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.

Early Trumpist medical treatments

And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute! And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.

When Donald Trump used a Covid-19 press briefing to recommend injecting disinfectants to kill viruses within the human body, people reacted as though this were entirely unprecedented. But it wasn’t, entirely. From Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society:

Of all nineteenth-century treatments for epidemic cholera, however, perhaps the most painful was the acid enema, which physicians administered in the 1880s in a burst of excessive optimism after Robert Koch’s discovery of V. cholerae. Optimistic doctors reasoned that since they at last knew what the enemy was and where it was lodged in the body, and since they also understood that bacteria are vulnerable to acid, as Lister had demonstrated, all they needed to destroy the invader and restore patients’ health was to suffuse their bowels with carbolic acid. Even though neither Koch nor Lister ever sanctioned such a procedure, some of their Italian followers nevertheless attempted this treatment during the epidemic of 1884–1885. The acid enema was an experimental intervention that, in their view, followed the logic of Koch’s discoveries and Lister’s practice. The results, however, were maximally discouraging…

Apparently it’s a not uncommon response on someone first learning of the germ theory of disease.

The unexpected epidemic: A political paradox

An epidemiologist says, “A new pandemic will definitely sweep the world some time this century. But you won’t know until the day it starts when it will be. So you’d better start preparing now.”

The president is downcast. He doesn’t like preparing, but he also doesn’t like when the stock-market falls and people on TV blame him for millions of deaths and blah blah blah. What can he do?

His son-in-law comes to him and says, “I read a book on this. This prediction of an unexpected epidemic can’t happen. Imagine it’s 2099 and there hasn’t been a pandemic yet. Then people would know it has to happen in 2099. So it has to happen earlier. But now, suppose we get to 2098 without a pandemic. We know it can’t happen in 2099, so we would know for sure it must be 2098, which would contradict what the so-called expert told us.” And so, step by step, he shows that the unexpected pandemic can never happen.

You know the rest: The president disbands the National Security Council pandemic preparedness team and writes a celebratory tweet. And then in 2020 a pandemic arrives, and the president announces that “this is something that you can never really think is going to happen.”

(For the original version see Quine’s “On a so-called paradox“. For an account of some of the many times experts warned that a pandemic was coming and would be disastrous, see here.)

Do billionaire mayors make you live longer?

In trying to compose an argument for why Democrats’ best hope for defeating the incompetent septuagenarian autocratic billionaire Republican in the White House is to nominate a highly competent septuagenarian autocratic billionaire (former) Republican of their own, Emily Stewart at Vox — jumping in to extend Vox’s series on the leading candidates in the Democratic presidential primary with the case for late entrant Mike Bloomberg — has some reasonable points, mixed in with one very odd accolade:

Under Bloomberg, New Yorkers’ life expectancy increased by about three years.

Not that this is false, but we must recall that Bloomberg was mayor of New York for 12 years. As pointed out by Oeppen and Vaupel in a Science article that appeared in 2002 (the first year of Bloomberg’s mayoralty), life expectancy at birth in the most economically advanced countries of the world has been increasing at an astonishingly steady 2.5 years per decade since around 1840. If we had then predicted how much increase we should expect over 12 years, we should have said… three years. Indeed, looking at a few comparably wealthy countries chosen more or less at random over the same period we see life expectancy at birth as follows:

Country20022014Increase
Australia80.0782.592.52
UK78.2481.162.92
Japan81.8383.731.90
Canada79.5781.942.37
Netherlands78.4181.653.24

Mike got it done!

To be fair there are two exceptions to this trend: Japan, which had the highest life expectancy in the world in 2002 still had the highest in 2014, but it had gained only two years.

The USA, which had the lowest life expectancy at the start (among large wealthy countries), at 77.03, fell further behind, to 79.06, and has since actually decreased. So I guess you might say that Bloomberg has shown his ability to thwart the destructive trends in the US, and make it, as he made New York, as successful as an average West European country. Which doesn’t sound like the worst campaign platform.

Rudy Giuliani and Lenny Bruce

Former New York mayor and current bagman for Donald Trump’s Ukraine connection, Rudolph Giuliani has been getting some flak for first spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and then defending himself by saying that Soros isn’t “really Jewish” because “he doesn’t go to church”. Corrected then “he doesn’t go to religion”. Corrected again: “Synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.” One may doubt Giuliani’s bona fides as arbiter of Jewishness, but in fact

“Soros is hardly a Jew,” he continued. “I’m more of a Jew than Soros is.” Asked by NBC News if his remarks were seriously intended, the former mayor texted: “I’m more Jewish than half my friends.”

The outrage is misplaced. Giuliani’s claim rests on the authority of one of the great Jewish standup comics of the 1950s and 1960s, Lenny Bruce. Giuliani was clearly channelling Bruce’s classic “Jewish and Goyish” routine:

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish.
B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corps–heavy goyim, dangerous.
Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes–goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish–very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar Show is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish.
All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish.

On the other hand, Lenny Bruce wasn’t seen in church shul much, and I don’t know that he’s on record with much support for Israel. So maybe he wasn’t really Jewish?

We should ask Giuliani.

