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Bounded Distrust

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I.

Suppose you're a liberal who doesn't trust FOX News. One day you're at the airport, waiting for a plane, ambiently watching the TV at the gate. It's FOX News, and they're saying that a mass shooter just shot twenty people in Yankee Stadium. There’s live footage from the stadium with lots of people running and screaming.

Do you believe this?

I'm a liberal who doesn't trust FOX News, and sure, I believe it. The level on which FOX News is bad isn't the level where they invent mass shootings that never happened. They wouldn't use deepfakes or staged actors to fake something and then call it "live footage". That would go way beyond anything FOX had done before. Liberals might say things like "You can't trust FOX News on anything, they are 100% total liars", but realistically we still trust them quite a lot on stuff like this.

Now suppose FOX says that police have apprehended a suspect, a Saudi immigrant named Abdullah Abdul. They show footage from a press conference where the police are talking about this. Do you believe them?

Again, yes. While I've heard rare stories of the media jumping in too early to identify a suspect, "the police have apprehended" seems like a pretty objective statement. And once again, faking a police conference - or even dubbing over a police conference so that when the police say some other name, the viewers hear "Abdullah Abdul" - is way worse than anything I've ever heard of FOX doing. Even if I learned of one case of them doing something like this once, I would think "wow that's crazy" and still not update to believing they did it all the time.

It doesn't matter at all that FOX is biased. You could argue that "FOX wants to fan fear of Islamic terrorism, so it's in their self-interest to make up cases of Islamic terrorism that don't exist". Or "FOX is against gun control, so if it was a white gun owner who did this shooting they would want to change the identity so it sounded like a Saudi terrorist". But those sound like crazy conspiracy theories. Even FOX's worst enemies don't accuse them of doing things like this.

It's not quite that this would be *worse* than anything FOX has ever done. I assume FOX helped spread the story that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9-11 and had WMDs, just like everyone else. That's probably a bigger lie (in some sense) than one extra mass shooting in a country with dozens of them, or changing the name and ethnicity of a perpetrator. Certainly it did more damage. But that's not the point. The point is, there are rules to the "being a biased media source" game. There are lines you can cross, and all that will happen is a bunch of people who complain about you all the time anyway will complain about you more. And there are other lines you don't cross, or else you'll be the center of a giant scandal and maybe get shut down. I don't want to claim those lines are objectively reasonable. But we all know where they are. And so we all trust a report on FOX about a mass shooting, even if we hate FOX in general.

In a world where FOX was the only news source available, this kind of thing would become really important. People would need to understand that FOX was biased while also basically being able to accept most things that it said. If people went too far overboard and stopped trusting FOX just because it was biased, they might end up in a state of total paralysis, unable to confirm really basic facts about the world.

II.

What’s the flipped version of this scenario for the other political tribe?

Here’s a Washington Post article saying that Abraham Lincoln was friends with Karl Marx and admired his socialist theories. It suggests that because of this, modern attacks on socialism are un-American.

Here is a counterargument that there’s no evidence Abraham Lincoln had the slightest idea who Karl Marx was.

I find the counterargument much more convincing. Sometimes both the argument and counterargument describe the same event, but the counterargument gives more context in a way that makes the original argument seem calculated to mislead. I challenge you to read both pieces without thinking the same.

A conservative might end up in the same position vis-a-vis the Washington Post as our hypothetical liberal and FOX News. They know it’s a biased source that often lies to them, but how often?

Here’s a Washington Post article saying that the 2020 election wasn’t rigged, and Joe Biden’s victory wasn’t fraudulent. In order to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist, the conservative would have to go through the same set of inferences as the FOX-watching liberal above: this is a terrible news source that often lies to me, but it would be surprising for it to lie in this particular case in this particular way.

I think smart conservatives can do that in much the same way smart liberals can conclude the FOX story was real. The exact argument would be something like: the Marx article got minimal scrutiny. A few smart people who looked at it noticed it was fake, three or four people wrote small editorials saying so, and then nobody cared. The 2020 election got massive scrutiny from every major institution.

The Marx article, if you read it extremely carefully with all the knowledge you gained from the debunking, doesn’t confidently assert a connection between Lincoln and Marx (except in the headline and subtitle, which are usually written by someone else). The reporter uses phrases like “that might be because Lincoln was regularly reading Karl Marx” (in a sentence where you’re expected to think of the hedging as a colloquialism), and “It’s nearly guaranteed that, in the 1850s, Lincoln was regularly reading Marx” (the evidence being that Lincoln had been known to read a newspaper that Marx had been known to publish in). It says that Marx sent letters to Lincoln - but fails to mention that a US President gets thousands of letters from everyone and there’s no evidence Lincoln read Marx’s. It says that a US ambassador told Marx’s Communist group that Lincoln appreciated them - but fails to mention this was as part of a form letter, little different from the “JOE BIDEN THANKS YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT” spam emails I get sometimes. It’s hard for a naive person to read the article without falsely concluding that Marx and Lincoln were friends. But the article does mostly stick to statements which are literally true.

There were some historians who praised the Marx article and said nice things about it. But they were all explicitly socialist historians, and they were all studying time periods other than the one containing Lincoln and Marx. So this probably doesn’t completely discredit all expertise. Meanwhile, actual statisticians and election security experts said pretty clearly they thought the election was fair, even when this was in their domain of expertise.

Finally, the Marx thing was intended as a cutesy human interest story (albeit one with an obvious political motive) and everybody knows cutesy human interest stories are always false.

All of this is a lot more complicated than “of course you can trust the news” or “how dare you entertain deranged conspiracy theories!” There are lots of cases where you can’t trust the news! It sucks! It’s completely understandable that large swathes of people can’t differentiate the many many cases where the news lies to them from the other set of cases where the news is not, at this moment, actively lying. But that differentiation is possible, most people learn how to do it, and it’s the main way we know anything at all.

III.

As in journalism, so in science.

According to this news site, some Swedish researchers were trying to gather crime statistics. They collated a bunch of things about different crimes and - without it being a particular focus of their study - one of the pieces of information was immigration status, and they found that immigrants were responsible for a disproportionately high amount of some crimes in Sweden.

The Swedish establishment brought scientific misconduct cases against the researchers (one of whom is himself "of immigrant background"). The first count was not asking permission to include ethnicity statistics in their research (even though the statistics were publicly accessible, apparently Swedish researchers have to get permission to use publicly accessible data). The second count was not being able to justify how their research would “reduce exclusion and improve integration.”

While these accusations are probably true on their own terms, I think any researcher who found that immigrants were great would not have the technicalities of their research subjected to this level of scrutiny, and that the permissioning system evolved partly out of a desire to be able to crush researchers in exactly these kinds of situations. I think this is a pretty common scenario, and part of a whole structure of norms and regulations that makes sure experts only produce research that favors one side of the political spectrum. So I think the outrage is justified, this is exactly what people mean when they accuse experts of being biased, and those accusations are completely true.

But: have you ever heard an expert say, in so many words, that immigrants to Sweden definitely don't commit more crime than natives?

(I think people do say this in the US, but only because it's true-ish in the US; Sweden and the US have very different immigrant and native populations)

I believe that in some sense, the academic establishment will work to cover up facts that go against their political leanings. But the experts in the field won't lie directly. They don't go on TV and say "The science has spoken, and there is strong evidence that immigrants in Sweden don't commit more violent crime than natives". They don't talk about the "strong scientific consensus against immigrant criminality". They occasionally try to punish people who bring this up, but they won't call them "science deniers".

This seems like another example of the "FOX won't make up terrorist attacks" point. There are a lot of ways that experts and the academic establishment are biased and try to muddy the discussion in favor of their preferred political side. But this is a game with certain rules. There are lines they'll cross, and other lines they won't cross.

And that means you can trust the experts on some things, same as you can trust FOX on some things. The reason why there’s no giant petition signed by every respectable criminologist and criminological organization saying Swedish immigrants don’t commit more violent crime than natives is because experts aren’t quite biased enough to sign a transparently false statement - even when other elites will push that statement through other means. And that suggests to me that the fact that there is a petition like that signed by climatologists on anthropogenic global warming suggests that this position is actually true. And that you can know that - even without being a climatologist yourself - through something sort of like “trusting experts”.

(before you object that some different global-warming related claim is false, please consider whether the IPCC has said with certainty that it isn’t, or whether all climatologists have denounced the thing as false in so many words. If not, that’s my whole point.)

IV.

Last year I explained why I didn't believe ivermectin worked for COVID. In a subsequent discussion with Alexandros Marinos, I think we agreed on something like:

1. If you just look at the headline results of ivermectin studies, it works.
2. If you just do a purely mechanical analysis of the ivermectin studies, eg the usual meta-analytic methods, it works.
3. If you try to apply things like human scrutiny and priors and intuition to the literature, this is obviously really subjective, but according to the experts who ought to be the best at doing this kind of thing, it doesn't work.
4. But experts are sometimes biased.
5. F@#k.

