William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Politics (page 1 of 86)

The empirical and philosophical arguments used by politicians and “activists”.

You Do Too Have Something To Hide

We’re spying on you for your own good.

“Let them look at my phone records. I have nothing to hide. They can read all my emails. There’s nothing there worth reading.”

We hear this primarily from the young, who are said to be used to living openly on-line, and from the old who share this in common with the young: ignorance of history and of human nature. Today, and for the benefit of these mis-, or rather uninformed, people a brief lesson.

No man is innocent in the eyes of his enemy. A zealous prosecutor can take the most harmless of circumstance and through innuendo, contrivance, and brazen lie turn it into at least dark suspicion if not “proof” of heinous crime.

You bought a book on the Middle East because of a noble interest in history? So do terrorists read those books. You made a phone call from nearby a mosque? So do terrorists make these calls. You made a crude and in poor taste joke after an incident? So do terrorists make these quips.

You decided to join a local Tea Party-like organization because of your sincere belief in limited government? Or have you renewed your membership in the NRA? So do “domestic”, “home-grown”, “self-radicalized” terrorists join these groups.

Have you not heard the term railroaded? How about framed? How about falsely accused, hounded, harassed? Is it is merely paranoia and lapsing into extremism to suggest that the government, sated on your secrets, could act in these ways as it has and far too often?

Could the IRS target groups which it perceives as its enemies? Could sealed divorce records be publicly aired? Could a zealous prosecutor who cares only of her public image and is a stranger to truth convict the innocent? Could a government libel and slander a man in order to bamboozle a judge into issuing a warrant against this man?

The powers of my imagination pale, but a story of your culpability can always be weaved by a determined enemy. Anything can be turned against you, and the more information government has on you, the easier it becomes to manufacture “evidence” of your misdeed.

Information is power: it is the lifeblood of politics. Giving bureaucrats and politicians this much power is to tempt them beyond human ability to resist. (Giving power to computer and statistical algorithms used to data mine records is no solution. These cannot be perfect, and it is people who run them.)

It’s probably far too late to remind anybody of these words, taken from the document which at one time dictated the law under which even politicians had to live:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It has now become a “reasonable” search to track your every movement, your every call, perhaps even your every email and on-line transaction. It is now “probable cause” that you are guilty of a crime just because you exist.

“But it’s only meta-data.” Meta-data forsooth! Have you any idea what this is? It tells the time of your call and where you were when you made it. It tells who you made it to, and tells of the people you contacted who they in turn contacted. Do you text? Then they have that information too.

It’s rumored the government even has your emails. Perhaps not the text of these, but the meta-data. Again, this tells much. It tells where you were and on what you wrote them. It tells the time and length. It tells who it went to, and it tells this of everybody.

Even without your exact words spoken or written, this is a dense and nearly complete picture of your behavior. If a bureaucrat cannot find something in this trove that at least casts you in a bad light, then he isn’t trying.

“But what about the children! We demand safety!” I have yet to hear any politician respond to these words of a man of a far superior mind:

If the government can’t catch terrorists without spying on its own citizens, then tough luck. Let if find some other way. The price we have to pay for this program of extremely limited success is just too high.

Update Until my server’s DNS problems (not “issues”) are resolved, you might not be able to see the tweets linked. They are, in order:

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. Ben Franklin.”

“If NSA algorithms so good at detecting spies, how did Edward Snowden go undetected?”

Update See this from brother statistician John Cook: A statistical problem with “nothing to hide.”

Data Mining, PRISM, NSA & False Positives: Update

We’re spying on you for your own good.

Remember how—this is a really brief history lesson–remember how the NSA, CIA, FBI, and many other of those lettered agencies with their ever-increasing budgets, super-sophisticated computers, genius brain mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists were able, through thinking clever thoughts and applying unimaginably exquisite algorithms, were able to identify and thus prevent 9/11?

And how they took the knowledge they gained through that success, in combination with even and ever more data culled from private citizens, to stop the Boston bombing before it happened, to thwart the Fort Hood killings, to stop Benghazi, to defeat the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, to discover who sent anthrax through the mail, and how they similarly protected us from a few dozen other bloodlettings?

Neither do I remember.

These gross failures have an explanation; actually two. The first falls under the “If only” rubric. If only the budgets of these bureaucracies weren’t so meager we would have been safe. If only they were allowed a freer hand. If only they were able to gather more information. If only endlessly.

The hard news about If only is that there is some truth in it. An algorithm designed to ferret out fiends from phone records won’t work if there are no phone records. Solution? Get some. And, the logic pushed way past the breaking point and over the Cliffs of Insanity (free Princess Bride reference), if you have some all is better. So get them all, and be damned the morality of the act. Lives are on the line. Think about the children.

This line of reasoning is convincing to politicians anxious to increase their grope of the body politic. This is why Dianne Feinstein trotted to the microphones yesterday to say that “I knew about these programs all along. Congress was briefed.” The implication is that since one budget-consuming branch of the government knew what another budget-consuming branch of the government did, there was nothing to worry about. Feel better?

