We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Matrix Preloaded

I thought that after most of a lifetime reading science fiction and alternate history I knew all the ways Hitler could have won World War II if just one little thing had turned out differently, but I had never heard of this one:

Onthisday.com for May 12th included this entry:

1941 Konrad Zuse presents the Z3, the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computer, in Berlin

W-w-what? Straight to Wikipedia I went. Here is the entry for the Z3:

The Z3 was completed in Berlin in 1941. It was not considered vital, so it was never put into everyday operation. Based on the work of the German aerodynamics engineer Hans Georg Küssner (known for the Küssner effect), a “Program to Compute a Complex Matrix”[b] was written and used to solve wing flutter problems. Zuse asked the German government for funding to replace the relays with fully electronic switches, but funding was denied during World War II since such development was deemed “not war-important”.

The original Z3 was destroyed on 21 December 1943 during an Allied bombardment of Berlin.

Well, good. While it is interesting to speculate on how the development of the computer might have been different, it sounds like the Lord guided the bomb-aimer’s hand on that occasion.

Anyone know, how close did they come?

How not to change minds on abortion

Last December Meghan McArdle tweeted,

“Looking at abortion opinion, it’s actually quite striking how little men and women differ on this question. The whole pro-life is about men telling women what to do with their bodies” schtick simply isn’t grounded in reality . . . Men are more likely to self-id as pro-life, and women as pro-choice, but when you drill down into specifics, it’s clear this stems from differences in labeling quite similar views.

She backed up her opinion with a link to this article by the polling organisation Gallup: “Abortion Trends by Gender”.

On specific questions relating to abortion, the opinions of American women and men were amazingly close. For instance, in this detailed survey from 2012, 71.5% of men and 69.4% of women said abortion should be legal if there is a strong possibility of a serious fetal defect, and 43.1% of men and 43.3% of women said abortion be legal for married women who don’t want more children.

Opinion has also been remarkably consistent over the years. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1995 60% of Americans thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Now it’s 61%. In 1995 38% of Americans thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In 2022 it is 37%.

Why are the lines so flat? Over the same period church attendance has dropped. Support for other ideas once considered the preserve of the radical left, such as gay marriage, has steeply increased. The standing joke is that the Right won on economics and the Left won on culture. So why did the Left’s advance falter on that one issue?

By the way, although I talk about abortion as a left-right issue, because it certainly is one in US politics and to a lesser extent in politics across the Anglosphere, in this post I am not making an argument for or against abortion. If you wish to read my slightly indecisive thoughts on the issue you can do so here: “Thinking aloud on a mountainside”.

I am just interested in the Left’s relative failure to change the minds of Americans on abortion when in the same period it did so well in changing minds (including mine) on issues usually bundled with abortion.

I think it was because in the US and the UK, the pro-choice side almost never engaged with what their opponents actually believed. Over the years I must have read hundreds of Guardian articles on abortion, mostly in its US section because abortion is such a live issue there. I do not recall a single one that argued against the main sticking point of the pro-life side, namely that abortion takes a human life – let alone argued for it. On other issues the Guardian would occasionally let the odd Conservative or other non-progressive have their say about fossil fuels or the nuclear deterrent or whatever, and would often feature writers who, while left wing themselves, at least knew enough of the right wing view to argue against it. However when it came to abortion the line always was, and judging from Twitter in the last few days, still is, that opposition to abortion arises (a) only from men and (b) only from men who wish to control women’s bodies.

It works, a bit. Some men who read that will decide that they do not want to be that sort of man, others will decide that they do not want to be thought to be that sort of man. But an argument that does not even acknowledge the existence of female opponents of abortion will obviously not change their minds. Nor will silence reassure women who are not firmly pro or anti. If the Left will not talk to them about their doubts, then by definition the only arguments they hear will come from the other side.

How about male opponents of abortion and/or men who are not sure what they think? In most cases they simply will not feel that this charge that they want to control women’s bodies has any relevance to them. It’s like being accused of bank robbery when the most you’ve done is put non-recyclables in the recycling bin. Or like being accused in the modern fashion of misogyny rather than sexism: a conscientious man might examine himself and admit that some unjustified assumptions about women might be lurking in his subconscious, but that does not mean he hates women. All in all, that way of presenting the abortion argument is great for firing up those who already agree, but ensures that practically no women’s minds will be changed, and few men’s.

The above “model” is just my supposition, of course. But the remarkable stability of US opinion on abortion over decades is a fact that needs explaining, and that would explain it.

