Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, has now been formally indicted for criminal fraud. I’ve commented on the company before, and on the journalistic conventions around intellectuals that fostered her rise. But now that the Theranos story is coming to an end, I feel a need to comment on how utterly unnecessary this all was.

At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and employed 800 people. Yet according to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose investigations exposed Theranos’s fraud, the company is down to just 20 employees who are trying to close up shop.

All credit to Carreyrou, who by all accounts has done an excellent job investigating and reporting on this fiasco, but literally any statistician — anyone who has been through and understood a first-year statistics course — could have said from the start that this was sheer nonsense. That’s presumably why the board was made up mainly of politicians and generals.

The promise of Theranos was that they were going to revolutionise medicine by performing a hundred random medical tests on a drop of blood, and give patients a complete readout of their state of health, independent of medical recommendation of specific tests. But any statistician knows — and every medical practitioner should know — that the reason we don’t do lots of random tests without any specific indication isn’t that they’re too expensive — many aren’t — or that they require too much blood, but that the more tests you do, the more false positives you’re going to accumulate.

If you do a hundred tests on an average person, you’re going to find at least a few questionable results — either from measurement error, or because most tests aren’t all that specific — requiring followups and expensive investigations, and possibly unnecessary treatments.

Of course, if I had to evaluate the proposal for such a company I would keep an open mind about the possibility of a conceptual breakthrough that would allow them to control the false positives. But I would have demanded very clear evidence and explanations. The fact that the fawning news reports back in 2013-15 raved about the genius new biomedical technology, and failed to even claim to have produced (or found) any innovative statistical methodology, made me pretty sure that they had no idea what they were doing. In the end, it turned out that the biomedical innovations were also fake, which I probably should have guessed. But if the greedhead generals — among them the current secretary of defense, who definitely should be questioned about this, and probably ought to resign — had asked a statistician, they could have saved a lot of people a lot of unpleasantness, and maybe helped save Elizabeth Holmes from herself.

Brexit started with rhetoric about unelected Eurocrats thwarting holy parliamentary sovereignty. Now, faced with opposition to her Brexit plans in Parliament, Theresa May

insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.

I am reminded of this comment by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, shortly after the Brexit vote:

Dazu gehört in gewisser Weise ein Taschenspielertrick: Zunächst sagen sie, es gebe einen einzig wahren Volkswillen, der sich gar nicht irren könne. Dann behaupten sie, dass dieser Wille bisher von den Eliten unterdrückt und nicht gehört worden sei. Und schließlich, dass sie selbst nichts weiter täten, als diesen Willen zur Geltung zu bringen. Sie setzten nur um, wozu ihnen das Volk den Auftrag gebe.

Underlying it is a sort of sleight of hand: They start by saying, there is only a single popular will, that can never be wrong. Then they say, this will has been repressed and silenced by elites. And then, finally, that they themselves are doing nothing but to give effect to that will. They are just fulfilling the task assigned to them by the People.

“Il existe quelqu’un de pire que le bourreau, c’est son valet.”
— Mirabeau
There is someone more horrible than the hangman, and that is his servant.

For all the epic pathology of the Trump character spewing itself onto the stage of world affairs, one of his undoubted successes has been the ability to find lieutenants who are more depraved than the mad king himself, or are willing to learn to mimic and then exceed his madness. (It was almost amusing, in this regard, to read that White House staff mimic his lapses of grammar, spelling, and logical coherence in writing tweets in his name.
Now we have, after Trump tweeted a gratuitous insult of the Canadian prime minister, this comment by Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro:

There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.

The thing is, of all the insane boasts coming out of the White House, this is probably one of the more credible. I believe that there is a special place in Hell expressly for enemies of Donald Trump. At least, he surely has the right connections to get it set up. It probably looks just like any other Trump property, except that… Actually, probably no difference. The Trump Tartarus. Has a nice ring to it.

After the unfortunate decision of the UK press to call Theresa May’s European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-Committee the Brexit war cabinet, we now have this:

Theresa May to hold Brexit peace summit for feuding cabinet

Maybe it should be called the civil war cabinet.

People shouldn’t be mocked or discriminated against because of their names. But I really wonder whether the Tories sufficiently considered the practical drawbacks of putting time-sensitive negotiations under the command of a prime minister whose name is also a month. I was disturbed by this report from the Guardian on a press conference of EU negotiator Michel Barnier:

Barnier says he has never spoken about the need for “sufficient progress” by June, as he did before the December summit.

He says May agreed to the backstop in March. She cannot go back on that, he says.

I fear worse may come…

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

A new headline from the Trump era:

Fewer Immigrants Are Reporting Domestic Abuse. Police Blame Fear of Deportation.

Compare it to this headline from a few months ago:

Arrests along Mexico border drop sharply under Trump, new statistics show

This latter article goes on to comment

The figures show a sharp drop in apprehensions immediately after President Trump’s election win, possibly reflecting the deterrent effect of his rhetoric on would-be border crossers.

