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Eichmann in Oxford

I have recently been assigned to an Ethics Reviewer position, and I just had my first training. One of the lecture slides for this training was quite audacious: It placed the UK's current academic ethics initiatives in a glorious history, beginning with the Nuremberg Code of 1947. The Nuremberg code came after the famous Nuremberg trials; it sought to codify ethical research guidelines, in response to the atrocities carried out as "research" by Nazi doctors. It was thrilling to learn that my new administrative position was only the latest episode in a grand story of moral enlightenment. I thought I was just taking on a new bureaucratic responsibility, so I was relieved and quite inspired to learn that I would really be fighting fascism.

The reason I describe this particular lecture slide as audacious is because — although my excellent training leader forgot to mention this — the Nazi doctors had been subject to an ethics code from the beginning: the 1931 Guidelines for Human Experimentation (see this 2011 article in Perspectives in Clinical Research, which argues that the Nuremberg Code plagiarized the 1931 Guidelines). When the doctors were later tried in the Nuremberg Trials, one of the defenses put forward by the doctors' lawyers was that the doctors were acting in accordance with the guidelines!

There is little doubt, then, that contemporary academic ethics review systems have some kind of relationship with the horrors of mid-twentieth century fascist totalitarianism. The only question is whether we are the good guys or the bad guys. Is the Ethics Review System (henceforth ERS) of the modern university a 180-degree turn away from the Third Reich's fake, evil system of research ethics, now functioning to protect people from harm? Or is the Ethics Review System of the modern university like the ethics system of the Third Reich, in a more sophisticated form, functioning primarily to protect the interests of research institutions while harming some other subpopulation?

To figure that out, we need to ask what exactly this system is doing. Is it doing something that looks more like "preventing horrific behaviors" or does it look more like "a state-sponsored system to promote a certain group of humans over others?" I will submit that it looks much more like a state-sponsored system to promote some humans over others. But I should admit that I am biased. If I chose the first option, that would not make for a very good blog post.

First, the reasons why it doesn't look like a system dedicated to preventing harm.

For starters, I've not been made aware of any cases in which some horror was prevented by the ERS. That doesn't mean much, because of course the ERS might have stopped some horrible researchers from even attempting to conduct some evil research they would have otherwise conducted. Still, even granting some effect here, my sense is that this counterfactual quantity of prevented harm is very small as a percentage of total research activity, if only because I've met a lot of academics. Most of them don't even do the types of research that can really hurt people. Most of the ethics approval applications are from undergraduate students, and most of those students are seeking to do the easiest and simplest research they can get away with. They want good grades, often in a short time frame, so typically they steer away from elaborate experiments injecting racial minorities with strange chemicals or whatever. It's just not really in their wheelhouse. Even social scientists analyzing public, secondary datasets are now being asked to submit ethics applications. When was the last time that harmed someone?

The really dangerous types of research, on the other hand, such as biomedical research, are not even strongly constrained by the ERS because if the ERS says no to anything, that research will just be conducted in the private sector. I don't know the details so I can't confirm this, but I've been told — in my initial training session, as a matter of fact — that the Cambridge lecturer who created the psycho-graphic Facebook app that would later be used by Cambridge Analytica to force the victory of Trump and Brexit (lol), was denied academic ethics approval. So then he just went the commercial route. The second to last reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm is that, even when ethics reviewers identify potential "ethical problems," the result is usually nothing more than some superficial language changes. Then it's approved. The ERS rarely gives a verdict of "you are absolutely not allowed to do anything like this, do not even try to reapply;" they usually just command linguistic modifications to how people frame their research plans. Finally, there's no actual enforcement of the research conduct itself, so this is a huge reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm. If I'm evil enough to conduct an experiment, say, covertly injecting a novel synthetic hormone into the testicles of non-consenting senior citizens, I'm probably evil enough to obtain ethics approval by simply omitting the part where I plan to secretly stab senior citizens in the balls.

Next, the reasons why the ERS looks more like a state-sponsored system to promote some human lives over others.

The key thing to understand is that — and you'd be amazed how quickly and frankly they will admit this explicitly, if you ask them, as I did! — "ethics" really means a kind of "quality control" for the purpose of university image-maintenance, in order to ensure the flow of money from government research councils. My trainer told me that, straight up.

