The Great Unraveling

February 18, 2017

(I’ve not been very productive. My nearly year long cough is gone, but the dizziness, light-headedness, and exhaustion persist. Oh and I’m having hand surgery on Wed…yeek!)

I’m not sure that “The Great Unraveling” is quite the right phrase, but in the US and the UK we’re at the cusp of massive transformations that, to be frank, are going to suck. Both involve attempts to dismantle much of the corresponding states in a very short time. (The Great Dismantling? Perhaps what’s Unraveled is the consensus which leaves us open to dismantling?)

Brexit at all, much less the hard and hostile Brexit we risk, is not a simple matter. For ≈40 years we’ve been a member state and that has consequences to everything we’ve done and how the whole constitutional order was structured. Note that I don’t think Brexit will net us more sovereignty, but it will net us more local “control” and responsibility. I don’t think it nets us sovereignty because while we get more local say we lose EU say. We lose power, in general.

We had an outsized influence in the EU and were shielded from the worst bit (the Euro). So, this will be a pretty big loss.

Trump and the Republican Congress (and likely Republican Supreme Court) and the Republican states are, with varying degrees of effectiveness, trying to break down the post LBJ welfare state and the international order (well, the latter is mostly President Bannon). The badness of their aims is matched only by their general ineptness at governance. Since destruction is the goal and they’re pretty happy with a lot of collateral damage, this isn’t a big deal for them except it might result in a counterbalancing wave elections (I hope, I hope).

There’s no attempt to produce a better alternative. The ACA repeal and uh…something…something there’s a replacement but it’s a secrete move is pretty telling. There are no positive goals, no acknowledgement of strengths of the ACA, or accurate assessment of the weaknesses (and ways to fix them). It’s just hack it and give the money to rich people. The end.

Let’s not even get into the norms of governance that Trump blithely shits on.

So here we are. Two “conservative” governments engaged in a destructive spree with barely any recognition that what they’re doing is destructive at all. Strange times.


Countering (Massive Numbers of) Lies Doesn’t Work

January 25, 2017

Lies are dangerous in a number of ways. Putting aside that there are lots of situations where a false belief leads to very bad action (e.g., believing homeopathy is an effective cancer treatment leads to forgoing treatment that would have saved one’s life or mitigated suffering). They are also dangerous because people with bad agendas tend to resort to lying because they can’t win on the merits. And they don’t just resort to a bit of deception, or even clever deception. It turns out that wholesale, massive, shameless, easily rebutted lies are pretty effective, at least for something.

Consider the decades long attack on the EU:

But Britain has a long and well-observed tradition of fabricating facts about Europe—so much so that the European Commission (EC) set up a website to debunk these lies in the early 1990s. Try our interactive quiz below and see if you can spot the myths.

Since then the EC has responded to over 400 myths published by the British media. These range from the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned). Some are seemingly the result of wilful misunderstandings.

Sadly, for all the commission’s hard work, it is unlikely to be heard. The average rebuttal is read about 1,000 times. The Daily Mail’s website, by contrast, garners 225m visitors each month.

And, of course, the Leave campaign, itself, was almost wholly lie based. Remain made some (economic) predictions that were falsified (and that needs to be understood), but it didn’t traffic in wholesale lies, to my knowledge.

Similarly, we have a decades long campaign, almost entirely easily-debunked-lie based, against Hillary Clinton. Just take claims about her honesty (esp. next to Trump). Robert Mann produced a very interesting graph of Polifact’s fact checking of a selection of politicians:

It isn’t even close! HRC is one of the most honest politicians (in terms of telling falsehoods) and Trump is one of the most dishonest.

Yet, when I was debating folks on Democratic leaning blogs, I had people saying that Clinton was a pathological liar. When presented with this chart, they stuck to their guns. (Note, they didn’t think Obama was a liar.)

You can quibble with the methodology (see Mann’s blog post for a discussion), but Polifact’s fact checker tries to be evenhanded. One should be at least a little struck by this evidence.

But correction often just doesn’t work, backfires, or isn’t effective in changing attitudes and behavior. For example,

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Or consider Emily Thorson’s concept of belief echoes:

However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction–even when it is fully believed–does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects,which I call “belief echoes,” are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking.

Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes, on the other hand, are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views

We see this in the various formulations of the Clinton Rules.

One major harm of such mechanisms is that it opens up a line of defense for very bad people, e.g., Trump, to wit, that there are “Trump rules” and the bad things pointed out about him are fake. They aren’t, but why trust a gullible media about it?

