Keep slaughter in your heart. A life without it is like a sunlit garden where the flowers are blooming.

– From The Epigrams of Warboss Wilde, Alvin Redmane

The party were four in number:

  • Aurak the Unborn, Lawful Evil Half-orc monk
  • Nemeia, Chaotic Good Tiefling Witch
  • Kaylee Sparklegem, Chaotic Neutral forest gnome rogue (NPC)
  • Ufgram Ironfist, Neutral Good Dwarven cleric of life (NPC)

The four served Mistress Servaine, a retired adventurer who runs a stable of mercenaries based near Baldur’s Gate. She had been asked by an old friend, Shirlwan Hukrien, to send a team of adventurers to her home to find her son and daughter, who had gone missing some two weeks ago while exploring an old ruin known as the Sunless Citadel. The party had been chosen for this mission, which was not seen as a particularly challenging one, as an introduction to their service for Mistress Servaine.

They set off immediately, trekking the two days to nearby Oakhurst, where the Hukrien family lived. Here they introduced themselves to Shirlwan Hukrien, and discovered that though she was once a powerful wizard, recently her powers had begun to wane and she was not herself able to use them to locate her children. This strange weakness was not her unique cross to bear, she revealed, but had been noticed by other powerful wizards in the land of Faerun. Shrugging off Aurak’s suggestion that they immediately take advantage of this strange circumstance by raiding the tower of the Red Wizards of Thay, the PCs asked Shirlwan for the loan of some horses, and set off to the Sunless Citadel.

The Citadel is an old tower that had fallen into a ravine during some ancient cataclysm. The locals said variously that the ravine had swallowed the tower whole as a punishment from the gods for the evil dragon cult that occupied it, or that its collapse had been the result of a horrible magical experiment gone wrong, or that the earth is made of great plates of stone that sometimes move like scales on the back of a sleeping dragon, and in their clashing lay to ruins even the greatest achievements of mortals; in truth no one knew the real reason, but all avoided the tower and its environs. The tower was perhaps five days’ travel on foot, the far side of the Plains of Ash, and easily visible from afar because one ruined tower of the fallen citadel still stood lonely watch on the plain overlooking the cursed ravine.

They found it easily, but their approach to the shattered tower was interrupted by a strange ambush. The land leading up to the tower was rough terrain of scattered bushes and small stunted trees, all dusted with a fine silver-grey layer of dust from the nearby Plains. In the distance, a little removed from the lonely tower, they could see the occasional smoke towers from remote farms, which hereabouts primarily grew apples and some wild fruits that need much sunlight and open space to thrive. Passing through an abandoned and overgrown orchard from one of these farms, the group were attacked by a strange group of four humanoid things, composed of dried up vegetation, tangled vines and tree limbs, all bound together in some hideous mockery of humanity and animated by some vicious spark of magic. The things lurched out of the overgrowth towards the PCs, who, ever on their guard, leapt to the attack. Aurak the Unborn let fly a boomerang, which missed it tendriled target and returned true to his grey-skinned grip; Kaylee fired an arrow into one with no seeming effect on its relentless advance; and Nemeia and Ulfgram the cleric surged forward to melee, where the strange creatures of vine and stick attempted to claw them from their horses with hardened hands of stick and thorn. The beasts, though disturbing in countenance, proved little match for the four, and were soon vanquished. A brief search of their broken remains revealed nothing of interest or use.

“There is,” Aurak the Unborn observed, quoting his icon Warboss Wilde, “only one thing worse than being attacked; and that is not being attacked.” With these wise words, they moved on.

A short ride took them to the tower, empty and broken, where it overlooked the ravine. Here they found a rope knotted tightly to a rock, and dangling down to a ledge and a set of stairs that began some 20′ below. Taking this as sure sign that they were on the trail of their targets, the party were discussing how best to descend when they were attacked from behind by a trio of giant rats. Their logistical discussion briefly disturbed, they slaughtered the rats contemptuously, and descended the rope. Nemeia fell halfway, but they were only descending 20′ and she landed in a lucky position, taking little damage. From the first ledge they found functioning stairs, and descended smoothly to the ravine floor.

At the base of the ravine they found the uppermost level of the citadel itself. It truly had sunken into the valley floor, and much of it was ruined, but the top of the largest central donjon rose above the ravine floor, a single door offering entry into the tower. To their north and south the broken ground swallowed up the outhouses of the tower, but here in the centre the building looked relatively solid and safe, so they pushed open the door.

From inside more giant rats emerged to attack them, but they beat them down with ease and pushed their way inside, finding a large room with doors to the north and southwest. Four goblins had been killed in here, with one still pinned to the far wall by the spear that had killed it. They guessed that the adventurers they sought had passed successfully through here, and though they thought there was little chance of finding anything valuable, searched the stinking, grimacing corpses anyway. They found nothing, but during the search Aurak the Unborn found a secret door in the south wall. After a moment of preparation, they bid him open it.

Pushing the lever that opened the door, Aurak barely avoided a poisoned needle that nearly stuck his hand. The door slid open, revealing a small room with arrow slits that would once have overlooked the inner courtyard of the citadel, before the scales of the earth had ground together and dragged it down into hell. Four skeletons, of archers who must have once defended this room, lay in an untidy pile in the corner. As the party entered to search them these bodies twitched and rose up, drawing rusty shortswords and preparing to attack. Battle was joined, with Aurak and Kaylee fighting in melee while Ironfist and Nemeia conjured eery ghostly fists to strike at the undead from outside the room. Again they prevailed, taking only minor damage, and soon the bones were quiescent again. They found nothing especially valuable here, so they moved onward, through the door in the northern face of the main room.

Warboss Wilde says “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”

Here they found a corridor, wide enough for them to pass along two abreast, down which they walked cautiously. When they were near the end they found a door on the left-hand side of the tunnel, which they opened and entered. Here was a small 10’x10′ room, with a strange keg-like structure in one corner. Two rusted iron pipes protruded from the keg and curved around into the floor, to what purpose none of them could guess. With some effort they hauled open the top of the keg, and immediately two nasty little demon creatures sprang out of the keg and attacked them – mephits! A steam mephit and an ice mephit, part of some infernal machinery that must once have warmed the castle or powered some ingenious torture device. This fight was harder than the last, and they struggled to hit and subdue the vicious little elemental spirits. When the steam mephit died it let loose a hideous cry of rage and explosion of steam that burnt them all, leaving them stunned and hurt. Ironfist cast a healing spell on Aurak, they shut the door and rested for a half dozen hours, and then they proceeded along the corridor to the door at the end.

The door opened into a much larger square chamber, that held a huge burnt-out firepit and a large steel cage, its bars smashed and burst open on the side facing them. Doors led out of the room at several points, and from a huddle of rags on the far side of a large stone table they could hear snuffling and whimpering. Once they had assured themselves the room contained no threats Nemeia marched over to the bundle of filthy rags and tore it aside, revealing a forlorn and sniveling kobold, its little draconic nose wrinkled in that expression of conniving self-pity that is characteristic of the lowest of the evil humanoids. Aurak raised his axe to end the piteous thing, but Nemeia gestured for him to hold. She hauled the little wretch up, not ungently, and began speaking to it in Draconic, its native language.

Tieflings. Never trust them.

After a short conversation she revealed that the kobold was one of a tribe living in the citadel, that its name was Mebo, and that it had been charged with looking after a white dragon wyrmling[1], that had been trapped in the cage behind them. Some goblins who shared the citadel with the kobold tribe had raided the room and stolen the dragon, and the kobold tribe held Mebo responsible. He was not allowed back on pain of death, unless he was bringing the dragon with him. Nemeia had asked Mebo about the adventurers they were tracking, and he said he knew nothing of any adventurers, so it was Nemeia’s guess that the adventurers had been captured by the goblins, or were in some desperate situation in the area where the goblins lived. She suggested that Mebo could take them to the kobold chieftain, and they could negotiate with the chieftain for a reward in exchange for returning the dragon. This would mean that they could pass unmolested through to the goblin area, with Mebo as a guide, and make haste to the adventurers they sought.

