Jeff Nobbs and Zero Acre Farms released a white paper titled How Vegetable Oil Makes Us Fat, which is partially a response to the questions we raised in response to Nobbs’ previous work in Interlude E: Bad Seeds of A Chemical Hunger. We’ve read the new piece and are going to discuss it with Jeff and the rest of his team, and we’ll put out more posts if the discussion changes our mind about the role of vegetable oils in the obesity epidemic.
Simon Sarris on twitter argues that B12 deficiency is common, and may be the cause of what is often diagnosed as anxiety, executive dysfunction, depression, and even autism. If he’s right, this would be pretty easy to study and would be an amazing finding. We haven’t gotten a chance to take a close look yet, curious to know if people think this theory is plausible.
@CollinLysford shares an interesting test from @qkate that claims to reliably distinguish between chronic fatigue and depression. Ask your patient, “if you felt completely better tomorrow, what would you do?” If they go, “idk”, it’s depression. If they describe a huge list of things they would love to pursue, it’s chronic fatigue. Whether or not this test actually works for depression vs. CFS, Collin is entirely right that this is the kind of “ontological firepower” we need more of.
Dapplegrim is a Norwegian fairy tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in their Norske Folkeeventyr. A man comes home to find that his parents are dead and his elder brothers have split up the family fortune — all he’s inherited are 12 mares, each of which has just had a foal. He praises the most beautiful foal, which tells him he should kill all the other foals and let it drink the milk of all 12 mares for a year. The young man is like “sure sounds reasonable” (“Yes, the lad was ready to do that; so he killed all those twelve foals, and went home again”), kills the other foals, and comes back a year later to find the foal “so fat and sleek, that the sun shone from its coat”. Events escalate to the point where the man and the giant horse go to hell and kidnap the Devil’s horse to win the hand of the princess in marriage.
Nicky Case is doing an unofficial Potato Diet 3-Month Follow-Up Survey, at that link. Nicky is doing this because she’s “too impatient for the 6-month follow-up, and also because a 6-month follow-up wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between ‘weight regained at fast as the original weight loss’, and ‘weight regained at 1/6 the rate as the original weight loss’.” If you participated in the potato diet and you’re interested, consider filling it out!
Dana Fischer “is an American Magic: The Gathering player. She is tied for the youngest to make the second day of a Grand Prix tournament (at age eight) and is the youngest to win cash at a Grand Prix (at age nine). … Her father started teaching both daughters Magic when they were very young, before they could read the card text. They learned to play by memorizing the cards. … After they learned to read, the process went faster.” Inevitable comparison to the Polgár Sisters.
Friend of the blog @atroyn is starting a new grant program: “if you sleep on a mattress on the floor anywhere in the bay area, if accepted someone will come to your house and install a bed frame” (actually by this point applications are closed)
*Poem by One Named Huie from Heungshan Encouraging the Traveler*
Just talk about going to the land of the Flowery Flag and my countenance fills with happiness. Not without hard work were one thousand pieces of gold dug up and gathered together. There were words of farewell to the parents, but the throat choked up first. There were many feelings, many tears flowing face to face, when parting with the wife. Waves big as mountains often astonished this traveler. With laws harsh as tigers, I had a taste of all the barbarities. Do not forget this day when you land ashore. Push yourself ahead and do not be lazy or idle.
Drugs have effects. Take more of a drug, and you’ll get more and bigger effects. They call this a dose-response relationship — take some dose, get some response. Benadryl makes you drowsy, mercury gives you hallucinations, cyanide kills you.
But these effects only kick in above certain doses. At very low doses, the drug has no effects. This always has to be true, because at zero dose, the drug can’t have any effects.
Then at some dose, the effect starts kicking in. Sometimes this means you start feeling it a little and it gets stronger over time. Other times, it means the response rate increases, and more people start feeling the effect as they take bigger doses.
At some point, the effect is as strong as it can possibly get and it doesn’t get any stronger. Everyone who is going to have a reaction is getting the strongest effect they can get.
Dose-response relationships can be described with dose-response curves, like this one:
Often these curves make the most sense on a log scale (probably because this is bounded exponential growth; it’s exponential but eventually everyone who is going to have the effect already has it), so for this exercise, we’ll be portraying the x-axis on a log scale. This may not be true for all drugs, but it’s a reasonable starting place.
Lithium is a metal that is also a drug that sometimes causes weight gain. But no one really knows what the dose-response curve for weight gain on lithium looks like. Weight gain is clearly a side effect of clinical doses of lithium (about 50-300 mg of elemental lithium a day), at least for some people. But almost no one has studied lithium doses below 50 mg a day, so we don’t know at what point this weight gain effect starts kicking in.
The dose-response curve could look like this, where weight gain doesn’t show up until you hit therapeutic doses of 100 mg/day and more:
Or it could look like this, where effects kick in starting at subclinical doses of as low as 1 mg/day:
Or it could even look like this, where weight gain starts at trace doses of less than 1 mg/day, and once you’re getting 10 mg/day, you’re maxed out:
The curve could be spread out, with gradual effects increasing across all plausible doses:
Or it could be incredibly abrupt, where weight gain happens suddenly once you’ve passed a certain threshold:
There’s also good reason to believe the dose-response curve will be different for different people. The response may be different in terms of the shape of the curve, when the effects kick in, and when they max out.
By ancient tradition, we will call our example patients “Alice” and “Bob”. In this hypothetical, Bob starts seeing weight gain as he approaches 1 mg/day and has already gained almost 40 lbs at 10 mg/day, but Alice doesn’t get the same effects until noticeably higher doses:
It might also be different in terms of the maximum effect. In this next example, not only does Alice not start gaining weight until 10 mg/kg, she caps out her weight gain at just over 20 lbs, while Bob gains 40 lbs on a similar dose:
Psychiatric doses of lithium are in the 50-300 mg range (elemental), and some people think this means that weight gain must happen in this range. But this may not be the case.
First of all, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that the psychiatric effects of lithium kick in at trace doses of less than 1 mg/day. The effects may not be very strong at trace doses, but you can still pick them out in a population-level analysis. In fact, there’s a wholedangliterature finding that rates of dementia, suicide, homicide, and other “behavioral outcomes” are associated with trace lithium levels in drinking water. This suggests that some effects kick in at very small doses.
But regardless of whether or not trace amounts of lithium lower the suicide rate, the fact is that lithium has several different effects, and there’s no reason those effects can’t kick in at different doses. It might look something like this:
(To be clear, all these curves are completely made up for the purposes of illustration.)
This should probably be our default assumption. Most drugs have multiple effects, and different effects often kick in at different doses. For example, alcohol is a drug that makes you talkative at low doses and makes you puke your guts out at high doses.
(Your mileage may vary. Adam Mastroianni, who reviewed this piece, says, “Not me, I puke a tiny amount at tiny doses, increasing to a massive amount of puke at large doses.”)
In fact, we know that lithium has effects that kick in at different doses, because therapeutic effects tend to kick in well before patients die from lithium toxicity, and death is also an effect.
It’s true that some people don’t gain weight at all, even on clinical doses of more than 1000 mg/day. But this might just mean that in their case, the dose-response curve for weight gain is above the dose-response curve for toxicity/death. You can’t get there without dying, so we never see it. (And for some people, the mechanism by which lithium causes weight gain probably just doesn’t work at all.)
In any case, we have almost no information about what the curves might look like for lithium, because there’s very little research on doses below the low end of the clinical range (around 50 mg/day). There’s that literature on trace doses in drinking water which we mentioned above, and there’s one RCT from the ‘90s finding that trace doses of lithium made violent offenders friendlier and happier — but as far as we know, there’s never been any formal study on doses in the range of 1-50 mg/day. If anyone has studied weight gain on lithium doses below 50 mg/day, we’ve certainly never seen it.
So let’s see what we can do to figure out anything at all about the dose-response curve for the weight gain effects of lithium — and, maybe more interesting, the effects of lithium in general. Do any of these curves start showing up at subclinical doses?
One thing that’s interesting, in terms of our bigger “is lithium exposure causing the obesity epidemic?” question, is that most of the side effects of lithium are non-specific — if you feel nauseous and tired, it could be lithium exposure, but it could equally be a million other things. That makes it hard to tell if symptoms of lithium exposure have increased over the past 50 years, since no one has been tracking brain fog rates since 1970. If the rate of increased thirst has dectupled, we might not even know (unless…).
Some of the effects we’re going to study — like fatigue, depression, and muscle weakness — are also symptoms of hypothyroidism. These are also nonspecific, but if they were to increase, they might be diagnosed as hypothyroidism. We’re curious to see if they increase on low, subclinical doses.
The survey was pretty straightforward. First, we asked people for their basic demographic information. Then, we asked them to describe their previous experience with lithium.
We allowed people to record information for up to five different doses of lithium — different in either being different amounts (e.g. 1 mg/day vs 5 mg/day), different compounds (e.g. lithium as lithium orotate vs. as lithium carbonate), or both.
For each dose, we asked people to tell us what compound they took, how much they took per day, and approximately how many days they tried the dose for.
We also asked them what effects they experienced on each dose. Our list of effects was based on this page from Mayo Clinic, though our list did not include all the effects mentioned on this page.
We make no claims that our list is any sort of principled selection — it’s just a subset of effects we decided to include. There were too many to include all of them, so we made some calls.
In particular, we focused on “milder” side effects, since we knew that the nootropics folks would be on lower doses than a clinical population and would probably not experience the more severe effects. We also combined some effects to avoid redundancy — for example, we combined multiple effects related to passing gas into the single effect “flatulence” on our list.
We do regret cutting “fruit-like breath odor” and “eyeballs bulge out of the eye sockets”. Now those are side effects.
In any case, the final list was:
Increased clarity / focus
Confusion, poor memory, or lack of awareness
Fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat or pulse
Stiffness of the arms or legs
Troubled breathing (especially during hard work or exercise)
Unusual tiredness or weakness
Lack of coordination
Loss of appetite
Ringing in the ears
Bloating or indigestion
Loss in sexual ability, desire, drive, or performance
We also included an option for “other”.
Finally, because we are especially interested in weight changes, we also asked for each dose, “If you lost / gained weight, what was approximately the magnitude of the loss / gain”, with answers in kilograms.
Nootropics enthusiasts often take small amounts of lithium, usually because they believe it has a variety of beneficial effects at low doses, effects including balanced mood and reduced stress. So recruiting from the nootropics subreddit seemed like a good way to find people who already have experience with subclinical doses.
A total of 40 people filled out the survey, providing data on at least one regimented dose (an amount taken daily for a period of time) of lithium. Of these, 20 people also reported on a second dose, 5 reported on a third dose, 2 reported on a fourth dose, and one person reported on a fifth dose. From this we can see that of the respondents, 50% have tried at least two different doses of lithium at some point.
For now, we will ignore that some of these doses are the same people, and just treat these as 68 different individual doses. Going back and doing more complex modeling at some point would be a good idea, we encourage that, but it’s not the focus of the post today. To keep it clear, we will call these “cases”. There are 40 people who gave us 68 cases.
Two people don’t report how much they were taking for their second dose, however, so we will be ignoring these cases. In the end we have 66 cases.
This is all self-report, and we haven’t been at all strict about kicking people out. In fact, we didn’t kick anyone out. Some of the data do look a little strange. One person reported taking 5 mg/day of lithium carbonate, which seems unlikely. But we’re taking the data at face value for now.
First of all, we want to see how much elemental lithium everyone is taking.
Many people reported a single number for their daily lithium dose, but some people reported a range, e.g. “5mg-20mg”. To convert this into a single number for analysis, whenever a person gave a range of values, we went with the average of the range endpoints. In this example, a report of “5mg-20mg” would be converted to 12.5 mg.
Different lithium compounds contain different amounts of elemental lithium. This is the “active ingredient”, so to speak. We did our best to estimate elemental lithium from the numbers people reported. In most cases, this was pretty straightforward. Lithium carbonate is prescribed by the weight of the compound, and the elemental dose is 18.8% of the weight of the listed dose. Lithium orotate usually lists elemental lithium on the packaging, and so most of the time, no conversion is needed.
However, we did have to guess on a few. For example, one person said that they were taking lithium orotate, but said they were taking 130 mg per day. Based on what we know about lithium orotate doses available on the market (see e.g. here), we think 130 mg elemental is very unlikely — this is probably 5 mg elemental, so we coded it as 5 mg. For all these conversions, you should be able to double-check our numbers in the raw data (available on the OSF).
Having made these conversions, we find that people were taking doses between 0.25 and 282 mg per day elemental lithium, over spans ranging from 1 day to 4 years. We use dose per day because it’s easy to track. Here’s the distribution:
As you can see, most people were taking less than 50 mg/day. In fact, most were taking less than 25 mg/day. The median daily dose in this sample is 10 mg/day, the mean is 39.6 mg/day, and the mode (15 people) is 5 mg/day. The next most popular dose after the mode is actually 1 mg/day — 6 people were trying that amount.
In comparison, the average therapeutic dose is 50-300 mg/day elemental lithium, usually delivered as lithium carbonate. So overall, these nootropics folks are taking rather small doses.
Lithium orotate was by far the most popular compound in our sample. This makes a lot of sense — lithium orotate can be purchased over the counter, or over the internet, without a prescription, and comes in relatively low elemental doses, all of which makes it an ideal nootropic. Of the 66 cases, 42 people were taking lithium orotate, 22 were taking lithium carbonate, and one each were taking lithium aspartate and “Lithium Chloride / Ionic Lithium”.
We keep saying “doses”, but it’s important to keep in mind that from a biological point of view, these are not really doses — these are deltas, a change in the daily dose. People are already getting some small daily dose of lithium every day from their food and water, so whatever they are taking as a nootropic is a dose in addition to the dose they were already getting. We don’t currently know what kinds of doses people are getting from food and water — the literature is a little confused at points — but we’re confident that it’s more than zero.
So while we don’t know if the average American is getting 5 mg/day from their food or just 0.05 mg/day, we know they’re getting some amount — for now, let’s call the average everyday dose X. If someone is taking 5 mg/day as a nootropic, they’re not getting a total dose of 5 mg/day, they’re getting X + 5 mg/day.
Let’s start by looking at weight change on these low doses.
Like the doses themselves, weight change was also reported as a range in a few cases. Like the doses, whenever someone gave a range, we took the mean of that range as our point estimate value.
Here are the weight changes people reported compared to the daily elemental dose they were taking. Note that the weight changes here are in kilograms:
That plot is a little hard to read because most people are taking low doses (< 50 mg/day) so most of the points are crammed in over on the left side. To make it easier to read, here’s the same plot with the x-axis log10 transformed (with some jitter in the x-axis to keep points from overlapping):
One caveat is that these plots include many people who didn’t actually mention any weight change at all. Since they didn’t mention it, we assumed the weight change on their dose was effectively zero. This seems like a pretty safe assumption, but just in case, here’s the same plot with only the people who explicitly said something about their weight change:
Most people didn’t see any weight change, or at least, they didn’t report any. But 8 of the 66 cases did report some weight change.
The first weight change reported is a loss of 3 kg, at a dose of 5 mg/day. This is a low dose, and it’s weight lost, not weight gained, which makes it something of an outlier.
The first weight gain reported is an increase of 5 kg on 20 mg/day, which this participant reported taking for approximately 365 days. The next weight gain is 8 kg on 50 mg/day, which the person reported taking for only 60 days.
After 50 mg, weight gain seems to be more common, though certainly not universal. Of people who took more than 50 mg/day elemental, 6 of 18 reported weight gain, which is 33%. The highest weight gain reported was 35 kg (not pounds, he was quite clear) on 56.4 mg/day elemental taken as 300 mg/day lithium carbonate, over 4 years.
So, keeping the limitations of the small sample in mind, this suggests that the weight gain effects kick in around the range of 20–50 mg/day of elemental lithium, for somewhere in the ballpark of one third of people.
The sample size is quite small, but if you squint, it does kind of look like weight gain kicks in a bit earlier for Lithium Orotate than for Lithium Carbonate. We didn’t expect this, but while we were working on this project, a reader pointed us to a small literature finding that lithium orotate is sometimes effective at a lower dose than lithium carbonate.
This is a literature that currently seems to be driven by Anthony Pacholko and Lane Bekar, two Canadian researchers from Saskatchewan, building off of the work of Hans Nieper in the 1970s. In the interest of full disclosure, we should tell you that Wikipedia describes Nieper as “a controversial German alternative medicine practitioner” whose therapies have “been discredited as ineffective and unsafe.” The “see also” links at the bottom of his page are “List of unproven and disproven cancer treatments” and “Quackery”. Caveat lector.
In any case, there is a review by Pacholko and Bekar from 2021, which does cite many sources outside Nieper, and says in the abstract, “[lithium orotate] is proposed to cross the blood–brain barrier and enter cells more readily than [lithium carbonate], which will theoretically allow for reduced dosage requirements and ameliorated toxicity concerns”. They also have an empirical study published in 2022, which reports benefits of lithium orotate over lithium carbonate in mice.
We’re not going to review the whole literature here, but it’s worth noting. Let’s mark it down for now as suggestive.
Weight gain is not the only effect of lithium. It might not even be the most interesting effect.
The nootropics people on reddit dragged us for mostly including negative effects — which, you know what, totally fair. We should have included more positive effects. We’re interested in seeing when the bad stuff kicks in, but while we were at it, we should have looked at when everything kicked in. If we study this again, we’ll include more positive effects.
We also now realize that we should have asked for the effects on a scale (1-7, 0-3, something like that). Asking just “did you experience increased thirst or not” gives us very little information for most of these symptoms. If we study this again, we’ll use more detailed measures.
