Posts Tagged ‘Nate Silver’

Reason

April 17, 2018

Steven Pinker has a chapter called Reason in his outstanding book, “Enlightenment Now.” Part of the problem with reason or reasoning are beliefs, as was expounded in a previous healthy memory blog post, “Beliefs: Necessary, but Dangerous.” The legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance protected by identity-protective connection. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. Endorsing a belief that hasn’t passed muster with science and fact-checking isn’t so irrational. At least not by the criterion of the immediate effects on the believer. The effects on the society and planet are another matter. The atmosphere doesn’t care what people think about it, and if it in fact warms by 4 degrees Celsius, billions of people will suffer, no matter how many of them had been esteemed in their peer groups for holding a locally fashionable opinion on climate change along the way. Kahn concluded that we are all actors in a Tragedy of Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality). Technology has the effect of magnifying differences that result in polarization in political and social domains.

A fundamental problem is that accurate knowledge can be effortful and time consuming to obtain. Predictions are very difficulty as some have noted especially when they are about the future. Psychologist Philip Tetlock has studied the accuracy of forecasters. He recruited hundreds of analysts, columnists, academics, and interested laypeople to compete in forecasting tournaments in which they were presented with possible events and asked to assess their likelihood. This research was conducted over 20 years during which 28,000 predictions were made. So, how well did the experts do? On average, about as well as a chimpanzee throwing darts. In other words, not better than chance.

Tetlock and fellow psychologists Mellers and Gardner held another competition between 2011 and 2015 in which they recruited several thousand contestants to take part in a forecasting tournament held by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA). Again the average performance was at chance levels, but in both tournaments the researchers could pick out “superforecasters,” who performed not just better than chimps and pundits, but better than professional intelligence officers with access to classified information, better than prediction markets, and not too far from the theoretical maximum. The accurate predictions last for about a year. Accuracy declines into the future, and falls to the level of chance around 5 years out.

The forecasters who did the worst, were also the most confident, were the ones with Big Ideas, be they left- or right wing, optimistic or pessimistic. Here is the summary by Tetlock & Gardner:

“As ideologically diverse as they were, they were united by the fact that their thinking was so ideological. They sought to squeeze complex problems into the preferred cause-effect templates and treated what did not fit as irrelevant distractions. Allergic to wishy-washy answers, they kept pushing their analyses to the limit (and then some), using terms like “furthermore” and “moreover” while piling up reasons why they were right and others wrong. As a result they were unusually confident and likelier to declare things as “impossible” or “certain.” Committed to their conclusions, they were reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions clearly failed.”

Tetlock described the super forecasters as follows:

“pragmatic experts who drew on many analytical tools, with the choice of tool hinging on the particular problem they faced. These experts gathered as much information from as many sources as they could. When thinking, they often shifted mental gears, sprinkling their speech with transition markers such as “however,” “but,” “although,” and “on the other hand.” They talked about possibilities and probabilities, not certainties. And while no one likes to say, “I was wrong,” these experts more readily admitted it and changed their minds.”

The superforecasters displayed what psychologist Jonathan Baron calls “active open-mindedness” with opinions such as these:

People should take into consideration evidence that goes against they beliefs. [Agree]
It is more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with you than to pay attention to those who agree. [Agree]
Changing your mind is a sign of weakness. [Disagree]
Intuition is the best guide in making decisions. [Disagree]
It is important to persevere in your beliefs even went evidence is brought to bear against them. [Disagree]

The manner of the Superforecasters’ reasoning is Bayesian. They tacitly use the rule from the Reverend Bayes on how to update one’s degree of credence in a proposition in light of evidence. It should be noted that Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight.com) is also a Bayesian.

Steven Pinker notes that psychologists have recently devised debiasing programs that fortify logical and critical thinking criteria. They encourage students to spot, name, and correct fallacies across a wide range of contexts. Some use computer games that provide students with practice, and with feedback that allows them to see the absurd consequences of their errors. Other curricula translate abstruse mathematical statements into concrete, imaginable scenarios. Tetlock has compiled the practices of successful forecasters into a set of guidelines for good judgment (for example, start with the base rate; seek out evidence and don’t overreact or under react to it; don’t try to explain away your own errors but instead use them as a source of calibration). These and other programs are provably effective: students’ newfound wisdom outlasts the training session and transfers to new subjects.

Dr. Pinker concludes,”Despite these successes, and despite the fact that the ability to engage in unbiased, critical reasoning is a prerequisite to thinking about anything else, few educational institutions have set themselves the goal of enhancing rationality (This includes my own university, where my suggestion during a curriculum review that all students should learn about cognitive biases fell deadborn from my lips.) Many psychologists have called on their field to “give debiasing away” as one of its greatest potential contributions to human welfare.”

