(1600 words, 5-6 minutes to read)
Note: This is about my personal experience and point of view after 3 years in Israel. You may not agree, and you may think I’m simplifying issues that are much more complicated. Both critiques are fair, but please let me do my best to express myself anyway.
From October 2017 through September 2020, I lived in Israel, for a short time in the city of Rehovot and the rest in Tel Aviv. These three years have been a learning experience; I learned a lot about myself, about the world, about how to relate to other people. I could probably fill a long and probably boring volume with my adventures and some simple life-lessons, and I may do this in the future.
I could wax poetic about the collision of secularism and religion (a long-standing problem that exists in Israel more clearly than any other place I know),
or about the desert (which truly is a metaphor for life unto itself),
or tell fun stories about the amazing people I’ve met,
But instead, I’d like to tell you about my favorite Hebrew word:
(pronounced “kha-feef”, or like “ha-feef” with a little cough in your throat, and note that unlike English words, it’s read from right-to-left)
Now, I’m not a native (or even proficient) Hebrew speaker, and apologies in advance to those who are, as I’m sure I’m way off in technical linguistic understanding. But let me tell you what “kha-feef” means to me, because I think it captures something interesting.
You see, my favorite words are those which don’t have a simple translation in English, and חֲפִיף fits that category:
All of these (except Google) get at some piece of what חֲפִיף seems to capture. It’s kinda careless and shoddy, but no worries because we’re keeping it loosey-goosey.
I think Israel is a country of חֲפִיף. Don’t be angry! I mean that as a compliment. I’ll explain.
Israel is a young nation, officially founded only in 1948, but it’s also an ancient nation dating back to Biblical times. In much the same way, the official language of Israel is relatively new, adopted increasingly over the last 100 years (starting from scratch, mind you), but it is derived from an ancient language. Modern Hebrew attempts to capture the essence of Ancient Hebrew (the language of the Torah or Hebrew Bible), while making adjustments and additions to make communication in modern terms possible. So the beautiful words “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” are in there
(“בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ”),
but also modern words like “hamburger” (הַמְבּוּרְגֶּר, literally “ham-bur-gur”) and “phone” (טֶלֶפוֹן, literally “te-le-fone”).
In general, the Hebrew language is extremely simple, containing only about 33,000 words; compare to ~130,000 in French or ~170,000 in English. This is nice for me, an outsider, as this makes it comparatively easy to get proficient in Hebrew. (I’m still not, though!) Yet it can also create problems of nuance. Consider another of my favorite Hebrew words: כָּבוֹד (pronounced “ka-vode”). This word is usually translated as “respect”, but can also mean “honor”, “glory”, “praise”, or even sometimes “wealth”. Each of these concepts has a different meaning in English, but in the absence of a lot of supporting language, it all gets flattened to the single word כָּבוֹד.
So in the Bible, does it say that we should honor God, respect God, or glorify God? When I smile at my friend and say “כָּל הַכָּבוֹד” (“kohl ha-kavod”), am I wishing her “all the honor”, “all the respect”, maybe “all the wealth”? In English these questions makes sense, but in Hebrew, not so much. This kind of thing, writ large, makes the Hebrew language fairly חֲפִיף, in modern terms.
Let’s zoom out even further. The founding of Israel in 1948 was met with much anger from powers throughout the Middle East, and controversy around the world. In the subsequent 70 years, Israel has been in involved in 8 recognized wars and many more armed conflicts. Even in peacetime (like today), there lingers a sense throughout the country that war might be right around the corner, and soldiers may have to take arms at any time. Every citizen and long-term visitor comes to know the Air Raid Sirens that blare throughout an area when rocket-fire is detected nearby. (I ran to the bomb shelter a few times during my stay.)
But does a typical citizen live in fear that their home or workplace might get bombed or rocketed, as happens somewhere each year? No. Those I met mostly shrugged their shoulders, having accepted the lingering spectre of rocket-fire as a nuisance at worst. There’s this sense of, “Hey that’s life man, gotta keep on living! We’re still standing and doing fine, what can you do?” To me, that’s pretty חֲפִיף too.
If we bend the rules of Hebrew just a little, we can construct a simple sentence: “אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף” (pronounced “ay-zay kha-feef”). This might mean “How חֲפִיף!”, in the same manner as you might say, “How fun!” or “How sad…” I don’t know if this construction is allowed, but let’s go for it. I’ve encountered lots of situations in Israel where it feels like all you can say is “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”.
When (true story) the electrician comes over and fixes your AC unit with duct tape and loose wire, you might throw up your hands and say “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”. In the end, my AC worked just fine… not great, just fine. But it got us through the summer!
Or when (true story) you go to a restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv, you might see their outdoor sound system looking a little… janky. Oh well, it works, “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”
As the saying goes, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the passable.
Israeli barter culture fits the theme too. In the outdoor market, there is no “price”; instead the price is whatever people agree to, and there’s a real skill to the dealing. (I suck at it.) It happens in more formal settings too, at the bank or when signing a rental contract; the rules change depending on who you talk to, and it really pays to argue. Most bureaucratic systems I’ve encountered in other countries are overly rigid, but the Israeli system is overly loose, if anything. Rules that depend on who you talk to imply that you, the customer, don’t know in advance what the rules are, which forms to fill out, which phone calls are necessary. Often this is resolved by a spirited argument (yelling!) until one side just does the job somehow.
This led to some personal frustrations–for example, I had to go to the bank 5 consecutive times on different days just to order a new checkbook, waiting an hour each time, because every banker I spoke to had a different procedure in mind. Probably if I had argued more with the first banker the job would have gotten done, so I guess it’s partly my fault. As frustrating as this can be, it does ironically lead to a sort of beautiful flexibility in the system. Somehow, things get done, even if it’s by a different method every time it happens. It works; things turn out pretty much fine. אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף.
The background aura of barter culture gives rise to an interpersonal intensity that I wasn’t prepared for; it’s likely part of the rudeness people often attribute to Israelis. They’re in your face, and not shy about telling you how they feel–but they’d tell you that’s only because they’re just trying to get the job done. There’s a friendliness in the “rudeness”. If you get a flat tire and block traffic, someone will yell and tell you what an idiot you are… but there’ll for sure be no shortage of people rushing over to help you get you back on the road. Sometimes, both will be the same person.
Some accuse Americans of smiling to your face while they stab you in the back. In Israel, I experienced the opposite: people will yell to your face while at the same time going way out of their way to help you.
Other miscellaneous things fit too: both the backpacking and rave cultures in the desert; the run-down apartment buildings (most look old and ratty on the outside but often they renovate the inside over time); the fact that the bars are packed every night of the week until 1AM; and so on. It’s a mess; it’s a party; it’s half-way figured out but good enough for today; you have what you need, why complain?; it’s loosey-goosey, it’s all good, סַבָּבָּה man! All signs point to חֲפִיף.