But for now, let’s look at the data we have. And the data we have are already pretty interesting. People reported experiencing all sorts of effects:
And, to our surprise, they reported lots of these effects even on pretty low doses:
As before, this is a little hard to read because of the squashing. Here’s the same thing with the x-axis log10 transformed:
Even below 10 mg/day elemental (a 1 on the x-axis above, since this is log10), most people are reporting a few of these effects, and some of them are reporting several. Above 10 mg/day elemental, almost everyone reports multiple effects! It’s clear that stuff starts kicking in at pretty small doses.
Moving beyond the aggregated effects, we can ask, what effects popped up specifically? Here’s the list, with the number of cases that mentioned each effect:
Increased clarity / focus: 14
Increased calm: 38
Improved mood: 35
Improved sleep: 23
Trouble sleeping: 7
Confusion, poor memory, or lack of awareness: 12
Fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat or pulse: 1
Frequent urination: 10
Increased thirst: 11
Slow heartbeat: 0
Stiffness of the arms or legs: 1
Troubled breathing: 2
Unusual tiredness: 5
Brain fog: 13
Eye pain: 2
Vision problems: 1
Lack of coordination: 4
Loss of appetite: 5
Muscle weakness: 2
Ringing in the ears: 3
Slurred speech: 2
Trembling (severe): 3
Bloating or indigestion: 4
Decreased libido: 10
Loss in sexual ability, desire, drive, or performance: 4
Tooth pain: 0
And here are the top 10:
Increased calm: 38
Improved mood: 35
Improved sleep: 23
Increased clarity / focus: 14
Brain fog: 13
Confusion, poor memory, or lack of awareness: 12
Increased thirst: 11
Frequent urination: 10
Decreased libido: 10
We see that the four positive effects are the most commonly reported, which is what we would expect from a population of nootropics users who are taking lithium in search of positive effects. More than half of the cases reported “increased calm” and “improved mood”, and around a third reported “improved sleep”. On top of this, 14 reported “increased clarity / focus”. Of the 66 cases, 50 (about 75%) reported at least one of these four positive effects.
But this also makes it especially striking that so many people reported negative effects. If anything, this population is inclined to downplay the negative effects of lithium, but negative effects were reported quite frequently.
The most commonly reported negative effect was brain fog (13), followed by “confusion, poor memory, or lack of awareness” (12). These sound like the same thing, but there wasn’t perfect overlap. We see that 7 people reported brain fog without reporting confusion, and 6 reported confusion without reporting brain fog.
It’s pretty weird that “increased clarity / focus” is the fourth most common effect and “brain fog” and “confusion, poor memory, or lack of awareness” are effects #5 and #6. Aren’t these polar opposites? Why are they right next to each other in the rankings? Sounds like a possible paradoxical reaction.
The next most common effects were increased thirst (11) and frequent urination (10), which also seem related.
After that, the next most common is decreased libido (10), which is supported by a less common but related effect, “loss in sexual ability, desire, drive, or performance” (4). These are both reported at rather low doses, as low as 1 mg/day.
The next most common are fatigue (8), and trouble sleeping (7), and then we get into numbers too small to go over individually. But even so, almost every symptom we put on our list was reported by at least one person — we certainly did not expect that. The only three symptoms that no one reported were fainting, slow heartbeat, and tooth pain.
Some of these symptoms, like ringing in the ears (3), are only reported by people who were taking more than 50+ mg/day. But lots of effects start appearing at very low doses.
Like with the weight gain, there might be more effects for orotate than for carbonate at the same elemental dose. Don’t take this as conclusive — there’s not all that much evidence. But it is intriguing.
We can even do a regression looking at just the data from cases where people were taking carbonate or orotate. This brings us to a somewhat unusual finding.
When the dose of elemental lithium is used to predict the total number of lithium effects, the regression model finds significant main effects of both dose (p = .0008) and compound (p = .021), and a significant dose-by-compound interaction (p = .0019). The total R-squared is 0.257, which is pretty good. This model suggests that lithium orotate does bring on more effects at a lower dose than lithium carbonate.
But, there is only a main effect of dose (p = .005) when dose of elemental lithium is log10 transformed. In this case, the compound (p = .899) and the interaction (p = .718) are not significant, though the R-squared is pretty similar (0.245).
This difference is pretty clear when we plot both models with their regression lines. Here’s the situation if you don’t log-transform the daily lithium dose. You can clearly see that the slopes of the two lines are very different:
But here’s the situation if you do log-transform the daily lithium dose. You can clearly see that the slopes of the two lines are nearly identical:
This is a little weird. On the one hand, that’s a pretty clear interaction in the non-transformed data. On the other hand, we would expect log transformation to be the appropriate transformation for this analysis. Make of that what you will.
Troof points out that a lot of this interaction seems to be driven by a single participant, who looks kind of unusual and is taking an unusually high dose of lithium orotate. If you look at the plots, you can see them as a somewhat clear outlier (taking the most orotate and having the most effects of anyone on that compound). So probably don’t put too much trust in this data point, and without it, the case for an interaction basically disappears.
These results suggest that many effects of lithium kick in at subclinical levels. In this sample, the majority of people who took at least 1 mg of elemental lithium a day reported at least one effect, and people on doses above 5 mg/day tended to report experiencing several effects.
The most common effects people reported were the four positive effects we asked about, but several negative effects of lithium were commonly reported as well, especially brain fog, “confusion, poor memory, and lack of awareness”, increased thirst, frequent urination, decreased libido, “loss in sexual ability, desire, drive, or performance”, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. A slight majority of cases (53%) reported at least one negative effect.
Weight gain was not a common effect, but it was reported at relatively low doses. The lowest dose for reported weight gain was on a dose of 20 mg/day, and the next lowest was on 50 mg/day. The greatest reported weight gain was on a dose of only 56.4 mg/day. Taken together, this suggests that in the current environment, lithium can cause noticeable weight gain on elemental doses below 50 mg/day, and possibly as low as 20 mg/day.
Unfortunately, this does not tell us all that much about the dose-response curve. There are just too many degrees of freedom, and we don’t know that X value, the amount that people are getting from their food and water. It could be that X is well below the dose-response curve, and +50 mg/day is needed to push you onto the curve:
But it could equally be the case that X is well onto the curve — past the point of greatest sensitivity! — and a big delta like +50 mg/day is needed just to see any weight change at all.
This evidence doesn’t rule anything in, but it does rule some things out. Given these findings, we can mostly rule out the idea that doses below 10 mg/day have no effects. We can also rule out the idea that weight gain starts kicking in at just 0.1 mg/day — it seems pretty clear that you need a bigger delta than that. But we can also mostly rule out the idea that weight gain only occurs above 600 mg/day.
So while it’s good that some things are ruled out, we still don’t know enough to pin down the dose-response curve.
At least, not for weight gain. We do see what looks like evidence of the dose-response curves for other effects.
Troof also played around with the data a bit, and sent us the following graph. The pattern is clear for some effects and rather messy for others, but we see what looks very clearly like the start of a dose-response curve for increased thirst. We also see what look like dose-response curves for improved mood, improved sleep, increased calm, and increased clarity, where rates of the effects increase and then level off. But there isn’t a clear curve for brain fog or confusion, at least not in these data.
One weird thing we noticed is that most of these dose-response curves come down at the highest dose level, suggesting that some of these effects actually get less likely past a certain point. Not sure what’s going on there, we’re interested to hear what people think.
At this point you might be wondering: should someone do a human challenge trial for low-dose lithium? You know, round up some brave souls on the internet, get them all to take 10 mg’s worth of lithium orotate every day for a month, and see what happens to them by the end. Is that a good idea?
We don’t think this is a good idea, for a couple reasons. First of all, we don’t know what X is, which means that increasing the dose by a fixed amount isn’t actually all that informative.
Second, we’re pretty sure that X is different in different places and for different people. Combine this with the fact that different people probably have different dose-response curves for strictly genetic reasons, and the results begin seeming hopelessly complicated.
Finally, while low-dose lithium does seem to have positive effects for many people, some of its effects are quite nasty. We wouldn’t want to subject volunteers to unnecessary brain fog and fatigue. If we were sure that the study would teach us a lot, then maybe it would be worth it, maybe we would be open to convincing people to give it a go. Maybe we would try it ourselves. But since we don’t think it would really answer any of our biggest questions, we don’t think a lithium supplementation study would be worth anyone’s while.
However, Troof has convinced us that there are more than 40 people out there who have already tried subclinical doses of lithium, and that at least some of them will be reading this post. So we’ve put together an updated version of our survey that fixes some of the problems we mentioned above — it asks about the magnitude of each effect, includes more positive effects, and includes more effects in general. If you’ve taken lithium before, you can fill out the survey here, and if we get enough responses, we will post another analysis. If you filled out the first survey, you can fill this one out too, because this one is a little more detailed — just check the box that indicates that you took the first survey, so we can make sure not to double-count you.
Potatoes are special for many many reasons, but by far the most obvious thing that makes them special is that they’re really high in potassium. If potassium is the reason the potato diet makes people lose weight, then there’s a good chance that taking potassium directly would also make people lose weight. Someone should really do a study. Who, us? Ok, fine.
Tl;dr, we’re looking for people to volunteer to supplement small doses of potassium chloride (KCl) for at least four weeks, and to share their data so we can do an analysis. You can sign up below.
Potassium (K) is a slivery-white alkali metal, and element number 19 on the periodic table. In its pure form, it is highly explosive on contact with water. But most of the time, we encounter potassium in forms where it is much more stable.
In these non-explosive forms, potassium is an essential mineral for human life. Because it plays many important roles in your biology, you have to consume a small amount of potassium every day to remain healthy.
There are a couple reasons to suspect that potassium might be the active ingredient driving the weight loss we see on the potato diet. The first is that the potato diet provides stunningly high doses of potassium, amounts that most people would never otherwise consume.
For a long time, the recommended daily value for adults (technically, the “Adequate Intake”) was 4,700 mg of potassium per day. But most people don’t get anywhere near this amount.
In every CDC NHANES dataset from 1999 to 2018, median potassium intake hovers around 2,400 mg/day, and mean intake around 2,600 mg/day. In this report from 2004, the National Academy of Medicine found that “most American women … consume no more than half of the recommended amount of potassium, and men’s intake is only moderately higher.” Per this paper, only 0.3% of American women were getting the recommended amount. Similarly low levels of intake are also observed in Europe, Mexico, China, etc.
But in 2019, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine changed the recommended / adequate intake to 2,600 mg/day for women and 3,400 mg/day for men. They say that the change is “due, in part, to the expansion of the DRI model in which consideration of chronic disease risk reduction was separate from consideration of adequacy,” but we can’t help but wonder if they changed it because it was embarrassing to have less than 5% of the population getting the recommended amount.
In any case, recommended potassium intake is something like 2,500 to 5,000 mg per day for adults, and many people don’t get enough.
Potatoes are exceptionally high in potassium. A single potato contains somewhere between 600 and 1000 mg of potassium, depending on which source you look at. They are the 6th highest in potassium on this list of high-potassium foods from the NIH, and 9th on this old list from the USDA. If you do the math, this means that someone on the potato diet, eating 2,000 kcal of potatoes a day, gets at least 11,000 mg of potassium per day, more than twice the old recommended intake.
Some people on the potato diet found their appetite decreased so much that they were only eating about 1,000 calories per day — but even then, they would still be getting around 5,500 mg of potassium.
Only 2.8% of Americans in the NHANES data got 5,500 mg per day or more. Only 0.06% were recorded as getting 11,000 mg/day or more. Clearly, the potato diet provides way more potassium than most people would ever get in their day-to-day lives.
One study, published in 2019, looks at the relationship between potassium intake and weight loss. As far as we know, it’s the only study of its kind (if you know of any others, send ‘em our way). In this study, sixty-eight people were enrolled in a “moderate low calorie/high protein Mediterranean diet” for a year. People generally lost weight, and “the strongest correlate of the decline in BMI was the increase in dietary potassium intake.”
In the aggregated publicly-available NHANES data from 1999 to 2018, potassium intake is negatively correlated with BMI (r = -0.055, p < .001) and log BMI (r = -0.051, p < .001). Because of complications around body size (taller people consume more food anyways, and therefore more potassium), we actually think that potassium per calorie, or potassium density, is the more appropriate measure. The relationship here is weaker (r = -0.031 with BMI, r = -0.022 if BMI is log-transformed), but still significant because of the large sample size.
But the really interesting thing is that the relationship gets stronger year-to-year across the span of the NHANES data. Here it is with both BMI and potassium density log-transformed. The relationship holds regardless of transformation, but log-transformation makes for the clearest visualization:
The relationship between potassium density and BMI is not significant in the early years of the NHANES data. From 1999 to 2010, the correlation is always consistent with zero, and p-values are always .20 or greater, even with these very large sample sizes. The sign of the nonsignificant relationship flips back and forth between positive and negative.
But in the 2011-2012 dataset, the relationship is negative, and the p-value drops below 0.10 for the first time. In the 2013-2014 dataset, the relationship is negative and significant (p < .001). In the remaining two datasets, 2015-2016 and 2017-2018, the correlation gets stronger and stronger. By 2017-2018, the correlation is r = -0.095. Aggregated across all years, the relationship is “only” r = -0.024, but that obscures the fact that the correlation has been increasing since around 2011.
There are certainly alternative explanations for this finding. For example, people who eat a diet that is higher in vegetables might both have lower BMIs and get more potassium on average. But it’s hard to come up with an explanation for why the relationship has been increasing, especially since potassium consumption / dietary potassium density haven’t changed at all over the same timespan:
This analysis doesn’t tell us much by itself. It isn’t strong evidence that potassium can cause weight loss, and doesn’t convince us of anything in particular. But it’s genuinely pretty weird, and since we don’t have much other correlational evidence, we thought it was good to mention.
The final reason to suspect that potassium might cause weight loss is that we tried taking small doses of potassium for a couple of weeks and we lost weight right away.
Two of the SMTM authors did a self-experiment where we took small doses of Nu-Salt and tracked our weight over time. Nu-Salt is just potassium chloride (KCl) in a salt shaker, marketed as a sodium-free alternative to table salt. You can buy Nu-Salt shakers online, at many local grocery stores, or even at Wal-Mart.
We started with two doses of 1/8 teaspoon Nu-Salt (about 330 mg potassium) twice a day and worked up from there. Straight potassium chloride is kind of gross (at least to us, your mileage may vary), so most of the time we mixed the KCl with a drink like Vitamin Water or Gatorade and just chugged it, though occasionally we mixed the potassium into food. Eventually we worked up to doses of 1/2 teaspoon a few (usually 2) times a day.
The first SMTM author to try this lost 5 lbs over the first 10 days, and then hovered around 5 lbs down for the remainder of the four weeks. At the lowest point, they were down 8.4 lbs.
The second author to try potassium supplementation lost 6 lbs over four weeks. They found this so easy that they kept going, and ended up losing a total of 12 lbs over 60 days. Some say they’re still taking potassium to this day (they are).
Here’s the graph for that second author. Note the two gaps when they weren’t able to weigh themselves because they had social commitments — a concert (the first gap) and a fishing tournament (the second gap).
This weight loss is modest, but surprising given that neither of these authors were very heavy to begin with. We also didn’t do anything else to try to lose weight — we weren’t sleeping more or eating better or doing more cardio. All we did was start taking some extra potassium. Honestly we are shocked. This is kind of unbelievable and we need other people to try it because we are so shocked.
Supplementing potassium, even at these low doses, felt a lot like being on the potato diet. From the start, we felt fidgety and sometimes hypomanic.
As on the potato diet, we noticed we needed more salt (i.e. more sodium) and more water, but we didn’t always crave salt or feel thirsty, and we had to consciously eat more sodium and drink more water to avoid feeling bad. A related side-effect is that salty foods like potato chips no longer taste salty — we suspect this is because the body needs so much sodium to balance out the potassium that it has “taken the brakes off” the mechanisms that normally make you stop cramming pickles into your mouth. Even straight table salt didn’t taste overwhelmingly salty.
We eventually figured out that you can put table salt into the same glass of water as potassium salt and drink them at the same time. This helps make sure you’re getting more sodium to balance out the potassium, and it also seems to make the potassium taste less weird.
We mostly did half as much sodium salt as potassium salt, a 1:2 ratio — for example, if we were taking a dose of 1/4 tsp potassium salt in water, we would add 1/8 tsp sodium salt to the same glass. But we’re not sure what the best ratio is, and we notice that some electrolyte powders have much higher ratios. For example, LMNT contains 1000 mg sodium for every 200 mg potassium. This seems like a lot but maybe a 5:1 ratio is better, people seem to like the taste of this stuff.
Like on the potato diet, we found our appetites diminished — what had been regular-sized meals made us feel stuffed like we had just finished Thanksgiving dinner. And just like on the potato diet, what little hunger remained was “weird” and easy to miss.
When we did feel hungry, it didn’t feel like a “problem”, and we sometimes went too long without eating and ended up feeling like crap. Hunger usually manifested as headaches, fatigue, and mood changes, rather than the physical signs we’re used to. Again, this sounds like the potato diet. For reference, this is how some people described the experience of hunger on the potato diet:
All this sounds a lot like the potato diet. But that in itself is kind of mysterious. People on the potato diet were getting about 10,000 mg of potassium a day. In comparison, we never supplemented more than 4,000 mg a day, and started the first day with only 660 mg. So it’s worth musing over why we lost weight on such small small doses.
