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Anything that causes learning in a group that resists learning as strongly as ABA candidates is going to look a bit like torture on the outside. That leaves two questions. One, do we feel that autistic students need to learn strongly enough to push them through difficult situations? While making that determination, we should consider that almost everything that a severely autistic individual (aka those who might be in an ABA program) does looks difficult for them on the outside. Two, are there alternative learning methods that achieve more benefit or with less difficulties than ABA?

I'm not an ABA expert, but a lot of the purpose of the system is to track measurable gains in the students. Obviously there is positive learning going on. From what I've gathered talking with people running ABA classrooms, these gains are much stronger than doing nothing, and likely stronger (or at least more measurable) than alternate systems. I doubt there's some magic alternative that's doing good work and is just overlooked.

That all said, for the most severely limited autistic students, they are highly unlikely to ever learn enough to function in society without a constant caregiver. They may know far more than they would have without a class, but it's still sometimes next to no function. More worrisome, they often unlearn/forget quickly and struggle again to relearn in the future. Someone who is non-verbal and uses a handful of inconsistent hand signals is likely to end up non-verbal and using a few somewhat more consistent hand signals after the program.

If the person you know is saying "They'll never really move on from the limited learning, just leave them alone" then that's a potentially consistent position, but not a very palatable one. If it's a swipe against ABA programs specifically, I feel like we need more information to hear his or her actual problem with the program.

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A friend of mine is an ABA therapist. As she describes it, ABA is more about techniques than particular goals: the goals are client-specific and are decided on jointly by the therapist and the client's parents or caregivers. In general, she tries to work on goals that enable clients to function in less-restrictive environments (full independence is ideal), with top priority on goals that control violent or self-destructive behaviors.

Things like fidgeting and eye contact are generally pretty low on the priority list, and there the emphasis is typically on "how to code-switch when you have to in order to deal with neurotypicals" rather than trying to eliminate the behaviors completely, the latter being needlessly controlling if you've got a good handle on the former. They're also generally fairly low on the priority list when there are more valuable things (e.g. "practical skills like speech therapy") to work on instead.

If an ABA therapist is spending hours trying to force an autist to fake smile and such, then that sounds to me like the autist's parents insisted an a crappy goal and the therapist didn't talk them out of it like they should have.

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As Eric said, the goals are not built into the ABA process, so that's more individualistic. Most of the goals I have heard of for severe autism is about coping mechanisms that limit harm to self and harm to others. For less severe cases, it's mostly goals related to better communication skills. Some of the better results that I am aware of relate to having distinct and more numerous hand signals, verses two or three "I want to communicate but lack the ability" motions that often would end up with growing frustration and eventual violence. Without teaching them something, their quality of life is definitely lower.

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Relevant thread on DSL, where two commenters strongly advise against it: https://www.datasecretslox.com/index.php/topic,2730.msg80992.html#msg80992

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NYC in person rationalist meetups have been happening for a month or two now, mostly indoors (for vaccinated people only). Are you on the Google group for it?

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After the mainstream media and tech giants tried to censor the lab leak hypothesis for an entire year, I did a deep dive on the arguments its proponents make. Unfortunately, the more I read, the less I was convinced. I now put the chances of a zoological origin at 85%, and the chances of a lab leak or deliberate release at 15%. I decided to organize my thoughts about proponents’ arguments and write them down. Are my analyses sound? Are there important arguments I missed that should swing a reasonable person’s judgment? Please let me know.

Argument: Three WIV staff got sick in November 2019, and this is significant.

Analysis: This WSJ report (https://www.wsj.com/articles/intelligence-on-sick-staff-at-wuhan-lab-fuels-debate-on-covid-19-origin-11621796228) claims that according to “a previously undisclosed US intelligence report”, “three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care”. A State Department fact sheet (https://ge.usembassy.gov/fact-sheet-activity-at-the-wuhan-institute-of-virology/) says “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

Is this above the expected rate of seasonal illnesses? The WIV website (http://www.whiov.cas.cn/rcdw/yjy_160246/) lists 62 researchers, but doesn’t list administrators, janitors, IT people, or other staff. Let’s assume that in total, 100 people work at the WIV. If 15% of people get the flu every year, and the flu season lasts 3 months, you’d naively expect 5 people to get the flu in November 2019. Of course, flu is contagious, so if one person gets it, the chances of 8 people getting it become much higher.

The WSJ article says three people “sought hospital care”. It doesn’t say they were hospitalized. Here, the WSJ misunderstands Chinese culture. I love Chinese culture, but there’s no denying that Chinese people are hypochondriacs. They go to the hospital for every minor thing they experience, and aren’t satisfied until something is done for them. At the hospital, they sometimes get traditional Chinese medicine (a good approximation to placebo), or an IV drip (https://www.reddit.com/r/China/comments/2w5jy9/eli5_why_so_many_iv_drips_in_china/)--even when they just have a cold. Ask any Chinese friend who grew up in China and I’m sure that even if he’s never gotten IV for a cold or flu himself, someone in his immediate family has.

Even if the intelligence report explicitly said the WIV researchers had COVID in November, which it definitely didn’t, there would still be reasons to be skeptical. First, the intelligence document is never provided. Second, the WSJ article itself says “Current and former officials familiar with the intelligence about the lab researchers expressed differing views about the strength of the supporting evidence for the assessment. One person said that it was provided by an international partner and was potentially significant but still in need of further investigation and additional corroboration. Another person described the intelligence as stronger.” Third, how much do you trust the CIA, the same agency that lied Americans into war in Iraq, that orchestrated coups around the world, and that’s currently doing mass surveillance on Americans?

Argument: Wuhan has China’s only BSL-4 lab, and this coincidence is significant.

Analysis: China actually has two BSL-4 labs, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute at Harbin. It is the Harbin institute that attracted controversy in 2013 (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2013.12925) for gain of function research with influenza.

Proponents of the lab leak hypothesis argue that safety standards in China are lax, and that coronavirus research is often done in BSL-3 or even BSL-2 labs. This is true. In fact, all SARS research was done in BSL-3 or lower labs before China’s first BSL-4 facility, the one in Wuhan, was finished in 2014. However, these two arguments are in tension with each other. There are at least 100 (https://zenodo.org/record/4067919) BSL-3 labs in the country, so if Chinese scientists don’t care about safety, the coincidence that one of China’s two BSL-4 labs is in Wuhan says little about the probability of a lab leak. Notably, the 4 Chinese SARS-CoV-1 escapes on record have all been from a Beijing lab, not the WIV.

Argument: we still haven’t found the natural animal reservoir COVID-19.

Analysis: In order for this to mean anything, it has to be remarkable. A look at other recent epidemics shows that scientists almost never identify the natural animal reservoir within 1.5 years of an epidemic outbreak. I went down Wikipedia’s List of Epidemics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics#Major_epidemics_and_pandemics_by_death_toll) and focused only on those caused by new viruses:

2020 Congo, Ebola: Ebola has caused frequent outbreaks in Africa for decades, including in 2004, 2007, 2013-2016, and 2020. Only in 2019 did scientists discover the first bat carrying ebolavirus antibodies (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190124095156.htm), 43 years after the virus was first described.

2019 Nigeria, Lassa fever: This virus was first discovered in 1969. In 1972, the multimammate rat, Mastomys natalensis, was found to be the main animal reservoir.

2018 India, Nipah virus: First isolated in 1999. Fruit bats were identified (https://sci-hub.do/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16847084/) as the natural reservoir in 2001.

2008, swine flu pandemic: Even though this started in Mexico, the geographic origin was thought to be Asia until 2016, when this paper (https://elifesciences.org/articles/16777) reported detecting several segments of genetic material in Mexican swine viruses that were, until then, unknown in the Americas. As far as I can tell, no exact match to the human virus has been found among pigs, nor is one expected due to the high mutation rate of influenza.

It’s even more illuminating to look at the other two coronaviruses that caused epidemics, MERS and SARS. MERS was discovered in 2012. In 2013, antibodies were found in camels, showing that camels are the natural reservoir. This is the only case, among all the epidemics I looked at, where scientists discovered the animal origin within 1.5 years. SARS caused widespread fears of a pandemic in 2002, but was successfully contained. It took 15 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome) for scientists to track down the bats that it came from: “Around late 2017, Chinese scientists traced the virus through the intermediary of Asian palm civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Xiyang Yi Ethnic Township, Yunnan.[3]” The team that tracked down SARS’ origin was led by Shi Zhengli, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance (https://www.ecohealthalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Virologica-Sinica-SARSr.pdf). If you don’t trust Shi or EcoHealth Alliance, then the origin of SARS is still unknown, 19 years later.

Why did it take so long to track down the origin of SARS, if the origins of MERS and Nipah were tracked down so quickly? MERS has a 30% fatality rate and spreads very poorly among humans, with R0 of around 0.3. Nipah has an even higher fatality rate of 50-75%, and spreads poorly because it can only spread through bodily fluids. The combination of severe symptoms and low human-to-human spread means MERS/Nipah is easy to detect early, and anyone who has it is only 1-2 degrees of separation away from the original animal. At that point, it’s just a matter of asking patients which animals they’ve been in contact with recently and testing them. SARS has a fatality rate of 10% (1% for people younger than 25) and a R0 of 2-3, meaning that SARS can spread much farther before anyone even realizes a new virus is afoot, making it much harder to identify the original animal. SARS-CoV-2 has a fatality rate of 1% (0.01% for young adults) and a similar R0 to SARs-CoV-1, meaning it can spread unnoticed for much longer before anyone notices.

We shouldn’t expect it to be as easy to track down the origin of SARS-CoV-2 as it was for MERS, which took 1 year. We shouldn’t even expect it to be as easy as it was for SARS, which took 14 years. We should expect it to be an order of magnitude harder than it was for SARS, and many orders of magnitude harder than it was for MERS.

Argument: How could the virus have jumped from Location X to Wuhan, Y km away, without anyone noticing in between?

Analysis: SARS originated from bats in Yunnan, but the outbreak was first detected in Guangdong. The two are 1300 km apart. If the proposed “Y” isn’t much larger than 1300 km, there’s no mystery. Even if it is much larger, COVID-19 has a much lower fatality rate than SARS, meaning it can spread undetected a lot farther than SARS. Also, 2019 China was a lot more interconnected by bus, rail, and plane than 2003 China. Wuhan is China’s ninth largest city and a major transport hub (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Rail_map_of_PRC.svg), so SARS-CoV-2 could really have jumped to humans anywhere in China.

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(Apologies for splitting up the post; I didn't realize Substack had a length limit for comments)

Argument: Even though the natural reservoir of SARS wasn’t found for 14 years, the intermediate host was found within months, which hasn’t happened for COVID-19.

Analysis: True. “In late May 2003, studies from samples of wild animals sold as food in the local market in Guangdong, China, found a strain of SARS coronavirus could be isolated from masked palm civets” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome_coronavirus)

How significant this is depends on whether SARS-CoV-2 passed through an intermediate host. If it came directly from bats, finding a bat is much harder than finding an animal in a wet market, for obvious reasons.

Argument: WIV did gain of function research

Analysis: Unclear, but leaning toward “no”. In a 2017 study (https://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1006698), WIV researchers added spike proteins from novel bat viruses which are hard to cultivate, into an existing bat virus (WIV1) that’s easy to cultivate, to see if the spike proteins can infect humans. If you look at their Figure 7, it seems like the original WIV1 is just as infectious (in fact, maybe slightly more infectious) than the chimeric viruses, so no function was gained. That said, it’s theoretically possible that the chimeric viruses could have turned out to be much more infectious than WIV1, so it’s not a huge stretch to categorize this type of research as “gain of function”.

Another study that’s commonly cited is this 2015 study (https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985), led by a team at the University of North Carolina, with contribution from the WIV. The authors added a spike protein from a horseshoe bat virus to a mouse-adapted SARS virus (MA15), which in turn was derived from the epidemic SARS virus by serial passage through mouse tissue. The chimeric virus ended up being far less lethal to mice than MA15 (Figure 1), but more resistant to SARS antibodies and vaccines (Figure 2). The chimeric virus infects human cells, but is less virulent than SARS (Figure 3). Again, it’s arguable whether this counts as gain of function research, considering that no function was gained and a lot of function was lost.

Argument: The NIH funded gain of function research at WIV

Analysis: If the 2015 and 2017 studies mentioned above count as gain of function studies, which I don’t think they do, then the NIH has funded gain of function research. Both studies specifically acknowledge funding by the NIH. As is well known by now, the NIH granted EcoHealth Alliance 3.7 million dollars over six years for “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” (https://taggs.hhs.gov/Detail/RecipDetail?arg_RecipId=ZfeVER2uWwKllnTv6X4AxA%3D%3D), of which $600,000 went to the WIV. To put this number in perspective, the NIH funds about $42 billion of research every year. $600,000 over six years amounts to 2 parts per million (0.0002%) of the NIH’s funding.

Argument: The 1977 flu (“Russian flu”) pandemic was caused by a lab leak.

Analysis: Possible but unproven. The 1977 H1N1 virus was almost identical to the strain that circulated in 1946-1957, which means the pandemic was probably anthropogenic. But was it a lab leak, or the result of vaccine trials using live virus? Rozo and Gronvall 2015 (https://journals.asm.org/doi/full/10.1128/mbio.01013-15) argue for the latter. The arguments include: 1) China, where the pandemic started, was not known to have any labs working with H1N1; 2) the outbreak was simultaneously reported in 3 different areas of China, 3) vaccine trials with live attenuated H1N1 virus were taking place in the Soviet Union and China, with tens of thousands of participants, 4) several thousand Chinese military recruits were deliberately infected with H1N1 in challenge trials, 5) the 1977 flu was temperature sensitive, a trait associated with attenuated viruses. I don’t know enough about virology to evaluate the paper’s arguments. In particular, does attenuation cause genetic changes that we can detect? If not, my intuition is that Rozo and Gronvall are right, and that live virus vaccine trials with tens of thousands of participants are more likely sources of the pandemic than a freak laboratory accident.

Argument: Many lab leaks have caused localized outbreaks of smallpox, SARS, and other diseases.

Analysis: True (https://thebulletin.org/2014/03/threatened-pandemics-and-laboratory-escapes-self-fulfilling-prophecies/). It is definitely possible for a lab leak to cause a pandemic. But take a look at this list of outbreaks and epidemics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics) and you’ll see 70 of them just in the 21st century. The handful of lab leaks weren’t even significant enough to make the list. Even if we add them in while unfairly excluding equally significant natural outbreaks, they’d still account for only 10% of all outbreaks. Your prior on any pandemic should be very strongly weighted in favor of a natural origin, by at least 10:1.

