Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Why We Really Vote

I’m a generally agreeable person. So I rarely find myself in a situation where, 10 minutes into meeting someone, they say, with utter contempt, “I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say about anything.”

This happened yesterday. Why? Because I didn’t vote.

My abstention was not due to political neutrality; I preferred Democratic candidates and hoped they would win. I abstained because my vote didn’t matter. In the counterfactual world where I did vote, the outcome would be exactly the same. We all know this. Even “close” elections virtually never come down to differences in the single digits, much less a single vote.

The classic counter-argument goes like this: “If everyone on our side did what you did, then the other party would win.” Or the non-partisan equivalent: “If everyone did what you did, then Democracy would fail.”  

Neither argument is relevant. They are both “If p, then q” statements, where the p-clause is false. Everyone on my side won’t do what I do, so whatever comes after the “if”-clause doesn’t matter.

Consider the argument, “If your dad comes home, then you’ll have to stop playing video games.” If you knew that your dad wasn’t coming home, because he never comes home, would you still conclude that you’ll have to stop playing video games?

I tried to explain this to my friends, but to no avail. I suspect that on some level they knew it was true, because they shifted to a new argument: “If you don’t vote, then you don’t care,” or “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.”

By way of response, I argued that, in fact, I do care. My caring is evidenced by the fact that I spend an ungodly amount of hours, day in and day out, writing about political issues with the hope of influencing society. Writing about politics requires much more work (and care) than voting; and I have had a much greater influence on politics by writing than by voting. These arguments, however, failed to persuade them as well.

I was prepared for disagreement, but not for outright contempt. I thought to myself, I’ve never experienced contempt this immediate and intense in my entire life––not for any reason. Something is going on here.

Perhaps to ease the tension, one friend asked, “Is it OK to socially shame people who don’t vote?” It hit me. Fear of social shaming is the actual reason why people vote to begin with. Sure, people (myself included) care about policy issues. But all of us know that, in the counterfactual world where we, as individuals, did not vote, all of the policy outcomes we care about would be exactly the same.

It is impossible to persuade a rational person to vote by appealing to the effect that they, as an individual, will have on political outcomes. And it’s precisely because this is impossible that we socially shame those who don’t vote. Social shaming fills the void left by rational argument.

Of course, people tell a different story about why they, as individuals, vote. It’s about the policies, or electing better politicians, or preserving democracy, or resisting Trump. All fine goals, I say, but none of those goals are served in the least by you going to the polls. This story paints people as virtuous, but doesn’t actually explain their behavior.

My story––that people vote because they fear social shaming and desire social praise––explains not only voting behavior but also other features of political life. Consider those “I Voted!” pins that everyone wore yesterday. What do those pins have to do with advancing policy goals or resisting Trump or preserving democracy? Nothing. They are (almost literally) badges of virtue.  

Does accepting my argument mean we should stop shaming people? No! To the contrary, shame away! Voting is important, and if shaming people is the only way to get everyone to do something that’s individually pointless but collectively essential, then we should continue to shame intensely.

Still, it would be nice if people owned up to their real motives for voting every once in a while. A world with less moral grandstanding and more honesty would make me happier. But I doubt it will happen. Besides, “I Voted Because I Fear Being Shamed!” doesn’t quite fit on a pin.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Why You Should Probably Believe Christine Blasey Ford

“#BelieveAllWomen” is a popular slogan nowadays. And like many popular slogans, it is irrational if taken literally. If you believe all women, then you’d have to believe the woman who got Emmett Till lynched, plus all of the women who put these innocent men in jail. It’s safe to say that when pressed, any reasonable person who trots out this slogan would not follow through on its implications. In this sense, it’s a fake belief for most people that claim to hold it.

But the fundamental problem with #BelieveAllWomen is not that it’s a fake, virtue-signaling belief (after all, such beliefs can turn out to be true.) The fundamental problem is that it’s a bad Bayesian prior.

