The Rothschilds don’t control the media, but that doesn’t mean the media isn’t stupid

Whether it be due to excessively tight deadlines, poor-quality cadets, ideological echo chambers, or just plain-old laziness, there’s very little case to be made that The Discourse in the media accurately reflects reality in any real sense.

I was listening to the excellent Two Psychologists, Four Beers episode with Gordon Pennycook, specifically the discussion on the credibility of the media in relation to conspiracy theories. Yoel, Mickey, and Gordon seemed to think there were two possibilities: “the mainstream media is deliberately dishonest and biased”, or “the mainstream media endeavours to report accurately and mostly achieves this”. Between these two options, I tend to side with the podcasters and say the second—but there is clearly a third option. So, in my most Very Online blog post ever, I give you the third option: “the media does try to report facts accurately when it reports them, but journalists are often incompetent, so The Discourse ends up sounding like lies even when the strict facts of the matter are true”.

Source: XKCD.

To start, here’s a few very conspiratorial-sounding questions on hot button topics that have been prominently discussed in Anglosphere media (apologies, they’re Australia-focussed, but also North America should get used to the fact that the rest of the world exists). See how many you can answer:

  • Euthanasia: In 2020, Germany’s Constitutional Court declared that German citizens had a constitutional right to assistance with suicide for what reasons?
  • Disability rights: What percentage of babies with Downs Syndrome are aborted in Denmark?
  • LGBTIQ issues: What percentage of Australian gay men have HIV?
  • Abortion: Deceased abortionist Ulrich Klopfer was found in Indiana to have how many preserved foetuses at his house following his death?
  • China: A number of Australian-university research institutes were found to have collaborated with which branch of the Chinese government in what program?

The answers are:

If you click through those links, you’ll notice that all of them either link to press releases from primary sources or to mainstream media outlets. It is certainly true that these things were reported on. Bret Weinstein would be as-per-usually absurd to suggest any arch-conspiracy to hush this stuff up. And yet, in spite of the literally unbelievable nature of the items (Assisted suicide for any reason at any stage of life? So high an incidence of aborting babies with Downs Syndrome that the program looks virtually indistinguishable from eugenics? Australian academics’ collaboration in an ongoing genocide?), and in spite of how commonly the media discusses the overarching topics, I’m willing to guess this is the first you’re hearing of most, if not all, of the above specific facts. If you follow any of the above topics even remotely closely, that is astonishing! Australia recently legalised euthanasia in two states, we have a periodic discussion about liberalising blood donation for men who have sex with men, we’re constantly discussing Chinese influence on Australia’s institutions, and yet whenever I cite any of the above to an interlocutor—even one who “follows these issues closely”—I am greeted with incredulous stares. However incredible these facts may be, they have not permeated the public consciousness at all.

Or at least, this situation would be astonishing if we assumed the commentators in these arenas themselves knew these things. And we have no reason to assume that. On each of the above, after the initial report there was often little-to-no follow up or commentary. These episodes certainly weren’t hashed through the media in the latest iteration of the Two Minutes Hate. So, unless journalists and commentators are doing their job really well and ensuring they stay abreast of all the latest in their area, even if it’s only reported briefly and once, there’s every reason to believe they have no knowledge of any of these facts. And especially when these are hardly the sort of facts that you’ll be popular for sharing at the water cooler, it’s unsurprising they make very little impact after their initial publication. This is doubly true in more complex domains: my day job is in the energy sector, and it’s a rare day when reporting on the industry isn’t riddled with basic conceptual errors (e.g. “levelized cost of energy” is self-evidently not a measure of how much end-consumers will pay for energy, so it cannot be cited to discuss the impact of renewables or fossil-fuel generation on the prices paid by end-consumers).

So, whether it be due to excessively tight deadlines, poor-quality cadets, ideological echo chambers, or just plain-old laziness, there’s very little case to be made that The Discourse in the media accurately reflects reality in any real sense. Yoel, Mickey, and Gordon are clearly correct to be dismissive of conspiracy theories about deliberate media bias, but as Hanlon’s Razor goes, never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity. The papers of record do remain good papers of record, and they are good collators of raw facts, but any statement of credibility beyond that is, uh, a stretch.