The examples they gave us of ethics violations that have actually occurred recently under our system's monitoring — rather than legendary historical cases like the Stanford Prison Experiment — are not primarily ethical violations. They are intellectual 'quality' violations. For instance, one case was of a student who emailed out a bunch of survey questions written with very poor grammar. This was brought to the attention of the university because it reflected poorly on the university's brand as an education provider. This could lower the status of the university, which could lower the likelihood of government councils giving money to our university instead of others. Now it starts to make sense why so much time, energy, and manpower are invested in these "ethics" review systems. Is it well known that this is the real purpose of these systems? I have not read this anywhere else...

Another case they gave us was a case where a student sent their survey to the email address of someone who is now deceased. The wife of the deceased man was upset that a student would send an email to her deceased husband. Is it an ethical violation to send a letter to someone who you did not realize is now dead? Could anyone say with a straight face that this is an example of unethical research practice? I don't think so. The only problem here is that someone in the public was upset about something they associated with the university. It's a PR problem, and that's about it. There was no principle given for what would distinguish a case of mere subjective dislike of the study from an unethical study. This isn't even seen as a relevant question, and I'm afraid to say that the appearance of unquestioning conformity in this system does not bode well for the ERS's promise that it is totally not the Third Reich.

Therefore, ethics review bureaucracies in contemporary universities are systems the primary purpose of which is to keep money pumping from taxpayers into the coffers of high-IQ people shielding themselves from economic competition. It is the PR wing of a massive fleecing system.

This also reminds one how education, manners, and aesthetic refinement (e.g. the grammar in a research survey questionnaire) are moral performances. And moral performance is essentially status competition, and money flows to the winners of status competitions.

In other words, the relationship between the state-sponsored genocidal research systems of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and the state-sponsored research systems of the liberal democracies in the 21st century is more like a parent-child relationship than an ethically-enlightened-opposition relationship.

Anyone who's ever been to an administrative meeting in a contemporary university will likely find my interpretation to have much more face validity than the other one...

Does a country's separation of powers affect its status culture?

I was recently wondering whether countries with more centralized executive and legislative powers (less checks and balances) might have more status-intensive cultures — or in some way a qualitatively different type of status culture. My hypothesis is inchoate but here it goes.

When a government has few checks and balances (e.g. the UK is known for having a pretty centralized, unified government), the flow of public funds into civil society is highly conditional on the subjective status-estimates of a small set of people (those in government). By subjective status estimates I mean the personal impressions of the rulers regarding what people and projects out in the world are good, valuable, desirable, attractive, etc. When a government has a lot of checks and balances, the flow of public funds into civil society is not as conditional on the subjective status-estimates of one small set of agents — it's conditional on many different socially separated sets of agents.

The two countries I have the most experience living in, the US and the UK, occupy the two opposite poles with respect to the centralization of power in a unified government. And it seems to me that status-signaling activity in these countries is different in a noticeable but predictable way. These are just impressions and could be totally wrong, but here's what it looks like to me. It seems to me that much of UK civil society revolves around satisfying the whims of some superior, who is mostly concerned to satisfy the whims of some other superior, and so on upward... But at the top of almost all of these different chains of deference in different subspaces of civil society, is the whim of one group: the government in parliament at that time. This is why, I think, there is a lot of volatility in the priorities of civil society organizations in the UK (the "strategic plan" of a university can easily change once a year for some stretches), and yet the volatility seems strangely correlated (some change in a university's "strategic plan" sounds oddly like some new messaging you encounter from some other Arts organization. There are weird lags and interactions as you descend the pyramid from parliament to civil society, of course, but the diversity of civil society organizations all seem roughly attuned to the one fickle center at the top. So all the status-games feel, to me, weirdly and claustrophobically entrained.

In the US, it's obviously not that status competition is less prevalent, but the many status games of different civil society actors don't all trace upward to one master at the top of the pyramid. It's much more fractured, regarding who different civil society actors are trying to impress. But because it's more fractured, this means individuals have a relatively wider choice of what particular status game they want to play. Those who are immersed in one, don't pay as much attention to those who are playing another. If you find one status game really irksome, then you can potentially switch into another (relative to a country such as the UK).

One can then speculate about what types of people are selected for by these different contexts. I find the overly synchronized, centrally entrained status games of the UK kind of creepy, personally. I think it might make people marginally more delusional. It seems to me that people in the UK, including really smart people, are more likely to take arbitrary government directives as anchors of reality, whereas Americans have more mental leeway to, as it were, take 'em or leave 'em. When everyone else is attuned to the same center, it makes sense that you might mistake what's coming from the center as a vector of reality itself, rather than one contingent possibility among others. Americans often seem "kind of crazy" to non-Americans, and this might help to explain it. The highly fractured nature of government power in the US might make the American individual feel and act kind of like a free agent navigating many contingent possibilities of what reality even is.