The rest of the party agreed with Mebo’s plan, and he took them down some corridors into a long room lined with ancient, crumbling statues. They passed through the statues into an area thronged with kobolds and reeking of their strange metallic, earthy smell, where they found the kobold chieftain. She wore a mouldering wizards cloak, cut down to size, and lounged on a throne of wood and rotting upholstery that must have been here when the castle was hurled down here by the gods. Behind her stood a platform adorned with various pointless and stupid kobold trinkets – a lizard brain, a rusted dagger, the usual kind of tawdry junk these strange fallen dragon-dogs value – but in amongst it sat a large and impressive bronze key on a special hook. That key obviously opened a treasure room somewhere in this patchwork of collapsed masonry.

They negotiated. The chieftain agreed with their suggestion, and offered them a paltry reward in exchange for returning the dragon. She agreed to let them take Mebo with them as a guide. When pushed about the key, she shrugged, and refused to give it to them because it looked pretty as an ornament behind her throne. They pushed her, and she agreed to loan it to them if they could return the dragon. A loan was all they need. They bowed appropriately, took their leave, and dragged Mebo away towards a door out of the throne room.

To the goblins, and glory!

 


fn1: an annoying recent trend in D&D modules is that they put in baby dragons for 1st level characters to kill, so we can feel like we’ve fought a dragon, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it’s not a real dragon and I want those things kept for when I can really earn the feeling of success that killing a dragon brings with it.

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We’ve all been there: Your PC is up against a much weaker opponent, deploying your primary power or skill, but in the crucial moment the d20 roll comes up low for you or high for the opponent, and you once again find that your best power failed you when you were sure it would work. This happens all the time in D&D because the d20 has a flat distribution and that means that low rolls are just as likely as high ones. Although this means on average you might expect your best power to work, unless you are absolutely obliterating your opponent you can’t rely on the dice to turn up even in the ballpark of where you need them to be. This is also a problem in Cyberpunk (d10) and Warhammer 2nd Edition (d100). I have always found it really frustrating, because if use a peaked distribution we can be fairly confident that the dice will roll around about the middle of their distribution more often than the edge. I have complained about this many times, but I have never bothered to see how big a difference a peaked distribution would make to the flow of the game. So here I compare the easiest peaked distribution, 2d10, with 1d20 as a basic die structure for D&D. I have chosen 2d10 because the average roll is about the same as 1d20, and its most likely value is close to the basic DC values of D&D, which are abut 9-11.

Method

For this analysis I have conducted three basic calculations, on the assumption that a PC (the “attacker”) is in a challenged skill check with another PC or enemy (the “defender”):

  1. Comparing the probability of success for the attacker for every die roll on a 1d20 and a 2d10 basic roll
  2. Estimating the total probability of success for the attacker across a wide range of possible skill bonuses, and comparing these probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10
  3. Comparing the probability of success for a highly skilled attacker against a low-skilled attacker, across a wide range of defensive bonuses

For objective 1 I have performed the calculations for attackers with skill values of +0, +4 or +8, against a defender with a bonus of +4 or +0. The specific pairings are shown in the figures below. I chose +4 because it is the basic bonus you can expect for a 1st level character using their proficiency bonus and their best attribute, and +8 as a representative high bonus. For objective 2 I have calculated total probability of success for attackers with bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, against defenders with skill bonus of +0, +4 or +6. I chose +6 because this is the typical bonus you expect of a 5th level character who is working with their proficiency and has sunk their attribute bonus into their top attribute. For objective 3 I have compared a PC with a +6 bonus to a PC with a +0 bonus, for defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10.

Probabilities of success for any particular die roll are easily calculated because the distributions of 1d20 and 2d10 are quite simple. Total probability of success is calculated using the law of total probability as follows:

P(success)=P(rolls a 1)*P(defender doesn’t beat 1)+P(rolls a 2)*P(defender doesn’t beat 2) +…

I have presented all results as graphs, but may refer to specific numbers where they matter. All figures can be expanded by clicking on them. Analyses were conducted in R, which is why some axis titles aren’t fully readable – you can make them bigger but then they fall off the edge of the graphics window. Stupid R!

Results

Figures 1-3 show the probability of success for every point on the die (from 2 to 20) for 1d20 vs. 2d10. In all figures the 2d10 is in red and the 1d20 in grey, and a grey vertical line has been placed where the probabilities of success are equal for the two die types.

Figure 1 shows that the 1d20 has a better chance of success for all die rolls between 2 and 15. That is, if you have a bonus of +0 and the defender has a bonus of +4, you are better off in a 1d20 system for almost all rolls. The point where the probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10 are equal is a die roll of 16. This corresponds with the defender needing a 12+, and all die rolls after this (17-20) correspond with the defender needing to get a high number on the downward peak of the 2d10 distribution. It may seem counter-intuitive that the 1d20 system rewards you for rolling low, but it is worth remembering that the comparatively low rolls – below 10 – are less likely on a 2d10, so although if you do roll one you are less likely to succeed than if you had a 1d20 system, you are also less likely to roll one. We will see how this pans out when we consider total probability of success, below.

Figure 1: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

Figure 2 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +4 and a defender with +0. In this case we expect the attacker to win on a wider range of dice rolls, and this is exactly what we observe. Now the point where 2d10 is better for the attacker than 1d20 corresponds with dice rolls of 8 or more – in this case, dice rolls that the defender needs to get 12 or more to beat. We see the same process in action.

Figure 2: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +4 bonus and defender +0

Figure 3 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +8 and a defender with +0. Now we see that the 2d10 is more beneficial to the attacker than the 1d20 from rolls of 4 and above – again, the point beyond which the defender needs to roll 12 or more.

Figure 3: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

These results are summarized for two cases in Figure 4, which gives the odds ratio for success with a 1d20 compared to 2d10 at each die roll. The odds ratio is the odds of success with a 1d20 divided by the odds of success with a 2d10, calculated at the given dice roll point. I use the odds ratio because it is the correct numerical method for comparing two probabilities, and reflects the special upper (1) and lower (0) bounds on probabilities. The odds ratio grows rapidly as a probability heads towards 0 or 1, and reflects the fact that a 10% difference in probability is a much more meaningful difference when one probability is 10% than when one probability is 50%.

 

Odds Ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10, for two attacking cases

In this case I have shown only the case of an offense of +4 and a defense of +0, and an offense of +8 vs. a defense of +0. I used only these two cases because the case of +0 vs. +4 has such huge odds ratios that it is not possible to see the detail of the other two cases. This figure shows that for an offense of +4 and a defense of 0, the 1d20 has 2-3 times the odds of success at low numbers, but also much lower odds of success at high numbers. Effectively the 2d10 smooths out the probability patterns across the die roll, so that you get less chance of success if you roll poorly, and more chance of success if you roll well, compared to a 1d20.

Figures 5 to 7 show the total probability of success for 1d20 and 2d10 in three different cases. The total probability of success is the probability that you will beat your opponent when you roll the die. This is the probability you roll a 2 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, plus the probability you roll a 3 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, up to the probability you roll a 20. I have calculated this for a range of attack bonuses from -2 to +10, against three defense scenarios: 0, +4 and +6.

Figure 5 shows the total probability for 1d20 and 2d10 when rolled against a defense bonus of 0. Probabilities of success for both 2d10 and 1d20 are quite high, crossing 50% at about an attacking bonus of +0 as we would expect. The 2d10 roll has a lower probability of success than 1d20 for bonuses below 0, and a higher probability of successes for bonuses above 0.

Figure 5: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +0

Figure 6 shows the total probability of success for 2d10 and 1d20 against a defense bonus of +4. The ability of the 2d10 system to distinguish between people weaker than the defender and stronger than the defender is clearer here. At an attack bonus of -2 (vs. defense of +4) the 2d10 system has about a 10% lower chance of success than the 1d20; conversely, at attack bonus of +10 (vs. defense of +4) it has about a 10% higher probability of success. Both systems have an approximately 50% chance of success at a bonus of +4, as we expect.

Figure 6: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +4

Figure 7 shows the total probabilities against a defense bonus of +6. Again we see that the 2d10 system slightly punishes people with a lower bonus than the defender, and slightly rewards people with a higher bonus.

Figure 7: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +6

These results are summarized as odds ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 in Figure 8. Here the odds ratios are charted for the full range of attacker bonuses, with a separate curve for defense bonus of +0, +4 or +6. Here an odds ratio over 1 indicates that the 1d20 roll has a better chance of success than the 2d10, while an odds ratio below 1 indicates the 2d10 roll has a better chance of success. From this chart you can see that for all offense bonuses lower than the defense bonus, the 1d20 system gives a higher probability of success than the 2d10 system. As the defense bonus increases this relative benefit grows larger.

