Better than tree jumpers

In Louis Theroux’s LA Stories, Among the Sex Offenders, Louis interviews several sex offenders. One person he interviewed was twice convicted of rape. He admits he did it, but explains:

I’m not what we call a tree jumper. I don’t jump out of trees and attack women physically and hold them down and all that. no no no. This was a thing that happened with my girlfriend, got out of hand.

Another person Louis interviewed had been repeatedly convicted of indecent exposure (exhibitionism). He explained:

I think the standard impression of exhibitionists is someone that jumps out from behind a bush or a tree with a trench coat and tries to surprise someone. “Aha!” and shock them. When i do it, i want to retain their attention for as long as possible. I don’t want them to run away in fear. I want to be noticed. Maybe talked to. And in some cases they talk to me.

I suspect that the “at least I’m not a tree jumper” argument is not very effective. I think we would rather they admit to what they did and not try to contrast themselves with people who are worse. Yet, it seems very difficult for people to not do this. No matter what horrible thing someone’s done, the instinct is to say “at least I’m not like those other people.”

Some possibilities:

  1. It is actually an effective strategy, relatively speaking. Nothing is going to be very successful here, but this strategy perhaps reduces reputation damage to some degree.
  2. It’s ineffective and possibly makes things worse. However, people so badly need to not be hated and/or shunned that they cannot help but pull out tools from the persuasion toolbox, because they work well in most situations. Major violations of social norms like sex offenses are rare enough that we don’t have good strategies in these situations.
  3. It’s ineffective in persuading others, but effective in terms of self-deception. I feel like the main purpose of self-deception is to more effectively deceive others. Perhaps when others cannot be deceived (because the crime is too great), we still need the self-deception. This could be because there is some independent effect on our own mental health, or it could be that we just can’t recalibrate in these rare situations (not enough prior data).

Social grooming was probably a major bonding ritual for humans through most of our history. This still seems to be very important for other primates. It’s a reliable signal. If I’m going to take the time to pick nits off of you, you can probably rely on me for other things. With the grooming, there is touching, intimacy, and, I’d guess, story telling.

I speculate that mirrors were a disruptive technology that significantly reduced the need for social grooming. Inevitably, the amount of social grooming in humans declined as a result. That grooming was formerly a powerful bonding practice can, in part, be seen by attempts at retaining it. In black communities one place bonding happens is at barber shops. Women sometimes go with friends for manicures or pedicures. Teenagers sometimes like to give each other makeovers.

Friendly epistemic grooming would involve reading someone’s 3000 word essay, complimenting it, and suggesting little ways to improve it. It could be just pointing out a spelling error – not as a criticism, but because you know they wouldn’t want the error to remain. If you find a spelling error 2,528 words in, this is a pretty reliable signal that you took the time to read it all. It’s like searching the whole body for nits. Or, you might point them to a study that they are unaware of, that might further strengthen their argument. This is epistemic grooming and I wish this was called nitpicking, with a positive connotation.

Instead, nitpicking someone’s argument is basically ignoring the beauty of their skin and saying “You have a nit on your back. Gross!”All you see is the nit, and you don’t pick it off, but rather, point it out to make them feel bad.

Lack of Li’l Sebastians

Horses were very valuable to people as transportation. They are large, strong, fast, and just the right shape to be ridden. However, they could not fill this niche for very long. People eventually created superior mechanical horses (cars, trains).

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Horses are cute and make people feel loved. So they had potential to fill the pet niche. However, dogs outcompete them for that role. Horses are too big for most people’s homes and land, and are expensive to feed. Their size was an advantage when they were giving people rides, but is a big disadvantage as a pet. Also, horses are not as good as dogs at showering people with over-the-top displays of affection. So, purposeless horses got turned into food for animals that are better suited for this niche.

The love of Li’l Sebastian reflects our dream for a world where a species can rapidly evolve from one human-useful niche (ride-givers) to another (pet).

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This post is about what kids for cash, the treatment of Brendan Dassey as shown in Making a Murderer, and the war on drugs have in common.

Kids for cash

Briefly, the kids for cash scandal involved Wilkes-Barre, PA Judge Mark Ciavarella, who gave kids long sentences at youth detention centers for very minor crimes. He had a financial relationship with two of these centers, which he did not disclose. So it appeared that he was profiting from giving kids harsh sentences. Pretty scandalous.