One possibility is that small amounts of straight potassium salt act as a bolus dose. Potassium in food is essentially a slow-release formulation, but straight KCl in solution might be absorbed much more quickly and directly. This means that relatively small doses of potassium salts may lead to bigger spikes in blood potassium. If potassium causes weight loss by reaching a certain serum level, or by reaching the brain, a bolus may be much more effective than an extended-release formulation, which is what you would get in food.
We were also taking a different form of potassium than is found in food. The potassium compounds found in fruits and vegetables “include potassium phosphate, sulfate, citrate, and others, but not potassium chloride.” Not to mention the fact that we were dissolving the salt into drinks, so really we were getting straight potassium ions, not compounds that needed to be digested.
And in our case, we not only took our KCl in a drink, we tended to chug it all at once. It takes like 5-10 minutes to finish a plate of potatoes; compare that to chugging 330 mg K+ in a Vitamin Water in 10 seconds flat. Even if the potatoes contain more potassium, the pure ions hitting your stomach in such a small window might make a big difference. This might also contribute to a bolus effect.
We also tended to take our first dose early in the day, often before we had eaten our first meal. If potassium suppresses your appetite, you might get more of an effect if you take it before food. If you’re getting your potassium from food, you literally can’t take it before food.
A final explanation is that we were somehow primed for weight loss and weird side-effects from doing potato diet self-experiments. Both authors had been self-experimenting with potato diets before trying potassium supplementation, and it’s possible that after several months of high potato intake, pure potassium has more of an effect. We don’t know enough to say anything with confidence yet. But you know, that’s why we want to do a bigger study.
An important consideration when thinking about new theories is, if this were true, could we have missed it? For example, we can be pretty confident that cheese doesn’t cure cancer, because if it did, someone probably would have noticed by now (compare XKCD’s The Economic Argument). So in this case we should ask ourselves, if dietary potassium leads to weight loss, could that have really flown under the radar? What are the chances that (almost) everyone would have missed it?
We think it’s possible. The potato diet gives an exceptionally high dose of potassium, much higher than the recommended amount and more than almost anyone is getting in their normal everyday diet. If doses in this range reduce obesity, we probably wouldn’t have noticed because people almost never consume such large amounts on a daily basis.
While there seems to be a relationship with BMI in the normal dietary range, that relationship is hard to detect. The relationship in the NHANES data isn’t even statistically significant until 2013-2014, so people have had less than ten years to notice it. The correlation in the dietary range is also quite small, only about r = 0.05. You need a sample size of 783 observations to have just 80% power to detect a correlation of 0.10, and the correlation between BMI and potassium has never been that high, at least not in the NHANES data. If you want 90% power to detect a correlation of r = 0.05, you need 4,200 observations. So aside from in the NHANES, there haven’t been many chances to notice this either.
Even when people do supplement potassium, they tend to take really tiny amounts. Potassium supplements and multivitamins pretty much always contain 99 mg potassium or less. This appears to be the result of a ruling by the FDA, which says that oral potassium chloride supplements that provide more than 99 mg potassium are unsafe because they have been associated with small-bowel lesions. (This ruling only applies to non-prescription pills; prescription potassium tablets often contain more than 100 mg.)
We can’t quite tell if the FDA has regulated that you can’t put more than 99 mg in a supplement, or if they just require you to add a warning about small-bowel lesions and all the manufacturers have decided not to risk it. The relevant ruling appears to be 21 CFR 201.306, which does not seem to be a regulatory action, but there’s also something in the Federal Register from 1992 (57 FR 18157) which we haven’t been able to find. In any case, this appears to be the origin of the practice.
We are pretty sure that limiting potassium to 99 mg does not make sense and is wrong, for several reasons. First of all, we know that people can handle doses of potassium above 99 mg in some form or another, because people get several thousand mg from their diets every day. And potassium chloride is not the only way to consume potassium. Even if potassium chloride did somehow cause small-bowel lesions, people could take potassium citrate or potassium phosphate instead.
It’s not even clear what the original ruling was based on. This page from the NIH points to this document as a reference for the ruling, but that document just lists “all solid oral dosage form drug products containing potassium chloride that supply 100 milligrams of potassium per dosage unit” under the heading “216.24 Drug products withdrawn or removed from the market for reasons of safety or effectiveness”, and doesn’t give any reason why they were withdrawn.
The original ruling from 1975, 21 CFR 201.306, doesn’t cite any sources, and it is pretty noncommittal about the state of the evidence:
There have been several reports, published and unpublished, concerning nonspecific small-bowel lesions consisting of stenosis, with or without ulceration, associated with the administration of enteric-coated thiazides with potassium salts. These lesions may occur with enteric-coated potassium tablets alone or when they are used with nonenteric-coated thiazides, or certain other oral diuretics. … Based on a large survey of physicians and hospitals, both United States and foreign, the incidence of these lesions is low, and a causal relationship in man has not been definitely established. Available information tends to implicate enteric-coated potassium salts, although lesions of this type also occur spontaneously.
As far as we can tell, this was all prompted by a small number of articles from the 1960s. This article from 1965 reports six cases of “non-specific ulceration of the small intestine presenting as intestinal obstruction, perforation or haemorrhage” in patients taking “Hydrosaluric-K (enteric-coated hydrochlorothiazide with potassium chloride)”.
You’ll notice that both of these sources are saying something much more specific than just “potassium bad”. This article, also from 1965, makes it pretty clear that it thinks that enteric-coated potassium supplements, specifically, are to blame:
In 1957 the first of the group of thiazide diuretics was introduced. Because increased potassium excretion is one of the pharmacological effects of these thiazides, from the beginning of their use the supplementary administration of potassium has been a common procedure for protection against the potentially serious hazard of hypokalemia. In 1959, the first of several combinations of a thiazide diuretic with potassium chloride in a single tablet was introduced; some of these combinations are enteric coated while others are not.
Since 1957 there has been a striking increase in incidence of small-bowel ulcerative lesions. Recognition that these are related to the ingestion of enteric-coated potassium chloride is due primarily to the observations of Lindholmer et al in Sweden and Baker et al in this country.
Enteric coating refers to a polymer barrier applied to a pill or supplement that keeps it from dissolving in the stomach. Pills are coated this way for various reasons, but the end result is that the drug or substance is delivered to the intestines, rather than to the stomach. The second paper here is pretty confident that delivery to the intestine, rather than the potassium salt per se, is the problem. “A new preparation is necessary,” they say, “which will not … release potassium suddenly in the small intestine permitting absorption of a high concentration of the potassium chloride.”
Even with enteric coating, these lesions appear to be pretty rare. In that first set of six case studies, the authors note that, “in view of the widespread use of enteric-coated diuretic and potassium chloride tablets, constricting ulcers of the small intestine must be a very rare complication.” They cite only 53 cases from 1963 to 1965, “in which 48 patients had been taking enteric-coated thiazide and potassium chloride tablets, three patients may have been, and two had not.”
All the original sources seem to make it clear that enteric-coated potassium tablets are the thing to watch out for, not potassium itself. This was preserved in the 1975 ruling (“nonspecific small-bowel lesions … associated with the administration of enteric-coated thiazides with potassium salts”), but somewhere along the way the message was muddled and people got confused, and started thinking any potassium pills were potentially dangerous.
This appears to be a misconception. Though it’s not easy to find in a supplement, people regularly take prescription tablets of more than 100 mg potassium chloride and are just fine. Plain old potassium chloride seems pretty safe, and we can say that with some confidence because it’s something that has been the subject of many studies.
(Sadly none of these studies seem to have tracked body weight.)
In this hypertension study from 1985, participants were given about 2,500 mg potassium a day as “Slow-K (Ciba) eight tablets a day” for a month. They don’t report any negative events.
In this hypertension study from 2005, participants in one arm of the study were given about 3,700 mg potassium a day as “12 Slow-K tablets”. This lasted for a week and as far as we can tell, everyone was ok — they certainly don’t mention any bowel lesions in the paper. [Edit: We missed it the first time around, but this study did track body weight. People in the trial lost an average of 0.1 kg (0.22 lbs) over 7 days on potassium citrate, and an average of 0.3 kg (0.66 lbs) over 7 days on potassium chloride. They don’t seem to report a test against baseline but it probably would not be significant because the sample size was only 14.]
These Slow-K tablets themselves are just over 300 mg potassium in a “sugar-coated (not enteric-coated) tablet”. Taking 12 of them a day for a week seems to work out just fine.
In this chronic kidney disease study from 2022, participants were given a daily dose of about 1,500 mg potassium in “two capsules, three times per day during meals”. This presumably works out to a total of six capsules a day, or about 250 mg potassium per capsule. In this group with chronic kidney disease, 11% (mostly the older participants) did develop hyperkalemia. But no one developed small-bowel lesions.
We could keep going like this for a while — many studies give people several thousand milligrams of KCl per day, in forms that contain well over 100 mg of potassium per tablet. As long as tablets aren’t enteric-coated, and people don’t have chronic kidney disease, this turns out just fine. KCl by itself at reasonable doses is quite safe. You can literally buy sacks or jugs of potassium chloride on Amazon, mostly for use in electrolyte solutions (i.e. make your own Gatorade).
The design of the study is simple: supplement low doses of potassium directly, and see if people lose weight. Super easy, low cost. And you’re probably not getting enough potassium to begin with.
This design is similar to the design we used for the potato diet. The main difference is that you will be chugging potassium salt solution instead of eating potatoes, and you can keep eating normal food like usual.
This study will run the same length as the potato diet so that the two can be compared directly — 28 days, with the final weight measurement on the morning of day 29. But we encourage people who are having a good time with the potassium to keep going and report back again at 60 days.
We recommend that you use Nu-Salt as the source of your potassium chloride, because that is what we tried and it worked for us. All terms and measurements below will be in Nu-Salt terms; if you use something else, make sure to convert all units to whatever form of potassium you are eating.
You can buy 3 oz shakers of Nu-Salt in various places, including on Amazon. A 3-pak should be enough to cover 28 days of potassium supplementation for most people, but if you want to share with your friends and family, or you’re confident you want to supplement potassium for longer, you can also buy a 12-pak.
There are many other potassium chloride brands you could try if you want, like this Morton salt substitute (though we tried this one and found it to be *extra* gross). You could also try another potassium compound, like potassium citrate. We would prefer that most of you stick to KCl, but if a few of you tried other compounds that might be interesting, in case they end up being clearly much more or much less effective.
We’re asking participants to buy their own potassium, and we feel ok about this because potassium salt is pretty cheap, only about 80 cents per ounce. As of this writing, the 3-pak of Nu-Salt Shakers (totaling 9 oz of KCl) is only $7.48 on Amazon. But if you want to participate in this study and you really can’t afford it, contact us and we’ll send you some.
How to Consume
Potassium chloride by itself tastes pretty gross to most people, bitter and metallic all at the same time. This gang of Australian teens tasted all the alkali metal salts, and if you can get past their literally nauseating camerawork, you’ll see that they describe potassium chloride as “really bad” and “weird” and “cold on my tongue” and “it tastes like how bleach smells” and “oh god, what is it?” They still gave it a 3/10 though, which is a higher rating than they gave cesium chloride.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to mask this unpleasant taste. If you mix the potassium salt into food or beverage, it becomes much easier to handle.
We fooled around with a few approaches, but ultimately we found that it’s easiest to just dissolve the KCl in a glass of water, or Gatorade / Powerade / Vitamin Water. Often we did potassium in a mixture of half water and half one of these drinks. The flavor of 1/8 tsp KCl in a 20 oz drink is pretty understated — the water just feels “smoother”, almost like a fancy mineral water. Which it kind of is.
You can improve the taste a little more if you also add a bit of table salt (NaCl). We found that a mix of 2:1 KCl to NaCl tastes pretty ok — not too salty and not too metallic. For example, if you were putting 1/4 tsp KCl in a Gatorade, adding 1/8 tsp NaCl is a good idea to keep the potassium taste from being overwhelming. But some electrolyte powders contain higher ratios and may be more effective/taste better, so feel free to experiment with adding more (or less) NaCl.
Adding lemon juice or sugar can also help offset the taste. As you can imagine, if you take this line of thinking to its natural conclusion you’ll end up drinking slightly salty lemonade. It’s not too bad.
We also sometimes tried putting the KCl in food. You can hide small doses in flavorful foods like beans, or in sauces, but if you overshoot at all, the food ends up tasting pretty weird.
Our most successful food discovery is that KCl goes really well with mustard. You can mix 1/4 teaspoon into a generous helping of mustard and barely taste it at all. If anything, KCl gives the mustard a tingly, almost effervescent feel.
If we were normal influencers, this is where we would start promoting DR MOLD-TIME’s KALIATED WEIGHT LOSS MUSTARD. Sadly we don’t know how to sell condiments, but hit us up if you want to do a partnership.
How to Supplement:
Take at least one dose per day.
But no more than 4 doses per day.
Always take doses at least an hour apart.
Take doses with plenty of water. It’s also recommended you take them with some table salt, or eat something salty right after.
We recommend that each dose be at least 330 mg potassium (1/8 tsp Nu-Salt).
However, never take more than 1300 mg potassium (1/2 tsp Nu-Salt) in a single dose.
This means the maximum daily dose from KCl supplementation is 5200 mg, which is high but still less than you would get on the potato diet.
If you have to miss a few days that’s fine, just pick it back up when you can.
In the grand scheme of things, these are pretty low doses. A few hundred milligrams of potassium isn’t much, and this dosing scheme will never give you anywhere near the amounts of potassium people were getting on the potato diet.
If this setup doesn’t cause weight loss, it’s still possible that potassium could be the active ingredient in the potato diet, and the dose on this protocol is simply too low to budge your lipostat. But, safety first, and we hold out hope that small doses may have clear effects, even if the effect of this study is smaller than the potato diet.
Now that we’ve established these basics, here’s the study protocol:
Start with two doses of 330 mg potassium (1/8 tsp Nu-Salt) on the first day.
If you feel fine, try three or four doses of 330 mg potassium (1/8 tsp Nu-Salt) on subsequent days.
If you’re feeling fine after 4-7 days, try one dose of 660 mg potassium (1/4 tsp Nu-Salt).
If you still feel good, keep increasing your dose by small increments. For example, if you are on two doses of 660 mg (1/4 tsp Nu-Salt) a day, you might increase that to three doses of 660 mg, or one dose of 660 mg and one dose of 1300 mg (1/2 tsp Nu-Salt). If a higher dose makes you feel bad, try returning to the dose you were on before and maintain that.
Try slowly increasing to two doses of 1300 mg (1/2 tsp Nu-Salt) a day. Only go beyond that if you are feeling totally fine.
You should calibrate based on your own experience — different people will have different needs and different limits. For example, we’d expect someone who weighs 300 pounds would be able to tolerate higher doses than someone who weighs 150 pounds.
If you feel weird / bad / tired / brainfog and you can’t tell why, try:
drinking some water;
getting some sodium;
and see if any of those help. It may be easy to end up needing food / water / salt and not notice.
If you still feel weird, try dropping to a lower dose or taking 1-2 days off.
If at any point you feel sick or have symptoms of hyperkalemia (see below), stop immediately and seek medical attention.
This is not a diet. You should continue eating as normal, and food should mostly be consumed ad libitum (eat as much as you want). But there’s one important guideline we want to note. Because potassium supplementation seems like it strongly reduces appetite in some people, you may actually need to eat more than you feel like. We strongly encourage you to make sure you get at least 1000 calories a day, preferably more.
It’s fine to take breaks in the middle or even stop the trial early. But if you sign up, please record 4 weeks of data even if you stop taking potassium at some point, have to end early, have to take a break in the middle, or can’t stand taking KCl for the full 4 weeks. If you do it for two days and hate it, please keep recording your weight and potassium consumption (which would just be zero from then on) for the full 29 days and submit your data as normal. We can still use it!
Our hope is that this will keep us from running into the dropout issues we had in the potato diet. Anyone who records data for 29 days is clearly taking the study seriously, even if they weren’t able to stick to the potassium supplements the whole time.
Based on this, our main analysis will focus on participants who provide 4 weeks of data. If you provide a weight measurement for the morning of day 1 and the morning of day 29, so we can calculate your weight before and after, and you took at least one dose of potassium, we will do our best to include you in the analysis.
Speaking of which, here are the variables we want you to track.
The main outcome of interest is your weight, taken every morning, after your first “void”, assuming you void in the morning.
We also want you to track your potassium supplementation. We’ve provided four fields per day for potassium doses and notes, since we ask that you take no more than four doses per day.
There’s a possibility that potassium causes weight loss by protecting you from lithium, and there’s a chance that certain foods are especially high in lithium. We aren’t confident enough about this to ask you to avoid these foods, but we do want to ask you to track how much you’re eating them. We’ve provided fields for meat, eggs, dairy, leafy greens, and tomato products, all of which are currently top lithium candidates. If you eat more than a smidge (by your own judgment) of any of these foods, please put a “1” in that field for that day. If not, put a “0”.
This way, we can see if any of these foods seem to inhibit potassium weight loss. Relatedly, if you’re supplementing potassium and not seeing any weight loss, you could always try cutting back on the cream and ketchup.
We’ve also included fields for several BONUS VARIABLES. You don’t have to track these, but if you do, the standardized fields will let us analyze these results across participants. In particular, we’d be interested in having data for your blood pressure, sodium intake, and energy/mood, but we’ve included several more fields for variables people might want to track. There’s also a field for tracking waist circumference, which a couple people asked for after the potato diet.
We also included fields for up to 10 extra variables of your choosing. If you want to record anything else, please put it here. This way you can add more variables without changing the format of the data sheet, which would make it harder to analyze your data. So please don’t touch the formatting, but feel free to add variables in the extra variables area.
