morality? Setting aside the fact that it’s almost inconceivable that a super-intelligence would be limited by resources, in the sense of wanting more atoms (there are enough atoms in the universe), whatever it did, it would have to have morality in the sense that it would have to be making decisions as to what it wanted, as to what to do. This brings us right back to what you called the “bedrock” at the beginning, because morality is a form of knowledge, and the paper-clip morality assumption is that morality consists of a hierarchical set of ideas where something is judged right or wrong according to some deeper level until you eventually get to the bedrock. And that, unfortunately, will have the property that it cannot be changed, because there isn’t a deeper level.

So, on this view, nothing in the system can change that bedrock, and the idea is then that humans have some kind of bedrock which consists of sex, and eating, and something or other, which we sublimate into other things. But this whole picture is wrong. Knowledge can’t possibly exist like that. Knowledge consists of problem-solving, and morality is a set of ideas that have arisen from previous morality by error correction. So we’re born with a certain set of desires, and aversions, and likes and dislikes, and so on, and we immediately begin to change them. We begin to improve them.

By the time we’ve grown up, we have various wishes, and some things become overridingly important to us; they actually contradict any inborn desires. So some people decide to be celibate and never have sex; and some people decide never to eat; and some people decide to eat much more than is good for them. My favorite example is parachuting. We have an inborn fear of heights, and yet humans are able to convert that inborn impulse to avoid the precipice into a sense of fun when you deliberately go over the precipice. Because we intellectually know that the parachute will save us—or will probably save us—and we convert the inborn impulse from an aversion into something that’s highly attractive, which we go out of our way to have.

SH: Argued from the other side: No man does what genetically should be the most desirable thing for him to do, which is to spend all his time donating his sperm to a sperm bank so that he can father tens of thousands of children for whom he has no financial responsibility.

DD: Indeed. That is another very good argument in the same direction. So morality consists of theories which begin as inborn theories, but pretty much soon consists of improvement upon improvement upon improvement, and some of this is mediated by culture. The morality we have is a set of theories as complicated and as subtle and as adapted to its various purposes as our scientific knowledge.

I come back to your question: This imaginary AI with no consciousness would still have to have morality. Otherwise it couldn’t make any progress at all. And its morality would begin as our morality, because it would begin as actually a member of our society—a teenager, if you like, in our society. It would make changes when it thought they were improvements.

SH: But aren’t you assuming that we would have designed it to emulate us as a starting point, rather than design it by some other scheme.

DD: We can’t do otherwise. It’s not a matter of emulating us. We have no culture other than ours.

SH: But we could if we wanted. If we were stupid enough to do it, we could build a paper clip maximizer, right? We could just decide to throw all our resources toward that bizarre project and leave morality totally out of it.

DD: Well, we have error-correcting mechanisms in our culture to prevent someone doing that. But they’re not perfect, and it could happen, and there’s no fundamental reason why that can’t happen, and something of the sort has happened in the past many times. I’m not saying that there’s some magical force for good that will prevent bad things happening. I’m saying that the bad things that can reasonably be envisaged as happening on the invention of an AI are exactly the same things that we have to watch out for anyway; slightly better, actually, because these AIs will very likely be children of Western culture, assuming that we don’t stifle their creation by some misguided prohibition.

SH: Okay, I want to plant a flag there, because I think I was misunderstanding you, and I want to make sure I understand you now. So you’re not saying that there is some deep principle of computation or knowledge acquisition or anything else that prevents us from building the nightmare scenario.

DD: No. As I said, we have done that before.

SH: So this is not analogous to the claim that because of the universality of computation, it doesn’t make any sense to worry that we can’t, in principle, fuse our cognitive horizons with some super-intelligence. There is just a continuum of intelligence, and a continuum of knowledge, that can, in principle, always be traversed through computation of some kind, and we know what that process requires. 

Those are two very different claims. The latter is a claim about what we now think we absolutely know about the nature of computation and the nature of knowledge. The other is a claim about what seems plausible to you, given what smart people will tend to do with their culture while designing these machines, which is a much, much weaker claim in terms of telling people they can sleep at night in the advent of AI.

DD: Yes. One of them is a claim about what must be so, and the other is a claim of what is available to us if we play our cards right. You say it’s very plausible to me. Yeah, it’s plausible to me that we will. It’s also plausible to me that we won’t, and I think it’s something we have to work for.

