Why Has TV Replaced Movies as Elite Entertainment?

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Edward Jay Epstein (The Hollywood Economist) explains why TV is replacing movies as elite entertainment:

Once upon a time, over a generation ago, The television set was commonly called the “boob tube” and looked down on by elites as a purveyors of mind-numbing entertainment. Movie theaters, on the other hand, were con sidered a venue for, if not art, more sophisticated dramas and comedies. Not any more. The multiplexes are now primarily a venue for comic-book inspired action and fantasy movies, whereas television, especially the pay and cable channels, is increasingly becoming a venue for character-driven adult programs, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire.

(That reminds me, should I be watching Boardwalk Empire?)

Alex Tabarrok adds that you can understand what has happened with some microeconomics:

Advertising-supported television wants to maximize the number of eyeballs, but that often means appealing to the lowest common denominator. (This is especially true when there are just three television stations.) The programming that maximizes eyeballs does not necessarily maximize consumer surplus.

Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, which Aretae heartily recommends — after getting halfway through — but I may have to read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s latest book first — Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t — based on this summary cited by Foseti:

Once motivated to pursue power, he says, people need to overcome the obstacles to getting it. Atop the list is the belief that good work is the key to success. Competence is overrated, Pfeffer says, as the titans of the financial industry have shown in recent years. “Great job performance by itself is insufficient and may not even be necessary for getting and holding positions of power.”

Another obstacle is relying on the ubiquitous leadership literature written by people who tout their own careers as models but “gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.” These leaders’ ability to promote themselves as noble and good is the reason they reached high levels in the first place, Pfeffer says. Their advice could be accurate, “but more likely it is just self-serving.”

Finally, people handicap themselves by choosing not to risk failure. People want to feel good about themselves, Pfeffer says, and “any experience of failure puts their self-esteem at risk.” But, he emphasizes, the only way to master the power game is to practice.


Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The EU has banned the sale of light bulbs of more than 60 watts, but a German entrepreneur has found a loophole:

Rotthaeuser studied EU legislation and realized that because the inefficient old bulbs produce more warmth than light — he calculated heat makes up 95 percent of their output, and light just 5 percent — they could be sold legally as heaters.


Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The MakerLegoBot is a Lego Mindstorms-based 3D printer that automatically picks and snaps down pieces as it goes to turn software descriptions into completed Lego builds:

Naturally the next step is to devise a MakerLegoBot capable of building other MakerLegoBots. I for one welcome our new Lego overlords.

America will lose in Afghanistan even if the current training mission succeeds

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Tommy Sowers is a former Green Beret who’s running for Congress — as a Democrat. He recently said that America will lose in Afghanistan even if the current training mission succeeds. In an interview with Noah Shachtman he explains:

You start analyzing what is the stated objective for Afghanistan. It is to train, arm and equip the Afghan military and police, so that, one day, we can hand things over and leave. But let’s think through that objective. Let’s think through accomplishing that and set aside all the challenges we see on a day-to-day basis, most of which we didn’t have to the same degree in Iraq — the level of corruption, the level of illiteracy, the lack of centralized government.

Use Gen. [David] Petraeus’ own ratio which is one counterinsurgent for every 50 members of the populace. That’s 600,000, which is bigger than the active U.S. Army. But of course we’re not doing that, we’re training hopefully 400,000. So we’re already building a force that’s too small to secure. But then if you think through it even further and you say, “OK let’s just assume we’re going to do it.” One day we’ve got 400,000-600,000 trained, armed and equipped Afghan tribesman and we leave. The central question — and this is a logistical question which Congress should be asking now — becomes: “Who’s going to pay for the Afghan military?”

So we’re building a force that’s too small to secure and too expensive to maintain. So training arming and equipping an army the size of our army in Afghanistan that will one day not be paid and will seek employment is not in our long term strategic interest.

British Campaign against Higher Capital Gains Tax Rates

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

UK politician Vince Cable is pushing an increased capital gains tax, or CGT. Here’s the British campaign against higher capital gains tax rates:

How Elon Musk Turned Tesla Into the Car Company of the Future

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Joshua Davis of Wired explains how Elon Musk turned Tesla into the car company of the future:

In September 2007, he flew to Stuttgart, Germany, and met with a group of Daimler executives, who listened skeptically as Musk told them how great his technology was. They weren’t sold.

But two months later Musk got an email from Herbert Kohler, Daimler’s head of advanced engineering, saying that he and some other Daimler execs would be in California in six weeks and would be willing to look at Tesla’s technology.

It was all Musk needed. He immediately called JB Straubel, Tesla’s CTO.