If I had to try to sum up, I might say that what I experienced in Israel over three years was largely a system of short-term fixes. This makes sense to me, all things considered. Extending myself way beyond my borders of competence, I might dare to speculate that this kind of system might not be that surprising for a people that have been historically enslaved, subjugated, nearly genocided multiple times. It might not be that surprising that a people who have largely been denied stability might be a bit present-focused. That over time, without strong expectation of a long-term future, they might come to seem short-sighted.
(Why bother to fix that AC unit perfectly, when we might be at war next week?)
But who knows. In the end, my personal experience in Israel was largely חֲפִיף. It was a mixture of trials and pains with triumphs and joys, simultaneously the most beautiful adventure of my life and a frustrating mess. A friendly hug and an angry shout in my ear. This all seems perfectly appropriate.
I loved it and I can’t wait to go back and visit.
Thanks to all the beautiful people I’ve come to know there.
“אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף” ❤️
Listening to a Rationally Speaking episode from last year (ostensibly about the debate over sex differences in the human brain), I ran across this gem of a quote from Julia Galef:
…maybe when people are giving their arguments or stating their position, what they’re doing (unconsciously, probably) is not trying to state exactly what they think the truth is, but they’re trying to state something that will move the overall consensus closer to what they think the truth is.
It’s sort of like, if everyone was voting on how they wanted money to be spent, or something, in the budget, and I actually thought that we should spend 1/4 of the money on education, but everyone else thought we should spend only 10%. I know that my vote it’s going to count for much, so in order to get us to 1/4 I have to say that “we should spend 90% on education” or something, and everyone’s doing that.
And so when you listen to what people think the divide between innate and socialized differences is or something, they’re not quite saying what they really think, or at least their topic sentence, the headline, of their position is not saying what they really think: it’s saying what they think will move the debate towards the right thing, according to them. And it makes things so confusing.
I’ve had this thought before but never heard it expressed so eloquently, and I find the idea both very correct and very upsetting.
It’s like you’re playing Tug Of War, that game where you and your team pull a rope against another team, except in this version your team has the rational goal to just to hold the rope steady at a particular point:
The game starts at center. Team A pulls the rope a little to the left, but Team B reacts by pulling a little harder than Team A to get the rope back to the right. Team A pulls a little harder, so of course Team B pulls a littler harder, and so Team A pulls harder, and so Team B pulls harder, until soon both teams are pulling as hard as they possibly can. It would seem like a miracle if the net result of both sides pulling as hard as they could ended up with a thoughtful, well-reasoned result (I’m still assuming Teams A and B are thoughtful, reasonable people). But at every step, both teams did what was reasonable to do.
In Julia’s example, members A and B of the budget committee might think 10% or 25% (respectively) of the budget should be allocated to education. But when the argument begins they might argue that 0% and 90% of the budget should be allocated to education. Then the whole thing becomes a negotiation rather than a discussion, which is not a good format for determining what is true or what is effective in the world outside of A and B.
The flaws here seem to be: (1) setting your goal as fixed before the conversation begins; (2) treating the “other team” as negotiating partners rather than interlocutors from whom one might learn. And this is assuming the teams have good, rational arguments for their views! The situation is already dire, and we haven’t even accounted for the additional costs of tribalism, the sunk cost fallacy, and other bad reasoning!
At the risk of making this longer than I planned, here are some examples that come to mind:
I want to say that the best way to win this game is not to play, but that’s only true if everybody stops playing Pull As Hard As You Can. The position of the rope here determines public policy or public opinion, and both matter in the real world; those people who pull as hard as they can have a natural advantage against those of us pulling just hard enough. So our Tug of War game is also a prisoner’s dilemma, where we know many people will defect by making the most extreme claims possible. Our best outcome is to cooperate, putting down the rope to discuss dispassionately the goal of both teams and trying to agree on what’s best; on a large scale, it’s hard to imagine getting there.
I don’t have any solutions to this, and I end this post feeling unsettled and filled with despair.
(By the way, note that Robin Hanson also compared policy debates to Tug of War (in a different way), and wrote a great post about it.)
It occurred to me this morning, and I thought it might be worth writing down, to add to the canon of bad metaphors for the mind and meditation.
Your mind is a skillet. Your thoughts are ingredients being cooked.
The first time a skillet is used, it is clean and fresh, and the ingredients pass through without hindrance.
With time, the skillet becomes worn, and food sticks to it more often. The eggs from breakfast are not fully removed before the chicken for dinner is added, mixing the flavors and making cooking more difficult.
If this happens for many years, the skillet will become caked over with previous meals. Eventually, these remnants seem to be indistinguishable from the skillet itself.
But the skillet is not the ingredients; it is the place where the ingredients appear. In the same way, your mind is not your thoughts. A skillet that holds on to ingredients from past meals fails to do justice to the next ingredient, just as a mind that holds too long onto an old thought fails to truly appreciate the next one.
A skillet should be cleaned to remove past ingredients; a mind should be cleaned of past thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation is the acknowledgement that underneath all the thoughts that have become stuck and seemingly impenetrable, there is a mind that is separate. That mind is just the place where the thoughts keep appearing and passing away.
It’s also important that the skillet does not choose the ingredients; the ingredients just appear and the skillet does what it does. If the ingredients are bad, it’s not the fault of the skillet. If the ingredients is good, it’s not because the skillet did something to make that happen.
Your mind does not choose your thoughts; the thoughts just appear and your mind does what it does. If your thoughts are negative, it’s not your fault and it does not reflect on you as a person. If your thoughts are positive and helpful, you can enjoy them for what they’re worth, but it’s not because you authored them. You didn’t.
I haven’t written anything in roughly two months, so I thought I’d give a global update about me, as well as my thoughts about the blog going forward.
As I write this, I’m in a plane flying from Chicago to Japan. I left Israel on September 12, spent two months in the US (visiting family and road trippin’ with my girlfriend), and now I’m finally completing the move to the Far East. I’m nervous and excited, and ready for both a new routine and a new adventure. I’ll have 14 days of quarantine to start with, which will give me time to think through what I want to explore first!
COVID times have made these months strange. My girlfriend and I had planned to take a trip somewhere, and we decided the best thing to do is explore some National Parks in the States (hence, the road trip). Spending time exercising and only briefly interacting with small groups of people, in an outdoor setting, sounds like about the safest and healthiest way I know of to spend a few weeks during a huge wave of COVID cases in the US. We had a great time, and frankly it has set a new bar for how fun a vacation can be.
But now, as I fly to Japan, it’s back to work.
