Science: Do It Yourself

In the nerd community, we have lots of warm, fuzzy associations around 'science'. And, of course, science is indeed awesome. But, seeing how awesome science is, shouldn't we try to have more of it in our lives? When was the last time we did an experiment to test a theory?

Here, I will try to introduce a technique which I have found to be very useful. It is based on the classical scientific method, but I call it "DIY Science", to distinguish it from university science. The point of DIY Science is that science is not that hard to do, and can be used to answer practical questions as well as abstract ones. Particle physics looks hard to do, since you need expensive, massive accelerators and magnets and stuff. However, fortunately, some of the fields in which it is easiest to do science are some of the most practical and interesting. Anyone smart and rational can start doing science right now, from their home computer.

One of the key ingredients of DIY Science is to discard the more useless trappings of university science, for these frequently do more harm than good. Science doesn't need journals and universities. Science doesn't need beakers and test tubes. Science doesn't need p < 0.05, although I have found p-tests to be occasionally useful. The point of science is not to conform to these stereotypes of academia, but to discover something you didn't know before. (To our detriment, this is the opposite of how science is taught, as noted by Paul Graham: "So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.")

Instead, as an simple first example, consider this question:

 - I want to get rich, or to be specific, have a net worth of over $100M USD. How do people get rich?

Here, we have an opportunity: We don't know something, and we want to find out what it is. To answer this question, our first intuition might be to Google "how do people get rich?". This isn't a horrible method, but by just asking someone else, we are not doing any science. Googling or asking a friend isn't the scientific method; it's the medieval method. (In medieval times, we would just have gone to the Church and asked, and the Church would have replied, "Pray diligently to the LORD and have faith, and you will be prosperous." Different people, same thing.)

In fields like physics, where lots of science is already being done by others, this will probably be OK. However, what if the question isn't about physics, like most questions people ask? Then, when you ask Google or a friend, you wind up with complete nonsense like this, which is the first Google result for "how do people get rich". Most people don't know how to use science, so that sort of nonsense is what most people believe about the world, which is why Western civilization is in such a mess right now.

Instead of Googling or asking someone else, we can apply the scientific method of actually looking at the data, and seeing what it says. Who are some rich people? How did they get rich? Where can we find information on rich people? The simplest technique, the one that I used when answering this question, is:

- Google the list of the Forbes 400.

- Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).

- Write down how they got rich.

- Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it. Here's another one: Adjusted for inflation, what is the average, long-term appreciation of the stock market? Here's the historical Dow Jones index, and here's an inflation calculator. Try it and see!

The underlying principle here is very simple: Want to know whether something is true? Go look at the data and see. Look at the numbers. Look at the results. Look at a sample. JFDI.

For another simple example, one that I haven't done myself: It is a common perception that lottery players are stupid. But is it actually true? Is stupidity what causes people to play the lottery? It's easy enough to find out: look up a bunch of lottery winners, and see how smart they are. What jobs do they work in? What degrees do they have? What about compared with the average American population? What do they have in common?

There are an infinite number of these sorts of questions. How accurate are food expiration dates? How important is it to wear a helmet on a bike? How likely are STD infections? How many Americans are college graduates? Dropouts? What about high-income Americans?

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now. One particularly useful group of questions, for instance, concerns things that people worry about. How likely are they, really? What are the expected consequences? What does the data say? For example, when I was younger, when I got a cold, I used to worry that it was actually some serious disease. Then, I looked up the numbers, and found out that virtually no one my age (10-25) got sick enough to have a high chance of dying. Most people worry too much - what things do you worry about that make you unhappy? What do the data say about them?

Or, suppose you want to save money to buy something expensive. The usual way people do this is, they take their income, subtract all of their necessary monthly expenses, and then figure that whatever is left over is how much they can save. Trouble is, people's necessities grow to match whatever their income is, even if their income is $2,000,000. If you get used to something, you start seeing it as "necessary", because you can't imagine life without it. How do you know if you really do need something? Use science! Try, just for a day, not using one thing with those monthly payments attached- electricity, phone, Internet, car, cable TV, satellite radio, what have you.

Of course, it isn't always easy, because sometimes people try to fool everyone. For instance, intelligence is distributed on a bell curve. Everyone knows that... right? As it turns out, the only reason IQ scores fit a bell curve, is because IQ is defined as a bell-curve-shaped statistic! Now, after the lie has been exposed, come the interesting questions: How is intelligence actually distributed? How could we find out? What measurements could we use?

Sometimes, questions get so politically loaded that you have to get tricky. To name a perennial favorite: Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined; "yes" and "a lot" if you're a Blue, and "no" and "not much" if you're a Green. Peter Thiel, SIAI's largest donor, sums it up very nicely:

"There’s a degree to which it is just a status and political-correctness issue. The debates are for the most part not about the policies or about the ideas, but what is cool, what is trendy. Take something like the climate-change debate. I think it’s an important question, and I think it’s actually quite hard to figure out what the science is. It might be something for us to worry about. But I think there’s actually no debate at all — there’s no attempt to understand the science. It’s mostly moral posturing of one form or another.

Beyond the posturing, it’s a form of cowardice that’s very much linked to political correctness, where it’s not fashionable or not cool to offer dissenting opinions."

So, how do we really find out? Which evidence can we use? Where can we find it?

In exploring DIY Science, we ought to question everything, even things that we know (or think we know) to be true. "Common knowledge" is such a bad guide that false things float around for decades, all the time. Consider Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Reading through the whole thing, how many did you think were true? And these are the small set of things for which we have undeniable proof!

To name something which I do believe to be true: do men and women have the same average intelligence? They do, but how do we know that? Present studies can't be trusted, because the field is too politicized. You have to also look at pre-1970 studies, which indeed show agreement with modern ones. (Of course, past studies aren't always right, but agreement across many different time periods is fairly strong evidence.)

Or, to look at the subject of this blog: is rationality an effective means of achieving goals? To what extent? How do we know that? Well, on one side, what statistics I can find show that atheists make more than Christians. But they also show that Jews have higher incomes than atheists. Should we all convert to Judaism? Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less. Clearly, more analysis is needed here.

One idea might be to look at what top chess players do: chess is a very objective metric, the players all have the same goals (to win the game), and the game is purely about mental decision-making. How rational are Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fisher? What about the top few hundred players worldwide? I don't have any clue what this will find, just a wild guess. 

I say all this on this blog, to some extent, because thinking about the data is not the only component of rationality; in order to have rational beliefs, one must also gather lots of data, and specifically, data about the problem one is trying to solve. No one in ancient Greece, no matter how well they thought, could have a good understanding of particle physics, because they didn't have any data on how particles behaved. Fortunately, with the Internet and online ordering of everything under the sun, data is very easy to collect. So- forward, in the name of Science!

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Upvoted because data really is important.

People that are above two sigma and have studied relevant math would I think have real gains by taking some of academia with a grain of salt and checking the data to see what they think it says.

An added bonus is that it is also the only way to be rational about things that perhaps our society isn't rational about due to status and moral posturing, a incentive to deceive or just simple widely held biases.

Generally I think the topic could potentially get a better treatment, not because the article is bad, but because it really is that important.

With regards to investigating how people become rich, if you want results that are meaningful and useful, I think you would want to examine, not just what rich people did which resulted in them becoming rich, but what people in the general population are doing, and whether people doing those things in general tend to become rich. If doing the same things doesn't tend to lead to the same results, you can look to see if there are other factors that reliably occur in conjunction with people becoming rich. You need to go this far to be able to predict, not just what a person should do if they intend to become rich, but under what circumstances you should expect someone to become rich. At this point though, you're probably going to have to expend more than spare time and pocket money to get your answers.

Great point. In the author's description he only discussed how to establish a correlation. However it's important to point out that in those types of studies you are not manipulating any variables in the equation which means it's very difficult to tease apart the different interactions in the system. If you really wanted to do DIY science you would need to change something and determine whether there was a change in the outcome with appropriate controls to make sure that your changes only produced an effect in the variable you wanted. This is the really fun part of science!!

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now.

Really? Even if I'm already in the libertarian-atheist-countercultural-hacker-intellectual cluster? I checked two statistics in high school...car crashes were high enough that I chose to drive conservatively, and STI rates were high enough that I chose to make a big deal about condoms, although not so high that I took arguments from STDs for abstinence or monogamy seriously. Since then, I just haven't felt the need to go look at the data as I make personal life choices. I feel like I'm surrounded, socially, by the kind of weirdos who also looked up a couple of statistics in high school, and together we all bring each other's factual assumptions about lifestyle risks and rewards into something approaching the reality zone.

There are, of course, some questions to which I don't know the answer and that would interest me because the answer could help me make choices. But these questions tend to be narrow enough that there's no "Forbes 100" list to use as an objective reference -- I have to go and compile the data myself, which is both more annoying and less reliable. E.g., I don't really care how one becomes a top-earning CEO, because it involves, among other things, decades of sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. I do care about how one becomes a successful solo practitioner in the field of California consumer law, but they don't exactly have databases about that...just a couple of pages scattered here and there, which of course I'm reading, for all the good it will do me. Likewise, I don't really care what the odds are that I die of some horrible virus -- I agree with you that at my age (10 - 30) they're quite low unless somebody bio-engineers a plague. I am interested in the success rate for patellar smoothing surgery, but it's a technique, not a drug, so it doesn't have publicly scrutinized, large-n trials, and PubMed rarely goes into enough detail to let me assess whether, e.g., post-surgery functionality was self-reported (in which case it was probably driven by the placebo effect and cognitive dissonance) or was actually measured with objective performance tests.

Probably if I did enough research I could get a better estimate than I have now on some of these narrower questions. Maybe I will someday if one of the questions becomes important or if I find myself with spare time. I think the real science deficit, though, is not in our personal lives, but in the calculations of policymakers and professionals. Atul Gawande's article on Dr. Jeffrey Brenner in the 1/24/2011 New Yorker is a fascinating case study in how applying science to your day job can help you do it more effectively and at a fraction of the cost.

I do care about how one becomes a successful solo practitioner in the field of California consumer law, but they don't exactly have databases about that.

Here's what I do:

Look at the job type you want. Look at professional websites of the people who have the jobs you want. Look at their CV's and see how they got there. If any of that info is expressible in a quantitative form (e.g. percent who went to top ten law schools) tabulate that.

You might notice "Oh, wait, most people who have the job I want have background X that I don't have!" (Different college major or whatever.) That might be evidence that you can't get that job; but before you start worrying, send someone an email and ask "How likely is it for me to get a job like yours with background Y instead of X?" It may be that your background is unusual but not a handicap.

Is it less rigorous than a scientific study? You bet. Is it better than nothing? Much.

If you have access to the attention of lots of professionals, a homemade poll can be very illuminating even if it's informal. For example, this survey about how novelists get published is more informative than most "how to be a writer" advice out there.

see how they got there

It would also be worthwhile to look at people who did those things and see how they ended up i.e., look from the other side.

For example if you look at rock musicians you are likely to find they neglected their studies and focused entirely on their music. But this seems to be a strategy with a pretty low expectation and very high variance in outcomes.

It would also be worthwhile to look at people who did those things and see how they ended up i.e., look from the other side.

How do you practically do that?

DIY science seems to ignore prior work. You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science. On the contrary, its a very modern way of science. Medieval science relied on polymaths discovering things for the first time. Gallileo needed his thought experiments to determine such things as the inverse square law and that mass did not impact the acceleration of a falling object (he also reasoned that light was instantaneous, but given the tools at the time it wasn't such an unreasonable conclusion). Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others, so while it can be useful to develop a critical mind to figure out from first principles how one's fridge functions, you'd be better off using your critical facilties to assess the evidence someone else has collected.

Note that the critical assessment of scientific literature is a non-trivial skill, but a far more valuable one. By myself, doing some work on how to become rich, I might make some decent conclusions, but I have neither the man power nor training to necessarily come to the correct conclusions. If I can accurately assess scientific papers, however, I should be able to discern which papers are closest to reflecting the evidence.

Put it another way: looking up other people's research is scholarship, not science. Scholarship isn't bad. In most fields scholarship is useful, and in technical fields it's a prerequisite to doing science. But -- people should also look at the data directly. If the literature isn't useful (and "how to get rich," for instance, doesn't have an obvious body of sound literature behind it) then unless you look at the data, you'll never know.

And is the literature accurate on more explicitly scientific topics, like global warming? Well, I don't know. To know the answer, I'd have to know more about geophysics myself, be able to assess the data myself, and compare my "DIY science" to the experts and see if they match. Or, I'd have to know something about the trustworthiness of peer-reviewed scientific studies in general -- how likely they are to be true or false -- and use that data to inform how much I trust climate scientists. Either way, to have good evidence to believe or not believe scientists, I'd need data of my own.

The phrase "DIY science" makes it sound like there's some virtue in going it alone. All alone, no help from the establishment. I don't think there's any virtue in that. Help is useful! And after all, even if you do what Tom did and tabulate data about millionaires, it's data that someone else gathered. This isn't My Side of the Mountain science. It's not idealizing isolation.

The trouble with doing all scholarship but no science is that you have no way to assess the validity of what you read. You can use informal measures (prestige? number of voices in agreement? most cited? most upvotes?) but how do you know if those informal measures correlate with the truth of an argument? Eventually, at some point you have to look at some kind of data and draw your own conclusion from it. Critically assessing scientific literature eventually requires you to do some DIY science. (Here, let's look at the data section. Do the paper's conclusions match their actual data?)

"DIY science seems to ignore prior work."

Yes, because most of the 'prior work' that floats around on the Internet and in books is terrible, and it's a lot more difficult to figure out which parts are good than to just do simple empiricism yourself.

"You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science."

The important thing isn't the act of using Google (a tool), but where you're getting your information from. If you simply Google X and click on the first result, this is basically equivalent to just asking the person who wrote the web page what they think about X. The distinction is:

medievalism: go to someone who seems like they're an expert, and ask them about X

rationalism: look at the data, see what the data says about X

This also applies if you're reading books or whatever.

"Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others,"

You don't provide evidence that this actually works well. In physics this seems to genuinely be the case, and in a few other sciences to varying degrees, but for the sorts of questions I'm considering here the "progress of others" is largely gibberish.

I'm not saying that doing science oneself in areas where problems are genuinely unsolved is un-useful, I'm saying the first instinct of the scientist would be to see what work others have done, and then, if that proves useless, do it oneself. Usually discovering what others have done is instructive because it allows you to see things they've missed.

I'm not particulary interested in the question of how one becomes wealthy, but I'd be surprised that there aren't useful answers out there if one searches hard enough. Certainly clicking the first link on google is basically medieval, but using google as it is meant to be used, a tool which allows you to discover information as efficiently as possible, will usually be better than finding the answers oneself.

On an investigation into wealth, I might critisise your work [note, this is a guess because you do not (understandably) give your results and I have no interest in repeating them myself] by supposing that the top 400 may not be a terribly useful sample, being rather exceptional, and might not provide useful insights: I'd much rather look at the aggregate of the thousands of millionares, for example, and think about that.

I'm not necessarily dismissing this post, using your mind to solve these kind of problems is often very instructive, but I'm not sure its the best way to acheive results.

Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less.

Nonsense. Hitler was far more rational than average - especially before he overused the meth for too long. I suggest your definition of 'rational' is broken.

In re Hitler being far more rational than average, are you deducing this from the facts that Hitler was far more efficacious than most people (got control of a country and had many of his policies adopted) or do you have specifics about how Hitler was thinking about what he was doing?

What's your evidence? Nazi Germany's government was tremendously dysfunctional, and the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing". Hitler himself was sufficiently dysfunctional that he pretty much failed at everything before going into politics.

the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing".

I'm not sure they considered it a good thing, maybe they would have preferred to just ship off all the Jews to Madagascar, the Final Solution was a second-best solution that happened to be cheaper and more practical.

And the "average Joe" you're talking about would have to be a Western one - I suspect in many countries, mass murder of some ethnic groups wouldn't be considered insane by everybody's standards, especially in a war situation - either because they're sitting on some land that's "rightfully ours", or they're more economically successful, or they're not-very-well integrated immigrants, etc.

By the way, Hitler isn't always seen as a Big Bad Guy by the non-Western world, sometimes he's just considered a pretty bad-ass leader like Stalin or Napoleon. When a german friend of mine met her new colleagues at a Chinese univiersity's biology lab, one of them said "Oh, you're German! Like Hitler! Cool! thumbs up". And the Chinese find that the Westerners don't seem that aware of how nasty the Japanese were.

Emile:

By the way, Hitler isn't always seen as a Big Bad Guy by the non-Western world, sometimes he's just considered a pretty bad-ass leader like Stalin or Napoleon. When a german friend of mine met her new colleagues at a Chinese univiersity's biology lab, one of them said "Oh, you're German! Like Hitler! Cool! thumbs up".

I've read about some hilarious examples of non-Westerners who perceive Hiter as a distant and exotic historical figure, completely oblivious to how Westerners are apt to react to his mention. Like for example the parents of this Indian politician:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Lu_Hitler_Marak

That's nothing, I once saw a restaurant called Genghis Khan's Mongolian BBQ.

I see people running around with Che Guevara T-shirts.

There is also a group "Sons of Korah" who sing remixes of the Psalms. Including Psalm 137. Which builds up to:

Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies and smashes their heads on the rocks!

The Sons of Korah version makes it sound a little better:

Blessed is he who destroys your progeny

Still, it is a recent band singing joyously about genocide. (It is a little better given that the Psalm was written by people at a time when they had just been conquered and the same atrocities done to them, crying out to a power for vengeance.)

They are actually really catchy, and most of their songs (and the Psalms themselves) are reasonably poetic.

The comedian looks young enough to not remember the extent to which there's been a big campaign to take rape seriously.

Earlier, (and to a lesser extent still) it could be presented with enough distance to be a subject of humor. For example, I can remember when a boss chasing a secretary around a desk was considered funny.

More recently, prison rape was a reliable joke in general. Now there are social circles where such jokes aren't welcome but I wouldn't say it's a sort of joke you absolutely can't get away with.

With the recent research on the effects of concussion, I don't think the old cartoons (with the character looking dazed and the little birds chirping as they circle his head) are going to look quite the same as they used to.

To some large extent, people notice what they're told to notice. This doesn't mean I think it's all signaling, but I think perception is very much shaped by social pressure.

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings."

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them†. Even when people acknowledge that there's nothing besides length of time separating ancient genocides from modern ones, there's just no way to spark the same feeling of outrage.

† Of course, longstanding cultural divides can keep offense alive even when the secondhand witnesses are gone; the Armenian genocide shows no sign of becoming funny, because the acknowledgment of it is a continuing rift between Armenians and Turks.

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them.

Personal connection is in the mind, as you say later. I've been looking at the "It would have been me" aspect of the past, and I think it's mostly trained in.

A major reason that the Holocaust is taken very seriously is that there are people who believe that doing so will make a repetition less likely. I don't know how long it would take for that to fade out.

I also don't know how close we are to longevity tech, but when such exists, the past is presumably going to fade more slowly.

On the relativity of what is considered serious-- I think there's been a bit of a shift lately, but when you think about Hitler's atrocities, you probably mostly think about the Holocaust. He was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths as the result of WWII, but that doesn't get the same publicity, probably because building an empire is viewed as sort of normal behavior. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon aren't usually counted as mass murderers.

On the relativity of what is considered serious-- I think there's been a bit of a shift lately, but when you think about Hitler's atrocities, you probably mostly think about the Holocaust. He was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths as the result of WWII, but that doesn't get the same publicity, probably because building an empire is viewed as sort of normal behavior. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon aren't usually counted as mass murderers.

Alexander the Great, Shaka Zulu and Napoleon were 'just' empire builders. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, make Hitler look like a fluffy puppy in every way except temporal and social proximity.

Our strength is our quickness and our brutality. Genghis Khan had millions of women and children hunted down and killed, deliberately and with a gay heart. History sees in him only the great founder of States. What the weak Western European civilization alleges about me, does not matter. I have given the order—and will have everyone shot who utters but one word of criticism—that the aim of this war does not consist in reaching certain designated [geographical] lines, but in the enemies' physical elimination. Thus, for the time being only in the east, I put ready my Death's Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the living space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?

-Part of a speech allegedly made by Adolp Hitler on August 22, 1939 at Obersalzberg

Its interesting since this quote seems to show:

  • a) Hitler having values very different from the postChristian West, rather than disagreeing on how to live up to those values.

  • b) The genocides of WW2 helped to rekindle interest and even an air of seriousness around what was 70 years ago not considered an important event (Armenian genocide).

Also Hitler has a point. Might does (eventually) make right to as much as our value systems can be influenced by upbringing (and after genetic engineering that won't be a limiting factor either). What does anyone truly care about what the weak or a weak tired civilization thinks of you beyond signalling concerns?

A major reason that the Holocaust is taken very seriously is that there are people who believe that doing so will make a repetition less likely. I don't know how long it would take for that to fade out.

That the Jews were slaves in Egypt [1] has been commemorated every year for at least 2500 years-- possibly 3000 years or so.

I wouldn't expect it to fade quickly.

[1] This is disputed-- there doesn't seem to be any solid evidence of it.

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them

That's absurd. When I disapprove of Serbs (and Greek volunteers) massacring civilians in Srebrenica, it's not because I want to avoid offending people, it's because I want to offend them into shame, so that they stop supporting policies and parties in my own nation (Greece) that will make a repetition of the butchery and support of such butchery, likely.

You talk as if all discussion of politics is a signalling of status, rather than a sometimes hopeless attempt to influence the future into a better direction.

You're right, of course- my comment needs modification. I'm just talking about the case where one isn't really angry about an old atrocity, but would still hesitate to make a joke about it. I'm not made of Hansons all the way down.

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings.

But this time we got video.

Assuming a non-Singularity future where all the second-order witnesses have died, one would not expect many people to go and watch video of 20th-century atrocities. I mean, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of the Americas exist. How much of them have you read?

(In high school, we read a few excerpts at most; I did read this book in college, thanks to its Great Books focus. Of course, I read plenty in high school about slavery, but that's because the Civil War is still tied to current cultural divides in the U.S.)

Assuming a non-Singularity future where all the second-order witnesses have died, one would not expect many people to go and watch video of 20th-century atrocities. I mean, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of the Americas exist. How much of them have you read?

None. Now I'm anticipating learning about the world wars via "Age of Empires IX".

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings."

You mean this hasn't happened already?

As noted in the Mitchell video, there are comical pieces set in the World Wars, but one has to be careful how one writes it. Catch-22 is a black comedy, as are Blackadder Goes Forth, Life is Beautiful and most of the other comedies set in 20th century wars.

The simplest way to put it, perhaps, is to note that Mel Brooks could do the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution in straightforward screwball style, but had to do Hitler as a musical-within-a-movie.

That's comedy as wartime propaganda, which has its own rich history. Note that WB has basically refused to show it since the war. If you want a real exception, Hogan's Heroes might qualify.

If you want a real exception, Hogan's Heroes might qualify.

The fascinating thing is that the actors who played the major Nazi roles were all Jews. Two of which spent time in concentration camps and had their families butchered. That impresses me.

The actor who played Colonel Klink had it written into his contract that the Nazis would never win.

So did Donald Duck, and quite a few others. IIRC Hitler was generally viewed pretty comically (at least in America? I don't remember) before the Holocaust and its scale became widely known after the war.

The Inquisition! What a show! The Inquisition! Here we go! We know you're wishin' that we'd go away! But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay!

It's been a while since I've read it, but I think all the viewpoints were in the military and about the treadmill of being trapped into flying unlimited bombing missions. There was nothing from the point of view of the people on the ground who were being bombed, was there?

I've seen that plenty of times. Seems to be a fairly common university-campus phenomenon, especially for students in the humanities.

I dated a Mongolian for a bit, and apparently in that culture Genghis Khan is still highly regarded as a founding figure.

I dated a Mongolian for a bit

For some reason this made me laugh. Sounds like a tabloid headline... "I dated a Mongolian!"

I didn't realise that Genghis was an actual genocide (worse than any other conqueror), but apparently he was.

But if history is written by the victors, then of course we'll see him more positively than we do Hitler. It'll be a while until they rename the main airport in Berlin!

I've heard estimates that put the total death toll of aftermath of the various wars Genghis Khan waged at ~40 million people. The estimates for all the Mongol conquests go from a low of ~30 to a high of 60 million.

Its mind-boggling to consider that isn't that much better than WW2 (low estimates 40, high estimates 72 million). It just gets ridiculous once we remember that population at that time was somewhere in the 300 to 400 million range.

We would probably have had to go nuclear or biological to get the death toll anywhere near 7,5 to 17% of global population!

With distance the atrocities get forgotten. Many well known leaders in the past did pretty bad stuff. I am usually surprised how kings and queens still get items named after them while dictators usually get institutionally forgotten and purged.

(The Ulaanbaastar airport has been renamed for the famous Mongolian conquerer but...) it'll be a while until they rename the main airport in Berlin (after Adolf Hitler, because Hitler is a loser and Genghis Khan is a winner).

Yes, that was what I meant, where ‘a while’ means something significantly longer than 800 years (such as infinity). So it is quite an understatement, really.

The airport in Berlin is named after its location, and I expect it will stay that way. (My family lives right around the corner.)

There is no need to give people names to such installations, that only confuses tourists.

There is no need to give people names to such installations, that only confuses tourists.

You have that right. I was playing a Trivial Pursuit betting game and the question was asking where Tom Hanks was trapped. I had 'the airport in New York'. JFK, well, that is just some guy.

And imagine the hassle renaming everything when the name giver goes out of fashion.

All the airports in Berlin are named after their locations, although there's a proposal to give the forthcoming Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport the subtitle Willy Brandt.

I'm not sure if there are any cultures whose folk historical memory of Genghis Khan involves the same visceral horror as the present-day Western reaction to Hitler. So while this is an accurate historical parallel, it might not be one in terms of unintentional hilarity.

I'm not sure if there are any cultures whose folk historical memory of Genghis Khan involves the same visceral horror as the present-day Western reaction to Hitler.

If Hitler had ended up winning the war, there may not be that much memory of visceral horror either by now.

Though according to Wikipedia, there are some places where Genghis is still a very bad memory, for ending the Islamic Golden Age and all that.

And note that there isn't general visceral horror about the Soviet Union, even though it committed mass murder on a grand scale. You can wear or display Soviet stuff without it being taken nearly as badly as if you were wearing or displaying Nazi stuff.

Although not Soviet himself, Soviet fanboy Che Guevara is another example. I'm not an expert on Latin American history, but some things I've read make me never want to buy a Che T-shirt.

http://www.slate.com/id/2107100/

But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.

http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1535

It is not surprising that Guevara’s contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth—except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”

[...]

In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.

"I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why" is a scary testament to the power of social proof, and the double standards applied to the perpetrators of atrocities based on sympathy towards their ideology.

Do you think people wearing Che shirts without knowing why increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?

At this point, using that symbol without knowing the meaning is rather benign and driven by social proof and the artistic qualities of the image. It's similar to people wearing Gandhi T-shirts. I once saw a mural of Che alongside Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Mother Teresa (once of these things is not like the others).

