Archive for May, 2018

PDQP/qpoly = ALL

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

I’ve put up a new paper.  Unusually for me these days, it’s a very short and simple one (8 pages)—I should do more like this!  Here’s the abstract:

    We show that combining two different hypothetical enhancements to quantum computation—namely, quantum advice and non-collapsing measurements—would let a quantum computer solve any decision problem whatsoever in polynomial time, even though neither enhancement yields extravagant power by itself. This complements a related result due to Raz. The proof uses locally decodable codes.

I welcome discussion in the comments.  The real purpose of this post is simply to fulfill a request by James Gallagher, in the comments of my Robin Hanson post:

The probably last chance for humanity involves science progressing, can you apply your efforts to quantum computers, which is your expertise, and stop wasting many hours of you [sic] time with this [expletive deleted]

Indeed, I just returned to Tel Aviv, for the very tail end of my sabbatical, from a weeklong visit to Google’s quantum computing group in LA.  While we mourned tragedies—multiple members of the quantum computing community lost loved ones in recent weeks—it was great to be among so many friends, and great to talk and think for once about actual progress that’s happening in the world, as opposed to people saying mean things on Twitter.  Skipping over its plans to build a 49-qubit chip, Google is now going straight for 72 qubits.  And we now have some viable things that one can do, or try to do, with such a chip, beyond simply proving quantum supremacy—I’ll say more about that in subsequent posts.

Anyway, besides discussing this progress, the other highlight of my trip was going from LA to Santa Barbara on the back of Google physicist Sergio Boixo’s motorcycle—weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic, the tightness of my grip the only thing preventing me from flying out onto the freeway.  I’m glad to have tried it once, and probably won’t be repeating it.

Update: I posted a new version of the PDQP/qpoly=ALL paper, which includes an observation about communication complexity, and which—inspired by the comments section—clarifies that when I say “all languages,” I really do mean “all languages” (even the halting problem).

The stupidest story I ever wrote (it was a long flight)

Friday, May 18th, 2018

All the legal maneuvers, the decades of recriminations, came down in the end to two ambiguous syllables.  No one knew why old man Memeson had named his two kids “Laurel” and “Yanny,” or why his late wife had gone along with it.  Not Laura, not Lauren, but Laurel—like, the leaves that the complacent rest on?  Poor girl.  And yet she lucked out compared to her younger brother. “Yanny”? Rhymes with fanny, seriously?  If you got picked on in school half as much as Yanny did, you too might grow up angry enough to spend half your life locked in an inheritance fight.

But people mostly tolerated the old man’s eccentricities, because he clearly knew something. All through the 1930s, Memeson Audio was building the highest-end radios and record players that money could buy.  And long after he’d outdone the competition, Memeson continued to outdo himself. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he proudly unveiled a prototype of his finest record player yet, the one he’d been tinkering with in his personal workshop for a decade: the Unmistakable.  Interviewed about it later, people who attended the demo swore that you couldn’t mishear a single syllable that came out of the thing if you were 99% deaf. No one had ever heard a machine like it—or would, perhaps, until the advent of digital audio.  On Internet forums, audiophiles still debate how exactly Memeson managed to do it with the technology of the time.  Alas, just like the other Memeson debate—about which more shortly—this one might continue indefinitely, since only one Unmistakable was ever built, and that World’s Fair was the last time anyone heard it.

The day after the triumphant demonstration, a crowd cheered as Memeson boarded a train in Grand Central Station to return to his factory near Chicago, there to supervise the mass production of Unmistakables. Meanwhile Laurel and Yanny, now both in their thirties and helping to run the family firm, stood on the platform and beamed. It hadn’t been easy to grow up with such a singleminded father, one who seemed to love his radios a million times more than them, but at a moment like this, it almost felt worth it.  When Laurel and Yanny returned to the Fair to continue overseeing the Memeson Audio exhibition, they’d be the highest-ranking representatives of the company, and would bask in their old man’s reflected glory.

In biographies, Memeson is described as a pathological recluse, who’d hole himself up in his workshop for days at a time, with strict orders not to be disturbed by anyone.  But on this one occasion—as it turned out, the last time he’d ever be seen in public—Memeson was as hammy as could be.  As the train pulled out of Grand Central, he leaned out of an open window in his private car and grinned for the cameras, waving with one arm and holding up the Unmistakable with the other.

Every schoolchild knows what happened next: the train derailed an hour later.  Along with twenty other passengers, Memeson was killed, while all that remained of his Unmistakable was a mess of wires and splintered wood.

