Forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization

October 3rd, 2021

Julia Galef, author of Scout Mindset, earned her celebrity status honestly, Scott Alexander quips, through long years of hard labor in the rationality mines:

Back in ~2007, a bunch of people interested in biases and decision-making joined the “rationalist community” centered around the group blogs Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong. Around 2012, they mostly left to do different stuff. Some of them went into AI to try to save the world. Others went into effective altruism to try to revolutionize charity. Some, like me, got distracted and wrote a few thousand blog posts on whatever shiny things happened to catch their eyes. But a few stuck around and tried to complete the original project. They founded a group called the Center For Applied Rationality (aka “CFAR”, yes, it’s a pun) to try to figure out how to actually make people more rational in the real world.

Like, a big part of why so many people — the kind of people who would have read Predictably Irrational in 2008 or commented on Overcoming Bias in 2010 — moved on was because just learning that biases existed didn’t really seem to help much. CFAR wanted to find a way to teach people about biases that actually stuck and improved decision-making. To that end, they ran dozens of workshops over about a decade, testing various techniques and seeing which ones seemed to stick and make a difference. Galef is their co-founder and former president, and Scout Mindset is an attempt to write down what she learned.

Reading between the lines, I think she learned pretty much the same thing a lot of the rest of us learned during the grim years of the last decade. Of the fifty-odd biases discovered by Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors, forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization. This last one is confirmation bias — our tendency to interpret evidence as confirming our pre-existing beliefs instead of changing our minds. This is the bias that explains why your political opponents continue to be your political opponents, instead of converting to your obviously superior beliefs. And so on to religion, pseudoscience, and all the other scourges of the intellectual world.

But she also learned that just telling people “Hey, avoid confirmation bias!” doesn’t work, even if you explain things very well and give lots of examples. What does work? Research is still ongoing, but the book concentrates on emotional and identity-related thought processes.


Instead of thinking “I’m sure global warming is fake!”, try to think in terms of probabilities (“I think there’s a 90% chance global warming is fake.”) Instead of thinking in terms of changing your mind (“Should I surrender my belief, and switch to my enemy’s belief that global warming is true”), think in terms of updating your probabilities (“Now I’m only 70% sure that global warming is fake”). This mindset makes it easier to remember that it’s not a question of winning or losing, but a question of being as accurate as possible. Someone who updates from 90% to 70% is no more or less wrong or embarrassing than someone who updates from 60% to 40%.


A lot of the best rationalists I know instinctively apply these tests to everything they think. One technique for cultivating this practice (not the book’s recommendation) is to go on Twitter, where the adage is “there’s always an old tweet”. Argue that people who say racist things should be cancelled, and someone will dig up your old racist tweet and make you defend why you shouldn’t face the same consequences. Argue that it’s disgraceful when the other party uses extreme violent language about their outgroup, and someone will dig up an old tweet where you used even more extreme language about yours. Demand that the Republican senator resign for sexual misconduct, and someone will find the old tweet where you said the Democratic senator should tough it out. Eventually, if you want to maintain any dignity at all, you learn to double-check whether your beliefs are consistent with one another or with what you’d believe in vaguely similar situations.

Scout Mindset says: why not try the same thing, even when you’re not on Twitter, just to determine what’s true?.

And one very likely answer is: because it would hurt.

Scout Mindset tries to differentiate itself from other rationality-and-bias books by caring a lot about this. It argues that, while other rationality books just told you what to do, most people wouldn’t do it; they’d be too emotionally attached to their existing beliefs. So after giving a few intellectual suggestions, it goes on a deep dive into the emotional side.


It reminds me of C.S. Lewis — especially The Great Divorce, whose conceit was that the damned could leave Hell for Heaven at any time, but mostly didn’t, because it would require them to admit that they had been wrong. I think Julia thinks of rationality and goodness as two related skills: both involve using healthy long-term coping strategies instead of narcissistic short-term ones.


Julia is trying to normalize changing your mind, to assure you that lots of great people who you respect do it, that there are whole communities out there of people who do it, that she does it and she is a TED-talk-having celebrity who you implicitly trust.