Figure 8: Odds Ratio of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 across a wide range of offense bonuses, for three defense bonuses

 

The odds ratio curves in Figure 8 raise an interesting final point about the 2d10 system vs. the 1d20 system. Since the 1d20 system has higher probabilities of success at low offense bonuses, and relatively lower probabilities of success at higher offense bonuses, it should be the case that the difference in success probability between a skilled PC and an unskilled PC will be smaller for the 1d20 system than for the 2d10. That is, if your PC has a bonus of 6 and is attempting to do something, he or she will have a higher chance of success than a person with a bonus of 0, but the relative difference in success probability will not be so great; this difference will be more pronounced for someone using 2d10. To put concrete numbers on this, in the 1d20 system a PC with a +6 bonus trying to beat a defense of +2 has a 65% chance of success, while a PC with a +0 bonus has a 39% chance of success. In contrast, using 2d10 the PC with the +6 bonus has a 72% chance of success, while the PC with the +0 bonus has a 34% chance of success. These greater relative differences are important because they encourage party diversification – if people with large bonuses have commensurately better chances of success than people with small bonuses, then there is a good reason for having distinct roles in the party, and less risk that e.g. even though someone has specialized in stealth, the chances that the non-stealthy people can pull off the same moves will be high enough that the stealth PC does not stand out.

This effect is shown in Figure 9, where I plot the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus compared to +0 bonus, against defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, for both dice systems. It shows that across all defense bonuses the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus is about 3 times that for a person with +0 bonus when we roll 1d20. In contrast, with 2d10 this odds ratio is closer to 6, and appears to grow larger as the defense bonus increases. That is, as the targeted task becomes increasingly difficult, the 2d10 system rewards people who are specialized in that task compared to those who are not; and at all difficulties, the difference in success chance for the specialist is greater than for the non-specialist, compared to the 1d20 system.

Figure 9: Odds ratio of success for bonus of +6 vs. +0, in both dice systems, against a wide range of defense bonuses

 

Conclusion

Rolling 2d10 for skill checks and attacks in D&D 5th Edition makes very little overall difference to the probability distribution of outcomes, but it does slightly change the distribution in three key ways:

  • It increases the chance that a high dice roll will lead to success, and reduces the chance of success on a low dice roll;
  • It lowers the probability of success for PCs targeting enemies with higher bonuses than they have, and raises the probability of success for PCs with higher bonuses;
  • It increases the gap in success chance between specialist and non-specialist PCs, rewarding diversification of skills and character choices

The 2d10 system does not change the point at which the PC has a 50% chance of success, but it does reduce the probability of criticals. It is worth noting that with a 2d10 system, the process for advantage requires rolling 4d10 and picking the best 2 (rolling 3d10 and picking the best 2 actually reduces the probability of a critical hit). Some might find this annoying, though those of us who enjoy dice pool games will be happy to be rolling 4d10. For those who find it annoying, dropping advantage altogether and replacing it with +3 will likely give the same results (see e.g. here and here). But if you like rolling lots of dice 4d10 choose 2 sounds more fun than 2d20 choose 1.

I don’t think that switching to 2d10 will massively change the way the game runs or really hugely unbalance anything but it will ensure that when you roll high you can have high confidence of success against someone of about your own power; and it will ensure that if you are the person in the party who is good at a task (like picking locks, sneaking, or influencing people) you will be consistently much more likely to do it than the rest of your group, which is nice because it makes your shine really shine. So I recommend switching to 2d10 for all task resolution in D&D.

A final note on DCs

The basic DC for a spell or special power used by a PC in D&D 5e is 8+proficiency level+attribute. This means that against someone with proficiency in the given save and the same attribute bonus as you, they have a 60% chance of avoiding your power. I think that’s very poor design – it should be 10+proficiency+attribute, so that against someone with your own power level you have a 50% chance of success, not 40%. It could be argued that 40% is reasonable since people often take half damage on a save and the full effect of a spell is quite serious, but given wizards have few spells (and most other powers are restricted in use), this doesn’t seem reasonable. So I would consider adding 2 to all save DCs in the game, regardless of whether you switch to 2d10 or stay on 1d20.

 

The journal Molecular Autism this week published an article about the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazis in world war 2 Vienna, Austria. Hans Asperger is the paediatric pscyhiatrist on whose work Asperger’s syndrome is based, and after whom the syndrome is known. Until recently Asperger was believed to have been an anti-Nazi, someone who resisted the Nazis and risked his own career to protect some of his developmentally delayed patients from the Nazi “euthanasia” program, which killed or sterilized people with certain developmental disabilities for eugenics reasons.

The article, entitled Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, is a thorough, well-researched and extensively documented piece of work, which I think is based on several years of detailed examination of primary sources, often in their original German. It uses these sources – often previously untouched – to explore and rebut several claims Asperger made about himself, and also to examine the nature of his diagnostic work during the Nazi era to see whether he was resisting or aiding the Nazis in their racial hygiene goals. In this post I want to talk a little about the background of the paper, and ask a few questions about the implications of these findings for our understanding of autism, and also for our practice as public health workers in the modern era. I want to make clear that I do not know much if anything about Asperger’s syndrome or autism, so my questions are questions, not statements of opinion disguised as questions.

What was known about Asperger

Most of Asperger’s history under the Nazis was not known in the English language press, and when his name was attached to the condition of Asperger’s syndrome he was presented as a valiant defender of his patients against Nazi racial hygiene, and as a conscientious objector to Nazi ideology. This view of his life was based on some speeches and written articles translated into English during the post war years, in particular a 1974 interview in which he claims to have defended his patients and had to be saved from being arrested by the Gestapo twice by his boss, Dr. Hamburger. Although some German language publications were more critical, in general Asperger’s statements about his own life’s work were taken at face value, and seminal works in 1981 and 1991 that introduced him to the medical fraternity did not include any particular reference to his activities in the Nazi era.

What Asperger actually did

Investigation of the original documents shows a different picture, however. Before Anschluss (the German occupation of Austria in 1938), Asperger was a member of several far right Catholic political organizations that were known to be anti-semitic and anti-democratic. After Anschluss he joined several Nazi organizations affiliated with the Nazi party. His boss at the clinic where he worked was Dr. Hamburger, who he claimed saved him twice from the Gestapo. In fact Hamburger was an avowed neo-nazi, probably an entryist to these Catholic social movements during the period when Nazism was outlawed in Vienna, and a virulent anti-semite. He drove Jews out of the clinic even before Anschluss, and after 1938 all Jews were purged from the clinic, leaving openings that enabled Asperger to get promoted. It is almost impossible given the power structures at the time that Asperger could have been promoted if he disagreed strongly with Hamburger’s politics, but we have more than circumstantial evidence that they agreed: the author of the article, Herwig Czech, uncovered the annual political reports submitted concerning Asperger by the Gestapo, and they consistently agreed that he was either neutral or positive towards Nazism. Over time these reports became more positive and confident. Also during the war era Asperger gained new roles in organizations outside his clinic, taking on greater responsibility for public health in Vienna, which would have been impossible if he were politically suspect, and his 1944 PhD thesis was approved by the Nazis.

A review of Asperger’s notes also finds that he did send at least some of his patients to the “euthanasia” program, and in at least one case records a conversation with a parent in which the child’s fate is pretty much accepted by both of them. The head of the institution that did the “euthanasia” killings was a former colleague of Asperger’s, and the author presents pretty damning evidence that Asperger must have known what would happen to the children he referred to the clinic. It is clear from his speeches and writings in the Nazi era that Asperger was not a rabid killer of children with developmental disabilities: he believed in rehabilitating children and finding ways to make them productive members of society, only sending the most “ineducable” children to institutional care and not always to the institution that killed them. But it is also clear that he accepted the importance of “euthanasia” in some instances. In one particularly compelling situation, he was put in charge – along with a group of his peers – of deciding the fate of some 200 “ineducable” children in an institution for the severely mentally disabled, and 35 of those ended up being murdered. It seems unlikely that he did not participate in this process.

The author also notes that in some cases Asperger’s prognoses for some children were more severe than those of the doctors at the institute that ran the “euthanasia” program, suggesting that he wasn’t just a fairweather friend of these racial hygiene ideals, and the author also makes the point that because Asperger remained in charge of the clinic in the post-war years he was in a very good position to sanitize his case notes of any connection with Nazis and especially with the murder of Jews. Certainly, the author does not credit Asperger’s claims that he was saved from the Gestapo by Hamburger, and suggests that these are straight-up fabrications intended to sanitize Asperger’s role in the wartime public health field.