Famously, there was one last exchange. As the train began moving, a journalist waved his hat at Memeson and called out “safe travels, sir!”

Memeson smiled and tipped his hat.

Then, noticing Laurel and Yanny on the platform, the journalist yelled to Memeson, in jest (or so he thought): “if something happens, which of these two is next in line to run the business?”

The old man had never been known for his sense of humor, and seemed from his facial expression (or so witnesses would later say) to treat the question with utmost seriousness. As the train receded into the distance, he shouted—well, everyone agrees that it was two syllables. But which? With no written will to consult—one of Memeson’s many idiosyncrasies was his defiance of legal advice—it all came down to what people heard, or believed, or believed they heard.

On the one hand, it would of course be extremely unusual back then for a woman to lead a major technology firm. And Memeson had never shown the slightest interest in social causes: not women’s suffrage, not the New Deal, nothing. In court, Yanny’s lawyers would press these points, arguing that the old man couldn’t possibly have intended to pass on his empire to a daughter.

On the other hand, Laurel was his first-born child.  And some people said that, if Memeson had ever had a human connection with anyone, it was with her.  There were even employees who swore that, once in a while, Laurel was seen entering and leaving her dad’s workshop—a privilege the old man never extended to Yanny or anyone else. Years later, Laurel would go so far as to claim that, during these visits, she’d contributed crucial ideas to the design of the Unmistakable. Most commentators dismiss this claim as bluster: why would she wait to drop such a bombshell until she and Yanny had severed their last ties, until both siblings’ only passion in life was to destroy the other, to make the world unable to hear the other’s name?

At any rate, neither Laurel nor anyone else was ever able to build another Unmistakable, or to give a comprehensible account of how it worked.  But Laurel certainly has die-hard defenders to this day—and while I’ve tried to be evenhanded in this account, I confess to being one of them.

In the end, who people believed about this affair seemed to come down to where they stood—literally. Among the passengers in the train cars adjoining Memeson’s, the ones who heard him are generally adamant that they heard “Laurel”; while most who stood on the platform are equally insistent about “Yanny.”  Today, some Memeson scholars theorize that this discrepancy is due to a Doppler effect.  People on the platform would’ve heard a lower pitch than people comoving with Memeson, and modern reconstructions raise the possibility, however farfetched, that this alone could “morph” one name to the other.  If we accept this, then it suggests that Memeson himself would have intended “Laurel”—but pitch changing a word?  Really?

Today, Laurel and Yanny are both gone, like their father and his company, but their dispute is carried on by their children and grandchildren, with several claims still winding their way through the courts.

Are there any recordings from the platform?  There is one, which was lost for generations before it unexpectedly turned up again. Alas, any hopes that this recording would definitively resolve the matter were … well, just listen to the thing.  Maybe the audio quality isn’t good enough.  Maybe an Unmistakable recording, had it existed, would’ve revealed the observer-independent truth, given us a unique map from the sensory world to the world of meaning.

The Zeroth Commandment

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.” –Deuteronomy 30:19

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” –Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, 1955

I first met Robin Hanson, professor of economics at George Mason University, in 2005, after he and I had exchanged emails about Aumann’s agreement theorem.  I’d previously read Robin’s paper about that theorem with Tyler Cowen, which is called Are Disagreements Honest?, and which stands today as one of the most worldview-destabilizing documents I’ve ever read.  In it, Robin and Tyler develop the argument that you can’t (for example) assert that

  1. you believe that extraterrestrial life probably exists,
  2. your best friend believes it probably doesn’t, and
  3. you and your friend are both honest, rational people who understand Bayes’ Theorem; you just have a reasonable difference of opinion about the alien question, presumably rooted in differing life experiences or temperaments.

For if, to borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan, you “wish to pursue the question courageously,” then you need to consider “indexical hypotheticals”: possible worlds where you and your friend swapped identities.  As far as the Bayesian math is concerned, the fact that you’re you, and your friend is your friend, is just one more contingent fact to conditionalize on: something that might affect what private knowledge you have, but that has no bearing on whether extraterrestrial life exists or doesn’t.  Once you grasp this point, so the argument goes, you should be just as troubled by the fact that your friend disagrees with you, as you would be were the disagreement between two different aspects of your self.  To put it differently: there might be a billion flavors of irrationality, but insofar as people can talk to each other and are honest and rational, they should converge on exactly the same conclusions about every matter of fact, even ones as remote-sounding as the existence of extraterrestrial life.