Argument: A WIV virus genome database went offline in September 2019.

Analysis: True, but highly misleading. This claim came from the DRASTIC group of freelance researchers (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349073738_An_investigation_into_the_WIV_databases_that_were_taken_offline), who cite the archives of a database monitoring system (https://archive.is/AGtFv) to claim that the database went offline on September 12, 2019. But the same monitoring system shows that the database only became reliably available on August 23, 2019. You can see this by going to the archive.is link and changing the “Saved from” URL from month=9 to month=8. Before that, from June to August 23, the database was online sporadically. It would be online for 1-2 days, and then go down for several days or weeks at a time. Before June 2019, there’s no data, because v2 of the database was released in June 2019. After September 2019, it was online from December 12 to December 16, and access was sporadic through February 26, 2020. After that, the database was down for good.

The simplest explanation is that Shi’s database admins are bad

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I'd feel comfortable saying that both a lab leak and zoonosis have between a 10% and 90% chance of being the cause, but not much more reliable. The main argument in favor of a lab leak is that the Huanan-based zoonosis arguments have fallen apart, and "someone got infected in Yunnan and traveled to Wuhan" isn't that different from "someone with the WIV got infected and traveled to Wuhan".

Also, why is this a comment thread, and not a web page elsewhere? My thoughts on lab leaks (and ivermectin) are at https://www.notion.so/COVID-19-e052c9d829d34bc49eb6a2e1d2ad8e63

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Why 85/15 instead of 75/25?

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"led by a team at the University of North Carolina, with contribution from the WIV. The authors added a spike protein from a horseshoe bat virus to a mouse-adapted SARS virus (MA15), which in turn was derived from the epidemic SARS virus by serial passage through mouse tissue. The chimeric virus ended up being far less lethal to mice than MA15 (Figure 1), but more resistant to SARS antibodies and vaccines (Figure 2). The chimeric virus infects human cells, but is less virulent than SARS (Figure 3). Again, it’s arguable whether this counts as gain of function research, considering that no function was gained and a lot of function was lost."

Isn't it also the case that all of the physical manipulation of viruses was done at UNC? Or am I thinking of a different paper?

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Thanks, that is a great summary. One add-on about the safety standards:

According to Nicolas Wade, the Chinese guidelines required BSL-3 for SARS1 and MERS, and BSL-2 for other bat corona viruses. It seems plausible that SARS-CoV-2 is not directly derived from SARS1. That means that it would have been treated in BSL-2 standards, if it was studied in a lab.

https://nicholaswade.medium.com/origin-of-covid-following-the-clues-6f03564c038

The difference between BSL-2 and BSL-3 is quite large. For example, BSL-2 does not require you to wear a mask when you have the virus in vivo in humanized mice. (It does require masks if something could spill into your face.)

Or am I getting something wrong?

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Thanks for this! +1 to putting it on a webpage (pastebin or gist is fine) for easy linking.

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There are three arguments in this article (https://www.aier.org/article/the-origin-of-sars-cov-2/) which I didn't see you cover in your list:

1. The ability to exploit human-like ACE2 receptors.

2. The presence of the CGG-CGG sequence for amino acids.

3. That all the early identified cased were along the Metro Line 2 commuter line, connecting Wuhan and WIV.

Care to comment?

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Not OP, but:

1. My understanding is that COVID-19 is able to infect a very wide range of animals in a way we don't fully understand. It's not specifically tailored to humans any more than it's tailored to a dozen other species. Such behavior is much more likely to be a result of exposure to multiple animal species (in the wild) than specific experimentation with humans or human tissue in a lab. It certainly is not the case that COVID is particularly "optimized" for infecting humans, otherwise we wouldn't be getting more-infectious variants.

2. Other coronaviruses do actually have CGG-CGG, and I'm pretty sure that the earliest known examples of COVID-19 actually *don't* have this sequence.

3. I haven't heard of this argument before, and the link doesn't specify what "close" means or how many people live in that area. But COVID spreads person-to-person, so if the first patient in Wuhan was along that train line, then it would make sense for the next few to also be nearby. Presumably there are schools, businesses, etc. along that same train line which could also have been involved. The seafood market, although probably not the origin of the virus, may have been an early superspreader event, and is relatively close to the WIV.

Keep in mind also that's not even clear the pandemic started in Wuhan at all. See e.g. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-05-13/scientist-suggests-coronavirus-originated-outside-of-wuhan

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So, I'm not sure how reliable this is, but there may have been more than NIH grant money funding gain of function research in Wuhan:

Only buried under their “Privacy Policy,” under a section titled “EcoHealth Alliance Policy Regarding Conflict of Interest in Research,” does the EcoHealth Alliance concede it is the “recipient of various grant awards from federal agencies including the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense.”

Even this listing is deceptive. It obscures that its two largest funders are the Pentagon and the State Department (USAID); whereas the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which accounts for a minuscule $74,487, comes before either.

Meticulous investigation of U.S. government databases reveals that Pentagon funding for the EcoHealth Alliance from 2013 to 2020, including contracts, grants and subcontracts, was just under $39 million. Most, $34.6 million, was from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which is a branch of the DOD which states it is tasked to “counter and deter weapons of mass destruction and improvised threat networks.”

Most of the remaining money to EHA was from USAID (State Dept.), comprising at least $64,700,000 (1). These two sources thus total over $103 million.

https://www.independentsciencenews.org/news/peter-daszaks-ecohealth-alliance-has-hidden-almost-40-million-in-pentagon-funding/

I've never heard of this website before and have no idea how reliable its claims are, just passing it along.

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Great summary, this lowers my own priors a bit.

> Again, it’s arguable whether this counts as gain of function research, considering that no function was gained and a lot of function was lost.

I'd say those absolutely count as examples of gain of function research, just not very successful ones. What matters, as far as risk assesment goes, is what kind of modification is being done -- intentionally modifying virus to be more infectious or effective. Obviously this will not always succeed, but it has higher chance of actually gaining function than modifications intended for different effects.

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Interesting.

I think it would be clearer if you explicitly separated out the arguments about "hard" lab leak (this was specifically engineered) from "soft" lab leak (they were studying this there, with or without tampering, and it escaped).

When you say "lab leak" it sounds like you're talking about soft LL, but a lot (not all!) of your arguments are really about hard LL, or lab made, so that made me reread some points.

This is not on you, I know this terminology is getting blurred everywhere. But just a thought if you continue to develop this.

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Brett and Heather have argued that the strongest evidence for a lab leak is that SARS-cov-2 is excellent both at infecting people's cells and at spreading between people. The conjunction of these two skills is vanishingly uncommon, and accomplishing both requires an extended period of evolution wherein the virus learns the skills. This can happen in the wild, but despite extensive searching we haven't found any evidence of SARS-cov-2 circulating in a human population prior to November 2019. This is one heck of a non-barking dog, and in lieu of said bark we should favor a lab leak for the origin, where serial passaging would have trained the virus.

An intriguing counter to this point is put forth by The Ethical Skeptic on Twitter, who draws together multiple lines of evidence to suggest that China has been dealing with COVID since mid-2018. If correct, this would provide the necessary time for the virus to learn its tricks via normal evolution.

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Do you have a link to the ethical skeptic's analysis?

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Oh Lordy, let's see here...

First off, data from the Mauna Loa CO2 observatory, which chronicles an extreme drop in emissions from China beginning in mid 2018, mildly recovering, then doubling down in 2019, before fully recovering in June of 2020: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1360650645754241028

Next, regression analysis of viruses variants over time, indicating a common ancestor date of early-mid 2018: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1382190783357452288

Inverse correlation between intensity of COVID in various African states and level of trade/travel with China (suggesting possible prior exposure and therefore immunity to the virus): twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1382385733638426627

Supporting retweets - "flu" deaths in Western Australia: twitter.com/_Kodos_/status/1374377141190627347

China: twitter.com/federicolois/status/1382316318939082753

Japan: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1397294641209303045

And here's the analysis generalized worldwide: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1386895206142906369

Hypothetical timeline (highly speculative): twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1387244280847142912

And longitudinal data on excess deaths in the 85+year-old cohort in four countries, demonstrating something spreading from East to West: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1390431778536558602

And finally, deep into speculative territory, this: twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic/status/1398132900520988673

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Thanks you!

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Looking through this, it's really unclear to me how a 1.5 year mistake about the origin could possibly be true. The most interesting thing is the large flu season in Australia and other countries, but:

1. If the emissions data are to be believed, we're looking at a situation where energy use was changing organically in the population, not by orders from on high. I don't think it's plausible that the population somehow understood the grave problem the pathogen presented, and emissions levels changed accordingly. The idea that the CCP somehow engineered successful containment measures, but Chinese nationals kept the existence of those measures secret is preposterous. It would literally be a successful James Bond villain plot + 5 sigma.

2. I think the implication of this is the disease spread so slowly that it never actually reached the US until 2020? Or perhaps it was massively less virulent than the diseases we see now and went unnoticed? The case of the former seems incomprehensible given what we know about historical pandemic spread, and flus are even less transmissible than SARS-COV-2. The latter is more interesting, but begs the question if US medical authorities didn't observe it clinically, and no doctors anywhere else did either, how did the Chinese in June 2018.

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You seem to be missing the strongest argument for lab leak:

1. WIV was the most secure lab in China (by your claim, one of two), hence a likely place for research on a very dangerous virus to be done.

2. It is known to have worked on bat coronaviruses, hence

3. If Covid was a lab leak, it is likely to be from WIV. I would make it 50%, perhaps you would lower it to 10%.

4. The first cases were all near WIV. Wuhan has less than 1% of the population of China, so the chance that the early cases would all be near the WIV if it was not a lab leak is something less than 1%. To refute that, you need some special reason why a natural appearance would be near the WIV. The wet market theory seems to have been abandoned now, but in any case there are a lot of wet markets in China.

So, starting with a prior of .85 for natural and applying Bayes Theorem with my 50%, I get .5x.15 =.075, .01x.85 = .0085, posterior probability of natural origin = .0085/.0835 = .102.

If I redo it assuming that, if it was a lab leak, the odds it was from WIV are only 10%, which I don't believe but perhaps you do, the calculation becomes:

.1x.15 =.015, .01x.85 = .0085, posterior probability of natural origin = .0085/.0235 = .362. So even then, odds are with a lab release.

And this is without all of the other arguments that you want to reject.

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"Wuhan is less than 1% of the population of China" doesn't seem like the relevant number. If you knew that a new viral pandemic arose in China, you wouldn't start with an equal weighting of its 1.3B citizens. The first (detected) cases of a viral pandemic are almost always going to be in a big dense city. Big dense cities are also where you will find virology labs. Wuhan is the 9th biggest city in China.

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It's not actually clear the first cases were in the city of Wuhan. Genetic and epidemiological evidence suggests they could have come from the nearby countryside, or perhaps even far away. Pandemic diseases have traveled great distances before reaching a city where they actually spread widely. So at the very least, you have to account for uncertainty in the origin location. And the WIV is "special" in the sense that the lab that studies coronaviruses would be near locations where coronaviruses might come from!

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The WIV specialises in the study of bat coronaviruses from Yunnan, which is not near Wuhan in any reasonable sense. And why not: there are Egyptologists in America. Makes the field trips more exciting, I guess.

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I think that those numbers need to be significantly lowered due to the fact that reasons why high security lab is in Wuhan (but not in Harbin) and reasons why it does not seem outlandish likely that virus outbreak would be first noticed in Wuhan are correlated. First SARS orginated in backwater province of Yunnan, but was first discovered in Guangzhou, which is a giant metropolis far from its place of origin. Wuhan is also kind of a central place in China. It sits in the geographical centre of of the eastern part of the country, which is a part where people actually live, and as OP notes, it is thus a major transport hub. Convenient place to have an elite laboratory in and also likely place to have a large virus outbreak, possibly brought via transport routes from some backwater province.

Now, if covid would be first discovered in Harbin (which is also a large city, but not a central place in China) probably everyone would be way more suspicious from the beginning that it was a lab leak, and rightly so.

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Clarification, I meant that high security lab in Harbin would be placed there for different reasons than high security lab in Wuhan (i don´t actually know whether Harbin lab is as elite as that in Wuhan, just repeating OP´s claim)

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Being a central place in China means being far from Yunnan.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_China#/media/File:Rail_map_of_PRC.svg

Many cities in China (including Guangzhou) are much easier to reach from Yunnan than Wuhan is. I think my estimate works fine (apart from being too Wuhan-generous):

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/open-thread-178#comment-2277243

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Yeah, that sounds about correct in a sense you describe it, as na upper bound. Imo probability of 7.9 % that a lab-unrelated outbreak would first be noticed in Wuhan is huge, so I would take that as an argument for non-lab related outbreak, if not for the fact that it is clearly excesively generous to it, as you say.

I am personally so far on 40 % to lab leak, 40 % to straight zoonotic origin and 20 % to "something weird that does not fit neatly into any of these categories".

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So would you say the following analysis got it wrong, and if so, where is the greatest weakness in the analysis? https://www.rootclaim.com/analysis/What-is-the-source-of-COVID-19-SARS-CoV-2

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Very nice summary. However, I think you overlook some crucial points. First, just because the published synthetic strains were not noticeably more virulent in their assays, doesn't mean that such viruses weren't created or couldn't be dangerous in the actual human context. As a practicing biologist, I can assure you that there are plenty of experiments/analyses that never make it into papers. Given that we know that chimeric viruses were being created and experimented on, I consider this to be a resounding "yes" to the gain-of-function research question. Second, you ignore what may be the most important argument in favor of the lab leak hypothesis — signatures within the genetic sequence of the virus itself, as well as its early history of human transmission. The furin cleavage site, while not a smoking gun, is suggestive of human engineering. And the astonishingly fast spread of the virus in Wuhan, combined with relatively few mutations subsequently, raises the question of how a putative bat coronavirus could be so well-adapted to humans from the get-go. Upshot: my credences are 60% lab leak, 40% zoonotic.

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Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts and evidence for why you believe what you believe. I think at this point my main takeaway is that the lab-leak hypothesis is most definitely a significant possibility and that it should never have been treated as a "conspiracy theory". Also from my perspective it seems that most of these labs that are doing gain-of-function research are not producing anything valuable but are simply "playing with fire". It really just seems to me like researching different nuclear bombs with the defense that "then we will be able to withstand nuclear bomb attacks better".