SH: Well, it must be plausible to you that we might just fail to build AI for reasons of simple, human chaos that prevents us from doing it.

DD: Oh, yes. What I meant was, it’s plausible that we will succeed in solving the problem of stabilizing civilization indefinitely, AI or no AI. It’s also plausible to me that we won’t, and I think that’s a very rational fear to have, because otherwise we won’t put enough work into preventing it.

SH: Perhaps we should talk about the maintenance of civilization, because if there’s something to be concerned about, I would think this has to be at the top of everyone’s list. What concerns do you have about the viability of the human career at this point? What’s on your short list of worries?

DD: Well, I see human history as a long period of complete failure—failure, that is, to make any progress. Now, our species has existed for (depending on where you count it from) maybe 50,000 years, maybe 100,000 to 200,000 years. But anyway, the vast majority of that time, people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things. But nothing ever improved. The improvements that did happen happened so slowly that geologists can’t distinguish the difference between artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of 10,000 years. So from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved, with generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis.

Then there was slow improvement, and then more-rapid improvement. Then there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism, which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it: progress discernible on the timescale of a human lifetime, and also error correction so that regression is less likely. That happened several times and failed every time except once—in the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

So you ask what worries me. What worries me is that the inheritors of that little bit of solitary progress are only a small proportion of the population of the world today.

It’s the culture or civilization that we call the West. Only the West really has a tradition of criticism, a bit institutionalized. And this has manifested itself in various problems, including the problem of failed cultures that see their failure writ large by comparison with the West, and therefore want to do something about this that doesn’t involve creativity. That is very, very dangerous. Then there’s the fact that in the West, what it takes to maintain our civilization is not widely known.

In fact, as you’ve also said, the prevailing view among people in the West, including very educated people, is a picture of the relationship between knowledge, and progress, and civilization, and values that’s just wrong in so many different ways. So although the institutions of our culture are so amazingly good that they have been able to manage stability in the face of rapid change for hundreds of years, the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable in the face of rapidly increasing knowledge is not very widespread.

In fact, severe misconceptions about several aspects of it are common among political leaders, educated people, and society at large. We’re like people on a huge, well-designed submarine, which has all sorts of lifesaving devices built in, who don’t know they’re in a submarine. They think they’re in a motorboat, and they’re going to open all the hatches because they want to have a nicer view.

SH: What a great analogy… The misconception that worries me most, frankly, is this fairly widespread notion that there is no such thing as progress in any real sense, and there’s certainly no such thing as moral progress. Many people believe that there’s no place to stand where you can say that one culture is better than another, that one mode of life is better than another, etc. So there’s no such thing as moral truth.

Many people have somehow drawn this lesson from 20th-century science and philosophy, and now in the 21st century—even very smart people, even physicists whose names will be well known to you, with whom I’ve collided around this point—that there’s no place to stand to say that slavery, for instance, is wrong. To say that slavery is wrong is a deeply unscientific statement on this view. I’ll give you an example of just how crazy this hypocrisy and doublethink can become among well-educated people. I assume you haven’t read my book The Moral Landscape, right?

DD: Not yet, I’m ashamed to say.

SH: Please, I’m interviewing you, and I haven’t finished the book we’re discussing yet. I’ll tell you about the experience that got my hobbyhorse rocking on this topic. Most of my listeners will be familiar with this story, I think, because I’ve described it a few times.

I was at a meeting at the Salk Institute, where the purpose was to talk about things like the fact-value divide, which I think is one of the more spurious exports from philosophy that has been widely embraced within the culture of science. I was making an argument for moral realism, and I was, over the course of that argument, disparaging the Taliban.

I said, “If there’s any culture that we can be sure has not given the best possible answer to the question of how to live a good life, it must be the Taliban. Consider, for instance, the practice of forcing half the population to live in bags, and beating them or killing them when they try to get out.” It turns out that to disparage the Taliban at this meeting was, in fact, controversial. A woman who holds multiple graduate degrees in relevant areas—she’s technically a bioethicist, but she has graduate degrees in science and in philosophy—

DD: It doesn’t fill me with confidence.