When I read this, my first reaction was that it was absurdly wrong and laughable.  I confess that I was even angry, to see something so counter to everything I knew asserted with such blithe professorial confidence.  Yet, in a theme that will surely be familiar with anyone who’s engaged with Robin or his writing, I struggled to articulate exactly why the argument was wrong.  My first guess was that, just like typical straitjacketed economists, Robin and Tyler had simply forgotten that real humans lack unlimited time to think and converse with each other.  Putting those obvious limitations back into the theory, I felt, would surely reinstate the verdict of common sense, that of course two people can agree to disagree without violating any dictates of rationality.

Now, if only I’d had the benefit of a modern education on Twitter and Facebook, I would’ve known that I could’ve stopped right there, with the first counterargument that popped into my head.  I could’ve posted something like the following on all my social media accounts:

“Hanson and Cowen, typical narrow-minded economists, ludicrously claim that rational agents with common priors can’t agree to disagree. They stupidly ignore the immense communication and computation that reaching agreement would take.  Why are these clowns allowed to teach?  SAD!”

Alas, back in 2003, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the epistemological revolution wrought by the 280-character smackdown, so I got the idea into my head that I actually needed to prove my objection was as devastating as I thought.  So I sat down with pen and paper for some hours—and discovered, to my astonishment, that my objection didn’t work at all.  According to my complexity-theoretic refinement of Aumann’s agreement theorem, which I later published in STOC’2005, two Bayesian agents with a common prior can ensure that they agree to within ±ε about the value of a [0,1]-valued random variable, with probability at least 1-δ over their shared prior, by exchanging only O(1/(δε2)) bits of information—completely independent of how much knowledge the agents have.  My conclusion was that, if Aumann’s Nobel-prizewinning theorem fails to demonstrate the irrationality of real-life disagreements, then it’s not for reasons of computational or communication efficiency; it has to be for other reasons instead.  (See also my talk on this at the SPARC summer camp.)

In my and Robin’s conversations—first about Aumann’s theorem, then later about the foundations of quantum mechanics and AI and politics and everything else you can imagine—Robin was unbelievably generous with his time and insights, willing to spend days with me, then a totally unknown postdoc, to get to the bottom of whatever was the dispute at hand.  When I visited Robin at George Mason, I got to meet his wife and kids, and see for myself the almost comical contrast between the conventional nature of his family life and the destabilizing radicalism (some would say near-insanity) of his thinking.  But I’ll say this for Robin: I’ve met many eccentric intellectuals in my life, but I have yet to meet anyone whose curiosity is more genuine than Robin’s, or whose doggedness in following a chain of reasoning is more untouched by considerations of what all the cool people will say about him at the other end.

So if you believe that the life of the mind benefits from a true diversity of opinions, from thinkers who defend positions that actually differ in novel and interesting ways from what everyone else is saying—then no matter how vehemently you disagree with any of his views, Robin seems like the prototype of what you want more of in academia.  To anyone who claims that Robin’s apparent incomprehension of moral taboos, his puzzlement about social norms, are mere affectations masking some sinister Koch-brothers agenda, I reply: I’ve known Robin for years, and while I might be ignorant of many things, on this I know you’re mistaken.  Call him wrongheaded, naïve, tone-deaf, insensitive, even an asshole, but don’t ever accuse him of insincerity or hidden agendas.  Are his open, stated agendas not wild enough for you??

In my view, any assessment of Robin’s abrasive, tone-deaf, and sometimes even offensive intellectual style has to grapple with the fact that, over his career, Robin has originated not one but several hugely important ideas—and his ability to do so strikes me as clearly related to his style, not easily detachable from it.  Most famously, Robin is one of the major developers of prediction markets, and also the inventor of futarchy—a proposed system of government that would harness prediction markets to get well-calibrated assessments of the effects of various policies.  Robin also first articulated the concept of the Great Filter in the evolution of life in our universe.  It’s Great Filter reasoning that tells us, for example, that if we ever discover fossil microbial life on Mars (or worse yet, simple plants and animals on extrasolar planets), then we should be terrified, because it would mean that several solutions to the Fermi paradox that don’t involve civilizations like ours killing themselves off would have been eliminated.  Sure, once you say it, it sounds pretty obvious … but did you think of it?