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I think your analogy to nuclear bombs is unfair to the nuclear bombs. Nukes don't autonomously escape from laboratories and they certainly do not self-replicate; the only externality of a nuclear detonation on a mock city to better understand how to reinforce against nuclear attack (i.e. the most destructive possible research) is the fallout, which is bounded well below "global doom" (you can argue that Trinity was reckless in this sense because they didn't confirm solidly enough that the atmosphere wouldn't undergo runaway fusion, but that doesn't apply to later tests).

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True. Probably a better comparison is to some kind of new, easy-to-produce poison/chemical agent. My main point is that some research does not benefit humanity in any way but simply makes it easier to kill lots of people. I can understand why a government would want to research better ways to kill people, but lets stop pretending it is helping humanity or science to invent new ways to do so.

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Yeah, this is about where I'm at, too.

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Another note about MERS, I believe the Saudi government engaged in a very big push to find the original source. They sunk a huge amount of money and manpower into finding it. So it becomes even less surprising that it was found quickly.

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Not everything the Gulf States spend a lot of money on actually comes to anything.

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...so?

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I suppose it could well be that "it's a complete coincidence they had a viral research lab in the place this outbreak happened", the way clusters of childhood cancers near nuclear power stations in the UK turned out to be a "no honestly it's just a freaky coincidence" https://www.nature.com/articles/bjc2013674

It's just that humans tend to find such coincidences really hard to swallow.

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> If it came directly from bats, finding a bat is much harder than finding an animal in a wet market, for obvious reasons.

The likelihood that it was so easily transmissible among humans directly from a bat is very small compared to passage though an intermediate host, so this isn't particularly convincing:

1. Intermediate host is high probability, but the fact that we haven't found it is conspicuous.

2. Infection directly from a bat is low probability, but not having found that bat is not conspicuous.

So now you're comparing the probability of #2 to the probability of a lab leak. Even if the lab leak were unlikely, it's not clear that it's necessarily lower than #2.

> If you look at their Figure 7, it seems like the original WIV1 is just as infectious (in fact, maybe slightly more infectious) than the chimeric viruses, so no function was gained.

That's a dishonest definition of gain of function IMO. You're effectively saying it's not gain of function research simply because it didn't gain the function were testing for, even though it may have gained all sorts of functions that weren't tested. In this case, we still don't know the full effects of the spike protein itself, so even if it isn't more infectious it still could have gained all sorts of other dangerous properties.

Inducing genomic changes, is gain of function research, period, whether via direct engineering or applying evolutionary pressures. We simply can't reliably predict the full effects of any adaptations at this time.

> Argument: we still haven’t found the natural animal reservoir COVID-19.

This isn't remarkable, but it also isn't quite the argument. The lack of intermediate host AND the lack of human subpopulation that had symptoms AND the lack of seropositivity in blood samples taken prior to the earliest cases of the pandemic indicates that the virus very suddenly just popped up in Wuhan. SARS and MERS both showed seropositivity in stored blood samples prior to the earliest clinical cases, indicating it was circulating prior to first detection.

> We shouldn’t expect it to be as easy to track down the origin of SARS-CoV-2 as it was for MERS, which took 1 year. We shouldn’t even expect it to be as easy as it was for SARS, which took 14 years. We should expect it to be an order of magnitude harder than it was for SARS, and many orders of magnitude harder than it was for MERS.

Our tests are orders of magnitude faster, more sensitive and more sophisticated now. The labour force working on SARS-COV-2 is also an order of magnitude larger. We have orders of magnitude more health data in China. I see no reason why your conclusion should hold given these other facts.

> SARS originated from bats in Yunnan, but the outbreak was first detected in Guangdong. The two are 1300 km apart. If the proposed “Y” isn’t much larger than 1300 km, there’s no mystery.

Sure there is. You just said that Chinese people are hypochondriacs that tend to go to the hospital for everything. No clinical cases for SARS-COV-2 predate the first Wuhan cases, and no blood samples from 2019 were seropositive for SARS-COV-2 anywhere. Presumably, if Chinese people are hypochondriacs then there should be a wealth of seropositive samples predating the earliest Wuhan cases (there are literally zero), or at the very least clinical cases matching these symptoms should show up somewhere too. The absence of both IS a mystery.

In conclusion, I think your 85%/15% estimate in favour of zoonotic is definitely off. I wouldn't say the lab leak is more likely yet, but it's definitely closer to parity with zoonotic origin than you describe.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this up. As a result, I (a random person on the internet) have updated from a 70% to a 40% probability of lab escape.

Rootclaim (https://www.rootclaim.com/analysis/What-is-the-source-of-COVID-19-SARS-CoV-2) came to a strongly opposite conclusion, and I'm trying to figure out your most important points of disagreement with them. You clearly diverge on:

- The significance of the outbreak being in Wuhan. Rootclaim says that 25% of gain-of-function research worldwide happens in Wuhan, but you dispute that what WIV was doing even counts as GoF research. I'm guessing that if you expand the category of GoF research to include the sort of stuff WIV was doing, you would find they account for much less than 25% of it?

- The significance of Shi's database going down (though this is only a small part of Rootclaim's analysis).

Though you don't comment on this explicitly, I expect that you and Rootclaim also disagree on:

- Biological evidence (stuff about chimeras and the furin cleavage site) (Rootclaim's analysis is from a while ago, and I think people generally put less stock in these arguments nowadays?)

You and Rootclaim seem to agree on:

- We should have a strong prior that a pandemic has zoonotic origins (Rootclaim actually starts with a nearly 1:100 prior, rather than your more conservative 1:10 prior).

- The relative insignificance of there not being a plausible animal source near Wuhan.

- The relative insignificance of no intermediate host being identified yet.

Do you think this is enough to bring your and Rootclaim's views into line, or do you disagree about more things? And thanks again!

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Re "Are there important arguments I missed that should swing a reasonable person's judgment?": Like most discussions of SARS-CoV-2-origin theories I have read, your analysis did only gloss over (in a qualitative, not quantitative way) the elephant in the room. Namely:

* How likely is it that the first cases of a new bat-coronavirus disease would occur in the only city in the country (and maybe the leading place on the planet) where bat coronaviruses are studied, if we assume that this research is completely unrelated to the outbreak?

After all, this coincidence(?) is what many people found noteworthy long before they thought about gain-of-function research, Furin cleavage sites, Chinese information policy, and many other things.

TLDR: The probability of this proximity being pure coincidence is (realistically much) smaller than 8%.

Before we do the very rough estimate, some remarks.

What we discuss in the following is the question stated above, which is strictly speaking not about zoonotic versus lab origin. For instance, as alluded to by Alex Power, it is possible that a coronavirus researcher went to Yunnan to collect samples from a bat cave, came in contact with a virus (directly from bats or via some intermediate host animal), travelled with the infection back to Wuhan, and started the pandemic there. This would presumably count as a zoonotic origin of the disease; but it wouldn't have happened without the labs in Wuhan.

Almost everyone seems to agree that the "deep ancestors" of SARS-CoV-2 were bat coronaviruses originating in China's Yunnan province, probably from a certain cave in Mojiang County. The question is how they got from there to Wuhan: Via zoonotic spillover to other animal species? If so, where did the first human infection happen: in Yunnan, in Wuhan, elsewhere? Did some host animal travel a large part of the distance in the wild, or was it caught near Yunnan and transported to a wet market elsewhere? Or did bat/coronavirus researchers collect live bats or virus samples in Yunnan and bring them to a lab (the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control) in Wuhan, the only place in China where such research is done? My initial question above refers explicitly to a scenario in which researchers played no role, but I'll be agnostic with respect to the path the virus took in that scenario.

Is Wuhan special in any other way than due to its bat/coronavirus research labs? For instance, when wild animals are caught in or near Yunnan, are they transported for some reason overproportionately to wet markets in Wuhan, as opposed to other cities which may have a larger population and also lie closer to Yunnan? If that were the case, then we would not need a lab-related scenario to explain that the disease was first observed in Wuhan. However, if there were such an explanation, certainly some lab-leak debunker would have brought it up by now. I will assume in the following that Wuhan is not special in any other relevant respect than due to its labs and by being a large city.

Lab-leak theory debunkers have argued that the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 might have occurred first in a rural area in China, where it could have spread unnoticed because there were no decent hospitals nearby. No wonder then that the outbreak was first observed in a large city like Wuhan! I don't know anything about the Chinese health system, so let's say this argument is valid: it must have happened in a large city.

Now, assuming that the labs in Wuhan had nothing to do with the outbreak, and that Wuhan is not special in other way except by being a large city, how likely is it that the outbreak happened there or was at least first observed there?

I took Wikipedia's "List of cities in China by population", which has 50 entries. Number 50 has still 2.1 million inhabitants; that should still count as large, I guess. (I would expect that even much smaller cities have decent hospitals where a new disease would not go unnoticed.) Wuhan is number 9 on the list, with 8.3 million people.

No matter in which host animal (bat, human, pangolin, whatever) the virus travelled from Yunnan to Wuhan, and no matter where and when it evolved and adapted to humans: the closer a city is to Yunnan, and the more inhabitants it has, the more likely it should be that the outbreak occurred there. (Recall that we have ruled out for instance scenarios with a special Yunnan-to-Wuhan-wet-market connection.) For example, Chongqing is much larger and closer to Yunnan than Wuhan, hence it had a greater probability for an outbreak than Wuhan.

It is hard to quantify how the probability that the outbreak would first be noticed in city X decreases with the distance between X and Yunnan. (Quadratically maybe?) Also, which distance should we take: linear distance? car travel distance?

I chose assumptions that maximise the probability for Wuhan as ground zero. More realistic assumptions would yield a much smaller a-priori probability that the outbreak would first be noticed in Wuhan.

With www.distance.to, I tabulated the linear distances of the 50 cities on the Wikipedia list from Simao/Pu'er City in Yunnan (which is the major city closest to the Mojiang caves). I threw out all cities whose distance from Simao is larger than Wuhan's. I also threw out one further city (Lanzhou) that had a smaller linear distance from Simao than Wuhan but a larger distance-by-car-travel. I.e., to every city that is in any possibly relevant sense farther from Simao than Wuhan is, I assigned the (obviously too small) probability 0 that the outbreak could occur there.

To all remaining cities on the list, I assigned an outbreak probability that is proportional to the number of inhabitants. This is another very Wuhan-generous assumption, in the sense that each city whose distance from Yunnan is much smaller than Wuhan's should realistically get a larger (somehow distance-dependent) probability for an outbreak.

Recall that only cities on the Wikipedia list qualify. In particular, Pu'er City itself (in Yunnan) is not on the list, although its Wikipedia page says that 2.5 million people live there, whereas number 50 on the list has only 2.1 million. (Small inconsistencies between different Wikipedia data; let's not bother.)

The remaining cities are: Chongqing (15,8 million people), Guangzhou (13,2), Shenzhen (12,3), Chengdu (9,1), Wuhan (8,3), Xi'an (7,9), Dongguan (7,4), Foshan (7,3), Changsha (4,6), Kunming [in Yunnan!] (4,4), Nanning (3,8), Guiyang (3,3), Zhongshan (2,9), Huizhou (2,5), Liuzhou (2,1). All in all with 104.9 million people, of which 7.9% live in Wuhan.

As explained, this yields an unrealistically large probability estimate of 7.9% that a lab-unrelated outbreak would first be noticed in Wuhan. This should be regarded as (an upper bound of) a prior that can then be refined with further information about genetic editing, Chinese information policy, bats held in Wuhan labs, and whatever.

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founding

Thank you for this. As you say, it's an unrealistic upper bound. But it's pretty important to have at least some number for this, and it's a conspicuous omission from the original and otherwise thorough analysis here,

By comparison, the first-order unrealistically large probability estimate for a lab-related outbreak being first noticed in Wuhan is 100% - the WIV is the obvious place to do the relevant sort of research, and the one place we know the relevant sort of research was being done. There are other possibilities; maybe there was similar research being done in some small university lab that nobody has heard of in spite of all the focus since, or the WIV could have gone from research to e.g. testing an insufficiently-attenuated-virus vaccine someplace far from Wuhan. But including those low-order probabillities would pull "lab leaks always and only happen in Wuhan" down a lot less than a more realistic distance relationship would pull down your 7.9% upper bound.

So, if our prior for a zoonotic pandemic propagating through a lab-related screwup rather than being wholly natural is >8%, we should assess Covid-19 as probably being a lab-related screwup before we even start talking about furin cleavage sites or whatnot.

And, of the seven post-WWII events which wikipedia describes as "pandemics", one (1977) is I believe generally accepted to have been the result of a lab-related screwup. So I'm tentatively putting my prior for that at 14%.

(0.14*1)/(0.14*1 + 0.86*0.079) = 67% probability of lab-related screwup, for now.

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Thanks for the kind remarks. I welcome your attempt to put a number on the "lab-related screwup" scenario, but do not quite understand your formula. Here's how I would do the math.

The outbreak of any given pandemic is either lab-related (LAB) or not lab-related (NLAB); and happens either suspiciously close to a lab which researches that particular type of disease (CLOSE), or not suspiciously close to such a lab (FAR). All four combinations NLAB/CLOSE, LAB/CLOSE, NLAB/FAR, LAB/FAR are a priori possible. Let's call the corresponding probabilities A,B,C,D, respectively; their sum A+B+C+D is 1, so we have three free parameters.

Let's consider the following ones:

p = A/(A+C) says how likely it is that an outbreak occurs CLOSE provided we are in the NLAB case. My upper bound for our current pandemic is p < 0.079; more realistic seems something like p = 0.01.

q = B+D = (B+D)/(A+C+B+D) says how likely it is a priori that a pandemic is lab-related. The estimates of q I have read in this thread range from 0.14 to 0.01. (I find the latter much too low, but that's not the point here. Any proposed value would be very unreliable.)

r = B/(B+D) says how likely it is that an outbreak occurs CLOSE provided we are in the LAB case. I feel confident to say that r > 0.5. (To be more precise, we would have to consider carefully all LAB/FAR scenarios; for instance: 1. A Wuhan researcher travels to a bat cave in Yunnan, gets sick, starts the outbreak in Yunnan. 2. Lab personnel gets infected, goes to the airport after work, flies to Beijing or Los Angeles, starts the outbreak there. 3. Lab personnel sells animals from the lab to a wet market outside Wuhan, the outbreak starts there.)

