Vox’s “Future Perfect” column frequently has flawed journalism

Sum­mary: while it seems that Piper’s ar­ti­cles for Vox are gen­er­ally valuable and ought to be shared, other au­thors seem to be putting out very mixed con­tent which can be use­less or vaguely harm­ful to the world, and should not be shared with­out first look­ing and check­ing whether the over­all mes­sage is sound or not. Also, it seems to be an in­fe­rior source of poli­ti­cal anal­y­sis com­pared to some other out­lets.

Up­date: I found that the main ar­ti­cle I wrote about here (the Hitler one) was from 2015 and just got up­dated and re­pub­lished. In that con­text it’s not such a big deal that it wasn’t a good ar­ti­cle. I’m not call­ing them “poor” ar­ti­cles any­more I’ll just say they are flawed.

24 years ago to­day, the world came dis­turbingly close to ending

Dy­lan Matthews’ claim that nu­clear war would cause “much or all of hu­mankind” to sud­denly van­ish is un­sub­stan­ti­ated. The idea that billions of peo­ple wor­ld­wide will die from nu­clear war is not sup­ported by mod­els with re­al­is­tic num­bers of nu­clear war­heads. “Much” is a very vague term, but spec­u­la­tion that ev­ery (or nearly ev­ery) hu­man will die is a false alarm. Now that is easy to for­give, as it’s a com­mon be­lief within EA any­way and prob­a­bly some­one will try to ar­gue with me about it. But Matthews’ take­away from this prob­lem is that we have to “choose” to not “con­tinue to have nu­clear weapons.” This is definitely an ex­ces­sively sim­plis­tic at­ti­tude to have to nu­clear se­cu­rity. A unilat­eral elimi­na­tion of Amer­i­can nu­clear weapons (is that what he means?) will un­der­mine if not de­stroy our abil­ity to con­trol nu­clear se­cu­rity and non­pro­lifer­a­tion among other ma­jor pow­ers and will severely jeop­ar­dize the in­ter­ests and se­cu­rity of the West. It’s ob­vi­ously a poli­ti­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity, so wish­ing for it is harm­less, but it’s still a waste of time and space. Mean­while, bilat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral re­duc­tion in nu­clear arms is a very long pro­cess that US and Rus­sian lead­ers have been pur­su­ing for decades any­way; but it’s not clear if it is re­ally use­ful or suc­cess­ful—there is a very con­flict­ing liter­a­ture on the vi­a­bil­ity of arms con­trol agree­ments.

Ka­mala Har­ris’s con­tro­ver­sial record on crim­i­nal jus­tice, explained

Ger­man Lopez’s com­men­tary on Har­ris’s ca­reer has no di­rect con­nec­tion to the ‘Fu­ture Perfect’ goal of “Find­ing the best ways to do good”. The en­tire ar­ti­cle im­plic­itly as­sumes that “pro­gres­sive” crim­i­nal jus­tice causes are the Good ones, and that many of Har­ris’s ac­tions were bad. Yet Lopez doesn’t ac­tu­ally eval­u­ate any of Har­ris’s ac­tions with rigor; he lazily uses ‘pro­gres­sive’ and ‘tough-on-crime’ as sub­sti­tutes for ac­tu­ally mak­ing the world bet­ter (or not). Lopez also ig­nores the le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ities at stake, moral­is­ti­cally as­sum­ing that she and her de­part­ment should have always taken the naively moral side rather than rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of her state as well as the law al­lows (which was her job). And if we are go­ing to be eval­u­at­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, there are much more im­por­tant is­sues to look at be­sides crim­i­nal jus­tice. What might they do with for­eign aid, for in­stance?

The philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of kil­ling baby Hitler, explained

This one is just bizarre. Matthews talks about whether or not it would be right to kill baby Hitler. After ex­pend­ing half the ar­ti­cle on Ben Shapiro and the grand­father para­dox, Matthews brings up the is­sue of ex­pected con­se­quences and prob­lems of pre­dic­tion, some­thing where the silly thought ex­per­i­ment of kil­ling baby Hitler can be used to illu­mi­nate real philo­soph­i­cal is­sues. But his treat­ment of this is­sue is very poor.

First, Matthews ap­pears to sub­scribe to the “Great Man The­ory” of his­tory where whole na­tional des­tinies and in­ter­na­tional trends can be de­cided by the unique ge­niuses and goals of na­tional lead­ers; this view is widely viewed as dis­cred­ited, and some of Matthews’ hy­pothe­ses about al­ter­nate re­al­ities shows a dis­mis­sal of more struc­tural re­al­ities (like eco­nomics, ge­og­ra­phy and tech­nol­ogy) which are known to be more re­li­able de­ter­mi­nants of trends in hu­man rights, wars, and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. Con­versely, Matthews thinks “We don’t know how much weaker, or stronger, the Nazi Party would’ve been,” which is hon­estly laugh­able to any­one who knows the story of Hitler’s role in the Nazi Party start­ing from the time that he be­came its 55th mem­ber. Of course they would have been weaker, even if we don’t know ex­actly how much weaker.

But Matthews seems to think that know­ing the spe­cific al­ter­nate his­tory of world events is re­quired to judge whether it would have been bet­ter or worse. This is mis­taken. We might make more gen­eral ar­gu­ments that the ex­pected util­ity of one world is greater than that of an­other (e.g: “wor­lds with fewer as­piring vi­o­lent an­ti­semitic poli­ti­ci­ans tend to be bet­ter than wor­lds with more”, or some­thing of the sort) with­out ap­peal­ing to a spe­cific timeline. We might state that the real his­tory was worse than should be ex­pected for that time pe­riod, and ar­gue that kil­ling Hitler would prob­a­bly im­prove things just in virtue of re­gress­ing to the mean.