In the end, I stuck with my believe that ivermectin probably didn’t work, and Alexandros stuck with his belief that it probably did. I stuck with the opinion that it’s possible to extract non-zero useful information from the pronouncements of experts by knowing the rules of the lying-to-people game. There are times when experts and the establishment lie, but it’s not all the time. FOX will sometimes present news in a biased or misleading way, but they won’t make up news events that never happen. Experts will sometimes prevent studies they don’t like from happening, but they’re much less likely to flatly assert a clear specific fact which isn’t true.

I think some people are able to figure out these rules and feel comfortable with them, and other people can’t and end up as conspiracy theorists.

I’m not blaming the second type of person. Figuring-out-the-rules-of-the-game is a hard skill, not everybody has it. If you don’t have it, then universal distrust might be a safer strategy than universal credulity.

And I’m not saying that anything about this is good. Obviously the good solution is that people stop lying and presenting misleading information.

But I think it’s important for these two types of people to understand each other.

The people who lack this skill entirely think it’s crazy to listen to experts about anything at all. They correctly point out time after time that they’ve lied or screwed up, then ask “so why do you believe them on ivermectin?” or “so why do you believe them on global warming?” My answer - which I don’t think is an obvious or easy answer, it’s a bold claim that could be wrong, is “I think I have a good sense of the dynamics here, how far people will bend the truth, and what it looks like when they do”. I realize this is playing with fire. But listening to experts is a powerful enough hack for finding the truth that it’s worth going pretty far to try to rescue it.

But also: some people are better at this skill than I am. Journalists and people in the upper echelons of politics have honed it so finely that they stop noticing it’s a skill at all. In the Soviet Union, the government would say “We had a good harvest this year!” and everyone would notice they had said good rather than glorious, and correctly interpret the statement to mean that everyone would starve and the living would envy the dead.

Really savvy people go through life rarely ever hearing the government or establishment lie to them. Yes, sometimes false words come out of their mouths. But as Dan Quayle put it:

Our party has been accused of fooling the public by calling tax increases 'revenue enhancement'. Not so. No one was fooled.

Imagine a government that for five years in a row, predicts good harvests. Or, each year, they deny tax increases, but do admit there will be “revenue enhancements”. Savvy people effortlessly understand what they mean, and prepare for bad harvests and high taxes. Clueless people prepare for good harvests and low taxes, lose everything when harvests are bad and taxes are high, and end up distrusting the government.

Then in the sixth year, the government says there will be a glorious harvest, and neither tax increases nor revenue enhancements. Savvy people breath a sigh of relief and prepare for a good year. Clueless people assume they’re lying a sixth time. But to savvy people, the clueless people seem paranoid. The government has said everything is okay! Why are they still panicking?

The savvy people need to realize that the clueless people aren’t always paranoid, just less experienced than they are at dealing with a hostile environment that lies to them all the time.

And the clueless people need to realize that the savvy people aren’t always gullible, just more optimistic about their ability to extract signal from same.



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nikolap
287 days ago
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Zagreb, Croatia
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cherjr
304 days ago
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спорные иллюстративные примеры, но в целом valid point
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On Experiencing Joe Rogan

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On a recent YouTube clip of The Joe Rogan Experience, guest Randall Carlson implies that geologists and archaeologists are concealing evidence that the mythical lost continent of Atlantis was, in fact, a real place. Displaying maps and studies purporting to show a set of sunken islands in the Atlantic that match Plato’s descriptions of Atlantis, Carlson claims that he could go through “hours of this kind of research … Why it’s been pushed off to the side is anybody’s guess. But it just doesn’t fit the paradigm.” His own podcast features an approximately 10-hour presentation laying out his evidence for the existence of Atlantis, which he acknowledges is “geologic heresy.” Indeed, mainstream scholars are unified in believing Atlantis to have been mythical

Rogan is seemingly left astounded by the presentation. I am not sure he came away believing in Atlantis. But I do suspect he came away unsure of whether he believed in Atlantis, and more likely to tell anyone who denied the historicity of Atlantis that actually, there’s a lot of really interesting evidence pointing the other way.

I have absolutely no idea whether Randall Carlson has found the lost continent of Atlantis. He could be a crank. Or he could be a genius independent scholar whose ideas have been unfairly ignored by a hidebound and prejudiced academy. He is described as a “master builder and architectural designer, scholar, and teacher [whose] podcast, Kosmographia, investigates the catastrophic history of the world and evidence for advanced knowledge in earlier cultures.” It’s possible that a professional archeologist would look at Carlson’s presentation and think it was delusional and ignorant and be able to expose it within seconds. I can’t find any reviews of his work by historians, archaelogists, or geologists. Because I know little about such subjects as “crustal shifts and isostacy,” it is difficult for me—without doing hours of independent research—to check whether Carlson’s video on the subject is correct. I assume it isn’t. But I haven’t exactly vetted it.

A non-expert watching the Rogan episode featuring Carlson, coming in believing that Atlantis was fictional, can react in one of a few ways:

  1. Switch to believing that Atlantis was real, based on Carlson’s arguments
  2. Perform hours of self-education on geology to see if Carlson is a crank, then decide whether you think Atlantis was real
  3. Switch to agnosticism on the question of whether Atlantis was real, but don’t investigate it further, and if you hear someone saying Atlantis didn’t exist, tell them you used to think that but there was this guy on Rogan who laid out some pretty mind-blowing shit and now you just don’t know
  4. Stick with your position that Atlantis wasn’t real, despite not knowing whether Carlson’s evidence is compelling, because you trust that whatever he is saying has probably been debunked somewhere and the experts probably know more than a “master builder” with a podcast

Self-education (#2), I think, is the approach we would take if we wanted to make sure that we hold justified beliefs about the world. You could simply defer to experts (#4), and assume that the person must be wrong because nobody reputable shares their conclusion. But if they claim that the experts have overlooked critical facts, then what? How do you know they’re wrong, unless you investigate matters for yourself, becoming a part-time amateur archaeologist?

Because none of us has time to investigate every claim on every subject, we all—to one degree or another—rely on experts to tell us what’s true about the world. The reason I’m sure the Holocaust happened, and that Holocaust deniers are wrong, is not because I’ve carefully investigated all of the first-person evidence (poring through the Nazi archives, authenticating documents, reading and verifying witness statements in their original languages), but because the community of historians has done this, and they have reached a consensus, and I trust the community of historians to produce the truth. Part of the job of the media is to do something similar: to go out and look for the truth, adjudicate carefully between competing claims, and tell us what’s actually the case. Media outlets shouldn’t be “relativistic,” telling us that while some people say the Earth is flat, others say it’s round, and leaving us to sort out who is right. We need our media figures to tell us things that have a solid factual basis, because we ourselves don’t have the training or time to get to the bottom of things ourselves.

    But what if the mainstream press can’t be relied upon to tell the truth? What if, for good reason, the public loses confidence in journalists’ reliability? Many may try to do their own research. They may also turn to bloggers and podcasters who promise critical independence and appear more trustworthy than the corporate press. Indie media may in many cases be an improvement. The collapse of public confidence in expert opinion may be healthy, insofar as it leads to more skepticism and critical thinking. But it may also result in cranks and charlatans being treated as reliable sources, because we (the news-consuming public) don’t know how to decide who to trust. We might be led astray by people who tout their heterodoxy and freedom from ideological categories but don’t actually know what they’re talking about. 


Joe Rogan seems like an affable guy. He reminds me of many men I have met in the gym: cheerful bros who are open-minded to an alarming degree, meaning to the point where no idea is so insane that one can be sure they won’t find it persuasive. They could vote for Bernie, they could go Nazi, they could start believing in alien abductions or QAnon or chemtrails. They are not deep thinkers, so they can be excessively impressed by the fact “a study found” something, or “a doctor says” it. They are sincere in wanting to know the truth, they are not outright malicious, they change their minds (sometimes daily), but they are not trained in the research and critical thinking skills that are vital in sorting science from pseudoscience (or the loopy conspiracies from the true ones). 

I am inclined to like the cheerful bros. They can be relatively harmless if they do not wander out of the gym. But I would not want to put them in charge of curating and disseminating important public health information, especially during a crisis like a pandemic. People with this kind of thinking simply lack the background to evaluate claims adequately, meaning that they’re just as likely to tell you something bogus as something insightful, and if you yourself don’t have the knowledge to evaluate the claim, you may end up with a brain filled with manure instead of wisdom. 

The Joe Rogan Experience doesn’t look like a reputable source of news information. Hell, just glance at the logo, which impressively manages to give off both “pothead” and “conspiracy theorist” vibes. A typical episode is about three unedited hours of Joe Rogan and a guest—typically a comedian or athlete, but perhaps a psychologist, journalist, filmmaker, or musician. Rogan likes Cool Guy Shit: bear attacks, UFOs, DMT, MMA, Atlantis. He is a skilled interviewer: he puts his guests at ease, draws out compelling stories from them, and creates a relaxed vibe. For a guy whose previous job was making people drink donkey semen on television, the quality of his questioning is remarkably high. He doesn’t appear to use any notes, or follow any pre-planned structure at all. Rogan comes across as honest and authentic: you don’t get the sense that he’s concealing anything from his audience. He doesn’t even cut out the parts of episodes where his producer is trying to Google a source for something. There’s no grand introduction; Rogan and the guests are already talking when the show begins, and the listener feels as if they have wandered into a private chat and pulled up a chair. It’s easy to see why the show has built an audience, even if it’s still rather amazing that The Joe Rogan Experience is the most popular podcast in the world, attracting 10x the audience of MSNBC. I have spoken to people mystified by how anybody could sit through three hours of dudes (91% of guests are men) chatting aimlessly. Even though I can only endure Rogan in episode-length doses when required to for research, his appeal is not unfathomable. 