In the current situation, we know that we are in the CLOSE case. We want to know the number P(p,q,r) = A/(A+B): given that we are in the CLOSE case, what is the probability P(p,q,r) that the outbreak is not lab-related?

Since A = p*(1-q) and B = q*r, the formula is

P(p,q,r) = p*(1-q) / (p*(1-q) +q*r) .

Everyone can play around with the parameters for themselves. Some values:

P(0.01, 0.14, 0.5) = 0.109

P(0.01, 0.01, 0.5) = 0.664

P(0.01, 0.03, 0.6) = 0.35

P(0.03, 0.08, 0.6) = 0.365

P(0.079, 0.01, 0.5) = 0.94

P(0.079, 0.14, 0.5) = 0.493

P(0.079, 0.14, 0.95) = 0.338

P(0.01, 0.14, 0.95) = 0.061

If one wants to arrive at a preconceived conclusion, it's easy to dial the parameters accordingly.

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I forgot to mention one other respect in which my 7.9% estimate is very Wuhan-generous: only cities in mainland China are taken into account.

Hong Kong (7.5 million people) and Macau are closer to Yunnan, by linear distance as well as car travel, than Wuhan is. Yunnan has borders with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Yangon (Myanmar, 5.1 million), Bangkok (Thailand, 8.3 million), and many other large cities in southeast Asia are closer to Yunnan, by linear distance as well as car travel, than Wuhan is. Even Ho Chi Minh City (9 million) in southern Vietnam is closer to Yunnan by linear distance, and only slightly farther from Yunnan by car travel, than Wuhan is. (The population numbers are Wikipedia's city/urban numbers. The metro numbers are larger; e.g. 21.3 million for Ho Chi Minh City.)

If a wild host animal had crossed a border before coming into contact with a human patient zero, the outbreak in a zoonotic scenario could have occurred in any of these places. For live animals caught in Yunnan and transported to other places, it depends on how much border traffic there is for such animal transports. My estimate assigns the probability 0 to any outbreak outside mainland China.

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Thank you to everyone for your feedback, and your kind words! I unfortunately don't have time to respond to everyone, so I chose a few common arguments you mentioned which I didn't analyze, and analyzed them. These are the furin cleavage site arguments, the "COVID-19 is too well adapted" argument, and another argument from location which claims most early cases were along metro line 2. I previously avoided the furin arguments being I'm not a molecular biologist. I'm still not, so take my analyses with a grain of salt.

Argument: The furin cleavage site is evidence of genetic engineering. This paper by Segreto et al (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10311-021-01211-0), among others, argues that the cleavage site is not found in SARS-CoV-2’s close relatives, nor in other Sarbecoviruses. While the cleavage site does exist in many other coronaviruses, there is no evidence of recombination between those other viruses and SARS-CoV-2.

Analysis: The furin cleavage site drastically increases the coronavirus’ ability to infect humans. It is a sequence of 4 amino acids: RRAR. The final R is part of the backbone of SARS-CoV-2’s cousins, so in order to create the cleavage site, only 3 amino acids had to be added: RRA. How hard is it to add 3 amino acids, even without recombination?

Each amino acid is coded by 3 base pairs, and each base pair can be one of four bases. The R can be represented by any of 6 different codes, while the A can be represented by 4. Just by throwing 9 base pairs together at random, we’d expect them to code for RRA 1 in 4^9/(4*6*6) = 1800 times. The same paper notes that the more common furin cleavage site is RX[K/R]R, and that “The presence of an arginine at the third position P3 before the FCS increases the efficiency of the FCS tenfold”. This implies the A isn’t important, and that RR[K/R/A] also works well. If so, 1 in 600 random insertions would result in a very good site.

Even 1 in 600 is too pessimistic, because evolution isn’t random; natural selection exists. Rather than coming up with RR[K/R/A] all at once, the virus could have gotten the basic site RXX; this could then have mutated into RRX, with a large increase in fitness. Given the sheer number of bats and bat coronaviruses, I don't see a 1 in 600 chance per mutation as unbelievably improbable.

Argument: The furin cleavage site is evidence of genetic engineering because it’s coded by unusual nucleotides. The initial RR is coded by the nucleotides CGG-CGG, while almost all other R’s are coded by other sequences.

Analysis: This is the claim made by Quay and Muller, two non-biologists, in this WSJ article (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-science-suggests-a-wuhan-lab-leak-11622995184). They say that R is usually coded by one of the five codes other than CGG, and that CGG-CGG doesn’t appear “in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes CoV-2”.

CGG codes for R in 7% of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7152894/)--not uncommon, but not unheard of. Saying CGG-CGG has to be artificial because it doesn’t appear in a certain class of coronaviruses feels similar to saying a 21st century hard science fiction book had to be written by aliens because a certain sequence of 6 words doesn’t appear in any other 21st century hard science fiction book. Evolution can invent things. That’s why any life exists on Earth at all.

The authors claim that CGG is commonly used in lab research, because “it is readily available and convenient, and scientists have a great deal of experience inserting it [..] An additional advantage of the double CGG sequence compared with the other 35 possible choices: It creates a useful beacon that permits the scientists to track the insertion in the laboratory.” However, I don’t have access to the WSJ article, and none of the sources that quote the article include any citation backing up any of these claims. The WSJ authors are not biologists, and wouldn't know this from personal experience. If anyone can track down evidence in favor or against these claims, please let me know.

Argument: COVID-19 is too well adapted to humans to be natural

Analysis: I’ve heard two versions of these claims. The first is that the initial cases had very similar genomes compared to the early cases of SARS, which we watched become more infectious over time. The second is that the virus infects humans a lot better than it infects other animals.

The first version of the claim is weaker than it was a year ago. Now that multiple more transmissible variants (B117, alpha, delta…) have swept the world and taken over the original strain, the original strain no longer seems so optimized. Also, I remember that in early 2020, the R0 of COVID-19 was estimated to be higher than that of SARS. The updated estimates I’ve seen (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_reproduction_number) say the two diseases have similar R0, and that the R0 is much lower than many other pandemic diseases (measles, mumps, chickenpox, polio, smallpox…) If that’s the case, in order for COVID-19 to have the same R0 as SARS while having milder symptoms, SARS-CoV-2 must be worse at transmission than SARS-CoV-1.

I tried to find out whether SARS-CoV-1 really mutated rapidly during the epidemic to become more infectious, as some lab leak proponents claim. The answer seems to be no. In fact, this Nature article from June 2003 says the exact opposite (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7095144/): “But so far, the SARS virus seems remarkably invariant: the genome sequences of 14 isolates from patients in Singapore, Toronto, China and Hong Kong have not revealed any changes of real consequence. This isn't because the SARS virus fails to mutate, but rather that the mutations thrown up so far haven't proved to be particularly beneficial to it.”

The second version of the argument is also weaker than it was a year ago. We now know that COVID-19 spreads easily among minks, to such an extent that they’ve spread it back to humans after we spread it to them (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/animals.html). Cats, big cats, gorillas, and one ferret have also tested positive for COVID-19. Even if it turns out that COVID-19 spreads more easily among humans than among any other species, I wouldn’t be too surprised. After all, it’s a human pandemic, not a bat or pangolin panzootic, and you’d expect the virus that causes a human pandemic to be better at spreading between humans than the millions of viruses which didn’t.

Argument: The earliest Wuhan cases cluster around metro line 2, which also leads to the WIV.

Analysis: As far as I can tell, this argument comes from this paper by Steven Quay (https://zenodo.org/record/4119263#.YNrer-hKhPY), who claims that all “All patients between December 1st, 2019 and early January 2020 were first seen at hospitals that are also serviced by Line 2 of the Metro system.” The basis for this claim is his table on page 7, where he gathers circumstantial evidence for the hospitals where the early COVID patients were treated.

This table is exceptionally iffy. It’s true that Jinyintan, the designated hospital for COVID patients, is close to a line 2 station; but the same station also connects to lines 3 and 8. Xinhua Hospital is in between lines 6 and 3, and much farther from line 2. The author’s reason for including the Tonji, Central, and Zhongnan hospitals is that some paper has a co-author from those hospitals, but the same paper (https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(20)30183-5.pdf) has many authors from outside of Wuhan. The Wuhan Asia Heart Disease Hospital was included because of this paper (https://www.jtcvs.org/article/S0022-5223(20)30859-X/fulltext#secsectitle0130%20), but I can’t find any mention of the hospital anywhere in the paper. The last hospital on the list is the Hubei Maternity and Child Health Care Hospital, which is presumably included because a co-author on this paper (https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC7182016&blobtype=pdf) is from there. However, that paper got its data from “the epidemic reporting system of the National Health Commission of China, which stores the medical records of all 50 designated hospitals in Wuhan city”. The paper also includes cases all the way to March 2020.

Leaving aside the issues with the table, I decided to see if the wet market and the WIV are really on line 2. The wet market is close enough, but the WIV is 2 km away from the nearest station. To get there from the wet market, one would walk 1.2 km to Hankou station, get on line 2, hop off at Jiedao, change to line 8, get off a station later at Xiaohongshan, and walk 800 m. The whole journey takes an hour and 20 minutes, so it’s unlikely to be a regular trip for most people.

I also noticed something else remarkable about line 2 from looking at the metro map (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Wuhan_Metro_System_Map_en.svg), which Quay also noticed: line 2 goes straight to Tianhe International Airport, Hankou Railway Station (the same one that’s beside the wet market), and Wuhandong Railway Station. No other line connects to the airport or to three railway stations. If it’s true that most of the early COVID cases were along line 2, that’s (weak) circumstantial evidence that the virus came to Wuhan by air or rail.

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> Now that multiple more transmissible variants (B117, alpha, delta…) have swept the world and taken over the original strain, the original strain no longer seems so optimized.

I don't know why you think this. Becoming more optimal at infection was totally expected. The original strain strain is still MORE optimized than it should have been from a direct zoonotic transmission from a bat. It's perhaps not more optimized if it had passed through an intermediate host, but we haven't found this host.

> Also, I remember that in early 2020, the R0 of COVID-19 was estimated to be higher than that of SARS.

It's still slightly more infectious. If I'm reading this right, the metanalysis linked there included data after countries implemented interventions, so of course R0 falls in response.

Note also that SARS only got such a high R0 because it passed through intermediate hosts, which bolsters the following point.

> The second version of the argument is also weaker than it was a year ago. We now know that COVID-19 spreads easily among minks, to such an extent that they’ve spread it back to humans after we spread it to them. Cats, big cats, gorillas, and one ferret have also tested positive for COVID-19.

The claim that it was exceptionally good at infecting humans has always been that it was too good at infecting humans to have been transmitted DIRECTLY from a bat. The probability that it would have evolved this by chance is very low.

The fact that it's so good at infecting other animals BOLSTERS this conclusion, which means that it likely did pass through intermediate hosts before infecting humans. But if it passed through intermediate hosts, where are those hosts? Intermediate hosts from other epidemics were found relatively quickly.

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Thanks for all that analysis. It's really too bad that (1) Google can't search in Substack comments and (2) Substack doesn't support searching comments. There's so much darn good stuff that gets lost with time!

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Is there a good overview and assessment about the potential uses of ivermectin for COVID treatment? I have been trying to find one, but there is so much noise on both sides it's hard to make sense of it all. I was hoping Scott or Zvi would write an article about it. But until then, is there an alternative good and reputable source putting things in context and predicting what we will likely find out when the dust settles?

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Don't think these are quite what you're looking for but perhaps good starting points for finding the key studies:

https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2021/06/07/ivermectin-as-a-covid-19-therapy

https://unherd.com/thepost/ivermectin-life-saver-or-time-waster/

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The FLCCC seems like a good starting point.

https://covid19criticalcare.com/

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I notice Bret Weinstein is mentioned three times on the FLCCC home page, and that 3 of the first 4 links on the main (left) panel go to stuff largely authored by Theresa Lawrie.

I have a post on LessWrong summarizing a three hour video filled with Covid vaccine claims endorsed by Bret Weinstein, and then I found out that Theresa Lawrie was a big part of the story too. I did not come away impressed (this link highlights my comment on Theresa Lawrie):

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/7NoRcK6j2cfxjwFcr?commentId=Ct3pvsqWhQhsYGcAo

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Wrote about Heidegger and what we can learn from mood https://whatiscalledthinking.substack.com/p/what-can-we-learn-from-mood

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I'm reminded of Somatic Markers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somatic_marker_hypothesis

My understanding: Feelings are valuations of any given past / present / potential world state. They're the brain's cost function, they track utility in our world models.

In that understanding, "Moods are our commentaries on what has happened to us" is true, but applies not just to the past but also, in a symmetric fashion, to the future.

My belief is that the key to rationality / the good life is having your moods track your utilities as closely as possible.

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I replied to someone's comment a few weeks ago as a true believer in Zembrin. Well, I want to announce that I am now a true believer in double-blind clinical trials. I don't notice any effect anymore and I am willing to chalk up how I felt initially to a strong placebo effect. But I am stopping for a while now and will see if its perceived effects come back.

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I'm looking for good research or discussions of intertemporal trade-offs for utilitarians. It seems reasonable to suspect that there will be fluctuations in the amount of money required to save a life. For simplicities sake, imagine if the number were to remain relatively fixed, then would it make sense to actually save money I would've donated to save a life and save more in the future? If the price of a life saved were to grow at 2% per year and I could get an investment return of 7% wouldn't it do the most good to wait until the end of my life? If the price to save lives was falling than this would make the case for waiting even stronger. I'm looking for discussions of this nature. Thanks

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This is basically what Warren Buffett has said he is doing. I think an important question is "how are you getting these returns" - you can't assume a risk-free rate of return higher than inflation.

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Yes, I agree. But risk should be incorporated in your calculation.

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>you can't assume a risk-free rate of return higher than inflation

Yes you can. Returns are compensation for risk, waiting, and inflation; even without risk, there's still the compensation for waiting over and above that for inflation. Check out TIPS.

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Returns are compensation for *estimated* risk, waiting, and inflation. The consensus estimate can be wrong.

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US Treasuries are widely considered effectively risk-free, and the Treasury Inflation-Protected Security (TIPS) pay based on ex post measured inflation, so to the extent that they trade for less than par you can get a risk-free return above *actual* inflation.

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Not in Rat circles they aren't. The probability of the United States of America defaulting in the next 10, 30, or 100 years or what have you, is VERY MUCH not 0%. Even if it's something like 1% or 2%, that still drastically affects the expected value calculations.

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How about this alternate formulation: UST yields are widely considered to be a very good approximation for the RFR?

