Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Dicky D. sez: Iz Purnishous Wubbish!

Richard Dawkins in The Extended Phenotype: :)

"People seem to have little difficulty accepting the modifiability of ‘environmental’ effects on human development. If a child has had bad teaching in mathematics, it is accepted that the resulting deficiency can be remedied by extra good teaching the following year. But any suggestion that the child’s mathematical deficiency might have a genetic origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in the genes ‘it is written,’ it is ‘determined’ and nothing can be done about it: you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse; others may be easy to reverse. Some may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent is applied. The important point is that there is no general reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irreversible than environmental ones.

What did genes do to deserve their sinister, juggernaut-like reputation?…Why are genes thought to be so much more fixed and inescapable in their effects than television, nuns, or books?"

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Steven Pinker's account of the evidence: The surprisingly small long-term effects of parenting

This post is going to be mostly quotes from the chapter "Children" in Steven Pinker's 2001 book The Blank Slate. All the non-italicised text is taken from the book, with the italics being my commentary. The numbers in brackets refer to items on the alphabetic list of references at the end of this post.

The Blank Slate has been the starting point for my recent research on the long-term effects of parenting, which has led to radical shifts in my world view. I now think that I have allowed myself to be seriously misled by (probably) mostly well-meaning people for a number of years. I wish I had studied the evidence sooner.
I think this is very important, so I want to give you the account of the evidence as presented in the book, and I want to give you a bunch of references, because I think I am fortunate to have a few friends who are intent on scrutinising this research less than mercilessly.

All the quotes, except for the very last one, are from the first 9 pages of the chapter. I'm quoting these 9 pages very liberally, at the risk of pissing off the publisher. I sincerely hope that I am doing them a favour, though. The chapter is 28 pages long and has a lot more on this topic that should interest you, which I'm not going to cover here. And then there's the rest of the book… It's 434 pages long (I have the British Penguin paperback edition) and full of fascinating stuff (including an extremely interesting chapter on the psychology of politics). I also want it known that Steven Pinker has a new book out, called The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, which I think should be of great interest to anyone interested in psychohistory. Also, if you want to get an idea of what I mean by "the science of psychology" which I've contrasted on this blog with the "psychotherapists talking from their experience" kind of "psychology", then there is no book I could recommend more highly than Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works.
I've been a fan of the man for many years.

Go Steve:

"THE NATURE-NURTURE DEBATE is over." So begins a recent article with a title – "Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean" – as audacious as its opening sentence. (28) The nature nurture debate is, of course, far from over when it comes to identifying the endowment shared by all human beings and understanding how it allows us to learn, which is the main topic of the preceding chapters. But when it comes to the question of what makes people within the mainstream of society different from one another – whether they are smarter or duller, nicer or hastier, bolder or shyer – the nature-nurture debate, as it has been played out for millennia, really is over, or ought to be.


[In that article,] Turkheimer (…) was summarizing a body of empirical results that are unusually robust by the standards of psychology. They have been replicated in many studies, several countries, and over four decades. As the samples grew (often to many thousands), the tools were improved, and the objections were addressed, the results, like the Star-Spangled Banner, were still there.


Here are the three laws:
·         The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.
·         The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
·         The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

As to the different kinds of tests used to measure such traits, he writes:

It sounds dodgy, but the tests have been amply validated: they give pretty much the same result each time a person is tested, and they statistically predict what they ought to predict reasonably well. IQ tests predict performance in school and on the job, and personality profiles correlate with other people's judgements of the person and with life outcomes such as psychiatric diagnoses, marriage stability, and brushes with the law. (4,7,15)

Here he gives some basic explanations of the methodology used in such studies:

Once the measurements are made, the variance of the sample may be calculated: the average squared deviation of each person's score from the group mean. The variance is a number that captures the degree to which the members of a group differ from one another. (…) It is mathematically meaningful to say that a certain percentage of the variance in a group overlaps with one factor (perhaps, though not necessarily, its cause), another percentage with a second factor, and so on, the percentages adding up to 100. The degree of overlap may be measured as a correlation coefficient, a number between -1 and +1 that captures the degree to which people who are high on one measurement are also high on another measurement. (8) (…)
Heritability is the proportion of variance in a trait that correlates with genetic differences. It can be measured in several ways. (21) The simplest is to take the correlation between identical twins who were separated at birth and reared apart. (…) Alternatively, one can compare identical twins reared together, who share all their genes and most of their environment, with fraternal twins reared together, who share half their genes and most of their environment. (…) The bigger the difference between the two correlations, the higher the heritability estimate. Yet another technique is to compare biological siblings, who share half their genes and most of their environment, with adoptive siblings, who share none of their genes (among those that vary) and most of their environment.


