The fleas in Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’

Many scholars know that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is full of errors and inaccuracies, but from time to time I stumble upon smart people – academics, researchers, public intellectuals – praising the book. They should read some reviews first.

Actually, one may be enough. Charles C. Mann did a great job exposing some of the problems in the book in 2015, for the Wall Street Journal.

Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. “Sapiens” is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big.

[…]

There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.

His examples are great.

There is more here, from Max Roser (Twitter, Our World in Data):

A good example how ‘Sapiens’ works.

Harari makes his readers believe that a 20-year life expectancy for 45-year-olds means that foragers enjoyed good health.

In fact that suggests worse health than England in 1850 (when health there was by any standard absolutely miserable).

And:

Some popular books suggest that hunter-gatherers were healthy.

This historical study finds that 49% of children in the studied hunter-gatherer societies died during childhood:
https://sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090513812001237

Is there competing evidence that suggests that the popular books are right?

Paul Graham:

The idea that hunter-gatherers lived wonderful lives and that we got cheated when we switched to agriculture is one of the dumbest ideas believed by smart people. I opened Sapiens, saw that, and immediately put it down.

Branko Milanovic on the boring lives of social scientists

In 2019, on his blog:

Recently I read, rather by accident than design, short lives of several contemporary economists. What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).

[…]

Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist? To some extent, probably yes. […] But I think it is unlikely: because it in human nature, however smart we may be, to understand certain things or to look at different and new aspects of an issue, only when we face the problem ourselves.

[…]

Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies. We all (perhaps except when we are 25) wish to lead such lives. But they are also very limited lives: the range of emotions and choices that we experience is narrow.

[…]

But if our life is a CV, can we understand human choices and human nature—a precondition for being a great social scientist? By asking that question, are we not asking whether well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies can really produce breakthroughs in social sciences. Or will their lessons remain circumscribed to orderly and rich societies only and to orderly and boring people, and not carry over to the rest of the world?

E se ajudarmos os sommeliers de vacina?

Puni-los com o fim da fila prejudica também a sociedade; é melhor deixá-los agir ou talvez até ajudá-los

Cidades brasileiras têm adotado medidas contra os chamados “sommeliers de vacina” – quem escolhe ou rejeita imunizantes de laboratórios específicos. Tais ações podem ser danosas para a sociedade. Deixá-los agir ou até mesmo ajudá-los pode ser melhor do que puni-los.

O castigo mais comum é o envio ao fim da fila: a pessoa que se recusa a receber a vacina oferecida no posto precisa aguardar semanas ou meses até ter uma nova oportunidade de se vacinar – e nada garante que ela conseguirá o imunizante desejado.

A ideia é incentivar a população a aceitar a vacina disponível, independentemente da marca. Espera-se que as pessoas prefiram isso a continuar sem vacina por mais tempo.

Mas essas medidas parecem menosprezar o impacto dos que preferem a punição – os sommeliers mais convictos, com forte preferência ou rejeição à vacina de um determinado laboratório. Ao irem para o fim da fila, eles prejudicam não apenas a si próprios, mas toda a sociedade, que fica com um número maior de pessoas não vacinadas por um período mais longo. É o que tem ocorrido em algumas cidades – em São Paulo, já são mais de 2 mil.

Em comparação, os sommeliers em lugares sem punição buscam incessantemente a marca desejada e logo se vacinam – se não no mesmo dia, provavelmente na mesma semana. Sim, até encontrar o imunizante, eles podem atrapalhar – ocupam lugar em filas, tomam o tempo de profissionais nos postos etc. –, mas menos do que os punidos com o fim da fila, que circulam não vacinados por muito mais tempo.

Se a prioridade é vacinar o maior número de pessoas no período mais curto possível, as medidas contra os sommeliers não ajudam – pelo contrário, podem ser danosas para a sociedade. Políticas de saúde não devem ser guiadas por populismo punitivista (que já faz um grande estrago na segurança pública).

O que fazer, então? Talvez o melhor seja simplesmente nada – deixar os sommeliers agirem. Afinal, não há evidência de que eles estejam causando muitos problemas.

