Saturday, 29 September 2018

Kavanaugh-gate and human irrationality

I'm going to wade - perhaps unwisely - into some fraught and controversial territory with this post, but I can't help myself because I think there are so many interesting things to be learned from the ongoing Kavanaugh saga with respect to the psychological fallibility of humankind. And, believe it or not, it does have investment implications.

It is widely believed by economists that human beings are rational, and yet a large body of psychological evidence, as well as simply an observation of human affairs, reveals that human beings are often incapable of even the most elementary of rational and logical thinking in an emotionally charged atmosphere. Even when emotions are not involved, studies have shown people to be to some extent irrational, but in these cases the deviations from standard rationality are relatively minor, and there is more capacity for people to learn how to think and reason better, and correct for these cognitive errors over time. However, it is when emotions are involved that we see the most egregious departures from the most basic principles of logical thinking - even amongst otherwise very intelligent people - and the forces of irrationality here are systemic, intractable, and unable to be corrected.

For instance, immediately after the Ford allegations broke in the media (and Kavanaugh's response), Vox posted the following video, stating that powerful men who have perpetrated sexual assault follow a typical five-step process, including denial, appeals to credibility from people they know, and questioning the motives of the accuser. Kavanaugh was following a similar template, and the clear implication was that he was the latest in a long line of culpable perpetrators.



And yet even a moment of dispassionate reflection by Vox - irrespective of one's views on the merits of the Kavanaugh case - would have revealed that this is exactly the course of action you would reasonably expect somebody genuinely innocent and falsely accused to take as well. Someone falsely accused could also be reasonably expected to deny the allegations, make appeals to their character, and question the motives of who was accusing them and why. That doesn't imply or prove Kavanaugh is innocent, but that's my whole point - his response didn't prove or imply anything at all about the merits of the case, and yet in Vox's interpretation, his response somehow constituted evidence of his culpability. Vox also omitted to mention that many people accused in the #metoo movement have in fact admitted to and apologised for past incidents, rather than denied them (e.g. Lewis CK).

I can't think of a clearer example of the wholesale abandonment of abstract logic, and merely seeing what one wants to see, and interpreting events in a manner that conforms to one's preconceptions, assumptions, and world view. Vox is not run by stupid people. They are smart. But they are demonstrating here how hard it is for even intelligent people to see the most obvious of logical fallacies in their position in an emotionally-charged atmosphere.

Another set of clear fallacies emerging in the public dialogue (or stifling of public dialogue) is the unwitting substitution of a harder question for another, easier, but unrelated question. The correct (harder) question that should be asked is "after hearing from both sides and considering the evidence adduced, is there a sufficient basis to believe these events may have happened, such that Kavanaugh's nomination should be delayed or rejected?". Instead, the easier question being substituted is, "do you think sexual assault or violence against women is a bad thing?". This is a great example of the 'bait and switch' fallacy discussed in the excellent book Superforecasting.

Because people are emotionally charged about this issue, they are unable to see this less-than-subtle shift in the underlying question, but it's a very important shift, because it means someone that answers the initial question "no" - possibly for very good reason, grounded in the insufficiency of the evidence adduced - can then be labelled as having answered the second question "no". This then exposes the person to tremendous media/political fallout for not taking a hard line against sexual violence, or in some way showing insensitivity towards sexual assault victims, which is a clear non sequitur that anyone who has studied Logic 101 would be able to easily identify.

This fallacy was on clear display after Republican Jeff Flake, who was initially undecided, said that after hearing the evidence he had decided to support Kavanaugh. He was subsequently confronted by angry mobs of sexual abuse survivors, who yelled "you're telling women they don't matter". This latter group had substituted the easier question for the harder question. The political fallout has required Flake to retract his support pending an FBI investigation.

Thirdly, the case has demonstrated the power of confirmation bias. A generation of liberals have been educated to look at people based on their class/group identity, and to believe that powerful white men are, as a group, power-abusing scumbags. We have also seen a lot of genuinely abhorrent conduct emerge in the #metoo movement, which has been rightfully condemned. There is therefore a strong pre-existing inclination to believe that any and all accusations that come forth are probably true, and therefore an unwillingness to look at contrary evidence. People are therefore quite happy to quickly and unequivocally state "we believe you", without any critical examination of the counter-evidence.

The general #metoo sentiment makes it very difficult for many people to consider this individual case on its own merits in a balanced way - something that the most rudimentary principles of justice and fairness ought to require. Simple dispassionate logic would acknowledge that the fact that Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby behaved reprehensibly, does not automatically make allegations against Kavanaugh true. Nor does the fact that an individual was personally subject to an unrelated sexual assault automatically make Kavanaugh guilty. But people are not willing to entertain these trite logical notions. Confirmation bias is a powerful force that makes people believe what they want to believe.

Fourthly, and somewhat separately, this case highlights people's lack of understanding of the corrupting power of incentives. Sexual assault is a serious crime, and can be traumatic for victims, which often delays the reporting of crimes for good reason. And it is sometimes a difficult crime to prove, which makes applying the typical standards of criminal evidence much more difficult. For good reason, we have therefore shown compassion and understanding towards sexual assault victims, and lowered the typical standards of necessary proof as as result.

