And more right wingers talking nonsense about Benford’s Law update

It seems I was too kind to Larry Correia in my first post about the pro-Trumpist misleading claims about Benford’s Law. He actually is still pushing it as supposed evidence of election fraud.

“Basically, when numbers are aggregated normally, they follow a distribution curve. When numbers are fabricated, they don’t. When human beings create what they think of as “random” numbers, they’re not. This is an auditing tool for things like looking for fabricated invoices. It also applies to elections. A normal election follows the expected curve. If you look at a 3rd world dictatorship’s election numbers, it looks like a spike or a saw.

There’s a bunch of different people out there running the numbers for themselves and posting the results so you can check their math. It appears that checking various places around the country Donald Trump’s votes follow the curve. The 3rd party candidates follow the curve. Down ballot races follow the curve. Hell, even Joe Biden’s votes follow the curve for MOST of the country. But then when you look at places like Pittsburgh the graph looks like something that would have made Hugo Chavez blush.”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/11/09/election-2020-the-more-fuckery-update/

On Twitter I noted that far-right extremist Nick Fuentes is also pushing not just the misleading claims about Benford’s Law but a false claim that Wikipedia “added” criticism of its use in elections to discredit the claims being made about the 2020 general election. As I pointed out in this post, the rider that Benford’s Law use with electoral data was limited had been their for years. Rather than pro-Biden supporters adding it, Trump supporters removed the sentence and references in a bid to hide the fact that their analysis was flawed. You can read a 2013 version of the page here https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Benford%27s_law&oldid=534279795#Election_data

Since then, the section on Benford’s Law in election has expanded into a mini-essay about its use and limitations.

I don’t have a source for 2020 data at the precinct level that some of these graphs are using. I’m certain that there will be both Benford and non-Benford like distributions for Trump and Biden in various places. I do have county level data for 2020 to 2016 from here https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/VOQCHQ

The analysis is trivial to do on a spreadsheet. Grab the first character and then tabulate it with a pivot table. You can explore various candidates from Bush to Biden on a Google sheets I made here https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LPEKnoPtOE4VtYaM9z69B-a0XkRx5tyt_vPak8TknlY/edit?usp=sharing

Here, for example is Donald Trump in Alaska in 2016:

When you look at the district sizes in Alaska and consider Trump’s proportion of the vote, it becomes obvious very quickly that it would be absurd for this data to follow Benford’s Law. Here are the first four (of 40) districts.

DistrictTrump VotesTotal VotesPercentage
District 13180663847.91%
District 23188549258.05%
District 35403761370.97%
District 44070952142.75%
Trump’s vote in four Alaskan districts in 2016

We have leading digits of 3,5 and 4 and no 1s. Why? Because to get leading digits of 1s Trump’s votes would need to be proportionately much smaller! For example if he’d only got 20% of the vote in District 1 then that would result in some 1s. In some of the examples being passed around the Trumpist circles, that is one of the reasons for Benford-like graphs — they’ve picked places where Trump’s vote was proportionately low pushing into a ranges where 1s were common as a leading digit.

The mechanics of the deception here are fascinating. There’s an initial plausibility (Benford’s Law is a real thing and is actually used to detect fraud and has been applied to elections), a lack of any critical thinking (the examples being circulated are very limited, there’s no comparison with past elections to see what is normal) but then active deception (long standing academic critiques of applying Benford’s Law to election data being actively deleted from online wikis). On that latter part, we know the more extreme white nationalist right (Fuentes, Vox Day) are active in attempting to suppress information on how to apply Benford’s Law to election data. Providing the usual smoke screen an aura of legitimacy are the usual convenient idiots for neo-Nazis such as Larry Correia, who repeat the propaganda as ‘just asking questions’.

I Guess I’m Talking About Benford’s Law

The US Presidential Election isn’t just a river in Egypt, it is also a series of bizarre claims. One of the many crimes against statistics being thrown about in what is likely to be a 5 year (minimum) tantrum about the election is a claim about Benford’s law. The first example I saw was last Friday on Larry Correia’s Facebook[1]

“For those of you who don’t know, basically Benford’s Law is about the frequency distribution of numbers. If numbers are random aggregates, then they’re going to be distributed one way. If numbers are fabricated by people, then they’re not. This is one way that auditors look at data to check to see if it has been manipulated. There’s odds for how often single digit, two digit, three digit combos occur, and so forth, with added complexity at each level. It appears the most common final TWO digits for Milwaukee’s wards is 00. 😃 Milwaukee… home of the Fidel Castro level voter turn out. The odds of double zero happening naturally that often are absurdly small. Like I don’t even remember the formula to calculate that, college was a long time ago, but holy shit, your odds are better that you’ll be eaten by a shark ON LAND. If this pans out, that is downright amazing. I told you it didn’t just feel like fraud, but audacious fraud. The problem is blue machine politics usually only screws over one state, but right now half the country is feeling like they got fucked over, so all eyes are on places like Milwaukee.I will be eagerly awaiting developments on this. I love fraud stuff. EDIT: and developments… Nothing particularly interesting. Updated data changes some of the calcs, so it goes from 14 at 0 to 13 at 70. So curious but not damning. Oh well.”