And speaking of other variables — Michael Dubrovsky of SiPhox reached out to us to offer a discount to participants who want to test their blood biomarkers with SiPhox’s at-home Quantify kits. We haven’t had a chance to try these kits, but if you’re interested check it out. You can get a two-kit bundle (so you can do one test before the trial and one after) for 40% off at this link.
That’s the gist. Before you sign up, however, we insist you read this section on safety:
Do not participate if you have diabetes or any kind of impaired kidney function.
For everyone else, this level of potassium supplementation should be very safe.
Until recently, it was recommended that adults get 4,700 mg of potassium per day in their diet. Most people seem to get less than this, so supplementing is probably a good idea anyways.
Going over 4,700 mg of potassium a day is also very safe. Most people in the NHANES data got less than the recommended amount, but a small number were estimated to get over 10,000 mg in their diet. The potato diet also seems to indicate that you can take a lot of potassium and not get sick. As a reminder, 2000 calories of potatoes gives you more than 10,000 mg of potassium.
In addition to recommended allowances, the National Academy of Medicine also sets tolerable upper intake levels (ULs) for vitamins and minerals. But normal doses of dietary potassium are so safe that no upper level has been set, for lack of information. This chapter from the National Academy says, “Although dietary potassium intake can be increased through behavioral change, there is a self-limiting aspect to such changes that makes toxic adverse effects from increases in dietary potassium intake unlikely.”
This study focuses on potassium chloride specifically, which is quite safe. It’s sold as a salt substitute and electrolyte powder — you can buy it in bulk on Amazon. Studies of hypertension sometimes prescribe as much as 3,700 mg potassium a day as potassium chloride, without any apparent ill effects.
The toxicity of potassium chloride is low. The LD50 for potassium chloride taken orally is around 2,500 mg per kilogram of bodyweight. If you weigh 165 lbs, you would start to be in danger at doses of around 190,000 mg.
Like any substance, very large doses can be dangerous. The main danger is unsurprising — hyperkalemia, which is the condition of having too much potassium in your blood. But to get there, you have to A) take a lot of potassium, B) have kidney problems, or C) both.
The National Academy summarizes the few case studies that are known. The first is from 1978, a 32-year-old woman who died after ingesting an estimated 47 extended-release potassium chloride tablets.
The second is from 2014, a report of a 26-year-old man who died after consuming an estimated 12,500 mg of potassium, in the form of extended-release potassium chloride tablets. However, “there was also co-ingestion of dextropropoxyphene-acetaminophen in this case, which complicates the interpretation.”
These are the only deaths they report (“death is a particularly severe endpoint to use to establish a UL”), but they review two other case studies as well. One is a case report of a 17-year-old man who developed nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea after consuming around 10,000 mg of potassium as sustained-release potassium chloride tablets.
Another describes a 67-year-old man with kidney injury who had a heart attack after consuming around 2,730 mg per day of potassium from a salt substitute for one week. He also “reportedly consumed a high-potassium diet, in addition to the salt substitute.” They note that, “the amount reportedly consumed from the salt substitute is a level of intake that has been repeatedly studied in potassium supplement trials, wherein the risk of adverse events appears to be low among generally healthy populations.” We agree — 2,730 mg per day seems very safe if you are not a 67-year-old man with a kidney injury.
The worst-case scenario in this study is that you develop hyperkalemia. If you have healthy kidneys, this shouldn’t happen. But just in case, here are the signs and symptoms.
Symptoms of mild hyperkalemia include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, and nausea. These could also indicate that you’re not getting enough food, water, or sodium. If you start feeling these symptoms, try eating, drinking some water, or having some table salt or salty food. If the symptoms persist or get worse, consider ending the study or at least taking a break.
Symptoms of severe hyperkalemia include abnormal heart rhythm, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, sudden nausea, and vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms, end the study immediately and seek medical attention. If you have an existing reason you might experience one of these symptoms (you already sometimes have heart palpitations or get nauseous suddenly), do not sign up for this study, since if you had symptoms of hyperkalemia, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Ok, now you can sign up.
The only prerequisites for signing up are:
You must be 18 or older;
In generally good health and specifically with no kidney problems;
Willing to supplement potassium, as described above, for at least four weeks, and;
Willing to share your data with us.
Also, we’d prefer that you don’t sign up for this study if you were already a participant in the potato diet study. We’d love to have your help again, it’s just that if you lose even more weight on potassium, that will mess up the 6-month weight-loss followup numbers for the potato diet. Those of you who have tried the potato diet but weren’t officially part of our study can still sign up.
As usual, you can sign up to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, get more energy, or see one of the other potential effects. But you can also sign up to help advance the state of nutritional science. This study will tell us something about nutrition, by either supporting the idea that potassium is the reason the potato diet causes weight loss, or providing evidence against it.
Beyond that, running a study like this through volunteers on the internet is a small step towards making science faster, smarter, and more democratic. As always, that seems like a future worth dreaming of, and if you sign up, you get us closer to that future.
Potassium salt is a little gross, so you might be wondering if you really want to commit to this for several weeks. But here’s our suggestion: If you are at all interested in trying it, go ahead and sign up and start collecting your data. Try the first day or two and see how it feels. If you hate it and have to stop, we would still love to have that data.
If you want to go for longer than four weeks, that’s great, we would be happy to have more data. Report your data at four weeks like normal and then just keep going, and if you make it to 60 days, send us an update.
If at any point you get sick or begin having side-effects, stop the diet immediately. We can still use your data up to that point, and we don’t want anything to happen to you.
We are mostly interested in weight loss effects for people who are overweight (BMI 25+) or obese (BMI 30+), but if you are “normal weight” (BMI 20-25) you can also sign up. The potato diet caused weight loss in people of normal weight, and it would be interesting to see if the same thing happens here.
And for everyone, please consult with your doctor before trying this or any other weight loss regimen.
Anyways, to sign up:
Fill out this google form, where you give us your basic demographics and contact info. You will assign yourself a subject number, which will keep your data anonymous in the future.[UPDATE: Signups are now closed, but we plan to do more studies in the future. If you’re interested in participating in a future study, you can give us your email at this link and we’ll let you know when we run the next study.]
We will clone a version of this google sheet and share the clone with you. This will be your personal spreadsheet for recording your data over the course of the diet.
On the first day, weigh yourself in the morning. If you’re a “morning pooper”, measure yourself “after your first void”; if not, don’t worry about it. We don’t care if you wear pajamas or what, just keep it consistent. Note down your weight and the other measures (mood, energy, etc.) on the google sheet. Start with two doses of 330 mg potassium (1/8 tsp Nu-Salt) on the first day. On day 2, weigh yourself in the morning, note down data in the sheet, then take at least two doses of 330 mg potassium (1/8 tsp Nu-Salt). On day 3, etc. See the dosing protocol above for details.
We prefer that you keep taking at least one dose of potassium a day for at least four weeks. But if you do have to miss some days, or need to take a break, just note that down and keep recording other variables. If you totally can’t stand the potassium, just stop taking it, keep recording other variables until day 29, and submit your data as normal, we can still use it.
When you reach four weeks, and take your weight measurement on the morning of day 29, send us an email with the subject line “[SUBJECT ID] Potassium Trial Complete”. This will let us know to go grab your data. This is also your opportunity to tell us all about how the study went for you. Please tell us any data that doesn’t easily fit into the spreadsheet — how you felt, what kind of potassium you used, before and after pictures (if you want), advice to other people trying this, etc.
You may reach day 29 and decide to keep going longer. That’s fine. Send us an email on day 29, and if you reach 60 days, send us another email and we will grab your data again. If we get enough data we might do an analysis of this longer span as well. If you go past 60 days and want to share it with us at some point, that’s cool too.
If we have our act together, we will send each of you a brief google form following up at future points.
Assuming we get 20 or so people, we will write up our results and publish them on the blog. We would really like to get a couple hundred people, though, since at that point it becomes possible to do more complex statistical analyses. So if you think this is an interesting idea, please tell your friends!
Special thanks to Austin Vernon for helping us automate parts of the signup process.
People have minds. Everyone’s mind is different, because they have different mental traits. Some people are more or less confrontational; some people are more or less energetic; some people are more or less neurotic.
Most mental traits are normally distributed. For example, extraversion looks something like this. Some people are very extraverted, some people are very introverted, but most people are somewhere in the middle.
In this plot, the data are “normalized”, so the x-axis is by standard deviations. This is why it runs from negative to positive four — almost everyone falls within four standard deviations of the mean, which is represented as zero.
Most people have “typical” levels of extraversion. They like hanging out with friends but don’t go out and chase down strangers. They don’t want to live at the nightclub but they don’t want to go camp out in the library either.
But a small number of people have atypically high or low levels of extraversion. In statistics, we often set the threshold for extreme values at plus or minus 2 standard deviations. We can do the same thing here to indicate people who are very introverted or very extroverted:
The cutoff is arbitrary — people who are 1.9 standard deviations above average are also very extraverted — but it lets us get a rough sense of how many people exist on both ends of the extremes. Because these traits are normally distributed, there isn’t going to be a point where people suddenly go from being typical to being very weird. People are just going to be progressively weirder and weirder as they get more extreme on each mental trait, and at some point we say, ok now they seem neurodivergent or whatever.
Because these traits are normally distributed, we can use what we know about the normal distribution to make pretty accurate guesses about how many people are beyond these arbitrary thresholds. We know that about 2.3% (more precisely, 2.275013%) of a normal distribution is above or below two standard deviations, so that means about 2.3% of people are super introverted, and about 2.3% of people are super extraverted.
(This is also where the idea of 95% confidence intervals comes from, which is the same thing as p = .05 — it’s just talking about things that are more or less than two SD away from some value.)
Counting super introverted and super extraverted people as examples of being neurodivergent, this makes it look like 95.4% of the population is neurotypical, and only 4.6% is neurodivergent. But looking at one trait alone is misleading.
People’s minds have more than just one trait, so a person’s mind can be unusual in more than one way. You might be very typical in terms of extraversion, smack dab in the middle of the distribution — you have 4.6 close friends, you go to a party every 22.3 days, and when you’re there, you always have 3.4 alcoholic drinks. But that doesn’t mean your mind is typical in other ways.
If you examine two mental traits, about 9% of the population will be at least two standard deviations from the mean on at least one of them. Here’s a simulation of 10,000 people with two totally unrelated, normally-distributed mental traits. People who are within two standard deviations of average for both traits are in teal, and anyone who is more than two standard deviations from the mean on either trait is in red:
With just one mental trait, only 4.6% of people have atypical minds. But with two traits, about 9% are atypical on either one trait or the other. Even so, most people won’t stand out for being total weirdos. Only 0.2% are atypical on both traits.
It’s easy enough to extend this to more traits. In a group with three orthogonal (uncorrelated) mental traits, 14% would be extreme on at least one trait, and about 0.6% would be extreme on two or more. In a group with four orthogonal mental traits, 17% would be extreme on at least one trait, and about 1% would be extreme on two or more.
The Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) are a set of mental traits covering the bulk of a person’s personality (at least in theory). They are, if not entirely uncorrelated, at least largely unrelated. Extending the previous analyses to a set of five mental traits suggests that about 21% of people are “abnormal” on at least one of their personality traits
According to our calculations, the crossing-over point is 14 mental traits. At 14 traits, just over 50% of the population is unusual (± 2 SD) on at least one mental trait, and 13% are unusual on two or more. This seems pretty conservative — probably there are more than 14 ways people’s minds can be different from one another.
We won’t bore you with every single simulation — let’s cut to the chase. If we make a model with 100 different mental traits, we find that 99% of people are unusual (± 2 SD) in at least one way, and most people are unusual in multiple ways — the median number of weird traits to have is 4. In this simulation, only 1% of people are totally “neurotypical”, having no mental traits more than two standard deviations from the population mean.
This is our beef with the term “neurotypical”. It’s true that some people’s minds are more typical than others’. But almost no one has a mind that is typical on all axes. In this model, only about 1% of the population is neurotypical (less than 2 SD from the mean) on all 100 traits. From this perspective, being “normal” is itself unusual. A full 23% of people have at least one trait that is EXTRA extreme, more than three standard deviations above or below the mean.
Physicians, bless them, already know about this one. Wulff, Pedersen, & Rosenberg, in their 1990 book Philosophy of Medicine: An Introduction, point out that the same thing happens any time you apply lots of tests to the same person:
What most clinicians do when they receive a laboratory report is, of course, to look up the normal range for the tests in question. … Traditionally, a normal range is calculated in such a way that it includes 95% of the results found in a group of normal or healthy persons, and, consequently, there is a 5% risk that a healthy person will present with an abnormal laboratory result. Then, imagine that you do ten tests on a normal person. In that case the risk that at least one of these tests is abnormal is (1 – 0.9510) which amounts to 0.40 or 40%. If you do twenty-five tests (and that is not unusual in clinical practice), this chance is 72%! As Edmond A. Murphy puts it so aptly, ‘Therefore, a normal person is anyone who has not been sufficiently investigated.’
So far we’ve been assuming that all mental traits are totally uncorrelated, but we know that’s not true. Many mental traits are somewhat related (for example, anxiety and depression), so if you’re typical in one way, you are more likely to be typical in some other way as well.
Even so, the pattern we saw before holds even when mental traits are correlated. If two mental traits are correlated at r = 0.30, the number of people that are unusual on at least one of them is still about 9%:
Even when two mental traits are correlated at r = 0.6, pretty high for a correlation in psychology, around 8% of people are unusual on at least one of the traits:
Calculations for a larger number of mental traits, all correlated with one another, is an exercise left to the reader.
What is this cartoon? Tens of thousands of people on twitter looked, and for a long time, no one could identify it. But eventually they managed to track it down — it’s a still from a 1991 TV movie about how “’soulmates’ from another planet” teach Earth people that confidence can help to save Christmas. Sometimes it takes a million eyes to solve a mystery, but on the internet, we HAVE a million eyes.
Aella releases the results of a new study where she “asked trans people how much their preference for various sexual things changed after hormone replacement therapy”. She describes her sample size as “real low”, but 300 is much higher than most psychology studies (which famously often have a mere 20 people per condition). Some criticism from Liminal Warmth on twitter here — Lim says “I don’t think much at all can be drawn in terms of generalizable or solid conclusions from this data set” and points out that there are alternative explanations for Aella’s findings. This is true, but we think it’s the wrong way to look at things. There are always alternative explanations, and the value of a study usually depends on how many explanations it rules out, how much it narrows things down, not how many alternatives are left. Someone might predict, for example, that taking estrogen would make a person much less interested in most sexual preferences, but Aella’s results provide pretty strong evidence against that story. There are limitations to the dataset but there was basically nothing before and now there’s something, so kudos to her. This is what research looks like, and we’re excited to see what Aella does next.
One of the earliest pieces to argue against the use of tobacco is the treatise A Counterblaste to Tobacco, written by King James VI of Scotland / I of England. James blames Native Americans for this public-health scourge, but you have to admit that he writes with some style — he calls smoking “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”
Lithium is an element, atomic number 3. It is a soft, light, highly reactive metal with a variety of uses. Among other things, it’s often found as a trace mineral in drinking water. Small amounts of lithium are naturally present in many water sources, but levels of lithium in American drinking water have been increasing for the past 60 years.
In 2021, the USGS released a report that found a median level in US groundwater of 6.9 µg/L. This is almost four times the median level in the 1960s, but looking at nothing but the average obscures the fact that many people are getting exposed to even more. For comparison, the maximum level they found in groundwater was 1700 µg/L, ten times the maximum recorded in 1964.
The USGS also found that about 45% of public-supply wells and about 37% of domestic-supply wells contain concentrations of lithium “that could present a potential human-health risk per the current EPA guidelines”. Here’s how they describe it in the paper:
Lithium concentrations in untreated groundwater from 1464 public-supply wells and 1676 domestic-supply wells distributed across 33 principal aquifers in the United States were evaluated for spatial variations and possible explanatory factors. Concentrations nationwide ranged from <1 to 396 μg/L (median of 8.1) for public supply wells and <1 to 1700 μg/L (median of 6 μg/L) for domestic supply wells. For context, lithium concentrations were compared to a Health Based Screening Level (HBSL, 10 μg/L) and a drinking-water only threshold (60 μg/L). These thresholds were exceeded in 45% and 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 37% and 6% from domestic-supply wells, respectively.
Lithium is not currently regulated in drinking water, and water quality reports don’t regularly include it. Most water treatment plants do not track lithium or attempt to reduce it. But the EPA and other government agencies are becoming more concerned about lithium exposure, even at the trace levels found in drinking water:
Just this January, lithium was added to the EPA’s proposed Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The Rule is used by the EPA to collect data for contaminants that are suspected to be present in drinking water and that do not have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Although useful for treating mental health disorders, pharmaceutical use of lithium at all therapeutic dosages can cause adverse health effects—primarily impaired thyroid and kidney function. Presently lithium is not regulated in drinking water in the U.S. The USGS, in collaboration with the EPA, calculated a nonregulatory Health-Based Screening Level (HBSL) for drinking water of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) or parts per billion to provide context for evaluating lithium concentrations in groundwater. A second “drinking-water-only” lithium benchmark of 60 µg/L can be used when it is assumed that the only source of lithium exposure is from drinking water (other sources of lithium include eggs, dairy products, and beverages such as soft drinks and beer); this higher benchmark was exceeded in 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 6% of samples from domestic-supply wells.
But these effects may not always require psychiatric doses. A long-running literature of epidemiological research (meta-analysis, meta-analysis, meta-analysis) suggests that long-term exposure to trace levels of lithium commonly found in drinking water can also have psychiatric effects. Specifically, trace levels in drinking water are often found to be associated with decreased crime, reduced suicide rates, and/or decreased mental hospital admissions.
