Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Romney's positions as Scripture of sorts

I didn't watch Tuesday night's town-hall, but I've read excerpts here and there, and commenting upon the accompanying truth abuse. Minnesota Public Radio's fact-check is decent, though I think it stretches things too much when it comes to both candidates -- and ironically, I think that's because they try to hard for the usual "both sides do it".

In terms of contrast with a hypothetical pair extremely-candid candidates, (rather than the equivocators that actual politicians have to be) Obama and Romney's biggest errors (in my opinion) are these:

1. Obama failed to acknowledge that despite the "terror" label in his initial post-attack speech, he still took his time, in most other contexts, in labeling it a terrorist attack. The Daily Show had even highlighted this reluctance of Obama's. It's not a biggie in my opinion because it's really just a label either way -- I'm reminded of how a number of conservatives insisted that the Fort Hood shootings be called a terrorist attack, and one clever counterpoint from some commenter was along the lines of "Okay, so now it's a terrorist attack. Exactly what do we do differently?"

2. Obama's "5 million jobs" number is really cherry-picking from a particular portion of time; it's rather like how global-warming denialists liked to say "Global warming stopped in 1998" because 1998 had been the hottest year on record, ignoring the obvious trend up to that year and after it. I forgive it because it's not a "lie" lie and he needs to be able to say something to prevent Romney from winning ("hundreds of thousands of jobs" doesn't cut it). But I'm surprised Romney hasn't countered it, just as I'm surprised he didn't have a counter to Obama's point about the Benghazi attack.

3. Romney wins for the most blatant, straightforward "lie" lie. You don't have to contrast a hypothetical hyper-honest Romney to see that he's saying something he ought to know is false. The lie in question?

"I know he keeps saying, `You want to take Detroit bankrupt.' Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. And I think it's important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened."

The key term here is "take". The truth is that no one has ever accused Romney of wanting to "take Detroit bankrupt". That would make no sense, because Romney explicitly did not want the government to "take" Detroit at all. The actual accusation was that Romney wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt. Where did that wording come from? Well, from the infamously liberal New York Times, and the headline of an editorial, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt", which puts crazy words into Romney's mouth about not bailing out the car companies by a single penny. (The author of the piece in question was some governor named Mitt Romney.)


So where does Romney get off saying that "ultimately what happened" was "precisely what [he] reccommended"? It wasn't, and it would be nice (or at least refreshing) for him to actually own his prior semi-libertarian stance. But he can't do something like that, and I'm starting to develop a hypothesis (I actually just thought of it while composing this) as to why.

I think Romney's attitude towards his own prior positions is like that of most Christians towards the Bible. To some, this may sound strange, because don't Christians treat the Bible as God's perfect unchanging word, whereas Mittens blows with the wind? Well, my view is that both Christians (in a very large, centuries-and-continents-spanning way) have blown with the wind rather like Romney has. They (at least Protestants) claim that the Bible comes first, informing them of their views.

In principle, a Martian could derive the views of modern Christians by reading Scripture cover-to-cover. In practice, ha-ha-ha. You've got all the areas in which the text contradicts itself (hey, sound like any Republican presidential candidates you know?). You've got the explicit overrullings of previous instructions, such as the repeal of kosher, but that's the least of your worries. Most signifigantly, there's the apprent endorsement of practices with which modern Christians strongly disagree. Two notable examples would be slavery and polygamy. A weak example is abortion, which does not get condemned the way conservative Christians would condemn it. In any case, even a partial derivation of the Christian Right's philosophy is impossible.

So what do Christians say? Well, some of them admit that things have changed -- not that God has changed, but that the Bible is simply a less-than-perfect documentation of ancient folks' beliefs. But most of them don't take that mostly-honest route. Instead, they simply superimpose moral views which have modern consensus, like "Slavery is wrong", onto the text. Of course, a loose enough reading will allow for any interpretation necessary. So voila! Where the atheist's syllogism is "Slavery is wrong, the Bible tolerates it, therefore the Bible is wrong", the Christian simply takes different premises to be more fundamental: "Slavery is wrong, the Bible is never wrong, therefore the Bible doesn't tolerate slavery." Repeat for genocide, subjugation of women, and polygamy.

So what does all that have to do with Mitt Romney? Well, one of his lies from the first debate was "pre-existing conditions are covered under [his] health care plan". There's no real sense in which they are, rather like how there's no real sense in which the Bible says no to polygamy and yes to monogamy. But as of 2012, laws mandating coverage for pre-existing conditions are popular, and polygamy is passe. Thus, ergo, therefore... the Bible frowns on polygamy, and Romneycare deals with pre-existing conditions. Quod erot demonstratum.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Extreme thoughts on Romney's extreme words

I wonder if I'll see the most one-sided US Presidential election in the sixteen years of my life I've been cognizant of national politics.