If The Joe Rogan Experience just covered the adventures of spear fishermen and bodybuilders, it would be a benign distraction. But Rogan, despite being fiercely nonpartisan, wades into politics frequently. Here, he is often completely out of his depth, because he hasn’t done any serious research. He brings guests on who make outlandish claims, and while Rogan often does his best to ask tough questions—and even demands citations for things, which he Googles to check on—sometimes he just fanboys. To Elon Musk he posed such hardball questions as “Do you feel like people define you by the fact that you’re wealthy and that they define you in a pejorative way?” and “What’s a dream house for Elon Musk? Like some Tony Stark type shit?” declining to use the opportunity to challenge Musk on his (sometimes quite dangerous) bullshit

Rogan’s lack of background in the subjects under discussion means people say all kinds of crazy shit on the show without the audience ever hearing counterarguments. For instance: Rogan’s second-most popular episode ever (after the Musk one) was a nearly 5-hour conversation with Alex Jones of InfoWars. As previously discussed in Current Affairs, Jones doesn’t have a political ideology so much as a set of extreme paranoid delusions. Jones elaborated on many of these during his marathon session with Rogan, including his belief that hospitals are telling mothers their babies have died and then selling the living infants to the Chinese for $500,000 each, and his theory that the government has “made deals with interdimensional aliens” and that “globalists” are creating “human-animal hybrids” that will form a “breakaway civilization.” Rogan takes all of this with a raised eyebrow, and tries to ask skeptical questions, but Jones steamrolls him, aggressively insisting that everything he says is fully documented, citing news articles he says back up every one of his claims, and promising to pay millions of dollars if anything he says is false. Jones, for instance, after claiming that cell phones are mind-control devices pushed on us by the “breakaway government” at NASA, insists that humans did not invent the technology, that it was secretly given to them by aliens: 

“They 100% in San Francisco, the main project site, literally have an alien base. And they are literally communicating and they’ve got like astronaut-level people taking super hardcore levels of drugs and going into meetings with these things and making intergalactic deals. And again, that’s what the government believes and says they’re doing.” 

Here Rogan meekly challenges Jones, saying that it’s an open question whether the experience of psychedelic drugs creates hallucinations or opens the kind of actual portal to another dimension that would allow one to do intergalactic deals with aliens. But throughout the episode, as Jones spins wild tale after wild tale, from the secret creation of humanoids to the extraterrestrial origins of cell phone technology, Rogan finds himself saying, “Maybe this is true,” “I believe some of what you’re saying,” “I agree with you,” and “You’re freaking me out. Some of it makes sense.” This is because to successfully interrogate and challenge a skilled conspiracy theorist you need to be as familiar with their sources as they are, and so when Jones says that “a BBC article” or “the MIT Review” or “a CIA report” confirmed everything he’s saying, Rogan is powerless to refute anything. (Amusingly, later in the episode, Jones himself gets a taste of how difficult it is to argue with a conspiracy theorist, as another guest shows up and sincerely tries to convince Jones to believe in a flat Earth.) 

We might assume that viewers are mostly watching The Joe Rogan Experience for entertainment; Rogan himself doesn’t seem to take Jones too seriously, and Jones’ rants about humanoids and interdimensional beings are so over-the-top as to be enjoyable as dramatic performance. But comments on the YouTube videos indicate that many people take Jones seriously indeed, and find what they’re hearing him say to be persuasive. A comment that “Its kinda funny, alex jones seems less and less crazy every day” has received 5.1 thousand likes. Others say things like:

  • “Alex Jones is actually a very educated man. This information is horrific.”
  • “The crazy part is that it was actually all true what alex was saying”
  • “Clearly he was right about something. They dont take someone completely off the internet when they are wrong.”

Because Joe Rogan didn’t put in the work to effectively refute Jones, he has created the worst possible interview: one that looks tough and skeptical, but in fact allows insane claims to go unchallenged. Audience members are left with the impression that Jones made a highly compelling case, since he was speaking to an interviewer disinclined to believe him but who couldn’t argue with the facts. 

Rogan even lets Jones get away with an egregious false account of his history of portraying the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting as a hoax. Jones presents himself as having been reasonable and making understandable mistakes. He says that in the weeks after the shooting, he came to question “anomalies” surrounding the event, but that he later learned that the anomalies “were not accurate” and admitted the massacre had happened. “I just moved on from it,” he tells Rogan. But Jones is lying about what he did, and a good interviewer would have read the complaints from the Sandy Hook victims’ families in their lawsuits against Jones. He definitely did not move on. He ran segment after segment on the shooting. In 2013, he said it had “inside job written all over it” but even in 2017 (the Rogan interview was in 2019), Jones was running segments like “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed” and saying things like “there was never been [sic] any even blurred photos of bodies or anything.” Jones tries to convince Rogan that he briefly asked some questions and overstated his claims. What actually happened was a pattern of sowing doubt that went on for year upon year, and as a result families who had suffered the worst imaginable tragedy had their misery compounded by relentless harassment from Jones fans calling them “crisis actors.” 

A viewer of Rogan’s show, then—unless they went off to do research on their own, and to read the legal filings by Sandy Hook families—would come away with a completely false understanding of what happened, and think of Alex Jones as being more reasonable and less of a brazen liar than he actually is. This is because Rogan himself is irresponsible: he doesn’t put in the work necessary to make sure his listeners get accurate information.

That may be in part because Rogan still sees himself as a comedian, rather than a journalist, and comedians tend not to think of themselves as having ethical obligations. But once you’re the world’s most popular broadcaster, if you’re going to stray beyond riffing on Cool Guy Shit, you’ve got to think seriously about the question of whether your audience comes away more informed or less informed. Because non-experts don’t have time to investigate every claim, the broadcaster needs to put in work to make sure what’s going out on the air has been checked carefully by someone—or, if one is exploring something dubious, to make sure the counterarguments are heard and professionals are consulted. It isn’t enough to tell the audience they should “think for themselves and do their own research” as a justification for presenting unrefuted falsehoods, because realistically most of us don’t have the capacity to fact-check a three to five hour video in which hundreds of assertions are made. 

Predictably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogan’s credulity has led to his broadcasting of some false information. I have now listened to many episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience in which he discusses the pandemic, and erroneous or unsubstantiated claims are made constantly by Rogan or his guests. These have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but a few examples are necessary. 

Sometimes claims are erroneous medical claims, such as Rogan claiming that there is strong evidence for the effectiveness of ivermectin in treating COVID-19. Speaking of a friend with COVID, Rogan says “Ivermectin essentially knocked him out of it. He was good within 24 hours after taking ivermectin.” This was too much even for Rogan’s guest, Alex Berenson, who has himself spread constant untruths about coronavirus and public health measures since the beginning of the pandemic. Berenson pointed out to Rogan that there was no compelling evidence that ivermectin works (except perhaps if you have both worms and COVID-19, since it’s a dewormer). But Rogan has repeatedly claimed that in a state in India, “they essentially cured COVID” by handing out ivermectin. (In fact, it appears the data here is “garbage.”) 

Rogan’s infamous interview with Dr. Robert Malone features many exchanges like this one, in which they both accuse public health authorities of inflating COVID-19 deaths: 

ROGAN:

So that it really is true that if someone has a gunshot wound and they’re dying of that gunshot wound and you check them for COVID, and if they’re COVID positive and they die, they mark that off as a COVID death. 

MALONE:

That is, by definition, from the CDC. That was a decision that was made early on. 

ROGAN:

That seems insane. 


It seems insane because it isn’t the case. The CDC has given very clear guidelines for classifying deaths, specifying that COVID should be listed when it causes the death. Determining whether COVID caused the death can be difficult, of course, and the standard won’t be applied correctly in every case, but as emergency room doctor Graham Walker pointed out in a long Twitter thread painstakingly debunking Rogan and Malone’s conversation, frontline doctors are very conscientious in trying to determine causes of death, and baselessly accusing them of lying about what people died of is a nasty smear against those who have done the most difficult work during the pandemic. Furthermore, anyone who discusses reasons why there might be overcounting of COVID-19 deaths without discussing reasons why there might be undercounting of COVID-19 deaths is not serious about getting to the truth of the matter. 

Sometimes the claims are not actually false, but they have the effect of promoting something else that is false. For instance, here’s Rogan speaking with Berenson:

BERENSON:

In the UK, 70+ percent of the people who die from covid are fully vaccinated.

ROGAN:

70?! 