A Bayesian prior is the probability––absent any specific evidence––that some belief is true. For instance, let’s say that there is an American man standing behind an opaque curtain. Your task is to guess whether he is shorter than six feet; and all you know is that he is American and male. Your prior credence should be 85.5 percent because that’s the percentage of American men that are under six feet tall. If you receive new information, then your credence level should go up or down accordingly. For instance, if you learn that he is an NBA basketball player, then your credence should decrease to reflect the proportion of American male basketball players that are below six feet, etc.

Thinking like a Bayesian, what should our prior credence in the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford be? It shouldn’t be 100 percent, given how many false accusations occur, and it shouldn’t be zero percent, given how many true accusations occur. Believe all women, and believe no women both fail. What about 50 percent? This sounds reasonable at first. Many a cool-headed person has thought to him or herself: all of these people with strong opinions are clearly biased. After all, they weren’t even in the room when the alleged event happened. The truly rational person must believe that either possibility is equally likely.

But a 50 percent prior credence in Ford’s account is as arbitrary as a 50 per cent prior credence in the American man behind the curtain being less than six feet. Where we have data on base rates, such data (insofar as it is trustworthy) should trump our intuition that a 50 percent credence level is rational.

So in order to form a prior credence we should ask: Of all rape allegations that are made, what percentage are false? According to Snopes, that number is between 5 percent and 33 percent, with a greater number of studies showing the 5 percent figure. In order to steelman Kavanaugh’s defenders, let’s take the 33 percent figure. This means that, knowing nothing at all except the fact that Ford is an American woman making a sexual assault accusation, we should believe that there is a 67 percent chance that her accusation is accurate (granted sexual assault accusations are different than rape accusations, but there is better data on rape, so I’ll use it as a proxy.) Note that we should already think that she is more likely to be telling the truth than lying or misremembering, without knowing anything else.

Now we should nudge that credence around in the face of all relevant facts. Some of those facts would push the credence level up and others would push it down. In the former category there are the questions: If she is lying/misremembering, how likely would it be that

  1. She told her husband this years ago;
  2. She tried to settle this out of the public spotlight first;
  3. After decades of living privately, she agreed to derail her and her family’s life and subject herself to being hounded by reporters;
  4. (Fill-in every detail that we would expect to see given the belief that she’s telling the truth and remembering correctly.)

And on the other side of the equation we have the questions: If she is telling the truth/remembering accurately, how likely would it be that:

  1. None of her named witnesses have corroborated her account;
  2. She at one point asserted that two people were in the room and later changed it to four;
  3. She doesn’t remember whose house it was or how she got there;
  4. (Fill-in every detail that we would expect to see given the belief that she’s lying or misremembering.)

Of course, how you update your credence level given all the new evidence is up to you, but only because we don’t have data on questions like: what proportion of sexual assault victims who were assaulted at a house party remember how they got to the house 30+ years later; and what proportion of accusers misidentify alleged perpetrators they are already acquainted with; etc. Though the answers to such questions are simple percentages, we will never know them in practice. In principle, however, two good Bayesians with common knowledge cannot agree to disagree.

None of this necessarily bears on questions like, Should Kavanaugh be confirmed?, or What credence level should be required to preclude one from being a supreme court justice?, or Should the presumption of innocence extend to political proceedings?, or Should a 53 year-old be barred from the supreme court for a crime he committed when he was 17? That is, you could agree with everything in this blogpost while strongly believing that he should still be nominated for other reasons. Here, I only deal with the question whether you, as the rational Bayesian that I know you are, should think that it's more likely than not that Ford is telling the truth and remembering correctly.

However you choose to update your credences in the face of new evidence, recall that we used the low-ball estimate of how often accusers are credible. According to Snopes, something like a 95 percent credence level is more appropriate. The social incentive structure of the #MeToo era should lead us to be more wary of opportunists than we might have been a year and a half ago. But still, a 95 percent credence level, as a rough starting point, stacks the deck in Ford's favor so extremely that it should take highly compelling evidence in Kavanaugh’s favor to reduce it to 50 percent. Even a 67 percent prior credence level should lead us to require compelling evidence to come out with 50-50 odds, much less odds that favor Kavanaugh.