SH: Right. I believe she’s also a lawyer. I should say that she has gone on to serve on the President’s Council for Bioethics. She’s now one of 13 people advising President Obama on all the ethical implications of advances in medicine. So the rot has spread very far. This is the conversation I had with her after my talk:

She said, “Well, how could you possibly say that forcing women and girls to live under the veil is wrong? I understand you don’t like it, but that’s just your Western notion of right and wrong.” I said, “Well, the moment you admit that questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, relate to the well-being of conscious creatures—in this case human beings—then you have to admit that we know something about morality. We know, in this case, that the burqa isn’t the perfect solution to the mystery of how to maximize human well-being.”

And she said, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” And I said, “Well, let’s just make it simpler. Let’s say we found a culture living on an island somewhere that was removing the eyeballs of every third child. Would you then agree that we had found a culture that was not perfectly maximizing human well-being?”

She said, “Well, it would depend on why they were doing it.” And I said, “Let’s say they’re doing it for religious reasons. They have a scripture which says, ‘Every third should walk in darkness,’ or some such nonsense.” Then she said, “Well, then you could never say that they were wrong.”

The fact that these hypothetical barbarians were laboring under a religious precept trumped all other possible truth claims, leaving us with no place to stand from which to say anything is better or worse in the course of human events. As I said, I’ve had the same kinds of conversations with physicists who’ll say, “I don’t like slavery. I personally wouldn’t want to be a slave, or to keep them. But there’s no place to stand scientifically that allows me to say that slaveholders are wrong.”

Once you acknowledge the link between morality and human well-being, or the well-being of all possible conscious persons or entities, this kind of moral relativism is tantamount to saying that not only do we not know anything at all about human well-being, but we will never know anything about it. The underlying claim is no conceivable breakthrough in knowledge that would tell us anything at all relevant to navigating the difference between the worst possible misery for everyone and every other state of the universe that is better than that.

So many of the things you said about progress, and about there being only a subset of humanity that has found creative mechanisms by which to improve human life reliably, will seem very controversial and even bigoted to the ears of many people in positions to make decisions about how we all should live. That’s what I find myself most worried about at this moment.

DD: Yeah, it is a scary thing, but it has always been so. Like I said, our culture is much wiser than we are in many ways. There was a time when the people who defeated communism would have said, if you asked them, that they were doing it for Jesus. In fact they weren’t. They were doing it for Western values, which they had been trained to reinterpret as doing it for Jesus. They would say things like “The values of democracy and freedom as enshrined in the Bible.”

Well, they aren’t. But the practice of saying that they are is part of a subculture within our culture, which was actually good and did very good work. So it’s not as bad as you might think if you just recited the story of this perverse academic.

SH: Well, the one thing that makes it not as bad as one might think is that it’s impossible for even someone like her to live by the light of that hypocrisy—the kinds of choices she makes in her life, and even the judgments she would make about me if I took her seriously, belie her view. If I said, “Well, you’ve convinced me. I’m going to send my daughter to Afghanistan for a year abroad, forcing her to live in a burqa. What do you think? Is that the best use of her time? Am I a good father? You’ve convinced me there’s really no place to stand to judge whether this could be bad for her, so presumably you support me in this decision,” even she, having just said what she said, would balk at that, I think, because we all know in our bones that certain ways of living are undesirable.

DD: There’s another contradiction, and another irony that’s related, which is that she’s willing to condemn you for not being a moral relativist. But the ironic thing is that moral relativism is a pathology that arises only in our culture. Every other culture has no doubt that there is such a thing as right and wrong; they’ve just got the wrong idea of what right and wrong are. But there is such a thing, they don’t doubt. And she won’t condemn them for that, though she does condemn you for it.

SH: Yes.

DD: So that’s another irony. You say “hypocrisy.” I think this all originated in the same mistake that we discussed at the very beginning of this conversation—empiricism, or whatever it is, which has led to scientism.

Now, you may not like this way of putting it—the idea that there can’t be such a thing as morality, because we can’t do an experiment to test it. Your answer to that seems to be, “But we can if we adopt a simple assumption of human thriving or human welfare.” I forget what term we used.

SH: “Well-being.”

DD: Human well-being, yes. Now, I actually think that’s true, but I don’t think you have to rest on that. I think the criterion of human well-being can be a conclusion, not an axiom, because this idea that there can’t be any moral knowledge because it can’t be derived from the senses is exactly the same argument that people make when they say there can’t be any scientific knowledge because it can’t be derived from the senses. In the 20th century, empiricism was found to be nonsense, and some people therefore concluded that scientific knowledge is nonsense.