Earlier this year, Robin published a book together with Kevin Simler, entitled The Elephant In The Brain: Hidden Motives In Everyday Life.  I was happy to provide feedback on the manuscript and then to offer a jacket blurb (though the publisher cut nearly everything I wrote, leaving only that I considered the book “a masterpiece”).  The book’s basic thesis is that a huge fraction of human behavior, possibly the majority of it, is less about its ostensible purpose than about signalling what kind of people we are—and that this has implications for healthcare and education spending, among many other topics.  (Thus, the book covers some of the same ground as The Case Against Education, by Robin’s GMU colleague Bryan Caplan, which I reviewed here.)

I view The Elephant In The Brain as Robin’s finest work so far, though a huge part of the credit surely goes to Kevin Simler.  Robin’s writing style tends to be … spare.  telegraphic.  He gives you the skeleton of an argument, but leaves it to you to add the flesh, the historical context and real-world examples and caveats.  And he never holds your hand by saying anything like: “I know this is going to sound weird, but…”  Robin doesn’t care how weird it sounds.  With EITB, you get the best of both worlds: Robin’s unique-on-this-planet trains of logic, and Kevin’s considerable gifts at engaging prose.  It’s a powerful combination.

I’m by no means an unqualified Hanson fan.  If you’ve ever felt completely infuriated by Robin—if you’ve ever thought, fine, maybe this guy turned out to be unpopularly right some other times, but this time he’s really just being willfully and even dangerously obtuse—then know that I’ve shared that feeling more than most over the past decade.  I recall in particular a lecture that Robin gave years ago in which he argued—and I apologize to Robin if I mangle a detail, but this was definitely the essence—that even if you grant that anthropogenic climate change will destroy human civilization and most complex ecosystems hundreds of years from now, that’s not necessarily something you should worry about, because if you apply the standard exponential time-discounting that economists apply to everything else, along with reasonable estimates for the monetary value of everything on earth, you discover that all life on earth centuries from now just isn’t worth very much in today’s dollars.

On hearing this, the familiar Hanson-emotions filled me: White-hot, righteous rage.  Zeal to cut Robin down, put him in his place, for the sake of all that’s decent in humanity.  And then … confusion about where exactly his argument fails.

For whatever it’s worth, I’d probably say today that Robin is wrong on this, because economists’ exponential discounting implicitly assumes that civilization’s remarkable progress of the last few centuries will continue unabated, which is the very point that the premise of the exercise denies.  But notice what I can’t say: “shut up Robin, we’ve all heard this right-wing libertarian nonsense before.”  Even when Robin spouts nonsense, it’s often nonsense that no one has heard before, brought back from intellectual continents that wouldn’t be on the map had Robin not existed.

So why am I writing about Robin now?  If you haven’t been living in a non-wifi-equipped cave, you probably know the answer.

A week ago, alas, Robin blogged his confusion about why the people most concerned about inequalities of wealth, never seem to be concerned about inequalities of romantic and sexual fulfillment—even though, in other contexts, those same people would probably affirm that relationships are much more important to their personal happiness than wealth is.  As a predictable result of his prodding this angriest hornet’s-nest on the planet, Robin has now been pilloried all over the Internet, in terms that make the attacks on me three years ago over the comment-171 affair look tender and kind by comparison.  The attacks included a Slate hit-piece entitled “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?” (though see also this in-depth followup interview), a Wonkette post entitled “This Week In Garbage Men: Incels Sympathizers [sic] Make Case for Redistribution of Vaginas,” and much more.  Particularly on Twitter, Robin’s attackers have tended to use floridly profane language, and to target his physical appearance and assumed sexual proclivities and frustrations; some call for his firing or death.  I won’t link to the stuff; you can find it.

Interestingly, many of the Twitter attacks assume that Robin himself must be an angry “incel” (short for “involuntary celibate”), since who else could treat that particular form of human suffering as worthy of reply?  Few seem to have done the 10-second research to learn that, in reality, Robin is a happily married father of two.

I noticed the same strange phenomenon during the comment-171 affair: commentators on both left and right wanted to make me the poster child for “incels,” with a few offering me advice, many swearing they would’ve guessed it immediately from my photograph.  People apparently didn’t read just a few paragraphs into my story—to the part where, once I finally acquired some of the norms that mainstream culture refuses to tell people, I enjoyed a normal or even good dating life, eventually marrying a brilliant fellow theoretical computer scientist, with whom I started raising a rambunctious daughter (who’s now 5, and who’s been joined by our 1-year-old son).  If not for this happy ending, I too might have entertained my critics’ elaborate theories about my refusal to accept my biological inferiority, my simply having lost the genetic lottery (ability to do quantum computing research notwithstanding).  But what can one do faced with the facts?