However, history has shown that whenever any group in society is given a significant amount of power, that it can become corrupted and liable to abuse. Society tends to believe allegations of sexual assault, because most of the time that is the correct and compassionate course of action. But anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the corrupting power of incentives would understand that if you grant people the power to destroy someone's career and reputation on the basis of an unsubstantiated allegation alone (and particularly where anonymity is allowed, and where there are no legal or reputational repercussions for making false accusations), that it is only a matter of time before someone, somewhere attempts to abuse this power for political gain, or out of sheer vindictiveness.

People that really care about justice, as well as truly care about protecting the victims of genuine sexual assault, should therefore be very interested in guarding against the misuse of this power. If one or several instances of high-profile fake allegations emerge and are proven, this will actually set back the cause of protecting women from sexual violence by several decades, because it will undermine society's willingness to believe genuine victims that come forward in the future. This would be a terrible outcome, and is not something that has been considered by those willing to take any and all allegations on face value alone.

The correct approach is to treat each and every claim on its own merits, and consider the evidence adduced before rushing to judgement, and to particularly do this when it is a situation where there are clear incentives for the power to be misused (e.g. for political gain). This is not a matter of not taking sexual assault seriously - the Kavanaugh allegations have been taken incredibly seriously, and rightly so. It's about there being a fair and balanced process, and a willingness to look at each case on its own individual merits.

In the present case, there is not only an absence of evidence corroborating Ford's story, but a lot of evidence contradicting it. All four persons identified by Ford as having been present at the party, including one she described as a lifelong friend, have denied ever attending such a party. Ford claims she was driven to and from the party by someone, but is unable to identify that person or get them to confirm they did in fact take her there and back. Her current testimony contradicts her therapist notes (which said it happened sometime in the mid-80s and four men were present in the room, and didn't mention Kavanaugh, and is now claiming it happened specifically in the summer of 1982 and two men were present, including Kavanaugh), and Ford withheld these notes from journalists. And literally hundreds of women who have been lifelong friends of Kavanaugh have come out vocally in support of him and his character and past behaviour, suggesting that the women who know him best - hundreds of them - believe this accusation to be wholly out of character.*

No thinking person could believe that these allegations are a sufficient basis for declaring Kavanaugh guilty and ineligible for the Supreme Court. And yet it is remarkable how little these elementary facts and logic matter to so many people, who remain utterly convinced he is guilty. It is a testament to the strength of confirmation bias - it can trump even the most elementary and obvious logic.

Lastly, the episode highlights the power of group/tribal thinking. Being a rational, independent thinker is an asset and is rewarded in certain domains of human endeavour (particularly in the stock market), but in many other areas of human affairs, it is a recipe for being 'ejected from the tribe'. In hunter gather days, being ostracised by the tribe was a virtual death sentence, and so human beings have deep-seated, hard-wired social instincts that drive them to stick with the pack at all costs, and 'tow the tribal line' rather than seek out independent truth. These instincts are so strong that they can easily trump individual thought and rationality. The heretics have been persecuted and subject to lynch mobs throughout history, and this is why people are so averse to stepping outside of the crowd.


How is this relevant to investment?

The above is relevant to the world of investment for several reasons. Firstly, it highlights the degree to which rationality can break down where heightened emotions are involved, and in financial markets, emotions often do run amok. The stakes are high in markets - in the world of investment management, people's jobs, careers, incomes, reputations, and businesses are on the line - and in times of stress, this can trigger emotional responses grounded in self-preservation instincts, that can undermine people's ability to think and act rationally. A large part of Buffett's success over the years has simply been his ability to stay steadfastly rational in a world infused with incurable irrationality.

In addition, the power of group/tribal thinking explains a lot about why people cannot help but cluster closely with the herd in markets. It feels very uncomfortable to stand apart from the herd because the herd can be a vindictive mob and it was a matter of life and death in the past, and our survival instincts trump rationality and logic. This is why markets are likely to forever remain irrational and prone to excesses, because hard-wired emotional instincts don't change. We can educate ourselves as much as we want about the health dangers of eating sugar, but we will continue to eat it anyway, as our preferences are hardwired.

Human beings often believe their logical/rational brain to be the master, but in actual fact it usually functions as the servant. Emotions drive people's choices/preferences, and then the logical/rational brain is used as a means of finding the best ways to gratify or justify these emotional choices. We have seen with this Kavanaugh - many people want him to be guilty, so their rational brains quickly orient themselves and work hard to find reasons to justify this belief, and a similar thing happens in markets, when the market narrative follows the price action. This is because people find intelligent-sounding arguments to justify the investments they intuitively/emotionally would like to make, rather than engage in logical analysis and reach a dispassionate conclusion. Have an intuitive/emotional belief Australian house prices always rise? The logical brain will set to work in finding rationalisations for that emotional belief. And most of the time it will succeed, and will convince people they are buying property for intellectual rather than emotional reasons.

The antidote, to the extent there is one (for many people, the disease is incurable - this is what Buffett means when he refers to 'temperament' - he has long said some people have it and some don't, and it's largely a fixed character trait), is an open mind and facts/data. It is important that people always be aware that they might be wrong, and hence to always be questioning assumptions and pre-existing views, and particularly by actively seeking out and listening to contrary opinions. And it is important to always attempt to verify assumptions/beliefs with hard evidence/data, rather than assuming things to be self-evidently true merely because they feel intuitive to you.

