Monthly Archives: November 2010

Gentle Silent Rape

Added Oct ’13: Warning: you may find this post disturbing if you are  disturbed by the topics of rape, abduction, or being drugged.

A year ago I wrote two controversial posts (each 150 comments) that compared cuckoldry to rape. I was puzzling over why our law punishes rape far more than cuckoldry, arguing:

Biologically, cuckoldry is a bigger reproductive harm than rape, so we should expect a similar intensity of inherited emotions about it.

Counter arguments included:

  • what the cuckold doesn’t know can’t hurt him
  • lots of men don’t mind raising genetically unrelated kids
  • rape victims are more socially disapproved of
  • rape has direct physical effects, while cuckoldry does not
  • rape victims are more often diagnosed “post traumatic stress”
  • rape victims they know seem more expressively upset

I presented evidence that most men would rather be raped than cuckolded, and that even though men complain less, they gain and suffer more from marriage and divorce, and the birth and death of kids.  Someone noted that many past societies did punish cuckoldry more than rape.

It occurred to me recently that we can more clearly compare cuckoldry to gentle silent rape. Imagine a woman was drugged into unconsciousness and then gently raped, so that she suffered no noticeable physical harm nor any memory of the event, and the rapist tried to keep the event secret. Now drugging someone against their will is a crime, but the added rape would add greatly to the crime in the eyes of today’s law, and the added punishment for this addition would be far more than for cuckoldry.

Now compare the two cases, cuckoldry and gentle silent rape. One remaining difference is that the rapist might be a stranger, while a cuckolding wife is not. But we could consider cases where the rapist isn’t a stranger. Another difference might be that punishing the cuckolding mother financially may punish her innocent kid. But we could specify the punishment to be non-financial, perhaps torture. Consider also that it tends to be easier to prove cuckoldry than rape, so if we avoid applying the law to hard-to-prove harms, that should favor punishing cuckoldry more than rape.

Even after all these attempts to make the cases comparable, however, I suspect most people will still say the law should punish rape far more than the cuckoldry. This even though most farming societies had the opposite attitude (I’m not sure on foragers). A colleague of mine suggests this is gender bias, pure and simple; women seem feminist, and men chivalrous, by railing against rape, but no one looks good complaining about cuckoldry. What other explanations you got?

Added 11p 1Dec: 95 comments so far, almost all of which ignore my “gentle silent” modifier, and just argue about standard rape. Seems a post mentioning rape and cuckoldry is treated by most as a red flag urging heated discussion on those topics without regard to anything else that the poster might have said.

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Mom Delusions Re Dad

Romantic delusions can be expensive:

41% of [US] babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008. … More than half of the unmarried parents were living together at the time their child was born and 30% of them were romantically involved (but living apart). Most of those unwed mothers said their chances of marrying the baby’s father were 50% or greater, but after five years, only 16% of them had done so and only about 20% of the couples were still cohabiting.

These delusions seem obviously functional – people are who more confident in their partners are more attractive as partners.  But the cost of such costly signals can be great.

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At Least Two Filters

Where lies the great filter, i.e., the obstacles that make it extremely unlikely that any one chunk of pre-organic matter originates a visibly expanding interstellar civilization? While it seems unlikely our ancestors passed through much of a filter in the last half billion years, our descendants may face a big filter in the next few thousand years, and there may have been big filters associated with the origin of life, the spread of life, the invention of complex cells, sexual reproduction, or multicellular life.

In many folks eyes, an elegantly simple resolution, which is likely because of its simplicity, is to assume there is just one huge filter: the origin of life. Assuming that first step is enormously hard allows one to think all the other steps are pretty easy. They wouldn’t be sure things of course, but conditional on a big enough origin-of-life filter, one wouldn’t have a strong reason to fear that common analyses underestimate future filters.

Unfortunately, the elegantly simple hypothesis that the great filter is mainly a big origin-of-life filter seems at odds with our best evidence. Why? Because if the spread-of-life step had the weakest possible associated filter, then life spreading must be easy. Over billions of years life could have spread to many star systems from its place of origin:

Life could spread across a galaxy via giant molecular clouds reliably collecting life from the stars they drift near, and then passing that life on to a few of the thousands of new stars they create.