Let the medical heretics speak. You don’t have to believe them, but let them speak.

Most people prefer experts, of course, especially when it comes to health care. As a surgeon myself, I can hardly object to that tendency. But a problem arises when some of those experts exert outsized influence over the opinions of other experts and thereby establish an orthodoxy enforced by a priesthood. If anyone, expert or otherwise, questions the orthodoxy, they commit heresy. The result is groupthink, which undermines the scientific process.

From Against Scientific Gatekeeping, an excellent, measured essay for Reason magazine by Jeffrey A. Singer. He draws on his own experience of changes in medical best practice during his career as a surgeon and also on the lessons of history:

The “germ theory” anticipated by Semmelweis did not take hold until the late 1880s. That helps explain why, in 1854, the public health establishment rebuffed the physician John Snow after he traced a London cholera epidemic to a water pump on Broad Street. Snow correctly suspected that water from the pump carried a pathogen that caused cholera.

Public health officials clung instead to the theory that the disease was carried by a miasma, or “bad air.” The British medical journal The Lancet published a brutal critique of Snow’s theory, and the General Board of Health determined that his idea was “scientifically unsound.” But after another outbreak of cholera in 1866, the public health establishment acknowledged the truth of Snow’s explanation. The incident validated the 19th century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer’s warning that the public health establishment had come to represent entrenched political interests, distorting science and prolonging the cholera problem. “There is an evident inclination on the part of the medical profession to get itself organized after the fashion of the clericy,” he wrote in 1851’s Social Statics. “Surgeons and physicians are vigorously striving to erect a medical establishment akin to our religious one. Little do the public at large know how actively professional publications are agitating for state-appointed overseers of the public health.”

They got their wish.

False parallels debunked

An internet acquaintance called Tim Starr, who writes a lot about foreign policy from a “realist libertarian” point of view (ie, the opposite of the sort of “it’s all our fault” line that I see too much) has an interesting comment about the Russia/Ukraine drama on his Facebook page. I asked him if I could reprint it here, and he said go ahead. So here it is. It skewers the notion that there were parallels with Putin’s fears about Ukraine becoming pro-Western and JF Kennedy’s alarm at the Soviet Union’s stationing of nuclear weapons in Cuba in the early 1960s. And he makes an excellent point about the difference between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. These are obvious points, but a lot of those excusing Putin’s monstrous regime seem to be trying to confuse them.

A false analogy keeps being made between the Cuban Missile Crisis and Russia’s supposed fear of having offensive missiles in NATO countries bordering Russia. Supposedly, Russia has just as much right to object to NATO missiles in its neighboring countries as the USA had to object to them in Cuba.

One of the main problems with this analogy is that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened before there was such a thing as ICBMs – Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Thus, there were no Soviet missiles capable of hitting the continental USA, until they sent IRBMs to Cuba, thus threatening the USA with nuclear missiles for the first time ever. Russia has already been living under the threat of nuclear ICBM attack by the USA for decades, we have never launched one, we have signed multiple nuclear arms-control treaties with Russia, we have kept the terms of those treaties (unlike Russia), etc.

Another problem is that Russia already has nuclear-capable missiles stationed on NATO’s borders, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders both Lithuania and Poland, and is within IRBM range of many other EU and NATO countries. Do those countries have the right to invade Russia because of the IRBMs in Kaliningrad?

(Emphasis mine.)

Going back to the Cuba analogy, Castro was so unstable that he actually urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear first strike on the US from Cuba. Fortunately, the Soviets never put Cuba in command of their nuclear forces there, didn’t grant his request, and soon thought better of leaving their nukes where he might be able to get his hands on them.

Another disanalogy is that NATO membership is voluntary. No country is forced to join NATO against its will, the agreement of all existing NATO members is required for any new members to join, and any member can leave at any time. Cuba was taken over by Castro in a violent, Soviet-sponsored revolution, so Cuba had no choice about whether to become a Soviet ally. No Soviet ally was ever allowed to stop being a Soviet ally without Soviet permission, and none of the other Soviet allies ever had any say in the matter. Cuba was a Soviet puppet, completely dependent upon the Soviets. Cuba was ruled by its secret police, who were under the command of the Soviet secret police. It was subsidized by the Soviets with billions of dollars a year. Cuba remains a one-party state, more than 30 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, having only in desperation permitted a little bit of free enterprise and replacing its former Soviet subsidies with money from Venezuela’s oil exports, drug smuggling, etc. Cuba sponsored terrorism all over the Americas, and engaged in military adventurism in Africa. Nothing comparable to that has ever been the case with any NATO members.

