Chomsky on whether people should listen to him

If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I'm a professor at MIT, that's nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it. - Noam Chomsky

(Don't think everything Chomsky says is worth listening to, but do at least find some of it interesting).

Sympathizing with the tyrant

A quote to think about from Moral Hazards and China:

I have studied many of the nastiest parts of modern history with my students. Slavery. Japanese war-mongering. The Holocaust. My approach to these atrocities is simple: it is not enough to empathize with the victims. That is easy. It is also mostly useless. The real challenge is to try and feel the emotions, understand the fears, and take seriously the ideas that lead perpetrators to commit the crimes they did. One must not just sympathize with the tyrannized - one must also try and sympathize with the tyrant.

Why is this necessary? Why focus just as much on the experience and fears of the slaver as the slave? Because you are far more likely to become a slaver than you are to suffer as a slave. In his book on the 14 million people murdered by the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Eastern Europe, historian Timothy Snyder makes this point well:

It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands…Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral....It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.

So one must try and sympathize with the tyrant. But one must not forget what tyranny is.

It perhaps pairs well with the article Genocide and evil. To quote just a small bit there:

.... what if genocide perpetrators aren’t all mustache-twirling villains plotting to do evil? What if they believe they’re in the right? And if their moral inclinations are so misdirected, might some of ours be as well? Are we prone to some of the same errors? Are our enemies really as bad as we think they are? Is our treatment of them as just as we think it is?

Self-deception is easy, and moral feelings are compatible with evil, as much contemporary and ancient wisdom tells us. According to sociologist Randall Collins, “The more intense the feeling of our goodness, the easier it is to commit evil.”

Random links

This Person Does Not Exist Is the Best One-Off Website of 2019
How real can computer-generated faces look? Take a look.
Death on demand: has euthanasia gone too far?
"well over a quarter of all deaths in 2017 in the Netherlands were induced."
Researcher Bias and Influence: How Do Different Sources of Policy Analysis Affect Policy Preferences?
"Partisan organizations are effective at influencing individuals that share their ideology, but individuals collectively are most responsive to analysis produced by nonpartisan organizations. ... The results suggest that increasing the availability of nonpartisan analysis would increase the diffusion of information into the public and reduce political polarization." (via John Holbein)

Murder and misperception

Been thinking back to this National Review article again after recent tweets. e.g.

I think it's worth noting - as the National Review article does - that the MS-13 alone has had members hit with 207 murder charges betwen 2012 and the time of the article's publication vs. 138 killed in school shooting from 2014 til then1 (or 150 since 1999). i.e. MS-13 - just a single gang - has probably resulted in more deaths per year in recent years than school shooters.

As Gardner's thread observes, if one looks at the data student victimizaion of various sorts over the time period has seen substantial decreases in pretty much all measures. I also saw a number of references to Lisa Gilbert's twitter thread on school shooter trainings and thought this the most revealing:

To me the primary purpose of the drills that are being run is political theatre. I fall more in line with the perspective in The Atlantic's Active-Shooter Drills Are Tragically Misguided. Not only do such drills traumatize children over extremely unlikely events, but it seems that in the case of Parkland the killer may have used knowledge from past drills of how the school would react in order to stage his attack.

That's school shootings but I wonder how a similar dynamic of misperception plays out re: campaigns like Black Lives Matter? How accurate are people's risk perceptions there and are people accounting for the costs of the tactics deployed on the people involved? That's one though that'd come to mind when I'd encountered Black Lives Matter: The Wellbeing Cost of Racial Shootings in the United States a little while back. Haven't found a corresponding paper on this but here's the abstract from the talk:

This paper discusses the impact of racial shootings on Black well-being in the United States between 2008 and 2015. Using data from the Gallup Daily Polls, we first reveal a sudden and persistent drop in life satisfaction recorded by Blacks compared to similar Whites from early 2013. There is no similar effect for Hispanic individuals, and results are robust to the inclusion of state, time effects and household characteristics. To explain this finding, we exploit withinstate variation in public and media awareness of police-race interactions, following the Trayvon Martin case in 2012. Contrary to other groups, internet searches and reported cases of arrest-related deaths have a strong negative well-being effect within the Black community that can explain up to half the Black-White decline after 2013.

i.e. The Black Lives Matter movement seems to have resulted in a sudden, persistent relative drop in life satisfaction for African Americans relative to their peers - with the price paid for this by the African American community not very well accounted for I think. Personally I suspect that one of the big reasons for this effect is media-driven misperceptions of the degree to which American police officers kill African Americans.

The outrage over police shootings had prompted the Washington post to start collecting a database of them and they found a lot more than expected. What do the demographics look like though? Depending on how you account for the unknown and other categories, somewhere between 26-33% of those shot by police were African American.

Were people to be polled asking their estimate of the fraction of those shot by police I'd guess the general answer would be more like 90%. Even someone like John McWhorter who's written some not-particulary-politically-correct books on the topic of race - e.g. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America had expressed surprised about this:

The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose and others. The simple fact is that this list exists ...

Taking a raw figure like 26-33% and figure out how to treat it in public communication is more complicated. e.g.:

  • police shoot a disproportionate number of African Americans relative to their rate in the US population

  • police shootings of African Americans are roughly proportionate to what Gallup reports as their perceived rate in the US population

  • police shootings of African Americans are lower than the population fraction estimated to be African Americans reported by Tressie McMillan Cottom2 as the results of polls in the undergrad sociology classes she teaches.

Basically, as usual, the population is generally extremely bad at estimating the rates of things and, in this case, there's also interplay between rates of police shootings and the fraction of the population that's African American. ... and this hasn't even yet accounted for how this might different for other aspects of interaction between African Americans and the police, for which I'd expect you'd see a larger difference3, or issues like class.

At the moment it seems to me that the media is not unbiased but differently biased relative to population at large, and perceived by the public as such (Fox / Breitbart just being a bigger skew in a different direction than most).

I think it's much easier to convince someone that some stuff in the media is fishy, but the question of what fraction is fishy is different and much more complicated to assess. In general as well, "We overestimate what we worry about" which makes this even worse. It's the sort of thing that over years seems to have enabled Fox News to consolidate a viewer base that's over the years become increasingly out of touch with reality at time and similarly, I think, created fertile ground for someone like Trump.


  1. How to account for the precise number of MS-13 murders I'm not sure. e.g. I'd think multiple people who together committed a crime might be charged for the same murder (which may count as one or multiple charges) which might reduce the number of murders. That said, I'd that there've been more MS-13 murders than times MS-13 has been charged for it which would underestimate the murders. ↩︎

  2. Would consider McMillan Cottom's views fairly conventional as judged by her articles in The Atlantic↩︎

  3. See, e.g., Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings↩︎

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