The second explanation for the intelligence strike out slump is more disheartening and more likely true. The methods the NSA and others are using don’t work.

Or they don’t work too well. Why? Because there is no task more fraught with error, misunderstanding, and misplaced certainty than predicting human behavior. Just when you think you have it pegged, it changes.

We can, for instance, forecast with reasonable accuracy and on most weekdays that the bulk of New York City residents will pile into cars, cabs, and trains round about 5 pm. But this is only most weekdays. Sometimes, for reasons foreseen by nobody, the regular pattern is disrupted and the forecast goes to Hades.

How much harder is it then to predict what time Mr Smith heads home for the day? And then ask our model to discern whether Smith will vary his route next Tuesday to toss an IED into the Army recruiting center (a real example). You can ask, and the computer will answer, but it will be talking out its bus.

It won’t be long before some disingenuous politician or bureaucrat will say, “Theses agencies may have been too zealous. But come on. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.”

Bovine spongiography. You have plenty to worry about. Like being falsely suspected or accused. Like having the full might and weight of the Federal Government bear down on you, as the IRS currently does to those it perceives as its enemies. Financial ruin, loss of reputation, careened career—and worse.

Look. Take the smartest guys you can find and have them cobble together a model which predicts whether each citizen is a “potential” terrorist or no. This model will spit out numbers in the form of probabilities. Some of these will be high enough to exceed the “reasonable, articulable suspicion” threshold (the quote is from Feinstein).

At that point even an editorial from the New York Times won’t be able to convince our great brains that they might have the wrong men. The allure of numbers from a computer printed out and physically real is too strong, even for the people who programmed these computers and who know intimately their many and weep-worthy limitations.

The nature of these models is that there are bound to be many, many more false identifications of terrorists than true ones. The price we pay for these errors is a loss of privacy, and the placement of our secrets into the hands of government. What could go wrong? Everything.

Oh, the algorithms will also claim some aren’t a threat when they really are. This we know from all too frequent experience. Yet the confidence of government that success is ever around the corner never abates.

Update Just saw this in today’s WSJ “Thank You For Data Mining”:

The effectiveness of data-mining is inversely proportional to the size of the sample, so the NSA must sweep broadly to learn what is normal and refine the deviations.

This is false. The more people/records searched the greater the number of false positives, the costlier the subsequent follow-up searches (each potential terrorist has to be investigated further), and the more eventual lives harmed. The follow-up searches are also not error free. Blanket screening is rarely a good idea.

The many who are writing editorials today praising the data collection and computer screening have faith but no experience in statistic modeling.

Update 2 The “inversely” was a typo/mistake of the WSJ editors. They have since removed it from the online version; the mistake remains in the print version.

What’s The Official Name For Governance By Thuggery?

“I knew nothing! Noooothing!”

To summarize what we know, but only in brief and leaving out many smaller scandals:

  1. The White House lied about the cause of Benghazi. They knowingly, willingly, and falsely claimed the attacks arose because of “spontaneous” anger about an unknown video. The purpose of this ruse was to deflect potential criticism of the president arising shortly before the election. The handling of Benghazi itself was due to either ignorance or incompetence. This is less troublesome than the deception.
  2. The IRS systematically and over a long period of time, and with the eventual knowledge of or by the explicit direction of the White House, illegally and immorally targeted individuals and groups because these people were in political opposition to the Democrat party. It will interesting to discover just how many fines and taxes were incorrectly assessed and how many applications for tax-exempt status were wrongly denied.
  3. The administration knowingly, willingly, and falsely accused a reporter of treason, a crime punishable by death. They lied to trick, or to allow cover for, a judge to issue a warrant which let the White House rifle through the reporter’s personal communications (reportedly even his parents’ phone calls). They did this because the reporter and the company which employs him was not friendly to the Democrat party. It will be interesting to discover what the White House made of the purloined communications.
  4. The administration used similar excuses (i.e. “National security”) to bug the AP, and even Gallup after that company had the temerity to release a poll which showed the President trailing his opponent.
  5. The administration dispatched the HHS secretary to shake down health care businesses, requesting they voluntarily fund a project that was denied funds by Congress. The HHS is writing the regulations which govern these businesses, regulations which necessarily must increase under Obamacare.
  6. The HHS mandated that employers, just because they are employers and for no other reason, must pay for their employees conception prevention medication and devices and for abortifacients in case these should fail. That this violates the religious practices of Muslims, Christians, (some) Jews, and others was ignored because it was discovered that the responsibility of employers to pay trumps the Constitution.
  7. The President routinely and systematically uses language which does not imply but directly accuses any who disagree with him of being not just wrong but evil. He has, more than once, urged citizens to report (rat out) neighbors who are not friendly to the Democrat party. He used government funds (i.e. your money) to set up an apparatus to collect this information.
  8. The administration knowingly and willingly released weapons such that they would end up in the hands of citizens of another country, hoping these weapons would be used for crimes and for murder. A clear case of entrapment, to say the least. One such weapon was used to kill an American citizen. The official who ordered this Fast and Furious campaign was held in contempt by Congress. The official ignored this charge. It will interesting to see why Mexico never declared war on the USA.
  9. The administration, at least the EPA, systematically and willfully covered up information, denying access to Congress and to the press, using the subterfuge of fictitious names and false email accounts.
  10. The administration, via the Department of Homeland Security, systematically tracks, stores, and analyzes communications of this country’s citizens. Its 2009 report warned of “rightwing” “chatter” about the economy.

