Hot take: When “woke” really is harmful

[Note: this essay started out as an answer on Quora.]

I’m about to say something a lot of my fellow liberals might find upsetting:

Some people who complain about “woke ideology” are actually kinda sorta right, though for entirely the wrong reasons.

Before you pick up the torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

No, the conservatives who whine and cry and have their little meltdowns about “woke Disney” for making movies with characters who aren’t straight white Christians are completely wrong, obviously. But some complaints about “woke,” while they’re farcical—even laughable—on their face, have, if you gig down deep enough, a teeny tiny kernel of truth, or at least truth-adjacent material, buried under the layers of racism and sexism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and white supremacy and all that other bullshit that spews from the lower orifice of the conservative snowflakes.

Liberals can get so attached to the underdog that we actually forget that even people who have been on the receiving end of systemic oppression are human, and like all humans, are capable of occasional shitty behavior.

Image: Marco Bianchetti

The problem is one of nuance.

Well, okay, cognitive effort and nuance, really.

Human beings are really bad at both. I mean really bad. Liberals like to go after conservatives for following the herd and doing as they’re told, yet liberals do the same thing—it simply expresses differently.

Conservatives who moan and cry about “woke ideology” are, often as not, just mouthing the words and feeling the emotions they’re instructed to by the people above them. Ask any of the conservatives what “woke” actually means and you’ll get crickets as an answer. They legit don’t know. They have no idea what “woke” means, any more than that know what “socialism” is. They’re simply told that the enemy tribe is bad because they’re woke, and they accept it because that’s what they do.

Ask a liberal what “woke” means, or ask a conservative attorney under oath what “woke” means, and you’ll get an answer like “aware of institutionalized, systemic injustice, and motivated by the need to address them.”

Which is true.


The place we liberals go off the rails is that we are just as intellectually lazy as conservatives, it’s just that our laziness manifests differently.

Make no mistake about it, we liberals are every bit as intellectually lazy as we accuse conservatives of being. (Image: Wavebreaker Media.)

At the end of the day, it’s about cognitive effort. People don’t like cognitive effort. It’s work, just like physical effort. We look for labor-saving shortcuts whenever we can.

Conservatives tend toward vertical hierarchy. The labor-saving shortcut they use is submission to recognized authority. They think and believe what they’re told by the people they recognize as leaders to think and believe.

Liberals tend toward horizontal social structure. The labor-saving shortcuts we use are “oppressed people right and good, oppressors wrong and bad.” We think and believe whatever fits that narrative.

The key component of being “woke” is recognizing that yes, systemic, structural, institutional oppression exists. It’s sometimes overt, it’s more often subtle, but it’s there and it’s quite real. It’s hard for those of us who benefit from it to see, because it’s part of the environment we exist in; almost by definition, institutional systems of oppression are designed to be invisible to the privileged class. It takes active effort just to see them, at least when you’re the beneficiary.

When you do that, you start seeing the same patterns replay over and over and over again. And that makes you lazy.

It’s the same laziness, ironically, of the police officer who engages in racial profiling. You turn off your brain. You see patterns, you’re like “yeah, that fits,” you don’t dig any deeper. Gradually, the people you see as on the receiving end of systemic oppression become Always Right. The people you see who benefit from systemic oppression become Always Wrong. You stop seeing individuals and start seeing narratives.

Which is exactly the mindset that leads to those structures in the first place.

And I mean, I’ve done this. I’m not claiming any special insight or immunity here. Basically, when we hear a story, we do exactly what we accuse conservatives of doing:

  • We don’t fact-check
  • We engage in thought-terminating cliches
  • We lead with our feelings
  • We let narratives blind us to nuance and detail

Basically, we side with the perceived underdog, always and completely. We commit the gravest of sins that we critique in conservatives: we allow stereotypes and preconceptions to determine who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.

And yes, the critiques of ‘woke’ leveled by conservatives tend to be incoherent, a confused, unintelligible mishmash of name-calling and unintelligible “everything I don’t like is woke!”

This meme is legit how a lot of critiques of “woke” end up landing:

So we congratulate ourselves that that means our philosophy is unassailable by reasoned critique. Which is most definitely is not.

Some thoughts on truth

Image by Fotogoestober on Adobe Stock

Inspired by a question on Quora, I’ve been thinking about the idea of truth, and more specifically, the way societies seem to have an eccentric orbit around the truth—sometimes closer in, sometimes further away.

