Statisticians of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your Markov chains!

From “A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485”, by Nicholas Vincent:

Finally, as in all modern debates from which statistics and the spirit of Karl Marx are never far distant, it has been argued that, by 1200, Philip of France was far richer than the King of England and therefore ideally placed to seize the Plantagenet lands.

Statisticians or Stakhanovites? You decide…

Daniel Kahneman, Social Psychology, and Finance

I’ve been a booster of the Tversky-Kahneman cognitive-bias revolution since I read their article in Scientific American as a high school student. (To be honest, I’d always lazily thought of it as Tversky’s work, but Daniel Kahneman has had the good sense not to die prematurely, and to collect a Nobel memorial prize.) And I’ve greatly enjoyed Kahneman’s new popular book on his collected lessons from many decades of research on cognitive biases.

Putting that together with my longstanding contempt for the finance profession (expressed at greatest length here, but more generally listed here), I was particularly delighted to start in on the chapter titled “The Illusion of Validity”, where Kahneman lays into the self-serving illusions of finance professionals. It turns out, though, that this chapter is an intellectual trainwreck, with oversimplifications piling up on crude distortions, while the whistle of self-satisfied self-promotion shrills incessantly in the background. It’s both insufferable and so poorly reasoned that it begins to call the reliability of the rest of the book into question. Kahneman doesn’t claim to be free of the cognitive biases he analyses in others, but you might expect more self-awareness.

Continue reading “Daniel Kahneman, Social Psychology, and Finance”

Fascism in America

Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!
Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!
Nuremberg rally
Die NRA sind unser Unglück!

I remember many years ago when I first saw a car bumper sticker saying “First round up the guns, then round up the Jews!”, which I assumed to be suggesting that the owner disapproved of both confiscations. Just now, the “Nazi gun control” trope is all over the place: for instance, here and here and even here.
It’s weird, because this story seems to have literally zero basis in fact. I’ve read quite a few books about the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, and the Third Reich, and I’ve never come across any reference to a Nazi interest on the question of private gun ownership. Sure, Jews were forbidden to have guns, but they were also forbidden from owning cats. It’s not that the Nazis feared the wrath of the Hebrew feline defenders.

The only reference I’ve come across to a nexus between Nazi ideology and private guns (as opposed to military armaments, in which they obviously had an abiding interest) is a passage in Ian Kershaw’s masterful biography of Hitler. Discussing the extraordinary thoroughness of the campaign of “Gleichschaltung” — the “coordination” of all institutions, whether large or petty, with Nazi goals and ideology — in 1933, he quotes an “activity report” from the small town of Theisenort (population about 750) in Upper Franconia:

The Veterans’ association was coordinated on 6.8.33, on 7.8.33 the Singing Association in Theisenort. With the Shooting Club in Theisenort this was not necessary, since the board and committee are up to 80 per cent party members.

So there would have been no need to round up the weapons of regime opponents, because the shooting enthusiasts were all Nazis to begin with. That doesn’t really support the whole bulwark against fascism idea. Continue reading “Fascism in America”

Screens or Weights?

I probably shouldn’t be spending so much of my time thinking about U.S. election polls: I have no special expertise, and everyone else in the country has lost interest by now. But I’ve just gotten some new information about a question that was puzzling me throughout the recent election campaign: What do pollsters mean when they refer to a likely voter screen? Continue reading “Screens or Weights?”

Are you demographic?

As a sometime demographer myself, I am fascinated by the prominence of “demographics” as an explanatory concept in the recent presidential election, now already slipping away into hazy memory. Recent political journalism would barely stand without this conceptual crutch, as here and here and here. A bit more nuance here. Some pushback from the NY Times here.

The crassest expression of this concept came in an article yesterday by (formerly?) respected conservative journalist Michael Barone, explaining why he was no longer confident that Mitt Romney would win the election by a large margin. Recall that several days before the election, despite the contrary evidence of what tens of thousands of voters were actually telling pollsters, he predicted 315 electoral votes for Romney, saying “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections. That’s bad news for Barack Obama.” In retrospect, he says,

I was wrong because the outcome of the election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by fundamentals…. I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.

Continue reading “Are you demographic?”

The Silver standard

Who speaks for statistics?Silver coins

Ace forensic psephologist Nate Silver has attracted quite a bit of attention lately, with his 4+-year-old blog devoted to his statistical model that is intended to provide a synoptic view of the entire range of public data to produce a single probabilistic prediction of the outcome. Now, there are some clear criticisms that could be made of his approach, and of his results — in particular, the obvious failure of his successive predictions to be martingales, as they would have to be if they were appropriately using all current information — but he has been remarkably clear and open about his procedures and principles, and his reasoning on matters large and small seems generally sound, if not necessarily compelling. It’s funny that his conclusions should arouse any controversy at all, given that they are hardly different (as Silver himself is quick to acknowledge) from the conclusions one would draw from a simplistic combination of poll results. His main contribution is in giving careful answers to the obvious critiques that could be proposed: What’s a reasonable estimate for the difference between state poll results and the actual election result? How correlated are polling errors? What’s the best way to average polls of varying qualities done over multiple days? And so on. In the end, the answer doesn’t differ much from what anyone with number sense would come up with in a few hours, but you don’t know that for sure until you do it. And Silver’s reputation derives from the sense and good care that he takes in posing these questions and resolving them.

