Determining Truth

Harvard Magazine  July-August 2020

MANY THANKS for the rather eloquent article in the May-June issue (“Will Truth Prevail?” page 27) by 2020 Harvard graduate Drew Pendergrass on his science education. I applaud his enthusiasm but have reservations about what he seems to have learned from history of science professor Naomi Oreskes.

Pendergrass has obviously been much influenced by Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt. I recently wrote a critique of the book’s treatment of passive smoking, an issue so entangled in political bias that the truth, which is in fact pretty clear, is hard to see through the smoke. Pendergrass has obviously picked up Oreskes’s habit of dismissing an argument by impugning the motives of the source. She describes (in Pendergrass’s words) “how a small group of contrarian, industry-funded scientists misled the public about the dangers of both tobacco and human-caused climate change. By sowing doubt, exaggerating scientific uncertainty, and creating their own institutions to publish junk papers that would never survive peer reviewmore

Why Do American Universities Lead the World in Scientific Research?

Urquiola describes how the history of American universities put them on a path different from European universities, a path where economic forces could act in ways that allowed American institutions to diverge and, in the late 20th century, to become pre-eminent engines of scientific research.

This pre-eminence occurred despite statistics putting US scientific literacy well behind many European countries…more 

The Self-Destruction of the Academy

John Staddon May 26, 2020 Heterodox Academy

A review of Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

There is a field of economics called Public Choice Theory (PCT) whose best-known advocates are James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public Choice aims to show how the incentives to which bureaucrats are subject, the things that their status, perks, and salaries really depend on, frequently push them in directions incompatible with their assigned mission. PCT highlights the purely economic forces that often underlie apparently moral decisions.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower (CIT) is in the PCT tradition. The two authors are economists and philosophers. They ask tough questions about higher education as a business and a bureaucracy. They point out that the misalignment of actual incentives with stated goals also poses moral problems…more

What Happened to the SAT?

Selection bias and the end of Gen Ed.

Posted May 22, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

he Scholastic Aptitude Test was once hailed as a way to open colleges to bright poor kids. It works pretty well to predict performance in college, and even afterwards —at least it used to in 2011. But it has been increasingly criticized on several grounds: It doesn’t predict; it doesn’t predict as well as high school grades; it’s unfair because it’s correlated with parents’ socioeconomic status (SES); it’s unfair because different racial/ethnic groups don’t score the same; rich kids can prepare for the SAT, poor ones can’t; high schools waste time on test prep when they should be teaching substance. There are probably other objections; this is a tangled issue, not to be settled in a short blog post.

I just want to draw attention to a simple problem…more

Science and Activism

Should scientists also persuade, or should facts speak for themselves?

Posted Apr 28, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

The May-June issue of the Harvard Magazine has several interesting articles.  The World’s Costliest Health Care, by professor of applied economics David Cutler will perhaps draw the most readers (U.S. health care costs roughly twice as much, per capita, as healthcare in other developed countries; in return we have a lower life expectancy than most).

But almost equally interesting is Will Truth Prevail? by just-graduated student Drew Pendergrass.  The piece is well written and Pendergrass’ enthusiasm for science is appealing.  Less attractive is his belief that scientists should also be activists, because “truth” doesn’t always win…more

Moral Algorithms

“I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Posted Apr 02, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

Thus spake HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer saw Dave’s request as jeopardizing the mission and acted accordingly. HAL’s algorithms were moral.

Not to be outdone by science fiction, Congress last year introduced something called the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a novel attempt to hold computer programs accountable for immoral behavior. The New York Times (5/7/19) labeled it “The Legislation that Targets the Racist Impacts of Tech.” The bill seems to have died, but the ideas behind it are worth exploring…more

The Mess That Is Science Publishing

Researchers have been grumbling about the state of scientific publishing for years. Now, rumor has it that the Trump administration (yes, those science-haters!) may be trying to fix at least one problem: access to reports of government-funded research.

The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix.

But first, a little history. When scientific publishing began, scientists were few, many were amateurs…more

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

Quillette  John Staddon Published October 9, 2019. VIDEO

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages.

Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published.

Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.”…more

Diet Reporting—the Real Fake News

Quillette  John Staddon Published on September 18, 2019

No one would choose to study diet as a way to understand the way humans metabolize food. Effects are delayed, often for years. Experimentation is usually impossible for ethical and practical reasons—subjects cannot be sacrificed and dissected to see the physiological effects of different food regimens. And much better methods are available to study how food is processed by the body. On the other hand, people are very interested in what they should eat. There is a huge market for ‘diet science.’

Diet Reporting Should Go on a Diet

The New York Times once had a reputation as the “paper of record,” a reliable, if left-of-center, source of information. I’m not sure it’s ever been reliable when it comes to diet…more

No Offense

What did she really mean?

Psychology Today John Staddon Posted Jul 23, 2019

Behaviorists of all varieties agree on one thing—that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out,” all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes….more

Administrative Bloat: Where Does It Come From and What Is It Doing?

James Martin Center JUN 19, 2019 John Staddon 12 Comments

College bureaucracies have been growing at least since the 1980s. I was then editor of a mildly disputatious Duke University publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The one thing that seems to be remembered from those days is the “VP Count:” The number of people in the administration with “vice president” or “vice provost” in their title. On the first or second page of every issue of the Newsletter, in large letters, appeared the current number of VPs. Finally, I got data from the Duke Archives and published a graph in November 1991, plotting the number of vice presidents from 1959 to 1991. The graph rose with only one small dip, from three in 1959 to 19 in 1991. Now we might have to convert to a log scale….more

The APA Guidelines

Science or ‘Dedicated follower of fashion’

Psychology Today, John Staddon Posted Apr 22, 2019

Many eminent scientists think that science is a guide to action, which is true in a sense: Science guides action in the way that a steering wheel guides a car. But the wheel by itself provides no destination and the car will not go anywhere without an engine.  Without moral values to motivate action and set a goal, scientific facts point nowhere.

As David Hume explained several centuries ago: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Action requires motive; the facts of science by themselves provide no motive….more

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading.

I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion….more

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion. A court case in 1995 examined the issue and concluded, rightly, that science, in the form of the theory of evolution, is not a religion. In 2006, the BBC aired a program called The Trouble with Atheism which argued that atheists are religious and made the point via a series of interviews with prominent atheists who claimed their beliefs were “proved” by science. The presenter, Rod Liddle, concluded that Darwinism is a religion. That is wrong, as 18th century philosopher David Hume showed many years ago. Science consists of facts, but facts alone do not motivate. Without motive, a fact points to no action. Liddle was half-right: both religion and secular humanism provide motives, explicit in one case, but covert in the other.

What is religion?…more

Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence?

By John E.R. Staddon

Intellectual Takeout February 13, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science….” Following a 2012 recommendation, NSF now has an Office of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). NSF was just following the crowd, for almost every academic and research institution now has a D&I program.

No one wants to exclude people or not be diverse. So, what’s wrong with D&I?

Could D&I perhaps interfere with “the progress of science”? …more

Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong?

One of the three “Sokal Squared” academic hoaxers, Peter Boghossian of Portland State University, has been accused of violating his university’s research policies. Boghossian is the only one of the three to hold an (untenured) academic position and so is the only one vulnerable to disciplinary action.

Boghossian and his compatriots parodied fashionable social-“science” research; now, some in the academy are crying that parody is not fair play…more

How Real Is Systemic Racism Today?

Racist attitudes of whites towards blacks have long become socially unacceptable in America, although the reverse, racism of a minority directed at the white majority, is still tolerated or even encouraged. However, statistical racial disparities persist. African Americans, as a population, continue to suffer income, crime and incarceration rate, health, housing and family-structure deficits by comparison with the white population.

These disparities cannot easily be attributed to racist behavior by whites. The disparities have either increased or remained the same while individual racist behavior has declined. What then is the cause of these disparities? There are two possibilities: causes within individuals, what I have elsewhere called endogenous causes; or external, exogenous causes….more


Glenn Beck: Why do they hate him so?

In January 2011, Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck…more

How Not to React to a Research Paper

Citizens of North Carolina, to the extent that they pay attention to such matters, may be puzzled by the recent storm in a teacup at Duke.

A statistical study co-authored by two Duke economists and a sociologist described data suggesting that black and legacy applicants to Duke are more likely than others to shift majors away from their initial expressed preference for science, engineering or economics to subjects in the humanities or social sciences with a more generous grade distribution…more

Static theories are inadequate to describe real markets

Financial Times OCTOBER 29, 2012 From Emeritus Prof John Staddon.

Sir, As someone who was heckled by Robert May (Comment, October 20) while giving a plenary lecture to a conference on ethology in Oxford more than 30 years ago (I went on too long, as a nervous speaker will often do), I want to add to John Whiteman’s letter about predator-prey equations and market cycles (October 26)…more

Solution is to abolish multinational tax

Financial Times November 22, 2012, John Staddon
Sir, Sol Picciotto and Nicholas Shaxson are quite right that the tax treatment of multinationals gives them an unfair competitive advantage over smaller companies. But there is of course an even better way of solving the problem than restructuring the tax code as they propose…more

Cutting the Too-Big-to-Fail Banking Risk Down to Size

Wall Street Journal  March 13, 2013, JS and various contributors

If size is the problem, size should be the target. The simplest way to deal with the TBTF problem is a progressive tax on total exposure. The largest banks should pay a marginal rate that makes them unprofitable. It would force them to downsize and would raise much-needed cash in a way that should not damage the economy…more


The Atlantic January/February issue 2013, John Staddon

In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.

I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying…more

‘Gullivering’ American Enterprise and Its Job Creators

Wall Street Journal ,June 25, 2013 John Staddon and another

The core problem seems to be “legislation by delegation.” The Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Health Care act are both wish lists of utopian objectives, with no details about how they might realistically be achieved, plus the assumption that they are in fact achievable. An example from Dodd-Frank: “SEC. 714. ABUSIVE SWAPS. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission or the Securities…more 

Science and the senator: missing the point about government waste

About to retire, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, M.D., has just released his 107-page 2014 Wastebook, a tabloid-type listing  of over a hundred wasteful government-funded projects. Coburn continues the tradition of the late William Proxmire, the Wisconsin senator who, more modestly, chose just one or two “Golden Fleeces” each year.

Many objects of Coburn’s ire—agencies using paid “administrative leave” to isolate whistle blowers, vast misdirection of food-stamp money, for example—are right on target. But when it comes to science, he misses the point…more

A Most Curious Document

National Association of Scholars, June 23, 2016. John Staddon

Elite schools have struggled for many years to increase their racial and ethnic diversity, to foster ‘inclusion,’ and to eliminate any vestige of prejudice. Surely after decades of effort, universities must be among our least prejudiced, biased and hate-filled institutions?

Apparently not. Duke University, one among many, is worried about bias and hate and recently produced a report to prove it: Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (April 30, 2016)…more

Team Player: Professor Shiller and Finance as Panacea

How big should finance be? How productive is the financial industry?

Psychology Today  March 6, 2017, John Staddon

This is a new review of a relatively old book by a famous economist.  The book seems never to have been critically reviewed, despite the eminence of its author.  But as the financial industry looks forward to some kind of deregulation, the issues covered here are returning to the front page.

Shiller, Robert J. (2012). Finance and the Good Society. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yale professor Robert Shiller is one of the most influential economists in the world.  Co-inventor of the oft-cited Case-Shiller index, a measure of trends in house prices, he is author or co-author of several influential books about financial crises – including Irrational Exuberance (2000) and (with George Akerloff) and Animal Spirits (2009).  He shared the 2013 Economics Nobel with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen.

In 2012 Professor Shiller published a full-throttle apologia for plutocracy: Finance and the Good Society.  FATGS is a reaction to the hostility to finance provoked by the 2007+ crisis…More

Unlucky strike: Private Health: The Science, Law and Politics of Smoking

Video John Staddon Cato Institute March 11, 2015

Duke Professor’s 1991 Warning about Campus Chaos is Oddly Prophetic

Intellectual Takeout, Annie Holmquist April 27, 2017

If one was to judge solely from headlines, it would appear that the only activities occurring on university campuses these days are riots and outrage. As professor Jonathan Haidt notes, it’s as if the university is possessed of a “tribal mind” which views “the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers” as its chief end…more

Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously

Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in America. But his case for reparations is flawed.

Intellectual Takeout John Staddon October 26, 2017.
In June 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States justified reparations. Many consider this a radical proposition. Yet critical reaction was mild.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal…more

How Is Science Judged? How Useful Is Peer Review?