There is a documentary about this titled Kids for Cash. The documentary was not what I expected. What it shows is that Ciavarella wanted his identity to be about how tough on kids he was. He was campaigning on the idea that he wouldn’t give kids a second chance. If they got in trouble at school he would give them the toughest punishment allowable by law. He was elected. He then followed through on his campaign promises. He ended up getting re-elected. These are 10 year terms. So he was Judge for 10 years and citizens chose to re-elect him. For much of his time as Judge, he was not receiving kickbacks from youth detention centers. He campaigned as a tough-on-crime judge. He was elected as a tough-on-crime judge. He was giving out harsh sentences to kids who got in trouble at school, just like he said he would.

So it seems to me that he basically gave the people what they wanted, in terms of how he dealt with teens who got into trouble. Had he also not been getting kickbacks for it, would the public have really cared about these harsh sentences? They didn’t seem to when they voted for him and re-elected him.

War on drugs

Mass incarceration was a direct result of getting tough on crime, and especially getting tough on non-violent crime like recreational drug use. This is what the public demanded. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to find anyone who was arguing that recreational drug use should be legal (except for some libertarians, like Ron Paul, who weren’t taken seriously). Recreational drug use is very popular. If you are going to prosecute something that is very popular, you are going to flood the criminal justice system with those cases. What will then happen to people who cannot afford attorneys?

Well, if you give that last question some thought, you’d probably guess that state appointed defense attorneys would have huge incentive to get their clients to accept plea deals. What is the alternative? Can we really afford to pay for everyone to get a good defense, if we are going to prosecute so many non-violent offenses? Of course not. So that is exactly what happened. We wanted a war on drugs. We wanted to get tough on crime. So everyone started taking plea deals.

Brendan Dassey

If you’ve seen Making a Murder (the Netflix documentary), you were probably most outraged by how Brendan Dassey was treated. His defense attorney, before having ever spoken to him, announced to the press that he was guilty. He argued that Brendan should be given a lenient sentence, however, because he was influenced by his older cousin. The documentary series goes on to show how police and Dassey’s attorney worked very hard to get a confession out of him and get him to plead guilty. This, even though it was extremely clear that Dassey’s version of what happened did not match the physical evidence.


People seem to want judges to be tough on crime. In Philadelphia and New York City, there have been a half dozen or so years of stop-and-frisk policy, which has resulted in large numbers of people being charged with relatively minor offenses like drug or weapons possession. Being tough on these crimes ensures that the criminal justice system cannot handle the case load without having a very high proportion of cases having plea agreements. This leads to strong incentives for attorneys to get their clients to plead guilty. When the public finds out about some of the more outrageous cases of innocent people whose lives were ruined because they were talked into pleading guilty, they get outraged. And yet, there seems to be no way to have it both ways. If you support the drug war and tough on crime politics, you end up with a bunch of Brendan Dassey’s. There is no world where you can criminalize popular things that people enjoy and have every person who is charged with a crime get a good defense. For the past few decades, people have chosen get tough over everything else. The consequences of that are real, and sometimes briefly visible in particular cases that get exposure. Unfortunately, I do not think people see the connection.

Privilege as criticism

If you are someone who uses the word privilege to criticize people, here is a way to test whether you have been doing it well.

Not doing it well

If just about anything a rich person says could get them criticized by you for their privilege, then you are criticizing them for being well off, not for being ignorant of the advantages they had in life. Examples:

Statement: “I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t”

Criticism: “That’s because you are in such a privileged position that you don’t need to care about money — you already have it!”

Statement: “I decided to take a high paying job”

Criticism: “This is a great example of privilege. S/he just gets to casually choose whether or not to take a high paying job”

Statement: “I decided to devote my life to charitable causes”

Criticism: “Of course you can choose to devote you life to charity, because you are so privileged that you don’t have to worry about bills”

Doing it well

Reserves privilege criticisms for (born) privileged people who are very judgmental of people who had far fewer advantages who haven’t been as successful, seemingly unaware that their advantages likely played at least some role in their success.


I know there are other types of privilege besides money. For example, if a white person living in a suburban neighborhood said that they are happy with the policing in their neighborhood, I don’t think that warrants privilege criticism. But, if they say something like, “I don’t know what these black people are complaining about, I have always found the police to be helpful,” that statement suggests ignorance of other peoples situations due to living in a privilege bubble.


Why changing your mind is (usually) bad

I’ve written before about how I don’t really see changing your mind as a good thing. To me, it usually means that you made the mistake of having an opinion before you had sufficient information. Rational people shouldn’t be changing their minds often, because about most (policy) things they shouldn’t have an opinion.