I'm about as optimistic this will happen on a general society-wide basis as I am about the outlook for Tesla's share price - i.e., not very much at all. In markets, that's great news - it means there will continue to be fabulous opportunities for those who can remain rational and open-minded while others lose their heads. In broader society, however, the forces of emotion and stupidity are dangerous, systemic, and intractable, and I do fear for the outlooks for Western democracies sometimes.


LT3000


*Kavanaugh's full opening statement is worth a listen and can be found here


Afterthought

In March, I published a post called "Motivated reasoning and the root cause of intellectual intolerance". A lot of the analysis in that post is very relevant to this discussion.

As discussed in that article, free-thinkers don't believe beliefs are a choice, but rather are an emergent outcome of dispassionate analysis and what the facts suggest is most likely to be true. However, a significant majority of the world treat beliefs more like 'teams', that form part of their identity about what kind of person they would like to be/seen to be. In the Kavanaugh example, there is 'Team Ford', which stands for "we oppose all kinds of sexual violence against women", and there is 'Team Kavanaugh', which Team Ford would say stands for "normalising sexual oppression against women and protecting powerful white men from the consequences of their actions". Notably absent is any discussion or interest in whether the allegations are in fact true or not, or any concern for whether Kavanaugh deserves to have his life, career, and reputation destroyed. He is simply collateral damage in a wider cultural movement.

When the debate is set up this way, it ceases to be a reasoned debate about truth, and instead devolves into something vitriolic and abusive. I have already had two people block me on facebook, for instance, for purportedly normalising sexual violence against women, and 'threatening the safety of my daughters', for merely expressing the opinions above. This emotional reaction, though misguided, is totally understandable for people that believe I'm just trying to be 'Team Kavanaugh'. I expected such a reaction and it is a price I am prepared to pay to advocate the cause of truth and justice. If nobody has the courage to do it, then our society is doomed.

This team-based paradigm is a major problem in our society at the moment and is highly divisive, and also dangerous. There is a notable disregard for the consequences of convicting a potentially innocent person, undermining basic fairness and institutions around the presumption of innocence, and depriving the Supreme Court of the benefit of top legal talent - a court whose decisions affects hundreds of millions of people (while also discouraging other competent people from serving in public office) . I'm not sure what the solution to this problem is, or if there even is one, but this is certainly a very significant problem.  


Second afterthought

Having thought about and researched this issue further, I have also come to believe that a subtle but pernicious form of racism and prejudice in the US has also been a fundamental contributor to the Kavanaugh dialogue we have seen thus far. This appears to be a relatively new phenomenon, and something that I was previously unaware had grown to the extent it has.

100 years ago, there was pervasive racism against African Americans in the US. Many people (incorrectly) believed that they were all a bunch of criminals and thieves. Consequently, this racist perspective meant that if an African American was accused of theft, most people would be willing to instantly believe it, irrespective of the facts, evidence, or merits of the individual case, because he was putatively a member of a thieving class, and so he therefore must be guilty. 

Something very similar is happening today with respect to white men in the US (especially in positions of power), who are increasingly viewed as nothing but a class of sex offending, lying, power-abusing scumbags. Consequently, in an analogous fashion, many people are quite prepared to believe any and all allegations that emerge, and do not feel it necessary to look at the evidence, because they feel they automatically 'know' he must be guilty, on account of the sins or perceived sins of his class. Without this prerequisite of systemic racism/sexism, the low-quality dialogue we have seen on the Kavanaugh case to date would have been, in my current view, impossible.

The problem with racism is that it judges people as a member of a class, rather than as an individual, and tars them with the same brush as the offenses - real or imagined - of other members of their class, irrespective of the specifics of the case. This is the very definition of prejudice. The fact that one African American stole something does not prove that another African American individual is also a thief, and the exact same thing can be said of white men and sexual assault. But racism promotes this devastating simplifying heuristic. 

This whole experience has also helped me to better understand the origins of anti-Semitism. Jews have historically outperformed as a class, on average, in terms of achieving positions of power, authority, and amassing wealth. Given the emergent racism and sexism towards white men that is currently occurring, which partly reflects similar socioeconomic factors, it is therefore quite easy to understand how the politics of resentment have resulted in the frequent persecution of Jews in the past, including - at worst - their wholesale slaughter (I am not Jewish, by the way).

Human beings can be nasty, vile creatures at times - particularly when infused with resentment. It is sad to see that such sentiments are growing, rather than receding, in the 21st Century. Far from becoming more enlightened, we seem to be regressing back into primative, tribalistic mentalities. 