So after hyping up an idea he only vaguely understood (Benford’s law isn’t about TRAILING digits for f-ck sake and SOME number has to be the most common) Larry walked the claim back when it became clear that there was not very much there. As Larry would say beware of Dunning-Krugerands.

The same claim was popping up elsewhere on the internet and there was an excellent Twitter thread debunking the claims here:

footnote [2]

But we can have hierarchies of bad-faith poorly understood arguments. Larry Correia didn’t have the integrity to at least double check the validity of what he was posting before he posted it but at least he checked afterwards…sort of. Vox Day, however, has now also leaped upon the magic of Benford’s law [3]

Sean J Taylor’s Twitter thread does a good job of debunking this but as it has now come up from both Sad and Rabid Puppies, I thought I’d talk about it a bit as well with some examples.

First of all Benford’s law isn’t much of a law. Lots of data won’t follow it and the reason why some data follows it is not well understood. That doesn’t mean it has no utility in spotting fraud, it just means that to use it you first need to demonstrate that it applies to the kind of data you are looking at. If Benford’s Law doesn’t usually apply to the data you are looking at but your data does follow Benford’s law then THAT would/might be a sign of something going on.

That’s nothing unusual in statistics. Data follows distributions and comparing data against an applicable distribution that you expect to apply is how a lot of statistics is done. Benford’s law may or may not be applicable. As always, IT DEPENDS…

For example, if I grab the first digit of the number of Page Views on Wikipedia of Hugo Award finalists [4] then I get a set of data that is Benford like:

The most common digit is 1 as Benford’s law predicts. The probability of it being 1 according to the law is log10(1+1/d) or about 30%. Of the 1241 entries, Benford’s law would predict 374 would have a leading digit of 1 and the actual data has 316. But you can also see that it’s not a perfect fit and we could (but won’t bother because we actually don’t care) run tests to see how good a fit it was.

But what if I picked a different set of numbers from the same data set? Here is the leading digit for the “Age at Hugo” figure graphed for the finalists where I have that data.

It isn’t remotely Benford like and that’s normal (ha ha) because age isn’t going to work that way. Instead the leading digit will cluster around the average age of Hugo finalists. If the data did follow Benford’s law it would imply that teenagers were vastly more likely to win Hugo Awards (or people over 100 I suppose or both).

Generally you need a wide spread of numbers across magnitudes. For example, I joked about Hugo winners in their teens or their centuries but if we also had Hugo finalists who where 0.1… years old as well (and all ages in between) then maybe the data might get a bit more Benfordish.

So what about election data. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The twitter thread above cites a paper entitled Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud [5] but I haven’t read it. The abstract says:

“Looking at simulations designed to model both fair and fraudulent contests as well as data drawn from elections we know, on the basis of other investigations, were either permeated by fraud or unlikely to have experienced any measurable malfeasance, we find that conformity with and deviations from Benford’s Law follow no pattern. It is not simply that the Law occasionally judges a fraudulent election fair or a fair election fraudulent. Its “success rate” either way is essentially equivalent to a toss of a coin, thereby rendering it problematical at best as a forensic tool and wholly misleading at worst.”

Put another way, some election data MIGHT follow Benford’s law sometimes. That makes sense because it will partly depend on the scale of data we are looking at. For example, imagine we had a voting areas of approx 800 likely voters and two viable candidates, would we expect “1” to be a typical leading digit in vote counts? Not at all! “3” and “4” would be more typical. Add more candidates and more people and things might get more Benford like.

Harvard University has easily downloadable US presidential data by State from 1976 to 2016 [6]. At this scale and with all candidates (including numerous 3rd, 4th party candidates) you do get something quite Benford like but with maybe more 1s than expected.

Now look specifically at Donald Trump in 2016 and compare that with the proportions predicted by Benford’s law:

Oh noes! Trump 2016 as too many 1s! Except…the same caveat applies. We have no idea if Benford’s law applies to this kind of data! For those curious, Hilary Clinton’s data looks like (by eyeball only) a better fit.

Now we could test these to see how good a fit they are but…why bother? We still don’t know whether we expect the data to be a close fit or not. If you are looking at those graphs and thinking “yeah but maybe it’s close enough…” then you also need to factor in scale. I don’t have data for individual polling booths or whatever but we can look at the impact of scale by looking at minor candidates. Here’s one Vox Day would like, Pat Buchanan.

My eyeballs are more than sufficient to say that those two distributions don’t match. By Day’s misapplied standards, that means Pat Buchanan is a fraud…which he is, but probably not in this way.

Nor is it just scale that matters. Selection bias and our old friend cherry picking are also invited to the party. Because the relationship between the data and Benford’s law is inconsistent and not understood, we can find examples that fit somewhat (Trump, Clinton) and examples that really don’t (Buchanan) but also examples that are moderately wonky.

Here’s another old fraudster but whose dubious nature is not demonstrated by this graph:

That’s too many twos Ronnie!