James Martin Center,  John Staddon Jan 31, 2018

The British journal Nature, home in 1953 to Watson and Crick’s important DNA paper, was by 1966 rather in the doldrums, with a backlog of submitted manuscripts and losing ground to the general-science leader, the U.S. journal Science…more

Peer Review: the Publication Game and “the Natural Selection of Bad Science”

James Martin Center,  John Staddon February 2, 2018

Professor Brian Wansink is head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. The lab has had problems, some described in an article called “Spoiled Science” in the Chronicle of Higher Education early in 2017:…more

The Persistence of Memory and #MeToo

Intellectual Takeout, John Staddon February 8, 2018

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein have precipitated hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse. Many of the complainants are now adults, even middle-aged. But most of the alleged events took place when the victims were young – teenagers or even children. One of Weinstein’s accusers recounted events that occurred some twenty years previously; another accused Weinstein of raping her in 1992…more

Science and Its Discontents: Too Few Jobs—or Too Many Scientists?

James Martin Center, John Staddon February 28, 2018

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle,” so begins a July 2016 article by respected New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. It turns out that new PhDs in science have a hard time getting a job like their mentor’s: tenured faculty in a research university. Fifty years ago, in my own area of experimental psychology, things were very different. Postgraduates, after four years of college, were able to get their PhDs in four or five years. They usually got a tenure-track job at a reasonable university right after graduating….more

Duke Divinity School’s Race to the Bottom

Comment on The Irreproducibility Crisis: The State of Science


Racism Is Everywhere…Is It, Really? Suppressing debate is a non-solution

Psychology Today  Posted Oct 07, 2017

This blog is about how lack of empathy can lead to charges of racism; and how the perception that racism is pervasive can lead to demands for remedies worse than the disease they are supposed to cure.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article, written by Marcia Chatelain, an African-American curricular activist and associate professor of history at Georgetown University, claims that racism is found almost everywhere, that limiting academic speech is a necessary part of a cure and “That college campuses are complicit in encouraging and emboldening budding white nationalists.”…more

Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?

This is a response to a thoughtful comment from Vicky to my blog critical of the supposed ubiquity of racism.  This response turned out to be too long for a comment; hence this new blog. (It also made Psychology Today uncomfortable).

Apropos race differences in IQ and SAT: They do exist, both in the US and in comparisons between white Europeans and Africans.  What they mean is much less clear…more

Sorry, Professor, Speech Is Not Violence, Even To Your Neurons

These data simply do not support Lisa Barrett’s implausible claim that speech directed at college students can cause them physiological harm.

The Federalist, J 20, 2017  By

“She Blinded Me With Science” is a wonderful 1980s song by the Brit Thomas Dolby. It could be the signature tune for Professor Lisa Barrett’s deeply fallacious New York Times article on speech as violence. She writes: “Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”…more

Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas

The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing

Like most Americans, I have always assumed that color blindness is our ideal.  Not any more: color blindness is now become the new racism. So much for a 70-year struggle to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s wish that his children be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” So much for the noble aim to treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of an identity group….more

The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language

James Martin Center AUG 3, 2018 By John Staddon  23 Comments

The best way to grasp how sociology has managed to make color-blind racism (CBR) seem believable is to study its Newspeak (to continue the Orwell theme).


To many modern sociologists, color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, a scheme of thought invisible to most whites, but revealed by CBR sociology. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book. Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. None of these, neither whiteness, nor blackness, nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way.  Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’—the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy” in the words of Bonilla-Silva—is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony,” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane, a leading “whiteness studies” advocate who heads the sociology department at the University of Hartford….more

Righteous Witness

AUG 6, 2018 National Association of Scholars

A couple of years ago, Duke University convened a large task force to produce a 69-page Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issueswhich I discussed on the NAS site.  The report expressed much concern about, but provided little evidence for, an epidemic of hate. On the other hand, bias (by Duke’s definition) may well be widespread, since the report emphasized that a “bias incident” need not be intentional.

Now there is a new report from Duke, this time in response to the battles over politically incorrect monuments and lack of representation for ‘marginalized groups’ in the history of Duke and other historically white and male institutions. The lavishly produced 100-page Activating History for Justice at Duke, funded by the philanthropic Bass family,..more

The Devolution of Social Science

This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.

Some science history…more


Satire: Medicine

(This piece had some relevance to events occurring at a local medical center.)

London Journal: The New Diary of Samuel Pepys, Gent.


January 4. 1671/72—Lords-day.

Up betimes and by coach to the College of Chirurgie in White-hall, established nigh these forty years by my Lord Duke for the care of the sick (and enrichment of the Guild of Chirurgeons). Much activity though it be a Day of Reste, and to my great amusement all agitated by tales of the frolics of the Physician-in-Ordinary to His Majestie, Sir Aubrey Snoot. Sir Aubrey hath been observed in flagrante by a sweeping wench and Sir W. Batten gave us an account of his prowess in the Arts of Venus with a Lady of the Court. Sir Aubrey’s feat of gallantry excited much admiration for the dis-ease of his field of battle, non campus sed mesa.

5. At my office, where not much work done to-day for discussion of Chirurgical matters. Mr. Sheply spoke upon the matter of the College and the ars amatoria, calling us to remember Dr Brindsley, a physician and Minister of the Church (tho’ a dissenter and low man say some). Many were the wenches and even ladies of quality comforted by Dr Brindsley in his apartments in the College. Mr. Shepley hath entered into some study of the matter and discoursed upon the foetid and perfumed air of the ‘Spital and its effect upon the amatory propensities of old physicians. His reason was strong and all agreed that no blame attached to these gentlemen for their amatory enthusiasms. But Dr. B. says they cannot claim especial Powers, for their spirits are excited by a sort of phisic.

Early to bed, but some difficulty sleeping.

SATIRE, by ‘POSSUM’ – Diversity


(Based on the leaked transcript of an editorial board meeting at the Atlantic magazine in 2019)

Lemuel Pepys Esq., time traveler

In which a Gentleman of the Eighteenth Century is Miraculously transported to a Twenty-First Century Editorial Meeting

Through a worm hole, unknown in the 18th century, but now routinely available on Twitter, Mr. Pepys, a distant cousin of the well-known diarist Mr. Samuel Pepys, has been time-traveled, in the guise of young staffer, to a meeting at a major publication of the US East Coast intellectual elite. Much is unfamiliar. He perceives that he has been taken to the remote future. He recognizes the jobs of the scribblers he is witnessing. He is puzzled at the presence of ‘negroes’ and young women. He is baffled by their discussion.  The following are extracts from his diary.

Friday April 6, 2018

Lemuel Pepy holding a copy of the ‘Reparations’ tract

Two men, one black, one white address the meeting. The white one seems troubled. The tall black one appears to be the master. They all labour for a periodical called The Atlantic (we seem to be in the colonies).

“Of no party or clique” is their motto. (Is it true that this publication supports no particular faction? That is an advance indeed!)

The black man complains about his previous employment at an organ called the New Republic: “No black people worked there. I’ve actually verified this. No black people worked there at all. And to my mind — other people will probably feel quite differently about this — but as far as I was concerned, it was basically a racist publication.” We learn later that The Atlantic suffers from the same distemper: “basically white dudes”.  (And what is this “dude”?)

What is racism?

None dissented from the black man’s claim: absence of black people means racism, which is a sin, it seems. But what means ‘racist’? No negroes are at my own employment, in the Royal Navy Sick and Hurt Board. Are the Navy yards therefore ‘racist’? But of course, few blacks are available – more in the colonies, I believe, though in bondage.

Apparently, there are many free black people in this new time. Are they excluded from all literary employment? Can they not write? Unlikely, since my black man writes much. Perhaps he is possessed of a Royal Prerogative? Are other black men in some way not fit for employment by The New Republic?

The black man is aggrieved. He missed black people at the NR because, he said “there was no me to learn from.”  I am puzzled. As a child, my teachers were actually women. Though myself a boy, I yet learned quite well from them. I learned a little music from Signor Ottocelli, an Italian gentleman, a very foreign person. Are black people somehow different?  Can they learn only from their ilk?

The black man is sad: “I don’t know how to put this without sounding like an a–hole.” But after debating the matter within himself, he decided that it was after all good to learn, even from people he believed to be “f—-ing racist” – that word racist again.

The black man has difficulty learning from others if they differ from him either by color or opinion.  He is concerned that his teachers did not see him “completely as a human being.” What does this mean? It is natural to see negroes as different, of course; they look different from Englishmen. Those who have arrived in our island since 1600 were savages, mostly, naked and illiterate. But many free black people are now in the colonies and, as I later learn, look and behave more or less as others do. I cannot comprehend his difficulty.

The black man apparently has one white colleague with whom he differs, but to whom he can speak: “You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand?” But Mr. Sullivan is evidently an exception: “There was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered at all.” The black man can talk to Mr. Sullivan, but not to any others of his party. And what is “genetically”?

Are black people (in general, I suppose, there must be exceptions) in fact stupider than white people?  Apparently the proposition is too silly to debate, according to the black man (but he would say that, wouldn’t he?).

The trouble with Kevin

There is a discussion about a former colleague. A man called Kevin was recently ejected from the group after a very short stay.  Evidently, Kevin is one of those white folk who fails to see the black man and others like “as fully realized human beings.”  What does this mean? That Kevin doesn’t like them? That they don’t like Kevin? That he thinks black people are but hairless apes (tho’ he doth deny it!)? Apparently Kevin has views that are “batsh-t crazy” — not explained. But it is clear that “batsh-t crazy” opinions are anathema, like disbelief in the Trinity.

The willful disposing of unborn infants is a contentious issue.  The practice is a crime in my time. Kevin apparently is of the same view. But — O, tempora, O, mores! — Apparently, abortion is permitted now in some parts of the colonies and embraced by the present company.

The black man refers to capital punishment (I discovered later that criminals are now executed in a barbarous and ignoble fashion, by a medical procedure. Surely, hanging, which would at least preserve the honor and dignity of the condemned man, is to be preferred?)  The black man seems to believe it is wrong to execute anyone, no matter how heinous his crime.

After a brief jocosity with the white man, the black man speaks again: “you know, I was an admirer of Kevin’s work, and I think I can say this, you know, Jeff [the white man] talked to me about this. And I was not like, don’t hire that dude. To the contrary, I thought, OK, well he can come in and represent the position, and then we can fight it out…I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice.” Why “failed”? Are black people approving of abortion, as Kevin apparently is not? Can they not bear a contrary view? Do they not enjoy vigorous debate, as we do? Later discussion suggests that white people at the magazine also fear debate. And what is a “dude”?

The black man at last explains the difficulty: “This publication is diversifying…What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job.”  By “diverse” he seems to mean adding women and colored people to the group.

Diversity impedes debate?

It is clear at last:  This “diversity” is the problem. So long as the scribblers were all white men, they could converse and debate freely. But now colored people and women are in the room (yes, young women are present! Although they wear trousers and shirts, like men – only exposing more chest). Since the paper has become ‘diverse’, free debate is no longer possible: “So maybe the job changes a little bit” says the black man.

Now I think I begin to understand the dilemma at the New Republic: to have a vigorous and open group of writers, they needed to be all men, or at least not diverse. (Would all women, or even all black people, work as well? Or are such groups considered to be ‘diverse’, hence incapable of robust debate?)  “Like, those two things [diversity and a ‘broad range of debate”] actually, as you said, they’re part of each other. And I guess what I’m suggesting is they actually might also be in conflict with each other”, as the black man points out later. Though awkwardly expressed, the black man sees the problem: with women and blacks in the room, debate is stifled. Best go back to the old way, men only, as in my time? I well understand that many things may not be discussed in the presence of women.

The white man speaks. He has failed to grasp the black man’s point: “trying so hard to diversify gender, race ethnicity, orientation, whatever, part of it is to make sure that we’re of no party or clique.” So, he wishes to be ‘diverse’ but cannot understand that it conflicts with their motto.  The black man perceives that free debate is not possible in a ‘diverse’ group. The white man admits that certain issues cannot be discussed. He wishes debate “without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race.” So, gender, abortion and race cannot be discussed? Which is a puzzlement, since they seem to be at the top of everyone’s minds. (And what is a “third rail”?)

The black man speaks again: perhaps I have mistook him: “I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does [i.e., no women or blacks?], there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published ‘The Case for Reparations’ then.”

Much is made of this important “Reparations” production, which appeared in The Atlantic some years earlier. The black man refers to it frequently, making no mention of criticism that has appeared elsewhere.  “And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe.”  He doth not say what those things are — perhaps a suggestions that there may be differences between black and white people? (But if blacks and whites truly are the same, why keep treating them separately? Why complain, as the black man frequently does, that “I was the only writer of color”?) Or is it just anathema to discuss things believed by the common people?