The presumption of innocence is essential from the point of view of checking state power––and I'm lucky to live in a nation with due process (however imperfectly it is applied in practice.) But as a rational person who has access to base rates and who wants to form true beliefs about the world in the privacy of his own mind, the presumption of innocence is as useless to me as the presumption of guilt.

Update 9/28: The 95 percent number is likely too high, based on David French's analysis of that statistic in The National Review last week. One study that found roughly 5 percent of accusations to be false also found that 44 percent of allegations were not taken to trial at all, either because of lack of evidence or because the victim withdrew from the process or because the victim mislabelled the event.

Of that 44 percent, how many were true allegations and how many false? Nobody knows. French, on this basis, ends the column by saying "there should be no default presumption that anyone is telling the truth."

True, but there should also be no default presumption that each side is equally likely to be telling the truth. That, I argue, is just as arbitrary as #BelieveAllWomen. In order to get to that view––a 50-50 prior credence––you'd have to assume that all of the 44 percent of allegations not pursued were false, and then add the 5 percent that are proven false, giving you 49 percent of allegations being false. That would get you a 51 (100 minus 49) credence level in favor of the accuser.

It seems highly unlikely that all 44 percent of the allegations not pursued are false––especially given how hard it can be to marshall legally admissible evidence for rape. It seems to me that the starting credences––not from the point of view of legal process, but from the point of view of private belief formation––should still favor the accuser over the accused. By how much? Certainly more than 51-49, and certainly less than 95-5.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Atlantic Pretends Not to Understand "Black-on-Black Crime"

The Atlantic has published a piece entitled "The Bias in Fresno's Justice System." In that piece appears the following passage:

When the ACLU report came out in 2017, Dyer told the Fresno Bee the findings of racial disparities were “without merit” but also said that the disproportionate use of force corresponds with high crime populations. At the end of our conversation, Dyer pointed to a printout he brought with him, a list of the department’s “most wanted” people. “We can’t plug in a bunch of white guys,” he said. “You know who’s shooting black people? Black people. It’s black-on-black crime.”

But so-called “black-on-black crime” as an explanation for heightened policing of black communities has been widely debunked. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that, overwhelmingly, violent crimes are committed by people who are the same race as their victims. “Black-on-black” crime rates, the study found, are comparable to “white-on-white” crime rates.  (emphasis mine)

This is a rather amazing semantic sleight-of-hand. The authors of this piece have their own unique definition of "Black-on-Black crime rate."  What they mean is the probability that any given black victim was victimized by another black person. That probability is high. It's also high for whites, because criminals, by and large, victimize people in their own community. 

What the rest of us mean by "black-on-black crime rate" is the overall rate at which blacks victimize others or the rate at which they are victimized themselves––which, for homicide, has ranged from 6 to 8 times higher than for whites in recent decades. Homicide is the leading cause of death for black boys/men aged 15-19, 20-24, and 25-34, according to the CDC. That fact cannot be said about any other ethnicity/age combination. Blacks only make up 14% of the population. But about half of the murdered bodies that turn up in this country are black bodies (to use a phrase in vogue on the identitarian Left), year in and year out. 

The Atlantic piece made this argument in response to a police officer's attempt to justify the fact that his department arrests a higher percentage of blacks than exist in the local population. It is infuriating that such people––who, whatever their flaws, are on the front lines of the homicide problem in the black community––can get so easily tarred as racist in publications like The Atlantic (which I generally enjoy.) It is more infuriating that many people are more worried about "trafficking in stereotypes"––a problem with no death count––than they are about the leading cause of death among black men and boys. 