Anyway, that is far too many words and too many graphs to say that for US Presidential election data Benford’s law applies only just enough to be horribly misleading.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/larry.correia/posts/4864622073548683

[2] Sean S Taylor’s R code https://gist.github.com/seanjtaylor/cd85175055e66cdc2bb7899a3bcdf313

[3] http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-attack-on-benfords-law.html

[4] https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lL9bm3I7yrkKxSAZwN1NhWr6OB8-s10IkV1g_MSSGXY/edit?usp=sharing

[5] Deckert, J., Myagkov, M., & Ordeshook, P. (2011). Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud. Political Analysis,19(3), 245-268. doi:10.1093/pan/mpr014 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/political-analysis/article/benfords-law-and-the-detection-of-election-fraud/3B1D64E822371C461AF3C61CE91AAF6D

[6] https://dataverse.harvard.edu/file.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/42MVDX/MFU99O&version=5.0

I love Manchester but I must destroy it

As a hobby I collect bad arguments. One I have seen of late surrounding some really shitty and poorly reasoned comments by J K Rowling about gender, is an attempt to pretend that exceptions to the basic chromosomal binary sex classification (i.e. the high school text book simplification of XX & XY) don’t matter. It’s a fallacy we can call the low-percentage fallacy and it is not just present in TERF-pseudologic but in arguments about disability, minority language groups, ethnicity or religion. Essentially the idea is that if a categorical scheme works 99% of the time then voila! They have established some kind of platonic truth where the very real exceptions (which really do matter) don’t count even if the person making the argument concedes they exist.

Proportions need context. If we are talking social policy (and despite often chasing into the weeds of reproductive biology the Rowlingesque arguments are about social policy) then social context matters. A very basic context for a figure like 1% is one-percent of how many people?

For reasons nobody is entirely sure about, the UK is currently an epicentre of spectacularly bad reasoning of Rowling kind. So let’s use the UK as a context. The population of the UK is 66.65 million people and England is 53 million. 1% of 66.65 million is 666,500 or a bit over 6 hundred thousand. For further context the population of the city of Manchester is 510,746 (that’s not Greater Manchester just the city proper https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_Greater_Manchester )

We can use the low-percentage fallacy to make Manchester disappear in a Thanos-like click of my arithmetic fingers. Less than 1% of English people live in Manchester, so we can assume PEOPLE DON’T LIVE IN MANCHESTER. Do we need railway stations in Manchester? No, because nobody live in Manchester. How about the M62 motorway which connects Liverpool (where also nobody lives) to Manchester and then unto Leeds (where also nobody lives) and the rest of Yorkshire (where some people live but only if we aggregate* them enough)? Obviously a huge waste of time and money BECAUSE NOBODY LIVES THERE.

Why on Earth Manchester has not one but TWO football teams is a mystery as, again, nobody lives there (although most Man U fans really don’t live there…) Also, of the people who don’t live in Manchester, none of them are called Smith. It’s true! English people aren’t called Smith even though it is the most common surname in England (OK at 747,967 it just creeps up to 1.1% https://britishsurnames.co.uk/surname/smith/stats ). Weirdly, red haired people do exist in the UK but by the percentage-fallacy don’t exist in the human population.

It’s not just bad reasoning but it is a kind of error you see in some gee-whiz claims about AI algorithms that are “99% accurate”. It is also has a highly sinister aspect when considering minority ethnic groups in many countries, where groups who are proportionally small can be vanished from policy consideration despite amounting to hundreds of thousands of people. If the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia were a city (798,365 people in 2016 https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/profile-of-indigenous-australians ) they would be the sixth largest city in the country (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_Australia_by_population).

*[Also don’t aggravate people from Yorkshire.]

Whatever happened to Voxopedia?

In 2018 I wrote one of my occasional posts about “Infogalactic” aka Voxopedia, saying:

“Yes, the shambling undead creature assembled from rotting remains of articles discarded by Wikipedia continues to lurch through the countryside occasionally gurgling the word “brrraainnss” (or is it “editorrrrsss”). Somehow it is still not dead despite being edited by a tiny number of people, two of whom seem to be at war over which kind of weird conspiracy theory complex is the right one.”

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/you-havent-mocked-voxopedia-in-a-long-time/

Although I’ve touched upon the site occasionally since then, the basic situation has remained unchanged. The same small core of editors keep trying to keep it updated with occasional forays into editing out all the “BCE/CE” date designations back to “BC/AD”. Meanwhile, there is a couple more editors using it as a personal blog for their own conspiracy theories and I think maybe as a place to edit a screenplay? It’s amazingly not dead but instead has slowly drifted into irrelevance. There was a point where various alt-right websites would link to it over Wikipedia but sightings have become rare in the wild.

Today though, even Vox Day himself couldn’t be bothered linking to his own vanity wiki:

Yet it had such dreams and ambitions back in 2016 when it first appeared ttps://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/vox-days-vanity-wikipedia/

By November 2016 the fundamental problem with even maintaining a bad version of Wikipedia was obvious: not enough editors and not enough updates: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/a-tale-of-an-encyclopedia-in-graphs/

People really did sign up in droves. What they didn’t do is start editing or curating. Looking at recent changes today, it is more-or-less the same handful of editors making the same number of editors per day as it was in 2017. Of those, several are just pursuing their own niche articles dedicated to either pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, transphobia, or anti-Semitism.

The development roadmap appears to have stalled in 2017. The encylopedia’s own page on its roadmap (https://infogalactic.com/info/Infogalactic:Roadmap ) hasn’t been updated since May 2017. None of the promised unique features for the wiki whereby people could somehow see different perspectives on an issue have ever come into being nor, if the technology existed and the concept made sense, would the wiki have enough people to write them.

