Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Places: On Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise

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The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning. Like Caesar, we may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality. Data-driven predictions can succeed— and they can fail. It is when we deny our role in the process that the odds of failure rise. Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.

—Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

 

We have access to more information than at any time in human history and yet we find ourselves light years further from the truth. This is the primary lesson from The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver’s outstanding book on forecasting.

Most of us in the United States are aware of this, having just been through a presidential campaign steeped in bullshit flowing from both sides. We heard President Obama’s version of the truth and Mitt Romney’s version of the truth and concluded that neither version had much to do with past, present or future reality. With no valid information to go on, we pretty much cast our vote based on shared values, common beliefs or the candidate’s likability.

“Whew! Glad that’s over!” was the overwhelming sentiment when the campaign finally ended. But “that” is still with us. By “that” I mean the simple truth that wherever we look, we are surrounded with spin, salesmanship and selectivity. People use facts today to support positions, beliefs and biases rather than discover truth. This is true in every field, from politics to science to economics. Facts are the weapons we select to advance whatever cause we want to advance.

Let’s look at economics, a field that Silver singles out as one of the weakest when it comes to forecasting the future. The truth is that all economic systems are based on the arbitrary assignment of value to goods and services. No thing or act has an absolute price in the same sense that gravity is a universal truth. For a long time, people agreed that the standard of value was gold, and there are still people who argue that all of our economic problems would be fixed if we would return to the gold standard.

What a strange belief! I couldn’t give a shit about gold. It has no value to me. For me, chocolate and cinnamon are far more valuable substances. I could also go with the wine standard, or the tits standard or the music standard—all of which I find of far more value to me than a silly metal. Wouldn’t it be a better and happier world if we decided that the wealthiest countries were those who produced the highest quality art?

These are, of course, completely subjective beliefs. What I have going for me is that I fully admit my subjectivity. The problem, as Silver noted in the quote above, is that most human beings refuse to admit that. They cling to the notion that their data is objective, and therefore the Greeks have to suffer and the Germans get a pass. The truth is that the Greeks are being punished because in the opinion of those who have more of what we call wealth, they have violated certain beliefs that the wealthy claim to hold sacred: prudence, balanced budgets, following the rules and the work ethic. What they refuse to admit is that the entire system is arbitrary; our existence in the universe does not depend on having an economic system of a particular kind. We could blow it up tomorrow if we wanted to, forgive all debts and hit the reset button. We don’t do this in part because we believe this would lead to chaos, in part because those who gain power through the system have no interest in changing it.

This is a good example of human shortsightedness. The truth is that the global economic structure has generated a relatively small amount of haves and a whole lot of have-nots. The have-nots are very resentful of their status, and this resentment often manifests itself in conflict, disruption, terrorism and war. By sustaining the economic system and supporting it with large defense budgets, the haves try to maintain a lifestyle grounded in denial . . . and denial eventually leads to disaster.

Things are unlikely to change, for our biases are protected by the human fear of change. Coming up with a new system focused on helping human beings achieve their potential rather than competing against each other to get more of a fictional substance called money would cause massive disruption, at least for a while. It’s easier to pluck facts out of the air to protect our self-destructive self-interests than try to make the world a safer and more vibrant place to live.

As Nate Silver noted, this state of affairs is likely to continue for some time, thanks to the information explosion. Speaking of the first “information age” (initiated by the printing press), Silver demonstrated that this tendency for human bias is deeply rooted in human nature:

Meanwhile, exposure to so many new ideas was producing mass confusion. The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths. Paradoxically, the result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious lines. The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

As long as we ignore the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of power, we will continue to exist in this confused world of allies and enemies, ignoring the essence of the human condition:

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

—John F. Kennedy

 

Photo Credit: © Kaetana | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

 

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Time to Split Up the USA

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The primary lesson I learned from the presidential election is that the United States is no longer a valid construct. We are not united and will never be united again.

If there is one truism in life, it’s that you can’t resolve a value conflict. The best you can hope for in a value conflict is to respect the other person’s values and agree to leave each other alone.

That’s not possible in the political climate of the United States of America and it’s not going to change. There are two distinct sides and both are trying to convince the other that their values are right and the other’s values are wrong. That doesn’t work. Just ask the Arabs and the Israelis.

The cause of the division is simple: the introduction of religion into politics. Although most people will blame Reagan for this, it was Jimmy Carter who first made religion a campaign issue with his “born again” proclamation.

Since that time the Religious Right has become more and more extreme, coloring every issue with their paranoia about sex and contradictory beliefs about the sanctity of life (contradictory because it only applies to babies, not adults). In 2012, they expanded their opposition to abortion to opposition to contraception, a move that revealed what was really behind the “pro-life” movement. They’re terrified of sex and believe that all women bear Eve’s curse: the instinct to manipulate and seduce men. Therefore, women must be controlled and their sexual behavior limited to pleasureless reproduction.

If this sounds like something out of A Handmaid’s Tale, it is.

As recently as 1960, the separation of church and state was apparently an accepted truism. John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against charges that he would take orders from Rome. What happened to change things was the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. The Pill gave women more sexual freedom. The changes in civil rights law began the process of bringing minorities into the mainstream. The combination of free women and vocal minorities scared the hell out of the more conservative white people, whose fear turned into a cause when the Supreme Court, bringing the separation of church and state to the local level, banned school prayer.

