What Donald Trump is afraid of

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.

Racism and forgiveness

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.”

Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…) Continue reading “Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity”

The sound of one invisible hand clapping

There is a Rand-ian trope (or Mises-macherei) that attempts to reverse the Marxian notion that labour is the unit of economic contribution, that working people are the creators of our world, and capitalists mere parasites. The opposing view — pushed by Ayn Rand, and advocated in increasingly stark terms by right-wing politicians, is that the capitalists and managers are “job-creators”, that everything exists because of their contributions. From Adam Smith’s idea that capitalism enables the private greed to be channeled into promoting the public good, we have come to the notion that private greed is itself almost a form of charity.

The reductio ad absurdum has been provided (of course) by Donald Trump, in the less commented upon portion of his bizarre attack on the family of killed-in-action Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan. Responding to Khizr Khan’s attack “You have sacrificed nothing — and no one,” Trump said

I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

For Trump, a rich man’s “tremendous success” is itself a sacrifice, to be matched against an ordinary man losing his child.

Brecht’s take on this question is below. I cited it in the last US presidential election as well.

Continue reading “The sound of one invisible hand clapping”

Metathreats

Even in America it is illegal to attain political ends by threats of violence. But what about threats of threats of violence? From Florida:

“We began receiving complaints from voters,” she said Wednesday in an email to the Post’s editorial board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center. When we received a call that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day…

I suppose this is familiar as a kind of protection-racket negotiating stance. “We’re just having a friendly chat here. Nobody is making threats. If you want to make threats, we can also make threats, but there’s no need for any of that.”

Utility of the Devil

I very much enjoyed reading Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, on behavioural economics and his own role in its development. It occurred to me that the basic lessons of that soi disante science may be summarised by a variant on a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always know what you want…

But if you don’t try, most of the time

You just might find you want what you know.

The politics of impatience

What does it mean when someone who is himself significantly responsible for solving a problem expresses his “impatience” for a solution? I think of this because today’s Times has on page 2

George Osborne lost patience with the pensions industry yesterday, announcing action against insurers who blocked savers from accessing their cash.

And on page 4 we read of

news of a fresh delay of up to a year in publication of the Iraq inquiry, prompting Mr Cameron to say that he was “fast losing patience”.

Perhaps this outbreak of impatience is somehow related to the front-page story, which says

the very best they can expect is that it will take them time — but time is not on their side.

That one is about the pervasive decline in sperm quality due to plastics in packaging, sunscreens and cosmetics.

The annuity puzzle

Stanford biodemographer Shripad Tuljapurkar has written a very thoughtful post about the “annuity puzzle”: Why do people generally not choose to purchase annuities that would seem to protect them from a major risk: Being feeble and impoverished 30 or 40 years after retirement? His explanation, which is surely right as far as it goes, is that the shunning of annuities is a rational response to the compensating default risk from the insurance company. You have to live quite a long time to make your nut on an annuity. The “risk” — the probability of living that long — is low, and (he argues, persuasively) one could reasonably conclude that it is outweighed by the likelihood of a financial crash in the interim.

From a behavioural economics perspective, this matches closely one of the standard explanations for discounting: Future returns are drastically uncertain, so we develop the habit of preferring immediate gratification. So this falls in the category of attempts to explain seemingly irrational economic behaviour by showing that it is in fact rational when you take into account limited information or costs of acquiring or analysing information. Of course, any economic theory inevitably struggles to deal with questions of insurance and annuities, where the risk involves the life of the economic agent. The celebrated analysis of this problem by Jack Benny is still relevant.

But while this is a cogent argument for why people shouldn’t buy annuities, I’m skeptical of it as an explanation for why they don’t buy annuities. First, the annuity puzzle is a phenomenon of average people, not savvy investors. I doubt that most people think much about the risk of established financial companies defaulting. One prominent study (based on surveys conducted in 2004) found that 59% of Americans would trade half of their Social Security annuity for an actuarially fair lump sum payment. I’m pretty sure that they are not thinking that they can find a safer investment, with less risk of default, than Social Security. Continue reading “The annuity puzzle”

Counting to zero

I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.

We need better scientific fraud

A friend sent me this article about Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who “perpetrated an audacious academic fraud by making up studies that told the world what it wanted to hear about human nature.” What caught my attention was this comment about how the fraud was noticed:

He began writing the paper, but then he wondered if the data had shown any difference between girls and boys. “What about gender differences?” he asked Stapel, requesting to see the data. Stapel told him the data hadn’t been entered into a computer yet.

Vingerhoets was stumped. Stapel had shown him means and standard deviations and even a statistical index attesting to the reliability of the questionnaire, which would have seemed to require a computer to produce. Vingerhoets wondered if Stapel, as dean, was somehow testing him. Suspecting fraud, he consulted a retired professor to figure out what to do. “Do you really believe that someone with [Stapel’s] status faked data?” the professor asked him.

And later

When Zeelenberg challenged him with specifics — to explain why certain facts and figures he reported in different studies appeared to be identical — Stapel promised to be more careful in the future.

How hard is it to invent data? The same thing occurred to me with regard to Jan Hendrik Schön, a celebrated Dutch (not that I’m suggesting anything specific about the Dutch…) [update: German, as a commenter has pointed out. Sorry. Some of my best friends are Dutch.] materials scientist who was found in 2002 to have faked experimental results.

In April, outside researchers noticed that a figure in the Nature paper on the molecular-layer switch also appeared in a paper Science had just published on a different device. Schön promptly sent in a corrected figure for the Science paper. But the incident disturbed McEuen, who says he was already suspicious of results reported in the two papers. On 9 May, McEuen compared figures in some of Schön’s other papers and quickly found other apparent duplications.

I’m reminded of a classic article from the Journal of Irreproducible Results, “A Drastic Cost Saving Approach to Using Your Neighbor’s Electron Microscope”, advocating that researchers take advantage of the fact that all electron micrographs look the same. It printed four copies of exactly the same picture, with four different captions: One described it as showing fine structure of an axe handle, another said it showed macrophages devouring a bacterium. When it comes to plots of data (rather than photographs, which might be hard to generate de novo) I really can’t see why anyone would need to re-use a plot, or would be unable to supply made-up data for a made-up experiment. Perhaps there is a psychological block against careful thinking, or against willfully generating a dataset, some residual “I’m-not-really-doing-this-I’m-just-shifting-figures-around” resistance to acknowledging the depths to which one has sunk.

Certainly a statistician would know how to generate a perfect fake data set — which means a not-too-perfect fit to relevant statistical and scientific models. Maybe there’s an opportunity there for a new statistical consulting business model. Impact!

Update: Of course, I should have said, there’s an obvious bias here: I only know about the frauds that have been detected. They were unbelievably amateurish — couldn’t even be bothered to invent data — and still took years to be detected. How many undetected frauds are out there? It’s frightening to think about it. Mendel’s wonky data weren’t discovered for half a century. Cyril Burt may have committed the biggest fraud of all time, or maybe he was just sloppy, and we may never know for sure.

I just looked at the Wikipedia article on Burt, and discovered a fascinating quote from one of his defenders, psychologist Arthur Jensen that makes an appropriate capstone for this post:

[n]o one with any statistical sophistication, and Burt had plenty, would report exactly the same correlation, 0.77, three times in succession if he were trying to fake the data.

In other words, his results were so obviously faked that they must be genuine. If he were trying to fake the data he would certainly have made them look more convincingly real.