Category Archives: politics

The Backfire Effect

You may have noticed that sometimes: you argue with somebody and you come away thinking: “My that backfired!”   Rather than loosening their attachment to their foolish belief they have become more committed.

In years since the effect was named studies have revealed that the effect is common and potent.   They have discovered that some public health advertising campaigns backfire. The target audiences become much less likely to change behavior.  Even bizarrely after the audience admitted that they accepted the facts.

With a public health mindset you can then start to wonder what dosage of facts and information is optimal to change a person’s mind.  Studies that attempted to start to get a handle on that (see links below).  But slight spoiler – it’s really hard! – but not too hot, not too cold.

So what’s going here?  Naturally we all labor to keep a consistent world view.  Whenever new information comes over the transom our minds devote some calories to folding it into that world view.   Let’s call that work skepticism.  It can be defensive, curious, even light hearted  skepticism – smart people take pride in this work.    If the information is at odds with our current world view we are motivated to take the exercise more seriously.  The name for that syndrome is “motivated skepticism.”

It’s not actually that surprising that engaging in the exercise would often strength the existing world view.

That all reminded me of what in back in the 70s the AI community used to call truth maintenance.   Failure to keep the software’s model of truth well maintained was treated as an existential threat to the system.  Because, it’s well known that in simple sets of equations a single mistake doesn’t just lead to bad results; it lets you prove that anything is true.

Here are three podcasts (123) about this.   Part of David McRaney’s the “Your not so smart” series.   David’s turf is around questions of what social science can tell us about discourse, debate, and changing people’s minds.  If you are not into podcasts you can skim the posts enumerated above for an overview and links to other materials.


I think the #1 thing i’m embarrassed about is that I didn’t take seriously the one in three chance that the best pollsters gave Trump of winning.   As John Hobo wrote: “I’ve never played Russian roulette – don’t intend to – but I think I know enough of tabletop games to know that sometimes a six-sided die comes up 6.”

So I really didn’t have a contingency plan; still don’t.  I’d chatted about hedging.  I.e. placing a largish bet that Trump would win, so then at least I’d have some winnings – either way.  But the consensus was that it’s difficult to hedge against an existential threat.

Back around the turn of the century I read “Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting.”   Which revealed the shocking trend in polarization.  Back then it was all on the Right.  Still is, to first order.

So, I came to form opinions about how that was likely to unfold over time.  Models of possible destinations.  For example the last time this happened we got the Civil War.

My best case scenario was (maybe still is) that the party of the right would implode; go insane.  That the voters would look at that and run away.  The George W. Bush administration gave some confirmation to that hope.   But, also a taste of what a terrifying journey that would be.

What I didn’t know until recently is that that political scientists tend to think about voter behavior and preferences.   For example, voter preferences flow from the party to the voters, mostly.  Not the other way around.  It’s unsurprising when you think about it.  How is the typical person to form an opinion about complex issues of governance except to turn to those around them.

It’s not as simple as to say the consensus of the party members flows top down.  It’s a social network thing.  But for a party  member to step away from the consensus accepting a huge about of collateral damage.  He has shred his entire social network.


Ideology of the politically active rich.

Interesting chart.

poole donor distributions

It give a glimpse at how and which of the mega rich spend a on our elections.  It would be interesting to see a similar chart about the lobbying of their agents.  I’m surprised how sorted this is by the age of the Lord’s empire.

That’s the last slide in this deck (pdf) from a year ago.  The entire deck is a nice summary of the state of our frighteningly polarized politics.

43 Dollars

Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit too cheerful I listen to the “New Books In Political Science” podcast.   I guess that’s because many years ago a book about political science changed my world view, a lot.

This week end I listened to a chat with the author of  “The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate“.   I’m to lazy to go back and find the quote that shocked me, but let’s pretend it was: “For every dollar spent by lobbyist for various liberal goals (consumer protection for example) industry spends 43 dollars.”  Chew on that!

The Amazon review with just three stars dislikes the author suggested solution.   The reviewer amusingly characterises that as “I guess the only way to stop a bad man with a Lobbyist, is with a good man with a Lobbyist.”

The Poor? The pathologist report: it’s chronic, hopeless, and their own damn fault. Might be genetic too.

Steve Randy Waldman has another awesome post, and this case he tackles the mystery of how you can have a reasonably well functioning wealthy liberal democracy at the same time as a huge segment of the population is shockingly poor.  Wealth inequality is a simple answer, but then why doesn’t the democratic process work to fix that?  So you get a “trilema.”  I love triangles.

