Vox's "Future Perfect" column frequently has flawed journalism

by kbog 26th Jan 201925 comments


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

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

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

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

Kamala Harris’s controversial record on criminal justice, explained

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

The philosophical problem of killing baby Hitler, explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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