The results come out roughly the same no matter what is measured or how it is measured. Identical twins reared apart are highly similar; identical twins reared together are more similar than fraternal twins reared together; biological siblings are far more similar than adoptive siblings. (1,2,3,10,19,21) All this translates into substantial heritability values, generally between .25 and .75. A conventional summary is that about half the variation in intelligence, personality, and life outcomes is heritable – a correlate or an indirect product of the genes. It's hard to be much more precise than that, because heritability values vary within this range for a number of reasons. (21)

(Please refer to the book or some other source to learn about those reasons.)


The heritability of intelligence, for example, increases over the lifespan, and can be as high as .8 late in life. (14,22) Forget "As the twig is bent"; think "Omigod, I'm turning into my parents!"


"All traits are heritable" is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. (1,2,3,9,11,17,19,
26) Concrete behavioral traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture are, of course, not heritable at all: which language you speak, which religion you worship in, what political party you belong to. But behavioral traits that reflect the underlying talents and temperaments are heritable: how proficient with language you are, how religious, how liberal or conservative. General intelligence is heritable, and so are the five major ways in which personality can vary (summarized by the acronym OCEAN): openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism. And traits that are surprisingly specific turn out to be heritable, too, such as dependence on nicotine or alcohol, number of hours of television watched, and likelihood of divorcing. Finally, there are the Mallifert brothers in Chas Adam's patent office [this is a reference to a cartoon] and their real world counterparts: the identical twins separated at birth who both grew up to be captains of their volunteer fire departments, who both twirled their necklaces when answering questions, or who both told the researcher picking them up at the airport (separately) that a wheel bearing in his car needed to be replaced.


Behavioral genetics does have its critics, who have tried to find alternative explanations for the First Law. (…)
These possibilities have been tested, and though in some cases they may knock down the heritability estimate by a few points, they cannot reduce it by much. (21) The properties of adoptive parents and homes have been measured (…), and they are not homogeneous enough to force identical twins into the same personalities and temperaments. (3,18,19,20) Identical twins are not earmarked for homes that both encourage twirling necklaces or sneezing in elevators. More important, the homes of identical twins who were separated at birth are no more similar than the homes of fraternal twins who were separated at birth, yet the identical twins are far more similar. (3,16) And most important of all, differences in home environments do not produce differences in grown children's intelligence and personality anyway (as we shall see in examining the Second Law), so the argument is moot.
As to contact between separated twins, (…) the amount of contact turns out to have no correlation with the twins' degree of similarity. (2,3) What about the expectations of parents, friends, and peers? A neat test is provided by identical twins who are mistakenly thought to be fraternal until a genetic test shows otherwise. (…) the twins are as alike as when the parents know they are identical. (25) And direct measures of how similarly twins are treated by their parents do not correlate with measures of how similar they are in intelligence or personality. (10) Finally, sharing a placenta can make identical twins more different, not just more similar (since one twin can crowd out the other), which is why studies have shown little or no consistent effect of sharing a placenta. (2,5) But even if it were to make them more similar, the inflation of heritability would be modest. As the behavioral geneticist Matt McGue noted of a recent mathematical model that tried to use prenatal effects to push down heritability estimates as much as possible, "That the IQ debate now centers on whether IQ is 50% or 70% heritable is a remarkable indication of how the nature-nurture debate has shifted over the past two decades." (13) In any case, studies comparing adoptees with biological siblings don't look at twins at all, and they come to the same conclusions as the twin studies, so no peculiarity of twinhood is likely to overturn the First Law.


To say that the heritability of intelligence is .5, for example, does not imply that half of a person's intelligence is inherited (whatever that would mean); it implies that half of the variation among people is inherited.


By now you appreciate that our genes play a role in making us different from our neighbors, and that our environments play an equally important role. At this point everyone draws the same conclusion. We are shaped both by our genes and by our family upbringing: how our parents treated us and what kind of home we grew up in.