BERENSON:

7 in 10. I’m going to keep saying it because nobody believes it. The numbers are there. It’s in government documents. It’s not a conspiracy theory.


Berenson is using this factoid to suggest that the vaccines aren’t effective in preventing deaths from COVID, but to do that he’s had to avoid disclosing a critical additional piece of information: that the rate of deaths among vaccinated people is much lower than the rate of deaths among the unvaccinated. The fact that, in this scenario, most people who die of COVID-19 are vaccinated does not prove that vaccines don’t prevent death. After all, if most people who die in car accidents are wearing seatbelts, that doesn’t show that seatbelts are ineffective. The relevant fact is comparative rates of death (between vaccinated and unvaccinated). But Berenson wants people to think vaccines are useless, and Rogan is happy to leave the claim unchallenged, leaving his audience with the impression that there’s not much point to getting vaccinated. 

Other types of claims are just wild speculative conspiracy theorizing. Here’s Rogan speaking with “internet entrepreneur, former MTV VJ, and podcasting pioneer” Adam Curry on an episode last month. Curry argues that “They” intentionally used COVID-19 to shut down the economy in order to stabilize the banking system, or something: 

CURRY:

JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, CitiBank, and Goldman Sachs collectively borrowed 11.7 trillion dollars just before the pandemic started. When the Wall Street shit happened in 2008-2009 it was about 8 trillion. And something was fucked up in the system. Then it melted down. Here they melted down the economy by shutting everybody down. Shut that shit down. And now we’ve got all this money coming into the system. CARES ACT. 2 trillion. Just trillions and trillions of dollars that are just being created. They need it to keep the whole system alive. 

ROGAN:

I’m getting confused, though. Are you thinking this is engineered? 

CURRY:

Yeah. Totally.

ROGAN:

The whole thing is shut down, the economy, that wasn’t done to protect people?

CURRY:

In my opinion that part was done—that was needed one way or the other. They could have done climate change, asteroids from space, I don’t give a fuck. They needed to shut it down. They needed to stop the money flow to fix it and get more permission to print money to flood into the system. There’s too much on the banking side and not enough on the people’s side. Go figure. They’ve been stealing it. So they had to give people money. And that’s what they did, they printed stimulus checks. In Texas today, if you and I start a consulting company, which is to motivate people to get vaccinated, we can get a grant of up to 1 million dollars.

ROGAN:

[seemingly amazed] What? 

CURRY:

Yes. This is how much money there is for this shit. And that goes into the system. And that’s what they needed to balance out this complete piece of crap. Now, is that going to work—

ROGAN:

But here’s the question: do you think it was engineered up until the point of releasing a virus? How far do you go with this? 

CURRY:

That’s hard to say, I mean maybe it was just the virus was made worse. They had practiced for this so they could trigger muscle memory with the people who were in the Event 201 drills. That’s not that hard to do…


Rogan, as you can see, is a skeptical questioner. He’s not immediately swallowing everything Curry says. But Rogan invites his audience to consider this guy’s totally unsupported speculative conspiracy theory that They intentionally made the virus worse, or perhaps even released it, in order to move money from the banking sector. And Rogan chooses not to invite an economist or policy analyst or anyone who actually knows anything about anything to respond. 

Edward Snowden has commented that the people who have the strongest views on Rogan’s show usually seem not to have listened to it. That may be so: Rogan is different from the caricature of him as a right-wing ideologue. Those who view him that way might be surprised to find Rogan aggressively challenging Dave Rubin over Rubin’s libertarian view that the free market makes building safety codes obsolete. Or Rogan taking Candace Owens to task for her ignorant denial of the basic facts of climate change. Or Rogan asking congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) to explain how Medicare For All is different in principle from having a public fire department. (It isn’t.) Rogan has argued aggressively with conservative Steven Crowder over marijuana prohibition and gave a rather moving explanation of why Donald Trump’s family separation policy was barbaric. In listening to his show, I have heard him highly praise The New York Times, John Oliver, and CNN’S Dr. Sanjay Gupta. A video on YouTube shows Rogan saying all kinds of progressive things, including his famous praise for Bernie Sanders. 

But Rogan’s beliefs are all over the place, and he is certainly not a “leftist.” He finds the concept of paternity leave risible, he repeats silly cliches about Marxism, and he has the kind of Jock Brain that enjoys calling fat guys “disgusting” and thinks saying the n-word is acceptable and racist jokes are funny. Rogan often has guests on who spew transphobic nonsense, such as Abigail Shrier and Debra Soh. (I have debunked Shrier’s book at painstaking length.) He doesn’t appear interested in any of the counterarguments to their positions, and himself has repeated nasty, erroneous right-wing talking points about trans people.

In fact, the idea that Rogan is equally open to all points of view is simply false. Rogan has chosen to sit down with serial fabricator and Holocaust denier Charles C. Johnson but not with Noam Chomsky. As Freddie deBoer points out, there is an unmistakable preference on his guest list for “anti-woke” types. Some of these people are conservative, some are the type who describe themselves as Classical Liberals, but they’re usually the type of people who rant about Social Justice Warriors and Cancel Culture. Like other self-styled intellectual renegades, he shrinks the realm of political discussion: there is little about policy and plenty about political correctness. The people who come on are often ideologues who know nothing about what they’re talking about; Jordan Peterson recently came on and delivered a bizarre attack on climate science, arguing that because climate affects “everything,” it was impossible to produce an accurate model of climate change, and thereby implying climate scientists’ models could be treated as virtually worthless. Naturally, climate scientists weren’t given an opportunity to respond. 

This makes the Joe Rogan Experience a maddening enterprise, like a news channel out of Idiocracy. Those of us who dedicate ourselves to painstakingly refuting right-wing lies find ourselves unable to keep up. The sheer volume of poorly-researched, “thing I saw somewhere” opinions is overwhelming. I can’t listen to political episodes of Rogan because the sounds of two extremely confident dudes talking out of their ass on a subject they haven’t read a book about is my version of “nails on a chalkboard.” As one rather nasty popular tweet put it:

Back when I was a kid you didn’t need Joe Rogan. Your best friend had a 27 year old brother who was a fucking loser who would smoke pot in a room with blacklight posters and tell you that the Mayans invented cell phones. 

This is a little unfair, but it’s closer to the mark than the remark by Libertarian Party congressman Justin Amash, whose view of Rogan is that he is “intellectually curious, challenges every guest, and readily admits when he’s wrong. That’s more than can be said about so many in the media. Check out an episode or two before accusing him of being the problem. We need more Joe Rogans of all ideological backgrounds.” While it may be true that he’s better than “many in the media,” I’ve checked out many episodes, and while Rogan might be curious, he isn’t competent. He’s not capable of holding conspiratorial or deranged guests accountable, and sees “research” as a matter of quickly Googling something. He has defended his COVID-19 takes by saying that while his opinion is “controversial,” it is not “uninformed,” citing the large file of COVID-19 articles he keeps on his phone. But a genuinely curious and knowledge-hungry person would not just have people on to confirm their biases, but those who challenge them—not just critics of social justice like James Lindsay, but “woke” scholars like Ibram X. Kendi. Get some critical race theorists on.

In response to Rogan’s failure to make sure that the things said on his show are credible and well sourced, there has been a campaign to get him kicked off Spotify, which famously made a $100 million deal with Rogan to lure him to the platform. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have pulled their music. New York Times opinion writer Roxane Gay pulled her podcast. The Spotify CEO groveled. 

I think targeting Spotify here is a colossal mistake, for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s not likely to work. Spotify paid a lot of money for Rogan, and would have to take a huge financial hit in order to consider booting him. The scandal might even prove lucrative for Spotify—being “canceled” often brings in more money. But even if Rogan and Spotify did part ways, Rogan’s audience would probably grow—moving his podcast to the platform actually limited Rogan’s reach and those who want him to have the fewest listeners possible should probably want to keep him there. 

But the whole campaign is also misguided because it leads to a public debate about censorship rather than a debate about the actual substantive issues that underlie this whole thing. There is a whole set of public figures, sometimes called the “intellectual dark web,” who have cultivated a brand as Dangerous Thinkers whose ideas are so bold and challenging to orthodoxy that the Woke Mob seeks to shut them down and destroy them. In fact, these people’s ideas are usually bogus, but so long as they make the conversation about whether they should be allowed to speak, they can spend their time arguing for “free speech” rather than arguing what is harder to defend (e.g., the claim that ivermectin cures COVID-19).

Rogan’s success as a broadcaster also reveals deep problems with American media that can’t be fixed by limiting his reach. People listen to him in part because they don’t trust the mainstream media, and that mistrust is warranted. What we need is good, trustworthy journalism and analysis that helps people understand the world. If it’s not there, then we can’t be surprised when someone like Rogan fills the information vacuum. If it’s not him, it will be somebody else. Media studies professor Victor Pickard points out in his recent book Democracy Without Journalism? that what looks like a “fake news” problem is in fact more to do with a lack of well-funded, trustworthy journalism. More important than “content moderation” is building powerful public media. “Deplatforming” the fakers is a fool’s errand. First, they will multiply, and portray themselves being silenced by The Powers That Be for telling Dangerous Truths. It gives evidence for the very narrative (Authoritarians Are Silencing Me) upon which they build their success. But it also doesn’t actually replace the false information with better material. There’s something almost “neoliberal” to it: it tries to regulate the private market, rather than accept that we have to build big new democratically-controlled institutions to provide the public service that is journalism.  