To make this more concrete, I think it’s useful to think further about what an opinion is or should be. You can imagine two dimensions: how confident you are and how big of an advantage one thing has over another. For example, if an event occurred 4 times in 5 experiments, my best guess might be that the true success probability is 0.8. If, instead, an event occurred 4000 times in 5000 experiments, my best guess might be that the true success probably is 0.8, but I’d be a lot more confident about it.

If you’re going to think about ‘Bayesian updating,’ you shouldn’t just think about a point estimate, you should also think about uncertainty (something like a credible interval). Updates would tend to look like “I am a little less uncertain now” rather than “I changed my mind!” Typically, changing your mind just means you either ignored or previously underestimated uncertainty.

Most things about which there is a lot of debate will tend to not have much very good data supporting one side over the other. And yet, most people seem to have strong opinions. This leads to my next point

Many light bulbs without dimmers

Most political issues tend to have pros and cons that are pretty easy to see if you really try. Generally, things like: compassion versus tough love; privacy versus security; inflexibility versus discretion; etc.

However, almost all debates involve people arguing passionately for one side against people arguing passionately for the other side, without really acknowledging the trade-offs with either. These debates, where no one admits there are tradeoffs, do tend to lead to compromise.

I sometimes picture an alternative world, where everyone acknowledges the tradeoffs and a compromise is reached by discussing the tradeoffs and making a judgment on how best to weigh them.

It’s like trying to achieve a certain degree of brightness. In one room we have many light bulbs, some at full brightness and some off. In another room we have the same number of light bulbs, but they are all dimmed. Both rooms might be equally bright. Humans never seem to achieve the desired brightness with a dimmer.


I love watching people take care of their lawns. Today I saw people with leaf blowers. Grass basically says “I don’t want these leaves on me” and the humans race over and groom it. When grass turns brownish it’s saying “I’m thirsty” and the humans water it. When it gets long people cut it.

In Sapiens, Harari asked “how did wheat convince homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence?” In that case, the explanation, while also awesome to think about, is pretty easy to understand. In the case of grass it seems more complicated.

I enjoyed the 99pi episode on lawns. Lawns were really great for signaling wealth because it showed that you were rich enough to own land that you didn’t put to food producing use. It would be like if today rich people bought or built big factories but didn’t have them make anything.

Once lawns became extremely popular (and industrialized, to an extent), it was no longer just for the elites. So their social status purpose morphed. Currently, lawns seem to signal how good of a neighbor you are. If lawns were easy to take care of, by having one we wouldn’t be signaling to our neighbors that we are the kind of people who care for things.

However, it’s not quite as simple as: if I care for my lawn it shows I care about things and I’m a good neighbor; if I don’t care for my lawn then I don’t have pride in myself or my neighborhood. Some people pay lawn care companies to take care of their lawn. By having others do the work, you aren’t quite as strongly showing that you will work hard and get your hands dirty to do your part to make the neighborhood beautiful. You do, however, show that you have enough money to hire people to care for your lawn. Thus, one could argue that you are signaling that you are so important that you don’t have the time to do the yard work yourself, but you still care enough about how the neighborhood looks that you’ll pay to have it done. On the other hand, a person who is rich enough to pay someone to take care of their yard, but instead does the work themself, shows their neighbors that they’re ‘down to earth’ (not above physical labor).

Getting back to how grass gets us to care for it. If it was extremely easy to keep green, it probably wouldn’t have had so much evolutionary success. Being a bit of a diva can be an advantage. Dogs used a totally different strategy to get humans to care for them. Dogs just flood people with flattery. They basically say “oh my god, you are so great! I can hardly contain myself. I can’t believe someone as great as you exists.” Every inch of their body is used to make the dog’s caretaker feel important (waging tail, happy dog sounds, rolling / running around, jumping up the owner’s legs, etc). I love that there can be such different strategies to make humans do reproductive work for other organisms.

Incentivizing bias

Every profession has incentive to increase the perceived value of what it does. As a result, we receive large doses of propaganda from every profession.

As a kid, everyone profession can seem pretty impressive. If you picture every profession as a tower, these towers are much taller in our minds than they are in reality.

But what happens when you get to the top of one of these towers (i.e., when you become a certified plumber, MD, teacher, yoga instructor, attorney)?

1. Some people become very self-important and have no interest in correcting people’s overestimation of the tower height.I don’t know if they notice the inaccuracy or not, but they become in their eyes as important as their prior-perception.

2. Other people notice that it’s not as impressive as they once thought, and adjust their perspective accordingly.

3. Finally, some people think the tower is still really tall, and they must just be an imposter. (i.e. “the other people must be as smart as I thought they were before I got into this profession, but somehow I managed to sneak in”). I think that is where career imposter syndrome comes from.