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I would assume that helping now (thus making more people a part of the global economy) would be a much greater "investment" then e.g. the stock market. If a child doesn't die of malaria, they can become a productive adult who will create a lot of value: that's a good rate of return.

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But that's just as true for a child today as it would be for a child in 2070. If it costs less to save the child in 2070, then all else being equal, the argument is that it would be better to save your money and invest in the children later on, since the same amount of money will save more lives.

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Yes, and by 2070 it could be 3 children or 5 children depending on the growth rate of return and change in price of saving a life. Of course, it could also maybe be .75 child or something. Seems like it would be an important area of research.

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It's plausible there will be less poverty in the future.

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No. If you save the child now, it will grow up and create lots of value soon. That value is presumably used partially to invest and improve more.

I much rather save a child now for $100 than save a child in 2070 for $99. Isn't that just obvious?

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You don't control the value the child creates, though (unless you're planning to buy the child as a slave).

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An obvious solution is to save only good children. Hail Santa!

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If you save one child today, how many children will that child have saved by 2070? Improving economic development in regions where lots of children die is likely to save lots of children over that time period.

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How does that work concretely? Say you save a child from dying in malaria. That child becomes a subsistence farmer that wouldn't have existed counterfactually. By what mechanism would a single additional subsistence farmer save lots of children? Wouldn't the vast majority of the their labor go towards feeding themselves?

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The simplest route is that the subsistence farmer who grows up to have some healthy children has "saved" them from non-existence.

But more relevantly, most human communities do better for each of their members if they have an additional member that is able to contribute when some individual family is in time of need. It's true that the vast majority of their labor goes towards feeding themselves, but from the standpoint of the original question about investment, what matters is whether the bit of labor they are able to contribute to others each year is a higher rate of return on the initial investment than the interest you would have gotten otherwise by putting the money that saved that person into a bank account.

There are at various points in time probably some communities that are existing right at the Malthusian margin, where an additional individual is more of a burden to their neighbors than an advantage. But I believe that most modern economics assumes that these situations are rare. (It's still a relevant empirical question for the communities at hand though.)

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I think the sorts of discussions you're looking for involve the term "discounting the future," which refers to the fact that people value benefits now more than they value the same benefit at a later date.

One purely rational reason for why you may discount the future is because of uncertainty: the further into the future you go, the less certain you are about your current state of affairs and the state of the world. Hence, if you want to, say, give to charity, then you may want to give more to charity now just in case you run into a situation in the future (such as getting fired, or dealing with a recession, or losing your house in a fire) that keeps you from giving to charity then.

You might be interested in reading some Effective Altruism posts on "longtermism." They seem to provide the sort of fruitful content you're looking for. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/tag/longtermism

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The EA term OP was asking about is "Impact Investing". Sometimes this is called "saving to give later" or "investing to give later".

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/tag/impact-investing-1

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There is also the risk that you may become a worse person as you age and eventually decide to spend the money selfishly

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I agree that you'll be able to donate more money in the future, but I think there are good reasons to donate now.

Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I expect the world to continue getting wealthier, especially in the poorest regions, so I'd expect charitable money to be less valuable in the future since there'll be more money being donated to help to increasingly wealthy people. It could plausibly become much more expensive to save a life in the future, simply because the lowest hanging fruit have already been picked - it's not impossible that we'll be able to eradicate malaria, parasitic worms and nutritional deficiencies in the relatively near-term future. This would of course be a good thing, but it would mean that your larger pool of money would be able to do less good. This is of course debateable, and if you think that growth will be very uneven, or that new technology may create cheaper ways to help a lot of people, then you'll still expect there to be good opportunities to do good in the future with your larger pool of money. There's the classic example that if you save your money long enough it may become absolutely massive, but all you'll have to spend it on is making happy people slightly happier.

Of course, if you think the world is likely to get worse (for example, if you're pessimistic about climate change or international peace) then definitely save it, we'll need it more in the future!

An alternative to investing in stocks and bonds would be to invest it in research, which could have very high returns (or no returns at all, research is a high risk investment).

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Is the point of donating "save a life" or is it "most bang for the buck?" because if you want to save lives, then save the life that is at risk *right now*.

The Drowning Child thought experiment irritates me with the preachy tone, but one thing it gets right - you wouldn't stand there watching a child drown and go "sorry, I'm waiting for when a busload of kids crashes into the pond to save them, that should be happening in a couple of hours time, and it'll be more effective for me to jump in and pull out three or four kids then".

Yes, maybe waiting until the cost goes down is more effective - but if that's your main reason for donating, then you're not really interested in life-saving, you're interested in playing with figures, and go invest in the stock market or bet on the favourite in the 2:30 at Doncaster in that case.

You can always wait longer (indefinitely) for the "maximum" number of lives saved - so when you get to 2030 you will wait until 2035 because you might be able to save even more lives then! and so on until the day you yourself die without ever having donated a penny because you were always waiting for a better time and a better return.

You have no guarantee you yourself will still be alive in 2030. Donate now if you're going to give and save a life today, not at some indefinite date to be determined which may never come.

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I'm more sympathetic than you for the argument for waiting, since people are always dying, and most people don't plan on doing anything about it, either now or in the future. If you've got a really promising way to make a lot of money it could be worth investing now and donating later if you end up will Bill Gates or Elon Musk levels of wealth, although generally people are just talking about index funds and the returns on those are predictable but unimpressive.

I agree that there is a genuine problem with waiting indefinitely if you don't have something specific that you're waiting for, the argument basically holds true until economic growth stops, and I'd hope that at that point there wouldn't be too much left for charities to do. I know some people who are waiting for more information but I think "how to do the most good" has too many variables to ever be definitely answered, so you may as well just give now and treat it as a learning opportunity.

Dying isn't as much of an obstacle to philanthropy as you might initially think, although definitely make sure you have a will written up in advance. Still, the longer you wait the less control "you" (the person doing the saving) has over how the money might be spent. I do think there's something ethically questionable about the indefinite charitable trust, forever beholden to its long dead founder, and I'm confident that the motive there is more driven by ego than altruism.

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> some people might need to run questions by an IRB first

Isn't this nightmare stuff? https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/29/my-irb-nightmare/

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I've wondered about whether that's also a story about no one thinking to look at the whole picture. As I recall, neither Scott nor the IRB person thought to get a look at the rules for the whole IRB process. Instead, Scott kept making one attempt after another, with each attempt being fairly costly.

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What would be the utility of "the IRB person" looking at the "whole IRB process"? Presumably they're 'just' a cog in the process and aren't expected or allowed to make some kind of holistic judgement. Or are you pointing out that, as costly as each attempt Scott made, were he to have understood the entire (expected) total cost of the process, he'd have never even made the first "attempt"?

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The "just a cog" person might have been able to explain in general what was wanted, or ideally, there were be information available that they could hand to Scott.

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If they could have done so, why wouldn't they do that in general, e.g. always?

IRB's, based on everything I've read or heard about them, are a (vastly expanded) instance of, e.g. disclaimers like "IANAL" or "this is not legal advice" – there _is_ no 'holistic' or "in general" criteria to be satisfied, i.e. it's all "pro forma" ritual.

I'm still not sure whether your original comment was expressing curiosity about how IRBs 'actually' work, now, as-they-are, and wondering if there's some kind of easier/cheaper way to 'navigate' them, or whether you're pondering some kind of reform. I am now more curious about the experience of _successfully_ navigating an IRB, which apparently _does_ happen pretty frequently. And thinking about that, it's definitely not clear what the differences are between everything that _is_ approved and, e.g. Scott's experience(s).

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I'm not sure what I was asking for, more just observing that Scott was bumping his nose against the walls of a maze when he needed an overview. Or possibly just needed to talk with someone who was familiar with successful applications.

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Ahhh – no worries. I was just curious!

IIRC, he wanted to study something that was already standard practice [and, realizing that the link was _right above_, I think I was correct – he wanted to study a standard screening test!] and that alone seemed to greatly complicate him getting approval.

The 'process' itself, relative to what he wanted to study, seemed _insane_, and the "overview" seems to be something like 'avoid being (or, really, possibly be located in the same _galaxy_ of 'researcher state space' as) a Nazi death camp 'researcher''.

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The problem is that almost by definition research is novel. This means that the IRB process is somewhat well-defined, but the exact details of who-wants-what will vary based on the type of research being done. If you are routinely doing the same type of thing with different particular questions (eg. retrospective chart analysis with a linear regression between a new set of variables), you get a feel for what your IRB actually wants and can probably do everything with copy/paste submissions.

The problem is when you have an IRB that is used to doing one thing (eg. implantable medical devices trials) now being asked to review something else (eg. comparison of therapy types). You don't know what they care about, and they aren't used to dealing with your kind of project. So you probably haven't preemptively answered the questions they want answered in the way they wanted answered, and they are uncertain about where the dragons lie. So you have more frustration all-around with more cycles of paperwork.

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This is all sensible, but kind of confirms my belief that an IRB, ideally, _has_ to be composed of domain experts.

As a bureaucratic CYA apparatus, your comment is eminently sensible for someone that _wants_ to navigate any particular IRB.

But none of this seems to cover the particular ways in which the actual IRB that Scott interacted with mostly, nor the 'meta-IRB' that later audited his research, actually failed to do anything beyond stymie his not-very-novel and almost-completely risk-free research that he wanted to do.

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IRB experiences can vary wildly depending on the domain you're researching and the institution you work at. At research universities, there is at least *some* pressure on the IRB to make sure that research can get done, which means approving IRB applications at a reasonable pace (although reasonable is a rather fuzzy term). At my institution, this process was very easy if you were doing anything in the social sciences, typically involving an afternoon of paperwork and a 2-week turn around from the IRB (moreover, if you signed a form saying your research met a bunch of criteria that made it basically impossible for it to cause harm to participants, you didn't even have to get approval from the IRB to start your experiment). However, if you wanted to do anything related to medicine (of which psychiatry is a subset), you went through an entirely different application and review process. This review process involved a committee looking at your proposal instead of a single reviewer, which meant that the lag-time from submission to a response from the IRB was increased from weeks to months, and the presumption went from "probably everything is fine" to "probably this guy is going to kill someone and we'll be liable" (with a commensurate increase in scrutiny borne upon to the application).

If I were trying to get something approved relating to Scott's survey, the primary hurdle would be confidentiality. If the setup is that I'm the owner of a google doc that's getting hits that just so happen to come from Scott's blog, then that wouldn't be an issue because I would be able to purge any participant information before (if) the data were made public.

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Not really, I probably got 15 things passed through my IRB over my career as a student/post-grad, never much trouble aside from boring paperwork and taking a long time.

It very much depends on how good/bad your local IRB is, and what you're trying to do. I don't doubt anything in that story actually happened, but there's a reason you keep haring that story linked whenever anyone talks about how bad IRBs are, instead of hearing 50 different equally-bad stories from various people.

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Has any thorough research been done yet on the possible effects that SSRIs have on the sexual development of pre-adolescents?

I read Scott's blog post on SSRIs and he mentioned (as a piece of anecdotal anthropic evidence that the sexual side effects are being underblown) that he took SSRIs when he was very young and now considers himself asexual, and is suspicious that the antidepressants are part of the explanation.

My friend and I also noticed that almost all of our acquaintances who identify as asexual also took SSRIs when they were children, which is what made us suspicious in the first place.

Since the existence of sexual side-effects from SSRIs is already well-established and is much more serious than initially believed (more anecdotal evidence: the friend that I mentioned above took SSRIs for thirty days under the prescription of his psychiatrist, and experienced serious sexual dysfunction during that month and during the month that followed), I can't help but wonder if there's a causal link here. SSRIs are known to seriously inhibit the sexual functioning of many people who take it. SSRIs are also diagnosed routinely to children as they are going through puberty, where they're supposed to be developing sexual interests for the first time. It doesn't seem unreasonable to posit that SSRIs are permanently inhibiting sexual development in a number of children.

I feel like this would be something that's hard to detect unless you're actually looking for it. For adults, you're able to actually ask them and they'll tell you if they're experiencing any sexual side effects. But you can't do that with adolescents, because (1) asking kids about their sexual activities isn't highly ethical, and (2) there's no A/B testing going on because the SSRIs are being prescribed before the patients are old enough to develop sexual interests in the first place. I'd like to see research that deliberately tries to address this concern, but I haven't found anything so far.

I've been wondering if it's worth having a strong opinion on this: if it's true that SSRIs can permanently inhibit sexual growth in adolescents and cause asexuality, and the risk is significant, then it means that children really shouldn't be prescribed SSRIs at all. On the other hand, I am not a physician or a pediatrician and I know virtually nothing about sexual development, so I can't help but be cautious when I find myself getting alarmed over something like this.

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Add it to the survey!

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Questions on childhood use of SSRIs and asexuality have been in previous surveys. IIRC, no significant effect was found.

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Anecdotally, I identify as ~asexual, was depressed at least since high school, but didn't take SSRIs until after college. Perhaps you're noticing a depression-asexuality connection instead of or in addition to an SSRI-asexuality connection?

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Yes, I'm quite confident that people who take SSRIs have a higher likelihood of being asexual for auxiliary reasons, such as depression itself causing asexuality, one chemical imbalance being correlated with other chemical imbalances, or ostracism for one's asexuality leading one to feel depressed. But I'm still suspicious.

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this seems like yet another "what the hell, America?" situation but I am going to have to presume that you would only prescribe anti-depressants to children if it was very necessary.

I'll be another data point for "never got within sniffing distance of any medication ever, knew from the age of nine I was not interested one bit in marriage, kids, etc., am self-diagnosed as depressed/half-diagnosed as "mood swings" in counselling session".

So yeah, I'm willing to go more with "depression and asexuality are co-morbidities" but also yeah on "giving heavy meds to young kids is yikes!"

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I had this on a past SSC survey and was unable to find any connection.

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I've been working in software for 16 years now, and tech more broadly for 24. I'm starting to feel burned out. I won't bore you with a lengthy personal narrative but I will link this tweet...

https://mobile.twitter.com/john_blum/status/1407765390797590530/photo/1

...and summarize my frame of mind as "6 out of 7".

In any event, I'm interested to hear what other people have done. Did taking a year off help? Changing specialties? Starting your own thing? Finding a seat in a faceless megacorp and phoning it in?

I'm especially interested to hear from people that quit the business entirely. What do you do now? I struggle to come up with any kind of mental picture of Doing Something Else, and I'm hoping some stories will light my imagination.