The United States, at the moment, is definitely at an apogee in its extremely elliptical orbit around the truth. At the moment, large parts of the American population, raised in a society that has attacked and undermined public education and critical thinking for decades, is of the opinion that truth is merely another opinion, and facts are whatever you want them to be. Don’t like the facts as they are? Come on down to Post Truth Incorporated, where we have 100% organic free-range no-cage alternative facts to suit every budget, agenda, and political ideology!

The pendulum doesn’t swing back and forth

A lot of folks think of society as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between two poles. This cyclic model of society suggests that countries or cultures swing back and forth between two poles, often liberalism and conservatism, but the overall tendency as time goes on is generally ‘forward,’ whatever ‘forward’ means.

I would like to propose that this is codswallop.

It’s overly simplistic. Societies don’t swing back and forth, and the poles are never fixed.

Instead, I think the truth is a strange attractor around which the trajectory of a society warps and bends, sometimes near, sometimes far, always in motion. The exact path the society takes is highly sensitive to that society’s origin myth, and varies with everything from current local politics to natural disasters to pop music trends.

Pretty much exactly like this:

Lorenz attractor (image: CC-BY

This means you could take snapshots of a society’s history, like paragraphs out of the society’s history books, and treat the pile of snapshots like a Poincaré map of that society’s eccentric orbit around the truth.

Mythologies are necessary for social identity, every culture will have one, and subtle variations in a society’s founding myth can have huge effects on its path around the attractor of truth. A society that, for example, idolizes the myth of the Rugged Individualist may at some point along its trajectory bend in the direction of the notion that truth is a matter of personal opinion, not empirical fact. A society that enshrines the value that belief in God is vital to being a good citizen might find itself pulled toward the attractor of authoritarian religion as it flows along its course.

But these attractions are never as simple as a pendulum swing. Too many variables, too many competing ideas go into a society’s culture. Just as you can never set foot in the same river twice, for when you return both you and the river will have changed, a society cannot revisit the same moment twice, however much its members may long for the nostalgic past.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s probably true over great stretches of time, years to centuries to millennia, but the loops and bends away from that direction happen all the time, drawn by the irresistible tropism toward Rugged Individualism, Somebody Else’s Problem, xenophobia, profiteering, fear, and the urge toward authoritarianism that seems baked into us as a species.

Right now, we’re on one of those crazy slingshots away from truth, in an era where American Republican operatives sneeringly refer to the opposition as the “reality-based contingent” and offer “alternative facts.”

For those of us trapped on this arc, it’s small comfort that given another 40, 50 years, the moral arc of the universe may once again bend back toward justice. So…let’s be kind out there.

Stochastic Terror as a Tool of Conformity

In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.

What is stochastic terrorism? defines it as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted

It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.

Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”

This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.

Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.

All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.

Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.

Stochastic bullying

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:

People like to bully.

People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.

Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.

People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.

Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.

The Story

Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.

All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:

  1. All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
  2. Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
  3. The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.

It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.

Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.

So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.

Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”

You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted

This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”

I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.

I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.

And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.

The Bank Robber’s Gun

Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.

Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.

No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.

So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.

Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.

So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:

  1. He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
  2. He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
  3. Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.

Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.

He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .

What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?

That’s how stochastic bullying works.

And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.

Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable

There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

The larger lesson here is this:

Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.

And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.

But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?

Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?

So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.

What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?

This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.

Bumper Sticker Morality

“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.

But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.

“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”

When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).

Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)

Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility

As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.

Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.

Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’

But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.

And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Will no one do something about this conference?

It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.

Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.

But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.

And we all lose.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on and run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on and increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

The Baloney Detection Kit: An update to the classic

In 1995, scientist and educator Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is a manifesto of clear, rational thinking. If you’re at all interested in understanding the physical world or, more importantly, understanding how to understand the physical world, you really need to read this book.

Seriously. I mean you. Go get a copy.

One of the many brilliant things in The Demon-Haunted World is the Baloney Detection Kit. In a chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Sagan lays out an excellent set of rules for determining whether or not you’re being hoodwinked by pseudoscience–luncheon meat masquerading as knowledge.

I am not and never will be as brilliant as Carl Sagan. However, he lived in a time when pseudoscience, and specifically conspiracy theories about science, were not nearly as endemic in the public discourse as they are today.

So I would modestly like to propose an update to the Baloney Detection Kit.

Here’s the updated version:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise).
  • When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
  • Do not continue to make arguments that have already been discredited.
  • Do not trust a hypothesis that relies on a conspiracy to conceal the truth.
  • Arguments that rely on anecdotal evidence or have not been subject to peer review are not reliable.
  • While scientific consensus is not always correct, a hypothesis that contradicts the general consensus should be treated skeptically.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
Click on the image for a (much) embiggened version!

