Tempted to walk down the dark path of the AltRight

February 20th, 2017

Rosie Gray seems to have a sense of humor about Neoreaction, closing her Atlantic piece with this:

Kantbot warned that I might also be tempted by “the forbidden fruit” of these ideas. “Be careful or you too may be tempted to walk down the dark path of the altright,” he wrote. “This is what thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest. This is the dark intellectual center.”

A Hotel California for Apex Predators

February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

The Benedict Option

February 19th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal discusses the Benedict Option:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.

Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass — conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago — and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.

There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.

“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.

The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages — some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.

As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.


They attend Mass daily and home-school their children. They seldom use their TV, except to check for tornado warnings, but they do use the internet to order supplies, such as cultures for the goat cheese that they sell. Mr. Wheeler, 52, helped with construction at the monastery.

Last year, they allowed their children — three of whom are old enough to vote — to listen to the presidential debates on the radio for the first time, and then to watch the last few on TV.

“The larger populated areas seem to have rejected the Christian culture and the Christian message,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If I don’t have to re-immerse myself in that, I’m not going to.”

If you pull your kids out of public school and “cut the cord,” I think you get most of the way there, without the economic cost of isolation.

The Billy Beane of Murder

February 19th, 2017

Thomas Hargrove, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia, was always the numbers guy at his paper:

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”


Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing — plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.


His innovation was to teach a computer to spot trends in unsolved murders, using publicly available information that no one, including anyone in law enforcement, had used before. This makes him, in a manner of speaking, the Billy Beane of murder. His work shines light on a question that’s gone unanswered for too long: Why, exactly, aren’t the police getting any better at solving murder? And how can we even dream of reversing any upticks in the homicide rate while so many killers remain out on the streets?

It took a few years for Hargrove’s editors at Scripps to agree to give him enough time to lose himself in the FBI’s homicide data. With help from a University of Missouri grad student, Hargrove first dumped the homicide report into statistics software in 2008. He spent months trying to develop an algorithm that would identify unsolved cases with enough commonalities to suggest the same murderer. Eventually, he decided to reverse-engineer the algorithm by testing his ideas against one well-known case, that of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who confessed to killing 48 women over two decades in the Seattle area. Hargrove thought that if he could devise an algorithm that turned up the Green River Killer’s victims, he’d know he was on the right track.

“We found a hundred things that didn’t work,” he recalls. Finally, he settled on four characteristics for what’s called a cluster analysis: geography, sex, age group, and method of killing. For gender, he stuck with women, since they make up the vast majority of multiple-murder victims who aren’t connected to gang-related activity. When he used women between the ages of 20 and 50 — the cohort most commonly targeted by serial killers — the algorithm lit up like a slot machine. “It became clear that this thing was working,” he says. “In fact, it was working too well.”

The Green River Killer came up right away in this algorithm. That was good news. Hargrove’s algorithm also pulled up 77 unsolved murders in Los Angeles, which he learned were attributed to several different killers the police were pursuing (including the so-called Southside Slayer and, most recently, the Grim Sleeper), and 64 unsolved murders of women in Phoenix.

Then there was a second group of possible serial killers, those unrecognized by local police. “The whole point of the algorithm was to find the low-hanging fruit, the obvious clusters,” Hargrove says. “But there were dozens and dozens of them all over the country.”

In 2015, Scripps spun off the last of its newspapers, and Hargrove and the other print reporters lost their jobs. “The only guy who left with a skip was me,” he says. Hargrove, who was 59 at the time and had worked at the company for 37 years, qualified for a large severance and a nice pension, leaving him well-covered. Now he had enough time to go all in on his data project. He founded the Murder Accountability Project, or MAP, a tiny nonprofit seeking to make FBI murder data more widely and easily available.

Using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, MAP has tried to chase down data from the many municipalities and counties that weren’t supplying their murder data to the FBI, out of bureaucratic laziness, a lack of manpower, or perhaps just rank incompetence. MAP has already assembled case details on 638,454 homicides from 1980 through 2014, including 23,219 cases that hadn’t been reported to the FBI. This is the most complete list of case-level details of U.S. murders available anywhere, and the group’s website has open-sourced all of it. Anyone with statistical analysis software, available for free online, can start looking, across jurisdictions, for serial killers. Anyone can compare convicted killers’ timelines against the timing of unsolved murders to determine if a connection is plausible. “You can call up your hometown and look and see if you see anything suspicious,” Hargrove says. “If you’re the father of a murdered daughter, you can call up her record, and you can see if there might be other records that match. We wanted to be able to crowdsource murder.”