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Changing jobs and finding a role I was more interested in worked for me - but I was much earlier-career than you, so I don't know if that's generalizable.

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I don't know if this helps but it was advice that helped me: Life is long. Life does not have to follow a "progression" or "trajectory". It's OK to do something different that doesn't lead anywhere for a couple of year. Just keep your finances in check.

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>Finding a seat in a faceless megacorp and phoning it in?

This makes me wonder about the distribution of the stressors in your life that are contributing to the burnout. If a faceless megacorp sounds better, it sounds like total anonymity, or working from home, seem preferable, which leads me to ask if your coworkers or current management have anything to do with the burnout. Workplace bullying is real. If the burnout is driven by the workplace environment, taking time off to get away from the toxic people might be very helpful, and finding a different job in the same field.

I've recently run across this question (again) as a useful tool: if you were handed some large sum of money that would allow you to quit your job, what would you do? How would you spend your days, or what are the top five? That can get you started. Even if "endless beach day" is the answer, it is ok. That's good to know. What was the last "good idea" you had (the "someone should really do/invent this") idea. That can also be a clue. What were your other interests when you were 10?

I have never done software (or tech for any length of time) but I have changed jobs quite a bit. I will say, what sounds good when you're stuck in the burnout may not be what sounds good longterm. And unless you can do something interesting with the year off (travel a lot) it might go very fast/not be enough.

Some people in your position undertake the study of stress management and wind up alternative health practitioners. Some go to law school, med school, doctorate in curriculum development, massage therapy school, some become truck drivers. Some get an emergency teaching credential and go into the classroom. Some decide they really need to open a restaurant but I don't know how they do it. Some take up rock climbing or get a pilot's license, some become CASA children's advocates.

Broadly speaking the health care direction was my choice.

If you try a few things and still no ideas spark up but you are miserable, search job sites until something catches your eye and apply for it. And see a therapist if absolutely nothing looks good. Burnout can contribute to temporary depression and it can be hard to see out of that. Good luck!

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Not a psych, but burnout seems virtually indistinguishable from depression to me.

I've been in a similar situation recently / am still in that situation. I felt pretty burnt out and consistently scored high on the burnout part in Copsoq. I eventually went to a psych, bu wait times are ~6 months here. In the meantime I tried changing things up at work and while it did resolve my problems there, it didn't help my issues at all. Turns out it was depression for reasons unrelated to work which I'm working on with the psych now.

tl; dr: Before making drastic changes, make sure you're addressing the cause, not some symptom.

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That "Some people know exactly why they're depressed" premise is what I was recommending to check here. There's nothing wrong with drastic changes addressing the reason, of course.

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I was rather unhappy with my life a few years ago. I decided to move to a different country, and now I'm feeling much better. I think that actively making a change and thereby achieving a sense of agency is therapeutic.

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Check out of your job mentally, do the bare minimum (remote work helps!), do something interesting in your massively expanded free time.

I'm taking a biotech degree (fortunately it's free in this particular corner of the world) and planning out an in silico research project of my own, hoping to eventually get a PhD out of it. Next year I also want to apply for an entry-level grant for some wet work. I kinda regret not getting into science from the outset, instead going for software dev, but I "wipe my tears with banknotes" as a friend put it.

All the while contributing some code to my job here and there so I don't get fired, it's surprisingly comfy.

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Science isn't any better if you don't have a pile of banknotes tbh. I went science--> tech because the pressure, lack of money, and complete alienation from the culture of those in scientific research that I saw was just too much. They are not my people. Neither are people in tech, or anyone else for that matter, but the pay prospects are better. *shrug*

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I volunteer in EMS about 1 day per week. It provides a great direct connection to "doing something helpful", even though the actual work almost certainly provides far less overall benefit than my work in software.

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That's interesting. My software career definitely feels like a bullshit job, as Graeber defined it. What software are you working on?

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I've worked for several Fortune 1000-or-equivalents. It's all different, but in the same way.

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I don't work in tech, but I had a similar experience a few years ago. Changing jobs (getting away from a pretty toxic company/boss) really helped me quite a bit. It's not like I don't have stress in my new job, but the people I work with are a lot easier to get along with and some of the specific things causing me to burn out are gone. If you can narrow down what is causing you particularly high amounts of stress/burnout, it may help you formulate a response.

If it's more general, you may be right about taking a lower stress position. I would personally struggle with a "phone it in" job because I feel a pretty strong need to be useful or feel useful at my job. An alternative, if you can afford it, may be to be a big fish in a small pond. You can work in tech for a small company that doesn't specialize in tech (the IT guy for a non-IT industry) and probably get a job anywhere in the country pretty easily. A lot of those jobs pay decently, even if it's not SF tech wages. You can also benefit from significantly lower cost of living and lots of freedom in where you go.

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What I find is that most people think of their job (or life or relationships) as a fixed value. They rarely think to do what they would do if they had an unsatisfactory couch...ie try to change it.

Obviously if you are a counter clerk at a fast food restaurant the opportunities for change [at that job] are limited. However, if you are a skilled software developer/manager you have leverage to try to change things.

Instead of "dreading to go to work", try to think what it is that you dread. Maybe you can go in and ask for different things or environments or fellow workers. All of these things may be negotiable.

Several years ago, I was prepared to quit and thought I was just working too hard. I was managing a bunch of projects and felt that they were not going well because of all the dullards I had in my team. I went to my boss and said I wanted to work on my own [smaller number of] projects instead of directing others. He said OK

That was all right for a while until I decided that I didn't want to work so much so I went back to my boss and said I only wanted to work for 3 days a week. He said OK.

In each of these cases, I was prepared to quit...but that was not necessary.

Other things I have done instead of development; Onsite training in exotic locations, Documentation, Support.

And if you really get desperate you can start a substack....

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I've been working in tech for...3 years and I would say the same. However, this is just what life is like for those not part of the idle elect in my opinion.

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I think some polyamorous people believe that (1) jealousy is entirely or mostly a socially constructed phenomena and that it can be overcome through reason. Alternatively, some believe that (2) some polyamorists have a different psychological profile and just do not experience jealousy. The final position I could imagine is that (3) jealousy is in almost everyone's genetic wiring but polyamorous people find a method to suppress it or keep it manageable. I am under the impression that most poly people probably believe (1), some probably (2) and almost nobody (3) but the critics of polyamory probably think the true state of affairs is (3) until it goes wrong.

Am I wrong to think that many polyamorous people are social constructivists with regards to jealousy? Anyone take the stance that it is in our nature and cannot be reasoned away except for some people? What are some other positions that I am missing? Thanks in advance.

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It's also possible that people who are not prone, or less prone, to jealousy are the ones attracted to polyamory, so that it becomes self-reinforcing: poly people are not jealous because jealous people don't go for polyamory.

It's very easy not to eat chocolate cake when nobody in the entire group likes chocolate.

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I think that all three positions are somewhat true. To the extent that jealosy is innate, like other such traits it may both vary in intensity naturally and be more or less amenable to conscious suppression. And, in the almost exclusively monogamous society performative jealosy is pretty much expected from a victim of infidelity, regardless of whether there's a strong underlying feeling.

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I’d say that all three factors are at work. There are probably a significant proportion of people for whom polyamory would not work out without a much higher level of social engineering technology than we have currently. There’s also a (per my wild speculation) significant proportion of people for whom polyamory *would* work with minor-to-moderate social de-construction of jealousy, along with a smaller number of people for whom jealously just isn’t there in the first place.

To give totally made up numbers for my impressions of the prevalence of these groups, it’s maybe something like 40-40-20 percent. Also agree with Xpym about performative jealousy. Probably a substantial proportion of the second group is amenable to socially reducing or eliminating the jealousy they feel because they were largely feeling it due to social expectations to begin with.

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Sam Harris interviews psychologist David Buss whose researched the evolutionary psychology of men and women regarding sex and relationships: https://samharris.org/podcasts/254-mating-strategies-earthlings/

Overall interesting, and they touch many topics relevant to the polyamorous debate. Close to the end, they touch the topic explicitly, and Buss makes an interesting, though speculative, point: it is likely that some part of polyamory phenomenon is simple polygeny relabelled. Men engaging in polyamory are likely high status men looking to expand their pool of sexual mates, while women engaging in polyamory are likely putting up with it to avoid loosing a high status partner.

I know very little about the topic and know no people who practice polyamory. I am sure there is tons of self-selection into polyamory relations (i.e., (2)), and people come up with coping strategies (i.e., (3)) that allow them to manage the jealousy. Still, it'd be interesting to know what is the women/men ration are in a heterosexual polyamory relation. My guess is that that ratio should be greater than one.

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Sam Harris also interviewed Geoffrey Miller (not sure how long ago, but my best guess is >1.5 years ago). Geoffrey all but described (3) for himself. Something along the lines of acknowledging that the feelings were produced for evolutionary reasons which no longer exist.

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What framework is he viewing it in where those evolutionary reasons no longer exist?

I can see an argument that they've been slightly weakened by birth control methods, but that's about it.

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I'm poly, and my experience with this is that my jealousy is pretty much always underwritten by some kind of insecurity (e.g. I'm jealous of my partner's latest sexual experience because I really want that kind of experience and am afraid I won't get it, am not good enough for it, etc). I explore this in ongoing conversation with my partner, work on those insecurities, try to find ways of tackling those underlying desires/emotions directly, etc. So I guess this is most like (3)?

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If you don't mind expanding on this, can you explain why you wouldn't just seek out a non-poly relationship and avoid this additional jealousy-related stress?

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For sure :). There's lots of reasons. Monogamy feels really bad to me -- like I'm trapped or stagnant, like my interactions with people other than my partner get sapped of energy. I tried to work through these things in monogamous relationships and never got anywhere.

Poly, on the other hand, feels great to me. I actually love working through these insecurities -- it's usually exciting and emotionally rewarding for me, rather than stressful (although of course sometimes it's stressful). And for stuff I don't feel insecure about, poly just feels great to me. I love having my partner get some of her needs that I'm not good at fulfilling met by other people, because it takes stress off our relationship. I love not needing to be the sole romantic/sexual person in my partner's life.. It feels like it takes a lot of the pressure off me. And of course I love having the possibility open of me having romance/sex with other people -- it keeps my interactions so much more alive for me, helps me continue to grow in the ways I want to. (Also, I'm a huge voyeur, so when I'm not feeling insecure about stuff I get super turned on by hearing about my partner's other sexual experiences lol.)

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I've in the last few weeks opened myself up to polyamory (I'm in a long-term relationship and I just started seeing someone else). Lots of what you say here resonates with me and helps me understand my own motivations. Thank you.

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I have known a few poly people, and a few who expressed the lack of jealousy thing. My impression from these personal interactions is that the three people I know who pursued poly relationships all did so to shop around for a better relationship while keeping the one they already had. That most claims of low jealousy come from low dependence, they are all just people who wouldn't really care* if the person they are dating broke up with them, and or didn't think it is very likely. The original SO is often jealous, the person who pushed for an open relationship is often not very jealous with their SO or any of the others they bring in, and the others can go either way.

Through all of this my, admittedly never very high opinion of poly relationships has obviously fallen very low, I do not know a single person in real life who seems to have anything approaching a healthy poly relationship.

*Not that they are totally inhuman, just that it would be something that sucked a bit and they would move on quickly.

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author

I'm poly and I think all three of these are somewhat true.

My personal perspective is that I know what specific kinds of situations make me feel jealous and I've negotiated with my girlfriend not to get me in any of those specific kinds of situations (and she's done the same with me). These situations are less encompassing than "all possible situations of a partner dating someone else" so we manage to date other people and mostly do okay.

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People presumably need some experience to know what makes them feel jealous. Any thoughts about what to negotiate during the learning period?

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I have a long-running debate with a friend about the merits and demerits of polyamory, and I'd love to hear your perspective on it, esp wrt the following questions:

- Do you think polyamorous relationships and monogamous relationships have the same purpose? I.e. are they just different solutions to the same problem, or are they trying to solve fundamentally different problems?

- What, in your experience, have healthy polyamorous relationships looked like? Do you think this is more a function of the polyamory or more a function of the people or equal?

- Do you find that polyamory requires special skills (e.g. communication skills) that monogamy does not? What about vice versa?

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I know a long-running triad (about 20 years, I think) which seems to be healthy.

Perhaps it was important that they didn't have a theory in favor of polyamory. Instead it was a couple where the woman fell in love with a second man and the first man has unusual lack of jealousy. The men are friends but don't have a sexual/romantic relationship.

They don't have children.

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Monogamous relationships don't even all have the same purpose as each other...

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Fair point! There is admittedly variation in the specific purposes of different monogamous relationships.

My thought was that, insofar as certain types of relationships are monogamous (i.e. choose the same means for varied ends), there is to that extent some necessary overlap in their purpose (i.e. monogamy as a means necessarily tends towards certain ends above others). Do you think this is true?

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Some other positions:

Misanthropy about relationships: Jealousy can't be overcome through reason not because it's wired, but because you have some justified beliefs in favor of jealousy. Maybe you don't think highly of your partner's decisionmaking, so they'd leave you even though you're good for them. Maybe you don't think highly of yourself, so they'd be rational to leave you given a good opportunity. Either way, you anticipate that if your partner became involved with others, they'd eventually want to leave you, and that would make your life worse. This anticipation may be correct, and reasoning about it increases your confidence in it.

Normieism: The obstacle to overcoming jealousy isn't genetic wiring for it directly, but a general tendency to defer to/execute social norms and feel the way you're socially expected to feel, and jealousy is normative in our society. If people weren't expected to feel jealous, or if jealousy were seen as weird and questionable, they'd be less inclined to feel that way. But most people aren't going to reason themselves out of jealousy because they're not going to reason themselves out of anything socially normative.

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Have you considered Aristotelian/Greek view on emotions? (They were quite polyamorous themselves!). This position suggests that emotional dispositions themselves are in our nature, but that their expression is often "contra naturam." As such, the point of action wrt emotions, and of social institutions (which ritualize certain actions) is not to destroy these emotional dispositions, but to properly moderate them.

For example, just as fear naturally indicates danger (and so a need for safety), and anger naturally indicates disrespect (and so a need for respect), so jealousy indicates a certain need not being met (perhaps a need for appreciation?). However, just as anger and fear can be disordered or poorly expressed, perhaps jealousy also can be disordered or poorly expressed. And perhaps it is this poor (e.g. toxic or violent) expression of jealousy to which polyamorists object.

