Maps and Territories

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One of my favorite maps, available for purchase here

It’s odd how the mind works.  If you’d asked me last night if I’d ever heard the phrase “stackable probabilities,” I would have said that I had not. Yet this morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon while a voice in the background explained that “a map is not an image depicting a territory, it is a graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities.”

I woke up before the voice could explain what that meant. Since I have never studied statistics, and did not know until I googled it that there really is such a phrase as “stackable probabilities,” probably the only way a voice in a dream of mine could explain it would be if I were sleeping in a room where someone was giving such an explanation.  Making it even stranger that such a phrase would pop into my head, most of the results for “stackable probability” that came up in that Google search were from gaming forums, and I haven’t spent any time playing or discussing electronic games since about 1983.

Anyway, it is in fact plausible that someone might describe a map as graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities. As I understand it, a set of probabilities is stackable if it is made up of a series of variables, each of which is dependent on the item preceding it in the series but independent of the item following it.  So there can be river systems only where the parts of a landmass vary in elevation, but parts of a landmass can vary in elevation where there are no river systems.

It becomes plausible to think of maps as summaries of probability structures rather than as images of territory when we consider that maps of large areas of the Earth’s surface do not feature cloud formations, and that maps of coastlines do not show the tide either coming in or going out. It’s virtually certain that a satellite photo of a continent or an ocean would show at least a few clouds, and utterly certain that the seas continuously show tidal motion, but there is no relationship between the probability that any particular cloud formation or state of the tides will prevail at a given moment and the probability that a user will consult the map at that moment.

Standard features of large-scale maps of populated areas, features such as mountains, rivers, roads, cities, centers of extractive industry, coasts, political boundaries, etc, are likely to be there and to be of interest to a user of the map. Moreover, these standard features are also the features most plainly related to each other. Roads connect cities to each other and to centers of extractive industry, unless mountains, coastlines, or political boundaries block them; rivers flow from mountains to coasts and cities grow along them; etc.

In my dream, I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon. There are no rivers, roads, cities, industries, coasts, or political boundaries there. So, what is the difference between a photograph of the Moon’s surface and a map of the Moon’s surface? Add labels naming the mountains, craters, maria, etc, add notations of the elevation of those features, and isn’t the result a map?

I’m inclined to think not. Several times Apollo astronauts lost their way on the Moon; the best-known such episode came during the Apollo 14 extra-vehicular activity, when Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell lost so much time trying to orient themselves that they did not manage to reach the rim of Cone Crater, a key mission objective. Many have accused  Admiral Shepard of showing a cavalier attitude to the geological aspects of the mission; most notable of these is perhaps David Reynolds, author of a well-regarded book called Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, 1963-1972 (Zenith Press, 2013.) Be that as it may, Captain Mitchell is a famously conscientious man (as witness his willingness to sound rather odd at times,) and it is difficult to believe that he did not use every available resource to prepare himself for such an important assignment.

I suspect the problem was that the resources available to Captain Mitchell and his superior officer included too many photographs and too few real maps.  On a surface where the horizon is so much closer than it is on the Earth, people do not have conventional reference points and cannot rely on reflexive mental habits to determine their location. The essential visual aid for such travelers is therefore one which illustrates, not the surface features which their experience on Earth has not prepared them to interpret, but such statistical relationships among those surface features as are likely to shape their journey.

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Four reasons why quoting the Bible rarely settles political disagreements

I spend a fair bit of time hanging out with mild-mannered progressive Christians.  One thing that I like about the members of that group is that they don’t often try to spring Bible quotes on you as a means of settling political disagreements.  The last couple of weeks, though. there has been a tremendous amount of backsliding among progressive Christians in this regard. As a result, I’ve been avoiding social media lately.* So many of my friends have been quoting passages from Leviticus and the Gospel According to Luke as if those passages made it obvious what policies the United States of America and the European Union should adopt towards refugees and migrants from southwest Asia, and have been calling down fire and brimstone on those who are unconvinced, that my news feed on Facebook and my stream on Twitter have started to feel like a tent revival with an especially dyspeptic preaching staff.  Quite a few people whom I know to be committed universalists, believers in a doctrine holding that all souls are destined for salvation, have posted statements that those who do not share their position on this issue will be going to Hell.