If over billions of years life spread to many hundreds, or even billions, of star systems, and no substantial filters stood between arrival of life near a star, and its eventual development of advanced technical civilizations like ours, then why would we now see no any evidence of other civilizations? Yes it is possible that we are the very first, but that hypothesis is of course unlikely by default.

It seems to me that if the great filter is to consist of just one big step, the only plausible possibility is the development of multi-cellular life. All the steps before that one seem able to spread to other star systems via single-celled life hidden in dust, and it seems we haven’t had a big filter step since the multi-cellular innovation.

So if the idea of just one big filter appeals to your sense of elegance, you’ll have to presume that life, including complex life with sexual reproduction etc., is very common in our vast universe, but that Earth is one of the handful of places in all that vastness with multi-cellular life.

If you don’t find that plausible, well then you’ll have to grant there are at least two filters. And if two, why not three? So you must find the possibility of a third filter in our future plausible; beware future filters.

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Med Trends Continue

Beware of the news; usually the main thing one learns is that long term trends continue.

  • Case 1: US medical spending, now >16% of GDP, continues to double as a fraction of GDP every three decades. Politicians worry and agonize, but refuse to actually cut. Specifically, a recent article said Congress keeps postponing ’97 rules it set to limit rising Medicare fees, and rising fees plus a huge increase in number of doc visits led to a 51% increase in Medicare payments to docs from ’00 to ’08. The low chance of remedial action is shown by the article title: “Doctors say Medicare cuts force painful decision about elderly patients.” (more)
  • Case 2: Docs kill huge numbers of people via preventable errors, and there is little support for forcing hospitals to publish error stats, much less for strong financial incentives to punish errors. Docs say such stats would be “misinterpreted.” Specifically, a recent study found that in at least 0.4% of hospital stays, a medical mistake “caused or contributed to a patient’s death.” This rate has not changed since a 1999 report estimating up to 98,000 US annual med mistake deaths “led to a national movement to reduce errors.” Multiplied by the 40 million US hospital discharges reported for 2008, this makes for 173,000 annual deaths. For who else besides docs would we not do the obvious easy thing to greatly reduce such a huge cause of death? (more; HT Tyler.)

Some article quotes:  On med spending: Continue reading "Med Trends Continue" »

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Fem Hiring Jealousy

I’d always wondered why men get a higher wage premium than women for good looks.  Now we learn jealousy by women in charge of hiring seems a likely explanation:

Job applicants in Europe and in Israel increasingly imbed a headshot of them- selves in the top corner of their CVs. We sent 5312 CVs in pairs to 2656 advertised job open- ings. In each pair, one CV was without a picture while the second, otherwise almost identical CV contained a picture of either an attractive male/female or a plain-looking male/female. Employer callbacks to attractive men are significantly higher than to men with no picture and to plain-looking men, nearly doubling the latter group. Strikingly, attractive women do not enjoy the same beauty premium. In fact, women with no picture have a significantly higher rate of callbacks than attractive or plain-looking women. We explore a number of explanations and provide evidence that female jealousy of attractive women in the workplace is a primary reason for the punishment of attractive women.

For every additional point a judge assigns to a photographed person’s beauty, the judge rates the same person’s intelligence .29 points higher on average. This result is highly significant and contradicts the dumb-blonde hypothesis. … A female subject who is rated one point higher for her beauty is also perceived to be an extra .26 points more intelligent on average.

We asked each company surveyed to indicate what message is conveyed by a … candidate who includes a picture. … Thirty-six percent of the respondents reacted positively to males’ inclusion of a picture, invoking terms such “presentable” and “confident”. Only 28% of the respondents expressed negative associations for male photographs. By contrast, negative sentiments were the predominant response (56%) to females CVs with pictures. “Not serious” and “an attempt to market herself via her appearance” were among the reactions. A mere 12% of respondents expressed a positive association. These findings suggest that we cannot rule out the negative signaling story. … 93% of the [hiring] respondents in our sample were female …

We have presented a range of evidence that suggests that female jealousy is part of the observed and unexpected discrimination against attractive females. To begin, women mostly do the initial screening of CVs. When the hiring is done by the company in which the hired job candidate will work, these women discriminate strongly against attractive women and only attractive women, treating all other picture CVs similarly to the paired no-picture CV. Outside employment agencies in charge of hiring provide a control group. They differentiate significantly between the picture and paired no-picture CVs in all cases, with the attractive females being the only exception: employment agencies discrimination against attractive women is only weakly significant. (more; HT Dan Houser.)