“We need to make an electric Smart car in six weeks,” Musk said. “Can you do it?”

Straubel pointed out that it would mean he’d have to pull engineers off the Roadster at a time when they were still desperately trying to solve production problems. It was a tough call, but Musk believed that if they could prove themselves to Daimler, they could win a valuable contract. In addition to the much-needed cash, it would validate Tesla in the eyes of the world. They had to try.

Straubel had another question: Where was he supposed to get a regular, gas-powered Smart car to retrofit? At the time, Daimler didn’t sell Smarts in the US.

With a bit of research, he discovered that the cars were sold in Mexico. He made a few calls and located a dealership in Tijuana with stock on hand. He hurriedly decided to send someone to fetch a car. A Tesla engineer suggested a friend who was fluent in Spanish, and, after a quick call, the guy agreed to make the trip south.

Straubel walked over to the finance department. “I need $20,000 in cash in a bag right now,” he said. “We’re sending someone to Tijuana to buy a Smart car.”

The finance person noted that a lot could go wrong with that scenario but got Straubel the money. Three days later, the engineer’s buddy showed up at Tesla headquarters with a brand-new Smart car.

Straubel and his team removed the 83-horsepower gas engine and set to work building a custom battery pack that would fit in the tiny car’s engine compartment. Next, they refashioned a Roadster motor to power it. When they got too tired, they napped underneath a staircase, but the pounding of feet overhead made it hard to stay asleep for long.

Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, five and a half weeks after setting to work, the reengineered Smart was fully assembled. Straubel got in the driver’s seat and switched on the power. He goosed the accelerator and rocketed out of the garage and into the parking lot. When Straubel floored it, the front wheels lifted off the ground and the back tires left marks on the asphalt.

Straubel called Musk and told him the car was ready for the Germans.

The Daimler executives sat down in Tesla’s conference room midmorning on January 16, 2008. Musk walked them through a PowerPoint presentation that explained the advantages of the Roadster’s technology. Kohler wasn’t impressed. He wasn’t here to talk about a flashy, limited-run show car. He wanted to know if Tesla could mass-produce battery packs quickly for the Smart. His frosty demeanor indicated that, in his opinion, it didn’t seem likely.

“We’ve actually got something to show you,” Musk said and asked the Daimler execs to follow him.

Kohler spotted the shiny new Smart sitting in the middle of the garage and didn’t smile. It might have seemed like a gimmick at first—Musk managed to get a Smart into the US. Big deal.

“It’s electric,” Musk said.

“What do you mean?” Kohler asked.

“We put in a Tesla battery and motor.”

Kohler examined the car. Straubel had been careful not to alter its shape or interior, so it was impossible to tell that it had been modified.

Kohler got behind the wheel and Musk hopped in the passenger seat. When the German stepped on the accelerator, the car bolted out of the garage and disappeared. Straubel waited nervously with the other Daimler executives. After 15 minutes, the Smart tore back into the garage. Straubel noticed that the normally taciturn Kohler was trying hard not to smile.

“Let’s explore a partnership,” Kohler told Musk.
In January 2009, Daimler finally felt confident enough to buy 1,000 battery packs for the Smart in a deal worth more than $40 million for Tesla. Then, in May of that year, Daimler agreed to buy a nearly 10 percent stake in the company for $50 million, giving Tesla a valuation of more than $500 million. More important, a pioneer of the internal combustion engine was vouching for the tiny electric car startup.

Tom Siebel’s Walking Safari

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Billionaire Tom Siebel decided to go out for a walking safari in Tanzania with his guide, while the rest of his family took the day off — and things didn’t go so well:

I’m not certain what happened. But, all of a sudden, one of the larger female elephants just spun around and sat on her haunches and put her trunk in the air and her ears out fully extended and just bellowed at us. I don’t know if she could see us or smell us, but she pointed right at us. She paused for probably two seconds and then [made] a beeline right at us. So, this is 6 tons of elephant moving 30 miles per hour, and she could cover 200 yards in not much time…. And I would say about 4 yards in front of me the guide is standing there with his.470 double-barreled rifle….
So, the animal is closing in and the guy doesn’t shoot. Then 40 yards, and the guide doesn’t shoot. This animal’s now 20 yards [away], and the guide has not shot. At 10 yards he still hasn’t shot, and this animal is closing in… like a Caterpillar tractor coming at you…. I’d say the animal is 4 yards away and this guide then shoots and misses. It goes above its head…. Then the elephant came up to him and [with her] trunk… just threw him aside. I could hear the air decompress out of his body as the animal hurled him over maybe 10 yards to my right.
It knocked me to the ground with its trunk, it rolled me, punched me, put a tusk through my left thigh, gored it, then ripped it out sideways. It stepped on my leg, kicked my leg, broke six ribs and ripped up my shoulder…. I remember every instant of it… trying to protect my head with my arms. I remember the blows to my lower extremities, and it just hurt so bad I couldn’t believe it…. Imagine what it’s like taking an elephant tusk through the thigh… or hav[ing] a 6-ton animal step on your leg… It just snaps…. The pain was intolerable…. I had one thought: “Please, God, make this stop.”