How do you solve a problem that can't be mentioned?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Explaining Affirmative Action to a Martian

The following is a hypothetical conversation between an ambivalent earthling and a Martian academic on the topic of Affirmative Action. (The style of the conversation is loosely inspired by a similar one in chapter three of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s book “Inadequate Equilibria”).

visitor: I’ve been sent from my home planet to study your society with a special focus on the earthling concept of “racial discrimination,” which, according to my references, is deeply frowned upon here.

earthling: Indeed. Racial discrimination is one of the worst kind of offenses imaginable.

visitor: From what I’ve learned, it seems that you used to have laws that explicitly made it harder for people of specific races to enter certain spheres of society, especially blacks. But you decided to change those laws about fifty years ago.

earthling: That’s right. It was a deeply shameful part of our history; the effects linger on today. Thankfully, we no longer craft policies that intentionally target specific races and make it harder for them to succeed.

visitor: So I’ve learned. But something began to puzzle me when I started studying your society more closely. I found a study by one of your sociologists that works at a place called Princeton. The study found that Asians had to score 450 points higher on the SAT than blacks, and 140 points higher than whites, to have the same odds of being accepted into elite colleges. I’ve tried to square this fact with what I learned in my textbook––about racially discriminatory policies being viewed as wrong here––but I’ve been unable to. So I’ve come to earth to learn more. What do you know about this racially discriminatory college admission policy?

earthling: Well...I wouldn’t call it “racial discrimination.” The policy you’ve discovered is actually called “Affirmative Action,” and it’s fairly popular.

visitor: Fairly?

earthling: Not everyone likes it. Some people think that it is in fact discriminatory, since it makes the college admissions process harder for Asians than for whites, and harder for whites than for blacks, but people who don’t support the policy don’t understand the historical context, plus, they are generally republicans, which makes me suspect their motives on the topic of race in general.

visitor: Oh ok, I see...So American earthlings don’t have an unconditional rule against racial discrimination. Instead you have a rule like, “Racial discrimination is bad, except in cases where the historical context merits it. In those cases, racial discrimination is good.” Does that about get it right?

earthling: Well, no. It’s never acceptable to discriminate along racial lines. But for blacks, we feel that some Affirmative Action is owed in order to try to compensate for the injustices they suffered in the past. They were brought here in chains from Africa as chattel and held against their will for over two hundred years. Then once slavery ended, they were forced to endure another century of formalized second-class citizenship, lynchings, redlining, and social subjugation. Affirmative Action is the least we could do to partially rectify that injustice.

visitor: Ok I see. That’s the “historical context” you had mentioned earlier, right?

earthling: Yes.

visitor: Ok, I think I understand the principle now: If one group of people was discriminated against in the past, then you institute preferential policies for them in the present. Is that right?

earthling: Sounds about right to me.

visitor: Fascinating...I’ve read in my textbook that the Japanese were also treated quite poorly in this country when they arrived, and were forcibly interned by the tens of thousands in the 1940s. I assume that that would be the kind of historical subjugation that would entitle a group to preferences in the present, right?

earthling: Well, I suppose you could argue that, but we don’t give preferences to Asians––

visitor: Hold on a minute. You mean that these Japanese people are Asians?––the same Asians that have to work harder than blacks and whites to get into elite colleges?

earthling: Well yes...but Asians are somehow doing better than whites on the average anyway, plus they weren’t as oppressed as blacks, so it’s not the same thing.

visitor: Ok, let me get this straight: There’s a threshold of past suffering your group has to meet; and if you meet that threshold, like blacks do, then you get preferences. But if you don’t meet it, like Asians, then, not only do you not get preferences, but you also get discriminated against the most?

earthling: Er...I feel like you’re getting really hung up on finding the one master principle behind Affirmative Action. At the end of the day, the policy is more about increasing diversity on college campuses than about remedying past oppression.

visitor: Diversity? What’s that?

earthling: It basically means that if there were no Affirmative Action––if we didn’t know the race of college applicants––then the elite colleges would have lots of Asians and whites, but not that many blacks and hispanics. So we do what we can to ensure that enough blacks and hispanics make it into elite schools.

visitor: Interesting. So “diversity” is a word that means “the amount of blacks and hispanics that inhabit a given institution”?

earthling: Er...no. It’s not just about blacks and hispanics. Think of diversity like, “getting the racial composition of the school to look closer to the racial composition of the country as a whole.”

visitor: Oh ok. That clears things up. So earthlings believe something like, “Discrimination––i.e., making specific races have to score higher to get into college––is bad, except when it’s needed to increase diversity. Then it’s good.”