We should assume that the millions who listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast are ordinary people who would actually like to know what is true about the world. They go to him in part because he presents himself as curious, thoughtful, and open to new ideas. In fact, he is often ignorant and rarely seems curious enough to read books on the topics he does a three-hour show on. But we should operate on the assumption that his audience genuinely wants what he purports to be selling. His success is a sign that the rest of the media has failed to give that to them. 

There are millions of men like Joe Rogan in the United States. They have been raised with the prejudices of their race and sex. It takes years of education and reflection for a guy like that to realize that racist jokes aren’t funny, or that what looks like “just asking questions” can be based on transphobic assumptions. I certainly see why many people find him revolting, even if I also see why his audience thinks he’s a thoughtful and non-ideological truth-seeker. But on the left, we have a commitment to organizing, and organizing involves taking people who disagree with us and persuading them to join the left. The Rogans of the world are organizable; Bernie Sanders’ appearance on the show demonstrated that, and I disagreed with those who said Bernie shouldn’t have done it. In fact, I think as many leftists as possible ought to go on, and Rogan ought to be pressured to provide genuine, as opposed to fake, ideological diversity (when’s Chomsky being asked on?) I think Neil Young, instead of boycotting Spotify, should have gone on the Rogan show for a heartfelt conversation about why he feels so strongly about making sure vaccine information is accurate. When I wince in pain at some of the stupid shit said on The Joe Rogan Experience, I do not think “That man needs to be canceled.” I think “That man needs to be educated.” Let us spend less time trying to stifle falsehood and more time trying to spread knowledge. 

It’s tempting to say that Joe Rogan doesn’t matter and it’s a waste of time to pay him any attention. My friend Ben Burgis, in his book Canceling Comedians While The World Burns, argues that as the left struggles with powerlessness, we can sometimes choose fights we think we can win (like getting a problematic cultural figure deplatformed) rather than the hard fights that are more consequential (like tackling the climate catastrophe). Certainly, the amount of hubbub about Rogan in the last weeks makes this meme resonate: 

At the same time, Rogan isn’t just some podcaster. He is bigger than cable news. He is probably the country’s leading broadcaster, and so, regrettable as it may be, to analyze contemporary media means analyzing The Joe Rogan Experience. If it seems ludicrous that much of America is getting its information about the world from a podcast by a guy whose professional background is in getting reality TV contestants to eat spiders, well, such are the times we live in. We won’t fix that by shaming Spotify into making Rogan decamp for Rumble. We can only fix it through the hard work of organizing people and building new information channels that enrich the discourse with the information it lacks. Rogan is a symptom. He is a normal guy, the product of a country whose people aren’t taught much about the world and where the truth is kept paywalled. If guys like this aren’t yet “woke,” it’s our job to awaken them, to get them to question their biases and truly open their minds to different perspectives. I see no other viable path out. We are currently in dark and confusing times where all kinds of crazy theories are thrown around, and many people believe whatever stuff they hear being said by someone who sounds vaguely credible and relatable—or just extremely confident. Censorship (whether public or private) isn’t going to build the kind of new popular media that will be essential if we’re to have an informed populace capable of exercising its democratic responsibilities. 

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nikolap
287 days ago
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Zagreb, Croatia
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Nogometna lekcija o paradoksu vjere u slobodno tržište

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Početnu rečenicu Komunističkog manifesta o bauku koji kruži Europom se toliko izlizalo proteklih tridesetak godina, što parafrazama što neutemeljenim ljevičarskim optimizmom, da joj treba povijesni odmor do nekih sretnijih vremena. No, teško je odoljeti još jednoj aktivaciji njene efektnosti kad se pročitaju silne reakcije na najavu uspostave europske nogometne Superlige. Prirodu tih reakcija možda najbolje […]
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nikolap
581 days ago
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Zagreb, Croatia
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The Muddled Speech of Numbers: Blood clots, COVID-19 vaccines, and statistical risk

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Earlier this week, the CDC paused the roll-out of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination after 6 women experienced serious blood clots. Their caution has merit, given that the FDA has been approving vaccinations in advance of the typical large-scale evaluations because speed is seen as so crucial. Reasonably, there is a desire to know more about these blood clots before more might appear. Yet, there was also sheer frustration from many in the medical community because the choice to pause the roll-out suggested that there was a serious issue, that the vaccine was dangerous. In a context in which vaccine hesitancy is likely to undermine herd immunity, any suggestion that the vaccine might have consequences can be twisted and contorted. 

Across many mailing lists and Twitter streams, I kept seeing data points trying to ground the seriousness of the blood clots in the J&J vaccine. Most referenced the frequency of blood clots that women experience while taking the birth control pill, roughly 1/1000. People also highlighted how common blood clots are for those who are in the throes of COVID-19. These were meant to highlight just how rare and statistically insignificant blood clots are when taking the J&J vaccine. 

Yet, as these attempts to ground the conversation unfolded, a different kind of outrage formed. A handful of people highlighted women they knew who had died of blood clots most likely related to birth control. Many more women who took hormonal birth control expressed frustration that they had no idea that they were at increased risk of a blood clot. Sure, it’s part of the fine print of that printout you get from CVS when picking up your pill, but this wasn’t something doctors emphasized. Unlike the J&J vaccine situation, the relationship between birth control and blood clots – or even COVID-19 and blood clots – hasn’t been front page news.

As I was processing the back-and-forth about statistical risk and who was responsible for sharing what with whom, and at what level of amplitude, I couldn’t help but think about all of the scholarship into the politics of numbers. We’re living at a time when politicians are simultaneously espousing the need for “evidence-based policymaking” and working to diligently undermine, contort, or weaponize evidence. This is what scholars of “agnotology” mean when they talk about the manufacturing of ignorance through the seeding of doubt. Or what other scholars highlight as the “weaponization of transparency.” 

I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the scientists at J&J and the FDA who have been working around the clock trying to make a vaccine available to the public, trying to be responsible stewards of information and statistical risk in a context where their desire for caution can be turned on its head to undermine the legitimacy of their work. I also found myself feeling empathy for journalists who recognize the importance of reporting on this development, even as they know that their reporting is easily evolving into misinformation that’s undermining the vaccine roll-out. Working with numbers is itself political.

To work in the world of medicine and science, statistics and probabilities is to grapple with trade-offs at a macro level, which present ethical conundrums even in the best of times. After all, that one terrible death from a blood clot could perhaps have been prevented by not taking the vaccine. But this is where we enter into the world of trade-offs, of unknowns, of morality. Without a vaccine rollout, many more people will die of blood clots from COVID-19. Had that woman been infected with COVID-19, she might have still succumbed to a blood clot. Medicine alters the dimensionality of risk. So how do ethics get negotiated? And by whom? This is the story of public health. 

Those complexities underpinning the advancement of science are complicated further by a politicized context such as that which surrounds the COVID-19 vaccine. Each act of communication can be twisted and contorted to convey different agendas, different values, different goals. Amplified transparency of risk is itself a political act. Sprinkle in the expectation in our current society that individuals are expected to make informed decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities, and we have a recipe for disaster. This is what the production of ignorance – aka misinformation, information disorder, agnotology, etc… – looks like in practice. The very acts of scientific transparency, which are intended to help inform decision-making, are twisted on their head, serving to undermining the legitimacy of scientific work and the coordination of a public that must work together to address a deadly disease. 

I keep wondering what it will take for the public to trust scientific information. But, perhaps, a better question might be: What kind of information is needed to help a fragmented public work together to solve societal-level challenges?

Note to the reader: These are questions that I’m struggling with. If you have thoughts, ideas (or even reading recommendations!), don’t hesitate to reach out: zephoria [at] zephoria [dot] org.

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nikolap
581 days ago
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The Sophist and The Magician

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If you locked Harry Houdini in a trunk, he would probably not be able to get out of it. If you sealed Harry Houdini in a milk can and threw it in the water, he would suffocate and die, even though one of Harry Houdini’s signature acts was escaping from a sealed milk can that had been thrown in the water. This isn’t strange, though. Harry Houdini was known as an “escape artist” but he was also an illusionist.

Part of his act involved really escaping from things—he was great with handcuffs and straitjackets—but part of it involved tricking you into thinking he was doing things that he wasn’t actually doing. The brilliance of Houdini was that he was able to seamlessly mix the things he was really doing with the things he wasn’t in order to give the impression that he was somehow superhuman. 

Houdini in his milk can.

So, for example, Houdini’s “water torture cell” was a stunning feat in which Houdini’s feet were locked in stocks and then he was lowered into a tank of water. A curtain was pulled round, then drawn back, and Houdini had escaped. But the cell was an illusion. A trick. It had been specially built to allow Houdini to escape. In fact, Houdini was perfectly safe. Likewise, his milk can looked like a real milk can, but it wasn’t. It was a specially-designed milk can that could be opened from the inside. Substitute a real one, and he would have been screwed. 