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019

February 18th, 2017

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019:

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Harvard’s George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The key word there is embryo. Church’s team — the Wooly Mammoth Revival project — is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to put genetic traits collected from frozen mammoth corpses into Asian elephant DNA.

So far, they’ve managed to incorporate traits of the mammoth’s ears, fat, and hair into elephant DNA. In a few years they hope to make an embryo, but that’s a long way from creating a viable embryo. A viable embryo would have to be able to survive long enough to move from a Petri dish to some kind of womb — and then it would have to grow into a healthy calf that the team could successfully deliver and raise.

Artificial gestation is considered the most likely option for any viable embryo, because Asian elephants, the closest living relatives of mammoths, are currently endangered. Church has created an artificial womb capable of gestating a mouse embryo for 10 days but that’s a far cry from the 660-day gestation period of an elephant calf.

So while an embryo may indeed be possible by 2019, there’s no telling how many years would stretch between that milestone and the actual reintroduction of the woolly mammoth. Researchers have already created embryos of chickens with dinosaur snouts, for example, and those dino-chickens aren’t clucking around a co-op. The first attempts to make a living mammoth are many more years away.

Independence and diversity have always been the enemy of progress

February 18th, 2017

History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers, Mark Zuckerberg says, from tribes to cities to nations. As we all know, independence and diversity have always been the enemy of progress:

For example, that’s why Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Dependence submitting the American colonies to the British Empire.

Similarly, the father of history, Herodotus, wrote to celebrate the mighty Persian Empire’s reduction of the various Greek city-states to a satrapy ruled from Babylon.

Likewise, every year Jews gather to admit that their stiff-neckedness provoked the Roman Empire into, rightfully, smashing the Temple in Jerusalem on the holy day of We-Had-It-Coming.

And, of course, who can forget Shakespeare’s plays, such as Philip II and Admiral-Duke of Medina Sidonia, lauding the Spanish Armada for conquering the impudent English and restoring to Canterbury the One True Faith?

Similarly, Oswald Mosley’s prime ministership (1940-1980) of das englische Reich is justly admired for subordinating England’s traditional piratical turbulence to the greater good of Europe.

Likewise, who can not look at the 49 nations currently united by their adherence to the universalist faith of Islam and not see that submission is the road to peace, prosperity, and progress? If only unity had prevailed at Tours in 732 instead of divisiveness. May that great historical wrong be swiftly rectified in the decades to come!

Disrupters of the world unite!

February 17th, 2017

Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class suggests that America lost its taste for risk, and Edward Luce opens his review by poking a bit of fun at innovative start-ups:

Walk into any start-up company in America and you will likely see an almost identical decor: the walls will have been dutifully stripped of paint; the workplace will be littered with the same multicoloured pouffes; and most of its denizens will be wearing a variation on the casual hipster uniform. In an age of hyper-individualism, entrepreneurs strike a remarkably similar pose. The same applies to those who have refurbished their university common areas, set up corporate “chill-out zones”, or stripped their downtown apartments to look like a Silicon Valley unicorn. Everyone wants that creative energy to rub off on them. Disrupters of the world unite!

Flag Football Is More Dangerous

February 17th, 2017

Flag football is more dangerous than tackle football:

The study, which examined 3,794 players in grades 2-7 in two tackle football leagues and one flag football league, is one of the largest to compare injury rates in the different types of football. It was published online last week in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.


All injuries that resulted in loss of playing time were recorded. An injury was considered severe if it resulted in a concussion, fracture or ligament tear. All other injuries were considered nonsevere.

Across all leagues, 128 injuries were reported out of 46,416 exposures—that is, a practice or a game. The overall injury rate was 2.76 injuries per 1,000 exposures, which Dr. Peterson notes is similar to the injury rate in high school football.

Tackle football players in the study reported 2.6 injuries per 1,000 exposures, compared with 5.77 injuries per 1,000 exposures in flag football. While tackle football players reported concussions at a slightly higher rate, the difference with flag players wasn’t statistically significant.

Dr. Peterson theorizes that tackle football players suffer concussions individually, whereas in flag football, concussions often result from two people running into each other. Looking at the injury logs, he noticed, “concussions seemed to come in pairs in the flag league.”

We should spend less

February 16th, 2017

Arnold Kling shares what he believes about education:

1. The U.S. leads the world in health care spending per person, but not in health care outcomes. Many people look at that and say that health care costs too much in the U.S., and we should be able to get the same our better outcomes by sending less. Maybe that is correct, maybe not. That is not the point here. But —

2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes. Yet nobody says that education costs too much and that we should spend less. Except —

3. me. I believe that we spend way too much on K-12 education.