Was Asperger’s treatment and research ethical in any way?

Reading the article, one question that occurred to me immediately was whether any of his treatments could be ethical, given the context, and also whether his research could possibly have been unbiased. The “euthanasia” program was actually well known in Austria at the time – so well known in fact that at one point allied bombers dropped leaflets about it on the town, and there were demonstrations against it at public buildings. So put yourself in the shoes of a parent of a child with a developmental disability, bringing your child to the clinic for an assessment. You know that if your child gets an unfavourable assessment there is a good chance that he or she will be sterilized or taken away and murdered. Asperger offers you a treatment that may rehabilitate the child. Obviously, with the threat of “euthanasia” hanging over your child, you will say yes to this treatment. But in modern medicine there is no way that we could consider that to be willing consent. The parent might actually not care about “rehabilitating” their child, and is perfectly happy for the child to grow up and be loved within the bounds of what their developmental disability allows them; it may be that rehabilitation is difficult and challenging for the child, and not in the child’s best emotional interests. But faced with that threat of a racial hygiene-based intervention, as a parent you have to say yes. Which means that in a great many cases I suspect that Asperger’s treatments were not ethical from any post-war perspective.

In addition, I also suspect that the research he conducted for his 1944 PhD thesis, in addition to being unethical, was highly biased, because the parents of these children were lying through their teeth to him. Again, consider yourself as the parent of such a child, under threat of sterilization or murder. You “consent” to your child’s treatment regardless of what might be in the child’s best developmental and emotional interests, and also allow the child to be enrolled in Asperger’s study[1]. Then your child will be subjected to various rehabilitation strategies, what Asperger called pedagogical therapy. You will bring your child into the clinic every week or every day for assessments and tests. Presumably the doctor or his staff will ask you questions about the child’s progress: does he or she engage with strangers? How is his or her behavior in this or that situation? In every situation where you can, you will lie and tell them whatever you think is most likely to make them think that your child is progressing. Once you know what the tests at the clinic involve, you will coach your child to make sure he or she performs well in them. You will game every test, lie at every assessment, and scam your way into a rehabilitation even if your child is gaining nothing from the program. So all the results on rehabilitation and the nature of the condition that Asperger documents in his 1944 PhD thesis must be based on extremely dubious research data. You simply cannot believe that the research data you obtained from your subjects is accurate when some of them know that their responses decide whether their child lives or dies. Note that this problem with his research exists regardless of whether Asperger was an active Nazi – it’s a consequence of the times, not the doctor – but it is partially ameliorated if Asperger actually was an active resister to Nazi ideology, since it’s conceivable in that case that the first thing he did was give the parent an assurance that he wasn’t going to ship their kid off to die no matter what his diagnosis was. But since we now know he did ship kids off to die, that possibility is off the table. Asperger’s research subjects were consenting to a research study and providing subjective data on the assumption that the study investigator was a murderer with the power to kill their child. This means Asperger’s 1944 work probably needs to be ditched from the medical canon, simply on the basis of the poor quality of the data. It also has implications, I think, for some of his conclusions and their influence on how we view Asperger’s syndrome.

What does this mean for the concept of the autism spectrum?

Asperger introduced the idea of a spectrum of autism, with some of the children he called “autistic psychopaths” being high functioning, and some being low functioning, with a spectrum of disorder. This idea seems to be an important part of modern discussion of autism as well. But from my reading of the paper [again I stress I am not an expert] it seems that this definition was at least partly informed by the child’s response to therapy. That is, if a child responded to therapy and was able to be “rehabilitated”, they were deemed high functioning, while those who did not were considered low functioning. We have seen that it is likely that some of the parents of these children were lying about their children’s functional level, so probably his research results on this topic are unreliable, but there is a deeper problem with this definition, I think. The author implies that Asperger was quite an arrogant and overbearing character, and it seems possible to me that his assumption that he is deeply flawed in assuming his therapy would always work and that if it failed the problem was with the child’s level of function. What if his treatment only worked 50% of the time, randomly? Then the 50% of children who failed are not “low-functioning”, they’re just unlucky. If we compare with a pharmaceutical treatment, it simply is not the case that when your drugs fail your doctor deems this to be because you are “low functioning”, and ships you off to the “euthanasia” clinic. They assume the drugs didn’t work and give you better, stronger, or more experimental drugs. Only when all the possible treatments have failed do they finally deem your condition to be incurable. But there is no evidence that Asperger considered the possibility that his treatment was the problem, and because the treatment was entirely subjective – the parameters decided on a case-by-case basis – there is no way to know whether the problem was the children or the treatment. So to the extent that this concept of a spectrum is determined by Asperger’s judgment of how the child responded to his entirely subjective treatment, maybe the spectrum doesn’t exist?

This is particularly a problem because the concept of “functioning” was deeply important to the Nazis and had a large connection to who got selected for murder. In the Nazi era, to quote Negan, “people were a resource”, and everyone was expected to be functioning. Asperger’s interest in this spectrum and the diagnosis of children along it wasn’t just or even driven by a desire to understand the condition of “autistic psychopathy”, it was integral to his racial hygiene conception of what to do with these children. In determining where on the spectrum they lay he was providing a social and public health diagnosis, not a personal diagnosis. His concern here was not with the child’s health or wellbeing or even an accurate assessment of the depth and nature of their disability – he and his colleagues were interested in deciding whether to kill them or not. Given the likely biases in his research, the dubious link between the definition of the spectrum and his own highly subjective treatment strategy, and the real reasons for defining this spectrum, is it a good idea to keep it as a concept in the handling of autism in the modern medical world? Should we revisit this concept, if not to throw it away at least to reconsider how we define the spectrum and why we define it? Is it in the best interests of the child and/or their family to apply this concept?

How much did Asperger’s racial hygiene influence ideas about autism’s heritability?

Again, I want to stress that I know little about autism and it is not my goal here to dissect the details of this disease. However, from what I have seen of the autism advocacy movement, there does seem to be a strong desire to find some deep biological cause of the condition. I think parents want – rightly – to believe that it is not their fault that their child is autistic, and that the condition is not caused by environmental factors that might somehow be associated with their pre- or post-natal behaviors. Although the causes of autism are not clear, there seems to be a strong desire of some in the autism community to see it as biological or inherited. I think this is part of the reason that Andrew Wakefield’s scam linking autism to MMR vaccines remains successful despite his disbarment in the UK and exile to America. Parents want to think that they did not cause this condition, and blaming a pharmaceutical company is an easy alternative to this possibility. Heritability is another alternative explanation to behavioral or environmental causes. Asperger of course thought that autism was entirely inherited, blaming it – and its severity – on the child’s “constitution”, which was his phrase for their genetic inheritance. This is natural for a Nazi, of course – Nazis believe everything is inherited. Asperger also believed that sexual abuse was due to genetic causes (some children had a genetic property that led them to “seduce” adults!) Given Asperger’s influence on the definition of autism, I think it would be a good idea to assess how much his ideas also influence the idea that autism is inherited or biologically determined, and to question the extent to which this is just received knowledge from the original researcher. On a broader level, I wonder how many conditions identified during the war era and immediately afterwards were influenced by racial hygiene ideals, and how much the Nazi medical establishment left a taint on European medical research generally.

What lessons can we learn about public health practice from this case?

It seems pretty clear that some mistakes were made in the decision to assign Asperger’s name to this condition, given what we now know about his past. It also seems clear that Asperger was able to whitewash his reputation and bury his responsibilities for many years, including potentially avoiding being held accountable as an accessory to murder. How many other medical doctors, social scientists and public health workers from this time were also able to launder their history and reinvent themselves in the post-war era as good Germans who resisted the Nazis, rather than active accomplices of a murderous and cruel regime? What is the impact of their rehabilitation on the ethics and practice of medicine or public health in the post-war era? If someone was a Nazi, who believed that murdering the sick, disabled and certain races for the good of the race was a good thing, then when they launder their history there is no reason to think they actually laundered their beliefs as well. Instead they carried these beliefs into the post war era, and presumably quietly continued acting on them in the institutions they now occupied and corrupted. How much of European public health practice still bears the taint of these people? It’s worth bearing in mind that in the post war era many European countries continued to run a variety of programs that we now consider to have been rife with human rights abuse, in particular the way institutions for the mentally ill were run, the treatment of the Roma people (which often maintained racial-hygiene elements even decades after the war), treatment of “promiscuous” women and single mothers, and management of orphanages. How much of this is due to the ideas of people like Asperger, propagating slyly through the post-war public health institutional framework and carefully hidden from view by people like Asperger, who were assiduously purging past evidence of their criminal actions and building a public reputation for purity and good ethics? I hope that medical historians like Czech will in future investigate these questions.