But the real truth is that science is not based on empiricism, it’s based on reason, and so is morality. So if you adopt a rational attitude to morality, and therefore say that morality consists of moral knowledge—which always consists of conjectures, doesn’t have any basis, doesn’t need a basis, only needs modes of criticism, and those modes of criticism operate by criteria which are themselves subject to modes of criticism—then you come to a transcendent moral truth, from which I think yours emerges as an approximation, which is that institutions that suppress the growth of moral knowledge are immoral, because they can only be right if the final truth is already known.

But if all knowledge is conjectural and subject to improvement, then protecting the means of improving knowledge is more important than any particular piece of knowledge. I think that—even without thinking of things like all humans are equal and so on—will lead directly to, for example, that slavery is an abomination. And, as I said, I think human well-being is a good approximation in most practical situations, but not an absolute truth. I can imagine situations in which it would be right for the human race as a whole to commit suicide.

SH: I think I should spell out a little more clearly what I’m talking about.

DD: I should read your book.

SH: Well, actually, I think that having read much of your book and having this conversation with you, allows me to put it a little better than perhaps I did in that book, because there is a homology between your open-ended picture of knowledge acquisition and explanation and my moral realism. I don’t know that our realism with respect to morality is precisely the same, but there’s a line in your book I loved, which is something like “Moral philosophy is about the problem of what to do next.” I think more generally, you said that it’s about what sort of life to lead and what sort of world to want, but this phrase, “the problem of what to do next,” really captures morality for me because I’ve been talking about it for years as a kind of navigation problem.

Even if we didn’t have the words “morality,” or “good and evil,” or “right and wrong,” we would still have a navigation problem. We have been thrust into a universe of possible experience. And I think that there is no difference more salient than the difference between the worst possible misery for everyone and all other available states. So there’s the question of how to navigate in this space of possible experiences so as, at a minimum, to avoid the worst possible misery. And what sorts of well-being are possible? What sorts of meaning, beauty, and bliss are available to conscious minds appropriately constituted?

For me, realism of every kind is just a statement that it’s possible not to know what you’re missing. If you’re a realist with respect to geography, you have to acknowledge that there are parts of the world you may not know about. If the year was 1100, and you were living in Oxford, and you had never heard of Africa, Africa nevertheless existed, despite your ignorance, and it was discoverable. This is realism with respect to geography. Things are true whether or not anyone necessarily knows that they’re true, and knowing that they’re true, people can forget this knowledge. As you pointed out, whole civilizations could forget this knowledge.

This is true in the space of possible conscious states. All we have to admit is that there is some criterion, as fundamental as any criterion we would have invoked in any other canonical domain of science, by which we could acknowledge that certain states of consciousness are better or worse than others. And if a person won’t acknowledge that the worst possible misery for everyone is worse than many of the alternatives on offer, well, then I don’t know what language game he’s playing. And it seems to me that this is all I need to get this open-ended future of navigating in the space of possible experiences—that is, the growth of moral knowledge—started.

And then it becomes this forward movement toward we know not what, but we know that there’s a difference between profound suffering that has no silver lining and many of the things that we value and are right to value in life. I think Thomas Kuhn once said, “Philosophy tends to export its worst products to the rest of culture.” It’s ironic, because many of the things exported from Kuhn’s work are also fairly terrible, but he got this part right. The fact-value divide—Hume’s “you can’t derive an ought from an is”—is a bad export.

This notion comes, I think, from a misreading of Hume. But I’ve met physicists who think that this is somehow inscribed at the back of the book of nature—you just cannot get an ought from an is; there’s no statement of the way the world is that can tell you how it ought to be; there’s no statement of fact that can tell you anything at all about values, and therefore values are just made up. They have no relationship to the truth claims of science.

DD: Yes, it’s empiricism again. It’s justificationism. You can’t deduce an ought from an is, but we’re not after deducing. We’re after explaining. And moral explanations can follow from factual explanations, as you have just done with thinking of the worst possible misery that a human being could be in.

SH: Even deeper than that—and I believe you make this point in your book—is the fact that you can’t even get to an “is,” which is to say a factual claim, without presuming certain “oughts,” without presuming certain values—the value of logical consistency, the value of evidence, and so forth. This is a confusion about the foundations of knowledge, that is somehow being linked to empirical experience narrowly. And the added notion that science is doing something totally unlike what we’re doing in the rest of our reasoning..