To the final point Starr makes, it is worth noting that in the 1960s, France left the NATO command structure (de Gaulle was not happy about US foreign policy). No Warsaw Pact country was able to do so; any attempt at dissent was crushed (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968).

Come to think of it, comrades, I do want Jones back

George Orwell, Animal Farm:

“Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?”

Once again this argument was unanswerable. Certainly the animals did not want Jones back; if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring him back, then the debates must stop. Boxer, who had now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying: “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” And from then on he adopted the maxim, “Napoleon is always right,” in addition to his private motto of “I will work harder.”

(Credit to, um, www.marxists.org actually, for providing the link.)

The Times yesterday, “Donald Trump praises Vladimir Putin’s ‘genius’ move on Ukraine”. The headline worked; there are more than a thousand outraged comments about how Trump is “supporting Putin”. I knew before I read the first line that the point he was actually making would be something along the lines of this:

He claimed that Putin, 69, would not have dared invade had he still been in the White House, rather than Biden. “This never would have happened with us,” he said, dismissing Biden as a “man that has no concept of what he’s doing”.

He told the radio show: “Had I been in office — not even thinkable. This would never have happened. But you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response. They didn’t have one for that. No, it’s very sad.”

The BBC, this morning:

BBC LIVE: Russia launches invasion of Ukraine

Why did the media choose to geld themselves?

From the late 1960s until about 2010 the “liberal” media of the English-speaking world were ideally placed to propagate their values. Sources such as the BBC, the “Big Three” American TV networks, the Times of London and the New York Times were widely seen as scarcely having any ideology beyond apple-pie sentiments about liberal democracy and an endearing pride in their own role. Newcomers such as CNN upset the balance of power but did not upset this perception that what they were providing was “just the facts, ma’am”, albeit with snazzier graphics. Then along came social media, Facebook and Twitter and the rest – another eruption in terms of technique, but they still saw themselves and were seen by others as media platforms. The very word implies a level playing field. They were all blessed with something like invisibility. To be able to mix your message in with the news and spread it without being seen to do so, without being seen as an actor in your own right at all – propagandists of past eras would have sold their souls to be in that position.

Now, of course, as Glenn Greenwald put it,

…we’re on a path where we’re going to have two of everything, depending on one’s political ideology: segregated websites, financial systems, even charitable giving, the result of systematically banning non-liberals.

Edit: ‘Tony in London’ comments with an interesting parallel,

Greenwald’s observation looks [like] the pillarisation that used to define Dutch society. Almost everyone identified with one of three pillars (Catholic, Protestant, Social democrat) and this would determine which school or university they would attend, which newspaper they would read, which radio station they would listen to, which trade union and political party would represent them etc.

The Wikipedia article about verzuiling in the Netherlands and Belgium is here.

What is it with Chicoms and killing people’s pets?

“Heartbreak as Hong Kong pet owners give up hamsters for Covid cull”, reports France-24:

Time was running out for Pudding.

The hamster, a new addition to the Hau family, was to be given up to Hong Kong authorities for culling after rodents in a pet shop tested positive for coronavirus — leaving Pudding’s 10-year-old owner wailing in grief.

“I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” the boy cried, his head buried in his hands as he crouched next to Pudding’s pink cage, according to a video shown to AFP by his father.

But the older Hau, who would only provide his last name, said he was worried about his elderly family members who live in the same household.

“I have no choice — the government made it sound so serious,” he told AFP, shortly before entering a government-run animal management centre to submit Pudding.

I am not certain, but I think the video of the little boy crying next to his hamster’s pink cage might be this one, which is being widely shared online.

Given that I am not a vegetarian, I suppose I cannot make too much of a fuss about animals being killed, but I had a hamster once of which I was fond. That little boy will remember his pet being taken away for the rest of his life. I could understand if there were any serious evidence that the cull would achieve anything for humans. None has been provided. Evidence is not really the point here: The People’s Republic of China has a Zero Covid policy. Nothing is to be allowed to stand in the way of progress towards this perfect state. In fact, now that the PRC has dropped the pretence of “One country, two systems” with regard to Hong Kong, it might even be desirable from China’s point of view that the people of Hong Kong should be made aware of what their new masters think of such Western-influenced bourgeois sentimentality. Let the children weep and know themselves powerless.

