Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Election hacking, part 2

Given that the official US government response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been essentially nothing, and the unofficial response from Trump and his minions has been to welcome future assistance, I’ve been assuming that 2020 will be open season for any other intelligence agencies with a good cyberwar division to have a go. Why should the Russians have all the fun?

And number one on my list would be the Israeli Mossad. Is this so obvious that no one thinks it worth mentioning, or so wrong-headed that even crazy people don’t think of it? They’re technologically sophisticated, have excellent contacts to the US political establishment, and they have already demonstrated the absence of any compunction at interfering in US internal affairs. They are also highly motivated: Having bet the entire US-Israel relationship on the premise that Trumpism will rule in the US forever, Israel’s security essentially requires the destruction of US democracy. At least, that’s how they’ll rationalise it to themselves.

Something to think about, one week before Israel’s parliamentary election.

May God bless and keep the tsar far away from us…

I’m happy to see the UK government interested in attacking antisemitism — even if they do tend to see the main contribution of Jews to UK society as being to shield the Conservative Party against accusations of racism (as demonstrated most recently by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions) — but I can’t help feeling it shows at the very least some level of insensitivity to historical context for the government to appoint an antisemitism tsar.

I find it jarring in the same way I did this reference to both the “Mecca of the kibbutz movement” and “a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv turned into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

I suppose we should be grateful the government has not decided to launch a Crusade against Antisemitism.

Everything I needed to know about British politics I learned in kindergarten

The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.

This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.

It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.

None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”

Lecturing is obsolete — and always has been

Pretty much since I became a professional academic two decades ago there has been constant agitation against lecturing as a technology for teaching. Either new research has proven it, or new technology has rendered it, obsolete. Thus I was amused to read this comment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON: ‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.’ Dr. Scott agreed with him. ‘But yet (said I), Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.’ He smiled. ‘You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.’

Brexit planning in a mysterious tribal dialect

Among the many recurring farcical features of the Brexit morass has been the British government’s willingness (as I discussed two years ago) to proclaim, that its Brexit plans and negotiating position needs to be kept secret from the UK public because, in its favoured gambling vernacular, its ability to bluff would be fatally undermined by showing its cards. In recent weeks we have learned that no-deal Brexit is easily managed, nothing to be frightened of; and yet, the EU will truckle at the whiff of grapeshot, once it is clear that Parliament cannot rescue them from this terrifying fate. That proroguing Parliament changes nothing, and yet will persuade the EU that the UK has thrown its steering wheel out of the car in its game of diplomatic chicken.

What is odd is not that the government might have a public posture (e.g. no-deal Brexit is easily manageable) at odds with its private beliefs (e.g. no-deal Brexit will be hugely destructive). It is that they openly and persistently proclaim these contradictions, using poker metaphors to justify their contradictions. As though their diplomatic counterparties in Brussels would not also read their allusions to bluffing and draw the appropriate conclusions.

I am reminded of an anecdote in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris, an American writer who lived many years in France, describes the conversation of two American tourists who were crammed in close to him in the Paris Metro:

“Peeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby.” He removed one of his hands from the pole and waved it back and forth in front of his face. “Yes indeed,” he said. “This little foggy is ripe.”

It took a moment to realize he was talking about me.

The woman wrinkled her nose. “Golly Pete!” she said, “Do they all smell this bad?”

“It’s pretty typical,” the man said. “I’m willing to bet that our little friend here hasn’t had a bath in a good two weeks. I mean, Jesus Christ, someone should hang a deodorizer around this guy’s neck.”

It’s a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever… An experienced traveler could have told by looking at my shoes that I wasn’t French. And even if I were French, it’s not as if English is some mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals. They happen to teach English in schools all over the world. There are no eligibility requirements. Anyone can learn it. Even people who reportedly smell bad…

Early comments by Johnson on the impact of no-deal Brexit

Fully consistent with what the PM is saying now:

There came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the common-place complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined.

JOHNSON (smiling). ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’

This was Samuel Johnson, in the 1770s, who also wrote that

The interruption of trade, though it may distress part of the community, leaves the rest power to communicate relief; the decay of one manufacture may be compensated by the advancement of another…

Johnson, of course, also famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Which may somehow be relevant.

De Gaulle’s final vindication

De Gaulle famously opposed British entry into the European Common Market, in part because of fear that the UK would serve as a stalking horse for the US. Now the UK is withdrawing from the EU to chase after its unrequited transatlantic crush. And this photo from Le Monde shows the penultimate stage of the drama. The body language is telling. Trump is relaxed, Johnson the overeager schoolboy trying to suck up to the teacher.

I know that public figures are often caught in awkward postures by photographers, but I can’t imagine any person with a shred of self-respect — not to mention any respect for the country he is supposed to be representing — mugging like this in public.

AFP Nicholas Kamm

Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English

What Johnson wants is for one of two things to happen:

  1. No deal, with blame falling both on the obstreperous, sclerotic, backward-looking EU, and on the traitorous socialists who weakened Britain’s negotiating position from within by suggesting they would block no-deal in any case. We would have had the perfect buccaneering Brexit deal with complete access to European markets, if we hadn’t been betrayed;
  2. A deal that is forced upon the government by the same traitors in parliament.

In either case Johnson then hopes to win a new election by campaigning against the traitors. It’s even better (but riskier) if the country is in chaos because of no-deal Brexit.

No one who actually hoped to make a deal would publicly declare that the other side must entirely abandon one of its key demands, that had already been conceded by a previous UK government, and suggest that their opposition is only a public negotiating posture. But it’s a perfectly good way of provoking a crisis, while allowing low-information voters to believe that he’s really tried everything. Continue reading “Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English”