Big money for container carriers

October 2nd, 2021

Two years ago, a 40-foot container cost less than $2,000 to transport goods from Asia to the U.S:

Today the service fetches as much as $25,000 if an importer pays a premium for on-time delivery, which is a luxury. That’s translated into big money for container carriers, with the industry on track to post $100 billion in net profit this year, up from about $15 billion in 2020, says John McCown, an industry veteran and founder of Blue Alpha Capital.

Harden’s Folly

October 1st, 2021

Steve Sailer describes Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery as Harden’s Folly:

After years of trying out on the science conference circuit her arguments for why the Woke shouldn’t be so anti-genetics, The Genetic Lottery is finally here. It turns out to be an elaborately contrived triple-bank-shot attempt to head off growing Ibram X. Kendi-style science denialism by claiming that ignoring the influence of genetics upon human differences just enables the Real Bad Guys, led by archvillain Charles Murray, to easily dunk on the libs:

When social scientists routinely fail to integrate genetics into their models of human development, they leave space for a false narrative that portrays the insights of genetics as a Pandora’s box of “forbidden knowledge.”… Why would we want to hand people opposed to the goals of social equality a powerful rhetorical weapon, in the form of a widely prevalent and easily understood methodological flaw in social research?


The Genetic Lottery is all over the map. Some people try not to get canceled by adopting an obscure prose style. Harden, instead, artlessly expresses herself, and then goes back and says the opposite later.


Harden is proud of her book’s title:

A lottery is a perfect metaphor for describing genetic inheritance: the genome of every person is the outcome of nature’s Powerball.

But, except for the potential big payoff, lotteries are boring. In contrast, how a particular baby gets made is fascinating on multiple levels: scientific, sociological, romantic, and erotic. A less bad metaphor for how humans are conceived would be poker, a game that combines luck, strategy, and psychology. Murray, by the way, plays poker.

Moreover, Murray is an Aristotelian. The Greeks valued excellence not just for what it could do for the poor, but for its own sake.

This can lead to excessive Nietzscheanism. Yet, Harden’s Rawlsian conviction that society must be organized around helping the lowest potential people narrow gaps seems comparably unbalanced. The old Benthamite notion of the greatest good for the greatest number seems more sensible (but is out of fashion for its majoritarianism).

Harden propounds a sophomoric view that intelligence is “socially valued, not inherently valuable,” and follows that up with a conspiracy theory that early-20th-century eugenicists plotted to get us:

…to see intelligence (as measured on standardized IQ tests) and educational success, perhaps more than any other human phenotypes, in terms of a hierarchy of inferior and superior persons is not an accident. It is an idea that was deliberately crafted and disseminated.

In truth, intelligence has been viewed as valuable for a lot longer than that. For instance, the most famous work of ancient philosophy, Plato’s Republic, is basically about why philosophers deserve to be kings.

More reasonably, the Greeks felt it smart to invest the most in the education of the highest potential students. Thus, it used to be seen as a good thing that Plato had Socrates for a teacher and Aristotle for a pupil. Similarly, society invested heavily in the young Harden’s potential, granting her a full ride to a private college due to her high test scores.

The ideology of The Genetic Lottery seems motivated in sizable measure by Harden’s maternal feelings for her two very different children. One of her children is healthy and bright, while the other, to whom Harden devotes more of her efforts, was born with a congenital defect.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell

September 30th, 2021

I had been meaning to read the copy of The Quiet American on my shelf for some time, when I finally got the audiobook and listened to it instead. As Wikipedia explains, Greene worked as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954 and was inspired to write The Quiet American while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province in October 1951, when he was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.

The two main characters are the first-person narrator, Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years, and the quiet American of the title, Alden Pyle, an idealistic Harvard man working for the recently renamed OSS.

I wasn’t even aware of the 2002 film, but its casting seems perfect: Michael Caine as Fowler, and Brendan Fraser as Pyle. There’s a reason I hadn’t noticed its release:

The first rough cut was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. Reacting to criticism of the film’s “unpatriotic” message, Miramax shelved the film for a year. It was finally screened publicly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The film received an Oscar qualification release in November 2002 and a limited release in January 2003.