A great deal of Houdini’s art, then, was fakery, pretending to do great escapes. A brewery challenged Houdini to escape from a sealed barrel full of their beer. He did it. But he didn’t. They had collaborated with Houdini to design a trick barrel. It was fantastic PR for both the brewery and Houdini. Houdini would often pretend to struggle with something for much longer than it would actually take him to escape it, because the escape itself was easy. While he did, in fact, know how to escape from lots of kinds of handcuffs, sometimes the handcuffs were fake. Sometimes he had tricked the person who had cuffed him locked him in them into letting him look at the key beforehand, giving them back a fake key and pocketing the real one. It was a mixture of fact and illusion: the straitjacket escapes were real, the product of a great deal of practice. Other escapes were based on concealing critical information from the audience.

There can be a sense of disappointment when we realize that much of what Houdini did wasn’t “real.” But there shouldn’t be. In fact, Houdini was a genius, and his act was brilliant. He was secretly a great inventor who could design all kinds of things that looked inescapable but were actually engineered precisely so they made escaping a cinch. He didn’t want anyone to know he was an inventor, though, because that would have destroyed the whole act. He wanted people to think of him as someone with bizarre, physically impossible powers of escape. 

A magician does things that seem like they cannot be done, that defy our understanding of the rules by which the world operates. This means that the magician’s art involves deceiving people, because obviously whatever they are doing can be done somehow. A magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. Empty hats, by definition, do not contain rabbits, so the magician did not, in fact, pull a rabbit out of an empty hat. Something has happened, then, that we have not noticed. It is not a miracle. It’s a trick. In an important sense, there is no such thing as magic. That is, it is not possible to do the impossible. Only the possible is possible. The magician’s art is making things that are possible look like they’re not. But if the thing you’re seeing is actually clearly impossible, then something must be going on that you don’t understand. 

When you watch an incredibly good magic act, it can feel as if you’ve seen something that literally cannot have happened. Nothing in your understanding of the rules by which the universe operates permits the thing you have seen to be true. For example, here’s magician Eric Chien doing seemingly impossible feats with cards—turning them from red to black, making them disappear and reappear, and even changing the color of his own clothes in an instant. When you discover how it was actually done (there is a YouTube explainer video), though I will not link to it), it goes from seeming impossible to seeming obvious, and you can never see the “magic” again.

This is why magicians are very reluctant to tell anybody who is not an aspiring magician how their tricks are done. The moment you know, the trick is ruined for you. It seems unimpressive (ah, it was just in his jacket). They shouldn’t tell you the answer, because your job is to figure it out yourself, not to cheat. 

But even though there is a certain disenchantment that occurs when you learn the mundane reality of what looked so miraculous, there can be a re-enchantment when you realize everything that has gone into making the trick go right. You start to appreciate the skill and ingenuity that goes with trying to come up with and execute an action that defies human beings’ understandings of the laws of the universe. 

If you learn how a few magic tricks work, and come to appreciate how simply and brilliantly they can fool very smart people, you realize how much at risk we all are of believing things that aren’t true, or being unable to grasp what is going on “behind the curtain.” Each of us sees a small sliver of reality, and from that observed sliver it can be impossible to figure out what it is we’re not seeing. 

Karl Marx said that even ordinary commodities had “magic and necromancy” surrounding them, in part because, as with a magician’s trick, we do not see what is going on under the surface to create the thing we hold in our hands. I do not see the labor that goes into making the items I consume. The wider economy and the conditions under which things are produced are made invisible.

I see “rhetorical magic tricks” occurring all the time, too, the use of the selective presentation of information to convince people that something false is real. I consider PragerU to be master illusionists, for instance, because they carefully conceal and reveal little pieces of information in order to get viewers to believe a totally false picture of the world. They will display a shocking statistic, for instance, and decline to tell you how it was made. If you knew the secret behind the manufacture of the statistic, it would cease to seem impressive, because you’d know exactly how you were being manipulated. 

There are good magicians and there are evil magicians. The good magicians are the ones who tell you they’re putting on a show, and encourage you to think critically and not to believe they have superpowers. Good magicians help debunk the frauds who try actually actively deceive the public into believing false things—Houdini, James Randi, and Penn & Teller have all been famous “skeptics” who have exposed charlatans who trick people into thinking they’re able to communicate with dead relatives and such. The good magicians teach you how to think critically. 

My friend Katie Fernelius recently wrote an essay about magic for this magazine. Her father is a magician who could “make coins spill out of my ear, produce felt balls under copper cups, teleport a card from the middle of the deck to the top, and tear safety pins through a handkerchief without leaving holes” and Katie talks about what it is like to grow up in that “church of the peculiar” that is a magician’s household. Katie’s article got me watching videos of magicians, particularly the wonderful TV show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, in which some of the world’s best magicians try to stump Penn and Teller—themselves two of the most well-regarded magicians in the world. If Penn and Teller, who between them have over 100 years of experience performing magic, cannot figure out how a trick is done, the magician contestant wins a trophy. The fact that Penn and Teller, who both know as much about magic as you probably can know, are still consistently fooled by other magicians, shows that absolutely nobody is so smart that they can’t be deceived by appearances. 

Like Katie, I quickly became hooked on the show, because you get to try to figure out what is going on and what you’re missing. It’s a bit like a detective show. You watch some astonishing thing, and then spend ages puzzling over how it must somehow make sense. For example, here’s a trick that fooled Penn and Teller, in which the magician swiftly locates a particular packing peanut in a giant crate overflowing with them. The magician himself later revealed the secret of the trick in a YouTube video—or at least part of it. Once you see his explanation, you may smack yourself on the forehead. But before the fact, it’s damn hard to figure out—and extremely fun to try.

Real-life trickery and illusion is not always explained in helpful YouTube videos. It takes a critical intelligence to try to unravel how the appearance of things differs from the reality of things. Watching videos of magic tricks, I thought about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, all of whom succeeded in convincing audiences to believe in an image of themselves far different from the reality. There are indeed “magic words” that can be used to manipulate perception. 

And oftentimes to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence—
— Shakespeare, Macbeth

Have you ever heard of “paltering”? It means lying with facts. That is: no fact you have presented is false, but you are still lying. At first, it can be difficult to grasp how this is possible. A fact is, by definition, true. A lie is, by definition, false. So if everything you’ve said has been true, how can it also be false? Surely this is a paradox. 

It’s not a paradox. I’ve written before about how Alan Dershowitz does it. He will report one true fact, but leave out another critically important fact that provides important context. (For example, reporting on violence by Palestinians without discussing its motivation or what it arises in response to.) The most skilled “palterer” in the world is probably Bjorn Lomborg, who writes books of climate change skepticism that use real facts but present them incredibly selectively in order to present a false picture of environmental reality. It’s very deft, and it drives scientists nuts, because you have to be pretty well-educated in the subject matter to actually notice how the trickery is being done. 

We know how omissions can mislead. Consider the following exchange:

Q:

Are you rich? 

A:

I do not consider myself rich. I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I have given 90 percent of what I earned away. I still eat egg McMuffins for breakfast. I still own the same pair of blue jeans I had in high school. Certainly, I have spiritual wealth. In that sense, I am rich.


Every fact in the statement is perhaps true, but the person answering might still be a multi-billionaire. I recently interviewed former health insurance industry executive Wendell Potter, who described the ways that his industry’s PR flaks would carefully massage the truth, so that they were neverlying in the most literal, technical sense but were fundamentally deceiving people about the nature of healthcare systems. 

This is one reason why, when people like Dershowitz say, “I challenge you to find a single false fact in what I have said,” it means nothing. You can simply pluck out the facts that favor your conclusion and leave out the ones that disfavor it, and every fact is true even though the conclusion is false. It’s magic! 

I performed the first actual magic trick of my life recently. As a child, at one point I had been given a magic kit, but I hated it. I was impatient and didn’t think anyone would be fooled and knew I wasn’t quick or dextrous enough to do any “sleight of hand.” This time I picked a trick that didn’t involve any technical skill on the part of the performer;      you just had to set it up correctly and follow the steps exactly. (It helps to be good at bullshitting a covering story, which fortunately is a skill of mine.) And it worked: the person I did it for was impressed and didn’t know how I did it. 

I was elated, of course, because I never thought I could do a magic trick, and realizing you’ve been able to disguise reality from someone gives you an incredible sense of power. But it’s also a little disturbing, because you know that you were able to successfully conceal the truth and that even intelligent people might not be able to know how you did it. 

I felt the same often in law school. I came to see how a good sophist could produce arguments that looked extremely persuasive even though they were ultimately totally wrong. As someone who has studied arguments and knows how the tricks work, I could see how people were being manipulated, but it’s often hard to spot the deceptions without experience. I’m consistently impressed when I read books by people like Dinesh D’Souza at how deftly they produce pseudo-logic that can seem sensible but isn’t at all. It’s scary to realize that without a citizenry that has cultivated its critical faculties and developed a cautious skepticism toward the claims of pundits and politicians, ill-intentioned people may manage to make the destruction of democracy (or even humanity itself) look reasonable.

