Trump, Ambiguity, and Bias

Posted: August 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Politics & Policy | No Comments »
I have watched, with considerable fascination, the uproar over certain recent comments by Trump. As is all too common with statements by Trump, people on both sides of the aisles have responded by attacking him, and each other, with passionate rhetoric.

Trump is no stranger to strategic ambiguity; his campaign has practically reveled in it. I’ve lost count how many ideas he has promised to “look into”. This ambiguity serves him well, even if he appears to some as incoherent. He can avoid making promises, while still sending supportive signals to special interests. All politicians do this, of course, but Trump seems unusually willing to go off message for potential supporters.

This statement, and the reactions to it, have been unusually interesting. It is, in my view, an excellent teaching example of how our biases affects our perceptions.

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

Take a moment to consider the inherent ambiguity of the statement. Who does he mean by “Second Amendment people”? What does he mean by implying there is something they can do? These concepts are completely undefined in context. Thus this statement, on its own, can be taken to mean one of many things. Here are a few that I see:

  1. People with guns should assassinate Hillary Clinton
  2. People with guns should overthrow the government
  3. People who care about gun rights should vote for Trump
  4. Gun rights lobbyists could convince Congress to block her SCOTUS appointments

Take another moment to consider your own reaction. What do you believe Trump meant? How passionately do you believe that? What is the evidence for your position? What other interpretations did you consider, if any? What evidence, if any, did you consider for other interpretations? How did you rule out other interpretations as valid hypotheses?

Confirmation Bias

In this fascinating paper , P.C. Wason showed some of the first rigorous experimental evidence for the effect he named confirmation bias.

His experiment was simple. I have a rule that 3 number sequences must obey. Your goal is to guess the rule. I will give you a starting sequence, and you can ask if sequences obey the rule.

Let’s say the starting sequence is: 2, 4, 8. How do you figure out the rule?

The NY Times implemented this game here. Take a minute, and try it yourself. It doesn’t take long.

Confirmation bias has been well studied in the 56 years since Wason’s paper. His paper, Wikipedia, and the Times’ article discuss it better than I can. But this excerpt from Wason sums it up concisely:

Inferences from confirming evidence (Bacon’s “induction by simple enumeration”) can obviously lead to wrong conclusions because different hypotheses may be compatible with the same data. In their crudest form such inferences are apparent in the selection of facts to justify prejudices.

Bias and Interpretation

We form models of varying strength and reliability about every aspect of the world, and use these models to navigate daily life by justifying beliefs about observations whose objective truth is unverifiable. This reasoning is not inherently wrong, so long as the strength of the belief is in line with the strength of the model and the strength of the evidence. However, this reasoning becomes confirmation bias when we elevate our belief to evidence that justifies our belief, while ignoring contrary evidence.

Returning to Trump’s statement, let’s examine the available evidence supporting various interpretations.

  1. People with guns should assassinate Hillary Clinton
    Evidence: Trump has a history of using unusually violent rhetoric in this campaign. However, there was no explicit mention of violence, and Trump has not previously been particularly shy about speaking his mind.
  2. People with guns should overthrow the government
    Evidence: Overthrowing a tyrannical government is a popular “dog whistle” for gun rights supporters. Trump has frequently been accused of using dog-whistle politics. However, accusations of dog-whistles are by nature difficult to prove, and are sometimes themselves dog-whistles.
  3. People who care about gun rights should vote for Trump
    Evidence: The statement’s immediate context was a list of reasons voters should prefer voting for Trump over Hillary. However, Trump is notorious for going “off-message” in rallies. The Trump campaign has officially endorsed this interpretation. However, campaign staffs regularly spin unfortunate comments from their candidates. They, and the candidate, have strong motivations to lie.
  4. Gun rights lobbyists could convince Congress to block her SCOTUS appointments
    Evidence: None, really. I just threw this in here.

Strongly preferring one of these interpretations requires not only justifying the supporting evidence and dismissing the contrary evidence, but also dismissing the evidence for any other interpretation. But with an ambiguous statement in an unreliable context, it’s impossible to know with certainty what was actually meant. The strength of our beliefs here comes from our strong beliefs in our mental models about Trump: it is from drawing on our personal perceptions of Trump, and what we think Trump might say.

If, for example, we use our interpretation that Trump was advocating violence to push the narrative that Trump advocates violence, we must do so at the expense of all other interpretations by turning a belief into a fact, without any further justification than our pre-existing belief. We are selecting facts to justify prejudices.

While expedient and perhaps helpful in achieving short term goals (such as successfully disparaging a deeply disliked candidate in the eyes of others), this comes at a great cost: rationality itself. Rational discourse, while always in short supply, seems to dissipate completely during political campaigns. By refusing to temper our own rhetoric with rationality, we contribute to the fundamental failure of modern politics.

In the end, refusal to confront our biases only drives us further from Truth.

(Personal bias disclaimer: I am pro-gun rights, and I support the right of the people to overthrow tyrannical governments. My initial interpretation of Trump’s statement was interpretation #2.)