Fowler is painfully cynical, and Pyle is painfully earnest, leading to remarks like these:

  • I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
  • That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
  • Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
  • I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
  • He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.
  • God save us always from the innocent and the good.
  • They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about…

The novel seems oddly prescient — and, like Cassandra, unheeded:

However, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.

One small line from the novel caught my attention: “the restaurant had an iron grille to keep out grenades.”

Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did

September 29th, 2021

Ayn Rand pretty much failed as a philosopher, Michael Huemer says, but she was a brilliant novelist:

Most literature buffs disagree with this; indeed, most would probably say Rand was a terrible novelist. I think the reason for this is not that Rand was objectively terrible, but rather that the overwhelming majority of literature fans (especially, e.g., students and professors of literature) fall within a certain range of tastes, which are connected to their general personality traits. This is a selection effect, i.e., only people with a certain psychology choose to become literature experts.

Rand intentionally wrote a particular kind of novel, which literature people happen not to like; thus, no matter how good the novels are within that category, most literature people will hate them.

And what category was that? You might call it “the propaganda novel” (where “propaganda” is of course used in a purely descriptive sense, not as a term of abuse). They are novels designed to advance a philosophical worldview, and to do so in a clear, forceful, and (to those who might be receptive to that worldview) inspiring manner. They are not subtle, nor are they supposed to be. They are supposed to dramatize Ayn Rand’s worldview.

Leaving aside (for now) the question of whether Rand’s worldview is right, is this a worthy goal for a novel? Well, consider all the novels whose central goal is to provoke a feeling of horror (horror novels), or wonder (science fiction and fantasy), or excitement (action novels). Communicating one’s philosophy is at least as worthwhile and reasonable as those goals. Whether this counts as “literature” or not is neither here nor there.

Given that this is in principle a worthwhile thing to do, and given that that is the type of novel Rand set out to write, her works have to be judged by the standards of that genre. By those standards, she succeeds about as well as anyone has ever done. Can you think of another novel that has created as many devoted followers of a philosophical movement as Atlas Shrugged?

Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did — many would like to communicate their ideas to people all over the world, and many would like to write bestsellers. Some of the world’s smartest people have tried to do those things. Almost none of them can do it. If you or I try to do what Rand did, we will not succeed. So let’s admit that Rand had an exceptional talent for that kind of writing.

That said, I understand very well what some people hate about her writing. It is very heavy handed, black-and-white, and often angry and deliberately insulting towards people with different ideas. These characteristics, however, are part of how Rand succeeded. If she had communicated her ideas in a manner that most literature fans would like, then you would have never heard of her and we wouldn’t be talking about her now.

Rand’s most subtle novel, by the way, was her first: We the Living. It is the only of her works that features a socialist character who has integrity. It’s also far less popular than her more propagandistic novels.

In sum: Ayn Rand set out to do something that is in principle worthwhile, that hardly anyone is capable of doing, and she succeeded better than just about anyone ever has. That requires enormous talent.

Nobody will pay you more for cleaner air directly

September 28th, 2021

Alex Tabarrok finds it puzzling that there isn’t more attention given to air filtration and UV light disinfection in hospitals, since these techniques have been shown to kill superbugs:

The authors installed portable air filters with UV disinfection on two COVID hospital wards in the UK. The air was tested for viruses, bacteria and fungi before the filters were turned on, during the time the filters were on and then again after the filters were turned off.

The results:

Airborne SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the ward on all five days before activation of air/UV filtration, but on none of the five days when the air/UV filter was operational; SARS-CoV-2 was again detected on four out of five days when the filter was off.

Importantly, in addition to greatly reducing SARS-CoV-2 the portable filters and UV light also greatly reduced multiple viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens.

A commenter explains why this hasn’t become common practice already:

The main regulation rests largely on ASHRAE 170-2017. That in turn has been addended over a dozen times since the pandemic began. We have done things to change how air is handled in light of these and the more direct regulators (e.g. the Joint Commission) are adapting.