This is not just a historical matter, either. I have colleagues and collaborators who work in countries experiencing various degrees of authoritarianism and/or racism – countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, the USA – who are presumably vulnerable to the same kinds of institutional pressures at work in Nazi Germany. There have been cases, for example, of studies published from China that were likely done using organs harvested from prisoners. Presumably the authors of those studies thought this practice was okay? If China goes down a racial hygiene path, will public health workers who are currently doing good, solid work on improving the public health of the population start shifting their ideals towards murderous extermination? Again, this is not an academic question: After 9/11, the USA’s despicable regime of torture was developed by two psychologists, who presumably were well aware of the ethical standards their discipline is supposed to maintain, and just ignored them. The American Psychological Association had to amend its code in 2016 to include an explicit statement about avoiding harm, but I can’t find any evidence of any disciplinary proceedings by either the APA or the psychologists’ graduating universities to take action for the psychologists’ involvement in this shocking scheme. So it is not just in dictatorships that public policy pressure can lead to doctors taking on highly unethical standards. Medical, pscyhological and public health communities need to take much stronger action to make sure that our members aren’t allowed to give into their worst impulses when political and social pressure comes to bear on them.

These ideas are still with us

As a final point, I want to note that the ideas that motivated Asperger are not all dead, and the battle against the pernicious influence of racial hygiene was not won in 1945. Here is Asperger in 1952, talking about “feeblemindedness”:

Multiple studies, above all in Germany, have shown that these families procreate in numbers clearly above the average, especially in the cities. [They] live without inhibitions, and rely without scruples on public welfare to raise or help raise their children. It is clear that this fact presents a very serious eugenic problem, a solution to which is far off—all the more, since the eugenic policies of the recent past have turned out to be unacceptable from a human standpoint

And here is Charles Murray in 1994:

We are silent partly because we are as apprehensive as most other people about what might happen when a government decides to social-engineer who has babies and who doesn’t. We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. [Emphasis in the Vox original]

There is an effort in Trump’s America to rehabilitate Murray’s reputation, long after his policy prescriptions were enacted during the 1990s. There isn’t any real difference between Murray in 1994, Murray’s defenders in 2018, or Asperger in 1952. We now know what the basis for Asperger’s beliefs were. Sixty years later they’re still there in polite society, almost getting to broadcast themselves through the opinion pages of a major centrist magazine. Racial hygiene didn’t die with the Nazis, and we need to redouble our efforts now to get this pernicious ideology out of public health, medicine, and public policy. I expect that in the next few months this will include some uncomfortable discussions about Asperger’s legacy, and I hope a reassessment of the entire definition of autism, Asperger’s syndrome and its management. But we should all be aware that in these troubled times, the ideals that motivated Asperger did not die with him, and our fields are still vulnerable to their evil influence.

 


fn1: Note that you consent to this study regardless of your actual views on its merits, whether it will cause harm to your child, etc. because this doctor is going to decide whether your child “rehabilitates” or slides out of view and into the T4 program where they will die of “pneumonia” within 6 months, and so you are going to do everything this doctor asks. This is not consent.

This week the US Congress passed a set of censorship laws, commonly called FOSTA/SESTA, that aimed to prevent online sex trafficking but in practice work to shut down all forms of online sex work advertising. The laws were developed in the wake of claims that the website backpage was being used to buy and sell trafficked women, and basically make the website’s provider criminally liable for any sex trafficking that happens on the site. They do so by creating a trafficking exception to a section of a US law that exempts internet providers from being treated as media organizations. Currently under US law websites are treated as carriers, which means they aren’t responsible for the content of material that their users post online. This exemption is the reason that websites like reddit, craigslist and facebook can host a wide range of user-generated content with impunity.

In jurisdictions where sex work is illegal, sex workers use online resources like craigslist and backpage to advertise their services and screen clients. Many sex workers and porn stars who have a good community following also use Twitter and Instagram and other social networking services to manage their community and their client relationships, including organizing events and dates and discussing their work. But since the new law was passed all these websites have had to shutdown their services or warn users that any solicitation or discussion of business is now illegal. Craigslist has shutdown its personals page, which was often used by sex workers, and websites like Fetlife have had to put strict warnings on user content. Because they can be held liable under the new law for any sex work related content, they have had to tell users that no such content can be tolerated at all. At Fetlife this extends to consensual financial domination activities, and at Craigslist the only way they have been able to stop sex work related activity has been to stop all consensual dating of any kind. Because apps like Tinder are also sometimes used for sex work purposes, it’s also possible that these sites are going to have to toughen up their moderation and rules, though it’s unclear yet how they will do this or how serious the impact of the law will be.

The Cut has an overview of why sex workers disapprove of this law, and Vox has a summary of the history of its development and arguments about its impact. For the past few weeks sex worker rights organizations like SWOP have been providing advice to women about how to back up their online presence and what actions they may need to take to protect their online presence, potentially including self censorship. It is unclear at this stage what impact the law will have on online sexual activities outside of sex work, but it’s clear from Craigslist’s reaction that the effect will be chilling. For countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and Singapore where sex work is legal to varying degrees and women can safely and legally work in brothels or advertise publicly on locally hosted websites the effect may be minimal, but for women in countries like the USA and parts of Europe the impact will likely be huge. It will force women away from the internet and back onto the streets and into unsafe situations where they are unable to screen potential clients, cannot share information about dangerous clients, and cannot support each other or record client information for self protection. Sex worker rights organizations in the USA have been deeply concerned about the impact of these laws for months and worked hard to prevent them, but in the end the money and the politics was against them.

It is worth considering exactly why these laws were passed and who supported them. Although they were developed and pushed by conservatives and republicans, they were passed with bipartisan support and pushed by a coalition of christian conservatives and feminists. The advertising campaign was supported by liberal comedians like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, and after some reform it was also supported by major internet content providers and entertainment organizations like Disney. This should serve as a reminder that Disney is not a liberal organization (despite the complaints of some Star Wars fans that its liberalism wrecked the latest awful episode), and that in the American political landscape “liberals” are actually deeply conservative about sex and sexuality. In particular any feminist organization that supported this law should be ashamed of itself. This includes organizations like Feminist Current and other radical feminist groups that think prostitution is a crime against women, rather than a choice that women make. I have said before that this strain of radical feminism is deeply misogynist and illiberal, and is always willing to use state power to override the personal choices of women it sees as enemies to its cause.

These feminist movements need to recognize though that while tactically they may have scored a win, this strategy is very bad for women everywhere. Nothing angers a christian conservative man more than a woman who is financially and sexually independent, and sex workers are the model of a financially and sexually independent woman. Sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to legislative action and uniquely annoying to these legislators, but they’re just the canary in the coal mine. These christian conservative legislators want to destroy all forms of sexual freedom and they won’t stop at sex work. It’s unlikely that they’re shedding any tears over the fact that their pet law led Craigslist to shut down all its non-sex work dating functions – especially since they were especially well used by LGBT people. You can bet that they are already looking for ways to use some kind of indecency based argument to target a section 230 exception for LGBT people, probably arguing on obscenity or public health grounds; and I don’t doubt that ALEC and the Heritage Foundation are already wondering if there is a racketeering-based argument by which they can make a similar exception that can be used to target unions and other forms of left wing activism. It might trouble Feminist Current a little, but I doubt christian conservatives will be feeling particularly worried if Tinder has to shut down, and if this law makes it harder for consenting adults to fuck freely then conservative christians everywhere will be chuffed. Just as the 1980s alliance of feminists and christians distorted the porn industry and made it more misogynist and male dominated, laws like SESTA will distort the world of casual sex to make it more favourable to predatory men and less safe for ordinary women. Sex workers may always be first in the sights of christian conservatives but they are never last. Whatever your personal beliefs about paying for sex, supporting sex worker rights is always and everywhere better for women, better for LGBT people, and better for liberalism.