Back in October 2016 the mood was quite different. In what reads like a weird parody Day announced:

“On Monday night, the Techstars held a meeting, and after a series of intense discussions, it was decided to radically modify our development schedule. Instead of utilizing the existing MediaWiki engine to incorporate the new features we are planning, both the Techstars and the Star Council agreed that Infogalactic will be better served by replacing the MediaWiki engine with a superior engine of our own device, codename DONTPANIC.

We also decided to add additional levels of administration and editing in order to better maintain cohesion in content modification until the preference filters are operational and render content management unnecessary. There will be three levels of Galaxians, create page only, create and add content only, and create, add, and remove content. This will permit the Starlords to more easily contain and constrain the behavior of any editors whose behavior is not in line with the Seven Canons or the objectives of the Star Council.”

https://infogalactic.blogspot.com/2016/10/roadmap-20.html

A better summary of the state of wiki is provided by this page on “Infogalactic”

Mr Praline enters the pet shop to register a complaint about the dead Norwegian Blue parrot just as the shopkeeper is preparing to close the establishment for lunch. Despite being told that the bird is deceased and that it had been nailed to its perch, the proprietor insists that it is “pining for the fjords” or simply “stunned”.

https://infogalactic.com/info/Dead_Parrot_sketch

As this is technically a blogiversay round-up post, I’ll leave you with my favourite post on the topic: the time Voxopedia had an argument with me about whether pi=4 [spoiler: it doesn’t] https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2016/10/26/alt-pi-voxopedia-replies-again/

A study in denial

I could have written a post like this one every other day for the past few weeks. Highlight one of the right-wing blogs I read and talk about their reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. The story would be the same over and over: a mix of genuine confusion, an even more irrational faith in free market economics than usual and the now standard belief that genuine expertise is the hallmark of deception.

But I’ll highlight the inevitable one: Sarah Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/ The truth of the general statement I made above would also be nearly true of Hoyt’s blog. Not quite every other day but nearly so, there has been a post about the virus offering a close to fact-free dissent about the wider view of the pandemic.

The denial isn’t hard to understand. There really is no doubt that measures to reduce social contact reduces the spread of the disease – indeed, that’s almost axiomatic about communicable diseases. There’s also not much doubt that reducing social contact has a negative impact on the economy. Which takes us straight to the dilemma of every nation on Earth currently: saving lives will hurt your economy. A corollary to that is that there really is no immediate free market solution to the pandemic. Give it time and yes, there are fortunes to be made from vaccines and treatments but this current situation is genuinely a big-government kind of problem and hence even conservative governments are trying to buy time with quite severe laws restricting our movement.

For libertarians and pseudo-libertarians this must be nightmarish. OK the actual situation IS nightmarish but for the pseudo-libertarians like Hoyt the world has turned on its head. The route through the next months has narrowed to variations on the same basic policy: massive government efforts to keep the health system running, laws massively restricting human movement, massive government spending (based on borrowing) to stop the economy from collapsing. This is not a war (the pseudo-libertarians quite like war) but it is not unlike a war-footing but without the militarism that the pseudo-libertarians enjoy.

For the piece linked above the frame is a standard denialist line: models are simplifications of complex things and hence don’t capture the complexities and hence must be false and wrong and bad etc etc. Part of that is true. Models are simplifications of complex things and have aspects that are known to be both false and misleading. The simplest example (and analogy – which is cool that an actual example is also a metaphor for itself) is a map. Maps leave out details. A roadmap exaggerates the width of roads for the purpose of visibility. Any model must contain such simplifications and errors because that is the purpose of models.

The situation is even more dire than that though. Not only is every model ever wrong (to some degree) but we have no choice but to use models. Unless you are omniscient being, you can’t know everything. So you HAVE to use models. Your brain uses models, your basic SENSES use less than perfect models that approximate and fill in missing details. It is not unlike the version of the laws of thermodynamics (attributed to either Allen Ginsberg or C.P.Snow – take your pick)

  • You can’t win
  • You can’t break even
  • You can’t leave the game

People get that the first two must be true about any kind of model (cognitive, mathematical, computer-based) i.e. that the model is a simplification and that there will be aspects of the model that are misleading. People don’t always get the last one: you can’t escape models. Which takes me back to Hoyt:

“This came to mind about a week ago as I was stomping around the house saying that anyone who relied on computer models for anything should be shot.  My husband was duly alarmed, because as he pointed out, he has designed computer models. At which point I told him that’s okay because his models do not involve people.  Which is part of it.  Throw one person into a model, and you’ll wish the person were a spherical cow of uniform density in friction-less vacuum.”

The question Hoyt raises unintentionally is if people are not to rely on computer models then what SHOULD they rely on? What is the alternative? Because not relying on models at all is an impossibility. The virtue of a formal model is that they are examinable. Hoyt uses the old joke about the mathematician given the task of helping a farmer but the joke itself reveals a strength of a mathematical model as the butt of the joke. The simplification and hence the way the model departs from reality is overtly stated. The alternative is situations were we use models without realising we are doing so an without understanding how the cognitive model we are using departs sharply from reality.

Luckily for me (if not for the health and safety of her readers) Hoyt provides a perfect example of exactly that kind of unexamined model:

“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”

Hoyt is still stuck with a mental model of Covid-19 as a “Chinese” disease — as if somehow the novel coronavirus has a memory of where it first infected humans. Spread of the disease has long since moved well beyond travellers from China. For example, I believe in Australia more cases originated directly via travellers from the USA than from China. Mind you, remember this a person who puts every effort into refusing to believe that there can be such a thing as unconscious biases (at least among people she approves of).