But it is not trivial to do all of this. Some hospitals have ductwork that is over a 100 years old. Adding in UV creates problems for reactive species in the air. And then there is the problem that any refits (e.g. to handle higher pressures/volumes) often means opening up the ceilings inside the ICUs or going through the floor in the the floor above. These are highly disruptive activities at the best of times. When you are (or may soon) be at or above bed capacity, well not the best time to bring in a small legion of contractors to close large areas of the hospital.

Then, yes, money is a huge thing. Funny thing is, nobody will pay you more for cleaner air directly. You might be able to eke out some sort of capital return through fewer nosocomial infections or uncharged readmissions, but those are speculative returns at this point and pretty long run things when, again, right now beds in many places are still exceptionally highly utilized. Worse, when you do open up the tubes and start mucking around there is a very high risk that you will disturb some collection of spores that has found some dark corner to accumulate in over the last few decades. When you have a bunch folks who already have respiratory compromise, this is a particularly bad time to risk that sort of contamination.

So faced with high upfront costs, a strong litigation risk, and remote cost savings, this is not a priority right now. If you want a massive overhaul of the air system right now it is going to need liability waivers and giveaways to the AHA crowd. A slower roll out via changes in ASHRAE and the like is already underway, but I figure it will be over a decade before everyone updates.

What if Audrey Hepburn played chess?

September 27th, 2021

I haven’t watched Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit, but I’ve heard good things. It never occurred to me that it was based on a 40-year-old book — which does not describe its protagonist as looking like the show’s star, Anya Taylor-Joy:

Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: “Orphaned by yesterday’s pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.”

In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to “even their dispositions.” Beth’s disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage.

Mr. Fergussen gave them the pills in a little paper cup. Along with the green one that evened the disposition, there were orange and brown ones for building a strong body. The children had to line up to get them.

Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic

September 24th, 2021

Isaac Asimov began writing his Foundation when he was in his early 20s, after reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Toynbee’s Study of History and coming up with the idea of a Science of History that predicts the future:

This is an idea that only a very young man who hasn’t much experience with how inevitably wrong his predictions will turn out to be could dream up.

On the other hand, it’s also a really interesting idea. Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic. Asimov wasn’t all that good at writing characters, but his mathematical psychohistorian Hari Seldon and The Mule who upsets Hari’s careful plans are useful shorthand references when talking about forecasting.

The smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace

September 22nd, 2021

A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed a Middle Bronze Age city — or two — in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea 3,600 years ago:

We present evidence that in ~1650 BCE (~3,600 years ago) a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall El-Hammom, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea. The proposed airburst was larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a ~50-m-wide bolide detonated with ~1,000x more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

We’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives

September 15th, 2021

Bryan Caplan explains his family’s homeschooling Odyssey:

Six years ago, I began homeschooling my elder sons, Aidan and Tristan.  They attended Fairfax County Public Schools for K-6, becoming more disgruntled with every passing year.  Even though they went to an alleged “honors” school for grades 4-6, they were bored out of their minds.  The academic material was too easy and moved far too slowly.  The non-academic material was humiliatingly infantile.  And non-academics — music, dance, chorus, art, poster projects — consumed a majority of their day.  As elementary school graduation approached, my sons were hungry for a change.

So what did we do? In consultation with my pupils, I prepared an ultra-academic curriculum. Hours of math every day. Reading serious books. Writing serious essays. Taking college classes. And mastering bodies of knowledge.


While my sons’ objective performance and subjective satisfaction in middle school were both sky-high, my wife insisted that they try regular high school. Back in those days, the political brainwashing at FCPS was modest, but the anti-intellectual pedagogical philosophy was already overwhelming. I never liked high school, but at least in my day teachers actually taught their subjects. Not so at FCPS. With the noble exception of their calculus teacher, my sons’ high school teachers just showed videos and treated teens like babies. After three weeks, my wife gave a green light to resume homeschooling.

Silver lining: Since comedy is tragedy plus time, we’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives. Yes, a kid in their Spanish class really did raise his hand and say, “Spain’s in… South America, right?”


