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?

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.

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.

GBS, AOC, and the concentration-camp apologists

I’ve been thinking lately about what must be one of George Bernard Shaw’s final literary productions, the preface to his play Geneva. The news is full of reports of degrading, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at concentration camps for Central American migrants in the southwestern US. Apologists attack those like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have reported on the suffering in the camps, for using terms that for many with limited historical perspective will evoke inappropriate analogies to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, rather than appropriate analogies to Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s like Sachsenhausen, or the US concentration camps for Filipinos in the early 20th century. Some reports have her being rude camp guards — which, I am willing to bet, history will not record as one of the more significant atrocities of this era.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken what is a brave stance for a historical museum, in denying any possible relevance of history to anything else:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,

I think we can all agree that if the slogan “Never Again” has any meaning it can only be that we should oppose any attempts to compare anything at all to the Holocaust, unless they explicitly involve mass gassing of civilians in underground chambers. (And even then, you have to be sure that they are innocent civilians.)

The president (and many of his partisans) have defended the camps as an imperfect response to an overwhelming logistic challenge, brought on by the actions of the migrants themselves. (Trump also wrote “Many of these illegals (sic) aliens are living far better now than where they … came from, and in far safer conditions.”) And this reminded me of Shaw’s defense of the actual Nazi death camps, in similar terms.

The play itself, written in 1936-1938, is a thinly dramatised political polemic, wherein three dictators — Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (similarity to any real persons living or dead being purely a consequence of the mind’s tendency to impose order) — are summoned to appear before an international tribunal, charged with various crimes of oppression and political violence. They all appear — voluntarily, as they emphasise — to defend themselves. Successfully. They get the better of every argument. For example, there is this exchange between Battler and his Jewish accuser (designated only as THE JEW):

BATTLER. Do I stand accused? Of what, pray?

THE JEW [springing up] Of murder. Of an attempt to exterminate the flower of the human race.

BATTLER. What do you mean?

THE JEW. I am a Jew.

BATTLER. Then what right have you in my country? I exclude you as the British exclude the Chinese in Australia, as the Americans exclude the Japanese in California.

JEW. Why do the British exclude the Chinese? Because the Chinaman is so industrious, so frugal, so trustworthy, that nobody will employ a white British workman or caretaker if there is a yellow one within reach. Why do you exclude the Jew? Because you cannot compete with his intelligence, his persistence, his foresight, his grasp of finance. It is our talents, our virtues, that you fear, not our vices.

BATTLER. And am I not excluded for my virtues? I may not set foot in England until I declare that I will do no work there and that I will return to my own country in a few weeks. In every country the foreigner is a trespasser. On every coast he is confronted by officers who say you shall not land without your passport, your visa. If you are of a certain race or color you shall not land at all. Sooner than let German soldiers march through Belgium England plunged Europe into war. Every State chooses its population and selects its blood. We say that ours shall be Nordic, not Hittite: that is all.

JEW. A Jew is a human being. Has he not a right of way and settlement everywhere upon the earth?

BATTLER. Nowhere without a passport. That is the law of nations.

JEW. I have been beaten and robbed. Is that the law of nations?

BATTLER. I am sorry. I cannot be everywhere; and all my agents are not angels.

[Purely as an aside, I find ironically relevant to today this exchange, between Bombardone and a British participant in the trial, described as an obstinate-looking middle-aged man of respectable but not aristocratic appearance, speaking English like a shopkeeper from the provinces, or perhaps, by emigration, the dominions, and who is referred to throughout as The Newcomer. (The descriptor [who has no sense of humor] is appended to his name at one point.)

BBDE. When there is no leader, no king, no priest, nor any body of law established by dead kings and priests, you have mob law, lynching law, gangster law: in short, American democracy. Thank your stars you have never known democracy in England. I have rescued my country from all that by my leadership. I am a democratic institution.

NEWCOMER. Gosh. You democratic! Youve abolished democracy, you have.

BBDE. Put my leadership to the vote. Take a plebiscite. If I poll less than 95 per cent of the adult nation I will resign. If that is not democracy what is democracy?

NEWCOMER. It isnt British democracy.

BATTLER. British democracy is a lie. I have said it.

NEWCOMER. Oh, dont talk nonsense, you ignorant foreigner. Plebiscites are unEnglish, thoroughly unEnglish.

A decade later, after the war had ended, and the Nazi atrocities laid bare, the 90-year-old Shaw wrote a new preface to the play. Confronting the horror of the death camps a less doughty intellect might have trimmed his support or tergiversated. Not Shaw. Continuing the line on which Battler concluded the defense of the violent attacks on Jews, as unintended excesses and failure of political control, Shaw defended the death camps as unfortunate logistical breakdowns. Under the rubric “Incompetent governments are the cruellest” Shaw writes:

The need for confining authority to the instructed and capable has been demonstrated by terrible lessons daily for years past. As I write, dockfulls of German prisoners of war, male and female, are being tried on charges of hideous cruelties perpetrated by them at concentration camps. The witnesses describe the horrors of life and death in them; and the newspapers class the accused as fiends and monsters. But they also publish photographs of them in which they appear as ordinary human beings who could be paralleled from any crowd or army.

These Germans had to live in the camps with their prisoners. It must have been very uncomfortable and dangerous for them. But they had been placed in authority and management, and had to organize the feeding, lodging, and sanitation of more and more thousands of prisoners and refugees thrust upon them by the central government. And as they were responsible for the custody of their prisoners they had to be armed to the teeth and their prisoners completely disarmed. Only eminent leadership, experience, and organizing talent could deal with such a situation.

Well, they simply lacked these qualities. They were not fiends in human form; but they did not know what to do with the thousands thrown on their care. There was some food; but they could not distribute it except as rations among themselves. They could do nothing with their prisoners but overcrowd them within any four walls that were left standing, lock them in, and leave them almost starving to die of typhus. When further overcrowding became physically impossible they could do nothing with their unwalled prisoners but kill them and burn the corpses they could not bury. And even this they could not organize frankly and competently: they had to make their victims die of illusage instead of by military law. Under such circumstances any miscellaneous collection of irresistibly armed men would be demoralized; and the natural percentage of callous toughs among them would wallow in cruelty and in the exercise of irresponsible authority for its own sake. Man beating is better sport than bear baiting or cock fighting or even child beating, of which some sensational English cases were in the papers at home at the time. Had there been efficient handling of the situation by the authorities (assuming this to have been possible) none of these atrocities would have occurred. They occur in every war when the troops get out of hand.

The real antisemites

Donald Trump is concerned about a political movement that he believes harbors antisemitic views:

The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel. There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them. But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.

But wait, you might be saying, aren’t the Democrats the favoured party of the vast majority of American Jews?

Precisely.

Everyone knows that antisemitism is a great evil troubling the world. And who are the pernicious globalists responsible for all the evil in the world?*

QED. So obvious it took an outside-the-box thinker like Trump to recognise it.

* Hint: Their name rhymes with the Enemy of the People.

The Silver Standard 4: Reconsideration

After writing in praise of the honesty and accuracy of fivethirtyeight’s results, I felt uncomfortable about the asymmetry in the way I’d treated Democrats and Republicans in the evaluation. In the plots I made, low-probability Democratic predictions that went wrong pop out on the left-hand side, whereas low-probability Republican predictions  that went wrong would get buried in the smooth glide down to zero on the right-hand side. So I decided, what I’m really interested in are all low-probability predictions, and I should treat them symmetrically.

For each district there is a predicted loser (PL), with probability smaller than 1/2. In about one third of the districts the PL was assigned a probability of 0. The expected number of PLs (EPL) who would win is simply the sum of all the predicted win probabilities that are smaller than 1/2. (Where multiple candidates from the same party are in the race, I’ve combined them.) The 538 EPL was 21.85. The actual number of winning PLs was 13.

What I am testing is whether 538 made enough wrong predictions. This is the opposite of the usual evaluation, which gives points for getting predictions right. But when measured by their own predictions, the number of districts that went the opposite of the way they said was a lot lower than they said it would be. That is prima facie evidence that the PL win probabilities were being padded somewhat. To be more precise, under the 538 model the number of winning PLs should be approximately Poisson distributed with parameter 21.85, meaning that the probability of only 13 PLs winning is 0.030. Which is kind of low, but still pretty impressive, given all the complications of the prediction game.

Below I show plots of the errors for various scenarios, measuring the cumulative error for these symmetric low predictions. (I’ve added an “Extra Tarnished” scenario, with the transformation based on the even more extreme beta(.25,.25).) I show it first without adjusting for the total number of predicted winning PLs:

image

We see that tarnished predictions predict a lot more PL victories than we actually see. The actual predictions are just slightly more than you should expect, but suspiciously one-sided — that is, all in the direction of over predicting PL victories, consistent with padding the margins slightly, erring in the direction of claiming uncertainty.

And here is an image more like the ones I had before, where all the predictions are normalised to correspond to the same number of predicted wins:

TarnishedSymmetric