I’ve had personal experience of this. I used to comment a lot on LGM. One commenter with a propensity for persistently saying very silly things (about, e.g., statistics, causality, politics, and even the law (they are a lawyer)) got to a point where they couldn’t stand my repeated refutations (including pointing out how they’d been refuted before). They embarked on a pretty systematic campaign to lie about me, primarily about my mental health and that I was “stalking” them, on the verge of a breakdown, that they were frightened of me, that I had no sex life or other kind of life, that I spent large period of times looking things up on them (stalking!), etc. These were transparent lies and obvious gaslighting. No one took them directly seriously, but they did have effects. People would see an exchange and assume that there was some fault on my part (however mild). This would pop up elsewhere, in other comments.  Some of these people were more sympathetic to a gaslighting liar than they had any right to be.

So, pretty exemplary behavior and a sterling reputation vs. transparent lies and extremely bizarre slanders and…well, I’m the one not commenting any more. It worked, in a way. (Trump winning had an effect too. It’s not solely due to this bad behavior.)

Given sufficient shamelessness and no structural counter (e.g., moderation) and no big effort on my part (e.g., an active campaign), there’s little penalty for such lying and it advances their noxious cause.

These examples can be multiplied easily (anti-vaccine, pro-tobacco, climate change denial campaigns come to mind).

It’s very difficult to deal with. We need to.

Update:

How severe is the problem? I just saw a report on a survey using Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowd photos:

For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.

But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.

The article discusses the idea of “expressive responding”:

Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?

To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).

Expressive responding is yet another form of lying with potentially far reaching consequences.


On Calling Out a Lie

January 24, 2017

Given the massive amount of un-, anti-, and non-truth spewed by Trump, his minions, and the Republican Party, the media has had a lot of trouble coping with it. Trumpsters and their ilk even have started complaining about “fake news” by which they don’t mean actual fake news, but instead they mean true news that they don’t like.

The media needs to deal with the situation better. There are lots of vulnerable points (e.g., the need for access, the cult of balance, the shamelessness of the deception). But one problem is a strong unwillingness to call a lie a lie (well, except for the liars, who are quite willing to call anything they don’t like a lie).

There’s a fairly narrow idea of a lie making its way around that’s used to justify this. Take Kevin Drum (who’s on the pro-call-out-lies side):

The problem with branding something a lie is that you have to be sure the speaker knew it was wrong. Otherwise it’s just ignorance or a mistake.

Arrrgh! Even Drum falls into a pretty obvious error! Just because you don’t utter a deliberate, explicit, knowing falsehood doesn’t mean you are innocently making some sort of error (i.e., acting from ignorance or making a mistake)! Just simple contemplation of lies of omission reveal that. Or recall standard tricks such as:

Is there anything else material that you want to tell us?

No.

But it says here that you did X and X is material! Why did you lie?!

I didn’t lie. I didn’t want to tell you about X.

Lots of people have come to rely on Frankfurt’s notion of “bullshit” (utterances made without regard for the truth) and “lie” (utterances made with a regard for falsity). I remember when Frankfurt’s article came out and I enjoyed it. It’s a nice distinction, but it’s been misused. A bullshitter is a kind of liar (or, if you want to be annoying, a deceiver). (Wikipedia correctly puts Frankfurtian “bullshit” as a topic on the “lie” page.)

Frankfurt spends a great deal of time trying to suss out the distinction between lying and bullshitting:

The elder Simpson identifies the alternative to telling a lie as bullshitting one’s way through. This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. This is a key, perhaps, to his preference. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Meh. When you have enough fabrication and one of your targets is yourself, this idea of focus isn’t pertinent. One way of lying is being a shameless liar most of the time so when one speaks the truth one isn’t believed.

It is sometimes worth figuring out the etiology of someone’s false (or otherwise wrong) utterances. It can make a difference in how you counter them. If someone is mistaken, they may be amenable to correction. If they are a “true believer”, it may be quite difficult to merely correct them (so maybe you don’t bother).

But, with the Trumpians and other Republicans, come on. There needs to be some strict liability here. Lying so well that you convince even yourself that it’s true is a kind of lying. Coming to believe your own lies (supposedly) doesn’t get you off the hook for all that lying nor does it make it not lying.

I’m sorta ok with Drum’s desire to focus on deception rather that (narrow) lying. But…in ordinary vernacular, deception is lying. A lie of omission is a lie. If you bullshit me, you are lying to me. If you lie to yourself, you are lying.

With Trump, it’s super easy: it’s almost all straightforward lies.

Update: LGM caught up with the NYT finally putting “lie” in the headline with appropriate skepticism.


Music Monday: RIP Maggie Roche

January 23, 2017

Maggie Roche, of the Roches, died.

I learned about the Roches from Zoe and we had a fair number of their albums, alas all on cassette so I haven’t listened to them in quite some time. Her death is a sad prompt to get it together.

Anyway! Some of her song. Hammond Song is a classic. Thought for years I thought it was “If you go down to heaven”. It completely make sense as a death song!

