Self-deconstructing clichés: Polymeter edition

For earlier editions of this occasional series, see Weight-loss edition, Supreme Court edition, Europe edition, Bill of Rights edition, open door.

I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.

Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as

“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”

To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.

The de-wormer turns

Apparently, a conference in Florida to promote the use of anti-parasite treatment Ivermectin for Covid, turned into a super-spreader event.

“I have been on ivermectin for 16 months, my wife and I,” Dr Bruce Boros told the audience at the event held at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, adding: “I have never felt healthier in my life.”

Boros is now reported to be gravely ill with Covid, and at least six other physicians who attended were also infected. It seems to me, if you don’t want people to dismiss your miracle treatment as “horse de-wormer”, you might choose to hold your national gathering somewhere that is not an equestrian center.

Last chopper out of Dallas

So, two weeks ago we had desperate people fleeing the victorious entry of misogynistic religious extremists into Kabul:

Not Texas

This week we had desperate people fleeing another group of victorious misogynistic religious extremists:

Salesforce CEO Mark Beinoff said the company will help employees move out of Texas if they so choose after the state’s Republican governor signed a strict ban on abortions. “Ohana if you want to move we’ll help you exit TX,” Beinoff tweeted Friday, sharing a link to a CNBC article about the company’s decision.

The return of quota sampling

Everyone knows about the famous Dewey Defeats Truman headline fiasco, and that the Chicago Daily Tribune was inspired to its premature announcement by erroneous pre-election polls. But why were the polls so wrong?

The Social Science Research Council set up a committee to investigate the polling failure. Their report, published in 1949, listed a number of faults, including disparaging the very notion of trying to predict the outcome of a close election. But one important methodological criticism — and the one that significantly influenced the later development of political polling, and became the primary lesson in statistics textbooks — was the critique of quota sampling. (An accessible summary of lessons from the 1948 polling fiasco by the renowned psychologist Rensis Likert was published just a month after the election in Scientific American.)

Serious polling at the time was divided between two general methodologies: random sampling and quota sampling. Random sampling, as the name implies, works by attempting to select from the population of potential voters entirely at random, with each voter equally likely to be selected. This was still considered too theoretically novel to be widely used, whereas quota sampling had been established by Gallup since the mid-1930s. In quota sampling the voting population is modelled by demographic characteristics, based on census data, and each interviewer is assigned a quota to fill of respondents in each category: 51 women and 49 men, say, a certain number in the age range 21-34, or specific numbers in each “economic class” — of which Roper, for example, had five, one of which in the 1940s was “Negro”. The interviewers were allowed great latitude in filling their quotas, finding people at home or on the street.

In a sense, we have returned to quota sampling, in the more sophisticated version of “weighted probability sampling”. Since hardly anyone responds to a survey — response rates are typically no more than about 5% — there’s no way the people who do respond can be representative of the whole population. So pollsters model the population — or the supposed voting population — and reweight the responses they do get proportionately, according to demographic characteristics. If Black women over age 50 are thought to be equally common in the voting population as white men under age 30, but we have twice as many of the former as the latter, we count the responses of the latter twice as much as the former in the final estimates. It’s just a way of making a quota sample after the fact, without the stress of specifically looking for representatives of particular demographic groups.

Consequently, it has most of the deficiencies of a quota sample. The difficulty of modelling the electorate is one that has gotten quite a bit of attention in the modern context: We know fairly precisely how demographic groups are distributed in the population, but we can only theorise about how they will be distributed among voters at the next election. At the same time, it is straightforward to construct these theories, to describe them, and to test them after the fact. The more serious problem — and the one that was emphasised in the commission report in 1948, but has been less emphasised recently — is in the nature of how the quotas are filled. The reason for probability sampling is that taking whichever respondents are easiest to get — a “sample of convenience” — is sure to give you a biased sample. If you sample people from telephone directories in 1936 then it’s easy to see how they end up biased against the favoured candidate of the poor. If you take a sample of convenience within a small demographic group, such as middle-income people, then it won’t be easy to recognise how the sample is biased, but it may still be biased.

For whatever reason, in the 1930s and 1940s, within each demographic group the Republicans were easier for the interviewers to contact than the Democrats. Maybe they were just culturally more like the interviewers, so easier for them to walk up to on the street. And it may very well be that within each demographic group today Democrats are more likely to respond to a poll than Republicans. And if there is such an effect, it’s hard to correct for it, except by simply discounting Democrats by a certain factor based on past experience. (In fact, these effects can be measured in polling fluctuations, where events in the news lead one side or the other to feel discouraged, and to be less likely to respond to the polls. Studies have suggested that this effect explains much of the short-term fluctuation in election polls during a campaign.)

Interestingly, one of the problems that the commission found with the 1948 polling with relevance for the Trump era was the failure to consider education as a significant demographic variable.

All of the major polling organizations interviewed more people with college education than the actual proportion in the adult population over 21 and too few people with grade school education only.

Less than zero, part 2

In a long-ago post I wrote about how huge debts don’t make you poor, and illustrated this with the story of real-estate mogul Donald Trump. Negative large fortunes are closer to positive large fortunes than either is to zero. (I later had to correct my interpretation later, on discovering that the counterintuitive behaviour of Trump’s creditors was largely a reflection of their involvement in money laundering.)

Now we learn from the N Y Times that Trump has been paying $750 in federal income tax each year as president. Presumably that’s just an arbitrary number that he made up so that he could say it wasn’t zero. (Apparently even Trump has some limits to his his explicit lying.)

But here’s the thing: $750 is probably worse than $0. People have been assuming he wasn’t paying taxes. It sounds like a general insult. $750 is too specific (as well as being too small). The number becomes a shorthand for his tax-dodging, as well as inviting people to compare their own tax bills to Trump’s.

This demonstrates again how absurdly miserly Donald Trump, above and beyond his criminality. He had to choose an amount to pay purely for the symbolism of possibly needing to tell average Americans how much he had paid. He could certainly have afforded not to choose an amount large enough that even Americans of modest means would find risible. At least four figures…

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.

Adrift on the Covid Sea

Political leaders in many countries — but particularly in the US and UK — are in thrall above all to the myth of progress. Catastrophes may happen, but then they get better. And to superficial characters like Johnson and Trump, the improvements seem automatic. It’s like a law of nature.

So, we find ourselves having temporarily stemmed the flood of Covid infections, with governments laying out fantastic plans for “reopening”. Even though nothing significant has changed. The only thing that could make this work — absent a vaccine — would be an efficient contact tracing system or a highly effective treatment for the disease. None of which we have. But we still have a timeline for opening up pubs and cinemas (though less important facilities like schools are still closed, at least for many year groups).

It’s like we had been adrift for days in a lifeboat on the open ocean, carefully conserving our supplies. And there’s still no rescue in sight, but Captain Johnson announces that since we’re all hungry from limiting our food rations, and the situation has now stabilised, we will now be transitioning toward full rations.

“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 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?