With my new routine will come, I hope, some time for reading and writing. I still have a pile of half-finished posts that will be first-up once I get settled and un-jetlagged. New Month Resolutions will begin again in January 2021, shifting Year 2 away from the awkward October-for-some-reason starting month (I’ll still commemorate Yom Kippur in my own way, don’t worry). In my last NMR, I promised to reflect on the blog and on NMRs specifically, which I did, and aside from the date shift I came up with a few changes to both:
It’s nice to see that some people still look at the blog, even when I’m not updating it. If you read any or all of something I’ve written, thank you. I appreciate you a lot. I hope to get better at this with time.
This is part of an ongoing series of monthly self-experiments; see the full list.
This will be a short one. I’m in transition mode, between jobs: I left Israel on September 12 (just escaping their new COVID lockdown!) and will arrive in Japan on November 12. Needless to say, I haven’t had much of a routine lately and have not blogged much. Also, I don’t expect this to change in the coming month.
In the past three weeks (since saying goodbye to Tel Aviv), I’ve spent time with family and friends in the Midwest of the US. I’m planning a trip to the East coast (near DC) and another to the West (Arizona, Colorado, and so on). It’s a great time for seeing people, and it’s technically a vacation, but I’m trying to not fall totally behind on research tasks and I’m trying to get connected with my future colleagues in Japan.
Anyway, I’m trying not to be too ambitious with my commitments and just enjoy this time. Here’s me with my girlfriend at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
In blog news, I still have several half-written and half-baked posts upcoming. I’m too much of a perfectionist about this, and should probably take the advice of other bloggers to just write and not worry about it being exactly correct all the time; the point of this is to figure things out by writing them, not to figure things out and then write them. In lieu of full posts, I started another 100-day writing challenge on Twitter, which I’ve neglected for two weeks but am restarting today. A return to normal blogging coming soon, I hope.
I tried to keep it simple last month, committing only to learning to whistle. And… it basically worked! I practiced a little each day (or nearly so), and can now make noises where before I could not. That’s a success! I thought I’d need to look up some tutorials, but it was enough just to mess around a lot with my lips and tongue until things started to happen. Trial and error are sometimes preferable to top-down learning.
The final goal was to be able to whistle a whole song, e.g. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And… I sort of can. It doesn’t sound good and I have to move the pitch around to get the note (I eventually get there though). Still, considering my inability to make whistle sounds at all a month ago, I’m taking what I can get. If I spend another month doing this, I’m sure I’ll have a full, decent sounding song at the end. And if I don’t, I’ll at least be able to make a sound to draw my friends out of a crowd.
Can you believe that this month marks one year of NMRs? I started this project on Yom Kippur 2019, and have done 11 (and a half) resolutions; this month will be 12 full resolutions. What to do in commemoration?
Yom Kippur, which inspired this project last year, is the Jewish holiday of atonement, of repentance, and also of new beginnings. It’s a time of year for looking back at what has been done before, acknowledging our ever-present failures and shortcomings, and use them to learn the appropriate lessons and make the future better than the past. So this month my resolution is merely to reflect on the past 12 months, and figure out how I can make the project better next year.
The focus of this blog, and the whole project of NMRs, seems to fit the theme. This blog is about bringing things from the Meta Level and applying the lessons to the Real World: this month’s Real World resolution is to see what my resolutions look like on the Meta Level. And this blog is about learning life lessons from unconventional places: I’m not Jewish, yet I’m taking lessons from a high Jewish holiday.
Next month In November sometime I will discuss the previous year, how the resolutions have changed and how they changed me, and finally, on reflection, what improvements I’m making to the project.
Starting October 1, I will reflect on the project of New Month Resolutions, in an attempt to make the project more successful in the coming year.
Results and new Resolution will be given on or around
November 1, 2020 January 1, 2021.
(2000 words, 7-8 minutes to read)
When we hear “rewire your brain” we think we’re changing what the brain is, but what we’re really changing is what the brain does. It’s more like installing a new program than rewiring a hard drive. Just as easily as I installed a new mindset via habit formation, it can be uninstalled when the habits change, but the mind-hardware underlying either mindset is fundamentally the same.
The analogy here is that there’s a substrate (the brain as a physical entity like a computer, i.e. the hardware level) and there are processes (brain activity as an emergent layer like a program, i.e. the software level). Claims that meditation / porn / basketball / whatever can “rewire your brain” sound like a hardware-level change like installing new RAM or upgrading your graphics card, and therefore make it seem semi-permanent; but in fact most or all change is merely software-level, like switching programs on your desktop. The latter is important and useful, but if that’s all that is going on then we’re each stuck with the brains we’re born with, along with their myriad limitations. I can’t run Fortnite on my Nintendo 64; the hardware has limitations that software changes cannot overcome.
Looking into this, I invented a fun new game: Type any X plus “rewire brain” (e.g. “candy rewire brain” or “running rewire brain”) into Google and see what happens. Any activity or item of consumption I tried would turn up an article telling me all about it. And probably, they’re all correct in the sense MBB points out: anything you do makes a software-level change, and there’s nothing mysterious or exciting about that. So I take MBB’s point.
However, the stated conclusion seems to miss something important. If I was being really uncharitable, I might accuse MBB of proving too much here, as we could use the same argument not just for the brain, but for any organ. Consider my liver: any one night of heavy drinking doesn’t “rewire my liver” in a hardware sense, but rather just changes its function at the software level. But if I drink a bottle of vodka every day for a month, I can promise you that my liver will be changed in every relevant sense. Since MBB also says that the brain is an organ (not a muscle), I think he’d concede the analogy here: if he’d call this “rewiring” the liver then I think he’d concede that the brain can at least be “rewired” negatively. You can break your liver at a real, substrate level, and in the same way (and with some of the same substances) you can break your brain. This is not mere software; you aren’t left with the same liver/brain you started with. There may be no coming back from a really bad fall or crack to the head.
This is all consistent with the brain being robust but not antifragile, which I take to be the cumulative steelman of the two MBB posts above. I think that’s what he means by the brain being an organ and not a muscle, and also what he means by the “mind-hardware underlying either mindset [being] fundamentally the same” in the above quote. Learning new facts or abilities is just what a well-functioning brain does, and some brains do it better than others. Take care of your brain (don’t drink too much, don’t get hit in the head too hard, etc.) and your brain will do as well as it is supposed to do, given the kind of brain that it is. You can’t train your way into a new brain.
…Or can you?
At the risk of putting words in MBB’s mouth, I think we agree that we can negatively rewire the brain; the interesting debate to be had is whether there can be positively rewired, which is to say, better than it is by default. I think the latter is indeed possible. I don’t really have the right tools on hand to assess how “real” rewiring goes on in the brain (or the liver), but from a practical standpoint I think I can point out some useful distinctions. Let me try to wave my hands at why I think this way.
