Neanderthals and women

The article seems to have good intentions, but this headline in today’s Guardian is the most sexist I’ve seen in some time. It sounds like the men were hard at work “creating language”, and some women helped out with some testing, and maybe brought snacks. Also some Neanderthals came by and lent a hand. And apes.

Anglophone exceptionalism

Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not like the new French film Deception, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, based on one of Philip Roth’s many pseudo-autobiographical novels. And one of the things he really doesn’t like about this French film is that… it’s French.

Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

C’est pas vrai! A French director cast French actors in his film, and let them (I’m trying not to hyperventilate here) speak FRENCH! How could this be allowed to happen? He seems to have gotten the Hollywood rule, that European characters (of whatever nationality) are always supposed to be played by British actors, exactly backward!

Could you imagine a critic commenting on a film by a British or American director set in a non-English-speaking country, that complains that the director cast British or American actors speaking English, which completely misses the nuances of dialect differences?

Spielberg doesn’t change any nationalities. His Schindler is still supposed to be Moravian, and his antagonist Amon Göth is still Austrian. But Spielberg casts British people, speaking English. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and Ralph Fiennes is the Austrian Nazi.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

I mention this particular example because I do recall seeing a German review of Schindler’s List that did complain about the dialect issue, but only as an issue about the dubbing by the regular German representatives of those particular British actors, speaking their regular high German. No one would have suggested that an American director really should have made his film in German to begin with.

How to vaccinate all the Germans in two easy steps

One might despair at how hopelessly behind Europe in general, and Germany in particular, is with its vaccination campaign. According to the data below from the Robert Koch Institute, they recovered last week from the collapse of the week before due to the brief rejection of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and resumed their very modest acceleration, but that seems to have stopped, and they’re now back to the rate of the previous week of about 1.5 million vaccines per week, a rate that would get them through the entire adult population in around… 2 years.

RKI Vaccine statistics 1/4/2021

But not to worry! says Der Spiegel. They quote an expert — Sebastien Dullien, scientific director of the Institute for Macroeconomics and Economic Research (Institut für Makroökonomie und Konjunkturforschung (IMK) der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung), for which I’ll have to take their word that he’s somehow an expert on vaccines and public health, because his job (and his Wikipedia page) make it seem that he’s an expert on finance and economics — who claims that the vaccination of the entire German adult population will be complete before the middle of the summer. “Es ist realistisch, alle impfbereiten erwachsenen Deutschen bis Ende Juli durchgeimpft zu haben.” [It is realistic, that we can have all willing adult Germans vaccinated by the end of July.) Sounds good! He goes on to say “Dafür müssen nur zwei Bedingungen erfüllt werden.” [This depends on just two conditions being fulfilled.] Okay, two conditions. I hope the conditions are fulfilled… What are they?

Der Impfstoff muss kommen, und er muss verimpft werden.
[We have to get the vaccine, and then we have to vaccinate people with it.]

It’s this kind of reduction of complex problems into manageable sub-problems that only the truly great minds can deliver. This goes on my list of “How-to-do-it” solutions to complex problems. (Previous entries here, here, and here.)

Actually, this is amazingly close to the Monty Python original, where the kiddie show How to Do It explained “how to rid the world of all known diseases”. Their method was more elaborate, though, involving five steps:

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

The opposite of a superficial lie

“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

The news media have gotten themselves tangled up, from the beginning of the Trump era, in the epistemological question of whether any statement can objectively be called a lie. Yes, Trump says things that are untrue, that contradict objectively known facts, but are they lies? Does he have the appropriate mens rea to lie, the intention to deceive, or is that just a partisan insult?

The opposite problem has gotten too little attention. Just because Donald Trump says something that corresponds to objective facts, one cannot infer that he is speaking the truth. (We don’t really have a word in English to correspond to the opposite of lie, in this dichotomy.) A good example is the controversy over Trump’s private and public comments on the incipient Coronavirus pandemic in February and March of this year. On February 7, 2020, Trump told Woodward

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is quite an accurate statement, and also very different than what he was saying publicly. On February 10 he said, in a campaign speech,

I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.

And February 26 in an official White House pandemic task force briefing:

The 15 [case count in the U.S.] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … This is a flu. This is like a flu.

When you see that someone has been saying one thing in public and something completely different in private, it’s natural to interpret the former as lying and the latter as the secret truth — particularly when, as in this case, the private statement is known to be, in fact, true, and the public statement false. And particularly when the speaker later says

I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

With Trump, though, this interpretation is likely false.

The thing is, while his statement of February 7 was true, he could not have known it was true. No one knew it was true. We can see any number of statements by responsible public-health officials making similar statements at the time. For example, Anthony Fauci on February 19:

Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”

“We have more kids dying of flu this year at this time than in the last decade or more,” he said. “At the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant. The threat is (we have) a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”

And it’s not just Americans under the thumb of Trump. February 6, the day before Trump’s remark to Woodward, the head of the infectious disease clinic at a major Munich hospital, where some of the first German Covid-19 patients were being treated, told the press that “Corona is definitely not more dangerous than influenza,” and criticised the panic that was coming from exaggerated estimates of mortality rates.