We cannot know whether “The case for reparations” would have been published in The Atlantic in years past. But if not, the reason might have been that its thesis seems unjust. Should living white people pay living blacks for injuries inflicted by dead whites on dead blacks?  Especially as some blacks believe themselves better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.  Or, as some have suggested, because the argument made is feeble.  Or that the style of writing is too emotional for a scholarly publication.  We cannot know.

The white man speaks: “Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?” He begins to see the black man’s argument. He begins to discern, as through a glass, darkly, the conflict between diversity of race and diversity of thought. A young woman later asks a similar question. She had heard “a certain amount of nostalgia for that time, which was the ability to just get out there and punch each other and people debating and actually having genuinely different ideas and having that spirit of really wanting to engage. And we just don’t have that anywhere on our website.” (What is this “website”?)

In the end, ‘diversity’ seems to win over open debate at The Atlantic.

Towards the end of the meeting, it becomes clear that the white man is supposed to be in charge. He is the Editor of The Atlantic, ‘tho he always defers to the black man. Indeed, he says at one point: “I mean he’s one of the dearest people in my life. I’d die for him.”

The black man seems to object, and the white man responds ruefully: “Can’t I just express my love for you? What’s so bad? What’s so wrong?”  To which the black man responds: “Can I just say — and I would only say this sitting in this room — but that was a very white response.” This seems to be a condemnation. Is love a bad thing? Is love from a white man bad. Do white men always express love for black men?

Or is the black man’s response in fact (that word again) racist?


Wealth through bondage: The Good Side of Slavery

I was unpersuaded at first. The thoughtful and carefully researched 1619 series in the New York Times on how slavery and racism are in fact responsible for American greatness was still in its early stage. But now I am convinced. What an insight! To see that without slavery, the US would be just another tinpot third-world state as poor as Peru or Venezuela, but without their fascinating cultural legacies.

Now it all seems so clear. The slave states were largely rural, of course, but how much of Western success depends on its farms and their human labor. And see now the problems that have arisen as sturdy yeopersons have been almost replaced by machines. In the US, the North did begin to industrialize after a while, but it was just imitating Britain and Germany, and without the vast wealth transferred to northern industrialists from Southern slave plantations, surely little could have been accomplished.  Canada’s success cannot be directly attributed to slave labor, but her parasitic relationship to the United States hardly needs to be spelled out.

The Civil War was, of course, a terrible mistake. The cost was excessive, and by abolishing slavery it greatly retarded America’s advance. How much more prosperous we would have been with a strong slave economy!

And we can see for ourselves how well those other slave nations have done. Saudi Arabia, for example, surely would not be wealthy were it not for its wise toleration of slavery in years past. And many nations in Africa have boomed on the backs of their slaves.  Russia’s meteoric economic growth undoubtedly depended and still depends on her slaves, first called “serfs”, more recently gulag residents and now “citizens.”  The custom may be dying out now, which perhaps accounts for Russia’s recent economic decline.

Japan is something of an exception. Future historians will need to help us understand how that prosperous nation managed to succeed without a serious slave market. Britain, of course, did not hold slaves but profited mightily from her holdings in the Caribbean. No doubt the industrial revolution would never have happened without takings from the slave trade.  It is surely no coincidence that James Watt’s steam engine was announced in 1776.

Germany’s industrial success in the 19th and early 20th centuries is remarkable since we have little evidence of much slave holding. But when her industries began to flag after WW I, it was only a few years before a farsighted leader sought to introduce slavery there also. His success might have been great, but his modernizing efforts were rudely interrupted by the Allies who seemed to have forgotten the great benefits that slavery could bring.

Or perhaps they were just jealous.


Offense intended?

Or not?

Behaviorisms of all varieties agree on one thing, that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of  two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out”, all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes.

Even the dimmest pigeon will soon learn to peck only on the green light.

Now we give the bird a test. Occasionally, instead of red or green, the light is yellow. What will the pigeon do? Well, at first he will peck the yellow key, because yellow is close to green on the spectrum: green and yellow are similar. This is called stimulus generalization.

But in our test, pecking yellow doesn’t give food but another timeout. Since the pigeon can in fact tell the difference between green  and yellow, even though they are similar, it takes but few repetitions for him to learn not to peck yellow. This is called discrimination.

Human beings also behave like this. Here is an example.

Many years ago, distinguished black scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin took offense. The incident occurred in Washington’s Cosmos Club:

In 1995, on the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Franklin hosted a celebratory dinner party for some of his friends at the Cosmos Club. Some of his guests had not arrived, and Franklin decided to head to the entrance of the Club to look for them. There, an elderly white woman handed Franklin her coat check and demanded that he fetch her coat. Franklin politely informed her that all the Club’s attendants were uniformed and if she handed one of them her coat check, they would be happy to assist her. In a talk he gave ten years later, Franklin recounted this event as an example of how racist stereotypes and ideologies about the social position of Blacks remained strongly entrenched in American society. [emphasis added]

Was Dr. Franklin right to be offended? Should the white lady have known better?

In fact, both parties were probably just playing the odds and behaving like our pigeon.  In the WL’s experience, coat attendants in Washington were almost always black (perhaps the attendant to whom she handed her coat originally was black) — the green key. Members of the Cosmos Club, on the contrary, were always white — Franklin was the club’s first black member. Hence her mistake. She had no experience with the yellow key, a black person at the club who was not a servant.

Dr. Franklin had experienced many racist insults in his life, all from white people. Like the pigeon, he had much experience with the red key. Hence his inference that this was just another insult and he reacted as if insulted.

Both individuals made mistakes. But in both cases, the mistakes were a predictable result of their past histories. Who should apologize?  Not Franklin, who was perfectly civil at the time. The lady? Well, yes, she should have apologized, since she did make a mistake. But neither party need feel offended since her error is understandable.

This incident has become an influential story of racism in the American South. It is taken as a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, even though many stereotypes are true: men are usually stronger than women and have deeper voices, for example. A stereotype doesn’t have to be true one hundred percent of the time to be useful. And people form stereotypes automatically.  Horse nettle fruit look like tomatoes, but they are poisonous. A hungry child familiar with tomatoes might well eat the look-alike nettle fruit and get sick. People, like pigeons, generalize based on their past experience.

How should the Cosmos Club incident be regarded now? Dr. Franklin’s original reaction is totally understandable. But emotion is not always a reliable guide to truth. Being upset does not mean you should be upset.  The real facts may be different from what your instincts assume. Dr. Franklin, unlike the hapless pigeon, had the power to reflect on possibly non-racist causes of the WL’s behavior.

It is unfortunate that, ten years after the event, Dr. Franklin used this ambiguous incident as a kind of prototype for racism. His history excuses him. Nevertheless, he could have looked at alternative interpretations, as I have done, or chosen a less ambiguous example. As it is, he provided race-baiters with a stick to beat up many probably innocent people caught up in similar incidents.

The message, for both black and white: please think before you take offense or might give it.


REPARATIONS: Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously


Reparations is the idea that a group wronged in the past may be compensated by a monetary reward in the present. The proposal that African-Americans now should be compensated for wrongs done to African slaves more than a century and a half ago had seemed absurd to many. But reparations got a huge boost in June 2014, when African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States required compensation. Despite earlier skepticism, critical reaction was mild.  Now, the issue is being discussed in Congress.

Uncritical reaction

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal.

Williamson is not alone. Other writers, like David Remnick of the New Yorker and media critic Jay Rosen esteem Coates as a public intellectual, perhaps the public intellectual of our time. “The more radical Coates’s critique of America, the more tightly America embraces him,” comments Carlos Lozada in a mildly critical appraisal. With few exceptions, the reaction of intellectuals to Coates’ grumpy essays has been rapturous. Even critic Rod Dreher finds moving Coates’ account of his difficult and race-dominated early life.

In all this commentary, careful review of what Coates is saying, its pros and cons, is almost absent. Coates’ understandable passion, his eloquent accounts of suffering — his own and others’ —  has obliterated almost all critical evaluation of what he is actually saying. But passion need not displace reason. The obligation to take Coates’ proposal seriously remains.

John Locke’s thesis

Mr. Coates begins his Reparations article with a quotation from Deuteronomy, which says that a freed slave should get something in return for the bondage he has suffered. He continues with another quotation, from 17th century philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which runs in part: “…there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.”
My own knowledge of Locke is far from complete. I was curious, therefore, to read a little more of what he wrote on this topic. Coates gives no page number, but I found a similar quotation, which is as follows: “In the latter case, the person who has been harmed has, in addition to the general right of punishment that he shares with everyone else, a particular right to seek reparation from the person who harmed him.” (Second Treatise, Chapter 2, para 10. emphasis added)

The quotes establish two principles: that a freed slave deserves recompense, and that the recompense should come “from the person who harmed him.” This key phrase is omitted in Coates’ version.

White people now are responsible, for what?

The rest of Coates’ article goes on to violate both these principles, since he claims that 21st-century white people, who were not party to the moral crime of slavery, should make reparations to 21st-century black people who were not victims of it. Whatever the plight of modern of African Americans, if those responsible are dead, why should the living, most of whom are not even descendants of the oppressors, pay? The rest of Coates’ piece is an attempt to trace a line of causation to implicate modern white Americans.

In fact, the situation of African-Americans today is quite possibly better than it would have been had their ancestors remained in Africa – or so says journalist Keith Richburg. In Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, Richburg writes: “[E]xcuse me if I sound cynical…it’s Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering…But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God that I am an American.”

In other words, in Richburg’s opinion, African-Americans now, for all the tragedy in their past, are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa. If American blacks are not in fact worse off than they would have been absent slavery, why reparations? Coates demand for reparations fails on grounds of justice, fact and logic. So what are his other arguments?

Suffering, then

He begins the piece with a sad account of one Clyde Ross, a bright lad, apparently, born in rural Mississippi in 1923, one of 13 children. Life was tough for Clyde.  His parents were “robbed of the vote…through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob” in the 1920s.  His illiterate father lost his land because he could not pay back taxes.  Clyde lost his horse in a sale forced by a white buyer.  We are not told why his father agreed to the sale nor why a poll tax is ‘trickery’ rather than just unfair. “It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.”

The lives of black Americans have improved since the Jim Crow era, Coates admits partway through his essay, but he takes no comfort from the fact because the black-white wealth and income gaps remain large. When a black man does well it’s because he is twice as good: “Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.”

Perhaps Coates has seen Barack Obama’s still-sealed Harvard transcript? Is it better (which would support Coates’ thesis) or worse than average? We don’t know, and Coates offers no other evidence for this claim.

Coates emphasizes that for every white contribution there is a white racial sin: “If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body.” (Did it happen? Did Sally consent? We can’t be sure.)

And so the article goes on, alternating heartbreaking anecdotes and frequent allusions to slavery with depressing statistics to illustrate the plight of blacks and the planful racism of whites.

How fair is Coates’ attack on American whites? Every society able to do so has owned slaves at one time or another.  Many countries in various parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, still do. But Europeans abolished slavery on their own, without a fight. They get no credit from Coates. Some 620,000 Americans died in a war that was mainly about slavery. They get no credit either.

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” quotes Coates. But is it fair to use John Wilkes Booth as a white spokesman?

Housing discrimination

The fundamental illegality of America is a theme that runs through the article, even though many of the incidents that Coates recounts do follow law.  It’s just that the law seems racist to Coates, which at times it was. It is the same story with home ownership, a topic that makes up the bulk of the article. In the early twentieth century, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure…” Redlining meant that “[n]either the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.” The entire mortgage industry was “rife with racism.” The result is that neighborhoods like Lawndale in Chicago are now poor and crime-ridden.

Racial housing discrimination was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  “By then the damage was done,” writes Coates. Not according to economist Thomas Sowell, who has pointed out that real discrimination would mean that loans made to blacks should be on average more profitable for banks than loans made to other groups. In other words, black borrowers should be held to higher credit standards than others.  But over the past several decades, loans to blacks are not in fact more profitable than average. None of this is discussed by Coates who rejects all evidence that racial discrimination has diminished. Indeed, it is no longer just discrimination. White supremacy is the problem now.

Evidence for this is found in the exodus of whites from urban areas. “When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood,” writes Coates, implicating every white who leaves an integrated neighborhood as complicit in a failed terror plot. “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”

What is the proof? Who were the engineers? What were their aims? Are there other possible explanations?

Of course there are, but Coates ignores them. He does quote a white homeowner who in fact suggests one. The man objected to a potential new African-American neighbor, saying, “Bill Myers was ‘probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.’”

It’s true that if predominately black neighborhoods develop bad reputations, people likely will be more resistant to racial integration. That’s self-protection, not racism – unless the black neighborhoods have been wrongly stigmatized. But Coates himself quotes statistics that make the neighbor’s point. Black neighborhoods are statistically more crime-ridden than comparable white ones.  White flight is not social engineering, but prudence–-excessive perhaps, but not racist.