Outra ideia, mais controversa, é ajudá-los. Se a sociedade se prejudica ao puni-los, talvez se beneficie ao ajudá-los.

As prefeituras poderiam, por exemplo, divulgar (em sites, cartazes etc.) as vacinas disponíveis em cada posto, tornando públicas informações que já circulam em sites e grupos de WhatsApp e Telegram. (A Prefeitura de São Paulo faz isso para a segunda dose; poderia fazer também para a primeira.) Com isso, os sommeliers deixariam de atrapalhar e tomariam logo a vacina, e teríamos mais vacinados em menos tempo.

Quem tem um motivo mais “legítimo” para escolher uma vacina específica – gravidez, amamentação, condições médicas, viagens importantes – poderia achá-la com facilidade e não passaria pelo constrangimento de ver sua necessidade confundida com reles capricho. E quem não tem preferência por marca alguma poderia se beneficiar de filas menores em postos preteridos pelos sommeliers.

Claro, nem tudo são flores. Essa ideia aumenta a complexidade do sistema e também pode dar errado.

Ela poderia transmitir a equivocada mensagem de que não há problema em escolher, estimulando pessoas sem forte preferência, normalmente indiferentes à marca da vacina, a virar sommelier.

Postos com as vacinas mais procuradas poderiam ter filas muito longas. E um possível acúmulo das menos desejadas poderia levar ao vencimento de doses.

Por outro lado, é possível que o aumento no número de sommeliers seja mínimo, que um sistema de senhas ou agendamento amenize filas mais longas e que as vacinas não cheguem a vencer (a oferta é insuficiente).

Aparentemente, não temos dados o suficiente para saber se essa ideia daria certo. Experimentá-la por um tempo pode gerar alguma evidência a nortear o melhor caminho a seguir.

Quem defende a vacinação diz que, geralmente, é melhor prevenir do que remediar. Ajudar os sommeliers pode prevenir a sociedade dos males causados por eles.

Slate Star Codex and the ‘New York Times’

Back in February, the New York Times published a story about Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex). This generated some interesting comments, and my plan was to read all – or at least most – of them and publish some bits here. Unfortunately (or not – it probably wouldn’t be a good use of my time), things happened, and I didn’t have time to do so. Nonetheless, I’m posting a few quotes from three articles here.

Matthew Yglesias, “In defense of interesting writing on controversial topics” (Slow Boring):

But in progressive circles, it is common to observe the norm that because the struggle against racism and misogyny is important, it is impolite to dissent from an anti-racist claim or argument unless you have some overwhelmingly important reason for doing so.

[…]

In the (liberal, coastal, urban, very political) circles that I travel, everyone (especially parents) knows and acknowledges that men and women are, on average, different in ways that end up mattering for the distribution of outcomes. But everyone also believes that sexism and misogyny are significant problems in the world, and that the people struggling against those problems are worthy of admiration and praise. So to leap into a conversation about sexism and misogyny yelling “WELL ACTUALLY GIOLLA AND KAJONIUS FIND THAT SEX DIFFERENCES IN PERSONALITY ARE LARGER IN COUNTRIES WITH MORE GENDER EQUALITY” would be considered a rude and undermining thing to do. This is just to say that most people are not rationalists — they believe that statements can be evaluated on grounds beyond truth and falsity. There is suspicion of the guy who is “just asking questions.”

[…]

The pure vision of the rationalists and the belief that statements could or should be read devoid of context or purely literally strikes me as untenable. But I think that in the Trump era, journalism as a whole has tilted too far in Lowrey’s direction, with too much room-reading and groupthink and not enough appreciation of the value of annoying people with inconvenient observations.

[…]

I think contemporary society is willing itself into a state of incredible stupidity by wanting to evaluate the worthwhileness of reading something purely on the basis of whether or not it’s correct.

[…]

But even more so, social media incentivizes the wrong kind of reading. Today you read someone from a rival school of thought in order to find the paragraph or sentence that, when pulled out of context and paired with a witty Twitter quip, will garner you lots of little hearts.