If you go down to Hammond [ed: try not to hear “heaven!”]
you’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
on the wrong track
We’ll always love you but
that’s not the point

 

The eponymous album is probably my (and a lot of people’s) favourite.  Quitting Time is also terrific, maybe better than Hammond Song and features Maggie’s deep deep voice on the vocals. (The recording of her is not ideal, imho, but still, overall, a standout recording.)

Maggie and Terre had an earlier album, Seductive Reasoning, that has two of my favourite songs, Malachy’s which I think is one of the best “performer” songs ever:

It’s a lightly melancholy blend of things that went wrong at a performance and of at least absent (perhaps lost) love:

Eddie said the lights were low
Tom said the treble was high
The boy with a beard in the corner
Laughed in the middle of a sigh
Don’t think we ever even caught his eye

Sometimes I used to find
I’d be singing to you
As if you were sitting
At the table by the door

The other is Underneath the Moon:

Aside from a jaunty piano riff, the lyrics we surprisingly important to me:

I overheard a wise gal say
Whose gentleman was her ruin
“Sweetness gets me nowhere
‘Cept, underneath the moon.”

Good men want a virgin
So don’t you give yourself too soon
‘Cept in an emergency
Like underneath the moon.

I heard this for the first time in the early days of my feminist evolution. I won’t say it’s super-feminist, but I found the casual defiance of an oppressive norm (keep your virginity!). It’s not a full defiance as it’s framed as an exception, but it charmed me nevertheless.

Maggie gave us so many great song. She will be missed.


We can’t have nice things

January 22, 2017

Like the Conservative 2015 win, Trump’s win and the Republican control of government will lead to lots and lots of bad things and the destruction of lots of good things. Some of the loss is direct and immediate (e.g., people will lose their health insurance). Some of the loss is less direct and immediate (e.g., people will die unnecessarily because they lost their health insurance). And some of the lost is indirect and diffuse (e.g., the economy will suffer because health insurance and health care is messed up).

You can hope that breaking things as hard and as fast as the Trumpublicans seem anxious to do will result in accountability from the voters. But this isn’t a net good:

The one silver lining here is that all this is certain to be spectacularly unpopular. This combination of spending-side austerity and huge tax cuts will likely create major economic problems, as similar policies at the state level (and during Bush’s time as well) have shown. Trump is already the most disliked president-elect in the history of polling, and what little support he does have is partly the result of a campaign whose major message was the precise opposite of what’s about to happen.

Bush took a budget surplus and turned it into giant deficits, something we still are dealing with. Breaking things tends to lead to more broken things and easier to beak things.

Plus, voters seem to have short memories. Trump looks to be worse than Bush by some orders of magnitude and this didn’t deter lots of people from voting for Trump and the Republicans. Austerity in the UK imposed pointless misery and the Tory’s won 2015 on austerity.

Conservative parties have been taking fairly narrow wins of dubious contests wherein they lied like hell and decided to go maximal in their execution of disastrous policies. In the UK, it seems very unlikely that the electorate will turn on them anytime soon for this. In the US, it will be challenging to get one house of congress, much less both, in 2018. There’s a lot more amok that can be run.


The GPL Won

January 18, 2017

It seems like GPL and related licenses dominate open source projects, by a lot:

At the beginning of his talk, DiBona said that according to Google’s net crawlers, the web now contains over 31 million open source projects, spanning 2 billion lines of code. Forty-eight per cent of these projects are under the GPL, 23 per cent use the LGPL, 14 per cent use the BSD license, 6 per cent use Apache, and 5 per cent use the MIT license. All other licenses are used with under 5 per cent of the projects.

So, GPL variants govern 71% of 31 million projects. Daaaamn. That’s a lot. A lot more than the rest, which are less restrictive.

I confess to being a bit surprised given the hostility (or exasperation) one often encounters by e.g., business folks when dealing with the GPL. Of course, it has two strong factors: it’s viral (so derived projects must use it) and it’s has a lot of advocacy, both dedicated (think Stallman) and more incidental (think Linux in general).

Ooo, I really have an itch to find out whether virality is a big factor….

Update:

On Facebook, Dan Brickley (thanks Dan!) points out that 1) this survey is from 2011 and 2) more recent surveys point to a shift away from GPL to more more permissive licenses, to wit, MIT and Apache:

Indeed, if we contrast each license’s share of the repositories surveyed by Black Duck [January 2017] versus January 2010, the shift is quite apparent….

In Black Duck’s sample, the most popular variant of the GPL – version 2 – is less than half as popular as it was (46% to 19%). Over the same span, the permissive MIT has gone from 8% share to 29%, while its permissive cousin the Apache License 2.0 jumped from 5% to 15%. What this means is that over the course of a seven year period, the GPLv2 has gone from being roughly equal in popularity to the next nine licenses combined to 10% out of first place.