As a final aside, I would like to sing the praises of sex worker rights organizations. Their activism is strongly inclusive, and while their focus is obviously on protecting the rights of their sex worker membership, their viewpoint is always strongly liberal and aimed at broadening everyone’s rights. They’re strong supporters of free speech and free association, and they include everyone in their movement. As organizations they are strongly inclusive of all sexualities and genders, they are always aware of disability rights and the needs of people with disabilities, and they are opposed to any forms of restrictions on what consenting adults do. They are a consistent powerful voice for liberal rights, worker’s rights, and sexual freedom. These laws will likely restrict their ability to raise their voice in support of these issues, and that ultimately weakens all our rights. Sex worker organizations are a powerful voice for good, and sex workers are not victims, but an important part of our society doing a difficult job. Wherever you are in the world, you should support these organizations and the women, men and transgender people who do this job. Hopefully with our support they can overturn these laws, and through their work and activism broaden the scope for sexual expression for all humans no matter our gender or our sexual preference.

Yesterday a group of US politicians who cannot control guns threatened to regulate Facebook.

During his testimony, representatives showed Mark Zuckerberg a picture of one of the fake news items that had been circulated on Facebook during the election, and asked him what he was going to do to stop this kind of material being circulated. Now, I may be a little wet behind the ears but I had always been led to believe that America valued free speech – that the country even had some kind of thing in its constitution protecting free speech – but apparently this idea goes out of the window where Facebook is concerned.

Organizations that have not yet been held accountable in the way Facebook was yesterday include Twitter, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, or the New York Times. And somehow the leaders of Cambridge Analytica have also escaped harsh questioning by these sudden defenders of democracy. Why only Facebook? Presumably if Rupert Murdoch took the stand he could be shown a picture of some of the bullshit his channel broadcasts daily, and asked what he was going to do to stop it. Alex Jones, obviously, constantly broadcasts bullshit and yet hasn’t been told to stop it or face regulation. So why Facebook?

Facebook is at its heart a form of content provider that enables ordinary citizens to present their opinions to all their friends and associates at once, without anyone outside those groups being able to see or know. Twitter, Fox News, the Young Turks, all these organizations are publicly viewable, so that if they say something bad about someone or broadcast lies everyone sees it. But with Facebook, only your friends and the people you choose to address get to see it. Sure Mark Zuckerberg and his evil wizards see it but they don’t care. One important group of people who do not get to see it are our political representatives and leaders. They don’t know what’s going on out there in the wilds of Facebook, they can’t monitor it. Sure, they can pay a company like Cambridge Analytica to use that to their advantage but fundamentally Facebook removes content provision and debate from the grip of organizations like Fox News, CNN, or any organizations connected to any political donors. In the 2016 election it may have helped Republicans (and Russia), but there’s no guarantee that it will always be a powerful tool just for evil. And there’s no guarantee that only Russia will stay out of future elections. What if China decides to weigh in on the Democratic side in the next elections? Facebook is a wild card precisely because it liberates our voices from mass media. It also offers another powerful tool that scares governments – the power of spontaneous organization. This power is already being deployed by left wing organizations in America, and it’s not something that politicians will ever be comfortable.

China has a version of Facebook called Wechat, and the Chinese government is terrified of it. They maintain tight controls over it – one could say they regulate it, to use a term that America’s representatives understand – to ensure it can’t be used for wildcat demonstrations, to spread dissent, or to provide information the government doesn’t control. Of course the Chinese government got in at the development stage and now see it as a useful tool for monitoring public dissent and keeping track of public opinion, but they also keep a careful eye on everything that goes on there, because they don’t want it being used in the way that Facebook could be – to spread information the government can’t see and can’t address.

It’s probably a safe rule for life that if Republicans decide they want to regulate something, they’re not doing it in the best interests of ordinary people. Seeing these politicians rounding on Zuckerberg, you have to think that they aren’t attacking Facebook because they’re concerned about our privacy, but because they realize this tool is out of their control, and they’re scared of its huge potential to break the stranglehold of a few rich donors on the dissemination of information in America. Yes, Facebook needs to tighten up its privacy rules and be more responsible about how it handles data. But the election wasn’t stolen by Facebook alone, and censorship and regulation of Facebook is not the solution to this problem. It’s a rare occasion when a politician wants to censor things out of a genuine sense of social responsibility – they have too much skin in the game. What we saw yesterday was not a group of brave politicians taking on a huge monopoly to protect our privacy. It was a bunch of tyrants who want to shut down our freedom to disseminate information in an uncontrolled and unmonitored way.

Don’t let them!

The media this week are exploding with news that a company called Cambridge Analytica used shadily-obtained Facebook data to influence the US elections. The data was harvested by some other shady company using an app that legally exploited Facebook’s privacy rules at the time, and then handed over to Cambridge Analytica, who then used the data to micro-target adverts over Facebook during the election, mostly aimed at getting Trump elected. The news is still growing, and it appears that Cambridge Analytica was up to a bunch of other shady stuff too – swinging elections in developing countries through fraud and honey-traps, getting Facebook data from other sources and possibly colluding illegally with the Trump campaign against campaign funding laws – and it certainly looks like a lot of trouble is deservedly coming their way.

In response to this a lot of people have been discussing Facebook itself as if it is responsible for this problem, is itself a shady operator, or somehow represents a new and unique problem in the relationship between citizens, the media and politics. Elon Musk has deleted his company’s Facebook accounts, there is a #deleteFacebook campaign running around, and lots of people are suggesting that the Facebook model of social networking is fundamentally bad (see e.g. this Vox article about how Facebook is simply a bad idea).

I think a lot of this reaction against Facebook is misguided, does not see the real problem, and falls into the standard mistake of thinking a new technology must necessarily come with new and unique threats. I think it misses the real problem underlying Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target ads during the election and to manipulate public opinion: the people reading the ads.

We use Facebook precisely because of the unique benefits of its social and sharing model. We want to see our friends’ lives and opinions shared amongst ourselves, we want to be able to share along things we like or approve of, and we want to be able to engage with what our friends are thinking and saying. Some people using Facebook may do so as I do, carefully curating content providers we allow on our feed to ensure they aren’t offensive or upsetting, and avoiding allowing any political opinions we disagree with; others may use it for the opposite purpose, to engage with our friends’ opinions, see how they are thinking, and openly debate and disagree about a wide range of topics in a social forum. Many of us treat it as an aggregator for cat videos and cute viral shit; some of us only use it to keep track of friends. But in all cases the ability of the platform to share and engage is why we use it. It’s the one thing that separates it from traditional mass consumption media. This is its revolutionary aspect.

But what we engage with on Facebook is still media. If your friend shares a Fox and Friends video of John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is actually a lizard person, when you watch that video you are engaging with it just as if you were engaging with Fox and Friends itself. The fact that it’s on Facebook instead of TV doesn’t suddenly exonerate you of the responsibility and the ability to identify that John Bolton is full of shit. If Cambridge Analytica micro target you with an ad that features John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is a lizard person, that means Cambridge Analytica have evidence that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning, but the fundamental problem here remains that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning. Their ad doesn’t become extra brain-washy because it was on Facebook. Yes, it’s possible that your friend shared it and we all know that people trust their friends’ judgment. But if your friends think that shit is reasonable, and you still trust your friend’s judgement, then you and your friend have a problem. That’s not Facebook’s problem, it’s yours.

This problem existed before Facebook, and it exists now outside of Facebook. Something like 40% of American adults think that Fox News is a reliable and trustworthy source of news, and many of those people think that anything outside of Fox News is lying and untrustworthy “liberal media”. The US President apparently spends a lot of his “executive time” watching Fox and Friends and live tweeting his rage spasms. No one forces him to watch Fox and Friends, he has a remote control and fingers, he could choose to watch the BBC. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or even Fox News’s fault, that the president is a dimwit who believes anything John Bolton says.