For instance, just because I am angry at someone (bc, say, they insulted me) does not mean I should beat them or try to force them to "respect" me. Respect is only respect when freely given. Likewise, just because I feel afraid that my child will run into the street does not mean I should put her on a leash. Piety is only piety when freely given. Perhaps polyamorists will argue that likewise with jealousy, just because I feel a need for love/appreciation/connection when my partner has other partners, does not mean that I should make my partner sign an eternal contract from which they will never leave (on penalty of eternal damnation!), or even demand exclusivity from that partner. Love is only love when freely given.

In other words, perhaps all of these ways of expressing hard emotions (anger, fear, jealousy) are violent or toxic ways of responding to natural needs. Violent because they try to secure by force or manipulation goods that are of necessity freely given. Toxic because this kind of expression undermines the satisfaction of the needs the emotions indicate. E.g. No one respects the too angry man, the anxious mother's fear undermines her love, and the lover's over-jealousy destroys the foundation of trust upon which a healthy relationship depends.

This position admits your 1, 2, and 3, but differs from each of them insofar as it suggests a proper function of emotions to be met, namely, to have things like appreciation/love, piety, respect (and to indeed to become more loving, pious, and respectful!), and suggests that the status quo tends towards disorder, particularly wrt jealousy.

Do you think this position is coherent?

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I don't think jealousy is a social construct. That's not where emotions originate.

It seems like it would have value in keeping your own set of genes moving forward. So it's likely hard wired for humans especially for men.

There are definitely people who are cool with sharing their partner, there are folks who even find the idea and practice sexually stimulating.

As far as reasoning yourself out of the emotion of jealousy goes, that seems unlikely to me. Strong emotions trump reason in my experience.

I was at a social gathering not long ago and a woman announce to a group that she doesn't see why she shouldn't be able to love ten men. Her husband disagreed. All I could think at the time was "Did you read him in on this belief before tying the knot?"

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Could the US function as a multiparty democracy and also a Presidential system? I've been increasingly onboard with the idea that the US should (somehow) transition to using a multiparty system and away from the Democrat-Republican dichotomy. Increasing partisan polarization seems self-evidently bad, and also somewhat undemocratic in that a number of people seem to want political options that just aren't on the menu in America. (Socially conservative, fiscally liberal seems to be the biggest unmet need).

With that being said- multiparty Presidential systems don't seem to have a great track record. This is the norm in the rest of the Americas, and supposedly Mexico, Brazil, and other Latin American countries 'prove' that it mostly doesn't work- the legislature is gridlocked and unable to pass bills, the President increasingly takes on more & more power to bypass a Congress that can't get anything done, he eventually becomes authoritarian, etc. Sounds like the road the US is already on, but worse.

The only other actually functional Presidential country is South Korea, but they seem to have two major parties making up 90% of the legislature. Unless you want to count semi-presidential systems like France, which just confuse me.

Does anyone want to argue for the US to have multiple parties, while retaining a Presidency? Could Congress really pass a budget or major legislation with 4-6 squabbling parties? I'm guessing the major US parties would be Center Left/Pro Business, America 1st/Populist Right, Green/Far Left, Country Club Republicans/Center Right, and Libertarians. Could legislators from these 5 parties really pass a budget every year? I dunno. Or is '2 major parties and a few really minor ones' actually a good system? This is like South Korea mentioned above, but also Australia, Britain, and I believe Canada (the last three obviously being parliamentary)

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Australia has compulsory voting and nonpartisan districting, which essentially forces major parties to appeal to the median voter (and thus results in them being rather similar).

I'm not really sure why you distinguish between presidential and parliamentary systems as regards passing laws. The Australian Parliament's law-making function works in a very similar fashion to the US Congress; the main substantive differences are the US filibuster and the convention that the Australian Governor-General does not veto laws (though he does have that power).

The big differences between US and Australian politics are in the executive (presidentially-appointed secretaries vs. ministers selected from Parliament) and in election protocols (compulsory IRV/STV vs. voluntary plurality; note that STV is a proportional-representation system, so the Australian Senate is very much a multiparty house).

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'I'm not really sure why you distinguish between presidential and parliamentary systems as regards passing laws' It's like, the biggest difference in the world. The Prime Minister by definition cannot face divided government. This is the absolute most basic, elementary difference between presidential & parliamentary.

The Australian House appears to be 80-90% two parties, whereas the Senate as you note is much more diverse. Pretty interesting that Australia has PR for one but not the other. So we can see the difference between an actual PR system vs. IRV, which I personally think is warmed-over FPTP and achieves basically the exact same result

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IRV's advantage over plurality is that it's clone-proof; that is, you can attempt to usurp a party's base without immediately handing victory to your mutual opponent (the way the Bull Moose Party did). The threat of this makes it harder for a party to betray its base, which is a completely-different criterion to what you're looking at. I agree that there are problems with "a house of single-member electorates", but if you have to have one IRV's a lot better than plurality (and for something like a presidential election it's basically ideal).

>It's like, the biggest difference in the world. The Prime Minister by definition cannot face divided government.

1) This isn't actually true; "Senate hostile to House, nothing happens except for bipartisan measures" happens fairly frequently, and "nobody has majority in HoR, minority government" happened in 2010.

2) The Speaker of the US House - the primary legislative equivalent to the Australian PM - can't face an opposed House either. The US President isn't responsible for making laws; Congress is, and Congress functions very similarly to the Australian Parliament (*not* the UK Parliament, as that is essentially unicameral with the crippling of the Lords in 1911). The difference is in the executive - specifically, that the executive is appointed by the legislature.

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You want an example of a country where the President is not just the figurehead head of state but also the head of the executive, correct? Here in Ireland we have multi-party but yeah, in practice it's become two main parties. However, the smaller parties can wield influence and at times can be very popular and attain rapid growth.

I do think it would be no harm if the US had a strong third party, even if it was a minor one. The problem seems to be that your system is set up so that effectively, there aren't any mass movements that seem likely to form a third party, and that any third party members elected to Congress need to throw in with either the Republicans or the Democrats to do anything (there was a previous note about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being a Democrat and not a Democrat Socialist of America).

The Libertarian Party is (semi)organised (there was an interesting comment over on a thread at TheMotte about the internal divisions and power-struggles between the factions) but it's not mass popularity, and smaller parties really are the "three men and a dog" variety. You might end up with a viable third party if you managed to get a populist mix of moderate/centrist Republicans and Democrats to peel away and join it, but eh - a populist strongman leader is its own set of problems.

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I am skeptical that multiparty systems are more democratic, given that in practice one or two niche parties often are the swing vote and hence are able to demand enactment of policies only supported by a minority of voters. Israel is an obvious example. And, multiparty systems in multicultural states risk being highly polarizing, since there would inevitably be race-based parties. A La Raza party would get far more seats than Libertarians, that's for sure.

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> one or two niche parties often are the swing vote and hence are able to demand...policies only supported by a minority

I tend to view that as a plus, because the niche party cannot demand very much that the majority actively opposes. If the majority "holds their nose" and votes for something they don't want, I expect they would only do that to get something in return that they see as more important. In a several-party system, the swing vote should vary over time, giving attention to a variety of niche things. Which could make for some interesting policy.

Of course, when we think of Israel we normally think 'Netanyahu', but his Likud party consistently gets by far the most votes of any party, so Likud would be more powerful under first-past-the-post (which consistently gives disproportionately more power to bigger parties).

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Do you have an example of the swing vote changing frequently? Because I can't think of anything. As for what the majority gets in return, they get to stay in power, because there is no actual majority, and hence the plurality party must kowtow to the swing party. As for Likud, it does not at get by far the most votes. Over the last 20 years it has generally gotten about a quarter of the vote. Finally, I am not saying that first-past-the-post/2 party is more democratic. Rather, I am changing the assumption that multiparty systems are more democratic. Each has its own way of falling short of democratic perfection (and, of course, there is the incorrect assumption that "democratic" = "majoritarian.")

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Well, I've never lived in a place with a proper (proportional) many-party system, but in Canada the vote tallies for each party often change pretty significantly with each election. It's not necessarily about the swing vote changing frequently, though: multiple coalitions are possible. If one small party is making demands that the big party regards as unreasonable, the big party could make a deal to get votes from a *different* small party instead.

> As for Likud, it does not at get by far the most votes. Over the last 20 years it has generally gotten about a quarter of the vote.

That *is* the most votes of any party.

> I am changing the assumption that multiparty systems are more democratic.

If most people's votes having no effect is your idea of democratic, then yes, first-past-the-post is democratic "by definition".

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One question that is relevant is whether the parties present in the legislature have to be the same parties that contest the presidency. I've been thinking about this at a different level.

Within cities, it seems to me that one big source of political dysfunction is that every plausible candidate is a Democrat (or just pretending to be a Republican to get access to a usable ballot line, like Michael Bloomberg), which then means either that the real election is the Democratic primary (like in New York), or that there's a single multi-candidate election where voters just have to interpret the personal feel of a bunch of candidates (as in Los Angles or San Francisco). It would be really helpful if there were local parties, like a "pro-construction" party and a "slow growth" party, so that voters really know what they're getting with one candidate or another. Both parties might work with national Democrats, but in different ways.

I've been imagining various ways to change congressional elections that would enable representation of many smaller parties. That wouldn't change presidential elections unless you made a major change, to a national popular vote with ranked choice or something. So it may end up being that these parties band together to suppose "Democrats" or "Republicans" at the presidential level, even as their coalitions change at the Congressional level.

But I don't know of any country where that sort of pattern occurs. (The closest is Canada, where I understand that many of the provincial parties work in very different ways from the federal parties of the same name, like the British Columbia Liberals.)

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'One question that is relevant is whether the parties present in the legislature have to be the same parties that contest the presidency. I've been thinking about this at a different level.... But I don't know of any country where that sort of pattern occurs' To my knowledge (having just finished A Different Democracy, the comparative politics book everyone is raving about rn), having different parties at the local & national level is actually very common. It's the US that's the weird outlier with just two parties at every single level of government.

One unrealistic idea I've been batting around is the idea of literally banning the Democrat & Republican parties at the local level of a state (yes I understand this could never happen, but stay with me). And just letting local politicians organically form new parties as they wish. Maybe the Midwest & non-Boston Northeast could form socially conservative, fiscally liberal parties, say. It would certainly help focus voters on actual local issues, which seem to be neglected in this era of nationalized hyperpartisan politics. Even if you graduate from say the Farm & Labor Party in the Midwest to being a Republican party on the national stage later, you still would have started with the former. Maybe that would help

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Schleicher advocates banning statewide parties at the municipal level.

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There are cities that disallow partisan elections for mayor. Houston, for one.

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Shleicher argues that's even worse, since voters go from negligible information to practically none. Instead he thinks there should be city-specific parties which don't correspond to larger parties.

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Here in Canada we don't have higher-level partisan politics on local ballots anywhere as far as I know.

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David Schleicher has written about why there's no partisan competition within cities.

http://volokh.com/posts/chain_1228735775.shtml

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That's great! I love the ending:

"I also propose thinking about something more radical, a rule that parties that bars parties registered at the statewide level (i.e. the major parties) from having a ballot line in local elections. The idea is that local-only parties would spring up (the elections would still be partisan) to contest local elections. At first, these parties might look like simulacra of the major parties but would, though competitive pressure, develop locally competitive identities over time. Again, this is not anti-party or pro-non-partisan election -- I think parties are essential in world where voters are rationally ignorant of the policy stances of candidates -- but, rather, is focused on using election law to incentivize the creation of parties that are competitive at the local level and that provide heuristics that provide voters with information."

I wonder how much of my thinking on a lot of this has been influenced by me encountering his ideas in various formats online, and how much is just that these are good ideas that lots of people have discussions that lead towards.

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In many provinces we don't have all the federal equivalent parties by name at all. There's no formal relationship between most provincial parties and their nearest federal equivalents, with various splits and mergers occurring in different places at different times. Most provinces have a long history of two dominant parties, but it's not the same two everywhere.

Federal politics are really quite separate from provincial as far as loyalties and mood associations are concerned. But then I know very few people who have strong, outspoken partisan affiliation at any level,and very few Canadians join political parties. We think Americans are silly for having so much mental space tied up in partisan affiliation.

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It probably depends on how representation of multiple parties is achieved; with a first-past-the-post system like the US currently has, Duverger's Law shows that two parties are all but guaranteed.

Many multiparty democracies have formalized roles for the parties (e.g., proportional representation); I suspect stronger parties are more prone to bad outcomes. I personally like the idea of Condorcet RCV for many reasons, but the relevant one here is that it makes primaries irrelevant so parties become much less central to the electoral system.

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Canada has fptp and (in semi recent history) both regional and national parties that matter at the federal level. The US is the weird outlier here.

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Duverger's "law" describes a tendency or attractor of FPTP regimes. Once two parties begin to dominate, it's hard for other parties to gain traction. But I've heard that, in addition, the Republicans and Democrats have gone above and beyond other countries in efforts to suppress third parties (e.g. the Commission on Presidential Debates is bipartisan, not nonpartisan - it's designed to exclude third parties; and various state-specific rules try to prevent "little guys" or small parties from getting on ballots).

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There's also the phenomenon of US Presidential politics, which mean that obtaining a regional block of legislative seats is sort of a dead end, and US third-party efforts are almost exclusively focused on the Presidency, which is obviously doomed.

In Canada's actually-existing fptp Parliament, we typically have either the Liberals (milquetoast centre left) or Conservatives (milquetoast centre right) in government, often (and currently) as a minority, with the mostly-urban, more socialist, union-backed NDP and regional Bloc Quebecois nationalist party both getting enough seats to matter and the Greens picking up something. Various fringe parties rarely get anywhere, but it's not that they absolutely couldn't. We don't really do coalitions like in proportional list systems and our sometimes-minority governments work out fine, and the smaller parties matter a great deal in Parliament even though they are unlikely to ever govern.

All to say that Duverger's Law describes a real attractor effect, but it's short-sighted of Americans to blame the style of their ballots for all of their polarization woes when the Anglosphere contains two good counterexamples against their n=1, and in that broader context it's not even clear whether the FPTP attractor effect is necessarily *bad*.

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US primaries are a huge part of this, too.

If you have a political position that a political party establishment doesn't approve of, then you can still run in the primary. That's just not true in other countries, so those people set up new parties. Sometimes they become successful.

Most European social-democratic parties in the 1970s and 1980s were dominated by union members from heavy industries. The same is true of much of the Democratic Party in the US. Auto unions in Michigan, coal miners in West Virginia, etc.