Not so fast. Behavioral genetics allows us to distinguish two very different ways in which our environments might affect us. (20,21) The shared environment is what impinges on us and our siblings alike (…) The nonshared or unique environment is everything else (…) including parental favoritism (…).

The effects of the shared environment can be measured in twin studies by subtracting the heritability value from the correlation between the identical twins. The rationale is that identical twins are alike (measured by the correlation) because of their shared genes (measured by the heritability) and their shared environment, so the effects of the shared environment can be estimated by subtracting the heritability from the correlation. Alternatively, the effects can be estimated in adoption studies by looking at the correlation between two adoptive siblings: they do not share genes, so any similarities (relative to the sample) must come from the experiences they shared growing up in the same home. A third technique is to compare the correlation between siblings reared together (who share genes and a home environment) with the correlation between siblings reared apart (who share only genes).
The effects of the unique environment can be measured by subtracting the correlation between identical twins (who share genes and an environment) from 1 (…). By the same reasoning, it can be measured in adoption studies by subtracting the heritability estimate and the shared-environment estimate from 1. In practice all these correlations are more complicated, because they may try to account for nonadditive effects, where the whole is not the sum of the parts, and for noise in measurements. But you now have the basic logic behind them.

So what do we find? The effects of shared environment are small (less than 10 percent of the variance), often not statistically significant, often not replicated in other studies, and often a big fat zero. (1,6,20,24,29) Turkheimer was cautious in saying that the effects are smaller than those of the genes. Many behavioral geneticists go farther and say that they are negligible, particularly in adulthood. (…)
[emphasis added]

Where do these conclusions come from? The actual findings are easy to understand. First, adult siblings are equally similar whether they grew up together or apart. Second, adoptive siblings are no more similar than two people plucked off the street at random. And third, identical twins are no more similar than one would expect from the effects of their shared genes. As with the First Law, the sheer consistency of the outcome across three completely different methods (…) emboldens one to conclude that the pattern is real.


The studies exclude cases of criminal neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and abandonment in a bleak orphanage, so they do not show that extreme cases fail to leave scars. Nor can they say anything about the differences between cultures (…). In general, if a sample comes from a restricted range of homes, it may underestimate effects of homes across a wider range. (27)


Behavioral geneticists have found that their samples of parents in fact span a full range of personality types. And even if adoptive parents are unrepresentative in some other way, the Second Law would survive because it emerges from large studies of twins as well. (3,20,23,24) Though samples of adoptive parents span a narrower (and higher) range of IQs than the population at large, they cannot explain why the IQs of their adult children are uncorrelated, because they were correlated when the children were young. (18,20,21)

About the Third Law:

Concretely, this means that identical twins reared together (…) are far from identical in their intellects and personalities. There must be causes that are neither genetic nor common to the family that make identical twins different and, more generally, make people what they are. (1,20,24,28,29)

A handy summary of the three laws is this: Genes 50 percent, Shared Environment 0 percent, Unique Environment 50 percent (or if you want to be charitable, Genes 40-50 percent, Shared Environment 0-10 percent, Unique Environment 50 percent). A simple way of remembering what we are trying to explain is this: Identical twins are 50 percent similar whether they grow up together or apart. Keep this in mind and watch what happens to your favorite ideas about the effects of upbringing in childhood.
[emphasis added]

Finally, about all the parenting advice you've heard according to which all sorts of features of parenting are essential in determining how the child will turn out:

But surely this advice is grounded in research on children's development? Yes, from the many useless studies that show a correlation between the behavior of parents and the behavior of their biological children and conclude that the parenting shaped the child, as if there were no such thing as heredity. [Note that this applies to the ACE Studies.] And in fact the studies are even worse than that. Even if there were no such thing as heredity, a correlation between parents and children would not imply that parenting practices shape children. It could imply that children shape parenting practices. (6,12)

1. Bouchard, T.J., Jr. 1994. Genes, environment, and personality. Science, 264, 1700-1701. What looks like the whole article is available for free here.
6. Harris , J.R. 1998a. The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Free Press. The link is to the 2009 revised edition of the book. 38 pages of the original book are available for free here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

"Determinism" doesn't mean "People are closed systems"

Perhaps someone can help me figure out whether I understand Stefan Molyneux's views on determinism correctly.

He often makes arguments like that if determinism were true, it would be impossible to change another person's mind, because, as he has so often said, people talking to each other would be like two television sets standing next to each other, each playing what's on the channel it's tuned in to without being affected in any way by the output of the other set.

