Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

So long, Sokal

I wonder how Alan Sokal feels about becoming the new Piltdown, the metonym for a a certain kind of hoax?

So now there’s another attack on trendy subfields of social science, being called “Sokal squared” for some reason. I guess it’s appropriate to the ambiguity of the situation. if you thought the Sokal Hoax was already big, squaring it would make it bigger; on the other hand, if you thought it was petty, this new version is just pettier. And if, like me, you thought it was just one of those things, the squared version is more or less the same.

The new version is unlike the original Sokal Hoax in one important respect: Sokal was mocking social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff physicists say. The reboot mocks social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff other social scientists say. A group of three scholars has produced a whole slew of intentionally absurd papers, in fields that they tendentiously call “grievance studies”, and managed to get them past peer review at some reputable journals. The hoaxers wink with facially ridiculous theses, like the account of canine rape culture in dog parks.

But if we’re not going to shut down bold thought, we have to allow for research whose aims and conclusions seem strange. (Whether paradoxical theses are unduly promoted for their ability to grab attention is a related but separate matter. For example, one of the few academic economics talks I ever attended was by a behavioural economist explaining the “marriage market” in terms of women’s trading off the steady income they receive from a husband against the potential income from prostitution that they would forego. And my first exposure to mathematical finance was a lecture on how a person with insider information could structure a series of profitable trades that would be undetectable by regulators.) If the surprising claim is being brought by a fellow scholar acting in good faith, trying to advance the discussion in the field, then you try to engage with the argument generously. You need to strike a balance, particularly when technical correctness isn’t a well-defined standard in your field. Trolling with fake papers poisons this cooperative process of evaluation. Read the rest of this entry »

Hannah Arendt on referenda

I decided it was about time to reread The Origins of Totalitarianism. I was pleased to come across her description of the role of referenda, which I have often thought of in the context of recent UK history, but whose origin I had forgotten:

The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society… Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.

I was also pleased to see this comment about Jules Guérin, the founder of the French Ligue Antisémite:

Ruined in business, he had begun his political career as a police stool pigeon, and acquired that flair for discipline and organization which invariably marks the underworld.

I think that is all the demonstration required for my honesty and good character.

How to do it Canada-style

A continuing series (previous entries here, here, and here) about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy. It depends on drawing out very superficial aspects of the problem, and waving away the core difficulties with some appeal to optimism or courage or something. With reference to a Monty Python sketch, I call this approach How to Do It (HTDI).

Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has described Boris Johnson’s policy-analysis process, which is pure HTDI:

When the pair discussed a ‘Canada’ style trade deal, ‘Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you, erm, come on, we can do it Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there.’ ‘And that’s it!’ exclaimed the Chancellor, mimicking the Old Etonian.

I just discovered that Donna Strickland, the woman who just won a Nobel Prize in physics, is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo.

There are 20 full professors in the department, and I bet their research is pretty fucking amazing.

A paradox. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has chided the Democrats for suggesting that basic honesty is essential for a Supreme Court justice, as well as not trying to rape anyone.

The time for endless delay and obstruction has come to a close,” he said.

This suggests that there was once a time for endless delay and obstruction, but it has now ended. The First Age has passed. The giants of legislative logic will fade into song and fable.

I wish I could think of some witty way to frame this, but some comments just have to speak for themselves. I’ve been reading the latest book by my favourite economic historian, Adam Tooze, who has moved from the financial history of the Third Reich and the First World War to examine in his new book the financial crash of 2007-8 and its aftermath. I’ve never had much time for those who see the EU being run by arrogant anti-democratic technocrats. But then we have this remark by Jean-Claude Juncker, then prime minister of Luxembourg and acting chair of the Eurogroup, now president of the European Commission:

Monetary policy is a serious issue. We should discuss this in secret, in the Eurogroup …. If we indicate possible decisions, we are fueling speculations on the financial markets and we are throwing in misery mainly the people we are trying to safeguard from this …. I am for secret, dark debates …. I’m ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious …. When it becomes serious, you have to lie.

I guess the best you can say is, this is macho posturing of a tax-evaders’ shill trying to show he’s tough enough to sit at the top table of power politics.

In the long dark night of the European soul, even a Luxembourgish prime minister dreams of being Metternich.

Credibility gap

So, this is weird, on a purely linguistic level: Donald Trump, commenting on yesterday’s Senate testimony about the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations, allowed that Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser, was a “very credible witness”, and that Brett Kavanaugh was “incredible”. I know, words acquire nonliteral meanings. But still…

Truth and reconciliation

Senator Lindsey Graham has lamented the chaotic way that old accusations of sexual abuse are resurfacing to derail men’s careers.

“If this is enough – 35 years in the past, no specifics about location and time, no corroboration – God help the next batch of nominees that come forward,” he told reporters. “It’s going to be hard to recruit good people if you go down based on allegations that are old and unverified.”

I think we can all agree that the current haphazard approach to reporting, investigating, and punishing sexual violence from the distant past, with mores changing and memories fraying, is not ideal, not for the victims, not for justice.

Ultimately, I think what we need is a Sexual Truth and Reconciliation Commission (STaR Commission). As in post-Apartheid South Africa, the Commission would be empowered to offer amnesty to offenders in exchange for confession of all sexual offenses, and full and frank accounts of the facts from the period of the War on Women.

Of course, before we can have the Truth and Reconciliation, we need first to overthrow the old regime of gender-apartheid and hold free and fair gender-neutral elections. That will be some time yet. By that time, we can hope that computer technology will have progressed to the point that it will be possible to store and distribute the complete record of the crimes.