Having robustly asserted how people aren’t spherical cows, Hoyt then promptly spends multiple paragraphers generalising about New Yorkers and Italians and so on. More flawed models.

That takes us to Colorado. Colorado, Hoyt assures us, is different. Now that is clearly true. Colorado is not Italy and it is not New York and some of those differences do matter for the spread of the disease. It is a less densely populated state without a doubt. Hoyt argues that because Colorado is different then the rules should be different.

“So, why are the same rules being applied to both places? AND why are both places treated exactly alike? And why are both places assumed to be on the same curve as Italy or Spain or Wuhan, places and cultures, and ways of living that have absolutely nothing to do with how we live or who we are? And here’s the kicker: if you allow states like Colorado and others that naturally self-distance to go about their lawful business, not only time but more money will be available to study the problem clusters.”

Here is the real kicker. Models are imperfect (by definition) and those imperfection can be misleading (by their very nature) and you can’t NOT use models of some kind or another BUT we have a way of minimising the mistakes we make. The method is simple but it has taken us millennia to work it out: we check the outcomes of our models against data and observation. Now even with data we still have models (sorry, they are inescapable) but we have ways of checking our conclusions against others.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA.

Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor). Colorado does have major ski resorts* and I suspect we’ll get a better sense of the role they played in the pandemic in the future.

Yes but…as I said, even data relies on models of one kind or another and maybe Australia and Colorado are using vastly different diagnostic criteria or maybe it is due to vastly different testing regimes. I might genuinely be comparing apples and oranges. Sadly, we can reduce (but not remove) disparities in reporting by looking at a more sobering statistic: deaths.

According to the John Hopkins University dashboard New South Wales has 12 confirmed deaths. That’s a tragic and worrying amount. Yes, many more people die from all sorts of other causes but these deaths add to that total or mortality and the progress of this pandemic is far from over. That’s just the beginning of the numbers.

Let’s compare with Colorado (there is also state specific data here also https://covid19.colorado.gov/case-data). From the same data source Colorado has had 97 deaths so far. It’s when I saw that number that I shuddered and decided that I’d write this post rather than just shake my head at Hoyt’s nonsense. I knew things were bad in some parts of the US but I’d assumed that some of the denial I was reading was because the writers of this toxic nonsense were in states were the wave of the pandemic was still to hit. Ninety-seven deaths, shit. I keep looking at that number and knowing that there other places in the US where the numbers of deaths are being under reported particularly for vulnerable communities and shuddering at what might be the true scale of thins.

Now sure, maybe the differences in testing and diagnostic criteria and data collection are so different between NSW and Colorado that the number of cases is incomparable BUT they would have to be significantly different in two different directions simultaneously. That is, if NSW are under-reporting the number of cases compared to Colorado then the case-fatality rate in Colorado is even worse when compared with NSW. I’m not making the comparison to say which state is somehow doing ‘better’ (it’s not a race or a competition) but simply trying to get a sense of what I can see HERE and compare it with where Sarah Hoyt is. It is undoubtedly a crisis here and we’ve got a conservative government in power at the state level and the national level and heck, both of them if they had an excuse to cut spending and pull back on entitlements and let business run wild they would and you know what, they aren’t and in fact they are doing the opposite. That’s not because they have had a sudden ideological conversion to policies they have derided for years but because massive government spending is the ONLY way to keep the economy going. When conservative ideologues rush to implement free government funded childcare it is safe to assume that they felt they had no other choice.

The morbid irony here is that Hoyt is ignoring her own advice. Rather than just look at Colorado and consider whether that state, regardless of what is going on anywhere else, is in the midst of viral outbreak and in grave danger and what action in such a circumstance the state government should take (hint: major restriction on movement and social contact to keep hospitals going and to give time for treatments and vaccines to be developed) she is insisting that because Colorado is not New York it can’t need the same measures as New York. It’s a compounded level of illogic.

Strip everything away from that piece by Sarah Hoyt and what you are left with is the common theme that captures so much of the train of political thought that joins Ayn Rand to Trump to Jordan Peterson: the desire to dress up wishful thinking as something other than a demand that reality should accord with their personal desires.

There’s no conclusion. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Think of others. Be kind. Don’t spread nonsense.

*[To be fair New South Wales does have ski resorts as well but during the start of the pandemic it was 1. summer here and 2. they were on fire.]

It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission

I wanted to expand on a tweet I posted yesterday evening.

The context is an on-going argument about changes Internet Archive made to how they allow people to borrow in-copyright books online in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/30/internet-archive-accused-of-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-for-piracy and IA’s explanation here https://blog.archive.org/2020/03/30/internet-archive-responds-why-we-released-the-national-emergency-library/ ) In response to an article on NPR about the changed policy Chuck Wendig posted this tweet:

…and that set of a whole host of counter-reactions.