All of which suggests that if we generally meant copyleft when we were talking about open source in 2007, we typically mean permissive when we discuss it today.

Read the whole thing, esp. the bit about the rise of unlicensed projects on Github.

Now, methodologically, their survey is smaller:

This open source licensing data reflects analysis of over two million open source projects from over 9,000 global forges and repositories.

So, it might be the case that the Google population wouldn’t show this shift. But, ex ante, a focused crawl is more likely (perhaps) to be dominated by “high quality” repositories, thus may reflect best or active practice better.

This all still cries out for some causal investigation.


The Concentration of Web Power

January 17, 2017

In the early days of the Web (and the Internet in general), there was a believe that it was a different kind of system. Distributedly anarchistic, that is, the was no central authority. No one organisation owned…or could own the whole network. Oh we worried about some centralising tendencies…browser makers had a lot of power. DNS is pretty centrally controlled. But the decentralised, distributed nature was also supposed to be resilient against various sorts of attack, including attempts to control it. The internet “routes around damage”, including control freaks. The contrast class were closed “walled gardens” like Compuserve and AOL. These were behemoths of online activity until they were crushed by open systems. Internet systems just scaled better because they were open and decentralised…so the story went.

But the world has changed. While we have more online activity than ever before, the capability for single organisations to control it all has also increased. Many organisations (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon to name a few) have the technical wherewithal and economic resources to build a global infrastructure that could handle the traffic of the current Web. (More orgs could do it if we reuse the current communication infrastructure. Google experiments notwithstanding, it would be a heavy lift for them to build out broadband and cell towers across the globe. These organisations could, of course, buy mobile carriers and backbone providers…)

Furthermore, governments have been rather effective in controlling the internet, cf China. The ability to route around such breakage on a mass scale is proving fairly limited.

As a result, power is getting increasingly concentrated in the online world (which, given the economic gains, is translating to power everywhere). We are pretty close to the Compuserve/AOL walled garden world. Even nominally distinct organisations rely heavily on the same high level infrastructure, which is why you see the same awful ads everywhere.

Google seems to be trying hardest for vertical integration. They push Chrome relentlessly and that lets them play with protocols specific to Chrome and their servers. Sure, they generally push them toward standards…but this is a new capability. Facebook tried this a bit (Facebook phone anyone?) but didn’t do so well. Mobile apps make this true for everyone.

Strangely we’re getting some refragmented experiences. I was trying to debug Zoe‘s new YouTube Channel (a bad experience, to be sure) and some things were different in the iPad app than on the website. Fine fine. I mean, terrible, but ok. But I tried to debug it on my iPad and I could not open the YouTube website in a browser. It forced me into the app with no other options (“Open in YouTube App? Ok. Cancel.” where “Cancel” means don’t open the page!). (Ok, I eventually “googled” how to modify the URL (from “www.” to “m.”) to make it work but holy hell that was wrong.) I was trying to share a page from the Guardian and got stuck in AMP hell. I could not get rid of the AMP/Google URL to get to the Guardian one (without string hacking).

That AMP page sure loaded fast…

…but the URL, server, connection all belong to Google.

It is interesting that mass phenomena are easier to control that small scale ones, in some respects. There’s more money available and most people are not very technical sophisticated. Hell, I’m not. I don’t want to be. I leave a lot of things broken because while I could suss it out, I just don’t have the time or energy to fight through all the nonsense. (And there is a ton of a ton of nonsense.)

So, this is the world we live in. The problem is that the big players will never stumble and fall…they might! Yahoo died. If Facebook dies (depending on how it does) it will be traumatic. If Google dies (depending on how it does), it will be very bad. But, these are probably survivable in most scenarios. They’ll degrade slowly and other big players will grab some and some new players will get big.

However, it’s hard to see how it won’t be big players from here on out.

Update:

Ruben Verborgh has a related discussion. My quick hit on the key difference is that Ruben isn’t focused on the centralisation and web architectural aspects, but on, roughly, publishers vs. consumers. A world where every site has a preferred app and directs you to it is still (potentially) a decentralised and distributed one. He’s more focused on a different sort of power, i.e., the power of individual site owners over their viewers. Now, obviously, this is related to the concentration of power I focused on since one of the bad things an “owner of the web” can do is exploit the rest of us in a myriad of ways. But I think it’s important to note that concentration and centralisation have not been “app” driven. Network effects (plus quality!) seem sufficient to explain the rise of Google and Apple. Facebook and Twitter rose by network effects alone, I’d say. Once you have a ton of cash and a big user base, you can exploit those in a variety of ways to gain more power. Though this isn’t trivial, witness Google’s persistent failures in social (Google+!?).