4. We spend as much as we do on education in part because it is a sacred cow. We want to show that we care about children. (Yes, “showing that you care” is also Robin Hanson’s explanation for health care spending.)


8. I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system. That is because I believe in the Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a difference.

9. However, a competitive market in education would drive down costs, so that the U.S. would get the same outcomes with much less spending.

Overgrowth in Certain Brain Areas Associated With Autism

February 15th, 2017

Autism is associated with overgrowth in certain brain areas:

The study, led by scientists at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and published in Nature, focused on 106 high-risk infants—those with autistic older siblings—and 42 low-risk babies. Researchers imaged the babies’ brains at 6, 12 and 24 months of age. Diagnoses of autism usually take place around age 2.

Of the 106 high-risk infants with brain scan at all three time points, 15 went on to develop autism. Their scans showed that by 12 months, there was significant overgrowth in several brain areas, including those involved in communication and in processing sensory information, compared with infants in the low-risk group and high-risk kids who weren’t later diagnosed with autism.

Xenu’s Paradox

February 15th, 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee describes Xenu’s Paradox:

If there’s one overwhelming conclusion to be drawn about [L. Ron] Hubbard’s career, it isn’t that he wrote science fiction, or even that he was influenced by its ideas. It’s that he ended up writing science fiction almost against his will, and for much of his life, he seems to have actively despised it.


Most of his stories displayed little, if any, interest in science itself, an attitude that extended to his protagonists. The heroes of Hubbard’s adventure yarns were invariably tall, virile, and masculine, while the central figures in his science fiction and fantasy stories were more likely to be henpecked weaklings. As Isaac Asimov wrote of his first meeting with Hubbard: “He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me. His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow I had expected Hubbard to be the same.” His constant use of such characters reflected his low opinion of his audience, and even when he offered up a more conventional lead, as in the relentlessly sour series The Kilkenny Cats, the result reeked of contempt.

The war offered Hubbard the chance to become the kind of hero that he had always wanted to be:

Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “I imagine that the thing that would really satisfy [Hubbard’s] nature . . . would be a chance to command a sub sent out to raid Tokyo harbor. I wouldn’t permit him to, if I were running the Navy. He’d probably try to up ship and bombard Hirohito’s hovel with his deck gun, just for the hell of it.”

As it turned out, Hubbard alienated his superiors in Australia and Massachusetts, attacked two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon, and fired without authorization in Mexican waters, causing him to be relieved of his command. He would later say that he had been crippled and nearly blinded in action — he really suffered from a duodenal ulcer — and he spent much of the war in the hospital, although he continued to play the charming rogue in public. In late 1944, Asimov attended a party at which Hubbard told stories, played the guitar, and effortlessly dominated Heinlein and the author L. Sprague de Camp, who listened “quietly as pussycats.” The writer Jack Williamson, who was also there, came away with a different impression: “I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed. Not much.”

Before long, the mask began to crack, and Hubbard grew visibly depressed. His appearance startled his friends — Campbell wrote that Hubbard was “a quivering psychoneurotic wreck” after the war, and that “his conversation was somewhat schizoid at points.” The reasons for this downturn are unclear, although de Camp may have come closest to the truth in a letter to Asimov: “What the war did was to wear [Hubbard] down to where he no longer bothers with the act.”

One of those who noticed Hubbard’s fragile mental state was Heinlein, who had spent the war at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with de Camp and Asimov. He had recruited Hubbard — on Campbell’s recommendation — for a think tank in which science fiction writers gathered on weekends to brainstorm responses to the kamikaze threat. None of their ideas were ever used in combat, but Heinlein was moved by Hubbard’s tales of being repeatedly bombed, sunk, and wounded, and he evidently encouraged Hubbard to have a sexual relationship with his wife Leslyn. Hubbard later recalled: “He almost forced me to sleep with his wife.”

After the war, Hubbard briefly lived with the Heinleins in Laurel Canyon, where they set up a shared working space. Heinlein was undoubtedly impressed by Hubbard, whom he credited with introducing him to the plot formula of “the man who learned better,” and he introduced him to Jack Parsons, a rocket engineer in Pasadena with an interest in black magic. Hubbard became housemates with Parsons in December 1945, and he took part in occult rituals before the two men had a falling out, caused in part by Hubbard’s affair with Parsons’s lover Sara Northrup. Hubbard married her the following year, without bothering to divorce his first wife.