GMohno! Part 3: “Because Monsanto”

It’s an article of faith among certain people that Monsanto, Inc, the American seed company, is inherently and intrinsically evil. And not just evil in the way that you might say any large corporation is “evil,” in that it’s an organization of people with a vested interest in the organization’s survival, but maliciously evil–deliberately and vindictively harmful to others and to society as a whole.

So pervasive is this attitude that it’s accepted even by folks who don’t have a particular problem with GM food or agricultural biotechnology.

I can’t really complain about the folks who accept this idea. I used to be one of them. For many years, my conversations about GM food took the form “I think that genetic modification is a valuable tool for feeding a world of billions, and there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever that GM foods are in any way harmful or dangerous, even though I think Monsanto is evil.”

I couldn’t really put my finger on why I thought they were evil. I just knew they were. It was an idea I’d heard so often and was so pervasive I accepted it as true. (There is a quote that runs “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” It’s often erroneously attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels, though there’s no documentation that he ever said it; the idea appears to have been around for quite a while.) I consider myself a skeptic and a rationalist, but I am still not immune to accepting things without evidence merely because I have heard them often enough.

In fact, it was during an effort to prove how evil Monsanto is that I started to realize many of the things I’d believed about the company were wrong. Someone in an online debate had challenged me to support the idea that Monsanto is an evil company, and I’m rarely one to turn away from a challenge to what I believe. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “A few minutes and a half-dozen links ought to be enough. This ought to be about as hard as proving that Moscow is a city in Russia.”

If you Google “Monsanto evil,” you’ll find a vast river of hysterical Web sites that scream Monsanto’s vileness to the heavens, usually accompanied by ridiculous and emotionally manipulative pictures like this:

But this river of Google effluent is about as persuasive as a Flat Earth Society page, and I reasoned that if I wouldn’t find the source credible myself, it would be disingenuous to try to use it to support my argument. Besides, I thought, I didn’t need to cite crap sources like that–there was plenty of legitimate support for Monsanto’s encyclopedic catalog of evil from reputable sources.

So I kept going, past the Googlerrhea of sites like NaturalNews and GMOwatch, looking for the clear and obvious evidence I knew would be there. I had heard all the standard arguments, naturally, and was quite confident they would be easy to support.

It turned out to be not so simple after all. In fact, the deeper I got, the more Monsanto’s supposed “evil” started to look like smoke and mirrors–propaganda fabricated from the flimsiest of cloth by people frightened of agricultural technology.

First, I thought Monsanto was enormous. It’s not. As corporations go, it’s actually not all that big. It’s about the same size as Whole Foods. It’s smaller than Starbucks and The Gap. It’s way smaller than UPS and 7-11. (In fact, I wrote a blog post about that last year.) As of the middle of 2014, Monsanto’s size compared to other corporations looked like this:

In fact, this graph is now out of date; as of the last quarter of 2014, Whole Foods is significantly larger in terms of revenue than Monsanto. (People who believe that little guys like Whole Foods are sticking it to the big bad megacorps like Monsanto likely don’t realize what they’re doing is merely supporting one giant megacorp over another.)

Then I read the company’s history, and learned that when people talk about things like how Monsanto made Agent Orange, they’re showing ignorance of a simple fact I also used to be ignorant of: there are, in a real sense, two Monsantos.

A Tale of Two Companies

The first Monsanto was Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured food additives, industrial chemicals, and plastics. This Monsanto no longer exists. In the late 1990s, it developed the drug Celebrex. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, bought Monsanto in 2002 because they wanted to capture Celebrex, a profitable and popular drug for treating arthritis.

Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company. As a pharmaceutical company, it’s not especially interested in being in agribusiness. In 1996, Monsanto (the chemical company) had bought an agricultural company, but Pfizer didn’t want to keep the agricultural business. So after the purchase of Monsanto, Pfizer spun off the agricultural business as a new company, which kept the old name Monsanto. This new Monsanto was entirely distinct from the old: new board, new directors, new business model, new bylaws, new incorporation. In what would prove an ill-fated decision, it kept the name “Monsanto,” which Pfizer also wasn’t interested in, to avoid having to rebrand itself. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost $40 million.

Was the old Monsanto evil? A case can be made that Monsanto (the chemical company) was a ruthless competitor. But a lot of the charges levied against it by the “Monsanto is evil” crowd turn out not to be true.