Kyle Schreiber writes about AMP lock in (via Daring Fireball):

Make no mistake. AMP is about lock-in for Google. AMP is meant to keep publishers tied to Google. Clicking on an AMP link feels like you never even leave the search page, and links to AMP content are displayed prominently in Google’s news carousel. This is their response to similar formats from both Facebook and Apple, both of which are designed to keep users within their respective ecosystems. However, Google’s implementation of AMP is more broad and far reaching than the Apple and Facebook equivalents. Google’s implementation of AMP is on the open web and isn’t limited to just an app like Facebook or Apple.

AMP (and other URL/browser behavior hijackings like search result URLs) is extra offensive because it hits deep into the working of the Web. But if we all end up living in Facebook all the time, it won’t matter if the URLs “look” independent.

Note that I  host my blog on WordPress, for “free.” WordPress is a pretty popular Content Management System with an ecosystem that is hard to rival. But the results are pretty vanilla Web. WordPress.com itself isn’t super dominant and it’s very easy to break free. There seems to be a material difference in the situations.


Music Monday: The President Sang Amazing Grace

January 16, 2017

Small Brown Birds is done! Hurrah! The endgame was a ton of work over the winter break which, shall we say, interfered with some celebrations and visiting. But it’s well worth it! The Kickstarter rewards are going out and (I hope) should all be done by the end of the month.

To everyone who backed the campaign, a profound thank you. Both the cash and the support were incredibly helpful.

We didn’t finish the album as projected and one reason for that is that a new song came to Zoe in the fall and it really had to be on the album. It’s called “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and here’s a video of Zoe singing it at her CD release concert:

(Lyrics available on the YouTube page. There was a lot of YouTube/Google suffering.)

The concert was amazing with a wonderful space. Zoe’s voice was very strong. Attendances was somewhat depressed by the snow. For the first time in my life, I am mad at snow.

The studio version has a piano accompaniment which is truly lovely.

I’ll have more about the song next week and then dive into the rest of the album. Small Brown Birds will be available in the usual places soon (i.e., you will be able to get the physical disc from CD Baby and download from iTunes and Amazon). You can get a physical disc direct from Zoe if you’re in the US. See her website for details.


The Comey II Effect

January 16, 2017

Background

US presidential elections are extremely complex events. There are a lot of a lot of moving parts from candidate selection to the Electoral College. The occur only every four years and there’s been under 60 in total, with maybe a third in a reasonably modern era (e.g., with mass communication). Furthermore, the US, in general and in the political scene, exhibit complex dynamics. It’s changing all the time! This makes them hard to study. This XCKD cartoon is a good reminder to be epistemicly humble.

However, this doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders. Predicting winners is going to be hard we predict because increasing polarization, plus some structural features, means elections will be close. When elections are close, they are hard to call (at least individually). That doesn’t mean we aren’t right to predict that they will generally be close and that gaps between the popular vote and the electoral vote will increase and tend to benefit Republicans. These seem quite true.

However, autopsy is different that predicting.  When we look backwards, we are dealing with one set of events, not many possible ones. Now, of course, we can’t go back in time and rerun stuff. Plus evidence degrades quickly with time. But we are looking at something static. And by careful study we can learn surprising things! For example, the consensus is that Ross Perot did not spoil the 1992 election for George Bush. See this excellent blog post by Samuel T. Coop that has good links to the literature as well as a nice discussion both of the direct and possible indirect effects of Perot on the 1992 and 1996 elections. Note that the kind of study one does (and confidence one has) depends critically on how one frames the question. “Did Perot spoil the election for Bush?” has one kind of answer if you operationalise it as “Were Perot voters such that they would have voted for Bush if Perot had been removed from the ballot the week before the election in numbers and patterns sufficient to change the election outcome?” A much harder question to answer is, “If Perot never entered the race, would Clinton still have one?”

The former question might nevertheless be unanswerable or difficult to answer if we don’t have good data. The latter question might well be simply unanswerable absent singularity level simulations.

In general, effect questions about events close to an election are more tractable than ones about events further away. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Comey had two big interventions in the election: The first was in July 2016 when he cleared Clinton of wrong doing, closed the election, and (wrongly and inappropriately) bad mouthed her. The second was when he released a letter a week before the election saying, “Hey! We might have something to look at!” (then another letter just before the election saying, “Oops, nothing here”). There is no disputing the wrongness and inappropriateness of the second intervention. The “best” interpretation is that he was trying to get ahead of rogue agents in New York. Of course, this is several levels of failure including that rogue agents shouldn’t be rogue and the way he did things was strongly biased against (a totally innocent!) Clinton. In any case, it was against policy and precedent, and it was definitely biased toward Trump. We can see this in his current refusal to discuss the FBI’s investigation of the Trump-Russia issue with congress even in private. This is the Bush v. Gore “We only intend this discussion/principle to hold for this one case where it steals the election” bit all over again.