So people often ask us, how can I get lithium out of my tap water?
For a long time, we weren’t able to answer this question. Until very recently, no one was concerned about lithium levels in drinking water, so there isn’t much research on how to get it out. Heck, back in 2014 the NYT ran an opinion piece arguing that maybe we should start putting lithium in our drinking water. How times have changed.
This is further complicated by the fact that lithium is pretty weird. At an atomic number of only 3, it is the third-lightest and third-smallest element. In some ways it is more like the gasses hydrogen and helium than it is like the metals iron, lead, or mercury, which are much larger and much heavier. This makes it hard to predict whether techniques that can remove other metals would also remove lithium, which is present in solution as an especially tiny ion.
(A favorite “Whoaahhh” fact about Li+ is that it is so small, a bit of electrical energy can make it can creep into the crystal lattices of other compounds and basically just hang out there indefinitely, usually with a bit of swelling of the “host” crystal. It’s kind of like pouring sand into a jar of marbles — lithium is so tiny it can sneak into very small spaces, which is virtually impossible with any other metal ion. The technical term is that it “intercalates” into these materials. Lithium intercalating back and forth between cobalt oxide and graphite, for instance, is the basis of the lithium ion batteries that power virtually every phone and laptop and electric vehicle. There’s an entire field of research focused on making lithium creep into and out of various materials to store energy. People have been trying for a long time to make Na+ do this, since Na+ is so much cheaper and more abundant than Li+, but it’s still way too hard to make any kind of useful battery with an ion as big as Na+.)
To answer the question of how to get lithium out of your drinking water, we set up a project with research nonprofit Whylome to test several commercially-available water filters, the kinds of things you might actually buy for your home, and see how good they are at removing lithium. It’s taken a couple of months of planning, testing, and analysis, but those results are finally ready to share with the world.
This project was funded by generous donations to Whylome from individuals who have asked to remain anonymous. Further support for the research was provided by The Tiny Foundation, which allowed us to expedite several aspects of the research. Special thanks to our funders, Sarah C. Jantzi at the Plasma Chemistry Laboratory at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies UGA for analytical support, and to Whylome for providing general support.
The full report is here, the raw data are here, and the analysis script is here. Those documents give all the technical details. For a more narrative look, read on.
You buy a bunch of normal water filtration devices (henceforth “filters”, even though they’re technically not all filters) from a store, like Home Depot, or online, from places like Amazon. Or online from Home Depot.
You spike large quantities of water with specific amounts of lithium, to get water containing known levels of lithium.
Then, you run the lithium-spiked water through the filters and take samples of the water that comes out the other end.
Finally, you submit that water to chemical analysis and find out how much lithium was removed by each of the filters.
This is basically the perfect garage experiment — except that in this case, filters were tested in the laundry room, not in a garage.
1.1 Water Filtration Devices
To get a sense of the different options available on the market, we elected to test three different types of devices: carbon filters (which are what most people think of when they think of at-home filters); reverse osmosis devices; and electric water distillation stills.
We chose devices from brands that most people have heard of, and models that people tend to buy. If you click through the links below, you’ll see that many of these devices are best-sellers.
Devices were purchased off of Amazon, from the Home Depot, or from their manufacturer, depending on availability. For each device, we also purchased as many extra filters as needed, so that each test could start with clean filters (see the report for more detail).
Carbon Filters — We came into this pretty confident that carbon filters would perform very poorly for lithium removal, despite some nonsense to the contrary floating around the internet (for example, here and here). Carbon has a low affinity for Li+, so we didn’t expect it would pull very much out of the water. Carbon can remove some metals, like lead, by ion exchange — the same principle used in water softeners. But the metals it is good at removing are multivalent (having a charge of +2 or +3 or +4), not +1 like Li+.
Carbon is also known for having noticeable variation between individual filters, because the carbon in question is made from plant material (often coconut). There will be minor variations in the carbon properties between batches, depending on how fast the coconuts were growing that month and minutiae like that. So we went into this expecting that there might be some differences between different filters, even within the same brand and/or model.
Since we expected that carbon filters would probably all suck based on the mechanism of action, and because we expected that there might be noticeable variation, we decided to test several different brands of carbon filters, in multiple configurations (pitcher, on-tap, and under-sink). This is why we tested so many devices and why we got a relatively wide mix of brands and configurations.
This way, if carbon filters are all equally ineffective, it should be very obvious. But if we’re wrong and they’re great, or some are much better than others, we have a good chance of noticing. Carbon filters are also the cheapest and most commonly used filters, another reason to test more of them.
We expected less variation in the other two kinds of devices, so we decided to test two models of each.
Distillation — We expected that distillation machines would work well, but we didn’t know if that was 80% well, 90% well, or 99.9% well. Lithium salts have zero volatility, so when water evaporates and condenses, the lithium should be left behind. The main risk is that droplets of liquid could get caught in the condenser, which could result in some of the original liquid getting into the clean distillate. So a well-designed distillation machine should perform well, but we didn’t know how reliable or well-designed small at-home countertop models would be.
Reverse Osmosis — We were the most uncertain about reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is very good at removing divalent metal ions (like Ca2+ and Mg2+), and pretty effective at removing monovalent metal ions from tap water (like Na+ and K+), but it wasn’t clear if this pattern would extend to lithium. In some ways Na and K are very similar to lithium — all three are present in water as single-charge positive ions, and all three are the same chemical group, the alkali metals. But lithium is much smaller and lighter than other elements. Na has an atomic number of 11, and K has an atomic number of 19, while Li has an atomic number of only 3.
As a result, we weren’t sure if reverse osmosis would be anywhere near as effective at removing lithium as it is at removing these other contaminants. Maybe reverse osmosis would pull lithium out of the water just like any other ion. Maybe it would miss lithium entirely, because the ion is so small. Or maybe something in between. So we went into this expecting that reverse osmosis might be anywhere from 0% to 100% effective.
1.2 Lithium Spiked Water
For realism, we worked with actual American tap water. In this case, we used tap water from the town of Golden, Colorado. Despite the fact that it was indeed part of the Colorado Gold Rush, Golden, CO is not named after the gold rush or even after gold itself; it is named after some guy named Tom Golden.
Samples of the tap water were spiked with known quantities of “ultra dry” lithium chloride salt to create spiked water samples of known lithium concentration.
We ended up testing four concentrations of lithium: 40, 110, 170, and 1500 µg/L Li+. This covers a range from “starts to be concerning” to “around the highest levels reported in US drinking water”. There’s also a bit more history to these numbers, but we’ll talk about that below.
Each filter was tested at each concentration, and at two timepoints (realistically these are “volumepoints”, but that’s not really a word). The carbon filters and the RO devices were each tested after 10 liters and after 20 liters. The distillation machines were tested at 2 liters and again at 4 liters, since they take a really long time to run.
Analysis was performed by ICP-OES. The instrument used was a Perkin Elmer 8300 ICP-OES, and the limit of detection was 1 µg/L. All analyses were done in triplicate and were submitted in a random order.
The following figure gives an overview of the results. This figure only includes performance at a concentration of 110 µg/L after the first timepoint (2L for distillation, 10L for the others) but the same general pattern holds across pretty much everything:
2.1 Carbon Filters
Carbon filters are lousy at removing lithium, but probably not 0% effective. Most of the time, water contained slightly less lithium coming out of the filter than it did going in. But the carbon filters didn’t do much, and there wasn’t a huge amount of variation between them.
2.2 Reverse Osmosis
Reverse osmosis was shockingly good at removing lithium. Removal was reliably high for all systems, more than 80% for the GE system and consistently above 95% for the APEC system. The result is unequivocal: reverse osmosis works. Reverse osmosis does not, however, drive these concentrations close to zero. RO is good, but if you start with 100 µg/L in your tap water, you might still end up drinking 10 µg/L even after filtration.
In many cases you do end up with less than 10 µg/L after filtration, but if you start with a high concentration, you are still generally getting more lithium than was in the median American water source in 1964 (2 µg/L). The lower your starting lithium, the lower the lithium concentration you are getting out of your RO filter.
Finally, distillation machines are nearly perfect at removing lithium. Lithium levels after distillation were undetectable (<1 µg/L) in most cases, and removal was still >99.5% for the highest concentration (1500 µg/L). Distillation reliably drives any levels you would expect to see in American tap water below the level of detection.
2.4 Long-Term Reverse Osmosis Test
We also decided to do one long-term test of a single system, to check if it kept performing well over a longer period of time, and to see if anything weird happened. We expected that systems would get slightly worse over time, but there might also be a discontinuity, where a system keeps doing well for a while and then suddenly craps out and does much worse. We wanted to see how much decline happened with more use, and check if there was any discontinuity or sudden point of failure.
Carbon filters don’t work very well even straight out of the box, so obviously we didn’t test one of those. RO doesn’t remove lithium from water quite as well as distillation, but it’s faster, cheaper, and much easier to install. Because RO sits at this sweet spot, we decided to test the GE RO device up to 100 liters.
We tested the GE RO device against a concentration of 170 µg/L, and the device continued to do a good job removing lithium even up to 100 L. Performance went down slightly over time, but not enormously. At 10 L, the device removed about 98% of the lithium in the water, and by 100 L, it removed about 89%. We don’t know how well it would perform beyond 100 L, but this finding suggests it would keep doing pretty well but progressively worse over time.
This would be a good topic for further study — run a few RO devices to 1000 L and see what happens. Alternately, you could install a RO device in the home of someone whose tap water is already high in lithium, test its effectiveness once a month, and get a sense of how these devices would perform in a real-world scenario.
The conclusions from this study are, fortunately, pretty straightforward. But on the way to those conclusions, there were a few complications.
3.1 PUR Pitcher
In addition to the six carbon filters mentioned above, we also tested the “PUR Ultimate Filtration 7-Cup Pitcher”. When we ran it through the same procedure as the other filters, we found there was more lithium in the filtered water than in the original water, at all concentrations. Basically it seemed like the PUR pitcher was adding lithium to the water instead of taking it away.
This was confusing and seemed like it might be wrong, so we tried the same pitcher again with a different set of filters. This time we didn’t get the weird result — lithium levels went down when we ran water through the filter, just like normal.
We’re not totally sure why this happened. One possibility is that some of the water evaporated during testing, but letting the water sit for a few days didn’t make a substantial difference compared to filtering rapidly, so this appears unlikely. Another possibility is that there’s meaningful batch-to-batch variation in the lithium content of the filter cartridges. Activated carbon comes from plants (usually coconuts), so conceivably there could be more lithium in some coconuts than in others. If you got unlucky, the carbon might contain a lot of lithium and you would end up adding lithium to the water instead of taking it away.
In any case, this was strange and inconclusive enough that we ended up removing it from the main analysis, but we’re reporting it here just in case. Good cautionary tale about how even a simple measurement is never simple.
3.2 Concentration Complication
We originally planned to test lithium concentrations of 10, 60, 100, and 1000 µg/L.
The reasoning was that 10 and 60 µg/L were the EPA thresholds of interest, and that testing 100 and 1000 µg/L covered two further orders of magnitude while still being realistic — according to the USGS, 4% of groundwater wells in the US contain more than 100 µg/L lithium, and the maximum recorded contained 1700 µg/L.
But two things happened to screw that up.
First, the tap water in Goldengave us a bit of a surprise. Golden is a city in Colorado, and most tap water in Colorado comes from dazzlingly clean snowmelt. Snowmelt should contain almost no lithium (it’s basically been distilled), so we expected that the tap water in Golden would also contain almost no lithium. This assumption was backed up by water quality reports from nearby Denver, CO, which find no lithium in Denver’s water.
But to our surprise, when we started testing samples, we found that they contained more lithium than we spiked them with. We circled back and tested the unspiked tap water, and found that it contained around 20-25 µg/L, an amount that was reliable across several months. If there are seasonal changes, our January-March sampling window wasn’t big enough to detect them.
The local water treatment plant is fed by Clear Creek, so we collected and tested a sample from the creek about 2 miles upstream from the water treatment plant. The creek there has a concentration of 27 µg/L, very similar to the tap water. It appears that water enters the Golden, CO treatment plant at around 25 µg/L, and the treatment process has very little impact on lithium concentration.
At this point we were questioning our assumptions about water sources, so we collected some local snow and tested that too. The snowmelt had barely detectable lithium, less than or equal to 1 µg/L. This confirms our earlier belief that precipitation is generally very low in lithium (at least in Golden, CO).
If it’s not in the snowmelt, the lithium must be coming from somewhere else. This is speculation, but the Clear Creek watershed does include many abandoned mines, some dating way back to the early gold and silver rushes from the 1800s, and there is at least one Superfund site, so old mine tailings are one possibility (see in particular here). One of the towns upstream (Idaho Springs) has natural hot springs with some geothermal activity, so another possibility is that these springs add lithium to Clear Creek along the way. We didn’t find an obvious link for Idaho Springs, but other hot springs in Colorado definitely brag about the lithium content of their water (Denver Post on Orvis Hot Springs: “The resort’s seven pools are laden with lithium…”), so this seems quite plausible.
This suggests that our original assumptions were mostly correct — snowmelt contains little to no lithium, so most drinking water in Colorado should be quite pure. But in this specific case, looking at water drawn from Clear Creek, we ended up with more than we expected. Water coming from one of Colorado’s snowmelt reservoirs, rather from a well or stream, would probably contain a lot less.
In the end, the lithium levels in Golden’s tap water raised the lithium level of all of our samples by about 25 µg/L. We were already halfway through testing when we discovered this, so we decided to continue with these slightly higher concentrations. If anything, it’s a stricter test of the filters.
Second, the lithium salt we used was substantially more potent than the stated strength (i.e. much stronger than expected), which also increased the concentrations we tested.
We used lithium chloride from Fisher Scientific as the lithium spike for all our samples. According to the certificate of analysis, the salt contained a lot of water. But apparently this was not the case. As far as we can tell, the salt appears to have very little water content, so it contains a lot more lithium per weight than expected (about 30% stronger than expected). This caused us to underestimate the amount of lithium in the salt, and as a result, we added more than we meant to. This is why we ended up testing up to 1500 µg/L.
Again, we were already halfway through testing when we discovered this, and decided to forge ahead. Because this error was propagated across all the samples we had submitted, the analysis was still internally consistent. Even though these weren’t the numbers we had set out to study, it doesn’t really matter. Those numbers were arbitrary to begin with; we chose them because we live in a base-10 world. We were still able to compare between filters at realistic concentrations.
Together, these two factors inflated the concentrations we tested, from 10, 60, 100, and 1000 µg/L to 40, 110, 170, and 1500 µg/L. First, the tap water from Golden added 25 µg/L to all the samples. Then, the unusually dry lithium salt inflated the amount added to each sample by around 30%.
Fortunately, this does not seriously impact our results. Filters were consistent across all concentrations, and in the end we covered a very similar range, 60-1500 µg/L instead of 10-1000 µg/L. We’re only really missing an analysis of how well the filters would work at low levels, around 10 µg/L. But RO devices that drive 40 µg/L to around 1 µg/L can also be expected to drive 10 µg/L way down low.
The only thing we would want to revisit in future studies is to test carbon filters at levels close to 10 µg/L; but our best bet is that they don’t do much at those levels either.
We also caught one other problem. During analysis, we found that we made a mistake when mixing four of the concentrations. Twice as much lithium chloride as intended was added to the solutions for the PUR faucet mount at concentrations of 110 and 170 µg/L, and also for the Culligan faucet mount at 110 and 170 µg/L. As a result, these two filters were actually tested against ~210 µg/L and ~325 µg/L instead of the intended 110 and 170 µg/L. You can easily see this error if you look at the tables in the report.
This is unfortunate and does complicate the data, but again it doesn’t seriously change the conclusions. Carbon filters don’t get much lithium out of tap water at any concentration, whether it’s 110, 170, 210, or 325 µg/L. There’s no reason to expect that the PUR and Cullighan faucet mounts would perform differently at these concentrations than at the intended ones — these results fit the overall result, which is that carbon filters aren’t good at removing lithium.
You may not be used to seeing scientific papers talk about mistakes the research team made, or the incorrect assumptions that showed up halfway through the project, or the weird random anomaly that doesn’t have an easy explanation. But the truth is that this is just what research looks like.
Academic researchers are expected to pretend like everything went perfectly and nothing weird happened, but this is not how actual research projects work. In real projects, especially where you’re trying to advance the frontiers of knowledge, you have to take chances, make mistakes, and yes, even get messy.
There are always going to be some accidents in any research project, and instead of sweeping them under the rug and pretending we never make mistakes, we’re going to talk about them. This not only is virtuous, it also puts you (readers) in a better position to form your own opinion about our results. It gives you a better sense of what to expect if you want to replicate or extend our results. And if we didn’t tell you about all the SNAFUs, we’d be giving you the wrong idea about what research is really like.
Obviously we want to avoid mistakes when we can, which is why we use techniques like randomizing sample order and including control samples to help prevent and diagnose mistakes. But this sort of thing happens, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to just publicly say “whoops, our bad”.
If you have the time and money, distillation is the best way to get lithium out of your water. The catch is that distillation is slow: distillation machines usually run at less than 1 liter per hour, a small fraction of the speed of other devices, and consume a lot of energy to get there. Distilling all of your cooking and drinking water with one of these machines would be very slow or very expensive or both.
For the average consumer, reverse osmosis is a much better choice. It’s cheaper and faster, and it works nearly as well as distillation does. For the average American, a RO system will ensure that you end up with less than 10 µg/L in your water, probably much less.