Monsanto invented saccharin? Not so fast

One of the claims I’ve heard many, many times is that Monsanto invented saccharin, the artificial sweetener. This is so far from true it’s “not even wrong,” as the saying goes. Saccharin was invented in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg of Johns Hopkins University. It was first manufactured in Magdeburg, Germany. Monsanto was one of many saccharin producers until 1972, but the claim they “invented” it is absolutely false.

In fact, these days, “Monsanto invented saccharin” is a litmus test I use in conversations with anti-Monsanto activists. If someone trots out this chestnut, I know he’s a person who can’t be arsed to do even a simple Wikipedia search to support his ideas. He is the sort of person who blindly accepts anything that supports his existing beliefs, and I stop talking to him.

Monsanto and Agent Orange

This is another factoid routinely trotted out to prove Monsanto’s despicable evil. Only an evil company could invent and manufacture so foul a substance as Agent Orange, right?

Well, Monsanto didn’t invent Agent Orange. It was invented by the US Army in 1943–the notion that Monsanto created it is another of those litmus tests I use to determine whether someone is interested in doing even the most rudimentary fact-checking or not.

During the Vietnam War, Monsanto wasn’t even the main contractor that manufactured Agent Orange–that dubious honor belongs to Dow. Monsanto was one of many overflow suppliers the government used when Dow couldn’t make it fast enough; the others included Uniroyal (the tire manufacturer), Thompson-Hayward Chemicals (now Harcros Chemical Co), Hercules (now Ashland Inc), the Diamond Shamrock Corporation (now Valero Energy Corporation), and Thomson Chemical Company.

It’s interesting that folks will tell you “Monsanto is evil because Agent Orange,” but not “don’t buy tires from Uniroyal; they’re evil because Agent Orange.” It is, sadly, a truism that we will use an argument to support a position we already believe even when that argument applies equally well to a premise we aren’t invested in.

Monsanto and glyphosate

The notion that glyphosate is bad is accepted as self-evident by many folks who oppose GMOs, and I’ve often heard a circular argument used in discussions about glyphosate resistance: Monsanto is evil because they make glyphosate, and glyphosate is evil because it’s made by Monsanto.

Monsanto (the chemical company) was only incidentally interested in agribusiness. Monsanto (the chemical company) developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970. The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company). Pfizer wasn’t interested in making herbicides, so Monsanto (the seed company) kept the glyphosate business. They still make glyphosate today, but they’re not a huge manufacturer–because the patent has expired, most glyphosate manufacture these days is by other companies in China.

Old Monsanto aside, the new Monsanto is still evil!

So what about Monsanto (the seed company)? I keep reading tons of stories about how evil it is, but when I go to validate those stories, they tend to turn out not to be true.

A lot of folks fear GMOs, for the same reasons a lot of folks fear vaccines–there’s a lot of bad info out there. Some of it (like “GMOs aren’t tested” or “GMOs cause cancer”) is demonstrably false.

Monsanto gets a lot of its bad reputation on the basis that it makes GMOs and people are frightened of GMOs. A lot of other companies also make GMOs, but Monsanto is singled out for special hate, even though it’s not the biggest company in the GMO business (Syngenta, for instance, is bigger).

Another common argument on the “Monsanto is evil” side of the fence is that Monsanto patents seeds. If a corporation can control our seeds they can control our food! That’s clearly evil, right?

I touched on plant patents briefly in part 1 of this series. A lot of folks don’t understand plant patents, but many foods–including organic and conventional produce–is patented. (Yes, you read that right. The 100% organic, all-natural kale you buy at Whole Foods is patented.) Any kind of new seedline–whether GMO, hybrid, conventional, or organic, can be patented. The first plant patents in the world were issued in the 1800s; the first plant patents in the United States were issued in the 1930s…long before GM technology existed.

And not all GM food is patented.

If you want to argue that patenting plants is a bad idea, by all means, make your argument. But don’t get confused. That argument has nothing to do with Monsanto and nothing to do with GM food.

Saving Seeds and Monsanto Lawsuits

Once you get through the clearly false claims about saccharin and Agent Orange and patents, you start encountering the second wave of arguments for Monsanto’s evil evilness of evil, which usually ride into battle under one of two banners: “Monsanto doesn’t let farmers save seeds!” and “Monsanto sues farmers for accidental contamination!”

Here is where I believed I would find some real meat–some genuine, clear-cut evidence that Monsanto is bad news.

That evidence turned out to be a mirage–I saw it glittering on the horizon, but when I got close, there was nothing there but sand.

