Pluralistic: 30 Aug 2020

Today's links

We don't know why you don't want to have public sex (permalink)

Evolutionary psychology is beloved of a certain kind of "rationalist" who loves a good just-so story that casts some system that advantages him as biologically inevitable, as in, "Honey, the only reason I'm screwing my undergrads is because of bonobos."

There's a tried-and-true formula for evo-psych storytelling: first, find an animal that acts in a certain way. Next, make up a story explaining that behavior. Finally, project that behavior on proto-hominids whose social lives are totally unknown and unknowable.

Put a bow on it by explaining that these animals show that these protohominids did whatever it is people are angry at you about, and then declare that your DNA requires you to do that.

Evo-psych doesn't have to be sexist, but it usually is, and so it usually falls to women to debunk these idiotic claims.

A good example is Jordan Peterson, whose theories of gender essentialism are built on the mating habits of a certain lobster species.

Periodically, women, especially marine biologists, have done the important, thankless work of explaining that Peterson is cherry-picking here. Take Bailey Steinworth's incredible 2018 thread on marine invertebrate reproduction:

Steinworth wants to know why lobster sex is the exemplar we should use to explain human sexuality, rather than, say, sea hares, hermaphrodites that"lay their eggs orgy-style with each individual simultaneously acting as male and female in multiple couplings."

Sea hares know how to have a good time!

"If only two are available, they take turns being 'male' and 'female.'"

The genre of "women scientists explaining why evo-psych is pseudoscientific horseshit" is large and excellent, but one practitioner stands out above all others.

Anne Innis Dagg recently won the Order of Canada for her outstanding work as an evolutionary biologist. Dagg faced vicious discrimination throughout her distinguished scientific career.

She was never tenured, even after decades at the University of Waterloo, where she was my undergrad advisor.

In 2004, Dagg published "Love of Shopping Is Not a Gene," the ur-text of the field.

It's a short, sprightly book, as much an ethnography of evo-psych supporters as it is a scientific debunking of the field.

(If you're interested in learning more about Dagg, she's the subject of a brilliant new doc, "The Woman Who Loved Giraffes")

The women who do this important work really epitomize the "everything the men do, but backwards and in heels" nature of so much anti-misogynist work. They have to out-rationalism the "rationalists" who promote evo-psych.

And they have to do so while being as entertaining as the just-so pseudoscientific tales they're debunking, without being able to cheat by presenting their own fancy as science.

Which brings me to this week's backwards-in-heels champion, Rebecca Watson, AKA Skepchick, a frequent target of harassment by terrible men and a fearless science communicator who is as entertaining as she is correct.

Watson's latest is "Why Do Humans Have Sex in Private? Evolutionary Psychology has a Guess" – a teardown of Yitzchak Ben-Mocha's evidence-free paper arguing that we screw in private because men don't want rivals to get horny and screw their mates.

The paper may be evidence free, but it's not devoid of argument. In the grand tradition of evo-psych, Ben-Mocha combines an observation about contemporary norms (the propensity of survey respondents to have sex in private), which he then projects back to prehistory.

As Watson notes, "behaviorally and cognitively modern humans have been around for about 50,000 years, and unfortunately we don’t have many extant sex tapes from the earliest part of that period."

Ben-Mocha proposes this is genetic, locating a bird species, the Arabian babbler, which seeks out private matings. Ben-Mocha proposes (but has no means of validating) explanations for this, decides that one is more likely than others, and therefore it's probably true.

Having decided Arabian babblers are "cooperative breeders" he concludes that humans are probably also genetically disposed to screw privately because of the same imaginary reason that one species of avians, who genetically diverged from mammals millions of years ago are.

Watson really does good work laying out both the thinness of this paper and the absurdity of its warm response.

If videos aren't your thing, here's a transcript:

Here's her closer: "there is zero evidence that you inherited a preference for fucking in private from your parents, that you fuck in private because men want other men to still be their bros, or that’s even what is happening in bird populations the study is based on."