Consider, for example, how changes in my daily routine have lasting effects, and some are more “sticky” than others. If on October 1 2020 I start going to the gym after months of not, it’ll be hard to get myself up and motivated enough to do it; however, if I go three times a week for a year, then on October 1 2021 I’ll be itching to go and upset if I am unable to. There’s a change in my muscles for sure, but also there’s a major difference in my experience between the two cases, and it’s not in any one specific gym experience. What is it?
Or suppose I try to take up a new skill, like playing the piano. If I start with no ability and no know-how, the first few weeks will be painful and difficult; however, if I stick with it for many months, it will become natural and fun. My fingers will stretch more and be stronger than before (that’s muscle), but also my brain will take more readily to the practice of playing. This change is sticky in the important sense that after enough time, I can quit practicing and retain my gains. If I come back after a few years, my fingers will be stiff but the effect on my mind will often remain. So did I rewire my brain?
These are illustrations of add-on effects and even of lasting long-term gains; in both cases, any one instance of a behavior isn’t sufficient to make a big change to the substrate, but day-after-day repetition can add up. We’re familiar with add-on effects in a negative sense, like the alcoholic’s liver or a rock musician’s eardrums. So I can reduce the question whether the brain can be rewired, to the question of positive rewiring, and now to the question of positive add-ons or long-term gains. How could it be that repeated training or practice can make the brain better than it usually is?
And here, I think there’s a simple answer: the default state of our brains and the default way we use them are poor, or at least, very often they are unfit for the tasks we care about. Even if our brains are merely robust (not antifragile), they will still fail to achieve their fullest potential if they’re constantly buffeted by negative forces or asked to perform tasks outside their expected purview.
It’s straightforward to see this from an evolutionary viewpoint. Our minds were not tailored for the modern environment: we are tribal even when it’s counterproductive; we have high levels of anxiety or depression in spite of unprecedented levels of comfort and pleasure; we work themselves to death playing social status games at the expense of their happiness and health; and so on. Maybe hunter-gatherers were happier than we are, but historical facts notwithstanding, it’s not hard to imagine a mind much like ours but which didn’t have to deal with these built-in failures to adapt. These failures imply that our minds aren’t, by default, cut out for the tasks we give them.
It’s as though we are all unknowingly consuming liver-harming toxins (e.g. alcohol or lead) all the time. Everyone thinks to themselves, “The liver is an organ not a muscle, so just make sure to eat clean and don’t strain it and it’ll be as good as it naturally is”, until someone comes along and tells them “HEY there’s lead in your water literally ALL THE TIME!” Your ordinary routines are not allowing you to achieve the health your liver is capable of. Get the lead out of the water and your liver will improve, not because it’s antifragile (it’s not) but because you hadn’t previously recognized the circumstantial factors that were making it operate poorly.
And our minds do seem to be capable of outgrowing this default state; this fact is nowhere more apparent than in mindfulness practice. By observing your thoughts or sensations in the body as closely and precisely as possible, you become capable of realizing the extent to which you were really not doing that the rest of the day. If you live a reasonably healthy life you will (in absence of e.g. lead in the water) likely have as healthy a liver as you care to have; yet, living a default-state kind of life will lead you to, at best, a merely adequate sort of mind, one which misses our on much of what your mind is capable of. So it makes sense in this picture that meditation is one of the main practices that seems to affect the Default Mode Network, the brain network associated with mind-wandering and daydreaming. This seems to be a case where people are able to pull themselves out of the “normal” state of their mind and reach, however briefly, for something better than default.
The brain is different from the liver in another regard. The liver is operated fully unconsciously; try as you might, you literally cannot affect the functioning of the liver by focusing really hard. But you actually can affect the functioning of your brain through hard work and dedication. Call this a “mere” change of habits or whatever you want, but some of these changes can be sticky enough to warrant calling them real improvement, like piano skill or gym motivation. More fundamentally, you can be more attentive, or charitable, or loving, or rational. You can train in that. And you don’t have to think the brain is antifragile to see why it’s possible.
There is a kind of awakening that comes from transcending your default state, by becoming aware of your thoughts and the internal workings of the mind. It can feel a bit like waking up from a dream you didn’t know you were having. It can even feel like mind is expanding. Speculatively, this might be what flow is.
So let’s come full circle on the original MBB question. Yes, the brain is an organ, and yes, organs tend to be robust and not antifragile. But these giant Homo Sapiens brains are the newest bit of hardware we own, and they were not evolutionarily selected for proper functioning in the modern environment. Reading, meditation, or mental exercise may or may not literally “rewire your brain”, I don’t know. But I see little reason to doubt that over time the changes they produce could be real, sticky, and important. They may allow the possibility to transcend the bad, often very bad, default state of our minds.
Let me close with a passage from one of my favorite speeches: This is Water by David Foster Wallace.
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
In other words, the goal is an awakening which might allow us to transcend the default state of mind, within which we often don’t even realize we are trapped. The default state of our brains is sub-optimal, and we can do better.
This is part of an ongoing series of monthly self-experiments; see the full list.
You may have noticed that I didn’t write anything last month. This is mostly because I’m in the process of moving, first to the US (in just over a week) and then to Japan (likely in November). It’s not that I literally didn’t have time to write, but more that my mental resources have been otherwise allocated. I’m excited for all that’s coming up, excited to travel with my girlfriend, excited to move and to see family and to start a new chapter in my life. But…
I’m really mentally drained.
I planned to post links (I have them written down), I started to write many things (they’re in my Drafts folder), and I’m hoping to get back to it when things settle down. On top, I have languishing research projects I need to get back to soon. Some of my reasons were nicely articulated by Jacob at Putanumonit; I feel I’m in great company on this. Here’s hoping for next month.
This transition period of my life, and the associated mental fatigue, have made last month’s resolution difficult to stick to. I intended to have a “Clean Desk Policy”, both in my physical space (putting everything away when I was done with it), and my digital space (closing tabs and programs when I’m done with them). At first, this worked great, but I faltered over the course of the month.
In the first week I had cleared both physical and digital spaces almost fully, and you can see from last month that this was a major feat. But I’m moving, and so my things have had to be pulled out of dressers, those dressers sold, and those things put on the ground for long periods of time. Overall, I feel good about my improved level of organization through it all, but it has fallen very short of a “Clean Desk Policy”.
My digital life is much cleaner than it was, though also fell short of the full goal. I started with dozens of browser tabs and bordering on hundreds of emails to go through; now my email inbox has only about 10 messages and under 20 browser tabs (in both cases, mostly things I’m working on today). Five tabs which are drafts of future MLU posts have stayed open the whole time, to
encourage me to write more taunt me each and every day. I did not take the hint. Oh well, there’s always next month.