I’m not going to get into the details of Internet Archive’s move or whether what they are doing amounts to piracy or not. That’s been hashed out elsewhere and some of the arguments depend on the murky waters of Intellectual Property law about which almost any opinion has an uncanny ability of being wrong. Rather, what has been bugging me has been responses to Chuck Wendig’s post (and posts radiating out from there on the same topic) that take a generic pro-piracy stance with regard to written works. In particular what is bugging me is people claiming that their pro-piracy position is somehow progressive or of the left.

The argument goes along the lines of Intellectual Property isn’t real property or to take it a step further, property itself is a regressive concept and therefore by authors claiming ownership over texts they are setting themselves up as landlords/rent-seekers and by attempting to prevent piracy authors are setting themselves up as police. The argument being that authors objecting to piracy amounts to authors acting as the repressive aspect of capitalism.

I’m more than happy to concede that there is much merit in the idea that IP is a deeply flawed concept. I’m also happy to accept that the concept of ‘property’ itself (even in its less abstract physical variety) is problematic. The analysis of nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into the nature of property (‘What is Property?‘ from which the slogan ‘property is theft’ is coined https://www.gutenberg.org/files/360/360-h/360-h.htm ) is still pertinent today and remains a challenge to how our modern society is organised.

But it is a fallacy to leap from a left-wing tradition of scepticism about property to justifying pirating books. Property maybe a concept used to prop up the injustice of modern capitalism but that doesn’t make it OK to eat your co-worker’s sandwich. Likewise, even if we accept the broad notion of property but reject the notion of intellectual property the underlying logical fallacy remains.

The fallacy is this:

  • Say the standard argument for why it is wrong to do X is because of some principle Y.
  • Say we can show that principle Y is itself fallacious, immoral or otherwise wrong.
  • It does not therefore follow that is NOT wrong to do X.

Although the framing is in terms of ethics, the fallacy is just a basic fallacy of implication. IP or maybe even property in general may be wrong, or false or fictional but that doesn’t demonstrate that it right to pirate written works. You need to show a positive case with an alternative moral framework. Sure, authors describe their opposition in terms of copyright and IP because that is how compensation for labour is set up within our current capitalist system. That doesn’t make them landlords any more than any worker looking for their pay-check.

It’s fine (indeed right) for people on the left to reject the moral framing of capitalism as far as they can and likewise it isn’t hypocritical to recognise that this is the system we are currently stuck in and have to work with. However, you can’t justify an act by rejecting moral arguments framed in capitalist terms. If you reject those terms then you have to demonstrate that it is ethical within an alternative framework.

So put aside intellectual property for a moment. Consider the ethics of written work. There is more to it than IP.

Firstly it is work. It is undoubtedly work. We do not need any kind of legal fiction to define creating writing as work. It takes time and effort. It is of benefit to others. I know of no progressive, left-wing, socialist moral framework that denies that a person should be compensated for their work or that the worker should have a say in how and how much they should be compensated.

Yes but…I can hear a person say, there are other ways authors could be compensated and…Sure, sure but that’s not what we have now and that isn’t the system that is in place. Might we find better ways of compensating writers for their labour in some future, better society other than copyright? Absolutely, the copyright system stinks. However, currently that is how authors ARE compensated. It’s rather like saying that because the modern banking system is corrupt, exploitative and unethical that is therefore OK to steal my credit card. It isn’t and nor are you liberating me by doing so.

But, but…by undermining copyright the system is being subverted, a person might claim. Well no. There are many roads to a better future and I don’t know which is best but I can guarantee that book piracy isn’t an effective way of destroying capitalism, not even at a micro-level.

But, but…compensation is still about property! Sort of. We can frame arguments about labour in terms of property but that’s because it is a concept that is designed to do that. Capitalism isn’t wholly incoherent or nonsensical. That doesn’t mean either that property must be ‘real’ or that showing it isn’t real means the points above fail (I’ll come back to that because it is the punchline of this blog).

Secondly it is about self and identity. In my tweets above I mentioned plagiarism. Off Twitter somebody took that to mean that I was saying that piracy and plagiarism are the same thing. I should be clear, they are different things. My point about plagiarism is to show that there is a moral dimension to written works that exists independent of concepts of property.

If I were to pass off Proudhon’s essay above as my own work then that would be recognised as plagiarism even though it is not legally copyright theft. We could call it ‘stealing’ but it would be a very strange kind of theft as the work is public domain and Proudhon is long dead. I’m still doing something wrong though but it is an immorality of dishonesty rather than theft.

Creative works are an extension of a person’s thoughts beyond themselves and as such an extension of themselves as a thinking being. Too appropriate somebody’s creative efforts is a form of dishonesty. Even if you give credit to the author, you are still asserting control over an aspect of the author’s self. Yes, we can translate that idea into concepts of property (particularly libertarian notions of self-ownership) but we aren’t obliged to do so nor does the claim fail if the notion of property were to magically vanish.

What about J.K.Rowling? I’ll swing over to a different argument if I may. J.K.Rowling is fabulously wealthy (although not as wealthy as the very wealthiest people) and it is hard to see her as just an ordinary working person just looking out for weekly pay check. Likewise, there’s an easy argument to make that her books are derivative and surely that undermines my second point about extension of the self. Surely, there’s no moral case against pirating Harry Potter? Well, Rowling isn’t going to suffer if you do but that’s not the point. Ad-hoc piracy isn’t the issue, the issue is creating frameworks for mass piracy and distribution of pirated works and any framework that can do that for Harry Potter can do that for works by authors who are barely making ends meet.