Is it racist to use the Kekistani flag?

I was recently queried by a reporter in Arizona covering a story about some conservative university students who caused a scandal by displaying a Kekistani flag. It turns out that I am now the academic expert on this topic. His specific question was the degree to which Kekistan is rooted in racism. I have no idea about the specific situation at the university in Arizona, but here is what I told him (lightly edited/revised). It’s a more general point, and I'm sure he'll only use a quote or two, so I’m posting it here.

How rooted in racism is the Kekistani flag? The answer to this question depends on how one defines racism. Today, many on the Left consider nearness to racists to be racist: for instance, to speak with a racist in public is to “platform” racism and therefore promote racism. Or, to use a symbol that was one time used by one racist one year ago — this would count as some degree of racism because one is “co-signing” the racist or “dog whistling” to a racist audience. This is what I have elsewhere called a “guilt-contagion model” of racism. If that is your model of racism, then sure, the Kekistani flag will be seen as racist, because it has probably been used for pretty explicit racist signaling by some pretty explicit racists in its life as a viral meme.

The problem is that, when applied to internet meme culture, the guilt-contagion model makes no sense. Viral memes are, by definition, picked up and extended in dozens, hundreds, often thousands of different directions. In this context, even a large number of racist uses of a meme cannot disqualify the entire meme as racist, if there are way more non-racist uses of the meme. This is especially obvious when you keep in mind that memes are, by definition, radically decontextualized (any one adoption will have a very low degree of integration with, or accountability to, the previous instances; its “viral” nature is based precisely on this extreme flexibility and lack of respect for earlier instances of the meme).

When you look at the origin and history of the Kekistan meme, it’s pretty clear that it was not launched or intended as a racist project, and when you look at the available data on how it is actually used (as I have done), it’s pretty clear that racism is not even close to being one of its primary meanings. So in my judgment, I don’t think you can call the Kekistani flag racist, no. People who call the Kekistani flag racist are relying on a definition of racism that makes no sense in the internet age.

It does not surprise me that conservative college students might want to display this flag, in part because, to some conservatives, the flag now represents unfair overreach by social liberals to smear many non-racist conservatives as racist. Again, the dynamic nature of meme culture confounds our efforts to pin down a meme’s meaning, because the media response to a meme can rapidly become the basis for new instances of the meme. Of course, there might be some racist in the group, I have no idea about the situation. My point is that the meme itself simply does not give anyone sufficient evidence to infer that there must be a racist behind it, or even that it’s likely for there to be a racist behind it. It’s perfectly possible that they are signaling their belief in free speech, and that they are using this symbol precisely because they know that many on the left will (incorrectly) call it racist! This might prove their point about free speech, it might gain attention, rally members, etc. — all perfectly reasonable goals of any political organization, having nothing necessarily to do with racism.

The Devil Is in the Denial

The religious, who possess only tacit knowledge of the pragmatic truths inhering in religion, should be forgiven their occasional intellectual backwardness, for the same reason we forgive the idiocy of someone who recently suffered brain damage in a car accident. The religious today are still in a state of cognitive whiplash from the scientific revolution.

A great deal of what the devout feel is no longer expressible in terms they can justify, but this is because science updates fast and wisdom updates slowly. Wisdom is a crystal leftover from that which goes fast and fails. The scientific revolution is a supernova that is still exploding; religion, as encoded wisdom, will never "keep up with" what is explosive, even if — for all we know — it turns out to be vindicated after the dust has settled.

In their whiplash, those who insist on the truth of religion despite modernity are often guilty of misdirection. Rather than give science all of its due and admit the consequences, the religious often insist despite their rational conscience (telling themselves this is the meaning of "faith"). It seems to me that if, despite everything, there remain honest religious people today, then they would have to admit that the epistemic character of their own religiosity is itself an utter mystery. Obviously, it was never justified by science but now it no longer even enjoys the social conditions for its traditional functioning as an extra-rational social-pyschological structure. It's hard for me to see how religious experience today could be something other than the experience of making no sense, which does not mean there do not still exist real religious people or that one should not be religious—it only means that if a religious person today makes too much sense, I doubt them. One may believe in God, but this belief is weak indeed if one cannot also admit that God is dead. These cognitively aligned religious types, these blessed souls who make good sense to themselves, it is as if they have closed their eyes to the empirical phenomena that can be summarized as the murder of God, which would mean their faith is little more than willfully out of date information.