Overall, a significant improvement that diminished–but not fully!–over the course of the month. I’ll try hard to hold onto the gains I’ve made.
In light of my current physical and mental state, I’m going to try something simple that I can do wherever I am: I want to learn to whistle. I can kind of make noises now, but I can’t change notes and it’s very boring. I will try to whistle a full song, probably some children’s song with a simple melody (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” would be good, but no promises).
Simple, straightforward. Let’s do it.
Starting September 1, until (at least) the end of the month, I will practice whistling, with the intention to be able to whistle a full song by the end.
Results and new Resolution will be given on or around October 1, 2020.
This is part of an ongoing series of monthly self-experiments; see the full list.
That little COVID bump from last month? It has grown into a monster.
So, that’s not great. Israel has mostly not responded, merely increasing fines for failing to wear a mask but keeping most businesses / restaurants open.
Personally, I’ve started preparations for leaving Israel in September; my new job in Japan has informed me that I may not be able to arrive before my start date in October, so until then I will be working remotely in the US. When the borders reopen, I’ll make preparations to move to Japan, which may not be until 2021 (who knows). Until then, I’m excited to see family and travel with my girlfriend.
As for the blog, last month felt a bit light in terms of writing, but a highlight was a fairly detailed post about COVID exit strategies. My Links posts haven’t panned out so well, so I may turn them into part of the NMR posts, merging my monthly rituals into a single one, but we’ll see. I have several works in progress but haven’t had so much time for reading research or diverse learning, in part because of my Resolution from last month to read physical books. So, overall it’s been sababa, but we’ll see how this month goes.
Main resolution (+) was to read physical books, in particular the three books Law’s Order, Homo Deus, and Fooled By Randomness; the first two I had started and the third was from the beginning. To finish all remaining pages, I calculated that I’d need to roughly read 20 pages / day for the 31 days of July. How’d I do?
On 15/31 days, I completed the challenge by reading ≥20 pages, with an average 16.1 pages/day. But on days that I succeeded, I averaged 26.1 pages per day; mostly those pesky 0-page days killed the total average. Three of the five of the null-days were days that I was teaching (which makes clear how tired I am after teaching). In the end, after reading a total of 498 pages this month, I finished the first two books and am ~halfway through the third.
Did I enjoy the books? In brief, yes, they are all worth reading for different reasons.
Downside of this Resolution was that I consumed fewer ideas from other sources: blogs, podcasts, and the like. I also wrote less. Overall, I think I’ll keep reading physical books in the near future, though I may try to finish only one book per month at most; this month was a good jumpstart to the habit but I don’t want to give up on other good resources.
I gave up gluten for the month. Full disclosure, I made mistakes: (1) twice when I went out with my colleagues I drank beer with them; (2) the last few days of the month I fell off the wagon completely; and (3) I straight-up didn’t realize how many things have gluten in them! Did you know that sushi often has gluten (tempura and soy sauce)? Did you know that granola often has gluten? Did you know that many fried foods have gluten (because of the frying batter)? Did you know that many vitamins and supplements are made with starches, some of which are glutenous? I do now! (Here’s another good list of unexpected sources of gluten.)
Mostly gluten appears in certain kinds of grains, so things that contain wheat, barley, or rye are the main ones to avoid. It is possible to substitute flour of these varieties for gluten-free versions made of almond, buckwheat, teff, or the like. There are gluten-free versions of most foods; this month I tried GF pizza crust, bread, beer, pasta, cookies, and more. While there was often a difference in texture, and sometimes in flavor (GF version was usually less flavorful), overall I didn’t mind the change. I also ate more non-carbs to compensate for the carby calories I didn’t eat: meat and vegetables mostly.
One noticeable advantage was that I felt lighter, less weighed-down than I do when I’m eating glutenous foods; I tend to get tired after eating a carby meal, and with the GF options I felt less so. Maybe it was a dose problem though; when I eat pita I tend to overdo it and crash. I played with it to see if it was correlation and not causation by adding some gluten back and then dropping it in the middle of the month, and noticed the same: when I didn’t eat gluten I just generally felt better.
I learned a lot from being gluten-free, and saw how hard it is to really stick to it; I don’t envy those with celiac who really need to avoid as carefully as possible. In the future I may opt for gluten-free options just for the added energy benefits, however slight. I’ll be eating a gluten-free burger this week. 🙂
In part because I’m moving soon, my room / life are a mess. I have things all over my desk and the floor of my room and on top of my keyboard:
But my digital life is just as disordered, if not more:
Not pictured: My email inbox containing dozens of emails that I’m saving “for later”.
So this month, my resolution is all about organization. I am instituting a “clean desk(top) policy”, which extends to all surfaces of my room and my email inbox: nothing out of place, and put things away when I’m done with them. This means reducing to zero both my open browser tab count (closing browsers when I’m done) and my email count (snoozing when necessary). In my room, my desk will be cleared of all clutter whenever I walk away. I’m hoping this will help keep me focused and motivate completion of projects.
I expect it to take ~a week to get my act together, and after that I will keep myself organized.
Starting August 1, until (at least) the end of the month, I will institute a “clean desk(top) policy”: no clutter on surfaces in my room, and browser window tabs / email inbox at zero. In the first week, I will clean each of these sufficiently to respect the resolution, and for the remaining days I will keep them organized.
Results and new Resolution will be given on or around September 1, 2020.
(4000 words, ~12 minutes to read)
It’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day mire of COVID-19 statistics, analyses, and hot-takes. But what I really want to know is: What might a post-COVID world look like? And what are some ways to get there? In this highly-speculative spirit, here are some ideas (none are original, I’m just compiling ideas I’ve heard from various sources).
This is the solution I hear about the most, by far. COVID is a virus, as is the flu or measles or smallpox (technically, Sars-Cov-2 is a coronavirus which causes the disease COVID-19, but I’m going to keep calling it COVID for short). One thing we do to mitigate the effects of those diseases is to vaccinate the population, either in childhood or annually; this allows the production of antibodies in healthy individuals, mitigating the spread of active virus cases. We might want to do this for COVID.
Best-case, it works extremely well, COVID stops spreading, and the global caseload starts dropping until it gets to zero; you might call this the smallpox model, mapping to the eradication of that disease in the late 20th century. Less-than-best-case, it works kind of well but COVID keeps spreading; the caseload goes down but does not get to zero, as the virus keeps mutating to stay just out of reach, and we see new outbreaks popping up year after year. This is the flu model, where we have to get a new vaccine every year for new strains of the virus and tens of thousands of people still die from it annually.