[…]

That said, the way you learn things and get smarter is to read strong writers and try to understand what they’re saying — not by trying to pick it apart for clout or finding ways to caricature and snark about it. Instead, try to understand what it is the writer is saying and why people believe that.

Will Wilkinson, “Grey Lady Steel Man” (Model Citizen):

The level of contempt for the New York Times is unwarranted, ideological, and totally out of control. Yeah, the place has plenty of problems. It’s a massive bureaucratic institution that is, thanks to its incredible reach and the nature of its mission, inevitably at the center of the national and global conversation about issues that people are literally killing each other over. (That’s often the story!) It gathers and publishes an epic amount of information at a furious pace in a way that requires thousands of thorny judgment calls every single day. So yeah, it’s gonna fuck up. Because it is massively influential, people are going to be pissed off by those fuck-ups — all the time.

This can lead to a radically distorted picture, since the astonishing amount of stellar, expert reportorial and editorial judgment embodied in each and every edition is completely invisible. The New York Times (and the Post and the Journal) nails difficult judgment calls like Stephon Curry nails threes. But just imagine if ESPN only ever showed clips of the superhuman, laser-guided mayor of downtown shooting airballs and clanking it off the side of the backboard. It happens! Well, that’s what’s going on here. So I’m going to pound the table and insist, once again, that the New York Times ranks among our best and most valuable institutions devoted to the rapid discovery and dissemination of relevant and/or interesting truths about the human world — news.

Believe it or not (but you should believe it), the culture of the Times (and similar outfits) is profoundly committed to objectivity, verifiable fact and unbiased reporting. (When I write fact-heavy opinion pieces for the Times, they get fact-checked, which is not pretty rare.) Does it suffer from bias? Of course it does! It is produced by humans. Is it hampered by a lack of viewpoint diversity? Of course it is! Sorting and self-selection dynamics push all sorts of professions in the direction of cultural and ideological homogeneity. However, the same dynamic affects informal, leisure-time affinity groups, like the SSC community, in spades.

The professional culture of New York Times is _far _more concerned to correct for the biases of self-selection than the culture that’s evolved around Scott Siskind’s blogs, for the simple and obvious reason that it has a powerful rubber-hitting-the-road incentive to care.

[…]

Reporting is a hard job devoted in large measure to ferreting out truths that the subjects of the story you are writing are actively trying to conceal. I think it’s important to emphasize that there is simply no sense — none! — in which people who like to talk about epistemology on the Internet are more committed to objectivity and truth than experienced reporters who, in the service of truth, navigate mazes of lies, gaslighting, spin, bullshit and threats for a living.

Good points. It’s interesting how wrong Scott Alexander and some of his fans can get when they talk about journalism.

And one funny bit by Scott Sumner, “Understanding middlebrow” (The Money Illusion):

The NYT has 7.5 million subscribers, mostly progressives in the 90-99% range. These people feel very smart, and they are in fact smarter than 90% of the population. So there’s no point bemoaning the fact that the NYT is not about to tell it’s readers that, “Actually, we provide middlebrow news analysis, and if you want brilliant inspired analysis you need to read blogs like SlateStarCodex.”

Yes, the NYT story is awful in all the ways that are currently being discussed by its critics, but the fundamental problem is inescapable. Any time a powerful middlebrow entity (which wrongly thinks it’s highbrow) evaluates an actual highbrow entity, you will end up with a mixture of resentment and incomprehension. This case is no different. It’s just how things work.

Scott Alexander should view this story as a badge of honor. “My insights are so subtle that even the NYT was in over its head trying to figure me out.”

That reminded me of Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy:

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.


Previously:

California is ‘symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative’

Ezra Klein, in the New York Times:

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when you factor in housing costs, and vies for the top spot in income inequality, too. […] California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there.

There is an old finding in political science that Americans are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Americans talk like conservatives but want to be governed like liberals. In California, the same split political personality exists, but in reverse: We’re often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative.

[…]

This is a crisis that reveals California’s conservatism — not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells “Stop!” In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Poorer families — disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant — are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.

“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”

[…]

There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand.