Reposted here with permission from the original author, Lars Doucet.
Mark Coopersmith gaveled the town meeting to order. “Ladies and Gentlemen, what are we going to do about the werewolf crisis? Every full moon, this town is attacked by invincible supernatural werewolves that murder people and then eat them.”
A few hands went up. “Yes, Trevor Farrier, in the front row–what do you suggest?”
“We have to improve our emergency response. If the paramedics can get to the scene fast enough after a werewolf attack, we can save some of the people the werewolves have left for dead before they bleed out.”
“Excellent idea, Trevor. Who else?” More hands went up. “Yes, Rachel Miller. What have you got for us?”
“We need more werewolf victim assistance programs. Werewolves make a lot of mess after they murder someone and then eat them, and it can be a real economic burden for the survivors to pay all the funeral and cleanup expenses by themselves.”
“Good idea Rachel, but what if some of this assistance goes to rich families who should already be able to afford it?” asked Mark. “And what if some of the poorer families spend their assistance money on frivolous comforts?”
“Well obviously, werewolf victim assistance needs to be means-tested and closely regulated. After somebody's family has been murdered and then eaten by werewolves, we'll ask them to sign a bunch of forms, provide proof of income, as well as character references to make sure they're sufficiently deserving of assistance. And naturally, we'll hire a team of officials who work full time scrutinizing recipients' spending to make sure there's no financial waste in the system.”
"Thanks Rachel. Very sensible. Any other ideas? Fred."
“Thank you,” said Fred Planter. “Werewolves are at root a supply issue–the supply of wolfsbane, namely. Studies have consistently shown that werewolves are somewhat repelled by the smell of wolfsbane, and the plant has a lot other beneficial uses as well. Unfortunately, the damn NWIMBYs that run this place won't let us grow or store any. This kind of smart, stockable, mixed-use herbalism is illegal to grow in most Transylvanian towns!”
“Wolfsbane is a disgusting, poisonous weed!” squealed Karen Piper. “It ruins the neighborhood character! No Wolfsbane in My Back Yard!”
Fred glared at her and shot back: “Easy for you to say, Karen–you literally live in a castle you inherited from your father, complete with 40-foot unscalable walls. When was the last time you lost a loved one to a werewolf?”
“You're a shill for herb developers!” piped back Karen.
Mark banged the gavel for order. “That's enough of that. Let's hear from someone else.” One hand remained. “Okay, Larry Smith. Let's hear it.”
“Wolfsbane's a good idea and we should do it. But it won't solve the root problem by itself, for that we need to get at the heart of the matter, literally: let's shoot the werewolves with silver bullets.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Look, there are no silver bullet solutions to the werewolf crisis.”
“Yes there are,” protested Larry. “Silver bullets are the silver bullet solution. Lycanthrobiologists have repeatedly demonstrated that werewolf physiology is extremely susceptible to high velocity projectiles made of silver.”
“We don't need theories, we need evidence.”
“I've got your evidence right here,” said Larry, pulling out a stack of research papers. “A recent meta-analysis by Van Helsing, et al shows that households subject to werewolf attacks have highly differentiated mortality rates that strongly vary with defense typology. The highest rate of survivorship occured in home defenders who, in the blind panic of a werewolf attack, happened to stuff their blunderbusses full of silverware before firing it at the werewolves. This has happened in twelve different locations with varying degrees of experimental controls and effect sizes, but they all point in the same direction – wherever we see a higher density of silver, and a greater velocity of silver projectiles, we see a higher survivorship rate, and a lower rate of people being murdered and then eaten.”
“That proves nothing, correlation isn't causation.”
“Are you serious, Mark? There's a clear mode of action and causal direction. People shot the werewolves with silver, the werewolves screamed in pain and ran away, and then those people weren't murdered and then eaten by werewolves.”
Mark arched a skeptical eyebrow. “What if it was just the loud noise that scared the werewolves off? The chief study cited in the meta-analysis doesn't specifically control for that.”
“Sure, but plenty of the other studies do.” Larry shot back. “The consistent finding is that if you just load the blunderbuss with black powder and nothing else, the werewolves murder and then eat you. And as for ammunition, the material really does matter–people who loaded their firearms with tin utensils fared no better than those who had no ammunition at all. It has to be silver.”
“Well, in any case, I'm not convinced,” said Mark as he skimmed through the papers. Pointing to a specific line, he said, “Besides, it looks like these werewolves were shot with your precious silver, and they didn't even die! I also see some of the families who used your silver-based defense method still got killed. So much for your silver bullet theory.”
“Yes, some participants in the silver group still died,” said Larry, “but they died at much lower rates. And although the werewolves in this study weren't killed outright, they were hurt! Look, a blunderbuss firing knives and forks is hardly the most sophisticated possible weapon – accuracy is terrible and penetration power is very low. What matters is this points us in the right direction and suggests we can greatly improve on these results. If we put our best minds to work on this–by casting some silver bullets, perhaps–then I bet we could probably kill some of these werewolves outright. At the very least we'd hurt them and scare them off. That would be much better than the status quo, where every full moon werewolves murder a bunch of people and then eat them.”
At that, Sarah Fletcher stood up and hastily left the meeting.
Mark shook his head. “See what you did, Larry? You've upset Sarah. Man, why do you always do this? Look, I know it's comforting to believe in simplistic solutions, but werewolves are a complex problem, cursed even. And to truly solve a problem of this magnitude, we need an equally complex and nuanced solution. The kind that's slowly hashed out over dozens of town hall meetings over a series of many, many, years.”
Larry spread his hands. “I get what you're saying, Mark. I really do. You think I'm a monomaniacal crank who has glommed onto one convincing theory, and that keeps me from seeing the full picture and appreciating the thorny details. I have two points in response:
First–there's been numerous times in history where a complex, cursed problem turned out to have a 'simple' solution. As it turns out, citrus juice straight up cures scurvy. Some moldy bread unlocked an entire arsenal in the fight against infectious disease. The cholera epidemic in London was cut short by simply removing the handle to the Broad Street Pump. You can save tons of lives very cheaply by distributing mosquito-treated bed nets. Or just by washing your hands. And instead of maintaining a giant bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to scrutinize the 'worthiness' of each welfare recipient through obsessive means testing, it turns out it's more effective–and cheaper!–to just give people money.”
Larry continued: “And yes, 'for every problem, there is a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong.' We should be wary of overly simplistic sounding 'silver bullet' solutions. But we shouldn't let this wariness become too extreme! If humanity automatically ruled out every 'simple' solution simply because it sounded too simple, we would have missed some of the greatest wins in human history.”
“That's all well and good,” said Mark. “But there's another issue with your 'silver bullet' theory. A fairly thorough account by Briggs shows that in the real world, casting silver bullets is actually surprisingly hard. So even though your idea might work in theory, it probably won't work in practice.”
“I'm glad you brought that up,” said Larry, “because that's actually my second point: just because a solution sounds simple to say doesn't mean it's a simplistic gloss of the issue that doesn't take the full complexity of the world into account. I'm proposing we shoot the werewolves with silver bullets. You think this is a sign I'm being unserious, because, among other things, manufacturing silver bullets is complicated. As it happens, I'm familiar with Briggs' research, and the most salient finding, which you elided, was this: the experiment proves it's possible to both manufacture and fire silver bullets. So what if it's hard to do? The status quo is that werewolves, which most believe to be invincible, unstoppable killing machines—murder people and then eat them. Thanks to Briggs, we have a proven method for creating a weapon that has the potential to actually kill werewolves. And if it turns out it doesn't kill them, it just merely wounds them or scares them off? That's still loads better than what we have now.”
Mark shook his head. “Look, Larry, even if silver bullets are somewhat effective, it's not like you're just going to cast a bullet, shoot a werewolf, and be done with the entire problem once and for all.”
“I know, Mark! That's point two again! Saying 'silver bullets are the solution' is not the same thing as saying 'implementing silver bullets will be effortless!' Look, I know how annoyed you get because 'Silver Bullet Attacks would fix this' is a meme on Twitter whenever anyone brings up werewolves. Outside a few cranks, nobody actually believes that we'll just make a bunch of silver bullets and then werewolves will magically disappear overnight. We'll still need to do the hard work of making the bullets, lying in wait for the enemy, aiming carefully, and then shooting them until they're dead. Some shooters will miss, some of their guns will misfire, some will get caught by surprise, and some will probably die. It will take work, practice, training and improvement. But silver bullets will take us from an impossible problem to a problem we can solve at all. And if we try really, really hard, silver bullets could give us a world where nobody gets murdered and then eaten by werewolves.”
Mark frowned, then said, “I appreciate all that, Larry, but I really don't think you're engaging with the manufacturing question. This is a much more fatal issue than you're giving it credit for. Look, I have a lot of experience in metallurgy and...”
The town meeting continued on for several more hours; among the other comments raised, Karen Piper insisted that all new anti-werewolf measures must first be subjected to rigorous environmental review, Bob Inglefart complained that the root cause of werewolf incursions was too many people moving into the area, while Theodore Duckworth asked if anyone had considered the possibility that werewolves were good, actually.
Just then a loud BANG came at the door.
“Wha?–” said Mark.
The door was smashed into splinters as a giant werewolf burst into the town hall. The beast opened its gaping maw and bellowed a deafening roar as slobber ran down its fearsome jaws. The creature leered hungrily at the defenseless attendees of the town meeting, then took a single step forward.
A shadow moved in the darkness and three swift thwick sounds were heard in short succession.