An interesting test of an individual’s Ideology Quotient is the number and intensity of excuses offered in mitigation of these activities. The more the person espouses that the (utopian) ends justify the (brutal) means, the higher the IQ.

Here is a tell-tale. It is not an argument, in an answer to any of these crimes or behaviors, to say that another also committed them. That is, it is a fallacy to say that because the President lied about the causes of Benghazi that other presidents lied, therefore there is no lie.

Another fallacy: the President didn’t know, therefore there is no crime or immoral behavior. Accepting that the President did not know about his employee’s behavior is not an excuse for that behavior. If no one is looking, a crime is still a crime. This fallacy also backfires, because if we do accept the President’s self-proclaimed ignorance of his subordinates’ activities, then he is guilt of incompetence.

David Axelrod funnily anticipated this last argument and sought to head it off by claiming the government is now so “massive” that no president can oversee it.

Damn Straight News: Manly Men More Likely To Be Conservative

The manly, conservative NFL player Evan Mathis demonstrates his dissatisfaction with big government.

The manly, conservative NFL player Evan Mathis demonstrates his dissatisfaction with big government.

As will come as absolutely no surprise to regular readers, but will be a traumatic revelation to the public at large, it has finally been acknowledged in the peer-reviewed literature that the more a man resembles John Wayne, that the larger the number of people who say as he passes, “Wasn’t that Chuck Norris!?”, that the more women who against their wills and better judgments swoon in this man’s presence, the more likely he is to embrace conservative principles.

This research was in the field of evolutionary psychology, it was peer-reviewed, and the proof entirely statistical, so you know it has to be true. So say Michael Bang! Petersen, Daniel Sznycer, and a couple of others in the infallible journal Psychological Science (emphasis added; Petersen’s middle name really is Bang).

I can confirm the results. Your own author—who is a soaring six-feet two-inches, two hundred pounds of hardened sinew and pure corded steely muscle, a man who can crack a walnut by blinking and whose five-o’clock shadow appears before the toast grows cold—is among the manliest of the male sex and, as the research suggested, conservative as hell.

You can confirm it, too. Just look what non-conservatives have on offer: Chris Matthews, the pudgy effeminate who admitted to going tingly after peeking at Barack Obama’s pants crease (or whatever), the cadaverous Alan Colmes who has to be duct-tapped to his studio chair lest a strong breeze blow him off set. Jimmy Carter. Pretty boy George Clooney. The meekly, mousy, mugging Jon Stewart. Harry Reid? Please.

And then, besides me, who else do we find on the right? Clint Eastwood, baby. Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston, two dead guys who are still manlier than half the Senate. Bret Baier at Fox; what was he, a linebacker? Arnold Schwarzenegger is a registered Republican. The Geo. Bushes were fighter pilots. And just you take a poll in any major league locker room asking whether the mountainous occupants prefer more or less government.

According to the Daily Mail summary, docile, flat-chested males are “more likely to support the welfare state and wealth redistribution”. You bet they are. That can’t take on the larger challenges, so they plead to be given. And that’s fine, because two trademarks of conservatism are generosity and bigheartedness. We’re pleased to oblige.

That’s not me speaking, that’s science. Yes, this is the way we evolved on the African veldt. And therefore there’s nothing to do be done about it. The awesomeness differential is built into nature. Some of us will be big and mighty, others will listen to NPR and never learn what hockey is. This is the Way Things Are. This is tough luck for a lot of you, which might explain why those who can’t bench press their own weights are always going on about fairness.

Listen sugars: if you still believe in fairness at your age, your mother failed in her job. We all have our crosses to bear; it’s just that some of us are quieter about it than others. Which reveals another conservative principle: fortitude. That also spells manliness, which is now no surprise.

The paper is more nuanced than the summary given here, sometimes to the point of absurdity. But that’s because academics can’t resist lathering thick coatings of theory on everything they touch (some jargon about “asymmetric war of attrition” “theory”).

And they only distinguished conservativeness by attitude towards redistribution. That’s always a mistake because manly men (a.k.a. conservatives) are happy to give generously and with love to those truly in need. Yet both charitable duty and confiscatory taxation are called “redistribution.” Conservatives don’t want to give their money to pusillanimous politicians and bloodsucking bureaucrats who’d only use the proceeds to lavish gifts upon themselves and fund the breeding of more of their own kind.

I know a lot of progressives read this site. Never you fret, weaker brothers. We conservatives are here to protect you. The manliness of one conservative (the paper proves this) is more than enough for a passel of progressives. You come right over here and stand behind us and we’ll save you from those who would take by force what is rightfully yours.


Thanks yet again to Al Perrella and K.A. Rodgers who alerted us to this topic.

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