Tim DeRoche

Finished a first draft of the new book yesterday!

This one isn’t quite as whimsical as Huck & Miguel. But I have been utterly fascinated by this subject over the last two years, and I think you will be surprised by some of the things we’ve uncovered. Public education is governed, in large part, by a set of little-known laws that dictate who’s eligible to go where. Look for this book in early 2020. Credit to Daniel Gonzalez, of course, for the incredible cover.

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Religious not spiritual?

Pew Research reports that there’s been a 40% increase — just from 2012 to 2017 — in the portion of Americans who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The percentage of people who label themselves as religious has dropped in just five years from 65% to 54%. The trend isn’t surprising, but the speed is extraordinary. If this rate were to continue (which it won’t), then there wouldn’t be any religious people left by 2042.

But I’m also looking at the bottom category of “religious but not spiritual.” Just 6% of Americans put themselves in that bucket. And it’s flat from 2012 to 2017. What does that look like in real life?

And — while we’re at it — what does it even mean to call yourself “spiritual”? How does that help you live your life to the fullest? Does it allow you to connect more strongly with other people?

It’s easy to see the flaws in organized religion, but I wonder about what we might be giving up by emphasizing spirituality divorced from religion. I suspect some of the “religious but not spiritual” folks may be getting the better end of the bargain.

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The most interesting idea you’ve never heard of

On this Easter Monday, I’m reflecting on the most interesting new idea that I encountered in the last year (new to me, not new to the world). This is Rene Girard’s interpretation of the Christian crucifixion myth. I’m using “myth” to mean a story that tells us about who we are and how to interact with the world. I believe Girard is a practicing Catholic, but his theory should be no less interesting to the non-believer.

What I love about this idea is that it cuts across many different disciplines and levels of analysis — from psychology and anthropology to theology, politics, and comparative geopolitical history.

I’m astounded that I never heard of this extremely important idea until this past year. It seems monumentally important, if true. And — even if not true — still extraordinarily interesting and provocative.

Have I built it up enough?

I’m going to restate the idea in my own words without consulting any outside reference, so this account will include all the ways that I’ve been processing this Big Idea over the last few months:

  1. Life is hard. Even in the best case, every person suffers horribly.
  2. Trying to explain the suffering, we can’t help but look outside ourselves. We blame others.
  3. We are social animals, and the mob tends to concentrate this blame into a scapegoating of one person or group of people.
  4. Left unchecked, the scapegoating builds to a crescendo, and the mob kills the scapegoat. Or one representative of the scapegoated group.
  5. This problem — the potential killing of the scapegoat — is common to all human societies.
  6. The Christian crucifixion story centers on one archetypal instance of this type of scapegoating leading to mob murder.
  7. The government is completely powerless in the face of this type of mob. Government power (as represented by Pontius Pilate in the story) is corrupted or co-opted by the bloodlust of the mob.
  8. The essential plot twist in the story is that the mob got it wrong this time. This person we killed wasn’t the scapegoat. He wasn’t just innocent. He was divine. We killed God.
  9. But it was all for naught because God is immortal. Thus Jesus is resurrected.
  10. This myth-with-a-plot-twist has tremendous social utility. It bolsters the social compact that is necessary for a modern society to flourish, because…
  11. First, it puts the brakes on the mob’s rush to judgment.
  12. Second, for those who are scapegoated, it gives them the strength to carry on and — perhaps — the forbearance necessary not to retaliate.
  13. Also, in this idea is the seed of democracy, since it recognizes the sovereignty of the individual (who may indeed be divine).
  14. And modern Western democracies — as displayed so brilliantly in our own Constitution — balance the competing goals of (1) popular rule, and (2) protection of those not in the majority.
  15. By providing a social structure that constrains this universal human phenomenon of murderous scapegoating, the Christian crucifixion myth sets the stage for Western democracies to be (relatively) stable and peaceful.
  16. And that stability and peace allows for the emergence of the modern world.

I’m pretty persuaded by #1-12. It’s transformed the way I think about religion and human nature and the purpose of myth. The second part — #13-16 — is intriguing but I’m less sure.

Of course, there are lots of examples of Christians engaging in scapegoating, sometimes even murderous. So the prophylactic effect isn’t 100% reliable. But even a small improvement could be important.

UPDATE: HT Rod Dreher (and indirectly, Peter Thiel) for turning me on to Girard.

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“I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now”

On EconTalk, Harvard historian Jill Lepore says something that I’ve been thinking — that we are overdue for a religious revival. Russ Roberts asks her about the revival of nationalism and nationalism’s attraction as a “feeling of tribal belonging.” Here is her response:

I think it has a lot in common with religious revivals… I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now, because religious revivals tend to happen in the aftermath of a very significant… sea-change in the body of knowledge… or received notions of how we understand the natural world. So, I think… the accelerating, the sort of knowledge-vault metaphor of the Internet and the kind of revolution of machine learning and artificial intelligence and all the anxiety about a world of knowing that most people don’t understand, at all, is just the kind of thing to set off a religious revival. 

Two other factors: (1) massive economic changes that have left some people behind and added a level of anxiety to modern life even for those who’ve benefited, and (2) the weakening of traditional social relationships due to social media.

I know a lot of very lonely people. And I know a lot of people who have very little economic security. And often the two go together.