If the vaccine works, we won’t know which model (smallpox or flu) we will get. Still, while not perfect, even the flu model is far better than what we’re doing now, which has cost trillions of dollars and the virus still runs the risk of overrunning hospitals if we let up even a little. A vaccine at least might keep the virus at bay in a way that is manageable in the long run.
Vaccine development takes time. The timescale I hear quoted most often is 12-18 months, though many hold that this is extremely optimistic, pointing out that most vaccines in the past have taken decades to develop. We have the benefit of modern technology and resources, sure, but science is science, and you don’t know how easily the answer will come until you already have it.
It’s also worth saying that there’s a lot of pressure to get a vaccine out as fast as possible–and rightly so–but this will potentially mean governments will be incentivized to cut corners with respect to safety testing. Say what you will about how “vaccines are safe”, but I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that a new global vaccine has risks. Seriously though, our ability to ensure safety depends on a lot of testing and tracking populations over time; it’s very possible to produce a bad vaccine if we’re not careful. Given that it would be eventually distributed all around the world, some caution is in order… but delays mean more COVID deaths. This is a difficult tightrope to walk.
And once a viable vaccine is in hand, it will take a long time before it can be distributed at-scale around the world. People are already arguing about how we should decide who gets a limited supply of vaccines first (market forces? focus on at-risk populations? a lottery system? should the country that develops the vaccine get “first dibs”?). You can say “make the vaccine free” until you’re blue in the face, but at first it will be expensive and Humanity will have to ration it somehow. You can’t just snap your fingers and make 8 billion doses; time and resources are limited and it will take effort to get to scale. There are better and worse ways of doing this, and I’m glad smart people are thinking about it early.
Even if it “only” took three years to find and distribute a really good vaccine, hundreds of thousands are likely to die before we get things under control. This is because, despite how good Hammer and Dance sounds, my point of view* is that so far it hasn’t worked very well. We are seeing time and time again around the world that after an initial Hammer (hard lockdown), the Dance (mild social distancing measures, reopen businesses subject to rules) doesn’t last long before a new large outbreak occurs and a new Hammer is needed.
(* Evidence, you say? Consider the clear “first wave” ➔ “short Dance” ➔ “second wave” patterns in Israel, Japan, Australia, and now much of Eastern Europe. On the contrary, South Korea and New Zealand have also seemingly kept the Dance going for many months in spite of nonzero virus counts; nonetheless, given the speed at which infection can spread, the risk of a second wave continues to linger over the heads of everyone. *)
While we’re in the business of getting the caseload down, we might consider…
As long as there are even a small number of new cases per day, you run the risk of starting the clock all over again. Which potentially suggests, maybe we should keep lockdowns going until there are no active cases; keep the Hammer hammering until there’s nothing to hammer. Once there are no active cases in your country, life can truly return to normal, with gyms, beaches, concerts, and everything else you have missed. You wouldn’t even need to wear masks or social distance anymore.
In this model, a country that achieves truly 0 cases becomes a Green Zone, safe for travel to and from other Green Zones without worry. If Israel becomes a Green Zone, I can fly to any other Green Zone country anywhere in the world without testing and without masks. Truly, life goes back to normal, at least within the Green Zones. These rules would have to be followed closely, because one slip-up that leads to new cases demotes the country to a Yellow or Red Zone (depending on the specifics of the proposal), and lockdowns go back into effect.
A country like Sweden can go ahead and do nothing about COVID if they want, but they’ll be classified as Red and won’t get to partake in global travel (and in some cases, trade) with other Green countries. This incentive for the global community to buy into a common strategy; if you fail to Go Green, you fall behind. Such pressure could increase adherence within and cooperation between countries.
This strategy seems to have worked in a select few countries around the world. China hammered hard at the first peak back in February, and successfully held steady at 0 active cases for several months. However, other countries didn’t follow suit and so we’re probably seeing Yellow/Red Zone countries reintroducing the virus to China in recent days.
The main argument against hard lockdowns is economic: a proposal like this likely means shutting down the vast majority of the economy in a country for a month or more. Your local restaurant or hairdresser can maybe withstand decreased traffic for a few weeks, but a month or more of zero revenue is too much for many to survive. On top of this are increased unemployment rates, which in e.g. the US and Israel shot up to 15% and 40% (respectively) in their relatively short lockdowns in May. People need to feed their families and pay their rent; if they can’t work, many can’t do that. Given that 49% of Americans were expecting to live paycheck-to-paycheck in 2020 in the months before COVID, it’s hard to imagine regular people weathering this storm on their own.
The government might step in and provide direct stimulus, student loan or rent relief, or other hardship-relieving measures; many wealthy countries have done so already. But this is extremely costly. In the US alone, the relief efforts in total have come to $2.8 trillion dollars as of this writing (end of July 2020), not counting lost revenue from deferred student loan payments or the broader economic impacts outside of direct government purview. Still, the median American only received cash-in-hand on the order of $1200, hardly enough for a few months rent, let alone other necessities. Another major stimulus is likely to follow soon, costing potentially another trillion dollars, which would provide the typical American with only a second $1200 check.
And what about poor and developing countries? They may not have the resources to support people until caseloads drop to zero; people may be forced to choose between breaking quarantine (potentially getting beaten or shot in the process) and starving. If you’re concerned about global inequality now, wait until Europe spends its way to becoming a Green Zone while Africa stays Red, locking the latter out of tourism and global trade.
You could argue that all this cost is worth it, if at the end of it we get back to some semblance of “normal”. But, you may ask, if we’re going to spend so much, why can’t we spend that money on something preventative, without the additional costs, ruined businesses, and unemployment? Which brings me to…
Knowledge is power. Now that we are starting to understand the transmissibility of COVID, we might be able to use smarter strategies than “lock everyone in their houses until the virus gives up”. If we had confidence that we could identify the people who were infected, we could selectively quarantine them while the rest of the population lived their lives in a nearly-normal way. Perhaps with enough testing, we could lock down smarter rather than harder.
We’re already seeing baby versions of this idea in specific industries. Airports around the world are looking into mandatory testing for all passengers, the idea being that a traveler will stay quarantined upon arrival until receiving a Negative test. In most proposals, the cost of testing is paid by the passenger (think of it as one more fee when you buy your plane ticket), and you may be able to pay more for a faster test.
At scale, a country could require testing of every citizen frequently, maybe as often as once or twice a week. If you are Positive, maybe you are sent to mandatory quarantine; if you are Negative, you carry your certificate around with you but otherwise live life as normal. This can be government-mandated, if you are ok with that, in which case there would potentially be a central database that tracks the movement of infected individuals. Alternatively, it could be up to local businesses whether or not to require your Certificate of Non-Infection before entry to their establishment.