“Zelensky loves your ass”

There’s a lot of competition for the weirdest moments in the Ukraine bribery-extortion-political meddling affair that underlies the current impeachment hearings, but for me there’s not much that can compete with the testimony of diplomat David Holmes that he overheard hotel-magnate-cum-ambassador Gordon Sondland telling Trump that Zelensky would “do anything you ask for” because Zelensky “loves your ass”.

My first reaction on reading this — I may have understood it differently had I heard it spoken — was that it was most bizarre for a head of state to be commenting (favourably or unfavourably) on the intimate anatomy of the US president. And that Trump didn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned about his toned glutes.

I quickly realised that this is not actually an erotic compliment, but rather an application of the somewhat gangster argot that uses “ass” as a general intensifier. I am reminded of the section of Gravity’s Rainbow titled “On the phrase ‘ass backwards’”, where the literal-minded Berlin drug dealer Säure Bummer asks a group of AmericanS

Why do you speak of certain reversals — machinery connected wrong, for instance, as being “Ass backwards”? I can’t understand that. Ass usually is backwards, right? You ought to be saying “ass forwards,” if backwards is what you mean.

After a typical digression about umlauts and helicopters Seaman Bodine replies

“‘Ass’ is an intensifier, as in ‘mean ass’, ‘stupid ass’ — well, when something is very backwards, by analogy you’d say ‘backwards ass.’”

“But ‘ass backwards’ is ‘backwards ass’ backwards,” Säure objects.

“But gee that doesn’t make it mean forwards.”

I’m still not exactly sure what “he loves your ass” actually means and, in particular, whether it conveys an erotic charge.

The other Trump-Ukraine transcript

A preview:

President Zelensky: Hello, Mr President. I call to confirm what we agreed at the end of our previous conversation. After you say everyone went home, so it missed being on the official transcript.

The President: Thank you, Mr President. As the interests of world peace are to me second in importance only to the interests of the United States of America, it is most important that our plans be carried out exactly as we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, that was what you said to me last time, during that interval when the stenographer said she had urgently to use the -- how did he say? -- little boys' room? My advisors tell me that you are very brave to pursue only what is best for your country, despite the evil distortions of the fake news media.

The President: The understanding of my fellow world leaders is all I can hope for. Now repeat back to me the steps of the plan we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, as you know, for political reasons I must emphasize the so-called threat from Russia, but in fact our nation is menaced most severely by the corruption emanating from a gang of American oligarchs who my people have termed "the angry Democrats". We thought these were primarily the family of your former Vice President, but we have discovered that the criminal organization is also being led by Senators Warren and Sanders and, according to a recent poll, by the mayor of one of your smaller cities, whose name I find difficult to pronounce.

The President: Yes, and we're doing what we can.

President Zelensky: I understand. You explained to me that this conspiracy has its tentacles in your "deep state", who are protecting their criminal machinations. That is why we agreed that you would have to make a show of withholding the military aid, that we really do not need anymore.

The President: It is the only way to force them to reveal their corrupt plans, by luring them into an impeachment trial.

President Zelensky: So brave. Have I told you that The Ukrainian Academy of History will be presenting its report on presidential harassment at its next annual meeting? These meetings are usually held in Ukraine, but then they found out about the deals available at a spectacular resort in Miami, called Mar-a-Lago. Have you heard of it? My minister of culture was very skeptical, but when they explained how superior the facilities are to anything we have in Ukraine, we almost could not afford not to move the meeting there. They will be presenting a report confirming that no leader in history has ever been so treated so unfairly as you. Despite the unprecedented strong economy, including record low unemployment for African Americans. If you don't mind my saying so, if your unqualified predecessor had had half so good an economy…

The no quid pro quo party

Hearing Donald Trump and all his lackeys repeating “no quid pro quo” ad nauseam gave me flashbacks to an earlier Republican president:

This was sufficiently prominent to be parodied in Doonesbury:

Rick: Sir, off the record, what’s the deal with Honduras? It really is starting to look like you cut a deal with President Suavo to support the Contras…
Bush: Rick, that’s just a bunch of needless, reckless speculation, so let me help you out, fella…The word of the President of the United States, me, George Bush, is there was no pro quo! Repeat, no… quid…pro…quo! Ergo, no de facto or de jure nolo contendere! Reporters: Quis? Quois?

Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Election hacking, part 2

Given that the official US government response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been essentially nothing, and the unofficial response from Trump and his minions has been to welcome future assistance, I’ve been assuming that 2020 will be open season for any other intelligence agencies with a good cyberwar division to have a go. Why should the Russians have all the fun?

And number one on my list would be the Israeli Mossad. Is this so obvious that no one thinks it worth mentioning, or so wrong-headed that even crazy people don’t think of it? They’re technologically sophisticated, have excellent contacts to the US political establishment, and they have already demonstrated the absence of any compunction at interfering in US internal affairs. They are also highly motivated: Having bet the entire US-Israel relationship on the premise that Trumpism will rule in the US forever, Israel’s security essentially requires the destruction of US democracy. At least, that’s how they’ll rationalise it to themselves.

Something to think about, one week before Israel’s parliamentary election.