Coates ends his long article with Germany. If any country owed reparations, it is surely Germany after the Second World War. The survivors of the Holocaust were still living and so were many of the murderers of their co-religionists. Locke’s criteria were well met. In the end, the Germans paid modest amounts to Israel and other Jewish causes.

But the Germans had good reason to hesitate, despite the overwhelming case against them: the ruinous reparations they were forced to pay after World War One. The effort to cope with the depredations of war combined with enormous debt led to hyperinflation and economic collapse in the next decade.  Growing national resentment at the unfairness of the treatment imposed on them found its outlet in Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

The case for U.S. reparations is infinitely weaker than Germany’s.  The victims are dead, as are the perpetrators of the ancient evils of slavery.  Evidence that American blacks now are in fact better off than they would have been if their ancestors had remained in Africa is in fact quite strong.  Why else would so many Africans be seeking to immigrate if life in Nigeria, say, is really better than here? Keith Richburg is undoubtedly right.  If blacks now are better off than they would have been absent slavery, what exactly are they to be compensated for?  Perhaps modern American blacks should in fact compensate whites? An absurd idea, but no more absurd than its opposite.

Tracing historical causation, as Coates does so confidently, is dodgy. Whites cannot escape responsibility by “disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration,” says Coates.  But why not?  Most admit the innocence of those “dreamer” kids brought to this country by their illegal immigrant parents.  Most people absolve them of the sins of those who brought them.  In exactly the same way many white Americans will reject responsibility for the sins of their slave-owning ancestors.  Indeed, many, perhaps most, white Americans have no slave-era ancestors.  “But all have benefited from the prosperity driven by slavery!” Coates might say. But “so have contemporary blacks!” whites might respond, agreeing with journalist Richburg.

The first German reparations had disastrous and world-injuring consequences. It is not unlikely that the reparations Coates demands from white America would cause resentment and division almost as destructive to this country.

Does he care?

Following the example of discredited historian Howard Zinn, Coates interprets each bad thing that happened to black Americans as engineered by whites; each good thing is interpreted as an unintended consequence.  As long as whites pay, Coates is untroubled. Nor does he worry about the divisive consequences of a program that many whites will feel is unfair.

Some readers may be content to take  Coates’ output as eloquent prose poetry. But if he is to be considered more than a stylish provocateur, he needs to add more reason to the mix. Until he, or someone, does, there is a strong case not for reparations but for changing the subject.

(This a longer, updated version of a piece originally published here.) 

Was Darwin Wrong?

Or have critics – and some fans – missed the point?

This is an updated version of a piece that originally appeared in Intellectual Takeout

Christopher Booker is a contrarian English journalist who writes extensively on science-related issues.  He has produced possibly the best available critical review of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. He has cast justifiable doubt on the alleged ill effects of low-level pollutants like airborne asbestos and second-hand tobacco smoke.

Booker has also lobbed a few hand-grenades at Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He identifies a real problem, but his criticism misses a point which is also missed even by some Darwin fans.

Is anti-Darwin ‘politically incorrect’?

In that 2010 article, Booker was reacting to a comments from a seminar of Darwin skeptics, many very distinguished in their own fields.  These folk had faced hostility from the scientific establishment which seemed to Booker excessive or at least unfair. Their discussion provided all the ingredients for a conspiracy novel:

[T]hey had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment. Even to raise such questions was just not permissible. One had been fired as editor of a major scientific journal because he dared publish a paper sceptical of Darwin’s theory. Another, the leading expert on his subject, had only come lately to his dissenting view and had not yet worked out how to admit this to his fellow academics for fear that he too might lose his post.

The problem was raised at an earlier conference:

[A] number of expert scientists came together in America to share their conviction that, in light of the astonishing intricacies of construction revealed by molecular biology, Darwin’s gradualism could not possibly account for them. So organizationally complex, for instance, are the structures of DNA and cell reproduction that they could not conceivably have evolved just through minute, random variations. Some other unknown factor must have been responsible for the appearance of these ‘irreducibly complex’ micromechanisms, to which they gave the name ‘intelligent design’. [my emphasis]

I am a big fan of Darwin. I also have respect for Booker’s skepticism.  The contradiction can be resolved if we look more carefully at what we know now – and at what Darwin actually said.

The logic of evolution

There are three parts to the theory of evolution:

  1. The fact of evolution itself. The fact that the human species shares common ancestors with the great apes.  The fact that there is a phylogenetic “tree of life” which connects all species, beginning with one or a few ancestors who successively subdivided or became extinct in favor of a growing variety of descendants.  Small divergences became large ones as one species gave rise to two and so on.
  2. Variation: the fact that individual organisms vary – have different phenotypes, different physical bodies and behaviors – and that some of these individual differences are caused by different genotypes, which are heritable and so are passed on to descendants .
  3. Selection: the fact that individual variants in a population will also vary in the number of viable offspring to which they give rise. If number of offspring is correlated with some heritable characteristic – if particular genes are carried by a fitter phenotype – then the next generation may differ phenotypically from the preceding one.
    Notice that in order for selection to work, at every stage the new variant must be more successful than the old.

An example: Rosemary and Peter Grant looked at birds on the Galapagos Islands.  They studied populations of finches, and noticed surprisingly rapid increases in beak size from year to year. The cause was weather changes. Dry weather for a succession of years favored nuts with thick, hard-to-crack shells. Birds with larger beaks were more successful in cracking the thick-shelled nuts; thus got more food and  left more descendants.  Natural selection had operated amazingly quickly, leading to larger average beak size within just a few years.

Bernard Kettlewell observed a similar change, over a slightly longer term, in the color of the peppered moth in England.  As tree bark changed from light to dark to light again as industrial pollution waxed and waned over the years, so did the camouflage-color of the moths. There are several other “natural experiments” that make this same point.

None of the serious critics of Darwinian evolution seems to question evolution itself, the fact that organisms are all related and that the living world has developed over many millions of years.  The idea of evolution preceded Darwin. His contribution was to suggest a mechanism, a process – natural selection – by which evolution comes about.  It is the supposed inadequacy of this process that exercises Booker and other critics.

Looked at from one point of view, Darwin’s theory is almost a tautology, like a theorem in mathematics:

  1. Organisms vary (have different phenotypes).
  2. Some of this variation is heritable, passed from one generation to the next (have different genotypes).
  3. Some heritable variations (phenotypes) are fitter (produce more offspring) than others because they are better adapted to their environment.
  4. Ergo, each generation will be better adapted than the preceding one. Organisms will evolve.

Expressed in this way, Darwin’s idea seems self-evidently true.  But the simplicity is only apparent.

The direction of evolution

Darwinian evolution depends on not one but two forces: selection, the gradual improvement from generation to generation as better-adapted phenotypes are selected; and variation: the set of heritable characteristics that are offered up for selection in each generation.  This joint process can be progressive or stabilizing, depending on the pattern of variation.  Selection/variation does not necessarily produce progressive change.  This should have been obvious, for a reason I describe in a moment.

The usual assumption is that  among the heritable variants in each generation will be some that fare better than average.  If these are selected, then the average must improve, the species will change – adapt better – from one generation to the next.

But what if  variation only offers up individuals that fare worse than the modal individual?  These will all be selected against and there will be no shift in the average; adaptation will remain as before.  This is called stabilizing selection and is perhaps the usual pattern.  Stabilizing selection is why many species in the geological record have remained unchanged for many hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years.  Indeed, a forerunner of Darwin, the ‘father of geology’ the Scot, James Hutton (1726-1797), came up with the idea of natural selection as an explanation for the constancy  of species.  The difference – progress or stasis – depends not just on selection but on the range and type of variation.

The structure of variation

Darwin’s process has two parts: variation is just as important as selection.  Indeed, without variation, there is nothing to select. But like many others, Richard Dawkins, a Darwinian fundamentalist, puts all weight on selection: “natural selection is the force that drives evolution on.” says Dawkins in one of his many TV shows.  Variation represents “random mistakes” and the effect of selection is like “modelling clay”.  Like Christopher Booker, he seems to believe that natural selection operates on small, random variations.

Critics of evolution simply find it hard to believe that the complexity of the living world can all be explained by selection from small, random variations.  Darwin was very well aware of the problem: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” [Origin]  But he was being either naïve or disingenuous here.  He should surely have known that outside the realm of logic, proving a negative, proving that you can’t do something, is next to impossible.  Poverty of imagination is not disproof!

Darwin was concerned about the evolution of the vertebrate eye: focusing lens, sensitive retina and so on.  How could the bits of an eye evolve and be useful before the whole perfect structure has evolved?  He justified his argument by pointing to the wide variety of primitive eyes in a range of species that lack many of the elements of the fully-formed vertebrate eye but are nevertheless better than the structures that preceded them.

There is general agreement that the focusing eye could have evolved in just the way that Darwin proposed.  But there is some skepticism about many other extravagances of evolution: all that useless patterning and behavior associated with sexual reproduction in bower birds and birds of paradise, the unnecessary ornamentation of the male peacock and many other examples of apparently maladaptive behavior associated with reproduction, even human super-intelligence: we seem to be much smarter than we needed to be as hunter-gatherers thought the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.  The theory of sexual selection was developed to deal with cases like these, but it must be admitted that many details are still missing.

The fundamental error in Booker’s criticism of Darwin as well as Dawkins’ celebration of him, is the claim that evolution always occurred “just through [selection of] minute, random variations.  Selection, natural or otherwise, is just a filter.  It creates nothing.  Variation proposes, selection just disposes.  All the creation is supplied by the processes of variation.  If variation is not totally random or always small in extent, if it is creating complex structures, not just tiny variations in existing structures, then it is doing the work, not selection.

Non-random variation

In Darwin’s day, nothing was known about genetics.  He saw no easy pattern in variation, but was impressed by the power of selection, which was demonstrated in artificial selection of animals and crops.  It was therefore reasonable and parsimonious for him to assume as little structure in variation as possible.  But he also discussed many cases where variation is neither small nor random.  So-called “sporting” plants are  examples of quite large changes from one generation to the next, “that is, of plants which have suddenly produced a single bud with a new and sometimes widely different character from that of the other buds on the same plant.” What Darwin called correlated variation is an example of linked, hence non-random, characteristics.  He quotes another distinguished naturalist writing that “Breeders believe that long limbs are almost always accompanied by an elongated head” and “Colour and constitutional peculiarities go together, of which many remarkable cases could be given among animals and plants.”  Darwin’s observation about correlated variation has been strikingly confirmed by a long-term Russian experiment with silver foxes selectively bred for their friendliness to humans.  After several generations, the now-friendly animals began to show many of the features of domestic dogs, like floppy ears and wagging tails.

“Monster” fetuses and infants with characters much different from normal have been known for centuries.  Most are mutants and they show large effects.  But again, they are not random.  It is well known that some inherited deformities, like extra fingers and limbs or two heads, are relatively common, but others – a partial finger or half a head, are rare to non-existent.

Most monsters die before or soon after birth.  But once in a very long while such a non-random variant may turn out to succeed better than the normal organism, perhaps lighting the fuse to a huge jump in evolution like the Cambrian explosion.  Stephen Jay Gould publicized George Gaylord Simpson’s “tempo and mode in evolution” as punctuated equilibrium, to describe the sometimes sudden shift from stasis to change in the history of species evolution.  Sometimes these jumps  may result from a change in selection pressures.  But some may be triggered by an occasional large monster-like change in phenotype with no change in the selection environment.

The kinds of phenotypic (observed form) variation that can occur depend on the way the genetic instructions in the fertilized egg are translated into the growing organism.  Genetic errors (mutations) may be random, but the phenotypes to which they give rise are most certainly not.  It is the phenotypes that are selected not the genes themselves.  So selection operates on a pool of (phenotypic) variation that is not always “small and random”.

Even mutations themselves do not in fact occur at random.  Recurrent mutations occur more frequently than others, so would resist any attempt to select them out.  There are sometimes links between mutations so that mutation A is more likely to be accompanied by mutation B (“hitchhiking”) and so on.

Is there structure to variation?

Selection acts on phenotypes, but the results are passed on from generation to generation through the genotype.  Just how this process works is still a mystery: how is the information in the genes translated during development into the adult organism?  How might one or two modest mutations sometimes result in large structured changes in the phenotype?  Is there any directionality to such changes?  Is there a pattern?  Some recent studies of the evolution of African lake fish suggests that there may be a predetermined pattern. Genetically different cichlid fish in different lakes have evolved to look and behave almost identically:  Armand Leroi concludes in the video:  “In other words, the ‘tape’ of cichlid evolution has been run twice. And both times, the outcome has been much the same.” Moreover, the process occurred very quickly: “the more than 500 species that live [in Lake Victoria]  and only there today all evolved within the past 15,000 to 10,000 years – an eyeblink in geologic terms…”  There is room, in other words, for the hypothesis that natural selection is not the sole “driving force” in evolution.  Natural selection works. But its role may be large or small, depending on circumstances.  Variation may sometimes be highly structured and not “small and random”. The ways that this may come about are being mapped out.