Learn to analyze magicians’ tricks then. In the case of stage magic, don’t spoil the fun by looking up the techniques, unless you want to try them on someone yourself. But every person should at the very least develop an awareness of how easy it is to be fooled and how what we see before our eyes may be nothing but an illusion.

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nikolap
691 days ago
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The Amish Health Care System

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I.

Amish people spend only a fifth as much as you do on health care, and their health is fine. What can we learn from them?

A reminder: the Amish are a German religious sect who immigrated to colonial America. Most of them live apart from ordinary Americans (who they call “the English”) in rural communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re famous for their low-tech way of life, generally avoiding anything invented after the 1700s. But this isn’t absolute; they are willing to accept technology they see as a net positive. Modern medicine is in this category. When the Amish get seriously ill, they will go to modern doctors and accept modern treatments.

The Muslims claim Mohammed was the last of the prophets, and that after his death God stopped advising earthly religions. But sometimes modern faiths will make a decision so inspired that it could only have come from divine revelation. This is how I feel about the Amish belief that health insurance companies are evil, and that good Christians must have no traffic with them.

And Deists believe that God is like a watchmaker, an artisan who built the world but does not act upon it. But by some miracle, the US government played along and granted the Amish exemptions from all the usual health care laws. They don’t have to pay Medicare taxes or social security. They aren’t included in the Obamacare mandate. They can share health care costs the way they want, ignoring any regulations to the contrary. They are genuinely on their own.

They’ve ended up with a simple system based on church aid. Everyone pays tithes to their congregation (though they don’t call it that). The churches meet in houses and have volunteer leaders, so expenses minimal. Most of the money goes to “alms” which the bishop distributes to members in need. This replaces the social safety net, including health insurance. Most Amish go their entire life without needing anything else.

About a third of Amish are part of a more formal insurance-like institution called Amish Hospital Aid. Individuals and families pay a fixed fee to the organization, which is not-for-profit and run by an unpaid board of all-male elders. If they need hospital care, AHA will pay for it. How does this interact with the church-based system? Rohrer and Dundes, my source for most of this post, say that it’s mostly better-off Amish who use AHA. Their wealth is tied up in their farmland, so it’s not like they can use it to pay hospital bills. But they would feel guilty asking their church to give them alms meant for the poor. AHA helps protect their dignity and keep church funds for those who need them most.

How well does this system work?

The Amish outperform the English on every measured health outcome. 65% of Amish rate their health as excellent or very good, compared to 58% of English. Diabetes rates are 2% vs. 8%, heart attack rates are 1% vs. 6%, high blood pressure is 11% vs. 31%. Amish people go to the hospital about a quarter as often as English people, and this difference is consistent across various categories of illness (the big exception is pregnancy-related issues – most Amish women have five to ten children). This is noticeable enough that lots of health magazines have articles on The Health Secrets of the Amish and Amish Secrets That Will Add Years To Your Life. As far as I can tell, most of the secret is spending your whole life outside doing strenuous agricultural labor, plus being at a tech level two centuries too early for fast food.

But Amish people also die earlier. Lots of old studies say the opposite – for example, this one finds Amish people live longer than matched Framingham Heart Study participants. But things have changed since Framingham. The Amish have had a life expectancy in the low 70s since colonial times, when the rest of us were dying at 40 or 50. Since then, Amish life expectancy has stayed the same, and English life expectancy has improved to the high 70s. The most recent Amish estimates I have still say low seventies, so I think we are beating them now.

If they’re healthier, why is their life expectancy lower? Possibly they are less interested in prolonging life than we are. R&D write:

Amish people are more willing to stop interventions earlier and resist invasive therapies than the general population because, while they long for healing, they also have a profound respect for God’s will. This means taking modest steps toward healing sick bodies, giving preference to natural remedies, setting common-sense limits, and believing that in the end their bodies are in God’s hands.

The Amish health care system has an easier job than ours does. It has to take care of people who are generally healthy and less interested in extreme end-of-life care. It also supports a younger population – because Amish families have five to ten children, the demographics are weighted to younger people. All of these make its job a little bit simpler, and we should keep that in mind for the following sections.

How much do the Amish pay for health care? This is easy to answer for Amish Hospital Aid, much harder for the church system.

Amish Hospital Aid charges $125 monthly per individual or $250 monthly per family (remember, Amish families can easily be ten people). Average US health insurance costs $411 monthly per individual (Obamacare policies) or $558 monthly per individual (employer sponsored plan; employers pay most of this). I’m not going to bother comparing family plans because the definition of “family” matters a lot here. On the surface, it looks like the English spend about 4x as much as the Amish do.

But US plans include many more services than AHA, which covers catastrophic hospital admissions only. The government bans most Americans from buying plans like this; they believe it’s not enough to count as real coverage. The cheapest legal US health plan varies by age and location, but when I take my real age and pretend that I live near Amish country, the government offers me a $219/month policy on Obamacare. This is only a little higher than what the Amish get, and probably includes more services. So here it seems like the Amish don’t have much of an efficiency advantage. They just make a different tradeoff. It’s probably the right tradeoff for them, given their healthier lifestyle.

But remember, only a third of Amish use AHA. The rest use a church-based system? How does that come out?

It’s hard to tell. Nobody agrees on how much Amish tithe their churches, maybe because different Amish churches have different practices. R&D suggest families tithe 10% of income, this article on church-based insurances says a flat $100/month fee, and this “Ask The Amish” column says that churches have twice-yearly occasions where they ask for donations in secret and nobody is obligated to give any particular amount (“often husbands and wives won’t even know how much the other is giving.”) So it’s a mess, and even knowing the exact per-Amish donation wouldn’t help, because church alms cover not just health insurance but the entire social safety net; the amount that goes to health care probably varies by congregation and circumstance.

A few people try to estimate Amish health spending directly. This ABC story says $5 million total for all 30,000 Amish in Lancaster County, but they give no source, and it’s absurdly low. This QZ story quotes Amish health elder Marvin Wengerd as saying $20 – $30 million total for Lancaster County, which would suggest health spending of between $600-$1000 per person. This sounds potentially in keeping with some of the other estimates. A $100 per month tithe would be $1200 per year – if half of that goes to non-health social services, that implies $600 for health. The average Amish family earns about $50K (the same as the average English family, somehow!) so a 10% tithe would be $5000 per year, but since the average Amish family size is seven children, that comes out to about $600 per person again. So several estimates seem to agree on between $600 and $1000 per person.

One possible issue with this number: does Wengerd know how much Amish spend out of pocket? Or does his number just represent the amount that the official communal Amish health system spends? I’m not sure, but taking his words literally it’s total Amish spending, so I am going to assume it’s the intended meaning. And since the Amish rarely see doctors for minor things, probably their communal spending is a big chunk of their total.

[Update: an SSC reader is able to contact his brother, a Mennonite deacon, for better numbers. He says that their church spends an average of $2000 per person (including out of pocket).]

How does this compare to the US as a whole? The National Center For Health Statistics says that the average American spends $11,000 on health care. This suggests that the average American spends between five and ten times more on health care than the average Amish person.

How do the Amish keep costs so low? R&D (plus a few other sources) identify some key strategies.

First, the Amish community bargains collectively with providers to keep prices low. This isn’t unusual – your insurance company does the same – but it nets them better prices than you would get if you tried to pay out of pocket at your local hospital. This article gives some examples of Amish getting sticker prices discounted from between 50% to 66% with this tactic alone; Medicare gets about the same.

Second, the Amish are honorable customers. This separates them from insurance companies, who are constantly trying to scam providers however they can. Much of the increase in health care costs is “administrative expenses”, and much of these administrative expenses is hiring an army of lawyers, clerks, and billing professionals to thwart insurance companies’ attempts to cheat their way out of paying. If you are an honorable Amish person and the hospital knows you will pay your bill on time with zero fuss, they can waive all this.

But can this really be the reason Amish healthcare is cheaper? When insurance companies negotiate with providers, patients are on the side of the insurances; when insurance companies get good deals (eg a deal of zero dollars because the insurance has scammed the hospital), the patient’s care is cheaper, and the insurance company can pass some of those savings down as lower prices. If occasionally scamming providers meant insurance companies had to pay more money total, then they would stop doing it. My impression is that the real losers here are uninsured patients; absent any pressure to do otherwise, hospitals will charge them the sticker price, which includes the dealing-with-insurance-scams fee. The Amish successfully pressure them to waive that fee, which gets them better prices than the average uninsured patient, but still doesn’t land them ahead of insured people.

Third, Amish don’t go to the doctor for little things. They either use folk medicine or chiropractors. Some of the folk medicine probably works. The chiropractors probably don’t, but they play a helpful role reassuring people and giving them the appropriate obvious advice while telling the really serious cases to seek outside care. With this help, Amish people mostly avoid primary care doctors. Holmes County health statistics find that only 16% of Amish have seen a doctor in the past year, compared to 54% of English.