There are many hazards to attempts to use the Bible to settle political disagreements.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example:

  1. Not everyone agrees that the Bible is authoritative. This is a sufficiently familiar point that I can hardly imagine it needs elaboration.
  2. Not everyone who does agree that the Bible is authoritative agrees on how it should be interpreted.In connection with border policy, relaxationists like to quote two excerpts from the Gospel of Luke. These excerpts are the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The Samaritan is good because he shows hospitality to a non-Samaritan, the shepherd chooses those who perform such acts of mercy as welcoming strangers and rejects those who do not.  Advocates of a relaxationist stand on border policy trot these verses out in confidence that they will clobber restrictionists into silence.

    And so they may.  But beware.  One Samaritan is good to the beaten man; three Jews are bad to him.  That story could as easily be called “The Parable of the Bad Jews” as the “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And so on with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, including the sheep and the goats.  The consistent, overarching theme of the whole thing is that early first century Jews are hypocrites, unworthy of their divine heritage, and that they will be punished unless they join the movement forming around Jesus.  Progressive Christians reflexively identify themselves and the church as the heirs of this rebuke, and say that the strictures that Jesus lays upon the superficially pious Jews of his day apply to the superficially Christians of our day.  But that is not the only interpretation Luke has received over the centuries.  Plenty of readers, among them people wielding whatever form of sacred or secular authority you may find impressive, have read Luke as a mandate for every form of anti-Jewish activity, up to and including genocidal violence.  If that’s the road you’re bent to follow, nothing in the Bible will stop you traveling down it.

  3. The Bible is a complex book, political disputes are complex situations, and overlaying the one complexity on top of the other leads to more confusion than enlightenment.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really does not accept that a book like the Bible, 36,000 verses in a variety of languages and literary genres, produced by the work of untold numbers of people over more than a dozen centuries, can provide a reader with support for any position that reader would like to see supported. Still, people do seem to lose sight of this.Here’s a tweet that exemplifies the problem:https://twitter.com/owillis/status/666345924013252609

    To which a smart-aleck might reply that the command to uproot the seed of Amalek is limited neither by the liturgical calendar nor by the passage of centuries, and inquire if that is the model Mr Willis would have us follow.

    If we do want to stick with something specifically called for by the liturgical calendar, in the impeccably progressive Episcopal Church this morning’s Daily Office reading from the Old Testament was from the prophet Joel (chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 9-17.) It includes a call for the Jews of the Diaspora to reverse what Isaiah had seen, to beat ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, to stand in the valley and do battle for the heritage of Israel.  It concludes with the lines “And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.”

    I’d certainly rather we lean towards a relaxationist line than a restrictionist one, and if we have no choice but to cite Bible verses in defense of border policy, I’d always prefer a sanitized view of Luke to a full-throated version of Joel, or Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Samuel, or Joshua.  But I think a wiser use of the Bible starts with verses 26.4 and 26.5 of the Book of Proverbs:
    26.4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    26.5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

    Do these verses contradict each other?  Obviously they contradict each other; that’s the point.  The Bible is a reliable companion, and can be a wise counselor, if we listen to it in the right mind.  But it doesn’t make our decisions for us.  We’re still responsible for living our lives.  We need our own judgment to tell us whether any particular group of people are fools or not.  Having decided that they are fools, we need our judgment to decide whether, in a given situation, it is more important to keep ourselves distinct from their foolishness or to try to persuade them to leave it behind.  Once we’ve made that decision, the appropriate proverb will tell us the consequence of our decision.  Holding aloof from folly, we must abide it in silence.  Trying to correct folly, we must ourselves become somewhat foolish.

    In regard to border policy, I think the Bible is useful to us only after we have decided whether we, like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and Joel, are members of a community that is called upon to establish itself as a distinct people with a distinct destiny in the divine drama of history, or whether we, like the contemporaries of Jesus as described in Luke, are members of a community that has gone as far in that drama as distinctiveness will take it and so must set our distinctions aside and embrace a new kind of identity.  I tend to lean toward the shedding distinctiveness side, and rarely read the violent passages of scripture without horror and revulsion.  But my progressive friends, in their spasms of self-righteousness, have managed to take their immigration relaxationism so far that I am coming to see value even in the injunctions to smite Amalek.