I hired an excellent Spanish tutor to give them Spanish five days a week year-round. And I asked their tutor to use the immersion method: ¡No Inglés!

The results were phenomenal. In months, the twins started speaking exclusively Spanish to each other. The wishful thinking of, “You hate it now, but work hard and you’ll come to love it” came true for them.


In 12th grade, the college application process took over my sons’ lives. While they still prepared themselves for AP Statistics and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, filling out applications consumed almost the entire first semester. Despite everything we’d accomplished, I was nervous. The most reliable researchers I cornered told me that discrimination against homeschoolers was now mild, but short of a major lawsuit, how can anyone really find out?

To cope, I gave my sons the same advice I give everyone in this situation: Not only is admission random; funding is random as well. So throw a big pile of dice.

In response, my sons maxed out the Common App, which allows you to apply to up to 20 schools. (They also applied to Georgetown, which stubbornly refuses to join the Common App).

The college application weighed heavily on my students. I raised them to think clearly and speak bluntly. They knew to pull their punches on AP essays, but the whole college admission process is simply drenched in Social Desirability Bias. If you write a personal statement that admits, “I want to attend your school because I need a strong signal to advance my career, and you’re selling the thirteenth-best signal on the market,” you won’t be getting in. This was the one time I had to push them to do their work. Tristan averred that the academic refereeing process (four rounds of revisions!) was easy by comparison. My many pep talks largely fell on deaf ears. Still, they soldiered on, and finally resumed their actual studies. Intellectually, the highlight of their year was probably auditing my Ph.D. Microeconomics class.

Soon, college acceptances started to come in. Once the University of Virginia admitted them to their honors program, I stopped worrying. Johns Hopkins, by far the highest-ranked school in the DC area, took them as well. Then in early February, Vanderbilt offered both of them full merit scholarships. No one else came close to that deal, so that’s where they decided to go. And that’s where they are this very day. (Hi, sons!) If you see Aidan or Tristan on campus, be sure to introduce yourself. They’re not attention hogs like me, but they have much to say about anything of substance, and are hilarious once you put them at ease.

My general read: I think the median school probably did discriminate against my sons for being homeschooled. Their SATs were 99%+, their AP performance was off the charts, they ran an impressive podcast, and they had a refereed history publication. (At many schools, five such pubs would buy an assistant professor tenure!) Yet they were waitlisted by Harvard and Columbia, and rejected by all the lesser Ivies. All public schools accepted them; I don’t know if this stems from lower discrimination or just lower standards. Nevertheless, the net effect of homeschooling was almost certainly highly positive. My sons used their immense educational freedom to go above and beyond, and several top schools were suitably impressed. The critical factor at Vanderbilt, I suspect, was that their faculty, not their admissions committees, hand out academic merit scholarships.


Yes, they missed their chance to have a normal high school experience. They had something much better instead. At least in their own eyes.

New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11 sounded like he was right out of central casting

September 12th, 2021

When I listened to a recent interview with Bernard Kerik, who was New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11, he sounded like he was right out of central casting — a New York tough guy that I couldn’t quite trust.

His goes from dropping out of high school, to joining the army, to working security for the Saudi royal family, to joining the NYPD, to becoming Rudy Giuliani’s personal bodyguard, to taking over as commissioner of the city Department of Corrections, to becoming police commissioner, to being appointed Interim Minister of Interior of Iraq!

Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away

September 11th, 2021

In Red Storm Rising, Clancy makes the point that “three men and a jeep” can counter an armored breakthrough:

“Every time we break through,” Major Sergetov (the aide to General Alexseyev) observed quietly, “they slow us down and counterattack. This was not supposed to happen.”

“A splendid observation!” Alexseyev (Deputy CINC, Western Theater) snarled, then regained his temper. “We expected that a breakthrough would have the same effect as in the last war against the Germans. The problem is these new light anti-tank missiles. Three men and a jeep… can race along the road set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away. Defensive fire power was never so strong before, and we failed to appreciate how effectively a handful of rear guard troops can slow down an advancing column. Our security is based on movement…a mobile force under these conditions cannot afford to be slowed down. A simple breakthrough is not enough! We must blast a massive hole in their front and race at least twenty kilometers to be free of these roving missile crews. Only then can we switch over to mobile doctrine.”

Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

September 10th, 2021

Jocko Willink recently interviewed fellow former-SEAL Ben Milligan about his new book, By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs, which introduces the SEALs as a unit that should not exist:

How did the US Navy create a unit whose operational center of gravity is not only directed at a mission performed on the 29 percent of the earth’s surface that its ships cannot touch, but one so fraught with difficulties that most units of the Army and Marine Corps — the US military’s traditional tenants of its land operations — are not able to perform it with anywhere near the same proficiency?

Most everyone who has ever tried to casually account for the Navy’s inland creep in special operations has explained it away as simple evolution — essentially, a nearly thoughtless process of natural selection in which the Navy responded to a changing environment by inevitably adapting to new operational opportunities. As I saw firsthand, the problem with that theory is that the US military’s various branches — and no less the US Navy — are legendarily hierarchical, thus legendarily stagnant, and thus require more than just a changing environment to turn the steam pistons of inevitability. In other words, these turns are not inevitable; at least not without the backs to crank-start their own evolution in the direction their own brains decide. Which brings us to the next explanation.


Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

Men are abandoning higher education

September 9th, 2021

Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels:

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years. The divergence increases at graduation: After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

No reversal is in sight. Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year — 3,805,978 to 2,815,810 — by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools. Women make up 49% of the college-age population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.


The college gender gap cuts across race, geography and economic background. For the most part, white men — once the predominant group on American campuses — no longer hold a statistical edge in enrollment rates, said Mr. Mortenson, of the Pell Institute. Enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, according to an analysis of census data by the Pell Institute for the Journal.

There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization

September 7th, 2021

So what would persuade the unvaccinated?

A recent iteration of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey asked unvaccinated Americans about their reasons for putting off or refusing vaccination against COVID-19, and allowed them to select more than one option, resulting in a set of ranked concerns for COVID-vaccine skeptics. Just more than half of the respondents listed the potential side effects of the vaccines as a major concern. Perhaps they’ve been paying attention to the news. The New York Times recently reported that myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, is more common after COVID-19 vaccination; likewise, NPR featured a story earlier this month on university researchers looking into thousands of claims of menstrual changes following vaccination, and two days later Reuters ran a news article noting that European regulators were probing a skin rash and a pair of kidney disorders as possible side effects of the vaccines. None of these potential side effects has yet been verified by rigorous research. I think the vaccines are worth the slate of (what appear to me to be) relatively minor known risks (particularly when weighed against the risks of severe complications from getting COVID-19), and I haven’t had any sort of trouble since my Pfizer shots, which I got back in April — but that set of concerns is at least distinct from the total recalcitrance sometimes imputed to the unvaccinated.

Down the list we go: Nearly four in 10 unvaccinated Americans don’t trust the vaccines, which might be an expression of concern about either efficacy or side effects; a similar proportion want to wait and see whether they’re safe, which, again, is a deflatingly concrete concern, if not the decision I would (and did) make in the same situation. A third don’t trust the government (brothers and sisters: same here), and only then do we arrive at the just less than a quarter who don’t believe they personally need a vaccine. A rung down, after the 22 percent who aren’t sure that the vaccines are actually protective, are another 17 percent who don’t see COVID-19 as a major threat — a fairly small minority, all things considered.

What strikes me about the responses of the unvaccinated — as opposed to the tempting caricature presented by their worst representatives in pulpits and politics — is that there does seem to be significant willingness to consider vaccination, though I doubt that persuasion lies in lurid accounts of death or allegations that the unvaccinated themselves are guilty of killing those who end up infected. There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization — the god-awful inclination of each political faction to double down on its worst tendencies when opponents satirize or criticize them — worsened by the gross incentives of traditional and social media. But skepticism precludes certainty. That means there’s still openness — to the right kind of persuasion.