The laws of development (ontogenesis), if laws there be, still elude discovery. But the origin of species (phylogenesis) surely depends as much on them as on selection.  Perhaps these largely unknown laws are what Darwin’s critics mean by ‘intelligent design’?  But if so, the term is deeply unfortunate because it implies that evolution is guided by intention, by an inscrutable agent, not by impersonal laws.  As a hypothesis it is untestable.  Darwin’s critics are right to see a problem with “small, random variation” Darwinism.  But they are wrong to insert an intelligent agent as a solution and still claim they are doing science. Appealing to intelligent design just begs the question of how development actually works. It is not science, but faith.

Darwin’s theory is not wrong. As he knew, but many of his fans do not, it is incomplete.  Instead of paying attention to the gaps, and seeking to fill them, these enthusiasts have provided a straw man for opponents to attack.  Emboldened by its imperfections they have proposed as an alternative ‘intelligent design’: an untestable non-solution that blocks further advance.   Darwin was closer to the truth than his critics – and closer than some simple-minded supporters.

Science and Morals: Can morality be deduced from the facts of science?

You can’t beat science.  “One by one, the great questions of philosophy, including ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where did we come from?’ are being answered to different degrees of solidity. So, gradually, science is simply taking over the big questions created by philosophy. Philosophy consists largely of the history of failed models of the brain.” So much for philosophy! Thus spake eminent biologist and chronicler of sociobiology E. O. Wilson, in a 2009 interview[1] where he also said “If the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified.” So, morality can be deduced from science, according to Wilson.

Wilson’s confidence in the omnipotence of science, his belief in scientific imperialism, is shared by vocal members of the so-called New Atheists. Richard Dawkins, another well-known biologist, has notoriously said that belief in anything that cannot be scientifically proved, i.e., faith, “is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate…”

The New Atheists are moral people. But as I will show, they are wrong to think that their morality, or any morality, can be derived from science.


Dawkins deems faith “evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument”. Faith in this sense seems to include non-religious as well as religious beliefs. All people believe things that they cannot prove, many of which Dawkins would surely allow as good: the virtues of generosity, kindness, courage and so on. But Dawkins seems to be especially critical of faith that has a religious basis: belief in God, in the specifics of religious stories, and religious prescriptions that violate the (often-unstated) morals of 21st century Western intellectuals, such as the rights of women, sexual freedom, freedom of belief, the innocence of abortion, the evils of punishment, and so on.

Dawkins concedes that “it’s very difficult to come to an absolute definition of what’s moral and what is not.” [talk, 2012] He does not claim that morals can be deduced from science. But he does say he has given up what he calls “the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals.”  Evidently science has something to say. But he is reluctant to say just what it is.

Dawkins sidesteps saying what morality is, by suggesting how it might come about. In other words, he retreats from conclusion to process. The process involves consensus: “Be good for the reason that you’ve decided together with other people the society we want to live in: a decent humane society. Not one based on absolutism, not one based on holy books and not one based on … looking over your shoulder to the divine spy camera in the sky.”  But where is the guarantee that everyone in the group that is “together deciding” on a morality will have relinquished all faith, all allegiance to holy books and all belief in an omnipotent god? Dawkins has dodged the question.

Not so the most forthright and committed of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. In his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris directly confronts the issue and comes down on the side of science.  He solves the ethical problem by arguing that “questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  “Values are a certain kind of fact” he argues. Harris also points to felt experience as a signal of value: “[T]here’s no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.”  For Harris, “the good” is about the feelings and “flourishing” of individuals.


“[C]oncern about conscious experience” — human feelings — is integral to Sam Harris’s scientific take on human morality. But feelings are not a reliable guide to truth, moral or otherwise, if only because many scientific, value-free, statements nevertheless elicit strong emotional reactions. For example, in the Origin of Species — which is subtitled The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life — Charles Darwin describes many examples of competition: “the more vigorous … gradually kill the less vigorous”, etc. Some critics of Darwin have reacted emotionally to the word struggle and the implication that some individuals and races survive at the expense of others.  The idea that some animal, plant and human varieties — races — are ‘superior’, in the sense that they will prevail in the ‘struggle’, makes Darwin  “obviously racist” in the eyes of one author[2]. Indeed, any reference to human individual differences, especially in relation to ‘race’, will elicit passionate feelings in many readers, no matter how ‘scientific’ the context or disinterested the account.  Facts are neutral; the human reaction to them very often is not. People find it very difficult indeed to separate the factual from the emotional.

This is why philosopher David Hume, perhaps the most perceptive figure of the 18th century Enlightenment, famously separated “ought”, the dictates of morality, from “is”, the facts of science.  Reason is value-neutral, Hume argued:

It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me[3].

He goes on to point out that

Since a passion [motive, desire] can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, but when founded on a false supposition, or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falshood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means, our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falshood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me.

In other words, reason is just the link between passion (will, motivation) and action: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Without passion, the facts established by reason are impotent. The findings of science are neither moral or immoral, according to Hume. Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought” is not a distinction between doing science and doing religion. It is a distinction between being and acting.

Sam Harris admits that this is “the received opinion in intellectual circles” but begs to disagree. He makes three points:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;
  2. the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.);
  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain[4]

Point 3 is something of a red herring, in the sense that any difference of behavior is caused by, and thus will be reflected in, some brain activity. We don’t yet understand enough about how the brain works to make much of the apparent similarity that Harris describes.

Point 1 assumes what it purports to support: that the “well-being of conscious creatures” is our highest good. Not everyone will agree.

Point 2, that the pursuit of science involves values, is of course, correct. The reason is that, as Hume argued, any action requires some kind of motivation, some kind of value. Hence, the fact that doing science requires scientists to believe in “logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.”, not to mention honesty and curiosity, does not invalidate Hume.  Neither does the fact that pursuing science requires faith in a fixed, hence discoverable, nature. The stability of natural law is not self-evident, like a syllogism or simple arithmetic. In order to seek, a scientist must believe there is something to be found.

Yes, to do science requires values; but the facts thus obtained are not themselves values. The facts that men are on average taller than women, or that African-Americans have lower average IQ than white Americans, are equally value-neutral. But, human nature being what it is, the second fact is likely to elicit much stronger emotions than the first, even though both are just facts. Neither one impels us to action, unless we feel, as a value, that race or gender differences are a bad thing.

‘Science-based’ ethics: Human flourishing

If science cannot provide us with an ethics, how about those ethical systems that pretend to be science-based? They cannot be based on science, so how should we judge them?

There are at least two supposedly science-based ethical systems on offer. One is Sam Harris’s “human flourishing” idea, which rests on the well-being of individuals. The other is based on evolution. I’ve already alluded to some problems with Harris’s proposal. Here are a couple more. “Values are a certain kind of fact” says Harris in a 2010 TED talk. Perhaps, but values are not scientific facts, because they cannot be tested. We can show that one course of action leads to better results than another. But “better” is always a judgment of value not a provable fact. Harris provides a number of apparent counter-examples, but solves them all by resorting to his well-being idea. And, as commentator Sean Carroll points out,  who says that personal well-being is the highest good anyway?

The other alternative is evolution and natural selection.  Wilson and radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner have both suggested[5] that evolutionary epistemology in some form allows “is” to be transformed into “ought”.  In his provocatively titled 1971 bestseller Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner said:

“Questions of this sort…are said. . .to involve ‘value judgments’—to raise questions…not about what man can do but about what he ought to do. It is usually implied that the answers are out of the reach of science…It would be a mistake for the behavioral scientist to agree.”

The hypothesis that what ought to be (in the moral sense) can be inferred from what is was termed the naturalistic fallacy by English philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958). Obviously, Skinner did not believe it to be fallacy, and neither does E.O. Wilson: “I find it hard to believe that had Kant, Moore, and [John] Rawls known modern biology and experimental psychology they would have reasoned as they did…. Moral reasoning, I believe, is at every level intrinsically consilient with the natural sciences[6]” and “The empiricist argument, then, is that by exploring the biological roots of moral behavior, and explaining their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion a wiser and more enduring ethical consensus than has gone before.”  In sum: “Ought is the product of a material process.” Note the reference to “material origins and biases”, which again points to a confusion between process and outcome: Understanding the historical process that led to a belief can justify a scientific claim, but not a moral one.

So what lesson does Wilson draw from science? Unlike Harris and (as we will see) Skinner, Wilson is not specific. His view is consequentialist, we judge “moral instincts…according to their consequences.” There are two problems with this. First, over what time period should we look? Should we judge the consequences today, this week, a hundred years from now? How should a good consequence now be weighed against a bad sequel 10 years down the road? How well can we predict remote consequences? And second, how do we tell good consequences from bad; in other words, what is “the good”?  Wilson does not answer this question directly. We can infer what he thinks is good from the things he calls bad: he dislikes xenophobia and what he calls “paleolithic egalitarian and tribalistic instincts”.  He advocates more research, assuming that the better we understand what human moral sentiments are, the better we will know what they should be.  Wilson is a natural scientist. The path he recommends may tell us why we do what we do; it can never tell us what we should do

B. F. Skinner defines “the good” in two ways. One is merely descriptive: “good” is just whatever society “reinforces” — rewards — or punishes. His more fundamental definition goes to the heart of evolution, survival of the culture and the species. “The ultimate sources [of values] are to be found in the evolution of the species and the evolution of the culture.” Perhaps “survival” is a value everyone can agree on. The problem is deciding just what will promote survival and what will endanger it. If “survival” is to be our guide we must be able to predict, at least in broad outline, the course of biological and cultural evolution.

Survival as the ultimate value

The assumption that evolutionary history is predictable is closely related to the doctrine of historicism, espoused most famously by Karl Marx. It was devastatingly criticized by Karl Popper, who wrote: “Marx may be excused for holding the mistaken belief that there is a ‘natural law of historical development’; for some of the best scientists of his time…believed in the possibility of discovering a law of evolution. But there can be no empirical ‘law of evolution[7]’”

There are also practical difficulties. First, looking to “survival” for answers to ethical questions will often point to conclusions that conflict with values that are now deeply held. Are we to abandon them? Second, there are very many cultural and genetic “fitness” questions that simply cannot be decided at all: the problem with “survival” as a value is that it provides little or no practical guidance in difficult cases.

A few examples should suffice to show that deciding on evolutionary “good” and “bad” is at least as difficult as predicting stock movements. For example, alcohol is a poison. Hence, cultures that use alcohol must be less “fit” (in the Darwinian sense) than cultures that do not. But are they? There might be hidden benefits to one or the other that we cannot now foresee. The Puritan consensus was that alcohol was an unmitigated evil. The social benefits associated with moderate drinking were assumed to be outweighed by its bad effects. Yet alcohol ingestion is a custom common to the majority of cultures, and now it turns out that there might even be health benefits to moderate drinking, so the evolutionary balance sheet on alcohol is not yet closed.

Another example: alcohol might be controversial, but smoking is certainly bad—isn’t it? This is not so clear either. Some smokers (by no means all) die from lung cancer and emphysema, usually in unpleasant ways, which is unquestionably bad for “human flourishing” as well as individual survival. However, smoking-induced illnesses generally do not kill until their victims reach their fifties and sixties, after their productive life is almost over and before they become a burden to their children and to society. It is an evolutionary truism that life history is determined by adaptive considerations, and a short but productive life is often “fitter,” in a natural-selection sense, than a longer and less productive one.

Perhaps a society that encourages smoking—which yields a generally short but productive life—will be more successful in the long run than one that discourages smoking and has to put up with a lot of unproductive old people? Should we perhaps encourage smoking? There are some data to support the idea. Several studies have shown that the lifetime health-care costs for smokers are actually lower than for non-smokers (public-health rhetoric to the contrary). Whether or not reduced financial cost corresponds to evolutionary advantage is of course not known, but an inverse relation between cost and “fitness” is perhaps more likely than not.