Mary punching the devil in the face (13th century). Credit: ChurchPop, Public Domain via the British Library.

Insisting that God is not dead in a world in which God has been killed, tends to manifest as a neurotic dissimulation of unstated instrumental motives (and it often is). The religious are correct to be religious, I believe, but they tend to dissimulate on the grounds that only the human folly of overzealous science has made them wrong, and so it is just and true for them to ignore human follies as if they have not occurred, even if those follies have in fact taken over many national majorities the world over. The stubborn dedication of the devout is impressive but unfortunate, because it contributes to the impression that science is "right" and religion is "wrong," at best a dubious symbolic game that's not exactly up front about its real cognitive-emotional character, probably serving some ulterior purposes. Faith that does not confront the death of God is a signal that falls beneath the noise-gates of all modern communication.

The devil is winning, and the religious are failing to update, because the religious are too devout to let themselves be as wrong as they truly are. Allowing oneself to be wrong is a necessary precondition for updating; coming to terms with the degree to which science has rendered religion wrong, is a precondition for religion to determine how its truth might once again be correctly expressed.

WYRD PATCHWORKSHOP

I was recently approached by Diffractions Collective in Prague, who are working with a group called Sdbs, about hosting a discussion event on my livestream. The topic is patchwork. I don't know exactly what to expect, but naturally I said sure. They will be hosting a semi-public IRL event in Prague, and will join the livestream with one account. They will have people speak, I'll be on one account, and I believe we will also be joined by Xenogothic.

The live chat will be open to the public, and I'll be keeping an eye on it for interesting comments and questions, to bring into the discussion.

This event will take place this Saturday, September 22nd at 2pm UK time  (9am in NYC). Like all my livestreams, it will be automatically archived for watching later.

The watch/chat page will be at bit.ly/wyrdpatch. You can go there now and request to receive a reminder when it goes live.

Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?

It's fairly well known that Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to support left-wing political parties, but it's not obvious why, given that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of Western social liberalism. It's even more puzzling why Western leftists so actively support the in-migration of Muslims, given that Western leftists just as actively excommunicate from their own ranks anyone who opposes key planks of social liberalism — nay, anyone who does not sufficiently profess their love for key planks of social liberalism. So then why do Muslim immigrant populations like left-wing parties, and why do Western leftists want Muslim immigrant populations, when each group hates the defining features of the other group's worldview?

Perhaps one might question the premises of this puzzle, so before I attempt a solution to the puzzle, let's go over the premise that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of social liberalism and the premise that Muslims in the West support left-wing parties.

If you think I'm exaggerating the deep ideological conflict between Islam and social-justice leftism, consider the following. One Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality "morally acceptable" — and only about half thought it should be legal (a rather low bar for social liberalism). If you look for the most generous estimates of Islamic sexual liberalism in the West, you can find about 52% of American muslims in 2017 saying that homosexuality should be accepted by society. You can find other estimates in between these two, for different countries and years in the recent past. Presumably, assimilation has some effect, so you have to imagine that new immigrants and asylum-seekers are, on average, on the lower end of these estimates.

One might also wonder if Islam really makes immigrants more likely to support left-wing parties (controlling for other factors correlated with leftism, such as youth). Maybe Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be socially illiberal only because they are disproportionately young, uneducated, and poor. Nope. The graph below is from Piketty's recent paper on political cleavages, specifically from his discussion of the case of France, where support for left parties is 42% higher among Muslims than non-Muslims.

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Those other factors do have effects, but being Muslim still has a unique positive correlation with support for left-wing parties:

More precisely, socio-economic control variables reduce the Muslim left-wing preference from +42 points to +38 points in 2012, and adding foreign origins (including separate dummies for each region of origin) further reduces the effect to +26 points (see Figure 2.6k). In other words, for given gender, age, education, income, wealth and region of origin (for instance North Africa), there is still a sizable effect associating self-reported Muslim identity and left-wing vote. One natural interpretation is that Muslim voters perceive an additional, specific hostility from right-wing parties (and/or an additional, specific sympathy from left-wing parties), as compared for instance to voters with North African origins but who do not describe themselves as Muslim. [Emphasis added. -JM]