Definitely an odd circle. Anyway, Hubbard moved on from science fiction — sort of:

“Terra Incognita: The Mind,” which marked the inauspicious debut of dianetics in print, was published in the Winter/Spring 1950 issue of The Explorers Club Journal. Hubbard’s membership in the Explorers Club, a scientific society based in New York, had long been a feather in his cap. He had applied years earlier on the strength of some unremarkable travels in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, and after he was accepted, he took enormous pride in the achievement, frequently mentioning the club in his stories and using its address on his personal letterhead.

In the article, Hubbard provides a brief description of dianetics, his new science of the mind, and makes the strange claim that he developed it to provide expedition leaders with a way to screen team members for mental problems, as well as a form of emergency medicine in the field. It was a clear attempt to frame his work in terms of how he liked to see himself — as an adventurer and man of action. The piece aroused no perceptible response, but it sheds a revealing light on the audience that he was hoping to reach. Hubbard wanted to attract explorers and men of the world. Instead, he ended up with science fiction fans.

And they weren’t his first, or even his second, choice. Hubbard had been working on dianetics for years, and he had approached a number of professional societies with offers to share his research. None of them took the bait, and he ultimately returned to a proven market, writing to Campbell in the spring of 1949. At the editor’s invitation, Hubbard and his pregnant wife Sara moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from where Astounding had recently relocated. Campbell could have collaborated with him at a distance, as he had with so many other writers, but he seems to have decided early on that he wanted to keep this one close.

When the two men met again, Campbell was impressed with Hubbard’s appearance, which was newly composed and confident, and he became convinced that the author had healed himself using his own techniques. He was primed to be receptive. Like Hubbard, Campbell had grown depressed after the war. Atomic weaponry had always been a staple of science fiction, but the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to publish a series of bleak postnuclear stories, and he became obsessed with making a discovery that would save the world from the bomb.

Over the following year, Campbell worked intensively with Hubbard to develop dianetics into a science that could prevent a nuclear catastrophe. His goal was to turn Hubbard’s “rules of thumb” into something that his readers could accept. Hubbard himself took a more casual approach, and he spent much of that summer looking into jobs in Hollywood. For a working writer, dianetics was just one angle among many, and Hubbard was cheerfully willing to allow Campbell to turn it into whatever he thought it needed to be.

What emerged was rather different from what Hubbard had initially envisioned. It was a theory of the brain as a kind of computer that could be damaged by recordings, or engrams, implanted when it was unconscious. The treatment, called auditing, required no special equipment, and it could be conducted by an auditor and a “preclear” in any quiet room. After entering a state of reverie, the preclear would relive memories going back to the period before birth. If successful, the subject would be left with total recall, a heightened intellect, and freedom from psychosomatic illness — a “clear” free at last to achieve his or her full potential.

When the first article on dianetics appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, followed by the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it seemed unlike anything else Hubbard had ever written. Campbell — who appears anonymously in several of its case studies — wrote some of the text, borrowing terms and ideas from the new discipline of cybernetics to give it a veneer of scientific respectability. Still, it’s a truly weird book, with a level of sexual explicitness that must have taken many readers by surprise: “Mother is saying, ‘Oh, I can’t live without it. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. Oh, how nice. Oh, do it again!’ and father is saying, ‘Come! Come! Oh, you’re so good. You’re so wonderful. Ahhh!’”

On the whole, however, its tone is unexpectedly restrained. Hubbard calls it a provisional theory, subject to revision, and he concludes: “For God’s sake, get busy and build a better bridge!” In fact, it was conceived as the beginning of an ongoing scientific revolution. Campbell saw the newly founded Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth as a think tank for the superior brains that dianetics would produce. Many of the earliest converts were science fiction fans, who had always believed that a major discovery would emerge from their ranks. And no one was more surprised by its success than Hubbard, who embraced his sudden celebrity and boasted to his agent: “I’m dragging down Clark Gable’s salary.”

Campbell thought that he had found his life’s work, but the dream quickly fell apart. Once it became clear that dianetics would be a greater financial windfall than anyone had anticipated, Hubbard grew convinced of his own infallibility. (One of his few works of fiction from this period, Masters of Sleep, is an Arabian Nights tale that turns halfway through into a piece of propaganda for dianetics, which has rendered psychiatry obsolete.) Money was spent as quickly as it came in, and a series of messy internal disputes led Campbell to resign. As Asimov later observed: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”

Hubbard subsequently said that Campbell became “bitter and violent” after his ideas were rejected, while Campbell, who had staked his position and reputation on dianetics, dismissed Scientology years afterward as “intellectual garbage.” He also claimed: “It was, as a matter of fact, I, not Ron, who originally suggested that it should be dropped as a psychotherapy, and reconstituted as a religion. Because only religions are permitted to be amateurs.” It’s impossible to verify this statement, although the notion of a religious cult founded by scientists frequently recurs in the stories that Campbell published, and the editor Lloyd Eshbach — to whom Hubbard allegedly made his famous remark that a religion would be a good way to make money — said in a memoir that the plans for the church were drawn up in Campbell’s kitchen.