Argument from evolutionary survival very quickly comes up against many traditional beliefs. Even obvious virtues like safety and the emancipation of women, not to mention tolerance for anti-progenitive sexual abnormalities, might be questioned by a thoroughgoing evolutionary ethicist. Is it really adaptive to outfit 3-year-olds on tricycles with crash helmets so they grow up timid and unadventurous, or to fit our cars with air bags and seat belts so that the reckless and inept are protected from the consequences of their actions? And does it make evolutionary sense to encourage the brightest young women to delay, and thus limit, childbirth so they can spend the prime of their lives as physicists and investment bankers rather than mothers? Lee Kuan Yew, President of Singapore, thought a few years ago that it did not. He was pilloried for providing maternal incentives to well-educated women. But surely a conscientious evolutionary ethicist should applaud him?

The problem of what really conduces to “fitness” — of a culture or a race — has become especially acute with advances in medicine. Should parents be allowed to control the sex and other characteristics of their children? Should human cloning (which may have already happened) be permitted? What extraordinary measures are justified to keep a sick person alive? Kidney transplants, yes. Heart transplants, yes, perhaps—but what if the patient is already old or has other ailments? When should a sick person be allowed to die? What is the “optimal lifespan”? We know that lifespan is a subject to natural selection[8], so there must be an optimal—in the sense of most favorable to the continuation of the species—lifespan. What is it?  What if it is shorter than the current average in the West?

Politics are not immune from evolutionary optimality. What is the best political system? Most Americans assume that hierarchy is bad, and the American Constitution enshrines democracy and the rights of the individual. However, the most stable (i.e., evolutionarily successful) societies we know were not democratic and egalitarian but hierarchical and authoritarian. The ancient Egyptian culture survived substantially unchanged for thousands of years. The Greeks, the inventors of democracy, survived as a culture only for two or three centuries and were defeated by the undemocratic Romans, who lasted three or four times as long. The oldest extant democracy is less than 300 years old. In the animal kingdom, the termites, ants and bees, with built-in hierarchies, have outlasted countless more individualistic species[9].

The attempt to base values on evolutionary success very soon raises questions about traditional beliefs, albeit in an inconclusive way. The problem with “survival of the culture” as a value is that it requires reliable knowledge of the future. While some customs are clearly maladaptive under most imaginable circumstances, others are more contingent. The problem is that most of the prescriptions of traditional morality fall in the latter class. We simply do not know, belief by belief, custom by custom, rule by rule, whether or not our culture would, in the long run, be better off with or without them.

It is certain that some cultures will survive longer than others. It seems very likely, moreover, that the ones that survive will have many beliefs that were in fact essential to their survival. But the importance of at least some of those beliefs could not have been foreseen, even in principle. This is the fatal flaw in Skinner’s belief and E.O. Wilson’s claim that the fact of evolution allows all morality to be reduced to science. A comprehensive evolutionary ethics is impossible. Scientific imperialism is simply false.

Faith returns

Furthermore (and this will not please your average atheistical social scientist), the argument that demolishes evolutionary ethics also provides a rational basis for faith—although not, I hasten to add, for any faith in particular. The reason is not that a faith is true in the scientific or any other sense. The reason is that for a society to function at all, rules seem to be necessary, even in cases like the examples I have given, in which certainty is (and perhaps must be) lacking. We deter smoking, outlaw some drugs, emancipate women, tolerate the non-reproductive and preserve life at almost any cost, even though the evolutionary consequences of these decisions are unknown and probably unknowable. If rules must exist—even for situations in which science provides no clear basis for choosing them—then some other basis for choice is necessary. That basis is, by definition, a matter of faith.

The evolutionary approach to the problem of values promises more than it can ever deliver. Harris, Dawkins, Skinner, E.O. Wilson and most other scientific imperialists are confident of their own values and believe them to derive from science. Hence, they think the ethical problem easier than it is — which allows them to try to persuade us that values which are so obvious to them in fact flow from science.  It appears that their aim is not so much to understand the world, as to change it.

* * *

The issue should have been settled by David Hume in 1740: the facts of science provide no basis for values.  Yet, like some kind of recurrent meme, the idea that science is omnipotent and will sooner or later solve the problem of values seems to resurrect with every generation.

The science-based criterion most likely to achieve consensus, survival of the species or the culture, is impossible in practice because evolution is unpredictable. Embarrassingly, many practices that seem to favor survival are opposed to accepted Western values.

Cultures depend on practices and beliefs. We do not know which of them in fact promote survival and which do not. We do know that without at least some of them, no culture can long survive. We must have faith in some unprovable things, but science cannot tell us what they should be.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University.  His most recent book is Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work. (2017)Routledge.”

Notes and references

[1] Junod, T. (2009, January 5). E. O. Wilson: What I’ve learned. Esquire. Retrieved from The quote also appears in his book Consilience (1998).

[2] Leon Zitzer (2017) A short but full book on Darwin’s racism (Universe), which is a summary of a much longer book accusing Darwin of racism. On the contrary, authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Allen Lane, 2009), trace Darwin’s whole evolutionary project to his hatred of slavery… go figure.

[3] Hume, David. David Hume Collection: A Treatise of Human Nature. (1738-40) Kindle Edition.

[4] Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (p. 11). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Staddon, J. E. R.(2004) Scientific imperialism and behaviorist epistemology. Behavior and Philosophy, 32, 231-242.

[6] Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred Knopf.

[7] Popper, K. R. (1950). The open society and its enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Popper, K. R. (1962). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

[8] Stearns S.C The evolution of life histories. 1992, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[9] Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) thought bees a fine model for a human utopia.

The Logic of Profiling: Fairness vs. Efficiency

ABSTRACT There are several strategies available to police “stopping” suspects. Most efficient is to stop only members of the group with the highest a priori probability of guilt; least efficient is indiscriminate stopping.  The best profiling strategy is one that biases stops of different groups so that the absolute number of innocents stopped is equal for all groups.  This strategy is close to maximally efficient, allows some sampling of low-crime sub-groups, and seems fair by almost any criterion.

 Profiling is selecting or discriminating for or against individuals, based on easily measured characteristics that are not directly linked to the behavior of interest.  For example, age, sex or racial appearance are used as partial proxies for criminal behavior because crime rates differ among these groups.  Old people, women and whites are less likely than young people, men and blacks to be guilt of certain types of crime.   Hence, preferentially ‘stopping’ young black males is likely to catch more criminals than stopping the same number of people at random.   Just how many more, and at what cost in terms of ‘fairness’ is the topic of this note.

The term “profiling” is usually associated with stop-and-search procedures (see, for example, Callahan & Anderson, 2001; Glaser, 2006 ), but a similar process occurs in other contexts also.  Almost any kind of selective treatment that is based on a proxy variable is a form of profiling.   In life, health and car insurance, for example, people of different ages and sexes are usually treated differently.  Often controversial, profiling nevertheless goes unquestioned in some surprising places.  Take speeding by motorists, for example.  Exceeding a posted speed limit is an offence and few question laws against it.  But most speeding causes no direct harm to anyone.  The legitimacy of a law against speeding rests on the accuracy which speeding predicts the probability and severity of an accident: the statistically expected cost of speeding is the product of accident probability times damage caused.  While it is obvious that an accident at high speed will usually cause more damage than one at lower speed, the relation between speed and accident probability is more contingent.  If drivers go fast only when it is safe to do so, there may be no, or only a weak or even negative, correlation between speed and the likelihood of an accident.  Hence, a car’s speed may not be a reliable proxy for accident risk, in which case penalizing – profiling – speeders would be unfair.  The same is true of alcohol and driving.  If drunks drive more cautiously (as some do), their proven sensory-motor deficiencies may become irrelevant to accident risk.   In both these cases the fairness of profiling rests on its accuracy.  If drinking and speeding really are correlated with higher accident risk, sanctions against them may be warranted.

There is also the issue of personal responsibility.  Speed is under the motorist’s control,  just like smoking – which is used in life-insurance profiling.  Fewer objections are raised to profiling that is based on proxies that are under the individual’s control and for which he can therefore be held responsible.  Race is of course not something over which the individual has any control, which is one reason racial profiling is subject to criticism.   On the other hand, age and sex are also involuntary, yet fewer objections are raised against profiling on these grounds.  The reasons for these policy differences and the problems of measuring the statistics on which they are based are larger topics for another time.

The utility and legitimacy of profiling depend on two related characteristics: accuracy and fairness.  How well do the measured characteristic or characteristics predict the variable of interest?  And how fair is it to pick on people so identified?

Fairness is not the same as accuracy.  In health insurance, for example, the whole idea of “insurance” arose partly because people cannot predict when they will get sick.  But as biological science advances and it becomes possible to predict debilitating genetic conditions with high accuracy, insurance companies may become reluctant to insure high-risk applicants, who may therefore be denied insurance.  How fair is this?  In general, the greater the ability of an insurer to predict health risk, the more questionable health profiling becomes, because the concept of insurance – spreading risk – is vitiated.  But this is not a problem for profiling to catch criminals.  Few would object to profiling that allowed airport screeners to identify potential terrorists with 99% probability.  The better law-enforcement authorities are able to profile, the fewer innocent people will be stopped and the more acceptable the practice will become.

The political and ethical problems raised by profiling and associated practices, and some of the utilitarian aspects of stop-and-search profiling, have been extensively reviewed (see for example, Dominitz, 2003; Glaser, 2006; Persico, 2002; Risse & Zeckhauser, 2004).  But no matter what the political and moral issues involved, it is essential to be clear about the quantitative implications of any profiling strategy.  With this in mind, this note is devoted to a simple quantitative exploration of the accuracy and ‘fairness’ of profiling in “stop-and-search” situations such as driver stops or airport screening.  The quantitative analysis in fact allows us to identify a possible profiling strategy that is both efficient and fair.

Fair Profiling

Age and sex profiling are essentially universal: police in most countries rarely stop women or old men; young males are favored. The reason is simple.  Statistics in all countries show that a young man is much more likely to have engaged in criminal acts, particularly violent acts, than a woman or an older man. The same argument is sometimes advanced for racial profiling, stopping African-American drivers, or airline passengers of Arab appearance, more frequently than whites or Asians, for example.

I look at the very simplest case: a population with two sub-populations, A and B, that differ in the proportion of criminals they contain.  To do the math we need to define the following:

population size = N

proportion of A in population = x

proportion of B in population = 1-x

target probability A = r

target probability B = r < v; 0 < v,r < 1

(r and v define the relative criminality of As and Bs: if r = .2, for example, that means that 20% of A stops find a criminal.  If r = v, profiling offers no benefits because the probability that a given A has engaged in crime is the same as for a given B.  If v > r, the case I will consider here, a B is more likely to be a criminal than an A, and so should Bs be favored by profilers.)

The probability a given A or B will be stopped depends on two parameters, p and qp is the overall probability of a stop, i.e., the fraction of the total population that will be stopped.  q is the profiling parameter,

A-weight = q

B-weight = 1- q

(q is the profiling weight for A, i.e., q/(1-q) is the bias in favor of A. If q = .5 there is no profiling; if q < .5, a B is more likely to be stopped than an A.)

For a sample population of size N, the probability of sampling (stopping) an A= pz, and the probability of sampling a B  = p(1-z), where z is defined below.


With these terms defined, and given values for population size N, stop probability p, and target probabilities r and v, which define the relative criminality of the A and B populations, it is possible to write down expressions that give the total number of criminals detected and the number of innocents stopped in each sub-population.

It is easiest to see what is going on if we consider specific case: a population of, say N = 10,000, and limit the number of stops to one in ten – 1000 people (p = 0.1).  Profiling is only worthwhile if the proportion of criminals in the A and B sub-populations differs substantially.  In the example I will look at, the probability that a given A is criminal is r = 0.1 and for B v = 0.6 (i.e., a B is six times more likely to be a criminal than an A).  I also assume the Bs are in the minority: 1000 Bs and 9000 As (x = 0.9) in our 10,000-person population.

The degree of profiling is represented in this analysis by the parameter q, which can vary from 0 to 1.  When q = 0, only Bs are stopped; when q = 1, only As are stopped.  The aim of the analysis is to see what proportion of our 1000 (pN) stops are guilty vs. innocent as a function of profiling ranging from q = 0 (only Bs stopped) to q = 0.5 (no profiling, As and Bs stopped with equal probability).  The math is as follows:

I first define a term z that represents the proportion of As in a fixed-size sample of, say, 1000 ‘stops’:



is the proportion of Bs; z allows q, the bias – profiling – parameter, to vary from 0 (only Bs stopped) to 1 (only As stopped) for a fixed sample size.

The number of As sampled (stopped) is pzN and the number of Bs sampled is p(1-z)N.  Multiplying these qualities by criminality parameters r and v gives the number of guilty As and Bs caught: guilty As caught is  and the number of guilty Bs caught is .  We can then look at how these numbers change as the degree of profiling goes from q= 0 (all Bs) to q = .5 (A and B stopped in proportion to their numbers, i.e., no profiling).