Fourth, the Amish never sue doctors. Doctors around Amish country know this, and give them the medically indicated level of care instead of practicing “defensive medicine”. If Amish people ask their doctors to be financially considerate – for example, let them leave the hospital a little early – their doctors will usually say yes, whereas your doctor would say no because you could sue them if anything went wrong. In some cases, Amish elders formally promise that no member of their congregation will ever launch a malpractice lawsuit.

Fifth, the Amish don’t make a profit. Church aid is dispensed by ministers and bishops. Even Amish Hospital Aid is run by a volunteer board. None of these people draw a salary or take a cut. I don’t want to overemphasize this one – people constantly obsess over insurance company profits and attribute all health care pathologies to them, whereas in fact they’re a low single-digit percent of costs (did you know Kaiser Permanente is a nonprofit? Hard to tell, isn’t it?) But every little bit adds up, and this is one bit.

Sixth, the Amish don’t have administrative expenses. Since the minister knows and trusts everyone in his congregation, the “approval process” is just telling your minister what the problem is, and the minister agreeing that’s a problem and giving you money to solve it. This sidesteps a lot of horrible algorithms and review boards and appeal boards and lawyers. I don’t want to overemphasize this one either – insurance companies are legally required to keep administrative expenses low, and most of them succeed. But again, it all adds up.

Seventh, the Amish feel pressure to avoid taking risks with their health. If you live in a tiny community with the people who are your health insurance support system, you’re going to feel awkward smoking or drinking too much. Realistically this probably blends into a general insistence on godly living, but the health insurance aspect doesn’t hurt. And I’m talking like this is just informal pressure, but occasionally it can get very real. R&D discuss the case of some Amish teens who get injured riding a snowmobile – forbidden technology. Their church decided this was not the sort of problem that godly people would have gotten themselves into, and refused to help – their families were on the hook for the whole bill.

Eighth, for the same reason, Amish try not to overspend on health care. I realize this sounds insulting – other Americans aren’t trying? I think this is harsh but true. Lots of Americans get an insurance plan from their employer, and then consume health services in a price-insensitive way, knowing very well that their insurance will pay for it. Sometimes they will briefly be limited by deductibles or out-of-pocket charges, but after these are used up, they’ll go crazy. You wouldn’t believe how many patients I see who say things like “I’ve covered my deductible for the year, so you might as well give me the most expensive thing you’ve got”, or “I’m actually feeling fine, but let’s have another appointment next week because I like talking to you and my out-of-pocket charges are low.”

But it’s not just avoiding the obvious failure modes. Careful price-shopping can look very different from regular medical consumption. Several of the articles I read talked about Amish families traveling from Pennsylvania to Tijuana for medical treatment. One writer describes Tijuana clinics sending salespeople up to Amish Country to advertise their latest prices and services. For people who rarely leave their hometown and avoid modern technology, a train trip to Mexico must be a scary experience. But prices in Mexico are cheap enough to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile, back in the modern world, I’ve written before about how a pharma company took clonidine, a workhorse older drug that costs $4.84 a month, transformed it into Lucemyra, a basically identical drug that costs $1,974.78 a month, then created a rebate plan so that patients wouldn’t have to pay any extra out-of-pocket. Then they told patients to ask their doctors for Lucemyra because it was newer and cooler. Patients sometimes went along with this, being indifferent between spending $4 of someone else’s money or $2000 of someone else’s money. Everything in the US health system is like this, and the Amish avoid all of it. They have a normal free market in medical care where people pay for a product with their own money (or their community’s money) and have incentives to check how much it costs before they buy it. I do want to over-emphasize this one, and honestly I am surprised Amish health care costs are only ten times cheaper than ours are.

I don’t know how important each of these factors is, or how they compare to more structural factors like younger populations, healthier lifestyles, and less end-of-life care. But taken together, they make it possible for the Amish to get health care without undue financial burden or government support.

II.

Why look into the Amish health system?

I’m fascinated by how many of today’s biggest economic problems just mysteriously failed to exist in the past. Our grandparents easily paid for college with summer jobs, raised three or four kids on a single income, and bought houses in their 20s or 30s and never worried about rent or eviction again. And yes, they got medical care without health insurance, and avoided the kind of medical bankruptcies we see too frequently today. How did this work so well? Are there ways to make it work today? The Amish are an extreme example of people who try to make traditional systems work in the modern world, which makes them a natural laboratory for this kind of question.

The Amish system seems to work well for the Amish. It’s hard to say this with confidence because of all the uncertainties. The Amish skew much younger than the “English”, and live much healthier lifestyles. Although a few vague estimates suggest health care spending far below the English average, they could be missing lots of under-the-table transactions. And again, I don’t want to ignore the fact that the Amish do live a little bit shorter lives. You could tell a story where all of these add up to explain 100% of the difference, and the Amish aren’t any more efficient in their spending at all. I don’t think this is right. I think the apparent 5x advantage, or something like it, is real. But right now this is just a guess, not a hard number.

What if it is? It’s hard to figure out exactly what it would take to apply the same principles to English society. Only about a quarter of Americans attend church regularly, so church-based aid is out. In theory, health insurance companies ought to fill the same niche, with maybe a 10% cost increase for profits and overhead. Instead we have a 1000% cost increase. Why?

Above, I said that the most important factor is that the Amish comparison shop. Everyone needs to use other people’s money to afford expensive procedures. But for the Amish, those other people are their fellow church members and they feel an obligation to spend it wisely. For the English, the “other people” are faceless insurance companies, and we treat people who don’t extract as much money as possible from them as insufficiently savvy. But there’s no easy way to solve this in an atomized system. If you don’t have a set of thirty close friends you can turn to for financial help, then the only institutions with enough coordination power to make risk pooling work are companies and the government. And they have no way of keeping you honest except the with byzantine rules about “prior authorizations” and “preferred alternatives” we’ve become all too familiar with.

(and as bad as these are, there’s something to be said for a faceless but impartial bureaucracy, compared to having all your neighbors judging your lifestyle all the time.)

This is a neat story, but I have two concerns about it.

First, when I think in terms of individual people I know who have had trouble paying for health care, it’s hard for me to imagine the Amish system working very well for them. Many have chronic diseases. Some have mysterious pain that they couldn’t identify for years before finally getting diagnosed with something obscure. Amish Hospital Aid’s catastrophic policy would be useless for this, and I feel like your fellow church members would get tired of you pretty quickly. I’m not sure how the Amish cope with this kind of thing, and maybe their system relies on a very low rate of mental illness and chronic disease. A lot of the original “hygiene hypothesis” work was done on the Amish, their autoimmune disease rates are amazing, and when you take out the stresses of modern life maybe a lot of the ailments the American system was set up to deal with just stop being problems. I guess my point is that the numbers seem to work out, and the Amish apparently remain alive, but when I imagine trying to apply the Amish system to real people, even assuming those real people have cooperative churches and all the other elements I’ve talked about, I can’t imagine it doing anything other than crashing and burning.

Second, I don’t think this is actually how our grandparents did things. I asked my literal grandmother, a 95 year old former nurse, how health care worked in her day. She said it just wasn’t a problem. Hospitals were supported by wealthy philanthropists and religious organizations. Poor people got treated for free. Middle class people paid as much as they could afford, which was often the whole bill, because bills were cheap. Rich people paid extra for fancy hospital suites and helped subsidize everyone else. Although most people went to church or synagogue, there wasn’t the same kind of Amish-style risk pooling.

This makes me think that the Amish method, even though it works, isn’t the method that worked for past generations. It’s an innovation intended to cover for health care prices being higher than anything that traditional societies had to deal with.

Why did health care prices start rising? I’ve wondered about this a lot before – see here, here, and here. Looking into this issue, I noticed glimpses of a different possibility. The increase started around the same time that health insurance began to spread. In one sense, this is unsurprising – of course health insurance would become a thing around the time care became unaffordable. But I’ve never seen someone really try to tease out causality here. Might the two trends have been mutually self-reinforcing? The price of care rises due to some original shock. Someone invents health insurance, which seems like a good idea. But this creates a series of perverse incentives, which other actors figure out how to exploit (eg the Lucemyra example above). Insurance-based-health-care becomes less efficient, but hospitals can’t or don’t internalize this to the insured patients – they just raise the price for everyone, insurance or no. That makes even more people need health insurance, and the cycle repeats as prices grow higher and higher and insurance becomes more and more necessary. This syncs well with some explanations I’ve heard of rising college prices, where once the government made easy loans and subsidies available to everyone, prices rose until they consumed all the resources available.

I have no idea if this is true or not. If it is, the Amish succeed partly by successfully forcing providers to internalize the costs of insurance to insurance patients. Sometimes they do this by literally asking hospitals for better prices because they are not insured (eg the “honest customer” example above). Other times they flee the country entirely to reach a medical system that doesn’t deal with insured patients (eg Tijuana). This seems to work well for them. But their reliance on church alms and Amish Hospital Aid suggests that their care is still more expensive and burdensome for them than past generations’ care was for them. They’ve just learned ways to manage the expense successfully.

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nikolap
921 days ago
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Zagreb, Croatia
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