[1] Bundesverfassungsgericht. “Criminalisation of assisted suicide services unconstitutional press release”. Bundesverfassungsgericht. 26 February 2020. https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/EN/2020/bvg20-012.html

[2] Sarah Zhang. “The Last Children of Down Syndrome”. The Atlantic. 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928/

[3] Kirby Institute. HIV in Australia: annual surveillance short report 2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney; 2018. https://kirby.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/kirby/report/supplHIV2018_content_20180920r.pdf

[4] Derrick Byron Taylor. “More Than 2,200 Preserved Fetuses Found at Property of Dead Doctor, Officials Say”. New York Times. 14 September 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/us/dr-ulrich-klopfer-fetal-remains.html

[5] Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Mario Christodoulou, Sashka Koloff, Lauren Day, and Echo Hui. “Are Australian universities putting our national security at risk by working with China?”. 4 November 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-14/chinese-communist-party-gtcom-connection-australian-universities/11586118

What equality of opportunity are you owed?

Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

I will never be the next Brad Pitt. Even if I had the talent for acting (I do not), at 23 I would likely be starting too late. In any event, becoming an actor requires a huge degree of luck and perseverance, and I am unwilling to endure the years of working three side-gigs to make ends meet until I am noticed and land my first big show. Being an actor is a luxury job, a “status” job, a lifestyle job, just like being an artist or a supermodel or a politician. We all understand that you need to be a very specific kind of person to even compete to be the next Brad Pitt, and even then it remains a pipe dream. As we all know, “sensible people” do jobs like teaching or accounting or plumbing—jobs that most people can do with sufficient tenacity. So if we acknowledge that individuals are not owed an opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt, why do we think individuals are owed opportunities to become lawyers, or academics, or doctors, or any other high-status career?

Brad Pitt, 25 April 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A traditional argument for equality of opportunity might go as follows. Citizens should not, by circumstances of their birth, be forced into poverty or social degradation. Society should therefore care deeply about improving the opportunities that those at the bottom of the social ladder have to climb it.[1] At a minimum, this means that every industrious citizen should have access to the education and resources to become (for instance) a teacher or an accountant or a plumber.

A broader conception[2] of opportunity might surpass mere material adequacy and argue that individuals should have a fair opportunity to access a life and career that is valuable to them. This argument is an important corrective: if an individual would be much happier as an accountant than as a plumber, then we should not be comfortable with that individual’s being denied access to the required education to tabulate expenses on the basis that they could reach material adequacy by installing sinks. But this broader conception runs quickly against constraints—unless I am willing to take on substantial risk and effort, I will never be the next Brad Pitt, even if that would grant me inordinately more meaning than any other career.

To spell this out explicitly: we do not consistently value equality of opportunity, and with good reason. What we appear to value is equality of opportunity for a life that is good enough. When someone has access to a career that is good enough and then instead chooses a life of precarity and risk to attempt a high-status, well-paid career like Hollywood acting, we note that they consciously made the decision to accept that risk and hardship and adjust our sympathy accordingly.

It is worth noting, then, how far above “good enough” the conditions of those in elite careers are. The life of a senior lawyer will often consist of intellectually stimulating work remunerated in the six figures and is a career that everyone acknowledges as prestigious and desirable (hence the popularity of shows like Suits and How To Get Away With Murder). Academics spend most of their career reading and thinking about interesting problems, again at salaries in the six figures and again with a high social status (who wouldn’t want to be Stellan Skarsgård from Good Will Hunting?). It is not at all surprising that there is intense competition for these roles—as with acting in Hollywood, once you’re “in”, it’s one of the best careers. Further, applicants to these careers would all have been able to access less competitive opportunities that offer stable and relatively interesting work from early in one’s career. Prospective lawyers could easily have become comfortably paid bureaucrats in the public service or the corporate world, prospective academics could easily have become high-school teachers, and prospective doctors could easily have become nurses.