The werewolf looked slowly downwards at its chest. Sticking out of a swiftly spreading patch of blood were three feathered wooden shafts. A sudden look of horror came on the beast’s face as it howled in pain, stumbled back out the door, and vanished into the moonlight.
The attendees, unmurdered and uneaten, stood stunned for what seemed like nearly a minute.
Mark finally broke the silence. "What just happened?"
Sarah Fletcher stepped out of the shadows, brandishing a bow. She pulled an arrow out of her quiver and pointed to the bodkin point, gleaming in the lamplight. “Silver-tipped arrows.” She said. "When I heard Larry started going on about silver bullets, I realized that I had everything I needed to make silver-tipped arrows in my shed. They're probably not as powerful as a real silver bullet fired from a gun would be, but they're way easier to make on short notice. Sometimes you need to stop overthinking everything and just try an idea and see if it works."
Very funny read :)
No complicated review, I just wanted to say I liked it.
Throughout the story I was wondering why Larry was advocating for this at a town meeting rather than finding someone to help turn his idea into a reality (like a Sarah Fletcher or an entrepreneurial friend), so I'm glad that was the punchline.
Very nice piece... but I have some nitpicking...
"... instead of maintaining a giant bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to scrutinize the 'worthiness' of each welfare recipient through obsessive means testing, it turns out it's more effective–and cheaper!–to just give people money.”
In case people think you're linking to a cast-iron case for 'UBI as a silver bullet', I should flag that you're linking to an intervention that does use means testing ("Give Directly ...[targets]... recipients who were chosen simply for meeting a basic means test criterion") and the proxy of living in a poor Kenyan village.
Great writing. I do feel it conflates cost-effective solutions and "silver bullets".
For some problems, there are silver bullets — vaccines is one example. For others, like "poverty among smallholder farmers in Uganda", I don't think we have found one.
A silver bullet, to me, implies that all of our efforts should be going to that one solution. A quick mental model can be that the solution is orders of magnitude more efficient than the alternatives, so it almost doesn't matter how much you spend on the solution, it will still be cost-effective.
GiveDirectly doesn't clear the "silver bullet bar" as this story suggests (compare to vaccines vs smallpox). You might argue it is cost-effective, but that's a different story.
Hi, I'm the author of this story :)
I think we're obviously using two different definitions of a "silver bullet." In fact kind of the entire point of writing it is to play with how the specific use of the term "it's not a silver bullet" has become a rhetorical tic to automatically dismiss something that should actually be given a more serious inquiry, just because it isn't literally perfect. I do this by imagining how actual silver bullets deployed against werewolves might fare against a "look, there are no silver bullets" rejoinder.
If I may point to the text itself, in this story all that a silver bullet is, is something that probably is good at killing werewolves, in a society that has an endemic and intractable werewolf problem, and in which the authorities don't seem to be particularly concerned about doing anything about werewolves other than the already-legible solutions they're comfortable with that have provably failed to do much of anything about the problem.
The silver bullet advocate, Larry Smith, makes many concessions that silver bullets could prove to be difficult or expensive in practice -- but that they would still be worth it compared to the horrific ongoing cost of doing nothing. Crucially, Larry Smith does not make the case that all the town's efforts should be going into that one solution, nor that it is the only solution, nor that it will necessarily be cheap, easy, or any other such thing.
All he seeks to convey is:
a) all available evidence points to it as the directionally correct solution
b) that we haven't tried it sufficiently yet
c) we absolutely should try it before we dismiss it out of hand, and
d) it is very likely we can improve on what little has already been tried
e) generic bias against simple-sounding solutions in favor of complex-sounding solutions blinds us to important categories of interventions, regardless of whether they are "silver bullets" by the more common definition or not
Sarah Fletcher at the end points out that doing a small & simple empirical trial of it is a better way of settling the substance of debate than endlessly hypothesizing in the abstract.
Hedonist Utilitarian Philosopher screams in agony: "Whaaaaat? So we have actual evidence of the existence of immortal rational sentient beings that can regenerate almost any damage and YOU WANT TO KILL them? LARRY, YOU MONSTER!"
Ditto malaria nets. IIRC one of the big problems Founders Pledge had with persuading successful founders to donate to AMF is that they all wanted to 'address the root cause' rather than what they perceived as a band-aid solution.
(cute story, though)
Haha this is brilliant!
Strongly-upvoted to signal.
It's a good post. It's a good blog. It was good book review. I'm pretty sure it's a good book (I haven't got round to reading it yet). [Edit: It was also a good podcast, sorry for forgetting Dwarkesh!]
Could this be something for IIDM EAs to think about, Georgism as an IIDM cause area? Or using it to unblock dysfunctions in modern societies and reduce institutional risk factors to other cause areas? If something in that general space sounds interesting to you, or something you'd like to collaborate on, please get in touch!
BTW, below is the silver bullet of funding effective charities (simply relies on premise that people would rather the money from their purchases go to fight malaria, for instance, rather than enrich shareholders).