For the record: I think that Robin should never, ever have made this comparison, and I wish he’d apologize for it now.  Had he asked my advice, I would’ve screamed “DON’T DO IT” at the top of my lungs.  I once contemplated such a comparison myself—and even though it was many years ago, in the depths of a terrifying relapse of the suicidal depression that had characterized much of my life, I still count it among my greatest regrets.  I hereby renounce and disown the comparison forever.  And I beg forgiveness from anyone who was hurt or offended by it—or for that matter, by anything else I ever said, on this blog or elsewhere.

Indeed, let me go further: if you were ever hurt or offended by anything I said, and if I can make partial restitution to you by taking some time to field your questions about quantum computing and information, or math, CS, and physics more generally, or academic career advice, or anything else where I’m said to know something, please shoot me an email.  I’m also open to donating to your favorite charity.

My view is this: the world in which a comparison between the sufferings of the romantically and the monetarily impoverished could increase normal people’s understanding of the former, is so different from our world as to be nearly unrecognizable.  To say that this comparison is outside the Overton window is a comic understatement: it’s outside the Overton galaxy.  Trying to have the conversation that Robin wanted to have on social media, is a little like trying to have a conversation about microaggressions in 1830s Alabama.  At first, your listeners will simply be confused—but their confusion will be highly unstable, like a Higgs boson, and will decay in about 10-22 seconds into righteous rage.

For experience shows that, if you even breathe a phrase like “the inequality of romantic and sexual fulfillment,” no one who isn’t weird in certain ways common in the hard sciences (e.g., being on the autism spectrum) will be able to parse you as saying anything other than that sex ought to be “redistributed” by the government in the same way that money is redistributed, which in turn suggests a dystopian horror scenario where women are treated like property, married against their will, and raped.  And it won’t help if you shout from the rooftops that you want nothing of this kind, oppose it as vehemently as your listeners do.  For, not knowing what else you could mean, the average person will continue to impose the nightmare scenario on anything you say, and will add evasiveness and dishonesty to the already severe charges against you.

Before going any further in this post, let me now say that any male who wants to call himself my ideological ally ought to agree to the following statement.

I hold the bodily autonomy of women—the principle that women are freely-willed agents rather than the chattel they were treated as for too much of human history; that they, not their fathers or husbands or anyone else, are the sole rulers of their bodies; and that they must never under any circumstances be touched without their consent—to be my Zeroth Commandment, the foundation-stone of my moral worldview, the starting point of every action I take and every thought I think.  This principle of female bodily autonomy, for me, deserves to be chiseled onto tablets of sapphire, placed in a golden ark adorned with winged cherubim sitting atop a pedestal inside the Holy of Holies in a temple on Mount Moriah.

This, or something close to it, is really what I believe.  And I advise any lonely young male nerd who might be reading this blog to commit to the Zeroth Commandment as well, and to the precepts of feminism more broadly.

To such a nerd, I say: yes, throughout your life you’ll encounter many men and women who will despise you for being different, in ways that you’re either powerless to change, or could change only at the cost of renouncing everything you are.  Yet, far from excusing any moral lapses on your part, this hatred simply means that you need to adhere to a higher moral standard than most people.  For whenever you stray even slightly from the path of righteousness, the people who detest nerds will leap excitedly, seeing irrefutable proof of all their prejudices.  Do not grant them that victory.  Do not create a Shanda fur die Normies.

I wish I believed in a God who could grant you some kind of eternal salvation, in return for adhering to a higher moral standard throughout your life, and getting in return at best grudging toleration, as well as lectures about your feminist failings by guys who’ve obeyed the Zeroth Commandment about a thousandth as scrupulously as you have.  As an atheist, though, the most I can offer you is that you can probably understand the proof of Cantor’s theorem, while most of those who despise you probably can’t.  And also: as impossible as it might seem right now, there are ways that even you can pursue the ordinary, non-intellectual kinds of happiness in life, and there will be many individuals along the way ready to help you: the ones who remember their humanity and forget their ideology.  I wish you the best.