With Campbell out of the picture, Hubbard published no more stories for decades, but a strain of science fiction remained in his work, and it grew even stronger after he set up shop in Wichita, Kansas, where a businessman named Don Purcell had offered to underwrite his research. Many of the disciples who followed him there owed their first exposure to his ideas to Astounding, and he began to tailor his teachings, consciously or otherwise, to the audience he had left, just as he had opportunistically turned to science fiction to satisfy his publishers and allowed the terminology of dianetics to be shaped by Campbell.

Is Romantic Kissing A Human Universal?

February 14th, 2017

In a recent study, less than half of the cultures the researchers sampled engaged in romantic kissing:

We looked at 168 cultures and found couples kissing in only 46 percent of them. Societies with distinct social classes are usually kissers; societies with fewer or no social classes, like hunter-gatherer communities, are usually not. For some, kissing seems unpleasant, unclean, or just plain weird. Kissing is clearly a culturally variable display of affection.

No one knows the exact origins of the romantic kiss. Some say it evolved to help test potential partners’ health through taste, their genetic compatibility through the smell of their immune system, or their romantic interest and sexual compatibility. Alternatively, it might have evolved from “kiss feeding” — the practice of a mother chewing up food and pushing it into her infant’s mouth with her tongue. The earliest known reference to kissing is in the Vedas, a 3,500-year-old Sanskrit scripture. Many classical societies, including the Romans, were passionate about kissing.

At least 90 percent of today’s cultures have kissing of one type or another, but the majority of it is parents kissing their children. Far less is known about patterns of who kisses romantically and who does not, and why.

Shakespeare in the Bush

February 13th, 2017

Off and on from 1949 to 1953 Laura Bohannan and her husband lived among the Tiv tribe of southeastern Nigeria. After the harvest and before the planting season, the swamps rise, and during this period of enforced isolation, she found herself reading Hamlet, while the tribe spent their days drinking maize and millet beer and singing and telling stories:

“You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.”

The old man was acquainted with four kinds of “papers”: tax receipts, bride price receipts, court fee receipts, and letters. [...] I did not wish them to think me silly enough to look at any such papers for days on end, and I hastily explained that my “paper” was one of the “things of long ago” of my country.

“Ah,” said the old man. “Tell us.” I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical — and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” Realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.

The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”

“Why was he no longer their chief?”

“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”

“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”

Slightly shaken, I continued. “One of these three was a man who knew things” — the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch. The second elder looked triumphantly at the first. “So he spoke to the dead chief saying, ‘Tell us what we must do so you may rest in your grave,’ but the dead chief did not answer. He vanished, and they could see him no more. Then the man who knew things — his name was Horatio — said this event was the affair of the dead chief’s son, Hamlet.”

There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. “Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?”

“No,” I replied. “That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.”

The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief’s back; clearly Horatio was not a man who knew things.

“Yes, he was,” I insisted, shooing a chicken away from my beer. “In our country the son is next to the father. The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”

“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet’s father and uncle have one mother?”

His question barely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn’t sure — the story didn’t say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference and that when I got home I must ask the elders about it. He shouted out the door to one of his younger wives to bring his goatskin bag.

Determined to save what I could of the mother motif, I took a deep breath and began again. “The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years.”

“Two years is too long,” objected the wife, who had appeared with the old man’s battered goatskin bag. “Who will hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?”

“Hamlet,” I retorted, without thinking, “was old enough to hoe his mother’s farms himself. There was no need for her to remarry.” No one looked convinced. I gave up. “His mother and the great chief told Hamlet not to be sad, for the great chief himself would be a father to Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet would be the next chief: therefore he must stay to learn the things of a chief. Hamlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to drink beer.”

While I paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet’s disgusted soliloquy to an audience convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in the best possible manner, one of the younger men asked me who had married the other wives of the dead chief.

“He had no other wives,” I told him.

“But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”

I said firmly that in our country even chiefs had only one wife, that they had servants to do their work, and that they paid them from tax money.

It was better, they returned, for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing — taxes were a bad thing.

I agreed with the last comment, but for the rest fell back on their favorite way of fobbing off my questions: “That is the way it is done, so that is how we do it.”