Both of the RO systems we tested were under-sink units, meaning they go under your sink (duh) and create a stream of purified water that is separate from the actual tap. That way you wash your dishes with the high flow rate you’re accustomed to from a faucet, but fill your glass or make pasta with the separate stream of RO-filtered water.
You could also spring for a professional-grade household system that filters all the water that comes into your house, but there are a few complications. First off, while it should work basically the same as these under-sink units, we didn’t actually test a household system. Second, it’s got a much higher upfront cost and it would be more of a pain to install and maintain. Also keep in mind that typically only 20-50% of the water entering the RO unit actually leaves as clean, filtered water; the rest never makes it through the filter membrane and goes down the drain. Throwing away that much water for things like showering or washing your car would mean a lot of wasted water.
Finally, a whole-house RO system typically needs to be accompanied by a water softener, and we’re not sure if water softeners contain lithium or not. Water softeners operate by ion exchange, exchanging one Ca2+ or Mg2+ ion for two Na+ ions. You “regenerate” the system every so often by dumping a big bag of rock salt (NaCl or occasionally KCl) into the “brine tank”, which displaces the Ca/Mg off of the ion exchanger. If the salt being used for regeneration contains lithium, it would make its way into the drinking water just as readily as Na+. We haven’t tested any water-softening salt yet (though we might at some point), but we did test table salt as part of another project, and that definitely contains some lithium.
Because of this, it’s not clear whether you’d end up drinking more or less lithium if you install a household RO system with a water softener. If you’re using a water softener without a RO system, you’re probably adding some lithium to your water, though we’re not sure how much.
If you purchase water that was treated by RO or distillation (as many bottled waters are), it’s probably very low in lithium. But the catch here is that many companies put minerals back in, because pure water actually tastes kind of flat and metallic. Aquafina, for example, is first purified through RO before putting a pinch of salt back in for taste. If the pinch of salt contains lithium, you’re back to square one.
Thanks again to our anonymous donors, the Tiny Foundation, Sarah Jantzi, and Whylome for supporting this research. Finally, thank you for reading!
Eukaryote Writes Blog reviews the book Barriers to Bioweapons (an old review actually, from 2017). Among many other things: “the book also relays an anecdote from Shoko Ashara, the head of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, who after its bioterrorism project failure ‘speculat[ed] that U.S. assessments of the risk of biological terrorism were designed to mislead terrorist groups into pursuing such weapons.’”
The comment from user left_the_center on this NY Mag piece — “‘Quiet quitting’, ‘cancel culture’, ‘identity politics’ – these are all press-ready phrases designed to stir up disingenuous debates that center responsibility for bad systems on the people subject to those systems.” Whether or not you agree with the conclusion, it highlights how so much culture war is based around attempts to reframe things without drawing attention to the reframing.
Rambling essay on don’t read the news / talk about risk in order to act, don’t just complain / Pets.com was good, actually / “modern especially western societies is multiple generations of people not asking themselves if things are good or bad and instead asking if things are legal or illegal.” Roundabout in places but a good attempt to point at some pretty common brainworms.
Vampire Survivors Success: An opportunity in the Steam marketplace. The essay is theoretically about games, but the design lessons are good in general – “Ryanair has figured out that the only thing people really, truly, care about is getting from one spot to the next safely and cheaply. People complain about the lack of amenities but in reality, passengers actually care more about the price. That is why Ryanair focuses EVERYTHING they have on those things: getting people to where they need to go safely, cheaply, and on time. To hell with everything else. “
We haven’t confirmed any of these claims, but check out this thread on the history of the atomic bomb. “The timing of the bombs was not due to any strategic or political calculus. It came down to the weather — an operational choice. The people on Tinian dropped a second bomb because they had a second bomb ready to go, and because their strike order was open-ended. … many of the military-operational types didn’t think one or two bombs would cause Japan to surrender anyway … General Marshall was having his people think about how to use the bombs in conjunction with an invasion — imagining a world in which they might have an atomic bomb to use every 10 days or so … they had a pipeline that they thought could make 3.5 atomic bombs per month, and the military wanted to use them.”
The US Air Force built a fake town in the middle of the Arizona desert to practice bombing, and they named it “Yodaville”. Surprisingly this town does not seem to have been named after the Star Wars character — it was named after the call sign of the guy who had the idea of making a fake bombing-target town in the first place, though his call sign presumably came from the Star Wars character.
Large pieces of space junk land in a field in Australia. “I think it’s a concern it’s just fallen out of the sky,” says a local. “If it landed on your house it would make a hell of a mess.” Also: “I’m a farmer from Dalgety, what am I going to say to NASA?”
Gods of Salt — Uh, claims? About what you would expect from a theory of history posted on DeviantArt, but a pretty good read nonetheless.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his provisional constitution is available online.
John Brown is best known for fighting to end American slavery. Born in 1800 and raised around abolitionists, ending slavery was a religious conviction for Brown, who came to believe that he was “an instrument of God” put on earth for this very purpose. From the 1820s on Brown was seriously involved in the Underground Railroad, but in the 1840s he became frustrated by their lack of progress, and formed his own, more militant version of the Underground Railroad, the Subterranean Pass Way. By 1856, Brown and his sons were out in Kansas, killing pro-slavery border ruffians as part of Bleeding Kansas.
This all culminated in a daring raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Brown’s plan was to take the armory and use the captured weapons to arm former slaves, carrying out future raids deeper and deeper into the South, freeing and arming more slaves every time. The plan originally called for 4,500 men to lead the attack, but on the day of the raid, Brown found himself with only 21. He went ahead with the plan anyway.
The raid went well at first, but eventually the US Marines showed up (under the command of Robert E. Lee, of all people!) and took back the armory. John Brown was captured, tried, and hanged. He became a martyr to the abolitionist cause, and in the Civil War a few years later, Union soldiers marched to the new song John Brown’s Body, which eventually mutated into such forms as the Battle Hymn of the Republic — or if you are a schoolchild, The Burning of the School.
But before his untimely end, he put together a provisional constitution.
It’s not really clear what the provisional constitution was for. Even at the time, people weren’t sure what to make of it. Brown’s lawyer introduced the provisional constitution at his trial as evidence that Brown must be insane, calling the provisional constitution “ridiculous nonsense–a wild, chimerical production” that “could only be produced by men of unsound minds.” Naturally, Brown disagreed.
Some people have suggested that it was intended to be the constitution of a new anti-slavery state in the Appalachian Mountains, where West Virginia ended up being. But the provisional constitution itself makes it pretty clear that it is intended for, or at least open to admitting, all citizens of the United States.
It might be a constitution for Brown’s new, more hardcore Underground Railroad, his Subterranean Pass Way. By some accounts it was written while Brown was a guest of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York (the two men had been uneasy friends for more than a decade). In May 1858 he met with Railroad leaders, including Harriet Tubman, in Chatham, Ontario, and it was there that he held a constitutional convention. But the provisional constitution describes the rules for a government, not a secret society.
Most likely, the provisional constitution was meant as a stopgap solution to a major point of contention among abolitionists. Brown and other abolitionists were fervent, one might even say crazed patriots, and they loved America. But hating slavery and loving America had a problem, and that problem was the US Constitution. In the eyes of many abolitionists, at least, the US Constitution sanctioned slavery, and that was unacceptable.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took the most extreme position — he called the US Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth” and promoted a philosophy sometimes called “no-governmentism”, which is about what it sounds like. This led to a schism in the abolitionist movement, between people who accepted the US Constitution mostly as it was, and people who thought it was a covenant with death.
This may seem a little hysterical to modern ears, but it makes sense given what was going on at the time. In 1857, the Supreme Court made a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruling quite explicitly that, because of the way the US Constitution was constructed, the descendents of slaves could not be US citizens. “A free negro of the African race,” reads the transcript, “whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. … The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construct and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.”
The majority opinion in the case said:
The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen? … they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.
The two dissenting justices made strong cases that this argument was ahistorical and not, in fact, in line with constitutional law. But coming on the heels of this decision, it’s easy to see why many abolitionists couldn’t get behind the US Constitution.
So one possibility is that Brown got up his provisional constitution in an effort to bypass this schism, or because Garrison had convinced him that the US Constitution had to go. Garrison was firmly anti-violence, so the two men did not exactly see eye to eye; though Garrison sort of came around to Brown’s position in the end. And Thoreau wrote of Brown that, “I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in his respect for the Constitution, and his faith in the permanence of this Union.” The hope might have been that even if the abolitionists could not all agree on the US Constitution, they could agree on a provisional one in the meantime, and put off the decision of whether or not to replace the US Constitution until after slavery was defeated.
In any case, Brown’s provisional constitution gives us a glimpse into his thinking and what kind of political philosopher he was, so it’s worth taking a look. (Brown himself would like this — “I wish you would give that paper close attention,” he said of his provisional constitution during the questioning after his capture.)
Tip My Hat to the New Constitution
The provisional constitution is made up of a short preamble and 48 articles. The preamble starts by condemning slavery and ends in the second paragraph by declaring, “we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.”
The first few articles concern the design for a system of government, with the expected executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Compared to the US federal government, though, it seems quite small. Only one chamber of Congress, and that composed only of “not less than five nor more than ten members.” A Supreme Court of only five justices, chosen by direct election to three-year terms, just like the President and Vice-President.
Articles 13 to 15 provide brief and explicit instructions for how to try and impeach any member of government, including Supreme Court justices. Perhaps Brown was thinking of the Dred Scott case.
It’s easy to see how the provisional constitution could be construed as treasonous, since it does provide for an entirely new form of government. But John Brown eventually gets around to addressing this explicitly in the third-to-last article:
These articles not for the overthrow of government.
The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State government, or of the general government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to amendment and repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our fathers fought under in the Revolution.
On the other hand, the provisional constitution does mention “the limits secured by this organization”, suggesting that the organization would be taking territory from someone. And the provisional constitution does seem written with warfare against slavery particularly in mind. Several articles are devoted to the organization, rules, and duties of the military, including what to do with prisoners and with “all money, plate, watches, or jewelry captured by honorable warfare, found, taken, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy.” There are also these articles:
All persons who may come forward, and shall voluntarily deliver up their slaves, and have their names registered on the books of the organization, shall, so long as they continue at peace, be entitled to the fullest protection of person and property, though not connected with this organization, and shall be treated as friends and not merely as persons neutral.
The persons and property of all non-slaveholders, who shall remain absolutely neutral, shall be respected so far as the circumstances can allow of it, but they shall not be entitled to any active protection.
At times, Brown gets a little bogged down in the weeds, especially on religious issues. He gets into it enough to devote several whole articles to forbidding behaviors which, we imagine, he must personally have had strong feelings about, the sorts of things not normally included in a constitution:
It shall be the duty of Congress to provide for the instant removal of any civil officer or policeman, who becomes habitually intoxicated, or who is addicted to other immoral conduct, or to any neglect or unfaithfulness in the discharge of his official duties.
No needless waste.
The needless waste or destruction of any useful property or article by fire, throwing open of fences, fields, buildings, or needless killing of animals, or injury of either, shall not be tolerated at any time or place, but shall be promptly and properly punished.
Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.
The marriage relation, schools, the Sabbath.
The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of religious and other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest, and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.
That said, sometimes getting into the weeds on specific issues is all right. Section 41, on “crimes”, actually lists only one crime, but it’s a strong choice. The entire text of the Section 41 is:
Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female prisoner shall be put to death.
Brown’s reputation as a “.44 caliber abolitionist” seems pretty well-deserved in the light of the last few articles, where he encourages open carry for everyone, men and women alike:
Carry arms openly.
All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.
It’s especially interesting, though, that he stresses the open part of open carry. Concealed weapons were to be the exclusive domain of policemen, officers of the army, and… mail carriers:
No person to carry concealed weapons.
No person within the limits of the conquered territory, except regularly appointed policemen, express officers of the army, mail carriers, or other fully accredited messengers of the Congress, President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, or commissioned officers of the army-and those only under peculiar circumstances-shall be allowed at any time to carry concealed weapons; and any person not specially authorized so to do, who shall be found so doing, shall be deemed a suspicious person, and may at once be arrested by any officer, soldier, or citizen, without the formality of a complaint or warrant, and may at once be subjected to thorough search, and shall have his or her case thoroughly investigated, and be dealt with as circumstances on proof shall require.
On its own merits, the provisional constitution is not so radical, not even all that nutty. It provides for a normal state, with the normal branches of government, and most of the articles have to do with basic stuff like how people get elected and who is allowed to sign what treaties. The religious bent is a tad unusual, the violent abolition angle is pretty exciting/terrifying, but paragraph to paragraph it reads like any other constitution.
But in another way, the provisional constitution is affirming one of the deepest and most radical privileges inherent to being an American. Being an American entitles you to be an amateur political scientist, to speculate on strange new forms of government, and if needs be, to write your own damn constitution in defense of new forms of freedom, just like they did in 1776.
There is a dimension of imagination beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. There’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop, SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD brings you a horrifying vision, of a future where CRIME is LAW.
You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. Witness a theoretical argument. A friendly debate around a simple issue: can a human being uphold society by breaking the law? It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen, it’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.
wellogro: Welcome back to Glory Glory Hallelujah, a podcast about doing great crimes.
This is part two of the transcript of my interview with Scarpia, dugong_narwhal, and the author of the blog AD Ancien Hal Unsung, three leaders of the effective illegalism movement, as much as it has leaders.
How do you Handle a Big Tent?
wellogro: Something I’ve always wondered about is, how do you keep your big coalition together? Effective illegalism attracts lots of liberals and conservatives and puts them in the same community together, how do you keep that from blowing up?
dugong_narwhal: Well the nature or, the fact that we’re all coming here together to do the same thing really helps, and the thing we’re coming together to do is of course to find the best crimes, and then execute on them. That really helps people stay focused — we’re always starting from a place of, what laws do we all think are bad, bad for us and bad for society? And then we say, ok, what are the best, safest ways to break those laws?
It’s definitely interesting how people who would have a hard time agreeing on what laws to pass have very little trouble agreeing on what laws to break.
ADAHU: Plenty of subcultures have their own versions of illegalism, and it’s surprisingly easy to draw them together into a syncretic vision of civil resistance. A great example is the queer community, which has the slogan Be Gay, Do Crime. In the beginning this was more of a joke, but younger queer people who were raised with the slogan have come to see it as a totally natural idea, and are ready to commit crimes that they think are important.
Scarpia: It’s kind of strange, I think most subcultures used to have more explicit norms about civil disobedience. Punks used to fight cops, stoners obviously are a subculture centered around an illegal hobby. Being gay was itself illegal in many parts of the US until quite recently, and is still illegal in some countries. Folk and country singer-songwriters recognize that it can be necessary to take justice into your own hands in response to domestic abuse — for example Carrie Underwood’s Church Bells or The Chicks’ Goodbye Earl.
Modern subcultures for some reason tend to be much less explicit about their willingness to resist, but it’s still there, and you can get people to see eye-to-eye pretty quickly when you point out their shared beliefs.
ADAHU: Yeah, some people think that the law-and-order divide is inherently liberal versus conservative. These people have clearly never seen an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. The main characters drive a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the top that is literally named the General Lee, and their constant foe is the sheriff and his officers. Almost every episode ends with the police cars crashing and the cops being embarrassed. Conservatives don’t have an inherent alignment with the law any more than liberals do.
dugong_narwhal: The fact that most people are pseudonymous really helps. You might be a socialist sitting across the table from a neoconservative, but because he goes by “Brass Trash” and you go by “Piranha1980”, you don’t know that you theoretically are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Both of you think that we should have good public infrastructure, so both of you are pretty happy with the idea of breaking into the subway system at night and doing illegal maintenance on the trains.
Scarpia: And those pseudonyms may not be fixed to a particular political viewpoint. Lots of people outside the movement don’t understand this, but many pseudonyms are multiple different people. Some pseudonyms are four or five different people. We call this DPR’ing.
ADAHU: Dread Pirate Roberts.
wellogro: Oh! [laughs]
Scarpia: There are even some pseudonyms that were never attached to a single person in the first place. Like, I’m pretty sure Malus was never one guy, I think it’s a pseudonym that lots of people have picked up and used at one time or another.
dugong_narwhal: Yeah, at the conference in Chicago a few years ago I saw three different people whose nametag was “Unofficial Entire Society”. All of them claimed not to know that there were other people using that moniker at the conference. Well, two of them did, the third threw her drink at me and started running.
wellogro: Don’t people get upset at other people using their pseudonym?
Scarpia: Not really? Most people figure that it’s added protection against anyone trying to find out who they are. If someone borrows your pseudonym, it makes you that much harder to track down, and it makes it harder to pin any specific crimes on you.
It’s also just considered bad practice to use someone’s pseudonym without permission. But if you do, it’s mostly seen as a complement.
ADAHU: I’m more concerned about lack of accountability. One nice thing about using consistent pseudonyms is that you can develop a reputation, even though it’s not attached to your legal name. That helps us figure out who to trust, who’s a reliable thinker and planner, and who might be bad news. If people share pseudonyms, that can undermine the trust we’ve built.
Scarpia: This is something that concerns me too, but overall I have to say it hasn’t been much of a problem. Some pseudonyms are reliable and develop a positive reputation. Some pseudonyms are unreliable — maybe because they’re shared by a large group, maybe it’s one unreliable person, who knows — and develop a reputation of being unreliable.
Roots of Effective Illegalism
wellogro: One thing I’m really curious to get from this group is the long-term perspective. I only became aware of effective illegalism a few years ago, but all of you were part of it from the beginning, or near the beginning. What was that like, and from your perspective, where did these ideas come from?