Now, it is true that farmers can’t save seeds from patented crops. This isn’t a GM issue; farmers also can’t save seeds from patented organic or conventional crops either. They also can’t save seeds from hybrid crops (seeds from hybrid crops don’t tend to breed the desired traits reliably, as I talked about in part 1). But I grew up in a farm town, and I’ve never met a farmer who wants to save seeds. It’s bad for business. Seeds are one of the cheapest parts of running a farm. Farmers who save seeds have to dry, process, and store them. Farmers who buy seeds get a guarantee that the seeds will grow; if they don’t, the seed company will pay them.

As for the idea that Monsanto is evil because they sue farmers for accidental contamination of their fields. I looked, but I couldn’t find any court cases of this. I did find court cases where farmers denied stealing seeds and said it must be contamination, but in all those cases, a jury or the court found they were lying. (Protip: If someone inspects your field and 98% of the plants growing on it are a patented variety, that’s not accidental contamination.)

Monsanto neonicotinoid GMO dead bees!

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about GM plants. And, unfortunately, that confusion tends to lead to a lot of conflation about entirely unrelated issues.

One complaint I’ve heard many times, including in the comments on an earlier part of this series, is Monsanto is evil because their GMO seeds are coated in neonicotinoid insecticides that kill bees.

It’s hard, at first glance, to tell where to begin to untangle this snarl, because it confuses entirely unrelated things into a tangled mess of misinformation and error.

I mean, yes, neonics might be harmful to bees, possibly, but…er, um…

…that technology was developed by Bayer, not Monsanto.

And it has nothing to do with GMOs. Neonics are insecticides, not herbicides. They are not poisonous to plants; you don’t need to engineer plants to resist them. (In fact, they are derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide made by plants. The name “neonicotinoid” literally means “new nicotine.”) Neonicotinoids are seed coatings–they’re applied to seeds after the seeds are collected, not produced by the seeds themselves.

Of course, all this information is irrelevant in the face of the final, last-ditch argument put forward by Monsanto’s detractors…

It’s all a conspiracy, man

The conspiracy theory is the final sanctuary of the person with no arguments. It’s an attempt to discredit an argument without looking at the argument directly, and also poison the well, by claiming that anyone who supports the dies of some debate you don’t support is in league with a sinister and all-encompassing evil.

I’ve received emails–many emails–from my blog posts about GM foods, asking me how much money Monsanto is paying me to write them.

The idea Monsanto has paid off all the world’s scientists to engage in a vast conspiracy to say GMOs are safe when they’re really not is so absurd as to be farcical. Look, ExxonMobil is enormous compared to Monsanto, and with their vast piles of money they can’t pay off all the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing! If ExxonMobil can’t afford to pay off scientists, how can a company that makes less money than Whole Foods?

So after looking into it, I was forced to change my mind and conclude that Monsanto (the seed company) isn’t particularly evil, at least not in a way that other corporations aren’t. ConAgra might be more evil, if you look at biotech companies. But Monsanto (the seed company)? Not so much.

Now if you’ll excise me, I’m off to buy another Lamborghini with the shill bucks Monsanto just paid me.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Some thoughts on porn, coercion, and the Fundamental Reconstruction Error

If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

“Porn performers are coerced and trafficked,” someone will say. “Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn.”

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don’t know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite “studies” they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I’ve read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study’s authors define a “traffick victim” as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a “trafficking victim” according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this “women-as-victims” narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get “groomed” to do abusive porn.

I’ve seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims–sure, “mainstream” porn (whatever that is–I would say there really isn’t any such thing as “mainstream” porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn’t inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That’s clearly abuse!–and for a long time, I’ve simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is “normal” or “not normal” around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I’ve started thinking there’s something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don’t directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don’t directly address: the starvation model of sex work.

The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn’t make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they’ve ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always “no.” And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren’t there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do “abusive” sex work, then the same thing holds–the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I’m looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn’t choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.

Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: “That guy just cut me off because he’s a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn’t see it.”

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we’re doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation–not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it–not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that’s just because they think it’s the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That’s disgusting, he said. No man–no man, no man ever–would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there’s something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man–if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. “Nobody likes,” “everybody wants,” “nobody would,” “everybody thinks”–all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean “I don’t like,” “I want,” “I wouldn’t,” and “I think.”

“You must be damaged in order to be gay” really means “nobody would want to be gay,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be gay.”

“All sex workers are victims” really means “nobody would want to be a sex worker,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be a sex worker.”

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn’t get explicitly mentioned because it’s wired so deep it doesn’t even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn’t do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be–it follows inevitably that it has to be–that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded–because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.

I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others–and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they’re lying, believe them–even if you don’t understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying “oh, that driver is an asshole” or “oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff”–I would stop and say “huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?”