Amid the many vitriolic responses to Robin—fanned, it must be admitted, by Robin’s own refusal to cede any ground to his critics, or to modulate his style or tone in the slightest—the one striking outlier was a New York Times essay by Ross Douthat.  This essay, which has itself now been widely panned, uses Robin as an example of how, in Douthat’s words, “[s]ometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.  Douthat draws an interesting parallel between Robin and the leftist feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who recently published a beautifully-written essay in the London Review of Books entitled Does anyone have the right to sex?  In analyzing that question, Srinivasan begins by discussing male “incels,” but then shifts her attention to far more sympathetic cases: women and men suffering severe physical or mental disabilities (and who, in some countries, can already hire sexual surrogates with government support); who were disfigured by accidents; who are treated as undesirable for racist reasons.  Let me quote from her conclusion:

The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion … the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values … The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.

All over social media, there are howls of outrage that Douthat would dare to mention Srinivasan’s essay, which is wise and nuanced and humane, in the same breath as the gross, creepy, entitled rantings of Robin Hanson.  I would say: grant that Srinivasan and Hanson express themselves extremely differently, and also that Srinivasan is a trillion times better than Hanson at anticipating and managing her readers’ reactions.  Still, on the merits, is there any relevant difference between the two cases beyond: “undesirability” of the disabled, fat, and trans should be critically examined and interrogated, because those people are objects of progressive sympathy; whereas “undesirability” of nerdy white and Asian males should be taken as a brute fact or even celebrated, because those people are objects of progressive contempt?

To be fair, a Google search also turns up progressives who, dissenting from the above consensus, excoriate Srinivasan for her foray, however thoughtful, into taboo territory.  As best I can tell, the dissenters’ argument runs like so: as much as it might pain us, we must not show any compassion to women and men who are suicidally lonely and celibate by virtue of being severely disabled, disfigured, trans, or victims of racism.  For if we did, then consistency might eventually force us to show compassion to white male nerds as well.

Here’s the central point that I think Robin failed to understand: society, today, is not on board even with the minimal claim that the suicidal suffering of men left behind by the sexual revolution really exists—or, if it does, that it matters in the slightest or deserves any sympathy or acknowledgment whatsoever.  Indeed, the men in question pretty much need to be demonized as entitled losers and creeps, because if they weren’t, then sympathy for them—at least, for those among them who are friends, coworkers, children, siblings—might become hard to prevent.  In any event, it seems to me that until we as a society resolve the preliminary question, of whether to recognize a certain category of suffering as real, there’s no point even discussing how policy or culture might help to address the suffering, consistently with the Zeroth Commandment.

Seen in this light, Robin is a bit like the people who email me every week imagining they can prove P≠NP, yet who can’t even prove astronomically easier statements, even ones that are already known.  When trying to scale an intellectual Everest, you might as well start with the weakest statement that’s already unproven or non-obvious or controversial.

So where are we today?  Within the current Overton window, a perfectly appropriate response to suicidal loneliness and depression among the “privileged” (i.e., straight, able-bodied, well-educated white or Asian men) seems to be: “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum, and remove your garbage DNA from the gene pool.”  If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter.  I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted, by people who probably go to sleep every night congratulating themselves for their progressivism, their egalitarianism, and—of course—their burning hatred for anything that smacks of eugenics.

A few days ago, Ellen Pao, the influential former CEO of Reddit, tweeted:

CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?

Thankfully, even many leftists reacted with horror to Pao’s profoundly illiberal question.  They wondered about the logistics she had in mind: does she want tech companies to spy on their (straight, male) employees’ sex lives, or lack thereof?  If any are discovered who are (1) celibate and (2) bitter at the universe about it, then will it be an adequate defense against firing if they’re also feminists, who condemn misogyny and violence and affirm the Zeroth Commandment?  Is it not enough that these men were permanently denied the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the one right above physical safety); must they also be denied careers as a result?  And is this supposed to prevent their radicalization?

For me, the scariest part of Pao’s proposal is that, whatever in this field is on the leftmost fringe of the Overton window today, experience suggests we’ll find it smack in the center a decade from now.  So picture a future wherein, if you don’t support rounding up and firing your company’s romantically frustrated—i.e., the policy of “if you don’t get laid, you don’t get paid”—then that itself is a shockingly reactionary attitude, and grounds for your own dismissal.

Some people might defend Pao by pointing out that she was only asking a question, not proposing a specific policy.  But then, the same is true of Robin Hanson.