Well, whether you’re trying to use just population testing or whether you’re trying to use testing plus tracing, the goal here is to figure out who’s infectious, because the only way to stop or suppress this virus is to find a large enough fraction of the people who are infectious, get them isolated, so they don’t infect more people, and then you’re on this path where the number of people infected is falling over time.
So, you just have to find enough of the people who are currently infectious and get them isolated. If you do that, you don’t have to interfere with the activities of anybody who is not infectious.
You don’t have to find every single infectious person, and of course you won’t; false negatives will occur at some rate and those people will still spread the virus. But if you get enough infections off the street, it might be enough.
The key is that, this is not going to wipe out the virus, but it means that the number of people who infected will be steadily decreasing over time. If R0 number is less than one, so you get a steady decrease. And, that’s really all we can hope for.
(R0 is defined as the average number of new infections per infected person, a measure of how fast the virus is spreading.)
It’s a huge upside that most people will get to live their lives normally. Another upside, though, is that given that this won’t be the last pandemic we have to deal with, it’s a good idea to have a plan that can be reactivated with each new virus/disease. Once you have the infrastructure in place–factories and distribution outlets, facilities to do mass testing, and, importantly, a population that is willing to submit to it–you can repurpose all of that for COVID-20 or 21 at the drop of a hat.
So that when somebody says in the future, ‘Oh no, they’ve got SARS-CoV number three, or number four,’ which has emerged in some other country; we’ll say, ‘Well, we’re ready for it. Somebody is going to bring that into the United States, but we’re already testing everybody every two weeks. As soon as somebody shows up, we’ll find out where it is. We’ll isolate them. We’re good to go.’
To be clear, Romer’s plan isn’t the only proposal in this vein, but it captures the basic idea: test test test test test.
COVID tests continue to be in short supply around the world (analysis from the US: free, paywall). Low supply and high demand means high price, which in time should drive more suppliers into the market, but in the short run we have to cope with the costs as they appear. To make a Romer-esque plan work today, it would take a huge investment in factories, distribution facilities, and testing centers today, and the payoff would only come later on.
Romer is hesitant to predict a cost for his plan, but he points out that the current situation is “costing us, in an order of magnitude, back-of-the-envelope, five hundred billion dollars per month.” When pressed, he suggests that his testing plan is maybe doable for $8-10 billion a month–a huge savings from the current situation, but this adds up a lot over time to more than $100 billion per year. Romer thinks it’s worth it: “…if you revisit a million people dead or a depression for eighteen to twenty-four months, a hundred billion on tests seems, to me, like a walk in the park.”
Compared to other proposals, though, this might be the most expensive overall. For scale, note that $100 billion per year would effectively double the discretionary budget for Health and Human services, exceeding the annual spending on Education ($74 billion) and quadruple the spending for NASA ($23 billion). A full-scale lockdown for two months would be catastrophic, likely leading to several trillion in stimulus to keep people afloat, but after that you don’t have to pay anymore; keeping the testing infrastructure going year after year adds up to trillions pretty fast. To maintain the benefit of preparedness in the event of The Next Pandemic, you can’t let that budget disappear; you likely keep paying a large fraction of it even during pandemic-free years. Maybe it’s worth it for preparedness, but it’s worth taking into account.
People may not willingly sign up for such a large-scale invasion of their privacy (as some will see it); some amount of pressure, social or otherwise, may be necessary to get people to get tested. Romer is optimistic about this too:
The modest version of this would just make it possible for everybody to know if they’re infectious; and most people aren’t going to want to infect their colleagues, they aren’t going to want to infect their friends. They’ll take heightened precautions.
But he’s open to some coercion:
The next step up would be to say, ‘Well, there’s certain things where, like, counterparties might not agree to do things with you unless you can show you’ve got a test result.’ Like, my dentist may not want to see me because it isn’t going to work for me to wear a mask when I’m in the dental chair. So, my dentists may not want to see me unless I get a test; and that’s his choice. I don’t think you need the government to force that.
I’m not as optimistic as Romer is, in part because of the current situation in the US. We haven’t even convinced people to wear a mask when they go to the grocery store; do we really think they’ll freely subject themselves to a nasal swab once a week? Some will reject it for the inconvenience, and others will reject it because they’ll see it as an invasion of their civil liberties. The latter will be true especially if there’s any level of government coercion involved: “The government wants to test my saliva every week indefinitely? No way!”
If you don’t like any of the above escape hatches–if the costs are too high, if the public resistance will be too great, if the uncertainties are too daunting–then you might be in the mood for…
“Ok,” some say, “COVID spreads too fast and the options for mitigating its effects are too costly. We just have to bite the bullet and let the virus spread to the whole population. Once enough people have it, the spread will slow, and it will eventually die off. Once we’ve all had it, we can get back to our lives and not worry about it anymore.”
There is evidence that herd immunity is possible. Once you accept the premises, it’s easy to understand: you already had the disease, so your body learns to produce antibodies that fight the infection, and so next time you’re effectively immune. If enough people get to this stage, then it won’t matter that your neighbor got infected, as long as most of the people they come in contact with are already immune; get to that point and the caseload would eventually come down on its own. It’s the same principle as widespread vaccination, though with an active rather than inactive case of the virus.
If it worked, the hope would be to get through the COVID era with minimal economic impact; people would be allowed to go to work throughout the pandemic and only send home if they were very sick, much like we do with the flu or a cold. People would still die, but people will also die if they can’t feed their families or pay their rent, so we may as well keep the economy running as long as we can.
It would take some time, because likely more than 50% of the population would have to be infected in order to achieve herd immunity. Given that a large fraction of those infected by COVID are asymptomatic, we are likely underestimating the total number of cases worldwide; this is good news for herd immunity, because we might be closer to the threshold than the reported numbers suggest.
Recent antibody tests in Israel suggested that as many as 10 times more people have been infected than the number of reported cases. CDC estimates for the US suggest similar: 10 times more infections than those reported; if true, the current total infection rate in the US might go from 1.5% reported cases (as of this writing, 4.3 million cases / 300 million population) to 15%. Is the US really a quarter of the way to herd immunity?
If you let the virus run its course without slowing it down, hospital resources are likely to run out and people who might have been saved by straightforward hospital treatment won’t be able to get the help they need; therefore more people will die than if you spread out the infections over several years, Hammer/Dance style. We saw this in Italy; we saw this in Spain; we might be seeing it in some parts of the US right now. (A more thorough list.)
Sweden has been the poster child for the herd immunity strategy, and by many people’s estimation, it hasn’t worked out well for them thus far. Recent antibody tests suggest only ~7% of the population has the relevant antibodies, while nearly 6000 people have already died, giving them the rank of 12th highest case fatality rate and 8th highest deaths per capita in the world. Case fatality rate (the number of deaths / the number of cases) varies a lot between countries, and we don’t know all the relevant factors in determining this, but I have to imagine that hospital overrun is part of this.