Researchers were posting their data and models in real time, but there just wasn’t enough understanding possible then. This is the kind of issue where the secret information that a government has access to is of particularly limited value.

So how are we to interpret Trump’s statements? I think the key is that Trump is not a liar per se, he is a conman and a bullshitter, someone to whom the truth of his statements is completely irrelevant.

In early February he probably did receive a briefing where the possibility that the novel coronavirus was highly lethal and airborne was raised as one possibility, as well as the possibility that it was mild and would disappear on its own. .In talking to elite journalist Bob Woodward he delivered up the most frightening version, not because he believed it was true, but because it seemed most impressive, making him seem like the mighty keeper of dangerous secrets. When talking to the public he said something different, because he had other motives. It’s purely coincidence that what he said in private turned out to be true.

It would be poetic justice of Trump were to be damaged by the bad luck of one time accidentally having told the truth.

When did the sixties end?

The Guardian’s obituary for Baba Ram Dass comments about his most famous book

He wrote about his conversion in Be Here Now, which became popular in the 1960s and provided a road map for the burgeoning New Age movement of spirituality.

Now, this should have given the writer pause, given that a prior paragraph dated his travel to India and religious conversion to late 1967. Indeed, Be Here Now was published in 1971, making its popularity in the 1960s of a particularly esoteric sort.

I suppose they’re not talking about the literal 1960s — as in, the span of ten years beginning from 1 January, 1960 AD — but rather, about the cultural 1960s, that began between the Chatterley case and the Beatles’ first LP, continued, as Hunter Thompson put it, only in San Francisco,

in the middle sixties… a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.

and concluded

now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Or maybe it never ended. Donald Trump is in many ways the apotheosis of the 1960s. The reduction of politics and traditional institutions to pure id and appetite. The unmasking of the White House mystique as just a cranky old antisemite with a fourth-grade vocabulary and a jones for Big Macs. He’s not what Abbie Hoffman thought he was fighting for, but in retrospect it turns out that’s what he was fighting for.

Extra precision: Currency edition

I have commented before on the phenomenon where changing units turns an obviously approximate number into a weirdly precise one. Here is a new example, from the Guardian’s disturbing report on the mass slaughter of donkeys for the use of their hides in traditional Chinese medicine:

Since the booming skin trade has driven up donkey prices, owners struggle to replace their animals when they are stolen. The cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from £78 to £156 between 2016-19.

£78 seems like an oddly precise figure for what is surely a very diverse market in animals of varying qualities. Even weirder is that that precise figure precisely doubled in the period under consideration. Then it occurred to me, at current exchange rates £78 is about what you get when you convert the round number of US$100. So I’m going to hazard a guess that the reporter was told that the price had risen from around $100 to around $200, and simply converted it to pounds for the UK market without further comment.

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

The power of baselines

From today’s Guardian:


It took decades to establish that smoking causes lung cancer. Heavy smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by a factor of about 11, the largest risk ratio for any common risk factor for any disease. But that doesn’t make it peculiar that there should be any non-smokers with lung cancer.

As with my discussion of the horrified accounts of obesity someday overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer, the main cause is a change in the baseline level of smoking. As fewer people smoke, and as non-smokers stubbornly continue to age and die, the proportional mortality of non-smokers will inevitably increase.

It is perfectly reasonable to say we should consider diverting public-health resources from tobacco toward other causes of disease, as the fraction of disease caused by smoking declines. And it’s particularly of concern for physicians, who tend toward essentialism in their view of risk factors — “lung cancer is a smoker’s disease” — to the neglect of base rates. But the Guardian article frames the lung cancer deaths in non-smokers as a worrying “rise”:

They blame the rise on car fumes, secondhand smoke and indoor air pollution, and have urged people to stop using wood-burning stoves because the soot they generate increases risk… About 6,000 non-smoking Britons a year now die of the disease, more than lose their lives to ovarian or cervical cancer or leukaemia, according to research published on Friday in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

While the scientific article they are reporting on never explicitly says that lung cancer incidence in non-smokers [LCINS] is increasing, certainly some fault for the confusion may be found there:

the absolute numbers and rates of lung cancers in never-smokers are increasing, and this does not appear to be confounded by passive smoking or misreported smoking status.

This sounds like a serious matter. Except, the source they cite a) doesn’t provide much evidence of this and b) is itself 7 years old, and only refers to evidence that dates back well over a decade. It cites one study that found an increase in LCINS in Swedish males in the 1970s and 1980s, a much larger study that found no change over time in LCINS in the US between 1959 and 2004, and a French study that found rates increasing in women and decreasing in men, concluding finally

An increase in LCINS incidence could be real, or the result of the decrease in the proportion of ever smokers in some strata of the general population, and/or ageing within these categories.

What proportion of lung cancers should we expect to be found in non-smokers? Taking the 11:1 risk ratio, and 15% smoking rate in the UK population, we should actually expect about 85/(15×11)≈52% of lung cancer to occur in non-smokers. Why is it only 1/6, then? The effect of smoking on lu estimated that lung cancer develops after about 30 years of smoking. If we look back at the 35% smoking incidence of the mid 1980s, we would get an estimate of about 65/(35×11)≈17%.