Here’s the thing, though. In order for a profession to very effectively over-inflate perceived value relative to actual value, it kind of needs its members to buy into it. i.e., it needs a lot of people like I describe in 1. I guess this happens naturally, because most people enjoy being admired. However, I wonder what things can be done to deceive people about their own intelligence & skills. How do professional organizations accomplish this? What are effective methods?

Is putting up more hurdles and making the profession more exclusive enough? Can people tell the difference between “there were a lot of hurdles but most people could jump them if they wanted to” and “this is extremely difficult and you need unusual skills”?

Until today I hadn’t heard of the story of Emily Rosa. Quoting wikipedia: “At age nine Rosa conceived and executed a scientific study of therapeutic touch which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998.” She won the James Randi “Skeptic of the Year” award in 1998. She received a great deal of media attention after publication of the article.

My first thoughts were: “That’s really cool. I love it that she did an experiment and got it published!” Then I read the article.

I have never read an article more littered with errors. Almost every statement in it related to statistics is wrong.

The basic experiment was described in the abstract:

therapists were “tested under blinded conditions to determine whether they could correctly identify which of their hands was closest to the investigator’s hand. Placement of the investigator’s hand was determined by flipping a coin. […] In 1996, 15 practitioners were tested at their homes or offices on different days for a period of several months. In 1997, 13 practitioners, including 7 from the first series [my emphasis], were tested in a single day.”

Despite the repeated measures design (some practitioners were tested 10 times, others were tested 20 times), the data appear to have been analyzed as if they were independent trials (although it’s hard to tell what they actually did, because the description of the methods is so terrible).

They did a one-sided test and failed to reject the null. However, the therapists did worse than would be expected with random guessing (44% success rate with p-value of about 0.04 (I can’t give a precise p-value because it’s impossible to reconstruct their data)). It could be just chance that they performed worse than you’d expect if they were just guessing, but it does suggest that something might be going on (was the experimenter tipping them off in the wrong direction in some way? were they really sensing a difference in what they feel but attributed it to the wrong thing?). None of that was discussed.

It would take me too long to list all of the errors and potential sources of bias. But trust me, it’s that bad.

I get that a child is one of the authors and it’s cute and we could provide them some slack. But the JAMA editors could have helped make the paper better.

Most importantly, I am extremely disappointed in my fellow skeptics. They let a sensational story blind them. It’s a story that has all of the elements needed to go viral. A 9 year old took on those pseudoscientists and won! Yay us! So then the skeptic community turned off their skeptical brains and just endorsed the whole story. Shame.

Think of your house as a cell, with membranes (walls, roof, windows) and channels (doors, pipes, windows). You’re the immune system of this cell. In general this cell is quite appealing to other living things, due to temperature regulation and sources of food. Most of what makes it through your house’s membranes (via channels) will go undetected. However, sometimes you will detect unwanted invaders. For example, mice might go undetected for a while, but eventually you might notice mice feces or that they’ve eaten food you’ve left out.

You could ignore the mice, but to some degree that is only inviting more mice. In addition, most people don’t want mice in their houses (or bugs, but we’ll stick to the mice example). Another option is to try to kill the mice. However, mice are cute! You will probably feel mean if you kill them. Instead, you could catch them and let them go outside. How sweet.

Consider the letting them go scenario. The mice will likely either die or find another home. If they find another home, someone else is stuck with deciding between killing them or catching them and letting them go. You have basically passed the problem on to someone else. The mice will likely still die (either from cold, starvation or a mouse trap). However,  you get to feel like a good person.

Every system has membranes, channels and immune systems to patrol for intruders. This appears to be a universe universal (or, literally universal). Attaching morality to it is a difficult, questionable business.

I see this pattern a lot, where people make something someone else’s problem and look down on them while feeling good about themselves.

Think about many of the jobs that seem very unpleasant. As an example, consider the people whose job it is to write parking tickets in large cities. Parking meters are intended to prevent people from parking in one spot for a long time. Because of this, when you drive to a city, you are far more likely to find an available parking spot. Someone needs to enforce the parking meter rules, or people would just park there for long periods of time. If you like this system, then you should be thankful for the people who write parking tickets. However, I see a lot of anger directed at them. Of course it doesn’t feel good to get a parking ticket, but getting angry at them only makes their job worse. I think most people want parking meter enforcement, except when they get a ticket. The people who have better job options don’t have to write parking tickets to pay their bills. They can reap the benefits of parking meter enforcement, while acting morally superior to the people who do take on these jobs. It’s like making mice someone else’s problem, and then judging them if they kill them.