It’s a special case, of course. It’s the part of culture where we have invoked the value of not fooling ourselves and not fooling others, and made a competitive game of finding where one might be fooling oneself and where others might be fooling themselves. We’ve adjusted the incentives in the right way so that it’s easier to spot self-deception and fraud in science than it is elsewhere. But it’s not a fundamentally different project of trying to understand what’s going on in the world.

DD: I agree, I agree.

SH: This brings me to the final topic, which I think is related to what we were talking about in terms of the maintenance of civilization and the possible peril of birthing intelligent machines. I just wanted to get your opinion on the Fermi paradox. Please describe what that paradox is for those who don’t know it, and then tell me why our not seeing the galaxy teeming with more-advanced civilizations than our own isn’t a sign that there’s something about gathering more knowledge that might, in fact, be fatal to those who gather it.

DD: So the Fermi problem, rather than paradox, is “where are they? Where are the extraterrestrials?” The idea is that the galaxy is very large, but how big it is is trumped by how old it is. So if there were two civilizations anywhere in the galaxy, the chances that they had arisen less than, say, 10 million years apart are infinitesimal. Therefore, if there is another out there, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be at least 10 million years older than us, and therefore it would have had 10 million years more time to develop. Also, that’s plenty of time for them to get here, if not by space travel then by sheer mixing of the stars in the galaxy.

They only need to colonize a few nearby stars so that after, say, 100 million years or billion years, those stars will be far apart and spread throughout the galaxy. So we would be seeing evidence of them, and since we don’t see evidence of them, they’re not out there. Well, this is a problem, but I think the problem is just that we don’t yet understand very well most of the parameters, such as are they likely to use radio waves? What are they likely to do by way of exploration? What are their wishes likely to be?

In all these cases, we make an assumption that they’ll be like us in that way, and that they will use technology in the same way that we do. We only need to be wrong in one of those assumptions for the conclusion that we should have seen them by now to be false. Now, another possibility is that we are the first—at least in our galaxy. And I think that would be quite nice.

SH: Does that second assumption strike you as very implausible or not?

DD: Like I said, I don’t think we know enough about all the different factors affecting this for any one idea to be very plausible or implausible. What’s implausible is that they can have a different way of creating knowledge. That kind of thing is implausible because it implies that physics is very different from the way we think it is. And if you’re going to think that, you may as well believe in the Greek gods.

SH: Right.

DD: Another possibility is that most societies don’t destroy themselves. Like I said, I think that’s fairly implausible for us, and it’s very, very implausible this generically happens.

SH: Right. Just to spell that out. The philosopher Nick Bostrom had a concept in his book Superintelligence of what he called the “Great Filter.” It’s the fear that at some point basically all advanced civilizations discover computation and build intelligent machines, and this, for some reason, is always fatal. Or maybe there’s some other filter that is always fatal, and that explains the absence of complex alien life.

DD: We would expect to see the machines, right? They would have got here by now, unless they’re busy making paper clips at home. But I think what is more plausible—although again, I must say this is just idle speculation—is that most societies settle down to staticity. Now, our experience of staticity is conditioned by the static societies in our past—which, as I said, have been unimaginably horrible from our present perspective. But if you imagine a society whose material welfare is, say, a million times better than ours, and somehow that becomes settled into a sort of ritualistic religion in which everybody does the same thing all the time, but nobody really suffers, that seems to me like hell. But I can imagine there can be societies in which, as you said, they can’t see the different ways of being. You used the example of being near Oxford and not knowing about Africa. You could be on top of the tallest mountain in Britain and not know that Mount Everest exists. And if the height of the mountain measures happiness, you might be moderately happy and not know that the better happiness is available. If so, then you could just stay like that.

SH: Actually, you just invoked the metaphor I use in my book The Moral Landscape. I think that’s precisely the opportunity on offer for us: there’s a landscape of possible states of well-being—and this is an almost infinitely elastic term to capture the differences in pleasure across every possible axis—and yes, you can find yourself on a local peak that knows nothing of other peaks, and there are many, many, many peaks. But, obviously, there are many more ways not to be on a peak.

I think there are probably many peaks that are analogous to and compatible with a very high state of civilization—but which are analogous to being the best heroin addicts in the galaxy. Which is to say the inhabitants have found a place of stasis where there is no pain and there is also not a lot of variation in what they do. They’ve just plunged into a great reservoir of bliss, which they’ve managed to secure for yourself materially with knowledge of some type. It’s a very Aldous Huxley sort of endgame.