The Left seems to be settling on “Antiracism” and an aggressive progressivism as the new “religion.” (See John McWhorter’s brilliant essay at the Daily Beast from 2015.) But I suspect that

I think it’s more likely that we’ll see a religious revival centered around some form of Christianity. Will it be some sort of hyperlocal form of orthodox Christianity as proposed by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option? Will it be something that comes out of the Emerging Church movement, perhaps a form that borrows elements of progressive political ideology? Will there be a new wave of televangelism empowered by Youtube and social media?

Or maybe it’s already started…

Is the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon a type of religious revival?

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“People who would like to do the right thing, but who just can’t get it up.”

I think what most people seem to be tired of are the sort of lint-headed, wooly-minded – what a lot of people call do-gooders – people who would like to do the right thing, but who just can’t get it up. That kind of candidate is going out of style.

That’s Hunter S. Thompson, describing the failure of George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon. Almost 50 years ago. And yet…

Jimmy Carter in 76
Mondale in 84
HW in 88 and 92
Al Gore in 2000
John Kerry in 2004
Mitt Romney in 2012
HRC in 2016

Ronald Reagan got it up. Bill Clinton, um, got it up. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both seem like do-gooders on the surface. But both of them got it up – Barack Obama with personal grace and high-minded rhetoric, GWB with big-hearted, frat-boy back-slapping.

Maybe Dr. Thompson was right, but it took us a while to catch up. A mojo-less candidate hasn’t won a presidential election since HW in 1988, though a couple have won the popular vote (Gore, HRC). And Trump defeated a slew of milquetoast do-gooders in 2016 – Jeb, Marco, Kasich, HRC.

I’m reading HST’s classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. This is the Bible of American political journalism, and it seems that most modern political journalists – while not actively trying to emulate Dr. Thompson – imagine that they would write something similar if they weren’t constrained by timid editors, corporate travel budgets, and other annoying market forces.

This is the first book by Dr. Thompson that I’ve ever read. And it’s quite something. I do fear that someone trying to imitate him might miss the pieces that make the book so special. You might be able to mimic the careening style… or the naïve idealism masked with cynicism… or the admission of bias… or the star-fucking . But are you also willing to be brutally honest? Do you love other people — not just the stars, but the stars too — as much as Dr. Thompson does?

And once someone has done this particular thing, do we need anyone else to do it again?

Two weeks ago, I knew very little about the 1972 election other than that McGovern was a pretty liberal dude who lost to Nixon. And now I’m convinced that American politics is still churning on the same wheel it’s been on since the 1960’s. And 2020 is likely to be a rerun of 1972. I put the over/under on Trump’s margin of victory at 23 points.

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Thoughts on the Placebo Effect

Responding to the latest episode of Russ Roberts’ Econtalk.

Tweet thread starting here:

THREAD. @econtalker Lots of thoughts on this week’s episode on the Placebo Effect and the interview with Gary Greenberg. First, why would something like the Placebo Effect evolve in the human species? 1/12— Tim DeRoche (@timderoche) February 5, 2019

If your body has the ability to heal itself, why would it hold that power in reserve… until a particular type of social interaction triggers the healing response. 2/12

And it is indeed a *social* phenomenon. The patient interacts with another person in a particular way, and then suddenly an ailment begins to wane. As Greenberg says, “The ritual is very very important to the outcome.” 3/12

In the evolutionary environment, they didn’t have hospitals or doctors or trial-tested drugs. So the most likely “ritual” would have occurred between an ailing person and a relative or a shaman of some sort. 4/12

Most of the remedies would likely have been completely bogus or weak, especially relative to current remedies. What would have been the value of the Placebo Effect in that environment? Is it a variation of the Hawthorne Effect? 5/12

We have to assume that good doctors – consciously or unconsciously – make use of the Placebo Effect all the time. 6/12

Do MDs get any training in how to use the Placebo Effect to improve their patients’ health and quality of life? My guess is no, but I’d be pleased to learn otherwise. 7/12

If there was training, you’d want the MDs to understand: (1) In what domains is the Placebo Effect most effective?, (2) What are the ritualistic triggers that enhance the effect?, and (3) In what cases would use of a Placebo put the patient’s health at significant risk? 8/12

If you wanted to cut health care costs (anyone?), wouldn’t greater use of the Placebo Effect be a *huge* tool in the toolbox? Sugar pills barely cost anything. And don’t have any side effects. 9/12

What if – at the bottom of every standard form in the doctor’s office – there was an opt-out box you could check, “I do not grant my doctors permission to administer placebo treatments in order to enhance my health.” 10/12

Assuming that most people would not check the box, doctors would then have the right to administer placebos to most patients, especially in domains where the Placebo Effect is powerful and the risk to the patient is low. 11/12

You’d avoid a lot of unnecessary interventions and empower the patients to heal themselves. (Again, training the MDs would be absolutely critical.) 12/12

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Something Wild – just as much a “hero’s journey” as Star Wars

Thank God I missed this movie when it came out!

I say thanks, because it was such a pleasure to see a classic movie from my adolescence, but as a grown man.  It was a time machine for me, but — instead of reminding me of the first time I saw it — it reminded me of who I was when it was made.

Like True Romance and Risky Business, this is a movie about a lonely, mild-mannered man who — led by a woman — escapes his humdrum existence and taps into power he didn’t know he had — his wits, his sexuality, his capacity for violence.  Like a mythic hero out of Joseph Campbell, he emerges from his journey ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

Yes, these movies are myths. Wonderful, subversive myths.

Also, it’s another American story about two misfits on the run.  Somebody should write a dissertation comparing the journey of Charlie and Lulu to that of Huck and Jim.

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