I decided to skip the soliloquy. Even if Claudius was here thought quite right to marry his brother’s widow, there remained the poison motif, and I knew they would disapprove of fratricide. More hopefully I resumed, “That night Hamlet kept watch with the three who had seen his dead father. The dead chief again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet followed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone, Hamlet’s dead father spoke.”

“Omens can’t talk!” The old man was emphatic.

“Hamlet’s dead father wasn’t an omen. Seeing him might have been an omen, but he was not.” My audience looked as confused as I sounded. “It was Hamlet’s dead father. It was a thing we call a ‘ghost.’” I had to use the English word, for unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn’t believe in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality.

“What is a ‘ghost?’ An omen?”

“No, a ‘ghost’ is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him.”

They objected. “One can touch zombis.”

“No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No one else made Hamlet’s dead father walk. He did it himself.”

“Dead men can’t walk,” protested my audience as one man.

I was quite willing to compromise.

“A ‘ghost’ is the dead man’s shadow.”

But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”

“They do in my country,” I snapped.

The old man quelled the babble of disbelief that arose immediately and told me with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fancies of the young, ignorant, and superstitious, “No doubt in your country the dead can also walk without being zombis.” From the depths of his bag he produced a withered fragment of kola nut, bit off one end to show it wasn’t poisoned, and handed me the rest as a peace offering.

“Anyhow,” I resumed, “Hamlet’s dead father said that his own brother, the one who became chief, had poisoned him. He wanted Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet believed this in his heart, for he did not like his father’s brother.” I took another swallow of beer. “In the country of the great chief, living in the same homestead, for it was a very large one, was an important elder who was often with the chief to advise and help him. His name was Polonius. Hamlet was courting his daughter, but her father and her brother . . . [I cast hastily about for some tribal analogy] warned her not to let Hamlet visit her when she was alone on her farm, for he would be a great chief and so could not marry her.”

“Why not?” asked the wife, who had settled down on the edge of the old man’s chair. He frowned at her for asking stupid questions and growled, “They lived in the same homestead.”

“That was not the reason,” I informed them. “Polonius was a stranger who lived in the homestead because he helped the chief, not because he was a relative.”

“Then why couldn’t Hamlet marry her?”

“He could have,” I explained, “but Polonius didn’t think he would. After all, Hamlet was a man of great importance who ought to marry a chief’s daughter, for in his country a man could have only one wife. Polonius was afraid that if Hamlet made love to his daughter, then no one else would give a high price for her.”

“That might be true,” remarked one of the shrewder elders, “but a chief’s son would give his mistress’s father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference. Polonius sounds like a fool to me.”

“Many people think he was,” I agreed. “Meanwhile Polonius sent his son Laertes off to Paris to learn the things of that country, for it was the homestead of a very great chief indeed. Because he was afraid that Laertes might waste a lot of money on beer and women and gambling, or get into trouble by fighting, he sent one of his servants to Paris secretly, to spy out what Laertes was doing. One day Hamlet came upon Polonius’s daughter Ophelia. He behaved so oddly he frightened her. Indeed” — I was fumbling for words to express the dubious quality of Hamlet’s madness — “the chief and many others had also noticed that when Hamlet talked one could understand the words but not what they meant. Many people thought that he had become mad.” My audience suddenly became much more attentive. “The great chief wanted to know what was wrong with Hamlet, so he sent for two of Hamlet’s age mates [school friends would have taken a long explanation] to talk to Hamlet and find out what troubled his heart. Hamlet, seeing that they had been bribed by the chief to betray him, told them nothing. Polonius, however, insisted that Hamlet was mad because he had been forbidden to see Ophelia, whom he loved.”

“Why,” inquired a bewildered voice, “should anyone bewitch Hamlet on that account?”

“Bewitch him?”

“Yes, only witchcraft can make anyone mad, unless, of course, one sees the beings that lurk in the forest.”

I stopped being a storyteller and took out my notebook and demanded to be told more about these two causes of madness. Even while they spoke and I jotted notes, I tried to calculate the effect of this new factor on the plot. Hamlet had not been exposed to the beings that lurk in the forests. Only his relatives in the male line could bewitch him. Barring relatives not mentioned by Shakespeare, it had to be Claudius who was attempting to harm him. And, of course, it was.

For the moment I staved off questions by saying that the great chief also refused to believe that Hamlet was mad for the love of Ophelia and nothing else. “He was sure that something much more important was troubling Hamlet’s heart.”

“Now Hamlet’s age mates,” I continued, “had brought with them a famous storyteller. Hamlet decided to have this man tell the chief and all his homestead a story about a man who had poisoned his brother because he desired his brother’s wife and wished to be chief himself. Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth.”

The old man interrupted, with deep cunning, “Why should a father lie to his son?” he asked.