"You may as well say that humans evolved a gene that allows us to hold in a fart around someone we find attractive. Not everything is an adaptive trait."

If you like Watson's work and want to see more of it, here's her Patreon:

Big Tech welcomes (some) regulation (permalink)

You know how the Curse of the Monkey's paw works: a cursed object grants all of your wishes, but in the worst way possible: "be careful what you wish for."

That's what we're living through with Big Tech right now.

I'm all for regulating Big Tech, but not all regulation is created equal. Some regulation can dampen the power of Big Tech, while other regulation can make it permanent, even creating powerful stakeholders for monopolies within government.

Every monopolist's first preference is to be totally unregulated, but every monopolist's SECOND preference is to be regulated in a way that only a monopolist can comply with, thus foreclosing on the possibility of competition from an as-yet-nonexistent upstart.

Look at AT&T, or, as it was known in its monopolistic glory days, "The Bell System." From its earliest days, AT&T was a bully, pulling all kinds of dirty tricks on small carriers and rural telephone co-ops that grew out of the New Deal electricity co-ops.

Regulators and the DoJ often had stern words for AT&T, and at various times, the company was subjected to legal penalties and court-ordered conduct remedies to make it behave.

But this was as far as it all went: no one was going to break up AT&T, take away the power it was abusing. AT&T was too important, "too big to fail," part of the national emergency and security infrastructure.

AT&T leveraged the fact that cops or fire marshalls could (and did) coopt its infrastructure to argue for special rules to protect the Bell System, because if nefarious competitors were to compromise the system, America couldn't fight crime, fires, floods and other disasters.

Which is how it was that AT&T was able to get the government to ban connecting anything to the Bell System that they hadn't manufactured. It's hard to overstate how ridiculous and abusive this rule was, but here are a couple important court cases that give a taste.

Take the Hush-A-Phone, a plastic cup that fit over your mouthpiece to make it harder for people to listen in or reading your lips. AT&T argued that attaching a plastic cup to a phone handset put America itself in danger and must be banned.

Or the Carterfone, a gadget that let you retransmit phone audio over short-range radio, so that ranch-hands could take calls when they were out on the range.

Hush-A-Phone and Carterfone represent the endpoint of AT&T's venality, the instances in which the company overreached so thoroughly that a court finally limited its power. But they are also emblematic of the costs AT&T exacted from its customers.

Before these decisions, AT&T customers had to rent phones, paying for them dozens or hundreds of times over. To make things worse, AT&T used its regulated monopoly status to block innovators, holding back the answering machine, the switchboard and (crucially) the modem.

By 1956, AT&T's conduct was so odious that the DoJ was ready to break it up. But at the last instant, AT&T got a stay of execution: the Pentagon intervened to say that without AT&T, the US would not be able to prosecute the war in Korea.

AT&T had been "punished" for its prior bad acts by being made a de-facto, privatized arm of the state, and now the state was intervening to keep AT&T intact. It worked. AT&T stayed intact for another quarter-century, during which time its conduct steadily worsened.

This is what happens when we "tame" monopolies instead of breaking them up: the monopolist makes some cosmetic changes to its conduct, coopts its regulators, and reverts to its wicked ways as soon as the attention shifts, using its monopoly profits to fight any consequences.

Today, there are many proposals to fix Big Tech, but far too often, these proposals start from the perspective that Big Tech is permanent and there is no need to consider the way that new rules would impact potential competitors, because they're already doomed.

Last year's EU Copyright Directive, for example, with its mandate for expensive copyright filters for online services (how expensive? Google spend $100m developing Contentid, a toy version of what the EU rule requires).

Not only is this a disaster because filters are garbage and block all kinds of legitimate speech – it's doubly awful because it prevents competitors from entering Big Tech's markets that might be more respectful of their users – co-ops, EU-based SMEs, etc.

And it makes Google and FB and other Big Tech companies an arm of the state, part of the apparatus of copyright enforcement (not just copyright, the EU's Terror Reg makes them filter "extremist" content too).