earthling: Uh...again, I wouldn’t call it “discrimination.” That’s a very loaded word here. We prefer to call it “Affirmative Action.”

visitor: So racial discrimination and affirmative action are two different things, then?

earthling: That’s right. One’s bad, and one’s good.

visitor: Let me see if I understand the distinction: Racial discrimination is when you make it harder or easier for people of different races to get into college. Affirmative Action, however, is when you make it harder or easier for people of different races to get into college––specifically to increase diversity. Did I get the distinction right?

earthling: Err...I wouldn’t phrase it that way.

visitor: How would you phrase it?

earthling: Usually we just use the phrase “Affirmative Action,” and everyone knows what we mean by it, so we don’t have to describe the details...

visitor: I don’t understand that...but let’s move on. Help me understand this thing you call “diversity.” Is it essentially a measure of how heterogeneous a population of humans is, in terms of skin color.

earthling: Something like that.

visitor: And humans love diversity more than almost anything?

earthling: Huh?

visitor: Well, I read that racial discrimination, at the level of policy, was one of the most heinous things possible for earthlings to do. But, your society breaks that rule in order to increase diversity. So, you must love diversity more than you hate racial discrimination; and since you really hate discrimination, you must really, really love diversity.

earthling: Oh I see. Well yes, diversity is fantastic; we love it.

visitor: So humans crave diversity. Presumably, then, you seek it out as you would do with any other craving. What kind of things do humans do in order to get more diversity? Do you voluntarily move to neighborhoods full of humans that look different from you? Or do you all move to different countries just to get immersed in different cultures? When you go to college, do you seek out roommates of different races?

earthling: No. Pretty much the opposite of all of that happens. Humans generally prefer those who look like them and share their cultural background. They generally choose to live in communities with people who look like them, everything else held equal. And they tend to not like it when people who look and talk differently enter their space. There are exceptions of course...

visitor: I’m confused, I thought you loved diversity more than almost anything.

earthling: Not exactly. We love diversity in the way we love eating vegetables and going to the doctor, which is to say that we don’t crave it innately, but it’s really good for us, and we can even learn to enjoy it.

visitor: What’s good about it?

earthling: Well, we humans have a tendency to hate the unfamiliar. But if we forcibly expose ourselves to people and ideas that are unfamiliar––through forced (or socially encouraged) diversity initiatives––then we’re less likely to entertain stereotypes about other races and less likely to hate them. Moreover, we get to learn perspectives from unfamiliar cultures which ultimately enriches our understanding of the world. This is one major way that we avoid ethnic hatred, which has been a disastrous and deadly problem for us in recent memory.

visitor: Interesting. So diversity is good because it forces the different races of earthlings to intermingle, thereby preventing ethnic hatred and expanding your perspectives.

earthling: Yes, more or less.

visitor: OK, so interracial mingling is great for society. It prevents ethnic hatred; it introduces people to other perspectives; etc. And that’s why you have to make Asians score 450 extra SAT points to get into the same schools. This much I understand. Since diversity is the rationale for this policy, then, when you get into elite colleges, you are surely encouraged to live with people of other races, right?

earthling: Well, no. Students can’t explicitly request a student of a different race; that would be weird. Plus, there is often exclusive black student housing––

visitor: Black student housing?

earthling: Yeah. It’s housing specifically for black students.

visitor: I’m confused. I thought the reason you had to make Asians score an extra 450 SAT points was so that you could bring more black students in, and the Asians and the whites and the blacks could all intermingle, and society would have less hatred, and more diverse perspectives.

earthling: Well, that’s true. But black students began to demand race-specific student housing after the civil rights movement, and administrations agreed. Plus, they demanded African American studies departments––

visitor: Wait a minute. So an Asian person has to score an extra 450 points so that a black person can come to an elite college, live with only other black people, and major in their own culture. All this, to increase social and intellectual mingling between ethnic groups? I’m confused…

earthling: Well, it’s not that simple. Historical context is key here. Black people were enslaved and subjugated for centuries, so, sometimes they get special dispensations. It’s only fair.

visitor: Oh ok, I see. So those black kids at Harvard and Yale, they were enslaved and subjugated, so they get to score 450 points lower than Asians?