As such, the complaints about poor conditions at the start of one’s career begin to ring slightly hollow. The conditions are so poor precisely because the end-conditions are so good for those who make it through (the starting salary is roughly AU$100,000 for academics[3] and doctors[4]), and the applicants choose to endure those risks and the hardships of the training because the end result is so good. If I were to read the complaint uncharitably, the complains seems to be “it’s unfair that I should have to endure hardship to obtain a job well above the average salary where I do work inordinately more interesting and high-status than I would be able to do anywhere else”.

It’s possible that you think my argument up till now is heartless and ignores people’s suffering on the basis that they opted into it. That is a fair criticism. But it is nonetheless clear that the equivalation between lack of fair opportunity for elite and low-skill occupations is not legitimate. Take this gem:

The fact that many of those [academic casual staff] are underpaid for the work they do only reinforces the extent to which our universities are now dependent on the same kind of exploitative labour practices that blight our economy more broadly, but especially in the hospitality industry.

Colin Long, the 2018 Victorian secretary of the (Australian) National Tertiary Education Union

Casualisation of supermarket or hospitality employment is wholly different to the casualisation of academic (or legal, or medical) work. We are concerned when hospitality or retail workers are placed in insecure employment because there may well not have been alternative options: we as a society may well be denying citizens the opportunity for a life that is good enough. But academics (or lawyers, or doctors) always had a safe and comfortable opportunity available. They simply chose not to exercise it in favour of a riskier but more promising option.

None of this is to say the system is fine as it is: I lament the overpaid executives in universities and law firms and hospitals; I wish that less of our taxpayer money funded bureaucratic bloat in these institutions. But, critically, even if we dislike aspects of the current system, that does not mean society owes anyone a comfortable road to an elite career[5], at least not in the way that we owe all citizens a good high school education or a comfortable road to material sufficiency. So, when the arguments for increasing the ease of obtaining these jobs involves an increase to taxpayer expenditure (e.g. increased funding for universities), we should be rightly sceptical. Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

To end, an appropriate Existential Comic:

Source: Existential Comics

This is a substantially edited version of the original piece, which was published under the title “People seem very confused about the merits of equality of opportunity”.


[1] I want to point out that I am only considering arguments here for equality of opportunity, not arguments for ensuring the fundamental dignity of every human life. This is not really intended as a policy post in any event, but as an aside, I’m really comfortable with unemployment insurance, public (i.e. single-payer) free healthcare, state-run disability insurance, and so on. But these are not broadly relevant to equality of opportunity so much as to ensuring the dignity of all human beings, and that’s a separate concern.

[2] Say, Sen’s capabilities approach.

[3] Link provided for the University of Melbourne. See p.41 for salary table and p.58 for the description of “Level B”.

[4] See Part 4, clause 16(h). When I say “starting”, I mean “beginning as a specialist”.

[5] There are obviously instrumental reasons to support offering access to high-status careers for certain individuals. We might, for instance, want to ensure affirmative action for women in a political party to signal that women (as a class) are politically equal to men. Or, alternately, we wish to ensure a minimum number of women on a corporate board to decrease the likelihood that the company would overlook concerns relevant to women (e.g. maternity leave policies). I accept that there are good reasons to believe any of these instrumental reasons. Critically, however, the instrumental concerns can be met with instrumental solutions: we need not necessarily care that Jane is denied the corporate board position if it is given instead to Jenny, since either will mean more female representation on the board. It does not appear that the lack of fair opportunity per se should be what bothers us.

All good societies are judgemental

Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Theresa

Over the last year or so I keep having iterations of the same very bizarre conversation about whether it’s a good thing for us to judge[1] people for engaging in activities that were, until very recently, discouraged by “prohibition norms” (i.e. norms that prohibit a specific activity). Here is a caricatured version of the conversation for casual sex:

Me: We should have really strong norms discouraging casual sex and we should be pretty critical of friends and family who engage in it.

Interlocutor: Why are you such a prude? Casual sex is a lot of fun! Why do you want to make fewer people have fun?