It must be noted that these two interpretations of declining enforcement are diametrically opposed: In the first case, declining reports to police are taken as evidence of nothing other than declining reports, whereas the latter analysis eschews such a naive interpretation, suggesting that the decline in apprehensions is actually evidence of a decline in the number of offenses (in this case, illegal border crossings).

I don’t mean to criticise the conventional wisdom, which seems to me eminently sensible. I just think it’s interesting how little the statistical “facts” are able to speak for themselves. The same facts could mean that the election of Trump was associated with a decline in domestic violence in immigrant communities, and also with a reduction in border patrol effectiveness. It’s hard to come up with a causal argument for either of these — Did immigrant men look at Trump with revulsion and decide, abusing women is for the gringos? Did ICE get so caught up with the fun of splitting up families in midwestern towns and harassing Spanish speakers in Montana, that they stopped paying attention to the southern border? — so we default to the opposite conclusion.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about capitalism and the nature of wealth I learned from Donald Trump. And now I discover that I was entirely misled, at least as regards Trump’s particular role.

As I discussed in a post a couple of years ago, back in the 1990s I read a newspaper article about Donald Trump’s most recent bankruptcy, and was struck by the fact that, despite having vastly more liabilities than possessions, Trump was still treated as a wealthy man, and not worse than a pauper. And his creditors were willing to come to an arrangement that allowed him to live a rich-man lifestyle, if somewhat less opulent than before. I understood that to mean that modern capitalism makes debt almost as valuable as property, that the person with a billion in debt and the person with a billion in property are considered to be much more similar to each other than either is to the one who has neither debts nor wealth.

Now, having read several books on Trump, including most recently Seth Hettena’s Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, I see that this beautifully esoteric interpretation must yield — at least in the case of Trump — to a simpler and crasser interpretation: At various stages of his career Trump has been propped up by criminals who found the Trump Organisation, and its self-absorbed empty-headed chief, too useful as a cover for moneylending — first for the New York mob, then on a larger scale for Russian oligarchs and criminals from the former Soviet Union — to let it fail. In some sense, this is the value of debt: When there are large numbers in play, it’s easy to hide smaller numbers, just as long as you can come to an agreement to keep the flow going. And it does take a special kind of person to have managed to accumulate that amount of debt in the first place, making Trump’s debt truly a rare and valuable commodity.

I’m perfectly willing to accept a certain claim of innocence, that Trump believed all along that the fact that he kept managing to steer around failure demonstrated nothing but his unique genius. It reminds me of Hitler’s famous comment “Ich gehe mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit den Weg, den mich die Vorsehung gehen heißt”: I follow, with the certainty of a sleepwalker, the path that Providence has laid out for me.

That narcissistic naïveté probably was, and remains, his most useful quality. First time tragedy, second farce.

Why Israel?

The Guardian has published an “exclusive” on the future of European science funding after  Brexit. The key point:

A draft copy of the so-called Horizon Europe document, seen by the Guardian, suggests that the UK is set to be offered less generous access than countries with associate status in the current programme, known as Horizon 2020, including Israel, Turkey, Albania and Ukraine.

So why does the headline say

Brexit: UK may get poorer access than Israel to EU science scheme

Why Israel? If I had to pick a country on the list whose prominence in scientific research makes it seem insulting that they would have a higher priority in research collaboration than the UK, it might be Albania. It definitely wouldn’t be Israel. So might there be some other reason why The Guardian wants to highlight for its readers the shame of being treated worse than Israel by the EU?

With The Guardian portraying the magnitude of Oxford and Cambridge college endowments on the front page as a major scandal — though taken all together they don’t reach even half of the endowment of Harvard — it seems like a good time to repost this comment I made five years ago, when the government was being attacked by Oxford’s chancellor for considering limiting the tax deduction for charitable donations to educational institutions. The post begins:

Let’s think this through:

  1. The government wants philanthropic funding of universities to replace public funding.
  2. Under current law, contributions to universities (and other charities) are matched by a 40% tax rebate for higher-earning taxpayers, so 2/5 of the costs of nominally “private” contributions are actually paid by the taxpayers. The government proposes to cap this subsidy at 15% of income or  £20,000.

Do you see the contradiction? Neither do I. In a time when the government is cutting funding for all manner of worthy projects, it seems pretty undemocratic to effectively allow wealthy citizens nearly unlimited access to the treasury to support their own favourite causes. The £560 million in charitable gifts last year presumably included more than £200 million in “gift” from the government. Whether or not this is a good thing, it seems troubling, as a point of democratic principle, that control over these £200 million has been passed from the citizenry at large (in the person of their elected representatives) to the infamous “one percent”.

For the rest, see here.

I think everyone would agree that if the wealthy elite want to spend their money on providing luxury education in medieval buildings to particularly talented young people, many but not all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, that’s probably not the most useless or antisocial thing that they’re free to do with their money. (And I can confirm, from personal experience, that Oxford colleges spend insane sums of money on maintenance for their buildings.) But as long as they’re leveraging public funds, which the current government has decided to withhold from educational institutions that serve a broader public far more efficiently, it’s no longer a simple matter of private choice.

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