It would seem, then, that what he means by "determinism" is not simply the position that the world is deterministic, but that each person is a closed deterministic system. ("Closed" meaning "not affected by anything external to it".)

One brand of the bizarre position that people are closed deterministic systems is the hypothetical position of "genetic determinism", which I doubt anybody holds, but that is often talked about and attacked by people who take the side of "nurture" in "nature vs nurture" debates.
In order for somebody's traits and behaviours to be 100% determined by their genes, they would, indeed, have to be a closed system, since to say that they are at all capable of interacting with elements of their environment is to say that things outside their genome can at least have some short term influence on their behaviour.

But of course, this isn't what any determinist means by "determinism". Determinism is the idea that the world is a (closed) deterministic system. Of course people can interact with each other and change each other's minds in a deterministic world. All it means is that it is determined that Paul will change Peter's mind. Or, if Paul learns about determinism and gets so confused by the concept that he concludes that there's no point in trying to change Peter's mind and therefore doesn't, then that's determined.

Whether a system is closed or not and whether a system is deterministic or not are two completely independent questions. I'm really not sure that Stefan Molyneux understands this. Does he?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A question I've been having about psychotherapy research is echoed in an editorial piece in the American Journal of Psychiatry I just found.

Said piece is by Arthur Rifkin and is available here. Le quote:

"If we approach the issue scientifically, we quickly reach the central problem of psychotherapy: What is the proper comparison group? Most randomized controlled trials of psychotherapy used a waiting list comparison group. This does not seem adequate. Imagine that you agreed to participate in a study comparing psychotherapy with a waiting list and were assigned to the waiting list. Would not you feel disappointed? Then, if the psychotherapy group did better, would that mean it was effective or that it did not influence the natural course of the illness and those disappointed subjects on the waiting list did worse than the natural course? Clearly we need a better comparison group than a waiting list."

Monday, 24 October 2011

A quote from Jon Haidt on Freudian notions of a perverse unconscious mind

From Jon Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis: "Freud based much of his theory of psychoanalysis on such mental intrusions and free associations, and he found they often have sexual or aggressive content. But Wegner's research [Wegner, 1994] offers a simpler and more innocent explanation: Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images everyday, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny. The reason we suppress them is not that we know, deep down, that they're true (although some may be), but that they are scary or shameful. Yet once we have tried and failed to suppress them, they can become the sorts of obsessive thoughts that make us believe in Freudian notions of a dark and evil unconscious mind."

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A more recent talk by Jon Haidt about different moral intuitions, their origins and rationale

Jonathan Haidt - When compassion leads to sacrilege

"Think local, act local". I love that part. :)

A quick thought on Stef's use of the word "philosophy"

A thought I had earlier today: Stefan Molyneux generally describes what he does as "philosophy", in fact he tends to be very emphatic that that's what it is. However, very many of the positions he defends actually pertain to psychology, which is an empirical science. Regardless of what his intentions are in calling it "philosophy", I think it's worth noting that it can serve the purpose of making it appear legitimate to not bother with empirical evidence - which, indeed, Stef generally doesn't.

Friday, 21 October 2011

My differences with Freedomain Radio

In the last couple of weeks, I have expressed in a number of Facebook threads that I have begun re-examining many of the central beliefs that are generally held within the Freedomain Radio community. As I have said a couple of times now, I have recently come to recognise that over the course of my 2.5 years of FDR fandom, I had almost completely suspended scientific scrutiny when it comes to Stef's claims about the human psyche.

So far, I have been very positively surprised by the responses I've gotten to my non-FDR-compliant Facebook posts. I did get some of the hostility I expected, but most responses have been curious, or even positive, or even highly appreciative.

What I want to do in this first post is go through all the things that I am re-examining or that I intend to re-examine, or on which I have already reached a non-Molyneuvian conclusion. Hopefully many of those topics will eventually make it into full-fledged, properly researched blog posts or series of blog posts.

I consider that I currently have a certain anti-FDR bias, with the pendulum swinging the other way and all that. I think that's ok, if such zigzags are how intellectual development tends to work then so be it, but I thought I might as well explicitly state it.

Maybe I should also say at the outset that I have not become a statist or a theist or an advocate of child abuse. But then, I already wasn't any of those things before I discovered FDR.

