The new alternative facts

From the people who brought you alternative facts:

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you believe there should be a response from the United States?

MR. TRUMP: … As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

We not only have to get the facts straight, we have to agree with them. Otherwise they’re not really facts. But then we’ll condemn Russia. Or whoever tried to assassinate a Russian double agent with chemical weapons. Probably someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.

His master’s voice

Embed from Getty Images

 

So yesterday I was reading about the White House position on the nerve-agent poisoning  of Sergei Skripal et al.:

White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Not what you would expect if you believed that the US would stand up for its number-one lapdog ally, but obviously someone in the White House is concerned about not upsetting the Kremlin. But then there was a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said

Russia is ‘clearly’ behind spy poisoning and ‘must face serious consequences’

This seemed like a significant disagreement. And I thought, either this reflects a change of position — perhaps with more information implicating the Russians — or Rex is freestyling. Presumably Tillerson is speaking for the state department professionals and the White House is speaking for… Well, let’s just say that Vlad would want to see some evidence that Donald hasn’t forgotten who he’s working for. I was expecting there to be some sort of demeaning tweet about Tillerson’s height or his body odour, or something.

And today we have this:

Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo

Weird coincidence. Even if Tillerson’s ouster actually had been planned long in advance, it’s pretty obvious that a small delay would have prevented this appearance of truckling to the Kremlin’s interests. Which means that, whatever else may have motivated this step, that appearance was almost certainly desired.

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 Continue reading “What’s English for Führerprinzip?”

The eat-your-marshmallows party

When did the Conservatives become the party of immediate gratification? This follows a development across the Atlantic that I first noticed thirty years ago when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was described as the “eat your peas” candidate.

I was shocked to hear from my daughter that her high school class had been given a talk encouraging them to consider leaving school and switching to an apprenticeship programme, because they could immediately be earning £3 an hour, or whatever it was. I thought this was just some weird individual thing, but then I saw an official government advertisement on a bus shelter making exactly this argument. I’m all in favour of apprenticeship programmes, but I think the choice of who should continue on to further education should not be best on the goal of getting paid £3 an hour right now. It is so obviously targeted at getting underprivileged children into menial jobs, to prevent them from rising above their station, that it astonishes me that the government was not too embarrassed to create this campaign.

Similar thinking seems to underly the recent proposal by the education secretary to reduce university fees for courses of study that tend to lead to lower salaries, which has been taken to be suggesting lower fees for arts and social science degrees, while maintaining current fees for science and technology degrees. This is a proposal to incentivise poorer students to prioritise short-term costs over long-term benefits. The most charitable interpretation one can have is that they read chapter 1 of the economics textbook, about prices being set by an equilibrium of supply and demand, and never made it to chapter 2, on the effect of incentives.

It’s purely coincidental that this would tend to brighten the career prospects of dimmer children of affluent familes. It’s almost like the Tories read about Mischel’s marshmallow test, and their response was that it’s unfair that poor children can get ahead just because they might happen to be constitutionally better inclined to delay gratification. I remember John Kerry being mocked in 2004 for having limited his children’s television viewing when they were young, showing them as out of touch with the habits of ordinary Americans, and thinking, self-indulgent habits work out different for aristocrats like the Bushes than for children of middle-class and working-class families. Which is perhaps exactly the point.

Counting to 20

I’m sitting in the Sheldon Theatre for a meeting of Congregation, Oxford University’s governing body, to discuss a suspension of rules to allow a discussion of the proposed resolution to change the university’s negotiating posture on the pension issue. (The motion was proposed with only 18 days notice, rather than the required 22.) The rules allow 20 members to rise (ageism!) to object, which blocks consideration.

It surprised me how determined the university administration was to block this vote.

But it also surprised me how difficult it was to count to 20. It took around ten minutes. They seemed to keep getting confused, and needing to recount various sections.

Whether there really were 20 I’m not sure, but they finally said there were, and adjourned the meeting, to shots of “Shame!”

At which point the meeting was spontaneously moved outside, and a wildcat vote was held.

Connecting

An diplomat involved in drafting the EU’s position for the next round of Brexit negotiations seemed to be expressing disappointment in the stubbornness of Theresa May’s most recent speech when he said

We are ships passing each other in the night. We are not connecting.

I understand his annoyance, that the UK seems to be running its own negotiation, for internal consumption, taking no account out the EU’s clearly stated principles. But surely it can’t be a disappointment, when two ships encounter each other, that they don’t “connect”.

Natural frequencies and individual propensities

I’ve just been reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Reckoning with Risk, about risk communication, mainly a plaidoyer for the use of “natural frequencies” in place of probabilities: Statements in the form “In how many cases out of 100 similar cases of X would you expect Y to happen”. He cites one study forensic psychiatry experts who were presented with a case study, and asked to estimate the likelihood of the individual being violent in the next six months. Half the subjects were asked “What is the probability that this person will commit a violent act in the next six months?” The other half were asked “How many out of 100 women like this patient would commit a violent act in the next six months?” Looking at these questions, it was obvious to me that the latter question would elicit lower estimates. Which is indeed what happened: The average response to the first question was about 0.3; the average response to the second was about 20.

What surprised me was that Gigerenzer seemed perplexed by this consistent difference in one direction (though, obviously, not by the fact that the experts were confused by the probability statement). He suggested that those answering the first question were thinking about the same patient being released multiple times, which didn’t make much sense to me.

What I think is that the experts were thinking of the individual probability as a hidden fact, not a statistical statement. Asked to estimate this unknown probability it seems natural that they would be cautious: thinking it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 percent they would not want to underestimate this individual’s probability, and so would conservatively state the upper end. This is perfectly consistent with them thinking that, averaged over 100 cases they could confidently state that about 20 would commit a violent act.

Knocking opportunity

A recent lunchtime conversation turned to Boris Johnson. “I don’t understand him,” someone said. “I used to think Boris was just an opportunist. But what he’s been doing lately doesn’t seem at all to be serving his interests.”

I replied, “He’s an opportunist without opportunity… What we’re seeing is the free-field behaviour of the opportunist.”

For more observations on British ruling class synecdoche Johnson see this post.