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it’s “all X are victims” or “all X are damaged goods,” is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?

GMohno! Part 2: Food safety

It’s much too early in the morning. You stumble blearily out of bed and put on the hot water for a nice cup of tea, or perhaps flip on the percolator to brew some coffee. Unfortunately, your morning beverage is laced with a poisonous chemical that keeps the crop from being eaten by insects–an insecticide that is toxic not only to bugs, but to humans too.

You go out to lunch. The server recommends the rainbow salad, which unknown to you, also contains a number of insect-killing chemicals. Your workmate from across the hall–you know, the one who always plays the stereo too loud and makes that weird snorting sound when he laughs–skips the salad in favor of a nice, healthy ginger tofu with peanut sauce. Sounds healthy? It, too, contains pesticide chemicals, even though there’s a little “organic” sticker on the menu right next to it.

Sound scary? We’ll come back to that in a bit.

One of the objections that people have about GM food is the idea that it’s intrinsically less healthy than normal or organic food. Fears about health and food safety are sometimes hysterical, as when Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa banned all GM food imports and destroyed donated food over GM fears in 2002, even though his country was facing a famine and millions were at risk of starvation, and sometimes more muted, as when people try to link GM food to cancer.

Food safety is absolutely a legitimate and valid concern. Imagine, for instance, what people might reasonably say if a strain of genetically modified zucchini were linked to widespread cases of illness. In our hypothetical example, if it were shown that something intrinsic to the zucchini–not an insecticide or herbicide the zucchini had been modified to resist, but a compound actually produced by this strain of zucchini itself–sickened people, we might expect that folks would voice some concerns about the safety of genetic modification.

And that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

This hypothetical case isn’t actually hypothetical. In 2003, a number of people in New Zealand were hospitalized by an outbreak of food poisoning linked to zucchini. Environmentalists jumped on the story, quick to point out the dangers of untested genetic engineering of food.

Problem was, it turned out the zucchini in question wasn’t genetically modified. In fact, it was organic–a fact that quickly caused the environmental groups to fall silent.

Plants are complex factories that produce staggering numbers of chemicals. Because plants can’t run away from hungry insects, they have evolved a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons designed to kill insects that try to feed on them.

In 2003, New Zealand experienced a severe aphid infestation. Conventional farmers who controlled the bugs with synthetic pesticides grew crops that were unaffected by the infestation. Organic growers, however, didn’t deal effectively with the aphids. The organic zucchini that survived the infestation produced large quantities of cucurbitacin, a toxic chemical zucchinis and other plants (like pumpkins and gourds) use to defend themselves from pests. The organic zucchini with elevated levels of cucurbitacin contained so much of the chemical it was toxic to humans as well, hospitalizing people who ate it.

Something similar happened in the 1960s. Farmers using conventional breeding techniques bred the Lenape potato, cultivated to fry without burning and make perfect potato chips. Unfortunately, potatoes belong to the same family as deadly nightshade, and like nightshade, they are toxic. Potatoes produce a glycoalkaloid poison called solanine, which is extremely toxic to humans–quantities as small as 3 mg per kg of body weight can be fatal. (That’s crazy poisonous, by the way.)

All potatoes produce this toxin. The potato root contains solanine, but not usually enough of it to cause health problems–it’s the dose that makes the poison, after all. But the Lenape potato had elevated levels of solanine–enough to sicken people who ate it.

And it wasn’t GMO. It was an ordinary hybrid bred through conventional agriculture.

So, back to the beginning of this post. When you drink tea or coffee, you are consuming a toxic chemical that belongs to a class of chemicals called cyclic alkaloids. This toxin, evolved as a defense against marauding insects, is a neurotoxin called 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, or more commonly, “caffeine.”

And your lunch? The peppers in it contain capsaicin, a toxin that gives peppers their characteristic burning (and are also linked to cancer in animal studies). Such compounds exist all over nature–the wonderful aromatic smell of ginger, the sulfur compounds that flavor onions and leeks (and also make your eyes burn when you chop them)–all toxic chemicals that exist for their pesticide properties.

People who object to GMOs on food safety grounds tend to ignore the fact that any food potentially carries risks. Proponents of GMOs do not claim that GM food is always absolutely safe under all conditions; such a claim would be very silly indeed. GM food simply isn’t inherently any more dangerous than organic or conventional agriculture, that’s all. (In fact, if you judge strictly by cases of food recalls and documented foodborne illnesses, organic food is arguably the most dangerous of all broad classifications of food; it’s disproportionately represented in FDA food recalls for potentially health-threatening contamination, for example.)