   

23 comments:

  1. I sympathize so strongly with your thinking. It is a brutally hard problem, the hardest aspect, in my opinion, being the fact that he very well may have done this. I could not articulate any better the five or so points you made above, but I can't help myself but share what might qualify as a sixth. Somewhere on the Internet I came across people trying to use statistics and specifically Bayesian analysis to try to improve their assessment of the case, starting from a 50/50 position. Predictably the discussion devolved into accusations of confirmation bias, etc. Yet the simplest contribution statistics might make in a case like this might be in starting from good old base rates (you allude to Tetlock's Superforecasting, which is a good place to find a deeper appreciation for the power of this concept). I have found two people willing to go through the exercise of estimating 3 quantities that I thought would help frame the problem. They were the following: (1) What percentage of the population of males of Kavanaugh's age have committed an act that rises to the level of what he has been alleged to have done (hold a woman down, cover her mouth so she couldn't scream, grope her, try to forcibly remove her clothes etc.); (2) What rate in the population of U.S. women today would be willing to fabricate a story of sexual misconduct in order to oppose Kavanaugh's elevation to the highest court bearing in mind the current political environment and the ways he and his nomination were characterized even before such allegations came to light; (3) What is a reasonable estimate for the population of women who could plausibly claim a close enough connection to Kavanaugh to make such an allegation. The answers I got involved, for (1), ranges from 5% to 30% of men (although the latter was subject to significant doubt and supplemented with a not-quite-as-high estimate of 15%); (2) from 1 in 1000 women to several in 100 (i.e., several percent); (3) from several hundred to several thousand. Note that there is a way to use extreme enough assumptions to reach the 50/50 starting point the self-styled Bayesians were prepared to start from or perhaps even higher, but my informal and admittedly small survey of all of two people would suggest that assumptions closer to their reported expectations put the base rate of Kavanaugh being guilty going into the process at, say, 10%, and the base rate of women who would fabricate such a story at, say, 1 in 1,000 against a population that probably totaled at least 1,000 women. From here the statistics are probably a bit more subtle, but it certainly looks to me that the a priori probability that Kavanaugh was such an offender was bound to be considerably lower than the probability that he would be accused of such an offense. Put another way, if you don't object to a more frequentist flavor, if you could run this nomination process in the abstract something like 100 times, would you see far more instances of false accusations than you would nominees who had an incident like the one alleged in their past? I would be grateful to anyone who could point out flaws in this line of reasoning, or else improve any estimates or assumptions. I would be only too glad to be disabused of this notion, as it has caused me some mild distress, but again, I emphasize that this is terribly tragic, for under extreme enough conditions, it is not that rare but real instances of false accusations complicate the issue of delivering justice to victims of crimes like the one alleged of Kavanaugh, it is that a high enough rate of expected false accusations would render all accusations equally dubious. Their information value might be destroyed entirely. Of course, nothing is likely to destroy their political value, and if I have not been severely deluded by my own biases, then this will only deepen the tragedy for all the many, many cases where there is a victim and there is a lying criminal who deserves grave punishment indeed.

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    1. Continuing my thoughts from above, I could venture into so many further details about this case that have bothered me over the past week, but lest I stumble into hypocrisy myself, I will resist, knowing how difficult it is to police my own biases. As for why I bother sharing these thoughts at all (and I am grateful to have a small comments section at the end of a reasonably argued blog post to do so, as I am not so eager to share on a platform such as Twitter or Facebook), I am not sure, since I am more discouraged by something you point out than you are yourself for some reason:

      "The antidote, to the extent there is one (for many people, the disease is incurable - this is what Buffett means when he refers to 'temperament' - he has long said some people have it and some don't, and it's largely a fixed character trait), is an open mind and facts/data.... I'm about as optimistic this will happen on a general society-wide basis as I am about the outlook for Tesla's share price - i.e., not very much at all."

      And yet from this post and previous ones – in this case, you report having been blocked by two people already on Facebook – it is clear that you persist all the same, even as you despair of there being a solution to the overarching problem.

      As for such a solution, for what it's worth, I have an opinion on that, too, and the solution which you despair of finding is likely the process that we already have, as sad or ironic as that might be. Processes which have both anarchic and democratic qualities within a system of sufficiently decentralized power, such that whatever the results, they manage to retain some patina of legitimacy or, at a minimum, are at least enforceable, that has seemed to be the system that has now withstood over 200 years of history. Beautifully, your arguments on Facebook and in this blog post are part of these processes. Sadly, to my way of thinking, these processes are extremely costly when they begin to consume so much of people's valuable time, energy, and other resources. Of course, if the norm represented by this solution were to be violated any further than it already has been of late (it is one thing to say "not my president," but another entirely when one no longer acknowledges or respects the law), that is when I will begin in earnest, with you, to "fear for the outlooks for Western democracies." I greatly respect what you are doing "to advocate the cause of truth and justice." I suppose for my part, I plan primarily to accept whatever comes out of the "democratic" processes here in the U.S. as legitimate, as unpleasant as I find these processes to be sometimes.

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    2. By the way, I left out the punch line in my previous comment. The people I surveyed as to base rates, one man and one woman, both highly intelligent and educated, agreed completely with my analysis and yet insisted that he was still very likely to be guilty and she very likely to be telling the truth. I won't even attempt to wade into all of the complicating particulars, but if I understood your original post correctly, this is one of your major concerns. I suppose I am not surprised logic finds little place in such a debate, but I am surprised that my notion of "fairness" does not seem to find a place either. I feel I have read numerous times, over and over, that a strong sense of "fairness" is something inborn in humans, that it is something we have all evolved to possess to a significant degree, and yet it feels to me that it is entirely absent here in this case. Perhaps my concept of fairness leans too heavily on my concept of logic, and it is as hopeless for me to separate the two as it is hopeless to expect the concepts of fairness and logic to meet in others. To take a more evolutionary perspective, perhaps it is just that nature doesn't care about our "logic" and our "fairness." Perhaps nature works well enough, or perhaps even better, as it is.