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Piketty finds the same pattern for Britain. Piketty's explanation is probably not wrong but it's rather unsatisfying. It's not the focus of his paper so don't write him rude emails expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation. It's just that... to say that Muslims like left-wing parties because right-wing parties hate Muslims, is only to rewrite the algebra. We can just as well pose our puzzle as: Why does antipathy to Muslim immigrants come in a right-wing package, when the offending Muslim viewpoints are primarily offensive to left-wing social liberalism? Right-wingers in the West might very well think, "Good! These incoming Muslim men know a thing or two about enforcing traditional gender norms and keeping out the gays! Maybe they'll rub off on us and forestall our downward spiral of degeneracy!" This sounds impossible to imagine, but that's the puzzle; why is this impossible to imagine when it's at least as plausible, and arguably more plausible, than what we are observing empirically. It sounds very implausible that someone who likes to wave a placard expressing love for brown-skinned folks who hate most queers also likes to denounce white people for only loving nine out of ten queers. And yet this occurs today. If Piketty's solution is unsatisfying, then what's a better explanation?

Wait no longer, because I have the answer. Well, a hypothesis. Which means I personally believe it is the answer (at the time of this writing).

We are accustomed to seeing today's leftist activists as extreme ideologues. The reason contemporary leftist culture is so baffling to so many people is that — it's presumed — they are overly possessed by an ideology; they are extremists on some set of principles; they are crazy because they are too radical, with respect to some set of ideas that is assumed to be underlying their speech and behavior.

Recall my article from a few months ago, analyzing the General Social Survey. I found that the anti-free-speech leftists, the most visible of left-wing activists today, are not technically more extreme leftists; rather, these 'authoritarian leftists' seem to be drawn from those who identify as only somewhat leftist. In other words, they are extreme on some dimension, but it's not leftism per se.

This dovetails with the hypothesis I would like to make here. Contemporary left-wing activists do not suffer from ideological possession or overly extreme devotion to any ideology. In fact, they lack ideology. That's the answer. The contemporary left is simply a grievance processing machine. Ideology has nothing to do with it. Ideology has as much to do with left-wing activism as Mozart has to do with the garbage disposal beneath your kitchen sink: You might hear it on their commercials, but that's about it. The inventors were not listening to it when the idea first presented itself. It plays zero role in the machine's function, which is why the machine runs perfectly fine no matter what the user happens to be listening to. This is why many left-wing activists today can hate one person for being a queer-hater and then profess love for some other queer-haters, all in the same day.

Many people will not believe my hypothesis, because it seems obvious that left-wing activists are constantly referring back to certain shared mental structures. That's true, but that's not all that ideology involves. Political scientists have long observed that vague 'worldviews' don't necessary qualify as ideologies. One of the key marks of ideology, properly understood, is constraint (Converse 1964):

"constraint" or "interdependence" refers to the probability that a change in the perceived status (truth, desirability, and so forth) of one idea-element would psychologically require, from the point of view of the actor, some compensating change(s) in the status of idea-elements elsewhere in the configuration. 

Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, 1964

When I say that left-wing activists are relatively non-ideological, I am not saying that they are not possessed by certain consistent social-psychological processes; I am only saying that the main process is not primarily ideological in this technical sense, because a hypothetical change in one node of the belief-web does not require any change in any other node of the belief-web. Ideology implies a kind of automatic, mechanical updating of the belief-web, given some exogenous shock. It's this functional automaticity, taken to extremes, that makes us think of ideologues as robot people.

And there is good empirical evidence that, in fact, it's conservatives who are motivated by ideology, while leftists mostly care about group interests. See Grossmann and Hopkins (2016). In a nutshell, they look at the language used by lefties and righties when they articulate their likes and dislikes. Do they relate their likes and dislikes to certain ideas or principles, or do they refer to how different groups are affected? They find a pretty huge difference, as revealed in this graph from their 2015 paper (which pretty much speaks for itself):

This finding deserves to be better known. If there is an ideology of left-wing activists, it is that there are no principles other than getting stuff for groups who don't have as much stuff as other groups. If you fervently believe that, it can look and sound a lot like an ideology. And you can call it an ideology if you'd like — if it looks like a duck, and walks and quacks like one, then ain't it a duck?—the only problem is that this will make you baffled by all the patent logical inconsistencies. One of the reasons why leftism today is so baffling to so many people is because people expect these "ideologues" to be possessed by some set of principles, and then people burn a lot of glucose trying to infer what these principles are. To no avail.

This non-ideological ideology of left-wing activists also helps to explain why leftists love Muslim immigrants, and why Muslim immigrants vote for left-wing parties. Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them. Why Muslims love left-wing parties should now be obvious: it's because they have grievances in need of processing, and the left-wing parties are structurally incapable of opposing, let alone stopping, anything Muslim immigrants think or do — on account of their non-ideological, i.e., unconstrained operating philosophy.

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