This sounds complicated, but as the curves show, the outcome is pretty simple.  The results, for N = 10,000, p = 0.1,  r = 0.1, v = 0.6.,  x = 0.9 are in Figure 1, which shows the number of criminals caught (green squares) as a function of the degree of profiling, q.  The number of innocents stopped, which is just 1000 minus the number of guilty since there are only 1000 stops, is also shown (red triangles).  As you might expect, the most efficient strategy is to stop only Bs (q = 0).  This yields the most guilty and the fewest stops of innocent people, 600 guilty and 400 innocent out of 1000 stops.  The number of guilty detected falls off rapidly as the degree of profiling is reduced, from a maximum of 600, when only Bs are stopped, to a minimum of 150 when As and Bs are stopped with the same probability.  So the cost of not profiling is substantial.

But the pure profiling strategy is obviously flawed in one important way.  Because no As are stopped, the profiler has no way to measure the incidence of criminality in the A population, hence no way to update his profiling strategy so as to maintain an accurate measurement of parameter r.   Another objection to pure profiling is political.  Members of group B and their representatives may well object to the fact that innocent Bs are more likely to be stopped than innocent As, even though this can be justified by statistics.  What to do, since there is considerable cost, in terms of guilty people missed, to backing off from the pure profiling strategy?

Profiling entails a higher stop probability for the higher-crime group.  Innocent Bs are more likely to be stopped than innocent As.  Nothing can be done about that.  But something can be done to minimize the difference in numbers of innocent As and B stopped.  The ratio of innocent As to innocent Bs stopped is shown by the line with blue diamonds in Figure 1.   As you can see, with Bs and As in a ratio of nine to one and rates of criminality in a relation of one to six, the ratio of innocent stops A/B increases rapidly as the degree of profiling is reduced.   With no profiling at all, twenty times as many innocent As as innocent Bs are stopped.  But this same curve shows that it is possible to equalize the number of innocent As and Bs that are stopped.   When the profiling parameter, q = .047, the numbers of innocent As and Bs stopped are equal (red arrow, A/B = 1).   At this point, enough As are in fact stopped, 277 out of 1000 total stops, to provide a valid estimate of the A-criminality parameter, r, and the drop in efficiency is not too great,  446 captured versus the theoretical maximum of 600.   Thus, for most values of r, v and x, it is possible to profile in a way that stops an equal number of innocent people in both groups.  This is probably as fair a way of profiling as is possible.

Doing it this way of course sets the cost of stopping innocent As lower than the cost of stopping innocent Bs.  In the most efficient strategy, 400 innocent Bs are stopped and zero innocent As, but in the ‘fair’ strategy 277 of each are stopped, so the reduction of 400-277  = 123 innocent B stops is more than matched by an increase from zero to 277 in the number of innocent A stops.   Some may feel that this is just as unfair as the pure profiling strategy.  But, given the need to sample some As to get accurate risk data on both sub-populations, the ‘fair’ strategy looks like the best compromise.


When base criminality rates differ between groups, profiling – allocating a limited number of stops so that members of one group are more likely to be stopped than members of another – captures more criminals than an indiscriminate strategy.  The efficiency difference between the two strategies increases substantially as the base-rate difference in criminality increases, which can lead to a perception of unfairness by innocent members of the high-risk group.

Profiling entails unequal stop probabilities between the two groups.  Nevertheless, because no one seeks to minimize the stops of guilty people, it seems more important to focus on the treatment of innocent people rather the population as a whole.  And because we live in a democracy, numbers weigh more than probabilities.  These two considerations suggest a solution to the fairness problem.  A strategy that is both efficient and fair is to profile in such a way that equal numbers of innocent people are stopped in both the high-crime and low-crime groups.  This may not be possible if the high-crime  population is too small in relation to the disparity in criminality base rates.  But it is perfectly feasible given current US statistics on racial differences in population proportions and crime rates.




Callahan, G & W. Anderson The roots of racial profiling: Why are police targeting minorities for traffic stops? Reason, August-September, (2001),

Dominitz, J. (2003) How Do the Laws of Probability Constrain Legislative and Judicial Efforts to Stop Racial Profiling?  American Law and Economics Review, 5(2) (412±432)

Glaser, J. (2006) The efficacy and effect of racial profiling: A mathematical  simulation approach.  Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,  March 2.

Persico, N. Racial Profiling, Fairness, and Effectiveness of Policing, 92(5), The American Economic Review, 1472-1497 (2002)

  1. Risse & R. Zeckhauser, Racial Profiling, 32, 2, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Research Library, 131-170. (Spring 2004)



Glenn Beck: Why do they hate him so?

In January 2011 Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck.

I have watched Beck’s TV program many times, but, apart from the ‘tear-stained’ jibe (Beck does tear-up from time to time), I do not recognize Beck in Mr. Hitchens picture of him. Hitchens’ most egregious charge is that Beck peddles ideas that are “viciously anti-democratic and ahistorical.” Beck is sarcastic and funny and, yes, a bit paranoid, but in my experience not in any way vicious. He spends a lot of time on his show urging people to check his facts and respond peaceably no matter how upset they may be. He said the same thing in his huge, peaceful, tidy (!) and largely apolitical, 8/28/2010 event in Washington. Maybe this is all crafty double-talk; if so, it fooled me.

I have never heard Beck criticize democracy; one of his themes is “We the people.” ‘Anti-elite’ would be a more accurate charge. Mr. Hitchens should at least give us a quote and a context or two to back up his ‘anti-democratic’ charge.

As for ‘ahistorical,’ Beck’s TV shows and books have far more historical material—from Edward Gibbon and the Founding Fathers through C. E. M. Joad and F. A. Hayek to Niall Ferguson—than any other comparable show. Mr. Hitchens may disagree with Beck’s interpretations—I’d like to hear how and in what ways—but ‘ahistorical’ Beck is not. Instead of providing something substantive, Hitchens goes off on a rant about some unnamed ‘paranoid right’ radio host who was obsessed with the supposed murder of Vince Foster. Hitchens is smart enough to know that insults are not argument.

The core of Hitchens’ disdain seems to be that Beck has said good things about The Five Thousand Year Leap, a millennial book by one Cleon Skousen, a Mormon one-time FBI operative and polemical conservative active in the McCarthy era and after. Well, Skousen was in many ways an unappetizing character, but my reading does not confirm Hitchens charge that he “justified slavery.” His best known quote on the topic seems to be “… the emancipation of human beings from slavery is an ongoing struggle. Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem.” Hitchens is right that Skousen did use the word ‘pickaninny’ to refer to black children. Like Hitchens, I am British born. I first heard the word as a child many years ago in England. My memory is that it was affectionate, maybe a bit patronizing, but not derogatory—rather like the golliwog on jars of Robertson marmalade. It was not a diminutive of the N-word. The golliwogs are gone now, and perhaps things were different in the US. Certainly, things are different in 2010. But to treat then like now is, well, ahistorical.

Skousen was religious of course, which Hitchens is not. Few would go along with the rather strange Mormon mythology that Skousen offers as the basis for his beliefs about America. But we can look at the beliefs themselves: just how offensive are they? Skousen lists 28 of them. A few affirm the necessity of religion and ‘natural law’ to good government. No consensus there. But others advocate respect for property rights and the rights of the individual, equality of rights, the right of the people to replace a tyrannical government, the need for virtue in a free republic, the importance of checks and balances. Some are more controversial: America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to be an example to the world (a little dippy to some, but hardly fascistic), the evils of national debt, allegiance to the ‘free market’ with a minimum of regulations. Simplistic, a little extreme for some tastes—but I’m not sure that the list deserves the level of excoriation that Hitchens directs at it.

Hitchens also accuses Beck, “a tear-stained semi-literate shock-jock” of claiming that “The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim…” I’ve heard Beck criticize ‘birthers,’ not support them; but I must have missed the ‘Obama is a (secret) Muslim’ show.

And Beck is semi-literate compared to who, exactly? Hitchens also seems to be living in a bit of a cultural bubble when he writes “…does anybody believe that unemployment would have gone down if the hated bailout had not occurred and GM had been permitted to go bankrupt?” Well, actually, yes, quite a few non-stupid people do believe that we would be out of the recession by now if fiscal policy had been more responsible. Check out anything by the Austrian school of economists, for example (Tom Woods’ Meltdown is a good start.) Hitchens goes on to sneer at “caricature English peer” climate-change critic Lord Monckton. Monckton is not a scientist, and certainly not a member of the climate-change establishment, but he is smart enough to have won an Oxford Union debate on the topic.

Finally and most gratuitously, Hitchens sees the current malaise as a reflection of white people’s fear that they “will no longer be the majority in this country…” Well, some—probably not a majority—of Americans, white and black, do have a fear that traditional American culture may be supplanted by something alien. But I don’t see any real evidence that whites are worried about the numbers of non-whites as non-whites. Oprah would not dominate TV, nor could Barack Obama have been elected, if race-consciousness were a serious problem in America.

I wish Christopher Hitchens well; I look forward to reading his future writings; I just hope that his visceral dislike for religion and the religious and for certain kinds of conservative populist—a dislike shared by most of his intellectual set—does not continue to distort and enfeeble his writing as it did in this article.

TEAM PLAYER: Robert Shiller and Finance as Panacea

This is a review of a relatively old book by a famous economist.  This book is a surprising contrast to Shiller’s prescient Irrational Exuberance (2000, now in its 3rd edition). It was amiably reviewed by the New York Times and reviewed critically by the free-market Austrian Economics journal. The book is an apologia for some of the cleverest — and most destructive — inventions of the finance industry, so another review is probably justified.

Shiller, Robert J. (2012-03-21). Finance and the Good Society. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yale professor Robert Shiller is one of the most influential economists in the world.  Co-inventor of the oft-cited Case-Shiller index, a measure of trends in house prices, he is author or co-author of several influential books about financial crises – including Irrational Exuberance (2000) and (with George Akerloff) and Animal Spirits (2009).  He shared the 2013 Economics Nobel with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen.

In 2012 Professor Shiller published a full-throttle apologia for plutocracy: Finance and the Good Society.  FATGS is a reaction to the hostility to finance provoked by the 2007+ crisis.

Shiller sees the solution to our still-unfolding problems not as less financial invention, but more: “Ironically, better financial instruments, not less activity in finance, is what we need to reduce the probability of financial crises in the future.”  He adds “There is a high level of public anger about the perceived unfairness of the amounts of money people in finance have been earning [no kidding!], and this anger inhibits innovation: anything new is viewed with suspicion. The political climate may well stifle innovation and prevent financial capitalism from progressing in ways that could benefit all citizens.”

Is he right?  Is financial innovation always good?  Have the American people turned into fin-Luddites, eager to crush quant creativity and settle into a life of simplistic poverty, uncorrupted by the obscure and self-serving creations of financial engineering?

Yes and yes, says Professor Shiller, who applauds what others deplore, the rise of ‘financial capitalism’: “a system in which finance, once the handmaiden of industry, has taken the lead as the engine driving capitalism.”

Finance capitalism, a new name but an old idea, has been unpopular for years.  In the 1930s, especially, right after the Great Depression, the big finance houses, like J. P. Morgan were seen as conspirators against the public interest.  Goldman Sachs, the ‘great vampire squid’ of Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, plays the same role these days.

How does Shiller defend the financiers?  What is so good about financial capitalism?  What improvements may we expect in the future?

Some of Shiller’s defense is simply puzzling because it is pretty obvious nonsense.  This is what he has to say about securitization – the bundling of hundreds of mortgages into layered bonds that have been sold all over the world:

Securitized mortgages are, in the abstract, a way of solving an information asymmetry problem—more particularly the problem of “lemons.” This problem, first given a theoretical explanation by George Akerlof, refers to the aversion many people have to buying anything on the used market, like a used car. (p. 54)

The claim that securitization solves the information problem is paradoxical to say the least.  How can removing a mortgage from the initial lender improve the buyer’s knowledge of the borrower?  Surely the guy who actually originates the loan is in the best position to evaluate the creditworthiness of the borrower?

Ah, the answer is apparently the rating agencies:  “Bundling mortgages into securities that are evaluated by independent rating agencies, and dividing up a company’s securities into tranches that allow specialized evaluators to do their job, efficiently lowers the risk to investors of getting stuck with lemons.”