And after a while I looked up…. The dust is settled. The elephant’s gone. Dead quiet in the Serengeti…. The guide is over there 12 yards [away], curled up in a ball, wrapped around [the]… rifle, playing dead…. Basically what happened is I got served up. So I said, “This might be a good time to reload.”… He was virtually unhurt.

It took three and a half hours for trucks to arrive from the lodge. Then he had to fly to a hospital in Nairobi. Then he had to fly 20 hours to San Jose — and found out the hard way that they had provided him with 10 hours of morphine.

One year and 16 surgeries later, he’s… better:

I still have something on my leg called an Ilizarov external fixator [to mend, lengthen and reshape] the tibia… between your ankle bone and your knee…. They’ve taken a chunk of bone out of my pelvis about the size of your fist and moved it down into my ankle to try to get it all fused together…. The prognosis is that I’ll be able to walk and run and ride a bicycle and play golf [again]….

(Hat tip to Todd.)

What Tea Partiers Really Want

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Jonathan Haidt, a liberal professor who studies people’s moral intuitions, explores what the Tea Partiers really want:

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.

In the tea partiers’ scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people — from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions — under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson’s effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.

Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police).

Now jump ahead to today’s ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers’ money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?

(Hat tip to Aretae.)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

Monday, October 18th, 2010

In Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, David Freedman looks at the work of meta-researcher John Ioannidis:

He chose to publish one paper, fittingly, in the online journal PLoS Medicine, which is committed to running any methodologically sound article without regard to how “interesting” the results may be. In the paper, Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. The article spelled out his belief that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process—in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish—to suppress opposing views. “You can question some of the details of John’s calculations, but it’s hard to argue that the essential ideas aren’t absolutely correct,” says Doug Altman, an Oxford University researcher who directs the Centre for Statistics in Medicine.

Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Left’s Delusional Narratives Regarding Vietnam

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Shannon Love has produced a lengthy list of what he considers the Left’s delusional narratives regarding Vietnam:

Delusion: The war in South Vietnam was a popular uprising against an unpopular minority government

Reality: The outcome of the Tet offensive proved this idea conclusively wrong.

Delusion: Ho Chi Min was really just a non-ideological Vietnamese nationalist who was driven to seek support from the communist superpowers by the ignorance and racism of America and France.

Reality: This myth is so ridiculous it is almost gigglingly funny. It is difficult to imagine how Ho Chi Min’s life story could have more marked him as a doctrinaire communist.

Delusion:The Tet offensive proved the US military had lied about strength and scale of support in South Vietnam for the Viet Cong.

Reality: The Tet offensive achieved surprise for the same reason Hitler’s offensive in the battle of bulge achieve surprise: The plan was based on a delusional narrative and had no chance of success.

Delusion: There were no North Vietnamese army units operating in either South Vietnam or Cambodia.

Reality: Post-Tet major combat was carried out by North Vietnamese regulars.

Delusion: The US “expanded” the war into Cambodia in 1970 and did so “illegally”.

Reality: The US had both the strategic need and the legal authority to pursue the North Vietnamese into Cambodia.

Delusion: The war was fought on the Vietnamese side by militarily outmatched but plucky and determined peasant soldiers who fought with no significant support or direction from the communist superpowers.

Reality: The support of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China was massive and decisive.

Delusion: American soliders were routinely committing wide scale atrocities in the conduct of the war.

Reality: There was no pattern of wide spread atrocities or war crimes.

Delusion: The deafening silence on the nature of communist regimes on the other side of the conflict.

Reality:The nature and intentions of all the communist regimes involed in the conflict dictated everything about the war. The “Peace” movement actively ignored that information.

Delusion:The “Peace” movement brought about peace.

Reality: This is the most tragic delusion of all. It is the reason I have been putting “Peace” in quotation marks.

Abu Dhabi scales back Masdar

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Abu Dhabi is scaling back its plans for Masdar, its $22 billion sustainable city:

Plans originally called for Masdar City to become a self-contained “carbon-neutral” community of 40,000 residents and even more commuters. Cars would be banned. Waste and water would be recycled.