The fault lies with the members of the leftist* intelligentsia who knew what Che did, but who continued to promote him as a positive symbol of revolution and liberation. It is disturbing, and yes, potentially minorly risky that they are trendsetters. Yet the risk is pretty low, because they are mainly followed out of ignorance. It is a particular sort of leftist consequentialism** promoted by some leftist leaders, intellectuals, and activists that's the real risk.

*Only some people on the left actually support Che as an icon while knowing what he actually did. This sort of attitude is hardly confined to the left.

**Leftists aren't all consequentialists, nor are all consequentialists leftists. It's a particular brand of leftism that I am criticizing.

I know people downvote mind-killers. But is it really a mind-killer to say that Stalin and the Soviet system under him was not clearly better than Hitler?

  • Aggression against other Sovereign states in the hopes of territorial gain (sometimes with revanchist justification)
  • Confinement relocation and extermination of inconvenient ethnic and ideological groups

Frack considering Stalin was only beat by death from organizing a Pogrom on a massive scale because of his paranoia, and that Atheist Jews no longer where a powerful faction in the Soviet Union circa 1930 to 1950 and that Jews tended to be a bit better off than was appropriate in the age of forced egalitarianism (and disdain for the bourgeois and hunts for kulaks), its not that clear that if say Communists had beaten the Nazis in the struggle for power in Weimar Germany there wouldn't have been a Shoah anyway.

Communism overall has been historically a pretty terrible system.

Pol Pot became leader of Cambodia in mid-1975. During his time in power, Pol Pot imposed a version of agrarian socialism, forcing urban dwellers to relocate to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labor projects, toward a goal of "restarting civilization" in a "Year Zero". The combined effects of forced labour, malnutrition, poor medical care and executions resulted in the deaths of approximately 21% of the Cambodian population.[5]

Mao's China and North Korea are also data points. The only time Communism was a sort of ok system to live in (NEP period of the Soviet Union, China after Deng, Tito's Yugoslavia) is when it didn't really follow its ideology and allowed some economic freedom. And even then it was clearly totalitarian when it came to intellectual liberty (see the use of psychiatric institutions and sluggish schizophrenia as a diagnosis of dissidents or the constant witch hunt for wreckers and contra-revolutionaries).

If one considers National Socialism to be a kind of Fascism (which I don't think it is, I think its distinct ideologically) then one could also add at this point that its arguable that mellow watered down Fascist regimes actually come out looking better than mellow watered down Communist regimes of the same era (1945-1990).

I give people who claim that those people that their brand of Communism would never turn out like that a fair hearing if they don't seem kooky or clearly irrational, but the same would be true if I ever met a NeoNazi who fit the criteria claiming the same of his political brand. .

I treat the Che guevara T-shirt on a college freshman the same I would treat a child who scribbles swastika graffiti but has no idea what the symbol stands for today. I wouldn't consider it a crime or even blame them for it, but I would try and convey that the he is normalizing symbolism that carries a message he may not endorse.

I've also been confused about the blind eye turned to certain Communist excesses. Mass murder isn't cool just because it's your own population... even if your heart is in the right place.

I've also been confused about the blind eye turned to certain Communist excesses. Mass murder isn't cool just because it's your own population... even if your heart is in the right place.

Excesses? Interesting word choice. So, um, how much murder is the right amount?

Do you think a child scribbling a swastika graffiti without knowing why (or even what the symbol is associated with) increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?

I don't know. I'd discourage it for the sake of the children's reputations and as a kindness to those who don't want to see swastikas, but that's a different issue.

What do you think?

Do you think people wearing Che shirts without knowing why increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?

Not by very much, but yes.

Che and the hammer and sickle being cool on T-shirts spills over due to the halo effect.

However like you seem to imply overall I agree it isn't something worth too much concern or attention.

It could be because, while the Soviet Union was generally oppressive, it severely toned down the murderin' during the last ~40 years of its eight-decade history, whereas Nazi Germany spent over half of its brief history conquering Europe and conducting genocide, and then collapsed while it was right in the middle of such activities.

The Soviet Union also wasn't in a desperate war for survival with the people with whom those with the most power to declare things offensive closely identify.