Me: Do you think, in cases of casual sex, that there’s a risk of misunderstanding regarding whether consent was given if someone is extremely inexperienced?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you think that any event occurring behind closed doors with someone you’re not necessarily close to in the middle of the night is almost necessarily a precarious place for people to be, and that things are likely to go wrong if we encourage that sort of interaction on any large scale?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you agree that the “best” type of casual sex involves both parties’ genuinely making sure that their counterparty is enjoying themselves, as opposed to a transactional “finish-and-go”-type arrangement, and that it’s difficult to encourage people—especially young people—to consider others’ needs that deeply, especially when (as above) this is virtually always a behind-closed-doors encounter without witnesses and therefore without the obvious judgement of others?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Well it sounds like you agree with me that there are huge issues with most casual sex that does occur, i.e. that you agree that the world is not clearly better when we “judge” casual sex less than we used to.

Interlocutor: Oh, well, I mean, all of the scenarios you mention are bad and obviously I think people should be more responsible and stuff, but you can’t punish everyone just because a few people do it badly!

Me: Ok, sure—I’m happy to accept that I’ve maybe made the wrong trade-off between respecting individual agency and avoiding bad consequences—but do you at least then agree that in your world it’s really important for us to have vocal and frequent conversations with our friends and family encouraging them to not engage in casual sex until they are sure they’re unlikely to do anything unethical?

Interlocutor: Oh, but I mean, it’s just a bit of fun! Why do you want me to be so serious about it?

I have variants of this conversation with respect to nuclear-family gender norms, norms discouraging drug taking, norms discouraging polyamory, etc. The counterarguments start with a nonchalant consequentialist argument from some idealised paradigmatic case, followed by a concession that the idealised case isn’t representative matched with a principled case against restricting the behaviours of well-behaved individuals, followed by a return to the earlier stance of nonchalance in spite of the earlier admission that there are often serious issues with the activity! Astounding!

There seem to be two basic truisms about most rules, be they law or norm:

  1. The rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like: we set the voting age at 18 even though some people are probably mature enough to vote by 16 and others still not by 40; it’s polite to cover your mouth and nose for sneezes even when they result from allergies and not from an infectious disease; and people will glare at you for taking your shoes off on a plane even if your feet happen not to smell at all. The question is not “does the rule restrict harmless activities” (it always does) but rather “can we make the rule more fine-grained with publicly available information?”. Everyone can claim their feet don’t smell bad (and therefore that the rule shouldn’t apply to them), but we generally don’t know if they’re lying until after they’d already taken their shoes off. A norm of “only people with smelly feet must keep their shoes on” relies on information that will not be available to anyone except the person the norm needs to restrict—hardly a neutral observer who is free from conflicts of interest!
  2. The only way around this problem of insufficient publicly available information is better people: if we trusted everyone to be honest about their foot odour, we would not need any norm against on-plane shoe removal. The law is not enacted for the righteous but for the sinful, after all.

On truism (1), I’m happy to accept that I might have made the wrong trade-off when I say “when we judge all casual sex really harshly, the reduction in ‘good’ casual sex is worth it because of the ‘bad’ casual sex we’ve avoided”. This is an especially easy claim for me to make seeing as I object to casual sex (and most drug use, polyamory, etc.) on religious and ethical grounds as well as these purely consequentialist ones, but I can fully appreciate that those who don’t share my specific religious and ethical convictions would find this trade-off overly puritanical. So maybe the necessary coarseness of rules really is a reason for us to minimise prohibition norms and the associated judging of prohibited activities. But if that’s really the case, then truism (2) should suddenly become far more important, especially since truism (1) also applies in reverse: the absence of a rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like, since it will allow things we didn’t intend or want when we relaxed the rule (e.g. relaxing airport security would certainly relieve us all of a substantial burden when boarding a plane, but it would also presumably make it easier for terrorism to occur).