One thing that is conclusively established is that Comey did some very wrong things and that Comey’s FBI is in the running for one of the worst FBIs ever (which is saying something).

But not all wrong actions have bad consequences. (Luck can intervene.) A critical question, thus, is whether Comey threw the election to Trump. Scott Lemieux thinks that the answer is yes, partly based on a recent Vox article by McElwee,  McDermott, and  Jordan which looks at 4 pieces of evidence that “the Comey effect was real, it was big, and it probably cost Clinton the election”.

Some Qualifications

Both Scott and the Vox folks try to disarm one of the standard counter arguments, to wit, that even if Comey II had an effect, it was dwarfed/only made possible by the badness of Clinton and/or her campaign. Their attempt is roughly, “Yes, the campaign made mistakes, but all campaigns do.” Meh. I want to see more affirmative evidence that the Clinton campaign was bad other than “it shouldn’t have been close enough for Comey to affect” or even “She lost to Trump.” The overall evidence is that Clinton is a pretty good candidate (nearly won against Obama and won the popular vote in a year when the fundamentals, the press, and the FBI and Russia/wikileaks, etc were against her). In 2008, we had very specific evidence that campaign competency was a problem (critically, they didn’t pay enough attention to caucuses and delegate math). There’s little such evidence this year. So, pfft. She ran a pretty good campaign in adverse circumstances. Qua candidate, she has vulnerabilities, but clearly also strengths: It seems that it took fundamentals, plus the press, plus Russia, plus Wikileaks, plus the FBI to beat her narrowly.

So, meh, to that.

We’re looking for a change in voter behavior from what it would have otherwise been without Comey II but with no new events. Thus, if some hackers held back some Comey II equivalent info because they thought Comey II was sufficient, then the counterfactual “But for Comey II, Clinton wins” is false. But this isn’t the right standard since we are trying to determine the effect of Comey II on the actual election. This is an autopsy. If someone gets hit in the brain by three bullets spaced three seconds apart, each of which were sufficient to kill them, we don’t say that the first bullet wasn’t the cause of death just because if it hadn’t been fired the person would still be dead.

Finally, even if Comey II had no effect, it would still be unjustified and a serious failing on Comey’s part. If it had some effect that doesn’t seem quite enough to throw the election, it’s still very bad. However, obviously, throwing the election aligns intent and horrific effect.

The Vox Case

The conclusion is:

the Comey effect was real, it was big, and it probably cost Clinton the election

The evidence is in four “exhibits” (and I grabbed their headings to make this list):

  1. “Exhibit 1: the state polls.”
    This is a weird one because it should say something like, “Looking at the state polls, we see a decisive, unusually large shift toward Trump in key states. Indeed, the average is from Clinton +3 on the 28th (Comey II day) to Trump +1.2…4 points! in a week!” However, they are focused on the “surprise” aspect of the election and how some polls just before the election undershots Trump’s actual win. I think this is important (see below), but it’s not part of the first order case for the Comey Victory. They are convincing that some states where the polling didn’t show the trend were underpolled. But this is sorta beside the point. The idea is that there was a swing in votes that was captured by a swing in the polls (and between the polls and the actual outcome).
  2. “Exhibit 2: the national polls”
    Basically, every account of the national polls showed a big hit (2-3 points) against Clinton in reaction to Comey II. Comey I also produced a direct swing in the polls against her. So Comey announcement affecting the polls seems reasonable. Note that this does not yet generate a Trump win…national polls still had Clinton up. But, she did win the popular vote!
  3. “Exhibit 3: The early voting numbers compared with the late deciders”
    Clinton led in a lot of the early voting. That could be a biased sample, but  Clinton had a huge drop between early and election day voting was in blue states like RI. Obama saw gains in such circumstances.
  4. “Exhibit 4: media coverage of email, email, and more email”
    EMAILZ!!! dominated the news coverage and, correlatively, voter perceptions of Clinton, “While 79 percent of registered voters had heard “a lot” about Clinton’s emails, only 23 percent heard “a lot” about Trump’s housing discrimination, 27 percent heard “a lot” about the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s illegal political contribution to the Florida attorney general, and, surprisingly, only 59 percent had heard a “a lot” about the Hollywood Access tape.”

Only 59% of voters heard “a lot” about the Trump tape?! Whoa.

We see some undeniable Comey II effects. 4 (media coverage) is just plainly evident. (Note: Obviously the media were complicit. They could have treated Comey II correctly and didn’t. How this absolves Comey is a mystery to me. He knew or should have known what would happen.) 1 & 2 seem probable both based on the timing and on past effects. 3 needs a bit of work to directly establish the relationship, but as a supporting consideration is quite alright. That all these things march together strengthens the story. As the Vox piece puts it:

Instead, the evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.