Here they come:

Psychotherapy, and why it works (when it does)

A number I've often seen quoted is that 80% of people who go through psychotherapy benefit from it considerably, at least in the short term (Lambert & Ogles, 2004; Wampold, 2001). I don't currently know of any studies that have assessed the long term effects of therapy, but I haven't done much research into this yet.
Two things that must be considered regarding the 80% number: It has been estimated that about 8% of the people who undergo therapy are worse off after at least 12 sessions (Lambert & Ogles, 2004). Also, a meta-analysis of 125 outpatient therapy studies has concluded that the mean dropout rate in these studies is 46.86% (Wierzbicki & Pekarik, 1993). Are those all people who have wasted money on therapy that didn't work for them?
I'm also quite interested to know more about the control groups used in these studies. Wiki says: "As early as 1952, in one of the earliest studies of psychotherapy treatment, Hans Eysenck reported that two thirds of therapy patients improved significantly or recovered on their own within two years, whether or not they received psychotherapy".
This doesn't leave me feeling enthusiastic about the odds of therapy being worth the cost.

This isn't even the question I'm most interested in, though. Another oft-reported finding is that the type of treatment, and hence the psychological theories held and applied by the therapist, are not a factor for the effectiveness of the therapy (Imel & Wampold, 2008).
So the theories can completely contradict each other and it will work all the same? So… it doesn't matter whether they're true?
According to Bruce Wampold's 2001 book The Great Psychotherapy Debate (nope, haven't read it), the factors that do matter are, in ascending order (copypasting from Wikipedia here): the therapist's strength of belief in the efficacy of the technique, the personality of the therapist, and the alliance between the patient(s) and the therapist (meaning affectionate and trusting feelings toward the therapist, motivation and collaboration of the client, and empathic response of the therapist).
The question I have, then, is: Exactly how do we know that the ways in which psychotherapy makes people feel and cope better differ fundamentally from the ways in which religion makes people feel and cope better? If you plug Wampold's factors into the priest-flock relationship, you would indeed expect religion to work magnificently.
Which is more impressive: the evidence for the benefits of therapy, or the evidence for the benefits of religion? I am yet to have a proper look at both of these, but from what I've heard so far (from psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Gilbert) I expect religion to win this contest.

"Psychology" books

I'm putting "psychology" in quotes, because the books I mean, while they do make claims about the human psyche, have little to do with the science of psychology. Nonetheless, I would imagine that they make up the great majority of books in the "Psychology" sections of book stores.
The books that I mean are written by psychotherapists, and the claims made in them are conclusions that the therapist has drawn from his or her experience of talking to clients or patients. I'm thinking Alice Miller, Daniel Mackler, Richard Schwartz… and Sigmund Freud, on whom I would love to do quite a bit more research and blog extensively.

A psychotherapist's experience of talking to clients isn't worthless, of course. Therapists will sharpen their intuitions over time, and their experience is certainly a fertile ground for hypotheses about how aspects of the human mind work.

But it's not evidence.

Scientific studies on psychopathology use things like double-blind trials, to control as much as possible for the well documented effects of things like reactivity and experimenter's bias, as well placebo effects, and whatever aspects of suggestion might not be covered by the preceding terms.
If you were to try and dream up the exact opposite of a double-blind situation, in which the room for suggestion and confirmation bias to operate in would be maximised, what would you come up with? It seems to me that the psychotherapeutic setting is a pretty good approximation of this; although surely those who "abuse" suggestion and confirmation bias the most liberally are religious leaders.

"THE Unconscious"

Obviously most of the processes in our bodies and minds are unconscious, and most of the information in our memories is unconscious to us most of the time. Unconscious processes influence our thoughts and actions a great deal; if we had to go through all the factors that influence our decisions consciously, we might be dead by the time we're ready to make our first decision.
Freud claimed to deserve to be put on a pedestal together with Copernicus and Darwin for having discovered The Unconscious, and Stef has stated, very clearly I think, that this claim of Freud's was justified. Freud certainly did not discover that unconscious processes are important, though. In 1890, ten years before Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, William James, in his 1,400 pages long Principles of Psychology, examined the ways in which Schopenhauer, von Hartmann, Janet, Binet, and others had used the terms "unconscious" and "subconscious", and, while he agreed that unconscious processes exist and play an important role, issued a warning: "the distinction between the unconscious and the conscious being of the mental state is the sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling-ground for whimsies". Many of the ideas of these aforementioned philosophers and psychologists, Pierre Janet in particular, appeared again in Freud's theories, although he wasn't one for giving them any credit.