Of course Communist China has form on this. During the Cultural Revolution,

Even China’s feline population suffered as Red Guards tried to eliminate what they claimed was a symbol of “bourgeois decadence”. “Walking through the streets of the capital at the end of August [1966], people saw dead cats lying by the roadside with their front paws tied together,” writes Dikötter.

Nor was that the first of Mao’s grand animal-killing schemes. In the disastrous Four Pests campaign of 1958-62 he sought to kill all the sparrows in China.

Sparrows were suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. Millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion.In addition to these tactics, citizens also simply shot the birds down from the sky. The campaign depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction.

The result was predictable: with the sparrows who ate the insects gone, the numbers of insects exploded. It was a contributing factor to the Great Chinese Famine. Warnings from ornithologists (or anyone else) that this might happen counted for little against a government that had mobilised the people to march towards a public health goal that could be defined in one sentence.

The infantorium

I never knew this:

“At the turn of the 20th century, incubators for premature babies were widely available at fairs and amusement parks across America, rather than hospitals.

Infant shows were the main source of healthcare for premature babies for over 40 years.”

That was a tweet from HumanProgress.org which linked to a fascinating article at “99% Invisible”. Apparently it’s a podcast about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about”. I am usually too impatient to listen to podcasts, but if the accompanying articles are as revelatory as this one, I will bookmark the site. The article title is “The Infantorium”. It opens by describing a long-gone amusement park in Minneapolis called “Wonderland”:

The park’s biggest attraction wasn’t the roller coaster, or the dance hall, or the log flume. It was a sideshow called “the Infantorium.” Visitors would pay ten cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes that were incubators with tiny premature babies on display. But despite how weird this whole concept might seem today, this wasn’t the only place this was happening.

According to Lauren Rabinovitz, an amusement park historian, at the turn of the century, incubators for premature babies were widely available at fairs and amusement parks across America, rather than hospitals.

At that, many readers will wonder what sort of parents can they have been, to allow their own children to be shown at a fair when they were in peril of death? The answer is desperate parents who had no alternative:

Many parents of premature, at-risk babies pretty much had to bring their infants to an amusement park. And these infant shows were the main source of healthcare for premature babies for over forty years.

Very well then, but what sort of man makes a profit from this deplorable business? That, too, has a surprising answer. The leading exhibitor of premature babies was a man calling himself Dr Martin Couney. He got his start in London:

Unlike the other showmen, Couney’s show had more of a refined air. He hired nurses to hold the babies and feed them breastmilk. The show was a hit so Dr. Couney decided to give it a try in the United States at the Omaha World’s Fair.

[…]

Thousands of people paid ten cents each to see Dr. Couney’s incubator show. And parents from across the city brought their premature babies to Couney, hoping for a miracle. A local medical journal reported that 48 of the 52 babies delivered to Couney that summer had survived.

In the state of medical science as it then was, for such a high proportion of premature babies to live was little short of a miracle. So I see nothing wrong in Couney making a profit, as he did at first. Some may say, OK, maybe that was acceptable in the early days of incubator technology, but surely these baby-shows died off as soon as proper hospitals and doctors acquired incubators?

Nope. For decades most of the proper hospitals and doctors turned down the incubators which Couney repeatedly tried to donate to them for free.

Follow the link to see why. And this Christmas remember the name of Martin Couney, the charlatan and fake doctor who bankrupted himself saving thousands of childrens’ lives:

The babies in his care were more than four times as likely to survive into childhood. He took in babies of all races and classes, and he never once charged the families. Everything was funded by admissions. Money couldn’t buy better care — because there really wasn’t better care available.

An academic hoax at Cornell University

On December 17th the Times reported,

Hoaxes sometimes have their uses in reducing certain states of mind to an absurdity. By playing on some common credulity they show how blind it is. One has just happened in America.

The report goes on to say that “the audience were not aware that the lecture was a parody. Indeed, it was such a success that the hoaxers were frightened and would have kept the joke to themselves, if it had not been revealed” and that now “[the hoaxers] are not popular in Ithaca, especially as a large part of the faculty and undergraduates of Cornell University were hoaxed.”

A lecture given to “a packed and brilliant audience” at an elite American educational institution turned out to be a fake? Surely you jest?

Well, I do, but not in the sense that this hoax lecture did not happen, but in the sense that the December 17th of the report was December 17th 1921. The lecture was on the topic of dreams in Freudian psychology and was given by a person who claimed to be a friend and pupil of of Freud. One can see why lines such as “A dreamer does know what he dreams, but he does not know what he knows and therefore believes what he does not know” went down well with the audience.