This is a much bigger problem than Facebook, and it’s a problem in the American electorate and population. Sure, we could all be more media savvy, we could all benefit from better understanding how Facebook abuses privacy settings, shares our data for profit, and enables micro-targeting. But once that media gets to you it’s still media and you still have a responsibility to see if it’s true or not, to assess it against other independent sources of media, to engage intellectually with it in a way that ensures you don’t just believe any old junk. If you trust your friends’ views on vaccinations or organic food or Seth Rich’s death more than you trust a doctor or a police prosecutor then you have a problem. Sure, Facebook might improve the reach of people wanting to take advantage of that problem, but let’s not overdo it here: In the 1990s you would have been at a bbq party or a bar, nodding along as your friend told you that vaccines cause autism and believing every word of it. The problem then was you, and the problem now is you. In fact it is much easier now for you to not be the problem. Back in the 1990s at that bbq you couldn’t have surreptitiously whipped our your iPhone and googled “Andrew Wakefield” and discovered that he’s a fraud who has been disbarred by the GMA. Now you can, and if you choose not to because you think everything your paranoid conspiracy theorist friend says is true, the problem is you. If you’re watching some bullshit Cambridge Analytica ad about how Hilary Clinton killed Seth Rich, you’re on the internet, so you have the ability to cross reference that information and find out what the truth might actually be. If you didn’t do that, you’re lazy or you already believe it or you don’t care or you’re deeply stupid. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or Cambridge Analytica’s fault. It’s yours.

Facebook offers shady operatives like Robert Mercer the ability to micro-target their conspiracy theories and lies, and deeper and more effective reach of their lies through efficient use of advertising money and the multiplicative effect of the social network feature. It also gives them a little bit of a trust boost because people believe their friends are trustworthy. But in the end the people consuming the media this shady group produce are still people with an education, judgment, a sense of identity and a perspective on the world. They are still able to look at junk like this and decide that it is in fact junk. If you sat through the 2016 election campaign thinking that this con-artist oligarch was going to drain the swamp, the problem is you. If you thought that Clinton’s email practices were the worst security issue in the election, the problem is you. If you honestly believed The Young Turks or Jacobin mag when they told you Clinton was more militarist than Trump, the problem is you. If you believed Glenn Greenwald when he told you the real threat to American security was Clinton’s surveillance and security policies, the problem is you. If you believed that Trump cared more about working people than Hilary Clinton, then the problem is you. This stuff was all obvious and objectively checkable and easy to read, and you didn’t bother. The problem is not that Facebook was used by a shady right wing mob to manipulate your opinions into thinking Clinton was going to start world war 3 and hand everyone’s money to the bankers. The problem is that when this utter bullshit landed in your feed, you believed it.

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with the consumers of media but with the creators. Chris Cillizza is a journalist who hounded Clinton about her emails and her security issues before the election, and to this day continues to hound her, and he worked for reputable media organizations who thought his single-minded obsession with Clinton was responsible journalism. The NY Times was all over the email issues, and plenty of NY Times columnists like Maureen Dowd were sure Trump was less militarist than Clinton. Fox carefully curated their news feed to ensure the pussy-grabbing scandal was never covered, so more Americans knew about the emails than the pussy-grabbing. Obviously if no one is creating content about how terrible Trump is then we on Facebook are not able to share it with each other. But again the problem here is not Facebook – it’s the American media. Just this week we learn that the Atlantic, a supposedly centrist publication, is hiring Kevin D Williamson – a man who believes women who get abortions should be hanged – to provide “balance” to its opinion section. This isn’t Facebook’s fault. The utter failure of the US media to hold their government even vaguely accountable for its actions over the past 30 years, or to inquire with any depth or intelligence into the utter corruption of the Republican party, is not Facebook’s fault or ours, it’s theirs. But it is our job as citizens to look elsewhere, to try to understand the flaws in the reporting, to deploy our education to the benefit of ourselves and the civic society of which we are a part. That’s not Facebook’s job, it’s ours. Voting is a responsibility as well as a right, and when you prepare to vote you have the responsibility to understand the information available about the people you are going to vote for. If you decide that you would rather believe Clinton killed Seth Rich to cover up a paedophile scandal, rather than reading the Democratic Party platform and realizing that strategic voting for Clinton will benefit you and your class, then the problem is you. You live in a free society with free speech, and you chose to believe bullshit without checking it.

Deleting Facebook won’t solve the bigger problem, which is that many people in America are not able to tell lies from truth. The problem is not Facebook, it’s you.

 

She was right all along!

Today I discovered a really excellent article discussing how American and Soviet scientists and intelligence operatives reported on the collapse of the Soviet Economy, at the Texas National Security Review wtf. The basic thrust of the article is to understand whether researchers in the US national security complex, and associated academics, missed the collapse of the Soviet economy that began around 1966, or whether they were actually predicting the fundamental economic challenges that would eventually bring the Soviet Union to revolution and implosion. Apparently in the 1990s there was a bit of a thing where major newspapers and some politicians accused the CIA and the academics in its orbit of having completely missed the fact that the Soviet Union’s economy was failing, and having driven the US to go into debt peonage in order to achieve massive economic growth that wasn’t actually needed. The article cites a few of these critics saying basically that if the CIA had accurately predicted the trajectory of the Soviet Economy then Reagan wouldn’t have had to build up huge deficits to finance a massive military and economic expansion. Putting aside how ludicrous this is on its face – conservatives don’t care about deficits, for starters, and Reagan was building deficits for a wide range of political reasons – the article dismisses this by showing that in fact the CIA and its fellow travelers did in fact predict the collapse of the Soviet economy, in remarkable detail, and this 1990s criticism is all just silly revisionism.

This wasn’t the part of the article that interested me though – in fact I thought the discussion about why this is important was the weakest part of the article. What I enjoyed was the detailed description of the stages of economic growth and collapse of the Soviet Union, and the description of how Soviet theorists and planners saw it coming from the 1970s onward but seemed powerless to stop it. It tells a detailed and interesting tale of an economic program that seemed so successful (to both American and Soviet observers) in the 1950s, falling into stagnation in the 1960s and then into ruin in the 1970s. It’s a detailed and well-researched description of an economic system falling apart, and it shows that actually the economic analysts of the West really had their finger on the pulse here, and their theories about how economies should work and what was wrong with the Soviet economy proved to be correct in the end. This isn’t just American triumphalism that you might expect from the Texas National Security Review wtf, because the author cites a bunch of Soviet theorists who basically saw all the same issues that the Americans saw, and were unable to come up with any solutions that could work. The story of how they failed to come up with solutions is in itself fascinating, and something I will come back to when I discuss the Chinese communist approach to the same problems these researchers identified. But first I want to ask – did Western Marxists of the 1960s to 1980s see any of these issues in the Soviet economy, and if they didn’t, what does that say about their much-vaunted economic analysis skills?

The rise and fall of the Soviet planned economy

The article divides the Soviet economy into two rough stages, the first lasting from I guess the 1930s or the end of the war up until 1959, and the second starting somewhere in the mid 1960s and running to the fall of the Berlin wall. The first period was characterized by what the author calls extensive growth[1], which appears to be the process of throwing bodies at basic problems like building roads and shit. This period was characterized by rapid growth and social engagement(?), and seems like the kind of period when central planning would be no hindrance, or possibly even beneficial to growth. This is the period of increased steel production, more coal in more burners, the kind of basic economic problems being solved by simple and robust methods. But by the 1960s the Soviet Union had solved these basic problems and had moved into a more complex economy characterized by skilled labour working on more difficult problems of distribution and production, and it could no longer function by simply investing in new plant and equipment. At this point both American and Soviet analysts of the economy noticed that it needed to move to a more mixed structure, and it required engaged and committed professionals rather than hard working industrial hands. Central planning failed at this point, and the social and cultural conditions in the Soviet Union began to hold back growth and achievement, because you can’t get skilled professionals to work for just money alone, and the other cultural and social rewards of engaging in the mixed economy just weren’t there. The economy by this point had also become much more complex and had become too complicated for proper central planners to manage, but the lack of monetarization and small scale innovation and markets prevented it from finding local and specific solutions to complex problems. Both American and Soviet theorists noticed this problem, with the Americans wondering if the Soviet leadership would make radical changes to unleash new energy and creativity, and the Soviet thinkers wondering how to do this and complaining that they weren’t able to come up with solutions to match the problems they had identified[2].

At this point the author also describes a bunch of other problems overwhelming Soviet society that were identified in the west and discussed: declining life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant alcoholism, and endemic corruption. The corruption was seen as a response to the challenges of an economy that simply wasn’t working and the cultural and social barriers to progress, and the alcoholism and infant mortality were seen as signs of a deepening social malaise that simply couldn’t be solved by a planned economy. This part of the essay – which to be fair is a long way in – was powerful stuff to read. It’s a fundamental given of modern development economics that when life expectancy or infant mortality go in the wrong direction, you’re getting something very wrong. That should be a sign that you need to get off your arse now and fix whatever mess you’re facing[3].

What did Western Marxists see in all this?

