This is a story about eggplants, do you have the courage to read it? 🍆
Freud famously wrote about the narcissism of small differences. Similarly, Sayre’s Law proposes that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”
But in today’s world of information abundance and fragmented subcultural epistemologies, we face a new problem that only rhymes with this old problem.
The vortex of tiny effects is a mechanism whereby trivial lifestyle choices can mushroom into colossal social cleavages.
If you shop with a plastic bag you are murdering Mother Earth, but if you shop with a canvas bag you’re a virtue signaling libtard. Not really. In fact, the technical truth is that it makes virtually zero causal difference whether you shop with a plastic bag or a canvas bag. And yet this trivial lifestyle choice absorbs unto itself remarkable amounts of social-psychological significance.
You will think of other examples, no doubt.
Intuitively, we might expect that lifestyle choices with tiny, trivial effects would be allotted tiny, trivial quantities of attention and concern.
In fact, the triviality of a lifestyle choice is often the driver of a structural social process that extorts increasing quantities of attention and concern. Hence, the vortex.
When you started reading this essay, you probably thought, “I don’t care about eggplants.” But you were wrong.
You made it this far, so evidently you are pretty concerned about eggplants.
If you quit reading now, you must be unwilling to look at the truth about eggplants. You’re not a coward, are you?
You see, now I've got you.
When effects are tiny, to notice or care in the first place, you must be an agent in the top percentiles of either knowing or feeling. Scientists with world-class microscopes are much better than anyone else in the world at identifying or knowing tiny differences. People who cry listening to a Beethoven sonata are in the top percentiles of feeling tiny differences, just as people who faint at the sight of a single drop of blood can be said to feel the sight of blood more than most people.
Given any lifestyle choice with a tiny effect, there will be some small number of people able to see it, and a small number of people who feel it or care about it. These are two different sets, even if they are overlapping to some degree. So far, there’s no dynamic process or social phenomenon. A few people see, a few people care—no problem, no dynamics, no social issue.
The vortex of tiny effects initiates when unexceptional seers and unexceptional feelers are exposed to the existence of the effect.
Say I’m an average person in every dimension. Someone tells me that scientists have shown that eggplants may increase the chance of death by .000001%, though eating them daily may increase my IQ by .0001% My natural and correct response is: I do not care at all. Both effects are so trivial that the harm caused by giving this question my attention is almost certainly greater than any gain I could derive by answering it and changing my lifestyle accordingly.
The catch is that—in the modern world—ignoring the question is no longer a free option. Specifically, the sheer existence of freakishly sensitive individuals imposes a tax on individuals who would otherwise correctly choose to ignore tiny effects. This is where the vortex begins.
You can just ignore the crazy people, you say? No, you really can’t. Let’s play it out, in detail.
Statistically, there must be 20 people in the world who feel concerned enough about this issue to protest eggplant in the street (in part because they've always hated eggplant and it has some exceptional resonance for them, perhaps when they were 5 years old they were spanked for not eating their eggplant and they think about this sad memory every day). Unlikely, you say? With more than 7 billion people, there will be a tiny number with exceptionally strong feelings about... you name it. That’s all we need for this model to initiate.
There are millions of issues matching this description, so some will be selected and some will not be selected, due to random chance alone.
Of the 20 individuals above, maybe 4 live in the same metropole—say New York City. Only two of them need to encounter each other in the subreddit r/foodissues (there exist far smaller and weirder focal points of Feeling on the internet) for these two people to feel all the activation energy needed to organize a meetup Concerned Citizens Protesting the Eggplant Epidemic (CC-PEE). They make an event on meetup.com, and at first the only people who share it online are people making fun of these losers who care so much about the tiny effects of eggplants. I mean, it is truly funny and interesting that these people even exist. And even though the other 2 genuinely concerned citizens in the city fail to hear about the meetup, 4 moderate eggplant-dislikers join the meetup out of sheer curiosity and loneliness, 4 join because they are activists who literally attend every activist meeting that crosses their news feed, and 2 GenZ kids join ironically for the lulz but with a post-ironically open mind. You now have a sample of Concerned Citizens that overstates the real constituency in that city by 3x. You now have the seed of a social movement. Before long these people are shoving placards in your face, and making documentaries.
Even still, you might say: “Who cares if crazy people are making claims you find crazy? Just ignore them.”
And you would be correct! But structurally, ineluctably, the vortex deepens—trying your very best not to, you just fell down it further. Why?
These people are so ridiculously concerned over what has always been perfectly normal—they are motivated by such unrepresentative degrees of feeling—that the average person with average decency and curiosity and education must at least briefly double check if the claims are as crazy as they seem.
But because the effects are so tiny, the scientific research is extra subtle. And this is the real counterintuitive kicker, this is where the most subtle and vigilant minds—those who are most jealous of their precious computronium, the most discerning dispensers of attention—are the most badly extorted by our minority of freakish feelers.
The triviality of the effect increases the cost of confirming that it is crazy to care at all.
As soon as you start to double check, you only have two options from there—to see the matter through and arrive at your judgment, or to quit immediately and save yourself the time. If you decide to see the matter through, you're committing to something with an unknown length. When the most sophisticated among the average-feelers decide to see the question through to the end, they are not just delivering a briefcase of cash to their extorters—they are writing them a blank check. The feelers can always add another hyperlink, or make a new documentary, or write a new bioethics grant, or whatever. And if you've decided to consider the question honestly, you really can't ever plug your ears to new information in good faith. On the other hand, if you quit immediately after looking at the minefield, before arriving at an adequate independent judgment (e.g., actually calculating different expected values, with confidence intervals, for doing or not doing some lifestyle change), your honest public position can only be “I'm not able to form an independent judgment on this matter, but I’m just going to guess that it's all crazy people being stupid.” You'd sound like an uneducated and bitter misanthropic loser (though you'd be right), and the pain of this position increases with a person's thoughtfulness and one's intrinsic motivation to know the truth.