earthling: Well, these particular black students didn’t experience slavery or Jim Crow themselves...they were born in the late 90s and early aughts. Neither did their parents experience these oppressive systems. But their grandparents might have experienced Jim Crow.

visitor: Might have?

earthling: Well, around half of black students at elite colleges are actually the children of black immigrants, so they have no ancestral connection to American slavery or Jim Crow. But the other half do.

visitor: Hmmm...I have to be honest here. I’m getting a PhD at the top university on Mars, and I’ve gotten a MacMartian Genius grant to do groundbreaking research on earthling policy, but I’m utterly confused by you creatures.

Let me paint the picture of this conversation, as I see it. 

First, you said that groups that experienced oppression in the past should get preferences in the present. But that rationale failed because Asians––who experienced lynching in the 19th century and internment in the 20th––have to work harder than white people, who did not experience such oppression.

Then you shifted to the diversity rationale. In this view, the reason for making Asians score 450 more points was because we need to increase diversity, which is the societal equivalent of eating vegetables and going to the doctor. But then that rationale also failed, because when black students get to these colleges, they are allowed, and even encouraged, to not live with other races––that is, to not contribute to the very diversity that formed the rationale for their being given higher odds of getting in to begin with.

Plus, there is no white housing for white students, which is another double-standard. You justified that double-standard by bringing back the historical oppression rationale, which I thought you had retired––even as you conceded that around half of the black students at elite schools have no ancestral connection to American slavery or Jim Crow. Due to all of these contradictions, I’m struggling to find the principle that squares the claim that earthlings hate racial discrimination with the fact that you practice it more or less openly.

earthling: Slow your roll there fella...we earthlings may not be perfect, but we think things through more thoroughly then you’re making it seem. I’ll grant you that Affirmative Action isn’t perfect. Maybe we shouldn’t have made exclusive racial housing, but, for political reasons, we can’t undo that now. The diversity rationale for Affirmative Action works fine in theory; it’s just that we haven’t implemented it perfectly in practice. But name a policy that has ever implemented its ideal perfectly. We humans have learned to settle for good enough. We don’t let the best become the enemy of the good. Can’t you see that?

visitor: Here’s what I don’t get: Let’s say you have a black kid––Brandon––and an Asian kid––Alex. Brandon’s middle-class and his parents are Nigerian immigrants. Alex is also middle-class, his parents experience some discrimination for being Asian, and his grandparents were unjustly interned in WWII.

Brandon and Alex both apply to Harvard, their dream school. Both of them experienced microaggressions growing up, Brandon for being black, and Alex for being Asian. They have identical extracurriculars––in fact, their applications are identical in every way, except for SAT scores. Alex’s scores are significantly higher. Nevertheless, Brandon gets accepted, and Alex gets rejected solely because of his race––the race that he was born into by no choice of his own. Moreover, a white kid with the same SAT score as Alex and identical extracurriculars also got accepted to Harvard just because he had the good luck not to be born Asian. And this instance of racial discrimination is justified by the fact that Brandon’s presence on campus will provide a diverse perspective and an antidote to ethnic hatred, even though Brandon can, if he wants, choose to live only amongst other blacks. Earthlings claim to care about equal treatment and diversity, and yet you undermine both at the same time! Where is the principle behind this?

earthling: When you construct an example that specific, then I’ll grant you that the policy seems unprincipled, but that’s just a thought experiment you created. What if Brandon doesn’t choose black student housing and indeed contributes to the diversity of campus? Then wouldn’t Affirmative Action be achieving its goal?

visitor: Sure, but let’s take it one step further. What if Brandon joined the conservative student group on campus, thus contributing the most bang-for-his-buck, diversity-wise?

earthling: Huh?

visitor: Well, the reason diversity is good is that it brings in new perspectives and prevents stereotyping in spaces that would otherwise skew very white, correct?

earthling: Yeah...

visitor: So a black student could do the most good––vis-a-vis diversity––if he joined the conservative club, which probably skews more white than anywhere else on campus.