The impact of systems for pirating works don’t hurt J.K.Rowling, they hurt the less wealthy (what a surprise). Famous, ‘best selling’ authors are not typically rich and many notable authors are barely making do. Mass piracy is exploitative both in the sense of exploiting other people’s labour for your own benefit and in the sense of appropriation. Authors objecting to that doesn’t make them cops or landlords, it makes them workers standing up for being paid for their labour.

I said there was a punchline. There is but it is a punchline for this blog as a whole because it is a common theme from posts on mathematics, atheism, Hugo awards or talking cats. Lots of things are fiction. The range of things I regard as fiction is broader than most people’s. However, the counterpoint to that is that fiction is also powerful and not just in the sense of being emotionally moving. Yes “intellectual property” is not ‘real’ but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful concept that is *currently* how the economic system of capitalism has hacked how to compensate creative work. It’s confusing and flawed and a legal mess and is exploited by powerful business but it is *currently* the means by which authors get paid and pirating books won’t change that.

Vox Day sort of denies he is a flat earther

I say “sort of” because he really doesn’t believe the Earth is more or less spherical. One of Day’s recruits to his video streaming thing has been the comedian Owen Benjamin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owen_Benjamin. Benjamin had the beginnings of a Hollywood career including co-starring with Christina Ricci in an obscure film in 2009. However, his career got derailed by his increasingly extreme views. These days Benjamin pushes extreme anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which amount to a kind of unified theory in which her thinks everybody is trying to make you believe lies about the moon landing etcetera as part of a Satanic plot. It’s the usual nexus of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with epistemic paranoia. The central theory is that people are lying about everything to make you believe lies in general.

What’s interesting here is that Day appears to be following Benjamin down the same path. Not that Day also doesn’t push the same kind of fallen-world anti-Semitic nonsense but that he’s being more open about how out there some of his beliefs about the world are — including flat earthism.

The specific pretext is this 2012 interview with a NASA data visualisation person: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/people/RSimmon.html The interview explains how he helped create an image of one hemisphere of the Earth as seen from space by stitching together multiple higher resolution images of Earth. Aha! Say the flat Earthers, Manipulation! Lies! etc etc.

It’s something you see a lot from falt-earth to vaccine denial to global warming denial: a rejection of any data, images, graphs etc that relies on any kind of inference or data cleaning etc. The demand is for evidence that is an unfiltered capture of external reality — which is impossible. Heck, not only is it impossible but which we know is myth at least since the time of Plato. What you see out of your own eyes is stitched together and processed and inferred.

Day sums up his position:

“Notice that ALL of the hemisphere photography we think we’ve seen has turned out to be nonexistent. It’s becoming clear that from the evolution fairy tale to the Blue Marble fraud to the dinosaur fraud and the satellite myth, the world is very, very different than we have been told it is. What is the point? To deceive you into serving Satan rather than God.”

Interestingly he gets a lot more pushback in his comments than he normally does. I guess even Day’s followers aren’t keen to adopt a flat-earth although structurally it’s no different than the anti-vaxx and anti-evolution stuff Day peddles.

In the comments Day responds with a weak equivocation:

“VD October 24, 2019 12:20 PM Jesus… The earth is not flat. What part of “fraud is being committed concerning X” leads you to immediately conclude that this means “Therefore Y”? I don’t believe the Earth is flat. But I don’t believe the mainstream narrative concerning the nature of the Earth either, because it contains too many lies. Binary thinking is usually a serious mistake.”

The “mainstream narrative” here being that the world is more-or-less spherical.

Unfortunately Day really does need to engage in some binary thinking here. Just by visiting different places in the world we can quickly observe that whatever curvature the Earth has it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Sure big mountains are pointy and oceans are flat but in both places you can observe that whatever is going on it’s pretty much the same everywhere. That is seriously limiting to the range of possibilities for the curvature of the Earth. A flat or curved disc with an inaccessible underneath would have edges with a radically different curvature. Any shape that you could circumnavigate, if it wasn’t basically a sphere, would have some spots with extreme curvature that frankly everybody would have noticed i.e. the Earth really isn’t a cube.

A sphere isn’t just one option among many for the shape of a thing. It’s a particularly special shape. If you want a uniform (more or less) curvature and no edges, then let’s just say your options are limited. Or…maybe the devil is making me say that…

A bad survey about the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

This is an edited version of three Twitter rants from yesterday. It started as an off-cuff reaction but I was too far into it before I thought that it should be a blog-post rather than Tweets.

Stephen Pinker tweeted out a very weird bit of science theatre created by Michael Shermer.

Pinker has enough critical thinking skills that he should look at it with hefty scepticism…but obviously isn’t. It’s pretend science, using play-acting at science to refute what is obvious and ignores the core issues.