  4. One theme the Bible makes abundantly clear is that God will surprise us.  The Bible time and again tells us explicitly that God will surprise us; it articulates a world-view every portion of which implies that God will surprise us; it tells the stories of hundreds of people, all of whom are at some point God surprises; and readers of the Bible, every time they turn to it with their ears and minds open, will be freshly surprised by its contents.  Sometimes the surprises the Bible tells us to watch for will be pleasant. God will answer prayers, make miracles, and provide evidence that we are right and the other fellow is wrong.  These are very agreeable surprises.  Other times the surprises are extremely disagreeable.  Among the consequences of disagreeable surprises is the realization that all of our beliefs have been ill-founded.  Therefore, citing the Bible in order to justify one’s certitude that one’s beliefs are well-founded is likely to exasperate those daily readers of the Bible who have internalized its injunctions to accept that God alone is wise, that God alone knows in full what God’s plans are for us and for the world, and that God’s ways are not our ways and cannot be searched by our lights.

*WordPress is an unsocial medium, an online hermitage, as witness the fact that it’s almost indecent to blog under your real name here.

I think I’ve figured out the 2016 Republican presidential contest

Yesterday I saw a piece on Politico called “Jeb Bush is 2016’s John Kerry.” Reading that, it struck me why I had thought that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had a 90% chance of emerging as next year’s Republican nominee for president: I was unconsciously assuming that the 2016 Republican contest would play out along the lines of the 2004 Democratic contest.

In the Politico piece author Bill Scher mentions that former Florida governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is currently registering 4% support on polls of likely Republican primary voters, then reminds us that in November 2003 then-Massachusetts senator John Forbes “John Forbes” Kerry registered 4% support in polls of likely Democratic primary voters. Since Mr Kerry went on to win his party’s nomination, Mr Scher suggests, Mr Bush might be able to follow his example and become the Republican nominee next year.

I don’t agree with Mr Scher’s analysis. What makes the 2016 Republican contest look so much like the 2004 Democratic one is that the early going is dominated by an unlikely insurgent, former Vermont governor Howard Brush “Doctor” Dean among the Democrats in 2004, loudmouth landlord Donald John “Don John” Trump among the Republicans this year.  In each case, the insurgency is fueled by the disconnect between the party’s elite and its mass supporters over one key issue. In 2004, the vast majority of Democrats were firmly convinced that it had been a mistake for the USA to invade Iraq the year before, while the party’s moneymen were giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who supported the war. Dr Dean rose to the head of the Democratic polls as the only seemingly plausible candidate who was unequivocally opposed to the war. This time around, over 90% of Republicans are firmly convinced that immigration policy should be made more restrictive, while the party’s moneymen are giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who want to make it less restrictive. As the loudest and most extreme restrictionist voice, Mr Trump has driven relaxationists like Mr Bush to the sidelines.

How did John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and didn’t admit that he’d been wrong to do so until 2006, manage to win the nomination of a party whose voters were almost as solidly against that war in 2004 as Republican voters are today against the relaxationist line on immigration to which candidates like Mr Bush are committed? First, he benefited from good luck, as Dr Dean and then-Missouri Representative Richard “Dick” Gephardt allowed themselves to be drawn into a highly visible and extremely unattractive personal feud in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, an event held in a state where people famously value politeness.  That feud knocked those two men out of contention there, opening the door for Mr Kerry to win a surprise victory in Iowa which led directly to wins in New Hampshire and the other early states, turning him from a no-hoper to a front-runner almost overnight.

Second, the only people who pay much attention to a presidential campaign the year before the voting starts are enthusiasts and professionals. The enthusiasts greatly outnumber the professionals, and are not consistently focused on the ability of a candidate to win a general election. Once the voting starts, a wider variety of people check in to the process, and electability is usually one of their top concerns. Dr Dean did not look like a very good bet to beat George Walker “W” Bush in that year’s general election, and other antiwar candidates, such as then-Ohio Representative Dennis “Look at My Wife!” Kucinich and the Rev’d Mr Alfred “Al” Sharpton seemed likely to pose even less formidable challenges to Mr Bush.  Mr Kerry struck those voters as a likelier winner, and while his support for the Iraq war would prove to be an embarrassment in the general election, his background as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and as a relatively dovish senator reassured Democrats that once in office, he would be eager to end the ongoing wars and reluctant to launch new ones.