Why is it so politically difficult even to show empathy toward socially awkward, romantically challenged men—to say to them, “look, I don’t know what if anything can be done about your problem, but yeah, the sheer cosmic arbitrariness of it kind of sucks, and I sympathize with you”?  Why do enlightened progressives, if they do offer such words of comfort to their “incel” friends, seem to feel about it the same way Huck Finn did, at the pivotal moment in Western literature when he decides to help his friend Jim escape from slavery—i.e., not beaming with pride over his own moral courage, but ashamed of himself, and resigned that he’ll burn in hell for the sake of a mere personal friendship?

This is a puzzle, but I think I might know the answer.  We begin with the observation that virtually every news article, every thinkpiece, every blog post about “incels,” fronts contemptible mass murderers like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, who sought bloody revenge on a world that failed to provide them the women to whom they felt entitled; as well as various Internet forums (many recently shut down) where this subhuman scum was celebrated by other scum.

The question is: why don’t people look at the broader picture, as they’ve learned to do in so many other cases?  In other words, why don’t they say:

  • There really do exist extremist Muslims, who bomb schools and buses, or cheer and pass out candies when that happens, and who wish to put the entire world under Sharia on point of the sword.  Fortunately, the extremists are outnumbered by hundreds of millions of reasonable Muslims, with whom anyone, even a Zionist Jew like me, can have a friendly conversation in which we discuss our respective cultures’ grievances and how they might be addressed in a win-win manner.  (My conversations with Iranian friends sometimes end with us musing that, if only they made them Ayatollah and me Israeli Prime Minister, we could sign a peace accord next week, then go out for kebabs and babaganoush.)
  • There really are extremist leftists—Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-whateverists—who smash store windows, kill people (or did, in the 60s), and won’t be satisfied by anything short of the total abolition of private property and the heads of the capitalists lining the streets on pikes.  But they’re vastly outnumbered by the moderate progressives, like me, who are less about proletarian revolution than they are about universal healthcare, federal investment in science and technology, a carbon tax, separation of church and state, and stronger protection of national parks.
  • In exactly the same way, there are “incel extremists,” like Rodger or Minassian, spiteful losers who go on killing sprees because society didn’t give them the sex they were “owed.”  But they’re outnumbered by tens of millions of decent, peaceful people who could reasonably be called “incels”—those who desperately want romantic relationships but are unable to achieve them, because of extreme shyness, poor social skills, tics, autism-spectrum traits, lack of conventional attractiveness, bullying, childhood traumas, etc.—yet who’d never hurt a fly.  These moderates need not be “losers” in all aspects of life: many have fulfilling careers and volunteer and give to charity and love their nieces and nephews, some are world-renowned scientists and writers.  For many of the moderates, it might be true that recent cultural shifts exacerbated their problems; that an unlucky genetic dice-roll “optimized” them for a world that no longer exists.  These people deserve the sympathy and support of the more fortunate among us; they constitute a political bloc entitled to advocate for its interests, as other blocs do; and all decent people should care about how we might help them, consistently with the Zeroth Commandment.

The puzzle, again, is: why doesn’t anyone say this?

And I think the answer is simply that no one ever hears from “moderate incels.”  And the reason, in turn, becomes obvious the instant you think about it.  Would you volunteer to march at the front of the Lifelong Celibacy Awareness Parade?  Or to be identified by name as the Vice President of the League of Peaceful and Moderate Incels?  Would you accept such a social death warrant?  It takes an individual with extraordinary moral courage, such as Scott Alexander, even to write anything whatsoever about this issue that tries to understand or help the sufferers rather than condemn them.  For this reason—i.e., purely, 100% a selection effect, nothing more—the only times the wider world ever hears anything about “incels” is when some despicable lunatic like Rodger or Minassian snaps and murders the innocent.  You might call this the worst PR problem in the history of the world.

So what’s the solution?  While I’m not a Christian, I find that Jesus’ prescription of universal compassion has a great deal to recommend it here—applied liberally, like suntan lotion, to every corner of the bitter “SJW vs. incel” online debate.

The usual stereotype of nerds is that, while we might be good at memorizing facts or proving theorems or coding up filesystems, we’re horrendously deficient in empathy and compassion, constantly wanting to reduce human emotions to numbers in spreadsheets or something.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I’ve scarcely encountered any stereotype that rings falser to my experience.  In my younger, depressed phase, when I was metaphorically hanging on to life by my fingernails, it was nerds and social misfits who offered me their hands up, while many of the “normal, well-adjusted, socially competent” people gleefully stepped on my fingers.