One of the many organic foods recalled in the last 60 days because of potentially life-threatening contamination.

What makes GM food so much more frightening than other food, even when we know other types of food are more prone to dangerous contamination?

A lot of it is the same kind of fear that makes flying seem more scary than driving, even though the reality is exactly the opposite. We feel more familiar with driving. We feel more in control. Few people understand basic biology; fewer still understand agricultural science. Scientists overwhelmingly believe GM food is safe; laypeople don’t. Indeed, ignorance of basic science is so common in the US that many people don’t know what DNA is, and at least one poll has suggested that there are large numbers of folks who think that genes are only found in genetically modified food!

That ignorance leads to a common cognitive error called the appeal to nature–the notion that genetically modified food is “unnatural” and therefore intrinsically worse than organic or conventional food, which is more “natural.”

This cognitive error is inevitably on parade in almost any argument against GM food:

Not all objections are quite that uninformed, of course. Of the arguments that don’t boil down to “unnatural=bad, natural=good,” many of the health concerns about GMOs center around two things:

1. Concerns about pesticides such as glyphosate; and
2. Concerns about allergens.

A great deal of noisy press has been generated by the WHO’s classification of glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic.” This classification is based on a study that shows that people who handle large amounts of glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, might be at greater risk of a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Strangely, the same study showed such people to be at lower risk of many other forms of cancer. Here’s the experimental data:

So what should we make of this? That Roundup causes some cancer and cures other cancer?

It’s not that simple. there’s a good writeup over here, but the TL;DR version is: The data make no attempt to control for confounding factors. These are “case control” studies (studies that compare people who have cancer with people who don’t, and look for differences between the groups) rather than “cohort” studies (studies that track people for long periods of time, note and isolate potential risk factors, and then observe the relative incidence of cancer).

Another issue is that food isn’t like, say cigarettes. We can eliminate cigarettes; I’ve never smoked in my life. We can not, however, stop eating. So we can’t look at an isolated risk factor for some kind of food production technique without comparing it to the risk of other food production techniques, because we all have to eat!

And when we do that, we discover that there’s not only no increased risk with GMO food, but in fact organic and conventional agriculture often uses more dangerous chemicals and more risky growing techniques. As I noted in Part 0 of this series, for instance, many people wrongly think that organic food is grown without pesticides. In fact, organic food is grown with pesticides, and those pesticides are often more toxic than synthetic pesticides.

One pesticide used by organic farmers is rotenone. It’s strongly linked to Parkinson’s disease, and its use is banned in California. It should be noted that the same WHO body that classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen also classifies rotenone as a moderate toxin–a more severe classification than glyphosate. In 2006, the FDA revoked approval for use of rotenone on food. In 2007, under lobbying pressure from organic growers, the FDA allowed use of rotenone as a pesticide in food production. Rotenone and other “natural” pesticides are often found in high concentrations in organic foods, especially organic olives and olive oil.

There’s something really interesting going on here. If the FDA had revoked permission to use a synthetic herbicide like glyphosate, then reversed direction under lobbying from Monsanto a year later, it’s quite likely that anti-GMO activists would be quite upset and vocal about it. Strangely, they’re silent about it when it’s an “organic” pesticide, even though it’s linked to human health hazards and residues are found in organic foods.

This is similar to the lack of reaction when organic zucchini were found to be hospitalizing people, even while environmentalists made quite a lot of noise when they wrongly believed the zucchini in question was genetically modified.

To my mind, this demonstrates conclusively that it’s not evidence of harm that’s the motivating factor in resistance to GMOs. Opponents aren’t motivated by analysis of evidence; they ignore things that apply to conventional or organic agriculture that they use as arguments to oppose GMOs. So the arguments themselves are validations, but aren’t the real reason for the opposition.

The other argument often used against GMOs is the allergy argument. GMOs are genetically modified to express proteins that aren’t found in the unmodified plant, the reasoning goes. Novel proteins in plants can potentially be allergens. Therefore, GMOs might provoke dangerous allergic responses.

It’s a legitimate concern, and contrary to common isperception, GM food is rigorously screened for potential allergens and development is discontinued if a new allergen is discovered. While any food can potentially cause an allergic response, novel allergens are taken very seriously by agricultural researchers.

Organic and conventional agriculture is not screened for potential new allergens. The development of hybrids and the use of mutagenesis, both of which are common in conventional agricultures, certainly can create novel proteins and novel allergens–yet only GM food is tested, conventional and organic food is not.

But the assumption that a GM food must contain some new protein, like the assumption that GMOs are any foods that contain DNA from a different species, is based on a profound misunderstanding of what a GMO is.