Mr Bush may yet benefit from fighting among the top-tier candidates, but the rest of the scenario that put Mr Kerry on the top of the Democratic ticket seems most unlikely to replay itself in his favor. As the brother of George W. Bush, Mr Bush has always faced serious doubts about his electability, making him an unlikely recipient of votes from people looking for a winner.  And as someone who has for decades been outspoken and firm in his support for a relaxationist approach to immigration, he has no credentials at all that would make him acceptable to Republican restrictionists as Mr Kerry’s antiwar past made him acceptable to Democratic doves. In that way, Mr Bush’s 2004 analogue is not the once-and-future peace campaigner Mr Kerry, but then-Connecticut senator Joseph Isadore “Joe” Lieberman, whose near-universal name recognition as the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee gave him a place at the top of the polls when campaigning started, but whose relentless hawkishness pushed him first to the back of the Democratic pack, and then out of the party altogether.

Other candidates who might be acceptable to the Republican party’s elites, notably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Cara Carleton “Carly” Forina and New Jersey governor Christopher James “Chris” Christie, have been making restrictionist noises of late.  If history repeats itself in the way Mr Scher suggests, it will likely be one of those two, not Mr Bush, who clambers over the wreckage of the Trump insurgency to enter the top tier of candidates.

So, how do I think the race will go?  The Republican elites who have despaired of Mr Bush are now apparently trying to push Florida senator Marco Antonio “I dreamed there was an Emperor Antony” Rubio forward. If r Rubio manages to open the voting by winning the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, he will likely go into the 9 February New Hampshire primary with the kind of momentum that swept John Kerry to victory in that contest in 2004, and like Mr Kerry will be poised to run the table of major contests, winning the nomination easily.

If Mr Rubio does not win Iowa, the likeliest winner there is Dr Benjamin Solomon “Ben” Carson, whose deep well of support from the Christian right virtually ensures that he can stay in the nomination race as long as he likes, taking 10%, 20%, 30% of the vote in state after state until the last primaries on 28 June.  Dr Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, but his supporters are so devoted and well-organized that no foreseeable event that will force him to drop out of the field.

If neither Mr Rubio nor Dr Carson wins Iowa, then the winner there is likely to have been Texas senator Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz.  Mr Cruz is running a campaign that strikes many observers as the most similar to a winning campaign of any in the field at the moment, he has been concentrating his efforts on Iowa, and his hard-right profile might appeal to Republican caucus-goers.  If Mr Cruz does win Iowa, he will probably go directly to South Carolina for a showdown with Dr Carson.  If Mr Cruz wins both Iowa and South Carolina, he might consolidate the support of the Republican right-wing; if not, he will struggle to stay in the field, no matter how well-balanced the structure of his campaign may be.

New Hampshire’s primary is the least predictable of the early contests.  Seven candidates have a real chance of winning there: Mr Rubio, Mr Christie, Mr Kasich, Ms Fiorina, Mr Trump, Mr Cruz, and Mr Bush.  While New Hampshire is typically leery of hard-right figures such as Mr Cruz, the presence of so many other candidates, coupled with the possibility of a boost from an upset win in Iowa, makes it possible that he might win there with 20% of the vote or so.  And Mr Trump’s strong polling in that state is to be taken relatively seriously, as New Hampshire residents do check into the process a bit earlier than do most Americans.

If Mr Christie, Ohio governor John Richard “Ouch! My Back!” Kasich, Ms Fiorina, or Mr Bush should win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate would become an alternative for Republican elites in case Mr Rubio falters.  It would be very difficult for any of these candidates to follow up such a win, however, since none of then is currently operating an organization in or raising funds from even half the states where the nomination will be decided.  And none of those four can continue without a win in New Hampshire.  But Mr Rubio is in many ways an extraordinarily slight figure; he does not lead the field in national polling, early-state polling, fundraising, cash on hand, organization, endorsements, or any other measurable index of strength.  He is a first-term senator who would be facing an uphill battle for reelection were he trying to become a second term senator; only 15% of Floridian voters say they would like to see him as president.  So he might collapse after a loss in New Hampshire, and one of these four might move into the elite-favorite role.  If that is Mr Christie or Ms Fiorina, that role might culminate in the nomination.  Mr Bush and Mr Kasich, however, are so badly compromised in so many ways that even the united support of the establishment probably could not get them past Mr Cruz or Mr Trump.