Matthews seems to ap­peal to the fact that there’s always some pos­si­bil­ity that things would be worse, but this is blatantly mis­guided to any­one who un­der­stands the ba­sic con­cept of ex­pected value. The mere fact that things might be worse does not mean that the sta­tus quo is prefer­able; the bet­ter pos­si­bil­ities must be eval­u­ated and com­pared. Matthews sig­nals a stub­born re­fusal to take on this task, but it is an im­por­tant as­pect of Effec­tive Altru­ism. EA is about push­ing more rigor and more crit­i­cal thought into spec­i­fy­ing and eval­u­at­ing pos­si­ble im­pacts, not giv­ing up when­ever naive em­piri­cism has to be re­placed by con­cep­tual mod­els. EA should en­courage peo­ple to think and make con­tin­u­ously bet­ter pre­dic­tions, not tell them that it’s “to­tally im­pos­si­ble” to make a use­ful judge­ment. Of course, maybe at the end of the anal­y­sis, we won’t be able to make a judge­ment ei­ther way; but that should hap­pen af­ter a se­ri­ous anal­y­sis, not be­fore. Matthews doesn’t re­fute or even ac­knowl­edge this ob­vi­ous coun­ter­ar­gu­ment (widely re­peated within EA, and slowly be­ing reached by the philo­soph­i­cal liter­a­ture on clue­less­ness and the prin­ci­ple of in­differ­ence). Of course there are thinkers in EA who give lit­tle weight to con­cep­tual mod­els, but those peo­ple have spe­cific rea­sons for it, and they merely dis­count the con­cep­tual mod­els—they don’t throw their hands up and as­sert a profound level of col­lec­tive ig­no­rance, dodg­ing the is­sue en­tirely.

Microsoft’s $500 mil­lion plan to fix Seat­tle’s hous­ing prob­lem, explained

Matthews doesn’t re­ally ex­plain Microsoft’s plan and its pos­si­ble im­pacts in de­tail; he de­votes more space to de­bat­ing whether or not Microsoft is en­gag­ing in True Philan­thropy or just mak­ing a profit. Hous­ing is not typ­i­cally con­sid­ered a top EA cause, though 80K Hours does have a rea­son­ably pos­i­tive writeup on land use re­form. We can con­trast Matthews’ ar­ti­cle with Piper’s ar­ti­cle about Be­zos’ philan­thropy, which effec­tively uses it to segue into a dis­cus­sion of cause pri­ori­ti­za­tion and plugs for global health ini­ti­a­tives.

Study: Cory Booker’s baby bonds nearly close the racial wealth gap for young adults

Booker’s race-blind policy is high­lighted as a way to fix the black-white wealth gap, be­cause it dis­pro­por­tionately helps blacks. This is a strange thing to fo­cus on, com­pared to ex­am­in­ing its effects on poverty more gen­er­ally. Matthews should spend his time broadly in­ves­ti­gat­ing how to make peo­ple’s lives bet­ter, rather than fix­at­ing on a par­tic­u­lar race. Unequal racial dis­tri­bu­tion can have im­por­tant sec­ondary effects, but that should take a back­stage to the ba­sic moral im­per­a­tive to get as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble out of poverty. And per­haps we should get more jour­nal­ism on some­thing else that would do even more to re­duce the black-white in­come gap: re­duc­ing poverty in sub-Sa­haran Africa.

What Alex Beren­son’s new book gets wrong about mar­ijuana, psy­chosis, and violence

Lopez re­views a book and ar­gues that mar­ijuana is not very harm­ful. Skim­ming it doesn’t re­veal any ob­vi­ous prob­lems (I didn’t read the origi­nal book, any­way), and it does carry a good im­plicit mes­sage for look­ing at sci­en­tific data rather than anec­dotes, but it mostly seems mis­placed, with no se­ri­ous con­nec­tion to EA. The recre­ational benefits of smok­ing mar­ijuana are minor com­pared to the moral im­per­a­tive to fix things like poverty and x-risks, and Lopez him­self helpfully points out that mar­ijuana crim­i­nal­ity is not a ma­jor part of our mass in­car­cer­a­tion prob­lem.

Now there are more flawed ar­ti­cles which are listed in the “Fu­ture Perfect” column but don’t bear the tag. I’m not sure how much of a prob­lem that is.

Now it seems that Piper’s ar­ti­cles for Vox are gen­er­ally valuable and ought to be shared. But other au­thors seem to be putting out very mixed con­tent which should not be shared with­out first read­ing it and check­ing whether the over­all mes­sage is sound or not. Matthews’ ar­ti­cle about Ox­fam’s in­equal­ity re­port seems good.

For our own EA pur­poses, if we want in­for­mal anal­y­sis and com­men­tary about poli­tics and crim­i­nal jus­tice, the fol­low­ing sources seem like gen­er­ally bet­ter things to read than these ar­ti­cles: blogs by EAs, op-eds and blogs from good economists and poli­ti­cal sci­en­tists (like Krug­man, Ca­plan, Han­son, etc), columns at re­spectable think tanks like Brook­ings, and any par­tic­u­lar wonk or com­men­ta­tor who you hap­pen to know and trust.