And it prevents a future Hush-a-Phone moment for Big Tech: Youtube will say that if it is responsible for fighting extremism and infringement, it MUST block competitors who interoperate with its service to provide fairer, better alternatives.

Tellingly, while Youtube and Facebook started off as staunch opponents of a filter mandate in the Copyright Directive, they quickly switched sides and began arguing in FAVOR of filters – after all, they already had filters, and nascent competitors did not.

Big Tech's latest cursed monkey paw moment comes from Amazon, who, after losing key court cases over selling dangerously defective goods stop arguing that it wasn't responsible for its sellers' goods.

Instead, they started demanding that state legislative proposals, like California's AB 3262, be made FAR stricter, so that just making an ecommerce platform (like the scrappy Canadian Amazon rival Shopify does) makes you responsible for anything sold on that platform.

It's gonna be burdensome for Amazon to check out all of its sellers' goods, but Amazon is arguably the only company with enough excess capital to do that checking, and they've got a patent on forcing sellers to expose their entire supply-chain in machine-readable formats.

Which means that Amazon – who are under antitrust scrutiny for spying on their sellers and then knocking off their best products and driving them out of business – could be legally obligated to spy on its sellers.

Which means that if the DoJ or Congress decides to force Amazon to STOP spying on its sellers, they will have to override California's consumer protection rule that makes Amazon undertake this surveillance.

It also means that sellers who are worried that Amazon will spy on them in order to drive them out of business will have few (or no) alternatives to giving Amazon its data, because Shopify and other ecommerce platforms CAN'T comply with California's proposed liability rule.

Amazon is REALLY good at this kind of regulator monkeypawing. For a long time, Amazon maintained the fiction that all its European digital goods sales were consummated in Luxembourg, where there was no VAT. That let it sell ebooks for 20% less than, say, UK competitors.

When the EU decided to fix this, Amazon enthusiastically cooperated, producing a harmonized VAT rule that only the largest companies could comply with: a rule that required sellers in the EU to gather and retain two pieces of address-confirming info from every customer.

Then sellers would have to calculate how much VAT to charge based in 28 different countries' VAT laws, and would have to remit that VAT every quarter, regardless of how small that remittance was. I was living in the UK then, and selling my ebooks online.

The VAT rule meant that if I collected EU0.01 from a single Polish customer in a quarter, I would have to pay to wire the Polish tax authorities EU0.01, and pay accountants to prepare the paperwork. The first quarter, I paid £750 to remit £17 in VAT.

Of course, there was a way to get around all of this! All I needed to do was shut down my independent ebook store and shift to selling on Amazon, and pay them 30% of every penny I brought in. Amazon has a whole building full of accountants and programmers to make that work.

(The issue became moot when I moved to the US and shuttered my UK Limited Company; today you can shop at my ebook store and I don't have to collect VAT at all)

There are monkey's paw proposals everywhere, like killing CDA230, which shields tech platforms from liability for users' speech – sure, the Big Tech platforms wouldn't like to pay for more moderators and filters, but in return they'd get to wipe out all small rivals.

But the monkey's paw is not inevitable. There are plenty of ways to make Big Tech less powerful while encouraging alternatives, including co-ops and nonprofits. Instead of copyright filters, we could have blanket licenses that directly pay artists.

Instead of moderation mandates, we could have interop mandates that let users choose what is and isn't allowed in their own conversations:

And, as Matt Stoller points out in his article on AB3262, we don't need Amazon's extensions to an otherwise sensible consumer protection statute that would extend liability to Shopify – we can craft a rule that catches Amazon's bad conduct alone.

If we are going to tame Big Tech, let us tame them – by reducing their power, not by demanding that they exercise it wisely. If Big Tech has too much power, let's take some of it away – we'll never get them to use it for good.

We can (try to) fix Big Tech or we can fix the internet. Big Tech will either figure it out and survive or it won't. Their products are optional, but we NEED the internet.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Library "lends out" addicts, poor people, asylum seekers, gay people

#10yrsago Custom Batman and Robin sneakers

#10yrsago US government opens Fredric "Seduction of the Innocent" Wertham's files

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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