So now that firms know this, will they still let female hiring folks discriminate against pretty female applicants?  Will the law and politicians allow such blatant unfairness to continue? Of course they will. But it is interesting to consider why exactly this will happen.

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Beware Consistency

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Emerson


Experimental choice data from 881 subjects based on 40 time-tradeoff items and 32 risky choice items reveal that most subjects are time-inconsistent and most violate the axioms of expected utility theory. These inconsistencies cannot be explained by well-known theories of behavioral inconsistency, such as hyperbolic discounting and cumulative prospect theory. … Time-inconsistent subjects and those who violate expected utility theory both earn substantially higher expected payoffs, and these positive associations survive largely undiminished when included together in total payoff regressions. Consistent subjects earn lower than average payoffs because most of them are consistently impatient or consistently risk averse. … Controlling for the total risk of each subject’s risk choices as well as for socio-economic differences among subjects, time inconsistent subjects earn significantly more money, in statistical and economic terms. So do expected utility violators. Positive returns to inconsistency extend outside the domain in which inconsistencies occurs, with time-inconsistent subjects earning more on risky choice items, and expected utility violators earning more on time-tradeoff items. The results seem to call into question whether axioms of internal consistency—and violations of these axioms that behavioral economists frequently focus on—are economically relevant criteria for evaluating the quality of decision making in human populations. (more; HT Dan Houser)

If your jaw isn’t in your lap yet, you aren’t paying attention:

Ask a behavioral economist what we learn from behavioral economics in applied work aimed at educating the public or designing institutions, and you will likely hear calls to help error-prone, biased, or irrational humans overcome the systematic pathologies built into their brains. And yet, very little evidence exists linking violations of axiomatic rationality to high-stakes differences in real people’s lives. … Calls to use behavioral economics as a prescriptive basis for institutional design, such as … to tax potato chips and subsidize carrots, or … changing defaults in savings plans, organ donation rules, and the positioning of dessert on the buffet line, naturally raise controversy. What seems clear, however, is the need for … investigating whether the normative measures we use are relevant to the economic problems we face.

These results seriously question the relation between winning and easy-to-observe local measures of rationality.  In at least two important contexts, people whose actions seem more locally consistent, consistently lose.

Such results also suggest we face a “dark decisions” problem, analogous to the dark matter and energy problems in physics, or the dark brain in neuroscience. Clearly the processes behind our inconsistencies aren’t just random errors, and aren’t very close to expected utility; simple-minded attempts to make them more consistent seem to make them worse.

Added 27Nov: On reflection, I wasn’t thinking straight; this is just the sort of result one should expect from simple random error.  When “rationality” makes you avoid big risks and future payouts, random error can indeed get you paid more on average, in the future.

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Brain Size Is Not A Filter

We relate brain size to appearance time for 511 fossil and extant mammalian species to test for temporal changes in relative brain size over time. We show that there is wide variation across groups in encephalization slopes across groups and that encephalization is not universal in mammals. … Encephalization [vs. time] trends are associated with sociality in extant species. These findings … highlight the role sociality may play in driving the evolution of large brains. (more; HT Razib Khan)

The biggest brains have consistently gotten bigger over the last half billion years since multi-cellular life appeared. Big brains seem to be a necessary precondition for human level intelligence and civilization, and human size brains appeared only very recently. These facts strongly suggest that achieving human level intelligence is just not a big component of the great filter.  It appeared quickly after big brains, and big brains seem likely given enough time and sociality, and sociality seems likely.

This unfortunately means that it is very difficult to collect data on all steps of the great filter.  It is big and real and matters enormously, but we can hardly see it.

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Elite Fertility Falls

An ’06 essay says falling fertility often afflicted indulged elites:

“If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance.” So proclaimed the Roman general, statesman, and censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, in 131 B.C. Still, he went on to plead, falling birthrates required that Roman men fulfill their duty to reproduce, no matter how irritating Roman women might have become. …

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. …

Societies with high fertility grew in strength and number and began menacing those with lower fertility. … That was the lesson King Pyrrhus learned in the third century B.C., when he marched his Greek armies into the Italian peninsula and tried to take on the Romans. …

Greece, after falling into a long era of population decline, eventually became a looted colony of Rome. Like today’s modern, well-fed nations, both ancient Greece and Rome eventually found that their elites had lost interest in the often dreary chores of family life. “In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and a general decay of population,” lamented the Greek historian Polybius around 140 B.C., just as Greece was giving in to Roman domination. “This evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life.” (more; HT sestamibi)

This supports the idea that farmers naturally return to foraging ways as they get rich. I wonder how many “civilization collapses” were due to fertility losing its social status.