ADAHU: The term illegalism comes from 1900s-era anarchist movements, but effective illegalism bears no more relation to these ideas than the Gates Foundation does to Rockefeller-era philanthropy. Effective illegalists don’t generally see theft and burglary as good crimes, and most of us don’t identify as anarchists. The average effective illegalist has never heard of Clément Duval and would be appalled by his actions. It’s more that there was already a name for organized law-breaking and it stuck. You could equally have called it effective civil disobedience but I guess that’s not as catchy.
I think it was a few things coming together at the right time. People trying and failing to work within the system. People becoming disillusioned with law and order approaches, either through seeing them fail, or things like becoming disillusioned with institutions like the Supreme Court.
And of course, better access to information and connection through the internet accelerates all of this.
Scarpia: I agree it was kind of a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back thing. In the beginning, so to speak, it seemed like you could do good by straightforward methods like curing disease and educating orphans. But over time people got disillusioned. There was a sense of frustration as people started coming up with more and more convoluted plans in the pursuit of doing good. It started feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard to make a positive impact on the world.
One good example is charter cities. Frequently the idea with charter cities is that government regulation wherever you live sucks, so you need to start your own government somewhere else. You might want medical reciprocity, where you let doctors from developed nations like Japan and Britain practice medicine in other countries. Or you might want drug approval reciprocity, where any drug approved by the EU is also approved wherever you live. The US doesn’t have either of these very reasonable policies, so some people tried to make charter cities which did have these policies. But alternatively, you could just break the rules and not need to go through the trouble of building a whole new city in Honduras.
There are a lot of stories like this, not just charter cities and not just in medical policy. Eventually we were like, it would actually just be easier to break the law.
Thomas Kuhn thought of paradigm shifts as a process that kicks in as more and more junk piles up. Contradictions to the current paradigm come in, someone happens to be in the right place at the right time to notice, everyone agonizes over them for a while, and at some point the friction becomes unbearable and everything does some inversion deemed impossible by consensus wisdom and now you have a new paradigm. Something similar happened with efforts to make the world a better place. Enigmas related to government regulation piled up higher and higher, people gnashed their teeth for a bit, tried to make some new cities, and then someone (no idea who) was like, well why don’t we just break the law instead? And effective illegalism was born.
dugong_narwhal: There’s a certain kind of person who finds working within the system really seductive. These people are happy to toss around clever ideas and play within the rules, and get a real kick out of looking for loopholes and workarounds. This describes a lot of programmers and engineers, but also like academics, or even just people who did well in school.
It takes a certain kind of shock to break these people out of their, I dunno, law-addled haze or whatever. And I think it took time because we had to wait for many individual stories, individual cases of these people to have good ideas about how to work within the system, and see their clever ideas for workarounds and loopholes get crushed by mindless bureaucrats and inconsistently implemented regulations. Lots of us, myself included, had to get our faces pressed up against the pavement before we realized, oh, it doesn’t matter how clever I am, working within the system actually doesn’t work for some of these problems! And it just took some time for a critical mass of people to have that experience.
ADAHU: Despite what we’ve said, and I agree with the others, it’s not all internal. There’s also an element of how it takes some time to realize that there are actually many laws that nobody cares about, that aren’t actually enforced that strictly, et cetera.
It takes a few rounds of seeing someone do a crime, thinking “oh shit they’re gonna get busted”, and then watching how no one even shows up to pretend to enforce things, to realize how free you actually are. It lets you realize the degree to which no one else actually cares about that law, so why would you follow it?
dugong_narwhal: Yeah, being in trouble is a fake idea.
Congress should fix this problem, and they could, but they don’t. I don’t even care why they don’t anymore. People started noticing that directly helping immigration can be a huge intervention, and that one way almost any American can help is by marrying a foreigner to give them a green card. Immigration officials do keep an eye out for this sort of thing, but security is tighter in some places than in others, and with some planning it’s not hard to convince them you’re a real couple. Or if you’re more scrupulous, Americans can go out of their way to date and actually marry foreigners, it ends up having the same effect.
If you think immigration is important, it doesn’t take much math to see that you can have 100x the impact by marrying a foreigner than by donating to congress or lobbying. Then it’s just a question of the tradeoff against breaking the law, or bending it really, marriage isn’t illegal. Most of us decided the exchange rate was pretty good.
Why Start with Crimes?
wellogro: This question might be too simple but I figured you all would have interesting thoughts on it, but why start with illegal actions? What would you say to someone who asked you why you don’t start with legal methods in your quest to make the world a better place?
Scarpia: There’s an element of, not to sound too cliché but I’m serious, there’s an element of freeing your mind. Once you let go of the block of breaking the law, all sorts of things become possible
Scarpia: I’m not even against laws in general. It’s an issue of, the dose makes the poison, right? A community with some laws is good, because they make for, you know they provide an agreed-upon standard. But too many laws is paralytic. There’s a dose where it stops being good for you, right? If I want to do medical research at home, that might be illegal. Or actually, worse, I may not know if it’s illegal or not. And how do I find out? You can pay a lawyer but often they tell you that no one knows — you just have to try it and see if you get sued or arrested.
Or if I see someone getting mugged, or I’m in a restaurant and someone is having a heart attack and I could step in and perform CPR. I don’t know if it’s legal or not to step in. So we go from having these brave pro-social impulses of, I should help, I should get involved — the sort of thing I think we should praise and encourage — to a system where we’re always second-guessing ourselves. Will there be consequences if I save this person’s life?
Sometimes there are specific carveouts, like Good Samaritan laws for administering naloxone to someone who overdosed on opioids, but these laws vary between states and have limited scope. Regular people aren’t necessarily going to know exactly what the law says most of the time. The average American is at a 7th or 8th grade reading level, so even if they do look up the exact language of the relevant statutes, there’s a good chance they’ll have a hard time interpreting something that was written by a committee of lawyers who spent 19+ years in formal schooling.
So the negative effects on society are much larger than they appear, because living in a society with too many laws makes everyone anxious and cautious, instead of being bold problem-solvers who are willing to take risks to improve the world.
dugong_narwhal: I agree with all that, and also, who says we didn’t start with legal methods? You’re not seeing where we started out, you’re seeing where we ended up. And for my own part I’ll say I still do a lot of things on the legal side to improve my community. I just reached a point where I realized that if I wanted to do the MOST good I could, I would have to start committing some crimes.
Scarpia also makes a great point about how difficult it can be to figure out whether an action is “legal” or not to begin with. I’d add that there are also many cases where something isn’t exactly a crime, it’s more of a loophole. In some states where you’re allowed to grow weed for personal use, you can’t sell what you grow but you can give it away. If you sold, say, an overpriced sticker or charged for your time as a “consultant” and then include some weed or a clone as a gift with purchase, that’s not really illegal. So the attitude of effective illegalism isn’t just saying here’s a clear line in the sand and I’m choosing to cross it, it’s also about recognizing the extent to which the law is not only selectively enforced but also just not that clear to begin with.
ADAHU: I find questions about “working within the law” really frustrating. The crimes effective illegalists commit are much less extreme than the crimes committed by folk heroes like Zorro or Robin Hood. If you think robbing from the rich to feed the poor is a good idea, you should be on board with a lot of even less harmful crimes. For the most part we want to do things that people really strongly approve of, things the average person wants to see, and the only thing in our way is that they’re technically illegal, though often in a way where the police can’t be bothered to stop us even if they find out.
wellogro: Illegalism gets a lot of criticism from outside, but I feel like I don’t hear a lot of criticism from within. But you’re all in a good position to criticize, what do you think effective illegalism could do better?
ADAHU: Our focus on American laws and the Anglosphere in general is, I think, pretty embarrassing. Countries like Saudi Arabia, just as an example, have some very bad laws that should be resisted. I understand the benefit of doing praxis in your backyard but I think we could also do more to fight unjust laws worldwide, by supporting illegalist movements in countries that are more oppressive.
dugong_narwhal: We need to try more things and take more risks. We found a few good crimes in the beginning and now we tend to just milk those same ideas over and over. But there are lots of audacious crimes out there that we haven’t cottoned on to and it’s worth taking on some extra risk to find out what they are. There are also a lot of ideas that most people in the movement think of as duds, but I think lots of them could be viable if we figure out better approaches. So yeah even for a movement that sees itself as audacious, I think we could be a lot more audacious.
Scarpia: Call me crazy but I don’t think we could be doing anything any better. This was a risky project from the start and the fact that we have had any success at all is enormously encouraging. If we can keep on at this pace for another decade, or even half this pace, I think that will be very impressive.
Favorite EI Sources
wellogro: Do you have any particular favorite effective illegalism sources — you know, blogs and podcasts?
Scarpia: Well, Honest Fiction is a long-time favorite, that should come as no surprise. I love The Wind and Stars, do you know that one?
wellogro: No? Is it new?
Scarpia: I don’t think so. I guess it’s kind of niche. It appeals to my interest in the logistical side of illegalism. Fort Wroth is pretty new, and while the proposals they make are on the extreme side, they’re at least totally committed to nonviolence and it’s thought-provoking. I have mixed feelings about Bungle Bungle Bungle and Dark Mind of Murderous Courage.
dugong_narwhal: I mostly follow longer-form blogs like Cayenne Halt Fils and Deep Gallon Oliver, also sometimes Breaking New Ground.
There’s one podcast I follow, If It’s Not Love, which is unusual for illegalism in that it is kind of a doomer podcast, but it tempers that with a focus on building community. So I guess it’s like optimistic doomer. I also liked the recent coverage from Crime 299 but I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of their back catalog.
ADAHU:Roses for Rats is a new blog a lot of people are following. Everyone thinks it’s a Flowers for Algernon reference but I think it’s actually a play on the White Rose Society.
I also really like Fell Chaya Tennis, which takes a kind of weird tack — she doesn’t write at all about the present, I’ve noticed, only about illegalism’s past or visions for its future. I think that’s really interesting, though I don’t know why she does that or even if it’s intentional.
I don’t know if Katya Mykula’s writing counts but I find it hugely influential. Some people have speculated that I might be Katya, which is flattering but I’m sorry to admit is untrue.
Favorite Kind of Illegalism
wellogro: Ok, to end, I want to ask you all, what is your favorite kind of illegalism?
Scarpia: I’m really happy with what illegalism has done for healthcare. This is something we mostly don’t talk about, and there are strategic reasons for that. Healthcare illegalism involves a lot of doctors and pharmacists breaking the law in ways that risk their medical licenses and other credentials, and so we don’t want to draw too much attention to the details of this success. But in the abstract I can say, we give out a lot of low-cost illegal medical care, we prescribe important drugs that people might otherwise be unable to get, and we illegally train people to treat illness and injury so that they can go out and practice medicine without a license on their own, so they don’t have to rely on us.
But all of this is kind of palliative. It helps individual people but the rest of the healthcare system still sucks, and thousands of people die because of muck-ups at the FDA. I want to see us do even more, and I think we’re on track to actually revolutionize healthcare in the next decade.
Here’s one example I’m very into. Biohackers with diabetes have been making their own insulin since 2015, and now illegalists are supporting similar efforts at a larger scale. The procedures to make insulin, and many other drugs and treatments, are not a mystery. Many of the patents are expired. Anyone with the right knowledge and equipment can sit down at a lab bench and make it happen.
This country could have factories pumping out high-quality generics, except that these factories are so hard to start, that they are de facto illegal. So we say, sure, we’ll just make illegal factories then.
It’s not like there is some special juice that makes Novo Nordisk drugs safe and reliable. They’re made in a lab, with equipment you can buy on the open market, by people with specific training. We buy and use the exact same equipment they use. Our labs are set up in exactly the same ways. Our technicians are educated at the same ivy-league universities; sometimes the technicians are people we’ve poached from the pharma companies, doing the same work they did there, making the same drugs! Our safety protocols are the same, sometimes better. The only difference is we don’t have the “right” papers from the FDA. We don’t wait for approval from an authority figure before doing good.
ADAHU: This is still a long shot but I’m optimistic that illegalism can help with the energy and climate crisis. Nuclear power is clean and safe, and while the legal side of things is perpetually tied up in red tape, there are a lot of borderline illegal and straight-up illegal things we can do to help.
Legal approaches to promoting nuclear power have not been very effective so far. People should definitely keep trying, but in the near-term we need something more direct. So a lot of us are looking for things we can do to make it easier to use nuclear power and harder to use other forms of power.
On the promotion side, we can do things to grease the skids, even things as simple as bribing officials to fast-track approvals on new nuclear plants. Can we build our own, illegal nuclear power plants and plug them into the grid? Can we fund research teams to invent new kinds of reactors? Hard to say right now, but I can tell you, people are looking into it.
On the prevention side, we can do things to make it more costly to use other forms of power. Any time a new coal or natural gas plant is getting built, we should get in the way as much as possible.
Blowing up existing power plants and pipelines is a bad idea. We don’t want to cause that kind of damage, and keeping thousands of people without power would be really bad for public support. But if we manage to shut down a coal power plant for a few hours every month, if we increase their repair bill by enough, we can make it so expensive to run these power plants that other forms of power look much more attractive. And there are lots of ways to increase repair costs without blowing anything up.
This is definitely one of the hardest forms of illegalism, and I understand why many people are hesitant to support an approach that sometimes borders on ecoterrorism. But energy is really important and I think there’s a lot we can do here if we’re willing to bend the law even a little.
dugong_narwhal: I’m oldschool, I still think intellectual property illegalism is the most exciting part of the movement. I don’t just mean pirating. It’s definitely fun to torrent a blockbuster movie but it’s probably not actually all that good for the economy. But a movement to make the de facto copyright period 20 years or so seems like a great idea.
People should be able to profit off of their creations, so I do support copyright law in general. But I don’t think anything from before 2000 should still be under copyright.
This is one of the easiest forms of illegalism, one where we might be able to achieve complete victory, even in the face of government interference. Most people already support it. Many people have even helped do it. Anyone who has pirated movies or music has already broken these laws.
You could make a strong argument that people behind projects like The Pirate Bay are real early heroes of the modern illegalist movement. The most effective illegalist of the 21st century is probably Alexandra Elbakyan, who founded Sci-Hub. There’s an even stronger case for sharing research papers than there is for pirating movies — research, especially publicly-funded research, should be free immediately.
And the roots are probably even deeper — all this is kind of a modern form of samizdat, the dissident at-home publication of censored materials.
wellogro: Thank you all so much. As usual, I’d like to end the podcast with a short poetry reading. For today, ADAHU has selected the first stanza of Lowell’s The Present Crisis.
When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west, And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.
Post from the blog Deep Gallon Oliver, August 16, 20XX
Effective illegalism is the movement devoted to finding the highest-impact criminal methods to help other people and the world. Philosopher Katya Mykula described it as “doing for the pursuit of civil disobedience what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth”.
The illegalists have a global conference about once a year to touch base and discuss strategy. In the early years of the movement, this was fine and normal and no one gave us much trouble. But in recent years effective illegalism has gotten more attention and now local law enforcement and similar groups often try to, uh, interfere with the conference.
After the fiasco a few years ago in Nashville, the conference organizers have coordinated a campaign of misinformation to keep us from all getting arrested. So apologies to those of you who ended up in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Stockton, or Tempe. The actual conference this year was in Spokane, WA. Unless I’m lying to you as part of the misinformation campaign. Which I might be.
The official conference theme was “Doing Crime Together”. The official conference interaction style was “pseudonymous”. The official conference illegalism level was “very”.
One of the breakout rooms had all-day career coaching sessions with Careers for Crimes (motto: “You can develop important criminal skills at your day job.”). A steady stream of college students went in, chatted with a group of coaches, and came out knowing that the latest analyses show that becoming a doctor or a pharmacist is a useful path to build crime-relevant skills, but gaining a law degree is probably less useful than previously believed. They also put out a report on their progress this year, but I got a copy and all it says is “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE US ALIVE” in 120 point font.
The theater hosted a “fireside chat” with violetfjeschl, who wore an oni mask and an oversized puffy winter jacket and never took either of them off. She’s director of the economic-growth-maximialist “Carson Wolves” group. I went in with some stereotypes but violetfjeschl started by admitting that while health codes and permits can be good, in many places the cost of starting a restaurant, grocery story, coffeeshop, or even just a barbershop are entirely beyond the means of most people. This is bad because most people need restaurants and grocery stores and would like to see more of them. She had some persuasive arguments for why overpermitting was slowing down economic growth, and how this explains why we see exceptional growth in software and other tech small businesses, which aren’t as location-limited as other small businesses and (so far) don’t face the same kinds of stifling regulations.
Her tactic is to coach local entrepreneurs in how to avoid getting noticed by regulators (turns out this is not very hard, the regulators are not driving around knocking down doors and the police usually can’t be bothered to shut down your illegal coffeeshop as long as they’re not getting tons of complaints), and give them small business loans that they wouldn’t be able to get through legal channels, since their businesses don’t officially exist.
She handled questions from the audience about whether the Carson Wolves were a gang with typical good humor, pointing out that the small businesses don’t have to pay them protection and insurance money if they don’t want to, but that most choose to, since they can’t get normal insurance or go to the police in a crisis. Personally I favor the creation of multiple extralegal insurance companies so that there can be normal market competition, and so that we don’t see these kinds of conflicts of interest.
Afterwards a bunch of us walked to an illegal restaurant a few blocks down the street, the vanguard of this brave new future, and none of us got food poisoning.
But walk a little bit outside of the talks, or linger in the common areas a little bit after you finish your box lunch (stolen from the offices of a Fortune 500 company), and you run into the shadow side of all of this. You might think that doing organized crime, even for good, is the underbelly of civilized society. Well, I’m here to tell you about the hidden underbelly of the underbelly.
