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.
From The Idiot:
There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.
(A description of the D-K effect here.)
Most Republican leaders, in their concern to defend the president from accusations of racist over his terming African nations and Haiti “shithole countries” and saying “get them out”, have resorted to one of two strategies:
- Fake news. He didn’t say it, and it’s outrageous to suggest that he did.
- Harsh but true. He did say it, and it shows how forthright and unconcerned he is with liberal pieties.
Neither is entirely satisfactory. It is natural, then, that a Fox News correspondent, in the spirit of Freud’s “kettle logic“, combines the two:
I think it’s either fake news or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.
The bar is the new locker room. It’s kind of weird, though, when the best defense for the president’s behaviour is, he’s talking in the formal setting of a negotiation with senators the way even average uneducated Americans would only talk in a private setting when somewhat inebriated.
Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”
I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.
One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.
Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.
But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius… (more…)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.
All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.
This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.
According to the Washington Post Donald Trump had a miserable weekend, brooding over the mean-spirited press coverage of his remarkably successful first diplomatic initiatives toward Russia. Fortunately, his closest advisers know just how to lift his gloomy spirits:
That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.
If he gets really down in the dumps, perhaps they can cheer him up by screening video of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
A lot of people say, oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid. I watched this and they say I was kidding. No, I don’t kid. I don’t kid about things like that, I can tell you.
So what does he kid about?
Invading Mexico: “President Trump’s comments that he was ready to send US troops to Mexico to stop the “bad hombres down there” were “lighthearted” and not meant to be threatening, the White House said Thursday.”
Accusing President Obama of treason: “After repeatedly suggesting Thursday that President Barack Obama was the literal founder of ISIS, the terrorist group the U.S. is currently waging war against, Donald Trump called it “sarcasm” in a tweet Friday morning. The bizarre turn followed Trump’s assertion to a conservative radio host in an interview Thursday morning that he did not mean that Obama’s policies created the space for ISIS to flourish, rather that he was its actual founder.”
Destroying people who disagree with his policies: “President Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator after a Texas sheriff accused the lawmaker of getting in his way by promoting asset forfeiture reform.
“Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump told Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas.
Slopes and stairs, contradiction, and protests, according to one article in today’s Sunday Times, about government concerns related to the planned visit in June for the official handover of British sovereignty:
Members of Trump’s inner circle have warned officials and ministers that it would be counterproductive for Charles to ‘lecture’ Trump on green issues and that he will ‘erupt’ if pushed. They want the younger princes, William and Harry, to greet the president instead. Royal aides insist that he should meet Trump.
Senior government officials now believe Charles is one of the most serious ‘risk factors’ for the visit.
Trump’s team is also concerned that he will face a wave of protests, with thousands of people taking to the streets to denounce him…
Downing Street officials claimed the president’s phobia of stairs and slopes led him to grab the prime minister’s hand as they walked down a ramp at the White House.
UPDATE (30/1/2017): I was mentioning this story to someone recently, pointing out that “phobia” is clearly a really bad euphemism for “too old and weak”, which the strongman obviously could not admit to. He replied, “Apparently it IS a phobia – he also has a phobia of slopes, apparently.” I asked what the source was. It came from one of May’s aides, he said. And how would they know? People really have to stop defaulting to the assumption that claims coming from Trump’s circle is more likely to be true than false. On the contrary, information from anyone that has been near Trump is likely tainted.
It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:
Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.
The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.
One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”