This meant that environmentalists in Europe had to create their own new Green parties - the unions would block an environmentalist from ever becoming a candidate. But an American could just run in a primary. And while they'd clearly lose to a union member in Michigan or West Virginia, they might do better in a city, like Seattle or New York or San Francisco where other parts of the Democratic coalition were dominant.

But if you were an environmentalist in Cologne in 1980, you couldn't join the SPD, because union members (possibly not from Cologne, but from more industrial areas) would be able to block you from ever being a candidate through the internal committees of the SPD. So you joined the Greens, and so the German Greens had much better quality candidates than the US Greens. The same applied to someone in Paris joining the PS, or in Manchester joining Labour, or in Milan joining the PSI, or in Amsterdam joining the PvdA.

American third parties were much more successful before the primary system became established in the 1940s and 1950s than since. Minnesota Farmer-Labor, the Progressive and Populist parties, several state Socialist parties in the 1920s, etc.

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Thanks for this, we don't get enough ex-Anglosphere comparative politics for comparison.

The vibe I get comparing historical American politics to today's is that regional and particular considerations have all been subsumed into the binary, with the two-party system not just in the Duverger's sense but assumed deeply in the popular consciousness and ingrained in all kinds of other institutions (random regulatory committee needs at least X R and Y D members). Whereas two-party eras of American politics were more interesting and uncertain.

*In Westminster countries "Government" is just the executive, which makes for some silly discussions with Americans

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I think that the impacts of the primary system in the US - especially the ballot access rules for the primary - are massively underrated.

Ballot access as a party nominee in the general election is vastly easier outside the US. For instance, a UK candidate for MP requires a petition signed by ten electors and a refundable deposit of £500 (about $600) - refunded if you get 5% of the vote or more.

Ballot access to the primary election in a UK major party would usually require you to undergo a formal approval process by a central committee of the party, and then, once on the "approved list", you apply to individual districts; if there are more than ~3 applicants, you have to go through a shortlisting process run by a local committee of the party - normally reducing the number of candidates to four to six. The electorate would then be the dues-paying members of the party in the relevant electoral area. In a constituency that a party has a realistic chance of winning, that's likely to be about a thousand, with turnout usually of about 50%.

This is the process in the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and SNP; in Labour, instead of a shortlisting process, you have to be nominated by either a ward, ie an even more local group of members, or by an affiliated trades union in the constituency.

Most UK parties have a procedure whereby an incumbent is automatically reselected or there is a primary with no other candidate (ie a vote on whether or not to reselect, with a competitive process being opened only if the vote is not to reselect.

You can see how the party committees have far more control over the nominees, but it's much easier to challenge the parties from outside. And the UK has the same voting system. With proportional systems in most European countries (UK and France are the only fully non-proportional systems, though several countries are mixed, eg Hungary), the parties are even more internally homogenous but also it's easier to found new parties.

Your * footnote is largely right, but not quite.

"Government" has two meanings, one is the political leadership of the executive and the other is the entire executive, ie including the professional civil service. People who work for the civil service will say that, not that they work for the Government. Only the ministers and their "special advisors" would say "I work for the Government".

(Reagan's "I'm here from the Government and I'm here to help" line came over as "I am an elected politician and I'm here to help" in the UK; the idea that it applied to postal workers or social security administrators didn't occur to me for many years)

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I did design a way, though it required a constitutional amendment and was therefore impossible.

Make the Electoral College a real institution - elected by a closed list PR system* in each state and meeting permanently in a new building in Washington DC. It has the power, at any time, by simple majority to replace the President with a new one for the remainder of the elected term of the President.

Now, you can have a true coalition presidency. Say the Democrat and the Republican both get 40% of the vote, a Libertarian gets 8%, a Green gets 8% and some sort of bothsides centrist mushy party ("NoLabels") or something gets the other 4%. [In practice 2% or so will get spread across 25 tiny parties; let's just pretend those people abstained because they effectively did].

So now, you can have a Democrat-Green-NoLabels coalition or a Republican-Libertarian-NoLabels coalition. If the big parties break up, then you could get some more interesting options. And, obviously, that's an election where left and right are tied; if one side wins, then you get a nice simple two-party coalition.

How does that work in the Presidency? Well, you have a Democrat as President, but they agree to appoint (say) a Green as EPA Administrator and as Secretary of Transportation and a NoLabels as Attorney General - and they promise that their second Supreme Court appointment will go to the Greens and the fourth to NoLabels, and probably a bunch of other junior appointments. If the President then breaks the deal, then the Greens or NoLabels can go to the Republicans and say "how about a deal where you get to be President now?" In theory you could do this in the electoral college now, but the President could just ignore it and appoint whoever he wanted.

You'd also give the college various powers to investigate the Presidency and the executive - that way the minor parties in the coalition can make sure that things are being done in ways they approve of (right to subpoena anyone and demand they speak, no executive privilege applies because the college is part of the executive, right to access any papers they want; there's presumably a "spying committee" that gets to see secret papers and has the power to declassify them).

The legislature would still be separate, could be elected however you like. But the Greens in the legislature would presumably be close to the Greens in the Executive, so you'd have some leverage there to get legislation done.

*I'm normally hostile to closed lists, because they empower the parties over the individual elected people, but since the "party" in this case is really the presidential candidate, what it does is concentrate the significance in the hands of the presidential candidate, ie the President, which is the point - also the voter really should be focusing on the personal characteristics of the President, not of the individual member of the college.

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I like your idea, but if we went to that much trouble to change the Constitution, I'd just go all the way for a parliamentary system and PR :)

Also, with midterm elections (and high US partisanship), I'd imagine that the opposition party winning the midterm would result in immediately replacing the President every single time. Maybe it'd take a bit for norms to break down, but as soon as it happens once, opposition parties would always retaliate when it was their time. You know what hyperpartisan reasoning sounds like- 'they replaced President AOC on Day One, how can you not vote to replace President Carlson now, don't be a wimp, we always get pushed around by the Other Side', etc. So basically you get 2 year, rotating Presidencies

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Electoral college is only elected every four years - their term would be the same as the President.

The legislature is still completely separate.

Note: you can get a president of without a legislative majority, and that's still going to be quite likely after the midterms (it's possible on regular election day, but the systems are similar enough that will only happen if it's a very narrow majority one way and a equally narrow one the other way).

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Bicameral parliament: one elected, one selected via sortition.

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Lots of interesting stuff in this idea, I'll have to think about it!

Do the parties run a preferred candidate in the election, or just a party line with the electors empowered to pick the candidate? If the former, then when do the parties change their preferred candidate in between elections, in case there's a crisis of confidence and the electors choose a new president? (Presumably someone that seemed like a good candidate at the time in 2016 might no longer seem so good in 2019.)

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I expect the answer is that they run a candidate in the election, but if they want to change President in midterm, that will be a matter for the electors - and, given US norms, they won't have a preferred candidate unless and until the electors are planning to change the President. The election nominee might take on that role after the convention, ie for the last few months before the election. But US parties out of office generally just don't have a Presidential candidate.

This actually has advantages - look at the UK situation when trying to change PM in 2019; the main opposition party had a leader / PM candidate who made sense (to them) in an election, but was not acceptable to the other parties that they would have needed in a coalition. But proposing someone else from the same party as a coalition PM was seen as being (party-internal) treason, and the result was that a PM who had a majority that wanted to get rid of him couldn't be replaced.

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While I'm 100% in favor of a several-party system, the Big Two certainly aren't. I expect them both to work hard to thwart any efforts in this direction.

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I've been thinking more about this, and a multiparty system in the US just sounds like a total disaster. You wouldn't be changing any of the things that truly make American politics crazy- extremely ideological activist groups or single donors on each side, constant need to fundraise, constant campaigning, plus a media & funding environment that encourages candidates to be outlandishly crazy in exchange for more campaign cash. I can't speak to Marjorie Taylor Greene's inner mental state, but being dramatically over the top has made her one of the premiere Republican fundraisers right now. The incentive structure is not just nuts- it actually incentivizes politicians to *be* nuts.

So you'd have these smaller parties, and they'd probably be even more intensely ideological. The MTG-lead America First party would be on one end, the AOC-lead Justice Dems would be on the other end. Would they help pass basic stuff like a budget if they were the swing votes, or would they hold out for insane concessions to please their base? 'I won't pass the debt ceiling until all illegal immigrants have been deported' or 'I won't pass the debt ceiling until all fossil fuel companies have been nationalized'.

The standard poly sci argument against multiparty presidential systems is that they can't get anything passed due to squabbling, and so the president becomes more & more authoritarian. Sure sounds like what would happen to the US here

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Thinking about what would happen if you changed the electoral system and nothing else is as strange as asking "what would happen if Donald Trump opened up the borders to Mexican immigration". Just as that wouldn't happen, we wouldn't get electoral reform under the status quo. (the electoral system is, of course, what allows or discourages a several-party system.) So I consider campaign finance / corruption reform to be my top priority in U.S. politics (which HR.1/S.1 includes, to some extent): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJy8vTu66tE

> standard poly sci argument against multiparty presidential systems

I thought it was the standard conservative/Republican argument. I don't agree that having more than 2 parties prevents things from getting done, and I see no reason that the existence of a separate executive branch would cause more gridlock than we have already. Have you really heard political scientists saying that? The constitution disallows executive overreach; having 3 or more major parties doesn't change that.

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Yes, it is/was the consensus position, what you learn when you take Poly Sci 101, etc. The example here is Latin America- all of Latin America utilizes the presidential system, and all of Latin America utilizes multiple parties. They (continent of almost one billion people) have been doing this since at least the 50s or 60s, so we have decades & decades of real-world experience that it's just a suboptimal system. The parties squabble too much to get major legislation passed. In theory they wouldn't squabble quite so much, but my argument is that additional American political parties would be explicitly & highly ideological, so the gridlock potential goes up quite a bit.

Full disclosure of priors, I think that a parliamentary system with PR is obviously the best one, but we're talking about America where moving to that would require multiple Constitutional changes, overthrowing a system we've had for over 200 years, etc. So probably not going to happen

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Did taking a social anxiety prescription medication improve anyone's overall courage level? I know this seems like a bit of a random question, so let me explain- I not only have generalized anxiety (especially in social situations), but I'm just not a particularly brave person in general. My CNS is very quick to the fight or flight response- I am just frightened by a lot of things. If someone confronts me verbally, I experience such an adrenaline rush that I find speaking difficult. I am jumpy and easily spooked by little things, a car backfiring, etc. Public speaking is completely off the table. I have always been physically pretty cowardly (afraid to jump off a cliff into a lake when all my friends were doing it, backed down from fistfights, and so on). I am now approaching middle age, so this seems to be a pretty fixed psychological trait. Oddly I am pretty physically durable and have done some fairly challenging things, so the 'deal with fatigue & pain' part of my brain seems to work fine- just not with fear.

When you are diagnosed with 'anxiety', supposedly there are a variety of prescription drugs that reduce or manage it. I've never taken any of them, but I was curious to hear from people who have- does a drug that (I suppose) makes you less anxious also make you less fearful if, say, someone comes up and angrily confronts you about an issue? Does your general fear response lessen? Is this a permanent effect? For example, I read that the North Hollywood bank robbers took phenobarbital before their robbery & massive shootout to calm their nerves, but I'm not clear if one can take that every day regularly. I will say that alcohol absolutely has this effect on me, both reducing anxiety & increasing courage, but obviously I would prefer not to drink heavily every day.

Maybe some mix of anti-anxiety meds and also testosterone would do the trick? Anyways, I'd be curious to hear people's experiences with various prescriptions. (I'm also going to experiment with magnesium supplementation, which I've heard can reduce anxiety)

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Sertraline did not have this effect on me. I felt less anxious in the way that my brain seemed to be less prone to seek out and latch onto feelings and memories to feel anxious about, but it did not noticably make me less anxious about doing things. I was taking it for minor social anxiety and as far as I could tell, I was still just as apprehensive of social situations as before.

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I was diagnosed with F41.2 and was prescribed medication. I reckon that the thing that happened was, in fact, a complete opposite.

I had suicidal tendencies and it provoked "all or nothing" response. Basically, I could do almost anything I wanted because "I will die soon". Now my sense of anxiety response is calibrated. When I'm in social non-threatening situations, I'm usually calm. When I'm in social threatening situations, it provokes "fight or flight" response, usually with (verbally) "fight" (I'm quite weak and I can't restrict myself, which results in injuries on my or other's side). When it's something like exam, I feel anxious but not in "fight" sense. Overall, balance restored.

So, I'd say it depends.

I think what you're looking for is not medication but an exercises on how to act in such situations. You still feel afraid but overcome yourself in stressful situation. Or maybe you find out that the reason you're afraid is a complete BS and you feel much less anxious. For me it was CBT that did the trick.

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Paroxetine (SSRI) made me less socially anxious.

Hard to even remember exemplary situations. Much of the formerly-anxiety-inducing stuff just got parsed as unremarkable business-as-usual.

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Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in this at all.

A lot of musicians take beta blockers to counter performance anxiety/stage fright, and it's reputed to be especially effective at reducing the adrenaline rush "fight or flight" sensation you mention.

CBT is also known to help with this. Here's a workbook that I've found helpful, although my anxiety is quite a bit different from yours: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1626250154

Cultivating courage is different from reducing anxiety, and has to do with practicing courageous habits, as well as mindset, framing, spiritual work, etc. That said, you can certainly work on the anxiety and the courage in parallel.

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I had pretty intense work related anxiety, and was able to get on Lorazepam.

It was like all the promise of modern medicine made manifest, it was for me a miracle. It instantly and totally resolved my anxiety, it made me relaxed and comfortable, and it even made me happier(maybe that was just finding the joy in a life not ruled by anxiety?). It didn't stop there! It also wildly improved my sleep (which was bad before the work related anxiety) and just totally turned my life around. I had zero problems with tolerance taking 4mg (two in the morning, one at lunch, one at night) for about eight months. I was weaned off the drug (against my wishes) over about a month and never had any withdrawal symptoms, and shortly after I quit my job.

I really wish it was easier to get benzos/stay on them.

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After more than a year of corona, do we have any indication whether there is a dose effect? I.e., whether people who are infected through a higher virus dose get more sick?

It used to be a big question at some point, but I haven't heard anything. Did people realize that it's not a thing, or did they just give up?

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Given that the infection is, to a first approximation, a race between the immune response and the virus multiplying, I'd expect giving the virus a head start is pretty bad.

Apparently some literature tries to quantify that: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33119733/

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