The single event that prompts this thought is Mitt Romney's now-infamous response to the attack that killed four Americans in a US Embassy in Cairo. Brief background: A (rotten-looking, as it happens) anti-Muslim film was previewed in the Internet, and in response to it, Muslim protestors started gathering around US embassies in Libya and Egypt. One of the embassies dismissed most staff early as a precaution, and released what may be called anti-anti-Muslim statements intended to lower tensions. Sometime after this, both embassies were violently attacked and four people died at the Cairo one, including a US Ambassador. Secretary of State Clinton made a standard but well-done statement of shock and condolences. Then Romney did something no one predicted: he accused the Obama administration of “sympathizing” with the attackers.

So what’s the deal there? It seems that the non-apologetic statements, made by the embassy 
(not cleared by the White House), before the attacks, are being confused for apologetic and terrorist-supportive statements, made by Obama, after the attacks. Easy mistake, anyone could make it.. yeccch, it’s not even easy to be sarcastic about this now.

So, really, what’s the deal here?
New York Magazine may have the best analysis: Romney’s central talking point about Obama’s foreign policy has been the “apologizing for America” thing (about which I had been planning to write another post, but everything’s changed now), and he made the mistake of thinking that point could be applied willy-nilly any time the White House used the usual diplomacy, even after an incident of violence. Of course, the “apology tour” thing lies on the road that everytually leads to Frothingville, Neoconia, a village whose inhabitants never visit the creepy old castle in which lives Count Obama, Kenyan Muslim atheist elitist vampire. At this point, Romney's best hope may be to don yet another role from his ever-changing wardrobe: Van Helsing.

All in all, I can’t help but wonder, what do these people expect Obama to do with regards to America's relationship with the Muslim world? It’s as if they want him to be a living Jack Chick tract, thumping his chest, shoving Jesus and American flags down the world’s throat. His predecessor gets a pass for never showing explicit anti-Muslim tendencies in response to 9/11 because his name was, well, “George Bush”. But a “Barack Obama” had better burn a couple Korans if he wants any respect from the frothers. I’m very morbidly curious how the Romney team would respond to Obama burning a Koran -- surely they couldn’t couldn’t criticize it without both looking hypocritical and losing the few wingnuts whose votes they still have?

Regardless of all that, there is one small point on which I find myself disagreeing with the response to Romney by both the White House and other folks, which is to criticize him for "politicizing the attack". This is a wrongheaded spin in a couple ways.

First of all, nearly everything everyone says is in fact political to someone, especially in contexts like this one. Condemning an attack is political, saying nothing about religion is political, saying Islam is Bad or Islam is Good or Islam is the Pause that Refreshes is political. And there's nothing wrong with reponding to someone's words, whatever those words are, with "political" talk. Hey, if in fact Obama had said anything at all like what Romney accuses him of, then Romney would have every right to "go political" on him. (Of course in that case it would be Obama and not Romney whose feet were on the fire; the political analysis would be that Obama had practically handed Romney the election.)

Secondly, labeling Romney's words as "politicizing the attack" sound like a resignation to a world in which this sort of bile is politics as usual -- as if what Romney had said were something like "This attack goes to show that Obama's foreign policies fail to keep us safe". That would be one bit of Romneyish inanity, justifiably forgotten in a week. It's an act of a different caliber, to accuse the President of actually saying that murdering Americans because some other Americans insulted your faith is reasonable behavior. Shame on Mitt.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Monty Hall reductio ad absurdum

I wonder if most Internet users, by this time, are familiar with the Monty Hall problem.

I'm going to assume that whoever reading this is. So…


… the answer for the classical version is that the intuitive answer, "Might as well stay", is wrong.

A simple argument as to why your win rate from staying is 1/3 is: you only had a 1/3 chance to be right in the first place, so if you always stay, you'll win only 1/3 of the time. Naysayers will respond with something like "Yes, but that was before the second door was opened. Monty opening another door changes the game, and the chances on each door are now 1/2."

Here's a reductio ad absurdum argument I came up with for why it can't be fifty-fifty just because there are two doors left.

1. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that in the classical Monty Hall puzzle, the probability of containing a car is in fact 1/2 for both the contestant's original door and the remaining closed door. (The standard intuitive answer.)

2. Given that, then a player who always stays should expect to win about half of his games, not much more or fewer.

(If someone hedges on this, then they're possibly confused. They may think that it's "1/3 either way", but can't explain what's going on with the other third. Now, in some variants of the problem, that other third refers to situations in which Monty randomly reveals a car. It may also refer to situations in which Monty chooses not to open another door at all, instead saying "Congratulations, you won a goat!" But in the classical version, both of these outcomes are forbidden.

Another possible source of confusion is a sense in which committing beforehand to staying, instead of choosing after the goat has been revealed, will somehow make it a fundamentally different game, odds-wise. I'm not sure how to address that.)

3. Meet John. John is going to play the game 300 times and he will always stay. He expects to win about 150 games. (John has the same views as most newcomers to this puzzle.)