Compare Sweden’s death count to the culturally-similar neighbors Denmark and Norway, who combined only total <1000 deaths (and combined have close to the same population as Sweden). And to top it off, Sweden is still experiencing economic impacts at close to the same levels as its neighbors, in spite of its economy being ostensibly open this whole time. Turns out, people tend to stay home more and not frequent their favorite businesses when there’s a virus loose in the community.
Perhaps more damning for herd immunity is that it might not work at all. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, there have been reports of people who supposedly got reinfected; that is to say, these people had a positive test, then a negative test, and then tested positive again. It happened at the beginning and is still happening now. An optimistic view is that these very well might be scenarios of false positive or false negative. Even so, the virus can mutate and it’s possible that your immunity to one strain won’t protect you against another.
Further, there is independent research that suggests that immune response to COVID does not last forever, meaning that people really could become reinfected after some time. I don’t fully understand it, but in brief there was a paper recently reporting results of a months-long observation of COVID survivors and their immune response. They found a very strong antibody response during / just after the initial infection in March, but when the tested again over the following 90 days (until June), they found that the antibody response diminished with time. If taken at its strongest face-value, this could imply that people can be reinfected only a few months after recovering from COVID, which would violate the most basic premise of the herd immunity program. However, note that the story is complicated: immunity is not a one-to-one game, you may have partial lingering immunity from other sources, etc.
These are the kinds of end-game strategies I’ve heard discussed thus far, and as I hope I’ve made clear, each one has very significant drawbacks. Short of a miracle, there is no Silver Bullet strategy that will get us out of this mess without a lot of death and hardship; it’s all tradeoffs, and many lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.
So in the end, which option is best: vaccine, hard lockdown, mass testing, or herd immunity? My own personal favorite strategy, for what it’s worth, is Mass Testing; I’m confident that there will be more pandemics and in the long run it would pay off to build infrastructure to deal with them as well. But I’m not very sure that this is the best option. I could be convinced otherwise.
The borders between proposals aren’t perfectly clear, of course; no matter what you do you’re going to need some level of tests, some level of social distancing or lockdown, and you shouldn’t deter people who want to work on a vaccine. But having a specific endgame in mind seems absolutely critical to me. Whichever option “we” choose (in a given country), we need to focus on that full-force. While politicians tend to want to hedge and go half-way, the current regime of half measures seem guaranteed to bring us the worst of both the biological and economic consequences.
If you’re going to do a hard lockdown, lock it all the way down for as long as it takes; if you’re investing in mass testing, invest enough to achieve real clarity about who is infected and who not. A half-lockdown coupled with partial testing capability just keeps hospitals at-capacity for months or years at a time, which is a virus’ dream scenario. (Remember that a virus thrives not when all its hosts die, but rather when the hosts allow it to keep spreading for as long as possible.)
(or, “On the Proper Use of Anecdotes”)
(1000 words, ~3 minutes to read)
According to most people, the pinnacle of scientific investigation is the randomized controlled trial (RCT). In this setup, the procedure and investigation are determined in advance, and a representative sample of subjects are randomly assigned to different treatment groups, whose scores on some measure are compared. The idea is to minimize bias in the sampling / group assignment steps, and to average out any specific characteristics of any particular person(s) in the study. The quirks or personal experiences of any one person are precisely what I don’t care about in this design: if one person is very old / comes from a particular culture / has an unusual family history, I hope that by mixing them into a group with people who are young / have other cultural backgrounds / have different family histories, I can remove the effect of these quirks in the final analysis.
But in some fields one also finds Case Studies, which have a very different design in that it focuses on one particular subject. Often the subject of a Case Study is someone who is as unusual as possible. It has been summarized thus:
An average, or typical case, is often not the richest in information. In clarifying lines of history and causation it is more useful to select subjects that offer an interesting, unusual or particularly revealing set of circumstances. A case selection that is based on representativeness will seldom be able to produce these kinds of insights.
The RCT is an excellent design precisely because it’s maximally generalizable, from the study in the Real World up to the Meta Level; the result of a good RCT gives you confidence that you’ve learned something you can apply to the population at large. A Case Study is, in this sense, a very counterintuitive design. Even if you were trying to select a “typical” person for a Case Study, you’d run into all the biases and particulars that are intrinsic to that person, and anyway if you knew the characteristics of a “typical” person you wouldn’t need to investigate one. On top of this, one often selects not for typical, but rather for extreme cases. A Case Study, to put it bluntly, is an anecdote, and there’s little reason to expect that an individual person’s anecdote will apply to anyone else.
Said another way: If you interview someone in the very tail of some distribution, you can say very little about others lying closer to the mean. The most extreme schizophrenic can tell you about their experience, and it will be as interesting as anything can be, but what does it tell you about schizophrenia in general? What can we take from a Case Study that is useful at the Meta Level?
The puzzle disappears when you start to think of science not merely as the turn-crank set of rules we teach our children about, but rather as a creative, generative enterprise. A good RCT is designed to test for some property that you’re already interested in, but how do you know what is interesting in the first place? One answer is: A good Case Study. Before there were RCTs on schizophrenia, before there was a notion of “schizophrenia”, there were a lot of people with what looked like extreme symptoms of delusion or hallucination, and some (proto) scientists who investigated what was going on with them. As more and more cases were investigated and found to be similar, a consensus emerged that there was ‘a thing’ out there afflicting people and it was given a name; once it had a name, it became the fodder for normal science, including diagnosis, DSMs, and RCTs. A Case Study represents the early days of this sort of process.
Pirsig talks about questions that cut broadly and those that cut deeply, which is precisely the point here. RCTs cut widely and cover a lot of ground you can already see, whereas a good Case Study cuts deeply into unknown territory. In a very real sense, the author of a Case Study is feeling around in the dark, not seeing clearly what they might be learning or how it might apply to something else. If you’re too rigid, then you’ll think you already know what you’re looking for and are likely wasting your time; if you’re too flexible, you’ll generalize too fast, and will likely confuse particulars of the individual for general properties of the population. There’s a sweet spot to be found in a Case Study, and this is where new insights can hide.
As it is with scientists, so it is with humans. The Case Study is a model for new experiences in life, ones that you possibly didn’t know would be interesting. Some examples come to mind, each of which deserves a post of its own:
Life is an experiment, but it’s often not an RCT. Trying new things, listening to crackpots, and learning from “lived experiences” can be a kind of Case Study in creativity, in experience, or in your own mental capability. Approach them with interest and curiosity, not knowing what you will take away.