I hedged: “Hamlet wasn’t sure that it really was his dead father.” It was impossible to say anything, in that language, about devil-inspired visions.

“You mean,” he said, “it actually was an omen, and he knew witches sometimes send false ones. Hamlet was a fool not to go to one skilled in reading omens and divining the truth in the first place. A man-who-sees-the-truth could have told him how his father died, if he really had been poisoned, and if there was witchcraft in it; then Hamlet could have called the elders to settle the matter.”

The shrewd elder ventured to disagree. “Because his father’s brother was a great chief, one-who-sees-the-truth might therefore have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a friend of Hamlet’s father — a witch and an elder — sent an omen so his friend’s son would know. Was the omen true?”

“Yes,” I said, abandoning ghosts and the devil; a witch-sent omen it would have to be. “It was true, for when the storyteller was telling his tale before all the homestead, the great chief rose in fear. Afraid that Hamlet knew his secret he planned to have him killed.”

The stage set of the next bit presented some difficulties of translation. I began cautiously. “The great chief told Hamlet’s mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet’s mother’s sleeping hut. Hamlet started to scold his mother for what she had done.”

There was a shocked murmur from everyone. A man should never scold his mother.

“She called out in fear, and Polonius moved behind the cloth. Shouting, ‘A rat!’ Hamlet took his machete and slashed through the cloth.” I paused for dramatic effect. “He had killed Polonius.”

The old men looked at each other in supreme disgust. “That Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing! What child would not know enough to shout, ‘It’s me!’” With a pang, I remembered that these people are ardent hunters, always armed with bow, arrow, and machete; at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is aimed and ready, and the hunter shouts “Game!” If no human voice answers immediately, the arrow speeds on its way. Like a good hunter, Hamlet had shouted, “A rat!”

I rushed in to save Polonius’s reputation. “Polonius did speak. Hamlet heard him. But he thought it was the chief and wished to kill him to avenge his father. He had meant to kill him earlier that evening….” I broke down, unable to describe to these pagans, who had no belief in individual afterlife, the difference between dying at one’s prayers and dying “unhousell’d, disappointed, unaneled.”

This time I had shocked my audience seriously. “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father — that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”

I nibbled at my kola nut in some perplexity, then pointed out that after all the man had killed Hamlet’s father.

“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him. “But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”

There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me. As I thought over the coming complications of plot and motive, I lost courage and decided to skim over dangerous ground quickly.

“The great chief,” I went on, “was not sorry that Hamlet had killed Polonius. It gave him a reason to send Hamlet away, with his two treacherous age mates, with letters to a chief of a far country, saying that Hamlet should be killed. But Hamlet changed the writing on their papers, so that the chief killed his age mates instead.” I encountered a reproachful glare from one of the men whom I had told undetectable forgery was not merely immoral but beyond human skill. I looked the other way.

“Before Hamlet could return, Laertes came back for his father’s funeral. The great chief told him Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned in the river.”

“Have you already forgotten what we told you?” The old man was reproachful. “One cannot take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown. Water itself can’t hurt anything. It is merely something one drinks and bathes in.”

I began to get cross. “If you don’t like the story, I’ll stop.”

The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right. Who were Ophelia’s male relatives?”

“There were only her father and her brother.” Hamlet was clearly out of my hands.

“There must have been many more; this also you must ask of your elders when you get back to your country. From what you tell us, since Polonius was dead, it must have been Laertes who killed Ophelia, although I do not see the reason for it.”

We had emptied one pot of beer, and the old men argued the point with slightly tipsy interest. Finally one of them demanded of me, “What did the servant of Polonius say on his return?”

With difficulty I recollected Reynaldo and his mission. “I don’t think he did return before Polonius was killed.”

“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”

I raised an objection. “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more — so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”

“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. Laertes would be angry, because he would have killed his sister without benefit to himself. In our country he would try to kill Hamlet for that reason. Is this not what happened?”

“More or less,” I admitted. “When the great chief found Hamlet was still alive, he encouraged Laertes to try to kill Hamlet and arranged a fight with machetes between them. In the fight both the young men were wounded to death. Hamlet’s mother drank the poisoned beer that the chief meant for Hamlet in case he won the fight. When he saw his mother die of poison, Hamlet, dying, managed to kill his father’s brother with his machete.”

“You see, I was right!” exclaimed the elder.

“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes.” There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.

“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

The dangers of status competition

February 12th, 2017

Status competition can have corrosive effects:

Neighbours of lottery winners often make extravagant status good purchases (Kuhn et al. 2011) and are more likely to go bankrupt (Agarwal, Mikhed, and Scholnick 2016). Card et al. (2012) and Ashraf et al. (2014) show that job satisfaction and performance suffer when there are direct rankings and explicit comparisons with others in the same group.