Some GMOs contain nothing new, either from another species or from anywhere else. The Arctic apple, for instance, is an example of a GMO made by turning off an existing gene, rather than adding a new gene.

Arctic apples are a breed of apples that don’t turn brown when they’re cut. There’s a natural breed of grapes called Sultana grapes, which are used to make golden raisins. These grapes don’t oxidize on exposure to air. Researchers noticed they had a natural mutation that silenced a gene–one of the same genes that Apples have. So, they reasoned, switching off that same gene in an apple might cause the apple not to turn brown. And they were correct.

The tearless onion is another example of a gene-silenced modification. Onions naturally produce various sulfur compounds to poison insects. One of these creates sulphuric acid–battery acid–on contact with water. When you cut an onion, this chemical is released into the air; when it comes in contact with your eyes or nose, it produces acid, which results in the pain and tears you feel. No-tear onions have the gene that produces this chemical turned off. It’s difficult to understand the objection to this kind of genetic modification. There’s no rational mechanism for harm caused by turning a gene off.

The fact is, we’ve now been eating GM food for a very long time, with no evidence whatsoever of harm. Proposed mechanisms of harm that aren’t based on the appeal to nature are similar, and in some cases greater, than organic and conventional agriculture, yet GMOs are singled out for special fear. That fear is difficult to overcome, because you can’t reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Intermission: How Not to be a Dumbass on the Internet

A few days ago, on my various wanderings through the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the Internet, I came across an image that made a…rather startling claim. This image showed a beach full of dead starfish accompanied by the headline “Fukushima radiation hits California, millions of starfish dead.”

I found that wildly improbable, for a number of reasons (the radiation from Fukushima was not great enough to cause mass die-offs–indeed, the scientists who installed monitoring equipment to measure it didn’t even bother to wear protective gear; the radiation was so dilute by the time it crossed the ocean it’s a testament to how exquisitely sensitive modern radiation detection gear is that it was even measurable at all; and most of the radionucleotides, like iodine-131, have very short half-lives measured in days), so I did some research. It turns out that–surprise!–the image meme is a hoax.

So in the spirit of public service, I’d like to present to you:

Franklin’s Guide to Not Being a Dumbass on the Internet

It’s my hope that by following a simple 2-minute procedure, you can help prevent yourself from looking like a fool when you venture online. Ready, kids? Here we go!

Okay, so here’s the image:

It turns out that this is not a mass starfish die-off caused by radiation, the photo dates from nearly two years before the Fukushima accident, and on top of that, it’s not in California. The actual photo shows a mass of starfish on Holkham Beach in Norfolk, Britain.

Here’s the real image:

So what magical wizardry did I use to research the actual source of the image? What deep magic uncovered the fraud? Well, it took about 35 seconds with Google.

You see, Google has this feature that lets you search for images rather than words. If you use Google Chrome as your Web browser, this feature is built right in! Simply right-click on any image on any site, Mac or PC, and you’ll see this popup menu item:

If you don’t use Chrome, fear not! Just surf to and you can drag an image from just about anywhere (your hard drive, another Web site, whatever) onto the Search bar to search for that image.

Seriously, it’s that easy. When you do this to image memes, especially alarmist memes that try to scare you, it’s astonishing how often they turn out to be frauds.

Let’s look at another example from Fukushima. This image was making the rounds a while ago, with the claim that it shows how “radioactive contamination” from the Fukushima power plants has crossed the ocean.

A Google image search for this image turns up this Snopes page. This image doesn’t show radiation. It doesn’t have anything to do with radiation. It shows the wave height of the tsunami that hit Japan after the earthquake, with red areas corresponding to higher ocean levels.

Of course, a close look at the image should clue in a wise person that something’s amiss if this is a radiation map, because radiation isn’t normally measured in centimeters:


It’s not just Fukushima. All kinds of images can be subject to this in-depth, detailed, 30-second scrutiny. For instance, right after police officer Darren Wilson shot black teen Michael Brown, an image purporting to show a badly-beaten Wilson in the hospital was getting shares and favorites all over conservative parts of the Internet.

Problem is, the image wasn’t Darren Wilson. It wasn’t even close. A Google image search quickly revealed it was a 2006 photo of motocross rider Jim McNeil who had been hospitalized following a motorcycle accident.

So there you have it. This one weird trick called “fact checking” can save you from countless hours of embarrassment online. The next time you want to share that image that, like, totally proves some political feeling you have, stop and check! Google is your friend, folks.

Here endeth the lesson.