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    3. * I keep saying "base rates" but perhaps that term is reserved for empirical rates. Perhaps I am only trying to build up a set of "priors." Really I am not too concerned about terminology or lingo, but the ideas, whether and to what degree they have validity, and how they would function generally and as applied to this case.

      Thanks again for the carefully considered and well written post, as well as this forum.

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    4. Thanks for your thoughts. The Bayesian framework is an interesting idea, but I think there are some problems with the way it is being applied here (acknowledge that you are conveying other people's views, not necessarily your own).

      Firstly, the fact that people think the base rate of men who have engaged in attempted rape is 5-30% speaks volumes to how distorted people's sense of reality has become from media/SJW narratives. I can't prove it, but I suspect the actual base rate is below 1%. It will be materially higher for men that have engaged in very minor sexual assault (e.g. non-consensual ass grabbing) or some form of sexual harassment at some point in their life - perhaps 5-10%.

      But that's actually irrelevant anyway, because if we ignored for the moment the risk of false allegations, then the <1% would be the ones where allegations would surface, and 100% of them would be guilty. On the premise that false allegations are impossible/implausible, Ford's camp is correct.

      In terms of the probabilities of a false allegation, there would indeed be many thousands of women that could plausibly claim to have been in close enough proximity to have potentially crosses paths with Kavanaugh at some point in his life. Let's say it's 2,000. The percentage of women that would fabricate allegations either deliberately, or through unknowingly reinventing history in their heads, is likely also one in a thousand at the absolute most - let's say its one in 10,000. That is enough to make the odds of a false allegation against a random male in the public spotlight at perhaps 20%.

      However, the problem with this approach is that it considers all allegations as of equivalent veracity. I think that's a problem. What we need to do is consider each individual claim on its own merits, and it's own level of evidentary support. In my view, the facts that have emerged in this case so far fall very far short of the level of credibility required to justify the level of conviction in the court of public opinion we have seen.

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    5. I basically agree with your assessment. These "base rates" or "priors" were not the separate discussion on Bayesian analysis that I stumbled across on the Internet but rather what educated and successful male and female US citizens offered up. It might surprise you to note that in our current climate, it was the female who suggested that the rate of fabrication could be as high as several percent in the population, the fury is so high amongst people she must know or observe on social media. This is not a rate I'd endorse, and her wild estimate might be more in evidence of how poorly equipped people seem to be to assess these kinds of problems, questions, controversies. I do appreciate you taking the thought experiment seriously, though. I meant it only as an addendum to your argument, and was merely wondering if this was not a useful or even correct starting point before incorporating all of the information particular to this case. I steered away from that entirely because as you can already see from at least one of the comments below, it appears people are having an even harder time incorporating details about the case or proceedings into their assessment of the situation, and if I permitted myself to share the details that bother me most, perhaps I would be one of them. Of course we should try to give the most weight to the strongest evidence, etc., but I think I was reacting to what I've observed in the U.S., which has been a surprising rate of people who took the mere existence of an allegation as strong evidence or assumed positions that would imply such a position. Don't know if this helps the discourse or not, but I hope it hasn't hurt it. Thanks again .

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    6. I also take seriously your suggestion that I have my concept of Bayesian statistics wrong, and I haven't (yet) tried to formalize any of this, but you yourself came up with something like 20-1 odds (too long in my estimation, but hard with something so subjective) that this isn't a fabrication. I just can't shake the intuition that the longer such odds, the greater the quantity or strength of evidence you would need to believe that the allegation was a real one. In Bayesian terms, it would take a lot more to move from the original priors all the way to some confident position at the other end of the spectrum. That seemed potentially relevant to me when I considered that one is bound to find a range of allegations (in fact we have a taste of that range already before us in the three publicly aired to date). Those that are absurd on their face can be confidently placed amongst the percentage of cases one would expect were false, but the higher the rate of false allegations, wouldn't it be ever likelier that one finds cases that seem more and more credible and yet are fabrications all the same?

      Yes, I know, another statistical argument. You're right if part of what you're implying is that any statistical approach will soon reach practical limits, and perhaps why it may not end up particularly relevant at the end of the day – even if one has equations that says you will see so many false accusations that it is not unreasonable to expect even some HIGHLY convincing ones, as a matter of morality, politics, common sense, general goodness, etc., if one met a highly convincing claim in reality, it would be taken seriously and the confirmation would fail badly, for political reasons, yes, but also for the greater public good.

      Since you emphasized the particulars, I agree with your feeling that (thus far) uncorroborated and, in fact, (thus far) refuted allegations do not seem particularly strong and very far from HIGHLY convincing. What has resonated with me, and part of what I felt came through from your post, is how many people either find the evidence convincing or are holding opinions or behaving as if they would have to hold that belief. But, of course, that is perhaps precisely one the points you made.

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    7. * Can't resist, but the "base rate" I was trying to estimate for was not "a false allegation against a random male in the public spotlight," but in the current political climate, the rate for "a false allegation against a random supreme court nominee who is widely purported and believed to be the person who will finally swing the court to a solidly conservative majority that will, among other things, potentially reverse Roe v. Wade." Perhaps that is what you meant anyway, though, and does not alter your 1 in 10,000 assessment.

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  2. Thanks for this post. I agree that the evidence against Ford's story is considerable. But to be fair, one needs to consider the other two women have now made accusations as well (you don't have to believe them, but don't ignore them).