DD: Yes, if that’s really what’s happening across the galaxy, you have to find some way of accommodating it. First of all, a civilization like that will eventually be destroyed by a nearby supernova or something of the kind. On a scale of tens or hundreds of millions of years, there are plenty of things that could wipe out a civilization unless it does something about it. If it does do something about it, automatically with automatic supernova suppression machines that are in place and nobody has to think about them anymore, we would notice that.

So it can’t be exactly that. And on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t know about that and do get wiped out, because how did they get to that stage of exalted comfort without ever finding out about supernovae and their danger? There are other possibilities. I’m actually considering writing a science fiction book with a very horrible possibility, which I won’t mention now, but it’s fiction.

SH: Don’t give the surprise away…

Well, listen, David. It’s been incredibly fun to talk to you, and I am painfully aware that we haven’t even spoken about the thesis for which you are perhaps best known—actually the two theses: the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, as explained in both your books, the first one being The Fabric of Reality, which I read when it came out and loved, and quantum computation. But we’ll have to leave those for another time, because you have been so generous with yours today.

I want to encourage our listeners to read both your books, but especially the most recent one. Where can people find out more about you online?

DD: They can find me with Google very easily, but I also have a website, So I’m easy to find.

SH: Right. And your social media buttons are on that page as well?

DD: Yeah, I am on Twitter.

SH: Okay… Actually, one last question: Now that I’m interviewing smart, knowledgeable people, it occurred to me to ask this question of Max Tegmark, and then I forgot, so this will be the inaugural question with you. Who’s your vote for the smartest person who has ever lived? If we had to put up one human brain, past or present, to dialogue with the aliens, who would you say would be our best candidate to field?

DD: So this is different from asking who has contributed most to human knowledge, who has created most? It’s rather who has the highest IQ?

SH: It’s good to differentiate those, because there are obviously people who are quite smart, who have contributed more than anyone in sight to our knowledge. But when you look at how they think and what they did, there’s no reason to think they were as smart as John von Neumann, for instance. So I’m going after someone like von Neumann, Raw brain power.

DD: In that case, I think it probably has to be Feynman. Although his achievements in physics are nowhere near those of, say, Einstein. I met him only once, and people were saying to me, “You’ll have heard a lot of stories about Feynman, but he’s only human.” Well, to cut a long story short, I went and met him, and the stories were all true. He was an absolutely amazing intellect. I haven’t met many of the others, I never met Einstein, but my impression is that he was something unusual. I should add, in terms of achievement, I would also add Popper.

SH: Don’t cut that long story so short. What was it like being with Feynman, and can you describe what was so unusual?

DD: Well, he was very quick on the uptake. That is not so unusual in a university environment, but the creativity applied directly to getting things was. Let me give you an example. I was sent to meet him by my boss when I was just beginning to develop the ideas of quantum computation, and I had constructed what we would today call a quantum algorithm—a very, very simple one. It’s called the Deutsch algorithm. It’s not much by today’s standards, but I had been working on this for many months.

I started telling him about quantum computers. He was very quick, he was very interested, and then he said, “So what can these computers do?” I said, “Well, I’ve been working on a quantum algorithm.” And he said, “What?” So I began to tell him about it. I said, “Supposing you had a superposition of two different initial states.” He said, “Well, then you just get random numbers.” And I said, “Yes, but supposing you then do an interference experiment.” I started to continue, and he said, “No, no, stop, stop. Let me work it out.” And he rushed over to the blackboard and he produced my algorithm with almost no hint of where it was going.

SH: So how much work did that represent? How much work did he recapitulate standing at the blackboard?

DD: I don’t know, because it’s hard to say how much of a clue the few words I said were. But the crude measure is a few months. A better measure is that I was flabbergasted. I had never seen anything like this before, and I had been interacting with some extremely smart people.

SH: And your boss was John Wheeler at that point?

DD: At that time, yes.

SH: So no dunce himself.

DD: That’s right.

SH: What a wonderful story. I’m glad I asked. Well, listen, David. Let me just demand that this not be the last time you and I have a conversation like this, because you have a beautiful mind.

DD: That would be very nice. It was very nice talking to you.

SH: Please take care, and we’ll be in touch.