Status competition can kill you — if you’re a fighter pilot:

During the height of the [Battle of Britain], in the summer of 1940, two of Germany’s highest-scoring aces did something unexpected: they went deer hunting. Werner Mölders, commanding a squadron of fighters on the Channel Coast, was asked by Hermann Göring head of the German air force, to confer with him for three days at Karinhall, his country retreat. Mölders at first refused, as he was competing against Adolf Galland for the honour of being the highest-scoring German ace. Mölders relented only on the condition that Galland would also be grounded for three days. Göring, who had also been a fighter ace in World War I, agreed and brought Galland along on the hunting trip (Galland 1993).

So, in the middle of the defining conflict for the German air force, two of its best pilots had been pulled from the front line – and one of them was not brought because there was an operational or administrative need, but to maintain a ‘level killing field’ with his competition. Competition for status was intense amongst German pilots. It was behind the elaborate systems of awards and medals that pervaded the military. Similar awards are also common in many other walks of life, from academia to the top ranks of business and politics.

Most air forces during WWII devoted considerable bureaucratic attention to filing, witnessing, adjudicating, and aggregating the victory claims made by their pilots. In the German system, pilots had to give the grid coordinates, aircraft type, type of destruction (pilot bail-out, impact, explosion, and so on) and time to file a claim. The claim would have to be witnessed by another pilot to stand a chance of being accepted. Claims would be sent to a central office of the Luftwaffe for adjudication, where many would be rejected.

This elaborate system was necessary because awards and medals were closely tied to victory scores. The Luftwaffe awarded medals based on informal quotas. For example, in early 1942 for a pilot to have a chance of receiving the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, that pilot would have needed 100 victories.

We have data on the victory claims of more than 5,000 pilots for the entire conflict, 1939-45. These pilots filed claims that they had shot down 54,800 enemy planes. Victories were extremely unevenly distributed. The highest-scoring ace, Erich Hartmann, claimed more than 350 victories, and the top 100 pilots scored almost as many victories as the bottom 4,900. The maximum monthly victory score was 68, recorded in 1943 on the Eastern front.

These successes were bought at a high price (Figure 1). In an average month, 3.3% of pilots died. After two years of service, half the low-scoring pilots would have been killed. Amongst the better-performing pilots, only one-quarter would have survived. Towards the end of the war, loss rates became extremely high, averaging 25% or more from the spring of 1944 (Murray 1996).

Victory claims and exit rate among German fighter pilots, by month

Figure 2 summarises our key results. Good pilots – those whose average monthly victory score put them in the top 20% of the distribution – on average improved their victory score by 50%, from less than two to more than three a month, when the successes of their former peers were advertised. Pilots in the bottom 80% scored fewer victories overall, but also improved by a small margin. Strikingly, results are different for exit rates (‘exit’ usually meant death). Great pilots, on average, died more often, but they were not more likely to exit in times of peer recognition. The opposite was true for average and the poor pilots, whose exit rate increased by almost half. In other words, aces tried harder when a former colleague got a public pat on the back, but didn’t take many more risks. Average or poor pilots tried harder, were a bit more successful, but also tended to get themselves killed more often.

Victory and Exit

German pilots during WWII had the highest numbers of aerial victories ever recorded:

The top 100 pilots of all time are all German.

Real potential benefits without being a panacea

February 11th, 2017

The empiricists’ anti-charter arguments that were trotted out against Betsy DeVos weren’t particularly empirical, Ross Douthat notes:

There’s no evidence that DeVos-backed charters actually visited disaster on Detroit’s students. Instead, the very studies that get cited to critique her efforts actually show the city’s charters modestly outperforming public schools.

That “modestly” is important, because it tracks with much of what we know about school choice in general — that it offers real potential benefits without being a panacea. Decades of experiments suggest that choice can save money, improve outcomes for very poor kids whose public options are disastrous, and increase parental satisfaction. (The last is no small thing!) But the available evidence also suggests that choice alone won’t revolutionize schools or turn slow learners into geniuses, that the clearest success stories are hard to replicate, and some experiments in privatization (like Louisiana’s recent voucher push) can badly disappoint.

So in DeVos, we have an education secretary who perhaps errs a little too much on the side of choice-as-panacea, overseeing (with limited powers) an American education bureaucracy that pretty obviously errs the other way. And wherever you come down on striking the right balance, it’s hard to see this situation as empirically deserving the level of political controversy that’s attached to it.