    I don't consider it meaningful that friends (with no connection to any alleged incident) have come out in support of Kavanaugh's character. We all have a strong bias against believing that someone we know and like could do bad things, especially when that someone is famous (feels cool to know famous people). These shows of support always happen. I can remember listening to one investment guy claiming that Richard Strong (whom he knew) was a stand-up guy after Strong stole money from his own investors via Canary Capital. Even Rod Blagojevich had crowds at his side, etc.

    No doubt, many liberals are illogically certain that Kavanaugh is innocent. But many conservatives are likewise illogically certain of the opposite. FWIW, I could introduce you to pro-lifers who seriously believe Justice Scalia was murdered, despite the facts that he was 86 and had heart problems (and of course, a lack of any evidence).

    For all I know, Kavanaugh could be innocent. My objection to his appointment - if anyone cares - is that he won't give us a straight answer as to his opinion on whether the POTUS can self-pardon. The answer should be a simple "no", as the authors of the US Constitution clearly did not intend to place anyone above federal law. They wanted to escape monarchy, not re-create it.

    Further, I began to doubt his credibility when he testified to the Senate that he hadn't even considered the self-pardon question. Really? You could have safely bet your life that he would be asked about two things during the confirmation process: Roe v Wade and self-pardons.

    Thanks for reading my rant,
    M

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    1. Presumably if the authors of the US Constitution clearly did not intend to place anyone above federal law, if you say this because it is supported in the text, and if Kavanaugh is the textualist he claims he is – to say nothing of the precedents that I understand were set during the Nixon-era – then you would expect him to come down as you wish on what you call the issue "self-pardon." I don't blame you for not trusting to his impartial judgment, though. But as long as we are using the Constitution as our touchstone for how our government is intended to function so that it might best function, part of which function was to escape tyranny in any form, I wonder if you do not see the merits in the claims Kavanaugh made repeatedly in his testimony to "judicial independence." As a separate branch of government, designed to check the other two, do you not see the potential issues of having confirmations conditional on how nominees announce they will prejudge certain decisions? Admittedly, any merits of preserving "judicial independence" would have to be weighed against the demerits, but it is a source of some consternation for me that prior to the allegations, the main arguments against Kavanaugh were made on the grounds that he would not answer questions about how he would decide certain legal questions if confirmed. It is quite possible I am just ignorant of the legal, political, philosophical, or Constitutional argument for why a nominee to the Supreme Court should have to satisfy members of the democratically-elected legislative branch of how they will decide on certain issues before they can be installed as a member of the judiciary branch. If you can articulate such an argument as you understand it, I would greatly appreciate knowing it. In any case, I sympathize with people anxious over the appointment of such a powerful official when it feels they should have so little control or insight into how they will act. I am just saying that such independence is perhaps precisely part of the design that is meant to protect us, not only from monarchy, but all tyranny. For what it's worth, it is why I find the concept or doctrine of "textualism" superficially attractive, as it provides a principle which one might expect an independent judge to apply regardless of their political bent and hopefully a constraint against their political leanings. I say superficially, though, as I am sure we would all want to be on guard against the use of "textualism" or any principle merely as a shield to hide behind if we had good reason to believe a nominee will apply the principle merely selectively or not at all – e.g., in applying the precedents of Roe, Casey, and other important cases, or those relevant to executive privileges, etc. I would have expected cases where Kavanaugh egregiously deviated from his professed "textualism" to be an important part of his confirmation hearings, and yet very little evidence of such deviations stick out in my mind as having been raised by his opponents. My opinion – if anyone cares, as you nicely put it – is that I will try to accept whatever outcome from this process since it is my feeling that this process has retained its essential integrity with how our system of government is meant to function, up to and including the controversies around these terrible allegations.

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    2. Mike - you say "Thanks for this post. I agree that the evidence against Ford's story is considerable. But to be fair, one needs to consider the other two women have now made accusations as well (you don't have to believe them, but don't ignore them."

      That's actually not the point of my post. I'm not here to champion 'Team Kavanaugh'. I'm not here to argue he is innocent. I am here to point out the irrational/illogical manner in which much of the public debate has occurred with respect to the Ford allegations specifically.

      I'll change my mind if new evidence emerges. It's actually not a matter of what is ultimately true - I wasn't there and I don't know Kavanaugh. My point is that we need to be using much more rigorous thinking in addressing these kinds of issues, and human beings seem incapable of being rational when emotions are running high.

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    3. Re your other comments Mike, point taken in your second paragraph. I think in isolation, character testimonies from friends are not sufficient proof of anything.

      You state "No doubt, many liberals are illogically certain that Kavanaugh is innocent. But many conservatives are likewise illogically certain of the opposite."

      This claim of equivalency and both perspectives being ideological ignores the striking lack of evidence that has emerged. It's actually a question of whether we want to accept and confront that, or ignore it.

      On the self-pardon point, that's an entirely separate issue, and if there are concerns here they should be looked into.

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    4. Anonomous - I would argue that's an important issue but one very separate from the scope of this post. I also never believe the 'ends justify the means'. The rule of law in constitutional republics like the US is meant to enforce due process such that the ends cannot ever justify the means, and I think this is the correct course.