Challenges

Let’s recall what has to have happened for a Comey Victory:

  1. Before Oct 28th, Clinton had to have been really ahead. That is, enough people in the right places would have voted for her or, at least, not voted for Trump (e.g., by splitting their ticket or staying home).
  2. On election day, we have the result we have.
  3. People changed their voting behavior (e.g., stayed home, changed their vote, or came out for Trump).

And, of course, this change had to be caused by Comey II. But I think if we can establish 1-3 then we’ve done rather well. Direct polling on this (i.e., “Did Comey II change your voting behavior”) would be welcome but will get less reliable the further out we go (due to recall bias).

So, we have a shift in the polls with the right timing plus a mechanism (coverage). Isn’t this enough?

There are some possible alternatives.

  1. The shift was due to some other factor like awesome Trump ground game. (Unlikely.)
  2. Before or around Oct 28th, Trump was ahead or close to being so and the Clinton lead was a polling illusion.
  3. Trump’s mostly was ahead but there was a strong, consistent polling illusion.

1 suggests a different dynamic. 2 and 3 suggest that the race was more static than a Comey Victory requires.

Could the race have been more favourable to Trump than the polls suggested? Event driven swings in polling, esp. large ones in early polls, have been viewed with skepticism for quite some time. Convention bounces, for example, tend to be bounces: They boost the candidates polls for a short while then fade. The idea that voting intention would be so fickle seems improbable, esp. in this day and age. Recall the myth of the independent voter, that is, in spite of increasing numbers of Americans identifying themselves as independent, only a small fraction are “true” independents, that is, exhibit voting behavior markedly different than some partisan. (And of course, “independent” doesn’t mean “indecisive”.) One rising explanation of such poll volitility without real change is “differential response rates“.

Roughly speaking, given the low response rates typical of modern polling, shifts in polling results can come from a systematic change in who is likely to respond. Note that this is different than standard sampling issues and isn’t addressed by, for example, larger sample sized. It’s also different from problems in your likely voter models. (Assuming your likely voter model is stable, it could give a consistent error but is unlikely to yield big swings.)

Exhibit 3 suggests that the change was real: We have an unusual difference in actual voting behavior from early voting to election day. We have a large number of “undecided” who broke strongly for Trump. So we have a clear causal story.

One challenge with that story is whether the shift from undecided to Trump would have happened anyway. This is similar to the “shy Trump” effect sometimes posited. But basically, people tend to vote identity. Identity doesn’t tend to shift over a campaign, so who people will end up voting for is pretty predictable. But who people think or say they are going to vote for is more flexible. And this isn’t because they are shy (shy people lie) but because they are genuinely conflicted.

Imagine a Bernie supporting, Green curious Democrat. They might well flirt with the idea of voting Green the whole election season but when it comes down to the crunch they vote Clinton because, well, Trump! (I was that sort of Nader supporter in 2000. Even though I though Gore would win and had bought some of the “not a dimes worth of difference” line, I couldn’t risk being part of a Bush win.)

So it is possible that Republicans who were “concerned” by Trump always were going to vote for him. We saw this in a lot of “Never Trumper” elites who declined to support him until they did.

Worse, experientially, many of these folks will take Comey II as the causal reason for their vote. But, the argument goes, that’s a cognitive illusion. In reality, they would have always found a way to vote for Trump. This distinction will be hard to sort out, if even possible.

What Should We Believe About Comey II?

Scott advances a strong (but slippery) version of the Vox conclusion:

As I’ve said before, at this point to deny the effects of Comey’s interventions is essentially trooferism. There is no serious alternative explanation that can account for the data. The “durrrr, correlation is not causation, durrr” argument loses any plausibility when you consider that every Comey intervention caused a wave of negative media coverage about Clinton and was followed by a significant decline in national polls numbers. The “polls can’t account for Trump being a celebrity” response fails to explain why Election Day voters were more affected by Trump’s celebrity status than early voters although he didn’t become more famous in the interim (but people were treated to an obsessive wave of negative coverage about Clinton.) Even if Comey had not sent the letter on October 28, we can be as confident that Clinton would have won as we could ever be confident in such a counterfactual.

The strongest line against it is that voting intentions are fairly stable and we have some mechanisms to explain that polling produced shifts are illusory.  But, let’s not, that there is no direct evidence for this in the current situation. Yes, differential response, shy Trump, and dithery Trump could explain everything, but even for early event responses evidence is thin on the ground. It’s mostly the general thesis that voting intention is stable. And clearly, there’s some truth to that! I was never going to vote for the Republican candidate, ever, in 2016. Ever. There are lots of similar sorts. The general closeness of elections is suggestive as is the research on nominally independent voters.