Because sophisticated people are trapped by their own sophistication—trapped into investigating at all, and then trapped again into seeing the matter through—this is like guaranteed demand for the activists’ supply. Which causes the activists to increase the supply, which ropes into the vortex an ever greater number of people who feel compelled to “look into it.” For now, even the least thoughtful people, who are usually content to copy what everyone else is doing, now have to say: “So many people seem to be talking about the eggplant epidemic that I probably should too.”
There is yet another stage of escalating social-psychological devastation.
There typically comes a tipping point where it’s not only rational to evaluate the trivial lifestyle choice fully, but now it’s even rational to modify your lifestyle in accordance with the vocal minority.
Here you will say, “No! Not me. I would never modify my behavior just because a few crazy people refuse to shut up about an objectively meaningless lifestyle choice.”
Once again, it is precisely the triviality of the effects that deepen the vortex. For now there is a new weight on the scales! On one side, you now have to weigh the existence of a new mass perception that some signifier in your lifestyle is bad/evil/stupid, with, on the other side of the scales, what you’ve always admitted is only a meaningless lifestyle preference.
You’re really going to risk your kids getting bullied in school because you insist on eating a plant that you yourself admit makes no difference to your life?
This is how they really get you. You’re on day 934 of an endless literature review, you’ve watched a dozen documentaries, you’re 11 tabs deep on an Excel spreadsheet estimating the sum of utility gained for your whole family by banishing the eggplant, you’re working hard to find the truth about what's best for your family… But so is everyone else, and even if you confirm with absolute confidence that eating eggplant is a net-good for your family, the effect size will never get anywhere near the effect of one person making your kid cry once. Not because your kid is a wimp or because you’re an overprotective parent but because who cares about eggplants at all?
The knife was in pretty well when they merely hypnotized you into writing a blank check. But now they have you admitting that you're the one fixated on some meaningless hangup, you're the psycho clinging to a ridiculous idée fixe. And you know why? It's because you're embarrassed and ashamed that you were raised on eggplant abuse. You have PTSD you don't even know about. You want to feed your kids eggplant to make yourself feel better.
And you’re just so tired of reading a useless literature, and listening to hysterics generalize absurdly, and ultimately—now—they are right: Continuing to feed your family eggplant to to own the libs is an utterly deranged thought process. Proudly cultivating an eggplant tradition, to protect what they tried to stole from you would indeed be more ridiculous than protesting eggplants.
Finally, we may consider some variables that increase the costs of ignoring the matter, which create a steeper vortex.
If the matter is something that most people have to make an up-or-down decision on, at some point in their life, this will increase the power of the extorters relative to the rational ignorers.
If the matter involves an entity other than the decision-making agent (“oh so you don’t care enough about your wife to do your research on eggplants?”), this will increase the power of the extorters relative to the rational ignorers.
If the matter is conceptually adjacent to a more ideologically or emotionally salient theme, this will increase the power of the extorters relative to the rational ignorers.
Effects that are not only tiny but also countervailing probably steepen the vortex as well. This just adds complexity to the research question, making it harder to make an independent judgment, while also increasing the surface area on which the public can find emotional resonances.
You’ve probably already guessed that this entire essay was inspired by a particular case study. Perhaps I seem a little worked up.
It’s true, I must confess, I’m generalizing an entire social theory from one case. Very naughty of me, but do you see the kind of black magic I’m up against here?
In the interest of transparency, I should say a few brief words about the real-world example for which my parable of the eggplant is but a cypher.
My wife gave birth to our first child 21 days ago, from the time of this writing.
When you have a baby boy, you will be asked if you wish for your baby to have a wee bit of skin cut off of his wee little penis.
This began a most remarkable mental and spiritual saga for your author.
I looked at all of the research carefully—anxiously, for days before his scheduled appointment—and my judgment was (and still is) that it’s rationally underdetermined. There are a few minor reasons to prefer it, and a few minor reasons to avoid it. On both sides the effect sizes are generally small, and strength of the evidence generally modest. The expected value of doing it is roughly zero, and the expected value of not doing it is roughly zero.
Just as I was finishing this essay, a friend sent me the results of an adversarial collaboration on this question, conducted in the SlateStarCodex community (1, 2, 3). An adversarial collaboration is when two people with opposite biases try to determine the answer to a research question, together. Though the collaboration came out marginally in favor of circumcision, the community response corroborates my overall position. Notice all the vehement and intelligent objections to the collaboration, from both sides. This is the vortex at work. The most reasonable answer is probably "it doesn't matter much either way," but this answer is anti-mimetic. If this is your judgment, you probably won't bother to publish it. People in the vortex are much more likely to publish their judgment, on one side or the other, in part due to the sunk costs of having fell down the vortex. After all that work, it just feels better to have some kind of answer.
I’m not going to litigate the matter here because I don’t want to spin further down the vortex, I want to leave it.
That’s the thing about the vortex of tiny effects, you have to just walk away through force of will, extra-rationally. Give it the slightest investment of rationality, and you’re tumbling down it, against your will, irrationally.