Separated at Birth
The Statistics of Brett Kavanaugh
You know, I’m not one of those people who proudly announces to the world that “I Believe XX”, with XX being whatever accuser, cause, or claimant of the present news cycle. Frankly, I find such behaviour to be an anti-intellectual exercise. I don’t know these people. I have no evidence one way or the other. To affix my position on a contentious claim before allowing an investigation to unfold is, frankly, ideological posturing, and I will have none of it.
Of course, I am talking mostly about the Brett Kavanaugh affair, wherein the supreme court nominee is being accused of an attempted rape, which is said to have happened some decades ago, according to the accuser, Dr CB Ford.
Some public proclaimers bring statistics to the fore. For example, claimants of abuse are almost never false. To me, this is irrelevant. Statistically, most people are innocent. If averages were a proper argument in a court of law, every murderer would claim, “Statistically, most people don’t commit murder. I’m a people, therefore it is likely that I did not commit murder.” Again, it’s an anti-intellectual position.
I tackled the core logical fallacy in this reasoning in my post about “progressive stacking“. The attribution error here is something called the “ecological fallacy”, which is when we try to assign to an individual the characteristics of the group from which he was plucked.
According to the reasoned frequentist position, then, the only intellectually proper stance to have on the Kavanaugh accusations is “I don’t know.”
But….. but then I read an intriguing take by a young writer I’ve come to admire, Mr Coleman Hughes. Hughes argues for a Bayesian take on the Kavanaugh affair, which renders a different result.
Now, Bayesian statistics have been with us for 300 years, originating with Bayes’ Theorem. It is distinct from the type of statistics most of us were taught, which is called “frequentist” statistics, because non-Bayesian methods are based on frequency distributions like the Bell curve.
Bayesian statistics, thought by experts to be better, is about the use of prior knowledge to set an expectation of probability, and the incremental alteration of that probability based upon additional accrued knowledge.
Now, at this point, some of my current and former grad students are shouting at the screen: “Deonandan! You know nothing about Bayesian statistics!” And they’re right; I’m mostly a novice, whereas my former students have gone on to become true –and in some cases, world class– experts in the field. (Sniff. I’m so proud.) But I know enough about the core Bayesian philosophy to blog about it here.
Hughes argues that if we begin by looking at Christine Blasey Ford‘s claims against Brett Kavanaugh in an information vacuum, we must logically conclude that the probability is 50% that she is correct, that he assaulted her.
Now if we ask ourselves: is she behaving the way a true victim would behave? Well, that’s a subjective question. But I would answer YES, based upon my subjective appraisal. So now the probability moves up in favour of the veracity of her claims.
Then if we ask ourselves: is Kavanaugh behaving the way an abuser would behave? Again, my subjective appraisal suggests YES again, again moving the dial upwards. Then we add additional information, such as additional accusers, as well as character witnesses both for and against Kavanaugh. Based upon our individual registers of information, the Bayesian response would be a subsequent change in the probability of his guilt.
All of this is to say that the previous “information vacuum” approach to assessing this case might be inappropriate. We do have information, however valuable or value-less that information is; and that information affects how we are able to agitate the dials of probability.
Based upon this reasoning, I think it is likely that Ford’s recollection of events is accurate, and that Kavanaugh is guilty of some kind of impropriety, likely criminal in nature.
Is this a self-serving, subjective and emotional analysis? It might very well be. This is a process still in evolution. I present it here to suggest that there are many ways of approaching this event, and that none of us has all the answers yet.
A more troubling question is whether both parties might be telling the truth, as they know it. An honest reckoning of human nature necessarily allows for this possibility, however uncomfortable that makes us feel.
Hence, an idea put forth by Bret and Eric Weinstein seems to be the best solution to this American public crisis: that the ideal outcome is for Kavanaugh to be confirmed and offered the job, but that he then declines the post and disappears into obscurity. By the Weinsteins’ reasoning, this would satisfy those who are offended by judgement passed by the mob without oversight and due process, while also satisfying those who feel that Kavanaugh is unsuited to be a supreme court justice.
It is not a perfect solution, and leaves all parties feeling dirty. As a legal arbitrator once told me, that’s how you know that you came upon the best solution, when all parties feel dissatisfied. At this point in history, I feel, creative solutions that salvage peace and a working relationship must be seriously considered.
My Continuing Retreat from *Most* Social Media
The retreat continues. I pop back on Facebook when someone tags my name, but that’s about it. I lurk on Twitter and post the occasional doggy pic; but those instances are now fleeting. What I most enjoy is simply not knowing. For example, my brother was abashed that I did not know who Michael Avenatti is.
Why don’t I know? Because I don’t get my news from friends’ social media feeds anymore. Nor do I get it from CNN or Fox pundits or late night comedy shows… none of which I watch anymore. I get my news from the news. And frankly, I only follow the big world news items, science developments, and some business news. I am totally oblivious to what is happening in the entertainment world, and to most of what is going on in the gossipy salacious world of Donald Trump’s personal life.
I’m not saying this is a superior state of “informedness”. I’m saying it’s made me a much happier person, with a lot more time and energy for the important things and people in my life. I recommend this path to anyone who is looking for simple happiness.
Tonight is the BIGGEST MMA FIGHT OF ALL TIME: Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov. I won’t bore non-MMA fans with my many thoughts about this conflict; I just have a couple of things to say. Plenty of people out there are offering their predictions and analyses of the impending bout. This is, at its most basic level, a contest between a striker and a grappler.
But that is an elementary analysis. I am much more intrigued by the psychologies of the two men. As I’ve noted earlier in this space, how top level competitors prepare mentally for what really is a mortal clash is endlessly fascinating to me. McGregor is preternaturally skilled at imbuing himself with such over-the-top confidence that he overcomes the stress and indeed the realities of the physical challenge before him. But Khabib is such an impressive, calm, centred and spiritual individual that his psychology seems more akin to ancient Zen warriors. Which will prevail?
My analysis comes down to this, a famous line from Archilocus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing.” It is akin to the generalist vs specialist debate. Is it better to have extreme strength in one dominant area, or facility in a number of areas?
I have always lived my life as the fox. In an individual lifetime, the hedgehogs tend to succeed: academics who publish the same paper over and over; tradesmen who know their one secret technique better than anyone; etc. But historically, the foxes have reigned. Evolution spits out a creature resembling a rhinoceros every few millennia: it’s an easy solution to the ecological problem, to bulldoze through your enemies. But that creature unerringly becomes extinct very quickly as environments change. Individual lineages of hedgehogs perish, but nature keeps producing more versions of hedgehogs.
The hedgehog, while impressive, is easy, given the right combination of genetics, opportunity, guidance, and will. The fox, on the other hand, is ephemeral and rare, an inexplicable genius that brightens our world but for a moment; a glorious, terrifying moment.
Conor McGregor is the fox, Khabib is the hedgehog. The fox will prevail, I feel.
(Mind you, I’ve been very wrong with my McGregor fight predictions in the past.)
You know the routine. Here are the latest entries…
This is what I was greeted with yesterday. Welcome to my life.
Trust me, under that hideous mask is a beautiful young woman who is well out of my league. (Am I forgiven for posting this yet? Am I?)
My Lovely Cousin Sandy
I have lost 20 pounds in the past year. Here’s a pic of me looking so gaunt that I now resemble my 60-something Uncle. I’m posed with my simply gorgeous and ageless cousin Sandy, who is only a handful of years younger than me, but who just refuses to age past 30. One day I will extract her secrets!
Does He Look Nervous? He Looks Nervous.
When the dog starts giving me the old shifty-eye, it’s time to sign off.