Well technically yes. But if Brandon joined the conservative club, he would get shunned by the other black students on campus; he’d get called slurs like “uncle tom” behind his back. They would say he’s in the “sunken place,” or that he’s a “contrarian” or that he’s “selling out.”

visitor: I don’t understand.

earthling: For various social-psychological reasons that we don’t need to get into, blacks socially punish conservative members of their race.

visitor: You earthlings baffle me. You discriminate against a certain historically oppressed group––Asians––and in favor of another historically oppressed group––blacks––all in the name of increasing the social and intellectual mingling between the races. Then you employ all kinds of institutional and social practices that decrease mingling between the races. And when this gets pointed out, you excuse the illogic by reference to the fact that half of the blacks on campus have ancestors who experienced oppression, as if you’re not simultaneously discriminating against Asians, who also have ancestors that experienced oppression. Does no one complain about the illogic of this?

earthling: Many Asians and whites have quietly resented this policy for a while. Some Asians are suing Harvard now.

visitor: Interesting. Aren’t they worried about reducing diversity?

earthling: I’m not sure. They might love diversity, for all I know. But they love being treated fairly more.

visitor: What would happen if you stopped discriminating against these Asians?

earthling: It happened in California in the mid 90s. Affirmative Action was gutted practically overnight.

visitor: Oh dear. There must have been massive ethnic violence and a crippling lack of social and intellectual diversity. It must have been awful.

earthling: Well no...none of that happened. But the people who ended the policy were accused of being racists, which imposed a steep cost on their social status, so those people were harmed, in a sense.

visitor: Huh? So they stopped discriminating against a historically oppressed minority––Asians––and they were called racist for it?

earthling: Essentially, yes.

visitor: I don’t understand. I thought ending discriminatory policies was the exact opposite of racism. If the charge of racism was inaccurate, then why did the people that were being called racists care? If you called me a Neptunian, I would not be cowed into obeying your policy demands. I would simply correct your factual error and be on my merry, Martian way.

earthling: It’s not that simple. If you’re a racist, your social status decreases precipitously. But in a country of 350 million, it’s impossible for everyone to figure out who is racist and who isn’t––time and effort are in limited supply. So we use heuristics––that is, rules-of-thumb––to figure out which accusations are true. Here’s one heuristic: if several black people call you a racist on the internet, you’re a racist. Of course we understand, in the abstract, that this heuristic will misfire sometimes. But as long as the noise (i.e. errors) doesn’t crowd out the signal, then we can treat the rule as if it were actually true.

visitor: Interesting. I wonder if these heuristics could be abused? I could imagine that black people, due to the ascendance of this particular heuristic, could get anything they wanted, however unprincipled, by simply getting enough people on the internet to call someone/something racist. They wouldn’t even need to be consciously motivated by cynicism to abuse this power; the abuse of the heuristic could just emerge as a natural social phenomenon.

earthling: Yes, that happens. But that would lead to diminishing returns. As more false accusations of racism came to light, the noise would crowd out the signal, and the heuristic would lose credibility overtime. Some people would notice this, and might even begin to develop the counter-heuristic: if several black people call someone a racist on the internet, they are not a racist, and are probably interesting.

visitor: But the counter-heuristic could be abused too, right?

earthling: Sure, in theory. Someone could say something that will get them called a racist by several blacks in order to be thought interesting and brave by the subset of people who have adopted the counter-heuristic. But they would do this at a great cost in social status among the people who retain the mainstream heuristic. That’s a tradeoff that most people, it seems, wouldn’t take. Moreover, because people know that both the main heuristic and the counter-heuristic can be abused, people from both sides can accuse the other of using an imperfect heuristic instead of addressing their actual arguments.

visitor: So, at the end of the day, the main reason you can’t stop making Asians score an extra 450 points on the SAT is that any individual who opposes Affirmative Action will suffer decreased social status, due to being called racist? So Affirmative Action––this racially discriminatory policy justified in the name of principles that you don’t consistently adhere to, like “diversity” and “remedying historical injustice”––is mainly governed not by any principle at all, but rather by social status regulation?

earthling: Welcome to Earth.