(The failure of the martingale property is actually evidence of his honesty in following the model that he set up back in the spring. He clearly would have been capable of recognising the trends that other people can see in the predictions, and introducing an ad hoc correction. He didn’t do that.) Continue reading “The Silver standard”

Evolution turns political

… followed by arithmetic

There are two general attitudes that a scientifically-minded educated person could take to the resurgence of anti-Darwinian politics in the US over the past few decades. 1) Children deserve to know the truth, as best as careful thinkers have been able to determine it. Parents have no right to withhold the truth. We need to break the cycle of ignorance. Disrespect for standards of science and objective truth in one area will undermine science universally, making it more difficult for our society to benefit, materially and intellectually, from scientific progress. 2) Evolution is a story. It is abstract. It is a belief system that lends itself at least as much to social and political abuse as an fundamentalist sect, so maybe we shouldn’t be pushing it too hard — particularly not when there’s a conflict with parental beliefs and values. There’s plenty of science to learn — even biology — that won’t run up against conflict with home values. Where it’s a problem, let’s leave these abstract matters for when they are older and more qualified to make their own value judgements. (Given the difficulty of US schools recruiting competent science teachers, we might also add the very real harm that is likely to be done by teachers who genuinely don’t understand evolution, teaching corrupted or incomprehensible versions of the key ideas.) Continue reading “Evolution turns political”

Math anxiety turns political

In a recent interview, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked about the problem with his party’s proposed “budget” (if we may loosely use that word for a set of proposals that refrain from actually saying how much money will be raised, or how it will be spent), and suggesting that it would “take me too long to go through all the math”. He actually spent a couple of minutes avoiding wasting time by going through all the math. And in an interview the following day he further expatiated on his mathless mission of mercy: “I like Chris [Wallace, the interviewer]. I didn’t want to get into all of the math on this because everyone would start changing the channel.”

Sure, you may think you want to know how I’m going to be covering the pension and health care you think the government has promised you (“federal government legacy costs”, as his running mate might term them), but trust me, the answer involves MATH! MATH, I TELL YOU! Imagine Jack Nicholson at the end of A Few Good Men yelling, “You want the math? You can’t handle the math!” Paul Ryan is a selfless soul who has descended into the pit of reckoning, done battle for your sake with the math demons, and returned with a golden budget for all our sakes. Surely we cannot be so cruel (and so self-destructive) as to demand details of the horrors he encountered there. Maybe Obama has done okay protecting us from bin Laden and alQaeda, but only Paul Ryan is going to be able to save us from Euclid and alGebra. Continue reading “Math anxiety turns political”

Who built that? ctd.

The Aeschylean Romney

I commented recently on the Republican obsession with the autogenesis of business founders. It is both insulting and un-American, they say, to suggest that the founder of a business did not actually build that business entirely by himself. And just recently it occurred to me that there is a significant analogy between this belief and the ancient theory of paternity that held sway in Europe for many centuries.

In Aeschylus’s Furies (last part of the Oresteia), Orestes stands accused of murdering his mother, something that he factually did, in revenge for her murdering his father (her husband). He defends himself by arguing that he has shed no “kindred blood”, that only his father is related by blood. The Furies turn to Apollo, outraged. He agrees with Orestes:

Not the true parent is the woman’s womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent; she for him,
As stranger for a stranger, hoards the germ
Of life;

As in the Republican model you have a superficial, directly observable truth (women build babies; workers build buildings and enterprises) — if it’s a company that makes automobiles, every piece was connected to every other piece in every automobile by a worker, not by a “founder”, that’s just something you can see with your eyes — confronted by a determination to submerge this tangible truth in a theoretical framework that makes the father or the executive not just a “half-worker” (to quote Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbelline), but the only worker. In Apollo’s framing, the female is a passive vessel, flowerpot in which the male plants his seed. And in the Republican economy, the worker is simply a raw material, shaped by the vision of a job-creator.

The Aeschylean vision was formalised in the “one-seed theory” of Aristotle, and dominated medical thinking in Europe through the Middle Ages. This opens up a whole new realm of philosophical inquiry, updating classical theological and philosophical conundra for modern business. Do entrepreneurs have navels? Could Bill Gates write a cheque so large that a computer running Microsoft Windows can’t process it? If a stock market collapses in off-hours trading, does it make a crash? How many angels can dance on the margin of a call option?

On a side-note, I was impressed in 2008 with Obama’s application of Bob the Builder’s anthem:

Bob the Builder
Can we fix it?
Bob the Builder
Yes we can!

Perhaps the Republicans are subtly responding in kind: Maybe Bob the Builder can fix it, but only Mitt the MBA can build something new.

Who built that?

Obama vs. Romney vs. Brecht smackdown


I’ve avoided writing comments on US politics, mostly, but here’s something that really needs another perspective. Mitt Romney has seized upon a comment of Barack Obama in a campaign speech:

If you are successful somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet, so then all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Romney mocks this statement as anti-capitalist, anti-entrepreneur, which to a certain extent it is; at least, it is opposed to the maximalist Führerprinzip of heroic capitalism. This is how Romney puts it:

To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft … to say something like that is not just foolishness, it’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.

Well, sorry if they’re insulted, but they seem to have a pretty thin skin. The left has been defending Obama by saying this is twisting his words out of context (which it is), and that Obama LOVES entrepreneurs, which is also probably true. But the fact that they are fighting on these terms just shows how low the left has sunk, both intellectually and spiritually. There was a time when the left could have said, the entrepreneurs and business leaders certainly have their roles to play, but they are not the only ones making a contribution to the country, or to building a business. (Well, there were also those on the left saying that the entrepreneurs and business leaders are thieves and scoundrels, who will be the first with their backs up against the wall when the revolution comes.)
As so often, the quintessential formulation of this apparently difficult political concept comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Who built the seven-gated Thebes/ In the books I find only the names of kings./Did the kings lug the massive stones?/…Caesar smashed the Gauls./ Didn’t he at least have a cook?” So the proper response to Romney would be, “Steve Jobs built Apple. By himself? Didn’t he at least have a cook?” Continue reading “Who built that?”