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.)


3rd Party Voting: Morality and Pragmatism

Posted: August 8th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Politics & Policy | No Comments »
There are many voices, on both sides, challenging the moral right and pragmatic wisdom of 3rd party voting. These arguments usually boil down to tribalist lesser evilism, the accusation of wasting votes, and SCOTUS appointments. I think these are wrong, and the thinking behind them is inherently harmful.

Don’t Vote For The Wrong Lizard!

I view trying to guilt me into support an organization or person I don’t believe in as tantamount to telling me that moral values, principles, identity, and beliefs don’t matter, that the only thing that matters is tribal affiliation. But I see increased tribalism as the source of our problems, not the solution. It means that candidates don’t matter, virtue and character don’t matter, policy doesn’t matter, civil liberty doesn’t matter, respect for American civics and the Constitution doesn’t matter — the only thing that really matters is in-group affiliation and out-group fear-mongering. When my choices boil down to an authoritarian nationalist or a kleptocrat, arguments over which is the lesser evil mean nothing when both are an existential risk to the principles of liberal democracy. No, thank you.

Don’t Waste Your Vote

Saying that voting third party doesn’t have any effect is wrong. The cutoff for minor party Federal public funding is 5% of the vote in the previous election. For those of us who are looking for long-term change, that does matter — it matters a lot. Strong third party support, both in votes and in finances, has a chance to force realignment of the major party coalitions that have become unsatisfying to nearly everyone. For this post, I will oversimplify the coalitions as roughly this:

R: Nationalists, Evangelicals, Business Republicans

D: Socialists, True Progressives, Third Way Democrats

(For a richer, more data-driven analysis, see this research by Pew.)

The problem is, in my view, that these alliances are over-strained, and no longer serve strong shared common interests. The Business Republicans and Third Way Democrats, for example, share far more in common than either does with the Nationalists or Socialists they are paired with. The only reason they stay together is because of financial incentives. Cutting off the flow of donations into these coalitions and increasing the fiscal viability of a third party may be exactly the strain we need to bring about new coalitions that more accurately reflect common goals.

Additionally, the wasted vote arguments often ignore the effects of the Electoral College. Mathematically, a huge number of votes cast for a presidential candidate are wasted because of “first past the post”. This article gives a good mathematical breakdown.

But SCOTUS appointments!

This is, perhaps, the most pernicious argument: if the wrong tribe of president is elected, the president will appoint wrong tribe SCOTUS justices, who will make decisions favoring wrong tribe.

This argument is particularly poisonous, because it implicitly advocates for more judicial activism. It suggests the purpose of voting is to select the person who will appoint people to serve as lifetime, unaccountable oligarchs who can create laws and rules for our society at their whim. It is, therefore, advocating the dismantling of our Constitutional republic itself. With apologies to Gerald Ford:

A Supreme Court powerful enough to support all of your causes, is powerful enough to strip you of all your rights.

Fortunately for now, the court has shown much greater unity and restraint than it is often given credit for. As the National Review notes here:

These concerns are not misplaced, but the apocalyptic tone misrepresents the Court’s actual, year-by-year activity. Consider: Between January 2012 and June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled against the Obama administration unanimously 13 times — on everything from recess appointments to abortion-clinic “buffer zones.” This was not an anomaly. Since 1995, almost every year has seen more than 40 percent of cases — that is, a plurality — decided unanimously; in 2013, it was two-thirds. (To be fair, there are different degrees of unanimity.) Meanwhile, only twice since 1995 have more than 30 percent of cases split 5-4.This suggests that the Court’s justices are more likeminded legally than political pundits often recognize.

The only wasted vote is for a vote for a candidate you don’t actually support; the only immoral vote is a vote against your own values.

Vote your conscience. Fight for your values.


‪#‎IStandWithAhmed‬

Posted: September 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Politics & Policy | Tags: , , | No Comments »

The story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock has exploded over the internet today. In case you’ve been hiding under a proverbial rock, here’s the short version: Ahmed built a clock. He brought the clock to school, to show one of his teachers. Panic ensues, through absolutely no fault of his own.

For the record, here is a picture of the clock:

Ahmed's clock

To me, it looks like a circuit board in a protective case. But I’m a computer engineer with a minor in physics, so I’ve seen lots of circuit boards and protective cases.

The problem isn’t that ignorant people were confused at first glance. The problem is that, even after they were completely convinced that it was a clock, and even after they ascertained that there was no evidence of nefarious intent, they still punished the kid for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

Ken White performs an excellent evisceration of the absurd behavior by authority figures towards 14 year old Ahmed.

In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile.

Just read the statements by the police:

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation. It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

To answer the rhetorical question “Do we take him into custody?”, simply follow this heuristic:

Did he break the law?
Yes –> Yes
No –> No

Yet building a clock requires “broader explanation”, because these school administrators, teachers, and police are simpletons. Their minds are uncomplicated with knowledge or creativity. The idea of challenging oneself intellectually for fun is simply beyond them. It reminds me of a quote from The Hacker’s Manifesto:

“My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

However, it goes beyond that. Authorities are perpetually looking for a way to assert their control over us. The inconvenient truth is that we are not usually in any real, imminent danger. With the limited availability of actual threats, authorities look for more and more innocuous actions to punish, reminding us THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM THREATS AND WE NEED THEM! The fact that he was Muslim (and looks Arab) was simply the excuse they needed — an easy way to prey on prejudice. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM TERRORISTS!

If there was no prejudice against Muslims, they would suspend 7 year olds for chewing a pop tart into the vague outline of a gun. They would suspend 8 year olds for playing cops & robbers with finger guns. They would suspend 7th graders for twirling pencils. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM VIOLENCE!

Or, perhaps, they would strip search a 13 year old girl for suspicion of possession of ibuprofen. Maybe they would suspend and prosecute an 11 year old for possessing a Japanese maple leaf. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM DRUGS!

Of course, this extends to all levels of authority.

The NSA taps our communications. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM TERRORISTS!

The FBI wants to back-door all our encryption. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM CHILD MOLESTERS!

Local police wants to stop-and-frisk. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM CRIMINALS!

The DEA bulk collects phone, license plate, and who knows what else data on American citizens, en masse. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM DRUGS!

I hope Ahmed receives justice from this. I hope he launches a successful STEM career. I also hope he takes to heart the very important lesson, “Authority is not your friend.”