      Even if there is good reason to block Kavanaugh's appointment, using unsubstantiated rape allegations to achieve that end is not an acceptable course, in my view.

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    5. Agree 100%.

      If this has been the political hit job Kavanaugh claims, you explain very well why it will have been such a despicable act.

      Of course, back to this being a brutally hard, because it is difficult to think of something more despicable than if he actually did the thing he has been accused of AND has now lied about under penalty of felony while sitting to be confirmed to the highest court.

      Thanks for the discussion.

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  3. This is an interesting and thoughtful post. I disagree with much of it. But I admire your forthrightness and strongly believe we need to be able to discuss these issues on the assumption of good faith.

    So let me begin with some points we likely agree on from the perspective of a “liberal”).

    1. #Metoo is for the most part a positive and overdue development but there is a real danger of descending into mob justice and some liberals have insufficient appreciation for this point.
    2. “Believe all women” is a dangerous slogan. Yes, false accusations of sexual assault are relatively rare. Women should be heard. But the accused have rights too and due process should be sacred.
    3. Shutting down debate about the other side of “me too” (the perspective of accused men) - like the hounding of Ian Buruma out of his job as editor of New York Review of Books is at best counterproductive and at worst a troubling assault on free speech.
    4. Collapsing the distinctions between a Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein (actual rape) and an Aziz Azari (creepy behavior on dates) is dangerous. Do the latter deserve to have their lives and careers destroyed? No. And any “me too” conversation has to address these gray areas. There needs to be room for redemption. The more militant elements of the me too movement dangerously bulldoze over the nuances that are key here.

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    1. Cont.

      And now on the particulars of the Kavanaugh case. You make some good points about the left but I think it’s equally important not to fall into the trap of caricaturing the “other side’s” views here (the Ben Shapiro’s of the world are masters at this).

      I travel in pretty lefty circles and can tell you that within this there is a wide spectrum of opinion on this particular case (from men and women). It’s certainly a lot more nuanced than “he must be guilty.” In fact I would say this is far from the dominant view. It’s more something like this:

      1. Ford’s accusations seem credible and she has little to gain and a lot to loose from lying (see Sam Harris tweets on this). That said memory is a fickle thing and this is something that allegedly happened 35 years ago so we really don’t know. So the most important thing is an independent investigation (ie fbi reopening its background check). This is not consistent with your assertion that nobody on the left is interested in the facts. The key demand here is actually for due process. You are right that some on the left will accept nothing other than a “guilty” result but this is far from the dominant view.
      2. We may never find out what really happened. What is most concerning about Kavanaugh is not what allegedly happened 35 years ago but how he responded to those allegations today and what that reveals about his character as a potential Supreme Court justice. His choice to take the unprecedented step of appearing on the highly partisan and polarizing Fox News ahead of the Senate hearing further politicized the process and calls into question his impartiality as a judge.
      3. Kavanaugh has demonstrably lied — or at a minimum misled the Senate — about several small things in the course of his testimony. This doesn’t make him guilty on the bigger things but does raise questions about his credibility.
      4. Imagine you were interviewing for a CEO position. You have five excellent candidates. Regarding one of the candidates you have a woman come forward with claims of sexual assault. There is chatter of other cases too. When you raise this with him in the job interview he becomes belligerent, especially when questioned by females. In response to legitimate questions he repeatedly presses a female interviewer on whether SHE is the one with a drinking problem. He starts talking about smear campaigns and says the Clintons are out to get him. You cant be sure but there’s some evidence he has been dishonest about a number of small things regarding his past. Remember you have four other strong candidates with clean resumes. Would any responsible corporate board hire this guy? Of course not. Nobody is entitled to a CEO job - much less a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court - and the standard here is not the same as one for conviction in a criminal trial.

      Lastly another thing we should be able to agree on. The politicization of me too - on both sides and hyper charged in this Kavanaugh case — is a really toxic reflection of where we are as a society. The increasing correlation of views across issues with partisan leanings is really problematic. There’s no obvious reason why ones views on issues as diverse as abortion, me too, climate change, gay marriage and Black Lives Matter should be so highly correlated with ones political identification. But they are, and that makes me pretty pessimistic about the future of western liberal democracies.

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    2. Thanks for your comments Zen Investor.

      I don't believe at any point in my post I referred to any homogenous 'left' and carcitured their views, other than to say that there are a lot of people (not all) ideologically inclined to condemn all white men in power. My post concerns the pervasive degree of patently illogical analysis that exists in the press.

      On your first point, I wouldn't be opposed to a full investigation, except that there is a reach chance that this is being called for merely to delay the vote past the elections. If the investigation could be finished before the election, I think it would be worth doing.

      Saying Ford has nothing to gain and everything to lose is slightly naive, I would say. Firstly, she actually didn't want to be named and wanted to remain anonymous. Secondly, people can have all sorts of potential motives - fame (she will be forever seen as a brave champion for sexual assault victims), pecuniary (although there is no evidence she has been paid), or merely strident political partisanship or resentment towards men in power in general.

      On 2, it is more than understandable, given the trauma he and his family have gone through, that he would be upset and emotional. Who wouldn't be, after being accused of gang rape when you have two young daughters? People seem to be holding him to a super-human standard. Why he appeared on Fox, I don't know, but Fox has been the only news network taking a more open minded approach to the issue. Almost every other network I have seen have condemned him, and they may not have even offered him an interview. But I'm just speculating here.