It is meant to be a marked environmental contrast to other cities in the Emirates, where fuel-guzzling SUVs and year-round air conditioning powered by fossil fuel are common.

The state company behind the city said Sunday the project now won’t be completed until at least 2020 — four years after the original deadline — and that work could stretch until 2025.

The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co. — which goes by Masdar or “source” in Arabic — also backed away from original plans to power the city solely on power produced on site. The latest plans still call for the project to rely solely on renewable energy, however.

UFC president Dana White interviewed by the Telegraph at Oxford

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

There’s something a bit odd about seeing UFC president Dana White interviewed by the Telegraph at Oxford.

In Harvard We Trust?

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Devin Finbarr offers up a challenge for Progressives who prefer reading contemporary, reputable, academic sources on the issues:

Our first method to determine whether an institution is a good filter of the truth is to look at the feedback loop. I trust that the linebacker coach for the New England Patriots knows a heck of a lot more about football than me, because the NFL has a feedback loop where coaches who lose games get fired. This feedback loop does not exist in academia.

Professors in the social science to do not get fired or demoted if they get things wrong. They do not get additional grad students if they are right. The grad school and peer review process reward one thing — conforming to the current intellectual fashions. For example read here, here, and here. This is the selection process for a priesthood, not for truth. As the history of organized religion shows, when the selection process of an institution is based on ideological self-selection, the views of that institution can diverge an arbitrary amount from reality.

The second method to judge an institution or person is to look at predictions. I fired the New York Times years ago because it kept making horrible predictions. Now my blog roll is filled with people considered “cranks” by the mainstream yet they consistently make better predictions than the NY Times.
The final way to judge academia is to pick an issue and check the source material yourself. Read everything you can find — primary sources, secondary sources, victorian era sources, new sources. Look for recommendations from the far left, center, universities, far-right, and the Sith. Actually read the studies that people cite and examine the assumptions and the math. Compile your own stats, do your own calculations, and build your own toy models.

This process is extremely laborious. It’s not for the policy dilettante. But its one of the only true ways to find out if academia is properly filtering information and finding truth. You may find out that it is — you find the far out sources are indeed cranks, they are making up facts, using poor logic, making bad predictions etc. But you may find out the opposite. You find a an entire world of brilliant, perceptive sources that academia has excluded for reasons of fashion and politics. You may find that academia is not a filter for quickly finding the truth, but a priesthood that produces a black and white, cartoon version of events.

Over the past years I have subjected myself to the intellectual detoxification treatment. The results have been quite disturbing. A few years ago I was an optimistic, generally progressive, academia believing Obama voter. But as I began examining issues more closely I found the mainstream academic view to be far adrift from reality. Part of the reason I issue this challenge is so that I can get a second opinion on whether I’m crazy or everyone else is.

So my challenge to you, dear progressive reader, is to pick a topic and undergo the same intellectual detox process.
This challenge is not for everyone. Historical detective work is not most people’s favorite hobby. But if you decline the challenge, keep one thing in mind. As a progressive you may have at one point looked down on the religious folk of old, who believed whatever their priests told them without ever reading the Bible or thinking for their selves. Yet, if you believe academia without ever reading the original sources, you make the same mistake. You believe what you believe based on the thoughts of self-selected robed authority figures preaching at a unitarian seminary. Feel free to ignore the challenge and stay with the vast multitudes who believe received wisdom. But if you’re intrigued and curious, take the challenge and mold yourself into one of the true free thinkers of your age.

(Hat tip to Foseti.)

The Psychology of Taboo

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Steven Pinker gave a nine-minute speech for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on the topic of Taboo:

Thank you very much. It’s a great honor to be speaking to the Ford Hall Forum. All the more so in an event designed to honor the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

I’m an experimental psychologist. I’m interested in how the mind works, and that gives me two interests in the issue of free speech on campus. One of them is that I think that psychology is becoming the science that is most likely to get people exercised about issues that they feel have great moral and cosmological import. It used to be that people were deeply concerned about cosmology, whether the earth went around the sun or vice versa, and read profound moral implications into that debate. That pretty much got settled. Then, I think it was evolutionary biology. The battle is not quite won, but clearly, among educated people, it’s clear that that’s no longer an open issue, whether life evolved by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection.

Today, I think it is the scientific study of the mind that people tend to blend with deep moral issues. I’ll give you just a few examples of questions that have been raised by people in the field of psychology that have gotten them into trouble because even though they, in theory, are purely intellectual questions, people believe that they shake the foundations of morality.

Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Do women, on average, have a different average aptitude in mathematical reasoning than men? Are Ashkenazi Jews on average smarter than Gentiles because their ancestors had been selected for the shrewdness needed in money lending? Is morality just a gadget that evolution installed in our brains with no inherent reality? Are religious beliefs like parasites, which colonize the minds of believers? Is the average intelligence of Western nations falling because duller people are having more children than smarter people? Do men have an innate tendency to rape? Do women who give birth under difficult circumstances have an innate tendency to abandon or even kill their newborns?

Now, if you feel your blood pressure rising as you listen to this list of research questions, then you will have first-hand acquaintance with the fact that scientific or empirical questions can have moral colorings, or at least they can be perceived to have moral colorings. The people who have raised these questions have often been persecuted in ways that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is well aware of.

But as a psychologist, I have a second and deeper interest in this set of issues, which is, why does our blood pressure rise? Why did the hairs on the back of our neck stand up when we entertain purely intellectual research questions such as these?

It brings up a phenomenon called the Psychology of Taboo, the sensation that certain ideas are evil to think. Quite apart from the fact, of course, that certain actions are evil to commit, but can it be sinful even to think a thought? Now, most of us would consider ourselves above this primitive mindset. The word taboo comes from animistic beliefs in Polynesian preliterate peoples, and most of us consider ourselves above that.

If you do, I’m going to invite you to entertain the following questions in social gatherings. So when you get home tonight, you and your spouse can have the following conversation: Darling, I know that you always have been faithful and always will be faithful, but just hypothetically, if you were going to have an affair, which of my friends would it be with? Or try this: In a dinner party, ideally one of mixed ethnicity and religion, ask the question, well, of course none of us here are prejudiced, but if we were, if you were bigoted, which ethnic group would you be prejudiced against, just hypothetically? How much money would you accept to betray your best friend, to spread confidential information about him or her? Let’s say your aged parent needed an expensive medical procedure that would prolong his or her life by two months, or six months, how many thousands of dollars would you be willing to relinquish in order to grant your beloved parent those extra two months of life?

Or, a couple of examples that have been the focus of dramatic plots: Let’s say the Nazis forced you to give up one of your children, and if you refused to decide they would kill both of them, which child would you give up; of course, the plot of Sophie’s Choice. Or, if you were in financial dire straits and a wealthy man offered you a million dollars to sleep with your wife, or with you if you are a woman, would you accept? Now, there’s a joke about that — that’s of course, the plot of Indecent Proposal — where a man walking out of a movie theater with his wife said “would you sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars?” She said, “well, yes, but they would have to give me some time to come up with the money.”

Now, with these questions, the longer you think about them, the more you incriminate yourself. The answer to these questions is not to deliberate and then say, well, no, I wouldn’t want to sleep with any of your friends, or now that I think of it, there isn’t any ethnic group that I’m prejudiced against. One must reject them instantly. Just allowing them to percolate in your brain is considered morally corrosive. As a psychologist, I can recognize the function of this quirk of our psychology, namely, as we associate with other people, as we commit ourselves to our friends and our family, we care not just about what people think or what they do, but what kind of person they are.

It’s one thing if your friend or your spouse has been good to you so far, but are they always eyeing a possible better deal? Would they stab you in the back or sell you up the river as soon as the circumstances made it profitable for them? We don’t want to have to constantly ask those questions, and so we seek life partners, coalition partners, friends who are committed through and through, who would not even consider betraying us because it runs against every fiber of their makeup. That is why there is such a thing as the Psychology of Taboo, and all of those questions, which theoretically should be innocent, in fact are corrosive because they require people to think exactly the kind of thoughts that they should not think if they are committed friends, allies, family members.

Well, it makes a lot of sense from the point of view of our psychology, but now, along comes this institution called academia, or for that matter, journalism, government, the judicial system, which is, at least, nominally devoted to pursuing the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes people emotionally. Hence, we have the often emotional reactions to purely intellectual questions in all of these spheres of activity, and the dilemma of whether in these truth-seeking organizations, the right of inquiry should be absolute. That is, should we dismiss our taboo reactions as a primitive part of our psychology, which would just get in the way of the mission of these modern institutions of truth-seeking, or do they deserve some respect that carries over to these formal spheres?

I don’t know the answer to that question in every case, but I do know that left to its own devices, human nature will be more outraged, more likely to censor, more likely to be victim to the Psychology of Taboo than would be optimal for the progress of human understanding. It’s for that reason that I’m grateful that we have an organization like FIRE to push back against the tendency in human nature to squelch inquiry under the mentality of taboo. Thanks very much.

(Hat tip to Aretae.)