But my aspiration is not merely that we nerds can do just as well at compassion as those who hate us.  Rather, I hope we can do better.  This isn’t actually such an ambitious goal.  To achieve it, all we need to do is show universal, Jesus-style compassion, to politically favored and disfavored groups alike.

To me that means: compassion for the woman facing sexual harassment, or simply quizzical glances that wonder what she thinks she’s doing pursuing a PhD in physics.  Compassion for the cancer patient, for the bereaved parent, for the victim of famine.  Compassion for the undocumented immigrant facing deportation.  Compassion for the LGBT man or woman dealing with self-doubts, ridicule, and abuse.  Compassion for the nerdy male facing suicidal depression because modern dating norms, combined with his own shyness and fear of rule-breaking, have left him unable to pursue romance or love.  Compassion for the woman who feels like an ugly, overweight, unlovable freak who no one will ask on dates.  Compassion for the African-American victim of police brutality.  Compassion even for the pedophile who’d sooner kill himself than hurt a child, but who’s been given no support for curing or managing his condition.  This is what I advocate.  This is my platform.

If I ever decided to believe the portrait of me painted by Arthur Chu, or the other anti-Aaronson Twitter warriors, then I hope I’d have the moral courage to complete their unstated modus ponens, by quietly swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills.  After all, Chu’s vision of the ideal future seems to have no more room for me in it than Eichmann’s did.  But the paradoxical corollary is that, every time I remind myself why I think Chu is wrong, it feels like a splendorous affirmation of life itself.  I affirm my love for my wife and children and parents and brother, my bonds with my friends around the world, the thrill of tackling a new research problem and sharing my progress with colleagues, the joy of mentoring students of every background and religion and gender identity, the smell of fresh-baked soft pretzels and the beauty of the full moon over the Mediterranean.  If I had to find pearls in manure, I’d say: with their every attack, the people who hate me give me a brand-new opportunity to choose life over death, and better yet to choose compassion over hatred—even compassion for the haters themselves.

(Far be it from me to psychoanalyze him, as he constantly does to me, but Chu’s unremitting viciousness doesn’t strike me as coming from a place of any great happiness with his life.  So I say: may even Mr. Chu find whatever he’s looking for.  And while his utopia might have no place for me, I’m determined that mine should have a place for him—even if it’s just playing Jeopardy! and jumping around to find the Daily Doubles.)

It’s a commonplace that sometimes, the only way you can get a transformative emotional experience—like awe at watching the first humans walk on the moon, or joy at reuniting with a loved one after a transatlantic flight—is on top of a mountain of coldly rational engineering and planning.  But the current Robin Hanson affair reminds us that the converse is true as well.  I.e., the only way we can have the sort of austere, logical, norm-flouting conversations about the social world that Robin has been seeking to have for decades, without the whole thing exploding in thermonuclear anger, is on top of a mountain of empathy and compassion.  So let’s start building that mountain.

Endnotes. Already, in my mind’s eye, I can see the Twitter warriors copying and sharing whichever sentence of this post angered them the most, using it as proof that I’m some lunatic who should never be listened to about anything. I’m practically on my hands and knees begging you here: show that my fears are unjustified.  Respond, by all means, but respond to the entirety of what I had to say.

I welcome comments, so long as they’re written in a spirit of kindness and mutual respect. But because writing this post was emotionally and spiritually draining for me–not to mention draining in, you know, time—I hope readers won’t mind if I spend a day or two away, with my wife and kids and my research, before participating in the comments myself.

Update (May 7). Numerous commenters have successfully convinced me that the word “incel,” though it literally just means “involuntary celibate,” and was in fact coined by a woman to describe her own experience, has been permanently disgraced by its association with violent misogynists and their online fan clubs.  It will never again regain its original meaning, any more than “Adolf” will ever again be just a name; nor will one be able to discuss “moderate incels” as distinct from the extremist kind.  People of conscience will need to be extremely vigilant against motte-and-bailey tactics—wherein society’s opinion-makers will express their desire for all “incels” to be silenced or fired or removed from the gene pool or whatever, obviously having in mind all romantically frustrated male nerds (all of whom they despise), and will fall back when challenged (and only when challenged) on the defense that they only meant the violence-loving misogynists.  For those of us motivated by compassion rather than hatred, though, we need another word.  I suggest the older term “love-shy,” coined by Brian Gilmartin in his book on the subject.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out this comment by “Sniffnoy” for many insightful criticisms of this post, most of which I endorse.