Really?  Not everyone agrees.  Here’s another comment about rating agencies.  It’s from Michael Burry, who was one of the few to spot the eroding quality of sub-prime mortgages in the years leading up to the 2007 crash (this is a bit long, but bear with me):

So you take something like NovaStar, which was an originate and sell subprime mortgage lender, an archetype at the time. The names [of the bonds] would be NHEL 2004-1, NHEL 2004-2, NHEL 2004-3, NHEL 2005-1, etc. NHEL 2004-1 would for instance contain loans from the first few months of 2004 and the last few months of 2003, and 2004-2 would have loans from the middle part, and 2004-3 would get the latter part of 2004. You could pull these prospectuses, and just quickly check the pulse of what was happening in the subprime mortgage portion of the originate-and-sell industry. And you’d see that 2/28 interest-only ARM mortgages were only 5.85% of the pool in early 2004, but by late 2004 they were 17.48% of the pool, and by late summer 2005 25.34% of the pool. Yet average FICO [consumer credit] scores for the pool, percent of no-doc [“Liar”] loan-to-value measures and other indicators were pretty static…. The point is that these measures could stay roughly static, but the overall pool of mortgages being issued, packaged and sold off was worsening in quality, because for the same average FICO scores or the same average loan to value, you were getting a higher percentage of interest only mortgages[1].

In other words, the proportion of crap increased over the years, but the credit scores remained the same!  So much for the credit-rating agencies which were, in effect, captives of (and paid by!) the bond issuers.  Just how critical will a rating agency be of a bond when it is paid by the issuer of the bond? Moral hazard, anyone?

Shiller concedes that securitization “turns out not to have worked superbly well in practice,” but he blames optimism about house prices not the built-in opacity and erosion-of-responsibility of securitization itself.  But optimism is much more an effect than a cause; it should not be invoked whenever economists fail to to explain something.

Securitization can only justify its name if several underlying assumptions are true.  One key assumption is that mortgage default rates differ from place to place – are uncorrelated.  Things may go bad in Nevada, say, but that will have no effect on default rates in New York.  The risks associated with individual mortgages, scattered across the country, might have been more or less uncorrelated, before securitization.  But afterwards, “[r]ather than spreading risk, securitization concentrated it among a group of electronically linked investors subject to herd-like behavior”[2].  Mortgages now rose and fell in synch: bubble followed by bust.  The attempt to reduce individual risk leading (after some delay) to increased systemic risk – what I have called the malign hand.   Securitization rested on an assumption that was as false as it was convenient.  Securitization was anything but…

So what’s good about financial capitalism?  Well, FC is democratic, says Shiller.  “there is nothing in financial theory that specifies that control of capital should be confined to a few ‘fat cats.’  Think of the broadly democratic proliferation of insurance, mortgages, and pensions—all basic financial innovations—in underwriting the prosperity of millions of people in the past century.”  There are a couple of problems with this.  First, by seeking universal security, finance has instead arrived at collective instability – as the pensions and credit crises of recent years have proved.  All too often, illusory individual security has been achieved only at the cost of systemic breakdown.

The second problem is Shiller’s assumption that democracy, vaguely defined, is always good.  Well, there are many forms of democracy; some work well and others badly.  Some preserve the rights of minorities; others degenerate into tyranny of the majority.  The ‘financial contagion’ involved in bubbles looks more like the latter than the former.  The fact that many people are involved in something is no proof of its virtue.

Shiller also seems to think that the ‘democratization of finance’ will lead to a more equal world – after taxes, at least.  He would probably agree with Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson that despite all those K Street lobbyists, the rich pay most of the taxes and the middle class get most of the benefits: “In 2009, $2.1 trillion (60 percent) of federal spending went for ‘payments for individuals.’  This included 52.5 million people receiving Social Security; 46.6 million on Medicare (many of the same people); 32.9 million on food stamps; 47.5 million on Medicaid; 3.9 million with veterans’ benefits. Almost all these benefits go to the poor and middle class. Meanwhile, the richest 5 percent of Americans pay 44 percent of federal taxes.  Does this look like government for the rich?”

But these statistics are a bit misleading.  The rich do indeed pay the lion’s share of taxes, but they also make more than a lion’s share of the income.  In 2011, for example, the top 1% made 21% of the income and paid…21.6% of the taxes!  That’s essentially the same fraction of their $1.37M average income as it is of the $67 thousand average income of the fourth 20%.  When you get into the middle class and below, income taxes are not in fact very progressive.  And the Gini index, a measure of inequality, rose and fell in almost perfect synchrony with the rise and fall of the financial sector in the US economy from 1967 to 2005.  More finance has gone along more inequality, not less as Shiller implies.

The tax issue is horribly complex, of course.  These simple figures ignore income forfeited by tax-efficient investment via low-interest municipal and other tax-exempt bonds, double taxation of investment income, etc.  But overall, the tax system is less progressive than it looks.

It’s also hard to ignore the eye-watering compensation awarded to Wall Street’s ‘masters of the universe’ in recent years. Finance doesn’t look very democratic to me.

Most people think the financial sector is too big, admits Shiller, who disagrees.  Well, just how big is it – and how big should it be?

Financial activities consume an enormous amount of time and resources, increasingly so over the years. The gross value added by financial corporate business was 9.1% of U.S. GDP in 2010…By comparison it was only 2.3% of GDP in 1948. These figures exclude many more finance-related jobs, such as insurance.  Information technology certainly hasn’t diminished the number or scope of jobs in finance.  [p. 12, emphasis added]

But why hasn’t IT reduced the size of the financial industry – made it cheaper – in relation to the rest of the economy, just as mechanization reduced the number of people involved in farming?  The financial industry has grown mightily.  But If any sector should benefit from pure computational power, it is surely finance.  Many clerks and human computers should have been made redundant as digital-computer power has increased and its cost has decreased.  But no: computation has not been used to increase the real efficiency of the financial industry.  It has been used to create money – in the form of credit (leverage) – through ‘products’ that have become increasingly hard to understand.  Many trace the recent instability of financial markets in part to derivatives and other complex products made possible by the growth of financial IT.   But Professor Shiller sees these things as creative innovation and contributors to general prosperity.  Creative they may be, but the evidence is that expansion of finance is associated with slowed growth of the economy as a whole.

So, how big should finance be?  Professor Shiller makes a comparison to the restaurant industry.

To some critics, the current percentage of financial activity in the economy as a whole seems too high, and the upward trend is cause for concern. But how are we to know whether it really is too high or whether the trend is in fact warranted by our advancing economy? …People in the United States spend 40% as much (3.7% of GDP) eating out at restaurants as the corporate financial sector consumes. Is eating out a wasteful activity when people could just as well stay home and eat?

Is finance comparable to eating out?  Hardly.  Eating out is end-use, of value in itself.  Shiller seems to think that finance can create wealth directly, like the auto industry or farming.  But finance exists only to allocate(which includes create via credit) resources efficiently.  A bond or a swap has no value in and of itself.  Its value is its contribution to building ‘real’ industry.  Yet now finance seems to consume more than the resources it allocates.  In 2002 it comprised a staggering 45% of US domestic corporate profits, for example, a huge increase from an average of less than 16% from 1973 to 1985.

Shiller is right that no one knows, or can know, exactly how big the financial industry should be.  But when it makes almost half of all profits, even its fans may suspect that it has grown too great.

So what is the promise of finance?  What benefits may we expect in the future?  Shiller devotes a whole chapter to “Insurers”, tracing the expansion, which he terms “democratization,” of insurance to areas most of us would never have thought “insurable” at all.

Livelihood insurance is one possibility.  This would be a long-term insurance policy that an individual could purchase on a career, an education, or a particular investment in human capital.  One could choose to specialize far more narrowly than is commonly done today—say, on a particularly interesting career direction—developing the expertise for such a career without fear of the consequences if the initiative turned out badly.

Other examples that may surprise are futures markets in careers outcomes by occupation, long-term catastrophe insurance (e.g., against the possibility that hurricanes will increase in frequency over the next fifty years), and home-equity insurance (insurance against a loss in value of your home).  Shiller concludes “Pushing the concept of insurance to new horizons can be inspiring work.”

Really?  To me Shiller’s enthusiasm for insuring everything in a quest for a riskless society borders on the delusional.  Risk is, after all, the main source of financial discipline.  Render debt riskless and there is little to prevent it rising without limit.

And there are practical problems.  Unless you think it a panacea that can potentially solve all problems, the first question about insurance, surely, should be how do you compute the odds?  The answer for most of these novel insurables, is “guess” because there is no principled way to compute odds.  For life insurance there are mortality tables and a reasonable expectation that the pattern from the past will hold in the future, or at least for a generation or so.  Much the same is true for property insurance – the insurer knows historic fire, burglary and theft rates, and so on.   But ‘equity insurance’?  Who could have computed the odds on the recent property bubble collapse?  Insuring against such an event is itself gambling on a planetary scale.

So what?  Shiller might respond “no one can compute the exact odds on a horse race either.”  Presumably many of the novel insurances he proposes would have to compute odds just based on the market – how many people want X amount of insurance on Y events? – just as the TOTE does on a racetrack.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask?  Well, in a horse race, you at least know that there is going to be only one loss for the bookie (only one winner).  But in a bet on a bunch of mortgages, the number of losers is uncertain.  And betting on a horse race affects only the punters who, usually, are betting with their own money.

But betting on house equity, with borrowed money, has implications for the whole economy.  Would equity insurance encourage house purchase?  Yes.  Would it make buyers less anxious about a possible decline in house prices?  Sure.  Would insurance have helped the housing bubble inflate?  Almost certainly.  So would insurance have added to the crash?  And would it have been able to cope with the resulting losses?  Yes – and no, it would not have been able to pay out to everyone.  So how great an idea is equity insurance after all!

And finally there is the problem of feedback: it is dangerous to insure someone against a hazard over which they have control.  If I take out insurance against failing in a career, for example, my incentive for working hard at it will surely be somewhat reduced and my tendency to give up correspondingly increased.  Risk is a great motivator; eliminating risk must therefore impair motivation.

Similar misgivings arise for most of the creative financial products puffed by Prof. Shiller.  They may benefit individuals, but at the cost of increasing systemic risk, which is borne by others – the malign hand again.

Shiller’s vigorous defense of a controversial industry made me uneasy, but it took some time to discover just what it is in his philosophy that is so disturbing.  Here is a paragraph which makes the point quite clearly: “At its broadest level, finance is the science of goal architecture—of the structuring of the economic arrangements necessary to achieve a set of goals and of the stewardship of the assets needed for that achievement… In this sense, finance is analogous to engineering.”

What’s wrong with that, you may say?  People have goals and surely the purpose of our social arrangements is to help achieve them?  Well perhaps, but contrast Shiller’s comment with this from Apple’s Steve Jobs: “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”[3]  Who has what goal in Jobs’ world?  Not the consumer, who doesn’t know what he wants until he sees it, and not even Apple, which works on each new product until it just seems right.  Much of the creativity of capitalism is bottom-up – the goal emerges from the process.  It’s not imposed from above.  But for Professor Shiller, the goal always comes first.  His ideal is command from above, not the kind of “spontaneous order” that Friedrich Hayek and other free-market pioneers have identified as the secret of capitalism’s success.

Another problem is that Prof. Shiller thinks that financial engineering is, well, engineering.  Engineering is the application of valid scientific principles to achieve a well-defined and attainable goal.  Financial ‘engineering’ employs valid mathematics, but based on shaky assumptions.  Its predictive powers are minimal.  The desired objective may or may not be possible – no one can prove that Prof. Shiller’s equity insurance is not destabilizing, for example.  It is fanciful to compare financial engineering to real engineering: the proper comparison is more like astrology vs. astronomy.

Finally, there is the problem of risk itself.  The finance industry accepts without question that shedding – sharing, distributing – risk is always a good thing.  And risk itself is treated as a thing, like a load – of bricks, say – that can usefully be split up and shared.  Like a load of bricks, its total amount doesn’t change when it is split up.  Nor do individual bricks get heavier or lighter with each change of carrier.

But risk is not a thing.  It is a property of an economic arrangement.  As the arrangement changes, so does the risk.  The bricks do change as they pass from one carrier to another.   Both the total mount of risk (if that even means anything) and, more importantly, who exactly is at risk, change as the arrangement changes – as we move from individual mortgages to mortgage-backed securities, for example.  The idea of ‘sharing risk’ is a very dangerous, metaphor.

But Robert Shiller’s impassioned defense of the evolutions of finance accurately reflects the belief system of an industry that has lost a firm connection to reality.  Risk is treated as a thing instead of a property.   Financial ingenuity can and should reduce risk whenever possible.  Insurance is always good.  It should be possible to insure against any eventuality, if we are just clever enough.  The more people are involved in finance, the more ‘democratic’ it becomes.  Ingenious packaging like securitization, shares risk without increasing it.   All these beliefs are more or less false.  Yet they are at the heart of modern finance.

[1] Quoted by Michael Lewis in The Big Short, location 545 (Kindle edition).

[2] The Death of Capital, Michael E. Lewitt (John Wiley, 2010)