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Tug-O-War Is Not Charity

Arnold Kling:

Ezra Klein thinks that political organizations are worthwhile charities.

If you donate money to a food bank, it can provide only as much food as your money can buy. If you donate it to a nonprofit that specializes in food policy issues, it can persuade legislators to pass a new program – or reform an existing one – that can do much more than any single food bank.

So he winds up giving his money to support a think tank whose employees are somewhere around the 95th percentile of the income distribution, in the hope that they will help tilt the rent-seeking in Washington in a direction that he likes. … It is actually sort of sad for a policy wonk to settle on the idea of making donations to an organization of policy wonks.

If public policy is a point in a high dimensional space, then every policy change has two components: a partisan and a non-partisan change. Partisan changes are along standard partisan axes, where people are lined up in a tug-o-war on different sides pulling in different directions. Non partisan changes, in contrast, are not seen as a win for one side relative to others. Technically, partisan changes project total changes into the partisan subspace.

Assuming all parties think they seek good, partisan changes can only be good if some parties are right while others are wrong about what is good. In contrast, you can be right about a non-partisan change without others being wrong. Since the total space has a far larger dimension that the partisan space, there is a huge scope for searching in that larger space for changes that all sides could see as good. And donations to encourage such efforts can indeed consistently produce large social gains relative to their costs.

Donations to change policy within the partisan subspace, however, only achieve good when they happen to be on the right side of partisan disagreements. Averaged over the disagreeing parties, such donations cannot on average achieve good unless there is a correlation between between donations, or donation effectiveness, and which sides are right.  Even if you think you are right at the moment on your particular partisan policy opinions, you can’t think it good on average to encourage partisan donations, unless you think donations tend overall to go to the good or more donation-effective sides.

Unfortunately most thinktank efforts go into pushing for their sides within the partisan subspace, because that is what most donors care about. For example, Ezra’s two concrete policy examples, of “the need for food banks and homeless shelters and social services” and “repeal the 2010 health-care reform legislation,” are both clearly partisan.

Humans clearly tend to be overconfident about politics. Since you are human, that tendency is a likely cause of your confidence in your political opinions. If your politics were about doing good with policy, you should correct for that overconfidence, and that correction would on average move folks to have little interest in partisan pushes.  Of course if your politics is not about policy, but about showing loyalty, how clever or informed you are, etc., well then go right ahead and be partisan. But don’t tell me that is generally beneficial charity.

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Starflight Review

In a recent article, Ian Crawford briefly reviews the technical feasibility of starflight.  The main limit is economic: an ability to collect 50,000 tons of (deuterium/helium-3) nuclear fuel (the same weight as today’s total annual uranium mined, but vastly harder to collect) and launch that into space seems nearly sufficient. But of course with advanced robotics, nanotech, etc., that much may not be necessary:

The most technically mature concepts for achieving rapid interstellar travel are those based on nuclear fusion propulsion, of which the Daedalus study (Bond et al., 1978) is still the most detailed engineering assessment available in the literature. Daedalus was designed to accelerate a 450-tonne scientific payload to 12% of the speed of light. … This would permit a travel time of 36 years to the nearest star, although the resulting vehicle would be very massive (requiring approximately 50,000 tonnes of nuclear fuel) and far beyond present capabilities to construct. …

In the decades following the original Daedalus study, technical advances in a number of fields have occurred which may make fusion-powered vehicles of the Daedalus type more practical. … Developments in miniaturization … would ensure that a much less massive payload would be required … The National Ignition Facility … is, albeit unintentionally, building up technical competencies directly relevant to the development of fusion-based space propulsion systems. …

Impacts with interstellar grains will be potentially damaging for space vehicles. … However, the problem is not as severe as [many fear]. … The size of typical interstellar grains … in the solar neighborhood are expected mostly to be submicron in size. … The mass of a 1 um [= 10^-6 m] radius grain of silicate composition is 10^-14 kg, and its kinetic energy at 0.1c is 4.5 J. … Continue reading "Starflight Review" »

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