Effective illegalism started with “I wonder if some things that are illegal would be good for society”. But even at this early stage, it’s gotten to some pretty weird places.
One thing I was surprised to learn is that many of effective illegalism’s most prominent public critics are themselves effective illegalists. Some reporters, an author, a major YouTuber, and a college professor whose name you would definitely recognize — all of them are big public critics of the movement, but all of them are secretly illegalists, all as part of a strategy to define the conversation. Unless I’m lying to you as part of a strategy to undermine our critics. Which I might be.
Double agents for crime were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.
You’re probably not surprised to hear that there were sessions on how to avoid getting arrested, how to talk with the police, and how to get police to support the movement. But you might be surprised to learn that most of these sessions were led by cops. In fact, one of the sessions was a police officer lecturing on all the laws that the police would never bother to enforce, and another guy gave a talk about all the great, prosocial crimes he was able to do as a police officer.
Crimes for Cops was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.
I got to talk to a number of people who teach their niche skills to others for illegalism purposes. Some of these are the kinds of skills you would expect, though some of them are kind of strange, like the large number of graphic designers who use their professional skills to forge documents in support of various high-impact crimes. And some are very strange, like the makeup and FX artists leading a disguise class on how to impersonate elected officials, or the voice actors leading a class on how to impersonate people over the phone.
Even the FX artists were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global. But I can’t tell you about the weirdest people, they are too illegal.
But maybe the weirdest part was no one group of people, it was the synergy. Running the conference were a bunch of (no offense) pretty boring operations and logistics people who probably do this same sort of thing for their day jobs. These people support the movement but most of them don’t commit any actual crimes for it. Next to them are conference halls full of FX artists, electrical engineers, USPS employees, and actual police officers, all leading classes on how to commit crimes related to their areas of expertise. And next to them are people like violetfjeschl, in her puffer coat and oni mask, running a crime ring that’s something between a small business grants program and an extortion racket. And somehow all of these people are happy to sit down and work together and solve problems as if they are all no different from one another. And I think that’s beautiful.
I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him that despite finding the conference inspiring, and being excited to see so many different kinds of people working together, I also felt kind of guilty for being something of a bystander to the movement, and not doing more crimes.
He responded with the official line, that effective illegalism is a movement of ordinary people, that anyone can contribute, and that resistance to unjust laws starts in the mind and the heart. That not everyone has to be a saboteur or a career criminal. That a commitment could be something more like just helping people out at your job by showing them all the loopholes, pirating music, or even just by not being a narc.
In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about the crime aspect at all, because if you look hard enough at the things you think are unjust in the world, and figure yourself out and commit to resisting evil where you, personally, see it, you’ll just naturally become an effective illegalist.
And then he knocked me down and stole my wallet. Just kidding. Then he invited me to help out with [CRIME PLAN REDACTED] which they were planning for that afternoon. And I realized I could either sit around and feel sad and cynical and depressed about the suffering in the world. Or I could go out, break some laws, and make the world a better place.
Post from the illegalist blog High Potential
When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”
Why hasn’t effective illegalism had our Rosa Parks moment yet?
You first heard about Rosa Parks in public school (sorry, homeschoolers). Back in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, got arrested for it, and her act of defiance became a symbol of the civil rights movement.
What you may not know is that her act of civil disobedience and the legal battle around it were somewhat strategic, and the civil rights movement rallied around Parks because they felt she was the ideal defendant to attract public sympathy. Per Wikipedia:
Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the Black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”.
This was a huge success in favor of civil rights, I mean clearly, since we are still talking about it today. So for effective illegalism, a movement that in theory should not be afraid of breaking a few laws, why have we not had our Rosa Parks moment yet?
I think there are a couple of reasons.
Effective illegalism tends to fight against problems, not against laws. Obviously we are happy to break or bend laws, but we target problems like the housing shortage or prescription drug costs, and the laws that we break are often not the laws that cause these problems. In comparison, Rosa Parks broke a specific law (Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City code), and eventually (indirectly) got the law declared unconstitutional.
Part of this is a sign of the times. In 1955, there were big, specific laws that were clearly unjust. Today, we live in a web of many small laws that are all kind of nebulous, which are often harmless-looking on their own, but which collectively are unjust. So I accept that it’s gotten harder, but we can still find laws to fight.
If effective illegalists want to see this kind of success, we may want to consider more targeted acts of civil disobedience, where we break specific laws we think are wrong in the hopes of either showing how foolish they are, or creating court cases to challenge them directly. This is different from our normal approach of ignoring the laws to do good directly; but probably we should do some of both. We should fight unjust laws and should be ready to do that forever, but it would also be great if those unjust laws went away.
There’s also the issue of, well, effective illegalists are not a naturally sympathetic group. Most of us have real disdain for authority and would not make ideal plaintiffs. And we are not facing down laws as comically and obviously unjust as bus segregation, where black riders were required to pay at the front of the bus, then get off the bus so that they could go around and board at the back, and where drivers would often pull away and leave riders behind even though they had paid their fares. This is some real obvious kick-the-dog nonsense I would feel embarrassed to include as a fiction writer, but it really happened.
Even so, some of us are more sympathetic than others, and there are certainly many laws out there that are comically evil, even if they’re not quite on the level with bus segregation. I think we can do more to focus our efforts on these high-leverage issues and put sympathetic faces to the costs of these horrible laws.
But ultimately I think the main reason we haven’t had a Rosa Parks moment comes from the fact that effective illegalism, at least so far, has focused on crimes that are “safe”. What I mean by “safe” is crimes where it is unlikely for us to end up arrested. We mostly commit crimes that are only technically criminal, crimes that no one ever bothers to enforce, or crimes where we’re very hard to catch. This does make a lot of intuitive sense, because most of us do not want to get arrested. It makes sense to want to get away with these crimes.
Because of this focus on safe crimes, very few of us have been arrested. Most people see this as good, as success for effective illegalism. They think this is a design criterion, that our progress can be measured by not only how many great crimes we do, but how many great crimes we can get away with.
But some things can only happen if we take bigger risks, and are open to sometimes getting arrested. I’m glad that few of us have gotten pinched or gone to jail. But we’re hamstringing ourselves if we keep playing things totally safe.
And SOME things can only happen if we get arrested intentionally.
Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a White woman in her family’s grocery store, whose killers were tried and acquitted – and I just couldn’t go back.”Blake said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.'”
I wonder if some people misunderstand the Rosa Parks story.
Some people would say that in today’s media environment, more outrage is bad. People are outraged enough, and even if we come up with a cloyingly sympathetic story, more outrage will be lost in the noise. There’s a new scandal every week.
But I don’t actually think Rosa Parks’ example sparked people to outrage. I think it sparked them to change their mind, and it sparked things like a bus boycott. It shifted people from emotional outrage to something people could actually do about it.
One thing we should aim to do as illegalists is change people’s minds about specific laws, and about the law in general. Think about a potentially sympathetic white person in 1955 Alabama hearing about Rosa Parks. If a black teenager had refused to give up her seat, they would say, that kid needs to learn respect for authority. If a black man with a criminal record had refused to give up his seat, they would say, these criminals will flaunt any law. But Rosa Parks defied any excuse the mind would naturally reach for. A white voter with an ounce of sympathy in their heart will have to look at this case and say, well she did break the law, but she didn’t deserve to get arrested for it. Maybe that law is wrong.
It’s also worth noticing what the movement did to change black people’s minds, about how much to fear and respect the law. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about his eventual arrest in the course of the boycott:
At the jail, an almost holiday atmosphere prevailed. On the way Ralph Abernathy told me how people had rushed down to get arrested the day before. No one, it seems, had been frightened. No one had tried to evade arrest. Many Negroes had gone voluntarily to the sheriff ’s office to see if their names were on the list, and were even disappointed when they were not. A once fear-ridden people had been transformed. Those who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. With this feeling of solidarity around me, I walked with firm steps toward the rear of the jail. After I had received a number and had been photographed and fingerprinted, one of my church members paid my bond and I left for home.
Another thing we should aim to do is to inspire people to take action. Three days after Parks’ arrest, local leaders started planning a bus boycott, and four days after Parks’ arrest, the boycott started. It ended up lasting 382 days. Black riders made up something like 70% of the bus company’s ridership, so the transit system’s revenue fell overnight. Was this illegalism? Sort of — the city used various methods to try to quash the boycott. They eventually got to the point where they treated it as illegal:
[Martin Luther King Jr.] and 88 other boycott leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in as an act of defiance.
King was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. King commented on the arrest by saying: “I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”
So when I talk about finding or creating sympathetic examples, I don’t just mean examples to stoke the fires of outrage. We certainly don’t need more of that. I mean examples that will change people’s minds about what is right and what is wrong, even if only a little. And I mean examples that will motivate people to actions, things like boycotts, or maybe to becoming illegalists themselves.
Or maybe the truth is that effective illegalism doesn’t need a Rosa Parks moment. We’ve been pretty successful so far flying under the radar, maybe that’s the right approach for people like us. I tried to explore what a Rosa Parks moment would look like for us, but it’s also possible that this is just a different kind of movement than civil rights.
The Crime Accelerator, a Washington Post interview with Jan Gold
WaPo: Today I’m speaking with Jan Gold, a prominent podcaster and spokesman for the movement that calls themselves effective illegalism, a movement whose unofficial slogan is, “Do the Best Crimes”.
Gold: I wouldn’t really call myself a spokesman. I’m not an effective illegalist. Most of them don’t really like me, in part because I do things like talk to the press, which they don’t love. But they do tolerate me. I’m more like an anthropologist.
WaPo: How would you describe the movement?
Gold: Effective illegalism is a group of people from all walks of life who have come together to find ways to improve society. Their logic is that all the legal ways to improve society have already been tried, so the remaining options for making a real difference in the world will all be things that are technically illegal, but morally good, even righteous. So they spend a lot of time figuring out which kinds of illegal acts would do the most good, and then if those acts are feasible, they go out and commit those crimes.
WaPo: Many people have called this approach misguided. After all, the crimes you commit are illegal for a reason.
Gold: Of course these actions are all illegal for a reason, but that reason isn’t always that they’re morally wrong. Sometimes they’re illegal because of a technicality. Sometimes they’re illegal to protect a corporation’s financial interests. Most often, I think, good ideas are illegal because our legislators are not very good at writing laws.
I don’t think breaking the law is wrong — I care a lot more about whether my actions are smart, just, and responsible, and whether they avoid being treacherous, destructive, and evil.
WaPo: What do you say to people who are concerned that effective illegalism is a breeding ground for anarchists who want to destroy the government?
Gold: Effective illegalism does attract a lot of anarchists and libertarians, but that’s mostly because anarchists and libertarians are already coming from a place where they understand that the government sometimes passes laws that are not in the best interests of the public. But anarchists are still a minority, since there are so few of them to begin with. We attract progressives, conservatives, evangelical Christians, environmentalists… we even attract a decent number of LEOs.
Gold: Sorry, law enforcement officers.
WaPo: Why would police support a movement to break the law?
Gold: The police have a better understanding of how the law is actually enforced than most people do. They know that enforcement is often arbitrary, that laws can contradict other laws, or even contradict themselves. They routinely come face to face with choices where they can either choose to enforce the law as it’s written, or do the right thing. For many of them, this is a huge part of their job. Different police officers take this differently, but most of them tend to develop, let’s call it, a practical approach to the law.
All that, but also, police officers are regular people and have the same problems regular people do, so they support effective illegalism for the same reasons that regular people do.
If you find a police officer with diabetes — or if you find a police officer whose parent or, even more, whose child has diabetes — and give them low-cost, illegally-produced insulin, you end up with an ally for life. They look after that illegal insulin-production operation like their life depends on it, because sometimes it does.
And not just police, mind, lots of government workers are effective illegalists. Partially because seeing the functioning of government radicalizes them; partially because being on the inside of the government gives them more opportunity to bend the law. You’d be surprised how many IRS workers end up seeing the injustices in tax law and coming to effective illegalism to find a way to make a difference.
WaPo: The effective illegalism movement is dominated by people who go by monikers like shaman_ist and mariopoker6969. Why are effective illegalists so afraid to use their real names?
Gold: Well, first off, many of them do use their real names, especially people who intentionally get arrested to draw attention to certain causes, as part of their illegalism. People like Shaune Bowman, Ben Jones, Leopold Lee, and Layla Steen Finch all publicly admit to being illegalists, though I suspect most or all of them also use pseudonyms. But the obvious answer as to why many of them don’t use their legal name is that they don’t want to be arrested.
We also find it kind of facile to describe this as “real names”. Just because it’s the name the state knows you by doesn’t make it your real name, it just makes it your legal name. And you know how we feel about laws.
WaPo: But the use of publicly-known names encourages accountability. Shouldn’t people face the consequences for their actions?
Gold: Again this seems pretty facile. I’m glad that that Adolf Eichmann faced the consequences for his actions, but what he did was legal, at least in the country he did it in at the time. I don’t think Harriet Tubman should have “faced the consequences” of her actions, even though what she did was illegal in the United States at the time.
We can have a more sophisticated moral compass than just “is it currently legal or not” — you know, the kind of moral compass that lets us condemn genocide and applaud the abolition of slavery. That seems like a good idea to me.
WaPo: Isn’t this a movement that glorifies and encourages young people to become criminals?
Gold: One of the things that most people don’t realize about living in a legalist society like ours is that, whether or not you realize it, you are already a criminal, even if you’re not prosecuted.
Ayn Rand wasn’t right about everything, but she was right when she said that when there aren’t enough criminals, the government makes them. So many things are declared to be a crime that it becomes impossible for us to live without breaking laws.
We’re not even just talking jaywalking. Transport your guns wrong? That’s a felony. Transport your legal, prescription drugs wrong? That’s a felony. Share your prescription drugs with your wife? That’s a felony.
I would say that effective illegalism glorifies some criminals, people like Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t think it glorifies muggers or arsonists.
WaPo: Many people find the idea of any organized crime to be very unsettling. Won’t your movement eventually descend into violence?
Gold: Most people conflate crime and violence, but of course not all crime is violent crime, and in general effective illegalists think that violent approaches are a bad idea. It’s not like violent crime is generally committed by strangers, either, most violent crime is committed by people you know.
We don’t totally rule out violence because there are some historical cases we can point to where we think violence was justified. The American Revolution was an armed uprising. The Civil War was fought in part to abolish slavery. Even Ghandi said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
But we also don’t think violence is a good strategy in most cases, in part for the reason you say. People don’t like violence and for the most part don’t see it as justified, outside of cases like self-defense.
Part of what will make effective illegalism work in the long term is the fact that the public is naturally sympathetic to our cause. Solving problems with nonviolent approaches tends to get us even more support. And outside of some rare extreme cases, violence would turn people off. So we almost always try to avoid violent crimes.
WaPo: You think the public is sympathetic?
Gold: Sure. If you talk to most people, they care about whether or not their neighborhood is safe, whether they can get affordable healthcare when they need it, whether they have access to things like food and water and reliable housing and transportation, stuff like that.
They don’t really care if the things that get them these things are technically legal or illegal. In fact, almost all of them have experience with pointless governmental red tape, and most of them share the intuition that poorly-made laws are keeping them from having the kind of health, security, and opportunity that they need. This is a feeling that cuts across class, across income brackets, and across the political spectrum. Most people are afraid of the law, but when they see you breaking a specific law in a way they think is moral and that clearly is a benefit to them and their neighbors, they like it.
WaPo: Why commit crimes instead of working within the system?
Gold: This is a false dichotomy. We can and should do both. In the civil rights movement, people broke unjust laws to demonstrate how unjust they were. They also tried to overturn those laws through the normal, legal channels. So today, when we see a law we think is immoral, we both break it, and try to get it repealed. If we’ve had less success repealing unjust laws than they did in the 1960s, I think that says more about how legal reform has changed than about our practices.
But sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question. The real answer is that sometimes there needs to be action right away, and working within the system is too slow for things where the consequences of waiting are serious. If Congress passes an unjust law, you can get arrested and make appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, and maybe get it ruled unconstitutional. But that can take years, or even decades. In the meantime, everyone either suffers under the unjust law, or they go to jail. If you go to jail for breaking a law that’s later ruled to be unconstitutional, it’s not like they just let you out. If the unjust law is about medical care, for example, many people will die, because the system’s gears move too slowly. Many of these issues are too important to wait for the system to sort itself out, even if it eventually would.
WaPo: But won’t all this illegalism lead to a breakdown in law and order?
Gold: Well, it depends what you mean by “breakdown in law and order”.
If you mean total chaos, cannibalism, people murdering each other in the street, I don’t think that will happen, because we don’t think murder and cannibalism are good crimes.
If you mean a world where people get the healthcare they need, where cities are safe and clean, where individual citizens work together to maintain our infrastructure — yes, I think if we’re lucky we might see that kind of breakdown in law and order, because these are all crimes that we think are good ideas.
Excerpt from a post from the blog Half Scale Ninety
No one really knows how effective illegalism began, but I like to imagine that it started in the basement of a house in San Francisco.
Some effective altruists were drinking and commiserating over the fact that even though effective altruism had gained worldwide recognition and was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, there were still all sorts of important problems they weren’t able to make any progress on.
They got to talking, as effective altruists do, about the things that were getting in their way. They kept running into a lot of great ideas for progress that they couldn’t act on because some part of the idea was illegal — to do the idea and make the progress, they would have to break the law. One of them jokingly suggested that they should start a NEW movement, all about doing the best crimes, and I guess the idea stuck.
Or you know, that’s what I like to think happened.