It seems appropriate to end this post on reason with the Spinoza quote from the beginning of the book:

“Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.”

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Implicit Versus Explicit Prejudice

August 30, 2017

This post is based largely on the groundbreaking book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Reveals About Who we Really Are.” Any theory of racism has to explain the following puzzle in America: On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice—and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, job interviews, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation has been that this is due, in large part, to widespread implicit prejudice. According to this theory white Americans may mean well, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their treatment of black Americans. There is an implicit-association test for such a bias. These tests have consistently shown that it takes most people milliseconds more to associate black faces with positive words such as “good,” than with negative words such as “awful.” For white faces, the pattern is reversed. The small extra time it takes is interpreted as evidence of someone’s implicit prejudice—a prejudice the person may not even be aware of.

There is an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African-Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism. People might be aware of widespread conscious racism but to which they do not want to confess—especially in a survey. This is what the search data seems to be saying. There is nothing implicit about searching for “n_____ jokes.” It’s hard to imagine that Americans are Googling the word “n_____“ with the same frequency as “migraine and economist” without explicit racism having a major impact on African-Americans. There was no convincing measure of this bias prior to the Google data. Seth uses this measure to see what it explains.

It explains, as was discussed in a previous post, why Obama’s vote totals in 2008 and 2012 were depressed in many regions. It also correlates with the black-white wage gap, as a team of economists recently reported. In other words, the areas Seth found that make the most racist searches underpay black people. When the polling guru Nate Silver looked for the geographic variable that correlated most strongly with support in the 2016 Republican primary for Trump, he found it in the map of racism Seth had developed. That variable was searches for “n_____.”

Scholars have recently put together a state-by-state measure of implicit prejudice agains black people, which enabled Seth to compare the effects of explicit racism, as measured by Google searches, and implicit bias. Using regression analysis, Seth found that, to predict where Obama underperformed, an area’s racist Google searches explained a lot. An area’s performance on implicit-association tests added little.

Seth has found subconscious prejudice may have a more fundamental impact for other groups. He was able to use Google searches to find evidence of implicit prejudice against another segment of the population: young girls.

So, who would be harboring bias against girls? Their parents. Of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old, the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents overriding concerns regarding their daughters is anything related to appearance.

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

The URL above will take you to a number of options for taking and learning about the implicit association test.

Trump, The World’s Greatest Troll

September 17, 2016

This title was bestowed on Trump by Nate Silver, a statistician and the best campaign prognosticator.  What makes him the greatest troll is the devastating effect he has had on the American political system.  Trump plays to the mob, and in cyberspace the cyber mob.  Donald Trump has a unique and disturbing leadership style.  Rather than demonstrating gravitas and intelligence with measured remarks and diplomacy, he succeeds with brutal populism and personal attacks.  As Dr. Mary Aiken notes, “ he seems to relish being nasty—even sadistic, at times.”  Dr Aiken continues, “Power no longer centers on leadership but on followership.”  The norms of cyberspace, where cruelty is amplified, escalated, and encouraged, have jumped into politics.

“Trolls” appear to be the greatest attention—seekers online.  They have chosen the appellation, “trolls.”  Dr. Aiken believes that the motivation for trolling behaviors is a combination of boredom, revenge, pleasure, attention, and a desire to cause disruption and acquire power.  On multiplayer gaming sites they test and taunt children and then post video or audio of the children crying.  On dating sites trolls are capable of anything from cyber-stalking to sexual harassment and threats.

Dr. Aiken argues that Trump’s success as a presidential candidate is a vivid example of what she calls cyber-socialization.  “Leading by building followers, he employs many of the tactics of a malicious online bully, from his use of taunts and name-calling of fellow candidates (“Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Bernie” and “Lying Ted”) to his obsession with physical appearance (“Little Marco”) and special hostility for women (“”dogs,” “pigs” and “disgusting”).

Trump has 8.19 million followers on Twitter and dominates the social media landscape of the election.  Unfortunately, social media have become an environment where pathological behavior is gaining ground and being normalized.  There is a loss of empathy online, a heightened detachment from the feelings and rights of others, which is seen in extreme cyberbullying and sadistic trolling.

Psychologists have found a relationship between individuals who comment frequently online and identify themselves as “trolls” with three of the four components of what is known as the dark tetrad of personality, a set of characteristics that are found together in a morbid cluster:  narcissism (the characteristic not included), sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.  In the case of Trump, HM thinks that narcissism could also be appropriate.  The researchers concluded that trolling was a manifestation of “everyday sadism.”

The concluding sentence is Dr. Aiken’s essay is “Sadly for those of us trying to eradicate cyber-bullying and online harassment, and educate children and teenagers about the great emotional costs of this behavior, our job becomes much harder when high-profile leaders use cruelty as strategy—and win elections for it.

Dr. Aiken’s essay, from which large portions of this post have obviously be taken, can be found at time.com and searching for Welcome to the Troll Election.

Trump and Behavioral Economics

June 2, 2016

On the June 6 & 13, 2016 “New Yorker” Financial Page there is an article by James Surowiecki.  He is the regular “New Yorker” correspondent for economics, business, and finance.  He has also written a book that Healthymemory would highly recommend, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  His article is titled “Losers” and it is about how behavioral economics explains the attitude of Trump supporters.  The field of behavioral economics was founded by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. There have been many, many healthy memory blog posts on this topic and about these authors.   Prospect Theory is key to behavioral economics and resulted in a Nobel Prize being awarded to Kahneman.  Unfortunately Tversky had already passed away when the award was made.

Surowiecki notes that Trump plays to one of the most powerful emotions in economic life, which is what behavioral economics call loss aversion.  The basic idea is that people feel the pain of loses much more than they feel the pleasure of gains.  Empirical studies estimate that, in general, losing is twice as painful as winning is enjoyable. Consequently, people will go to great lengths to avoid losses, and to recover what they’ve lost.

Suroweicki notes that Trump’s emphasis on losing is unusual  even in bleak times.  But he believes that it has worked for him, because it resonates with what many Republican voters already feel.  A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that 79% of those who lean Republican believe that their side is losing politically.  A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump.  Trump supporters feel that they, and the country, are losing economically, too.  In the RAND survey, Trump did better  with the people who were the most dissatisfied with their economic situation, and exit polls from the Republican primaries show that almost 70% of those who voted for Trump were “very worried” about the state of the economy as compared to only forty-five % of all voters in Democratic primaries.

Surowiki notes some surprising things about all this.  The first is that, in objective terms, plenty of Trump supporters haven’t lost that much.  We’re familiar with Trump’s appeal among white working class voters, many of whom truly have seen wages stagnate and jobs dry up.  But Nate Silver has recently pointed out that the median Trump voter is actually better educated and richer than the average American.  But an important point of Kahneman and Tversky’s work is that people don’t look at their status objectively, they measure it relative to a reference point, and for many Republicans that reference point is a past time when they had more status and more economic security.  Kahneman argues that even people who simply aren’t doing as well as they expected to be doing feel a loss.  And people don’t adapt their expectations to new circumstances.  A study of loss aversion by Jack Levy concluded that, after losses, an individual will “continue” to use the status quo ex ante as her reference point.”  Suroweicki notes that Trump’s promise is precisely that he’s going to return America to the status quo ex ante.  He tells his supporters that he will will help recoup their losses and safeguard what they have.

Suroweicki goes on to say that the other surprising thing is that you might expect loss-averse voters to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outsider like Trump, since loss aversion often makes people cautious:  offered the choice between five hundred dollars and a 50 % chance at a thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing.  However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically.  Offered the choice between losing five hundred dollars and a 50% chance of losing a thousand dollars or nothing, most people prefer to gamble—opposite of what they did when presented with the chance to win a thousand dollars.  People are willing to run huge risks to avert or recover loses.  In the real world , this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet.  For Trump’s voters, the Obama years have felt like a disaster.  Taking a flyer on Trump actually starts to feel sensible.

Suroweicki continues, noting that historical parallels are always tendentious, that loss aversion has been instrumental in the success of authoritarian movements around the world.   The political scientist Kurt Weyland has argued that it played a crucial role in the rise of such regimes in Latin American, where the fear of Communism drove putatively democratic societies toward the radical solution of strongman rule.  Suroweicki notes that Trump may not quite be an American Peron, but, to his his supporters, his unpredictability is a selling point rather than a flaw.

It is important to remember that the basis thesis of behavioral economics, a thesis that has ben consistently supported, is that humans do not behave or think rationally.  Rather they are driven by emotions.

Healthy memory feels compelled to note other facets of human cognition that contribute to flawed political decisions.  One is the success of the big lie and the continued persistence of these lies.  It is extremely difficult to correct these lies.

Another problem is  the fallibility of memory and how selective memory makes it difficult to correct erroneous beliefs.  Consider the Iraq war that the younger Bush took us into.  The weapons of mass destruction, on which the invasion was predicated, were never found.  France and Germany were urging Bush to delay an invasion until the inspection were completed and the existence of these weapons could have been ascertained.