The “survey” by Michael Shermer (which should be a red flag in itself) was sent to 34 notable people associated with the label “Intellectual Dark Web” and asked where they stand on a number of issues. The survey was anonymous, so the views identified in the survey can’t be matched to the individuals asked. https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/preliminary-empirical-study-shedding-light-on-intellectual-dark-web/

Each and every one of the people surveyed is a public figure who have made multiple public statements about politics and social issues. I don’t need an anonymous survey to find out what Andy Ngo or Sam Harris thinks, I can go and read what they say. And it is what they SAY that matters and what defines the IDW term not what they might privately think. If Sam Harris thinks he has warm & fuzzy liberal beliefs that’s nice but the whole point of the “dark web” label was the contrarian issues he promotes. Maybe Ben Shapiro secretly believes Global Warming is real and climate change is caused by humans. I don’t know but what matters is he propagandises the opposite. If an anonymous survey of the 34 “Intelectual Dark” Webbers reveals that their underlying views are more centrist and mainstream then that is not evidence that the public perception of their public positions is wrong. Rather it confirms a key point about the IDW.

The fundamental issues with the disparate group lumped together as the Intellectual Dark Web is that they are DISINGENUOUS about their politics. It’s not news that Jordan Peterson thinks of himself as moderate and reasonable. We knew that already. It doesn’t change that he (and Harris & Shapiro & Ngo & Quillette) frame and enable a perspective that bolsters the far right. The whole “we are the reasonable ones” is part of the schtick of the IDW. That they’ll boost that in an anonymous survey is, frankly, wank.

Let’s be sceptical as I’m sure Dr Pinker and Shermer would want us to be. Let’s take one conclusion Pinker raises from the survey: The members of the IDW are “concerned w climate” Let’s look at the survey: The survey agrees: “67% strongly agreed that global warming is caused by human actions (no one strongly disagreed)” So their you go! Hoorah! No, no let us be sceptical first. If this was GENUINELY true would it not be easily observed?

To the empircism-mobile! Here’s the output of the Quillete Climate tag https://quillette.com/tag/climate/ zoiks! A hefty TWO article, one concern trolling Greta Thunberg and the other saying people shouldn’t be mean to capitalism. Yes, Quillette is just one source but it is one that connects Steven Pinker on the one hand (who we can observe genuinely does advocate for action on Global Warming) with Andy Ngo on the other hand (who genuinely does have connections with the alt-right and violent far right groups) via Claire Lehmann (Quillette’s founder, fan of Pinker and one time boss of Ngo).

Yes, Steven Pinker himself has a better record on the of global warming but the issue he raised was to look collectively at the IDW and their media-organs. Broadly this is not a group trying to do very much about helping with the issue. And wow, think of the actually good the IDW could achieve given their actual audience. Whatever they may think of themselves, collectively they do have the ear of many on the right – exactly where climate change denial and bad science on the topic is endemic. You’d think these out spoken people might be busy being outspoken on a potential planet wide disaster.

It gets worse. The actual sample was only 18 not 34 people. Nearly half of the 34 didn’t answer. So when the survey says “67%” (the percentage favouring gun control and which believes global warming is real) actually means “12 people” That’s actually both more plausible and more wretched. Even if we accept that 12 of those IDWs think climate change is real, it says almost nothing about the group. Any one member of the original 34 people is a hefty 3% of the population being sampled and hence missing any one of them can have a large impact on the results. This is particularly true given that we already know that the label of “Intellectual Dark Web” is being attached to a group with a very broad range of views on many topics.

Shermer is assuming non-response to the survey is random across the traits being surveyed (i.e the 18 is a random sample of the 34). There is no reason to believe that and really anybody who is wants to seriously call themselves a sceptic should dismiss any general conclusion from the survey without substantial additional supporting evidence.

Indeed there’s good reason to assume that the 18 who responded is not a good random sample of the 34, just on the nature of the numbers. It is very hard with small numbers in a survey for the sample to be representative because one person makes a big difference. Shermer hides that by quoting percentages rather than raw totals but with small number percentages hide how few people he’s talking about. It’s not invalid to look at proportions with small sample sizes, sometimes that is all you have but there’s a point where 12 out of 18 is more informative than 67%.

We can illustrate the issue with the women who were surveyed. Of the 34 named people in survey associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” 8 (24%) are women. In the survey 3 (17%) are women. So are the IDW 17% women (generalising from survey) or 24%? Obviously 24% is the correct figure but 17% is the equivalent of the the kind of survey conclusions Shermer presents. In fact any one woman listed is 13% of the IDW women, so one more woman answering makes a huge different to sub-sample of women. Any one person is 6% of the whole sample of 18 people!

Circling back to 67% claim. Again assuming everybody who responded is being honest (which I doubt) the survey actually found that 12 people of the 34 who were asked believed in gun control and the same number believed that global warming was real (which I’ll add isn’t saying much, some prominent sceptics will say global warming is real, just as many anti-vaccination campaigners will say they support vaccinations – it is the ‘but’ that follows where the issues lie). That might mean 67% or there about of 34 believe in gun control but a safer conclusion is no less than 35% do (12/34) and no more than 82% (28/34). Given how granular this data is, hoping the estimate is in the middle isn’t supported.

This is why I call it theatre. It is the wrong methodology applied badly. It illustrates methodological snobbery. Synthesising the complex views of a small group of people is exactly where qualitative methods work better. It is a domain where you need to put on your humanities hat and apply those humanities skills. Shermer is using sciencey film-flam by presenting a pointlessly anonymous survey and presenting the results as percentages as if there were proportions of the whole group.

Don’t get me wrong I absolutely LOVE applying basic quantitive methods to things and place where they don’t always make sense. It’s very much my hobby but even on this less than 100% serious blog I’d throw more caveats at better numbers than Shermer is using.

On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.