Jimmy Carter then legitimized the combination of religion and politics, and Reagan and the conservatives exploited the hell out of it. We began to hear people tell us that America is a Christian nation and that we should have policies based more on religious principles than democratic principles. Ironically, the conservatives tried to sell themselves as defenders of The Constitution, a document that states very clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” and specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Groups like The Christian Coalition violated that restriction in every campaign cycle, endorsing only those candidates who met their standards of Christianity.

Despite Romney’s adherence to the Mormon faith, his shape-shifting abilities made him acceptable to the right, if not particularly desirable. He then sealed the deal by nominating the religious extremist Paul Ryan, whose alleged intellectual credentials (extraordinarily biased towards an inflexible economic dogma) gave some comfort to the economic conservatives. The right-leaning electorate, terrified by the very existence of an African-American president who many believed was neither Christian nor American, put all their fear-driven hopes into this odd couple.

The ironic truth is that Barack Obama was the only Protestant among the four major candidates.

The reaction of the right to Obama’s surprisingly clear victory has been to proclaim the decision a disaster, to scream incoherently that the country is going to hell and to buy more guns. They believe they are still right; the rest of the country, who they believe consists largely of people who want handouts from the government and irresponsible sex, has gone mad. They have no interest in letting bygones be bygones or compromising. The concept of uniting behind the President once a campaign is over makes no sense to them. The battle must continue.

In 1964, the conservative Barry Goldwater scolded a crowd at a campaign rally for booing his opponent, President Johnson. He told them that whatever their beliefs, the office demanded respect. That concept seems as dated as Leave It to Beaver. The hard right has never respected anyone who disagrees with them, much less an African-American with an un-American name.

The majority of people on the right believe they are on a religious crusade to save America from sin and deficits. The keyword here is “crusade,” a word that George Bush let slip when describing the war on terror. Religion has been the most common cause of war since time began, for a very simple reason: you can’t resolve a value conflict. Those who are evil must be destroyed, despite the evidence of history that one side has never been fully able to eradicate the other (Rome came closest in Carthage, but people must have slipped out of town before the place was leveled). You can’t reason with anyone who is certain that they hold the truth.

Interestingly enough, most liberals would love to limit government spending if you could find a way to do without hurting those who cannot help themselves. Americans love money and they want to keep as much as they can. With genuine dialogue and compromise, we could fix the deficit, Social Security, Medicare and all these seemingly insurmountable problems in a few months. The problem is that the issues have been contaminated with Puritan values of the virtues of thrift, hard work and obedience to God, and that turns every disagreement into a jihad.

I am more concerned that if we do not divide the country according to shared values, we will make no progress on our problems and that violence will become an even more legitimate option for resolving our differences. The increase in gun sales after the election was an astonishing and frightening response to the outcome.

How would you split the place up? Start with the electoral map. The South, The Great Plains and The Mountain States form one nation; the Northeast, Upper Midwest and West Coast form another (or two). You would have to make some adjustments to state boundaries (combine Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia) or split some states into smaller chunks. For states that are odd fits with the surrounding geography (Arizona) or just plain odd (Florida), let the people decide.

The first reaction of many Americans to this idea is likely to be selfish, particularly if they find themselves in a new nation whose political leanings are not to their liking. “Hey, I’ve lived here all my life. Why should I have to move somewhere else?”

The answer is simple. Why would you want to live in a place that tramples on your values?

Photo Credit: © Yarko12 | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

The Destructive Power of Idealism

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The Tea Party is hardly original in American history. Over the decades, we’ve had all sorts of idealistic individuals and groups enter the fray like invading armies full of loyal soldiers ready to do battle with the enemy, armed with their ideas.

Ideals have a value in stating a vision or purpose, but when they’re taken too seriously, they become rigid criteria used to measure the loyalty of one’s followers, creating a deathly conformity in the movement. I would expect this to eventually happen to the Tea Party just as it happened in Communist Russia, although hopefully without the violence of Stalin’s purges.

Another problem with ideals is that they raise false hopes. Obama is sort of an amateur at this; he had more of a slogan than a set of ideals and let the American electorate fill in the many blanks. The worst example is Woodrow Wilson with his ridiculously naive Fourteen Points, the same principles he repeatedly violated during the Versailles Peace Conference. “Open covenants openly arrived at” is one of the silliest suggestions ever made by a leader, but as Wilson was a fairly devious sort, I don’t think he really meant it—he liked the sound of grand words. The evil of the statement lies in the hope that it bred in millions for fair dealing between nations, currently an impossibility even today, given our competitive nation-state system.

The most basic problem with ideals are that they are abstractions that never hold up when faced with real human problems and the complexity of our interactions with each other. People than use ideals to judge the actions and the worth of others, which in turn corrupts the ideal, dousing the original light it held at creation.

From Ulysses: I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy. I do, too. I would much rather reason together with others and come up with something workable for real human beings.

“What good are ideas unless you make use of them?” asked JFK.

I wish I could believe that someone in Congress was reading this, but that would be naive idealism on my part.