Alan Sokal and the trio of Peter Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose are heirs of a well established tradition, but it is a sad sign of the times that the absurd statements they produced to mimic the prevalent academic style of their time were merely ugly, whereas the equivalent in 1921 had something of the beauty of the later paintings of Claude Monet.

Samizdata quote of the day

In recent times, the common courtesy of trying to avoid wantonly stepping on people’s toes has developed into an editorial phobia of almost psychotic intensity.

This exaggerated concern for the tender toe has, of course, been vociferously encouraged by every sort of hypersensitive minority. The most frantic form of it is displayed by movie producers, who are more sensitive to the tinkle of the cash register than any other species of artistic entrepreneur, and who also know they are catering for a more infantile audience than any other medium other than television.

…Even on the domestic scene, Negroes, Chinese, Jews, Catholics, Baptists or Holy Rollers, can only be depicted as lovable paragons. It has reached the point where the only villain who can be safely used to-day is a white American or British agnostic, preferably named Smith.

– Leslie Charteris, The Second Saint Omnibus, Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1952, p55. No I don’t know what a Holy Roller is either. This volume came into my possession as a result of the Plunder Party on Friday night in which a number of us gathered at the late Brian Micklethwait’s flat to pillage and loot his book and CD collection. Judging by the rather full shelves when I left, libertarians are unlikely to make good Vikings. Mind you, I am told there were some 5,200 books to choose from.

Never apologise. Explain without apology.

“In politics apologies just make things worse”, writes Daniel Finkelstein in the Times. The subtitle to his piece is “Boris Johnson should be sorry about the Owen Paterson affair but actually saying so would do him more harm than good”, and that sums up the article: the rather bleak observation that in politics apologies do not pay. Finkelstein stresses that he is not saying they shouldn’t work, just that they usually don’t. To illustrate this he cites an experiment carried out by Cass Sunstein:

In Cass Sunstein’s recent book This Is Not Normal he describes two pieces of work that seek to measure the impact an apology has on people’s opinion of the person doing the apologising.

The first uses two real events. In a survey respondents were told about an occasion when the senator Rand Paul seemed to suggest that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to forbid private discrimination on the basis of race. They were also told of the difficulty Lawrence Summers got himself into as president of Harvard University. Summers had talked about genetic differences between men and women that might influence their scientific interest and ability.

Different versions of each of these stories were tested. Some respondents were told that Paul or Summers had apologised and tried to make amends; some were told they had toughed it out. Would you vote for senator Paul? Should Summers face negative consequences?

For Paul, an apology made no difference. For Summers the apology produced a serious negative reaction. And indeed in real life Paul avoided an explicit apology and remained a senator while Summers repeatedly apologised yet had to resign.

That was Finkelstein quoting Sunstein. This is me: neither Rand Paul nor Larry Summers should have apologised. The inefficacy of apology as a tactic had very little to do with it. They should not have cringed, they should have roared.

Senator Paul was right to say what he did. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to forbid private discrimination on the basis of race. The various US Civil Rights Acts were utterly right to sweep away the state-mandated apartheid of the Old South, and to dismantle the system of legal dirty tricks designed to make it almost impossible for black Americans to actually exercise their theoretical right to vote. But they should have left individuals alone. There would now be less racism, not more, if the US government had stuck to its job of enforcing the equal application of the laws and had kept out of men’s souls. Instead for my entire lifetime it has been trying to help the poor, poor blacks and reform the wicked, wicked whites. The keenest supporters of that policy proclaim its utter failure: they tell us that fifty-seven years after the Act white supremacy is embedded in every American institution. So let’s take them at their word, cease pursuing this obviously futile strategy, and try something else.

Lawrence Summers was also right to say what he did, which was that people should be unafraid to honestly consider all hypotheses as to why there are fewer women in science and engineering, including the one that men just tend to be better at science and engineering. He was right to say that no hypothesis should be off the table, and even if he had been wrong about that particular hypothesis (speaking as a woman who was once in that world, I don’t think he was wrong), he was right to raise the question. Harvard’s decline from a place of free scientific enquiry to a training ground for little Lysenkos became almost inevitable from the moment it forced out its last independent president. Not that the other American universities or the British ones are much better. They are all full of people each competing to apologise the most fervently for their own institution’s sinful existence. I begin to think that, here, too, the best thing might be to take them at their word.

Brian and I chat for the last time

As promised.

By the way, I found this rather good obituary of Brian by Sean Gabb at The Critic.

Update. The post was initially put up with the wrong link (hence Paul’s comment). It has now been corrected.