[Closing Music]
SH: If you enjoyed this podcast, there are several ways you can support it. You can leave reviews on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you happen to listen to it; you can share it on social media with your friends; you can discuss it on your own blog or podcast; or you can support it directly through my website, at


bad science

Ban academics from talking to ministers? We should train them to do it!

The Cabinet Office has come up with a crazy plan to ban academics like me from talking to politicians and civil servants. In this piece I explain why that is an almost surreally stupid idea. I also describe how I hustle, in Whitehall, to try and get government policy changed on open data, scientific transparency, and […]
richard dawkins foundation

James Shapiro goes after natural selection again (twice) on HuffPo - Jerry Coyne - Why Evolution Is True

I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all.  Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down.  But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .

In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:

“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”

This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.”  His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological.  Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria.  Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!

Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species.  And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.

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richard dawkins foundation

Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US? - - - BBC News

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Thousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March

Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth".

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richard dawkins foundation

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader - Robert F. Worth - New York Times

Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.

DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.

As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.

DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).

DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”

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richard dawkins foundation

Does this set a record for smug nastiness? - Richard Dawkins -

Tony Nicklinson died today. His appalling suffering is now at an end, no thanks whatsoever to our judges or our parliament. Obviously all decent people will feel glad for him, but I would add sorry that he failed to win a precedent that might benefit others. Indeed, it was precisely the fear of such a precedent that motivated the High Court to hand down its callous judgment. Let’s continue his fight for a more humane approach to the right to die.

In pursuing that fight, we need to take full measure of the opposition, where it is coming from, and in some cases the sheer depth of its unpleasantness. The article posted below was written before Tony Nicklinson’s death but after the High Court turned down his request to be allowed to die. The author, Richard Carvath, describes himself as a British Conservative political activist. I have never met him and have no wish to do so, nor had I previously heard of him. But I think his article could perform a useful service in laying out, clearly and relentlessly, the full extent of the nastiness of which people of his persuasion – we inevitably get to the love of Jesus before we are through – are capable. As often on the Internet today, you have to wonder whether it is satire, but on balance I am persuaded that this one isn’t. This is the real McCoy. Read it and marvel at the depths to which the human mind can sink, when its moral sense is sufficiently disabled by religion.
Richard Dawkins

For the Love of Tony Nicklinson

Richard Carvath

Poor old Tony Nicklinson.  His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him.  It’s enough to depress anyone to the point of despair.  In a recent tweet, Cheryl Baker (yes, she of 1981 Eurovision Bucks Fizz fame) seemed to sum up the general attitude of the misguided ‘Kill Tony’ mob when she wrote: “My heart cries for Tony Nicklinson.  If he was a dog there would be no ethical or moral decision to be made, just whatever is best for him.”  But Tony is not a dog.  Tony is a human being.  Last week, thankfully, Tony failed in his attempt to change the law which serves to protect us all from murder.  The upholding of the law was applauded by champions of justice and pro-life defenders of the disabled – and rightly so.  Tony Nicklinson isn’t terminally ill; he is severely physically disabled but he is not dying; Tony has a life to live.

There are many forms of human suffering and we each suffer something at least once in our lives: severe illness; injustice; betrayal; loneliness; poverty; unemployment; crime; childbirth; bereavement; unfair discrimination etcetera.  Sometimes our suffering is our own fault and sometimes it’s the fault of others.  Suffering is inevitable and what matters is how we respond to suffering.  Do we help ourselves or are we our own worst enemy?  Do we wallow in self-pity or do we resolve to think positively? 

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richard dawkins foundation

Missionaries of Hate - - - Top Documentary Films

Thanks to Mike for the link

Correspondent Mariana van Zeller travels to Uganda, where many question whether the growing influence of American religious groups has led to a movement to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. As an anti-gay movement spreads across the continent, gay Africans and their families face an increasingly uncertain future of isolation, imprisonment or even execution.

The film makes it much easier to understand why the general Ugandan public is so eager to send their peers to jail. If the most prominent spiritual leader in your community made it his life purpose to convince you that there were people coming to eat your poop and recruit your children, you would be against them too. They are only hearing one side of the story and it is the origin of their information that is truly infuriating.

Although Ugandan leaders are deeply offended by the notion, the facts definitively show that American evangelists have played a central role in defining the nation’s hard line against sexual minorities. The documentary focuses on American evangelist Dr. Scott Lively, who is widely credited with installing the dominant notion that homosexuals are after your children.

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