Keeping up with the FITs, 2/21
Emily Oster on bad studies; Ed West on a cult takeover; Vinay Prasad on real science; Bryan Caplan on externalities; John Cochrane on coercion and banking; Robert Wright on coercion and media
A reminder that FITs stands for “fantasy intellectual teams” and that these are excerpts of essays that I recommend reading in their entirety, because they model constructive intellectual discourse.
The reaction to these studies was enormously frustrating to me. Both studies are poor. And both were taken up seemingly uncritically by people whose priors they supported. People who oppose the relaxing of mask requirements pointed to the first as proving that masks work and that we should be reluctant to move away from them. People who oppose lockdowns picked up the second study as proving that lockdowns ruined lives with no benefits.
There may be merit to both of these positions. There may be evidence for both of them. But that evidence isn’t enhanced by these papers.
I usually illustrate confirmation bias by saying that when a study supports your view, you don’t examine it critically. Only when it goes against your view do you look for flaws. Oster suggests that one way to mitigate confirmation bias is to look to other side to find flaws in a study that you like, because they will be checking more carefully.
But by the fourth century an unstoppable cultural shift had been set in motion, and as Christianity’s rise continued unabated, members of the Roman elite began to lose faith in their old gods. The Christians were unquestionably intolerant towards their rivals, and shut many temples by order of the law, but what proved fatal was that people just stopped believing. . .
Then as now, however, there could be no neutral public square, and what followed was a steady ratcheting up of intolerance until in 391 the Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing of the temples. The weaker the old believers became, the less accommodating their old adversaries. Everyone believes in freedom of conscience until they’re winning.
I, too, have wondered whether it is the case that Wokeism is destined to achieve dominance in the way that Christianity achieved dominance. Which makes me interested in exploring the topic of how Christianity achieved dominance. I am guessing that it is a complicated story.
On Bari Weiss’s substack, Vinay Prasad writes,
Many experts have called for more randomized trials during the pandemic. But they were ignored. We should have studied whether social distancing works, and how much distance is ideal. We should know a lot more about who to test, why we’re testing, and how often to test. Even school closure and reopening could have been studied. Randomized trials could have turned political fights into scientific questions. Not running them was a huge failure.
I made this point very early during the pandemic. Remember when we were told that you could catch COVID from a doorknob? I demanded experimental evidence. To this day, non-pharmaceutical interventions are ordered with almost no experimental evidence.
In the past, I’ve invoked the “actions speak louder than words” maxim to dismiss a wide range of popular complaints. If you really hated Los Angeles, you’d move to another city. If you really hated the cultural effects of immigration, you’d move to a low-immigration area of the country.
. . .before taking expensive (and intrusive!) efforts to mitigate externalities, we can and should ask, “Is this the kind of externality people will get used to if we do nothing?”
Turn this around and apply it to Caplan’s libertarianism. If he really hated government intervention, he could move to a less interventionist state. We libertarians complain a lot about state coercion, but in the end we just adapt and get used to it.
If the government can monitor your transactions, freeze your assets, "sanction" you, or freeze your ability to transact, to buy or sell anything, it can quickly silence you, stop your political participation, undermine political movements or even aspiring individual politicians.
I say that in finance, the formal sector is adjacent to the government and the informal sector is adjacent to the underground economy. If banks want the government to have their back, they must be willing to deny services to organizations and activities at the behest of the government. In foreign policy, economic “sanctions” work mostly because of compliance by banks.
Perhaps we want to have government able to deny financial services to criminal organizations (but think carefully about this before you agree). On the other hand, we do not want government to be able to deny financial services to people who hold dissenting views. The problem is that nowadays, especially with COVID and with cancel culture, we have become accustomed to criminalizing the expression of dissenting views.
The podcast landscape of the future looks less wild and free than the one we have now. The small number of podcast distributors who dominate the field will be so big as to attract the attention of interest groups that want to shape their content—and so dependent on mass approval that they’ll want to avoid the wrath of those interest groups.
What Wright rather gently describes as “interest groups” Eric Weinstein terms the Distributed Information Suppression Complex. Another term I have seen recently is “The Blue Stack,” meaning people of progressive leanings who operate within government, legacy media organizations, corporate HR, university administrations, and Twitter.
Could we see the relationship between government and large media platforms become similar to that between government and large financial institutions? Will big platforms need the government to protect their franchises? To stay in good standing, will these platforms have to ban content that the government is against? Meanwhile, will platforms that do not censor be constantly battling law enforcement and suffer from reputations as being dangerous places to visit?
I think that is a plausible scenario, but there has to be widespread acceptance of the idea that voices of dissent amount to terrorism. For now, it seems to me that only the crybullies on the left are ready to treat alternative voices as outlaws. Will they ultimately succeed in suppressing dissent?