One interpretation of the election is that campaign quality doesn’t matter at all, given Trumps weak traditional campaign. Specifically, campaign quality doesn’t have a causal effect (as opposed to a balance of causes). However, given Russian hacking, Wikileaks dribbling, Comey, and a compliant press, a rival interpretation is that narrow Republican campaign quality matters less because the Republican campaign includes parts of the US government as well as state and non-state actors as well as the press.

The very closeness of the results in key states is also suggestive. Comey doesn’t have to swing or consolidate a lot of votes in the Clinton firewall to break it. Unlike conventions which are 1) standard, expected events and 2) way early in the campaign before voter intentions have solidified, Comey II was imminent to the election. So it’s more reasonable to suspect real changes rather than differential response.

So, I lean toward the Comey II effect was real and likely made the difference.

Now, there are some definite bias risks here. Confirmation bias (partly due to anchoring) is strong. I’ve been a proponent of a version of the stability hypothesis (though, usually of the “polls far out aren’t super reliable; polls in Nov tend to be” sort). I think differential response rates are fascinating and provide an elegant explanation of convention bounces. (I think all polls should publish their response rates!) I feel Trump is illegitimate on many fronts. Comey’s actions (and the press reaction) are clearly indefensible. So there’s a lot of room for motivated reasoning here.

That being said, it’s clearly possible to swing too far the other way. The evidence for a Comey Steal are more direct and multifaceted. (Early to late voting behavior isn’t subject to polling illusion!) The idea that that coverage had no effect seems pretty bonkers. You’d want some very strong evidence for that.

So, trooferism? Maybe? The Vox picture (however awkwardly put) is pretty compelling. We’ll see how the evidence evolves. It’s still the case that saying, “Pretty compelling, but we still need some details to know how big the Comey effect was” is reasonable, but perhaps on the edge of reason. The “you can’t know!!!!!” folks are clearly way out of line.


Music Monday: Welcome In Another Year

January 3, 2017

Happy (this calendar/culture) new year!

Zoe has a surprising (to me) number of holiday tunes. It’s surprising because we don’t do the holiday thing very systematically or thoroughly. But we do visit people during the winter holiday season and we try, at least, to celebrate Noruz, the Iranian New Year (in March). And we vaguely pay attention to the Chinese New Year. Etc!

(The one time I was in Iran, I was dropped trying to jump over a bonfire at the ancestral farm. I burned my pinky and really wanted to go to a “real hospital”. I suspect that that emphasis was due to earlier encounters with the scary squat toilets.)

Thus begat “Welcome In Another Year” which is my all time favourite New Year’s song. It’s also just a wonderful banjo tune.

The chorus (plus an advocacy campaign by me) led to the title of the album:

Build up the bonfires
now the season’s turned
welcome in another year
and let the old one burn!

I really want 2016 to burn.

While looking for a video of the song, I found a surprising (to me) number of pretty interesting covers, including this really wacky one by the Mighty Kelltones:

They did a lot more dorking with the melody esp. in the chorus than the other covers. It’s lower, faster, and has different emphasis. In spite of the up tempo, it feels more low key, probably because the vocal doesn’t soar like Zoe’s and the instrumentals are more textural and rhythmic. (It reminds me a bit of Eva Cassidy’s “Wayfaring Stranger”.)

The next (by Blanche Rowen and Mike Gulston) is a more straightfoward cover:

Instead of banjo, we get some pretty cool guitar. It shares with the Mighty Kelltones’ version that Eva Cassidy feel to me. I think it’s the moodiness of the guitar compared with the brightness of Zoe’s banjo. (Their a cappela chorus has some interestingly warbly intonation.)

Our Morals is a Liverpool band who did a performance at the Lymm Festival in 2013:

This is worth contrasting with the Rowen/Gulston version. We have a guitar with male/female vocal combo (thought here the male voice does the verses). Our Morals is much more upbeat and I think a closer approximation of Zoe’s version. It’s clear that they are having a good time!

Lynn and Will Rowan have a piano (and penny whistle) arrangement that’s pretty lush:

Weirdly, this seems even closer to Zoe’s in spite of the greater difference in the individual instruments. Maybe it’s the vocals? I’m not sure!

There’s another cover (by Four Shillings Short) but I couldn’t find a video with decent sound quality. And rumours have it that Nowell Sing We Clear have an arrangement for four voices that rocks. When Zoe is on the same bill as the Bailey Sisters, they tend to do a very nice version together.

Finally, here’s a live Zoeversion with a version of her intro:

The moral of all this is 1) don’t drop your kid in a fire and 2) if you do, hope that 35 years later a good song comes out of it.