      On 3, I think Kavanaugh has indeed downplayed the extent of his drinking, including participating in underage drinking. That's understandable. However, his drinking is not at issue here, and if we disqualified from public office anyone who drank under age or got heavily drunk in college, we would be disqualifying a lot of people. I know I certainly did. People have also gone over Kavanaugh's statements with a very very very fine toothcomb, looking for the most minor of infractions, and yet glaring problems with Ford's testimony have been completely ignored. This is very clear evidence of bias.

      4. This is exactly why this is potentially such a terrible injustice, because people will react exactly in the manner you have described. You can analogise discrimination against african american here say 100 years ago. You are a hard working and honest african american, but someone claims without hard evidence you stole from them. You then get blackballed. You then get frustrated and angry and say, this isn't fair, this is a racist smear, and then people say, 'wow dude, you're really angry; I don't think that attitude makes you fit for the job'. This is what happens when people are subject to unfair prejudice.

      And on your last paragraph - couldn't agree more. I enjoy this discussion/debate here, and this is the type of dialogue we should be having as a society - civil, reasoned, and respectful. Reasonable people can disagree on issues - that's fine. It's a matter of the issues being fairly discussed.

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    3. PS this whole experience has been very eye opening for me. I had no idea the extent to which racism and prejudice against white men in powerful positions had pervaded US society.

      The situation of believing all white men in power are sexually abusive lying scumbags is actually exactly analogous to believing 100 years ago that 'all negros are thieving liars'. If you hold that racist belief, you will be more than happy to condemn a negro accused of thief in the absence of any evidence.

      I think the root cause of all this is actually similar racism and prejudice directed towards white men, and it seems to have reached alarming proportions.

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    4. There has to be some degree of truth in this last point of yours, but since you seem committed to the truth for the most part, and since it's good to allay unjustified fears, I would suggest you weigh to what extent this has all been good, old-fashioned politics (by which, I mean bad, and yet if the result of such politics has been surprising social stability, then a means to a relatively good end, the problem of whether bad means can be justified by good ends notwithstanding). Similarly your concern with the media. Democracy equals rule by people. People are just too fallible, corrupt, relatively weak-minded, so that this this applies even to those who have reached the meager attainments of "education" and "intelligence" (and similarly for "compassion", "goodness", "correctness of thought", all which can go in quotes in my ipinion wherever relative progress falls far short and is used to stand in for progress and achievement on an absolute scale). Your concerns regarding the media, too, are almost certain to be disappointed for the same reasons. Not that discussions like this aren't precisely the correct response, if not thorough antidote. In a democracy it is some subset of the same "intelligent" and "educated" people who make the media, often the media they would want to consume but also that they imagine it know a significant audience of other such peoolp want to consume. The exchange of media for money for attention is a mutually "beneficial" one. The situation has all the features required for it to reproduce itself. This is an insight cemented in the late 19th century in part credited to Darwin and in part to Marx that suggests that, looking at media this way, prospects for the improvements you'd wish to see, e.g., in the Vox "explainer" (how horrible a meme is that idea, of something so simple, and yet with the power to explain, and how powerful are the economic and capitalist forces such that the idea of explaining can become associated with a brand, hence "Voxsplaining," as much as those who use the latter meme are intending it ironically, or one would hope).

      As for racism against whites, a you fear and to the degree you perceive it, I think even then it has political dimensions that make it very different from that against Blacks in the U.S., and trying to understand them as well as possible might sharpen your arguments, help you find sympathetic listerners for your ideas, and most importantly, given your stated mission, get to the truth as undistorted and unvarnished as can be. Again, consider the extent to which this racism against whites, and especially white males, that you perceive has crycial political dimensions. Consider how it's related to beliefs and attitudes that support efforts to attain economic and political power. Consider how people will be explicitly or implicitly be leaning on that concept of "ends justifying means" (e.g., the end of combatting "privilege," where on some level it really just power politics like any other). A new strain of anti-white racism will be unfortunate wherever it takes hold, but of more practical moment might be the political beliefs and actions that ostensibly holding such beliefs give cover to. Thank you for considering this perspective, as well.

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    5. * My apologies for all of the typos. I will try to do better in the future, in the interests of all and for the quality of discourse. Anyway, I just want to clearly state the thesis of the last comment a final time. I would suggest considering again to what extent this has been about abortion, that this has been about Democrats versus Republicans (including elections for years to come), that this has been about money and power, both at the national level and at the level of how people experience their individual lives (e.g., do they feel "empowered", do they have new econimic opportunities related to such concepts of "empowerment" or "justice") as much as anything to do with what is true, right, fair, just, good, or among other things, whether any of it has been essentially racist.

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    6. ** A final, related thought: those I notice basing their dislike or criticism of Kavanaugh, implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, on his "privilege" are, in the vast majority of cases, simply kidding themselves if they don't see that he is genuinely superior to them in intellect, achievements, but perhaps most importantly given the citicism, his effort. It both astonishes and irritates me that people cannot seem to comprehend the sheer levels of commitment and effort required, such that they attribute his presence as primarily attributed to some secondary characteristic. As if it could be one of the people levelling this sort of criticism if only for their circumstances. Rant over.

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  4. Fantastic piece - much appreciated

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