His names for the three sides of this triangle are: Liberal, Equality, and Nonpathology.  Clearly this idea is going to have trouble getting traction if only because that last one is so odd.  And that’s the key idea.  You can have a functioning liberal democracy along with extreme inequality if you can get everybody to flesh out the bible’s “For you always have the poor with you” sufficiently.  If the majority of the population accepts that the root cause of both is that the poor are afflicted with some pathological flaw – genetic say, or bad maybe bad fashion sense.  This is amusingly covered in the in Westside Story’s “Officer Krupke.”

This technique for suppressing the natural feedback loop you’d expect in a democracy is.  This isn’t just the usual technique of reactionaries to say that it would be futile to try and fix a problem they don’t care much about.

Once you decide that the problem is that the poor are suffering from the disease state – which is only true to the extent that they are poor – you can call in various quacks to prescribe their favorite prescription.  Interview training say.  Or better impulse control.  Or more entrepreneurship risk taking.  Or scolding that they should study harder.  You know: the things that the well off struggle to improve in their own lives.  This is totally a win for the elites because the prescriptions just happen to server their goals.  Tax cuts!

It’s a very good essay, particularly the tail end where he addresses some of the stories elites tell, and the poor often accept, about the pathological behaviors of the poor.


Premature Standardization

Back in the day I was quite interested in Industrial Standardization.  It’s a fascinating complement to the more widely discussed business models intended to capture and own a given market.

This morning I’m aroused by word that the ISO is working on standardizing how we test software.  My reaction is “Argh!  Surely you jest!”

A few more reactions.

In all my reading about standards I don’t recall a good check list to help guide when to transition a body of practice into a standard.  There is an excellent list of what drives standardization.  But that’s more about the intensity of the demand, not the quality of the supply of professional knowledge.

There are a few good discussions of failure syndromes around standardization.  James Gosling wrote up a nice short one about how often the demand for quality runs ahead of the supply of skills, which I mention here.

There is an excellent model of what goes wrong when you have intense demand for skills, low professional knowledge, and low barriers to entry.   I’ll quote from my post about that:

“The lack of clear quality measures leads the substitution of alternate sources of legitmacy: pomp, pompous attitude, parasitizing on other sources of authority, advertising, character defamation. (A point which deserves a blog posting of it’s own, but since that’s unlikely I’ll toss in this marvelous line. When this happens you see a pattern: consumers hold the trade in very low esteem but hold their personal practitioner in the highest regard. Where have I heard that before?)”

The effort to standardize software testing came to my attention via Laurent Bossavit’s twitter stream.   Laurent has spent a lot of calories on the puzzle of good software development practices.  You should read his book “The Leprechauns of Software Engineering: How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it.

And maybe you should sign the petition that attempts to slowdown this attempt to prematurely standardize software testing.   Just because we want to have high quality testing practices, skills, and standards does not mean we are ready to write down standards for how to fulfill that desire.  We aren’t ready.

Fear, Risk, and the Labor Pool

The Right in a disgusting and all too typical turn of events twisted a recent CBO report on the Affordable Care Act into a political talking point.  The act has made it easier and more affordable to get health insurance.  And insurance is now less tightly linked to having a job.   You might say that’s great, but not if your on the Right.  Nope, on the Right this is bad.  Why?  Because, as the report  mentions, this empowers some people to drop out of the labor force.

The sadism of this line of reasoning is horrific.  It treats the labor force as cattle.  What is government’s role?  Coerce them into the job market.   Healthcare is just a stick to herd them.

But worse it’s stupid because even if you decide to treat ’em like cattle it’s insane to focus on only on quantity.   What about quality.? A rancher with more cattle, unhealthy cattle, is not wealthier than the rancher with fewer cattle.

This talking vile point has legs!  Child labor laws reduces labor force participation!   Education funding reduces labor force participation.  Social security … what other social welfare programs reduce labor force participation.

I wonder, what social program was the mother of all job killers?   Extending the franchise?  The emancipation proclamation?

Weoponization of the Politics of Currency

The social sciences can be dangerous stuff.  Get you public health policies wrong people die.  Get your diplomacy wrong and all hell breaks loose.  Follow the wrong economic policies and folks starve or worse.

One of the charts that most effected me over the years is this one that shows when various nations abandoned the gold standard during the depression and the lead up to the 2nd world war.  I think you make a pretty straight forward argument that the 2nd world war might have been avoided if the sequence had been different.  Hard money kills.

All currencies have an agenda.  Sometimes their designers are too foolish to know what it is, but still.  Gift cards, frequent flier miles, credit cards, check clearing networks all have an agenda.  You can manage your nation’s currency to make workers insecure and increase the level of unemployment.

This essay by Charlie Stross about why Bitcoin is evil says many of the things I have been thinking.  He calls it a weapon by design.

I’ve wondered if nation states engage in cold warfare by viciously engaging in PR campaigns designed to advance the bad economic policies in their rivals.  I don’t see why not, all the other players in the democratic policy strive to guide social policies to their benefit.