If the winner in New Hampshire is Mr Rubio, Mr Trump, or Mr Cruz, those elites will have only Mr Rubio available to them as the sort of candidate who makes them comfortable.  That would suit Mr Rubio’s interests, of course. However, it may also suit Mr Trump or Mr Cruz.  Those men do not want to gain the support of the party’s establishment; they want to revolutionize the party and replace its establishment.  If the GOP’s principal moneymen rally around Mr Rubio after New Hampshire, Mr Trump or Mr Cruz may choose that moment to drive the message home to the party’s restrictionist base that Mr Rubio is as much a relaxationist as Mr Bush.  Drop that hammer, and the Rubio 2016 may seem less like an army to march with and more like a burning building to be trapped in come the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of 1 March.

So there are a number of ways that the race could play out.  It is quite possible that Mr Rubio will win every major contest.  It is equally possible that after Super Tuesday, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will be the two candidates fighting it out for the nomination.  The “smart-money” pundits seem to be expecting a Rubio-Cruz showdown; I don’t see a lot of scenarios where those two men are both viable candidates after 1 March, though certainly some of them are possible.  And one of the other four elite-friendly candidates could win New Hampshire, pick up the wreckage of a Rubio collapse, and go on to edge out Mr Cruz or Mr Trump after a hard-fought primary season.

Twilight of the Honkies?

I follow a number of right-leaning websites, largely because I like to get all points of view.  A few days ago, I saw a post on Steve Sailer’s blog about a study by Angus Deaton and Ann Case which indicated that death rates among whites aged 45-54 in the USA jumped significantly in the years 1999-2013, a jump which contrasted with steady declines in mortality among other demographic cohorts in the USA and elsewhere.  Mr Sailer has followed this post up herehere, here and here; the significance he finds in the topic can be found in the titles of his first and fifth posts: “#WhiteLivesDon’tMatter” and “Why Wasn’t the Big 1999-2002 Rise in Death Rate Among 45-54 Year Old Whites Noticed Until 2015?”  Other conservative bloggers have found great significance in the conclusions Professors Deaton and Case have drawn; for example, Rod Dreher sees in these figures signs that life is losing its meaning for poor whites in the USA, while Anatoly Karlin sees an ominous parallel to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman points out a problem with the analysis on which Professors Deaton and Case have based their conclusions. In 1999, the median age within the 45-54 years old subgroup of US whites was a lot closer to 45 than to 54, while in 2013 it was much closer to 54.  The Deaton and Case study does not adjust for this difference in age distribution.  Deaton and Case give us this spectacular graph:

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Correcting for age distribution alone, Professor Gelman produces this figure:

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Which accounts for the entire effect illustrated by the bright red line in the Deaton/ Case paper.

Professor Gelman argues that the Deaton/ Case findings are still newsworthy, if not as sensational as their interpretation would suggest.  Why did mortality among US whites aged 45-54 remain steady in years when virtually every comparable demographic experienced a significant decline in mortality?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect it will turn out to be something pretty obvious. My first thought is base rate.  After all, middle-aged white Americans are, on average, one of the most prosperous large groups on earth, and have been so for a great many years.  That isn’t to deny that pockets of deep poverty like those which so concern Mr Dreher do exist among US whites at the left end of the income distribution curve, but the income level at the middle of the white American bell curve is quite high by global standards and has been for many generations. So, any easy measures that could move the needle up on average life expectancy among a population have probably long since been taken with regard to middle-aged white Americans.

The second thing that comes to my mind is obesity.  Americans in general are pretty fat; this animated gif that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a couple of years ago illustrates just how fat we’ve been getting, and whites are certainly not immune to the problem:

If the median white American gained as much weight as this figure suggests in the years leading up to and beyond 1999, it is a sign of extraordinary advances in medical care that the mortality rate among US whites aged 45-54 did not jump by at least as much as the original Deaton/ Case interpretation indicated.  That other groups actually experienced declines in mortality while undergoing equal or greater increases in obesity would support the base rate explanation to which I referred above, that African Americans and nonwhite US Hispanics, having on average lower incomes than US whites, were also on average later in receiving new forms of medical intervention and other benefits of modernity than were their white compatriots.