To their credit it appears that Soviet theorists and planners from the 1970s onward saw the writing on the wall and were at least aware of the need for change, even if the political structures of their economy prevented them from effectively implementing them. But how did western Marxists study their model society and how did they react? While we know a lot of western Marxists went their own way – especially after Hungary and Czechoslovakia – we know that many of the western communist and socialist parties continued to support the Soviet Union for a long time. One of the few remaining claims for which the people of this time get any credit is that while its political prescriptions may have failed, Marxism provided a cogent and insightful analysis of the economic problems facing capitalism, and a definitive description of how economic crises arise and are resolved. Presumably then it would have been able to analyze the problems within the Soviet Union, and presumably at least some of these Marxists would have had better access to information and data coming out of the Soviet Union than did the CIA.

So what did they do with it? Did they see the crisis the way their Soviet colleagues did? I have dug around online and can’t find anything about Marxist critiques of Soviet economic ideas at that time except for this review of a book on Marxist critiques of Soviet economics, that suggests the book is not a comprehensive review of what was said and written in that time. I certainly can’t find any evidence of a famous critical review of the problems facing Soviet industry. One would think that at least in the post-Vietnam era, perhaps in the 1970s, some of the Marxists of the New Left would have been feeling liberated enough to consider critically whether the Soviet Union was going in the right direction. At this time left wing movements in the west had started looking to national liberationist movements in Africa and latin America for inspiration, and these movements were typically less economically and ideologically hidebound than the Soviet Union, though often still dependent on it for economic and military support, so one would think western Marxists would have been able to engage more critically with Soviet economic ideas through these movements. But I can’t see much evidence that they did. What were they doing during this time? Is there a cruel irony where Soviet theorists were applying western market economics to critique Soviet economic systems, while western Marxists were applying rigid Marxist principles and missing the entire point? Were CIA academics more closely engaged with Soviet economic data than the Soviet Union’s supposed allies in the American left? I can’t find any information about this online, and I’m wondering.

How did China learn from Soviet failure?

The article also mentions that Soviet leaders tied economic growth directly to the ideological success of their project. They figured that people would be willing to make political and cultural sacrifices to the revolution provided they saw economic progress, and could look forward to a future utopia, but from 1970 on the economy was stagnating and so they were offering the people decades of austerity and asking them to commit to a political program that offered no future. This fundamental bargain – freedom in exchange for development – seems to me to be at the heart of the Chinese political program, and to have been a huge success for them: basically, so long as everyone’s economic lot continues to improve, the Chinese communist party assumes that the population will tolerate limits on expression, political activity and assembly. It’s a deal that has worked for them so far, and it seems to be at the core of their political program. But it failed in the Soviet Union, so how did Chinese leadership respond to this?

This is another topic that is very hard to assess for a non-expert just using random internet searches. How did China respond to the Soviet Union’s stagnation? Is there a body of work, in Chinese, by Chinese planners and intellectuals, interpreting the Soviet Union’s failure in terms that could be used to improve China’s economic and social performance? Did the 100 Flowers movement or the Cultural Revolution stem from some recognition that Soviet ideological strictness was stopping economic growth and interfering with the basic bargain? I found this critical text from Mao that suggests Mao understood that economic growth cannot be about just industrial development, and that commodity exchange (i.e. free markets of some kind) are essential. But it’s very hard to read – this language is like nothing from standard public health text books! – and it obviously requires a heavy knowledge of pre-existing Maoist and Stalinist theory. For example, Mao repeatedly contrasts the Chinese communist party’s attitude towards peasants with the Soviet party’s, and finds Stalinist thought lacking on this issue that doesn’t make any sense to me.

But it seems to me that the Chinese communist party must have done something right. Under Mao they also went through a period of heavy “extensive” growth, but then under Deng Xiaoping they introduced market reforms that enabled their economy to adapt to its growing complexity, and it is now generally accepted that China runs a mixed market economy that has the flexibility to respond to new economic challenges while retaining the central planning that should, I guess, ideally be able to manage potential crises and balance competing interests. China has also not seen any period of stagnation in health markers – quite the opposite! – and seems to be much better at incorporating foreign capital and foreign ideas into its market (the original article makes the point that the Soviet Union found it very hard to import new technologies, and suffered in productivity as a result). So I wonder – was Chinese communism always more open to foreign ideas and to critical reinterpretation of basic principles? Did they see what was happening in the Soviet Union and think about alternatives earlier and more aggressively? In his Critique of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR Mao repeatedly returns to the problem of commodity production, and seems to be much more open to market ideas than the Soviets (in his own words), but then at the same time I think he was presenting Stalinism as a betrayal of Marxism for being too westernized or something. So how was China interpreting Soviet struggles? China shows no signs of economic slow down or of economic failure, though of course it is increasingly vulnerable to crashes and crises of a capitalist kind, so it’s not as if it has developed a perfect mixed economy. Did Deng Xiaoping and his successors learn from the Soviet Union, and how? And if so why was their communism open to change but Soviet communism was not? For example, the article presents corruption as a fundamental and unresolved problem of the Soviet Union, possibly connected directly to its economic and political stagnation, but we know that the Chinese government has made fighting corruption an important symbol of progress and has genuinely tried to stamp out the worst of it. Why and how did they make these decisions, and to what extent were their policy ideas driven by reaction to Soviet failure, or to western criticism?

A final note

This has been a blogpost only of questions – I don’t know anything about these issues, but I find them very interesting. I think I have said before on this blog that I think China’s future progress offers a key challenge to capitalist market democracy. Until now the only real challenge to the orthodoxy of western capitalist democracy arose from the Soviet Union, and it was a dismal failure (as is its gangster successor). But if China can make one party non-democratic Chinese communism successful, then it will offer a real alternative to capitalist democracy. In the past I have said that China needs to negotiate a series of complex challenges but that if it does it may prove its system a viable alternative to capitalist democracies. I think it’s safe to say it has shown itself to be a much better alternative development model than Russian communism, which when you’re coming from the background Chinese communism was coming from is a pretty big claim to success. But now it has moved into the intensive development phase identified in the linked article at the Texas National Security Review wtf, the question is whether it will continue to adapt in the way it needs to to show that its political model can deliver the economic boons that its fundamental contract demands. This question is further complicated by the abolition of term limits and the possibility that Xi Jinping is becoming a new Mao[4], which could undo all the gains of the past 10 or 20 years and return China to a period of madness or Soviet scleroticism[5]. I guess also the lessons of Soviet history are less important to Mr. Xi than they were to Mr. Deng, and Mr. Xi faces an environment that is in some ways much less challenging (development is complete), but also much more challenging (Trump!) Are Chinese planners moving on from the lessons of Soviet failure to the lessons of capitalist failure?

I think it’s possible that we are seeing a new era of failure in American capitalist democracy, and there are many countries in Africa that are desperate for political and economic development models at a time when China is becoming increasingly assertive about the rectitude of its own model. By looking at how previous systems have learnt from their mistakes, perhaps we can see how the Chinese government will adapt to future challenges, and also how the American government will – or won’t – learn from its own litany of errors. How will this affect development in Africa, and how will it affect the response of the big economies to the fundamental environmental and economic challenges that threaten to destroy us all? I think we need to look to China for the answers to many of these questions, and in seeing how previous regimes learnt about their own and their enemies’ weaknesses – and how they failed to adapt – perhaps we can see where our current leadership are going to take us, and worse still – how they are going to fail us.

 


fn1: It’s possible that in reporting the author’s work I will significantly dumb it down, so if any descriptions of what the author wrote seem trite or simplistic please blame me, not him

fn2: These theorists were operating in the post-Stalin era, which I guess was freer, but I hadn’t realized so much self-critical work was allowed in the Soviet Union during Khruschev and Brezhnev. But it appears that there was no translation of critical thought into action, even where it was tolerated.

fn3: Modern America is facing a challenging problem along these lines, of declining life expectancy due to middle-aged mortality, increasing maternal mortality, and growing inequality in infant mortality. Is this a sign that America’s economy is going the same way as the Soviet Union?

fn4: I think he’s not, but if he does then I think this shows a fundamental and important instability in these one party systems, that they don’t just produce occasional madmen – they return to them. The madman could be the stable attractor in these systems. But if, for example, Xi goes through three terms, China continues to develop and liberalize and then he retires, what does that tell us?

fn5: Though it’s worth remembering that even under Mao China made huge progress, probably because it was in this extensive phase of development where progress is easy if you have strong central government and central planning