Freud conceived, and Stef conceives, of THE Unconscious as something that has agency, which is to say as a second person who lives with you inside your body. Stef seems to grant The Unconscious (near?-)omniscience when he says that "everybody knows everything all the time". And, according to Stef, your Unconscious communicates with you through your dreams and your emotions, and by making you do seemingly irrational things, always with your best interest at heart, even though it can be extremely demanding at times. And when you find yourself feeling puzzled by your Unconscious's mysterious ways, you can turn to Stef to have him interpret its meaning for you, and it will all sound impressively convincing and make you feel like everything's finally falling into place.

That such a guardian angel like being exists inside each of us is an extraordinary empirical claim. Well then, how do we test it? How could it be falsified if wrong? How can evolutionary psychology account for The Unconscious? Why is nobody asking these questions?

Psychological disorders are the result of childhood trauma

This is a central belief in Stef's worldview, and it informs time and money investments of people who aspire to live an FDR-like philosophy to an enormous extent.
It certainly sounds reasonable, doesn't it? After all, it's what psychotherapists have been saying for well over a century. (And no, it's not Freud who first came up with this.) Not many people have been particularly bothered by the fact that Stef didn’t care to put forth much if any evidence for this claim for a long time, and I have been no exception.

And then came the ACE Study (long list of references here), and the Bomb In The Brain series.

Slam dunk? No. As I've discussed on my Facebook, the ACE Study is just a particularly large study that has found this same thing that many studies before it had found: That dysfunctional parents are more likely to have dysfunctional children than functional parents.

In minutes 25 to 27 of this talk by ACE Study leading author Vince Felitti, he makes fun of people who conclude that the cause of depression is genetic from the fact that depression runs in families, since, after all, "so does speaking the same language". This is baffling, since he is actually the one making that exact mistake, except in reverse. He is perfectly right in pointing out that the fact that something runs in families doesn't tell us anything about the extent to which its causes are genetic or environmental. And yet he goes on to claim that the correlations found in the ACE Study are proof of environmental causation.

How can you tell environmental factors apart from genetic factors? Well, twin studies and adoption studies, mostly. Are psychological characteristics better predicted by biological or by adoptive parents? Are monozygotic twins more similar to each other than dizygotic twins? How similar to each other are monozygotic twins who were raised by different foster parents?

Such studies have been conducted since the 1980ies. So far, I haven't seen any evidence for the idea that childhood trauma, or general bad parenting, is an important factor in causing psychological disorders. All the evidence I've seen so far is against that. In his 1994 review, Robert Plomin wrote: "the way in which the environment influences behavioral development contradicts socialization theories from Freud onward. For example, the fact that psychopathology runs in families has reasonably, but wrongly, been interpreted to indicate that psychopathology is under environmental control. Research shows that genetics generally accounts for this familial resemblance. Environmental influences on most behavioral disorders and dimensions serve to make children growing up in the same family different, not similar."
He also points out that genetic factors rarely account for more than 50% of the variation, hence leaving lots of space for environmental factors to operate in. These would have to be "nonshared" environmental factors, as he and Denise Daniels stated in their 1987 article, since the fact of having been raised by the same parents had not been found to make children similar to each other once genetic factors were controlled for. (For example, adoptive siblings grow up to become no more similar to each other than any two strangers.)
From what I hear though (and I intend to research this question properly), attempts to account for the rest of the variation by measurable environmental factors have been largely unsuccessful. And, while Plomin, at least back in the day, regarded the fact that only 40% of the variation of characteristic X could be attributed to genetic variation as proof that the other 60% were environmentally caused, there really is a third possible cause of variation, the role of which we pattern making humans have a very strong tendency to grossly underestimate: Random chance.

A word of caution: I do not know that there are any studies of this kind that would allow any conclusions about the possible effects of things like child sexual abuse. The variation within the groups studied will always be limited in some ways, such as all the families studied being part of the same culture. This means that there are some conclusions that cannot be drawn from them – but please let's not pretend like it follows from this that no conclusions can be drawn from them. As I wrote on my Facebook yesterday, if this account of the existing research is fair, then you certainly cannot claim that the idea that parenting is an important factor in causing psychological disorders has any evidence in its favour.