Obesity and cancer

The Guardian has prominently posted a report by Cancer Research UK with a frightening headline:

Obesity to eclipse smoking as biggest cause of cancer in UK women by 2043

That’s pretty sensational. I was intrigued, because the mortality effects of obesity have long intrigued me. It seems like I’ve been hearing claims for decades, loudly trumpeted in the press, that obesity is turning into a health crisis, with the mortality crisis just around the corner. It seems plausible, and yet every time I try to dig into one of these reports, to find out what the estimates are based on, I come up empty. Looking at the data naively, it seems that the shift from BMI 20 to BMI 25 — the threshold of official “overweight” designation — has been associated in the past with a reduction in all-cause mortality. Passing through overweight to “obesity” at BMI 30 raises mortality rates only very slightly. Major increases in mortality seem to be associated with BMI over 35 or 40, but even under current projections those levels remain rare in nearly all populations.

There is a chain of reasoning that goes from obesity to morbid symptoms like high blood pressure and diabetes, to mortality, but this is fairly indirect, and ignores the rapid improvement in treatments for these secondary symptoms, as well as the clear historical association between increasing childhood nutrition and improved longevity. Concerned experts often attribute the reduction in mortality at low levels of “overweight” to errors in study design — such as confusing weight loss due to illness with healthy low weight — which has indeed been a problem and negative health consequences attributable to weight-loss diets tend to be ignored. All in all, it has always seemed to be a murky question, leaving me genuinely puzzled by the quantitative certainty with which catastrophe is predicted. Clearly increasing obesity isn’t helping people’s health — the associated morbidity is a real thing, even if it isn’t shortening people’s lives much — but I’m perplexed by the quantitative claims about mortality.

So, I thought, if obesity is causing cancer, as much as tobacco is, that’s a pretty convincing piece of the mortality story. And then I followed up the citations, and the sand ran through my fingers. Here are some problems:

  1. Just to begin with, the convergence of cancers attributable to smoking with cancers attributable to obesity is almost entirely attributable to the reduction in smoking. “By 2043 smoking may have been reduced to the point that it is no longer the leading cause of cancer in women” seems like a less alarming possible headline. Here’s the plot from the CRUK report:
    Screenshot 2018-09-24 11.48.43
  2. The report entirely conflates the categories “overweight” and “obese”. The formula they cite refers to different levels of exposure, so it is likely they have separated them out in their calculations, but it is not made clear.
  3. The relative risk numbers seem to derive primarily from this paper. There we see a lot of other causes of cancer, such as occupation, alcohol consumption, and exposure to UV radiation, all of which are of similar magnitude to weight. Occupational exposure is about as significant for men as obesity, and more amenable to political control, but is ignored in this report. Again, the real story is that the number of cancers attributable to smoking may be expected to decline over the next quarter century, to something more like the number caused by multiple existing moderate causes.
  4.  Breast cancer makes up a huge part of women’s cancer risk, hence a huge part of the additional risk attributed to overweight, hence presumably makes up the main explanation for why women’s additional risk due to overweight is so much higher than men’s. The study seems to estimate the additional breast cancer risk due to smoking at 0. This seems implausible. No papers are cited on breast cancer risk and smoking, possibly because of the focus on British statistics, but here is a very recent study finding a very substantial increase. And here is a meta-analysis.
  5. The two most common cancers attributable to obesity in women — cancer of the breast and uterus — are among the most survivable, with ten-year survival above 75%. (Survival rates here.) The next two on the list would be bowel and bladder cancer, with ten-year survival above 50%. The cancer caused by smoking, on the other hand, is primarily lung cancer, with ten-year survival around 7%, followed by oesophageal (13%), pancreatic (1%), bowel and bladder. Combining all of these different neoplasms into a risk of “cancer”, and then comparing the risk due to obesity with that due to smoking, is deeply misleading.

UPDATE: My letter to the editor appeared in The Guardian.

I was in high school when the Hitler diaries flashed across the media firmament, and I was fascinated by the eagerness with which so many responsible people accepted as plausible what were quickly unmasked as transparent frauds. An important selling point was the observation that the diaries never mentioned the extermination of the Jews, and I remember very specifically an article in Time magazine that teased the possibility that Hitler himself may not have known of the extent of the Holocaust, with speculation by historians that underlings may have acted on their own. I had an insight then about what would motivate people to seek out evidence that someone they “know” — even if knowing them only by their reputation as a famous monster — was innocent of an important crime. Just by learning about a historical figure we inevitably develop some psychological identification with him, he becomes one of our acquaintances, and then to mitigate the cognitive dissonance we are attracted to exculpatory evidence, even better if it is such as tends to diffuse responsibility rather than creating other specific monsters.

The writer Richard Marius once told me that after he had written his biography of Thomas More, where he had to come to some resolution on the purported crimes of Richard III, and decided that Richard was guilty of everything, he got harassed by people calling themselves Ricardians. They insisted that the criminals were Henry VII, or Edward Tyrell, or some anonymous unknowable others. Again, Richard III is a famous villain, but since he is famous, people identify him, and want to believe him not such a villain.

The French aphorism tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner goes deep. Bare familiarity is enough to create a motivation to pardon everything.

I see a connection to the way conservatives jumped at the theory that Christine Blasey Ford had indeed been sexually assaulted, but that she had mis-identified Brett Kavanaugh as the perpetrator. This doesn’t change anything about the number of evil people in the world, but it renders them anonymous. (Ed Whelan crossed a line when he went full Ricardian and accused a specific classmate of Kavanaugh’s. In principle, this serves all relevant purposes of the free-floating accusation, but by libelling a specific private citizen it created too many other complications and even, dare I suggest, moral qualms.) Read the rest of this entry »

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