Stated in other words, this means that prohibition norms must be replaced with “responsibility norms”—i.e. norms explicitly geared to encouraging responsible behaviour around the activity. If you want to avoid judging all casual sex, that means you have to judge specific instances of casual sex instead and have long, vocal conversations with your friends and family where you make sure they’re sufficiently responsible to engage with it sensibly. It means you have to be prepared to judge someone who has casual sex when they weren’t ready to or shouldn’t have in the same way you would judge someone who goes on a continuous 10-hour drive the day after getting their licence or who drives while very hungover and possibly still over the blood-alcohol limit. Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

And if it sounds too unpleasant to vocally and explicitly dissect whether friends and family are behaving unethically and why, then fine! Join me in the blanket-prohibition norm camp. I am in favour of blanket prohibition norms at least in part because I think puritanism comes more naturally to people than nuance: “did you have casual sex at all” is a far easier question to answer than “did you have casual sex while doing all the specific things you needed to do to make that a safe and mutually beneficial act”. But it’s clear that in either case we should never be comfortable with seeing these things as “just a bit of fun”, because we should never sit comfortably with conditions ripe for deliberately ambiguous consent, outright sexual assault, or transactionalised sex. You could argue (I wouldn’t, but you could) that the heightened likelihood of very bad sex must be tolerated in order to achieve other ends (e.g. not unduly restricting the behaviour of responsible, safe agents), but that is still not an argument for ignoring that heightened likelihood. The available options, on any of these questions, are “create puritanical prohibition norms to stamp the activity out as much as possible” or “have a bunch of really difficult conversations to reinforce the gravity of doing something wrong”. That’s all. There is no good world where these things shouldn’t be judged.

If I were to be really uncharitable in my reading of this, I would say that people hold the “just a bit of fun” view because they don’t think they would ever do anything wrong and they want to avoid having hard conversations with people (since these are always unpleasant). But I think that would be unfair, and inaccurate. I think the bigger problem is that all people’s paradigmatic image of these activities—be it casual sex, drug taking, polyamory, etc.—is monochromatic: the “live-and-let-live” camp pictures a night of harmless fun, and the conservative camp pictures an exploitative interaction with a high possibility of undesired pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abuse. People are perfectly capable of consciously understanding that their paradigmatic image of these activities is not, in fact, representative (or, at least, the “live-and-let-live” camp is capable of acknowledging this—I certainly know some conservatives who would insist that all casual sex is necessarily terrible), but that doesn’t change the fact that they keep using this paradigmatic image in any future considerations of the topic.

I’m not really sure how to get around this problem. Preliminary psychological work on this stuff[2] would indicate that people either see things as high-risk low-benefit or low-risk high-benefit (i.e. they struggle to imagine that a given activity might be both potentially very beneficial and potentially very risky, so their paradigmatic images will always be clearly net-positive or clearly net-negative). That being said, we (as in Australia) seem to have achieved the right balance on at least some things, such as driving: driving is a clear benefit for the driver (no taxi fare, quicker than public transport, etc.), but we as individuals tend to get very judgemental very quickly when someone tries to drive in an unsafe way (e.g. driving while tired, drink-driving, driving needlessly recklessly), so it’s clearly possible to have selective judgementalism on performance of a given risky activity, at least in theory. I’m just not sure exactly how we would ever achieve this for casual sex or drug taking.


[1] Some clarifications on my use of the word “judge”: I do not mean “judge” in the sense of “look down from on high and say ‘I, as someone holier than you, have deemed your behaviour to be unsatisfactory’”. What I mean is: “You know that your actions violate well-established social norms and/or you know that these actions violate your conscience. I beg better behaviour of you, not by my standards but by yours, and not as a superior, but as one infinitely more wretched and fallen than you”. In other words, people should “judge” in the sense that Alyosha or Zozima from The Brothers Karamazov “judges”—not from on high, but from the assumption that they are the “most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world” (p.298, Everyman’s edition). Since this isn’t really concordant with the sense of superiority inherent to the word “judge”, maybe a better word would be “admonish” or “exhort”, since neither of those have the inherent connotation of superiority. But, 95% of the people I have this conversation with don’t know the words “admonish” or “exhort”, so I’m sticking with “judge” in this post.

[2] Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(1), 1–17. <a href=”https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1<1::AID-BDM333>3.0.CO;2-S