A very recent book that makes the same case I'm presenting here and that should provide many more recent references than the book that has, for the most part, been my starting point in recent weeks (The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker), is Bryan Caplan's 2011 book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids.

I should probably add that, unless it is your view that child abuse is only bad if it causes psychological disorders, none of what I've written can serve to condone it.

Statism and theism are the result of childhood trauma

This one has enormous influence on how people who adhere to Stef's worldview relate to virtually everybody around them. It seems to have tremendous explanatory power, which, of course, makes it very attractive. I think Stef's explanation of how this causation works is quite elegant, too.
It's also an empirical claim that can be empirically assessed, which Stef doesn't seem very interested in doing from what I can tell.

I first saw this talk by Jon Haidt in 2007, before I'd discovered Freedomain Radio, and I was very enthusiastic about it at the time. Unfortunately there wasn't very much more to read about Jon Haidt's research on how different people's moral intuitions differ from each other. I've recently gone back to Jon Haidt's talks on Youtube (link link), and I have learned that he was finally publishing a book on this topic called "The Righteous Mind" in 2012.
My feelings towards other people change considerably if I appreciate that their minds work a bit differently from mine, in ways that have important implications. According to Jon Haidt's work, most people have a greater emotional need for fairness, loyalty to a group, respect for tradition and authority, and purity, than I do. And I absolutely don't know that this is anything to do with trauma.
While Haidt has a theory of how such moral sentiments may have come about that differs greatly from Stef's, from what I've read he himself hasn't done much empirical work on the causes of the interindividual differences he has found, and I suppose that they could, in principle, be compatible with Stef's views about the role of child abuse in determining this kind of stuff. One thing that Haidt reports, though, is that the people who pursue all of the aforementioned emotional needs are also the happiest. How was their happiness measured? I don't know yet. I'll be happy to let you know when I'll have learned more about this.
Many of Haidt's scientific papers are available for free online, and you can easily find them from his Wikipedia page. (Generally my favourite starting point.)

Research about the possible causes of political orientation does exist, though. There are even names like genopolitics and neuropolitics for the fields of study concerned with such questions. In 2005, John Alford published a study on "nearly 10,000" twins, and from his comparison of monozygotic with dizygotic twins, found genes to play an important role in shaping political attitudes and ideologies. From the Wikipedia article, it sounds like what studies on this topic generally find is that genetic and environmental factors are both important. Wikipedia does not mention the relative effect of shared family environment, unfortunately.

As to the causes of religiosity, here's an interesting snippet from Wikipedia: "Koenig et al. (2005) report that the contribution of genes to variation in religiosity (called heritability) increases from 12% to 44% and the contribution of shared (family) effects decreases from 56% to 18% between adolescence and adulthood." (From the article on religiosity.)
As I mentioned earlier, I hear that many studies find religiosity to be a very strong predictor of happiness. Psychologist Dan Gilbert reports that religion is in the top 2 of predictors of happiness, together with marriage. His book Stumbling On Happiness is one of next books on my reading list.

Reason = Virtue = Happiness

Another empirical claim that can be empirically assessed. I don't know much about this at this point, but you can go up one paragraph for a few rather uninformed thoughts on the relationship between religiosity and happiness.


I have only listened to the audiobook of UPB once. I have half intended to properly read the book pretty much ever since then. I think one reason why I still haven't done so is because for a long time, I wanted to think highly of Stef, and based on my listening to the audio version I did not expect that I would think much of the book if I had a closer look at it.
Maybe I shouldn't say much more until I've read it with some care, and hopefully without too much influence from prejudice. What I'd like to do here is let you know what I've gathered about UPB from listening to both the audiobook and to many many podcasts in which Stef discussed the ideas relating to it. If what I tell you here is way off the mark or misses the point, please let me know. That would probably lead to me kicking reading UPB up a few notches on my To Do list.