It was also the case that the King of Jordan and Henry Kissinger warned Bush that an invasion would result in a broken country that would serve as a base for radical Islamist groups..  This is exactly what has happened.  So the costs of this war not just monetary, which added to the national debt, but more importantly human, produced a situation that is worse, not better, than what prevailed, before the beginning of the war.

People also seem to have forgotten the financial crisis left by the Bush administration that resulted in the very real possibility of a depression.  In spite of recalcitrant Republicans, Obama managed to prevent the depression and aid in an important economic recovery.  By most objective standards, the U.S. economy is in good shape, and the American economy is one of the best performing economies.

Healtymemory still wonders about Trump.  It is difficult for him to imagine Trump curling up with a copy of Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  It is also difficult imagining Trump taking consul with an expert informing him how to exploit human information processing shortcomings for political gain.  Using the word “instinct” is inappropriate here, but Trump has a flair for exploiting human information processing shortcomings so that System 2 processing is avoided and System 1 prevails resulting in emotions rather than reasoning governing their voting.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Stupidity

June 9, 2013

This blog post was inspired by an article by Sally Adee, “Stupid Is as Stupid Does” published in the New Scientist, 30 March 2013, 30-33. It begins with this quote from the 19th century French writer Gustav Flaubert, “Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless.” Flaubert devoted his final years collecting thousands of examples for a kind of encyclopedia of stupidity. He died at age 58 before this magnum opus was completed.

Were Flaubert alive today, I would wager that he would still be astounded by the vast amounts of stupidity. In spite of advances in both the physical and social sciences, stupidity prevails with people disowning these advances. That is, they disown selected findings, not the products and services that have emerged from these advances. The survival of civilization is put at risk by Costa’s five supermememes (enter “supermemes” into this blog’s search box). And people play lotteries and flock to casinos where the odds are stacked against them.

Adee does address the work of Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues (enter “Thinking Fast and Slow” into the healthymemory blog search box). Their research has documented two systems for human information processing. System 1 is virtually automatic and very fast. System 2 is slow and deliberate. System 1 is fast due to heuristics and practice. It enables us to interact quickly with our environment. Without System 1 we never would have survived. Unfortunately, this speed is purchased at a cost. Occasionally it leads to the wrong decision. System 2 is supposed to monitor System 1 and correct it. But again, System 2 is slow, so it is prone to miss many errors. Many of these errors lead to erroneous decisions regarding risk. The cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich is working on developing a rationality quotient (RQ) to assess our ability to transcend cognitive bias. This RQ would also measure rational intelligence, which defines our ability to calibrate the likelihood of certain probabilities. It is hoped that feedback on our rational intelligence will help us sharpen our meta-cognition, our knowledge regarding the strengths and weaknesses of our own cognitive processes. Although this RQ is much needed, it is still being developed. Nevertheless, we do need to focus on our own meta-cognitive processes.

Our working memory is severely constrained to the number of items (1 to 7 depending on the nature of the items) it can consider. We have limited attentional resources that are needed both to store information into memory and to retrieve information from memory. Moreover, these acts of storing and retrieving information alter the information in memory. And, as we all know, information can be difficult to retrieve.

Philip E. Tetlock is a psychologist who has done an important study of Expert Political Judgment.1 This study was done with the cooperation of Political Experts over a period of twenty years in which he recorded their predictions of political events. Their predictions were poor, virtually worthless. Their expertise enabled them to give impressive reasoned arguments regarding their predictions, but the predictions were frequently wrong or off the mark. This leads one to conclude that perhaps some areas of study are too complex to predict. Nate Silver has written a very good book, “The Signal and the Noise,” on what types of data are amenable to modeling along with suggestions as to how to deal with these difficult types of data. Time will tell whether different areas of expertise can achieve reasonably accurate predictions, or whether there are fundamental biological and cognitive limitations.

In math and science we often make simplifying assumptions or conjectures to proceed with our work. When this is done, there is always the possibility that these assumptions or conjectures are wrong, and we are unaware to what extent the results and conclusions are altered by mistaken assumptions or conjectures. Many phenomena are too complex to be understood or captured in mathematical equations. In these cases, simulations are done so that these complexities are found and understood. Yet all of this is dependent on the accuracy of the simulation.

Adee does not get into the issue of fundamental constraints to our intelligence resulting from biological and cognitive limitations, but there might be a bottom line to stupidity.

Nevertheless, we must do the best we can with the capabilities we have. Hubris is inappropriate either as a species or as individuals. We must take the effort to think and exercise System 2. We should be wary of relying too much on System 1 processes. We need to be wary of ideologies that promise easy answers and circumvent the mental effort needed to understand our world. The knowledge in science is constantly changing and we need to make an effort to keep up with it.

1Tetlock, P.E. (2006) Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can we Know?

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.