4. Meet Mary. Mary is going to play a less interesting version of the game, in which no second door is opened. She will simply choose one of three doors, and if her chosen door has the car, she wins; otherwise she loses. She will play 300 times and naturally expects to win 100 games.

(If someone disagrees with this, then they're probably under a very stange apprehension that the odds are fifty-fifty because "You either win the car or you don't." Some of these same people apply this sad logic to lottery tickets, and I have no idea how to persuade them out of it.)

5. So, John has just played his 300 games, and Mary played her 300 games. (I won't tell you how often they won because that's very close to the key point.) John and Mary now join forces to become a team, as is sometimes done on certain game shows. They will play 300 games together. Here's the way it will work: First, they discuss until they agree on a door, and tell the host which one they choose. Then, Mary will be blindfolded, and the host will open one of the other doors hiding a goat, revealing it to John. (The door and the goat are both silent, so Mary has no way of knowing which door was opened.) The host closes the door, and Mary's blindfold is removed. John is not allowed to indicate to Mary which door had been opened. Finally, the big reveal: John and Mary's original door is opened. (They don't get the chance to switch, because we only want to test the sticking strategy.)

6. So, how often should they win? Looking at it from John's perspective the game is basically the same as the one he had played before, so if the intuitive answer is correct, Team John-and-Mary should win about 150 games. But from Mary's perspective, it's the same as the games she had played before, so they should only win 100!

If someone doesn't see the light from this, it should prove very fascinating to try to isolate which condition(s) of the game they think are responsible for improving Mary's original 100 wins to John's original (actually very unlikely) 150 wins.

Is it the knowledge that at least one of the other doors hides a goat? But Mary already had that knowledge, based on the simple fact that there are two goats and only one "chosen door". She still only wins 100 of the 300 games she plays by herself, where no second door is opened.

So is it the knowledge of which door the host opened? But John holds that information while Mary does not! Which player's mental model "wins"? If it's John's, because the knowledge trumps the ignorance, then what if he plays with 99 blindfolded people; will the effect of their ignorance on the win rate overcome the effect of his knowledge? (And the same question in reverse if one thinks that Mary's ignorance determines the win rate.)

Perhaps the win rate will fall in between the two, at 125 out of 300. But that doesn't make much sense. We again have to ask what happens if you add more blindfolded players, or more un-blindfolded ones.

Maybe what matters is the degree of knowledge held by a person who has an actual stake in the game. For example, if John were blindfolded while the host shows a goat to the audience, then closes a door, John will still only win 1/3 of the time (it's just like a trivia show in which the correct answer flashes on the screen while the contestant is thinking) whereas if John gets to see the goat first, then he'll win 1/2 the time. But to suggest that that's how it works is magical thinking. John makes no decisions after picking the door initially, so informing him and/or the audience before opening his door won't help him play the game any better.

Maybe what makes a difference is whether or not the goat door is still physically open when the contestant's door is opened? So if the door is closed again, then the game "resets". But this, too, is magical thinking; if I know a door is empty then it can't possibly matter if it's currently closed or open. Such thinking approaches what babies supposedly believe about peek-a-boo, that when Daddy's face isn't visible it means Daddy has literally vanished. (I myself doubt it's that simple with babies, but that's another story.)

Finally, it's possible that a naysayer perceives the existence of the option to switch as being crucial to the fifty-fifty odds. Without that choice, one would only win 1/3 of the time, but if you are given the option and decide to stay, then you'll win 1/2 of the time.* This, again, is nonsense; the car can't move around just because the host says "Would you like this door instead?" Also, you can just re-do the whole above argument but with both John and Mary always switching instead. (Though it may be harder to work out what's going on given then the act of switching to the third door should give away to Mary which one had been opened as the second door. Does she just stay blindfolded the whole time? Do they both have to agree on the switch? If yes and yes, then it's just like the regular version, and switching will be the superior strategy.)

Ultimately, I hope I've make it clear that the rigmarole of opening another door cannot affect your odds of having picked correctly to begin with. If you get this, you should feel like the problem isn't so weird after all.

* I have a private view that part of what is going on with people's refusal to switch is a reluctance to "let go of" a car. Switching from a door that hides a car to one that does not feels like losing a car in a way that sticking with a vacant door, when switching would have won, does not. People then justify this desire-based intuition by arguing about probabilities; they're really talking about what things feel like, almost thinking in terms of Murphy's law ("With my luck, switching means I'll lose every time!"). Supporting this claim is the fact that nearly everyone chooses to stay while still arguing that it's fifty-fifty.

Interestingly, we can model people's loss aversion by creating a version of the game in which, if the contestant switches away from the car, she actually loses an entire car of her own. (Say she starts out with 100 cars, so she has something to lose.) In this case, the expected value from switching-versus-staying really is identical. If you always switch, then every three games, you win an average of two cars but lose one car, but if you always stay, you simply win one car per three games — a net of one car either way, plus the "staying" option is less nerve-wracking.