Because all I really remember from it is:
Some relatively trivial ideas that certainly aren't revolutionary, like that many behavioural preferences are overwhelmingly shared among the members of the same species, and the criterion of whether a proposed moral rule can be equally applied to everybody without this leading to inconsistencies.
And then I remember what seemed to me to be baffling false dichotomies, which always left me thinking "I can't have understood what he meant right, because what I understood is just so obviously wrong." Namely: Stef showing how the rule "It is morally required to be constantly murdering somebody" leads to absurdities if universally applied, and then pretending like he has thereby proved that "It is morally impermissible to ever murder anybody", as if those were the only two options. I'm actually not aware that Stef has ever addressed the idea that "Murder is permissible". But it seems unlikely that he really wouldn't have, and if my impression of UPB is completely off the mark then I would certainly like to try and find out why that is.

Free will and determinism

I have never agreed with Stef on this. This is not a subject that I've recently come to re-examine my views on, in fact my views on it have not changed since before discovering FDR. So I'm not particularly interested in doing any more reading on this at the moment.
But I'm happy to let you know what I think: I wouldn't call myself a determinist, since I don't know that processes at the quantum scale aren't objectively indeterministic, and from what little I know about the current state of quantum mechanics (very little indeed), I don't think anybody knows this. But Stef clearly agrees that the existence of probabilistic processes would not serve the case for non-causal free will, which is supposed to be neither causal nor random.
I do not, however, believe in any kind of free will that isn't compatible with determinism, nor do I think it would be desirable for any such kind of free will to exist. I think that by all the useful ways in which their meaning can be defined, things like morality, responsibility, beliefs, etc etc, are perfectly compatible with determinism.
If you want to know more about my views on free will and determinism, you can look into Dan Dennett's views on this subject. I don't believe I have any disagreements with him on this. In fact, I don't remember ever disagreeing with Dan Dennett on anything pertaining to philosophy of mind. For his take on free will, you can pick up his book Freedom Evolves. I've only read about a third of it, but that third was good. You can also watch this talk of his on Youtube.

We're maladaptive because we're more virtuous

I think this is a popular idea in the FDR community. The logic is that the state of society is bad, and that since we have the insight to recognise this, we can't make ourselves adapt to that society. Hence we're maladaptive, uncomfortable, depressed…
I don't see that this kind of reasoning is inherently inconsistent, but here's a different hypothesis to also consider: Maybe the causation could also go the other way, i.e. maladaptiveness comes first and superior clarity about the state of society follows. I can see a few reasons why that would happen. If you're maladaptive anyway, you have less to lose, you're freer to critically examine social norms since you don't stand to be rejected from an emotionally supportive group for parting with its norms. Also, if you're maladaptive, you should expect to have a certain bias towards rationalising your maladaptiveness. Finding things that are wrong with the world around you might actually serve an important emotional function for you.

Examine your motives

Just a very simple and obvious thought, which I think is worth mentioning in this context:
Freedomainers, including Stef, often respond to people who criticise their views by asking them what they're feeling, or by asking them to talk about their childhood at great length. Stef will sometimes only go back to the argument the person was making under the condition that they give him a satisfactory account of their childhood.
The idea behind this is along the lines of "examine your motives". Maybe the person has an unconscious emotional agenda. According to the psychological theories that Freedomainers adhere to, such emotional motives are very likely to be caused by childhood events. But of course, if instead of answering someone's arguments you change the subject to that person's childhood, you might want to also examine your motives. While it is conceivable that you might uncover their emotional agenda, it is also true that this approach would be very convenient to anyone whose motive is to immunise themselves against criticism.

Healing through grief

According to psychotherapists like Alice Miller, John Bradshaw, and Daniel Mackler, who come highly recommended by Stef and other Freedomainers, the path towards greater happiness or authenticity or personal freedom is to thoroughly grieve your childhood trauma. In Toward Truth, Danny Mack describes this as "feeling every ounce of the painful loss".
This approach encourages going into negative states of mind a lot. It encourages emphasising past trauma and present insecurities. The immediate negative sides of this are obvious.
Do you believe you have good evidence that you can reasonably expect the effects of this to be worth the cost, or to be predominantly positive at all?
If you have been doing this for a while, I encourage you to look back and draw the bottom line, consider whether you have good indications that this is a project worth pursuing further. How much time and energy have you spent on it? How much money have you spent on therapy? And what have you gained?
If it is indeed justified to draw the conclusion from twin and adoption studies that parenting has very little effect on how a person turns out when they're grown up, then it seems to me that the Miller-Bradshaw-Mackler theory is very unlikely to be true. On the other hand, you might want to consider the possibility that this approach will predominantly serve to condition you to feel consistently quite bad.